Friday, March 30, 2012

Four Alexander Kluge shorts, 1967-1973

Frau Blackburn, Born 1/5/1872, Is Being Filmed is a strange early short from Alexander Kluge, which blurs the line between documentary and fiction so thoroughly and so oddly that it's hard to know what to make of it at all. Ostensibly a straightforward portrait of the elderly title character, the film barely provides any information or context about who she is or why she's being profiled in the first place. Indeed, the woman doesn't have much to say: she speaks about some stiffness in her hands, holding up a crooked finger for the camera to see, but much of the rest of her dialogue is incidental. She putters about her house, showing off her fancy china and making coffee or tea, presumably for the filmmakers, who she addresses frequently, checking to make sure that she's saying what they want her to say. These fourth wall-breaking references to the people behind the camera suggest that much of this material is staged, not at all the naturalistic observation of an old woman in her home, but a concoction of the filmmakers, who are ordering her to pretend to grind coffee and to explain her ailments. "Is that enough?" she asks them at one point, after delivering a rambling monologue.

Then Kluge utterly shatters the artifice with the appearance of a man who, an intertitle informs us, claims to be a former RAF pilot. The very fact that the title is phrased this way, that he says he's a pilot rather than that he is a pilot, already casts doubt on the whole thing. And then Kluge films the man like a moustache-twirling silent movie villain, in leering closeups accompanied by cackling laughter that isn't synced up to the image at all. The man claims to want to buy earrings from the poor Frau Blackburn, but then he addresses the camera to say that actually he's just getting her out of her house so he can rob her. Kluge then shows the aftermath of the robbery, with the old lady reacting with understated alarm at the sight of all her broken china.

It's a puzzling, intentionally obtuse film that mocks the conventions of the documentary, particularly the supposed objectivity of the filmmakers, who in this case simply stand by and let Frau Blackburn get robbed, recording the results, not intervening even when they're directly told about the robbery beforehand. The film's editing is choppy and elliptical, cutting up Frau Blackburn's words into banal phrases, devoid of context, little bits of anecdotes and biography that mean all but nothing by themselves. Baffling, curiously funny, with an elusive effect that's difficult to shake despite its vagueness, this is a typically maddening and provocative early effort from Kluge.

Another nigh-inscrutable short posing as documentary biography, E.A. Winterstein, Fire Extinguisher is an even stranger early work from Alexander Kluge. The film purports to tell the story of the firefighter E.A. Winterstein, but it's difficult to tell exactly what that story is from the collage of non-sequiturs and loose ends that Kluge stitches together here. The film seems to be concerned, principally, with militarism, with recurring images of soldiers drilling in formation, throwing their rifles in the air and catching them again as they march. Other images show a toy war with little mechanical cars, driven by grinning toy animals, being bombed from above as they trace their repetitive circles along the ground. Finally, Kluge collages in leftover material from his debut feature Yesterday Girl, made two years earlier, along with a sustained portrait of that film's star, his sister Alexandra, posing with religious and regal memorabilia.

It's hard to know what any of this has to do with the titular Winterstein — who appears at times in a gladiator uniform, jogging around — and the elliptical voiceover does little to clarify matters. The narration is just as free-associative as the images, jumping from one subject to the next, occasionally hinting at the life of the title subject but only as part of a larger network of allusions to history, entertainment and philosophy. At one point, the narration compares Winterstein to various Hollywood stars, presumably because just like Clark Gable and Gary Cooper, this humble fireman appears in a movie. This is another example of Kluge intentionally conflating documentary and fiction, positing them both as part of the same medium, placing the purportedly nonfictional Winterstein in the same lineage as famous actors playing roles.

In this context, everything becomes suspect, all facts become malleable, and the narration says that among the roles that Winterstein will be remembered for is a part as a judge at the Nuremberg Trials. This suggests that even pivotal events of recent history are fodder for fictionalization and uncertainty, that there's a certain element of performance and role-playing in the enactment of history. Including Nuremberg in with a list of Hollywood actors' parts is indicative of Kluge's strategy of blending fiction with reality, tangling them together until it's difficult to tell them apart.

At the very beginning of Alexander Kluge's A Doctor From Halberstadt, the titular doctor, wandering through an airport, pauses in the corner of the frame and points tentatively offscreen, as though asking where he should go next. This kind of upfront acknowledgment of the artificiality of filmmaking, even documentary filmmaking, is by now very familiar from Kluge's work, and yet this half-hour short is, on the whole, one of his more straightforward portrait films. The doctor of the title is Kluge's own father Ernst, who really was a doctor from Halberstadt. Kluge observes his father on a trip to Munich, watching horses at a stable, aimlessly walking the streets, and visiting with his cousin, a judge.

The doctor recounts some horrible incidents he's witnessed in his career — presumably during the Nazi era — mixed in with banal chit-chat, photos from the doctor's childhood and past, and scenes of him trying to entertain himself alone on vacation in Munich. There's a real sense of loneliness in the shots of the doctor walking around Munich with nothing to do and nowhere to go, on a vacation but at a loss about how to enjoy himself in this strange city. The doctor occasionally displays a playful, almost boyish spirit, as in the shot of him skipping lithely over a puddle in the street or the scenes of him peering eagerly over a fence at the horses galloping around a track.

At one point, the doctor is telling a story about why he bought a car, describing a terrible crash he'd had one night on a slippery country road. After a while, the judge chimes in to clarify, saying that the doctor was riding a motorbike at the time, a detail that he obviously realized had been left out of the story and would confuse the film's audience, who would otherwise wonder what the doctor had been driving before he bought his car. This kind of metafictional playfulness crops up periodically during the film, especially in the film's last shot, a closeup of the doctor, who first looks directly at the camera and then off to the side, obviously at the direction of his son. As he looks off to the side, the doctor says, delivering the last lines of the film, "Shall I look over here? What is there to see? Rain, once again." It's the equivalent of "what's my motivation?", an actor wondering why he's doing what he's just been told to do by the director, wondering why this character he's playing, who is in fact himself, would want to look off to the side like this. It's a perfectly whimsical ending to a film that, typically of Kluge, gently teases its surface subject with submerged and difficult-to-access secondary meanings.

All of Alexander Kluge's baffling, idiosyncratic portraiture shorts seem to dance around the subject of World War II without quite touching on it directly, telling anecdotes about the wartime era or referring to it obliquely, but never as the central subject of the film. The subject is implied in every one of these portraits, though, if for no other reason than these people, real or fictional or some combination of the two, must have lived through the war, and Kluge's circumspection invites speculation about what these people might have seen or done during that period. This is especially true of A Woman From the Property-Owning Middle Class, Born 1908. The subject here is a woman, Alice Schneider, who has rebuilt her lavish lifestyle and her fine home after her original, even grander house was bombed during the war.

This film is connected in some inscrutable way with Kluge's earlier short Frau Blackburn, Born 1/5/1872, Is Being Filmed. Like the similarly named earlier film, this one concerns a woman who is displaying her collection of fine china for the documentarians, though Frau Schneider seems much more well-off than Frau Blackburn, and her collection is more expansive. Also reappearing from the earlier film is the sinister man who had robbed Frau Blackburn, and Kluge once again focuses on a closeup of the man's eyes and bushy black eyebrows. Here, though, this man seems more kindly than creepy, chatting amiably with Frau Schneider and offering her an interest-free loan rather than buying her china from her; he even helps her put away the expensive pieces, which she'd laid out on the floor in hopes of making a sale.

The film seems to rely on its intertextual connection to the earlier Kluge work for some of its meaning, juxtaposing the experience of this woman of means (her status is explicitly mentioned in the film's title, after all) against that of the comparatively average Frau Blackburn, who gets taken advantage of by the same man who is so solicitous with the richer woman. There's perhaps also a coded implication here about who made it through the war okay, ready to rebuild and reacquire, and who struggled along with very little in the aftermath of the war.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Foolish Wives

Erich von Stroheim's third film, Foolish Wives is anything but a modest effort from the always grand director. A film about excess, it takes excess as its guiding principle and its entire raison d'etre. The stories about the film's production are legion, as Von Stroheim was so concerned with realistically depicting a life of privilege and luxury onscreen that he made sure the cast lived a similar life offscreen, importing real, rare and very expensive caviar and champagne instead of faking the high-class meals that appear in the film. He constructed elaborate sets of Monte Carlo gambling palaces and mansions, and filled the sets with silks and furs. And he sent the whole bill to Universal, his studio, before turning in an impossible-to-screen eight-hour film that the studio promptly hacked apart into a far shorter cut. Thus the film, even restored to its current length of nearly two and a half hours, is unavoidably compromised, chopped down from its director's expansive, overblown vision into something much more manageable, though its ambition and its potency are still very much apparent.

