Thursday, January 26, 2012

Film Socialisme (2010) A Film by Jean-Luc Godard

Jean-Luc Godard’s Film Socialisme recently happened to me. Happen is the right word not only because its robust and fractious sparring of image and sound pummeled me into a state of docile bliss, but also because my general ignorance of the latter half of the director’s career stranded me out at sea (quite literally) in what has clearly been a lifelong drift into a very specific philosophical framework, a set of signature themes and motifs that I have simply not followed. Even then, judging by the plethora of responses from seasoned Godard followers, Film Socialisme is a unanimously demanding, dense piece of filmmaking. Every time I sense myself getting a grasp on one of the many political, philosophical, metaphysical, or socio-cultural insights Godard offers up, it slips from my mind, getting swallowed up by the frenzied mixture of ideas. As such, I can only approach this delirious film in fragments of thought, and a proper, coherent essay will have to come much later after plenty of viewings.

1.) Before Godard dives into any of his more complex musings, the film’s deeply strange image-sound relationship asserts itself. At 81, Godard is now utilizing with unapologetic force techniques that would pass off as the very primitive failings of a young, first-time filmmaker. In the first of Film Socialisme’s three sections - which possibly aims to evoke a 21st century Noah’s Ark - the images are capturing with varying formats and levels of fidelity: crisp, sterile HD, muddy prosumer cameras, and even what appears to be intensely distorted cellphone footage. Further fraying the mise-en-scene is Godard’s soundtrack, which is probably his most daring invention: offscreen voices compete with each other in the left and right speakers, their entrances and exits not alleviated by fade-ins and fade-outs, all while crunchy environmental sounds caught by low-quality microphones and non-diegetic snippets of melodramatic music (shades of Contempt) fill out the mix. It's destabilizing and ugly, and there's no reason why it should possess such unlikely beauty at times, but it does. It's also the initial hint towards Godard's attempt to understand and reflect the technological anarchy of the contemporary world.

2.) The film harbors a complicated relationship with time and history. The cruisers in the first section are sightseeing Barcelona, Palestine, Egypt, and Naples, among other European and Middle Eastern territories with particularly turbulent histories that have been represented time and again through images. In approximating the surfaces and textures of modern life, Godard is simultaneously making hints towards the mutual obligation to acknowledge the past. Yet he is also suggesting, through the countless archival images of past dictatorships and wars (Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini all figure into the film's essayistic, aggressively Eisenstinean final section), that some of the travesties of history may still exist in less instantly identifiable forms. Money proves to be the fetish object for the passengers aboard the ship and for Godard's camera, an on-board Christian mass is stifled of its spirituality amidst the schizophrenic clamor of the neighboring activities, a hysterical young woman falls, perhaps to drown, into a swimming pool on a lower deck of the ship and no one seems to take notice, and in the film's second section a news crew gently terrorizes the casual bucolic lifestyle of a family with some connection to a local election. Little here is untainted by what Godard implies are the shortcomings of the day: greed, overindulgence, insularity, ideological tunnel vision, and general ignorance. Running through the film are questions left dangling in thin air. Do we merely repeat history? If so, how do we break the cycle? If not, are we better off for it?

3.) As for the future, Film Socialisme appears to preserve a great deal of hope. Caught within the vicious montage are occasional shots of comparative tranquility that are all the more lovely for their brevity. Several meditate on the ebbing and flowing of waves created by the ship's movement, one captures a woman framed within the shadow of a pinwheel, a visual emblem of the inexorable flow of time, and one that shows the golden sun resting on the horizon above the sea is downright Spielbergian or perhaps Felliniesque in its visual romanticism (Empire of the Sun and the latter's similar cruise flick And the Ship Sails On both come to mind). What these images share is a sense of looking beyond, past the veneer of the high-class cruise and past the political machinations of single family. They seem to possess a hope that perhaps the beauty of nature will cure things, perhaps it's enough to clear the slate and send the world on a better path.

4.) For Godard, this "better path" seems particularly Brakhagian. In his "Metaphors on Vision," Brakhage famously wrote:
"Imagine a eye unruled by man-made laws of perspective, an eye unprejudiced by compositional logic, an eye which does not respond to the name of everything but which must know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception...Imagine a world before the 'beginning was the word.'"
In presenting the film in a variety of languages with only fragmentary subtitles (in "Navajo English") that indicate only key words and act more as think pieces than translations of what's actually being said, Godard is reaching for a manner of perception that is more visceral, encouraging his audience to think on terms divorced from language, our easiest and most common route to comprehension. Resisting the alleged English-subtitled version that's been floating around on the internet seems the correct course of action, because such a linguistic specificity would squander the universal language Godard's attempting to impart. (Which is somewhat of a curiosity in itself; embedded within the film's unusual subtitling gimmick is also a critique of the loss of multilingualism, particularly in America, and the increasingly narrow scope of language-speaking worldwide. Perhaps a world in which everyone knows every language is ideal, but if that's unrealistic, a world where we can communicate through the primal vernacular of images is an adequate secondary option.)

5.) It’s no surprise that Godard declines to show up at press events and premiere screenings of his films and no longer bothers to maintain a public persona at all. There's so much about this film that indicts the idea of the single author, which is rather ironic given Godard's place in the pioneering of auteur theory. Film Socialisme offers up a stew of familiar images from the history of the world and the history of cinema (the Odessa Steps, the Holocaust, random spy characters who have seemingly escaped from one of Godard's 60's films, famous singer Patti Smith) and asks the viewer to assemble the pieces in whatever way they please. It's remarkably generous and not a tad lazy, since Godard's obvious labor assembling his feverish montages is noticeable throughout. That he has designed his film in such a way to provoke as much contemplation from the audience as possible is a refreshing decision, and it leads to an exhilarating, eye-opening, and truly democratic piece of cinema. Oh, and it's laugh-out-loud funny too.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Screening Notes #9

