Wednesday, October 31, 2007

10/31: Inland Empire

The first time I saw David Lynch's much-discussed newest feature Inland Empire, a few months ago, I was convinced that the narrative threads of this complex, twisting film were all just outside my grasp. I felt sure that another viewing or two would clarify things, make the connections between the film's obvious multiple layers of reality and fantasy clearer, just as they had when I watched Mulholland Drive a few additional times. Revisiting it now, a few new things did indeed click, associations and connections that I'd missed the first time in the film's dense layering of stories and images and echoes upon echoes. On the whole, though, my experience of the film was remarkably similar to the first time I watched it — dark, strangely compelling, mesmerizing in the flow of its imagery and the sudden transitions between locales and realities. And I felt, once again, that the overall thread of its narrative was somewhere just beyond my grasp. In fact, I'm starting to think that it's something of a mistake to even approach the film in a narrative mindset. Lynch's films of late have often been thought of as "puzzle films," but really this only works even slightly for Mulholland Drive. The labyrinthine Lost Highway twists and turns away from the kind of narrative analysis that Salon performed on Mulholland in their now-famous feature, and even that interesting explanation leaves plenty of mysteries unresolved and loose threads untied when the film is over.

This is even more true of Inland Empire, which resists even the least attempt at plot summary. The film is a three-hour fever dream, a dense collage of alternate realities in which Laura Dern plays an actress, a Southern belle committing adultery, a Los Angeles prostitute, and an abused wife telling her story to a shadowy man who may be out to help her or hurt her. These stories weave into each other without warning or explanation, and some seemingly unconnected fragments may actually be part of the same story. And all this is connected, somehow, to a young girl sitting alone in a room watching TV. She's a Polish prostitute from an earlier era, who may have been killed by the mysterious carnival barker known only as the Phantom, who may in turn be connected to Dern's husband in all her various iterations, played by Peter Lucas. There are, of course, numerous explanations for all this, and some of them are fairly compelling, but none that I've seen or thought up seem to hold together quite as well as the through-line in Mulholland Drive. To some extent, the film is the story of the actress Nikki, who in playing the part of the adulteress Susan, begins to fall for her co-star (Justin Theroux) in real life as well. As she begins to conflate the film with reality, her mind becomes unhinged, and she's drawn into both the film and the much earlier, more violent Polish folk tale that inspired the film's supposedly cursed script. On the face of it, this is an interesting idea, but it hardly begins to explain more than a few of the film's many facets, and leaves plenty of loose ends dangling.

This second viewing has convinced me, for now, that this film may be better approached as a pure avant-garde work, without looking for or expecting any such narrative coherence. I've come to see that what holds my attention in the film is not the shards of narrative that swirl around Laura Dern's shifting identities, but the terrifying atmosphere created by Lynch's disorienting visuals. Much has been made of his decision to turn away from film for digital video, and not just DV but a particularly lo-fi, consumer-grade digital camera. In fact, this is a perfect fit for such hallucinatory material, and the dark, hazy visuals frequently call to mind Derek Jarman's super-8 work, which achieved a similarly smeared, ugly aesthetic by reducing the grade of film and then blowing it up to 35mm for projection. Here, Lynch also pushes his technology to its limits, and the result is a very distinctive look. Large segments of the film are almost entirely encased in blackness, with flashes of light and blurry, barely glimpsed faces floating in the dark. As with the last viewing, I took a while to get adjusted to the DV in the opening scenes, especially during Dern's freaky encounter with a prophesying Grace Zabriskie. But once I'd settled into the film, the darkness and distorted, artificial quality of the DV proved to lend themselves very well to Lynch's never-ending series of funhouse mirrors disguised as a narrative.

Inland Empire is, as befits its length, many things. It is, first and foremost, an exhaustive catalogue of David Lynch's ideas and obsessions, a kind of meta-text to his previous films. His favored themes show up yet again, especially his exploration of the Hollywood star machine, which is ridiculed and skewered here, along with Hollywood's recycling of other cultures' ideas, its treatment of women, and its reliance on cliché. These are of course familiar themes from Mulholland Drive, and the exploration of identity and playing roles dates back at least to Lost Highway. But Inland Empire is not so much a retread as a distillation, a development of his signature themes into their ultimate expression. Laura Dern, back in a Lynch film for the first time since Wild At Heart, gives a powerhouse performance, acting a lot of the time in unsparingly tight close-ups that require her to act intensively with her facial expressions, while also handling the shifts between an array of different characters all played by her. She's the centerpiece of a film that's brimming with ideas and images, enthralling from its first image to its last.

[Note: I have more comments about this film in my write-up of its mini-feature "sequel" made up of deleted scenes, More Things That Happened.]

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

10/30: La Truite; Holiday

Joseph Losey's La Truite is a strange and deeply unsettling film, not so much because of what happens on screen — not much happens at all, actually — but because of what it obliquely suggests. It's a work of odd stasis, with a curiously elliptical narrative that frustrates at every turn. Of course, Losey has always been a somewhat difficult figure to get a grasp on, and that is perhaps nowhere more true than in this nearly asexual meditation on sexuality. Isabelle Huppert turns in a stellar performance as the manipulative Frédérique, the daughter of the owners of a country trout farm, where she works, as the opening scene shows, squeezing out the bladders of fish as though she's milking them. This casually disturbing image sets the tone for the film, as Frédérique has made it her mission in life to milk men for all they're worth without ever offering them much in return. She marries the fey, perpetually ailing and conflicted homosexual Galuchat (Jacques Spiesser), to whom she seems genuinely devoted despite their sexless union, but this doesn't stop her from seducing, almost offhand, two businessmen who the couple meet at a bowling alley.

She runs off with one of these men, Saint-Genis (Daniel Olbrychski) on a business trip to Japan, and though she turns on the charm in some ways, she keeps him constantly at a distance and totally frustrated. Huppert's performance is remarkable because she manages to convey a subtle aura of seduction that emanates from her body at all times without her ever even doing anything. Frédérique is crass and hardly a match for the glamorous women who are set against her, played by an aging but still radiant Jeanne Moreau and the black model Lisette Malidor. Nevertheless, she exudes a subtle sexual pull that seems to draw every man in her vicinity to her, like a trout letting off pheromones.

Losey lets the implications of her manipulations and coldness play themselves out from such an objective distance that at times it feels like the narrative is in danger of slipping out of reach. Losey's objectivity verges on indifference at times, a coldness towards these characters that is very much like Frédérique's indifference towards the men around her. His presentation of the nouveau riche business class is a deadpan satire with few enough jokes but plenty of sharp critical observations, as in the dryly funny dinner scene where Losey skewers the banal chatter and pompous self-inflation of the bourgeoisie money-makers. The film is all about careful observation and accumulation of detail. Not for the sake of psychological insight, since the characters are ciphers with little enough explication of their actions, but for the examination of the ways in which sex, power, class, and money interact with each other.

This was Losey's penultimate film, made in France at the end of his lifelong post-McCarthy exile from Hollywood, and it finds the director's keen analytical mind and unique perspective still in full flower. The intentionally showy camerawork, marked by constant pans, unsteady tracking, and attention-getting zooms, keeps the viewer destabilized at every point, always too far away from Frédérique's story to really get into her head. The only exception is the haunting and powerful final shot, in which Losey finally allows a moment of psychological insight to penetrate his character. He sustains a long close-up on a cryptically smiling Huppert, framed against a window as her husband is visible outside, pacing back and forth. By the end of the film, she's manipulated herself into a position of relative power and prestige, a seeming happy ending, but when asked if she likes things better now, she can only say, "It's all the same." Losey holds the shot a moment longer, the static close-up offset by the background tension of the pacing Galuchat, an enduring image of disillusionment and Frédérique's belated realization of her life's essential emptiness.

