Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Fourth Man

The Fourth Man, Paul Verhoeven's final Dutch-language film before his sojourn to Hollywood to direct films like RoboCop and Basic Instinct, is a typically delirious fantasia from this gleefully controversial director. Awash in lurid Christian symbolism and a fluidly multisexual eroticism, the film is a nightmarish adventure that would do David Lynch proud: a man's dreamlike, elliptical journey into strange territory, guided by a possibly deranged imagination that finds unexpected patterns and recurrences in his experiences. The writer Gerard Reve (Jeroen Krabbé) travels to a distant town in order to give a lecture. Once there, he meets the mysteriously alluring but icy Christine (Renée Soutendijk) and spends the night with her, having sex with her while praising her for her boyish body. In the morning, Gerard plans to leave but is stopped by the discovery that Christine's regular lover is a young man named Herman (Thom Hoffman), who Gerard had previously seen and desired during a brief encounter at the train station. In the hopes of seeing more of Herman, Gerard stays on, supposedly working on his next novel but mostly just drinking and bouncing around within Christine's palatial home, which is adjacent to her lucrative beauty salon.

Christine, it turns out, is a "black widow," a precursor to Basic Instinct's Catherine Trammell, another icy blonde with a predilection for devouring her mates. Just in case Christine's deadly undercurrents aren't apparent from the sinister, gloating smile she displays when she realizes Gerard is going to stay with her, Verhoeven layers on the unsubtle symbolism: the opening credits feature a nasty-looking spider crawling across Christian iconography and wrapping its victims in a web cocoon, while the sign for Christine's "Sphinx" beauty parlor keeps flashing out to read "spin" instead, the Dutch word for "spider." The film is so packed with tongue in cheek visual symbols like this that half the fun is in spotting the references and unraveling the densely tangled webs of meaning. Gerard's story is a confused mingling of Christian sin/redemption and gay fetishism, no more so than in the hilarious sequence where Gerard goes to church and finds a vision of Herman, clad only in a speedo, nailed to a cross like Christ and waiting for Gerard to unclothe him.

Indeed, Gerard's entire story is driven by dreams and visions, by his writer's imagination, which can't help but spin out wild variations on whatever is in front of him. He's obsessed with death. As soon as he steps off the train, he encounters a funeral party that he's at first convinced is for him: the letters on a wreath seem to spell out "Gerard" until the funeral director unfolds the banner, revealing an entirely different name. Later, Gerard makes the same mistake with a letter to Christine, baffled to find it seems to be from him until he smooths out the paper and finds it's from Herman. Throughout the film, appearances can be deceiving, and often the illusory surface falls away to reveal something else. In one of Gerard's dreams, a woman (Geert de Jong) who keeps appearing in both his dreams and his waking life seems to be pointing a gun at him, but then turns the "barrel" to the side to reveal it as a harmless key instead. At another point, a door Gerard sees in his dream, with a distinctive cross-shaped design, is mirrored in a cabinet at Christine's house, which holds film loops chronicling her three dead husbands. Later, Gerard stumbles upon the real door and location from his dream, discovering that it is the crypt where the ashes of Christine's husbands are kept. Dreams and reality weave into one another: a literal resting place, a grave, is echoed in a film vault, which also retains the traces of dead men.

Gerard's portents and nightmares, his outlandish fantasies, lead him through the film, slowly discovering the truth about Christine even as he tries to seduce her lover. This writer's rich fantasy life provides Verhoeven with ample opportunity for visual indulgence, and there are several marvelous tour de force scenes, packed with overt Freudian symbolism and references to the director's cinematic forebears. Early on, Gerard is pulled into a poster in a train car, a photo of a hotel: he wanders into the photo, steps into the eerily empty hotel and walks through its corridors clutching a key, looking for his room number. When he gets to his room, however, the number on the door turns into an eye which stares at him for a moment before oozing out of its socket with a trail of blood and slime behind it — foreshadowing the film's gory conclusion. The whole sequence is reminiscent of Kubrick's The Shining, with its haunted hotel and endless tracking shots down creepily barren hallways. The connection becomes particularly apparent when Gerard is snapped out of this disquieting fantasy to the realization that the poster he was staring at has been streaked with blood — or, actually, tomato juice leaking from a woman's bag in the overhead compartment.

Later, during an even more horrifying sequence, Gerard wanders down a tree-lined path in pursuit of a woman wrapped up in a cloak — the same woman from the train and elsewhere, who he comes to think of as the Virgin Mary, sent to save him. She gives him a key and leads him into a crypt where three slaughtered pigs hang above buckets, their blood dripping out of their flayed carcasses. Finally, Gerard seems to wake up in bed only to experience an even more Freudian nightmare: he is literally castrated, his organ snipped off with Christine's scissors. The scene recalls both the most excessive moments of Fassbinder's oeuvre — especially the slaughterhouse sequence of In a Year With 13 Moons and the hallucinatory epilogue to Berlin Alexanderplatz — and the languid, dreamlike imagery of Maya Deren's avant-garde classic Meshes of the Afternoon. These disparate influences bubble through the film, much like the blending together of ordinarily incompatible elements like religious allegory, dark comedy and the sexual thriller genre.

Of course, this confusion of moods is typical of Verhoeven: he's definitely a genre director but is seldom content with mining just one genre at a time. The Fourth Man is a fun, ridiculous farce, a self-referential loop of a movie that revels in the blasphemous, erotic chaos of its imagery. The film evokes a multitude of potential readings, dealing as it does with gender confusion, male fears and insecurities about women, the complicated intersections of sex and religion and the ways in which ideas about death color and inform all of these things. Verhoeven irreverently throws all these loosely developed ideas together, allowing them to flutter like ribbons through his colorful, visually sumptuous and unforgettable entertainment. Verhoeven defies the usual template of the genre director who smuggles his themes into his films beneath the cover of surface thrills and shocks. With Verhoeven, surface and subtext are flamboyantly united: the ideas of his films are impossible to miss, scrawled as they are with the brightest possible crayons right on the most apparent layer of his films. Verhoeven is not a smuggler, preferring instead to amplify his subversive subjects, to make them entertaining in themselves. In Verhoeven's best work (a long list which surely includes this stunner) he is able to take the subversive and mold it into something garish, beautiful, exciting and viscerally entertaining. He takes the dark undercurrents of other films and lets them out into the sunlight to play.

Monday, March 30, 2009

The Tempest

Derek Jarman's film of The Tempest, William Shakespeare's final play, challenges the idea of the "faithful" literary adaptation. Jarman's marvelous, light-hearted, visually evocative film is, for the most part, true to the text of Shakespeare's play, but the director builds around the text in ingenious ways, creating a dense patchwork that melds his own punk sensibility with the Bard's mystical ode to romance, revenge and redemption. The film is true to the story and structure of the play, which concerns the bitter, exiled sorcerer Prospero (Heathcote Williams), whose lordly title was stolen from him by his conniving brother Antonio (Richard Warwick) and the King of Naples (Peter Bull). Sent away with his young daughter Miranda (Toyah Willcox), Prospero becomes lord of a nearly uninhabited island, where he quickly enslaves Caliban (Jack Birkett), the animalistic son of a witch, and Ariel (Karl Johnson), an elemental spirit of the air who does Prospero's bidding in the hopes of one day earning his freedom. The play opens twelve years after Prospero's exile, when he summons a storm that causes his betrayers, Antonio and the King, to shipwreck upon his island, along with the King's son Ferdinand (David Meyer) and several retainers.

Jarman not only follows this plot fairly closely, but has his characters speaking much of Shakespeare's dialogue without alteration, in all its intricate, stylized poetry. Despite this fealty to its source, The Tempest never feels like anything less than a personal expression of Jarman's vision: a mystical, erotic, visually sumptuous work in which the sensual quality of the imagery is as important to its overall effect as the language of Shakespeare. Filled with flickering candles and ornate decorations, Prospero's island stronghold has a kind of dilapidated grandeur that's matched by the ragged period costumes of the characters. Miranda especially is the film's spirit, a sprightly nymph with a mischievous smile and the dirty beauty of a street urchin. She is the proper heiress to a kingdom but has been raised in cluttered squalor amidst Prospero's dusty libraries, in rooms where elegant furniture sits in a chaos of filth and garbage. She wanders through the castle, and through the film, with her billowing gowns strewn haphazardly around her, playing at being a princess. Her playful spirit and charm animate the film. In one great scene, she practices at descending a staircase while demurely greeting imaginary guests on each side of her — halfway down, she stumbles and falls into an abrupt sitting posture on the steps, her dirty bare feet sticking out from beneath her gown at askew angles.

