Friday, April 30, 2010

Sword of the Beast

Hideo Gosha's Sword of the Beast is a harsh, cynical samurai movie that questions the assumptions of the often glamorized samurai code. Gennosuke (Mikijiro Hira) is an outcast samurai betrayed by his superiors, tricked into killing a political leader and then forced to go on the run. The film suggests that the much-vaunted samurai code is actually a tool of political control and oppression, a method of establishing a rigid hierarchy in which the poor are kept in their place, occasionally offered an opportunity to advance by superiors who seldom follow through on these promises. It's obvious that the film's dark satire of the feudal system is a parallel to 60s Japan, another transitional place and time. Gennosuke is seeking to reform the bushido code, to introduce new ideas that would allow for more social mobility and greater fluidity in the samurai ranks, reducing the extent to which the highest samurai positions were a matter of inheritance and wealth. Gosha clearly intended for the film's situation to apply more or less directly to his own era, to social inequities and the political exploitation of the lower classes, who in this film are used and manipulated and then discarded when their purpose has been served.

This is a very dark vision, a very negative perspective on the samurai code — there's little trace here of the honor and chivalry that so often characterize the relationships between samurai warriors in popular movie representations. Gennosuke is on the run from his old friend Daizaburo (Kantarô Suga) and Daizaburo's fiancée Misa (Toshie Kimura) because Gennosuke had killed Misa's father; they've vowed vengeance as a result. Again and again, the pursuers catch up to Gennosuke and he avoids them; he scandalizes and shocks Daizaburo by running away rather than standing up to them and fighting. The whole situation is so unbalanced that there's very little honor in it, anyway: the pursuers are accompanied by a samurai master and a squad of soldiers, and they engage in dirty tricks while trying to capture the fleeing ronin. During the opening credits, Gennosuke is seduced by a woman who turns out to have been hired by Misa's party to distract the ronin and lead him into a trap. Later, they bribe innkeepers and sneak up on their target, ambushing him when they believe he's sleeping or not on alert. There's no honor in this, no sense of the usual one-on-one samurai duel between two equals. Instead, the pursuers even hire criminal thugs to help them, and the samurai master justifies it by saying that, in matters of revenge, the samurai code deems these ordinarily immoral actions permissible.

The film's basic thrust is this consideration of what it means to be moral within such an immoral system. Gennosuke is considered an outcast, a ronin who committed an unforgivable act, and he is called a beast. In fact, though, he is the only character in the film who truly acts with decency towards the people he meets, particularly the young samurai Jurata (Go Kato) and his wife Taka (Shima Iwashita). They're looking for gold in the mountains, working on behalf of their impoverished clan, stealing gold from government land in secret; they too have sacrificed themselves for the sake of their superiors, and it's obvious that their reward, if there even is one, won't be worth the work they put in on behalf of their leaders. Gennosuke initially plans to steal the couple's gold, deciding to give in, to become the beast that everyone says he is, but he's too decent at heart to really go through with this scheme.

Gosha explores this moral conflict in heavy-handed dialogue scenes that spell out the film's themes in big block letters whenever possible. If there's one thing Sword of the Beast isn't, it's subtle. It's actually fairly crude and broad, and its treatment of its female characters is questionable, to say the least. The women in this film are often seductresses and betrayers, like the woman in the opening scene who uses her body to lure Gennosuke into a trap, or Osen (Yôko Mihara), an assassin who seduces men by suggestively baring her shoulders or stripping to bathe, then tries to kill the unsuspecting men. Misa is different, a strong-willed woman on a mission of vengeance, but Gosha subjects her to a vile and violent rape that eliminates her composure and self-sufficiency. The film contains numerous such scenes of violence against women, and in virtually every case, Gosha's cinematography seems to leer over the women as they're violated and assaulted, exploiting the way their clothes rip and their bodies are bared by the violence. It's apparent that Gosha intends for these scenes to portay the dismal treatment of women, but he can't resist ogling their bared flesh — and displaying them for audiences — even as they're being attacked and raped.

This rather contemptible disregard for women makes the film often difficult to watch, even if in other ways it's an interesting take on the samurai genre. Certainly, Gosha's feel for swordplay is admirable. He films the action sequences in a brisk, on-the-run style that captures the frenetic pace and confusion of these battles. The camera frequently tracks the fighters as they run, occasionally stopping for an exchange of sword thrusts. The battles almost all take place on the move, with very few static showdowns; the fighters are running and circling one another, chasing each other, doing battle while in motion, barely stopping once one opponent has been dispatched before moving on to the next. Gosha's camera frequently shoots the fighters in close quarters, where their sword thrusts are rapid blurs slicing through the air, or else obscured from within a field of high grass, the fighters just barely visible through the foliage. This approach gives the impression of real, messy battles playing out rather than carefully choreographed movie duels. The sword fights are thrilling and viscerally intense in a way that cleaner choreography wouldn't be able to accomplish.

The movie's dialogue also has a certain blunt economy that's refreshing, in the way that the pulpy dialogue of American film noir is refreshing. After dispatching a number of would-be gold poachers, Jurota flatly tells his wife, "Cheer up. I'll go take care of the bodies." The dialogue is often like this, sharp and almost funny in its offhand brutality, and there are stretches where the film can be appreciated as pulp trash, complete with over-the-top femme fatales and bracing scenes of violence. That's part of the problem, maybe, this conflict between different modes. On the one hand, Sword of the Beast is a serious-minded social satire, an examination of class oppression and the rigid hierarchies that prevent people from advancing in life. On the other hand, however, it's a gaudy exploitation picture, tantalizing audiences with hints of female flesh and bursts of violence. The conflict between these two tendencies isn't resolved here, resulting in a film that seems to be constantly fighting in two different directions at once.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Derek Jarman's At Your Own Risk

I've written a piece about Derek Jarman's book At Your Own Risk (recently republished by the University of Minnesota along with some of the director's other writings) over at The House Next Door. The first paragraph is excerpted below; follow the link to the House to read the full article, which attempts to grapple with Jarman's views about aesthetics, sexuality, AIDS, and societal oppression.

Derek Jarman's films are, already, such a naked, passionate, intimate portrait of their creator and his ideas that one wouldn't expect that Jarman would have had much energy left over to pour into written autobiography. Nevertheless, Jarman was a prolific writer as well as a filmmaker and artist, and his creative pursuits in multiple artistic forms constitute a unified body of work; the books are every bit as essential as the films to those who wish to understand Jarman. The University of Minnesota Press has thus done a valuable service in reissuing three of these books: Chroma, Jarman's collection of writings on color, his 1989-90 diary Modern Nature, and At Your Own Risk: A Saint's Testament, a loose autobiographical book that traces Jarman's experiences of society's reactions to gayness.

Continue reading at the House Next Door

Part-Time Work of a Domestic Slave

Alexander Kluge's Part-Time Work of a Domestic Slave is a film that probes just how difficult it is to understand the complex workings of politics and society, and to make a difference, when society and its structures are designed to eat up so much of a person's time and energy. The film's title itself implies as much: Roswitha (Kluge's sister and frequent star Alexandra) is the "domestic slave," a housewife who must divide her time between caring for her three children and her verbally abusive husband Franz (Bion Steinborn) and working to provide for them, leaving little time for thoughts or concerns outside of family life. The film is divided roughly in half, reflecting two different definitions of Roswitha's "part-time work." In the film's first half, she works as an illegal underground abortionist since Franz has no job and she must support the family. In the second half, after Roswitha's practice is shut down and Franz is forced to get a job, she becomes involved in social and political matters, trying to learn about the world outside her family. Her part-time work thus shifts, over the course of the film, from the need to provide for her family's physical and material needs, to the freedom and time to develop her own thoughts and ideas independently of the family. It is seen as an essential trade-off: when Franz isn't working, he's free to read and think, to study with no clear purpose in sight, but once he has to get a job he all but disappears from the film. By the same token, when Roswitha stops working, her mind becomes active and engaged, and she has time to develop an interest in things happening outside of the home, outside of her immediate scope.

What Kluge is interested in here is how segmented people's lives are, how people are forced, by society's demands, to split up their lives between home and work, unable to reconcile these two separate areas. Early on, the narrator intones, with deadpan irony, "to afford more children of her own, Roswitha carries out abortions." Roswitha, of course, doesn't see the irony, doesn't understand the profound contradiction between work and home contained in this simple statement. This announcement is followed by an extraordinarily detailed abortion scene, after which, once she's dumped the tools and the little blood-encrusted fetus into a metal pan, Roswitha takes a sip of tea and offers her patient a shot of liquor. It's all so casual, so offhand; it's obvious that Roswitha turns her mind off during these procedures. She's not in this profession for radical reasons, she's not doing it to help the women who come to her (though that's part of the rhetoric she uses when talking about it), she's doing it as a way to provide for her family, as a job like any other.

