Thursday, November 29, 2012

Flight (2012) A Film by Robert Zemeckis

For a director who has spent the last decade toiling in the still nebulous terrain of computer generated imagery, Robert Zemeckis' return to live-action filmmaking, Flight, is decidedly grounded, eschewing the radically innovative technological impulse of Zemeckis’ past work and centering its focus on individuals making do with their lot in life. With the exception of its jolting first-act spectacle – the disastrous flight from which the film gains its title – Zemeckis' latest commits to a low-key atmosphere of psychological introspection, shifting the director's emphasis on soaring movement, eye-popping lights, and huge ensembles to a much humbler canvas: the contours and minuscule eruptions in Denzel Washington's pudgy, sunken face, the use of conversation as the primary dramatic activity, and a pastoral working-class milieu where the villain is as small-scale as a nip of Smirnoff. Zemeckis reportedly sacrificed his initial sum of cash to encourage Paramount to back the project, and the personal compromise clearly reflects the artistic development. Flight feels like a conscious simplification of expression for the 61-year-old Spielberg descendant even as it repurposes his showstopping wizardry to less transparent ends.

At the center of Flight is the towering performance of Washington as alcoholic pilot Whip Whitaker. By now it's become relatively par for the course that Washington should contribute an air of authenticity and tactility to even the most paper-thin Hollywood stories, overshadowing and sometimes obliterating the integrity of the supporting characters and subplots around him. That's nearly the case here, though it's also fair to say that Flight never intends itself to be anything less than a muscular Denzel Washington vehicle; Washington is the spotlight, and the fact that secondary elements of the script feel underdeveloped or weakened by heavy-handed execution only supplies greater significance to Washington's act of dramatic immersion. The film opens with Whip dozing after an all-night binge of sex and drugs with airline hostess Katerina Marquez (Nadine Velazquez, who floats naked in front of Zemeckis' calm camera), downing the remains of any open bottles, snorting cocaine, and then scurrying to a flight he has to pilot that morning. It's a shocking introduction to this character, playing against Washington's characteristically composed, morally firm screen persona, and the film feels the repercussions of Whip's hastiness on its ensuing 90 minutes.

What's interesting, and a thorny decision by both Zemeckis and screenwriter John Gatins, is that the subsequent plane crash results not from Whip's questionable physical state – he exhibits remarkable grace under pressure despite his condition, and the film makes brazenly clear that Whip's the only guy who could have avoided a potentially tragic massacre and orchestrated a far less fatal open-field slide – but from an unpredictable malfunction with the aircraft. Laying the blame directly on Whip's alcoholism would have been grounds for safe and easy moralizing, but by introducing an outside variable Flight both erects the dichotomy of fate and chance that is one of Zemeckis' key concerns and forces Whip's self-analysis to come about on internal rather than external terms. After the crash, a generous attorney named Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle) goes to work on brushing under the rug reports of Whip's incriminating blood work, so the threat of imprisonment still looms over his future, but the fundamental conflict of Flight is nonetheless firmly within his psyche: the question of whether or not he will admit to his alcoholism, stop living a life entrenched in lies, and ultimately clear his conscience and secure his identity.

This is some heavy existential stuff, typical of the mysticism that has always been on the fringes of Zemeckis' body of work. In itself, Flight's preoccupation with philosophical issues of the self, the divine, and the relationship between the two is commendable at a Hollywood level. Unfortunately, Zemeckis has the tendency – already especially evident in the cerebral sci-fi Contact – to overplay the Big Ideas inherent in his material, feeling the need to layer on directorial cues when rich subtexts are already self-evident in the action. For instance, when Whip's foil, the heroin addict Nicole (Kelly Reilly), is first introduced, we hear Red Hot Chili Peppers' downer hit "Under the Bridge" on a radio nearby, a tune about loneliness and isolation that speaks all-too-neatly to both Whip and Nicole's juncture in life (Whip has been abandoned by his wife and son, and Nicole is mistreated by a rotten landlord). Later, Hugh takes Whip to the crash site for a glance at the wreckage, which – by virtue of conveniently being on the grounds of a monastery – doubles as an opportunity for Zemeckis to spell out his religious belief. Yet while the result of the crash (only 6 casualties rather than a whole plane's worth) is cited as an "act of God" on multiple occasions, the same phrase is used to apply to the rare form of cancer suffered by a young man Whip encounters when hospitalized after the accident, as well as the unexpected aircraft defects. God, it seems, is capable of hostility as much as benevolence. It's this thematic ambiguity that balances out some of Zemeckis' more heavy-handed gestures.

Flight, however, despite its theological core, thankfully does not lay all responsibility for human affairs on God: though the divine may have a part in major existential happenings, it cannot continue to play a role in individual lives. Put simply, at a certain point a man must take what he’s given and decide his own fate. This is where Flight gets interesting, and where Washington takes center stage. The middle portion of the film is dedicated to charting Whip's on-and-off relationship with alcohol, his interior battle with addiction after miraculously surviving a traumatic event. On either side of him is Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood) and Harling Mays (John Goodman), two longtime friends placed, fairly schematically, on opposite ends of the spectrum: the former is a supportive colleague and the latter is a caricatured druggie who conspicuously guzzles Budweisers while driving (the film's attitude towards Harling is one of its muddiest points; his thoroughly irresponsible behavior is always supported by blaring musical accompaniments and rockstar tracking shots, shifting the tone from somber character study to amped-up stoner comedy on a dime). Whip is tugged every which way by these diametric points of reference (perhaps influencing the naming of his character), but ultimately it's the time he spends alone that proves most illuminating. As he hooks up with Nicole and starts living with her in his inherited Georgia farmhouse, the improvement in her trajectory only emphasizes how stagnant and even self-destructive Whip is. At one point, she returns from her new grocery store job late at night to find Whip watching old family videotapes in the living room (assumptions about drug addiction and class are not the only clichés Flight traffics in), a collection of empty bottles surrounding him as his sentences descend into incomprehensibility (Washington is so convincing in this scene that I'd be surprised if he wasn't at least half as drunk on set as his character is onscreen).

At a certain point, it seems as if every one of Flight's strengths (its quiet introspection, its largely effective supporting ensemble, the stock it puts in the power of an individual) is also hampered by a weakness (the sudden burst of a gaudy genre trope, the introduction of a poorly written character, the use of religion or class as an explanatory umbrella for narrative action), but fortunately nothing ever does pierce the surface of Washington's beautifully realized character. Everything here has been integrated to poignant effect: the insecure covering of his lower lip, the knee-jerk use of mouth spray to combat the stench of alcohol, the donning of dark sunglasses to ineffectively conceal intoxication or a high (occurring at two pivotal points in the film: before the flight and before the legal hearing that will decide his fate), and the frequent resorting to an uninflected one-word answer to avoid facing the truth. These telling details accumulate into one of the most honest, genuinely moving studies of addiction Hollywood has ever produced, something that not even the film's sentimental coda – in which Whip directly reports of his failings so that the film's moral compass is clear-cut – can undo.

