Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Les Cousins

Claude Chabrol's second feature, Les Cousins, is, like his first film Le beau Serge, a study of opposites and dichotomies: urban/rural, innocent/worldly, intellectual/physical, sheltered/experienced. In Chabrol's first film, a bookish young man returns home to the small town where he grew up and finds that his childhood friends have grown hard and mean in the years he's been gone. In this second film, the roles are reversed: Jean-Claude Brialy, who played the naïve intellectual of Chabrol's first film, now plays the decadent Paul, whose country cousin Charles (Gérard Blain, who played the tough, drunken Serge in the earlier film) is coming to visit. Charles' arrival in Paris, to go to school in preparation for a big exam, introduces him into Paul's wild, extravagant lifestyle. Paul first appears in a long dressing gown, gesturing boldly with a cane, delivering grand orations, with his older friend Clovis (Claude Cerval) hanging around nearby, seeming equally decadent and strange. The relationship between these two men initially seems homoerotic, and that doesn't entirely change when the orgiastic atmosphere of Paul's lifestyle becomes fully apparent. The unworldly Charles seems to have landed in the company of people whose pleasure-seeking approach to life is very different from his own stolid work ethic and dependability.

The true nature of Paul and Clovis is quickly revealed in an early scene in which one of Paul's former conquests shows up at the apartment, tearfully telling Paul that she's pregnant and has just confronted her parents with the revelation. Paul and Clovis cluster around the girl, one leering over each of her shoulders, and Chabrol's tight compositions position them as opposite voices perched like an angel and a devil on each shoulder. In fact, they're two devils, both of them pressuring her to get an abortion, with the confused girl looking back and forth between them, helpless, unable to resist their insistence. Paul, with his satanic beard and cool, suave manner, seems especially like a vision of the devil as a perpetual seducer, a conscience-negating voice whispering in one's ear, luring the unsuspecting into his lair. He's not content living a life of dionysiac excess himself; he's a kind of recruiter for the cause, and he's not satisfied unless everyone around him seems to be having as much fun as he is.

Maybe that's why Paul's parties seem so loud and desperate. Everyone's always shouting and screaming and laughing too loudly, there's always some grandiose entertainment (like a bare-chested escape artist who sings operatically throughout his act), and Paul himself struts around putting on Mozart and Wagner records or declaiming theatrically in German. Indeed, there's something Germanically shrill about Paul and his scene, and Paul's games of dress-up also flirt with fascism and militarism, which seem to fascinate him, as does the unloaded revolver that he likes to aim at people, clicking the trigger on its empty chambers. It's as though, if there isn't a constant din, if everyone isn't making noise at the tops of their lungs, then no one's having any fun. That's a problem for Charles, who just wants to be left alone to study in quiet. Charles has his own insecurities, and he doesn't seem to realize that Paul's flashy exterior hides the hollow emptiness that might be glaringly obvious at these parties if anyone would ever shut up for even a second.

At one of these parties, Charles meets his cousin's friend Florence (Juliette Mayniel) and falls immediately, passionately in love with her in his naïve way. She seems touched and charmed by his earnestness, his complete honesty and openness. When they walk outside, leaving behind one of Paul's frenetic parties, Charles spills his guts to her soon after their first meeting, telling her about his love for her, about his sheltered country life, about his insecurity and feelings of inferiority in comparison to his more outwardly confident, social cousin. Florence is obviously drawn to Charles, though, despite his clear difference from her own social scene. Chabrol captures her talking to him with shining eyes, smiling and reassuring him, both of them bathed in shadows in the night. It's a very romantic image, which is why it's so startling when, in the film's second half, Chabrol cruelly subverts and undermines this moody romanticism.

When Paul finds out how seriously his cousin has fallen for Florence, and how seriously she's taking this blossoming affair, he sets out to push them apart, apparently merely because this kind of seriousness has no place in his life of parties and casual dalliances and drink-fueled orgies. In one scene, Clovis uses his persuasive, insistent voice to push Florence and Paul towards one another, standing between them as they move closer and closer together, his words urging them towards one another, urging Florence to abandon her brief dream of forming a more stable romantic relationship with the kind, innocent Charles. Instead, she reaffirms her commitment to Paul's promiscuous lifestyle, briefly settling into an affair with Paul and then discarding him to move on to someone new. Lounging around the apartment with Paul, sunbathing in just her panties, Chabrol traps her between the metal bars of a railing that makes it look as though she's in prison. She's a vision of languid sexuality and sensuality, but she's in a cage.

All of these characters are. Chabrol's aesthetic is already developing into the subtly stylish, clinically observational style that characterizes his mature work, in which he examines the pretensions and follies of the bourgeoisie. His camera glides in slow, creeping circles around these characters, a predatory crawl that makes them seem hemmed in on all sides. At a key moment late in the film, when Charles is nearly overwhelmed by the conflicting pressures weighing down on him, the camera spins in a dizzy circle around his room, reflecting the ways in which his whole value system has been utterly disorientated. Despite the thematic continuity and casting overlap of Les Cousins with Chabrol's first film Le beau Serge, Les Cousins already feels like more of a proper Chabrol film. It's an unsentimental film that dissects both the freewheeling amorality of people like Paul and the working class optimism of Charles. The former squanders his bourgeoisie privilege and intelligence (he aces his exams without studying, while the harried and distracted Charles fails even after all his hard work) and the latter is unprepared for the cruel truths of a world that doesn't conform to his idealistic hopes.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Romance of Astrea and Celadon

Eric Rohmer's final film, The Romance of Astrea and Celadon, is a charming, deeply felt ode to the follies and pleasures of devoted love, a fitting subject for this last statement from a director who always concerned himself with both the emotions and the philosophies of love. The film opens with some text that suggests Rohmer's unique approach to realism and fidelity to his sources. The film is adapted from a 17th Century romance set in 5th Century Gaul, so its sense of period realism is of course already at a remove: the denizens of one century imagining what the inhabitants of another thought and acted like, and then Rohmer enters the picture to imagine about those imaginings, at an even further remove. Even so, he acknowledges that unfortunately he had to change the setting of the story, since the Forez plain that served as the original story's setting is no longer as pastoral and serene as the story requires, having been overrun with "urban blight" in the intervening centuries. The text conveys Rohmer's regret at having to make these kinds of changes, necessary as they are in adapting a story that's so remote from the modern era. It's a sly introduction to a film that purposefully places itself in an alien time and place, with foreign customs and ways of thinking that seem absurd and goofy to modern sensibilities. The sense of distance allows Rohmer to remain true to the spirit of the old source while always maintaining his own modern perspective on the material.

The film is a love story between the two title characters, the shepherdess Astrea (Stéphanie Crayencour) and her lover Celadon (Andy Gillet). Theirs is a Romeo and Juliet-style forbidden love, since their families have long quarreled over a trivial slight from the past. In order to disguise their affair, Astrea tells Celadon to pretend to be in love with another girl, but, due to his strong sense of duty and obedience, he pretends too well and causes Astrea to reject him in a fit of jealousy. He tries to kill himself, apparently succeeds, and is washed up in a land down the river, ruled over by nymphs and druids. This basic scenario prompts a convoluted series of misunderstandings and ruses that keep the lovers separated for the remainder of the film, with Astrea believing her beloved to be dead and Celadon refusing to return to her due to his strict adherence to his code of love. She told him never to come near her again, and though she now desperately wishes he were back with her, alive, he remains true to her final words to him.

