Saturday, June 30, 2012

Vertigo (1958) A Film by Alfred Hitchcock

I wonder if those responsible for the restoration of Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo realized, consciously or not, the meta nature of the project, seeing as the idea of restoring an old film mirrors so many of the ideas Hitchcock was getting at with his signature classic: trying to reclaim something from the past, to make it over into its ideal form, to resurrect a lost artifact in a new light. That Vertigo does exist now in varying forms seems the logical extension of its own motifs of doubling, projection, and representation, staging its Cinemascope print (the latest and ultimate iteration) as not necessarily the film finally actualized but as the film in one form - its most idealized - of many. This Vertigo is the Kim Novak of James Stewart's most sacred dreams, Madeleine at her most stunning and ethereal. Which, perhaps, gives it the kind of blunt experiential force necessary to match Scottie's (Stewart) obsessive desire, the eye-popping colors and unreal sense of space to bolster the audience's sympathetic alignment with Hitchcock's memorable protagonist.

After enough probing, the twisty, complex Vertigo reveals itself to be a fairly universal love story. Taking the kind of structurally convoluted, paradigm-shifting approach that can't help but dredge up a minefield of uncomfortable human behavior (the same path David Lynch would take to tell a fundamental love story with his own riff on Vertigo, Mulholland Drive), the film burrows into the complementary psyches of John "Scottie" Ferguson and Judy Barton (Novak). Though commonly understood chiefly as a vehicle for the psychological deconstruction of Scottie, Vertigo is in fact one of the most comprehensive studies of two people in the history of cinema. Both main characters - specifically, Scottie of the first half and Judy of the second - are without a fixed identity, prepared to be malleable entities to achieve what they desire yet simultaneously hiding some aspect of their inner life. Scottie routinely calls himself a "wanderer," and by the end of the film Judy proves to be one too; it's the slogan of a person desperately searching for love, aiming to frame themselves as perpetually "available".

Wandering, as a physical, metaphysical, and psychological notion, actually provides a succinct framework for understanding both the events of Vertigo and Hitchcock's underlying commentary. It is part of the reason why Scottie, fresh off retirement from detective work after succumbing to vertigo and letting a colleague fall to his death from the roof of a building in the opening scene, is hired by fair-weather friend Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) to follow his wife Madeleine Elster (Novak again). He insists she has been periodically possessed by the ghost of Carlotta Valdes, a woman in a painting at San Francisco's famous art museum, Palace of the Legions of Honor. It is why Scottie subsequently becomes so magnetically attached to the pursuit of Madeleine, seeing as she herself, under the spell of Carlotta, resorts to wandering. For Americans, wandering relates to a lack of discipline and productiveness, and it's precisely this middle-class pragmatism and sense of duty that Scottie wants to avoid. He's more interested in a decadent European frame of mind wherein wandering without guilt and without fear of class slippage is honorable, and he glimpses that same mindset in the suave, sleek Madeleine, who seems to travel only to decidedly un-American locales (the art museum, an old, opulent hotel, the San Juan Baptista mission) around San Francisco.

Scottie's avoidance of duty and conformity - he's single, jobless, and, with the exception of the motherly Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), practically friendless - is essentially a rejection of reality. As a result, Vertigo integrates the dichotomy of reality vs. illusion that is so central to art in its structural, aesthetic, and narrative elements. Novak's famous entrance into the film singlehandedly erects this idea. The first elaborate camera movement that spots her amidst the velvety beauty of Ernie's Restaurant feels like the out-of-body perspective of Scottie, who's seated in awe across the room at the bar. Then, there's something almost taunting and self-aware about her subsequent trip out of the restaurant directly past Scottie, pausing to be viewed in enigmatic profile. For a suspended moment, the light seems to dim in the room while brightening around the glowing Novak, as if Hitchcock is making an announcement of theatrical artifice: after this point, all will be an illusion. Once Madeleine has entered the film, Hitchcock creates strong visual distinctions between Scottie's world in her presence and his world without her. The camera glides with forward-moving elegance towards her, the images shrouded in a fog filter that transforms unglamorous San Francisco reality into a heavenly dream; back in the company of Midge, on the other hand, the film defaults to sharper images and stiffer, more conventional blocking and cutting, while Midge's apartment is haunted by a painfully and irrevocably real panorama of the city.

The events of the film's first two thirds, leading up to the "death" of Madeleine at the San Juan Baptista, are riddled with endless curiosities and coded with little hints that suggest there's nothing normal about Scottie's investigation. This is not just a man following an unsuspecting woman and gaining information about her - there's something tricky, perhaps conspiratorial, going on. All these hints gain retrospective power once Madeleine is revealed to be alive in the form of Judy in the final third of the film. Hitchcock compounds this sense of suspicion in several ways. First, there is Madeleine's repeated encroachment towards the camera/Scottie's perspective, getting at such an uncomfortably close distance that it seems impossible for her not to be aware of his presence. Then, there is Novak's unsettling sense of performativity for Scottie, particularly in her attempted suicide at San Francisco Bay, where she poses for quite some time with postcard perfection in front of the Golden Gate Bridge as if to tempt Scottie with her idyllic beauty. Finally, lines of dialogue slip out as the film inches closer to its ostensibly tragic moment that, in their vagueness and incompleteness, suggest another soul emerging from within the previously stoic Madeleine: "And if you lose me, then you'll know I, I loved you. And I wanted to go on loving you." One gets the feeling, a euphoric feeling, that Judy is coming out of the shell of Madeleine.

This sudden fusion of identities, this bleeding of the realms of fantasy and reality, is the most moving aspect of Vertigo. Lynch has become known for this same maneuver, a whiplash effect caused by the film seeming - at first glance - to be falling apart around itself, but here Hitchcock mastered it. In this moment before "suicide," before following through on Elster's scheme, she is torn between obligation and desire, which is manifested as a split between two distinct personalities. These two personalities are irresolvable, an idea given weight by Hitchcock's application of completely different character traits to Madeleine (radiant, softly speaking, cool, stunningly dressed) and Judy (brash, forward, pragmatic, gaudy). Indeed, they seem like two different people altogether. All of this underscores the similar irresolvability of reality and illusion. The clichéd visions of romantic love between Scottie and Madeleine - based on nothing more than simplistic platitudes of courtship, not real connection - have no place in reality. Scottie's spiral into obsession has a notable casualty: the friendship of Midge, who is last seen in the film fading into darkness in the vast expanse of a mental house hallway.

Enter in Scottie's vertigo to this framework and the film gains an extra dimension of meaning and significance. Consider Hitchcock's famous "vertigo shot," an invention that involves both backward camera movement and forward zooming; there's something elegant about that combination of forward and backward movement in the context of the film's themes. Judy's character arc, in particular, is defined by its back-and-forth movements, from Madeleine to Carlotta Valdes and back, as well as from Madeleine to Judy and back. Her psyche is constantly pulling itself apart by competing impulses, those of her heart and those of her job. Scottie, too, is conflicted. His eager sprawl towards his idealized romantic object is interrupted by jabs of reality, from Midge's vulgar painting of herself as Carlotta Valdes (intended as a lighthearted joke but taken by Scottie as an aggressive attempt to break the spell) to the concrete danger facing the suicide-prone Madeleine. Also, the film visualizes this conflict in its interplay of forward and backward tracking shots that tend to signal the entrance or exit from an illusionistic realm.

When a nun suddenly enters the bell-tower of San Juan Baptista as a creeping shadow and sends Judy leaping out the window in the final moments of the film, to me she registers as Death arriving to put the inevitable end to Scottie's cycle of obsession and self-deception, not necessarily as a tangible catalyst to Judy's hysteria. In this way, Vertigo is brutally fatalistic about the punishing end result of obsessive objectification. It reveals Scottie's harrowing make-over of Judy back into Madeleine - a striving for a perfect vision of the past that was itself a facsimile - to be inherently flawed and destined for self-destruction. Like so many great works of art, the film is about the danger of substituting art for reality, the actual chaos and imprisonment (rather than bliss and perpetual satisfaction) that can result from too fervently seeking an ideal, an idea that the ever-meticulous Hitchcock implicates himself in. His Vertigo is a towering achievement, a harmony of form and content so complex that it cannot be unraveled in a mere viewing or two.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Prometheus (2012) A Film by Ridley Scott

(DISCLAIMER: If you're sensitive to spoilers, I suggest not reading beyond this point.)