Monday, November 19, 2012

We Won't Grow Old Together (1972) A Film by Maurice Pialat

Maurice Pialat's second full-length feature We Won't Grow Old Together is a devastating exploration of a slowly disintegrating romantic affair that is about as brutally honest about the self-destructive interdependency of relationships as any film ever made. As is typical of French cinema of this era, it concerns a brutish, self-involved artist type and his ethereal, sophisticated partner, a tendency seemingly reflecting an autobiographical realm for filmmakers like Godard, Truffaut, and of course Pialat. But whereas Godard and Truffaut's early romances are tinged with a certain swagger, Pialat's work is defined by its serene neutrality. We Won't Grow Old Together takes as its subject the relentless coiling and recoiling of a relationship, with characters variably looking villainous and sympathetic, and Pialat's camera remains a curious, impartial observer, never quite passing judgment even during the lovers' more explosive fights. There's an unknowable complexity to human relationships, Pialat understands, and his respectful approach preserves this truth.

Things get even more complicated in adulterous relationships, which We Won't Grow Old Together proves – imperceptibly at first – to be studying. Jean (Jean Yanne) is married to Françoise (Macha Méril) but has been involved with a mistress named Catherine (Marlène Jobert) for six years. Françoise's screen time is radically truncated in favor of Jean and Catherine's, making it appear initially as if Jean and Catherine in fact married and Françoise is the mistress (that Françoise embodies a level of acceptance and even support for her husband's extramarital activity is an idiosyncrasy I can only interpret as being part of a different mid-century French mindset). But Pialat's choice to focus on the relationship of unmarried lovers is pivotal: this is a situation in which no formal agreements have been made and only emotional rather than concrete stakes are on the line. Such a relationship superficially grants a lack of concern for one another's feelings, and Jean takes this to the extreme by assuming a degree of license for psychologically and emotionally abusive behavior. For Pialat, this arrangement is fertile ground for emotional honesty.

The film begins with Jean inviting Catherine to the Camargue region where he is visiting for one of his several odd jobs as a cameraman. (Jean is, as so many New Wave protagonists are, a filmmaker and a cinephile, and his sporadic references to great directors are the vehicles for Pialat's own cinephilia.) On this trip, Jean treats Catherine like swine (or, as he puts it, a rat) for no discernible reason, showering her with bitter remarks and disturbingly direct (albeit untruthful) summaries of her personality. We learn that Catherine is an aspiring actress with inconsistent success, and Jean's cruel behavior seems to stem as much from his inability to possess her artistically as it is to do so personally. During these spiteful rants, Pialat's detached camera (either remaining wide or fixed in eye-level two shot, but only rarely relaying information in the shot-reverse-shot formula) makes plain the angelic composure of Catherine in contrast to the animalistic tendencies of Jean, which is not so much a passive submission to Jean's vitriol as it is an assertion of her own strength. Among its many other compassionate qualities, We Won't Grow Old Together is a celebration of Catherine's wisdom and resolve.

Lest it seem unwise that Catherine remain involved in such a problematic relationship, let me point to the ways in which Pialat displays an understanding of the complexity of human behavior and how breaking free from long-term relationships is never as easy as simply walking away. After a certain length of time watching resolution follow psychological combat, it becomes clear that the film is adopting a structure of repetition: Jean explodes at Catherine, Catherine deflects, Jean returns to her to offer cool tenderness, and the cycle repeats. The closest the film comes to schematism is in a too-clever cut from Catherine declaring her wish to never see Jean again (or something to that effect) to a shot of Jean picking up Catherine from a business meeting presumably only a day or two later. Aside from this rather calculated effect, Pialat allows great space – through pauses, through cresting and falling tension, through wordless sequences of narrative cushioning – for the vulnerable emotional landscape between the two to develop organically. The film does not follow a tight-knit timeline either: one moment, the lovers are conversing in Jean's car in Paris; the next, they're at Catherine's mother's (Muse Dalbray) seaside cottage. Dissolution and reconciliation, as unwise a cycle as it may seem given the destructive circumstances, is occurring at a naturalistic pace that is only obscured slightly by Pialat's steady fascination with the process of break-up, which manifests itself in an elliptical cutting rhythm that often forgoes the chunks of time the two spend apart to focus on moments of connection.

Pialat balances Jean's aggression with scenes of comparative serenity that, if not quite capable of justifying the continuation of this affair, at least pose high points that suggest why Jean and Catherine got this far in the first place. Of particular note is the section of the film spent by the sea, where the neutralizing effect of the ocean and Catherine's parents seems to illuminate an otherwise subsumed affection between the two that is crystallized in a lovely scene of late-night waltzing. Suggested by a single long take of Jean and Catherine in the middle of a crowd, the scene shares the rejuvenating ambiance of a similar moment in Claire Denis' 35 Shots of Rum, but unlike Denis' climax, which seems to crystallize undercurrents in the rest of the film, the peace and quiet rendered here is only fleeting. When they return to the cottage, Jean makes a sexual advance on Catherine during a comfortable embrace in bed and upon rejection finds himself tearing her shirt and throwing another fit. It's harsh and disruptive, but utterly plausible in the rugged emotional terrain cultivated by Pialat throughout the film.

We Won't Grow Old Together pulls a fascinating paradigm shift in its third act by placing sudden emphasis on Jean independently coming to terms with the cruelty of his behavior. Faced with a Catherine whose patience is wearing increasingly thin, Jean must consider the question of whether or not making a concerted effort to resolve issues is worthwhile. Françoise returns crucially in this section to side wholeheartedly with the abused Catherine, even as she calmly directs her husband towards an overdue resolution. Here, Pialat peels back Jean's rigid surfaces to reveal a clumsy, fundamentally sensitive beast underneath. It's the kind of radical openness and enduring compassion that cinema rarely has the time, energy, or intelligence for, and it transforms the film from an insightful study of a romantic relationship to a broader, more devastating investigation into human frailty. I can't think of a shot that could better clarify this than We Won't Grow Old Together's perfect parting gesture: an image, repeated from earlier in the film, of Catherine flailing about joyfully in the ocean, overtaken here and there by a wave. It's an impression of happiness that will likely haunt Jean forever, representing a kind of emblem of the casualties of his behavior even after any specific memory of Catherine has faded.

Friday, November 16, 2012

On Showboating, Oblivion, and Tom Hanks

If you've seen the fascinating disaster that is Cloud Atlas, you may be interested in my new review over at The Daily Notebook. This is one of those films where the fact that nothing "works" is exactly why it works. Genres, plots, and images collide, converse, and ultimately crumble, and A-list actors engage in a dress-up party. What's not to like?

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Out of Sight (1998) A Film by Steven Soderbergh

The characters in Steven Soderbergh’s films are often defined by a particular moral code and the extent to which they’re willing to bend or break it. Out of Sight, a brisk, stylish popcorn movie that belongs to the more commercial half of Soderbergh's directing persona but is just as distinctive as the rest of the his output, offers a poignant expression of this theme in the shape of an illicit romance between Jack Foley (George Clooney), a charming bank robber, and Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez), the US Marshal on his tail. Inherent in the premise are romantic comedy as well as crime thriller undertones, and Soderbergh plays each out to its logical extreme without ever making the film fit squarely in one genre. A master of tone, he is instead able to infuse the breezy two hours with an unrelenting sense of tossed-off cool, lending a feeling of detachment that is both comic and haunting. The result is a work that points ahead to Soderbergh's star-studded Ocean trilogy even as it attains a dramatic gravity never quite reached by that slick franchise.

