Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Public Enemies (2009) A Film by Michael Mann

Every bullet fired in Michael Mann's Public Enemies signals death. It is not just a sound effect inserted to heighten chaos or extract intensity from violence. It is the sound of another human life fading away, being dissolved by time. We hear flesh tearing, metal intruding into fragile inner parts. And then another gunshot is fired. Throughout the film's 140-minute running time, Mann attempts to sustain the near-impossible feat of drawing attention to the intimacy of this final act without hampering the vicious flow of time, which always brings more casualties, often within fractions of a second. The film, set in the Depression Era and focused on the historic cat-and-mouse chase between outlaw John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and FBI head Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), says very little about organized crime and its changing face, the corporate judicial system, or the worst economic period in American history, and it doesn't need to; nowadays, Mann seems attracted to the crime genre precisely because he is riveted by conflicts of extreme immediacy and gravity, the better to highlight the unknowable void between life and death. He found in Dillinger and Purvis an interpersonal tension, a total ambivalence towards anything beyond the immediate future, and a dangerous occupation - and in Chicago a climate of public unease, economic turmoil, and civic confusion - that suited his fundamental concern for the rush experienced when facing this void. So he ran with it.

While bullets threaten to bust speakers, voices, even when yelling or speaking firmly, have the cumulative effect of a whisper. Not only is this a welcome ingredient for Mann, who has never been a master of dialogue, but it primarily functions as a way of simultaneously rendering words more sacred (what's quietest always invites greater attention) and more meaningless in the context of a broad conflict that plays out through action. There's a moment following a sporadic gunfight that ranks among the most piercing things Mann has ever shot: Dillinger witnesses the slow death of his friend and bank-robbing cohort 'Red' Hamilton (Jason Clarke) in the front seat of a dusty old Chevy, his eyes grinding to a close as his exhausted soul mutters a few garbled syllables. It feels as if the film has momentarily gone silent, and indeed hearing words would probably cheapen the poignancy of the image. I get the strange sensation that Clarke himself is dying, not just his character. Of course, failing to hear what he communicates in those final seconds is mirrored by Dillinger's own inability to comprehend, or fully absorb, the words. The loss of understanding between two people, or between audience and fictional representation, is death as much as anything else.

Digital cinematography (a topic of endless debate elsewhere because of the uncertainty as to whether it produces an essential effect or if it's just a technician's side note) is as integral to the feeling as the sound design. For my generation, DV and HD is the tool of the common man, the domain of the home video and of the majority of my own filmmaking. It's inalterably close to the idea of shooting something "real" (which is not to be confused with saying it looks "real"), whereas celluloid, because of its cost and scarcity, is more difficult to acquire and therefore associated with something unreachable, ideal, beautiful. Mann realizes that the life that interests him is not beautiful, and that digital can, if one wants it to, have a certain kinship with the ugly, the uncomfortable, and the tragic that celluloid must strain to achieve, an ability to reveal these aspects of human existence more directly and more intimately. Public Enemies deals with people who kill and torture and steal and pursue others without considering the larger significance of their actions, and digital cameras detect the weakness and insignificance of them. As usual, Mann compulsively romanticizes and critiques his soulless outlaw characters, but the HD, for me, balances these tendencies. It can't help but make the film resemble actual bodies behaving idiotically in space and time.

It could be that Depp and Bale have both given the best performances of their respective careers or that I find myself increasingly aware of them as real flesh-and-blood actors trying to embody creatures of the mythic imagination. Whatever the case, there's something remarkably moving about the depiction of these two men who are aligned in their isolation and constant forward motion - Bale towards Depp, Depp towards something intangible and ill-defined (happiness, love, thrills, permanence, freedom?) Mann gets right up in their faces when they face pivotal decisions that force them to re-evaluate their quests, such as the encroaching shot in the police station as Bale quietly considers the growing restlessness in his fellow agents, perhaps wondering if he might not be cut out for such work, or the climactic montage of shots of Depp's smirking mug and the beaming image of Manhattan Melodrama, in which Dillinger glimpses himself and the inconsequence of going on. When Mann's not studying their faces, he's adopting their movements and entering their being, so that a shot of another character becomes a view through their perspective, and a jolting body movement is always equaled by a jolting camera movement.

Time does not wait for establishing shots. In the rush of Public Enemies, there are only individuals moments stitched together, not the standard chunks of scene and sequence that constitute a traditional approach to narrative. Mann sees the Dillinger/Purvis conflict as an endless string of experience and sensation, an arrow that shoots briefly but violently through history. It's hard to think of a film in recent memory that feels more relentless. Only The Turin Horse comes to mind; Tarr and Mann are interested in worlds with different tempos, but they are equally unrelenting in their relationship with time. Both directors never pause for editorial comment, psychologizing, or prettifying. They are slaves to the march of existence, and if they catch fleeting bits of magic (the horse's tear or the flicker of the lantern in The Turin Horse, the bottom of Marion Cotillard's foot during sex, the crackle of muzzle flashes in the dark forest, or a dying breath crystallized in cold air in Public Enemies) it feels almost incidental.

None of the film's expressive intangibles forgive some of its glaring weaknesses - the underutilized Cotillard as Dillinger's love interest, the salient lack of color correction in some scenes, the sporadic, uncritical recycling of Dillinger iconography - but they do overshadow them. To watch the film from a narrative frame of mind, and thus to get hung up on elements of plot and character that are both secondary to Mann's concern and don't fit conventional structures, is to do an injustice to the film's primary mode as a sensory experience. Few films get inside a period and climb within it like Public Enemies does. Firstly, it's concerned with making the viewer a part of this deadly chase, with transmitting the vertiginous feeling of being in these life-or-death circumstances, and the inevitable side-effect of this immersion is a grand seriousness towards death. The film's only well-chosen use of slow motion (a stray two or three instances in the rest of the film violate the forward thrust) is during the moment of Dillinger's demise, because a work about death must die itself when its subject perishes, and what better way to signal the death of a film than to slow its frame rate, regressing it towards the stillness of photography?

