Friday, October 29, 2010

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Werner Herzog's latest documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, is about the Chauvet Caves, the site in France where the earliest examples of human painting have been discovered. It's a 3D film, of all things, Herzog's first experiment with that technology, and it's going to be screening at the beginning of November as part of the DOC NYC festival. I've reviewed the film for the House Next Door, so follow the link below for my thoughts about Herzog's approach to this material, the way he uses 3D for good and ill, and the characteristically Herzogian themes that he brings to the documentary.

Continue reading at the House Next Door

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Thursday's Track: Mount Eerie "Between Two Mysteries"

This is a trial run for a potential new series in which I upload a track I like and write about it. If people are interested, let me know in the comments and I'll keep the series going. I hope that this series will elicit some conversation about the songs and artists chosen. Although this site will still always be primarily about film, I also enjoy writing about music and haven't done enough of it lately. The first entry in the series is dedicated to one of the most important songwriters of the last decade or so, Phil Elverum of the Microphones and Mount Eerie.

"Between Two Mysteries" is a key track on Mount Eerie's bleak masterpiece Wind's Poem, an album inspired by black metal, by David Lynch's Twin Peaks, and by singer Phil Elverum's year of living in an isolated cabin in the Scandanavian wilds. This song makes the Twin Peaks influence explicit by cleverly interpolating snatches of the droning, eerie melody from Angelo Badalamenti's music for that series. This unsettling tune is juxtaposed against a propulsive guitar figure and hints of vibraphone accents, while Elverum's hushed vocals drift atop the dense, layered music. Elverum has always been interested in nature, in the elements, writing his psychological and emotional trials onto the harsh, cold expanse of an unblinking, uninterested natural world. His lyrics often suggest humanity's encounter with the incomprehensibility of the universe, which is why towering mountains, purifying flames and icy winds recur again and again in his imagery. Here he sings: "The town rests in the valley beneath twin peaks, buried in space/ What goes on up there in the night?" The lyrics turn around such ambiguous questions and such charged images; the "twin peaks" might be mountains dwarfing a settlement, or they might be a proper noun referring to Lynch's warped rural landscape.

This song, a delicate gem positioned amidst the at-times blistering assault of Wind's Poem as a whole, evokes sonically as well as lyrically that fragile beacon of civilization nestled within the chilly wilderness. Other songs on this album use waves of ferocious guitar distortion to evoke the roar and rage of the wind, buffeting Elverum's murmuring voice until he seems lost and afraid. "Between Two Mysteries" suggests a shelter from the storm, a respite from nature's awe-inspiring fearsomeness, even if that foreboding hum underpinning everything hints at darker ideas. For this reason, the song works best in the context of Wind's Poem as a whole, and I'd recommend that anyone who likes this song should certainly check out the full album. But even in isolation, this is a remarkable example of Elverum's rich, allusive, deeply affecting songwriting.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Rendezvous In Paris

Rendezvous In Paris is one of Eric Rohmer's episodic films, like his sadly unknown 4 Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle. This is a triptych of three stories set in Paris, with the concept of the rendezvous as the driving force and structural foundation of all three. The three stories concern two-timers and cheaters, and revolve around O. Henryesque ironies and coincidences, the stories marked by cute twists and wry reversals that mask the more quietly emotional subcurrents running through all three tales. These are simple, even stereotypical stories — one girl discovers her boyfriend is cheating, another cheats on her boyfriend with an older man, and a painter clumsily juggles two women who aren't interested in him — told with the directness and playfulness that Rohmer typically brings to his work. It is a light film, even minor, in the context of Rohmer's career as a whole, but its simplicity is also a virtue. The dialogue, as usual in Rohmer, is refreshingly open and eloquent: Rohmer's characters don't always say what they mean, or even know what they mean, but they always speak in ways that reveal their souls, whether intentionally or not. Rohmer seems to have a profound belief in the power of talk, even when it's idle banter or lies.

In the first of the film's three stories, Esther (Clara Bellar) becomes obsessed with the idea, mentioned in passing by an admirer, that her boyfriend Horace (Antoine Basler) is seeing another girl on the side. The rendezvous here is an idée fixe for Esther: she's told that Horace meets another girl at a certain café at 7:00 on the evenings when he's not with Esther. After introducing this structuring idea, Rohmer allows the plot to meander along, with Esther's obsession with this supposed meeting always percolating subtly in the background. She tries to study for a test, confesses her worries to a friend, and then indulges a playful flirtation with a man (Mathias Mégard) she meets in an outdoor market, and all the while she's thinking about Horace's supposed meeting with another girl.

