Monday, August 31, 2009

The Conversations #8 (part 1): Quentin Tarantino

Jason Bellamy and I have completed the latest installment of our Conversations series at The House Next Door. In honor of the release of Inglourious Basterds, the film that seemingly everyone is talking about these days, we've put together a discussion of the career of Quentin Tarantino thus far, followed by an in-depth exchange about Basterds itself. Part 1 of the conversation, about Tarantino's career from Reservoir Dogs to Death Proof, is now posted at the House. The discussion of Inglourious Basterds will be posted on Wednesday. For now, click below to read Part 1.

Continue reading at The House Next Door

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Rock Hudson's Home Movies

In Rock Hudson's Home Movies, filmmaker Mark Rappaport conducts a revisionist analysis of the famed Hollywood actor's cinematic career, with Hudson's films revisited with the hindsight knowledge that he was gay and would eventually die of AIDS. It's an essay-film that consists almost entirely of clips from Hudson's films, crudely recorded with videos, often from TV, giving them a raw, overexposed, desaturated appearance. This strips aesthetics out of the equation, shifting the focus entirely onto the dialogue, the situations, and the unspoken subtext underlying Hudson's screen persona. The film is, by turns, fascinating, provocative, amusing, and very often deeply silly and misguided, as Rappaport's quest to read gay subtext into seemingly everything Hudson did onscreen yields both clever insights and obvious stretching.

The film is on its strongest ground in the examination of the Doris Day/Rock Hudson comedies of the late 50s and 60s, films like Pillow Talk and Lover Come Back, where the plot would often center around Hudson assuming dual identities, one a sexually voracious macho man and the other a prancing wimp. Obviously, Rappaport finds these films rich in subtext about questions of gay identity, and it's not hard to see why. By deftly editing together scenes and chopping up the dialogue, he even manages to suggest that the "gay" onscreen Hudson found himself admiring the more "macho" Hudson. These films, under Rappaport's dissection, seem to toy with Hudson's sexuality, creating densely layered meta-situations where, as Rappaport's onscreen narrator Eric Farr points out, a gay man passing for straight is asked to play a straight man who pretends to be gay. It creates a twisted, hall of mirrors situation that the film compares to the funhouse conclusion of Welles' The Lady From Shanghai, with Hudson essentially having an onscreen affair with himself — or at least finding himself in situations where Doris Day suspects him of it.

Though Rappaport makes some interesting points along these lines, the film is continually mired down in the filmmaker's insistence on finding gay subtext everywhere he looks. At times, it's blatantly obvious that he's taking lines out of context even when one doesn't know the original films he's referencing. Two cowboys staring each other down for a shootout becomes gay cruising for Rappaport. Hudson's interrogation of his nervous son-in-law in Giant: likewise. Even the pronouncement that "Hamburg is the gayest city in Germany" gets edited into the film as though it's more evidence of Rappaport's thesis, even though he later somewhat sheepishly has to admit that the more innocent usage of the word was still the dominant one at the time of these films. Nothing escapes Rappaport's revisionism. When, in what is obviously a clip from early in Hudson's career, a man in a skeleton mask and black cloak bursts into the room as Hudson kisses a girl, Rappaport takes it as foreshadowing of the actor's eventual death from a sexually transmitted disease. It would be laughable if moments like this weren't in such outrageously poor taste, and of such dubious value as a form of film analysis. It's bad enough when Rappaport tries to read psychology into the characters Hudson played onscreen, characters who Hudson himself had no real hand in creating. Much worse are the moments when the film treats Hudson's cinematic legacy as a prediction of his eventual death, as though that revealed anything beyond Rappaport's own morbid fascinations.

In fact, much of what Rappaport reads in terms of gay subtext could be much more persuasively explained as more general expressions of sexual morality in the movies. One of the film's most tightly edited montages is a selection of Hudson's onscreen kisses with his leading ladies, and Rappaport points out that nearly every one is interrupted in some way, cut off by one partner or the other or else disrupted by some intrusion. For Rappaport, this is confirmation of Hudson's homosexuality written into his films — how, who knows, since as the narrator acknowledges, Hudson had nothing to do with any of the actual content of his movies. These kisses suggest a discomfort with heterosexuality, a perfunctory stab at playing an expected role by a man who must hide his true self. At least for Rappaport they do.

But such tropes are to be found everywhere in the cinema, particularly in the classic Hollywood era, and they're hardly restricted to gay actors. What Rappaport goofily calls "kisses interruptus" have always been a common device for both comedies and dramas — in the former, the break-off of the passionate moment is played for humor, while indecision about romance, characterized by moments of giving into passion and moments of regret, has always been a central theme in melodramatic works. One can easily imagine a montage of similar incomplete kisses with completely straight actors: it's such a common narrative element that reading it as having anything to say about Hudson's homosexuality is ludicrous. Rappaport is so intent on seeing gay meaning in everything that he often seems blind to alternative possibilities, to other readings, simply forcing everything to fit into his reductive schema. Many of the continuities he detects could be explored in terms of genre, or along auteurist lines, or as storytelling clichés, but Rappaport isn't interested in broader criticism, only in proving his pet theories.

In analyzing Howard Hawks' Man's Favorite Sport?, Rappaport emphasizes how Hudson's character is continually humiliated for not being a manly man, for not knowing "how to fish," which is an obvious euphemism for being sexually inexperienced — and, Rappaport believes, also a euphemism for Hudson's sexuality. In some ways, he's got a point, as there's a thin line between making a film about a man who's sexually inexperienced and one about a man who's simply sexually inexperienced with women. But Rappaport goes further, suggesting that Hawks (no stranger to homoerotic subtexts) and his screenwriters, like many others in Hollywood, had it in for Hudson, that they were purposefully mocking his sexuality in this film and others like it. This thesis quickly gets tied up in knots trying to justify itself when dealing with the question of Hawks' comparable films with Cary Grant, many of them comedies of humiliation like I Was a Male War Bride and Bringing Up Baby. The latter is cited for Grant's famous "I just went gay" exclamation, while the former becomes a prime example of how Grant, when cast in these films, somehow avoided being too humiliated or debased, while Hudson (who was literally replacing Grant in Man's Favorite Sport?, a film originally intended for the older man) looks like "a sissy."

Rappaport asserts, somewhat lamely, that Grant, despite persistent rumors about his own sexuality, came off better because he was married multiple times, while Hudson only married once. It's a weak justification, and in fact Hudson's character comes off no more ineffectual in his Hawks appearance than Grant did in most of his comedies with the director — except in the sense that Grant was a far better comedic actor. Rappaport seems blind to (or indifferent to) the continuities between these films and others not starring Hudson. Instead, looking at Hudson's oeuvre in isolation, he treats it as though the actor had any control over the lines he said and things he did, as though there were not more important considerations affecting these films than the sexuality of the actors, and as though the threads he identifies here as gay subtexts were not running through all sorts of unrelated movies regardless of the sexuality of individual stars.

