Wednesday, December 31, 2008

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon

It is hard to imagine a better, more stirring and heartfelt tribute to the military spirit than John Ford's sublime, lovingly rendered She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. It is a love letter to the uniformed military man, and especially to the frontier men of the U.S. Cavalry, from a director who has always been enthralled by the army life. Ford loves the routine and ceremony of the army, he loves the salutes and formal language, he loves the rigidity of the formations and the close, affectionate bonds that form between the men. Most of all, though, he loves the look of things: the bright blues and golds of the uniforms, which never seem to fade no matter how dirty and dusty they get; the red and white standard flag held high above the ranks; the glint of the sun off the polished silver of a sword or a bugle. There's real poetry in Ford's representation of these men, an eye for the beauty of the military life that's almost entirely divorced from the facts of military combat and bloodshed. This is an idealized vision of the military, in which nearly nobody suffers so much as a wound; only one cavalryman actually dies on screen in the entire film, and it's a frequent occurrence for the troops to emerge from a fierce, violent battle only to announce, "no casualties."

Ford almost seems to prefer his military men when they're at rest and at peace, rather than in the middle of a battle. The most lovingly photographed sequences — and there are many, in a film where virtually every other frame is awe-inspiring — are simple shots of the cavalry riders winding through a valley beneath a towering rock, or scenes where the commanding officers inspect a line of troops in the morning. When the plot turns to the inevitable skirmishes with Indians, they seem almost perfunctory in comparison, though still exciting and dramatic. It's as though Ford knew he had to include them but did so only for the sake of that obligation. It is surely no coincidence that the film's narrative arc concerns halting a war rather than fighting one. This is basically a film about the desire for a peacetime army, which for Ford would surely be the ideal army: then one could admire all the shiny buttons and tight rows of men without the possibility of bloodshed and violence to interrupt the ceremony.

Ford's previous film about the cavalry, Fort Apache, acknowledged the harsh consequences of military service, accepting the darker side of military discipline and the possibility that vain, selfish commanders can needlessly waste the lives of blindly obedient young men. There is no trace of that subtext or anything like it here, in a film where obedience and respect for elders are the highest virtues a man can possess. This film is about the director's profound and unabashed love of the military and the men who serve in it as much as it's about anything. Indeed, there's little enough room in the film for anything else. It is a film almost entirely devoid of real drama, though there are plenty of smaller conflicts to suggest that drama might be somewhere over the horizon. The film centers on cavalry officer Nathan Brittles (John Wayne), a sixtyish man on the verge of entering a forced retirement; the army has decided he is too old and has entered his resignation for him. As he forlornly counts down the days, along with his jovial Irish sergeant Quincannon (Victor McLaglen), he is assigned one final mission: to escort his superior officer's wife and niece away from the fort while scouting out and chasing off the aggressive Cheyenne patrols encroaching into the area.

Brittles leads his men through dangerous territory towards the stagecoach waystation where they're supposed to drop off the womenfolk. Along the way, he has to keep peace between dueling lieutenants Cohill (John Agar) and Pennell (Harry Carey Jr.), who are sparring over the love of Olivia (Joanne Dru), one of the women they're escorting. Even this is something of a foregone conclusion; it's obvious that Olivia loves Cohill even though they often butt heads, and after a while the love triangle is defused without much fuss. Ford simply isn't interested in igniting too much drama here. He throws up only enough sparks to keep things interesting, to initiate opportunities for a character study of the opposing lieutenants: Cohill is stubborn and sometimes snarky but basically decent; Pennell is a spoiled, hotheaded rich kid who impulsively plans to quit the cavalry but eventually simmers down and settles into his secondary role. The film is much more about mood than narrative, and the plot basically boils down to the cavalry line leaving the fort, fending off several quickly paced Indian attacks, and then returning the way they came. It's an utterly and intentionally circular film, which is perhaps why the same striking rock formations from Ford's prized location of Monument Valley keep recurring, even when actions are obviously meant to be taking place in widely separated locations.

This setting is not, then, an accurate depiction of a Western frontier, but a patently artificial pastiche of archetypal Western images, with locations chosen not for geographical fidelity or logic but for their grand, imposing appearance. It is a film filled with overpowering vistas, frames evenly divided between the broad expanses of brown rock and green fields and the pale blue of the sky, alternately padded with fluffy cotton or darkened to a dirty gray with the roiling cloud masses of a thunderstorm. Within these gorgeous landscape shots, the cavalry lines advance, a row of tiny blue dots sketched across the red-brown rock. Ford's West is populated only with the West's grandest vistas, its most beautiful and awe-inspiring locations; there is no room for any plain, ugly expanse in Ford's conception of the West, no room for an image that does not impart a sense of the poetry that exists in simply walking or riding through this majestic scenery. When actual scenery doesn't suffice, Ford resorts to the even more obvious artificiality of a constructed set, like the red-tinted light washing over the plaster graveyard where Brittles mourns for his dead wife and daughters. If there is one thing Ford is definitively not trying to capture, it is realism, perhaps because any realistic evocation of this milieu would spoil the poetry and beauty with a great deal more blood. The only red he is interested in here is the glow of the sunset.

With this lyrical, meditative film, Ford has composed his ultimate ode to military virtues and the colorful, ceremonial splendor of uniformed life. There are occasional missteps, like the stirring, patriotic voiceover that opens the film and unexpectedly returns for the awkward, overly prolonged denouement. This narration is tonally wrong, though its words basically just reinforce the open admiration for the cavalry that is already there in every frame of the film. Ford hardly needs these words to say what he'd already spent nearly two hours saying: how magical the frontier was; how grand the military man was and is; how brave; how shiny his buttons.

The 39 Steps

The 39 Steps is a fascinating early film from Alfred Hitchcock, made five years before he left Britain to begin making films in America. It's a loose, free-spirited thriller, ragged around the edges, sloppily plotted, and often unevenly paced, but the director turns it into a near-masterpiece almost in spite of itself. Its subject is pure Hitchcock, an early stab at the kind of "wrong man" thrillers that would soon become his most characteristic works. Ordinary businessman Richard Hannay (a suavely charming Robert Donat) stumbles into an international espionage plot when he brings home a mysterious foreign woman (Lucie Mannheim) after a vaudeville-style show. She's wearing a black lace veil and speaks with a sinister accent, so of course she turns out to be a mercenary spy, working for the British government to prevent some military secrets from leaving the country in the hands of an enemy spy (Godfrey Tearle). The only thing she manages to tell Hannay before she's abruptly murdered in the middle of the night is that the spy ring's leader is missing the tip of his pinky finger, and that she had planned to meet a man in a certain town in Scotland next. Hannay, quite naturally suspected of his guest's murder, flees towards Scotland with both the police and the spies on his tail.

This is essentially the blueprint for the typical Hitchcock plot, with details, incidents, and set pieces that would form the foundation for many of his later films: the man on the run for his life, the girl he meets who suspects him at first but comes to believe in him, the passionate kiss to throw pursuers off the trail, the showdown in a public place. The film begins and ends with scenes at vaudeville performances, where Hitch takes advantage of the crowds to enhance the suspense and mystery, particularly during the opening sequence where a gun fired from an anonymous figure in the crowd triggers a riot as everyone flees the building. There's a lot at stake here, and Hitch treats the dramatic moments and suspense showcases with suitable seriousness, but in many other ways he maintains a light touch. The plotting is often haphazard, as is the geography, and Hannay's journeys from one place to another are elided with simple and sometimes jarring cuts. His truncated stay in a country farmhouse is enhanced by the way that Hitchcock creates some makeshift drama surrounding the suspicious, curmudgeonly old farmer and his much younger, obviously dissatisfied bride. It's Hitchcock's eye for detail — his willingness to slow the pulse of the plot down long enough to linger on little bits of business like this — that enriches his storytelling. He seems to recognize that his plot, however exciting and suspenseful the situation might be, is rather basic; the appeal of the film lies not in the story but how it's told.

