Monday, June 28, 2010

Paris, Texas (1984) A Film by Wim Wenders

With Paris, Texas, German-born director Wim Wenders shows a knack for capturing the essence of America's heartland with more grit, honesty, and grace than most Americans can. The film, whose initial inspiration was Sam Shepard's collection of literary tidbits, Motel Chronicles, was developed in the midst of a three-month long trip to the West that Wenders took alone, photographically documenting his travels, and it distills a career-long fascination that the director has had with America. Right from its first images of a solitary figure in a baseball cap and black suit plastered against a cartoonishly vibrant desert landscape, it becomes evident that Wenders' rendering is separate from a mere pastiche of the previous practitioners of the Western - Ford, Leone, Peckinpah, Mann, Hawks. In fact, Wenders' sensibility seems to come out of left field, cultivated in an environment removed from such cultural benchmarks, the vision of an outsider looking in and ecstatically committing his sensations to the screen. The shots are moving, but they might as well be continuations of the photographic diary he kept prior to the filming. This sheer visual rapture partly accounts for the seemingly directionless, ambling mood of the opening thirty minutes, which delight in the aesthetic pleasures of the Western landscape and its archetypal qualities more than they advance any narrative.

The other reason for this dramatic stasis comes from the fact that the central character Travis (Harry Dean Stanton), the figure seen somnambulistically marching through the terrain, is about as blank and inexpressive as Wenders' narrative. He walks and walks and stares off into the distance with majestic, mournful eyes, but his reason for doing so is left unclear. Even when his middle-class, billboard-constructing brother Walt (Dean Stockwell) hears of his whereabouts and jumps at the opportunity to scoop him up, for it seems Travis has been MIA for four years, no words, no explanations, no expressions, are delivered. For whatever reason, Travis has made the decision to stop speaking, and given his near amnesiac state, it seems it was a decision made long ago. Details concerning Travis' past life and human acquaintances are collected gradually through context and incident: his brother is a well-to-do Los Angeles local with a French wife named Anne (Aurore Clément) and the couple takes care of Travis' only son Hunter (Hunter Carson, real son of L.M Kit Carson, who adapted the screenplay); he once had a lovely wife named Jane (Natassja Kinski), but unexplained symptoms procured their splitting apart; at an unexpected point in time, he escaped the reality he carved out for himself, leaving his family to believe him dead. But there's no guaranteeing Travis' presence in America is indicative of any kind of desire to reacquaint himself. Indeed, it is possible he wandered over the Mexican border unknowingly, and any suspected desire is negated when he first stoically escapes his brother's hospitality, bursting headlong back into the vast, empty desert.

Wenders niftily builds a rhythm and tone around blocks of silence, communication sent one way only for the receiving end to discredit or ignore, much like the dilapidated milieu he portrays is littered with weathered signs pointing vainly out into the great nothingness of the West. Walt speaks, Travis stares. Eventually, Travis is brought back with Walt to his home in Los Angeles, where Anne speaks and Travis stares. At one point, he finally begins speaking, muttering the words "Paris, Texas" and following it by showing Walt a photo of a vacant lot where he explains his parents likely planted the seed that began his life. When Travis' finally uses words, his communication is stunted and driven by his own internal logic; he's kind and tender, but not the best listener. Stanton's intense, iconic portrayal though makes it well known that something is eating away at Travis, a dogged determination to right his wrongs, to stitch together the family that lost its way. A deeply nostalgic scene when Travis, Walt, Anne, and Hunter sit down to view an assemblage of old Super-8 home footage confirms a retrospective warmth and comfort at the heart of Travis' life that no longer exists, but which shows a possibility of rejuvenating when the estranged father and son meet eyes longingly for an extended period of time, and soon after when they waltz down the street after Hunter's school day, imitating mannerisms from either side (one of those singular moments of cutesy compromise that often manifests itself once or twice in a Wenders movie).

Paris, Texas eventually levels out to become an exceptionally straightforward story, that of a father and son searching for a mother, so simple and pure in its impact that it takes pictorial and geographical eyes as sharp as Wenders and cinematographer Robby Müller to capture in such an arresting manner. Travis and little Hunter travel from the hills of LA to the scrambling metropolis of San Bernadino on the strength of Anne's knowledge that Jane takes a monthly trip to the bank to add funds to an account under Hunter's name. Each locale has a specific visual stamp: the organic, luminous panoramas in the open desert, the neon and black juxtaposition of Walt and Anne's LA-overlook, and the crisp, almost hygienic compositions in the heart of San Bernadino, some of which recall Godard's treatment of the urban metropolis in Two or Three Things I Know About Her.