In fact, the Ocean movies may have never occurred had Soderbergh not detected and exploited the oozing charisma of George Clooney, which provides the fuel that runs Out of Sight and ultimately so many of the actor's subsequent films. (This is not to say Clooney hadn't already proven his chops in film and television (I haven't comprehensively surveyed the actor's pre-'98 career), but that Out of Sight was ostensibly the first major motion picture to place so much stock in his low-key magnetism.) As Jack, Clooney is compulsively watchable; confident, quick-witted, level-headed, and forever armed with flirtatious banter or silencing one-liners, he's able to make even a death threat in the midst of a bank robbery sound comforting and easygoing. It's obvious that a man this affable couldn't find himself stuck in jail for too long, though he does get arrested early on after an impulsive inner-city robbery that the film eventually cycles its way back around to in its fractured chronology. Prison is treated throughout Out of Sight as an entirely non-threatening limbo zone for the criminals Jack surrounds himself with, an inevitability that comes and goes in an almost arbitrary fashion. It's a trope that is in keeping with Soderbergh's forward-moving outlook on life, his propensity to underplay external circumstances in favor of internal stakes.

This is a tendency that speaks directly to Out of Sight. Soderbergh cares less about the physical markers of one's worldview than he does about how worldview shapes a way of personally relating to the world (at one point in Magic Mike, Channing Tatum dumbfoundedly blurts "I am not what I do," which is about as close to a direct summary of the director's outlook as he'll allow). A perfect example: Soderbergh stages Jack and Karen's first meeting in the claustrophobic trunk of a getaway car where Jack has temporarily kidnapped Karen after escaping from prison, about as enclosed and separated a space as possible from the outer world. In this tight, awkward physical scenario, Jack and Karen have only their words, their thoughts, and their body language to rely on – they can't even see each other's faces. Accordingly, there's a strange, hushed intimacy to the voices in this scene as the two drift from the obvious topic at hand to small-talk concerning movies and love stories. Even though Karen pulls a gun on Jack once the car has stopped and the trunk has opened (back in the outside world, social roles are reclaimed), it's obvious that there's romantic chemistry during this smooth ride of darkness, and after it the film becomes increasingly focused on their ill-fated attempts to revisit that indescribable feeling while upholding professional differences.

The truth is, however, that love can't realistically be acted upon for such diametrically opposed figures, so the few overt love scenes in Out of Sight feel like dreams more than concrete occurrences, making the final irresolvability of Jack and Karen's romance that much more tragic. The film is seductively old-fashioned in its approach to cinematic romance, presenting love as an ideal escape from the constricting boundaries of life. In a key sequence, one of Soderbergh's finest in two-and-a-half decades as a director, Jack visits Karen at a lounge and woos her with his soothing verbal play before the two retreat to a hotel room to make love. Shot in warm tones in front of snowy Detroit panoramas reduced to luscious blobs of blue and white, the entire scene is lovely, but it's elevated to something haunting and mysterious by the somnambulant rhythm of Soderbergh's cutting and the actors' movements. Here, Jack and Karen seem to move differently and speak differently than they do under the professional circumstances of the rest of the film, with flirtation bubbling out of every gesture. Soderbergh takes his time to show the two in any sort of contextualizing shot, instead remaining fixed on their faces and their bodies glowing against the moody nightscape. This lack of context – it is unclear both when and where exactly the scene takes place in the frame of the narrative – only bolsters the sense of love as an escape, something pure and possibly unreachable within the lives led by these characters.

Fortunately, the situations surrounding Jack and Karen's central romance are compelling in their own right, and provide an understanding of why the two leads are bound by their respective lifestyles. Subplots are sprinkled throughout Out of Sight – a mansion robbery aided by cohorts Maurice (Don Cheadle), Buddy (Ving Rhames), and Glenn (Steve Zahn), a snapshot of Karen's relationship with her father (Dennis Farina), compulsory flashbacks to various prison activities shot in harsh sunlight – but because of Soderbergh's light touch they never descend into heavy exposition, and the same stylishness brought to the love scenes is spread across the rest of the film. Nonetheless, this is still a film built confidently on the nuanced chemistry of its two would-be lovers. Clooney set a high standard of charm here that's arguably never been exceeded, and Lopez, who has has not been involved in such strong material since, has never been more naturally alluring. Their final scene together on either side of a cop car divide is a crystallization of the submerged infatuation simmering out of the rest of the film, a bittersweet, wordless goodbye that's tinged with all the unspoken longing of the preceding two hours.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Andrei Tarkovsky, Ranked

(This is the fourth entry in the Favorite Directors Blogathon. Next month is Bela Tarr.)
Unlike some of the other participants in this blogathon, I didn't put a terrible degree of thought into the scheduling of my posts in terms of what director might fit well with a given time of year. For instance, Kubrick probably would have made more sense for November in light of the tantalizing month-long tribute to the director that's just over the horizon at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and Bergman might have gelled nicely with the Christmas season, and maybe if I wanted to get creative Lynch would have been a clever pick for the Halloween month, but alas, none of this materialized. That said, I can say I've found a justification, however abstract, for picking Russian master Andrei Tarkovsky in the Thanksgiving month. On a certain general level, Tarkovsky's cinema is a great big thanks to the world and everything in it: his beloved family and homeland, the gift of memory and love, the ever-expanding collection of global artwork, the physical landscape, the natural elements, the feeling of the divine in the everyday, and much more.

Similar to some other reclusive filmmaking giants (Kubrick, Malick, etc.), Tarkovsky was never a prolific director, although it wasn't necessarily because he didn't want to be. Tarkovsky was subject throughout his career to stifling government censorship, culminating in a self-imposed 1982 exile from Russia that was essentially encouraged by the Russian government who denied he and his wife visas for re-entering the country. These political struggles speak to a fundamental core of melancholy in Tarkovsky's work, but his films are anything but bitter or depressive; rather, they are defined by their unceasing search for the sacredness in life that can be found against all odds. If you don't believe me, you haven't read "Sculpting in Time," Tarkovsky's lucid, thought-provoking summary of his thoughts on cinema and creative work in general, and one of my favorite books of all time. Or you haven't flipped through "Instant Light: Tarkovsky Polaroids," a book that gives intimate access to the filmmaker's personal polaroid collection, every shot of which seems to glow with unearthly light. Or you haven't really watched his films.

Tarkovsky's not a director I've written a great deal about, simply because I've always felt that transcoding his films into written language seems fundamentally inadequate and almost counterproductive. It's also because, as much as I'm emotionally and spiritually connected to Tarkovsky's work, I often find myself intellectually out of step with them, since they appeal to the sensual self as much as they engage critically and comprehensively with philosophical and political concepts that sometimes feel out of my reach. But maybe if I can get over this hump, it will be easier in the future to translate what I find so consistently inspiring and moving about his work.

(Note: Regretfully, I have been unable to get my hands on a DVD of Nostalghia, Tarkovsky's second-to-last film, so it is left out of this list for now.)

1. The Mirror (1975): Since seeing The Mirror for the first time some three or four years ago, I've yet to unlock the greatest mysteries of why it works so remarkably on my soul: the questions of how it moves the way it moves, what makes certain images and cuts so unbearably poetic, and how it manages to tie together its disparate threads so elegantly, remain the kind of unanswered and potentially unanswerable questions we expect of great art. It's Tarkovsky's most bluntly personal work, covering anywhere from his childhood to his father's war experience to his mother's domestic experience to the history of Russia, yet it's also the one that can, for the likeminded and motivated, cut deeper than any straightforward narrative could. During The Mirror, I find myself tearing up, contemplating, becoming riveted, angry, and filled with joy. I'm even bored on occasion. The film is the ideal platform for meditation, for putting one's life into the proper perspective.

