Friday, November 30, 2007

11/30: The Key To Reserva; All That Heaven Allows; Vera Cruz

Martin Scorsese has made a commercial for the Spanish wine company Freixenet, which normally wouldn't be very notable to me, except that it's not so much a commercial as it is a 9-minute short film, called The Key To Reserva, Reserva of course being the wine in question. Scorsese took the opportunity and ran with it, clearly having a blast as he turns his commercial into a funny and detail-packed tribute to Alfred Hitchcock. It's a joy to watch, a witty tribute that any Hitchcock admirers should be sure to check out. The short, which is available online from Freixenet's website, begins with Scorsese explaining, in faux-documentary introduction, how he's discovered a three page excerpt from a Hitchcock film which was never made. And in a feat of film preservation that would be the first of its kind, he intends to preserve this unmade film, by of course making it himself. There follows the film itself, which makes a bottle of Reserva wine the MacGuffin for a series of hilarious and dead-on tributes to various Hitchcock films, from the Saul Bass-esque opening titles to the concert hall scene of The Man Who Knew Too Much to the gravity-defying denouement of Saboteur to the wine-cellar scene from Notorious. There's even a cameo appearance by the memorable R.O.T. monogram from North By Northwest, and the countless other Hitchcockian gags crammed into every second are guaranteed to make the film connoisseur smile. The final tribute to The Birds is the most impressive of all, using a crane shot pulling back from a building (the reverse of the one from the beginning of Psycho) to reveal a cityscape covered in threatening black birds. The fact that a Spanish company seems to be OK with such an expensive, elaborate, and in-jokey commercial just to sell a bottle of wine is pretty amazing, but then again it's already getting their name out there, so maybe they know best. In any case, it's a great, fun little diversion, definitely worth a look.

By now, the plot of Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows should be very familiar, considering it has been adapted for both Fassbinder's Fear Eats the Soul and Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven. It's the story of the lonely widow Cary (Jane Wyman), who falls in love with her younger gardener Ron (Rock Hudson), and plans to marry him despite the differences in age and social class which put external pressures on the relationship. As a satire of upper-middle-class pettiness and hypocrisy, it occasionally lays it on too thick, a hallmark of Sirk's work that nevertheless contributes to his satire's biting wit. As the gossip and snarky jokes and open disapproval of Cary's friends, neighbors, and even children begin to weigh on her, the relationship seems less and less stable or possible. Sirk's portrayal of these ungenerous souls is unremittingly caustic, with a devastatingly sharp satirical eye that never fails to capture the bitchiness and jealousy hidden beneath the ever-present phony smiles and friendly banter.

If Sirk's satirical touch can sometimes be heavy and unsubtle, his visual sense is unfailingly exactly the opposite. Here, his style is most effective in contrasting the harshness of his high society satire with the lush warmth of his visuals, especially in the scenes set at Ron's country retreat. Ron's lifestyle evokes the pastoral philosophy of Henry David Thoreau's Walden, which is quoted from in one scene. Ron's true-to-himself philosophy and rugged life, continually in touch with nature, is a stark contrast to the hermetically sealed spaces of Cary's old-money mansion, her dead husband's ancestral home and a constant reminder of her widowhood. Her daughter Kay (Gloria Talbott), a social worker who provides some of the film's funniest comic relief in her straight-faced presentations of Freudian psychobabble, tells her mother about the old, outdated Egyptian custom of entombing the wife with her dead husband so she might enter the afterlife with him. That custom is long gone, the daughter assures her, but Cary isn't so sure, and with good reason. What is her house but a brightly lit tomb, with her dead husband's possessions all around her? And the townspeople are only too glad to make sure she stays in this tomb, alone and unhappy, unless of course she decides to marry a socially acceptable man like the much older Harvey (Conrad Nagel), who lacks passion or emotion but offers her at least, in his dry way, "companionship."

The idea of the dead's possessions comes up again when she decides to marry Ron and begins packing away some of the more visible reminders of her status as a widow, including a trophy that had long sat on the living room mantle. When her son Ned (William Reynolds) discovers this, he's enraged, and he corners her later on for a late-night argument, in which he winds up next to the mantle, the trophy a conspicuous absence next to him, with two urn-like vases framing the empty space. Sirk does everything he can to draw attention to this absence, making the scene's focal point the disappearance of the trophy, while neither Ned nor Cary makes any mention of it during the course of the conversation. They're talking about Cary's impending marriage and Ned's feelings about it, but implicit underneath it all is the implication that Cary is trying to leave her husband's tomb, that she's putting away his possessions and forsaking her caretaker status.

It's this kind of subtextual visual touch that sets Sirk apart. He's working, as always, with a somewhat over-obvious and melodramatic script, with Kay a perfect vehicle through which to explain the characters' psychological motivations. She's often lampooned within the film for her ready explanations, which she wields like a shield even in a romantic encounter, but the script also uses her as an all-purpose explainer to draw out emotions that Sirk rendered perfectly well through his mise en scène. Thankfully, the love between Cary and Ron is left unexplained, in a rare moment of restraint from the script. Their love requires no better explanation than the quiet moments they share in front of the frosty blue glass of the window in Ron's home, looking out on a glorious winter snowscape. These moments abound in this film, as Sirk clearly sides himself with Ron's closeness to nature and quiet romanticism. In the film's final scene, when Cary finally comes back to Ron after all the troubles they've endured, their reconnection is symbolized by a reindeer that walks right up to the glass window that earlier backgrounded their most intimate moments. This is another potent melodrama from the master of such films, possibly the only director in the classical Hollywood era able to elevate such lurid women's pictures above the level of their writing through the sheer force of his visual expression and sensitivity towards his characters.

Vera Cruz is Robert Aldrich's rollicking adventure film set in the midst of the Mexican revolution against the emperor Maximilian. Among the American mercenaries heading south to get in on the fighting (and the monetary rewards) are Joe Erin (Burt Lancaster), a vicious bandit with a trust-no-one credo, and Ben Trane (Gary Cooper), a former Confederate officer and plantation owner who just wants money to rebuild his shattered life in the aftermath of the Civil War. These two unlikely compatriots team up, and even enter into an uneasy friendship, as they jockey for control of a massive cache of gold in the care of Maximilian's forces. It's a film of treachery and shifting loyalties, complicated by the addition of Denise Darcel as a shady countess not above using her considerable charms to blind men to her schemes, and Sara Montiel as the feisty Spanish girl whose sympathies lie with the rebels.

The film may locate the western genre south of the border (the better to stereotype its Mexican inhabitants), but otherwise it's a pretty typical example of the buddy western, with two diametrically opposed friends united by a common cause. Cooper's tough but moral Southern gentleman and Lancaster's sneering, dirty-dealing thief can't remain friends for long, and the film builds considerable suspense around the question of who's going to betray whom first. Aldrich's characteristic interest in the immorality and bluster puts the focus squarely on Lancaster, whose leering, over-the-top performance carries the film. Cooper plays the straight man in comparison, stolid and quiet as ever, letting Lancaster's gleeful amorality dominate the film until the inevitable final showdown necessarily pits the two opposing philosophies against one another. It's a predictable Hollywood western in so many ways, and Aldrich hardly does to the western what he did to the noir in Kiss Me Deadly. Lancaster and Cooper are the two competing visions of the American masculine archetype, the bad boy and the tough quiet one, but there's no deconstruction of these archetypes, just the celebration of their ultimate on-screen avatars. Still, it's a fun enough film in this vein.

More damning is the apparently slapdash quality of the editing, especially in the fight scenes, where awkward edits continually try to conceal the fact that the film's stunts and fight choreography were woefully inadequate. These obvious mid-action cuts have the effect of disrupting the space of the battle scenes, entirely breaking any illusion of continuity between the opposing sides and deflating the sense of excitement. If this was done with more rigor or intentionality, it could be seen as a deconstructionist gesture on par with the critique of Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly, but in this film it just comes off as sloppy and shockingly amateurish in an otherwise polished and traditional production. Even with these failings, Vera Cruz isn't a total disappointment, and as a light 50s Hollywood entertainment it certainly does its job. Aldrich would go on to much better work only a year later, though, so in the context of his career this is a minor early entry, already showing evidence of his interests but still not as self-assured or distinctive as his best films.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

11/29: Night On Earth

Jim Jarmusch's Night On Earth is a love song to the beauty of city streets at night. It's also a love song about conversation, and storytelling, and the collisions (fortuitous or ugly) of strangers that make up the fabric of the urban landscape. The film tells five stories, each set in a different city — Los Angeles, New York, Paris, Rome, and Helsinki — and each set primarily in a taxi cab at night. The first story, in Los Angeles, opens on late afternoon verging into evening, and the last story, in Helsinki, ends with a very early morning scene as the sky begins to flood with light and the city wakes up. In between, Jarmusch focuses on the dead-of-night hours when even these urban centers are largely quiet and subdued, devoid of people but still flooded with artificial light. This is an urban space in which the usual characteristics of city life — the clutter, the noise, the crowds — have been peeled away, revealing a quiet poetic beauty in the empty neon-lit streets and a possibility for random connections between those few strange people wandering around at this late hour. Obviously, this is an idealized fantasy city, a hermetically sealed artificial world for Jarmusch to play around it.

As with Jarmusch's previous feature, Mystery Train — itself an urban tone poem, in that case to Memphis — Night On Earth is a series of unconnected vignettes following different characters in each locale. And also like Mystery Train, not every segment is entirely successful, though the film as a whole holds together quite well. The first segment takes place in Los Angeles, with Winona Ryder as the spunky young cab driver Corky (really?) and Gena Rowlands as Victoria, a successful but stressed out Hollywood talent agent. Jarmusch seems to be reaching for the collision of the Hollywood dream factory with gritty everyday reality. But between the innately overwrought nature of Corky, and the disparity in acting talent between the smoothly realistic Rowlands and the awkward, amateurish Ryder, the expected collision winds up being reversed: Rowlands is the sharply defined real character and Ryder is the fantasy caricature. This reversal, possibly unintended, muddies the meaning of the segment's final exchange, in which Corky rejects the offer of a movie role because she's happy with her life as a cab driver and future mechanic. Is she truly rejecting fantasy for reality? She's already something of a cartoon, barely believable, and one gets little sense from Ryder's gum-snapping performance that she means anything she says. The world-weary Rowlands, though, turns in a typically great and understated performance, quietly injecting realism into the proceedings even if she is standing in for the Dream Machine. This segment is interesting, and I can't help think that Ryder's performance prevents some of its ideas from being fully communicated.