Rohmer portrays love as a folly and a madness, a delirious devotion to a pure and impossible ideal. Much of the film is devoted to philosophical debates about love and religion. Celadon's brother Lycidas (Jocelyn Quivrin) represents the side of love and devotion in rhetorical battles with the lascivious singer Hylas (Rodolphe Pauly), who represents promiscuity and lust. In these discussions, Lycidas comes across as cool and collected, a rational proponent of love with his wife smiling sweetly by his side in mute agreement. Hylas, for his part, seems half-mad and wild-eyed, a Dionysian figure of lust and pleasure, his mouth constantly twisted into a sneer and his eyes popping with exaggerated desire. At the same time, Hylas' skepticism seems founded when Lycidas says that one who's in love literally becomes his beloved. Even the most cool-headed love, like the seemingly ideal relationship between Lycidas and his wife, contains an element of irrationality, a gap over which one must make a leap of faith without questioning or trying to understand the ineffable. The romance between Astrea and Celadon combines the stolid devotion of Lycidas with the mad lust of Hylas, and Rohmer suggests that perhaps this madness, which seems so absurd and even silly, is true love.

Indeed, the film's plot grows increasingly wild with each new wrinkle. In the final act, Celadon impersonates a girl, the daughter of a druid (Serge Renko), in order to remain close to his beloved without revealing his identity to her. The premise is fundamentally absurd, and must have seemed so even on the page, but when it's actually enacted and visualized it becomes a hysterical farce. Celadon, for all the talk of how pretty he is and how girlish he looks, is thoroughly unconvincing when disguised as a girl. The druid even explicitly says that he has a herb that will hide Celadon's beard — but then, in the subsequent scenes where he appears as a girl, he has a prominent five o'clock shadow that can't be missed. It's yet another example of the sly wit of Rohmer's literary adaptations: he remains fanatically true to the letter of his source even when the result onscreen is silly and hilarious, even when his images directly contradict the text. Perhaps this is a metaphor for love itself. Rohmer's devotion to his text risks absurdity even as the lover does in professing his adoration for his beloved, remaining true to strict codes of behavior that have meaning, if at all, only for him and his love. True love, in this film, creates its own world and its own rules, as remote from ordinary reality as this film seems from the present world.

Rohmer explicitly links this mad devotion to religion and spirituality, which abut romance throughout the film. The gods of the film are Roman gods, but the conversations between Celadon and the druid, which center around whether there are many gods or a single god with many aspects, obviously refer to Christianity without naming it as such. At one point, the druid, having tried to explain some of the "mysteries" of his faith, such as the division of a single god into several secondary aspects and the birth of one aspect of god from a human virgin, finally looks to heaven and declares that he can say no more, lest he taint the mystery. In a nice, subtle touch, Celadon's eyes follow the druid's towards the top of the frame, as though trying to see what the holy man sees above them. Love and religion are the twin "mysteries" of the film, the twin madnesses that possess human beings and make them behave in ways that may seem absurd or illogical or out-of-touch with the world. Thus, though the film's final act — in which a comical, "lesbian" desire develops between Astrea and Celadon, apparently without the former realizing that the latter is actually her lost (male) lover — can only be described as a farce, it's a farce with real feeling animating these unbelievable actions and contrivances.

Rohmer was always concerned with characters who stuck to rigid codes, embodied in the conflicted Catholic moralism of My Night At Maud's or the idealistic search for an abstractly "perfect" love in films like The Green Ray or A Winter's Tale. It's fitting that Rohmer ended his career with The Romance of Astrea and Celadon, since this film presents a vision of that kind of philosophical purity taken to its (il)logical extreme. Its pastoral beauty provides a languid setting for these musings on love, especially in an interlude where Celadon wanders through the forest, singing about his love as images of natural splendor fade into idealized images of Astrea smiling sweetly, flirting with the camera. This is a film that pays tribute to youth and beauty, to those who madly pursue ideals rather than settling for the more accessible pleasures that the world has to offer. It is a sublimely goofy film, and it's not the least bit ashamed of it.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Record Club #2: Brand New

It's time for the second discussion of the Inexhaustible Documents Record Club, which hosts monthly music conversations about albums chosen by various club members. This month, Kevin J. Olson of Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies has chosen Brand New's album The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me. He has now posted about the album over at his blog, and he invites anyone who's heard the album and would like to participate to join him in the comment section for a discussion of the album. The first Record Club post, about the Congos' Heart of the Congos, was a fun and lively discussion, and I expect that this will be, too. I'm going over to Kevin's place now, and I hope everyone will join us there.

Join the discussion at Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Conversations #26 (part 2): The Tree of Life

If you've seen Terrence Malick's latest film, The Tree of Life, chances are that you're as eager as Jason Bellamy and I have been to discuss, dissect and analyze this rich, dense, sometimes frustrating but always fascinating movie. In part 2 of our discussion of Malick, following up on our previous conversation about his first four films, we turn our attention to his latest film, which may well be his most ambitious yet. It's certainly a film about which there is a lot to say, and Jason and I doubtless only scratch the surface in our conversation, so be sure to join us in the comment section with your own thoughts.

Continue reading at The House Next Door

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Saragossa Manuscript

Wojciech Has' The Saragossa Manuscript, based on the novel by Jan Potocki, is a delightful, dizzying film that, over the course of three rapidly paced hours, unfurls a series of interconnected stories in which truth, fiction and fantasy deftly change places over and over again. It's a story of magic and poetry and fiction, all of it built around the manuscript of the film's title, a book that contains stories, and stories within stories, and stories within stories within stories, each new tale flowing out of the others, overflowing with wit and imagination and mystery.

The opening scene sets the tone. A soldier walks dramatically across a courtyard, as his fellow soldiers charge past, on foot or galloping on horses, running into battle. Mortars explode around them, the soundtrack is filled with screams and shouts, and men fall and die. One man falls right next to the first soldier, apparently shot, but when the first soldier walks over to the corpse, the dead man leaps to his feet, grabs his rifle, and leads the retreat as the rest of the army suddenly reappears, running away. Finally, the first soldier, who had previously cowered behind a wall during all this fighting, shouts to rally a charge as his fellow men run in the opposite direction, but his spurt of bravery lasts barely a few seconds before he ducks into a nearby building. It's a surreal, comical scene that deflates the supposed honor of warfare, compressing the entire span of a bloody battle into an absurdist farce lasting less than a minute.

This soldier, as it turns out, has little to do with the rest of the film; he's merely the first of several portals leading progressively deeper into the film's labyrinth of stories. The soldier holes up in an inn, where he discovers a thick book filled with lurid drawings and wild tales written in Spanish, the manuscript of the film's title. Another soldier — from the opposing army — soon joins him and together they begin reading from the book, which the enemy soldier says tells the story of his own grandfather. Has never returns to these two men, huddled around the book. They escape from their present, from the building crumbling all around them beneath the barrage of explosions, and disappear into the stories contained in the book.

The first part of the film is focused on the story of Alfonse Van Worden (Zbigniew Cybulski), a captain of the guard trying to travel to Madrid. His journey is interrupted by mystical events when he encounters a pair of Muslim princesses (Joanna Jedryka and Iga Cembrzynska) who seduce him and then leave him the next morning to awake atop a pile of skulls, lying on the ground beneath a pair of hanged outlaws. Alfonse is haunted by ghosts and visions, and seemingly trapped in an endless loop. Every time he tries to set out on his adventure again, he passes through the same craggy, barren territory, but can't seem to get away from the haunted country inn where he spent his night with the two mysterious women. He's beset by phantoms, arrested and tortured by the Inquisition (who lock him in a tremendous horned metal mask), rescued in a chaotic swashbuckling battle by outlaws, and is finally whisked away to a nearby castle to regroup while listening to a series of stories and adventures that lead further and further away from Alfonse's own narrative.

Has shifts tones admirably throughout the film. The film is often farcical and satirical, mocking the pretensions of religion and the stiff nobility of the aristocratic class. Alfonse's father is a nobleman who obsessively fights duels to defend his honor against imagined slights. At one point, Alfonse says his father fought ten duels in a single day in order to avoid an argument; a good thing he did it, Alfonse says, with seemingly genuine relief, or else there would have been an unnecessary argument. In one of the film's most broadly comic segments, the elder Van Worden interrupts another lord's dinner to lead him outside for a duel over a frivolous matter. The two men walk slowly, bowing to one another at every corner, and then finally meet for a duel; Van Worden gets stabbed, retaining his courtesy all the while, and the other man excuses himself to return to his meal.

