Thursday, January 28, 2010

The White Ribbon

Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon, his first German-language film since his original Funny Games from 1997, is a searing, enigmatic allegory, a depiction of horror and cruelty overtaking a small German town on the eve of World War I. The film is powerful and quietly moving, slowly building a sense of pervasive dread as the town's routine business is disrupted by explosions of horrifying violence and brutality, by incidents that expose the everyday nastiness lurking beneath the rural calm that the town presents on its surface. What makes the film so effective as an allegory is that, as in Caché, Haneke withholds all easy answers and all resolutions; the film is a mystery with no solution, leaving its ultimate meaning to the viewer. It is also perhaps Haneke's most emotionally rich film, built around a large cast of complex, ambiguous characters, people beaten down and made cruel by the harsh surroundings and morally fallow ground of the countryside.

The film is an angry indictment of the hypocrisy and violence that resides within these seemingly decent folks, many of whom are obvious symbolic stand-ins for various social institutions, all of them equally corrupt: the aristocracy, the proletariat, the church. The Pastor (Burghart Klauβner) might preach decency and goodness in mass every week, but with his own children he is a brutal disciplinarian who reacts to the slightest infraction with hands-on correction. When his oldest children Klara (Maria-Victoria Dragus) and Martin (Leonard Proxauf) are late for dinner one night, he responds by sending all the children to bed without dinner and delivering ritualistic whippings the next morning. He also marks the kids with the white ribbons of the title, which are symbols of purity and innocence to continually remind them of the qualities they should aspire to. This man of God is obsessed with his abstract values, but in putting them into practice he's cruel and intractable, refusing to understand whatever's going on behind his children's blank, mysterious faces. The town doctor (Rainer Bock) is even worse, a nasty man with all kinds of secrets lurking within his home. He's sexually abusing his young daughter, who he creepily insists looks just like his dead wife, even as he's also having sex with his matronly midwife (Susanne Lothar), who he treats with contempt and outright cruelty, scorning her love.

Meanwhile, the Baron (Ulrich Tukur) and Baroness (Ursina Lardi) are aloof from the others in the town, projecting an aura of privilege and exploiting the labor of the commoners — they send one woman, too weak to do heavy harvesting work, into a dangerous area of a sawmill, where she falls through the rotted floor to her death. This is only one of the horrifying incidents that begin to affect this town, as the people's behind-the-scenes petty cruelties and domestic evils are written onto the very surface of the town, in one public spectacle after another. The doctor's horse is tripped by a thin wire and the Baron's son Sigi (Fion Mutert) is hung upside down in a barn and beaten badly, among other tragedies and acts of violence, all of them utterly mysterious, none of them ever solved. It is as though the people of the town are finally revolting against the brutality and indifference they experience behind closed doors every day. It is never clear if there is one perpetrator behind all these crimes, or if they are each the products of specific vengeful quests. As in Caché, Haneke leaves the mystery's solution fuzzy because the "who" matters far less than the symbolic import of these acts. As in Caché, the mystery here is not a matter of plot and action but an internal mystery, a mystery of the soul, a mystery about how violent acts are passed down through generations and how the chain of violence might be broken if only one generation would refuse to continue the cycle.

Often, these crimes are committed against or involve the town's young, who are affected in various ways by the sins and violence of their elders. This is the film's central thrust, the ways in which innocence is corrupted or destroyed in the presence of evil, a struggle that is far less abstract for Haneke than it is for the town's Pastor. All of the town's children are wounded by the older generation. Some of these kids maintain their innocence and innate goodness. The pastor's youngest son is a sweet, caring boy who takes in a wounded bird and agrees that after he heals it, he will set it free, even though the prospect obviously makes him sad — and then, when his father's bird dies, he offers his own as a replacement, a selfless act that seems to move even the unshakable priest. The doctor's young son is a similarly angelic young soul, who when his father is injured packs up his clothes and sets off on a journey to see his dad in a nearby town. The midwife's son Karli (Eddy Grahl) is another avatar of innocence and purity, and he has to suffer because of it, beaten and bloodied merely because of his guileless lack of the corruption that flows through so many of the town's other inhabitants, adults and children alike. Another child who suffers in innocence is the steward's daughter Erna (Janina Fautz), who says that she has precognitive dreams of horrible things about to happen; when she predicts the beating of Karli, the police hound and question her, believing that she knows who did it, causing her to break down in frustrated tears.

While many of the town's children represent purity and goodness in this way, there are others for whom the corruption of their parents seems to weigh heavier. Martin and Klara, certainly, are haunted by the great demands placed upon them by their religious father. In one of the film's most telling — and darkly humorous — scenes, the Pastor confronts Martin, who is increasingly looking sickly and depressed, his eyes ringed with black, his face sunken in and his eyes skittish. The Pastor responds by telling the boy a lengthy story about another boy who showed many of the same symptoms, eventually broke out in boils all over his body, and died. And what caused this, the priest asks? The boy was exciting his "nerves" in a forbidden place, of course, a ludicrous euphemism for masturbation. The scene would be hilarious if it weren't so depressing, if the Pastor didn't display such a profound ignorance of his son and such disinterest in actually getting to the bottom of what is obviously bothering the boy. Instead, he responds by tying Martin to his bed every night, so that he can't touch himself in the night. Could this really be what was bothering Martin, this guilt over masturbating? Or was he haunted by something darker and more real, something his father will never be able to understand or even glimpse because his mind is too fenced-off? The Pastor is too rigid in his ideas about sin, discipline and self-control to even imagine having a candid conversation with his children about anything.

These are the questions at the core of The White Ribbon: how guilt and sin flow through generations, affecting the young and innocent in unpredictable ways, sometimes corrupting their decent souls and sometimes simply injuring them, scarring them in ways likely to echo throughout their lives. Haneke's basic theme here is that innocence can't last, that goodness is ephemeral and quiet in comparison to the overpowering darkness of violence and hatred. The doctor's son, early in the film, asks the midwife about death, and with wide eyes listens as she bluntly tells him, trying to dull the impact by repeatedly stressing that this will happen only in "a very long time." He gets the idea anyway, and his awareness can't be taken away from him; he understands things with a new completeness, instantly getting that the stories about his mom being away on a trip had simply been a euphemism for this new concept called "dead."

The film is unrelentingly bleak and sad at moments like this, capturing the dawning of understanding and the accompanying loss of innocence; Haneke laments this loss, and treats it as a richly emotional moment. Only the film's narrator, the local schoolteacher (Christian Friedel) and his fiancée Eva (Leonie Benesch) are ultimately able to maintain their innocence and goodness. They aren't showy about it in the way of the Pastor, but they are moral and chaste in all their interactions, possessed of a basic deep-down goodness that sets them outside of the town's horrors, and outside the horrors of history as well, their simple romance unshaken by the reverberations all around them. As the narrator, the teacher's sporadic voiceover steps in to position this story as a thing of the past, and thus as a lesson about the present — but a lesson whose meaning isn't necessarily clear. The film would be nearly unbearable if not for Haneke's suggestion, in the story of these two characters, that there is light and goodness within all the darkness, that there are those who remain unstained by the bloody crimes happening all around them.

