Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Descent (2005) A Film by Neil Marshall

In an essay about The Exorcist, Stephen of the blog Checking On My Sausages raises a notion he calls the "horror before the horror" to touch upon the eerie anticipation of a horror film's build-up, the quiet moments before the "tawdry spectacle" kicks in. It's an idea that he likens, in a brief addendum, to Neil Marshall's critically praised 2005 horror flick The Descent, which documents the cave-spelunking vacation/adventure of a group of chatty, convivial young women that gradually coalesces into a brutal, terrifying fight for survival against ugly, slimy prehistoric cave-dwellers. Stephen's concept managed to get at precisely what I experienced with Marshall's film, a case of the supposed horror punctuation marks failing to elicit quite the level of fear and dread that the anticipatory exposition offered, even in some sense diluting the power of the precedings. To be fair, this undermines the fact that The Descent is truly very scary, through and through, and it's rightly praised as one of the decade's most effective works in the genre. But I can't help but wonder what kind of film it would have been if the horror was not materialized, if it remained purely psychological, if Marshall continued to mine the rewarding visual possibilities of his claustrophobic setting. Would it be stronger or weaker, or something else entirely?

There are ample hints towards this kind of visceral spatial and situational terror during the first twenty minutes of the group's expedition. The women - Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), Juno (Natalie Jackson Mendoza), Beth (Alex Reid), Rebecca (Saskia Mulder), Sam (MyAnna Buring), and Holly (Nora-Jane Noone) - are carefree and over-ambitious, lunging ever deeper into each new dwelling with the spunk of schoolgirls being released for recess. Their camaraderie and adventurousness is established early on in a few scenes of blunt exposition in which the group sits around a fire in a woodland cabin laughing and drinking before the following morning's trip; this joviality is intended to sharply contrast the progressive brutality the film slowly mounts. But it's early on when the group is simply traversing through the dark caves that the film accumulates its humble uneasiness, with the sense of audience expectation and dramatic irony at its most vivid. Marshall exploits to great effect the tight, cylindrical spaces and the pitch dark of the caves, letting a black screen be suddenly flooded with one light source as a figure emerges from a tiny hole in the back corner of the frame. If a criterion for solid horror is the ability to tap into an audience's collective anxieties, The Descent is as pure a success as can be in these moments, extracting no-frills terror from the universal human fear of claustrophobia and darkness in a way that's not shallow or easy. It takes its time, and with the exception of one laughable entrance of hibernating CGI bats, it uses its time well.

That the film's most destabilizing moment - which induced beads of sweat down my forehead - involves the simple set-up of a woman and the elements around her (rock, dirt) says a great deal about how effectively The Descent works before introducing the fantastical elements. Sarah is shimmying on her back through a narrow channel created by a cluster of boulders. Of course, she, being the main character and psychological model of the narrative, is the last of the group to traverse the ridiculously thin passageway, and, given the recent loss of her husband and daughter (which is the subject of the film's first ten minutes), her battered emotional state does little to assist her physical agility. And of course, this being a horror movie with a forward-moving narrative for which a relative suspension of disbelief must be nurtured (I hope I'm succeeding in illuminating the film's full-fledged engagement with, and occasional subversion of, typical genre trappings), the repeated movement of the group of women agitates the surrounding rock formation, causing a prolonged moment of potential collapse in which Sarah, bereft of personal motivation in this time of psychological turmoil, must be swiveled out by her friend Beth. As Marshall frames her, the whole affair comes to resemble birth. The underground space is reminiscent of the female anatomy, with the birth canal guiding Sarah slowly and questionably into the deeper recesses of the cave. If the initial shock teases thrown at the women were just warnings before the real dangerous terrain was entered, this scene exemplifies a birth into the hell of the underground. The rest of the film, at least ontologically, rests on the question of whether or not the women, or more precisely, Sarah, will be reborn in some capacity, or if they will wither away.

Giving the film the thrust of this subtle visual birth metaphor is a nice touch on Marshall's part, and it might be even more rewarding had he searched for trickier ways to comment on this guiding motif. But it quickly appears that cerebral complexity is not of interest to Marshall; he'd rather batter the viewer head-on with convincing subhuman creatures, the kind of monstrous things we learn have been adapting and evolving for generations until they have harnessed the ability to survive underground, feeding periodically off the animals above ground. It's a rather ingenious monster profile, stirring up eerie hypothetical inquiries about the nature of evolution and the boundaries of human transformation over time, but once again Marshall cares less about the ideas behind his creations than he does about the sheer potency of them. The relentless second half of The Descent is all blood, violence, and peril and no contemplation. It's no surprise that the offhand character drama that ensues within all this frantic women vs. monster mayhem - Sarah learns that Juno, who accidentally kills Beth when suspecting her to be a creature in the dark, slept with her husband - feels underdeveloped and negligible. More successfully, the film's about the brutal first-hand emotions of the grisly situation, the shuffling between paranoia, desperation, and forced heroism. Broader character conflicts simply come across as wanton and by-the-numbers.

Marshall half-resolves the lingering birth metaphor when Sarah, bloodied and mutilated, triumphantly breaks through the ground after surviving an intimidating series of encounters with cave creatures. This particular image, bathed in the sensationalized light of day, is even more iconic and memorable than the first one, and proves itself to be of unexpected resonance. She sprints out of the woods only for Marshall to pull a fast one and reveal her still within the depths of the cave consumed by reverberating monster noises, and it suggests, quite obviously, that she has simply dreamt up an escape. But since Marshall stages the final shot with the ghost of Sarah's daughter in seeming harmony with her mother (albeit within the cave), this notion of "escape" is deliberately allusive. Has Sarah transcended to a higher realm of peace, surrounded by her family members? And if so, does this constitute a rebirth or a death? The Descent's sudden assault of philosophical propositions is a welcome change of pace after all of the taut, brainless action set pieces up until this point, and they are in some ways invested with greater visceral power in the context of what precedes them. At any rate, the thematic power here is not particularly lasting; it's more like a thrilling rolling coaster ride that is amazing while it lasts, and recalled only in fragmented bits after. In the scope of its modest ambitions, The Descent is an undoubted triumph, but I can't help but wonder how it might have fared with a different approach, if it had taken further advantage of the "horror before the horror".

