Tuesday, January 29, 2008


Whenever Alfred Hitchcock indulged his intense interest in Freudian psychoanalysis, as he did to greater and lesser degrees in many of his films, it always promised a truly bizarre experience. It's thus no surprise that Marnie, one of his strangest films, is also probably his most overtly psychological, even including the psychoanalytic thriller Spellbound, which in comparison seems positively down-to-earth. Marnie opens as though it's a conventional thriller, with a mysterious woman, seen only from behind at first, leaving the scene of a robbery where she stole $10,000 from her employer — shades of Psycho, and the woman is even named Marion, just like Janet Leigh's Marion Crane. The opening sequence of the film is masterfully orchestrated, from the first shot after the titles, a closeup on this woman's bright yellow bag, slowly pulling back to watch her walk along a train platform, to the hotel room scene where she changes her identity, removes the black dye from her hair, and is finally revealed in a closeup. This is Marnie (Tippi Hedren), and her introduction, with the sustained mystery about her identity and the intrigue of the robbery and fake IDs, is a classic Hitchcock setup.

That the film starts in such classic suspense territory only to retreat into a dark character study of tortured psychology and manipulation, might have been a surprise to the few people who bothered to show up for this flop at the time, unless of course they'd already seen Vertigo a few years earlier. Indeed, Marnie is structured, in some superficial ways, much like its spiritual predecessor in Hitch's oeuvre. In both films, the first hour or so is essentially a thriller/mystery with a man tracking and trying to understand a woman, before a pivotal change thrusts the male protagonist (Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo, Sean Connery here) into an ambiguous, cold, and psychologically fraught relationship with the target of his pursuit. The differences, though, are perhaps more profound. Whereas in Vertigo Stewart's character is central to the narrative, here Connery is definitely a secondary figure, a businessman who all but forces Marnie to marry him in order to "protect" her from committing further crimes or getting in trouble for the ones she's already committed. Connery's struggle to understand Marnie is sidelined; Marnie herself is the film's center. In this sense, Marnie might be thought of as an answer to Vertigo's Madeleine, who is only ever seen voyeuristically, through the eyes of a male viewer. Marnie, though still a sex object to be possessed, is at least privileged as the center of the narrative and the film's subject; the film shows her unfiltered by her pursuer's gaze in a way that Vertigo never does.

Nevertheless, Marnie also finds Hitchcock revisiting the necrophiliac theme that underlies Vertigo's second half, here in a chilly (and chilling) scene in which the sexless Marnie finally gives in to her new husband's advances on their honeymoon. Hedren's blank-faced stare, flawless makeup, and carefully pinned hair make her look like a mannequin, a doll, as Connery embraces her and kisses her unmoving face. It's a deeply unsettling scene, with Hitchcock cutting around the immobile Marnie, shooting from odd angles that accentuate the hard lines of her face and her stasis as Connery engulfs her. The marriage's consummation is implied with a shot of Marnie's head moving backward, the camera tracking with her, followed by a shot of Connery that zooms in on his eyes. Hitch then discreetly pans away towards the window, but the lingering distastefulness of this frigid sex scene nevertheless leaves its impact.

The marriage between Connery and Hedren is fraught with these kinds of scenes, so unsettling because they so thoroughly upset the idea of what marriage should be like. At times, it seems like Hitch himself is even sympathetic to the paranoid Marnie's terror of the opposite sex and her disgust with sexual relations, and Connery's character often comes across manipulative and conniving. His marriage to Hedren, though in some ways selfless and even weirdly loving, is tainted by more than a hint of sexual blackmail, as he himself acknowledges to her, and whatever his intentions he becomes one more in a long line of men using women for sex. When Marnie exclaims, "I'm just something you've caught! You think I'm some sort of wild animal you've trapped," Connery coolly replies that she's right: "I've tracked you and caught you and by God I'm going to keep you." This predatory view of sexual relations is maintained throughout the film (up until the predictable cop-out ending), and subtly echoed in the scene where Marnie goes out on a hunt and witnesses a pack of dogs snarling and gathering around some prey.

Obviously, the film is rich in such subtextual psychological and sociological dimensions, and in this regard Marnie is fascinating, subject to almost endless unpacking of its underlying themes. On a surface level, though, the Freudian content of the film can often be distracting. Hitchcock's dedication to Freud's theories is such that he attempts to make dramatic twists and plot points out of Freudian interpretation, much as he did in Spellbound, and it doesn't work any better here than it did there. The tracing back of Marnie's problems with men and sexual frigidness to a childhood trauma, besides being a lamentable cliché, is a remarkably shallow and surface-level application of psychology, especially for a director who in other ways, even in the same film, shows a tremendous understanding of psychological nuance. The film's second act, after the marriage, increasingly delves into this kind of pop-Freudianism, with Marnie's attacks of repressed memory indicated by a red filter flashing over the image, and Connery and Hedren engaging in endless discussions of psychology, even conducting a free-association session that turns into a predictable breakdown. The film's resolution, in which Marnie's repressed feelings and coldness are "cured" by an act of remembrance and confrontation, is a pat solution that doesn't do anything to suggest the great complexity of the human mind and its workings.

Despite these flaws, Marnie remains an oddly compelling work from Hitchcock, at least partly because its examination of warped sexual feelings is more potent than the dialogue's often glib discussion of Freudian principles will admit. If the film's ending suggests, Hollywood-style, that even a lifetime of psychological pain can be cured by the power of love, there is much else in the film to counter that love itself can be part of the problem rather than the solution. This contradictory film has a lot more going on under its surface than Freud could ever explain, and it's consequently far more interesting for what Hitchcock shows than for what he has his characters say.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Red River

Red River is a sweeping Western epic from Howard Hawks, a towering yarn spanning 14 years, with a thousand-mile cattle drive at its center. It's a Western on a grand scale, and Hawks can't always balance the story's epic dimensions with the human conflicts behind them. It's thus very uneven, with the pacing especially falling apart in the last half hour, unraveling what was up until then a very solid film. There's still a lot to love, though, in this hard-edged tale of the fearless cattle baron Dunson (John Wayne), who established his own massive ranch from very humble beginnings, through a combination of hard work and necessary violence, and just a little outright theft. He's established early on as a man willing to do virtually anything to get his way, and who always follows through once he's made up his mind. In establishing his ranch, he leaves behind the woman he loves, who is slaughtered in an Indian raid soon after he heads off, and he adopts the sole survivor, a tough young boy named Matt. Dunson and Matt (together with stalwart character actor Walter Brennan as the sidekick Groot) establish the ranch, but 14 years later the Civil War has taken his toll, and Matt (played as a young man by Montgomery Clift) has just returned from fighting in the war. With the Texas economic system shattered like all of the South, the destitute Dunson can only avoid going broke by making a last-ditch cattle drive north to Missouri to sell his herd.

This massive cattle drive, with almost ten thousand animals, is the center of the film, and this is where Hawks is most successful. In its grand-scale set pieces, with an endless sea of cows and the men driving them hard, the film evokes the grandeur and excitement of the drive in every crowded frame. Hawks fills his usual overloaded frame for once not with people but with animals. The chaotic scenes on the trail, with men and beasts working in tandem to accomplish one difficult feat after another, are masterpieces of large-scale design and action. It helps that these scenes have a Fitzcarraldo-like realism, giving the sense that there really are ten thousand cows being herded, barely under control, over treacherous territory. This is especially true of the grand crossing of the Red River, which is just plain exhilarating filmmaking.

Strangely enough, Hawks handles things more unevenly on the human scale. The cattle drive turns Dunson, increasingly desperate and all too aware of the make-or-break stakes involved, into a tyrannical madman, driving the men harder and harder with less and less rest, and brooking absolutely no dissent or grumbling. The escalating tension in the camp, culminating in Dunson's attempt to hang two men who tried to flee, leads Matt to the breaking point where he can't just follow orders anymore, and he takes over control of the cattle from Dunson with the support of all the other men. This slow ratcheting up of tension is beautifully handled, and the great performances from both Clift and Wayne do a good job of developing their complex relationship. Wayne especially is a virulent force of nature, raging and intense but with the vulnerability of a desperate man underneath it all. When Dunson is left behind, he vows to get his revenge and to kill Matt, and the look on his stone face is enough to sell that he really means it.

Unfortunately, a lot of the effort put into establishing this loving but nonetheless fierce rivalry is tremendously wasted in the film's second half, where with Wayne largely offscreen and a new romantic interest (Joanne Dru) abruptly brought in for Clift, the film falters and eventually falls apart, limping towards an unbearably weak climax that allows all the build-up and suspense to simply deflate. Before this, though, there's a fight against an Indian raiding party, which provides one last jolt of genuine thrilling action as Matt and his men protect a wagon train from an attack. Dru is introduced in the midst of this fight, as the tough and determined Tess, who takes an arrow in her shoulder and keeps talking, gently sparring with Matt, without even skipping a beat as she's hit. It's a great and memorable introduction, typically Hawksian in its pattering dialogue and feigned toughness, a scene good enough to forgive even the obligatory appearance of that most unfortunate of Hollywood tropes, the romantic interest. The goodwill generated by this scene is quickly squandered, though, in a series of unbelievable, sappy, and just plain awkward scenes that seem to have been pasted in from a totally different film. It's painfully obvious just how bad an idea this last-minute romance was, and Hawks seems to realize it as well; these scenes are so sloppy and rushed that not even the least effort is put into making them cohere with the film as a whole.