The scene where Esther flirts in the marketplace is a masterful piece of staging. As Esther walks along in the foreground of the shot, turning her head this way and that to look at the various stalls in the market, the man trails along behind her, telling her that he has a dentist's appointment and wants to pass some pleasurable time with her beforehand. Rohmer's camera drifts along with the pair as they walk, capturing the delicate struggle between them as the man flirts and tries to charm her, while she maintains a pose of faux-aloofness, pretending to be absorbed by the sights of the market around her, hardly ever even looking directly at the man who's strolling just behind her. It's a game, and a fun game to watch, this jockeying for position within the frame, this struggle to get the upper hand in a game of romance and flirtation. Rohmer captures the little details — Esther's studied air of casualness offset by a charmingly genuine smile, the way she keeps subtly cutting off her would-be suitor, preventing him from walking exactly next to her — that characterize these games between men and women, the games that are the subject of so many of Rohmer's films.

The games continue as Esther sets a fake date for the same café that Horace is rumored to frequent, a date she really has no intention of keeping. But when her wallet is stolen and then returned by a stranger named Aricie (Judith Chancel), who also has a date at that same café, it becomes obvious that Esther is meant to be at that meeting at 7:00, just as it becomes obvious to the audience what the ironic twist is going to be. The denouement is no less delightful for its obviousness and contrivance, though. It's a cutesy twist, a pat irony, but Rohmer uses it as a way of probing how the seemingly light games that men and women play with each other in love disguise deeper reservoirs of feeling. Esther plays off her confrontation with Horace as a game at first, acting as though she doesn't know him, letting herself be introduced as an old friend by Aricie, hiding bits of coded malice in her superficially playful patter. But it's obvious how much she's hurt, how shaken she is by this betrayal, and finally she can't hide behind the games anymore, and storms away. It's fitting that the final irony is also hurtful: she leaves without fulfilling her date with the man from the market, who shows up just after the drama has played out, looking around expectantly and hesitantly, already fearing the disappointment of the girl not showing up. These games of love, Rohmer suggests, are not the laughing matter that we sometimes pretend they are.

The middle story of this triptych also deals with unfaithful lovers, although from the opposite perspective: a woman (Aurore Rauscher) meets with a somewhat older man (Serge Renko) in parks around Paris, cheating on a longtime boyfriend who she almost thinks of as her husband. Rohmer's sense of geography, his attention to the nuances of place, is on full display here, as the two lovers meet in one park after another, always searching for novelty and "poetry" as they get to know one another and try to negotiate their clandestine relationship. They always meet in public, because the woman doesn't want to risk going too far by visiting his apartment, and as a result their relationship exists only in public, in parks where they walk with arms wrapped around each other, or kiss on benches in secluded areas, or playfully trot from place to place. Their conversation is at times banal, just idle chit-chat, at times touching on the deeper issues of love and intimacy that concern their relationship and the woman's continuing but increasingly loveless relationship with her other boyfriend.

The two lovers are unnamed, credited only as "elle" and "lui," suggesting that they are archetypes, paradigms of the dueling negotiations between men and women as they try to form relationships. They lie to one another, in small ways, telling each other conflicting stories about their desires and their feelings, never quite forming a solid bond: she's leading him on, keeping him at a distance, while he wants more but seems disappointed when she finally offers it. It's as though their relationship is perfect within the limited confines they set for it, and outside of that narrow purview it will inevitably collapse. As they slowly work towards discovering this truth, Rohmer revels in the beauty of the Parisian parks they visit, surrounding these hesitant lovers in rich, vibrant green hues that seem to enfold them at first, and which are increasingly replaced by bare trees and paths strewn with browning leaves as fall leads into the winter chill. Rohmer has always had a great feel for the seasons, around which he built a four-film series late in his career, and here he manages to film the chilly air, the coldness that makes these lovers want to cuddle closer on damp benches.

In the end, for their last tryst, the lovers play at being tourists in Paris, pretending that they've arrived for a sightseeing trip, and the metaphor of tourism in a subtle way comments on their own relationship. There's a sense of the temporary, of the scenic and superficial, in this relationship that exists only in parks. The ending is another ironic twist worthy of O. Henry, but as in the first segment, it's also an opportunity for the playfulness and games to give way to stark honesty. The woman, dropping her tourist act and dropping, too, the flirty charm with which she'd strung along her lover, finally tells him her true feelings, in blunt and painfully honest terms. It's yet another reminder that the charm and surface lightness of much of Rohmer's work can be deceptive, that the emotions at stake in these seemingly trifling stories can in fact be quite profound.

The third and final segment of Rendezvous In Paris, though, concerns much more frivolous and transient relationships than the more enduring ones in the first two stories. A painter (Michael Kraft) gets a visit from a friend of a friend, a Swedish woman (Veronika Johansson) who's visiting Paris and needs someone to show her around. He's not too interested in her, and she seems indifferent to him, and he takes her to a museum where he becomes fascinated by another woman (Bénédicte Loyen), who turns out to be married. There's a more subtle irony at work in this story than in the first two, with their broadly telegraphed twist endings. Throughout this story, the painter uses his work as an excuse, as a pretext, as a prop for conversation: when he doesn't want to do something, he says he's engaged in painting, and when he wants to impress a girl he talks about painting, pompously lecturing on form and color and history to seem intelligent. He's kind of a fraud and an arrogant jerk, like so many of Rohmer's male protagonists, absorbed in himself and so insecure as an artist that his art hardly seems as important to him as meeting girls. The irony arises because, at the end of the film, having passed an afternoon with the married girl who makes it clear that she's not interested, and having been stood up by the Swedish girl who he'd earlier intended to stand up himself, he's finally left alone with his painting, and the events of the day send him off in a new and potentially fruitful direction, injecting some life and vigor into his previously dull work.

