Thursday, March 31, 2011

Don't Look Now

Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now is a chilling and mysterious film, a ghost story in which John Baxter (Donald Sutherland) and his wife Laura (Julie Christie) are haunted — literally or figuratively, it hardly matters — by the drowning death of their daughter Christine. Shaken by the tragedy, they close up their home and move to Venice, where John engages himself in his work as an expert on restoration, working on a crumbling church, while they attempt to put the memories behind them, to go on with their tragically changed lives. Instead, their grief and their fear are only intensified, magnified by the grotesque Gothic atmosphere of the city itself, with its shadowy mazes of corridors and its dark, dank waterways that hide the corpses of murder victims, as a killer stalks the city, dumping bodies into the canals to be dredged up as reminders of the watery grave the couple's daughter was lost to. If it seems like an almost absurdly bad idea to get over the drowning death of one's child by moving to a city in which water is omnipresent, the film very quickly makes it seem even worse, like a fatal mistake.

The city of Venice becomes a place of ancient, creeping terrors. John's work forces him to delve into the past, to restore the decayed artifacts of history to their former glory, which means that his work is a poignant metaphor for what he is utterly unable to do in his own life. Against the permanence of death is juxtaposed the work of restoration, of creating modern-day replicas to imitate the past. Several times, John repeats, like an angry mantra, that his daughter is dead, reinforcing the finality of it, the inability to reverse that event the way he's able to reverse the decay of a church's mosaics and statues by filling in the missing places with tiles fabricated to resemble those of the past. The past seems to taunt John: at one point, hoisting a gargoyle up onto the façade of the church, he comes face to face with the grotesque creature, its yawning mouth close to his face, as though poised to hungrily kiss him. He is uncomfortably intimate with the past, with its horrors and its ugliness, and this moment will reverberate in the film's startling ending, as though it was a premonition of John's eventual confrontation with the face of evil.

Laura deals with the tragedy in a different form, strangely comforted by the intervention of a blind psychic (Hilary Mason) and her sister (Clelia Matania). The psychic tells Laura that she sees Christine with them, that the little girl is sitting between her parents, still in the red raincoat she drowned in, happy and laughing as though nothing had happened. It's against this possibility — and the warnings and prophecies that the psychic says the little girl is delivering to her parents — that John offers his repeated and insistent reminders that their daughter is dead, that she is gone for good, that no messages or omens can come from beyond the grave. John, an engineer and a man of books, is rational and worldly, even though his work requires him to come into contact with the sublime and the spiritual on a daily basis. The grandeur of the churches, the sinister menace of the gargoyles, the fragmented images of spiritual scenes in various states of disrepair, these signifiers of the otherworldly do not touch John beyond the physical, tangible necessities of his work.

The strange atmosphere of this film is enhanced by Roeg's associative editing, which often brings together discrete places and actions with parallel editing rhythms. In the crisply edited opening minutes of the film, Roeg cuts back and forth between John and Laura inside and their two children, playing outside by the small pond in the lush green space around their country home. The editing connects parents and children, as a gesture begun by the daughter (throwing a ball) is completed by John as he throws a projector slide to Laura. The editing subtly injects a sense of creeping dread into the sequence, particularly in the visual rhymes between the daughter's bright red raincoat and the mysterious figure in red who John finds in one of his slides of an Italian cathedral. Roeg quietly calls attention to the subtle strangeness of this figure, even creating a split screen effect by placing the slide, projected on a screen, on the right side of the frame, with the black border of the screen separating the image from Laura, seen from behind, reading by the fire. A little later, when John spills water on the slide, the red runs, like blood tracing a curved path across the slide, spreading out across the image, which triggers John's abrupt certainty that something terrible is happening outside.

The inexplicable, slowly building sense of dread established in this opening sequence gradually seeps throughout the entire film; the menace seems to emanate from nowhere and everywhere, creating an un-centered feeling of terrible things lurking just below the surface. Something just seems off about everything, from John's employer, a bishop (Massimo Serato) who projects the aura of an Old World gangster, to the police investigator (Renato Scarpa) who John goes to see when he believes that his wife has gone missing, kidnapped by the psychic and her sister. The inspector listens to John's concerns with abstracted disinterest, absentmindedly doodling on a police sketch until the drawing resembles a monster — and looking out the window and actually seeing the sisters who John is trying to find. These kinds of weird scenes contribute to the sense that the film is just weird at its core, that there's something unsettling and horrible in the very air of the film, in the space between the characters, in the odd disjunctions of the editing. At one point, Roeg inserts a scene of the psychic and her sister in their room, cackling hysterically like a pair of witches, a scene that is otherwise completely unmotivated, which simply adds to the unresolved horror that Roeg is developing here.

That horror is interrupted by a very explicit and surprisingly tender love scene that suggests that the couple's grief may yet be healed, that the sense of approaching doom may yet dissipate. The sex scene is cut together with shots of the couple dressing afterward and getting ready to go out, the shots alternating quickly. A shot of sex, passionate and intense, then a shot of one of them putting on their clothes, or Laura putting on her makeup, smiling as she remembers their earlier romp: two different visions of domestic tranquility, blended together into a portrait of marital love in bed and out. Time becomes fluid, and through the magic of the editing these obviously separate activities are brought together as part of the same sequence. In a later scene, when Laura is with the psychic, who's trying to contact the couple's daughter, Roeg cuts together this scene with shots of John searching for his wife, and the cuts give the impression that the couple is looking at one another even though John never finds his wife. If the sex scene's editing suggests intimacy and domesticity, this scene suggests exactly the reverse, creating only the illusion of connection while the couple remains hopelessly separated, a prediction of the miscommunication and geographic dislocation that marks the second half of the film.

At times, the odd tone of the film even spills over from discomfort into offbeat comedy. When John walks into the police inspector's officer, Roeg films the large, mostly empty room from John's perspective, with the inspector behind his desk with a lamp positioned so that its shade seems to be taking the place of his head, until the man peeks around the corner and greets John. It's such a surprisingly playful image, particularly in light of the disconnected tone — as though the two men are talking past one another — of the subsequent scene. Roeg also builds some peripheral comic business around the employees of the hotel where the Baxters are staying. In one scene, John arrives back in the room to find a maid using the toilet in the room, then apologetically placing a magazine back in a stack by the door, shrugging as she walks by. There's also the hotel manager who's always chattering in Italian, sometimes seeming to make fun of the Baxters to his staff while remaining solicitous to their faces.

Such diversions in tone only contribute to the film's kaleidoscopic spiral into madness, which culminates in the frenzied editing of the creepy climax, in which memories and moments from throughout the film are collaged together in a way that suggests that answers are popping into place, even though in fact the mysteries all remain intact and are even deepened by the unpredictable conclusion. Roeg's film resists easy answers, fragmenting the narrative with the editing and allowing a languidly drifting sense of fear to wind through the film like the fog that churns underfoot during the climactic chase through Venice's back alleys. This eerie, haunting film never explains or resolves its many mysteries, leaving only an intangible horror that lingers long after the film is over.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

La guerre est finie

Alain Resnais' fourth feature, La guerre est finie, follows the radical aesthetics and unusual narrative structures of the director's first three features with a comparatively traditional tale of a Spanish political operative based in Paris and conducting missions intended to undermine the regime of the Spanish dictator Franco. Diego (Yves Montand) is a Spanish exile who operates under a number of aliases, working with an underground Communist organization mostly based in Paris, smuggling newspapers and propaganda into Spain while trying to organize strikes and revolutions to weaken Franco's regime. The film opens with Diego barely escaping from Spain back into France by using a fake passport, pretending to be a French businessman. When he's stopped at the border, the Spanish police call his supposed Parisian home and speak to his "daughter," Nadine (Geneviève Bujold), who vouches for him.

The film envisions political activity as an act of imagination and creativity, as something akin to the artist's creation of an alternate reality that replaces, at least in the domain of the aesthetic, the world outside the art. Diego is a revolutionary for whom this image has started to fade, to lose its appeal. He is no longer convinced that his activity is accomplishing anything, and he grows weary of endless conferences and secret meetings, endless trips across the border that accomplish little except moving paper from one place to another. His comrades, he believes, are living a fantasy, believing that their Paris-based organization can stir up the masses of Spain from outside, that they can dictate the day and time of Franco's downfall with their communiques. Diego has come to a more realist understanding of just how long it can take to effectively change the world, and his disillusionment weighs him down as he returns to Paris, visits his longtime girlfriend and lover Marianne (Ingrid Thulin), and becomes involved with Nadine, who's part of her own ring of activists with a more violent tactical agenda in Spain.

Over the course of the film, Resnais observes the debates and discussions among these underground factions and resisters, their conversations awash in the terminology of 60s radical politics: Leninism, self-criticism, revolution, the masses, general strikes and bombs to awaken a sleeping proletariat. The film's style is mostly straightforward, in crisp black-and-white, and the editing is not as jarring and jagged as it was in Resnais' first three features. The only exception is the occasional interjection of scenes that reflect the imagination of the protagonist, as Diego imagines what might've happened to some arrested friends, or what might happen at his next rendezvous. In one of the most striking of these insertions, Diego imagines a succession of women who might be the anonymous contact pretending to be his daughter: in his work as a spy, he is in the unique position of having false relatives who will help him from afar without ever meeting him. He can't help but wonder about the voice on the other end of the phone who's so intimate with him, so familiar, even though he has no idea what she looks like. He can only envision a woman walking along, her appearance changing with nearly every step.

