Sunday, November 27, 2011

Hugo (2011) A Film by Martin Scorsese

For two films in a row now, Martin Scorsese has staged a climactic scene around the ascension of a staircase. Atop one staircase is light (Shutter Island's lighthouse) and atop the other is time (the massive gears of the clock in his latest, Hugo), two of the primary elements that are manipulated in the creation of cinema. In some ways, this image represents the restless progression of this stage of his career, a continuous climb into the higher reaches of technology in search of new ways to heighten his expression. Of course, this attitude was there from the beginning: look no further than Mean Streets' SnorriCam scene or Taxi Driver's famous aerial tracking shot to witness Scorsese's compulsion towards technical spectacle. But in the 2000's, his awe of new gadgetry has been more pronounced. The blending of Super 35, Technicolor, CGI, and scaled miniatures for The Aviator, the soaring IMAX perspectives of Shine a Light, and now the most drastic shifts to 3D and digital with Hugo have all signaled a heightened desire within the aging director to tackle the many opportunities offered by new equipment.

As if to consciously separate himself from mindless gear-hound filmmakers like Michael Bay and James Cameron though, Scorsese uses new technologies (Alexa, 3D) in Hugo to educate about old ones, the final message being that the technology is negligible, that it's ultimately what one does with it that matters. The central paradox of Hugo - a digital celebration of celluloid and a plea for the importance of film preservation writ in 0's and 1's - is less a hypocrisy than a self-aware attempt to acknowledge the magic of the forebear and then take a leap into the unknown. Scorsese speaks to the mainstream using the tools of the mainstream about the critical responsibility of our culture to actively preserve our works of popular media at a time when the survival of film itself is jeopardized, when spectatorship trends are most schizophrenic, and when the public knowledge of what it takes to make movies is at its nadir. In a word, Hugo is timely, and its near-blockbuster status is sure to raise some awareness of the cinematic heritage Scorsese is building from.

Of course, if it achieves anything of the sort it's because of its accessible family adventure film patina (surely if the message was strong enough in itself Godard's Histoire(s) du Cinéma saga might have been a modest commercial echo of the Twilight franchise). The film is set in the Paris Montparnasse train station in the 1930's and follows the titular character (Asa Butterfield) as he scrounges his way through the walls overseeing the maintenance of the station's many over-sized clocks. Hugo's a mopey orphan who lost his beloved father in a factory accident years before the narrative begins, and therefore sustains a livelihood by refining his skills as a thief, grabbing croissants with the detached precision of Michel in Bresson's Pickpocket (Scorsese, as always, finds some joy in gently recreating the aesthetics of one of his favorite films). It's fitting that the film's somewhat slow and clumsy in establishing Hugo as a rounded individual and a boy whose issues of loneliness are worth investing in, because it turns out that he's, frankly, only of peripheral interest here. It doesn't seem obvious at first, but the embittered toy-shop owner (Ben Kingsley) who routinely barks at Hugo for stealing and/or breaking his gadgets eventually becomes the emotional and thematic center of the film. Conveniently, he's also Georges Méliès.

Early silent cinema starts to bristle from Hugo's sharp, kinetic edges, and it's here where the encylopediac cinephile-cum-technologist Scorsese of the modern day meets the asthmatic, attic-dwelling, projector-hunching Scorsese of old. Hugo's clearly a surrogate of the latter (staring out from behind the holes in the clocks, he sees the train station drama inside a cinematic frame), but it's in line with the gently self-loathing tendencies of this Little Italy filmmaker that what Hugo observes and explores is of greater emphasis than what he feels. His self-proclaimed "adventures" with Méliès' goddaughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) - whom he also, for good reason, happens to harbor a bit of a crush on - lead the two to unlocking the toy-shop owner's true identity through a series of narrative incidents involving Hugo's ancient broken automaton and a silent film scholar working at a Parisian library. What ensues with Kingsley illuminates what a classic Scorsese character Méliès really is; isolated and repressive, he is a man, like many of the director's protagonists, suffering because of his inability to come to terms with the past.

