Monday, December 28, 2009

The Conversation

As befits a film about a wiretapping and surveillance expert, Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation is driven by its soundtrack, by the complex intersections of tape recordings, jazz music and overlapping dialogue that create this dense, layered audio construction. The wiretapper Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is a solitary and paranoid man, a consummate professional who builds all his own equipment and jealously guards his secrets from everyone in his life, including his longtime partner Stan (John Cazale) and his sometimes lover Amy (Teri Garr). Harry's lonely but stable life is disrupted when he becomes more involved than usual in his latest case, in which a businessman has asked Harry and his crew to record a conversation between a young couple in a public place. The couple, Mark (Frederic Forrest) and Ann (Cindy Williams), are aware that they're always being observed, so they go to a busy public park in the middle of the day, walking in endless circles through the crowds, believing that this will make it impossible to record what they are saying. For Harry, this is first and foremost a professional challenge, and he initially relishes the difficulty of the task he's been given. He is proud of his skills, and knows that he is possibly the only man in his field who could accomplish this job.

The film's introduction thus focuses on Harry's technical skills, and Coppola cuts crisply back and forth from the surveillance men in their various hiding spots, to the couple walking around and talking. We hear snatches of their conversation, sometimes crystal-clear, sometimes heavily processed or interrupted by other noises. The soundtrack reflects the attempts of the surveillance men to assemble a coherent tape by tracking the couple with three different mics. The couple talks about seemingly innocuous things: Christmas presents, the homeless, getting bored of walking in circles. This basic dialogue will return again and again throughout the film, with new details being filled in and new snatches of dialogue being heard as Harry works with the tapes and discovers new nuances in the audio. Each time he hears the tape, he seems to hear something new, and as new exchanges are unveiled, previous ones take on new meanings. At other times, a simple phrase might mean multiple different things based on context and how it's said, the exact tone of voice behind it. The audio, and the images of the couple that often accompany this recording, form the structural foundation for the film, as Harry begins to invest more and more emotional meaning into this recording.

Harry, who opens the film insisting that he doesn't care about the actual content of his recordings, and doesn't care what impact his work has beyond the mechanics of doing it, begins to feel the moral weight of his profession. Certainly, this morality is something he's tried hard to escape, as is revealed later in the film. Harry's sleazy competitor Bernie Moran (Allen Garfield) tells a story about how the information gathered in one of Harry's previous jobs had led to the deaths of an entire family. Harry tries to shrug it off, insisting that it's none of his business, that his only concern is the technical challenges of getting the best possible audio, but it's obvious that he's moved by the idea that his work can have devastating and horrifying implications in the outside world. At one point, convinced that his newest tape is going to lead to another murder, he even goes to confession, attempting to cleanse his soul of the guilt. He leads up to the admission with minor sins like taking the Lord's name in vain, an offense that bothers him throughout the film, but throughout his whole confession the priest, seen in hazy outline through the thin gauze screen of the confessional, simply nods his head silently. There is no answer for Harry's overpowering guilt, his growing impression that he's going to cause a horrible crime.

These guilty feelings soon escalate into outright paranoia, as Harry feels he's being stalked by the blandly sinister Martin Stett (Harrison Ford), a representative for Harry's employer who's angry that Harry is waffling about handing over the tapes. Harry's fears deepen after an encounter with unlikely femme fatale Meredith (Elizabeth MacRae), a giggly, earnest blonde whose unexpected betrayal — after a moody, late-night noir love scene where her naked body, in Harry's spacious workshop, is a black-on-black silhouette — sends Harry spiraling further into isolated paranoia. The film's lengthy and borderline-surreal denouement increasingly ventures into Harry's frazzled subjectivity, encompassing a dream scene where a fog-shrouded Harry shouts out non-sequiturs about his life at Ann, his latest recording subject, whose words and fate have held such intense fascination for him. By the time Harry discovers a previously unheard section of the tape where the couple plans a rendezvous, and subsequently visits their hotel room, his imaginings and fears have taken over the film, as Coppola shifts fluidly in and out of Harry's imagination. The film's most famous and startling image — a toilet overflowing with blood — is a potent symbol of Harry's feelings of guilt.

This extended ending also winds up being a neat and ironic reversal of what we (and Harry) assume is going on here. A crucial bit of tape is replayed, one last time, and this time a subtle shift in emphasis on one word completely changes the meaning of what's being said. It's a final reminder of the importance of words, of how much can hang on the meaning and intent of a single word, a single syllable, of how much information can be encoded in the most seemingly innocuous audio. One word, pronounced slightly differently, makes all the difference between innocence and guilt, between the murderer and the victim. It's this kind of subtle, surprising effect that makes Coppola's The Conversation such a taut, powerful film, a film where the soundtrack is at least as important, and probably even more important than, the methodical, carefully composed images.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Fantastic Mr. Fox

Wes Anderson's adaptation of Roald Dahl's children's book The Fantastic Mr. Fox is bursting with delight and wit. It is not necessarily a children's film but a film made with a child's sensibility, a child's sheer pleasure in images and stories. It is playful, inventive, irreverent, packed with moments of offbeat humor, surprising pathos and warmth. It is stitched together from various familiar stories and tropes — our differences make us special, family is important, even some borrowings from genre fiction's obsession with the criminal's perennial "one last score" — and it tries to make something magical and fresh from these well-worn ideas. It largely succeeds. The film is alive with a communitarian spirit, with the genuine celebration of quirky, unusual individuals and the ways in which they fit together, sometimes awkwardly, as a larger group. It's a film about family relationships, about struggling against or towards one's true nature, about modernity's distance from the natural world. And all of this with a cast consisting of stop-motion foxes, badgers and opossums.