Tokyo Sonata (2008): That so much of this film is eloquent, clever, and lovely makes its bombastic third-act derailing all the more disheartening. Kiyoshi Kurosawa manages at times to have an extremely light, yet gently unsettling touch, a tonal ambiguity that renders contemporary Japan simultaneously comforting, mundane, threatening, and otherworldly. His direction is supremely economical; like the best of Ozu, he chooses the ideal spot for his camera in a domestic space and lets action play out on several planes. The drama here is typically quotidian but also suggests life out of sync, the way every day would occur if the Earth were tilted slightly off axis. Kurosawa's premise speaks to that instability: a Japanese family unit is pulled apart by a father's sudden unemployment and two sons' desires to ignore their parents' conservative leanings by learning piano and heading to war, respectively. The film is riffing on classic Japanese concerns of tradition vs. modernity and the decline of filial piety, but its third act feels so overwrought because it leans too heavily into the melodrama bubbling beneath those themes. Still, a highly promising and engaging feature.

Last Life in the Universe (2003): In some circles, Pen-Ek Ratanaruang has been referred to as being among the crop of "contemplative" filmmakers that have arisen in the past decade. But judging by Last Life in the Universe, he couldn't seem further removed from the aesthetic disciplines of directors like Tsai Ming-Liang and Lisandro Alonso. Though it appears rather glum and controlled on the surface, the film is defined by the feeling of almost bursting apart constantly with the desire to conform to genre codes. Among the motifs Ratanaruang flirts with: the sad romance film as practiced by American Beauty, the road movie without a specific goal, and the punchy, silly gangster film. With a quiet, free-floating protagonist, a thinly sketched quasi-romantic interest, and a dead-serious Takashi Miike disguised as a mobster, Last Life in the Universe verges on being goalless, dropping its greatest strengths just as they start to accumulate into something meaningful to meander on gratuitous subplots. The film's central performances hold the attention, but Ratanaruang's flickers of visual invention and dramatic skill aren't enough to make it very substantial.

Paprika (2006): As far as wacky, off-the-wall surrealist visions go, this is pretty bottom-of-the-barrel. Emptily postmodern, mind-numbingly winky, and just plain unimaginative, Paprika's proto-Inception construction (yo, what if we go inside someone's dreams and just keep going, and the layers keep building, man?) takes it through a barrage of amateurish dream imagery and half-baked 21st century talking points (virtuality, globalization, technological progress, and the dissolving boundaries they create) en route to some gnarly animated spectacle: curious Big Man Japan omens and Miyazaki hodgepodges galore. The film approximates the trigger-happy fanboy sufficiently, but its aspirations to the zeitgeist are pretty laughable. Perhaps if Satoshi Kon dropped the conceptual gimmicks altogether and just let his visual sensibility run wild...well, that still wouldn't make him a good filmmaker.

Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989): As Cliff Stern - a world-weary documentary filmmaker trudging his way through a dour gig constructing what is ostensibly a deified portrait of shamelessly big-headed television producer Lester (Alan Alda) - Allen is operating as a subtle variation of his familiar type here; he's often feeling too defeated to toss around one-liners hastily, and he's too sensitive to let his big personality explode to the surface all the time. As a result, it's a moving, unpredictable performance that feels shortchanged whenever the film obeys its rigid structural conceit to follow the story of Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau). Both men are dealing with marital apathy in very serious ways, but Landau is no Allen, and the film's even division between the two performers is a detriment to its own sense of propulsion. I like the ambition of Crimes and Misdemeanors, Allen's willingness to tackle so directly the value of ethics and spirituality in a crumbling social landscape, but a simple close-up of Allen's uncharacteristically wrenching expression of sadness and defeat upon losing his lover towards the end of the film says more about this issue than any of the film's larger designs could.

The Big Chill (1983): The Big Chill has the ensemble precision of a great Linklater and the stylistic nonchalance of a late Ford. It's a very warm, loving film, all about the euphoria one feels when meeting up with a bunch of old friends, and equally about the regrets and bitterness that can rise to surface in such a scenario. One senses that these actors have brought a significant amount of personal passion to the project, filtering their own life dramas through their characters without descending into sentimentality. Moreover, it's a very American film, treating companionship, heartache, desire, and loss through a multitude of specific pop-cultural tropes: The Band, University of Michigan football, an old television show that's meant to evoke Baywatch, etc. I briefly considered revealing my 2011 top ten list through ideal double feature possibilities, and this would have fit nicely alongside Putty Hill; both films illuminate the positivity that can spring from devastating loss, and their greatest features are their denials of easy message-making.

Ring (2007): Experimental filmmaker Robert Todd refracts the lazy mid-afternoon stillness of an urban playground through double and triple exposures, macro lenses, and high-contrast film stock and stumbles upon some sublime imagery in the 12-minute Ring. In one instance, two shots of blurred undergrowth - one tilting up and one tilting down - are layered atop one another to create a mysterious visual illusion of perpetual motion, the direction of which ceases to matter. It's fitting, because the film's elegant capturing of mood distills the space into an abstract zone where time and space are negligible. This is the definitive cinematic expression of the feeling of being in a park on a quiet afternoon.

Starsky and Hutch (2004): Two or three funny jokes (the "do it" scene really stands out), an outrageous cameo or impersonation here and there (Snoop, I'm looking at you, though you did a fine job), and an insultingly generic/lunatic Asian supporting male doesn't make a good movie. Todd Phillips (unthinking perpetrator of aforementioned qualities), take note.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Zodiac (2007) A Film by David Fincher

The analog precursor to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo's endless barrage of digital facts and details can be found in Zodiac. Both films share the central conceit of a serial killer investigation and both chart similar processes of individuals becoming subsumed by their respective cases. That Zodiac's case isn't solved and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo's is, and that the timeline of the former covers decades and the latter a single Scandinavian winter, is a reflection of the technological junctures and speeds of life of the time periods, not necessarily an indication of the differing impacts of investigation on the thinking mind during those time periods. David Fincher is chiefly fascinated by time and how the progress of human resources and knowledge capitalizes on the elasticity of it (observing the two films side-by-side produces an overpowering cumulative effect that neither film could achieve singularly). But if The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is ultimately the slight regression of Fincher's skills that I claimed it in my review, it's because Zodiac's aesthetic and thematic heft take it somewhere far beyond what the script can offer, and because Fincher is interested in not only detailing the sense of time and emotion being backgrounded by an accumulation of investigative matters but also in expanding upon that foundation to riff on the epistemology of knowledge, the flexibility of our understanding of what constitutes truth, and the ways in which abstract fear spreads across a large group of people, problem-solving becomes obsession, and time manages to resolve the unresolved.