To that end, the film is often also funny, mingling generous doses of humor with the suspense. This is especially true once Hannay gets entangled with Pamela (Madeleine Carroll, who has the wry smile and wide eyes of a great screwball heroine), the girl who he first meets when he comes up with the ingenious idea to kiss her on the train, in the hopes that the police will overlook him. Pamela seemingly hasn't seen enough spy thrillers, because she defies genre expectations by not believing this stranger's overblown spy story and immediately giving him up to the cops instead. When he runs into her again later, Hannay is forced to deliver a stirring political speech after ducking into a random building during a chase; the people inside mistake him for a politician they'd been waiting for. Of course, Pamela herself soon arrives with the real politician in tow, and in the confusion that results, the duo winds up handcuffed together, pursued by a pair of spies posing as police. The whole thing is disarmingly preposterous, especially when they check into a motel together, posing as eloping newlyweds so in love that they can't stop holding hands. There's a fantastic scene where Hitchcock, already a dirty old man before his time, gets some chaste sexual humor out of Pamela taking off her stockings while handcuffed to Hannay; he keeps the camera at knee level, following the arc of her hands as she strips off the leggings, dragging Hannay's hand along her leg in the process.

The film's tonal shifts from spy thriller to low-key comedy are handled with characteristic smoothness by Hitchcock, always a consummate pro at juggling diverse moods and styles. He keeps everything crisp and breezy enough that one hardly notices just how slight and silly the whole affair is, right down to the question of the murdered woman that started it all: the film never answers who killed her anyway, or why whoever did it didn't just kill Hannay, who was sleeping in the next room, at the same time. One might as well ask about Hannay's miraculous escape after being shot at close range, an event so improbable that Hitchcock can hardly even bring himself to show it: he simply cuts from the seeming murder to a scene of Hannay explaining why he wasn't killed. It hardly matters. Indeed, the flippant way that Hitch shrugs off nonsense like this only makes the film more enjoyable. All of Hitchcock's films have ultimately inconsequential MacGuffins that drive the plot and necessitate the suspense sequences, and in this case the ostensible MacGuffin is the government secret being smuggled out of the country. But really the whole plot itself is one big MacGuffin, a highly artificial way of throwing an ordinary guy into a dangerous situation and setting him loose. Hitchcock is having fun with this, not worrying about tight plotting or plausibility. He's more interested in the action set pieces or the easygoing humor of his reluctantly united couple — or for that matter the technical jolt he gets out of blending a woman's scream into the shriek of a train whistle. It's a fun, lively thriller, an early indication of the great director's genius at work.

Monday, December 29, 2008

The Tall T

The Tall T is a crisp, economically made and structured Western, director Budd Boetticher's second collaboration with star Randolph Scott. It's a taut thriller for much of its short length, but Boetticher builds up to it slowly. The rambling, laidback introduction establishes Scott's Pat as a real good old boy with an easy smile and a gentle temperament, a former ranch hand who's only recently struck out on his own, buying a small piece of land and a few goats for himself. The Hollywood Western has such a long tradition of stoic, hard-edged heroes that it's almost shocking to see how cheery and charming Pat is, displaying his folksy good humor as he banters with his friends and engages in a bit of good-natured oneupsmanship with his former boss, a ranch owner who wishes he could get back his best employee. One expects a Walter Brennan type to be engaging in these kinds of games: the wizened old-timer sidekick, always quick to spit out a corny joke or stumble into a rough-and-ready physical gag. It's disarming to see the gangly, square-jawed Scott, with his craggy good looks and tough-guy build, putting himself on even ground with the sidekicks and bit players of the Western genre. This is perhaps one of Boetticher's characteristic touches: a few years earlier, the climax to The Man From the Alamo had gathered together all the usual castoffs of the Hollywood Western — women, cripples, and old-timers — to take center stage as heroes for a change. There's a similar logic at work in making Scott the butt of the joke as well as the traditional über-masculine hero.

Scott's predicament doesn't stay funny for long, though. The introduction is just long enough to give a sense of Pat as a quick-witted, easygoing guy who can't resist a challenge, and who nevertheless has a sense of obligation towards making his ranch work. He is proud to own something that's all his. After losing his horse in a bet — and getting all wet in the process — he hitches a ride on a stagecoach that's carrying the shameless gold-digger Willard Mims (John Hubbard) and his new bride Doretta (Maureen O'Sullivan), who he obviously married because her father owns the biggest copper mine in the area. This sets up a situation that should be familiar to anyone who saw the previous Boetticher/Scott collaboration, Seven Men From Now: the cowardly husband, the wife who deserves better, and Scott, who just happens to be providing a counter-example of proud, self-assured masculinity nearby. The film's igniting incident occurs when the stage is hijacked by a trio of thugs, who Mims quickly alerts to the fact that they have a potential ransom on their hands; he sells out his wife to save his own skin. It's a perfectly schematic Western plot, and one that's well-suited for Boetticher to explore the broad outlines of his typical concerns: the definitions of masculinity, cowardice, and bravery.

If that was all the film had to offer, it'd probably be enough: another well-made, reasonably exciting Western actioner from a director who made a long string of similar movies. But in fact, despite the relative simplicity of his plots and the broad strokes of his morality tales, Boetticher is at his best in the smaller touches, working around the edges of the story, infusing personality and an eccentric eye for nuance into these otherwise relatively standard stories of frontier violence. The humor in the film is surprising enough, and even more surprising is that it's not limited to the folksy introduction. At one point, Boetticher interrupts a taut standoff between Pat and the head outlaw Frank (Richard Boone) with a bit of slapstick that sends the villain into hysterics. The soundtrack, sparsely used throughout, here builds tension as though it's leading towards a dramatic break, then abruptly fizzles out into laughter instead.

The outlaws themselves are an interesting trio, particularly Frank, who is in many ways a sympathetic character. He's sick of the immaturity of his two much younger compatriots, the cold-eyed killer Chink (Henry Silva) and the dim-witted man-boy Billy Jack (Skip Homeier). In many ways, Frank keeps Pat around simply to have someone to talk to; Pat isn't really needed for the whole hostage and ransom plot, and Frank's henchmen would just as soon have killed him straight off. But Frank wants to hear about Pat's ranch — he has dreams of having his own place someday, too — and at one point orders his captive to talk at gunpoint. He's a man desperate for real companionship, a subtext that runs through the whole film and through several different characters, including the frontier stationmaster who Frank's gang kills earlier in the film. Pat himself is a lonely man, unmarried and working land that is not yet well-established enough to even have any other ranch hands. The film's most poignant thrust is the necessity of having someone to talk to in the midst of this forlorn, empty country, a terrain that Boetticher emphasizes with gorgeous wide shots of lone riders isolated in the midst of the rocky, expansive open country.

The film dispenses with its discourse on bravery and cowardice relatively quickly, particularly in comparison to Seven Men, where this remains the central dichotomy driving the story. The craven Mims is the film's least developed character, never rising above the level of caricature, and never getting the moment of redemption that Walter Reed's much more fleshed-out variation on the character earned in the earlier film. Boetticher's penchant for recycling basic plot structures can be misleading; in this film, he is far more interested in the relationship between the lead and the outlaws than he is in probing the contrast between the hero and the coward. This interest is reflected in the geometry of Boetticher's shots, the way he weighs Scott against the three bandits in the frame. There's an in-built tension and drama to the way Boetticher uses the widescreen frame, the way he balances figures against one another. They seem to be forming abstracted shapes together, their bodies standing at the corner points of invisible figures traced in space, the lines drawn by the aimed barrels of guns. When Pat learns that the outlaws have killed two of his friends, a stationmaster and his young son, the camera traces the path of Pat's gaze, towards the well where the bodies have been thrown and then back to the outlaws. Nothing is said, and Scott's stony face betrays little overt emotion, but the camerawork in the scene nevertheless conveys the impact this has on the hero.