Though this is Anderson's first animated film, thus setting it apart from his other work, it never feels like anything but an Anderson film. To some extent, this is because Anderson has been steadily moving towards a place where an animated film like this fits perfectly into his oeuvre. Certainly, he's always been interested in creating artificial, stylized worlds with little connection to tangible reality beyond the recognizable and understated emotions of his characters. His detail-oriented aesthetic makes him as much a designer as a filmmaker: his films are always packed with bric-à-brac and accessories, with the objects that surround and define his characters. Paintings, books, furniture, and other decorative touches are routes into characterization, as well as being displayed simply for low-key humor. The cutaway views of Steve Zissou's ship in The Life Aquatic — as well as the animated underwater scenes in that film — thus seem like a preparation for Anderson's complete embrace of the animated aesthetic, with multiple cutaways, in The Fantastic Mr. Fox.

This approach is perfectly suited to the children's book storytelling of The Fantastic Mr. Fox. The film's anthropomorphic animals inhabit a world of bright, autumnal colors, the golden-hued images seemingly coming right out of a picture book. Within this world, the characters are often weirdly overwhelmed in the compositions, trotting around like tiny action figures, leaping across the frame and darting through the maze-like routes that Anderson plots out through many of the scenes. He often cuts back to a wide shot that shows the whole set in cutaway, so that the characters look like moving dolls in a very elaborate children's toy set-up. This sense of play is endearing and infectious; it gives the impression that Anderson is letting us in on his private fantasies, the stories he invents for his personal collection of animal action figures.

Among this cast of toy animals is the title Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney), an excitement-loving predator who preys on chicken farms and exalts in the thrill of the hunt, or rather the break-in in his case. Anderson cleverly models him, not on a children's book hero, but on the movie stereotype of the aging crook trying to go straight, but tempted to do one last job because of the excitement. Fox's life of crime is ended when his wife, Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) announces that she's pregnant, and that she doesn't want this risky life anymore. Instead, Fox becomes a newspaper columnist, settling down as the couple has a new son, Ash (Jason Schwartzman). The Fox family is relatively content, but their life is too simple for the family's father, who considers himself a self-styled adventurer. In this respect, the casting of George Clooney is an act of genius, since his instantly recognizable voice gives Mr. Fox the persona of a real smooth operator, a real glamorous daredevil in the mold of Clooney's Daniel Ocean. He even has a stylized signature move — a whistle, a snap and a hand gesture — a sign both of his cool and the lengths he goes to maintain his image. His is not an effortless cool, it's very deliberate and very self-aware, much like Anderson's own self-conscious aesthetic.

The core of Anderson's film follows the plot of the Dahl novel, as Fox, together with his dopey opossum landlord Kylie (Wallace Wolodarsky), plots to steal from the three nasty local farmers Bean (Michael Gambon), Boggis (Robin Hurlstone) and Bunce (Hugo Guinness). The caper scenes recall both Anderson's debut Bottle Rocket and the action scenes in The Life Aquatic, precisely tracing out of the path of the action and chronicling the combination of careful planning and in-the-moment improvisation that goes into the Fox's plans. Anderson's finicky aesthetic is perfectly suited to sequences like this, as his eye for detail ensures that every piece fits together. The animation is perfectly attuned to Anderson's style, as well, with a jerky varying of rhythms and speeds that gives the characters a restless energy. They sometimes seem to be hurtling around Anderson's obstacle course sets like they're in a pinball machine, and they can unpredictably burst from stasis to action at any moment. At other times, the set cleverly allows for disjunctions where the characters can move fluidly across a large distance within a second, so that the characters' motion substitutes for a conventional cut.

Also typical of Anderson is the way he deals with the story's emotions, which are large and up-front, befitting a children's story, but are treated with an understated subtlety that makes these characters more poignant and complex than they otherwise would be. The biggest themes of the story are, as often as not, stated outright, so there's no question about what's at stake here: the constant desire for more from life; the tradeoff between simple contentment and a vibrant, exciting life; the complications of family. The Fox son, Ash, is a typical Anderson eccentric outcast; he wants to fit in, wants to be considered "an athlete" like his cool and popular dad, in whose shadow he constantly resides. But instead he's shy and awkward, and finds that his dad dotes more attention on Ash's visiting cousin Kristofferson (voiced by Anderson's own brother Eric). Kristofferson is sleek and stylish like Mr. Fox himself, naturally talented and athletic, and he's incorporated into Fox's schemes and plans almost as soon as he arrives, while Ash, eager to be accepted, gets pushed aside. These tensions are right up front, but the expressiveness of the character design and animation infuses these characters with deeper emotional substance below the surface. It's all in the body language, and the characters' watery, alive eyes, highlighted in closeups where the light glistens on the hint of tears threatening to well up in the corners of their eyes. The subtlety of the animation, and the performances of the voice actors, helps enrich their emotional arcs.

Indeed, from Clooney's suave cool to Streep's even-keeled warmth to Willem Dafoe's sinister rat gangster to Bill Murray's badger lawyer, the cast is uniformly excellent, creating a vibrant and living community. That community is at the film's heart, the idea that all these different creatures, each defined by their natural talents and attributes, their disparate personalities, add up to a whole greater than the sum of the parts. It's a typical children's movie theme, delivered with Anderson's usual panache and cleverness. More than anything, it's an unremittingly fun movie. It's never less than a blast to watch, especially when these cool and collected animals unexpectedly betray their animal natures with outbursts of frenzied growling and snorting, or tear apart a plate of food in a spate of hunger. Anderson has made a sweet, smart fantasy, a pure celebration of eccentricity and style. In the end, his idiosyncratic characters make a place for themselves in the modern world by reconciling themselves to compromise, to cooperation, to new ways of doing things.