The film concerns a trio of con artists, the self-proclaimed Count Wladislaw Sergius Karamzin (Von Stroheim) and his cousins, or "cousins," Olga (Maude George) and Vera (Mae Busch), at least one of whom is also one of his many lovers. Karamzin and the two "princesses" live a lavish life in decadent Monte Carlo, peddling counterfeit cash and using their grand personae and the Count's infamous way with women to ingratiate themselves into high society. It's an interesting bit of self-mythologization, because the Count is such a resonant echo of the actor who plays him, the writer/director behind this story. Von Stroheim was, much like Karamzin, a pretender, a role-player who carried over his performances as sinister aristocrats into his real life, passing himself off as an Austrian general and dignitary. He entered the United States claiming to be a count, and he added the aristocratic "von" to his name soon after becoming a director, effectively transforming himself into precisely the character he plays here, a man pretending to the aristocracy, adopting the fine manners and grand style of a European noble. In one of his signature displays of egoism, he even inserts a novel called Foolish Wives into the film, supposedly written by him, and the passage that he highlights extols the virtues of good, courtly upper-class manners.

Karamzin sets his sights on Helen Hughes (Miss DuPont), the wife of the US ambassador Andrew Hughes (Rudolph Christians), though because of the film's patchwork structure, his motivations for pursuing the woman change without warning several times. His seduction of her is most ravishingly realized in the central sequence set during a violent rainstorm, in which Karamzin and Helen are trapped out in the rain during a walk. This is all part of his plan, though, allowing him to sweep her sodden body up in his arms, carrying her past sparks of lightning and rowing her across a lake in a small boat to the dilapidated cabin of a wizened hag (Louise Emmons). In one fantastic shot, Karamzin uses a hand mirror to spy on Helen as she undresses, her bare back glimpsed in the corner of the mirror as he leers in the foreground.

There's a real sensuality to this film, which seems to link sexuality to the decadent, expensive lifestyle of the main characters. Even as Karamzin seduces Helen, he also desires the mentally handicapped daughter (Malvina Polo) of the counterfeiter (Cesare Gravina) who keeps him supplied with fake bills. In a disturbing scene that sets the tone early on, she appears hugging a doll and gaping at Karamzin's dandified manners, but her obviously slack-jawed mental capacities and girlish immaturity don't stop the lecherous count from looking her up and down with blatant lust. Later, he looms over her bed while she sleeps, slatted shadows stretched across the room, the Count's shadow hanging over the girl and cast ominously on the wall above her. While all this is going on, the Count is also romancing his maid Maruschka (Dale Fuller), in a subplot that, in the extant versions of the film, abruptly pops up towards the end and has great significance for the climax.

Von Stroheim's visual style is rapturous throughout, but especially at the frenzied climax, which abruptly becomes a suspenseful action sequence with the rapid cross-cutting that Von Stroheim presumably picked up during his time as an assistant for D.W. Griffith. His images have a hazy but iconic power: flames engulfing a cross; a woman standing on a rocky outcropping, framed against the waves crashing in the background; countless gauzy and ecstatic closeups of the film's women. Von Stroheim contrasts this visual extravagance against the comparatively straightforward and prosaically shot scenes between Helen and her husband, juxtaposing their comfortable, boring marriage against the lush, sumptuous wealth and corruption of Karamzin and his cousins. Karamzin is introduced in an especially memorable way, perched on a rock above the ocean, casually shooting at targets with a pistol as long as the cigarettes that he habitually smokes throughout the film. With his scarred forehead, his monocle, and his smug smirk, he cuts a distinctive figure, an absolutely magnetic screen presence that later in his career he'd bring to countless caricatured Teutonic villains. Here he's a more nuanced character, his exaggerated pride masking an elusive vein of insecurity that shows itself especially in the scene at the end of the film where Hughes confronts the Count, causing Karamzin to look around the room at the other officers, anxious to see what they think, anxious that he not lose face.

One interesting subtext in the film is the implicit comparison between Karamzin the false military officer and the real soldiers he's imitating. Early on in the film, he sees a number of soldiers passing by, and he salutes them each in turn — but pointedly fails to salute the wounded soldiers who are pushed by in wheelchairs, acting as though he doesn't even see them. Karamzin's glamorous vision of the military has little room for casualties or blood, and he seems subconsciously uncomfortable with the sight of these injured men, sporting their evidence of the real warfare that Karamzin has certainly never experienced. He projects a flashy, scrupulously clean image of military grandeur, all brass buttons and epaulets, surface rather than substance.

There's an intriguing scene where the Count looks down upon a military officer who doesn't pick up Helen's book for her, obliging the Count to do it himself while casting a disgusted glance at the other man; there is nothing that he finds more despicable than the lack of manners, the lack of surface politeness even though the surface is as deep as his own niceties extend. Later, though, the officer returns, standing outside the hotel, where Helen sees him standing with his coat at his feet. For a moment, she looks at him with the same scorn that Karamzin had, until she realizes that the man's sleeves are empty, that he's a veteran who has lost both of his arms. In one of the film's most tender and sentimental moments, she picks up his coat and wraps it around him, kissing his empty sleeve, a rare burst of sincerity and emotion in a film that otherwise revels in the cynical exploits of the manipulative Count.

There's also some subtle dark comedy woven throughout the film, like the title cards that continually sneak bleak ideas — "suicides" and "brutality of man" — into the otherwise idyllic word collages describing Monte Carlo. At one point, Karamzin's romantic schemes are interrupted first by a goat that keeps sticking its rear in his face and then by a monk whose stern, disapproving gaze keeps the Count from making his move. Religion haunts the film in the images of crosses that are often hidden within the mise en scène, silently judging the decadent ways of these con artists.

Foolish Wives, even in the heavily edited and reconstructed version that survives, is a fascinating and engrossing film, a sharp and cynical examination of wealth and the appearance of wealth. Decadent, sexy, darkly funny and visually stunning, it's a marvelously fragmented classic.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

She's Gotta Have It

Spike Lee's debut feature, She's Gotta Have It, is a quirky, interesting view of sexuality and the double standards applied to men and women. Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns) is sexually liberated, and she makes no secret of the fact that she's not a one-man woman. She's going out with three guys at once: the narcissistic, shallow Greer (John Canada Terrell), the earnest Jamie (Tommy Redmond Hicks), and the brash, funny Mars (Lee). The guys think she's a slut, or a nymphomaniac, that there's something wrong with her, even though of course they're all just as promiscuous; when Nola rejects Mars one night, he immediately dials up another girl and tells her how much he misses her. Nola's simply refusing to live by anyone else's rules, refusing to want or to do what she's supposed to do just because someone tells her to. "I don't believe in regrets," she says, and she seems to mean it. She's her own person, resisting conventional ideals like marriage and monogamy.

The first shot of Nola shows a bed with the covers rustling, as though in the midst of passionate sex, but then Nola sits up, alone, addressing the camera. It's an appropriate introduction for a character who's often defined by others (including Lee as the director, at times) strictly in terms of her polymorphous sexuality, but who just wants to be appreciated on her own terms, not judged just because she enjoys sex and doesn't want to be tied down to any one man. Lee probes this icon of female sexuality with a pseudo-documentary style in which Nola and her three men all talk directly to the camera, as does Nola's estranged friend Clorinda (Lee's sister Joie), who's disgusted by her friend's attitude towards sex, and the lesbian Opal (Raye Dowell), who wants Nola as badly as the men do. As Nola herself explains towards the end of the film, all of these people might understand parts of her, but they don't understand the full woman, and they all try to get her to conform to a role that she's not ready to fill.

The multiple perspectives and direct, casual addresses to the camera give the film a loose, jazzy vibe. Indeed, it's a pretty loose film all around, as one would expect from an early feature. Lee's style is already vibrant and punchy, scattering the film with stray fragments of New York street photography to ground the story in his beloved hometown. But the performances are unfortunately inconsistent, and the direct addresses are often awkward and poorly acted. Even Johns, who is a charming and expressive screen presence, with a radiant smile and an ability to say a lot with her eye movements, is mostly flat in her line readings. Terrell is probably even worse, though at least it seems like his character is supposed to be a stiff killjoy. Lee himself gets an easier time, basically playing his own goofy self, hiding behind tremendous glasses, wearing his grungy, scuffed-up sneakers even during sex. At one point, Mars excitedly raps with Jamie about a Knicks game, channeling the director's well-known love of basketball, ripping on Larry Bird — "the ugliest motherfucker in the NBA!" — and briefly finding some common ground with the otherwise aloof Jamie. Mars' enthusiasm is so infectious, his character so outrageously funny, that it's easy to miss the somewhat hateful things he says about Nola, slipped seamlessly into his patter.

