Tuesday, August 30, 2011

In the City of Sylvia (2009) A Film by Jose Luis Guerin

Consisting of a man, an audience surrogate, sifting through beautiful French passersby on a lazy summer afternoon in Strasbourg, Jose Luis Guerin's In the City of Sylvia is a heterosexual male fantasy executed with the patience and precision of a private investigator's video tapes. I'm being tongue-in-cheek, of course, because the film doesn't possess the kind of perversion of the male gaze that such a description would suggest. What is does do is accurately convey the loneliness and romantic desire of an adrift artist seeking companionship in a foreign city, an act of voyeurism that gently comes to mirror the filmmaker's search for a subject, as well as the viewer's search for meaning within an onslaught of daily visual and sonic stimuli. It's about an unnamed man (Xavier Lafitte) silently probing the female public for a so-called Sylvia, a woman from 6 years prior that he had a memorable night with at a bar called Les Aviateurs, but the tip-off to this plot detail - ultimately the entirety of the film's narrative content - is not revealed until more than halfway through. So until this realization, the man's pursuit is shapeless and abstract, the only proof that he's looking for anything at all being the numerous sketches of slightly varying women that he keeps referring to in his notepad.

Therefore, divorced from defined narrative purpose, In the City of Sylvia returns the cinema to its earliest practice of unmitigated observation, in the process drawing attention to how much our quotidian lives are spent merely watching life unfold around us. The film is broken up into two major set pieces bookended by shorter scenes of the protagonist's untethered contemplation, the first of which is a prolonged, deceptively simple episode of the man's perusal of various women at an outdoor cafe we later learn is associated with the Drama Conservatory, where Sylvia was allegedly studying. Guerin resists the urge to impose much action upon the nearly thirty minute sequence, instead simply watching the wordless ping-pong of glances between cafe patrons. Lafitte, with his notepad and his beer, is patiently perusing the crowd, staring at the unself-conscious expressions of women without the faintest hint of sexual predation. Rather, with the help of his sketches, he's trying to put form to an amorphous memory. Guerin compensates for the film's bland technical craftmanship (it's as if a bounce card was the only tool for illumination, resulting in a lot of flatly lit faces) with placid and subtly tricky compositions that play with ghostly juxtapositions of foreground and background, placing heads in compositional relationship to one another despite their differing depths in the frame. The effect is a fragmented facial collage, suitable to the uncertain recollections of Latiffe's hopeless romantic.

Finally, after changing seats to get a new angle, he sets his sights on a slender brunette (Pilar López de Ayala) and takes it upon himself to follow her throughout the city, attempting to decide with some certainty whether or not she's Sylvia. The ensuing chase sequence plays like what Before Sunset would have become had Ethan Hawke been too afraid to approach Julie Delpy, and other times, particularly when Guerin indulges a delicate undertow of physical comedy (the man's compulsive spilling of drinks, his bumping into various objects), like the time-stretching of a Jacque Tati gag about the confusion and isolation of the contemporary urban labyrinth. (Guerin finds enjoyment in the multilayered wide shot made possible by the cobblestone back alleys of Strasbourg, transforming Latiffe into a curious lab rat with a perpetually shifting end goal.) But of even greater interest is the fact that the whole sequence - and much of the film, for that matter - is without dialogue and told in the primal visual language of silent cinema, which makes it tempting to view it as the modern update to F.W. Murnau's similar boy-chasing-girl work, Sunrise. Both films include a bittersweet scene on a moving tram (here, it's Latiffe's eventual meeting and hesitant exchange with Ayala), and both use their visual repertoire to evoke both the subjectivity of their central characters and the occasional omniscient perspective, a mysterious third person that can naturally be linked to the audience.

Guerin seems to have deliberately fashioned his film in such an open-ended manner so as to invite these decade-spanning cinematic associations. Because after all, In the City of Sylvia proves to be in its own quietly self-referential way about the experience of watching and making movies. Latiffe, suggesting an androgynous Renaissance painter with his flowing long hair, skinny mustache, and loose, unbuttoned long-sleeve shirt, compiles the various physical features of the women around him into his notepad, hoping to concretize the vague impressions in his mind, much like the slow process of mental images into scripts and ultimately cinematic images. Moreover, it gradually becomes clear that what he's searching for is not necessarily The Sylvia (although it does begin that way), but rather The One; this is a sneaky stand-in for our own goal-aspiration processes, which often start specific and wind up broad and redefined. Latiffe approaches Ayala and discovers not only that she is not Sylvia, but also that she has been aware of his following her for quite some time. He instinctively feels awful and lets his feelings of shame and regret overshadow any attempt to get to know this women who he has clearly been infatuated with regardless of her identity.

Ayala's character slips out of the back of the frame when she exits the tram in a wide shot that Guerin returns to two more times and uses as his final image, converting it now into a metaphor for missed opportunities. But it remains ambiguous as to whether or not Ayala makes a presence in the film again. In one of Guerin's several compositions to make stunning use of reflections and multiple planes, Ayala shows up unexpectedly as a specter laid across the reflective glass of a moving tram seen from Latiffe's perspective, coexisting with the (real or imagined) bodies of various other women boarding the tram or in the nearby area. Is she really there waiting to get onto the tram, or has the romantic metropolis shattered itself into a space of both facts and illusions? Latiffe's object of desire has expanded, fragmented, and reshaped itself, and the city that was once a habitat for one Sylvia has become a place bearing countless Sylvia's, countless opportunities for romantic involvement. He doesn't realize this instantly, or else his enigmatic hookup with a random girl from the bar - shot by Guerin in the tantalizing low light of his hotel room - wouldn't have been so unfulfilling, but perhaps by the end of the film he has come to terms with the absurdity of his quest. If not, he can only get as far as his notepad, nowhere near the heights reached by Guerin's seemingly slight film.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

La Collectionneuse (1967) A Film by Eric Rohmer

Wise and aloof, contemplative and so discreet that its nuances fly by without the most careful of observation, Eric Rohmer's La Collectioneuse defies all of the fashionable signposts of the French New Wave. It seeks to put a microscope to the affected machinations of young people, exposing the falseness beneath the facade rather than celebrating the art of role-playing. The film was the third entry and first feature-length work in Rohmer's Moral Tales, a series built around the trope of a male character involved in a relationship being tempted by an auxiliary love interest/sex object, all the while self-consciously testing his own moral code, making an elaborate psychological game out of the potential for infidelity. Here, that figure is Adrien (Patrick Bauchau), a dangerously suave and judgmental art dealer who skirts to his friend Rodolphe's countryside villa with the straight-faced hipster Daniel (Daniel Pommereulle) in an attempt to reach a state of total nonintervention in life. He finds his courageous act of stasis to be a "better contribution to mankind than working", so he trudges around the picturesque French estate passively reading books, walking aimlessly around the grounds, taking early morning dips in the ocean nearby, and lounging in the blank bedroom that has been appointed to him by Rodolphe.

