Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Stranger

The Stranger is an unusual and somewhat awkwardly realized noirish thriller that was the third proper directorial feature of Orson Welles. It's a post-war suspense film about an escaped Nazi who disguises himself as an ordinary high school teacher in a small town in Connecticut. An officer for the war crimes commission, Wilson (Edward G. Robinson), is tasked with tracking down the elusive Franz Kindler (Welles), a mastermind of the concentration camps who, in the aftermath of World War II, has erased all trace of his identity and settled into suburban conformity. He's even marrying local girl Mary (Loretta Young), a naïve beauty whose father is a well-respected judge. Wilson arranges for the release of a lower-level Nazi prisoner, Meinike (Konstantin Shayne), in the hopes that the underling will lead them to the otherwise vanished Kindler. In the film's briskly paced but evocative opening — which Welles had wanted to be much longer, but the footage got cut by the studio — Wilson's detectives track Meinike through a South American port, where deep shadows are populated by silhouetted figures smoking on balconies, and mysterious women weave through back alleys passing messages between the men who hide in the shadows. This exotic opening sequence is a bit of clever misdirection, though, because at the end of it, Meinike finally gets in touch with the contact he'd been seeking, and finds out that Kindler is not hiding in some grimy, out of the way South American town, as so many Nazis did after the war, but is in fact in the quiet, normal little town of Harper, a place as quintessentially American as any place can be.

Welles immediately cuts from South American intrigue to North American small town life, creating a jarring disjunction in mood and style between the expressionist shadows of the opening and the brightly lit streets of Harper, a place that seems to have nothing to hide, no shadowy errands being conducted within its pleasant borders. As Mary says, cheerfully getting ready to walk home alone one night, "in Harper there's nothing to be afraid of." That's a big part of the film's essence, the infiltration of American suburban safety and security by the sinister evil of Nazism. Kindler's presence in this cheery, sunny little town is an affront to the idea that there's nothing to fear on America's pleasant home town streets.

As compelling as this theme is, the script is often clumsy in conveying it, and as with a lot of Welles' post-Kane studio-compromised works, the film has a lot of rough edges. Mary is the biggest problem, and Young is not given much to do with her performance. She remains loyal to her husband even as she starts learning troubling details about this man she loves, and starts seeing indications of the violence he's capable of. She reacts to each new revelation with renewed dedication to him, so her part basically consists of weepy declarations of love and devotion, until later in the film she begins breaking apart, shrieking and fainting constantly. At one point, after learning that the man she knew as Charles Rankin is actually the Nazi Franz Kindler, she runs through the nighttime streets, tearfully insisting, "he's good, he's good," locked into denial. It's an unfortunately one-note role that limits the woman in the story to either blind devotion or hysteria.

Welles and Robinson have much meatier parts, and the film focuses on the tense battle of wills between these two titanic actors. Though the script sometimes tends towards moral speechifying, their performances are strong enough to overcome the blunt nature of the words they're delivering. The real pleasure, though, comes from a few of the quirky bit parts. Meinike, the Nazi underling who kicks off the whole plot, is a fascinating figure, a sinister-looking creep who has, apparently, found religion while awaiting trial for his war crimes. He's tracking down his old boss hoping to convert him, it turns out, and the scene where he drops to his knees in the woods with Kindler and prays is oddly striking. Welles also gets some folksy humor out of Mr. Potter (Billy House), the rotund general store owner who puts on a visor to denote his seriousness every time he plays a game of checkers with his customers.

The film's most memorable scenes are the ones in which Welles and cinematographer Russell Metty allow an expressionist, shadowy noir style to infiltrate the mundane town of Harper. Hoping to shake Mary out of her delusions about Kindler, Wilson shows her footage of the concentration camps on a projector, and Welles includes real images from the camps — the first time this was done in an American film. Welles only shows selected shots from the camps, mostly keeping the cameras trained on the faces of Mary and Wilson, the flickering light from the projector flashing on their faces. The emphasis is on their reactions, the haunted look in Mary's eyes as she sees the horrifying piles of bodies and the evidence of the gas chambers. At one point, Wilson stands in front of the screen, casting his silhouette over the images, and then Welles cuts in for a closeup in which the images are eerily laid across his face. At a pivotal moment at the end of the scene, the tape stops with a loud clicking noise, startling Mary out of her awed reverie — and likely the film's audience with her.

Welles also makes inventive use of the town clock tower, which is an important locale because Kindler has a hobby — Wilson describes it as a "mania," because even the hobbies of Nazis must be creepy — of fixing antique clocks. Once Kindler repairs the long-malfunctioning clock, the deep, chiming bells that go off every once in a while sound a foreboding note, an aural signature, a reminder of the Nazi mastermind's presence in the town. The clock tower is also the site of the brilliant, chaotic climax, in which Wilson and Mary confront Kindler inside the tower, leading to an unforgettably prolonged death scene for the Nazi mastermind, who gets impaled on the sword of an angelic figure who makes the rounds of the clockwork mechanism, chasing a gargoyle-like devil. The symbolism and the irony are obvious, but the result is still affecting and haunting. The same can be said for the film as a whole, which is clunky and uneven but still deeply fascinating and, as usual with Welles, inventively staged.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Our Hospitality

Our Hospitality was the second feature Buster Keaton made, and the first that truly told a full feature-length story (the Intolerance parody Three Ages was essentially three shorts combined into a larger structure). This film, set in the early 1800s, is derived from the notorious Hatfield/McCoy feud, depicting the bloody rivalry tearing apart multiple generations of the Canfield and McKay families in the rural South. Keaton, along with co-director John G. Blystone, takes his time setting up the dramatic stakes in a prologue, in which two of the latest male heirs of these two families kill each other in a gun battle, after which the last surviving McKay, then just a baby, is sent to New York to grow up far away from the feud. The film then jumps forward twenty years, as the young McKay (Keaton) returns to the South to claim his inheritance, meets a young woman (Keaton's wife Natalie Talmadge) on the train journey, and realizes only too late that she's actually the daughter of his mortal enemies.

Because of this patient approach to the narrative, the film has a pleasant, easygoing pace as it meanders along, wandering through several different modes: deftly performed physical comedy, romance, and increasingly frenetic action that's balanced somewhere between comic slapstick and genuinely thrilling stunt extravaganzas. The film never quite becomes a manic comedy, because that's not what Keaton's after here, instead balancing the humor with the romantic drama and the carefully researched period detail. Particularly in the first half of the film, Keaton indulges in a lot of low-key humor based on the changes wrought in society since the film's 1830s setting, mocking the then-modern state-of-the-art technology and pointing out just how much progress had been made in the intervening years, to get up to the 1920s cutting edge. (Of course, seeing the film now only exaggerates this dimension of the film, since the modern viewer is even more struck by the rapid pace of change and the technological gap between past and present.)

Early on, an intertitle prepares the viewer for a shot of the New York intersection at Broadway and 42nd Street, then cuts to a dusty view of two crisscrossing dirt roads flanked by small wooden stores and homes, where a traffic pile-up of a peddle-less bicycle (a hilariously awkward conveyance in retrospect) and a horse-and-buggie causes one observer to remark, "this is gettin' to be a dangerous crossin'." Then comes the fantastic train ride, for which Keaton recreated the "Stephenson Rocket," which is basically a very small train of passenger carriages tied together and harnessed to a wood-powered engine, propelled along a shaky and uneven rail line.

The train journey, on which the bumps and mishaps of the primitive train push McKay and the Canfield daughter into intimacy, the girl clinging fearfully to the young man, is a comic masterpiece with one great gag after another. The gentle pacing gives the impression that each joke is carefully calibrated and considered, the gags spaced out, each one methodically developed and thought out. There's little trace of frantic slapstick farce in Keaton's deliberate gags, which have a formal logic and precision that makes them seem almost inevitable. At one point, the train is stopped by a donkey that's stubbornly blocking the way, and after much effort the conductor decides that it's easier to drag the tracks' path a few feet to the right than it is to move the donkey, and he creates the new curved path without fuss. Later, in one of the best gags, a mishap with a track switcher separates the engine from the rest of the train, sending them forking off on parallel paths. Keaton's staging is absolutely brilliant, shooting from directly behind the train so that at first it seems as though nothing has happened until the paths begin curving away from one another and the separation is revealed. In a subsequent shot, the distracted conductor, belatedly realizing that the rest of his train has disappeared, stands up into the foreground of the frame, comically peering all around for the missing cars, which are of course gliding along on the nearby track in the background.

