Monday, October 29, 2012

New MUBI Posts

I have two new pieces up at The Daily Notebook...

1.) A tribute to the great cinematographer Harris Savides (Van Sant's Death Trilogy, Zodiac, Greenberg, Birth, among many others), who passed away far too soon on October 9th, 2012, leaving behind a mountain of some of the last two decade's most unforgettable images.

2.) A close reading of a powerful orchestration of scenes in the middle of Ingmar Bergman's The Passion of Anna which incorporates the color red in multifaceted ways.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

An Evening With Vampyr (Dreyer/1932) and Steven Severin

From the vantage point of a semi-jaded soon-to-be graduate of film school, Carl Dreyer's Vampyr embodies a film-school surrealist's idea of plot: stick a character in a weird scenario, watch as things get progressively strange. But the basis of this (some might say Lynchian) approach is Vampyr, and it was a whole lot more powerful in 1932 with Dreyer's formal innovation than it is in 2012 with half-baked conception and quasi-ironic gimmickry. The film follows, circa intertitles, "young Allan Gray, who immersed himself in the study of evil worship and vampires" and "a dreamer for whom the line between the real and supernatural became blurred," as he enters a remote European village and checks in to a dark, dusty inn. From there, Allan gets involved in the macabre history of the inn, where ages of the undead still stalk the premises and all manners of paranormal happenings occur. The machinations of Vampyr's narrative would hardly meet a literal-minded screenwriter's approval – Allan's barely developed, the spatiotemporal logistics of the world are not accounted for, characters and subplots shapeshift – but Dreyer's real accomplishment here is imaginatively recreating Allan's feverish subjectivity at a time when few films attempted such levels of paranoia and disorientation.

Dreyer wastes no time establishing the off-kilter world, letting Allan be greeted immediately by bizarre occurrences. When approaching the inn, he sees a dark silhouette beside a lake bearing a scythe, but it's not quite a Death figure; it's something less overtly sinister and more down-to-earth, a man capable of enacting physical rather than abstract violence. On his first night, a crippled insomniac enters his bedroom, circling the space slowly before reaching him as if gathering up demonic forces. Leaning over, his eyes gleaming, he offers Allan a book on the vampiric history of the village and admits to his own need to be saved from the imprisoning loop of the undead. Not long after, Allan is scouring the book for secret information about the mysteries of the inn (information that Dreyer relays via shaky intertitles), and clues from the text start to materialize around him. As an audience surrogate, Allan manages to be both overeager and fundamentally detached, lending the film the feel of a waking nightmare in which nothing can be acted upon or stopped.

Vampyr is full of indelible images, and the visions accumulate at a relentless rate: a view of the shadow of a man digging a hole displayed in reverse so that it appears as if he is forcefully burying something; a wide shot of a surface of water where the reflection of a man walking by has no above-ground counterpart; a close-up of the recently bitten innkeeper's daughter turning her head slowly on axis with a chilling grin stuck to her face; an image of Allan's soul casually leaving his body; an aerial shot of his blank face as he's carried away in a coffin as well as the point-of-view shot of the sky, trees, and imposing inn from inside the coffin. Dreyer's standout images are surrounded by unsettling blankness, a peculiar emphasis on walls and doors that suggest claustrophobic dead ends. Indeed, the film's horizontality and flatness is a bold gesture in a genre in which vast, shadowy spaces are the common route for implying dread lurking where it's least expected. Vampyr, however, still summons the atmosphere of the best horror films, a visceral effect that has to do with the indistinguishability between the real and the unreal, facilitated by Dreyer's skill in filming both tangible horror and the horror of the unseen as if there's no difference.

Technically, Vampyr was Dreyer's first sound film despite its scant use of sync sound, but for all intents and purposes, it remains an expression of silent cinema. The first time I saw the film on DVD, it was accompanied by its original monaural score, a rickety orchestral haze by Wolfgang Zeller that sounds as gloriously degraded as the image, but seeing the film again in a theater setting, I was able to witness longtime Siouxsie and the Banshees' bassist and English musician Steven Severin's intense, cathartic live ambient score, perhaps even more fascinating than the original music for the way it digests the impact of Dreyer's film and intensifies its moods from a retrospective angle. Incorporating repeating motifs and movements that emphasize the cyclical nature of the vampire history in the village and Allan's sightings, Severin's music is awash in thick synth-pad drones, reverby chimes, electronic string sections, floor-shaking bass rumbles, and amorphous melodies. Certain movements suggest the dreamy romanticism of a Badalamenti/Lynch composition with its sappy tunefulness emptied out and rendered distant and ghostly (if that sounds like I'm describing what Badalamenti and Lynch are already doing on a standard piece, it goes to show how radically this score recedes into murkiness that it outdoes even their most unconventional scores).