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Boy Meets Girl (1984) A Film by Leos Carax

Perched between compulsive citation and the kind of brooding, morbid anxiety that might characterize an older, more world-weary filmmaker, Leos Carax's Boy Meets Girl is about as atypical as directorial debuts get. The film's opening voice-over - set atop a mysterious montage of three images ending in a frenetic view of The River Seine at night and spoken in a craggy voice that could just as easily be a 100-year-old woman or a 12-year-old girl impersonating her grandmother - establishes the movie as the free-associative visions of a dying filmmaker:
"Here…we are…still…alone. It is all…so slow…so heavy…so sad…soon…i…will be…old…and…it will…at last…be over…"
But the film is anything but that. Instead, the narration marks the first lines to introduce the world to the 24-year-old French filmmaker and one-time Cahiers du Cinema writer, and they immediately intone a sense of finality and apprehension over both the film and ultimately Carax's career, in which every film continues to feel uncannily like The End of something. Boy Meets Girl was routinely identified upon its release as the resurrection of the youthful spirit of the French New Wave, the kind of film Godard would have been making had he never matured beyond his jazzy, guerrilla-style romances, and it's become something of an accepted idea that it is. The consensus was missing the point though; Carax, an outspoken Godard fan, was making the Last New Wave film, a work that consciously evoked Godard and other Cahiers disciples even as it deliberately set itself apart from the movement. Still today, when we make knee-jerk comparisons of Carax's early work to Godard and Truffaut, we're denying ourselves the ability to see the poetic singularity of Boy Meets Girl.

In fact, if we disregard for a moment any surface resemblances to Godard (the Karina look-alike Mireille Perrier and her Band of Outsiders-esque tap dance, the naked, articulate dialogue, the delinquency motif), a closer spiritual precursor to Boy Meets Girl isn't Breathless or The 400 Blows but rather Last Year at Marienbad, a film that never fit comfortably into the energetic, juvenile umbrella of the New Wave movement. Both films are elusive romances told from the frustrated male perspective, both are situated within a hyper-extended microcosm of reality, or a hypnotic dream space with the appearance of the physical world, and both use a game (Nim in Marienbad, pinball in Boy Meets Girl) as an occasional metaphor for the ubiquity of chance in the progression of their characters. Carax, like Resnais, even halts the flow of the cinematic world in several instances, making figures freeze in time while the main characters continues to move about. All of this suggests that the 24-year-old Carax's concerns were different, and in some cases far broader, than the 30-year-old Godard's.

Boy Meets Girl represents the first use of Carax's onscreen surrogate Denis Lavant, a herculean actor (in 1984, a non-actor) who has featured prominently in every Carax movie (with the exception of Pola X) through the recent masterpiece Holy Motors. Lavant plays Alex, the figure at the center of each of Carax's first three films, a young delinquent and loner who keeps a brain-like map of his life experiences behind a painting on the wall of his scantily furnished one-room apartment. The map charts, seemingly arbitrarily, the landmark events in Alex's life, and early on in the film he inscribes "first attempted murder" in the middle of blank wall space after Carax shows him strangling the man whom his recent girlfriend cheated on him with. It seems merely a matter of time before all the empty space on the map will be filled with further experiences of Alex's own design; a self-described "filmmaker" who only dreams up titles of films he'd like to make, there is a sense that Alex is trying to steer his own fate. He uses different chunks (theft, murder, break-up, filmmaking, at one point he refers to having not cheated yet) that can be built into a unifying whole, a complete personality. He's glimpsed a pre-destined shape for himself, and the film is part of his attempt to build himself into that shape.

Through a strange sequence of events, Alex sees it as part of his idealization that he must fall in love with a recently heartbroken failed commercial actress named Mireille (Perrier). For Carax to illustrate this idea, he constructs an unpredictable narrative progression to open the film. After the aforementioned narration, the film reveals Maite (Maïté Nahyr), a woman who's "driving to the mountains" with her baby daughter, and a pair of skies and poles protrude absurdly through her front windshield. When she pulls over to the Seine, she calls a man named Henri and informs him that she'll be throwing his paintings in the river, then runs over to a man named Thomas (Christian Cloarec) to ask him for the date and time before leaving in her car again, dropping a checkered scarf that matches Alex's sport jacket in the process. Alex then arrives and attempts to kill Thomas at the edge of the bridge, eventually pushing him off. This segues to a gloomy-looking Mireille in her apartment wearing a similar black-and-white pattern on her pants. Her boyfriend Bernard (Carroll Brooks) sits on the bed across from her and enigmatically exits the room moments later saying he "can't talk about [something] here and now," leaving Mireille in confusion. The ensuing break-up occurs through the intercom outside the entrance of the apartment building, where the wandering Alex stops to be a front-row witness to the action. Having just been dumped himself, Alex formulates this as a cosmic exchange of heartache, a turn of fate that allows him to pursue Mireille with utter determination.

This progression of scenes demonstrates Carax's associational montage, which carries the film along according to impulses, emotions, and sensations. Because of Carax's elliptical editing and his propensity to highlight miniature gestures and seemingly insignificant elements in the mise-en-scène - Thomas grabbing a knife while being strangled, Bernard throwing out some kind of tickets from his coat pocket, the blaring Dead Kennedys song that Mireille listens to while being dumped - it's easy to miss narrative details in this sequence, and throughout Boy Meets Girl in general. I'm still trying to unpack the nature and significance of Maite, a character deliberately aligned with Florence, Alex's actual ex-girlfriend, who, like Maite, also threatened to extinguish her ex's creations (in Alex's case, his letters to her). Furthermore, why does she drop Florence's scarf, or does she just happen to have the same article of clothing? Soon after, Alex watches a couple kissing by the river, and the women, whose entire face is never seen, appears to be Anna Baldaccini, the actress credited as Florence, but the man she is kissing is not Christian Cloarec. Intentional or not, these narrative ambiguities contribute to the film's dizzying self-reflexivity and also suggest the way that Alex has tried to depersonalize and obscure his troubled recent past.

