Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Happy Together

The films of Wong Kar Wai are often about people who feel very intensely, who love and hate with a fiery passion that bursts out in the garish, expressive aesthetics of the films. In Happy Together, Wong examines this kind of passion especially intimately, through the gay relationship of Ho Po-wing (Leslie Cheung) and Lai Yiu-fai (Tony Leung), who visit Argentina together as a way to reinvigorate their on-again-off-again relationship, but wind up instead merely replaying the same troubles they always have. The film is a powerfully focused examination of this disintegrating, up-and-down relationship, capturing the violent emotions, the heartbreak, the longing and desire, and the fleeting moments of happiness that are like the glue holding this fractured romance together, momentarily bridging the gulf that's widening between these two men.

That gulf is represented, in many ways, by the waterfall at Iguaza, which they promise to visit together during one of their happier moments. The falls, seen on a lamp that Yiu-fai bought — a bright and gaudy representation of the falls, lit from within by a rotating cylinder that makes it seem as if the water is glistening in the sunlight — come to represent for Yiu-fai the potential for happiness and togetherness. This trip is something they planned to do together, a goal for their relationship, a sight they could share. Wong visually suggests that it's also an abyss that might swallow them whole. An image of the actual falls is inserted early on, as a response to the hopefulness that Yiu-fai has for the trip, but the image of the reality is very different from the lamp's sunny depiction of natural splendor. It's a sensuous color image of the waterfall, all dark blues and jungle greens, inserted into the mostly black-and-white opening section of the film. The camera slowly turns around the falls, capturing the slow churning of the water and, increasingly, the drifting white smoke that begins to fill the frame as Wong's graceful camera move pushes the tumbling water itself off to the sides. In stark contrast to Yiu-fai's optimistic desire to see this place with his lover, the image is dark and sinister, an image of destruction and apocalyptic grandeur: it is a seemingly bottomless pit, filled with smoke from the violent churning of the water as it crashes into the reservoir deep below. It's a gorgeous but foreboding image, a suggestion that what waits at the end of the trip is not reconciliation but erasure, heartlessness, brutality, the cold and cataclysmic violence of nature.

That image, so frightening and intense, lingers over the rest of the film. When that tracking shot of the falls predictably recurs at the end of the film, it provides a kind of melancholy closure, as one lover sees the falls in person, the water rushing down towards him, its spray drenching his face, while the other is left with the lamp, a gaudy and false facsimile of the real place. That's the essence of the film, the moment it's journeying towards, as Yiu-fai struggles against the confining boundaries of his unhappy relationship with Po-wing, a relationship where it's not clear who needs the other more, who's keeping who prisoner.

That dynamic plays out within some of Wong's most potent and beautiful images, as captured by his usual cinematographer Christopher Doyle. Though set mostly in Buenos Aires, Wong finds in this city a Southern hemisphere counterpart to his home base of Hong Kong, which perhaps explains the sequence where Yiu-fai, realizing that he is in the other half of the world from his home, imagines what Hong Kong would look like upside-down. The answer, as envisioned by Wong, is indeed turned upside-down but not otherwise that different, as he finds in Buenos Aires a similar late-night neon vibe, all hazy lights and poetically empty street scenes, occasionally interrupted by a bright, summery daytime scene where the sun fades the images to a white glare. That impression is introduced slowly into the film, as most of the early scenes play out in a crisp, high-contrast black-and-white, with only selected moments rendered in the characteristic warm, brilliant colors of the Wong/Doyle collaborations. When, after Yiu-fai and Po-wing are reunited following some time apart, the film explodes into full, sumptuous color during their cab ride back to Yiu-fai's apartment, it's as though the fullness of the couple's conflicted emotions have finally exploded to the surface of the film.

Despite these strong emotions, Happy Together is more relaxed and languid than previous Wong Kar Wai films, in which unpredictable violence could erupt at any moment, and this film looks forward to the slow, sensuous rhythms of In the Mood for Love rather than the the frantic tempi of most of the preceding films. The body of the film focuses on the lovers' uneasy reunion, as Yiu-fai tries to hold onto the unstable Po-wing, who obviously needs and cares for Yiu-fai but still can't help straining against the bounds of their relationship, going out, sleeping with other men, prostituting himself with American tourists. The relationship settles down slightly when Po-wing is beaten up by some of his clients for stealing a watch, and Yiu-fai tends to his lover during his recovery. The scenes of tension and arguing are offset by scenes of surprising tenderness and affection, like a sequence where Po-wing teaches Yiu-fai to dance, and the dance slowly becomes a gently swaying embrace. This scene, like the opening's disarmingly explicit and erotic sex scene between the men, establishes the stakes of their troubled love, the real depths of feeling upon which their often fractious relationship is built.

There's also tenderness in the depiction of Yiu-fai's friendship with his restaurant coworker Chang (Chen Chang), which is contrasted against the doomed love affair at the center of the film. As Yiu-fai's relationship with Po-wing collapses, his connection — platonic and hesitant, though not without suggestions of attraction and intimacy — with Chang deepens. Chang is a typically eccentric Wong character, a young man who had been nearly blind as a child and who had, as a result, developed extremely sensitive hearing and an ability to detect the smallest nuances of emotion in people's voices. He also, despite his displacement in South America, has the stability of home and family that the rootless Yiu-fai, wandering in a foreign land and disconnected from a family that's all but disowned him, only wishes he could someday return to. Those longings, the heartache and sadness of these aimless men, are expressed in typical Wong fashion. Chang carries a tape recording of Yiu-fai's tears to the "end of the world," a lighthouse in the far south of Argentina, where, it is said, his worries can be dissipated; it's a moment that looks forward to the similar scene at the end of In the Mood for Love. Po-wing also enacts the ritual of visiting his lover's apartment while Yiu-fai is not there, cleaning the place and rearranging things, a form of intimacy without direct contact that weaves through Wong's films.

Happy Together, like nearly all of Wong's films, is a deeply moving and rich work, a film about dislocation and the longing for stability. These characters have drifted far from home, isolated from their families and their homes, and they unsteadily try to make their way in an unfamiliar land even as their emotions overwhelm and unbalance them. Turned upside-down from their homes, they rush towards the churning abyss, towards the end of the world, and then pull back towards redemption and rebirth at the very last moment.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Conversations #26 (part 1): Terrence Malick

The latest conversation between Jason Bellamy and me has now been published at The House Next Door. With The Tree of Life just now arriving in at least some theaters, we take the opportunity to address the first four features of director Terrence Malick: Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line and The New World. It's a lengthy overview of the director's career and aesthetic so far, and within the next month we'll be following up with a second conversation, focusing on The Tree of Life itself.

As always, we welcome your input, so go take a look and join the conversation. Malick is a direct who seems to inspire great passion and affection, but also some equally strong dislike. We think that both sides of that debate are likely to find some ideas to agree with and take issue with in this conversation, so we hope there will be a lively conversation in the comments.

Continue reading at The House Next Door

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Record Club #2: Brand New on June 27

Brand New - The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me (2006)

Thank you to everyone who made the first Record Club discussion, on the Congos' reggae classic Heart of the Congos, a big success. It was a fun and interesting conversation and a fine start to this project.

Now it's time to announce the second pick for the club. Kevin Olson of the blog Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies has chosen Brand New's album The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me. Kevin will be posting about the album on June 27, so if you're interested in participating, listen to the album before then and show up at Kevin's blog on that date to join the conversation. In the meantime, Kevin has posted an announcement about the album, so check it out.

If you'd like to promote the Record Club, you can display the banner below by pasting the code onto your own blog.

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Monday, May 23, 2011

Record Club: The Congos - Heart of the Congos (1977)

The Congos - Heart of the Congos (1977)

The Congos was the reggae vocal trio of Cedric Myton, Ryodel Johnson, and Watty Burnett, and Heart of the Congos was their debut album, recorded and produced by the legendary Lee "Scratch" Perry at his Black Ark studio. The album is justifiably considered a classic of the genre, built on the gorgeous multi-layered vocal harmonies of the singers and some of Perry's very best production work. Perry was known for an energetic, eclectic sound (especially on his albums with his studio band the Upsetters) but on Heart of the Congos he sympathetically tailors his production to the much more low-key and spiritual vibes of the Congos. The production is still rich and remarkably detailed — one need only listen to the albums the Congos later made without Perry to hear how much depth he brought to these songs — but it never overwhelms the group's lovely vocals.

The first track, "Fisherman," immediately establishes the signature sound of this disc. The music slowly churns and skates along, with drums occasionally rolling and cresting like waves, while Cedric Myton's pure, high falsetto (the most distinctive sound of the group) glides above the guitar. Perry augments the stripped-down groove with chiming bells and percussive accents, along with an occasional piercing sound effect, but the emphasis remains on the vocals. The contrast between Myton's falsetto and the more moderate tenor of Johnson is the essential sound of the Congos, with Burnett's husky baritone periodically joining in for an even more dramatic contrast. Burnett was brought into the Congos by Perry for this session, and when his deep tones unexpectedly enter for a verse towards the end of this first song, the effect is startling, a sudden drop from Myton's high, soaring tones to this rich low-register drone.