Wenders' potent visual intuition transforms a laconic story with sentimental undertones into a dense, prolonged (a mammoth running time of two and a half hours that goes by in a jiffy), mythic statement on the essence of the American family, a loving and optimistic but ultimately misshapen ideal. To emphasize this, Wenders has the family periodically speaking through barriers, like the walkie talkies and tape recorders that Travis and Hunter communicate with, first as playful detective devices and then as electronic mediators to deliver sad, intimate monologues, or the one-way mirror that separates Travis and Jane once he finally tracks her down working at a phone chat sex club. The latter, a probing session of long-winded dialogue courtesy of Sam Shepard, beautifully illuminates the film's gentle postmodernist undertow, with Travis' rectangular, cinematic view of Jane in the adjacent room recalling Hunter's earlier comment that the image of Jane in the home video is not his mother, but rather his mother in a movie. With Wenders calling attention to both the artifice of cinema and the fundamentally alienated nature of the central family, it's remarkable that it all manages to be so heart-wrenching anyway, and much of it is owed to Wenders nuanced visual presentation, which in one instance naturally superimposes through the one-way window the faces of Travis and Jane, hammering home their physical proximity while reminding us that it doesn't change their inability to connect.

In the end, Paris, Texas is really a film whose power derives from much more than just its director. It is a genuinely collaborative effort that features effective showings all across the board: the pristine lensing of Robby Müller (who later did similarly sumptuous landscape work with Jim Jarmusch), Sam Shepard's poetic, refined dialogue, which would stand on its own wonderfully, and Ry Cooder's inseparable slide guitar score, jangling its way through the drama like a desert wind. Of course, at the center of it all is Harry Dean Stanton's deeply expressive mug, generating emotion out of every wrinkle. His character is an unbelievably moving evocation of a self in peril, beckoned by the sensual pleasures of life but determined to remedy the people around him at his own expense, a notion constantly visualized through the breathtaking barrenness of the Western landscape, beautiful and limitless but always foreboding, teasing, and powerful enough to swallow up a man. Travis' metamorphoses is both complete and incomplete when in the final shot we see him retreating back into the darkness of the open road, connecting an ourobouric loop of dissolution and reconciliation.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Winter's Bone (2010) A Film by Debra Granik

For my money, Debra Granik's Winter's Bone is the best possible way to spend approximately two hours with a horde of haggard, toothless meth cookers in a gray, dilapidated Missouri wilderness community. The most recent Sundance winner, which opened in select theaters nationwide two weeks ago, is a thoroughly riveting mystery thriller hinging around a deceptively simple premise: a daughter's search for her missing father. He, Jessup Dolly, put the family's house up for bond on meth charges and subsequently split, forcing the predicament of homelessness on his own family if he were to not show up for his impending court trial. Ree Dolly's job, initiated after staring down the town sheriff and insisting, stone-faced, that she would find him, is to weave her way through the menacing hierarchy of neighbors - some family, some friends, and some just villainous secret-keepers - in hopes of gaining insider's information about where her father is. And so it plays out as a noirish series of dangerous encounters that come one after another, each arguably getting Ree no further than where she began.

To be sure, Winter's Bone, by virtue of its bleak subject matter, chilly landscape shots, and spare bluegrass soundtrack, continues a long line of grim Americana that has been in vogue in American independent quarters for a while now (Frozen River, Snow Angels, etc.). As a result, I approached this film with a smidgen of skepticism, ready to be somewhat irritated by a melodramatically sustained air of despair and grief. But while Granik's film is indeed relentlessly dark and unforgiving, it manages this in an utterly convincing manner, forging a deep-seated sense of oppression and desperation that is inseparable with both the locale and the troubling scenario. Granik and cinematographer Michael McDonough shoot everything in a washed-out Red camera patina, which correlates well with the ideas of lost innocence, a superior past, and a murky future that loosely pervade the film, the notion of high-end gloss drained of its appealing veneer. Just as Granik and McDonough embrace a new digital technology whose longevity and reliability remains up in the air, Ree Dolly plunges into her threatening adjacent territory with her family's continued survival in question.

As much as these apparitions of past and future waft through the lackluster breeze of the Ozark woods, Winter's Bone is a film desperately pitched in the here and now. Ree, as played by a disarmingly frank Jennifer Lawrence, is a remarkably headstrong character, unwilling to allow desires or ideals get in the way of her moment-to-moment missions. Having reached her current state by being the sole caretaker of her two siblings with her mother in near comatose due likely to drug abuse, Ree realizes her search for her father is something that benefits not only her but also the young Sonny (Isaiah Stone) and Ashlee (Ashlee Thompson), two inexperienced children first seen hopping on the Dolly's ragged trampoline, their meager means of escape and youthful energy. The only glimmer of future-mindedness that Ree exposes is in her attempt to join the army based solely on the financial reward it promises. Nothing she does is guided by individual interests, and its staggering to watch Lawrence commit so wholeheartedly to the challenging role, which has her lying badly beaten on the floor of a barn one moment and being forcefully offered cocaine the next, but never being given what she needs.

Granik presents the Ozark community under a firm code of conduct that values secrecy, possession, and male dominance, the kind of inexplicable moral compass that would lead a man to stay truer to his criminal companions than he would his own family. Ree's opening credo, spoken to her siblings, that one should "never ask for what ought to be offered", really stands as a concrete virtue in these woods, one that Ree hypocritically breaks when she begins imposing herself on her neighbors, prying for information about her father that she assumes they must have. When her father's brother Teardrop (a tremendously unreadable John Hawkes), the only other immediate family member Ree has, threatens her with a choke-hold that she stop asking around about Jessup's whereabouts, it should have been proof enough that anything beyond family would be something bordering on a death wish. But an unbreakable determination guides Ree and also implants Winter's Bone's unconventionally matriarchal foundation. Despite the clearly male-dominated power structure of the community, it is ultimately the women who provide the film's gutsiest proactiveness, whether in the name of good (Ree) or bad (the nastiest, most violent figure is Dale Dickey's genuinely terrifying Merab), while the men stay shaking in their boots, providing mainly empty verbal threats or menacing stares.

