Monday, August 27, 2012

Rebel Without a Cause (1955) A Film by Nicholas Ray

The thrill of watching a Nicholas Ray movie is the sense of chaotic exploration that pervades its every seemingly settled decision, the fact that an air of uncertainty remains even when its rounded narrative has petered out. Ray was too intelligent, too aware of the inherent contradictions and complexities thriving in human life to send audiences off with any one definitive emotion. Put simply, his happy endings are never entirely happy and his tragic endings are never entirely tragic. Rebel Without a Cause, his most widely seen and canonized work, is not popular due to any watering down of Ray's sensibility though; the film pops with primary colors, expansive Cinemascope images, and juicy characterizations of teen culture, but at its core it's a pained, searching expression of the inevitable loneliness of the human condition particularly during the age of the nuclear family.

James Dean is to Rebel Without a Cause what Anne Wiazemsky is to Au Hasard Balthasar, Jean-Pierre Léaud is to The 400 Blows, Lee Kang-Sheng is to the films of Tsai Ming-Liang, and Arnold Schwarzenegger is to, well, every movie he's in: an inseparable piece of not only the film's expression but also its surface texture. It's impossible to think of Ray's film without thinking of the way Dean's red jacket and white shirt become a focal point and an indicator of outsider status in every environment he sets foot in, or the way his perfectly sculpted, resilient hairdo never seems to be swayed in the wind, or the way his half-hearted smirk imbues an aura of tension in every situation he's in, as if he's constantly alert to the cruelty and pettiness of life and too weak to try to look past it. His character, Jim Stark, is the ideal representation of the real Dean, a man whose repressed homosexuality could not be unleashed on a conservative national consciousness in the 50's that was quickly idolizing him as a new form of suave, introverted tough-guy. Ray cleverly exploits Dean's internal conflict by casting him as a teenager who has been broken down by his family's relentless urge to relocate to new towns at the slightest hint of unhappiness, a silly, self-perpetuating defense mechanism that is equally the source and byproduct of Jim's trouble-making.

It's hard to miss the idea that the Stark family's fatal misconception - that running away or hiding from physical reality will solve internal issues - is a pungent metaphor for many things: the increasing standardization of social life in the 1950's, which effectively brushed under the rug taboos like homosexuality, violence, political unrest, and civil rights, or the enduring American compulsion towards surface gloss, whether in technology, fashion, or the arts, among others. Ray makes the charged implications of this narrative framing device omnipresent from the beginning in a rather blunt opening sequence at the LA police station where Jim has been wrangled in on account of public drunkenness. The scripting of the scene exemplifies the most pandering, literal-minded tendencies of mainstream Hollywood filmmaking, seemingly operating on the single goal of emphasizing Jim's alienation from his surroundings and his displeasure with his parents' motives (his hysterical "you're tearing me apart!" is ridiculously heavy-handed in the way it spells out character conflict, and not just because we're in a post-The Room world), but Ray still finds unique ways to stage and compose the action, bringing depth into an otherwise flimsy scene. There's Dean's sluggish posture in the compartmentalized office space, showing how meaningless such legal matters are to him, or Ray's cutaways to similarly detached figures - the vulnerable popular girl Judy (Natalie Wood), the orphaned, violence-prone Plato (Sal Mineo) - and his subsequent compositions through the glass walls of the office that fit all three characters in the same frame, underlining their similarities and foreshadowing their intertwined narratives. Ray visualizes a subversive energy brimming beneath the organized façades of this milieu.

Rebel Without a Cause uses family as a concept through which to speak about larger social ills. Parents are portrayed somewhat one-dimensionally throughout the film, all the better to exaggerate their profound ineffectiveness as models of behavior and thought. While Jim's mother Carol (Ann Doran) is an overbearing, erratic disciplinarian, his father Frank (Jim Backus) is meek and indecisive, failing to provide him advice and support at the most crucial times. Neither is entirely honest or loving towards him; if they were able to communicate intimately with each other, there'd be little reason to keep hastily moving to new places. Judy's issues at home stem from her stern, misogynist father's (William Hopper) increasing indifference towards her as she battles with puberty and maturation, and Plato's only support system is a surrogate mother in the form of a plump African-American maid (Marietta Canty) at his house (racial tensions are a small part of the film's fabric, and they're never really explored by Ray, but to the extent that there's a portrayal at all it's a sensitive one). Meanwhile, Jim, Judy, and Plato are all struggling with their own flaws, confusions, and insecurities as well - stubbornness, feelings of inadequacy, and ambivalence towards sexual identity, respectively. It's clear (sometimes overly clear) that for each of them, a conventional education, social construct, and family are no solution to these turbulent adolescent anxieties.