On the second track, "Congoman," Perry's production is even more basic: a simple and repetitive drum figure provides a constant percussive base for the harmonies that the vocalists weave through and around this foundation. The music has hints of African chanting and tribal rhythms in both the vocals and the drums, and the effect is haunting and melancholy, suggesting dense jungles and mysterious darkness. The opening seconds of the song provide a perfect example of Perry's production genius: that simple beat kicks in immediately, and it will scarcely change over the course of the track's 6+ minutes, but a mere 20 seconds in the beat suddenly drops out and the vocals, sounding eerie and distant, introduce the song's lyrical and melodic theme before a dubby wash ushers the beat back in. Such little touches, like this slight variation from the song's solid foundation, are the mark of Perry's clever, detail-oriented production style.

There's a lot of variety on this album, even while it sticks close to the general territory of soulful, spiritual reggae with tastefully subtle production. "Children Crying" backs Johnson's lead vocals with a rich stew of backing vocals, a steady groove, and an odd moaning echo that sounds like a cow's cry. "The Wrong Thing" rides in on a wave of tinkling cymbals, with Myton vocalizing a few playful, wordless beeps right at the start. "Solid Foundation" (the final song on the original album, though the reissues have added at least 2 bonus tracks) is perhaps the best showcase for Myton's falsetto, with his clean high tones answered and overlapped with a chorus of backing vocals. The vocal interplay is very complex: the lead and the backing vocals engage in call-and-response sessions that bleed together until they're layered rather than answering one another.

Although I've picked out a few highlights so far, I could easily keep praising each song individually. The first two songs provide one of the best possible one-two opening salvos, but even more remarkable is that the album doesn't taper off after that. Heart of the Congos is the rare album where every song is a carefully polished gem in itself — the bouncy, deceptively cheery "La La Bam-Bam" (with its lyrics about Biblical betrayals) is probably the only song here that I don't absolutely adore, and even that's a pretty solid song.

Rather than continue to gush, though, one issue I'd like to raise is the album's lyrical content. The lyrics are almost exclusively spiritual and religious, expressions of the musicians' Christian-derived Rastafari faith. One aspect of the album that has often intrigued me is the fire-and-brimstone exultation of eternal punishment for the unfaithful, as expressed especially on the back-to-back songs "Can't Come In" and "Sodom and Gomorrow." Both songs are rooted in exclusionary religious fervor; there's a sense running through both songs that the faithful should celebrate the consignment of the unfaithful to eternal fire. It's the kind of regressive religious idea that has always troubled me, in any context, and it especially produces a lot of cognitive dissonance when it's coupled to an absolutely beautiful song like "Can't Come In," a song that despite its lyrical content I find strangely moving simply for the quality of the voices alone. I'm not saying this is a big problem or anything, by any means. I love this album, and the lyrics are the least significant component of this music in my opinion. It's just something I've often thought of regarding this album, and I wonder if anyone else had any thoughts about some of the lyrical themes.

Heart of the Congos is, to my taste, one of the greatest of all reggae albums. Lee Perry produced a handful of other classic front-to-back albums (by artists like Max Romeo, Junior Byles, the Heptones and Junior Murvin) but as good as those are, I'd argue that this recording's mix of subdued but distinctive production with the unparalleled voices of the Congos constitutes a peak of the genre. The album was not heralded in its time, unfortunately. Perry was in the midst of a dispute with Island Records that prevented a wide release, and the lackluster limited release the album did receive prompted the Congos to break with Perry for subsequent albums. It's a shame, because on their own the Congos never managed to make another statement as sparkling and powerful as this one, and it took many years for Heart of the Congos to be recognized as the masterpiece it is.

I hope some people love this album as much as I do, and I look forward to hearing everyone's thoughts. I know some people have a negative perception of reggae, so if there's anyone like that here, did Heart of the Congos change your mind or merely confirm your distaste for the genre? Was anyone inspired to check out more reggae based on this? Or are there some other reggae fans here who probably already know and love this disc? Anyone is welcome to join the discussion, I look forward to hearing from you all!

Friday, May 20, 2011

Record Club: Monday, May 23

This is a reminder that on Monday, May 23, the Inexhaustible Documents Record Club will be kicking off with its first post, a discussion of Heart of the Congos, the debut album by reggae vocal group the Congos. The Record Club will have a monthly posting schedule, with a different blogger selecting an album to discuss each month. I selected this first album, and Kevin Olson of Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies will be picking the second album, which should be announced around the beginning of June and discussed sometime around the beginning of July.

If you'd like to participate in the club, all you have to do is listen to the chosen album and then come to the hosting blog (right here this month!) to discuss it. The discussion is not limited to Monday, by any means, so feel free to stop by anytime after the initial post to join the conversation.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

By Night With Torch and Spear

The collage films of the filmmaker-artist Joseph Cornell, assembled from found footage — mangled commercial and documentary films and occasional specially shot sequences provided by Cornell's filmmaker friends — are strange masterpieces of excavation and recontextualization. Cornell's films forage through the ephemera of film's accumulated history to pick out the moments of eerie, potent magic, augmenting and intensifying that magic through judicious editing and bursts of vibrant, artificial color. By Night With Torch and Spear was itself excavated from Cornell's massive private collection of film reels, discovered only after his death in the mid-70s and preserved by Anthology Film Archives. It is a stunning, mysterious film, one of Cornell's most beautiful and poetic works. It is only eight minutes long but contains layers upon layers of suggestions and emotions.

The film is assembled entirely from snippets of industrial documentaries and educational films, seemingly from the silent era. In the first long sequence — after a first shot in which a pointer traces along a white sheet marked with black dots, as though instructing the viewer to watch closely — an industrial process runs backwards and upside-down, its images sensuously drifting in reverse. A large pot of molten metal hangs upside-down, the boiling liquid within strangely pulsing downward, as though straining to pour out of its container, but somehow defying the laws of gravity to remain in place. Showers of sparks rain down like fiery comets, coming together into a yellow-hot center that then rushes back into the factory machinery like a fireball. Rivers of molten metal run upstream, up long conveyor belts, then crawl up the sides of a container, as though the industrial plant is full of an inexplicable liquid alien intelligence, an amorphous being moving of its own volition in defiance of the laws of physics. Cornell's editing and his manipulations of these images are deceptively simple, but the effect is anything but. These grainy, distorted images, discombobulated and flipped around, become almost magical, their poetic effect very far removed from the staid documentary context in which this footage originally resided.

This is the world made strange, an ultimate surrealist statement. Ordinary industrial machinery, seen through a bright pink filter, seems to glow with otherworldly energy, and the men tending to these strangely vibrant, effervescent industrial playgrounds are like sorcerers, conjuring inexplicable phenomena. Cornell explicitly compares his manipulated industrial age images to a shot of Native Americans silhouetted against a darkening night sky. Even that image isn't as simple as it seems, since the playful sprinting and obviously celebratory mood of these headdress-wearing figures suggests that perhaps they're not even genuine Native Americans, but children playing at a role, enacting games of cowboys and Indians like in a Hollywood movie. The movies certainly inform Cornell's vision to a great extent. In his most famous film, Rose Hobart, he clipped images of the titular silent era actress out of a melodramatic epic, out of context, honing in on the core of the cinema as a magic of faces, gestures, single dramatic images rather than stories.

In By Night With Torch and Spear, the cinema burbles up from the film's subconscious in the form of found and recontextualized intertitles, often manipulated in the same ways as the images themselves, turned around backward and upside-down, often flashed onto the screen in an almost subliminal fashion, too fast to read, certainly too fast to decode the mirrored text. In any event, the titles, even when decoded (thanks to a DVD pause function Cornell didn't plan for) are banal and generic, snippets of pseudo-scientific language or context-free bits of information about a machine, an insect, a group of people. Cornell treats these fragments of ordinary texts like incantations, a mysterious language to be deciphered, curious transmissions from deep within the cinematic subconscious, flashing like lightning across the surface of the film and then vanishing just as quickly back into the depths from which they emerged.

Later in the film, Cornell inserts ethnographic images of a man playing a non-Western instrument, and then the image that gives the film its name, a shadowy nighttime sequence of some men fishing by torchlight with a long wooden spear. This shot is preceded by the only easily intelligible intertitle in the film, and the most poetic as well: "by night with torch and spear." Cornell's images bring together Western industrial society with the amorphous Other, the exotic and the foreign. In essence, he exoticizes what would be, to Western audiences, the familiar, by making the processes of commerce and industry seem as haunting, and as haunted, as the exotic images of foreign lands and foreign people.