This careful framing and meticulous feel for set-up means that Keaton's comedy never feels truly out of control here, and this even extends to the subsequent Southern sequences, in which McKay courts the lovely young woman he met on the train while her family tries fruitlessly to kill him to fulfill their old debt. McKay evades their attempts, at first accidentally and innocently — coming upon one of the Canfield sons trying to unjam his pistol to shoot McKay, McKay grabs it, gets it to fire, then walks away, thinking he's done a good deed — and then cleverly exploiting the rules of Southern hospitality, since he can't be killed as long as he's a guest in the Canfields' home. This leads to some funny antics with McKay dodging quickly in and out of the house, with the Canfields chasing him and firing at him the moment he sets foot past a threshold.

The film's epic finale is its real highlight, though, less comedic than truly action-packed, as McKay flees one of the Canfield sons across a steep rock face, down into a roaring river, briefly crossing paths with yet another train, before tumbling towards a waterfall for the climactic set piece in which McKay teeters on the edge of the deadly falls, trying to untangle himself from a rope in time to rescue his beloved, who's also drifting towards the precipice. Keaton performed all the stunts himself, and proves himself as adept an action hero as he is a comedian; his daring rope swing to grab the girl just as she falls off the waterfall is breathtaking. Keaton, with his mild-mannered, slightly sharp-edge face, is so unassuming that his physicality is stunning, eliciting equal amounts of shocked laughs and gasps of awe. Our Hospitality is a fantastic showcase for his many talents, both in front of and behind the camera.

Monday, February 27, 2012

À double tour

À double tour, Claude Chabrol's third film and his first shot in color, is a boldly stylized Hitchcockian thriller that prefigures the director's later preoccupation with tearing apart the pretensions of the bourgeois family unit through murder and melodrama. It's a lurid and bizarre film, all cocked angles and garish colors, its structure occasionally darting off for serpentine, complicated flashbacks in which events are always filtered through the skewed sensibility of the one doing the remembering. Chabrol is viciously, hilariously sending up the bourgeois family, tearing it apart from the inside, ridiculing the stiffness and ostentatious formality that disguise so many sordid truths. The wealthy Marcoux family is a hot bed of dysfunction. Father Henri (Jacques Dacqmine) is openly having an affair with Léda (Antonella Lualdi), a glamorous young Italian woman who lives immediately adjacent to the Marcouxs' rural estate. His wife Thérèse (Madeleine Robinson) knows about the affair, and the couple has an antagonistic relationship based around fierce exchanges of barbed insults, constantly trying to wound one another with words. It's no surprise that their children are damaged by this tense marriage: Richard (André Jocelyn) is a clinging mama's boy, and Elisabeth (Jeanne Valérie) lashes out by dating the most inappropriate guy she can find, the relentlessly rude townie Laszlo (Jean-Paul Belmondo).

Belmondo's riotous, crude performance as Laszlo is a highlight of the film, particularly in the early scenes. He's a sloppy and free-spirited disturber of bourgeois respectability, an unpredictable presence, tearing things apart just because he can: he unfurls Thérèse's knitting, parades around naked in front of the chaste Elisabeth, tries to convince Henri to leave the family for Léda, and in a hilarious scene, voraciously downs a tremendous breakfast, slurping down drinks first thing in the morning and talking to Thérèse through a mouth crammed with food. Laszlo is everything the Marcoux family is not, untamed and unconstrained in every way, especially sexually: he's engaged to Elisabeth, but this doesn't stop him from ogling every pretty girl he sees walk by (accompanied by swirling, playful music) and, as he gets drunker, even making appreciative noises at passing grandmothers.

The Marcouxs' maid, Julie (Bernadette Lafont), is a similarly disturbing presence, which is perhaps why Chabrol opens the film with a provocative sequence in which Julie hangs out the window of her room in nothing but her underwear, taunting the gardener and the milk man — not to mention the prudish lady of the house, not to mention the audience — with her casual sexiness. Like Laszlo, Julie represents the freedom and playfulness of the lower class, totally unfettered by manners or good taste. She bathes in the voyeurism of men, and Chabrol even has Richard leer at her curvy body through a keyhole. Julie always seems to be walking around the house with a little smirk, as though she knows something that no one else does, and she's comfortable in her own skin in a way that eludes the tradition-bound upper-class characters, who have nothing but rules and obligations and codes of behavior hemming them in.

And they're anything but comfortable in their skin, particularly Thérèse, an aging woman who's continually told by her openly straying husband that she's ugly and undesirable. In one harrowing scene, he grabs her hair and holds her up to a segmented mirror, chopping her face up into jagged geometric fragments, while Chabrol playfully cuts away to a peacock strutting by on the grounds outside, a symbol of the beauty this woman feels she's lacking. Chabrol's always shooting into mirrors or through various screens, propping his camera up high for jaunty angles, shooting one pivotal scene through a greening, algae-crusted fish tank, the fish floating across the frame as a murder plays out in the background.

That's right, this is, at least sort of, a murder mystery, though it takes over half the film for the murder to occur, it's announced in the most offhanded way — by Julie, of course, who seems slightly bemused even here — and there's never really any mystery about the killer's identity. In fact, the film's structure is downright bizarre, as the murderer is identified almost as soon as the murder happens, and Chabrol then launches into a lengthy flashback in which the murder plays out, and then everything can be wrapped up. He's entirely uninterested in treating this like a conventional thriller or mystery, instead just using the murder as a focal point for all the repressed emotions and dysfunctions of this stuffy upper-class family.

The murder scene is the film's second flashback, with the first being an even longer and stranger flashback in which Henri describes his day with Léda to Thérèse. This flashback is such an idealized, romanticized vision of a Hollywood-style love affair that Chabrol seems to be mocking it, suggesting that this is simply the all-too-perfect way that the pathetic Henri imagines his affair to be. Léda, with the possible exception of a brief early scene where the milk man delivers her daily bottle, is only seen in flashbacks from the point of view of the men in her life, never in the present and never unfiltered by someone else's memory of her. She's an artificial construct, the ideal mistress, sexy and adoring and totally devoid of any personality traits beyond her vivacious manner and her slightly puzzling affection for mustachioed middle-aged men. In Henri's memory of the afternoon, the lovers' afternoon walk climaxes in a field of red flowers, where the couple smears each other's faces with awkward kisses, missing each other's mouths, while Chabrol pans up from the lovers falling into the grass to that field of red buds, bloody and foreboding.

The flashback then seems to end when the lovers part, and Léda is shown laying around in her house, dreamily mooning over Henri. But this too turns out to be part of the same intricate flashback structure, which suggests that this is how Henri imagines his mistress when he's not around her, that she simply sits around sadly thinking about his absence. He can't imagine her having any agency or existence outside of their affair.

In that sense, the film's strange, unbalanced structure — which can be offputting with its elongated detours into flashback and its purposefully blunted suspense — is just one more way in which Chabrol is undermining and satirizing this family. They feign respectability and morality, but it's a thin layer over the ugly truth: that's why Thérèse doesn't really care about her husband's blatant affair as long as there's no "scandal," but she practically cackles with spite when imagining how much suffering she'd put him through if he ever broke up the appearance of their happy home by trying to get a divorce. Richard, meanwhile, is more than a little too close with mommy, and more than a little too grabby with sis, mocking her relationship with Laszlo while groping her in a very unbrotherly fashion.

Richard's so obviously broken that it's not even remotely a shock when he is revealed as the killer, because Chabrol isn't trying to generate any mystery here, he's simply examining the ways in which bourgeois repression eventually accumulates into outrageous outbursts of violence and hysteria. The murder sequence slowly builds from the creepy, tense dialogue between Richard and Léda to the moment when Chabrol's camera does a graceful arcing turn around Richard to locate his face reflected in a mirror, which he then speaks to as his breakdown becomes more and more imminent. Notably, a fly crawls across the glass, an obvious metaphor — for feelings of insignificance and self-disgust — in a film full of obvious metaphors, and soon Chabrol captures Richard in a horribly comical closeup, briefly making a hideously distorted face for the camera before smashing the mirror. As the rest of the scene plays out, Richard's face is reflected in the now shattered glass, his eyes multiplied like an insect's in the splintered shards.

À double tour is often forgotten in discussions of Chabrol's early career, perhaps because it's so distinct from the rough, shot-on-the-streets feel of his first two features and the equally lo-fi aesthetic of his masterful fourth picture, Les bonnes femmes. This film was Chabrol's first big-budget production, a bright and stylish Hitchcock tribute that, tonally and stylistically, feels much more like the films he'd go on to make in the late 60s and 70s than the rest of his early efforts. Its status as an outlier aside, À double tour is a rich, engrossing and darkly funny film that, like much of Chabrol's best work, is downright savage in its satire.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Conversations #31: Bamboozled

Jason Bellamy and I have now posted the latest of our Conversations at The House Next Door. In this piece, we discuss Spike Lee's controversial blackface satire Bamboozled. It's a provocative film with a lot to talk about, from its engagement with the history of black entertainment to its consideration of black stereotypes. Join us at The House Next Door for the full conversation, and be sure to add your own thoughts.