It has been frequently suggested elsewhere that it is a Greek-like odyssey that infuses the film's fundamental platform of realism, that the stakes raised by Ree's mission have an almost iconic weight to them, and this is about as accurate as the implicit allusions to classical thriller and film noir conventions that are embedded in Winter's Bone. Granik's film manages to give a tough, complete portrayal of rural poverty in a neglected corner of America while simultaneously remaining an alluring, well-written suspense yarn, and it is precisely this unrelenting narrative momentum that prevents the film from reveling in, and thus exploiting the miserable lives of the inhabitants. With a nasty, brutal dramatic epiphany that clamps down as many narrative threads as it does open up more ambiguous emotional ones, Winter's Bone is the kind of film that's exciting and devastating in equal measure.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Revanche (2008) A Film by Götz Spielmann

It's a shame that the work of a director like Götz Spielmann takes twenty years to get to the hyper-selective, censorship-prone Western Hemisphere. Here is a director who, by the looks of his fourth feature, the ravishing, Oscar-nominated Revanche, has been carefully honing his distinctive European style for an entire career, and who has serious thoughts about art undoubtedly indebted to his diverse experience in theater, television, and film. It's all immediately evident in Revanche, a tense, angsty slow-burner about violence, guilt, vengeance, and ultimately retribution, with a cautious accumulation of details that gradually encompasses an entire world. Because of a media landscape that only jumps at films when they have some festival clout, or in this case, have "thriller" written on their backs, Criterion's recent release of the film is only an entry point, meaning in order to witness earlier Spielmann and gain some perspective on his latest, one has to do some heavy lifting, as it appears that only Antares (2004) is available in Region 1.

Alas, this isn't to suggest that Revanche doesn't have a stand-alone power of its own. Right from its tantalizing pre-credit sequence, a series of crystalline, poetic images, two of which recall of the works of pointillist Georges Seurat, the film postures a superficial sense of calm that, like the unidentified flying object that disrupts the surface of a lake in the opening shot, feels perpetually on the edge of agitation. This very tension between order and chaos is reflected geographically (halfway through, the film shifts permanently from city to countryside) and narratively. Though the story hinges on interconnectedness and coincidence, any peripheral similarities to the globetrotting absurdity of Alejandro González Iñárritu are brushed under the rug when Spielmann proves time and time again that his concerns are strictly local, both in terms of the small section of Austria in and around Vienna that the events take place and in relation to his unraveling of the tale. He frequently spends large blocks of time immersing the viewer in monotonous routines that take the mind off of dramatic mechanics and focus it on the present tense. This helps to downplay the narrative trickery which bubbles away underneath, a banal device suffocating below a placid, contemplative surface.

Still, Spielmann's own crafty screenplay is remarkably attuned to reality, always rooted inextricably to the logical ebbs and flows of these characters' lives. Alex (Johannes Krisch) is an errand runner for a local pimp to whom he owes a hefty sum of money, and he is secretly dating the pimp's most prized stripper, the Ukrainian Tamara (Irina Potapenko). In the manner of a classic crime noir, Alex summons the idea of robbing the local bank and fleeing South, one ditch effort that he insists will run smoothly. Of course, it doesn't, and Alex returns from his robbery to find a policeman standing next to the getaway car in the middle of an inquiry with Tamara about the apparent parking violation. Alex assumes it's an effort to detain the robber's girl, that the police already caught on to his crime, so he threatens the officer with his unloaded gun and swiftly drives away. A bullet flies in the process, and though Alex believes he has exited the scene safely, moments later, when blazing down the open road, it becomes evident that Tamara was actually shot and killed. He enters the forest, where he is forced to abandon the car and his fallen love.

After this rather conventional first half, Revanche transforms into a sustained rumination on Alex's quiet grief, much like Bela Tarr's The Man from London cares less about its initial act of corruption than it does its effects on the protagonist. Alex stakes out for the remainder of the film at his frail grandfather Hausner's (Johannes Thanheiser) rural cottage, where he soon learns that the woman who regularly visits and takes his grandfather to church is actually the wife of the policeman who was involved in the toss-up in town. What's more, the married couple - Robert (Andreas Lust) and Susanne (Ursula Strauss) - are Hausner's neighbors (that is, as much of a "neighbor" as one can be in a vast countryside). This revelation unveils a whole new dimension in the story: Alex's simmering thought to kill out of vengeance. Spielmann's depiction of this laborious, hesitant process is nothing short of astounding, maintaining a high degree of tension by vacillating between Alex's daily assistance to his grandfather cutting wood and his bit-by-bit aggregation of details regarding Robert's life. He finds the couple's house, memorizes Robert's jogging routine, and eventually becomes sexually involved with Susanna during Robert's work hours, itself a stealth, indirect blow to his girlfriend's murderer. Though nearly mute in its forward movement, the second half of the film is miraculously unrelenting, stuffed with character complexity gained primarily via an objective, undiscerning static camera.