Carax himself - whose name is an anagram of the first and middle names of his birthright Alexander Oscar Dupont - is a prankster, and his complete kinship with the anarchic Alex is transparent. Alex spends his time documenting his experiences on his typewriter and filing old letters he has written, and in order to insure the posterity of his feelings he Xeroxes them. The relationship between his methods of observing and preserving reality and the cinematic apparatus is hinted at by Carax through the repeated visual motif of framing Alex within larger frames: a window overlooking subway stairs, an elevator, a phone booth (the glass of which is broken to reveal its own circular lens), not to mention Alex's tendency to observe intimate moments (Bernard and Mireille's break-up, the lovers' kiss on the bridge) from close distances, like a spectator in a theater. Reflections and doubling also take a strong thematic role. At the Xerox store, Alex stands behind identical twins who are placed in front of a large mirror. Notably, Mireille's apartment features a window overlooking both a courtyard and another apartment building that takes up the entire surface of a wall, and she continually sits against it, allowing her faint reflection to have a ghostly presence in the frame. If Boy Meets Girl deals with how our ideal self(ves) are thwarted and redefined by chance, by the intrusion of unexpected life circumstances (hence pinball), then in the final scene, Carax demonstrates how far the ideal self can be distanced from the real self by returning to the image of happy lovers in a window across the courtyard. Thus, the film acknowledges its own conceit of cinema as a duplication of reality as inherently flawed, while at the same time making it known that this striving for the ideal is nevertheless essential to living.

If cinema is not a duplication of reality, it's a construction of it that is subject to its maker's personality and context. Boy Meets Girl, accordingly, is an extremely personal film, as well as a work that is very alert to its own place in cinema culture and film history. During the climactic, titular meeting between Alex and Mireille, Perrier calls explicit attention to her bum tooth and longtime wrinkles, which bluntly separates her from the famously polished Karina. It's as much an example of Carax distancing himself from the shadow of Godard as it is Mireille bearing her soul for Alex, just as a mysterious bourgeois party set piece at the heart of the film (which includes a very meta monologue about silent cinema by a deaf man), with its smoky ambiance and frozen intellectuals, is both a love letter and a farewell to the world of Marienbad. In a broader sense, Carax, the man to propose "the silent talkative film" (see: Fergus Daly and Garin Dowd's book Leos Carax), positions the film in a nebulous middle ground between the potential of silent film and the potential of sound. Like a great deal of mid-century European art films, Boy Meets Girl is entirely post-synched, drawing attention to the divide between the image and the construction of the sonic diegesis. (Its soundscape is one of its most unique features, but that's a topic worthy of another essay.)

In Boy Meets Girl, the setting of Paris seems incidental, and it continues to be in Carax's body of work. The city is nearly unrecognizable through Carax's highly posed, nocturnal universe. Areas of the frame that Carax has no interest in are reduced to murky negative space. Bodies are situated against expanses of black, an effect that is often called upon, illogically, during moments of great introspection. What's in the frame and what's visible is always a highly selective act for Carax, so the setting of Boy Meets Girl feels like an afterthought. Indeed, for a young filmmaker, this counts among the highest praise. Carax's selectivity is mirrored by his understanding that filmmaking is about the search for identity. Like Alex, it's defined by being in a perpetual transitional state. Twenty-eight years after the release of Boy Meets Girl, Carax is still producing work that revels hypnotically in the dark.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Wedding March (1928) A Film by Erich von Stroheim

Erich von Stroheim's The Wedding March is one of the few works in the director's ambitious yet compromised canon still surviving in roughly its original form. An alleged sequel to the film entitled The Honeymoon was destroyed more than half a century ago, but one senses that its presence would neither re-contextualize nor augment the impact of The Wedding March itself, which feels remarkably complete in its overwhelming passion and brutal nihilism. It's a naked film in both its emotionality - desire, love, hate, and misery are among the big feelings displayed shamelessly on screen - and its design, which is characteristically straightforward and even obvious at times, a hallmark of the von Stroheim approach. The strange thing about the film, though, is that its earnestness and visual bravado always manage to cut through the often bulky construction, head-slapping metaphors, and outrageous innuendos. This is a beautifully unkempt film, a rich man's cinema of irreverence and honesty.

It's easy enough to see where the film is headed within its first ten minutes. Following an audacious title card that reads "dedicated to the true lovers of the world," the film introduces the unstable domesticity of a gaudy aristocratic family whose members seem defined by one or two emotional spectrums: there is the main character Prince Nickolas von Wildeliebe-Rauffenburg, played by von Stroheim himself, with his varied costumage and smug sense of privilege (despite his diminishing funds), his father Prince Ottokar von Wildeliebe-Rauffenburg with his boiling anger that causes him to perspire at all times (or is it the steamy light instruments just out of frame?), and his mother Princess Maria (Maude George) with her obliviousness to the swine-like nature of her husband. Conversations circle around financial need and excess, and the family's extracurricular activity is limited throughout the film to garish parties where all forms of debauchery (heavy drinking, esoteric sexual acts, ludicrous deals slurred in stone) run rampant. The absence of warmth becomes palpable in von Stroheim's aloof compositions, which frame the palatial surroundings as alternately majestic and dwarfing. The Wedding March's goal announces itself: to skewer the pomposity and absurdity of the upper class and its unfair delegations of behavior.

The strange von Wildeliebe-Rauffenburg family dynamics make themselves apparent in Nicki's early request for money: shoot yourself or marry money, Ottokar unflinchingly responds, and Nicki's obvious decision sets off the plot. We later see Ottokar's alcohol-driven arrangement with Fortunat Schweisser (George Nichols), a wealthy industrialist, of a marriage between Nicki and Fortunat's daughter Cecilia (Zasu Pitts), a rather unremarkable specimen with a limp, but even before any of that occurs, Nicki's narrow options rule his life. However, at the Corpus Christi procession on the streets of Vienna, a pretty young girl named Mitzi (Fay Wray) catches his attention. Their subsequent stare-down - an extended back-and-forth montage of explosive sensuality in which Lieutenant Nicki views his object of affection from atop a horse (a perfect spatial representation of the class divide between them) - marks a sharp contrast to the sardonic tone of the preceding scenes. All playful glances, half-concealed expressions, and small flirtatious gestures, the sequence plays as a real-time progression from lust to romantic interest, and displays von Stroheim's careful way with the depiction of delicate human behavior. When Nicki reveals the crevice between his white leggings and knee-high boots, beckoning Mitzi to insert a flower right in front of her snarling fiancé Schani Eberle (Matthew Betz), the tension, expressed entirely in close-ups, is riveting.