As funny as Lee is, Greer is the richest target of mockery in the film, providing comic relief with moments like his earnest monologue about the "three penis monster." The best scene, though, is the one where Nola seduces him and he responds by slowly, methodically undressing, carefully folding his clothes item by item as he takes them off, smoothing out the wrinkles, taking so long that by the time he's ready to get into bed Nola is bored and frustrated, rolling her eyes. Lee deliberately extends the scene, letting Greer's fastidious stripping play out in plodding real time, the joke getting funnier and funnier the longer he stretches it out. In scenes like this, Lee's goofy humor and stylistic restlessness recalls early Woody Allen, an obvious reference point for this film.

She's Gotta Have It is much less assured in its serious moments. A sex scene between Jamie and Nola late in the film is especially uncomfortable because it pretty much plays out like a rape except that Nola, uncharacteristically, submits to it. It's an ugly scene that seems to undermine Nola's sexual independence and leaves a sour taste in one's mouth during the film's final act, which stutters to a halt rather than really wrapping up the film's many provocative threads.

The film's flaws are indicative of a young filmmaker just finding his voice, but in many other respects Lee is already fully formed here. His love of New York and his love of the cinema shine through in a big way, especially during a playful and unexpected musical interlude, in bright color, when Jamie has some dancers perform an allegorical love story for Nola as a birthday present. It's a bit of a French New Wave meta diversion that briefly hints at the bold colors to come in Lee's later films. But the film's black-and-white cinematography is actually one of its best assets, switching between a functional, low-key style for the "documentary" sequences and gorgeous, stylized noir-esque imagery during the film's lushly erotic sex scenes. In these scenes, naked bodies seem to shine brightly against a black background, with candlelight flickering over bare skin and every intimate contact charged with pleasure. The film's occasional eroticism jars against its goofier tendencies — never more so than when Lee's Mars is involved in the sex — but this sensual aesthetic is actually a perfect way to privilege the perspective of Nola, who genuinely loves and enjoys sex, having fun with her body and her lovers. She's Gotta Have It is an interesting early work from Lee, a bold, provocative, uneven examination of sex and gender that's as funny as it is thought-provoking.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Bleak Moments

Mike Leigh's films have always been concerned with how ordinary people live their lives. His intense, emotionally forceful dramas deal with the everyday incidents, the struggles and minor pleasures, that constitute the lives of the kind of utterly typical working class people who don't often appear in the cinema. This focus is apparent right from his very first feature, Bleak Moments, which lives up to its title with a series of snippets cut from the life of the secretary Sylvia (Anne Raitt). Sylvia takes care of her mentally handicapped sister Hilda (Sarah Stephenson), and the two sisters live a lonely and mostly isolated existence, Sylvia sitting alone, drinking glass after glass of sherry, this uneventful life only occasionally punctuated with awkward attempts at dating and companionship. Sylvia has a boyfriend, Peter (Eric Allan), a repressed and stuffy teacher whose interactions with Sylvia are strenuously polite, marked by long awkward silences and a complete absence of physical intimacy. In many ways, she seems more taken with the equally awkward but much warmer Norman (Mike Bradwell), a young and somewhat grungy guitarist who rents Sylvia's garage to print copies of the literary magazine he works for.

Norman entertains Hilda with his guitar playing and his goofy songs — mostly cleansed of the drug-obsessed lyrics that he sings when he's alone — and his conversations with Sylvia are tentative but strangely charming, two shy people hesitantly chatting and joking and learning about each other. In contrast, Peter is a joyless bore who Sylvia seems to cling to only because she has almost nobody else, because she's so desperate for some kind of connection in her life. The film's epic centerpiece is a very long sequence in which Sylvia invites Norman in to play guitar for Hilda, before being joined first by her abrasive co-worker Pat (Joolia Cappleman) and then by Peter, who's coming over for a date. The cozy pleasure of Norman playing guitar for Hilda and Sylvia — Leigh shoots the trio in an intimate arrangement that suggests a family — is soon disrupted by the arrival of these other people, and this impromptu party becomes a tense and painfully awkward affair. At one point, Leigh brilliantly cuts between closeups of all the people in Sylvia's living room, all of them silent, casting shy glances at one another, opening their mouths as if about to say something and then stopping, smiling nervously or clenching their teeth. This goes on for quite a while, and the rapid rhythm of this closeup montage accentuates the silence and the awkwardness. It's both maddening and, increasingly, bitingly hilarious.

This scene leads directly into an equally dismal date with Peter, as Pat takes Hilda over to her place for the night, while Peter and Sylvia go out for Chinese food. The couple obviously has nothing to talk about, and the grim atmosphere of this empty Chinese restaurant — the only other customer is a solitary man who stares sinisterly at the couple all night — only adds to the miserable mood. Peter argues with the abrupt, rude waiter, who seems to be in a hurry despite the empty restaurant, and who gets mad when they try to order by the name of the dish rather than the numbers on the menu. To top it all off, Peter reveals himself as cheap, ordering dishes for the two of them to split rather than letting Sylvia order her own food. Leigh's feel for subtle mise en scène reveals itself towards the end of this sequence, when, as the couple prepares to leave, the waiter stands in the background, shuffling through the meager change left behind as a tip and casting dirty looks at Peter.

This torturous date isn't over, though, and it continues back at Sylvia's place, where the halting conversation continues and Sylvia gets drunk on sherry, working up her courage to seduce the seemingly asexual Peter. His prim manners are memorably skewered in a subtly funny shot of him sitting down with a full cup of coffee, carefully balancing the liquid, pausing for a moment to let it steady, and then slowly crossing his legs. In contrast, Sylvia, though she's also shy and quiet, is much less repressed; she can be playful, and there's a hint of mischief in her frequent smiles. She's also lovely, and Leigh makes this a very sensual scene for Sylvia, her pale face floating in the darkness, her bare legs pulled up under her as she lounges on the couch, her posture an invitation for Peter to come sit next to her. Peter is oblivious, though, blathering on about Marshall McLuhan and language and design. Finally, in an extraordinary moment, Sylvia, flushed with sherry, tentatively tries to shame him into intimacy: "if we were able to... touch each other... it wouldn't be so bad."

Leigh's direction of this sequence is remarkable, drawing out the almost unbearable tension between Sylvia, yearning for any kind of intimacy she can get, and Peter, so stiff and repressed that he's all but incapable of responding. Leigh gets phenomenal performances from everyone in the cast, but especially Raitt, who infuses Sylvia with layers of churning emotions beneath her shy surface. Despite the film's title and the generally grim tone of it all, Raitt doesn't play Sylvia like a woman defeated. She's sweet and kind, and she cares for her sister with tenderness and genuine love. There's a playfulness to her that comes out especially with Norman and Hilda, the former in a delightful scene where she teases him by offering him a meager snack of five nuts, apparently all she has in the house for an unexpected guest. Later, as though to emphasize the difference between the two men in her life, she repeats the joke with Peter during their horrible date, but he simply stares at her blankly, uncomprehending. Also fascinating is the one scene where Peter and Norman actually talk to one another, and Peter unconsciously falls into his schoolmaster persona, questioning the young burnout and making disapproving sounds after every response. It's obvious that Peter is the kind of stern, out-of-touch teacher who doesn't understand young people in the least, which is confirmed by the scene towards the end of the film that shows him at school, telling a fellow teacher that third-grade kids have no sense of humor — which of course is pretty rich coming from him.

Leigh's feel for acting is already obvious in this first feature, which was adapted from his own stage play. These actors communicate so much through the nuances of their performances, the way they interact, the long and uncomfortable silences they leave hanging. But Leigh also already displays a keen cinematic imagination that's sometimes overlooked in the focus on his facility with actors and his realistic sensibility. His visuals are unshowy, but he has a strong grasp of cinematic space that especially plays out here in the way he uses the layout of Sylvia's home, with a kitchen connected to the parlor by a small square window. Sylvia is often framed through that window, separated from the people she's invited into her home, and at times she intentionally uses that distancing device to cut herself off from the infuriating Peter. Bleak Moments is a fine start to Leigh's career, a typically sensitive, humanist portrait of suffering and sadness that's as attuned to the subtle pleasures and small hopes of an ordinary life as it to the bleak moments of the title.

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Castaways of Turtle Island

It took the criminally overlooked New Wave auteur Jacques Rozier a decade to follow up his debut Adieu Philippine with the charming Du côté d'Orouët, but only three years later he'd completed his third feature, The Castaways of Turtle Island. This absurdist, whimsical comedy of tourism and European exoticist fantasies is quite different in tone from Rozier's charming but melancholy first two features, though it shares with them a fascination with escapism and seaside vacations, a love of the sun and the ocean, and a tendency to see in the bourgeois holiday an expression of desperation. Ridiculous, alternately satirical and goofy, and beautifully shot, this is yet another fantastic film from this nearly forgotten French master.

