Thursday, January 29, 2015

Screening Notes #28

Black Book (2006): A defiant alternative to the neutered respectability of Hollywood period dramas about historical tragedies, Verhoeven’s exhilarating epic fully understands and elevates the emotional and psychological extremes that constitute a human fiasco as messy as WWII and the Holocaust, accounting for these disparate poles (massacre, debauchery, grief, triumph) on a scene-by-scene basis, other times a shot-by-shot basis, and sometimes even within the space of a single image. In hindsight, history can never be looked at as having clean binaries; tragedies make ideologically convoluted puddles of the masses, dividing sympathies and splintering accountability until the next war comes along, confusing everything yet again. On an individual level, one must exploit everything available to them—their body, their brain, their intuition—to preserve dignity. Everything I really want to say about this masterpiece (and I reserve this word for very special occasions) right now is in these two pieces by Ed Howard at Only the Cinema. I can’t wait to watch it again.

Dear White People (2014): Undeniably snappy and smart, with a knack for fiery dialogue that Jake Mulligan is right to point out as screwball in nature, it’s nonetheless hard not to feel like Dear White People is a strewn-together collection of wittily discussed talking points attractively framed and filtered through the mouths of baldly representative types (the angry black rebel, the racism-denying white institution leader, the winking white student who masks actual racism with self-conscious jokes, the black “white” kid, etc.). That Simien renders his film a kind of open forum to get all these concerns out on the table is valuable, especially when they’re concerns this significant, but his script too often has only the fueling of racial discourse on its mind, like some overzealous stand-up comedian who resorts to race jokes to get everyone’s attention. (The seams really show when the hitherto timid wannabe journalist suddenly becomes the shit-starter at an intimidatingly well-attended blackface frathouse shindig, which, in a scene that’s intended as the ultimate mirror to real world events, buries plausibility for the sake of making a progressive point.) I’m also on board with Richard Brody’s assessment of the film’s repression of true radicalism; in the end, Winchester University has consciously acknowledged from an institutional standpoint its latent intolerance (and by extension, America’s) and has dealt with it accordingly for the media. Those are small potatoes that the film seems satisfied with (and smart about too—see final slam dunk on the face of the money-hungry college president), but have any paradigms actually shifted for the better?

John Wick (2014): The following happens in the first 30 minutes: 1) A shot fades to black, an alarm clock starts beeping, a close-up of said alarm clock fades up, John Wick slams off the alarm clock, and then we get a montage of him getting ready in the morning. This is beyond film school hackery; it’s utter triteness. 2) John Wick looks at a handheld smartphone video of his now-dead wife on a beach, which then becomes impressionistic flashback material. Do I need to explain how lame this lonely-badass-defined-by-loss trope has become? 3) Willem Dafoe sifts through his gun stash while scored to Marilyn Manson singing, “We got guns.” (The next lyric is “We’re killing strangers so we don’t kill the ones we love.” No explanation necessary.) These imbecilic gestures took me out of John Wick well before the action stuff really starts churning. As a result, most of the ensuing movie was just “cool” visual noise spinning around without a solid base—a slideshow presentation of Keanu Reeves looking dope while killing people against backdrops recruited from a list of discarded locations for Avenged Sevenfold photo shoots, many of which are awash with swirling lighting effects to pump up the awesomeness. The film’s not simply violent abstraction, though, because it does gesture vaguely in the direction of a narrative that’s both predictable (Eastern Europeans continue to be the most terrible people in the world according to Hollywood action movies) and juvenile (of course it’s the only female character, a saucy brunette, who breaks the assassin code and gets a death punishment for it). Presumably, all this inanity is supposed to be negated by the fact that directors Stahelski and Leitch are self-conscious about coasting on the genre’s basic ingredients and adhering to heedless first-person shooter amorality. Questionable. I don’t care about spatial integrity, action choreography, visual geometry, bullet consciousness or whatever other critical catnip might exist here when the movie flaunting these qualities is this cluelessly dumb.

Ride in the Whirlwind (1966): Ride in the Whirlwind’s plot features a series of misfortunes, misunderstandings, and random occurrences that accrue and lead inextricably to violence. It’s a tragic relay of blame and punishment: a band of outlaws face death for their crimes, a trio of innocent travelers get mistaken by vigilantes as participants in the unlawful crew, they go on the run and bring a shell-shocked family into the mess, and a guiltless old man dies. The film becomes a working metaphor for our lives, which play out under a death sentence whose date is never clear. As such, it pares away narrative until all that’s left is a pair of men sitting quietly in a room in the middle of nowhere, the better to put the emphasis on our onerous stall before the creep of twilight. The long back half at the ranch eliminates suspenseful intercutting to focus on the present-tense: two remaining cowboys enjoying their final hours in relative silence and comfort, an apologetic last supper, a reluctant game of checkers, the company of two quiet women. A stump is beaten repetitively in the background, the metronome of the family’s existence. When a bowl of water isn’t where it should be at a precise moment, it unleashes a wave of anxiety. Is routine a reprieve or a prison? On the one hand, there’s the patriarch’s corpse as evidence for the former. On the other hand, there are Millie Perkins’ haunted eyes, which suggest a soul stirred to curiosity by an unexpected encounter. Hellman’s gloriously textured, compact western plants such ambiguities right on the surface, which pays enormous dividends as the film funnels inexorably from plot to stasis.