The onslaught of questions asked by Ridley Scott's Prometheus represent the worst kind of cinematic ambiguity; raised by manipulative loose ends in the plot line, they send overzealous audience members circling internet forums to decode the implications of single images, lines of dialogue, and story developments, hoping to uncover some grand meaning that the filmmakers excessively hint at but never once intend to explore. Essentially, they're not the type of questions whose answers yield productive insights into life, only into the superficial world created by the film, and what good is that? If this sounds reminiscent of the clusterfuck presented by ABC's Lost, it's probably because the same writer behind that six-year spiral of narrative dead ends is responsible for penning Prometheus, an Alien prequel of lumbering complication and pseudo-mystical underpinnings. Scott's always been a director whose films owe a great deal to their screenwriters, and in this case the bloated absurdity of his new film seem to derive largely from the keyboards of Damon Lindelof and co-writer Jon Spaihts.

Prometheus' most notable addition to the mythology of the franchise - as well as the Other around which the film revolves - are the Engineers, a breed of buff, silver, computer-generated humanoids who maybe gave rise to the xenomorphs which dominate the other four films in the series and maybe even spawned human life on Earth. Scott visualizes this evolutionary event in the opening sequence, a series of sweeping Icelandic vistas culminating in a scene of an Engineer sucking down an intergalactic oyster, convulsing, and being carried down a waterfall, where its swirling DNA is suggested to be the root of the planet's life. For this sequence, Scott makes gaudy use of CGI, presenting an animated tour of the reaction occurring in the Engineer's veins and subsequently of the DNA tossing around in the icy water, shots that recall early David Fincher in their desire to reach for the macro within the micro. It's one of the few sequences in the film that is not tainted by simpleminded blocking and lousy dialogue, and one of the only ones that seems, despite its Fincherian gloss, to be pure Scott visual design.

Lindelof then leaps ahead millions of years to catch the tail-end of two hipster scientists' tour of caves around the world in search of etchings that will support their tenuous theory that something extraterrestrial created human life. (In this film's world, despite their utter scientific ineptitude, it turns out they're right.) Next, the scientist couple - Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) - is seen aboard the massive titular space shuttle having apparently convinced rich corporate fogey Peter Weyland (an embarrassingly prosthetically aged Guy Pearce) to fund their far-flung hypothesis, and they're working alongside a crew of blue-collar morons who agreed to take the trip having not been briefed on the purpose of the mission. When that belated briefing comes, the only justification for its apparent absurdity is that it's what Shaw "chooses to believe," the first obnoxiously pushy hint that she's of Christian faith, and therefore, according to Lindelof, good as dead. As ship captain Meredith Vickers, a self-parodic Charlize Theron wears her hair in a tight knot to telegraph the fact that she means business (contrary to Rapace's shaggy look), bosses the crew around, and shoots the kind of menacing glances that are designed to suggest turbulent backstory at the holographic Weyland recording who somehow knows the positions of the crew members in the room.

Then there's David (Michael Fassbender), an uncomfortably human-like robot introduced tending to his routines on the dormant ship in another of the film's proudly Scott-influenced sequences. David, while one of the most intriguing, if fraudulent, characters in the film, is also the source of some of the biggest failures, as Lindelof and Spaihts have no idea what to do with him. Clearly hearkening back to other sci-fi inventions such as A.I.'s identically-named David, 2001's HAL 9000, Bicentennial Man's Andrew Martin, and of course Alien's own Ash, David shares those figures' mix of chilly benevolence and potential menace, an aura of ambivalence quite functionally handled by Fassbender. But David sits lamely on the fence of all the narrative action in Prometheus, a constant but mostly unproductive presence. Lindelof continually flirts with suggestions of possible conspiratorial impulses churning within David but regularly defaults to presenting the character as a passive drone. The current of emotional uncertainty that David erects in every situation he's in is contagious, but the script fails to find a way to make something significant of the character.

Once the Prometheus ship lands at its destination (a cosmic valley traced with unnatural line segments and divided by a gargantuan hollow dome), the film seems committed to stuffing its story with as many subplots as possible within the two-hour limit asked of the summer blockbuster. Hoping desperately to "find answers" (the extent to which Lindelof's main characters constantly refer to their search as such reminds one of the cries of Lost's target audience), the crew barges right into the massive breeding ground of the Engineers, who are gradually stirred from rest by their presence. Inscrutable clues - holographic helmeted figures running the dark halls of the facility, black goo oozing from tall pods, shape-shifting murals on the walls, a supernatural sandstorm (the whole affair starts to recall those abominations known as The Mummy franchise, and it turns out Spaihts is signed on to write a reboot) - warn the scientists of danger but they plow forward regardless, greeting death and frustration at every turn. The demise of punk geologist Fifield (Sean Harris) and Starbucks-regular-cum-biologist Millburn (Rafe Spall) is perhaps the most idiotic death scene in the entire franchise, a moment of true stubbornness aiming for a shock scare that treats the audience as if they've never seen a horror film.

In contrast to the slick simplicity and frightening restraint of Alien, Prometheus progresses like a schizophrenic mess, attempting to disguise its absence of real tension or momentum with a fast, loud pace and an insistent symphonic score. Out of this clunky design comes the occasional scene or moment that produces genuine terror; Shaw's self-abortion, for instance, is a thrillingly deranged set piece that overcomes the narrative contrivance surrounding it (for some reason, David and the crew members trying to contain her and place her in cryostasis just seem to disappear) through the utter viciousness of its execution. But then there are also plenty of major moments that suffer, such as the spatially confused rescue of Shaw by David in the torrential sandstorm, the rushed, sentimental death of Holloway, David's discovery of the holographic symbology in the Engineers' cave (unlocked by a ridiculous magical ocarina line), and most problematically the reveal of the totally unimportant twist that Vickers is actually Weyland's daughter.

Stirring up a queasy brew of Christianity, Darwinism, Hollywood/science-fiction lore, and franchise mythology, Prometheus is a trigger-happy film. It seems game to gesture towards any conceptual template exuding a vague air of philosophical profundity (hence its relentless symbolic use of Shaw's cross necklace), and is willing to shift its supposed concerns at a moment's notice if it allows the narrative to keep churning rapidly, to keep sustaining a sense of escalating mystery. In fact, the film not only dances around heady ideas but also entertains any possible diversion from the central narrative thrust, seemingly ready to take a shot at anything that might stir up intrigue. Thus, the film includes: the momentary regeneration of Fifield, who, after being thought dead by the crew, arrives at the ship in monstrous form to throw some punches and then get trampled by a bulldozer and set aflame; the occasional hint of malicious intent in David, as if the mere suggestion of robot motivation equals a serious investigation into What It Means To Be Human; the oh-so-monumental awakening of Weyland, also thought dead by most of the crew, from cryostasis, who seeks immortality and bites the dust shortly after his arrival because of it; the thin-as-ice "is-she-human-or-not?" subtext revolving around Vickers, capped off by pilot Janek's (Idris Elba) brilliantly straightforward delivery of the line "are you a robot?". The list goes on.

What's lacking in all these red herrings is a sense of conviction, the kind of earnestness that makes storytelling devices anything more than devices strewn up awkwardly to imply narrative momentum. The film is overflowing with inconsistencies and lapses in narrative logic, some hilariously damning and others inconsequential. At their most glaring, they underscore a general laziness of construction that infects all of the film's stabs at seriousness, its overarching desire to be a major science-fiction event. Scott, as a visual storyteller, is rarely able to emerge comfortably and confidently from the narrative noise built up by Lindelof and Spaihts, and when he does, he has only unimaginatively sterile sets and an overworked digital effects team to play off of, allowing for little of the atmospheric beauty of the original. Prometheus is enjoyable enough as a loud, outrageous thriller, but it yanks so hard on the audience's chain for so long while being unsure of what to prioritize that I can't understand how it could satisfy even the most die-hard fanboys.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Whores' Glory (2011) A Film by Michael Glawogger

"Griffith saw that the cinema could show things that everybody knows, that everybody wants to recognise, and at the same time, not show certain things which are very violent, which must be hidden. Griffith was the first to understand and experiment with the idea that cinema is an art which can make its strongest effect with the idea of absence, with the idea of cinema as an art of absence...