All of which is to say that Zodiac is the film, despite its placement roughly in the middle of the director's oeuvre, that Fincher's surrounding work builds to and erects a foundation for. Fincher's four early films are about obsession in one way or another, and Robert Graysmith's (Jake Gyllenhaal) search for the Zodiac killer of Southern California from the late 60's to the late 80's is an evocation of obsession at its purest and most costly (in terms of time, attention, labor, family relationships, etc.). Moreover, every film after Zodiac is about the inexorable march of time in one way or another, and Zodiac represents time at its heaviest and most burdensome; every second that ticks by is another second that a savage killer is on the loose. Finally, all of Fincher's films are honed in on process, and Zodiac unflinchingly depicts nearly every step of approximately twenty years of a process that is, technically speaking, ongoing to this day. The film takes the director's many obsessions and crystallizes them into a compulsively watchable 2-1/2 hour investigation that never strays from comprehensively (and indeed obsessively) augmenting its thematic import in every frame.

What elevates Zodiac above the standard procedural or thriller is its deliberate denial of genre conventions. The film's structure is its obvious idiosyncrasy: rather than helping to get progressively closer to a solution, the fastidious research in Zodiac only complicates the characters' investigations, taking them further and further away from identifying the titular killer. As the film continues, the Zodiac - already a mysterious, shadowy presence at the beginning - retreats exponentially from view, becoming more and more of an abstraction so that by halfway through the film the characters are ineffectively chasing an absence. After an outburst of murders in Vallejo, Napa County, and a San Francisco suburban district, respectively, that scatter the film's first hour, the Zodiac soon vanishes from criminal behavior and public awareness, squeezing the determination from the police force - headed by Inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) - in the process. The killer's fading from notoriety presents a complex police scenario that necessitates a redefinition of justice. For one, Toschi can't place the pursuit of a man who was once a murderer and now poses little ostensible threat above more relevant contemporary crimes. However, no murderer on the loose is ever safe, nor is the idea of a murderer going unpunished for his crimes remotely just. Toschi must resign from an understanding of time and history as a continuum, always weighing on the present, to something static. Time, in this scenario, becomes directly entangled with the relative need for justice.

When Toschi forces himself to drop the case, Graysmith is there to pick it up. Realizing that the past never goes away, and that danger is ever-possible no matter how removed it is from the present, Graysmith continues the investigation into the Zodiac, not exactly picking up where the detectives left off but rationalizing his own makeshift methods. In seeking the assistance of Toschi and the other policemen previously on the case - Jack Mulanax (Elias Koteas) and Ken Narlow (Donal Logue) - Graysmith gets a lot of backlash lobbed at his face, and Gyllenhaal conveys the nerdy teenage problem-solver disguised as a bored thirtysomething cartoonist dutifully. Also, as the lone everyman in top billing, Graysmith and his family represent a microcosm of the city's free-floating anxiety and seduction towards the case, itself a microcosm of a post-9/11 America looming with fear at the mere utterance of the word "terrorist" (released six years after the tragedy, the film's contemporary relevance is potent, if not the least bit overstated). In limited screen time, Chloë Sevigny as Graysmith's wife Melanie lends conviction and poignancy to the slow decay of familial intimacy brought about by her husband's obsessive-compulsive research.

The personal disruptions caused by the investigation are all the more troubling given the lack of real progress made. Red herrings come to define the narrative's activity: a celebrity lawyer (Brian Cox) connects to the Zodiac via telephone on live television and is predictably abandoned at the meeting they set up, Toschi, Mulanax, and Narlow interview a ridiculously applicable and deliberately doubt-arousing suspect in Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch) only to find his fingerprints don't match their records, a letter sent directly to the newspaper office from the alleged Zodiac after a long hiatus from murders is only a hoax, and Graysmith's visit to the house of a droopy, mysterious man matching many of his suspicions turns into a haunting near-kidnapping (at least in Graysmith's mind) that proves meaningless to the case, among many other minor and distracting diversions. Fincher documents the unique texture of analog journalism during the time - conducting interviews, group analysis of printed documents, rummaging through labyrinthine libraries of ancient newspapers and files - as well as the ways in which the many characters cope with the relative tediousness of the process: Toschi grows disenchanted and tired, Graysmith more enthusiastic, and fearful crime reporter Paul Avery (a typically actorly, irritatingly Deppian Robert Downey Jr.) unfailingly resorts to drugs and alcohol (when an airline stewardess designates the last few rows of a plane as smoking rows, it's no surprise when Avery hobbles back). One of the director's greatest strengths is in intimately connecting the various tics of characters to their milieus.