Haneke's dark wit also leavens the grim mood, revealing itself in subtle ways throughout the film, particularly in his cutting. At one point, as the teacher romantically plays the organ for Eva, Haneke cuts him off in mid-note and abruptly cuts to a farm scene, with a pig squealing on the soundtrack, dissonantly continuing the music. Even better is the moment when, after Martin confesses to his father that he was masturbating — more out of resignation than because it's actually the truth, most likely — Haneke cuts immediately from the boy's downturned face to the doctor in mid-orgasm, having disinterested sex with the midwife. These bleakly humorous transitions characterize this film, which maintains Haneke's general wry, distanced observation of his characters' follies and cruelties. He captures their misery and brutality in stark black and white, leaning towards washed-out whites in many scenes, giving the film a very clean, crisp, wintry atmosphere, best portrayed in several shots of snowy whiteout landscapes, as pure and untouched as a child's conscience. The film's bleak aesthetic and emphasis on long takes — a funeral plays out entirely in a single wide shot, a horse-drawn carriage waiting in the snow to pull the coffin — recalls the cinema of Béla Tarr, one obvious reference point for a film that's both completely Haneke and also something of a departure for him.

Monday, January 25, 2010

4 Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle

The title characters of Eric Rohmer's 4 Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle can be seen as Rohmer's incarnation of his New Wave contemporary Rivette's Celine and Julie. Reinette (Joëlle Miguel) and Mirabelle (Jessica Forde) are, in fact, the Celine and Julie of the mundane. Their "adventures," divided into four segments as the title suggests, are not fantastical or magical, as in Rivette's film, but prosaic. If Rivette's film is all about wonder and fiction, about playing games and going to the cinema to experience (and manipulate) stories, Rohmer's film is about the more ordinary adventure of forming and keeping friendships. In the first of the film's four segments, Reinette, a painter living alone in the country for the summer, first meets Mirabelle, a student from the city whose bike has a flat. Reinette repairs the flat and the two girls slowly become friends as they spend the next several days at Reinette's rustic home. While there, Mirabelle learns about farming and country living, and the girls try to wake up just in time for the so-called "blue hour," the single moment every morning when there is total silence. This conceit, in which the natural world provides nearly spiritual catharsis, is reminiscent of the driving force behind The Green Ray, in which the heroine's romantic quest is symbolized by the desire to glimpse a fleeting phenomenon that sometimes occurs just at sunset.

Although Rohmer transcribes the basic set-up of Celine and Julie Go Boating from the mystical territory of Rivette's film, Rohmer does preserve the sense of charm and humor that characterized his obvious influence. His heroines are bright, pretty young girls whose adventures are always light-hearted and marked by a sense of fun and playfulness, and above all by an openness to the possibilities that present themselves. Each of these four segments revolves around a new set of ideas, a new set of opportunities for these girls to interact with one another and the world around them in ways that reveal and explore their conflicting moral perspectives and priorities. Rohmer is examining the ways in which, from a common bond of friendship and affection, these new friends probe their different outlooks on life and morality. It's a typical Rohmer subject, starting from the dawning of a friendship and then revealing, in one incident after another, just how different these girls actually are in how they think about the world and each other.

In the film's second segment, Reinette has taken Mirabelle up on the latter's offer to come to Paris as her roommate while Reinette enrolls in art classes. It's the film's most straightforwardly comic segment, as Reinette has to deal with a rude waiter (Philippe Laudenbach) whose patter and arbitrary restrictions are absurd and frustrating. Reinette tries to pay him, but she only has a large bill that he insists he can't break — and since she doesn't have anything smaller, he treats her as though she's unable to pay, trying to stiff him, and even suggests that she was the same girl who had run out on him without paying on a previous day. This is especially maddening to Reinette, because as it emerges throughout the film, one of the principal differences between her and Mirabelle is the two girls' respective attitudes towards regulation, justice and order. Reinette seems to believe, implicitly and unquestioningly, in the rightness of the law; she believes that bad acts will/should be punished and that goodness will be rewarded, and that the rules should always be followed. Mirabelle, on the other hand, is more of a free spirit, unconstrained by such restrictions and aware that the world is often unfair, that Reinette's clichéd certainties don't always pan out. Lacking her friend's faith in justice and rules, she doesn't feel that same obligation to law and order. So while this is a genuine dilemma for Reinette, once Mirabelle arrives, the answer seems simple to her: the waiter is a jerk, so the girls take off, with Mirabelle in the lead dragging her friend along.

This theme, the subtext in this comic tale about the waiter, comes to the fore in the third segment, in which the two girls encounter panhandlers, swindlers and a kleptomaniac. These incidents provide the friends with an opportunity to discuss doing good, punishing bad, and the proper way to deal with breaking the rules. The central incident of the story is Mirabelle's observation of a shoplifter (Yasmine Haury) at a local market. Rohmer takes an interesting approach to this incident, first showing it in a wordless sequence as Mirabelle follows the shoplifter and the two store security personnel (cameos by filmmaker Gérard Courant and Rohmer favorite Béatrice Romand) who are keeping an eye on her. It's wonderfully staged, with a keen sense of comic timing as the shoplifter is trailed by the store guards who are in turn trailed by the curious Mirabelle, all three groups walking across the frame in sequence through the market's aisles. Mirabelle then recounts the whole story to Reinette — including the part where she cleverly helped the shoplifter get out of the store without getting caught, although she was then unable to give the woman back her ill-gotten goods. The scene essentially plays out twice, once visually and once in words, so that Rohmer can show the reactions of Mirabelle (bemused) and Reinette (horrified) to this anecdote.

Basically, the shoplifter's tale provides an opportunity for Reinette to discourse on right and wrong; she can't comprehend why Mirabelle would intervene like that to help a woman get away with stealing. Later, her outrage finds another outlet when she misses her train and winds up hanging around the train station for an afternoon, observing the swindlers and panhandlers doing their work. Ironically, Reinette herself is placed in the same position, since she needs change to make a phone call, but she doesn't seem to realize that she's doing the same thing these beggars are doing, asking strangers for money. Then she accosts a swindler (played by Rohmer regular Marie Rivière) who's giving passers-by a story about having her purse stolen. Here, Reinette's abstract morals are confronted with a reality more complicated than she'd expected: the swindler breaks down and cries about her troubled life and her desperate need for money, shaming Reinette out of her comfortable moral superiority.

The final segment continues this emphasis on economics and the struggle for money, as Reinette tries to sell one of her paintings, hampered by her rash bet that she can maintain a vow of silence for an entire day. Class is one unspoken subtext running through the film, actually, even though of all the French New Wave greats Rohmer is often thought of as the filmmaker least concerned with such socio-political matters. But in this fourth section Reinette is struggling to make her rent, afraid that she'll have to go back to the country since she's unable to make a living in Paris. Instead, she goes to see a pompous art dealer (Perceval le Gallois star Fabrice Luchini) who spits out so much overly analytical nonsense about her painting that, at first, he doesn't even realize that she's not talking. Nevertheless, he's the one in the position of power, and only the intervention of Mirabelle, rebellious as ever, is able to destabilize things and switch the upper hand to the younger, less financially secure girls. (The film's final line, then, is a wryly ironic reminder that even this small victory has no real impact on the capitalist, who ultimately retains his power and his profit.)