...I think what Mizoguchi wanted to say in the final shot (of Street of Shame (1956)) was: ‘Starting from here, it's going to be so unbearable that there's not even a film.’ After this closed door, a film is no longer possible. It's terrible, so don't come in."

-Pedro Costa, "A Closed Door That Leaves Us Guessing"

When watching Michael Glawogger's Whores' Glory, the concluding film in the globetrotting Austrian filmmaker's trilogy of transcontinental labor, I was intermittently reminded of a transcript of an inspiring lecture given by Pedro Costa to a school of Japanese film students. In it, Costa spoke of the philosophical and ethical divide between commercial cinema and cinema of truth, analogizing the whole argument to the idea of a door left open or selectively shut. Costa's language is curiously vague for the most part (or at least the translation is), perhaps intentionally so, but what I sense him dancing around is the notion of an ethical line - in no matter what kind of film is being made - that simply cannot be crossed. A film should only show so many details, and in fact it becomes more truthful, and more significant, when it eschews certain aspects of the lives of those onscreen that would in some ways be too intensely private to show, that would inevitably steal a part of the soul of the subject. Enter a film like Whores' Glory, which seems to thrive on tiptoeing across this line, for the most part keeping the door shut but occasionally dipping its feet in the other room. And, given my profound agreement with many portions of Costa's sublime speech, I find myself troubled by the speculation as to what extent Glawogger's few crossings of the line so dutifully established by the structure of his own work actually damn the film as a whole.

For clarification, Whores' Glory is an insanely comprehensive, thematically focused, brilliantly framed, tonally consistent, and refreshingly non-judgmental three-part look at prostitution in separate milieus: Thailand, Bangladesh, and Mexico. Glawogger somehow managed to gain extremely intimate access to a casual urban brothel in Bangkok, a grungy and claustrophobic red-light district in Faridpur, and finally a ghostly drive-in motel expanse just beyond the border of Texas known mysteriously as The Zone, and he codes each section with its own subtle variation on the same aesthetic of vibrant, compulsively composed cinéma vérité. The film's lack of an explanatory voice-over or a clear editorial point-of-view, as well as its ambivalence regarding the definitions of documentary and fiction (unafraid to pit reenactments and stagings alongside more "authentic" fly-on-the-wall footage), all situate it firmly within the same kind of postmodern Direct Cinema practiced by Costa as well as Glawogger's Austrian contemporary Ulrich Seidl, yet there's also an uncommon expressive streak running through Whores' Glory, a desire to use the editorial tools at the disposal to the filmmaker (a soundtrack consisting of mostly P.J. Harvey and CocoRosie tunes, dynamic color and compositional arrangement) to heighten atmosphere.

In most cases, that's precisely what Glawogger's stylistic tics do: heighten atmosphere. They don't reduce the lives of the destitute, dispossessed, or less fortunate to graphic displays. Glawogger's particular kind of keen compositional sense - basically an ability to stumble upon striking framings without appearing to set out with that intention when a take begins (his camera is almost always moving, whether handheld or on track, quickly or slowly) - is more about discovering something pre-existing that is beautiful than it is about arranging a subject and its surroundings in a flattering manner. Whether or not Glawogger actually does rearrange elements in the frame, and to what extent, is beside the point, because one gets the feeling that the prostitutes in Whores' Glory are not trivialized or overtly glamorized by the cinematography that contains them. Nor are they by the music that often accompanies the images and gives the film such elegant momentum, but the music does translate a melancholy perspective to the audience and sometimes threatens to derail the otherwise undemonstrative approach. For instance, it's hard to hear P.J. Harvey sing the words "all around me people bleed" or "the city's ripped right to the core" (both from "The Whores Hustle And The Hustlers Whore" off of her 2000 album Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea) and not attribute them to Glawogger's own stance on the matter, which, sympathetic as it may be, suggests an exotic imposition of perspective, a kind of generalized reading of a community.

That reading becomes increasingly problematized by the nature of the film's emotional structure, which begins with the brothel that is easiest to swallow in terms of the level of shocking images on display, and moves gradually into thornier terrain from there. Bangkok's "The Fish Tank" is a business that operates in a very male-centric fashion, dividing its architecture quite firmly by separating the male and females by a pane of glass behind which women are advertised. In Faridpur, the women have more agency, and the entire environment is much more open, encouraging males and females to co-exist in a free market. Mexico differs from both the previous scenarios; its women work entirely on their own, divided into different motel rooms, and they do their "marketing" free of any "pimps" or "mothers." Glanced at quickly, it seems that the relative levels of dehumanization and squalor intersect with one another across the timeline of the film, which starts in a comfortable environment where women are literally numbered and transitions to a grungy, bleak place where individualism reigns. Really, each location - as well as any similarity and difference between them - is just too complex and multi-faceted to be summarized by a pop song, even one by an artist as complex and multi-faceted as PJ Harvey, CocoRosie, or Antony Hegarty.

Costa might call this use of music an instance of a film trying to "open the door," to allow the spectator to see himself/herself in the work rather than the truth of what's onscreen. I might agree. There are scenes in Whores' Glory that are wrenching and painful (a Faridpur mother's blunt, honest prediction of the rest of her very young daughter's life, a working girl in the same district asking the camera candidly why this is the path required of women) as well as scenes that are joyous and charismatic (a retired Mexican hooker's over-explicit and hilarious recollection of old jobs (which she recites entirely with her breasts indifferently exposed)), and Glawogger does not need to rely on music to convey the enormity of the human behavior in such instances. The film works well as a loving portrait of these women as people capable of their own personalities, desires, and problems irrespective of their profession, especially when it devotes the same kind of fascination to the actual labor in their lives. Indeed, one feature of Glawogger's film that is so unheard of in films coming even remotely close to the topic of prostitution is an earnest consideration of the job as a job, which is every bit as taxing and devotional as any other career.

Returning to Costa's idea of absence, then, it seems adequate that given Glawogger's unlikely interest in the politics and lifestyle of prostitution that he might benefit from skipping over the actual act itself, both as a sign of respect to the women and as a matter of augmenting the impact of his own film. That's exactly the case for three-quarters of Whores' Glory, but, in a build-up that is almost pornographic in nature, the film finally reveals sex in one of the final scenes in Mexico. The scene is not exploitative in its camerawork by any means, but the very presence of it seems to cheapen the integrity of the work, at the very least dulling its power. This is not some moralist statement arguing for chastity in cinema. Not at all. Quite simply, it's an aesthetic belief. Whores' Glory loses something by revealing that which is so protectively omitted throughout the film. One women in Faridpur seems to comprehend this idea even more so than Glawogger. Followed by the filmmaker to her room earlier in the film, she suddenly turns and remarks: "I'm going to close the door now."

Friday, June 22, 2012

Alien (1979) A Film by Ridley Scott

Ridley Scott, at least in the period during which he made Alien (because God knows he has been unpredictable since), is a living embodiment of the director as designer, concerning himself first and foremost with the aesthetic means used to build a mood and only secondarily with the practices traditionally attached to a Hollywood director: working with actors, pacing a story from beginning to end, constructing a "logical" mise-en-scene. One can easily imagine Scott taking the script provided to him by Dan O'Bannon and dividing it into manageable chunks, attempting to visualize each section in the most dramatic fashion, squeezing the emotion out of every beat, every shot, every sequence through lighting, camera movement, and blocking. Or getting caught up in individual set pieces and forgetting he's making a feature-length film, only to find himself shunted back on course by a more big-picture thinker like a producer or a screenwriter. Not surprisingly, Alien feels as if it's made up of separate movements cross-faded into one another, much like its antecedent 2001: A Space Odyssey, though Alien's segments vary radically in length and tone and don't always glide elegantly along as in Kubrick's musical opus.