If pressed to choose between the original and Severin's sound, I would probably opt for the latter. Coupled with this eerie, disheveled print from the 1930's, the modern ambient music offers a compelling clash of generations and approaches to the same sense of moody atmospherics. But even beyond that, Severin's music offers a more innate understanding of Dreyer's intention, a more complex and fulfilling synergy with the moods of the film, even outlining some of its tonal and thematic progressions through musical shifts that were not as obvious in the original score. Its throbbing drone sits confidently atop the action, giving shape and depth of feeling to Dreyer's more aimless interludes, and in the rare instance that Severin makes an attempt to sync loosely to what's onscreen, it's startlingly effective, as in a creepy shot when Dreyer's camera pans along a wall of shadows of dancing patrons and Severin conjures up a bygone jitterbug reminiscent of The Shining's music. I seriously hope this soundtrack iteration becomes more widely available at some point in the future, but if it never ventures beyond infrequent appearances in live settings, it's an experience not to be missed.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Babies Again: Romance Games in It Happened One Night (Capra/1934) and The Awful Truth (McCarey/1937)

“You know this is the first time in years I’ve ridden piggy back,” ponders Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) to Peter Warne (Clark Gable) in Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night as the pair trudge down a country road in Connecticut, far from the laws of civilization and the men pursuing Ellie. Peter, a hard-nosed, recently unemployed journalist, disagrees: “This isn’t piggy back.” What occurs in this moment is one character’s uninhibited expression of joy followed by another’s refusal to look silly, and it’s a dynamic that is visible across many screwball comedies of the 30’s. Ellie’s joy is a simple emotion displayed without pretense, without any attempt to conform to public convention, and it is not until both characters adopt Ellie’s perspective – ultimately, a fresh, untainted perspective, like that of an infant – that they can fully connect. For the soon-to-be-lovers in It Happened One Night as well as Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth, reverting to childish behavior is not a way of evading emotional truths as much as it is part of a process of revealing them.

In fact, acting childish is not only a method for following the heart; it’s what’s necessary for characters to emerge from their stuffy social environments with their authentic selves still intact. It Happened One Night and The Awful Truth, among many other similarities, begin in the upscale world of cocktail parties and businesslike marriages before moving inexorably to the untouched wilderness of Connecticut, a stand-in for nature and a tonic that awakens otherwise sublimated feelings of attraction and sexual desire. In order for that transition to occur, however, the central male/female duo must undergo a series of conflicts with each other and with their environment (not unlike the stresses endured by a traditional married couple) that will highlight the unbreakable bond between them. In these films, the characters cannot deal with these conflicts in level-headed, pragmatic ways – doing so would mean contradicting their spontaneous sexual impulses towards one another. Instead, they must approach them through other means: physical combat, role-playing, imaginary scenarios, and all other forms of games that allow them to get closer to each other and act upon the blossoming attachment between them.

Both films, at the beginning, find their central duos in denial of the connection between them, convinced for some superficial reason that they cannot get along. In It Happened One Night, Peter has stumbled upon Ellie in the midst of her escape from her father, who has settled upon the idea of Ellie marrying a rich man she has no feelings for. Peter, immediately feeling an attraction towards her and seeing the clumsiness of her ways (she is carelessly blowing her dwindling pocket change on immediate pleasures rather than doing the sensible thing and saving it for her unpredictable bus trip across country), takes it upon himself to accompany her on her escape, ready whenever to catch her when she’s about to fall. However, Peter disguises what amounts to clear attraction with the cold approach of a disciplinarian: that is, he is only helping her to save her from herself and not for any selfish reasons. Meanwhile, Ellie outspokenly rejects Peter’s assistance even as she relies upon it every step of the way. What exists for these characters is tension, a refusal to acknowledge the air of magnetism between them, and it cannot be alleviated until something loosens them up. Is there a better tool for such a thing than a game?

