Sunday, September 30, 2007

9/30: Lifeboat; Amarcord

Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat is an unusual film for the director in many ways. As opposed to his usual freewheeling thrillers, with locales stretching across the world, the action here is confined to the titular lifeboat after a US freighter is sunk by a German U-boat during World War II. The lifeboat gets filled up with rescued passengers from the freighter, and then they take on one last unexpected survivor: the captain of the German U-boat who sank them. The confined locale gives the film a bit of a stagy, theatrical feel to it, and the fact that Hitchcock is able to turn a bunch of talking heads on a boat into a taut, compelling entertainment is tribute enough to his genius for suspense. Which is not to say that it's a totally successful effort, because it isn't. Part of that problem has to lie with the script, which was adapted from a story by John Steinbeck. Its assortment of characters — a communist laborer, a factory owner, an upper-class journalist, a black porter, a nurse, a navy grunt — is too contrived, too much a cross-section of society. And its wartime propaganda sits a bit heavily at times, especially in the ending, which seems rather confused in its message. Either the script, or Hitchcock himself, seems unsure of whether or not the film should be wholeheartedly embracing the characters' blanket condemnation of Germans. There's a strange distanced vibe to the violent outburst at the film's complex (I won't ruin it for you), in which Hitchcock seems to have stepped back from the action in order to keep things objective. He also films it from behind, so that the violence itself isn't seen, and the camera appears to be questioning the validity of what it shows. The ending, unfortunately, erases a lot of this ambiguity, fully endorsing a patriotic message without the earlier shadings of moral ambiguity that had bubbled up periodically throughout the film.

It's as though, somewhere within this, a much more interesting film about patriotism, wartime violence, class, and race were struggling to get out, but the era and the actual real-life war prevented any such nuanced look at the issues. As a result, the film's tokenist look at race is patronizing and falls neatly into place with contemporary stereotypes — something for which Steinbeck himself was reportedly enraged at Hitchcock. The character of the porter, Joe (Canada Lee), is yet another example of the Hollywood "magical Negro" figure, with the recorder he plays and his background in pickpocketing and his willingness to continue playing the servant even in extraordinary circumstances. He's unsurprisingly also the film's voice of religion, and is given a scene in which he intones a hymnal for the burial at sea of a drowned baby. It's one of the film's most striking images, with high-contrast lighting producing textured silhouettes, but it also completes the picture of Joe as a quasi-mystical figure, which makes it much easier to forget him slaving away in the background for the rest of the film.

The depiction of class is equally superficial, a paper-thin contrast between angry Communist worker Kovac (John Hodiak) and the glamorous reporter Connie (Tallulah Bankhead, in a performance of sultry majesty). Here, the blame can't be laid on Hitchcock, but presumably on the original story. Steinbeck was a socialist himself, and it's clear that he saw the dialogues between Kovac and Connie (and, to a lesser extent, the factory boss played by Henry Hull) as a perfect opportunity to reveal class tensions. But it's equally clear that the script looks at these tensions in only the most basic ways, and the dialogue along these lines never gets much further than a Marxist primer, with no subtlety or true exchange of ideas. Still, the film isn't a total flop by any means. Bankhead, as already mentioned, turns in a wonder of a performance, stealing scenes left and right with her laidback sensuality, and the rest of the cast holds up admirably with the sometimes clunky script. And the suspense is sustained beautifully, of course, even if the supposed mystery — the German captain's intentions — is never really a subject of much doubt from the audience's POV. Ultimately, this is a decent if uncharacteristic Hitchcock thriller, somewhat bogged down by thematic issues.

Fellini's Amarcord is a late masterpiece from this director who excelled at translating the figments of his imagination onto the screen. Nowhere is that more apparent than here, in which the entire film is a loosely connected series of vignettes presenting an extremely exaggerated, phantasmagoric image of Fellini's memories of his childhood home town of Rimini. This is in many ways a continuation of the kind of circus atmosphere that proliferated throughout 8 1/2, except in that case the circus revolved around one central figure, the frustrated director played by Marcello Mastroianni. Here, there is no such central character; the town itself is the main character. The story, such as it is, is just the passing of a year in the town's life, following the change of the season and relating anecdotes about many of the residents. The film both opens and closes with the swirling of the "lemone," the yellow wisps which for this town signal the end of winter and the onset of spring. In between, all sorts of things happen, and things change, but there's not a real sense of narrative; it's all just part of the fabric of the town's life. This impression is heightened by the presence of a running commentary on the town's ancient history by a lawyer and local historian, who speaks directly to the camera from within scenes. Other characters periodically address the camera, too, giving the impression that there is some kind of journalistic documenter surveying the town — Fellini himself, maybe.

But this documentary facade does nothing to improve the film's sense of reality. Quite to the contrary, these acknowledgments of the camera serve much the same purpose that they do in early Godard, to disconnect the film from reality. Not that that disconnection isn't apparent everywhere in Fellini's work here. Even more so than in any of his earlier films, everything here is subsumed by the swirling circus atmosphere, with Nino Rota's bouncy score driving along scenes of chaotic celebration and angry arguments alike. Even a ritualistic fascist rally, complete with a giant Mussolini head made of flowers, is filmed with the same over-the-top energy and vitality, demonstrating how easily the townspeople's vibrant personalities could be absorbed by the Mussolini machine. The fascists provide an ugly underbelly to the film as a whole, especially in a chillingly underplayed scene in which they force a local socialist-sympathizer to drink castor oil, a common punishment doled out by Italian fascists. Their malevolent presence in the town is an occasional chill wind through the otherwise pristine village of Fellini's reminiscences.

In many ways, this is a true Fellini primer. All of his obsessions are on display here, exaggerated to mammoth proportions. There's Volpina, the ridiculously over-acted local tramp who seems to exude animal sexuality from her every moment. Her leering and fidgety movements go well with clothes that somehow seem like they're in danger of simply peeling away from her body at any moment. This is Fellini's image of sex, which always has a healthy dose of the perverse to it, of the crazy even. The lunacy is accentuated by the character of Teo, a mildly retarded man who one day snaps, climbs to the top of a tree, and begins screaming out "I want a woman" across the fields. He's only brought down — of course, since this is Fellini — by the arrival of a midget nun. There's also the wonderfully hilarious scene in which the young boy Titta receives his sexual initiation at the teat of the buxom grocery store woman, who bares her massive breasts (speaking of mammoth proportions...) and orders him to suck. For Fellini, childhood is a garbled mix of sexual obsessions, school pranks, eccentric grown-ups looming large, and the occasional numbing censure of religion or discipline-minded adults. His gift is transforming the hazy, time-distorted memory of these things into a sublime, ecstatic celebration of all the little moments of life, transformed by reminiscence into events of epic importance. His film even contains some wry comments about this process of storytelling, in the character of Biscein, who tells wildly exaggerated tales of seducing Arab concubines and travelling to America. In so many ways, Fellini is Biscein, and it is through the warped lens of his memory and imagination that we can see the life of this town and its amazing people.

Friday, September 28, 2007

9/28: Ce jour-là

Raoul Ruiz's Ce jour-là is quite possibly the most charming and funny movie ever made about a psychopathic mass murderer. The film concerns Livia (Elsa Zylberstein), the slightly crazy and unsuspecting heiress to a massive fortune, whose family is plotting to knock her off in order to keep the money for themselves. To those ends, this greedy clan sets loose the psychopathic killer Pointpoirot from the local asylum, with instructions to the effect that God wants Elsa to die. But when Pointpoirot (Bernard Giraudeau) arrives at the house, he finds himself curiously unable to kill his intended target. At first, she eludes him, hits him over the head with a hammer, and he's distracted by several other appealing targets who he duly slaughters. But the more he's around her, the more it's clear that a bond is developing between the two; in the meantime, he somewhat unwittingly winds up killing virtually the entirety of Livia's scheming family, and arranges their corpses around the dining room table for a macabre supper.

What's that, this doesn't sound like a comedy? No, you wouldn't think so, which is why it's so mystifying when the laughs keep coming, even at the most gruesome moments. Ruiz has an uncanny knack for keeping the viewer just off-balance with the steady, sweeping movement of his camera and its frequent, unexpected pauses. He turns each murder scene into a graceful absurdist ballet — in one, Pointpoirot chases an old woman around in the background as Livia absentmindedly tries to clean bloodstains off her dress in the foreground. In another, the proceedings take on the air of silent comedy as Ruiz keeps the camera basically static on a hallway, with Livia waiting at the end. Pointpoirot and his intended victim chase each other in and out of this shot through several doorways arranged around the hallway — offscreen, they scuffle, exchange weapons, and then come running out or creep along in an attempt at surprise. It has the feel of a particularly grisly Marx Brothers farce, or better yet a Bugs Bunny cartoon where the cartoonish violence actually has concrete consequences.