Continue reading at The House Next Door

Friday, February 24, 2012

Hôtel Monterey

Hôtel Monterey was one of Chantal Akerman's very first films, a completely soundless documentary about a New York City residence hotel populated mostly by old people. The film is formally minimal and even simple: one silent, (mostly) static shot after another of scenes from around the hotel, images of lobbies, elevators, corridors and rooms, sometimes with people moving about, sometimes entirely unpopulated. Akerman maintains a somewhat remote and aloof perspective, shooting people mostly from a distance, often in static poses where they sit facing the camera, sometimes even staring into the lens. At other times, Akerman seems to be eavesdropping, watching a woman's sleeping form from a discreet angle through a door that slowly swings closed as the camera sits still, stoically observing. In another shot, a pregnant woman sits in a chair, holding her large belly, and Akerman shoots her through a doorway, framed through the telescope of the narrow hallway and the door.

There's something faintly surreal about the film, despite Akerman's simple observational stance. The colors are bright and garish, from the sickly yellow of the walls in the corridors to the rusty red of the bedspreads in the rooms to the floral print curtains that hang from the windows. Akerman shoots these images so that light sources become hot and blindingly white, casting streaks and halos of pure white light along the walls, while the shadows are thick and black, grainy empty zones in which anything might be lurking. This high-contrast style renders the hotel ineffably spooky — eight years before The Shining, Akerman uses formally rigid compositions and lurid color schemes to render a hotel as a site of unsettling strangeness and vague mystery.

Often, Akerman holds her shots for a long period of time without anything happening or changing. The camera gazes at a forked corridor as, to one side, an elevator occasionally flickers to life in the darkness with a shadowy form entering or exiting, while the other hallway is mostly cut off from view by the angle of the shot, subtly and unnervingly suggesting that anything might be happening just out of view, just around that corner. The camera only starts moving towards the end of the film, but once it does, its slow tracking only adds to the impression of a silent, abstract horror movie that has no monster, no villain, only one creepy hallway and dark corner after another. At one point, the camera plods slowly down a shadowy corridor, tracking until it reaches a dark and grimy cul-de-sac by an exit sign, briefly pausing in the near-darkness against the wall, then backing away, slightly faster than it had approached, as though the camera was retreating, spooked. Akerman then repeats the movement, though this time a window is identifiable in the darkness at the end of the corridor, revealing a glimpse of the city lights and traffic outside, a hint of the outside world that otherwise barely touches this hermetic interior.

Akerman's style suggests not only the rigidity of Kubrick but also David Lynch's love of edging around dark corners, revealing the strangeness of ordinary reality. This film certainly prefigures the casual oddity of Lynch's work, the habit of taking prosaic locations and using the camera's probing gaze to make them portals into weirdness and unreality. Akerman's camera insistently tracks down the hotel's corridors, and statically examines its walls, its elevators with their blinking lights, its minimally decorated rooms and its wizened occupants. The people barely figure into the film, though, only occasionally serving as the focus of a shot or drifting through the shadows, hardly even visible. The hotel often seems eerily unpopulated, and it's the building that Akerman is really documenting rather than the people in it. The film is structured as a trip upwards through the hotel, starting in the lobby and then progressing upwards, floor by floor. It ends on the roof, where Akerman's camera drifts in a slow pan around the surrounding skyline or looks up at a sky so cloudy white that she's able to insert a few frames of white leader to partially obscure a cut.

Hôtel Monterey is an enthralling and original documentary, with no commentary, no sound at all, relying entirely on its evocative and mysterious images to communicate the sense of life in this hotel. The effect is disarmingly hypnotic and powerful.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Germany Year Zero

The final film of Roberto Rossellini's post-war trilogy continues his examination of World War II's effects on ordinary people living in the devastation of a bombed-out, battered Europe. While Rome Open City and Paisan focused on Rossellini's post-war Italy, with Germany Year Zero he heads to Berlin, divided by the victorious Allies and wracked by poverty. As with the previous two films, this one is an intense and raw drama that draws on the wreckage of the post-war streets and the rough conditions of life for those who survived the war. Rossellini shot on cheap film stock in the actual streets of Berlin, which gives his film a real documentary appeal. Everywhere, there are piles of rubble and damaged buildings, pavement cratered by bombs, and whole families living in cramped one-room quarters. They subsist on minimal rations, there's hardly any work to be found, and prices are high for even the most essential foodstuffs. A hearty black market thrives, but it's full of crooks eager to take advantage of people's desperation to sell off their most valued possessions in return for a few cans of food.

Rossellini uses these dismal, desperate conditions as a backdrop for the potent story of one boy and his family struggling to survive in the aftermath of the war. Edmund (Edmund Moeschke) is just 12 years old, but he bears a lot of the responsibility for his family. His father (Ernst Pittschau) is too sick to work or even to leave his bed most of the time, while his sister Eva (Ingetraud Hinze) does what she can by going out every night — much to Edmund's disgust and confusion — with Allied soldiers so she can acquire cigarettes and trinkets. Worst of all, Edmund's brother Karl-Heinz (Franz-Otto Krüger) does nothing, because he served in the army during the war and is in hiding, fearing that he will be identified as a war criminal. He hasn't registered for food coupons, can't work, and simply loafs around the house all day while Edmund and Eva scrape together what few supplies they can gather for the family.

There are ambiguous intimations that Karl-Heinz could have involved in some atrocities during the war — he says he's afraid he'll be arrested when the authorities find out what unit he was in, an ominous suggestion — but he's only one sign of the more sinister undercurrents still threading through post-war Germany. The de-Nazification efforts cleanse the most overt displays of Nazi sympathies, but more subtle remnants are as ubiquitous as the rubble. By chance, Edmund encounters his old teacher Mr. Henning (Erich Gühne), who had been an organizer for the Hitler Youth during the war, and who now seems to be involved in some very shady activities. While walking around town, Henning casually trades words with an old acquaintance, who seems wistful for the days when they were "men, National Socialists," instead of just disgraced former Nazis. Moreover, Henning, whose solicitous, seductive manner towards the oblivious Edmund is skin-crawlingly pedophilic, lives with a secretive group of people, watched over by a mysterious and domineering man who has the air of an officer. Henning has vinyl records of Hitler's speeches, which he has Edmund sell to American and British GIs eager for a souvenir, but the group he shares a big house with seem to be secretively plotting something much bigger than black market sales. The whole icky vibe is of a shadow society of former Nazis still hidden within the ruins of the city, some of them slipping seamlessly back into society and some of them carrying out their vile plots at the fringes.

Though Rossellini certainly acknowledges the legacy and horrors of Nazism in sequences like this, the film's focus is not on the war criminals and evil masterminds of the Reich, but on the ordinary German citizens who lived through the war, some of them serving in the army, some of them simply staying at home while the bombs dropped all around them. In one of the film's most pointed political moments, Edmund plays a record of one of Hitler's speeches, and the words reverberate through a bombed-out building, before Rossellini cuts away to show more wrecked buildings, rows of houses missing their roofs, rubble and destruction everywhere. Hitler's stirring words about victory and glory seem so empty, so foolish, when played back atop these images of what Hitler's plans did to his people and his cities.

That's what this film, like Rossellini's other post-war street-level dramas, is really about: the human toll of war, the cost paid by the ordinary people who are simply trying to live quietly and provide for their families. It's a heartbreaking film, as Edmund's increasing desperation drives him to the edges of crime and corruption, trying to do anything he can to help his struggling family. He's just a boy, he barely understands so much of what's going on, but he hears the snide remarks from neighbors about his lazy brother and his "whore" sister, and he hears his father moaning about wanting to die, to relieve the family of the burden of caring for a sickly old man. It's chilling to see what Edmund is driven to by these circumstances, to feel his confusion and horror at the pitiless situation he finds himself in. In a typically understated shot, Rossellini holds Edmund and his father in a composition as the boy stoically, expressionlessly watches his father drink a poisoned cup of tea.