The men's inertia is threatened by the presence of Haydée (Haydée Politoff), a young, unflappable free-spirit that catches Daniel and Adrien's unawares when they discover that she is also spending vacation time at Rodolphe's place. Haydée abides by a schedule opposite to that of Daniel, whose pursuit of an ascetic lifestyle allows for no nightlife. At first, she's but a fleeting phantom, leaving only traces of her uninhibited but not unusual flights of twentysomething recreation, but eventually, in their disengaged voyeurism, the men start to take note of her allegedly worthless and hollow male visitors. Desperate to put an end to their feelings of inferiority, yet always concealing any wiff of jealousy or desire, Adrien and Daniel begin to make offhand stabs at communication with Haydée, eventually forcing complacence upon her. They start to incorporate her into their activities, never failing to suppress their brutally specific criticisms of her, calling her a "miserable specimen", a "slut", and a "collector" of lovers with the kind of casual delivery that would suggest they really think their judgments are the final say. Despite their linguistic prowess and lofty existential concerns, these men are deeply malformed. Their immaturity is revealed in great swathes of behavioral idiosyncrasies, which Rohmer, attentive as ever even in this primitive stage of his career, holds an unblinking eye to: note Adrien's awkward picking up and putting down of the telephone after Haydée uses it, or his neurotic biting of a rock to displace the conversational tension with her during one scene on the beach.

Adrien's hyper-articulate, context-heavy narration guides the dramatic action and offers an additional layer through which to scrutinize the discontinuities between thought and behavior, principle and impulse. Rohmer's leading males are so self-assured, so certain that they are following the proper path, that it's easy to fall into a trap in which they appear righteous and sympathetic. Yet as much as Adrien frames Haydée's day-to-day behavior as manipulative, as if she's playing a game with his emotions by sleeping around with Daniel and others, it's really Adrien who's the weasel, feigning affection and then slipping away with the exacting care of a great dictator. Late in the film, he practically whores Haydée out to an American art dealer (a menacing, Sean Connery-esque Eugène Archer) by dropping her off at his house for two days, effortlessly making it a perverse part of his master plan of directing Haydée's attraction to him (and somehow it works, if only temporarily). While Adrien speaks internally of his dominance of the social situation, the onscreen action tells a different story. The American picks apart Adrien's pretensions of passivity, making him look like nothing more than the lazy narcissist he is (any shades of virtue in Archer, however, are stomped out like a cigarette when he childishly slaps Haydée for breaking a valuable vase).

La Collectionneuse marks Rohmer's first collaboration with cinematographer Nestor Almendros, whose exquisite eye instantly became an inseparable element of Rohmer's work. The sparsely gorgeous, summery color compositions which reached their fullest force in Claire's Knee are already in evidence here, contributing a mood of languid relaxation. In keeping with a reductive principle borrowed from the minimalism of Bresson, Rohmer strips most of his images of any extraneous objects, ultimately discovering a common pictorial rhythm with a burst of each primary color in almost every shot. Shooting in wide shots that feel both composed and tossed-off, Rohmer and Almendros capture with the gift of natural light images that possess the warm hues and palpable textures of a great painting; often times the soupy early evening skies seem like painted backdrops, a la Powell and Pressburger's Black Narcissus, yet somehow they maintain a weighty realism. Rohmer suspends his characters in such wondrous environments that it's an even greater tragedy that they're so preoccupied by petty concerns.

In fact, this constant, overwhelming presence of natural beauty is a humbling reminder to the viewer that there are larger, purer forces than the characters' pseudo-romantic ploys. If the people in La Collectionneuse are evasive, complex, and impenetrable - the sudden tonal shifts in many of the conversations are beguiling - the landscape that they occupy is uniform and majestic, a tension that levels the film with a mesmerizing consistency. Crucially, Rohmer never dips into judgment himself, instead letting the moral dimension of the film rest somewhere in between his own stance, that of the characters, and that of the viewer. To cement the open-endedness, Rohmer has Adrien return to a state of zero by the end of the film. After renouncing his infatuation with Haydée once and for all, he considers himself to be at last capable of utter freedom, finally stripped of any unwanted temptations. But quickly he realizes that he's plagued by anxiety, that the illusory rewards of his self-confirming victory were only temporary. Perhaps he has solved his own predicament by realizing that aspirations to nothingness are simply illogical and that there's no joy to be obtained from a life of social and existential apathy. In doing so, he has allowed Rohmer to emerge from a perplexing and revealing dive into the male psyche.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Last Picture Show (1971) A Film by Peter Bogdanovich

For one hundred years, people have gone to the cinema, if only subconsciously, to attempt to understand and know the world, to watch lives running on parallel tracks to their own. Whatever a viewer's penchant for conscious analysis, the movies have forever offered commentary on the timeline of one's life. Rarely is this realized and conveyed as potently as it is in The Last Picture Show, Peter Bogdanovich's loving elegy to a minuscule Texas ghost town (a fictional Anarene) whose few citizens hop in and out of the cinema like it's just an ordinary activity in the daily routine. Truth is, there's not much to do in Anarene anyway, aside from the cinema, a pool hall, and a habitually empty diner, all overseen by town veteran Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson in an Oscar-winning supporting performance). Bogdanovich doesn't even show the cinema-going ritual much, simply as a restful grace note here and there, but it nonetheless supplies an unmistakable presence in the film, a place of simultaneous escape and introspection. And when the titular event does occur offhandedly towards the conclusion of the film, it's wrung with extraordinary power, able to stand in for not only the death of a cinema but also the collapse of a way of life, financially, socially, and personally.