Like The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and, to a lesser extent, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button after it, Zodiac evokes a specific time and place with grace and precision, simultaneously rooting its drama in a rigid network of street names, office buildings, and moody nocturnal neighborhoods and its characters in perfectly tailored suits, retro ties, and earth-toned sweaters. The film is leisurely about getting into the thick of the plot, opening with a lovely horizontal tracking shot down on a moonlit suburban panorama animated by fireworks, succinctly capturing the romanticism of July 4th in a small town. Next, it travels to "Lover's Lane," a popular Vallejo makeout spot where a young couple (Lee Norris and Ciara Hughes) lounges in their lustrous sports car. The dim, noirish lighting here is exceptional, lending an ominous sense of foreboding to the scene while preserving strong visual clarity. When the Zodiac arrives to swiftly light them up, the disruption to the small town idyll is harsh and jarring, and it's only then that Zodiac announces its clinical sense of purpose and highlights the concisely developed setting as merely incidental. A scene shortly thereafter where another couple's relaxing picnic is ruined by the Zodiac's presence offers a similar walloping transition from repose to despairing violence and also displays Fincher's tonal proficiency in sunlight as well as streetlight. The script makes it very clear where the third murder occurs, and from then on any utterance or image of the street names becomes a palpable omen.

In its final hour, Zodiac becomes something quite distinct from what its initial setup predicts. Fincher's pacing of the narrative becomes increasingly unpredictable, as momentous scenes that appear to be building to a crescendo recede into cuts that take the narrative one, four, or seven years ahead. The film seems to be insistent upon not providing the audience any dramatic resolution, any feeling that justice has been properly served. Not only does the structure mirror the unsuccessful investigation, it also expresses how the passage of time has come to be malleable in light of such a pile-up of anonymous facts and faulty leads. Fincher is problematizing the idea of definitively knowing anything in this world, of having any grasp on the "truth." Furthermore, it questions the very nature of truth; is it something that must be backed up by conclusive evidence, or can it be supported by mere emotional certainty? If Graysmith's ambiguous final scene, where he stares down Arthur Leigh Allen - his favorite suspect - in the resolutely mundane atmosphere of a hardware store, suggests the latter, then it's a form of truth that receives no observable reward. Allen remains innocent in the eyes of the law, but it's the feeling that Graysmith's correct, that the unpunished Allen is indeed the Zodiac, that provides the film its chilling final punctuation. Beyond that, Zodiac is just thrillingly good narrative filmmaking, maintaining a firm grasp on the specifics of its large ensemble even as they are carried along by a maddening case that takes decades and feels like a lifetime.

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) A Film by David Fincher

At this point, the material that spawned Stieg Larsson's best-selling novel, a Swedish film adaptation, and now Hollywood pulp-whiz David Fincher's version has been beaten to death, sucked of any element of surprise or intrigue that might have initially accompanied its narrative contrivances. So unusual it is that the shallowest, murkiest, most uninspiring story gets the repeat treatment, the full media makeover. I should pose from the outset that I'm not too crazy about Niels Arden Oplev's original film, a grungy and exposition-laden bore that revels in confused sexual politics, and judging by that disinterest I can't be too sure I'd find much to love in the book either. So it's fascinating, and quite indicative of old-fashioned auteurist theory, that Fincher, despite his inability to replenish narrative excitement, is largely able to transcend the questionable concerns of the prior versions and make the material sing in a distinctly Fincherian manner. Yet at the same time, it's bizarre and slightly disappointing that Fincher has chosen to direct The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo at this stage of his career, right when one suspected he was exiting serial killer territory with The Social Network. The result is a work that feels like it's dislocating internally from a simultaneous maturation and regression.

Perhaps more than any other contemporary mainstream filmmaker, Fincher’s latest films reflect the zeitgeist in a very direct, uncritical manner. Extending the material's understated digital vs. analog subtext much further, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo often appears to be exclusively about modern methods of rapid information retrieval and transfer, with its convoluted thriller premise a mere vehicle through which to observe these manners in contrast to old-fashioned (and in this film, old-fashioned might just mean yesterday) modes of investigation. The dichotomy is rather bluntly manifested in the film's two central characters, Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) and Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara). Blomkvist is the midlife everyman stuck in the mud of print journalism tactics such as interviewing and paper filing, meanwhile fumbling around with the technology of the modern world, while Salander is the no-nonsense techno-geek seasoned in Apple products and Google who can wrangle double the information Blomkvist can dig up in a week in a matter of seconds (the overt diametrical relationship, when played for belly laughs, is one of the film's subtlest strengths.) The film moves at a breathless rate, plotting the investigatory chasm between Blomkvist and Salander as it grows increasingly pronounced.

Fincher's particular manner of plotting, however, is unlike many other director's. He's not concerned with repeatedly taking stock in the emotional and psychological progression of his characters. Instead, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo files information like the laptops it regularly pays visual attention to; that is, with mechanical precision and organization. Blomkvist's habitual search for cellphone signal functions primarily as a logical step in his communication process, a cumulative time-waster, and only secondarily as an indication of the man's archaic, clumsy character, his tendency to always be one step behind the gadgets he uses. Salander's systematic grabbing of a Coca-Cola before she sits down to crunch keys is emphasized as the constant initial step in her research routine, not necessarily as a thirst quencher or as a beverage that she has taken a liking to. And finally, here's the key idea: Blomkvist and Salander's relationship is seen first as a working relationship, a meeting of two minds to solve a case, and only then as a relationship between two human beings with unique emotions. Indeed, Fincher seems to be positing that stopping for just one moment to analyze, to ask why, is to be disingenuous to the nature of our contemporary global network, where information moves fast and pausing means falling behind or losing comprehension.

The film is propulsive for this very reason. Fincher's habit of cutting scenes before they have "ended," of showing a great deal of specific details but leaving out more salient narrative chunks, ensures that the viewer must keep up to maintain a grasp of the narrative's progress. As a mystery thriller, the film operates unconventionally; the eventual solution to the disappearance of blonde bombshell Harriet Vanger (Moa Garpendal) from her family's island estate and to the rapist and murderer dwelling within that cosmetically safe family environment is unsurprising and ultimately insignificant, as the investigative processes shown are so detailed that nothing registers as a shock. Craig and Mara inhabit their roles so thoroughly - Craig a casually probing, effortlessly easy-going guy with the conservative stylishness of a J. Crew model and Mara a slinky, bold, jolty specimen - that there is little need to question who they are, or what they might do in any given situation. Fincher's characters are defined here by a sense of being lived-in, of not feeling an urge to change for anyone or anything, which makes the analogy of them as pieces of hardware performing automatic functions all the more irresistible. His stylistic methods follow suit; much like a computer, his compositions find the symmetry and order in the messiness of the world, and when the camera moves, it moves smoothly and slickly, eschewing evidence of a human touch.