The film is further dragged down by the amateurish, stilted performance of Eric Farr, supposedly playing Hudson speaking from beyond the grave, narrating his own life story through the movies he starred in. Farr's awkward line readings only distract from any point Rappaport's trying to make, as does the whole conceit of a younger version of Hudson supposedly speaking in the first person about his sexuality like this. Farr seems to be there primarily because he's handsome, not that he actually looks anything like Hudson or has any actual acting talent. In any event, Farr, though distracting, winds up being the least of the film's problems. Rappaport ultimately buries his most interesting points about gay identity and gay cinematic representation beneath a smug insistence on seeing every onscreen male friendship as a latent gay relationship. The film often adopts an insufferable wink-wink tone not far from adolescent toilet humor, delighting in the discovery of "naughty" interpretations for everything from two soldiers discussing traumatic wartime experiences to a deadbeat father reuniting with his son. Worse, there's a kind of barely restrained contempt for women flowing through this film's own subtext. Rappaport's text frequently treats the women in Hudson's movies as empty-headed predators, and cruelly gives Cyd Charisse the introduction that "she had seen better days," calling her "Ms. Dracula on a talent search" when she snares Hudson for a passionate kiss. It's this kind of catty commentary, along with the film's obliviousness to anything beyond its narrow interpretative rubric, that prevents Rock Hudson's Home Movies from being the truly incisive Godardian essay it aspires to be.

Friday, August 28, 2009

[ma] Trilogy

[This is part of a series of posts in which I explore the work of the Austrian DVD label Index DVD. This company has released a great deal of valuable European experimental cinema onto DVD, naturally focusing on the Austrian underground but occasionally branching out as well. Index's DVDs are distributed in the US by Erstwhile Records, so anyone intrigued by Index's catalog should take a look and support the fine work both these companies are doing for obscure and avant-garde cinema.]

Manfred Neuwirth's [ma] Trilogy consists of three formalist travelogues, each one made with the same deliberate, stripped-down aesthetic, each one a strangely haunting attempt to make the everyday seem fresh and new. The three films are Tibetan Recollections (shot in Tibet between 1988 and 1995), Manga Train (made in Japan) and Magic Hour (in which Neuwirth returns to his native Austria for his footage). Each film utilizes the same very basic style: a series of straightforward single shots, all of the same length, separated from one another by a fade and a few seconds of black leader. The shots are mostly static, and often shot from an oblique, intimate angle that can make familiar objects seem unusual: Neuwirth's compositions often require a moment or two of mental adjustment even to determine what one is looking at, as in a shot where he points his camera at a section of railing during an escalator ride. He's encouraging the contemplation of familiar sights from new angles, delving into the textures of the world; his camera is frequently close enough to capture nuances of texture that go unseen from an ordinary vantage point.

When his camera moves, it's often because he's filming from a train or other moving vehicle; less frequently, he pans slowly across a surface to probe its intricacies. He often films through glass or other reflective surfaces, capturing the eerie layering that occurs when reflections overlay more solid structures. In one of the most hauntingly beautiful shots of Manga Train, Neuwirth shoots from inside a bus, watching as the people passing by outside the window become spectral and intangible, seeming to fade into translucent specters through the distorting lens of the bus window. At one point in Tibetan Recollections, the camera is pointing into the sun from the front of a jeep running along a bumpy road. As the jeep bounces slowly along the road, the angle of the vehicle changes, causing the sun's rays to fluctuate from a tiny halo off in the upper left corner to a blinding explosion, spreading its rays like tentacles across the frame. Throughout all three films, the image is also slowed down slightly, giving the motion within the frame a staggered, jerky quality to it, the distinctive look of video manipulation.

Neuwirth pairs these images with a dense, layered soundtrack, which fades in and out along with each image; the sound is perfectly chosen for each image, though it is never purely diegetic in its relationship to the image. Rather, Neuwirth subtly tweaks the expectations of realism by selecting naturalistic field recordings from each place he shoots. But the sound can never be synced with the slowed-down video images, and in any event it's apparent that Neuwirth's recording and editing methods further subvert the sound/image relationship. For one thing, his sounds have a clarity and near-artificial crispness that suggests very close-mic'ed sound sources. At one point in Magic Hour, a man pours a glass of beer in slow motion, and the moment when the liquid begins to ooze into the glass is accompanied by a crackling, fizzing cacophony, not so much a naturalistic representation of beer being poured as a cartoony symbol of it.

Other sounds are more natural but no less manipulated for it, as Neuwirth arranges each shot's soundtrack into a layered sound art construction. He carefully mixes together dull mechanical rumbling, the indistinct blur of voices in public spaces, distorted snatches of pop music blaring from primitive speakers, the sounds of children playing, crickets chirping, the crunching of footsteps in gravel, sighing, coughing, gurgling noises, rhythmic tapping and bursts of experimental jazz or electronic music. All these sounds come together to create soundtracks where the noises of ordinary life are recontextualized as a kind of music, much as in the field recording work of sound artists like Jeph Jerman and Toshiya Tsunoda. Neuwirth's soundtracks suggest a surface realism that's fractured by his most obvious manipulations, and also by the disjunctions between his crystalline sounds and the often gauzy, grainy quality of his images.

In many ways, all three films of the [ma] Trilogy are best considered as one complete work, so unified are they in approach and form, but there are nevertheless significant differences between the films. Tibetan Recollections was the first of these films, and it is the most obviously distinct from the other works of the trilogy. Its opening image is also deliberately separate from the rest of the film, introduced as a prologue before even the title. This image is a distorted video of Chinese soldiers arresting a Tibetan monk, the image cast in a blurry grayish haze, its video game-like quality reminiscent of Jean-Luc Godard's own experiments in video manipulation, as well as "the Zone" of Chris Marker's Sans soleil. The content of the image also recalls another Godard film, his brief Je vous salue, Sarajevo, an analysis of a photo of military brutality from the Balkan conflicts. Neuwirth holds the shot, watching as the men push the monk towards a waiting van, until one of the Chinese soldiers turns around, revealing an awkward grin as he casts a sidelong glance at the camera. This moment immediately announces Tibetan Recollections as a political work, and one cannot help but interpret the remainder of the film through the lens of this single introductory image.

Indeed, the rest of Tibetan Recollections rarely returns to such political territory, and never explicitly: there's an image of a female soldier in a movie on TV, and several shots of Tibetan monks, but nothing that suggests a return to the violence and oppression glimpsed so briefly in the opening. Instead, Neuwirth seems to be suggesting that the political can be located in the everyday, in the ordinary façades of buildings and the sounds of marketplaces and the popping of fireworks in a pitch-black night. Tibetan Recollections becomes an attempt to capture the fabric of ordinary life under oppression, the placid normal existence that can be shattered at any moment by violence. Neuwirth's film is then the calm before the storm; his prologue could just as easily be an epilogue, showing what happens next.

If Tibetan Recollections, as the first film of the trilogy, is the roughest and the most prosaic, Manga Train displays a more playful sensibility, as befitting a film which documents not oppression but the vibrancy and eclecticism of a society seemingly dominated by pop culture. The film's second shot, after a stoic observation of salarymen reading on a train, is an image of a trio of youths earnestly dancing to 50s rock n' roll in a public park. The two guys — one a Japanese James Dean in a bright red jacket and sunglasses, the other stocky and tattooed — both have puffed-up pompadours. They sway and shake their hips to the music, doing turns in perfect synchronization, and when the image fades to black one gets the distinct impression that the dancers would continue for hours afterward. This installment of the trilogy is packed with imagery like this, layered anachronisms and oddball pop cultural pastiches. In one scene, Neuwirth's camera observes a strange semi-public video display that shows abstract, rapidly morphing shapes on a giant screen. Under an overhang, people sit in an auditorium to watch, while outside two schoolgirls hover around smaller monitors, presumably watching the same thing. Neuwirth's camera watches them all, a meta-commentary on video and the gaze.

