Thursday, April 29, 2010

Greenberg (2010) A Film by Noah Baumbach

Noah Baumbach's latest film Greenberg is a witty, dawdling work that manages to illuminate both the best and worst features of the director's abilities. Unsurprisingly, it's rife with deadpan one-liners lodged within long strokes of naturalistic dialogue, and has a modest visual style that works accordingly. Conversely, it's also desperately one-note, cynical, and hopeless in its tone, taking the rather petulant, ungrateful titular character (Ben Stiller) and placing him within a context from which there is no upward escape (he verbally commits to "doing nothing for a while"). Adding to Baumbach's repertoire of distinct location shooting, Roger Greenberg has drifted into Los Angeles for an indeterminate amount of time to house-sit for his brother (Chris Messina), who is on vacation in Vietnam. There is a running, though never officially verified narrative detail about Greenberg having just been let out of a mental institution. His reason for entering is, perhaps intentionally, never clarified in the script. He's a terminal crab, and it becomes clear that any logical root of his anxiety is negligible; this is a man who will grow bitter even when there's nothing to grow bitter at, who will look sullen when all around him is sunny and pleasant.

Baumbach does not begin the film on Greenberg though. Instead, in a sweeping pan of the Los Angeles horizon line, his camera spots a woman walking the Greenberg family's dog in the hills, and she becomes the focal point for the first 15 minutes. Her name is Florence Marr, and she works as a personal assistant to the Greenberg family, thus naturally being granted the privilege of taxiing Roger around Los Angeles when he needs (having lived in New York City for years, he has lost all courage to get behind the wheel, though he does wisely assert the ability late in the film after snorting a line of coke). Greta Gerwig - of Hannah Takes the Stairs recognition - plays Florence, and herein lies Baumbach's unique attempt to meld mumblecore stylistics with a dedramatized Hollywood heavyweight in Ben Stiller. One could say that Baumbach's been towing this line throughout his career, but in Greenberg it seems a particularly conscious decision, especially given Mark Duplass' invariable appearance as a jerky old band-mate. This works to further isolate the film's prosaic qualities from any sense of formulaic gloss, a testament to how little interest it has in delivering anything close to rousing emotional epiphanies. The closest the film gets to such a maneuver is when the camera tilts above the distraught Greenberg to reveal a massive human blow-up waving erratically in the wind in the parking lot of a car dealership, a revelation that is, ironically, more humorous than it is inspirational.

When the film eventually does introduce Roger Greenberg, only the back of his head is seen looking out the window at the backyard pool in his brother's LA crash pad while on the phone with Florence. A couple of beats later he is in another room peering out the window again. Subtly the film establishes this motif to suggest that Greenberg is internally trapped, capable of only passively staring at the external. He's a man who has remained locked within himself even as the years have passed and others have changed, and has a severe inability to self-correct. This is witnessed in the variety of old friends he encounters over the course of his stay in Los Angeles. After college, Greenberg was in a successful hair band that turned down a promising record deal, and years later he reunites with both Duplass' character and a kinder, more charming deadbeat, Ivan Schrank (Rhys Ifans). Ivan inertly goes along with Greenberg's annoying neuroses in the name of friendly reconciliation, but continually winds up empty in return. All Greenberg does is complain when Ivan takes him to a backyard party filled with children and parents, where Baumbach intercuts between several different instances of his pathetic small talk to heighten the embarrassment. Their discord reaches its apex in the film's prolonged centerpiece, when Ivan finally takes a rather timid stand for himself at a drugged-out twentysomething party in the Greenberg home. No less awkward are Greenberg's meetings with his old girlfriend Beth (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who uncomfortably tries to deflect his halfhearted stabs at romantic revival.

Greenberg's overarching thrust though is the precarious relationship of Roger and Florence, which springs into being haphazardly when he goes down on her after five minutes of shared beer drinking. The scene instantly earns its place in the canon of bad cinematic sex, attributable as it is to Baumbach's own enduring breed of clumsily de-eroticized sexploitation. Florence reactively apologizes for her ugly bra, then thinks out loud when she questions whether or not the sound she heard was a train. The moment ends with the same lack of emphasis it started with, but it nonetheless effectively frames the two as instantly connected in their own idiosyncrasies. Although there exists a significant age gap (Greenberg is in his forties and Florence is in her mid twenties), it is practically set in stone that these two will be indebted to one another in some way for the remainder of the film, no matter how wavering that connection is. And indeed it continues in flux, he being resolute in his confusion, she being casually impressed by his skill of modestly doing nothing. Like the filmmaking traditions Stiller and Gerwig originate from, it seems perilously unlikely that Roger and Florence will ever achieve a harmonious connection, instead occupying a hazy middle ground that is as nuanced in its awkwardness as the cinema of Noah Baumbach. Their one area of mutuality is in the family dog, Mahler, for whom they regularly convene at the veterinarian hospital, himself being a kind of distillation of the direction of Roger and Florence's relationship (when his health is relieved towards the end, a faint hint of improvement comes for them too).

The difficulty with writing about a film like Greenberg is that it is in some way a betrayal of my own instincts. As a casual viewer, this is actually a film I very much enjoy, yet as a critic, the film's flaws present themselves more clearly. There is no doubting that Baumbach is an extremely adept chronicler of the everyday lives of upper-middle class white people, and that he extracts the absolute best performances out of his actors. Stiller is a devastatingly believable Roger Greenberg, abandoning any outward displays of comic bravado to focus his attention more on droll antagonism, the humor of which only sneaks pathetically through the cracks, and Gerwig gives the finest performance yet of her young career, finding for once an actual cohesiveness in her weird tics. But at some point it would be interesting and indeed a sign of maturation if Baumbach could transcend his own niche, which currently displays a rather narrow worldview. It can be grating to see him concentrate so microscopically on ungrateful people who shouldn't really have the fussy abnormalities that they do, while in the process appearing invisible to the plight of others such as the under-the-radar foreign minions who work around the clock at the Greenberg house and are simply relegated to the background. Yes, Greenberg is a well-crafted, acutely observed film, but it can also come across like the sound of Baumbach walking into a wall one too many times.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Differing Visions of the Geisha in Marshall and Naruse

(Like my review of The Sheltering Sky, this is a piece that was written for a class of mine. Had I been given critical freedom, this may have read a bit differently.)

Ever since its inception, the geisha has begged to be exotified. One artful, elegant Japanese woman is designed both to delight the senses and summarize the sophisticated charms of her culture. Such an illustrious figure presents a challenge to the art-makers of the world who wish to depict the life of a geisha: how does one pay respect to the beauty of her art without exploiting or overlooking the person behind it? This is a fundamental question that was surely on the minds of Rob Marshall and Mikio Naruse before they directed Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) and Late Chrysanthemums (1954), two notable films about geishas. Though the two films were produced in distinct circumstances – Hollywood of the 21st century and Japan of the postwar era – they both present fascinating, if often considerably separate, visions of the geisha. Experiencing the two films provides immeasurable insights into the public perception of geishas as it varies across hemispheres and throughout history. Late Chrysanthemums views the geisha life as one that is lost and forgotten, leaving real ordinary women behind the faded makeup, whereas Memoirs of a Geisha treats the culture as one made up of larger-than-life icons whose surface appeal is worthy of endless flattery and exaltation.

