Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Mean Streets Discussion

When watching The Wolf of Wall Street for the first time, one of the earlier Scorsese films that came to my mind most assertively was Mean Streets, Marty's gritty NYC gangster movie from 1973. I found the resemblances less apparent on my second viewing of Scorsese's latest, but my passing mention of it in my initial review of Wolf was thankfully enough to send Kenji Fujishima down memory lane. He and I had been loosely discussing a possible conversation-style column for In Review Online for a while, so we jumped at the opportunity to further flesh out the deeper connections between the films as well as the special importance of Mean Streets in Scorsese's body of work. We've been cooking up this correspondence for a while now, and if you have time to spare for a long article, you can read the proud results here.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Screening Notes #24

Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl (2009): The above image gets at all that's so gently beguiling about Manoel de Oliveira's recent films. It shows a man relaying a tale of thwarted romance to a female stranger on a moving train, and it's the framing device that houses Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl's narrative proper. But what are the characters looking at? And why is the camera placed in this strange location, perched above them so they look like they're transfixed by the tripod legs? Also, why do they never make eye contact? What seems a familiar setup is rendered subtly off through its presentation, a trait I'd use to describe the film as a whole. A straightforward narrative of old-fashioned courtship is observed: the man on the train becomes infatuated with a young girl in a window across the courtyard from his office, tracks her down, professes his love, has his request to marry turned down by his employer uncle, performs an odd job to become financially independent, returns to his object of affection, discovers a character flaw, and angrily casts her off. It's a simple morality tale, or so it seems, but the devil's in the details: the low-decibel but niftily selective sound design of urban Lisbon, telling gestures and bodily positions such as the girl's sudden foot kick or final shoulder slouch, and, again, Oliveira's funky deep-focus framing. I see the critique of female objectification excavated by the film's admirers (Glenn Heath Jr. astutely offers such a reading here), but at the same time I'm not convinced this is quite that cut-and-dry. There's something more in the way this movie moves that I need another look to put a finger on.

Mon Oncle Antoine (1971): Canadian filmmaker Claude Jutra's most well-known film Mon Oncle Antoine has the narrative directness and emotional clarity of a Robert Frost poem. It tells of a little boy gradually opening his eyes to responsibility, sex and death in a small Quebec mining town riddled with working-class outrage at the mandates of a mostly offscreen conservative government. With the exception of a slow-moving first act, which divides its dramatic emphasis in puzzling ways, Jutra centers his focus on this boy (Jacques Gagnon, whose eyes have a Bergmanesque opacity). The film's perspective skews gently towards his sense of dazed discovery, allowing Jutra's naturalistic rendering of the community to come across all the more authentic, never scrutinized or falsely dramatized. A final act involving the botched retrieval of a corpse in a heavy snowfall is the film's real achievement, its best showcase for Jutra's ability to uncover great nuance without any tendency toward overstatement, stylistic or performance-based.

Gremlins (1984): A movie theater nearly overflowing with cackling villains, hysterically absorbed in the screen. A man and a woman conspiring against them in the shadowy alcoves of the theater. A murderous plot involving flammable material and a match. A smoking, flaming screen and its eventual tearing down. Sound a lot like the climax of Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds? Sure, but it's also the same template for the climax of Joe Dante's hilarious and stylistically muscular sci-fi holiday film Gremlins. Thus, American cinema's most conspicuous thief pays explicit homage to a no less reverential but far subtler American genre craftsman. Tarantino's steal was inspired; Dante's invention was brilliant. In Gremlins, a boy must put an end to the multiplying effects of his hasty consumerism. The resulting destruction is tied to the act of cinematic spectatorship. Can there be such thing as an active, productive viewer/consumer? It's a question also asked by Inglourious Basterds.