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Jeanne Dielman: Redefining Mulvey and Hill

(This is an essay I wrote for my Media Criticism and Theory class. Forgive the dryness.)

One of the most intriguing and telling facets of Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles - a radical 1976 Belgian film that aggressively challenged prior notions of shot duration and narrative rhythm - is that it was conceived by a twenty-five year old with virtually no classical filmmaking training. Incidentally, it is this very naiveté in the face of the camera, this utter indifference to standard practice, that lead Chantal Akerman to so thoroughly discover her own unique aesthetic, one that, rather than appearing amateurish in the context of proper film grammar, looked fresh and revolutionary. At the time of its release, the canons of film theory had largely addressed the primarily visible regions of film history – Hollywood as well as, to a lesser extent, the collective contributions of international cinemas – and in doing so, attempted to grapple with trends, formulas, and ideological frameworks that guided the majority of work. What’s striking though about Akerman’s film is how actively it seems to run counter to the central ideas in numerous major essays on cinematic convention. With its simultaneously straightforward and ambiguous narrative, its rigorous immersion in time and space, and its destabilizing lack of closure and character psychology, Jeanne Dielman updates and redefines pre-conceived standards for cinematic narrative and realism.

Two essays, in particular, illustrate the extent to which Akerman’s work goes against the grain of popular thought: John Hill’s “Narrative and Realism” and Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”. Both pieces formulate their discussions principally in relation to the critic’s dominant native cinema. For Hill, it is both the British social problem film and the films of the British new wave, and for Mulvey, it is the Hollywood industry. The essays stress the notion that mainstream cinema has established an array of intrinsic mechanisms to elicit audience interest and pleasure, mechanisms that Jeanne Dielman either conspicuously withdraws or subtly transforms.

The long-standing classic realism that Hill finds “dated” and “melodramatic”, and which is couched in “habitual versions of dramatic reality”, is far from the kind of direct observational realism Akerman engages with. The film is the documentation of 48 hours in the life of the titular character, a widowed, stay-at-home mother, covering in depth her various domestic routines and only consciously excising her sleep. Taking place over the course of an elapsed 201 minutes, it is often a marvel how the film manages to communicate a persistence of real time even in spite of its obviously considerable extractions. If the “distinctive characteristic of realism resides in the ambition to, in some way or other, approximate reality”, Jeanne Dielman tackles this credo with extreme determination, perhaps coming closer to reproducing reality than to approximating it. Akerman probes her subject by completely surrendering to her daily mannerisms, letting her tasks play out in their entirety and only cutting when she leaves a room. Of course, by its very nature, film can never really be a carbon copy of reality, but Jeanne Dielman’s maximum detachment and sense of letting behaviors play out as they would in the real world at least brings it significantly closer than the watered-down examples Hill describes.

Furthermore, Hill explains what he sees to be an inherent pattern in narrative form of equilibrium, disequilibrium, and a new equilibrium that Jeanne Dielman does not adamantly abide by. “Implicit in the structure of the narrative, its movement from one equilibrium to another, its relations of cause and effect,” he claims, “is a requirement for change.” Normally, it is a force such as a crime that shifts the narrative from its initial state of equilibrium, in which case an investigation would propel the new equilibrium. Akerman tinkers with this seasoned formula by not supplying the second equilibrium and only risking disequilibrium in the final scene, when Jeanne carries out a shocking act of violence against her regular John (her daytime prostitution as a means of economic sustainability is one of the film’s fascinating motifs). The result is a permanent state of anxiety and inconclusiveness extended past the film’s ending. Though Akerman appropriates the change said to be a necessary narrative ingredient by Hill, as Jeanne’s familiarized routine gradually and dramatically disrupts, she undermines it by refusing to resolve the tension, instead compounding it with an even greater act of dysfunction.

This denial of narrative strategy is also built into the underlying ideology of the film. Long praised as a milestone work in feminist cinema for its unimpeded focus on the unspectacular ebbs and flows of a woman’s home life, Jeanne Dielman manages to also deflate Mulvey’s position that built into the very fabric of mainstream narratives, there are unconscious ideologies such as a heterosexual division of labor that categorizes the male as the active force and the female as the passive one. Instead of making a male character catapult the film out of its initial stasis, Akerman lets the vagaries of the minimalist narrative rest solely on Jeanne’s shoulders. The male dominance that Mulvey discusses partly exists through Jeanne’s monetary reliance on them, but it is shattered as the film progresses and her dissatisfaction with her lack of self-reliance appears to augment. This culminates with her final murder of the John, accomplished with the kind of dispassion and precision that would suggest she’s aware of Mulvey’s stance. The murder is figurative before it’s literal; no longer does she have to be vulnerable to the scheduled routines of the exploitative, omnipresent male. She has defeated the threat of masculine oppression, and in doing so, alters the misogynistic bent of the typical film narrative.

Mulvey suggests further that the male protagonist often acts as an audience surrogate, and his voyeuristic tendencies towards his female counterpart mirror an intensified male gaze in the audience. But Jeanne is hardly the erotically charged exhibitionist spectacle that Mulvey asserts. The audience does not gain “control and possession of the woman within the film’s diegesis.” As if to emphasize this, Akerman remains outside the room during her daily sex act, fixing her camera on the de-eroticized image of the door and denying fetishistic entry. Curiously, the film intensifies the gaze in a different way. By placing its central character front and center in every frame carrying out the niceties of a stay-at-home mother, it doesn’t so much elicit a pleasuring of the erogenous zones as it does a reawakening of the long-dormant sensations of the Oedipal complex. Immersing the viewer in the uncannily familiar matriarchal rhythms, Akerman promotes a sense of nostalgia and warmth in the viewer, a sense of being susceptible to the behaviors of the female rather than in control of them.