But what really elevates the film above simple gallows humor is the performance of Zylberstein as Livia. It is, quite simply, a radiant performance; she defines purity and innocence, and it's this quality that makes it easy to see why Pointpoirot is unable to kill her. Her facial expressions carry the film, shifting from sad-eyed puzzlement to a slowly dawning smile that lights up her slender face — and the film as a result. There are also multiple ideas and connections running through the film's subtext, also gently nudging it away from the territory of a simple farce. While the body count piles up at Livia's country villa, the police in the town, who are supposed to be tracking the escaped murderer, decide to do nothing, supposedly as a strategic gambit while they work in secret. But then they proceed to spend the whole film idly eating, playing billiards, and questioning the bartender at the local pub about the habits of the town's rich. There's a wonderful scene where Livia's father (Michel Piccoli) tries to get them to go out to the manor to investigate; he interrupts them in mid-bite during lunch, and Ruiz's camera captures a fork in the immediate foreground, a piece of food perched on the end. Ruiz is constantly interjecting such bizarre visual humor through unusual camera placement, and it adds yet another level of absurd playfulness to the film.

And in the background, as revealed by snatches of radio chatter and the military vehicles periodically glimpsed riding through town, political and economic undercurrents surge into the story. The radio informs of ridiculous mergers between insanely rich companies — one of them, we're informed, owns the water supplies of Bolivia and Brazil. In light of this backdrop of economic monopolization and political impotency, Ruiz's murderous farce takes on new socio-political overtones. The police are helpless to interfere with the machinations of the rich, and they let it all play out to the end; meanwhile, it seems even the government is trying to get in on the action and attempt to claim Livia's fortune for their own. At every turn, Ruiz allows the plot complications to keep building in this way, but the story still bounces along amiably without a hitch, and the non-stop puns, sight gags, and ridiculous situations keep flying by. It's a delirious, hilarious, constantly exhilarating film that should certainly be counted among Ruiz's (probably many) masterpieces.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

9/27: Hannah and Her Sisters; Vinyl

The more I watch of Woody Allen's work, the more I'm convinced that he's one of the absolute greatest American filmmakers. Hannah and Her Sisters is yet another entry in what must be the strongest, most consistent run of masterpieces in cinema, from Annie Hall in 1977 to here in 1986 with only Interiors as a minor speed bump along the way. This is perhaps Allen's warmest film, an astonishingly vital, expressive, and upbeat work from a director notoriously infected by pessimism. Interiors may be his weakest work of this period because of its didacticism and humorlessness, but in this film Woody revisits the family drama in a much lighter context, opens it up in order to let in light, movement, romance, and hope. As in Interiors, there are three sisters and their families at the heart of this story, but there the similarities end.

This is, in addition to being Woody's warmest work, his most literary work. Which is not to say it's uncinematic, which is what's usually meant when a film is damned with such faint praise as "literary." No, this was Woody's first film with cinematographer Carlo di Palma, and the visuals are as beautiful as could be expected. The whole film is bathed in an autumnal glow which perfectly mirrors the bittersweet nature of the emotions running throughout the film's intertwined storylines. When I say this is a very "literary" film, I'm referring primarily to the structure, the way it's divided into chapters — complete with introductory headings — which follow one or two characters before skipping on to a new chapter and a new character. This was Woody's largest ensemble cast to date, and he assembled some stellar actors to populate it with.

Mia Farrow, of course, is still Woody's leading lady, though despite playing the title character, Hannah, she's mostly sidelined here. Her character is a quiet central presence in the story, as she is in the lives of her two sisters, Holly (Diane Wiest) and Lee (Barbara Hershey). Farrow plays Hannah with a gentle but slightly awkward assuredness that is endearing but also distancing. Tellingly, she is the only major character whose head we never get inside; Woody gives all the other characters periodic internal monologues and glimpses into their thoughts, but Hannah remains always serenely apart. If Farrow projects the image of contentment and success, everyone else in the film seems to be struggling to attain those same qualities. Michael Caine, as Hannah's husband, lusts after her sister Lee, and strikes up a passionate affair with her only to realize he still loves his wife. Lee is dreadfully unhappy in her long-term relationship with the dour artist Frederick (played with a wonderful world-weary gloom by Bergman regular Max von Sydow). Holly drifts from one unsuccessful project to the next, constantly borrowing money from Hannah and never finding any luck with men. Wiest is phenomenal here, investing this role with an energy, sweetness, and well-hidden sadness that makes the film practically radiate every time she's on-screen. And Hannah's ex-husband, played by Woody, gets some of the film's best comic relief moments as a chronic hypochondriac who finally gets a scare when the doctors tell him he might actually be right this time.

Woody expertly weaves this large cast into a dazzling story, confidently interweaving the disparate threads as if he'd always been handling such large casts and complex plotting, as if most of his previous films hadn't been comparatively small in scale. As always, he's concerned with mortality, relationships, meaning, and art, but this is perhaps his subtlest and most understated treatment of such themes. His cast is top-notch. His writing is at its most sensitive and perceptive, gently probing into the intricacies of family connections. This is yet another remarkable pinnacle to Woody's 70s and 80s career.

On perhaps the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of sleekness is Andy Warhol's dirty, ragged Vinyl, his film adaptation of Anthony Burgess' novel A Clockwork Orange. Fans of Kubrick's version from 6 years later would probably have a hard time at first recognizing the story amid Warhol's static mise-en-scène and the stilted, halting performances of his untrained actors. Factory regular Gerard Malanga plays the lead, Victor, in one of the most hilariously bad performances ever put on film. He sounds like he's auditioning, poorly, for a high school play, and the other actors aren't much better. The exceptionally long takes don't help matters, as flubbed lines and stammers are left in along with blank moments while the actors search for the next bit. Clearly, realism and emotional investment are far from Warhol's mind here; all the actors show about as much interest in the story as they would in a gum wrapper on the street. This disconnection is coupled with Warhol's decision to film the entire thing from a static viewpoint. There are just three shots in the hour-long film, and all the "action" is limited to one tiny corner of a room where all the characters are crammed into the shot. The net effect is that the story becomes curiously flat and affectless, mirroring the numbing of Victor's mind that accompanies his transformation from bad to "good."

In Warhol's version of the story, form and content are truly married; if Burgess' story is a parable on the dangers of removing free will, Warhol sets this story in a framework within which the viewer has near-complete freedom. Warhol fills the screen with characters who mostly loll around, acting tough and smoking, dancing, and torturing others. All these activities attain a roughly equal status, and the eye naturally glides around the whole area, taking in what all the different people are doing. Part of this is that the story is so slack, and the attention necessarily wanders at times away from the central action. There's plenty more to occupy the attention besides Victor's story, as Edie Sedgwick lazes seductively off to one side, smoking and dancing, and in the background a pair of thugs systematically beat and torture a man they captured. As the film progresses, this latter bit of action parallels and reinforces the government-sanctioned torture of Victor which rehabilitates him by sapping his free will. Vinyl is a strange and intriguing film which, like most of Warhol's movies, often toes the line between slow and downright boring. This is an alienating, attitude-based cinema, and it provides no easy pleasures. By replacing the conventional narrative drive with a cluttered mise-en-scene of bodies, Warhol achieved unusual effects not often seen in film, and certainly not in the (ostensibly) narrative cinema.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

9/26: La Coquille et le Clergyman; Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Germaine Dulac's La Coquille et le Clergyman is often called the first surrealist film. In that sense, it's inarguably interesting, pointing the way towards the two Dali/Bunuel collaborations and other early landmarks of surreal cinema. But separate from its historic context, Dulac's film doesn't hold up quite as well as some of its peers. The film concerns a priest struggling with sexual desire, and his struggle is interpreted symbolically at every turn. These symbols range from the obtuse — his coat tails growing ridiculously long — to the rather obvious, as in the stocky, medal-festooned military figure who haunts him, a symbol of male potency and success. Such obvious Freudian subtexts abound, but for a surrealist work the imagery is often surprisingly drab, and it lacks the energy and vitality of Un Chien Andalou or the American surrealism of Sidney Peterson. Dulac does provide a few memorable images by dividing up the screen into multiple overlapping images in superimpositions. Most notably, in a scene towards the end, the priest's face is slowly replaced, piece by piece, by disconnected images of broken glass, running water, and unidentified rubbish. Finally, all that remains is one of his eyes in the center of this patchwork, and then it too is overrun by a rush of water. This kind of striking moment, rich in symbolic overtones and visually quite strong, is unfortunately rather rare in the film as a whole. This is a film better remembered for its importance to its time than for anything it may actually be as a work of art.

