Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Insider (1999) A Film by Michael Mann

For a film about a fired corporate scientist who leaks information about his former tobacco company to the CBS show 60 Minutes, Michael Mann's The Insider has no shortage of suspense. It's a premise that looks bone-dry on paper, that would likely be squandered in the hands of a lesser director, but Mann turns it into a compelling psychological almost-thriller, a work that is perpetually nearing a fever pitch in tension but never quite gets there, yet remains exciting in an edge-of-your-seat kind of way regardless. Russell Crowe, in a rare role of interest, plays the eponymous protagonist Jeffrey Wigand, a brilliant but emotionally volatile Louisville-based chemist whose continuing support for his family is put in jeopardy once he loses his distinguishable career with Brown & Williamson Tobacco for cloudy reasons. The vigilant 60 Minutes journalist/producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) excavates the story and contacts Wigand, understanding of his personal predicament but lightly persuading him to unveil his potentially shattering secrets to the nation. Though Wigand is deeply skeptical at first, unwilling to let anyone into his now damaged sphere of personal stability, Bergman eventually becomes his trusted defender, guiding him wearily through towering litigations from his stern, cryptic ex-company and ominous threats to his family's safety from an unknown source.

We never know whether the source is ultimately real or imagined, and the ambivalence is what drives Wigand's drama. The film is loosely divided into two disparate sections, the first of which amounts to a fairly straightforward thriller capitalizing on Wigand's consuming grief and growing sense of paranoia. His precarious feeling that he is being watched and his time is running out has an eruptive impact on those around him, and it manifests itself in all he does. In one instance, a characteristic bit of Mann introspection, Wigand is alone at a driving range late at night. While hitting golf balls to displace the crisis (a Brown & Williamson document he signed has a privacy agreement that could jeopardize his family's health insurance should he choose to advance his relationship with Bergman), he notices another solitary figure several stations away in a black suit. The entire sequence is reducible to a simple progression of exchanged glances, but Mann ratchets up the tension with his moody dark green palette, his generous employment of suffocating close-ups, and his occasional focus on the minute details of golfing, like a ball swooping into a back net. One begins to wonder if these are just ghostly manifestations of his own paranoia, men in professional attire appearing only to taunt Wigand, to convince him to take the easier route. Later, when a security team hired by Bergman arrives at his house as he drives down the street, Mann provides a brief traveling point-of-view shot of a black-clad guard, which immediately elicits hysterical anxiety. But, a moment after when the man is revealed as a security guard, the joke is on Wigand, and the audience.

Mann is gently manipulating the audience in such a way throughout the film, but he's doing so less to augment the thrills and more to place us in the cognitive positions of the characters. In another sequence, one of the film's most expertly crafted and viscerally effective, Wigand wakes up in the middle of the night to his young daughter telling him she heard a sound in the backyard. He frantically escorts her to the basement, advising she stay put while he secretively retrieves a gun and heads outside. His subsequent search of the yard - a tense, funereal march loaded with chilling red-herrings - is intercut with shots of his daughter downstairs. The sudden automatic firing up of the hearth is a heart-jumping cut that frighteningly gives the impression, at least at first, that the supposed intruder is in the basement. Moments later, Wigand's daughter steps outside - the way that any curious young girl would - while her father spies a conspicuous footprint in the dirt. There's no doubt in my mind that Mann is aware of the disquieting possibility that Wigand would shoot if he heard a sudden noise behind him, killing his daughter unintentionally. So he lets the moment simmer until finally she speaks up and he responds accordingly, a touching father-to-daughter fib that temporarily diffuses the pressure. Crowe's performance reaches its high point during scenes like these, when he's forced to make a startling emotional turn that highlights his duties as a masculine protector and a nurturing family man, and the overbearing difficulty of balancing both.

Dante Spinotti's long telephoto images and ultra-shallow depth of field create a visual equivalent to this constant apprehension, a feeling that danger is closer than expected and the blurry outsiders are not to be trusted. Often times Mann is framing his characters in an oddly incomplete manner, cutting off one half of their face or leaving just an ear in the frame, taking it further by fiddling erratically with the focus. The result is a collection of Hollywood abstractions, denaturalized images that deny the conventions of how a star's facial features are normally processed. It's fitting for a film that is primarily about distortion of truth in our country, through media, through deceitful corporate enterprises, and through the filter of others. When Wigand does agree to the interview and the final 60 Minutes program is completed, CBS does not show it in its entirety for fear of being sued by Big Tobacco, and a later, seemingly more revealing public version has Wigand reduced to a censored, pixelated blob with a monotone drone - in other words, a whistle blower sucked of his life. Mann seems to ask, how can we trust information that is so manipulated? Does the news network's refusal to reveal the story in its complete, actual form signal a fabrication of intent as dishonest as that of the corporation it attempts to expose?