In addition to the romance, the film is also marred by the lazy and uncinematic use of on-screen titles, uncharacteristic for Hawks, who always knew how to get across his characters' inner conflicts and basic essence in dialogue and visuals alone. The texts in this film purport to be from a historical diary describing the cattle drive, and at the beginning of the film Hawks uses these handwritten inserts, superimposed over images from the drive, simply to transition between geographical locations and describe the progress. This is an understandable, though still probably unnecessary, shortcut, but as the film wears on, the texts increasingly describe the characters' internal states and spell out ideas and thoughts that would have been much better conveyed indirectly. With two strong central performances at the film's heart, it's puzzling that Hawks has no faith in the actors' ability to get across the characters' emotions, and instead resorts to telling us outright that Clift is scared, or that Wayne is enraged.

This would be bad enough, but Tess also manages to disrupt what should have been the grand finale, the inevitable showdown between Matt and Dunson. This confrontation had been hinted at since at least the one-hour mark of the film, and the continual emphasis on both men's quick-draw capabilities promised a tense and powerful showdown between them. But the showdown is quickly and almost bloodlessly defused by the domesticating power of a woman, and all the suspenseful build-up is revealed to be for naught. Instead of a taut standoff that unpacks the complex emotional entanglements between these two men, it's all brushed aside with little ceremony after a few teary-eyed words from the woman who entered the picture out of nowhere only twenty minutes earlier. The surprisingly sunny ending, seemingly coming out of nowhere, is totally at odds with everything else in the film, and it's certainly a rather drastic and unearned change in Wayne's character. If Hawks and the screenwriters had invested more effort into developing Tess, or given Dunson any meaningful screentime in the film's second half, the sudden and lighthearted ending might not have been quite so ludicrous or disappointing. As it is, Hawks betrays what could have been a powerful film with a lackluster and uneven second act, and a climax that simply doesn't exist.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Kill, Baby... Kill!/His Girl Friday/The Trouble With Harry/The Seven Year Itch

The first scene of Kill, Baby... Kill! is as powerful, visceral, and over-the-top as its title might suggest. The film opens abruptly, as though in the middle of a scene, with a woman running away from a large castle, screaming "No! No!" She runs towards the camera, which alternates between askew closeups that emphasize the terror in her eyes, and long shots that situate her fleeing form in the gloomy darkness of the castle's front lawn. The woman runs into a nearby building, then stops as though transfixed in horror by the sight of a spiked grating below her — which she soon enough leaps to her death by impaling herself on it. It's a harrowing, mesmerizing, intriguing scene, one that promises a great psychological horror film in the making.

In the course of this moody 1966 giallo, director Mario Bava rarely again achieves the same visceral impact as those opening minutes, though what the film lacks in chills it makes up for in atmosphere and the dazzling, garish cinematography. The story of Bava's film is a classic ghost yarn, of a young girl who was killed and has since haunted and cursed the residents of the town in which she died. A doctor (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart) and an inspector (Pierro Lulli) arrive in the town to investigate this latest murder, to which they were alerted by the note the unfortunate woman wrote before her death. The story, obviously, is the stuff of countless other horror films, and frankly many of those others handled the scares much better. Bava, on the other hand, hardly seems to be interested in frightening his audiences so much as impressing them with the lurid quality of his visuals. The flashy camerawork is constantly calling attention to itself, with rapid zooms and pans disrupting the fluid flow of the cinematography. When the local constable (Luciano Catenacci) is first introduced, Bava brings him in with an exceedingly fast zoom onto his sinister, bald-headed countenance, accompanied by a dramatic theme on the soundtrack. The sudden emphasis suggests that this man will be tremendously important to the plot, maybe even the villain himself; the fact that he barely appears after this scene is not nearly as important as Bava's willingness to make anything and everything a matter of such visual sturm-und-drang.

In a later scene at the local cemetery, Bava again plays with such conventions of camerawork and emphasis, with a bizarre swinging zoom that focuses in, then swoops back out again, on a faraway tree stump chosen seemingly at random. Is the stump important? Or is the camera itself important, indicating the movement of something that could explain the creaking noise heard on the soundtrack? It turns out to be neither — in fact, Bava is just using this unmotivated camera movement as a distraction, and after several zooms in and out, the legs of a girl hanging down from above suddenly swing across the frame at a perpendicular angle to the movement of the camera. Once again, this moment isn't even remotely explained or returned to later, and the presumed corpse is never discovered, but it's a striking and memorable shot anyway. Bava routinely disregards the machinations of his silly plot in favor of such visual grandeur, which is inscribed into every frame of the film. The camera is constantly darting around to ascribe overblown importance to random bits of mise en scéne, like the portrait of the dead girl that Bava zooms in on, then further draws attention to the plaque underneath that lists her lifespan as 1880-1887, a fact that might've had more impact if Bava ever bothered to establish the year in which his film takes place. It doesn't really matter though, since we get that he's just making the conventional gesture towards the "spooky" fact that the little blonde girl who we've seen wandering around the screen singing eerie songs is in fact a ghost, as if we couldn't have guessed.

It's hard to take too seriously a film that puts so little stock in its own premise, but Bava clearly takes such pleasure in the lurid colors and composition of each frame that Kill, Baby... Kill! winds up being a lot of fun anyway. With its striking aesthetics and some great kitschy performances, especially from Fabienne Dali as the local witch who tries to fight the curse, this is a classic of gothic horror in spite of its silliness and lack of scares.

His Girl Friday is a perfect screwball farce from Howard Hawks, built on a model of steadily escalating insanity, with Cary Grant orchestrating the entire maelstrom as the quick-witted and scheming newspaperman Walter Burns. This is a typically great comic performance from the always reliable Grant, who handled the fast-paced dialogue of a Hawks screwball like no other actor. Here he's playing opposite the similarly sharp Rosalind Russell as his ex-wife, the former reporter Hildy Johnson, who has returned to his life only to politely inform her ex that she's remarrying, to the slightly dopey but sincere insurance salesman Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy). Obviously, Grant isn't going to stand for this, and he immediately begins concocting as many schemes as he can think of to prevent Russell and her new fiance from leaving on the afternoon train.

The film crackles with the strength of the Grant/Russell pairing, and their verbal sparring is unfailingly hilarious, as well as indicative of the underlying dynamics of their relationship and failed marriage. They originally split up because Russell was discontented with their unstable life, with the lack of any traditional lifestyle or comforts — their honeymoon was spent covering a coal mine story instead of anything more romantic. Her new husband is thus much more stable, as well as more romantic and conventional. While he tells her that "even ten minutes without you feels too long," Grant consistently disregards all propriety and even forgets to hold doors for her, letting them slam in her face behind him. Bellamy knows how to treat a lady, while Grant does not. But the script's central question is whether Russell is actually a "lady" at all, and as usual in Hawks' films, the answer is an emphatic (and ecstatic) "no." The film posits a dichotomy between the ladylike option of being a housewife, having children, and settling down, and the more vigorous and non-traditional option of continuing to have a career, working in the company of men as part of their fast-paced world. Clearly, Russell belongs in this world, and Grant's manipulations mostly center around his attempts to bring her back into the world of journalism, if only for one story, knowing that once she's gotten the taste for it again, she'll be back for good. Indeed, it's not too long before Russell is stationed at a press room phone, barking out stories and hot tips, and it's obvious that this is where she belongs, comfortable in a man's world and not playing wife to anyone, even if sometimes that's what she thinks she wants.

These sexual politics may drive the plot and its underlying themes, but it's the film's glistening comedic surfaces that really propel it forward and keep the viewer utterly rapt. In addition to the central Grant/Russell rapport, each of them gets to try their quick wits and verbal dexterity against a seemingly never-ending variety of straight men. If Grant and Russell are roaring through life at triple speed, everyone else in the picture seems to be coasting along in a lower gear, and the script takes great joy in the way this comedic duo tears into everyone around them. The dim-witted city sheriff Peter B. Hartwell (Gene Lockhart) gets a lot of this abuse, especially concerning his middle initial — "the B is for brains," Russell quips, after recounting how the sheriff allowed a murderer to escape by handing him a gun so a psychologist could watch him re-enact his crime. All the other cops and reporters on hand also get their time as the butt of these jokes, as does Bellamy as the luckless would-be hubbie who keeps winding up in jail due to Grant's hijincks. But best of all is Billy Gilbert in a hilarious cameo as a ludicrously dumb state lackey delivering an important message — his quick tongue and flawless timing are put to brilliant use as he stammers his way through a number of conversations in which he clearly has no idea what's going on.

Hawks' characteristic overlapping dialogue, everywhere present throughout this film, is also used to especially great effect in the many scenes involving telephones. In many ways, this could be called a telephone comedy, although it is not, as this might imply, a film in which the characters often talk to each other over the phone. Rather, most of the phone scenes in the film involve many people in the same room, all yelling into different phones at different unseen and mostly unknown people on the other end. Hawks handles this kind of chaos very well, and there's a particularly noteworthy scene where a bunch of reporters are returning, in dribs and drabs, to send their latest updates back to their papers. Hawks simply sets up at the end of the press room table and waits for the reporters to return, which they soon do, forming a sort of musical round of voices as they each step into the frame. One comes in, begins his report over one phone, then another fills in the space to his left and begins a different report, then another just as the first one is leaving. This babble of voices, telling different, often wildly contradictory, versions of the same story, is a recurring theme in the film, and Hawks always makes sure to carefully situate these different voices within the frame as well. In a later scene, Grant is calling his paper from a phone in the right foreground, while to the left and behind him Russell attempts to conduct a conversation with the police to locate her arrested fiance and his mother. The competing voices of the soundtrack are thus reflected in the tension of the halved frame.