The premise is absurd right from the start, though Rozier, never one to rush his films or overload them with narrative, takes his time getting to the actual story. The film opens with a leisurely character study of the Parisian travel agent Jean-Arthur Bonaventure (Pierre Richard), a dreamer who, during the opening credits, stares into a lamp in his apartment and imagines a beautiful black girlfriend for himself. He's bored of his routine, of his job, of his fiancée (who never even appears in the film, she's so irrelevant), and he wants to escape. As his name already suggests, he wants adventure, a romanticized retreat from his prosaic life. And adventure, for him as for so many white Westerners, means the exotic, the foreign, the non-white, so he fantasizes about having an affair with a black girl, and sure enough the girl he's imagined turns out to be real, and offers to have sex with him virtually as soon as they meet, a sure sign that Jean-Arthur is still immersed in his fantasy, turned on by the otherness and the unlikeliness of this affair.

Soon, Jean-Arthur and his friend Joël (Maurice Risch) decide to take this exoticist fantasy to the next level, and this is where the film's real plot kicks in: they concoct the idea of a tourist package that has no package, no plan, just a trip to a desert island where the vacationers will have to "fend for themselves" like Robinson Crusoe. The agency's owners love it because there's no overhead and a huge profit margin, and soon Jean-Arthur, together with Joël's brother Bernard (Jacques Villeret), is haplessly leading a troupe of tourists on a Caribbean adventure. Bernard, AKA "Little Teddy," is the Sancho Panza to Jean-Arthur's Don Quixote, calmly trudging through this increasingly absurd adventure as Jean-Arthur gets more and more into the spirit of this retreat from civilization, forcing ever more ludicrous restrictions onto the tormented tourists, who had just wanted a relaxing holiday in the sun and instead find that they're marching through the jungle hauling their luggage and enacting a shipwreck fantasy in which the dictatorial Jean-Arthur throws their bags overboard and demands that they swim to shore with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

It's obvious that the film is a manic parody of the touristic impulse, explicitly connecting this kind of exotic Western tourism to the evils of colonialism. When Jean-Arthur and Bernard first arrive on one of the "desert islands" they're exploring, Jean-Arthur plants a flag and claims the place like an old-school colonialist, declaring it a property of France and promising to import slaves to work the land. Bernard then declares it a republic instead, says they'll free the slaves and set up hotels and casinos, and make a huge profit — which will, he disingenuously insists, help the natives and former slaves as well, since "everyone is free to invest their capital." Obviously, this capitalist tourism is just a different kind of colonialism, a friendlier way of exploiting picturesque, "exotic" locales for the benefit of Europeans. The film is a prolonged reductio ad absurdum in which Rozier ceaselessly mocks these clueless urban Westerners who have romanticized the exotic islands of the Caribbean and decided that they want what they think will be a glamorously "authentic" tropical adventure.

Rozier's films have a tendency to get quietly sad and contemplative in their final acts, and though The Castaways of Turtle Island never quite sheds its weird sense of humor, it does slow down momentarily for a gorgeous, meditative sequence in which the group finally arrives at their ultimate island destination, and night descends slowly around them. Most of the group has stayed behind on their boat, while Bernard has gone ashore with Julie (Caroline Cartier), one of the most practical and citified of the tourists, and Jean-Arthur, enraged by the group's resistance to his latest looney demand, tries to swim to the island by himself. Rozier beautifully captures the moody descent of night onto this tense scene, the sun glistening at the horizon, everything turning shades of purple and blue, Bernard and Julie silhouetted against the water, watching as Jean-Arthur flounders around in the currents.

Indeed, for all his mockery of the touristic impulse, Rozier is very attuned to the natural splendor and sensual pleasures of these Caribbean vacation destinations, and the film is consistently lovely: one feels, in Rozier's images, the cool rush of the breeze, the bouncing and swaying of a boat on the ocean, the warm and wet atmosphere of a jungle path winding around towards a majestic waterfall. This is a beautiful, savagely funny, often bizarre film, a comic adventure that adds another dimension to Rozier's small but incredibly impressive oeuvre.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Four Michael Robinson shorts, 2006-2010

Probably one of the worst aspects of contemporary culture is the tendency to "ironically" appreciate the cultural relics of the past. Thankfully, there's hardly a trace of irony in the filmmaker Michael Robinson's program of delving into the trash bin of cultural history. Robinson appropriates discarded bits of pop culture not as a vehicle for retro fetishism, but in the hopes of discovering something genuine within these seemingly ephemeral media fragments: an emotion, an experience, the quality of a strong memory, an association with something concrete and true beyond the disposable realm of pop culture junk. His short video works can be watched for free on Vimeo.

These Hammers Don't Hurt Us is a work that straddles the futuristic, the postmodern, and the campy, fusing hazy computer animations in hallucinogenic neon with montaged clips from Joseph Mankiewicz's 1963 Liz Taylor vehicle Cleopatra and Michael Jackson's Egyptian-themed music video for his 1992 single "Remember the Time." Robinson is blending together the media of multiple eras, appropriating bits of kitschy cultural detritus and re-contextualizing them into something that's actually transcendent and mystical. The source material that he uses is Egyptian kitsch, a common motif in Western trash culture, which often casts the East and the Orient as sites of garish, alien ethnic spectacle, taking the myths and religions of other cultures and turning them into pop bombast.

Robinson's film attempts to channel this pop mythology in a way that reawakens the mystical potential lost in the translation to Hollywood and MTV. The computer animations recall the rainbow-colored hyperspace of 2001: A Space Odyssey, appropriate because Robinson is inviting viewers to journey into this strange, unsettling space that exists somewhere between the real, lost, historical Egypt and the pop culture approximations of that place and time, of its myths and its people. In between the hypnagogic Taylor/Jackson montages, Robinson periodically shows sparkling suits studded with bright jewels, clothing that looks like a spacesuit as imagined by a Pharaoh's wardrobe designer, simultaneously futuristic and a throwback.

Robinson is arranging conversations between various pop culture artifacts and the real cultures they're drawing on. At one point, he ingeniously links the Taylor Cleopatra with Michael Jackson via a scene where Taylor peers out of a spyhole — a pair of eye sockets cut into a larger mosaic eye, so that Taylor's blue eyes are peering out of a larger blue eye — and sees, of course, Jackson spinning and dancing with a coterie of Egyptian slaves. Taylor's Cleopatra looks out of her version of this story into another version, a similarly profane pop vision, and over time it all becomes overlaid with Robinson's computer abstractions, neon geometric patterns strobing across the screen as though the collision of these two images is causing a rip in the fabric of space and time. Later, as ice skaters in Egyptian garb gracefully glide around, the image is manipulated, its colors flickering wildly, the imagery blurred and distorted in ways that recall both VHS fuzz and digital pixelation. In this way, too, different eras are combined, and Robinson's computer manipulations — like those of the multimedia art collective Paper Rad, with whom he seems to share some aesthetic concerns — are simultaneously state-of-the-art and deliberately lo-fi.

Michael Robinson's If There Be Thorns is an elliptical examination of isolation that might be described as David Lynch remaking the TV show Lost. Three figures, a woman and two men (Devon Sanger, Buck Hanson and Robinson), wander around alone in an unpopulated tropical paradise, leaving behind mysterious signs in the bark of trees or buried deep within thickets of foliage. They never meet except in the flickering, layered collages of faces that Robinson uses as interstitial material between the longer sections of these wanderers interacting with the natural world. The film never explains it symbolism, but there's something potent about the ways in which this trio marks up the world: slashes of red lipstick on a tree trunk, a bulbous egg full of nails, piles of dead brown ferns, rotting and misshapen fruits that are laid in the grass and promptly vanish. It's an iconography of death and decay, the lipstick looking like blood staining the wood, later connected with the cross of Christ as nails are driven into each of the red slash marks.

The film's story, such as it is, is communicated through onscreen snippets of prose taken from William S. Burroughs, Shirley Jackson, V.C. Andrews and Stevie Nicks, along with some of Robinson's original contributions. It's an unlikely combination of voices that is nonetheless smoothed down here into a more or less coherent narrative of separation and yearning, loss and nostalgia. This loneliness is enhanced by the minimalist soundtrack, in which a buzzing electronic ambiance periodically emerges from the whispery shushing of the wind or the chatter of insects.

Some of the imagery here is a little trite, as in the shot of one of the young men fading away like a ghost, an overly literal depiction of the film's theme of lost connections. For the most part, though, Robinson is more circumspect, implying this isolation indirectly. The three protagonists are rarely viewed in full; their arms reach into the frame, or they're glimpsed in the distance, partially obscured by foliage, or they stroll quickly by, their faces hidden from view. Even more often, Robinson's empty images of unblemished blue sky or rustling seaweed in the shallows of the ocean suggest the absence of humanity, as though all three protagonists have already disappeared, leaving behind only the abstract narrative of gaps and elisions provided by the text.