It's through performances like Willcox's turn as Miranda that Jarman subtly worms his way into this old, well-known material. The acting has a spirit of play and winking slyness about it, a flippant attitude that's not disrespectful towards Shakespeare's text but rather especially attuned to the comic possibilities of these characters. Caliban is an important figure in this respect, and Birkett plays the monstrous slave with leering intensity. His introduction is unforgettable, sitting in front of a fire and eating whole, uncooked eggs, spitting out the cracked shells and letting a dribble of yolk run down his face as he does so. With his blackened teeth and wide, popping eyes, he is a ridiculous figure, a grotesque caricature. Birkett's campy performance finds its match in the duo of drunken sailors who Caliban soon finds himself involved with: Stephano (Christopher Biggins) and Trinculo (Peter Turner). Together, this comic trio attempts to lead a revolt against Prospero, but instead mostly just stumble drunkenly through a series of games of dress-up: their flamboyant performances and proclivity for donning dresses and makeup brings a homoerotic component to their conspiracy.

Jarman's wildly original perspective on this material is equally apparent in the visualization of the flashbacks involving Caliban and his sinister mother, Sycorax (Claire Davenport), who is depicted as a naked witch breast-feeding her adult son and living in a state of savagery. Many later critics have viewed Shakespeare's Tempest in terms of colonialism, with Prospero as the colonial conqueror who takes control of a native land, enslaving its inhabitants with his more sophisticated means, which they tend to view as magic. Jarman's interpretation acknowledges this modern, deconstructionist reading of the play in these scenes, in which Prospero describes himself as redeeming the island from its wild nature. He uses the language of a liberator but only offers a new kind of slavery, freeing the air spirit Ariel from Sycorax's imprisonment but forcing the spirit to obey a new master instead. Despite this nod to the interpretation of The Tempest as a colonialist text, Jarman's own vision of this material is much more in line with the playful sensibility of Shakespeare than with the political shadings layered over the text by subsequent interpreters. He's simply having fun, reveling in the myriad possibilities this play affords for striking imagery. Ariel's assault on the shipwrecked King and his party is in particular a visual tour de force: the spirit appears to them accompanied by a pair of midgets in drag, who claw and howl at the prisoners while the room spins, and Ariel weaves a spell around the group in the form of cobwebs clinging to a chandelier.

Even better is the film's climactic scene, in which Jarman definitively departs from Shakespeare for the staging of the grand ball where Prospero forgives his enemies and announces the impending wedding of his daughter to the King's son Ferdinand. Jarman surrounds this scene, the romantic climax of the film, with a dazzling array of homoerotic imagery, including a sped-up dance featuring a galloping troupe of sailors, exchanging partners and twirling in circles around the throne room. Finally, the singer Elisabeth Welch appears, shimmering in gold like a sun goddess, weaving through the room soulfully singing an upbeat variation on "Stormy Weather," smiling with grace and passing by everyone in turn, putting smiles on their faces with her beautiful voice.

It's a wonderful moment, Jarman's campy, irreverent replacement for Shakespeare's finale, in which Prospero, having used magic to forgive his enemies and send his daughter off into the world with a new husband, gives up his magic arts for good. Jarman elides these scenes, perhaps unwilling to give up magic. Shakespeare's finale has been widely interpreted as the playwright's farewell to the theater, so it's fitting that Jarman, so early in his career, should be unwilling to say his goodbyes to film in the same way. Instead, his film ends in the aftermath of a colorful party, in a room whose floor is littered with multicolored flower petals. It's a fitting closing to a film that celebrates the visual magic of the cinema as thoroughly as the magical arts of Prospero.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Jag Mandir

Werner Herzog's documentaries are rarely just passive recordings of real events; Herzog engages directly with the material of the world, shaping and crafting "reality" into an expression of his own personality and obsessions. As a documentary filmmaker, he thoroughly acknowledges the amount of artifice involved in creating these supposed "documents" of something happening in the world. Herzog's oeuvre is often divided between his documentaries and his fiction films, but there are few directors for whom that distinction means so little — in almost all of his work, fiction and reality weave together in complicated ways. This is certainly true also of Jag Mandir, a documentary about a folk art festival arranged in a remote region of India, though this film finds Herzog in more of a straightforward, ethnographic mode than usual. The film is presented as a record of a festival arranged by the Austrian actor, singer and conceptual artist André Heller, at the behest of a Maharajah who wanted his young son to witness the glory of Indian artistry before such local traditions were erased in the face of "McDonaldization."

This is such a typically Herzogian concept that it's difficult to accept the film's premise at face value. Yes, one supposes that Heller really did put together this grand showcase of Indian folk arts, but some of the ideas behind the project seem imposed by the Europeans, Herzog and Heller, rather than originating with the Maharajah himself, who is silent throughout. Early on in the film, Herzog holds his camera on a long closeup of the Maharajah, followed by a shot of his young son, but the director never interviews either of them or allows their voices into the film. They are silent presences, their true intentions and ideas a mystery. The audience is forced to take Herzog's word for it about the project's origins and intent, and though this is par for the course for Herzog's slippery, obtuse documentaries, it's vaguely troubling that he never allows in any actual Indian voices in a film supposedly dedicated to chronicling Indian culture.

The film opens with a lengthy introduction by Heller, in which he describes the exhaustive process by which he gathered the best and most interesting artists and performers from all around India and brought them together for this show. His rhetoric is overblown, an exaggerated account of the wonders he found, many of which cannot appear in the film because there were over 20 hours of footage in total. Some of these seem intended to create a sense of mysticism and spirituality, like the anecdote about a magician who can make himself disappear — not seen in the film, of course, perhaps because he's already invisible. This intro, coupled with Herzog's own voiceover during the early segments of the film, positions the film as a view of these wonders through European eyes, an outsider's perspective on this Indian art and theater.

After these introductory maneuvers, the bulk of the film is dedicated to a simple document of the show itself. Herzog's voiceover goes silent after a while, as one group of performers after another takes the stage, dancing, playing music, juggling and displaying an array of marvelous costumes. The whole thing is pure spectacle: there is doubtless a deeper meaning, either religious or cultural, to these displays, but Herzog is interested only in the gaudy surface, the beauty of the choreography, the texture of the makeup and costumes. The music, rhythmic and complex, is non-stop, much of it created through the intersections of dance and instrumentation. In many of these complicated choreographed pieces, the dancers contribute to the music by clacking together sticks or swords or playing the bells and cymbals affixed to their bodies. The stylized movements of the dancers thus perform a dual function, simultaneously visual and musical.

Other performers appear in animal costumes, with dancing lions or monkeys swaying to the rhythms of the music. But the most impressive performance is probably the simplest, a traditional dance that Herzog excerpts at great length towards the end of the film: a mixed group of male and female dancers who continually rearrange themselves into delicately pulsating tableaux vivant, often only allowing the fluttering motion of their hands to disrupt the stasis of their arrangements. It is a hypnotic, beautiful slow motion dance, driven by stop/start rhythms and subtle choreography. This is an especially straightforward film for Herzog because it seemingly exists wholly to document moments like this, to display the grandeur and beauty of these rituals and traditions. Jag Mandir is an interesting chronicle of a cross-section of Indian cultural artifacts, a document of various modes of expression and art that may be going extinct or disappearing from the cultural landscape of their own country.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Melinda and Melinda

Melinda and Melinda starts with a premise that might be derived from a college creative writing exercise. A group of people, talking over dinner, begin debating whether life is essentially tragic or comedic. Two of the men (playwrights — one a tragedian and the other a humorist) try to prove their respective points by taking the same facts of an anecdote and telling the story two ways, once as a tragedy and once as a comedy. It's an obvious formal exercise, a writer's conceit, and Woody Allen seems to be in an experimental mood by expanding it from a sketchbook exercise into a feature film. The result is an interesting, uneven film anchored by an astonishing central performance — Radha Mitchell as both versions of the titular Melinda, the only character to exist in both versions of the central story.

