Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Record Club # 5: Manic Street Preachers on September 29

Manic Street Preachers - The Holy Bible (1994)

The fifth installment of the Inexhaustible Documents record club has now been announced. Jamie Uhler, who writes for the multi-author blog Wonders in the Dark has selected the 1994 album The Holy Bible by Manic Street Preachers. The discussion will be taking place on September 29 as part of Jamie's Thursday music series at WITD, so if you'd like to participate, all you have to do is listen to the album before then and show up to read his thoughts and offer your own comments.

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Monday, August 29, 2011

Record Club #4: Drive-By Truckers

Drive-By Truckers - The Dirty South (2004)

The fourth discussion for the Inexhaustible Documents Record Club takes place today, over at Troy Olson's blog Elusive As Robert Denby. He's chosen the album The Dirty South by country/rockers the Drive-By Truckers. Troy has written an excellent introductory post, and in the coming days anyone who would like to join the conversation is welcome to comment with their own thoughts about the album. So head on over to Troy's blog for what's sure to be another great discussion.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Wire: Season 1

David Simon's The Wire is quite possibly the most acclaimed and respected TV show of all time. After watching the first season in the condensed period of a week, I'm starting to understand why. The show's first season is a sweeping chronicle of a Baltimore police drug investigation that expands far beyond its original scope and begins digging into the corruption and evil at the deepest levels of city politics — and life itself. The show's genius is the way it starts with a very specific incident — drug dealer D'Angelo Barksdale (Lawrence Gilliard, Jr.) beats a murder charge and attracts the ire of crusading cop Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West), who more or less accidentally triggers an epic investigation into D'Angelo's uncle, the kingpin Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris) — and keeps spreading out from there. Tendrils eventually worm into the higher levels of the police department, into the political system, and especially into the communities where the drug dealers ply their trades.

This is a tight, complex show where plot threads slowly unfurl over time, reflecting the careful plotting of showrunner Simon, who co-wrote every episode (most with ex-cop Ed Burns, working from real events and real people) and planned out the season-long arc. This meticulous aesthetic pays off both in the big picture and in the details, as the season's overall story continually returns to the same themes and ideas. This is a story about endemic corruption that invades society at every level, and as a result there are no perfect characters here, only fluctuating levels of morality and ethics that sometimes prove to be only temporary. For instance, a judge kicks off the entire case by holding a stubborn moral high ground against a police department that's reluctant to go beyond basic duty in pursuing drug kingpins like Barksdale — but the judge's moral indignation more or less evaporates when the furor stirred up by the case threatens his judicial career in an upcoming election. Virtually all the charcters on the "good" side have similar limitations, whether it's the shady past of Lieutenant Cedric Daniels (Lance Reddick) or the casual graft of low-level officers like Herc (Domenick Lombardozzi) and Carver (Seth Gilliam), whose ironic arc involving missing drug money underscores how little it matters if you do good or bad, how right and wrong count less than if you get caught.

McNulty is arguably the moral center of this story and the one cop who consistently frames things in terms of right and wrong rather than thinking of policework, as his superiors do, in terms of statistics, where a closed case is a good one even if the real offender has escaped justice. The police department as envisioned here is a bureaucracy dedicated to getting good closed-case stats, and anything else — like McNulty's insistence on looking beyond the immediate case to deeply ingrained conspiracies and long-term investigations — is just a distraction. Still, McNulty is another compromised and flawed figure in a city that seems to be overflowing with them. Late in the season, he admits that what drove him into this investigation was not so much morality as his own pride, his desire to show off his own intellectual superiority in a culture where thinking outside the box is not exactly valued. Even more telling is the scene in which McNulty, without even hesitating, enlists his two young sons in a potentially tragic "game" of surveillance when by chance he spots Barksdale's right-hand man Stringer Bell (Idris Elba) at a grocery store. McNulty's a man obsessed, and though he's driven by basically good impulses — including a desire to do good at a deeper level than the usual shallow "case closed" police due diligence — he's not exempted from the series' depiction of a society in which doing good is, as often as not, punished rather than rewarded.

