Thursday, July 22, 2010


John Frankenheimer's Seconds is a strange, unsettling film that concerns itself with a primal desire: the fantasy of starting over, getting a second chance to do what one wants in one's life, to take on a new identity. However, the film only slowly reveals that this is its true subject. For much of its first act, its purpose is slipperier and harder to divine. The opening minutes of the film, after the trippy opening credits in which various facial features are warped and doubled, are dialogue-free and inscrutable, following an older man, Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph), through a train station where he receives a mysterious message. Frankenheimer employs intentionally destabilizing and self-consciously off-kilter camera angles that infuse a sense of mystery and suspense to these otherwise prosaic scenes. The camera reels drunkenly, and tracks fluidly in pursuit of men who seem to be floating above the ground rather than walking. At other times, the camera seems to be skittering along the ground from the point of view of a subway rat, darting beneath the legs of the crowd. This camera trickery creates a sense of mystery throughout the opening sequences, but not necessarily the right kind of mystery: one is left wondering why the camera is careening around so bizarrely, and what these dizzying perspectives could possibly mean.

Unfortunately, these are questions that Frankenheimer is never able to answer, but there's still something unsettlingly compelling about his showy aesthetics. Throughout the opening sequences, as Arthur gets mysterious calls from a supposedly dead friend and gets sucked into conversations with a strange underground company offering unsavory services, the film slips easily from reality to dreamlike states. At one point, Arthur, drugged and dazed, has a frightening dream of sexually assaulting a young woman, as the room warps and twists around him, perspective lines stretching like taffy until he seems to be trapped within a Daliesque landscape. When he wakes up, though, he only encounters some equally surreal, equally baffling touches, like an elevator that seems to be missing its call buttons and an inexplicable room full of silent men who steadfastly refuse to answer his questions.

The film doesn't quite settle down after this, but it does at least cohere into a plot whose contours can be grasped, at least broadly, and whose themes resonate with anyone who has ever regretted a choice or had ambitions that weren't fulfilled. Arthur, it seems, has been contacted by a company that offers middle-aged men a second chance at youth, and therefore at life: a new, younger face, a new life, a new career, a life without responsibilities or ties. Arthur undergoes surgery and awakes as Tony Wilson (Rock Hudson), a painter who is already established in his career thanks to the company that performed the procedure. The company pitches it to Tony in an irresistible way: he doesn't have to prove himself, doesn't have to go through the hard, potentially dream-killing work of apprenticeship or early struggles. He is reborn into a fully established life, as a modestly successful painter with a nice flat in Miami, free to develop his skills — he'd always wanted to be a painter and now he was, at least in theory, free to be one.

The film's themes are compelling, and in several key scenes Frankenheimer probes these themes in emotionally resonant ways. The film's best scene is undoubtedly the one in which Tony returns to visit his old wife, Emily (Frances Reid), who believes Arthur to be dead. Posing as a friend of Arthur's, Tony asks Emily about her dead husband, and learns that she viewed her husband as something of a mystery, a blank and remote man who never opened up, who never emotionally connected to anyone around him, instead pouring himself into empty pursuits that she sensed didn't even mean anything to him. It is a devastating moment, and Frankenheimer shoots the scene with Emily in the background, facing a mirror and her husband's portrait on the mantel, while in the foreground Tony looks towards the camera, his eyes haunted by the realization of how badly he'd wasted his previous life, how completely he'd missed the point.

The film is at its best in moments like this, moments where Tony comes face to face with his wasted life, with the troubling question of what he could do differently when given a second chance. Equally affecting is Tony's reunion with his old friend Charlie (Murray Evans), who had also undergone the process, and like Tony had failed to really make a go of his second life. The two men meet and talk wistfully about what they'll do when offered a third chance, a third life and a third identity. This time, they say, they'll get it right, this time they'll be able to keep their priorities straight. There's something so poignant about the idea that even two chances aren't enough, that life is so difficult to navigate for these men that they've squandered their opportunities not just once but twice. It's a potent commentary on how difficult it can be to determine what one wants out of life, and it's especially moving when Charlie is called for what he believes to be his second operation, his third chance. There are tears in his eyes and a smile on his face as he looks at his friend, and walks off to be remade yet again, to finally get it right this time around. This moment becomes even more emotionally devastating when considered against the ending's recontextualization of what's actually going on in the waiting room where Charlie and Tony are reunited.