In order to begin to understand these two works alongside each other, it’s important to frame them within their respective historical and cultural contexts. Memoirs of a Geisha is a big-budget modern drama prepared by the Hollywood movie industry, and as such, is instantly a product designed for maximal entertainment value to be consumed on a vast scale. Considering its exotic subject matter, the film is necessarily a vision of the East as seen through a Western gaze, and thus is highly susceptible to claims of Americanized reductionism and Orientalism, as is frequently the case with big Hollywood films that attempt to capitalize on the allure of an unfamiliar culture but end up exploiting it instead. Mikio Naruse’s Late Chrysanthemums is on the absolute opposite end of the spectrum, a film produced in Japan for Japanese people. It’s a film that does not attempt to exotify its own culture, indeed often presenting it in all its intimate bleakness. Inevitably, these two exclusive filmmaking scenarios bear some very dissimilar results, but the congruencies are also quite interesting.

Memoirs of a Geisha is the creation of Rob Marshall, an A-list Hollywood director with large-scale credentials, including the commercial successes Chicago (2002) and Nine (2009). He has become well known for his sweeping musicals, and although Memoirs of a Geisha takes the form of an epic melodrama, the lavish spectacle that is his forte clearly carries over. He applies this grandiose visual style to the tale of Chiyo (Ziyi Zhang), a peasant girl from a fishing village who is sold at an early age with her sister Satsu to a geisha house in the Gion district of Kyoto, Japan. Once Satsu is exiled from the house and delivered to a brothel instead, Chiyo finds herself a victim of the cruel hypocrisies and haughty authoritarianism of the older geishas, all while the antagonistic Hatsumoto (Li Gong) forms a deep jealousy towards her undeniable beauty. Chiyo is immediately a lonely soul for the first third of the film, but the broader narrative follows the entire trajectory of her young life, culminating in her widespread approval as one of Japan’s most prized, sought-after geishas. Towards the end however, Marshall documents the unexpected shattering of this lifestyle due to the onslaught of World War II, showing how it deeply affects both her personal growth and her legitimacy as an artist and entertainer.

Late Chrysanthemums essentially picks up where Memoirs of a Geisha left off chronologically, despite being made fifty years before. Mikio Naruse was a near antithesis of Rob Marshall due to what was really an unfortunate case of cultural invisibility, having been regularly overshadowed by cinematic giants like Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi, and Yasujiro Ozu. Regardless, his films were always sensitive treatises on the difficulties of ordinary life in the modern world, and this awareness was what made Late Chrysanthemums such an apt chronicle of the drastic societal transformations wrought by the war, with the use of geishas being an effective foil through which to evoke lamentation and nostalgia. His film investigates the everyday lives of four workaday women in Tokyo, all of whom were once fellow geishas. Central in this quartet is Kin (Haruko Sugimura), a well-off moneylender who has a financial connection with each of the supporting women: she was a lead investor in the small bar co-run by Nobu (Sadako Sawamura) and waits impatiently for long overdue payments from Tomi (Yûko Mochizuki) and Tamae (Chikako Hosokawa), who occupy the same house together. None of these women are entirely stable, either financially, emotionally, or both.

Being a Tokyo-based production, the film is quick not to gloss over any of the devastating realities of the postwar landscape, remaining aware of their dissonance from the geisha era. The troubling effects of the weak economy and job market can be felt obliquely in the personal lives of the four protagonists. Tomi and Tamae both incessantly bemoan the paths of their ungrateful children, who have married and moved away and left their mothers to sustain themselves solely on menial jobs. Kin too witnesses a severe lack of human connection despite her steady source of income, which she seems to be unable to find a purpose for. Instead, she is consumed by the fond memory of her past lover Tabe (Ken Uehara), who arrives late in the film only to prove equally miserable in the face of the hard times. This sorrowful emotional register provides a sharp contrast to the heyday of the geisha witnessed in Marshall’s film and only reminisced upon periodically by the women in Naruse’s. In one melancholy scene when Tomi is fixing up Tamae’s hair and praising her for her past beauty, the poignancy of the moment is deflated by the fact that both of them are stubbornly drunk and otherwise rambling about their estranged children. The uncertain present regularly interrupts any mentions of the idyllic past.

Memoirs of a Geisha shares the overall gloomy mood of Late Chrysanthemums, yet does so in broader, more overtly melodramatic strokes. For the entirety of the film leading up to Chiyo’s recognition as an outstanding geisha, the Gion district is literally flooded by melancholy, with nearly constant torrential rain accenting - in a rather traditional dramatic move - her troublesome encounters. The lead geishas treat her with hostility as a meager servant, and the older Hatsumoto takes every opportunity to make Chiyo look traitorous, at one point falsely exposing her as a runaway when it was really her who was causing mischief outside of the geisha house. It is not until Chiyo is discovered by Mameha (Michelle Yeoh) - Hatsumoto’s enduring rival - that she manages to transcend her rough upbringing and aim for a more significant identification as a geisha, landing her romantic sights on the upper-class Chairman in the process.

What is ultimately occurring here is a traditional dramatic format in Hollywood, a way of clearly identifying each character in accordance with one particular trait. Chiyo is the saintly protagonist rising from rags to riches, The Chairman is the object of romantic interest associated with sophistication and wealth, Mameha is the clear-cut mentor incapable of guiding Chiyo in the wrong direction, and Hatsumoto is the feverish villain responsible for much of her misery. These characters rarely make a move that would jeopardize their fully formed persona; instead, every one of their actions seems a device layered with dramatic import to help guide Chiyo’s personal journey. This kind of narrative mechanism is very writer-friendly, for it allows the assumption that each individual in the film is a pawn to be played with in order to reach an overarching significance. In the case of Memoirs of a Geisha, this significance is that everyone, like Chiyo, is in control of their own fate, that personal feelings are more reliable than the allure of external pressures, just as Rob Marshall and screenwriter Robin Swicord are the sole dictators of the path that their film will take despite being based off of an existing novel by Arthur Golden.

Late Chrysanthemums also takes literature as its source material (Fumiko Hayashi’s “Bangiku”, translated as “Late Chrysanthemums”), but it is not nearly handled as manipulatively. If Kin had existed in Memoirs of a Geisha, Marshall would likely have interpreted her money lust as an inherently negative trait, thus positioning her as the antagonist. For Naruse, this is no area for judgment. He sees it as a natural reflection of the distressing economic times, acknowledging money as something that has to be at the root of every conversation for the general welfare of society even if it means endangering human relationships in the process. Kin can be greedy and brash one moment and warm and tender the next, such as when she repeatedly turns a cherished letter from Tabe over in her hands in longing. Amidst the turmoil and loneliness, Naruse admires any act that suggests human camaraderie, explaining why even during moments of deep melancholy there is an underlying sense of earthbound comedy. The film allows for these simultaneous contradictions in character personalities and dramatic presentation to more closely approximate the flow of everyday life, in which actions are not as black and white as they are in the operatic Memoirs of a Geisha.