As if there was any doubt, Detective Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters) provides a perfect example of the future awaiting McNulty, a premonition of the end of the season. Freamon, though he's stuck shuffling papers in the property unit, is obviously an efficient and intelligent cop, and his back story parallels McNulty's: he pushed too hard on an investigation, disobeying orders from a superior, digging where he wasn't supposed to, and as a result he was sent to exactly the kind of boring, insubstantial assignment he didn't want, where he has languished ever since. The show is all about the consequences of pushing against boundaries like this: these characters are tightly constricted, locked into career arcs, unable to do anything to change things. There are rigid rules for what can be done and what can't be, to keep everything moving smoothly and the status quo firmly in place: the drug dealers deal, the cops hassle and arrest them but can never break up the business, and behind it all the politicians are deeply intwined with both sides of this drug war, with drug money flowing freely through the city into commerce and politics.

On the drug dealers' side, there are also those who seek to push against the status quo, to change things if possible, with equally disastrous though bloodier results. Throughout the season, D'Angelo struggles with his own burgeoning morality about the evils of his family business. As the season starts, D'Angelo's close brush with prison has caused him to be demoted from a higher level position that evidently kept him somewhat aloof from the worst of the street drug trade. Confronted with addicts and offhand violence day after day as he takes over a small operation in a project courtyard, he's increasingly conflicted about where his life has brought him. Not that he sees much choice; he was born into this, as the introduction of his scheming, tough-hearted mother late in the season makes clear, and he doesn't have a whole lot in the way of options. He wonders aloud why this business has to be so violent, why everyone around him seems so bloodthirsty when he just wants to be anywhere else. He tries to fit in only because he has to, telling a gory tale that later turns out to be the story of another man's cold-blooded murder.

Even more affecting is the arc of the young dealer Wallace (Michael B. Jordan), who works in D'Angelo's crew. Wallace is one of the most poignant characters over the course of the season, as set up in an intimate sequence where the kid, who seems to care for a tribe of even younger brothers and sisters in an abandoned apartment with stolen electricity, goes about his morning ritual of brushing his teeth and dispensing juice boxes to the other kids as they head off to school. He heads off to the courtyard, though, as the provider of the family, but he's too sensitive for the job. When his tip-off alerts Stringer Bell to the location of a rival, an associate of the colorful thug Omar (Michael Kenneth Williams), the criminal's bruised and burnt body (dumped in the projects to serve as a warning message) upsets Wallace so much that he withdraws into his room for weeks and turns to doing drugs instead of dealing them.

Wallace, even more than D'Angelo, is not cut out for this life. D'Angelo can adapt, dealing with the death and ugliness all around him, but Wallace shuts down when he encounters it close up. Of course, his decency and sensitivity — he's most at home, most natural and comfortable, when he's caring for and joking with the younger kids — are only weaknesses in this environment. He has no escape, no possibility of another life; he mentions going to school, but only once, as though he doesn't actually believe that's a real option for someone like him. His fate is inevitable but no less affecting; his final scene is the season's most jaw-dropping moment, made even more shattering by the realization that he was abandoned and forgotten by the cops who were eager to use him to build their case.

Wallace's death is a pivotal event because it begins the process of setting up the season's absolutely brilliant ending, which enforces the show's emphasis on stasis and entrenchment. The season ends the way it started, despite multiple shake-ups; there's a sense of circularity here, developing the idea that some things cannot be changed. The investigation which takes up the entire 13 episodes of this first season results in arrests and deaths, but the finale communicates the impression that nothing is really changing in any meaningful way, that there are simply new cogs taking the place of the old ones in a huge and powerful machine that is not going to stop running no matter what. D'Angelo's underlings take over for him in the courtyard without missing a beat, utilizing some of the street strategy that he introduced in the early episodes, but ignoring his sentimentality and self-doubt, which are simply dangerous traits in this "game." The images of the drug trade kicking back into motion after the close of the investigation have a mechanical precision that only reinforces that this is a perpetual motion machine: certain gestures and interactions are repeated over and over again, ritualized and carved in stone, unable to change in any real way.

The brilliance of The Wire is the way that Simon, along with his co-writers and directors, inscribes these themes at every level of the story, in the littlest details and character arcs as well as at the macro level. So few characters here can really break out of the confines of their past, their upbringing, their situations to create a different life: drug addicts may kick the habit for days or weeks but are pushed back into it by circumstances and official indifference, dealers yearn for a less violent life but see no way to grab it, cops try to do good and wind up screwing up their own lives and accomplishing so little that their efforts seem to melt away as soon as they're done. There are hints of progression and change, notably in the characters of Freamon and Prez (Jim True-Frost), who get rare second chances that are all the more moving for how deeply stuck everyone else seems. Change seems like an abstraction at times, as when Carver tells a drug dealer that he had once been a lower-class projects kid, too. If Carver is telling the truth, he represents someone who escaped a miserable and confining background to make something of himself, but the route from the projects to a detective's badge seems so abstract and remote that it might as well be a fantasy, for all the good it does most of the people living with this squalor and violence.