The film's battle sequences are also comic, and obviously artificial; they feel like boys' games of swordplay, deftly choreographed with people running in and out of the frame as Has' camera pans fluidly to track the fighting. The stark black-and-white cinematography is also well suited to the more gothic horror touches, though much of the film's magic, as in the later work of Jacques Rivette, turns out to be largely play and gamesmanship. Has continually subverts the drama of his own film, as in one sequence where Alfonse visits a chapel where a man possessed by demons is attended by a priest. The possessed man initially seems quite frightful and horrifying, but when the priest orders him to tell his story, his screams and squeals seamlessly give way to a mannered, soft-spoken voice as he politely explains how he came to be possessed in this manner.

In the second half of the film, Alfonse's story is pushed into the background as he stays at a castle where he listens, along with some companions, to the nested stories of the gypsy Avadoro (Leon Niemczyk). Avadoro's stories of his "youthful adventures" lead inexorably inward, further and further into a maze of stories. He tells a story in which he soon enough meets a character who tells him a story, and that story too leads to a point where someone begins telling a story, until the (multiple) framing stories are nearly forgotten. Has cleverly keeps breaking away from these intricate stories to remind the audience what is going on, and at one point Alfonse, an audience surrogate trying to absorb all of this, counts off on his fingers who's telling stories to who, trying to make sense of the multiple layers of fiction and artifice.

The film nests stories within stories within stories, erecting complex structures that burrow further and further away from reality, into the past, into ghost stories and tales of demons and devils and, especially, stories of love and romantic scheming. The film's text repeatedly comments, self-reflexively, on all these metafictional layers. At one point, when Avadoro interrupts his story of a nobleman haunted by a friend who died in a duel, the listeners comment that he has a real mastery of the storytelling arts, that he understands how to leave a story dangling with suspense. The layered structure contributes to the sensation of being haunted, of passing from one absurd situation to another while losing one's grip on concrete reality. "I've lost the feeling of where reality ends and fantasy takes over," Alfonse says, to which Rebecca responds, "you meant to say: poetry." At moments like this, the dialogue is very self-conscious, commenting on the story itself and the nested structure of the film, suggesting that as much as anything, this is a film about storytelling, about fiction and poetry.

These breaks in the storytelling that dominates the film's second half also provide an opportunity for Alfonse's companion Pedro Velasquez (Gustaw Holoubek) to discourse on mathematics and philosophy, which he sees as interconnected. His philosophical musings punctuate Avadoro's occasionally interrupted story, and at one point he suggests that poetry — as found in the gap between empirical mathematics and a complete understanding of the world — is very close to life itself. Perhaps he's suggesting that this film's endless web of stories, packed with mystery and romance and unresolved absurdities and strange coincidences, is really not as wild as it seems, but is in fact an accurate depiction of the absurdity and strangeness of real life. Or maybe not.

After all, the film is also satirically cutting, as in its depiction of a paranoid religious penitent who's easily frightened and moved to fits of self-abnegation such as hairshirts and flogging. And the film keeps suggesting prosaic, worldly sources for its mystical and supernatural elements, only to upend those practical explanations for further intimations of the otherworldly. One of the film's funniest stories is the tale of the woman who, despising her older husband, concocts a series of seemingly supernatural incidents to convince him that he's being haunted from beyond the grave. Her giggling confession to a lover of what she's doing is delightful, as is the story-within-the-story in which she runs around the house making ghostly voices and leaving tricks to frighten her husband. But the story is left hanging on a much more sinister note that suggests that not everything can be easily explained, and that the frivolous can soon turn deadly.

The Saragossa Manuscript is a witty, irreverent film that's equally deft with the sublime and the silly, with sketch comedy lunacy and poetic ruminations on love, philosophy and the supernatural. It starts out as a physical journey, a historical epic road movie, but it becomes a journey of the verbal, a journey into the past and into the fantastic through stories and storytelling. In that it's connected to antecedents like One Thousand and One Nights and The Canterbury Tales, other classics of storytelling that are stories and also about stories.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

He Ran All the Way

He Ran All the Way is an emotionally and narratively incoherent film that is, nevertheless, compelling in its raw examination of a family under pressure and a man without a family falling to pieces as he realizes just how unloved he really is. Nick Robey (John Garfield) is a loser with no real connections in the world, and no real hopes. The opening shot is a pan across Nick's messy, cramped apartment, finally resting on the bed where Nick thrashes around, yelling in his sleep, haunted by nightmares of endlessly running. He's woken by his mother (Gladys George), who obviously has not the least bit of affection for her son. She berates him for being so lazy, sleeping until nearly noon when he should be out looking for a job, and they get into a nasty argument that climaxes with her slapping him. This is a portrait of a totally unloving mother/son relationship; every time Nick calls her "mom," he spits the word out with such contempt that he makes it sound like a slur, a hateful curse. From the beginning, it's apparent that this is a man who has nothing.

Nick soon tries to pull off a payroll robbery with his weaselly friend Al (Norman Lloyd), but the plot of course goes wrong, Al is wounded and captured, and Nick shoots a police officer while escaping. There follows one of the film's most visually potent sequences, as Nick wanders through a series of desolate urban landscapes, living up to the film's title and fulfilling the prophecy of his nightmare about killing a man and being forced to run constantly. Director John Berry and cinematographer James Wong Howe perfectly capture that sensation of being alone in a dismal world, a never-ending flight from unseen pursuers who might be lurking around any corner. The images isolate Nick in his surroundings, until finally he manages to lose himself in the crowds at a pool. That early sequence of Nick on the run is important, because after Nick meets the innocent Peggy (Shelley Winters) and gets her to bring him home with her, the film settles down into a claustrophobic cabin fever drama with the paranoid Nick imprisoning Peggy and her family in their own apartment.

Howe's shadowy noir imagery is so eerily beautiful in the exterior shots that it's almost a shame that the bulk of the film is spent cooped up in an apartment from that point on, but Howe and Berry are equally adept at conveying the tight spaces of the few rooms where Nick imprisons Peggy, her parents, and her little brother. Unfortunately, though Garfield delivers a relentless, grim performance as the cornered, pathetic Nick, the film's narrative and characterization leap haphazardly around, making a hash of what could have been a thematically resonant study of family and love. Nick's initial come-ons to the sheltered Peggy are so schizophrenic that one wonders why she spends a minute with him; he's at best distracted and at worst seems sociopathic and nasty, and yet despite some initial resistance she invites him back to her family's apartment and awkwardly flirts with him.

Peggy is a pathetic character, weak-willed and malleable, a caricature of the good girl who doesn't know anything of the world or sex. It's kind of laughable when, late in the film, she makes an attempt to dress sexy and seduce Nick, who is also something of an idiot (or else just desperate for love) and seems wowed by her gussied-up look even though, it must be said, she basically looks exactly the same as she always had. There's an interesting idea here, no doubt about it. Nick is a guy with no connections: his only friend sells him out and gives up his name to the police, making his situation even worse, and when he tries to contact his mother she wants nothing to do with him. Nick doesn't care about anyone or anything, but his confrontations with Peggy's father Fred (Wallace Ford) are interesting as the collision of two totally different archetypes. Fred is a family man and a religious man, and all he wants out of life is to be left alone, to work, to spend time with his family. When Fred asks what Nick wants out of life, all Nick can do is wave a handful of money in the other man's face, as though this grubby handful of stolen bills is a substitute for the happy family life that Fred has.

The film's development of this theme is haphazard at best, and the long middle section of the film quickly enters a holding pattern in which nothing much happens. The tension merely remains static, neither building nor receding, and the family tries to go about their lives as best they can while Nick endlessly dithers. The script sometimes becomes almost comical in the heavy-handed lengths it goes to reinforce the family theme. In one scene, Nick buys the family dinner, but the mother cooks a stew for her family, and they all eat that while ignoring the comparatively lavish feast that Nick has set out for them. He then tries to force them to eat at gunpoint, and a very unlikely standoff occurs, with the father delivering a forced speech that feels much more like the script setting out its principles than like anything a man in this situation would actually say.