What this is all leading to is the even more careful geometry of the film's climax, in which Pat faces down the outlaws one by one, culminating in a violent denouement that must have been downright startling at the time it was released, and which still maintains its bracing intensity. The Tall T is a Western masterpiece from Boetticher, a master of the genre who turns his pulpy, low-budget material into an epic morality play with potent, unforgettable imagery.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Oldest Established Really Important Film Club

A new monthly film club has been born, founded by three of my favorite bloggers: Jonathan at Cinema Styles, Marilyn at Ferdy On Films, and Rick at Coosa Creek. The idea is simple:

The Oldest Established Really Important Film Club is neither old nor important but it is a place for serious-minded film lovers to come together to watch, write about and discuss film. Each month a different member will select a film for everyone in the club to watch with a given date for discussion. On that date the member who chose the film will put up a post on their blog about the film with other members expected to join in the discussion.

Basically, each month one blog will be the centralized location for discussion: the blogger will pick a film to be discussed, post about it on a designated date, and then wait for the flood of comments to let loose. Marilyn will be posting about the first film, Jennifer Baichwal's documentary The True Meaning of Pictures: Shelby Lee Adams' Appalachia, on January 12. The bloggers who will be choosing films are already scheduled for the next year, and several have already picked what films they will be selecting. My own pick, slated for discussion in July 2009, is Paul Verhoeven's Black Book. You can check out all the details and be kept up to date on current and upcoming discussions at the Oldest Established Really Important Film Club. Jonathan has also designed several sidebar buttons and banners, like the one above or the one you may have already noticed along the side of this site. Anyone who is interested in this club — as a participant, commenter, or simply a reader — should use one of these banners to help spread the word.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Films I Love #12: Equinox Flower (Yasujiro Ozu, 1958)

The sound films of Yasujiro Ozu are almost all cut from the same cloth, sharing similar plotlines, characters, and aesthetics, making it difficult to single out one film as his finest work. Nevertheless, Equinox Flower is my personal favorite mainly because in this film, Ozu achieves perhaps the most delicate balance between the many elements of his work: the understated rhythms of daily life, the subtle dramas percolating beneath seemingly placid surfaces, the formal grace of his simple aesthetic, and the deadpan humor and wit, so often overlooked, with which he gently skewers his characters. The story is a familiar one, a variation on Ozu's perennial concerns of marriage, familial bonds, aging, friendships, and the difficulty of expressing emotions in a largely repressed society. In this version of the typical Ozu tale, Wataru Hirayama (Shin Saburi) is upset by his daughter Setsuko's (Ineko Arima) desire to marry a man he does not approve of. Wataru represents a hypocritical fusion of traditional and modern Japanese values, giving out open-minded and sensitive advice to friends, and yet when it comes to his own daughter's happiness he is angered by his lack of control over her life. He wishes her to marry a man he picks for her rather than marrying the man she loves and chooses for herself. The story may be simple, but Ozu's compositions, mostly static shots from his signature low angle, are immaculate and perfectly conceived. Each image in an Ozu film has weight and formality, and his colors are richly textured, pitting eye-popping reds against a background palette composed mostly of lush green hues. Ozu's films are arch-formalist masterpieces in which mundane human dramas are deliberately parceled out, bit by bit, within a rigidly conceived framework.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The best films of the 1980s

The fine folks at the Criterion Forum have an ongoing "lists project" intended to compile a series of best-of lists for each decade in cinematic history. These lists are invariably interesting and educational, with a much more varied and well-rounded view of film than most critics' organizations tend to produce when asked to gather lists of this sort. The project is currently polling the forum members to list the best films of the 1980s, and I've decided to contribute. I'm coming into this at the last minute — the lists are due on January 15 — so I haven't watched or re-watched any films specifically for this purpose, something I might've liked to do if I'd prepared for this earlier. Instead, since I probably won't be watching very many films at all until the new year, I put this list together now based only on films I'd already seen. There were still more than enough great choices from this supposedly sub-par decade for cinema, and the list below has been culled down from an initial selection of nearly double the size. I also limited myself to a maximum of three films per director, or else Woody Allen, Jean-Luc Godard, and Eric Rohmer each might have had several more films on the list: this was an especially strong decade for those three favorites of mine.

Here is my list:

1. Sans soleil (Chris Marker)
2. King Lear (Jean-Luc Godard)
3. Fanny & Alexander (Ingmar Bergman)
4. The Aviator's Wife (Eric Rohmer)
5. First Name: Carmen (Jean-Luc Godard)
6. A nos amours (Maurice Pialat)
7. Down By Law (Jim Jarmusch)
8. Three Crowns of a Sailor (Raoul Ruiz)
9. Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (Todd Haynes)
10. Lola (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
11. Hannah and Her Sisters (Woody Allen)
12. Coup de torchon (Bertrand Tavernier)
13. Blue Velvet (David Lynch)
14. Veronika Voss (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
15. Dead Ringers (David Cronenberg)
16. Damned If You Don't (Su Friedrich)
17. The Angelic Conversation (Derek Jarman)
18. The Dante Quartet (Stan Brakhage)
19. After Hours (Martin Scorsese)
20. Quando l'occhio trema (Paolo Gioli)
21. The Falls (Peter Greenaway)
22. My Girlfriend's Boyfriend (Eric Rohmer)
23. Hail Mary (Jean-Luc Godard)
24. Broadway Danny Rose (Woody Allen)
25. Fitzcarraldo (Werner Herzog)
26. Tango (Zbigniew Rybcznski)
27. The Shining (Stanley Kubrick)
28. Secret Honor (Robert Altman)
29. Le Pont du Nord (Jacques Rivette)
30. Pauline at the Beach (Eric Rohmer)
31. Grass Labyrinth (Shuji Terayama)
32. Videodrome (David Cronenberg)
33. RoboCop (Paul Verhoeven)
34. Elephant (Alan Clarke)
35. Chocolat (Claire Denis)
36. Berlin Alexanderplatz (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
37. Mystery Train (Jim Jarmusch)
38. The Thing (John Carpenter)
39. The Thin Blue Line (Errol Morris)
40. Mala Noche (Gus Van Sant)
41. Brazil (Terry Gilliam)
42. The Last of England (Derek Jarman)
43. Crimes and Misdemeanors (Woody Allen)
44. Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (Les Blank)
45. Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee)
46. Loulou (Maurice Pialat)
47. Dimensions of Dialogue (Jan Svankmajer)
48. The Ties That Bind (Su Friedrich)
49. Street of Crocodiles (Quay brothers)
50. The King of Comedy (Martin Scorsese)

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Elephant Man

If most of the films of David Lynch might be described as a journey into the strangeness beneath the thin outer skin of ordinary reality, The Elephant Man essentially reverses the director's usual preoccupation: the film locates the ordinary and the human within an external skin of extraordinary surreality. The point is basically the same in either case, namely the coexistence of the prosaic with the unimaginable. Based on the famed real-life "elephant man" John Merrick, the film traces Merrick's transition from a carnival sideshow attraction to a cultured, intelligent man living in relative comfort and tranquility. John Hurt, playing Merrick beneath a thick coating of makeup and prosthetics, turns in a performance of amazing sensitivity and complexity. He is deformed, his head and body misshapen and covered in bulbous, fleshy protrusions. The sensibility at work in creating this image is obviously the same one that dreamed up the "lady in the radiator" with her swollen, protuberant cheeks for Lynch's debut Eraserhead: in these two figures of warped humanity, one entirely imaginary and the other based on a real person, Lynch's aesthetic of humanity made strange achieves its most potent early expressions.