Pacino's character, who is the spotlight of the second, more behind-the-scenes, journalistic portion of the film, seems to be aware of these questions, and he assumes The Insider's moral center. In the final thirty minutes, he is doing an existential juggling act, pondering the true worth of a profession that can destroy a subject's life (Wigand's wife divorces him, one of the primary reasons being his perpetual endangerment) and produce results that are only skimmed over by the American public. One of the important things Mann's film does is it forces the audience to live the treacherous vulnerability that comes with working a job involving the bringing to light of such under-the-radar topics. He questions the ethical dimension of it, mirroring the ways in which Wigand's own personal life is infiltrated by the political mongering. It becomes clear that Pacino's Bergman is the film's real main character, the most salient bearer of the film's themes and sentiments, and his performance is consistently stunning. Though Mann's forte is the crime genre, I'm always impressed by his level of sincerity and engagement with more diverse topics. The Insider is proof. A trigger is never once pulled, but the hard-boiled tension and psychological rumination remain intact.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Claire's Knee (1970) A Film by Eric Rohmer

If a filmmaker ever created more tranquil evocations of the languid, luxurious pace of summertime than Eric Rohmer, I'm not aware of it. The fifth entry in Rohmer's six Moral Tales, and what is likely his most beloved and best-known work, Claire's Knee, is as formidable an example as any, a peaceful meditation on the inertial state of emotions during the summer, the way that love and desire become sluggish and speculative when divorced from obligation and routine. Organized in chronological order around sleek handwritten title cards reflecting the date, the kind of diary-like jots that one might see in a Bresson film, Claire's Knee concerns the final arrival of a wealthy, bearded 36-year-old diplomat named Jerome (Jean-Claude Brialy) to his idyllic Lake Annecy estate before his impending marriage, where he incidentally runs into his old friend Aurora (Aurora Cornu), an Italian novelist. The two converse jovially and reflect on the state of their lives beside the shimmering lake, and eventually Aurora introduces Jerome to her landlady Madame Walter (Michèle Montel), who has a sprightly, frizzy-haired 16-year-old daughter named Laura (Béatrice Romand). In mildly self-referential manner, Aurora engages Jerome in a playful experiment in which he flirts with Laura and tests his fidelity to his fiancée, a scenario that she hopes will inspire her writing and that also mirrors Rohmer's own method of creation through investigative analysis.

I love the simplicity of the conceit: an ensemble of characters in a beautiful landscape, rarely more than two of them - a male and a female - in a scene at one time, talking in front of gorgeous backdrops. This is Rohmer's bread and butter, the fundamental substance of his work. What the film comes down to is a series of these verbal happenings one after the other, with just the necessary parts excised from individual days. Rohmer cuts to a new title card only seconds after the last line in the script is spoken, yet it never feels like the ultimate finality of a conversation. The result is lucid, elliptical storytelling, cultivating the notion that these days are amorphous and interconnected, that everything remains the same despite the brief repose in between. Extraordinarily, in spite of the linguistic themes that are central the film (Aurora's novelistic aspirations, the profusion of language), Claire's Knee retains an energy that is wholly cinematic. Remove the sound from the film (yes, deceptively its most vital ingredient) and an elemental visual power would remain, a carefully calculated mood piece in which Rohmer's crisp, evocative images convey a story as potently as that of the naturalistic dialogue.

Indeed, Rohmer's distinctive visual prowess is frequently neglected in favor of discussions about the director's startling wit and intelligence, manifested most tellingly - as the critical consensus goes - in the characters, their interactions, and the gentle narratives they inhabit. Claire's Knee is of course typically enthralling in this regard, an exploration of desire, possession, and fidelity so subtly machinated that it's difficult to pinpoint the exact moments the film has its particular effects. When the titular Claire (Laurence de Monaghan) - the half-sister of Laura - enters the narrative 45 minutes into the film, the atomic shift in Jerome's exterior from cool, composed affability to awestruck, boyish lust is almost unnoticeable, and the key image that compels it is offhand and matter-of-fact. It is not until Jerome spells out his infatuation with Claire to Aurora, which is microscopically focused to her knockout knee, that it really registers, and even then it's a tentative half-truth, as Rohmer is always aware of the slight incongruities between a character's internal state and their actions and words. But I'm still influenced to say that the film's real pleasure, its sensual rather than cerebral rewards, are to be found solely in the wondrous pictorial and structural minimalism. Witness, for instance, the democratic delineation of primary colors in the images below, the organic quality of the film itself, the refreshing lack of rococo lighting techniques (courtesy of none other than Nestor Almendros of Days of Heaven acclaim), and most notably the liberating compositions themselves, which effortlessly capture the lazy vibe of summer.

Under the Volcano (1984) A Film by John Huston

(This is a tardy contribution to Adam Zanzie's John Huston Blogathon over at Icebox Movies. The celebration ran from August 5th to August 12th but Adam is still accepting submissions.)

Faced with the towering question of where to begin in the prolific 40-year career of John Huston, I resorted to the relatively safe assumption that a director's later films often display the very heights of their respective skill sets. Just as Stanley Kubrick, Luis Bunuel, and Alfred Hitchcock all have arguably stronger outputs throughout the second halves of their careers, I wondered if the same might apply to Huston, the old English studio hand with such classics to his name as The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The Maltese Falcon. Even though his first 20 or so films are often the most star-studded, epic, and canonized, I hoped to discover a late career gem out of comparative obscurity, a film with less clout but maybe no less gusto. The resulting choice was Under the Volcano, a surreal, fatalistic character study that might make you feel as drunk by the end of it as its perpetually inebriated central character, a recently resigned British consul named Geoffrey Firmin (Albert Finney) who is in nary a scene without a jug of hard liquor clutched at his side. Living in a recondite Mexican town with perhaps no plans of leaving the place he no longer has obligations in, Geoffrey's a drifting man, complacent with just stumbling around town day in and day out, meeting new people haphazardly but forming no lasting connections.