Robert Altman was never known as an easy director to appreciate, and if he was anything, he was entirely unpredictable. His career is a series of one "strange" film after another, with each subsequent one overturning even those expectations which had managed to develop since his last film. This unpredictability and artistic eclecticism should have scared away the mainstream for good, and indeed it did leave Altman alone for most of the 80s, before his big comeback with The Player. But throughout the 70s, the mainstream kept turning to Altman, despite the fact that 9 times out of 10 he refused to give them quite what they wanted. And nothing could be further from what the mainstream wanted, at any point, than his 1976 masterwork Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson. It was, oddly enough, produced by super-producer Dino de Laurentiis, who clearly did not get what he wanted either. If Dino and the American people were looking for Wild West spectacle and celebration to surround the bicentennial, Altman was much more interested in examining the nature of American mythology and history.

Buffalo Bill is many things. First and foremost, it's a satire of the entertainment industry, especially the way in which show business can gobble up real events and spit out entirely new versions of them which will be swallowed whole by audiences. Altman demythologizes his title character, presenting him as a simple and unexceptional man inflated to far above his natural state, to a level of expectations he could never hope to meet. Paul Newman does a tremendous job as Bill, and as the film goes on and the legend begins to deflate, Newman allows more and more of the man beneath to show through. This culminates in a stunning penultimate scene, in which a drunk and hallucinating Newman imagines a conversation with the Indian chief Sitting Bull. By this point, the legend has completely fallen away and the man himself is stripped bare; you can see Bill trying to rebuild his myth completely from scratch, pausing, stumbling, rewriting his own script on the fly. It's a remarkable scene, with Altman's probing camera constantly staying just outside the action, zooming slowly in on and Newman and winding around him as he delivers this pitch-perfect performance.

Buffalo Bill is also Altman's wry commentary on America's own mythologizing history. As Sitting Bull says at one point, through his ever-present intermediary, "history is just disrespect for the dead." The film's central premise involves Bill recruiting the famous chief for his Wild West show, but when Sitting Bull arrives, he refuses to participate in any of the canned acts, in which cowardly and sneaky Indians are routed by brave cowboys. Instead, the chief proposes a new performance, in which the unarmed Indians welcome the white men, trade with them, agree to peace, and then are promptly slaughtered. The tension between Bill and Sitting Bull arises because, though the Sioux chief is the defeated one and Bill is on the side of the victors, Bill realizes that his rival truly is what he only pretends to be. Altman's film is a real marvel, something of a forgotten masterpiece buried amid a string of such amazing films in the 70s. There's so much to talk about here that it's hard to even know where to begin. Though the film's central focus is clearly on Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull, the sidelines are packed with that distinctive Altman ensemble, all turning in great performances and getting some choice gags and scenes of their own.

Geraldine Chaplin is perfect as Annie Oakley, and Altman showcases her in a wonderfully executed scene where she puts on a show of sharpshooting targets held by a man on a trotting horse. Altman here breaks away from his signature long shots and zooms, using rapid but purposeful editing to accentuate Chaplin's performance — the periodic closeups on her beaming face as she hoots with delight punctuate the scene visually in much the same way as her gunshots do aurally. Joel Grey gets another choice role, as the promoter who's constantly inventing his own words. Also waiting in the wings are Harvey Keitel as Bill's eager nephew and a seemingly endless parade of opera singers who Bill is infatuated with; their warbling trills provide yet another disorienting touch as the soundtrack to a nominal western. In small ways like this and myriad others, Altman was determined to undermine the conventions of the genre, reveal the mythologizing which covers up ugly facts about America's past, and satirize the show biz flashiness of Hollywood filmmaking, which similarly glosses over reality for lurid and easy-to-package fantasies. This is one of Altman's best and most complex films, from a decade in his career which spawned an inordinate number of masterpieces. That this particular film has now been largely forgotten, lost in the shuffle or considered flawed by critical consensus, is a true shame. This is a film that deserves to be rediscovered by one and all with fresh eyes. It's funny, moving, bitingly intelligent, and brimming with energy and vitality. In other words, it's possibly the most prototypically American film around, even as it strives to dismantle and question traditional ideas about America.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

9/25: Samuel Beckett's Film; Christmas U.S.A.; The Purple Rose of Cairo

Samuel Beckett's Film is a true oddity of a short, the unlikely collision of iconoclastic playwright Beckett with silent film icon Buster Keaton. The short was directed by Alan Schneider, a stage director who often adapted Beckett's work. Here, Schneider is working from the only script Beckett ever wrote for the screen, and the pair enlisted Buster Keaton to be their hero. The film has a simple conceit, but is remarkably powerful in the way it explores it. For the bulk of the film, Keaton is filmed from behind, first as he runs through the street frantically, then in his small and ramshackle apartment. Not only does the camera stay behind Keaton, never even showing his face, but Keaton seems determined to avoid it -- when it creeps around the side of him in attempt to see more, Keaton shrinks away and the camera jumps back as if startled. In fact, Keaton's character seems terrified of being seen or of seeing himself at all. He covers up the mirror in his room, tears up photographs, and even puts out his cat and dog and puts a sheet on top of his parrot cage and fish bowl. This is a man chronically afraid of being seen, and the mere feeling of even his pets' eyes on him clearly puts him ill at ease.

This film is so remarkable for the intellectual depth and pathos it imparts to such a simple premise. There is a strong implication that the reason Keaton's character is fleeing from view is a fear of his aging, an unwillingness to face his own mortality in the form of the wizened lines of his face. The film opens with a close-up on Keaton's eye, surrounded by thick lines in his skin, the marks of age. Keaton hides himself in a room, out of the public eye, but the camera follows him quietly, waits until he's asleep, and finally manages to confront him head-on. There is, ultimately, no escaping mortality, and when the camera finally faces Keaton, a POV shot from his position shows what he sees: himself, staring back at him from one good eye, the other covered by a patch. In Beckett's script, the camera — that mechanical one-eye — becomes an avatar of mortality and judgment, unavoidable and without emotion. When the camera sees Keaton, he sees himself for the first time, aged and decrepit, and he weeps; the camera, in capturing reality, reveals the self.

The film is especially poignant in its examination of mortality and aging because it stars the premier icon of the silent era, now well past his prime and in the dumps creatively. This was one of Keaton's very last roles, made just a year before his death. Beckett provided Keaton with a return to the silent era for the space of 25 minutes — the film is utterly silent except for a brief moment, early on, when a woman on the street makes a "ssssh" noise, presumably directed at the audience. Keaton takes advantage of this opportunity by turning in a wonderfully expressive performance, even with his face covered for the entire movie. His body language tells the whole story, and he even gets to do some wonderful silent movie gags, like the scene where he struggles to put his cat and dog outside, only to have one come running back in while he's busy with the other. Keaton also does the whole film as a kind of dance with the camera, which moves fluidly and snakily around him, and he is forced to constantly keep moving in order to avoid showing his face. This dance — with death, with himself — has a poignant and powerful significance to the film's themes, but it's also a chance for some great comedic cinematographic ballet. Beckett's Film is an important and powerful short that packs a great deal of punch into its slim running time and straightforward set-up. Keaton is a wonder, and this is the best possible tribute to his talent.

I also watched Gregory Markopoulos' Christmas, U.S.A., which is on Kino's second Avant-Garde double-disc set. This is an interesting early experiment from a director who later became a great — but now largely unseen, including by me — name of the American avant-garde. Since Markopoulos' films are inaccessible on DVD, and rare even in public screenings, this is my first and only exposure to his work, and will likely be the same for most people. From what I hear, his later work is much different and better, but this is a fine little film nonetheless. Here, Markopoulos uses fragmentary editing and intercuts between claustrophobic and mundane scenes of domestic life — shaving, vacuuming, setting the table — and images of the carnivalesque, the mysterious, the magical. While a young man gets ready for the day and interacts with his family, Markopoulos cuts in shots of carnival rides, a mysterious ritual taking place in the woods, and a strange dream-like scene in which the man gets out of the bath to encounter a creepy moving toy. The theme seems to be the discovery of the fantastic and the wondrous amid the trappings of the everyday. This idea is clarified in the film's final few minutes, which show the young man going out to a deserted spot and meeting another young man, shirtless, who he caresses and lays down with before going back home. The film is a subtly joyous depiction of sexual and sensual awakening — a celebration of a young man's discovery of strange, exciting things lurking beyond the drab normality of the everyday. It's a specific metaphor for Markopoulos' homosexuality, of course, but also more generally for the sexual and intellectual awakenings of adolescence, the escape from the family to the individual life. That Markopoulos populates this moment with such wonder, passion, and mystical tension is a testament to his sure-handed ability to convey complex emotions cinematically, even at this early stage of his career. If this is early Markopoulos, I'm very excited to see more someday.