In acknowledging the possibility for the avant-garde to subvert the traditional methods they observe, Mulvey and Hill seem to hint at the particular techniques of Jeanne Dielman. “The first blow against the monolithic accumulation of traditional film conventions (already undertaken by radical filmmakers) is to free the look of the camera into its materiality in time and space and the look of the audience into dialectics, passionate detachment.” This could be interpreted as Akerman’s formal thesis, and by giving her camera the autonomy to simply record the action over extended stretches of time, she removes the possibility of manipulating the content of the narrative. Her “invention of new forms” works to “undermine habitual versions of dramatic reality and thus communicate new, and more fundamental, underlying realities.” The minutiae of quotidian life, glimpsed in its totality, from the painstaking preparation of meals to the folding of clean bed sheets, comprise a world not often seen in the cinema, and especially not in mainstream work.

By boiling her narrative down to the singular focus of one woman’s routinized existence, Chantal Akerman extinguished all matters of cinematic convention from Jeanne Dielman. She suppressed the traditional standard for greater narrative trajectory as identified by John Hill in “Narrative and Realism” and reversed the standardized processes of audience perception highlighted by Laura Mulvey in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”. Jeanne Dielman possesses its own kind of narrative ambiguity that extends past its conclusion rather than prematurely leveling out, and it doubles as an acknowledgment of the potential for an active female within a film’s power dynamic. The result is a revolutionary exercise that convincingly puts into question the conventional, popular ways in which films are produced and consumed.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Never Let Me Go (2010) A Film by Mark Romanek

I'm a firm believer in the idea that a film inspired by literature need not transcribe its source material religiously, that it can, and should, simply extract something from the spirit or thematic quality of the work. I would argue that the most compelling cinematic adaptations of novels - The Shining, Hiroshima Mon Amour - riff vaguely off what's on the page, taking only the feel of it and reinterpreting it as something entirely distinct. With that said, there's something warm and comfortable about a faithful adaptation as well, especially for fans of the original novel. Some stories call for a certain manner of telling that perhaps would be done a disservice to in the hands of an over-ambitious filmmaker. When you find yourself sandwiched in between these two extremes - the feeling of a director primarily sticking to his text but straying wantonly from it at the most crucial moments - you get something like Mark Romanek's Never Let Me Go, a precious film of the Oscar-baiting variety. I was reasonably impressed by the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro (author of Remains of the Day), which was hyperbolically proclaimed as the best novel of the decade in some circles, so I was interested to see how Romanek (One Hour Photo, a plethora of music videos) would handle it. That he extracts the romance that was a mere simmering undertone in an otherwise rich thematic palette in the book and makes it just about the entire purpose of the film is as groan-inducing as it is woefully predictable, given the propensity for mass movie audiences to latch onto one, not many, emotional registers.

Signs of Never Let Me Go's one-dimensional melodrama come early and often, when Romanek starts laying on thick an air of sadness and fatalism. The voiceovers of Carey Mulligan - who embodies the story's beating heart and narrator, Kathy - replace the ambiguous flatness of Ishiguro's first-person prose with an emotional severity and a devastating awareness of her condition. Her condition, of course, being the peculiar, sci-fi flourish that the book so effectively employs, and that the film tosses out there only as a barometer with which to judge the romantic trajectories of its main characters: the generation of children that is the center of attention is actually a batch of clones in a medically advanced hypothesis of society. This premise itself, patiently revealed in the novel and more or less nodded at in the opening dictum of the film, is naturally one that leaves ample possibility for poeticism at Romanek's doorstep. The ephemeral nature of life, the sense of literal and figurative borders put up by children in their earliest stages that dictates their eventual moral compass, the debate of nature vs. nurture, the exploitation of the individual in the face of a larger political and social hierarchy, the question of what constitutes a "soul": these are all concerns that are readily present in Ishiguro's novel. Romanek either strands them entirely or suffocates them underneath the big emotions on display at the center of the story, wilting away like the very setting of the first section of the film, the English boarding school Hailsham.

Hailsham's definition as a "boarding school" is, of course, like many of the rigidly sustained definitions in the community's vernacular, problematic: it's a euphemism for what is really a clone development center, a place where these quasi-humans can be nurtured so that their organs will be healthy for their ultimate "donations", the final step before "completion". It becomes clear that the lives, or fabrications, of these people (or not?), are completely pre-destined, lined up as if life is but a series of checkpoints before the time is up. The beauty of Ishiguro's novel is in the devastating acceptance of fate these character's have inevitably built into the fabric of their existence. By the end of the film, a masochistic melancholy has been established. Fortunately, Romanek retains the inaction of the central figures - Kathy and her two friends Ruth (Keira Knightley) and Tommy (Andrew Garfield) - and doesn't turn it into some tale of rebellion that would be entirely out of line psychologically, but he does portray what amounts to an emotional explosion that the book does not indulge in. Tommy gets out of a car with Kathy to scream hopelessly into the dark night (at the very least, Garfield, a promising actor, delivers a powerful bellow) after they have been denied a nonexistent "deferral" from donations on terms of love, one of many tall-tales that was spread around Hailsham.

