Sunday, February 28, 2010

8½ (Federico Fellini, 1963)

A common misconception about Federico Fellini's stipulates that the film concerns the issue of writer's block. It does not. Rather, it is a film about an overdose of creativity, so bursting at the seams with ideas that it has no idea how to form them into anything resembling a story. Its protagonist, the director Guido (Marcello Mastroianni), is not struggling to make something from nothing; he attempts to condense everything into a two-hour piece of disposable entertainment. No one at a loss for ideas would hear the blaring brass of Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" as he waits in line for a drink.

And yet, when one is tasked by a studio, which runs on commerce, not art, to create a hit, is there any difference between having no ideas and too many? That question plagues Guido, whom we meet ailing in a hotel room from stress as a doctor enters on a house call and compounds the problem by mentioning that he's a big fan. His writer, a Marxist, clearly disdains the commercial product they're meant to produce, and he makes his feelings about the project and the director unmistakably clear at times. Studio reps whisper friendly warnings after he gets up and about, and when they do not feel like addressing him directly they send notes harshly criticizing the poetic scenes Guido envisioned as unnecessary and distracting.

Of course, as well all know, Guido serves as Fellini's avatar, and gently -- ever so gently -- morphs into Fellini's justification for how far he'd managed to get in his follow-up to La Dolce Vita without actually committing any linking ideas to a page. The gigantic spaceship set that looms over Guido for much of the film, the great shadow that threatens to engulf him, was a set Fellini had built for the original iteration of this project. Only after it was finished and all the money spent on it did the director realize he had no real use for the damn thing.

As that shadow grows longer, Guido/Fellini retreat into dreamspace, where ideas are like oxygen. But the dreams become nightmares, specters of Guido's past visiting the director to haunt him. Manifestations of his insecurity with his current project, visions of Guido's childhood, particularly concerning his Catholic upbringing. He sees his father in a dream, and the man complains that the house his son "built" for him in the mind is too small and asks why he couldn't make it a bit more comfortable. Guido meets with a bishop, and the priest who introduces the two asks Guido about the film's religious content and warns that the director has the power "to educate... or corrupt millions of souls." As Guido's writer's block drives him further to despair, he manages to swing an audience with a cardinal in the hopes that a confession and blessing might help him. On his way to meet His Eminence, various passers-by offer advice, and one man tells the director to go for broke -- genuflect, kiss rings, all that jazz -- as "getting in their good graces means you can have everything you want in life." But the cardinal merely runs through what is essentially a bullet-point sermon, repeating ad infinitum the mantra that "there is no salvation outside the Church." All the clergy can offer him is more guilt, more unhappiness.

Naturally, Fellini mines that other facet of Catholic guilt: the sexual dysfunction. Fellini uses Guido to purge himself of his sexual repression and lust. Guido becomes the vessel through which the director could have all the affairs and dalliances he could never engage in in the real world. Thus, the pudgy, awkward Fellini becomes Mastroianni, then the sexiest man alive, playing a nightclub fixture and a rampant womanizer. Guido loves his intelligent, snappy wife Luisa (Anouk Aimée), but she's perhaps too smart for him, so he spends his time with his mistress Carla (Sandra Milo), a loud, obnoxious woman with tacky tastes who offends Guido on nearly every level -- he looks as if he'd be actively embarrassed of her even if he wasn't conducting an affair with her -- yet she's attractive enough to entice one part of Guido's anatomy.

Indeed, the regressive sexual stereotypes on display in can drive you crazy. His mother's specter always appears to be disappointed with him. Guido's older friend leaves his wife for a much younger woman, who typically smiles and widens her eyes as if someone had just pulled the actress off the street and told her she would be in a Fellini film with Marcello Mastroianni. Most of these types were outdated and simplistic even for their time, but one could attribute such reductive character writing as Fellini's exaggeration for the purpose of exploring his fantasies and repression. Granted, I'm likely making excuses for someone who grew up in a time when such views of women were accepted, but Fellini spends most of the film pointing out Guido's (and his own) deep personal flaws while looking sympathetically at the women he hurts through his actions.

Fellini's oneiric imagery highlights his sexual hangups. Guido imagines himself as a sultan presiding over a harem of all the women in his life, a sequence that amusingly turns south as Guido's own shame causes the women to revolt against against fantasy. He visualizes his star, Claudia, as his ideal woman despite her airy vacuity in real life -- in his perception, she becomes intelligent, graceful, the holder of all the answers. So, he makes her into his muse despite her utter lack of any genuinely inspirational traits. The film's most memorable scene, a flashback wherein a young Guido and his friends paid a prostitute named Saraghina to dance the rumba for them. Eddra Gale manages to inhabit every aspect of sexual awakening as the prostitute: she's fat, cumbersome and hideous, yet her dance is sensual and erotic, turning her monstrous frame into an assault of pure sex that leaves the young boys tingling with unchecked hormones. Gale's exaggerated appearance is matched in the next scene, as clerics catch the lads and bring in Guido for a beating. His mother stands to the side, wildly gesticulating her disappointment as the priest whips the boy in front of an unreasonably gargantuan painting of a saint, a reminder to Guido of his transgressions and inability to lead the life the Church instructs him to lead.

