Thursday, July 31, 2008


In his penultimate film, Wittgenstein, Derek Jarman attempts to grapple with the life and ideas of the brilliant, tortured philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, applying to the great man's life a framework that can only be described as the mingling of avant-garde theater with the aesthetics of a children's TV show. Most biographical and historical films attempt to rigorously capture a sense of the subject's life and times, to place the subject in context, to recreate his surroundings. Jarman rejects this historical realism out of hand, setting his film on an empty sound stage with a black curtain in the background, blotting out all extraneous detail. The sets are correspondingly meager and simple, usually consisting of a single prop that is needed for the scene at hand — a chair, a bed, a table, a piano, only occasionally a more complete range of furniture at Wittgenstein's seminars, where students are ranged around his blackboard in chairs. Furthermore, the wardrobe is defiantly ahistorical, ranging from Wittgenstein's plausible and conservative suits to the single-color sweatsuits favored by his sometime lover Johnny (Kevin Collins), to the brightly colored garments worn by much of the rest of the cast. Primary colors abound, vibrant hues that serve to separate Wittgenstein from those around him, and the film as a whole from the historical story it purports to tell — the ridiculous costuming of the cast would be most at home in an 80s dance club maybe, or else a surreal children's show. This is a film that dresses up the philosopher Bertrand Russell (Michael Gough) in a bright purple bow-tie and primary-red robes, seemingly just because it can. These philosophers and great thinkers look like they'd be more at home on Sesame Street than a Cambridge lecture hall. There's also no sense of real time or narrative, only a sequence of incidents and idiosyncratic ruminations on Wittgenstein's ever-changing thinking about the nature of the world and the way language is related to it. This elimination of context puts the focus completely on Wittgenstein himself, his relationships, his thoughts, and his internal dramas.

Wittgenstein himself is played by two actors: Clancy Chassay, who plays the philosopher as a young boy and provides bemused narration and interludes, and Karl Johnson, who plays the older Wittgenstein. The former is responsible for many of the film's more playful touches, and he opens the film by introducing himself, his bourgeoisie family, and the many tutors who are enlisted to teach him as a boy. He also engages in philosophical dialogues with a deformed Martian (the disabled actor Nabil Shaban) in a luminescent green costume, who questions him about basic concepts: how he knows the earth exists, whether he has ten toes, and what he thinks it means to say he is "a human." These scenes establish, through this ludicrous pairing, the way in which philosophy attempts to question even basic concepts, to start from no assumptions and work outwards from that empty space. The alien, who should really not exist, sets the film's tone: nothing can be assumed, an axiom that's driven home by Wittgenstein later in the film when he poses the old question about the sun going around the earth versus the earth going around the sun. Everyone used to assume the former, simply because that was the way it looked, but what, he asks, would it look like if it were the latter? From the perspective of the earth, of course, either model for the solar system looks the same. Nothing can be assumed, not even the evidence of the senses, a condition that leads Wittgenstein through the most tremendous self-doubt and internal strife in his pursuit of a comprehensive philosophy.

Jarman dramatizes this struggle almost in a vacuum. Incidents from Wittgenstein's life appear, disconnected from the whole: he leaves home, goes to war, writes his master treatise the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, becomes a rural elementary school teacher, and finally settles in at Cambridge as a professor, continuing to think all the while. It's a film, essentially, about thinking, a problem for a visual medium that Jarman solves by stripping down the surroundings and infusing the simple sets and costumes with as much color and vibrancy as he can muster. There are flashes of inexplicable visual bravado, like the scene where the society lady Ottoline Morrell (Tilda Swinton) is made up with yellow and blue patterns painted on her face. In the rest of the film, the character is made up more prosaically but no less completely, her face a pasty white mask with devilish red lips, while her clothes are among the brightest and frilliest in the cast. Why? Who knows, but this visual extravagance sets off her privileged world from the stubbornly proletariat Wittgenstein, whose greatest ambition is to abandon philosophy and become a manual laborer.

These kinds of disjunctions show up again and again within the film. In one scene, Wittgenstein dons a pair of white wings, attempting to fly as he holds a pair of lawn sprinklers in front of him, their twirling heads sending out circular sprays of water that flow into one another and form hypnotic patterns in the air, the droplets illuminated by hidden lights. It's strangely beautiful, but again, why is it here at all? Many of Jarman's interjections into the story of Wittgenstein are puzzling in the extreme, devoid of context as the whole film is. His visual sensibility seems calculated to be off-putting and unsettling, with its queasy mishmash of tastelessly combined colors and clothes, and the occasional detours into surrealist imagery that seem totally unrelated to the film's central story. Visually, the film might be described as an attempt to find the sublime within the ugly and tacky, a feat that Jarman sporadically accomplishes. His set and costume design frequently verge into absurd beauty, as in the scene where the economist Maynard Keynes (John Quentin), dressed in a ridiculous electric blue suit, meets with his aging ballerina wife (Lynn Seymour) whose graceful movements in a frilly blue costume turn the scene into a dance in sympathetic colors.

In addition to its engagement with Wittgenstein's ideas, the film also deals with the philosopher's conflicted sexuality, which seems to have caused him as much anguish as his considerations of philosophical problems. The film suggests that this was a man who brought the same laser-like logical intellect to bear on every aspect of his life — when designing a house for his sister, he planned it down to details as small as hinges and doorknobs. His sexuality, then, is given equally intense scrutiny, and he struggles with the conflicting pleasure and guilt he feels over his homosexual affairs, unsure of whether he's doing wrong or not. The film's other characters seem to have less trouble with such basic problems, and in some ways the film questions the importance of philosophy at all, much as Wittgenstein did at various points in his life. In one scene, Keynes and Johnny, who are also lovers, share a kiss, which Johnny laments cannot be explained by philosophy. Keynes is less perturbed, declaring that it's not meant to be explained, implying that some parts of human experience are beyond the realm of understanding. Wittgenstein cannot so easily accept this, cannot tolerate aspects of the world being roped off from analysis and explication, and the film's unanswered central question is whether Wittgenstein or Keynes is right on this point.

This is obviously a very complex and fascinating film, all the more so for the way in which it leaves such crucial questions unresolved. Wittgenstein's philosophy is presented in his own fumbling, often contradictory words, taking shape throughout the film as he postulates and then rejects new theories and new ways of understanding the world. The final scene visualizes this mental process in terms of the conflict between a rigorous, totally logical understanding of the world (a world of pure ice as represented by a giant snowman) and a more rough-edged, realistic view of the world with all its complications intact. This latter view, clearly the one favored by Jarman, is represented by the only point in the film in which the black curtain of the backdrop is peeled back. The young Wittgenstein, that mischievous philosopher-child, throws back the curtain to reveal a painted sunset, an icon for the beauty of the world. It's also a symbol of the film's endless cycle of explanations and thinking, a process that moves ever closer to the world without quite reaching it. Even here, the curtain is pushed aside but an equally artificial backdrop lies underneath. As a metaphor for the strivings of philosophy, always seeking to fully understand the world and always coming up against illusions and barriers, it's a nearly perfect way to end the film.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Mighty Aphrodite

Mighty Aphrodite is simultaneously a departure and a re-visitation of familiar material for Woody Allen. The story is typical Allen in many ways, and the film's opening in particular comes across as a rather dull, plodding pastiche of his past films. Allen plays the sportswriter Lenny, who adores his pretty, intelligent wife Amanda (Helena Bonham Carter) but nevertheless finds their marriage growing sour and stale. The couple's decision to adopt a child gives them a son and briefly distracts them from their difficulties, but by the time the boy has grown a few years, the couple is drifting apart again. Despite the addition of a child in a more central place than usual, this is well-trod ground for Allen: the intellectual couple whose passion for each other dims over time, leading inevitably to affairs and depression. Perhaps recognizing this material's familiarity, Allen speeds through it in the film's opening twenty minutes, which come across as a shorthand, montaged highlight reel, much of the story told in brief scenes and images accompanied by minimal dialogue. The film is livened up by Lenny's decision to seek out his adopted son's birth mother, using a perverted twist of logic that echoes Allen's own troubles with adopted kids and mothers. It's tempting to read the film in some respects as a public working-out of some of Woody's thoughts about these issues. In any case, in the midst of his marital difficulties Lenny realizes that since his son is so great — very smart, good-mannered, handsome, and fun — then the kid's birth mother must be a wonder as well. He seeks her out not so much out of curiosity or for his son's sake, but with expectant, unarticulated sexual desire already on his mind.

Of course, things don't play out as he expected, and the kid's mother turns out to be the vulgar, frankly sexual, and tacky Linda (Mira Sorvino), who works double duty as a porn actress and hooker while aspiring to Broadway fame. Linda is a pure jolt of energy to the soporific opening scenes, and Sorvino's kitschy, brilliant performance is reminiscent of Mia Farrow's very similar turn in Broadway Danny Rose, where her crude gangster's moll also played off Woody's nebbish persona. Sorvino's perfect for the role, squeezing herself into form-fitting clothes that show off her statuesque physique, and gasping her lines with a squeaky, high-pitched rasp that's half Minnie Mouse and half Marisa Tomei from My Cousin Vinny. Her voice is like an instrument here, albeit an instrument a few keys out of tune. She always sounds out of breath, her words tumbling over each other, that nasal whine sounding like the screech of brakes before a ten-car pileup. It's a masterful performance, evoking earlier Woody characters — not only Farrow's part in Danny Rose but Jennifer Tilly as the inept actress in Bullets Over Broadway — but making it wholly her own.