The cathartic transformation of this tragic figure is not as convincing as it is in some of Scorsese's recent immersive character studies (Kingsley's heart suddenly swells when he spies a screening of one of his last surviving film prints), but the better to launch Scorsese into the passage of the film he cares about most: the heartfelt seminar on Méliès' invaluable contribution to cinema. Hugo presents a succinct history of the early spectacle filmmaker that is never once dry or academic, delighting in three-dimensionally recreating his already magical output in joyous bursts of color, smoke, garish costumes, and cardboard sets. The comparatively flat, tableau look of these recreations only underlines what magic Méliès was able to bring to the screen with mere two-dimensionality. Scorsese can't resist the gag of putting himself in the film briefly in reference to the pioneer's own onscreen efforts, but for the most part Méliès' life and work is all there unfiltered: the glass studio, the many enthusiastic laborers, the childlike dedication and delight he brought to the process, and the magician's urge to enthrall.

Hugo's film history mania does not end there. A flip-book held by Hugo at Méliès' toy store is a tribute to Eadweard Muybridge, the English photographer who took the first steps towards the moving image. Hugo's frightful cling to the outside of the clock at the top of the station recalls Harold Lloyd's even more terrifying - and certainly more vulnerable - stunt in his Safety Last!, which is also the film viewed by Hugo and Isabelle when they sneak into a theater earlier in the film. Moretz manages to evoke something of Lilian Gish in her awestruck expressionism, which is probably why it's no surprise that the most cloying parts of the film are when she opens her mouth, spewing the forced intellectualism of an overeager European student; Gish didn't have to speak to send audiences to worship. This is to say nothing of Hugo's structural reliance on two of the most iconic motifs in film history: trains and clocks.

Scorsese integrates this dense pastiche with great fluidity and visual energy, animating his Paris of the imagination with ubiquitous smoke shoots, vibrant colors, and a restlessly mobile camera (if Robert Richardson is not awarded in some capacity for his brilliant cinematography, it's a disservice to the dignity of the medium). What's more, the film makes a rare argument for the legitimacy of the much-maligned 3D format. Near the conclusion of the film, Scorsese throws in a dolly zoom (famously first invented by Hitchcock for Vertigo and later used by Scorsese in Goodfellas) with the added disorientation and depth of the 3D to create an image that tricks the viewer into thinking Ben Kingsley is literally floating in space, gloriously disconnected from the background. It's a spectacle that not even Méliès, despite his innovative wizardy, could have dreamed of.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011) A Film by Sean Durkin

This year, the annual film to inspire typically half-baked inquiries over reality vs. fantasy, questions such as "is it all in her head?", and roundabout discussions entertaining such insipid snippets of dialogue as "did you ever have that feeling where you can't tell if something's a memory or if it's something you dreamed?", is Sean Durkin's Martha Marcy May Marlene, a film that, as the title suggests, apes the classic arthouse cliche of a woman with an unstable identity. But while the extratextual experience of the film may make the eyes roll, there's no doubting the unnerving impact of the film itself, which Durkin - a first-time writer/director with the aesthetic precision of a seasoned auteur - confidently orchestrates. As much as Durkin embraces and recycles (sometimes self-consciously, often not) the conventions of the independent thriller, he does so with such conviction that the conventions no longer feel conventional. Martha Marcy May Marlene is a film that cancels out its own shortcomings through the dexterity of its craftsmanship and the abundance of its termitic ideas on how to tease, thrill, and confound.

Structurally, Durkin follows a familiar formula: an initial set piece that attempts to build up a handful of mysteries while simultaneously refusing to explain those mysteries, the subsequent gradual accumulation of details forming a full picture of the mystery, and the final hint, just before the roll of the credits, of some new mystery once the prior one has been comprehended. Perhaps the word mystery is misleading though, because Martha's (Elizabeth Olsen) mystery is less of a definable presence than an enigmatic psychological condition, and it isn't so much solved as it is fleshed-out. Her story is fragmented into two timelines that the film hopscotches between: 1) an extended stay at a rural cult managed by Patrick (John Hawkes), from which she escapes to 2) her estranged sister Lucy's (Sarah Paulsen) isolated lakeside getaway. It's not quite a simple case of past and present, however, because Martha's memories of the cult are so vivid in her mind that it's as if they're submerging her ability to remain mentally tethered to the physical world around her. Everything shown in the film is a part of Martha's harrowing here and now, where mental fragments lead to impulsive actions disconnected from reality.