Taken (2008): Like Pierre Morel's District B13 (another Luc Besson production), Taken is first and foremost a showcase for its central performer. But Liam Neeson's strengths are of a different tack than those of the gymnastic David Belle. He's sharp, quick-thinking, internally composed but always on the move, relentless and lethal but nowhere near as athletic as Belle. Taken, then, is a ruthless and single-minded revenge movie that aligns perfectly with Neeson's abilities. Morel's terrible at drama – that much is clear from Taken's bookends (boneheaded attempts at father-daughter bonding), or the entirety of District B13 for that matter – but he's a whiz when it comes to frenetic pacing, dogged pursuits, swift fight sequences, and pulsating testosterone. Thus, sixty minutes of Taken have a breakneck, lupine energy, culminating with a moment of Liam Neeson driving a hijacked car along the Seine that's near-transcendent. Whatever grave extra-diegetic implications exist in its female trafficking plot are neutralized by Morel's termitic filmmaking, prioritizing one hard beat at a time.

Taurus (2001): I had the unfavorable, and frankly inexcusable, misfortune of seeing this on a shockingly atrocious digital transfer in a theater, and not just a run-of-the-mill indie cinema but a...wait for it...actual cultural institution known as the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. When, citing the digital artifacts and near-YouTube quality, I prompted an employee to explain to me the logic of charging money to display a .mov file that should never have even been within shouting distance of a projection room, I received a pithy "it was what the company gave us." Leaving aside the mystery of whether or not the staff even bothered to test the film prior to scheduling it, the bigger issue here is one of standards and general cultural responsibility, the apparently unreasonable assumption being that a museum should be honoring their exhibited mediums with the utmost fidelity. Anyway, it's an even greater shame because Taurus strikes me as one of Alexander Sokurov's best films, and certainly the only one I feel like I've ever had a fairly solid grasp on after a single viewing.

Like the final reel of Citizen Kane elongated into one long, slow yawn interrupted involuntarily by hiccups and grumbles, this two-part dirge watches from its stoned perspective as Lenin completes the transition from once-relevant political figure to stumbling icon of obsolescence in his family's foggy country estate. Sokurov's 4:3 frames, slapped with a vignette of murkiness (or, again, was it just the residue of the transfer?) and lit with a diffuse brown aura, embody the shrinking and decay of Lenin's senile mind and crippled body. Comparisons between Sokurov and his Russian antecedent Tarkovsky have always felt a little superficial to me, as though the mere fact that the two filmmakers trade in vaguely similar visual languages, draw upon similar artistic influences, and come from the same country implies deeper connections, but here the surface parallels are hard to ignore (fog-enshrouded fields and slow tracking shots behind trees are plentiful, and one scene features Lenin and his wife chatting while lying in tall grass). But here, as usual, Sokurov's typically lowly body humor and rambling dramatic structure is after a far more earthbound truth than those pursued by Tarkovsky—specifically, that those having lost power can only exist delusively in the dark waters of their own past, a perceived legacy outweighing the value of the present moment.

Faust (2011): Two weeks removed from this screening and its majestic oddness still eludes me. If Taurus is Sokurov's most straightforward film, Faust is at the opposite end of the spectrum, a slippery concoction whose visuals – alternating between show-stopping moments of clarity traceable to iconic European paintings and inebriated, claustrophobic trudges in soft-focus through damp, dark interiors – seem beamed from another world. My desire to return to the film's revelatory atmosphere of booze, mud, guts, flatulence, and philosophy has been great, but now it looks like my big-screen opportunities have dwindled, which is OK with me; several passages of it have the uncanny, unfinished mystery of the most haunting folk tales (and not just because the movie's based on a folk tale), the kinds whose images never quite leave the brain even through long droughts of contact. At this point, I'm just vomiting baffled reverential nonsense, so I might as well just add more to the pile: Alexander Sokurov is a visionary.

The Color Wheel (2011): Mostly everything about The Color Wheel's climactic post-grad party – the rudeness of JR's old high school peers, her spectacularly awkward dodging of employment-focused conversation, the increasingly macho gang-up on Colin, the superficiality of one girl who's both JR's arch-enemy and Colin's longtime crush – is dug into a bit too hard by Alex Ross Perry, a sudden pivot into subjective fantasy designed to almost legitimize the brother-sister duo's terminal mean-spiritedness up to this point. It nearly throws the film off its rails, but the subsequent 10-minute pillow chat between JR and Colin makes everything right again, in addition to radically deepening the film's emotional landscape. The Color Wheel is pretty much virtuosic in its wall-to-wall chatter; the words are progressively meaningless so as to avoid any possible dead air that might force inner confrontation. In this particular centerpiece, JR's dialogue is entirely superfluous, and when it comes to a sudden halt, the film unleashes a shockwave of emotional comprehension hitherto stifled beneath a facade. Generic acoustic-strummed driving scenes and some awfully broad gags do nothing to suggest the challenging places Perry's film ultimately goes.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Breakdown (1997) A Film by Jonathan Mostow