Later, Deigo will actually meet Nadine, so that his image of her will coalesce into a particular woman. There follows a remarkable sex scene with Nadine in which Resnais references Godard's A Married Woman from a couple of years earlier. He chops the sex scene into discreet fragments: a shot of the man's hand on the woman's stomach, a shot of her hand clenched in his, a shot of her knees, and the sequence ends with a very suggestive shot of her legs slowly spreading apart, the camera slowly drifting down her legs, the shot cutting off just before reaching the inevitable destination. In Godard's film, this fragmentary collage of body parts suggested disconnection and dehumanization, but Resnais makes it lilting and lyrical, with a gentle drifting quality. Nadine, shot against a pure white background, seems to be levitating out of bed, floating into the air, an image of surprising sensuality, so that the encounter is anonymous but intense. It has the quality of an escape, of two people existing outside of space and time, in a white void removed from the world, and thus removed from the realities of Diego's constant revolutionary struggle, removed from his worries and the constant threat of arrest or death.

In contrast, when Diego returns afterward to his home with Marianne, it is as though he has crashed back to reality, and the weight of his revolutionary's life comes crashing back onto him. With Nadine, he'd affected yet another false name, calling himself Domingo for "Sunday," while she called herself "Nana," an affectionate nickname given by her father, who Diego had been pretending to be for his latest mission. (And also a reference to Godard's Vivre sa vie.) They both have aliases, and it further enhances the impression that this encounter is an uncomplicated diversion, a dream of what being a spy is like; Nadine is charmed by Diego's false passports and what she probably imagines is an adventurous life as a "professional revolutionary," and her glamorous image of him is certainly a part of this dalliance. Marianne, in contrast, does not see the glamor; she gets to worry, to wonder when or if she'll see him again, and Diego's return to his home with her brings reality back into sharp focus. He's forced to interact awkwardly with her friends, telling lies about where he'd been. He walks into her young son's room and refreshes a chalk message on a blackboard while the boy sleeps nearby — it suggests that this is the only contact he has with the child, leaving messages in the night to let him know that he'd been here and thought of the boy, even if he was gone by daylight.

The subsequent sex scene with Marianne is then concrete and physical where the one with Nadine had been abstracted and lyrical. The scenes begin the same, with Diego caressing the women's backs, lifting their shirts to put his hands on their backs and stomachs, drawing a connection between his two women, the one who represents "reality" and the one who represents his spy alter-ego. The juxtaposition of these two scenes, one after the other, calls attention to the blurring of different realities. What's more "real" for Diego, his home life with his long-time girlfriend Marianne — who he doesn't see for months at a time — or his constant shuffling back and forth across borders, his name changing every time he meets someone new? As Marianne tells him, after they've made love, his life is in Spain, with his cause and his people. His real life is not this home, not the lies they tell about him being a translator traveling for his job, but the lies he tells as a spy.

There is also the reality of Franco's Spain as it is as opposed to the dream maintained by the revolutionaries, a dream of what Spain once was before Franco, and what it might be again if they are successful in their plans. In their own ways, revolution and resistance are also ways of denying reality, proposing and projecting a new reality to take the place of the current one. And in the case of these Spanish exiles living in Paris, they are projecting their reality from outside, like the cinema projects its beam through the dark and onto a screen. Diego and his comrades, in Paris, are the projectors, and the image they are projecting onto the screen of Spain is their own plan, their own vision of its future without Franco. Anti-fascist resistance becomes an act of imagination and fantasy, a way of denying the hard facts of reality in pursuit of a dreamlike vision of a possible future.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Mildred Pierce (episodes 1-2)

episodes 1-2 | episode 3 | episodes 4-5

Todd Haynes' new HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce is a fresh adaptation of the James M. Cain novel that had previously been adapted for Michael Curtiz's 1945 film of the same name. Haynes' expansive five-part miniseries, the first two parts of which aired on Sunday as a single two-hour block, takes its cues from the novel, rather than from Curtiz's noirish, overheated Joan Crawford melodrama. In the process, this new version expands into a potent, sprawling epic of the Depression era woman. Mildred (Kate Winslet) is placed in a difficult situation when she finally pushes her no-good husband Bert (Brian O'Byrne) out the door, sick of his laziness and his philandering with another woman. Mildred becomes a "grass widow," caring for her daughters Veda (Morgan Turner) and Ray (Quinn McColgan) on her own, making do at first with the meager proceeds from selling homemade pies, while she searches for a job in an economy with very few real prospects.

The signal virtue of Haynes' film is its meticulous attention to the economic realities of its era. In countless small details in the first episode of the series, Haynes emphasizes how every penny, every nickel, every dime must be carefully managed. On Mildred's first shopping trip after her husband leaves, she places items into her basket, weighing each one in her hand as she looks at the price, and Haynes pulls in for a tight closeup on the shopping basket as she mentally calculates the total cost, finally discarding an item that would push her over her budget. Later, when she gets a job as a waitress, her new employers make a point of telling her that the cost of her uniform will be deducted from her first check, and that any discrepancies at her tables will also be deducted, and that she'll have to buy her own shoes. The costs tally up quickly. As Mildred tells Veda in the second episode, everything in their lives, everything they own, has a cost, and Haynes makes sure that that cost is felt concretely, that every penny of it feels like it matters.

Haynes is similarly meticulous with every aspect of the film. The 1930s setting is believably tangible without any showy period touches; there's simply a constant sense of physicality in such details as Mildred's drab and obviously cheap undergarments, or the fruit vendors lined up along a cobbled street, or the tattoos on the arm of a blood donor, suggesting that only a lower-class man would be donating blood in this society, in this era. Haynes evokes the era with a direct but stylish aesthetic, using mostly pale, muted colors that add to the sense of reality. He's constantly shooting through glass, through windows that slightly distort and filter the view outside, as when Mildred is seen, contemplating her dim economic prospects, through the filthy front window of a diner, her face made indistinct by the gray grime layered on the glass. This is a film that is very much about the economic realities of the Depression for a single woman trying to provide for herself and her family, so the film's verisimilitude is vitally important. It also definitively sets Haynes' adaptation of the Cain novel apart from the famous 1945 Joan Crawford film, which not only shifted the story's era from the Depression to the then-current mid-1940s, but also offered an overheated vision very far removed from the physical and emotional realism of Haynes' version.

In that respect, Kate Winslet's performance as Mildred is a key component of the film's effect. Comparisons to Crawford are perhaps inevitable, but misplaced since Winslet's performance is in an entirely different register from her predecessor in this role. There's no melodrama in Winslet's performance, no excess. It's a warm, nuanced embodiment of a woman who, in the early scenes of the film, simply and abruptly decides that she's sick of the life she's been living, and over the course of the first two episodes begins to realize what she'd like to replace that life with. The first shot of the film is a closeup on Mildred's hands as she prepares pies for baking; Haynes immediately thrusts the audience into Mildred's world, a world of work and effort. In the subsequent scene, what starts as a routine conversation between Mildred and Bert — one immediately senses that they've had similar tense discussions many times — goes off-track when Mildred unexpectedly and casually drops the name of the woman that she knows Bert has been going to see. It's a remarkable moment, the truth suddenly bubbling up from out of this routine marital conversation, and afterward Mildred doesn't even quite seem to realize why she forced this confrontation, she just knows that she's reached a breaking point. Maybe it's the casual way that Bert says, "I don't see what else I can do around here," the careful phrasing of which Haynes utterly mocks because the audience can easily see the dirty pans and dishes stacked around the kitchen, while Mildred sits at the table working on yet another pie.

The film provides plenty of opportunities for Winslet to portray the complexities of this remarkable woman. In one scene from the second episode, when Mildred and Bert discuss finally getting a divorce and making their separation official and permanent, their conversation covers a wide range of emotions. The splitting couple is initially acrimonious and on edge, exchanging harsh words about one another's choices in romantic partners — Mildred has become involved with Bert's former business partner Wally (James LeGros) — but they soon begin gently joking about their situation, trying to laugh it off, and in their banter is visible a glimmer of the attraction they once must have felt for each other. The moment of warmth and humor segues seamlessly into tears, with Mildred breaking down, her face screwed up in anguish. It's a wonderful scene, a powerful acting showcase for Winslet especially, and it suggests the broad emotional palette that Haynes is working with here, tapping into the rich essence of Mildred's story and mining it for genuine, heartfelt drama rather than overwrought melodrama.