This is the core of Frankenheimer's film, but there's something unbalanced in the execution, perhaps because the film was compromised by studio interference, preventing Frankenheimer from completely communicating his vision. But the film as it exists now squanders too much time on oddball detours like the whole subplot involving Nora (Salome Jens), an exaggerated hippie "free spirit" who Tony meets in his new life, and who engages in such self-consciously arty behaviors as yelling at the ocean and attending a bacchanalian orgy complete with pan pipes and naked hippies. The orgy sequence, lengthy and raucous and over-the-top, is seemingly a frenzied attempt at demonstrating the empty indulgences and pleasures that Tony had been missing in his staid former life as Arthur, but it's overlong to make its point, and increasingly it's just grating, like so much involving Nora. In fact, the film too often seems to be meandering along like this, offering up strange diversions and sidetracks rather than cutting to the heart of the matter. What should be subplots or individual scenes at best wind up consuming the film for whole stretches of time, overshadowing the more compelling ideas that dance around the periphery.

Whether it's because of studio tinkering or Frankenheimer's simple inability to stay focused on his story's essence, Seconds remains a flawed but, at least sporadically, quite powerful film. Much of its power is certainly attributable to Rock Hudson's turn as the young, remade Tony. He occasionally goes over the top, as with everything else in this film, particularly in an exaggerated and loud drunk scene. More often, though, he delivers a nuanced, understated performance, suggesting with his sad eyes and pensive expressions the turmoil of a man who finds that even two chances aren't enough to achieve the life he wants — and that, in fact, the problem is perhaps that he doesn't really have any idea what he does want. It's this feeling of perpetual dissatisfaction and confusion that drives Seconds, even during those stretches when it threatens to go off the rails into self-consciously "arty" indulgence.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Cat People (1982)

Forty years after the original 1942 Cat People, directed by Jacques Tourneur under the guidance of sophisticated horror producer Val Lewton, Paul Schrader remade the seminal horror classic. Schrader's Cat People nods to the original in many ways, following its basic premise and even recreating a few key scenes in homage to Lewton's shadowy, evocative horror, but in most ways it's quite a different work. Schrader minimizes the horror of the premise, pushing it even further into the background than Lewton, who often used his horror frameworks as mere excuses to explore deeper subtexts, ever did. Schrader is interested in the baroque eroticism of the story more than anything: the idea that there exist people who, when they make love, are transformed into vicious black leopards, and must kill before they can resume their human forms. Schrader uses this outlandish set-up to create a lush, absurd, sexually ripe film in which sex is dangerous and shiver-inducing, in which the promise of release carries with it an electric charge of terror.

Nastassja Kinski, as the virginal young Irena, is perfectly suited to this aspect of Schrader's vision; she brings to the film a raw, sultry sensuality that convincingly conveys the impression that she might bite or claw you at any moment, as easily as she might kiss you. At the film's opening, she has come to New Orleans to visit her long-estranged brother Paul (Malcolm McDowell, radiating nearly as much deadly energy as Kinski), since the pair were raised in separate foster homes after the death of their parents when they were very young. Schrader gets a lot of mileage out of these two, particularly from the weird sexual tension between them, as Paul insists that they need to make love, that in fact they can only make love with one another. The film sets up a divide between the strange sensuality of Paul and Irena and the ordinary world, as represented by the zoo where Paul, in leopard form, is captured for a time, and where Irena gets a job thanks to the zoo's curator Oliver (John Heard), who falls in love with her as soon as he sees her. As in the original film, Irena's otherworldly sexual energy is juxtaposed against the girl-next-door appeal of Oliver's co-worker and current girlfriend Alice (Annette O'Toole), who wears braids and is girly and playful, a stark contrast to the simmering, pouty Irena.