But it is only Krisch's physically overwhelming presence that would falsely suggest Alex gets the bulk of the screen time, for Spielmann assigns equal weight to the story of Robert, a cop who is struggling with his own collection of personal tragedies, namely the heavy guilt caused by his deadly misfire and the sexual impotence that prevents him from starting a family with Susanna. Both of these problems are the nucleus of a marital tension between the two, a likely factor in guiding Susanna's desire for Alex, but it is mainly within his own mind that Robert battles. Every time he reaches the lake on his daily jog, he turns the picture of Tamara over in his hand repeatedly, staring his colossal mistake in the face. Not only does this superficially recall Alex's own extensive scrutiny over his photo of Tamara but it also tips us off to the more fundamental kinship between Robert and Alex. Despite the several immediately recognizable gulfs between the two men - Robert is an upholder of the law while Alex is a breaker, Robert is financially stable while Alex is not, Robert is a thinker and Alex is a silent, brooding doer - Spielmann makes a point to highlight the profound similarities which link them, and thus, all humans. Likewise, since every central character in the film is suffering from a gaping absence in their lives (Hausner is still mourning the loss of his wife), it takes only a matter of time for them to realize this about each other.

This is a deeply humanistic outlook that Spielmann employs, even if much of Revanche wavers towards darkness and pessimism, but it's certainly not out of place for a film that nonetheless operates in nonjudgmental territory throughout. Spielmann is exceptionally democratic in his imagery, treating both city and country to the same scrupulous eye; from the money-hungry debauchery of the Vienna red-light district to the prosaic rhythms of rural living, the film ekes out the humanity in the overlooked corners of life. The underworld of prostitutes, long victim to sterotypes, is dealt with here in modest fixed takes, scrutinizing over the back-room routines of these burnt out, exploited women. Even Hausner, an elderly man living alone who runs the risk of fading into brittle obscurity, gets his time in the spotlight, rediscovering a long-lost passion for the accordion that takes him back to his formative years. Most impressive of all is the trajectory of Alex, which comes across as less a dramatic metamorphoses than a slow unfurling of the potential that is evident early on. Krisch, in a cinematic debut, expertly plays him as a rough, unwelcoming figure prone to impulsive fits of emotion spread out within a primarily blank, homogeneous facade. His inconspicuous decision to refrain from killing Alex is masterfully paced, and confirms a glimmer of good-nature that is faintly conspicuous through the cracks of a harsh exterior.

Revanche is precisely arranged around a cluster of internal rhymes, beckoning the viewer forward. Spielmann doesn't regularly exercise a moving camera, usually letting cinematographer Martin Gschlacht set the camera down to frame the confines of a room for minutes on end, so when he does, it usually signals a crucial moment, or a moment that will be returned to later with a subtle difference, such as the repeated tracking shot following motor vehicles down a forest road, stopping to incidentally glimpse a dilapidated cross on the side of the road. There are also other satisfying measures taken, such as the way in which Spielmann downplays the bulk of climactic moments, like in the tremendously subtle death of Tamara, which first suggests relief and love but suddenly reveals itself as rapid physical decline, or the strictly verbal meeting of Alex and Robert on the lakefront towards the end of the film. It's all cleverly exacting filmmaking, the kind that creeps up on you and makes something extraordinary of a relatively ordinary scenario. By the time we learn what hit the water in the opening shot, it's not a startling epiphany or a momentous climax, as it might have been in a less accomplished work. Instead, Spielmann fascinatingly provides Revanche's pleasures elsewhere, in the monotonous chopping of wood or the gentle wheeze of an accordion.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Moon (2009) A Film by Duncan Jones

It's rather fitting - and almost parodic - that the debut feature of young English director Duncan Jones, the son of famously intergalactic rock star David Bowie, is set in space. Much less groovy than Bowie's sinuous pop music but equally out there is Moon, a film intoxicated under the influence of classic Sci-Fi, namely Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and Tarkovsky's Solaris. Though the film takes place as far as possible from any inkling of society and human interaction, it's more fundamentally about a man remote from himself, using the moon mainly as an elaborate metaphor through which to investigate loneliness, ephemerality, and the burden of time. But this is not all the film takes on; it's also about corporate exploitation, technological progression, and the frailty of human life. Presumably, it's even about a bunch more that doesn't quite seep through the cracks by the end, as Jones overflows his debut with more ideas than some directors manage in a whole career, all communicated through a slick, self-described "mainstream" gloss. As ambitious as Moon is, it could have used some serious thematic editorializing, for it often drowns under the dense pressure of its semi-coherent inquiries, which fire on all cylinders but never quite connect in a satisfying manner.