Hold Me Now is one of Michael Robinson's simplest films, and because of that it exposes the essence of his work — the strangeness of pop culture nostalgia — in an especially naked way. The film is diabolically simple: a clip from Little House on the Prairie, slightly slowed down and strobed between black frames, is overlaid with a karaoke version of the Thompson Twins' "Hold Me Now," which has no vocals on the verses and ghostly backing accompaniment on the choruses. Robinson then lays the unheard lyrics to the song on the screen as text, letting the romantic melancholy of the lyrics and the saccharine music jar against the unsettling emotions of the TV clip, in which Mary fights with Adam, thrashing on a bed and finally running across the room to thrust her hand through a window, streaming blood everywhere.

On one level, this video mash-up hinges on the rather basic irony contained in the disjunction between the yearning romanticism of the pop song lyrics and the increasing creepiness of this TV scene, snatched out of context like this. The flickering quality of the image provides a distancing effect that prevents one from watching it passively. The effect recalls the drastic time dilation of Martin Arnold, who similarly dissects seemingly innocent media to uncover more disturbing implications of sex and incestual longing, both of which seem to percolate through the Little House clip in this context as well. The song lyrics, which muse on a shattered love affair, reflect the nostalgia of this video, and of Robinson's general project, looking back to the past and finding not unspoiled innocence but something much weirder and more broken than one's memory had expected.

For And We All Shine On, Michael Robinson turns to the iconography of video games, particularly those crude examples dating from the dawn of the medium, the games that would have been played on the very earliest home video game systems. In between dark, mysterious bookend images of rustling trees that could be hiding any horror, Robinson crafts a montage of primitive, minimalist video game segments in which never-ending swarms of space invaders fly at the screen, waiting to be blown apart by the player. Robinson is approaching these old-school games with their first-generation graphics and lo-fi visual aesthetics not as they actually are, but as they seem to be through the filter of childhood memory. Beneath the hazy static distortion that Robinson layers over these games, they actually become eerie and creepy, their landscapes barren not because of limited processing power but because these really are remote alien horizons with monstrous creatures lurking just out of sight.

Robinson is attempting to bridge the gap between the shoddy reality of media and the out-of-proportion effect these transmissions can have on the impressionable mind. These games, as products of technology, are unavoidably dated today — just as, no doubt, today's games will soon enough seem dated and lame to future generations — but the memories of playing the games lack that retrospective perspective. When they were new, when kids were playing them for the first time, they didn't seem dated, or like products of their era, or like kitschy retro artifacts: the aliens seemed real, at least on some imaginative level, and the fun and the terror of fighting them was also real. Robinson is recreating the warping effects of memory, trying to make these clumsy digital aliens seem frightening and powerful again.

In the process, he's making a horror movie, drawing on the eternal fear of things that go bump in the night, the unseen monsters lurking in the trees that scratch against a kid's window, inspiring nightmares. He blows these hideous blocks of pixels up until they match the mythological power that they have come to possess in memory, blurring and layering the images if necessary to create composite horrors far more searing that any single frame could be. There's a powerful idea lurking in the current obsession with the retro and the nostalgic, and Robinson cuts to the core of it: the media of previous generations is so weighted with emotional import and meaning that exists almost entirely outside of the media itself, in the minds and memories of those who experienced it when it was fresh. Thus Robinson is trying to make these things new again, to recreate the sense of danger and mystery and strangeness that accrues to something that's new. He's delving into nostalgia to find the monsters lurking there, but rather than rendering them harmless through the filter of fond remembrance, he's trying to capture them in all their fearsome, memory-distorted glory, not as collections of pixels but as blurry figments of fevered childhood imagination.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Gold Rush

There's a reason Charles Chaplin's The Gold Rush is still such an enduring comedic masterwork, almost 90 years after it was made. It's a delightful, charming, irresistible movie, as funny today as it was when it first made audiences roar with laughter. It's a near-perfect movie, with not a wasted moment, balancing its cleverly staged humor with the pathos of Chaplin's little tramp character suffering because of his poverty, his decency, and his large capacity for love.

The tramp is an iconic figure, an everyman for the lower classes, with his beaten-up bowler hat, his cane, and his bedraggled clothes. Despite his impeccable sense of humor, Chaplin's tramp is a melancholy figure, wandering a hostile environment that offers him scant nourishment. He duck-waddles around, his gait uneven, one shoe swaddled in rags so that he seems to have a misshapen foot. He's constantly coming up with tricks to get by on his minimal means, stealing drinks in a bar or feigning frostbite to get a friendly stranger to feed him a hot breakfast and some coffee. Chaplin's tramp seems especially out of place in the context of The Gold Rush, roaming across the tundra as "the lone prospector," trying to make his fortune in the frozen North — though curiously enough Chaplin never actually does any prospecting. He's never less than funny, but he's also desperate and downtrodden, and later in the film, his romantic longing for the beautiful but casually cruel Georgia (Georgia Hale) is downright heartbreaking.

Before that plot is introduced, though, it's just the tramp alone in the cold, soon to throw his lot in with two other lonely souls, the newly successful prospector Big Jim (Mark Swain) and the brutish outlaw Black Larsen (Tom Murray). This trio gets locked into a cabin together during a bad storm, and the antics that ensue constitute some of the best, purest comedy in the cinema. The scene where Chaplin first arrives at the solitary cabin is a masterpiece of formalist physical comedy, using the two doors of the cabin as a wind tunnel which sends Chaplin, Big Jim and Black Larsen flying through the air, whipping them out of the room only to have them come crawling and trudging back through the snow. Chaplin's playfulness with space provides the scene's comedy, with perfect timing of doors opening and closing, unleashing the wind that propels the scene's constant movement and reversals of position.

Geometry is often the locus of comedy for Chaplin, as in the brilliant sequence where Jim and Larsen wrestle over a shotgun, while Chaplin scurries around the room, the barrel of the gun following him wherever he goes, always angled directly at his head whether he's ducking under a table or comically trying to climb the walls. The invisible line from the gun's bore to Chaplin's head, the prospective path of a bullet if the gun should go off, is never broken no matter how much Chaplin darts back and forth or the other two men struggle, which is quite a feat of choreography as well as a grimly comic bit of business.

That playful use of space returns in the later scene where a starved Big Jim stalks Chaplin with an axe — because his fevered brain sees the tramp as a giant chicken — while Chaplin fends him off with a shotgun. They dart in and out, from door to door, circling the cabin inside and out. Best of all is the way Chaplin begins slamming into wooden beams and walls, rapidly spinning around to point his gun at empty space, careening back and forth across the cabin. These confusions continue as he struggles with Big Jim over the gun, Chaplin's face covered with a blanket so that he doesn't realize when Big Jim flees the cabin, a black grizzly bear taking his place, with Chaplin hanging off his leg. Chaplin's double take when he sees this is priceless, as is his baffled look when the fur-clad Jim returns, as though for a moment Chaplin is wondering if he'd just imagined the bear.

Naturally, when the tramp and Big Jim return to the cabin towards the end of the film, it is once again the site of spatially precise comedy that hinges upon geometry and the locations of the two characters. An avalanche pushes the cabin to the edge of a cliff, teetering on the brink, and the whole cabin see-saws drunkenly as the two prospectors obliviously walk around inside. Chaplin, a master of staging and movement, extracts sublime comic suspense from the way the men walk back and forth across the cabin, balancing each other's actions for a time so that the cabin remains stable, but of course it's inevitable that they'll soon end up on the same side and send the cabin tipping over. Chaplin even playfully stutter-steps at one point, briefly suggesting that he's going to double back and join Jim on the side of the cabin that's hanging over the ledge, before continuing the opposite way to keep the balance.