The film closely follows high school seniors Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms), Duane Jackson (Jeff Bridges), and Jacy Farrow (Cybill Shepherd), straining to get to know them even at the expense of narrative momentum. Sonny and Duane are both smitten with Jacy, the manipulative blonde-haired beauty of the town, but at the beginning of the story Duane is dating her, with Sonny merely looking on in quiet jealousy as his catty, bubble-gum chewing flame Charlene Duggs (Sharon Ullrick) gives him hell for yearning to get in her pants. These teenagers live in a hermetic world where driving off to the deserted outskirts of town to makeout and feel each other up offers the only illusion of breaking away. But at the same time there's very little desire to leave this town where everyone knows everyone, if only for that fact that its dusty town center, reducible to a single road, breeds familiarity and comfort, a base of stability for the otherwise drifting interior lives of these people. Both Sonny and Duane, football stars on the high school team, are fatherless, and they turn to Sam for moral support and guidance. Jacy, meanwhile, bounces hesitantly from guy to guy, desperate for confirmation of her sensual charm while her rich and clueless mother is unable to offer anything but generic encouragement and non-specific advice.

Beyond the central characters - and this is one of The Last Picture Show's great strengths - Bogdanovich is able to balance his attention on a considerable number of peripheral figures, important people in the town that play into Sonny, Duane, and Jacy's stories. Sonny starts up an initially skeptical May-December affair with his football coach's wife Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman), whose marital neglect may be the "sickness" she diagnoses herself with to Sonny. But one can sense his palpable desire to be with someone his age even when her supposed sickness vanishes from romantic ecstasy, and his sexual angst is clear whenever he stops in at the diner to speak to Genevieve (Eileen Brennan), the confident waitress. Jacy abandons Duane at the town's holiday dance to attend a nude indoor swimming party at the mansion of Bobby Sheen (Gary Brockette) - a sequence that is heart-stopping in its judicious back-and-forth of wordless glances - who seduces her with his forthright sexual taunts but ultimately denies her because she's a virgin. Being the schemer she is, her plan is to sleep with Duane so that she can subsequently woo Bobby, but when Duane loses confidence and Bobby finds a more experienced girl she resorts to her mother's lover (Clu Gulager), who defiles her swiftly in the shadowy pool hall in the film's most riveting scene.

A great deal of conflicts are waged and dissolved here through sex, which Bogdanovich is unafraid to intimately detail. His knack for visual suggestion through minor detail shots - Jacy's hand gripping the pool pocket, Ruth's single tear as she turns away from Sonny, Duane's deer-in-the-headlights look when he leans over Jacy for the first time - cuts right to the emotional core of these frequent sexual encounters. The cast is uniformly spot-on in their depictions of sex that runs the gamut from tepid and dispassionate to heated and emotionally charged. Shepherd in particular is stellar in her role, freezing Bogdanovich's camera every time she looks in its direction with her glistening, naive eyes and her glossed lips that curl as if to communicate her body's every urge. Despite the ambition of every guy in town to possess her both for her money and her looks, she has an emotional volatility and inability to connect that is disconcerting, so much so that when Duane departs to the army towards the middle of the film and Sonny finally gets his shot at her, the reaction is not one of encouragement but of apprehension. No matter how close he thinks he can get she will remain remote, and he's probably better off continuing his secret romance with Ruth than feigning a marriage with Jacy.

Unlike his early seventies' American contemporaries, who were guilelessly attempting to pick up where the French New Wave left off, Bogdanovich channels the workmanlike simplicity of John Ford and Howard Hawks in his compositional palette and lugubrious pacing (even paying explicit tribute to Hawks by using the final clip from Red River as the last flickers in the local cinema). The Last Picture Show, among the minority of the period as an American studio release voluntarily shot in black-and-white, is mostly comprised of melancholy establishing shots and familiar deep-focus conversational setups. Its narrative is revealed in fragments as Bogdanovich vacillates between different stories within the town, with pensive dialogue and sexual activity always overshadowing key dramatic epiphanies such as the death of Sam the Lion, Sonny and Duane's trip to Mexico, or (the final blow to the head) the tragic death of Sonny's childhood friend Billy (Sam Bottoms) when he is struck by a getaway car in the middle of the barren street.

Anarene's already fragile infrastructure begins to unfurl after Sam's passing, shattering the town's economic foundation and Sonny and Duane's moral centers. They get in a brawl over Jacy while Sonny struggles to maintain the pool hall, Jacy finally leaves town after a failed getaway with Sonny, and the prior concession stand attendant loses grip in her newly acquired position of cinema management. Ever so gently, the collapse of this specific small town becomes a metaphor for anyone's childhood home and the juncture in one's life when he must confront the passing on of traditions and the modernization of property and society. It's a subtext that is liberated from nostalgic sentimentality, reflected in Duane and Sonny's unassuming final trip to the cinema and their quiet resignation to the shifting flow of life. Furthermore, it's an elegiac memorial to an old tradition of filmmaking, and filters its coming-of-age trajectory through a variety of larger shifts in American cultural heritage (its setting is lumped in the calm between World War II and the Korean Conflict). The film's modest echoes of the classical Hollywood era and the Western genre are indicative of a passing age, whereas the death of those values signals the ushering in of a new, uncertain future.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Sleeping Beauty (La belle endormie) A Film by Catherine Breillat (2010)

Catherine Breillat's deliriously bizarre The Sleeping Beauty is so full of unforeseen twists and turns and radical lurches in tone that it suggests being written by its many child performers. Of course, it was written by Breillat herself, inspired by Charles Perrault's original fairy tale as well as some sprinklings of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen", but its severe narrative fragility feels purposely concocted, an attempt to get inside the mind of a naive and undisciplined child telling a story. Yet, ever so sneakily, Breillat imbues it with her characteristically clever inquiries into sexuality, gender, and coming-of-age, and suddenly the film's text and subtexts become thoroughly unrecognizable from each other. It's difficult to imagine a film in recent memory where the conceptual grounding is so cast off and hidden from the actual cinematic surface, which is bulky and cantankerous here but ultimately leads to something wise and thought-provoking. As such, the film is somewhat preferable in hindsight, where its rambling kaleidoscope of images, mini-stories, and fairy tale allusions can be sorted out in the confines of a more logic-oriented brain.