The film cannot really be sufficiently boiled down to an all-encompassing premise, for its central mystery is so inexplicable to begin with, and what shaky base of logic it has is only constantly abstracted as it chugs along. The only facts that I can pronounce without wavering skepticism is that an individual astronaut named Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is involved in a lengthy business trip on the moon with the transnational corporation Lunar Industries, mining for Helium-3 in an ambiguously distant future where the precious isotope is crucial to Earth's energy supply, and thus, its continuing survival. Sam's alone with the exception of his hulking supercomputer companion Gerty, who is essentially HAL 9000 replaced with a straightforward emoticon and the familiar ghost of Kevin Spacey, and his excruciating desire for human companionship is augmented by the fact that the lunar base's satellite is damaged, leaving only the potential for sending recorded video messages to his wife and baby daughter. Yet even these supposed building blocks of the story are uncertain as Jones begins to layer on the mystery. Furthermore, Moon's almost aggressively deliberate lack of contextualizing - other than the internationally and environmentally conscious Lunar commercial that opens the film, the only glimpse of the film's relative Earth is in the form of a neighborhood miniature set Sam has been constructing - seems to suggest this is a film resting squarely within the confines of one man's harried psyche.

Early on, Jones makes sure to establish Sam as a man whose mind is playing tricks on him as a result of alienation and monotony. He's getting headaches, vaguely Lynchian psychosexual nightmares, and invariable hallucinations of an enigmatic dark-haired girl who looks approximately 16 years young and might have hobbled in from Solaris. In fact, the latter seems to be the film's most casual head-scratcher, two quietly foreboding images whose mysterious power quickly subsides when Jones decides to never give the girl her cue again, as if she was forgotten as the script progressed. The second time she appears as a spectral silhouette behind layers of raining rock and lunar residue during one of Sam's missions, it has a disastrous and curiously metaphysical effect. Sam crashes his roving device, which subsequently is poured on by dust and rock while he sits unconscious. Next thing he knows he's back at the infirmary being nurtured by the questionably malign Gerty, who minutes later is witnessed having potentially sinister discussions with corporate officials back at the naval base on Earth about their plans for Sam. Against Gerty's droning insistence not to go outside after his accident, Sam explores the scene of his crash only to find that the incident set off an inexplicable procreation of selves, a rabbit hole involving his own body as it was before being salvaged.

This first act disruption of logic, the beginning of the film's many twists, is as nakedly speculative as any of the great paranormal predicaments in science fiction history. Jones' treatment of it, however, is actually nonchalant, even tinged with an ounce of humor, rather than stoic and eerie so as to elicit fear and enveloping mystery. Paradoxically, this method develops its own unique strain of discomfort, a feeling of tension between the expected strategy and the strategy Jones really applies, showing the two Sam's - who are soon after cohabiting the same base with the same story - interacting on oddly dysfunctional terms. They even play a game of ping pong, shot from a horizontal perspective and involving two Sam Rockwell's in one frame (to achieve this, Jones and his effects crew had to do some painstaking synchronization work), that humorously crystallizes the split psyche of the lonely astronaut. But where Jones gains originality and style points, his film also loses a great deal of dramatic momentum, signaling its first doppelganger too early and taking too long to move on into new territory. Is this a clone like Gerty says, suggesting a greedy, insensitive company playing tricks on the individual, or is it simply a visualization of an angrier, more pensive Sam and a restless, chatty one?

Questions like these are not normally answered in Moon, only obscured by more mysteries. In this sense, the film rightly continues a long lineage of probing science fiction works that do less to illuminate universal truths than to place things in bewildering contexts and prompt questions, seek new and unexplored inquiries when all boundaries have been stretched. It's difficult to go further into Moon without utterly laying bare its central enigmas and disconcerting questions, which are certainly more interesting in the film than they could possibly be in writing. Yet even for all its suspenseful red herrings and psychological complexity, Moon is peculiarly uninspiring, perhaps too subtly fraudulent to be entirely sincere and too sure of its own ideas to really put them on screen in an effective way. Its admirable old-fashioned effects, Clint Mansell's typically majestic score, and Sam Rockwell's sprawling one-man show all suggest a film of epic achievement, yet they really belie a work that, promising as it may be, fails to fully connect as intellectually stimulating science fiction or escapist entertainment.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

An Education (2009) A Film by Lone Scherfig

It should have been clear from the title that Danish director Lone Scherfig's An Education would be something akin to getting lectured in school. Jumping ludicrously from "school sucks" ethos to nose-in-the-books classicism, it's as if Scherfig felt her audience needed a blunt reminder of what it means to really be "educated" in life. And so the youthful, wide-eyed, and fervent 16-year-old Londoner Jenny (newcomer Carey Mulligan) becomes her instrument, the doppelganger for Lynn Barber in the memoir off of which the film is based. Scherfig and screenwriter Nick Hornby begin her as a private school whiz kid cum promising cellist yearning for greater things outside her contained, self-proclaimed dreary London existence, send her through a year-long fling with a much older, seemingly more cultivated man named David (Peter Sarsgaard), and then bring her full circle to discover she was fine where she started and where she was headed. This all occurs in a still relatively conservative post-war London that is just starting to rock back and forth, not quite swinging yet, but nearly hip enough to harbor fancy forward-thinkers like David who are above the law because it's just "who (they) are".