This is an especially rich film, with a wealth of substance and depth in the way it explores a burgeoning relationship and all the moral, political and philosophical ideas that flow between these two intellectually curious and lively friends. Rohmer focuses on his titular heroines in a playful way, reflected in the primary colors that flow through the film, often in the girls' clothes — most often bright red and blue — and the striking static compositions. The film's visual aesthetic shifts from the warm natural palette of the opening scenes, with fields of tall grass swaying in the wind and thin veils of drizzling rain, to the more minimalist austerity of the city, where the girls, in their simply colored outfits, are often set off from the bare white walls of their apartment. Above all, the film is a quiet delight, possessing a more directly humorous sensibility than Rohmer usually displays. Several scenes here play out as skits, especially Mirabelle's final showdown with the art dealer, in which she overpowers him with the sheer profusion of her chatter. That's a distinctly Rohmerian ending, if nothing else: victory is achieved through an excess of talk, even if the film as a whole is equally defined by its quieter, more graceful moments.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

For a Few Dollars More

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

For a Few Dollars More is the second film in Sergio Leone's "Man with No Name" trilogy, his spaghetti Western cycle starring Clint Eastwood. In each of these films — the trilogy is bookended by Fistful of Dollars and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly — Eastwood doesn't actually play an unnamed character, but three different more-or-less anonymous drifters, mercenaries and bounty hunters. He might have a name (in this film it's Manco) but he doesn't seem to have a past or a sense of place. He simply wanders through forbidding desert landscapes in his distinctive poncho and cowboy hat, with a cigarette clenched between his gritted teeth. He's fast on the draw, laconic, and has a strong sense of morality and right. He is, in other words, the archetype of the Western hero, and the power of Leone's films comes from the way he riffs on these familiar tropes, mythologizing and stylizing the Western gunfighter into a truly outsized figure. He takes a cultural icon that had already permeated popular mythology, and amplifies it into something operatic.

A large portion of the credit for this achievement must of course be shared with Leone's collaborators, notably Eastwood and composer Ennio Morricone, who provided the famous music for all three films and many of Leone's other works. Morricone's music defines the spaghetti Western: his distinctive twangy compositions, collaging together traditional Western motifs with sweeping orchestral strings, dramatic vocals, and goofy sound effects, are instantly recognizable and synonymous with Leone's cinema. And Eastwood, of course, was in the early stages of defining the tough guy persona that would become his career trademark. He carries over the same props and costume from film to film, always smoking the same cigarettes and wearing the same poncho. It's an unconventional garment for a gunslinger, and one that gives Eastwood a kind of grandeur to his movements. When he knows he's going to need his gun, he simply tosses the poncho up across his shoulder, exposing the holster at his hip. Leone seems especially attuned to details like this. The way a man wears his gun, the way he smokes a cigarette, the way he draws and fires, says everything about him. In this film, he emphasizes the way the vicious outlaw El Indio (Gian Maria Volonté) smokes in a strange way, the cigarette held between his middle and ring fingers, his whole hand placed across his mouth to smoke as though he was trying to mute himself. Eastwood, meanwhile, lights his smokes with the match elegantly cupped inside his hand, so that he seems to be lighting the cigarette, unseen, on his palm. When Eastwood describes the way another bounty hunter wears his gun, an old man instantly knows who he's talking about, because such things are signifiers of identity in this world.

This attention to detail extends to the three-part introduction, following Leone's favored method for introducing and contrasting his central characters; it's a technique he'd use again for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, where even the title indicates Leone's preference for dealing with his characters as sets of opposing traits. The opening two sequences follow first the bounty hunter Mortimer (Lee Van Cleef) and then Manco as they each track and kill a target for pay. The differences in their methods, in the flourishes of their technique, highlight the differences between the characters; for Leone, style is character. Mortimer is calm and steady, slow-moving and graceful. He follows a fleeing bandit without getting ruffled by the man's evasions and attacks, and finally unfurls a blanket full of rifles so he can calmly unseat the man from his horse from a great distance. Then, as the criminal wildly fires his pistol, hitting only the dirt at Mortimer's feet, the bounty hunter carefully assembles his own pistol, with a rifle stock attachment so he can steady his aim on his shoulder. He takes his time, sets up his shot, and dispatches the outlaw with a single shot right between the eyes. Manco, in contrast, is more spontaneous and also has a component of moral engagement in his hunting. He finds his target and then engages the man in an impromptu card game, a game of chance that, though his target never suspects it, has the man's life as its stakes. Manco wins and tells the man that he's lost his life, and in the resulting fight he uses his lightning-fast draw to dispatch both his target and three other outlaws. As he's leaving town, he then takes the opportunity to castigate and expose the corrupt local sheriff.

The impression is that, while Mortimer is a cool professional just doing a job, Manco is a raw moral force, relying on his inherent superiority — both morally and in terms of skill — to get him through everything. To some extent, the remainder of the film will complicate this relationship and stand it on its head. In the end, Mortimer has more of a personal, vengeful stake in the hunting of the bank robber El Indio, who is revealed in flashbacks to have raped Mortimer's sister and led to her eventual death. Both Mortimer and El Indio carry watches with pictures of this woman inside, making them mirror images, each haunted by what happened to her — Mortimer because she was his beloved relative, El Indio because, as Leone eventually reveals, the woman killed herself rather than letting him take her, an insult which devastates the proud bandit.

El Indio is the third point of this triangle, and the third man introduced in the opening sequences. He is shown being broken out of jail by his gang, killing his cellmate and heading off to a hideout that's set up and presented like a church. At one point, Indio steps up into an elevated area that's an analogue for the lectern, and gives his men a speech about their next job; Leone inserts a shot of the space's high, V-shaped rafters, which cause the outlaws' words to reverberate magnificently. This religious satire is a consistent undercurrent in the film. The first shot after the opening credits is a closeup of a gold-embossed Bible being read by an unseen man on a train, who everyone assumes is a reverend. But as soon as he lowers the book, revealing the chiseled, hardened face of Lee Van Cleef, his eyes squinting coolly, there's no doubt that he is not a man of God. It's a subtle joke about appearances and surfaces: Mortimer may be reading the Bible, but one look at him is enough to suggest that he is actually a killer, a hard man who's seen much bloodshed in his life, that he couldn't be any holy man. Appearances mean everything here, which is why Leone focuses so intently on the iconography of the Western, the gestures and accoutrements.

In fact, at times the film seems to be nothing but gestures. The plot is simple: a dangerous bandit has escaped from prison, with a massive reward offered for his capture, dead or alive, and two bounty hunters set off after him, sometimes competing and sometimes agreeing to work together as partners. Within this minimal framework, Leone riffs on the mechanics of the shootout, the showdown, the stylized rituals by which rugged Western men test their mettle against one another. When Manco and Mortimer first meet, they engage in a playful duel, with an undercurrent of danger, by shooting at one another's hats. It's a process of sizing up the other man, testing his nerves, testing his skill. If they were not assumed to be equals, there would be an element of humiliation in it when Manco shoots Mortimer's hat off his head and then shoots it away whenever the older man stoops to pick it up. But Mortimer maintains his even-keeled demeanor and then shows up his adversary with his own showy gunplay, and Leone cuts away to them sharing a drink together, professionals with a healthy competitive respect developing between them. The other major gunfights in the film are staged as showdowns where Leone cuts precisely between closeups, watching the men's eyes and faces, watching their hands poised above their gun butts, watching them prepare, internally, for the violence to come. The actual bloodshed is swift and over in a moment. It's the build-up, the accumulating tension, always set to Morricone's grand music, that Leone is concerned with.