Particularly, it is this first section of the film - this spreading of rumors, creation of false pretenses, and aura of secrecy - that Romanek fumbles, delivering a sadly cliff-noted version of what is the book's finest, most mysterious stretch. It's the naive vulnerability here of the children that is so compelling, driven as they are to convince themselves of the supposedly ideal nature of their suppressed lives. But Romanek hits only the major notes, failing to turn his camera towards the quieter, telling moments that don't necessarily have any narrative import. Worse yet is his altercation of the book's title scene, in which Kathy swoons with a doll in her arms to the song "Never Let Me Go" by a fictional Judy Bridgewater before being ominously observed by the school's mysterious headmaster. The implication, obviously, is of the sexual impotence of these clones, how they can never enjoy the privilege of nurturing a child no matter how badly they desire it. More fundamentally, it's a moment of offhand intimacy and introspection painfully understood by the otherwise cold, calculating headmaster, a spark of humanity that would suggest the answer is "yes" to the story's omnipresent "soul-or-no-soul" question. In Romanek's streamlined vision of the scene though, Kathy is watched tenderly by Ruth, and the feeling has been reduced to an expression of longing for Tommy, which is ultimately the love triangle that the film plainly concerns itself with. More interesting is to watch the faces of Izzy Meikle-Small, Charlie Rowe, and Ella Purnell (the young Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth, respectively) - all of whom bear an uncanny resemblance to their older counterparts - as they negotiate the complex emotions the story calls on them to exude. These iconic faces are the heart of the film, and they do a great deal to elevate Romanek's schematic, detached presentation.

There won't be anyone coming out of Never Let Me Go saying the visuals were unflattering, but at the same time it wouldn't be the boldest proclamation to say the visuals are stunning. Adam Kimmel's pristine cinematography lays a thick gloss of prettiness and respectability, but it often trivializes the story and characters, transforming it all into a series of postcards. When Kathy and Tommy go for a stroll around "The Cottages" in the second part of the film, the sensation has less to do with the warm emotionality of these two friends and would-be lovers communicating timidly than it does with the picturesque way Romanek frames them against the skyline and the vast expanses of farm fields. It's not poetic, like in the work of Terrence Malick, because it has little complexity to fall back on, no foundation of psychological and thematic richness. Though Never Let Me Go will likely win awards and impress the masses, it remains a failure as an adaption of depth, a squandering of the enormous potential of the premise.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Kenneth Anger Shorts

The great, mysterious, and unexpectedly funny counter-cultural hero Kenneth Anger made a special appearance at the Harvard Film Archive a week ago to show a selection of his films from very early on in his career to his latest digital work and to answer the questions of a fanatical audience. I was only able to attend one night, in which some of his most widely known experimental shorts were screening, and I was enormously impressed by the turnout. I've never seen the Archive sell out (they actually had to turn guests away at the entrance when the place had filled up, and I was the final one granted a ticket), and I've especially never seen such a mad, starstruck audience. Normally, cinema crowds are reserved and distanced, but here it was as if a generation of fanboys and fangirls were trying and failing to restrain their giddy idolatry. The result was a theater experience with a sense of communitarian spirit and aliveness that I haven't been apart of in a while, maybe not since witnessing the dreadful Rocky Horror Picture Show cult. Why exactly does Anger, an esoteric leftist, open homosexual, and practitioner of the marginal Thelema religion, inspire such a furor when compared to other experimental film artists? Why not Michael Snow, Bruce Conner (who passed away two years ago), Su Friedrich, or Chantal Akerman? I think a lot of it has to do with the propensity for Anger's films to be considered "trip movies", or works that can pass as pure visual entertainment without necessitating intellectual engagement. These are very approachable films; they straddle so many ideas but do so in a way that invites comfort, a peripheral familiarity with the world as it's depicted.

That sense of comfort is never more pronounced than in Scorpio Rising, his seminal 28 minute short from 1964, and among the closest things to an avant-garde "hit" there has ever been (maybe Warhol's Chelsea Girls is also in contention). The film consciously reflects pop culture through the prism of its own progressive bizarreness, incorporating a deliciously sardonic soundtrack of 60's pop music (Elvis, Bobby Vinton, Ray Charles) and images of national star figures (James Dean). Mirroring this is the self-consciousness with which his central cast of characters - a leather-clad biker gang - go about their preparatory biking routines, suggesting the film is to some extent a comment on image-centric America, where people are swallowed up by images, living either victim to them or in embrace of them. The first section is an in-depth exploration of the gang leader's rituals leading up to the climactic race scene. He's the titular figure, marked by tattoos of his nickname "Scorpio", which adds a take-it-or-leave-it element of astrology to the film. Anger's elegant, roving camera fetishizes his subject, who is in turn fetishizing his own routines of buffering his bike, fixing the engine, decorating himself with his leather jacket and tight jeans, and snorting cocaine. The music comments obliquely on the action onscreen - implicating the bikes as pretty toys with Peggy March's "Wind-Up Doll, or adding an ironic layer of romanticism to the material worship with Bobby Vinton's "Blue Velvet" - but more fundamentally it contributes another texture to the film's steadily mounted mass culture sheen, which coexists side-by-side with the sharp elements of underground, marginal society, such as motorcycle racing, homosexuality, and Nazism. It's as if to suggest there's no high and low, no popular and marginal, that these cultural distinctions are ultimately negligible.

At any rate, these seemingly disparate subtexts collide in a jarring fashion in Scorpio Rising, which features some of Anger's most aggressively associative, Eisenstinian editing. The outburst does not come however until the ending of the film, or perhaps more to the point is to say that the editing gradually accumulates speed and density as it moves forward. It often feels like Anger is building up to some grand narrative explosion, but, in spite of the visceral nature of the imagery, the effect is strictly thematic. As the bike race grows in intensity and danger, found footage (and Anger really puts the "found" in found footage, having literally stumbled upon one of the videotapes he dissects) of Biblical pilgrimages and Nazi rallies caustically intrudes on the linear flow, reminding us that leaders, like the film's protagonist, can manipulate their powerful grasp on people for both merciful and evil purposes. The lingering question, of course, as to whether Scorpio falls into the former category or the latter, is left up to the viewer who must call upon his/her own experiences in assigning meaning to the film's rich associative puzzle. Whatever the conclusion though, Anger doesn't have an influence one way or another; his gaze is deeply respectful, even glorifying, as if he's trying to incorporate himself into the gang and really understand their eccentric ways of life. Or are they really eccentric at all? Somewhere within Scorpio Rising's sprawling tapestry of visual and sonic chaos, you'll discover that such judgments are beside the point.