Much better is the New York segment, in which YoYo (Giancarlo Esposito) is picked up on a lonely Manhattan street by newly arrived German immigrant Helmut (Armin Mueller-Stahl). This is one of the film's funniest segments, a pure blast of comic greatness that doesn't stretch as much thematically as the Los Angeles segment, and is consequently lighter and sizzling with sharp dialogue. The interaction between the fast-talking, showy YoYo and the halting, uncertain Helmut is hilarious, especially when Helmut's total incompetence behind the wheel forces YoYo to take over the job of driving to Brooklyn. The introduction of Rosie Perez as YoYo's philandering sister-in-law Angela only compounds the humor, with her shrill screaming and profanity-laden abuse for her controlling brother-in-law providing yet another counterpoint in terms of personality. The meeting between these three multi-ethnic characters — the black YoYo, Hispanic Angela, and German Helmut — provides an implicit commentary on New York's famous melting pot, suggesting the possibility of connections across boundaries. Obviously, this verges as close to fantasy as the Los Angeles story did, but the better acting and richer humor help to pull it off this time. This segment, like the film as a whole, is especially a study of language, of the rhythms of speech and the emotional character of words and their multiple meanings. When Angela is first dragged into the cab by YoYo, she looks at Helmut after a few moments of yelling and derisively asks, "who's this clown?" But Helmut is unperturbed, because he really is a clown, or was one back in his native land anyway, and he happily pulls out two flutes and demonstrates his trademark trick of playing them a jaunty melody on both of them simultaneously. Angela looks baffled, then cracks up. And so an insult becomes an occasion for joy, and the language barrier is broken with song.

In the third segment of the film, the bitter Parisian cab driver and African immigrant played by Isaach de Bankolé picks up the sexy blind woman played by Béatrice Dalle. The driver has just unceremoniously kicked out two African diplomats who had been harassing him, and he picks up this blind woman consciously thinking that he'll finally have an easy fare. As it turns out, he takes the occasion to be the insulting one, asking insensitive and callous questions about her blindness and her inability to do certain things, even asking her what it's like to make love while blind. But Dalle's character is comfortable in her skin, unlike her driver, who freaked out over similarly probing questions about his nationality and class from his previous fares. She is unperturbed, annoyed but secure enough in her own life that she can shrug off the insults and spit them back at him. This segment ultimately has something to say about race, but I'm not sure I know what it is, and Jarmusch seemingly makes every effort to complicate matters and prevent the presentation of race from being in the least bit straightforward. This is especially true of the decision to make the initial abusive passengers also black, so that their prejudice and abuse seems to be more a result of class than of race; they make fun of him for the kind of black he is, not just because he's black. As for the scenes with Dalle, the combination of a blind white woman with a black man naturally lends itself to certain sappy clichés, and Jarmusch skirts frighteningly close to triteness when he has Dalle say that she doesn't know what color means. But this segment ultimately pulls back from any serious treatment of race, and its primary appeal is the gorgeous imagery of Paris at night-time and the impressively weird performance from the always engaging Dalle.

Jarmusch may be the only director who can effectively handle Roberto Benigni, as he already amply demonstrated in Down By Law, and again in the Roman segment of this film. The usually aggravating Benigni is at his comic peak here, seemingly unrestrained and wild without veering off into annoying as he too often does. His performance is a masterwork of ever-escalating loony-ness, as he plays a cab driver who picks up an ailing priest (Paolo Bonacelli) and feels the need to abruptly make his confession right there in the cab. I'm reluctant to even discuss this segment, because it really should just be experienced rather than described, and I couldn't do justice to Benigni's frantic cadences, or the way he describes his ludicrous sins with joy and fond nostalgia rather than regret. It's in this segment that Jarmusch makes the best use of the film's recurring structural two-shot, showing the cab driver in the right foreground of the frame and the passenger in the left background. Here, the interplay between Benigni's foreground gesticulating and ranting and the priest's horrified reaction and struggles with his heart medicine form the very foundation of the humor. Jarmusch sticks with this two-shot for the vast majority of the segment, once Bonacelli enters the car, and it perfectly underscores the scene's humor by creating a constant tension between the foreground and background, with essentially two different mini-narratives occurring simultaneously. Benigni has never been better, or funnier, than he is here.

The last segment of the film, in contrast, is the most melancholy of the lot, concerning the depressive Mika (Matti Pellonpää), who picks up a trio of drunken revelers on a deserted, snowy street. Two of the men are carrying their passed-out friend, who they say has just had the worst day of his life. What follows is a kind of competition of misery between the men and the cab driver. The men first describe what's happened to their passed-out friend, and Mika then tells his own even sadder story, telling them that it could always be worse — and even within Mika's tale, about the loss of his prematurely delivered first child, there is always the hope of the future. In this segment, despite the depressing subject matter of the conversations, there's a real sense of pleasure in the depiction of the conversations themselves. Jarmusch is a big fan of telling stories, as his episodic diner chat film Coffee and Cigarettes certainly demonstrated, and here his love of talk is clear even if the talk is mostly maudlin. This patter of voices is juxtaposed against the utter quiet of Helsinki's deserted night, the streets covered in snow at places and slicked wet with melted ice at others, the light reflecting off all these gleaming surfaces and giving everything an icy winter glow. This is possibly the film's most beautiful section, ending in a gray pre-dawn haze as the unfortunate passenger sits alone in the snow waiting for a new day to begin.

Despite the subtle strength of this final segment, which pulls everything together in some inexpressible way, Night On Earth is at its most successful when it aims for broad comedy, as it does in the New York and Rome sequences. These are the film's comic heart, its riotous vision of laughter and humor as the connective tissue between disparate souls in an emptied urban space. When Jarmusch stretches for understated social commentary in his urban vignettes, as he does in the Paris and Los Angeles segments, he's less successful, straining the limits of his caricatures and the fantasy cities they inhabit. The city as a fantasized venue for humorous interactions and social commentary is hardly a new idea, stretching back at least to Chaplin and Tati, especially in the latter's masterpiece Playtime. But Jarmusch's vision of the city is much different, much less physical for one thing: his characters never interact with the urban space but simply pass through it. The city is merely decoration, a poetically lit set in which these characters can talk and think and interact. Their connections, or failures to connect, are the film's real subject, and the city becomes ancillary, the passive object which allows these people to meet. Their meetings are depressing, hilarious, thought-provoking, puzzling, or provocative, but above all they're always entertaining and engaging.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

11/27: Sawdust and Tinsel

When Ingmar Bergman died earlier this year, there was a certain strain of criticism — most (in)famously presented by Jonathan Rosenbaum in the New York Times — that took the occasion to re-evaluate the famed director's art and importance. At the time, I found the timing unfortunate and the arguments unconvincing; Bergman has always been a director who has meant a great deal to me, and at least several of his films have to be counted among my personal canon. Looking back now, having just watched Sawdust and Tinsel, a key developmental work for Bergman and yet probably the weakest of the many films I've seen by him, I nevertheless remain more convinced than ever that Bergman is a cinematic great.

Let me explain. I have yet to explore much of Bergman's early career, and it's mainly some later milestones that have endeared him to me: Fanny and Alexander, Persona, The Silence, and even a few flawed but powerful works like Shame and Hour of the Wolf. Sawdust, the story of the bitter circus owner Albert (Åke Grönberg) and his unfaithful mistress Anne (Harriet Andersson), shares some similarities with these later works, and it's easy to see how Bergman got from here to the more fully realized films he'd be making just a few years later. The film's story is told in a blend of expressionism and neorealism, with the latter pointing back to Bergman's earliest dramas and the former pointing ahead to the direction his films would take from then on. The expressionistic sequences are often compelling, displaying the kind of visual sense and eye for composition within cinematic space that detractors like Rosenbaum are continually insisting is missing from Bergman's cinema.

In the film's most compelling image, when Anne goes to visit the local theater troupe after a fight with Albert, she's left on the abandoned stage after a rehearsal. As the theater goes dark, she's framed within a circle of light, all alone in a sea of black. Critics often point to Bergman's theatrical fascination as an inherent negative — something you'd never hear about, say, Fassbinder — but this scene makes it clear that even early on Bergman understood the difference between cinematic and theatrical space, and was able to combine them in interesting ways. In this sequence he creates an interplay between the theater and the cinema, framing Andersson first in what might be called theatrical space, with the camera at a distance showing the whole stage with her in its center (though even here he tweaks the theater by placing the camera backstage rather than in an audience's position). Then he cuts to a medium shot, with Andersson approaching the camera, slowly filling the frame, the close-up allowing her cold and determined expression to complicate the scene's emotions, in a sense contradicting the lost, confused sense communicated by the earlier distancing long shot. Both emotional sensations remain in the shot; just as the theatrical space is being contained and reshaped by the cinematic frame, the loneliness and isolation of the long shot is being subsumed by Anne's determination to control her life.

There's also a wonderful scene early on in the film in which one character relates the story of the clown Frost (Anders Ek), whose wife betrayed him by swimming nude with some soldiers from the local garrison. Frost's very public humiliation as he's forced to retrieve his wife in front of a laughing mob and carry her naked body away prefigures the story of Albert's problems with his mistress. Bergman presents the flashback in a washed-out, overexposed white that obliterates detail and gives the scene a haunting, mesmerizing quality. There is quite possibly no greater director of embarrassment than Bergman, and he perfectly captures the humiliation of Frost, cutting between tortured close-ups and wildly exaggerated crowd shots of the observers. The soundtrack is similarly suggestive, veering between an eerie stillness and the roar of cackling laughter. The scene becomes sheer torture as it goes along, as much a purely symbolic representation of primal emasculation as a recounting of a specific incident.