There's also a spirit of irreverent play in many of the images Neuwirth captures here. At one point, while filming from a static viewpoint to the side of a moving walkway, a group of passing girls notice the camera and begin mugging for it as they glide by, making funny faces and flashing peace signs as they stare into the camera, as though curious about its purpose. This playfulness and openness is perhaps part of what Neuwirth is after in probing into ordinary life, though he seems just as interested in the intimate examination of a vending machine or the dancing video noise created by slowing down an image of a bubbling tank of water.

This patient, poetic sensibility is most fully developed in Magic Hour, the final film of the trilogy and its grandest statement. Here, back in his homeland, Neuwirth's images fully take on a romantic, mysterious quality, finding unexpected beauty everywhere he looks. The film opens with a beautiful shot through the condensation on a train window, turning the passing landscape into an amorphous green blur punctuated by occasional interjections of other bright colors. Neuwirth returns again and again to images of water, like a closeup of a section of wooden railing where rainwater is pooling, while the falling rain, slowed down, becomes a haze of tiny chalk marks accompanied by a gentle gurgling. There's something sensuous in these images, something tactile, even where there's nothing to see: images of black, deep night, sporadically split apart by flashes of lightning, have a grainy depth and intensity that's never purely black, always full of roiling dark blues and purples, tangling together within the darkness.

Even in the daytime, in the most prosaic settings, Neuwirth is able to discover something strangely beautiful. In one scene, he watches a soccer match through a metal fence, subtly racking the focus so that the diamond-shaped grate of the fence shifts out of focus, layering a green haze over the distant players, so that watching the game is suddenly like watching faraway ghosts flitting across a field for some unfathomable purpose. In another shot, the camera frames a table sitting out in the open air, facing a mountain, with a line of empty glasses scattered across it. On the soundtrack, voices chatter and laugh as if at an invisible party, as though the image was showing a party's aftermath while the soundtrack lagged behind, now-departed voices suggesting the frenzied activity that had preceded this tranquil image. In another shot, Neuwirth films a field through such a dense cloud of insects and pollen that the screen becomes a pointillist blur of white dots, all but obscuring the view of the field itself. This shot is accompanied by a low electric hum, matching nature's own visualization of white noise.

These images are haunting and awe-inspiring, as are more prosaic moments like the joyous look on a little girl's face after she's handed an ice cream pop, or the sizzle of between-stations static and snippets of song as a man's fingers tune a radio dial. Taken as a whole, Neuwirth's [ma] Trilogy is a sensuous, unforgettable vision of life from up close, life in the forgotten corners, in quiet moments and frenzied ones, contemplative and active, natural and mechanical.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Red Line 7000

No one but Howard Hawks could have made Red Line 7000. It is a truly Hawksian picture through and through, bearing the distinctive imprint of his work in every frame. Not that this means it's any good, because for the most part it really isn't. In fact, it's an almost defiantly bad movie, as though Hawks was trying to figure out just how awkward and lackadaisical most of the film's elements could be while still making a picture that, overall, always feels like a Hawks picture. His signature themes are all there: the antagonistic relationships between men and women, the camaraderie of men in dangerous occupations, the anxieties of the women who love them. But it's all so naked here, so unvarnished; it's the essence of Hawks without the pleasures afforded by his crackling dialogue, his ability to mold performances, his feel for characterization. The characters are stripped-down to nothing, the script is flat and resolutely undramatic, and the dialogue is mostly utilitarian and mostly given to the women; the men all but grunt and slur out monosyllables.

For the story, Hawks returned to very early in his career, to the fascination with stock car racing that generated his early James Cagney talkie The Crowd Roars. Like the earlier film, Red Line 7000 is set at a race track, in a tightly knit milieu of drivers, mechanics, and the girls who hang around waiting for their men to either crash and burn or win the glory. But while the earlier film focused on the races and relationships of just two men, more or less, Red Line disperses the action between a loose group of men, none of them very clearly defined or developed. There's the wiry, angry Mike (James Caan), who's got a chip on his shoulder and insists that he won't take anything "secondhand," including his women — which unfortunately counts out the woman who most catches his eye, the French Gabrielle (Marianna Hill), who showed up with Dan (Skip Ward) but was soon available. There's Ned (John Robert Crawford), a beefy farm boy eager to prove himself, to become a big shot both on the track and off. There's Pat (Norman Alden), the knowing older man who presides over the younger racers and tries to dispense his wisdom to them. There are also the women who love them. Holly (Gail Hire) showed up looking for a racer who'd died the day before, and is convinced she's cursed until one of the men convinces her otherwise. Pat's sister Julie (Laura Devon) pines pathetically for her man even though he abandons her. And the wise bar owner Lindy (Charlene Holt), after losing two husbands to car crashes, has decided to marry a banker instead.

Among this entire cast, there's very little screen presence or real acting talent. Caan, of course, is promising in an early role, projecting a side-of-the-mouth tough guy defiance that really becomes something special in the late scene where he's required to be contrite and abased while still holding up this tough guy façade. Hill is also fun to watch, in much the same way as the rather awkward, rough multinational cast of Hawks' earlier Hatari!, in which Hill would've fit nicely with her vivacious manner. Her character seems modeled roughly on Elsa Martinelli's in the earlier film, as a lively exotic foreigner. The rest of the cast, composed almost entirely of inexperienced newcomers, amateurs and TV actors, ranges from merely boring to jaw-droppingly awful. In the latter category is surely Crawford (who indeed never acted again), one of several anonymous, hulking Aryan blonde types glaring his way through the film from beneath a heavy caveman brow. But there's a special kind of terrible in Hire's performance, which seems to have been modeled off of Hawks' famed coaching of Lauren Bacall for her first roles. Hawks even gives Hire a song to sing, or more accurately lip-sync along with, but there's no comparison with Bacall's memorable ballad from To Have and Have Not, despite Hawks' blatant attempts to make the connection through his mise en scène. (Though this bizarre number does have its own campy charms, possessing a peculiar breed of outrageous awfulness.) Likewise, Hire's attempt at Bacall's distinctive, sexy low voice is simply embarrassing and awkward, and any scene with her is unintentionally hilarious just because of how stilted and awful her performance is. How could Hawks, always justly acclaimed for the quality of the performances he could coax out of nearly anyone, have thought this was acceptable?

Of course, even if the cast here had been up to the standards of Hawks' previous work, the film would still have more than its share of problems. Foremost among these is the shockingly indifferent quality of the script, which despite being based off of a Hawks story, shows little of his characteristic flare. As in most of his late work, there's also pretty much no story: a series of races, a few small dramas, some romance, hints of rivalry. But whereas films like Rio Bravo and Hatari! compensated for their formlessness with verve and wit and complex characters, there's nothing here to distract from the numbing blankness of the script. Here, the characters aren't even remotely likable, let alone fun to spend time with. And when the audience has to be rooting for not just one, but two of the central romances to fail because the men are such obnoxious, unrepentant jerks, there's clearly something wrong — especially since Hawks, in a sappy denouement that has the women all but throw themselves at these assholes, shows no awareness of just how insipid these characters are.

All of this means that the film's primary pleasure is, as in The Crowd Roars (which had suffered from similar problems over 30 years earlier; so much for maturity), the viscerally exciting racing footage. As always, Hawks has a feel for danger, and the races are vibrant and tense, with inserts of the red speed needle inching its way up into the danger zone as the men jockey for position. In a weird way, the undistinguished nature of the cast actually amps up the suspense. If there was a strong central driver or two who dominated the action, there'd be little real suspense about Hawks killing his stars off early in the film. But in this case, no one stands out so everybody's equal, and everybody's in danger; the races feel especially vital because nobody ever seems really safe. This is perhaps the philosophy behind Hawks' occasional preference for non-star group casts, and in his more successful films in this vein — like Air Force or The Thing From Another World — the films project a democratic spirit of cooperation and equality, a sense that everyone's important, both to the film and to the job being done within the film. There are hints of that spirit in Red Line 7000 as well, in the moments of emphasis given to the pit crews, which contribute anonymously to the success of the drivers.