The second film shown was Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965), a six-minute fragment of an unfinished longer work that feels like an abbreviated parody of Scorpio Rising in that it maintains focus on the culture of motor vehicle infatuation and does so with a somewhat ironic detachment. Only here, one gets the sense that the ironic detachment is the sole purpose, making it a less complex, if no less entertaining, work than Scorpio Rising. In this case, Anger trumpets the west coast hot rod lifestyle, floating over a man tending to his ridiculously souped-up, hot pink car. Eroticized images of the muscular, scantily-clad owner and the voluptuous contours of his vehicle humorously discover sexuality in both man and machine, keenly perceptive to how the obsessions of the former influence the designs of the latter. Once again utilizing pop music (The Paris Sisters' "Dream Lover") to energize and comment on the behaviors, the short particularly feels like an influence on kitschy modern-day advertisements, like the kind of all-too-common car commercials that detect this very same intimacy between owner and product. For this, Kustom Kar Kommandos is nowhere near as charming as it might have been when first released, but it remains a funny, pictorially sensuous tidbit nonetheless.

Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969), the most unsettling and hallucinatory of the bunch, takes Scorpio Rising's peripheral fixations on death to a greater level of intensity, claiming various iterations of a skull as its central motif. Grotesquely lit faces, disembodied, floating skulls, and, in one instance, a skull-shaped pipe all figure into the film's densely packed visual assault, which is supposedly Anger's genuine attempt to conjure the spirit of Lucifer (the God of Light) and his demon-brother. Whatever the spiritual ambitions of the project, it pays off marvelously, because the trance-like state induced by the film feels at least hypnotic, if not otherworldly. It suffices as simple visual poetry, as the barrage of icons, symbols, occult rituals, and ghastly superimpositions - though designed in the interest of Thelema associations - tend to satisfy as pure plays of light, color, and texture, like in the work of Stan Brakhage. Regardless, most of these images cast a shocking and in some cases lasting spell, such as the repetitious use of the same man's face in close-up with a fury of ghostly symbols dancing around his eyes, or the unexpected diversion of a group of naked man sitting together in the dark, illuminated only by Anger's lurid splashes of red light. This is all facilitated by Mick Jagger's shrill but ultimately fitting electronic score, which incessantly beeps and moans behind Anger's images and dictates the pace of the editing. Whether the staggered inclusion of live Rolling Stones footage is intended as a mere thank you to the band's frontman or a necessary ingredient in the film's puzzling content is never clear (although the latter is likely given Anger's supreme high-mindedness), but it chalks on another layer of mystery to this bizarre, portentous work.

Anger's desire to evoke spirituality with his work is manifested most bluntly in Lucifer Rising (1972), the last film screened at the Archive and presumably another riff on the myth of Lucifer, this time fraught with various other Gods as if to imply a kind of universality. Unlike Invocation of my Demon Brother and his earlier Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, Lucifer Rising is much tamer with its imagery in approximating the transcendence Anger is reaching for, using traditional long takes, pans, tilts, and an arcane sense of narrative rather than creating abstractions. As a result, it's often conspicuously self-important, reducible as it is to a series of long, hypnotic trudges by Anger regulars clad in baroque outfits through spaces both natural (ancient Egyptian pyramids and the surrounding desert) and indefinite (dark, shadowy hallways). Surprisingly, what has become one of Anger's defining images - that of a UFO soaring uncannily over a massive Egyptian statue - has also proven to be one of his most dated, an unsatisfying display of special effects wizardry that momentarily removes the seriousness from the film when Bobby Beausoleil's cloying, epic score isn't already doing so. While Lucifer Rising is certainly not without its pleasurable curiosities - the protracted slow-motion shot of lava spouting from a volcano that begins the film, a creepy moment of ritualistic gore - it ultimately feels like an overlong example of Anger indulging without restriction in his scattered mythical and mystical obsessions. As far as I'm concerned, it wasn't an ideal way to conclude the screenings, but it nonetheless lead the way to Anger's own fascinating insights and anecdotes regarding the films. All in all, an illuminating evening courtesy of a film artist quite unlike any other.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Collateral (2004) A Film by Michael Mann

Michael Mann's Collateral is largely a compromised film, and for this it's all the more intriguing to excavate where Andrew Sarris' auteur theories prove to be true - that is, that it's through bankable Hollywood material imposed on a director (this being one of the few films Mann does not share a screenwriting for) that his/her particular shining traits manifest themselves most vividly. Not that this is not still quintessential Mann - after all, it's a straight-and-arrow crime movie much like his earlier, other one-word-title works like Thief and Manhunter - but it repeatedly struggles from common denominator tactics, like the stylistic jabs at contemporary pop-culture relevance (a groan-inducing inclusion of Audioslave's "Shadow on the Sun"), and several times threatens to become a boneheaded chase picture. The hammer-to-the-head Audioslave moment, for instance, which overpowers the mood of what is otherwise one of the film's most chilling, surrealistic moments, hints at a bigger clumsiness at work here, a trait that is partly intended (the gritty, textural digital video) and partly, I suspect, accidental. In particular, it is the incessant and sometimes laughable use of musical score (is that a Garage Band drum loop I hear?) that is damaging, undermining the film's seriousness as if to suggest it's all a campy romp. But it is only because Collateral's imagery is so luminous, its psychological inquiries and sociological commentaries so penetrating, that I am willing to push my selective attention to the brink and pretend the music's not there.

As usual, the substance of Mann's filmmaking is in his evocative visuals that capture in ways that are offhand and retrospectively powerful the complex wealth of emotions his films concern themselves with. Therefore, I'll focus on specific images that do justice to this facet of his skillset and demonstrate Collateral as a sharper film than it may superficially appear to be.