The enduring impression of this season is a portrait of a fucked-up world where it's all too easy for the bad to get traction and dig in its heels, and all too difficult for anything good to try to root it out. This is apparent in even the smallest details. The minimal budgets and filthy sub-basements of the Baltimore police are contrasted against the high-tech modernism of the FBI (who, post-9/11, only get interested in a crime if it can somehow be traced back to Bin Laden) when McNulty goes to visit an agent there, but the point is driven home again in a later scene when he meets the agent in a parking lot. The agent drives up in a shiny new car and automatically rolls down the windows, while McNulty has to lean over and laboriously crank his own window open. It's a subtle and subtly funny mise en scène gag that reinforces just how limited the local institutions are in their ability to do anything large-scale and important.

That's an indication of just how rich this series is. Its thematic focus is very intense, and it's an almost unrelentingly grim depiction of societal malaise, but it still crackles with vitality, humor and intelligence that leaven what could otherwise have been an oppressive atmosphere. The show is consistently entertaining, with witty, slang-splattered dialogue and subtly grimy images of its sprawling urban warzone. Even the seemingly "small" characters who weave sporadically through the background crackle with life and wit — like a corpulent desk sergeant who can't seem to resist laughing with every line he says, no matter what he's talking about, but who shows some startling fortitude and intelligence when it comes to getting his hands dirty with policework. Simon's sprawling drug epic is equally brilliant whether one considers its big picture depiction of a society trapped in a self-renewing downward spiral, or its more intimate character stories.

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Conversations #27: Jaws

Jason Bellamy and I have posted our latest conversation, this time turning our attention, at the heart of summer blockbuster season, to one of the first summer blockbusters, Steven Spielberg's classic Jaws. We talk about the film's reception at the time, its legendary status, and how it holds up now. We also talk about the music, the shark, the performances, the influence of Hitchcock and Hawks, and the surprising amounts of meta humor built into this often harrowing film.

Come join us with your own Jaws thoughts. As always, we welcome your contributions to the comment section.

Continue reading at The House Next Door

Monday, August 15, 2011

Let Me In

Let Me In is Matt Reeves' remake of Tomas Alfredson's Swedish vampire movie Let the Right One In, which was itself based on John Ajvide Lindqvist's novel. Reeves' film is part of a not-so-honorable tradition of remaking foreign movies — particularly foreign horror movies, and particularly Japanese horror movies — in the English language in order to make them more palatable to American audiences. The main reason for the prominence of this trend in the last decade or so is fairly obvious, as well as regrettable: the original films, for the most part, are interesting, creepy, frightening, well-made horror fare, and they would be eagerly consumed by mass audiences if not for the fact that so much of that English-speaking mass audience, certainly in the United States, is very averse to reading subtitles. Reeves' film starts with one strike against it, then, in that its origins are so blatantly commercial, motivated not by the artistic necessity of remaking Let the Right One In a mere two years after the compelling original film, but the commercial necessity.

Reeves both lives up to those low expectations and, in some ways and more surprisingly, surpasses them. The film is almost slavishly faithful to Alfredson's film: it leaves out some of the subplots and scenes from the original, but what it includes is often copied from the Swedish film, if not in exact dialogue or exact shots then at least in close paraphrases and images that evoke the mood of the original very strongly. The relationship between the perpetually young vampire Abby (Chloe Moretz) and Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee), the disturbed, violently simmering boy she befriends, plays out very similarly to the same relationship in Alfredson's film (where the characters were called Eli and Oskar, as in the book). What's missing is the full extent of the warped, ambiguous sexuality that wafts through the original — not surprising considering American audiences' skittishness about sex and especially the developing sexuality of children — and some of the warmth and tenderness of this vampire/human friendship. A few chopped shots aside (including the infamous closeup that explicitly called Abby's gender into question) Reeves includes most of the same scenes that Alfredson staged between Abby and Owen, but some crucial spark, some energy and intensity and mood, seems to have been lost in translation. The relationship goes through the same motions and winds up in the same place, but the strange chemistry between the leads is missing the vitality and dark humor of the original.