I write so prominently in terms of what is being done to these characters because An Education is really that manipulative, too wholeheartedly dedicated to its end result that it fails to let any air into the proceedings, some faint acknowledgment that there is more than meets the eye. The film, once it settles into its central scenario, hinges on two potential courses of action for the eager Jenny: keep studying to guarantee a prized spot "reading English" at Oxford, which has been her goal as far as she and her family can remember, or ditch school and experience life uninhibited with the freewheeling David, whose early admission that he went to school at the "University of Life and failed" should probably have been enough to jolt Jenny out of her childish wonderment. As charming and supposedly connected as David is though, he's transparently off-kilter from the first time we witness him lamely plucking Jenny out of the rain with her cello and into his car to drive her home, a drab come-on that he attributes to his love of music more than anything. From there, the hands of fate keep working their unlikely magic, guiding Jenny back into David one day when window shopping with her snickering cardboard girlfriends, at which point he makes his first offer to take her out and see a classical concert uptown. Jenny - whose laundry list of sophisticated aspirations (listening to Jazz, eating great food, smoking cigarettes) center around the oasis of Paris - is of course smitten, seeing David as her knight in shining armor who can show her everything.

It's stomach-turning to watch the machinations of their developing romance. Jenny's one-dimensional parents (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour), such cartoonish products of English traditionalism, are unbelievably welcoming to David despite the fact that he skirts pedophile status, sending her off with little skepticism and even extending her bed time in the face of his kind demeanor. As the meetings increase, the parents grow more and more blind to his games, falling for a flimsily staged prank about his upcoming once-in-a-blue-moon visit with C.S (aka "Clive") Lewis in Paris that attracts Jenny's future-minded father. Ultimately, they allow her to spend a few days with him in Paris on the strength of the potential career connections she could make, but Scherfig settles for a stylishly abbreviated montage, failing to truly capitalize on the first-time bedazzlement of the exotic city. Instead, the emphasis is continually on the peripheral magnetism of David and Jenny's relationship, which has its own share of contrivances. As functional as Mulligan and Sarsgaard are individually, they never quite develop enough salient chemistry to warrant Jenny's full-fledged indulgence in the new lifestyle. David is actually hopelessly unromantic when it comes to intimacy, wooing her with an utterly uncomfortable but somehow passing off as tender peep at her naked bosom, and later shocking her with an even more awkward episode with a banana, and one senses that Jenny should be smart enough to see through his skin-deep charm.

Of course, we can, and that speaks to the unflattering sense the film exudes that we are always four steps ahead of the characters, and the plot. With its scarcely placed but saccharine use of musical score, An Education bludgeons the viewer with dramatic innuendo, but Scherfig doesn't seem to realize that it's always doing a much greater job of foreshadowing than she likely intends. Therefore, the film sits uneasily in between functioning as a moralistic, told-you-so dissertation (which it unsatisfyingly proves to be in the tone-deaf final act) and an experiential first-person piece. The latter may have unearthed a more poignant film, especially given the fact that it could have rested on the shoulders of the able Carey Mulligan. If the story is insipid and by-the-numbers, Mulligan's expressive performance hints at bigger things. In the end though, her impressive spectrum of facial nuance - beginning at childish vulnerability and ending at Hepburn-like adulthood - becomes stranded within a stuffy scenario, so that her inevitable duping at the foot of David (turns out he's got a family!) is all the more devastating.

None of this is to suggest An Education is not a handsome and entirely satisfactory movie. But its problem lies right there, at its core: it does not risk anything and thus does not go anywhere particularly interesting. A few times, the doors are open to something unexpected and more emotionally complicated - David inexplicably starts using baby talk with Jenny on the eve of stealing her virginity, or Jenny confronts David's wife and son in their front yard - but Scherfig promptly closes them, afraid to investigate something outside of the confines of her pedestrian coming-of-age trajectory. Further proof in my mind that there's little worse than a small, independent work lacking the sense of spirit and singular energy such a description would suggest, instead in search of being the next "underdog" at the year-end Oscars. To translate, a superficially lively, colorful production with whiffs of cultural or historical significance and melodramatic shades of emotional urgency.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

An Autumn Afternoon (1962) A Film by Yasujiro Ozu

Yasujiro Ozu's final cinematic testament was the tragicomic An Autumn Afternoon, a film that in some ways distills his signature concerns in a neat, summative manner and in other ways presents them as stiff and straitjacketed as ever. Its subject is one that comprises a large portion of Ozu's oeuvre, enough even to create its own microgenre: the lonely widower marrying off his aging daughter. Like in Late Spring, its closest companion, Ozu regular Chishû Ryû plays the father Shuhei Hirayama and Shima Iwashita replaces Setsuko Hara as the daughter, Michiko. This is Ozu reprising a common situation that is clearly of utmost importance to him for the impressions of family bonds, aging, generational dissonance, and loneliness it raises. It's as if he was determined to portray the scenario in as many subtly altered iterations as possible to mine the attitudes and behaviors as they transform and mature over time. Unsurprisingly, the preliminary notes for another film he was planning before his death from cancer in 1963 dealt with the same subject matter.