None of this is to suggest that Alien succeeds in parts and fails as a whole; in fact, the film is a stunning example of a mean B-movie conceit elevated to larger-than-life stature through the conviction and consistency of its execution. Alien sustains an unrelenting power largely because of one key feature: its tendency to cut the explosive final moments of each aforementioned movement prematurely, letting the tension bleed into each subsequent chapter. Once the crew of the Nostromo spaceship unintentionally invites an alien visitor into its habitat, the film becomes a remarkably taut string of scenes involving people walking through chillingly quiet and empty spaces searching for the strange creature that has gone astray in their spacecraft. The punch line of each encounter - usually the sudden vision of a titular Alien (aka xenomorph) and the implied violent death of the person - is truncated; this is not a film committed to expensive showdowns, but rather to atmospheric build-ups that accumulate into a nasty, looming cloud of dread. No scene, therefore, is free of residue from the last, all the loose threads and offscreen mayhem making its presence felt abstractly.

Scott's imagination is opened up considerably by the kind of schlocky material he worked with in Alien and, subsequently, Blade Runner. As a stylist he's very much reliant upon colored lights and smoke effects, and in few genres other than science-fiction and horror do these tactics make sense. Hard sources glowing from uncanny locations, slashes of foggy light, blinking and shuttering effects, and labyrinthine sets are all vital to Scott's evocation of intense, claustrophobic atmospheres, and here those elements get a robust workout. With Scott, the look and feeling of a set can shift on a moment's notice based on the emotional temperature in that space, regardless of the so-called diegetic logic. As such, the chaos of strobe lights and leaking smoke in the denouement of Alien functions less as a plausible result of Ripley's imposed detonation of the Nostromo than it does as a manifestation of her wild anxiety. Even more absurdly, when she shoots into space in her escape vessel shortly thereafter, she hits a button that turns on a flashing blue light seemingly only to give the impending sight of a surviving Alien perched in the corner of her spacecraft an expressive, kaleidoscopic dimension.

What I'm saying is this: Alien gets its blue-collar socioeconomic detail, its abundance of sexually charged motifs (labored over so pointlessly by critics for decades, as they're ultimately little more than shortcuts - albeit brilliant shortcuts - to squeamish scares), and its simple but effective overarching structure from O'Bannon, its androgynous and frighteningly inhuman monster from hyper-goth Swiss artist H.R. Giger, and the fluidity of its production design (from the slick, symmetrical, cold spaces of the ship's main floor to the dark, muggy, lived-in corridors in the basement) from Michael Seymour and Roger Christian, among many others. Only then does Scott take the reins and turn Alien into the sweat-soaked nightmare that it is. Cinema is always a collaborative effort, of course, but I get the sense that Alien is almost overtly so, that its various achievements come from separate moving parts and were synthesized and fully realized by Scott once placed in front of his camera. Why? Because with the exception of Blade Runner and the very recent Prometheus, Scott has not made another science-fiction/horror film (never mind one with supposed feminist slants), suggesting that he is not inherently drawn to this type of material despite the obvious aptitude he possesses working with it. Scott seems to have designed and constructed Alien more than he directed it, a small distinction but a significant one.

But, what a beautifully designed film it is! For starters, the first twenty or so dialogue-free minutes of the film are riveting in their quiet, gradual building of ambience. Taking cues from Solaris, Scott uses the time his ensemble cast spends in a deep sleep to glide through the tubes, valves, and belly of the Nostromo, capturing the eerie stillness of life in space, the detachment and alienation of these living quarters. Papers and dangling clothing swing softly to the cosmic breeze drifting through the ship, and Jerry Goldsmith's intoxicating synth-pad score floats uneasily over the images, always an aural omen of things to come. When the crew is woken up by their "Mother" - Alien's HAL, because every post-2001 sci-fi needs a HAL - Scott watches as their glass covers are mechanically lifted, and then utilizes what are notably the film's only slow dissolves as Kane (John Hurt), the first to die, rises to wakefulness. It's as if Scott's editing cue is suggesting that Kane's soul is detaching from his body, the first indicator that these people are bound for death.

The best scene of the film is that of Brett's (Harry Dean Stanton) demise, the second of six total crew member deaths in the film (though one may be defined more as a shutting down, but that's another discussion). Up until this point, Brett has been characterized as a bit of a village idiot, one of the lowly workers on the Nostromo brave and ignorant enough to argue for financial benefits when the ship runs off course due to its interception of strange signals from a nearby planet. Thus, it's no shock when he is ushered into the Queen Alien's chosen breeding ground on the ship by a mischievous cat. That much is pretty lazily scripted, but it's what Scott does with the scenario through image and sound that elevates it into something tense, sinuous, and strangely mystical. Scott's camera moves through the hazy boiler room slowly and with uncomfortable grace, much like the way it traverses the empty spaces of the main floor in the opening movement of the film. Meanwhile, the cat's cries, as well as dripping condensation and chains dangling from the ceiling, are heard reverberating through the cavernous architecture, beckoning Brett through the room. Just when the tension is at its peak, Scott deflects it temporarily by making Brett walk over to the liquid falling from above to point his face heavenward. Perhaps it's an attempt to cool himself in the pummeling heat of the room, but it works best as a kind of mysterious out-of-body moment, a calm before death. The image may pull from Tarkovsky's canon, most specifically Stalker, but it nonetheless holds a peculiar weight of its own in this suspended instance.

Of course, there are other things to admire about Alien. Weaver's performance is increasingly mesmerizing as the film progresses (though in some ways Alien inaugurated the slasher tradition of cardboard thin characterizations, she brings a vitality and perseverance to Ripley that cements her humanity). Also, with the exception of a few screenwriterly clichés that look transparently manipulative in retrospect and a distracting subtext about corporate corruption (or whatever), O'Bannon's script is elegantly propulsive, mostly dedicated to exposing the utter fragility of humans in the face of something unknowable and otherworldly. But I'm most fascinated with the way Scott absolutely controls the screen, how he displays an innate understanding of the behavior of images and how those images can be transformed by sound and by combination. Alien would be little more than a lavishly decorated hunk of metal suspended in front of a back-projection and a Nigerian man in a bulky monster suit without this pristine aesthetic command.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Bigger Than Life (1956) A Film by Nicholas Ray

Over the course of Nicholas Ray's Bigger Than Life, everything that glows with joyousness, complacency, and success at the beginning of the film is called into question: the leadership of a father, the safety net of a social class, the effectiveness of a public school, the moral guidance of the Bible, even the structural integrity of a suburban home. This is a film sandwiched between competing representations of comfortable family life in the 1950's that reflects upon the fragility of our lives in the face of ubiquitous darkness, fear, and encroaching mortality and challenges the notion of American freedom and individuality. Structured as a gradual transition from ostensible balance to exaggerated chaos, it showcases James Mason as the curiously suave, subtly arrogant schoolteacher and suburban father Ed Avery, who succumbs to an inexplicable artery affliction and is prescribed the still-experimental drug cortisone at the end of the film's first act. From there, he becomes a patriarch on steroids, his gestures of kindess hastier, his declarations of opinion more explicit, his assertions of power more extreme, and his emotional spectrum more definitive and outlandish. The script gradually weeds out the positive effects of the drug to focus with garish intensity on the negative outcomes of Ed's increasingly moody persona.

Bigger Than Life operates within the framework of a generic American suburb in the 1950's, complete with newfangled televisions, P.T.O meetings (those special pow-wows of community vision), and young boys with fantasies of football prowess, but Ray introduces ripples in the fabric of this illusory infrastructure, particularly in and around the Avery home. Several of these clues come before Ed's illness strikes: Ed's secret side job (maintained in need of extra cash) as a cabbie that causes him to return home later than usual three nights a week and arouses quiet suspicion in his housewife Lou (Barbara Rush); the cool slickness of the Avery house, where the presence of a deflated football on the mantle, posters of foreign cities and geographical maps on the walls, and scattered financial forms in the private sectors contribute to the sense of a domestic space seething with dissatisfaction and discomfort; and Ed's insistence upon turning out lights at night before Lou's chores are finished, as if desiring to live in a place that materializes the family's interior messiness. These hanging hints are especially conspicuous at the beginning of the film when the cheerfulness of the family offers such a striking contrast to the looming air of disappointment around them. Later, they begin to make sense, as Ray adds even more markers of fractured normalcy, like a backyard (always a site of joyful memories for the American family) troubled by an overgrown lawn, or the fact that the house becomes progressively segmented by closed doors, no longer an open environment.