Unlike Peter and Ellie, Jerry (Cary Grant) and Lucy Warriner (Irene Dunne) begin The Awful Truth as a married couple. They have the advantage of understanding each other. Or, at least they think they do. The truth (maybe the awful truth) is, if they were able to acknowledge how intimately they understand each other, the divorce they initiate at the beginning of the film and nearly consummate at the end of the film would never be a question. Thus, their situation is not entirely dissimilar to Peter and Ellie’s: they must move beyond the surface flaws of their relationship (in this case, they have trouble telling each other the truth about their respective vacations, and therefore both assume infidelity) to reach an acknowledgment of the fundamental qualities that connect them. Over the course of the film, both Lucy and Jerry develop potential partners – an old-fashioned Oklahoma oil magnate for Lucy and a materialistic sporting type for Jerry – before finding their prospect deliberately spoiled by the other person. In a way, the entire process of committing to and then rebuffing some secondary marriage is a game for Jerry and Lucy designed to illuminate the utter farce of either of them being with anyone else.

The turbulent path from detached, formal interactions to childish playfulness – a path reflected by the other progressions in the film such as from civilization to nature and from social order to disorder – is what must be traversed in these films in order for the central couples to eventually enjoy each other’s company. Peter and Ellie’s relationship shifts throughout It Happened One Night from the strict guidance reminiscent of a father-daughter relationship to a point of collaboration and equality. The first hint of this metamorphosis is a scene when they must disguise themselves as a married couple to fend off a search party who has arrived at their countryside motel room. Stunned by the sudden arrival of these men at their door, Peter must devise a strategy to drive them out of the room. He decides to pretend to be an anonymous husband in a petty argument with his anonymous wife, and the anger stemming from his argument is only expanded by the policemen’s interruption of their private space. With only slight hesitation, Ellie follows his lead, snapping back at Peter and then turning her head away in irritation while her “husband” convinces the search party that there is nothing special to see. Once they have achieved their goal of guilting the cops away, the two of them share a cathartic, hearty laughter. It is in such a moment that they mutually acknowledge, albeit non-verbally, the pleasure that can arise from this type of behavior, as well as what it can reveal about their compatible character traits.

There’s a similar moment in The Awful Truth that also tips the audience off to the intensity of understanding between its central couple, and it features Jerry and Lucy out on separate dates at a nightclub. Lucy is with her Oklahoma-born simpleton Dan Leeson (Ralph Bellamy), and Jerry has decided to interrupt their dinner by introducing his boisterous quasi-date Dixie Belle Lee (Joyce Compton), who shortly thereafter takes center stage to perform a corny rendition of “My Dreams Are Gone With the Wind.” At every mention of the song’s title, Dixie’s dress is blown up by the fan beneath her feet, a lowbrow joke that nonetheless charms and titillates the club’s classy guests, but Lucy and Jerry share glances of discomfort and embarrassment with each other. Crystallizing the subtext, McCarey bunches them up together in the frame, leaving Dan on the far right, suggesting their unspoken bond through pictorial closeness. Even in this moment when Jerry is feigning interest in his date to disrupt Lucy’s experience and provoke jealousy (a somewhat convoluted game in itself), neither he nor Lucy can ignore that they’re in agreement.

After these initial indications of chemistry, Capra and McCarey begin to introduce additional layers of childish behavior into their narratives. Peter and Ellie steal cars, passing through the countryside shuffling through fake names and auditioning different goofy hitchhiking gestures. Jerry plays a man who’s lost interest in Lucy but still needs to complete unfinished business, and therefore the film finds him repeatedly barging into her space, often during time alone with Dan. Peter dons the persona of a professional criminal seeking $1,000,000 in ransom money in order to scare away a naïve bus passenger who tries to capitalize on the reward for finding Ellie. Lucy facilitates a scenario in which her dog Mr. Smith steals Jerry’s black top hat, causing a mix-up with the her male friend. Ellie worries about the prospect of sleeping in a straw pile in the forest and subsequently cowers in fear when she wakes up in the middle of the night and Peter is nowhere to be found. Jerry hides behind a door and tickles Lucy while she fends off Dan. In The Awful Truth’s most pivotal moment, Lucy intrudes on Jerry’s dinner party at the home of his fiancé Barbara Vance (Molly Lamont) and gets Jerry to coax her out of the house by acting as his nonexistent French sister and performing an even more tasteless version of “My Dreams Are Gone With the Wind.” The fun and games go on.