This story's basic outline consists of a triggering incident when the distressed Melinda stumbles into a dinner party. In the tragic version, she is worn out and fidgety, recovering from a suicide attempt and trying to forget the disintegration of both her marriage and the affair that ended it. She drops in unexpectedly at the apartment of her old friend Laurel (Chloë Sevigny), who is entertaining a theater producer who may be able to offer a job to Laurel's out-of-work actor husband Lee (Johnny Lee Miller). In the comic take on this scenario, Melinda is actually in the midst of committing suicide, stumbling into the apartment of her neighbors, the indie movie director Susan (Amanda Peet) and her struggling actor husband Hobie (Will Ferrell). What's striking is that the scene doesn't play out that much differently from the tragic one, with the exception of a tossed-off gag about Susan's insistence that her guests continue to eat while she and Hobie try to help their neighbor. This underlines the problem with the film: though it attempts to create a contrast between tragedy and comedy, the comedy here just isn't that funny, consisting mostly of reheated lines familiar from Woody's schtick in countless other films. The opposition of comedy and tragedy here is as superficial as giving the comedy a happy ending and the tragedy a sad one, without really delving into the interesting questions about why we find humor or pathos in various situations.

Instead, the supposedly "comic" story plays out like a light, fluffy tale of continually obstructed love, when the unhappily married Hobie falls hard for his flighty, troubled new neighbor Melinda. One wonders why Woody would cast Ferrell, or the gifted, naturally funny Steve Carrell (in a bit part as Hobie's buddy) if neither actor really gets to do anything funny; Carrell in particular seems wasted, mostly just delivering a few platitudes about marriage and honesty. Ferrell gets a few stale Woody one-liners and lets even them die; it's as though everyone thinks they've been cast in the dramatic half of the film. Maybe that's the point — that the only difference between comedy and tragedy is the way the story ends — but surely the script could've found a better way to indicate this idea than draining a comedy of its humor.

Fortunately, the "tragic" material in the film is handled much more substantially and intelligently — and what, exactly, does that say about a director once known wholly for his comedy? Radha Mitchell isn't given much to do in the lighter version of the story, but as a tragic heroine she comes into her own. She invests her character with an entire language of gestures and poses, ways of moving her face and speaking, a fully developed body language that communicates this character's emotional essence with every slightest move. It's a truly remarkable performance. It becomes hard to tell if Woody's writing is really that strong, or if Mitchell just brings out the hidden depths in this character so well that it wouldn't have mattered what Woody actually wrote for her. She's a shattered woman trying to regain some semblance of her life, some reason to want to live, and finding it, if only briefly, in a piano player with the unlikely name of Ellis Moonsong (Chiwetel Ejiofor).

Mitchell's every scene is quietly compelling, never overstating the naturally melodramatic emotions of her story. She has a restrained intensity that comes through especially in the scene where she tells Ellis about how she killed her unfaithful lover and got away with it. Her disheveled hair and black-ringed eyes, the way she smokes a cigarette with just the slightest tremor in her hands, her neurotic pacing and jittery mood swings: Mitchell builds this character from the smallest details up, creating a busy but always realistic performance that makes the tragedy of Melinda hit hard. Without her performance at its core, it's hard to imagine what Melinda and Melinda would be, but with her it's at least half a good movie, and even occasionally a great one. Mitchell, Sevigny and Ejiofor together craft the emotional foundations for a compelling drama in half the ordinary time for a feature film; the story is basic, even trite, but the quality of the acting fosters the necessary emotional investment in these characters. One feels their shifting attractions and breakdowns and self-justifications in the subtleties of their voices, the exchange of glances. Woody frequently frames the two actresses in tight closeups, allowing all the nuances of their performances to come through in their expressive faces: Sevigny's fluttering eyelashes and downward glances, a few tears gathering at the corners of her eyes; the hard lines of Mitchell's mouth and her flashing, fiery glare.

In short, this is a well-made drama wedded to a mediocre comedy. The film purports to establish a contrast between tragedy and comedy, but it actually provides an instructive example of the difference between vibrant, emotionally rich storytelling and bland storytelling that traffics in clichés. It hardly matters that the story in the film's tragic half is ugly and depressing, while its comedic half is light and, ultimately, happy; the former is viscerally engaging and the latter simply deadening. That in itself illustrates, better than anything else in the film, the message that Woody's shooting for here: it's not the story that matters, but the way it's told. He just probably didn't mean to get across his theme in quite that way.

The Conversations #3 (part 2): Overlooked - Solaris

Part two of the third installment of the monthly feature The Conversations has now been posted at the great multi-author film blog The House Next Door. As I said yesterday, this month Jason Bellamy and I each selected a film from the last few years that we deemed to be "overlooked." I picked David Gordon Green's Undertow, and Jason opted for Steven Soderbergh's Solaris. The first part of this two-part conversation, on Undertow, can be found here. Now the second part, on Solaris, has been posted as well. Click the link below to read it.

Continue reading at The House Next Door

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Conversations #3 (part 1): Overlooked - Undertow

The third installment of my monthly feature with Jason Bellamy, The Conversations, has now been posted at the great multi-author film blog The House Next Door. This month, Jason and I each selected a film from the last few years that we deemed to be "overlooked," and as it turned out, we hadn't previously seen one another's picks. I picked David Gordon Green's Undertow, and Jason opted for Steven Soderbergh's Solaris. This conversation has been divided into two parts. To read the first half of the conversation, about Undertow, click through to the House below. The second half, with a discussion of Solaris, will be posted tomorrow. As usual, reader comments are especially encouraged; we hope that our conversations will trigger a larger conversation.

Continue reading at The House Next Door

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Riding Shotgun

Riding Shotgun is a low-key, static Randolph Scott Western, obviously inspired by High Noon, casting Scott as stoic stagecoach guard Larry Delong, facing down an entire town who are not only unwilling to help him in his fight against a vicious gang of outlaws, but who actually believe that Delong is part of the gang. Delong is lured away from a stagecoach by the promise of finally catching up to his most hated enemy, Dan Marady (James Millican), who killed Delong's sister and nephew many years before. Marady's men separate Delong from the stagecoach and ambush him, tying him up to deal with him later — why don't movie villains ever do things the obvious way and just shoot a guy when they have the chance? — and then heading off to rob and shoot up the coach. Their plan is to use the stagecoach robbery as a way of stirring up a nearby town into sending out a huge posse, thus leaving the town (and its bank) relatively undefended for an even bigger heist. Of course, they don't reckon on Delong getting free and heading into town, with full knowledge of their evil plan — which they tell him before tying him up, like James Bond villains spilling their guts before concocting some delayed method of killing off the hero, leaving him plenty of time to escape.

The film's premise is quite simple, but its script keeps making loops like this, taking ridiculous twists and turns, endlessly delaying to stretch out the film's running time. If there's an obvious action for someone to take, be sure the script will dedicate a long and torturous speech to why it can't be done that way. If there's a smart and reasonable way for a character to act, be sure he'll do the exact opposite as soon as possible. This isn't a script; it's a long and convoluted explanation for why all these people are behaving so stupidly and unrealistically.

Once Delong arrives in town, he finds that everyone there suspects him, for no good reason, of being involved with the Marady gang, and they don't believe his story about the impending bank robbery. Instead, he has to hole up in an empty cantina, surrounded on all sides by the dithering townspeople, who can't decide whether they want to storm the place and string him up or simply keep him contained until the sheriff returns. What they wind up doing, mostly, is waiting... and waiting... and waiting... and waiting. This film copies the High Noon formula of a delayed climax, an hour of slow build-up heading towards a fast, violent denouement. But director André De Toth is saddled with a horrible script, and in any event he doesn't have Fred Zinnemann's precise, mathematical feel for slow-burning suspense. The film's lengthy middle section is slow, static and stagey, a long dull stretch that alternates between Delong sitting quietly in the bar and the townspeople gathering outside and debating in circles.

The film is also dragged down by Scott's voiceover, which is basically a textbook example of the horrible misuse of narration, the kind of voiceover that gives the technique in general its bad name. At the start of the film, Delong's resigned mood and simple, laconic phrases create the impression of an oater noir, the kind of film where the down-on-his-luck hero recounts the tragedies that befell him, speaking directly to the audience in a conversational tone. Later, however, Scott's voiceover is superfluous, simply describing or explaining actions that are readily apparent onscreen and narrating his inner state when his performance should have communicated what he was feeling. It's distracting, and recurs throughout the film. De Toth leans on it as a crutch, a way of inserting some drama into his static setups: there's nothing much happening onscreen for much of the film, so Scott's voiceover at least provides something to pay attention to besides the endless bickering of the townspeople.