That these hints are present throughout the film suggests that the use of cortisone for Ed is not merely something that nudges him towards patriarchal megalomania but that the drug was a way of exposing what was already lurking beneath his family man façade. "You've always been ten feet tall to me," says Lou to her husband in response to Ed's comment about the instant improvement cortisone has provided him. It's the kind of hokey, aw-shucks line expected of the Avery couple in the midst of marital satisfaction in this buttoned-up milieu, but because it comes after Ed has begun his bender it is graced with subtle, unsettling meaning. The values quietly honored by Ed pre-breakdown - his firm belief in maintaining a "sense of duty," his desire to make his son Richie (Christopher Olsen) a "man," his views on the softness of the educational system - are precisely those values emphatically proclaimed by Ed mid-psychosis; the only difference is that they have been exploded open, revealed for all their ugliness and Communist authoritarianism, for how intellectually righteous, unfair, and contradictory they really are. And they are especially damning in this small town society, seeing as they are an affront to the ideas of individualism erected by the American Dream. Yet the film also makes gestures to imply that Ed's symptoms are shared and similarly hidden by some members of his community. When he unleashes verbal fire at the P.T.O meeting on a horde of unsuspecting parents, calling the students at the school "moral midgets," amidst the jeers and gasps there are also notable sounds of enthusiastic agreement.

The film clues the viewer in to the flimsy fiction of small town life by paying close attention to surfaces and surface illusions as well. When Ed is first diagnosed with his affliction and he is being tested by doctors, there is a scene involving an X-ray scan of the inside of Ed's torso. At first, when the fluorescent lights of the hospital room are on, he unassumingly approaches the device, his head peaking up from behind it. Suddenly, the room turns dark, with only a neon red glow illuminating Ed's face, and his ribcage becomes the predominant element of the shot. It's a shocking shift, one that demonstrates how quickly and easily things can turn from an impression of comfort and safety to utter vulnerability, to a point where human flesh is made malleable and death seems so near. A thematic echo of this scene comes shortly thereafter when the cortisone has begun to inflate Ed's ego. Believing himself richer than he is, he takes his wife and son out to a ritzy clothing store and auditions various dresses for Lou, boasting that he can buy all of them. It's clear from the previous hints of financial issues - Ed's side job, the taxes laying dormant - that the family cannot afford these items, and the confusion and trepidation in Lou and Richie's faces is palpable. The mere act of transcending one's class boundaries, which is as easy as driving five minutes into town, can stir this family to the core.

Ray, exuding a sense of being both fluid in genre material and yet unwilling to play entirely by its rules, telegraphs the disintegration of the Avery family as if building to a macabre horror climax (indeed, The Shining would go on to expand upon the same familial scenario). The film's grotesquely hard and even key lighting, a sign of the Golden Age's "light-the-money" ethos, reveals the sweat perpetually beading down Mason's face, and one gets the feeling that Ray deliberately avoiding wiping him down before rolling the camera. Mason resembles a man whose external skin is dripping away, slowly unveiling a monster within. Practical tungsten units in the house all seem to be placed in the most impractical locations and at the most uneven angles, causing constant vampiric shadows on the walls that invite a layer of menace to casual domestic circumstances. In essence, this is an unlivable space, so clearly a movie set and so frighteningly a manifestation of Ed's consciousness; in two delightfully surreal touches, Ed unintentionally grabs hold of the doorbell when he has his second fainting episode and the ensuing ring sounds like his internal scream, and later, when he goes mad and wrestles his good friend Wally (Walter Matthau) through the railing of the stairs, the television blares frenetic carnival music.

For all its skepticism thrown at conventionality, the film, in the end, clings precariously to a notion of conservatism as the Averies embrace each other in a hospital bed. Though it may seem like a strange contradiction of Ray's previous destruction of middle-class ideals, his insistence upon the rejuvenation of the family unit as a vitally necessary weapon against chaos is not without its whopper of ambiguity. Not only is the scene of the embrace riddled by the same expressionistic kinks that are employed by Ray throughout the film - giving it the feel of a torture chamber more so than a room of rest and healing - it's also emphasized as a self-contained bubble outside the pressures of societal complacency, divorced from the context the family will soon re-enter. Medical treatment was exposed merely as a temporary prop for the reintegration of normalcy earlier in the film; once distanced from its grip, as Ed quickly became when his self-medication progressed, delusions and hypocrisies begin to seep back into domestic life. Apparently Ray later remarked that in retrospect he would have pinned the blame of Ed's escalating addiction more aggressively on medical malpractice were it not for backlash from the American Medical Association, but in fact this very ambivalence in the film towards the impetus for Ed's increased dosage leaves the tension between internal and external motivators of psychotic behavior thrillingly intact. As is, Bigger Than Life poses destabilizing questions about the very foundations of American family life that are routinely answered with the swift realization that problems have always been there. Society, caught between a longing for individuality and a need for organization, encourages them.

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Freethinker (Fritänkaren) A Film by Peter Watkins (1994)

If cinema is to survive as a democratic art form, one of its most crucial figures is the English filmmaker Peter Watkins, not because of any particular aesthetic approach to the medium but because of a distinct philosophical agenda that has inflected all of his work since he began making films in the late 50's. Watkins' outspoken critique of the mass media due to its stranglehold on widespread thought and suffocation of minority voices has inevitably pushed him to the fringes of the image-making world, where his challenging, provocative, and formally inventive works are forced to struggle for their infinitesimal audiences. The Freethinker, Watkins' belated companion piece to his 1974 stroke of genius Edvard Munch, represents perhaps the utopian ideal of his worldview, even as it often abandons Watkins' own voice and loses cinematic focus because of it. After failing to acquire funding for the project in the 80's when he first intended to make it, Watkins was able to produce the film with resources provided by a small Swedish high school, where he was to collaborate with the students for a semester-long training course out of which The Freethinker would emerge.

Watkins has always been interested in the idea of rationing out authorship and ownership in his own work, which extends to his inclusion of non-professional actors and crew members, his openness to improvisation, his penchant for giving performers the ability to comment upon the film within its diegesis, and much more, but The Freethinker goes further than many of his films in this distribution of voices. Previously untrained students acted in the film, devised scenarios for the script, and in some instances even directed scenes, heavily influencing a film that for more than four hours dances around fiction and documentary, political and personal, past and present, text and meta-text, and historical fact and poetic recreation without ever fully separating the respective threads. Watkins employs these methods to shrink the gap between both the film and the audience and the film and the conditions of its own making (i.e. life), ultimately insisting upon an active participation with the film. Keeping a film's narrative space enclosed and the process of its production secret, Watkins seems to be suggesting, is to guard against the entrance of the viewer's own consciousness, and with it, his personality, thoughts, and experiences. The Freethinker, on the other hand, as well as all of Watkins' work, lives and dies based on the extra-diegetic context (personal memories, political and social conditions) brought to the experience by the viewer.

As an extension of themes raised in Edvard Munch, The Freethinker places playwright August Strindberg (another fictionalized version of whom made his way into the previous biopic) at its center, focusing on the ways in which the pursuit of his controversial personal expression was consistently thwarted - like Munch's - by his country's manipulative political pressures. Strindberg is embodied here by Anders Mattsson, a young man whose angular features and cavernous eyes make him an ideal candidate for Watkins' probing close-ups, and who resembles, surprisingly so, the man himself, as the film's frequent cutaways to archival photographs of Strindberg demonstrate. But it's not merely a surface similarity that aligns the performer and his character; Mattsson, working for the first time as a motion-picture actor, is able to convey during the period piece sequences the tenderness and wrath competing within Strindberg, the latter of which took the fore as his career continued and his work became increasingly marginalized. The effects of Strindberg's feral nature are dumped largely on his first wife Siri Von Essen, played by Swedish biology student Lena Settervall, who also brings an unexpected depth of feeling to her role. Both actors are seen throughout the film against black backgrounds commenting with grave seriousness about their respective characters, and in Setterval's close-up, the round facial structure and melancholy default expression recalls Liv Ullman.