In this way, Naruse emerges as a social realist whereas Marshall works in more idealistic territory. His film is interested in documenting and combating the social inadequacy as it happens, literally reflecting what he sees around him in the most truthful manner possible. In a way, it works as a social critique. It matters less that these women were once geishas than it does that their realities were once grander and more luxurious. They are artifacts from a bygone era when elegance and art could be focused on because money was not an issue. While Naruse values the vitality of these women’s memories, he also suggests that in order for them to survive they must maintain a sharper focus on the present. Because Memoirs of a Geisha’s characters exist within the time of Japanese cultural prosperity, the stakes - while more lavish and dramatic - are not as high as those in Late Chrysanthemums. It is only when World War II arrives that the characters must reevaluate their means of endurance, as their previous ways of life are thoroughly shattered. One can imagine Chiyo proceeding to become Kin in Late Chrysanthemums; the final time we see her she is still wistfully connected to the Chairman, and the first time we see Kin she is still pining about her old flame with Tabe. It’s as if the war completely stripped the romanticism right away from the geisha.

This notion is reflected in the distinct visual styles of both of the films. A winner for Best Cinematography at the 78th Academy Awards, Dion Beebe’s work in Memoirs of a Geisha is undoubtedly sumptuous and elaborate, with each frame displaying careful precision by way of lighting, mise-en-scene and composition. Marshall positions each shot so that it is a visual treat unto itself. Rarely does an individual frame seem a particular point of emphasis because of the steady stream of pictorial grace. This democratic stylishness underlines the fact that this is the exotic East as seen through a Western lens. Nothing appears mundane, and everything, even the wicked women who scorn Chiyo, is fair game for beautifying. Naruse’s visual style is similarly democratic and without inflection, but in an utterly different way and for a separate purpose. The images in Late Chrysanthemums are uniformly prosaic and meant to elicit the mundane rhythms of daily life. It is a traditional formalism that does not call attention to itself, instead directing the concentration on the quietly powerful performances and the casual events of the story.

The two film’s respective modes of stylization also extend to their costume and set designs. The women’s wardrobes in Memoirs of a Geisha are remarkably ornamented, with generously embroidered kimonos, delicately applied makeup to add an aura of mystery, and wildly showy hairdos. They are walking embodiments of overstatement, and because of this their attire often cloaks their personalities, lending the film the texture of a prolonged fashion show. How much of this is an authentic replication of the kind of embellishment exercised by real-life geishas and how much is a subtle stretching of the truth remains unclear, but given Marshall’s utter lack of experience with pre-1940’s era Japan, it can be assumed that he took liberties to hyperbolize them to an extent. Everything in their proximity is equally extravagant and caressed with soft, low light, often in warm shades of red and green (a highly exotic color scheme ever since Eugene Delacroix’s Algerian paintings verified it). Even the more overtly tragic scenes remain gorgeous in both color and set design, such as in the final act when the war has ravaged the country.

The women’s clothing in Late Chrysanthemums, on the other hand, indicates something far removed from the eccentricity of the geishas that they once were. Now garbed in neutral, more commonplace kimonos, their external appearances still manage to be as telling as they were in the geisha era, only this time they hint at the repose and sorrow of their current lives. Fittingly, their homes are drab and unfurnished, which implies both emotional emptiness and a financial inability to decorate. Outside, Tokyo has become an impersonal metropolitan center filled with a new generation of women dressed in tight sweaters and trousers, a modern way that allows little room for the four old-fashioned women at the center of the story. Such a generational discord is potently felt in one of the closing scenes of the film when Tamae tries an imitation of the Marilyn Monroe gait in front of Tomi, only to immediately mock her own foolishness. Beauty in the modern world, they sadly realize, is no longer associated as closely with the geisha, but rather with the international celebrity.

All of the prominent emotion that this subtly poignant scene withholds is on display in the grim but finally sentimental resolution of Memoirs of a Geisha, when Chiyo is left largely to her own devices, with no use for the skill she has so patiently honed. Regardless of the differing levels of restraint in the two films though, they do share the same sense of lamentation and loss of the ephemeral golden age of the geisha, as well as a genuine sadness about the war that drove it out. And they both view the geisha custom as one that has a substantial impact on the individuals adhering to it, either guiding their lives unsteadily, as in the case of Chiyo, or providing unshakably fond memories for the four late chrysanthemums in Naruse’s film. Of course, Memoirs of a Geisha may continue to ring hollow as a superficial Hollywood melodrama, but the evidence it provides towards the enduring exotic impact of the geisha culture is as compelling as any of the carefully crafted scenes in the moving Late Chrysanthemums.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Puffy Chair (2005) A Film by Mark and Jay Duplass

Mark and Jay Duplass' mumblecore road movie The Puffy Chair is in many ways one of the previous decade's defining works, a film that modestly possesses a large portion of the features that make contemporary American media so accessible and democratized. Shot on an absurdly shoestring budget with prosumer digital cameras, it tells a story that we've all heard before: a couple in a long-term relationship - Josh (Mark Duplass) and Emily (Katie Aselton) - hit the road with Josh's neo-hippie brother Rhett (Rhett Wilkins) and experience a great deal of emotional ups and downs. What's special about the film though is not the banal story, but rather the method by which it is presented and the immense psychological ambiguity and verisimilitude it maintains. This is a film in which the gap between the characters presented and their actor counterparts is virtually negligible, where the trials and tribulations shown on screen are in most cases occurring in life as well. For instance, Mark Duplass and Kathryn Aselton were indeed a couple outside of the film as well and are now married. Duplass has also been a struggling musician and booking agent. In this sense, The Puffy Chair is a substantially self-effacing, and many would say, self-absorbed creation, but it's one that does not try to conceal these qualities.

Some of these descriptions, as well as the fact that it regularly employs improvisational dialogue, align The Puffy Chair and other mumblecore films with American independent film movements of the past. The elusive dividing line between fiction and documentary has always been a staple in the works of John Cassavetes, Lionel Rogosin, and Hal Ashby, and the Duplass brothers, along with Joe Swanberg, Andrew Bujalski, and Aaron Katz, appear to have followed in their wake, even if it did not blossom from a direct inspiration. An ethic has carried over, a desire to present life in all of its contradictions with the least editorial intrusion possible. And if The Puffy Chair does anything right, it's in its willingness to not flinch away when faced with the painfully nebulous challenge of human interaction, to not sugarcoat or simplify complex emotions. Witness the very first scene: Josh and Emily are having dinner at Josh's apartment speaking in silly infantile voices about how much they love each other. Suddenly, Josh brings up a certain "trip" that he's taking and the two revert back to their normal manners of speaking, indicating an uncomfortable level of tension not fully camouflaged by the syrupy facade. Something lies beneath their exchange, some unspoken modus operandi that Josh has about not taking Emily on the trip with him. Further complicating this is Emily's subsequent regression back to the baby talk for her teasing delivery of the line, "you're going to be so miserable without me". The difficulty to detect the interior mindsets that guide outward expression thus becomes one of the film's primary thematic thrusts, presenting a treacherous pitfall in Emily and Josh's relationship.