The film is also interesting for its treatment of the women, who are at least arguably less boring than their male counterparts. Hawks, as always, was interested in how women could be incorporated into a distinctively male world, and in this respect the introduction of Julie marks her out as a potential successor to the line of strong Hawksian women. She rides up on a motorcycle and immediately begins bantering and arguing with Ned, who says he thought she was a boy at first. Later, it becomes apparent that she tries to fit in with the guys because of her brother, who's always treated her like a pal. "Cut it out," he says, "you're acting like a female," and her retort is one of the film's few real flashes of Hawksian wit: "well, what do you think I am, your brother?" Unfortunately, despite Julie's spunky demeanor in her first appearance, she quickly descends into a mire of weepy melodramatics, and has an utterly silly love scene with Ned where she keeps pathetically asking him if she's sexy while lounging on top of him in her underwear.

All in all, Red Line 7000 has to be considered Hawks' worst film, and it's a failure in a distinctly Hawksian mold; it's a bad film that could only be Hawks' bad film. That's something, I guess, and there are sparks of the director's characteristic talents here and there. The final scene, in particular, is quite good, summing up the typical Hawksian virtues of endurance and commitment under pressure. The three central women (Julie, Gabrielle and Holly) are sitting in the stands at a race, watching the action, standing up in unison whenever there's a close call, their eyes darting back and forth around the track. Slowly, over the course of the race, Hawks keeps returning to the three girls, framed in a head-on shot together, more and more frequently, cutting away from the actual race more and more. Finally, he settles on them as they roll their eyes, smile and make jokes to each other about the repetitive nature of their lives, waiting for men who they're afraid might die at any time. It's a perfect shot, a direct statement of the conflicted ideas about masculine pursuits that have woven throughout Hawks' entire oeuvre. Then Hawks abruptly cuts away from the women to a fiery crash, and the film simply ends there, as though suggesting that there really is no end, that the cycle will continue to repeat itself in endless variations long after the camera has stopped rolling on these characters.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

L'enfance nue

Maurice Pialat's debut feature was L'enfance nue, a quiet, unassuming film about childhood confusion and isolation, following the lead of his predecessors in the French film tradition, Zero For Conduct and The 400 Blows. Like those Jean Vigo and François Truffaut films, Pialat's first film concerns itself with a troubled youth, a delinquent drifting aimlessly through an unstable childhood where everything seems transitory and he has nothing to hold onto. François (Michel Terrazon) has been abandoned by his birth parents, who have thrust him into the foster care system without fully relinquishing their parental rights. The result is that everything is always "temporary" for François, he can never settle down into a permanent home with a permanent family or living situation. He's perpetually wary, always aware that things could change at any moment, that he could easily be shuffled around to another home, another family, or else to an institution of some kind. In the film's first half hour, he's living with a family who are taking care of him, but who are reaching the end of their patience with his bad behavior. They profess to love him and treat him as well as their adopted daughter Josette (Pierette Deplangue), but this is a hollow assurance coming soon after the revelation of the disparities in the two children's bedrooms. Josette has a lovely, beautifully decorated room of her own — "everything she dreams, she can see when she's awake," her mother poetically coos — while François' bed is shoved awkwardly into a corner of a landing in the hallway, the only spare space for him in the cramped little home.

It's obvious that François feels destabilized by his situation, by the impermanence of his life, by how apparent it is that no one intends to keep him forever. Indeed, once this family grows tired of dealing with his rambunctious behavior, his tendency to steal and be difficult, they simply decide to send him away. This is a child's nightmare, the fear of being discarded like this, but for François it is a prosaic reality, a fact of his transitory, migratory existence. He has a surprisingly tender goodbye with this temporary family — kissing his sort-of sister on the cheek, giving his sort-of mother a present — and then he seems to forget about them entirely when he's sent to live with another family. This elderly couple (Marie-Louise Thierry and René Thierry) treats the boy with more kindness and patience than he is used to, and he seems to feel real affection for them, and for the old woman's even older mother (Marie Marc), who François calls Granny. This family still can't stabilize François, not really, and he continues his troubled ways, hanging out with rough kids who smoke, steal, fight, and in one scene, watch in awe as an older boy carves his initials into his own arm. But François is moved at least a little by their care: in a pivotal scene, he pulls out Granny's wallet while the old woman is sleeping, leafing through the life savings contained within, but surprisingly does not steal the money, instead simply placing it back. It's perhaps the most genuine act of goodness that François can do.

Pialat's rough, observational style treats François' life with near-documentary directness, a verité intimacy with the rhythms of daily life. The camera drifts along with François, following his aimless wandering and his acts of vandalism or pointless cruelty. Though the camera frequently pushes right up against the young boy, intruding into his already cramped space, Pialat maintains an emotional distance from his central character, never attempting to explain him. François likely couldn't explain anything about himself; he doesn't even seem to know why he does anything. At one point, after picking up a repaired shoe, he's kicking it through the streets and abruptly kicks it down a sewer grating. He seems to instantly regret it, staring blankly at the spot where the shoe disappeared, as though wondering what he'd accomplished. Pialat has a real feel for the aimlessness of this boy's life, the pointlessness of what he does and how he spends his time, the long periods of boredom and frustration.

But the film is not without its joys as well, minor as they might be. Pialat's depiction of childhood — even a childhood as rough as this one — is equally sensitive to the frustrations and the pleasures of being a young boy. François' rootlessness is the source of his sadness and disconnectedness, but in other ways he is remarkably free, able to do almost anything he wants. Pialat captures moments of joy and pleasure amidst the boy's lonely life, some of them spent with friends, like the scene where he and a couple of other would-be toughs stand around smoking, and François goofily puts the cigarette the wrong way into his mouth, laughing and looking at the camera afterward. Many of the film's other moments of pleasure, though, come from tentative, unexpected connections with his foster family. This family cares for him in a way that François is not used to, and a scene where the old man shows the boy photos of people he knew in the French Resistance is touching and sweet, especially when François kisses the old man on the cheek. He also seems to feel a real affection for Granny, with whom he shares the newspaper comic section, exchanging jokes and stories.

Even with his new older brother Raoul (Henri Puff), François has moments of brotherly camaraderie, as when they playfully wrestle together one night. But such moments are fleeting and often tinged with danger; later that night, François, again in a spirit of play, throws a knife at Raoul, so that it embeds itself in the wall right beside his head. François is ill-equipped to handle normal family life for any sustained amount of time. Without becoming a pat psychological study or sociological treatise, L'enfance nue deals seriously and subtly with the problems caused by a lack of strong familial attachments and stability. Pialat's debut is a gentle, ambling little movie, with a real eye for detail and the way actions inform character. The sensibility developed here, loose and improvisational and realistic, would be further refined in Pialat's subsequent work, but already L'enfance nue reveals a filmmaker of prodigious talent making his entrance.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Family Plot

Alfred Hitchcock's final film is the light, enjoyably fluffy Family Plot, which balances Hitchcock's flare for suspense against the kind of airy, slightly goofy comedy that propelled his autumnal masterpiece The Trouble With Harry. If this final film isn't quite worthy of being compared to the master of suspense's best thrillers, nor to his best comedic work, it's certainly a reminder that few directors could handle mood and tone as agilely as Hitchcock, who could control his audiences' every reaction. Throughout Family Plot, Hitch cuts deliberately between two different stories, one a gritty thriller about a pair of expert kidnappers, the other an airy Hardy Boys-esque mystery about a ditsy psychic and her oafish boyfriend, investigating a mystery for a rich patron. It's painfully obvious, almost right from the beginning, just how these two stories are going to collide, how they'll eventually link up, so the film's delight lies in Hitchcock's utter mastery of tone, how deftly he transitions from comic bumbling to sinister plotting.