The Freethinker shifts between several different formal modes throughout: loose recreations of moments from Strindberg's life, re-stagings of scenes from Strindberg's plays, bizarre poetic interludes that materialize psychological states, composed interviews of the cast members, naturalistic behind-the-scenes footage featuring contemporary journalists questioning Mattsson while he's in character, roundtable conversations between Watkins, journalists, and current Swedish citizens on the state of contemporary politics and culture, and relatively straightforward episodes of documentary information-transfer (on-screen text, archival footage and stills). Watkins sequences these distinct strategies with anarchic disregard for linearity, conventionality, or much discernible structure whatsoever aside from the mostly chronological presentation of Strindberg's artistic life. Therefore, he's free to clash up footage however he sees fit, resulting in a wealth of associational effects (some subtle, some didactic) whose ultimate goal is to demonstrate the cyclical nature of historical "progress," the ways in which the failures of the past unceasingly show up in varying forms in the present. Where The Freethinker surpasses standard message-making is that it's never expressly, or exclusively, about delivering this idea but rather about the many ways this root concept can provoke a plethora of tangential ideas about media, politics, social codes, artistic license, artistic truth, etc.

While Edvard Munch derived firmly from Watkins' own directorial consciousness and thus provided powerful juxtapositions of images and sound, here the amateur and multi-disciplined production means that a great portion of the source material is bland and cinematically inert. At least half of the video footage was shot in an unglamorous sound stage that was at least three times larger than what the logistical qualifications of the shoot called for, and the remaining location material is flat and uninspired, with the actors usually reciting their lines back and forth from a locked position and the camera taking no advantage of the space it's in. Therefore the strength of the film falls largely on the shoulders of Watkins' provocative editing, his ability to assemble the material in striking and unexpected ways. It's telling of Watkins' talent, then, that The Freethinker still emerges as a challenging, intellectually restless, and often invigorating work in spite of these drawbacks.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Screening Notes #12

The Conformist (1970): I'm not one to obsessively justify the psychological, thematic, or narrative roles of images in a film, but if The Conformist is going to be the requisite love affair movie for cinematography students, it ought to have more purpose behind its visual choices. Sure, one can say that Storaro's noirish slashes of light play into the emotional turbulence of Jean-Louis Trintignant's character, just like the proliferation of sharp compositional lines or the one strange episode of dutch angles all do, but these semantics are too vague to have real visceral power. More often Bertolucci seems to just be toying with the image's expressive qualities, having a field day with camera movement, fog, filters, and vibrant gels even when these elements are noticeably gratuitous. I'm aware that it sounds ridiculous to gripe about filmmakers taking full advantage of a visual medium, but cinema is more than just visual fluff. It's about the way images are combined and sometimes connected with sound, the way this relationship also has a dialogue with the objects or subjects being photographed, etc., all of which contributes to the soul of a work. The Conformist feels damn near soulless to me.

Ashes (2012): Commissioned by and Lomography to make a short film utilizing the new LomoKino camera (a relatively inexpensive 35mm camcorder), Apichatpong Weerasethakul churned out one of the most unconventional advertisements for a product ever made with Ashes, a work that pushes his already intensely personal cinema to a more intimate place than before. The film is shot mostly around the filmmaker's country home, capturing casual episodes from the flow of daily life. As usual with Weerasethakul, the film's sound design is dense and rich, a tapestry of field recordings and low-key folk music juxtaposed with sequences of total silence. With the added haze of the LomoKino's images, as well as the stutter of the camera's low frame-rate, daily life is rendered ethereal and abstract, yet it also possesses the nature of a photo album flipped through frenetically in time, like a revved-up La Jetee. Unexpectedly, Ashes shifts into lo-fi digital footage towards its conclusion in a mesmerizing sequence of fire, sparks, and camera-phone-ready onlookers. (What it is exactly that we're looking at never became clear to me, but its mystery opens up precisely the zone of dreaming, contemplating, and recollecting that Weerasethakul encourages.) Nudging celluloid and digital up against each other is an extension of Weerasethakul's recent curiosity over the future of cinema, and further viewing of this ambient autobiographical sketch may yield the kind of multilayered rewards offered up by his prior two shorts, A Letter to Uncle Boonmee and Phantoms of Nabua. Watch it here.

Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters (2012): I went into Ben Shapiro's documentary on renowned photographer Gregory Crewdson hoping to get some kind of hint of a future film from the master chronicler of American suburbia, but to no avail. In fact, I got quite the opposite. I've come away convinced that Crewdson's fascination with revealing narratives of immense emotional depth through single images is humbling, inspiring, and essential. If you're unfamiliar with Crewdson's work, the dude distills elements of working-class realism, Hollywood melodrama, and sci-fi into evocative large-scale portraits of small-town life that are equal parts David Lynch, Douglas Sirk, Jacques Tati, and Roy Andersson (though the mysterious beauty of his photographs is uniquely his...yada yada yada). Most interestingly, one would be hard-pressed to discern the difference between a Hollywood movie set and the set for one of Crewdson's single stills, as both involve elaborate logistical planning, a director of photography, high-powered lights, a large crew, and the whole nine yards. Shapiro shot the film over the ten years or so it took Crewdson to shoot his consummate photography series "Beneath the Roses," and the results, mostly on handheld digital camera, are remarkably intimate. The film's finest achievement is the way it captures every precise step in the artistic process, as well as how it makes all the madness and obsession that goes into production seem utterly ordinary.

Street of Crocodiles (1987): Twenty minutes of extraordinarily tantalizing science-fiction/horror atmosphere from the Quay Brothers. Seen on 16mm, this stop-motion animation has an incredible richness to its dusty imagery of a deserted, industrialized city as foreboding as that of Eraserhead. In this world of cobwebs, machines, and shadows, a slender man with sharp, exaggerated features bears witness to the enigmatic puzzles of a gang of puppet figures. It's all a pitch-dark vision of the collapse of a civilization, where no image is bereft of metaphorical import: unhinging nails as indicators of eroding societal foundations, puppets as surrogates for a dehumanized community). This is a murky, unsettling trip, a compact genre film that is unsurpassed in its total commitment to a mood of darkness and filth.

Jabberwocky (1971): Stemming from the same world of inventive pre-digital animation but on the other end of the emotional spectrum, Jan Svankmajer's Jabberwocky is a work exuding buoyancy, irreverence, and absurd humor. Freely inspired by Lewis Carroll's nonsense poem, the film taps into eternal toddlerhood, with Svankmajer finding a toy-box of trinkets to incorporate in complex animated maneuvers around a static bedroom tableau. Army figurines march in formation then get swallowed up by a sliding baby doll, sharp knives pirouette around a table, shell-filled jars spontaneously materialize, a tongue protrudes from the picture in the wall, and, over and over, a live action shot of a black kitten knocking things over and licking its chops intersperses the tightly ordered mayhem. Svankmajer's logic is at its most outlandish (intentions of Freudian psychology are too opaque to register at first glance), but his involvement of a gorgeously batty score by Zdenek Liska lends the chaos a precise musicality, a sense of virtuosic orchestration. A domestic dream exploded into the furthest reaches of the childhood imagination. Watch it here.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Cannes 2012 Round-Up

Below is a complete ranking of the films I saw at the 65th Cannes Film Festival. Enjoy!

1. Holy Motors (Carax, France, In Competition)
When I saw Leos Carax's first feature in thirteen years, Holy Motors, on the final day of rescreenings, it was by no small margin the most mysteriously beautiful, inventive film I'd seen at Cannes. Starting with the simple setup of a man working as a professional chameleon, riding a limousine stuffed to the brim with suitcases full of disguises around a serenely dreamy Paris and fulfilling different "appointments" around the city, Carax builds a multilayered meditation on performance, identity, virtual reality, and cinematic artifice. Much of the film's power comes from Denis Lavant, most deserving of the festival's "Best Actor" award, who lives each episode of the film's chronological but strangely timeless structure with the candidness and thoroughness necessary to breathe life into the film's motif of dual identities and the elusive "self". What at first seems to smell of redundancy and half-assed improvisation proves to be executed with such remarkable subtlety, grace, and precision by Carax that not a single delirious chapter - even as the director pushes Lavant to vaudevillian feats such as playing a repugnant sewer-dweller carrying an angelic Eva Mendes into his shit-stained lair, concluding with a sight-gag of Lavant's erection - feels out of place. This is a film with a fearless sense of movement and visual invention, not to mention a constant self-awareness and absurdist humor. I can't wait to see it again.