There are casualties, too, to this fast, coded, information-transfer approach to storytelling. That the film finds its emotional riches only in its final minute (more on this shortly) is both a brilliant tactic and a disservice to what comes before. The script's aversion to getting close to its characters even as they get closer to one another inevitably produces types rather than people, which becomes an issue when Fincher approaches socio-cultural diagnosis. Salander's real complexity as a character is in her concealed vulnerability, in the emotional restrictions she imposes on herself to deny her own desires. Because she spends so much of the film practicing this social abstinence, she veers dangerously close - with her fingerless gloves and lanky physique - to a clichéd computer hacker, as well as to an affirmation of the audience's preconceived notions of what a garbed-in-black goth chick is: cold, insular, violent, and armed with a nasty tongue. Neither does her grotesque manipulation at the hands of her lawyer-cum-guardian Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen) and subsequent revenge go beyond shallow wish-fulfillment, despite Fincher's best efforts to keep the scenes direct and unglamorous. Not to mention Stellan Skarsgård's sick freak is everything Hollywood wants a sick freak to be: smarmy, chubby, clammy, initially welcoming (Skarsgård treats Craig to fine wine when he first meets him) and then sinister, and resolutely Aryan (that is, Nazi). Thus, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo's macabre scenarios have a regressive core to them that Fincher's uncritical approach fails to crack.

But then again, even in the context of Fincher's characteristically sly ways, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo marks the first of his films where the complicated plot is this much of a ruse (that doesn't grant its missteps freedom, but it does downplay their importance). One might call these current Fincher films melancholy cyber romances, relatively sad films about how the endless build-up of information and connections in the modern world - specifically of a digital, programmed nature - paradoxically shields people from one another. Fincher's addition of the book's final scene (which Oplev curiously left out), wherein Salander buys a leather jacket of sentimental value for Blomkvist but throws it out upon seeing him romantically entangled with his previous assistant, Erika Berger (Robin Wright), is so powerful precisely because affect is avoided throughout the rest of the film, and its inclusion seems entirely designed to capitalize on this void. At this point, in this moment of downtime from the case, it's too late, just as Mark Zuckerberg's moment of downtime from the ceaseless growth of his international web phenomenon allows him to indulge a belated instance of reaching out towards his lost love. In a cinematic universe where the private is this public, these characters either do not realize their emotional connections or are unwilling to acknowledge them for fear of falling behind in a digital race. Salander knows that if she breaks the calculated facade she has built up and falls for Blomkvist because she will leave herself vulnerable to pain. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo concludes with a sharp feeling of sadness and loss entirely because a character has decided to make a sudden change in their external presentation, and, in effect, has become faulty data.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Barry Lyndon (1975) A Film by Stanley Kubrick

Barry Lyndon, despite its superficial appearance as a departure for the great director, is Stanley Kubrick's immaculate, thought-provoking attempt to grapple with history, nature, storytelling, philosophy, war, and the follies of man, all themes that had come to define his work up to that point and beyond. The film, concerning the rise and fall of the titular figure in eighteenth-century Europe, is sparse, detached, and staid on the surface, comprising few of the cosmetic qualities - overt stylistic brio, provocation, explosive moments - associated with Kubrick. Yet its surface only disguises its extraordinary depth, which to some extent is also nothing new for Kubrick (think of the labyrinthine coded language referencing the Apocalypse in The Shining, or the casual black humor of Dr. Strangelove in lieu of a fictional military catastrophe all too feasible), but it's perhaps more understated in its idea delivery than any of his other films. In many ways, Kubrick flatters the conventions of a respectable period piece: a well-spoken, literary third-person narration by Michael Hordern, breathtaking costumes, sweeping scope, and linear, episodic progression. But a closer look yields subtle, significant mutations to these familiar tropes, all of which drastically alter the implications of the drama.

If there's one key subtext in the film that separates it from the conventional period piece, it's Kubrick's keen awareness of the nature of the material - drawn from a novel by William Makepeace Thackeray - as historical, and therefore imaginary, even deceptive. Barry Lyndon is always sensitive to the fallibility of any attempt to narrativize history, using deliberate aesthetic maneuvers to remove the audience from the spell of dramatic involvement and belief. Its meticulous recreations of paintings which are themselves staged scenes, its hyper-articulate narrator who undermines the onscreen action and effectively stomps out suspense, and its propensity to zoom back and subsume its characters into flat painterly tableaus are all methods of drawing attention to the idea of history as illusory representation, a fitting analogue to Redmond Barry, a man similarly prone to “representing” different versions of himself, none of which can be said to be the real thing. Barry (Ryan O'Neal), exemplifying what must have been a pivotal belief in the notion of class mobility in 18th century Europe, starts as an ignoble Irish farmhand lusting clumsily after his gold-digging cousin Nora (Gay Hamilton) and subsequently becomes a British soldier, a Prussian soldier, a temporary surrogate husband to a lonely country widower, a wandering gambler with a rich Irish sidekick, a husband to the gorgeous and wealthy Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson), a step-father to the jealous and vengeful Lord Bullingdon (Leon Vitali), a real father to Bryan Patrick Lyndon (David Morley), and an aging, lonely, anonymous member of the European financial elite.