Germany Year Zero is a harrowing and heartrending film that holds a deep, tender humanism within its depiction of harsh, cruel realities. The film is raw and roughshod, the acting often shrill or stiff, and the music's bombast and melodrama is ill-suited to the ragged images that Rossellini found on these real war-torn streets. But this roughness and jaggedness is just a part of the film's greatness, adding to the impression that the director has captured the essence of day-to-day life for so many poor people just barely holding on in the aftermath of Europe's defining war.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Midnight In Paris

Midnight In Paris is the essence of recent Woody Allen in its purest form. This is a charming love letter to Paris, which opens with a series of crisply photographed, perfectly colored postcard images of Paris as a collection of tourist landmarks and street scenes that are familiar from the countless French movies they've appeared in. It's a glossy depiction of the latest destination on Woody's touristy trip through Europe, and this city in particular, Paris, seems to mean a great deal to him, as perhaps the place that appeals the most nakedly to the hopeless romantic in Woody.

The film hits all the usual Woody notes. Gil (Owen Wilson) is a successful screenwriter who's dissatisfied with his work and wants to be a serious novelist. He's in Paris with his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams), who he's feeling increasingly disconnected from, while his love of the city, his association of it with art and creativity, reawakens his dormant literary ambitions. This effect is intensified when Gil, sitting on a staircase around midnight, soaking in the atmosphere of Paris, is picked up by an old-fashioned car and transported back in time, to exactly the 1920s Parisian paradise that he'd been dreaming of. He is soon at parties with Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill), Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), and many other luminaries of the multinational Paris cultural scene of the 20s. At a party, Cole Porter sings sadly and beautifully at the piano, flappers dance, and everything seems bathed in the golden glow of nostalgia. And then there's the lovely Adriana (Marion Cotillard), a young woman who's been a lover and muse for many painters of the time, most recently Pablo Picasso (Marcial di Fonzo Bo), and who Gil instantly falls for.

It's a very simple story, with a fantasy hook that delivers the very simple point that we always yearn for an ideal past that we never experienced and that never really existed. Such desires are an escape, an outlet for anxieties about the present, rooted in the inescapable feeling that if only one had been born earlier, or elsewhere, everything would feel so much more right. Woody realizes that this is a somewhat misguided desire but he can't help feeling it anyway, and he lovingly depicts 1920s Paris as a beautiful, perfect, charming place, even while gently nudging Gil towards the realization that the past can't offer solutions for the problems of the present. The film seems torn in two, its aesthetics delivering an unadulterated ode to the beauty and joys of the past while thematically it has to lead Gil to a place where he's happy to exist in the present, to live and create in his own time instead of aching for a past that will always seem sweeter than the familiar present.

Of course, it's no surprise that Woody is much more convincing in selling the past than the present. A big part of the film's pleasure comes from the offhanded sense of awe that Gil feels when he realizes that he's been pulled back in time, and his wide-eyed joy when encountering each new famed cultural figure of the past. Woody obviously has a lot of fun with depicting all these historical icons, who are surely the director's idols as much as they are Gil's. The best and most memorable of these personae is no doubt Stoll's perfectly pitched performance as Hemingway, who speaks exactly like he writes, in a clipped, assertive, no-nonsense tone that leaves little room for debate or uncertainties. He seems like the Hemingway we might imagine from his writing, come to life, speaking a perfectly phrased short story every time he opens his mouth, unleashing a series of terse, blunt phrases connected by chains of "and." Similarly effective, though in a much different mode, is Adrien Brody's Salvador Dalí, who mutters and slurs in multilingual argot and repeatedly announces his famous surname, always with an implied exclamation point and a grand sweep of his arm. He also introduces Gil to his friends Man Ray (Tom Cordier) and Buñuel (Adrien de Van), and Woody, hilariously, has Gil give Buñuel a movie plot idea, describing the surrealist premise of The Exterminating Angel, which puzzles Buñuel as much as it's puzzled and provoked audiences since he made it. It's a bit of a cutesy time travel gag but a charming one anyway.

It's a shame that the modern story is comparatively slighted. Inez is distant and self-absorbed, and she and Gil are so clearly ill-suited for one another that it's hard to imagine how they ever got together. Her parents are used primarily for a few offhanded and easy-target swipes at Tea Party Republicans and Woody's favorite topic, clueless Americans. Woody at least seems to realize that he's being insufferable: right after Gil calls Republicans "lunatics" during a rambling rant about politics, he adds that it's okay, he can still respect those who don't think like him. Gil's present-day romantic resolution at the end of the film is also pretty unsatisfying, but maybe that's just because Cotillard's Adriana is so luminous, so sweet and smoldering, that nothing in the present seems very alluring in comparison, even Léa Seydoux's pretty but vague love interest. Maybe that's what Woody is going for here: a particular time is not tempting, ultimately, because of when it is, but because of who is there, because of the connections that one forms with other people. What Gil really learns, through his immediate and visceral connection with Adriana, is that what was lacking in his present was not necessarily a result of his era but the (lack of) genuine connections in his life.

This is a sweet, warm movie, much brighter and airier than anything Woody's made in a while. It's funny, too, though mostly at the expense of the hapless sorts who Woody sets up as targets for his mockery: the pompous Paul (Michael Sheen), who professes to be an expert on everything, and a private detective who Woody gives a minimal role seemingly just to set up the film's best and funniest throwaway time travel joke. As a bit of a meta joke, Woody even has Carla Bruni, the First Lady of France herself, appear as a tour guide, adding to the sense of this film as Woody's guide to Paris. Midnight In Paris is Woody at his most charming and romantic, quite a change from the darker, more cynical tone that's dominated most of his more recent films, both the successes like Vicky Cristina Barcelona and the more uneven efforts. It's a delicious confection, a magical realist treat that's all but impossible to resist.

Friday, February 17, 2012


F.W. Murnau's Faust was his final German film before the director emigrated to the USA for his all-too-brief career in Hollywood. This grand, extravagant epic, based on Goethe's version of the German legend about a man making a deal with the devil, represented Murnau's everything-and-the-kitchen-sink apotheosis of the German Expressionist silent style. It's a technical marvel, with dazzling effects that must have been utterly cutting edge at the time and today still have tremendous charm and power. This is especially true of the film's opening section, in which the devil makes a wager with an archangel over the soul of Faust (Gösta Ekman), a good man who the devil, in an echo of the Biblical story of Job, promises he can corrupt. Faust is a man of great faith and wisdom, old and wise and well-respected in his community. But he is nevertheless corrupted by the devil's representative Mephisto (Emil Jannings, in a scenery-devouring role), first by appealing to his very best instincts, his desire to help people, then by tempting him with power, then with increasingly base and material temptations.

The film's opening section provides Murnau with the opportunity to unleash a barrage of visual effects, showing the devil towering over a scale-model town, stretching his black wings to blot out the sun, kicking up clouds of dust that spread the plague. Sinister skeletal riders soar through the sky, and the devil's face appears floating in the clouds, taunting the people of the town. Faust, faced with this plague, appeals to both science and God, but both fail him; he can do nothing to cure the disease, and in a fit of desperation, after burning both his religious and his scholarly books, he decides to summon a demonic force to his aid instead. He goes to the crossroads, that mythic site of hellish bargaining, and as he conducts the ritual, Murnau draws a glowing ring of fire around him, fiery circles hovering hazily in the air around Faust, as the demon Mephisto magically materializes by his side.

Mephisto appears first as a ratty, stooped beggar with sinisterly glowing eyes, haunting the terrified Faust, who already regrets summoning this creepy creature, and later as a courtly, vampiric figure in black robes and a jaunty cap with a feather sticking out of it. In either guise, he's a mischievous trickster guiding Faust into the bargain that will doom him. Faust believes at first that he's only doing this to help people, but he's soon seduced by sensual and sexual pleasures, by the lure of power and greed and lust. The film calms down a little stylistically after this initial flurry of baroque visual overload, and when Mephisto transforms Faust into a young man — in order to pursue first a libertine duchess (Hanna Ralph) and then the virginal young Gretchen (Camilla Horn) — the film settles down into a much more understated melodrama, albeit one that takes place amidst the deformed architecture and spiky shadows of the elaborately designed sets.

Faust's romance with Gretchen is what ultimately saves him — the film ends with an angel defeating the devil, citing the power of love, liebe, and the word appears surrounded with a glistening halo of light — but Murnau is somewhat irreverent in his depiction of this tragic romance. Part of it is that Jannings' Mephisto is just so much more appealing and fun to watch than the smooth-faced, feminine young Faust, who's very much cast in the mold of the usual bland silent-era heroes despite his deal with the devil.