The ending is especially incoherent, as Peggy sometimes seems to be tricking Nick into thinking she loves him, and sometimes seems to be actually feeling something for him. There's a moment when Nick, thinking he's been betrayed, pulls his gun on Peggy and nearly shoots her, and the script treats this as though it's a revelation — "you were going to shoot me," Peggy sputters, unbelieving, as though Nick hadn't been consistently nutty and violent throughout the film. Either the girl is truly dense or the script is simply inconsistent in its portrayal of this unlikely quasi-romance. Nick, for his part, really is just dense, or really so desperate for someone to care about him that he'll accept even the most unconvincing declarations of love. In spite of all the film's narrative holes and half-realized characterization, though, the ending really is potent and emotionally raw. Nick is forced to confront, on a rain-slick, nighttime noir street, the reality of his complete worthlessness and disconnection. He ends the film literally staring into the light, having gained a measure of self-awareness about his own role in pushing away anyone who might care for him with his distrust and anger and brutality. It is, of course, a realization that comes far too late for him.

Monday, June 20, 2011

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger

It's usually taken for granted, but it's a little amazing that Woody Allen, well over 40 years into his career as a writer-director, continues to be so prolific, to work at the fevered pace of a young man, delivering a film, almost without fail, every year. Granted, not every one of those films is any good — and there are plenty of people who will tell you (mistakenly, I believe) that most of them aren't — but Allen's inexhaustible desire to create, to tell his stories, remains impressive. In recent years, he's delivered at least one masterpiece (the melancholy, incisive Vicky Cristina Barcelona) and a string of variably successful tales about those characteristic Woody subjects: murder, infidelity, dissatisfaction, the desire to be creative and engage with culture. Last year's You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger — not even his most recent film, because as a I write this Midnight In Paris is in theaters and another film is already in the works — strikes me as an utterly typical Woody Allen film. It's not a great film, sometimes not even a good one, but rather an embodiment of the Woody ideal. It's what people think of when they think of his work: wry, cultured people cheating on one another in picturesquely filmed settings, eloquently expressing their disappointments. It feels, at times, like Woody by numbers, like even the director himself has internalized the popular conception of his sensibility and has turned out a film that diligently hits all the expected notes of a Woody Allen movie. For all that, the film is often emotionally compelling and, after a rather wan opening act, opens up into a film with some surprisingly intense emotions bubbling up beneath its familiar surface.

The film focuses on several troubled relationships, centering around the family of married couple Roy (Josh Brolin) and Sally (Naomi Watts). Roy's a once-successful, now struggling writer, and Sally is an assistant at an art gallery, both of them in characteristic Woody Allen professions. Sally's parents have gotten a divorce: Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) is possessed by a fear of getting old and becomes obsessed with appearing youthful and vigorous, an obsession that his wife Helena (Gemma Jones) can't share. The film follows these characters as their relationships splinter and new possibilities become apparent; this is Woody's essential subject, the follies of love and desire, intimately linked with the follies of how his characters view themselves, their ambitions and their dreams. The film's situations are familiar in every sense, all following similar romantic comedy templates: Roy becomes fascinated with the beautiful young woman, Dia (Freida Pinto), whose window faces his, Sally grows infatuated with her boss Greg (Antonio Banderas), Alfie falls for a trashy young prostitute (Lucy Punch) who he impulsively asks to marry him, and Helena begins visiting a psychic (Pauline Collins) who reassures her that her future is rosy. These various subplots are predictable, but Woody manages to extract some surprising depth from these old stereotypes.

The scenes between Naomi Watts' Sally and Antonio Banderas' Greg are the film's most emotionally compelling and indeed startling moments, largely because Woody gets such a powerful performance from Watts, who becomes the fiery emotional core of this film. At one point, Greg invites Sally to go to the opera with him, and Sally, who has been nursing increasingly strong feelings for her boss, is excited for the opportunity. There's a great shot of Sally looking obviously stirred by the music at the opera, her eyes slipping sideways to admire Greg with a slyly upturned smile on her lips, her eyes shining, moved by the music and by her attraction to her companion. It's a wonderful moment, wordlessly communicating the intense emotions she's feeling, and this shot's intensity is carried over into the duo's awkward but charming conversation in the car later, as Greg drops Sally off at her home. The romantic tension lingering between the pair is obvious, and the possibility that one or both might lean over at any moment for a kiss hangs between them, unfulfilled, as they stammer and banter.

This emotional subtext is carried over into the later moment when Sally at last hesitantly admits her feelings for Greg, while he awkwardly tries to steer the conversation away from the subject without hurting her feelings, without openly admitting that he does not reciprocate her desire. But Sally refuses to drop the subject until she's gotten some closure; she is obviously determined to follow this through to the end so she knows if what she wanted could ever have been possible. Woody inserts a closeup of Sally, her mouth straining with forced smiles, her eyes barely holding back tears, her face growing increasingly red as she realizes that she's opened up her heart while Greg has shunted her feelings aside, as gently as he could but still painfully. Woody cuts between the two to emphasize the distance between the suave, unmoved Greg, who doesn't seem to fully understand his employee's overwhelming emotions, and the frazzled, disintegrating Sally, who presses on even as she realizes that she's not getting through, that any connection she imagined only existed in her head. Sally's face is heartbreaking: there's such hope in her expression, mingled with despair and desperation and also the dawning understanding that she was wrong.

At the same time, Roy is developing a flirtatious friendship with Dia, their neighbor across the way, who he spies on from his window, watching her play guitar or strip out of her clothes to make love to her fiancé. The two begin spending afternoons together, walking in the park in scenes that recall the cinema of Woody's longtime influence Eric Rohmer, particularly The Aviator's Wife, in which an afternoon spent in a lakeside park similarly flirts with infidelity. The flowery natural beauty of these scenes, coupled with the somewhat eye-rolling romanticism of the fact that Dia always dresses in red, suggests that these scenes are more symbolic than actual. Roy speaks of Dia as his muse, his inspiration, and though he desires her strongly he hardly seems to think of her as a person. That's why it's so surprising when, late in the film, Woody suddenly confronts Roy's romanticism head-on, abruptly revealing that the character's romantic conception of this affair was not necessarily shared by the director or the film. In one scene, after Roy moves out of his home and into Dia's apartment, he looks across the way and sees Sally stripping out of her clothes into black underwear, looking sexy and desirable, just as earlier he'd watched Dia. The shot reinforces the truism that one always wants what one doesn't have, and suggests the first moment of self-awareness for Roy, the first suggestion that he was chasing after a dream and might come to regret it. It's a self-awareness he flinches away from, sadly closing the blinds on the view. In another scene, Dia is angrily and tearfully confronted by her fiancé and his family after calling the wedding off, another reminder that the romantic plot between Roy and Dia is not without its casualties, that what seems so wonderful for Roy is bitterly painful for other people.

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger often seems light and cheerful, if not outright comic, so such moments of emotional catharsis are bracing and powerful when juxtaposed against the generally pleasant tone of the film. It's not often a full-on comedy, though Woody's wit does cut through in places, often wedded to the film's darker emotions. In one scene, Helena says about her new boyfriend, "He left me for another woman. A deceased one. They're often the stiffest competition." And then, as though realizing that in her grief she's accidentally told a joke, adds in the same shell-shocked monotone, "no pun intended." The joke itself is classic old-school Woody humor, somewhat corny even, but it's made funny — and also sad and true — by the way it's delivered, an offhanded acknowledgment of the accidental humor that resides in even the saddest stories, a nod to the kinship between tragedy and comedy.

