Sunday, August 31, 2008

Films I Love #2: Mulholland Dr. (David Lynch, 2001)

Mulholland Dr. is one of those films whose impact is so overwhelming for me that I hardly know where to begin when writing about it. When I walked outside after the first time I saw it, stepping out into a bright spring day, I felt disoriented, my entire way of looking at the world around me thoroughly, if temporarily, destabilized by the experience of this haunting, unsettling, deeply moving film. Referencing classic "double" films like Persona and Vertigo, David Lynch weaves an enigmatic tale of the cheery would-be actress Betty (Naomi Watts) and the amnesiac femme fatale Rita (Laura Elena Harding) — who later transform into Diane and Camilla, respectively. Before this happens though, Lynch blends together elements of film noir, shoot-em-up action, melodramatic romance, Westerns, mystery, slapstick comedy, exploitation pictures, and horror into a dense patchwork that's half Hollywood pastiche and half disorienting dream/nightmare. The Hollywood genre film, in all its myriad forms, is reborn with a twisted logic that allows scenes from very different genres to melt into one another — Hollywood's collective history reimagined as a feverish dream. It all spirals towards the awe-inspiring Club Silencio sequence, Lynch's masterpiece in miniature, a brilliant deconstruction of movie soundtracks and the "magic" of cinematic artifice. With this gesture, Lynch meditates on the profoundest mystery of the movies: how something we know to be "fake" and manufactured can nevertheless move us to our souls.

Friday, August 29, 2008

The Player

A lot has been said about the metafictional genius of Robert Altman's The Player, in which the Hollywood producer Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) is unwittingly involved in a very Hollywood-style story of murder, sexual intrigue, and duplicity as his career disintegrates around him and he receives threatening postcards from a writer whose script he rejected. The film announces its intent with its opening, a virtuoso tracking shot that lasts several minutes, beginning within an office and slowly panning out and around the entire grounds of a studio lot. This is a stunning maneuver, introducing the large cast in walking cameos as they stroll by the camera's path, conversations drifting in and out of range at various points. Moreover, Altman has these characters discussing the use of just this kind of device in other films, from the opening of Orson Welles' Touch of Evil to Alfred Hitchcock's Rope with its unbroken ten-minute takes. As these characters themselves say, such devices introduce the entire movie in microcosm before the credits have even finished rolling, and Altman sets out to do just that, establishing not only the setting and characters but the way in which the constant flow of inane chatter and deal-making patter constitute the reality of behind-the-scenes Hollywood.

If this intro — and the non-stop flow of Hollywood stars flooding the film with cameos — telegraphs the metafictional, satirical intent of The Player, the soul of the film is contained in a single richly layered scene at a fundraising party where Mill gives a speech. Speaking to a room of stars and producers (including Cher, the only one dressed in red at a black and white affair), Mill praises the studio system for keeping alive the idea that movies are art by donating prints of a few dozen old classics to a film center. He lambastes the moviegoing public and the press alike for failing to understand art, for wanting only crass entertainment, while maintaining that it is up to Hollywood itself, and especially the producers, to deliver great art to the people. He ends on a passionate note, emphatically declaring: "Movies are art!" Altman cuts in for a closeup at this point, capturing the genuine sincerity of Mill (and the earnest glint in Robbins' pale, expressive blue eyes): he radiates an intense belief in what he's saying. It's a powerful, even moving speech for those who love movies and take it for granted that they are art, and one senses that for a moment, Mill is speaking Altman's mind; the director has momentarily taken over his character like a puppet and is ventriloquizing through him. It is also an extraordinarily complex and ironic scene, though, mainly because despite Mill's apparent sincerity and Altman's obvious underlining of his words, there is little evidence that Mill pays any more than lip service to what he's saying. If he truly believes what he says, he does so in the abstract, as a concept divorced from his actual practices in the movie business — in practice he does everything he can to smother the art in movies, to produce the generic entertainment he rails against, though in fairness he is not quite as mercenary as the young upstart Larry Levy (Peter Gallagher), who thinks that producers can replace writers altogether in the Hollywood assembly line.

This speech is also undercut by the fact that hardly anyone is listening to Mill. Altman cuts around the room from one table of celebs to another, showing the various actors and actresses chatting with one another, hobnobbing and ignoring the producer's words. One wonders if, when they agreed to these cameo appearances, the stars realized that they'd be depicted as ignoring a speech about the importance of cinematic artistry — or if they'd even understand if they did. The constant interplay between star personae and screen characters encourages these kinds of metafictional musings. One of the funniest things about Altman's decision to include so many cameos is that one is never sure, when a new star appears, if they're playing themselves or if they're meant to be an actual character in the film. OK, so Sydney Pollack and Whoopie Goldberg are characters (Mill's attorney and the detective investigating him, respectively), but Jeff Goldblum, Anjelica Huston and John Cusack are all going by their own names as Hollywood stars. The film's metafictional slippage creates and revels in this uncertainty, crafting a world in which some of these stars are playing parts, while others ostensibly represent who they really are. Altman encourages this star-spotting, peppering his crowd scenes with recognizable faces who he occasionally points out, enhancing the impression that this satire is sharply pointed at the real Hollywood apparatus these people are a part of.

Mill's speech also highlights one of the film's key themes, the gulf that exists between modern Hollywood and its vision of itself, a vision largely crafted in an era when its artistry and its commercialism were inextricably intertwined rather than in competition with one another. There are constant references to the past, both verbally and in the continuous use of images from Hollywood's past: posters for noirs like Laura hang on Mill's office walls, and the mysterious figure who threatens him sends him a postcard promotional still of Bogart pointing a gun. Mill has more of a connection to the past, and to the non-American cinema, than most of the film's characters; he admires Umberto De Sica's Bicycle Thieves and Tod Browning's Freaks, whereas other characters are oblivious to films outside of their immediate cultural sphere. In that long tracking shot opening, one producer keeps citing Touch of Evil as if it's the only film he ever saw, while he repeatedly says he has no idea about anything made outside of the US. Even Mill, though, is limited in his knowledge — he fails to recognize the name of Joe Gillis, the murdered writer played by William Holden in Sunset Boulevard — and his idealistic image of Hollywood's past is in direct contrast to the debased system he's a part of in the present. In mercilessly delving into the business of making movies, The Player makes it difficult for Hollywood types like Mill to rest on the laurels of the Hollywood Golden Age; Mill's contention that (Hollywood) movies are art holds some water for noirs and Bogie adventure flicks, but it's a lot harder to keep a straight face when he seems to be referring to his studio's endless stream of mass-marketed pablum, their plots massaged and reworked on the evidence of test screenings.

As these themes percolate and develop, Altman patiently weaves a thriller plot into the satire, as well as an increasingly steamy romance between Mill and the girlfriend (Greta Scacchi) of a writer (Vincent D'Onofrio) who had an antagonistic relationship with Mill. The whole thing is brilliantly concocted so that it's barely obvious, until the very end, just how neatly Mill's story reads like a Hollywood genre piece, with all the necessary sex, violence, and emotional mood swings required to punch it up. Even Mill himself doesn't realize it until he has the whole sordid story, in barely veiled form, read to him over the phone as a pitch, complete with the obligatory happy ending. The final act of the film, presented as a flash-forward set one year after the main events of the story, completes Mill's arc by tying up all loose ends and providing him with his promised — and utterly improbable — happy ending, an ending that rhymes off the similar last-minute turn-around in a movie Mill was producing, a death penalty drama that was meant to have a grim, "realistic" denouement, but is turned into a high-octane thrill ride in the final minutes due to the whims of a test audience. One wonders what that same audience would have made of Altman's finale, which on the surface makes use of the conventions of the happy ending only to draw attention to them and satirize them, and which externalizes the script itself by putting its too-tidy resolution and literary ironies right out there for anyone to see (and to second-guess). The most clever aspect of Altman's film is its auto-critique of its own cleverness.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

A Movie/Report

The singular title of Bruce Conner's A Movie positions this avant-garde short as though it were a prototypical example for the entire medium. In fact, Conner's film is the self-conscious inheritor of a particular tradition within the movies, a particular use to which moving pictures have been put: the filmic spectacle. Where Conner's film, constructed entirely from a wide variety of found footage, diverges from this tradition is in its recognition that in spectacle, the content hardly matters so much as the sensations conveyed through the film. Conner claims the cinema as essentially an art of montage, of combination, cutting together disparate materials from Hollywood epics, car and motorcycle races, plane and boat crashes, war footage, the atomic bomb, and sexy girls. It's like a catalog of the cinema's sensationalist devices, all of them blended together with little regard for their origins. A rapid-fire montage towards the beginning of the film switches almost seamlessly between horses in a cavalry charge, a trotting elephant, a train, and cars speeding around a track. The viewer has to strain to even notice the transitions, which happen almost subliminally because the scene's dominant feel is maintained across each fluid cut: it's speed, pure and simple, and the racing, speeding object hardly matters in comparison to the overall impression communicated by the montage. Conner is exposing the most basic workings of cinema here, intuitively grasping that he can cut together very different material and still achieve something that "feels" right because its editing has the proper rhythms.