In the final act of the first episode, Winslet's Mildred conveys a sense of utter horror and desperation as she comes to grips with the prospect of having to lower herself in status in order to provide for her family. This class consciousness is most powerfully felt in a scene where Mildred goes for an interview to work as a maid in the house of a rich woman. Again and again throughout this sequence, Haynes holds one uncomfortable moment after another, allowing several beats to go by as Mildred attempts to swallow her pride, to choke down the bile rising up within her middle-class soul at being treated like a lowly servant. It starts when she knocks on the front door of the house, gets one look from the black servant who answers the door, and is immediately told to go around to the back. The door slams in Mildred's face, and Haynes holds the shot of her standing there, stunned into immobility. He holds the shot again after Mildred meets with the woman of the house and is told that she can't sit down without being told, causing Mildred to look startled again and stand up. When a second later the woman tells Mildred to sit down, the way Mildred holds her body, rail-straight and poised, suggests her pride struggling within her, resisting these demands for obedience and subservience.

Mildred is a very proud woman, and also a very tough one, a woman both of her time and astonishingly modern, even now. The film's portrait of Mildred constantly suggests the tension between the modern woman she's being forced to become and the conventional housewife she'd perhaps once been. Part of this is a growing sense of practicality, accepting that becoming a waitress to feed her family is nothing to be ashamed of — though she still can't bring herself to reveal her new job to her daughter Veda, who has very un-practical ideas about social standing and propriety, setting the stage for the conflicts that will drive the later chapters of this saga.

Mildred's modernity is refreshingly conveyed in the scenes from the series' second episode in which she first meets the wealthy but terminally lazy Monty Beragon (Guy Pearce) and impulsively decides to accept his flirtatious invitation to join him at his beach house. The sex scene between the two newly acquainted lovers is earthy and intense, emphasizing the straining muscles in Monty's forearms as his hand rests on the bed, holding up his body. Haynes' camera drifts sensually across the lovers' bodies, exploring the junction points between them, emphasizing the sweaty and surprisingly unglamorous contact between the toned Monty (with his dark brown tan, a product of empty days with nothing to do but lay on the beach) and the middle-aged but still sexy and curvy Mildred. Haynes purposefully contrasts this passionate scene, and the relaxed post-coital conversation of the lovers, against Mildred's comparatively awkward and passionless encounters with Wally, who she falls into bed with out of mere convenience and confusion. Haynes plays the sex with Wally for laughs: Wally gropes Mildred and they stumble around the room, nearly collapsing onto the bed, and as Mildred putters around her room afterward, Wally sits on the bed, balancing an ashtray on his rounded belly, an irredeemable comic figure.

Of course, Mildred's beachside interlude with Monty is followed by the tragic and heartrending conclusion to the second episode — culminating in a very lengthy final shot, a sustained look at Mildred's grief before a discrete pan around the corner to a dark wall — but even before this ending, the scenes at the beach with Monty resonate as a contrast against the rest of the film. It's a moment when Mildred is lifted out of her working class life, freed from the responsibilities of work even if only for a day. In a way, that's what attracts her to Monty, as suggested by the expression of mingled excitement and disgust that flashes across her face when she realizes that Monty doesn't actually do anything in his life, merely cashes the dividend checks he receives from his inherited family business. For Mildred, that's a glimpse of a whole other life, far removed from the bustling world of the restaurant, from the kneading of dough to make pies, from the necessity of counting every cent that buys her groceries. It all comes back to that grounding in the economic realities of the era in which the film is set, its emphasis on what money — and the lack of it, and the desire for it — really means.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Johnny Guitar

Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar is a fantastic, lurid Western, a drama of sexual repression and desire played out with bullets and lynchings, the struggle for power between two rival women exploding into a bloody, bleakly beautiful morality tale. The film's central struggle is the battle of feminine strength between Vienna (Joan Crawford) and Emma (Mercedes McCambridge), two driven women with diametrically opposed personalities. Vienna takes what she wants, and through her strength, her determination — and, it's implied, her willingness to use her sexuality as a tool when she needs to — she's put together a saloon that's isolated right now, in the middle of nowhere, but that will soon be at an important hub on the expanding railroad that's scheduled to run right through Vienna's territory. She's made her own way in the world, and now all she needs to do is sit in her lonely saloon and wait for the railroad to come, bringing with it the people who will make her rich. Emma is also a woman with power and money, but it's not her own; her family owns a bank and has power in the nearby town, which means that the men of her family have gotten Emma what money and prestige she has. More crucially, Emma differs from Vienna in her sexual confidence and security; Emma wants the quasi-outlaw known as the Dancing Kid (Scott Brady), though she'd never admit it, and Vienna has the Kid but doesn't really want him. Emma's jealousy, and the sexual repression that causes her to deny her obviously overwhelming desires, creates the fierce rivalry between the two women, a rivalry that will eventually be stirred up into a conflagration, both literal and metaphorical, that threatens to turn everyone in its path to ash.

Into this tense situation rides the drifter Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden), who at first seems like a detached stranger. Johnny Guitar rides into town, and into the movie that bears his name, not as an actor in this drama but as a witness: he sees, much like the audience, the railroad company setting off dynamite, and he sees, from a distance, a stagecoach getting robbed, and then he rides up to the lonely saloon in the middle of nowhere, isolated in a swirling dust storm. He's a witness, an audience, watching from a comfortable distance, just as the film's audience watches over his shoulder. When he then enters the story, it's as though he's breaking out of his passivity, abandoning the position of the observer to engage with the action and to try to change its course — reflecting the fantasy of engaging so deeply with a film or a work of fiction that one becomes a part of its world. It's fitting that Johnny's entry into the drama at the saloon is his interruption of a shot glass in its rolling path towards the edge of the bar. He steps into the frame, with a tea cup held daintily aloft, and catches the glass just as it drops off the bar, irrevocably changing what had seemed inevitable, introducing an unexpected element into the proceedings. He's no longer the audience, passively looking on with a drink in his hand; now he shuttles between the two sides of the confrontation in the saloon, tweaking them both, acting as the wild card who's entered the story from outside it. Later, during a bank robbery, Johnny will revert to his audience role: "looks like I got a front row seat for the show," he quips to the robbers, lounging against his cart, his hands in his pockets. He's a study in passivity versus action, and for long portions of the movie he disappears altogether, incidental to the real emotional and aesthetic core of this movie.

Vienna, on the other hand, is pure action, and though the film bears Johnny's name, it's really Vienna's movie — and Emma's. As Vienna finds herself caught up in the Dancing Kid's ill-advised plan to belatedly live up to his unearned reputation as an outlaw and robber, Emma stirs up the entire town into a fearsome but aimless lynch mob that's ostensibly searching for the bank robbers but is in fact, under Emma's direction, being aimed like a weapon towards the bitter woman's sexual rival. The entire mob, still dressed in black from a funeral, swarm on their horses through the bleak surroundings, spurred on by the black-cloaked Emma, who's like an avenging harpy with her teeth bared, snarling and insinuating, goading the men into terrible action, her face flushed with rage and vindictiveness. And when she gets her way she can't help but grin, the grin of the damned, an evil but joyous grin, girlishly skipping as she spurs on her followers towards death and destruction. Ray makes her a monster, a demon in black, her mourning shawl dropped from her head at the very beginning of the chase, the purpose — or the justification — for all this chaos almost immediately forgotten and replaced with a feverish sexual hysteria.

It's a mad film, but its intense emotions are carefully controlled within a very rigid and powerful aesthetic framework. These oversized emotions, these bold feelings and words freighted with meaning, are straining against the boundaries of the Academy ratio frame, against the very form of the film which seeks, in vain, to hem them in. This tension is embodied in the jarring leaps between natural splendor and studio artificiality, necessitated at least in part by star Joan Crawford, a solidly artificial actress who refused to be filmed in closeup in nature. That might be a crippling limitation for a Western, except that Ray makes it into a weird virtue, adding to the impression that Vienna is always in control while Emma spirals into deranged hysteria. Vienna's saloon is cool and clean, almost clinical, its color scheme a uniform reddish brown, its large, high-ceilinged rooms almost always empty. When Vienna is filmed in closeups, they're glossy, beautiful images, the light shining almost entirely on her face so that her head glows like a spotlight in the dark void around her, the shadows falling so closely around her face that at times, when she moves even slightly, the lower or upper portion of her face melts into the shadowy surroundings.

Moreover, Vienna — or Crawford — carefully coordinates her costume changes to augment her surroundings. It's even made a material part of the film, as she's forced to change out of her bright white dress during a night-time flight from the posse, who are more sensibly dressed in their funereal blacks to blend into the darkness. With the change, Vienna opts for dark blue pants to blend into the Hollywood night, and a red blouse that initially seems as ill-advised as the white dress until one sees Vienna positioned amidst the similarly reddish studio rocks of the surrounding countryside. In the wild, she'd stick out absurdly; in the garish studio West where she's most comfortable, she's a chameleon.