It's a familiar dichotomy, the good girl and the bad girl, the familiar and the foreign. In the original film, it was the fear of literal foreignness that Lewton was exploring, but here it's a more metaphysical fear/attraction to the unknown, the mysterious and frightening. The film alternates this blossoming sexual tension with dark humor and moments of suspense and horror, but Schrader never really tries to resolve the film's different moods and modes into a coherent whole. Instead, the goofy humor — like an ape intently watching a TV soap opera, or an eccentric cab driver who suggests that the only zoo worth visiting is the Bronx Zoo — is allowed to jar uncomfortably against the truly grisly bursts of gore and the open sexuality. This becomes especially apparent when a zoo orderly, the primary fount of comic relief in the film's first half, meets a particularly gory end in the jaws of the leopard.

The film lopes along after this, its plot never quite making sense, and never seeming to care whether it does or not. Schrader is more concerned with making individual scenes vibrate and throb with the potential of violence or sexual bliss, and whether it all fits together in the end is at best a secondary concern. Paul drifts in and out of the film at will, lurking in the shadows, watching from the trees, smashing through windows and finally being killed and reborn in a way that evokes David Cronenberg's body horror effects — a loose end that's never picked up again as the film focuses more singularly on Irena in its latter stretches. There's something feral and frightening about Irena, virginal and yet so sensuous, even (or especially) when her mouth is smeared with blood. Once she accepts her nature, Kinski plays Irena as though she's constantly stalking her prey, even in human form; her walk, her posture, the expressions on her face become cat-like. Even her sexuality becomes predatory, and she manages to make disrobing seem like a threat, slinking through the shadows, the muscles in her back twitching as though she might pounce at any moment.

In making the film all about mood, about the resonances of the underlying themes, Schrader is in some respects drawing on the example of Lewton, whose films always made the tangible horror secondary to the psychological and emotional subtexts of the stories. Schrader's film draws on the original Cat People in more direct ways, too, with homages to specific scenes. Of these, the most obvious is the famous pool scene, which Schrader recreates more or less intact: a young woman taking a swim when the lights go out, and she hears noises in the darkness suggesting a big cat stalking around the borders of the pool. This is Schrader's most complete tribute to Lewton, beautifully capturing the edgy and haunting atmosphere of the original, heightened here by the lovely green and blue hues of the lighting, and adding a hint of sexual frisson as the topless Alice floats in the center of the pool, bare and vulnerable in the gloom. That's yet another contrast: Schrader makes the pale, fleshy Alice seem soft and prey-like in her nakedness, whereas when Irena takes off her clothes she only becomes more predatory, as when she takes a naked stroll through the woods and winds up on all fours, chasing a rabbit with a hungry gleam in her eyes. This dichotomy suggests the two dominant tropes of movie femininity, the woman as victim and the woman as dangerous femme fatale; Schrader doesn't so much investigate these opposing stereotypes as present them in their raw form, for equal parts contemplation and delectation.

Schrader's other tributes to Lewton are more matter-of-fact, like the sinister and cat-like woman who addresses Irena as a sister and then disappears from the film, a source of unresolved mystery just as the similar figure was in the Lewton Cat People. Schrader's tribute to the famous bus scene in the original is the only homage that falls flat, that sticks out as a naked tribute and nothing more, because Schrader can't recreate the sudden thrill of terror that Lewton achieved just by having a bus abruptly stop in front of a fleeing young woman, making a noise very much like a leopard's growl. In most other ways, though, Schrader doesn't even try to compete with Lewton, a wise move since the original Cat People is a near-perfect horror film, a rich and evocative work that maintains its ability to elicit deep chills even today. Schrader's film, despite its obvious debt to the original, strikes out in a different direction, amplifying the sexuality and violence underlying the original story, allowing these dangerous forces free reign. If the resulting film is messy and jagged, with loose ends dangling shredded and bloody as though a leopard had taken a big meaty bite out of the script, that's to be expected from such a raw work. Schrader risks, and occasionally falls headfirst into, silliness and tackiness in order to get at the silly, risky, frightening, exciting feelings of love and lust.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Image Gallery: Five Sensual Shots

Joel Bocko over at The Dancing Image has tagged me for a fun new meme: a themed image gallery assembled from cinematic screen captures. The idea originated with Stephen of Checking On My Sausages, who a while back put out a call for single images displaying the glory of cinema.