The film opens with the psychic Blanche (Barbara Harris) agreeing to take on a case for the aging socialite Julia Rainbird (Cathleen Nesbitt): it seems that Julia's long-deceased sister had once given away an illegitimate son for adoption, and a remorseful Julia wants to locate the poor child, who is now her sole heir. To help her find this mysterious man, Blanche enlists the help of her taxi driver boyfriend George (Bruce Dern), a bumbling goofball who's actually much shrewder than he looks. He walks with a loping, slightly drunken gait, always on the verge of bopping his head on a hanging tree limb or stumbling over his own feet, and yet always just barely retaining his balance; in the same way, he has flashes of insight, sugary guile and investigative prowess that suggest his bumpkin demeanor is just a façade. His comic investigation into Julia's lost nephew is just one of the threads running through the film, though. During the opening scenes, after Blanche has learned about the missing heir and the promise of a hefty reward if she finds him, Hitchcock deftly switches the focus away from Blanche and George when the latter's taxi nearly hits an elegant blonde woman crossing the street. This turns out to be Fran (Karen Black), a kidnapper nicknamed the Trader for her habit of kidnapping important men and then trading them back in exchange for massive diamonds.

As the car with Blanche and George drives away from this chance encounter, Hitchcock's camera lingers behind, taking up a floating position, following Fran (much as he'd followed the titular heroine in the opening scenes of Marnie) as she walks into a police station and silently passes notes with her instructions. In her all-black outfit and floppy hat, with her platinum blonde hair the only hint of color in her appearance, she is a striking, unforgettable figure, and from the moment Hitchcock begins following her the audience is intrigued. He observes the mechanics of the hostage exchange with precision and grace, as Fran smoothly accomplishes the trade-off and is reunited with her partner and lover, Arthur (William Devane). Within the first half an hour of the film, Hitchcock has introduced two stories, each equally complex, populated with fascinating characters, stories with entirely different tones that nevertheless seem fated to collide eventually; the only question is whether the comic lightness or grim criminality will win out in the end.

Beyond the mechanics of the plot and the compelling characters, however, Hitchcock seems primarily interested in having fun with his elaborate set pieces. Some of these are rather perfunctory, like a playful and brief recreation of the famous crop duster strafing sequence from North By Northwest, here staged with Blanche and George running from a killer car and capped with a tragicomic, anticlimactic resolution. But throughout much of the rest of the film Hitchcock's visual verve and wit are continually on display. The latter is especially apparent in a scene where George attempts to corner a grieving widow for some information at her husband's funeral, a scene that Hitchcock, of course, plays for morbid comedy. His camera takes an aloof high angle that turns the cemetery's grid into a maze of paths and graves, and he watches as the widow and George try to outflank each other in this maze, evasively dodging along the trails while maintaining a polite walking pace. Hitch also inventively stages Fran and Arthur's kidnapping of a bishop, with Arthur comically disguised as an altar boy, looking hilarious in the flowing robes with his Neanderthal's angry face and bushy facial hair.

The film moves at a brisk pace, and Hitchcock's visual imagination is continually filling the frame with off-kilter, compelling images, cramming in little details like the ornate, cluttered decor in Mrs. Rainbird's palatial home, or the naughty humor of a priest's furtive meeting with a pretty brunette in a bright red dress, or the kidnappers' ingenious hiding place for their stolen gems, a touch that would've been at home in any classic Hitchcock thriller. Even so, despite the film's overall charm and verve, it's far from perfect, and displays some of the same problems with performances that plagued Hitchcock through virtually all of his late films, excepting the British-made Frenzy. The performances here are inconsistent and often stiff, as though the actors weren't sure what was wanted of them. The normally controlling Hitchcock uncharacteristically allowed the actors to improvise much of the dialogue here, and one can detect this in the hesitant quality of the acting, the occasionally bland dialogue and lazy rhythms of the conversations. It doesn't really work, and it especially afflicts George and Blanche, who get some of the film's best pattering, naughty (and lovably corny) sexual innuendos, but also frequently stumble through passages of aimless meandering.

Despite these lulls, Harris' performance as a whole is cute and endearing, with an appealingly fuzzy quality, as though she's always half-asleep. During Blanche's psychic sessions, she exaggeratedly mugs and does silly voices, gesturing wildly and only occasionally taking a sly sideways peek at how her client is reacting. During one session, she catches a glimpse of George gesturing to her from the next room, and has to go into a bit of psychic wandering, speaking to an invisible spirit as she slowly makes her way over to him, then frantically searches for her car keys while periodically yelling back to the next room as if still in a spirit trance. She's such a fun, likable character that it's especially disappointing when Hitchcock subjects her to some of his nastier impulses towards women, treating her like a useless nuisance. In one of the film's most uncomfortable sequences, the brakes go out on George and Blanche's car as they're speeding around the curves on a treacherous mountain road. While George desperately tries to keep the car on the road and think of a way to stop it, Blanche simply thrashes around, hanging off him, throwing herself across his lap, berating him the whole time for his horrible driving. It's staged like slapstick, as though it's supposed to be funny, but instead it comes across as a nasty portrayal of a stupid woman who can't realize what's going on and becomes hysterical under pressure.

Moments like this sabotage the film's easygoing charm, but Hitchcock makes up for it with a taut, perfectly executed final act, with a chilling suspense sequence in which Blanche's oblivious good cheer finally comes face to face with the deadly Arthur. And it all ends with a wink to the camera that indicates Hitchcock's disarmingly casual approach to his final film. Family Plot may not rank among his finest work by any means, but it's a minor pleasure in which the suspense master is clearly having fun, and passing on that fun to his audience.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Triple Agent

Eric Rohmer's Triple Agent is an elusive, enigmatic spy thriller, one in which all the actual spy action takes place offscreen, unseen but much talked about afterward. Rohmer, hardly known as a director of spy pictures, structures the film much like one of his much more characteristic observational relationship dramas, except that in this case the characters' relaxed, naturalistic conversations dance around the edges of political intrigues in 1937 France, just on the verge of World War II. The film centers on a single couple: the White Russian exile Fiodor (Serge Renko) and his Greek wife Arsinoé (Katerina Didaskalou). Fiodor is a political attaché with a right-leaning group ostensibly dedicated to providing aid to exiled veterans of the White Russian Army, who had fought against the Bolsheviks. In fact, he cavorts around Europe on shadowy tasks, courting contacts with the Nazis, the Soviets, various national Communist parties, and other groups of varying political allegiances. His purpose is mysterious, even to his wife, who catches only momentary glimpses of his activities. He is reticent with her, but in conversation with others he is constantly making references to his mysterious activities, sometimes seeming to be supporting one side, sometimes another. He is intriguingly opaque, especially since he more or less admits to Arsinoé that he often lies when speaking to others, deliberately making them think he's doing one thing when he might be doing another. He says that he doesn't want to lie to his wife, but throughout the film it becomes increasingly clear that this, too, is not true, that he is not only keeping secrets from her, which would be expected in his line of work, but is actually telling her lies as well, like disguising high-level meetings in Berlin as a minor detour to Brussels.