These images also exist on a continuum with Cornell's found footage of insects, seen up-close and made even more terrifying by the application of negative-image filters that make it seem as though the film is delving into a truly alien landscape, a barren gray moonscape populated by exoskeleton-clad monsters with fuzzy feelers and click-clacking mandibles. The film represents a journey from the working class factory to the Old West or the exotic Orient, stopping in Egypt for a desert scene replete with camels, then venturing deep into the unseen underworld of insects and then beyond, to a final image in which abstract dots pulsate like subatomic particles dancing to an unheard and unfathomable music.

Cornell sees the cinema as a transmitter of poetic distortions, as a massive bank of images to be combed for magical moments, moments that can be amplified and reworked into something epic and unfamiliar. His was a totally original and remarkable cinema, and this short is perhaps one of the finest examples of his unparalleled ability to dig out the strange essence at the core of the ordinary.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011


Roberto Rosselini's Paisan was his second postwar film, made after his scrappy, low-budget Rome Open City, which was filmed in the immediate aftermath of World War II with any film stock he could scrape together. Paisan is similarly rough and minimalist, continuing the ragged neorealist style that Rosselini inaugurated with his postwar work. The film consists of six tales set during the Allied liberation of Italy from the German occupation, focusing largely on interactions between Italian citizens and American soldiers, with the German troops a constant peripheral presence and lingering threat. The film is an interesting fusion of neorealist naturalism, melodrama and sentimentality. The stories Rossellini is telling are melodramatic rather than naturalistic, built around ironic reversals and stock characters, and the emotions evoked are generally broad and universal rather than specific. The film is more about the general experience of the liberation than it is about any particular stories or characters from this period, so its characters are fairly generic and its dialogue is mostly functional and rote.

Rossellini was working with a mix of actors and non-professionals, drawing from the ranks of the American soldiers still stationed in Italy to portray the Americans in the film. But the effect isn't quite realistic so much as amateurish; almost all of the Americans turn in awkward, stiff performances and not all of the Italians are much better. The amateur performances add to the sense of a film captured on the fly, with whatever materials are at hand, whatever locations can be filmed and whatever people are around, most of them real people who'd really lived through some version of the events depicted here. The film follows the structure of the Americans' northward advance through Italy, with each episode set in one town along the route of the military campaign, from the very south in Sicily to the very north in the Po River region. As the film progresses, and as Rossellini depicts the military struggle proceeding north, the relations between the American military and the Italian people become closer, less prone to misunderstandings and miscommunication. In the first three episodes of the film, the language barrier and differences in attitudes prevent a true connection between the Italian people and the Americans liberating the country, but in the final three episodes those divisions are increasingly erased.

The climax of the first tale is a touching scene between the American soldier Joe (Robert Van Loon) and the Italian girl Carmela (Carmela Sazio), who had been guiding a group of American troops through a dangerous area where only she knew the way. At one point, the other soldiers go out scouting, leaving Joe behind with Carmela to hide in a hilltop fort until the rest of the troops return. Joe doesn't speak any Italian, and Carmela doesn't speak any English, and yet the two sit side by side, trying to communicate, speaking to one another without really understanding anything of what the other is saying. They occasionally get a word or two, or can communicate through gestures and pantomime. The scene is very moving in its quiet, simple way, as they attempt to overcome the language barrier between them and make a connection. Rossellini stages the scene in one long take, a steady shot of the two people sitting next to one another by a window, talking, struggling with their words, smiling and sharing stories about their lives that, for the most part, they know the other person doesn't understand. It's a wonderful scene, and the warm emotions of this moment set up the heartbreaking ironies that follow from it in subsequent scenes, when a group of German soldiers stumble across the fort. The episode ends, not with communication but with further misunderstandings; that brief moment of frustrated connection is extinguished by violence.

In the second story, a black American soldier (Dots Johnson), drunk and disoriented, is taken advantage of by kids and street thugs — disturbingly, a couple of hustling kids try to sell him to the highest bidder in a back alley — and eventually winds up being led around by the bratty Pasquale (Alfonsino Pasca). As in the first episode of the film, the focus of the story is the inability to communicate across the language barrier between Italian and English. Sitting atop a pile of rubble — Rossellini filmed in the real streets of wasted Italian cities — the soldier entertains the boy with a frenzied re-enactment of a naval battle, in which the boy understands no more than a few words but enjoys the spectacle anyway, laughing and smiling. What he misses, of course, are the notes of pathos in the man's story, his drunken musings on home and the poverty and squalor that await him back in America. But the soldier doesn't really get the kid either, not until the end of this story when he finally confronts the reality of how so many poor, displaced Italian people are living: gangs of kids without parents, families without homes, large makeshift communities assembled from whatever trash is at hand.

In the third story, the American soldier Fred (Gar Moore) is picked up by the Italian prostitute Francesca (Maria Michi), who takes him home and listens to his story about the early days of the war. He tells her about a girl he met back then who was beautiful and kind and embodied, for him, the happiness of the liberation. Now it's six months later and Fred has grown cynical and exhausted, and he looks at the Italian people, and especially all the girls who have become prostitutes catering to the American GIs, with contempt and disgust. Of course, Francesca is the girl from the story, and once again this episode turns on a very O. Henryesque irony, based on the soldier's failure to recognize the girl he so badly wanted to see again. He also fails to recognize, as the black soldier had, the difficulties of surviving in the postwar chaos, and he has no sympathy for girls like Francesca who do the best they can to get along in this difficult situation. This sequence, which takes place mostly inside and is noticeably glossier than some of the other sequences, demonstrates the limitations of Rossellini's approach here. Without the virtues of the rough, realistic street photography of postwar Italy, all that's left are the tired clichés of the writing and the amateurish performances.

In the fourth sequence, the American nurse Harriet (Harriet White Medin) and the Italian citizen Massimo (Renzo Avanzo) try to find a way into German-occupied Florence, where Italian partisans are heroically fighting against the Germans while British troops sit just outside the city, waiting for reinforcements to arrive. Obviously, the gap between Allied efforts and Italian efforts remains large, but Harriet and Massimo run hand-in-hand through the city, each desperate to get inside for a different reason, her to find an Italian partisan who she loves, him to find his family who he fears may be in danger in the German zones of the city. The episode is basically an extended action sequence, with an emphasis on the spatial geography of the city, as the pair run across rooftops, dodge through hidden tunnels and avoid snipers and German patrols. It's a thrilling, effective sequence that ends with a moving, expressive closeup, one of the film's most glorious shots. Rossellini excels at closeups, at faces, and his final image of Harriet here is a sudden classical composition that emerges with devastating power from the loose, ragged style of the surrounding scenes.

The film's fifth segment concerns a trio of American military chaplains — a Catholic, a Protestant and a Jew — who arrive at an Italian monastery and are welcomed by the monks. The monks, however, are discomfited by the realization that two of their guests are not Catholic, and they become concerned about the two "lost souls" who they fear have made the wrong choice in terms of religion. This story evokes the gentle humor that Rossellini directed at the brave priest in Rome Open City; it's obvious that Rossellini has great respect for religion without being entirely straight-faced about it. The sequence where the monks find out that the American chaplains are not all Catholic is clearly played for humor, as they go running around the monastery in a panic announcing to the others that there's a Jew amongst them. It seems like Rossellini is setting up the story to mock the provincialism and intolerance of the monks, but instead it turns out that the monks are genuinely worried for the men, that they believe so strongly that their Catholicism is the only correct path that they don't wish for any good men to risk their souls with another religion. The segment is tonally unbalanced with the rest of the film and ends with a saccharine speech from one of the American chaplains, driving home the moral of communion between Italians and Americans, praising the Italian monks for their "pure faith."

In the final segment, depicting the battles on the Po River, the boundaries between the Italians and the Allies have been virtually erased. The Italian partisans speak Italian, and the American and British soldiers speak English, but they all seem to understand one another, without the difficulties of language seen in the earlier segments. They are working together towards a common goal, and the segment opens with a taut suspense sequence in which an American soldier and an Italian partisan cooperate from different points along the river in order to fight some German sentries while retrieving the body of a dead soldier. In this episode, the various armies and nationalities intermingle, and in the nighttime scenes it's impossible to see who's who; one can only hear the voices drifting across the dark river speaking English or Italian. Even so, this episode also emphasizes the one crucial distinction between the Italians and the Allies, which is that the Italians are fighting here for their homeland, for their people, while the Allies are on foreign soil. There's a difference, too, in the treatment of the prisoners who are captured by the Germans, and the film ends with a moving and horrifying tribute to the sacrifices of the Italian partisans who fought and died in the battles to push the Germans out of Italy.