And the run of fantastic Woody Allen films remains unbroken with The Purple Rose of Cairo. This is one of Woody's most dazzling comedic fantasies, on the surface a light and fluid fantasia of dream and imagination, and yet its heart is hard as stone and its message is pure Allen pragmatism. Mia Farrow is again great, in a very different role as the shy dreamer Cecilia, who at the height of the Depression is trapped in a loveless and abusive marriage and a dead-end job as a waitress. To escape this suffocating reality, she takes in a movie every day, getting lost in the lush Hollywood fantasies playing at the local theater, taking in each film every day until it's replaced. This dull routine comes to an end when, absurdly, one of the characters in the latest film, The Purple Rose of Cairo, notices Cecilia's dedication to film-going and steps out of the screen to meet her. Typically, Woody handles this moment with utter deadpan humor — the movie patrons shriek and faint, Cecilia is stunned but kind of charmed, and the other characters in the film are outraged that the plot has ground to a halt. It's all put together to give the scene a kind of oddball reality and matter-of-factness that grounds the experience in Cecilia's romantic perceptions.

Ultimately, the film examines the nature of fantasy and reality, the connections between them, and the importance of choosing reality no matter how harsh the consequences. Cecilia is a basically good person, but her avoidance of reality keeps her locked utterly in her rut. When Tom Baxter (played admirably by Jeff Daniels) steps off the screen to woo her, she's swept up in the fantasy and romance of it all, so that her life becomes a wonderful continuation of her cinematic fantasies. She even goes so far as to step into the screen with Tom, in a wonderful series of scenes which evoke the feel of a genuine 20s/30s glamour film. But while Tom is romancing her, the real-life actor who played him, Gil Shepherd, is also vying for Cecilia's attention, even as he tries to get his doppelganger back onto the screen where he belongs. In the end, Cecilia is forced to choose between Tom and Gil, as though between fantasy and reality — although, really, her image of Gil is so wound up with ideas of Hollywood ritz and glamour that even this reality is tinged heavily with fantasy. It's no surprise, then, that though Cecilia opts for the reality, she is ultimately disappointed by it, because reality is not like the perfect world of the Hollywood romantic comedy, nor is it like the diamonds-and-champagne vision of Hollywood itself which exists beyond those films. For Cecilia, even reality has something of the movies about it. Woody's genius in this film — his somewhat cruel genius — is to get the audience to invest entirely in one or both of the central romances. Either one is seemingly viable, and either one is a likely target for some romantic sentiment from audiences trained to respond to such promptings. But the film's denouement overturns such expectations, revealing the ridiculousness of Cecilia's hopes, and of our own. It's to Woody's credit, though, that this ending doesn't seem gratuitously pessimistic or cynical — he has managed to make a movie of delirious fantasy that simultaneously deflates such fantasies. And yet the ending, which should be utterly devastating, still maintains a certain bittersweet beauty. This is a complex and wonderful film, and its multiple layers of fantasy and reality are handled deftly by a director at the absolute top of his form.

Monday, September 24, 2007

9/24: Broadway Danny Rose; House of Cards; Interim

The next stop on my trip through Woody Allen's 80s filmography is Broadway Danny Rose, which proves to be among his best, funniest, and most poignant films so far. The film is a nostalgic look back at the golden days of New York variety acts, and Allen plays Danny Rose a talent agent who specializes in the most marginal, strange, and washed-up acts around. This is a milieu that Allen was very familiar with from his own years as a stand-up comic, and this is essentially his love letter to a time in his life, the people he knew, and the whole atmosphere of the scene. To enhance the feel of nostalgia, not only is the film shot in black and white, like many of Allen's films from this period, but the story of Danny Rose is told as a series of reminiscences and funny stories by a group of comics hanging out in New York's famous Carnegie Deli.

The main story, following a series of vignettes which introduce Danny and his menagerie of oddball acts, concerns the Italian singer Lou Canova (the real lounge singer Nick Apollo Forte, who had never acted before) and his gangster moll, Tina (Mia Farrow). On a crucial night for Lou's slowly improving career, Danny has to go pick up Tina and spend the night pretending to be her date for the benefit of Lou's wife. Instead, Danny gets sucked into an increasingly wild series of adventures with Tina, with the mob hot on their trail the whole time. It's a lot of fun, and Woody milks as much humor as he can from his over-the-top stereotypes of Italian mob families. This is the one problematic aspect of the film, since this stereotyping could even be seen as rather mean-spirited, but it's important to remember that Woody's depictions of Jews are often equally negative and stereotyped, including in this film. It's a broad, sweeping humor, and in context it works beautifully. This is especially true because the stereotypes are balanced by some of Woody's most sensitive, complicated characterizations -- the relationship between his character and Mia Farrow's Tina is sweet, funny, and simultaneously both totally improbable and (because of the sensitivity of the leads' performances) totally believable.

Farrow is in rare form here, acting completely against all previous expectations in a part I never would have believed her capable of playing. Her Tina is crude, temperamental, spontaneous, funny, tough, and surprisingly intelligent behind her huge ever-present sunglasses and poofed hair. She sinks into this part like she was born to play it, submerging herself and totally taking on an unexpected persona. This film, more than anything, proves the scope and magnitude of Farrow's tremendous acting talent, as the wispy, sensitive actress transforms herself into a bouffant-haired, gum-snapping gangster's gal. Although Farrow unquestionably dominates the picture, there's a lot to love here. Allen is fantastic as well, exaggerating his own already exaggerated mannerisms for the portrait of fast-talking agent Danny Rose. The black and white NYC cinematography is gorgeous throughout, and there are several stellar scenes that will likely stick in my memory forever. The Thanksgiving dinner at the end of the film is foremost among these, and the atmosphere of the comics discussing old times at Carnegie Deli. Less poignant, but much funnier, is the chase scene through a warehouse filled with parade floats, which halfway through turns from suspense to farce with an entirely unexpected and hilarious twist. Broadway Danny Rose is a masterpiece in Allen's career, and it belongs in the company of his other bittersweet, nostalgic masterworks like Annie Hall and Manhattan.

I also watched a pair of films from Kino's second Avant-Garde collection. These excellent sets have assembled a surprising number of remarkable experimental shorts from the early days of film, and though this second set hasn't proved as consistently high-level as the first, there are still plenty of treasures within. Joseph Vogel's 1947 House of Cards is an enjoyable but not particularly memorable surrealist exercise, in which a young man is haunted by thoughts of murder and violence — possibly one he himself committed, or one he only read about in the newspaper. In either case, the film is a stream-of-consciousness journey through the man's mind, with strange imagery and shadowy figures swirling across the screen. The film's strongest moments are a few scenes that bring to mind an avant-garde film noir — a title I'd previously thought only belonged to J.J. Parker's wonderfully bizarre Dementia (AKA Daughter of Horror). An early scene of (imagined? remembered?) murder is especially evocative, as both murderer and victim are cloaked in expressionistic shadows with only stray beams of light cutting across them. Vogel also uses several of his own lithographs and the memorable painting Survivors At Picnic, shot through warped lenses, to provide an eerie landscape for the inside of the young man's mind. Despite the strong visual interest, this film never really adds up to much, and several silly and puzzling symbolic constructions only distract from the work's serious tone -- like the ballet dancer, blind newspaper hawker, and fencers who all show up towards the end.

The most intriguing inclusions in Kino's second Avant-Garde collection are four early films of Stan Brakhage, including his very first film, shot when he was just 19. These films provide a very different image of Brakhage than most experimental cinema fans will be aware of from his more well-known later works. While Brakhage later eschewed narrative and, eventually, even representation, these early films betray the influence of neorealism and the French poet/filmmaker Jean Cocteau. For the most part, they're only interesting now for the occasional glimpses they give of the highly original filmmaker Brakhage would soon become. There are flashes of his obsession with light and foliage, and in these more narrative-based films, an impatience with the central plot and a recurring interest in adding details from outside the main action (leaves on nearby trees, landscape shots, light reflecting off water). The Way to Shadow Garden is the only one of the four that can stand up today as a good film in its own right, and it is not coincidentally the one closest to the work which Brakhage would later become known for — particularly its semi-abstract second half, which shows the film's protagonist in the midst of a lush garden, eerily converted into negative-image with high-contrast light streaming everywhere.