Holiday is the kind of fun, witty, vibrant, and intelligent Hollywood comedy that, unfortunately, modern Hollywood no longer shows the least interest in making. This film is a sheer joy to watch, the kind of film where you can simply get lost in its characters and milieu while they're on screen, only to find that they're still lingering with you long after the film is over. Director George Cukor has a light touch for comedy, deftly balancing the witty banter and comedic scenes with a real sense of drama. This drama arises from the fact that one senses, from the very beginning of the film, that Cary Grant's Johnny is a much better match for the free-spirited Linda (Katharine Hepburn) than he is for her more straitlaced sister Julia (Doris Nolan). Part of this is sheer Hollywood gamesmanship — when Katherine Hepburn shows up in what seems at first to be a supporting role, it's instantly clear that she's going to have to take control of the film and end up with the leading man somehow. But Cukor is also wise to let the romance between Grant and Hepburn develop naturally, subtly, so that their growing love is clear to the audience well before it's clear to either of them.

When the film opens, Johnny and Julia have just gotten engaged after a whirlwind romance when they met on vacation. Johnny's a rough-and-ready fellow who's pulled himself up from very humble origins to become a moderately successful businessman, but he's stunned when he discovers that Julia is a fabulously wealthy heiress from the old-money Seton family. The fit proves to be poor, especially since Johnny has dreams of striking it rich in business early in life so he can then take a few years off to explore the world. He's therefore not too eager to settle down into the kind of staid life in finance that Julia's father envisions for him, and as the engagement announcement looms closer, it becomes increasingly clear that Julia is carved from the same mold as her father. In contrast, the iconoclastic Linda is a true breath of fresh air. Of the three Seton children, only Julia seems comfortable in their sheltered, money-über-alles existence. Linda retreats into childhood memories of their mother and the "play room" that she set up as an alternative to the marble pillar glamour of their mansion. Their brother Ned (Lew Ayres), meanwhile, retreats into alcoholism, and his bleary-eyed performance provides a kind of foreshadowing of what might become of Johnny if he follows through on marrying Julia — smashed dreams and chronic depression.

At the heart of this film is a magical New Year's Eve party that locates a small core of fun-loving vibrancy amidst a sea of pretension and empty riches. Linda is distraught that her father has not allowed her to throw the intimate party she envisioned for Julia's engagement, instead turning it into yet another dull society ball. Linda retreats once again into her play room, and over the course of the party her inner sanctum becomes a similar retreat for all the party's genuine souls. Johnny's whimsical friends (Edward Everett Horton and Jean Dixon, in great bit turns) are drawn there before long, as is Ned, and finally Johnny himself. The quintet find themselves throwing an impromptu party of their own, with a puppet show, Ned playing the piano, and Johnny and Linda attempting back flips and acrobatic feats. It's a magical interlude, a small holiday from the dullness of the society party happening a few floors below, and the intrusion of Julia and her father at the end is a rude awakening, the destruction of something beautiful and pristine that was developing among those free-wheeling spirits.

The film never actually gives poor Julia much of a chance. Jean Dixon isn't much of a challenge for the wise-cracking, earnest Hepburn, and the audience is rooting for the proper match between Grant and Hepburn from the very first moment they appear on screen together. What's special about the film is the urgency with which it imbues this budding romance, the sense that this is a crucial decision for Johnny. In the climactic scene where Julia's father begins laying out the road ahead for them if he marries Julia, the tension begins mounting to tremendous levels as it becomes clear just how bad a fit for Johnny this constricted life would be. The film certainly parodies the old money lifestyle; when Julia earnestly tells Johnny how much fun business can be, one can't help but laugh, especially in light of Grant's shell-shocked expression. But more importantly, the film stresses that different lifestyles suit different people, and that the choices we make in life define the paths that are open to us. Johnny and Linda, ultimately, realize this, and realize the importance of going off on their own holiday together, making choices for themselves.

Monday, October 29, 2007

10/29: Invocation of My Demon Brother; L'amour existe; The Wild Blue Yonder

Revisiting Fantoma's second collection of Kenneth Anger's films, next up was Invocation of My Demon Brother. This is another of Anger's expressions of his ritualistic magic, like the earlier Inaugaration of the Pleasure Dome, but I for one found this film to be much more effective, with a visceral assault of wild imagery. Anger densely layers superimposed images of his ritual performances, creating intense and often frightening collages. He superimposes multiple faces together, forming complex webs of eyes or laughing mouths packed into the frame, and speeds up rapidly edited ritual footage to enhance its immediacy.

The film's bracing visual impact is matched by the brutal score from Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger; if it wasn't for his name in the credits, I would've guessed this was a modern noise composition. The soundtrack is a rough, noisy feedback improvisation in the spirit of Lou Reed's infamous Metal Machine Music, a mechanically rhythmic exploration of harsh electronic tones bleating and squealing behind the images. The periodic bursts of less disciplined textured noise become a component in the overriding rhythm as well as the piece goes along, and the film's editing rhythms often play off of the music. This is one of Anger's most potent outbursts of visual excess.

I was somewhat surprised to discover that Maurice Pialat's 1960 short film debut, L'amour existe, was not the minimal dialogue-based drama I would've expected as a starting point for his career. Indeed, for his first film, Pialat forgoes narrative altogether, crafting a free-associative essay film that has much more in common with the first efforts of Alain Resnais than I ever would've guessed based on their respective later work. The film begins with an elegiac childhood remembrance. A romanticized voiceover narrates a series of key childhood moments — afternoons in the cinema, a map that aroused fantasies of far-off places — while Pialat's camera tracks across the suburbs of Paris. The film is an endless series of such stately tracking shots, the grand romance of the camera's gestures serving as a counterpoint to the general squalor that Pialat is depicting.

His film is essentially a recounting of the full life cycle of a lower-class suburban laborer, commuting into the city and back for hours every day, working hard for little pay, given exceedingly little free time and nothing of substance to fill it with. The film's introduction, in boyhood, is relatively brief, and then, the voiceover says, "the suburbs grow up" and the time of carefree adolescence comes to an end. From there, his camera roams freely across the streets of Paris and its surrounding environs, while the narration presents a poignant depiction of post-war Paris and the plight of its workers. The bulk of the film is taken up by this discussion of the working life, exploring the disconnection of workers from culture and art, the long hours, the decrepit neighborhoods outside Paris, the cramped public transportation. After all this, Pialat suggests, the workers are released into the relative peace of old age, which he depicts as a pale shadow of childhood's carefree spirit.

This is a lovely, understated cinematic poem that combines an evocative tone with a probing social conscience. Its an interesting start for Pialat, but on reflection not quite as odd as I initially though. All of his films display a sharply honed moral sense and an interest in the seeming banalities of existence, even if later on he would turn to narrative features rather than documentary essays.