On the whole, Paisan is an interesting if deeply flawed movie. It is obviously a very emotional look at the postwar period and the events that affected the Italian people in the final stretch of the war. If the film's writing is occasionally sentimental and generic, Rossellini pours real feeling into his images and into his portrait of the rubble-strewn streets of his home country.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Gion bayashi

At the heart of Kenji Mizoguchi's Gion bayashi is the effect of changing sexual politics coming into contact with the traditional role of the geisha in Japanese culture. The film represents a dialectic between the traditional understanding of a woman's place as submissive and obedient and more modern attitudes regarding the ability of women to define their own desires and their own lives. Mizoguchi's film suggests that the reality of the world lags well behind these changing attitudes, as many expect the old ways to continue unchanged. This is a film, above all, about sexual exploitation, and it candidly examines the many ways in which women are exploited by the male-dominated society in which they must live. Eiko (Ayako Wakao) decides to become a geisha as a last resort: her mother was a geisha, and when she dies, Eiko is left with no one but an uncle who takes her in only on the condition that Eiko should sleep with him. Fleeing her uncle's sexual advances — forced upon her from a position of power and control — Eiko goes to the geisha Miyoharu (Michiyo Kogure) and begs to become a geisha. Miyoharu agrees to train the young girl, even though it would be at her own expense, because she sees that Eiko has nowhere else to go. The two women soon become embroiled in a complex set of pressures constricting them and limiting their choices, as they become pawns in the business plans of Kusuda (Seizaburo Kawazu) and Kanzaki (Kanji Koshiba).

The film's plot is relentless in documenting the pressures weighing down on Miyoharu and Eiko, as women whose sole role is to be desirable and solicitous, to tend to the needs of men as objects of beauty. Kusuda is a powerful older businessman who loves to be surrounded with young girls. He plays games with a harem of geisha like a little boy, running around and pantomiming baseball gestures, but he takes an especial liking to Eiko as soon as he meets her. Kusuda is also using Miyoharu as a tool in his attempts to get a lucrative contract, since the mid-level minister Kanzaki — who has the ability to make a decision on a business deal affecting Kusuda — falls in love with Miyoharu. Both women thus becomes objects in this business deal, ornaments to the negotiations between Kusuda and Kanzaki. The film carefully establishes the stakes, as Miyoharu and Eiko are manipulated into place by the powerful Madame Okimi (Chieko Naniwa), whose favor is necessary to find work as a geisha.

Miyoharu and Eiko are the only decent people in the film; everyone amassed around them is out to use them or exploit them in some way, especially but not only the cartoonishly lecherous Kusuda and Kanzaki. Eiko's father (Eitaro Shindo), an ailing and struggling storeowner, refuses to support his daughter, washing his hands of her and leaving her to either live with her sexually predatory uncle or to struggle wherever else she can. Later, however, when Eiko becomes a successful geisha renowned for her beauty, her father comes crawling around, begging Miyoharu for money, pathetically telling her that if she doesn't lend him some money he'll have no choice but to kill himself to escape his debt and his failing business. He tells her that he feels entitled to a share of his daughter's earnings — this despite his refusal to support her during the girl's training period to become a geisha, when Miyoharu was forced to borrow a great deal of money to establish Eiko as a geisha. Okimi, as well, is exploitative and predatory, with an old-school understanding of a geisha as basically a prostitute. Eiko resists the idea that she has to take on a "patron," and so does Miyoharu; the two women have more modern ideas, primarily the idea that they don't have to sleep with a man they don't like. This is anathema to Okimi, who tries to maneuver the two women into keeping Kusuda and Kanzaki happy.

The film's story is thus naturally melodramatic, with the character types deliberately exaggerated to maximize the horrors these women are subjected to. Mizoguchi's style, however, is low-key and unobtrusive, and the contrast between the direct, observational realism of his style — which captures in its delicate way the simple day-to-day lives of these people — and the passionate melodrama of the narrative creates a pleasing tension in the film's aesthetic. Mizoguchi's style doesn't call attention to itself, but in subtle ways he's constantly accentuating the film's themes, crafting striking compositions that guide the eye to the power relations that are at the heart of the film. One of the most suggestive images comes when Miyoharu, realizing that she has no choice if she wants to support herself and Eiko while keeping the younger girl pure, finally gives in and agrees to spend the night with Kanzaki. When she goes to see him, he's lounging on his belly on the floor, reading, and Mizoguchi shoots him from above, with Miyoharu towering above him as she walks in. The composition superficially suggests that the power relations are in favor of the woman, but the man's languorous pose and the gaze of entitlement he gives her as he says he's been expecting her work against the composition to suggest that in fact it's the man, languidly doing nothing and waiting for the woman to come serve him, who's in control here. The next shot, in which Miyoharu silently goes off into the corner to undo her complicated geisha robes and sashes, reinforces this impression. The geisha is a servant for the rich, and this scene subtly parallels Miyoharu's obsequious behavior with the many scenes of servants catering to the women throughout the rest of the film. If elsewhere the geisha is respected and served, treated with dignity, in the privacy of the bedroom she's expected to be a servant.

Mizoguchi's style is similarly effective in the scene where Eiko first hears that Miyoharu has spent the night with a man. Mizoguchi stages the scene in a single shot, from just outside the door of Eiko and Miyoharu's home. After Eiko hears the news, the door is closed, inserting a wooden grate over her, obscuring her reaction to the realization of what has been necessary to provide for her. The static shot, and the grating layered over it, simultaneously distance the viewer from Eiko's reaction and call attention to it. Mizoguchi's formalism is more restrained, more subtle than that of his contemporary Yasujiro Ozu, but there's still a clear sense of a constructed world in this film, not only in the artificial contrivances of the script but in the gentle aesthetic sensibility guiding the material. Ozu is an inevitable comparison here, since the theme Mizoguchi is addressing — the conflict between tradition and modernity in a changing postwar Japan — was Ozu's essential theme throughout his postwar work. In comparison, though Ozu is the bolder stylist, Mizoguchi is more overt and melodramatic than his peer, approaching this story as a big theme to be worked out, a message to be communicated, which is very unlike Ozu's method of allowing his themes to gradually emerge from the texture of ordinary lives. If in Ozu's films tradition and modernity are simply part of the fabric of everyday life, in Gion bayashi the script establishes these conflicts in broad strokes and constructs scenes and dialogues obviously intended to bring out one point or another.

This message-oriented perspective is sometimes grating and overbearing, but more often the delicacy of Mizoguchi's aesthetic and the warm, natural performances of his leads prevent the film from becoming too didactic. There's a tenderness and warmth between Miyoharu and Eiko that becomes more and more powerful the more the women suffer together, culminating in the late scene where Miyoharu tells the younger girl how much she loves and cares for her. Mizoguchi deliberately leaves the nature of this love ambiguous — Miyoharu doesn't say she loves the other girl like a daughter — because it's a multilayered bond that encompasses mother/daughter loyalty, friendship, and even a hint of attraction in the way he frames the two women so close together, their heads bowed toward one another in their shared grief. The film ends with them walking down the street together, side by side; in a world amassed against them on all sides, conspiring to sabotage the independent lives they desire, they can ultimately only count on one another.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Je t'aime, je t'aime

Alain Resnais has always been concerned with time and memory, and his best-known films revolve around these themes with almost obsessive dedication, as though locked into compulsive loops in which the same ideas recur with rhythmic regularity. The signature cinematic technique of his art is the edit, the cut, which is quite natural for a director so concerned with time. The art of montage is the art of arranging and controlling the flow of time; the editor shapes the raw material of a film, deviating from the linear progression of the shoot to arrange the scenes and shots in ways that express ideas, or tell stories, or create emotional juxtapositions between images. Editing reaches its apex as an expressive form in Resnais' art, and especially in Je t'aime, je t'aime, a film whose structure very cleverly mirrors the editing process, embodying the art of editing in the film itself. It's one of Resnais' very best films, a sci-fi time travel masterpiece in which the publishing executive Claude Ridder (Claude Rich), after recovering from a suicide attempt, is enlisted by a secretive research firm for a potentially dangerous experiment. The anonymous, unnamed scientists want to send Claude back in time as their first human research subject, reasoning that since he hadn't wanted to live, he didn't have much to lose if the experiment went wrong.

This experiment is supposed to send Claude exactly one year back in time, and he is supposed to remain in this time for exactly one minute before returning to the experimental chamber, a cushy, womb-like enclosure that from the outside, absurdly, looks like a misshapen brain or a vegetable or a hybrid pileup of curved human body parts. Instead, Claude becomes unmoored in time, blinking in and out of the present (another editing trick, that) and reliving a shuffled series of moments from throughout his life. Moments in time become unpredictably, randomly pulled out of context, so that Claude's life flashes before his eyes — and our eyes — out or order. Key moments are repeated, scenes are cut off abruptly and may or may not be continued or expanded later, surreal visions that might be dreams butt up against real memories, and several dramas and mysteries slowly emerge from this fragmented view of Claude's life.