This is, perhaps, another not-so-complex ironic twist, if a more subtly communicated one than in the first two segments. But it's Rohmer's sensitivity and wit that allows this point to resonate, as he patiently observes this cad at work and play. "I thought you were an artist, not a pick-up artist," the newly married girl observes wryly as he trots along behind her, much as the stranger in the market had behind Esther in the film's first segment. Like Esther, she seems playfully receptive, committed to her new husband but not so much that she won't indulge in a little harmless banter with this stranger, and even visit his apartment to see his paintings. And as in the first segment, Rohmer's fluency with body language is compelling to watch: the conversation in the painter's studio is a study in distance and intimacy, as the two slowly drift together only for her to abruptly break away, shattering the intimacy that occasionally threatens to develop between them. Their conversation, about art and the importance of searching for one's aesthetic, is a kind of mask for their innocent flirtation, but it's also the first time in the film, one senses, that when the painter talks about his art, he's doing so genuinely, rather than using his painting as an excuse or a tool or a symbol for his identity.

This kind of multi-leveled conversation, where surface meanings and subtexts intertwine and words are both revealing and deceptive, is typical of Rohmer. Even in such a simple, essentially light-hearted film, with its jaunty illustrated titles and interludes of street singers to introduce each tale, Rohmer is dealing with complicated emotions, with the question of how we discover what's important to us and what we want from our lives and relationships. This is, as with so many of the films Rohmer made in his later career, a youthful film made by an older man, with its cute young actresses and handsome leading men, their vibrancy and vitality bringing Rohmer's agile dialogue to exciting life. It's a fun film where even its humor and its playfulness contribute to its deeper themes.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Late August, Early September

In Late August, Early September, Olivier Assayas delicately probes the loosely intersecting lives of the friends and family surrounding ailing writer Adrien Willer (François Cluzet). The film's episodic structure, divided into segments like chapters in a novel, emphasizes the effect of time and the way people tend to drift in and out of each other's lives. Weeks or months pass between episodes, and when the film returns to a character, things have changed or just shifted slightly, much has happened to be summed up in a few suggestive words or a telling glance. The film revolves around the way these people are, as the title suggests, on the cusp of a change, poised in between seasons in their lives: they are all at an age where they're settling down, becoming respectable or willfully refusing to, learning what they want out of life and love. Gabriel (Mathieu Almaric) is shaken up by the realization that his friend Adrien might be dying, and he's disturbed by the usually reticent Adrien's sudden bursts of forthrightness and warmth, but more than that he's reflecting on his own life. Adrien is a dissatisfied writer, self-critical to a fault, pretending that he's not bothered by what people think but, inside, really seething that his books haven't been more successful on a mass scale, angry over what he sees as his commercial failure. The dissatisfaction and frustration of this man as he faces death drives the drifting, aimless Gabriel to really look intensely at his own life for the first time, and to rethink what he wants to do with the time in front of him.

This theme, never stated explicitly but always bubbling just beneath the surface, drives every character in the film to one extent or another. Assayas builds the relationships between these characters patiently, with small, writerly details that give the film a kind of novelistic attention to subtleties. Many of the characters in the film are writers or creative people of one sort or another, and what they do with words Assayas molds with his images, with the performances he shapes from his great cast. The relationship between Gabriel and his ex Jenny (Jeanne Balibar) is strained and charged through with the last remnants of the sexual chemistry that must have once defined their love. In the opening scenes of the film, Gabriel and Jenny attempt to sell the apartment they once had together, and Assayas frames Jenny in the foreground, occasionally mumbling something under her breath, even as Gabriel dominates the conversation with the prospective buyers. It's immediately apparent how unhealthy their relationship was, how Gabriel steamrolls over his former lover's words, ignoring her even as Assayas ensures that she remains in a prominent position within the frame, creating a tense dynamic of domination and submission between the pair. Throughout the film, though, this relationship, now ended, ironically becomes stronger as the lovers grow apart, realizing that despite the occasional temptation to reunite, they are no good for each other. There's a moment, late in the film, where it seems like Jenny is going to get a ride home with Gabriel, but instead takes an offer from another friend; it's casual and offhand, but when they say goodbye there's something final in it, like they've finally realized they're both moving on.