2. Stalker (1979): The mysteries and complexities of Stalker are so robust that the film has inspired its own body of scholarship: Geoff Dyer's "Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room" was released earlier in the year to ecstatic reviews, but it still only scratches the surface of Tarkovsky's dreamlike odyssey. Truth is, there is no definitive truth about Stalker. It's as much of a tantalizing litmus test as anything else, but it also doesn't drown in noodling self-absorption. Instead, with its adventure narrative (I know that sounds like Indiana Jones or something, but on a basic level Stalker conforms to the genre) that moves deeper and deeper into the unknown, it's designed in such a way to provoke escalating curiosity in the viewer. Along the way, Tarkovsky provides some of the most shimmering images in his oeuvre: a long traveling shot that takes the three central characters into the Zone, a slow dolly forward through a decrepit tunnel, a glimpse of a stray dog in the middle of a misty stream, a shot moving backwards that settles on a painterly panorama of the three figures resting beneath a light rain, and a final image of a young girl telepathically willing a glass of milk to shake off a wooden table. Stalker is nothing less than majestic.

3. Ivan's Childhood (1962): I can't think of a filmmaker living or dead who has better conveyed the sense of childhood innocence fading abruptly and sometimes violently from life than Tarkovsky, and this idea was present even in his feature debut, the swampy and dirt-caked anti-war film Ivan's Childhood. In it, one can already glimpse Tarkovsky's distinctive focus on dream sequences at the expense of narrative momentum, his ability to build zones of seemingly aimless reverie that float in and out of the story with ease. The film morphs to the obstructed consciousness of young Ivan (Nikolay Burlyaev), a 12-year-old boy who has been thrust into a dispassionate lifestyle as a Russian spy on the Eastern Front in World War II, working as a gofer for the gruff soldiers who represent his only tentative family unit. Moody, extraordinarily photographed military scenes are juxtaposed with ecstatic mental wanderings evoking peace and simplicity and carried to sublime heights by Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov's spare score. This was my entry point into Tarkovsky's body of work, and it remains a perfect and surprisingly developed encapsulation of his signature themes and atmosphere.

4. Andrei Rublev (1966): Epic, episodic, and hugely ambitious, Tarkovsky's fiercely unconventional biopic of 15th century icon painter Andrei Rublev was exactly the kind of film he needed to make early in his career to cement his position as an elite European director and propel his career into its next stages of artistic development, even as Soviet authorities did their best to ban the film for as long as possible. For more than three hours Tarkovsky cycles through turbulent moments in Russian history – the Tartar invasion of an innocent village, shot with punishing verisimilitude, is a remarkably complex set piece – while maintaining a compassionate engagement with Rublev's struggles for artistic expression in a brutal, faithless world. It's fitting that the titular figure shares Tarkovsky's name: both artists fought through intense career-long government censorship and a lack of public response to their work. But the film is much more than just a monolithic act of solipsism – it's a plea to all creators working under oppressive circumstances to continue creating at all costs under the knowledge that it will, if not instantly then at least one day, be someone's inspiration to keep living.

5. The Sacrifice (1986): When Tarkovsky began working in exile, his films gained a particularly potent sense of existential doom and shifted away from the explicit reveries of love and warmth in films like Mirror and Ivan's Childhood. As Tarkovsky's final goodbye to filmmaking, The Sacrifice is the pinnacle of this tendency. Post-production on the film occurred in step with the director's slow death from cancer, and as a result an atmosphere of apprehension hangs over it, with Tarkovsky's characteristic spiritual questioning acquiring an additional charge of directness. As Alexander, Erland Josephson hurls his profound confusion at the sky in the midst of a possible incoming natural disaster, and the markers of stability that define his life (his family, his sanity, his faith) start to disintegrate. Meanwhile, the landscape around him remains, a soggy island resting on the precipice of nowhere. The Sacrifice is about the impossibility of reconciling a relentless search for something higher and the stubborn physicality of the Earth, a difficult-to-represent concept that has never been better represented than in the film's famous climax, a 10-minute single-take sequence of Alexander burning his house down and running mad in the fields.

6. Solaris (1972): I'm in dire need of a theatrical screening of Solaris, because it's the kind of film that I suspect would be significantly enhanced by a large-scale presentation in the presence of an attentive audience. As it stands, it's my least favorite of the Tarkovsky films I've seen, though that's not to imply that it's anything less than a typically epic, thoughtful piece of filmmaking. Its long-winded conversational intimacy, which is couched inside the grandiose design of a psychologist visiting a space station to investigate a curious phenomenon only to be barraged by the memory of his dead wife, may not translate to the small screen as adequately as other Tarkovsky films, but the central fixations are all there in full swing: the divide between the body and soul (materialized as the space between Earth and the cosmos), the troubling elusiveness of the past, and the inherent melancholy of an earthbound existence. I find myself admiring the hypnotizing setup (including a ghostly walk among misty landscapes and a sci-fi vision of Tokyo freeways) in favor of the amorphous body that comprises the latter two thirds of the film, but this is still essential viewing.

Other November/Halloween entries in the Favorite Directors Blogathon:

- Loren Rosson's William Friedkin rankings over at The Busybody.
- Jake Cole's Roman Polanski rankings over at Not Just Movies.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

AFI Fest 2012: Nov. 5th - Nov. 7th

(Disclaimer: These notes were scribbled in between screenings while waiting in line for other films. Only minor editing, for grammatical and factual purposes, occurred.) Moving on to the second half of my experience at the 2012 AFI Film Festival, I'm at this point overwhelmed by plots, characters, images, and sounds, entering smoothly into a zone of viewer fatigue where films start to blur together and standout moments and provocative imagery become especially vivid. To use Cannes as a reference point, it's roughly the same point in time when the force of Nicole Kidman's notorious urine (from Lee Daniels' The Paperboy) or Carlos Reygadas' crude rendering of the devil (from Post Tenebras Lux) encouraged me to entertain the idea that I was possibly not as awake as I thought I was. The differences between Cannes and AFI as far as living patterns are, of course, abundant (now I have a car, access to more than just baguettes, a consistent bed, and there's an absence of language barriers), but the sensory overload is nearly identical.

Fortunately, in this haze I was greeted by the unique ray of light that is Miguel Gomes' Tabu. While Berberian Sound Studio may remain my most satisfying complete experience thus far, I found myself more inspired, more curious, and more genuinely perplexed by this work, the Portuguese critic/director's third feature. Gomes has managed a film that enters a realm of total unpredictability only ventured into recently by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and in the past by Fellini, Jodorowsky, and Parajanov. Of these filmmakers, Gomes shares the most with Joe: Tabu, like Syndromes and a Century, Tropical Malady, and Blissfully Yours, has a bifurcated structure whose two halves appear disconnected on the surface but slowly and unexpectedly begin to form associative, poetic links. The first half, which begins after a surreal prologue in the African jungle that probably requires an even greater degree of imaginative association to be tied meaningfully to the rest of the film, concerns the experiences of a melancholy spinster (Teresa Madruga) in dealing with her racist but otherwise warmhearted elderly neighbor Aurora (Laura Soveral). I'm not sure if it was the fault of the lulling lushness of Gomes' shallow depth of field photography (one conversation is filmed entirely in close-ups that appear to be rotating slowly around their subjects, but it's really just that the table is spinning) or the low-key, languid nature of the content itself, but I found myself drifting during this section. This happens to me far too often, a situation where an image, a certain lighting technique, a line of dialogue, or the design of a set stimulates filmmaking inspiration inside my own brain that causes my focus to drift from the film in front of me to some vague, shapeless, prospective future film I generally end up not actually pursuing.