Ray views these institutions as equally stifled by the conformity of middle class America, and it's this homogeneity that fuels Jim's all-consuming frustration. There's a sense that Jim is aware of the issues facing American life but is unable to put them into words, instead seeing a mere lack of honesty and humility as the traits corrupting his world. Nonetheless, he goes along with the restrictive codes and rules governing his social setting, interpreting it as a certain masculine rite of passage to engage in the dangerous game of chicken posed by Judy's inflated, pompous boyfriend Buzz Gunderson (what a name for a bully!), played by Corey Allen. Already swayed by the mob of popular kids to prove his worth, Jim finds little guidance from his father, who merely suggests weighing the pros and cons of the situation when asked his opinion on the matter. The subsequent set piece, wherein what seems like half the high school gathers on a seaside cliff late at night to egg on Buzz and Jim's car race to the edge, aligns Frank's cluelessness with that of the rest of the town's parents, who were seemingly all under the impression that their kids were out at the drive-in. Inevitably, the evening ends in tragedy, and, because this is a society that hides conflict, by the morning it's as if nothing ever happened.

This game of chicken serves as a turning point in Rebel Without a Cause, providing the peak of drama before a clearing of the slates. As ever, Ray uses the image of milk to hint at notions of purity and cleansing; when Jim returns home exhausted and dazed after Buzz's death at the cliff, he drinks directly from the jar before the family erupts in what is to be their final argument in the film. Jim openly addresses the night's events and his feelings of alienation, both of which are greeted by shock, anger, and confusion. Still, Carol and Frank fail to see the root of Jim's troublesome behavior. They see it as an anomaly rather than an expression of pent-up disappointment and isolation. From this point on, the film concerns itself with the tentative creation of a new, unorthodox family unit between Jim, Judy, and Plato. Judy's curiosity towards Jim's mysterious demeanor, as well as Plato's vaguely romantic infatuation with him, forces the three of them into a strangely lopsided friendship based on mutual feelings of estrangement, but such a thing is destined to backfire in Ray's representation of suburbia, and when the cliques at school get wind of this newly formed bond they quickly get suspicious of it.

Ray is a master of adding spatial and geographical components to dramatic relationships, using specific locations or relationships within the physical space to organically suggest subtexts beneath the image. Therefore, a staircase becomes a zone of warfare and transition on a thematic and narrative level (naturally, the Stark family's climactic argument occurs here), a planetarium becomes an arena to contemplate the loneliness of the individual in a vast network, and an abandoned mansion on a hill becomes a place for Jim, Judy, and Plato to ascend beyond the limits of their structured society and occupy a new, almost fantastical secondary home. The latter two locations play a pivotal role in the development of the film's final act. Chased by Buzz's hooligans, the trio ends up hiding away in the mansion, temporarily freeing themselves of their troubles and play-acting as an actual family. Ray's widescreen compositions achieve layers of complexity in this sequence, with angles that juxtapose the smallness of the characters against the vastness and emptiness of their surroundings, emphasizing both their childlike ability to creatively project onto any surface as well as their inexperience. In one key shot, Ray places Jim on the diving board of an empty pool, Judy on the ground near him, and Plato in the deep end of the pool. It's a visualization of the power relationship that would likely exist if this were a real family, but because Jim's off balance and eventually falls into the pool, it's also a representation of how fragile and unimportant those relationships are.

Already featured early in the film as the site of some rather hokey metaphorical musing on a school field trip, the planetarium appears again with added poignancy in the final scene of Rebel Without a Cause, transcending its initially lazy grasp at universality. Plato, fearing that he has once again been taken advantage of by his peers when he mistakenly thinks Jim and Judy have abandoned him, escapes to the planetarium with gun in hand to stave off the gang pursuing him and eventually the police, who form a blockade outside. Here, the imagery on the planetarium's ceiling is mirrored beautifully by the conflict onscreen: one boy set against the vast and possibly evil outside world, acknowledging his insignificance and longing to simply be alone in the universe. In this setting though, being alone means subverting the norm, and is therefore impossible. Plato's decision, then, must end in his fate. It's an inevitability that poisons the half-hearted "happiness" of the film's ending, in which Judy in introduced to Jim's parents and the four of them drive off out of the bottom of the frame. In a world where honesty is avoided and those who seek it only meet stultifying boredom or, worse, tragedy, the edge of the frame signals a loss of individuality, the ultimate and necessary resignation to conformity.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Scenes from a Marriage (Episodes 4, 5, and 6) A TV Series by Ingmar Bergman (1973)

The sense of finality that looms over Paula, the third episode of Ingmar Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage, made it seem as if there was nowhere else the series could go. Johan and Marianne (Erland Josephson and Liv Ullmann), the content lovers of the first two episodes, wound up in a split that would last an indeterminate amount of time, and the sheer cruelty and tactlessness with which Johan revealed his infidelity left no hint that a reunion would come any time soon. Vale of Tears, the fourth episode of the series, leaps ahead about eight months from the emotional explosion of Paula to depict the first meeting of the still-legally-bound couple in the suburban home where Marianne and her two daughters continue to live. The occasion would seem ripe for bitterness and hostility, but instead the evening begins in rather unexpected fashion. When they first see each other at the front door of their home, Bergman reveals the moment by observing Marianne's reaction to it, but she is not uneasy or cold. Instead, she approaches the door like a girl about to see her prom date - that is, with a sense of anticipation and surefooted confidence. There is no villainous POV close-up of Johan, only an unassuming profile view as he enters the tight frame from the left, smiling gently at the sight of his well-dressed wife. This is the key to Bergman's non-judgmental outlook here, which recognizes evil and unfairness but always allows for time to smooth over rough patches, if not entirely wipe them away.