In that regard, this film's navigation of those two dramatic extremes is much defter than the thematically similar Melinda and Melinda, in which Allen tried to separate the two impulses to explore their connections and disjunctions. The link between the funny and the pathetic is much more organic here, and the film knowingly climaxes with dual scenarios that hint at the murder plots of other recent Allen films, without quite heading in that direction. This isn't a great Allen film. It takes a while for the clichés of the film's various plots to resolve into something deeper, and as a result the early stretches of the film are often unsatisfying and awkward. The voiceover, a convention that Woody has increasingly embraced, seems especially tacked on here, and the pat way in which the narration frames the film with references to Shakespeare is just silly. But despite these flaws the film finds Woody investing these overly familiar situations with wit and emotional life, with sparks of energy that go far beyond the basic templates that he is drawing from. Even Alfie's story — by far the most clichéd with its male crisis jokes about Viagra and dumb blondes — climaxes with a moment of surprising emotion in which the hapless Alfie suddenly channels some of Hopkins' sinister intensity, projecting the deadly-serious emotions of a man who's been treated like a punchline for too long. Such moments of emotional revelation, in which Woody unexpectedly overturns and subverts the clichés of the romantic templates that drive the film, make You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger much more than it initially seems to be. In a way, that's the theme Woody is dealing with here: life may follow familiar patterns, but just because a story is familiar doesn't mean that it's not real and painful and exciting and full of surprises for those actually living it.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Martin Scorsese's early shorts

What's a Nice Girl Like You Doing In a Place Like This? was Martin Scorsese's first short student film, and like most student films it's an indication of promise rather than a real statement in itself. The film takes a nothing premise — a writer named Harry (Zeph Michelis) becomes obsessed with a photo and finds himself unable to write any longer — and attempts to articulate the story in the most jazzed-up, stylistically vigorous way possible. The short proceeds at a rapid pace with Scorsese using successions of briskly edited still images, frequent cutaways, stop motion sequences and any other trick he can think of to illustrate Harry's rather simple story. The result doesn't amount to much more than a demonstration of Scorsese's love for the stuff of filmmaking, his fascination with editing especially. He manages to give the film a jerky, frenetic momentum that propels the film along through its innocuous, basic plot while Harry's voiceover cheerily announces each new plot development with manic intensity.

Probably the best sequence is one in which Harry watches TV late at night, surrounded by darkness, the glow from the television set casting just a small circle of pale flickering light around him. The sets are purposefully minimal, obviously, but at moments like this Scorsese makes the most of his low budget by turning austerity and simplicity into virtues. The dialogue on the soundtrack comes from King Kong, which Harry is watching on TV, and the conversation about the mysterious monster in the jungle sets the mood of dread as Harry's eyes slowly creep sideways to glance at the photo that so fascinates him. The film is much too jumpy and exuberant to be a horror movie, but Scorsese does indulge a few moments of horror movie paranoia like this, as well as in the handful of shots that focus on Harry's paranoid, widened eyes.

The short isn't exactly memorable or enjoyable beyond its relationship to Scorsese's later career, and as a comedy it's pretty unfunny, but it's an early example of Scorsese experimenting with form and using style to tell his stories.

It's Not Just You, Murray! was the second of Martin Scorsese's student films, made when he was at New York University in 1964, and it's a charming, self-consciously witty gangster picture that shows the young filmmaker already developing an interest in the milieu and the kinds of characters that would drive some of his most famous later films. Unlike his previous short, it's also lightly enjoyable for its own sake, not just as evidence of a director developing his nascent craft. The film is a mockumentary about the gangster Murray (Ira Rubin), who got his start in the Prohibition era with his good friend Joe (San de Fazio). From Murray's point of view, Joe is his greatest friend, and the two of them have built a great life together, but Scorsese repeatedly undermines Murray's narration by showing Joe betraying his partner, running away and leaving him to the cops, seducing Joe's sexy wife (Andrea Martin). It's all played for broad, winking comedy, and the playfulness of the camerawork calls constant attention to the short's meta-aware status. In the opening shots, Murray leans forward, winks at the camera, and then guides the camera to look at his expensive clothes, gesturing to each item while naming its price, then impatiently urging the camera to return to his face.

Scorsese is obviously having fun here, and if the humor is often obvious (a shot of the Lincoln Memorial zooms in to reveal "made in Japan" carved in the stonework) there's real charm in the short's fast pace and loose, jittery sensibility. The running gag of Murray's Italian mother constantly serving him spaghetti initially seems tossed-off, but the film's biggest laugh turns out to be the scene where the mother visits Murray in prison and feeds him spaghetti through the grating, squeezing the fork through with some strands of pasta hanging off. In one lightly comic sequence, Murray's nervous, stuttering voiceover rattles off all the businesses in which he and Joe had an impact, making their work sound legitimate while the images show the gangster duo collecting bribes, calling in hits, selling guns to Arabs, and leaving corpses strewn behind their path.

That's Scorsese's primary technique here, developing a disjunction between the voiceover and the images that illustrate it. It's especially satisfying to witness the contrast between the smug, self-satisfied Murray, who loves to show off his wealth and success, and the actuality of his pathetic life: his wife is clearly cheating on him and his kids look like Joe, which he comically tries to shrug off towards the end of the film, trying to twist even that indignity into a positive. It all ends with a goofy low-budget reference to Fellini's 8 1/2, but even then the hapless Murray can't be the center of attention, as Joe steals the spotlight from him even here. It's Not Just You, Murray! displays only flashes of the mature Scorsese style, as one would expect from a student film, but it does demonstrate the young director's passion for his chosen medium, his love of style. That stylistic energy would be wed to darker and more substantial subjects in later years, but the humor and verve here unmistakably remain at the root of the director's work.

The Big Shave is both the simplest and most straightforward of Martin Scorsese's early student films, and the most fully realized. It is a simple but provocative idea realized in a raw, direct way, abandoning the playful formal pyrotechnics of his previous shorts for a powerful, primal statement of anger and anguish. The film opens with briskly edited closeups of various fixtures and details in a shining white, pristinely clean bathroom: glistening, polished metal faucets, clean white linoleum, a sink with a few clear droplets of water clustered around the drain. Everything is neat, in its place, seemingly untouched. A young man (Peter Bernuth) then enters the bathroom, takes off his shirt, lathers up his face with foam and begins shaving. This is all set to the upbeat music of Bunny Berigan's 1939 jazz tune "I Can't Get Started," which lends a quaint aura to the film to match its visually pure and unstained setting.

However, the film's mood is broken as the man continues shaving even after his stubble has been clipped away. Streaks of blood begin to appear in the white foam caked on his cheeks, and soon each stroke of the razor leaves a long trail of blood on his skin, dribbling over his lips and down his neck. The effect isn't especially convincing, but it's chilling anyway, especially when at the end of the film the man slowly and deliberately draws the razor across his neck, slitting his throat while, disconcertingly, retaining a vacant, slightly bored expression, staring down the camera even as thick blood pours out of his neck and onto his chest. The last shot is, in its way, even more unsettling: a shot of the sink, stained red, as the man's hand, shaking a little, gently places the bloodied razor back on the edge of the sink, before the whole image fades to the red of the ending titles.

Those final titles provide the obvious clue to the film's meaning, as Scorsese ends the laconic title card with the direct slogan "Viet '67." It's an almost Godardian gesture, especially in the use of all that bright red fake blood, and the film is a radical political protest, a statement of anger at all the violence and wasted lives of the war. The young man in the film is just about the right age for the draft, just about the right age to be a soldier, and Scorsese's film seems to suggest that what war means for young men like this is death, pure and simple. The methodical nature of the violence in the short is an analogue for the war machine that tears apart men like this with that same casual disregard for their lives and their bodies. It's a horrifying and nastily effective short, an early precursor of the bloody end of Taxi Driver, and a bracing but indirect political statement.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


Eros is an anthology film that brings together shorts from three international directors — Hong Kong's Wong Kar Wai, American director Steven Soderbergh, and Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni — for an old-school throwback to the heyday of the portmanteau film. The subject, naturally, is eroticism, and all three directors come at it from very different directions.