Unfortunately, such scenes are the exception rather than the rule in this film. Bergman's engagement with neorealist aesthetics is much less interesting than his more expressionistic mode of storytelling. And though Bergman is frequently accused of theatricality because of the overwrought performances he wrings out of his actors in his wildest scenes, it's in the more realistic segments of his work that theatricality more often has free rein. For me, Sawdust is dragged down by the prosaic quality of its story and the overly theatrical emphasis on lengthy dialogue scenes with little visual or intellectual interest. Everything that the film might have to say in Grönberg's blustering speeches was already said far better in that self-contained early scene depicting Frost's humiliation, and doing so primarily in visual terms rather than verbally. The narrative never progresses far beyond there, because Bergman has structured things so that Frost's story is meant to foreshadow Albert's. What it actually does is render the rest of the film redundant. There's some pleasure in Harriet Andersson's effortless sensuality, and in Anders Ek's drunken, spiteful performance as the broken clown Frost, but the emphasis on such theatrical, actorly elements is exactly what Bergman's critics latch onto in the first place. In this early film, at least, there's some justice to the complaints.

It may seem odd that I've chosen a Bergman film I don't really like that much to mount a defense of this great director. But what struck me, on watching Sawdust and Tinsel, was not only the number of things that didn't work, but just how much did work in spite of the many weaknesses. Even in this minor transitional film, Bergman was already displaying the foundations of a powerfully expressive visual style and a tendency to intertwine cinema and theater in ways that comment on and develop both. He will certainly be missed.

Monday, November 26, 2007

11/26: I'm Not There

I've seen a lot of people asking what exactly Todd Haynes' I'm Not There has to tell us about Bob Dylan, its ostensible subject. This is, of course, the wrong question. Moreover, it's the question that Haynes' film is specifically intended to short-circuit, to avoid, and it's likewise the question that Dylan has structured his career around hiding from. He's not there, not in this film, and not in his music either, not the way anyone ever wants or expects him to be. I'm Not There has a lot to say, but not necessarily about Dylan, and not necessarily in the easily digested bites that seem to be desired by those doing the asking. The question implies that the film should dissect Dylan, explain him, relate key incidents in his life without artifice and show how the music is related to the life. That's what biopics do, right? It's a damn good thing this isn't a biopic.

What it is, is something much more complicated and beautiful. Haynes has taken Dylan and fragmented him, thrown bits and pieces of his persona, music, and chameleonic life into six different characters, all playing various ghosts of a living Dylan who's shed or absorbed all these aspects of himself to create whatever he is now. There's Marcus Carl Franklin as Woody Guthrie, an eleven-year-old black boy who's still anachronistically riding the rails in 1959, seemingly living in an earlier era in the time of burgeoning civil rights protests. There's Christian Bale as Jack Rollins, the protest-era Dylan, pushed onto stage by Joan Baez stand-in Alice (Julianne Moore) to belt out his heartfelt socially conscious songs. And Bale returns later in the film for a second turn as Pastor John, Jack transformed into a deeply religious minister in a reflection of Dylan's 80s turn to God. In between these two poles, there's Cate Blanchett in a shockingly powerful portrayal of Jude, essentially the mid-60s, gnomic burn-out Dylan as depicted in Pennebaker's Don't Look Back. And Ben Whishaw as Arthur (Rimbaud, naturally), the sensitive poet Dylan, whose role consists entirely of cryptic non-sequiturs delivered to a panel of interviewers who inevitably bring to mind the McCarthy Senate hearings. There's also Robbie (Heath Ledger), an actor who once played the younger Dylan in a movie before heading into an increasingly bitter and disenchanted life. Finally, in the film's weirdest diversion, Richard Gere plays Billy the Kid, a nod to Dylan's scoring of (and cameo in) Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.

This diverse cast comprises a series of Dylan echoes, referencing and riffing on the musician but never quite forming any composite portrait. Haynes has blended these different elements together, not chronologically in terms of their place in Dylan's career, but in a dense free-associative montage that's constantly switching between stories, musical numbers, and meditative abstractions anchored by Kris Kristofferson's narration. As a fan of Dylan's music with a casual knowledge of his life, I was able to follow the web of associations pretty easily, as the film skips nimbly around from image to image. I'd imagine that non-Dylan fans would be missing out on a lot here, since Haynes doesn't make it easy to parse the complex accumulations of Dylan doppelgängers and coded references that are packed into almost every scene.

I myself was initially puzzled by the Billy the Kid sequence, wondering why Dylan's Pat Garrett soundtrack (musically a minor work) was being given such prominent treatment, until I realized that these scenes occupied a space within the film akin to Dylan's motorcycle crash and subsequent retreat to record his Basement Tapes with the Band. This sequence's retreat to the past mirrors Dylan's own retreat to America's musical past following his accident, drawing on both his own early folk and blues songs, along with a healthy dose of country. Furthermore, Gere's Old-West ramble through the carnivalesque town of Riddle (what better name?) recalls the circus imagery of any number of Dylan songs, as well as the assemblage of downtrodden and outrageous characters from "Desolation Row." These kinds of associations, references, and evocations of lyrics make up the very fabric of this film. Still, I think the film has plenty to offer even complete Dylan neophytes, in terms of the sheer beauty of its imagery, the wonderful tapestry of Dylan's music (mostly originals with a few new performances) that weaves through the film, and the idea of artistic rejuvenation that's embodied in Haynes' treatment of Dylan's many faces.

I hear that nagging voice again, though: so what does all this tell us about Dylan? Again, the wrong question, and one that's ironically a variation on the probing questions asked of Blanchett's Jude by a British journalist, who keeps trying to pin down Jude to a sound-bite-friendly cliché. This is probably the finest scene in the film, and Haynes allows it to morph slowly from a tense Q-and-A session into a nightmarish, noir-inspired music video of Dylan's "Ballad of a Thin Man," with the journalist as Mr. Jones, who just knows that something is happening but doesn't understand what it is. Eventually, disturbed by Jude/Dylan's refusal to provide pat answers or give the TV-ready stock phrases that these leading questions demand, the journalist airs a program in which he "exposes" Jude's roots as an ordinary, suburban Jew from an affluent family. Does this reductionism to the question of roots, of background, explain anything about Jude or Dylan?

Of course not, and though such explanations and questions aren't Haynes' interest, he doesn't shy away from the core of Dylan's art, the shape-shifting nature of Dylan's persona, always inaccessible but otherwise quite different from one incarnation to the next. In fact, Haynes embodies this eclectic sense of personality not only in his multiple Dylans, but in the stylistic melange with which he surrounds them, drawing on his obviously rich filmic knowledge for a web of cinematic references every bit as dense as his musical ones. The Jude sequences draw most obviously on Don't Look Back — it would be impossible for Blanchett's sneering, mumbling, leather-clad impersonation not to recall the Dylan of that era — but more subtly these scenes reference Fellini's 8 1/2 with its warped visages of hangers-on, and in turn Woody Allen's own Fellini homage in Stardust Memories, with murals on the walls reflecting the character's inner states.

Even more than Fellini, though, this is Haynes' channeling of Godard. I've always thought that Godard, possibly my favorite director, has had a purely superficial impact in terms of the impact he's passed on to other directors. Only Fassbinder ever really seemed to "get" Godard and take his influence in a truly interesting direction, while countless other directors latched onto jump cuts and other surface aesthetic features. With I'm Not There, Haynes has arrived as another truly Godardian filmmaker, in the best possible sense. Yes, there are some of those kinds of surface aesthetic references, right down to the way the introduction of the film's title text, letter by letter, plays off of different combinations to alter meanings: I, I'm here, I'm her, I'm there, I'm not her. Likewise, the scene where Jude and his/her electric band literally machine-guns an audience of folk fans, before symbolically machine-gunning them with the force of their radically rule-breaking music. Haynes also plays with machine-gun rhythms in the periodic repetition of the portraits of his six Dylan stand-ins, and certain scenes specifically recall One Plus One or Masculin feminin. But Haynes has also absorbed Godard's influence in more subtle ways. Indeed, the film's essay-film structure, seamlessly blending narrative fragments with more ruminative interludes and purely abstract montage with poetic/philosophical voiceover, would be impossible without Godard's example.

Haynes has also taken Godard's example as to the importance of the soundtrack and its relation to the imagery, though there's nothing specifically Godardian about the way that Haynes uses sound here. The only similarity is the denseness of the sound, the complex layering, not just for the interplay of different sounds, but the meanings contained within them. Dylan's music is of course ubiquitous, his lyrics frequently commenting on scenes. Sometimes, ingeniously, Haynes allows the lyrics to comment even if they're not being sung yet. The noirish dream sequence I already mentioned was initially a bit mystifying, until I realized that the music from "Ballad of a Thin Man" was looping underneath it, and as I mentally filled in the lyrics they began to mirror and comment on what was happening on screen — and moments later, when the vocals actually begin, there's an echo effect, as well as, probably, a moment of realization for those not already familiar with the song.