That Hurt, his face hidden and distorted by this overpowering accumulation of makeup, still manages to be expressive and poignant is a miracle of acting. His performance, filtered through the obstructions of his disguise, mirrors Merrick's own slow emergence from within the cocoon of his appearance: both actor and character must project their inner selves through intimidating façades that threaten to suffocate them. When Merrick is initially discovered by the physician Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins), he is completely submerged in his externality. He is being displayed daily at a demeaning freakshow by the abusive, exploitative Bytes (Freddie Jones), who showcases his pet freak by day and beats him by night. Merrick is, as a result, withdrawn into himself, hidden away behind his own face, which he wears as a mask: everyone assumes that he is merely an uncomprehending animal, and he does or says nothing to disabuse them of the idea. It takes Treves, who slowly begins to realize that his new patient is more conscious than he had initially suspected, to draw out Merrick's inner life. The film's narrative is about finding a human mind, a human soul, within what had previously been deemed a mere empty husk. Treves is perhaps slow to recognize the humanity of this man; when he first discovers Merrick, his instinct is to display the elephant man before an assembly of medical professionals, exchanging one type of sideshow for another. But once Treves begins treating Merrick as a human being rather than a sideshow freak or a medical example, he discovers, much to his own surprise, a fully functioning intellect within this distorted body.

Lynch, perhaps recognizing that his central character is strange enough already, plays things relatively straight here. His images are disarmingly beautiful and classical, lending an unflinching sense of reality to his outrageous hero. The direct, unpretentious quality of Lynch's imagery makes Hurt's Merrick believable as more than an accumulation of impressive makeup effects and acting tics. The physicality of this elephant man is enhanced by the way he is introduced, slowly building up to his first appearances in much the same way as the classic monster movies held back the unveiling of the creature. Merrick is variously cloaked in shadows or hidden beneath burlap masks and heavy coats; in one inventively staged sequence, the outline of his body is visible through a thin curtain as he is displayed to a group of scientists. Paradoxically, as long as Merrick is living as a spectacle, Lynch withholds his full appearance from the audience, only suggesting the contours of his deformed body at most. When people view him only as a monster or a freak, Lynch films him through the filter of the monster movie, presenting Merrick in the shadowy half-light that is characteristic of the genre. This intensifies the effect when Merrick is finally revealed without any obstructions, when he appears in shadow-free daylight; his transition into humanity and society is signaled by his emergence into the light.

The film is dotted with very recognizably Lynchian dream sequences, in which Merrick is haunted by images of his mother — whose photo he cherishes as the only reminder of her role in his life — being trampled and mauled by elephants. These dreams incorporate ghostly superimpositions and slow-motion billows of smoke, familiar markers of the Lynchian unconscious. The director's hand also shows through in the sound design, which occasionally delves, without explanation, into the underbelly of the hospital where Merrick is staying, capturing the creaks and mechanical whooshes of pipes and machinery. The film explicitly takes place on the cusp of the machine age, as indicated by an early scene where Treves performs surgery on a man injured in a factory accident. He comments that they will be seeing more and more injuries like this, and laments the heartless nature of machinery, which "cannot be reasoned with." This idea flows subtly through the entire film, never mentioned again but always present in the soundtrack's pristinely recorded machine rhythms. Merrick's warm, reasoning humanity, found in an unfamiliar and externally awkward guise, is a counterpoint to the cold but perfectly sleek inhumanity of the machine and the metal pipe. As with all of Lynch's films, The Elephant Man is an eye-opening glimpse into the strangeness — and the strange beauty — of humanity.

The Bechdel Rule for Movies

First off, enlarge the above image and read the comic strip.

Interesting, no?

This was called to my attention by comic critic Tom Crippen at the blog The Hooded Utilitarian. Alison Bechdel is a feminist comic writer/artist who is perhaps best known for her recent memoir Fun Home, though she also writes and draws a weekly comic strip called Dykes to Watch Out For, which is, I believe, where the strip in question originated.

The rule she posits in that strip isn't quite a rule, actually — I don't think most people would use it as an unbreakable guideline for what they see, even if Bechdel's friend apparently does — but it does bring up some very interesting questions about the role of gender in (especially) Hollywood movies and the relationship of these movies to their presumed audiences. Thinking about what movies might meet the rule and what movies wouldn't is a useful test for determining what constitutes a movie made "for" women, as opposed to one made "for" men. I don't think the rule necessarily separates anti-feminist movies from pro-feminist ones, or sexist ones from non-sexist ones, but it does help gauge the position of women and their interests in films. As a general rule, films that pass the test give screentime to women independently of their relationships to the men in the films, whereas in films that fail the test, the women (if any) exist primarily only in relationship to the male leads. As Tom points out, there are films that might fail the test that nevertheless have strong central women characters; he cites the Terminator cycle, and he probably has a point there.

To give some idea of what results the test might yield when applied to various types of films, I thought about some recent films I've watched myself. Of the films I posted about here in December, the ones that pass the test are In My Skin; The Women (Naturally, I thought of this one first; though Tom cites it as a debatable case, I'd say the titular women, who are always talking, do talk about something other than men at least part of the time. At the very least, they talk about each other, too.); Le Pont du Nord (perhaps unsurprising from the greatest director of actresses); and The Seventh Victim (some women talk to each other about Satanism!). Considering that I've written about 15 films here so far this month, the fact that only 4 of them meet the qualifications of Bechdel's test goes a long way towards proving her thesis. Of the films that do not meet the test, however, it's worth pointing out that Rohmer's A Summer's Tale does have very complex and well-developed women characters. Interestingly, it would also fail a corresponding test for male characters.

The percentage for November's viewing is arguably even worse. I wrote about 33 films and still only 4 met the test's strict requirements: Bell, Book and Candle (women talking about witchcraft), Naked (women talking about poverty and jobs), A Prairie Home Companion (women talking about music and the past), and Far From Heaven (women talking about race, politics, etc). Equally interesting are the films that are left out. Sink Or Swim would doubtless be an exception for Bechdel and her friend, since the film is a one-woman show, an avant-garde pastiche with a voiceover; it is inarguably feminist. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is another intriguing exclusion: it features two women friends who, as far as I can remember, rarely if ever talk about anything besides men in the course of the film. And yet this is in many ways the point of the film, which is a satiric commentary on the ways in which society requires women to conform to various stereotypes imposed by men. Clearly, Bechdel's rule does not allow for the complexity of themes that can underlie the treatment of gender, even in a seemingly straightforward musical comedy like this.

Anyone else have any thoughts about this comic and what it says about film and gender?

Monday, December 15, 2008

Films I Love #11: I Fidanzati (Ermanno Olmi, 1962)

Ermanno Olmi's I Fidanzati is a deceptively simple film that is stunning in its effect. Its minimal story concerns the construction worker Giovanni (Carlo Cabrini), who is forced to leave behind his home town and his fiancée Liliana (Anna Canzi) in order to find a better job in a different part of the country. After an opening dancehall scene that is surprisingly static and formal, the film shifts subtly back and forth between Giovanni's tenure in the south of Italy, and his memories of his troubled engagement to Liliana back home. Long stretches function almost like a silent film, capturing the quiet and stillness of rural life, as well as evoking the loneliness and isolation of Giovanni, alone in an unfamiliar place, far from his family and those he loves. Olmi's lush, textured images are so classically beautiful as individual frames that it's easy to forget the perfect control and crispness of his editing rhythms. These sumptuous visuals capture the forlorn beauty of the rural landscapes that Giovanni wanders through, even finding cause for wonder in such unlikely images as a nighttime work site, where showers of sparks from welding torches are transformed into an unearthly fireworks display.