Obligatory catching up and hesitant stabs at intimacy dominate much of the action that opens Vale of Tears, but slowly Bergman peels back the unruffled surface to reveal layers of regret, disappointment, and anger. Johan is quick to mention how he has become tired of Paula's mood shifts and pettiness, and also makes an offhand comment about how Marianne turns him on, but his affection feels impermanent. Marianne teasingly resists Johan's kisses and modest sexual advances, mentioning her own casual romantic affairs in the process. They sit down for tea and dinner, and both of them seem acutely aware of the dangerous dance they are involved in, as well as the sense that they are cycling through old routines in a new light. After dinner, the two sit down on the couch (throughout Scenes from a Marriage, a couch is used as a transitional device between small talk and sexual flirtation or intimate conversation), continuing to liquor themselves up and geting closer and closer to acknowledging the elephant in the room. Marianne, sensing her self-confidence waning, deflects the pressure from Johan by reading an entry in her diary that she wrote during their break from each other.

Essentially a reflection on her own identity at this cross-section of her life, the diary entry is extremely confessional, putting her struggles with Johan in the context of her often tumultuous upbringing. Bergman visualizes the scene by pairing Ullmann's words with archival photographs of the actress throughout her life. It's one of the most poignant scenes of the entire series, subtly self-reflexive in the way it draws attention to the longtime collaboration between Bergman and his primary muse, whom he used at various points in his career to reflect different sacred relationships in his life (his mother, his lover, his wife, etc.) Also, it's a very significant scene in the progression of both the episode and the entire series, seeing as it marks a shift in Marianne from a confused victim of Johan's erratic behavior to a women capable of detached self-analysis. Early in Vale of Tears, Johan gives a typically Bergmanesque monologue about loneliness being the default mode of existence, the only way to truly feel secure, but Marianne offers an indirect rebuttal by suggesting that security comes from a feeling of self-respect and self-understanding, which help to stave off loneliness. When she finishes reading the entry, she realizes that Johan has actually fallen asleep and missed much of her speech, proving not only that he's characteristically self-involved but also that his presence and attention is inessential to her stability as an individual. But, as is par for the course in Scenes from a Marriage, temptation and memory flows back into consciousness, and the episode concludes with a prolonged, uncertain progression into bed for the couple, a passionate but transient attempt at sex, and Johan's grumpy departure in the middle of the night.

Bergman's own sympathies seem to jockey back and forth throughout Scenes from a Marriage nearly as often as Johan and Marianne's power roles reverse during conversation. There are moments when Johan's cynicism and despair sound as if they were spoken right from the mouth of the director (and given Bergman's own turbulent marital history, some of his declarations are especially ominous), and other times when he uses Ullmann as an instrument to openly reject Johan's worldview and project a belief in trust and love. Other times the drama onscreen is so alive and free of ideological positions that Bergman seems unsure of who to get behind, and the next episode of the series, The Illiterates, is an example of such an entanglement. Taking place entirely within Johan's nondescript, under-furnished office space, the episode depicts, at least on the surface, the couple's signing of their divorce papers, but a seemingly simple task leads to a harrowing exposé of the trials and tribulations of their marriage, as well as their current feelings towards one another. While the visual style of the episode is particularly bland, even pedestrian (flat lighting and predictable shot-reverse-shot structures), the emotional content is riveting and complex.

Over the course of the episode, Marianne progresses from a cheerful mood to lustful excitement, sudden apathy, mounting irritation, an outburst of repressed exasperation, a return to tenderness, and finally utter exhaustion and pain; Johan, on the other hand, moves from apathy through longing, confusion, depression, narcissism, hatefulness, irritation, and ultimately violent rage. It's a roller coaster showcase - aided by a perpetually dwindling brandy bottle - of all the buried emotions brewing within the first four episodes, the full realization of the totality of Johan and Marianne's relationship. Ever the master of organically butting up contrasting mental states against one another, Bergman presents one of his most exhaustive studies of explosive human behavior in a 50-minute stretch of dialogue that hardly ever pauses until the final beat. Within this time-frame, there is Scenes from a Marriage's most sensuous moment (an unbroken two-shot of Johan and Marianne making love on the office floor with the giddiness of two teenagers finally afforded a moment alone) and its ugliest (Johan hitting and kicking his wife until she's bleeding and defenseless), and Josephson and Ullmann's rigorous performances naturally connect the two extremes. Miraculously, the episode concludes with a sense of hope just barely intact, even as the couple admits defeat and silently signs the divorce forms in the final shot; a clear horror runs through Johan's eyes after his act of brutality, realizing he has done something unimaginable to a person he obviously still loves.