This all changes once police interest forces Roswitha to drop her profession, and Franz goes to work for the family instead. Roswitha, along with her friend Sylvia (Sylvia Gartmann), becomes involved in politics and social issues, though they aren't quite sure where to start at first. Their journey into these issues ranges from a distanced observation of official announcements and policies, to analysis of media reports, to trying to find understanding through art (they memorize a Bertolt Brecht song from a record), to finally becoming directly engaged and seeing things for themselves, hands on and face to face. It is, in essence, a journey into the world, struggling through the barriers and layers of representation erected by society, heading back into the direct experience of reality. Roswitha finds no satisfaction on an official tour of "the social situation," accompanying some politicians (almost all white, older men) as they spout rhetoric and she simply watches silently. She also finds no answers in the newspapers, because she quickly realizes that what she considers important issues — matters that directly affect people's families and children, matters that affect working conditions — are of no interest to newspaper editors, who reserve the front page for staid political news. Roswitha and Sylvia wind up storming out of a newspaper's office, enraged by the editors' inability to care about real people and their struggles.

Roswitha's struggle to understand, to have an impact on the world, eventually leads her to more direct, radical political engagement, trying to excite workers into revolting against unfair practices. Her engagement has its roots, as does everything for her, in the family: her husband's company is rumored to be shutting down its plants and moving to Portugal for cheaper labor, so she fears her husband will lose his job. From here, Roswitha becomes involved in labor and union negotiations, engaging in increasingly radical acts. She breaks into the company's offices looking for proof that they're going to move to Portugal, she distributes pamphlets to the workers, she meets with union leaders who seem to lack her passion and prefer a slow, steady approach. Finally, she goes to Portugal herself and sees the building site, with crates clearly marked with the company's name; she has her proof, because she has seen it with her own eyes. Kluge films this as a moment of peace and, almost, transcendence. There is a sublime hush as Roswitha stands in front of the crates overlooking a grassy field where, presumably, the new factory is to be built. This is the moment when Roswitha has come back into contact with reality, experienced directly and without mediation; she has seen it for herself rather than relying on documents or rhetoric or newspaper accounts or conflicting rumors. It is difficult to get to this point, Kluge stresses, but very much worth it; afterward, Roswitha smiles with genuine satisfaction, even before she knows if her work has actually made any difference. It hardly matters as much as the fact that she has shed her reliance on others and experienced something of significance for herself.

The balance between this engagement with the world and the demands of family is at the heart of the film. The idea that one's family is all that matters — stressed as a supreme value of society — can, for Kluge, actually be an impediment to caring about or understanding the wider world, to embracing and feeling empathy for the needs and problems of all people rather than just one's immediate family and friends. And yet Roswitha's social and political activism originates with the family: she is driven to make things better for her family, and to do so she must become involved in matters outside of the family. It is a central and irresolvable paradox, one that Roswitha never quite overcomes. For one thing, no matter how much she learns in her new ventures, no matter how much she accomplishes, she is never able to throw off the oppressive influence of her unappreciative husband Franz, who remains nasty and judgmental to the end.

Still, Roswitha is clever and inventive in making a place for herself outside the home, using her ingenuity to circumvent the strictures of a society that doesn't have much use for a woman outside of the home. In one of the film's funniest scenes — and as always with Kluge, there's a certain absurdist humor at work in his socio-political satire — Roswitha is confronted by police seals placed on the locks of her clinic. The seals read, "any unauthorized person tampering with these seals will be prosecuted," but this won't stop Roswitha. She pays a man for his dog, and lives up to the letter of the law, if not its intent, by having the trained dog open the door with its paws; thus, no person tampered with the seals. It's hilarious and absurd, and in many ways absurdity is what's required for someone who wishes to move within the confines dictated by this social situation.

To this end, Kluge structures his film as a collage, incorporating paintings, clips of old movies, and interludes taken from children's storybooks, all of these inserted elements commenting obliquely on Roswitha's story. At the pivotal moment when Roswitha makes her decision to become involved in matters outside of the family, Kluge inserts a montage of shots of the wind blowing through branches or causing ripples in water: grainy and damaged images from older movies, poetically suggesting a change in the air. Some of the other film clips come from war movies, including one in which a soldier says that he can do anything, that's he essentially limited only by his lack of knowledge about foreign languages. These clips suggest that Roswitha lives in a man's world, where political matters are often decided by strong-willed men on distant battlefields, far from her prosaic world. Kluge similarly uses art and culture to define Roswitha's place within a long and perhaps overbearing cultural legacy: snatches of classical music frequently score scenes, while paintings show women as always being in the home, caring for children, doing domestic chores. Culture and society show no other options; Roswitha has to create them for herself.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Host

Joon-ho Bong's The Host is a delirious modern monster movie, a throwback to the classic era of the sci-fi monster: all those nakedly metaphorical beasts formed from radiation or other side effects of man's scientific progress. And much like the classic Japanese monster movies, this Korean film is aimed squarely at the fear and anger caused by a foreign target: the United States. The film opens with an awkwardly acted scene in English, in which an American researcher instructs his Korean assistant to pour a shelf of chemical bottles down the drain, despite the assistant's protestations that this will cause harm to the Han River. Cut to a few years later, and something odd is definitely going on in the river as a result. Bong's unveiling of the monster — a mutated, somewhat lame sea creature with numerous vestigial limbs and a massive, terrifying maw — is the film's best sequence, a frantic action set piece that's both absurd and terrifying.

The monster appears abruptly, but before it does, it's just an ordinary day at a riverside park where Hie-bong (Hie-bong Byeon) runs a snack stand with his lazy, distracted son Gang-du (Kang-ho Song). Bong takes his time setting up the family dynamic here, because it's this family that's going to be at the center of the film once the monster does appear. Hie-bong has two children in addition to Gang-du: his educated but unemployed son Nam-il (Hae-il Park) and his athlete daughter Nam-joo (Du-na Bae), a professional archer who's just shy of being the best. When the monster shows up, Hie-bong, Gang-du, and Gang-du's daughter Hyun-seo (Ah-sung Ko) are watching Nam-joo lose a tournament on TV. Bong's presentation of the monster, interrupting this low-key domestic drama with its touches of comedy, is disarmingly offhand. The creature is an obvious CGI construction, with no attempt made to make it fit in naturally as an organic component of this otherwise realistic world: it stands out as something totally different, all glossy, slippery surfaces and distracting artificiality. As it rampages through the crowds gathered on the riverside, gobbling up some of the crowd and tossing others into the water with a flick of its tail, it is frightening and hilarious in nearly equal measures, this oddball CGI monster stalking across the riverbank as people scream and run. The artificiality of it all just makes it all the more disconcerting, especially since Bong approaches it with a goofy sense of humor, relishing the way limbs hang out of the monster's mouth after it eats up a victim, or the way the creature stumbles and somersaults down an embankment, moving awkwardly on its deformed limbs.

The human actors are, in their own way, equally stylized and artificial. They approach their parts with a broad comedic, satirical sensibility, purposefully over-emoting at every opportunity. A demonstration of grief, following the monster's assault, is a particularly good example, balanced as it is between devastating sadness and ludicrous exaggeration. The family rolls around on the floor, screaming and wrestling with one another, tearing at each other in grief and rage, and Bong switches to an overhead shot that shows them stretched out there on the ground, overcome by their feelings, expressing their loss in this embarrassingly naked way. Later, Bong's moments of political commentary are just as unfettered and raw; the film is a pretty clever, if not particularly subtle, jab at American dominance of international affairs, and the media's complicity in this dominance. Here, the Americans created the monster through their blatant lack of concern for the environment (especially the environments of the other countries they visit for cheap labor), then they invent the scare that the monster is causing a deadly disease, and then they insert themselves into the affair by offering a radical "solution" in the form of something called "Agent Yellow," a likely dangerous and carcinogenic chemical that they plan to unleash in Korea to kill the monster.

The film's guiding political concept is the idea that American foreign policy is exploitative and misguided, that the Americans oafishly cause problems and then make things even worse in trying to solve them. In this case, the terror over the supposed disease — which seems to have been made up through a combination of incompetence and a desire to cover up mistakes — creates an artificial panic that then allows the Americans to come in with a typically over-the-top, violent solution. Moreover, the Americans are deaf to concerns from other countries. In one of the film's most satirically biting scenes, Gang-du is confronted by an American doctor who takes Gang-du's insistence that his daughter is alive somewhere, imprisoned by the monster, as evidence of dementia, a sign that the disease (which he's starting to believe is fake, anyway) has taken over his brain. Gang-du cries out, in anguish, that they never listen to him, that they keep interrupting him and not letting him speak: "my words are words, too," he cries. It might as well be the filmmaker speaking, on behalf of all foreign peoples whose interests and concerns are trampled over by an intrusive, profit-motivated, military-industrial America.

Although this makes The Host sound like an unsubtle political screed, there's much more to the film than that, and the politics are approached with the same spirit of exaggeration and stylization as everything else in the film. Bong mashes together various tones and ideas with abandon, never settling into any one mode for long. The film's broad physical comedy, political satire, horror and action thus rub uncomfortably against one another, creating interesting frictions as multiple modes can coexist even within a single scene. It's all leading towards an action-packed climax in which this family, so divided and unhappy with each other, finally comes together, each of them adding their specific skills and qualities to the final confrontation with the monster. It gets to the heart of the film's implicit message: rely on family and community, ignoring the distractions and manipulations of politics. In the final scene, they turn off the TV, shutting down the American politicians using buzz words and euphemisms to absolve themselves of responsibility, and focus on enjoying the simple pleasures of family instead. It's a hard road to get to this point, though, through a lot of blood and gore.