Interim, on the other hand, is the least interesting of these works, and its only real place now is as a historical curiosity. It was Brakhage's first film, a student work with a simple non-story: a boy goes walking, meets a girl, kisses her as they shelter from the rain, and then parts from her. It's also the only Brakhage film where he doesn't handle the camera himself, as the cinematography is credited to Stan Phillips (probably a fellow student). The film has a few conventionally pretty shots and maintains a charming, lilting rhythm through the editing and the use of piano music by a then-young James Tenney. But as a Brakhage film, there's not much there, even as far as hints of the future. This is a pure neorealist work, and it would clearly take Brakhage a few more stabs at filmmaking before he would really come into his own voice.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

9/23: Zelig; Love is Colder Than Death; Chocolat; Detour

Zelig marked a very unexpected departure for Woody Allen, who had ended the 70s with a series of increasingly introspective and psychological films that seemed to directly reflect his own modern Manhattan milieu. Then, following 1980's Fellini tribute Stardust Memories, he retreated to work on two new projects simultaneously. One was a farcical period piece based on the work of Bergman, Shakespeare, and Renoir (A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy, as already discussed), and the other was a faux-documentary set in 1920s, about a man who transformed himself to be more like whoever was around him. Allen himself plays Leonard Zelig, one of his most memorable, inventive, and deeply symbolic characters. Zelig was so chronically insecure, and so eager to fit in with a world that seemed to hate him, that he developed a "condition" whereby his personality and physical appearance would alter in response to whoever was around him. For a time, he is happy to blend in everywhere — he poses as an aristocrat, a black jazz man, a Yankee baseball player — but his talent is soon discovered and he is placed under medical scrutiny.

Allen was committed to making this project appear to be a true documentary, and to that ends he filmed with 1920s equipment and lighting, scratched the negatives, and in some cases inserted himself, with a blue screen, into vintage footage of Babe Ruth, Adolf Hitler, and other 1920s famous figures and moments. This latter technique, of course, is predictive of its much later use in Forrest Gump, which also had a symbolic character passing through the moments of history via blue screen magic. The difference is that the later film is deeply nostalgic, sentimental, and conservative, whereas Woody's is witty, intelligent, and much deeper than its surface laughs would indicate. It also presents a diametrically opposite idea about life to the one found in Gump — where Gump excels by blindly obeying what people tell him, Zelig only comes into his own when he develops his own personality and stops trying to be like everyone else. As the film itself points out, in documentary voiceover, Zelig is a lightning rod for all sorts of metaphorical interpretations. He is the prototypical Jew, desperately trying to assimilate in his home culture. He is, more broadly, the American immigrant, also forced to smooth out his differences in favor of the conformity of the wider culture. And, as the film's final segment drives home, he is the average man unable to express his own opinions and ideas for fear of ostracism. In the film's last 20 minutes, when a distraught Zelig finds himself in Germany, happily adapting himself to the Nazis around him, the film makes it clear that conformity is at the root of fascism and oppression. Zelig started out on this path because he was afraid to admit he hadn't read Moby Dick when someone asked him; eventually, his conformity led to him "fitting right in" in the early days of fascist Germany.

It's important to emphasize that despite these deeper implications, Zelig is a very funny film. Woody's attention to detail allows him to flawlessly recreate the texture of the 1920s, as filtered through documentary techniques. And he packs every inch of this imagined past with all manner of gags and jokes. The documentary format allows him so freedom and looseness in his narrative, a step back from the tighter storytelling of his relationship comedies like Annie Hall. Structurally, this film looks back more to Woody's earliest era, when films like Bananas were essentially just collections of loosely related scenes whose primary purpose was to get the joke across. The disparate scenes come fast and furious here, with a crackling pace that makes the film seem a lot denser and longer than its slim 79 minutes. This is classic Woody, a wonderfully sophisticated film that approaches weighty ideas with a quick wit and lightness that truly sets Allen apart among comedic directors.

Even as I continue my odyssey through Woody's oeuvre, I keep returning to Fassbinder's equally massive filmography. Tonight it was his very first feature, 1969's Love is Colder Than Death. What's remarkable here is that Fassbinder seems to have come out fully formed, not only exploring many of the themes and ideas which would have continued importance for him throughout his career, but in full possession of the aesthetic means to express those ideas. True, he had directed a number of stage plays (including this one) before turning to film, but he clearly adapted to the cinematic medium with ease. Fassbinder himself plays the lead, Franz Walsch, a petty gangster who lives with his prostitute girlfriend Joanna (Hanna Schygulla), and whose life is disrupted by the arrival of his friend Bruno (Ulli Lommel). Bruno's quietly magnetic personality clearly attracts both Franz and Joanna, and together the threesome embark on a violent crime spree before a jealous and distrustful Joanna betrays Bruno to the police.

The film is bathed in the aesthetics of the French New Wave, which was an important early influence on Fassbinder's work. He even dedicates the film to French directors Eric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, and Jean-Marie Straub, and the unmentioned Jean-Luc Godard seems an especially important influence here. There's more than a little similarity to Godard's own debut feature, Breathless, which also featured a matter-of-fact deployment of violence and a distancing deconstruction of Hollywood gangster cliches. Lommel's character, in his cocked fedora, trenchcoat, and dark sunglasses, looks like he stepped right out of a French gangster movie, maybe Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samourai from 2 years prior. But despite these similarities and a clear lineage of influence (Hitchcock also comes up, with a reference to the cop from Psycho), Fassbinder's style is, on balance, wholly his own. The film's editing has an odd, halting quality to it. Scenes stretch on for a long time with very little happening, remaining static, then suddenly there will be a flurry of activity and a rushed line, and the scene clips off abruptly, as though Fassbinder was suddenly reluctant to linger any longer on this moment. Because of this, the film tends to alternate between engagement and distancing, with long static takes keeping the viewer at arm's length from the characters before a sudden outburst of emotion or activity draws the audience back into the story — and just as suddenly, it's over and on to the next scene.

Just as Fassbinder's proficiency with the dialectic of distance/emotion is fully formed at this early point, he's also already exploring his interest in the power dynamics of relationships and the ways in which outside forces impinge on the individual. There's also a strong undercurrent of repressed homosexual desire here, another theme that would run through the subtext in many of Fassbinder's less overtly "gay" pictures. This is a remarkable debut, a glimpse at the future Fassbinder and a wholly satisfying film on its own merits as well.

This must've been a good day for first films, because I also watched Chocolat, the directorial debut of Claire Denis, surely one of the finest of today's filmmakers. Denis, like Fassbinder, also seems to have come out fully formed in her debut, although for a different reason — before directing Chocolat, she was an assistant on the sets of directors like Jim Jarmusch, Wim Wenders, and Costa-Gavras. This background shows on her self-assured debut, which flows with the smooth and deliberate pacing of a seasoned professional who knows what she wants to say. Denis today is known for her collaboration with Agnes Godard, who became her regular cinematographer only shortly after this, and served as a camera assistant on this film. The cinematography here lacks some of the visual flair that Godard brought to Denis' films, but the imagery of northern Africa is undeniably beautiful anyway, and moreover has the same sense of carefully modulated time that is present in all of Denis' work.

Denis' films always have a surface calm and quiet that belies the often intense emotions boiling away beneath that surface. This is certainly the case here, as Denis probes into the racial tensions inherent in late-colonial Africa. The film concerns a French colonial governor and his family living in Cameroon, and in terms of plot, Denis fans shouldn't be surprised to learn there isn't much there. The governor is often gone, leaving his beautiful wife and young daughter to fend for themselves, watched over by their black manservant Protée. There is plenty of incident, presented with Denis' typical elliptical editing, but not much that ever adds up to a story in traditional terms. Instead, Denis allows the simmering erotic desires and the tension of the racial divide slowly come to a head without ever quite erupting as you might expect. Denis never lets her story verge into melodrama, and she never makes her points overtly — everything here exists in the subtext, since the surface is exactly the placid and formal milieu required by this colonial upper-class setting. And what a rich subtext, in which sensuality, racism, and colonialism intrude subconsciously upon every aspect of daily life, upon every interaction, no matter how trivial or seemingly innocent. It's a dazzling debut, and like all of Denis' films, it's much easier to enjoy than it is to talk about — her way of presenting her ideas is so subtle, so gentle, that they almost seem to seep into the viewer without notice.

Finally, the last film of the evening was Edgar G. Ulmer's B-noir Detour, a fine example of the kind of gritty, true B pictures that were so common in the 40s and 50s. The film is a lean 68 minutes, obviously designed to precede a more expensively produced main feature, and these humble origins show in every inch of film here. Nevertheless, despite the cheap sets, rough transitions, and shoddy back projection, there's a raw energy and vitality that elevates it above many of its contemporaries. The story is simple, following the innocent and gentle-natured Al Roberts (Tom Neal) hitchhiking across the country to meet up with his girlfriend in California. Along the way, he's picked up by a shady bookie, who promptly dies when he falls asleep and falls out of the car. The hitchhiker knows he'll be blamed, so he hides the body and takes the dead man's car and identity, planning to ditch both once he can get to a big city and disappear. His plans are disrupted, though, when he himself picks up a woman hitchhiker (Ann Savage), who happens to be the same woman who was picked up previously by the dead man.