Following this vitriolic emptying of emotions, Scenes from a Marriage offers an exquisite settling of the tides in its next and final episode, In the Middle of the Night in a Dark House Somewhere in the World, which ultimately finds Josephson and Ullmann in precisely the situation its title pronounces. The episode marks a departure from the claustrophobic soul-baring of Paula, Vale of Tears, and The Illiterates and a return to the quotidian casualness of the first two episodes, only a newfound sense of wisdom and honesty has been infused into the relationship. Before Johan and Marianne are seen together though, Bergman opens the episode with two separate scenes of them going about their newly independent lives. In the first, Marianne makes a brief visit to the home of her mother (Wenche Foss) - who up until this point has only been spoken of, and quite frequently - to ask her some questions about her marriage to Marianne's father. She admits to having felt qualms about marrying in the first place given some dormant feelings towards another man, and her confession is perhaps what sparks Marianne's own admission to Johan later that she cheated on him briefly early in their marriage (a remark that is insignificant alongside Johan's own behavior in the series). Bergman also shows Johan in his office dispassionately fielding jealousy from Eva (Gunnel Lindblom), who also appeared in The Art of Sweeping Under The Rug criticizing Johan's private poetry. It was never clear until now that they were sexually involved, adding another, retrospectively trivial, ripple to Johan's infidelity.

When Johan and Marianne do meet up, we discover that it is seven years since their last meeting (presumably the fanfare of The Illiterates) and exactly 10 years after Innocence and Panic, making it their would-be 20th anniversary. Now split up and involved with their own respective spouses (both seem about as forebodingly "content" in their marriage as they did with each other at the beginning of Scenes from a Marriage), the two of them get together to spend an evening at their summer cottage, where Marianne still spends time with her children and Johan hasn't visited since Paula. Yet again, Bergman stirs up a hint of drama around their initial meeting, shooting from across a busy roundabout as Johan approaches his ex-wife. They stop suddenly behind a tree, and there's an abrupt air of mystery regarding whether they are embracing each other in excitement or going through an uncomfortable greeting. When they emerge moments later in a jovial dash towards the car, it plays like Bergman's subtle declaration that all pettiness and bile have escaped from their relationship, leaving only a mutual sigh of acknowledgement that the past is officially past.

This attitude is compounded when after only five to ten minutes in the cottage they decide they cannot spend their evening amidst so many troubling memories so they end up going to Johan's friend's Fredrik's cottage instead. Johan and Marianne's method is not to ignore the past but to realize that it cannot be altered, and that dwindling upon it only means spoiling the positive feelings still existing in their relationship. When they enter Fredrik's place, a log cabin with a seaside view, they share unspoken laughter about the mess inside, focusing their attention on a clownish paper mache face dangling from the ceiling. Bergman, too, seems peculiarly fascinated by this ornament, staging the subsequent conversation with it sandwiched between Josephson and Ullmann in two (three?) shot and even intercutting a tight close-up of the face in the midst of their dialogue. It suggests a mask, a representation of larger-than-life emotional characteristics now extinguished from the couple's interactions. The conversation in In the Middle of the Night is level-headed and honest, yet it does not lack the power of the dialogue in the rest of the series; instead, is charged with a different kind of energy, a depth and richness only capable of being achieved after the kind of feral outbursts in the previous episodes. The final scene, with Johan and Marianne embracing in refreshingly immediate affection, ignoring time and the vagaries of their condition, is one of the most moving in Bergman's entire body of work.

It takes a lot, of course, to get there, and Scenes from a Marriage is rarely an easy ride, both in terms of the uncomfortable level of intimacy on display and the utter refusal on Bergman's part to lend the miniseries any kind of aesthetic flair. But there's a certain level of focus here - a desire to eschew extraneous shots, settings, and characters (Bergman never shows Paula, Johan's mother, or even the couple's children) - that is astounding and truly respectable. What is left is a series of stark, uncompromising images of Erland Josephson and Liv Ullmann, two of Bergman's most committed performers whose souls had been transparent in the Swedish director's work before, but perhaps never with quite this level of visibility and vulnerability.