The film has too many funny scenes to mention; Chaplin's keen sense of timing and feel for visual humor is present in both his performance and his direction. One of the film's most iconic moments is the scene where Chaplin "dances the Oceana Roll" for Georgia, piercing a pair of dinner rolls on forks and playfully dancing them across the table. This tabletop choreography is dazzling enough, but what's really mesmerizing about the scene is the subtler choreography of Chaplin's eyes, rimmed with black and somewhat feminine, rolling and flitting from side to side in counterpoint to the rolls' footwork. There's a lot of choreography in Chaplin's comedy; another great scene involves the tramp, dancing with Georgia, accidentally tying a dog's leash into his belt so that the dog follows the couple around the dance floor. A film of great formal precision that nevertheless gives the impression of being breezy and loose, The Gold Rush is one of the finest comedies the cinema has produced.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Man From London

The films of Béla Tarr have always been haunted by film noir to one degree or another. Tarr's downtrodden characters plod miserably through gloomy, shadowy wastelands, getting tangled up in plots and intrigues that briefly distract them from the otherwise unchanging stasis of their lives. In The Man From London — an adaptation of a Georges Simenon novel that was already adapted for noir films twice in the 1940s — the influence of noir is as overt as it's ever been in Tarr's work, but tellingly it is not a drastic departure from the rest of his oeuvre, only a slight shift in emphasis that brings these subcurrents to the surface. It is, typically of his work, slow-moving and stunningly beautiful, shot in a high contrast black-and-white where light sources generate hot, blinding whites that threaten to burn through the frame, while the blacks of shadowy nights are dense and inky, and the characters in the film are, at various times, swallowed up by both the darkness and the light, both representing equal threats. As with all his films since Werckmeister Harmonies, Tarr's longtime editor Ágnes Hranitzky is credited as a co-director, but this too hasn't signalled much tangible change in his art; instead, it seems a way of affirming the paramount importance of editing to his films, presumably on the basis that in a film with so few cuts, each one must be vitally important.

This is a gorgeous, mysteriously moving film, its potent chiaroscuro images buttressed by the moaning organ drones of Tarr's frequent musical collaborator Mikhály Vig, as well as the expressive sound design in which every creaking, metallic, mechanical sound of the docks is amplified into a hypnotic percussive rhythm. The Man From London is often considered lesser Tarr, whatever that means, but this film finds the Hungarian master in as fine a form as ever despite its troubled production history. The one minor problem is the distractingly bad dubbing of the actors' voices into French and English, which seems to have been done with little care for syncronizing the audio to lip movements. Even this adds to the film's powerful sense of disconnection and alienation, as does the multilingual dialogue, which Tarr has said was his preferred audio for the film even though some early screenings aired with everyone dubbed into Hungarian.

In the gorgeous, atmospheric opening, the camera watches from the windows of a high tower at a dock where ships moor, letting off passengers who shuffle across to a railroad station nearby. A railroad worker, Maloin (Miroslav Krobot), sits in the tower all night, and the camera is aligned with his perspective, tracking in slow arcs around the interior of his tower room to take in the whole dock area. There's a voyeuristic thrill to this opening sequence, as Maloin, from his godlike perspective, sees things that he is obviously not meant to see. A man on a docked boat throws a suitcase into the darkness of a nearby pier, where it's picked up by a second man. The two men later fight, and in the struggle one of them falls into the water and never resurfaces, taking the suitcase with him. When the surviving man quickly leaves, Maloin climbs down from his tower with a hook and fishes the suitcase out of the water, discovering that it's full of money.

This opening sets the tone, patiently observing as these events unfold without fuss, the camera tracking past the windows to slowly sweep across the whole scene. Down below, pools of light and shadow are stretched out across the docks, with streetlamps casting bright ovals carved out of the darkness, figures melting in and out of the dark as they prowl around. Their furtive, secretive movements avoid detection, except of course for the near-omniscient viewpoint from which Maloin watches, a viewpoint that associates him with the voyeuristic audience, watching a typical noir tale of treachery and violence. It plays almost like a silent film; there's no dialogue in the entire first half-hour except for some distant, barely overheard murmuring. No words are needed, because these are familiar cinematic archetypes, carved in light and shadow, enacting a primal noir drama for an audience hiding up above.

The details of that pantomimed opening are later filled out, when the British private detective Morrison (István Lénárt) arrives, investigating the robbery of 60,000 pounds from his employer by a man named Brown (János Derzsi), one of the men Maloin had seen in the opening. It almost doesn't matter, though, because in typical fashion, Tarr is less interested in plot mechanics than he is in the mundane routines and boring lives that continue to trudge forward uneventfully even as this investigation circles inexorably around the events of that night. Maloin grimly watches as the inspector tries to figure out where Brown and the missing money have gone, while Brown himself begins stalking the dockworker, apparently suspicious that Maloin may have seen something or retrieved the suitcase.

The plot is extremely basic, stripped down to just the essentials, and in a way the only big events in the film are those that occur during that opening half hour; everything else is simply an elaboration of the consequences of that noirish template. In one scene, the opening sequence is virtually repeated, this time with the inspector moving around in the darkness below, trying to recreate the potential chain of events, cleverly working out how the two criminals had snuck the suitcase full of money past customs, and then discovering the corpse in the harbor. This reinforces the impression that the film's story is an archetypal template, a basic form — ordinary working man stumbles across illegally gotten cache of money — that can be repeated and restated infinitely. The story's familiarity and simplicity frees Tarr to confine the narrative to the background, focusing instead on atmosphere and on the protagonist's grim, lifeless existence. Tarr even has the violent climax play out offscreen, keeping his camera trained on a closed wooden door during Maloin's final confrontation with Brown, the camera shaking slightly as if in shivery anticipation of the outcome of whatever's happening, unseen, beyond that door. If the opening encouraged a voyeuristic perspective on distant events, this scene denies and frustrates that voyeurism, granting the characters the private intimacy to carry out the conclusion of their story without any prying eyes to observe.

What's interesting about the film's study of Maloin is that he hardly seems to want the money once he has it; even in the shot where he opens the briefcase for the first time, there's not even a flicker of emotion on his face as he stares down into the case, before the camera tracks around and then angles down to peer into the open case, revealing the money inside. He retrieves the money, then dries it out, with a mechanical lack of feeling, compelled to do so by the momentum of the plot and little more. Once he has the money, it hardly helps him escape his dull life, nor his clearly unhappy marriage to a woman (Tilda Swinton) with whom he does nothing but shrilly argue.

The only way in which he ever uses the money is to help his daughter Henriette (Erika Bók), who first appears in a fascinating scene in which Maloin, walking home with the money, stops to watch her sweep the floor in the butcher shop where she works. At first, the scene seems as voyeuristic as the opening, with Maloin watching as the girl in the shop bends over to sweep, her skirt riding up so that her ass is clearly visible to anyone on the street outside. When it's revealed that she's actually his daughter, the emotional tenor of the scene subtly changes, and he becomes angry at his daughter's careless flaunting of her body, angry with the work that makes her display herself like this. His reaction is almost as if he's discovered she's a prostitute, and later he protectively pulls her out of her job, then buys her a fur in a store where the pushy salesmen chatter in excited tandem at father and daughter until they decide on a purchase.

Notably, Maloin never tries to use his newfound money to escape his grim home life, nor does he deviate from his routine or begin spending wildly, the downfall of so many noir heroes in similar situations. Like many of Tarr's characters, he's trapped by a lack of imagination, an inability to see past the dull materiality of his circumstances, to grasp at something greater that occasionally seems to be lurking just beyond his senses. At one point, as he leaves a bar, he walks, without looking, past a surreal scene of several bar patrons playing an odd game, one of them balancing a pool ball on his forehead while the other lunges at him with a chair, both of them doing this strange dance to the wheezing sound of an accordion. The scene recalls the extended dance sequences in Damnation and Sátántangó or the living diagram of the solar system in Werckmeister Harmonies, scenes where the dullness of ordinary life is interrupted by outbursts of strange exuberance, moments of sensuality and celebration. Here, this dance is relegated to the background, a momentary diversion that the main character, locked into his private hell, barely notices.

This is one of several points at which Tarr hints at something stranger and grander just outside the border of the main character's circumscribed sense of reality. The way the high-contrast photography renders light as an incandescent and impenetrable whiteness similarly suggests something beyond, an almost spiritual dimension to this otherwise prosaically grounded story. In one rapturous shot, Maloin's wife opens the glass doors leading out to their balcony and steps out into the bright light that swallows her up, nearly erasing her black-clad form in a suffusion of light, pouring over her and flooding the center of the frame with this blinding nothingness. When she then closes the shutters, the room is smoothly plunged into darkness, the light chased away by shadows; it's a beautiful and mysterious shot that suggests the ways in which these characters are closed off from light, hope, spirituality, anything that might fend off the darkness and shadows. The light is also tinged with a sense of danger, though, as though these people might burn up if exposed to its brilliance for too long. In the film's mysterious final shot, Brown's silently suffering wife (Ági Szirtes) simply stares straight ahead until the white light absorbs her, the image fading to a plain white nothingness before the credits roll.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Sherlock Jr.

Sherlock Jr. is one of the cinema's greatest tributes to itself, a dazzling, relentlessly inventive ode to the movies as an escape, a source of dreams and a fantastical reflection of the real world. Buster Keaton's five-reel, 45-minute short is crisply, quickly paced, with not a second of waste, not a frame that isn't absolutely essential to the film's hilarious and strangely moving vision of the cinema's magical power. Keaton plays a hapless young movie theater projectionist who's also studying to be a detective and scraping together whatever cash he can get to woo his girlfriend (Kathryn McGuire). When he's framed for the theft of a pocket watch belonging to the girl's father, Keaton tries to catch the real crook (Ward Crane) in a hilarious scene where he shadows the taller man, walking immediately behind him and mimicking his every gesture. When this fails, he returns to the movie theater, dejected, a failure as a detective and miserable over the loss of his girl.

