Sunday, October 21, 2007

10/21: Charlotte et son Jules; Another Woman; New York Stories; Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?; Only Angels Have Wings

Charlotte et son Jules was the last short film that Godard made before his feature film debut with Breathless. As with all the early shorts, this one points the way towards the bold stylistic innovations and unfettered attitude of his first features, without actually being anything too stunning on its own. In this case, it's a brief and lighthearted character study with a great punchline, anchored by a rambling monologue from Jean-Paul Belmondo. When Belmondo's old girlfriend Charlotte (Anne Collette) returns to his flat, looking adorable and saying little, he almost immediately launches into an epic and fast-paced speech and doesn't run out of steam for nearly 13 minutes. By turns, he berates her for leaving, insults her, intimates that he might take her back, then says he won't, and eventually, grudgingly arrives at assuming that she's coming back to him. It's a prodigious outpouring of words, and all the while Collette silently looks on, making faces at him, mouthing exaggerated surprise at a few of the more insulting lines, and generally having fun with her almost entirely non-verbal performance. Collette is unsurprisingly the best thing about the film, and her mimed performance is worthy of the best silent comedy. Godard dedicates the short to Jean Cocteau, who was definitely a major influence on the young Godard but is pretty hard to glimpse in this scenario; Collette's hilarious mugging puts the film more firmly in Charlie Chaplin territory. The other point of interest here is the early appearance of Godard's characteristic soundtrack manipulation, which is the one aspect of his aesthetic that seemed to be nascent in the pre-Breathless shorts. The music skips and jumps and fades out suddenly, as it would throughout Godard's career; this is the only clear indication of the truly original talent who would blossom just a couple of years later. Even so, there are at least hints of later Godard works even here. The cutesy scenario combined with the musical playfulness point the way forward to A Woman is a Woman especially, while Belmondo's cigar-chomping, wordy tough guy act would carry over right into his role in Breathless. This short is an interesting for its perspective on some of Godard's earliest work, and it's also quite a lot of fun on its own merits.

By the late 80s, Woody Allen had reached a seeming pinnacle to his work, deftly combining comedy and drama for some of his smartest, wittiest, most bittersweet masterpieces. And then towards the end of the decade he turned back to straight drama for the first time since 1978's Interiors, with the claustrophobic chamber piece September and the powerful psychological character study Another Woman. September was already a tremendous step forward for Allen's approach to drama, and Another Woman is even stronger. Gena Rowlands turns in a powerhouse central performance as Marion, a successful philosophy professor about to start work on a new book. She takes an apartment to work in, only to discover that the vents allow her to hear the conversations of patients at the psychologist's office next door. She becomes particularly interested in one woman (Mia Farrow) who's dissatisfied with her life, and whose words trigger similar feelings in Marion. She begins a thorough self-examination which leads her to question her relationships with her husband, brother, friends, older lovers, and herself.

This is the story of a cold, cerebral woman who is gradually coming to realize just how disconnected she is from those around her. Her brother is distant towards her, her old best friend actively despises her, her husband is passionless and cheating, and she deeply regrets an old choice to turn away the passionate, loving Larry (Gene Hackman) and marry her current husband instead. It's to Allen's credit that he takes what sounds, on paper, like a somewhat drab and cold scenario, and infuses it with life and warmth by really pushing into the mental world of his protagonist. Marion's dreams, memories, and fantasies leap onto the screen with the same force of reality as her everyday life. This technique is especially effective because of the understated beauty of cinematographer Sven Nykvist's imagery, which brings a tactile life to Marion's dreams and memories, making their origins in her mind clear without resorting to the usual language of movie dream sequences. This gives the memories a strong presence in the narrative's present, emphasizing the continuing relevance of the past to this frozen, unchanging character. Even more important to the narrative is the way in which Allen uses visual representations of dreams to externalize Marion's self-examination. In one memorable sequence, Marion dreams of a play that dramatizes moments from her life, mostly ones we've already seen earlier in the film. In every case, the actors in the dream play take the dialogue beyond the rather flat, emotionless territory of Marion's everyday life, bringing out the hidden subtexts of dissatisfaction, melancholy, and regret lurking beneath the surface.