Because of this seemingly irrational behavior, these characters appear on the surface, especially to those around them, to be in broken, dysfunctional relationships. In It Happened One Night, Peter does not have the wealth or even the desire for wealth that characterizes the men in her family’s social circle. In The Awful Truth, the fact that Jerry and Lucy are on the verge of divorce only confirms the narrow-minded suspicions of those around them they must be unfit for living together. In these films, it’s very much Peter and Ellie/Jerry and Lucy against The World (It Happened One Night builds this idea into its very narrative by using two characters on the run from society), and the question of whether or not they will give in to the demands of conformity shapes the structure of the narratives, providing the overarching external conflict to match the internal conflict. There’s no better image of the ultimate victory over The World than that of Lucy – in a gesture of hilariously disingenuous “oopsiness” – lifting the emergency brake of Jerry’s car to let it roll over the edge of a cliff, prompting their mystical motorcycle ride to the outer reaches of society. From one perspective, it’s a horribly wasteful, immature move, but from another, it’s the most romantic thing possible.

But while both films set the stage for love, they also provide the roadblock. Both It Happened One Night and The Awful Truth use some form of physical division to suggest the emotional barriers erected by the two characters: in It Happened One Night, it’s the “Walls of Jericho,” a white sheet draped on a clothing line in between Peter and Ellie’s single beds, and in The Awful Truth, it’s a door that separates the two guest bedrooms at Ellie’s grandfather’s country home in Connecticut, where they spend the evening leading up to the official annulment of their marriage. These dividers must be torn down for love to bloom, and they finally are torn down at the conclusion of both films due to a blend of natural forces and personal will. That both films end promptly at the annihilation of these roadblocks underlines the symbolic significance of the plot development: everything that occurs throughout the films – the fighting, the playing, the aggressive jabber, and the traveling – leads inevitably towards this moment.

When the bed sheet tumbles to the floor and the wind blows the adjoining door open, it’s also clear that while these characters have made major leaps in their understandings of themselves and each other, they are also paradoxically at their most childish. Like babies, they are suddenly looking at the world with fresh eyes. Peter, in the end, chooses to collect $39.60 rather than the $10,000 reward offered for returning Ellie, suggesting a child innocently arguing for a quid-pro-quo approach, not an adult tainted by greed. Jerry elects not to criticize his sister’s ridiculous behavior in the presence of Barbara Vance’s family, but rather to laugh along with her. When Ellie’s father tells her before her impending wedding at the end of It Happened One Night, “I haven’t seen you cry since you were a baby,” it’s a culminating statement that speaks to the trajectories of both of these films: once at the infantile state, these characters are free to accept the truths of themselves and love each other.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

New World(s)

“But how can renewal come about?—the perennial question of reformers and revolutionaries, of anyone who wants to start over, who wants another chance. Even in America, the land of the second chance, and of transcendentalist redeemers, the paradox inevitably arises: you cannot change the world (for example, a state of marriage) until the people in it change, and the people cannot change until the world changes.”
-Stanley Cavell, "Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage"

From The New World (Malick/2005).

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Bringing Up Baby (1938) A Film by Howard Hawks

In Bringing Up Baby, Howard Hawks delights in introducing zany element after zany element, an accumulation of absurd details so overwhelming that it's a wonder he manages never to lose sight of the film's fundamental dramatic and thematic goals. A tame leopard, a pending $1 million museum donation, a missing Brontosaurus bone known as the intercostal clavicle (this being a screwball comedy, a term that receives its fair share of repetition), a yapping dog that likes burying things deep in the ground, a rural circus and the wild leopard it mistakenly lets loose, and plenty of other details compile around the central comic entanglement of David Huxley (Cary Grant) and Susan Vance (Katherine Hepburn). David's a prudish, even-tempered paleontologist with an impending marriage to a professional assistant that's destined to develop into a passionless coexistence, as well as a four-year-in-the-making dinosaur sculpture waiting on one last elusive bone. Susan's a prickly, siren-voiced, and utterly selfish ditzy woman gone madly desperate for love. Hawks creates two people so totally opposite that the increasingly surreal series of events and parade of oddness they collaboratively produce feels like a natural extension of the void existing between them.

This void is at first deepened, then detailed, and finally eliminated through Hawks' construction, a series of combative circumstances and childish games ever escalating in absurdity and dramatic stakes. In the early stages of the plot, mistaken identity plays a pivotal role in the combat between Grant and Hepburn. David first runs into Susan on a golf course where a mix-up occurs regarding the question of who possesses a certain golf ball that has strayed from David's hole onto Susan's. David insists that it's his, that he took a faulty swing, while Susan is insistent upon continuing to play with it. Moments later, she tries to leave the parking lot in his car, clumsily bumping other vehicles as she leaves the parking space in front of David, who pleas in irritation. Susan is plucking the objects of David's lifestyle away from him right before his eyes. If the external markers that come to define these characters are this impermanent, this liable to shift at a moment's notice (indeed, later on the very names of these characters are hilariously called into question), then the identity that they embody must be too. Hawks is aware of the duplicity of identity, the fact that humans are mere vessels for a shifting variety of potential selves that are brought about through interaction with the public world.