Josh's trip is a cross-country endeavor to pick up a maroon lazyboy recliner that is the exact replica of the one from his childhood home for his dad's upcoming birthday, a gesture designed at first for a much-needed reconnection, but which turns out to be more about his own urge to feel accomplished and meet a deadline. After Emily bursts out of his house when he takes an immature phone call for a moment too long at dinner, Josh finally gives in the following morning when he stands outside her window blasting Death Cab for Cutie from a radio, begging her to come along with him. The scene is clearly an offhand allusion to Cameron Crowe's quintessential rom-com Say Anything (1989), and as in many modern indie films, it comes with an ironic detachment: by acknowledging this film, the Duplass brothers are positioning themselves firmly outside of it. It's a nod to all of the well-groomed platitudes of the classic romantic structure, and a forewarning of The Puffy Chair's desire to subvert them. Words and hammy gestures prove to only peripherally soften the blow as Josh and Emily's fundamental romantic dissonance makes itself more and more evident throughout the road trip. She's hugely idealistic, taking every advantage to muse on the spiritual commitment that is marriage, and he's an emotional mute, incapable of expressing his feelings smoothly or in a timely manner. Towards the end, after the trio has, with much difficulty, acquired the puffy chair, there is a disarmingly empty emotional silence nearly as strong as anything in Bergman, yet it is routinely deflated by Rhett's goofy acknowledgment of it as "bad mojo".

Although the three main characters in the film are to some degree types - the boyfriend, the girlfriend, and the comedic tag-along - the Duplass brothers allow them to be unpredictable and morally double-edged so that there's no clear-cut answer as to whose actions were most noble. Though Rhett is established loosely as a spaced-out half-brain, illustrated hilariously in his first appearance onscreen making a video of a lizard licking liquid off of leaves with a digital camera that he ponders giving to his dad for his birthday, he eventually proves to be the film's primary voice of reason when the remaining manner of discourse has turned to silence. Even having spontaneously wedded a trailer-park girl he sees at a movie theater only to part ways the following morning, Rhett manages to muster up some words of wisdom, no matter how obtuse. Furthermore, one cannot quite pinpoint who's to blame for Josh and Emily's relationship going down the tubes. If he seems blatantly immature and uncommunicative, she is needy and insinuating to the extreme. The Duplass Brothers let these conflicts simmer with supreme naturalism, never allowing an overarching agenda like a plot dictate the prickly ebbs and flows of communication.

Though The Puffy Chair works well as a verite character study, its most salient lesson ultimately has little to do with the characters or themes present in the film. It has more to do with the approach, which stands as the antithesis of Hollywood film production. A scrappy DIY work that makes the most of the simplest of resources available to consumer culture (a van, a digital camera, a few China balls, and an Ebay page, which is where Josh locates the puffy chair), the film achieves what was once only a fantasy to the average citizen: making a feature-length movie. The modern technological age has offered innumerable options that allow original visions to proliferate outside of the constraints of big-budget cinema, a manner of working that is accessible, instantaneous, and cheap. An entire world can be reflected on camera quickly and without a laborious attempt to artificially reproduce reality, and given the film's tight network of real-life friends and lovers, one can directly experience a sense of life in motion, with little deterrence from that sloppy, jittery camera.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Wild Bunch (1969) A Film by Sam Peckinpah

“I tried to make them honest. Yet they come off as human beings, which possibly is a frightening thing.” This is Director Sam Peckinpah on the brutal outlaws in his wildly divisive 1969 film The Wild Bunch, a work so blunt and forthright in its depiction of a violent, lawless West that it caused widespread uproar upon its release, reportedly spawning some cases of audience vomiting (Briggs 102). This was enough to position it firmly in the scope of the New Hollywood, among contemporary films as diverse as Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Easy Rider (1969). Peckinpah’s relentlessly bleak vision was largely not like that of John Ford and classic Westerns, but rather one that sensitively responded to the turbulent, often devastating late sixties with an unsentimental eye that he believed was the only way to accurately confront the prevailing social issues of the time. The fact that The Wild Bunch’s ruthless killers do indeed shine a faint flicker of hope and humanity amidst a blur of bloodshed, whoring, and stealing suggests a world that is significantly lopsided, both socially and morally, a world that contrasts jarringly with the luminous, black or white patriotism of archetypal John Wayne Westerns. While Peckinpah’s notorious film is very much a conscious product of its times and a reaction against the history that came before it, cinematic and otherwise, it is also a remarkably forward-thinking work that anticipates much of contemporary cinema’s frenetic depictions of violence.

Regularly misinterpreted as an overbearing right-wing advocate of the kind of destructive machismo The Wild Bunch – and the rest of his films – presented, Peckinpah was actually quite actively outraged by the troubling historical events of the late sixties, or what he referred to as “the insanity that surrounds us.” Like the rest of the American public, he was deeply disturbed by the Charles Manson Gang killings, prompting him to write a touching letter to filmmaker Roman Polanski, whose wife Sharon Tate was a victim of Manson, urging him with speechless shock to fight through the horror and continue making films in hopes of one day finding “a path of reason”. He commonly lamented the “horror of President Kennedy’s assassination and his brother’s death”. Angering him most passionately though was America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, an indignation that reached its apex of intensity when American troops invaded the South Vietnamese village of My Lai, massacring hundreds of innocent civilians, many of whom were women, children, and the elderly. Peckinpah once again took respectable action, writing a letter to President Nixon about what a moral tragedy it would be if Lieutenant Calley, the American officer responsible for much of the shootings, were let out of prison after a mere two years, all while citing his credibility as an ex-Marine.

Peckinpah viewed these horrific acts as manifestations of man’s inherent instinct for violence, an unavoidable instinct that he felt was seizing America in a particularly unsettling manner at the time. It was something he felt needed to be addressed and therefore acknowledged by the audience in hopes of getting them to harness these capacities. His method of accomplishing this was to produce the willfully nihilistic The Wild Bunch, which proved to be more provocative and large-scale than any of his work to date (Ride the High Country, considered by many to be among his finest work, was a decidedly modest, low-key genre effort also produced in the 1960’s). Peckinpah felt that to deliberately bombard the viewer with harsh, ugly violence was to open their eyes to the reality of it as opposed to its typically watered-down media depictions. To him, the audience comes away with nothing when subjected to safe, untruthful representations of violence, as he insisted was the case when studios cut 80% of the violence in his film Major Dundee (1965), rendering it “attractive and exciting” but not necessarily confrontational, which was the worst kind of degradation for the fiercely opinionated Peckinpah.