She of course knows that Roberts is not who he claims to be, and she uses this knowledge to take control of him, taking all the money he got from the dead man and keeping him prisoner in an apartment they rent together. Savage dominates this film, delivering a performance of totally uncompromising fierceness. Her character is the ultimate femme fatale, driven by greed and a total disregard for others. When she first rounds on Roberts with her accusations, it's a truly terrifying scene, as her flashing eyes and sneer seem ready to rip him to pieces just with a look. Neal can't do much to compete with this scenery-chewing tour-de-force, but he ably portrays his character's innocence and sad resignation to his fate; his sad eyes convey depths of emotion whenever the camera closes in on him. This is no masterpiece: its plot is sometimes slack or frankly unbelievable, and its aesthetics are ragged and uneven. But in terms of pure energy and mood, it's hard to top this.

Friday, September 21, 2007

9/21: A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy; Gods of the Plague

Tonight I watched films by two directors who I've been somewhat methodically exploring on DVD. With Woody Allen, I've been more or less going in chronological order through his career, starting with his directorial debut Take the Money and Run and ending up, tonight, with A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy. I got hooked on Allen with Sleeper and Love and Death, and only became more enamored of his films as they became more serious with his next four films. This film, released in 1982 after an uncharacteristically long 2-year gap, represents something of a step back from that seriousness. It's a remarkably light film for Allen, who even in his earliest films tended to temper his humor with elements of sexual dysfunction, neurosis, and death-obsessed philosophy. Some of that is here too, but treated with a much lighter hand than usual, a farcical tone that makes even the potentially dark moments seem breezy and inconsequential. Woody's obsession with Ingmar Bergman has often been credited for his turn to increasing darkness, especially in the bleak drama Interiors, which drew on Bergman's funereal Cries and Whispers as a primary influence. Here, Woody turns to a much different Bergman, the young Bergman who made the partner-swapping romantic farce Smiles of a Summer Night.

Woody's film uses the basic premise from Bergman — three couples meet at a country villa and promptly become mired in complex romantic entanglements — and a few incidents, notably the memorable suicide attempt. But the title of this film also points to another source, and the spirit of Shakespeare's light supernatural/sexual comedy is very much alive here as well. The woods around the villa are seemingly haunted by spirits, and one of the central themes is the dialogue over whether there's nothing beyond the material world (as advanced by Jose Ferrer's snobbish professor) or whether there's more to the universe than our senses can detect (mostly argued by Woody himself). There are also nods to Renoir's Rules of the Game especially in Ferrer's character, who engages in a hunting expedition that's a warped mirror of the one in Renoir's film. Allen is notoriously hostile to the country, so it's rather clear that when he decided to make an ode to the country, he couldn't directly capture his own feelings on the subject. So he turned instead to what must be his own favorite artists' takes on the country. The result is an idyllic portrait of rural life that's very much artificial, centuries of artistic expression on the country filtered through a single consciousness.

It's also great fun, and Woody elicits some of his most charming performances from other actors. Maybe it's because this is the first film in which Allen really took a back seat rather than a central role, or maybe it's because his role is much more understated and less scene-stealing than usual, or maybe it's just that all the actors are working at such a high level. Whatever the case, this is very much an ensemble acting showcase. Julie Hagerty is particularly great as the lusty nurse Dulcy, and she quietly steals every scene she's in with her wide-eyed frankness and tossed-off jokes. Allen also uses the rural location as an excuse for some of his most dazzlingly beautiful cinematography, punctuating the film with quiet forest interludes and mist-clouded moons. Not the best Woody Allen film by any means, but a nice subtly funny one with plenty to recommend it.

I've been taking a far less organized approach to Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the German director whose filmmaking career lasted pretty much just 13 years, but who managed to squeeze over 40 films into that period. My viewing of his films has been somewhat haphazard, mainly because my introduction to Fassbinder consisted of a slow process of getting used to his offputting aesthetics over the course of several films. My first few exposures to his work weren't exactly pleasant, though clearly something kept drawing me back until it all finally clicked with In a Year of 13 Moons. Now, the imminent release of a Criterion box set of Fassbinder's 15-hour TV miniseries Berlin Alexanderplatz, by many accounts his definitive masterpiece, has given me a good excuse to catch up on the remainder of his filmography that I have yet to see before tackling that. The bulk of the films I haven't seen yet (at least, those available on DVD) are from his early period, which is curiously complete in the digital medium.

Before his first encounter with the melodramas of Douglas Sirk, which resulted in The Merchant of Four Seasons and a string of other acidic melodramas, Fassbinder's primary influences were Brecht, Godard, and Hollywood genre films, possibly filtered through German imitators. Gods of the Plague was his third film, and it's very much a Godardian deconstruction of the film noir genre. Curiously, it's also a highly effective noir on its own merits; it simultaneously deconstructs and fulfills the genre's conventions. As with most of Fassbinder's films, this one concerns a group of characters who simply cannot abide by the mores of society. Harry Baer plays Franz, a recently released ex-convict who falls back in with his old girlfriend Joanna (Hanna Schygulla) before drifting off and forming a bisexual threesome with old pal "the Gorilla" (Gunter Kaufmann) and a new lover (Margarethe von Trotta). The trio lives off loans and Margarethe's meager savings for a while, dreaming all the while of cutting off to a deserted island just for the three of them. Their ambiguous triad relationship, and their utter disconnection from the economic system, make them typical Fassbinder heroes — sexually, socially, and economically, they just don't fit in. Their dreams of escape are patently ridiculous, but they nevertheless try, and their ultimate doomed end in a botched supermarket robbery (betrayed by Franz's jilted lover Joanna) is as sad as it is perfunctory.

These are true Fassbinder heroes, but they're also noir heroes, trapped by circumstances and pushed towards an ugly fate. And Fassbinder makes his characters' connection to the genre totally clear by indulging in some wonderful noir set-pieces; night-time vistas where the shadows overwhelm the figures and only slim bars of light cut across the imprisoning gloom. The noir lighting, fittingly enough, originated in Germany in the first place, when expat cameramen like Karl Freund exported expressionistic lighting effects into American film in the 40s. Fassbinder brings the lineage right back to its roots on German soil, giving his deconstructive work another layer of meaning on an aesthetic level. In fact, the camera work throughout this film is an early indication of Fassbinder's gift for fluid, constantly moving cinematography. There's nothing too flashy here yet, but there are plenty of the horizontal pans so characteristic of Godard, giving the film a forward motion that its characters utterly lack. This point is driven home by contrasting such gliding shots with static tableaux in which the characters languidly lounge around. This is an excellent early example of Fassbinder's immense talent. His aesthetics are still evolving at this point (though this is certainly an aesthetically fulfilling film in its own right) but his enduring themes and concerns and prototypical characters were present right from the very beginning.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

9/20: Les Carabiniers

From Godard's 1960s run of films stretching from Breathless to Week-end, possibly the least well-known is his 1963 fifth film, Les Carabiniers. There's possibly a good reason for that, though. I'm of the opinion that Godard didn't make a bad film in this period from 1959-1967, but Les Carabiniers is the least fully formed of these movies, more of a transitional work in which Godard could experiment with form. Taken on its own merits, outside of the canon of Godard's 60s filmography, it's a bit boring — especially the lengthy postcard-viewing scene which forms its climax — and its ideas work far better on paper than they do on the screen.

It's only as a part of Godard's 60s work that Les Carabiniers takes on greater significance. Many of the political ideas which would come to dominate his filmmaking as the decade wore on received their first, tentative airing here. The film follows two peasants who are enticed, by promises of wealth and power, into joining the King's army and going to war. The bulk of the film, after they enlist, shows their wartime exploits, with scenes of carnage and violence alternated with text screens showing the soldiers' letters to the women waiting for them back home. The letters flippantly and casually describe rape, pillaging, mass executions, and battles, then offhandedly add that "it was a nice summer nevertheless." The film's premise — that war is an exploitation of the poor for the goals of the rich — clearly originates in Marxist thought. This becomes especially apparent in a scene where the soldiers come across a young woman who berates them for not understanding the role they play in the class struggle. Of course, they execute her, though not without hesitation.