Obviously, color and costume are very important to this film, from Vienna's color-coded outfits to the black suits of the mourners who comprise the posse. The posse is constantly arranged into densely packed compositions in which they crowd the frame, forming threatening triangles aimed at Vienna, often with Emma at the point. Towards the end of the film, with the threat dissipated, that triangle will reverse, at last pointing away from Vienna, grouped around the dead and the survivors, providing a corridor for Vienna's exit. The awful geometry of sexual repression had closed in on her, but by the end of the film the geometry reconfigures to provide a way out. All of the artifice, the blatantly fake sets that Ray makes no attempt to integrate convincingly with the naturalistic outdoor scenes, contribute to the impression that Vienna, with her melodramatic persona, her expressive eyebrows and bright red lips, is a kind of mythic figure, with Emma as her opposite number. The two seem to be locked in a bigger-than-life combat, like two goddesses who have come to Earth and penetrated the usually masculine realm of the Western as the grounds for their confrontation. Indeed, during the grand finale, the men make a big point of calling off their own battles: all the men stop shooting to allow the two women to have their final showdown and shootout, an almost unheard-of gender reversal of the usual Western climax.

Indeed, this Western is actually a melodrama in genre drag, especially since Vienna keeps switching back and forth between long, flowing, feminine gowns and more manly gunslinger clothes. Her counterpart, Emma, on the other hand, remains in her funeral black for the bulk of the film, and in contrast to Vienna's carefully lit studio closeups, Emma is captured in increasingly frazzled states of derangement and disarray. As Vienna maintains her self-possession even in her moments of the most melodramatic emotional excess, Emma snarls and spits like an animal, her hair growing disheveled around her head, her teeth constantly exposed in a smile that looks like a grimace.

McCambridge, like Crawford, delivers an intense and raw performance in a film that's full of them, surrounded by other memorable performances from actors like Ward Bond, Ernest Borgnine and John Carradine, all of whom turn in appropriately gritty and meaty performances, and all of whom get their moment to shine. Carradine's Tom, who works in Vienna's saloon and mostly goes unnoticed by everyone, gets a surprisingly moving final scene that abruptly brings him into sharp focus. Ironically, only Hayden, as the title character, is stiff and uncharismatic, not quite getting into the melodramatic spirit of things. It hardly matters, though, because this is a Western where the women are, for a change, at the center of it all. What makes the film great is that Ray, while indulging the excesses and the weird humor of this story at times, also takes it very seriously, infusing every frame of the film with the potent sexual and gender subtexts that drive it to ever greater heights of emotional intensity and aesthetic overload.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Les maîtres fous

Les maîtres fous is one of the French director Jean Rouch's ethnographic accounts of Nigeria under European colonial rule. The film is a bizarre and unsettling chronicle of the Hauka movement, a quasi-religious Nigerian sect in which the members enacted rituals where they are "possessed" by various archetypes of European colonialists. Rouch devotes most of his film to a document of one of these rituals, complete with a voiceover that purports to identify the various forms that the Africans are taking on: the General, the Governor, the Doctor's Wife, and other positions of military and political power within the European ruling authorities. While Rouch's narration maintains its deadpan, unruffled calm, the contortions of the ritual become increasingly ecstatic and unhinged, as the celebrants foam at the mouth, spasm and dance spastically, sacrifice a chicken and a dog, and lick up the blood from these sacrifices until their faces are smeared.

What makes the film so odd and challenging is the juxtaposition between its relaxed narration — which affects the soothing tones and distanced objective pose of many ethnographic documentaries — and the lurid, outrageous imagery of the ritual itself. Rouch's perspective is odd, too. His narration makes the claim that the ritual is intended to be a parody of the colonial occupation, that the Nigerians are channeling their disdain for their white masters into exaggerated, stylized appropriations of the Europeans' rites and and dress and manners. He might be right. But it's hard to know just how seriously to take Rouch's claims, as again and again his narration seems less like the result of informed research and more like a series of fanciful descriptions of observed behavior. His voiceover has a searching quality that makes it seem as though Rouch is trying to form a narrative based around the images he's gathered, and this impression complicates the film considerably.

Rouch is reading a great deal into the psychology of the film's subjects, and it's questionable how valid his conclusions are. Is this ritual a defense against mental illness, as Rouch claims at the end of the film? Is it a way for the colonized Nigerians to cope with the stress of their daily confrontations with industrialized Western society, or to deal with their status as indentured laborers for the whites? It's hard to tell, but Rouch's narration, with its loose interpretations of various gestures, doesn't exactly inspire confidence. At one point he puts words into the mouth of a man swinging a chicken back and forth, suggesting that the gesture is of great religious significance when, by all appearances, it's simply idle motion. Such questions about the film's faithfulness to the intent of these rituals are constantly raised, though Rouch's authoritative narration seems calculated not to encourage dissent.

There's also more than a hint of exploitation in Rouch's portrayal of Africans engaged in bloody, wild rites that not only appear as irrevocably exotic to Western eyes, but are explicitly compared to mental illness in the film's text. Rouch is portraying his African subjects as wild men, literally foaming at the mouths, the lower halves of their faces covered in white spray as they vibrate, roll around on the floor, walk with a jerking, frantic stride that truly does make it seem as though their bodies are being propelled around by some external animating spirit that jerks them around like puppets on strings. The images are, undeniably, darkly fascinating, and often horrifying as well, particularly when the celebrants ritually sacrifice a dog and then cook up a stew with its entrails, taking hungry bites out of its head and fighting to get the "best" scraps of the slaughtered animal. One man, picked out for a closeup twice in the film's half-hour, rocks back and forth, his face smeared red with blood from the feast.

Rouch continually locates such provocative images, tracing the progress of the ritual from its tentative beginnings to the point when numerous participants have been "possessed" and taken on these alternate personalities. Rouch's narration wryly notes the appropriation of English and French modes of dress and rituals, but this too is a problem. When Rouch says that the Nigerians are holding a "roundtable conference" on the subject of whether to cook the dog or eat it raw, his voice maintains its steady, even keel, but there's an obvious note of sarcasm and irony in the counterpoint between the colonialists' ceremonies and military discipline and the crudity of the Nigerians imitating their oppressors. Rouch even inserts footage of British and French soldiers on parade, and European aristocrats in their fancy cars, to further solidify the comparison.

Intended for European audiences, the film condescends to its subjects, presenting these rituals with an unmistakable tone of "hey look at these weird Africans," even while the subtext of Rouch's narration points at the exploitation of the African people by their colonial overseers. This adds up to a very conflicted film, simultaneously poking fun at colonialist pretensions and perpetrating the stereotype of the violent, superstitious African primitive. It's obvious that Rouch, who lived and worked in Nigeria for a long time and had a definite anti-colonialist bent, meant well, but Les maîtres fous, despite its compelling, raw imagery and the interesting ideas it explores, can't get over its tonal inconsistencies.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

He Walked By Night

He Walked By Night is an early example of the realistic police procedural, a film that attempts to examine, with a documentary's attention to detail, the procedures and routines of a real police investigation. The film, credited to director Alfred Werker but apparently mostly directed by an uncredited Anthony Mann, is filled with striking sequences and darkly beautiful noir imagery. It is a continuation of Mann's series of docudrama noirs like T-Men and Raw Deal, and it was shot by frequent Mann cinematographer John Alton, whose shadowy images are among the most intense exemplars of the noir style. The film is based on the true story of a loner, a former police radio technician and World War II veteran named Roy Martin (Richard Baseheart) who kills a police officer while committing a string of robberies and stick-ups. The killer eludes the police for months, using a police radio scanner and his unpredictable intelligence to evade capture while holding up liquor stores, extorting money out of his former employer, and assembling various pieces of electrical equipment for a mysterious purpose.

The film adopts a faux-documentary style that purports to show the real workings of the police, but its attempts at realistic credibility often fall flat. The film is periodically marred by an overbearing voiceover that narrates the police's activity, describing pieces of equipment or procedures. The film aims for the routine: emphasizing the fact that much policework is boring and repetitive, consisting of searching through files or asking the same questions of countless people. The exaggerated drama of so many noirs and mysteries is drained from the policework shown here, replacing it with a slow-burning suspense as every avenue of inquiry is patiently exhausted in the search for any tiny clue. This aspect of the film's realism is appreciated, even if it means that some scenes — like the slow process by which the police assemble a composite sketch from the testimonies of various witnesses — are stretched out far beyond what their visual or narrative appeal would warrant.

At other times, the flat, unemotional voiceover is simply distracting. In one sequence, as Martin escapes from a liquor store robbery by dodging into a sewer, the voiceover provides an explanation of the sewer tunnels beneath Los Angeles, layering dull exposition over the striking beauty of Alton's gorgeous images. The tunnels, black and slick, glow with the reflected beam of the fleeing criminal's flashlight as he's swallowed up by the darkness. The narration — which basically extols how clever the criminal is in choosing this escape route — is utterly extraneous. At times like that, the images aren't allowed to stand alone or communicate the story; instead, the narration explains what's happening with its portentous style.

The moments when the narration falls silent are far more effective, and thankfully much of the film's climax, as the police slowly close in on Martin, plays out silently. Indeed, in many sequences the film eschews any form of sound, even music, though there are generic string cues scattered along the soundtrack at especially dramatic moments. The film's best moments are calm and quiet. When the police try to trap Martin at a meeting place, the scene plays out silently as the criminal creeps around a shadowy office, circling around the police as they try to catch him. Not only is there no music, but there's hardly a trace of any sound whatsoever. The footsteps of the criminal and police make no noise, and the silence is eerie and almost unnatural. It's as though any trace of sound has been artificially extracted from the environment; only when Martin pounces on one of his pursuers does the sound return, with an abrupt crash that shatters the stillness.