Despite these antecedents, the character is rather different from anyone in earlier Woody movies, in her frank acceptance of sexuality (like the scene where she describes a particularly graphic porn shoot and ends with the exclamation "I like acting!") and her subtle blend of slow-witted obliviousness with street-smart common sense. The writing seems focused in different places than usual, as well. Unlike Woody's discontented husbands in earlier films, Lenny is not really looking for an affair, and this becomes even more true once he meets Linda. She inspires in him, not sexual feelings, despite her attractiveness, but fatherly caring and a desire to help her out. He admonishes her not to sell her body, to give up her unrealistic acting dreams and settle down into a conventional life: a husband, a family, a respectable career. Even as his own marriage falls apart around him, as his bored wife focuses on her own career and flirts with having a real affair, Lenny throws himself into helping out Linda, becoming a platonic friend to her. That he eventually does sleep with her is just one more of the film's interesting echoes of Allen's personal life, as this paternal relationship develops, if only briefly, into something else. It's not so much an attempt to apologize, but an acknowledgment that the best intentions can go awry and be perverted by either fate or character flaws. Lenny is never able to really help Linda, and his earnest efforts only cause more problems for both of them.

This is not the only way in which Mighty Aphrodite sets itself apart from earlier Woody films. The director is also playfully experimenting here with the form and structure of the Greek tragedy, indulging in his love of metafictional devices to draw parallels between literature and life. The film opens with what seems at first like an absurd non-sequitur, as a group of somberly dressed ancients in stone masks ascend to the stage of a crumbling amphitheater and recite, in chorus, a portentous speech about destiny. This formal, stylized opening cuts directly to a scene in a New York restaurant, where Lenny and Amanda are discussing having a child; the tension between the ornate language of the Greek chorus and the direct, casual dialogue of the main characters helps establish the film's interaction between old and new forms of storytelling. Woody gets a lot of mileage out of this device.

The opening scene is played almost completely straight, used as a deliberate subversion of expectations, but subsequent appearances of the Greek chorus become funnier and funnier, as the group comments on the action, directly warns Lenny about the likely consequences of his actions, and draws parallels between Lenny's troubles and older dramas like the story of Oedipus. This fable, with its characters who are ironically unaware of what they're doing and who fulfill their fates through ignorance, is directly related to the intertwined destinies of Lenny and Linda. The characters of the Oedipus tale thus appear to Lenny along with the Greek chorus, bringing together past and present, fiction and reality. Sometimes, without explanation, Lenny appears in the amphitheater with the chorus, and sometimes they come to him. In one scene, the chorus leader (F. Murray Abraham) comes to see Lenny as he talks on the phone with Linda for the first time. The chorus leader attempts to talk him out of it, but soon hands Lenny a pencil from offscreen and reaches a hand out to hold the paper still as he writes. It's subtly funny, breaking the fourth wall in the most casual and innocuous of ways, with the hand of the narrator reaching across the bottom of the frame and lending some help.

In other scenes, the breaking of narrative logic is more intrusive, as in the offhand way that a blind seer steps into the film to tell Lenny that his wife is cheating on him. The chorus thus works as both a comical punctuation and an active agent in the film's construction, dispensing narrative information when it's needed as well as providing the meta-commentary that discusses the film's themes of fate and choice. As usual in Woody's films, the determinist point of view is privileged even if God remains absent. In fact, he's literally absent here, or at least out for the day. At one point, the Greek chorus calls out to Zeus in exasperation, falling collectively to their knees and asking for help — unfortunately, they get Zeus' machine and have to leave a message. "Call us when you get in," they sigh in unison, but as far as the film is concerned he never does. The closest the film gets to God is the deus ex machina (wryly announced as such in voiceover) that finally gives Linda the life she wants for herself. The film gives its characters room to move, to make decisions for themselves, but always emphasizes the elements of chance and uncontrollable circumstances that also contribute to each life's direction. The film's characters are all acting with uncertainty and incomplete knowledge; each of them is missing key information about the others, and the narrative is rich in underplayed but still obvious irony. Mighty Aphrodite is an interesting film from Woody, a flawed and experimental work that wouldn't rank among the director's best comedies but still has more than enough to recommend it.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Knocked Up

Judd Apatow's Knocked Up seems to have solidified the comedy writer, director, and super-producer's reputation as a purveyor of "dude" comedy. It's a rep I'll admit I've had mixed feelings about. I've steered clear of a lot of the sillier-looking Apatow-produced product, but I loved Greg Mottola's Superbad for its warmth, raucous humor, and the way it captured a certain kind of foul-mouthed male bonding. I had less enthusiasm for Apatow's first feature as a director, the Steve Carell vehicle The 40 Year Old Virgin, which was funny in patches but undercut its mostly frank treatment of sexuality with a surprisingly conservative ending that confirmed religiously motivated ideas about virginity, sex, and marriage. Knocked Up is Apatow's second directorial feature, and the good news is that it's much funnier than his first attempt in the director's chair. It's also more consistent, and though it could still use some trimming (a light slacker comedy weighing in at over two hours?), most of its jokes do hit home.

It also shares its predecessor's genuine interest in looking at gender relations from an unabashedly masculine point of view. Even if these films basically delight in their protagonists' juvenile sensibilities and bantering dialogue, there's also something to the way Apatow considers romance and dating from a guy's angle. These films are fantasies, blatant wish fulfillment in which grubby slacker guys (Seth Rogan's Ben in this case) can land beautiful, successful women like Alison (Katherine Heigl). But they're also dead-serious in that they try to get at the things that guys want and think, and can't necessarily communicate even to women they love. The best moments in Knocked Up are the ones that capture this fundamental miscommunication, like the scene where Ben attempts to explain himself to Alison at a dinner party and instead winds up connecting with Pete (Paul Rudd), the equally slacker husband of Alison's sister Debbie (Apatow's wife Leslie Mann). The two men wind up communicating in a hybrid language of movie quotes, fragments of thoughts, and phrases that seem to suggest everything to each other and nothing to the women, who look on blankly, somewhat annoyed. It's funny, yes, but it also gets at something beyond the humor, the differences in priorities, expectations, and even language between the genders. In scenes like this, Apatow is at his best, using crisp 180-degree editing to convey the sense of people talking to each other from entirely different spaces. There are several scenes like this throughout the film, scenes where one character's anger and annoyance encounters another's blank incomprehension, breakdowns of communication that are enhanced by Apatow's breaking down of the conversation into strictly divided spaces once the fighting begins.

This kind of head-on confrontation with gender differences is welcome in a film dealing with unexpected pregnancy, a topic that garnered Knocked Up seemingly endless comparisons to Juno last year. The films couldn't be more different, though. Where Juno focused its attentions squarely on its teenage protagonist, with Michael Cera's confused boyfriend in the background, Knocked Up is a relationship film right from the beginning. Even before the main characters ever meet, Apatow follows them in parallel narratives, tracing their convergence at the bar where they'll meet and have the night of drunken sex that will ultimately bring them together in a shared situation. Even after this point, whenever the characters are apart the film keeps track of each of them, essentially halving the narrative to keep both the prospective mother and father central to the film. This division of structure drives home the film's central point about sharing responsibility in relationships.

Despite all of these efforts, though, the film isn't equal in its treatment of the genders, and it can't quite get over Apatow's essential "dudes" mentality. There's a real affection here for the milieu of Ben and his stoner friends, who lounge around the dump of a house they share, smoking pot and playing whatever silly games they can think up while high. The opening credits show them jousting by the side of a pool, smoking up, and riding roller coasters, a lifestyle that's contrasted against Alison's staid morning routine as she wakes up for work. The film makes some attempts to understand Alison, to get at what makes women tick, but ultimately Apatow resorts to clichés. Whereas the worries of the guys have real poignancy, and even have the feel of fresh insights at times, the film's female characters are given stock concerns: growing old, getting fat, being alone. It's obvious that Apatow means well — even his cursory treatment of the way pregnancy can affect women's career prospects is refreshing, and not something one sees often in a Hollywood film — but it's equally obvious that he's mostly as lost as Ben when it comes to understanding his women characters.

The film also suffers from its essential unreality. Making a fantasy is fine, and it's certainly easy enough to get past the fact that Alison hooks up with the slovenly Ben. There's no accounting for attraction, a truism that counts doubly when alcohol is involved. It's also easy to accept that she's willing to give him more of a shot once she learns that she's having his baby. But when, time and time again, he acts like a jerk to her or otherwise reveals his total lack of thought or tact, it's impossible to do more than wince and look away. Ben is a nice, sensitive guy about half the time and a total dirtbag the other half, and the two tendencies seem to be competing within him at all times. Alison's Herculean ability to overlook and forgive his flaws and missteps strains credulity way more than the much remarked-upon discrepancy in looks between the two of them. The film's unreality becomes even more obvious in the denouement, which hinges upon an economic fantasy — relegated to one of those handy time-lapse montages that cover a large amount of time and effort — in addition to the central romantic fantasy. That the film resorts to rather worn comedy tropes and several deus ex machina in the end is, to some extent, only disappointing because Apatow obviously aspires to, and may even be capable of, so much more. His films contain the germs of something greater than they turn out to be. There's emotional warmth in his characterizations and complexity in the themes he chooses to address, but this only shows through sporadically in the actual films, which inevitably compromise the characterization for the sake of plot when they need to, and treat the more nuanced aspects of his subjects only in fits and starts.

Still, Knocked Up is a very funny movie, which is certainly one kind of success. The interactions of Ben and his friends are frequently hilarious, and perhaps even better is Alison's reaction to these motley dudes. But by far the film's funniest scene, the one that nearly knocked me out of my seat and still makes me smile now, has nothing to do with the central romantic relationship. In a scene late in the film, Alison and Debbie are trying to get into a club with a bouncer (Craig Robinson) who's standing in their way, and things look like they're going to get ugly. As the scene builds tension, escalating into a shouting match between Debbie and the bouncer, Apatow abruptly defuses things, subverting expectations by having the bouncer gently pull Debbie aside. In a quiet voice, with great dignity and sincerity, he delivers a wonderful speech that gives this entirely minor character a suddenly complicated and inwardly torn persona. The scene touches on questions of prejudice and societal expectations that Apatow, as usual, seems content to hint at rather than address directly. Even so, it's a perfectly pitched moment, warm and funny and genuinely unexpected without seeming contrived.