2. Journal De France (Depardon and Nougaret, France, Out of Competition/Special Screenings)
A basement full of unreleased newsreel celluloid from legendary French documentarian Raymond Depardon covering a vast range of small and large scale historical events circa the middle of the 20th century yielded the festival's most moving and poetic images. Uncovered by Depardon's wife and usual sound recordist Claudine Nougaret and positioned alongside contemporary footage of Depardon taking a photographic tour of France alone in his car, the resulting cut of Journal De France becomes a mesmerizing essay (set to killer musical cues!) on photographic truth and how images become a mirror of one's thoughts and feelings throughout the course of one's life. Yet as much as the film is a loving portrait of Depardon the artist and man, it's also, as the title suggests, a kaleidoscopic journey through France's history, its social and cultural charms, its regrettable involvement in wars, its strange political missteps (the scene of finance minister Giscard D’Estaing describing his public marketing campaign is a particular gem), and most of all, its ordinary civilians. The film's eye, like that of its primary subject, is humble, compassionate, and patient.

3. In Another Country (Hong, South Korea, In Competition)
The first time Hong Sang-soo's static camera compulsively snap-zoomed in on the action in In Another Country's extended opening shot, it's as if the entire audience experienced a collective lurch towards the actors. Perhaps this impression is just to due to my unfamiliarity with Hong's aesthetic, but in any case In Another Country provides a heightened intimacy with the filmed material, a direct relationship between director/audience and subject, and a sense of the film being conceived as it's being shot. A work so casual, spontaneous, and grounded rarely makes an appearance In Competition at Cannes, and Hong's glorious hangout of a film is all the more powerful for it. One of several films at the festival (along with Cosmopolis, Like Someone in Love, Morning of Saint Anthony's Day, In the Fog, and Moonrise Kingdom) that seemed to exist in a deserted bubble of a world comprised only of characters in the story, Hong follows Isabelle Huppert as she materializes the incomplete scenario ideas of an aspiring screenwriter (seen in the opening shot) on vacation in a South Korean beach town. The film's effortless narrative symmetry allows one to contemplate the subtle variations in the ways Huppert's three different characters are treated by a rotating cast of locals, thus providing insights into love, life, and otherness so off-the-cuff and fluid it puts shame to more heavy-handed treatments of these motifs.

4. Post Tenebras Lux (Reygadas, Mexico, In Competition)
The obligatory pillar of provocation this year was held up by Carlos Reygadas with his new film Post Tenebras Lux, an ambitious collage-like expression of Mexican country life that unsurprisingly garnered equal parts applause and booing. (One wonders when Cannes crowds will grow up and learn to embrace artistic license and individualistic work without resorting to knee-jerk skepticism.) Post Tenebras Lux digresses rather significantly from the comparatively sobering and linear Silent Light, but what it does share with Reygadas' previous work is its insistence upon making its audience feel something, and it put me in an unusually discomfiting space that I've rarely experienced from cinema. Despite some of its age-old arthouse ingredients (nature, animals, mechanical sex, an unforgivably extraneous scene of animal cruelty), the film is quite unlike anything ever made, and truly unique to Reygadas' sensibilities. A dark energy pulses through the film as the Mexican filmmaker never shies away from presenting conflicting emotions (family bliss and marital tension, tenderness and unexplained violence, religious devotion and paralyzing fear of the Devil) alongside each other with fervent unpredictability, giving its mystical and quasi-autobiographical musings a distinctly different tone than the otherwise structurally similar Tree of Life from last year. Though Reygadas employed the suddenly in vogue but previously extinct Academy aspect ratio (the boxy, claustrophobic 4:3), no film at Cannes felt bigger or more expansive, as its loud, immersive sound design and ghostly visuals exploded from the screen.

5. Like Someone in Love (Kiarostami, Iran/Japan/France, In Competition)
I'll join the chorus of critics intrigued but somewhat baffled by Abbas Kiarostami's new Tokyo-set feature Like Someone in Love. The film is startlingly open-ended, seeming to merely capture a few episodes in the middle of a much longer narrative, and in the thick of Cannes craziness, the mental space required to mine Kiarostami's complexity is simply non-existent. Here, the director charts a similar paradigm shift roughly at the midway point as that of Certified Copy when the relationship between a young girl (Rin Takanashi) and an old man (Tadashi Okuno) shifts from prostitute/client to grandfather/granddaughter based on the innocuous misunderstanding of the girl's psychologically abusive boyfriend (Ryo Kase). The side-effect is an opaque investigation into the nature of social roles and perception, limited to a few interiors in Tokyo and several of the director's trademark car conversations. It's amazing how economical this film is, using such a small number of tense, protracted dialogue scenes to open up a vast ocean of mystery around these three characters, each of whom appear to be hiding something authentic and unfettered beneath their social façades.

6. Walker (Tsai, Taiwan/Japan, Critic's Week) A new 30-minute short by Tsai Ming-Liang entitled Walker was one of the best surprises of the festival. I'm still eagerly awaiting a new feature from the Taiwanese master, but this new work is precisely the length it needs to be. The film is decidedly, unapologetically simple, though certainly not simplistic. In it, a Buddhist monk (Tsai apostle Lee Kang-Sheng) dressed in a bright red robe walks through the hustle-bustle of Tokyo at a snail's pace to fetch a snack (this narrative detail is only revealed later in the film in an unexpected sight gag), his head perpetually facing the ground and his eyes in a meditative squint. He lifts each foot as if lifting the weight of his spirit before returning it to the ground with patience and grace. Were it not for the real-time passersby - many of whom take note of the camera's presence (adding gravitas to the performative spectacle) - one might be tempted to assume Tsai shot at a high frame-rate for slow motion. Lee's persevering slowness, his utter commitment to the act, is astonishing. Tsai shot the film himself on a digital camera with his usual frozen takes and distinctive urban framing, and the result is a remarkably pure evocation of the ghettoized pursuit of faith in the modern consumerist environment.

7. In the Fog (Loznitsa, Russia, In Competition) An extreme seriousness towards death characterizes a great deal of the best Russian cinema, and Sergei Loznitsa's In the Fog joins that lineage. This 2-hour opus unwaveringly explores the rocky psychological landscape of men crawling inevitably towards a not-too-distant death, meanwhile caught between the absurd pressures of patriotism and a simple respect for human existence. On the frontiers of the German occupation, Sushenya (Vladimir Svirskiy) is wrongly accused of treason by his fellow men, and escorted out of his forest home by two Russian soldiers - Burov (Vladislav Abashin) and Voitik (Sergei Kolesov) - to be killed. Happenstance has it that Nazi soldiers interrupt the scene of the punishment, and Burov becomes the wounded, setting the stage for an extended inquiry into the ethical dilemmas of war under a misguided regime. Loznitsa's dialogue-heavy script - set entirely within the confines of the grey and foreboding woods - often stumbles and crawls, and, in its lack of variety, clearly shows the effects of working with limited funds (this is a film that could have benefited greatly from a more palpable sense of surrounding context), but In the Fog is nonetheless the most stirringly spiritual feature of the festival.

8. Morning of Saint Anthony’s Day (Rodrigues, Portugal, Critic's Week) There's not a single horizon line visible in João Pedro Rodrigues' 30-minute short Morning of Saint Anthony's Day, and it creates a powerfully destabilizing effect. Paired in a Critic's Week program with Walker, the films share a quiet observation of people walking through an urban space, but here there is an enigmatic undertone - teased out directly late in the film when one girl's Twilight Zone-esque ringtone sounds - of science-fiction and campy genre cinema that allows the images of a swarm of young adults emerging to level ground from within subway stations to suggest a kind of post-apocalyptic zombie invasion. Rodrigues covers all of the action - teenagers throwing up, keeling over inexplicably, walking into city ponds while holding up their cellphones seemingly in search of service, etc. - from vaguely aerial perspectives, bolstering the uncanny effect of the happenings. Is this a metaphor for the somnambulistic state of contemporary techno-youth, or is it just an unconventional vision of the undead traversing a posthuman landscape? The film's only press blurb is of little help: "Tradition says that on June 13th, Saint Anthony’s Day – Lisbon’s patron - lovers must offer small vases of basil with paper carnations and flags with popular quatrains as a token of their love." Morning of Saint Anthony's Day is an inspired oddity.