This tension builds throughout this sprawling, patiently paced film, which packs in a lot of action — including an explosive bank robbery — but never seems to be moving at a truly frenetic pace. Instead, Leone seems to be steadily building up towards the grand climax, the showdown between Mortimer and Indio, with Manco standing by as a kind of referee to make sure the fight goes smoothly. This is another rehearsal for the threeway shootout that caps The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, another of Leone's moral climaxes.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Shining

Stanley Kubrick's The Shining undoubtedly deserves its reputation as one of the cinema's creepiest, and most artful, horror films. Adapted loosely from Stephen King's novel about a hotel caretaker who loses his mind over the course of a long and isolated winter, the film is a bizarre and unrelenting experience, a slow pressure cooker that bears down on the viewer in much the same way as Jack Torrance's (Jack Nicholson) isolation affects him. Kubrick strips down the story to its bare core, as a study in slowly suffocating dread and terror. The film's pace is deliberate, and its plotting is minimal; Kubrick establishes the dominant mood through his evocative, distanced visuals and, especially, through the eerie soundtrack, with its pulsating heartbeat rhythms and sinister strings. In point of fact, it's easy to miss that not much actually happens here, that the film's actual horrific incidents are widely spaced and parceled out. More often, Kubrick lets the terror grow and grow, through lengthy and uncomfortable scenes that create the expectation of a horrible payoff, before abruptly cutting them off instead.

What's at the core of the film is the dysfunction of family, the bitter and ugly feelings that emerge from troubled father figure Jack. He's taken on a job as the winter caretaker at the Overlook Hotel, where he'll be snowbound for months with his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and their son Danny (Danny Lloyd). While there, Jack, under the influence of the hotel's many ghosts or just his own unstable mind, begins to seethe with resentment and hate, feeling that his family is in some way holding him back or destroying his life. These sentiments are latent in Jack to begin with, as revealed by a story that Wendy tells to a concerned physician before the family heads to the Overlook. It seems that Jack had once been a drinker, and in an angry, uncontrolled moment had dislocated Danny's arm. This is a remarkable scene, staged almost entirely as a closeup on Wendy's face as she describes this incident, trying to put a positive gloss on it, to pretend that it was just an ordinary mishap. Kubrick captures her twitching smile, the way Duvall conveys the anguish and confusion lurking just below Wendy's chipper exterior. Duvall's performance here is extraordinary, as she bares her gums and her big buckteeth, while Kubrick holds the closeup, and holds it, and holds it, finally cutting to the skeptical, deadpan expression on the doctor's face, a stand-in for the audience, seeing right through Wendy's desperate cheerfulness. The scene perfectly conveys the multiple layers at work here, all in a simple memory that gets at the essence of this story's themes.

Wendy's insecurity about her potentially violent husband only worsens once the family is locked in at the Overlook, and this story about the dislocated arm lends queasy resonance to Jack's interactions with his family. At one point, Jack calls Danny over for a conversation, holding the boy in his lap and hugging him, asking him innocuous questions about how things are going and how he likes the hotel. It's a seemingly normal conversation on its face, but it's made creepy and strange by Nicholson's twitchy performance, and by the slowly escalating dread in the music. Kubrick treats everything this way; even the typewriter that Jack writes on is made an object of terror with a slow pan in towards its carriage, and of course later in the film this terror is revealed to be warranted when Wendy finally reads Jack's manuscript.

The Shining's particular form of terror is familiar by this point, even overly familiar, but it maintains its power because of Kubrick's subtlety, his decision to treat Jack's escalating madness as a surreal break with reality. The famous scene where Jack talks to the ghostly Lloyd the bartender (Joe Turkel) is a case in point. Jack walks into an empty ballroom and sits down at the bar, then Kubrick cuts to a closeup of Jack talking, presumably to himself, before cutting back to the longer shot of the bar, which is now stocked with bottles of booze and staffed by the suavely sinister Lloyd. The climax is even more startling in its disjunction from reality, as a frazzled Wendy staggers through the Overlook, catching glimpses of horrifying and puzzling sights, like what appears to be a man in a bear/pig mask giving head to a man in a suit. This famously inscrutable image, so unsettling in its effect, is a leftover from King's novel, where these characters had a story and a reason for being. Here, in Kubrick's film, without this context, it's simply a destabilizing surrealist break, a non-sequitur without any possibility of explanation or understanding.

Kubrick makes it absurd, and scary, and unfathomable, just as he strips much of the psychological rationalization from Jack. Kubrick keeps Jack's pathology at a distance, not only shooting everything in alienating long shots, but refusing to show the process by which Jack transforms from a slightly troubled family man into a raging lunatic. Instead, Jack's madness is shown from his family's point of view, as unexplainable and abrupt outbursts, as mood swings and sudden fits of rage without any clear cause. By the time Jack actually starts seeing ghosts — like his encounters with Lloyd and the hotel's former caretaker Grady (Philip Stone), who'd murdered his family many years before — he's already become violently angry. Nicholson's portrayal is of a man who is always just barely balancing on the edge of murderous rage to begin with, since Nicholson is almost naturally kind of creepy, with his sarcastic drawl and crooked smirk. Even before the family arrives at the Overlook, Jack tells his son about the Donner Party, taking such obvious satisfaction in freaking out the kid that he already comes across as a bit of a sadist.

Kubrick isolates this distasteful character within the Overlook's oversized rooms, not delving into his character but simply showing his disintegration from a distance. Wendy and the psychic Danny are shown at a similar remove, and Wendy's characterization is particularly limiting, as she is mostly just a weepy, insecure woman who sticks by a potentially abusive and nasty man. She nearly falls apart by the end of the film, and it's only Duvall's gape-eyed performance that gives Wendy some much-needed depth beyond her repetitive terror and crying. Ultimately, Kubrick makes the limitations of his archetypal characters into virtues, as the film is more about an abstract feeling of dread and the threat of violence than it is about a particular family and their horrific experiences. This is especially obvious in the character of the hotel cook Hallorann (Scatman Crothers), a stereotypical "magical Negro" character who can hear Danny's psychic cries. He shows up at the hotel after a lengthy struggle through the snow to get there, and just as suddenly gets an axe in his chest for his troubles. It's essentially a macabre joke from Kubrick, as he spends so much time chronicling Hallorann's journey to the Overlook only to abruptly destroy the pat hope represented by this rescue attempt. This is the film's essence, this reminder that hope and rescue can't come from outside: it's only Danny's cleverness during the final hedge maze sequence that ultimately saves him and his mom.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Lady and the Duke

The Lady and the Duke is one of Eric Rohmer's atypical ventures into historical drama. The interesting thing about Rohmer's period films — like the theatrical, literary Perceval le Gallois or The Marquise of O... — is that they are generally far more overtly stylized and deconstructive than the modern romantic comedies for which he is known. It is as though the distance of the past, the abstraction of history, allows Rohmer the license to filter these events through extreme visual and aesthetic systems. In this film, he interprets the past specifically through the lens of its paintings. The film is set during the French Revolution, and Rohmer captures the feel of this era by digitally combining his sets and actors with paintings layered into the background. The effect is startling and strangely haunting. During the film's opening, onscreen text establishes the setting and the basic history of the revolution, while Rohmer collages together various paintings from the era. After this introduction, several of the paintings repeat, but this time the people within the paintings begin to move. Crowd scenes come to life, bustling with activity, moving within this static world. When Rohmer cuts to closeups, the texture of the brushstrokes within these canvases is even visible, reminders of the artificiality of his aesthetic.

Although the film's aesthetic and historical period sets it apart from much of Rohmer's other work, like his other films it is driven by talk, and by the ideological, philosophical and emotional undercurrents obscured by and encoded within this talk. The film focuses on the Scottish emigré Grace Elliott (Lucy Russell), a bold woman who was the mistress of many powerful men and who was brought to France prior to the Revolution by the older Duke of Orleans (Jean-Claude Dreyfus). She was his lover and, after their relationship ended, remained his friend and outspoken confidante, advising him about politics as the Duke became entangled in the Revolution. Even though Grace is a devout royalist, loyal to the King, while the Duke joins the Jacobins' revolt, they remain close even as things get worse and worse all around them.