Assayas has a real feel for such beneath-the-surface realizations and symbolic moments. The film flows with the pacing and naturalness of ordinary life, but his camera seems to guide the viewer towards the moments and the images that suggest deeper currents. Gabriel's tumultuous relationship with his new lover, Anne (Virginie Ledoyen) reaches a pivotal moment when the unstable Anne visits him for a weekend. Their conversation at an outdoor café touches on trivialities and routine banter, only gradually working towards more serious matters, but there's something almost magical about the cups of hot drinks sitting in front of them, streaming pennants of steam out into the cold wind throughout the sequence. It's the delicacy and the ambiguity of this detail that makes the scene so special: it's not an obvious symbol for anything, merely a beautiful aesthetic touch that helps to enforce the scene's sense of two people who love each other finally connecting in a solid way.

This subtlety goes a long way, also, towards defining the troubles between Anne and Gabriel in the first place. Assayas' gliding, flitting camera has a way of guiding the attention to just the right moment, just the right image. At one point, Anne and Gabriel go to see Gabriel's brother (Eric Elmosino) and his wife (Nathalie Richard) at their house in the country. There, surrounded by Gabriel's friends and family, all of whom are still very close friends with his ex Jenny, Anne feels out of place and lost, an outsider looking in at her lover's life. Nowhere is this more clear than when Gabriel seriously discusses Adrien's condition with a few close friends, and they all try to come to terms with their grief and their anxiety about what's going to happen. These are intense emotions, but Assayas is too subtle a filmmaker to forget about Anne, who he locates sitting off to the side, smoking, drawn into herself, feeling as though she's excluded from these strong feelings, feeling that there are parts of her boyfriend's life that are utterly inaccessible to her. It's all accomplished without words, just the simple gesture of including her in the scene, not letting her get completely shuffled off to the side by the camera as she is by the characters within the scene.

Assayas shows a similar generosity and understanding towards Véra (Mia Hansen-Løve), the young teenage girl who was the much older Adrien's girlfriend in his final months. She largely appears at the fringes of the narrative, saying little, her existence mostly unknown to Adrien's friends. But Assayas periodically returns to her, silently observing her reactions to the film's events from her slightly distanced perspective, and in the final stretch of the film she becomes a kind of icon for the ways in which lives can connect in unexpected ways, the ways in which our experiences eventually form the mature people we'll later become. Assayas, who would brilliantly return to this kind of multi-character narrative with his more recent Summer Hours, is rejecting the convention of the linear narrative, instead focusing on the ways in which people's individual stories intersect and split apart to form new stories. The naturalism of this film arises from the fact that the characters seem to be living individual lives independently of the junctions and encounters required by the plot; the ellipses of the narrative create a sense of getting reacquainted with these characters after some time apart, catching up on what's changed and what's stayed the same. That's why, in addition to being a film about maturity, Late August, Early September is itself a mature film, a film that's clear-eyed about people's failings and virtues, about the limits and joys of creativity, about how much a person can change and how much we're all slaves to our natures.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done

After nearly two decades in which Werner Herzog made very few fiction features, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done was one of two fictional films he released in 2009, along with his hallucinatory re-envisioning of Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant. Like that film, My Son finds Herzog dabbling in genre, approaching the basic situations of the police thriller (a taut hostage standoff) and the horror film (a psychotic murderer unraveling before his family's eyes) and filtering them through his own off-kilter sensibility. The result is a film unlike any other in Herzog's career, a deeply strange and unsettling picture that reflects the madness of killer Brad McCullum (Michael Shannon) in the film's fragmentary structure and poetic evocation of disturbed mental states. This project was in gestation since the mid-90s, when Herzog seized on the real-life story of an insane man who'd killed his own mother, and this long-dormant script finally went into production following interest from David Lynch, who produced the film. Although Lynch was not a creative contributor to the project, something of his sensibility seems to have seeped into Herzog's system anyway, manifesting itself in an inclination towards surreal diversions and oddball, inexplicable interludes. But the film's central theme, that of a man succumbing to madness, is one that is dear to both Herzog and Lynch.

Brad is a vulnerable and somewhat damaged man to begin with, still living with his strange and sensitive mother (regular Lynch character actress Grace Zabriskie) while trying to maintain an increasingly strained relationship with his fiancée Ingrid (Chloë Sevigny). The film opens with Brad's ultimate deed of madness already done: he's killed his mother with a sword, then returned to his own home, where he holds off the police by claiming to have two hostages. The police show up, led by Detectives Havenhurst (Willem Dafoe) and Vargas (Michael Peña), but Herzog subverts the tension of the police hostage standoff by introducing an element of stasis and stagnation to the situation. Nothing seems to be happening: the detectives question Ingrid and Brad's friend, the theater director Lee (Udo Kier), probing into Brad's past through flashbacks, while nothing at all happens in the present. There is frequently a sense that Herzog is filming static tableaux, the cops not moving, standing behind their cars, pointing their guns unwaveringly at the blank façade of Brad's house. Several times, he inserts tracking shots that look up at the silent house from a low angle, capturing the absurdity of its pink-painted surfaces, the cacti planted on its dry lawn, the stillness of it all. At another point, Vargas glides through the frozen, posing cops, handing out water bottles, and he seems to be walking from one mannequin to the next. It's all so artificial, this stillness and stasis, this sense that everything is slowing down.