In another respect, however, Reeves expands upon and possibly improves the original, by subtly drawing more out of the character of the older man (Richard Jenkins) who accompanies Abby and kills for her, gathering blood for her to drink from his victims. Reeves perhaps suggests the heightened importance of this character by opening the film with him, pushing back the introduction of Owen; the young boy had the first lines of Alfredson's film, creepily intoning "squeal like a pig" as he imagined violent vengeance on the schoolboys who bully him. In Reeves' film, the killings of Abby's "father" play out very differently from the corresponding scenes in the original film. Where Alfredson made the old man seem like an incompetent killer, floundering and past his prime, the father in this film simply hits a run of bad luck that leads to his horrifying climax. Jenkins also delivers a deep, powerful performance that makes this character even more poignant: he seems weary, done, tired of a long life mostly spent killing for Abby. One of Reeves' cleverest changes is inserting a brief scene in which Owen finds an old photo of Abby with a young boy who doesn't look very different from Owen himself. It's obviously the "father," and by including this detail, Reeves makes explicit a subtext that haunted the earlier film: that Abby's friendship with Owen is the beginning of a relationship very like the one she once had with the old man. This more fully developed subtext gives special weight to the scene where the old man tells Abby to stop seeing Owen: it's not fatherly protectiveness that motivates him, but jealousy, and perhaps the hard-won knowledge that a friendship with Abby isn't a gift to the young boy who is obviously already falling in love with her.

In other respects, Reeves' film simply trims a lot from the original without adding much new material to counterbalance. Alfredson's focus on some of the characters around Abby and Owen — Owen's parents, the other inhabitants of the apartment complex — is mostly reduced to a few token scenes. That's a shame, because though Let the Right One In was also always focused on the young vampire and her new human friend, Alfredson also found time to develop other characters in surprising ways. Alfredson lingered much longer than expected with one victim of Abby's bloodlust, creating pathos and horror (and also some absurdist bleak humor) from this character's fate. The few disjointed scenes with that character that remain in Let Me In don't do justice to that tonal and emotional complexity at all. Similarly, Alfredson spent time hanging out with some of the men who lived in and around this apartment complex, listening to their casual banter and their political dialogues, many of which centered on the death penalty, an important theme in Alfredson's film. Reeves moves the time and setting of the story to 80s Reaganite New Mexico, but curiously not only drops the death penalty thread but fails to develop any political context. Reagan is purposefully evoked in a striking shot in which the president's face, on a TV, is reflected in the glass door of a hospital, but this political reference is just empty window-dressing, never mentioned again.

The development of the "father" aside, what Let Me In does well is more or less limited to effectively and faithfully repeating the central ideas of Let the Right One In: the burgeoning friendship between a vampire and a malcontent loser whose violent impulses are slowly building up. The film captures the confused emotions and simmering rage of a kid who is tormented at school and ignored at home (Reeves' decision to condense the roles of Owen's parents accomplishes something similar to the more fully fleshed out portrait of familial neglect in Alfredson's film). To a lesser extent, it captures the sexual confusion of adolescence, particularly in the scene where the sexless Abby slips into bed naked with Owen, who's obviously equal parts baffled and titillated as he asks her to "go steady."

Taken on its own merits, Let Me In is a fascinating twist on the vampire myth, exploring the vampiric condition as a metaphor for adolescent fantasies of violence and revenge. The film's snowbound atmosphere doesn't come close to matching the eerie beauty of the original, which got a lot of mileage out of the contrast between pitch-black night and the fluffy white snow on the ground, but it's still effective. If the film wasn't so closely related to its superior Swedish source, it could even be considered a very fine modern horror movie in its own right. But comparing the remake to its source is nearly unavoidable, as most of the time it follows the original film slavishly, and where it departs it's usually to simplify the subtext and peripheral plots of the original. Reeves makes some intelligent decisions in adapting Let the Right One In for English-speaking audiences, and he does a decent job of repeating some of what made the original film so memorable and powerful. What he doesn't do is establish Let Me In as its own film with its own reason for existing and its own set of concerns, which would've gone some way towards legitimizing this otherwise rote remake effort.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

White Material

In White Material, Claire Denis returns to colonial Africa, the site of her debut feature Chocolat and her sensual masterpiece Beau Travail. Building upon the foundation of those earlier visits to the continent, White Material is dark and strange, overflowing with violence and foreboding. It's also much more abstracted than Chocolat's grounding in colonial Cameroon: this film's setting is an unnamed African country on the brink of post-colonial chaos, with French rule being replaced by a simmering war between the new, corrupt African government and the rebels roaming the country armed with rifles and machetes, blocking off roads and seizing whatever they can from the few whites who haven't already fled. The film is an allegorical fever dream of war and disintegration, the bitter fruit of years of colonial rule and post-colonial breakdown.