Monday, December 14, 2009

My 2009 in Movies

With a tip of the hat to That Little Round Headed Boy, I present the best films I saw for the first time in 2009, regardless of when they were released. I likely won't be doing a conventional best-of-the-year round-up here, and I much prefer this kind of format. Why limit myself to the few new movies I managed to see this year? Instead, here are 21 great films that I caught up with in 2009, including one that actually was newly released this year. The links below all point to my reviews, so this post also serves as a summary of some of what I've been up to this year.

Anything Else One of Woody Allen's late masterpieces is routinely ignored and lumped in with the dismal films that preceded it, but it's a surprisingly complex and multilayered study of romantic disappointment and folly, one of Woody's best relationship comedies.

Autumn Tale The final film in Eric Rohmer's "Four Seasons" cycle is typically low-key, leaving its richest emotional undercurrents burbling away beneath the surface.

Les Biches Flickhead's great Claude Chabrol Blog-a-thon provided me with a perfect opportunity to explore this New Wave auteur's work in much greater depth than I previously had. Among the many treasures I discovered was this sublimely nasty character study of a mutually parasitic lesbian relationship.

Black Narcissus In a mountain convent, nuns are nearly overcome by the raw sensuality of their surroundings, and Powell and Pressburger's overripe imagery makes this seduction concrete and achingly beautiful.

La cérémonie Another Chabrol treasure discovered this year: this one has more subtle lesbian undertones but is more directly about class divisions, violent personalities and, as I've recently discussed with Troy Olson, the importance of TV to modern life and the different uses of the medium by different classes of society.

Crumb Terry Zwigoff's bracing documentary looks at the artist R. Crumb and his utterly bizarre family without flinching from the twisty contradictions of his art or the ugliest aspects of the artist's personality and obsessions. Crumb is a complicated and important figure, and any documentary that does him justice has to be a masterpiece.

Gang of Four Not one of Jacques Rivette's best-known examinations of art, theater, imagination and conspiracy, but probably one of his best. A troupe of actresses stumble around in the midst of a shadowy mystery, but mostly it's an elaborate excuse for Rivette's games with acting and identity.

A Girl in Every Port My Early Hawks Blog-a-thon was a great start to this year, as I explored the nearly forgotten and obscure early 30s films of my favorite Hollywood auteur, Howard Hawks. The highlight of the project, for me, was likely the opportunity to see the only Hawks silent film I was able to get my hands on, this delightful early example of Hawks' obsession with masculine friendships and the meddling women who come between his adventuring men's men.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind This moving, tragic romance is especially overwhelming because Michel Gondry's consistently inventive visuals find, again and again, the perfect way of expressing the story's themes of memory, fate, love, loss, and the mingled pain and joy of relationships.

If.... Lindsay Anderson's highly original study of a British boarding school subtly introduces surrealist diversions as it mocks both authoritarian excess and ineffectual revolt.

The Incredible Shrinking Man This sci-fi classic is one of those rare movies that is both totally dated and yet feels as fresh and original today as it must have when it was first released. The effects don't have the same impact anymore, but director Jack Arnold's radical vision of humanity's place in the universe is as potent and poignant as ever. The final monologue is a perfect example of pulp writing at its best.

Inglourious Basterds I've already written a lot about this film in conversation with Jason Bellamy, so here I'll only say: the most exciting cinematic experience of the year.

The Mouth Agape Maurice Pialat is a master of observational dramas that get uncomfortably intimate with harrowing, psychologically trying situations. This film juxtaposes a dying woman's last days with the sexual dramas of her family as they gather to say goodbye to her, and never have sex and death been so thoroughly entangled on screen.

The Return of Dracula Paul Landres' stark low-budget horror flick actually has little connection to Dracula, but is instead a profound revision of the vampire myth, stripping down the bloodsucking monster to his barest essence, as a seductive sexual predator stalking through the night. The film's suburban setting further contextualizes the vampire's horror as a corruption of innocence and youth; in a year in which vampires are very much in vogue, this film is a reminder of just how chilling and imaginative a vampire film can be.

Ride Lonesome One of the best of Budd Boetticher's formalist, minimalist Westerns.

Simon of the Desert This is probably Luis Buñuel's funniest film, and one of his best examinations of religious hypocrisy and devotion, portraying religious conviction as both praiseworthy and somewhat absurd, a radical disjunction from the world itself. The titular saint is a pious man who denies corporeality to an extreme degree. The highlights of this saint's fantastic journey, of course, are his encounters with Sylvia Pinal's very sexy Satan.

Summer Hours Olivier Assayas patiently, subtly follows the trajectory of a single family through three generations, tracing history and emotions through pieces of art and furniture, through the objects into which these people pour their memories and emotions.

Thief Michael Mann's debut winds up being one of his strongest films, with his signature themes distilled into a minimal framework. The film explores the professionalism and aspirations of the titular safecracker through its lush visuals, replete with the sparks of high-power torches, white-hot and searing straight to the soul.

3 Godfathers This lesser-known John Ford/John Wayne pairing is a hallucinatory desert vision, isolating its characters in gorgeous but frightening landscapes and vistas.

Vladimir and Rosa The goofiest and wildest of the films made under the anonymous name of the Dziga-Vertov Group, Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin's early 70s attempt at communal, revolutionary cinema. It's a bluntly satirical, absurdo-comico take on the Chicago Eight trial, drawing in broad strokes and bright primary colors, and infusing everything with a streak of nasty humor.