Susan's theft of David's possessions is passed off as unintentional yet feels oddly calculated, as if the beginnings of a compulsive longing towards David that expresses itself as the film progresses through increasingly over-the-top acts of selfishness and dependence. As outlandish, manipulative, and seemingly mean-spirited as it gets, Susan's behavior is bent on a single goal: keeping David in her company. That need is acted upon throughout in the form of conflict, which Susan explicitly refers to as being the fundamental expression of human love (though she's accusing David of creating this conflict, it's clear that it represents her inner mantra of flirtation). In order to give David a reason to be by her side, she pretends over the phone to be getting attacked by her aunt's pet leopard (the titular "Baby," which she has just been asked to temporarily care for). From there, the film proceeds in similarly loony fashion, with Susan constantly creating circumstances of a problematic nature for David so that he will be forced to spend time with her; to name a few, she parks in an illegal space in his car, she steals the adjacent vehicle, she misplaces his clothing, and she lets her aunt's dog George get a hold of and subsequently bury the intercostal clavicle. It's an awfully selfish set of actions for a character to perform, and a strange movie ploy in general, but Hepburn brings a sense of overwhelming romantic desperation to the part that prevents Susan from becoming merely a sadistic bitch.

David's goal the whole time is to recover his bone and retrieve the $1 million he had coming to him for his museum, but every time his tasks seem on the cusp of being accomplished, Susan steps in and throws a wrench in the operation. It certainly doesn't help his case that Susan's Aunt Elizabeth (May Robson) happens to be the wealthy women behind the hefty donation, and her lawyer, Alexander Peabody (George Irving), is one of Susan's good friends. What this means for David is that he has to prove to these people that he is a worthy recipient of the money while being pushed to the brink of aggression by Susan. The role of chance, such a powerful factor in the sorting out of this situation, is materialized by the traveling circus that is passing through Aunt Elizabeth's rural Connecticut town. If Baby can be said to represent a surrogate child for David and Susan – who amount to a surrogate marriage over the course of the film – then the search for the misplaced Baby and subsequent failure to recognize the right animal when presented with a wild leopard released unintentionally from the circus illustrates just how profoundly unprepared either of them are for any kind of serious adult life. Likewise, the constant roles they are forced to play, the childish games they find themselves involved in, and the lies they tell in order to avoid confronting any sort of deeper truths about themselves or about their situation, suggest the impish, chaotic lifestyle both of them seem prone to – naturally so for Susan, and perhaps beneath the surface of David's pragmatic exterior.

This move from adult responsibilities to childish tactics is mirrored by other key structural progressions in Bringing Up Baby: the move from the suburban to the rural, from day to night, and from social order to disorder. Everything in the film follows in tandem: as more craziness is dumped into the plot, the day gets longer, and the characters progress further into the dark forest in search of their leopards (shall I say, their structure?). By the end of the night, nearly all of the characters have found themselves in jail cells, and though Hawks finds a hilarious narrative justification for it (they're all recoiling from the encroaching leopard), the metaphor is about as blatant as metaphors come: not only does Susan get herself in trouble with her bewildering behavior, she also manages to swallow up everyone around her in her mad pursuit of love, which runs counter to any of the conventional methods and laws of the public world. Indeed, the success of her pursuit (and of David's) is reliant upon her(/his) ability to break from the structure of her(/his) life.

After all the dizzying layers of symbolic game-playing, there comes a beautiful shot in the final scene of the film that that suddenly crystallizes what was perhaps only vaguely visible through the overlapping chatter of Hawks’ high-velocity filmmaking: Susan breaking through David’s dinosaur and David saving her by grabbing her hand, refusing to let her fall into the rubble, a perfect visualization of a relationship that is simultaneously parasitic/destructive and productive/vital. Susan’s been clinging to David throughout the film, destroying his comfy complacency, yet the aspects of her character that so sharply contrast his persona are also the forces that agitate his sense of self and usher him towards a (potentially) "better" happiness. The bricks and mortar of Grant’s previous regressive lifestyle – after all, he's an archaeologist for God's sake, digging up bones! – have been replaced by something new, a hesitant embrace of the chaos and spontaneity that Susan represents.