It's a wild ride for the audience, too, thrown through the paces by Bong's free-wheeling sensibility of genre mash-ups. There are stunning action sequences, silly comedic bits with lots of slapstick falls and awkward chase scenes, moments of quiet family drama during the uncharacteristic pauses in the action, and of course the horror of the monster, who shows up every once in a while as though to remind the viewer what kind of movie this is at heart, no matter how many diversions into socio-political satire or absurdist comedy it takes along the way. The monster's most horrifying moment comes late in the film, when it suddenly stops simply slurping up victims and then spitting them out more or less intact in its sewer hideout. Instead, it vomits up a torrent of skulls and bones, the remains of its most recent victims, a seemingly never-ending stream of bodies denuded of all signs of flesh. It's all the more bracing and terrifying because Bong had avoided making the monster too bloodthirsty in the earlier stretches of the film.

In fact, there's something graceful about the monster, something even kind of poignant. It often swings through the girders beneath the bridge where it hides, doing gymnastic flips and swinging by its tail, gracefully leaping from one beam to the next. In one scene, its tail appears before it does, lazily turning in spiral patterns, strangely beautiful and hypnotic until the ungainly monster, all vicious-looking teeth and claws, comes careening out of the darkness. Even the monster's ultimate end is somewhat sad, as the creatures twists about in agony, wracked with pain, letting out a haunting cry as it turns on its back. This moment represents the ultimate victory of the family over its terror, but it's at the expense of this poor creature, deformed and mutated by circumstances beyond its control, transformed from an ordinary innocent sea creature into this monstrosity. Bong allows this ambiguity, this discomfiting affection for the monster, to linger throughout the final moments, preventing the obligatory defeat of the creature from being as entirely triumphant as one would expect.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Company

The Company is a weird project for Robert Altman to undertake: a ballet drama conceived entirely by actress Neve Campbell as a showcase for her own interest and background in dance. Campbell wrote the script with screenwriter Barbara Turner, and brought the film to Altman, who initially resisted but finally agreed to direct. It is an obvious vanity project, a film designed to showcase Campbell's involvement with dance; she'd been trained in ballet and revisited her training to prepare for this role. But instead of feeling like an indulgence, the film is moving and beautiful in capturing Campbell's obvious love for this milieu, and Altman's sympathetic, nuanced treatment fully supports the joy and beauty these dancers find in their work. This is a lovely tribute to the ballet, capturing the grandiose aesthetics and elaborate designs of these performances, which Altman filmed in full to gather the material for the film's dance sequences.

And make no mistake: this film exists almost entirely for the sake of its dance sequences. It's tempting to deem the film, which follows a ballet company through a single season, one of Altman's typical sprawling multi-character studies, capturing bits and pieces of various stories and characters backstage between dances. In fact, the film's narrative is Altmanesque only in superficial ways, in that it has many characters and that it doesn't have a real central narrative. Whereas Altman's Nashville and Short Cuts decentralized the narrative in order to follow many characters, observing fragments of their stories and developing them through vignettes rather than a plot with a real forward momentum, The Company all but eliminates plot and drama. Campbell's heroine Ry is the closest the film gets to a central character, but she doesn't really have much of a story: she wants to move up to a more prominent role in the company, she falls in love with a new guy after her dancer boyfriend cheats on her, and, well, that's about it. There are other miniature dramas here and there, too, some money worries, injuries, other little suggestions of the characters' pasts or concerns. Mostly, though, the plot is frictionless, designed not to distract too much from the dance performances; there's no drama, no character development, no real story at all. It's such a common criticism — and misunderstanding — of Altman's films that they have no plot, no narrative structure, so it's illuminating to see the difference here, to see what an Altman film without a true narrative would really be like.

It's in that sense that the film feels most like a vanity project: Ry is a character without real problems, and she meets and falls in love with a hunky sous chef named Josh (James Franco), and that's her story. It's pretty fluffy stuff, but Altman infuses this milieu with heft and substance through his serious, respectful treatment of this world and these performances. The dances, of course, are stunning, and Altman makes good use of the garish light and color in the design of the sets, costumes and choreography here. Many of the dances are opportunities for Altman's camera to roam through the complex patterns of colors and geometry that these dancers form with their bodies: the rigid computer circuit patterns formed with colored ribbons in the opening number, the riot of color and rapid movement in the animal-suited dancers of the finale, the three dancers evoking a multi-armed Hindu god by projecting their merged shadows onto a red screen.

A few dance sequences in particular are tours de force that really showcase Altman's intuitive feel for the grace and aesthetics of these dances. Ry's first moment in the spotlight is a dance at an outdoor venue where, just as she takes the stage for her pas de deux with a male dancer, a thunderstorm begins to threaten, with ominous rumbles of thunder and a harsh wind blowing debris and the first drops of rain through the air. The atmosphere is tense and hushed as Ry and her partner enact a sexy, sensual dance of seduction, the flashes of lightning occasionally lighting up their faces, the wind flowing over them, as the crowd mumbles and shifts nervously, a few umbrellas going up in the audience. It's so tense because one suspects that mainstay of backstage movies, the career-halting injury, could be waiting in the wings — and there are a few of those, scattered here and there in the film, reminders of the lineage from which this movie descends. But in this case, the thunderstorm simply enhances the mood of the dance, making it dangerous and haunting in ways it wouldn't have been otherwise.

Altman also seems to enjoy offering up a tribute to David Lynch, of all people, by including one dance sequence scored to "The World Spins," one of the songs Lynch and his composer Angelo Badalamenti wrote for avant-pop singer Julee Cruise. This sequence is appropriately ethereal, matching Cruise's lilting voice and the ambient melodicism of the music with cool blue hues and a ghostly dance enacted entirely on a low trapeze swing. Altman abstracts the dancer's movements by switching to an overhead shot in which the dancer's body is simply one element in a complex design of blue lights arranged on the floor. At other points, he films her blurry reflection in the glossy surface of the stage, or films her feet as she swings slowly back and forth, her outstretched toes just above the stage, swaying up and out of the frame, leaving behind a moment of black nothingness before her feet reappear as she swings back. It's poetic and mysterious, a perfect nod to Lynch.

Elsewhere, Altman enlivens the basic plotlessness of the non-dance sequences with some flashes of humor and vitality, particularly in the character of the company's domineering artistic director Alberto Antonelli (Malcolm McDowell). Antonelli gets some of the best non-dance scenes in the film, delivering a speech to an Italian-American society in which, rather than being grateful for the award he just received, he castigates his own Italian family for mocking his dance ambitions when he was a kid. Implicit in his words is a warning to be more tolerant, especially since in another scene he laments all the great choreographers and dancers who have been lost to AIDs; it's implied that he's gay, and that this is very much a gay milieu. Probably Antonelli's funniest moment is an argument with a dancer who's protesting the ridiculous conception of a particular sequence for two male dancers. "This baby is a metaphor," Antonelli insists, spouting some elaborate patter about "giving birth to the world." The dancer isn't buying it: "he's a man, how's he gonna give birth?" It's hilarious, and one wishes there were more of this, more of the humor and messiness that so often exists around the fringes of an Altman film. Too much of this film is so tidy, so minimal. There are suggestions of characterization here and there — an older woman who wishes she could still dance, an aging member of the company fighting against getting pushed out herself, a young man with an aggressive manager — but none of it ever really amounts to anything.

Still, even if The Company isn't prime Altman, it's a well-made and frequently moving film in which the abstract emotional catharsis of the dance is placed at the center of the film, rather than all the backstage romances and troubles, which seem incidental in comparison. It's a film that takes joy in movement, both in the rehearsals, where a movement's development is traced and coached along, and in the polished shows themselves. This fascination with movement even extends outside of the dancing milieu, in shots like Ry getting out of the bath behind a screen, her silhouetted body later echoed by the multi-armed shadow of the male dancers, or Josh's legs waving in the air as he puts his pants on, or the elegance of the way he chops up peppers and tomatoes to make an omelet, or the crisp, mathematical motions of Ry as she shoots pool. These scenes suggest that beautiful human motion is everywhere, in everyday life and work as well as on a stage: chopping up peppers or shooting pool can be as beautiful as a pirouette. Even bowling can be beautiful: at one point Altman cleverly cuts from Ry and the other dancers practicing a move to a bowling lane where a dancer repeats virtually the same arm motion as she releases the ball, doing a twirl afterward. These small moments, rather than the prosaic, formulaic narrative beats, are the ones where Altman's presence is really felt.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

A Serious Man

The Coen brothers' latest film, A Serious Man, is one of the duo's most challenging and confounding works — challenging in the sense that it continually defies interpretation, and perhaps even suggests that interpretation, the search for answers, is somewhat beside the point. The central character here is Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a physics professor whose life is beginning to fall apart around him. His wife Judith (Sari Lennick) abruptly announces that she wants a divorce, that she's going to marry their friend Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed) instead, and that maybe Larry should move out. So he does. Larry's also hounded by his brother Arthur (Richard Kind), an obviously damaged man whose medical problems keep him in the bathroom for hours at a time, and who's devising a complicated mathematical system that he winds up using to win at gambling. At school, Larry's confronted by students who just don't understand his complicated mathematical "proofs" for physics concepts, and one student, Clive (David Kang), protests his failure and possibly offers up a bribe, though he both denies and confirms it when Larry confronts him.