I have absolutely no trouble calling I'm Not There a masterpiece. Haynes has crafted a film that, in saying nothing about Dylan, says everything about the nature of artistic experimentation and adaptation, the many ways in which art can be political, and the attempts of the cultural elites to impose their own neatly ordered narratives on the messy, shifty, angry artist. Haynes rejects such narratives out of hand. His narratives here are more like Dylan's own "narratives," in his story-songs like "Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest," in which the semblance and structure of a story being told is belied by the poetical nonsense that comprises it. Haynes embraces that nonsensical spirit, and the result is one of the finest, sweetest, warmest evocations of artistic expression imaginable.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

11/25: Gesualdo: Death for Five Voices

If it wasn't clear before the end that Werner Herzog's documentary account of the 16th Century Italian composer Carlo Gesualdo was a bit off-kilter, the film's last line clinches it. The final sequence of the film is set at a pageant in Gesualdo's hometown, with actors embodying the Devil and a flying cherub being sent on pulleys across the golden sunset sky. Herzog's final image is of a local actor playing a horseman, answering a cell phone and telling his mother that he'll be home soon, since "the Gesualdo film is almost over." And then he stares straight into the camera, and sure enough the Gesualdo film ends. This self-conscious breaking of the fourth wall caps a film in which the lurid life of Gesualdo — filled with murder, sexual depravity, and masochism, and seemingly in little need of further ornamentation — is blended with Herzog's obviously staged and ridiculous modern-day interjections and some performances of Gesualdo's music by amateur choirs. Gesualdo: Death for Five Voices is a typically ludicrous Herzog production, stretching credibility to such a degree that I was surprised to find out, in research after the documentary, that a great deal of the film was actually true.

Of course, that comment may seem strange, but only to those not familiar with Herzog's documentary methods. One would normally expect a documentary to tell the truth, but Herzog has dedicated his filmmaking career to discovering the "ecstatic truths" hidden under the more prosaic truth of the straight facts. This search normally encompasses the outright lying of Bells From the Deep, with its totally invented tales of Russian spirituality, or the twisted truth of Lessons of Darkness, in which images from the aftermath of the first Iraq war are given a new sci-fi story through voiceover. In this film, though, Herzog's technique is reversed. He's basically telling the truth here, and his account of Gesualdo's violent life is mostly accurate, although occasionally based on hearsay and rumors. The trick is that everything about the documentary, from its patchwork construction to its obviously staged interludes to its emphasis on strange local characters, is calculated to make this true story seem ridiculous, impossible, even hilarious despite its baroque violence.

The bulk of the story surrounds Gesualdo's murder of his first wife, Donna Maria d'Avalos, and her aristocratic lover, and the public display of their naked bodies afterwards. Herzog is also fascinated by Gesualdo's inventive music, which was largely ignored at the time and for centuries after his lifetime, but turned out to have an extraordinary influence hundreds of years later in the avant-garde of the late 19th Century, and especially on the important composer Stravinsky. The combination of Gesualdo's sensational life and his widely misunderstood music forms a perfect subject for Herzog, concerned as always with figures who exist at the edges of society and history. His presentation of both Gesualdo's life story and his musical legacy is remarkably straightforward. The latter is largely told by two choir directors, who are also shown directing their groups in performances of the music throughout the film. Meanwhile, the story of Gesualdo's murders and peculiar lifestyle is related by various local residents in the area around Gesualdo's castle, obviously coached by Herzog with what they should say. This story is occasionally adorned with extraneous details, like the assertion that when Gesualdo murdered his infant baby (a story that is, itself, only a conjecture), he suspended the child from a balcony, surrounded it with choirs singing madrigals, and left it outside for three days until it died. Herzog apparently can't resist adding such Grand Guignol details at several points, although the similarly baroque anecdote that a passing monk raped Donna Maria's corpse after her murder was apparently not Herzog's invention, but a real legend surrounding the Gesualdo story. This interplay between truth and fiction weaves all through the film, with Herzog largely sticking close to, if not the facts of history, then at least the genuine conjectures and legends that have sprung up around Gesualdo's wild life.

If the narrative line of the film is relatively clear and accurate, Herzog undermines this basic truthfulness with his insertions of blatantly invented, staged, and frequently humorous interludes between the more realistic documentary portions of the film. These digressions include a bagpipes player who enters Gesualdo's castle once a week, filling the space with his droning music in order to keep the castle's malevolent spirits at bay, and a hilarious scene with a cook who discusses the extravagance of Gesualdo's wedding menu while his wife keeps screaming about "the devil" in the background. There's also a local madwoman who believes she is the reincarnation of Donna Maria. Herzog stumbles across her singing operatically in a castle stairwell, and she leads the camera on a lengthy chase before finally telling her story and playing some of Gesualdo's music from a boombox she carries. Herzog's pursuit of the mad also leads him to a local asylum, where he films a totally unrelated sequence of a young retarded man riding a horse, before the asylum's director tells him about two men who both believe themselves to be Gesualdo, and the difficulties of keeping them apart from one another.

These increasingly unbelievable digressions, obviously invented by Herzog's fertile imagination, wind up casting doubt on everything in the film. The coexistence of Herzog's inventions with the actual facts of Gesualdo's life results in a weird dissonance between reality and fiction that is a hallmark of Herzog's "documentary" work. This inventiveness is the primary reason why Herzog's documentary oeuvre is such a treasure trove of masterpieces, perhaps even greater than his smaller corpus of narrative, fiction films. Death for Five Voices is a minor masterpiece in a career that has produced many such films, small documents of strange people and events, filtered through the lens of an equally strange imagination.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

11/21: Southland Tales

Fourteen thoughts on Richard Kelly's Southland Tales...

I. The accusations from all quarters that Southland is "a mess" have been greatly exaggerated. Yes, I was totally mystified at more than a few points. Yes, the film is elliptical in the extreme and has so many different characters floating through its orbit that it's practically impossible to keep track of them all. Yes, Kelly is deliberately obscure about who's on which side, or how many sides there actually are, or what these sides might stand for. Despite all this, the basic plotline isn't all that difficult to follow, although it has some convoluted twists and turns and several key pieces of the puzzle aren't revealed until quite late in the film. Even watching it for the first time in its adulterated cut with 20 minutes missing, the film has a basic narrative drive and a sense, at its epic ending, that the pieces all fit together, even if not all of them are entirely apparent at the moment. At least several of the major plot components, like the disappearance of Boxer Santaros (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) and the relationship between Iraq War veterans Roland Taverner (Seann William Scott) and Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake), are fully resolved within the narrative. As for being a mess in other ways, the film undoubtedly smears the screen with a tremendous number of ideas and images, not all of which work or are fully developed (or developed at all), and it's easy to get overwhelmed by the overload. But it's equally clear that this is intentional on Kelly's part. More on that later.

II. This lasted barely a week in suburban America, after nearly a year in which it sat in limbo without distribution following its disastrous Cannes showing. It arrived here last week, playing at a few theaters, and when I finally got a chance to see it tonight, it was the last showing at the last lonely theater still playing it. Even so, the mid-size audience of mostly teenagers seemed surprisingly appreciative of Kelly's weirdo opus, suggesting that maybe suburban America is ready for this film, if only they'd heard about it — and heard about it from more sympathetic critics than Ebert.

III. The film has some things to say about sex through the character of Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), a porn star who's in the process of reinventing herself as a multimedia mogul with a talk show, pop music career, movie script, fashion line, and energy drink. Gellar's performance totally skewers the way in which this sexuality-promoting lifestyle presents itself as an icon of liberality and liberation: "your legislation can't stop teens' masturbation," goes the lyrics to her newest hit single. But in fact, Krysta's shallow chatter and half-baked philosophy ("deep down, everyone wants to be a porn star") cheapens sex, removes its magic and its radical potential. The way her TV show groups together war, abortion, and "teen horniness" as relevant social issues dilutes the importance or seriousness of all of them. At another point, when the corrupt and homicidal cop Bart Bookman (Jon Lovitz) is trying to seduce radical leftist Zora (Cheri Oteri), he gruffly asks her, "do you want to fuck or watch a movie?" — suggesting that the two experiences have become roughly interchangeable, both forms of mass-market entertainment with no deeper content or importance.

IV. Who would have thought that the Rock could carry a picture? He plays Boxer Santaros, an obvious Arnold Schwarzenegger pastiche, a movie star turned politician married to the ditsy daughter (Mandy Moore) of a conservative senator (Holmes Osborne). In the film's central role, he turns in a surprisingly sharp, nuanced performance, admirably playing Santaros mostly with broad, comic strokes but retreating inward when needed.

V. Late in the film, a porn star friend of Krysta Now remarks, while making a reality TV show, that digital production values have allowed them to become just like a movie — "which is just like TV anyway," she adds. Kelly's film reverses that equation, making a movie which mirrors the aesthetics, attitudes, and even stars of TV. Not only is the film awash in Saturday Night Live and Mad TV cast members and teen idols of the MTV generation, but it frequently takes on the quality of CNN infotainment, panning across tightly packed and poorly designed screens overloaded with ads, shocking headlines, and multiple images, alternating debauchery with terror and violence. Kelly's TV pastiche is frequently hilarious, and constantly dense, crowding screens with so many jokes and references that it's nearly impossible to unpack everything. One already imagines getting the DVD just to be able to pause frequently and soak in the multiple jokes and long texts and images crowded into these TV-ified screens, and on DVD the film will have made its complete cycle, a film parodying the TV aesthetic being played back, of course, on TVs.

VI. There's a great few minutes when the film turns into a musical, when Justin Timberlake's Pilot takes a mysterious drug called "bleed" and heads off to a hallucinatory bowling alley where he lip-syncs through an impromptu music video of the Killers' "All These Things That I've Done." The blood-stained, scarred-up Timberlake is an Iraq veteran, stumbling through an MTV landscape, drinking Budweisers and pouring them over his head in a hideous parody of product placement, as leggy dancing girls cavort around him. He increasingly looks stoned and shell-shocked, ending the sequence with a shot of Timberlake staring blank-faced straight into the camera as the girls complete slow motion twirls around him.

VII. This is something of a modular review because I couldn't really think of any better way to address the sprawling, elliptical structure of Kelly's film. Its indebtedness to TV narratives and the aesthetics of channel-surfing make it a perfect film to address in terms of its component parts rather than as a whole. It's hard to see the whole, anyway, at least for me after my one viewing so far.