The Hand is Wong Kar Wai's contribution to the anthology, and its eroticism is inflected with a deep, poignant sadness, a sense of regret and loss that's built into the film's very structure. The opening shot is a sustained closeup of a man having a conversation with a woman who remains offscreen throughout these introductory minutes. The woman is obviously very ill, close to death, and the fact of her imminent death seems to be encoded into their conversation, into the way they talk about the future without really seeming to believe that there's any future for her. Their words eventually trigger a reminiscence about their first meeting, and Wong transitions smoothly into the extended flashback that will eventually bring the film back, full circle, to this moment, to continue this sad goodbye. Even within the flashback, the woman remains tantalizingly offscreen for some time, as the man, younger then, goes to visit her for the first time. He is a tailor's apprentice, Zhang (Chen Chang), and she is the high-class call girl Ms. Hua (Li Gong) who, due to her many wealthy clients and suitors, is rich enough to afford the most expensive, lavish clothes, so she's attended to by the tailor like nobility.

Wong deliberately withholds the image of the woman, retaining the air of abstraction achieved by the opening's closeup on the man alone. When Zhang goes to see his client, he first has to wait in the next room while she services a lover, and the sounds of their noisy lovemaking drift through the wall as Wong shoots the back of Zhang's head and the wall behind which the woman is moaning and crying out. Then, Zhang is called in, and still the woman is hidden from view by a wall, as she interrogates the nervous, shy young man. When Wong finally cuts to an image of the woman, it's a strikingly framed shot, looking slightly down on her, with Zhang standing nearby so that his hips are around the level of her head. With her head slightly cocked back, she regards him with a sultry, hungry expression, the look of a woman with a great deal of experience and confidence. In the strikingly erotic sequence that follows, she gives Zhang his first sexual experience with her hand, eying him all the while with that steely but sexually suggestive gaze, her dark red lips slightly parted, her glamorous aura a stark contrast to the tawdry gropings of the act itself.

This one act is sufficient to provoke an erotic fascination between Zhang and Ms. Hua, one that continues to affect Zhang even as, in periodic visits to provide clothes and take measurements, he watches her age, squander opportunities for security with several of her benefactors, and eventually pass her peak and gradually begin to fade away. She grows ill, eventually, but even before that she's lost her glamor, as she pushes away the rich men who could help her, and her haughty, provocative demeanor grows tinged with sadness and regret. Soon enough, the only man for whom she really holds any fascination is her lowly and adoring tailor, to whom she gave the most casual introduction into sexuality, and who has remained an unmarried loner, sustained only by his obvious desire for a woman he has to know he'll never really have.

Eventually, the film winds back around to its opening moment: Zhang sitting by Ms. Hua's bedside in the rundown hospital room where she's wasting away. The tailor brings her a fancy new dress, intended to impress a rich American man who she hopes will be her "last chance," but that chance is of course already long gone. Instead, there's simply a startling last union between the prostitute and the tailor, replaying the first scene — this time alternating closeups so that Ms. Hua's un-made-up face is revealed for the first time, her glamor (but not her beauty) entirely eaten up by her illness — and then continuing it. This final love scene transcends its potentially tawdry details to become something bracing, and intense, infused with the kind of sadness that only comes from a wasted life, and the knowledge of just how much has been wasted.

Only Wong could make this last, defiantly un-intimate sexual contact between Ms. Hua and her longtime admirer not only erotic, but depressing and loaded with the horrible emotions that linger between them: Zhang's unfulfilled longings, Ms. Hua's regret over lost possibilities, the mutual despair over their limited lives. There's a sense that both of these people, in very different ways, are confined and restricted by class and gender roles that create only a particular set of possibilities for them, and once those possibilities are exhausted there's just nothing left for them.

Steven Soderbergh's contribution to the anthology is Equilibrium, a clever skit based around an erotic dream and the analysis of it; it's a formal game about style and structure, light and funny, buoyed by a pair of charismatic and expressive performances. Nick (Robert Downey Jr.) is an advertising executive troubled by a mysterious dream he's been having, night after night, and to decipher the meaning of this dream he goes to see the psychiatrist Dr. Pearl (Alan Arkin). The dream itself, wordless and sensuous, forms the opening minutes of the film: the first shot is a hazy closeup of a woman's face, a little Mona Lisa smile curling the corners of her lips. Soderbergh follows this image with a series of crisp, clean images of the woman walking, in the nude, around a strikingly designed apartment, decorated all in bright blue shades, the woman's often shadowed, silhouetted form contrasting against the diffuse lighting of the rooms. Soderbergh's images are appropriately sensual and dreamy, the camera dizzily wavering to evoke the lack of the title quality — a loss of equilibrium that the dream represents — as the woman shifts in and out of focus. The camera is never quite able to capture all of her: as she prepares for a bath, she is sometimes a hazy out-of-focus blur, sometimes a dark and curvy silhouette, sometimes clearly in view and yet partially obscured by the angles of walls or doors. The swaying, dizzy camerawork has a voyeuristic quality, and yet the images are unmistakably intimate as well, as though conveying the sense of spying on someone who's so close that there would seem to be no possibility of, or need for, hiding. It's a lovely, moody — and, yes, erotic — opening sequence.

The film then transitions into an equally stylized black-and-white aesthetic — the shadowy, strikingly lit chiaroscuro of the film noir, with slatted shadows falling lightly over everything — as Nick visits Dr. Pearl and describes this dream. At this point, the film becomes a low-key but goofy farce, as Dr. Pearl manipulates Nick into lying down on a nearby couch and closing his eyes, ostensibly to comfort the patient and facilitate their work, but really for a mysterious ulterior motive of his own. For as soon as Nick lays down and closes his eyes, the doctor carefully pulls out a miniature pair of binoculars and, while maintaining a conversation with Nick as the latter relives his dream, spying on an unseen sight through the window facing outside. Soderbergh stages the sequence as antic comedy, with Arkin broadly enacting his obviously ritualized set of gestures, which feel like familiar games that he plays, perhaps, during all of his therapy sessions. As Nick walks through the dream, Dr. Pearl pulls out a bigger pair of binoculars, rearranges his furniture to get a better angle on whatever he's looking at, and finally throws a paper airplane out the window and begins excitedly waving and making complicated pantomime gestures to whoever is across the street.

Soderbergh stages the best moments in deadpan deep-focus shots that capture Nick on the couch in the foreground, utterly oblivious to all the fetishistic antics happening behind him as he spills the details of this dream that has obviously affected him very deeply. The effect is of two different forms of eroticism competing against one another, the verbal sensual description of the dream and the pantomime play of the voyeuristic doctor. It's funny and charming because the actors are funny and charming — and because there's something inherently funny in the passing thought that Downey's verbal recounting of a sexual/sensual dream is perhaps a little nod to Bibi Andersson's famously steamy storytelling in Bergman's Persona.

The film's finale eventually provides a further level in a wry punchline that recontextualizes all these sensual shenanigans as semi-conscious expressions of anxiety, while calling into question exactly which part(s) of the film were dreams — maybe all of them. More than anything the film seems like an exercise in style, a chance to set hazy digital color (evoking Hollywood Technicolor extravagance and the visual language of vintage advertising by way of modern technology) off against the deep blacks of noir's shadows. As a stylish and diverting little short, Soderbergh's contribution is entertaining and easily forgotten, nowhere near the emotional depths and complexity of Wong's The Hand, but then, hardly trying to enter that territory, either.