The way Rohmer explores this enigmatic figure is fascinating to behold. Never once does Rohmer ever actually show Fiodor on his trips or spy missions, or whatever it is he's doing in the long stretches of time where he's away from home. His activities and allegiances are left entirely to the imagination. The only information Rohmer doles out about this man comes from the spy's elliptical, often frustrating conversations with his wife. At times, the normally reserved Fiodor becomes positively animated, spilling out complicated torrents of information and heading off on so many tangents that the main point of the question he was supposed to be answering is quickly forgotten. It's apparent that he's an expert talker, that this unassuming man can be dazzlingly clever and manipulative. He knows it, too, and in his conversations with his wife he sometimes takes on an attitude of gleeful pride in how he is able to control and manipulate world affairs. According to him, a word from him — or the lack of a word — can change the course of events for entire nations. Since Rohmer never follows Fiodor away from his wife, it's impossible to know how much of his patter is truth and how much lies, how much he's exaggerating his own importance.

Who is he working for? What is he up to? What's his agenda? What does he really believe? Fiodor is extraordinarily difficult to pin down, especially since his ideas, as expressed verbally anyway, are constantly in flux. Talking to his Communist neighbors (Amanda Langlet and Emmanuel Salinger), he espouses rightist ideas and sardonically points out the contradictions in the Soviet party line, enjoying the Red couple's squirming. But when speaking to his royalist Russian cousin (Vitalyi Cheremet) he disparages the fascist regime of Franco and calls the Communists reasonable. He seems to be deliberately blurring his allegiances, and never more so than in the breathless monologues directed at his wife, punctuated with his curt assurances, "let me explain," a disclaimer almost always followed up with lengthy and ludicrously detailed stories, complete with to-the-minute timetables. His wife, in any event, is less interested in the details of his stories than in the mere fact that he seems to be opening up to her for once, letting out glimpses of the emotions he usually maintained clamped shut behind his bland demeanor. Arsinoé is the film's heart, as confused and out of the loop as the audience, and placed in the same position: forced to either disbelieve Fiodor entirely, or take his tortured explanations and rambling discourses about his political actions at face value.

Thus, while the film is seeped in politics, set in an era of extreme political turmoil, possibly the most tense and uncertain era in European politics, its center is actually another relationship drama from a director who has long explored the complex interplay of deceit and desire between men and women in love. Arsinoé is devoted to her husband, sometimes nauseatingly so. Every time he leaves home on one of his mysterious trips, she acts out a repetitive ritualistic goodbye: she holds his coat for him, cuddles close for a warm, loving goodbye kiss, and then watches him with smiling eyes as he leaves, seeming to savor this glimpse of him to last for a while. The slightly stylized romance of these goodbyes begins to unravel, however, when Arsinoé starts to become more suspicious of and frustrated with the extreme secrecy of her husband's lifestyle. She hears him casually telling other people things she never knew about, and hears stories from her friends that contradict things he has told her, and she realizes that in many ways she is entirely shut out from his life. Rohmer, always subtle, leaves much of this unstated, communicated by the expressions on Arsinoé's face and the kinds of questions she starts to ask her husband with probing interest.

Rohmer observes these scenes from a calm, languid distance, never quite breaking the surface of these characters but carefully catching the nuances of what they choose to show, and what they're unable to hide. In Fiodor's case, what primarily becomes apparent about him is his eagerness, his love of the spy's life, his image of himself — whether imaginary or accurate — as a bon vivant man of action with the fate of the world in his hands. There's an excitement and energy in his voice when he talks about his spy activities, and even in his posture, eagerly leaning forward to explain what he does and why. This danger-loving spy seems to emerge only occasionally from Fiodor's Walter Mitty exterior, his guise as a bureaucratic "pencil pusher" bored by his job. One wonders which is the truth: is Fiodor a bored office drone playing at being a spy, or is he really a top-level agent playing everyone against each other? Arsinoé, meanwhile, is patient and loving, though she does, in a moment of characteristically Rohmerian subtlety, let out a brief glare of annoyance when Fiodor, in his eagerness, interrupts her to tell a story of his own. The moment passes and Arsinoé silently forgives her husband, her annoyance fading into a smile, but the audience sees the truth: Fiodor is self-absorbed and doesn't much care what his wife has to say about her own life. He never takes the interest in her, or her artistic activities, that she takes in him.

Though this relationship is at the core of the film, Rohmer is also dealing with the historical context of the pre-war era, when the pieces were slowly shifting into place for what would eventually become World War II. He peppers the film with genuine newsreels, artifacts of the time, documents that provide a sense of verisimilitude. As with the unseen spy action, history seems to be happening elsewhere, at the fringes of the story, only sporadically commented upon by the characters. These people are not oblivious to politics, to the state of the world; quite to the contrary, they are constantly engaged with it. And yet even they seem to be on the periphery, not catching the significance of what's happening, unable to understand where things are heading — and incapable of grasping just how ancillary everything they do really is on the historical scale. After an abrupt and startling conclusion to Arsinoé and Fiodor's story, Rohmer finally pulls back for a more objective, large-scale observation of the events going on in this era. The ten-minute epilogue condenses the post-1937 build-up to World War II, and the invasion of France by the Nazis, into a dense collage of newsreel images, history taking over from the small-scale personal drama of one Parisian couple. The film's final moments are an irreverent, morbidly comic final tweak at Rohmer's characters, indeed at the entire story he's decided to tell, exhibiting a deadpan wit about just how pointless it all is, how so much talk and talk about politics could actually say so little about concrete realities.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Films I Love #41: Safe (Todd Haynes, 1995)

Todd Haynes' Safe is a creepy, oblique horror movie about the horror of the "normal" life. It's a horror film in which there is no creeping monster behind the sedate suburban façade, no locus of evil that preys on the frazzled housewife Carol (Julianne Moore). The suburbs themselves are the source of the horror here: the ornately empty houses, the bored chatter of housewives with no real interests and nothing to talk about, the antiseptic routines of daily life, the lack of connections even to her own family. For the gay Haynes, straight existence itself is terrifying, a hellish, deadened nothingness with few escape routes. The first half of this film, in which Carol is isolated within her own palatial home as though stumbling in a narcotic daze, is a kind of warm-up for the pastel-colored Sirkian mise en scène of Haynes' Far From Heaven, in which he channeled Sirk's brightly colored vision of suburban Americana and the social ills lurking underneath. Safe is more oblique than both Sirk himself and than Haynes' later Sirk pastiche. There's something chilly and suffocating about this film, in the weirdly distanced interiors, so carefully set-decorated and lit, their precise geometric contours and patterned colors isolating Carol within a space where nothing betrays a hint of life or motion or vitality. Haynes' camera simply sits at a distance, observing stoically as this ordinary woman comes apart at the seams, becoming convinced that her very environment is trying to poison her.