Conner's movie also acts as a great leveler between various kinds of images: documentary versus staged, violent versus prosaic, frivolous versus serious. The film's general arc is towards more and more devastating images, even as the soundtrack becomes bombastic and stirring, its epic grandeur clashing against the images of starving children, dead soldiers, and the distinctive mushroom cloud of the atomic bomb. Conner can be playful too, especially in his use of familiar cinematic devices in ways that confound expectations: he keeps flashing up the words "the end" at various points, and initiates a countdown towards the start of the film that's interrupted by a striptease, as though he just couldn't wait until the count was over to get into the film itself. But his best visual gag leads directly into his most horrifying image, as a shot of a pinup girl posing in a tiny bikini cuts to a submarine crew firing a phallic torpedo which, in turn, improbably sets off a nuclear explosion. The Freudian playfulness of the imagery is basically cut short, reminding viewers that despite psychological speculation to the contrary, a weapon is less a sexual symbol than a tool of grand destruction. The puffy, blossoming explosion of a mushroom cloud may make a clever metaphor for an orgasm, but it's a metaphor with its own horrible realities attached.

Conner is constantly playing with these kinds of multiple layers, and he packs a great deal of potential meaning into barely 12 minutes. During the final minutes of the film, the editing grows more and more frantic as the music reaches its crescendo, signaling a typical movie climax that Conner will not deliver. His imagery, which had hitherto blended traditional spectacles and samples of Hollywood footage into the war movies and explosions, now delves wholeheartedly into the darker side of spectacle: firing squad executions, a field of dead bodies, a blimp imploding into a fiery ball that looks like the heart of a volcano. The music and the frantic editing condition the audience to expect excitement, but Conner challenges them to be excited by these abject images instead — he mocks the conventions of cinematic narrative by delivering a montage of horror in the guise of an action movie climax. The effect is bracing, as the aesthetic tensions between music, editing, and imagery reach a breaking point and then give way to an enigmatic, poetic coda of a diver descending into a mysterious porthole, disappearing with one last flip of the fin.

The film forces viewers to engage actively with its content, to question its effects and the cinematic tools it uses to achieve them. There is no other film this side of Godard in which the evidence of the filmmaking is displayed so nakedly, in which the role of montage and music in creating emotional responses are made so apparent. The continual pauses built into the editing, the stretches of black leader that divide one section from another, provide the necessary blank spots that shatter the illusions that Conner is simultaneously creating and deconstructing. The black spaces give the film a rhythm like breathing, or thinking, each chain of fluidly edited images eventually giving way to a black screen on which the individual viewer can trace his or her own thoughts.

One of the film's most enduring legacies may be the forceful way in which it lays claim to cinema as a medium defined by editing. Conner keeps asserting his authorship in titles that recur at odd points throughout the film: "A Movie by Bruce Conner," as though there were any doubt that the film belongs to him, despite the fact that he didn't shoot any of the footage he uses. It's a clever way to develop the idea that the artistry of movies lies, first and foremost, in the arrangement of images. The basic technique of A Movie is to expose and explore these kinds of fundamentals, to draw attention to the normally invisible artifice of movies by recreating that artifice with illogical combinations of elements.

Report is a fragmentary, harrowing attempt to come to terms with the circumstances of the Kennedy assassination, and especially, in light of the infamous Zapruder tape that captured the event, to understand what it means to document or report on an event like this. Bruce Conner's attempt at a "report" on Kennedy's death uses footage from Zapruder and from various other news outlets, along with radio voiceovers, but he does not combine these elements in a traditional, objective way. Conner's conception of a "report" is not the dry recitation of facts or the following of a strict chronology, but an analysis of the emotional impact and political ideas that circle around the central event. To this end, Conner methodically takes the day apart and dissects it, first documenting the assassination itself before both doubling back into the past and shifting forward into the future. This chronology privileges the intensity and epoch-changing nature of the actual event while acknowledging its place within a complex political and social spectrum that both led up to it and was forever altered by it.

Conner's account of the assassination is as unforgettable as any more traditional report, despite the complete absence of any exploitative footage actually showing the bullets hitting the president. This moment is emotionally occupied in the film by a now-famous shot of a bullet passing through a lightbulb, shattering its glass and passing through undeterred, a deeply affecting metaphor for the death of a political luminary. In the place of more graphic images, the film repeats a few seconds of grainy footage: the president's limo driving along, Jackie and John smiling and waving in the back, images and faces so iconic that even deprived of most of their detail they are instantly recognizable. In between brief flashes of these images, the film consists entirely of pure black frames, which separate the images with increasingly long times until the presidential limo disappears entirely, replaced by a pulsating flicker of alternating white and black frames, occasionally complicated by basic abstract designs within the black. As the screen pulses and flickers, the soundtrack features a news commentator who is reporting on the assassination live as it happens, his voice breaking into panic and confusion as the shots ring out and the motorcade grinds to a halt. No one is sure who has been hit, and the announcer's increasingly tense tone seems to stem as much from his confusion, his lack of knowledge about what's going on, as from any concrete event. Conner enhances this tension by chopping up the voiceover and looping it, doubling back to hear key phrases again, and towards the end distorting the announcer's voice and bathing it in static until it sounds like he's speaking from inside a blender.

If Conner's treatment of the assassination is uniquely moving and powerful, his way of handling the aftermath and lead-up to this epochal event is even more ingenious. The second half of this brief film blends together past and present by having the voiceover loop back to before the assassination, as the radio announcer describes in much calmer tones the route of the presidential motorcade, the role of the Secret Service in protecting him, and the president's possibly unsafe habit of stopping to shake hands with admirers. All this would seem like foreshadowing had Conner not already shown what happens next. Instead, the voiceover seems like a bulletin from a more innocent time, in which these words would not have had the same horrible prophetic ring they now do. The announcer's words acknowledge the possibility of danger, but almost in a quaint, dismissive way: the voiceover is mostly just impressed by Kennedy's friendliness and spontaneity, not genuinely fearful for what might result. Conner underscores this lost innocence by accompanying the voiceover with a complex montage of images, encompassing footage from Kennedy's funeral, various images from Kennedy's tenure as president, and even a wide variety of seemingly unrelated images ranging from bullfights to war films to refrigerator ads. This material positions Kennedy and his death within a broader social, political, and media context, perhaps suggesting that without a focus on the event itself and its repercussions, Kennedy risks becoming a mythic component in a media-saturated environment, his image juxtaposed without consideration with crass commercialism and unrelated political maneuverings — a prophetic message, as it turns out.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Two Or Three Things I Know About Her

Two Or Three Things I Know About Her marks a crucial stage in the career of Jean-Luc Godard. It is perhaps the first film in which he explicitly elucidates and rigorously develops an idea that had been present, in more or less implicit form, ever since he started making feature films, and which would finally become a guiding principle of his filmmaking with his late 1960s turn to political radicalism. The idea that there exists a democracy of images, that one image is no more or less valid, interesting, and worthy of note than any other possible image, is in direct contradiction of so many of the norms of modern culture that, even today, it remains a radical statement. Godard's assertion that stories and characters can be abandoned to study the leaves on a nearby tree, or the swirling rings stirred up by a spoon in a coffee cup, is radical because it steps away from the conventions of Hollywood film and the aspirations of classical art alike; both of these venerable cultural institutions aim to create images that are potent, memorable, and intrinsically interesting. Godard, who had always recognized that boredom could be just as "interesting" as activity, here goes even further, positing still more unconventional equalities: between narrative and abstraction, between beauty and the prosaic, between reality and fiction, between people and objects, and, in a clear forerunner of his later films, between sound and image.