Yesterday Girl Alexander Kluge's Godard-influenced debut feature is a burst of pure energy in the form of a fast-paced, unrelenting collage of images and impressions. It's a portrait of institutional absurdity coming into conflict with human reality.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Films I Love #46: Dead Man (Jim Jarmusch, 1995)

Dead Man is Jim Jarmusch's feverish American nightmare, a poetic vision of the American West — and the movie Western — as an endless plain of absurdist violence and senseless destruction. In the film's opening scenes, the accountant William Blake (Johnny Depp) rides on a train bound West following the death of his parents, towards the promise of a new job. But a coal-smeared train worker (Crispin Glover, in one of many memorable cameos dotted throughout the film) prophetically warns him not to trust in anything, not to expect sense or justice from the West. After all, he points out, as behind him the men on the train hoot and holler, shooting at buffalo through the windows, this is a land where millions of animals have been killed for no apparent reason. It's this idea that carries through the rest of the film, the idea of the American West as a surrealist frontier, where buffalo skulls line the walls, where friendliness is greeted with gunfire, where even sensual pleasure is deadly. Blake arrives in the West to find he doesn't have the job he was promised, but his true downfall comes after a gunfight in which he's wounded, fleeing with a bullet in his chest and an unjust dual murder charge chasing him.

Wounded and weak, Blake is discovered by the Native American Nobody (Gary Farmer), who believes that his new ward is actually the poet William Blake. Together, they embark on a metaphysical journey towards Blake's eventual death, a spiritual adventure that Nobody approaches as if the other man is already dead, which maybe he is. In any event, Blake and Nobody's journey causes them to cross paths with Iggy Pop as a cross-dressing outlaw, an aging Robert Mitchum as a shotgun-toting factory owner who always appears in front of his own self-portrait, and Lance Henriksen, Michael Wincott and Eugene Byrd as a trio of ornery bounty hunters. The film's bursts of violence are darkly comic and ridiculous, with Depp's Blake evincing a serene detachment while his enemies are dispatched through Rube Goldberg-like bullet trajectories. The film is a fable of the West, a deconstruction of the scrubbed-clean Hollywood Westerns of old: Jarmusch makes his film about the exploitation of the Native Americans, the casual brutality and violence, the greed and power lust that drove men into the West, grasping at everything they could find. Jarmusch's poetic dream-story suggests an alternative to the cowboys vs. Indians mythology; this is the West in all its raw, nightmarish intensity, a West awash in blood and grit.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Unclothed Man in the 35th Century A.D.

The Unclothed Man in the 35th Century A.D. is the new web series from comic artist Dash Shaw, representing his first venture into an animated series after establishing himself as one of modern comics' most innovative and unusual formalists. The series, which can be viewed in its entirety for free at the IFC site, consists of four episodes, each roughly two minutes long, applying Shaw's characteristic style — a blend of clean-line cartooning, diagrammatic precision, and stylistic collage — to the animated form. Shaw is an astonishingly precocious young artist, who in the last few years has progressed from the sketchy but intriguing formalism of his short story collection Goddess Head to the fully flowering imagination on display in his 700-page tour-de-force family drama Bottomless Belly Button and, more salient to this film, in the online strip Bodyworld and his sci-fi contributions to the Mome anthology. It's the style of these stories, which exploit Shaw's idiosyncratic use of color overlays, that directly led to the style of The Unclothed Man.

The Unclothed Man, like most of Shaw's work, is concerned first and foremost with ways of visually representing complex and difficult-to-express ideas, with ways of looking at and understanding the world. As in Shaw's very similar Mome stories, the film uses a slim sci-fi premise as a hook to examine an unusual experience and its effect on the human body and mind. Shaw is continually dissecting experiences, stretching out time so that each component of a moment might be studied in depth. In Bodyworld, he portrays the subjectivity of drug experiences and various metaphysical states, while some of his short stories deal with intradimensional travel and overlapping worlds. In Bottomless Belly Button, the anthropomorphized appearance of one character — in a cast otherwise consisting of humans — is a reflection of that character's opinion of himself, his feeling of being an outcast.

In The Unclothed Man, these tropes play out in the way Shaw examines the experience of modeling for an art class while trying to maintain a rigid, unmoving posture. The film's hero is a rebel agent in a future where human-like droids have taken over many routine tasks, including that of modeling for artists. As part of an anti-droid rebel resistance, the hero Rebel X-6 poses as a droid in an art class, shaving himself and taking pills to maintain a stiff, robot-like stasis. The second episode, in which X-6 poses nude for a drawing class, breaks down his experience with a montage of body parts, each one accompanied by pop-up captions describing the sensations coursing through his body, as the art style gracefully shifts between various modes, from charcoal shading to Photoshop-style filters, reflecting the ease with which the future's artistic processes allow artists to mold their computer-generated "drawings."

It's this fluidity that makes The Unclothed Man so dazzling and exciting. Shaw juxtaposes different styles within the frame, allowing his more cartoony characters — like the big-nosed art class instructor, a callback to old-school newspaper comic stereotypes — to clash against the mannequinesque minimalism of his central character or the wavy, giraffe-like curves of the drawing student who takes a special interest in X-6. Similarly, various emotional and physical states interweave in interesting ways, so that a scene that might at first seem to be an objective observation from a distance opens up into an examination of X-6's inner reactions and psychological/physical responses. The second episode closes with "a dream," in which abstract designs swirl and congeal into Freudian psychosexual images, Masonic/conspiratorial symbology, and eventually a maze of cartoon symbols, the building blocks of a drawn language. It's all very self-consciously about representing ideas and emotions through the drawing, through the line and the symbol; the words "a dream" themselves, placed before this sequence, quickly morph into rows of teeth as the boxes surrounding the words form the outline of a mouth.

As far as incident goes, the film's plot is almost inanely simple, and the brief "synopses" included with each episode mock the film's plotless ambling. It's all so much more about the imagery and internal wanderings triggered by the basic situation. In the first episode, we're introduced to Rebel X-6 through one of his missions-in-progress, which plays out in a mix of conventional animation with interludes that mimic old text-based computer games, with blocky computer type scrolling across the screen. The mission apparently consists of the rebel destroying a droid outpost using something called a "black hole mouth," but Shaw introduces high-concept sci-fi accoutrements like this only as an excuse to display some stunning imagery, in this case the rebel spaceman floating through the void, sucking an orbiting satellite into a swirl of color that streams into his mouth like water down a drain hole. Space, in Shaw's conception, looks like a crayoned child's drawing. His sense of color, always strong, is especially vivid at moments like this, when what's actually happening becomes abstracted into blocks of pure color. Later in the episode, Shaw details X-6's preparations for his modeling assignment, particularly his process of shaving: a closeup looks like the diagrammatic inserts in a Schick commercial, showing the blades of a razor plucking hairs from their pores. These micro-processes interest Shaw, who's always examining what's going on with his protagonist at the physiological level, whether it's his struggle not to sweat (droids don't sweat!) or his paranoia about a non-existent pimple that might break his cover.