A profound rupture in typical narrative cause-and-effect is signaled immediately when Breillat begins the film on a garish close-up of an evil old woman cackling as she cuts the umbilical cord of Anastasia (Carla Besnaïnou) only to interrupt it abruptly with a jarring shot of three naked witches bathing in a stream. This old woman has giddily decided, for reasons undeclared by the script and perhaps simply nonexistent in Breillat's sordid and uncanny world, to penalize Anastasia with a death sentence at age six, and it's the job of the younger witches to find a less harsh treatment. They decide on making her sleep for 100 years, during which she will only age 10. When she awakens in the dust-encrusted emptiness of the palace, she will be in a different era, marked only by her nocturnal visions. It's a broad, open scenario, one that allows Breillat to freely traverse time periods, levels of consciousness, and geographical regions without necessitating any conventional causality. To write oneself into a free-flowing dream is to open up limitless possibilities, which can either conveniently expand (and simplify the process of) a writer's creativity or massively hinder it.

Breillat seems to land somewhere in between these two authorial outcomes. The Sleeping Beauty is both distinguishable for its termitic dives into unexpected territory and its frequent exploitation of Breillat's imagination. After establishing a hyper-awareness to the linear march of time - Anastasia lounges in a mahogany armoire surrounded by miniature clocks and later stares entrancingly at the back-and-forth of a pendulum - Breillat shatters temporal authenticity, leaping into a dreamscape wherein an understated cut can jolt the timeline from a 60's backwoods community to a 16th century kingdom, or from a timeless Arctic tundra to an amalgam of ancient BC, Victorian Era, and the contemporary world. A wide-eyed and carefree Anastasia traverses through these landscapes meeting a whimsical array of characters: a hideous cave-dweller who forces Anastasia to gamble with her life in a primitive game of bowling, adolescent albino royalty who first threaten to kill her and abruptly become friendly, a young gypsy princess who conflates violence and sexuality, and a ballistic eskimo shaman, among others. The film's key episode is a zany, Maddinesque evocation of hormonally charged childhood in which Anastasia drops in on a mother and her son Peter (Kerian Mayan) and finds herself an unofficial third family member sharing vaguely incestuous affection for Peter. Peter's subsequent Oedipal-tinged, puberty-fueled escape from domestic living provides the heartache that influences Anastasia's goal of finding him, an urge that dominates the rest of the film.

The splintered, episodic nature of the narrative is mostly devoid of restraint, with Breillat simply throwing everything at the viewer in an arbitrary pattern that is suitable to the rules of a dream but fails to offer the refinement and poise she has shown with other recent work. At about the point when Anastasia sets off on her journey for Peter and exits a ghost train in an uncharted land full of ominous mannequins and a redundant midget, The Sleeping Beauty has lost nearly all of its dramatic momentum, becoming an arcane and free-associative dream that lacks an emotional clarity that the flat, sleepwalking Besnaïnou - in her woolly get-ups and royal dresses that look like they were acquired in the bargain section of the Hello Kitty store - is unable to bring. Deadpan sight-gags are occasionally sprinkled into the mix, such as the shot of a motley crew of gypsy servants stumbling down a hill towards the scene of a grisly murder, or the sight of Anastasia confidently tossing a skull into a pile of bones beside a blood-hungry ogre, but more often than not Breillat's fairy-tale skewerings gesture towards the trashy and obscure (a seductive snow queen greeting Peter in his dreams, a vulgar expression of the Northern Lights as Anastasia endures her Sisyphean search beneath) rather than the truly mysterious.

Retrospectively, however, this nonsensical illogic seems part of the point. Breillat's aims start to come into focus in the third act of the film when Anastasia dies in her dream and wakes up from her hundred-year nap. Her 16-year-old self (Julia Artamonov) is plagued by longing and sexual mischief as she does circles around a slightly older boy named Jacque (David Chausse) who bears a close resemblance to the young Peter (perhaps family and romance are not so mutually exclusive?). Their interaction is marked by playful starts and stops, with the touchy-feely impulses always tempered by early adolescent sexual anxiety. Breillat's framing device cannibalizes the entirety of Anastasia's upbringing and turns it into a murky dream of violence, camaraderie, sexuality, familial trauma, bisexual curiosity, jealousy, rage, and adventure, which, from a psychoanalytic standpoint, seems about right. The countless motivations, experiments, and realizations of childhood cannot be rationalized or disentangled, and the myriad of external influences to the youthful psyche are diverse and unending. When Breillat concludes her film unexpectedly on an image of Anastasia's ripped hosiery beside Jacque's scraped back, it's not only a comical hint towards the offscreen virginal sexual encounter between the two, but also a metaphor for the permanent scars of childhood, the last remaining trace of the inscrutable chasm of emotions that lead to the maturation of a human being.

Monday, August 15, 2011

My Dinner With Andre (1981) A Film by Louis Malle

At one point during the long, enthralling, unpredictable conversation between theater professionals and long-time acquaintances Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn, the two embark on a the perplexing question of whether or not art can still move people to change their lives. The inquiry revolves around two sides: Wally's belief that the revealing of life in all its banal, meaningless totality can wake people up to its fundamental shortcomings, and Andre's rebuttal that such subtle maneuvers aren't good enough any more, that people must be taken well out of their comfort zones and experience something entirely unexpected, an idea he analogizes to being atop Mount Everest. As if by some magical sleight of hand, Louis Malle's My Dinner With Andre, the deceptively nondescript cinematic experiment that contains this talk in 110 minutes, finds a middle ground between these two poles by taking us into the heart of cosmopolitan NYC for a seemingly bland and routine dinner yet also to the top of Mount Everest, into surprising territory where the realization of mundanity and the pursuit of transcendence go hand in hand. The unspoken answer offered by the film is that yes, art can change lives. Or at least it can lead people to consciously think about their lives in a way that encourages change.

