Sunday, December 16, 2007

12/16: Bringing Up Baby; Shadows and Fog; Salut les Cubains

Bringing Up Baby is a classic of the screwball comedy genre, and it definitely deserves its acclaim. Cary Grant plays a stuffy paleontologist whose life's work is the assembly and study of a brontosaurus skeleton, which has reached a pivotal moment with the arrival of one last bone to complete the fossil record. Katharine Hepburn is his utter opposite, a frivolous and wanton woman who encounters him by chance on a golf course and almost immediately makes it her mission to get Grant to love her. The problem is, seemingly her only method of showing her interest is to aggravate, annoy, and assault the object of her affection, doing everything she can merely to keep him around her. Grant, meanwhile, only wants to get back to his fiancée and his work — though maybe not quite as badly as he says he does, since his fiancée (Virginia Walker), who's also his assistant, has already made it clear that she views their upcoming marriage primarily as a way to support Grant's career, rather than as a matter of love or attraction.

Hepburn's character, in contrast, is pure passion and energy, a whirlwind of manic chatter and even crazier behavior. It's an entirely sexist portrayal of an airhead who can barely stand on her own two feet, let alone keep a single thought in her head for longer than a minute. And her behavior towards Grant is borderline cruel and nasty when it's not just absentmindedly careless. So it's to the film's credit that it's still hysterically funny, and I was laughing even when my sympathy for Grant's predicament threatened to overwhelm the humor. The escalating rotten situation that Grant finds himself embroiled in involves a tame leopard named Baby, a dog named George with a strange predilection for burying boots (and, as it turns out, dinosaur bones too), a judgmental old society matron with a million dollars to donate, a stolen car, and a hilarious climax at a prison where virtually the entire cast eventually winds up behind bars. Throughout all this, the film maintains a perilous balance between humor and cruelty, and the chaotic vivacity of Hepburn's performance goes a long way towards preventing her character from becoming totally unlikable. It's telling that the one moment when my antipathy towards her actions overcame me was the scene where she lets her defenses slip, weeping at Grant's rejection. In light of the total selfish manipulations of her character throughout the film, these tears and the Vaseline-lensed melodramatic close-up that accompanies them are totally unearned, like just one more manipulative trick to keep Grant from pushing her away. But as long as she maintains her facade of disarming cheerfulness and bravado, the film is propelled along by the sheer force of her will — which is exactly how she aims to capture Grant's love, by sheer force of will.

The film's madcap pacing is further heightened by its soundtrack. Hawks frequently allows his actors to pile up on top of each other in shouting out their lines, so that many scenes become wild shouting matches between Hepburn, Grant, and whoever else happens to be around, with multiple quips and jokes hidden in the barrage of overlapping dialogue. This approach reaches its pinnacle in the scene where Hepburn's rich aunt (May Robson) arrives at Hepburn's country home, her dog George in tow and yapping wildly. The scene is played out with George's barking competing for attention with the yelling of the two women, while Grant sits on the stairs with his hands over his ears, looking glum. It's not difficult to sympathize with him. The film's constant up-tempo pace and layered soundtrack can be wearying at any great length, and by that point in the film, surely even the most tenacious of viewers would have to feel a bit exhausted. But even if things occasionally go a bit too far over the top, the bulk of the film is perfectly pitched in its lunatic accumulation of outlandish incidents, and the climactic prison sequence is a masterpiece of verbal comedy. Hepburn especially is at her comic best here, and her sparring with the hapless local police chief prefigures the best of the Bugs Bunny/Elmer Fudd rivalry in its word games and fast-talking trickery.

The only major flaw in the film's construction is Grant's sudden final-moment realization that he "loves" Hepburn, and the ensuing wide-scale destruction of the closing minutes, in which his beloved brontosaurus, representing four years of hard work, is devastated by the newly discovered love of his life. Not only is Grant's love for this willfully anarchic woman totally sudden and unsupported by anything that happened in the film previously, but his willingness to dump a lifetime of intellectual endeavor down the drain doesn't seem like the sort of thing a film should be applauding. The scene is played for laughs, like all of the petty cruelties and accidental mishaps that Hepburn rains on poor Grant throughout the film, but the magnitude of the disaster here is way too big to laugh about. Hepburn's continued nonchalance in the face of this tragedy for her supposed love finally drives home just how selfish her character is, and one gets the sense that in a different film she could blunder into pressing a button to launch a nuclear weapon, and shrug it off with a similarly mild "oops." It's hard to tell if Hawks intended an audience that laughed all through the film to continue laughing at this mishap, or if he wants us to wake up and realize we've been laughing at cruelty and disaster.