Other episodes are similarly introspective and devoid of drama. The second episode concerns itself with X-6's subjective experience of posing, the creation of art in the technology-driven 35th Century, and X-6's symbolic dream. In the third episode, X-6 as a model droid unexpectedly forms a connection with an artist, and passes out from the physical strain of modeling. This tirggers another subjective abstraction, as his fainting spell is visualized by Rothko-like color fields blurring and overlapping. He then finds himself in a room that's like a catalogue of 20th Century art, culture, technology and design, the past encroaching upon the future. It seems the artist who's interested in X-6 has a nostalgic tendency, a desire for a connection with the past that's otherwise absent in this obsessively forward-looking culture. Finally, in the fourth episode, mirroring the first, X-6 reveals himself as an anti-droid rebel and once again utilizes his "black hole mouth," sucking in an entire world, blurring everything together as though mixing paints. This time, though, the act of destruction becomes a metaphor for sexuality, for union as mouths and tongues join together into one form, one drawing.

The Unclothed Man in the 35th Century A.D. is a fascinating first animated work from one of today's most original and unusual artists. Shaw adapts well from the comics page to the cinematic form. His animation (assisted by Jane Samborski, working from Shaw's drawings) is sometimes stiff and overly static, and some of his "camera" moves are slightly awkward, betraying the fact that Shaw is a newcomer to cinema. He sometimes seems to be still rooted in comics, as his heavy reliance on text suggests; to be fair, though, the text is in nearly every case inventively incorporated into the image, as one more visual element, rather than treated simply as a way to tell the story without dialogue or spoken narration. There's very little spoken dialogue in the film, just a few garbled transmissions from X-6's superiors, but strangely enough one hardly misses it. The low-key soundtrack, by James Lucido, is in any case a perfect complement to Shaw's immersive images.

In other ways, too, Shaw brings to animation the same restless curiosity about form that runs through all his comics work. At one point, conveying movement, he has a character race across the frame, and surrounds him with an arrow-shaped border, blending the kinetic language of film with the static, symbolic language of comics. The arrow, strictly unnecessary to convey motion since the character is actually moving, works instead as a meta intrusion, a reminder of the film's obsession with expressing abstract concepts and subjective experiences visually. At the end of the sequence, as a flying ship crashes to ground, the arrow condenses into a tiny irregular triangle, a slash of visible space within a black void.

Though Shaw is only just beginning to explore animation, The Unclothed Man already displays evidence of the cartoonist's affinity for animation. Almost as well as his comics, this film expresses Shaw's ongoing desire to look at the world from a slightly askew perspective, to express his fascination with the complexity of people's inner universes. Thus, sci-fi is perhaps the perfect genre for him, even though he's suggested that after this film he's going to abandon sci-fi for at least a while. The form allows him to map his visualizations of inner realities onto various equally stylized outer realities, whether that's the black of space, temporal intersection points, or the distant future. Shaw's first animated film is very much worth viewing for anyone interested in checking out one of modern art's freshest and most consistently challenging new artists. As a bonus, IFC has made available, as "extras," a complete Shaw comic (Look Forward, First Son of Terra Two, from Mome) and several wallpapers (including nice tributes to Gus Van Sant and Guy Maddin). Of course, as welcome as these extra tidbits are, it's the film itself — a probing, emotional examination of what it means to make art and to forge meaningful human interactions — that should be the main draw.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Bad Lieutenant

Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant is a film entirely built around its central performance, Harvey Keitel's fearless, unfettered turn as a corrupt, unnamed New York City police lieutenant. Keitel delivers a performance of unrelenting power and intensity, a nasty, ugly portrayal of a man on a mission of self-destruction. He staggers through a filthy, dimly lit vision of New York, doing drugs in grimy apartments and even grimier hallways, pulling out his gun at a moment's provocation, engaging in sordid sexual exploits even though he actually seems barely interested, and must have so many drugs in his system that real sexuality is impossible anyway. It's a sloppy, crazy performance, and Keitel pours himself into it, breathing life into this bottom-dwelling man, this guy who, for no discernible reason, seems bent on bringing himself to the lowest possible place.

In order to document this everyman's descent into ruin, Ferrara smears the screen with brilliant, hallucinatory imagery, increasingly spiraling into a subjective vision of a truly horrifying world, a world where everything is stacked against this antihero, this shambling wreck of a man. It's apparent early on that the film is working on a symbolic level when, during an orgy with an unnamed young woman and a fey pretty boy, Keitel stumbles around naked, his arms outstretched like Jesus. It's the film's first Christ pose, but there will be many more: Keitel's journey through the New York underworld is explicitly defined as a religious experience, a struggle to come to terms with his spirituality in the context of his complete moral degradation. Jesus himself appears, as well, coming down from the cross still freshly bleeding, silently observing Keitel's plight.