In drunken trances, Geoffrey mumbles about desperately wanting his ex-wife Yvonne (Jacqueline Bisset) back, yet it is because of his immaturity and reckless behavior that he refuses to step back and realize that she has been sending him letters all along. It turns out she has been prepping for a return to Mexico in hopes of rejuvenating her relationship with the unstable Geoffrey, fresh off an ultimately unsuccessful marriage fling with his younger, suaver half-brother Hugh (Anthony Andrews). When Yvonne does arrive, appearing angelically in the entryway of a street-side cafe that Geoffrey is drinking and heckling surrounding customers in, it's as if he fails to recognize her as a living, breathing human, taking brief glances and turning away systematically to prove to himself that she's not just a hallucination. Finney's showstopping performance - though at times a histrionic overestimation of an alcoholic - is at its most nuanced during these initial scenes of reconnection, conveying the simultaneous shock, awe, and hesitance of the encounter without losing a palpable sense of hysterical disorientation. Most of all, the film acquires a much-needed element of humanity when Yvonne enters the picture. As evidenced by the first fifteen minutes of mostly unintelligible, insignificant verbal exchanges, Geoffrey is so off his rocker that he needs a foil like Yvonne who can breathe life into him, illuminate the emotions that are so deeply buried beneath his scrambled exterior.

In fact, even with Yvonne prying for his sober attention slowly and carefully so as not to ruin the second chance too disastrously, Geoffrey is a monumental prick, and it's both a wonder that Yvonne has any desire to be with him and a testament to the emotional complexity of the film that it remains compelling even with Geoffrey hogging nearly every frame. He's such a pain that we almost wish death upon him if he can't clean up his act, and it becomes clear that that's the very structure Huston embraces, adopted from Malcolm Lowry's literary source, a book long considered "unfilmable" for its principal focus on the internal mayhem of Geoffrey, described in long-winded, flowery prose. Lowry's novel touches on the last 24 hours in Geoffrey's life, and so too does Huston's film, which begins with an abstract credit sequence of slowly swinging stuffed skeletons in a foggy black abyss, an immediate, straightforward portent of the impending death. What's more, the film (and the book for that matter) are set within the timeline of the Day of Death in November of 1938, an annual Mexican commemoration of the deceased. If not for this intriguing milieu, Under the Volcano might just be a standard character study. It is precisely this dreamlike world Huston and esteemed production designer Gunther Gerszo recreate - in which gaudy devils and grim reapers coexist merrily with the passersby on a bustling sunny day - that infuses the story of the self-destructive Geoffrey with such foreboding resonance. The grotesque figures seem to be constantly ushering the path to the end of his life with eerie contentment.

Under the Volcano is ultimately a film about performances, the kind of work that is talked about almost exclusively in terms of its characters. It's no surprise given the extreme literary inclination of its director, for whom solid material nearly always meant a pre-existing novel. In this case, Huston takes a Lowry novel that is slippery, impressionistic, and often plain abstract, qualities that one might deem "cinematic", and morphs them into an arguably more "literary" form, a linear, prosaic documentation of Geoffrey's final hours. Even Huston's sedate direction - the drama primarily unfolds in medium shots, everything is in deep focus, presumably the polar opposite of Geoffrey's actual intoxicated vision - approximates theater rather than film, and it seems an attempt to give the performances an egalitarian scrutiny, to not stifle the drama with overbearing cinematic techniques. It is not until the first outward display of emotional turmoil that Huston allows the characters the luxury of the close-up with a blurred background, when Geoffrey begins by passionately advocating for a new beginning in a small Northern village ("where the year is divided into seasons") and almost immediately doubles back on his enthusiasm to humiliate Yvonne for her temporary re-marrying. After this punishing scene, the film takes its rather sudden leap towards the bulk of its emotional epiphanies, culminating in a lengthy sequence at a sleazy, off-the-beaten-path tavern where Geoffrey, in a fit of anger, confusion, and of course, severe drunkenness, incidentally sleeps with a prostitute and finds himself at gunpoint with a gang of Mexicans suspicious that he is a Russian spy.

Save from a frankly absurd climax involving an ethereal white horse that unexpectedly tramples Yvonne as she triumphantly sprints to save Geoffrey, this final showdown at the tavern is the film's most skillfully orchestrated sequence, a gradual crescendo of the grotesque that amplifies the negative effects of Geoffrey's disastrous obsession. The film's not entirely devoid of interesting visual tactics, and here it's most evident; Huston creates a sense of euphoric disorder through his repeated employment of gnarly close-ups on the bizarre regulars at the bar, like the dwarfish owner or the expressive fiddle player in the corner. It's also where Under the Volcano reveals itself as a film that is first and foremost about the grotesque and the way it infiltrates both life and death. Geoffrey has reduced himself to one of the measly skeletons seen reflected in his black sunglasses at the beginning of the film, a figure without a soul, a purpose, or a fighting chance. He's burrowed himself too deep into his own drunken abyss, to the point where he can't communicate coherently with those around him. Even worse, his own fate entails the fate of his doomed lover as well. Though not an entirely rewarding or multi-layered experience, Under the Volcano succeeds in conveying the earth-shattering effects of an alcoholic on himself and those around him, a fatal flaw that can strand a man in obscurity and leave him to die confused and aimless.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Fitzcarraldo (1982) A Film by Werner Herzog