Shortly after Nicki's horse sporadically freaks out and knocks Mitzi to the ground, injuring her leg as if to align her with his prospective wife, an intertitle appears that gets to the core of von Stroheim's worldview: "There is no such thing as an accident - it is just fate misnamed." But here fate is cruel and taunting. The episode allows Nicki to directly apologize to Mitzi in a hospital room, thus beginning a burgeoning romance that will be driven into the ground by the inherited obligations in their respective social structures and by the workings of the plot. Von Stroheim as the bleeding heart romantic emerges from within the cynical, mocking von Stroheim quite fluidly, transforming a social critique into a love story for much of The Wedding March's middle section before resolving into a devastating tragedy. The film's strongest scenes are those taking place at a dreamy garden situated behind the Inn owned by Mitzi's parents, where the two would-be lovers flirt in the moonlight beneath a tree of glowing apple blossoms. These images - corny, artificial, heartfelt, and profound all at once - reap the greatest benefits from hazy, damaged film prints and showcase von Stroheim a visual stylist whose fundamental skills never called for the assistance of sound.

Elsewhere, von Stroheim's knack for conveying emotions and information through visual means works to flesh out any and all subtextual ideas, as if out of fear of not getting across his intentions to audiences. If an idea is not tackled directly through one of the film's many openly sarcastic intertitles, von Stroheim devises a corresponding image, or a corresponding character trait that can be expressed visually. Thus, each character has his/her own odd, minor tic that is made emblematic through repetition: Schani's spitting and the constant tipping of his hat, a minuscule manifestation of all his pent-up anger, which finally is thrown off in a fit of externalized rage; or Ottokar's twisting of the tips of his moustache, a ridiculous effort to keep himself in top form and deflect his ugliness. Also, only a filmmaker shamelessly faithful to the power of the image could include a sight gag as direct as the one during Nicki and Cecilia's wedding ceremony of skeleton fingers pounding away on the keys of an organ, an omen of the spiral of misery and death to result from such a loveless marriage. Or a cipher as bold as the "Iron Man," a large statue that Mitzi claims will come to life and escort her spirit to sorrow and death. The Iron Man symbolizes the rigidness of the social hierarchy, itself a stand-in for the forces that repeatedly threatened the integrity of von Stroheim's work throughout his career.

Already a controversial figure in Hollywood, there's definitely something daring about von Stroheim's casting of himself himself as such a conflicted and ultimately unsympathetic figure. It's as if portraying himself as the instrument of his ideas, to actually go through the motions of a romance shattered by class expectations, was the only way for him feel as if they were adequately represented. Of course, writing his character in as the recipient of so much lavish praise (at one point, Mitzi even tells him "I bet you have a name a kilometre long," and the innuendo is hysterically risqué) helps balance out his character's inevitable fall towards complacency and bitterness, but the lasting note of The Wedding March is tragic nonetheless. The sight of Fay Wray bursting into tears outside of the wedding ceremony as rain dumps buckets on her and Nicki passes stoically with his newlywed is one of the most vividly emotional moments of silent cinema, and it's precisely that kind of poignancy that mitigates von Stroheim's more forceful directorial choices.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Belleville Tokyo (2010) A Film by Elise Girard

The two main characters in Elise Girard's Belleville Tokyo are named Marie and Julien, and the film is a story of them. They're married, and Marie is expecting a baby, but the relationship is waning because of Julien's infidelity. The story, set in Paris, begins in summer and ends in winter, and title cards indicating each new month make abrupt appearances throughout. Much of the drama is relayed through static wide shots in urban and domestic spaces, and when the camera moves, it moves in succinct, assertive gestures - a pan or a tilt, never on track. Backgrounds loosely reflect inner emotional states and generate aesthetic appreciation, particularly in the final chapter of the film when the troubled couple is surrounded by a gentle snowfall that seems to materialize Marie's sense of self-confidence as she pushes her unstable lover further and further away.

If all of this sounds like a kaleidoscopic pastiche of art films past, it's because it is. Girard's film might as well be titled The Story of Marie and Julien, but it's not just Rivette's presence that hovers over Belleville Tokyo; it's also Rohmer's, Renoir's, Godard's, Varda's, Tati's, Ozu's, De Sica's, etc. Many of the film's inspirations are implicit, but others are openly addressed: only 15 minutes or so have past by the time Girard treats the audience to the extended sight of a poster announcing a Jarmusch retrospective, and though Marie (Valérie Donzelli) is also in the shot receiving a phone call that may or may not have narrative significance, the subject of the shot is Jarmusch. It's as if Girard, in addition to advertising her Jarmusch love, is priming the audience to anticipate the film's snow-covered denouement, which seems to hearken back to Stranger Than Paradise.

Cinephilia runs amok in Belleville Tokyo, and Girard expresses her boundless enthusiasm by situating the film's plot within Paris' culture of cinephilia. Marie works at an arthouse cinema with an overflowing collection of film prints that is seemingly based around Jean-Marie Rodon's beloved Action Films, both a distributor and a theater of the highest-quality classic films. That Marie's time at work amidst a temple of Hollywood movie posters and the floating scent of celluloid is treated as a respite from the claustrophobia and distress of her personal life is instructive in understanding Girard's own position in her work. The act of filmmaking, and of film viewing, is an escape from the harsh reality of life, but it's as if Marie - and by extension, Girard - doesn't realize that the filmmakers she adores peer deeply into life as a way of getting closer to it and understanding it. When the cinema screens Visconti's L'Innocente and Julien (Jérémie Elkaïm) introduces it, Marie interprets the film's notorious infant murder scene as Julien subtly announcing his fear of the future, and promptly exits the screening in irritation. For Marie, if the cinema too closely approaches reality and too accurately conveys inner emotional states, it makes her uncomfortable; as evidenced by the Intervista poster in her living room, she seems to prefer the fantastical flights of cinema, a safe alcove of movie magic and canonization.