As the film's scenario begins, Wally (that guy whose distinctively helium-headed vocal delivery pops up in small doses in all sorts of middle-of-the-road Hollywood fare from Toy Story to The Princess Bride to The Incredibles) is the struggling playwright and no-nonsense pragmatist while Andre is the experimental-theater-director-cum-enlightenment-seeker who sprays his New-Agey mysticism at Wally with giddy, seemingly endless intensity. The thoroughly complementary nature of their characters, which naturally extends to their physical statures (Andre's lanky Bergmanesque frame, Wally's frumpy pudge), at first seems too easy, but the question arises by the end of the film as to whether or not their perspectives remain so dialectical. My Dinner With Andre, obviously, is a film about conversation, but it reveals its subject on a Rohmerian scale; it's about the ways in which the bouncing of ideas can open up new and hitherto unexplored pathways of thought, and the way that talking and talking and talking can actually pervert an initial, intended idea rather than crystallize it. Wally, who is ostensibly the film's protagonist if only because his interior monologue bookends the central conversation, is not looking forward to his dinner with Andre, who he has heard is in a funk after a rabid succession of journeys around the world and his mother's death. Yet the act of talking, at first casually and superficially but ultimately with deep introspection, is able to reverse his preconceived notions of this obligatory meeting with a past colleague. Through eye contact and listening, the unavoidable is quickly made vital, the disposable made eternal.

Andre, the well-spoken lad who chose the timeless, upscale restaurant where they meet, is off to the races about his various encounters with exotic peoples and bizarre rituals the moment they sit down. An experiment in acting with 40 singing-and-dancing professionals in the dark woods of Poland, a retreat to an esoteric community of insect communicants in Scotland, an absurd adventure through the Sahara Desert with a Buddhist monk; Andre recites these stories with alarming clarity and detail, as well as an exterior assurance that would belie his emotional turmoil. For a majority of the time, it's almost as if he'll never stop, and Wally just listens and adds the temperamental "um-hmm" or "So what did you do next?" Andre is so relaxed playing himself that the experiment of self-replication acting that he describes passing on to his 40 Polish comrades appears to be the thesis behind his own stunning naturalism in the part. It's not a matter of merely sitting in front of the camera and behaving normally; Andre and Wally spent months performing and refining the script of their conversation in various locations, thus the film is a document of two people's contrived representations of themselves.

For nearly half the film it's almost as if the same image of a contemplative, attentive Wally was simply inserted hastily from time to time to break up the extended showmanship of Andre, but slowly Wally reveals his own agency. Chomping at the bit to provide a counterargument to Andre's admittedly one-sided and privileged view of "truly living", Wally finally claims an opportune moment to launch into a celebration of the smaller, less glamorous pleasures of quotidian city life (a mode Andre finds dangerously "Orwellian"). Suddenly the dynamic of the conversation has taken a drastic 180 degree turn, with Andre, glanced frequently through the mirrored walls behind their table, offering generous nods and chuckles and only the occasional input. It is not long before their conversation has veered off entirely from the specific and into the abstract, a discursive string of unsettling philosophical arguments about reality, perception, love, and communication itself. Yet, ever so delicately, Andre and Wally maintain their casual naturalism, the sense of two Manhattanite intellectuals catching up on lost time, never falling into easy academic platitudes.

Malle captures it all (perhaps one of the least exciting scenarios possible from a cinematic/directorial standpoint, but Malle was always up for a challenge) with wise restraint and aloofness, limiting his restaurant set-up to a two-shot, close-ups, reverse angles, and the occasional imperceptible dolly move. But, to fall back on the cliche, the talk is what matters. There is very little that makes My Dinner With Andre very cinematic, but then again it shares none of the theater's showy overstatement, or even the performative spectacle of Andre's own real-life Manhattan Project. Its sense of camaraderie and realism are decidedly unshowy, and its demanding, thematically dense script bursts apart the scenario's pedestrian simplicity. Most of all the film is a one-off in the purest sense of the term: resistant to replication or homage, it defies categorization.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Holy Girl (La Niña Santa) A Film by Lucrecia Martel (2004)

In Lucrecia Martel's world, seedy scenarios are established only for them to taper off gradually while their psychological repercussions echo in the minds of her characters. In her 2008 film The Headless Woman, that axis point was a potential killing, and in her previous work, the heady and discreet The Holy Girl, it takes the form of a middle-aged doctor's public molestation of the adolescent of the title. Martel's interests lie not in observing the precise results of her central mysteries but in examining the confused psyches of her characters who are forced to make some sense of actions that appear senseless and integrate their repressed feelings of guilt and disorder into functioning everyday life. Fittingly, her films take place in unmistakably public places so that there is no escape from social situations, thus amplifying the clash between fleshy instincts and intellectual affectations. For Amalia (María Alche), a young catholic school girl who lives in a spacious, unwelcoming old Argentine hotel with her mother and hotel owner Helena (Mercedes Morán), an attempt is made to tie her victimization to her religious coursework while simultaneously hiding the particulars from her classmates and her family. For Dr. Jano (Carlos Belloso), an Otolaryngologist at a medical convention in the hotel, his central act of indecency must be shielded from an entire legion of colleagues as well as Helena, whom he quickly threatens an adulterous relationship with much to the ignorance of her connection to Amalia.

Martel relishes the tricky task of balancing several narrative threads throughout the film: Amalia's evolving relationship with her best friend Josefina (Julieta Zylberberg) with whom she shares typically girly pastimes but also a growing sexual curiosity, Dr. Jano's flirtation with Helena and casual treatment of her mild tinnitus, Amalia's persistent stalking of Dr. Jano (the true purpose of which is the film's intriguing perplexity), and several other minor subplots, from the vaguely incestuous relationship of Helena and her brother to Josefina's attempted, but ultimately unsuccessful, denial of pre-marital sex with her boyfriend. As in Antonioni, theme, rather than plot, dictates rhythm, and as such Martel hurdles unexpectedly between undercurrents of shame, sexual desire, gossip, guilt, and the supernatural. Further associating disparate elements is the idea of vocation, which is differentiated by its Catholic application ("God's call" as discussed in Amalia and Josefine's classes) and its practical, common application (a person's job or position in life). If Dr. Jano is a medical healer who betrays his best intentions by defiling Amalia, then Amalia sets out to be a spiritual healer when she chooses not to spill the information about Dr. Jano in favor of an intended religious salvation.