See episodes 1, 2, and 3 here.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Scenes from a Marriage (Episodes 1, 2, and 3) A TV Series by Ingmar Bergman (1973)

Scenes from a Marriage marks an interesting crossroads in Ingmar Bergman's career. Directly after the primal abstraction of Cries and Whispers, only five years after the batshit insanity of Hour of the Wolf, and preceding a decade which included an exile in Germany and some of the director's strangest, most scattershot work (a decade that nonetheless culminated in his magnum opus Fanny and Alexander), the six-part miniseries is notable for its disarming simplicity and verisimilitude. If Bergman ever resembled Rohmer and Ozu, it's in Scenes from a Marriage, which candidly presents the domestic life of Johan (Erland Josephson) and Marianne (Liv Ullmann), a seemingly prototypical married couple. Shot largely in his hometown of Fårö Island and surrounded by his regular crew of collaborators during the late 60's and 70's - Sven Nykvist on camera, Lars-Owe Carlberg as Producer, Siv Lundgren as Editor - as well as actors and actresses who were among his closest friends, the series benefits from the sense that Bergman was extremely relaxed and focused while making it. Feeling little need for visual acrobatics, non-linear storytelling maneuvers, or sly metaphors, the series presents life in a direct, unadorned fashion, knowing that human emotion over the course of time is beguiling enough.

The first episode, Innocence and Panic, begins with a wide shot seemingly from the perspective of the television camera that is shooting an interview with Johan and Marianne for an unspecified women's health publication. An interviewer (Anita Wall), eventually revealed to have a past school connection with Marianne, probes the couple about their two children and the history and state of their relationship, for the most part gently skimming the surface but also occasionally veering into unexpectedly private territory (sex life, infidelity, philosophies of love and happiness). Throughout the conversation, the interviewer and her offscreen cameraman periodically ask the couple to freeze in their respective positions for a photograph, ostensibly attempting to catch the lovers in some kind of emblematic pose. It's a fitting introduction to this almost excessively intimate and confessional series, an acknowledgement on Bergman's part of the somewhat voyeuristic nature of the project even in spite of its status, technically speaking, as a fiction. Like the opening of Persona, the scene explicitly calls attention to the apparatus of the cinema and the presence of the camera.

This interview also works to lay bare the exposition so that Bergman can jump right into the thick of the drama without having to find ways to develop a bed of narrative context. In fact, at first glance, the subsequent scene doesn't even situate Johan and Marianne as the focus of attention, instead placing the psychological torment of their friends Peter (Jan Malmsjö) and Katarina (Bibi Andersson) front and center. The two couples have a dinner party that slowly unravels into intoxicated confessions of loathing from Peter and Katarina towards one another, an ugly spectacle revealed in tight, clammy close-ups that the complacent Johan and Marianne merely observe in discomfort. Before they digress into antics though, Peter and Katarina mostly make offhand jabs at what they see as the unnatural perfection of their friends' marriage, which has just reached its tenth year. Bergman delicately implies that the hostility that soon boils over between the two of them leaving Katarina humiliated is not a far cry from normalcy, only an exaggerated expression of the insecurities lurking just beneath the surface that can be prompted by even the slightest misunderstanding.

Innocence and Panic concludes by introducing Johan and Marianne in privacy having an extended conversation about the prospect of another child. Their discussion starts in an image that has been quoted several times in the history of cinema since: a wide two-shot from the end of the bed, composing the evenly spaced couple in the center of the frame below a wide expanse of blank wall, both reading a book underneath a cream-colored comforter. Despite the sterility and symmetry of the shot, there's a certain implicit tension in it. It's a configuration that seems too good to be true, perhaps indicative of an orderliness that masks underlying disorder, and indeed later quotations of the shot have often capitalized, sometimes unsubtly, on this impression. But Bergman's treatment of the scene is more organic and complex than this kind of semantic reading allows. When Marianne reveals that she is pregnant, Johan reacts in a calm, collected manner, tactfully asking her whether or not she plans on having the baby. Johan's lack of bias and his graceful respect for his wife's decision is contrasted by her internal confusion and moral dilemma. The conversation, superficially goal-oriented and simple, stretches on for quite some time, and it eventually becomes clear that Johan's indiscrimination, his inability to actively influence Marianne one way or another, only scrambles her even further.

The tendrils of miscommunication stemming from this piece of expertly crafted dialogue extend an air of unease into the second episode of the series, The Art of Sweeping Under The Rug. The title refers to the final scene of the episode when Johan brings up his declining sexual desire only to follow it up by announcing that he needs to get some sleep, but it might as well be in reference to a great deal of the interactions particularly in the first half of the series, where deeper topics are frequently touched lightly but ultimately brushed aside. It's not that Johan and Marianne are afraid to be honest with each other, or that they are incapable of seeing the darker truths of life, but they are cautious of spoiling the positive aspects of their relationship, and they usually end conversations in a loving embrace as if to cement the essential tenderness of their marriage. Such is the case late in the episode when the couple discusses the idea of taking a vacation for a change and it leads to a contemplation of the negative effects that routine might have on their relationship, but naturally the conversation culminates in love and acceptance, with Marianne declaring "I'm so very fond of you." It's clear that there's a lurking irritation here on Marianne's side, especially given the fact that Johan tried to cancel dinner plans with Marianne's mother earlier in the episode and went on to insist upon sticking to a low-key routine that would allow little time for intimacy.