To this end, the people in the film are subsumed by the images, their role in the film reduced by the way that Godard positions them within the frame, often with just their heads poking up from the very bottom of the image, silly bobble-head dolls disconnected from their rarely visualized bodies. Even the closeups promulgate this reduction of the human role, with the people's faces rendered faintly ridiculous by their constriction within the tight Scope boundaries. For these shots, Godard treats his frames like a French flag (the bright primary colors of which define the film's visual palette as well), divided into three equal areas, a head in the center surrounded on either side by equal portions of dead space. The image is one-thirds face, two-thirds nothingness, and the flatness of the compositions suggests a profound equivalence between the person and the nothing. It is not only that Godard considers a person and an urban landscape equally interesting, but that he sees them as reflections of one another; he finds one in the other. Forced to choose between describing the movement of leaves or the state of his main character, he flippantly uses the same word for both: they each "tremble" on a cold day. Godard introduces his heroine first as an actress, Marina Vlady, and only secondarily as the character she plays, the bored housewife and part-time prostitute Juliette Jeanson. Even the title creates these kinds of equivalencies: immediately after the words appear, Godard inserts a second title card that identifies "her" as Paris. Only secondarily, again, does a voiceover link the word "her" to the woman at the center of the picture, either Marina Vlady or Juliette.

This is the most narratively destabilized of Godard's 1960s films, in that narrative is allowed to simply fritter away. In Weekend, Godard at least gave the narrative enough respect to acknowledge that he is destroying it: the destruction of narrative becomes, itself, the narrative of the film. Here, the narrative is simply missing, as profound an absence as the mostly unfilmed bodies of the characters. When Godard's voiceover explicitly notes that he is taking a detour from the narrative in order to film a tree instead, the only possible response is, "what narrative?" Juliette has a cipher of a husband (Roger Montsoret) who listens to voices coming over the radio and takes notes, a modernist version of Jean Cocteau's Orphée who, instead of hearing poetry, hears Lyndon Johnson apologizing in a paraphrase/thievery of a 1966 Jules Feiffer comic strip about the president's "heavy heart" and unwilling bombings. She also has a pair of unruly children, a number of nearly anonymous friends, and a succession of johns with whom she never seems to consummate any transactions. That is to say, there is a lot of activity surrounding Juliette, and a lot of related characters, but is there a narrative?

What Godard offers in place of a narrative is talk, and lots of it. Not that he trusts language in itself, and one of the film's purposes is to question the stranglehold of words over things by the repetition of basic philosophical quandaries involving the naming of objects. How do we know what blue is? How do we describe a thing when everyone sees it in a slightly different way? Godard's examples are trivial — a blue shirt and a magazine seen from various angles — but his intent is entirely earnest, a desire to question even basic assumptions and thus trigger deeper thought. This questioning is achieved by fragmenting the formal unity of the film and initiating discourse on all planes of reality. Characters talk to one another, they talk to themselves, and they break character and talk directly to the camera, often while in the midst of performing the banal routines that constitute the film's only real narrative: washing dishes, putting the children to bed, shopping. Godard also talks within the film, and quite a lot, providing a whispery voiceover that sometimes comments obliquely on the action and at other times takes off on tangents of its own.

The same is true of the characters' conversations and monologues, which range freely over a wide variety of topics, from the alienation and boredom of ordinary life in an industrial society, to new designs for dresses, to the idea of courage. The talk is fast-paced and allusive — not to mention elusive — and in one scene Godard flips back and forth between two distinct conversations going on in a café, blending them through a precise shot sequence that leads from a participant in one conversation to a participant in the other. It's as though a baton has been handed off in a relay race, and the other speakers take up their turn before passing things back to the original duo. The scene is further broken down by the interjection of a third duo, who simply read random quotes aloud from a prodigious stack of books. For Godard, the exact content of all this speech is not nearly as important as its existence, the possibility that this accumulation of language might paradoxically provide a way to break through language's barriers. This hope leads Godard to another of his radically destabilizing equivalences, the privilege he grants to quotation as being on par with "original" statements. Certainly, the film quotes freely, not only from books, cinema, commercial culture, and comics, but from Godard's own previous films. The bar where the prostitute Juliette goes to hang out, with its pinball machine and large glass windows, recalls another bar and another prostitute, from My Life To Live, while the bedroom conversation between Juliette's friend Marianne (Anny Duperey) and a loutish American war photographer (the producer Raoul Lévy) is like a politicized Breathless in miniature.

The film also looks forward to Godard's future work, not only in the increasing abstraction of the narrative, but in the way he explores the themes of family, sexuality, and work in a politically radicalized context. In that respect, the film it most resembles in Godard's oeuvre is Numéro Deux, for which Two Or Three Things seems to be both a foundational primer (even providing the later film with its central metaphor of the human form as landscape) and a sexually tamer mirror image. This film's chasteness about the body, which is literally cut off from the characters for most of the film, reflects the impossibility of an honest discourse about sexuality in a context where sex has been transformed into a commodity. The film's final image, of a grassy field in which consumer products have been arranged in complex geometric patterns, suggests the maze that consumerism has made for genuine expression, trapping nature within its rigid borders. Godard makes every effort to free himself from this maze, but his treatment of sexuality is much more rigorously developed by the time of the later Numéro Deux, perhaps influenced by the additional participation of Anne-Marie Miéville. That film has none of the lasciviousness with which Godard's camera eyes a young beauty taking a bath, in a scene that purports to literalize commercialism's intrusion upon privacy and sensuality — a meter reader cheekily walks in as the girl is drying herself — but actually documents only Godard's continuing fascination with the female form.

It's a unique but telling moment in a film where the director otherwise purposefully denies himself, and his audience, these kinds of fleshy pleasures. He has made a film about prostitution which focuses on the transaction, the commerce, but never on the unseen sex. The film's scenes of prostitution are lengthy and deliberate stripteases in which the girls are mostly not actually seen taking off their clothes; Juliette especially just stands off to the side talking, to herself or the camera, rather than actually getting intimate with her clients. She's a sexless prostitute, precisely because money drains the sex even from sex itself. The American photographer (recently from Vietnam and tired of seeing so many "atrocities") forces Juliette and Marianne to enact bizarre rituals in which they put bags over their heads and run past each other repeatedly. Godard cuts from this sequence directly to a shot of construction cranes maneuvering against a pale blue sky, and the metaphor is obvious: commerce transforms sex into just another industrial commodity, a set of mechanical maneuvers that must be completed in order to enact a process. It's a theme Godard would return to, in an even more convoluted and hilarious way, in Sauve qui peut (la vie) some years later.

If Godard's distractions, detours, and abstractions here have a powerful political point to make, it's also important to note that to some extent Godard is embarking on a strategy of detours for their own sake. There are so many detours here that it's frequently difficult to remember what, if anything, is being detoured from. It's impossible to deny the obvious pleasure that Godard takes in these abstractions, as when he cuts between a closeup of Juliette and an increasingly zoomed-in view of a cup of coffee: quick, perfunctory shots of the film's star, followed by long, lingering gazes into the depths of the coffee, finding odd spiraling patterns like galaxies and bubbling supernova fissions within the liquid's smooth black surface. Each subsequent shot pushes deeper into the cup, starting from a shot where the blue-green rim is still visible and then leaping headfirst into the abstract void where the swirling patterns within the black become an entire starfield filling the screen. A shot towards the end of the film, where Godard finds volcanic depths and star explosions in the pulsating flame of a cigarette tip, is similarly loving and intense. These moments, as much as any of the film's figurative images of either people or objects, indicate Godard's profoundly political conception of the image as a liberating tool. Just as his cinema is increasingly freed from conventions of all kinds — both progressive and reactionary — so do his abstract visuals suggest a similar freedom for the viewer: the freedom to forget about the idea of a story or a character or even of a film altogether, and to simply stare into a coffee cup for a while, letting its spirals lead your thoughts where they will.