Early on, the plantation manager Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert) sees a French military helicopter circling her land, warning her by megaphone that she should flee, that the French are pulling out and she won't be safe. They leave behind a land wracked by poverty, brimming with hostility. The French who formerly held all the land and all the wealth have seemingly transferred their privilege to a new government, who either accepted it as a gift from the fleeing colonizers or seized it in the process of evicting their former overlords. The people still have very little, they are poor and frightened, surrounded everywhere by war and rebellion and hatred when all they really want is to go on living their lives and providing for their families.

In her own way, at a grander scale, that's all Maria wants as well. She is fabulously privileged, with a large coffee plantation and a nice, spacious home, but she too only wants to protect her family, to protect what she sees as hers, to go on with life as she knows it even after it becomes obvious that things are changing, becoming too unstable, for the old ways to hold on any longer. Maria represents the "white material" that serves as a code word for the contempt of the blacks for their former masters. The "white material" is the things owned by the whites, but also their skin itself, a constant reminder of the old regime, the way things used to be. Maria and her family remain improbably pale, un-reddened by the hot African sun that's constantly beating down on them. Their seeming inability to tan is symbolic, as though they are not really tangibly there, as though the sun's rays don't really touch them. They are ghosts in this land, ephemeral presences soon to vanish as their time has past.

They each seem to realize it, though they deal with in different ways. Maria's husband André (Christopher Lambert) is lazy and useless, giving up his hold on the plantation and trying to negotiate a graceful way out, for himself at least. His father Henri (Michel Subor), who owns the plantation, is sickly, dying, nearly silent, roaming through the grounds as a mute observer to the ruin of his home, his presence a reminder of Subor's similar roles as a post-colonial relic in Denis' Beau Travail and L'intrus. Maria's son Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle) copes especially badly, even lazier and more useless than his father; the land, and the colonial system in which he grew up, has made him weak and pathetic. He lounges around all day, rarely ever getting out of bed, rarely leaving the darkened room where he's surrounded by fans, shielding him from the sun and the heat. He doesn't work, unlike his mother, who's not afraid to get her hands dirty doing the same work she hires local Africans to do for her: she could have thrived anywhere, one senses, but her son is a true child of the colonialist system, bred to do nothing. In the second half of the film, a close encounter with death finally drives the young man mad, and afterward he stalks through the film, his head shaved like a skinhead, his mouth twisted into a permanent smirk, his chest bare and his skin still remaining that milky pale color even after days spent running around the African plains in this fashion.

The film is elliptical, its chronology fractured, so that it opens with the blood and fire of the inevitable denouement before sifting back through layered flashbacks that explore the slowly building sense of dread leading up to this fiery climax. The music of Denis' frequent collaborator Tindersticks adds to the mood of desolation, as they provide one of their finest scores, a creeping, repetitive set of minor-key themes that periodically build to a throbbing, thudding outburst of rock as though the tension has to be released somehow. And still the pressure builds. Denis sets the film in an unnamed country that could be any number of African countries at any number of points in Twentieth Century history, and the result is a film that feels timeless and yet grounded in historical reality in that this scenario has played out, with subtle variations, numerous times in recent memory.

This is a full-throated cry against the horror and insanity of war, especially the particular kind of bloody, pointless war that has broken out in Africa again and again in the wake of the colonial era: the war of the oppressed against the oppressed. Even the rebel known only as the Boxer (Isaach de Bankolé), a symbol of resistance to the people of the country, seems horrified by this war when he stumbles across a church where the priest has been slaughtered and laid out on the floor in the position of a crucifixion. Was the man killed by the Boxer's rebels, or by their enemies? It hardly matters; the war's cruelty and pointlessness eventually swallows everyone up. As the Boxer first peers into the Church, a graceful camera move causes a ghostly crucifix, way back in the darkness, to drift across the frame, momentarily visible in the shadows before sliding back into them. That's how fleeting any kind of grounding or comfort is in this insane context, where all mooring has been removed. There are only momentary glimpses of humanity to be found here. Maria cares for the wounded Boxer, promising to get him medicine from a small village pharmacy that still struggles to maintain order and stability, scantly defended by a single armed guard, a meager defense against the chaos erupting all around them. Even Maria is eventually corrupted by this climate of hysterical violence, and when she snaps her actions are every bit as senseless, as pointless, as everything she's seen happening and everything that's happened to her as she tried to hold on to the remnants of her life.