Fittingly, Belleville Tokyo becomes more hysterical the closer it gets to messy emotional truth and more tone-deaf as it approaches the calamitous outcome of Marie and Julien's struggles. My theater laughed harder at the climactic argument between the couple (shown in the film's longest static take) than it did at the earlier scenes in the cinema office between Marie and her slapstick duo of bosses. The latter are willfully delightful, while the former should be harrowing. Belleville Tokyo is fetishistic to the core, which explains why it gets all the surface features right (the unfussy compositional sense, the measured editing, the carefully choreographed but organic blocking) but none of the intangibles. It lacks the probing intelligence of Rohmer, the knowing self-reflexivity of Godard and Rivette, the quotidian calm of Ozu, and the performative chemistry in Jarmusch. It plays like a parade of references splayed out for enthusiasts to pick up on, or for casual viewers seeking inoffensive entertainment to subconsciously acknowledge and feel all the better for it.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Cries and Whispers (1972) A Film by Ingmar Bergman

There's a chilling image early on in Cries and Whispers that gets to the core of the film, perhaps even to all of Ingmar Bergman's oeuvre. It's a tight close-up of Harriet Andersson's face as she lies in bed. It shows a women in a comfortable setting, with a soft white pillow filling up the edges of the frame. Yet the strange progression of feeling that flows through Andersson's face suggests that the pillow has no power over human emotion. Andersson's playing a dying woman named Agnes, but the film has not yet made the fact or nature of her illness clear when the shot arrives. As it begins, Agnes is just waking up. Her face goes blank for a moment before stretching into an odd contortion. The first hunch is that she's yawning, but that supposed yawn shifts effortlessly into a gape of seemingly horrendous pain, and ultimately resolves itself into another blank facade, this time graced by a hint of a smile. It's a close-up of unorthodox length, and across its long runtime it captures a myriad of powerful emotions co-existing: indifference, relief, pain, sorrow, misery, boredom, catharsis, happiness. Bergman's films have always made it an uncomfortably blunt truth that a psyche cannot possess one of these states without the rest of them. Cries and Whispers seems built entirely around that idea.

An echo of this shot emerges later in the film when Agnes' oldest sister Karin (Ingrid Thulin) reacts to Agnes' younger sister Maria's (Liv Ullmann) frank pronouncements of the distanced state of their relationship. Karin buries her face in her hands, beginning to laugh but also cry, and when her face returns from her hands, the distinction between the two is still not obvious. Cries and Whispers boasts some of Bergman's finest and most respectful direction of actresses, a skill he was able to master throughout his career, but here the performances reach majestic levels of complexity and candidness. Andersson with her gasping, unflinching morbidity, Thulin with her ice-cold hatefulness and detachment, Ullmann with her self-involved vulnerability, and Kari Sylwan (as the maid Anna) with her bruised despair; it's impossible not to think of the film first in terms of its faces, big, bold, and passionate, always dominating the screen. A consistent editorial device is a cut to one of these faces staring directly at the viewer, positioned in front of a black abyss. There's an urgent confrontational quality to it.

Limited to a single setting and utter silence with the exception of dialogue, ambient whispers, the infrequent use of Chopin and Bach, and the occasional impact sound, Cries and Whispers distills Bergman's aesthetic to its simplest form. The film feels very little need to couch its spiritual questioning in narrative forms; it uses the enclosed tomb of a countryside mansion as an arena in which to directly address matters of faith, death, and love. Sure, there's a narrative here - Agnes is slowly dying from cancer and the event of death gradually reveals the ugly truth of the sisters' relationships - but Bergman doesn't treat it as such. Rather, the film is a trance-like parade of the most harrowing of emotions, treated in an almost free-associative manner. In the following order, Bergman shows confrontations with mortality, petty displays of vanity and sexual desire, scorching proclamations of self-hatred and insularity, hallucinatory stages of grief, troubling instances of emotional denial, and, finally, an ambiguous vision of posthumous bliss. Stitched together by the pulse of red transitions and the direct address close-ups, there's a great fluidity to this evolution, a sense of logical emotional development that could never come through on paper.

Bergman opens the film with a characteristically moody introduction, a sequence of images divorced from dramatic context. Shots of the outside of the manor on a foggy morning are framed by Sven Nykvist with unusual compositional dynamics - twice, a fat tree is placed just off center in the frame, seeming to insist upon blocking the view of the yard. As the only exterior shots potentially taking place in the "present" (the rest occur in idyllic recollections by the central characters), it's as if Bergman is establishing the present as something that is unreachable, forever shrouded in mist: these women, in their womb-like mansion (Bergman allows only the faithful Anna a brief view out a window), seem to exist perpetually behind the present tense, so fixated on death and despair that they're constantly leaning backwards, their only source of positivity in the past. These images then bleed into close-ups of ticking clocks, one of Bergman's signature motifs. The insistence upon time further situates the sisters in a march towards death, and the next scene features Karin, Maria, and Anna literally waiting for the death of Agnes in the adjacent room. (In fact, at one point Maria even appears dead in a pose that would recently be echoed by a dead woman in Manoel de Oliveira's The Stange Case of Angelica.) Time moves too fast and too slow simultaneously; Agnes both craves a release from her imprisoning pain and fondly recalls instances of pleasure that make the fear of doom palpable.

The figure of Anna offers the only respite for Agnes' consuming misery. Anna's treated with a lack of respect by Karin and Maria, and especially by Karin's malevolent husband Fredrik (Georg Årlin), who later tries to lay off Anna without so much as a thank you for her long-term work, but she retains a core of dignity against all odds, ostensibly due to a belief in God and an understanding of death. This makes her the most suited to deal sympathetically with Agnes' illness, as well as rendering her the mystical presence of the house, a kind of death prophet. The sadness that ignites within her at the prospect of Agnes' end, which is ever so subtly suggested to be rooted in lesbian interest, is overwhelming, but it does not cause her to break down as drastically as Karin and Maria. The two sisters feign self-control, but their devastation manifests itself in immature acts of wickedness towards one another. Death can be a uniting force, but for these women it's something that eats away at their weak inner being, separating the already significant emotional gap between them even further.