This is a flawless comedy, with Hawks leading his stellar cast through a typically fast-paced, non-stop barrage of witty wordplay and comic scenarios. The dialogue crackles with energy and verve, and the performers stand up to the task in every way. The classic screwball era may well have provided some of the best comedies of all time, and His Girl Friday is one of the best of the best.

While Alfred Hitchcock is an acknowledged genius of the thriller and undeniably a giant of Hollywood film, his comedic talents are still viewed, unfortunately, as somewhat secondary. Not only were his thrillers frequently padded with subtle humor and sexual innuendo, but he also made the much-maligned but utterly charming To Catch a Thief, and my personal favorite Hitchcock film, The Trouble With Harry. This quirky, totally strange comedy takes a familiar thriller subject, the dead body found mysteriously in the woods, and disarms its menace by having the people who find it — a motley assortment of cheery New England rural folks — treat its sudden appearance in their lives as a small bother at worst, a minor distraction from what really is, after all, a rather pleasant day. That these gentle souls are so unperturbed by the corpse in their woods is the film's essential joke, a single gag that's stretched out with such droll wit and total commitment to these bizarre personalities, that the film becomes absolutely irresistible.

It all starts when Captain Wiles (Edmund Gwenn) stumbles across the body of Harry lying in the woods, and he believes that he accidentally shot him while rabbit hunting. He is mildly distressed about the possibility of going to jail, so he resolves to bury the corpse, but before he can, seemingly the whole town stumbles into the area. There's a kindly old maid (Mildred Natwick) who just politely asks him what's the trouble when she comes across him carrying the body by the legs, a bookish professor who nods and apologizes to the body when he trips over it, the lovely Jennifer (Shirley MacLaine), who seems outright overjoyed when she sees the dead body (because it's her husband, naturally), and the local artist Sam (John Forsythe), who decides to sketch the corpse. What ensures from this point is a subtly hilarious but outwardly deadpan farce, in which these people, for various reasons and motivations, keep burying and then digging up again the unfortunate Harry, who seems to be causing a great number of complications even after his death. This all takes place in the cheery sunlit setting of autumnal New England, which Hitch captures in a static but sumptuous visual style that makes each exterior shot look like a postcard — the film's rich orange and red hues serve as a perfect contrast to the gallows humor and casual disinterest in mortality that these characters evince.

Indeed, the film is a subtle satire of small-town life, as well as a certain provincial mentality that cares for little outside of oneself. Hitchcock both celebrates and mocks this mentality, but for the most part the film is a loving tribute to these people, who casually resist all authority — represented in the film by the bumbling local constable, who's paid by the arrest and thus makes every effort to find even the pettiest of offenses — and likewise strive to maintain their sheltered provincial existence from even good intrusions of the outside world. The struggling artist Sam is remarkably indifferent to monetary success. When he gets a chance to sell his paintings, he declares them priceless and instead of asking for money, requests that the buyer fulfill the wants of his friends: strawberries, a chemistry set, a new cash register, a shotgun and hunting outfit, a hope chest. This selfless act of kindness and bigheartedness belies the idea that these people are entirely self-centered and careless, and in this context their disregard for Harry's body takes on its proper significance.

It's a film in which death is merrily shrugged off so that life may go on for the living, and it's no coincidence that Hitchcock implicitly counterbalances death with sex. The burying of Harry becomes a mere pretext for the development of two new romantic relationships, and this burgeoning love is reflected in the film's depiction of sensual beauty in its many landscape shots. The film is also loaded with clever sexual innuendos, just barely disguised, and I will never cease to cackle with glee when Forsythe tells Gwenn: "don't you realize you'll be the first man to cross her... threshold?" Hitch was clearly having a lot of fun with this subtly naughty material, and all the actors seem to be in on the joke and having a ball as well. It's a riot, a gorgeous ode to rural autumns, and a celebration of the simple pleasures of a life in which death is just a minor mishap, easily forgotten with some tea and blueberry muffins.

Billy Wilder's The Seven Year Itch has, seemingly, an airtight premise: take a dumpy middle-aged married man (Tom Ewell), send his wife and kids away for the summer, and put the stunningly gorgeous Marilyn Monroe upstairs from him as a constant source of temptation. The results should be both hilarious and sizzling, by all rights, and they are, at least whenever Monroe herself is onscreen. But for too much of the film, she's not, and large portions of the film focus solely on Ewell, whose paranoid fantasies, neuroses, and wild flights of imagination are mildly amusing at times, but more often just tedious and clunky. The film opens with an equally unamusing vignette with some Indians providing an old-time parallel to the main story, and a painfully unfunny narrator who thankfully disappears early in the film. Ewell spends much of the film by himself, talking incessantly despite the fact that no one else is around, and the film never adequately explains why this man feels the need to narrate every little thing he does, other than to keep some dialogue moving. It's also a mystery why, given Monroe's breathless and hilarious performance as the sweetly naïve and ditzy girl upstairs, and the surprisingly great chemistry between her and Ewell, the film keeps her offscreen for so long.

However, whenever she's around, the film sparkles and sizzles in exactly the way it should. Her introduction is a fabulous half-hour scene in which Ewell, tortured by guilt but nevertheless taking advantage of his wife's absence, invites her to his apartment for drinks. Monroe's character, unnamed and archetypically called just "The Girl," is indeed like an elemental force of nature that blows into Ewell's life with little regard for conventionality or ordinary social relations. Monroe's character is deliriously unmindful of her own sexuality, thinking nothing of appearing naked on her balcony or blithely announcing that she keeps her panties in the freezer during the summer. Her every move and utterance seems calculated to attract attention — as, indeed, the real Marilyn probably constructed her breathless, carefree persona — but her character is simply doing and saying whatever comes into her airy head. "Do you drink?" Ewell asks her at one point. "Oh yeah, like a fish," she burbles, but then is unable to come up with an acceptable drink and finally asks for a "big, tall" martini. Her character is pure Id, a wonderfully ludicrous male fantasy congealed on the screen in all her vivid reality. Ewell's character is given to wild daydreaming and fantasies, but he's incapable of dreaming up anything crazier than the real Marilyn as she appears here. In his imagination, she's pretty much just like she actually is in both his reality and the reality outside the picture, a reality that's acknowledged towards the end when Ewell yells out, "What blonde? Maybe it's Marilyn Monroe!"

This line is indicative of just how much the film is actually about the mystique of Marilyn, rather than about any character played by her. Marilyn's character here is sexual desire, abstracted and idealized — she's not a particular instance of the sex goddess but the Ur-goddess, the libidinal being on whom all others are based. In her raw simplicity and bubbly good humor, she's the spirit of pure, innocent sensuality and desire. As long as she's onscreen, The Seven Year Itch is a comic gem, but in the long stretches when she's nowhere to be found, it's a dull and awkward bore where even the jokes fall flat. Maybe that's part of the point, though — Ewell's character is a boring slob, a nobody, animated and brought to life only in relation to the radiant brilliance of Monroe, who burns bright but too briefly in this film as in life.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Michael Clayton

Michael Clayton is a crisp, smart, economical legal thriller that is perhaps more than a little predictable in the machinations of its plot, but it makes up for its small bows to genre conventions in other areas. Most notably, the film is first and foremost a study of its title character, with George Clooney giving a great performance as a high-powered lawyer whose specialty is "fixing" delicate and difficult problems for his company's wealthy business clients. He's growing weary of his job, though, and the constant pressure — not to mention the realization that he's on the wrong "side" morally — are beginning to take a toll on him. He's also a compulsive gambler, he's divorced and has a young son who he obviously loves and admires, and he's got an accumulation of debts after a failed business deal with his alcoholic brother. Clooney truly inhabits this downtrodden role, playing a man worn out by his life but not necessarily devoid of energy yet.

This is the directorial debut for screenwriter Tony Gilroy, who wrote the scripts for the Jason Bourne trilogy as well as The Devil's Advocate and Dolores Claiborne. But Michael Clayton is certainly his strongest script so far; the dialogue is sharp and always believable, benefiting tremendously from a uniformly great cast, and the twists and turns of the plot keep the suspense elevated. The film is constructed as a loop, opening with a scene where Clayton leaves a card game to fix a problem with a client who committed a hit-and-run accident. He deals with it, then drives away, noticeably exhausted and aggravated, and stops by the side of the road to stretch his legs and admire three horses standing on a hill. While Clayton stands in front of the horses, Gilroy composes a shot from behind the animals, facing Clayton, with his car parked by the side of the road over his shoulder, conspicuously framed into the shot — a moment later, it becomes apparent why when the vehicle erupts into a fireball. The film then jumps back to four days earlier in a fade-to-white, and the remainder of the narrative catches things back up to this point.