Though there are obvious signs of degradation in everything Keitel does here, the true symbol of his self-destructive streak is contained in his masochistic fascination with the (entirely imaginary) World Series between the Mets and the Dodgers. Keitel is a compulsive gambler, of course; he has such a compulsive personality that there's seemingly no desire, no need, that he can resist. He spends the bulk of the film wheedling his fellow cops into putting their money on the underdog Mets, who had already lost the first three games of the series and were thus one loss away from throwing it all away. In the meantime, though, Keitel is rooting against his own home team, putting increasingly extravagant amounts of money on the Dodgers and getting deeper and deeper into debt as the Mets pull back from the brink of defeat, winning one game after another against all odds. Keitel is a born loser, basically, failing to see himself in his shaggy hometown team: as the Mets come back again and again, dramatically turning the tide of the series, Keitel only sinks deeper into his self-created abyss, masochistically letting his debt ride on each game until he is in so far over his head that he has to know he'll never get out. It's a rich irony, and Ferrara utilizes the patter of the games' sports announcers as a near-constant soundtrack, a low-level buzz in the background of many key scenes, steadily ticking towards Keitel's ruin as the announcers cheerfully document the Mets' improbable victory.

The film's plot, such as it is, focuses around Keitel's halfhearted attempts to investigate the vicious rape of a Catholic nun (Frankie Thorn) at a church. This scene is a brutal slap in the face, as visceral and horrifying as Keitel's performance. Two men strip the nun and beat her, holding her down on an altar as they defile her. Ferrara deliberately constructs the scene as a collage of religious desecration: a statue of the Virgin Mary toppling over, the chalice with the host being overturned, a crucifix being used as a weapon, and finally Jesus himself pierced on a cross, crying out in anguish in unison with the nun. This profound, violent insult to Catholicism seems to awaken something primal in Keitel's lieutenant, who is a Catholic but, obviously, a rather disconnected one, abstracted from his supposed faith. At one point, he watches his daughter receive communion and smiles with paternal pride, but not long after he can be seen snorting cocaine off of his daughter's communion picture.

His Catholicism actually seems to be tied up with his masochistic tendencies, his guilt and conflicted desire to achieve some kind of spiritual stasis from his tormented existence. As Keitel gets deeper and deeper into debt with his bookie, he's warned that he's going to get himself killed, and he simply responds, "I'm a Catholic, I can't be killed." It's this shallow understanding of religious feeling that drives him throughout the film, leading him at one point to go literally crawling on his knees towards a bleeding Jesus, kissing his savior's bloody, dirty feet. Ferrara is probing a kind of primal religious feeling, religion stripped to a raw essence, as represented not only by Keitel but by the nun as well. In a crucial scene, Keitel comes face to face with the nun — who he'd earlier observed voyeuristically at the hospital where she was recovering — and finds that she will not reveal the identities of her attackers because she forgives them. Keitel becomes like a devil on her shoulder, cajoling her, trying to get her to forsake her saintly pose, to wish for earthly justice instead of maintaining this attitude of stoic spiritual devotion. The conflict here is between Keitel, mired in the world, in the flesh, and the nun, who places herself above worldly concerns altogether, above even her own body, which means so little to her that she ultimately shrugs off its desecration. Keitel is unable to understand her forgiveness, unable to accept a worldview so at odds with his own, a way of thinking that is entirely distant from the physical world and its problems.

The film is thus seeped in Catholic guilt, in the simultaneous shame and primal attraction of sin, which Keitel's debased lieutenant wallows in throughout the film. In scene after scene, he pushes the boundaries of his performance into uncomfortable areas, such as the lengthy sequence where he threatens a pair of underage girls (who actually look like they're at least thirty, but nevermind) into baring themselves and simulating oral sex. Keitel's repetitive insistence that one girl should "show me how you suck a cock" verges from sinister to nearly comical to exhausting. His performance is frequently hard to watch, even embarrassing, and he projects a kind of emotional nakedness at every moment, as though his inner self is always right there on the surface, ready to explode outwards. His whiny, blubbering outbursts give way to sequences where he maintains more of a steely Dirty Harry-esque coldness; in one scene, Ferrara places his camera so it looks up the barrel of Keitel's gun as the cop threatens a pair of criminals.

Some of the best sequences involve Keitel's visits to a waifish redhead (Zoë Lund) who gives him drugs. She's drifting and narcotized, seemingly living in her own world, disconnected from the messy corporeal reality of the lieutenant's existence. Drugs, perhaps, are another way of achieving the nun's beautific separation from the worldly, recasting Keitel's habitual drug use as another way of chasing spiritual enlightenment, another way of locating the divine in the mundane and filthy. Her introduction is darkly comic as she wanders around her apartment in a daze, always a step behind, muttering to herself and casting sly, bright-eyed gazes at Keitel as he shoots up. But in a moment of lucidity, she also delivers what might be the film's mantra, its central theme distilled to an essence: "Vampires are lucky; they get to feed on others. We've gotta eat away at ourselves."

Indeed, Keitel spends the entire film eating away at himself, wearing himself down to nothing until his eventual implosion. It's an astonishing performance, a performance with no sense of boundaries or limits, and Ferrara admirably supports his actor with a skeletal framework that defines Keitel's seemingly aimless quest as a search for spirituality and redemption. The film nearly implodes by the end, descending into confusion and mystery, but that's perhaps appropriate, since Keitel never really gets the answers he wants, never really achieves the higher state he's so desperate to attain. He never gets above his mire, instead sinking deeper and deeper until the inevitable denouement is an expected anticlimax, the sad last whimper of a sad man.

Friday, December 4, 2009


Alfred Hitchcock's Sabotage is best known for a plot device that Hitch himself regretted using, a suspense sequence that the Master of Suspense later deemed a failure in his oeuvre. Indeed, the film is dominated by this particular set piece, a lengthy scene in which a young boy carries a package across London, not knowing that there's a bomb beneath the unassuming brown paper wrapping. The boy is Stevie (Desmond Tester), the younger brother of Sylvia (Sylvia Sidney), and he was given the deadly package by his sister's Eastern European emigré husband, Verloc (Oskar Homolka). Verloc is a saboteur, working against the British war effort at the behest of shadowy employers who urge him towards increasingly horrible crimes. When his initial acts of sabotage, like disrupting London's electrical power for a few hours, are deemed "laughable" by his superiors, Verloc is instructed to deliver a bomb instead.