An average Los Angeles taxi driver named Max, played here with palpable verisimilitude by Jamie Foxx, is at the film's center, and he is the nexus onto which the audience projects its sympathies. He tends to his ho-hum job on a daily basis with a genuine drive for professionalism and an effortless approachability - the first ten minutes show him first buffering his cab and then carrying on a conversation with a lovely young lawyer named Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith) without making it too obvious that he's flirting. But it's only temporary, he insists, as his real goal is to run a successful limo business. Trouble is, there's no superhuman hustle in him, no spontaneity that would inspire a breaking of routine, so he's really been in denial, convincing himself he's capable of something without any plan to actually put it into practice. In establishing an easygoing, almost fairy-tale-like mood in this opening sequence, Mann hints at the kind of cruise control mindset towards life that will be painstakingly picked apart and shattered for remainder of the film. In the image below, which is part of a series of moody shots during Max's escort of Annie, Mann draws attention to this delusional, self-deceiving character by capturing life as a reflection, life as an illusion. Max wants to see behind the glass, but is stuck in forward motion in his taxi.

The film abruptly turns noir when Max proceeds to pick up a spiffy, seemingly pleasant guy who gradually reveals himself to be a cold and calculating hitman, Tom Cruise's Vincent. Max quickly finds himself unwillingly complicit in a succession of mysterious assassinations as Vincent offers up a hefty sum for the night's work, and since he's got a gun perpetually slung at his side, Max has no business saying no. Vincent maintains a rock-solid wall of inscrutability in terms of personal history; he simply kills because it's his job, and he does his job well. He also won't let someone as low on the totem pole as Max spoil the precision with which he goes about his work. It's a classic, archetypal meeting of two different "types": the morally questionable, thought-provoking outsider and the naive everyman. The struggles of values, codes, and worldviews between them is an endlessly revealing process, and to some extent, though Vincent is far more self-assured and unbreakable, each of them is backed into a wall, faced with a situation that will challenge their preconceptions in some way. Max lacks the charisma and willpower of Vincent, while Vincent is in serious need of Max's affability and reasoning. In one of Collateral's first climactic scenes of struggle, Mann stages the action in a narrow highway overpass, with fences surrounding the two central characters. As typical a noir touch as it is, it nonetheless works like a charm, making concrete the existential imprisonment they face.

Part of why Collateral works so well as a psychological study is because of the unlikely and unusual sense of camaraderie Max and Vincent develop over the course of the narrative, even as they debate and threaten each other on the surface. This is a complex relationship, one driven by disconnect and obligation but reminiscent of masculine bonding, or friendship, regardless. And since friends assist other friends by revealing their shortcomings, this is precisely what happens in Collateral (though the end result is less fulfilling than it is viciously cathartic). Foxx emits subtle signs in his face and body movements that gradually indicate a character transformation, an adoption of some of Vincent's strengths. In the scene below, in which Vincent sends Max into a shady situation to retrieve a special flash drive, Max's self-confidence finally makes itself known. The oddly cumulative visual progression of the scene - the notion of the style being in sync with the emotions in an uphill climb towards the payoff - begins by framing Max and the object of interest, Felix (Javier Bardem) in ways that break compositional rules to suggest a fundamental discomfort. It's like the two are not even in the same room. But Mann slowly builds towards a standard shot-reversal-shot setup, getting closer and closer and approximating Max's growing bravery.

As well as being a crime thriller, Collateral doubles as a road movie, sharing that genre's equalization of literal and figurative transportation. Almost the whole film takes place on the road, in the busy inner city streets and spacious freeways of LA, only stalling for brief episodes of action. Even when Max purposely crashes the taxi - a cathartic moment that signals an abandonment of his prior methods of self-actualization - the film simply shifts to a new means of passage: the metro line. It's where the edge-of-your-seat climax and resolution ensue, as Max and Vincent face one another, both with gun in hand, on either side of a conjoined subway car. The characteristic object of interest dividing them is of course a female. Coincidentally (and this is a spot where the film is weighed down by Hollywood contrivance), it's Annie from the beginning, and Vincent needs to murder her while Max wants to save her). I won't reveal what happens, and perhaps it's negligible anyway, because whatever the outcome, Max emerges a changed man. As the film winds to a close, Mann frames his protagonist beside a glass building where a vast power plant is reflected. It's nakedly indicative of progress and energy. The mechanical becomes the personal.

On a side note, Mann has pointed towards Dr. Strangelove as one of the key films to get him into cinema in his younger years for its simultaneous high-mindedness and box-office prosperity, so we know he's a Kubrick fan. Here he regurgitates to shocking effect a technically groundbreaking scene from A Clockwork Orange in which Kubrick dropped his camera inside a box from the third story window of a building to visualize a first person suicide attempt. This time Cruise's Vincent is on the other side of the window with a gun, and the repercussions are seen only from Max's unsuspecting vantage point.

What prevents Collateral from being a truly great Mann film is its frequently cheesy action movie stylings, and as much as they tend to line up with his prior work, they just don't feel necessary or justified in the context of this sparse, existential narrative. It's irritating because I can envision a film with even greater impact, with less bludgeoning musical choices and fewer serendipitous images of a menacing Cruise emerging laughably into frame. Still, what remains when you push aside the gloss is a luminous portrait of nighttime LA, a pair of raw, eye-opening performances, and the first-rate contemplation we've come to expect from the director.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Social Network (2010) A Film by David Fincher

Early trailers, with the particularly inspired addition of a choir version of Radiohead's "Creep", would have lead you to believe The Social Network would be a film about virtuality, digital voyeurism, and ultimately, the changed social dynamics of the internetworking age. It's both a blessing to the film's classical narrative efficiency and a head-scratching peculiarity that director David Fincher could hardly care less about any of that. What he has devised really has more in common with the great literary and cinematic traditions of flawed ambition dramas, of antihero studies like Citizen Kane and Fitzcarraldo. So while The Social Network may be one of Fincher's most accomplished, mature films, it's also perhaps his most confined and unmitigated, or his least interesting in terms of argument's sake. One can often sense the gears churning, as the film's predictably inscrutable subject Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) builds the internationally famous social networking enterprise and hits the various narrative checkpoints along the way, evincing small, ephemeral psychological insights: he gets dumped by his girlfriend, hops on Napster founder Sean Parker's (Justin Timberlake) boat to maximize a level of "cool", screws over his best friend and CFO Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) once achieving a state of cyber domination, and finally attempts to reconnect with his ex-girlfriend in a wondrous in-joke that concludes the film. As drama, it has a tendency to be inoffensively by-the-numbers, but its real strength is as a classical entertainment.