VIII. For a film that purports to be a study of post-millennial tensions, and which sets its climactic sequences amid riots in Los Angeles, Kelly's treatment of race is remarkably cursory, limited to a single sequence in which some Neo-Marxist SNL regulars try to discredit conservatives by staging a film with a fake racist cop committing fake murders.

IX. A lot of people have mentioned Kelly's aping of David Lynch in this film, and it's not hard to see why. Rebekah Del Rio is the most obvious connection between the two directors, singing an emotionally fraught "Star Spangled Banner" at the climax of Southland's third act, backed by dissonant strings which play in interesting ways off her resonant voice. The scene plays a similar role to the way Lynch used her in Mulholland Drive, where her Spanish cover of Roy Orbison's "Crying" also served as an emotional backbone to the film's climax. More superficially, Kelly places midgets conspicuously into several scenes without explanation or apparent justification, a rather unfortunate choice indicative of the way that Kelly's style sometimes descends into mere tics and gestures without much thought. There's also an unmistakable Lynchian influence on several key scenes, most notably one in which a gnomish old lady holds a glowing blue crystal ball and prophecies. In another scene, reminiscent of the diner sequence from Mulholland Drive, Boxer and Taverner meet at a diner where Taverner is distracted by two thugs, one bare-chested with a red, white, and blue mohawk, and Boxer is led off on a surreal chase by the enigmatic Serpentine (Ling Bai). Finally, the sinister Baron Von Westphalen (Wallace Shawn) is played like a cross between the Joker and Robert Blake's mysterious character from Lynch's Lost Highway.

X. Lynch may be the popular reference, but Grant Morrison is a much more apposite name in relation to Southland Tales. The film draws tremendously on Lynch's cinematic influence, and it also just outright steals from him at times, but the Morrison of The Invisibles and The Filth provides deeper thematic touchstones for Kelly's work. Morrison's visions of a sci-fi future in which pop culture and artificial sex are used to subjugate an ignorant populace is clearly a precursor for Kelly's near-future depiction of political chaos and social upheaval. Morrison's extra-dimensional evil has become the Republican Party in Kelly's version, but the sense of an apocalypse on the way — and the further sense that this may even be a good, necessary transformation — is straight out of Morrison. In the final book of The Invisibles, the apocalypse comes in the form of a total world transformation led by the forces of anarchic revolt, and the final moments of Southland Tales, with Taverner's rebirth as a new messiah and the destruction of the conservative regime, suggest a similar apocalypse to come.

XI. Another comics reference occurred to me upon leafing through the graphic novels which form the first part of Kelly's story. The film starts, without explanation, with a chapter heading numbered IV, and chapters I-III of the story are contained within a series of three comic novels. I haven't read them yet, and maybe they explain a few of the film's missing pieces, though the film felt pretty complete to me already. But the art, by Brett Weldele, reminded me of a more minimalist (and less talented) Ashley Wood, and that connection naturally led me to the underrated Automatic Kafka, written by Joe Casey with art by Wood. That book is also about a futuristic world where sex and game shows dominate the cultural landscape, and in one issue, Wood's constantly inventive art takes on a TV show aesthetic with ads cluttering every page.

XII. So what is Southland Tales about anyway? Television. The Patriot Act and a paranoid fantasy of what its extension might look like. The way sex loses its power when it becomes just another commodity. The bankruptcy of talk, on both sides of the political aisle, and the importance of concrete action. The power of movies and the media to replace reality with their own altered version of it (and Boxer turns the tides when his movie script turns out to actually reflect reality). The way the Rock teepees his hands and twitches his fingers together when he's nervous. The metaphysics of time travel and the effect on the soul. The Bible. The Bible re-imagined as left-wing prophecy. Drugs. Bazookas. Zeppelins. Sexy dancing. I don't know, all of this, in some way or another. Not all of this fits together, not all of it is fully fleshed out, not all of it is entirely earnest or serious. But it's all there, somewhere, and so much more besides.

XIII. It's also about Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly, which is shown on a TV screen (of course!) early on in Southland Tales, with the piano score from the film recurring later on. That film's harbinger of nuclear devastation is the starting point for Kelly's film, linking sex and A-bombs through the hyperventilating panting of Cloris Leachman, which opened Aldrich's film and which Kelly re-purposes here, inserting it into the background of his own film's opening.

XIV. It's probably worth pointing out that this is a very funny movie. Even when there wasn't an overt joke, I was watching it with a smile perpetually on my face, enjoying Kelly's schizophrenic accumulation of characters, images, and half-formed ideas. So it's not necessarily a film that encourages thought until it's over. While it's on, it works, ironically, much like the TV aesthetic it's parodying, which is probably inevitable since Kelly has crammed so much of TV culture into the film. The fact that Kelly's film works on its primary level as a grandiose entertainment isn't a fatal blow to its credibility, though. After the film is over, its images and ideas linger on, encouraging one to unpack what actually happened in the film and what it might've been trying to say. Such reflection inevitably exposes quite a few under-developed ideas, and I doubt even the restored 20 minutes will fix that problem, but considering the tremendous scope of Kelly's ambitions, the fact that he only hits the mark maybe a quarter of the time means that there's still an extraordinary amount of good stuff to sift through.

Monday, November 19, 2007

11/19: Written on the Wind

Douglas Sirk's Written on the Wind seethes with sexuality — or, more properly, with frustrated sexuality, with a sense of impotence, both literal and figurative. It's the story of a family of wealthy Texas oil barons, the Hadleys, and especially the alcoholic playboy heir Kyle (Robert Stack) and his wild, nymphomaniac sister Marylee (Dorothy Malone). Kyle, despite his wealth and privilege, has been shadowed all his life by feelings of inferiority, especially in comparison to his lifelong friend Mitch (Rock Hudson). And yet it's Kyle who winds up getting the girl, Lucy (Lauren Bacall), who's the object of both friends' affection, and when she marries Kyle after a whirlwind romance, it appears that his life has straightened out again. Kyle's happiness is destroyed, though, when he finds out that he is impotent, a blow that's like the literal, physical proof for a lifetime of feelings of inadequacy.

Sirk hilariously punctuates this scene, after Kyle storms out of a meeting with his doctor, with an image of a little boy happily riding a mechanical horse as Kyle passes by. And if the image of the bucking stallion wasn't obvious enough already, Kyle's tormented glance at the kid is enough to drive home the point. Sirk's mise en scène is frequently crammed with this kind of visual metaphor, as lurid and potent as the brightly ridiculous colors he decorates his sets with. Every inch of Written on the Wind is squirming with sublimated sexuality, right from the opening scene with its foreshadowing of violence, encapsulated by a phallic, bright yellow sports car and, of course, a pistol, up to the penultimate shot of Marylee suggestively caressing a model oil derrick as the man she loves walks away with another woman. The pistol, the oil derrick, the sports car, these stereotypically masculine symbols, are constants throughout the film, reminders of Kyle's insecurity and impotence, and Marylee's similar inability to get the one thing she really wants, which is Mitch.

It's Sirk's genius for such inventive mise en scène that characterizes this film. Every scene is as much about the setting as the characters in it, or, rather, the setting is used as a mirror image for the characters and their psychological states. And speaking of mirrors, Sirk puts them to good use as well, with mirrors constantly revealing the extra presence in the room, as in the screen capture above where the mirror places Mitch's reflection like an obstacle between the soon-to-be-formed couple of Kyle and Lucy. Kyle steps forward a moment later, his form blocking Mitch's reflection from out of the shot, and figuratively locking him away from Lucy as well. In another scene, when Marylee vindictively warns Lucy about her brother's philandering and drinking, Sirk sets up the shot over Lucy's shoulder, with Marylee's face framed by a small round vanity mirror. Sirk uses mirrors to suggest people who are both seen and unseen, as Marylee with her ignored advice or Mitch with his potentially disrupting effect on Kyle's budding romance with Lucy. Thus the mirrors suggest their presence in the scene without granting them a real physical presence — they are easily ignored or, as Kyle does to Mitch's reflection, covered up.

With Written on the Wind, it's easy to see why Sirk has had such a decisive influence on everyone from Godard to Fassbinder to Todd Haynes. The film's plot is simple, and the fact that Sirk reveals the climax right away during the credits proves that he's not interested in building any real suspense or telling a story. We know right from the start that things are going to go badly, but the emphasis of Sirk's film is not necessarily how things got there, the step by step process, but why these things happened. What interests him in this story are the characters, their psychological depths and relationships, and the ways in which the film's style can be used to reflect these things without being too explicit. The dialogue occasionally disappoints in this regard, giving the characters long-winded explanations of motivation that seem totally unnecessary in light of Sirk's gift for visual storytelling. When Marylee frankly explains that she sleeps around so freely out of frustration because she can't have Mitch, this was already entirely obvious from the scene in which Mitch "rescues" her from yet another sleazy guy, and Sirk cuts to numerous close-ups showing her facial expressions. But the periodic lapses into expositional dialogue are, in another sense, just another aspect of the deliberately awkward and artificial aesthetic of the film, of which the overblown dialogue and the lurid Technicolor designs are the most obvious examples. This is a fascinating, darkly funny, and constantly compelling melodrama, one built around internal frustrations and their sublimated external expressions, a true masterpiece of explosive Freudian angst.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

11/18: Mala Noche; Flirting With Disaster

[This review of Mala Noche is a contribution to the Queer Film Blog-a-Thon being hosted by Queering the Apparatus.]

I've always thought that there was a profound disconnection in Gus Van Sant's career between his more recent masterpieces starting with 2002's Gerry, and everything he'd made previously. Even Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho, as worthwhile as they are, seem to have little to do with his recent spate of languid, existential tone poems — and this is to say nothing of the more commercial films he made in the intervening years. But seeing his debut feature, Mala Noche, for the first time is a truly revelatory experience in terms of Van Sant's career arc. This moody, lyrical ode to homosexual desire among the down and out in Portland is something of a missing link for those who, like me, had only seen the films Van Sant made after this point. In this film, Van Sant was already sowing the seeds that would flower into the thematic territory of films like Drugstore Cowboy, but more importantly this film represents the aesthetic foundation of Van Sant's mature style.