The focus of his memories is his wife, Catrine (Olga Georges-Picot), whose death triggered Claude's own suicide attempt. The couple's troubled relationship dominates the memories that Claude relives, leaping non-chronologically from their first meeting to the later unhappy stages of their relationship to its possibly violent ending. They meet, they fall in love, they argue. Claude is unfaithful and Catrine is perpetually depressed, and it seems like far from an ideal relationship, although the fractured chronology makes it difficult to tell if the couple's relationship started in one state and progressed towards another, or if they were continually bouncing back and forth from better times to worse ones. The shuffling of narrative chronology eliminates the linearity from a person's life, so that each individual moment stands on its own, the moments of tenderness (the sweet love scenes in which the couple exchanges loving words) and the moments of cruelty and darkness (the scene where Claude casually confesses his infidelities while saying he still loves his wife).

Cause and effect are blurred, to a degree, so that it's no longer possible to think of one scene leading into the next, and the lack of clear indicators of time and place means that the order in which things occur is frequently unclear except when the dialogue drops enough contextual clues to figure it out. But if time travel makes Claude's life a puzzle, it's obvious that Resnais doesn't mean for the audience to reassemble the pieces: there are too many pieces missing, too many that don't fit, too many gaps. There is a genuine mystery here, some uncertainty revolving around how exactly Catrine died, but the mystery is not the point: the core of the film is the emotional intensity of re-examining one's life, rifling through the archives of memory and finding all these moments and images that evoke nostalgia, or regret, or happiness, or despair. The way things fit together in the end hardly matters; Claude already knows how things end, even if the audience doesn't quite yet, and his experience of his life as an out-of-order flow of scenes both banal and earth-shaking is what the film is all about.

The mystery is also largely rendered irrelevant by the sense that the film is really exploring the distorting effects of memory, the ways in which memory can lie and obscure rather than revealing the truth. Resnais is concerned with the selectivity of memory, and for much of the film several key scenes are occluded, perhaps because Claude is on some level subconsciously directing the images that flash before his eyes. At other times, it seems like his memory is rebelling against the staid confines of reality, creating surreal disjunctions and weird interludes that suggest that not only can memory lie, it can go mad.

In several scenes, dreams filter into reality, as when Claude remembers a sexually charged encounter with a beautiful woman, and the woman appears, stretching her shapely leg up into the air, in a bath tub that's ludicrously placed in the middle of Claude's office. That woman appears again later in a scene that's presumably the source of Claude's erotic dream/vision, but the "real" scene has a similar absurdist visual sensibility, since the woman appears twice, reflected in mirrors on either side of Claude as though he were being asked to choose between two identical women. Indeed, he occasionally does seem to confuse his many women, as in a scene where the woman he's in bed with shifts between cuts from Catrine to several other women before settling back into his wife again; the bed and the room change as well, as Claude's mind mashes together different scenes with women from throughout his life, his erotic adventures all blending together. Other scenes are utterly inexplicable, ripped out of context as surreal intrusions of the subconscious: a man drowning while speaking on the phone, a short figure in a suit and a green reptilian mask who walks alongside Claude without saying a word.

The film also shuffles the chronology of Claude's career at a publishing firm, where he progresses from working in the mail room to a mid-level office drone to an executive position. The scenes of work are almost always deadening and numbing, and though Claude's progress upward through the company is not presented in a linear fashion as he skips from memory to memory, it gradually becomes clear that the only time when he was actually happy or contented at work was in the stock room, mindlessly stacking magazines for shipping. The more responsibility he gets, the higher he rises, the more miserable he becomes. At one point, he sits at his desk with glazed eyes, musing about how slowly time passes, how it seems like it will remain the same time forever — a memory that acquires a very different resonance when shuffled into Claude's jaunt through the past. In another scene, Claude sits at a desk working while men in business suits are clustered around him, commenting disparagingly on his ability to finish the project he's working on. With the dark setting and the shadowy figures arranged around the desk, towering over Claude, it's staged like a nightmare, a paranoid fantasy of workplace pressure, another expression of Claude's subconscious rather than a literal memory of something that actually happened.

The film's more surreal diversions confirm that Resnais has a sense of humor about this sci-fi material, deliberately skewering the conventions of the genre in the deadpan scenes leading up to Claude's experiment. The scientists take him on a tour of their facility, showing him a mouse that they insist has successfully traveled in time, though they joke that they can't be sure since the mouse can't talk; how short-sighted, Claude says, they should have taught the mouse to talk first! The mouse, who accompanies Claude on his own time travel trip in a plastic bubble, shows up at random in Claude's memories, scurrying across the beach while Claude and Catrine lounge in the sand.

The mouse is a physical manifestation of the unreliability of memory, as it scurries into memories where it previously hadn't existed, its presence distracting Claude from the moment; is the mouse actually changing the past, or only changing Claude's memories of the past? Another animal, the cat that Catrine and Claude keep as a pet, appears, it seems, only when Claude remembers that it exists. Suddenly, once the cat is mentioned, they have a cat. The memory that they have a cat seems to shift the cat into existence, or back into existence. It raises the question: can something be said to exist, or to have happened, if we don't remember it? It's as though memory is populating and creating the world through its functioning. Claude's wartime memories, which similarly seem to be unreliable, are an interesting and unresolved undercurrent in the film. He refers several times to his experience in the army during World War II, which contradicts his frequent assertion that he dislikes guns and doesn't know how to use them — but then again, his chosen method of suicide also contradicts this statement. In a very puzzling scene that's unconnected to virtually everything else in the film, Claude runs across an old man who, he claims, gave Claude fake documents and a new identity during the war. The old man protests that he doesn't remember Claude, and says that it's impossible, that he too got a new identity during the war. It's a very mysterious scene, suggesting that there's a lingering mystery in Claude's past, even in his identity. Is memory really so fragile, so malleable?

That question is at the heart of Je t'aime, je t'aime. The film's minimal sci-fi story provides a framework and a clever conceptual container for Resnais' consideration of the nature of memory. As Claude hurtles through time, each memory he encounters might or might not provide additional context for the scenes that surround it, sometimes completely altering the understanding of another memory or casting other memories in a different light, at other times existing independently as self-contained stories or scenes. It's a film that acknowledges that a life can seldom be completely understood, and that the retrospective filter of memory can provide many different vantage points on that life. Its construction, a parallel for the process and artistry of filmmakers, suggests that we're all filmmakers and artists in our own minds, that the life stories we construct for ourselves are mental films, scenes projected in endless loops, moments edited together into semi-coherent assemblages that don't tell stories so much as replay emotional highlight reels.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Dreamers

It's appropriate that Bernardo Bertolucci, late in his life, should make a film like The Dreamers, which at this point, eight years after its release, remains his final film to date. If he never makes another, this will be a fitting and beautiful swan song, a love poem to the cinema that's as aware of the limitations of film as it is enraptured with the artform's possibilities. This cineaste's dream, a vision of Paris at the height of the passions of May 1968, is essentially Bertolucci's return, in highly symbolic and stylized fashion, to his own youth, to his own introduction to the cinema. The film opens with Matthew (Michael Pitt), saying that the Cinémathèque Française is like a palace, and in the opening scenes of the film he goes religiously to see films there, staring raptly at the screen, alone but together with a crowd of people all seemingly hypnotized by those flickering images. That word, "religiously," is not chosen lightly. The film is about a generation of people, born with the French New Wave, for whom the cinema was a religion, for whom those flickering images were the Stations of the Cross, carved in film stock rather than stained glass. Later, after Matthew meets the brother and sister cinephiles Isabelle (Eva Green) and Theo (Louis Garrel), Isabelle says that she was born in 1959, an impossibility except that she's not referring to her literal birth but her birth through cinema: she came into this world, figuratively, in the year of Godard's Breathless, the film that ignited the New Wave and served as a symbol for everything that would change in the cinema, and maybe even in the world outside the theater, with the coming of this new movement.

The film is also, of course, about disappointment. Bertolucci has precisely captured a particular moment in time when anything, seemingly, could happen — and when, in fact, almost nothing actually did. The cinephilia of Matthew, Theo and Isabelle briefly flows out into the streets, into the world beyond the frame, with the Langlois affair, the series of protests aimed at reinstating the Cinémathèque's director Henri Langlois. New Wave icon Jean-Pierre Léaud appears, reprising his own role in those protests, juxtaposed alongside his own black-and-white image from 1968, that much younger man shouting out speeches to crowds of young cinema fans who had been galvanized by this situation. Later, Matthew and Isabelle will go to see Frank Tashlin's The Girl Can't Help It, with its opening in which Tom Ewell playfully expands the borders of the cinematic frame, kicking the constricting Academy ratio frame out to widescreen: a perfect metaphor for the expansion of boundaries, for the possibility of expanding, eventually, not just from 4:3 to Cinemascope, but from Cinemascope to reality, to the world pushing in on the corners of the screen, or conversely to allow the film to bleed out, past the black border into the world outside.