This is especially unexpected from Fincher, whose prior films often seem decidedly averse (that is, by Hollywood standards) to the crowd-pleasing factor; witness the cerebral melancholy of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the creepy body horror of Seven, the literal-mindedness and subversive genre-mingling of Zodiac, or the nihilism of Fight Club. His no-fun sensibility notwithstanding, The Social Network announces its whimsical, accelerated attitude right from the get-go, in which the impact of the tumultuous break-up scene that catapults the plot lands somewhere in the ballpark of a vaudeville show. Much of this must be credited to screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, who specializes in the kind of conversational ping-pong that Zuckerberg and his soon-to-be ex Erica (Rooney Mara) engage in, but it's of course also perfectly staged and acted; Fincher's simplistic reversals and shallow depth of field insure the attention is directed only at Eisenberg and Mara's terrific on-screen chemistry and disastrous romantic compatibility. He's simultaneously flexing his ego about his ability to maintain a sweeping presence in Harvard University's prestigious "Final Clubs" and irrationally analyzing her harmless responses, all of which illuminates his casual condescension. Meanwhile, she's growing increasingly impatient with his inability to detect his own social shortcomings, so that his eventual proclamation of her as "just a BU student" is the unsurprising final nail in the coffin that thoroughly earns her dismissal of him as an "asshole".

Fincher bathes the scene, and by extension, the remainder of what takes place on the isolated campus of Harvard University, in the marvelous hazy golden light he loves to employ, and it's not just aesthetic fluff. His rendering of the royal atmosphere of the most exalted college in the nation is some of the finest mood-building of his career. A constant sense of pesky menace dilutes the school's otherwise distinguishable core values, and accounts for the extended post-credit montage of juvenile internet mongering that Zuckerberg inspires across the campus and eventually the entire city of Boston. Fueled by his recent break-up, he drunkenly codes an imbecilic spam site called Facesmash that offers the possibility for more inebriated misogynists to pit fellow female students against each other in a battle of hotness. This is the kind of rampant desire for social and sexual acceptance that seethes beneath Zuckerberg's mostly disinterested, elitist facade and guides the eventual birth of Facebook, which is his attempt to supplant all real-world social hierarchies with an online counterpart, amassing such intimate details as relationship statuses, pictures, personal interests, etc.

You get the idea. Plot synopsizing has been beaten to death elsewhere, so I'm not going to spell out every individual right and left turn The Social Network takes. Ultimately, it seems pointless anyway, because the film doesn't bring anything particularly new and unique to the table narratively, which isn't inherently a negative trait. The film vacillates between three strands: the actual chronological entrepreneurial ascent of Zuckerberg and, eventually, Parker, and two separate legal trials detailing the lawsuits placed against him by Saverin (for corporate exploitation and treason) and a pair of twin brothers, Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss (for what they deem, largely due to their own brand of elitism, to be intellectual theft). Fincher's complex editing scheme - jumping back and forth based on associative and sometimes direct links, creating a flashy web of cause and effect - is a staple of legal dramas/biopics such as this, but the orthodoxy doesn't matter because of how well the form is employed. Like Zuckerberg's own skittish, multi-tasking mind (an idea he memorably asserts to a lawyer when answering a question about where his attention is), the film careens like the very nature of our convergence culture, in which the average person does not focus his/her attention on one platform but many at the same time. People no longer lead private, immediate lives; we are existing across various planes on a daily basis, those of the physical, emotional, and digital spheres. One might argue that this is how humans have always carried on, perhaps in different, more primitive iterations, but that it's fundamentally the same nonetheless. And I would adamantly agree, except that Facebook and the internet have accelerated, simplified, and standardized our ability to perform this balancing act.

Fincher's decision to impart such shallow focus, singling out individual characters in a room with ghostly blurs of people behind them, is an apt visual metaphor for this 21st-century insularity. It's only a shame that he didn't decide to carry these thematic concerns further, settling instead for what is primarily a classical character drama, a power struggle between a group of males all fighting for authority and economic affluence, albeit with differing methods. I can't help but think: why not take full advantage of the fascinatingly modern themes at his disposal with this kind of story? Granted, the film's few instances of direct Facebook-related content - Saverin's girlfriend fumes over the lack of mention on his profile page about being in a relationship, Zuckerberg's insistent refreshing of Erica's page after sending a friend request her way - are cute and distorted at best, so maybe dealing with the internet trends openly was something Fincher and Sorkin were, to borrow Zuckerberg's snappy line, "intellectually and creatively (in)capable of doing." As it is, The Social Network is a tremendously functional movie, with phenomenal performances, a driving score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, assured pacing, witty dialogue, and eye-catching images, but it rarely breathes like a work of art. With that said, I look forward to being entertained by it again.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Hunger (2008) A Film by Steve McQueen