The accumulation of detail and incident is slow and deliberate, gently nudging the protagonist towards the realization of how deeply he misses his fiancée and how much he values their relationship. In the final twenty minutes of the film, the couple begin exchanging letters, which are read aloud in voiceover. This sudden outpouring of open, sincere communication has an energizing effect in contrast to the rest of the film's quiet and reserve. And despite the romanticism of this central relationship and the beauty of Olmi's images, the film also serves as a subtle Marxist critique of the alienation of labor, the economic pressures that uproot workers from their homes and their families in search of increasingly scarcer and lower-paying jobs. Like most great political films, I Fidanzati locates its politics squarely in the personal, in the dramas of separation and love that drive its central couple.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Cimarron Kid

The Cimarron Kid is a solid, thoroughly enjoyable Western with a gang of surprisingly sympathetic outlaws at its core. It tweaks the usual good-man-gone-bad trope by having the young Bill Doolin (Audie Murphy), after being driven to a life as an outlaw by bullying railroad cop Sam Swanson (David Wolfe), fully embrace his new outlaw status despite some lingering reservations. Dubbing himself "the Cimarron Kid," Bill falls in with the gang of train and bank robbers who he had previously been falsely accused of riding with. Bill is basically a decent guy, and would love nothing better than to settle into a life as a cattle rancher — particularly once he meets the lovely farmer's daughter and tough ranch gal Carrie (Beverly Tyler) and realizes that he might have something to live for. Nevertheless, he feels he has no choice but an outlaw's life, and he surrounds himself with a gang of men who are equally sympathetic. They're all robbers, and killers when they need to be, but there's something familial about their setup; they're bonded together by real affection and tenderness for one another.

Originally a gang of brothers who are mostly killed during a botched bank job, the leftovers of the gang, now led by Bill, retain a close-knit clannish mentality. They live more like a family than a gang of robbers. There's the lanky, taciturn Bitter Creek (James Best) and his Spanish girlfriend Rose (Yvette Duguay), who loves him and is loyal to him even though she wishes they could have a better life. There's also their black stable hand Stacey (Frank Silvera), a family man who is treated as their equal even though he doesn't actually participate in the heists. The only problem of the bunch is Red Buck (Hugh O'Brian), a hothead who's the only one of them who seems content as an outlaw, whose only ambition really is to be the biggest, baddest outlaw of all. All the rest of them want only to be free, to have enough money to be rid of this life on the run. They exist as a family, taking care of each other, everybody chipping in, even the feisty, playful Rose, who gathers information for the jobs.

Director Budd Boetticher, who always seems to inject a morally engaged perspective into his Westerns, is concerned not only with the action of this story — though there are plenty of beautifully executed gunfights — but with the internal battles of his characters, particularly Bill. He stages the scenes between Bill and Carrie in order to emphasize the way she tugs on his conscience, as though her very presence is a gravitational force pulling him away from his outlaw life. In one of the best of these shots, Carrie stands in the foreground, looking at an oblique angle past the camera, while in the background Bill lies injured and out of focus, listening to her. Tyler forcefully overacts these scenes, and she's more appealing to look at than she is as an actress, but Boetticher's blocking and framing conveys the essential point anyway. She represents earnest decency for Bill, so distinct from his outlaw world that even when they're in the same shot together they seem to be in completely different spaces.

The film is undeniably at its best though in its action showcases, which are always inventively staged. Boetticher likes to shoot at slightly slanted angles down long corridor-like spaces, using objects caught in the foreground to emphasize the sense of distance. When the law, led by Swanson and the noble marshal John Sutton (Leif Erickson), ambushes Bill's gang, Boetticher shoots the gang's ride into town by setting up at the end of the street, the signs and front porch for a local inn partially obscuring the view down the street. The scene as a whole pivots around the use of the long street, with lawmen blocking off both ends and the outlaws trapped in the middle. The battle soon moves into a nearby train yard instead, where the central bar of a train turntable becomes the focal point of the action. Boetticher's camera frequently looks over the shoulders of the gunmen, peering through smoke and over the edges of the train as it spins around. The scene is all angles and obstructions, emphasizing the act of aiming a gun and the trajectories of bullets; there is a precise geometry to Boetticher's action here, depending as it does on the tight arc of the train as it spins on the turntable, and the paths of the outlaws and posse as they attempt to outflank one another.

Trains of course play a crucial role in the film in general, and at several points Boetticher's setups are reminiscent of the world's most famous (and most fundamental) train film, the Lumière brothers' L'arrivée d'un train à La Ciotat; again, those slanted angles emphasizing the linearity of the action. Boetticher's geometrical precision also shows through in his use of two virtually identical scenes that take place in a barn, involving gun barrels peeking through the slats of the horse stalls. The first time, Bill and his gang have their guns trained on Marshal Sutton, and the second time it's Bill himself who is in the crosshairs. But there's more than just an ironic reversal to this doubling, and the scene's recurrence at pivotal points in the story serves to make a moral point. This mirroring proves that Bill has been correct in his better instincts, that his refusal to kill without necessity is not only not his undoing, but is in fact the one thing that ultimately saves and redeems him. This is a profoundly moral Western, but also a profoundly entertaining and exciting one, a shoot-em-up with a brain as well as a lot of bullets.

The Seventh Victim

The first of producer Val Lewton's films without director Jacques Tourneur at the helm essentially proves, as though there was any real doubt, that Lewton is the primary auteur of the string of Gothic horror B-movies he presided over. The Seventh Victim, despite the addition of director Mark Robson on his first Lewton project, picks up without interruption the shadowy atmosphere, tragic romanticism, and literary sensibility of the three Lewton/Tourneur masterworks that preceded it. It is a strange, unsettling film, not so much for its story as for the odd melange of tones and themes that it balances, sometimes awkwardly but always intriguingly. It is sometimes a noir-tinged mystery, complete with a smart-mouthed fedora-wearing detective, sometimes a creepy thriller about an underground cult of Satanists, sometimes a philosophical and poetic inquiry into the nature of creativity and the desire for life. The film's main thrust focuses on the young, innocent Mary (Kim Hunter), searching for her missing older sister Jacqueline (Jean Brooks). In the course of her quest, Mary falls in with Jacqueline's husband Gregory (Hugh Beaumont), her aloof psychiatrist Dr. Judd (Tom Conway), and the helpful poet Jason (Erford Gage) who falls in love with Mary as he joins the search.

Actually, though, Jacqueline's disappearance winds up being much less mysterious than it originally appeared; at times it seems like practically everyone who Mary runs into has seen Jacqueline only recently. This girl is both omnipresent and a ghost who haunts the film: she shows up briefly at the film's halfway point, wordlessly raising her fingers to her lips and then running away, before finally reappearing in the film's final act. Brooks is perfect for the role of the missing girl, and she brings a haunting gravity to her every appearance. With her straight bangs and severe black hair framing a delicate face, she's like a child dressing up for Halloween; her aura is both sinister and naïve. Her elusiveness only adds to her mystique. When she first appears to Mary, wide-eyed and unspeaking, she's like a lunatic holdover from the silent movies, her personality inscribed in her face and hairstyle, and in her deliberately exaggerated movements.

If the search for Jacqueline is the film's primary narrative, it is hardly the only subject that the filmmakers concern themselves with. It isn't even correct to say that Lewton and Robson make room for diversions and small asides, so much as they arrange the entire film around the principle of such diversions. There are numerous examples, such as the care that goes into establishing a local Italian restaurant as a central gathering point with several quickly sketched but compelling regulars, or the brief but clearly loving scenes at the school where Mary works, showing the children at play for no narrative purpose other than to create a light contrast to all the darkness. There is also, throughout the film, a running bit of business with a girl (Elizabeth Russell) living next door to Mary, who throughout the film is seen walking through the halls coughing. She seems like an extraneous character, just a bit of color on the sidelines of the plot, until at the end of the film she engages Jacqueline in a conversation, philosophically discussing mortality, illness, and what makes life worth living. It's a strangely moving moment, as surprising as it is beautiful, and the film's final image shows this previously anonymous woman dressing up for a night of fun, having decided to stop simply waiting for death and go out and live, if only for a single night.