It's easy to dismiss this kind of non-chronological structuring as pure gimmickry, a cheap trick with no purpose, but Gilroy actually handles it beautifully. On one level, yes, the structure serves to enhance suspense, to create a sense of mystery so that the film is essentially answering the question of who tried to kill Clayton and why. But the second time this sequence is replayed, towards the end of the film when the chronology has led back up to it, it has acquired a new significance and new meanings to its details and to the psychology of Clayton. The first time we see these things happening, we're watching for plot, for events, trying to understand what's happening; the second time, it's Clayton we're trying to understand, and the events here are important not in themselves but in relation to his character and persona. The experience of reviewing the opening events towards the end of the film is a process of fitting together Clayton's personality, contemplating the changes he's undergone in the course of the film and what these events might mean to him. What had seemed mere surface, basic plotting, at the beginning of the film, becomes laden with psychological meanings. This slow process of boring into Clayton's character is even reflected structurally in the film's opening and closing shots. The first shots of the film are all empty, nearly devoid of life — the first few minutes of the film consist of a montage of images from within the law firm, late at night, while Wilkinson rants in voiceover. The meaning of his monologue, his disgust with his profession and the way he's wasted his life, is not yet clear, but the empty rooms and corridors speak volumes about the loneliness and distance of these characters. The final shot of the film is a sustained closeup on Clooney's face, after he's definitively redeemed himself, stepped back over to the "right" side of the moral boundary. The film's trajectory is thus from an empty room with no people in it to a closeup on a human face — it's a movement from corporate distance to individualistic humanism.

Although Clooney is the film's center, he's counterbalanced by equally strong performances from Tom Wilkinson as Arthur Edens, a lawyer defending a chemical giant for the harm caused by one of their insecticides, and Tilda Swinton as the chemical company's chief lawyer. Edens precipitates the film's plot when he has a psychotic incident in a deposition room, stripping off his clothes and ranting incomprehensibly. His degenerating mental state, ironically, helps him to see things more clearly, and he realizes that he is definitively on the wrong side in this case, that by defending the chemical company he is helping them get away with murder for the deaths and cancers they've caused. His quixotic efforts to build a case against the company instead of for them lead to the violence and high-level cover-ups that make up the film's thriller plot. Swinton is his opposite number, in some ways equally pressured and weighed down by her job, but nevertheless committed to keeping things under control at any cost. Her performance is stellar, perfectly capturing her character's uncertainty and the in-over-her-head feeling she suffers at nearly every moment. Gilroy nails her character in several scenes in which he juxtaposes her interviews and speeches to the press and investors with her earlier preparations for these public appearances. What seems relaxed and spontaneous in public is revealed as carefully rehearsed, with each word carefully chosen, right down to the seeming hesitations and fumbling for a word that inject some humanity into the proceedings. Her character is a true corporate drone, and even her human touches are faked, that is until she is forced to confront the taking of a human life — then, Gilroy shows her sweating, the armpits of her blouse stained, one human touch that even she can't fake.

It's this attention to detail, this intelligent characterization and visual storytelling, that elevates Michael Clayton above its genre origins and makes it such a worthwhile film. As the plot weaves its predictable way towards an inevitable but highly satisfying conclusion, the only conclusion possible without resorting to nihilism, the script slowly digs its way into these characters, not only Clooney's, but also Wilkinson and Swinton. The result is a briskly paced thriller that never sacrifices character for plot.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Paris vu par...

Paris vu par... is a portmanteau film from 1965, part of a brief vogue for such multi-director compilations in the 60s. Anyone who's made an attempt to go through the oeuvre of Jean-Luc Godard, in particular, will certainly have encountered their fair share of these films, since Godard seemingly contributed to almost all of them. And anyone who's seen a few will know that in general they're a terribly uneven lot, marred by many lackluster efforts, with maybe a gem or two (usually from Godard!) sparkling amidst all the muck. This film, in which six different French directors contribute six shorts about Paris, is no exception to the general rule. Each director focuses his short on a different neighborhood of the city, a conceptually slight idea that allows them pretty much free rein to choose their own stories. The results, though, are largely disappointing.

In Jean Douchet's Saint Germain-des-Pres, the American girl Katherine (Barbara Wilkin), gets involved with a French boy who's pretending to be an ambassador's son. She sleeps with him once, only to have him throw her out the next morning, telling her he needs to go to Mexico to see his father. Obviously, she sees him the next day and uncovers the ruse, then runs into the boy who he was pretending to be. All of this plays out with little enough visual flair, but worse still virtually no sense of the purpose behind it. Douchet's film is utterly dull and pointless, even though it obviously aspires to the witty boy/girl dynamics of Godard's seminal Breathless. Leaving aside the issue of originality, this short is missing several crucial components from its blueprint, namely the underlying sexual politics, playfulness, and inventive use of filmic formal elements that made Godard's film what it was. Douchet seems to have taken Godard's old catch phrase about a girl and a gun to heart, seemingly believing that all you need is a guy, a girl, and a camera, and then you've got a film. Not so, as this paper-thin trifle of a film proves.

Jean Rouch's Gare du Nord is a small improvement, a similarly flimsy premise which is at least teased out into a story of actual consequence, bringing out the subtexts and potential meanings of the material in a way that Douchet fails to even attempt. In Rouch's short, a married couple (Nadine Ballot and Barbet Schroeder) living in a lousy apartment adjacent to a construction site spend the morning fighting, until she storms out and says she won't be back anytime soon. At this point, Rouch interrupts the overexposed quality of the visuals from the apartment, where everything looked washed-out and glistening with harsh sunlight, with a very dark and moody shot as the wife descends in the elevator. This lovely shot provides an interlude, a point of stasis and contemplation, with Ballot's profile shrouded in darkness, the elevator grate casting moving shadows across her face, as her husband's voice grows ever fainter, echoing with a metallic ring from above. It's a beautiful moment, well worth the film's brief length for that alone.

In the second half of this film, Ballot walks towards work and is accosted on the way by a stranger (Gilles Quéant) who abruptly offers her nearly everything that she was just complaining was lacking from her life with her husband: material wealth, a comfortable home in a nice neighborhood, world travel. This is a film about discontentment, especially with class status. But this man, a metaphorical stand-in for the upper class, and also a parodic one — he is so rich he doesn't think twice about leaving his expensive car idling in the middle of the road while he walks with this girl — is also discontented. He has left his suburban rich neighborhood in search of something different for himself, finding his own life too quiet and dull. In fact, he threatens to kill himself unless Ballot goes off with on a vacation, but she refuses and he follows through on his threat. This puzzling ending to some extent defuses the short's potential, which until this melodramatic turn of events, had seemed quite good. Rouch raises some interesting questions in terms of the relationship between the working classes and the bourgeoisie, and the profound dissatisfactions that can affect both classes. But while the portrait of working class life here is firmly fixed in social realities and the ordinary, the stranger's depiction of the upper-class borders on fantasy, with no similar understanding of class pressures. And the story resolves itself in such a ridiculous manner that it's ultimately hard to take any of it too seriously.

Jean-Daniel Pollet's Rue Saint-Denis is quite possibly this film's weakest segment, a totally pointless vignette that goes nowhere and says nothing, in the dullest manner possible. A man (Claude Melki) hires a slightly aged prostitute (Micheline Dax), and takes her back to his cluttered and tiny apartment. The two of them awkwardly talk, eat dinner together, and read the paper. Pollet certainly captures the uncomfortable and impersonal nature of the prostitute relationship — well there's a news flash, huh? — but otherwise it's hard to figure out what exactly this is supposed to be. It's too minimalist and distanced for a character study, and we never learn anything about the characters anyway. But it's also too deadpan to be a comedy, too lightweight to be a social exposé, and too event-less to be a drama. It's simply a moment, captured for its own sake, but it's not substantial enough to justify a film, not even one barely longer than ten minutes.

Eric Rohmer's Place de l'Etoile is one of his weaker efforts, even if in most of this company it winds up looking comparatively strong. The film opens with a documentary segment, in which Rohmer describes the area after which his segment is titled, a section of 12 streets arranged in a star pattern around the perimeter of the Arc de Triomphe. This area is carefully established in the opening minutes, particularly the way that the layout of streets leads to a situation where pedestrians circling the Arc are continually forced to cross busy intersections formed by the crisscrossing network of streets. This informative establishing material pays off when Rohmer's narrative reaches its climax, allowing the viewer to place the protagonist's movements within the context of the space he's moving in. It's a simple thing, but this is the only segment so far to truly establish a sense of location and spatial logistics for the neighborhood that gives its name to the segment. Despite the nominal theme of this project, most of the other directors chose stories that could take place anywhere, that use the neighborhoods they're located in as backgrounds at best. Only Rohmer, always detail-oriented, understands that character is at least partially defined by space. Just as in his features he always pays inordinate attention to the decoration of his characters' living spaces, here he takes great pains to set up the environment in which his character will be moving.

Once the narrative gets going, though, it's a simple enough little story, about a haughty and fastidious clothing shop clerk (Jean-Michel Rouzière) who believes that he's accidentally killed a bum who accosted him on the street. The payoff of the documentary sequence that opened the feature is Rouzière's mad dash away from the scene of the crime through the entire Place de l'Etoile, running across intersections filled with cars and weaving among the other pedestrians. The slow, leisurely tour of the opening minutes is now repeated at a much brisker pace, as the man runs frantically from his imagined pursuers. They never catch him, and months later he runs across the bum on the train, and thus realizes that he didn't kill him after all. It's a slight story, obviously, as minimal and pointless as many of the others in this compilation film. The only difference is that Rohmer's characteristic attention to mise en scène allows him to inflect even this undistinguished narrative with at least a hint of cinematic interest.