The film is mostly a dud, though despite the limping script and the general dullness of the action, De Toth does craft some interesting images. He favors long shots, like the striking bird's eye view that shows Delong chasing one of Marady's men through rocky hills towards the beginning of the film, or the rooftop shot of the portly deputy Tub Murphy (Wayne Morris) walking through the center of the town towards Delong's hiding spot. Tub provides some of the film's comic relief, as a lawman who's continually sneaking away from the action to eat at the local restaurant. The film also gets some comic mileage out of the cantina owner Fritz (Fritz Feld), whose stock sniveling, treacherous coward routine is tiresome, but who inexplicably keeps switching back and forth between speaking Spanish, English and German, a nearly surrealist touch that's a welcome diversion from the film's long dead stretches.

And there are plenty of them. Even the final shootout is ineptly staged, shot from odd angles around the interior of the town bank, and mostly consists of people scurrying back and forth aimlessly, shooting at and punching each other, while Delong hides in a corner. It's like a precursor to today's Bourne-style rapidly cut fight scenes, except De Toth manages to capture a similar messy obscurity not by cutting but by placing his camera at the worst possible angles to capture the action in any real way. It's a good thing that Delong's plan for foiling the bank robbers involves cutting the straps on their saddles so they fall comically off their horses while trying to get away — this humorous conclusion at least seems to acknowledge just how silly and slight the film is as a whole.

Films I Love #24: Dead Ringers (David Cronenberg, 1988)

Much of David Cronenberg's career has been devoted to fearlessly excavating the strangest, most unsettling corners of human psychology and sexuality, expressing primal emotions through the grotesque "body horror" for which the director was, until recently, best known. In many ways, though Dead Ringers is one of Cronenberg's tamest 80s films in terms of its visceral imagery (admittedly, "tame" is a very relative word here), it's possibly his most disturbing inquiry into the lower reaches of human consciousness. It's the story of twin gynecologists Elliot and Beverly Mantle (both played, via special effects, by Jeremy Irons) who are so close that their identities are intertwined. Indeed, they take advantage of their identical appearance to swap places with one another at will, taking turns giving public appearances, performing surgeries and research, and even switching off with the women they date. The arrogant, confident Elliot and the shy, sweet Bev are two sides of the same personality, complementing and completing one another, together forming a whole person; neither of them could really exist independently.

Nevertheless, Bev decides that he wants to try severing this intimate bond between the brothers when he falls in love with the movie star Claire (Geneviève Bujold), who starts out as just another of the brothers' mutual conquests. As usual, the more confident Elliot seduces and sleeps with her, then allows Bev to take his place the next night. But when Beverly's bond with the needy, masochistic Claire begins to threaten the connection between the brothers, things start falling apart for all three of them. The film is a nightmarish study of psychological dependency, of unhealthy bonds between people — symbolized by the horrifying dream in which Bev envisions himself and his brother joined together by a meaty umbilical cord, which Claire tries to bite through. The film certainly doesn't lack Cronenberg's signature disturbing imagery, but for the most part its "body horror" is more psychological and internal rather than being inscribed in blood and gore. When Bev, driven mad by isolation and grief, simply unveils his set of tools for operating on "mutant women," it's a visceral chill on par with any of Cronenberg's more grisly set pieces. By locating the film's horror almost entirely in the minds and personae of these twins, Dead Ringers becomes one of Cronenberg's finest, most creepily incisive works.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Gang of Four

Jacques Rivette's 1988 film Gang of Four is a kind of summation of the elusive auteur's style and thematic concerns, a skillful variation on the various threads that wove through his work of the preceding three decades. It encompasses his passion for the theater, his taste for esoteric conspiracies with many dangling loose ends, his way of using acting and dramatization to peel away the layers of a character over time, his playful improvisatory spirit and fondness for whimsical ghost stories. The film is a deliberately paced — but never plodding — character study of a group of young girls studying acting under the watchful eye of the demanding instructor Constance (Bulle Ogier). The main action especially centers around one particular quartet of girls living in the same house: Anna (Fejria Deliba), Claude (Laurence Côte), Joyce (Bernadette Giraud) and Lucia (Ines d'Almeida). When the film opens, Lucia is just moving in, replacing Cécile (Nathalie Richard), who is moving out but not leaving the acting class.

With his keen eye and slow, sweeping camera moves, Rivette methodically explores the characters of these disparate young women, weaving serpentine plots around them and suggesting vapor-like hints of back stories. Anna, it turns out, is actually named Laura; she's taken the name of the vanished sister who she has been searching for. The bisexual, androgynous Claude is tormented by unrequited love and is desperate for meaningful connections. The tiny, porcelain-pretty Lucia is exiled from her home in Portugal, where she disgraced her family by refusing an arranged marriage and drinking down a few sips of poison in a suicide attempt; she keeps the unused portion of the bottle in her room as a "souvenir." These hints of the past remain largely unresolved, peripheral elements in a film dense with detail and nuance. The girls are soon drawn in by a mysterious plot of some kind involving their friend Cécile's boyfriend Antoine, who's involved in some shady and possibly criminal business. The girls can see that Cécile is increasingly distracted and upset, her acting affected by the troubles of her outside life, and their suspicions are heightened when a cagey guy (Benoît Régent), possibly a cop, starts snooping around and asking questions about their friend. Not that he's any help, really: he keeps changing his name, before finally settling on Thomas, and tells each of them in turn a different outrageous story about what underworld activities Cécile and Antoine are involved in (fake IDs, gun smuggling, art thievery).

Rivette, of course, is sympathetic to the chameleonic Thomas, even though he's kind of a manipulative jerk. Rivette also cares little for the concrete details of such conspiracies; all that matters to him is the suggestion of something there, floating like smoke on the fringes of the narrative, a catalyst for everything that follows. As the girls dance around this mystery, trying to help their friend, art and life blend into one another. The play they're rehearsing — Marivaux's La double inconstance — comments obliquely on the lives of the girls, with its themes of double identities, unconsummated desires and imprisoned lovers.

Thus, when Constance leads her class through rehearsals, she is preparing them not just for the play but for life — towards the end of the film, she abruptly departs, leaving them on their own, as though she had been leading them towards this self-sufficiency all along. Rivette's emphasis on acting similarly blurs the line between what's artifice and what's "reality." He views acting, not as pretend or lies — as the bitter Claude does — but as a way of getting at deeper truths. The rehearsals cycle around endlessly, with Constance instructing her students in seemingly contradictory ways: pay attention to the written lines, put more emotion into it, tone it down, make the ideas obvious even to the back rows, don't be so obvious. Her mode of instruction frustrates the girls, who are paying a lot of money to be enrolled in the best acting class in Paris, but they seem to understand that she is pushing them towards something concrete, trying to get out of them performances that feel real.

On a metafictional level, Rivette is doing the same thing, and he lets his film's narrative ramble at a leisurely pace in order to give the actors room to breathe, time to fill in the nuances of their characters. Their personalities come out equally whether they're on stage for Constance or simply on screen for Rivette, and one senses multiple levels of acting filtering through each of them: the film actress playing another actress who's playing a part in a theater. And at the same time, these levels are also one, with no distinction made between the woman on stage, the woman in Rivette's film, and the woman who, presumably, exists off the set when the filming stops. Rivette is, as always, interested in these intersections of identity, and Gang of Four, as with all his films, gives the impression of watching something slowly take shape over the course of nearly three hours. Rivette's films are as much about the process of making themselves as they are about anything; Gang of Four is equally about producing a play, creating a film, and solving a mystery, not necessarily in that order. Indeed, Rivette purposefully leaves most of the film's mysteries dangling, unsolved, giving the final word instead to the play within the film: when the play ends, so does the film.

All of this metafictional gamesmanship is accomplished with Rivette's usual playful brio and understated humor. The acting class is always lively, and Rivette's camera wanders freely around the room, sometimes framing those on stage in strikingly dramatic compositions, other times darting off into the theater seats, where the girls who are watching whisper and joke. Rivette's compositions shift fluidly between very rigid formalist constructions and looser, more relaxed arrangements. Often, there's tension within the frame between the stagey blocking of the actors and the casual scattering of background details. There's even a running gag with one punky, disinterested student who's always either stumbling in late or sneaking out early in the background of the shot.