Later, the buildup to the final showdown is set in a similar unnatural quiet, as the police surround the small house where Martin has holed up. The tension builds as the film crosscuts between Martin inside, growing suspicious as his dog yelps and growls at the unseen cops, and the cops as they lurk in the shadows, moving in and spreading out around the area to trap Martin. The silence emphasizes the emptiness of the suburban night, the complete absence of anyone moving around. It's only the police and the criminal, getting into position for the final confrontation. Martin paces around his darkened homes, the blinds on the windows casting slatted shadows on his body as he checks his gun and prepares for an escape. Outside, the empty street seems completely still, but the police lurk in the shadows, slowly approaching the door of Martin's house, seemingly cutting off all exits. The music cue that suddenly erupts when Martin finally sees a policeman running across the road signals the end of this patient build-up, and the beginning of the tense, viscerally exciting climax. As Martin once again escapes into the sewers, the police follow him, and the editing contrasts the sweaty desperation of Martin, running in circles and trying to find any unguarded exit, against the patient, methodical advance of the police, signaled by the line of their flashlights hovering in the darkness of the tunnels, moving inexorably forward towards the increasingly rattled criminal.

The film is at its best at moments like this, scenes of almost abstract tension. The story is rather flat and generic, with no explanation ever advanced for Martin's crimes, and the cops chasing him (led by Scott Brady's Sgt. Brennan and Roy Roberts' Captain Breen) are almost entirely without character. They're important as the men conducting this investigation, but their lives beyond the job, their characters or human dramas, are mostly incidental. Curiously, Martin seems far more human. His dog, who he devotedly cares for and feeds milk to, seems to be his only living connection, the only friend of a friendless, isolated man. There's also a very Mann-like scene where the criminal performs ad-hoc surgery on himself to remove a bullet from his side. As he pierces the wound and uses tweezers to pull the bullet out, the camera holds a prolonged closeup on his sweating face, beads of sweat standing out on his skin, his face screwed up into a grimace of pain, wincing and whimpering, his voice blending with the cries of the dog in the background. This emphasis on physical pain and suffering is very characteristic of Mann's work, and though it isn't the only sign of his presence in this film, it's one of the most striking. He Walked By Night is most effective in small, detail-oriented scenes like this, and in its understated but intense action climaxes.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

La Notte

La Notte is perhaps Michelangelo Antonioni's most complete portrait of the deadened emotions that constitute his essential subject, the boredom and disconnection and lack of communication in a drastically changing modern world. In the first twenty minutes of the film, the married couple of Lidia (Jeanne Moreau) and Giovanni (Marcello Mastroianni), a novelist, don't say a word to one another as they go to visit their dying friend Tommaso (Bernhard Wicki). They turn to one another occasionally, seemingly about to speak, their lips starting to move, a rueful smile reflecting their uncertainty with one another, but they never say anything. With Tommaso, they each speak to him independently but still say nothing to one another, as though they're each dealing with their individual grief and sadness over their friend's illness. They're together and yet locked off from one another, and when Giovanni is assaulted by a young "wild woman" in an adjoining room, a sexy lunatic in a black slip who fixes him with a dark, unrestrained stare and throws herself onto him, he allows her to lead him into her room, kissing her and letting her pull him down onto her bed until the nurses discover them and restrain the girl. This moment of unhinged passion, crazy and illicit, reflects what's missing from the married couple's life, and the same point is made when Lidia and Giovanni go to a club together where a black woman, assisted by a muscular and shirtless black man, performs a striptease with contortionist maneuvers, hypnotizing Giovanni, who ignores his wife to watch this display of physicality and open eroticism.

La Notte follows this couple through the remainder of this troubled night and into the next morning. It's about their distance from one another, their distance from their own past. After their visit with Tommaso, they spend much of the film apart from each other, occasionally coming together only to split apart again, to go off on their own, each suffering and thinking in solitude. Lidia wanders the city, exploring the neighborhood where the couple had lived together earlier in their relationship, as though nostalgia could help her to recover some of that earlier happiness, or at least to understand what had gone wrong. Later, they go to a party together, where they each flirt with other people, losing one another on the sprawling grounds of the mansion where the party takes place.

The film both captures and embodies their alienation and their ennui, their feelings of aimlessness and abstracted loss. La Notte is often boring, as Giovanni and Lidia wander around the party, exchanging banalities with the other guests, meaningless chit-chat that only augments the sense of pointlessness pervading everything. That's why Antonioni has made the ultimate portrait of modern boredom, risking boredom in the process: he incorporates boredom into his film. He allows his audience to be bored right along with Giovanni as the host, the rich real estate developer Gherardini (Gitt Magrini), tries to position himself as a kind of artist, tries to pretend that he's like Giovanni, that he doesn't care about money. But the man is a bore, a self-important fraud who just likes to hear himself talk — and who tries to hire Giovanni to apply his literary talents to writing press releases and advertising copy for his business, a fairly naked example of commerce attempting to seduce and co-opt art, and art wavering on the verge of acceptance, out of indifference and insecurity.

Giovanni's disaffection as a writer mirrors the disaffection in his life: just as he feels that he no longer knows how to communicate in writing, he fails to communicate with his wife, and a gulf opens up between them, represented in the film by their isolation from one another, by the sense that for much of the film they're each engaged in their own individual stories rather than coming together for a single story as a married couple. During the early sequences of the film, Lidia wanders the city alone, pausing to watch some boys shoot off rockets in a park and to break up a violent fight between some other young men, but mostly just silently walking through a modern urban landscape. The film has a strong vertical feeling in these scenes, an upward tension in the compositions, which seem to be constantly drawing attention toward the top of the frame. Lidia is often positioned in the lower portion of the frame, with large blank walls filling the space above her. The sounds of airplanes and helicopters passing by overhead call her attention — and the audience's — towards the sky, as do the skyscrapers looming around her, stretching up towards the top of the frame seemingly without end. When she watches the boys shooting off rockets, the camera tilts up to watch one of the rockets spiraling up until it disappears, leaving behind a gray corkscrew barely differentiated from the pale, featureless gray of the sky itself.

Later, at the party, Giovanni grows enamored of the younger Valentina (Monica Vitti), while Lidia is slowly pursued by Roberto (Giorgio Negro). The boredom and isolation of the party is then broken up by scenes of sensuousness and charming flirtation, scenes that hint at a break in the endless disconnection and lack of communication plaguing all of these characters. A rainstorm is greeted, not as an end to the festivities but as an excuse for the embrace of excess and carnality, as the guests jump in the pool, writhe about in the rain, run around laughing and screaming as they're soaked. Roberto takes Lidia for a ride in his car, and Antonioni's camera follows alongside the car in a lengthy tracking shot, the rain streaming down the windows and distorting their faces into impressionistic blurs, which are alternately illuminated by streetlights or swathed in darkness so that they create silhouettes in the dark. They're talking and laughing in the car, but there's no sound of their dialogue on the soundtrack, so this moment of connection and warmth, so unlike the quiet, standoffish scenes between Lidia and Giovanni, is presented from a formal distance, allowing the pair their private intimacy.

Once the titular night falls, indeed, shadows and silhouettes predominate in the film's visual vocabulary, as in the sequence where Valentina, half veiled in shadows, tells Giovanni that she doesn't want to break up his marriage, the shadows suggesting that she's only telling half the truth. Later, when Giovanni and Lidia leave the party, Valentina bids them both goodbye together, as a couple, and then stays behind, a silhouette against the window, her curved body blending into the darkness left in her room as the early morning light seeps in from outside. These poetically beautiful images add to the sensation of picturesque ennui: these deeply sensual images capture the characters' isolation and loneliness, their disconnection from each other. When Giovanni first sees Valentina, it's through reflections, a false image of the woman hovering like a ghost within a large glass pane. Giovanni's own reflection is superimposed into the window so that it almost looks like he's walking directly towards the woman, and then the camera pans right and the reflections shift, and the geography is completely reconfigured as Giovanni steps in from another angle. Such misleading images, in which perceptions shift and reflections create doubled or tripled doppelgangers, suggest that even at such junction points of potential connection, there are multiple layers separating and confusing these people, like the glass that divides them and projects them outside of themselves.