This small gallery is my response, assembled rather loosely around the theme of sensuality and sexuality: images that entice, provoke, and suggest. The images are very different in their context and their content, suggesting the sheer variety with which the cinema has approached this most human of subjects. An image from Godard comes from a scene in which the French master, always fascinated by the eternal battle between man and woman, satirically mocks the fetishization and commercialization of sexuality, a theme he'd explore even more savagely in his 1980 Sauve qui peut (la vie). It is a theme that of course also resonates with Buñuel, who approaches it in an entirely different way while explicitly framing such sexual excesses in response to clerical puritanism, as an audience of priests observe, with horror, a sadomasochistic encounter. Claire Denis and Maurice Pialat, meanwhile, are concerned with the violent aspects of sex, the former delving into bloody horror as sex becomes synonymous with death, the latter dealing with the psychological wounds lovers inflict on one another. (Which doesn't stop Pialat from pausing for a delightful, charming moment of sexual joy.) Finally, Apitchapong Weerasethakul captures a moment of casual intimacy amidst a low-key argument.

It should be noted, too, that I didn't intend for this to be the theme. I simply grabbed five films I like off my shelves, more or less at random, and discovered that the commonality between them was these kinds of images.

The films, in order, with links to my full reviews where applicable, are:

Police (Maurice Pialat)
The Phantom of Liberty (Luis Buñuel)
Trouble Every Day (Claire Denis)
Syndromes and a Century (Apitchapong Weerasethakul)
Two or Three Things I Know About Her (Jean-Luc Godard)

I'm supposed to tag people for this, but I'd rather just leave it open. If you're reading this, go ahead and make your own image gallery. Just make sure to link back to Joel and Stephen's original posts.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Brute Force

Jules Dassin's Brute Force is a dark, fatalistic prison noir, a film in which there is no exit, no freedom, no opportunity for escape — it's an unrelentingly oppressive journey towards its final confirmation that bloody destiny is inescapable. The film is set in a prison that's dominated by the cruel, sadistic guard captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn), who keeps the men under his charge on a tight leash through brutality and manipulation. Not only that, but he seems to take pleasure in it; when he's beating an inmate, or driving another to suicide by spreading lies about the man's beloved wife, a small smile inevitably creeps across his lips, while his eyes bulge in insane joy. The film presents the prison as a near-complete moral vacuum, a place where if anything the prisoners are mostly morally superior to those who watch over them. The prisoners are men who have made mistakes, who have done stupid things, committed petty crimes for foolish reasons, or been betrayed or framed. On the other hand, if Munsey is a brutish sadist, the prison's warden (Roman Bohnen) is a coward with no ability to curb his underlings' excesses, while the good-hearted doctor (Art Smith) tries his best to resist such brutality, but mostly just drowns himself in booze. He's prone to boozy speechifying, to bursts of righteous outrage and indignation, but all his fiery oration never has any impact despite his good intentions. Even so, he does provide the apt summation of Munsey's approach that provides the film with its title: "not imagination, not cleverness, just force... brute force."

Dassin surrounds the prisoners with an oppressive system that offers no possibility for escape. As Munsey makes clear, he's the one who decides what prisoners have been on "good behavior," and therefore he more or less controls the parole system. This means that the prisoners understand parole as an empty promise, and collaborating with Munsey is equally fruitless since it practically guarantees death by fellow prisoners: one "stool pigeon" meets his end in a license plate press, chased there by inmates with blowtorches. Dassin is essentially showing how few options are open to these men, closing each avenue of escape off one by one, demonstrating that there's really no hope. The stool pigeon tries to gain his freedom by turning on his fellow inmates, and meets a grisly end as a result, while Munsey brushes the man off once he's done with him, not caring about his fate. The prison newspaper editor Gallagher (Charles Bickford) hopes to gain his freedom through parole, by maintaining friendships with both guards and inmates, helping to keep the whole prison system running smoothly. But he soon enough learns that parole is a remote hope, especially when the prison board arbitrarily decides to suspend all parole hearings, demonstrating conclusively just how little control these men have over their circumstances. Lister (Whit Bissell) tries to keep to himself, only concerning himself with writing letters to his wife, but Munsey's intervention teaches him that even this is not a tenable position.