In a film that's barely over an hour long, such diversions quickly cease to be simple asides and soon irrevocably alter the film's entire character. The result is a film that often feels awkwardly paced, somehow off-kilter, because its horror/mystery plot keeps getting sidetracked into irrelevant but often interesting material. The film is somewhat unbalanced because it was originally intended to be an A-picture with a bigger budget and a longer running length. When the film was cut, several narrative scenes were hacked out, including presumably all of the material that might've explained the otherwise baffling romance that abruptly develops between Mary and Gregory. But Lewton seems to have made sure that all of the philosophical and non-narrative asides were preserved. This pacing is sometimes disruptive — as when Robson interrupts the climax of Jacqueline's confrontation with the Satanists for a pointless scene between Jason and Dr. Judd, resolving some unexplained business from their pasts — but more often the film's disjunctive storytelling is satisfying in its own peculiar way. It's hard to quibble about the often blunt editing or the uneasy transitions from one narrative beat to the next when the overall effect of the film is so haunting and strange.

As with all of Lewton's films, shadows and expressive camera angles enhance the eerie quality of the story, even when, as in this film, there is virtually no overt violence, let alone horror. The scene where the Satanists attempt to taunt and cajole Jacqueline into committing suicide is a case in point. The scene is shot with Jacqueline looking lost and small within an oppressively big armchair, with the cult members amassed as a threatening bulk on the other side of a table from her, looming over her. Between them, a wine glass sits on the table, seemingly glowing with significance, filled with poison for Jacqueline to drink. As the night wears on and she still resists taking a drink, the shadows begin to cloak her face, wrapping around her and causing her jet coat and hair to blend into the darkness. Only her pale face continues to float in the black surroundings, along with the glass, reflecting light from some unseen source. It was for moments like this that Lewton staged entire films: beautiful dramas acted out in the dark, moral and philosophical conflicts between the urge to live and the knowledge of the evil and sadness that comes with life. Lewton was asked to deliver nothing more than a lurid slasher flick with an exploitative Satanist subtext, and instead he and Robson crafted a sensitive, potent film about the nature of good and evil, and the struggle to create happiness and light in a world of darkness.


Alfred Hitchcock's Topaz finds the master of suspense technically at the peak of his game, especially in comparison to its often-awkward, indifferently shot predecessor Torn Curtain, in which Hitchcock had seemed only intermittently engaged. Though this was reportedly a very troubled project for the director as well as a huge commercial disaster, this Cold War espionage tale is filled with inventively staged sequences; the signature Hitchcock touch is everywhere. Indeed, in many ways this is Hitch at his technical best, and some of the film's suspense sequences are not only tours de force of invention and montage, but are experimental even for Hitch, who to some extent is trying to conceive of new ways of handling his typical subjects. Many of the film's best scenes are nearly wordless, achieving a tense atmosphere solely through tightly paced editing and controlled compositions.

Fittingly for a film about international spy rings, whispers and private conversations play a crucial part in the action, but Hitchcock often lets these moments pass by without the audience hearing what's said. In many scenes, the camera is placed at a distance or in some way prevented from picking up the sound of a conversation, so that words pass between conspirators and spies without the audience getting a hint of what's being said. Without his musical collaborator Bernard Hermann, Hitchcock seems increasingly indifferent to music, which is used at random and without much feeling. The upshot of this is that many scenes actually take place in a suffocating silence, or accompanied only by the dull clatter of street noises and background din. Hitch had not lost his interest in the formal properties of sound, and the sparse, minimalist nature of this film's soundtrack gives it an eerie, airless quality, a close companion to the ostentatious artificiality that, in other films, Hitchcock often achieved through matte-painted backdrops (a device he ceases using with this film). The sound is ostensibly realistic, a diegetic backdrop rather than an overbearing orchestral score, and yet Hitchcock is continually calling attention to the smothered, dulled quality of his sounds, shooting scenes where people talk to each other at length without any sound being picked up on the soundtrack.

It's an unsettling feeling, lending an oddly mechanical air to the film. There's an emphasis on actions and objects rather than words and characters, and the scenes of espionage frequently emphasize the process rather than the people involved. The opening sequence, in which a Russian defector (Per-Axel Arosenius) and his family attempt to escape to the Americans while on vacation in Copenhagen, is handled almost entirely without dialogue. Instead, Hitch cuts back and forth between three groups of people as they walk around the city, trying to evade one another: the defector, his wife and daughter; three Russian agents who are stalking them; and a group of Americans led by agent Mike Nordstrom (John Forsythe). The editing is crisp and simple, often ratcheting up tension simply by cutting from the defector's family to the Russian pursuers and then back again. Everyone is whispering with each other, but the audience hears nothing; when the daughter stops to speak with a museum worker, presumably as part of some plan, the camera takes on the perspective of a nearby Russian agent who cannot tell what's going on. Later, a Cuban spy ring provides an opportunity for Hitchcock to trace the process by which a piece of film is passed from its original photographers to a drop-off point within a hollow roadside railing, after which it is sent to a secret film lab, smuggled stuffed inside of a chicken.

The roll of film (of a Russian missile base in Cuba) is one of several MacGuffins in Topaz, but more than in any other Hitchcock movie the MacGuffins here seem much more important than any of the people. This is a curiously dispassionate film, and despite the frequently interesting mise en scène, it is often a frustrating one, with a turgid plot that's not nearly as convoluted as Hitchcock seems to think it is. Though he arrives late on the scene, French agent Andre Devereaux (Frederick Stafford) is the film's central figure, a Washington, D.C. diplomatic figure who has become a close ally of the Americans during his stay in the country. He is recruited by his friend Nordstrom to execute a number of missions relating to the escalating Cuban missile crisis: to determine what the Russians are doing in Cuba, and then eventually to uncover and disband a ring of French spies operating under the codename of Topaz, who threaten to expose America's plans to the Russians. Stafford, as much as Forsythe, is a blank slate, a complete black hole of charisma where the film's star should be. Other Hollywood directors might get away with a lack of a creditable star, but Hitchcock's films often suffer without a strong presence at their center, whether it's Cary Grant, James Stewart, or Tippi Hedren.

In this case, the film is saddled with long, unbearably dull stretches sentimentalizing Devereaux's relationship with his wife (the equally boring Dany Robin) or his Cuban lover and underground contact Juanita (Karin Dor, who does her best with an underwritten role). It's hard to care about any of this when Devereaux himself seems to have no believable reaction to anything, not when his wife leaves him or when his lover is murdered. Stafford is expressionless, even more bland than Paul Newman was in Torn Curtain, and one wonders if Hitch was simply unlucky in his choice of actors, or if he was losing his ability to get good performances. Certainly, he seems to show a lot more interest for the film's visual components than in anything relating to its rather prosaic plot. Juanita's death, despite its complete lack of effect on Devereaux, is affecting anyway because of Hitchcock's brilliant staging. The sequence is shot from above, with Juanita in the arms of her other lover, the cold-eyed Cuban military leader Rico Parra (John Vernon), who has just found out about her espionage for the French and Americans. His shooting of her is implicitly framed as an act of mercy — or as close to one as he can get — in order to save her from brutal and prolonged torture. Hitchcock shoots Juanita's slow, graceful descent to the ground from above, the camera admiring the billowing spread of her purple gown on the floor around her, pooling at her feet as though it was the blood leaving her body. Only after she's fallen does the camera capture a streak of bright red on Parra's hand where he had touched her side, the only trace of actual blood in the scene.