Mephisto is the choice part here — although Gretchen's leering giant of a brother (William Dieterle) somewhat unintentionally gives Mephisto a run for his money as the creepiest character in the film. Mephisto is an incarnation of the devil as an avatar of fun, dancing around in the shadows making mischief, mugging wildly for the camera in his agony at the sight of a cross, stalking around with his rapier sticking out the back of his robes like a stiff tail. The film, despite its ultimate message of love and spiritual uplift, has some pretty perverse and provocative ideas about good and evil, confirming the impression that the latter have all the fun.

In one early scene, the plague inspires an apocalyptic preacher who urges the people to repent and pray, the cross he holds looming large within the frame. But this somber, morbid religious assembly is interrupted by a parade of revelers who take the opposite approach, laughing at death and celebrating feverishly since life is so short. There's no question which approach Murnau makes seem more appealing, as the partying villagers briefly stop beneath the preacher, the camera angled down to leer at the women with their cleavage spilling out of their tops, laughing and drinking, their sensuality splayed out beneath the preacher with his cross. To cap off this scene, the devil strikes down the preacher, suggesting that goodness and piety are no guarantees in a world where Hell has as much influence as Heaven.

Mephisto is the most visible embodiment of this sensibility. Jannings, an actor who knew very well how to play big without sacrificing subtlety, rips into the part but never comes across as hammy, instead just communicating this sinister devil's delight in his evil deeds, his pop-eyed intensity and insanity. His best showcase is Mephisto's playful flirtation with Gretchen's matronly alchemist aunt Marthe (Yvette Guilbert), which serves as a parodic counterpoint to the love scenes between Gretchen and Faust. Gretchen plays the "he loves me, he loves me not" game with a flower she picks, and Mephisto repeats the gesture with eye-rolling mockery using a mushroom, sticking shards of it in his mouth as he pulls them off the crown.

Murnau cuts back and forth between these two romances throughout this scene, employing the comic, ribald interplay of the demon and the alchemist as a tonic for the conventionally romantic pursuit of Gretchen by Faust. Mephisto is both randier than the human — putting a necklace on the old woman, he cups her breasts in his hands, then recoils as though disappointed in what he'd felt — and much funnier, as he responds to his paramour's attempts to kiss him by pushing her cap over her face and running away. The whole sequence ends, not with Faust proposing to Gretchen, but with Marthe lovingly taking a piece of mushroom and stuffing it into her shirt as a souvenir, while Mephisto, fleeing the scene, turns back towards the camera, and spits out a mouthful of chewed-up mushroom bits, blowing a raspberry at all this romance and sentimentality.

Though Jannings is the film's most powerful presence and easily steals every scene he's in, Murnau masterfully shifts the film's focus and its sympathies to Gretchen for the increasingly poignant final act, in which the young girl suffers greatly for her involvement with the corrupt Faust. Horn delivers a sweet, pure performance, radiating light and decency, and Murnau draws visual parallels between the girl and both the Virgin Mary and Joan of Arc in the film's final stretch. The image of Gretchen in the snow, a shawl wrapped around her head, the tears on her cheeks frozen into delicate white crystalline patterns, is breathtaking and heartbreaking, a tragically beautiful evocation of the Virgin with child. The film, like many of the Faust legends upon which it's based, Goethe's included, pulls back from the darkness at the very last second. But this momentary redemption, as affecting as it is, is in many ways overpowered by Murnau's far more vivid presentation of suffering, corruption, shadow and fog, and the sheer grinning, mischievous fun that is the evil in the world.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Three Celia Rowlson-Hall shorts, 2010-2011

The short films of Celia Rowlson-Hall were recently introduced to me by Jeremy Richey, via an interview he conducted with Rowlson-Hall at his blog. She is a young filmmaker, model, choreographer and dancer who has posted many of her haunting, charming shorts online at Vimeo, where all of the films I'm writing about here can be watched for free. She's a versatile and fascinating figure whose films range from dreamlike bursts of subconscious imagery to elegant fashion showcases to cute/creepy psychodramas.

Prom Night is unquestionably her most powerful work, a dazzling eight-minute tour of the associations conjured up by the title. Throughout the short, Rowlson-Hall, who often appears as a performer in her own work, takes on a number of different roles and personae, using simple costume changes and fluid transitions to shuffle through a succession of female archetypes while dancing, alone, in a school gymnasium full of colored balloons. All the while, the Ronettes' hypnotic "Be My Baby" is looped on the soundtrack, at first blaring and then muted when the camera shifts to a more distant observation point, peering in through a window in the closed gym doors.

Rowlson-Hall is a dynamic screen presence, with an expressive face well-suited to the frequent closeups she gives herself. At the start of the film, she wanders at the fringes of the dance floor, sipping punch, her eyes darting around the room, nervous and excited, taking in the sights and waiting for the arrival of her date, represented by the camera's point-of-view. Then, growing bolder, she begins flirting with the camera, her dance partner, which is playfully reeled in by Rowlson-Hall's invisible fishing rod, floating closer and closer to her until the camera is directly facing her. She defuses this intimacy by making funny faces, then grows self-conscious and awkward, keeping her face mostly turned away from the camera and the dance partner it represents, only casting sidelong glances at the lens, smiling nervously and sweetly, an incarnation of the shy, excited prom date enjoying a romantic dance. Rowlson-Hall then begins reaching forward, past the camera, to take off the clothes of her "date," coming up with a suit jacket, shirt and undershirt. In the film's most startling moment, she then pulls the undershirt over her head and gathers the folds of her blue dress up around her, and for a few moments she's been transformed into an embodiment of the Virgin Mary, waving her finger, tsk-tsk, in a gesture of inaccessibility and chasteness. Only moments later, she ducks down out of the frame, and after a cut, she reappears in a skimpy red Baywatch-style one-piece bathing suit, stuffing balloons into her chest to become a voluptuous sex symbol.

These fluid transformations suggest that Rowlson-Hall is enacting various archetypes and stereotypes of femininity, embodying alternately the demure hometown girl, the untouchable symbol of spiritual purity, the Pamela Anderson sex kitten, the lollipop-sucking Lolita, Madonna with her infamous cone bra. She even channels the ultimate prom movie, Carrie, by dumping a bowl of red punch over her head. It's a beautiful film, alternately funny and eerie, sweet and sinister, but always tinged with nostalgia. Rowlson-Hall is delving subtly into the many different meanings of the prom in American culture: as a locus of sexuality, as a stage for enactments of gender roles, as a repository for memories of adolescence, as a last ritual of the teen years before the transition into adulthood. The prom is so loaded with potential meanings, and Rowlson-Hall's exploration of this event is ambiguous and multi-faceted enough to encompass them all.

It's an evocative and mysterious film, especially in its second half, when the camera observes from a fixed point outside the gym, peeking voyeuristically in through a window, as Rowlson-Hall alternately dances energetically and wanders listlessly about. This perspective, coupled with the now-muted Ronettes soundtrack, lends an aura of aching nostalgia to these scenes, as though the mind is now wandering away from this past, the memory growing more and more distant and faded. At the same time, the film's repetition, and the never-ending loop of the arch-romantic song, suggests that the same primal scenes play out over and over again, with different girls, different dances, different gyms.

Pinata is a mysterious, emotionally draining three minutes that explores death and loss through a wordless, symbolic psychodrama. Celia Rowlson-Hall wanders through a sunny, autumnal woods scene in a black dress, kneeling by a whimsical shrine she finds in a clearing: a cupcake with a single large candle sticking out of it, which she blows out. She's commemorating an anniversary of some kind, but as the subsequent imagery reveals, it's not a birthday, and despite the balloons and streamers festooned on the surrounding branches, this is not a party. Instead, Rowlson-Hall comes face to face with a woman dressed in white (Mary Jane Ward), hanging from the trees, suspended by ropes like a swing. The woman's face is made up into a blank, mannequin-like expression, and she stares directly ahead, unmoving. It's obvious that Rowlson-Hall is a mourner, and the woman in white is a ghost, a dead woman, a lost loved one whose image continues to haunt the living.

The film's power comes from its potent examination of the grief that passes between these two women, one living and one dead. Rowlson-Hall's black-clad mourner goes through several stages in responding to this vision, first responding with unrestrained joy, embracing the dangling figure. But her pleasure soon shades into anguish and then anger, and she tears at the other woman's garments, lashing out: the implied, tearful question is "how dare you die?" The film's title is both symbolic — the hanging woman suggests a suicide, which would explain the anger and recrimination in this show of grieving — and also literal, as Rowlson-Hall begins thrashing at the hanging figure with a stick. The woman in white complies by showering colored confetti and candies into the browning leaves on the forest floor, a strange image that's both somewhat twee and genuinely disturbing.