The scant exposition bestowed by Jonathan Mostow's ruthless all-action action-thriller Breakdown comes in a brief dialogue scene between hero Jeffrey Taylor (Kurt Russell) and his wife Amy (Kathleen Quinlan) in the first ten minutes. Quasi-bourgie travelers from Beantown on a pilgrimage to start a new life out west, the couple offhandedly reveals the relative financial hole they're in, perhaps partly created by the shining red Jeep they're using to power through an imposing southwestern America. While eagerly escaping this void of dust, rock, and cement, Jeff's new engine is tripped by a mysterious gas station passerby, which ultimately causes the titular breakdown and traps him and his wife in the squalid emptiness they're seeking to outrun. Beautifully economical, this setup establishes everything the viewer needs to know in order to go along with the escalating paranoia of the subsequent plot: these are clearly privileged white people in a bind navigating an unknown desert where threat is perceived from every possible direction.

When a dubiously benevolent trucker arrives as if by divine intervention and offers to take Amy to a nearby diner to call for automotive assistance, Jeff's frightened interiority starts to be reflected by an actively malicious environment. He get his car back in order shortly after he sacrifices Amy to this perfectly reasonable sign of relief, but when he tracks down the diner to retrieve his wife she's not there. No one is aware of her ever setting foot on the premises, nor are they remotely concerned about her disappearance. On the surface, the premise is reminiscent of that which kicks off The Vanishing (1988), a darkly existential gut punch from French director George Sluizer that was inexplicably remade with American stars and for "American" audiences by Sluizer himself five years later. But where Sluizer's admirably hopeless original struck a deeply nihilistic tone, revealing the world as essentially cruel and its mysteries unsolvable, Mostow's film is pitched at a more absurd register, the machinations of its wronged-man plot indistinguishably perched between actual peril and the workings of a delusional imagination. It's significant that the villain here is not a single warped mind but rather the entire town, a mustachioed and mob-like mass seemingly conspiring to drain Jeff of his remaining finances and brutalize his life partner.

In exchange for the $90,000 Jeff purports to have left in his bank account, the exceptionally nasty men (the amoral head honcho of which is played with chilling solemnity by J.T. Walsh) who kidnap Amy offer the empty promise of her survival. That the assumed financial reward is so measly in the larger scope of movie theft ($90,000 is hardly the sort of amount that would completely rebuild the dust-caked town) only augments the sense that Jeff's victimhood is subjective rather than circumstantial, the pervasive evil of the world around him a manifestation of his anxieties more than a tangible force. At the same time, the achievement of the film is in making those anxieties ferociously tangible. Mostow's project is not to ridicule or punish Jeff for his endangerment, but rather to cling intimately to his perspective as he pursues the rehabilitation of order in his now lopsided universe—as such, Breakdown is one of Hollywood's most skillful exercises in empathetic engagement. Great portions of the film, particularly in the second act when Jeff's confusion is at its peak, are shot at wide angles and in deep focus, visualizing the floating fear of 360 degree threat. By the film's third act, the alignment of the audience with Jeff is absolute; we share his nervous perspective in voyeuristic telephoto shots, culminating in a garage peeping scene in which the camera is literally placed on a different level than the villains, with Jeff observing their transgressions from a loft above.