The fact that Apatow is capable of moments like this, that his films in fact are frequently stuffed with such moments, is probably the main reason that he's garnered such stratospheric acclaim in his relatively brief career. His comedies are raucously funny and raunchy in all the right ways to get broad laughs from an equally broad audience, and yet they're not empty the way so many pandering modern comedies are. Knocked Up has warmth and genuine emotion, and even a hesitant but very much beating moral heart at its core. When the film is at its best, it's very easy to overlook its flaws and simply enjoy what it does well.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Phase IV

Phase IV, the only directorial feature from famed credits designer Saul Bass, is a highly unusual science fiction film in which the extraordinary menace (a colony of highly evolved ants) figures much more prominently than the human characters fighting against them. Indeed, the film begins at ground level and it is nearly ten minutes before a human character even appears onscreen. Even then, Bass slowly, even hesitantly introduces humanity into the picture, starting with a shot of a jeep ponderously moving through a barren landscape, then shooting the two men who get out of the vehicle from a low angle, filtered through blades of grass, as though the ants were looking up at them. Before this, the film opens with a near-abstract montage that veers from the reaches of deep space, where puzzling motions in the planets and stars signal unknown changes, into the depths of the earth, where ants crawl and skitter around on mysterious errands. Right from the start, Bass gets intimate with these inscrutable creatures, granting them closeups and even personalities. They communicate with each other, though we cannot know what they say, and their every action is infused with purpose. Bass' camera traces their paths and their actions as though he were following a conventional narrative, perhaps a more traditional horror story in which the camera tracks the monster as he stalks and kills. These ants are also killers, they are the film's "monster" by default, but unlike the gigantic irradiated ants of the 50s sci-fi classic Them!, the menace of these ants is subtle, subterranean, and driven by intelligence rather than rampaging brute force.

This makes Phase IV a very tricky brand of sci-fi horror, one perfectly suited to Bass' unique sensibility. The film builds it horror not through special effects or violence, but through the subtle development of atmosphere, and Bass has infused every second of the film with an escalating sense of dread. A large portion of this must be credited to the sound design, which contrasts the dry, crackling sounds of the ants — mandibles crunching, antennae and legs scraping against various surfaces — against the eerie, atonal electronic soundtrack. The opening scenes establish this sound palette almost immediately, as Bass dives into the subterranean world of the ants, allowing their noises to dominate the soundtrack even as their calcified bodies fill the screen. There's something inherently terrifying about seeing tiny, unknown worlds magnified in this way. It's an effect David Lynch used to good purpose in the famous opening of Blue Velvet, and here as there it suggests the creepy, crawly evil lurking underneath ordinary reality. Nature is frightening whenever one stops to think about it, and Bass' unflinching intimacy with these insects invites one to contemplate the horror of the natural world at length.

It must be said, the film is much less interesting whenever it abandons the ants for any length of time to focus on more human-scale dramas. Bass' instinct for design and interesting visuals is perfectly suited to abstract montage and dialogue-less documentation of ants at work, but his talents apparently do not extend to working with actors or filming human drama. It doesn't help that in this respect, the script he's working with is entirely generic and perfunctory. The film's central plot concerns a duo of scientists, the supremely rational Hubbs (Nigel Davenport) and the humanist Lesko (Michael Murphy), who are studying the ants and who soon become involved in a war against the colony. They quickly pick up the orphaned innocent Kendra (Lynne Frederick), after accidentally killing her grandparents with poison meant for the ants — an incident that both Kendra and the film shrug off with an alarming lack of emotion or concern. To some extent, Bass uses the limitations of the film's human interest to his own advantage. He films the scientists with a cold, clinical eye that connects them with the ants, as just a few more specimens in his cinematic jar. Even as they observe the ants, the ants are observing and toying with them, and Bass observes both sets of antagonists with the same objective gaze, his camera panning in the same precise, steady tracking shots whether he's in subterranean tunnels or the shiny metal insides of the scientists' outpost.

The result is a film that sides most closely with the coolly anti-humanist Hubbs, who reacts to the deaths of Kendra's grandparents with near-complete indifference, reserving his emotion for the excitement he feels when studying the ants' behavior. The film's most disconcerting aspect is its profound equivalence of human and animal life; the deaths of ants, crushed under rocks or eaten by other insects or poisoned by the scientists, are felt even more strongly than the film's human deaths. Bass privileges the point of view of the ants, suggesting that human dominance and pre-eminence is merely a matter of perspective. From another point of view, humanity is just one more organic presence on a planet thriving with many varieties of life. In one scene, as a thick liquid poison is sprayed over the ants outside, Bass cuts back and forth between shots of the ants dying, writhing in the yellow liquid, and the humans who are also trapped in this deadly downpour, struggling through the thick sheets of yellow rain. The intent is obvious: humans and ants dying together from the same cause, their struggles so similar in the face of death, very different forms of life unified in the end.

This cold, distanced perspective is enhanced by Bass' rigid and geometric visual aesthetic. There is no credits sequence at the opening of Phase IV, no sign of the playful assemblages of form and color that Bass invariably deployed in his inventive credits designs for numerous Hollywood productions. Instead, his fascination with geometry and color have been translated into the film itself, channeled into the design of the sets and the camerawork he employs. Geometric forms play a crucial role in the film, from the circular scientific station with pipes radiating out from its sides at regular intervals, to the strange towers the ants build, to the rectangular designs the ants carve into a corn field. "Mathematics is a universal language," Lesko says at one point, as he attempts to communicate with the ants' hive mind intelligence. Clearly, Bass agrees, and his mise en scène is all hard lines and rigidly defined shapes. The research station's outer walls are constructed from a series of end-on-end triangles, forming diamonds, and the ants amass a corresponding array of reflective diamonds that they build up around the outpost, reflecting light inward to overheat their human enemies. In another fascinating sequence, Bass films the inside of an air conditioning unit as an ant and a praying mantis stage a battle amidst the coils and grids of the machinery.

It's in sequences like this that Bass' genius is most apparent. His eye for geometric forms sometimes falls upon an image of startling emotional impact — like the eerily quiet ant graveyard where a single black ant skitters between neatly arranged rows of the dead — but only in relation to the ants. His aesthetic here might almost be described as anti-human in its rigidity and asceticism. The point of view of the ants is privileged. They are never quite anthropomorphized, but given an emotional depth and complexity that's almost entirely absent from the human characters. The ants are mysterious, unreadable, and their black-eyed gaze in Bass' closeups seems to communicate something strange and frightening as they catch the camera's stare head-on. Ironically, Bass gets no such fascinating performances from his human actors, who are more like robots mechanically fulfilling tasks. Frederick's performance is a hilariously awful amateur turn, her wide eyes and cracking voice a parody of innocence, and she can't even keep from slipping back and forth between American and British accents; she's cute though. Davenport and Murphy make out a bit better, if only because their roles don't demand much more from them than scientific precision and a poorly defined contrast between their characters. Even there, the supposedly caring and humanistic Lesko doesn't come across as much less of a robot than rationalist Hubbs. Their opposition is sketched in the broadest of strokes, and Bass' interest obviously lies elsewhere, with the film's non-human characters.

Even saddled with a somewhat plodding narrative and cardboard-thin characters, Phase IV winds up being a fascinating sci-fi experiment, thanks almost entirely to Bass' visual ingenuity and the decision to make the ants the film's real focus. The ants' struggles are dramatized and intensified even as the human drama is stripped down and dulled. In one wonderful sequence, the ants conduct a chain of self-sacrifice, dragging a piece of poison back to their lair, a new ant joining the line as each one keels over and dies in turn. This remarkable feat is aimed at immunizing the colony's queen, allowing her to produce new offspring who are resistant to the poison — the science is certainly shaky, to say the least, but the scene is no less eye-catching for the way it dramatizes the emotions and spirit of these expressionless creatures. As he did with the earlier scene of the poison rain, Bass cuts back and forth between the ants' subterranean struggles and the efforts of the scientists inside to decode the ants' language. The parallel cutting creates a contrast between the small-scale adventure narrative going on underground, and the rather dull, abstracted analysis of the scientists, who spend their time mostly staring at computer readouts. It's an interesting and even wryly funny scene, mocking the boredom created by the script's more prosaic elements even as Bass' inventive approach to this material elevates the film far above its B-movie sci-fi origins.

Thursday, July 24, 2008


David Gordon Green's Undertow begins with a puzzling start/stop credits montage that sets the tone for the film's hallucinatory pastiche of pop culture and rural life. The film's first image is a blue blur, indistinct and hazy, with the outline of a figure hovering on the edge of resolution. The sound of waves lapping against a shore fade in on the soundtrack, as the camera zooms out to suggest that the image will come gradually into focus. But as the zoom finally resolves the image into a recognizable shot of a beach with a boy walking into the water, the blue fades into black and white, the color draining away as an old man's voice promises a story of violence and bloodshed affecting his grandsons. From here, the credits montage follows Chris (Jamie Bell) as he is pursued by his younger girlfriend's enraged father, who charges through the front door of his house with dual pistols blaring. The credits strike an odd note between over-the-top violence and a serenely contemplative mood that seems to be savoring these crazed visuals as though they were peaceful landscape shots. The credits sequence is also marked by a kitchen-sink approach to filmmaking craft, as Green warps and manipulates the images in crude, self-conscious ways. There are continual freeze frames, giving the action a jittery, rhythmic quality, but even more jarring is the manipulation of color and light, the way the image sometimes flares into blown-out, contrasty whiteness or switches between various color filters, throwing the images into negative relief or zooming in to reveal the grain of the film. When Chris throws a rock through a window, the action is repeated four times before the rock hits, each time with different filters and effects applied to the basic image. The effect is unsettling, giving the sequence a feel somewhere halfway between the credits to a 70s crime drama and an amateurish avant-garde production. Green's techniques seem random, roughly slapped on, though there's a certain poetry to it, like the seemingly arbitrary freeze frame that captures Chris' foot in a closeup just as it's lifting off the ground to run. The action itself has a brutally absurd quality to it — when Chris lands on a nail that sticks through his foot, instead of pulling it out he simply bends the nail over and begins hobbling along again, now with a board nailed to his foot like a miniature ski. This ridiculous chase is both harrowing and strangely funny, and the tonal chaos of these opening moments is further compounded by Philip Glass' quietly propulsive score, which is meditative but with tense undertones lurking within. This is an opening designed to confound expectations, to set the audience up for virtually anything — after an introduction as strange and stylistically confused as this, what could possibly come next?