For his contribution to this film, Montparnasse-Levallois, Jean-Luc Godard enlisted the help of documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles, whose films with his brother David comprise one of the central bodies of work in the American cinéma-vérité movement. With Maysles handling the camerawork and Godard providing the scenario, direction, and editing, this short represents the meeting of two very different cinematic minds. The contrast results in a film that doesn't quite feel like a true Godard film, since it's very rare that Godard ever worked with another creative intelligence who could exercise this much influence over the aesthetic qualities of his films — even his collaborations with Jean-Pierre Gorin and Anne-Marie Miéville always feel very much like Godard films. Indeed, Maysles' dodging, shifting handheld camera defines this film, which follows Monica (Joanna Shimkus) as she mixes up the letters she sent to her two lovers, and goes to each in turn to try to straighten things out. Maysles keeps the camera almost constantly in motion, diving in for shaky closeups and snaking around within the confines of the cramped workplaces where Monica visits the two men. Even in relatively stable shots, the camera is slightly shaking from side to side, zooming in for closer views, and abruptly panning between the two people in a conversation.

The opening titles inform that this is an "action-film," and Godard has one of his characters indirectly explain what this means early on. Monica's first lover is an "action-sculptor," which he says means that he takes whatever pieces of metal happen to be lying at hand and combines them through improvisation. Obviously, this applies equally well to the loose quality of Maysles' cinematography, which seems to sample the images in front of it at random, arriving at semi-stable compositions only through continual adjustment and tweaking. This jittery, nervous energy in the camerawork is very different from the smooth, sinewy motion and dispassionate pans usually favored in Godard's work. Maysles' camera lends itself to the kind of psychological and emotional character identification that Godard usually disdains in favor of more formal and intellectual elements. For this reason alone, Montparnasse-Levallois feels very different from Godard's other work, and especially his work from this point in his career, when he was beginning his transformation into a truly radical filmmaker.

Camerawork aside, though, this isn't a particularly radical film to begin with, and it's perhaps the first throwaway film that Godard made since some of his pre-Breathless shorts. It's not a bad short by any means, and just in terms of the cleverness of the writing, the deft handling of the symmetrical plot, and the charming female lead, it elevates itself above some of the other dreck in this compilation, despite the similar romantic themes. The symmetry of the visits to the two men also brings up an interesting parallel in terms of the two men's occupations — one is a sculptor who welds metal in order to create semi-abstract statues of women, while the other is a mechanic who does bodywork on cars. Both are welders and molders of metal, both shape bodies made of steel. Godard doesn't go much further than that with the parallel, unfortunately, but it's an interesting formal echo at least, and a highly suggestive thematic subtext. Still, this is pretty neutered and empty for 60s Godard, a very minor entry in his most fertile and famous creative period.

Claude Chabrol's La Muette is the most visually striking of the films here, dominated by odd camera angles and disorienting setups that turn a simple domestic space into something cold, alien, and even frightening. A young boy (Gilles Chusseau) is traumatized and aggravated by the constant bickering of his parents (Stéphane Audran and Chabrol himself), as well as his father's unsubtle dalliances with the family's sexy maid (Dany Saril). The family is obviously upper class, and their life is presented as a rhythmic and unvarying series of similar events, especially centered around the dinner table, where they all stuff their faces and fight. Chabrol rhythmically returns to the same or similar images again and again, panning around the dinner table to show each member of the family shoving food into their mouths and chewing exaggeratedly. Then a cut, and the pan sequence repeats, maybe with subtle differences, but with the same basic emphasis on eating and mastication. This cycling quality of domestic life is both numbing and painful, and Chabrol expertly draws out the obvious anguish, boredom, and antagonism lurking beneath the surface.

When the boy has had enough, he unleashes a rampage around the house — curiously unpunished and unmentioned afterwards, which makes me wonder if he just fantasized it — and discovers that he can dampen his hearing with some ear plugs he steals from his mother. From then on, the boy walks around his house in a curtain of total silence, not hearing the petty arguments of his parents. Chabrol obliges by shutting off the soundtrack as well, cloaking the viewer in that same eerie stillness and silence. It's an effective (and affecting) portrait of alienation and isolation, whether self-imposed or not. The segment's ending leaves a lot to be desired, resorting to cheap shocks in order to bring the situation to a quick close, but Chabrol redeems the film by inserting a final shot of the boy out on the streets, in the center of a crowd, totally silent, looking confused and lost. It's a haunting final image of desperation and loneliness, as the boy is very much alone even in the center of the crowd of people from whom he's sealed off by a wall of silence.

As a whole, Paris vu par... is a flawed and mediocre collection of shorts, with even some of the more well-known directors here turning in subpar efforts. With the exception of the completely worthless Douchet and Pollet shorts, all of these films have at least moments or aspects of interest, and fans of Godard, Chabrol, or Rohmer would certainly want to fill in their knowledge of those directors' key 60s period with the shorts included here. Otherwise, this is a disappointing collection of utterly average films, and the periodic moments of interest and engagement don't do too much to elevate it above this low level.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Stereo/Sylvia Scarlett

Stereo is an early student film project from David Cronenberg, an hour-long feature made almost entirely on his own, on such a shoestring budget that he decided to entirely forgo sound recording. The result is a film that, even in its extreme minimalism and obvious amateur nature, is pure undistilled Cronenberg, an early indication of the themes and obsessions that would continue to haunt him throughout his later films. The film's central conceit is that the footage shown here is documentary material from something called the Canadian Academy for Erotic Enquiry (only in Canada!), where the mysterious Professor Stringfellow is conducting strange experiments in telepathy and sexuality with a group of eight young men and women. The bulk of the film is entirely silent, with the only sound being provided by an occasional voiceover, reading clinical and scientific descriptions and analyses in a detached, objective tone. Otherwise, the film plays out in a dead silence. This eerie stillness may have been necessitated by budgetary constraints, but it is nevertheless a perfect aesthetic complement to the film's inquiry into sensory deprivation, human communication, and the objective/subjective divide, especially as regards scientific research.

This divide between objective and subjective is most present in the gulf between image and sound in this film. While the voiceover impassively discusses the nature of telepathy and describes the theories and experiments of Stringfellow, the images present a messier world of social interaction and sexuality, far removed from the dry, textbook-style readings on the soundtrack. This gulf is almost never bridged, and as a result the sound and image seem to exist on different planes, commenting on and feeding into one another, but rarely coming completely into sync. The voiceover rarely ever seems like it's actually talking about the events of the images, which it purports to describe.

The best way to capture the film's mood is perhaps to quote from one of these lightly absurdist but earnest monologues: "We understand that the unique way in which an individual perceives and reacts to his environment is a function of his own experiential space continuum," the narrator says halfway through the film. "When object events enter the experiential space continuum of that individual, they become an integral, organic part of that space... But we are now feeling with telepathists, in theory, the interior space continua of two or more telepathists can merge, can blend together to an extent far beyond the range of normal human experience. What would be the organic nature of communal experiential space, shared among eight psychosomatic entities?"

Obviously, this psychological mumbo-jumbo points forward in many ways to Cronenberg's own Scanners, just as the film's clinical exploration of sexuality would later be taken up in Dead Ringers and Crash. This film is concerned, as many of Cronenberg's films would be, with alternative modes of human society and interaction, the creation of a new "experiential space." This expansion of human capability is located, as it usually is in these films, in the human mind itself, in expanded use of brain functions usually left undeveloped. Just as the community of telepaths in Scanners represented a new human social unit, tightly knit together within their own minds rather than through sensory or verbal interaction, the experiment depicted in Stereo is an attempt to reach a similar new paradigm in human society. The obvious subtext in these scenarios is an awareness of the inadequacy of society as it is now, and Cronenberg's films often represent imaginative recreations of social functioning in order to create a new and better society. That these transformations inevitably necessitate tremendous psychological and physical violence can be seen as a byproduct, an indicator of the rigidity and strength of the social norms being broken.

These themes are less developed in Stereo, really just a skeleton of the ideas they would later blossom into, but the film is nevertheless interesting, especially for Cronenberg admirers. The imagery of the film consistently belies the objective tone of the narration, as the camera (handled by Cronenberg himself) fluidly glides through the distinctive, angular corridors of the CAEE (actually the University of Toronto). While the voiceover maintains a clinical distance, the camera swoops in on the telepathic volunteers at the institute in even their most intimate moments. As an early sketch in the career of a director who would later fill in this broad outline with much richer details, Stereo is perhaps most worthwhile as a beginning, a starting point. But it is by no means worthless on its own merits, and its coolly detached examination of human subjectivity and relationships is a seminal example of David Cronenberg's keen eye for such subjects.

George Cukor's Sylvia Scarlett is a deliriously strange and unsettling mess of a film, an irreconcilable collision of gender-bending sexual mutability with old-fashioned Hollywood normative romance and melodrama. The film casts Katharine Hepburn as young Sylvia, who disguises herself as Sylvester in order to help her father (Edmund Gwenn) escape an embezzling charge in France. The duo flee to London in disguise, as father and son, and along the way pick up the lowlife smuggler and thief Monk (Cary Grant). Together, the trio attempts to make a dishonest living by pulling cons. There are a great many twists and turns after that, especially when the trio is joined by a Cockney maid (Bunny Beatty) who the father falls for, and the quartet starts up a traveling vaudeville-type show performing for the rich all across the countryside. But the narrative is largely unimportant to the film's successes, and its increasingly baroque machinations are clearly not where Cukor's interests lie. Rather, the first half of the film is a clever inquiry into gender and sexuality, as the cross-dressing Hepburn charms both Grant and the upper-class artist Michael (Brian Aherne) with her boyish ways, while also seemingly attracting several women.