By virtue of its tumultuous production, Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo has managed to give credence to the outlandish critical notion that the logistical aspects of a film's making should be weighed into a final judgment on the actual quality of the work. In other words, if blood was spilled to produce a series of images on celluloid then that has a bearing on the integrity of the finished product. I don't hesitate to call this absurd, unfair, and utterly wrong. Declaring Herzog's lumbering creation one of the greatest in the medium on that grounds that it took years to film, survived several episodes of recasting and reshooting, incorporated the muscle power of real Amazonian jungle natives, and featured the literal hauling of a massive steamship over a mountain does a major disservice to the actual work. There's a reason these tales of behind-the-scenes tomfoolery are normally shielded from the general public; they shouldn't cloud the end result, what's actually onscreen. It speaks of a culture more infatuated with hype, sensationalism, and myth than it is concerned with art. No matter how stunning and revelatory Les Blank's documentary on the film's production (Burden of Dreams, 1982) might be, I can't help but think it does nothing but continue to feed the wild legend of Herzog and suffocate the oeuvre of Herzog.

It's curious, then, how Herzog has to some extent built his career around myth and labor and offscreen sportsmanship, so much so that these seemingly trivial aspects feel consciously intertwined with the work itself. In Fitzcarraldo, for instance, it's impossible not to liken its central premise of a German opera-loving entrepreneur, Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald (Klaus Kinski), devising the scheme to exploit a deserted area of the jungle for its rubber in hopes of bringing an opera house to an otherwise remote, impractical landscape with the similarly far-reaching scheme of Herzog, to painstakingly document this man and join him in his mission in the process. He's taking the incentive to support, finance, and realize this lofty dream, completing and even exaggerating the story of the real Irish entrepreneur the film is based on. Thus, the physical process of the plan often seems the point. It's a challenging scenario in which the film's existence depends entirely on Herzog's own capacity to finish what he's started, to defeat every real live obstacle that comes in his way. When the steamship is finally tugged over the mountain in the film's signature sequence - a feat of manpower only necessary to shortcut the path to the crew's destination and avoid a treacherous stretch of rapids - the emphasis is squarely on the physicality of it all: the heavy turning of the makeshift wooden levers, the slow crawl of the steamship, the sweat brimming off Fitzgerald's (aka Herzog's) forehead in anticipation, and the exhausted moaning of the army of natives.

As a result, this is an extremely bizarre adventure movie, less a delicate refinement of cinematic craft than it is a messy, manly sprawl towards the end result. Or, to put it simply, an experience more like hiking than movie-going. Herzog's direction is at its most scattershot and unrefined, at times displaying little to no evidence of storytelling efficiency, staging skill, or spatial awareness. And I don't necessarily mean this as a criticism, for the film's unabashed "wildness" - one of its greatest virtues - is, intentional or not, a suitable counterpart for its increasingly out-of-control protagonist, a pompous, insensitive hack clearly not cut out for unregulated exploration and leadership. Furthermore, exposition and narrative-building prove to be the film's poison in the nearly hour-long introduction to Fitzcarraldo, a meandering chunk of scenes detailing Fitzgerald's (known to the Peruvian natives as Fitzcarraldo) passionate attempts to acquire funding for his journey. The slew of legal hands he encounters do little more than chuckle at him, what with his unkempt blond coiffure and resume of dashed hopes (a trans-Andes train line already failed), so eventually he turns to his devoted wife Molly (Claudia Cardinale) for the money. The best scene amidst all of this endless, ponderous narrative padding is a moment when Fitzgerald and his wife flirt and makeout on a hammock and Herzog chooses to turn his camera towards a baby leopard in the room instead, admiring its wide-eyed, naive awe at the display.

This is a significant moment because it points towards Herzog's fundamental forte as a filmmaker, his spark in the face of all that is wild, natural, and largely undirectable. That the film distinctly picks up steam (pun intended) as it distances itself farther from the comfort of civilization and closer to the savagery of the jungle natives is a ramification of Herzog's own trailblazing persona, the positive relationship between his determination and creativity and new, unfamiliar surroundings. Fitzcarraldo's most moving sentiments deal with the futile grasping onto familiarity and routine even as things grow increasingly alien, witnessed in Fitzgerald's defensive blasting of a Caruso opera from his phonograph in hopes of hushing the invisible tribe enveloping the river, or his regular attempts to interpret the inexplicable actions of the natives through lousy, imprecise translations. In several scenes, Herzog emphasizes the uneasy exoticism of the jungle tribe by eschewing subtitles. They simply swarm the crew, bickering in a distinctive native tongue, their bow and arrows slung as always on their backs, and the uncertainty and tension is palpable.

As expected, Fitzgerald's grand scheme blows up in his face in the end as the natives fulfill their secret plan to steer the ship into the heart of the rapids, which will supposedly rid them of evil spirits. The unpredictability and externality of this force is both emblematic of the lawlessness of nature and is a byproduct of Fitzgerald's flawed ambition. Herzog is quick to point out how nature dwarfs Man, exposing such petty obsessions as a lucrative jungle opera house as the huge absurdity that it is. If he had had the gall to kill off his foolishly idealistic crew right in the climactic moment, as the ship goes careening off the rocks in one of the film's most riveting sequences, a sudden thud of hammer-to-the-head determinism, then the savagery of his satire may have hit even harder. But maybe the dumb celebratory final sequence - in which Kinski smokes the biggest cigar ever made - is a more fitting conclusion, a potent sign that Herzog realizes his own hypocrisies. Killing Fitzgerald would have meant killing himself, cutting short a career that would continue to explore more provocatively than any other filmmaker the links between ambition, art, and failure.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