If Ozu's intention was clearly studied and compassionate though, it's only a shame that the execution sometimes comes across like repetition. Ozu wasn't a tremendously varied or risk-taking artist; he did what he did consistently and with the care and tact of a great architect. But in Autumn Afternoon, the scenario is stifled by its banality, too devoid of nuances that would set it apart from the other masterworks in this category of storytelling. As with all of his films, narrative punctuation is eschewed, leaving only a series of domestic snapshots, dedramatized glimpses from the lives of the central characters. Here Ozu rests his gaze most stringently on Shuhei, a father with a decent office job and consistently reliable friends. His days are ritualistically spent working and then catching up with Kazuo (Shinichirô Mikami) and Shuzo (Nobuo Nakamura) over Saki. Home life feels less intimate and united than in some of the director's previous works, with dinner usually occurring individually and an emphasis on cordial pleasantries rather than thorough family-to-family bonding. Though unclear at first, it becomes evident that Shuhei even has a son who is relegated largely to the background.

With his bold color palette that highlights neons and reds and his precise pictorial attention to household consumer objects, Ozu suggests that it is the force of modernity that is gradually distorting the traditional values of the Japanese family. One narrative strand has Shuhei's elder, married son returning home from work with extraneous purchases - first a brand new set of shimmering golf clubs, then an upgraded refrigerator - only to find himself in prickly quarrels with his wife about spending restraint. Fed up with arguing, he lies on the floor smoking a cigarette unresponsively, half hypnotized by the wealth of purchasing possibilities and half understanding of his wife's irritation. The 1960's were a time when Western values of consumerism and idealism were slowly settling into Eastern cultures, and their mark can be witnessed in the deliberately artificialized night life scene, glowing with bright bar signs, the practice of following the baseball game on television seen early on in the film, and the Sapporo and Canada Dry beverage boxes perpetually in the crystal clear background of one of Ozu's long, poised hallway shots. But Ozu does not greet this cultural osmosis with resentment and defensiveness; rather, like all of his characters, he is open-minded and welcoming about the opportunities now afforded. His is not a critical cinema but a sensitive, forgiving one, forever pitched in the present tense for better or worse, and this is done justice to by his graceful pictorial balance and his stoic dramatic economy.

Yet by the end of An Autumn Afternoon, the pervasive sense crept up that I was moved in the same exact way - and for the same reasons - as I was with Late Spring. The formulas of the two films are frustratingly congruent: both meander in a seemingly directionless state before acquiring unexpected pathos towards the end when Ryu's characters finally decide - after a slow ping-pong of skepticism and receptiveness in the face of a slew of persuasive friends and acquaintances - that they should swallow their pride (and their undying love) and marry off their daughters, and the climactic image of both films (the daughter inevitably garbed in an elegant, suggestively decorated wedding dress after little anticipation) is cushioned by the same scenes of acceptance and subsequent loneliness. One slight ripple in An Autumn Afternoon has to do with Ozu's seeming reluctance to let melancholy get the lion's share of the emotional spectrum, ducking away from potentially tear-jerking scenes with a bouncy score that helps recall the film's more comic touches. But even the lighter elements of the film are laced with a somber air that is in this case a tad too deterministic: Shuhei's old teacher, nicknamed "The Gourd" (Eijirô Tôno), who has been reduced to somewhat of a village idiot living as a widow with his embittered daughter in an unsuccessful bar, stands as a too-perfect indicator of Shuhei's potential future if he doesn't allow his daughter to marry. While An Autumn Afternoon manages to encompass every thematic concern Ozu was delicately riffing on his entire career, it also tends to feel like a safe, lifeless reprise of them.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Cria Cuervos... (1976) A Film by Carlos Saura

Ana Torrent and landscapes. These seem like two surefire ingredients for majestic pictorial beauty. I remember being instantly drawn to Victor Erice's The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) on the strength of its eerie DVD cover image alone: the haunted young actress frozen in the middle of a train track extending into the horizon line, challenging the camera with her probing, thousand-mile stare. An elegiac, unusual film in its own right to be sure, but what I remember most vividly from it are the expressive panoramas of Torrent in the vast landscapes of Spain, simply existing in that inherently intense, hypnotizing way of hers. My fascination led me to Carlos Saura's Cria Cuervos..., one of the most alarmingly exquisite films I've seen a long time (on the basis of how little I knew about it going in and how much I was moved coming out), one in which Torrent thoroughly ups the ante. Released three years after Spirit of the Beehive and only marking her second feature role, the film, thin on narrative details and thick on symbolism and metaphysics, is an elegy to a missed childhood, a deep-focus snapshot of a frail family tree, an angry critique of a Fascist-controlled nation, and a hopeful search for new beginnings. Its nucleus is an opulent Victorian mansion in Madrid crammed within layers of boisterous traffic and cluttered modernization, home to three young sisters living with their strict aunt and mute grandmother, a succinct juxtaposition of the old and the new, the past and the uncertain future.