This bisexual play animates the film as long as Hepburn remains in drag. She is, it should be added, an almost totally unconvincing man, but it doesn't particularly matter, since the film as a whole is so unconcerned with being convincing in any regard. It starts with the accents, which are uniformly horrid and in any case keep slipping away and then back again at random. Grant is supposed to be sporting a lower-class Cockney drawl, which is bad enough, but he constantly forgets and falls into his standard Cary Grant persona — it's to his credit that he's such a natural that the shift is often barely even noticeable. It's harder to figure out quite what is going on with Hepburn's accent. She's supposed to be half French and half English, so I guess in some sense her all-over-the-place melange of accents and voices might represent her mixed heritage and upbringing, but it's still distracting, especially in the more melodramatic scenes. In lighter moments, she allows the accents to fall away, forgotten, and that's a relief, since her voice and natural comic poise go hand in hand, as in her more conventional screwball comedies. She's especially good at projecting her character's awkward attempts to sound like a man, as well as the moments when she forgets and slips up. This babble of voices, faked and put on, results in a meta-layer in which it's difficult to tell when the characters are meant to be faking a voice, and when it's the actors who are faking and forgetting. The scenario complicates things further by having the group pose as rich society folk for one of their scams, with Sylvia's father affecting an upper-class British whine for the ruse. It's a film about "passing," in terms of gender, sexuality, and class, and the emphasis is always on the voice as a marker of identity — one reason that the actors' missteps with their accents are so galling and ironic.

Despite this sometimes awkward execution, Hepburn's adventures as a man are riotously fun, and the closeted gay Cukor was clearly having a ball with this resonant scenario. From the moment Hepburn and Grant meet, there's a weird chemistry between them that clearly hints at some underlying (homo)sexual tension. At one point, getting ready to bunk up on a cold night, Grant tells Hepburn that "he" will make "a nice hot water bottle" to cuddle up next to. In another scene, Hepburn is kissed on the mouth by her father's lover, and later the lover of the man she wants (Aherne) can't resist giving her a peck on the cheek either. She seems to gather attention almost without regard to conventional sexuality, as though the confusion of gender roles serves to make her attractive to all genders and sexualities at once. Cukor stretches this material as far as it will go, and presumably as far as the strictures of 1930s Hollywood would allow; it's hard to imagine him getting away with much more, and even the obvious innuendo here considerably stretches the boundaries of the Hollywood romance. Nevertheless, this obviously couldn't be sustained for the whole picture, and the film inevitably has to unmask Hepburn and return her to her proper sex role, which is precisely the point when it ceases to be exciting and begins to drag and falter.

The plot complications necessary to affect this role reversal quickly descend, in the second half of the film, into trite melodrama — the kind where characters run out into the rain and scream, or jump to their deaths in the ocean — and it's obvious that Cukor loses much of his interest in the plot once Hepburn sheds her suit for a dress. There's a delightful moment, when Hepburn reveals herself as a girl to Aherne, when he simply cackles and yells out, "So that's why I was talking to you the way I was!" It's a telling line, suggesting that even before he knew she was a woman, Aherne was feeling the stirrings of attraction for her, and that while her revelation might sanction those feelings, make them acceptable, it doesn't substantially change the feelings themselves. This understanding of sexuality as a universal fact not always bound by traditional male/female dynamics is quickly discarded by the narrative, however, in favor of some much more conventional Hollywood theatrics. Cukor is so disinterested in this fluff that at one point he obviously dubs in a whole conversation of exposition while no one on screen is moving their lips at all. Sylvia does briefly change back into Sylvester during the second half, though, and Cukor takes the opportunity to insert a prison sequence with a knowing wink, having the two "men" spend the night in a jail cell together on the flimsiest of pretexts.

What all this adds up to, ultimately, is a totally confused and uneven film that's nevertheless a joy to watch, messiness and all. There are plenty of moments of great fun and pleasure, and the handful of rioutous party scenes look forward to Cukor's own later Holiday with their celebratory free spirit. The second half's melodrama often drags, and the conventional romantic resolution is something of a disappointment, if only because the film's first half promised such freshness, candor, and originality with regard to the Hollywood treatment of romance. That the film doesn't quite deliver on that promise doesn't diminish the sloppy, sporadic brilliance of much of this film, which in fits and starts serves to question and undermine the whole heterosexual, upper-class foundations of the Hollywood cinema.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Early Spring/Duck Soup

The mood of Yasujiro Ozu's Early Spring is best encapsulated in a line delivered towards the end of the film by a disillusioned old salaryman in a bar. "I've worked 31 long years," he says, "to find that life is just an empty dream." This melancholy lament, reflecting the wish for something different than life has turned out to be, is common in Ozu's films, and especially in this one, which captures the milieu of the salaried worker with an attentive eye for detail and a keen sense of the loneliness and ultimate meaninglessness of this kind of life. And yet in the midst of this gloom, Ozu injects his film with such richness of detail, moments of fullness and celebration, that the sadness is leavened by hopefulness. As with almost all of Ozu's films, what would normally be called the plot is at best incidental to what's really going on here. In this film, the main storyline concerns the salaryman Shoji Sugiyama (Ryo Ikebe) and his wife Masako (Chikage Awashima), who are suffering through a discontented marriage. Shoji flirts with, and then finally has a brief affair with, a co-worker, a girl nicknamed Goldfish (Keiko Kishi), and this momentary dalliance (really, just a single night) drives away his wife when she learns about it.

This, at least, is the ostensible "plot" of Early Spring, the narrative engine of the film. Ozu, though, characteristically obscures and mutes this storyline, situating it firmly within the larger context of Tokyo's suburbs and the many working men who commute into the city from there every day, as well as their families. Ozu signals his concern with this wider context very early on in the film, as the first few scenes cut back and forth between several different families living in adjoining houses in a single neighborhood, as they wake up in the morning with the men preparing for work and the women bustling around the house getting ready for the day as well. In these opening scenes, it's not at all clear who the central family of the film will be, and Ozu further diffuses such narrative interest by inserting a very early scene in which crowds of commuters walk towards the local train station, all dressed identically and carrying bagged lunches. This communal impression of a "type," rather than the individual, is Ozu's starting point, and he moves from here into the individual stories and characters who make up this crowd.

Formally speaking, Ozu's distinctive static camera makes up the vast majority of the shots in the film, nearly all of them taken from his signature low angle. This restraint and stasis gives an especial significance to the few moments when the camera does move, even if the rationale for the movement isn't always clear. In this film, the camera moves in just two circumstances. During a hiking trip that many of the workers organize, the camera laterally tracks with them as they walk, traveling in pace with them as they walk. The result is a tension between stasis and motion, as the people remain in frame while the scenery seems to move behind them. This scene, with its bright white sky and open framing, perfectly captures the airy, carefree quality of this nature walk, in contrast to the crowded living spaces and hurried commuting of Tokyo. The object of the moving camera is less clear in a handful of transitional scenes, set in office corridors, in which the camera creeps slowly forward down the hallway, never quite reaching the other end before Ozu cuts away. These short scenes are inevitably used as bridging sequences between a scene set at the office and one set elsewhere, so that Ozu cuts from these interludes directly to a new setting. The camera's creeping forward motion thus subtly suggests the shift of scene, so that even without overtly signifying anything in itself, once it's been used once or twice it comes to have its own meaning in the context of the film's formal language.

These moments of camera movement are the exceptions, though, set off against a style that overwhelmingly favors stasis, a fixed angle of observation within each individual shot. This fixedness allows Ozu to carefully compose each shot, and he especially favors the use of internal framing, further subdividing the frame by filming through doorways and creating layers within the image. In one scene towards the end of the film, after Shoji's wife has left him and he's just had an angry encounter with his mistress as well, he's packing to leave for a new job he's just been transferred to. Ozu had just filmed his conversation with Goldfish mostly in close medium shots, and after she storms out, the next shot is a much longer view, in which Shoji is isolated within the frame. The doorway of the room he's in forms an additional frame, further distancing him, and behind him multiple screens, windows, and doors subdivide the frame into layers of boxes and geometric shapes. The image is further cluttered, the hard lines softened, by the unpacked clothes and the mess all around him. A pair of suits, overlapping each other as they hang in the upper righthand corner of the image, provide an illusion of depth, seeming to recede into the distance. The power of Ozu's static framing becomes clear in shots like this one, in which every inch of the image seems to build up into a cumulative impact that drives home the shot's point without seeming too obvious. The images in this film speak much louder, with much greater clarity, than the usually bland and stoically delivered dialogue.