But this embrace is about something less specific and less trite than love. The conclusion of Bringing Up Baby has been lambasted for the abruptness of its seeming dramatic shift – that David suddenly admits to loving Susan. However, the word "love" emerges from David out of what appears to be practical impulse: a desire to influence Susan to either get off the precarious ladder or take his hand – ultimately, to resign to safety. Yet it is significant that this is one of the few scenes in the film where Hawks shows David actively looking out for Susan's best interest. He has come around to her in some way, but how? Is he acknowledging the strangely absorbing, major influence she's had on his life? Is he, to put it simply, greeting the fact of his vulnerability? To the same extent that Grant’s final, falling-out-of-the-mouth “I Love You” is less a true statement than a verbal placeholder for a major shift within himself, Bringing Up Baby traffics in all sorts of external presentation that it proves not to be fundamentally about. In Hawks' film, everything stands for something, a dynamic alternative to a man who has built his life around empty markers of contentment.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Screening Notes #14

It Happened One Night (1934): What I find so propulsive about It Happened One Night is its structure more than anything (though the chemistry between Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert is certainly contagious): an unhurried dance between day and night, the former defined by its caustic rush and the latter by its revelations and sense of mystery. It's easy to start longing for the coming of night, when Capra's punchy jabber dissolves into charged silence. The erotic and romantic tension between Gable and Colbert becomes a palpable element, increasingly so as the film wears on and the convincing opposites venture, accidentally but also purposefully, away from the grips of civilization and into, as usual, the wilds of Connecticut. I get a kick out of how Capra stages his Walls of Jericho bedroom scenes during rainstorms, allowing the drips on the window to represent – pardon my vulgarity – sexual juices flowing. I also get a kick out of how the ending, highly reminiscent of The Great Madcap in its turns of events, refuses to reveal the reunion of Gable and Colbert, instead disguising it in the economical dropping off a bedsheet.

The Thin Man (1934): Putting its emphasis equally on the sterling comic duo of William Powell and Myrna Low and an overstuffed, vapid murder mystery, The Thin Man shows some of the poisonous effects of a novelistic foundation. There's so many seedy characters in The Thin Man, so many minor subplots and non-sequiturs, that Powell and Loy occasionally get lost in the fray, when really the film could just place their boozy marriage at its core and watch them interact for an hour and a half. Admittedly, there's at least 15 too many martini jokes, and nearly as many twee comic relief bits featuring the cute puppy Asta (though the second installment has even more, and they're worse), but in general any time director W.S. Van Dyke places his camera in their vicinity the film is zippy, tough-talking gold.

Design for Living (1933): I'm working on a Mubi piece that will explore the idiosyncratic texture of Lubitsch's mise-en-scène and editing, so for now I'll just say this: what a kinky film! The subtexts and innuendos swirling around this love triangle – polygamy, homosexuality, oedipal complex – are strongly felt, yet Lubitsch implies so much non-visually that even if this was made during the time of the Production Code nothing concrete could have prevented its release. In many ways, it's the riskier cousin to Wilder's Some Like it Hot, viewing the conventions of social roles and professional success as equally stifling and slippery in their ways.

Days of Heaven (1978): Seeing this again on celluloid on Harvard's shimmering big screen, I was struck by how decidedly not gorgeous so many of its images actually are; for all of Malick's bad rap as a man who allegedly "just shoots pretty pictures," viewers so often forget how skilled he was in his first two films at pairing majestic beauty with the comparatively mundane and rugged. The fading rays of the sun are in fact not always at just the right angle in Days of Heaven. Sometimes they're blocked by objects, leaving the camera and the subjects in shadows. Other times, they're beating down unflatteringly on farm workers. It's these moments that make the natural wonders so remarkable, such a relief for these troubled, drifting figures. I now consider Days of Heaven to be one of Malick's very best films, a work that expresses a sublime ideal in art: at once iconic and specific, vast and small, existing and already gone.