Larry is a hapless man, a Job figure whose trials are fairly mundane: a mooching brother, an unfaithful wife, stress over the school's impending ruling on whether he gets tenure or not, petty conflicts with neighbors, bickering kids. He doesn't understand why he's being so tormented, why he has this increasing sense that life isn't something he lives so much as something that's happening to him. He gets wrapped up in the quest for answers, both about the big questions and the little things, but everyone keeps telling him not to try so hard. When he complains to his wife that their neighbor has been mowing part of their lawn, she spits back, with obvious annoyance, "does it matter?" Everyone keeps telling Larry: his concerns don't matter, he should relax, take things as they come, stop worrying so much.

Naturally, Larry turns to religion in order to understand his plight, moving up through the hierarchy of rabbis at his temple. The young Rabbi Scott (Simon Helberg) has little to offer besides meaningless platitudes, and he noticeably stammers to a halt when Larry reveals the full extent of the trials facing him. The inexperienced rabbi's enthusiasm melts when confronted with someone who really has problems bigger than a petty marital spat. The ancient Rabbi Marshak (Alan Mandell), on the other hand, won't even see people anymore; he simply sits silently in his study, surrounded by clutter and knick-knacks (the accumulated weight of history and tradition?) and, according to his secretary, is busy thinking. This leaves only Rabbi Nachtner (George Wyner) for Larry to get any advice from, and it initially seems like Nachtner is going to deliver. In one of the film's best and funniest sequences, he launches into an elaborate and mystical anecdote about a dentist who discovers a message, in Hebrew letters, on the insides of the teeth of a goy patient. The dentist is understandably shaken and is desperate to find answers, to know who put the letters there and why. The dentist thinks that maybe God is trying to tell him something, and for weeks he can't sleep, can't eat, can't stop thinking about what this all might mean.

This all builds up to a crescendo as the dentist comes to visit Nachtner, asking for advice much as Larry is. Larry is on the edge of his seat, eager for answers, and the brilliance of the sequence is that the audience has been placed in the same position as Larry: mystified, enthralled, eager to understand, to hear what wisdom Nachtner has to offer. So the dentist comes to visit the rabbi and... that's it. Nachtner stops, takes a sip of tea, and seems to think the story is over. And when Larry pushes him for more, Nachtner shrugs, says that he told the dentist not to worry about it, that no one understands anything, and that the dentist eventually forgot all about the strange incident and went back to living his life as though nothing had happened. This is supremely unsatisfying, but then that seems to be what the Coens are suggesting: life is unsatisfying, at least if you're looking for definitive answers and tidy resolutions, which are in short supply. Moreover, religion is unsatisfying, only fulfilling its role as a security blanket for those willing to take its vague assurances and pat answers at face value. That's not enough for Larry, who wants to know the truth, who wants to understand why things happen, why he feels so cursed.

This impulse is of course at the heart of Larry's profession; as a physics professor, he seeks to understand the universe, to code the workings of everything into complex mathematical problems that supposedly prove one thing or another. Throughout the film, Larry sees only the details, never the big picture, and the Coens highlight this by showing him crouched at his blackboard, scribbling equations in chalk. His explanations to his befuddled class are laughable: "This is this, so we can do that," he says as he scrawls letters and numbers and square root symbols across the board. As though that explains anything. These closeups of Larry at work eventually give way, at a pivotal moment, to a pullback into a wide shot, revealing Larry at the front of a classroom, dwarfed by a tremendous board on which every inch is packed with equations, which Larry explains are an illustration of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle: a whole blackboard dedicated to equations all meant to prove that we can never really know anything for sure. Larry is so desperate for answers, so convinced that there must be a logical explanation for it all, some way to figure things out in nice, clean math, that he doesn't see just how meaningless all these abstract equations are. For him, the math has replaced the real things it's supposed to be accounting for: he tells Clive, his failing student, that the real-world examples he gives in class are just illustrations, that the math is the thing. He's got it backwards, it seems, forgetting that in science all the math and numbers are meant to support and explain some observable real-world phenomenon.

Perhaps that's why the paradox of Schrödinger's cat is so central to Larry's thinking; it's the perfect illustration of how little we know, how uncertain everything about the world is. And Larry is confronted with a kind of Schrödinger's bribe when a mysterious envelope of money shows up on his desk, and Clive both implies and denies that he left it there as a bribe to get a good grade. As Clive's father tells Larry later in the film, he should simply "embrace the mystery," not try to untangle who left the money there or why, should accept that it's possible for the money to have simultaneously been left there and not left there, just as Schrödinger's cat is both dead and not dead. The Coens are perhaps subtly suggesting that religion, like other attempts to make sense of a world that doesn't make sense, is a fruitless pursuit. It's also perhaps an attempt to grapple with Judaism, with the historical perspective of Jews who believe themselves to be simultaneously "chosen" and cursed, an oppressed and tormented people beset by troubles. As one woman tells Larry, as Jews they don't suffer alone, they have history and tradition and the whole massed Jewish people to help them come to terms with their troubles — but Larry's experience suggests exactly the opposite, that the example of history has nothing to offer him. Rabbi Marshak, the oldest Jewish authority figure in the film, is surrounded by accumulated detritus, evidence of his age and experience, but he literally won't speak to anyone, won't share his knowledge with others — and when he finally does speak, towards the end of the film, it's only to quote Jefferson Airplane and enumerate the band's members, words of wisdom that resonate with Larry's stoned young son Danny (Aaron Wolff) but probably wouldn't have meant anything to Larry himself.

All of this is leading towards an apocalyptic denouement that doesn't explain anything, that never makes sense of Larry's dilemma or his religious, metaphysical and philosophical inquiries. That's the point: nothing makes sense, no one knows what it all means. If the film is somewhat unsatisfying, somewhat incomplete, as a result, hey, that's what life is like, too. The Coens are perhaps being too oblique here, even for filmmakers who notoriously refuse tidy explanations, and their film's ending is a deliberate anti-climax, a final non-sequitur in a film that relied throughout on countless such deadpan, absurdist non-sequiturs. It's an ending, and a film, designed to leave audiences thoroughly nonplussed and perhaps unsettled as well. And that's even without trying to divine the meaning of the introductory scene, in which a Jewish couple is confronted by an old man who they believe to be a dybbuk, an evil spirit.

Larry's confusion and uncertainty are also our own. This would be especially frustrating if the film wasn't so well-made, so compelling in the way it explores Larry's 60s suburban universe. All the wide-open space, the houses with carefully manicured lawns, no fences separating one tract from another. The clouds billowing in the sky, turned dark and threatening by the final moments of the film. And the faces, oh those faces: the Coens have always had a real feel for capturing personalities through deadpan closeups, and A Serious Man is possibly the peak of this approach. From the wrinkled, hound-dog visage of the teacher who confiscates Danny's pocket radio in the opening scenes, to the smug yuppie smirk of Sy Ableman, to the stoned, reddened eyes of Danny and his profanity-spouting friends, to the leathery fake tan and bitchy nonchalance of Larry's next-door neighbor, the Coens continually capture faces in interesting ways, probing these characters through their expressions. The film is clever and darkly funny, and its finale is another of those irresolvable Schrödinger paradoxes: it provokes audiences into trying to decipher the meaning of it all, even while its ultimate message seems to be that nothing is decipherable, that it's all a big cosmic joke of some sort, perhaps perpetrated by a god with the kind of bizarre sense of humor that makes him carve meaningless but cryptic messages inside the teeth of a goy.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Lineup

Don Siegel's The Lineup is an interesting noir with an unusual structure, starting with the cops investigating the death of a cop during a drug smuggling ploy gone wrong, then midway through making a pair of out-of-town killers the protagonists instead. The film's opening seconds are a burst of sheer adrenaline as a porter throws a piece of luggage into a cab, which promptly speeds away, crashes into a truck, runs over a cop, and finally crashes again, killing the driver. All this happens in a rush before the film's title appears onscreen, but after this the story slows to a crawl as inspectors Quine (Emile Meyer) and Asher (Marshall Reed) show up to investigate the aftermath. Their plodding, careful investigation never really kicks into gear: as passionate as they are about finding out who's responsible for the death of a fellow officer, their efforts reveal just how routine, how dull, real policework can be. There's a sense that Siegel is trying to infuse a certain realism into his film, capturing the forensics, the slow process of gathering evidence, the frustrations of not having any leads. Even the titular lineup is a disappointment, not to mention a red herring: their sole witness to the incident, Dressler (Raymond Bailey), can't identify the porter who stole his luggage, and the cops half-suspect that Dressler's not so innocent anyway. Moreover, the porter soon winds up dead anyway; this story isn't about him any more than it's about Dressler or the cops. Siegel shoots these scenes with panache — the lineup itself, taking place on a strikingly bright set, is visually compelling — but can't disguise the fact that realism, at times, is kind of boring.