Instead, Matthew, Theo and Isabelle cut themselves off from the world in the beautiful apartment of Theo and Isabelle's bourgeois parents. The brother and sister — Siamese twins, they insist, and they have matching scars on their shoulders to suggest it's true — have a passionate, near-incestuous attachment to one another, and they essentially invite Matthew to join them as the third point of a triangle, to be absorbed, if he can be, into their perfect unity. When their parents go on vacation, leaving the apartment to the young people, the trio hole up there for an indeterminate amount of time, playing games of sex and cinema. They challenge one another to re-enact the famous fast-paced run through the Louvre of Godard's Band of Outsiders — a sign, in the original film, of how little those characters cared or knew of culture, and a sign of this trio's repetition of those same mistakes, taking the film as a guide for living without thinking about the meanings behind it. They challenge one another to identify scenes from films: Isabelle apes Garbo while Theo performs death scenes where X marks the spot, as in Hawks' Scarface. And the penalties for losing in these guessing games are sexual penances that only draw the trio tighter together into a sexual-cinematic union. Matthew falls in love with brother and sister together, and his love for them is mashed up with his love for the cinema, with his excitement over what he'd seen on the screen in darkened theaters. When the Cinémathèque closes during the Langlois affair, the apartment becomes a substitute theater, a place where these young people can create their own films, their own fantasies, using the films they love as raw material.

Bertolucci is revisiting, in a way, the theme of his infamous Last Tango In Paris. Like Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider in that film, this trio of cinephiles attempt to close themselves off from the world, to blot out everything outside their apartment. It's no coincidence that when Theo and Isabelle invite Matthew over for the first time, the scene is staged with Matthew in an elevator that's very reminiscent of the one leading to Brando and Schneider's apartment in Last Tango, while the twins run up the stairs, recalling the sequence where Brando stalks a frightened Schneider as she tries to escape him. Later, the apartment becomes their whole world, and their games of sex and movie trivia become their only activity, while outside the student riots boil over in earnest, this time with a real political agenda far broader than the cinephiliac demands of the Langlois affair.

When Matthew, finally growing frustrated with the twins' isolation and infatuation with one another, brings Isabelle out on a date, it shatters that boundary between the apartment and the outside world. The lovers go to a movie together, of course, but afterward, kissing by a shop window, they see news of the protests on a TV screen, and it's as though these images snap them out of their selfishness and monomania. When they turn around, away from the TV in the window, the camera pans with their gaze towards a massive heap of trash, the wreckage left behind by that day's demonstration. The streets look like they've been hit by the messy apocalypse of Godard's era-defining Week-end, and the only way this pair could possibly not have seen all this evidence before was that they were still locked into their isolation, as though they were still inside that apartment even while walking through the streets of Paris. Bertolucci carefully shields the audience from these signs as well, right up until the point when Isabelle and Theo see the trash and the wreckage all around them. If Last Tango was about trying to ignore the world in order to extinguish the pain of personal tragedy, The Dreamers is more political than personal; it's about trying to ignore the turmoil of the world, trying to pretend that nothing will or could ever change, so the only thing to do is engage in bacchanalian rites of pleasure, whether in a bed or in the dark of a cinema.

Later, when even this wake-up call proves insufficient to jolt the trio out of their solipsism, Bertolucci intervenes more stridently. The trio barricade themselves in a tent of sheets that, Theo says, dates back to their childhood, when they used to play like this in, one presumes, a more innocent way. The twins' parents, having briefly returned, simply tiptoe in and out, providing no guidance, no direction, for these youths, only some further enabling behavior. It takes Bertolucci himself to shatter the isolation, in a somewhat literal and cute way, as his camera pans away from the tent towards a window, which is then broken by a rock flying through it. As soon as this happens, the tranquility and quiet of the apartment is revealed to be false, as the clamor of street protests rushes in from outside. It's utterly artificial, as no pane of glass could have blocked out all this noise so completely; it's a symbolic rupture, the shattering of the boundaries between the bourgeois apartment and the streets outside. When Theo and Matthew ask what happened, Isabelle calmly replies, "the street came flying into the room," a wonderfully poetic way of saying that it's become impossible to ignore that this is a moment pregnant with possibility for all sorts of changes and ruptures.

Back in 1968, many of the New Wave's filmmakers and artists had realized the same thing, taking to the streets and engaging with the world beyond the cinema, hoping to effect some kind of lasting change. That nothing of the sort ever materialized is well known now, but Bertolucci seemed to have realized it even at the time; his second feature, Before the Revolution, made four years before May '68, is a kind of preparation for the disillusionment and disappointment of that would-be revolution. Matthew, Theo and Isabelle are very much like the aimless revolutionary idealists of that film, unsure of where their lives are heading, momentarily energized by political fervor or the love of cinema or the love of one another, but with a sense of the temporary, the ephemeral, drifting through everything they do, everything they desire. When the "revolution" breaks down into either pointless violence and destruction or disgust with all this squandered potential, it's predictable but no less sad for it.

All of this makes The Dreamers a very personal film, and a very poignant one. It's an elegy, not only for the generation of 1968, but for a whole way of looking at and thinking about the movies. It's an ode to Cahiers du cinema, to a time when all this felt so very important and so very vital. It's a loving if clear-eyed tribute to the filmmakers, and the ideas, that initially inspired Bertolucci and set him off on his own life and career.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

We Won't Grow Old Together

We Won't Grow Old Together, as its title suggests, is about a tormented relationship. Jean (Jean Yanne), has been married to Françoise (Macha Meril) for years, but his relationship with his wife has been all but over for a long time — she's hardly ever around, always traveling to Russia for work, and she drifts in and out of the film as well, reflecting the ephemeral nature of their marriage. This is not the relationship to which the title refers. Jean's relationship with his mistress Catherine (Marlène Jobert) has lasted for about half as long as his marriage, and their relationship is much stormier, more potent and intense, than Jean and Françoise's chilly, civil non-communication. Jean and Catherine are constantly fighting, constantly breaking up, one or the other of them angrily calling it all off only to go crawling back to the other very soon after. This was the second feature of Maurice Pialat, adapted from one of his own novels, and it's obviously autobiographical in its depiction of a doomed relationship between the brutish, nasty Jean — a documentary filmmaker like Pialat was before venturing into fictional features — and the insecure Catherine.

If this is a self-portrait, it's an unflinchingly negative one. Jean is a monster, a brute, a boor, and he absolutely terrorizes and torments Catherine. His behavior is despicable: he's constantly berating her, calling her stupid, and when they meet her parents during a vacation, she's got a small bruise above her eye, a sign of his often physical violence against her. At one point, when she refuses to have sex with him, pleading exhaustion, he violently leaps onto her and tears her shirt, then storms angrily out of the room (though she later finds him petulantly waiting downstairs, like a little kid waiting for her to come fetch him). Every time she shows some sign of independence, he tries to wear her down, insulting her, calling her ugly, mocking her ambition to become a model, telling her she's good for nothing. He wants her to be weak and meek, to lack self-esteem, because it's clear that he can't handle a woman who can think for herself — because what woman with any sense of self-respect would tolerate his bullshit? He's an utterly rotten character, and yet it's obvious that Pialat sees himself in this man, just as later he'd see himself in the role of the domineering, manipulative patriarch of A nos amours, a role where he'd dispense with the stand-ins and simply cast himself.

Here, though, Pialat is filtering himself through the brooding, aggressive performance of Jean Yanne, who excels at playing these kinds of brutes, who had in fact recently played similarly despicable sad-sack monsters for Claude Chabrol in Le boucher and Que la bête meure. Pialat is unflinching in his depiction of Jean's nastiness, and yet he's clearly also sympathetic to this character, this man who torments the women who love him, relentlessly driving them away and then feeling remorse and nostalgia when they finally decide they've had enough of him. His fractious relationship with Catherine has gone on a long time, but it's only when she starts hesitantly pulling away, trying to detach herself from Jean, that he realizes he loves her and wants her to stay. The film is structured around the repetition, over and over and over again, of the basic scenario that arises from this situation: the couple quarrels, they break up, they storm off alone, and shortly thereafter they're back together as if nothing had happened, and the cycle repeats itself. Pialat's brisk editing emphasizes the cyclical nature of this relationship, with scenes of breakup and finality immediately followed, jarringly, with scenes in which the couple meets up, smiling, for a day together. A closeup of Catherine, a single tear poised on her cheek but never quite rolling off — a perfect metaphor for the static, frozen-in-place turmoil of this relationship — immediately segues into a scene of the couple meeting for lunch, smiling and chatting. And then the conversation takes on a darker tone almost immediately and they part in anger again. Pialat understands this pain, understands this kind of love/hate, push/pull relationship that's clearly dying even though neither of the lovers will quite admit it.