As Valentina says, in a moment of confession that could apply just as well to either Giovanni or Lidia, "whenever I try to communicate, love disappears." That's the central dilemma here, this inability to maintain connections through communication. These people, dwarfed by the clean, unadorned surfaces of urban living, shrouded in shadows, fenced in by concrete and split in two by glass, look to the past — the railway that ran through the neighborhood where Giovanni and Lidia once lived, the tracks now overgrown with weeds and decaying from disuse — but find no comfort or stability there, either. When, at the end of the film, Lidia reads Giovanni a very moving love letter he once wrote her, he doesn't even recognize the words as his own, asking her who wrote it. He can't communicate that passionately or that clearly anymore. In the final shot, the couple embraces, going through the motions, half struggling against one another and half trying to recapture that depth of feeling, as the camera pulls back and pans discretely away, leaving them increasingly small and isolated, together, lying in the sand trap of a golf course.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011


Pravda was the second film that Jean-Luc Godard made with his collective cinema experiment the Dziga Vertov Group, after British Sounds. Like its predecessor — and like the later Struggles In Italy — it is a kind of critical report on a particular country and the status of the socialist revolution in that country. Filmed in Czechoslovakia in the wake of the Soviet invasion of the country, with the assistance of DVG collaborator Jean-Henri Roger, Pravda is a savagely sarcastic indictment of the Soviets, the Czechs, and what Godard considered "psuedo-Communists" everywhere. The film's soundtrack is structured as another dialogue between Vladimir (as in Lenin) and Rosa (as in Luxemburg), the favored names that were repeated throughout Godard's revolutionary films. These two commentators, mimicking TV newcasters, dissect images of what Godard sees as the infiltration of Western imperialism and socialist "revisionism" into a Communist country: billboards advertising American companies; American-style rock n' roll music blaring on the soundtrack, cutting in and out unpredictably; the presence of Hertz and Avis renting Czech-made cars at the airports, thereby appropriating for profit the labor of the proletariat; the dominance of Hollywood-style exploitation pictures and spectacles at local movie theaters. Godard, at the height of his doctrinaire embrace of Maoism, finds evidence of socialist failure everywhere, and the resulting film is by turns savagely funny, utterly blinkered (the continued exultation of Maoist China as the ideal to aspire to is absurd and embarrassing), and intermittently boring.

In other words, it's a typical example of Godard in his "lost" years, after declaring the end of cinema in Week-End and proceeding to rebuild from scratch the artform he'd once loved and had come to distrust. At the root of his distrust was a suspicion of the too-easy consonances between sounds and images, and much of his work with the Dziga Vertov Group constituted a self-questioning attempt to create new relationships between sounds and images. He often didn't succeed, and he knew it: towards the end of this film, Vladimir lambastes Rosa because, he says, she hasn't created new conjunctions of sounds and images, she's merely resorted to the language of posters and slogans, and in the process has taken a step back instead of forward. These kinds of disclaimers are peppered throughout the DVG films, signaling Godard's awareness of the limitations of his current modes of expression. That's part of the point: when Godard declared the end of cinema, he meant the end of commercial cinema, and the films he made subsequently in the late 60s and early 70s were self-conscious "blackboard" films in which the director, while delivering dogmatic ideas well-suited to sloganeering and polemics, was simultaneously querying the very foundations of cinema, the union of sound and image, trying (and usually, and admittedly, failing) to advance beyond mere slogans into the truly revolutionary cinema he envisioned.

If Pravda, like the other DVG films, falls well short of that goal, it's still a fascinating failure. The voiceover ironically calls attention, again and again, to the disjunctions between words and images — in other words, between theory and reality. This is a central theoretical construct, the idea that the image is reality, the documentation of something actually happening, while the sound is something else: on the one hand, the revisionist cover-up that uses words to disguise the reality, and on the other hand the ideal, the theory that has not yet been put into practice. Thus, the disjunction between sounds and images, between words and the reality they ostensibly describe. This is the reverse of the dynamic at work in British Sounds, in which images were presumed to lie while words and sounds provided the revolutionary truth. Godard hasn't exactly regained his faith in images, but Pravda already displays a more complex and dialectical understanding of the relationships of sounds and images to the truth. Thus, the voiceover says, "that's a picture of a girl in a bikini," but the image is missing, replaced by a black screen: the image had been sold, the narration corrects itself, to the Columbia Broadcasting Corporation, and thus could not be shown. The voiceover says, "those are wire fences that the government puts around everything which is the private property of the people." The image shows a playground, fenced in, looking grim and forbidding, and the irony in the description — intimidating fences to demarcate land that supposedly belongs to everyone — emphasizes the discontinuity between words (the people are supposed to be "free") and images (the government continues to control and channel the people's activities from above).

This concept introduces one of the film's most effective sections, as the voiceover, posing as objective reportage, is actually engaging with the subject of ownership, the issue at the root of the debate between capitalism and socialism. Godard shows an image of a wheat field, while Vladimir says, "that doesn't belong to anyone, it's collectivized wheat." In another image, the film makes a distinction between a fruit tree that's genuinely placed by the side of the road and one that's separated from the road by a fence. The image of the tree, sitting just outside the fence's barrier, right by the side of the road and thus accessible and free to anyone, makes the point that the space between freedom and constriction is incredibly small. Through these clever juxtapositions of images and words, Godard is probing the thorny question of who owns what in capitalist versus socialist societies. The deadpan quasi-journalistic presentation adds a note of irony to these sequences: this is a tree, this is wheat, this is a "nationalized food store," and yet all of these things are more complicated in their status than they appear.

That's the essence of Godard's approach to the Dziga Vertov Group films. Pravda frequently gets bogged down in its polemics and contradictions, but one of those contradictions is that even when Godard is being didactic and extremely politicized, he's also grappling with his own assumptions and with the methods of representation he's chosen. That's what makes these films so interesting, despite the theoretical knots that Godard ties himself into over the course of each one. For all the seemingly humorless didacticism of Godard the polemicist, there's still a strain of bitter, ironic humor in this film's wordy narration, and also a lingering appreciation for beauty, as in the image of a solitary bright red flower, alternately blooming brilliantly or trampled in a mud puddle, a classically beautiful symbol for socialism's bold promises and its often disappointing betrayals. Godard is lamenting the need for tanks to "watch over" the peasants, and mocking the kind of men, brainwashed by Western advertising, who "would rather wash their cars than fuck their wives" on the weekends. This film, from Godard's transitional "blackboard" period, is hampered by all the flaws that are common to his DVG works — the ideological blinders, the inexplicable affection for Mao — but it's still a fascinating film that even pushes beyond its polemics in some unexpected ways.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Lola (1961)

Jacques Demy's first film, the charming and fleet-footed Lola, opens with a dedication to the filmmaker Max Ophüls, and it's a very appropriate reference point. As with the other directors of the nascent French New Wave — with which Demy was tangentially associated, if not one of the core filmmaker-critics from Cahiers du cinemaLola evinces a love of the movies in every frame. It's a film swooning and swirling with the desire to live in a movie, to have life fit together into the kinds of intricate puzzle-box plots that drive movie narratives. At any moment, a song might break out, a glamorous girl might stumble back into the life of the man who'd long loved her and never forgotten her, a young girl might fall in love and do something dramatic and romantic, a clueless and aimless young man might get tangled up in a smuggling ring and set off on an adventure, bound for exotic destinations. Ophüls' spirit is felt in the film in the graceful long takes and tracking shots (executed with panache by cinematographer Raoul Coutard) and in the chance collisions and subterranean connections between the characters in this sprawling cast, but the film is just as indebted to the slick, overtly fantastic cinema of Hollywood. Demy's Lola is a whirlwind tour of the director's fascination with Hollywood adventure pictures, musicals, gangster yarns and grand romances.

The Lola of the title (Anouk Aimée) is a dancer at a cabaret, nursing a seven-year aching for her first love, a sailor she'd met as a young girl, who returned to her a few years later, got her pregnant with a son, then disappeared again to make his fortune, promising to return someday. Though Lola doesn't realize it, the film that bears her name actually opens with this man, Michel (Jacques Harden), returning to town after a long absence, glimpsed driving into town in his flashy white convertible and a white suit to match, instantly recognizable as he weaves through the film, intersecting periodically with the characters but always dodging away from Lola before she can see him. This casual intersection of different stories drives the film, as the aimless young dreamer Roland (Marc Michel) by chance runs into the girl who'd been his best friend and his first love as a child, Cécile — who is in fact Lola, so completely inhabiting her sexy dancer persona that no one calls her by her real name anymore, they all call her Lola.

The film is structured around a complex series of unrequited loves and longings. Roland wants Lola, but she's insistent on waiting for the return of Michel, the only man she's ever loved — which doesn't stop her from passing the time with the American sailor Frankie (Alan Scott), who she says reminds her of her own lost sailor. Roland, meanwhile, becomes acquainted with the widow Mrs. Desnoyers (Elina Labourdette), an older woman raising a fourteen-year-old daughter who is, like Lola, named Cécile (Annie Duperoux). The relationships are complex: the widow obviously becomes attracted to Roland, while her daughter Cécile begins spending time with Frankie, developing a girlish infatuation with the older sailor. It is obvious that this younger Cécile is mirroring the life of her counterpart, Lola: like Lola, she spends a day at a fair with an older sailor on her fourteenth birthday, a joyous moment in time that, for Lola, later led to her own child and her current heartache.

Demy, who throughout the film emphasizes the import of one's first love, films the day at the fair for this younger Cécile with a magical, sensual quality that suggests that this memory will be marked in her mind for a long time to come, that it will take on a kind of lingering allure that will haunt her into adulthood. Cécile and Frankie ride on a merry-go-round together, the girl resting her head on his shoulder, smiling and looking up at him, her eyes shining with the girlish fire of her crush. When he gets off the ride, he jumps off in slow motion, seemingly drifting through the air, then picks her up and whirls her over his head, her hair spinning around her face in slow motion, the sun glistening behind her, her eyes filled with pleasure. It's as though this is already a memory, to be replayed over and over again in slow motion as this childish infatuation lingers into the future, leaving only the question: will Frankie someday return as Michel had for Lola, will Cécile's life mirror Lola's as a single mother raising a child that's the fruit of this kind of youthful passion?