He then falls asleep, and what follows implicitly links the cinema to dreams, as Keaton nods off in the projection booth and has an out-of-body experience, his ghostly doppelganger stepping out of his sleeping form and into the movies. It's a fantastic, and fantastically funny, sequence, as the projectionist imagines the figures on the screen transformed into ones from his real life, enacting a mystery drama derived from his own experience with the purloined watch. Except, in this dream/movie, he can actually be the hero, the world's greatest detective, Sherlock Jr., dapper and sophisticated in a top hat and nice suit, a master intellect who can outwit any criminal. It's pure wish fulfillment, as the young loser imagines that he can catch the crooks and get the girl — and then, in Keaton's master stroke, he wakes from the dream movie into another movie, the movie Keaton's making, and he gets the girl after all.

Before he can get to this point, though, he has to pass through a cinematic gauntlet in which his greatest enemy is not a petty crook but a basic cinematic tool, the edit. Once Keaton steps up onto the movie screen, he's not fully integrated into the film that's playing. He's immune to the cut, so he remains the one constant as the scene changes, which leads to some hilarious visual gags. For a few minutes, the movie on the screen, following absurdist dream logic, ceases to be a coherent drama and starts randomly cutting from one strange locale to another, always with Keaton propelled across the cut into one outrageous situation after another. He balances on the edge of a cliff, runs from hungry lions, almost gets run over by a train and the traffic on a crowded street, and gets soaked by waves while perched on a rock in the middle of a choppy sea. It's both a devilishly clever comic showcase and a lovingly meta ode to the power of this cinematic tool, which can seamlessly bridge such tremendous gaps in location, having Keaton jump into the air to dive into the water but instead land headfirst in a snowbank, his feet kicking in the air.

Keaton's projectionist eventually manages to slip into this cinema dream world, inhabiting the role of the detective, fending off the sinister maneuvers of the crooks who concoct endless death traps that he flawlessly slips around, always intuiting their evil intentions before they can spring the trap. In the movies, the hero always wins, the bad guys always fail, and one senses that this young projectionist, like so many others, was first seized by his desire to be a detective while watching screen detectives much like this one. He inhabits an archetypal role, taking on a character type that had inspired him to try to shape his real life to match the movies, to become a detective like the ones on the screen — but only in dreams or the movies can such archetypes actually exist.

The whole dream sequence is remarkably fun, and occasionally surreal, as when a mysterious cross-dressing vendor helps Keaton evade the crooks by inviting the detective to jump through his chest and somehow flip through a false wall hiding behind the vendor. That's a bit of pure movie magic that doesn't really make a shred of sense; it's a flight of fancy that could only work in the movies. The same goes for the hilarious scene where Keaton leaps through a window in which he'd previously set up a readymade disguise. Jumping through the window, he also jumps through the clothes and lands outside dressed up as an old woman. That transformation is an echo of the one that propelled Keaton into the movie universe in the first place: he passes through a screen and comes out the other side magically changed, the usual rules suspended.

The ending, in which Keaton covertly watches a movie hero to figure out the right gestures to romance his girl, suggests that, though the movies are dreams, they're dreams with tremendous power. Keaton is exploring how we learn to act by watching the movies, how we derive our templates, both romantic and professional, from the things that happen up on the screen. In this way, the movies become, not only dreams, but wellsprings of reality, feeding back into the world models of behavior, the dream influencing and reshaping reality itself.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is one of the most moving and heartbreaking love stories in the cinema, an absolutely stunning musical masterpiece that sets its bright, colorful visual palette and sweet, soaring music against an increasingly bittersweet emotional range. Divided into three parts — departure, absence, and return — Jacques Demy's sublime musical is the story of a love affair haunted by the separation of war. Geneviève (Catherine Deneuve) is a young girl madly in love with the mechanic Guy (Nino Castelnuovo), but their sweet, innocent affair is torn apart when Guy is called up into the army, sent to Algeria for two years. As in so many French films of this era, Algeria looms large, a tear in the fabric of life, an absence that's felt at home in the missing young men, the years of longing and waiting.

The film is an interesting type of musical in which every single line is sung, but it rarely feels like there's a proper song: instead, all of the dialogue is more-or-less naturalistic speech that's simply sung instead of spoken. Even the most banal lines, like Guy's interactions with customers and his boss at the gas station where he works, are liltingly timed to Michel Legrand's alternately jazzy and romantic music. This style can be somewhat distracting and artificial at first but it quickly comes to seem as natural as if the characters were simply speaking. By setting everything to song, it never seems as if the music is interrupting the diegesis, cutting off the naturalistic flow of life with a musical number. Rather, life itself, with all its joys and tragedies, its banal incidents, its great loves and great sadnesses, has been transformed into one big musical number, a 90-minute musical number that encompasses both the innocent sweetness of young love and the much more complex, melancholy, mysterious loves and losses that build up over the course of the years.

The first part of the movie, which is almost saccharine-sweet with its constant tender embraces and cooing declarations of love, ends with Guy and Geneviève being split apart as he heads off to the army and the war. At one point during their goodbyes, he says that he knows she'll wait for him, but Demy films it in a way that suggests exactly the opposite. Before that point, he'd captured the young lovers in a two-shot, huddling together in a booth at a bar, but then Demy pans right to focus on Guy's face as he stares off into space, away from Geneviève, saying that he's sure she'll wait. Because she's not in the frame, one is left to wonder if he's being presumptuous, demanding that she wait rather than letting her say it herself. Demy then pans back to Geneviève, who demurely agrees, but the damage has been done: Demy's cinematic separation of the lovers at this decisive moment has seemingly fated them to separation in life as well. The camera's graceful movements all but inform us: Geneviève will not wait.

This is followed — after a goodbye sexual dalliance in Guy's bed, next door to the room where his godmother, Élise (Mireille Perrey), lays dying — by the deeply romantic sadness of the lovers' parting at a train station. Demy's camera tracks backward as Guy backs away from Geneviève in the station's bar, a gap of negative space opening up between them, expanded by the camera's movement away from them. Then Geneviève desperately runs to fill that gap, but outside the process begins again, as Guy steps onto the train, which begins rolling forward, Demy's camera tracking along with it. Geneviève follows alongside it for a few more moments, repeating "I love you," but once she stops walking, both train and camera continue rolling along, leaving her ever further in the distance, her figure shrinking into the background as the train departs the station, smoke billowing onto the platform to further obscure her from view.

In Guy's absence, Geneviève learns that she's pregnant with his child, but over time she also realizes that, contrary to what she'd believed, she can imagine herself living without him. Earlier, when Geneviève was grieving over her departed love, her mother (Anne Vernon) told her that, "people only die of love in movies," a line that, since this is after all a movie, would seem to be freighted with tragic foreshadowing. But this is a movie that uses its deceptively artificial aesthetic to cut right to the core of some very real emotions, and Demy has something much sadder and more complex in store for Geneviève than the melodramatic convention of dying from a broken heart.

At the heart of this dazzling musical is the revelation that life is not often as neat as the movies, that the romantic ideals of musicals are seldom fulfilled as cleanly as Hollywood happy endings would imply. At one point, Geneviève sings, "I would have died for him. Why aren't I dead?" She looks right into the camera with a tearful, red-eyed expression, genuinely confused and hurt by the realization that her love for Guy has been fading in his absence, that she's been able to go on with her life and even entertain thoughts about another man, when before Guy left she'd sworn to wait for him forever. She'd imagined that life would be like a melodrama, that she couldn't live without her lover, but she finds that in reality, unlike the movies, memories can fade, life can go on, and there are endings that aren't quite happy, but aren't quite unhappy either, that the sadness and the pleasure of life can be tangled and intertwined so completely that it's difficult to separate one from the other.

The other man who enters Geneviève's life in Guy's absence knows this truth very well indeed. Roland (Marc Michel) is a successful diamond dealer and world traveler who becomes friendly with Geneviève and her mother after Guy leaves. Roland comes to the film several years after the events of Demy's first feature Lola, in which he got his heart broken by the title character of that film and set off on the adventures that apparently made him a rich man. He never forgot Lola, of course, as evidenced by the sequence where he tells Geneviève's mother about his past and Demy cuts away to a graceful circular pan around the market where Roland and Lola had last met in the earlier film. It's a melancholy callback, a metatextual sequence that suggests that film is memory, that to remember Lola is to remember the events and the locations of that other film, briefly weaving them into this new film. Roland's interactions with Geneviève and her mother also recall the earlier film, in that Geneviève's mother is obviously attracted to Roland — as a mother had been in the other film, while he pined over Lola — but Roland is infatuated with Geneviève herself.