The title's significance could also be said to be reflected in another scene in Marianne's family law firm when she speaks to a woman (Barbro Hiort af Ornäs) desiring a divorce. As a lawyer, Marianne is obligated to maintain stoicism, but her job's demands can't force her to ignore her strong reaction when the woman describes her loveless marriage. She explains how she and her husband have sustained a modest, content relationship for several years despite their utter absence of passion as well as her indifference to her children, and how she has ceased to get sensual pleasure from the material world. Marianne is shocked not only by the way it shatters her perception of family as the most fulfilling source of happiness in life but also by the fear that such alienation could, or perhaps already has, befell her. The woman presents her situation as a sudden realization of all the time she has spent sweeping her apathy under the rug, so to speak, and it puts into perspective Marianne's own way of dealing with hidden marital issues.

If the first two episodes of Scenes from a Marriage coast along on these kinds of subtle deflections of seriousness, the next episode, Paula, offers a sudden outburst of all the repressed dissatisfaction existing in Johan and Marianne's relationship. Set at the family's summer cottage under a forebodingly grey sky (it's easy to forget the episode is shot in color at all), it concerns Johan's confession that he has fallen in love with another woman (the Paula of the title) and his announcement that he will be leaving Marianne and their children the following morning. Following the steady, if questioning, romance and domestic complacency of the first two chapters, the drastic shift in mood and tone is a daring, ambitious move by Bergman, particularly in light of the show's success up to that point. Doom seems to announce itself from the first shot, an image of Johan driving along the island road at dusk in between two sparse trees and through floating fog. He is greeted by a jovial Marianne who wasn't expecting him this particular night, but it is not long before she detects his somber attitude.

Johan proceeds to explain his decision with cruel honesty, treating his blooming romance with Paula - which he has kept a secret from his wife for months - as an inevitable fact of life that cannot be reversed. His tone of voice is calm for the most part, inflected by the same kind of cerebral detachment that has characterized his diction throughout Scenes from a Marriage, but occasionally he raises his voice and impulsively lashes out against Marianne, which makes him resemble Peter from the first episode. Ullmann plays Marianne's response to the situation with a conflicted mixture of disbelief, anger, and acceptance, and her glazed eyes during the unveiling suggest that each emotion has become indistinguishable from one other. Her shock at the sheer suddenness of Johan's confession is mirrored by the audience's shock at such a radical leap in Johan's attitude, and as a result the entire episode plays like a surreal nightmare, an illusion of a marriage going as horribly as possible. Only a slimmer of hope that it's all a dream could possibly explain Marianne's level-headed reaction to her husband's wickedness, her complete lack of externalized anger and even her willingness to help Johan pack for his trip. But there's nothing dreamy about Bergman's presentation of the sequence; as usual, his camera remains fixed unflinchingly on the faces of his actors, following their every move, unwilling to offer any relief from the inscrutable display of emotions.

In fact, Bergman's approach here is so unadorned that it nearly comes across as uncinematic, which is a common feeling I get while watching Scenes from a Marriage. The series' reliance upon zooms and pans to follow the action often give it the feeling of a stage play shot from the perspective of an audience member. Too frequently, Bergman and Nykvist allow the brilliant acting and the dialogue to do all of the talking instead of discovering dynamic ways to frame and block the conversations, the latter generally being a hallmark of their approach. Nevertheless, there's the occasional stroke of ingenuity - the shot in the second episode that observes as Johan and Marianne enter in and out of rooms in the hallway of their home, capturing with Ozu-like precision the flow of everyday life, the aforementioned bed shot in the first episode, or the overhead shot in episode 3 of the couple in a crying embrace in bed, so tight as if to portray them as one body - that exposes their visual abilities and keeps the miniseries from divulging entirely into the domain of theater. Of course, Bergman was a master of both mediums, but his greatest work tends to obliterate the idea that there's any such thing as a medium at all.

Continue to episodes 4, 5, and 6 here.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Great Madcap (1949) A Film by Luis Buñuel

When Ramiro (Fernando Soler), the rich drunkard in Luis Buñuel's The Great Madcap, wakes up from an intoxicated stupor to find himself dressed in rags and surrounded by dusty, cement walls, he resembles Lon Chaney Jr. awaking to the shock of misplaced hair and fangs in The Wolf Man, or Bela Lugosi finding much to his dismay that a scientific experiment has given him thick black fur in The Ape Man, or any other B-horror character emerging in unexpected new form after a night's sleep. The only difference is that it's not hideous physical deformities that cause Ramiro's horror and disgust but rather a sudden shift in material wealth and social class, as if he had taken one wrong turn and wound up in the slums indefinitely. In the context of the film, it turns out his experience of poverty is only fleeting; he eventually discovers that his family, fearing that he might descend into alcoholic madness, has merely played a prank on him to inject some much needed doses of humility (their wanton gamesmanship is no less a trivialization of the poor). But like many of the Spanish director's bold conceits, this one has an inherently charged political connotation: the privileged bourgeoisie always possess a knee-jerk smugness towards the lower rungs in the social system, as well as a denial of the existence of economic hardship so powerful that issues of poverty might as well be a surreal fabrication.