This inclination towards stasis and lack of motion reflects the obsessions of Brad himself, who is trying to find a frozen moment, what he calls a pivot point for the universe. While walking in the park with Ingrid, the people behind them seem to move in slow motion, jogging in place and throwing a frisbee that glides languidly through the air. Brad wants to find a "tunnel of time," and believes that he has discovered it when he walks down an up escalator, matching his pace to the speed of the escalator's ascent so that he remains frozen in space, walking but never moving, staring directly ahead into a tunnel formed by the futuristic architecture of the building, with Herzog's camera hovering behind his shoulder, staring with him into this void. Other tableaux cannot help but emphasize the aestheticized weirdness of this film, calling attention to Herzog's own hand.

The character of Brad's xenophobic, homophobic Uncle Ted (Herzog favorite Brad Dourif) is a perfect example. Ted tells Brad a story about wanting to film a midget riding the world's smallest horse, being chased by the world's smallest rooster around the world's biggest tree. He shows Brad photos of the tiny horse, while in the background a midget in a tuxedo wanders around; the three figures finally pause to stare at the camera for an unsettlingly long moment, completely shattering the sense of a forward-moving or linear narrative. The scene Ted describes, in fact, is one that Herzog had wanted to include in an earlier film, but had been unable to capture. He puts this story, one he's told many times over the years, into the mouth of this nasty character as a non-sequitur, an expression of weirdness for its own sake, a reminder of the man behind the camera, guiding all this insanity.

In fact, though My Son is ostensibly a story about going mad, it actually seems to be a story about a madness that never ends, that has always existed. Shannon's performance is not the performance of an ordinary man who loses his mind. He's depicting a guy who's somewhat off to begin with, living with a weird mother whose grief over the long-ago death of her husband continues to cast a shadow across her own life and the life of her son. Zabriskie's performance as Brad's mother relies on her ability to project creepy and mysterious emotions in every twitch of her expressive face, every slight quiver of her eyebrows, every nuance of her strained smiles. She is a possessive, hovering woman, as seen in flashbacks where she intrudes again and again on Brad and Ingrid in the privacy of his room, or where she buys Brad a piano and a drum kit, convinced for some reason that he wants these musical presents that he never plays. Under her disconcerting influence, Brad is weird to begin with, even before a trip to Peru where his friends all die while canoeing down a dangerous river. In that respect, Shannon's performance recalls the criticisms of Jack Nicholson's performance in The Shining, that the acting is so quirky and weird throughout that there's no convincing sense of a normal guy going mad. But that's missing the point, because here, as in The Shining, the madness is there all along: there's no going crazy, there's only crazy, or more accurately there's only life, which is crazy.

Indeed, Herzog is, as usual, filming a world that is inescapably, intrinsically mad. Thus the detours to Peru suggest that only Brad, out of all his friends, is attuned to the danger and ugliness of this beautiful place. Only he respects the wildness of nature, as expressed in a forceful speech where he rejects his friends' attempts to tame the exotic and the spiritual: he mocks their belief in herbal extracts and native rituals put on for the entertainment of tourists. This is a theme that obviously resonates with Herzog, whose films, some of them filmed along this same stretch of Peruvian river, are often all about the confrontations between man and terrifying nature. And it's fitting that only the man who's damaged and strange can understand just how weird nature is, can appreciate the odd beauty of the ostrich, a vicious bird despite its goofy appearance. And it's fitting too, in this film obsessed with birds, that Brad's "hostages" turn out to be his pet flamingos, to whom he gives Irish last names to match his own.

Obviously, there's more than a little dark humor in Herzog's apocalyptic vision, as he juxtaposes the grim fatalism of Greek tragedy with the flashy decor of the California suburbs. Brad, in killing his mother, is enacting a part he's played on stage, in a staging of Aeschylus's Eumenides, the story of Orestes killing his mother as vengeance for her murder of his father. The flashbacks to the rehearsals for this play mostly show Brad standing silently in the midst of the chorus as they weave around him, chanting lines that seem like prophecies given his later matricidal act. The director Lee recalls how good Brad was, but simultaneously talks about how he was constantly disrupting rehearsals, how things went great as long as Brad had no lines; more dark and subtle humor, delivered with understated wit by Kier. Even the relationship between Brad and Ingrid is darkly comical, mainly because one wonders why this woman would tolerate such creepiness for so long. There's a real disconnect in scene after scene where Brad or his mother does something outrageously creepy and unsettling, while Ingrid looks on with, at most, a bemused and resigned expression, suggesting that she's not quite right as well, that she fits too neatly into this twisted domestic drama. In a pointedly Freudian touch, Ingrid plays Brad's mother in Eumenides and, during her death scenes, he tells her to twitch her feet so he "can see his mother dancing to heaven," an echo of Nicholas Cage's insane cop in Herzog's Bad Lieutenant, hallucinating the break-dancing souls of dead mobsters.