The answer is that the film settles down into the rhythms of rural living, on the small rundown farm where Chris lives with his stern father John (Dermot Mulroney) and sickly, cerebral brother Tim (Devon Alan). At this point, the film finally begins to resemble Green's previous two features, the haunting, elliptical George Washington and All the Real Girls, evoking the quietude and routine of this isolated life. Green's eye for small moments and telling detail is as keen as ever, as is his sense of pacing and gift for visual rhythms. In one sequence, he crosscuts between the brooding John, sitting inside smoking a pipe, his face obscured by shadows, and the energetic, angry Chris outside in the garage, hammering away to make a toy for his brother from the board that been stuck to his foot in the first scene. Green's cutting is crisp and evocative, breaking down Chris' efforts into many shots while John's slouched contemplation is held at arm's length in a master shot. At times, the separate spaces also fade into each other, contrasting the electric blue of the garage's lights with the shadowy interior of the house. This sequence, entirely silent, establishes the distant and passive-aggressive relationship between father and son as well as the stumbling, awkward conversation that follows it.

Green's sense of humor, always idiosyncratic, is also at its best here, particularly in tracing the relationship between the two brothers. He has a real feel for the lovable goofiness and nonsense that's often shared between relatives and close friends, and many of these brief scenes provide a sense of eavesdropping on private moments that only make sense to the participants. There's the usual goofing around between siblings — smelling each other's armpits, telling silly jokes — and the truly weird moments that are distinctly Green, like the dinner where Tim decides to dress up like a pilgrim, which only gets funnier once it's revealed that this isn't some eccentric Thanksgiving tradition but a random quirk. There are also darker shades, like Tim's proclivity towards eating paint and mud, which may be either the source or a symptom of his mysteriously unnamed disease. Green presents all of this with a deadpan objectivity, which is not to say distance — he's always both physically and emotionally close to his characters. But his camera is non-judgmental, observing innocent fun and the offhand grossness of Tim's paint-drinking with equal steadiness.

All of this begins to shift into something else altogether after around a half-hour of evenly paced uneventfulness, with the introduction of John's sinister, crazed brother Deel (Josh Lucas), just out of prison and showing up unannounced after not having seen his brother in years. At this point, the film's well-established relationships begin to take on new dimensions as Deel's presence subtly alters the family dynamic and reveals hints of the past that led them to this isolated place. Deel has not come here by accident, he's looking for something quite specific, and his presence in the lonely farmhouse soon comes to resemble nothing so much as Robert Mitchum's creepy, murderous preacher from The Night of the Hunter, a film that echoes in interesting ways throughout the later acts of Undertow. This is especially true when a mid-film act of violence sends the two boys out on the run with Deel doggedly tracking them.

At this point, the quiet rhythms of the scenes on the farm give way to a rambling, discursive trek through the frontiers of weird America. In Night of the Hunter, actor Charles Laughton's dazzlingly strange single directorial feature, a brother and sister are set adrift on a raft through a patently artificial night-time dreamscape, a fantasy vision of the rural South. The second half of Green's film mirrors this journey, but his own fantasy of the South is quite different from Laughton's, night exchanged for the over-exposed brightness of day, and the artificial purity of studio sets exchanged for a rust-colored landscape strewn with wreckage and populated by wonderfully strange individuals. This is a visionary depiction of America at its outskirts, an America of drop-outs, bums, hippies, grubby dock workers, lonely wanderers. The two brothers' odyssey through this wasteland takes them through burnt-out urban ghettos, cluttered docks where the fish-stink practically seeps from the film, and vast open fields. They finally wind up in a junkyard, where they construct their own fantasy home from rusted car parts and bits of metal and trash, capping it off with a cup that ironically reads "Home Sweet Home," perhaps the only moment in the film when Green hits a false note, over-selling the scene's obvious metaphorical and emotional underpinnings. The boys are building a new home for themselves, carving out a new life from the very fabric of the American landscape, finding transient families with a group of street urchins living in communal squalor, or a sad but friendly couple who invite the boys to stand in briefly as a young presence in their home, replacing their long-dead only child. Green always imparts these characters, who are fleeting presences in the narrative, with startling amounts of depth. Characters who have only a minute or two of screen time still manage to convey the impression of fully fleshed-out and delightfully oddball individuals, who, if only you got to linger with them longer, would possibly be just as entertaining as the main characters. Even Deel's wild-eyed pursuit of the brothers is interrupted by deadpan, comical encounters with a goofy mechanic and a cheerfully dumb clerk who chokes on her gum — both characters right out of David Lynch's Twin Peaks, in which Green seems to have found a largely unacknowledged inspiration for his own work.

This ragged retelling of Night of the Hunter plays on the original's quality of a genuine American folk tale, transporting the story in time and place but dealing with the same basic battle of innocence against evil and greed. Lucas gives a marvelous performance as the evil brother, playing the character like a cartoon wolf, which is probably appropriate considering the amount of slapstick violence heaped on him in the film. He's especially fascinating when he's bouncing off of Mulroney, who gives an equally compelling performance as the family's troubled patriarch — the darkness and quiet of Mulroney sets off Lucas' subtle menace and manic facial expressions. These kinds of tonal contrasts are the film's essential strategy, mashing up the fantastical noir of Night of the Hunter against a 70s TV visual aesthetic or Green's elegiac vision of the modern rural South. After the opening credits, Green employs the freeze frames and other jarring intrusions of technique less frequently, but in the context of a forward-moving narrative such disjunctions are even more jarring. This is a remarkable film from the still-young director, who seems to have come into his own as a fully developed, self-assured voice with his third feature. Undertow melds the elliptical storytelling and pictorial sensibility of Green's first two features with a newly honed sense of tone and pastiche, as Green deftly blends the film's many inspirations and homages into a singular work of his own.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008


The motorcycle racing drama Spetters follows a similar pattern to many of director Paul Verhoeven's films, which often start with the basic elements of a trashy genre film and transform it into something much deeper, richer, and stranger. That's certainly the case here, as Verhoeven worms his way into this pulpy exploitation tale about a trio of arrogant young dirt bike racers striving to make it big and get out of their small town rut. Rien (Hans van Tongeren) is the most promising of the bunch, an ace driver who's on his way to becoming the king of the underground racing circuit, just a short step away from mainstream success. Eef (Toon Agterberg) is his mechanic, a sullen hood in a leather jacket who's mainly trying to buck the influence of his overbearingly religious parents. Finally, the goofy Hans (Maarten Spanjer) is the trio's loser buddy, perennially in Rien's shadow, with a bike that only starts half the time because Eef's more interested in maintaining the winner's motorcycle. This trio, with their girls and hangers-on, spend the first half of the film largely goofing around, going through an array of teen comedy moments with the usual Verhoeven flair.

The film earnestly takes on this milieu, wallowing in the cheesy fun of an early 80s disco, where Eef does his best imitation of John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, before being outdone by a black guy with better moves. Travolta looms large over the film, sometimes literally, as when a poster-sized blow-up of his face fills the frame before Verhoeven zooms out to show what else is in the room. These kids are living in a wholly imitative culture, grooving to Blondie and Michael Jackson on dance floors that might've been modeled on New York City disco clubs. Verhoeven takes real pleasure in depicting what these kids get up to for fun, and he diligently checks off the requisite scenes: the disco, the motocross race, the fight where the outnumbered but defiant teens manage to outwit the big, tough motorcycle gang. It's all cheesy, kitschy fun, rendered with Verhoeven's typical appetite for such purplish material. But through it all, there's something more going on beneath the fun and the nods to genre clichés.

For one thing, Verhoeven's characters are developed with much finer strokes than the typical pulpy teen adventure. Even from the very beginning, these characters have a tinge of desperation lurking beneath their outward cheekiness; there's a very real sense in which these motocross races represent the teens' only chance to make something of themselves. In a town with very few opportunities — Eef works in a gas station, Hans and Rien as carpenters — these seemingly uneducated guys only dream of stardom and success, an escape from the various things they want to run from. As usual, Verhoeven also explores the subject of sex, which is both something of a status symbol for the kids and a sore spot in terms of their limited means. One definition of success for them might be having a nice place to bring their girls to get laid, something Rien gets a taste of whenever his parents leave town, while the other guys have to settle for distinctly un-sexy abandoned buildings and grassy fields. Even so, there's more than a hint that the guys go through the motions of sex not for its own sake but because it's an expected communal ritual. There's a hilarious scene where Eef and Hans, in adjacent rooms, aren't having sex but convince their girlfriends to fake it anyway, moaning and screaming until they fake cumming. The guys immediately break away and join up, bragging about how good it was, the homoerotic undertones in this kind of buddy movie coming to the fore here (and more explosively elsewhere) as sex becomes just a way to bond with the guys.

More subversively, sex also comes to the fore in the way that Verhoeven treats homophobia and various forms of prejudice and hatred. One way in which his film defiantly departs from its pulpy inspirations is that the main characters are depicted as hateful, obnoxious bigots and homophobes, getting their kicks by torturing others. At one point, Rien sneers about "nigger and Chinese" doctors, while in an earlier scene the group berates and tortures a gay couple, smearing one boy's mouth with lipstick and beating him. Still later, Eef takes up the habit of spying on and robbing gay hustlers, watching them perform their services and then beating them up afterwards to steal their money. He is fascinated and drawn to this scene even as he's repelled by it, and the money seems less like a motivation than an excuse. This cover-up is complicated by the fact that he's ostensibly stealing in order to win the favor of the fickle Fientje (Renée Soutendijk), who only sleeps with men who have either money or the promise of earning it someday soon.