Their love affair lacks the passion of Geneviève and Guy's love: Roland courts the girl by asking her mother for her hand in marriage, before he's even spoken much to Geneviève herself. It's a very unromantic affair, and Geneviève's decision to marry him seems to be more pragmatic than anything, influenced by his stability and the fact that he's not swayed in his love for her when he learns that she's already pregnant with another man's child. Their wedding is conveyed with a few economical shots, starting with a tracking shot through a bridal shop filled with mannequins in gowns, in the midst of which Geneviève, staring into the camera through the thin gauze of a white veil, seems as plastic and distant as the mannequins, her expression blank and unreadable. Demy cuts immediately to a very similar shot of Geneviève at her wedding, still staring blankly into the camera, then pulling back to a two-shot of the couple kneeling, their hands piously pressed together in prayer, an image of formally, religiously sanctioned love very different from the passionate clenches of Geneviève and Guy from the film's first section.

Guy also gets his own bittersweet ending, as Geneviève disappears for the film's final section and Guy finally returns from the war with a limp and a haunted expression, only to realize that his love is not waiting for him. Instead, he's gradually awoken out of his self-pity by the patience and caring of his godmother's long-suffering nurse, Madeleine (Ellen Farner), who Demy had repeatedly hinted was harboring a shy crush on Guy. It is perhaps telling that Demy establishes a visual parallel between Geneviève and Roland's wedding and the shot of Guy and Madeleine at Élise's funeral, also sitting side by side in a prayerful posture. As with Geneviève and Roland, this is not a relationship of great passion, and it might be thought that Guy is just settling for a second choice, but Demy intentionally leaves it ambiguous just how much or little he actually feels for Madeleine. This is especially true of the deeply affecting final scene, in which, years later, Geneviève and Guy finally meet again, at the snowbound gas station that Guy now owns and lives at with his wife and their son. It's a beautiful and mysterious scene, overflowing with complex emotions that mostly go unstated in the polite, slightly cool conversation of the former lovers. Demy masterfully resists resolving the tension or answering any of the questions left lingering about these two characters and their paths in life. Instead, they briefly meet and part, separating just as Guy's new wife returns, and Demy's camera drifts up and away, through the fluttering snowflakes, the gas station a little oasis of light in the darkness of the night, as though the happy domestic scene that now plays out is encased in a snowglobe.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Four National Film Preservation Foundation shorts

[This post is a teaser for the third annual For the Love of Film blogathon and fundraiser, which will be running from May 13-18. This year, hosts Marilyn Ferdinand, Farran Smith Nehme and Roderick Heath have dedicated the week to Alfred Hitchcock, whose early (non-directorial) work "The White Shadow" will be the beneficiary of any money earned during the event. The following post provides capsules for some of the films currently screening at the National Film Preservation Foundation website's Screening Room. Be sure to donate!]

Ramona is an early D.W. Griffith one-reel short, an adaptation of a novel by Helen Hunt Jackson that dramatized the mistreatment of Native Americans throughout history via an inter-racial love story, not the kind of message movie that one would associate with the future director of Birth of a Nation. A young Spanish girl named Ramona (Mary Pickford) falls in love with a Native American improbably named Alessandro (Henry B. Walthall), with predictably tragic results. The young couple elopes, fleeing her disapproving family, but everywhere they turn, they only encounter "the whites" who keep pushing the Native Americans aside, claiming, "this is our land!" wherever Alessandro and Ramona show up.

The acting is extremely over-the-top: when Ramona is trying to resist her attraction for Alessandro, she sees him playing a guitar, listens briefly, and then recoils in terror, running away with her arms in the air, and throws herself down at an altar to pray. If a title card hadn't already prepared viewers for the fact that she was going to fight against her growing love for the young man, one would be hard-pressed to guess just why she was so suddenly hysterical. There are horror movie heroines who react more sedately to the sight of invading alien monsters. There's lots of hand-waving and dramatic gesticulating here; Ramona's mother (Kate Bruce), reacting with horror to her daughter's dalliance with a Native American, seems to have abruptly contracted epilepsy, her hands shaking and flailing about, locked into claws as she points in random directions all around her head. Most of the cast just runs around through every scene with hands raised, pointing dramatically off towards some unseen point beyond the camera.

This histrionic acting style aside, the film is well-directed, and Griffith's staging within the static frame is impeccable. He frequently frames some foreground action against a dramatic natural backdrop of hills and mountains stretching off into the distance, contrasting the human-scale romantic story against the imposing grandeur of the landscape, as though suggesting that this one little story is part of a grander historical struggle. One scene that suggests this especially well is the one where Alessandro's village is destroyed by white settlers who are driving off the natives. Griffith's camera is angled down from a high cliff, looking down at the village in the valley, mostly obscured by clouds of smoke as wagons rush by and the slaughter commences. In the foreground, Alessandro throws his arms around in despair and tears at his hair as a few white cowboys run past with guns drawn, casually killing another Native American man as they pass. These striking compositions provide some interest in an otherwise rather slight film that rushes through its narrative as a series of clipped moments, seemingly under the assumption, very reasonable at the time, that virtually everyone in the audience would have been familiar with the story already.

The Lonedale Operator is a one-reel Western actioner directed by D.W. Griffith and written by future Keystone mastermind Mack Sennett. The film demonstrates Griffith's famous development of suspense-building, cross-cutting action montages, in this case built around a simple scenario of a train station payroll robbery. A young girl (Blanche Sweet) takes over telegraph duties for her sick father, while a pair of criminals plan to steal the payroll bag that's been dropped off into her care. The first half of the very short film builds a little character through some flirtatious sparring between the girl and a train engineer who's courting her, and then the second half settles into a propulsive editing rhythm as the crooks try to break into the telegraph office.

Griffith cuts quickly back and forth from the girl in the office, sending out a message for help, to the criminals trying to break down the door outside, to the engineer rushing to her rescue on his train. The rhythm of the editing gradually speeds up as the criminals get closer to breaking in and the train gets closer to the station. It's a simple but effective way of ratcheting up the tension. The payoff is a nice last-minute gag in which the crooks break in before the rescue party has arrived, but the clever girl manages to outwit the robbers by making them think she has a gun. The ending defuses all the tension with some low-key humor, having the robbers exaggeratedly bow to the girl once they realize they've been outsmarted, and this resolution hints at Sennett's comedic sensibility, abruptly replacing the sense of impending danger with a witty sight gag.

Robert C. Bruce was a premiere director of what were known in the early cinema as "scenics," short documentary travelogues from exotic locales. Bruce's Tropical Nights is a prime example of the genre, the first film released from a 1920 expedition to the Caribbean, where he traveled through the islands and shot numerous brief, poetic, beautifully photographed little slices of reality.

The film is purely about the sensory experience of a locale, presenting one gorgeous, blue-tinted image after another of this tropical island paradise. The photography is lovely: trees swaying in the wind, scenic vistas looking out over the ocean, moonglow rippling on the water, dramatic storm clouds gathering on the horizon, but never any rain. The prosaic title cards only interrupt the poetic flow of these images with bland objective descriptions. Bruce's images hardly require the accompaniment, because there's obviously a keen photographic sensibility to these static views of beautiful natural scenes. People only occasionally enter the shot, but when they do they're often looking off in the same direction as the camera, as awed as the photographer by these lovely views. The presence of these spectators within the film merely confirms the "hey look" attitude of the film, which builds a contemplative mood as it chronicles the progress of the moon across the sky, the gentle flow from sunset to sunrise, with nothing but moody blue beauty in between.

Keystone comedienne Mabel Normand was a prolific comic actress in the silent era, and in 1914-15 she made the transition to director as well, making her one of the earliest female directors in Hollywood. Won In a Closet was her second directorial film (her first is presumed lost) and it's a madcap, silly farce that displays the fledgling director's likeably goofy screen presence and her feel for slapstick. The fluffy little story of Mabel's romance with a dopey-looking neighbor (Charles Avery) is just set-up for the extended sequence where her father and his mother get trapped in a closet together, prompting a ridiculous series of misunderstandings and slapstick pile-ups.

The slapstick is all but completely unmotivated here, with little connection to reality: everyone's just constantly running around, falling on their asses, colliding into each other for no apparent reason, and Normand herself switches on a dime from a sweet, coy young lover to a manic hysteria case. It's all pretty silly, of course, but there is one nice shot along the way, an inventive split-screen in which Mabel and her boyfriend walk towards one another, the two sides of the screen eventually coming together when they wind up on opposite sides of the same tree. That shot suggests a witty visual sensibility that matches Normand's charming screen persona.