The final segment of this anthology is Michelangelo Antonioni's The Dangerous Thread of Things, a rather empty and unsatisfying fragment, the main purpose of which seems to be providing a venue for its actresses to cavort around naked. The plot, such as it is, centers on the couple of Christopher (Christopher Buchholz) and Cloe (Regina Nemni), who are obviously teetering on the edge of a breakup, disaffected and alienated from one another like so many other Antonioni characters. The couple fight constantly, then Christopher meets another woman, Linda (Luisa Ranieri), has sex with her, leaves, and the film ends with both women completely naked on the beach, Cloe dancing at the water's edge until she comes across Linda lying in the sand. The two women stare silently at each other, Linda with a smile on her face, Cloe's face hidden from view by the slightly elevated angle of the shot, and then the film ends.

What this short suggests, perhaps more than anything, is just how thin a line there is in Antonioni's cinema between the examination of emptiness and the perpetration of emptiness. The generous interpretation is that this is another attempt at a study of disconnection, an attempt to show how sex without feeling is just a surface, glossy and perhaps attractive but lacking in depth. The not-so-generous interpretation is that the film is a flimsy excuse for the nude scenes; both women spend much of the film in various states of undress, and several leering shots of the buxom Linda running up and down stairs seem to have dubious narrative or cinematic value in comparison to their making-things-bounce value. This impression is only enhanced by the cheesy synth soundtrack, which adds to the atmosphere of bad vintage porn.

Even so, there are some striking images and some beautifully photographed seaside settings here. At one point, the central couple visits an ocean-view restaurant where the waves of the ocean, oscillating sensuously in a reflection, all but blot out the couple as filmed through the large glass windows of the restaurant. It's an image that recalls, in a vague way, the layered montages of Jean-Luc Godard's later films, with their celebration of natural beauty, their love of light, water and reflections, and their unabashed sensuality. Needless to say, the promise of such images is not followed through here. More generally, Antonioni achieves a low-key pictorial beauty, the beauty of serene landscapes and well-framed shots, like a sequence where Christopher climbs a tall staircase to Linda's home, a very memorable stone tower. Antonioni frames the image to maximize the impact of the geometric design of the tower, which broadens above its first level, creating an upside-down trapezoid, the slanted sides of which overhang the approaching visitor ominously. After Christopher and Linda have sex, Antonioni frames the woman's foot, lounging at the edge of the bed as Christopher gets dressed, a very non-sexual shot that nevertheless winds up being more erotic, in its suggestiveness and its aesthetic beauty, than the softcore explicitness of the love scene itself.

Antonioni is the only one of these three directors to approach eroticism in the most obvious way — through copious nude scenes — and perhaps that's why his film feels so slight. These are generic characters and generic situations, with no time in the short's brief span to develop into anything more, and despite the film's occasional intimations of something deeper and more mysterious — like a weird little interlude in which bathing, naked sirens sing to lure the characters into lust — it never quite adds up to a whole. The same might be said of Eros itself, which features one great short, one enjoyable one, and one fairly disappointing one, and doesn't make much effort to integrate the three parts in any real way. The anthology would be worth a look for Wong's The Hand alone, though.

Monday, June 13, 2011


Abbas Kiarostami's Close-Up is a marvelously compelling documentary that, in the process of following the trial of a poor man accused of fraud, winds up delving into the nature of art and the relationship between fiction and deceit. The film is built around a real incident, the case of Hossain Sabzian, who impersonated the famous Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf in order to ingratiate himself with the Ahankhah family, pretending that he was going to film a movie in their home with the family as actors. The family was initially trusting but came to suspect him more and more, finally exposing him by inviting over a friend of a friend, the journalist Hossain Farazmand, who knew the real director by sight and instantly recognized that Sabzian was a fraud. Kiarostami's film is partially a documentary of the resulting trial, and partially a reconstruction — using the real participants in the events as actors, including Sabzian himself and the family he conned — of the events preceding Sabzian's arrest.

The film opens with a re-enactment of the reporter taking a taxi to the Ahankhah house to arrest Sabzian. Farazmand and the taxi driver sit in the front, while two soldiers sit in the back, and during this lengthy opening sequence the men chat casually, talking about the case they're going to deal with, about film, about journalism, and about incidents from Iranian history that happened in the areas they pass through. The conversation is casual and seems unrehearsed, though this is a re-enactment of the real events that led up to Sabzian's arrest. Once the cab arrives at the house, Farazmand goes inside, but Kiarostami's camera remains in the cab, observing as the driver chats amiably with the two soldiers in the back seat, asking them about their families and their homes. Then the soldiers go inside too, and again Kiarostami remains outside with the driver, as the man gets out of the car, picks up some flowers from a pile of trash, sniffs the flowers, and kicks an aerosol can so it rolls noisily down the street. The can rolls along the concrete, and Kiarostami's camera pans after it, eventually following it as the can starts to drag sideways across the ground in an unnatural movement, presumably pulled along by an unseen string from off-camera.

In this way, the subtle naturalism and observational aesthetic of the opening scenes gives way to a sense that things are being tweaked by the filmmakers, that not everything is necessarily as it seems. It's a reminder that the film's re-enactments are only playing at realism; they are in fact carefully arranged and scripted, based on real events but not in themselves "real" or unmediated. The naturalism of the opening is further deconstructed when, after Sabzian's arrest, the reporter remains behind, frantically running from door to door in the neighborhood to ask to borrow a tape recorder. The scene is farcical and surreal, as Farazmand rings doorbells at random, introduces himself, and asks for a tape recorder. One starts to wonder what kind of reporter shows up for a big story like this, planning to do an interview, and then has to beg for a tape recorder from complete strangers. It's comical and strange, especially when Farazmand finally gets his tape recorder and goes scurrying off down the street, pausing just once to give the aerosol can lying in the road a savage kick that sends it flying into the air, coming down and once again rolling along as the reporter disappears down a side street. As the credits finally roll, ushering in the meat of the subsequent film, concerning Sabzian's trial, Kiarostami leaves the audience to wonder about this strangely unprepared reporter, about con men, about reportage, about lies and fictions.

The images of the trial itself, captured in grainy footage that contrasts against the crisp, clean images of the re-enactments, are focused on Sabzian and his explanations for what he did. Kiarostami had remarkable access in the surprisingly relaxed courtroom where the trial takes place — or else not all of the trial footage is genuine, which only further blurs the film's interesting perspective on reality versus fiction, truth versus lies. Kiarostami seems too involved, too active in the trial's progress, for all of this footage to be real, unless Iranian courts are significantly less controlled than Western courts. The judge sits across the room, asking questions of Sabzian and the Ahankhah family, but for the most part Kiarostami's camera remains focused on Sabzian's face. At the beginning of the trial, Kiarostami explains to the defendant that this camera has a close-up lens and will remain trained on Sabzian, to capture his reactions and to provide him with a way to speak his mind and make his ideas clear. Kiarostami is making explicit what this film is about: he wants to give Sabzian an opportunity to express himself, to help others understand why he did what he did. During the trial, Kiarostami frequently even intervenes (or seems to intervene) in the proceedings himself, asking Sabzian direct questions and prompting the defendant to speak at length about the feelings and ideas that were behind his actions.

These close-ups of Sabzian are astonishingly moving, especially since the defendant's words reveal that he was no simple con man, that he was not trying to bilk the family out of money or otherwise exploit them. He did what he did, he says, because it made him feel respected. He is a poor man, divorced from his wife because of his inability to provide for his family very well, and he still struggles, constantly in and out of work, living a very poor and simple life with few real pleasures. His only pleasure, it seems, is the stimulation provided by the cinema, by art: he goes to the movies, especially the movies of Makhmalbaf, and finds a voice dealing with the kind of "suffering" that he himself feels in his own life. He is especially moved by the director's film The Cyclist, about which he says, "It says the things I wish I could express." With Kiarostami's prodding, the trial becomes a discourse on the purpose of art, the ways in which art can reach into people's lives in surprising ways. It becomes obvious that Sabzian impersonated Makhmalbaf because he wanted to feel as though he could reach people in that way, that he could express the things he feels with such clarity and beauty. As he struggles to express himself, to explain his actions, the subtext is the idea that art communicates. Sabzian's halting but often poetic descriptions of his "suffering," his poverty and feelings of uselessness and desperation, are a form of art, shaped and crafted by Kiarostami in turn.