Werner Herzog's The Wild Blue Yonder is a unique, compelling, but ultimately uneven effort from this master director of the uncharted and unusual. Herzog's work has always ventured in search of the unexplored territories, and his greatest sympathy has always been with those characters — real or imagined — who set off to do the impossible or the foolhardy. Some of his greatest work, especially in the latter part of his career, has been concerned with finding these adventurers in real life and crafting visionary documentaries around their surreal journeys. In a few of these, like Fata Morgana and Lessons of Darkness, documentary and fiction blend almost seamlessly, with Herzog narrating journeys into the unreal using footage wholly taken from the real. These science fiction documentaries, of which Wild Blue Yonder is the latest example, have often ranked among Herzog's most fascinating films, but this one doesn't quite reach the same ecstatic heights.

In the film, an alien (Brad Dourif) lands on Earth as part of an exhibition fleeing his now-inhospitable home in the faraway Andromeda galaxy. He's stunned to find, though, that the people of Earth are in the process of sending out their own astronauts in search of a better place to live, and he can only watch in awe and sadness as those astronauts land on and explore his former home, an icy planet in Andromeda. Herzog depicts this journey using documentary footage shot on a real space shuttle exhibition and on a diving exhibition below the ice floes in Antarctica, as well as periodic archival footage from NASA and the history of aviation. There are also a handful of fictional vignettes with Dourif, as the alien visitor, ranting and spouting his philosophy. Dourif is the film's first big problem. His oddball persona and earnest lunacy is more than a little off-putting, and he often seems like he doesn't know whether to play the alien as threatening, poignant, or silly. The result is mostly just awkward. Fortunately, he's a little better when he's relegated to voiceover, and he especially tones down his melodramatic intonation when he begins to narrate the Earthling astronauts' mission, adopting a more hushed and whispery tone that's better suited to the film's overall mood of melancholy contemplation.

Indeed, once the film gets past a bumpy start that's heavy on Dourif and lots of CIA conspiracy theory nonsense, things become much more promising. Some of the space shuttle footage is still a bit dry, and Herzog mostly lets it stand on its own, possibly banking on a certain awe factor associated with the weightless movement of the astronauts. I can't speak for everyone, but a lifetime of being exposed to this kind of footage has possibly diminished its inherent impressiveness too much. This is not true, however, of the footage from Antarctica, taken by improvisational guitarist and deep sea diver Henry Kaiser. As the astronauts disembark from their shuttle, they descend into a gorgeous underwater netherworld, teeming with strange life and flooded with a gorgeous blue light. Herzog has always been fascinated by the foreignness of our own planet, and both Fata Morgana and Lessons of Darkness were structured as the experience of Earth through the eyes of alien visitors. Here, the concept is taken a step further, as images from Earth stand in for another planet. The Earth is made strange to its own inhabitants, who poke around and explore its recesses as though they were on a true alien world. It's some truly awe-inspiring photography, and here Herzog is probably wise to let it stand mostly on its own. Its eerie beauty speaks for itself.

Also contributing to the film's strange appeal is the haunting, utterly original score, performed by cellist Ernst Reijseger with Senegalese vocalist Mola Sylla and a choir of Sardinian singers. The music is stunning, achieving a strange blend somewhere between African vocal music, European religious music, and modern avant-garde composition. It's a perfect complement to Herzog's gorgeous imagery, evoking an otherworldly aura that helps to disassociate the images from their earthbound origins, aiding the transition to an imaginary icy world in the Andromeda galaxy. The music was so beautiful, so unique, that I had to immediately order the soundtrack CD as soon as the film was over. Reijseger's compositions elevate the film to a whole other level.

Wild Blue Yonder winds up being an interesting but only partially successful venture into Herzog's trademark territory of "ecstatic truth." The film examines man's isolation from his environment, possibly the universal condition if even aliens feel the same disconnection. Beings from one planet flee to another, only to find that the denizens of that planet are also heading off for uncharted waters. In examining this poetic situation, Herzog pulls in NASA science, string theory and astrophysics, and some of the most beautifully shot underwater footage I've ever seen. With such an odd mix of ideas and images blended together, not to mention the collision of Dourif's fictional framing story with documentary realities, it's perhaps not surprising that this film hangs together a bit awkwardly. Still, there's plenty of great material here to make this well worth seeing — as pretty much all of Herzog's films are.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

10/28: Arabic Series #11-19; The Ox-Bow Incident

Stan Brakhage's Arabic Series is a suite of 20 short 16mm films, ranging from 5 minutes to half an hour in length, that rank among the director's most abstract and challenging works. I missed out on #s 0-10 yesterday at the Anthology Film Archives, but I was here for today's screening of #s 11-19 in the series (though #12 seemed to be absent). These films confound even the limited potential for figurative or thematic interpretation that I discussed in my last Brakhage post, existing entirely in a framework of visceral sensory experience that represents Brakhage at his most primal and elemental. The films all deal with light and color in their most basic forms, crystalline shards of prismatic light dancing across a grainy black surface.

Over the course of the eight films in the series I saw, Brakhage explores a variety of forms of light, everything from star-like pinpricks, to diamond-shaped bursts, to diffuse shifting glows that spread across the frame or collide with other areas of color. There are frequently points when the frame goes entirely black, a dense grainy black that seems to hint at the return of the light at any moment. At times, it seems like Brakhage or someone else is standing between the camera and the light source, or placing some object between them, so that the light peeks around the edges of the obstruction like a sunrise coming over a hill. At other times, superimposed (probably optically printed?) bits of light play off each other, scattered across the black of the frame. The individual films have their own identities, too: #13 features mostly diffuse color fields while #14 is a bit spikier and pointillist, and the final three films are especially colorful and lively, with bursts of bright blue and red, super-saturated golden yellows, and pale purple washes. But on the whole the films work best as a cluster, because the careful, meditative quality of the works — a stark contrast to, for example, the frantic pacing of Brakhage's hand-painted work — lends itself to extended contemplation.

Brakhage himself compares these films to music, specifically modern composition, and the comparison makes a certain amount of sense. These are carefully calibrated explorations of rhythm, and the relationships that Brakhage develops between different areas of color and light might easily be thought of as akin to the relationship between sounds in music. With their measured rhythmic pacing and self-contained, entirely non-figurative imagery, these films seem to invite a wholly different experience of viewing. This is, of course, true of all Brakhage's films to some extent or another, but most of his other films at least provide a handhold for those inclined to look for one. The hand-painted films at least offer the possibility of figurative identification amidst the constantly shifting forms, and the photographic montage films like Cat's Cradle or A Child's Garden and the Serious Sea, no matter how rapidly edited, usually provide at least a hint of figures and mini-narratives and events. There is nothing of this kind to hold onto in these films. This is pure light, and not even light that can be traced back to a source, since Brakhage has entirely divorced these images from even a trace of concrete reality. This makes these films perhaps the purest expression of Brakhage's art that I've yet come across. If cinema is an artform of light, the Arabic Series is cinema in its most primal and instinctive form, splashing light across the screen in mesmerizing patterns and leaving the spectator overwhelmed when it's all over.

William Wellman made his name with The Ox-Bow Incident, a potent use of the Western genre to tell an allegorical story of miscarried justice and mob rule. Two drifters (Henry Fonda and Henry Morgan) wander into a small town just as a local rancher is murdered by cattle rustlers, and they find themselves swept up with an angry lynch mob to go track down the perpetrators. The mob quickly stumbles across three men camped out in the mountains, driving cattle assumed to have been stolen from the rancher, and they set out to give the men a hasty show trial and then lynch them. There is a battle of wills between the forces of justice and those of mob revenge, as it becomes increasingly clear that the men are probably innocent. The obvious point, the value of true justice as opposed to revenge and punishment, is delivered with a slightly heavy hand, though the blow is softened somewhat by the skill of the powerhouse cast.