Either way, even if the ending rings a bit false and there are periodic points of annoyance, the rest of the film is a marvel of comedic lunacy. Hepburn is particularly brilliant in an unenviable role, bringing a brash energy to a character who's totally focused on herself to the complete detriment of those around her. Grant gets less meat as the straight man (well, not entirely, he does get that justly famous scene where he dons a frilly robe and screams, "I just went gay all of a sudden!"), but his dry straight-faced humor provides a nice contrast to Hepburn's machine-gunning delivery. They're a great comic pairing, and this is a fine example of the over-the-top screwball genre.

Shadows and Fog stands out as an oddball experiment even in the context of the wide-ranging career of Woody Allen, who has always been willing to shift stylistic modes even as his sharp wit and clever dialogue remain constant. Allen has also always been a very referential filmmaker, drawing on his influences with equal measures of parody and respect. But never before has he drawn from such a wide range of influences, and integrated them so thoroughly, as in this multi-layered and wonderful film. The film opens with two obvious artistic forebears playing off each other. The first is the specter of German expressionism, especially the films of Murnau and Lang — the film's title is entirely appropriate for the moody ambiance of the black-and-white cinematography, which consistently recalls both the German expressionists and the American films noir they inspired. In the first scene, a man walks along a shadowy street, lights a cigarette, and then is strangled to death by a plodding killer who moves and looks like the bald-headed vampire from Murnau's classic Nosferatu. Within moments of this, the film's second major touchstone appears in the form of a scene where Woody's character, the nebbishy clerk Kleinman, is awakened in the middle of the night by a mysterious vigilante mob, and roped into a "plan" to capture the killer. Kleinman is turned loose on the streets, but his compatriots disappear without ever telling him what the plan is or his place in it. The overused adjective "Kafkaesque" immediately springs to mind, perhaps correctly for once.

This collision of Kafka and Murnau in the opening minutes is an apt starting point for a film that delves into the philosophical ramifications of its scenario rather than following through on the actual narrative. In fact, the plot is, after this initial premise, surprisingly thin, and Woody takes great pains to never explain anything too thoroughly. The film is set in no particular place, though its themes of persecution, late-night arrests, and competing vigilante gangs are echoes of Nazi Germany. This is especially apparent when Kleinman witnesses an old Jewish family being arrested as suspects in the murder, for the sole reason that they are "undesirables." When he goes to protest to the police commissioner, he's told not to worry, that it's only the most "orthodox elements" being taken in, and that he can rest easy for his own sake. This is the atmosphere of a pre-Holocaust German city, an uneasy mood of impending doom and only the first slow stirrings of the assault on "undesirables." But the film mainly stays away from a specific evocation of Nazi atrocities, instead rendering the mood as a more general anxiety. Clearly, this anonymous fog-shrouded urban space is meant to be a metaphorical Ur-City, and Kleinman wanders through it in a daze, melting in and out of the fog and encountering a bevy of strange and (mostly) threatening characters.

Kleinman is an ideal Kafka protagonist, a minor wheel in a bureaucratic machine who's thrust into strange circumstances with no explanation, and yet he continues to insist on logical answers to his puzzled inquiries. As he wanders around the city, trying to figure out his place in the plot, he's repeatedly asked if he believes in God, and gives the stock Woody answer that he wishes he could, but he can't make that leap of faith. This is, ultimately, the film's basic theme: the quest for meaning in a world shrouded in darkness. It's an obvious metaphor, but one that's thankfully not hammered home too forcefully; the film lets this idea drift on the periphery like a stray wisp of fog, and the characters' meanderings allow them plenty of time to reflect on their lives. Kleinman is joined, eventually, by a runaway circus sword swallower (Mia Farrow) who's unhappy with her self-absorbed clown boyfriend (John Malkovich, in a role that refers to Ingmar Bergman's Sawdust and Tinsel). He also runs across a doctor (Donald Pleasence) who's convinced he can understand the human mind by dissecting it; a group of prostitutes at a brothel advocating a life of in-the-moment enjoyment (played with vigor and charm by Lily Tomlin, Jodie Foster, and Kathy Bates); and a serious young student (John Cusack) who is pondering his own mortality and purpose by visiting the whorehouse every night. It's to Allen's credit that this star-studded roster of cameos never seems gratuitous or takes the audience out of the film, though Allen also purposefully veers between moody philosophical sections and more comedic scenes. And there's a great deal to find funny here, despite the gloom and heavy cinematic and literary references that abound in the film. Woody's usual schtick is hilarious as ever, and he has plenty of great self-deprecating lines, as well as some quick-witted patter with Farrow, who as always is a dependable sounding board for Woody's humor.