All the while, the film's construction keeps the audience several steps ahead of Barry's inevitable rise-and-fall progression, making pre-ordained and inconsequential what might feel surprising and remarkable if pared down to its essential narrative movements. On the surface, Barry appears to suspend great courage in fighting a duel with the suitor of his cousin Captain John Quin (Leonard Rossiter), fantastic bravery in participating in a head-to-head battle in an open field, supreme cunning in escaping the British Army and eventually the Prussian Army, clever forward-thinking in his victorious gambling pursuits, and impressive charm in his wooing of Lady Lyndon. However, the film incessantly pries apart the idyllic appearances of Barry's life, revealing them to often be the products of little more than ignorance, absurdity, and fraudulence, and it does so largely through two contrapuntal elements of its cinematic expression: Kubrick's images, slow, observant, clinical, deprived of internal spontaneity, always squeezing the life out of otherwise romantic scenes, and especially Hordern's narration, which can be gently sympathetic but is more often ironic, prescient, and scathing, creating a small mockery out of a man who believed himself to be of utmost fascination and prestige. Crucially, the narrator is also fixated on mortality and fate, mirroring Kubrick's largely panoramic viewpoints with his dry pronouncements that reveal an awareness of the dwarfing tendency of the vast physical world, the brutality of its treatment to single human beings in a complex network of large groups.

As such, Kubrick’s film is an acknowledgment of the power of historicizing and storytelling (Hordern engages in both) as means for putting into perspective truths broader than the scope of individual lives, and as a correlative it recognizes the power of artifice in ignoring matters of infinity, mortality, and nature. The society Barry climbs through is defined by acts of performance, ritual, and fakery, with no distinctions made between the Irish peasantry he sprouts from and the aristocratic high-class he ultimately finds himself locked in. Barry's duel with Captain Quin is revealed to be an elaborate hoax, something designed by the referees (members of Barry's extended family) to drive Barry out of the town and allow Nora and Quin's marriage to run smoothly, which ultimately succeeds in blinding Barry to his own failings. The machinations of Barry in the Prussian Army - lying, acting, faking sincerity and allegiance to the military - are normally intercepted by the effortlessly utilitarian Captain Potzdorf (Hardy Krüger) and waged against Barry in some way. The wealth earned from poker and chess on the road comes initially from cheating and only then from acquired skill and insight, and still it's a pastime bereft of social interaction and emotional connection. Kubrick is suggesting that these performances and rituals function as tools for blinding one's awareness to the cosmos, no matter how - and sometimes because of how - absurd and unproductive they are. On the other hand, stories, or retroactive perspectives, are the only way of realizing the essential insignificance of man in a larger scheme of nature.

Kubrick's harsh critique and minimization of his characters is coupled with a paradoxical sympathy, a level of genuine feeling for these misguided and mismanaged figures. A key distinction must be made: in the face of all these people suspending doubt and disbelief and convincing themselves that what they’re doing is dignified and true, Kubrick expresses regret rather than hostility. He feels sadness and pity for Barry, whose biggest shortcomings are his immodesty, his boundless materialism, and his inability to define his tangible goals for happiness and value. In an endless grasp for a vaguely shaped satisfaction, Barry cannot accurately contextualize his life even as the steps he takes to realize his desires are continually thwarted by uncaring external forces. When he's not refusing to acknowledge the troubles facing him, he's dropping the blame on someone in his close proximity, leading to a warped vision of social behavior and upward mobility that dictates the evaporation of love from his life. In his wake, he leaves people bumbling in depression, anxiety, or rage. The point of greatest sympathy here is Lady Lyndon, who Marisa Berenson plays as a melancholic ghost somehow detached from Barry's life before she even enters it, a stiffly and perfectly decorated object floating silently through the simultaneously opulent and underfurnished spaces of the Lyndon estate.

This unerring regret for the courses of action taken in Barry Lyndon's stuffy milieu extends from the individual to the collective, from the private to the public, and from the small-scale to the large-scale. Much of the film's guiding principles can be culled from its final onscreen text, wittily deemed an "epilogue": It was in the reign of George the III that the above named personages lived and quarreled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now. Kubrick's reliance upon the reverse zoom to move from intimate moments to dehumanizing master shots (often the only camera "movement" in the film, likely because it suggests a museum viewer scanning a composition on a wall) is a way of proposing this essential equality from our backwards-looking perspective, the ultimate interchangeability of these individuals within this particular moment in history, destined to be washed away with the flow of time. Thus, their frivolous concerns and rash behaviors are all the more regretful for failing to create distinctions among the pack.

Similarly, the text of the epilogue indicates that although Barry is ostensibly the center of the story, his narrative is much like those other figures that dot the beautiful horizon. Lord Bullingdon, who eventually duels with Barry after his Freudian complex fizzles out and reaches its logical conclusion, is finally likened to Barry despite his role in orchestrating his downfall, what with his outsized ambition and trivial ruses (he devises a complicated plan just to get Lady Lyndon out of her own mansion before he arrives, ironically, to take the place of the man he hates). Kubrick implies that the many acts of dueling (three are shown in the film), so petty in motivation and so devastating in execution, are no different than acts of large-scale war, which trivialize human life with the same outrageous precision. It's the ease with which the idiotic behaviors of small, insignificant individuals can come to permeate vast quantities of people that supplies the real sadness and poignancy to Barry Lyndon's tragedy.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

2011 Round-Up

It's ironic given the increasing efficiency of international media transportation via means both cyber and televisual that I found myself so frustrated in 2011 by the dearth of films available to my eyes. As countless tantalizing year-end lists have suggested, it's not an issue of quality but of access. Now, I can't entirely take the blame off myself (as I've still avoided jumping on the Fandor and Netflix trains), but there is still a sense that the major cinephiliac distributors have dropped the ball on what are clearly the most intriguing auteur statements of our time: Film Socialisme, The Turin Horse, This is Not A Film, Mysteries of Lisbon, etc. (Does any film fan not want to see these?) What's more, I live in a major city, not a tiny rural pinprick on a map. Even the stellar efforts of the Harvard Film Archive, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Brattle Theater, and ArtsEmerson couldn't account for the relative "obscurities" of contemporary cinema that litter every festival round-up (for an idea, of what I'm talking about, see my heap of unseen films at the bottom of this post). Thus, while I could have done a slightly better job of keeping up with the here-and-now, I am ultimately left without having seen enough this year to warrant a comprehensive, honest list.