Monday, August 25, 2008

A Tale of Springtime

Eric Rohmer's A Tale of Springtime opens with a dialogue-free five minute stretch that is, from a director known for his endlessly talky, conversational films, notable for its quietude and simplicity. Jeanne (Anne Teyssèdre) drives to an empty, messy apartment, putters around briefly, and then leaves in apparent frustration after half-heartedly attempting to clean up. She next drives to another apartment, to which she also apparently has a key, and walks into a room as orderly and symmetrical as the previous room was disordered and chaotic. The first lines of dialogue after this leisurely, uninformative opening come from a young man who walks in wearing only boxer shorts, obviously flustered to see her. These first few minutes are puzzling, minimalist and austere even for a director whose films were once famously likened to watching paint dry. But the symmetry between the two scenes establishes immediately one of the film's key themes, the importance of space and place to the individual's identity. Jeanne, though, remains an enigma throughout these near-silent scenes and the subsequent ones in which she chats briefly with the young man, who turns out to be her cousin's boyfriend.

The importance of these opening scenes only becomes apparent slightly later, in a startling moment when an offhand analogy unexpectedly crystallizes another of the film's underlying themes. When asked why she came to a party for an old acquaintance, where she knows no one and is obviously ill at ease, Jeanne cites Plato's story of the ring of Gyges. Even if someone had worn this ring, which grants the bearer invisibility, and watched silently everything she said and did during the course of the day leading up to this point, she says that they would still not understand why she had done what she did. What she's describing, of course, is the opening of the film itself, and the ring of Gyges is an ingenious metaphor for the cinema: the audience, granted an invisible vantage point by Rohmer's camera, voyeuristically spies on this woman as she goes through her prosaic day, coming no closer to understanding her thoughts or the rationale behind her actions. The cinema, with its emphasis on surfaces, actions, and words, is necessarily as limited as the senses of sight and hearing themselves; we all rely on appearances and the truthfulness of words to understand our fellow beings.

It is certainly appropriate that Rohmer, always very concerned with the ways in which place affects character, has made a film in which place is the central dramatic device of the story. As Jeanne soon explains to Natacha (Florence Darel), a younger girl she meets at the aforementioned party, she is currently shuffling between apartments because of a set of complicated circumstances. She has lent out her own apartment to her cousin, because Jeanne normally does not stay there in the first place. She lives with her boyfriend, who is currently away on a trip, and in his absence, the compulsively neat Jeanne finds that she can no longer tolerate the messiness that she usually puts up with out of love. The result is that she finds herself feeling at home nowhere, not comfortable alone in her boyfriend's place, and unable to stay at her own place either. This is why she goes to a party that she doesn't really want to be at, and her situation is resolved when Natacha offers her a place to stay instead. Even then, the idea of one's own place remains important to the film. Rohmer has always been aware of the ways in which people jealously stake out and guard their own bit of personal space; he pays tremendous attention to the decoration of his characters' apartments and homes, hanging paintings on the walls and using color to convey moods and personality traits. In this film, especially, the small, quiet dramas that Rohmer traces arise from the characters' possessiveness and defensiveness of those spaces that they consider their own.

The apartment that Natacha decides to share with Jeanne actually belongs to her father, Igor (Hugues Quester), who is rarely there since he, in a bit of symmetry that recalls Jeanne's situation, mostly lives with his girlfriend Eve (Eloïse Bennett). The apartment bears evidence of Natacha's parents' divorce, in the form of a curiously designed kitchen that was installed by an architect who her mother was having an affair with. And Natacha's room also holds the evidence of her not-so-long-ago childhood, toys and mementos that keep her surrounded by the past. Jeanne, for her part, is uncomfortable occupying Igor's room, despite the assurances that he will not return — and she is even more embarrassed when he shows up anyway. Natacha is also especially concerned with the protection of a country house that her family rarely uses now, but which is nevertheless associated with her happiest childhood memories. For this reason, she dreads the idea of Eve (who she dislikes intensely) setting foot in this place. The film's plot, sketchy and breezy even by Rohmer's standards, revolves around such trivialities. The film is at its best when these petty dramas provide an excuse for subtle, charming conversations that touch on philosophical and emotional issues with the same light hand, and at its worst when the characters take it all too seriously, exploding with melodramatic anger and tears.

Fortunately, the former predominates, and as usual Rohmer manages to make quite a bit out of relatively little material. The relationships among Jeanne, Natacha, Igor, and Eve are allowed to develop naturally and slowly, with Rohmer's observational camera maintaining a polite distance. The film is continually pointing out the opaqueness of its characters, and of people in general, as they chat and occasionally argue and react to one another in unpredictable ways. In two separate scenes, positioned as rough mirrors of one another towards the beginning and end of the film, Jeanne sits listening quietly to a Schumann piece, her eyes gazing blankly at a point somewhere off to the side of the camera, Rohmer photographing her from an oblique angle rather than staring directly. In both cases, her expression is blank, not at all as animated and expressive as she often is in conversation. She is obviously lost in thought, a condition that Rohmer respects by allowing her the silence and unknowability of private space. In the first of these scenes, in fact, his camera even gracefully pulls back, creating further distance between the audience and the woman's thoughts. These scenes, like the silent opening of the film, reveal nothing but their own surfaces and appearances, with none of the emotional or psychological insight that one would normally expect from such a moment. Rohmer is subtly, but explicitly, rejecting the facile movie convention that people in deep thought reveal themselves through their faces. The thought in this film is resolutely internal and unseen, and Rohmer reveals only as much of these characters' thoughts as they themselves can (or want to) express in their fumbling, uncertain phrasing.

If A Tale of Springtime is generally interesting and enjoyable in its very Rohmer-like treatment of character and incident, it is less consistent on a cinematic level. Rohmer's films are often accused of having nothing going on visually, which is certainly not true, neither here nor even more so in his 70s and 80s work. His economical camera moves and crisp, often elliptical editing establish a very precise, well-defined aesthetic that only seems like an absence of style on first glance. The opening minutes of the film, with the subtle symmetry of the editing and the visual contrast between the apartment of Jeanne's boyfriend and her own place, cleverly use purely visual storytelling to set up both the central character and the everyday dramas that will occupy her throughout the film. In the penultimate scene, Rohmer plays with a visual rhyme between a pale green vase and Natacha's torso in a green blouse — the kind of subtle details that frequently enrich his mise en scène. Elsewhere, though, he employs a flat, even ugly aesthetic, making some scenes — particularly in the first third or so of the film — seem disinterested and slipshod. The scenes at the party where Jeanne and Natacha meet, as well as the subsequent conversation at Natacha's apartment, have a workmanlike, television gloss that would make it difficult to defend Rohmer as a visual craftsman to someone who had never seen, say, My Night at Maud's. Rohmer fares better when the scene shifts to the countryside, and the springtime colors of flowers and greenery give the film a warm, pastel glow that he exploits to its fullest, both outdoors and in the colorful wallpaper of Natacha and Igor's country home.

The film also suffers, in part, from the performance of Quester as Igor, who is variously described as "youthful" and something of a ladies' man, but who instead comes across as simply awkward and inscrutable. Rohmer's characters are often purposefully unlikable, or even annoying, but Igor doesn't even have that much depth. He's simply a cipher, self-consciously closing his eyes when he talks, scrunched up like a clumsy little boy when he finally gets the seemingly inevitable love scene with the calm, self-assured Jeanne. One suspects that when the characters call him "youthful," they didn't quite mean childish, though that's how he comes across. It's difficult to tell, in the context of the film, if this is a fault of the script, Rohmer's direction, or Quester's performance, but the character simply fails to fill the role that the dramatic arc clearly requires of him. The women fare much better, as is often the case even in Rohmer's best films. The friendship between Jeanne and Natacha develops quickly but believably, and they have a rapport and chemistry that's almost instant. Even Eve, in a relatively minor role, becomes a concrete presence in the film. She is introduced, before she is seen, by Natacha's mean-spirited, wholly negative description of her as "vampiric." It's to Rohmer's credit that once she actually appears on screen, he is able to draw out a nuanced and even sympathetic portrait of this woman without completely obscuring what Natacha sees in her. A Tale of Springtime may not be Rohmer's best or most consistent work, or even anywhere near the top, but this sensitivity to character and relationships keeps the film from being totally forgettable.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Films I Love #1: Sans Soleil (Chris Marker, 1983)