Or is this her intention? The word "mission" is uttered obliquely numerous times by Amalia to Josefina, which would suggest that Amalia has taken it upon herself to heed God's call in delivering Dr. Jano from sin, but it's easy to surmise that there's something else on her mind when she quietly lurks the hotel premises, deliberately placing herself in physical proximity to him seeking brief contact. Was she perversely attracted to Dr. Jano's understated rubbing of his crotch against her behind in a public gathering where a street performer was playing a theremin? Is she trying to tease out repeat encounters? Or is she merely taunting him, making him truly feel the gravity of his actions? Martel makes it clear elsewhere that these girls are capable of immaturity, gossiping disruptively in class about the teacher's (Mía Maestro) out-of-class romantic affairs, so the latter wouldn't seem far out of line.

But sexuality and violence are also at the forefront of their imaginations, and indeed menace emanates from the film like an animal looking to angrily burst from its cage. One mesmerizing, tension-filled sequence whips the camera around frantically in heated anticipation of danger as the girls frolic cheerfully through the woods (almost identical to the woods in The Headless Woman) trying to discover the source of gunshots. As if to cement their careless flirtation with death, a pair of hunters jog through the back of the frame at the very end of the scene. Later, a naked man falls from a window right outside the girls' classroom, barely surviving, after which Martel makes a brilliant cut to Helena's frozen, sleeping body. Amalia places her hand in the air over her back and wakes her up, momentarily borrowing the mysticism of the theremin player. These and other mysteriously troubling occurrences pile up throughout The Holy Girl, lending a premonition of an inevitable explosion. However, this explosion never comes, and the tension keeps elevating until it's unbearable in the final shot of Amalia and Josefina calmly doing backstrokes and whistling to themselves in the dilapidated hotel pool, a potent image of vulnerability. Martel's cinema radiates the sense of multiple things going on just outside our and the characters' consciousness(es), just beyond comprehension, which keeps her films at a near-constant level of anxiety, although it's never quite clear how much of this feeling stems from concrete reasons within the film and how much is just a psychological effect she is able to conjure in her characters in an attempt to accurately reflect their jostled and transient states.

Much of this uncertainty has to come from Martel's totalizing, exacting audiovisual approach, which combines decidedly fragmentary compositions, aggressively elliptical editing, and atmospheric sound design. Few directors today pay as much of obsessive attention to both every square inch of the frame as well as the entire space beyond it; when it comes down to it, Martel ultimately creates environments rather than a space for single scenes, choosing deliberately to visually fragment the space as if to set herself the challenge of expanding the world beyond the frame as much as possible. And yet, for all this pedantry, few directors are also able to suspend the kind of magnificent distrust of the cinematic image that Martel fosters. The surfaces of The Holy Girl seem self-contained, natural, diegetic, yet given microscopic inspection one uncovers sounds sneaking into the mix that seem to have no business being in the particular scenes they're in (or at least not at such a volume). Martel's distinctive manner of framing - filming entire scenes in close-ups, shooting from behind necks, cutting off essential body parts, choosing to let the speaker in a conversation be the character in the blurred background rather than the arbitrary figure in the foreground - is a way of throwing off the comfortable balance of a narrative, as is her radical cutting techniques, wherein an unshowy, seemingly in-scene cut can and often does signal a drastic leap in time and even place.

I certainly haven't comprehensively figured out The Holy Girl on a subtextual level, but it's clear enough that Martel is a highly experiential filmmaker whose evocative works - perched somewhere between the cerebral alienation of Antonioni and the sensuousness of Denis - tend to fly in the face of rational interpretation. That there are moments here of startling truthfulness, however, in which the behaviors of characters seem silly from a logical standpoint but emotionally dead-on, appears to suggest that Martel has elevated her unique examination of human nature to a level of artistry divorced from language. The Holy Girl isn't uniformly breathtaking (a few scenes of casual interaction between Helena and various hotel workers feel middling in spite of their perfectly realized sociological tensions, drawing the attention away from the strongest dramatic areas) but when it manages to fulfill its destabilizing vision of burgeoning sexuality competing with religious and social conventions, it does so in striking and inexhaustible ways.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) A Film by Monte Hellman

If the American road movie has popularly been about the freedom and progress that the road offers, Monte Hellman's Two-Lane Blacktop radically reverses that paradigm. Fixated on stagnation and loneliness in spite of the constant movement, the film introduces characters who drive to far-out corners of the United States merely for the hell of it, who spend their time searching aimlessly for new drag races and new car owners to whom they can assert their ride's superiority. There are no feel-good undertones here, just the hypnotizing solitude and endlessness of the highway. A driver (famous singer James Taylor) and a mechanic (Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson), both unnamed, drive the kind of beat-looking but powerful '55 Chevy that only a car freak could truly appreciate, and their time is consumed by driving to nothing in particular, racing a townie automobile aficionado, and then fixing the damage to do it all again. An end goal or purpose is never clear, and the Sisyphean ourobouros they have entered shows no signs of deteriorating.

Hellman displays the punchy gift of a minimalist in his establishing of this closed-off world of motors, tires, and cement, starting the film on an enigmatic nighttime race scene that turns quickly into a getaway from the police. The details of this sequence - who they are racing, the simple geometry of the raceway, where they are, where the cops come from - are thickly obscured by the atmospheric wordlessness of the scene, the way that the roar of the engines and uncertain expanse of the dark road overwhelms any sense of comprehension or stability. Hellman cuts the scene into a methodical dance between shadowy eyes darting around the road and the rear-view mirror, tires gripping pavement, and speedometers flickering upwards. It's a spare, visceral vision of car racing that attempts to capture the feeling of this lifestyle rather than render narrative logic, and indeed Hellman continues to portray it in this abstract manner throughout the film, so that the real experience these outcasts seem to live for is exclusively a feeling, a mode of being, like a brief drug trip. In fact, for a film so intimately tied to this pastime, the actual car racing remains a minor sidenote in the film, a ghostly presence on the fringes of the day-to-day lifestyle which proves to be taken up more by uneventful driving, laborious gas station stops to fill up the tank and tend to the engine, and quiet side-of-the-road cafe breaks.