That's why it's so thrilling when, without ceremony, Siegel discards the story of the frustrated cops and instead switches focus to new arrivals Dancer (Eli Wallach, in only his second feature film after his electric debut in Baby Doll) and Julian (Robert Keith). They are quite an unusual pair. Dancer is a sociopath, a killer who perhaps enjoys his job too much; he sneers and delivers a chilly, unhinged stare that unnerves anyone who's on the receiving end of it. Julian, in contrast, is an older man, cultured and reserved, who keeps Dancer just barely reined in. He is, as their wheelman Sandy (Richard Jaeckel) observes at one point, like a "coach" to Dancer, encouraging him and making sure he doesn't go overboard. He encourages Dancer to learn good grammar, too, saying that it's the route to success. He seems to be of a literary bent himself: he records the "famous last words" of Dancer's victims, gathering material for a book, a psychological study of those facing death. Obviously, these are two Hollywood bad guys, with stylized eccentricities and exaggerated menace; their portrayals rub uncomfortably up against the bland stolidness of the police in the earlier scenes. It's as though the film really comes alive once they step onto the scene, trading weird banter and radiating a nearly Lynchian menace; they would fit in comfortably as a pair of outlandish thugs in one of Lynch's films.

After these two killers are introduced, the film becomes about their attempts to gather some drug shipments that had been placed in various knick-knacks carried into the country by unsuspecting tourists. This is a contrivance of the first degree, a needlessly convoluted plot that provides the engine for Dancer and Julian's sinister shuttling around town. They visit their marks in sequence, with Dancer calmly going about the business of getting the drugs and killing anyone who gets in his way. There's a casual brutality to Dancer's rounds that makes him a very disconcerting figure, especially when juxtaposed against the professorly Julian.

Each of these sequences is meticulously designed. When Dancer goes to see a seaman (William Leslie) who knowingly brought in the heroin, the two meet in a sauna where Dancer turns up the steam so that he remains obscured, a shadowy silhouette drifting through the fog. Later, he shoots a house servant while stealing a set of flatware with heroin stored away in the handles, and the shooting is captured in a mirror, the servant stiffening, his body at an oblique angle to the diagonals of a stairway. Siegel has a sharp sense of place and location that constantly informs the film, which uses its San Francisco settings to dramatic effect. The characters are continually framed in closeups with the scenery looming behind and below them, hills and valleys majestically framing the characters. When Sandy first appears at a remote hotel where Dancer and Julian are staying, he is poised on the edge of a cliff leading down to a valley below, where clusters of geometrically rigid buildings create patterns in the background. As he walks up to the hotel, the pillars outside the rooms divide the background into slim rectangular sections receding into the distance. Siegel has a keen eye for such geometric patterns and divisions, like a window that segments the San Francisco skyline into semicircles and polygons as two cops discuss their case.

The final car chase is another perfect example. It's a thrilling sequence that relies on the geography of the terrain, particularly a highway under construction where the criminals, confused by their circular turns and the road blocks erected in their path, are forced to flee. The final showdown takes place on this road that ends literally in midair, overlooking a massive drop, and then in a narrow cul-de-sac where Siegel plays with perspective: at first the road looks like an entry to a freeway and a clean getaway, but then the path narrows down to a point and it's revealed as a dead end. Scenes like this, where the raging insanity of Dancer plays off of Siegel's fascinating visuals, make the film worthwhile far beyond its rather ramshackle plot and uneven pacing. At times, the script falters and plods. It is front-loaded with some dull and preachy speeches obviously designed to teach the public about the horrors of drug use and drug smuggling, and its psychological characterizations of Dancer are sometimes far too on-the-nose. At one point, when someone asks him what makes him "tick," he responds, apparently without irony, that he never knew his father, a pat explanation that hardly accounts for the psychosis in his character.

Maybe that's the point. Wallach's performance as Dancer is startling in its intensity and brutality, his eyes flashing with lunacy. It's a truly unhinged performance, one that makes a mockery of the script's periodic stabs at psychological profiling. Dancer's confrontation with the mysterious criminal leader known only as "The Man" (Vaughn Taylor) reveals what happens when Dancer slips off his leash, when he can no longer control his violence or his rage. When The Man, a quietly creepy figure in a wheelchair, refuses to give Dancer the validation he asks for, and instead gently insists that Dancer is now a dead man, the killer can't control himself, can't hold back the rage constantly boiling beneath the surface. Siegel subtly encloses Wallach's performance within the film's hard lines and rigid separations between foreground and background, suggesting that Dancer is raging and fighting against the entire world, against the bounds of society. There is no better metaphor, then, than that climactic sequence in which what had seemed to be an open road closes down to an unpassable trap, closing off all exit for the criminal who wishes to push his way outside of the law. There is no way out from here, nothing left to say, and it's appropriate that Siegel doesn't have anything more to say either: the cops leave the scene afterward in silence as the camera pans away to take in the skyline in the background.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

I Was Born, But...

I Was Born, But... is an utterly charming, hilarious silent comedy of childhood by Yasujiro Ozu, displaying the lighter, more playful side of his sensibility. The film concerns itself almost exclusively with the child's point of view, focusing on the perspective of young brothers Keiji (Tomio Aoki) and Ryoichi (Hideo Sugawara). The boys have just moved to a new town with their father (Tatsuo Saito) and mother (Mitsuko Yoshikawa), since their father has moved to the suburbs so as to be closer to his boss. The film's genius is the way Ozu keeps unceremoniously cutting away from the film's adult dramas — the father's desire to advance at work and make a good impression on his boss — to follow the kids instead. It's like there are two entirely separate worlds coexisting here. When the father goes to visit his boss on the weekend early in the film, Ozu watches just long enough to establish that he's doing a little sucking up, looking obviously subservient with his stained jacket and nervous mannerisms, and then the camera chases off after the boss' son Taro (Seiichi Kato) as he runs away with some friends to go bully the new boys.

These scenes have an exuberance and energy that's nearly irresistible, as Ozu traces the way that small dramas can be of big consequence in a child's world. Keiji and Ryoichi must adjust to their new home, to new challenges from a bully and the gang he leads. They are dogged, too, by their father's insistence that they do well in school, even though they don't even want to go because of the bullies there. When asked if they like school, the boys immediately respond, "we like the walk there and the walk home, but in between is no fun." There's a real sharp wit in this film, a sense of pitch-perfect comic timing that's as present in the physical comedy as it is in the sporadic dialogue provided by the titles. When the bullies confront the two boys, it's staged like a dance, with each side stepping forward a little bit at a time, hesitantly posturing for one another, the leader gliding forward and the others behind him nervously inching up to support him or at least to see what's going on.

Ozu has great fun with all these scenes, enjoying the kids' mugging and goofing around, the way they make faces and stand on one foot, try to find sparrows' eggs because they think it'll make them stronger, and play a funny game of raising the dead, gesturing to make a kid fall to the floor, then crossing themselves and holding their hands out to bring him back to "life." There are plenty of wonderful comic set pieces and characters, like the beer delivery boy (Shoichi Kofujita) who teases the boys by pretending he'll forge a good grade on their faked homework assignment, then drawing a backwards character instead. Later, the boys convince the delivery boy to help them beat up the bully who's bothering them, because they tip him off when their mother wants to buy beer. Helping him get a sale earns the boys his temporary loyalty, but it's not enough to get him to also take on Taro: as he explains, Taro's family buys much more than Keiji and Ryoichi's family. This is a first indication, though the boys don't understand it at the time, of the concept of social status and hierarchies.

Their understanding of hierarchies is limited to the idea of who can beat up whom, of who's bigger and stronger, who's tougher. They don't get that the adult world has different priorities, that money and class dictate the separations and relationships between people once they grow up past childhood. Once the boys dispense with the bully, they take over leadership of the gang, including Taro, who becomes their friend and lackey. To them, they're equals at least, so it's puzzling to get some hints that things might be different for their parents. This conflict comes to the fore in the film's final third: after spending an hour dealing with light slapstick and goofy little set pieces involving the kids, Ozu unexpectedly introduces a note of pathos and drama when the boys see some amateur movies of their father acting like a fool at work, making funny faces and trying to amuse his boss. They had worshiped and respected their father, believing him to be an important man, defending him in the usual kids' arguments about whose father is the best. When they see these movies, they suddenly see him in a totally different light, as a clown, as someone who has to be obsequious with Taro's father, constantly bowing to him. And when their father tries to explain that he is only an employee, that Taro's father is above him in rank, the boys are only even more devastated, understanding in a flash that the world does not work the way they thought it did, that their father was not the "great man" they'd thought he was.

The film's final act is moving and nuanced in its treatment of this theme, replacing the humor of the earlier scenes with an honest, direct look at class and honor. The father sighs that coping with the limits of status, with settling for being just a lowly employee, is "a problem kids these days will face all their lives," suggesting that he sees a future, sadly enough, where his own sons will grow up to be just like him, cogs in the machine rather than truly important men. He watches them sleep, with tears drying beneath their eyes, and urges them to strive to be better, not to settle for a working man's life and status the way he had. It's deeply affecting, to see this man struggling with his emotions as he realizes how badly his sons' confidence in him has been shaken. He briefly sinks into despair, grabbing a bottle of liquor and threatening to drown his sorrow in it. Ozu captures this low point quite effectively, framing the image with the father leaning against the doorway in the right side of the frame, the liquor bottle in his hand hanging down into the foreground, as his wife sits in the center of the frame in the background. It's a wonderful image of resignation and sadness. It is also the payoff to Ozu's decision to stage the film so completely from the kids' perspective prior to this: this sudden shift to the father, to his long-subdued frustration and mild shame at his limited position in life, is striking in its emotional impact.