Evocative, elliptical, and narratively rootless, the film wanders aimlessly around a central love triangle involving a gay store clerk, Walt (Tim Streeter), and two illegal Mexican immigrants, Johnny (Doug Cooeyate) and Pepper (Ray Monge). Walt provides the film's narration, with a wry, self-deprecating wit and a knack for finding the poetic in his prosaic struggles to get laid. His first lines inform us that he wants Johnny, but he winds up sleeping with the much more readily accessible Pepper instead, while continuing to pine after his love. The film's aesthetic is dark, shadowy, its protagonists constantly lost in black with only fleeting flashes of light to illuminate their features. The high-contrast photography, truly black and white with very little gray in between, heightens the film's low-budget noir atmosphere. The noir reference serves as a metaphor for the outsider status of these characters, and the gun which gets passed between them is an icon of both death and sex.

But this should not imply that Mala Noche comes across as some kind of radical gay political statement. As in all of Van Sant's films, there are traces of social and political commentary, especially on society's treatment of its marginal and outsider figures. There's also a potent examination of race and immigration, and the sexual exploitation that can take advantage of desperation — although the issue is complicated by the question of whether Walt is exploiting his objects of desire, or whether they're exploiting him because his desire makes him need them. Of course, Van Sant never allows these political and social subtexts to overwhelm either his story or his chiaroscuro style. The film's most radical statement, in fact, is its casual acceptance of these characters' gay or borderline gay lifestyles as a simple matter of fact, without making it a point of explicit commentary. In Van Sant's later films, possibly excepting My Own Private Idaho, I've always felt that he has made homosexuality something of a peripheral matter, one facet among many in his complex aesthetic. It's an arguable subtext in Gerry, and it's given brief self-contained scenes — much mis-interpreted and endowed with greater significance by all quarters — in Last Days and Elephant.

It can also be said that Mala Noche avoids treating its gayness in the usual ways. Homosexual desire is the film's central theme, and this desire is explored in the most sumptuous, sensual manner possible, capturing the true feeling of desire and lust in the richly textured visuals. The film's most memorable scene is its only love scene, between Walt and Pepper, which Van Sant portrays in extremely tight close-ups that only rarely betray any sense of space. Instead, the scene is built around brightly lit areas of bare skin, flashes of facial expressions mingling pain and lust, bodies pressing together either fighting or loving. Surrounded by total darkness, and hidden by it, the two men come together for a night of near-violent desire, and the frisson between them is palpable on-screen in the flashing light-and-dark compositions that hardly reveal a thing. It's a deeply erotic scene, but the effect of the focus on bare skin and shadowy close-ups is to generalize this depiction of desire. In the absence of context — and without the mid-scene break for a Vaseline run — it could just as easily be a man and a woman, or two women for that matter. The important thing is all the bare skin touching, the hands grasping, the smiles and gasps, the shuffling around in the sheets. This is desire, pure and simple.

Indeed, there has hardly been any greater cinematic ode to desire than this one. Van Sant's grasp of this material is prodigious, and for a novice director he seems remarkably in control of every aspect of the film. The film's low budget occasionally shows through in its touch-and-go audio and the amateurish performances (actually its biggest asset), but the lush imagery and carefully paced visual storytelling make this an essential touchstone for all Van Sant admirers. I'd even venture to say that it's his finest film prior to his recent re-birth with Gerry, far surpassing his better-known early works.

David O. Russell's Flirting With Disaster hilariously updates the screwball farce with a heavy dose of neuroticism and sexual tension. It's the story of Mel (Ben Stiller), who blames his neurotic problems, insecurity, and sexual hangups with his sexy wife Nancy (an irresistible Patricia Arquette) on his lifelong identity crisis, all stemming from the fact that he was adopted as an infant. Now, with his own new baby — five months old and still unnamed thanks to Mel's indecisiveness — Mel decides that it's time to track down his biological parents and settle the question of who he is once and for all. With the help of the statuesque psychologist and adoption counselor Tina (Téa Leoni), Mel and Nancy head out on the road in search of his parents, with many hilarious detours and mishaps along the way. Among these is the fact that Tina can't quite seem to figure out who Mel's parents are, and there are a handful of ridiculous mis-identifications before the real ones are located. Even more troubling is the growing awkward attraction between Tina and Mel, as Mel's own marriage begins to unravel under the strain of his neuroses. The situation accumulates even more pressure when the trio takes on two more passengers, the bisexual federal agent (and Nancy's high school friend) Tony (Josh Brolin) and his partner and husband, Paul (Richard Jenkins).

Obviously, the situation is ripe for all sorts of comic possibilities, and Russell exploits every opportunity for a gag, though he never takes a short-cut for an easy joke. Instead, all of the film's humor is intimately connected to its characters and their psychologies, which is probably why the film just keeps getting funnier and funnier as it goes along and we get to know these characters better and better. It helps that Russell has assembled a sparkling cast of comedic actors. In addition to the main five-some, the film is buoyed by Mary Tyler Moore and George Segal as Mel's neurotic Jewish adoptive parents, and Lily Tomlin and Alan Alda as his LSD-friendly hippie birth parents. It's hard to tell which parents are funnier, and the narrative sets the two couples on a literal collision course for each other.

Russell's film is packed with comedic moments, too many to even begin to mention — and I won't ruin the humor by simply quoting it or talking about it too much. But his real brilliance is to infuse so much of his humor with sexual undertones, driving forward the film's theme of confused sexuality even as he gets the laughs. In a typically hilarious sequence, Mel turns up at the house of a woman he thinks is his birth mother (Celia Weston), a blonde Southern belle and descendant of Confederate generals who's decorated her home with stained glass, a crystal Zodiac, and a pencilled portrait of Ronald Reagan in a cowboy hat. The scene begins unassumingly, but Russell quickly starts to pile on the absurdity, building up to a scene where Mel winds up knocking over a huge shelf of crystal animals just as Weston's blonde, bronzed twin daughters show up in tight-fitting swimsuits and embrace him as a brother. These athletic visions, straight from a beach volleyball game, underline Mel's considerable sexual tension, adding a level of semi-incestual desire to his awkwardness. This kind of scene, with its multiple undertones bolstering the surface comedy, is typical of Russell's complex approach to comedy, and it's the multitude of scenes like this that make Flirting With Disaster such a riot.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

11/17: No Country For Old Men

The signal moment in the Coen brothers' excellent No Country For Old Men comes about halfway through, and it's a seemingly minor scene with precious little to do with the main plotline. Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) is recounting a story he's read in the newspaper, about a homicidal couple who had been torturing, robbing, and killing old people, and he laments how it took one of the victims running from the house screaming and wearing a dog collar before anyone took notice. "I guess digging graves in the yard wasn't enough," he says, and it inevitably elicits a wry chuckle. It also gets a laugh out of the deputy who Bell's telling the story too, and the Coens abruptly cut to the deputy's "hyuck," before cutting back just as quickly to a disapproving Bell. The effect is electrifying. The scene both provokes a reaction and then proceeds to explore the nature of that reaction, all in a few rapid cuts, forcing the audience to question its own assumptions and the implications of its jaded laughter at such images of violence and human ugliness.

This kind of moral questioning is at the heart of the Coens' film, as it was in the Cormac McCarthy novel which the film is adapted from. In adapting McCarthy's novel, the Coens have remained remarkably faithful both to the substance of the plot and to the feel of the material, the folksy rhythm of McCarthy's border town dialogue and the philosophical inquiry into violence and evil. But this scene indicates at least one way in which the Coens have gone beyond the book's scope, making its moral inquiry a kind of interactive experience in which the audience must follow along with Bell (the moral center in both film and novel) in tracing the ontology of evil. Many people, when they heard that the Coens would be tackling McCarthy's arch-moralist novel, feared that the brothers would inject the film with too much of their trademark ironic humor, dulling the impact of the story and its intentions. But quite to the contrary, in most cases the Coens have actually dulled the novel's humor, stifled it in favor of a deadpan realism that accentuates rather than lifts the horror. In one scene early on, there's another exchange between Bell and his deputy. "This is quite a mess," the deputy says. Bell's response ("If it ain't, it'll do until the mess gets here") was, in the novel, exactly the kind of ironical humor that one would most easily associate with the Coens, and this is the kind of moment that would seem to gel most easily with their own aesthetic. And yet the directors choose to deliberately defuse the humor by emphasizing the dead bodies strewn around the desert, and keeping the body of a dead dog pointedly in shot throughout the scene, glimpsed just to the right of Bell in the background, even framed between the legs of a horse at one point.

In addition to de-emphasizing McCarthy's morbid humor, the Coens have also played up the gore that always figures in McCarthy's work. Their images of violence have a quality of stasis, as though the camera is lingering in order to examine the gore in detail, an effect that admirably captures the extended nature of McCarthy's head-on descriptions of violence. The unstoppable hitman Chigurh (Javier Bardem, incredibly sinister) turns violence into a process, reducible to its steps and casual in its application. His offhand robbery of a drug store, achieved by setting fire to a car outside as a distraction, is followed by a lengthy scene in which he removes a bullet from his leg, shown in all its gory detail. Both scenes are presented as though Chigurh is simply going through the motions, following a set of instructions that he's memorized through repetition. Chigurh's mission is to locate Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), who's stolen $2 million from a botched drug transaction he stumbled across in the desert one afternoon. The killer's path is strewn with corpses, as he stoically tracks his prey with little regard for anyone who winds up in his way. He is an incarnation of evil, an evil intimately associated with the modern age but, as the philosophical coda makes clear, not unique to it. Bell's mistake, throughout the film, is to take the (conservative) moral stance that the modern age is degraded and its evil more widespread than in the past. But McCarthy's novel has more historical sense than that, and the Coens bring over a précis of the moral examination that occurs in the final quarter of the book, following the abrupt death of its former protagonist Moss.