The film's mood is one of claustrophobic intensity. Dassin films the men in their cramped cells, packed together within these concrete walls, the bars casting striped shadows on their faces, as they squirm and plot under the restrictions enforced by Munsey. The men all want something on the outside. Collins (Burt Lancaster) wants to be reunited with his sickly girlfriend Ruth (Ann Blyth), who is wasting away in his absence. Soldier (Howard Duff) wants to get back to his Italian wife, for whom he took the fall in the first place, risking his career to get her and her father rare post-war food and supplies. The others have girls and dreams, too. Dassin awkwardly shoehorns in the men's flashbacks to their pre-jail days, and these saccharine diversions seem to have come from a different movie, with melodramatic acting and trite stories. These interludes don't serve the film particularly well, since they distract from what is otherwise an all-encompassing claustrophobia and dread, the sense of being trapped within the walls of the prison. The flashbacks, by taking the action outside the jail walls, dilute the film's feeling of being trapped along with these men, and moreover these scenes are unnecessary to establishing the stakes of escape. The desire to get out is written in every man's face anyway, in their desperate eyes, and the flashbacks don't do anything that a couple of terse lines of dialogue don't do just as well.

Flashbacks aside, the film is a stark, angry prison drama, and Dassin does a good job of ratcheting up the men's desperation until an escape attempt seems like the only possible solution. Early on, a glimpse of freedom is offered by the sight of the prison's gates opening and its drawbridge going down to let out a car carrying the body of a dead prisoner. Dassin films this shot as though it were the gates of Heaven itself opening: there's something ecstatic about the sight of an open road appearing where before there had only been forbidding walls. Collins watches with yearning, not realizing that this scene confirms what they all already know, that dying is one of the few ways to ensure that those gates will open and the bridge will lower.

This tension pays off in the final sequences, as Munsey's sadism reaches previously unimagined levels. The captain's beating of an inmate who he suspects of being involved with the escape plan is truly brutal, and Dassin films the scene mostly through suggestion, with the actual violence happening off-screen. Instead, Dassin captures the expression of mad pleasure, nearly lustful, that plays across the captain's face as he beats this man. Cronyn, so bland and innocent-looking, plays the role with obvious relish, brilliantly portraying the banality of evil, the ordinary sadist whose own ambitions and dreams are modest, and seemingly extend no further than the advancement of his career. In service to these utterly conventional middle-class ambitions, he commits acts of unspeakable horror and nastiness, not because they're strictly necessary but because he enjoys it, and because he's convinced himself that brutality is the only possible response to his charges.

The escape attempt itself is predictably violent and nasty, as the prison is set ablaze, so that the whole sequence seems to be playing out in this fortified Hell, flames licking up at the men's desperate, rage-filled faces, as they struggle against impossible odds to get those gates open again, to get their revenge. By this time, the film's mood has reached a fever-pitch peak of insanity and cruelty, as the prisoners and the guards prove themselves equally capable of pointless violence and destruction, while everyone's confused plans fall apart all around them. In the end, no one gets what they want, and no one can escape. It's the fatalistic essence of the noir, a lesson Dassin imparts in a point-blank coda that underlines the impossibility of escape, the fact that bars — literal and metaphorical — cage us all.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Peeping Tom

Peeping Tom was a breaking point in the career of director Michael Powell, the end of his productive association with Emeric Pressburger, who had co-directed most of Powell's previous run of films throughout the 40s and 50s. Powell went solo for Peeping Tom, and audiences of the time proved unprepared for its psychosexual darkness, its ugliness and brutality, its stark frankness about the sexual thrills of murder experienced by a shy, quiet young man working in a film studio. One would expect that such shocks would not endure, that audiences would become inured to such horrors — and, indeed, the reputations of Powell and Peeping Tom have been rehabilitated since the initial controversy. But this is not to say that the shock of the film itself has worn off. It is still an extraordinarily tense, raw film, dealing with some nasty and discomfiting emotions in a very open way, laying bare the despicable violence that lurks within the impulse to voyeurism, including or especially the voyeurism of the movie theater.