Although this situation provides plenty of suspense and drama, the film doesn't have much to recommend it cinematically. Wellman could be a very theatrical director, and at times he seems too comfortable simply getting across his story and message as a filmed play. The whole film is lighted beautifully, though, and the nighttime scenes around the campfire, before the three captured men are set to be hanged, are haunting and gorgeous. Wellman also provides at least one striking scene here, at the beginning of this campfire segment. He opens the scene tightly focused on the men clustered directly around the fire, laughing, eating and drinking, enacting the roles of a riotous but fun-loving lynch mob. The camera pulls back slowly, filling the frame with more and more men, and then at the top of the frame the three dangling nooses come into view, hanging over the whole scene. The camera keeps pulling back until it's revealed the whole tree and the dark sky behind it, but those nooses remain the center of attention, a powerful but peripheral presence in the far background. It's a wonderfully executed scene, and one wishes only that Wellman had trusted his camerawork and mise-en-scène to present these kinds of things more often.

Nevertheless, the film remains a taut, economical drama, with the tension steadily escalating as the moment of truth comes closer, then deflates into the melancholy coda. Wellman seems to have only a passing interest in fulfilling genre requirements in this film. All the basic trappings of the Western are here, but the film feels more like a morality play dressed up in Western garb. In point of fact, its events could happen anywhere, they are not unique to the American frontier, which is of course Wellman's point. The film's power rests primarily on its script, which is mostly strong and only falters when it adds a few moments — they're hardly substantial enough to even be called a subplot — with Fonda's old girlfriend (Mary Beth Hughes), which seem intended solely to get a female lead into a plot where there's not much space for it. A few script-related missteps like that aside, Wellman's landmark film surprisingly retains much of its impact today, perhaps because the spectacle of ordinary people turned bloodthirsty and vengeful is frighteningly plausible in any era.

Friday, October 26, 2007

10/26: When a Woman Ascends the Stairs

Mikio Naruse has undergone a bit of a resurgence in recent years, after long living in the shadows of more internationally famous directors and recognized auteurs like Ozu and Kurosawa. His style is not nearly as recognizable or pronounced as either of those directors, and his tendency towards the thematic material of "women's pictures" probably also contributed, unfortunately, to the lack of seriousness regarding his work. In his way, though, he's turned out to be every bit as distinctive and worthy of attention as his better-known peers. When a Woman Ascends the Stairs seems to be something of a change from Naruse, and it's certainly set off in several ways from the three films of his I've seen from the great UK DVD box set. For one thing, in the late 50s he expanded his canvas to a widescreen aspect ratio from the squared-off Academy ratio of the earlier films, and he makes full use of the long, narrow canvas for some very interesting compositions. This film also uses a much more expressive lighting palette, and the many interior scenes in bars are even reminiscent at times of film noir in their dynamic lighting and use of shadow. The effect is enhanced by the jazzy, jangly score, which would have seemed drastically out of place in the quiet, even-keeled worlds of the other Naruses I've seen.

But these are mostly cosmetic touches, and in many ways the departure from the earlier films is not as drastic as it might seem. The story of the widowed Ginza bar hostess Keiko (the lovely Hideko Takamine), the film certainly shares the same thematic territory that Naruse was continually returning to. The conditions, opportunities, and thoughts of women in post-war Japan were a continual source of material for him, and this film, like the others, uses the milieu of the Ginza bar to lightly probe into the social conditions that limit women's options in life. There is little overt social commentary in the film, but it is nearly impossible to view its narrative arc as anything other than a condemnation of the era's treatment of women. Naruse presents a society in which women are forced by circumstances, often male-imposed, in which they must lower themselves in order to survive, and are then judged harshly by those very same men. It's a vicious Catch-22, and one certainly related to the madonna-or-whore paradox that has so often dominated male-centric views of women.

The film also lays to rest any claims about Naruse's lack of style. What he has, in fact, is a near-invisible style, but a powerful one nevertheless. His camera positioning lacks the flair or symbolic heft that critics so love to point out in Ozu, and he doesn't have Kurosawa's flashy movement either. He imparts his stamp on his films, instead, through the editing, and by giving a crisp, rhythmic layout to his scenes that seems entirely natural until you really study it. I must confess that at first I found myself falling into the trap as well, admiring the story and the characterization but finding little of interest in the aesthetic content. But then there's scene about 40 minutes in where Keiko has a discussion with her manager Komatsu (Tatsuya Nakadai) about the possibility of opening her own bar, and I began to notice the astonishing but subtle way in which Naruse was breaking down the scene. His films are often filled with lengthy two-person conversations; these are the emotional core of his work and the area in which his stylistic prowess is most at work.

In this scene — and, I came to notice, in all the film's conversation scenes — Naruse cuts between striking close-ups and a series of two-shots that are constantly re-positioning the characters in space and in relationship to each other. Naruse's cutting is precise and economical, hitting each beat with perfect timing. Close-up; shot over Keiko's shoulder with Komatsu facing her; close-up; two-shot with Komatsu in the background and Keiko foregrounded; close-up; two-shot with the pair side by side at the bar. The precision of the cuts and the shifting perspectives — at one moment we seem to be on one end of the bar, then when the shot cuts back we've moved 180 degrees — serve to emphasize the importance that Naruse places on conversations and interaction. In another scene, towards the end, when Keiko's lover leaves her at her apartment, Naruse carefully refrains from showing much of the space in the room during their conversation, largely sticking to tight Cinemascope close-ups that locate their heads to one side of the frame, leaving long stretches of empty space. This restraint enhances the impact when, towards the very end of the scene, he finally reveals the pair standing together towards the center of the large room, which suddenly seems very sparse. Naruse also deliberately foregrounds the kitchen table, where the man leaves some stock certificates as a somewhat empty parting gift, and the white rectangle of paper serves as a sad reminder of his absence even after he leaves.

Obviously, Naruse's lack of style has been drastically overstated. This film, as with everything I've seen by him, is possessed of a quietly confident sense of composition and the rhythms of life, expressed in his carefully modulated editing. It's a simple, inconspicuous style, and when the narrative is working at its best, can be almost invisible. When a Woman Ascends the Stairs is a perfect encapsulation of Naruse's subtle style and light touch within a melodramatic narrative.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

10/25: Portrait of Jason; Brakhage shorts

The eponymous subject of Shirley Clarke's fascinating documentary Portrait of Jason is Jason Holliday, a gay black man, originally from the deep South, who led a rough and varied life. Clarke simply puts Jason in front of the camera and lets him speak, and this proves more than enough to make this portrait engaging, funny, and genuinely moving in a surprising way. Jason seems to be a born entertainer, and the camera hardly phases him in the least. He immediately launches into a stream of hilarious anecdotes, acts out scenes from famous Hollywood movies, and generally riffs on himself and his life. He'd been a male hustler, a houseboy, a kind of amateur con man, and done all sorts of odd jobs — everything, that is, but hold down a steady 9-to-5, which he says early on is not for him. Jason's bitchy, extravagant persona is a perfect focus for a documentary of this kind, where he's the only thing on screen throughout the film. Clarke occasionally lets the camera lose focus, reducing the image to a blur, which allows her cameraman to imperceptibly switch reels while Jason's voice continues on the soundtrack. But other than these moments of visual abstraction, the whole film takes place in a single room, with the camera aimed squarely at Jason, sometimes showing him lounging in full body, sometimes focusing in for a tightly framed close-up on his expressive face. In the memorable image I've captured above, Clarke allows a skull in the background to provide a mirror image to Jason's strained grin.