White Material is a chilling, harrowing film, a potent depiction of the insanity of violence. Denis' elliptical editing creates a drifting, sensuous quality that contrasts against the mood of impending doom that slowly becomes inescapable. It's a filmed nightmare of a scenario that, despite its horrific abstraction, feels all too real and familiar.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind perfectly captures the fear and the fascination that the unknown holds for humanity. The film focuses on the utility worker Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), who's sent out into a remote country area to investigate a rash of mysterious power outages and instead comes into close contact with inexplicable sights that seemingly could only be alien ships. From that point on, Roy becomes obsessed with what he saw and felt, obsessed with getting answers, some explanation for his bizarre experience. The film is about the possibility of alien life coming to Earth, but more than that it's about the larger search for meaning, for understanding, the desire to make some sense of life, the universe and everything.

Spielberg is well-suited to capturing the mingled wonder, fear and confusion that characterize the film's complex mix of emotions and tones. Although Spielberg opens with a scene in which the French scientist Lacombe (Francois Truffaut) tracks the signs of the aliens' arrival on Earth, and returns to Lacombe at intervals throughout the film, the real substance of this movie is the effect of such unusual events on ordinary people. When Roy first encounters the alien ships, he's driving along on a deserted, pitch-black country road, lost and struggling with maps to try to find out where he is. Behind him, a set of lights pulls up in the window behind his head, and he gestures for them to pass by; they do, as a car impatiently goes around his truck. The next time some lights pull up behind him, Roy similarly waves them on and returns to his maps, so that only the audience sees that the lights go up, revealing a distinctly un-car-like shape hovering behind Roy. Spielberg's visual playfulness makes moments like this even more potent: witty, awe-inspiring, surreal and yet also somehow ordinary, the extraordinary seeping into the prosaic without warning, upturning all expectations and altering even one's basic presumptions about the way things work.

Roy's experience is indirect — mailboxes vibrate, all the metal in his truck is pulled momentarily up into the air by an electromagnetic force, and a bright light shines down on him, burning his face as he cranes his neck out of the truck's window to bask in its blistering beauty — but he'll soon see even more startling sights. Spielberg's presentation of the alien spacecraft is just as casually awesome, showing these hovering ships surrounded by halos of light, speeding down highways in convoys, turning whimsical circles in the air, trailed by a small ball of red light that seems to be scurrying to keep up with the larger ships. The imagery is spectacular but also grounded, suggesting that there's some kind of order and purpose to the ships' configurations and actions, even if it's a purpose that's obscure to those who witness these events.

Roy, along with fellow witness Jillian (Melinda Dillon), begins to get visions of a mountain that seems to have some importance to the aliens, but his family, especially his wife Ronnie (Teri Garr), is unsympathetic to his increasing obsession. Roy loses his job and begins spending his nights with fellow obsessives and curiosity-seekers, hoping to see something again, to get some confirmation that he wasn't just crazy. Nevertheless, there's more than a little humor in Spielberg's portrayal of Roy, who totally loses touch with ordinary day-to-day life in the aftermath of his "close encounter." At one point, Roy, finally having a clear vision of the mountain image he's been trying to capture, begins gathering plants and dirt and bricks from his yard, throwing them through the window into his house, as his distraught wife tries to stop him. He's oblivious, so caught up in his own excitement that he can't understand why no one else shares his thirst for answers. Later, after he's constructed a massive sculpture of the mountain in his living room, he looks out the window, his face covered in clay and grime, the mountain towering over his shoulder, and looks around at the beautiful sunny day outside. His wife and kids are gone, and his neighbors are playing and enjoying the day, puttering around in their gardens and playing with their children, and the contrast between inside the house and outside emphasizes the total disconnection that Roy feels. He's seen something he doesn't understand, and now he only wants, or needs, to know more, to make sense of it all.