In its opening minutes, The Wild Bunch makes a bold announcement of the kind of film it will be, insisting on negotiating the vast gap between violence as shallow entertainment and violence as cruel, merciless reality. After passing a group of children who are playfully torturing two scorpions with a slew of red ants (a nakedly symbolic image that establishes the film’s guiding force of sheer barbarianism in large quantities, soon to be replaced by humans), Pike Bishop (William Holden) and his gang of outlaws ride into a small Texas town disguised in Army uniforms to rob a bank. Soon enough, they realize a group of bounty hunters led by Pike’s former riding mate, Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), are hot on their trails, eying them from a nearby rooftop. As a result, the outlaws do not choose to slyly complete their robbery unseen and unharmed; instead, they resort to open fire in the town center in an explosively protracted scene in which the two forces are staged on opposite sides of a temperance union parade that is flowing down the street, made up chiefly of women and children as in the My Lai Massacre. It’s a startling opening scene that daringly juxtaposes the wild lawlessness of the Old West with the more dignified, transitional public who - with their forthright manner of protest - do enough to suggest the Vietnam rallies that Peckinpah was sympathetic towards.

What’s most unexpected about the scene is its utterly charged editing, which shows no signs of sugarcoating the savagery or ending the warfare prematurely. Unlike the mannered, tightly controlled style of editing and mise-en-scene used for action sequences in past Westerns, Peckinpah employs a frenetic burst of diverse techniques, causing a visual cacophony that somersaults forward with uncompromising purpose. An astonishing array of close-ups, wide-shots, detailed shots of gun barrels, reaction shots, dramatic zooms, and shaky, abstracted handheld shots all grace the frame with a rapidity that is simultaneously teasing and devastating; no fallen body is spared more than one or two seconds of screen time, emphasizing the sheer anarchy of death. Peckinpah also mixes in an occasional slow-motion image of a body falling from a building amidst all of the hyper-speed, a technique pioneered by Akira Kurosawa but exercised with a unique grace here, as if the successive cuts suggest the final heart beats of life. Because of the pure visual overload, if a central character had perished during this massacre, the audience would hardly have known it.

Such is indeed the case with the film’s ensuing battle scenes, which possess the same sense of restless energy. In the closing battle, for instance, Pike and his gang are slaughtered during another massacre, this time against the Mexican Federal Army lead by General Mapache (Emilio Fernández), who have invaded the small Mexican village that the gang member Angel (Jaime Sánchez) is from. Yet it seems unclear as to whether or not they were actually killed until we finally see their dead bodies in the aftermath and their giggling faces superimposed over the final shots. Peckinpah’s forceful editing – which updates the dense montage of Sergei Eisenstein by way of the footloose inventiveness of Jean-Luc Godard – has a way of obscuring actual narrative details, creating instead a hazy blur of death.

The Wild Bunch is not all subversive though, for it also pulls amply from the gamut of Western stereotypes and conventions even as it attempts to reinvent them. Pike and his men live by a classic code of honor familiar from countless Westerns. Though he’s a silent, remorseful man who speaks mainly through violence, Pike’s most salient verbal message still rings loudly as a credo of traditional loyalty and brotherhood: “When you side with a man, you stay with him. And if you can’t do that, you’re like an animal.” It’s a line that smacks of hypocrisy, given the fact that Peckinpah has presented the outlaws – and the bounty hunters for that matter – as nothing more than animalistic, undisciplined killers, but it nonetheless holds some weight for these down-and-out men as something that constitutes their only glimmer of goodness. There are also occasional sequences of real camaraderie between them as they bathe together with whores and joke and poke fun at each other. One senses a strand of traditional values in moments like this, even if they are negated frames later when they begin firing rowdily at opposing men or civilians.

These kinds of contradictions spring up repeatedly in the work of Peckinpah, an instinctive talent notoriously known in Hollywood for his unwieldy working methods (overshot budgets, late completions, and crew firings were common in his productions). He was not a director to convincingly articulate one clear-cut idea, but rather to create sprawling thematic mosaics as energetic and unpredictable as his bloody massacre scenes. While his hyperkinetic treatment of violence has become the norm for contemporary cinema, rarely do modern action films possess the sincere element of critique found in The Wild Bunch, instead simply appropriating the method for its pure entertainment value. This is precisely what gives Peckinpah’s film its stamp as a trailblazing work of American cinema.

The Sheltering Sky (1990) A Film by Bernardo Bertolucci

(Disclaimer: This is an essay I wrote for a class I take called Exoticism in Literature and Art. It was not a critical piece per se, and thus limited me to speaking on rather objective terms. Though I do hold many of the points in my essay to be true and indeed effective in the film, I also refrained from criticizing areas that truly needed criticism. This is far from Bernardo Bertolucci's best film.)

Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Sheltering Sky is a film that deliberately pulls a well-mounted rug out from under you to immerse you in vast uncertainty, to confront you with the true indifference of the natural world. Based off of Paul Bowles’ acclaimed novel of the same name, the film tells the brooding tale of a pair of long-time lovers – Port and Kit Moresby, played by John Malkovich and Debra Winger, respectively – who venture out of their familiar New York City home to the Sahara Desert to lead a traveling life of exoticism and unpredictability from which they plan not to return. Deep down the film is also a study of an estranged marriage and the ways in which the empty, forbidding landscape provides an exotic channel through which Port and Kit can evaluate their own fundamental differences.

Bertolucci divides the film into two dissonant sections, mirroring the structure of Bowles’ novel. Both parts utilize sharply contrasting cinematic techniques, a method which first produces audience comprehension but eventually turns to anarchic confusion. The initial half is essentially a conventionalized translation of the personalities that the book gradually establishes; Port is a self-assured, humorless intellectual with an existentialist worldview, Kit is an artless, well-meaning lover prone to superstitious beliefs, and the pair’s tagalong, George Tunner, is a shallow, personable aristocrat interested in the romantic foibles of Port and Kit. A sharper eye than that of the book is spent documenting their interrelations, creating the notion that these are people that can be understood, albeit with some difficulty, whereas the book tends to wallow in strong relational ambiguity. Perhaps wisely, Bowles rarely attempts to mine the complicated depths of what is left unsaid; Bertolucci and his cinematographer Vittorio Storaro apply visual indicators that serve to assist interpretation, like deep red and blue color filters.

The emphasis throughout the first half is on dialogue and exposition, much like a Hollywood film. There are moments of tension as well as lighter filler scenes, and discerning which is which is all made helpful by the inclusion of Ryuichi Sakamoto’s mournful score, which only really underscores the scenes when Port and Kit are having serious conversations about the state of their marriage. Bertolucci’s camera stays at a traditional distance to his characters, employing an even dose of medium shots and close-ups. All of this manages to communicate a cinematic language that is familiar to Western moviegoers, a language that gives them what they expect regarding narrative flow, character development, and visual style. Though the plot moves at a relatively calculated pace, the audience comes to foresee a climax and eventually a typical conclusion involving the state of Port, Kit, and Tunner. Then, as in the book, Port suddenly dies of a Typhoid illness that quickly weakens him. In an instant, the film itself feels exotic. How could the main character die so early in the story? What does that mean for the rest of the characters? What does that mean for the film? Bertolucci lets these questions linger without an answer until by the end they are no longer important. Kit is finally alone in an unusual land, finally unguarded against the elements. Having each other earlier was what provided a barrier to really being immersed in the new culture they were entering. Once Kit finds herself without a crutch, there is no protection from what surrounds her; everything is unfamiliar, and superstition cannot solve her husband’s unanticipated death.