Grand Illusion (1937): For whatever reason, Jean Renoir's one of those universally lauded "masters" of the medium that I have, up until now, been completely unexposed to. Despite his reputation among highbrow critics, I was pleased to see how open and populist Renoir's sensibility actually is. Now I understand what those free-spirits in Annie Hall meant when they mentioned seeing Grand Illusion as if it was the stoner comedy of the week; it's a very relaxed, and relaxing, film, a loose ensemble piece that is more about shuffling through vignettes of male camaraderie than anything else, even in spite of its war movie trappings. I found the film's final act, when two French soldiers finally escape prison and find shelter in the German countryside, to be genuinely beautiful and warmly human, and the preceding two acts somewhat erratic, with episodes of dated men-dressing-up-as-women comedy and heartfelt wartime conversation butted up awkwardly against each other. But this is never less than a breezy way to spend two hours.

The Last Bolshevik (1993): Chris Marker's eccentric elegy to, autobiography of, and celebration of Soviet filmmaker Alexander Medvedkin would have probably been doubly rewarding if I were familiar with Medvedkin's work at all, but even without any knowledge of the filmmaker beyond name recognition, there's still a power and charm to The Last Bolshevik. Marker's narration and assembly entertains many a'digressions without losing sight of the overall argument (namely, that Medvedkin was one of the most distinctive and subversive directors of the Silent Era in Russia), and he also manages to provide a rich summary of Russian politics and culture around the time of Medvedkin's life without ever making it feel like a dry history lesson. Shot on cheap digital video and blown up to a big screen, the film's crude superimpositions and unconventionally lovely images boast a uniquely palpable texture of their own, which didn't help keep my brain focused on the knotty content.

One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich (1999): I found myself much more moved and involved by Marker's comparatively straightforward, hour-long Tarkovsky memorial than the Medvedkin piece, largely because I'm so familiar with Tarkovsky's work. Marker eloquently, poetically suggests that Tarkovsky's the only filmmaker whose work "exists within the space of two children and two trees," referring to the opening and closing shots of his body of work (from Ivan's Childhood and The Sacrifice, respectively), and frankly, that insight alone would do, but Marker also goes on to trace the mystical and political allusions running through his work, in addition to editing in privileged glimpses of Tarkovsky at work on The Sacrifice and in his death bed. There's a lot packed in to a relatively brief study, but it's fleet-footed in that way that is specific only to Marker, who tosses off profound observations without making a big fuss about it.

The Exorcist (1973): Loren Rosson calls this the best horror film ever made, and I'd agree that it deserves to be mentioned in the pile, but as much as it disturbs me on a visceral level (how could it not?), I find that it doesn't have as lasting an impact as I'd like it to. Seeing it at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery should have been the ideal situation, but unfortunately the raucous crowd primed to laugh at anything remotely "dated" and the regrettably under-sized screen for such a sprawling lawn certainly didn't augment the effect of Friedkin's eerie and surprisingly low-key tactics. Still, the guy's a master of foreplay, thanks to some subtle lifts from Bergman's sensibility (ticking clocks, gusty winds, tipsy zooms, anguished females, Max Von Sydow) and an inbred feel for atmosphere, all of which contributes to what Stephen Russell-Gebbett has eloquently referred to as "the horror before the Horror."

How The West Was Won (1962): Three-strip technicolor: the immersive experience I've always been looking for and failed to discover with the advent of IMAX, as well as a sadly brief phenomenon. Screening at the Cinerama Dome and viewed from the second row, this was a monstrous thing to behold, requiring an entire 90 degree turn of the head in order to digest all of the details in the vast landscape of the frame. This image (the term seems inadequate, since the format redefines our understanding of the "image," but I'll use it anyway) actually approximates a realistic field of view, with each edge appearing at the furthest point in the peripherals. For optical reasons, the majority of the key action takes place around the center of the frame, encouraging the viewer to use the left and right strips as mere visual noise to complete the "entrance" into the picture, but I had a lot of fun ignoring the actual drama to focus on the nooks and crannies in the panoramic image, following the progression of separate mini-movies occurring in the production design. As for the film itself, it's a robustly patriotic romp; unfortunately after a long day I dozed off during John Ford's sections (reportedly the finest in the film, according to who you ask), but head director Henry Hathaway had a showman's grasp of the material and an equally romantic command of imagery. All this aside, the three-strip technicolor is what I was most interested in.

P.S. Big kudos to anyone who can try their hand at identifying the hidden theme of this post. Clue: take note of where the screenshots are placed, and what they're separating. 2nd clue: it's not in my words, per se, it's in the films themselves.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Stanley Kubrick, Ranked

(This is the third entry in the Favorite Directors Blogathon. Next month is Andrei Tarkovsky.)