They Came Together (2014): Comedy taste is such a peculiar and specific thing that it’s questionable if anyone can ever arrive at a firm critical truth. Many found They Came Together uninspired; it left me at multiple points in uncontrollable, snorting laughter. In my case, a natural rebuttal might be to claim that dissenters just aren’t looking in the right places for the laughs, but by the same token that’s a presumptuous argument—perhaps they are and the jokes just don’t land. (To further confuse matters of taste, I’ve found Wain’s pet projects (namely Stella and Wainy Days) to be gloriously aligned with my funny bone, while his supposed crowning moment (Wet Hot American Summer) does nothing for me.) Anyway, the key to They Came Together, for me, is not to see it as lobbing any kind of coherent takedown of hackneyed romantic comedy tropes, but rather as a gag exercise that merely uses the romantic comedy as a rough template. In this context, the film is all about the strange grace notes that line the edges of the ostensible romantic narrative, the way a shot will be held a beat too long (most hilariously when Wain rack focuses to the background to reveal two coffee shop dwellers staring ominously at the camera) or a familiar gesture will be tweaked into gestural nonsense (get a load of how Paul Rudd rockets back into frame like Jim Carrey in The Mask when Amy Poehler implicitly prods him for a goodbye kiss). Even better are the throwaway sight gags that are there for no good reason, like the half-buried graying corpse lingered on at the tail of a transitional shot. This sublimely formless riffing suggests that dream project I always imagined when my friends and I used to fashion shoddy Zucker bros. knockoffs on DV tape.

Chimes at Midnight (1965): Caveats off the bat: 1) I’m only passingly familiar with Shakespeare’s plays and have always been fundamentally perplexed by his language, so big-screen adaptations often play like foreign films without subtitles, and 2) I’ve been only marginally more successful finding the wavelength of late Welles. True to the bureaucratic horror stories plaguing their reputations, the late films I've seen are often shapeless and cluttered with information (visual, sonic, narrative), the surplus of which negates rather than enhances any affect or import. Chimes at Midnight pummels me into a familiar state of bewilderment, wherein I find myself noting striking images without registering their significance while waves of Elizabethan language wash over me. Every review I’ve read giddily cites the Battle of Shrewsbury as the film’s highlight—an alternately thrilling and deadpan sequence that, in its handheld mayhem, recalls Kubrick’s sudden injection of trembling battle footage into his otherwise statically composed Barry Lyndon. But no review I’ve read (and I’m happy to take suggestions on worthy pieces) has convincingly articulated why the rest of this 2-hour-long behemoth earns its designation as a misunderstood Welles masterpiece. The film’s bawdy, sprawling energy is preferable to Othello’s portentousness, but after an hour the four-texts-packed-into-one unwieldiness grows tiresome. Welles’ faithfulness to Shakespeare disqualifies the possibility of any prolonged respite from the prose, so the chosen path is a barrage of dialogue-heavy ensemble scenes elbowing inelegantly into one another, rhythm be damned, while magisterial, over-fogged master shots soak it all in. If this bombardment of virtuosity is precisely the reason to admire this film, I’ll stick with The Lady from Shanghai and call it a day.

The Lady Eve (1941): Watching this again, it struck me that Preston Sturges might be the Buddy Holly of cinema, working in conventional, even rudimentary forms but putting emphasis on the peculiar delivery of the content over the content itself. When Holly sings “My Peggy Sue”—pinching out the “my,” scooping the “Peggy” from deep in the register and stammering through the “Sue” like a brat picking on his crush—the inflection of his voice is what matters, not the lyric that’s repeated over and over. Sturges, meanwhile, gets a kick out of silly gestures, dumb expressions, imprecisely paced dialogue and awkward positioning of body parts—all of which throw off the expected rhythm of courtship. You can see it in the way Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck keep defaulting to a presumably uncomfortable cheek-to-cheek cuddle for minutes at a time, staring off frame but never at each other as they lob tentative flirtations back and forth. In one of these nuzzle marathons, Fonda stretches out his hand during conversation to pull Stanwyck’s skirt back over her knee, a casual convulsion that Farber must have enjoyed. And the famous horse gag, in this context, seems the emblematic Sturges moment in the sense that it most conspicuously illuminates the tension between script and execution, which can drive something as seemingly mundane as a beginning-to-end game of poker. Of course, Sturges wrote his own screenplays, so this is not a case of working against the grain of the text, but rather of searching for ways to shake language and behavior from predictable patterns. If The Lady Eve doesn’t have the velocity of a Hawks or McCarey screwball—at least half of it’s scored calmly to a whimpering string section—it’s because Sturges wants time to let each situation builds its own oddball rhythm, a quality that’s also found in Buddy Holly’s more undisciplined pop songs.