As much as Rivette worships the theater and the art of acting, he's not afraid to be irreverent and silly as well. One of the film's best scenes is a hilarious sequence in which Anna, Claude and Joyce act out a trial for the benefit of Lucia, each of them taking on multiple parts and signifying their role reversals by placing one of several multi-colored coffee mugs on top of their heads like hats. It's a great scene that encapsulates one of Rivette's most endearing qualities, his willingness to let his actresses have fun and cut loose; there's a semi-improvisational quality to this scene, and especially to the halting, off-key song they sing at the end of it, that makes it feel a break in the film's narrative. And yet this scene's broad satire of the justice system also ties in with the story of Cécile and Antoine, as well as with the Marivaux play the girls are rehearsing with Constance.

Gang of Four is a typically enthralling and enchanting film from Rivette, a complex game of a film in which the rules are obscure and the pieces move unpredictably. More than anything else, however, it's a showcase for the charming young actresses Rivette has cast here. Their smart, witty performances are never less than fun to watch, and as the film progresses, each of these girls invests her character with greater and greater depths. This is a pure celebration of acting as the finest art: the art of finding (and embracing) the mystery and drama in life.

The Exterminating Angel

The Exterminating Angel is Luis Buñuel's most darkly funny and vicious satire of upper-class mores, an eviscerating portrait of how easily the façades of civility, nobility and good manners can be broken down. The film's famous premise involves a dinner party for a group of wealthy friends after an opera, hosted at the opulent mansion of Edmundo (Enrique Rambal) and Lucía (Lucy Gallardo). Everyone arrives in high spirits, talking and laughing. In fact, in one of Buñuel's first surrealist intrusions into the surface of the film, the guests actually arrive twice in quick succession, the same scene playing out two times before the guests are allowed to go upstairs. Once there, they find that all the servants have left, without explanation, leaving only Julio (Claudio Brook) to serve dinner and perform all the other necessary tasks. So the party keeps subtly slipping off the rails right from the start. Edmundo gives a toast twice, though this time instead of the scene playing out the same way with each repetition, the host finds that the second time around everyone has completely ignored him. When the waiter comes to serve the first course, which Lucía has announced with much hype and enthusiasm, the servant trips and falls, splattering the meal all over the nearby dinner guests.

What's obvious already at this point is Buñuel's irreverent, comic treatment of the upper-class, who are portrayed as vain and vapid, emptily chatting in non sequiturs. After dinner, Buñuel's camera wanders fluidly around the room, passing from one conversation to the next, chronicling the ignorance and casual cruelty of these people. One of the most telling moments is when a woman talks about being involved in a train accident, in which a whole carload of third-class passengers were killed; "like a slaughterhouse," she says, though she also admits that she could not feel moved by the deaths. She felt more deeply for the death of a prince who laid in state, because of his nobility and his handsome profile. Already, it's obvious that Buñuel is satirizing these people who fancy themselves distinguished and noble and good, but who lack even the decency to mourn for the lives of anyone not from their own class. Death is insignificant to these people, even to the doctor (Augusto Benedico), who seems more concerned with superficial matters than the real health of his patients: he indicates that a man is dying by saying, with great gravity, "he'll be bald by midnight," confounding baldness and mortality.

But all of this is just a setup for the film's real punchline, because as the night wears on and the dinner party continues unabated, it becomes obvious that no one can leave the room they're in, that they are infected by an overpowering lethargy that traps them in place. They casually break with decorum, forgetting their class and the rules of good manners, and begin settling down for the night scattered around the room, the men taking off their jackets and everyone lying down on couches and pillows and on the floor. This represents an unthinkable breach of conduct for these people, so obsessed with appearances and reputation and class; as one guest says the next morning, horrified by her own behavior, "we turned this room into a gypsy campground."

There's worse in store. The premise of The Exterminating Angel is a brilliant surrealist gag, one Buñuel would later reverse for The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. In that film, a group of wealthy dinner guests are continually interrupted, often violently, before they are able to eat their meal, while in this film a dinner party is stretched out for weeks with the guests mysteriously unable to leave. In both cases the idea is the same: Buñuel is violently assaulting the sacred rituals of the bourgeois, committing what is essentially blasphemy against whatever images of itself the upper-class holds dear. As the days wear on and the guests still find themselves unable to leave, the party increasingly degenerates into savagery, cruelty and primitivism, with the guests shedding one by one the restraints and manners of polite society.

It's as though, isolated from society, deprived of food and unsure of what's happening, these people forget who they are, forget all the rituals and distinctions that they have used to elevate themselves above the common man. Sexual mores and restrictions break down: the engaged couple darts off into the closet to consummate their relationship without being married yet, while the lecherous old composer sneaks around in the middle of the night kissing sleeping women. The rules of politeness also disappear, and the men stop disguising their contempt for one another, openly making their nasty feelings known and hovering on the brink of violent altercations. Of the assembled company, the only ones who retain their civility are the host Edmundo, who tries to soothe the conflicts between the guests, and Leticia (Buñuel favorite Silvia Pinal), who the other guests have dubbed the Valkyrie for her purity and unapproachable manner. During their confinement, she seems to float among the guests, tending to their needs, giving water and comfort to those who are ill and weak. Her nickname, a gossipy taunt that the other guests whisper behind her back, becomes appropriate during the period of confinement: the Valkyries, in Norse mythology, are battlefield figures who bring the slain to Valhalla, attend to the wounded and bring cups of ale to dead warriors in the afterlife.

Like Edmundo, Leticia retains her dignity and grace throughout the film, never succumbing to the bestial tendencies of the others. When a trio of lambs inexplicably wander into the room, she even blindfolds one of the animals before it is slaughtered, a gesture of sympathy for a creature facing a death sentence. The rest of the group shows no such respect for the dead, even for their own fellows. When one man dies, they unceremoniously dump his body in the closet, and the suicide of the two young lovers (also in a closet) prompts gales of laughter and then sudden disinterest. One recalls the story from the beginning of the film, the train accident whose lower-class victims elicited no pity from the bourgeois. Apparently, savagery for these already vile people consists of losing the ability to care even about the members of their own class; their sympathy extends no further than themselves.

Buñuel presents all of this with a deadpan tone that accentuates the ridiculous dark comedy of the scenario, the disintegration of manners yielding absurdist humor as well as abjection. At the same time, Buñuel never seems to be just making fun of these people, and his portrayal of their suffering is sympathetic. One can easily imagine a similar scenario in which these privileged people are mocked for over-reacting to modest deprivations, but their suffering here is genuine, and unites them (if only for a few weeks or months) with deprived people everywhere, people lacking food and drink and adequate living space. As usual, Buñuel's satirical sensibility is complicated by his refusal to score easy points against obvious targets. The film ends with a sequence at a church which posits the possibility of a whole other mirror film, taking the same subject and transposing it from the bourgeois to the clergy. This ending is as multi-layered as everything in this complex film, suggesting the cyclical nature of suffering, its perennial presence and the randomness of its appearances, as well as the union between the upper-class and religious institutions; Buñuel implies that both the Church and the bourgeois can be satirized in the same way.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Furies

When Anthony Mann made The Furies in 1950, he'd been making hard, tough, low-budget noirs for the past decade, and would shortly become known for making a series of hard, tough Westerns. Most of these latter films would star James Stewart in some of the roles that, along with the films he made for Hitchcock, would help the actor rid himself of his "aw shucks" good guy persona. Mann's films, whether he was working in noirs or Westerns, were ragged, morally ambiguous character studies in which conflicted men were tested by harsh circumstances, running through rigorous gauntlets that wore them down both mentally and physically. In ragged poverty row noirs like Raw Deal and T-Men, Mann's heroes were nearly torn apart by the pressures accumulating on them, and the same pressure-cooker intensity is applied to James Stewart in The Naked Spur or The Far Country, films where Stewart seems to be sweating and trembling beneath the glare of Mann's cameras. The Furies is a somewhat different kind of Western from Mann's Stewart cycle. Based on a novel by Niven Busch, it traffics in the Freudian sexual undercurrents of the writer, and its most prominent protagonist is a woman rather than Mann's preferred male lead. But its harsh tone, its emphasis on psychological and physical trauma, its dark but evocative portrait of wide open Western spaces, provides the evidence of Mann's signature on the film.