Steve McQueen's brutal, transcendent prison drama Hunger has to be one of the most impressive films to not win a Palme D'Or in the Cannes Film Festival's long and vibrant history. Weaving its serpentine, minimalist narrative through the stories of prison officer Raymond Lohan (Stuart Graham), two cell partners named Davey Gillen (Brian Milligan) and Gerry Campbell (Liam McMahon), and finally the desperate martyr who becomes the film's main focal point, Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender), McQueen essentially divides his film up into two stages in the extended revolt of Irish Republican Army prisoners: the initial dirty revolt, which entails the refusal to bathe and the spreading of human waste, and the tragic hunger strike of the film's title. More fundamentally though, it's pitched between atrocity and contemplation, as the visceral battle of the first half gradually gives way to morbid silence. This dissection of a historical event - the 1981 IRA strike - marks a sharp left turn in the career of director Steve McQueen, who has hitherto worked principally in the realm of structuralist installation art. His grasp of the cinematic medium in the feature-length format, however, is clearly significant. Though the film progresses rather like an abstract tone poem, failing, perhaps intentionally, to delve too deeply into character psychology, there is always - in spite of McQueen's startlingly disjunctive stylistic ideas - a coherent and otherworldly force guiding it along.

The weighty political implications of the film are more or less brushed under the rug by McQueen in favor of viscera and emotionality. This is, of course, really a monolithic conflict between a subversive clan of Irish Republicans and the cold, didactic Thatcher regime, which had at the time been ambivalent and discriminatory towards the Roman Catholic community of Northern Ireland, but it's treated more as a timeless battle between an oppressive authority and the seemingly powerless underdogs. The disembodied radio voice of Margaret Thatcher (or "vapor", as McQueen describes it) doesn't enter into the film until three-quarters of the way through, emphasizing the insignificance of political conflict when placed aside real, physical conflict. Political conflict, McQueen suggests, is what allows a government official to hide behind her curtain and coolly analyze a situation without actually understanding it. Hunger marks an attempt to shed light on the vicious human battle that went on inside the Maze Prison without any presuppositions about who's right or wrong. Neither the prisoners nor the often savage guards are cheaply antagonized; McQueen takes pains to reveal them in both moments of quiet introspection and erratic violence. Raymond Lohan, for instance, is first shown eating breakfast in the calm of his suburban home before heading to work, where, after checking for bombs planted underneath his car, he routinely terrorizes the prisoners. Later, he compassionately visits his comatose mother at a geriatric home. All in a day's work.

Raymond's story is mostly backgrounded though by those of the prisoners. Naked and surrounded by filth of the scatological and insect sort, the men waste away somberly in their cells, fiddling with secretly transported notes detailing some vague, unidentified scheme (an escape, or perhaps the eventual shocking murder of Raymond?). For all of the tactile sensations - the overwhelming reek, the ubiquitous slime - McQueen presents the cells as something of a spiritual abode, a place of relative tranquility in comparison to the violence and exploitation that is endured outside the excrement-caked walls. The lone source of light in the cell is a diminutive window that collides with the various contents of the room to produce a warm, golden glow, a sense of holiness juxtaposed against the decidedly unholy behaviors inside (clandestine masturbation, damming of the walls to spread urine into the halls). McQueen's painterly, Costa-like compositions discover the unexpected beauty in this paradoxical space: primitivized, desperate men silhouetted against the textured surfaces, reaching out to any hint of freedom and life, such as in a long, impressionistic shot of Davey fixating his fingers on a fly circling the bars on the window. McQueen even manages to create abstract art out of a cleaner spraying the feces off the wall, an image that reflects his backdrop in gallery installation.

Hunger is necessarily low on dialogue for its majority - better to luxuriate in the primal emotions at work in the struggle, an interplay of muscle and mind that leaves no room for words - but when screenwriter (and unsurprisingly, playwright) Enda Walsh steps forward for a bravura display of linguistic profusion in an incredibly protracted scene of dialogue between Bobby Sands and a priest in an empty mess hall towards the middle of the film, it's unexpectedly effective. The heavily discussed 17 1/2 minute static take follows the most physically and emotionally extreme stretch of the film, when the prisoners are subjected to cavity searches in the face of an unrelenting SWAT team whose shield-banging provides an intense percussiveness to the scene's clamoring mise-en-scene. It's fitting, then, that the film's gradually accumulated intellectual probing coalesces out of this violent action, which heightens the sensitivity of the audience to an alarming degree. The cautious and winding path of their conversation from harmless, blackly comic small talk to full-fledged debate about the ethical implications of a hunger strike - with the priest detecting a misanthropic, murderous bent to it and Sands defending his decision as the only remaining manner of revolt - highlights the divide between ideology and experience, detached viewpoint and first-person stance, even further. Having witnessed the brutal, wordless struggle that McQueen so skillfully portrays, which culminates less out of a political ideas than it does out of sheer firsthand savagery, it's only natural that we come to side with Sands as he delivers a personal anecdote of desperation and in-the-moment decision-making in a powerful, rhythm-altering close-up.

After this burst of verbiage, the film settles into the fatal, meditative tone that marks its slow conclusion. Sands initiates the hunger strike that expands to several prisoners in the Maze, but McQueen centers his attention strictly on his protagonist as his body rapidly emaciates and his flesh forms lesions from severe depletion of nutrients. There's a deeply Christian flair to Sands' martyrdom, his singular leadership of the revolt, and his gradual weakening in the face of his cause. Perpetually in bed denying the meals delivered regularly at his side, McQueen bathes him in white light, and he is given a final, touching moment of reminiscence in a brief memory of childhood, a last escape from the oppression that surrounds him. The young Bobby is embarking on what seems to be a boy scout trip to the woods, where he eventually finds himself jogging, all alone. He stop mid-path and stares at the tall, imposing trees around him, while an atmospheric string section bubbles up from the silence, the only instance of a musical score within the narrative of Hunger. It's an appropriately enigmatic finale to this humanistic, uncomfortably moving work of art, a stylish display of the simultaneous anguish and willpower of the human spirit that loudly proclaims the entrance of a distinctive filmmaker.