Fientje has a lot in common with the three motocross kids, in that her one overriding motivation is a desire to better herself, to move up in life. She's sick of selling cheap fried food from the traveling stand she runs with her brother, hitched to the back of their car. She wants a man who can give her security and a fur coat, and to that end she'll kiss any guy with promise and screw any guy with money. She's a caricature of the shallow, socially ambitious slut, looking with her teased blonde curls and expressionless painted face like a trampy doll. Verhoeven revels in exaggerations of this sort, making Fientje an unapologetic slut and status-seeker to play off of Rien's more complex girlfriend Maya (Marianne Boyer), who cares about him in a far deeper way. It's not so much a virgin versus whore dilemma, since both girls are more than willing to sleep with Rien, but a question of why they want him and what they see in him. Ultimately, the shallow Rien picks the girl who's a makeup-caked mirror image of himself — Fientje shares his ambition, while all Maya can offer him is love and caring.

Throughout the first half of the film, Verhoeven does an excellent job of making these characters both interesting and profoundly unlikeable. They're self-centered jerks, vain thugs with no respect for their women and no tolerance for anyone different than themselves. Their idea of a fun night out involves boozing, dancing, gay-bashing, and having sex, this last a triumphant capper to the night's excitement. Despite all this, Verhoeven never allows them to become mere villains, and he sympathizes with their ambitions and camaraderie even when he detests their prejudices and attitudes. This complicated stance towards his protagonists pays off in the film's increasingly devastating second half, which departs more and more from its genre origins into deeper tragedy. As the film progresses, the initially inseparable trio are driven apart into diverging storylines, each pursuing his own fate as Verhoeven crosscuts between them, using rigorous, systematic parallel editing to emphasize this separation. The characters are deprived of all their grounding, as the motocross racing milieu becomes less and less important to the film, its status as a symbol of success replaced by a much more open and desperate thrashing about.

Spetters is a typically complex film from Verhoeven, not as harrowing or as fully developed as his earlier Turkish Delight, which treads some similar ground, but still a fascinating deconstruction of some particularly lightweight trash genres. This is a motocross film, a disco film, and a teen comedy all wrapped into one, though each of these elements is pushed into the background as the story progresses. Its second half, with its tragic narrative arc and shocking, brutal scenes of sex and violence, is a natural development of the film's negative worldview, in which the best that can be hoped for these kids is a life of compromise and willful self-deceit, always looking for more. Verhoeven's pulpy tribute to a degraded genre delivers the requisite motorcycles, sex, and leather, but he also delivers so much more.

Chaotic Bodies: The Firemen's Ball Beauty Pageant (part 1)

In The Firemen's Ball, Miloš Forman makes extensive use of a very crowded mise en scène in order to make his points about the absurdity and chaos of collective action in socialist societies. His frames are frequently packed with people, often moving rapidly and creating chaotic compositions that reveal isolated body parts and motion-blurred imagery. And yet, although Forman is attempting to capture the sense of chaos, his compositions still have a certain formal logic to them that defies their snatched-on-the-fly quality. This is especially true in the film's sublime beauty pageant sequence, a hilarious set-up in which the contestants all flee while the men in the audience attempt to capture them and, eventually, begin dragging entirely unrelated women on stage as well. This scene is particularly well structured despite its chaotic appearance, and Forman's formal and thematic concerns show through even in the most seemingly tossed-off visuals from this sequence.

Continue reading at the Film of the Month Club

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Days of Heaven

Terrence Malick's second feature, Days of Heaven, has a nominal story at its core, a rather conventional Hollywood story even, but that's not really what it's about. Malick's filmmaking is quiet, assured, meditative, and his film slowly parcels out fragments of narrative with a gentle rhythm that matches the steady flow of the natural world surrounding his characters. The film is deeply attuned to a world beyond its characters and their earthbound problems, and Malick seems to be at his best when he's working on a grand scale, when the people are just dots or black outlines in the midst of vast, seemingly endless vistas — or when there are no people at all to clutter the flat, wide-open spaces he's filming. This is a film of grandeur and beauty, an epic in which there is no epic action, no broad drama, only the wonder of nature and the nearly equal awe inspired by the cinematography that captures nature in such unguarded moments.

The story here is a simple one. Bill (Richard Gere), a laborer in a steel mill, accidentally kills his foreman in a fight, and consequently goes on the run with his girl Abby (Brooke Adams) and his little sister (Linda Manz). The trio, with Bill and Abby pretending to be brother and sister, find work on a wheat farm, harvesting the autumn crop under the attentive eye of an unnamed farmer (Sam Shepard) who soon falls for Abby. The predictable love triangle that develops, and the equally predictable tragedy that results, are related almost entirely in short, elliptical scenes that strip down the basic story to its most essential details and moments. Malick is clearly a filmmaker who believes in economy in his storytelling, and there's also a certain flatness of tone that equates all of the film's images and moments. A scene of whispered conversation between Bill and Abby is given the same emphasis as a scene where Bill's sister and another laborer girl walk through the fields hunting for insects. And all of these human moments are interspersed with the film's haunting, evocative images of natural beauty. Malick has as much feeling for a wheat field shot at the "magic hour" as he does for an expressive face or a moment of tenderness between two people. This quality of narrative flatness is enhanced by the sporadic voiceover, provided by Bill's sister with a quirky, thickly accented drawl that was simply annoying at first, but soon revealed itself as very much in tune with the film's folksy rhythms.

There are many individual moments here that must surely rank among the most beautiful shots ever filmed. A sunset spreading rich hues across a cloudy sky, as men pop up from amongst the wheat waving flags as some kind of signal. The many gorgeous shots of the laborers at work in the fields, the farmer's distinctly shaped house rising out of the wheat in the background, always a subtle presence at the rear of the frame. A train chugging across a bridge, sending puffs of smoke flailing backwards in its wake. A scarecrow posed against a pumpkin-orange sky. Foreboding thunder clouds turning strange colors against a darkening sky. There are also moments that work on a more human scale, like the scene where Bill's sister joins a black man in a spirited tap dance on a fallen door, or the subtly sexual moment where Bill washes Abby's feet in the lake, lifting her skirt and running his hands along her ankles.

The film is propelled along by such tiny incidents, accumulating its force and its emotional impact by positioning its characters' petty drama in a context that is both universal and socially engaged. Malick's pictorial sensibility, his love of natural beauty, doesn't prevent the film from dealing with the realities of Dust Bowl living in the Depression era. In fact, the film's emotional locus is in its treatment of extreme poverty and transient labor, not in the rather rote love triangle and its effect on the lovers. The driving force of the film's drama is poverty, and when Abby begins gravitating towards the farmer, she seems to fall in love with his lifestyle more than she does with him. The farmer himself is a cipher. He's never even given a name — the voiceover always refers to him in an abstracted fashion as "the farmer" — and the details of his life are hinted at rather than developed. Abby seems to know as little about him as the audience does, but she does know that he has the capacity to change her life. She goes from working in the fields sunup to sunset, covered in dirt and clothed in rags, to lounging around all day, having fun, finely dressed and clean. The emblematic image of this romance, and the one moment in the film in which Abby looks truly happy, is a fluid tracking shot in which Malick's camera follows her around the farmer's house, as she looks over the objects in the room and admires her clothes and new possessions. She twirls a lace shawl across her shoulders, smiling broadly and genuinely.

Scenes like this do not condemn Abby for her materialism, which Malick views with affection and warmth, capturing her obvious pleasure. The glimpses we get of Abby's past indicate a hard, thankless life — as a child, she worked in a cigar factory from morning to night, never even seeing daylight, an experience that taught her to appreciate all those things that were "not so bad" in comparison. For her, the farmer's wealth is not really an end in itself; she seems to have little use for or knowledge of money, which remains an abstract concept in the film. The value of money is defined, rather, in time and the way it is spent, in the quality it imparts to life. As the sister's voiceover nostalgically relates, this makeshift family finds, in the farmer's welcoming embrace, that life is rich when there's nothing to do but wile away the hours, enjoying each other's company and taking pleasure in the countryside and its many entertainments. There is no room in this film for a lament over upper-class boredom, or an earnest testimony to the satisfaction of honest work — these characters guiltlessly and eagerly take joy in the freedom from work, the freedom to be idle provided by money.

This joy is perhaps most deeply felt in the brief, slightly surreal segment when what's described as a flying circus troupe invades the farm — a trio of Italians in biplanes who swoop in, arguing and comically assaulting one another, then put on a show that involves a belly dancer, a gorilla, and a midget. This odd interlude, funny and silly and celebratory, precedes the film's dark final act. It's as though this absurd trio arrived for one last joyful moment before carrying away the characters' last chance for happiness, just as they carry away Bill in their planes when they leave. Later, Bill's return to the farm has all the allegorical force of a Biblical plague — it's as though Satan himself has darkened the door, bringing with him fire and locusts and death. Malick's images, always beautiful, take on a terrible beauty here, horrifying even as they inspire awe.

This apocalyptic climax eventually gives way to the film's flatly conventional ending, which echoes Malick's first feature Badlands with its gangster-on-the-run overtones. This is the only point when the film falls short, when Malick's narrative suddenly intrudes too heavily on a film that, prior to this, seemed to be simply drifting along, ebbing and flowing with the rhythms of everyday life and the passage of the seasons. Malick's sense of time is well-honed, and this film breathes like no other; the periodic fades to black that punctuate it are like slow intakes of air. In the latter half of the film, seasons shift from a cool, mild winter with a dusting of fluffy snow to the return of the harvest season, evoked by a series of shots that recall the beginning of the film, bringing things full circle with a cyclical finality. It's in touches like this that the film is at its best. Malick uses his landscape shots as a fully developed language in their own right. These shots have a wide variety of meanings, signaling the passage of time, suggesting metaphorical content that relates to the story, as rhythmic inserts for purposes of pacing, and sometimes, simply for their own sake, to bask in the beauty of a natural world in which even the most melodramatic of human-scale stories can seem small and inconsequential.