There are hints of this sympathy to the father's perspective earlier in the film, too. Ozu's editing frequently suggests the continuity between father and sons even before the theme comes up explicitly in the film's denouement, by drawing parallels between the generations through juxtapositions of images. At one point, the camera pans (a camera move much more frequent in silent Ozu than it would be later in his career) across a row of office workers hunched over their desks, writing. Ozu then cuts to a cluster of students at their desks, learning calligraphy while a teacher admonishes them for goofing around or staring off into space, and finally the camera pans across an open field where the two kids cutting school are sprawled out, also writing as they lie in the grass. In all three shots, the camera move is the same, even as subtle shifts in the angle calls attention to the cutting, preventing a smooth transition from one shot to the next. It is purposefully disjunctive and jarring, suggesting both that the generations are linked by similar behaviors and situations, and yet that there is some necessary break, some trauma, that leads from childhood to adulthood. That break, perhaps, is the children's later realization of their father's place in the social strata.

Ozu chronicles the changing relationship between father and sons throughout the film by returning several times to a particular primal scene, the father and the two boys leaving the house together in the mornings, walking together as far as a train crossing before splitting up, the boys going off to school and the father to work. When this scene recurs at the end of the film, after the boys have started to come to terms with their father's place in the world, it mirrors the earlier ones, in which the boys had unquestioned respect for their father. But there's a new emotional undercurrent here, a hint of hesitancy that's cleared up when the boys give their father permission to go greet his boss, confirming that they now understand and have once again gained respect for him, albeit a new, more realistic respect, one founded on simple love rather than a mistaken belief in the father as an idealized "great man." It is a poignant and warm ending to a wonderful film in which Ozu affectionately, sensitively explores the nature of familial bonds and the role of honor in a new world where social class is calcifying into a rigid hierarchy.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Hurt Locker

Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker is a powerful, crisply made action movie about a military bomb squad working in Iraq. William James (Jeremy Renner) is the new leader of the squad, replacing the former sergeant who's blown up by a roadside bomb in the tense opening scenes. James is an unwelcome new presence to his teammates, the professional Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and the perpetually nervous Eldridge (Brian Geraghty). James is a cowboy, or as one superior officer appreciatively calls him, a "wild man." He steps recklessly into danger, always placing himself in the most unstable positions, always refusing to give up or walk away until he has defused the bomb.

The film excels at crafting one suspenseful, taut action set piece after another. Bigelow has an exquisite feel for pacing and timing, for drawing out tense moments into seemingly endless, heart-pounding sequences where each gesture, each slow intake of breath, feels like an explosion. The film is largely structured around the squad's tour of duty, with periodic onscreen titles announcing how many days they have left before they get to return home and end their tenure in Iraq. Each sequence then advances these three men a day closer to leaving Iraq safely; there's little more structure than this slow countdown, and the length and tension of each individual sequence emphasizes just how harrowing and exhausting a tour in Iraq must be. In one sequence, as James struggles with a huge car bomb, Sanborn and Eldridge survey the area, watching for suspicious activity in the crowds of Iraqis who inevitably gather to watch as James tries to defuse the bomb, tearing apart the interior of the car looking for wires and tracking down the ignition device. It's tense and wonderfully handled, as Bigelow cuts back and forth between James, trapped in the claustrophobic interior of the burned-out car, and the two soldiers outside, their eyes flitting around, trying to look everywhere at once and knowing that they'll never be able to see everything. The tension builds and builds and builds, as James cannot find the ignition device and, outside, the atmosphere starts to get subtly menacing.

One of the film's most effective aspects is the way in which it portrays the Americans' complete incomprehension of the Iraqi people around them. In scene after scene, the Iraqis are a silent, threatening presence, simply staring impassively at the soldiers; their thoughts and motivations are a mystery, both to the audience and the soldiers. It's impossible to know who among them is an insurgent and who is simply a citizen observer. This situation creates a dominant mood of fear and paranoia, in which every Iraqi is potentially a threat, everyone they meet might be a spy, or a bomber, or a sniper — or simply a citizen, as scared as the soldiers are by what's going on, unsure of how to act or what to do. At one point, a taxi cab speeds through a blockade of soldiers towards James, who stops the car by pointing a pistol at it, holding it in a Western-style standoff. It's a mysterious scene, since it's not at all clear what the cab driver intended to do, what he wanted, where he was going. Was he an insurgent or a terrorist of some kind, or simply an innocent man who'd blundered into the wrong place and then froze up, making himself appear guilty through his refusal, or inability, to speak or understand? As James says afterward, equally chagrined and darkly amused, if the man wasn't an insurgent already, he would be now.

Scenes like this establish a situation in which the gap between the American soldiers and the Iraqis is more than a simple language barrier; it's a profound disconnect in culture and understanding, a complete lack of knowledge about the other's motivations. The two sides are so rarely able to get beyond the mutual fear and paranoia, complicated by the legitimate threats that seem to be omnipresent in this country. As James defuses a complex web of bombs, an Iraqi man watches from a window above, and it's apparent that he was the one who planted the bombs. He runs downstairs, and his eyes meet James' for a moment as the soldier works on the bombs; the bomber and his prospective victim come face to face for a moment, but James has no way of knowing it. In the scene where James is defusing the car bomb, Sanborn and Eldridge watch a group of men in a tower seemingly signaling to a man across the way with a camcorder, and they're helpless, unable to guess what's going on, knowing that they can't shoot until it's probably too late, until the men have put whatever they're planning into motion. The film shows the complex types of decisions facing these men, never sure if they're confronted with friends or enemies. No wonder they're so tightly wound that they mistake a British squad with a flat tire for a group of Arab commandos.

This encounter triggers the film's best set piece, a lengthy confrontation between opposing snipers in the desert, as some insurgent snipers set up in a small shack some distance away and begin picking off the British and American soldiers. Sanborn takes up a sniper's perch in response, and time seems to slow down, as each motion takes an eternity. The rifle jams, the bullets are covered in sticky blood from a dead soldier, and each shot takes long moments to set up, with James directing Sanborn where to aim. Each missed shot demands an adjustment, a small tweak upwards or to the right, and Bigelow switches between shots through the rifle's scope — heat-blurred, hazy views with hints of motion identifying the locations of the enemy snipers — and forward views of Sanborn staring through the rifle's sight. The men are so intent they barely notice the sweat or the flies crawling across their faces. It's a compelling, tense sequence, and Bigelow hits each beat perfectly, with an attention to detail that allows each moment to have an enormous impact.

To the extent that the film simply stitches together several such set pieces, The Hurt Locker is a successful portrayal of the tight focusing effect of war, the way the immediacy of a moment in which a soldier might die overcomes any hint of context. The reasons for the war never enter the picture; no preaching here, from either side, since politics are as far from the everyday life of the soldier as Washington, D.C. itself is from Iraq. Likewise, the personal lives of the soldiers only sporadically come up, as in the coda in which James returns to his family and finds that, despite his love for his child, he doesn't really know what to do with himself outside of a war zone (a tired cliché that demonstrates, perhaps, the film's weakness whenever it's not concerned directly with warfare).

More often, The Hurt Locker is about the moment to moment struggle for survival and the effort of getting the job done. There is an brief stretch towards the end of the film when it initially looks like the narrative is going to cohere into something more conventional, as the hints of a broader plot start coming together. James is moved when he finds the corpse of a young Iraqi boy who'd been selling DVDs on the military base, and goes rogue trying to get revenge, but this winds up being a diversion from the less showy routine of the day-to-day bomb defusing job. It's a nod to action movie conventions, the hero who has to go off nobly seeking revenge, and in that sense it's interesting that Bigelow ultimately portrays James' action movie impulses as betrayals of his military professionalism, misguided and ineffectual. When he tries to be an action movie spy, sneaking through the streets of Baghdad in civilian clothes with a pistol, breaking into random houses looking for information, he's shown up as out of his depth, unable to perform the way he does when he's in his blast suit, facing down a deadly explosive device. James might be the film's "cowboy," who's praised by the higher-ups for his bold but reckless manner, but in the end he has to face that he's most effective when he maintains a more grounded view of his job, rooted in professionalism and procedures.

The Hurt Locker is a strong film, narrowly focused as it is; it takes as its subject these three men and their tension-filled daily tasks, and probes the sensory and emotional textures of this job. The film is formally rigorous, with a powerful feel for sound: both the explosive bursts of a bomb going off and the hushed, expectant silence that precedes it. If Bigelow doesn't aim much higher than crafting an especially visceral, affecting action movie set in our most current war zone, that's perhaps a shame, but it doesn't invalidate her achievement by any means. Indeed, there's no mistake: this is a fantastic action movie with some real flames of substance flickering at its core.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Nuits rouges

With Nuits rouges, Georges Franju returned to the territory of Louis Feuillade, whose adventure serials also provided the inspiration for Franju's 1963 Judex. Made a decade later, Nuits rouges is far wilder, more garish and absurd, than its predecessor: if Franju's Judex captured the mystery and poetic magic of Feuillade, this later tribute is all about the pulpy delights of Feuillade, the over-the-top pleasures of a ludicrous, convoluted narrative, secret conspiracies, spies and killers in stylized costumes. The narrative revolves around the mythical treasure of the Templars, a secret long guarded by this secret society and coveted by all others who suspect its existence. The nameless master criminal (Jacques Champreux) known only as "the man without a face" is one of those who seek this treasure, and is willing to do anything to get it. He is a master of disguise (even if many of his disguises, in the grand tradition of movie disguise masters, consist of nothing but a cheap wig or a false nose) and often appears in a sleek black suit and red mask, behind which his eyes are insane and unblinking.