No Country For Old Men (2007) A Film by Joel and Ethan Coen

I didn't like No Country for Old Men much the first time I saw it. I admired the tension Joel and Ethan Coen created in the visceral "chase" scenes, but was left unsatisfied by the ultimate direction of the narrative, the way the Coens seemingly dropped their mounting themes in favor of smaller subtexts towards the end of the film. I did not like how they indulged their characteristic urge to have their characters straddle a line between concept and caricature, such as when they insist on getting a wry chuckle out of an otherwise fascinating figure. To me, that was Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) in the film, the unstoppably methodical killer at the heart of No Country For Old Men whose intriguing, mysterious resonance is frequently diluted by silly, offbeat character tics. Most of all, I was put off by the Coens' typically unnecessary "comic relief", which has the effect of bringing the film to a meandering halt. For the most part, No Country For Old Men is lighter in this regard than most of the brothers' films, but the very fact that they did include such scenes was irritating. To me, it's evidence of the Coens' somewhat compromising nature, the way they feel compelled to include every emotional spectrum in a film that very well may not call for such variety, as if the audience would be instantly bored if they endured a stretch of austerity for too long. For what it's worth (and it's not worth much), the Coens' postmodern Western stood out to me as a massive misstep for Best Picture by the Oscar committee, and one of the most overrated films of the past decade.

But, thank God and the frequently remedial digital video disc for second chances, as it turns out No Country For Old Men is not nearly the trifle I suspected it upon first viewing. Actually, there is a deep vein of richness to it, much of which is surely inherited from Cormac McCarthy's source novel, but which is also expanded upon by the Coens' deft cinematic sensibilities, their distinct understanding of how a film works in cerebral, subliminal ways. Its narrative is simple, archetypal: a gruff Vietnam veteran, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), stumbles over a dope running gone wrong and discovers the inevitable suitcase filled with hundred dollar bills, only to then find himself the target of a maniacal killing machine (Bardem), all while an aging sheriff, Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), pursues the criminal. Basically, it's the stuff of a classic Western, yet it's uncomfortably bereft of the traditional values and dichotomies that would safely tie everything together in the end. A nihilistic work without any reliable moral center, the Coens are constantly highlighting the subtle similarities between the three central characters, the supposed "good", "bad", and "average" guys, whether zeroing in on a congruent behavior, framing them in the same ways at different times, or literally associating them with a specific line of dialogue, as when early in the film Chigurh holds up his bizarre cattle gun to the head of an innocent man on the side of the road and mutters the phrase "hold still", which is followed by a crosscut to Llewelyn narrowing the aim of his gun barrel at a deer and repeating the same line.

Another series of shots early on have the same effect of unsettling equalization, and also illustrate the Coens' theme of the banality of evil. After finding the case of $2 million, Llewelyn returns to his small trailer-park home and evades his wife Carla Jean's (Kelly Macdonald) incessant questioning. The Coens reveal a chain of simplistic images of domesticity, the kind of by-the-numbers man-comes-home-to-wife shots that one might have seen in, say, Fritz Lang's The Big Heat. But Llewelyn is fidgety, squirming out of his chair and out of the frames faster than his wife wants him to. Something is not right. He ends up leaving the house late in the night just hours before the break of dawn to bring a jug of water to a struggling survivor of the crime scene in the desert, a move that ultimately signals the beginning of his end. Shortly after, Chigurh has secured important documents about his prey's identity from Llewelyn's car, whose tires were burst when the vengeful figures arrived. His first step is to go straight to Llewelyn's trailer and bust through the door lock with his cattle gun. The couple has left the premises, and after searching the rooms with clinical precision, the Coens repeat the earlier shots of Llewelyn and Carla Jean, this time occupied by the invasive Chigurh. He casually drinks milk from the fridge (substituting for Llewelyn's beer) and has a moment of repose on the couch. This sequence acquires the element of relaxation and comfort missing from the one prior. Chigurh has thoroughly invaded not only their space, but also their routines. Then there is an elegant grace note, an impressionistic shot of the television across the room with Chigurh's ghostly silhouette reflected on it. When the Sheriff inevitably goes through the same routine moments later (even sipping from the milk), the Coens repeat this image, likening these dichotomous figures through a seemingly offhand, ephemeral glimpse.

In the Coens' warped outlook, such is the nature of crime and justice, a procession of behaviors in which no one's quite in the right place at the right time. The closest any of the three main characters come from occupying the same frame at the same time is in a last-moment getaway when Llewelyn leaps out of a motel window just as Chigurh enters the room to fire a shotgun in his general direction, amounting to only a split-second of shared screen space which may very well be the film's most heart-racing snippet. Otherwise, this is a profoundly non-confrontational film that gathers all of its tension from suggestion and rising action. Though every character is ostensibly chasing something or being chased, whether it's an ideal or a person, there is never any resolution to this nifty cat-and-mouse act, no climactic outburst of violence. As for the violence that does exist, the Coens are most content showing either the repercussions or the physical traces of it as opposed to the entirety of the graphic encounters themselves. When Chigurh strangles a police station attendant early on with his handcuffs, the emphasis is less on the metal-to-flesh contact as it is on the scuff marks of flailing boots on the floor, the image of Man's abstract, fossilized aggression. In doing so, the recurring motif of boots becomes intimately associated with violence and Man's relationship to the Earth, enough so that by the time Chigurh has an encounter with Carla Jean towards the end of the film, his dust-off of his boots outside is enough to clarify the unseen murder. Similarly, the spilled milk inside the motel entrance after Chigurh has entered is enough - thanks to the random linking of milk to Chigurh from earlier - to imply that whoever is behind the kiosk has been killed.