A recurring visual element in Bergman's work, particularly with Nykvist as DP, is the alarming use of rack focus to bunch faces up against one another. That technique is used frequently in Cries and Whispers, often when loosely conveying Agnes' subjectivity. One of the sisters will enter the frame and turn away in fright at the sight of Agnes in pain just as the other sister intrudes in the foreground, coming aggressively into focus. For a film so restrained in its visual palette - Bergman and Nykvist rarely move the camera and rarely cut away to wide shots - it certainly finds ample ways to aestheticize the interplay of human faces, extracting a dramatic intensity through such minor means as a precisely choreographed rack focus. The relative subtlety of such maneuvers balances out the film's oppressive use of blood red, a conceit of remarkable effectiveness and remarkable obviousness simultaneously. That it's both points to the great power of Cries and Whispers; red is a color whose implications are built so intrinsically into our lexicon of artistic analysis that it begs to be paired with such vital thematic material. This is a film whose depths are integral to human nature.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Screening Notes #13

Phone Booth (2002): Larry Cohen originally proposed the seed of this idea to Hitchcock, and it's no surprise. Decades later, Joel Schumacher took the seed and grew it into an economical gem featuring a man and an unseen sniper that thrives on its precise distillation of time and place. Phone Booth would make a neat double bill with John Cassavetes' Faces; both films use extra-marital relations as a narrative motif, and Schumacher and Cassavetes realize the potency of the human face and its ability to carry drama. Characters seem defined by the presence or lack of sweat beading down their face at any given moment, while Schumacher's montage is often narrowed to bustling cross-cuts between NYC windows and tormented expressions. Colin Farrell is in top melodramatic form, conveying waves of exposition through his face alone, and when Forest Whittaker enters as a vulnerable police chief, one can sense the film's artificial sweat budget (whatever that might have entailed) rising exponentially. This really is edge-of-your-seat entertainment, as they say.

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007): Continuing adventures in the offhand surrealism and half-assed improvisation of Judd Apatow-produced comedy (see: Step Brothers, Anchorman, Pineapple Express, Get Him to the Greek). In fact, these are attributes that seem to emerge only when Apatow is in the producer role, instilling in them a strange sort of extra-textual cohesion that poses a challenge to the auteur theory and gives the films a distinct tone among American comedy. Step Brothers remains the most interesting mess, but Walk Hard is a special breed of genre spoof: structured yet happily uneven, hokey but weirdly emotionally involved, straightforward and digressive at the same time, quotable yet only in the most unconventional sense (long lines, recurring bits of dialogue that are slightly altered). It feels like a film that was made on-the-go, incorporating various ideas from crew and cast members alike, resulting in a very strange and very engaging hodge-podge of American music mythology and other, more private inspirations. Some flashbacks - as well as wild animals in domestic settings - seem to mine the exaggerated Americana of Lynch, while one episode of a drugged-up John C. Reilly wreaking havoc in underwear plays like a variation on Leos Carax's Merde.

The Wind Will Carry Us (1999): My issue with Kiarostami's film is the same issue Ignatiy Vishnevetsky expressed with mumblecore movies - namely, that it seems to be "building itself on certain absences instead of particular presences," but before I say anything more I should address that this is just a first-time impression and I believe I have every right to be wrong. Only days after seeing this enigmatic bare-bone of a film have its non-gestures and vague symbols started to coalesce into something interesting. During the viewing, I will admit, I found this to be relatively unimaginative (planted camera panning with the action) and at the most schematic end of Kiarostami's sensibilities, from the redundant joke of the protagonist searching for cellphone signal right down to the doctor's sentimental monologue and the "life-goes-on" final shot. I'm already beginning to see some of the merits of these decisions in retrospect, but there's one sticking point that hasn't escaped me. I think there's a pretty crucial distinction between the kind of living-as-filmmaking-as-living approach that Pedro Costa takes with his portraits of the lower class and the cerebral autocritique Kiarostami is after here: one involves living with and gaining the respect of the subject and the other involves presenting a character who gains no respect and proceeding to critique his hasty entitlement. Given the seeming hostility of many of the Kurdish village-folk here in the presence of Kiarostami's camera, I'm not sure that making a statement about the ethical dilemma of exploiting the less fortunate for the gain of the higher classes makes it any less exploitative to go ahead and actually engage in the act of filming them.

Wedlock House: An Intercourse (1959): What Brakhage is doing in this 11 minute short is not depicting a marriage but rather the memory of a dream of marriage. In this sense, Brakhage and his wife Jane feel like ghostly presences, for the most part reduced to shadows and bodily fragments portrayed in celluloid negative. It's a film that I feel could be played on repeat next to me as I sleep, and if I were to wake up, I wouldn't be sure if I was dreaming or not. The film plays with negative and positive space on the screen with amazing fluidity, using wafts of cigarette smoke, light flares, and a shifting spotlight in between waves of darkness to negate the visibility of cuts, and this seeming continuity of time, coupled with a jarring discontinuity in space, provides a kind of euphoria whose only equal is the notion of recalling a dream. It's haunting stuff.

Desistfilm (1954): A kinetic burst of beatnik energy, perhaps part of the delirious stew of influences behind something like Guy Maddin's Sissy Boy Slap Party or David Lynch's recent "Crazy Clown Time" music video. It's just some teenagers dicking around in a room, but with seemingly arbitrary pans and tilts, exaggerated performances, and funky camera angles, Brakhage makes it so disturbing and anarchic. Watch it.

Girls (Season 1 Pilot) (2012): I'm firmly in Adam Cook's camp as far as Louie goes, but I'm not sure I want to wait around with Girls to further dig into its supposed auteur cred. Quite simply, I have no interest in hanging around the people that populate this show. There are too many of them in my life as it is. I trust Dunham's honesty, her wit, and her ability to let visuals grow organically from dialogue (even if it dulls the considerable talents of DP Jody Lee Lipes), but I just don't need it. Call me biased.