Another Woman succeeds because it fully submerges us in the mind of its main character, accomplishing the difficult task of bringing a somewhat distant and unlikable character to full-blooded life. Even the camera gets in on this task, in subtle ways. In one scene, Marion sits reading from a book of poetry and remembering the past. The camera initially keeps its distance, maintaining Marion in a long shot in her room as her voiceover reads the poetry and talks about her memories. Then, just at the end of the shot, before cutting to a closer view of Marion's face, the camera jiggles and shakes slightly, as though revealing just the barest trace of the turmoil beneath this woman's calm narration. It's a wonderful moment, disrupting the stolid fluidity of Nykvist's usual camerawork, and its parallels to Marion's mental state add a rich subtext to the scene. Another Woman finds Allen finally finding his own true voice in drama, largely abandoning the overt homages to heroes like Bergman or Chekhov (though both still provide a clear line of influence) and displaying his confidence in his own material and his own instincts for visual storytelling.

New York Stories is a contribution to the increasingly rare genre of the omnibus, multi-director film, which was briefly popular in communally inclined 60s Europe, but fell into disuse soon after. This 1989 entry unites Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, and Francis Ford Coppola, with each one providing a short film. Scorsese is up first, and he offers the best of the three. In fact, his Life Lessons is a mini masterpiece in under 50 minutes, ranking up there with the very best of his work. It is perhaps Scorsese's most stylistically ambitious work, and the one where the extent of his debt to the experimental films of Kenneth Anger is made most clear. The film's opening sets the mood early on, presenting a fragmented and elliptical portrait of a painter's studio. Scorsese focuses on details — paint smears, brushes, palettes — and isolates them with an iris-out effect, zooming out to show the whole scene and then cutting to the next isolated detail. He overlays this with Procol Harum's "A Whiter Shade of Pale," and in many respects this combination of near-abstract montage with classic pop, a hallmark of Anger's filmmaking, is the linchpin of the film. The studio belongs to the famous painter Lionel Dobie (Nick Nolte, giving his all), who works in a similar fashion, crafting deeply expressive and violently conceived paintings that he creates mostly in fits of pique, smearing paint wildly while listening to tapes of classic rock. Scorsese lovingly films these fits of creativity, and one suspects that there's a real affinity there between the fictional painter and the real filmmaker.

But the heart of the story is Dobie's assistant, Paulette (Rosanna Arquette), who he's been sleeping with for some time but who now seems to be sick of his controlling, manipulative personality. Her character is portrayed consistently from Dobie's point of view, and as such she remains alluring and seductive, but always opaque in her emotions and ideas. She is a true cipher, not because she's one-dimensional, but because Dobie lacks the insight or the sensitivity to ever really understand a woman, even one who's lived under his roof for a long time. Arquette gives a great performance, irresistibly sexy and sizzling with hidden depths so that the audience senses her frustration and emotional confusion without fully understanding her anymore than Dobie does. The film is a character study of Dobie, who seems to be using the tension and anguish of his fraught relationship with Paulette as a catalyst for his art. After every argument with her, he submerges himself in his work, blasting Dylan tapes and hacking away at his massive canvases with great globs of paint. This is a presentation of the artist as parasite, feeding off of the emotional energy of those around, never giving much of himself except in the form of his artwork. Nolte's fierce, magnetic performance makes it clear that this is what he's doing, even if his anguish is genuine and he doesn't himself realize the extent to which he's manipulating those around him.

The less said about Coppola's horrendous Life Without Zoe, the better. It's a ridiculous fantasy about an upper class girl living in a New York hotel while her parents jet-set around the world. And if there's anything more annoying than the film's overly precocious and badly acted youngsters, it's the way in which Coppola uncritically accepts the self-mythologizing style of the upper classes. At the climactic costume ball, set at the palatial home of a young sheik, the world of rich New York parties is giddily elevated to the level of a fantastical Hollywood vision of the decadent Orient, complete with acrobatic entertainers and some creepy pre-pubescent belly dancers. This is a horrible and offensive little film, not worth any further comment.

The final segment of the film is Woody Allen's hilarious Oedipus Wrecks, a return to straight comedy for him after making two serious dramas in a row. Woody plays Sheldon Mills, whose mother (Mae Questel) dominates his life to such an extent that he lives in constant fear and anxiety because of her very continuing presence in the world. So when she disappears during a magic act, it initially seems like the best thing that could possibly happen to him, except that she then reappears as a massive head floating in the sky over New York. In this film, the mother figure literally looms large, telling embarrassing stories about Sheldon not just to girlfriends and acquaintances, but to the whole city. Woody milks this absurd situation for all it's worth, and it is one of his funniest films, even as it deals in the kind of psychoanalytical subtexts that inform all of his work. He has always been interested in the influence of parents on the child's life, and his dramas like September and Interiors have especially dwelt on the damage that parents can do to their children. This theme is taken to its extreme here, literally visualizing the massive importance of the mother by projecting her giant features into the sky and making her tremendous voice boom out over an entire city.