In all these small touches — by turns disturbing, hilarious, ludicrous, and any combination of other extremes — Herzog continually tweaks and bends the basic situation of the hostage thriller. The genre skeleton of the film becomes like a tree trunk, off of which all sorts of bizarre branches wind off in unpredictable directions, tangling up with one another in the process. Herzog sometimes seems to be indulging all these oddball flourishes and non-sequitur interludes for no more reason than because he can. The film often seems weird simply for weirdness' sake, breaking the fourth wall to have the actors stare into the camera, or subtly nodding to producer Lynch in a scene where Brad encounters a piano that keeps playing when its player stands up and walks away, a probable ode to the infamous "Club Silencio" sequence of Mulholland Dr. The soundtrack, a mix of Ernst Reijseger's droning cello score with snippets of blues and Spanish folk music, similarly mashes together tones and styles, with Reijseger's horror soundtrack hum jarring against the intrusions of jaunty ethnic music. But even if the film often seems like a haphazard collage of weird moments and unsettling, unresolved plot threads, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done is never less than compelling, slowly worming its peculiar way into the viewer's mind, like a form of visual madness, a portrait of an unpredictable and loopy world where the usual rules don't apply.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Social Network

The Social Network details the development of social networking hub Facebook, as the site developed from the drunken game of Harvard computer whiz Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) into a worldwide phenomenon. Facebook has arguably had a tremendous impact on Internet communication, but this film, directed by David Fincher from a script by Aaron Sorkin, doesn't have much to say about the ways in which the site has or has not changed the Internet. Instead, it's more of a psychological and legal drama about the desire for acceptance, the bizarre anti-logic of business in the dot-com era, and of course the American passion for betrayals and lawsuits. The film is, among other things, a scathing portrait of Facebook founder Zuckerberg, who is here portrayed as a disconnected, selfish jerk who betrayed his friends and built his ideas upon the foundation laid by others. The film is a profile of Zuckerberg, but more than that it's a profile of a time (the early-to-mid 2000s) and a place (mostly the inner workings of Harvard University) from a director whose best work has often made geography and time central concerns.

Like Fincher's Zodiac before it, The Social Network is a historical film, but a historical film that is set a mere seven years in the past. It is, nevertheless, history, and Fincher is as deliberate and detail-oriented in recreating the feel of an early 2000s college campus as he was in capturing the feel of 70s San Francisco. The campus at night, bathed in eerie yellow lights and accompanied by the moody music of Trent Reznor (whose effective score, in collaboration with Atticus Ross, alternates between low-key background buzz and bursts of dancey pop-industrial), becomes as powerful a presence in the film as the dangerous nighttime vistas of Zodiac. And the film's detours into college parties — from the glitzy, privately catered affairs of the elite frats to cheesy theme nights and rowdy, drug-fueled house parties — resonate with telling details. The era that Fincher is evoking so concretely here is precisely the era before Facebook changed youth culture by, as Zuckerberg says, putting college social life online. To some extent, in this era where a few years can bring and have brought massive changes in technology, nostalgia cycles have shortened to the point where this film can be nostalgic for the pre-Facebook technology and web culture of a few years ago, when blogs still seemed somewhat novel and websites like MySpace and LiveJournal were at the cutting edge.

Fincher loves dealing with process, methodically following the steps, treating every story like a case to be solved; one suspects that he identified very strongly with Jake Gyllenhaal's Robert Graysmith in Zodiac. Sorkin's script for The Social Network allows Fincher to indulge that fascination with process, as the narrative carefully traces the development of Facebook from the coding right up to the business dealings to the inevitable lawsuits that followed. It's a multi-leveled examination of this story that recalls Zodiac in many ways: of all Fincher's films, there is clearly the strongest connection between his serial killer process piece and his dissection of a website's birth. Both films are backward-looking, and The Social Network makes its retrospective nature explicit by continually cutting back and forth from the dual lawsuits against Zuckerberg to the events that led up to that point. Where the earlier film delved into the gathering of evidence and the obsessive analysis of clues, The Social Network revels in the minutiae of coding and algorithms and innovations.

Although The Social Network is never quite as affecting or as evocative as Zodiac, which is still Fincher's best film, this is a sharp, witty film, packed with great characters and scenes that reveal the mix of careful research and keen observation that Sorkin and Fincher bring to this film. Sorkin famously got tips from Harvard alum Natalie Portman on the secrets of the school's exclusive "final clubs," and this knowledge shows through in the periodic inserts of fraternity hazing and private parties where these privileged elites unwind. The idea of privilege is a key subtext here, as the original germ of an idea for Facebook was to create a social networking site that sets itself apart through exclusivity — specifically, the exclusivity of Harvard prestige. Twin rowing champions Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (Armie Hammer), who eventually wind up suing Zuckerberg for stealing their ideas, embody that privilege, the inherited elitism of being born into money and feeling entitled to the benefits of that lineage. At one point, outraged by what they see as Zuckerberg's thievery, they use their connections to wrangle a meeting with the president of Harvard, but they're non-plussed when he responds to their complaints with contemptuous jokes and berates them for expecting special treatment because of who their father is. It's a great scene, and a scene that one suspects Zuckerberg himself would appreciate, as it deflates those who just naturally have all the money, charisma, success and athleticism that Zuckerberg seems so desperately to want.