The realization that the film is a portrait of Martha's subjectivity does not come instantly due to Durkin's emphasis on long takes, his suppression of extra-diegetic sound, and his refusal to write his way inside his main character's head space, all of which are general signifiers of objectivity. But what Durkin has achieved is a way of presenting the subjectivity of a person who no longer understands her own ideals, desires, and actions, who indeed is a mere physical shell missing a cohesive soul. Thematically speaking, the film's post-Manson indictment of the identity-shattering mob mentality of cults couldn't be clearer, but it's the depth of detail that Durkin and Olsen infuse into Martha's character that really allows the parable to breathe. The longer Martha stays with her sister, the more her irreversible psychological issues come to the fore. Early on, she strips down entirely right beside Lucy and her workaholic husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) to take a quick mid-afternoon dip in the lake, a sign that the new-age hippie attitudes of Patrick's camp still dictate her behavior, and later, in the outburst that finally puts Lucy and Ted into the mindset that they can no longer live with her, Martha openly chastises Ted for his allegedly soulless working-class lifestyle. That Lucy takes so long to come around to the idea that Martha may have issues that go beyond mere sibling rivalry is evidence of Durkin's secondary critique of bourgeoisie complacency. In effect, this multi-leveled analysis of the modern world puts the film in the Haneke territory, coldly observing human behavior without attempting to explain the psychological perplexities.

This detached perspective works so well because Martha Marcy May Marlene is ultimately a horror film about the failure to understand ourselves and others, a crisis that not even communication can solve. In fact, the one scene where Martha and Lucy appear to be having an emotional breakthrough suddenly devolves into another one of the chilling, one-sided verbal beatdowns that Martha regularly churns out, outbursts of angry, vague rhetoric that sound like they are stemming from another vessel within her. These vessels include the wandering free-spirit disdaining materialism, the immature teenage girl, the insecure younger sister taking every opportunity to predict her older sister's inadequacy as a mother, and the confident "teacher and leader" that the members of the cult insist she is, and the spectacle of Olsen's performance is her ability to seamlessly transition between them. This fracturing of the self is marked in some ways by the progression of the editing, which vacillates between moments of serenity at the cult and horrifying episodes of sexual and verbal terror, usually match-cut with a scene provoking a similar emotional response at the lake house. Durkin's imagination in stitching together these two emotional realms within Martha seems boundless. The fluidity with which Martha exits one state of mind and enters another is evoked no better than in a startling cut from Martha jumping off Ted's motorboat and suddenly landing in a quarry with fellow cult members, the camera floating around underwater to a deep hum and glimpsing nude bodies through the murky darkness.

Durkin is collaborating with hugely talented cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes here, and their collective achievements powerfully enhance the immediacy of Martha's horror. The film is reliant upon strategic uses of negative space offered by long lenses. Figures are framed against vast expanses of blurred background, often with their backs turned against it as if pictorially predicting an incoming threat that never appears. Windows, in particular, appear in frame continuously after a breaking-and-entering thread is revealed in the narrative of the cult, elevating the tension further. Similar visual strategies are utilized by Lucrecia Martel, most hauntingly in The Headless Woman, and both techniques are traceable to Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur. It's a method of creating unseen horror that Durkin handles beautifully; as the tension seems to rise exponentially, the film gets slower and more teasing in its rhythm (one fade out/fade in evaporates the image like molasses, and it's one of the most nail-biting uses of the fade in film history). Durkin and Lipes also manipulate the robust texture of 35 mm to achieve a color space where blacks are more brown than black and the surface of the image feels milky, like a matte photograph. All are methods of conjuring a subtly off-kilter physical reality.

As for the aforementioned semantic debate, it's all rather negligible whether Martha actually witnesses (or witnessed) any number of scenes that deliberately tow a line between reality and illusion or whether they're elaborate projections of a mind tainted by perversions of group behavior and astray from functional morality. Either way one looks at it, they're visions of a person disconnecting gradually from "normal life", incapable of pressing on with society as the traumas at the cult continue to weigh on her. Looking at a confused female through the prism of post-traumatic stress disorder is nothing new in American cinema, but the care with which it's handled here is refreshing. Durkin's tantalizing final image cannot be attacked from the angle of reality vs. illusion because Martha Marcy May Marlene becomes more fascinating the less you deal with it in psychological binaries. The film is about the enigma of psychology, the fear that we may not be able to pinpoint any scientific justifications for human behavior after something as horrendous as the events at the cult.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Screening Notes #8

Not One Less (1999): Despite his activist aspirations, Zhang Yimou just ends up generalizing notions of rural poor and urban bureaucracy to muse on the age-old "triumph of the human spirit" platitude. In doing so, Zhang only dehumanizes the destitute and loses sight of any tangible specifics. A social problem film should not end with this kind of crowd-pleasing, heart-warming crescendo; it should conclude ambiguously, incompletely, to emphasize the fact that these issues of poverty and the national exploitation/disregard of it are not in any way solved. It's pretty disappointing, because Zhang knows how to construct a drama fairly well, even if his pretensions to vérité social realism feel contrived. Not One Less is at its best when it's not hammering home a didactic and obvious message and Zhang's simply watching the chemistry between his many child performers, who are the real core of the film.