The film is not only a commentary on the purpose of art but a subtle piece of social commentary as well, suggesting the hopelessness of poverty and unemployment that affects so many people. Even the Ahankhah family, who seem reasonably well-off in their large house, are not unaffected, as they have two sons who went to school for engineering, only to find that neither of them could get a job in the field after graduation. Instead, one son works in a bakery and the other is still unemployed. Sabzian's inconsistent work and constant struggles with money are even more extreme, and in court one of the Ahankhah sons, forgiving the defendant at the end of the trial, says that he blames "social malaise and unemployment" for Sabzian's actions. Kiarostami doesn't draw quite that straight a line between cause and effect, but it's obvious that he too thinks that this odd story is at least partially about class and economic hardship. Sabzian didn't commit his crime for money, even though he did borrow some money from the family at one point. He wanted to be Makhmalbaf not to get money, but in order to escape from his pathetic real life. He was playing a part and relishing the attention and respect he earned from the family who believed him to be a famous artist.

As he says himself at the end of the trial, at Kiarostami's prompting, he was more of an actor than a director, though. He was playing a part, he says repeatedly, and the structure of Kiarostami's film reinforces the connection between lying and acting, between the art of fiction and the art of the con man. The re-enactments in Close-Up, bringing together the real participants in these events to play out their scenes again, insert a further layer of fiction and artifice. In the reconstructions, Sabzian is playing at playing, pretending to pretend, while the rest of the actors are engaged in the same deceit. They play at reality, staging seemingly casual conversations that in fact are anything but unmediated. It is the flipside of the film's idea that art can reveal truths and speak to people about their own lives: art is also lying and pretending, and in that sense Kiarostami's film makes a very moving, strangely beautiful artist of Hossain Sabzian.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Film No. 3: Interwoven/Tarantella

Harry Smith is perhaps best known for his stewardship of the famous Anthology of American Folk Music, an enthnomusicological attempt to preserve various folk traditions of the U.S. The multi-talented Smith was also an avant-garde filmmaker, and his 1946 Film No. 3: Interwoven was a work of lively abstract animation. Set to the music of Dizzy Gillespie, the film dances and bounces with jazzy rhythms, vaguely jiving to the same beat as the Gillespie tune but more just pulsating in sympathy with the music. The animation is geometric and colorful, with multicolored geometric shapes — mostly squares and rectangles, though a few circles and triangles show up towards the end of the brief short — shifting around the screen. Often, the quadrilaterals are arranged in tight grids, the internal boundaries of which are constantly shifting so that any given quadrant could pulse in size from a tiny box to spanning across nearly a quarter of the frame. These grids seem to be bouncing to their own internal groove, like there's a rowdy party going on and the whole place is jumping to the beat.

It gives the impression of architecture in motion, the boundaries all temporary, the straight lines deceptive because nothing ever stays in place for long — whereas most grids give the impression of rigidity and formality, this grid is fluid and free. Like jazz itself, it's structure in motion, structure with room for improvisation and movement, for unpredictability, for fun. It's hard to imagine a better visual metaphor for the spirit of jazz, this tension between structure/rigidity and freedom/motion. When Smith's shapes break out of the grid, dancing across the black space, momentarily suggesting bar graphs or rows of piano keys before returning to their abstract dance, it's even more suggestive of total freedom, though that sense of structure is lost.

Perhaps that's why the film's most compelling segments are the ones with that bouncing, shifting grid of colored blocks, where the borders are always changing and the colors leap unpredictably from one container to the next, creating fluid masses of shifting colors that dance across the screen, also in sympathy to the underlying beat. These images suggest so much, from tribal patterns or Oriental rugs — obvious influences — to color swatches and artists' palettes. In its suggestive abstraction, Smith's film doesn't merely accompany the jazz of the soundtrack or try to match images to the sounds of the music; it breathes and vibrates with the spirit of jazz, with the improvisatory and emotional intensity of jazz.

Tarantella is a 1940 short film made by the avant-garde animators Mary-Ellen Bute and Ted Nemeth (with additional assistance by Norman McLaren). The film is synchronized to the music of the composer Edwin Gerschefski, whose harsh, alternately speedy and minimal piano music evokes the spirit of the tarantella. Like the Harry Smith short described above, the animation is an attempt to visualize the music, to find visual equivalents for the sound and the mood of the music that accompanies these images. However, Bute and Nemeth take a more literalist approach to this audio-visual collaboration, as opposed to Smith's freewheeling evocation of an improvisation in color. Bute and Nemeth's geometric shapes are much more closely related to the music they accompany, acting as a kind of graphic notation after the fact. In particular, a recurring figure is a squiggly line that seems to wave and vibrate in correspondence with the music, like a sound wave visualization of the piano. In another sequence, colored bars on a black screen elongate and shrink in response to changes in the music, creating little visual beats that correspond to the changing tempi of the composition.

Such synchronizations come off as mannered and pat, too basic and obvious to be really interesting. The film is much more interesting when it mirrors the modernist spikiness of Gerschefski's music in minimalist forms in which jagged, hard-edged lines and lightning patterns oscillate in and out of view against a solid red background. In these stretches, the images don't exactly track the music but instead form a visual counterpoint, a logical extension of the music's aesthetic and sensibility into the visual arts. These minimalist patterns seem like a futuristic city seen from above, a map of the future with a large central thoroughfare, stretching diagonally across the frame, with little geometric figures making their abstractly anthropomorphic way across it.

Film No. 3: Interwoven and Tarantella represent two superficially similar approaches to music/animation pairings that nevertheless have very different effects in practice. They're interesting little experiments, two visions of the potential for a form of visual music in which colors and shapes take the place of notes and tones.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Films I Love #53: Touch Of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958)

Orson Welles' 1958 masterwork Touch of Evil came late in the generally accepted timeframe for the first wave of film noir, a form that especially thrived in the 40s and early 50s, but it is undeniably one of the pinnacles of the genre. It's a movie that's fraught with contradictions and compromises, like many of Welles' films, so often subject to meddlesome studio interference, multiple versions and budgetary constraints. It is on the one hand tightly, even meticulously, constructed, with each shot staged and composed as though for a photograph or a painting. Few directors controlled foreground and background as effortlessly as Welles, and nearly every shot features elaborate relationships between figures and objects, creating unforgettable visual resonances. And yet despite this formal rigidity, the film feels loose and spontaneous, as though all its complex compositions were simply fortuitous accidents. Its soundtrack is obviously overdubbed, which only enhances the artificality of Welles' aesthetic; voices seem to be at some remove from the people supposedly speaking, their voices drifting in through the dense fog that enshrouds the tiny desert town where the film is set. The plotting is also rough and ragged, dealing with various intersections and intrigues along the Mexican border following a car bomb explosion. The corrupt and corpulent American detective Quinlan (Welles) investigates, but his attempts to wrap the case up quickly, possibly even pinning it on the wrong guy, are hampered by the suspicious Mexican narcotics officer Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston, thoroughly if entertainingly unconvincing as a Mexican).

The loose, rambling plot allows plenty of room for entertaining diversions, as well as for subplots focusing on characters floating at the periphery. Among the many fantastic performances, Janet Leigh is languidly sexy as Vargas' wife Susie, who he continually places in harm's way with oblivious ease while he dedicates himself wholeheartedly to his work. Welles also lingers with the character of Tanya (Marlene Dietrich), a former flame of the washed-up Quinlan, who has declined so far by now that she doesn't even recognize him anymore. There's also a memorable cameo by Dennis Weaver as a twitchy, goggle-eyed motel manager, the kind of surreal touch that often makes the film seem like a bizarre nightmare. With this film, Welles took a rough B-movie plot and elevated into a grand and mesmerizing epic, a morality tale about corruption and self-righteousness.