Still, whatever disengaging effect the first half had on me was wiped away when Aurora's old flame (voiced by Henrique Espírito Santo) begins telling the story of he and Aurora's past relationship over her deathbed. Suddenly the film switches back to the aged, windswept 16mm look used in the prologue. Starting as what appears to merely be a brief dialogue accompanied by a flashback, the man, known as Gian Luca Ventura (Carloto Cotta), ultimately winds up narrating the remaining hour of Tabu in a hushed, elegiac tone over the sounds of nature and the occasional vintage pop tune. His monologue shifts from the expositional and anecdotal to the poetic and comic and back again while relating in first-person the tale of his years living in a Portuguese colony in Africa in the 60's and falling in love with Aurora (played in this iteration by Ana Moreira), at the time the lover of his friend and bandmate. On the surface, it’s a traditional love triangle, a melodrama in the vein of a great Murnau silent, but the telling (by both Ventura and Gomes) is eccentric and incoherent, and the story (a film within a film?) amasses into something abstract and wistful, the stuff of sensations and glances on dry, sunny days in verdant hills. Gomes' camera is drawn to the wind caressing tall grass, the sun beaming against groups of African children, and the propulsive charm of Ventura at the drum set, and the weight given to these intangibles renders all narrative concerns secondary.

But there's a lot more going on here than just good vibes and relaxing rhythms. Ventura's story is a vision of love half-remembered that is filtered through a cinematic model for interpreting the past: all big, momentous gestures and quietly virtuosic imagery, the second half regurgitates Murnau (whose 1931 feature shares with Tabu a title and a two-part structure and is evidently the central inspiration for Gomes), von Stroheim, Sturges, and Bunuel (these are merely the associations I've turned to; another viewer could summon up different names) into a luscious pool of elusive cinematic referents. The suggestion is that the nature of memory is bound up in the personal experience of cinema, and that time (Gomes uses title cards that indicate single days in the first half and each passing month in the second) becomes warped and selective in hindsight. By the conclusion of this grainy, impressionistic odyssey, it’s easy to forget that there was a first half with dialogue and crisp framings and slim depth-of-field at all. Tabu marks a conversation between two different filmic approaches as much as between the past and present history of Portugal and of filmmaking. There's a whole lot to sift through here and it will require another screening to do so, but for now let me state what is obvious and far from original by now: this is one of the most magical delights of the year.

The serene feeling I had leaving the Tabu screening was no match for the next film on my plate, Amy Seimetz’s hothouse debut Sun Don’t Shine. This relentlessly dour vision of an impulsive and mutually dependent twentysomething couple on the hideout from Florida police with a corpse in the trunk of their beat-up Oldsmobile (the details of their crime are smartly elided by Seimetz) is admirably committed in its grimy atmosphere of sweat and sun flares, but its frequent insistence upon milking its already high stakes through contrived plot mechanics and oppressive non-diegetic sound grows wearying quickly. The film is much more interesting when it’s quietly studying its two central fuck-ups (played by Kate Lyn Sheil and Kentucker Audley), and, seriously, quietly is the operative word here; when Seimetz lays out the drama on a bed of ominous drones, complex character psychology is simplified and narrative heaviness takes hold. More effective, but no less predictable, is composer Ben Lovett's music box melodies that emphasize Sheil's character's emotional infantilism (she refers to having kids but is clearly doing a horrible job of raising them).

Sun Don't Shine's standout feature is its intensely claustrophobic Super 16mm handheld camerawork, constantly vibrating along with the vulnerable landscape between the characters. There's no more than a few instances when Seimetz offers any kind of spatial context to Sheil and Audley's jittery interactions; shots that exclude their faces are overtly abstract, as in the images of a golden sun glowing behind trees seen through the window of the rapidly moving car. Accordingly, the Florida landscape becomes a bright blur, simultaneously directing the focus towards the faces of the two leads and rendering the surrounding environment alien and uncertain. That Seimetz has made a film that so confidently limits its scope to a single car, a small number of supplementary locations, and two unstable characters is nothing to scoff at; that she resorts to infidelity and impulsive violence to cheaply bolster the complicated terrain of the central relationship is another thing entirely. Needless to say, the film – which finally and inevitably finds its doomed characters separated and without much hope for the future – leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

On the opposite end of the spectrum was Christian Petzold's Barbara; while Sun Don't Shine is messy, explosive, and defined by the instability of its central figures, Barbara is restrained and controlled, its characters taking considerable time thinking through the moral implications of their actions. In fact, the titular character (embodied by Nina Hoss), a fiercely independent and no-nonsense rural doctor, seems the polar opposite of Sheil: able to direct her contemplation inward, repressing physical displays of emotion (she spends most of the film outdoing the icy flatness of Charlize Theron), and always aiming for the best, most selfless outcome in any given situation. Driven from her job in East Germany by the oppressive Stasi government because of her desire to move to the West, she is forced to begin working in a country hospital where resources are scarce and patients are few. In between the occasional charged tryst with her East German boyfriend who manages to smuggle himself into her company, Barbara builds a relationship with her co-worker André (Ronald Zehrfeld) that is first businesslike and then strong enough to cause her the predicament of whether to keep working towards escape or to stick around with him in the quiet countryside.

I wasn't a fan of Petzold's previous film, Beats Being Dead, which I found dramatically inert and thematically blunt. Barbara, with its remarkable lead performance and complete tonal control, is the superior achievement, but I still find myself at a remove from Petzold's approach on nearly every level. Both films are set in rural hospitals, therefore limiting their visual palettes to sterile, muted colors and nondescript framings. They often rely heavily on talking heads against blank backgrounds to fuel their emotional and narrative crawl. Obviously, there's nothing problematic about the very fact that Petzold has decided to set these narratives in these milieus – the wonkiness of the hospital, set alongside the power of the police state, is one ideal platform for Petzold's interest in the behavioral impact of social class – but it's the fact that Barbara's atmosphere is as relentlessly cold and inhospitable as it is for the characters that makes it a suffocating watch, never offering a glimpse of a comparative paradise to ground Barbara's desires. It sounds silly to complain about a film consciously evoking the oppressiveness of its period setting, but on a fundamental level I find Barbara's execution bland and its themes of entrapment and repression (which feel very specific to this time and place) difficult to relate to. Seeing it again with a firmer understanding of its political context will likely help.