Les Carabiniers bogs down a bit in the prolonged symbolic scene where the two young soldiers, freshly returned from war, show the women the spoils of war: a suitcase full of postcards cataloguing the full contents of the world. The satirical point is obvious, but the scene drags on too long without much of Godard's characteristic wit and subtlety. There are flashes, though, even here, in references to Felix the Cat and Rin Tin Tin. But this scene mostly demonstrates the problems of this early film from Godard. Its ideas are continually interesting and indicative of the director's future areas of examination: war, capitalism and socialism, the proletarian classes, the strained relationships between the genders caused by social and political forces. These ideas, though, aren't realized with the precision and depth and visual brilliance that Godard would bring to bear on his later efforts. Les Carabiniers remains primarily interesting as a transitional work, a deconstruction of the war film genre just as his other films from this period deconstructed noirs, musicals, and spy thrillers.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

9/19: Criss Cross; The Killers (1964)

Criss Cross is a fine noir from director Robert Siodmak, whose career provided the genre with many of its characteristic classics. The film follows Burt Lancaster as Steve Thompson, an armored car security man who's unwittingly pulled into a life of crime by his ex-wife. Yvonne DeCarlo plays a great femme fatale here, and her smoldering presence is one of the film's high points. The story starts with Thompson arriving back in his home town. He'd been away for about a year following his divorce, and he tells himself that he's returning now to help out his family, but it's patently obvious that he's really looking for Anna, his ex-wife. Once he sees her, they immediately reignite their hot/cold romance, but it ends when Anna abruptly runs off and marries Dundee, a local gangster (played with a constant slimy leer by Dan Duryea). The marriage doesn't quite end the affair, though, and when Dundee learns that the two have been seeing each other, Thompson convinces him that all he really wants is to help the gangsters plot an armored car robbery.

The film is a typically bleak example of the noir style, and the betrayals and murders that end the film should hardly be surprising — there's no way out for these people, no matter how much they might dream. Siodmak bathes this grim tale in dense shadows that help set the dark tone. The opening, with a dark car gliding through an even darker night in a parking lot, sets the mood early. Light only enters the picture a few minutes later, as the headlights illuminate the lovers Thompson and Anna locked in an illicit embrace. Light, for them, is anathema, something to be afraid of, and they instinctively flinch away. These characters live their lives in darkness, and the film's happiest moments take place in the dim, smoky bar where the lovers first met and continue to hang out. This story doesn't hold much surprise, and the doomed lovers go towards their inevitable fate with noir's characteristic fatalism. The primary pleasure here is purely visual, in the gorgeous chiaroscuro lighting, and in Duryea's sneering performance.

Don Siegel's 1964 TV feature The Killers, the first film made for television, came well after the generally accepted noir period had ended in the mid-to-late 50s. Nevertheless, Siegel is another important director of B-noirs, and this film is a remake of Siodmak's 1946 film of the same name, which Siegel was originally slated to direct at that time. Instead, he wound up making the film almost 20 years later, and it's quite a different beast. In Siegel's bright, shadowless daytime compositions here, there is very little of the noir aesthetic on a visual level. The plot is mostly adapted from Siodmak's version, maintaining the extensive back story that the film script grafted onto Ernest Hemingway's brief story of two hitmen making a kill. There are a few changes — the dead man is a washed-up race car driver rather than a washed-up boxer, and the focus is on the two hitmen rather than, as in Siodmak's version, the insurance investigator assigned to the case. But mostly, Siegel is simply retelling the story, and the lack of the classic noir visuals would initially appear to make this a much lesser work.

Nevertheless, Siegel's version of The Killers does have a few things going for it. Most obvious are the performances. Siodmak had Ava Gardner for his femme fatale, and as good as Angie Dickinson is, she just can't live up to Gardner's sultry, smoldering performance, which completely anchored the original film. The rest of the cast, though, definitely falls in Siegel's favor. John Cassavetes plays Johnny North, the doomed race car driver whose love for Dickinson propels him into deep trouble and misery. Cassavetes, with his trademark smirk and casual delivery, is always fun to watch, even if he tended to view his Hollywood career as just a moneymaker for his own independently made films. But the real star here is Lee Marvin as the older of the two hitmen, turning in a brilliant tough guy performance that culminates in his tragic and surprisingly moving final scene, in which Siegel delivers a bleak denouement and a strong condemnation of greedy violence. Siegel's idea to center the story around the two hitmen is a great twist, though it does mean he loses the mysterious and sinister aura that surrounded them in the original. In Siegel's vision, the hitmen become avatars of capitalistic excess, as epitomized by the iconic final shot — predictive of Bresson's L'Argent — of a fatally wounded Lee Marvin pointing his finger at the cops in lieu of a gun, then falling backwards amid a spill of cash. It's a great final image for a solid post-noir thriller.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

9/18: La Chinoise; To Catch a Thief

Godard's La Chinoise lies at the heart of his revolutionary period, and provides a powerful look at what was soon to come from this chameleonic director. By 1967, Godard had spent the previous 2 years increasingly moving into political filmmaking, largely eschewing the genre plots of earlier years and reducing characters down to abstractions and mouthpieces for ideas. Godard had never been content to work in any one mode, but his films prior to 1965 or so usually provided a way in for more casual viewers, whether it was the playful musical pastiche of A Woman is a Woman or the lighthearted stabs at noir in Band of Outsiders and Breathless. This was not the case by the time 1967 rolled around, and La Chinoise proves the point. In some ways, it is emblematic of the more difficult films Godard had made prior to that — complex use of on-screen texts, direct interviews to the actors, the exposure of the filmmaking artifice — but it also represents a new break in his work, pointing ahead to the apocalyptic Week-end, made later that year, and to the tract-like political films he'd make with the Dziga Vertov Group.

In La Chinoise, Godard fully embraced the complete political filmmaking style that he'd been hinting towards in earlier works like Masculin Féminin and Made in USA. The plot is minimal — a group of students spend a summer vacation at their parents' vacated apartment, discussing political theory and plotting revolution — and the characters are skeletal. The focus here is clearly not on story or characterization, but on ideas. These ideas are presented in a series of dialogues and monologues in which the students quote from Communist and anarchist tracts, argue about points of theory, and plan for a Maoist revolution in France. In these discussions, Godard employs a dialectical structure that's partly indigenous to socialism — with its emphasis on proletariat vs. bourgeosie, revolutionary vs. reactionary — and partly a product of Godard's own probing mind.

This is especially apparent in the film's best scene, an impassioned discussion between Veronique (Godard's then-wife Anne Wiazemsky) and the real-life French dissident Francis Jeanson, who was once imprisoned for aiding the Algerian independence movement. Veronique advocates violent revolt and terrorism, especially as directed against universities, while Jeanson questions the wisdom or efficacy of such measures in this context. His interesting argument is that in the Algerian context, the whole populace was united in the goal of independence, or at least sympathetic to it, so terrorism in that movement had a certain moral force and a chance to achieve something. He dismisses such violence in the French context, where there would be no such unity of purpose in the population with regards to a socialist revolution. This dialogue also points out the essential emptiness of the students' movement, as Veronique openly avows that she has no idea what to do next; she simply wants action and seems unwilling to examine the consequences or think about the future. Throughout this scene, Godard remains impassive, mostly filming the two from the side as they sit facing each other, so that their contrasting views have a kind of equivalence on the screen. It's up to the viewer to parse the arguments and decide which is correct, without any input from Godard.

It's ultimately this ambiguity that keeps La Chinoise from being just a political tract. Godard is concerned with violence, and change, and especially with the possibilities for action and new thinking among young people. But if he's especially concerned with the young in this phase of his career, he doesn't invest any blind hope in them either. Masculin Féminin ended with a rather harsh outlook on modern youth's moral weakness and lack of engagement. La Chinoise is somewhat more hopeful, stressing learning and education (though decidedly not traditional, university-based education) and the possibility that this nascent and confused movement may grow. Or, then again, maybe not.

It's always a wise move to follow up such a dense and complex movie with something a little frothier — if I ever try to watch more than one Godard film in a night, it tends to make my head hurt. So, in this spirit, I followed La Chinoise with Hitchcock's romantic farce To Catch a Thief. Somewhat uncharacteristically for Hitch, there isn't much suspense here, or even much humor — it's more amusing than actually funny — but there's plenty of charm to make up for it. This was a vacation picture for Hitch, a chance to film on the French Riviera and to let his favorite actors Cary Grant and Grace Kelly light up the screen. Well, Grant is looking a little worse for wear here, though his charm is intact, but Kelly completely steals the show and makes the film. More than anything, this is a tribute to her great beauty, a cinematic ode to a gorgeous woman. There's not much else there — a light caper, a minimal mystery, a frisson of romance, and some stunning color cinematography. The night scenes, bathed in gentle green light, are especially lovely, culminating in the wonderfully arranged climactic scene, the rooftop chase in which Grant attempts to corner the cat burglar whose crimes he was suspected of. And the film's most famous scene remains its best: the love scene into which Hitchcock cleverly cut images of the fireworks exploding outside. The editing here is a masterpiece of symbolic montage, as Hitch shows a long shot, then fireworks, then a slightly closer shot, then fireworks, then a closeup on the actors just inches apart. The editing reflects the increasing intimacy, and throughout the scene Grant and Kelly engage in witty banter with the kinds of light sexual undertones that Hitch loved so much. This scene alone makes the film worthwhile viewing, and there's lots more to love in the film's general charm and beauty. Not a masterpiece, but fun nonetheless.