At the heart of the film is, as usual with Rohmer, a moral inquiry. It's all about conscience and the willingness to acquiesce or go along with social horrors. The Duke is a weak-willed, basically foolish man, easily manipulated and convinced of his own rightness even when all evidence begins to pile up to the contrary. Despite his aristocratic status, he supports the Jacobins out of an idealistic belief that the common people of the country deserve equality and liberty that isn't offered to them under a monarchy. Even though King Louis XV is his cousin, the Duke opposes the monarchy and rallies behind the revolutionaries. In multiple visits with Grace, they argue about the politics of the time, and she attempts, mostly in vain, to convince him that the brutality and violence of the Revolution is not justified by his ideals, however well-intentioned they might be. Grace is a fearless and principled woman, unafraid to speak her mind even as her opinions become unpopular and even treasonous. While everyone around her tries to keep their opinions in check, maintaining the rules of decorum and tradition as though they were still living in polite society, Grace alone seems to understand how important it is to speak out, to try to sway the opinions of those who support the Jacobins even as they're shocked by the violence committed in the name of the Revolution. Grace preserves her nobility and class, and her status, but is too much of a determined, intelligent woman to play the role of the "good citizen."

Of course, the irony of the film's recurring dialogue about being a "good citizen" is that citizenship in this society requires a willingness to tacitly endorse inhumanity and horror. In one of the film's most striking images, a massed crowd marches while holding aloft a stake with the head of a noblewoman skewered on top. It's a stylized image like many in the film; the head is greenish and artificial-looking, with blood flowing from its ragged neck. It's a horrible icon of the Revolution's violence, and it affects the audience as viscerally as it does Grace, who witnesses it while trying to make her way through Paris to the home of a friend.

Images like this lend force to the film's moral thrust; Rohmer's allegiances are clear. He is suggesting that if platitudes about equality and freedom, about helping the working class, about overthrowing tyrants, lead to this, then the ideals are empty and hollow. He is not necessarily aligning himself with either the royalists or the rebels so much as he is taking a humanist slant on this material, evincing a concern for life and fairness that goes beyond abstract ideology. Towards the end of the film, Rohmer portrays the functioning of the Revolution's "justice" as a series of Kafkaesque absurdities, where suspicion furnishes its own proof and overzealous revolutionaries can levy accusations based on pure supposition and innocuous conversations. The film is a powerful critique of political violence and oppression, especially when it disguises itself in the form of a popular movement.

Of course, Rohmer explores all of these themes and ideas in his characteristic way, buried in the subtext of various conversations that dance around these issues rather than engaging with them directly. Grace and the Duke meet several times over the course of the film, and in between social niceties and exchanges of affectionate patter, they have brief outbursts of political sparring, which inevitably end with the Duke urging his former love to keep silent, not to talk politics. That's not Rohmer's way, though. Rohmer's films, where people inevitably talk about everything, support the idea that talk is the key to understanding and analyzing the substance of life, whether the conversations centers on love or spirituality, as they do in so many of Rohmer's films, or on the politics and events of the day. The Duke is essentially the film's villain because he is the enemy of such openness.

Rohmer's approach to this story is typically sensitive and probing, both ethically and aesthetically. His use of digital technology to tell this historical tale is frequently stunning; watching these paintings move and shift allows Rohmer to filter his view of history through the perspectives of the era's artists. He seamlessly integrates this art with the flat, mundane interiors, which are worn and grimy in comparison to the textured gloss of the painted scenes. These rooms look lived-in, and the props in Grace's home frequently intrude into the narrative and the mise en scène, like the way her letters and writing implements become important to the film's denouement. Rohmer's feel for nuanced emotions is as keen as ever, particularly in the scene where Grace and her maid stand on a distant hill, watching the execution of the king through a telescope. With a gorgeous painted landscape stretching off into the distance, Grace stands in all black, unable to look, seized with momentary false hopes before accepting the inevitable. The majesty of the composition, in which she and her servant are small figures within the grand scale of this painted countryside, puts her strong emotional reaction into the context of history, as one small response to the big events that change the world. For Rohmer, though, just because this story may be simply one small, provincial perspective on world-changing events, it is no less important; he privileges the individuals affected by history and the ideas they cherish and fight for.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Films I Love #47: The Conformist (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1970)

The Conformist is Bernardo Bertolucci's melancholy, lovingly crafted portrait of Italy's fascist era, and the pressures forcing individuals to accede to oppressive political regimes. Marcello (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is a weak man whose only desire is to fit in, to be accepted; he is the conformist of the title. In Mussolini's Italy, he conforms by serving the state, agreeing to turn his honeymoon with the lovely but empty-headed Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli) into a cover for an assassination assignment. His mission is to go to Paris and track down his former professor, Quadri (Enzo Tarascio), who had fled from the Italian fascists. Instead, the continually dithering and uncertain Marcello gets tangled up in an affair with Quadri's wife Anna (Dominique Sanda) and finds his conformist resolve shaken by Quadri and Anna's idealism.

This is a visually stunning film, with each scene a study in color and light. Bertolucci's images have a certain pristine formalism that both abstracts the narrative and dramatizes its morality: characters shift between darkness and light, and slatted shadows fall across the characters as though they were being imprisoned by their choices. In one of the most striking scenes, Giulia's black and white striped dress visually rhymes with the light filtering in through the windows of her house as she dances around the room. The images, and the moral imperatives, are derived from the grammar of the film noir, and Marcello in his fedora hat and long coat is a misplaced noir antihero wandering through a vibrant color world. Like a noir hero, his weaknesses — sexual confusion, malleability, willingness to compromise — doom him from the start. The film is a clear-eyed examination of his failure, as well as the failures of all those like him whose collaboration allows fascism and brutality to flourish.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Eric Rohmer, 1920-2010

It is with great sadness I report that the French New Wave auteur Eric Rohmer has died at the age of 89. One of the greatest careers in the cinema has come to an end after 25 theatrical features and numerous short films, documentaries and TV productions. Rohmer's aesthetic, his reliance on subtle dialogue and restrained emotions, his seeming visual straightforwardness, has often led to him being misunderstood as a maker of boring talkfests. Even the BBC's obituary calls his work "completely devoid of action," as though he should have inserted more explosions or car chases into his patient, acutely observed films. As though Rohmer wasn't simply concerned with different kinds of action.

In fact, Rohmer was one of the most sensitive and intellectually probing of directors. He had an ear, not only for the way people talked, but for the ways in which their words related obliquely to their inner states. His films require careful attention and a willingness to read between the lines, to become attuned to the emotional and intellectual undercurrents of his scenarios. For Rohmer, as for many of his protagonists, life is something that should be considered and analyzed as well as simply experienced. Though he was not immune to sensual pleasures — the sand and water in Pauline at the Beach, the romantic interlude that opens A Winter's Tale, the lushly green park at the center of The Aviator's Wife — he was also always conscious of the multiplicity of thoughts and decisions that constitute human consciousness. His cinema was moral, but not moralistic; his parables are open-ended and ambiguous, suggesting that the decision, the judgment, belongs to the viewer alone.

In film after film, Rohmer returned to his favored topics, namely the formation, maintenance, and disintegration of love and relationships, ethics and spirituality, the natural world, the gap between thought and action, between imagination and reality. Many of his protagonists set out with an ideal in mind, seeking to make it real, and Rohmer both respects their determination and highlights their absurdity. Sometimes, these protagonists seek some seemingly unattainable romantic perfection, as in The Green Ray and countless other films, while in Perceval le gallois Rohmer's determined hero is a knight who clumsily integrates his ideals and theories with the real world. Rohmer's cinema, despite its unearned reputation for dreary chatter, could be funny, uplifting, deeply romantic, ironic, bittersweet, playful. He loved youth, and beauty. He loved love itself. He will be truly, sadly, missed.