If Bertolucci’s classical mise-en-scene felt ill suited to the existential undercurrents in the first half, it was because he was saving all of his vast panoramic shots for the second. Close-ups become few and far between. Finally the camera captures both the land and the sky that is so crucial to the title as well as the thematic content of the story, dwarfing humans against it to suggest their triviality on a grand scale. In a film about the gulf between the existentialist tenets of Port – the idea that humans are without guidance from higher powers, that their actions alone dictate who they become – and the hopeful mysticism of Kit, these kinds of distant, contemplative shots are necessary both to allow for audience interpretation and to recognize the unavoidable, physical fact of nature that is constantly playing a role in either. Amidst the intense solitude and sorrow of the second half, they primarily work to propose that Kit is, much to her dismay, without assistance.

Once she is alone, the narrative loses a large portion of what made it feel traditional in the first place. She finds herself drifting aimlessly through the Sahara and is eventually taken under the wing of a small Arab group riding on camelback, becoming one man’s concubine. At the same rate of Kit’s transformation from an American traveler to another covered-up member of the tribe, the film eschews its sense of narrative control until eventually it seems as if Bertolucci is no longer directing the action onscreen. Instead, in long scenes depicting Kit’s wanderings through the small desert villages that the group takes rests at, the visual and aural cacophony of her surroundings seems to dictate what exactly the camera is doing. Vittorio Storaro never shot any documentaries early in his career, but in The Sheltering Sky’s latter half one begins to wonder if he did, because the film gains a sturdy element of verisimilitude, as if it’s an ethnographic video.

Unlike in a Hollywood film, Kit - who up until this point is one of the major characters and is frequently onscreen in close-up – blurs in with the other bodies that swarm around her. Because she has finally adopted the clothing of the Arabs, often times it is unclear where she is, and the film’s densely layered diegetic sound further obscures her presence. The Arab people chant and drum relentlessly for what feels like an entire thirty minutes, and clamoring voices – mainly in native tongue, but also in Kit’s shifts between French and English – reach a level of intelligibility that differs greatly from the clearly audible conversations occurring earlier. Bertolucci doesn’t even include subtitles in every instance, and when he does they appear to merely confirm how trivial the words actually are. Verbal language no longer holds importance, ruling out the means through which Kit has communicated throughout the film, as well as through which most conformist art conveys its messages.

That The Sheltering Sky is able to utterly abandon its initial sense of order is crucial to its success as a practice in exoticism. The very chaos it eventually embraces is in itself exotic to Western audiences. It also helps to amplify the film’s fundamental philosophy of existentialism and its acute atmosphere of disconnection and incomprehension; the level of detachment we feel from the characters matches that which they feel from each other. Bertolucci wisely realizes the ability for the cinematic medium, as opposed to literature and theater, to create these distinct moods.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Eyes Wide Shut (1999) A Film by Stanley Kubrick

Stanley Kubrick was never known as a particularly erotic filmmaker, instead devising calculated avant-garde epics that either criticized the objectification of sex (A Clockwork Orange), presented it as an awkward off-screen effrontery (Lolita), or left it out of the picture altogether (2001: A Space Odyssey). It's interesting then in a cleverly ironic way that his final film at least purports to be a humid erotic thriller replete with the kind of glowing, screen-filling flesh that its posters advertised, flushing out the entangled bosoms of its two stars - and at the time, Hollywood's most vogue couple - Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. Certainly this appeared to be unfamiliar terrain for Kubrick, but once filtered through his typically florid, studied sensibility, it became clear that Eyes Wide Shut was no simple treat for the senses but rather a challenging examination of the ontological role of sex in society, how it's less an ephemeral act of pleasure than a significant dislocation of one's own permanent values, an inexplicably powerful instinct capable of destroying one's future. Kidman's character, Alice Harford, makes this explicit early on when after smoking marijuana in bed with her husband Bill (Cruise), she divulges a brutally honest tale of deflected sexual desire about a time when a naval officer caught her eye and she was willing to give up everything if he offered himself to her. Being the naive, self-assured doctor he is, this kick-starts a mysterious expedition into Bill's subconscious that exposes boundless layers of sexual opportunity and clandestine activity.

Markers of monotonous marriage and infidelity abound right from the first twenty minutes. Bill and Alice are putting the finishing touches on their preparations to go to an upper-class party at the Ziegler's. They exchange only glances and insincere small talk while finalizing their attire, acquainting their daughter Helena (Madison Eginton) with the babysitter, and strolling through the opulent corridors of their Manhattan flat, all while "Waltz 2" from Shostakovich's "Suite for Variety Stage Orchestra" floats through the soundtrack, establishing the familiar majesty that is usually lent to Kubrick's openings. Once at the party, the two drift apart seemingly as soon as they walk through the door, and only a few moments pass before Alice is slow-dancing with an ultra-suave Hungarian man and Bill is linking arms with two giddy Manhattanites. Both of them are utterly consumed by their sophisticated milieu, presenting themselves as people who have been to far too many fancy parties and have perfected their hopelessly cheesy formalities. Regardless, their demeanor works in context, which helps to firmly erect the film's reality as one of superficiality, routine, and social restlessness, as if knowing people and refreshing your acquaintances is the be-all and end-all of life.

There are more treacherous, introspective dimensions though, as Bill discovers through Alice's shocking revelation, which amounts to a total shattering of his shallow presuppositions about marriage, faith, and fidelity. Alice, on the other hand, appears more sexually mature, promiscuous even, as she confidently battles Bill verbally about the desire she assumes he harbors while treating female patients, and eventually almost boasts about her own sexual fantasies as a way of positing the equal magnitude of sex in a female mindset. This lengthy scene of dialogue in the couple's bedroom, rich with suggestive red and blue lighting, works to singlehandedly position the marital dynamic as a constant war with natural impulses that have a tendency to undermine love, and is one piece of evidence towards Kubrick's cynical humanism; if he is wary about man's inherent drives, it does not come with a favoring of one gender over another. Both, in fact, are evenly guilty. It is only through Bill's perspective that we witness this issue. Torn by his wife's declaration, he takes to the streets, variably projecting her imagined excursion with the naval officer in his head in dreamy blue-tinted monochrome with jerky movement, recalling early spectacle-based silent cinema. If his home is a place where the blunt frigidity of reality manifests itself, the willfully artificial New York nightlife is a playground for his sexually charged subconscious, and his car-rides in between the two poles is a twilight zone that Kubrick exploits with slow zooms and conspicuously rendered back projection.