Jason is always grinning here, and laughing too. He's one of those people who will laugh longer and harder at his own jokes and stories than anyone else around him, and his wild laughter is contagious. After many of his stories, he simply throws his head back and howls, collapsing backwards in gales of laughter. Even so, one senses almost immediately that there's something behind this merriment. In unguarded moments, when there's a lull in the unceasing monologue, Jason seems a bit drained and empty, uncertain even, as though only the constant flow of words and fun can keep him from fading away. In one striking scene early on, Clarke films a break in the streams of words, with Jason quietly smoking a cigarette; she shows him in a head-on tight close-up, and his unfocused eyes and blank slate of a face are a stark contrast to the vibrant, dynamic figure we'd seen before then.

Indeed, as the film goes on, the portrait being created here becomes darker and darker, with more subtle hints of what's to come. Jason's drinking, pronounced throughout the film, becomes increasingly reckless towards the end, and by the final twenty minutes he's visibly stumbling and slurring his words, clutching a bottle as his monologue takes an introspective turn. What emerges is a sense of a man who has created his entertainer persona as a shield against a pretty ugly life — an abusive father who beat him daily, racism encountered everywhere, lots of empty sex and a lack of real love. Clarke simply allows him to keep talking long enough so that the created persona falls away and the man begins to show. She's clearly heard most of his anecdotes before, and when he seems uncertain of where to go next, she's heard off-camera coaching him, "Tell the one about..." So one definitely gets the sense that she's playing a kind of waiting game here, letting Jason get through all his usual stories and acts until he runs out of the everyday stuff and has to dig deeper. He winds up digging into his childhood and his darker experiences of racism and homophobia, telling them increasingly without the nervous laugh that often accompanied his earlier, more humorously presented tales.

Clarke's film is endlessly fascinating and entertaining, largely because Jason is so fabulously interesting. The hallmark of a great documentary is to treat the subject with an aesthetic that brings out its essence, and Clarke is certainly able to do this with Jason. This sustained focus on his words and his life provides an intimate glimpse into the man, in the process casting a harsh glow on the social prejudices that guided him into the life he wound up leading. This is a stark, uncompromising portrait, both wildly entertaining and ultimately harrowing as well.

Stan Brakhage is an avant-garde filmmaker whose films continuously amaze and delight me, but writing about his work, finding a way into it that makes sense of the experience, is incredibly difficult. I hope to be writing a lot about his films here, and maybe by a process of continuously thinking about his work in words I'll be able to get closer to understanding it. In any case, tonight I revisited three of my favorites from him. Brakhage's abstract films, especially his purely painted one, provide so little ground for thematic interpretation that it's often very tempting to rest a reading on the film's title, and to view the film's abstract imagery through the lens of that title's contextualization. In the case of Love Song, one of Brakhage's late painted works, it's very difficult not to think of the film in terms of erotic imagery.

The film starts with thick, tactile clumps of paint, some of the most pronounced textural effects I've seen in my admittedly limited exposure to Brakhage's painting. The paint seems to be elevated off the film cells, deeply layered and creating a shaky, start/stop frame-by-frame flow. As the film's ten minutes go by, the painting gradually becomes more fluid, less raised, and the flow becomes smoother. The effect is undeniably sensual, as the jerky, frantic motion calms down into a more relaxed but equally passionate flow. It's also hard to deny the temptation to inscribe forms upon the black masses that flow across the frame over the course of the film's second half. Constantly shifting shape and pouring into each other, being absorbed by other black shapes, these forms nevertheless suggest human figures, limbs flailing, in a flood of bodies set off against the pale, watery washes of color that form the frame's backgrounds. More importantly than such semi-figurative hints is the way in which the sense of movement in the film suggests its connection with eroticism and sexuality. The black threads streaming through the frame are continually coupling and separating, creating a sensation of stickiness and wetness, like strands of seminal fluid intertwining and coming apart. The overall effect is like watching a series of primal embraces taking place between opposing areas of color.

It's difficult to overemphasize the extent to which a film like this is first and foremost a visceral, sensory experience, and only secondarily an intellectual one. In Brakhage's mature style (or styles, since he never stopped developing and changing), images rarely stay on the screen for more than a fraction of a second, and the overall pace is so rapid that it lends itself primarily to in-the-moment experience. This is not to say that the mind isn't working during a Brakhage film. Quite to the contrary, his abstract but suggestive images inevitably trigger waves of mental associations and fleeting connections. But it's only afterwards that my brain can catch up to the images, to process them and form overall impressions outside of the momentary visceral flood. This remains possibly my favorite Brakhage of the handful I've seen, because not only is its visceral effect incredibly powerful — this is very common in Brakhage's films — but because of the specificity of this effect, its erotic charge and sense of bodies in motion.

Mothlight is a much earlier Brakhage film, and is probably the film most synonymous with his name for those only vaguely aware of him. This is probably because, even more so than with Love Song, Mothlight lends itself especially well to the formation of a narrative or thematic core. The film was made by collaging together natural objects — blades of grass, moth wings, dead insects, bits of bark and leaves — onto a continuous strip which was then divided into individual film frames for projection. The effect is incredibly striking, pointing the way towards the rapid pace of Brakhage's painted films, with objects existing across multiple frames in ways that are simply impossible with traditional photography. In conventional film, an object exists from frame to frame because the camera is taking subsequent still images of it as it moves over time. In Mothlight, objects like blades of grass exist from frame to frame because they are literally stretched across the filmstrip, so that each subsequent frame shows an additional section of the object. In other words, if traditional film moves in time, Brakhage's work here is much more concerned with space.

What Mothlight achieves in this regard is to make the viewer aware of the illusion of cinematic time, to draw attention to the filmstrip as a tangible object in its own right. Because objects in this film persist across frames, the illusion that one frame is happening before or after another is shattered; what is highlighted, instead, is that one frame is next to another on the physical space of the filmstrip, and that objects are laid out across this space. The effect is something like looking at a slide through a microscope, sliding it back and forth to observe different aspects of the object on display. Brakhage's interest in his natural samples isn't scientific, though, but poetic. He's arranged the detritus and discarded bits and pieces of nature into an impressionistic rumination on mortality and decay.

Finally, I watched Brakhage's interpretation of Dante's Divine Comedy, a series of four short segments collectively entitled The Dante Quartet. Each of the sections corresponds to one of Dante's three levels of being, with Brakhage dedicating two to Hell, and one each to Purgatory and Heaven. The film opens with "Hell Itself," which provides a typically intense montage of painted cells, fierce collisions of color and only the barest hint of some urban footage which Brakhage was apparently painting over. The second section, "Hell Spit Flexion," provides a second vision of Hell, and a much more terrifying one. It consists entirely of fragmentary, sparse images flashed on screen, and contained within a much smaller frame within the frame, so that the bulk of the space on screen is black. This is Hell as a disconnection from sensory experience, a distancing from light and color and immersion in black. Hell as blindness, perhaps, or near-sightedness. Hell as a lack of sensation, or sensation felt without the visceral impact and energy that Brakhage strove for in his work. The third segment, "Purgation," maintains some of the feel of the second, with its jittery rhythms and occasional freeze-frame moments. But the inner frame expands to a larger size, creating a kind of widescreen effect within the frame; this is because here Brakhage is painting over old 35mm prints, and the movie imagery is occasionally visible through gaps left in the paint. It's as though Purgatory for Brakhage is Hollywood cinema, with its traditional narratives and representational imagery, and as much as he tries to blot it out with his own images, it still shows through.