Mae Questel gets the film's juiciest part, and she completely inhabits the role of the overbearing Jewish mother, providing a running commentary on her son's faults and foibles to anyone who will listen. When she shows up at Sheldon's workplace, dragging along his deaf aunt (Jesse Keosian, Woody's elementary school math teacher!), she manages to completely embarrass him by yelling the most inappropriate things imaginable as asides to the aunt. "That's Bates," she says when Woody's boss steps out to see him, "He's the one with the mistress." Julie Kavner also gets a good role, as the voodoo shamaness who Woody goes to visit in a desperate bid to get his mother out of the Manhattan sky. She's a perfect and hilarious foil to Woody's neurotic nervousness, dressing up in ornate headdresses and shamanistic gear, chanting and dancing and spreading herbs around. When she takes a break to order a pizza, in full voodoo priestess regalia, it's one of the film's best moments. This is a light and funny diversion for Allen, arguably his first straight comedic work in quite a while.

The title of Fassbinder's fifth feature (co-directed with Michael Fengler), Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?, asks a question, and were this a conventional film, the question would doubtless be answered by film's end. But Fassbinder has never dealt in easy answers or conventional aesthetics, and his film in fact takes quite a different path. Instead of asking and then answering a question, Fassbinder is pointing out the kind of questions that audiences should be asking themselves when the film is over. Of course, the title also reveals basically what will happen at the film's climax, which comes abruptly and without fanfare after over 80 minutes of utter ordinariness. Herr R. is played by Kurt Raab, who also gives his name to the character to increase the film's sense of documentary reality. Raab is a blank everyman, a commercial draftsman at a small engineering firm, with a lovely but somewhat distant and petty wife, overbearing but genuinely loving parents, a withdrawn young son, and an assortment of friendly acquaintances.

He leads an utterly normal and uneventful life, and for 80 minutes Fassbinder meticulously documents it, in interminable scenes of great length and crushingly prosaic content. Raab chats idly with co-workers, listening to them tell jokes (he seems to have none of his own). Raab talks over technical matters with his boss. Raab reminisces with an old school friend while his wife looks on contemptuously. Raab tries to order a record he can't remember the name of, much to the amusement of two teenage record store clerks. This is a life of complete triviality and normality, consumed by everyday affairs. Nobody ever seems to have much to say to each other, and the entirety of the dialogue is comprised of small talk and idle chatter. It's a trying, wearing film, totally engulfing the audience in the experience of Raab's life as he lives it. Raab himself is often positioned off to the side, motionless, looking lumpy and sullen while others talk animatedly amongst themselves. At other points, he is placed conspicuously off-camera, especially when he is speaking or is the subject of others' conversations. This puts the audience even more thoroughly into Raab's life, allowing them to imagine his reactions at key points. When his wife and mother begin discussing his career prospects and his lack of a drivers' license, subtly insulting him, the camera is focused squarely on the two women. Just as they are acting like the butt of their jokes isn't even in the same room with them, the camera ignores Raab, but his humiliation and emasculation is palpable. In the later scene when Raab is giving a drunken and halting speech to his co-workers, trying unsuccessfully to get his boss to toast with him, the camera mostly takes on Raab's perspective again, panning around the faces of those watching him, taking in their various expressions of humor, embarrassment, and confusion.

This film is a measured experiment in audience identification. If its violent climax isn't too surprising — Herr R. does indeed run amok — it does demand questions and answers that Fassbinder isn't willing to provide. Why does Herr R. run amok? The vacuousness and emptiness of his life might be the most tempting answer, but that would simply trigger the more pointed question: why doesn't everyone else run amok? I'd link Fassbinder's film with a later work from Chantal Akerman, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, which is also a study in everyday tedium leading to a shocking outburst of violence. Akerman's film, though, has a distinctly feminist outlook, and the film seems to be structured so that the source of Jeanne's violence is clear: the fragmentation caused by her dual societal roles of the woman as domestic servant and the woman as sexual servant. Fassbinder presents no such overarching societal critique, instead pointing out a multitude of details and moments, giving none of them any undue stress to make them stand out from a thousand others. As with all his films, this is a work about the lack of connection between people, the profound distance between one mind and another. Herr R. — an abstracted name that is present in the title but not in the film itself — remains as much of a mystery at the end of the film as at the beginning, and all we can do, Fassbinder seems to be saying, is keep asking hard questions.