The other issue with 2011 was that of what I did see, the films I was disappointed by or indifferent to massively outweighed the real gems. Highly anticipated fare like Alps, Drive, Melancholia, and Shame fell flat for me, while others possessing admirable thematic ambition and depth like Hugo and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy just nearly failed to attain the special spark emblematic of truly great cinema. Fortunately, there was always both the near and distant past to turn to, and as a result I stumbled upon some of 2010's best works (see my revised list here towards the bottom of said post - and yes, that includes Uncle Boonmee, Le Quattro Volte, Meek's Cutoff, and Certified Copy, which, because they were released to the world in 2010, are 2010 films in my mind), many of the finest works of transnational Asian cinemas of the past decade thanks to superb scholar and professor Shujen Wang, and a random assortment of other goldmines from the history of the medium. There's a ranked list of this hodgepodge (excluding the 2010 stuff) at the bottom of this post as well, and you can be sure it's more rewarding than any makeshift 2011 list I could have scraped up. All of that said, I did find myself loving a small, coveted handful of films - or sometimes just parts of films - from this year, which are paid tribute to below in a selection of my favorite moments (scenes, shots, etc.) from 2011.

Father Goes On Vacation in The Tree of Life
It's tough to pick a single moment from a film that is this overflowing with rich, evocative snippets and that is in fact defined by its fragmentary, episodic qualities. But I don't usually cry, and this particular scene was able to crack my calculated, detached critical stance and break the tears loose from my enraptured eyes. Marked by an absence (Brad Pitt has gone on a business vacation, leaving the kids alone to tease the playful Jessica Chastain), the scene paradoxically feels uplifting and whole, not to mention it rings piercingly true. It's rare that cinema is able to manage such remarkable nostalgic ecstasy as this, somehow feeling - despite its very specific context - like a moment stripped from the home video of any American Family in the past century. It's also the loveliest musical cue (Francis Couperin's lilting piano piece "Les Barricades Mistérieuses," as recorded by Angela Hewett) in what is the definitive cinematic event of the year no matter how you slice it.

Jake Williams Floats Across a Pond in Two Years at Sea
Here's what I wrote about it: "In one instance, Jake assembles a makeshift raft out of wood and jumbo milk cartons (a comparatively bombastic moment in an otherwise quiet film) and rows it out into a pond. Right when the viewer assumes he’s headed to the other side, he stops dead in the middle of the body of water to drift carelessly - his body entirely motionless – the long distance to the other side of the panoramic frame. And once his vessel has nearly bumped against land, he turns back. It’s an achingly poetic image that possesses the sparse, smeared beauty of a Caspar David Friedrich oil painting and most succinctly and elegantly communicates Jake's firm sense of inner peace."

Three Teenage Girls Visit The Home of the Recently Deceased in Putty Hill
An emotionally multifaceted scene from the most poignant and original indie feature of the year. From my review: "A brief episode where some of the wandering teenage girls visit Cory's empty house at night is a dark, foreboding vision that allows (Matthew) Porterfield to flirt with the aesthetic staples of low-budget horror: darkness, shadow, long takes, compositional tension. Unsurprisingly, the film doesn't entertain its subtle sensationalist gestures, keeping the scene to its bare essence. In doing so, Porterfield is able to bookend the film with a chilling re-visitation to Cory's house and vitally preserve the unique social experiment that is the film's backbone: the sense of individuals becoming personally affected by events to the point where fiction vs. non-fiction no longer matters."

An Ominous Invisible Transition in Martha Marcy May Marlene
Martha Marcy May Marlene is all smoke and mirrors, an elaborate maze built to unsettle foundations of reality, rationality, sanity, and especially time. Much of its powerful effect is nestled into its scene transitions, in the way one shot cuts across time and space to another while retaining an eerie sense of spatial and temporal coherence. This technique is at its most hauntingly effective during the middle of the film when Elizabeth Olsen's eponymous character leaps off her brother-in-law's motorboat only to land somewhere in the past in a dark quarry. Director Sean Durkin suddenly elevates the soundtrack's muffled rumbling and his camera tilts up to reveal naked legs dangling in a vulnerable and suggestive composition.

Restaging Méliès in Hugo
I recently saw Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors, in which I was introduced to the theories of brilliant psychoanalyst Martin S. Bergmann. In the film, Bergmann utters a profound kernel: "so, love contains in it a contradiction, the attempt to return to the past and the attempt to undo the past." He was referring specifically to human love, but nonetheless one can imagine it applied with alarming accuracy to Martin Scorsese's bombastic 3D tributes to the early handmade spectacles of his beloved George Méliès. When Scorsese gets his able paws on Méliès' proto-science-fiction content in a few delightful scenes during Hugo's mid-film history lecture, it bursts into new, three-dimensional life, taking it far from its scrappy analog origins.

Bruegel's Toddler Son Rips An Armpit Fart in The Mill and the Cross
Throughout The Mill and the Cross, Lech Majewski repeats a number of painterly wide shots, one of which is this perspective of the cramped wooden bedroom containing Pieter Bruegel's children. At one point, when a few of the kids are roughhousing around their dozing siblings, one of them unleashes a perfunctory armpit fart, proving that the crude joke knows no historical bounds. The sudden intrusion of the lowbrow in an otherwise cerebral, spiritual cinematic experience was truly unexpected and devilishly hilarious, forcing me to yelp in my seat. Fortunately, the theater was nearly empty.

The Ending of Contagion
While not many people dug Contagion, even fewer could stand by its ending, which is claimed to be "on-the-nose" and "formulaic." That I really enjoyed both the film and its ending makes me some kind of impoverished contrarian. But I still don't think any mainstream Hollywood filmmaker put together a more elegant, precise sequence of image (sterile, rapidly cut, succinctly narrativized footage of Gwyneth Paltrow carelessly extracting the first case of a mysterious worldwide plague) and sound (Cliff Martinez's eerie, throbbing whine) than Soderbergh this year (that includes you, Fincher, but not by much). The polemic, too, is necessary and timely.