The film opens with the triumphant return home of the ranching tycoon T.C. Jeffords (Walter Huston), a grand man whose best years are perhaps behind him but who nevertheless projects all the rugged splendor of a tough, ornery man of the West. He put together his ranch, dubbed the Furies, through his own hard work, and if in his old age he hasn't been able to exploit the land as well as he might have, it's only a small blot on his outsized reputation. His daughter Vance (Barbara Stanwyck) is every bit the old man's daughter, as hard and tough as him and proud of it, too. Their relationship is nearly incestuous in its intimacy: Vance scratches his back when he aches, kisses him on the mouth and tells him that she'll only marry when she can find a man who's better than him, who can provide to her the same challenge that he does. She's a strong woman, poised as heiress to the Furies because T.C.'s son Clay (John Bromfield) is as quiet and self-effacing as T.C. and Vance are brash and egoistic; he's an anomaly in this frontier family and seems happy to marry off into another clan. Clay's departure, and T.C.'s increasing mismanagement of the family's funds — he spends freely and has even invented his own currency, an unofficial tender that amounts to a personal I.O.U. — places Vance at the reins of the Furies.

The remainder of the film chronicles the fractures and comeuppances of this archetypal family. The scion of an old Jeffords family rival, Rip Darrow (Wendell Corey), is aiming to hurt the family by romancing Vance while actually trying to get his hands back on the land that T.C. stole from the Darrow family. And T.C. also complicates things by bringing home a woman of his own, Flo Burnett (Judith Anderson), a widow who immediately attracts Vance's fiery hatred. Vance is jealous, seeing another woman enter her father's life and be the one to scratch his back when he needs it, and she feels further resentment towards Flo for attempting to replace her mother, whose room at the ranch has been an untouched shrine since her death. Worst of all, however, Flo is subtly pushing Vance out of her throne as the ruler of the Furies, telling her that running a ranch isn't woman's work, that she should hire a competent manager instead. Mann shoots these scenes with a melodramatic touch, shooting the interiors with deep focus lenses from exaggerated angles, framing the characters together in tableaux-like arrangements that accentuate the strained relationships between them. Whereas the film's exterior shots set the characters' dark profiles against a wide, bright sky, suggesting the freedom and escape they seem incapable of achieving, the interiors are often claustrophobic and cramped.

The film's psychological intensity makes it an unrelentingly taut and compelling experience, but it's not completely satisfying as a story. Part of the problem is that the very overwhelming quality of Stanwyck and Huston's performances makes it difficult for anyone else to hold their own onscreen against this pair. Certainly, the handsome but bland Wendell Corey is no match for Stanwyck, and the nearly masochistic, violent relationship between Vance and Darrow is among the film's most unbelievable conceits. Vance is looking for a man who can stand up to her father, who can dominate her and control her, so the way the script requires her to bow to the utterly conventional Darrow is kind of pathetic. She seems to have a much better match in the Mexican squatter Juan Herrera (Gilbert Roland), who she's known since she was a child, and with whom she shares a friendship that vacillates between sibling rivalry and sexual frisson: from time to time she kisses Juan and he responds, with good cheer, "the kiss of a good friend." Juan is Vance's equal and friend, and one can imagine, in the absence of the racial/ethnic complication, a satisfying romance between them.

But this isn't the kind of film that can allow for that, and a much more unpleasant fate is in store for Juan, at the hands of T.C. In fact, in keeping with much of Mann's work, this is often a thoroughly unpleasant film, lingering on the ugly realities of the Jeffords clan: their indifferent treatment of native squatters, who are killed and chased off at their convenience; their hateful rivalries and habit of turning everything into a competition; their iron-fisted domination of the land around them; their vengeful violent streak. The Jeffords are thoroughly unsympathetic representations of the American will to spread West, to conquer the land, to take possession and make everything they see their own. The film is at its best when it's tracing the messy ways in which this impulse of manifest destiny works when applied to domestic dramas and interpersonal relationships.

True, the film makes some token attempts to rehabilitate and soften the Jeffords family in its final act, struggling towards a Hollywood happy ending in a film that is clearly painted from the palette of the Shakespearean tragedy. Among the many unlikely twists the script requires to reach this happy ending is the resolution of the romance between Vance and Darrow, a romance that, surely, almost no one in the audience could have been rooting for throughout the film. Even worse, the ending represents the taming of Stanwyck's Vance, her conversion into a docile housewife wanting to deliver a son for her man. The ending attempts to smooth over the ugliness and darkness that preceded it, to move towards a sunny denouement. One senses, at least, that Mann can't get completely behind this goal: he stages the film's final moment, a tender conversation between Vance and Darrow as they return to the Furies, as a dark nighttime scene, the two lovers reduced to silhouettes in the gray outdoors, the black outline of the Furies' metal sign hanging above their heads. The scene's dialogue may be hopeful and upbeat, but Mann's mise en scène suggests the opposite. He understands, even if the script does not, that these people are interesting in the first place because they're hard and cold and unlikeable, because they represent unpleasant truths about frontier living and the foundations of the country, because they are, essentially, incapable of being reformed and in any case don't really want to be.

Anything Else

Anything Else must be, bar none, Woody Allen's most underrated film. Perhaps because it was released right at the tail-end of his disappointing Dreamworks period — and immediately following two of his absolute worst movies — or because it prominently features an actor otherwise best known for having sex with a pie on screen, this great film has been ignored, critically maligned and lumped in with the perceived downward spiral Woody's filmmaking supposedly entered from the mid-90s onward. In fact, it's a poignant, funny, bittersweet take on love and relationships and doing what one wants in life. It's quite possibly Woody's best and most perceptive relationship film since Manhattan, a film it recalls in both its gorgeous, atmospheric cinematography and its humorous but unflinchingly honest look at the ways in which men and women in love interact. The film is also improved by Woody stepping aside, for once letting his young cast take center stage rather than trying to shoehorn himself into yet another improbable relationship with a much younger, attractive woman, as he had in recent years with Téa Leoni, Helen Hunt and Julia Roberts. In this film, the focus is on the troubled relationship between the struggling young writer Jerry Falk (Jason Biggs) and his sexy but kind of crazy girlfriend Amanda (Christina Ricci), who drives him wild in every sense of the word.

Jerry is a typical Woody Allen character: neurotic, nervous, insecure, plagued by troubles, in psychotherapy at twenty-one and terminally afraid to break away from anything, no matter how negative its influence on his life. As he says, he's not a "leaver." That's why he's been in analysis for years, even though his therapist (William Hill) never says a word and never helps him with his problems — he's more interested in his patient's supposedly telling dreams about the Cleveland Indians working at Toys R' Us. Jerry's also trapped in an exploitative contract with an inept manager (Danny DeVito) who bleeds his client on percentages but can't get him any real work, and who has an inexplicable love for clothing store metaphors. By the same token, Jerry can't seem to give up his love for Amanda, despite the increasingly outrageous difficulties between them. They haven't slept together for months, Amanda is flighty and unfaithful, and she moves in her wreck of a mother (Stockard Channing), who's practicing to start up a new cabaret show and brings over sketchy boyfriends to snort cocaine.

The relationship between Jerry and Amanda sparks some of Woody's best comic writing, with practically every other line being a quotable gem, including some deadpan one-liners. When Jerry asks her if she still loves him, she looks at him with shock: "What a question. Just because I pull away when you touch me?" What's great about the way this relationship plays out is that Woody allows the audience to see both what's enticing and lovable and desirable about Amanda, and what's infuriating about her — and how the two qualities tend to blend into one another. She's impulsive and always up for anything, always willing to go running off on a crazy trip. When Jerry and Amanda first meet, this attracts him to her almost irresistibly; she has such an adventurous streak that when she says, in passing, that she'd love to take a trip down the Amazon, he's convinced that she means that very night. This initial meeting is mirrored with a later scene in which Amanda proposes a sudden late-night drive out to Montauk, just as she'd suggested heading to the Hamptons when she first met Jerry. The mirroring is subtle, and suggests the extent to which what drew Jerry to Amanda in the first place is now driving them apart.