Howard Hawks' Only Angels Have Wings uses the surface aesthetic of the aviation picture, with its tough flyers making deadly runs in all kinds of weather. But Hawks turns the genre in on itself, crafting a powerful and utterly unique character study of men on the edge, taking risks and living hard, under the constant specter of death. This is, as is often said of Hawks, a distinctly masculine world, where women are incidental at best and distracting at worst. Any feminist analysis of the film would have to point out the way in which the women are only portrayed positively once they accept the masculine way of doing things. In order to be happy and stay with their men, they must reject their feminine weaknesses and adopt the male strength. This dynamic is most obvious in the character of Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur), who in order to truly love the head flyer Geoff (Cary Grant), must learn to love him in the same way as his male friend Kid (Thomas Mitchell), rather than in her unacceptable female way.

Ultimately though, this feminist perspective on the film, though interesting and in some ways today impossible to miss, is pretty much beside the point. Hawks has created an insular, self-contained world here, and within the logic of this world he explores his characters and their milieu. Geoff and Kid are ace pilots for a private airline stationed in a tiny South American town, bringing out mail shipments and other local cargo. These men fly in any weather, in outdated and fragile twin prop planes, dealing with thick fog, blinding rain, and towering mountains with narrow and treacherous passes. They do so not so much for the money, which one senses is modest and not particularly regular thanks to the economic woes of airline owner Dutchy (Sig Ruman), but for the sheer thrill and excitement of it all.

Hawks is perhaps unmatched at portraying the complicated emotions and relationships of men under stress in a totally male world, and in this film he is most concerned with men's reactions to death. Death hangs over the entirety of the film, a constant threat for every one of these pilots, taking up their claptrap planes in the worst of weather and hoping for the best. This is true even from the first sequence. We enter the film, not through Grant's character, but through two other pilots, Les (Allyn Joslyn) and Joe (Noah Beery Jr.). They are going to the harbor to pick up the latest mail delivery, where they find Bonnie Lee coming off a ship for a stopover and invite her back with them for a drink and dinner. The two men are jockeying for position with her, and gamble with each other for who will have to fly that night and who will stay with the girl. The men are betting over who will get the girl, but unspoken between them, and probably also to themselves, is the knowledge that they're really betting over who will have to go up in the horrible foggy storm and risk death that night. Joe wins, but at this point Grant shows up, stepping in to divert both men so that he can get the girl instead. Joe winds up flying, and in his haste to get back to the ground and have another shot at Bonnie, crashes to a fiery death.

The film's masculine approach to death is then encapsulated in a wonderfully handled scene where the men strive, with slight strain, to maintain a cheerful air as though nothing had happened. Bonnie doesn't understand, and she's visibly shaken and understandably weepy, but Grant sets her straight by making it clear that grinning in the face of death is pretty much the only option for these men. In an atmosphere where death can happen at any moment, treating it as anything special would be disastrous for the men; they can only ask "Joe who?" and go on with life. This culminates in a spontaneous party clustered around the piano, with Bonnie jamming as the men sing and holler. It's a kind of drunken Irish wake for Joe, his spirit existing unheralded at the party's core, sending him off with joy and an effort to forget as quickly as possible. Hawks presents this scene with a jam-packed mise-en-scène, cramming the screen with as many people as he possibly can, all singing and swaying and making noise. There's hardly an empty space here, no room in the composition for death to push its ugly way in.

Nevertheless, though, death very much remains in the picture, and the planes themselves become its most tangible representation. Hawks brilliantly uses the soundtrack to increase the tension, very early on associating the distinctive humming whine of the plane engines with death and danger. In the scene before Joe's crash, the men on the ground stand in the dense fog, listening to his plane in order to try and guide him in for a safe landing. They signal for the piano music in the background to be cut off and everyone to be quiet, and the scene takes on a deathly stillness, a calm and silence broken only by the droning hum of the plane far above. In the constant hovering bad weather around this area, the planes are often heard but not seen, and that motor hum is a signal of impending doom. Whenever that sound enters the film, everyone stands still a moment and listens, and the otherwise constant motion and witty repartee and barroom music comes to a halt. In this film, the sound design itself becomes the instrument of death, and this contributes to the profound uneasiness and tension that hangs over even the film's lightest moments, like Bonnie Lee's constant comic relief. This is a powerful and totally unique film, one of the true classics of the Hollywood era, taking a genre and delving beyond its stereotypical surface into the depths of its characters and their primal emotions.

1 comment:

DavidEhrenstein said...

I believe Godard dedicated Charlotte et son Jules to Cocteau because he was thinking of it as a comic reworking of La Voix Humaine -- but without a telephone. Life Lessons is indeed a delight -- a tribute to Rosanna Arquette much as Wes Anderson's much-discussed Hotel Chevalier is a tribute to Natalie Portman. Look closely at the gallery scene and you can spot a walk-on by Michael Powell.