These associations between the characters make Lola a rich and multi-layered movie, contrasting the implicit romanticism of its story — the girl who patiently waits seven years for the guy she loves to return — with the difficulties of being a woman dependent on the whims of men. Mrs. Desnoyers lost everything during World War II, her possessions, her home and, she adds as an afterthought, her husband, though the latter doesn't seem to have been a major loss since he was a no-good gambler anyway. As a result, she's raising her daughter alone, just as Lola is raising her son alone, and Roland himself embodies the result of such troubled family situations: he wasn't wanted as a child, growing up in a fractious and unhappy home torn apart by divorce, and it seems to have left a lasting impact on him. In this way, each character mirrors the others, providing visions of possible futures, with the same stories and the same situations repeating themselves with different characters playing the parts. If Lola's story has a happy ending — with Michel's white car finally taking her away in the end — there's no guarantee of similar happiness for Roland, who's walking the other way at the end of the film, heading off towards uncertain adventure, or for young Cécile, who runs away to pursue her sailor, or for Mrs. Desnoyers, chasing her daughter towards a man who may or may not bring her some happiness and stability at last.

The mirroring and repetitions extends into the cinematic reference points of the film. At one point, Roland goes to see the Gary Cooper movie Return to Paradise, which provides another layer of mirrors, with its plot about American military men romancing and impregnating foreign women, then leaving them to struggle on their own. Demy's incorporation of this film is a nod to his American cinematic influences, his love of Hollywood, but it also expresses some ambivalence about the American influence, some uncertainty about the American colonizing of Europe through the movies it exports abroad. More than that, though, Demy is in love with the movies, and in love with the ways in which movies can expand upon and glorify life, can make life bigger and bolder and grander.

When Roland, enamored with the Gary Cooper movie, decides he wants to travel, one woman in the bar where he hangs out says that everything always seems great in the movies, but another responds that life, too, is great. That's a central idea of this charming, whimsical film, in which these characters live their prosaic and troubled lives with the joie de vivre of a fun Hollywood movie, perhaps a musical. (There's a reason the most iconic scene is Lola's flirtatious performance of her own theme song, mugging and posing for the camera as she dances seductively.) These people are very familiar with Hollywood's glamor and its idealized image of life, but they're not always sure where the movies end and life begins. When Cécile tells her mother that she's been hanging out with the sailor Frankie, and that he's from Chicago, her mother responds, horrified, that there are no sailors in Chicago, only gangsters. She's taken the movies for reality, and associates Chicago with gangster pictures, with Jimmy Cagney or Scarface, so that the Hollywood image becomes the reality for those who can only experience a place through the movies. Similarly, Roland's haphazard involvement in a smuggling operation seems like a fantasy — he says it's like something out of a "fairy tale," but he might as well say it's like an American movie, a Bogart adventure picture set in exotic lands, with diamond smugglers and suspicious cops and boat rides and briefcase exchanges. To signal the movie origins of this plot, the soundtrack bursts into a dum-dum-dum-dum chugging suspense theme whenever Roland enters the area where his smuggling contact has his shop.

This is a wonderful and exciting film, bursting with a love of life and a love of movies, and especially a love of how the two intertwine. Whimsical and playful on the surface, Lola has some serious emotions at its core. Though Lola gets her Hollywood happy ending, it's not without a little twinge of regret over the other endings not taken, or without an acknowledgment of all the other characters, whose own stories are left hanging and unresolved.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Three 1950s avant-garde shorts (Belson Shimané, Broughton, Kirsanoff)

Odds & Ends, by Jane Belson (later Jane Conger Belson Shimané), is a goofy little avant-garde pastiche, a collage of found travel footage with Belson Shimané's own abstract animations, both painted and created with paper cutouts. The imagery is a dazzling and abstract blur: people having fun on exotic beaches and boats, fragments of vacationers walking through bland hotel corridors, images of elbows and legs, disconnected body parts, mixed in with smeared paint and gyrating geometric patterns that look like paper snowflakes of the kind made in elementary school art classes. The whole thing has a rough and offhand aesthetic, as though it was stitched together from whatever was at hand, which it probably was.

The images never quite come together into a coherent whole, but the wry, deadpan narration by Henry Jacobs makes one suspect that incoherence is part of the point. Over a background of stereotypical hippie bongos, Jacobs patters on about jazz, poetry, entertainment, grant subsidies, professional careers, and other matters of art and commerce. His speech is freewheeling, strung together with the phrase "on the other hand," which he repeats every few moments to segue from one contradictory point to the next. He's talking about spontaneity versus forethought, art versus entertainment, meaning versus abstraction, and his narration seems to have nothing to do with the images of Belson Shimané — which is, again, the point. As Jacobs talks about the disconnect between jazz and poetry when the two are put together, he says that sometimes when two things are combined, they seem to have little to do with one another, and people don't know what to think as a result. He might well be talking about the film itself, as his narration meanders on, utterly independent of Belson Shimané's rough collage, two things existing simultaneously without really interacting or connecting to one another.

The result is playful and silly, and Jacobs' self-aware narration earns a few laughs at the expense of avant-garde pretensions, particularly when he imagines making a living by delivering crowd-pleasing unions of jazz and poetry, connecting with a broad public through these peripheral artforms. Odds & Ends is, true to its title, a neat little collection of wry observations and charmingly amateur images.

Four in the Afternoon, by the poet-filmmaker James Broughton, is a suite of four vignettes, each one built around one of Broughton's sing-songy, nursery rhyme-inflected poems, which appear periodically on the soundtrack. Each segment concerns the somewhat elusive search for love. In "Game Little Gladys," a girl skips rope and sees images of ten men who might someday be her husband. In "The Gardener's Son," a young man lounges around, working in a garden and spying on (or seeing visions of) women frolicking in the fields. In "Princess Printemps," a princess is comically pursued by a would-be suitor, but is never caught. In the final segment, "The Aging Balletomane," an old man sees a vision of a young girl dancing on a pedestal, though she disappears every time he reaches for her or tries to approach. The film, though made in 1951, feels in many ways like a lost artifact of the silent era, as it appropriates the rhythms of silent comedy in its bursts of sped-up motion and its exaggerated, gestural, dialogue-free performances. The only sound is provided by the sprightly orchestral music and the occasional reading of excerpts from Broughton's poems.

Each segment is brief and minimal, examining a simple idea in a fairly direct way, and the film as a whole is pretty slight and forgettable, with Broughton's fey poetry and whimsical sensibility often failing to make much of an impression. That said, there are some striking images along the way, images that reveal the poet's visual sense. In "The Gardener's Son," Broughton shoots a tiled walkway in an angled closeup that creates the illusion of depth in the distinctive patterned tiles, so that it briefly seems as though the tiles are actually a staircase. It's then disorienting when a bare foot suddenly steps into the frame, recontextualizing the image so that the tiles no longer seem to be raised or layered, but are revealed as a flat surface. It's a wonderful and playful optical illusion. "Game Little Gladys" evinces a similar concern with geometry and patterns: an early shot shows the girl descending a staircase from her apartment, and Broughton inserts a shot that shows the criss-crossing stairs arranged into a distinctive shape on the side of the building. When the girl skips rope later on, the courtyard where she's playing is filmed in such a way that it seems to consist of several oddly disconnected spaces, with Gladys appearing first in front of an ordinary brick wall, then in a concrete yard dotted with weird trapezoidal protrusions.

There's also a peppy poetry to the image of the princess and her suitor chasing one another, alternately in sped-up Keystone Kops double-time and a weightless, running-on-the-moon slow bounce. Broughton is clearly not just a poet-turned-filmmaker, interested only in words, but an artist who's truly attuned to the poetic visual possibilities of the medium. If Four in the Afternoon is ultimately a minor work, it's at least often an enjoyable one.

The Russian emigré Dimitri Kirsanoff, who had a remarkable if often overlooked career as a filmmaker in France, made The Death of a Stag as a commissioned work late in his career. The film's status as a commission is apparent during the introduction, in which a painting of a hunting party is shown along with a voiceover describing the proud French tradition of the hunt and its endurance throughout the ages. It has the flat tone of an industrial documentary or an educational film. Kirsanoff then sets out to utterly ignore this introduction, instead making a typically poetic and striking document that, rather than confirming the timelessness of this rich man's tradition, reveals the hunt as a rather pathetic artifact of another time, an absurd rite with silly costumes and bracing violence at its core.

Kirsanoff's editing is crisp and fast-paced, observing the preparations for the hunt, watching the bourgeois men and women stand around, eating and chatting, smiling and laughing, as packs of dogs congregate, ready to be unleashed for the start of the hunt. The hunt itself is over quickly; the bulk of this brief twelve-minute film is spent simply watching the hunters engaging in the social rites that seem to be the real point of this whole exercise. Kirsanoff's montage is quick but gives the impression of lingering on certain key details: a man taking a bite of an egg then casting a shy sidelong glance at the camera, the dogs licking one another, the tops of bare, leafless trees swaying in the breeze (a favorite Kirsanoff image), two laborers chopping at a tree, the necessity of their work not interrupted by the frivolous country play of the rich folks partying nearby.