For what it's worth, I've had more "fun" watching the films of Stanley Kubrick than those of almost any other director, which runs counter to accepted truths of the notoriously reclusive director's work being "cold to the touch" and, worse, "too challenging." Starting with 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968, Kubrick embarked on a string of films so creatively focused and immersive that the inconsistent gaps that separated them must have had some kind of major healing power, rejuvenating his intellect and shifting his curiosity to another existential mystery. He's one of those filmmakers that every entry-level cinephile devours in their early days of film appreciation, and the same was true for me, but the difference is that I've never grown tired of his work or used it merely as a stepping stone to a wider culture of film. I've found that he, in so many ways, is one of the backbones of film culture, his influence reaching, consciously or otherwise, across directors worldwide for decades. More often than not, when I seek all that is good in cinema, I find echoes of Kubrick under every stone.

Few directors had as immaculate and intuitive a grasp of aesthetics as Kubrick. From his crisp, orderly compositional sense, to his careful choreography of color and movement, to his uncanny knack for picking the perfect piece of music to accompany a given scene, his films evolve in a fluid, cumulative manner, casting a spell with near-mathematical precision. But while the surfaces of his work are often approached as if an equation, the emotional and thematic material underneath is not; Kubrick had a wonderful ability to leave the most significant mysteries of human behavior and the universe intact. Characters seethe with emotion in his films – megalomania, madness, fury, sexual desire, fear, joy – and he approaches them with a unique mix of empathy and clinical curiosity, meanwhile juxtaposing them against the larger tides of history, nature, and the perplexities beyond Earth. His oeuvre, though regrettably slim, comprises an attempt to transpose all the thought capable by a single human being onto the cinematic medium.

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968): Whether or not there can ever be a film as culturally earth-shattering as 2001 is tough to say, but what is certain is that the impact of this provocative, lunatic space essay is no less visceral or significant today. What Kubrick was ever-so-majestically hinting at with the film – that the so-called technological "progress" of man could in fact be the very downfall of the species, that in order to move forward we need to reconnect with some primitive concept of self, and that what we know about the universe is very likely only a puny sliver of the vast sea of what can be known – won't become irrelevant until something cataclysmic, something like what happens to Bowman at the trancelike close of the film, jolts the entire human race into some new, higher stage of existence. What else can be said? It's a leap forward, and in some cases, in all different directions, for humanity, for philosophy, for cinema, for Kubrick's career, etc., and it's also the filmmaker's most ambitious, visionary, and transcendent moment.

2. Barry Lyndon (1975): The impressive balancing act of Barry Lyndon is that, even as it features Kubrick at his most analytically removed from the material, it maintains a vivid dramatic impact. As the film progresses, Kubrick's central character, the unremarkable farmhand-turned-aristocrat Barry Lyndon (Ryan O'Neal), becomes increasingly dwarfed by his surroundings, merging into Kubrick's decidedly stiff mise-en-scène as if a figure in an oil painting, yet at the same time he grows into a more tragic and lonely figure. Through its witty, detached narrator, its exaggerated costuming, and its rambling narrative defined by acts of role-playing and phoniness, Barry Lyndon explicitly calls attention to the flaws inherent in shaping history into linear narratives, as well as the absurdity of sentimentalizing any one individual over another. It's curious then – and indicative of the internal counterargument at the core of the film that plays very much to its advantage – that these characters do ultimately emerge as real, flesh-and-blood human beings with their own insignificant hopes and dreams. This is cinema that both acknowledges humanity's endless loss to the flow of time and seeks to discover something lasting, beautiful, and permanent in the impermanent.

3. The Shining (1980): When I think of the ever-intangible quality of "atmosphere," I think first of The Shining, which has as unique and memorable an atmosphere as any film ever made. I think of big band music wafting through cavernous hallways (apparently, so too does James Kirby, who has made several brilliant albums inspired by these sounds under the pseudonym The Caretaker). I think of the acres of thick snow encasing the Overlook Hotel. I think of glowing table lamps surrounded by thick cigarette smoke, around which ghostly flappers convene. The Shining's gloomy, enveloping atmosphere becomes the central guiding force of its narrative, as the mansion develops a mysterious aura that drives Jack Nicholson's writer-father to violent insanity. The performances here are suitably larger-than-life, all shrieks and glowers and varying states of hypnosis that culminate in a harrowing implosion of familial security, and the camerawork and set design is hallucinatory, emphasizing the imprisonment of the central characters to fate and history. The Shining also gets bonus points (as if it needed them) for having the most tantalizing trailer ever made.