What shows through in the final segment, though, is simply Brakhage's ecstatic celebration of life and the world. If the previous sections of the film represented Brakhage's struggles with expressing himself through abstraction, this final piece finds him at the absolute peak of his expressive powers. "Existence Is Song" is his interpretation of Dante's Paradise, a burst of passion and energy virtually unmatched anywhere. Brakhage's wild painting is at its peak, with colors dancing across the frame and circling around each other in sheer delight. He blends his paintings here with shots of the moon, and the earth as seen from space, and volcanic eruptions. In the course of the film, as the sections move steadily closer to Paradise, the background imagery that Brakhage blends with his paints followed suit, becoming both grander and more intimately integrated into the film. This secondary imagery develops from the drab cityscapes dimly visible behind the first section, to the Hollywood fantasies which provide a counterpoint in the third section, to the metaphysical images that play such an integral role in the final movement.

There's something about Dante that seems to draw avant-garde artists to revisit his work, as the multi-talented painter and designer Tom Phillips did with his illustrated translation edition and video project also based on the Divine Comedy. Brakhage's version is a powerful vision of the stages of the afterlife as a parallel for his own artistic creativity. And this creativity finds its ultimate outlet in the virtuoso display that ends "Existence Is Song," culminating the film's ascent to Paradise with an explosive celebration, not of God, but of man's sensory capabilities.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

10/24: I Am Curious — Yellow; Sweet Movie

[This is a Transgressive Sex Double Feature, my second contribution to the Double Bill-a-thon 2007 going on over at Broken Projector.]

Although it's somewhat hard to believe now, Vilgot Sjöman's I Am Curious — Yellow made quite a stir upon its initial 1967 release and subsequent importation into the US in 1969. The film was confiscated before even being shown, and subjected to an intense censorship debate while its release drew massive crowds curious about the scandal. Looking at it now, the film's nude scenes are scarce and relatively tame — though it does say a great deal about American puritanism that, 40 years later, the scene where actress Lena Nyman kisses her lover's penis would still cause an incredible furor if it appeared in a mainstream Hollywood film. Other than that, though, times have changed, and the question becomes: now that the outrage has died down, what else does the film have to offer? The answer, predictably, is not that much.

No doubt, Sjöman was remarkably ambitious, and his film (the first part of a diptych with sister film Blue) ranges far and wide in its combination of political and sexual exploration. The film attempts to blend the personal with the political, documentary with fiction, and locate all this within the metafictional framework of the film crew making the film. It's a true Godardian project, and no doubt if Godard was making it all these disparate elements would hang together a bit better, or at least hint at something deeper beyond the mess. As it is, the film strikes too uneven a division in its balance of politics and sexuality. The first half hour or so engages in some interesting political discourse, questioning both capitalism and hardline Communism. That is, literally questioning them, through a series of probing man-on-the-street interviews that attempt to get at the nature of class distinctions in 1960s Sweden. There are some very interesting parts here, especially the tongue-in-cheek "interview" with Martin Luther King, using stock footage of him intercut with Sjöman (playing the film director within the film) on-screen asking him questions. This leads into a scene of Lena going around asking people if they've heard of non-violence — hilariously, the first people she asks are a trio of cops, who oblige by saying no, never heard of it. She then asks a middle-age woman what she's heard about King, and the answer is "Oh, he won't fight for his beliefs, right?"

This is pretty much indicative of the film's political questioning, which is amusing and frequently at least thought-provoking, but perhaps not as deep or probing as Sjöman would like to think it is. Moreover, after the very beginning, this political material is increasingly backgrounded in favor of the fictional story that's being filmed by the crew within the film, about Lena and her philandering lover, Börje Ahlstedt. This is the part of the film that earned it its notorious reputation, and as an exploration of sexual liberation, feminism, and the "personal as political," it's not without interest. But mostly it's a drab, lifeless, indifferently acted series of scenes with little energy, little intellectual depth, and even little of the crackling wit that was present in so many of the earlier scenes.

The film's hardly a total loss though. Lena's sexual journey remains of interest as an examination of the consequences of total freedom and the individual's responsibility to make his or her own life and ideas. This is an interesting time capsule of an older era, flawed and badly dated, but somewhat redeemed by its sense of humor and seriousness of purpose.

Dušan Makavejev's Sweet Movie is another film whose primary renown these days is as a source of controversy and shock value. One crucial difference between this and I Am Curious, though, is that Makavejev's film still has the capacity to shock audiences, even jaded modern ones used to seeing just about anything in films. In fact, I only thought I was used to seeing just about anything, until Makavejev reminded just how much potential ground "anything" could cover. The film's steadily escalating assault on the senses starts relatively low-key, with the hilarious introduction set at a kind of gynecological beauty pageant, and culminates in a massive scatological orgy/food fight reminiscent of the Vienna Aktionists (and indeed, Aktionist icon Otto Muehl himself appears among the shitting, vomiting revelers). The last half-hour of the film contains some of the most perpetually shocking and visually extravagant images ever committed to celluloid, and their potential to stun and overwhelm remains undiminished by the 30+ years since their first appearance.

But if that's all Sweet Movie had to offer, it would be little more than a slightly fresher version of I Am Curious, which is certainly not the case. What's interesting is that Sweet Movie appears on its surface to be an infinitely more light-hearted, less serious effort than Sjöman's film, though at its heart it hides a much deeper political core. At times, the film's episodic structure and over-the-top energy make it feel like a particularly demented Monty Python episode or a parody of Aktionist excesses. The film's epic denouement had me alternately gasping in astonishment, laughing with sheer I-can't-believe-they-just-did-that delight, and wincing with disgust, sometimes within seconds of each other. It's such a visceral experience that it's quite easy to miss the film's subtler political subtext amidst all the chocolate sauce and mashed potatoes.

The film is, most obviously, a total celebration of freedom and no-holds-barred living. The loose story follows Miss World 1984 (Carole Laure), who's chosen as the most pure and desirable woman in the world, and given the dubious prize of marrying a Texan milk billionaire. After a disastrous wedding night — instead of making love, he rubs her down with alcohol and then displays his liquid-spurting, gold-plated penis for her — she's tossed aside and spends the rest of the film being limply passed from one ridiculous incident to the next. Carole is in the hands of the capitalist West, a typical feminine image of beauty used as an advertisement — most humorously in the film's infamous chocolate bath — and a status symbol, but never as a living, breathing person of her own. But the film's depiction of Communism is even nastier, with Anna Prucnal playing the symbolic captain of a symbolic ship with Karl Marx as its figurehead and a hold full of sweets and a huge sugar tank. Prucnal seduces a Russian sailor from the battleship Potemkin, copulating fiercely in a sugar bath, and in one memorable and shocking scene, she performs a creepily sexy striptease for a gathered group of seven year-olds. She's a symbol of Soviet Communism, seductive and alluring from the exterior, but with a deadly violent streak underneath, as revealed in the finale when the police unload her boat's cargo of corpses.