This is an interesting film that balances its quirky imagery with the unsettling, unfettered expressions of grief that Rowlson-Hall unleashes here. She is, again, a startlingly direct and engaging actress who communicates this anonymous character's complicated tangle of feelings entirely without words, using just the expressions that flutter across her face.

Three of a Feather is an odd little short that stands apart from the solo works that showcase Celia Rowlson-Hall's dancing and wordless performances. This is a collaborative work, with Rowlson-Hall credited with writing and direction, and choreography by Monica Bill Barnes. Three dancers (Barnes, Anna Bass, and Charlotte Bydwell) dressed in white ballerina outfits with large feathers on their heads wander through a strange, unpopulated world of urban refuse and unspoiled natural beauty. Accompanied by a gorgeous piano piece by Nina Simone, they jog daintily along a deserted country road, ride a carousel like it's a subway, and fish around in a lake for coins. Occasionally, they attempt awkward, unstable dance maneuvers, their movements tentative and halting.

There's something affecting about these awkward dances, performed in empty theaters with the stage lights shining brightly on the three girls. At one point, one of them reaches her arm up in a graceful flourish, only to stop in mid-motion, her hand tangled in the feather jutting up from the head of the girl next to her. For a moment, they stand still like this, and then the girl shakes her hand loose, causing the other girl to tip over towards her, pushing off her neighbor's thigh to maintain her balance. It's a strange scene, funny and baffling, like so much of the short's imagery, but it's also poignant: the dancers try to work together, to dance together, but their graceful micro-gestures never seem to come together into a truly satisfying group performance. Instead, the choreography is willfully incomplete, suggesting lithesome grace in the simple way the dancers move and stretch, but always refraining from really pulling these isolated movements together into a sustained dance.

This is a sweet, funny, but also curiously unsettling film that doesn't quite reach the level of the films where Rowlson-Hall herself is the star; she's obviously her own best performer. But the surreal, ambiguous visual imagination on display here is still compelling, allowing for multiple ideas to flow through the elliptical story of these three dancers. The film is about distinctions of amateur versus professional, about girlhood, about the iconography of the ballerina, all of this present as teasing hints just below the surface, multiple layers to a film that can be read in several different ways.

Monday, February 13, 2012


Béla Tarr's Sátántangó is an extraordinary film, gorgeous and haunting and full of unforgettable images. Even at seven-and-a-half hours long, the film is never less than enthralling, and each deliberately framed and choreographed shot is jaw-dropping, even when nothing much is actually happening within the frame. Though Tarr isn't very concerned with narrative, there is a story of sorts here, a loose one divided into twelve chapters that overlap one another chronologically and show the same scenes from different points of view as different characters' stories intersect over the course of a couple of days. The film is set in a tiny rural Hungarian village at the start of the autumn rainy season, which the villagers are now prepared to endure, miserably, until springtime. The town is grim and ugly, a few crumbling buildings spread out across the barren, dismal countryside. The place is soggy and knee-deep in mud, and it's constantly pouring, rain streaming down the grimy windows and soaking the villagers whenever they trudge through the muddy fields that surround their homes. As the film opens, the villagers have sold off their communally owned cows and are planning to split the money and abandon the village, all of them heading off to their own personal escapes.

Naturally, they're all scheming against each other, some of them planning to steal all the money and escape on their own, until their plans are all disrupted by the return of Irimiás (Mikhály Vig, who also provides the film's eerie, minimalist music), a messiah-like con artist who'd been reported as dead a year and a half ago, but who had really been in prison with his friend Petrina (Putyi Horváth). This duo's return to town disrupts all the villagers' schemes, filling them with mingled hope and fear: they know that Irimiás will have some grand plan for their money, but it's not clear if they welcome this opportunity to be shaken out of their ruts or mourn the likely loss of their long-awaited windfall to the rogue's latest brainstorm.

This tense anticipation dominates the film's first half. Irimiás and Petrina do appear in one sequence early on, but other than this, they're spoken of more than seen for the first several hours of the film. Tarr observes how the villagers await the arrival of the mysterious duo, going about their dull and listless lives in the meantime, boiling over with frustration and confusion as they wrestle with their feelings about the returning troublemakers. Tarr's preference for long, unbroken takes — either static or slowly tracking — enhances the elongated expectation. The film is "about" its duration as much as anything, about the way time passes, about the long dead moments and empty spaces that make up a day. The film's epic seven-and-a-half hour length places the viewer in the same position as the villagers, enduring long periods of stasis and nothingness, long temps mort accompanied only by the buzzing of a fly or the loud, repetitive ticking of a clock in a depressing local bar.

The film opens with a long shot of a field of cows, the soundtrack dominated by their mooing and a droning tone in the background. Eventually, the camera begins to track sideways, away from the field, gliding along past a long wall, examining the crumbling plaster and cloudy, filthy windows that offer no view into the rooms inside. The camera's movement is slow and steady, and when it finally reaches the end of the wall, it looks out again at the cows, milling around in a courtyard in the distance, watching until they all wander away, out of sight around the corner of a building, leaving behind only a chicken strutting across the muddy open space until the image fades to black. It's a fitting introduction to the patient, unshowy aesthetic of Tarr's epic, its careful observation of the minutiae of daily life and its attentiveness to the matter of time.

Later, Irimiás and Petrina wait in a town office, and Irimiás comments that there are two clocks, neither of them correct. He poetically connects this temporal confusion to the "the perpetuity of defenselessness," before adding, "We relate to it as twigs to the rain: we cannot defend ourselves." That's the essence of Tarr's perspective on time, this relentless forward flow that cannot be paused or halted, that is always charging onward regardless of what's happening in any individual life. The emphasis on the passage of time is so essential because one of Tarr's key themes here is stagnation: time passes, and yet nothing happens, everything remains the same, the people of this town continue to wallow in misery and boredom, to simply pass the time.

Futaki, dreaming of fleeing the town with his share of the money, wants only to rent a farm where he can do nothing all day, only watch "this fucking life" go by while he soaks his feet. When Irimiás and Petrina return to town, their young hanger-on Horgos (András Bodnár) fills them in on what the town is like now — which is to say, that nothing's changed, that everything is exactly as it was a year and a half ago when they left. In this context, Tarr's deliberately eventless static views and snail-paced tracking shots accentuate the numbing, narcotic pace of everyday life in a place where nothing happens, and where even the wildest dreams of the inhabitants are boring and routine.

At other times, though, Tarr finds strange beauty and even heroism in the mundane. A drunken old doctor's (Peter Berling) trip to refill a jug of fruit brandy becomes an epic journey across the wasted countryside of the village. He staggers and stumbles through the muddy fields, the rain pouring around him, the soundtrack composed only of his heavy breathing, his raspy coughs, his burps, and the plodding steps of his feet, sticking in the mud that covers both the roads and the fields. As it gets dark, the doctor's form is increasingly hidden in the unlit night, his silhouette occasionally highlighted against the distant lights of a house or the local bar. As the doctor approaches the bar, wheezing accordion music can be heard, the first hint of the drunken revelry that will play out in later scenes inside the bar. The doctor just passes by, though, staggering into the woods, glimpsing the dark trio of Irimiás, Petrina and Horgos purposefully walking by on the nearby road. Tarr makes this simple journey across a small distance seem epic, overwhelming, taking every ounce of will and strength from this unhealthy, unhappy old man. That's another aspect of Tarr's extended duration: this is an epic of the everyday, an epic of short distances, because this town and its muddy, pathetic territory is the full extent of what these people know, it is the setting for their entire lives and thus it must be epic, because everything they are and everything they do plays out here, and a trek to get some alcohol can seem as important as Odysseus' journey home, while a short cigarette break with some plump prostitutes takes the place of Odysseus' many detours and obstacles on his way back to Ithaca.

There is an obvious political dimension to the film, as well. Tarr had wanted to adapt Lázló Krasznahorkai's novel since the 80s, but he had been unable to do so because of the threat of censorship from the Hungarian Communist government. It doesn't take much reading between the lines to see that the film is a bitter satire of the failures of communalism, exposing the ways in which, while supposedly working communally towards a common purpose, people remain atomized and isolated, concerned far more with their own selfish interests than those of the group. Irimiás himself is the most obvious symbolic representative of Communist ideas. He calls himself "a servant of a great cause" and organizes people for his schemes, but the dreams of communal success that he stirs up in others are simply smokescreens for his cons and tricks. He says he's bringing people together but he actually tears them apart and scatters them, breaking up their community under the guise of rejuvenating it. The idea of working together for a common goal is a lie, a ruse, a distraction from the essential miserableness of these people's lives. They have no sense of real control over their lives — they are defenseless, a theme that percolates throughout the film — and Irimiás' grand rhetoric gives them an illusion of power, however misguided. Really, they are defenseless before him as well.