His first departure from home is the result of the sudden death of one of his patients, and in a time of consolation and grieving, the elderly patient's middle-aged daughter makes an unexpected bound at Bill, kissing him and telling him she loves him. Many have read Eyes Wide Shut as a dark comedy about Bill's sexual inadequacy, and while this scene is most importantly the first indication of the pervasive dread to come, it also contains a strain of pitch black comedy that culminates with Bill's matter-of-fact delivery of the line "We barely know each other. I don't think we've had a single conversation about anything except your father." Upon leaving, Bill falls prey to a horde of drunken frat boys who mock his sleek attire by calling him a homosexual. Shortly after, he is approached by a fur-clad high-class prostitute named Domino (Vinessa Shaw) who ushers him into her conveniently nearby apartment. Bill puts on his best raunchy bachelor impression, agrees to an exuberant price, and is prepared to get in bed with her when suddenly Alice calls from home wondering why the sympathy process is taking so long. The troubling choice is before him - sex or love - and he declines the offer from Domino, foreshadowing Alice and Bill's later decision to overcome their sexual mistakes and realize the true meaning of their marriage, which is really the ultimate point for the regularly misinterpreted Kubrick, who is so often identified as an aloof misogynist.

Bill's adventure grows ever longer and more convoluted, as if his subconscious is playing tricks on him, involving him in elaborate ruses to test the limits of his loyalty. This reaches its apex when he eventually finds himself with a puzzle laid out before him by a friend and pianist, Nick Nightingale (Todd Field), whom he goes to see at a late night show in a jazz bar. At this point, the film's rigorously mounted dreamscape has flown into overdrive, explaining why Bill can ask for a beer without specifying which kind or witness a duo of diminutive Asian men dressed only in underwear hiding in the shadows with a pubescent girl (a darkly comic, "wtf" moment that recalls the glance of the man in the bear mask in The Shining). Nightingale explains how this is only his first show of the night, even at such a late hour, and that he's actually going to an ill-defined cult gathering later on in a mansion in the woods where he has been asked play blindfolded. The vague mystery behind his wary description causes Bill's desire level to soar, and in the end he finds himself with the password "Fidelio" written on a napkin and an instruction to purchase a Venetian mask and cloak. What results is one of the most memorable sequences in Kubrick's career, a sustained, haunting tour of a huge masked orgy complete with bizarre ritualistic acts. A reversed, slowed-down operatic movement bellows on the soundtrack throughout, creating a droning ourobouric loop that seems to put everyone in a somnambulistic trance. Nude woman stroll around in masks with their black-clad male counterparts, clearly deindividualizing, dehumanizing, and filtering them down to their fundamental capacity for sexuality. It's a chilling, uncomfortable, yet strangely stimulating episode that fearlessly confronts the deep objectification of the male gaze, coupled as it is with a foreboding sense of Bill's luck running out.

As with most of Kubrick's work, Eyes Wide Shut is a painstakingly coded film, steeped in symbolism, narrative deception, and aesthetic rhymes. I have hardly begun to crack the surface of its labyrinthine matrix of meaning, which involves anything from the repeated use of certain primary colors, the historically loaded term "Fidelio", several references to the rainbow (the women Bill flirts with offer to take him to "the other end of the rainbow" and the store where he buys his masks is called "Rainbow"), and a deliberately ambiguous plot thread about a prostitute who overdoses on heroin in the final act. Beyond any of Kubrick's sophisticated fun and games though is an utterly dazzling audiovisual experience, so immersive and assured in its pacing and design. The film takes place during the Christmas season, and surely Kubrick makes full, sardonic use of the season's charm, rarely shooting a frame that is not decorated by a gorgeous mosaic of vibrant Christmas lights. Yet the soundtrack tells an entirely different story, hinting at threatening, uncertain layers beneath the cheerful facade through a fusion of avant-garde classical works like György Ligeti's "Musica Ricercata", an unmistakably primitive piano cycle that takes the general conceit of the Jaws theme and boils it down to its most simplistic, discordant basics. Like everything else in Eyes Wide Shut, it's something deeply unexpected, jarring, and ultimately revealing.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Rashomon (1950) A Film by Akira Kurosawa

When films become canonized - that is to say, they are raised to a mythic level that is considered irreproachable - serious criticism has the unfortunate tendency to fall by the wayside. The quintessential example is Citizen Kane, a film whose overwhelmingly positive critical consensus has made viewers feel worthless if they do anything but surrender to its majesty. The notion is that if the film is so widely considered "great", then it must be great. Any swimming against the current would, in this instance, look baffling, unintelligent, and uninformed. Yet it is normally the thumbs-up reactions which have become lazy, dispassionate, and streamlined in such instances, safe in the worst possible way because of how they undemonstratively continue a long line of recycled praise. Suffice to say, Akira Kurosawa's revolutionary, game-changing Rashomon is a film that, for me, fits perfectly into this category in that it is almost unanimously regarded as a timeless masterwork despite what I consider to be a wealth of clumsy, unappealing flaws. At the risk of deterring people from the film though, which nearly singlehandedly exposed Western audiences to the great diversity of Japanese cinema, I will keep my pronouncements gentle: Rashomon is far more interesting to learn about and to know the significance of than it is to actually see.

One of the major elements that critics and historians point to as a sign of distinctive genius is the fact that Kurosawa sanctions the idea of absolute truth being elusive and utterly indefinable. Visual or verbal information should no longer be responded to without a hint of skepticism, he implies, for there is no real authoritative truth-teller. This is clearly a weighty, respectable theme, so daring in fact that if not handled properly it could easily be a self-defeating mechanism with the potential of being boiled down to one reductive "well, why should I believe your film then?" Kurosawa orchestrates it in such a way that it does indeed work to sidestep this catch-22, but his method is so clinical, so desperately banal and specific, that it does so without making the film anything more than a monotonous riff on a thesis statement. A murder and a rape occur in the woods, and three suspects recount their experience of what exactly happened. These descriptions are told visually in flashbacks with painstaking detail. Adding another layer of falsification is the fact that these testimonies are being filtered through a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) who witnessed them from the sidelines and who is explaining these stories somberly to a commoner (Kichijirô Ueda) and a priest (Minoru Chiaki) underneath a decrepit gatehouse in the torrential rain called Rashomon.

Inevitably, in order for Kurosawa to push his point, each flashback bears little similarity. In fact, in most cases the recollections tend to contradict the others. The only thing the bandit Tajômaru (Toshirô Mifune), the murdered samurai (Masayuki Mori, whose presence exists through the use of a medium that speaks in distant, ghostly tones), and his wife (Machiko Kyô) agree upon is that the violence ensued in a grove in the woods. Whether they are tweaking their stories in the interest of saving their own backs or if it is actually how they perceived the incident is left unclear. Perception itself is untruthful however, as Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up (1966) proved brilliantly 16 years later, so it becomes blindingly clear early on what Kurosawa is getting at: objective truth does not exist in this world, and it is only through forceful, authoritarian, and often unfair final judgments that we can negotiate "right" and "wrong". Rashomon attempts to build toward this implication from the get-go, but it doesn't realize that it said all it needed to with its opening and closing sequences, which depict the priest, commoner, and woodcutter arguing about what appears to be a dissertation they are planning on writing about the complexities of human nature. This renders all of the melodramatic flashbacks redundant and inconsequential, reducible as they are to hammy displays of male bravado, confused marital loyalty, and long, goofy sword fights that feel cheaply improvised when placed aside Kurosawa's more vivacious mise-en-scene in Seven Samurai (1954).