But the film's iconic image of Communism is some inserted documentary footage of the bodies found in the mass graves of Russia's Katyn Forest, where Stalin's army had killed and buried over four thousand people. Makavejev uses this footage in an interesting way, inserting it into the narrative twice, once towards the beginning where it is off-putting and seems out of context, and then again at the end, after the orgiastic communal scat party. In this second iteration, the footage's purpose becomes more clear, acting as a recontextualizing reference for the previous 30 minutes. Juxtaposed against the sheer human brutality of the Katyn Forest massacre, the film's over-the-top antics seem as light-hearted as they had previously seemed gratuitous. The film is sometimes hard to take, but despite this it is not the nihilist work that it is often decried as. Its concentration on human bodily processes is couched within a framework of celebration and riotous, hedonistic fun — the commune dwellers who are smearing each other with feces, inducing vomiting, and peeing into their food may be on the absolute fringes of acceptability, but they sure look like they're having a ball. And more importantly, in spite of the strong discomfort factor, it's mostly a ball to watch them.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

10/23: Safe; Fear of Fear

[This Alienated Housewife Double Feature is a contribution to the Double Bill-a-thon 2007 going on over at Broken Projector.]

Todd Haynes' Safe is a strange, unsettling, difficult picture, a film that wholly commits itself to a reality that is slightly off, slightly surreal, and yet utterly realistic in every observable way. Julianne Moore plays Carol, a suburban housewife with a rich businessman husband, a stepson, and a tremendous house with a maid and a constantly changing decor. Her life seems normal, if dull, until she begins inexplicably developing symptoms with no readily discernible medical cause. She coughs, vomits, gets nosebleeds and headaches, suffers from insomnia, all seemingly in reaction to the innocuous environment around her.

Haynes isolates Carol in her upper-class suburban world, keeping the camera almost always at a distance from her, staying primarily in long shots that position her as a lonely-looking figure in a vast space. Haynes pays especially careful attention to the gorgeously lit interiors of Carol's palatial home. Each room is a beautifully constructed tableau of light and color, often appearing empty until Carol sneaks into a corner of the frame or walks across the empty space. In one scene, she and her husband quietly argue in the bedroom, which is chopped up into sections like a geometric figure. A segmented mirror is opposite the bed, reflecting the two as they talk, their backs to each other. The mirror's reflection, with vertical lines running down at the seams, seems to trap the uncommunicative couple together like bars on a cell. The room, with its feminine pinks and teals, is offset to the right by a doorway through which we see another room, all lit in a darker midnight hue. The colors are rich and vibrant, but somehow stale, too perfectly calibrated, too artificial, not at all like a home with real living people in it. Virtually every interior space is carefully constructed in this way, a subtle arrangement of light and color that reflects the carefully ordered but fragile nature of Carol's mental state.

The home is truly a reflection of Carol, who occupies her largely empty time by creating designs and redecorating; throughout the film's first half, the house seems to be in a constant state of flux, with couches being delivered, the garden tended and redone, and the kitchen cabinets replaced or fixed. Carol is pouring herself into her fastidiously maintained home. At one point, when asked to describe her occupation, she starts to call herself a housewife, then amends it to homemaker — perhaps because she identifies more comfortably with her home than her husband? Carol's alienation from her environment, as emphasized by the distanced camerawork, is near-complete, and it's obvious that her developing symptoms are merely the external signs of a profound inner isolation. She is rejecting her very life, in the way that a body might reject an unsuitable organ transplant. Carol is not depicted as being unique — in her drab, lifeless conversations with friends and neighbors, these deeply bored women don't seem any more comfortable in their skins or happy in their environment — except that she is more sensitive than most to the numbing condition of everyday reality.

The film's depiction of suburban alienation, thus far, is incredibly striking and handled with an unrushed deliberateness that enhances Carol's increasing terror and illness, until she is entirely cut off from everything around her. But this kind of suburban angst tale ultimately isn't that unusual, and it's in the film's unsettling second half that Haynes starts truly departing into uncharted territory. The disconnected Carol, strung out and desperate for a cure by this point, stumbles upon an ad for a secluded retreat, Wrenwood, where "environmentally ill" people go to escape the "load" that common contaminants place upon their weakened systems. She departs for this hideaway, leaving her family and friends behind, in hopes of being cured of her unusual condition. What she winds up finding, though she doesn't quite seem to realize it, is simply another form of alienation, another form of isolation.

Wrenwood's method of treatment is oddly laidback and hands-off, and this section of the film functions as a deadpan parody that could refer to Christianity, New Age philosophy, triumphalist liberalism, or any combination of these. Its founder, Peter Dunning (Peter Friedman, subtly vacillating between earnest and creepy), offers a vacuous self-love philosophy that rests on a total blindness to the realities of the world and a repetitive insistence that everything is OK. The film itself offers plenty of hints that everything is not, in fact, OK with the world. The TV blasts news reports on assisted suicides, radio voices discuss religious fundamentalist politicians, there are constant references to factories dumping industrial waste in residential areas, and the specter of AIDS hangs heavy over the whole film even as a barely mentioned subtext. In this context, Peter's impassioned speech about all the good things he sees happening around him — the environmental movement, health food, self-help — seems limp, ineffectual, and naive. Moreover, he actively advocates disconnection from the world, and proudly admits that he no longer reads newspapers or receives news from the outside world. His proud disconnection fits in well with the group's ambiguous blend of real-world parallels. He could easily be a fundamentalist Christian rejecting all worldly things and waiting for Armageddon, or a New Age guru living in a private fantasy, or an ineffective Western liberal fighting small battles and leaving the largest problems un-addressed.

Haynes leaves pretty much all these options open, and the most unsettling thing about the film's second half is its almost total lack of authorial perspective. Whereas the first half very clearly mirrored Carol's increasing alienation in the stylized aesthetics of the house's interiors, Haynes steps back from such showy maneuvers after Carol's enrollment in Wrenwood. His style becomes objective in the extreme, largely eschewing both the alienating long shots and the occasional probing close-ups that characterized the first half's camerawork. The film confounds interpretation at every turn, constantly opening itself up into more and more potential meanings. What it comes down to is a broadly questioning critique of modern American society and the multitude of ways in which it pushes the individual into inaction, isolation, and confusion. This is a film where both the disease and its "cures" are revealed as facets of the same soul-crushing system.

Fassbinder's Fear of Fear is, like Safe, a dark rendering of a housewife's descent into madness as a result of the antiseptic isolation of her life. However, Fassbinder's film takes place on a much more personal level. Though Fassbinder frequently used Brechtian distancing techniques in his work, his depiction of the passionate but desperately lonely Margot (Margit Carstensen) veers in the opposite direction. Where Haynes fills his film with coldly calculated long-shots in which his heroine is a distant figure, Fassbinder zooms in for close-ups on Carstensen's expressive face — and not just close-ups, but tight, intimate, see-every-pore close-ups that chop off the top and bottom of her face to focus on her darting eyes and twisted mouth.

Margot is a tragic figure who seems to be simply too warm, too lively, for the smothering environment she's trapped in. She lives with her cold, passionless engineer husband (Ulrich Faulhaber), who seems to love her in his own quiet way but is utterly unaware of his wife's emotional nature. After they make love, she turns to him with a heartfelt look, seemingly about to express herself to him, but he obliviously begins blathering about a math professor he hates, staring at the ceiling while his wife disgustedly rolls away. Even worse are his mother and sister (Brigitte Mira and Irm Hermann, respectively), who live upstairs and despise Margot for representing a warmth and genuineness that they completely lack. In this repressive atmosphere, it's no wonder that Margot's increasing insanity — indicated, somewhat tritely, by eerie music and a wavery effect on the screen — is linked with a new sexual openness. She goes to the local pharmacist for both Valiums and affection, since he expresses his desire for her in a way her husband never does.