I finally concluded my festival on a bleak and disturbing note with Joachim Lafosse's Our Children, a film whose perspective balances questionably between detached and weirdly sympathetic. Inspired by a ripped-from-the-headlines story of a mother who killed her four children, Lafosse makes it his alleged goal to remove the tabloid generalizations and paint a portrait of an ordinary woman in peril, but the air of dread looming over the film from its very opening inspires a directorial approach that automatically neglects the possibility of hope or reconciliation at every turn. Lafosse follows a relationship from its pre-marriage ecstasy to the doldrums of increasing routine and obligation, and the inevitable conclusion to this downward slope – revealed in the opening two shots of the film – makes it such that Lafosse's vision of marriage and gender roles appears decidedly bleak. In the midst of this overwhelming decline, the ups and downs in the impressive performance of Émilie Dequenne as the murderous mother are paid rapt attention while Tahar Rahim as her husband grows comparatively distant, even looking villainous as the narrative gets closer and closer to its tragic moment. I take it for granted that this is an attempt to enhance the subjective experience of Dequenne, who feels as though she's being relentlessly blamed and burdened for the maintenance (or lack thereof) of the household, but it puts Lafosse in an uncomfortable moral dilemma, and the clear ambivalence in his approach is manifested in the aforementioned tonal divide.

For at least half of the film, Lafosse's camera, manned with a telephoto lens, is seeking any available surface (a door frame, a head, a pillar) to duck behind and dirty the right or left side of the frame, subsequently pivoting around it throughout scenes to glimpse the space and various characters. It's a stylistic choice that speaks to the directorial confusion throughout: implying a voyeuristic tone that's never actually materialized, this arbitrary use of the camera is not unlike the larger perspective of the film – interested but uncomfortable, aiming for closeness but desiring distance. The net result of this confusion is a disinterested affect and a feeling of low stakes throughout (the sub-Barry Lyndon musical theme that surfaces and resurfaces is perhaps supposed to lend an air of importance missing from the drama itself). Our Children may be heavy material, but it resembles a generic indie drama, and when the key moment finally comes, no measure of chilling restraint in Lafosse's presentation of it can save it from seeming implausible and absurd, an enormous atrocity bubbling out of an otherwise vague marital tension.

It's a bit of a shame to end my week with three films I was less-than-enthusiastic about, but such is the nature of the festival experience. Because of the rapid-fire schedule, once a game plan has been carved out in advance, it's hard to stray from it upon getting new recommendations. I regret not seeing Room 237 (which I had a ticket to, but I needed some fresh air after Leviathan), Tey, War Witch, Ulrich Seidl's Paradise films, A Hijacking, Beyond the Hills (remaining elusive to me, a recurring pattern from Cannes), Simon Killer, and Final Cut, but I also caught what I was most looking forward to. For the list-prone, here's a culminating ranking of the films I saw for the first time at the festival:

1. Berberian Sound Studio (Strickland/Britain)
2. Tabu (Gomes/Portugal)
3. Leviathan (Castaing-Taylor and Paravel/USA)
4. Something in the Air (Assayas/France)
5. Not in Tel Aviv (Geffen/Israel)
6. Barbara (Petzold/Germany)
7. Sun Don't Shine (Seimetz/USA)
8. Our Children (Lafosse/Belgium)

Monday, November 5, 2012

AFI Fest 2012: Saturday Nov. 3rd and Sunday Nov. 4th

(Disclaimer: These notes were scribbled in between screenings while waiting in line for other films. Only minor editing, for grammatical and factual purposes, occurred.) Thank God for the AFI Fest. I mean it as no overstatement to say that I was positively ecstatic to discover that the festival would be running during my stay in Los Angeles and that it was, without trickery or fine print, completely free. Here was an opportunity to check off the year's most anticipated festival films from Toronto, Venice, and New York, as well as the films I missed at Cannes, in one fell swoop. For perhaps the first time ever, I will have surveyed a year in film adequately enough to put forth a confident year-end list. I was quick to find out, however, that AFI Fest is not entirely different from Cannes – that is, not the silver platter I was unrealistically hoping for: films reach capacity abruptly, the packed schedule makes the head spin, and, most irritatingly, it’s still quite possible to wait in line for over an hour and, after standing awkwardly with confused victims as the time slot passes, be denied entry to a film. This was my start to the festival. Fortunately, it was a Kim Ki-Duk film, and I was already half-planning my first paragraph (the festival got off to a deeply unpleasant start with Pieta, because what else is new with KKK?...).

My schedule did finally begin with a bang, however, on Saturday afternoon with Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio, the British director’s gorgeously shot and cut second feature about a meek English sound engineer named Gilderoy (Toby Jones) who arrives in Italy (in Rohmer-esque elliptical fashion, right at the beginning of the film) as a for-hire mixer on fictional director Giancarlo Santini’s (Antonio Mancino) giallo horror film, very much in the vain of Argento, Bava, etc. He’s expecting an inoffensive paid gig, but quickly discovers the work will be neither easy (he’s never worked on such a challenging or morally trying project) nor profitable (“money cannot be a motivator,” warns the absurdly dominating Santini). From there, Gilderoy phones in his work, begs for travel reimbursement, confesses to artistic differences, attempts to abandon the job only to be ominously turned down, and finally enters that familiar Lynchian zone of mushy disorientation where art, illusion, and reality clash and ultimately absorb one another (in this regard, Strickland's corresponding blending of image and sound through fluid transitions is accomplished).

The film hinges on a swap in female leads – a maneuver so often employed or hinted at by Lynch as a paradigm shift – and this gesture holds the key to understanding what Strickland is getting at. Berberian Sound Studio manages to be both a parodic celebration of the endless innovation and almost goofy conviction of Italian horror as well as a critical commentary on not only this particular genre but all works of art and cinema that, in aiming for so-called “brutal honesty,” end up merely perpetuating dominant and wrongheaded attitudes. Here, the target is misogyny, so carelessly flaunted in Santini’s dictatorial and borderline abusive direction, which eventually flurries into actual (offscreen) sexual offense. Gilderoy, an unwitting third-party, is finally affected by this workplace atmosphere too: after the actress switch, he begins speaking in Italian and his gestures grow remote and mechanical, the implication being that, in being swallowed up by this project, his identity has shifted, just as any artistic act must require complete commitment and immersion – one might say, the abandonment of one’s self – for it to work. Money cannot be a motivator, indeed.

In the next film I saw, very little could be boiled down to motivation. Nony Geffen’s microbudget feature Not in Tel Aviv seems to delight in its own senselessness, putting across radical tonal shifts and pieces of nonsensical dialogue with an unshakeable straight face. One might say this is a nihilistic film, but that would be disingenuous. Geffen has too much apparent joy for life and too much compassion for his wayward leads, even as he writes them into increasingly implausible scenarios. Essentially a series of non-sequiturs shared between an antisocial teacher (played by Geffen himself), his kidnapped student, and his high school sweetheart, the film has the dazed aimlessness of an Andrew Bujalski movie shot with an additional jolt of sensuality. Early on, I was bothered and even slightly put off by its incongruent approach – Geffen plays the murder of a mother as indie quirk – but slowly I found myself catching on to the film’s rarefied wavelength, and its misty light and soft pixilated black-and-white edges had a lot to do with it. Geffen’s photographic attention to his beautiful lead actresses (Romi Aboulafia and Yaara Pelzig are real finds) is near-Bergmanesque, allowing the film a genuine tenderness not often present in this kind of quasi-mumblecore exercise.