Monday, July 21, 2008

On Violence and Restraint in The Dark Knight

I don't want to take exception too stringently with Keith Uhlich's angry, opinionated takedown of The Dark Knight from The House Next Door, one of my favorite daily blogosphere stops. He's entitled to his opinion, and some of the fanboy brush-offs of his review have been hilarious in their stupidity and short-sightedness. I disagree pretty intensely with most of his feelings about the film, but much of what Uhlich says is hard to argue with because it's so subjective and personal, intimately connected with his own visceral responses to the film. Do Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine spout "gloomy old man platitudes?" Does the film's dialogue possess the "solemnity and verbosity borne of a beat-down Western warrior spirit?" Is director Christopher Nolan "a high-minded con artist — the Barry Lyndon of the Hollywood elite?" Is the film a case of "shallow artistry" at work? I didn't think so, but any defense of such vague, rhetorical argumentation would basically have to boil down to a game of "yes it is"/"no it isn't," so I'll leave the review's more high-flown language alone, for the most part.

I also don't think that The Dark Knight is a perfect film, and I don't want to quell debate over the film's merits. The fanboys flooding the comment threads of every negative review with variations on "you suck" do nothing for film criticism in general or the discourse about this particular film. Quite to the contrary, I think Nolan's film is complex and ambiguous, susceptible to multiple readings that include the negative ones, and I find it a worthy subject for further discussion. I hope there will be more negative reviews like Uhlich's, provided they stimulate more intelligent conversation. Consider this my own humble contribution to that discourse. I want to take exception, primarily, with one aspect of Uhlich's argument that I think is particularly off-base and deserving of greater scrutiny than the knee-jerk name-calling that flooded into the original review's comments thread. The relevant passage is quoted here:

For a movie purported to be so, well, "dark," The Dark Knight spends a more-than-noticeable amount of time turning its gaze from the horrors it perpetrates. There's an early scene where The Joker holds a mob boss at knifepoint, telling a made-up backstory as to how he got his facial scars. The buildup is suitably intense, but Nolan whiffs the follow-through by having The Joker's mouth-slitting finale occur offscreen. It's the pencil gag all over again, only rendered ineffectual, monotonous, the "now you see it, now you don't" philosophy injected ruinously into the film's aesthetic fabric."

There something, let's say, interesting about a critical perspective that simultaneously lambastes a film for being "sadistic" while also criticizing the filmmaker for not showing more onscreen violence. This contradictory criticism aligns Uhlich, ironically, with that peculiar breed of fanboys disappointed in the film's PG-13 rating, thirsting for Saw-level blood-splatter and gore. The film itself has little patience for such base urges, and the violence in the film is depicted with an economy and tact that communicates the horror of the Joker's actions while never satisfying the desire to ogle his atrocities firsthand. This isn't flinching away from horror, it's tastefulness, a quality that has long been absent from mainstream filmmaking, and a quality that Uhlich doesn't seem to miss. Conditioned on one bloody violence-porn fantasy after another, have we really come to a point where we feel compelled to criticize the rare film that depicts violence without splattering the screen with it?

In point of fact, the film never "turn[s] its gaze from the horrors it perpetrates" in any real sense. Nolan's quick cuts away from the Joker's bloody actions do nothing to dull the impact of those actions, which are brutally felt in the imagination and the intellect. In the scene mentioned in the above quote, Nolan builds up the tension to an almost unbearable point, emphasizing the feel of the knife blade in the corner of the mobster's mouth, holding this moment for an uncomfortably long amount of time, cutting away only when the Joker finally does the inevitable with a flick of his wrist. Are our imaginations so limited that we need to actually see the act in order to feel it? Judging by the reactions in the packed theater when I saw it, the moans of horror and sympathetic pain, I think Uhlich underestimates modern audiences. In fact, it may be that an old chestnut that some may have thought was outdated — that seeing an act of violence is never as horrifying as imagining it — still has some life in it after all. There was a time when filmmakers were praised for such restraint, for doing as much with what's not shown as with what is. In another negative review of the film from Salon, Stephanie Zacharek makes some fairly misguided comparisons between Nolan and Alfred Hitchcock, but at least she appreciates the film's tact in its treatment of violence, even while failing to understand that this is one of the few areas in which her comparison holds true.

The film's treatment of violence is given further complexity by the way that Nolan handles DA Harvey Dent's transformation into the divided Two Face. For a film that supposedly flinches away from violence, The Dark Knight addresses Two Face in a startlingly head-on manner. Dent's appearance in the second half of the film is profound evidence of the impact of violence on an individual human life. Dent's plight, given real emotional heft by both the screenplay and Aaron Eckhart's sensitive performance, is externalized in the violence done to his face, and here Nolan confronts the horror with raw physicality. This is not the cartoonish, outlandish Two Face of the original comics or, Heaven forbid, Tommy Lee Jones. The right side of Dent's face is a mess of raw, exposed muscles, bone, and nerves, making it impossible to ignore the character's origins or the violence done to him. This is not the impersonal blood and guts of Saw, but a deeply felt document of the effects of violence on both external appearance and internal persona. If Nolan had flinched away here, if he had hedged in showing the grisly violence done to Dent in order to make him become Two Face, then I could better understand Uhlich's criticisms about Nolan's supposed squeamishness.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Dark Knight

Heath Ledger's Joker is not actually in The Dark Knight as much as the film's marketing would have one believe, but he is nevertheless at the film's core, as its motivating spirit and one half of its dualist moral compass. If director Christopher Nolan's first Batman film, the origin story Batman Begins, took as its model the famously dark Frank Miller stories of the mid-80s, and especially Batman: Year One, this new installment takes off from Alan Moore's even nastier The Killing Joke. Miller's Batman may have launched the darker, grittier take on the bat-eared crimefighter, but Moore's slightly later short story considerably ups the ante, positing a Joker who only wants to prove that anyone can be driven to madness, and a Batman who exists as a moral flipside to this evil clown, only a few short steps from the same fate. In Moore's story, the Joker's origin becomes a dark mirror of Batman's own, as hero and villain are linked by the kind of circumstances that drove them to what they eventually became. As far as the Joker is concerned, it only takes "one bad day" for an ordinary person to be pushed over the edge into insanity; the story's ambiguous ending suggests that, while the Joker was proved wrong in this particular instance, there might be something to his theory after all. The infamous final panels show Batman and the Joker laughing together over a joke, cackling and doubled over, sharing a moment of insanity together.

There is no such moment in The Dark Knight, but Moore's ideas drive the film and underpin its moral inquiries. A great deal of the well-earned praise being heaped upon Ledger's portrayal of the Joker stems from the fact that this performance completely nails the qualities of the character in his most iconic comic book appearances. This isn't the dapper, mannered Joker that Jack Nicholson brought to the screen in Tim Burton's original Batman. Nicholson's performance was too controlled; he's scary, but only in the way a typical criminal killer is scary. Ledger's Joker, on the other hand, perfectly captures the unpredictable menace of the Moore/Miller Jokers — this is a villain who is motivated by a warped ideology, who only wants to introduce chaos into the ordered lives of the people around him. Even the catchphrase the character uses reflects the differences in the two portrayals. Nicholson's Joker famously asked, "Have you ever danced with the Devil in the pale moonlight?" It's a great line, poetic even, and so memorable that it's probably my strongest memory of Burton's film today. But Ledger cuts to the chase, and there's no poetry when he asks his victims, before giving them knife scars to match his own: "Why so serious?"

In keeping with this anarchic, ragged outlook, Ledger's face is smeared with greasy makeup, his lips permanently twisted upwards in a sinister smile by the bright red scars stretching off the sides of his lips. His green hair is similarly unruly, long and unwashed and twisted, and his makeup gets progressively messier the longer he's onscreen. This film's major theme is chaos versus order, and the Joker is a true apostle of chaos, positing unsolvable moral dilemmas for both Batman and the citizens of Gotham City, encouraging the spread of his own nihilistic philosophy. Ledger is so terrifying here because he truly inhabits this spirit. His cackling laugh, his halting speech, the way his tongue is continually flicking against his lips; it all adds up to a performance of uncompromising rigor, a truly inspired image of madness. His Joker is believable, realistic even, in a way that the clownish Nicholson performance never was; this Joker seems to have leapt from the comic pages to take on corporeal reality, and he's much creepier for the naturalistic touches that flesh him out. He's also often hilarious, and some of the best aspects of Ledger's performance are pantomimed. The actor reportedly spent the most time working on the Joker's voice, which is perfect with its slightly whiny, hesitant rhythms, but he's at his best with the physicality of this character, the way he moves, the way he cocks his head, the way he telegraphs his actions like a stage clown. When he's approaching Bruce Wayne's childhood friend Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal, improving upon Katie Holmes' dismal turn in the first movie), he clumsily brushes the hair away from his ears with his fists, a gesture of suave seduction made gruesome and slimy. In a later scene, he turns the Joker's demolition of a hospital into farcical slapstick, dressed as a nurse, fumbling with a reticent detonator and then nervously skipping and flitting about when the explosives belatedly go off. The character is exactly how he should be, both funny and sinister, eliciting gasps of horror and nervous laughter in an early scene where he performs a "magic trick" involving a pencil for a group of mobsters.