At other times, Spielberg plays this confrontation between humanity and the aliens as a horror movie, as when the ships surround Jillian's house. She struggles to close everything off, to keep the aliens out, and Spielberg shoots the sequence as horror, emphasizing Jillian's fear, even while her son Barry is as excited and curious as Roy is. The boy opens the front door as his mother desperately struggles to close off the house, and outside the open field around their home has been transformed into a glowing orange landscape, alien and strange, infused with the light of the ships hovering above. In another shot, Spielberg shoots down a chimney as Jillian fumbles around inside, trying to close the flue; the point-of-view shot suggests that an alien is scurrying down the chimney towards her as her hand blindly flails about for the lever. Perhaps the most chilling image, though, is the shot of screws turning themselves, rising out of a floor grating and falling out to loosen the grate.

The film does such a good job of evoking complicated, contradictory emotions about the aliens that the ending, in which Spielberg finally reveals the aliens as a benevolent presence (one even smiles at Lacombe), can only be a disappointment. The film is about the unknown, about mystery and awe and the struggle to understand, and the final confrontation between the humans and the aliens preserves this sense of wonder and uncertainty right up until the moment when the aliens are revealed as the typical large-headed humanoid creatures that we've so often imagined them to be in popular representations. When the humans try to communicate with the aliens by using a musical language — not fully understanding what's being said except that some kind of back-and-forth communication is happening — that's beautiful and mysterious. The aliens, in their rubber costumes, obviously fake even when they're shot through a haze of light obviously intended to maintain some distance and mystery, are a bit of a letdown in comparison to the unsettling, wondrous effects that came before. Still, Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a powerful, deeply affecting film that shares its protagonist's sense of gape-mouthed fascination with the prospect of life beyond Earth.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Films I Love #54: Mr. Klein (Joseph Losey, 1976)

Joseph Losey's Mr. Klein, made in France during the director's long post-blacklist exile from the US, is a chilling (and chilly) parable about identity, fascism, exploitation and oppression. Set during World War II in occupied France, the film centers around the titular Robert Klein (Alain Delon), an art dealer who exploits the situation in his country by buying cheap paintings from fleeing Jews, who are mostly looking to get just enough money to escape the increasingly restrictive Nazi regulations. Klein is indifferent to those he exploits, caring only about his own luxurious life, until one day he receives a Jewish newspaper addressed to him. He realizes, soon enough, that there is another Robert Klein in Paris, a Jew disguising himself as a collaborationist Frenchman, and he becomes obsessed with ferreting out this other Klein, this mirror image alter-ego. This, in turn, attracts the attention of the Vichy police, who become suspicious of this Klein as well.

Losey's mise en scène is methodical and austere, evincing a cold distance that suits the abstract story of a man losing himself in a doppelganger he never quite meets. The multiple shots of Klein standing alone in a tightly wrapped overcoat and hat, isolated even in crowd shots, deliberately echo the hyper-cool image of Delon from his iconic role in Le samouraï. He wanders around, earnestly staring with his cold blue eyes, encountering various mysterious figures who fail to aid him in his search — with an impressive supporting cast populated with the likes of Jeanne Moreau, Juliet Berto, Francine Bergé, Michael Lonsdale and Rivette muse Hermine Karagheuz. The film's most stunning scene, however, is its first, a seeming non sequitur in which a doctor examines a naked female patient, clinically reciting various attributes that suggest an "inferior race." The cold horror and bureaucratic precision of this scene sets the tone for the remainder of the film, immediately establishing Klein's milieu as one in which human beings are treated like animals, their teeth examined like racehorses — an association recalled in the next scene, when Klein's pampered mistress examines her own teeth while applying lipstick. Losey's unforgettable film is concerned with this matter-of-fact horror, and with the oblivious mindset that ignores such things, insisting that everything is normal, everything is OK, even in the face of tremendous evidence to the contrary.

Monday, August 1, 2011

American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince

In 1978, Martin Scorsese followed up Taxi Driver and New York, New York by making American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince, a short documentary about a man who had appeared as an actor in small parts in both of Scorsese's previous fiction films. Prince had had an active life: he was a road manager for Neil Diamond for several years, and had been a heroin junkie as well, though by the time this film was made he was apparently clean. Years of hard living are written on his gaunt, drawn face. He's a distinctive character, with nearly skeletal features, brown and rotting teeth, bulging eyes, and a nervous, jittery manner. He is also an oddly compelling storyteller who recounts, in his cracked and agile voice, various alternately hilarious and harrowing stories about his family, his drug use, his experiences in his many odd jobs, and his encounters with crime and the law.