Quite frankly, this movie is nuts. The elusive Templar treasure provides a (slim) justification for one loony set piece after another, as the red-masked villain's secret criminal organization squares off against the Templars in their white robes and masks. The film was edited down from an eight-episode television miniseries, which presumably made more sense in terms of narrative, but here Franju has distilled the story down to its bare essence, one weird moment after another with little concern for continuity. In the midst of all this scheming and spy movie pastiche, Paul (Ugo Pagliai) gets drawn into the mystery because of his murdered uncle, who had been safeguarding the Templars' treasure, while police inspector Sorbier (Gert Fröbe) tries to make some sense of this all and the "poet detective" (whatever that is) Séraphin (Patrick Préjean) keeps bumbling along and screwing everything up. Franju's visual imagination is in high gear throughout, spinning out a goofy, endlessly inventive series of colorful set pieces. Thus the red-masked criminal's lair is a cross between a sci-fi compound and a business office. The villain marches through secret passages and sits down behind a silvery desk — cheap and fake-looking, like it's simply been coated in aluminum foil — but then calls his employees over the intercom like he's paging his secretary, and asks for files. His criminal underlings sit in neat rows at typewriters, dressed in black jumpsuits to match their boss' outfit, though without the nifty red mask.

Franju is obviously toying with his genre lineage here, drawing on Feuillade's black-suited spies and adventurers, all the weird secret organizations, the rappelling along rooftops, the strange technology that's more or less represented by cardboard boxes and TV rabbit ears. Franju also respects another standard of the genre: the lousy, hammy performances and awkward dubbing that infuses the film with such a disorienting, amateurish disconnect. The multinational cast hardly delivers any convincing performances, and some of the smaller players are especially laughable: a professor (Henry Soskin) makes his big death scene absolutely hysterical by squealing melodramatically as he watches his would-be killer approach. Franju highlights the moment by zooming in, as though his camera was going to keep probing until its lens was engulfed by the professor's gaping, screaming maw. Franju is obviously delighted by the inconsistent, knowingly silly performances on display here, and he manages to make a virtue of the film's campy self-consciousness by reveling in the unrestrained quality of it all.

Certainly, the uneven performances are counterbalanced by the lo-fi visual beauty of the film. Franju's sets might be minimal and deliberately, transparently artificial, but his aesthetic sense makes them beautiful in that knowingly fake way that so often informed the early cinema (but, ironically, not so much Feuillade, whose films relied more on surface realism and location shooting). At times, Franju seems to be nodding as much to the golden age of Hollywood cinema as he is to Feuillade. A sequence where the red-masked villain's sexy accomplice (Gayle Hunnicutt) stalks across the rooftops in a cat burglar outfit and domino mask is especially evocative of Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief. It has that same stylized atmosphere, the eerie darkness, the slinky woman tiptoeing across the roofs on a mysterious mission. And when she arrives at her destination and looks down into the room where her target lies sleeping below, Franju switches to a shot from the other side of the window: the woman's face hazy and distorted through the frosted glass, her features abstracted by the distortion. Batman's nemesis Catwoman, and comics in general, are another obvious touchstone. It all ties back to Feuillade as the common source, the cinema's great pioneer of pulp storytelling, the root of so many of these iconic images.

Franju also incorporates a nod to the classic horror cinema, including his own early mad science feature Eyes Without a Face, still probably his most famous film. The mad scientist (Clément Harari) here is a truly deranged figure, a sinister and wacky monster who sweats and bulges his eyes out as he operates on his "patients." His goal? To create lobotomized robots — the ideal common man, in his view — with no brain activity, who will do anything they're ordered to do, and who can be used as zombie assassins. He keeps these zombies in simple wooden coffins with nutrient drips, and rants over them about how helpful his work will be for the future of society. These perfect slaves will aid the economy and the military, creating a workforce that can be stored away and turned off during periods of downturn, without inconvenience to the world's elites and rulers, who will alone retain their agency and minds. It's a nightmare vision, and Franju illustrates it quite literally when an army of these zombies, disguised as mannequins, attempt to kill Paul and Séraphin. It's a pointed satirical jab — at the dehumanization and oppression of the populace by elites — in a film that's otherwise concerned with being simply a fluffy tribute to old movies and old genre tropes.

That might seem a relatively modest goal, but Franju has so much obvious fun with this material that Nuits rouges is a purely joyous experience. Even more than Franju's Judex, in which he explores the poetic resonances of this material, Nuits rouges captures the trashy, pulpy qualities of old cinema, the bold visual ideas and the excitement of never knowing what wild idea is coming up next.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Joan the Maid II: The Prisons

The second half of Jacques Rivette's epic treatment of Joan of Arc, Joan the Maid II: The Prisons, picks up right where The Battles (reviewed here) left off, following the successful siege of Orléans. But where the first film ended with Joan's (Sandrine Bonnaire) moment of triumph, this second film almost immediately introduces the steps backward, the uncertainties, the political intrigues that would eventually lead to Joan's imprisonment and death. Joan had been fighting for the king, Charles (André Marcon), but Charles is increasingly pulled away from Joan, despite his faith in her, by the more worldly and secular advice of his self-interested council, La Trémoille (Jean-Louis Richard) and Regnault de Chartres (Marcel Bozonnet). Although the film's title would suggest that it is concerned wholly with Joan's trial and imprisonment, it is actually concerned with the manner in which Joan's dominance and confidence were slowly worn away, her spiritual purity betrayed by the political machinations of those more wily and manipulative than she. Despite her victories, the king's advisers immediately begin questioning her, advising the king to make peace, to cease fighting, to work towards a compromise — ideas that are foreign to Joan, secure in the knowledge that she is doing God's will.

From the beginning of the film, Rivette shows how Joan is shaken in her faith by the king's wavering, as he changes course at the whims of his council and hesitates in granting Joan the continued power to fight for him. She is essentially being tempted: to give up her fight, to give up her men's clothes and warrior ways, to rest, finally, after so many months without sleep. It is a powerful temptation, especially since Joan's own unshakable belief in King Charles turns out not to be warranted as the king fails to heed her advice any further after her initial victories pave the way for his official coronation as king of France. Such temptations are at the center of religious belief, and if the first half of Joan's story is the tale of a woman driven by religious devotion to do things seemingly beyond her station or power, the second half recounts this holy woman's struggle to maintain her belief and spiritual convictions against those who were willing to go along with her when it was convenient for them, but want her out of the way when it ceases to serve their worldly ambitions.

There is, certainly, an element of anti-feminine sentiment in Joan's fall. One recurring theme of the film is the distrust of women, especially in religious contexts. When Joan is captured by the enemy duke Philippe (Philippe Morier-Genoud), he tells her that his own religious leaders tell him that all women are monsters and temptresses, that they are not to be trusted. He claims to disagree, but in fact the reason that Joan seems to inspire so much fear — and why she is constantly insulted as being a witch, or a whore, or the Antichrist itself — is because she is a woman who refused to remain in her place, to live the simple life as a country seamstress that seemed to have been destined for her. Even the kindly women in the duke's castle, who wish only to help Joan, advise her to shed her man's clothes, to put on a dress, to let her hair grow long. At best, Joan is seen as resisting the proper place and role for a woman; at worst, her actions are seen as heretical, contrary to the church's emphasis on the behavior appropriate to men and women. The church thus assumes the task of enforcing gender roles as well as mediating spiritual matters. That's why, when Joan is tried, so much of the outrage directed at her seems to be because she is a woman, and that's also why, when she is imprisoned, one of the primary humiliations inflicted upon her is the constant threat of rape and abuse at the hands of her leering guards. She is placed back in her "proper" place, which is to be dressed in woman's clothing again and made an object of sexual desire.

Appropriately enough, this second film is more austere than its predecessor; darker, shadowier, with far fewer of the lovely outdoor vistas that so poetically set the pace in The Battles. Instead, much of the action here takes place indoors, and is enacted with words alone: words of smooth diplomacy, bargaining, backpedaling, betrayal, rather than the forceful clarity of Joan's pronouncements. Despite this, it is not a colder film; at every point, Rivette seems attuned to the human reality of his noble protagonist, to her suffering and indecision and desire to do the right thing even when confronted with those who clearly intend harm for her.

Nor does Rivette entirely abandon the streak of humanistic humor inherent in his treatment of Joan and her milieu. When Joan is with the soldiers, she is portrayed as truly one of them, despite her diminutive stature and a feminine body that no man's clothes can ever truly disguise. She laughs and jokes with them, and smiles with genuine cheer when she tells the men that they will be attacking Paris, that she wants to get close enough to see the city walls for herself. She has a disarming way about her that Bonnaire plays as a kind of innocent, childlike delight in the business of war. Rivette is also in touch, though, with other aspects of Joan's personality, especially with her gentle, quiet spirituality, reflected in the confidence she projects when she believes that she is doing God's will. In one of the film's loveliest, saddest images, Joan genuflects before an altar where she has placed her sword and armor, relinquishing them following the king's decision to agree to a truce. Joan kneels to pray, the flames flickering in the background on the tips of the candles, forming a little halo of fire around her head. It is a gorgeous image, at once spiritually inspiring and melancholy, as Joan acknowledges that her mission is being prematurely brought to an end by circumstances beyond her control.