Scenes like this recur frequently throughout the film, and in fact there are few moments when Hitchcock is anything less than technically proficient. If Torn Curtain had only momentary flashes of visual showmanship in a film that could otherwise have been made by virtually any hack director, Topaz is obviously a Hitchcock film from start to finish, even when its plot and non-entity leads threaten to derail it. The film especially begins to pick up a bit in its final hour, when the injection of some fine French talent into the cast belatedly provides some of the charisma and fun so sorely missing from the main actors. Philippe Noiret is excellent as a French spy, outwardly cool but inwardly growing jumpy; he's introduced at a luncheon where he pours himself into the food like a gourmand, seemingly ignoring the conversation until a sudden revelation startles him out of this act. Also admirable are Michel Piccoli as one of Devereaux's old French Resistance buddies, and the young Michel Subor as a cocky, charming reporter who aids in the investigation. That all of these characters — who only become important when the film's action shifts to Paris after long sequences in New York and Cuba — are more memorable and intriguing than any of the leads is indicative of the film's essential miscalculation.

To some extent, it's possible to think of Hitchcock's dispassionate stance here as a half-hearted commentary on the nature of his story. There was a similar — and similarly under-developed — thread running through Torn Curtain, a sense that all this bloodshed and intrigue is somehow out of proportion to its usefulness. The film is openly propagandistic on its surface, a piece of Cold War agitprop that even takes some jabs at French "neutrality," and yet there's an undercurrent of ambivalence about the necessity of this espionage and deceit. After Devereaux risks his life and his career for the Americans by going to Cuba, resulting in his wife leaving him and his lover dying along with two other agents, the blank-faced Nordstrom congratulations him for the good work, saying that he's "confirmed" what they'd found out from "other sources." The moment passes by without missing a beat, but it's really a jaw-dropping line, tossed off with such casual indifference. That's it? He just confirmed something they already knew? For that, three people died and his life is in ruins? It recalls the moment when the Russian defector, after his tight escape into the arms of the Americans, calls their efforts to rescue him "clumsy," and indeed it's undeniable that their plan for bringing him in seems totally undeveloped. Perhaps there's a reason that all these agents are such emotionless blanks, such impenetrable ciphers.

Even so, whatever slim justifications can be mounted for Hitchcock's use of these flat-lining actors, the film as a whole is a shapeless, uneven affair, one that doesn't seem to conclude as simply end. It's not surprising that no less than three endings were shot, and if the one that's used is certainly the least silly, it's no more satisfying than the others. The film was Hitchcock's biggest commercial flop, and in many ways it deserves its dismal reputation as a strangely unengaging spy thriller. But if Topaz is a failure, it is never less than a thoroughly Hitchcockian failure, one marked with the director's distinctive touch in virtually every image.

Friday, December 12, 2008


Milk is not necessarily the film that many Gus Van Sant fans wanted or expected the director to make. It is not, for one thing, the film where he takes the lessons he learned over the course of his recent run of experimental, personal features — the four films from Gerry to Paranoid Park — and brings this style of poetic, expressive filmmaking to a mainstream biopic with a big star at its center. Instead, the film is itself a fairly straightforward mainstream biopic, with all the limitations and problems attendant to that genre. It is at times overly sentimental, and often manipulative, particularly in its use of musical cues. It is in many ways a masterful piece of political propaganda, at a time when propaganda delivering this particular message is both timely and desperately needed. Van Sant sticks surprisingly close to the formula for a big, socially conscious biopic, hitting all the expected notes along the way. But make no mistake, he has made a film that is, in addition to its other virtues, stamped with his distinctive signature, with a versatile visual aesthetic that makes room within its conventional format and story structure for moments of beauty and gentle poetry. It is a good film if not quite a great one.

The story of the titular Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) will likely be familiar already, at least in its broad outlines, to anyone interested in the film. He was a 1970s San Francisco gay activist who organized a whole gay community around himself and his camera shop in the city's Castro Street neighborhood. He soon became involved in city politics, passionately advocating for gay rights and encouraging gays to "out" themselves. As far as Van Sant is concerned, Harvey's story begins at the age of 40, when he moved to San Francisco, and the film never looks back; true to Harvey's mature philosophy, the film has no time for his many years spent in the closet, hiding his identity. It is difficult not to be stirred and moved by this story, which follows Harvey through his three unsuccessful bids for public office and then through his fourth, successful run to become a San Francisco city supervisor. Harvey is a witty and charming character in Penn's portrayal, and Van Sant hits all the right moments along the way. If there is something of a schematic quality to the story, perhaps this is only inevitable given the nature of Harvey's life.

Van Sant establishes right from the start that this is, first and foremost, the story of an assassinated public official, since the film is narrated by way of a framing story in which Harvey dictates an audio tape to be played if he is ever killed. Van Sant interweaves Harvey's first onscreen appearance with real footage of the assassination's aftermath, indicating that Harvey's prediction will eventually come true, and his tape will have to be played. Van Sant never returns to the post-assassination footage, but throughout the film he does incorporate vintage recordings of San Francisco, as well as his own interjections shot on deliberately grainy film stock to blend in with the documentary material. This footage is used in much the same way as the images of skateboarders, shot on grainy Super-8, which are incorporated into Paranoid Park. The documentary and pseudo-documentary interludes establish a powerful sense of time and place, one that generates tension with the film's otherwise timeless quality: its images of gay rights protesters and Christian moralists could have come from virtually any time in the last 30 years, up to and including the most recent U.S. election and its aftermath.

Some have criticized the relatively slight treatment that is given to Harvey's love life, and it's true that not much attention is given to the long-suffering Scott (James Franco) or his less serious fling with the clingy Jack (Diego Luna), who never rises above the level of a caricature. But in many ways this is typical of the film's genre: just imagine Scott as the wife of the great man, feeling neglected, upset that his love doesn't spend enough time with him. It's a cliché, yes, but not one that gets much notice when the characters are straight; Van Sant's most radical act here may have been to make a film about a character who defines himself by his gay identity and yet increasingly becomes abstracted from the actual practice of it. It is a central irony for Harvey, who in becoming a public figure must sacrifice the private existence he once cherished, and in becoming an icon of gay rights is alienated from his own sexuality.

As a result, there are few sex scenes here, other than in the early sequence that traces the beginning of Harvey and Scott's relationship after Harvey picks up the younger man on a subway platform. They soon move from New York to San Francisco together. This is a carefree period for Harvey, before his political consciousness begins to develop, and it is one of the stretches of the film where Van Sant's poetic visual sensibility is most apparent. These love scenes harken back to his first feature, Mala Noche, his lyrical ode to gay sexuality. The couple's first encounter is shown in extreme closeups that emphasize skin textures and disconnected segments of faces, like a disassembled jigsaw puzzle: an eye, two noses touching, the curve of a neck and shoulder. There is something intimate and immediate about this scene, something extremely moving about the tactile quality that Van Sant imparts to what is, at this point, just casual sex resulting from a pick up on the streets. It is a romantic sensibility, one that has always woven through Van Sant's films, and which can only affect Harvey in the period before he gives himself over to political and social change. It is to defend moments like this that he takes to the streets, but the consequence of his activism is a distancing from the people in his personal life.

The visual aesthetic of Van Sant's recent films (his "death trilogy" and its follow-up Paranoid Park) is reflected most clearly in the collaged perspectives of those early scenes between Harvey and Scott, but also in several other places throughout the film. There is a haunting image following the murder of a gay man in Harvey's neighborhood, as Van Sant shoots Harvey's ensuing conversation with the cops in the blood-stained metal surface of a whistle, glowing gold in the dark street. In another scene, Van Sant blurs the background of the city into a pixelated mash of lights and colors, in which a dark figure walking behind Harvey becomes an object of menace and paranoia. This scene captures the sensation of being afraid to walk the streets, a generalized paranoia in which the possible assailant seems to blend into his surroundings, just a part of the city which is, as a whole, opposed to Harvey's way of life. Van Sant seems to reserve these small visual touches for moments of tension and violence, as though he still associates such poetic imagery with the themes of mortality and murder he's explored throughout his recent work. The film's most delicate, beautiful images are also its most frightening.