The resolution to this inner battle writ large is of the demon-conquering variety in which Hollywood cinema is bound to trade (in this case, The Vanishing's nihilism would spoil the very ideology of self-growth upon which the narrative machine is founded). But give credit to Mostow for rendering this nightmare of personal collapse, however temporary, with such vivid, scraping intensity. The film's most acute lasting impression is of sparks flying and sweaty faces coiled in nerve-popping adrenaline. Furthermore, Spielberg's Duel (1971) is an apparent precedent, but rarely since Two Lane Blacktop (also 1971) have automobiles had such a decidedly weighty presence, here made deadly through their constant high-speed entangling. It's also worth applauding the way in which the audience is finally left hanging (almost literally) after a near-death experience at the precipice of a bridge. Mostow's bow-tying is curt and efficient, hardly cathartic: Jeff and Amy's final embrace is only dwelled upon for seconds before the camera lurches upward to survey the wreckage beneath, the swells of a minor-key orchestra reaching their crescendo. Miles of road still lie ahead.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

My Favorite Discoveries/First-Time Viewings of 2013

Jonas Mekas' soft-spoken, broken English; Jack Nicholson's jeans and turtlenecks; a strobed-out vision of a wolf lunging towards a tube video camera; the disconcertingly giddy smile of Götz George's apologetic murderer; a dissolve in which Jean Seberg's essence becomes water; the furniture literally floating through Raul Ruiz's set; a man and his dog dissolving into the back of a frame through a swirling storm of snow and film grain; Roddy Piper's one-liners; the palpable texture of Gunvor Nelson's film stock; Michel Terrazon's lost little brat scurrying around the frame in a derelict French countryside; the hilarious way in which Mark Borchardt and Mike Schank communicate; a glance – loaded with the weight of historical unfairness – of a black groundskeeper at an old white woman; Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson waltzing in seeming romantic bliss, their faces meanwhile dipping in and out of darkness; Craig Wasson finger-picking and humming a reflective tune while the savage chaos of the Vietnam War rages all around him. These are just a sampling of the many reasons why these first time viewings of old films have indelibly lingered throughout the year.

Titles link to writing when applicable.

1. Reminiscences of Journey to Lithuania (Mekas, US, 1972)

2. 2046 (Wong Kar-Wai, China, 2004)

3. Five Easy Pieces (Rafelson, US, 1970)

4. Army of Shadows (Melville, France, 1969)

5. I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like (Viola, US, 1986)

6. The Deathmaker (Karmakar, Germany, 1995)

7. Lilith (Rossen, US, 1964)

8. Time Regained (Ruiz, Portugal, 1999)

9. Zorn’s Lemma (Frampton, US, 1970)

10. Beau Travail (Denis, France, 1999)

11. The Mother and The Whore (Eustache, France, 1973)

12. Nostalgia for the Light (Guzmán, Chile, 2010)

13. They Live (Carpenter, US, 1988)

14. Mauvais Sang (Carax, France, 1986)

15. Light Years (Nelson, Sweden, 1987, Short)

16. Innocence (Hadzihalilovic, France, 2004)

17. Mississippi Mermaid (Truffaut, France, 1969)

18. Monkey Business (Hawks, US, 1952)

19. American Movie (Smith, US, 1999)

20. L’Enfance Nue (Pialat, France, 1968)

21. The Thing (Carpenter, US, 1982)

22. King of New York (Ferrara, US, 1990)

23. Journey to Italy (Rossellini, Italy, 1954)

24. Make Way for Tomorrow (McCarey, US, 1937)

25. Schuss! (Rey, France, 2006)

26. The Aviator’s Wife (Rohmer, France, 1981)

27. Duck Soup (McCarey, US, 1933)

28. Le Pont du Nord (Rivette, France, 1981)

29. Plumbline (Schneemann, US, 1968-71)

30. Backyard (McElwee, US, 1984)

31. The Evil Dead (Raimi, US, 1981)

32. The Stolen Man (Piñeiro, Argentina, 2007)

33. The Boys in Company C (Furie, US, 1978)

34. Faust (Murnau, Germany, 1926)

35. Ah, Liberty! (Rivers, UK, 2008, Short)

36. Black Sabbath (Bava, Italy, 1963)

37. China Gate (Fuller, US, 1957)

38. Magnificent Obsession (Sirk, US, 1954)

39. Utamoro and His Five Women (Mizoguchi, Japan, 1946)

40. Go! Go! Go! (Menken, US, 1962-64)