Rivette's approach to the pomp and grandeur of organized religious ceremony is different; whereas Joan's private spirituality and whispered prayers are genuine and moving, the ritual of the church is absurd and overblown. When Charles is crowned king, in a grand ceremony within a church, each gesture is portentous and slowly drawn out, as the bishops and priests go through their elaborate rites of coronation while the organ and voices provide periodic musical punctuation. Rivette can't help but make a few humorous observations on the fringes of the scene, subtly tweaking these pompous proceedings. As the grandiose choral music soars, Rivette zooms in on the back of the church, where a line of soldiers are just barely holding back a crowd eagerly jostling for position, craning their necks to see the king get crowned, like spectators at a race track trying to get the best view. Rivette mixes the sacred and the common, contrasting the overblown religiosity of the music against the ordinary folk crammed into the church, smiling and agape as they watch this grand spectacle. The punchline comes when, at the end of the ceremony, a church official in his rich garments apologizes to some visitors that this rite wasn't more elaborate; they had to throw it together so quickly.

A darker punchline arrives when Joan's trial becomes a similarly showy affair, marked by more grand speechifying and religious rhetoric. As Joan tells the bishop who first informs her of the trial, if she's already been judged in advance, why go through with the artifice of the show trial? Just skip straight to the punishment, she spits with contempt. But that would be missing the point: to these people the artifice, the show, the ritual, the ceremony, is the essence of religion rather than mere ornamentation. Whereas Joan presents a vision of absolute faith shorn of pretension, the officials of the organized church are beholden to various political factions, possessed of various biases and ideas, enamored of ritual and procedure. Once again, the film's central conflict comes down to the tension between the worldly and the spiritual, although this time even the church itself is revealed as being on the worldly side, too tied up in politics and traditions to consider whether Joan has committed any crime besides being a woman with ideas of her own. Rivette's film, across its two halves, chronicles the tremendous strength of this woman, and her betrayal by a world not yet ready for her feats, for her will, for her daring refusal to adhere to tradition or received authority.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Joan the Maid I: The Battles

Joan the Maid is Jacques Rivette's five-hour, two-part portrayal of the life and death of Joan of Arc, in which Rivette strips away much of the epic legend surrounding this figure and makes her a quieter, more graceful kind of hero. As played by Sandrine Bonnaire, Rivette's Joan is a simple country girl, raised far from the centers of power, unable even to read or write; she says that she would be more content sewing at home with her mother than having to thrust herself into battle in service to God and country. She is a simple girl driven by something mysterious within her, a power and force that emanates from her during every second of Bonnaire's tremendous performance. Bonnaire's Joan is quiet, reserved, and self-assured, at least in public, though in private moments she often struggles with God's will, utterly confident that she has a purpose but not always sure exactly how to go about it. It is no mystery, though, why she motivates people, why she is so eagerly accepted as a savior, as a woman of God: her eyes flash with reserves of inner strength, and her hard peasant's face is a mask of determination.

The first half of Rivette's two-part epic is The Battles, an account of Joan's ascendancy to the right hand of France's king, the dauphin (André Marcon), leading France's army to lift the English siege on Orléans. Despite its secondary title, this film is primarily concerned with battles of words rather than battles between physical armies. Joan must fight every step of the way: to convince the local captain to provide an escort for her to go see the king, to convince the king and his advisers to trust her, to convince a council of holy men that she is inspired by God and not the Devil, to convince the army's leaders to stop delaying and follow her advice. Rivette thus presents a Joan who's very much worldly, prosaic, ordinary in so many ways. She is dressed simply and exists in a very stripped-down, minimal world, captured in Rivette's simple but somehow beautiful images: images that show the real world as it is, without adornment, a physical shell for the hard spirituality of Joan.

She makes grand pronouncements but is constantly confronted with worldly barriers: her army has no supplies, there are delays, when they finally attack they do so without informing her first. She is therefore constantly proved wrong in her predictions about when the English will be routed, when her army will at last be victorious. She cannot help it; she is limited by the men who are with her, by mere flesh and blood, by the need for food and arms. Her spiritual war must be joined to a physical one in order to mean anything of substance. Rivette, too, is every bit as much concerned with physicality. He dedicates numerous scenes to matters of the simple, the routine. These people are concerned with budgets, with provisions: even the king must borrow money from his wealthy backers. In one lengthy scene, a military commander haggles with a town official over the money that the army must borrow to pay for the town's defense; it comes down, ultimately, to bargaining from 300, to 250, to 275. Simple things, small amounts of money, a few coins here and there.

Simple things, too, like sex, like the way two soldiers in Joan's army stop to discuss having their way with her at night, then regret even talking about it later, moved by her angelic countenance and her graceful way of convincing everyone she meets, eventually, that she comes from God. Later, Joan will be subjected, offscreen, to the proddings of women assigned to determine if she's really a virgin or not. She will be tested, her physicality probed and deemed pure, and it's telling that Rivette does not omit such details. He's concerned with the routine, with the sequence of events: how does this myth play out, not as a myth passed down from generation to generation, but as something happening in the moment? How does Joan go from a simple country girl to the leader of an army? By slow progression, by hesitant steps forward and major setbacks and diversions. Along the way, Rivette is constantly stopping to observe what else might be going on, what might be happening at the fringes of a story like this. So while Joan meets with one of her commanders, discussing the budget, Rivette follows another soldier out the door, pursuing a townswoman who he flirts with and kisses and promises to visit later as she giggles and flirts back. Another scene presents an image of Joan not often seen: smiling and cheering as she watches some of the army's pages engaged in a mock battle by a riverside; she joins the male soldiers in cheering on her favorites, a wide grin on her usually somber face for once.

Indeed, though Joan's story is presented with the utmost seriousness and import, Rivette doesn't sacrifice his sly sense of humor to this legend's solemnity. Instead, he fills in the earthy, human details at the fringes of the myth. At one point, Joan is staying with a rural couple who are awed and maybe a little mystified by her holiness and her habit of remaining in unmoving prayer for hours or days at a time. They watch her from the next room as she prays and the wife describes, with hushed reverence, all the signs of Joan's spirituality: her flushed cheeks, her glowing eyes, her otherworldly serenity. But when her husband asks if light is emanating from her, his wife gently chides him to be reasonable: "no, it's just the lamp light." That's the way it is: miracles only go so far, and the rest is up to men, to flesh and blood. Joan's miracles are all small matters, sleights of hand that might easily go unnoticed. She changes the wind direction when the men are complaining that their boats can't bring supplies across the river, and she signifies the miracle by pointedly looking up at her banner, which is suddenly blowing in a favorable direction. Later, her primary "miracle" is to roust an exhausted army into battle by sheer force of will, by the power of her voice and example as she doesn't so much charge towards the English defenses as stumble that way, fumbling with a banner she's trying to take from a resisting footman. It's funny, even, the way a bet between two soldiers leads indirectly to Joan, almost by accident, encouraging the army to take Orléans. The footman, before rushing towards the castle, turns back and asks that his part in all this not be forgotten; he's saying it to his comrade but it might as well be directed at the camera, at Rivette, who obliges by recounting the way two soldiers goofing around helped get Joan into place for her historic moment.

There's a similar sensibility at work in other moments where Rivette lets the seams of history show. His playfulness with this material is given a self-conscious wink in the scene, tossed-off as a bit of peripheral business, where Joan's priest lifts up his robes to show that his feet are well-protected, in response to a passing soldier's mock expression of concern. When even the priest is capable of a goofy joke, Rivette is acknowledging his irreverent perspective, his emphasis on the silly, the profane, the ordinary, over the overtly mystical: it's why even his ghost stories (The History of Marie and Julien) and his magic films (Duelle) are so rooted in the everyday. His crude counterpart here is the gruff, violent soldier La Hire (Stéphane Boucher), a man renowned for his brutality in war. Before battle, he has a special private prayer to God, a plea for God to act towards him as God would like La Hire to act if their positions were reversed; it's a very personal understanding of "do unto others as you would like them to do unto you." La Hire talks to God as though they're just two guys who can maybe come to some sort of mutual understanding, and it's this disarmingly offhand approach to the spiritual and the sacred that informs Rivette's film at nearly every moment.

Even so, there's a sense of grace and beauty in his images that naturally brings the spiritual back into the film. Rivette's landscapes are awe-inspiring in a quiet, unassuming way: foggy, slightly hazy, their colors muted rather than garish, but still somehow sumptuous and beautiful. His images don't call attention to themselves, but are instead gently insistent: the blue midnight aura around Joan as she calls to her allies during a nighttime ride; the castle doors closing into blackness behind the riders as they leave on their mission; the snowy ground with patches of brown showing through; the bare, desolate rooms of sacked castles stripped of their trappings by the English invaders. So many of these images are empty or nearly empty, bathed in silence; Rivette often begins a shot before any characters have entered it, and ends it by panning away to an empty space, lingering there for a few pointed moments, preventing the narrative from ever assuming the forward momentum of the preordained. Instead, every moment is a struggle for Joan; the outcome always seems uncertain. And yet she confronts every setback with her beatific, knowing smile, a look of serenity that suggests the depth of her absolute faith. Rivette's film ends, as it must, with her victory, leaving her further travails for the second half of his epic, The Prisons.