I first saw Chris Marker's Sans Soleil, somewhat perversely, in a class on documentary film. It was an interesting setting in which to see the film because, though Marker certainly uses the documentary genre and its conventions, the film is anything but a conventional documentary — which is not, of course, to say that it's fiction. Among the film's many interlocking layers and themes, one of its ideas is the interchangeability and fluidity of document, reality, and illusion. As a female narrator (Alexandra Stewart in the English version) reads a series of letters sent to her from around the world by a cameraman friend, the film is constructed from images ostensibly captured by this filmmaker on his travels. This loose structure provides ample opportunity for Marker's rambling thoughts on cultural difference, memory, mortality, and especially filmmaking itself. This latter subject announces itself not only in the profession of the letter writer, but in numerous references starting right from the very first image (above). In between long stretches of empty black space, a brief image of three blonde-haired children walking along a road flashes onto the screen. As the grainy footage appears and disappears, the narration describes the image as originating from a trip to Iceland, and the cameraman writes that this will be the first image of his film — he'd tried to link it to other images (a shot of a military plane descending into a carrier) but in the end he decided it'd have to appear on its own, separated by strips of black leader on either side. He's describing, of course, the opening of this film, and also the process of creation that led to the film's genesis, from the act of capturing the image, to the thought that goes into the structure, to the actual editing of the image into the film.

Later, Marker's film will embark on one of the best works of criticism ever made in the film medium, a free-associative analysis of Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo that revisits the San Francisco sites at which the film was made while drawing out the themes of warped memory and resurrection within Hitch's masterpiece. Marker recreates a film that is, itself, about the re-creation of lost memories, about living in the past — Jimmy Stewart's "Scottie" goes through a kind of time travel that Marker explicitly links to his own La jetée (1962), which itself references the sequoia tree from Vertigo. The dense web of referentiality and association in this brief segment establishes many of the themes of Sans Soleil, and especially of the unmade movie synopsis that Marker delivers in the next section, about a time traveler who seeks to regain the memories of his culture's past.

Films I Love: An Introduction

I am, for the first time, introducing a new ongoing series here at Only the Cinema. FILMS I LOVE will provide some contrast from my usual posting format, where I generally aim to strike a balance between journalistic reviewing and analytical criticism for each film I watch. This format is well-suited to the way I like to write about films in general, and — especially when I'm lucky enough to spark some spirited conversation in the comments section — it also satisfies my urge to elucidate and develop my thoughts about a film right after I've seen it. But the bulk of my writing here has fallen short, as I see it, in at least one key way: namely that I have been focused almost exclusively on the day-to-day immediacy of reviewing films, both new and old, that I have not seen before. There have been exceptions whenever I feel the need to revisit a film I know well, but these are relatively few. The fact remains that this site contains very little writing about or acknowledgment of the films I love the best, the films that I consider my favorites and that I saw (often many times) before starting this blog around a year ago.

FILMS I LOVE should correct this deficiency. This series will take a very different approach from my usual reviews, partly because I wish to distinguish these posts from the daily viewing diary I've been maintaining here, and partly because the last thing I want to do is turn this blog into a chore by piling even more writing requirements on myself. With that in mind, these posts will be much less verbose than my usual reviews (do I hear sighs of relief already?) and will instead provide a sampling of images from the films with a paragraph or two of introduction and commentary. Hopefully these posts will inspire further discussion about the selections, as well as providing my readers with some additional insight into the cinematic touchstones that make me tick. Hopefully, my choices will be idiosyncratic and revelatory — I don't want to produce a definitive list of "classics" so much as a personal chronicle of "favorites." I'll aim to post one of these pieces every week, though that timeline may be altered once the series is actually underway.

In conceiving of this series, I have been influenced by three more or less similar projects by other critics, and I would be remiss if I didn't acknowledge these here. The first is the ongoing weekly feature Images from the Greatest Films of the Decade, maintained at Jeremy Richey's Moon in the Gutter. Jeremy's excellent blog has a lot of passionate writing about films he loves, but this simple and effective series highlights just ten stills from each film with no written accompaniment. It's often remarkable how much of the film's mood and style is communicated in his judicious selection of still frames. I'll be the first to admit that my own project is as much stealing his idea as being influenced by it, so I hope he takes this in the spirit of homage in which it's intended.

The second of my major influences here should require no introduction, and that is Roger Ebert's Great Movies project. I've always been drawn to this kind of writing that attempts to establish a personal and open-minded perspective on canonical works, and Ebert's accessible prose revisits familiar milestones and illuminates lesser-known but important works with equal panache. Ebert's ongoing effort to build a directory — both online and collected in books — of the movies he subjectively considers "great," is an admirable and very prominent exercise in canon-building.

Which brings me to the third major influence upon this series, Jonathan Rosenbaum's Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons. Rosenbaum's book, in addition to containing selections from his typically sharp criticism, makes a powerful case for the importance of canon-building to both personal film appreciation and the larger thrust of art in general. I lack the breadth or depth of Rosenbaum's movie knowledge in order to form my own version of his personal canon, organized by year — though I once flirted with the idea of trying anyway, in a here-and-then-gone post at this blog. My own canon will be more modest, not a monolithic listing but a one-by-one assembly that will, eventually, nevertheless serve the same purpose for me (and hopefully my readers) as Rosenbaum's does for him. That is to say, FILMS I LOVE will form a continually shifting account of the films that have shaped my cinematic consciousness, that I consider the highest achievements of the medium, and that point the way towards unexpected possibilities in cinema.

The Films:
1. Sans Soleil (Chris Marker, 1983)
2. Mulholland Dr. (David Lynch, 2001)
3. Bonjour Tristesse (Otto Preminger, 1958)
4. Ménilmontant (Dimitri Kirsanoff, 1926)
5. The Aviator's Wife (Eric Rohmer, 1981)
6. Edvard Munch (Peter Watkins, 1974)
7. Sink Or Swim (Su Friedrich, 1990)
8. Naked (Mike Leigh, 1993)
9. In a Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray, 1950)
10. Three Crowns of a Sailor (Raoul Ruiz, 1983)
11. I Fidanzati (Ermanno Olmi, 1962)
12. Equinox Flower (Yasujiro Ozu, 1958)
13. Alone. Life Wastes Andy Hardy (Martin Arnold, 1998)
14. Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick, 1999)
15. Only Angels Have Wings (Howard Hawks, 1939)
16. Underground (Emir Kusturica, 1995)
17. The Silence (Ingmar Bergman, 1963)
18. Baby Doll (Elia Kazan, 1956)
19. First Name: Carmen (Jean-Luc Godard, 1983)
20. In a Year With 13 Moons (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1978)
21. Play Time (Jacques Tati, 1967)
22. Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich, 1955)
23. Balance Beams (Jonas Leddington, 2002)
24. Dead Ringers (David Cronenberg, 1988)
25. Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950)
26. Coup de torchon (Bertrand Tavernier, 1981)
27. Three Colors: Blue (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1993)
28. Come To Daddy (Chris Cunningham, 1997)
29. Vendredi soir (Claire Denis, 2001)
30. Asyl (Kurt Kren, 1975)
31. Holiday (George Cukor, 1938)
32. A Walk Through H (Peter Greenaway, 1978)
33. 8 1/2 (Federico Fellini, 1963)
34. The Angelic Conversation (Derek Jarman, 1985)
35. Caché (Michael Haneke, 2005)
36. Man With a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929)
37. Little Murders (Alan Arkin, 1971)
38. Sex and Lucia (Julio Medem, 2001)
39. Hiroshima mon amour (Alain Resnais, 1959)
40. 9 Variations on a Dance Theme (Hilary Harris, 1966)
41. Safe (Todd Haynes, 1995)
42. The Set-Up (Robert Wise, 1949)
43. La belle noiseuse (Jacques Rivette, 1991)
44. Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954)
45. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (John Cassavetes, 1976)
46. Dead Man (Jim Jarmusch, 1995)
47. The Conformist (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1970)
48. The Face of Another (Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1966)
49. Aguirre, The Wrath of God (Werner Herzog, 1972)
50. Cat's Cradle (Stan Brakhage, 1959)
51. Detour (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1945)
52. After Hours (Martin Scorsese, 1985)
53. Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958)
54. Mr. Klein (Joseph Losey, 1976)
55. The Shop Around the Corner (Ernst Lubitsch, 1940)