The film's style connects American Boy to Scorsese's other great documentary of the 70s, Italianamerican, his ode to his parents and the Italian immigrant communities they grew up in. The content and tone of the two films could not be more different, but in terms of style and approach there is considerable overlap. The two films demonstrate above all Scorsese's love of talk, his appreciation for people who can tell stories about their lives in ways that are both entertaining and enlightening. As in the earlier film, in American Boy Scorsese doesn't do anything flashy or distracting, he simply trains his camera on his subject in a casual, comfortable setting and lets Prince talk at length. Scorsese himself is often on camera, just hanging out in the corner of the frame, listening to Prince's stories with genuine interest. The film was shot in someone's living room, with friends gathered around as if for a party; people are frequently glimpsed drinking and laughing in the background. Obviously, this is the kind of context in which Prince is used to telling his stories: he comes off as someone who delights in telling shocking or funny stories to get a reaction out of people at parties. The film gives the impression that Scorsese and his friends have long been listening to Prince telling his stories, and finally decided that it would be a good idea to capture this unique personality on camera.

Prince's stories are often funny, though there's a real note of sadness that coasts along beneath the surface. He speaks about a friend who he didn't know was an alcoholic, and a party on the friend's boat where Prince filled a pitcher with vodka and served it to his friend as "water" in front of all the friend's family who were trying to keep him away from booze. The story climaxes with hilarity (the friend crashes the boat into a sandbar and tries shooting off flares to alert passing boats, but "it was the fourth of July; everybody applauded!") but at the same time there's no escaping the melancholy and self-destruction that drifts through so many of Prince's stories, about himself and those around him. Some of these tales are truly harrowing. He visits a drug den and is so oblivious that he actually sits on a dead man without realizing it, but what's really chilling is his casual attitude about it, even now, while retelling the story. It suggests a man who is very used to death and waste, as does his insistence even now that if he has to die, the best way to go is with a drug overdose. "You just get higher and higher and higher and higher and higher..."

Though Scorsese tries to stay out of the way, for the most part, it's obvious just how much he's guiding the film's progress in subtle ways. Despite the film's off-the-cuff aesthetic, Scorsese doesn't make any attempt to disguise the more manipulative and artificial aspects of the film. In the film's opening minutes, as in Italianamerican, he leaves in his banter with the technicians and camera operators and on-camera subjects about when they're going to start filming, leading into the film proper with an acknowledgment that this is a film, that it's not as spontaneous as it seems. Prince himself arrives early on, apparently to the surprise of Scorsese's actor friend George Memmoli, who promptly gets into a prolonged wrestling match with Prince that raises questions about how much here is being scripted versus how much is pre-planned.

There are other touches of Scorsese the filmmaker here and there, like when he addresses the editor with a note to cut something out of the finished film — though of course it's ultimately left it. But the artifice becomes especially obvious in the film's final scene, when Prince discusses a phone call with his father that apparently moved him a great deal. There are suggestions throughout the film that Prince loves his family very much; in the early scenes of the film, he talks about them with real affection and nostalgia, remembering funny and vivid scenes from his childhood, appreciating the obvious strength of his parents in particular. Scorsese's decision to cut in happy home movies from Prince's boyhood is obvious as a way of reinforcing the contrast between the happy, innocent kid in those movies and the troubled addict he later became, but it's also a way of connecting the boy with the man in deeper ways. It's a humanistic gesture that rejects the too-easy judgmentalism of those who would likely condemn Prince for his drug use and his wild life. In the final scenes, Scorsese seems to be probing for some sign of the boy still residing behind the man's nervous laugh and wide eyes. He has Prince tell the phone call story three times on camera, coaching him about what to say and how to say it, reminding him of details he'd left out, trying to reach the real essence of what Prince feels about his father and his family. It's remarkable because while this approach lays out the fact that the filmmaking is manipulative and not naturalistic, each successive iteration of the story really does seem to tap a little deeper into the emotion of the story. It's as though, in retelling it, Prince is slowly letting his guard down, moving away from the persona he uses when trying to entertain people. He's clearly moved by his father's understanding and tacit forgiveness, and though he doesn't quite verbalize it the emotions show through anyway.

American Boy hints at just how much of Scorsese's thematic and character material he has always found in the real people he knows. Steven Prince is a perfect Scorsese character, a haunted man with a real self-destructive streak, a charming but troubled figure who's stumbled through violent episodes and darkly comic vignettes with a certain amount of casual disregard for the insanity of life.