These kinds of subtle visual gestures are littered throughout No Country For Old Men, providing unexpected insights into the characters and thematic concerns. What the Coens are getting at is that the very ground we live on has been progressively tainted by the actions of Man, and that what Man has ultimately constructed for himself is emptiness, lack of defined moral reasoning, and reliance upon fate alone. Like the Dawn of Man sequence in 2001, the Coens begin the film with a visualization of a barren, empty landscape, only this time, the position of humanity is at the opposite end of the spectrum. It has not just begun its fateful journey, but has instead found itself at a troubling crossroads where only violence emerges from the emptiness. Though Chigurh is clearly the "villain", he's also somewhat of a walking embodiment of the Reaper, dispassionately bringing death at random as a function of fate (he carries around a quarter and flips it for his victims before systematically taking their lives). Yet he's not entirely remote and devoid of motivation; the crazed money hunger that drives him towards his end goal is nothing if not reflective of a capitalist society at large. However, while the film is essentially lamenting an "old-timer" practice of thinking and acting that corresponds with Ed Tom's father's generation, it's also silently lauding the productivity and determination of the lawless world it's depicting. The frightening poise and intelligence of Chigurh is pitted against the somnambulant, voyeuristic role of Ed Tom, who is mournfully reading about violent crimes in the newspaper more than he is solving or stopping them; Chigurh is a man of action while Ed Tom is consistently falling up short, preferring to wallow in confusion at the anarchic evil in the world. So there's this abysmal strain of ambivalence in the film that cannot be sorted out easily.

For all this riveting nihilism (and I love this about the film, its willingness to tackle a rather pessimistic worldview in an exciting, almost formulaic manner), No Country For Old Men fizzles out into what seems like an off-kilter, uncharacteristically hopeful conclusion. In a daring move, the Coens substantially shift their focus from the chase game between Chigurh and Llewelyn to a philosophical examination of the soon-to-be retiree Ed Tom. Llewelyn, to some extent the absolute main character in the film up until this point, is even extinguished offscreen in a bloody massacre at a fleabag motel. The Coens only show his body from a distance, face-down. The separate fates of the money and Chigurh are left unanswered. Though this is clearly a bracingly unconventional decision, and one that interestingly lines up with the rest of the film from a thematic standpoint (death is unpredictable, permanence is unlikely), I'm not sure if it necessarily strengthens the film as a film. That is to say, it doesn't make the experience any more pleasurable. Quite the contrary, it sucks the momentum away. The tone of the final scenes - quiet, introspective, dialogue-heavy - contrasts jarringly with the otherwise muscular forward motion of the rest of the film, and the deliberate decrescendo reverts to a rather streamlined vision of hope, a suggestion that simple complacency and optimism can alleviate such horrors. Ed Tom's final pronunciation "and then I woke up", spoken after a pair of recalled dreams with his father, has the unfortunate effect of placing the entire film in the context of some sort of dream-reality where the events onscreen are malleable and correctable. But what the Coens have devised feels so grounded, so palpable. It's a real shot in the dark to think that the kind of banal ambiguity the film luxuriates in could be properly digested and consummated. I remain skeptical of where the brothers' film ultimately goes, even if for its duration I sat in awe at the meticulously crafted existential thriller it was. But only a film this complex, this multifaceted, could be this troubling.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Wrestler (2008) A Film by Darren Aronofsky

In Darren Aronofsky's brief career arch, which is 75% full of highfalutin, far-reaching art films with variable sparks of genius, the relatively modest and level-headed The Wrestler is both a big refreshment and a stunning turnaround in style. It tells an ultra-straightforward rise-and-fall story about a washed-up pro wrestler going by the typically bombastic pseudonym of Randy "The Ram" Robinson (Mickey Rourke) that would threaten to drown under the pressure of its own pastiche if not for Aronofsky's nondescript, stoic presentation, not necessarily any kind of deconstruction of the chosen genre but a purification of it, a method that gives this hackneyed form some room to breathe. Randy is going through what many has-been athletes of his age go through: deteriorating health, accumulated issues related to the performance-enhancing drugs piling up in his system for decades, potent nostalgia for the glory years, and a dwindling fan base, all of which raise the difficult prospect of retirement. On top of it all, Randy's funds are low, he has trouble obtaining enough hours at the local supermarket where he hauls heavy crates around, and he is entirely alone with a cynical college-age daughter named Stephanie (Evan Rachel-Wood) who has pent-up hatred towards her mostly disengaged, unloving father. It's a situation that is ripe for sappy sentimentalizing, but Aronofsky doesn't do what so many of the film's countless predecessors did. He doesn't simplify Randy's struggles, and doesn't blindly suggest an unlikely U-turn of fortune; this is an earthbound, working-class piece of approximate realism.