This moment, one of the most startling in the book because of its radical disposal, without ceremony, of the hero, has been beautifully preserved by the Coens, as has the sudden switch of perspectives from Moss to Bell. The final 20 minutes of the film are dedicated to Moss' struggle to come to grips with the evil represented by Chigurh. This is a struggle that the audience must engage in as well, and the Coens' film allows plenty of room for such moral questioning. In adapting McCarthy's novel, their faithfulness to the text, despite many necessary changes, involves above all a faithfulness to the book's moral character, its insistence on not just taking murder as a fact of life the way Chigurh does.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

11/15: Ikiru

[This is a contribution to the Akira Kurosawa Blog-a-Thon hosted by Film Squish.]

Kurosawa's Ikiru is concerned with a seemingly counterintuitive idea: the poetics of bureaucracy. Its hero is a bureaucrat, and its central premise boils down to this man learning that he is going to die, and in response dedicating his remaining months to becoming a better bureaucrat. Veteran actor Takashi Shimura plays Watanabe, a career bureaucrat in a city Public Affairs department, who abruptly learns that he has stomach cancer and has only a few more months to live. His initial reaction is to sink into depression. He stops attending his job without even calling in, and drinks himself into oblivion in neighborhood bars — he seems intent on either forgetting about his plight or speeding it up to ease the burden on his self-absorbed son. A chance encounter with a writer at one of these bars proves to be the first step towards coming to terms with his illness, and this man takes Watanabe out for a wild night on the town, dancing, singing, gambling, and meeting young girls. This experience awakens Watanabe from his self-pity, making him realize that he should do something with his final months to redeem the wasted, routine life he'd been living since his wife died. However, he rightly rejects the hedonism of that one night as a long-term solution, recognizing it for the momentary pleasure it is.

As he casts around for a direction in his new life, a chance encounter again sets him onto a path, as he runs into his former employee Toyo (Miki Odagiri). Her youth and vitality enlivens her, but their initially carefree friendship quickly sours when Watanabe becomes clingy and desperate. She does, however, indirectly point him back towards yet another path: escape into his work, which is the path he decides on. He recommits himself to his job with a resolution to go above and beyond his duties to truly help people. It's at this point that Kurosawa makes the interesting decision to skip ahead five months, to Watanabe's wake. The remainder of the film is told in flashbacks by Watanabe's fellow employees, underlings, and bosses, revealing the misinterpretations and credit-stealing that go on even the night after his death. The bisected structure of the film allows Kurosawa to essentially create two films, one hopeful and one pessimistic. In the first half, Watanabe's realization of his own mortality initiates his examination of his life and what he's done with it. Even if his ultimate decision to turn back to his career is perhaps questionable as a means of fulfillment, it's still the first time in 30 years that he's made a positive decision for himself rather than just allowing his life to pass by. The first half ends with him actively taking on a new project that everyone else had dismissed, the creation of a children's park in a poor and neglected area of the city where a sewage pond was causing a health hazard.

After the first half of the film, the quiet optimism of Watanabe's mission isn't quite dissipated, but it is seriously dulled by the realization of just how little change Watanabe managed to effect in his surroundings. The second half of the film takes place entirely at Watanabe's wake, with his co-workers not so much mourning him as trying to figure out exactly what made him tick and what prompted the tremendous change in his personality in those final months. The first half of the film is defined by its transcendent quality: the sense, largely communicated by Kurosawa's sumptuous visuals, that we are observing more than just the external realities of a life in flux, but the internal qualities of the man himself. Shimura's amazing, wide-eyed performance goes a long ways towards establishing this spiritual closeness between the audience and Watanabe. His large, watery eyes practically bug out of his head on cue, and Kurosawa frequently allows his facial expressions to say it all in extreme close-ups. He emanates a sublime mix of melancholy, hopefulness, and quiet desperation, and his hunched, shuffling gait and murmured, halting speech only heightens the empathy for him.

In the second half of the film, with Watanabe's disappearance from the narrative except in the form of a photograph hung in the center of the room, this transcendent quality also largely disappears. The employees' squabbles have the quality of the multiple perspectives that Kurosawa had used in Rashomon two years earlier, but in this case they disagree not on facts, but on matters of interpretation. The palpable absence of Watanabe is a black hole in the film, especially since the periodic flashbacks in which he appears briefly restore that feeling of transcendence and emotional connection. The arguing employees are no substitute for Shimura's powerhouse central performance, and it's as though Kurosawa ended a perfectly good narrative film early in order to stage a debate. The employees' arguments spell out all too clearly the ideas that Kurosawa wanted to communicate, a prime example of a great director not trusting his own visual storytelling. This is especially apparent since the second half also contains a handful of the film's best scenes.

In one scene, perhaps the film's most potent, some women from the neighborhood that Watanabe helped show up at his funeral, interrupting at a crucial moment when the ambitious deputy mayor had been busily rationalizing his failure to give Watanabe proper credit. These women kneel in front of the altar and pour out their grief, weeping and crying over the kind, helpful, driven man who helped them so much. Kurosawa barely shows the women, though, instead keeping their cries on the soundtrack while he cuts around the room to close-ups of the politicians and public officials who have gathered for the service. Their uncomfortable expressions when faced with this wordless remorse say it all, and Kurosawa handles this moment with economical grace, indicting every man in the room without a word. The remaining hour of bluster and blather only confirms what's already implicit in this scene: these men don't understand Watanabe, and they don't get that his exceptional commitment to his job in his last months was his way of living his life to its fullest.

The other great scenes in the film's second half are both flashbacks, one in which Watanabe wistfully stares out at the work in progress on "his" park, and another from the night he died, as he sits on a swing in the snow-covered park, singing quietly into the night. These brief scenes — moments, really — are imbued with Watanabe's grace and poignancy, and they are gently affecting, getting at the man's core in ways that no amount of words ever could. Ikiru is the story of this bureaucrat's realization that life should never be accepted passively, but lived with vibrancy and energy. Its other characters never come to this same realization, making this film simultaneously optimistic and pessimistic. But if one broken and mummified man can learn to live his life actively, whatever that means for him, the same option must be open to everyone else too.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

11/14: The Pornographers

Shohei Imamura's The Pornographers is a pitch-black absurdist comedy of outrageous sexuality and the role of sex in a modern world dominated by greed and manipulation. The titular pornographer is Subu Ogata (Shoichi Ozawa), who makes porn movies and sells a wide variety of sexual literature, photos, illicit audio recordings, and impotence medicines — all this while telling his widowed lover and landlady Haru (Sumiko Sakamoto) that he sells medical equipment. In a way, to Ogata, this seems to be a true statement. He increasingly views the world, and especially the men in it, as sick with sexuality, and views his "immoral" work as a kind of cure.

Ogata's profession starts out as just a way to make money, but as he encounters police raids, local mobsters, thieving partners, and his own complicated sexual impulses, he becomes more philosophical about his work. In any case, it seems like it's stopped making him money, and he begins pouring all his own money into buying equipment and supplies, while his personal life descends into a labyrinth of forbidden and twisted sexual desire. He wants Haru's 15-year-old daughter Keiko (Keiko Sagawa), and Haru, who is sick and on the verge of dying, encourages him to marry her, though the promiscuous Keiko herself has little interest. Meanwhile, Haru tries to remain pure due to a vow she made to her first husband, who she believes has been reincarnated as a carp and watches over her — when the carp jumps in his tank, that means that her dead husband disapproves of her actions. There's also a bizarre Oedipal subtext with Haru's son Koichi (Masaomi Kondo), who she spoils and takes care of, and who responds with a devotion bordering uncomfortably on the sexual.

With these warped and intricately intertwined sexual impulses wending through its narrative, The Pornographers is structured as though the id is periodically overwhelming the story. Imamura's narrative will often run in a more or less traditional manner for a while, only to be disrupted by the intrusion of an unsettlingly real dream sequence. These strange dreams pop up from time to time without warning, often emerging spontaneously from scenes that at first appeared to be entirely realistic. It's never even made clear quite whose dreams they are, although presumably they might be attributed to Ogata. Certainly the later ones, with their imagery of sexual impotence, are his, but several earlier ones seem to belong more plausibly to Haru or her daughter. In any case, these absurd interjections add to the film's stylized depiction of sexual desire. It all culminates when Ogata becomes impotent and is driven to entirely reject human sexuality in its ordinary forms, pursuing the construction of a perfect mechanical woman to satisfy his desires.

The Pornographers is a unique and incredibly odd examination of sexuality in a world of greed and repression, where the human, personal aspect of sex is increasingly being subsumed by economics, legalities, and mechanical desire. As such, this 1966 film is a stunningly prescient work, predicting among other things the numbing of sexuality in the age of Internet porn and the continuing interaction between ordered sexual repression on the one hand and unfettered id on the other. The wild imagery is offset by the surprisingly philosophical commentary of Ogata's conversations with his fellow pornographers, in which they discuss the ethics of incest, the potential for the fantasies of porn to replace real-life violent sexuality, and the loss of one-on-one romantic and sexual connections in a world where sexuality has become a commonplace public spectacle and a commodity on the marketplace. Imamura's sensibility is perfectly suited to such a complex film, which treats its subject matter with both irreverence and depth.

Monday, November 12, 2007

11/12: A Canterbury Tale; Beware of a Holy Whore; Act of Violence

In A Canterbury Tale, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger crafted a magical and haunting film from the simplest of premises, spinning out a rather uncomplicated yarn into a magical fable of the English countryside and its way of life. The set-up is simple: two soldiers on furlough, one American and one British, arrive in a small country town at the same time as a young woman who's seeking employment on a local farm. The setting is World War II era Britain, but the war seems very distant indeed from this idyllic country setting. The only, rather mild, indication of the war's effect is the periodic rumbling of military jeeps through the otherwise undisturbed and tranquil countryside. But this small town, situated along the same Pilgrim's Road that once led the travelers of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales to their destination, has a darker undercurrent which these new travelers encounter almost at once. While the two soldiers lead the girl, Alison (Sheila Sim), into town, she is suddenly attacked by a mysterious figure who pours glue in her hair and then runs away. For anyone giggling at that already, yes, the seminal subtext is patently obvious, and yes, she does yell out, "Oh, there's sticky stuff in my hair!" One can easily picture an audience of Freudians going into raptures.