Another theme in the film is observation, and the gossipy spying of middle-class suburbia. There are frequent shots of Margot walking through the streets, going out for drugs or a tryst, from the perspective of an upper-story window where Hermann or Mira watches her. This is a tight-knit world, empty of any sort of relief for Margot, who like Carol in Safe can't seem to find anything worthwhile to do with herself. She bakes a never-ending series of cakes, and picks her daughter up from school, and otherwise her life offers her very little. Indeed, Fassbinder's film seems to be a prototype for the first half of Haynes' later work, encompassing many of the same scenes and images. There's the disinterested lovemaking, the visit to the doctor who says that everything is physically fine with her, and even the change of haircut in an attempt to use small measures to fix her mood. I would say, though, that Haynes' work takes the theme into incredibly interesting and complex territory, whereas this is a fairly minor and surprisingly conventional work from Fassbinder, though not without merit of its own. The scene where Margot, listening to music, glides back and forth across the frame in a very tight close-up, her distinctive face shifting from left to right, is a wonderful example of Fassbinder's skill with unusual and disarming framings. And Carstensen's performance as a whole is as stellar as ever, which is a very good thing since she spends so much time in extreme close-ups. For the most part, though, Fassbinder's distinctive style is subdued here, and his stylization of Margot's illness verges on cliche, so this is a distinctly minor entry in his large body of work.

Monday, October 22, 2007

10/22: Le chant du styrene; One, Two, Three

Alain Resnais' Le chant du styrene is in form a simple industrial documentary, commissioned no doubt as a straightforward piece intended to explain the process of manufacturing plastic. Resnais, though, was clearly not content to produce the kind of author-less hack work that such a bills-paying project would normally call for. He dedicates the same artistry, intelligence, and depth to this as he had to his Holocaust documentary Night and Fog two years earlier. The film's close-up examination of the industrial processes behind plastics manufacturing is as abstract in its way as the best of avant-garde film. The opening sequence in particular, with its playful tableaux of brightly colored plastic objects on a black background, inevitably calls to mind the work of experimental animator Oscar Fischinger, whose visual symphonies of geometric figures and colored areas are a primary touchstone here. Resnais lends the same eye for composition and color to the many extreme close-ups that show the plastic factory's machines at work, making this a masterpiece of visual design first and foremost. Resnais is playing with light and color and movement, putting cameras right into the machines and observing gears turning at the most intimate levels. His camera's eye is as probing and intrusive here as it could be when confronted by the horrors of the Holocaust or Hiroshima. One suspects, seeing this, that the reason Resnais was able to face such catastrophes so calmly and with such intellectual rigor was the discipline that allowed him to approach each project with the same high level of commitment and thought. In this case, the film is primarily an abstract visual exercise, but it also takes a turn, in the final minutes, towards philosophical inquiry into the repercussions of industrial society. The narration suggests that the process of making plastic from the byproducts of coal and petroleum is akin to creating solid objects out of smoke — a reversal, perhaps, of the socialist slogan "all that is solid melts into air." The final shot of murky water is accompanied by the suggestion, in voiceover, that everything in the natural world could potentially be transformed into something else in the hands (and machines) of man.

It's a marvelous thing when a film can completely change your sense of time, and Billy Wilder's One, Two, Three has made me feel like moving at double speed all night. Watching it is an exhilarating experience, probably because you don't so much just watch as get carried along by it, swept up in its non-stop wave of energy and enthusiasm. I'm not even sure it's actually a movie; it feels more like a particularly eager troupe of circus performers stormed into my living room for two hours, made a mess and a whole lot of noise, and stormed out again. It's a wild three-ring extravaganza, all centered around James Cagney as Coca Cola executive C.R. MacNamara, stationed in West Berlin and jockeying for control of Coke's whole European operation. His plans for promotion run into a snag, however, when he's asked to watch over the boss' ditsy, slutty 17 year-old daughter Scarlett (Pamela Tiffin) on her European vacation. Unsurprisingly, she almost immediately gets into trouble of the worst kind — at least for a Cold War-era Southern belle — falling in love with and marrying the hardcore East German Communist Otto (Horst Buchholz). As she says herself, with a heavy twang, "This boy, he was in the parade, he said to the police man I shouldn't be arrested, I should be pitied, because I was a typical bourgeois parasite and the rotten fruit of a corrupt civilization. So naturally, I fell in love with him."

The film is packed with one-liners like this, practically bursting at the seams with them, and after a relatively calm opening half-hour that establishes the characters and situations, the pace hardly slackens one iota. Instead, Wilder keeps ratcheting up the tempo, driving his characters into increasingly frantic set pieces as MacNamara fights to salvage a terrible situation. First, he contrives to get Otto arrested, but this backfires when he realizes that the girl is pregnant and he'll need to keep the communist around. Then, with his boss set to arrive in Berlin the next day, MacNamara has to race around, getting Otto out of prison with the help of a hilarious trio of Russian commissars who want to sleep with MacNamara's sexy secretary Ingeborg (Lilo Pulver). The hapless Otto is sprung, but not before he's tortured and forced to confess as an American spy — by making him listen to "Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini" over and over, so I can't say I blame him for giving in. It then falls on MacNamara to convert the militant Otto into a distinguished gentleman, even borrowing him a title from a down-on-his-luck Count, and the film ratchets up into an even higher gear than I could've even thought possible.

By this time, the relatively even-keel beginning has long been forgotten, and Cagney is snapping his fingers, barking orders punctuated by "Next!," his ex-SS assistant is storming in and out of the room, clicking his heels, the coo-coo clock on the wall is constantly going off with Uncle Sam marching out of its window and waving a flag, Otto is having a fit at being transformed into a capitalist, and one of the Russian commissars reappears as a defector, planning to make a fortune selling silver-plated sauerkraut as a Christmas decoration. It's a ludicrous, riotous, non-stop barrage of dialogue and whirling bodies, and Cagney's performance is exhausting to watch. For pretty much the entire second half of the film he's in non-stop motion, his voice roaring and barely even pausing for a breath. The whole thing in underpinned by the famous "Sabre Dance" movement that's been used and overused in so much comedy throughout the years but has never, ever, been used quite as effectively as this, perhaps because in Cagney the music has finally found its match in whirling dervish intensity and sheer speed. This is one of the most fun tour-de-force performances in all of cinema, a careening steamroller of a performance that rolls over anything and everything in its way, and Wilder simply keeps amping up the pace, increasing the tension, juggling more and more balls in a seeming contest to see how much detail he can cram into a scene. It doesn't so much climax as just come to a sudden halt, but before it does, MacNamara's office is a revolving door staging area for the whole tremendous cast to come charging through — lawyers with papers to sign, a host of clothing salesmen and haberdashers, sign painters, the Count who's also the men's room attendant at a local hotel, a reporter in search of a story who happens to have been a former SS commandant, a trio of MPs looking for the woman who'd been walking around Berlin with "Yankee Go Home" tattooed on her breasts (don't ask), Ingeborg in a trenchcoat and slip, hiding her "goose pimples," and even MacNamara's wife who's fleeing this chaos to return home to Atlanta. The scene just gets progressively more and more cluttered, with more going on in every inch of the frame as Cagney dashes here and there and keeps barking the whole time.

The whole thing is such a wild frenetic mess that it's almost a shame when it all finally comes to a rest. But even after the brief and slowed-down coda, the last memory of the film is definitely its steadily quickening pace and the driving pulse of the "Sabre Dance" underneath it all.

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.