The voyeuristic murders in Peeping Tom are explicitly linked to the cinema, and Powell places his audience in the position of the voyeur, admiring the victim through the lens, thrilling on the expressions of fear and revulsion that pass across the faces of the young women about to be killed. Right from the opening scenes, in which a killer stalks a prostitute, Powell places the audience in a voyeuristic position by filming from the point of view of the killer, with the view-finding crosshairs of the camera centered on his victim as though marking her for death the moment she appears in the frame. Later, a murder takes place on a movie set, with the eager young extra Vivian (Moira Shearer) posing happily for the camera until she realizes that her photographer has a darker fate in mind for her; screen immortality coupled with physical mortality. The camera captures the images of the victims at the moment when they will be lost forever. Of course, the victim is found the next day while filming a scene, stuffed inside a trunk used as a prop by a "real" studio movie, and again the killer is on hand, filming the reactions of the actress who discovers the body, as she screams and faints, her reactions not faked for once. The director, who had earlier spent countless takes trying to get a realistic-looking fainting scene out of this same actress, looks over in frustration, exclaiming, "that silly bitch has fainted in the wrong scene." Later, this same director will cruelly force the actress to repeat the scene with only cosmetic changes, asking her to repeat the same lines that are now inextricably intertwined with murder and the discovery of a corpse. Powell's dark humor makes it apparent that he's tweaking the voyeurism of the audience, suggesting that we're all too happy to take pleasure and entertainment in horrible things as long as we know that it's fake, even when we allow an engaging movie to fool us, if only for a moment, into reacting as though it were real.

Later, the home movies of the killer Mark (Karlheinz Böhm) will be discovered by his innocent young neighbor Helen (Anna Massey), and she'll recoil in horror, crying and begging him to tell her that it's not real, that it's just pretend, just a movie. But there is no such reprieve for her; none of the security that ordinary movie audiences have when watching fantasies of murder and madness. Maybe this is why audiences were so turned off by Powell's film, which takes the potential ugliness of the cinema, its capacity for abstracting real horrors, and rubs it in the viewer's face. Mark's murderous cinema places him in a violent and sexual relationship to the women he films, the "actresses" in his homemade psychodramas. When Mark is filming Vivian, at one point he stands behind her, holding his camera close to his chest, raising one of the legs of its tripod in what can only be called a stunningly obvious phallic symbol, an erection even. But it's the camera that's getting excited on behalf of Mark. It's as though he's transferred his sexuality — he's clearly a virgin, and can barely muster the composure to speak most of the time — into the camera, made its tripod leg (capped with the knife he uses to murder his subjects) an extension of himself, just as its lens is an extension of his own vision. Through the camera, he sees everything with crosshairs layered over it, a subject to be captured and immortalized, all working towards a "perfect" film.

Powell's filmmaking is brilliant here, creating almost unbearable suspense in one scene after another. Böhm turns in such a creepy but oddly charming performance that it's never quite clear what Mark is going to do next, when he's going to give in to the darkness within him and when he's going to resist. This tension is especially acute in the early scene where Helen visits Mark's apartment for the first time, intrigued — why she's drawn to him never really makes sense, other than that she needs to be for the sake of the plot — by this awkwardly shy man upstairs. When she enters his dark room/screening room, it feels like an invasion, like she doesn't belong in such a place of evil and perversion. Powell creates an overpowering mood of dread, infusing every movement, every action, with suspense; even the way Mark glides around the shadowy room, guiding the hesitant Helen to admire his camera equipment, is incredibly eerie. But the most profound suspense comes from Helen's request to see one of Mark's movies. Powell draws out the moment, showing Mark at his cabinet, hesitating over what to show her, and it's so tense because in some way, we understand that Mark's choice of film reels will decide this woman's fate. Will he show her one of his murders? Or the film he was watching when she came in, an only slightly more innocuous documentary reel he shot of his latest victim's body being removed by the police? Or will he actually choose something innocent?