The sequence in which young Stevie carries this package across town for his sinister brother-in-law is a typically masterful Hitchcockian suspense set piece, despite Hitch's later disavowal of the scene. The tension builds steadily as Stevie is continually delayed in his journey. He was told to get his package to a cloak room by a certain time, but obviously not told why or what was inside, so he doesn't really feel the urgency of the mission. Instead, he dawdles along the way, admiring the goods at an open-air market, getting pressed into a toothpaste demonstration by an aggressive street hawker and stopping to watch a parade that prevents him from crossing a street. Throughout the sequence, Hitchcock frequently cuts back to the package that the audience knows carries a sinister cargo, and also inserts shots of clock faces to show the passage of time as the minute of the bomb's detonation ticks slowly closer. It's a harrowing scene, and by the end each stoplight, each delay that keeps the boy from his destination, only makes the pulse pounder harder and faster. As the final moment draws closer, the cutting accelerates, faster and faster, until the economical final montage: a few quick shots of the package in the boy's arms, followed by a shot of the tram he's on exploding.

This shocking denouement destroys the audience's expectation that a filmmaker would never kill off an adorable kid so callously — especially after really jerking on the audience's heartstrings by having a cute little puppy playing with the boy in his final moments. It's a startling and horrifying scene, and in fact Hitchcock was probably right to disown it despite its undeniable power; it unbalances the film, elevates its stakes to a level that it would be pretty much impossible for a light thriller to justify. In the aftermath of this scene, the film struggles to find its feet again, and never quite does. Actually, Hitchcock is never really able to conjure up much credible drama here at all. Verloc is being investigated by the Scotland Yard detective Ted Spencer (John Loder), who poses as a vegetable seller and constantly hangs around outside the cinema Verloc owns. Ted takes an interest in Sylvia, who's married to the older Verloc not out of love but because he's good to her brother and provides them with stability and security. It's a familiar 30s story, the romantic triangle of the young woman, the handsome man her own age, and the older man who she respects and feels indebted to, here given a twist by making the older husband a sinister, criminal figure.

The plot is relatively inert, since from the beginning the audience knows that Verloc is a saboteur working for a foreign power, that Ted is a detective, and that by the time the film is over Sylvia will have to realize what's going on with her seemingly harmless husband and switch her affections to the other man. With not much happening on the story level, Hitchcock gets as much as he can from the pure visual storytelling possibilities of the situation. In fact, at times the film seems to consist of little besides exchanges of charged glances and slowly tracking dramatic closeups. Hitchcock encodes the drama in alternating closeups, focusing on the eyes: Sylvia looking suspiciously at her husband, wondering what's going on with him as strange men meet with him in the cinema's back room; Verloc glaring, his heavy brows arched as he contemplates his next devious and desperate step.

This approach reaches its apex in the climactic dinner scene after Stevie has been killed in the explosion. Sylvia knows what happened and about Verloc's role in it, and as Verloc cravenly tries to act as though everything is normal, Sylvia's eyes are burning holes in him. Hitchcock accentuates the tension by patiently drawing out the moment, capturing that look of hatred and rage in Sylvia's eyes, and honing in on the details that reveal what's going through her mind. Hitchcock's camera pinpoints her fingering her wedding ring, thinking about what it now represents, and eyeing the knife she's using to serve dinner, thinking about what other uses it could be put to.

Despite the dark material, Hitchcock also still finds some space for comic relief and humorous asides. Sometimes these diversions come in the form of offhand jokes, as when a couple walks by during Verloc's rendezvous with an enemy agent at an aquarium, and Hitchcock takes the opportunity to toss in a joke about oyster sex changes. But there's also the character of the bomb-maker A.F. Chatman (William Dewhurst), who disguises his real profession behind the front of a pet shop and quarrels with his bitter daughter (Martita Hunt), implicitly insulting her right to her face. It's deliciously funny, naughty material, and Dewhurst delivers a juicy performance in a small role, clearly having fun with this nebbishy terrorist. Indeed, the performances in general — excepting perhaps Loder's thankless role as the bland Ted — are strong, from Homolka's vaguely foreign evil to Sidney's wide-eyed innocence, reminiscent of fellow Hitchcock heroine Nova Pilbeam. The film falls apart after Stevie's death, struggling to find the proper tone and ultimately finding that there is no way to salvage a lightweight thriller after such a devastating event. But even so, Hitchcock's keen eye for entertaining performances and subtle visual storytelling keeps the film interesting even when it's not wholly satisfying.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Conversations #11: Lawrence of Arabia

The eleventh installment of the Conversations has now been posted at The House Next Door. This time, Jason and I tackle David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia, using the opportunity to talk about the nature of the epic film, the evolution of the genre over time, the conventions of brownface performances, and of course the specifics of the film itself, which warrants much in-depth analysis. We approached this topic from very different perspectives, as Jason was already a big fan of the film while I was totally new to it and not generally a fan of old-school epics. Despite that, we wound up agreeing on many of the film's merits while reading certain scenes and elements in different ways. I think it's an interesting conversation, so take a look. As usual, we encourage everyone to continue the discussion in the comment thread; we always want our pieces to be the beginning of the conversation, not the whole story.

Continue reading at The House Next Door

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Three avant-garde shorts

Shirley Clarke's Bridges-Go-Round is a four-minute minimalist examination of urban structures around New York, mainly bridges as the title indicates. Clarke assembled the film using leftover footage from a commissioned documentary project, tinting the images of bridges and skyscrapers with various colored filters: red, blue yellow. These city images are thus reduced to abstract designs, geometrical abstractions much like the animated figures of Oskar Fischinger or Hans Richter. All those hard lines and rigid shapes create an impression of architectural precision, which Clarke subtly works against by blending the images together, superimposing them to create softer images, layered compositions where staggered cityscapes hover translucently above an image of a bridge's supports.