Pialat relentlessly examines the disintegration of this relationship, looking with pity at the spectacle of the hard-edged Jean falling apart as he realizes that Catherine is leaving him. He brought it on himself, and he knows it, and he talks candidly about how badly he mistreated Catherine, even though he still seems to think that it's possible to fix things. It's obvious that he won't change, though, no matter how much he mopes and whines, and in the film's long denouement, Catherine disappears for a long time, leaving Jean as the lonely center of the film, commiserating with his wife of all people, who seems to pity him, to feel bad for his heartache. She's got a life of her own, with friends and lovers and an active career outside the home, and she doesn't need Jean although she remains tied to him by marriage. Jean has nothing, just a stalling career as a failed filmmaker, barely working, with no friends and now no lover either. A brief visit with Jean's drunken, lonely father (Harry-Max) provides a premonition of the pathetic future awaiting men like Jean, who from François' description very much takes after his notoriously hellraising father.

The film's ending provides another vision of the future, a future informed by nostalgia and memory. In the final scenes, Jean and Catherine meet up one last time, after she's left him for good, and they talk about the future and about her new life without him, and Jean still clings pathetically to the hope that he'll somehow, someday get her back, that she still needs him. She doesn't crush his hopes, but she remains tellingly aloof throughout their conversation, communicating the sense that she's done with him, that he's now a part of her past. The film's final shots tell the same story more poetically. After this meeting, Pialat cuts to an image of Catherine swimming in the ocean, alone, an image from the the couple's vacation earlier in the film. As she swims, the waves crash against her head, which remains barely above the water, and she struggles against the violent sea, swimming hard as the the gray-blue water stretches out toward the horizon all around her. Finally, she enters shallower waters, steps up out of the water in her bikini, stretching and pushing her wet hair away from her face, and she walks off toward the side of the frame, pausing for just a second before vanishing at the right side of the frame, leaving behind the empty and turbulent ocean.

Pialat then cuts to grainy, black-and-white footage of Catherine running and posing in the shallow surf at the edge of the beach, images that, with their home movie quality, might have been captured by Jean the filmmaker. These are his memories of Catherine, captured in film, just as We Won't Grow Old Together represents Pialat's own memories of his own difficult relationships. Through memory, through the filters of film and art, the past becomes distant, tinged with nostalgia, faded into black and white in contrast to the crisp, colorful clarity of a present-tense moment. Even in the color shot of Catherine in the water, there's a brief glimpse of some object at the corner of the frame, a piece of filmmaking equipment or the prow of the boat the camera is drifting on, a sign of the artifice constructed around this heartbreaking story. Pialat leaves this trace of the filmmaking process intact, perhaps because he wants to acknowledge that this is filmed memory, that the film, like the novel before it, is a way of transmuting painful life into art, placing these incidents irrevocably in the past.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Gente del Po/N.U.

Michelangelo Antonioni, like many directors who later became known for their fictional features, started his career making documentary short films. His first was Gente del Po, shot in 1943 but not finished and released until 1947, its production hampered by problems with damaged and partially destroyed negatives. Despite this troubled history, the film is a beautifully shot document of the people who live their lives along — and on — the Po river, working as farmers or living on floating barges. The film's stark black-and-white images capture the physicality of this land, of the lives that are set within this often tumultuous landscape. The voiceover, spoken by a female narrator, is generic and banal, and doesn't have much to say beyond the most prosaic descriptions of these people's lives and occupations, as farmers or barge-dwelling laborers. It's the images that tell the real story, expressing the beauty and the harshness of this land and the work that's done in it.

Antonioni's visual sensibility is obviously already striking even in this first documentary. In one shot, he captures a woman walking home and frames her as a small figure against a massive, empty sky, with a tall, thin tree stretching up towards the sky above her. The shot, framed from below, looking up towards the woman and that blank gray sky, prefigures the distinctive compositions of Antonioni's later features, in which he also often framed his characters within landscapes that seem to tower over them, as expressions of their alienation and isolation. In another shot, he shows a young man going to court a girl by the riverbank, and he shoots the girl from behind, looking out at the water, only to turn around as the guy steps into the shot and sits down beside her. These little bursts of narrative suggestion belie the film's documentary construction; it's apparent that Antonioni, already possessed by the urge to tell stories and explore his characters' psychologies, was forming little narrative vignettes around the lives of these real people.

As a result, Gente del Po is an interesting debut, a rough but potent first short from a director who would later explore similar themes — like the effect of environment and occupation on people — in more depth. The film is ragged, with its routine narration, generic music and the abrupt ending necessitated by Antonioni's problems with his footage, but in its brief span it points the way forward to the ideas and aesthetics of the director's subsequent career.

N.U. is a more modest and simple documentary from Michelangelo Antonioni, a film about the workers of the Netezza Urbana, the department of sanitation: the street-sweepers of Rome. The film has very minimal narration, just a short blurb announcing its purpose at the very beginning of the film, describing the work of the street-sweepers and making the banal point that, though nobody pays attention to them, they are in fact integral to the city's activity. Antonioni then stages a series of quasi-documentary scenes of the street-sweepers at work. As in Gentle del Po, there is, already in this commissioned documentary work, a hint of narrative structure, a suggestion that Antonioni likes to look at the world and tell stories about what he sees. These scenes have the feel of a childlike imagination playing a game: watching ordinary people and imagining what private dramas they might be experiencing. A man and a woman, obviously a bourgeois couple of the type that Antonioni would later probe and psychoanalyze so incisively, walk down the street, arguing with each other, and as the woman walks away the man stops to angrily tear up a piece of paper and throw it on the street. As he runs to catch up to the woman, grabbing her arm and continuing their argument, a street-sweeper stoically sweeps up the shreds of paper into his shovel, dumping them into his garbage can. As the couple walk away in the background, taking their story elsewhere, a bum walks up and talks to the street-sweeper.

The staging of scenes like this in no way feels like a documentary; there's no looseness in Antonioni's compositions, nothing that suggests that this is unscripted reality. He may be shooting on the streets, capturing real people at work, but already his urge to impose his own will, his own vision on these images is apparent. He was never cut out to be a true documentary filmmaker. In one shot, his camera pans towards a small wooden shed, the door of which swings open as though in the breeze precisely at the moment that the tracking shot ends; a newspaper rustles inside, and eventually it's revealed that it's not the wind producing this motion but a homeless man who had been spending the night in this shelter with blankets of paper. Such images, so obviously arranged and choreographed, wind up working against the sense of ordinary reality that the voiceover pays tribute to: this is not a straightforward document of street-cleaners and bums but a carefully arranged series of images and stories.

The film ends with a sweepingly romantic image of a solitary street-cleaner walking home after work, a black silhouette in the darkening evening, the city stretched out around him in a long shot that perfectly captures the urban romanticism of this image, very unlike later Antonioni but not unlike his noir-influenced feature debut Story of a Love Affair, which he would make two years later. The image also recalls Charlie Chaplin's Tramp figure, a suggestion that the romanticized homeless people and laborers of this film are derived from the example of the movies as much as from real life. Antonioni, making these small documentaries to observe the lives of ordinary people, was already crafting the foundation for the films he'd make as a mature filmmaker, already laying the groundwork for a cinema dealing with people and their surroundings, with the importance of work in modern society, and with the isolation and alienation of the individual in a society where individual lives are increasingly marginalized, like the ignored street-sweepers and bums of this short.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Red Desert

Michelangelo Antonioni is the cinema's greatest chronicler of the modern era's disconnection and dehumanization, of the existential dilemmas created by the modern way of life. His first color film, Red Desert, is yet another entry in his peak period's run of intense, stylistically profound variations on that signature theme. The film is set in a modern industrial zone, not an urban center but a desolate country harbor colonized by smoke-spewing factories, massive ships that drift by in the omnipresent fog, oil drilling platforms out in the ocean, barely visible from shore. The landscape of the region is a cold, foggy, smoke-filled wasteland, a bleak territory of small mud-puddle lakes with sleek black surfaces, chemicals glistening in multiple colors, green scum leaving behind a thick crust on the shore. It's always overcast. There's always a thick fog hanging in the air, making everything fuzzy and gray. The credits roll over a series of out-of-focus shots of the region, of smokestacks and gray factory buildings and grim landscapes that nearly look post-apocalyptic in their indistinct desolation. The first in-focus shot, after the credits, is a closeup of a plume of fire erupting from a factory smokestack. The symbolism could not be more obvious: this is Hell, a strange Hell where the air is cold and the only heat comes from the factories' never-ending industrial processes, from the burning of chemicals.