This formal rigor in Ozu's work is always in service to such expressions of the film's themes and characterizations. In writing about this film, I'm realizing that Ozu is particularly resistant to the process of criticism, because while all films resist to some extent the translation of visual meaning into written language, the effect of an Ozu picture seems especially difficult to describe or analyze. The magic and poetry of this film is inscribed in its simple visual aesthetic, its equally minimalist story, and its characters who subtly express themselves in even the most prosaic of conversations. With its underlying message that family bonds and affection should not be forgotten in the pursuit of economic success ("a company can be a cold thing," says Chishu Ryu as Shoji's older mentor), this film is somewhat more socially engaged than most other late Ozu, in which the domestic unit was usually more self-contained and such messages are usually excised. This isn't quite up to the heights of Ozu's best few films, perhaps because of this overt message, but it is nevertheless a strong mid-level work in a career that seemingly saw few low points and many high ones.

My great temptation in reviewing the classic Marx Brothers farce Duck Soup is simply to construct my review entirely from quotes, so rich and hilarious is the zinger-laden dialogue in this crisply paced comedy. I'll resist the temptation, though, not only because it would be a cheap way out of a review, but because the brothers' fast-paced patter doesn't translate easily into print, with so much of its impact relying on the performers' flawless comic timing and gift for accents and delivery. It would take a similarly talented comic (like, say, Dave Sim, whose Lord Julius bears more than a passing resemblance to Groucho Marx) to get across in mere words the distinctive rhythms of these performers — and let's face it, I'm not a very talented comic. So the best I can do is try to approximate the feel of this film, which catapults along through just over an hour of ludicrous situations, crammed with so many sight gags and so much quick-witted banter that it both breezes by and feels like it has to be so much longer than it actually is.

The film's plot is the barest whiff of an excuse for what is to follow, but the opening few scenes nevertheless set things up with considerable pomp and circumstance. The setting is the imaginary country of Freedonia, and the wealthy widow Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) has agreed to bail the country out of financial trouble only if they appoint her beloved friend Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho, of course) to be the new president. They agree, and Groucho's grand introduction as the new leader is accompanied by the singing of Freedonia's national anthem and a lovingly choreographed musical number, which Groucho ruins by sneaking in through the back, sliding down a fire pole and inconspicuously joining the row of soldiers awaiting his arrival. This opening, which defuses governmental ritual with Groucho's slouching entrance and side-of-the-mouth quips, sets the tone for the film as a whole. With the Marx Brothers running the government, legislation, diplomacy, and war become games of escalating absurdity and illogical wordplay. At one cabinet meeting, an advisor stands up and asks to speak about tariffs, to which Groucho responds that this is new business, and they're still covering the old business — but by the time he moves onto the new business seconds later, he tells the same advisor that unfortunately the tariffs have become old business already, and that it's time for the new business now.

This kind of twisting logic is a Marx Brothers signature, keeping everyone on their toes with constantly changing rules. In this warped world, Groucho can grow angry from an insult that he has himself imagined and acted out, just as he can get offended by a story his brother Zeppo (as the straight man, royal advisor Bob Roland) whispers to him, only to be informed that he was the one who originally told poor Zeppo the story. This unsteady grounding is even more true of Chico and Harpo, who provide perhaps the film's funniest scenes as a pair of inept spies for the opposing country of Sylvania. In a meeting with Sylvania's ambassador, Trentino (Louis Calhern), this ridiculous duo runs circles around their hapless employer, the combination of Chico's thick Italian accent and Harpo's silent miming somehow creating a perfect comic alchemy. Again and again, Chico sets up Trentino's expectations, building up, only to totally disrupt expectations by revealing the total irrelevancy of the information they've gathered about the enemy leader. "Well, you remember you gave us a picture of this man and said, follow him?" Chico asks, and Trentino eagerly affirms it. "Well, we get on-a the job right away, and in-a one hour — even-a less than one hour..." The expectation is built up, and Trentino leans forward, and then: "We lose-a the picture. That's-a pretty quick work, eh?"

This destruction of expectations is the essential form of the Marx Brothers joke, a close relative of their tendency to rely on word games and misunderstandings of meaning. There are rarely any jokes here that don't work, and when they don't it's mainly because they fail to surprise or reverse expectations. An example would be the recurring gag involving a motorcycle and sidecar, which is funny the first time it happens, but its iterations are overly predictable and go exactly as the viewer would expect them to. These moments are rare, though, and in the fast-paced flow of this film, they're over very quickly while the brothers race on to the next setup and payoff. This verbal dexterity is matched in a willingness to engage in physical comedy as well, especially from the mute Harpo with his honking horns and the scissors he uses to snip off anything he can get his hands on. But all the brothers occasionally get in on the physical comedy game from time to time, and the climactic mirror scene in which Groucho faces off against his "reflection" (actually Harpo in disguise) is a hilarious mimed sequence worthy of the best silent comedy, especially once Chico gets in on the act as a third Groucho. It's played completely silent, with not even any music, to allow the emphasis to fall where it naturally should, entirely on the movement and the body language of the two actors.

Director Leo McCarey, later known for much more personal comedies, here completely bows to the Marx Brothers, stepping aside and simply making whatever creative choices will best showcase their work. The result is a utilitarian mise en scéne that sometimes even verges on the sloppy, especially during some of the musical numbers, where the choppy editing seems indifferent to any sense of continuity or resonance between disparate shots. This kind of careless editing and construction crops up periodically in the course of the film, but it's hardly important in the context of this looney quartet's antics. The Marx Brothers rightfully dominate the film, and in comparison to them even the medium of film itself begins to seem inconsequential. That's why, for the most part, McCarey's decision to lay low directorially is a wise one, and the Marx Brothers are able to take center stage as they fire off their best material.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Cassandra's Dream

Critics have long been accusing Woody Allen of repeating himself, of retracing the same ground over and over again in his films — fatalistic, death-obsessed, pessimistic to a fault. With Cassandra's Dream, his latest film, these accusations have never been more true. This film is more than familiar ground for Allen, a virtual retread of Match Point, the dark, coolly moralistic drama that put him back on many people's radars after a decade of notoriously uneven and unsuccessful films. Even then, Match Point wasn't wholly new territory, recycling much of the plot and underlying themes from Crimes and Misdemeanors, with a few new wrinkles thrown in. Cassandra's Dream returns to the formula once again, and by now it's starting to get stale and predictable, though Allen's craft is as assured as ever, and taken on its own merits the film is every bit as exacting and precisely calibrated as its predecessors.

The film centers around two brothers, Ian (Ewan McGregor) and Terry (Colin Farrell), who are in dire financial straits but dream of a much better life, inspired by the example of their rich Uncle Howard (Tom Wilkinson). As with Match Point, this is a film about class envy and the desire for mobility and wealth, with working class men aiming to rise above their class strata. In this respect, at least, the new film is much superior to its predecessor, in that it marks perhaps the first time in his career when the notoriously upper-class Allen has managed to present a convincing portrait of working class struggle. At this point, I'm sure any real Londoners out there can step in and inform me that Allen's depiction of working class British life is far from realistic, and I'm sure they'd be right — Woody has never been about realism, even in his own country, and I doubt he's managed to capture British life any more authentically. Nevertheless, what's real (and universal) are the emotions and the desperation of the two brothers in their desire to make new lives for themselves, to escape the cycle of poverty where everything they want seems just out of reach. In Match Point, the blank-faced Jonathan Rhys Meyers never convincingly portrayed this yearning in his character, and despite the great lengths he ultimately goes to move up in social status, his character never seemed desperate enough or hungry enough for the success he was going after. Farrell and McGregor are definitely hungry, and in this sense Allen's helped tremendously by casting these two earthy, emotive actors as opposed to the chilly Meyers.

The script takes great pains to take advantage of this empathy for the two leads, establishing their brotherly camaraderie right in the first shot, which shows them running down to a boat by the docks together, side by side, looking like two boys engaged in innocent play rather than the grown men they are. The first half of the film traces, virtually without real incident, the brothers' average lives: their gambling and attempts to improve their lots, McGregor's burgeoning relationship with an actress (Hayley Atwell), and their trips on the boat they went into debt to buy. This all changes with the arrival of their rich Uncle Howard, who in an extraordinary scene lets the cracks in his seemingly idyllic existence show through, and he asks his nephews to commit the unthinkable act of murder in order to prevent his carefully ordered life from falling apart. After this explosive and brilliantly handled climax, the rest of the film delves into somewhat predictable territory for Allen, exploring the questions of morality, the existence of God, and the extent to which we impose upon ourselves the punishments for our crimes. After the deed is done, McGregor remains stoic and happy to accept the rewards, while Farrell quickly falls apart. Allen drops references to Bonnie & Clyde and the Greek tragedies, indicating his touchstones this time around, but ultimately there isn't much difference from his approach to this kind of material in Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point, when Russian tragic literature was his central reference point.

This film does differ crucially from its predecessors in the extent to which it is a wholly male-centric film, with little place for the women, an uncharacteristic decision from a director who has always focused much of his creative energy around his female characters. Atwell's character has little enough to do here, as does Sally Hawkins as Farrell's longtime girlfriend. In one sense, this is a relief, as her character had potential to become another version of Scarlett Johansson's simplistic femme fatale from Match Point, where Allen's vision of the woman leading to the man's downfall bordered on misogyny. Here, the story is solely about brotherhood and especially the strength of familial bonds, which Allen depicts with compassion, sympathy, and complexity, but also with a healthy distrust and even a darkly comic bite. The scene where the uncle first outlines his request for a favor to his nephews is a case in point, played with a deadpan irony and subtle humor that often comes out, perversely, in the film's darkest moments. When the brothers initially refuse to kill for him, the uncle throws a wild temper tantrum, storming off and yelling, "I guess your idea of family is very different than mine." As for Allen, his view of family seems to be somewhere between the two poles, infused with equal parts darkness and love.