One imagines this disorientation to have been something like the feeling Buñuel himself had when suddenly forced in the midst of public backlash following L'âge d'or to stop making features, and subsequently when he re-emerged nearly twenty years later to begin working on commercial Mexican fare. The Great Madcap is the second of these efforts (following the light musical Gran Casino) and the first to point convincingly towards Buñuel's future, even if it's a somewhat rigid and lopsided screwball comedy, a film with only fractions of the satiric bile and mad logic he dropped in L'âge d'or and would eventually unload later in his career. Hints of these tendencies are most apparent in the film's absurdly broad setup, which begins with Ramiro getting bailed out of jail and segues into his reintegration with his ungrateful family. No one in the family - not Ramiro's marriage-obsessed daughter Virginia (Rosario Granados), his spoiled son Eduardo (Gustavo Rojo), or his two scheming, deadbeat brothers Gregorio (Francisco Jambrina) and Ladislao (Andrés Soler) - has fully absorbed the impact of the recent death of Ramiro's wife, even as it's launched Ramiro himself into an alcoholic fit. They continue to shamelessly feed off of their father's wealth and resources.

During these opening scenes that establish the family and their regular routine of debauchery, Buñuel abandons subtlety in favor of wide strokes at upper-class complacency. Vignettes around the mansion include the family butler Juan justifying the theft of his Ramiro's cigars by claiming that he feared they would dry up, Eduardo pining for a new luxury car after supposedly destroying his previous one, and Ramiro fielding various requests for money. At work, Ramiro has taken to drinking in an attempt to forget his grief and has received blunt criticism from his peers for it, but his economic and professional status has allowed him to indulge regardless. In this early stage of the film, everything takes place indoors on boxy, conspicuously cheap sets, a logistical necessity that helps to emphasize the sense that the accoutrements of a wealthy lifestyle are ultimately synthetic, superficial, and fleeting; stripped suddenly of their luxuries, the family would resemble ducks with their heads cut off, totally ignorant of how to exist organically in the exterior world amongst other people. In one hilarious wide shot, Buñuel frames Ramiro and his well-dressed friends stumbling drunkenly to sappy orchestral music, the idea being that even within their familiar surroundings, they're already clueless.

The family's subsequent prank on Ramiro is therefore tinged with devilish irony, ostensibly designed to teach the patriarch human values that they themselves lack. Without the knowledge the family possesses that all will naturally return to "normal," Ramiro, after shaking off his dreamlike shock, inevitably descends into depression and makes a ridiculously botched attempt at suicide. Aiming to jump off the roof of a building in a poor district of Mexico City, he only falls a few feet before being braced by a bit of scaffolding and rescued by a construction worker named Pablo (Rubén Rojo) who insists that if he were to hit the ground from such a height it would only result in a life in a wheelchair that would arguably be worse than death. That Ramiro falls for Pablo's heroic rescue disguised as an obvious lie does little to bolster his appreciation of life and love though; soon after, when he overhears a conversation about the prank and fumes at his family's insensitivity, he responds by launching a trick of his own in which he purports to have actually lost his fortune, meanwhile continuing to live in his mansion and overseeing his family's newfound poverty. It's a mean-spirited turn of fate engineered by Ramiro that he passes off as his own attempt to teach his family members a sense of dignity and humility; the difference is that they gradually come to embrace their modest means of living, finding small sources of success and happiness.

Despite the ludicrous nature of these twists and turns, there's a fundamentally simple-minded core to The Great Madcap, an element of moralistic pandering inherent in its script that belies even Buñuel's subtle suggestions that the problems with humanity are too broad and diffuse to be reduced to class distinctions (after all, nothing proves capable of shaking the family's place in the upper-class, but their pettiness largely remains even after some breakthroughs). Buñuel sees the major issues in the film's ensemble of characters to be an absence of love and appreciation towards others and a blindness towards diversity, issues too deep-seated to be cured by loopy plot devices, but the film nevertheless implies that Ramiro's family has been taught a lesson through their involuntary hardship. Virginia, initially set upon a marriage to the wealthy Alfredo (Luis Alcoriza), changes her mind when confronted with her love for Pablo, a romance that transforms her initially narrow worldview. Pablo's near-rejection of Virginia on account of his discovery that she is in fact rich adds a blip in the streamlined nature of the film's moral, offering a lower-class attitude nearly as reductive as that of the financial elite, but it's treated merely as a momentary reaction to shock rather than a bottomless aversion to a group of people and therefore doesn't signal as the locus of Buñuel's energy in quite the same way that his skewering of privilege does. For the most part, there's a black and white dichotomy at the heart of the film that is occasionally saved by the sheer hilarity of Buñuel's investment, but otherwise threatens to reduce the film to a blunt parable.