It turns out that in fact he chooses a childhood film of himself, shot by his father, and Powell again ratchets up the tension as this film begins to make sense of Mark's warped mind, at least for the audience; Helen, not understanding what she's seeing, without the knowledge of the adult Mark's actions, is only confused. Powell's genius here is to make the audience root for Helen to stop watching, not to look any deeper into this man's tormented psyche. We don't know what's coming next on this reel, but we fear for her eyes anyway, fear that she'll see something she'll wish she hadn't, fear especially that she'll something that will provoke Mark to turn his camera on her, as he does eventually, trying to film her reactions to this childhood memory. Instead, the camera keeps running, revealing the origins of Mark's psychosis in childhood traumas and the cruel experiments of his father (played, in a brief cameo in these films, by Powell himself, further confirming the film's linkage of cinema with corruption and horror). If the psychology is perhaps a little trite, seen now, it's only because Peeping Tom — along with Hitchcock's Psycho — has served as one of the template inspirations for virtually all the serial killer thrillers to come along in its wake.

Even so, Peeping Tom retains much of its power for making audiences squirm, tapping in as it does to the psychosexual undercurrents of the cinema, the appeal of the glamorous actress posing for the cameras, the appeal of the action and horror that makes audiences react viscerally. For Mark, the cinema is a mortuary, a method of embalming. When watching one of his films, as he approaches the screen, the face of a screaming woman is stretched out across his back, and where this happens her pretty face becomes skull-like, gaunt with black eye sockets, killed within the camera's trap. This, Powell suggests, is the real horror lurking within the empty entertainment of the movies.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

World on a Wire

World on a Wire is Rainer Werner Fassbinder's mind-bending sci-fi epic, a two-part, over three-hour examination of the nature of reality, thought and perception. Based on Daniel Galouye's sci-fi novel Simulacron 3, the film is concerned with the creation of simulated computer worlds, populated with synthetic, programmed beings unaware that they're living in a virtual reality rather than a tangible flesh-and-blood world. Fred Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch) is appointed to become the technical director for this "simulacron" computer system after the project's previous administrator seemingly has a mental breakdown before dying in an accident. Almost immediately, however, Stiller is subjected to tremendous pressures and odd incidents relating to the computer and the company he's working for. There's some kind of industrial intrigue going on — the company's director, Siskins (Karl Heinz Vosgerau) wants to use the computer to benefit his corporate friends — and bizarre events make Stiller doubt his own sanity. A man (Ivan Desny) tries to tell Stiller about the strange circumstances of his predecessor's death, only to disappear into thin air — and soon enough, no one even remembers that this man ever existed. Stiller experiences other strange visions, and is beset by crippling headaches almost constantly, quickly developing a paranoid outlook that encompasses nearly every moment of his day and everyone he meets.

It's obvious enough where all of this is heading, even before Fassbinder explicitly states the twist in the final scene of the first part. Yet the film's careful study of the layers of reality remains engrossing, because Fassbinder's visual mastery is at its highest level here. There is little in the plot to justify the film's length, and the characters are, for the most part, doll-like ciphers prone to staring emptily into space, posing within Fassbinder's meticulously arranged compositions, caught in frames of mirrors, remaining static as the camera turns circles around them. Fassbinder underlines the film's central theme of perception by continually distorting and reflecting his images, emphasizing how what we see is dependent on the angle from which we're looking. In the film's opening scenes, Stiller's predecessor Vollmer (Adrian Hoven) accosts two government representatives, asking them to look at themselves in a handheld mirror and describe what they see. They are not really themselves, he says, they are just images, images imagined by other people. Even beyond the film's sci-fi premise, this idea resonates: each person is the culmination of images created and maintained in the minds of others, and what we see when we look in the mirror is not necessarily what others see when they look at us.