Mouchette (1967): The opening minutes of this classic are pure Bresson: he shows a man in the forest looking on as another man sets traps to catch rabbits and birds. In only a few descriptive visual fragments (close-ups on eyes, on hands, on the behaviors of the woodland animals), Bresson mythologizes the act of voyeurism and conveys deep guilt. This gets to the heart of his strength in dealing with the spiritual consequences of actions, so often telegraphed in the fewest number of shots yet pervading throughout the course of an entire film. The individual guilt in Mouchette is gradually extended to a collective failure to recognize the indecent treatment of the young titular character. There's always something enticingly cryptic and almost cubist about the films during this period of Bresson's career (Pickpocket, Au Hasard Balthasar) - his summit as an artist - wherein gestures are defamiliarized by the camera but add up to some oddly discernible whole. Critics often point to The Devil Probably and L'Argent as Bresson's most ascetic work, but it's here where behaviors seem most alien and stripped-down, and it's also where the human soul is made visible.

Khabi Kushi Khabi Gham... (2001): Even Ophuls would have been impressed with the vigorous use of the moving camera here. Big-name Bollywood helmer Karan Johar toys around with every variety of dolly, crane, and jib he can get his hands on to highlight, underline, embolden, and ultimately scribble out all the loud, overwrought emotions of love, separation, and reconnection in this four-hour family epic. K3G, with its grandiose declarations of filial piety stylized as the kind of melodramatic camp parodied in Tim and Eric Awesome Show, among other things, forces a shifting of our viewing preconceptions in order to fully digest the utter sincerity of Johar's messages. Once digested, it's a fascinating, troubling film rife with abysmal ambiguities in its relationship to the capitalistic West; one moment, it's glorifying the accumulation of British wealth and materials (Johar includes some montages that play like TV commercials for not one, but several major fashion companies), the next it's demanding a purification of the Indian people, a return to the mainland values. Furthermore, its debt to Western culture - already strange for a film about the reintegration of the diaspora with India - bears no temporal specificity, with Johar's general mise-en-scene refracting classical, Technicolor, Sirkian Hollywood and other passages echoing Mean Girls and Legally Blonde. With all this directorial ambivalence, Johar sure has a firm grasp on one thing: the movement of dancing bodies in space.

The Clock (2010): Like many others, I'm pretty stunned by Christian Marclay's towering museum exhibition The Clock, a towering monument to time and cinema. My first reactions were purely practical. How did Marclay manage this feat? How much time did it take? Did he survey everything from the aggregate history of film and television to find those tidbits that expressed, somewhere in the frame, the time of day? Beyond that, how did he begin to assemble what feel like miniature narrative and rhythmic movements within the perpetual onslaught of varied media? Sure, sometimes Marclay's tempo is sketchy, but the guy is allowed a few hiccups in 24 hours if some filmmakers manage to make an hour and a half an intolerable disaster, right? The Clock is a compulsive viewing experience that simultaneously alerts the viewer nearly every second of the irresolvable slowness of time and the mysterious elasticity of it. Somehow you can lose sense of real time even as you're experiencing it directly within the theater, and miscellaneous characters from narrative history seem perplexed by this paradox as well ("What are you staring at?" one man says, to which the other responds, "Time", or, in another instance, "Describe this time machine of yours. How does it work?") I can't think of a film in recent memory where the gap is so narrow between simply enjoying the film for its gleeful pop-cultural sampling and thinking seriously about its endless conceptual inquiries. I'll be heading back to the Museum of Fine Arts for a few more hours with this daunting achievement in the near future, and may write more about it.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

TIE: A Selection of Shorts

TIE, the International Experimental Cinema Exposition, is a traveling program of experimental films curated by Christopher May that seeks to bring to light the impoverished image of contemporary experimental cinema to a broader filmgoing public. What's more, May is working hard to revive the nearly extinct ghetto of 16mm exhibition, a medium that has become less and less attractive to the profiteers of international cinema curation. TIE's latest program, which recently made a pit stop in Boston, is a collection of short films by mostly American filmmakers ranging from 5-22 minutes that loosely explore the notion of travel and aim to transcend conventional anthropological approaches. Further affinities between the six films reveal themselves throughout the program - the idea of the outsider, the trajectory through a space, certain visual and editorial rhythms - that speak to May's sharpness as a curator.