Needless to say, the trio become embroiled in an investigation to solve this mystery and capture the "Glue Man," who has struck 10 times before and whose activities seem to be of curiously little interest to most people in the village. But while this is the film's nominal plot, it's kept almost completely to the background, the better for Powell and Pressburger to focus their attention on the beauty of country life. By fifteen minutes after it's happened, the glue incident has already been nearly forgotten, as the characters begin to explore the town in earnest, and the audience begins to meet these sweet, innocent characters. The American GI is Bob Johnson (real-life Sergeant John Sweet), a fresh-faced Oregon boy who's wondering why his sweetheart back home has stopped writing. His earnest, wide-eyed manner and gentle good manners are instantly endearing, and Sweet is the perfect choice as a representation of good-old American values abroad. If this is what the British thought of us during WW2, then it only makes our current world image even sadder. Along with the similarly appealing Alison, Bob explores the village and the duo tries to figure out if the kind but strangely sinister local magistrate, Colpeper (Eric Portman), is the Glue Man or not. The third member of their trio, the British sergeant Peter (Dennis Price), is stationed at a nearby camp, and he joins in on the mystery when he's off from his duties.

What's most interesting about this scenario is that the filmmakers themselves seem to be most clearly aligned with Colpeper, who is an avid historian of the area around Canterbury and its rich history. Colpeper, even in his most sinister moments — and there are many, since the film begins dropping hints about him early on — is oddly appealing in his enthusiasm for local lore. He seems to be in a deep spiritual communion with the land around him, a connection to its religious past that he wishes to spread to others through his lectures and teaching. He seems, by today's standards, to be a figure of conservative morality, expressing a desire for the younger generations to get in touch with their more spiritual and innocent pasts. And certainly the Glue Man is an instrument of this backward-looking morality, since his sexualized crimes are intended to punish and discourage the local girls from going out with the soldiers stationed nearby. Despite all this, Colpeper is hardly an irredeemable villain, and the filmmakers clearly have great respect for his motivations and ideas, even if they stop slightly short of endorsing his actions.

In fact, the film is so much in sympathy with Colpeper that in many ways it seems to be his vision of the countryside that we're seeing on screen throughout the film. It's a strange and mystical place, where the past is sometimes so close that Alison, standing on a windy hilltop in an eerie stillness, can hear the music of the old Canterbury pilgrims from 600 years earlier. This connection to the past is established in the film's unforgettable first sequence, which begins in the time of Chaucer's tales. The pilgrims make their way along the road, and one of them, astride a horse, releases a falcon, which goes soaring off into the sky. In a stunning edit, the filmmakers then cut to an image of a modern fighter plane, similarly diving and swooping through the sky; the pilgrim has been replaced, down on the ground, by a wistfully smiling soldier. The whole film is subtly influenced by the texture of this non-diegetic introduction, which links all the film's modern events to the long-ago pilgrims who once passed through this region. These images have such a haunting and quietly beautiful quality that one can't help but believe Colpeper when he waxes ecstatic about the region's qualities. His words are bolstered by the weight of Powell and Pressburger's imagery, an odd situation in which the filmmakers seem to be conspiring with their villain.

All of this comes to a head in the film's ambiguous, elegiac denouement, in which the characters fulfill their connection to the past by themselves becoming pilgrims to Canterbury. All go for their own mundane reasons, but they all find something much different and greater than they expected — something mystical, spiritual, even miraculous flows through this final part of the film. By now, the mystery plot has drifted away and nearly been forgotten, nominally solved but not really resolved, its threads left hanging and ambiguous at the ending. It's a wonderful, entrancing end to a film that truly defies description, the kind of film whose charm and beauty are nearly impossible to resist.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Beware of a Holy Whore is, essentially, one big in-joke, a feature-length parody of his own filmmaking process, in which he casts almost his entire stock company. It's a very nasty, acerbically funny film, with Fassbinder fearlessly turning his sharp tongue on his own image and the sexual complications that constantly surrounded him. Fassbinder steps back from himself in one respect, giving the part of the dictatorial director Jeff to Lou Castel, while he plays Jeff's assistant Sascha. Jeff is an angry, diva-ish tyrant, and a sexual manipulator who seems to constantly crave some attention of any kind. He's most infatuated by the boyish Ricky (Marquad Bohm), but he willfully sleeps his way through most of the cast and crew, male and female, and is frustrated when he fails to consummate things with the actress Hanna (Hanna Schygulla, vamping in an indescribably sexy channeling of Marilyn Monroe). She's more interested in the film's star, the craggy-faced Eddie Constantine, who's there because Jeff is making a new Lemmy Caution picture. Meanwhile, Ricky competes with assistant director David (Hannes Fuchs) for Jeff's attentions, while simultaneously seducing some of the women on the set. And the chronically depressive set designer, Fred (a typically histrionic Kurt Raab), breaks down and cries over seemingly anything.

This exaggerated cast of characters fight, sleep around, exchange partners, scream and yell, and consume massive quantities of alcohol — and all this before having completed even a single frame of film. Fassbinder's satire of his own emotionally draining filming process, made right after Whity and directly inspired by its torturous shoot, pulls no punches, either for himself or anyone else. These are a bunch of neurotic, hopeless, desperate people, and none of them more so than the Fassbinder stand-in Jeff, who even wears Fassbinder's trademark black leather jacket just in case there's any confusion about the connection. And yet the film is subtly hilarious, in its own bitchy way, for those who are open to its black charms. The histrionics and rage are played totally straight, even deadpan, but at the same time it's all so ridiculous that the film's straight face becomes difficult to uphold.

In one scene, staged at an almost excruciating length, most of the cast is gathered in the central room at the villa they're shooting in. Some are drinking at the bar, while others are paired off making out or dancing, and over the course of the scene these pairs constantly shift and rotate as the characters all play off each other's feelings, manipulating and jilting each other with only casual interest in what's going on. While all this is happening, those at the bar sink deeper and deeper into drink and begin heaving their glasses behind them over their shoulders, or throwing them at the far wall, prompting the dutiful bartender to appear with his broom and dustpan. Meanwhile, Jeff's fiancée Irm (Magdalena Montezuma) throws a fit at his disinterest and is promptly ejected from the set, following a harrowing speech which Fassbinder allows her to deliver in close-up. The scene as a whole is sustained for incredibly long, with most of it held at arm's length in long shots except for periodic close-ups like this one, which draw us closer to particular moments of emotional collapse. The distance which Fassbinder mostly keeps from the action allows him to ratchet up the tension without ever losing its comic edge. He wants us to feel the emotional anguish of these characters while simultaneously recognizing the ludicrous nature of the situation. The scene is both intense drama and absurd slapstick, with one feeding off the other and leading into the other. The screaming, the breaking glass, the Leonard Cohen music with couples slow-dancing and fornicating in the background, it all accumulates into a fever pitch of ridiculous tension.

Fassbinder presents many scenes in this way towards the beginning of the film, keeping the characters locked into a single space together and letting the sparks fly as their complex relationships and ever-shifting objects of "love" collide. The individual scenes feel disconnected from each other, having little to do with each other besides the same basic cast of characters and the same theme of searching for love and affection. Each scene is a new take on the film's central theme, a new set piece in which Fassbinder sets his characters free to hurt and play off one another. This feeling becomes even more pronounced as the film goes along, and towards the end, Fassbinder drastically shortens the scene length, increasing the tempo of his editing so that many different scenes breeze by. Whether the scenes are held at great length or last barely a minute, the idea is the same: they are "takes," different perspectives on the same set of emotional dilemmas. Fassbinder's coldly critical and blackly humorous look at his own filmmaking persona stands as yet another dark-hued masterpiece in his fertile career.

In Act of Violence, Robert Ryan does an excellent job playing the initially threatening crippled GI Joe Parkson, who is an unrelenting mission to murder his former commanding officer, Frank Enley (Van Heflin). But of course all is not as it seems in this masterfully crafted film noir from director Fred Zinnemann. For the first half of the film, Parkson is a terror stalking Enley's pleasant, succesful suburban life. Enley is married, to the innocent and cheery Edith (Janet Leigh), and a well-respected local businessman, but the sudden appearance of Parkson clearly terrifies him, and Zinnemann keeps the audience squarely on Enley's side. The gun-toting Parkson is initially kept at a distance, a single-minded killer who can hardly wait to kill his prey; he stalks him mercilessly and with great haste, as though he's eager to kill him as soon as possible. Even Parkson's limp is turned into an instrument of fear. In one memorable scene, Frank and Edith are locked up in their house, hiding from Parkson, as the killer stalks around outside, trying all the doors. The scared couple can track his progress by following the dragging shuffle of his limping gait, the only sound in the otherwise eerily quiet scene.

That the film is then able to transform this jaded killer into a much more complex and morally ambiguous character is one of the film's central conceits. The second half of the film, when Parkson's motivations become known, reveals the complicated morality at the heart of the film, which encompasses war crimes and the question of whether some deeds are so heinous they just can't be forgotten. While Enley flees from Parkson and stumbles around for a way out, the film humanizes both men, making it clear that the violent link between them is only being continued in the current events. In the finale, both men have a chance to redeem themselves, with a resolution that of course allows Parkson to retain his humanity (Robert Ryan could never really play a cold-blooded killer), and for Enley to atone for his own violent past.

Act of Violence is a solid, well-made noir with a complex moral core to back up its gorgeous high contrast blacks and whites. As with many of the best noirs, the imagery may trade in one or the other, but the script recognizes that morality more often exists in shades of gray.