Zuckerberg's complicated attitudes about privilege and elitism — resentment and contempt mingled with his own air of entitlement — also wind through the film. Eisenberg perfectly captures the snobby, snotty, clipped tone of an insecure young geek who's convinced that he should get whatever he believes he deserves — who's convinced, simultaneously, both that he's better than everyone around him, and that everyone else thinks he's insignificant. It's that mix of profound insecurity and outrageous self-confidence, projected in every twitch and mutter of Eisenberg's pitch-perfect performance, that really sells this character, and to some extent the film as a whole. It's a totally satisfying performance of an absolutely aggravating and unlikeable character. Fincher earns equally great performances from everyone in this film, and Justin Timberlake, as Napster co-founder Sean Parker, is especially potent, projecting the hyperactive enthusiasm and radical pose of a new generation of Internet entrepeneurs who ride waves of grassroots guerilla programming to international prominence. But despite Timberlake's flashy and fun performance — witness the obvious pleasure he gets from telling a recent conquest that he's a kind of Internet celebrity — it's the quieter, more restrained Eisenberg who remains at the film's core.

As good as Eisenberg is in this role, the script occasionally does him a disservice, most notably with the conceit of hinging so much of Zuckerberg's motivation and psychology on his rejection by girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara), who he insults on his blog after their nasty breakup at the start of the film. It's a simplistic thread of pop psychology that even provides the predictable emotional punchline before the end text describes the outcomes of the lawsuits, another all-too-typical legal drama touch. These kinds of pat movie devices don't serve the film well: the all-too-easy intimation that Zuckerberg started Facebook to get revenge on a girl, that his obsession with her continued to drive him for years afterward, conflicts against the subtlety and complexity evinced by the film elsewhere. The film is at its best when it's patiently setting the scene, building up the atmosphere of a college campus and establishing the character of Zuckerberg as an impatient genius whose lack of social niceties make him an unlikely choice for the founder of the world's most successful social website. Sorkin's eloquent, frequently funny script makes the film a lot of fun, whether its gently mocking the pretensions of the Harvard elite (although the Winklevii, as Zuckerberg memorably dubs them, do ironically emerge not as stock villains but as more sympathetic characters than their rival in some respects) or nailing the strange twists of college life (like a great subplot involving a chicken and "forced cannibalism"). This is a smart, entertaining, and often incisive film that merges the in some ways quite distinct aesthetics of Fincher and Sorkin to create a very compelling hybrid.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Burial Path/The Process/The Machine of Eden

Stan Brakhage's Burial Path, as its title implies, seems to be concerned with the burying of the dead, with mortality. If it can be said to have a narrative, it's a simple story: finding a dead bird in one's garden and burying it. But Brakhage takes this simple moment, this prosaic story, and expands upon it, free-associating around the ideas and images conjured up by this dead bird. The film opens with an image of a bird, a drawing like those found in science textbooks or bird-watching guides, and then an image of the dead bird itself, lying in the dirt. Then the associations start. The film's structure is like a moment interrupted by a diagrammatic layout of the thought process of the observer. Someone sees a dead bird in a garden, and towards the end of the film the bird is laid to rest, carefully buried beneath a thin layer of soil in the garden by gentle hands. In between, the observer thinks about birds, about death, the mind wandering at will, its musings and meanderings captured by the collage of Brakhage's images.

Frequently, these images seem to be just on the verge of focusing, wavering in this hazy state where it's almost possible to tell what's being depicted, but often the focusing stops there, or regresses into blurriness, not quite revealing the subject of the image. It's as though a memory has hovered on the edge of awareness only to slip away unheeded, the mind moving on to other things. For Brakhage, seeing and thinking are intimately linked. His cinema is all about sensation, about the process of seeing and the ways in which vision is linked to memory, intellect, decision-making, spirituality and mysticism. The film's rapid flood of images is entirely subjective and ephemeral, a loose stream of associations linking the dead bird to a flurry of birds in flight against a green-tinted sky, or a bird carefully pecking at the ground on a bright, summery day. The variety of the images suggests a span of memories, pulled from disparate situations, different emotional tones, different nostalgic moments.