Monday, September 17, 2007

9/17: The Velvet Underground & Nico

Andy Warhol was always, in his film work, interested in the tension between celebrity and ordinariness. This constant theme is especially present in his highly unusual The Velvet Underground and Nico, his document of an improvisatory 1966 performance by the Velvets at Warhol's Factory. Unfortunately, most people who have even heard of the film seem to be approaching the film as fans of the band, and in that respect it can't help but be disappointing. The music itself is interesting, in the avant-garde tradition of the group's drone-rock jam sessions like "Melody Laughter" or "European Son" rather than their more pop- or rock-oriented songs. Warhol's decision to record from a single static mic distances the music, making it fade in and out and giving it a reedy, noisy quality that enhances its dissonant rawness. But fans of the band are doubtless coming to a video performance in search of ever-elusive footage of the band itself, and Warhol's film steadfastly refuses to provide any straightforward concert footage.

The film starts with a static master shot of the band, grouped around the tall Nordic chanteuse Nico, with her infant son playing at her feet. From there, the camera almost immediately begins shifting and moving, disrupting the unity of the shot, cutting everything into minuscule pieces with wild pans, zooms, and light flares. Warhol's camera stays in a static position, but it zooms frantically in and out, pans across the stage, lets light flood the frame in whiteness or darkness close in, shakes and vibrates in attunement with the music's primal drone. The camera's constant, sickening movement pixelates the band, reducing them to shards of leather jackets, dark sunglasses, cross-sections of instruments. There are glimpses of the band's iconic cool, and periodic focus on the motions of their playing, but these things arise out of the whole like a mosaic image seen from afar. Up close, the individual details seem random, haphazard, isolated, and it's only in the context of the whole that a kind of composite image of the Velvet Underground appears.

The film concludes when the police arrive on the scene thanks to noise complaints, pulling the plug on the band's amplifier and ending the gig early. Warhol documents the ensuing activity from the same static position, although now his camera settles down somewhat and mostly sits still. The muted conversations and chatter of the Factory regulars as they hang out and mill around forms a drone comparable to the music that just ended, an audio echo of the Velvets' performance in everyday conversation. Warhol's film is perhaps so unusual because it inverts the usual role of film, especially performance film. Where most films show, Warhol prefers to obscure; where most films focus, Warhol atomizes and destroys until all focus is lost in a barrage of unresolved fragments. It's a fascinating formal experiment and worth a look for fans of Warhol and the Velvets alike.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

9/16: Saboteur, High Noon

Saboteur is a well-executed wartime thriller from suspense master Alfred Hitchcock, crammed with fascinating set pieces and great action scenes, though overall lacking in plausibility or the deeper insights that often underpinned his later work. Robert Cummings plays Barry Kane, a factory worker during World War II who's falsely accused of sabotage after an explosion at his workplace. He flees the police, knowing they'll never believe him, and uses his scant clues about the real saboteur to try and track down the root of the conspiracy. Along the way, he encounters a blind man who shelters him briefly, then takes off with the man's distrustful daughter (Priscilla Lane) in tow. The plot veers from set piece to set piece and is mostly indifferent in between; the meager threads of the fascist conspiracy that Cummings is tracking are a mere excuse for some stunningly executed suspense.

Best of all is the scene at a society ball where the fascist spies are mixed in with the crowd, slowly trying to close in on Cummings and Lane without alerting the innocent partygoers to the disturbance. Hitchcock perfectly captures the sense of being trapped even in public, of being totally alone in a massive crowd of strangers. There's also the famous ending scene, set atop the Statue of Liberty, with the villainous real saboteur dangling — literally by a thread — off the Statue's lamp. This scene provides the blueprint for the Mount Rushmore sequence from the later North By Northwest, and it's a great scene in its own right.

But the film's most substantial scene is the one in which Cummings and Lane hitch aboard the rear car of a circus caravan, discovering a community of freaks inside who engage in an impassioned argument about what to do, whether or not to shelter these outlaws from the pursuing police. The scene takes on an allegorical dimension with a subtlety and intelligence that's largely missing from the rest of the film, with its by-the-numbers action emphasis. The debate between the freaks is a microcosm of democracy at work, with an incredibly thin man leading the discussion and taking the side of protecting the intruders. He's opposed by a dictatorial midget, a kind of mini-Hitler figure who represents the forces of oppression, the police state, the militaristic outlook that sees no value in basic kindness to others. Even his nickname, "The Major," points to his militaristic, fascist origins. In between these two opposing forces, the other freakshow members — a bearded lady, a fat woman, a bickering pair of Siamese twins — represent the various cacophonous voices of democracy at work. They are indecisive and disinterested, making decisions without facts, and fighting amongst themselves. The scene's underlying idea is the way in which people's disinterest in democratic institutions can make room for the opinions of fascists like the Major to gain hold. Even if no one actively supports his view of the intruders, their laziness, self-interest, and petty quarrels very nearly allow his nasty outlook to win out.

The fascinating freakshow scene aside, Saboteur mostly just offers up thrills and action with little else of interest. Fortunately, that's enough to make this a solid second-tier Hitchcock. The leads are a bit weak, and their relationship is largely unbelievable and poorly developed, and even the villains mostly don't make much of an impression. And the expected wartime preaching built into the film, though not as heavy-handed as the ending of Foreign Correspondent, is definitely a sign of its times. Even with all its problems, though, it's definitely worth seeing for the way that Hitchcock, even saddled with a somewhat lame script and an unassuming cast, could create a tense, suspenseful, exciting film.

High Noon does exactly one thing throughout its trim length, and it does it exceptionally well. It is a perfect example of how a singleminded dedication to creating a mood can result in a truly rewarding and compelling filmic experience. Every facet of the film, every moment in its economical structure, contributes to the ever-growing tension that will be released only in the crisp, fast-paced showdown of the film's final minutes. Director Fred Zinnemann maintains a tight control over the pacing and rhythm of the film, using quick close-up shots of clocks as markers in the editing, like emphasized beats that drive home the over-arching tension. Gary Cooper plays the small-town sheriff Will Kane, on the verge of retiring, marrying his sweetheart Amy (Grace Kelly, radiating with chaste beauty), and heading off to a peaceful life as a store owner, in deference to his new wife's pacifist Quaker beliefs. But his plans are disrupted on his wedding day by the announcement that his old foe, the violent and vengeful Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald), has been released from prison and is heading back to town on the noon train. Three of the outlaw's cronies await Miller's arrival at the local station, and the countdown to noon occupies nearly the entirety of the film, encompassing an hour that passes almost in real time. It takes an hour of film time for the train to arrive, even as an hour passes in the film itself.

Kane fills this hour by trying to rouse the townspeople to help him fight Miller. He briefly considered leaving town as originally planned, and everyone urges him to do so, but he decides that his honor won't allow him to back down from this battle. He even risks losing his new wife, who promises to leave him rather than see him needlessly killed, but he won't turn away from facing Miller. Gaining support in the town proves difficult though, and Zinnemann relentlessly chronicles the near-complete rejection of Kane by his former friends and neighbors. As the clocks tick down the time until the train's arrival, the townsfolk debate, shy away, and guiltily dodge the responsibility of joining the posse. Kane finally ends up facing the deadly foursome all by himself, in a taut and economical showdown that's exciting without forsaking the film's commitment to stark minimalism. Zinnemann's restraint is impressive; there's not a wasted shot or gesture in the whole film. Everything is channelled towards the final confrontation, every edit contributes to the steady pulsing beat that subtly intensifies and quickens as it grows closer and closer to noon. And when the train arrives, right on time, the editing becomes briefly frantic, the train's whistle piercing on the soundtrack, the cuts fast and abrupt, between Kane in his office writing his will, the empty streets of the town hushed in anticipation, the outlaws forebodingly waiting at the station.

In High Noon, Zinnemann crafted the ultimate study in pacing and editing, using the rhythms of the film to create a steamrolling mood of dread, expectation, and suspense. He's helped tremendously by Cooper's stoic, melancholic performance, which helps anchor the growing dread around a specific, sympathetic figure. This is a classic Western, and well deserving of its reputation.