The film is so dedicated to capturing these in-between stretches of boredom and stasis in as much detail as possible that it winds up completely stripping away any of the glamor that might be connected to the social universe of car racing. As if to further remove it from prestige and authenticity, Hellman enters G.T.O (Warren Oates) to the mix, a suave poser named after his shining yellow Pontiac G.T.O (a more eye-catching and consumer-friendly muscle car than the Chevy). G.T.O passive-aggressively wages competition between the two cars, revving up his engine to pass them on a country road while claiming to various hitchhikers that they are the ones acting up. Finally at a southwestern gas station they arrange a cross-country race to Washington D.C. for pink slips after a tense, prolonged exchange of adversarial glances. Hellman maintains a bizarre distance during conversational scenes such as these, shooting in long takes and letting action occur in the foreground, middle ground, and background all at once. For speaking to even be considered, aimless walking about and circling the cars must ensue to a point where each party has a firm sense of preconceived notions before opening his mouth. At one point, the driver and the mechanic roll through a crowded vehicle gathering late at night, Wilson robotically reciting the technical specs of each car before they stop to incite a race with the one they know will be most challenging. For them, life is a relentless compiling of practical knowledge and pursuit of competition.

Their well-groomed automobile savviness is countered by Oates' desperate desire to appear tough and sophisticated. When he forcefully regales his passengers with the particulars of his Pontiac as cited in the car manual, one gets the sense that he doesn't grasp any real working knowledge of these terms, only that he obtains pleasure from sounding esoteric and loaded. This artificiality extends to his personal life, which he mythologizes in many mutating shapes and sizes; at one point he's an ex-military officer, another time he's a man who abandoned his wife and daughter for life on the road, and later he's the guardian of Taylor and Wilson. Slowly this role-playing transforms from pestering to deeply tragic and deformed, the vague ramblings of a dreamer without any clearly defined personality for whom the route to self-actualization is as endless and ill-defined as the path of the road itself. Oates, in his chameleonic cashmere sweaters and black leather driving gloves, is brilliant in the performance, spewing a hideous stench of self-righteousness yet also managing to convey an emotional volatility on display most movingly in a scene with a nameless hitchhiking girl (Laurie Bird) who has been traveling with Taylor and Wilson throughout the film. As she dozes off in the passenger seat, he kicks into a classic monologue about "getting away" and "living the simple life", yet it's clear that all he's ever been doing is trying to get away from something internal that he is afraid to confront.

Speaking of the girl, she's one of the many fascinating thematic ciphers in Two-Lane Blacktop, a mysterious figure searching for connection just as urgently as Oates but with none of the smug self-consciousness. Beautiful, directionless, and infatuated with the romanticism of the road, it's as if she snuck out of the backdoor of a Godard film and wandered into Taylor and Wilson's car only to be simultaneously unsettled and entranced by their blankness and social indifference. They barely register her stealth entrance into the film in the background of a wide shot, failing to acknowledge her presence in the backseat when they return from a meal in a diner. Gradually however, they forge an unspoken interest in her, both battling quietly for her affections but never achieving anything close to a functional relationship. When she exits the film towards the end the same way she came in - her body vanishing into the background in another vehicle - the driver and the mechanic know it was bound to happen, that their endless silences broken up only by concise exchanges about technical matters would wear heavily on her and eventually bore her. Had she been willing to stick around forever without any change, they would have welcomed the idea, but like everything else in the world besides cars, she is ultimately disposable.

So the film, a mostly wordless character study written large across the canvas of the American countryside, concludes the way it began: anti-social loners scraping by just to keep driving and dreamers involving themselves in new experiences to add to their ever-growing mental database of fictional constructs. There are neither psychological epiphanies nor narrative satisfactions. In fact, the alleged "race" that the two cars embark on was essentially over before it even started. Stopping and starting as casually as any driver might on a long trip, the journey becomes more about routine, labor, and killing time than anything else, with the three men forming an unlikely camaraderie by the end. If there's any hope to be found in this unnerving ode to meaninglessness and alienation, it's in the rare coming together of these two different kinds of outcasts, the sharing of mutual goallessness. Never has a film so potently conveyed the spiritual vacuity of life on the road.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Dazed and Confused (1993) A Film by Richard Linklater

It’s difficult to imagine a better film about the pent-up restlessness and aimless recreation of suburban teendom than Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused. Made during a time when Linklater was seemingly incapable of churning out anything less than effortless entertainments that doubled as poetic works of art, and set in a time (the 1970’s) that the baby boomer Linklater knows well, the film lovingly reflects the era without falling into nostalgia traps. Instead of romanticizing a sense of limitless possibilities and never-ending fun, Linklater seems determined to depict how little there was to do, how so much of the time spent any given day was spent thinking about what could be happening. Wisely, that's what the film posits about every decade; people are so often thinking about the could-have-been's, would-have-been's, and should-be's that they neglect the joys that the present can offer. But this seemingly didactic message is merely a delicate subtext flowing beneath the surface of a film whose modest goal is to simply capture the essence of a particular time and attitude and thus discover something essential about growing up in any place at any time.

Like many of Linklater's early films, Dazed and Confused occurs on an unobstructed linear timeline over the course of one day and is a marvel of economy and pacing. Plotwise, the film's connective tissue is varsity quarterback Randall "Pink" Floyd's (Jason London) mental wrestling with an authoritative document passed down from high school coaches mandating chastity from drugs and alcohol during both the upcoming offseason and season. For Pink and his best friends, scribbling a signature means not only sacrificing freedom but also what constitutes the entire lifeblood of high school and youth for them: drinking, smoking, and hanging out with nothing to do but pass the time blasting Aerosmith and Alice Cooper. This utter lack of productivity, the value of which is so impossible to explain in words but is so evocatively reproduced by Linklater, is the bread and butter of the high school years. It permeates not only the typically party-hardy jocks - Fred O'Bannion (Ben Affleck), Don Dawson (Sasha Jenson, Melvin Spivey (Jason O. Smith), and Benny O'Donnell (Cole Hauser) - but also the introspective wannabe intellectuals who over-analyze their every move (Mike Newhouse (Adam Goldberg), Tony Olson (Anthony Rapp), and Cynthia Dunn (Marissa Ribisi)), the potheads and music junkies who are willing to do anything as long as weed is present (Ron Slater (Rory Cochrane) and Kevin Pickford (Shawn Andrews)), and the naive incoming freshman who spend their time imagining what the high school experience might be like and mythologizing the various popular seniors (Mitch Kramer (Wiley Wiggins), Sabrina David (Christin Hinojosa), Carl Burnett (Esteban Powell), Tommy Houston (Mark Vandermeulen), and John Hirschfelder (Jeremy Fox)).