Listmaking Blogathon

After reading my recent Vertigo essay - which resulted in a comment board casually ranking the best Hitchcock films - Loren Rosson III, a blogger friend and ex-co-worker of mine, was inspired to initiate a meme over at his blog The Busybody. The idea is that he will publish ordered lists of his favorite films by his 10 favorite directors once a month. Having already kicked it off with Hitchcock for July, his site has also plotted out the plan for the next 10 months, and he is encouraging other bloggers to join in on the fun by posting their own lists and commenting on others. It's a simple exercise that could yield vibrant discussion of some great filmmakers. I'll be following his lead and posting a list every month as well, and I urge you to do the same. As he says, these will be very personal lists not following any established canons, and I'm sure they'll change radically for me down the line, but it's nonetheless an interesting way to take stock in my cinematic taste at this point in life. Here's my plan for the next six months (the four after that have not yet been determined), intersecting with Loren's when possible:

August: David Lynch. The Full 11, plus shorts and oddities. (Déjà vu?)

September: Ingmar Bergman. The Top 14, for now.

October: Stanley Kubrick. The Top 10.

November: Andrei Tarkovsky. The Full 7.

December: Bela Tarr. The Full 10.

January: TBD

February: TBD

March: TBD

April: TBD

May: TBD

Monday, July 9, 2012

Magic Mike (2012) A Film by Steven Soderbergh

These days, Steven Soderbergh's career seems to have reached the end point of a slow, insistent turn towards a path rarely traveled in Hollywood. He's making wide-release films with studio money that exemplify 21st century D.I.Y filmmaking ethos - that is, movies guaranteed commercial treatment that feel as if they were made by one dude with a (ridiculously high-end) camera and some friends. And more often than not, that's practically the case. His latest film Magic Mike is like an informal companion piece to 2009's The Girlfriend Experience, a sharply observed portrait of the business of sexuality - this time set in a Tampa Bay where the males are the performers and the females the customers - in which the modus operandi is roughly the same: co-opt a subject (nightlife, sex), a hot-topic star (Channing Tatum here, Sasha Grey in TGF), and a genre (dramedy/dance film here, drama/prostitution exposé in TGF) from the universal interests of the masses in order to gain financing, and proceed to make probing, non-judgmental, humble cinema. Soderbergh strikes me as a filmmaker set upon providing gentle forms of rebellion to the reductive, predictable, conformist fare taking place elsewhere in Hollywood, not through grand gestures and cynical statements, but rather through down-to-earth socioeconomic detail and an impassioned curiosity for the various subjects he films.

Here, that subject is male stripping, and Soderbergh's characteristic lack of bias is especially impressive given the stigma surrounding such a profession. Magic Mike portrays the business of male stripping for what it is - a business, just as worthy of exploration as any other pastime humans choose to embark on, not as a target of ridicule or as easy fodder for girls-night-out exploitation. The film sees stripping both as an exaggerated extension of the primitive urge for sex and sociality and as a lucrative option for aimless but well-meaning twentysomethings forced into odd jobs by the reality of the American economy. Such is the case for Mike (Tatum), a charismatic, self-described "entrepreneur" with scattered ambition, as well as Adam (Alex Pettyfer), a bored 19-year-old who ruined his college football career after a misguided fight with his coach. Mike's already an established hunk at the local male revue (they call him "Magic Mike") and he enjoys plenty of sleepless nights and late afternoons waking up next to nameless females. He doesn't see the fault of his ways, but rather exudes the kind of self-confidence and jovial solipsism that is so pervasive in the modern post-collegiate world, where relative success in a small pond translates to a feeling of being on top of the world. It's precisely that feeling that encourages him to make Alex his project.

It's not that Mike is good-for-nothing, or that Soderbergh is framing him as a villain. In fact, it's quite the opposite. From his ostentatious SUV that he prides himself on by keeping perpetually "new," to his casual but invested relationship with his booty call Joanna (Olivia Munn), to his ridiculous future goal of launching a business of custom furniture assembled from junk parts, everything about Mike is both convincingly flawed and convincingly real. When he senses Alex needs to come out of his shell, his decision to befriend him stems, yes, from a genuine kindness, but mostly from a subconscious desire to increase his sex appeal through an act of charity. The film is remarkably true to the ways that social gamesmanship occurs through bravado; significantly, Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), the megalomaniacal owner of the strip club, is the most obnoxious of all the film's central characters, but in his own way, he displays a tight control of every social situation he's in. (It's the perfect role for McConaughey, who hasn't been this expertly sleazy since Dazed and Confused.) Soderbergh, ever-alert to the process of how things can rapidly change for better or worse (see: Contagion), conveys the transformation of Alex from a go-nowhere stud with a good Schwarzenegger impression and a motherly sister (Cody Horn) to a drugged-up, testosterone-fueled dancer who wouldn't admit he cares about anything but partying and women, and yet there remains a sympathetic core to his character.

The majority of the film's astute, unfussy observations of modern life emerge during its narrative setup. Among them: Alex reveals that he got the same construction job as Mike through Craigslist, and shortly after, we see in the corner of the frame as the boss denies an employee a second soda for lunch, one of his regulations for a non-union, under-the-table gig; later, when Alex successfully pleas for a +1 at one of Mike's regular nightclub digs, he asks naïvely upon receiving his first drink, "Is this free?" Both are minor nuances in Soderbergh's mise en scène, but they add volume to the film's sense of verisimilitude. As Magic Mike enters its third act, it starts to shoehorn its characters into somewhat expected molds (Adam's spiral out of control, Mike's escape from the stripper business as a form of heroism, Adam's sister as a romantic saving grace) and integrates standard genre tropes into its plot (a trippy, color-coded party, a drug deal gone bad, a chance at upward mobility with the prospect of the business moving to Miami). But at the same time, this mash-up of the ordinary and the iconic, the spontaneous and the schematic, the monotonous and the escapist, is exemplified constantly in the lives of these strippers, who are used to shifting between normalcy and performance. It's built into the core of the film. The sadness is that Mike has lost the ability to distinguish between the two modes, despite his desperate efforts to shake off his play persona. Among its many strengths, Magic Mike conveys the whirlwind effect that occurs when standards of obligation collide with transient pleasures.