Clarke further plays with the film's form by creating two slightly different versions of the film, with the same images but different scores. Clarke commissioned two different scores, one an electronic score by Louis and Bebe Barron, the other a jazzy score by Teo Macero. Thus, with the two versions played back-to-back as Clarke often presented the film, Bridges-Go-Round is a lesson in the extent to which music can dictate the mood and tone of a film. With the bubbly, spacey electronic score, the film plays as contemplative and introspective, like a patient exploration of a sci-fi alien world. This is especially the case with the opening, in which images of bridges, blue-tinted, are superimposed over a glittery, watery backdrop, suggesting a strange sky on an alien world. With Macero's score, with its percussive rhythms and vocals used as punctuation, the film seems propulsive and lively, driven along by the pulse of the music, the near-abstract cityscapes seeming to dance and groove.

Bridges-Go-Round is an evocative small film, an examination of pure design and visual beauty, a poetic appreciation of urban architecture.

Paul Sharits' Bad Burns is a race against time and destruction, as though by staying in constant motion the filmic image can escape its inevitable degradation. Sharits exposes the film strip itself, a stream of abstracted images moving vertically within the frame. What seems at one point to have been an image of a woman's face is scrolled upwards, warped, blurred by speed into an abstract blob of color, formless and dissolved. The sprockets are visible to the right side of the frame, revealing a misaligned film strip, a mistake, a crooked scrap of film falling apart as it plays. Indeed, the film emerged from a mistake, a fortuitous accident during the construction of a three-screen gallery installation Sharits was assembling. Bad Burns is a scrap of leftovers, an accident that is unexpectedly poignant in its documentation of cinematic death.

Indeed, death implicitly haunts the background of the image here. The woman's face is ghostly and indistinct, as though she were already long gone, and the film's rapid flicker further accentuates her disappearance. Her blurry countenance stretches and condenses as the images roll by, and at times it seems like the blur is almost going to resolve itself into a recognizable face, features coming together out of the abstract color field before everything falls apart again. Indeed, the moments when the film stands still, trying to resolve a concrete image, are the most dangerous. Whenever the image freezes for a moment, rot and decay catch up to it, an acidic red burn spreading across the frame. Sharits is capturing death in motion, lingering on the moment when the decay spread across the frame like a corrosive disease, destroying the celluloid and destroying the image of the woman at the same time. Cinematic destruction and human death are thus united in a single image, the film strip standing in for the length of a person's life, with blotchy ruin waiting at the end when the race of life begins to slow down.

More than this, though, Bad Burns is simply a beautiful and affecting film, a Brakhage-like examination of light and color. Images flicker across the screen, miniscule changes washing through the color field like waves. It's gorgeous and, in its evocation of mortality and decay, surprisingly poignant.

Standish Lawder's Necrology is a film that seems to be one thing, relatively simple and straightforward, only to reveal itself as something else entirely at the point when one would normally assume the film to be over. It's a lengthy tracking shot down a seemingly endless escalator, presumably shot using a mirror mounted above the escalator. The cinematography is grainy black and white, so that as people appear at the bottom of the frame and slowly move towards the top, they disintegrate into the blackness, swallowed up in the dark. Many of the people are simply staring straight ahead at the camera or blankly off into space. Others are engaged in conversation, laughing, yawning, reading newspapers, picking their noses, adjusting their hair, fidgeting with coffee cups and other props. Lawder pairs these deadpan images with sweeping classical music, so that the overall effect is balanced somewhere between extreme mundanity and a kind of spirituality, as though this is an escalator leading between states of existence (towards Heaven? Hell?) or something similarly grand. The impression that the people on the steps are melting away into blackness at the top of the frame only enhances this sense of mystery; one watches this parade of people, of souls, and wonders what this simple image is meant to represent, what it means, where it's all leading.

And then, abruptly, the film is over, and no answers have been provided. Or at least that's what seems to happen. In fact, Lawder makes the end credits as much a part of the film as the images themselves. After the eight-minute uninterrupted shot of the escalator with its parade of people, the credits stretch for a few more minutes themselves, taking time to credit each of the actors who appears in the film (in order of appearance, of course). These people, who were each on screen for a fleeting few seconds, are given various descriptions that reveal the narratives, interior psychologies and personal histories that had been hidden within the film proper. These descriptions range from the grand (FBI agent; Criminal, interstate) to the mundane (Yawning girl; Man picking nose; Woman with canker sore in her left cheek) but they all probe the realities that stretch beyond the image, suggesting stories and possibilities for each of these people. It's both hilarious and profound, opening up the film's simple form into a grand epic of massed humanity, all of them possessing identities that are sometimes absurd, sometimes profane, sometimes suggestive of convoluted stories and sometimes pointing towards mere physical processes.

The credits essentially ask what it means for a person's identity to be defined by a glimpse or their face or a brief one-line description. Some of the credits go out of their way to identify the characters by race or ethnicity, while others are identified by occupation, still others by medical complaints they suffer from, others by the actions they've performed, the things they've done or do. All of us, at various times, might be identified by any or all of these means, and Lawder thus emphasizes how mutable identity is. All of these people, one suspects, might be identified differently at different times; they might have different names, different credits, in a film shot on a different day. By locking these people into one identity, Lawder demonstrates the power of words to define and explain, to suggest what the image cannot. Necrology thus posits that the film doesn't really end with its final image; its credits, rather than being extraneous or external to the film's world, actually define what the film is, what it means. Lawder surprises us at the end by telling who and what it is that we've just seen. His small descriptions of the characters who so briefly appeared within his frame expand the film beyond its images into a rich world of imagination.