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Everyone Says I Love You

Woody Allen's tribute to the American musical comedy, Everyone Says I Love You, is a ramshackle ode to a mostly lost artform, occasionally failing in various ways but more often succeeding by being as moving, funny, and charming as the films it seeks to emulate. Allen conceives of his plot as simply an excuse to assemble a large and star-studded ensemble cast, constituting the members of an upper-class extended family and their various love interests, both fleeting and enduring, and to stage a dazzling array of musical numbers. The stories (for there are several) all center around the family of Steffi (Goldie Hawn) and Bob (Alan Alda), two typical faux-intellectual Woody Manhattanites: he's a lawyer, she's an ultra-left do-gooder whose pet cause is prison reform ("they should be able to decorate their own cells"). Their daughter Skylar (Drew Barrymore) is getting married to her average joe boyfriend Holden (Edward Norton in an early role), but she still harbors secret fantasies of a "white knight" sweeping her off her feet. Meanwhile, Joe's two daughters from a previous marriage (Gaby Hoffman and a teenage Natalie Portman) have their own romantic foibles. Steffi's daughter DJ (Natasha Lyonne) — from an earlier marriage to Joe (Woody Allen) — narrates the film, providing wry commentary on her family while running through her own seemingly endless gamut of week-long affairs, with each one being the dreamiest, sexiest, cutest one yet.

The cast is big enough as it is, even before adding in all the rest of the maids, friends, momentary love interests, and extras, and the film would threaten to careen out of control if it weren't held together by DJ's flighty but no-nonsense narration, which allows the plot to skip haphazardly from one incident to the next, sometimes forgetting about characters and subplots for long stretches of time before belatedly doubling back to stitch up the loose ends. It's a charming conceit, and the distinctive, oft-underused Lyonne pulls it off well with her sarcastic lilt. The semi-random plot and large cast also provide Woody with all the excuse and opportunity he needs to stage one musical number after another. A few of these are flops, like a misconceived funeral home number where the singing, dancing ghosts are sabotaged by some of the lamest special effects ever committed to film. It's also unfortunate that Woody was unable to convince Drew Barrymore to sing in her own voice as the rest of the cast did. One of the most charming facets of the film is the spontaneous, free-wheeling quality of most of its musical numbers, the sense that these are real people simply bursting out into song for the hell of it. Few of the actors have actual good voices, but it hardly matters, since they're clearly just having fun and going with it. In the one scene where Barrymore's character gets a song, the distance and artificiality of the obvious overdubbing hurts the moment, all the more so since it's meant to be expressing introspective and heartfelt sentiments for the character.

For the most part, though, the musical numbers work beautifully, and some of them are downright stunning. Probably the best is an early scene, the first big musical set piece, at a Manhattan jewelry store where Holden is preparing to buy a ring for Skylar, when he begins singing Nina Simone's "My Baby Just Cares For Me." The scene progresses naturally for the first verse or so, with the store sales clerk nodding indulgently along with the lyrics, as though Holden were simply talking to him. At first, it seems that Woody has solved the age-old problem of the artificiality of musical conventions by simply ignoring it — but at this point the scene abruptly bursts apart into a fully choreographed and joyously vibrant musical pastiche. With a quick burst of motion, Holden leaps to his feet, his chair pulled away behind him as the salespeople in the store join him for a wonderfully executed song-and-dance number. The camera setups are simple, with Woody mostly taking a straight-ahead view on the dancers and simply letting them perform, reveling in the vibrant, shifting patterns they create in front of him.

It's a scene of pure fun and a heartfelt tribute to a cinematic form Woody clearly loves but hadn't had much opportunity to nod to in his previous films. Other scenes provide still more models for the kinds of musical numbers Woody can execute when the inspiration hits him. The opening number, with Holden singing his love to Skylar, begins with a slowly panning shot across a fountain, its jets of water periodically blocking and revealing the view of the lovers behind it, as they laugh and embrace and walk together in pace with the camera's tracking. Then, as Holden continues to sing, Woody cuts away to a series of languid, unpopulated images of springtime New York beauty, all bright and warm with the colors of flowers and brilliant sunlight. It's a conception of a musical number in which images of the city stand in for choreography. Woody also has a lot of obvious fun with a number where a bunch of Parisian Groucho Marx imitators stage a French-language song-and-dance for a chorus of Marx brothers, who slouch and shrug their way through the steps with bushy eyebrows flailing. A tribute to one of Woody's favorite artists, the scene creates an admirable pastiche of the musical interludes from Duck Soup. Even better is the meditative, magical dance between Woody and Goldie Hawn towards the end of the film, in which she is lofted into the air with a floating grace and easy defiance of gravity. The casual way in which this magic happens, its inexplicable beauty and simplicity, makes this one of the enduring images from Woody's filmography — shot from a distance so as to emphasize the reality of this magic accomplished with no visual trickery, doubles, or cuts, only wires and the graceful moves of the two dancers.

Not everything in the film works quite so well or so effortlessly. Allen has often been criticized for failing to include a more ethnically diverse (and thus true) cross-section of New York in his films, which is understandable but beside the point most of the time. His films are unabashed fantasies, and are generally concerned with a pretty constricted social set. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with the choice to limit his stories to his characters' vision of the city they live in, which is of course a fairly whitewashed vision. Everyone Says I Love You makes some token gestures outside this blinkered worldview, but they're mostly unwelcome diversions. For one exception, I never though I'd hear rap music in a Woody Allen movie, but that moment — dropped casually and unexpectedly into the middle of a musical number — feels real and funny and works well in context. It's more discomfiting to see Woody wholeheartedly embracing the stereotype of the turbaned cab driver, or trotting out a bunch of little kids in ethnic outfits for a disastrous Halloween number that's basically Woody's version of the insipid Disney ride "It's a Small World After All." Woody's films always present fantasy versions of the cities they take place in, but moments like these cross the line from knowing fantasy to uncomfortable stereotypes.

Even so, the film is mostly an utter delight, a celebration and a chance for the director to stretch out in an unfamiliar style. The result is typical Woody in many ways, borrowing plot conceits from earlier films (the spying on a psychiatrist from Another Woman recast as a comedy device) and sporting many typical (and very funny) Woody one-liners like, "I haven't touched my treadmill in weeks — 572 weeks, that's 11 years." But the musical form furnishes this familiar material with a very different feel, lending the freshness of experimentation to what otherwise might've been a fairly standard film for Woody. The atmosphere of recycling especially weighs down his character Joe's romance with the improbably gorgeous Von (Julia Roberts), which seems primarily like one more excuse for Woody to pair himself with a beautiful leading lady who's way out of his league. Even the script seems to acknowledge the improbability of it all, stacking the deck in Woody's favor so that it seems inevitable that he'll land the girl. The whole thing is mostly played for a few (admittedly solid) gags, and then the whole affair just puffs away like a wisp. The film has a breeziness, aided by Lyonne's chatty narration, that occasionally does a disservice to deeper development but is otherwise the film's greatest asset. The breezy style is perfectly suited to the whirlwind romance that develops between Skylar and the crude ex-convict Charles Ferry (Tim Roth, in a hilarious bit part), who Skylar briefly believes might be her white knight. Certainly, he has a passion and spontaneity that is lacking from her fiancé Holden. When he tells her that he'd make love to her in every room of the house, on every rug and tabletop, she breathlessly deadpans, "we also have some lovely early American chandeliers." This episode is one of the film's funniest self-contained stories, a momentary diversion for some laughs (and Tim Roth's side-of-the-mouth attempt at a thug love ballad) before the film moves on.