Pale, faded greens, grays and blues are juxtaposed against bursts of bright, fiery red — stop light red, blood red. The film's dominant tone is muted and faded, as though worn away by the distance of the past. The sporadic moments, mostly inserts that last for barely seconds at a time, where brighter colors enter the film are thus shocking and bracing. Branches of trees are blurred into fractal shapes, hinting at clear lines and patterns in the indistinct haze, suggesting that there is a meaning, a way to make sense of the chaos, if only everything were clearer, if only the images would coalesce into some readily identifiable form. Instead, the rush of images continues, sometimes suggesting narrative moments and precise memories, sometimes evoking the concrete shape of the bird that triggered this journey, sometimes simply presenting a fog in which nothing is solid or tangible. At one point, fading out of the fog of distortion, kids in red jackets sit on a low wall, laughing — and, for just a fraction of a second, almost too quickly to be perceived consciously, Brakhage cuts in a very brief glimpse of the same shot unfiltered, unprocessed, the jackets as bright as a fire engine, the colors undiluted by Brakhage's careful process of wearing and muting. It's that longed-for moment of clarity, there and then gone again in the haze of memory, lost in the rapid pace of thought.

In the last minutes of the film, the real fire hinted at earlier makes its appearance, its flames dancing much as Brakhage had made the jittery red and gold blurs of light dance earlier in the film. It is a fire that represents, perhaps, the mortality hinted at by the dead bird, a cleansing flame that seems to be licking up towards the frame, threatening to engulf and erase everything in its fiery climax.

Stan Brakhage's The Process is a flicker film using blocks of solid color flashed up on the screen, sometimes with images lurking within the saturated color, suggesting that if only it were desaturated, a concrete image would reveal itself, the form would be visible. Brakhage is separating form and color into their pure states, abstracting color from tangible referents, treating pure red, pure blue, pure green, as things in themselves, each with its own space, its own frame. These bursts of color are alternated with prosaic images of people walking, talking, driving, their actions unclear, often shrouded in shadows or portrayed in negative, in that ghostly blue-and-black netherworld that further abstracts color from reality.

This flicker creates a feeling of impermanence. Like most flicker films, The Process is meant to be felt, to be experienced, more than actually watched. The solid colored frames create rhythms that are broken up by the actual images, like the appearance of two kids in cowboy outfits drinking sodas, or a pair of candles with their flames gently flickering in the gloom, matching the shimmery pace of the alternating colors. At one point, a figure seems to be emerging from a kind of tunnel, a hallway made to seem vast and deep by the gulf of purple light surrounding it. These images have no meaning, tell no story, present only glimpses of domesticity, play, perhaps ritual. The actual images and the colors are treated equally, as elements in Brakhage's patterns and rhythms, a pure primary color and an image of a child given the same mental and visual weight by the film's structure. Both flicker by, barely glimpsed, an afterimage on the viewer's eyelids.

This ephemeral feel translates to the film as a whole, which seems like a minor experiment from Brakhage, who is as always concerned with sensation and vision. He is playing with the formal contrast between solid colors and the messy, shadowy documenting of reality.

The Machine of Eden is about lighting and about scope, about distance. The film consists largely of landscape shots and skies, with comparatively judicious use of the interior domestic scenes that so often ground Stan Brakhage's films in his daily lived reality. The bulk of the film examines a few locations over and over again: snowy mountain peaks, a stretch of green farmland, a few scraggly-looking autumn trees by the side of a highway. Brakhage's camerawork is by turns graceful and jittery, sometimes resorting to whip zooms that emphasize a detail only to leap back out to the larger image, or incrementally increase the camera's distance from a particular landmark. He films mostly still skies, pregnant with heavy rainclouds or, less often, pale blue and cloudless, though at one point the image abruptly leaps into motion, the clouds spiraling and swirling together the way the paint would flow from frame to frame in Brakhage's later hand-painted works. There's a sense of distance here, of overlooking the beauty of the natural world from an abstracted viewpoint somewhere above, as though the creator implied by the title was observing his craftsmanship, eyeing the tiny details as well as the sweeping grandeur of these mostly unpopulated landscapes.

At times, Brakhage's abstraction transforms the sky into an empty color field, devoid of reference points until, during a pan across the stretch of dark blue, the tips of some even darker hills appear towards the bottom of the frame, finally introducing a hint of context to the image. The same aesthetic defines the domestic scenes, which are focused on the arm of a chair or the suggestion of a person breathing beneath the covers in bed, the only intimation of human presence the steady rise and fall of the fabric in response to the unseen person's respiration. When full human figures appear — a woman and children walking through trees — they're shot from behind, their faces unseen. It's as though Eden, that lost garden of natural beauty, is found wherever people are not, glimpsed when humanity's back is turned. Maybe that's why so many of the images in the film are dark and dim, shot with clouds running overhead, their shadows playing across the white snow of the mountains or bathing the entire landscape in a dark curtain.

Brakhage only sporadically allows the light in, in the form of a blinding orange sun that darts across the blackness of the frame, a sun that refuses to stand still. Elsewhere, a dim landscape is momentarily illuminated as the sun breaks through the clouds, casting its pure white glow over the land, melting through the gloomy and apocalyptic aura suggested by all those stormy vistas. Brakhage also mitigates against the film's deadening, harrowing visual aesthetic with a goofy insert of a goat trotting after its master, its ears flapping in slow motion like miniature wings, as though it's about to take off in pursuit of the flocks of birds that occasionally glide across the film's deep blue skies.