The second half of the film largely abandons this stylized suburban crypt as Carol checks herself into a New Agey treatment facility that deals with amorphous illnesses caused by environmental factors. There, the urbanely sinister guru Peter Dunning (Peter Friedman) dispenses a variety of arcane "cures" and self-help advice to his patients. Haynes is not-so-subtly mocking the various charlatans and hippie commune-type facilities that exist on the fringes of this kind of Californian lifestyle, and especially the empty promises and rhetoric of so-called AIDS "cures." Carol, fleeing from the monotony of her zombified home life, winds up somewhere even worse, alienated even from her family, truly alone. By the film's end, she's locking herself up in a containment chamber where she can retreat from the world and try to come to terms with whatever her mysterious illness might be. With its halved structure, Safe asks whether the cure might sometimes be worse than the disease, or whether there is really any escape from the kind of soul-numbing existence depicted here, the deep existential emptiness that Carol feels eating away at her from within.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

TOERIFC: The Merchant of Four Seasons

[This post is prompted by The Oldest Established Really Important Film Club, which will be spotlighting a different blogger-selected film every month. This month's selection is courtesy of Fox from Tractor Facts. Visit his site to see Fox's thoughts on the film and to join the main discussion.]

The films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder often tread a fine line between stylized melodrama and blunt naturalism. His characters act in exaggerated ways, stumbling and falling in a weeping heap, pounding violently on tables, taking long, meditative walks. Their emotions exist right on the surface, overwhelming them like characters in a soap opera. And yet, within the bleak worlds that Fassbinder constructs such maudlin melodramatics are not unwarranted; his characters are not overreacting but rather doing the only thing possible in the face of a cruel, suffocating existence. The Merchant of Four Seasons is a typically relentless Fassbinder film in this respect, telling the story of the fruit vendor Hans Epp (Hans Hirschmüller), a man who takes as much as he possibly can from an unfair and unrewarding life before finally giving up. Hans is a pathetic man, a man who's made all the wrong decisions whenever he had a choice, and who at other times has had choices cruelly taken away from him. His domineering mother (Gusti Kreissl) refused to let him pursue his chosen career as a mechanic, viewing it as beneath her family's station, and she ignored Hans' distaste for the school she forced him to attend instead. In the film's opening scenes, Hans has returned after running away from school to join the Foreign Legion; instead of greeting him, his mother treats him with contempt, ending with the searing put-down, "once a no-good, always a no-good."

That pretty much sums up what's in store for Hans. Once back, he settles into a life as a fruit vendor with his wife Irmgard (Irm Hermann), though he's predictably miserable: the couple are constantly bickering, and Hans responds to these arguments by running away, going off to bars for drinks. Throughout the film, flashbacks fill in the details about Hans' life that had led him to this state. He had once been a policeman, but in a moment of weakness gave in to the seduction of a prostitute and was caught, thus losing his job. He had once loved another woman (Ingrid Caven), who throughout the film goes unnamed, referred to only as "the love of Hans' life." He had planned to marry her, but she rejected him, saying that her upper-class father would never accept her marrying a fruit vendor. Both through his own fault and through the simple combination of circumstances, Hans' life was a series of one disappointment after another, a series of compromises and settling for second best, never getting what he really wanted. He is an utter loser, a nothing, and he knows it and hurts from it.

Even when a heart attack after a bout of drinking and violence seems to give Hans a second chance, it all quickly falls apart again. Before the heart attack, Irmgard had been ready to leave him because of his violence, but afterward she decides to stay with him after all. Since he can't do the heavy work anymore, they decide to hire a worker and set up a stationary stand as well, and the new approach to the business makes them more successful than ever before. Hans briefly seems rejuvenated, but when he hires a man named Anzell (Karl Scheydt) to help with the business, his wife is horrified: she had slept with this man during a brief flirtation with becoming a prostitute. So she schemes to get him fired, and succeeds. Fassbinder stages the sequence where her treachery becomes clear to Anzell as a taut exchange of glances between the three protagonists, their eyes veiled, filled with understanding and restrained rage. It is a decisive moment, though Fassbinder never makes it clear just how much Hans actually understands about what has gone on here.

In any event, Hans' downward spiral resumes after this, only temporarily interrupted by a joyous reunion with his old Legion buddy Harry (Klaus Löwitsch), who takes over Anzell's job as fruit hawker. The film's final stretch is a funereal procession in which it's obvious that Hans is preparing for death, saying goodbye to a life he never enjoyed. He visits the people in his life one by one, reaffirming his disconnection from them, even from the love of his life, who no longer excites him, and from his affectionate sister Anna (Hanna Schygulla), the only person who ever stood up for him. When he goes to visit her, however, she's distracted by work, and Fassbinder accentuates how little attention she's paying to Hans' depression by placing her in the foreground, reading and writing, while her brother quietly mopes in the background, saying little, virtually ignored.

This is Hans' fate, to be ignored and mistreated, and Fassbinder never misses an opportunity to emphasize his protagonist's pathetic life with stylized touches. After a drunken, miserable Hans beats Irmgard one night — a harrowing, horrifying scene, with the couple's daughter struggling to protect her mother — Irmgard runs away to Hans' family. When he shows up, contrite and begging for her back, his family reacts with almost comical horror, freezing into gothic poses right out of a silent melodrama; they all but sweep their hands across their brows as their eyes pop out of their heads. Only Anna reacts with calm and patience, treating the situation with adult restraint and sympathy for everyone involved, comforting the couple's weeping daughter while everyone else projects their emotions in shrill upper registers. These people are so wrapped up in their own lives, their own emotions and worries, that they have no empathy for anyone else, and certainly not for poor, pathetic Hans.

Fassbinder contrasts these outsized, melodramatic emotions against the mostly quiet suffering of Hans. He has only one real outburst, and it's enough to completely destroy his heart; otherwise, his life is a slow, sad descent, with little struggle or attempt to change things. Like many of Fassbinder's protagonists, he seems to have accepted his fate, making the final scene, in which he commits suicide by drinking himself to death, inevitable. Fassbinder stages this sequence as a series of formalist closeups: as Hans raises a glass to each person in his life in turn, Fassbinder cuts away to direct, intimate closeups, as each person looks silently on, doing nothing as Hans destroys his life for good. This final scene is a metaphor for the entirety of Hans' self-destructive, unlucky life: no one cares, no one does anything to help him, and Fassbinder's constricting mise en scène forces the audience into a position of numbing complicity, as we also watch this man destroy himself. It's a typically tough, unflinching film from Fassbinder, an inquiry into the ways in which people place limits on their own lives and those of others.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Rio Bravo

[This review has been cross-posted at Decisions At Sundown, a blog started by Jon Lanthier and dedicated exclusively to the Western genre. From now on I will be cross-posting all of my Western reviews with this blog, where I am one of several contributors.]

Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo is the pinnacle of the director's late style, in which he increasingly stripped his films down into ambling, nearly plotless examinations of his signature themes and the interactions of his characters. Hawks' cinema was always more about relationships than stories: relationships between male friends, between men and women getting to know one another, between professionals working on dangerous jobs together. Rio Bravo is about all these things, and as in much of Hawks' other late work, all the extraneous stuff, like the narrative, is pared away to focus more directly on these relationships as they develop and change. The plot itself is utter simplicity. Small-town sheriff John T. Chance (John Wayne) arrests Joe Burdette (Claude Akins), the brother of the notorious outlaw Nathan Burdette (John Russell). Chance holds Joe in the town's tiny jail, while Nathan schemes to break his brother out. The film was famously inspired by Hawks' well-known hatred of Fred Zinnemann's High Noon, in which Gary Cooper's small-town sheriff must plead with the unwilling townspeople to help him face off against an outlaw who's coming for revenge. The macho Hawks obviously despised this show of weakness, and conceived of Chance as standing virtually alone against the encroaching outlaws, aided only by a motley assortment of true friends: the drunken former deputy Dude (Dean Martin), the old cripple Stumpy (Walter Brennan), and eventually the quick-shooting young Colorado (Ricky Nelson).