Unfortunately, the questions that were bouncing around in my head after the intoxicatingly weird Not in Tel Aviv – were the actresses actual friends of Geffen?; were the events depicted autobiographical?; to be blunt, what were the intentions? – would not be appeased as I had to ditch the Q&A to scurry a block down the street to catch Holy Motors again. Leos Carax’s hypnotic poem was resoundingly my favorite work from Cannes this summer, and I was hoping to relive some of the mystified joy I experienced watching it for the first time. Turns out that in many ways Holy Motors, by its very loony episodic nature, is designed to have a special effect on the virginal and the uninitiated (this chatty American crowd was having more of a ball with it than the French). That is not to say that I was not still deeply immersed in this dreamlike cocoon of a film, but that I lost a great deal of the shock and awe that accompanied my first viewing. In its place, though, came even greater contemplation, as Carax’s layers of association and abstraction only invite further peeling back. When I first saw the film in Cannes, I had to rush out before the credits rolled to stand in line for Amour, but this time I was able to sit through and caught Carax's dedication to the late Yekaterina Golubeva, the star of Pola X and the mother of the director's child. Knowing this placed in context the film's mournful attitude towards role-playing and the inevitability of life, and rendered Carax's self-aware sense of humor a particular bright spot.

It’s impossible to dismiss the technical difficulties that set the scheduled start time of the film back an hour and a half. When the film did begin, it was clear that the issues had still not been entirely resolved: in the moody, suggestive opening of Carax himself surveying his bedroom and then opening a hidden door to reveal a sleeping crowd at a cinema, the projectionists were still fiddling quite conspicuously with brightness and contrast, causing some images to blotch up indecipherably. When Carax finally cuts to daylight, an unflattering fog of green and a blowing out of the highlights was overwhelming for the first 10 minutes until finally the projectionists cleared up the matter. Oddly enough, this unpredictable happenstance helped bolster Holy Motors’ argument for celluloid; even though it’s shot in digital, it’s constantly calling attention to and mourning the intangible instability of its medium, the unsettling question of what exactly it means to be a digital recording in the first place as opposed to a concrete film strip. In fact, the film even offers some digital distortions of its own towards the end, as traveling views of nocturnal Paris crumble into incomprehensible fuzz and glitch. These shots are not unlike the unplanned problems at the beginning of the film (I’m sure some unknowing viewers suspected these were reprisals of the projection difficulties, or, conversely, that the issues at the beginning were intentional), and they contribute to the overwhelming feelings of sadness and loss that permeate the film – towards decay, larger purpose, and past selves.

Next up was Olivier Assayas' Something in the Air (French title: Après mai) the following afternoon, a coming-of-age drama set amidst the political turbulence of early 70s France when young, angry, and overeducated leftists were lashing out at a reactionary government stubbornly stuck in its ways after the May 1968 protests. For the most part, the film doesn't emphasize the detail of the political situation, instead allowing its explosive opening riot scene – wherein some of Assayas' most impressive and fluid visual choreography, feeling both hectic and precise, traces the beatings and chases through a thick fog of tear gas – to form the unsettling groundwork for the protagonists' bitterness throughout the film. Further acts of violence and vandalism ensue: Gilles (Clément Métayer), Christine (Lola Créton, gradually becoming the new Anna Karina in her puckish expressions, on-and-off sass, and unshowy ease), and Alain (Felix Armand) seem determined to see how hard they can push the buttons of their school officials before being expelled or arrested, and when they appear to have reached that breaking point after hurling a flaming bottle at a portable on school grounds, they decide to flee to Italy for a short time. This is precisely when the film reaches its peak (I could swoon in those picturesque shots of Italy much longer), and what follows descends slightly down a familiar path of free spirits, Pollock-inspired paintings, activist folk, agitprop filmmaking, hard drugs, and foggy religious epiphanies.

That Something in the Air ultimately coalesces into very little (or perhaps just something more elusive that I didn't catch on first viewing) after promising so much is disappointing given Assayas' track record of making seemingly simple films that expand outward to account for multiple layers of emotion and subtext. The film continues the fleet-footed cool and bright pastel ambiance of Summer Hours (both of which were lensed by Eric Gautier, a disciple of the late Harris Savides in his naturalistic lighting and confident camerawork) but lacks something as revelatory as that film's wise commentary on the value inscribed in objects or the irreconcilable divides between generations. It's expertly scored with period-specific rock and folk tunes, as always with Assayas, and there is also his characteristically rapt attention to tactility and sensations – to the feeling of breezy currents in open air rooms, of cigarette smoke wafting through fiery debates, and of thin surfaces of summer sweat lining the skin – but as I left the theater, I could not escape the feeling that Something in the Air was missing a sense of a larger purpose or a core idea other than nimbly handled nostalgia.

The next film more than made up for any disconnect I felt in the latter stages of Assayas' movie. Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel's Leviathan, in its perfect (terribly, terribly perfect) harmony of form and function, elicited the most physical response I've had to a film since either Antichrist or Irreversible. At a certain point towards the hour-mark of the film, I regrettably had to step out just to regain my gravitational bearings and walk off a growing nausea that was threatening to act up (if you catch my drift). Plunging the viewer into the nightmarish labor of deep sea commercial fishing via an onslaught of abstract imagery captured with an array of Go Pro cameras hooked to various parts of the sea vessel (chains, anchors, workers' helmets, even maimed fish), the film achieves a profound groundlessness that is the very poison of anyone prone to seasickness. Paravel and Castaing-Taylor's visuals have a lo-res harshness that occasionally bleeds into downright abstraction as it is, and when they couple that with an adventurous editing style that cuts invisibly from darkness to darkness so that one moment the camera is being pummeled underwater by the wake of the ship and the next it's staring into the gaping mouth of a bloody fish on deck, there's no ground zero to grasp on to. It's a hallucinatory succession of sensual image and sound, making the rare moments when the camera settles itself briefly (as in an amusing long take of a fishermen falling asleep to drab television on his break) a much needed repose.

Whatever my own personal physical objections to Leviathan, I cannot deny the groundbreaking accomplishment that it is. This is authorless, distinctly 21st century cinema; or rather, I should say that its author is the ocean, the wind, the fish and the seagulls aboard the ship – that is, all elements untouched by the human hand, but only made visible through technological advances in image capture. (To go a step further, the fact that some of the film's moments end up feeling so aesthetically sublime, such as when flocks of angelic seagulls seem to be flying in mystical awareness of the camera, implies that nature itself has an artful side.) The result is something vaguely akin to David Gatten's aleatoric scratch film series What the Water Said, but whereas Gatten's work points backwards and sideways to Brakhage, Thorston Fleisch, and Bruce McClure even as it paves new roads, Leviathan is even more unmatched in the history of seeing, even more progressive in its optimism for the limitless possibilities of the medium. It was fitting, then, that for some unknown reason the couple seated behind me brought their very young daughter to the screening. Her whispery pronouncements of awe ("look, the fish!", "where are we?", etc.), particularly impassioned during the short about herding in the northern hemisphere that preceded Leviathan (called Reindeer and directed by Eva Weber, who has a hell of an eye and whose future work I look forward to), put into further perspective the mysterious blank slate vision of this film.

(Note: My next screenings are tonight and Wednesday, not to mention any surprises I might throw in between, so expect a Part Two by Thursday.)

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Shout (1978) A Film by Jerzy Skolimowski

Roman Polanski has invariably been deemed the Polish Master of Paranoia, or some such variation on the term, and as a result the hypnotizing skills for suspense offered by his countryman Jerzy Skolimowski (who co-wrote Polanski's debut Knife in the Water) have often been unjustly neglected. In fact, for me, The Shout, Skolimowski's 1978 horror film, matches even Polanski's Repulsion in its mounting feelings of dread and mental collapse, and does so with an even greater degree of friction in its dynamic sound/image relationship. I place sound first because this is a film, like Coppola's The Conversation and De Palma's Blow Out, that emphasizes the role of sound in perception, directing so much attention to the vulnerability of its sonic landscape that visuals, if not quite an afterthought, feel as if they are primarily servicing what is heard.