Van Sant is less successful in capturing the moment of Harvey's death. He racks the focus to blur the back of Harvey's head and reveal the view out the window he's looking through as he dies: a sign advertising his favorite Tosca opera across the street, bringing a smile to his face in his last moments. It's manipulative and unsubtle, an unnecessarily sentimental touch at a moment that required no such ornamentation. That Van Sant seems to feel it's needed is indicative of some of his problems here, notably his tendency not to trust in his own instincts or the performance of his star. Penn is phenomenal, conveying a gentle calm that can give way to showmanship and mercenary political dealing when it's needed. He is naturally inspirational, which makes it all the more frustrating that Van Sant saddles so many of Harvey's "big" speeches with overbearingly saccharine string accompaniment and packaged bombast. For a director who has had such a sensitive ear for sound design and minimalist music in his past films, he shows a distressing lack of tastefulness here. The film's worst moments play like Van Sant's work-for-hire hack-jobs on Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester, as though he hadn't made a quartet of stunning, ambitious independent films in the intervening years.

Still, despite its missteps and limitations, Milk is a worthwhile film, packed with great performances, especially Emile Hirsch as Harvey's young political protege, and Josh Brolin, who brings unexpected layers of depth and sensitivity to the otherwise unsympathetic bigot Dan White, Milk's rival city supervisor and eventual assassin. Van Sant is not exactly working in his comfort zone with this film, despite its gay themes, and the result feels closer in spirit to his dull Hollywood sojourn than anything he's made either in his earlier indie years or his recent resurgence. But if this is the return of Hollywood Van Sant, it's also a better film than anything he's previously made in this mode, both because Harvey Milk himself is inherently exciting and interesting, and because Van Sant's craftsmanship has been honed and tightened by his years of experimentation.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Human Nature

Human Nature seems to be the forgotten film in the still-developing career of scriptwriter Charlie Kaufman: sandwiched in between two Spike Jonze-directed features, Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, it is saddled with a plot that, even by the outrageous standards of Kaufman's output, is frankly ridiculous. The film begins with an "opposites attract" love story between the repressed, lonely doctor Nathan (Tim Robbins) and the animalistic Lila (Patricia Arquette), who is afflicted with the rare condition of hirsutism, which causes her body to be covered in hair. Her condition causes her to embrace nature, where she lives as a beast, naked and free, until her desire for companionship drives her back to society and into Nathan's arms. She also winds up leading Nathan to a wild-man (Rhys Ifans), who was raised as an ape by his father, a businessman driven away from the human race after the Kennedy assassination ("apes don't assassinate their presidents, gentlemen!"). This apeman soon becomes Nathan's test subject in a series of experiments intended to instill civilization into a wild creature. This is an absurd premise, the kind of thing you'd expect from a Pauly Shore comedy rather than a Charlie Kaufman script; similar tropes have wound through countless brainless comedies over the years.

It is perhaps for this reason that the film is so often overlooked in discussions of Kaufman's work, even though it is also the feature film debut of director Michel Gondry. In all likelihood, it is Gondry's touch that makes the film work as well as it does, since his whimsy and playfulness is perfectly suited to this material; one struggles to imagine Jonze, who has brought a much darker sensibility to his two Kaufman-penned films, directing this deeply silly film. I do not use the phrase "deeply silly" lightly, either, since in Human Nature Kaufman mingles profundity and absurdity more thoroughly than in any of his other works. The film's premise sets up a number of simply ridiculous set pieces, sequences where it is impossible to watch without feeling mildly embarrassed for everyone involved. The spectacle of a fine actress like Patricia Arquette, wandering through the woods with her naked body cloaked in hair, acting like an ape, is very difficult to take seriously. Likewise, the Tarzan-like sequences of Lila and the apeman, dubbed "Puff," swinging through the trees in pursuit of one another against a patently artificial rear projection backdrop whose retro obviousness is a throwback to classic Hollywood aesthetics. Gondry completely embraces the script's silliness, investing scenes like this with a ludicrous matter-of-factness, diving into the humor and absurdity. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the early scene where Lila, living in the wilderness in idyllic communion with nature, abruptly bursts into song like the heroine of a Disney picture, which is exactly how Gondry stages it. He inserts cutaways to cutesy animals gathered in the bushes nearby, and shoots through a soft-focus blur that captures Lila as she twirls and dances through the foliage, singing about the joys of nature. The incongruity between the Disney musical staging and her hairy naked body is hilarious. To some extent, Gondry's visual inventiveness and lighthearted sensibility is able to make something enjoyable of all this idiotic farce.

What's especially interesting about the film, though, is the way that Kaufman uses this pulpy, low-brow material to address complicated and weighty themes, bringing in the ideas about identity, society, and the human brain that flow through all of his scripts. Yes, it's a movie about an apeman and a girl with hair all over her body. But it's also a movie that directly addresses questions of nature and nurture, as well as what exactly constitutes a "civilized" human. The process by which Puff is civilized is, of course, as ludicrous as anything else in the film. Gondry uses it as an opportunity for a staggeringly funny extended montage, in which Nathan teaches the wild-man which fork to use for salad, how to behave at the opera, how to order at a fancy restaurant, and how to read Moby Dick. Ifans is hilarious in these sequences, slowly adapting from a grunting neanderthal into a cultured, cultivated man — or at least, a 1950s sitcom version of a cultured man, complete with smoking jacket, jaunty pipe, and a prim manner. Nathan, who was beaten into shape as a child by a pair of manners-obsessed, overbearing parents (Mary Kay Place and Robert Forster), is basically transforming Puff into a mirror image of himself, using conditioning methods remarkably like those his parents exerted on him. It is a program aimed at complete repression of natural urges and animal behavior; at one point, Nathan tells his subject, "when in doubt, don't ever do what you really want to do." There's something poignant in the way Nathan is reenacting his own childhood torture here, and in the way that the formerly wild Puff comes to be grateful and pathetic, desperately seeking acceptance as a human. But the film largely concerns itself with getting the laughs, and the sight of Puff sitting in an opera box that Nathan set up within his cage is a great payoff.

Unfortunately, the jokey nature of these montages, as hilarious as they are, not only overshadows the emotional content of the story, but also elides some of the more interesting aspects of Puff's transition to civilization. The question of language and speech, seemingly at the center of this transformation, is curiously absent from the film, save for a few scenes of Puff learning how to repeat phrases by rote. This is, needless to say, no explanation for the eloquence he soon develops, and it's disappointing that the film never really addresses this question. Puff gets at it indirectly in an impassioned speech he delivers towards the end of the film, decrying words for their inability to communicate what he wants to say, but it's unfortunate that the film doesn't take this up as more of an issue. Kaufman and Gondry seem much more interested in the dichotomy between the animal and the so-called higher being within the human race. This is a recurring topic for Kaufman, who in his debut feature as a director this year, Synecdoche, New York, delves into human bodily processes and waste fluids with grim enthusiasm. He is fascinated by the commonality of humans with other lifeforms, a fact that human society as a whole is designed to gloss over. This is why the process of civilizing Puff largely consists of making him forget and repress his animal instincts, covering up his urges with external politeness.

To the extent that the film is able to explore these themes even amidst its strain of silly comedy, it is an interesting sophomore effort from Kaufman, as well as a transition from music videos to film for Gondry. The film is something of a failure nonetheless, especially when in its second half it increasingly descends into tired relationship drama, bringing in Nathan's faux-French assistant Gabrielle (Miranda Otto) to complicate the developing love quadrangle. The film especially falls apart in its last ten minutes, when the character motivation becomes convoluted and strained; these weren't particularly complex or well-developed characters to begin with, but the twists of the last few minutes make a mash of whatever consistency they possessed. Still, Human Nature is at least an intriguing failure, and even often an enjoyable one. There is enough humor and visual inventiveness in Gondry's treatment of this material that he is even able to overcome the script's faults and craft a light, confused, sporadically thought-provoking farce from a very unpromising premise.