The enormity of Ledger's phenomenal performance — and, let's face it, his tragic death — have tended to overshadow the rest of The Dark Knight, but there is a lot going on in this film that doesn't involve the Joker. In fact, Nolan's second Batman movie is in every way an improvement on the already auspicious Batman Begins, building upon the first film's establishment of the Batman mythos to further riff upon the ideas of morality and justice inherent in most superhero tales, and doubly so in the Batman legend. In keeping with the film's emphasis on pairing, much of the film's drama stems from the contrast between Batman (Christian Bale) and the new Gotham District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). For Batman, Dent represents a way out, a chance to retire the costume and the vigilantism in a city that no longer needs his services. Nolan's Batman is perhaps most unique, most differentiated from other incarnations of the character, to the extent that he does not want to continue bearing this mantle. The ultimate goal of this Batman is to bring his city to a place where he is redundant, where civilian justice can resume its ordinary workings free of corruption. If Batman and the Joker are two sides of a particularly ugly coin, then Batman and Dent are similarly related, both seeking justice in fundamentally different ways, one through the law and the other with his fists.

This theme of duality is carried through the film in various ways, from the Joker's either/or moral dilemmas, to Dent's eventual fate that causes him to encompass both sides of a scarred coin in one person. Nolan's choice of comic texts to work from was wise, and he draws liberally from the best Batman stories in order to explore that archetypal superhero subject, the nature of good and evil. The film's view of these opposing forces is not always black and white; the Joker's treatises on disorder and anarchy often have a subversive logic to them, while Dent and Batman sometimes seem to be slipping away from unambiguous goodness. This is especially true of the film's unexpected political undertones, in which the superhero turns to warrantless electronic surveillance of ordinary civilians in order to apprehend the Joker. It's hard to tell exactly where the film stands at times like this, though Bruce Wayne's advisor Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) is an uncompromising voice against such questionable methods. The film is hardly an unqualified endorsement of Batman's exceptionalist pursuit of his own brand of justice. There's a suggestion, carried over from the Miller and Moore comics, that the appearance of Batman as a figure of good in Gotham City gave rise to corresponding figures of evil, equally stylized and exaggerated villains who responded to Batman's dress-up games and took them to even darker places. The Joker intimates on several occasions that he could not exist without the Batman, and he seems to be right. It's easy to see how the outrageousness of a crimefighter dressed like a bat would inspire a new breed of evil to oppose him. The Joker and Batman develop in relation to each other, inspiring each other's methods. When Wayne says, "I see what kind of man I would have to become to defeat him," he's only mirroring the Joker's own development as a response to his bat persona. The film's basic thrust is a vicious circle, in which the villain and the hero must constantly morph in response to each other, moving ever closer to one another as they battle. This is the trap for goodness that the film posits, a trap that casts Batman's endorsement of illegal law enforcement procedures in a new and more sinister light.

The film is continually underpinned by such moral inquiries, but its main appeal still lies in its energy. It's a dark and potent thrill ride, even more exhilarating than Nolan's first Batman film. The director seems to have learned some lessons from that first effort at helming an action movie. His fight sequences are still brutal, kinetic, and rapidly edited, but they're also much cleaner and clearer, not as hazy and confused as the action sequences from the first film. Nolan's direction has improved tremendously by the simple step of pulling his camera just slightly back in these scenes, giving his fight scenes greater spatiality and clarity. There aren't as many of the "who's punching whom?" moments that sometimes marred Batman Begins, and the car chase scene is equally improved, as well as being intimately connected with the plot here; the similar scene in the first film just seemed like gratuitous eye candy. The film also shares its predecessor's deliberate sense of timing. Nolan instinctively recognizes what many other action directors never do, that an action movie works best when its thrills and violence are modulated, not delivered nonstop but with careful timing. The Dark Knight is just as carefully paced as Batman Begins, letting the plot develop naturally, and not milking too much screen time from its two sensational villains. The temptation might've been to smear the screen with Ledger's terrifying Joker, or with Dent's transformed visage in the second half, but the film is better for its restraint. This is a smart, exciting movie that hits all the right notes.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

All the Real Girls

David Gordon Green's second film All the Real Girls, much like its quietly affecting predecessor George Washington, doesn't seem like much. It's a simple love story, tenderly and sympathetically told without fuss or artificial drama. Indeed, the love story itself appears as just one thread within the film's loose, meandering chronicle of life in a small, rural town with a beautiful atmosphere but not much to do. Green spends some time with the town's inhabitants, these young fuck-ups and nobodies who sit around drinking beers, fixing cars, and screwing the local girls who get passed around from guy to guy with little emotion involved. There's a sadness, an understated melancholy, that seems to hang around these people like the hazy early morning fog that occasionally drifts across the cracked, sun-baked ground. Green knows how to capture these people, letting their stories unravel in small increments, snatched fragments of moments that seem to cut off in mid-thought. The editing is elliptical, sometimes maddeningly so, and the film's structure is free associative. Little bits of story show through here and there in between meditative shots of the town's gorgeous Appalachian mountain surroundings, or brief restful moments that seem to have nothing to do with the narrative and everything to do with the way these people really live their lives. It's a unique romance where the director seems as interested in a sunset landscape devoid of people, or in the male lead's poignant relationship with his girlfriend's Down syndrome younger brother, as he is in the main romantic storyline.

Still, it's undeniable that the main story here, the center around which everything else is arranged, is the tentative first love of Paul (Paul Schneider, who also co-wrote the script with Green) and Noel (Zooey Deschanel). Noel is the sister of Paul's best friend Tip (Shea Whigham), a local rabble-rouser who knows all too well about Paul's checkered history with girls, his habit of always becoming the "asshole ex-boyfriend" when he's down with his latest score. This tension could have provided the essential drama for a more typical romance, and it does threaten to boil over periodically in the first half of the film, but then Green pulls a surprise by having Tip and Paul quietly, lovingly reconcile their differences, in a scene almost as sweet as any between the young lovers themselves. Even so, though there are plenty of "guy bonding" moments like this between these simple guys and their friends, the heart of the film is the sometimes troubled romance between Paul and Noel, and it's a remarkably sweet and sincere onscreen romance that Green is presenting here.

Green's characters are inevitably interesting because they seem torn, like his films in general, between realism and stylization. His dialogue has a peculiar, halting quality that is unlike anything else I've heard. This is certainly not a Hollywood-clever romance where the leads simply trade quips and verbally spar for two hours, kissing in between. At the same time, though it's tempting to ascribe the dialogue's awkward, sometimes strained quality to a quest for realism, capturing the way people really talk to each other, it's not quite that either. His characters definitely don't speak like real people, but the rhythms of their conversations, the pauses, the moments that seem natural and improvised, the failed attempts at jokes: these things do feel real anyway. These characters may be delivering Green's stylized lines, and sometimes stumbling over the awkward phrases he puts in their mouths, but even so their reality is hard to deny. It helps that the dialogue, even when it oversteps its bounds, never errs on the side of cliché. The writing sometimes seems too willfully idiosyncratic, too quirky for its own sake, but it never interferes with the essential reality of these characters and this place.

A few more words are probably necessary, in fact, about the remarkable lengths that Green goes to establish a sense of place. His visual rhythms and his concern for landscape have often been attributed (probably rightly) to the influence of Terrence Malick, and yet the small town in this film seems to have an even closer relationship with the slightly surreal rural town of David Lynch's Twin Peaks. There are shots of a local mill that directly reference the famous opening credits of Lynch's early 90s TV series, juxtaposing serene nature with industrial processes, cutting between peaceful landscape shots and grinding rotors or the pulsating needles of an industrial sewing machine. Green, like Lynch, has real affection for this milieu, for the beauty created by this tension between man-made structures and unblemished nature. He seems to find equal beauty, and equal capacity for awe, in an orange-hued sunset and a factory with smoke billowing out, lit in the night by iridescent blue light. At one point, after a traumatic argument triggers a break in the couple's romance, Green traces the passage of time with a lengthy sequence in which the film's characters are only seen in random, very brief moments, speaking at most fragments of dialogue. The bulk of this segment is instead dedicated to shots of the town's unpopulated outskirts, time lapse clouds speeding by overhead as the camera takes in this gorgeous rural area and the downtrodden people who inhabit it.

This is a sweet, warm, ambiguous film that seems to be only scratching the surface of these characters' lives. There's an impression that Green is deliberately keeping his distance, allowing these people to retain their mystery and their uniqueness. What the camera shows are fragments of conversations that cut away in mid-sentence, and isolated moments of inactivity snatched from days that seem to consist of nothing but this aimless passivity. There are also moments of unimaginable joy. Green has a powerful sense of humor, but it shows up in the oddest, most unexpected places, and rarely in the form of a joke. Instead, there are moments that hit one with an inexplicable force, eliciting genuine gales of laughter at the absurdity of it all. In one scene, Paul and his clown mother (Patricia Clarkson) entertain a group of sick kids at a hospital. In another, Paul executes some wonderfully silly dance moves behind Noel's back, in the middle of a bowling alley; "I could do this for an hour," he says, and I might've been willing to watch. Green earns another burst of laughter with the scene where Paul enters a stock car race, with a priceless payoff. As usual, Green increases the humor with understatement; the humor isn't overplayed, but casually revealed in the middle of the scene when the camera pulls back for a wide view. One of the best minor characters, the sleazy but good-hearted Bust-Ass (Danny McBride), also gets the film's best line: when asked if he likes waffles or French toast, he says, "The places I usually go ain't that fancy."

With characters like this, in a down-home rural milieu where nothing much ever happens, All the Real Girls could've easily slipped into condescension. But Green's affection for these characters is always apparent. For these people, saying "I'm stupid" isn't a put-down, it's a declaration, an acknowledgment of truth, and Green never mocks them for their simplicity, nor does he fall into the reverse trap of mythologizing them too much. They're simple, maybe stupid, limited in their experiences and their ambitions alike, and it's unlikely that most of them will ever leave this small town. Even so, within these confined boundaries, the images and moments that make up this film's patchwork portrait are rich and emotionally fertile. Green finds a lot to love in these characters, approaching them and their stories on their own terms, and comes away with a small gem of a romance and a fine sophomore film.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Carnal Knowledge

Carnal Knowledge is the kind of comedy where the laughs increasingly stick in one's throat; this is dangerously barbed comedy, laughter laced with poison. In fact, the film is often incredibly uncomfortable to watch, its raw-nerve examination of sexual gamesmanship and strife continually crossing the line from satirical observation to overpowering psychological reality. As a stark satire of the games that men and women play with each other, and the unreasonable expectations and competing ideas that each gender brings to relationships, there is no better or harsher film. Of course, this kind of psychological acuity is exactly what one should expect from the auspicious pairing of Village Voice cartoonist Jules Feiffer, who originally wrote this as a play, and director Mike Nichols, who adapted the script for the screen.