The climax of the hunt itself is actually an anticlimax, an unforgettable image of the titular stag surrounded on all sides by barking dogs and the men in their foppish rifles. Kirsanoff holds the image for a long few moments, capturing the utter absurdity of this very unsportsmanlike method of hunting, and then a single rifle shot cracks and the stag falls into the water, with the dogs instantly swarming onto it. The dogs are used as a symbol for the violence barely contained by the appearance of civility. The soundtrack, with its brassy horns and jaunty hunting music, is occasionally infiltrated by the barking of the dogs, subtly blending in with the horns. Later, the hunters present the dogs with a banquet of entrails and spare hunks of meat from the killed animal, unveiling the feast with great pomp and ceremony, as though it's another of the codified rituals surrounding the supposedly great tradition of the hunt. The dogs' subsequent feeding frenzy, leaping on the pile of organs and meat and fighting one another for a chunk of the spoils, belies the civilized façade of the bourgeois hunters. This fascinating little film is another glimpse into Kirsanoff's clear-eyed perspective, his ability to use his deceptively simple but always poetically rich imagery to cut to the core of whatever he's filming.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer

The photographer Eadweard Muybridge can be considered an early pioneer of the development of motion pictures, even though his work preceded the official birth of the cinema. Muybridge is most famous for his sequences of still images that captured animals and humans in various stages of motion: these images, strung together as stills or projected with Muybridge's zoopraxiscope (a primitive motion picture prototype), not only represented steps towards the development of the cinema, but in the realm of science, completely changed the nature of accepted thinking about animal locomotion. Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer is a film essay by Thom Andersen that explores Muybridge's life and work, first in the form of a conventional documentary biography, and then, more provocatively, as a coherently argued work of criticism that examines the ideas and associations evoked by viewing Muybridge's pre-cinematic oeuvre at a remove of almost a hundred years.

Roughly the first half of Andersen's film is devoted to a biography of Muybridge, accompanied by images from the photographer's work. The material is informative and interesting, if not necessarily exciting, and it establishes the context of Muybridge's times and his photographic background. The narration, by the actor Dean Stockwell, is deadpan and purposefully dry, straightforwardly recounting Muybridge's early photographic and journalistic endeavors. But Andersen's perceptive, incisive perspective on this material is revealed in key ways, as when the narrator says that it was "manifest destiny" that gave Muybridge passage — on a commercial ship — to Central America, where the photographer documented the laborers on sugar plantations. The voiceover's wry reference to Muybridge reworking his name as a Spanish sobriquet has a subtle hint of mockery in it, subverting the objective tone of the words themselves.

Andersen's perspective is even more pointedly revealed in the sequence where he recounts Muybridge's marriage, his subsequent discovery that his wife was cheating on him, and then his very public murder of her lover. The narration retains its dry, serious tone, but Andersen slowly zooms in on an image of Muybridge, his eyes hooded, a bushy beard covering the lower half of his face, fixing the camera with a sinister glare. Then the story takes a really unexpected turn when Andersen reveals that Muybridge, at his murder trial, initially pleaded insanity but was in fact acquitted entirely, on the grounds of "justifiable homicide." The subtext is obvious: if the slow zoom on Muybridge's impenetrable face encouraged consideration of what kind of man this was, the trial's outcome suggests just how different this era was from our own. This will be a theme that Andersen will pick up, in a very different way, in the analytical second half of his film, but here it's already an undercurrent, pointing to the unbridgeable gap between the pre-cinematic 1800s and our own time.

Once Andersen establishes the basic details of his subject's life and the nature of his work, the filmmaker delves into analysis with a section explicitly titled "Analysis" (the previous sections, mirroring Muybridge's scientific terminology, were titled "Prospectus" and "Catalogue"). Andersen then immediately leaps into the substance of Muybridge's work, particularly the series of photographic sequences, mostly of people, that he made at the University of Pennsylvania from 1883 to 1886. Muybridge meticulously documented and quantified his work, balancing between scientific rigor and an aesthetic, emotional component that prefigures the artistic/industrial divide that would be worked out in the subsequent early cinema of Edison, Lumière, and other pioneers. What's fascinating about Muybridge's work, to Andersen, is that tension between the functional/scientific and the social/artistic/emotional. Many of Muybridge's subjects were naked men and women, and Andersen juxtaposes these images against the photographer's similar documents of people in the clothing of the era: restrictive, long, formal, conservative.

Muybridge's work is presented as a radical statement in an era in which sexuality and nudity were considered beyond the pale. What's especially provocative about his images to Andersen, however, is how ordinary the presentation of nudity is, how casual. Muybridge's images depict men and women performing athletic feats, but also ordinary chores or activities as prosaic as drinking tea or getting out of bed. Andersen is probing the tension inherent in these images, even now: the scientific setting, with its abstract grid backdrop, contrasts against the casual nudity of the subjects, so that each image attempts to capture natural activity, but does so in an utterly artificial way. This means that Muybridge's photographs, balanced as they are between scientific inquiry, artistic portraiture, documentary representation, and even social commentary, are especially rich sources for the consideration of what a photographic or cinematic image represents and what can be represented by the image.

Andersen also makes the (debatable) point that the nudity in Muybridge's work was especially subversive because it did not resort to the pictorial conventions — lyricism, romanticism, idealization — that were and are used to aesthetically represent nudity in much popular art. In fact, it's likely that Muybridge's photos were as accepted as they were precisely because of their aura of scientific importance, because the nudity could be justified, not as prurient, but as observational and clinical. Andersen is right, though, that Muybridge's images are especially fascinating as early examples of the verité impulse in image-making, whether in photography or the nascent cinema. In talking about Muybridge's pre-zoopraxiscope work, Andersen points out that Muybridge's on-location photography and naturalistic depictions of unstaged, unposed scenes were breaks from the norms of the time, when most photography was made in studios, with rigid poses and very formal conditions. Muybridge, almost from the beginning of his career, had the impulse to photograph the world as it was, to take pictures even of innocuous clouds and trees, and he carried this documentary impulse over into his scientific work. This is just one respect in which Muybridge presaged the "actualities" of the early cinema, with its depictions of trains pulling into stations and athletes performing feats.

One of Andersen's first deconstructions of Muybridge's images in his "Analysis" is to translate Muybridge's tabulations of times recorded and not recorded into a cinematic reconstruction that restores the element of time to these individual still photos. Andersen represents the times between images with black spaces, so that the images seem to flicker across the screen, pulsating, as the voiceover poetically describes the relationship between the images, which freeze a fraction of second forever, and all the unrecorded time that exists in between photographs but has not been immortalized. That the images, once animated in this fashion, still create the illusion of movement simultaneously exalts the magic of the cinema and laments the non-recorded images that linger, like unseen ghosts, in between each frame of the film.

Andersen is making the very interesting argument that, while Muybridge's system, with its multiple cameras, was an oddity that had little to do, from a technological standpoint, with the eventual invention of the cinema as we know it, from a philosophical and physiological standpoint Muybridge was laying the groundwork for the innovations of Edison and Lumière. What Muybridge's work proved was that a finite series of images, projected together and interrupted by black frames, could, through the phenomenon of the persistence of vision, create the illusion of movement. Muybridge, like all later filmmakers, was taking still images — frozen snapshots of particular moments in time — and reanimating them into the forward motion and flow of moving time. He was reintroducing time to the static image, and towards the end of this film Andersen illustrates the point by recreating one of Muybridge's most provocative and evocative images, the slow progress of two naked women gradually moving closer together until they lightly kiss. Andersen's flickering recreation returns Muybridge's influence to the cinema, using modern means to duplicate the strobing but sensuous quality of Muybridge's primitive proto-cinema. As Andersen presents it, there's something poignant about the dead-end status of Muybridge's invention; he was held back by the lack of technical advances that would come too late for his work, but he was already thinking in ways that would be developed to fruition in the more direct precursors to the modern cinema.

In Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer, Andersen has created a work of criticism in film form, not only providing a biography of Muybridge and a chronicle of his influential work, but examining the implications of that work in sociology, art, the science of perception, and sexual mores. Andersen's commentary, as drolly recited by Stockwell, is at times dryly ironic (Muybridge "was the first and only zoopraxographer") and at times seems bemused and peeved by the sexual repression of Muybridge's era — and the enduring puritanical spirit that has stretched into the present as well. Muybridge thus becomes an unlikely icon for the sexual revolution, a precursor not only of the cinema but of a sensibility of clear-eyed examination that doesn't flinch away from nakedness, that's concerned with discovering the truth of human existence in all its unglamorous ordinariness. Andersen is a sharp, perceptive critic whose consideration of Muybridge opens up into social criticism, film theory, sexuality, aesthetics and technology. He is doing the work of all the best critics: looking closely and intently at these flickering images and finding a wealth of ideas to be drawn out and connections to be made.