Tuesday, September 25, 2007

9/25: Samuel Beckett's Film; Christmas U.S.A.; The Purple Rose of Cairo

Samuel Beckett's Film is a true oddity of a short, the unlikely collision of iconoclastic playwright Beckett with silent film icon Buster Keaton. The short was directed by Alan Schneider, a stage director who often adapted Beckett's work. Here, Schneider is working from the only script Beckett ever wrote for the screen, and the pair enlisted Buster Keaton to be their hero. The film has a simple conceit, but is remarkably powerful in the way it explores it. For the bulk of the film, Keaton is filmed from behind, first as he runs through the street frantically, then in his small and ramshackle apartment. Not only does the camera stay behind Keaton, never even showing his face, but Keaton seems determined to avoid it -- when it creeps around the side of him in attempt to see more, Keaton shrinks away and the camera jumps back as if startled. In fact, Keaton's character seems terrified of being seen or of seeing himself at all. He covers up the mirror in his room, tears up photographs, and even puts out his cat and dog and puts a sheet on top of his parrot cage and fish bowl. This is a man chronically afraid of being seen, and the mere feeling of even his pets' eyes on him clearly puts him ill at ease.

This film is so remarkable for the intellectual depth and pathos it imparts to such a simple premise. There is a strong implication that the reason Keaton's character is fleeing from view is a fear of his aging, an unwillingness to face his own mortality in the form of the wizened lines of his face. The film opens with a close-up on Keaton's eye, surrounded by thick lines in his skin, the marks of age. Keaton hides himself in a room, out of the public eye, but the camera follows him quietly, waits until he's asleep, and finally manages to confront him head-on. There is, ultimately, no escaping mortality, and when the camera finally faces Keaton, a POV shot from his position shows what he sees: himself, staring back at him from one good eye, the other covered by a patch. In Beckett's script, the camera — that mechanical one-eye — becomes an avatar of mortality and judgment, unavoidable and without emotion. When the camera sees Keaton, he sees himself for the first time, aged and decrepit, and he weeps; the camera, in capturing reality, reveals the self.

The film is especially poignant in its examination of mortality and aging because it stars the premier icon of the silent era, now well past his prime and in the dumps creatively. This was one of Keaton's very last roles, made just a year before his death. Beckett provided Keaton with a return to the silent era for the space of 25 minutes — the film is utterly silent except for a brief moment, early on, when a woman on the street makes a "ssssh" noise, presumably directed at the audience. Keaton takes advantage of this opportunity by turning in a wonderfully expressive performance, even with his face covered for the entire movie. His body language tells the whole story, and he even gets to do some wonderful silent movie gags, like the scene where he struggles to put his cat and dog outside, only to have one come running back in while he's busy with the other. Keaton also does the whole film as a kind of dance with the camera, which moves fluidly and snakily around him, and he is forced to constantly keep moving in order to avoid showing his face. This dance — with death, with himself — has a poignant and powerful significance to the film's themes, but it's also a chance for some great comedic cinematographic ballet. Beckett's Film is an important and powerful short that packs a great deal of punch into its slim running time and straightforward set-up. Keaton is a wonder, and this is the best possible tribute to his talent.

I also watched Gregory Markopoulos' Christmas, U.S.A., which is on Kino's second Avant-Garde double-disc set. This is an interesting early experiment from a director who later became a great — but now largely unseen, including by me — name of the American avant-garde. Since Markopoulos' films are inaccessible on DVD, and rare even in public screenings, this is my first and only exposure to his work, and will likely be the same for most people. From what I hear, his later work is much different and better, but this is a fine little film nonetheless. Here, Markopoulos uses fragmentary editing and intercuts between claustrophobic and mundane scenes of domestic life — shaving, vacuuming, setting the table — and images of the carnivalesque, the mysterious, the magical. While a young man gets ready for the day and interacts with his family, Markopoulos cuts in shots of carnival rides, a mysterious ritual taking place in the woods, and a strange dream-like scene in which the man gets out of the bath to encounter a creepy moving toy. The theme seems to be the discovery of the fantastic and the wondrous amid the trappings of the everyday. This idea is clarified in the film's final few minutes, which show the young man going out to a deserted spot and meeting another young man, shirtless, who he caresses and lays down with before going back home. The film is a subtly joyous depiction of sexual and sensual awakening — a celebration of a young man's discovery of strange, exciting things lurking beyond the drab normality of the everyday. It's a specific metaphor for Markopoulos' homosexuality, of course, but also more generally for the sexual and intellectual awakenings of adolescence, the escape from the family to the individual life. That Markopoulos populates this moment with such wonder, passion, and mystical tension is a testament to his sure-handed ability to convey complex emotions cinematically, even at this early stage of his career. If this is early Markopoulos, I'm very excited to see more someday.