I have not written as much as I would have liked about Rohmer here. He has long been one of my favorite directors, but as with other favorites I've watched and digested much of his work long before starting this site. I hope to write, in the coming weeks, about a few of his later films I haven't yet caught up with, as a way of saying goodbye to this cherished auteur. In the meantime, I direct you to my writeups of his Four Seasons cycle (A Tale Of Springtime, A Winter's Tale, A Summer's Tale, Autumn Tale), his uncharacteristic and delightful Perceval le Gallois, his historical spy thriller Triple Agent, and one of my favorites from his lengthy career, the charming The Aviator's Wife.

Also, for those who might see this as a reason to become acquainted, or reacquainted, with the work of this French master, might I suggest, in addition to some of the above, a few of his very finest films: Pauline at the Beach, My Night At Maud's, La collectionneuse, Claire's Knee and My Girlfriend's Boyfriend. The best way to honor Rohmer, and to remember him, is to watch his films.

Crime Wave

Crime Wave is a powerful, economical noir from director André de Toth, a taut film, the brilliance of which lies in its wealth of details, filling in the edges around this familiar tale. Steve Lacey (Gene Nelson) once made a mistake and did a five-year stretch in prison because of it, but now he just desperately wants to go straight. He's made good: he's got a decent job, a place of his own, the help of a good-hearted parole officer (James Bell), and the love of his pretty wife Ellen (Phyllis Kirk). He's plagued by his past, though, as his old prison friends never stop calling for favors, and the cops maintain a suspicious vigilance, always willing to believe the worst about him. His decent life falls apart completely when a trio of old prison acquaintances rob a gas station and go on the run after the job is botched. One man shows up at Steve's apartment and promptly dies, causing enough problems for him, but when the gang's ringleader Doc Penny (Ted de Corsia) shows up with heavy Ben Hastings (a young Charles Bronson, still going by Buchinsky) things gets even worse. Steve is increasingly roped into the gang's plans against his will, since he has no choice but to go along or else they'll likely kill him and, even worse, hurt his beloved wife.

Steve's predicament is complicated by the dogged pursuit of detective Sims (Sterling Hayden), who never believes that Steve has gone straight and believes that he's willingly helping his old crook pals. Sims is an incarnation of the cop as God, a seemingly omniscient investigator who remembers every detail about every crook or potential crook in his city. In one scene, his underlings give him names of possible suspects and he displays his encyclopedic knowledge of the urban underworld in dismissing unlikely choices. He knows everything there is to know, and more than just the surface facts he claims to know what's in men's hearts and souls, the things they think and never show the outside world. He is an absolute moral authority, and will admit no opinion other than his own. He decides instantly that Steve must be guilty, and from then on will not allow another option a moment's consideration. He is an impressive, intimidating figure, an avatar of dogged justice, with his ever-present toothpick dangling from the corner of his mouth, replacing the cigarette he'd really like to have.

This kind of detail drives the film. It's a pretty formulaic story, but de Toth ensures that no moment, no character, is simply perfunctory or clichéd. At one point, early on, as Sims walks around his police station, he listens in on a few interrogations and conversations, some of which have to do with the case at hand (a stool pigeon indignant about being dragged away from his respectable neighborhood in the middle of the night) and some of them unrelated (a married couple angry that neighbors called the police on their domestic quarrel: "last time I threw a lamp at him he thought it was cute," the woman says). De Toth has a sense of all the stories happening around the fringes of a narrative like this, and each character, no matter how small their role, communicates something beyond their dramatic function. Even a small cameo by a hood, Timothy Carey's creepy Johnny, can be an opportunity for unexpected divergence. Carey, in an uncredited part, nearly steals the film in his few minutes of screentime, mugging wildly and whispering through gritted, perpetually grinning teeth. In one scene, he's in the background just smoking a cigarette while the other crooks discuss their bank robbery plan, but he attracts the eye to peer into the frame's depths, to catch his antics with a cigarette, his obvious enjoyment of the games he plays with these tendrils of smoke. His pleasure with this smoke is echoed in the film's final scene, as Hayden's Sims lights up and then discards a crooked, mashed-up cigarette, finally putting the blackened match between his lips instead.

De Toth also infuses unexpected pathos into the character of the drunken former doctor Otto Hessler (Jay Novello), another small role that makes an outsized impression. Hessler was once a great doctor, but like Steve he made some kind of mistake, went to prison, and now he's lucky to find work as a vet while doing underground doctoring for criminals on the run whenever they call him. He has a subtle stagger in his walk, a slight bend and a waver in his voice, so that there's no doubt he's a drunk even before de Toth shows him taking a drink for the first time. But he's not just the stock figure of the shady underworld doc: he shows real compassion and love for the animals he takes care of. When Sims comes to shake him down for information, the doctor is working late at the vet hospital, trying to help a dog whose owner had left the animal to simply be put to sleep. Hessler hates the idea that people supposedly love these animals and then are willing to give up on them so easily the moment they get sick. He's too good a doctor to tolerate such callousness, such lack of hope or faith or compassion. His situation may be degraded, and he may be a slimy hack who says he won't even touch a patient unless he gets his money first, but there's still this light of goodness and decency unextinguished at his core.

Ironically, the film's central hero, Steve, is rather more vanilla, as is his wife Ellen, though they inhabit the film's center amiably enough, suffering under the weight of the pressures pushing in on them from every side. The film's real hero is actually Sims, though he's a tough antihero whose unshakable belief in his own ability to tell bad from good makes him a rather unlikable portrait of a cop. Of course, this story could only be leading to one place in the end given the Hollywood conventions of the era, and in order to get there Sims has to change his nature, admitting that maybe he was wrong and people can change and become good after all. It somewhat blunts the film's otherwise caustic portrayal of police justice, muting the script's satirical perspective on the contradictory virtues of rehabilitation and punishment in the justice system.

This small disappointment aside, though, the film is a well-made, potent noir, with an emphasis on process and subtle characterization. De Toth captures a realistic feel with a few small, carefully placed details, like the manhunt scenes where the audio of police radios repetitively delivers the same description over and over again in a repeating loop, as police cars drive slowly through shadowy back streets. De Toth is equally good with the quiet intimacy of the scenes between Steve and Ellen early in the film, as he gets late-night phone calls from his old prison associates while she tells him not to let himself get dragged back in. At one point, as he goes to answer a phone and she stops him, de Toth stages it as a closeup on their hands, his reaching for the phone and hers, wedding ring prominently displayed, clutching his wrist to stop him. The off-camera conversation isn't as important here as that simple and effective image, which conveys everything about this scene. This is the way de Toth's aesthetic works in general, capturing the essence of his story with elegant but un-ostentatious formal touches.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Conversations #13: Crash

The latest installment of the Conversations has now been posted at The House Next Door. In this piece, Jason Bellamy and I turn our attention to David Cronenberg's 1996 adaptation of J.G. Ballard's Crash. We talk about the film's relationship to the novel, the explicit sex, the romance of the car crash, and whether or not this film actually has any point or not. We're about as divided on this film as two people can be, so it's a pretty lively debate, and we hope that others who feel equally strongly about this film, one way or the other, will be joining in. As always, our dialogue is just the start of the conversation.