It helps that Ricci embodies her character, with her strangely cute, off-kilter attractiveness, her bug eyes and crooked smile and compact body. Her casual, breezy delivery of Woody's dialogue is both appealing and maddening, like her character. She tosses off subtly ironic lines as though she doesn't see the contradictions in what she's saying, as though she sees things in a very self-evident way and expects everyone else to understand. There's a hilarious scene where she tries to explain to Jerry how sleeping with her acting teacher was just therapeutic, that she was doing it for Jerry's sake — it's ridiculous and funny as hell, but the weird thing is that one actually kind of believes her, or at least believes that she believes it. Biggs, surprisingly, is a fine comic foil for Ricci, getting off some great one-liners and portraying his character's sexual frustration with a comedic grace that doesn't take the bite off the frustration itself. A lot of the film's best scenes are both funny and uncomfortable; Woody's humor here has a real edge to it, an edge of truth that makes the laughs catch in one's throat at times. Biggs often stumbles over the top in trying to impersonate Woody, to copy his director's fumbling manner and characteristic stutter, and this can be distracting. The film is much better when Biggs tones down his Woodyisms, plays it more like the everyman he is.

For the most part, though, Biggs' performance is perfectly in key with the film's tone, and he's at his best in his interactions with Woody himself, who plays the aging, paranoiac schoolteacher David Dobel, who's making a late-in-life run at becoming a writer himself. Woody's casting of himself solidifies the sense that this is a passing-the-torch film, that Woody is consciously making the long-delayed transition from comic lead to elder statesman, the mentor figure trying to pass on his ideas to the younger generation. Dobel is a typical Woody character, stuttery and neurotic and more than a little nuts, with a real Jewish persecution complex — he's convinced that the Holocaust could be back with a vengeance any day now, and has prepared a survival kit to prepare for the eventuality. But he's also a dispenser of Woody's accumulated wisdom, which of course comes in the form of a constant stream of jokes derived from old stand-up traditions.

The film is about Jerry growing up, breaking free of the unhealthy attachments he can't seem to shake, realizing that he has to make his own way in life. It's a mature statement from the perennial jokester, but of course Woody can't help but deliver this lesson with a smile; Jerry learns about life through humor. It's part of what makes this film such a bittersweet gem. Woody is laughing at the foibles of romance, but also showing his wholehearted appreciation for the folly of love, perhaps even yearning wistfully for the innocent romanticism of Jerry's character. This film is a long distance away from the cynicism and bitter humor of some of Woody's other late films, like Celebrity or Deconstructing Harry. Anything Else doesn't share the wide-eyed naivete of Jerry, but its perspective on life and love isn't jaundiced, as evidenced by the beautiful, expressive cinematography. The portrait of New York here is as deeply romantic as the one in Manhattan, painting in moody, muted colors what the earlier film did in black and white: the oceanic blues of the sky behind a black skyline, the shifting shadows of the trees with light sifting through in Central Park. These are some of Woody's most gorgeous, affecting images in years, a beautiful counterpoint to the film's depiction of young love and the wayward path to maturity.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Shintaro Kago short films

There are few things in this world stranger than the work of Japanese manga artist and filmmaker Shintaro Kago, whose bizarre contributions to both comics and extreme low-budget videos encompass Cronenberg-esque gross-out horror, pranky scatological humor, outlandish porn and dizzying formal experimentation. His 16-page comic Abstraction (which can be read in its entirety here) is one of the most formally ambitious works in the medium, a psychosexual mindfuck that seems to be desperately trying to break free of the two-dimensional constraints of the page. Unfortunately, none of Kago's willfully over-the-top comics work is available in official English translations, which has relegated most of his stories to being passed around the Internet in the form of fan-translated scans. Among the admittedly small number of admirers of avant-garde manga, however, his work has become legendary, an utterly unique fusion of comics' most advanced and original formal inventions with some of the most defiantly low-brow material imaginable.

Of late, Kago has also taken to posting his even less-known video work to his YouTube channel. In these jokey short films, many of them crudely animated, Kago's sick sense of humor reaches its full heights of absurdity. There's a playful surrealist sensibility to Kago's work, as well as a tendency to revel in the ridiculous, the crude and the disturbing. His work straddles a weird boundary between avant-garde experimentation and low-brow fart jokes — the punchline of one of these films is literally an oozing torrent of shit — although, admittedly, his videos seem to lean a bit more heavily towards the fart jokes than his comics. But hey, who doesn't appreciate a good fart joke once in a while?

Above, I've posted embedded links for two of my favorite Kago videos, two of the ones that made me laugh out loud with that mixture of shock, disgust and hilarity that often characterizes my reaction to his work. Attack of the Anteater's Tongue is exactly what its name implies: still images of an anteater are animated so that a wiggly pink tongue darts out towards the ground. Soon, the pink tongue is everywhere. It pokes up through the pants of a smiling Japanese politician, lounging around with George W. Bush. It sticks out of the tip of Dirty Harry's gun and then from the barrels of the cannons on a row of tanks — a flower in the barrel of a gun isn't nearly as effective (or funny) a surreal anti-war statement as a gun literally sticking out its tongue at the world. The film ends with an infestation of pink anteater tongues, taking over a city in a synchronized snake-like dance. Like all of Kago's best work, this video is basically an extended non sequitur, an absurd punchline that seems to be missing its joke; one senses, anyway, that only Kago would get the joke.

Terror of Golf Course is animated in more of a traditional, albeit crude, anime style, with static backgrounds and roughly moving figures. Accompanied by a soundtrack of eerie insectile hum and wheezy moans, the short starts as a typically silly gag, a golf hole neatly dodging a putter's attempts to sink a shot. The turn to horror at the end, telegraphed by the creepy soundtrack, is a cruel and nonsensical punchline. Not content to simply screw up this poor guy's golf game, this particular hole wants blood. One can imagine some kind of deadpan horror tagline for this film. On this course, it's par... or else.

Kago's weird work fits in naturally amidst the chaotic silliness of YouTube, where ridiculous amateur videos proliferate, some of them genuinely funny, many more puzzling or embarrassing or annoying. It's true that very little YouTube content has ever lived up to the tremendous promise of freely distributed online expression, but some of the stranger viral videos have seemed to illuminate unique sensibilities crafting weird little fragments of pop culture. Kago's odd short videos fit comfortably in this niche. Besides the two I posted above, there's also a wonderfully surreal mermaid sketch, a grisly new Olympic sport, and a frankly stupid cell phone joke. Check out YouTube for all the fun. (And don't forget to give Kago's comics a look, too. The great manga blog Same Hat! Same Hat! has scans of many of Kago's best stories, including The Memories of Others, Multiplication and Blow-Up. All NSFW, by the way.)

Friday, March 20, 2009

Daisy Kenyon

Daisy Kenyon is a surprisingly quiet, understated melodrama, slow-moving and restrained when it could just as easily be torrid and unsubtle. There's a certain coolness to it, likely the result of director Otto Preminger's iron hand — Preminger may have been a notorious tyrant on the set but he rarely allowed hysterics to disrupt the placid surfaces of his films. This is a love story in which logic and rationality eventually win out over heated passion, which is rare enough in any romance, let alone in a weepy big screen melodrama. Preminger bathes the film in deep shadows, giving the film the visual texture of a noir and doing such a good job of it that he apparently convinced Fox that it is a noir — the studio recently released the film on DVD under their noir banner. But Daisy Kenyon is not a noir, its shadows are more lushly romantic than ominous, and its title heroine, beautifully portrayed by Joan Crawford, is hardly a femme fatale. Instead, she's a working woman, a professional illustrator, as well as the unhappy mistress of big-time corporate lawyer Dan O'Mara (Dana Andrews), who, it's increasingly apparent, will never leave his wife for her despite his declarations of love. Daisy wants to leave him, but can't quite bring herself to do it until she finds herself being improbably drawn to the troubled World War II vet Peter Lapham (Henry Fonda), who's still haunted by the death of his own wife and the things he saw in Europe. When Peter proposes to her, Daisy somewhat unexpectedly accepts, trying to make a clean break with her past and hoping that the two of them, both still in love with unattainable others, can love and help each other instead.

The love triangle between Daisy, Dan and Peter drives the film, with the two men in Daisy's life representing opposite emotional extremes. Dan is explosive and passionate, prone to lose his temper or be overcome by strong feelings of grief, desire, rage, depression or love. He's an open philanderer, coolly making the situation clear to his wife Lucille (Ruth Warrick), who stays with him more or less so as not to rock the boat. And he adores and coddles his two daughters (Peggy Ann Garner and Connie Marshall), who worship him in return. Peter has his own emotional troubles, but they mostly tend to boil beneath the surface, hidden from view, and he's capable of being surprisingly lucid and rational about his feelings. One of the film's key exchanges between the two men is when Dan, after asking the boat designer Peter to describe the reason why a boat is made a certain way, says that he doesn't trust logic: "anything logical makes me want to fight for some reason." The mathematically inclined Peter's capacity for calm, rational discourse about complicated emotions is infuriating and sometimes puzzling, but Fonda does an excellent job of dealing with the subtleties of this complex man, who is capable of caring deeply while outwardly seeming disinterested.