Split into three acts, the film follows a pair of men from their college days, to their middle age, to their aging decline, all the while tracing the ways in which these two very different men seek some ill-defined "something" from the women in their lives. In many ways, Jonathan (Jack Nicholson) and Sandy (Art Garfunkel), are direct descendants of their prototypes in Feiffer's long-running Voice comic strip: the macho tough guy Huey, and the sensitive, gentle, perennial best friend Bernard. These two characters developed naturally in Feiffer's strip from the two "types" who would continually crop up whenever his satirical pen touched upon sexual politics and the gender war. Jonathan, like Huey, is basically an asshole, a guy who cares about little besides sex, who views each woman as an opportunity for a conquest and fears being trapped in a relationship for too long. Sandy is more the Bernard type: he's sensitive, caring, an intelligent conversationalist, someone who women naturally gravitate to as friends rather than lovers. Ironically, Sandy would like to be a Huey instead, and he takes advice from his more aggressive friend, advice that surprisingly enough seems to work even when it seems like incredibly bad advice.

The film opens in the college years, when both Sandy and Jonathan are virgins looking, more than anything, to get their first score. Right from the start, the film establishes its approach with the credits, which are accompanied by the unseen friends chatting about what they'd like from a woman — a contradictory and impossible laundry list that spans from huge breasts to being bright, but not too bright. Despite these high expectations, Sandy soon meets and begins dating the pretty, intelligent Susan (Candice Bergen), who likes him but is reluctant to make their relationship too physical; she has no passion for him, and he's trapped in the Bernard cliché of the best friend. On the other hand, when Susan meets the deceptive, sneering, but oddly charming Jonathan, she definitely feels something for him: contempt for his cheerful willingness to go behind his friend's back, but also an animal attraction for him that makes her go to bed with him before she ever does with Sandy. As a result, Susan becomes trapped between the two men and their expectations for her, even as the men are wounded by her indecisiveness about them and what she wants from them. For Sandy, Susan is a revelation, a woman who opens up to him and tells him about "thoughts I never even knew I had," while with Jonathan she seems much different, more sexually open but intellectually closed-off. In a self-fulfilling prophecy, both of these self-absorbed men find in Susan exactly what they were looking for and nothing more — they certainly don't find Susan herself, only the sides of her that reflect themselves. Eventually, and absurdly, even though he's the one going behind his friend's back, Jonathan becomes the jealous one, lambasting Susan for not giving more of her inner self to him, the way she does with Sandy. Their relationship essentially ends with Jonathan screaming, in childish exasperation, "Tell me my thoughts! Tell me my thoughts!"

Susan is a victim here of Jonathan's momentary, and as it turns out fleeting, realization that there can be more to relationships than just sex. His interest in her was purely prurient at first — indeed, he only pursued her after he heard about her willingness to go further than kissing with Sandy — but she must have awakened something in him that wanted more. It's possible to read Jonathan's character throughout the rest of the film as his unconscious denial of that realization, especially in light of the scene after their breakup where Sandy and Susan get ready to go camping. Throughout the scene, Nichols keeps the camera in a tight closeup on Nicholson's face, shrouded in shadows, as in the foreground the blurry forms of the two newly recommitted lovers shift back and forth, preparing for their trip. Jonathan is silent throughout the scene, even when one of the others addresses him, and his eyes are going steely and cold; it looks like a full retreat into the Huey persona, a decision to seek nothing more than sex from women.

This kind of closeup, so potent in this scene, is a crucial aspect of Nichols' approach to the film in general. The closeup is perhaps the film's signature shot, especially tight closeups that put the focus squarely on the nuances of the performances. There is also a gender element to these closeups, in terms of the way they're used differently for the men and the women in the film. For the most part, the men are the only characters who are allowed to speak freely in these intimate closeups. Each of the two friends deliver lengthy monologues on their inner states, desires, and dissatisfaction, spoken while looking directly into a camera that seems to be just inches away. These shots place the spectator in the position of the other friend, the other half of a conversation, listening in on the most private thoughts of these people who come to seem like familiar friends even if they're both often pitiable and unlikeable. In contrast, the women's closeups are silent, impassive, revealing nothing, largely because these women are seen almost entirely through the eyes of their lovers. Neither Jonathan nor Sandy ever tries to see a woman for herself, for a complicated person with her own thoughts, ideas, desires, and human emotions. Where Jonathan sees only sex, Sandy sees an idealized, transcendent other, so far from his own sphere that she might as well be an alien; neither man sees a fellow person or equal. The closeups reflect this disparity. Susan is seen in a striking, very long closeup where she simply laughs, turning red and howling with delight at the mostly unheard banter of the unseen men offscreen, throwing her head back, squinting her eyes, looking at times like she's on the verge of crying. It's a remarkable shot, sustained for so long that there is no choice but to contemplate the essential impenetrability of this woman. What is she thinking? What does she feel for these men she's with? What does she want? They're questions that barely occur to the two men, a point that Nichols makes with understated economy simply by keeping Susan's inscrutable face onscreen for so long, without allowing her to launch into the kind of inner monologue that lets us understand the men so fully.

Later, Jonathan's lover Bobbie (Ann-Margret) gets a similar closeup, revealing nothing in a scene where she seems to be deep in thought, her mind moving in ways we can barely imagine, and which Jonathan never seems curious to find out. Bobbie is a pure sex kitten to him, with the "huge breasts" he always wanted, wild in bed and endlessly fun to be with, but somehow this still isn't enough, and he makes every effort to avoid getting "trapped" in a marriage with this fun, sexy woman. Jonathan never seems to realize that he is continually looking for women who he wants only sex from, and then growing dissatisfied with them when they don't give him more than sex. In fact, Bobbie very well might have had more to offer, but she seems cowed and discouraged by a long series of relationships very much like this one; at one point, she tells Jonathan that after the abuse she's endured he seems positively gentle. She's reduced here to speaking in an entirely generic, neutered way, a far cry from the bluntly honest monologues that the men deliver to each other. The only way she knows how to express what she wants is to say she wants to get married, an idea that seems to hold more meaning for her than its obvious connotations, and which is almost entirely abstracted from the realities of her actual relationship with Jonathan. Certainly, when she plaintively tells him this in the midst of an argument during which he has done nothing but berate and insult her, it seems absurd to think she'd actually want to marry this man. The unspoken subtext, unspoken because these men never give the women a chance to express themselves, is that marriage represents for Bobbie a stability and fulfillment that is completely lacking from any of her relationships with men. It's the same urge for an undefinable and probably unrealistic "more" that powers both male leads; the difference is that the men never allow her or any other woman they meet to express this urge. All of this is present wholly in Ann-Margret's phenomenal performance, which manages to convey both the fun-loving male fantasy and the inner turmoil of this character. In her closeup, she simply sits against a blank white wall in bed, naked and photographed from the shoulders up, slightly off-center in the frame as she thinks, her mind churning through unknown thoughts glimpsed behind her eyes.

The closeup is the film's most rigorously applied formal device, but Nichols alternates this intimate shot with, basically, two other kinds of shots which define the film's aesthetic in more subtle ways. The first of these is the two-shot, usually used in Hollywood films for romantic couples but here mostly reserved for shots of Sandy and Jonathan together. The second is a tableau-like long shot that is very theatrical in its effect, a quality that has often been cited as a knock against Nichols, who is a theater director in addition to his involvement in films, but is here used in very effective ways. This is particularly apparent in a scene between Bobbie and Jonathan, after they've had a vicious argument, and Nichols pulls back to show the couple separated by the uncrossable gulf of their own bedroom, using the full extent of the widescreen vista to emphasize the distance between the couple. In the background, the phone rings unanswered, a nagging presence on the soundtrack contributing to the scene's unresolvable tension. It's a striking use of the fusion between cinematic and theatrical modes of treating space, with the viewing angle and the spartan sets suggesting a theatrical viewpoint even as Nichols utilizes the cinema's sense of negative space to communicate his characters' alienation.

This is a dark, even angry film, especially for a comedy. There's something about Feiffer's writing that seems to translate in especially bitter, sardonic ways to the screen. In his comics, his humor often seems more tempered, more wryly satirical, with the darker undercurrents more subdued. There are darker touches in his cartooning, like the famous Voice strip where a woman goes into the country to smell the flowers, only to be killed by a shotgun that's growing there instead, but even his darkest strips aren't quite as pointed and unfiltered as this hate-filled relationship comedy or the even more bitter Alan Arkin-directed Little Murders. It may just be that Feiffer's satire is easier to take when it's abstracted, when it's being delivered by his casually sketched cartoon figures, who seem more like whimsical pen strokes than actual people. The emotions and ideas and, yes, the humor, being expressed simply hit much harder in the context of the film's stark realism. In fact, there are scenes here that are almost unbearable in their raw, awkward humanity, like the scene where Sandy attempts to convince an unwilling but naked Susan to sleep with him for the first time. The way he's pawing at her, his earnest neediness coupled with clumsy sexual predation, makes one wonder if Nicolas Roeg had this scene in mind when casting Garfunkel for the execrable Bad Timing a decade later. In any case, Garfunkel is far better here, because far more believable; he's a normal and fairly decent guy who wants to get laid and has to (or thinks he has to) become a bit of a bastard to get what he wants. This disparity between inner and outer personae, and the corruption of male/female dynamics by warped expectations and distorted desires, is the angry indictment at the core of Carnal Knowledge.