From this slight material, an archetypal white hat/black hat story, Hawks developed one of the great works of cinema. His patient pacing allows plenty of time for the character arcs to develop naturally. Dude was once a proud, tough man, brought low by a woman and reduced to a pathetic drunkard, memorably introduced in the opening scenes stooping to pick up a coin that a man throws into a spittoon for him. Throughout the film, he struggles with his alcoholism, trying to regain control of himself, to reassert his dignity and intelligence and bravery, as well as his formidability with a gun. Chance is, in comparison, a bedrock of stoic self-confidence and moral rigor, though Hawks emphasizes that he's merely human too by including all of the fumbling, awkward love scenes with Angie Dickinson's ambiguous bad gal Feathers. These scenes play off of Wayne's own obvious discomfort in romantic scenes, infusing a layer of metafiction into each of them: is Chance thrown off balance by Feathers, or Wayne by Dickinson? Seemingly the only thing that can ruffle Wayne's drawling onscreen persona, pushing him out of his comfort zone, is the presence of a pretty girl, a fact Hawks would take advantage of again in Hatari!, to equally amusing effect.

There's a lot more going on in this film, too, even as virtually nothing actually happens. The film simply rambles along, the connective tissue between set pieces often consisting of lengthy scenes where the characters just sit around and shoot the breeze. Much of the film takes place in the tight, constricted space of the jail, where Hawks is comfortable filming tight, constricted compositions crammed with people. The joy of the filmmaking is palpable in every frame; there are few Hollywood movies that are so relaxed, so carefree. Watching Rio Bravo feels like spending a few hours on the set with Wayne, Brennan, Martin and Nelson, hanging out, cracking jokes, sparring sometimes in jest and sometimes in earnest, shifting between the two so smoothly that it's hard to tell when the characters' jokes bleed over into genuine hurt. The film is packed with incident, but somehow it never seems to add up to a real forward-moving plot, perhaps because the whole film is based around stasis: it's a waiting game. That's what gives it its unique charm.

The easygoing pace also allows Hawks the time to examine his themes and characters in depth, with subtle touches rather than broad gestures. There's surprising nuance and emotion in set pieces like the one where Stumpy nearly blows off Dude's head when the latter enters the jail unexpectedly. On its face, its a comic bit of action, a near-miss that the men can laugh about because it wasn't a hit. But it also lays bare some of the deeper emotions at the core of the story. Stumpy doesn't recognize Dude to begin with because the former drunk has cleaned up and gotten sober, has taken a bath and donned some new clothes, replacing his old threadbare, filthy rags. He looks like a real man again, and Stumpy, accustomed to seeing him as a ragged beggar, doesn't even realize it's him. It mirrors the earlier scene where the rancher Pat Wheeler (Ward Bond) doesn't recognize Dude because he'd never seen him sober before. Underneath the violent humor of the incident, there's this poignant undercurrent, as Dude is reminded yet again of how far he'd fallen, while Stumpy, behind his ornery chatter, is horrified by what he almost did to his friend.

Hawks treats these complex emotions seriously, but he never allows them to truly overwhelm the film's surface charm, its low-key wit and humor. After all, this is a film in which, at a pivotal moment, the characters decide to take a break and have a good old singalong, showcasing the star voices of Nelson and Martin. It's a wonderful moment, a perfect indication of the film's total commitment to its anti-narrative languor: when the tension is at its peak, the final showdown approaching, the characters break out into not just one but two folksy songs in a row, as though they had all the time in the world. Dude is lying on a cot with his hat shading his eyes, Colorado plays the guitar, and Stumpy hollers and plays the harmonica, all while Chance looks on, smiling benevolently, too stiff to join the fun but not to enjoy it. Indeed, one would have to be pretty stiff not to enjoy this film, which encourages the audience to revel in the sparkle of the dialogue and the ways in which the charming personalities of these likable actors blend seamlessly into their characters. Hawks, though he appreciated fresh faces too, was always adept at using star personalities in interesting ways, zeroing in on the essence of an actor and channeling that into his or her onscreen persona.

Here, the confined space of the jail allows Hawks to play these personalities off of one another, ricocheting Brennan's manic grouchiness off of Martin's slouching, half-speed delivery, while Nelson's boyish confidence resonates as a nascent version of Wayne's mature persona, his unflappable manliness. The film juggles these different personalities admirably, and the film's tone shifts smoothly between comic patter, hesitant romance, slow-building suspense, and action. Indeed, despite the laidback pace, Rio Bravo boasts some exceptional action sequences, not only the justifiably famous final shootout, in which Chance and his allies finally defeat the bad guys with dynamite, but also an earlier scene in which Chance and Dude track an assassin to a saloon filled with Burdette's men. This scene is formally precise, rigid in its geometry and use of the bar's space. It's through angles that Chance and Dude control the room, lining up the men at gunpoint in a straight line on one side of the room. The way Hawks frames this scene emphasizes how the two heroes remain on opposite sides of the room, both angled towards the disarmed bad guys, forming a triangle with the bar at its base and its point balancing on the line of criminals. The scene's denouement, in which Dude discovers the hiding assassin by noticing the man's blood dripping down into a glass of beer from above in the rafters, is similarly precise in its formal mastery.

For all these reasons and many more, Rio Bravo is one of Hawks' most sublime achievements: it's more like an old friend than a film, a familiar place to visit and revisit over and over again, always enjoying the company and the ragged charm of its storytelling.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Films I Love #40: 9 Variations on a Dance Theme (Hilary Harris, 1966)

Hilary Harris is a nearly forgotten avant-garde filmmaker, though he won an Academy Award (for best short subject) in 1962 and is generally acknowledged as a pioneer of time-lapse photography, particularly for his admirable 15-year time-lapse vision of New York City, Organism. His earlier dance film 9 Variations on a Dance Theme is even more obscure, but it's a potent examination of both the human form and of film form, and how the aesthetics of the camera can interact with the human body. The film is as simple and direct as its title suggests. In a bare, undecorated studio, a young woman (Bettie de Jong) in a cloth leotard enacts a simple series of dance movements, starting and ending in a reclining position on the wood floor, and in between gracefully flowing through an elegant, slow-motion set of pirouettes and fluid turns. She repeats this dance nine times, and each time Harris varies his filming methods to capture her movements in subtly different ways.

In the first variation, his camera simply twirls in a slow circle around the room, its graceful arc mirroring the dancer's own swirling motion. With the second variation, he places the camera at ground level with de Jong, watching her from a more intimate perspective. From there, the variations in Harris' technique become more elaborate and complex, while the dance itself retains its pared-down simplicity with each iteration. Harris introduces stuttering jump cuts and repetitions, he has the camera crawl along the surface of the dancer's body, he focuses on abstracted images of textured cloth or hands and feet seemingly disconnected from a body, hovering in the air. He filters and tints the image into a washed-out blur. Harris is investigating different ways of filming the human body as it repeats a series of motions, an inquiry that yields surprising depths considering the basic concept. He captures the quivering in the dancer's legs as she holds a pose, or the way the fabric of her leotard stretches and folds with her body as she moves, or the way the pure white light pouring in from the studio's windows wraps around her body, encapsulating her in a milky aura. Each "variation," each repetition, reveals more about the dance, starting with a fluid whole observed from a distance and then methodically breaking it down into its constituent parts and movements. It's a mesmerizing and beautiful film, a prolonged appreciation of the body in motion.