One of the film's most notorious extended scenes is the one where a young girl (Erika Bók) tortures a cat and then kills it by putting rat poison in milk. She feels hopeless, bored, abandoned, by a family that doesn't seem to care about her much, and she takes out her own torment on her defenseless pet before killing herself as well. It's an uncomfortable sequence to watch, and not only because of its implications for the characters and themes. Tarr insists that the cat was treated humanely and not truly harmed, but it's still discomfiting to see the girl flail around, swinging the cat around with her, then trapping it in a net and shoving its head into a bowl of milk. Such moments in a fiction film always shatter the illusion of a story being acted out. It's too real, and too cruel, forcing one to think not about the cruelty of this girl, whose feelings of impotence lead her to assert her power over a defenseless animal, but the cruelty of the filmmakers who demanded that the scene be shot in this way, that these things should be done to a real, defenseless living thing.

The penultimate chapter of the film resumes the commentary on the political dimensions of Irimiás' actions. This segment consists entirely of two bureaucrats translating Irimiás' vile, hateful letter about the townspeople into more discrete and official language. Nothing can be said directly, so they have to come up with euphemisms for everything, replacing "fat sow" with "overweight," and "wrinkled worm, filled with alcohol" with "elderly alcoholic, short of stature." This sequence is rich in bitter humor, mocking the bureaucratic circumspection of these office drones while also revealing the full extent of Irimiás' deceitfulness. At the same time, Tarr focuses on the humanity of the bureaucrats, whose work — cleansing language of its richness and idiosyncrasy, reducing words to a generic gray pulp — wears them down daily. They take a break from their work at one point, sitting down away from the typewriter to have a snack, eating in silence. While they eat, they drop their businesslike demeanors, and suddenly they are just men, requiring a break from the soul-numbing stupidity of their work. When they're done eating, unfortunately, they must return to the typewriter.

Tarr often enlivens the film with subtle, bittersweet humor like this. One key sequence is the lengthy drunken dance where the townspeople, anxiously awaiting Irimiás' arrival, clumsily dance and grope one another. The scene lasts around half an hour, with the repetitive accordion music wheezing out its incessantly bouncing melody, as the revelers sway and careen off one another awkwardly. The cast was really as drunk as they seem to be onscreen, lending an air of verisimilitude to their staggering steps and lunges at one another. They seem angry one moment, joyous the next, their minds clouded, erasing themselves in this celebration. In the chapter title that precedes this segment, Tarr deems the dance the "sátántangó" from which the film takes its name, and indeed there's something apocalyptic and desperate about everyone's flailing about, their wild abandon. But it's also amusing and powerful, a rare moment of celebration in the lives of people who don't often have much to celebrate. At one point, the camera pans around the room and finds one married couple eating from opposite ends of a cheese bread, devouring it like Lady and the Tramp romantically eating spaghetti together, a hilarious and ridiculous image, if also a grossly romantic one.

Petrina is also a rich source of comedy, playing a dopey comic foil to the messianic Irimiás, even in terms of appearance. While Irimiás is striking and foreboding in his dark trenchcoat, Christ-like beard and fedora, Petrina looks like a dumpy reject from the Three Stooges, a woolen snow cap pulled down tightly over his egg-shaped head. In a mysterious scene late in the film, Irimiás, Petrina and Horgos are walking along a road through a sparsely wooded area. Suddenly, Irimiás stops and falls to his knees in the middle of the road, staring forward as though overcome with sublime religious awe. He watches as a cloud of fog rolls past, obscuring a ruined building, then blowing away in the wind. Tarr never explains this moment or the image that prompts Irimiás' awe; it's left as a beautiful and eerie image of the huckster being overcome, momentarily, by seemingly genuine sentiment. Then Petrina breaks the mood, as the trio walks away, by irreverently asking, "you've never seen fog before or what?"

Irimiás is often associated with nearly mystical, awe-inspiring incarnations of nature. In one of the film's best shots, Irimiás and Petrina walk along a road through town as garbage flies along the ground around their feet, the wind whipping paper, cardboard boxes and other debris through the narrow path between houses. It's another somewhat apocalyptic image that's strikingly beautiful as well, capturing the stark, weather-beaten conditions of this town, but also making even this barrage of trash seem graceful and elegant.

The film is packed with gorgeous, unforgettable images like this, like the remarkable shot that keeps circling around the sleeping figures of the townspeople in the manor they've moved to at Irimiás' behest. As they sleep, and the camera twirls, the voiceover recites the dreams and nightmares of the villagers, haunted in their rest by strange visions, confused erotic fantasies, and fantastic hopes. It's a deeply affecting extended shot, because Tarr's film is all about the hopes and dreams of these ordinary, downtrodden people — and the ways in which those dreams are destroyed and corrupted by the cruel world they inhabit and the societal strictures that govern even their most secret dreams.

In the film's devastating final chapter, those dreams seem to take tangible form, writing a surreal nightmare onto the landscape of the territory as Tarr returns to the elderly doctor. He once again wanders off into the landscape, but this time, instead of stolidly plodding through the muddy fields in real time, he gets swallowed up by a strange vision, chasing the distant sound of bells to a wrecked church where a mysterious and cadaverous-looking man repetitively rings a bell and shouts. It's a strange and unsettling end to a remarkable film, and the final shot, in which the doctor slowly removes every trace of light from the image by boarding up his windows, chronicles the slow process by which the film disappears into the nothingness from which it came.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is somewhat notorious as a belated and unfortunate entry in Steven Spielberg's long-running adventure series. It lives up, or down, to that reputation in many ways, but it's not entirely the dismal failure it's said to be; it's deeply flawed but also strangely fascinating. The opening of the film establishes this fourth Indiana Jones movie, which is set in the late 50s, as a representation of the destruction of American innocence in the crucible of World War II: the Holocaust, the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan, as well as the Cold War and the McCarthyite anti-Red fever that developed in the aftermath of WWII. The previous three films were all set before the end of the war, and even if the Nazis were often Indy's enemies, the films still seemed very distant from the grisliest realities of the war. In The Last Crusade, Hitler himself appeared as almost a comic figure, in an absurdly hilarious cameo. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, on the other hand, opens with Soviet spies, disguised as American soldiers, coolly gunning down the military guards at a desert installation.

From there, Indy, after escaping from the Communists, stumbles into a fake town in the middle of the desert, full of plastic people, with Howdy Doody on the TV, all of it ready to be blown away in a nuclear bomb test. Indy survives the bomb in a lead-lined refrigerator — one of many groan-inducing moments in this over-the-top opening sequence — then stumbles out into a wasteland with the distinctive mushroom-shaped cloud of the atomic bomb drifting up from the horizon, the sky turning red as Indy's distinctive silhouette is framed against this apocalyptic backdrop. It's a deliberate subversion of Indy's image, jamming the spirited adventure and pulpy thrills of the Indy serial against the real-world horrors of the atomic age that he's suddenly been thrust into. (This remains true even though the jaw-droppingly stupid refrigerator gag basically turns the whole thing into a cheap joke just moments before that harrowing mushroom cloud image.)

Perhaps that's why the tone of these opening scenes is so all-over-the-place. It's an attempt to integrate the pulp hero into Cold War nuclear age hysteria, but as such attempts go, it's no Kiss Me Deadly. Instead, Spielberg and producer/writer George Lucas vacillate back and forth from cutesy farce, to the near-slapstick kinetic action that the Indy serial is known for, to moments of seriousness like that beautifully apocalyptic image of Indy, with his whip and his fedora, dwarfed by the fiery mushroom cloud and its deadly rain of fallout. Indeed, in another sign of the times, Indy is soon expelled from his university teaching post, a victim of the Red Scare, before he's pulled into his next adventure by the sudden appearance of the young greaser Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf), a Fonzie type who joins Indy on a quest to find the mythical crystal skull.

The Indiana Jones films have always revolved around some rather fantastical premises — it's part of the series' over-the-top pulp charm — but this one, with its interdimensional aliens and portals to other dimensions, risks the ridiculous even more than the magical Christian relics and ancient cults of previous films. The climax, in which the secret of a hidden Mayan temple is revealed as a roomful of aliens with crystal skeletons, is so far beyond the usual tone of the Indiana Jones series that it feels imported from another movie, perhaps Close Encounters of the Third Kind or the equally contentious finale of A.I.. More than that, though, the film's script and action are often simply ridiculous. In one scene, Mutt swings through the trees on vines, accompanied by an army of monkeys who wind up causing trouble for the sinister Soviet villainess Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett). The goofy monkey CGI recalls the equally silly gophers that run around underfoot during the opening scenes, a cutesy bit of patently fake computer imagery that recalls the worst moments of Lucas' Star Wars prequels more than anything in the previous Indy movies.