Susan Slept Here (1954): Struggling screenwriter Mark Christopher (Dick Powell) is on the verge of a marriage to stuffy society girl Isabella Alexander (Anne Francis) when he takes in charming juvenile delinquent Susan Landis (Debbie Reynolds) for Christmas supervision—all the makings of a customary screwball romance, right? Right and wrong. To be sure, I sought this out in search of a holiday treat out of left field and maybe some subversive genre deconstruction along the way, but Tashlin mostly plays by the rules even when he doesn’t—how else could he have flung so much May-December (though more like June-November) sexual innuendo by the Hays Office? Still, while no one in search of a good light-hearted romp about the romantic awakening of a man otherwise on a fast track to the status quo should be disappointed by the familiar outline of this plot, the love triangle at the film’s core is hardly the reason to seek out this peculiar beauty, a pop-art exaggeration of comedy of remarriage tropes situated in a Hollywood milieu as artificial as the garish yuletide decorations populating Mark’s sterile high-rise apartment.

By making a show of the 17-year-old Susan’s childish spunkiness and characterizing the uppity Isabella as a trophy blonde seen frequently in glossy framed pictures and in the middle of agitated phone calls, Tashlin heightens the screwball genre’s characteristic female binaries—and then later, in a bright-pink musical dream sequence that features Susan as a fluttering acrobat in a virginal birdcage and Isabella as a lassoing arachnid, elevates the roles into brush-stroked abstractions. This blast of Technicolor dazzle, though, comes well after the film’s major players have already been revealed as ciphers; in multiple instances, a character’s presence is signaled by the photographic image, such as when Susan sleeps with Mark’s portrait beside her, or when she sits down alone to mock his homemade films of day trips with Isabella. A number of Tashlin’s geometrically precise deep-focus compositions place two characters into a triangle formation with a framed photo, arrangements that mirror the dynamics of the drama (Mark sandwiched on either side by his love options, for instance). To add another layer of jokiness, the film is intermittently narrated by an Oscar statuette (yes, an Oscar statuette) with a sardonic baritone, a gag that comes across a bit under-conceived while still establishing how predicated on show business pretense Mark’s bachelor lifestyle has been up to this point. Susan Slept Here never really conveys the realistic likelihood of Mark and Susan’s impending relationship lasting; instead, it illuminates the screwball genre’s mechanics, simultaneously affirming their dramatic efficacy and exaggerating their silliness.

Springtime in a Small Town (2002): Transplanted from the exploratory observation of late Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Mark Lee Ping-bin’s cinematography slips into the classical narrative context of Springtime in a Small Town without a hitch. I haven’t seen any other Tian Zhuangzhuang-directed films prior to this, so it’s hard to say how much of the visual language of this reimagining of a classic Chinese melodrama stems from the head shot-caller and how much is just a convenient carryover from Ping-bin’s sensibility, but the Hou-inflected tics are all there: the predominant use of a long lens to compress space, the languid horizontal dolly movements rendered almost indiscernible through the lensing, and the tendency to crowd the foreground with set elements that make domestic spaces feel like jungles to be bushwhacked. Zhuangzhuang's additions are the soundless psychological intensity (Hou has never made a film that, wall-to-wall, is this literally quiet), the firmly linear chronology, the partitioning of empathy to each member of the ensemble, and the gently symbolic employment of landscape.

The film relates the story of a love triangle between a despondent middle-aged woman in an arranged marriage, her ill husband, and his doctor (who also happens to be his old friend and his wife’s old flame). For the length of the movie, they all occupy the same crumbling estate in a war-torn rural village at the tail end of the Japanese occupation and before the birth of Chinese communism. Inevitable emotional sparks fly, albeit without anything ever detonating. The dramatic fulcrum occurs a little over an hour into a repressive two-hour slow-burn, and it’s quintessential Ping-bin: Five characters (add the husband’s teenage sister and the elderly family caretaker) sit around a table playing drinking games for several minutes, the camera never cutting and its focal shifts—paired with a circular glide around the group, the overall design of which would require fast-forwarding to map out—delicately determining where our attention should be in the scene at any given moment. The shot is a microcosm of the film as a whole and its patient negotiation of unspoken tension through unshowy camerawork. Zhuangzhaung’s receptiveness to seismic shifts in the psychological temperature of a room—or, in many cases, the entire grounds—is staggering. Springtime in a Small Town’s achievement is to chart the many atomic emotional eruptions in this quasi-family unit over the course of several days; that nothing has radically changed by the film’s conclusion is because, in this milieu steeped in conservative customs, nothing can.

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