In fact, the film's acting is uniformly extraordinary, and is one of the crucial factors in elevating it above a conventional melodrama. Andrews and Fonda are scintillating as the opposite corners of this love triangle, mostly because they consistently underplay the tensions between them. They even seem to like each other, and their rivalry over Daisy is friendly and courteous rather than fierce; they play games of oneupsmanship but maintain a respectful aloofness. In fact, despite the heavy topics in this film — divorce, child abuse, multiple love affairs and reversals and reconciliations — the overall emotional register of the material is strikingly cool and calm. Another director would have simply gone with the story's natural tendencies, encouraging the actors into emotional breakdowns and over-the-top histrionics at every point; there are more than a few scenes that seem to call for such fireworks. Instead, Preminger gets a trio of sensitive, supple performances from his main actors, letting the emotions arise naturally and slowly rather than simply bursting out in messy spasms. This has the paradoxical effect of increasing the film's emotional impact, since its moments of catharsis are all the more moving for the general restraint that surrounds them. At one point, after seeing his daughter with a bad earache, Dan abruptly remembers that his distraught wife had hit the girl while upset over her philandering husband's long affair with Daisy. For the first and only time in the film, Dan quietly cries for a few moments, realizing what he's done to his family, the ways he's hurt his beloved daughters, both mentally and physically.

Even Crawford, seldom known as the most subtle actress, is here disarmingly low-key, allowing her character's indecision and confusion to come through without overacting. She's a woman who doesn't quite know what she wants, who is controlled by the men in her life, men who, despite their genuine feelings for her, sometimes seem to be maneuvering and bargaining for possession of her without so much as consulting her first. Daisy is also, to some extent, slighted by the script, which permanently traps her between the two men and gives Crawford little chance to create any substance for Daisy's character beyond her romantic relationships. She says that her illustration career is important to her, but based on how often she's seen actually doing any work in the film, the audience has to simply take her word for it. Even her non-male connections seem transitory: she has a dog who disappears with no explanation halfway through the film, never to be seen again, and a best friend (Martha Stewart) with whom she shares paltry screen time. Daisy is defined by her romances, by her men, which is of course typical of a melodrama but especially sad in a film whose theme purports to be a woman trying to break of such dependencies.

Nevertheless, though Daisy Kenyon suffers from occasionally trite plotting and a hesitant approach to the story's drama, the film remains affecting and enjoyable. Its quiet, simple emotions and shadowy beauty convey a mood of bittersweet melancholy; in its aftermath, the film leaves behind only the ghostly afterimage of its autumnal emotions, suspended between the fiery heat of a summer romance and the icy chill of a love affair's end. Daisy Kenyon is not about passion or hatred but about more ordinary and transitional feelings: the slow development of love over time, the cooling down of lingering lustful desire into friendship, the tension between professional goals and personal emotions. Preminger locates in these small-scale dramas a much more interesting dynamic than the usual melodramatic tendency to inflate, to blow up, to explode outward. Instead, Preminger's characters burrow inward, exploring themselves; it's a film about introspection, about finally coming to terms with one's own self.

The Body Snatcher

The Body Snatcher continues producer Val Lewton's streak of intelligent, substantial horror films for RKO, a run of films that were meant to be nothing but B-grade schlock with a few scares and thrills, but which consistently rose above this modest aim. Lewton's films are extraordinary, not just because of their justly acclaimed eerie atmosphere and inventive use of shadows to suggest horror rather than showing it directly, but because the producer never failed to locate the horror of his scenarios in interesting moral and psychological foundations. For Lewton, these low-budget horror productions became ways of exploring sexual attraction and foreignness (Cat People), class issues (The Leopard Man) and the psychology of childhood (The Curse of the Cat People). The Body Snatcher is, on its surface, a quietly creepy tale of serial murders that incorporates both the real-life story of the early 1800s Burke and Hare murders and the Robert Lewis Stevenson short story based on those events. Burke and Hare were a pair of murderers who killed 18 victims and then sold the corpses of their victims to the Edinburgh Medical College, where the doctors essentially disposed of the evidence through dissection. The film picks up on the underlying themes of this grisly incident, delving into the questions of morality raised by the story: the compromises involved in scientific research, the comparative value of human lives and the ethics of the medical profession in general.

The film's Dr. MacFarlane (Henry Daniell) is an eminent and well-respected researcher, the head of a school for doctors in training and an expert in anatomy. However, his practice is tainted by his association with the sinister Cabman Gray (Boris Karloff), a monstrous man who digs up graves and supplies the doctor's hospital with a steady supply of corpses for dissection and study. The doctor sees Gray as an ugly necessity, a way of getting around the laws that he believes constrain scientific research and limit the progress of medicine. If Gray can supply the school with more corpses, MacFarlane reasons, he can train better doctors who can go on to save more lives. However, MacFarlane's justifications aside, Gray also has a powerful hold over the doctor; they have apparently known one another for many years and were somehow involved together in the Burke and Hare murders. MacFarlane draws his innocent young assistant Fettes (Russell Wade) into the plot by enlisting him to receive corpses from Gray, signing for them as though they attained them through legal means.

Lewton, together with director Robert Wise, creates a typically dark, shadowy atmosphere in which this story can play out. The streets of Edinburgh, as rendered here, seem to consist mainly of dark back alleys through which sinister characters like Gray can stalk, his shadow stretched out across the wall in front of him. The sound design is equally stunning. A beggar woman who seems to be constantly around fills the night with her haunting, melancholy songs. The steady clip-clop of Gray's horse, its hooves echoing off the cobblestones as it pulls his carriage, signals the arrival of more nasty cargo through the night. Things only get darker when Gray, urged by Fettes to get more specimens for the school, switches from robbing graves to making his own fresh corpses. There's an eerily memorable sequence in which Gray's carriage quietly pursues a woman who walks down the street, singing, eventually disappearing into the foggy dark beyond an archway. As the carriage fades into the night after her, her singing abruptly cuts off a few moments later, her voice strangled into silence, the only indication of what's happened to her.

Karloff's performance as Gray is powerful and overbearing, and yet also, as the film goes on, surprisingly complex. Karloff is an intimidating presence, especially once he reveals his stylized one-handed technique for suffocating his victims. This character is sinister and evil, a nasty brute who thinks nothing of committing the most foul deeds. And yet it also becomes clear that he is more complex than a simple horror movie villain, that he's actually a lonely, poor man with very little to live for beyond the sense of power he gets from associating with a famed doctor like MacFarlane. There's a note of genuine sadness to Karloff's portrayal, a subtle emotional core beneath the evil surface; this subtlety and complexity mark Karloff as one of the greats of horror. This film was his last screen pairing with his fellow icon of 30s and 40s horror, Bela Lugosi, though it's a rather uneven match-up here since Lugosi only gets the minor role of MacFarlane's Igor-esque manservant Joseph. This confrontation between the two screen legends is horribly unbalanced as a result, not at all like the oneupsmanship on display when the two clash in Edgar Ulmer's The Black Cat. Here, Karloff clearly dominates Lugosi, though it's great fun to hear the Hungarian actor earnestly saying, through his characteristic thick accent, "I'm from Liverpool."

Karloff's Gray is, throughout this film, the locus for various tensions about scientific ethics and the evolution of morality in response to the rapidly developing advances of society. Gray might be a monster, but the corpses he supplies to MacFarlane and Fettes throughout the film allow the doctors to treat a critically wounded young girl (Sharyn Moffett) paralyzed from the legs down. Because of Gray's horrible actions, a young girl is able to walk again, and science has advanced in being able to treat a problem that had previously been deemed incurable. Lewton's consideration of these issues is ambiguous and subtle, allowing the contradictions between murderous horror and life-saving ingenuity to remain troublingly unresolved by the film's end. There is no answer: lives were lost to allow this girl to walk again, but her walking is undeniably a victory nonetheless, undeniably a beautiful and nearly miraculous thing. Lewton and Wise never lose sight of the film's primary raison d'être — to horrify, to frighten, to evoke a mood of gloom and murder — but at the same time they engage directly with the complicated tangle of ethics and trade-offs involved in scientific progress.