If the script's spiral into easy moralizing is its greatest flaw, Buñuel's stiff visual style often fails to shift the attention. Some of Buñuel's stylistic tics - his method of starting a scene on a minor detail before dollying back to reveal the entire space, his habit of bunching bodies together in comical medium shot - emerge in striking ways, usually to underline the way that objects have defined the wealthy lifestyle or to emphasize the smallness and dysfunctional nature of the characters, but the film's default mode is unimaginative wide shots that exist seemingly for no other aesthetic reason than to capture all of the often busy staging in one fell swoop. (An early instance of effective camera movement and cross-cutting follows Ramiro as he makes a mess out of his daughter's wedding recital, and it's predictably one of the most dynamic scenes in the film.) But directors like Buñuel tend to couple weak decisions with convincing ones, and as such, The Great Madcap's combination of rigid studio setups and freer on-location sequences anticipating Los Olvidados' primal vérité offers a fascinating counterpoint to the more schematic choices. When we see children run through the background of a frame, it alone sends a ripple of anarchist energy through this otherwise commercially contained, if frequently funny, product.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

David Lynch, Ranked

(This is my first entry in the Favorite Directors Blogathon. Next month is Ingmar Bergman.)

Of all the filmmakers I could claim to be among my favorites, I probably have the most long-standing and thorough relationship with the cinema of David Lynch. Of course, he's a director interested in a fairly seedy, macabre universe, and as such I've spent what could perhaps be defined as an unhealthy amount of time consuming and burrowing into his work. That being said, I haven't seen any of his films in quite some time, the last significant stretch of viewing being my 2009 blogathon (wherein I did retrospectively inadequate and amateurish work trying to dissect his genius), but the fact that after a considerable time away from his sensibility there is still a rather influential Lynchian element to my perception of the world says a great deal. I'm beginning to believe the power of Lynch's images and the rhythm of his cinematic world is impossible to shake. He belongs to a coveted handful of directors who have constructed a reality that is totally distinctive and separate from our own. Many directors react to the external world to construct their personal brands; Lynch finds uncharted territory within.


1. Mulholland Drive: Not only does Mulholland Drive re-contextualize Vertigo, it goes beyond it, offering up an incredibly rich exploration of desire, identity, dreams, articiality, and the Hollywood dream machine. The film overflows with doppelgangers, cinematic quotations, genre pastiches, red herrings, euphoric twists, and enigmatic characters; in many ways, it's a deconstructive history of Hollywood cinema itself and the various techniques it uses to simultaneously provoke audience excitement and suggest deeper psychological constructs. The real miracle is how Lynch manages to wrangle all of his seemingly disparate threads together in support of the film's overarching themes while never breaking the spell of the haunting atmosphere.

2. Eraserhead: Speaking of haunting atmospheres, Lynch's debut is seemingly built entirely around them. Alongside some Quay Brothers and some Tarr, Eraserhead is easily within the pantheon of cinema's greatest sustained mood pieces. It relishes in dirt, fog, concrete, industrial moans, slimy liquids, and metal, an environment at once frighteningly tactile and vaguely surreal. Missing the idea that it's actually about rather abysmal human fears (of parenthood, of commitment, of change) and not just disgusting mutant babies and dudes with weird hair and weird mannerisms is easy; Lynch has designed this throbbing drone so that it only affects on the subtlest, most subconscious levels.

3. INLAND EMPIRE: Six years after its release (it feels a lot shorter) and INLAND EMPIRE is still the most fascinating exploitation of the inherent strangeness of the digital medium. Lynch unloaded his subconscious directly onto video, crafting (maybe regurgitating is a better word) a flowing stream of sequences that are all the more mysterious, visceral, and uncomfortable for the sense of intimacy encouraged by digital shooting. The film is a tantalizing patchwork of non-sequiturs, a raw mashup of undigested thriller scenarios that feel as if their logical beginning and end points have been excised, leaving only ghostly hints of a larger narrative design. Many have called and continue to call this baffling and lazy; I see it as one of the most fearless experiments yet in this young 21st century.

4. Lost Highway: Ever the victim of lazy critics hungry to whip out their collection of mortal sin adjectives ("pretentious," "self-indulgent," etc.), I can only hope Lost Highway will one day be widely seen for what it is: a devilish companion piece to Mulholland Drive and a twisted, sometimes scattershot extension of that film's core themes. Like its predecessor, Lost Highway is also bifurcated, hinging on a killer paradigm shift that sends ripples of intrigue throughout the entire film. But its lasting impact has less to do with broad structure or subtext and more to do with eerie specifics: the icy stare of Robert Blake as one of Lynch's greatest "villains," the spectacular vision of a house exploding in backwards slow motion, or the dual performance of Patricia Arquette as a soft-spoken wife and a steamy femme fatale, among many other delights.