And the run of fantastic Woody Allen films remains unbroken with The Purple Rose of Cairo. This is one of Woody's most dazzling comedic fantasies, on the surface a light and fluid fantasia of dream and imagination, and yet its heart is hard as stone and its message is pure Allen pragmatism. Mia Farrow is again great, in a very different role as the shy dreamer Cecilia, who at the height of the Depression is trapped in a loveless and abusive marriage and a dead-end job as a waitress. To escape this suffocating reality, she takes in a movie every day, getting lost in the lush Hollywood fantasies playing at the local theater, taking in each film every day until it's replaced. This dull routine comes to an end when, absurdly, one of the characters in the latest film, The Purple Rose of Cairo, notices Cecilia's dedication to film-going and steps out of the screen to meet her. Typically, Woody handles this moment with utter deadpan humor — the movie patrons shriek and faint, Cecilia is stunned but kind of charmed, and the other characters in the film are outraged that the plot has ground to a halt. It's all put together to give the scene a kind of oddball reality and matter-of-factness that grounds the experience in Cecilia's romantic perceptions.

Ultimately, the film examines the nature of fantasy and reality, the connections between them, and the importance of choosing reality no matter how harsh the consequences. Cecilia is a basically good person, but her avoidance of reality keeps her locked utterly in her rut. When Tom Baxter (played admirably by Jeff Daniels) steps off the screen to woo her, she's swept up in the fantasy and romance of it all, so that her life becomes a wonderful continuation of her cinematic fantasies. She even goes so far as to step into the screen with Tom, in a wonderful series of scenes which evoke the feel of a genuine 20s/30s glamour film. But while Tom is romancing her, the real-life actor who played him, Gil Shepherd, is also vying for Cecilia's attention, even as he tries to get his doppelganger back onto the screen where he belongs. In the end, Cecilia is forced to choose between Tom and Gil, as though between fantasy and reality — although, really, her image of Gil is so wound up with ideas of Hollywood ritz and glamour that even this reality is tinged heavily with fantasy. It's no surprise, then, that though Cecilia opts for the reality, she is ultimately disappointed by it, because reality is not like the perfect world of the Hollywood romantic comedy, nor is it like the diamonds-and-champagne vision of Hollywood itself which exists beyond those films. For Cecilia, even reality has something of the movies about it. Woody's genius in this film — his somewhat cruel genius — is to get the audience to invest entirely in one or both of the central romances. Either one is seemingly viable, and either one is a likely target for some romantic sentiment from audiences trained to respond to such promptings. But the film's denouement overturns such expectations, revealing the ridiculousness of Cecilia's hopes, and of our own. It's to Woody's credit, though, that this ending doesn't seem gratuitously pessimistic or cynical — he has managed to make a movie of delirious fantasy that simultaneously deflates such fantasies. And yet the ending, which should be utterly devastating, still maintains a certain bittersweet beauty. This is a complex and wonderful film, and its multiple layers of fantasy and reality are handled deftly by a director at the absolute top of his form.


Mitsos said...

There is, incidentally, a Markopoulos screening coming up at the New York Film Festival. It is only a fragment of his last work (which has never beeen screened in its entirety) and it is very different in style from his "well-known" films.


Anonymous said...

I know it was just a slip, but Baxter was played by Jeff Daniels, not Jeff Bridges.