The film is packed with such moments, and nearly everyone in the cast gets a chance to shine, even if only for the space of a few lines of song or a one-liner. One of the best gags comes late in the film, revolving around a character who is otherwise barely present in the story, Steffi and Bob's son Scott (Lukas Haas), whose inexplicable streak of conservatism in this liberal family is explained away as the result of an undiagnosed medical condition. Everyone Says I Love You is a charming, farcical ode to love, music, and the cities Woody adores — besides New York, there are loving mini-tours of Paris and Venice that foreshadow Allen's recent fascination with filming abroad. The exuberant, fluffy result is one of Allen's lightest, airiest, silliest, and most fun concoctions.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Narrow Margin

The Narrow Margin is a tight, economical thriller which constricts its action almost entirely to a train. The hard-boiled, snub-nosed police detective Brown (Charles McGraw) is enlisted along with his partner to pick up the widow (Marie Windsor) of murdered gangster Frankie Neall, escorting her from Chicago to Los Angeles through a likely hail of bullets in order to testify before a grand jury about her husband's former colleagues. Brown's partner doesn't make it to the train, which leaves the detective cooped up alone in tight spaces with the feisty Mrs. Neall, while the mob's thugs and assassins gather their forces to prevent her from ever making it to L.A. It's a perfect set-up, a recipe for claustrophobic action and teeth-gritting suspense, and even if the plotting sometimes fall short of its promise, director Richard Fleischer rises to the occasion to deliver one of the great B-movies.

The tight setting prevents Fleischer from applying most of the usual noir touches. A few early scenes, when the detectives first pick up Mrs. Neall at her Chicago apartment, take place in dense shadows with expressive lighting, but once the action shifts to the train the sets are brightly lit and confined, with no room for the large areas of light and shadow that form the visual language of so many classic noirs. Fleischer fully exploits the limitations of space inherent in his story, emphasizing the cramped quarters both for suspense and touches of light comedy. The latter is present in the colorful bystanders who provide some momentary distractions from the otherwise relentless plot: the distinctly non-jolly fat man (Paul Maxey) who keeps blocking the passage for both cops and mobsters, and the little boy who mistakes Brown for a train robber. Even these diversions are tied into the central story soon enough, but Fleischer has less interest in comic relief than he does in getting the most, visually, out of his limited sets. He works with the train's tight corridors as much as possible. Characters are constantly having to squeeze past each other or duck into side rooms, which inevitably expand the action into new areas. The film has an exquisite sense of spatial relations. Much of the action takes place along straight lines, with Brown and the trio of mob assassins dodging each other as they weave up and down the train's corridors in repetitive patterns. The action is built on cyclic journeys between the dining car and Brown's quarters, with the detective executing clever ploys to outfox and delay his enemies. It's absolutely crucial, to get the most out of Brown's maneuvering, that the audience get a sense of where the detective is going at all times, and Fleischer is careful to keep the geography precise.

But even as he builds up the claustrophobic intensity of the tight spaces, Fleischer is simultaneously working to expand the spaces available to him. To this end, he makes excellent use of the windows of the train, which at various times and in different lighting function as either actual windows or as mirrors. Much is made of the conceit of spying through windows, as Brown's primary pursuer Kemp (David Clarke) makes it into a semi-open game of wits between cop and mobster. The two are continually glimpsing each other through windows and in reflections. In the dining car, Brown sets himself up so he can see Kemp mirrored in a reflective window pane, while on stops Kemp spies through windows from outside the train, to the point that seeing the mobster framed by a window becomes a marker of trouble and suspense. After Kemp has misidentified the innocent passenger Ann Sinclair (Jacqueline White) as Neall's wife because of her developing friendship with Brown, he stares at her through the dining car window, twisting his face into a sinister leer as he lights a cigarette. At the film's climax, the reflective quality of the train windows plays an important part in the denouement. This is foreshadowed in a scene immediately before the final showdown: a closeup on Ms. Sinclair, her face framed against a dark train window, with a slumping, shadowy Brown reflected in the window, looking like a boxer getting ready for another brawl. Fleischer's use of the train windows continually expands and opens up the areas available to him, and he makes especially ingenious use of them in building suspense in the film's final act. As the train races along and the various pieces of the puzzle begin to fall into place, a mysterious car begins keeping pace with the train, first glimpsed outside the window over Brown's shoulder as he gets up from the dining car, and returning several times in the background. It becomes obvious that the car is following the train and is probably linked to the mobsters, and Fleischer begins both cutting to it directly and allowing it to appear naturally outside the windows; its very presence becomes a foreboding signifier of the approaching end.

If Fleischer's able direction is the film's primary asset, he's definitely assisted by the tough, uncompromising central performance from Charles McGraw. McGraw's square-jawed cop is a well of conflicting emotions, all of them hard and seething. He's principled, but maybe not entirely stolid. When the mobsters offer him large payoffs to look the other way, he rejects their offers, but he obviously at least gives it a thought. He's uncorrupted, but not incorruptible, and he's got a real streak of brutality and anger in addition to his wise-cracking wit and quick-thinking intelligence. When he finally corners Kemp, the fight between the two men is crisp, rough, and physical. Fleischer shoots much of it in closeups and tight two-shots that draw attention to the small space the men are fighting in and the violence of their blows. The effect is heightened even further when Brown conducts a threatening interrogation after the fight, and Fleischer shoots it entirely in extreme closeups, at first keeping the two men separate in shot/counter-shot patterns and then thrusting them together as Brown grabs the other man and pulls him close to make him talk. McGraw's Brown is not a typical movie cop, he's a brawler and a tough guy, and when he says that he'll track down Kemp and kill him if the gangster doesn't come clean, it's a credible threat. Fleischer really knows how to film his star, letting the shadows etch hard lines into McGraw's twisted expression in this scene — in calmer moments, the actor looks the part of the clean-cut good guy, and the tension between the two sides of his character serve the film well.

McGraw's persona also plays off of his villainous foils in interesting ways. Kemp is a memorable and vibrant small-time hood, with his beady-eyed leer, loud suit, and ratty mustache. Even more intriguing is Yost (Peter Brocco, uncredited because of the blacklist), a blandly menacing figure posing as a businessman and offering Brown the temptation of a hefty bribe. Yost's lizard-like charm and nagging insistence, like a dark conscience, form an excellent counterpoint to Kemp's more obvious villainy. It's a shame when the film unceremoniously drops him with some puzzling exposition: someone casually mentions that he got off the train on a stop, and that's it for him. The final villain in the trio is Densel (Peter Virgo), the killer who shot Brown's partner, and who catches up with the train late in the film. The plot calls for his appearance to have some impact that it never does. Throughout the film, he's known as the man with the fur-collared coat, a key detail pointed out in the earlier scene that makes it a sure thing that he'll reappear later. But when he finally shows up, he's only around long enough for a perfunctory scene or two, never developing the personality of the other two hoods, and surprisingly nothing is made of the fact that he killed Brown's friend and partner. The dramatic tension that should have infused his appearance simply fizzles away instead.

Curiously enough, the film also seems to have little narrative interest in developing the character of Mrs. Neall. She and Brown have some stock interplay, exchanging sharp dialogue, but it seems rote — there's so obviously no chemistry between the pair that the noir wisecracking can't amount to much. Marie Windsor does her best anyway, spending most of the film cramped up in one tiny room, lounging around in lacy black lingerie and occasionally poking her head out the door to unleash some fierce femme fatale attitude. For the most part, Fleischer seems more interested in tracking the progress of Brown and the thugs through the halls of the train, than in spending much time with the ostensible target of all this fuss herself. A few final-act twists render her even more irrelevant, and the film finally dispenses with her altogether. Fleischer does give her one of the film's best moments before she goes, but it has little to do with the script or Windsor's performance, and everything to do with the way he highlights the tiny gesture of a hand sweeping across a phonograph to start its record playing.

Despite the slackness and inconsistency of its narrative, The Narrow Margin remains a first-rate thriller for McGraw's brilliant performance and the frequent ingenuity of its direction. Richard Fleischer propels the film well above its origins, ignoring the lame twists of the final act and the many loose threads left hanging in its unsatisfying resolution. Its narrative holes are evidence of the film's B-movie status, but the many flashes of Fleischer's crisp visual storytelling are continual reminders of just how much verve, intelligence, and invention can energize even the most crippled of B-thriller scripts.

