Friday, September 21, 2007

9/21: A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy; Gods of the Plague

Tonight I watched films by two directors who I've been somewhat methodically exploring on DVD. With Woody Allen, I've been more or less going in chronological order through his career, starting with his directorial debut Take the Money and Run and ending up, tonight, with A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy. I got hooked on Allen with Sleeper and Love and Death, and only became more enamored of his films as they became more serious with his next four films. This film, released in 1982 after an uncharacteristically long 2-year gap, represents something of a step back from that seriousness. It's a remarkably light film for Allen, who even in his earliest films tended to temper his humor with elements of sexual dysfunction, neurosis, and death-obsessed philosophy. Some of that is here too, but treated with a much lighter hand than usual, a farcical tone that makes even the potentially dark moments seem breezy and inconsequential. Woody's obsession with Ingmar Bergman has often been credited for his turn to increasing darkness, especially in the bleak drama Interiors, which drew on Bergman's funereal Cries and Whispers as a primary influence. Here, Woody turns to a much different Bergman, the young Bergman who made the partner-swapping romantic farce Smiles of a Summer Night.

Woody's film uses the basic premise from Bergman — three couples meet at a country villa and promptly become mired in complex romantic entanglements — and a few incidents, notably the memorable suicide attempt. But the title of this film also points to another source, and the spirit of Shakespeare's light supernatural/sexual comedy is very much alive here as well. The woods around the villa are seemingly haunted by spirits, and one of the central themes is the dialogue over whether there's nothing beyond the material world (as advanced by Jose Ferrer's snobbish professor) or whether there's more to the universe than our senses can detect (mostly argued by Woody himself). There are also nods to Renoir's Rules of the Game especially in Ferrer's character, who engages in a hunting expedition that's a warped mirror of the one in Renoir's film. Allen is notoriously hostile to the country, so it's rather clear that when he decided to make an ode to the country, he couldn't directly capture his own feelings on the subject. So he turned instead to what must be his own favorite artists' takes on the country. The result is an idyllic portrait of rural life that's very much artificial, centuries of artistic expression on the country filtered through a single consciousness.

It's also great fun, and Woody elicits some of his most charming performances from other actors. Maybe it's because this is the first film in which Allen really took a back seat rather than a central role, or maybe it's because his role is much more understated and less scene-stealing than usual, or maybe it's just that all the actors are working at such a high level. Whatever the case, this is very much an ensemble acting showcase. Julie Hagerty is particularly great as the lusty nurse Dulcy, and she quietly steals every scene she's in with her wide-eyed frankness and tossed-off jokes. Allen also uses the rural location as an excuse for some of his most dazzlingly beautiful cinematography, punctuating the film with quiet forest interludes and mist-clouded moons. Not the best Woody Allen film by any means, but a nice subtly funny one with plenty to recommend it.

I've been taking a far less organized approach to Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the German director whose filmmaking career lasted pretty much just 13 years, but who managed to squeeze over 40 films into that period. My viewing of his films has been somewhat haphazard, mainly because my introduction to Fassbinder consisted of a slow process of getting used to his offputting aesthetics over the course of several films. My first few exposures to his work weren't exactly pleasant, though clearly something kept drawing me back until it all finally clicked with In a Year of 13 Moons. Now, the imminent release of a Criterion box set of Fassbinder's 15-hour TV miniseries Berlin Alexanderplatz, by many accounts his definitive masterpiece, has given me a good excuse to catch up on the remainder of his filmography that I have yet to see before tackling that. The bulk of the films I haven't seen yet (at least, those available on DVD) are from his early period, which is curiously complete in the digital medium.

Before his first encounter with the melodramas of Douglas Sirk, which resulted in The Merchant of Four Seasons and a string of other acidic melodramas, Fassbinder's primary influences were Brecht, Godard, and Hollywood genre films, possibly filtered through German imitators. Gods of the Plague was his third film, and it's very much a Godardian deconstruction of the film noir genre. Curiously, it's also a highly effective noir on its own merits; it simultaneously deconstructs and fulfills the genre's conventions. As with most of Fassbinder's films, this one concerns a group of characters who simply cannot abide by the mores of society. Harry Baer plays Franz, a recently released ex-convict who falls back in with his old girlfriend Joanna (Hanna Schygulla) before drifting off and forming a bisexual threesome with old pal "the Gorilla" (Gunter Kaufmann) and a new lover (Margarethe von Trotta). The trio lives off loans and Margarethe's meager savings for a while, dreaming all the while of cutting off to a deserted island just for the three of them. Their ambiguous triad relationship, and their utter disconnection from the economic system, make them typical Fassbinder heroes — sexually, socially, and economically, they just don't fit in. Their dreams of escape are patently ridiculous, but they nevertheless try, and their ultimate doomed end in a botched supermarket robbery (betrayed by Franz's jilted lover Joanna) is as sad as it is perfunctory.

These are true Fassbinder heroes, but they're also noir heroes, trapped by circumstances and pushed towards an ugly fate. And Fassbinder makes his characters' connection to the genre totally clear by indulging in some wonderful noir set-pieces; night-time vistas where the shadows overwhelm the figures and only slim bars of light cut across the imprisoning gloom. The noir lighting, fittingly enough, originated in Germany in the first place, when expat cameramen like Karl Freund exported expressionistic lighting effects into American film in the 40s. Fassbinder brings the lineage right back to its roots on German soil, giving his deconstructive work another layer of meaning on an aesthetic level. In fact, the camera work throughout this film is an early indication of Fassbinder's gift for fluid, constantly moving cinematography. There's nothing too flashy here yet, but there are plenty of the horizontal pans so characteristic of Godard, giving the film a forward motion that its characters utterly lack. This point is driven home by contrasting such gliding shots with static tableaux in which the characters languidly lounge around. This is an excellent early example of Fassbinder's immense talent. His aesthetics are still evolving at this point (though this is certainly an aesthetically fulfilling film in its own right) but his enduring themes and concerns and prototypical characters were present right from the very beginning.

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