To this end, Fassbinder inventively packs his film with mirrors and distortions. In his melodramas, such devices are stylized routes into character, picked up from Sirk, a way of positioning characters in abstracted relationships to one another, capturing two reactions in the same frame. Here, the perpetual mirroring emphasizes how fragile vision is, how easily it is subjected to distortions. When Stiller goes to see Siskins one afternoon in the latter's office, Siskins has a tremendous glass funnel perched on top of his desk. The curved glass distorts Siskins' face, rendering him at times multi-eyed and blurry, almost insectile, his smirk stretched out so that it seems to stretch across his entire face. It's a subjective image of Stiller's boss, a collection of attributes rather than a coherent image of a face. In the reverse shot, when Fassbinder turns the camera onto Stiller instead, his face is reflected in the shiny surface of the desk, but chopped in half, only his eyes looking out hauntingly as though trapped within this reflective prison, his mouth and the lower half of his face cut off by the desk's edge. The boss is distorted and magnified, his all-seeing eyes multiplied, while the employee is made voiceless and trapped; the mirrors don't lie.

Unless, sometimes, they do. Later Siskins visits the computer lab — with its funhouse mirror walls and clusters of TV screens — to watch a computer doppelganger of himself perform a song-and-dance routine as programmed by Stiller. Fassbinder frames the image so that we see the the TV monitor, and Siskins' warped reflection next to it, and layered on top of this, Siskins' back as he watches the screen. It's a man and, essentially, two false doppelgangers of himself, one computer-created and one a blurred reflection of himself stretched out across the wavy surface of the wall. Still another form of mirroring exists in the scene where Stiller goes to visit his sick secretary Maya (Margrit Carstensen). She is lying down, looking at herself in a mirror to put on lipstick, but because the mirror is two-sided, the side facing the camera actually reflects the offscreen Stiller. One side of the mirror then presumably shows her, while he appears in the other, so that the mirror becomes a link between them, their reflections joined like the image of Janus, two sides of the same head. The mirror divides and distorts, it reveals the truth, it connects people and shatters the illusion of a smooth, tangible reality. When Vollmer dies at the beginning of the film, he is seen through a sheet of cracked glass, as though reality itself has been broken by his departure from it.

Fassbinder makes these examinations of sensation and perception the film's true focal point. The ostensible thriller plot is inert, and the corporate intrigue simply seems irrelevant, to the point that when Stiller finds out the answers to questions relating to the corporate politics, rather than the more metaphysical mysteries he's really interested in, he simply laughs. There is an analogue here for those religious and philosophical ideas that insist that the world is essentially an illusion, or at best a warm-up for the afterlife. If the world is not real, or is only a secondary stage of reality, if the "true" life is on a higher plane of reality, it renders the physicality and events of the world somewhat moot. Once Stiller begins to believe that his world is only an illusion that's secondary to another world, he ceases to care about any of the things had previously occupied his attention: job, friends, love, even life and death itself. Does the world become irrelevant in comparison to the idea of Heaven? This would explain Stiller's "ascent" at the finale of the film.

So Fassbinder makes the whole film one big visual metaphor, his camera moves mapping out Stiller's quest for truth. During a meeting with Siskins and a government official, Stiller wanders around the large space of the office, swinging around on a chair in the foreground, then flinging open a pair of unusual double doors, the kind usually seen between neighboring suites in hotels. Finally, he appears again at the rear of the space, visible only from a distance in a mirror. It's like he's constantly searching, always peeking behind the doors, into closed-off rooms. He does a lot of spinning around in chairs too, like a bored and restless kid, eager to discover something new, or simply a man who wants to see the fullest possible 360-degree view of his surroundings. In one of the film's most playful scenes, Siskins and Stiller conduct an entire conversation while they're both spinning around in their chairs, rendering office politics goofy and funny.

These oddball touches, like a dance club populated with muscular Arab models and topless dancers, give the film its distinctively surreal Fassbinderian aura. It's a weird and disjointed film, perhaps a little repetitive, padded out with multiple scenes of Stiller trying to explain his theories to skeptical listeners. But the characters, flat as they are, make an impact, because Fassbinder has developed such a versatile troupe of actors that even when most of them are just making token cameo appearances (Eddie Constantine as a dapper but sinister businessman; Kurt Raab as Stiller's bald, oafish office rival; El Hedi ben Salem as a quiet, sensitive bodyguard) they are vivid and memorable. This is a fascinating experiment from Fassbinder, transplanting his usual cast and his Sirkian aesthetic strategies into the unfamiliar genre of the sci-fi thriller, with very compelling results.