Monday, August 18, 2008


Poison was the first feature for Todd Haynes, following up on the super-low-budget home-video aesthetics of his infamous short Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. In Poison, Haynes employs a multitude of cinematic styles and reference points in order to tell three thematically related but narratively distinct tales of abuse, disease, sexuality, and ostracization. The film continuously cuts between the three stories rather than keeping them separate, each of them steadily building towards an inevitably violent climax, and Haynes heightens the film's patchwork feel by shooting each sequence in a different style. In "Hero," the young boy Richie Beacon shoots his father and then, according to his shell-shocked mother, flies out the window, never to be seen again. Haynes presents this story in the form of an after-the-fact objective documentary, an outgrowth of the non-Barbie portions of Superstar, in which those who knew Richie are interviewed. As its title would suggest, "Horror" draws liberally from the genres of 40s and 50s monster movies and sci-fi mad scientist tales, to tell the story of Dr. Tom Graves (Larry Maxwell), a scientist whose isolation of the human sex drive into serum form accidentally infects him with a highly infectious plague. Finally, the bluntly titled "Homo," adapted from the work of the writer Jean Genet — who also provided more diffuse inspiration for the other two tales — features a moodily shot story of sexuality and violence between prison inmates.

The film draws its strength from the way that Haynes sets up three seemingly different stories and then slowly, inexorably begins pointing out the connections between them. As diverse as these stories are in terms of genre, style, characters, and narrative, they each deal with the ways in which sexual differences and sexual discovery are linked to trauma and social stigma. Each story explores what seems to be a primal theme for Haynes: the individual's discovery, often in the context of a terrifying childhood, that society's price for defying conformity is very great indeed. This theme is perhaps most present in young Richie Beacon, who barely appears within the film (only a few brief, silent shots in montage) but who nevertheless emerges as a character through the testimonies of his mother (Edith Meeks), neighbors, and classmates, who describe the boy's life before his violent act and subsequent disappearance. Richie, it slowly becomes apparent, was a bright but tormented boy, frequently beaten by both his parents and the kids at school, both for no good reason and, it seems, because he masochistically taunted and goaded his peers into assaulting him. At one point, a neighbor recounts how Richie, at six years old, ran naked onto her lawn, went to the bathroom right in front of her, and then ran away again — "like an animal," she says, with visceral disgust. As it turns out, Richie's anger and acting out seem to well from his developing sexual feelings. There are more than a few hints that Richie may be gay, or at least sexually "different," and that to some extent his behavior is a result of extreme confusion, exacerbated by the increasing violence of the fights between his parents.

Haynes' depiction of the family, like his depictions of "normal" bourgeoisie existence in general (see the withering satire of conformity in Safe), puts the emphasis on the extreme pressures generated in those who fail to live up to the standards of normality set by society. In this light, Richie's silent but obviously prodigious act of resistance is a fantasy of escape; indeed, it is a fantasy that apparently had its origins in one of Richie's own stories, as one of his teachers tells us. Richie has lived a dream for those who are ostracized and cast out: to kill their primary tormentor, become the "hero" of the segment's title, and vanish forever in a glorious escape. Richie's flight into the sky, memorably visualized in the final frames of the film as the camera pans upwards into a white-hot sky, is an escape from middle American conformity and enforced normality. The high cost of such escapes is felt more forcefully in the "Horror" segment, a rather obvious metaphor for the AIDS epidemic and the shame of being gay in an era when it had become practically a synonym for deadly contagion.

In the "Horror" segment, Haynes draws on a diverse blend of cinematic reference points, from the B-grade (monster movies and film noir) to the exemplary (the deep-focus compositions and eccentric camera angles of Orson Welles). The tragedy of Dr. Graves is his transformation into a leprous monstrosity at exactly the moment of his greatest triumph. He had just isolated the human sex drive in the form of a liquid, the result of long research, and moreover had just been introduced to the perky, lovely doctor Nancy (Susan Norman), a perpetually smiling 1950s-era all-American gal who greatly admires his research and is eager to work with him. Instead, as Graves' face gradually melts away, leaving behind trails of grisly warts and scarring, he goes on the prowl, infecting women in bars with his leprous kisses. Haynes borrows the structure of the typical Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story, and all its cinematic variations, to provide the perfect metaphorical construct: innocent, loving sexuality transformed into something ugly, diseased, and deadly. It's a potent metaphor, and Graves is a complicated figure, by turns sympathetic, pathetic, and frightening.

Graves' steadily escalating fury at the unfairness of his predicament only builds after he finally infects Nancy with his disease. One of the film's most poignant character arcs is found in the way Graves at first resists and rebuffs Nancy's frequent declarations of love, not wishing to harm her. But when he finally accepts her kiss, believing that she understands the consequences, she is horrified and outraged to find that he is contagious and has doomed her. Graves' fall is completed with a frantic dash from the police, hinted at in the film's opening and then developed to its tragic end later in the film. In a sequence that visually references Welles, Graves ransacks his apartment, destroying his chemical equipment, with Haynes cutting between low-angle closeups of the enraged scientist and reaction shots of the beakers and glassware shattering against the wall. As Graves deteriorates further, his face crusting over with thick scales, becoming slimy and lizard-like, he delivers an impassioned speech to the crowds harassing him — crowds who, in true monster movie tradition, might as well have pitchforks. The implicit comparison links modern-day homophobia and anti-gay violence to the persecution of the inevitably tragic monster from a classic Universal thriller, many of which (Frankenstein, The Creature From the Black Lagoon) cast their central freaks as misunderstood romantics who only desired emotional connection and were cruelly punished for it.

The third strand of the film is represented by the "Homo" story, which is the film's most literal exploration of gay themes and also, to some extent, the spark that illuminates the gay themes running through the other two stories. The story itself is drawn from a novel by the French writer Jean Genet, and is also clearly inspired by Genet's only film, the intensely homoerotic short Un chant d'amour, also set in a prison. This section of the film follows the habitual thief John Broom (Scott Renderer), an orphan who has been in and out of prison since he was a teenager. He develops a strong affection for his fellow inmate Jack Bolton (James Lyons), who he remembers as a willowy and taciturn kid who was always picked on in reform school, and who has grown into a tough, domineering figure. This segment is further subdivided between Broom's memories of his reform school youth, and the present-day sequences set in the prison where Broom and Bolton meet again as adults. The flashbacks are bright, airy, and heavily stylized, recalling the lurid sexual and visual excesses of late Fellini or Pasolini, while the present-day scenes are dark, moody, and shadowy, heavily favoring deep blues with little trace of other colors.

Nevertheless, Broom's teenage memories do not represent the homoerotic idyll that they would seem to be at first. In fact, he remembers watching, as an unseen voyeur lurking on the fringes, scene after scene of humiliation, torture, and sexual taunting, most of it directed at the young Bolton. The bright, brilliant style of these scenes rubs uneasily against the often nauseating content, and it all culminates in a horrifying sequence where Bolton is forced to stand against a wall with his mouth open while the other boys, standing some distance away, spit on him and try to land the gobs of mucus and saliva in his mouth. Haynes stretches this scene out to a discomfiting length, ratcheting up the queasy disgust generated by Bolton's humiliation, as the spit lands all over his face and clothes, gathering in splotches and running all over him, with Haynes occasionally cutting away to the gleeful crowd of boys jumping up and down or the watchful, silent Broom.

Whereas the other two segments of Poison deal metaphorically with the ostracization and persecution of gays and other societal outcasts by the forces of the majority, "Homo" presents perhaps the film's ugliest and most horrifying vision: the self-hatred, self-flagellation, and abuse that exists within even these outcast communities. Haynes takes the romantic, poetic prison vision of Genet's Un chant d'amour and twists it into something violent, hateful, and just as hierarchical and constrained as the mainstream society it supposedly counters. As a result, the hint of deeper emotions that briefly seem imminent between the two convicts soon develop into something much darker, finally exploding into violence and tragedy. Despite the touches of gleeful Hollywood pastiche in the "Horror" section, Poison is a remarkably bleak film, in which the forces of oppression are virtually omnipresent, and the possibilities seem slim for forging a genuine, satisfying sexual multiplicity outside of the narrowly conceived boundaries of "normality." It is, obviously, a howl of rage and protest from Haynes, whose voice seems equally present in the murderous Richie who is never able to express himself directly, in Graves who delivers his entreaty against shame to an uncomprehending audience, and in Broom whose heartfelt declarations of love are met with rejection and scorn. It's only with the film's final shot, Richie's ecstatic and angelic flight from the corporeal world, that Haynes presents something like a vision of hope within the film. Each of the film's three sections deal with the conflicting and complex emotions involved with being different in modern America, and combined they form a compelling patchwork meditation on shame, desire, hidden emotions, and persecution.