Again, Soderbergh acts as his own DP here (another sign of his mild independence), and it's integral to the unique texture of his latest films; nothing else would have made a globetrotting epic like Contagion feel like a small-scale experiment, or The Girlfriend Experience a Godardian essay, or Magic Mike a feel-good Aaron Katz movie. Soderbergh's always seeking an angle that will problematize the action onscreen, that will infuse a sense of chaos into the bloodstream of a scene. In night clubs, he shoots faces from beneath, letting flares from the dancing overhead lights obstruct the image. In the strip club, in addition to presenting the dance moves legibly in extended wide shots, he'll mix in a strange beneath-the-glass-floor perspective that recalls a similar shot in Bela Tarr's Almanac of Fall. After one dramatic punchline, he cuts not to a clear shot that will capitalize on the joke, but rather to a collage of unfocused neon lights that only gradually reveal a setting. It's all a way of making a prosaic portrait feel anything but controlled and boxed-in, as well as a way of reflecting the spontaneity of the lives onscreen. Even when it's obvious where the film is headed, this visual experimentation brings a notion of imbalance, making Magic Mike an exciting thing to behold.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Love in the Afternoon (L'amour l'après-midi) A Film by Eric Rohmer (1972)

Of all the male protagonists in Eric Rohmer's Six Moral Tales, Frédéric (Bernard Verley) of Love in the Afternoon is the most tied down by obligation. As a result, the guiding conceit of the series - a man devoted to one women but tempted by a second - gains a charge of practical emotional intensity, a sense of dramatic stakes not as explicitly felt by the drifting, often vacationing souls of the previous five films. Frédéric is married. He has a child and is expecting another. He also works as an office manager in Paris. There's a tangible divide between private and public spaces, between duty and leisure, that Rohmer builds into the film only to gradually disrupt as his character, mentally adrift due to his unchallenging occupation, allows himself to be drawn into the various beauties he sees on a daily basis walking the city streets. "Their beauty is an extension of my wife's beauty," he claims in articulate voice-over, but the comment is so clearly a left-field justification, the kind of thought process Rohmer continuously and delicately explores throughout the series.

Love in the Afternoon's first thirty-odd minutes constitute a prologue, but it's so long that one quickly forgets there's any structural device at play at all. When that prologue segues into a "Part Two" with a sudden, unexpected cut, it has the force of a psychological rupture. It's fitting, because Part Two begins with the birth of Frédéric's child, which brings with it an additional jolt of familial responsibility and a greater weight on Frédéric's psyche. Halfway through the prologue, the film introduces Chloé (Zouzou), an old friend of Frédéric who begins to pose a threat to his marital fidelity towards the end of the section. She represents the antithesis of Frédéric's self-contained bourgeois reality: proto-grunge in her faded blue jeans and moppish hair, so slouchy with her posture that it registers as an affront to the casual professionalism of the office environment that she habitually visits, and unassumingly direct in her language and lifestyle beliefs, she's a clear product of the sexual revolution. This type of self-assured personality often characterizes the secondary love interest in the Moral Tales, but even among this batch Chloé is especially forward and original, more of an earthy presence than many of the ethereal women of previous works. As if to acknowledge this difference, Rohmer has each temptress from the previous films materialize as potential romantic objects in an atypical dream sequence of Frédéric imagining flirtatious success at lunch break, the suggestion being that such presences are too angelically removed to actually crack Frédéric's repressive shell in reality.

The precise history behind Chloé and Frédéric's relationship is kept oblique by Rohmer - we know that Chloé once dated one of Frédéric's best friends, and there are only fleeting hints of a brief romance between the two. This only serves to make the impact of their casual courtship even stronger. Frédéric's flirtation arises from convenience but is treated as fresh territory to explore. The film portrays a sense of how quickly and easily his narrow idea of fidelity can be tested when presented with an attractive and charismatic option. Chloé shows up at Frédéric's office on a nearly day-to-day basis without warning, and her presence in the work space serves to slowly leak the professionalism from the setting until Frédéric seems no longer capable of carrying on his office responsibilities. Private thoughts bleed into professional life, and soon there is no division of Frédéric's consciousness; everything is Chloé. Verley's performance exudes this idea completely. Every interior impulse sneaks out in his body language, from his blank stares when not in her presence to his seeming inability to refrain from affectionate gestures around her (hand holding, hugging, exuberant kisses on the cheek, arm around shoulder, etc.).

There are several outbursts of overt eroticism in the film, but even without them Love in the Afternoon possesses a sneaking sensuality evident in every line and gesture. When Frédéric tells Chloé how much he loves his wife Hélène (Bernard's actual wife Françoise Verley, supplying added resonance to the themes), he's usually avoiding directly communicating how passionately he longs for Chloé. When he makes a comment to Chloé about how great their friendship is, more often than not the unspoken addendum seems to be "so we should express those feelings." Rohmer's image patterns - his reliance upon medium close-ups, his occasional change of rhythm to a two-shot or a tighter close-up - are carefully choreographed so that every cut underlines a minor gradation in the emotions occurring beneath the surface of language, and every shot held longer than usual offers an opportunity to glean the internal monologue happening behind the speech. Punctuation also arrives in the form of the occasional slow dolly in, and in one instance Rohmer uses a zoom to gradually fill the frame with Frédéric's face. By the French director's unassuming standards, Love in the Afternoon sometimes feels downright expressive, especially when a strange theremin score plays behind the dream sequence and the opening credits, but it's balanced by some of the most ascetic interior sequences in the entire series (no picturesque backdrops here, just blank walls and the infrequent splash of color).

All the partial come-ons, incomplete caresses, and erotic not-quite-jokes culminate in Chloé's wordless sex proposal late in the film, which reveals all the previous moves to have been not just casual goofs of good friends but advances of barely contained sexual energy. Frédéric's consuming desire nearly gets the best of him, until an innocuous glance in the mirror reminds him of a previous scene of playfulness with his newborn son (the full realization of the film's shift to a Part Two). The moment is loaded with subtext, as the gravity of Frédéric's emotional infidelity finally subsumes his physical urges. It's sublime. Up until this point Frédéric has harbored a contradictory notion of fidelity that allowed for emotional dishonesty but drew the line at physical contact; his refusal of Chloé's offer both adheres to that moral code and revises it. Realizing that his emotional interest was merely an extension of physical interest, he returns home to Hélène (who at this point has all but disappeared from the film) in a newly sincere mode. Love in the Afternoon quietly asks if this insistence upon monogamy was inherent in Frédéric from the beginning of the film or if real psychological discipline was required to make it anything more than a vague theoretical stance.