Shadows and Fog is a great return to form for Allen after the somewhat lackluster Alice, though I'm aware that I'm in a tiny minority with that opinion. This film does return again to Woody's fascination with magic and illusion, with the ending taking place at the circus and involving a magician's conjurings. The magical element works beautifully here, in contrast to Alice, because of the way it unexpectedly resonates with some of the film's themes, and especially the idea that the artist is an important figure for providing diversion from the uglier aspects of life. Woody's film is structured with this principle in mind, balancing the weightier ideas with buoyant comedy, and the brothel provides a similar oasis of light and warmth in the midst of all the darkness and nastiness of the city streets. Appropriately, those are the twin poles of pleasure and salvation in Woody's world, art and sex. These concepts are offered as a contrast to religion, which provides at best a false comfort and at worst winds up exploiting its believers, as seen when Kleinman enters a church and finds a priest and a policeman collaborating on a list of local residents, who are presumably going to be rounded up as "undesirables." This is a fantastic one-shot from Woody, totally unlike anything else in his filmography even as it explores some of his characteristic themes and features his usual nebbish personality at its center.

In 1963, four years after Castro took power in Cuba, Agnès Varda visited the country and returned to France with over 1800 photos, which she both exhibited in Paris and edited into the fantastic essay-film Salut les Cubains. The result is a sympathetic portrait of post-revolution Cuba that blends together the political aspects of the country's new socialist system with the enduring cultural stew of vibrant music and dance that have characterized the country and its people throughout all kinds of political upheavals. Using entirely still photos, accompanied by a joint voiceover by Varda and actor Michel Piccoli, the film presents a very rosy image of Castro's Cuba as a socialist idyll, discussing in turn the agricultural reforms, the necessity of protection against counter-revolutionaries, the mass education of peasants by volunteer student-teachers, and the cultural programs put in place by the new socialist state.

It's this latter aspect of Cuba that seems to most interest Varda, and she dedicates the bulk of the film to explorations of Cuba's painting, sculpture, and especially its music and dance. The whole film is underpinned by energetic Afro-Cuban rhythms and rumba music, and the most expressive sequences are a few "musical numbers" in which the rapidly edited photos give the impression of people fluidly dancing and moving. The effect is enthralling, like strobing images of a dance in motion, rhythmically cut to match the insistent beats of the music. These bursts of "movement" provide a visual contrast to the film's more static scenes, when Varda slows down the editing rhythm to keep a single striking photo on screen for a longer period, as she does for the wall painting of Castro with one eye scarred over with bullet holes. These musical scenes convey a sense of genuine respect and love for Cuban culture and its different forms of music, and the joy of the people involved comes across even in stills. The film's most interesting aspect is Varda's discussion of the different musical styles in Cuba, and their origination in influences from Spain, Africa, and France.

The film's glorification of Cuban socialism hasn't held up as well, though it's perhaps understandable why 60s intellectuals held this kind of view of the country's transformation. If not for the glorious celebration of Cuban music and the fascinating formal play with the photomontage essay, this film could be easily dismissed as a dated piece of period propaganda, a time capsule of an era when Castro seemed to offer a kinder, gentler form of socialism that went further than the Soviets in truly realizing Marxist ideals. Certainly, Varda seemed to believe in Castro and his new Cuba, but she is too intelligent a director to fall into the trap of mere propagandizing. Her film goes beyond its pro-Castro message to a celebration of an entire cultural moment and the people and artistic expressions that arose from it.

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