And yes, I know I skipped #12 in numbering these pieces. I won't say anymore just yet, but it's not a mistake. More later this year...

In the meantime, check out the Crash conversation, and join in with your own comments.

Continue reading at The House Next Door

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

El Dorado

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

El Dorado is a sneaky kind of movie, in terms of narrative. It starts out like it's got purpose, a strong forward drive the likes of which hadn't been seen anywhere near Howard Hawks' increasingly languid cinema in years. It sets up, quickly and economically, a rivalry over water rights between kindly farmer Kevin MacDonald (R.G. Armstrong) and the nasty Bart Jason (Edward Asner). Stuck in the middle of this conflict are two old friends, the town sheriff J.P. Harrah (Robert Mitchum) and his older mentor Cole Thornton (John Wayne), who came into town as a hired gun for Jason until he realized what was going on. The film's opening section establishes a tense situation, a classic Western pressure cooker, and when Cole accidentally kills one of MacDonald's sons and then himself gets shot in revenge by the clan's feisty daughter Joey (Michele Carey), things look to be really heating up. Hawks, of course, takes the opportunity to insert the first of the film's radical ellipses, shifting away from the action and leaping forward, in a few quick scenes, several months into the future, with Cole now safely away from the town of El Dorado. It's almost a panicked reaction, as though Hawks was afraid he was getting to the climax too fast. The rest of the film pretty much meanders, slowly but surely, back towards the tension of those opening scenes.

A funny thing happens along the way, too, as not only does Hawks take his time getting back to the center of the action, but he begins morphing the film into a virtual remake of his previous John Wayne Western, Rio Bravo. This predecessor is already hinted at in the film's opening minutes, with a shot of Cole walking along a street that runs diagonally across the frame, a composition that recurred throughout Rio Bravo as Wayne's John T. Chance patrolled his town. By inserting the shot here, into the opening's series of establishing shots, Hawks hints at his eagerness to revisit his earlier success. The joke goes that Hawks liked Rio Bravo so much he made it twice more, with El Dorado and its successor Rio Lobo, and at times it virtually is a joke. One can sense Hawks and Wayne and company chuckling at getting away with remaking their own picture just seven years later, and the way the plot begins to fall in line with its ancestor is decidedly tongue-in-cheek. The result is another light, low-key charmer of a Western from Hawks, an amalgam of everything that made his previous efforts in the genre so much fun; there's even a visual reference to the cattle drive from Red River, this time with a herd of horses filling the screen. Once Cole makes his way back to El Dorado, the film's mirroring of Rio Bravo becomes more and more complete, as various pieces fall into place. It seems that during one of the narrative ellipses, Mitchum's J.P. got his story crossed up with Rio Bravo's Dean Martin character: a no-good girl whirled into town, seduced him and broke his heart, leaving him a useless drunkard and the town laughingstock.

Naturally, this leaves him singularly unable to deal with the MacDonald/Jason rivalry, which is just now reaching a head as Jason hires the ace gunman Nelse McLeod (Christopher George). Mitchum is arguably a perfect choice for the drunk sheriff, the formerly noble and strong-willed lawman brought low by a bad woman. With his sleepy eyes and hunched posture, he stumbles around, grasping his stomach, slumped over, slamming into things. His performance is both more harrowing than Martin's, and also somehow more broadly comic, even cartoony, channeling the same pop-eyed lunacy he brought to his homicidal preacher in Night of the Hunter. At one point, when Cole hits him over the head with a metal pan, J.P. freezes stiffly, his eyes wide, looking like one of Bugs Bunny's frazzled opponents. There's nothing here as iconic as Martin's scrambling for a coin thrown into a spittoon, but Mitchum's performance is complex and multilayered, heartrending and hilarious in roughly equal measures.

The film is packed with such bravura performances, which is good because even more than Rio Bravo itself this is a true hangout movie, a movie about dialogue, about the easygoing exchange of barbed witticisms. Filling out the cast of Rio Bravo analogues are Bull (Arthur Hunnicutt in the Walter Brennan cranky old man role), Mississippi (James Caan standing in for Ricky Nelson's cocky young fighter) and Maudie (Charlene Holt replacing Angie Dickinson). The cast may be different, but the dynamics are startlingly familiar, so the pleasures here are in seeing how Hawks and company weave variations on the formula they'd established. Certainly, Mississippi gets a great introduction, stepping into a bar and announcing to an older gunfighter that he's after revenge for his dead friend. It turns out, he's a knife-fighter rather than a gunfighter, a Wild West anomaly, further set apart by his goofy hat and his general naïveté. He provides much of the film's comic relief, along with Hunnicutt's Bull, who often communicates through his trumpet. As for Holt, she had previously been great in small roles for Hawks' middling Man's Favorite Sport? and Red Line 7000, an electrifying and sexy presence on the fringes of those films, and here she finally gets a good showcase in an actual peak Hawks production. Her banter with Wayne is typically awkward, marked by the stop/start rhythms that reveal the aging tough guy's discomfort with romance and emotional expression. It's a virtual repeat of the hesitant Wayne/Dickinson chemistry, though Holt doesn't get quite as much to do, beyond memorably reprising Dickinson's va-va-voom lingerie modeling scenes.

These kinds of mirrors recur throughout the film, and part of the fun is waiting to see when Hawks (with screenwriter Leigh Brackett) is going to stick to the script, and when he's going to shake things up. Again and again, he riffs subtle variations on Rio Bravo's key scenes, like the one where Cole and J.P. track a killer to a saloon full of hostile gunmen. Here, instead of hiding in the rafters and revealing himself with blood dripping into a beer glass, the killer is behind a piano and reveals his presence through the nervous piano player's wrong notes. Elsewhere, Hawks stages a great gunfight at a church, where the bullets pinging off the bells not only provide a deafening soundtrack to the scene, but contribute to the strategy of the battle. The film is packed with great moments like this, scenes where Hawks' careful, deliberate staging turns every cut, every movement, into something graceful and purposeful, whether he's shooting an action climax or a simple dialogue exchange. The dialogue is fantastic too, especially since the amazing ensemble cast does such justice to that characteristic Hawks looseness, and to Brackett's witty writing. The recurring gags, like J.P.'s absentmindedness about just who Mississippi is, are as good as Rio Bravo's best running gags (and Walter Brennan's crankiness about always being told to stay in the back of the jail is given a nod here in the form of a similar brief scene with Hunnicutt).

The crackling dialogue also asserts itself in the film's emphasis on storytelling over action; the characters spend a lot of time talking, telling tales, rather than doing anything. Mississippi's vengeful showdown is paced by his languidly meted out story about his dead friend and his mission of catching up with the men who killed him. Then McLeod tells Cole a story about a drunk sheriff and a no-good woman, not realizing that 1) he's talking about Cole's friend; and 2) he's retelling the story behind Rio Bravo. One of the funniest of these stories is a brief interlude with a Swedish gunsmith, who tells the tragicomic tale of the nearly blind gunman who previously owned Mississippi's shotgun. Later, Maudie tells J.P. about her long friendship with Cole, and her great debt to him, and we realize that she's another Rio Bravo echo, beyond her faint resemblance to Angie Dickinson and her sexually suggestive wit (best showcased in some hilarious dialogue about a "bouncing" bed). Like Dickinson's Feathers, Maudie is also a gambling widow; she's just further along in her relationship with Wayne's character when we meet her. Indeed, her character's familiarity allows Hawks the freedom to omit key scenes, like the late reconciliation between her and Cole, which takes place offscreen, relying on the memory of Rio Bravo's Wayne/Dickinson showdown over the girl's skimpy performing outfit.