The program began with Diane Kitchen's Penfield Road, the oldest film of the bunch from 1998. It's a playful meditation on travel, specifically contrasting the ideas of vacation and of merely occupying a place. Kitchen uses postcard pictures rather than here own footage and accumulates a bizarre editing rhythm by alternating back and forth between two images several times before introducing a new image to alternate with the second in the first pair. This somewhat unsettling pictorial rhythm, akin to a line of dominoes reversing their inevitable momentum every other piece, is set to rough, fuzzy ragtime that skips as if spinning on a bad record player. Kitchen's clearly suspending a sense of irony when she shows uninhabited nature alongside dolled-up middle-aged women peering out at the world from an observation tower, but the effect is less often funny and more often stuck between bluntly didactic and curiously thought-provoking. Whether one thinks of these small and iconic figures in the postcards as exploiting the beauty of the natural world or respecting their small roles within it, Kitchen is at least attempting to make the viewer consider the way we inhabit the physical world.

In Death Throes #1, filmmaker Tony Balko goes way beyond Kitchen's rapid photomontage to achieve pure frenzy, an assault of images that paradoxically achieve a mood of relaxation, of quietly taking in the stillness of nature. The effect is not unlike some of Stan Brakhage's shorts that use fast bursts of images to reach for something warm and ephemeral, such as Cat's Cradle or Mothlight. Balko assembles hundreds of fragmented shots of Northern California mountain regions, combining rocks, leaves, dirt, insects, trees, sky, and mountaintops to gradually form a cumulative mental picture of the landscape. Usually the same piece of scenery, no matter how undramatic, will be shown several times in a row from slightly different angles, perhaps some blurred and some not, offering multiple ways of looking at the same thing before the image quickly recedes into the rapid movement of the film and reveals something else. The editing is relentless but often strikingly beautiful, such as when Balko creates an extended stretch of shots that form their own miniature progression. And despite the seeming chaos, one could similarly apply an overarching narrative to the entire short; the images, abstracted from the utter speed and momentum, appear to tell the internal, emotional tale of a sunny hiking trip.

If Balko's objective is to aggressively interrogate the objective to locate the subjective, Chilean filmmaker Jeannette Muñoz' Villatalla takes a more reserved stance on objectivity and aspires to suggest nothing more than the physical world before her camera. Muñoz' film is split into two parts - one in color with field recordings and the other in black and white with no audio - that observe the daily happenings in a remote mountain village in Liguria. So drastic is Muñoz' shift that the project feels like two separate films, the first of which is superior in mood and discipline. It is there that her compositions are at their best, fragmenting the space visually while uniting the village through the quiet, spacious field recordings. In the second chunk of the 22 minute running time, the camera observes a sun-bleached forest where a farmer collects various sticks for an unspecified task. Muñoz' attention to the rhythms of the man's work wavers, making it a somewhat incomplete study of labor and solitude. Instead, her focus drifts to a seemingly endless succession of indifferently-framed shots of forest undergrowth. Still, however unfocused, there's a real sense of an outsider's compassion for her new and humbling surroundings.

The highlight of the showcase was Jonathon Schwartz' Between Gold, which possesses a measure of thematic complexity to coincide with its casual and nuanced observation of an exotic country. The film grew out of Schwartz' brief stay in Istanbul, where he brought along a Bolex and indiscriminately filmed people and places, and it concerns itself with the docking grounds on either sides of the Bosphorus Strait, which mark a divide between Europe and Asia as well a distinct separation of the Turkish areas of Anatolia and Rumelia. Being an economic center, the Strait sees great amounts of back-and-forth migration. Schwartz focuses on this unceasing movement while keeping his images unobtrusive, languid, and ruminative. As much as people are traversing from one space to another, there is also stasis between transportation, and it is during this layover that Schwartz finds his most evocative images of quiet, lonely figures, partly dehumanized in the midst of the ongoing cultural exchange (is Schwartz' insistent non-diegetic soundtrack of dogs barking a suggestion of the ultimate debasement inherent in all this monotony?) yet elevated by the camera's gaze. The finest example of this act of individualization is the film's centerpiece, a long and repetitive passage focusing on a young woman's face, back-lit by the sun, as she rides the ferry from one continent to another. Few films in the program allowed such transcendent moments of introspection, and Between Gold was the humanistic triumph because of it.