The girls are on vacation, a time to play, to let thoughts wander, to get lost in fantasies, memories, and dreams, and the film itself follows suit. After a touching montage of family pictures set to a gorgeous Federico Mompou piano piece that opens the film, Saura gets right into his deft interplay of past, present, illusion, and projection. Tiptoeing down the stairs in a composition reminiscent of German Expressionism, the middle child Ana (Torrent) wanders over towards a lurid bit of middle-class melodrama where mysterious dialogue snippets protrude from behind closed doors. One gets the sense that Ana has a hunch about what they are discussing, who "they" are, and why they are making a racket in the middle of the night, but Saura leaves the audience in the dark. A light turns on in the room, emanating from the crack in the door, and a woman subsequently flees from the room in a hurry, her bra conspicuous from behind rumpled clothing. Ana and the woman make fleeting eye contact. After she leaves the house, Ana enters the room and removes an empty glass of milk from the bedside table, proceeding to wash it in the kitchen. Out of the back corner of the frame, Ana's mother (Geraldine Chaplin) casually approaches her, inquiring about why she is awake so late and then sending her off to bed. In this calmly dreamy opening sequence, Saura has subtly embedded three motifs that will be repeated throughout the film, and the most enticing part is how he leaves the notion of actuality dangling in the air. His images hit with such a visceral impact that their logical dividends can only be sorted out gradually as the film progresses.

Indeed, in a manner even more forward and direct than in Tarkovsky's Mirror, a film which shares much with Cria Cuervos, Saura lets family history dissolve along with the vagaries of time and space. Though his editing appears to induce linearity, albeit with a somewhat suggestive and uncanny chronology, the sequences in Cria Cuervos - the aforementioned included - often seamlessly blend reality with distortions of it as filtered through the distressed mind of the dark-eyed protagonist. For instance, Chaplin's offhand entrance into the kitchen belies the fact, learned only minutes later, that she is actually a ghost. The tomfoolery occurring in the closed room was actually the scene of Ana's father's death, which Ana is convinced was a product of her poisoning his milk. He, Anselmo (Héctor Alterio), was a military officer and a traitorous husband responsible for the figurative "sickness" that indirectly claimed his wife's life. This tension is explored most evocatively in a marvelous sequence late in the film that begins with the mother playing piano to Ana to put her to sleep (that Mompou again), and culminates with her sobbing in front of her husband in the entryway of their home about his insincerity and its psychological effects. Curiously, Saura shatters the perception of temporal fluidity when Ana transitions from being the flesh and bones of the scene to being the omniscient, ghostly observer, watching her deceased parents bickering across a rigid wall of time just as her mother intruded gracefully on the present moments before.

What makes Cria Cuervos so endlessly fascinating and dreamy is the fact that Saura never once makes an attempt to maintain any sort of prolonged plane of reality. The world is ever susceptible to ghosts of the past and ghosts of the present, anything warped by young Ana's morbid, heartbroken perspective. In her dreams, we witness a tender, almost erotic relationship between her and her mother, conjured as a delicate and affectionate woman whose pointy bone structure and frail features suggest years of problematic living. In one of the film's more Bergmanesque touches, Chaplin addresses the camera directly as Ana's adult incarnation, waxing about the false promise of a wondrous childhood and the many psychological wars she battled. Saura introduces this with an elegant camera move from Ana's closeup to Chaplin's embodiment, something which is instantly perceived as mother and daughter, but which soon proves to be yet another instance of various realities coexisting. Even more so, it forwardly proposes that the pains of one generation are transmitted to the next, creating perhaps an ourobouric loop of trauma. Incidentally, this deeply personal notion is inseparably linked to the political undertones nestled into the film. Cria Cuervos was produced and released at the time of General Franco's passing, marking an end to a sustained period of political oppression in Spain and the inauguration of democracy. But just as the tortured memory of her conniving military father haunts Ana and is the source of her desire to bring death upon those she dislikes (late in the film, she tries to poison her Aunt Paulina (Mónica Randall)), there is no promise of the dictatorial, fascistic impulses of the past not spilling over into the new Spain.

The film makes something of an ambiguous leap of faith in its closing minutes though. Ana wakes up to find that her attempted murder of Aunt Paulina was unsuccessful. Her sister wakes up in the throes of a violent, sadistic dream involving her parents right before she was killed. And vitally, vacation has ended, and school is back in session. The subsequent images of hordes of children hurrying into the school buildings is indicative of both restless energy and will to learn and a profound ambivalence. Is their mass education promising for the future of Spain or is it ill-fated, destined to exist under the influence of an older generation with older values? If the other events in the family household suggest averted violence and second chances, can the nation be spared the same opportunity? All of this is underlined further by the presence of the chirpy pop song by Jeanette that is repeated throughout the film, the song that Ana and her sisters improvisationally waltz to earlier on. While the jaunty rhythm and up-to-date instrumentation are typical of a modern sensibility, Jeanette's wistful lyrics about missed opportunities and a lost past do not sound so optimistic. This tantalizing irresoluteness is central to the success of Cria Cuervos, a magical film that tries desperately to celebrate the small pleasures of life but continually mines the troubling truths in the shadowy past.