Thematically and emotionally, this film is a logical next step for the Indy series, but the execution keeps getting in the way. It makes sense that the film should be about Indy discovering he's a father — Mutt turns out to be Indy's son with Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), returning from Raiders — after the father/son dynamics of The Last Crusade. Indy's distance from Mutt repeats Indy's relationship with his father, who had been distant and unapproachable until the pair bonded on that last adventure. The problem is that LaBeouf's Mutt is not an especially compelling action hero, even when he's not playing Tarzan leading those cuddly CGI monkeys to the rescue, and his repartee with Indy is forced and awkward. At least Karen Allen's return as Marion is welcome; she's been somewhat tamed by the years since her last appearance, but she still has the devilish grin that made her such a natural match and foil for Indy in the first film, and made all the women in the subsequent films seem like such pale, unsatisfying substitutes. Even Indy admits as much, telling Marion that the women he's known in the intervening years have been lacking because, "they weren't you."

This all adds up, unfortunately, to a film that's interesting in theory more than it is in practice. Spielberg and Lucas are obviously having their usual fun riffing on the previous films in the series and the pulp tropes they've based the character on, but the film is goofy where previous Indy flicks were witty, bluntly action-packed where previous films had action sequences that were thrilling and frenzied without veering so far into self-parody. The film is tonally inconsistent in the extreme, and Spielberg and Lucas fail to grasp that while the Indy films were never exactly rooted in reality, by any means, neither were they as relentlessly plausibility-defying as this one is. Compared against some of the ludicrous action scenes that Spielberg piles on here — like the jeep-to-jeep swordfight between Irina and Mutt — the aliens at the end begin to seem positively grounded. Even these more-ridiculous-than-usual action set pieces might have been tolerable, though, if the film had recaptured the ephemeral "magic" of the earlier films, but it just doesn't. Despite some interesting subtexts and ideas, this latest Indiana Jones film fails to add much to the franchise's history.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

The third film in Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones series was Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and after the strange, overblown tone of Temple of Doom (which chronologically serves as a prequel to the series), this film continues much more directly from Raiders of the Lost Ark. Once again, Indiana (Harrison Ford) must try to track down a legendary Christian relic — the Holy Grail this time — before it falls into the hands of the Nazis, even though one would think that the Nazis would have learned their lesson after the last time they actually got a hold of what they'd been searching for. The film is more than just a repeat of the formula from Raiders, though, because this time around, Indy's no longer a solitary adventurer, but is instead surrounded by both a literal and figurative family. Of course, the first two Indy films had sidekicks and accomplices who tagged along with the hero, but this time around he's gathered together a more substantial crew.

Foremost among them is Indy's father, Henry Jones (Sean Connery), who's been searching for the Grail for his entire lifetime, and who's been kidnapped by the Nazis as part of their quest to discover the source of eternal youth. Indy must rescue his father and find the Grail, aided by Raiders returnees Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) and Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott), who in Raiders had been Indy's office-bound acquaintance, sending the adventurer off on his missions but never coming along himself. These men form a loose masculine family for Indy, a rough and ready band of friends and family. The film's last shot shows the four men riding off into the sun and the blood-red sky, an image right out of a Hollywood Western. This is especially appropriate because, more than in the other films, Spielberg is making Indy a cowboy archetype, with his signature hat and his horseback heroics.

The Western references start right with the film's first moments. The clever opening sequence is a referential, and self-referential, tour de force that continually subverts expectations with clever visual gags in which things are seldom what they seem. The first shot evokes the imagery of John Ford's Monument Valley, with a line of mounted riders winding through dirt trails between massive cliffs and red rock mountains. When Spielberg cuts in for the first closeup, though, he reveals that the riders are not Ford's cavalry but a troupe of Boy Scouts, even though they do have the yellow scarves that recall the uniforms of Ford's She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Soon after, two of the Boy Scouts, hearing strange noises, wander into a cave and find some men eagerly excavating ancient relics from the rocks. One of the men has the familiar fedora of Indiana Jones, but Spielberg keeps his face hidden, first by shooting him from behind and then from slightly above, so that the brim of his hat shades his eyes, showing only the man's unshaven chin and square jaw. He looks like Indy, but it's not him: when he finally looks up it's a different man, and Spielberg quickly reveals that one of the Boy Scouts observing this scene is a young Indiana (River Phoenix), as an onscreen caption identifies the time and place as "Utah, 1912."

The subsequent chase scene, in which Indy boldly steals a valuable relic from the fortune-hunters, is full of in-jokes for fans of the franchise, suggesting where Indy's famous fear of snakes came from, showing the first time he experimented with using a whip, and tweaking audience expectations of Indy's flawless feats by having the young Indy leap off a rock to land on the back of a horse, only to miss and stumble as the horse simply steps forward. The whole sequence is relentlessly meta, building on the history and iconography of this character from the previous two films.

This is everything one would expect from an Indiana Jones movie, all staged with Spielberg's typical panache for action set pieces. There's a thrilling boat chase, and then later in the picture, Spielberg fakes out the audience by hinting that there's going to be a second one, only to have Indy and his dad jump on a motorcycle instead. There's a brief aerial dogfight, followed by a sequence — nodding to Hitchcock's North By Northwest, an obvious touchstone for this film's dashing, globe-trotting adventures — in which Indy and his dad flee on the ground while fighter planes swoop by overhead, raining down machine gun fire. There's a battle in which Indy, riding a horse, manages to outwit and take down a squad of Nazi soldiers and a tank. There's a trawl through underground catacombs filled with rats and a river of petroleum, which of course soon gets set afire. Indy even comes face to face with Hitler himself, in one of the film's more absurdly funny moments. There's a hilarious scene that wouldn't be out of place in a Marx Brothers spy spoof, where Indy and his dad keep spinning around as a secret panel opens up on a Nazi communications room. The thrills are perfectly paced, and the film barrels along at breakneck speed, with crackling dialogue to break up the action scenes.

Connery's Jones Sr. is especially compelling in that respect, perhaps because his dry wit and unflappable demeanor are linked to Indy's unhappy childhood with a mother who died young and a father who was distant and immersed in work. As the opening scenes show, Indy struggled to get his father's attention as a boy, and when he reunites with his father as a grown man, their relationship is uneasy and marked by dark humor. When Indy breaks into a Nazi castle to rescue his dad, Henry hits him over the head with a vase, at which point the two men immediately begin talking past one another: Henry is upset that he shattered what seems to be a valuable Ming vase, while Indy (incorrectly) reads his father's words as guilt over hurting his son. There's a lot of humor like this in the film, built around this father/son disconnection — even Indy's avoidance of the given name he inherited from his dad is evidence of their fraught relationship — and Indy's boyish desire to please his father. At one point, after father and son have evaded the Nazis during a violent and frenetic chase sequence, Indy lets out a whoop of excitement as they leave the last of their pursuers behind, but his smile fades when he sees his father's unimpressed, stoic expression and total disinterest in his son's love of adventure. Indy is a grown man but he still thirsts for fatherly approval, and because of this obvious subtext the film's bantering dialogue often has real bite.

The father/son dynamics are complicated by the presence of Elsa Schneider (Alison Doody), who turns out to be a Nazi but first sleeps with both father and son, which confirms the theme of Indy following in his father's footsteps. Schneider is an interesting character even beyond her importance to the father/son relationship. She's a surprisingly sympathetic Nazi whose allegiances are somewhat ambiguous; it's not at all clear just what she really believes or if her alliance with the Nazis is just a marriage of convenience to get her closer to the Grail, which she desires for her own unstated reasons. Even after she reveals her villainy, her affection for Indy and, to a lesser extent, his father isn't diminished at all. Her best moment, though, is a silent closeup as she watches Indy uncovering clues and preparing to break into a hidden passage through a wall in an underground chamber. She smiles sweetly and affectionately, her eyes shining with warmth: it's a very affecting and mysterious shot, because it suggests a depth of feeling in her that makes the revelation of her true nature somewhat hard to believe. Later, though, when she reveals her betrayal, her smile becomes crazed and sinister, her eyes wild.

The Last Crusade is a worthy successor to Raiders of the Lost Ark, abandoning the darkness and lurid violence of Temple of Doom in favor of the spirited adventure of the first Indy movie. Spielberg successfully channels the tone and the pleasures of that first film without simply duplicating it. It's a fun and exhilarating adventure flick and a worthy addition to the Indy canon.