This dark drama plays out with a cool, distant tone that should be very familiar from the never-sentimental Allen. These characters have their moments of warmth and sympathy along the way, but their inevitable downfalls creep ever closer without a trace of editorializing or commentary. This is undoubtedly a replay of Match Point and other Allen dramas, but it's also a step forward from its predecessors in several key ways, and I suspect that if this hadn't been just the latest in a long line of such films, I would have liked it much more than I did. As it is, it seems obvious that Allen has taken this particular strain of his filmmaking as far as it can go, that he has milked these themes and these types of situations for all he can get out of them, and that he will have to start exploring fresh territory if his films are to remain interesting.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Soft and Hard/Man of the West

Soft and Hard is an essay film by Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville, and it's available online now through YouTube, as pointed out to me by the generosity of Filmbo. As expected, the image quality leaves a great deal to be desired (to put it mildly), but the intelligence and insight of this duo's thinking about cinema, images, and language shines through the murky VHS rip nevertheless. Godard worked on this film while he was preparing to shoot King Lear, and those who are familiar with his 80s work will find much of this film familiar ground in terms of the themes raised and the approach to the material. The first several minutes consist of an entirely black screen, punctuated only by quickly flashed titles that feature permutations on the film's title, and its alternate construction, "A Soft Conversation on Hard Subjects Between Two Friends." After this, Godard and Miéville take turns providing a voiceover, while the images alternate between domestic scenes (Miéville ironing, like Myriem Roussel in the scenario for Hail Mary, and Godard doing his slapstick schtick by playing tennis indoors), the ubiquitous poetic shots of clouds that Godard loved to insert into all his films around this time, and superimpositions of footage from other films, still photos, and other imagery. The overall visual aesthetic seems to be similar to that of Godard's rough "scenario" videos, which he made in preparation for many of his 80s features. These videos often served as exploratory testing grounds, visualized scripts, and marketing aides to help secure funding, but here Godard turns the essayistic structure of those short works to a sustained examination of his and Miéville's varying thoughts on cinema.

After the opening 15-20 minutes or so, the film settles down into a lengthy conversation between the two directors and partners, shot mostly from a static angle behind Godard, looking at Miéville sitting across from him on another couch. Their conversation ranges far and wide, covering the effects of television on how people view images, the necessity of presenting images in ways that go beyond surface appearances, and the role of narrative form in all these issues. Miéville advances an insightful feminist critique of many of Godard's 80s films, especially Détective, for the way that he continues to present romantic relationships in an entirely conventional, traditional manner, while deconstructing and questioning many other aspects of society and cinematic representation. It's a perceptive critique, and quite possibly a valid one, as Godard himself acknowledges — and why does he always have women at the ironing board in these videos anyway?

Elsewhere, the duo's conversation about television delves into perhaps predictable questions of superficiality, commercialism, and the failure to engage with reality in deeper ways. Godard, ever the absolutist, compares his relationship to TV to the French Resistance's reaction to the German occupation, a dubious comparison but certainly an attention-getting one. And probably an earnest one for Godard, too, despite the flamboyant rhetoric. For Godard, the image is man's way of substituting his own subjective perceptions for reality, in the process commenting on it and possibly enhancing it. In this context, the tyranny over the image held by television, which therefore substitutes for reality its own impoverished facsimile of reality, must be intolerable, tantamount to a material tyranny over reality itself. Godard has always spoken, and thought, in such absolute terms, the rigor of his language providing for no middle ground or indecisiveness. In this regard, Miéville may be his opposite half, emphasizing the mutability of absolutes, and even of language itself. In one sequence early on in the film, she tells the story of a son's letter to his father, which read one way offends the father to the point of rage, while the same words read differently move him to pity and sympathy.

This dialogue between friends, as is typical of Godard's essay-films, never resolves anything or settles conclusively on one easily summarized idea. Their interactions bring up a number of points, questions, and dialectics, which are discussed and interrogated and then diverted from as a new topic of interest arises from the conversation. Despite the differences between them, the relationship between Godard and Miéville is clearly a powerful intellectual connection that allows them to fluidly converse, critique one another, and offer support. One of the film's most surprisingly touching scenes is an exchange in which Godard, in response to Miéville's own doubts about her filmmaking, unequivocally encourages her — the notorious contrarian in a cooperative, empathetic mood. This is a fascinating film, even in the badly compromised form which is currently the only way it can be seen, a stimulating dialogue on the ideas involved in expressing oneself through images.

Anthony Mann is well known as an important auteur of the American Western, particularly on the strength of his string of hard-edged oaters starring James Stewart. But after his association with Stewart ended due to disagreements, he still had one more potent Western in him, quite possibly even his best one, Man of the West, with Gary Cooper filling in the role that otherwise would've gone to Stewart. Cooper is, of course, quite a different actor from Stewart, and as a result his Link Jones is a much different hero from other Mann heroes, even if he's thrown into essentially similar situations. In his films with Mann, Stewart often radiated uncertainty and inner turmoil, and his characters were often conflicted to the point of being literally unable to act, their tortured emotions crippling them into stasis. The rock-solid Cooper is obviously not built for this kind of role, and he distinctly underplays the tensions in Link's character. Link is a man raised as a murderer and robber by his vicious uncle, the outlaw Dock Tobin (Lee Cobb), but he rejected this life and ran away, creating a more ordinary life for himself in a small town where he settles down. When he's thrust back in with Dock and the old gang after their botched robbery of a train that Link was on board, he sees the solid, respectable foundation he's built for himself in society threatened. With Stewart playing the part, one could imagine Link as a raw ball of nerves, constantly threatening to explode. Cooper betrays only the slightest trace of a quiver, maybe a bit more aggression and barely controlled anger than normal, but otherwise he remains upright and self-assured.

Obviously, Cooper's casting automatically makes Man of the West a different film from the Mann/Stewart collaborations, but not necessarily a less interesting one. Cooper is an archetypal Western man, and his presence in Mann's distinctive Western vision — which is, after all, dedicated to challenging such conventional notions of American masculinity and toughness — creates an unresolvable tension with the material. Most of Mann's Westerns center around men who are not seeking out violence, who are in fact actively trying to avoid it in any way possible, but who are nevertheless forced to fight in order to defend or gain the domestic security and peace that they desire. Furthermore, his heroes are often almost unbearably sluggish in making this turnaround from inaction to action. Cooper, playing a similarly cornered good man in High Noon, makes his decision to act quickly and then sticks to it — his hard-nosed do-gooder could never be capable of the kind of self-serving, slimy, even cowardly backing down that Stewart poured into his role in The Far Country. In Man of the West, Cooper steps into this more morally ambiguous universe, and his character's stoic, square-jawed certainty rubs uncomfortably against the rougher edges of Mann's vision.

This tension is perhaps most obvious in a pair of mirrored scenes that bring out unexpectedly strong sexual undercurrents in the material. When Link first falls back in with Dock's gang, he has with him two other train passengers, the saloon singer Billie (Julie London) and the shifty, cowardly Beasley (Arthur O'Connell). Of course, the lovely Billie quickly becomes the object of attention for the gang, and one of Dock's men, Coaley (Jack Lord), forces her to strip, holding a knife to Link's throat in order to make her go through with it. It's a taut and nerve-wracking scene, with Mann perfectly contrasting the pressure of the knife against Cooper's throat, slowly drawing blood as it inches through his skin, against the singer's sexual humiliation as she coolly strips down to her petticoats. This scene's activation of sexual tension comes to fruition in its counterpart, in which Link fights against Coaley, in a typically brutal and physically intense Mann wrestling match. Mann's fights always have a real force behind them, so that you can practically feel the impact of the punches or the fingers sinking into skin as Cooper rakes his hands across his opponent's face. The resolution of this battle, though, is unparalleled even in Mann's oeuvre, as Link enacts a sexual humiliation on Coaley to match the one the outlaw forced on Billie. Once Coaley has been defeated, knocked flat and collapsed, Link begins systematically stripping him, starting with his boots and socks, then ripping his shirt off, and finally his pants as well, so that the defeated outlaw is lying in the mud in just his long underwear. It's a genuinely shocking and powerful scene, reversing the earlier one with Coaley's emasculation taking the place of Billie's humiliation.

It's scenes like this, seething with raw power and a bold disregard for genre conventions, that makes Man of the West the pinnacle of Mann's Western achievements. Mann's dark vision of the Old West is both enthralling and stomach-churning. This vision is inscribed in every widescreen frame, his compositions capturing a feeling of loneliness and gloom in these wide-open spaces and ghost towns. The climactic shootout, in particular, is a masterpiece of inventive composition and staging, as Link engages in a showdown with two of the outlaws in the center of an abandoned mining town. Link is on the porch of a building, with the two men approaching him and trying to outflank them, and Mann spreads the three men across the screen almost geometrically, shooting from low angles and placing the three figures at the points of a triangle, as one man sneaks across the roof above Link and the other distracts him from the front. The sense of space and the way it's used to create and maintain the tension in this showdown is nothing short of masterful. Mann's uncompromising approach to his Westerns created one of the most powerful bodies of work in the genre, and this film is the capstone of that great run.