The most screamingly salient aspect I find troubling in Rashomon is its chosen mode of acting. To think that Toshirô Mifune's performance has been praised among the greatest in motion picture history baffles me, for I find his on-screen persona comes down to a fit of histrionic giggles, flailing body movement, and village idiot stereotypes. Maybe it's just the contemporary critical preference for subtlety that guides my judgment, but whatever the case I do not find the theatrical, overemotional acting particularly moving. Even worse, I don't think it suits the story and its thematic underpinnings very well. If Kurosawa and Shinobu Hashimoto's script suggests a study of the vagaries of human nature, the cast's unconvincing acting wipes out any semblance of verisimilitude, negating the possibility for a life-like reflection. Though Kurosawa has openly professed his admiration for classical Japanese theater acting and the expressive body language of silent cinema, his employment of these methods feels ill-suited to such delicate, ambiguous themes that would surely be better complimented by naturalistic performances. The final straw is the film's run-of-the-mill cinematography, which saves its only striking image for the closing frame. And I don't find Kurosawa's incidental pointing of the camera into the sun to be much to applaud, no less an act of genius.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989) A Film by Steven Soderbergh

The first moments of Steven Soderbergh's body of work establish a subtle air of unreality that anticipates a career of confounded expectations and nimbly wrought formal dramas. With a series of mysterious, half-finished character introductions that share an indefinable unease in common with the films of David Lynch, particularly Lost Highway (1997), Soderbergh lays the groundwork for his chatty, perplexing debut, Sex, Lies, and Videotape. The camera points towards the pavement whizzing by, creating a gray abstraction that resembles the television static seen later in the film, when the psychologically repressed Graham Dalton's (James Spader) erotically charged videotapes run their course. Then a woman's soft Southern voice begins, speaking with the same stilted quality of Laura Dern in INLAND EMPIRE: "Garbage. All I've been thinking about all week is garbage. I mean, I just can't stop thinking about it." The voice is that of Ann Bishop Mullany (Andie MacDowell), and she is running off her trivial weekly concerns to her unenthusiastic psychiatrist. Yet Soderbergh lets the monologue provide the primary aural thrust of the entire opening montage - even after cutting to the scene of her speech, where she is sitting cross-legged on a couch in a relaxing sun dress - suggesting, no matter how much it implies insignificance, that it is indeed something to listen to.

What we retain from this scene though is not the content of her words, but rather the way MacDowell speaks them. There is something overly delicate and self-conscious about it, perhaps a facade that masks a level of instability beneath, and it underscores the brief interjections of both Graham and Ann's lawyer husband John (Peter Gallagher), two old college buddies who adamantly express that their paths have parted. There is no way of knowing this at first though, so the deft cuts to the suave, blond-haired Graham arriving in town register suspicion and anxiety, a black-clad enigma making quick detours on his way like an inconspicuous assassin. All of this is presented with a sedate formal tightness that firmly implants the film's storytelling modus operandi: provide deeply analytical editing rhythms, but never show more than the objective surfaces of the scenes, never probe the interior mindsets of the characters, and instead let them materialize in unexpected ways. Sex, Lies, and Videotape is one of the rare films that plays less like a succession of individual chunks and more like one fluid, interconnected montage, with countless instances of "invisible" cutting from one conversation to another in a completely separate space, as if the words are not mutually exclusive but rather endless incarnations and continuations of the same situation. In this sense, it is only inevitable that the little white lies told by the treacherous and sexually promiscuous quartet of central characters cause mayhem and dysfunction by the end of the film.

As a tale of adultery and betrayal culminating in a transcendent comeuppance, Soderbergh's debut has the tidings of a classic Greek tragedy, yet it is told in such an unconventional, elliptical manner that it eludes labels of melodrama and academia. It is a story that, despite its seemingly linear chronology, feels dispersed like a mosaic, and thus it does not involve much dramatic crescendo, at least not in a traditional sense. Ann and John have been married for some time, but do not have sex anymore, for Ann finds it extraneous and unsatisfying. This is not to say that they are sexually inactive though, as John is involved in a meaningless on-call affair with Ann's extroverted, bartender sister, Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo), and what Ann finds most intimate is actually sharing honest conversations with others. When Graham arrives and stays a few nights at their suburban home in Baton Rouge, she strikes up an interest in his smooth, personable demeanor and the two go out to lunch after searching for a house for Graham with a Realtor, where she learns of Graham's impotence forged by his devastating break-up with a past girlfriend. It is clear that the grounds for disaster have been thoroughly entrenched, and eventually any potential heterogeneous pairing of the foursome is actualized.

Complicating the situation, and proving to be the ultimate form of threatening exposure, is Graham's habit of videotaping anonymous women as he kindly asks them about their sexual experiences. Ann discovers this when she is at his house and sees the organized conglomeration of labeled videotapes beside his TV, harmlessly probing him about his "personal project" at first and then showing discomfort and disgust when she starts to gather the context of the tapes. For Ann, a surefire prude, this is an unacceptable act of perversion, an intrusion on the privacy of the female for a selfish reason, and this alone is enough to suggest the apparatus of the cinema, a medium that is performing precisely Graham's act of penetrating voyeurism and complicity. It seems an attempt on Soderbergh's part to equate film - a material long used as a means for entertainment and art - and the new practice of video, greeted with much skepticism as what could be a harmfully personal endeavor. Cynthia, representing the passive, oblivious firebrand, barges into Graham's house and answers his questions on tape after her interest is aroused by Ann's expressed apprehension. This also coincides with Ann's increased suspicion about John and Cynthia's affair, and the videotapes inevitably provide the evidence necessary for Ann to tell John she wants out of their marriage.

In her frazzled state and still harboring strong levels of attraction towards Graham, she too confronts him and asks to be taped. Before arriving, Soderbergh shoots her drive over in one bizarre cut from her sitting in her driveway covering her eyes while the engine kick-starts, then taking her hands away when it stops to find herself right in front of Graham's house. It's a bracingly avant-garde move, announcing the disorienting sprawl of the final thirty minutes, which rivetingly intercut Graham and Ann's intimate discussion and John watching the resultant tape later in fury in Graham's living room. The performances here are incredible, explaining how the potentially soapy material becomes something altogether entrancing and devastating, but it is MacDowell who communicates the most significant transformation. She strips away the uptight reluctance that stems from her suburban ennui and reaches a more fundamental understanding of the people around her and what drives them. It's an intensely moving, masterfully orchestrated sequence, in many ways a summation of the film's themes of alienation, betrayal, and objectivity vs. subjectivity. And more significantly, it is one of the finest debuts in film history, announcing Steven Soderbergh as a fresh talent with a knack for shattering convention and creating dense, thoughtful meditations on modern life.