9. Amour (Haneke, France/Germany/Austria, In Competition)
Michael Haneke's Amour is an unapologetically traditional, by-the-numbers European arthouse film centering on the big themes of mortality, love, grief, family, and humiliation. Which is not to say it's fraudulent or insincere, just that it's precisely the unflinching film one would expect Haneke to make on the topic of an aging couple slowly coming to terms with death. Every formal strategy (detached wide shots, measured cutting, muted colors), narrative jolt (sudden violence, a metaphorical bird entering a French apartment), and casting decision (Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, and Isabelle Huppert as the central family) is justified and expected, but as a Bergmanesque chamber drama it lacks the magic and complex humane treatment of Bergman. In Amour, death divides a family, and Haneke, amazingly precise as he is, can't put forth an image of postmortal hope that is very convincing, instead preferring to unceasingly pick apart the physical and psychological strain of aging and death. There's an abysmal fear in this film that's disguised as cruel realism.

10. Lawless (Hillcoat, USA, In Competition)
John Hillcoat's Lawless, previously known as The Wettest County in the World and based off the book of the same name, received some undue critical hounding after its premiere, which is strange given that it's a pretty bareknuckled and well-made Western, nothing more and nothing less. Sure, Hillcoat waters down any moral ambiguity that might have existed in the film's awkwardly schmaltzy epilogue, and the sexual landscape leans towards vaguely misogynistic, but I'll take some of these missteps over The Road's simple-minded affectations of importance and superficially "contemplative" mise-en-scène. What's more, Lawless is chock full of thrilling performances by Tom Hardy as a daftly philosophizing brute, Gary Oldman as an indifferent mobster, Guy Pearce as the slimy villain, and Shia LaBoeuf (!) in his best role as a wannabe tough guy. Still, the greatest source of my enthusiasm for the film was the immaculately dusty and contrasty cinematography of Benoît Delhomme, who shoots these Prohibition-Era ghost towns - always wafting with the smoke of whisky and brandy production - in an undeniably conventional yet painterly manner. It's a ruthlessly brutal genre movie that for quite some time maintains an air of Peckinpah-like stoicism.

11. Lawrence Anyways (Dolan, France, Un Certain Regard) Another year of inclusion in Un Certain Regard for Canadian filmmaker Xavier Dolan represents yet another example of the mainstream hesitance to embrace youthfulness in auteur cinema. Surely, Lawrence Anyways has more personality, and is more expressive and heartfelt, than a number of the Competition entries, and it could have added further diversity to the lineup, especially in light of its focus on social minorities (specifically a transsexual intending to remain in a heterosexual relationship). Dolan's films clearly emerge from a passionate and genuine place, and their energy and messiness is entirely the product of a spontaneous excitement for cinema. Needless to say, Lawrence Anyways is sloppy, overlong, and digressive, but the strange allure of Dolan's work is that he manages to absorb these flaws into the texture of his character's lives, discovering ways to transform self-indulgent slow-motion shots (this one has even more than Heartbeats) into gaudy expressions of a character's veiled insecurity or overblown self-importance. Like Dolan's main character, Lawrence Anyways is split between two urges: that of individuality and personal fetishism (the film's often radical compositional style and its Felliniesque eccentricities, to name two), and that of conformity (its fiery scenes of romantic turmoil featuring a revelatory Suzanne Clément and its eye-rollingly sappy denouement, both of which achieve Hollywood rom-com stature). Upon close inspection of the film's insanity, it's not too difficult to see the structural design on display.

12. The Hunt (Vinterberg, Denmark, In Competition) Thomas Vinterberg's a director with a clear interest in the secrets lurking beneath the complacent surfaces of Danish communities and families, and he's exercised that concern yet again in The Hunt, a finely wrought but quickly forgettable drama about a Kindergarten teacher (Mads Mikkelsen) who is angrily cast off from his circle of friends and colleagues following the random lie of his female student (Annika Wedderkopp). There's a palpable socioeconomic and cultural infrastructure in the film's small town, as well as a solid sense of verisimilitude that must come from Vinterberg's years as a Dogme ascetic, but at the same time there's a sluggishness, a beating-around-the-bush quality to the film's narrative progression, as if Vinterberg has merely set up a troubling scenario to relish in his formidable knack for depicting societal disintegration. Furthermore, The Hunt feels too much like just a good story that was put to film, rather than a story that was expanded upon and expressed vitally through cinematic means. It's a small distinction, but it's the one that prevents Vinterberg from being as distinctive a director as he could be.

13. Moonrise Kingdom (Anderson, USA, In Competition/Opening Night)
The Darjeeling Limited suggested a director trying to engage with issues broader than his own tiny universe and Fantastic Mr. Fox showcased an artist's desire to work with a new approach, but Moonrise Kingdom represents a firm step back into the confines of Wes Anderson's own headspace, and at this point the refusal to make artistic evolutions more drastic than the simple changing of a typeface and the move away from anamorphic widescreen is somewhat damning. The film feels decidedly small and inconsequential, failing to achieve the surprise emotional punch or sprawling canvas of films like The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic. Furthermore, Anderson puts the burden of the film's momentum in the hands of two unknown child actors (Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward) who just cannot carry a scene or portray pre-pubescent love in a convincing manner. As usual for Anderson, Moonrise Kingdom is aesthetically irreproachable, shot with an oppressively diorama-like sensitivity and production designed to fantastical perfection, but it puts its eggs in the wrong basket narratively, all while wasting the naturally Andersonian flair of Anderson newcomers Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Frances McDormand, and Tilda Swinton. My love for Anderson aside, and despite a hilariously overblown climax that utilizes some throwback color toning, Moonrise Kingdom is a frustratingly flimsy act of regression from this important American filmmaker.

14. Cosmopolis (Cronenberg, USA, In Competition)
The humid theater it screened in was of no help to David Cronenberg's already-stuffy Cosmopolis, the experience of which was akin to being suffocated by the director as he whispered his esoteric contemporary philosophies in your ear. Well, more precisely, Robert Pattinson, who has become the inert mouthpiece for Cronenberg's meandering and impenetrable dialogues on the current state of economics and politics. It's clear enough that this is the story of the 1%, but I'll admit total confusion and ignorance towards the remainder of Cronenberg's intentions, and I'm certainly not prepared or interested in trying to shuffle through the needlessly coded meanings in this never-ending string of talk. Intellectual detachment is all well and good though if Cronenberg were at least able to present his ideas in compelling cinematic fashion (hence the success of Like Someone in Love) rather than resorting to what feels like characters reading manuscripts to each other in a black box theater. The outside world is so closed-off and pared-down in Cosmopolis that it's as if any of Cronenberg's decisions apart from the dialogue (the NYC location, Pattinson's plot-churning desire for a crosstown haircut, the rat as a symbol of the deteriorating dollar) were arrived at arbitrarily. Add to this the flat digital cinematography and Cosmopolis is just a dull, unimaginative slog of a film.

15. The Paperboy (Daniels, USA, In Competition)
Ok, at least Lee Daniels dropped the wacked-out racial hierarchy of the abominable Precious, but in its wake he's yielded a frankly incompetent, meaningless, and misguided tribute to the low-budget homespun camp cinema of the film's 1960's era, and he's traded the revolting view of inner-city blacks in the previous film for stereotypes of southern white trash in this one. Surely, The Paperboy aims for ickiness, but to what end? In a climactic sex scene between recently-released criminal Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack) and blonde bombshell Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), Daniels cuts to images of livestock as a punctuation mark, as if deriding his characters' baseless behavior. As much as the film tries to approach a sympathetic note for its depraved characters in the end, for the most part it rides this reprehensive wave throughout, and it presents it all in a psychosexual storm of bad editing and crummy lighting. Zac Efron stumbles away with some surprisingly nuanced acting as a detective's (Matthew McConaughey) younger brother and a man struggling with overwhelming physical desire for an Kidman's older character, but otherwise the cast appears confused, seemingly lost in Daniels' inexact mise-en-scène, unaware of whether or not the cameras are rolling. This is a profoundly awful film.