The uncanny congruence between the trajectory of Mickey Rourke's own life and celebrity and that of his onscreen counterpart was beaten over the head upon the film's release and remains unavoidably integral to The Wrestler now. Rourke was born to play Randy, a man who once luxuriated in the fruits of his fame and has since withered away, yet comes out of his dormancy with his limbs intact. Aronofsky wisely lets the film rest almost solely on Rourke's mammoth shoulders, and The Ram's overwhelming physical presence - a meticulously sculpted, constantly groomed frame, androgynous golden locks of hair - positively dominates the film. He's there in every scene, lumbering around his passion and his bad choices, and Aronofsky forces the audience to get to know and ultimately sympathize with someone who can so gleefully indulge in perverse behavior such as fudging bloody violence and exploiting women at the local strip club where his love interest, the bodacious Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) works. It is through this wrenching performance, a careful balancing of regret and perseverance, absent-mindedness and thoughtfulness, that The Wrestler lives and dies as a character study, not some lofty scheme in Aronofsky's hands.

This is not to suggest that Aronofsky is just bumbling around half-assed and uninspired, failing to provide any thoughtful directorial involvement in a film that is otherwise saved by Rourke. In fact, it's actually Aronofsky's most comparatively subtle, nuanced direction yet, containing only a handful of aesthetic hallmarks in its palette rather than an overload of ideas. He shoots for a Dardennes-style realism, a motivation he tinkered with before in Requiem for a Dream but got caught up in stylized tilted camera hijinks in the process. Here, he and cinematographer Maryse Alberti's delicate wobbly-cam dynamics don't get in the way of the story being told, and for the most part construct and maintain a sense of verisimilitude and (with the exception of a plethora of slight jump cuts) plausible time and space. This platform is supplemented by some relatively animated choices. An interesting touch is Aronofsky's drudging repetition of the intimate following shot, images whose allusions to those familiar sports arena back hallway shots are cleverly counteracted by the fact that Aronofsky is tirelessly committing not just to Randy's momentous walks to the ring but also to his monotonous routines, like trudging through his trailer park or the corridors of the supermarket. The implication is that Randy can only live comfortably in his triumphant world of wrestling, even as the images remind us of his increasing remoteness from glory and sustenance.

It is clear right off the bat that Randy has fallen from grace in terms of his actual wrestling career, left to perform in dinky rooms against wannabe amateurs before rowdy crowds of approximately 200. In a series of slyly humorous scenes that reveal the backroom machinations of pro wrestling and underline The Wrestler's double role as a satire, Aronofsky makes it evident that the camaraderie between the men and Randy is purely borne of humble respect for his past triumphs. His opponents do not gawk at his larger-than-life stature or form subliminal antagonism out of jealousy. There's an unspoken understanding that Randy is losing his spark, and that whatever can be done to keep it burning faintly should be done. Therefore, each match Randy partakes in is farcically premeditated to result in a victory that will keep the small crowd drooling and riled up. Yet despite all of the artificiality of these "competitions", Aronofsky shoots them with such a closeness and rigor (reminiscent of Scorsese's work on the boxing scenes in Raging Bull), and the actors perform them with such gutsy dedication, that they obtain a level of unexpected savagery and believability. As these often graphic matches progress (one scene in particular between Randy and a staple-gun specializing newbie thoroughly earns its self-referential Passion of the Christ comparison shortly thereafter), one wonders whether the wrestlers have for some reason mutually abandoned their prior pact and are actually out for blood. This tiny gulf between fakery and reality extends from Randy's deeply posed lifestyle and Cassidy's seemingly sincere rapport with her licentious clients right through to the very film itself, which frequently walks the line in the middle of heartfelt authenticity and Hollywood superficiality.

Given this particular thematic concern, it's perhaps inevitable that the film does drift into sentimentality at times. One specific subplot about Randy's attempt at reconnection with his estranged daughter (who he "thinks is a lesbian", and wonders whether this will effect his decision on a present for her in a scene of deadpan humor) is criminally underdeveloped, resulting in a series of unpersuasive emotional leaps from hatred to sudden acceptance to utter indifference. Furthermore, Randy's finicky, juvenile boss at the supermarket (Todd Barry) is such an absurdly caricatured figure that he's nearly unwatchable for the few short scenes he is involved in. Yet these dramatic blips seem to be consistently redeemed by the strength of another clump of narrative, such as the story of the romantically doomed Randy and Cassidy (Tomei giving a satisfactory performance that holds its own against Rourke's star profile). Most of all, claims of by-the-numbers dullness are undermined by the fact that Aronofsky thankfully provides no deterministic catharsis, realizing that Randy has really dug himself too deep to be spared a conventionally happy ending, even as the film faintly jabs at such tidy resolutions. As the final shot implies, Randy is doomed to discover comfort and transcendence only in the wrestling ring, even if it threatens his own life.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Flight of the Red Balloon (2007) A Film by Hou Hsiao-Hsein

The titular balloon from Albert Lamorisse's veritable French classic The Red Balloon has aged well. In the approximately fifty years since its initial appearance as a shy, impressionable, lonely orb of red plastic, it has grown to be as wise and observational as its new director, Hsiao-Hsein Hou. Hou's own spiritual reprise of the quiet coming-of-age tale, Flight of the Red Balloon, casts the balloon in an entirely separate role. In Lamorisse's film, the balloon was a humanized emblem of companionship and creativity. In Hou's, the object's precise meaning is elusive as it plays less of a narrative role than a metaphysical one, hovering haphazardly over the earthbound dramas that are the film's primary focus and only having seemingly tangential significance. Hou, who controls the film with Zen-like patience, prefers to let the balloon gather its import on a scene-to-scene basis, resonating in new, distinct ways as his loose narrative gently explores hectic adulthood, jostled childhood, nostalgia, and the very mechanics of filmmaking in the guise of a director surrogate who is making her own intentional remake of The Red Balloon. This is potentially overwhelming, convoluted material, but Hou's supreme lightness of touch makes it not a cerebral effort but a sensual one, ebbing and flowing in ways that don't require heavy-handed analysis.