Ultimately, what's great about El Dorado is how Hawks and his cast take what should have been an utter throwaway project, a shameless retread of a relatively recent film, and turn it into something special of its own. It's a roughshod film, casually skipping over long periods of time with inexplicable edits — and sloppy editing is also responsible for the one sight gag that just plain doesn't work, a lamely executed stunt that's supposed to show James Caan leaping under a charging horse's hooves. Somehow, though, these elliptical narrative shenanigans only add to the film's indelible charm. This is especially apparent in the ending, when after the final showdown Hawks jumps ahead a small amount of time to show J.P. and Cole patrolling the town together, both injured, both limping with crutches, bickering and laughing. It's a wonderful moment, these two crotchety gunmen propped up on crutches, patrolling the town: it's absurd, strangely touching, and funny all at once, just like the film as a whole.

Monday, January 4, 2010

The Limits of Control

Jim Jarmusch's The Limits of Control is a confounding, enigmatic, puzzling film, a sustained series of non-sequiturs strung together. It's a film built around contemplation and repetition, around the slow, deliberate examination (and re-examination) of a limited set of situations and events. It's built also around the moment, around the details that, ordinarily, would add up to a complete picture, but here exist simply for their own sake. It's a mystifying film because of this, obscure in its intent, nearly dialogue-free for long stretches of time. The film patiently, deliberately follows a mostly silent assassin, credited only as the Lone Man (Isaach de Bankolé), as he meets with a series of contacts, receiving a coded message from each one, all leading towards the completion of his latest mission. This assassin hardly says a word, he never seems to sleep, and he sticks to a rigid routine of walking around, visiting museums, sitting in cafés where he always orders two separate cups of espresso, an order that seems to be one of several codes that identifies him to his contacts. Jarmusch observes these routines at length, utilizing methodical editing schemes that enhance the film's careful repetition, its continual returning to the same phrases, the same images and basic setups.

Perhaps the key to understanding this simple, stripped-down film is in a scene where the assassin meets with Tilda Swinton's dolled-up, platinum-blonde mystery woman (credited only as Blonde, as befits the film's succession of archetypes and basic forms). While the assassin sits and listens, she lectures him about the joys of old movies, referencing Hitchcock's Suspicion with its juggling of possibly poisoned milk glasses and Welles' The Lady From Shanghai with its hall of mirrors finale and its messy structure; it doesn't make any sense, she says, and neither does this film, for totally different reasons. But she convincingly makes the case for the pleasures to be found in classic cinema. "You can really see what the world looked like, thirty, fifty, a hundred years ago," she says. "You know: the clothes, the telephones, the trains, the way people smoked cigarettes, the little details of life. The best films are like dreams you're never sure you've really had... Sometimes I like it in films when people just sit there, not saying anything." When she says "smoked," Jarmusch cuts to an image of the café's waiter deeply inhaling from a cigarette, letting the smoke roll through his nostrils and out again. It's a sublime moment, and this conversation is one of the film's undeniable high points, a celebration of the cinema's power and a kind of statement of purpose for a film that is otherwise often unfathomable. It's also a moment of pure sensual satisfaction and an image that provides its own justification.

This seems to be what the film is aiming for, a series of more-or-less disconnected moments that provide their own justification, that exist simply as a document of the way things look and feel. The assassin's museum visits reflect a similar concept, as what he sees in paintings gets reflected in reality, and vice versa; life and art flow into one another, responding to one another, just as a film both documents and comments upon reality. When the film is over, and the assassin's mission is complete, he receives a blank piece of paper and goes to the museum to look at a white-on-white painting of a plain white sheet. The film moves at the slow rhythm of daily life, but at the same time it is absurd and unreal, working on movie logic: it is like someone's hyper-real dream of what life might be like. It is movie life, and de Bankolé's assassin is a movie assassin, receiving coded notes in matchbooks and eating the little scraps of paper after silently decoding and reading the messages. He also meets with a series of movie stalwarts, identified in the credits only with simple nicknames. Paz de la Huerta, notably, appears as a continually naked femme fatale, credited as Nude, who first threatens de Bankolé with a gun, then attempts again and again to seduce him. He, of course, refuses, since he can't give in while he's on a job. It's a thriller cliché, the icy killer who shuns human connection, while the girl is there to show some skin and prove what a badass the killer is, so cold that he can resist even this temptation. It's one of Jarmusch's most clever subversions of genre tropes, as he simplifies the typical noir romance into a platonic relationship between a stony killer and a sensual, continually naked seductress. When they sleep, she's naked and curled up in a ball against him, while he's stiff and fully clothed: it's both a visual reference to the usual sexual dynamics of movies like this, and a potent encapsulation of the femme fatale/cold hero archetypal relationship.

The film comes alive during encounters like this, as well as the appearances by Swinton's absurdist spy, John Hurt's Guitar (who discourses on the origins and meanings of bohemianism), Youki Kudoh's Molecules (who talks about the intersections of science and spirituality), and Gael García Bernal's Mexican (who talks about hallucinations and illusions). Each of these conversations, which are really more like monologues since de Bankolé rarely contributes more than a word, adds to the film's loose array of themes, which together create a ragged portrait of modernity and all its mysteries. In its structure, the film is a bit like Jarmusch's Coffee and Cigarettes, albeit mostly without that film's sense of back-and-forth conversational gambits; here, most of the talk is distinctly one-sided. While the lone assassin just sits and listens, his contacts tell him about art and philosophy, about cultural tropes and powerful experiences. His stone-faced reticence is contrasted against their various passions; each person he comes into contact with cares, and cares deeply, about something or someone, some idea or object.

All of these threads weave through the film, aided by the repetition and the subtle, unexpected bursts of humor that arise from these simple situations, like the increasing absurdity of the repeated catchphrase "you don't speak any Spanish, right?" The film's moody pulse is also accentuated by the stunning soundtrack, organized by psych-metal outfit Boris with additional contributions by likeminded bands Sunn O))) and Earth. It is questionable, however, if all of these disparate strands and sketched-out ideas ever really add up to anything in the long run. The film is built around the temps mort, but all this dead space, though sometimes hypnotic and beautifully shot, is just as often numbing and empty. There's a thin line between languid and soporific, and The Limits of Control constantly wavers between the two. Even for those willing to commit to its laidback pacing and steadfast refusal to explain anything, to provide any characterization or narrative satisfactions, it can be a trying, confounding experience. Jarmusch rebuffs any attempt at psychological probing of his central character, whose craggy face sometimes betrays hints of amusement or pensiveness but rarely more than a momentary flicker, a there-and-then-gone trace of emotion before returning to his bland stasis.

Is this all an allegory of some sort? Maybe, especially since Jarmusch drops a few hints in the forms of some elliptical commentary on Americanism and militarism. The final confrontation between de Bankolé and Bill Murray's incarnation of mundane evil as a corporate middle manager — credited as the American, of course — also seems like a jab at American international activities, a reference to the ways in which powerful people try to control and shape the world. All these references are oblique, little more than hints around the edges of the film, but the intent is obvious nonetheless. Whether this all adds up to anything substantial is another question altogether, one that's hard to answer. It's an undeniably — and typically — idiosyncratic meditation from Jarmusch, a low-key genre deconstruction, a tribute to the beauty and mystery of the movies and also, at times, an insufferable bore. These contradictions are never resolved, making this a weird and weirdly unsatisfying effort from Jarmusch, more like an outline for a film, a sketchbook exercise, than a completed work in itself.