Wandering through this landscape is Giuliana (Monica Vitti), her crisp green coat a striking contrast against the colorlessness of the land around her. She seems to be dazed, utterly lost, acting in inexplicable ways. She's walking with her son, but seems to keep forgetting about him and leaving him behind, letting him wander off by himself, then belatedly remembering that he's with her. As the film progresses, it becomes apparent that she's losing her mind, a not so surprising state of affairs in a place like this. Giuliana's husband, Ugo (Carlo Chionetti), is an industrialist himself, a manager at one of the local factories, so in a sense the environment that's poisoning Giuliana is in part created by her own husband, who doesn't seem to understand his wife at all. Ugo seems to think of his wife's odd behavior and increasingly obvious depression as inconveniences, minor female hysteria that would go away if only she'd stop thinking about it. He is constantly away on business, leaving her alone, and when he hears that she's been in a car accident and is in the hospital (an event that happens before the start of the movie but lingers over everything that happens subsequently), he doesn't even return from a business trip once he learns that she's going to be alright.

Initially, it seems like Ugo's friend Corrado (Richard Harris) might be able to wake Giuliana out of her misery and aimlessness. He takes an immediate interest in her, really looking at her and trying to engage with her in a way her husband doesn't. They begin to seem like a couple, as wherever they go, Corrado walks with her at her meandering, dawdling pace while her husband impatiently strides ahead, all business. Corrado is also involved in industry, but unlike Ugo he seems conflicted by his work; he's been in many different businesses, always moving from place to place, simply abandoning his life and starting anew somewhere else. In one early scene, Ugo makes calls around to several factory managers he knows, trying to find workers for Corrado's newest project. Antonioni cuts to each place Ugo calls in turn, emphasizing the similarities between them: wherever he calls, smoke spews in the background, the clatter of industrial machinery nearly drowns out the conversations, huge pipes and banks of electronic devices with blinking lights and gauges dwarf the human workers. This is industry, this is progress, making every place the same, erasing the distinctions between places to install a uniformly sleek and gray modern façade that covers up one place after another. Maybe that's why Corrado is never satisfied no matter where he moves; each new home, each new city, is modeled on the old one.

If Ugo is indifferent to the costs of modernization — even laughing at a story of a restaurant customer who complained about fish that taste like petroleum — Corrado seems to feel a small measure of the discontentment that affects Giuliana so dramatically. In a meeting with his new workers, towards the end of the film, Corrado's gaze wanders over the workers' faces but drifts away from them towards the stacked crates behind them, towards the cracked paint on the walls of the warehouse. Antonioni's images create the impression that in this environment, the faces of the men, often filmed out-of-focus, are simply another part of this inhuman landscape, and the gaze inevitably glosses over them to look at the surroundings instead. It is a glimpse of how Giuliana sees her world, as a place where humanity itself is being effaced by its own creations, by its piles of consumer goods and the massive factories dedicated to their production.

Antonioni's aesthetic constantly reflects this dehumanization and destabilization. The ugly gray surroundings of the area are reflected in Antonioni's bleak, strikingly composed images, in which the color seems to have been drained out of almost everything, leaving behind pale, washed-out hues. Often, the background is made blurry and abstract, isolating Giuliana from her surroundings, so that her crisply focused face is contrasted against the out-of-focus haze of factories and industrial parks. The omnipresent fog adds to that hazy feeling, especially in a scene by the docks when Giuliana, Ugo and their friends run through the fog, disappearing into the gray tendrils that wrap around them. Standing in the fog, the people seem to be fading in and out of view, partially obscured, their expressions unreadable due to the filtering overlay of the fog. Giuliana faces her friends and her husband and sees only the uncomprehending blankness of their faces; they seem separated from her by an uncrossable gulf.

This is a potent depiction of a world in which human connection seems impossible. At best, there are cheap and tawdry facsimiles of connection, like a party that Giuliana, Ugo and Corrado go to with some friends, where everyone talks incessantly about sex and the whole thing seems constantly on the verge of breaking out into an orgy. The orgy never happens, though, in part because all these upper-class blank slates seem too lazy, too bored, even to really have sex — their lascivious but empty chatter is contrasted against a young working class girl who says she'd "rather do certain things than talk about them." But talk is all these bored bourgeois can muster. Even Giuliana's interactions with the men who love or want her seem oddly impersonal. Her husband, who ignores all her concerns and doesn't seem to know what to make of her depressed manner, paws at her and kisses her while she sobs and moans; unable to understand her pain, he tries to smother it with sex, not getting — or not caring — that she isn't likely to be soothed in this way. Ultimately, Corrado can only resort to the same solutions; when Giuliana comes running to Corrado for help late in the film, he takes advantage of her confusion and sorrow by taking her to bed, caressing her and stripping her while she cries, alternately pushing him away and seeming to pull him closer. Her isolation and anguish is so intense that she needs some companionship, some comfort, but none of these men can offer it to her in any real and lasting way.

After Giuliana and Corrado make love, the hotel room, which had previously had white walls, is suddenly painted a pale pink, and even the coffee cups on the bedside table are pink, as though the whole room had become a womb of flesh, encompassing the lovers, as though their skin-on-skin contact had begun to spread to the objects and constructions around them. This is a film about how environments and surroundings affect human relations and psychology, but the reverse is also true: modern people create the environments in which they live. Just as it's humanity's obsession with progress that leads to industrial expansion and pollution, this scene reflects the wish that human connection, however fleeting, could counteract the suffocating and alienating effects of the world. Instead, sex and "love" only offer up more pain and disappointment. Even motherhood is unsatisfying to Giuliana, whose son is virtually a mute prop, as disconnected as his mother, and who already shows signs of his mother's unpredictable responses to this alienating environment.

There is at least one beacon of light in this desolate world: the human imagination and the capacity for hope, the capacity to dream of a better world. At one point, trying to keep her son entertained while he's ill, Giuliana tells him a story, but it's no light bedtime story. It's a haunting parable of unspoiled natural peace and the constant threat of disruption that arises from human presence. In this story, there's a beautiful beach with pink sand and clear, blue water, and the only person around is a young girl with darkly tanned skin who swims in that bright blue water and lounges on the beach all day, as long as the sun is out. The style of this sequence differs drastically from the rest of the film, as the bright colors and clean, bold images contrast against the drab tones and fog that persist outside of this dream world. As Giuliana's voiceover describes the beauty of this place, the images present an idyllic paradise, totally unspoiled, no human activity except for the girl's unhurried, isolated enjoyment of the place's beauty. The only sound is the water lapping up on the shore, a hushed whisper accompanied by Antonioni's remarkably sensual closeup of the tiny waves lapping up against the shore, kicking up swirls of pink sand that turn the crests of these wavelets a pinkish hue.

This idyll is interrupted by the appearance of a mysterious boat, unpopulated by any visible human crew, which simply turns into the inlet, seems to look around, then sails away. It is an obvious indication that this isolated place could be spoiled at any time, that the big ships of industry, so inhuman and strange, could pull in at any time, muddying up that crystal-clear water, spewing filth to cover up the delicate pink of the sand. After the ship leaves, the story goes, the whole cove sings as a kind of beautifully sad warning, or a protest, a song of heartache and fear. As Giuliana's voiceover says that the cove was like a living being, Antonioni films the curved pink rocks surrounding the water like a woman's body, admiring the glistening accretions of sand and crystal in these rocks, admiring their graceful curves that at times look like a woman's breasts or the curve of her hips. In this deeply affecting parable, this place of natural beauty becomes a woman, welcoming and pure, whose beauty is threatened by the rape of industry.

That story is a vision of the world's beauty that seems far removed from reality as Giuliana knows it — but not from reality altogether. It's the world as it could be, and the world as it still is in some places. The mere possibility of this fantastic beauty, of this total communion between humanity and nature, is enough to soften the hard edges of industrial existence. Another scene, earlier in the film, seems like a slightly surreal dream but with a much less optimistic message. Giuliana wakes up in the middle of the night and finds, in her son's room, a grinning robot running back and forth on autopilot, crashing backwards into the wall and then running up against her son's bed, grinning all the while. Giuliana turns off the robot, which remains in the lower left corner of the frame, staring at the camera with glowing eyes, as she checks on her son. When she leaves and shuts the door, restoring the room to darkness, those glowing eyes are all that remain, two yellow orbs floating in the dark, an eerie mechanical stare watching over the sleeping boy.

That image is indicative of the film's general tone of industrial malaise. The soundtrack buzzes and hums with the sounds of machinery, the high-pitched subliminal whine of power transformers, these real sounds matched in the low-key electronic score of Vittorio Gelmetti, which burbles up every so often to further deepen the sense of anxiety. Antonioni carefully calibrates every aspect of the film so that each image becomes an expression of the characters' isolation, and the weight of the world that they feel so acutely. The scenery is almost studiously bland and gray, sometimes literally, as when Giuliana sees a fruit vendor whose wares are all painted gray, as though covered in a layer of ash. In Corrado's hotel, the whole lobby is a clean, clinical white, even the plants, their white stalks emerging from white soil and white pots. Antonioni has crafted a precise and deeply affecting portrait of the destruction of the human soul in the metal jaws of industry — and the nature of the continuing psychological and physical struggle against the oppressive environs we've created for ourselves as a society.