Rooney Mara Steals Her Bag Back in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Just saw this and haven't written about it yet, but I will say that for me it was a vast improvement over the original film. Fincher's exacting formalism reaches its apex in a scene towards the beginning of the film when Lisbeth Salander's (Rooney Mara) leather bag is stolen in a subway station by a man passing in the opposite direction. Salander's reclaiming of the bag and simultaneous take-down of her opponent is clever and effortless, an approach mirrored by Fincher's mise-en-scene. When mapping out the scene's action, it certainly wouldn't appear to be a simple shoot, but Fincher makes it seem easy, while also refusing to make it feel like punctuation. An exhilarating 30 seconds or so.

Owen Wilson's Wide-Eyed Tour of 1920's Paris in Midnight in Paris
In spite of my lukewarm reaction to it upon first viewing, Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris has stayed on my mind for much of the year, its honeyed depiction of the French city and varied historical humor gaining retrospective charm and power. The outburst of its best qualities - dry mockery of its own narrative gimmickry, pitch-perfect casting of revolutionary artistic and literary figures, Owen Wilson's stubborn and childlike Woody surrogate - comes during Gil Pender's inaugural adventure into 1920's Paris. Allen shoots the whole tour so as to literalize his protagonist's glorified vision of the past, and Wilson seems to have his pupils dilated and his mouth agape for the scene's entirety.

Charlotte Gainsbourg's Son Builds a Star-Gazing Tool that Incites Chaos in Melancholia
As much as I want to resist Melancholia and its cosmic cynicism outright, I struggle to deny Von Trier's vice grip on my consciousness, which was wielded aggressively in the following two moments: 1) Charlotte Gainsbourg holds up her son's homemade astronomical device only to observe the titular planet growing perilously in size, and 2) the subsequent apocalypse, after layers and layers of insanity, wherein Gainsbourg, Kirsten Dunst, and Cameron Spurr stare at each other in grotesque expressions of desperation, fear, indifference, hope, and concern. They're such exasperated moments of uncontrollable emotion that they're impossible to forget.

The Opening Shot of The Turin Horse
I heard it was on YouTube, and I couldn't help myself despite the poor viewing conditions. It's truly bravura filmmaking, announcing what surely must be a majestic piece of work.

The Smoke, The Light, The Wallpaper, and The Compartments in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
There's nothing specific to remember about Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: Alfredson is too democratic in his distribution of significance, and beyond that, the film's more about an accumulation of detail than it is about any one detail. Its evocation of a closed-off world of espionage jargon and bureaucratic indifference is in the particular elements that make up the mise-en-scene, all organized to amass a hazy atmosphere that defies comprehension. Just look at the shot above; how better to visualize Alfredson's idea of intellectual, social, and political compartmentalization?

The Opening Scene of Drive
A controlled getaway driver and his leather gloves, blobs of neon city lights dancing in the background, long stretches of dark road illuminated only by headlights in LA's featureless metropolitan area: these are the very best things about Drive, and they're all on display in its first scene. If the rest of the film conveyed as much stylistic assurance, abstract beauty, and quiet tension as this, Refn's confused pastiche might have had some weight of its own.

Top 25 Previously Released Films I Saw For The First Time in 2011:

1. In Vanda’s Room (Costa, Portugal, 2000)
2. Three Times (Hou, Taiwan, 2005)
3. Edvard Munch (Watkins, UK, 1974)
4. The Last Picture Show (Bogdanovich, USA, 1971)
5. State of Dogs (Brosens & Turmunkh, Belgium/Mongolia, 1998)
6. La Collectionneuse (Rohmer, France, 1967)
7. Happy Together (Wong, Japan, 1997)
8. Mouchette (Bresson, France, 1967)
9. The Thin Red Line (Malick, USA, 1998)
10. In the City of Sylvia (Guerin, Spain/France, 2009)
11. Two Lane Blacktop (Hellman, USA, 1971)
12. All That Heaven Allows (Sirk, USA, 1955)
13. The Sacrifice (Tarkovsky, Russia, 1986)
14. The Holy Girl (Martel, Argentina, 2004)
15. Cyclo (Tran, Vietnam/France, 1995)
16. Summer Hours (Assayas, France, 2008)
17. My Winnipeg (Maddin, Canada, 2007)
18. Cat's Cradle (Brakhage, USA, 1959)
19. Some Like It Hot (Wilder, USA, 1959)
20. Hadewijch (Dumont, France, 2009)
21. Café Lumiere (Hou, Taiwan, 2003)
22. Tung (Baillie, USA, 1966)
23. The Big Chill (Kasdan, USA, 1983)
24. Almanac of Fall (Tarr, Hungary, 1984)
25. Santa Sangre (Jodorowsky, Mexico, 1989)

2011 Films Topping My Must-See List:

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Mysteries of Lisbon, Take Shelter, The Kid with a Bike, A Separation, Margaret, This Is Not a Film, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Tuesday, After Christmas, A Dangerous Method, War Horse, The Adventures of Tintin, Carnage, The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu, Extraordinary Stories, The Myth of the American Sleepover, Sleeping Beauty, Le Havre, House of Tolerance, The Descendants, Life Without Principle, Century of Birthing, Poetry

Best Films of 2011 (An Ongoing Project)

1. The Turin Horse
2. The Tree of Life
3. Two Years at Sea
4. Nostalgia for the Light
5. The Loneliest Planet
6. Putty Hill
7. The Color Wheel
8. Film Socialisme
9. Sleeping Beauty
10. Whores’ Glory
11. Martha Marcy May Marlene
12. Hugo
13. The Mill and the Cross
14. Contagion
15. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
16. Midnight in Paris
17. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
18. Melancholia
19. Jiro Dreams of Sushi
20. Wuthering Heights