The Shout is set largely in and around a remote ocean cottage nestled between mountains and sand dunes, and it entails the arrival of a mysterious vagabond named Crossley (Alan Bates) to the home of experimental noise musician Anthony Fielding (John Hurt) and his wife Rachel (Susannah York). Because of Skolimowski's oblique storytelling style, it's not clear at first that what ensues at this cottage is framed as a flashback, reminisced upon by Crossley as he relaxes in the verdant landscape behind an insane asylum where inmates and staff are playing a game of cricket. Crossley relates this story to an arbitrary character (Tim Curry at a time when he was a dead ringer for Chris Martin) from inside a small bunkhouse, where he is allowed a rectangular window view of the action on the lawn. That his perspective is reminiscent of a movie screen, and that his story is being directed at a passive listener (an audience surrogate?), makes it possible to read the entire film as a metaphor for the limits of storytelling, filmmaking, and art creation in general. Emerging from this unstable, cryptic source (Crossley is a patient in the asylum), the narrative proper of The Shout is entirely subject to the warped perspective of this strange man, and quite possibly partially or wholly "false."

Skolimowski materializes this shaky, unsettled world through a succession of visual and aural fragments, miniaturized snippets of experience that express a portion of what's being focused on and only rarely the complete picture. When Crossley is telling his story at the asylum, Skolimowski intercuts his chilling drone with heightened close-ups of the action on the field, so brief as to nearly be abstract – a pitcher winding up for delivery, a bat striking a ball, a patient's excited face. Later, when Anthony is introduced, there are evocative shots of his recording process, an ongoing experiment of placing microphones in close proximity to a wide variety of sonic happenings (a bee buzzing in a glass jar, the ticking of a metronome, the flicking of a piece of metal, the ringing of an alarm clock). The sounds produced are de-familiarized through heavy audio filters, just as Skolimowski's representation of physical reality is chopped up, chromatically muted, and ultimately rendered alien and remote.

In the flashback that comprises the majority of the film, Anthony and Rachel York are a comfortable, modest couple who enjoy their peace in the English countryside. They have a single guest room, but they don't seek company. If their existence is somewhat routinized and passionless, Crossley quickly represents an active force that shakes them out of their complacency, giving shape to the flaws in their lifestyles and in their relationship. After a calm morning mass (where Anthony makes extra money as the church organist), Crossley casually approaches his target draped in a long black trench coat and directs some of the out-there jargon he absorbed from experience in an Aboriginal tribe at him: "I've always found it hard to believe that the soul is imprisoned in the body until death liberates it." In this moment, Skolimowski unsettles the air around Crossley with a slow zoom, immediately establishing him – with his atypical spiritual views and shaggy look – as an outcast in this environment. Yet even before this, Skolimowski offers a shot of an arm, presumably Crossley's, reaching from behind a wall to let air out of Anthony's bicycle tires, lending the sense of a cold, premeditated attack. Sure enough, that evening Crossley effectively invites himself in for dinner, which Anthony reluctantly accepts. Over a primitive meal of boiled potato and pork chops, Crossley dryly admits to marrying an Aboriginal woman and subsequently murdering their children, claiming it the only "natural" death in Aboriginal society. It's merely the beginning of his drawn-out, invasive stay in the York home.

Despite Anthony's anxieties, however, he's also oddly envious towards Crossley's mystical purity. Anthony is, after all, a man seeking to glean larger meaning from the world through experimentation with sound, and the priest's nihilistic proclamations at church ("The foundations of our society are not firm...we're like a rudderless ship, no direction....") seem to echo the spiritual and artistic rut Anthony finds himself in. In this light, the film's titular shout – an ear-piercing guttural scream perfected by Crossley from Aboriginal teachings with the alleged ability (soon proved) to harm and even kill any living thing nearby – represents a human sound so lucid and authentic that it puts to shame Anthony's aimless quibbling. There are two moments in the film that explicitly include the shout, but only one that faces its hair-raising, speaker-bursting intensity head on: a stunning scene when Crossley escorts a hesitant Anthony to the middle of the sand dunes to demonstrate his ability and prove to him its violent powers. Crossley leans back like the Big Bad Wolf to gather his energy in an extended shot framing him against the sky before lurching forward to bellow to the heavens. After the silence that precedes it, the sheer volume and harshness of the sound is beyond startling, and it effectively makes the rest of this otherwise quiet, restrained movie vibrate with the tense expectation of sound. Skolimowski's manipulation of the audience is so powerful that at one point, when Crossley is taking Anthony's wife to bed, his body forms roughly the same orientation that precedes the shout, rendering a moment that could very well be just a harmless contortion of the body during sex unbearably frightening.

Were it not for the earplugs he fearfully inserted beforehand, Anthony would have fallen dead upon hearing the shout just like the nearby sheep Skolimowski shows meeting their demise in slow-motion shots reminiscent of Kubrick's images of dying animals in the Dawn of Man sequence. Instead, Anthony merely stumbles down the side of the dune in painful recoil, while Skolimowski's hurried backwards zoom lends iconic weight to the moment. (There's a strange plot point that grows out of the end of this scene – Anthony's discovery of a sacred rock that is to Crossley what a Horcrux is to Voldemort in Harry Potter – but it's one of the curiosities of the film rather than an essential element.) This first instance of the shout marks the moment Crossley gains complete control over Anthony, and his manipulation of the meek village musician only escalates rapidly from there; by the end of the flashback, Crossley has driven Anthony from his own home, possessing the sexual desire of his wife and insulting his "empty" music in the process.

Or, at least that's how Crossley tells the story. But it's not all megalomania. Strangely, the flashback concludes with Crossley being slowly killed by the sacred rocks right as policemen infiltrate the York home to arrest him for child murder. Simultaneously, a thunderstorm erupts back at the asylum (visualized in gloriously retro cheapie fashion), driving Crossley to madness and ultimately killing him. The dreadful shout, which Crossley uses in an attempt to fend off the police, seems to have as much of a destructive impact on its user as its audience. The powers of manipulation therefore run their course, and it's perhaps no mistake that at the moment Crossley loses control, so too does the film, its coiled energy imploding into anarchic chaos as soaked and half-naked inmates (one of which is first-time actor Jim Broadbent) scurry wildly in the rain. At the peak of the madness, the film promptly returns to its quiet opening scene featuring Rachel attending a morgue to locate Crossley's dead body. There is nowhere to go from here but back, Skolimowski seems to be saying.

The Shout is a chilling, uneasy slow-burner of a horror film that is as much about how easily life, as well as art, can be manipulated through perspective and approach as it is about the limits of control. Neither Crossley nor Anthony find the proper outlets for their spiritual searches, spreading violence and confusion at one extreme and fiddling vainly in obscurity at the other. Crossley possesses Anthony and Rachel's quiet, autopilot lifestyle, but his fear-mongering collapses in on itself. Anthony aims to give shape to the mysteries of life through his sonic experimentation, but he drifts further away from the palpable world the more he noodles. It's a perfect formula for character suspense, and Skolimowski rings every ounce of it.