All these individuals and many more congregate on the final day of school in May of 1976 and the subsequent morning to celebrate their mutual hit-or-miss aimlessness, driving around their small Texas town looking for something to do until finally out of this nothingness a "beer bust" is created by the moontower on the outskirts of town. Before this point, everyone partitions their time between a burger joint and a pool hall, going back and forth with reckless abandon as mid-70's rock hits blaze from the speakers of cars and countless beers get swigged in backseats. There's something ritualistic about the way Linklater films the driving sequences from a head-on view (the same angle that would be employed as homage in That 70's Show), as if the passengers are in the aisles of church and the road is their religious rite of passage. Beyond that, Linklater's use of driving as a structural element in itself charges the film with relentless movement; if the activity in one car begins to grow tiresome (and it never does), cross-cut to another to see what else is going on. In its middle stage the film becomes a riotous collage of different characters, behaviors, and moods set against different moving backdrops. The unspoken punchline is that all this momentum is actually leading nowhere, only the same rounds of tomfoolery as usual.

Linklater is quick to establish the 70's as anything but idyllic and faultless. The entire first act revolves around the freshman "initiation procedures", a series of good-natured but mostly malicious lashings and tasks handed down by the overenthusiastic seniors. This would succinctly be deemed "hazing" nowadays, but in Dazed and Confused's world it's an orientation that is allowed or at the very least turned a blind eye towards by school authority figures and parents (the one exception being Tommy's mother, who pulls a rifle on O'Bannion as he's preparing his session of ass-whipping in her front yard). While the football players run off with their thick wooden bats, the head cheerleaders - Darla Marks (Parker Posey), Jodi Kramer (Michelle Burke), Simone Kerr (Joey Lauren Adams), and Shavonne Wright (Deena Martin) - round up the freshman girls to bark orders, dump assorted condiments on them, and force them to make marriage requests to the male seniors watching on the sidelines. Curiously, the freshman seem to feel they deserve it, and other times they embrace it as a door to popularity and maturity. Linklater never comes right out and denounces the characters for it, but there are certain moments when he deftly draws attention to the perverse cruelty of it all, such as when he cuts away to Mike and Tony discussing the ridiculousness of the proceedings from the parking lot, or when the disconcertingly overeager O'Bannion (who allegedly failed senior year on purpose to get another shot at the incoming freshman) swings at Mitch's behind repeatedly in slow motion, which manages to heighten the viciousness, not to mention the implicit sadism, of the act.

For the most part, however, the film chugs along in an upbeat manner, its anthemic soundtrack and Linklater's popping color scheme contributing a patina of stylishness and energy. And of course the guilty pay for their actions (O'Bannion finds himself dripping with white paint after being set up by the freshman boys and is never again seen in the film after a ferocious outburst) and the innocent get rewarded (Mitch and Sabrina both find love interests by the end of a long, eye-opening and booze-swilling night), a system whose determinism is undercut by the sheer hilarity and spontaneousness of the night. Other characters straddle the line between reprehensible and benevolent, such as Pink and Jodi, who both participate in the procedures but later become active supporters of the freshman, inviting them out for the night as if drinking beer, breaking mailboxes, and driving aimlessly is some noble and substantial route to self-actualization. So often Linklater uses the pumped-up soundtrack - a smorgasbord of critically maligned and supposedly "trashy" rock-and-roll smash hits - to raise an emotional tension amongst the elements: the hopeful "School's Out For Summer" scores the frantic escape of the freshman from the seniors, the anticipatory "Low Rider" bellows as the characters ride around in dejection after Pickford's big party is canceled, and in the final shot, "Slow Ride" urges the characters to "take it easy!" when really they should be doing anything but.

That the Criterion booklet provides a Linklater-penned "yearbook" section with in-depth descriptions of each characters' personal quirks and aspirations suggests that Linklater so fastidiously thought out his characters that any hour-and-a-half attempt to fully flesh them all out was bound to fail on some level. Yet what's so surprising about Dazed and Confused is that so few individuals in its massive ensemble feel exclusively like high school types (one of the few exceptions being Slater, a quintessential stoner so hysterically exaggerated that his spaced-out asides manage to move beyond the stereotypical and into the mythic.) There's a generous attempt here to not only imbue each character with multiple and seemingly clashing sensibilities (Pink's simultaneous jock-isms and stoner-isms, Mike's longing for "visceral experience" in spite of his talky persona) but also to prove that the various cliques of public schooling can coexist harmoniously. Hell, there's even two vagabond townies - the creepily suave David Wooderson (Matthew McConaughey) and the tough greaser Clint Bruno (Nicky Katt) - who blend right in with their younger high school acquaintances, and McConaughey's so good in what is his first and best role that it seems as if the part, an organic mixture of feel-good ethos and indiscriminate philandering, was written expressly for him. Such is the case with most of the film's best performers, who sink right into their roles likely with firsthand experience and contrast sharply against the lesser abilities of some of the younger actors (Wiggins, Hinojosa, and Powell especially).

The beer bust is the orgiastic meeting place of all these superficially disparate individuals who are really in search of the same things (beer, weed, and companionship), and it provides the fittingly explosive backdrop for the film's final act. Linklater sticks to the same method of balancing several mini-narratives at once by intercutting among the various gatherings at the party just as he did between cars earlier in the film. The social subtext is ever-present: the appearance of activity and momentum disguises the basic purposelessness of the endeavor. But what's so fascinating about Dazed and Confused is that it argues for the lack of purpose as a purpose in itself, the vessel through which Pink eventually rebels against the stuffy "Neo-McCarthyism" of the school's leaders and the guise under which Mitch is able to enter high school with a veneer of hipness. Linklater does not arrive at this juncture through directorial insistence but rather by discovering it spontaneously in mid-air. Dazed and Confused's ultimate achievement is crystallizing the feeling of throwing caution to the wind and indulging in all luxuries, caring little for the inevitable explosion of future repercussions.