The young Taiwanese woman, Song (Fang Song), who is making her own digital version of The Red Balloon has come to study film in Paris and has taken a job on the side as the daytime babysitter of Simon (Simon Iteanu), a content 7-year-old with a swamped mother. In the opening shot, the closest thing to a direct lift of a scene in Lamorisse's film, Simon is dangling on the railing of the Metro station, pleading for the floating red balloon to return home with him. As if to announce the film's fundamental distinction right off the bat, Hou has the balloon not follow Simon. Instead, it has a mellow, indifferent air, justified in the subsequent credit sequence set to elegiac piano music. The balloon has not an individual role linked to youth but an egalitarian one that supports the characters of Song, Simon, his mother, and the various explicit and implicit figures. A divorced mother of two and a passionate voice actress in a local marionette production, Suzanne (Juliette Binoche) mounts the film's most accessible plot points (an anger towards a neighbor/friend who does not pay rent, various quotidian struggles such as scheduling piano lessons, explaining her plans to Song, and arguing with her absent husband who has relocated to Montreal to write a novel and shows no signs of returning) and ushers in the bulk of the film's ensemble (the irritating tenant Mark (Hippolyte Girardot), a visiting Chinese puppet master, a pair of hulking, modest piano-movers, and the (mostly) offscreen presences of both her secretive husband and her estranged daughter Louise (Louise Margolin), who is studying in Brussels and only appears in the film via a seamlessly materialized memory that Simon describes to Song).

By building up a patchwork of subtle tension and conflict, The Flight of the Red Balloon achieves the texture of everyday life. Hou's narrative concerns, which are slight to begin with, remain elegantly understated as a democratic weight is assigned to the various mini-stories. All of this is showcased exquisitely in the film's predominant image, a simple wide shot of the family's cluttered Paris flat that Hou keeps returning to. On the left is the door and a packed shelf of books extending outside of the frame that Suzanne ostensibly never would have enough time to delve into, in the middle is an all-purpose dining table, and on the right is the narrow kitchen illuminated by a gorgeous stream of natural light flooding in from the window. It feels as if half of the film is spent observing this segmented domestic sphere, divided up to visualize coming, going, resting, cooking, and zipping around with purpose. Meanwhile, Hou's camera just sits in one spot, occasionally floating from side to side at a pace far too leisurely to accommodate the circus of workaday chaos, which balances the hysterical restlessness of Suzanne, the youthful time-killing of Simon (playing gameboy, drawing), and the quiet introspection of Song, who is perpetually seated at the center table reviewing her daily footage or dreaming up new scenarios in which to place Simon, the balloon, and the man in the lime green suit (to be digitally erased later). It would be disingenuous to overlook how technically proficient these long, often busy sequences are though; in an orgiastic bit of restraint, Hou unfolds one of the lengthiest takes of the film that casually observes several dramas at different intervals (Suzanne's yelling at Mark, her subsequent calm chat with Song, the clatter of the piano tuner in the foreground, and Simon's omnipresent rustling). It's a tumultuous mise-en-scene that manages a distinct poetry thanks to Hou's characteristic economy, the way he willingly has these components butt heads yet is equally prepared to allow a potentially compelling subject to wander offscreen.

None of this is to suggest that The Flight of the Red Balloon is a relentlessly boisterous, hyperactive endeavor; in fact, some of its best moments lie in the relative silence, the pauses from the "action". Like one of his prominent filmmaking fathers, Yasujiro Ozu, Hou routinely resorts to variations on the proverbial "pillow shots". Many times this entails dreamy interludes studying the uncanny soaring of the red balloon, shown in both long shots and with a tight, moving camera. But it also refers to the numerous instances of urban minutiae that Hou likes to turn his camera towards. In one compelling cut, he moves from the interior of the apartment room to the galloping shadows on the ground below a carousel, then the small metal ring at the edge that the riders interact with on their way around. Given the fact that it's Hou's first feature outside of East Asia, it all gives off the impression of an ecstatic outsider's perspective, devoid of cliches (and Paris is certainly full of those) or oversimplifications, which mirrors Song's own cultural assimilation through her Red Balloon remake. Another scene of blissful peace and quiet involves Simon's memory of jaunting around Paris with his sister Louise, which gradually transforms from verbal recollection to literal re-staging. Here Hou makes generous use of visual reflections and layers, shooting the action diagonally through shiny windows to emphasize the coexistence of past and present.

So where does the balloon come into play in this gentle, stoic drama whose chief concern appears to be people and their relationships? It seems to underline, in one big swoop, each of the film's major themes: nostalgia (in its reference to an earlier iteration), the transience of life, the ongoing impact of the past on the present, and the simultaneous melancholy and beauty of the everyday. The balloon hovers alone, but its luminous red sheen remains charming, just as Simon is for the most part, due to forces outside his control, incapable of a perfect childhood, yet he maintains a mask of complacency. And the presence of the balloon also reminds the viewer of Hou's enlightening worldliness, his openness to all forms of cross-cultural artistic associations. As witnessed in Binoche's impassioned recitations of the ancient Chinese story, where the dramatic bombast onscreen is countered by Hou's extended, unadorned gaze, nothing - not even a flurry of conflicts and obligations - threatens to dilute the timeless immersion in art.