Separating Guido's visions from his reality can be difficult due to Fellini's direction. is both a dream and a demented circus, propelled by too-smooth camera movements (the old Italian practice of dubbing all the lines greatly aids the dreamy imagery). The actors glide and dance instead of walk, as the camera moves on perfectly level dollies. Fellini rarely sits still, tracking actors until they move into the background and another character walks into the foreground and becomes the tracked subject, rinse, lather, repeat. His camera is so elegant that it makes the director's distaste for the modernization of the world even clearer. While not presented nearly to the extent that the theme pervades Godard's work or Tati's Playtime, the distrust of growing commercialism can be seen here and there. The opening dream, in which Guido sits in a car surrounded by immobile traffic, the fumes of the other vehicles seeping through the air vents and countless faces look at him, waiting for him to move, reflects the pressure Guido feels but also sheds light on congestion and overpopulation. At one point, Fellini films a car show, his camera floating through gorgeous Italian architecture that highlights the garish, simplistic logos of advertising car companies. Even that set that so tortures Guido represents modernity, what with it being a replica of a spaceship.

But this is not a film that dwells upon the negatives of society; even the relentless journey through "Guiderico's" guilt and shame ultimately finds a positive resolution. The ending of is a gigantic release -- sexual, personal and professional. Guido, after stumbling across a pocket of creativity, begins to link the threads of the film, as if we're watching Fellini piecing together the clues just before he started the film we've been watching this whole time. But the director must still face that set, which saps the strength from his knees and weakens his resolve. Suddenly, everyone who'd previously appeared in the film shows up, encouraging him to make his way to the interview table where the press badger him to give them something -- anything -- to placate their curiosity. But Guido cannot answer them, and he crawls under the table and imagines suicide. This dreamed act, of the phallic bullet blowing Guido's brains out, also serves to expel all the issues weighing on his mind, allowing him to walk away from the project with a clear head instead of driving himself to a real suicide for the sake of pleasing a producer who will simply go on to make money with something else.

Amusingly, Fellini casts an intellectual critic as the secular voice of reason who guides the director to his final epiphany. The critic lauds Guido for making the artistically brave decision to fold the film rather than make an empty commercial object, and his flowery praise leads Guido to make amends with his wife. To do so, he expels all of his hangups, the women and the clerics bid a fond farewell by a man who can now live a normal life. And as they all line up as if to take a bow, we see the final beauty of : Guido organizes those thoughts that overflowed and caused him such pain. In this moment, the separation between Guido and Fellini disappears entirely, just as the walls between the director's personal hangups and his artistic concerns crumble, leaving a film that doubled back on itself not as an intellectual measure but an emotional one. For all of the rigid, staid typing and confusing asides, in its ending becomes one of the most moving films ever made, and surely the best film about the process, the personal stakes, and the spiritual reward of filmmaking.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Steven Spielberg: 1941

As with most of the films that eventually "caused" the death of New Hollywood, the reports of 1941's commercial and critical failure have been vastly overstated over the years. The film turned a profit and, while it certainly received its share of negative reviews, its reception never reached the abysmal levels of a Heaven's Gate. It does, however, validate some of the primary criticisms of the late New Hollywood period, in that it is several times too big, too fussed over and too much a slave to the whims of its director.

That 1941 is a comedy proves hairier than New York, New York or Cimino's infamous bomb. For comedy, despite being the broadest and most exaggerated of genres -- well, perhaps second to the musical, but if that's true it's at least partially because nearly all musicals are themselves comedies -- also relies on reservation in delivery. Yes, everyone remembers Buster Keaton whirling himself about and positioning himself just right so that the wall of a house could fall on him without harm, but it's Keaton's deadpan, or Chaplin's sincerity, or the quieter moments in the more recent Kevin Smith/Judd Apatow fare, that linger longest in our hearts and minds.

For someone as visually resplendent as Steven Spielberg, however, recreating those major sight gags with the added benefit of increased budgets and vastly improved effects technology made for better bait than the desire to bring back some of that old comic charm. Ergo, Spielberg attempted to make a comedy out of American fears in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attack, using the techniques he'd learned from his blockbusters, and the result is a feature so loud, so grandiose, so unreasonably, unjustifiably huge that the comedy loses any hint of subtlety as it must shout incessantly to be heard over the din.

The audio track of 1941 bustles at all times with roaring planes, grinding tanks and exploding shells. Occasionally, you can hear some people talking. When they do, they speak in old-timey period voices, barring those instances where the actors simply don't feel like doing so. I can't blame them: Spielberg clearly placed the actors on the ladder of importance a few rungs below the effects. The situation brings to mind that old hypothetical: if an actor stops caring in the middle of an explosion, does anyone notice?

Well, the answer is yes. For all the distractions and the fundamentally mismatched pairing of Spielberg's formalism and a hyper-zany WWII comedy, the biggest weakness of the film lies in some of its casting. For every actor who delivers -- a sadly underused John Belushi, Slim Pickens, Dan Aykroyd, the ever-delightful John Candy -- and elevates the questionable material, there is a corresponding piece of dead weight -- John Di Cicco, the arguable protagonist; Treat Williams, more of a villain than the invading Japanese; Tim Matheson, essentially parlaying his Otter character from Animal House into the role of a more straight-laced yet irreverent captain and leaving behind all the charm in the process. Particularly noticeable is the woeful use of such legendary actors as Toshiro Mifune (in one of his few American roles and the first in which he spoke all of his own lines without relying on dubbing) and Christopher Lee (naturally playing a Nazi on account of being British), whose roles leave little room for comedy and largely mine racial humor when they're given lines meant to elicit laughs.

But is the film so bad? The picture slips into tedium from time to time, yes. Some actors are either saddled with poorly written characters (relatively speaking; they're all shallow) or simply to weak to pull of any of the one-liners or gags. But a fair amount works, more than you would expect in an infamous "flop," anyway. The idea that, with the threat of a Japanese invasion of Los Angeles looming, the local base commander would elect to forgo his duties to catch a screening of Dumbo is funny, more so when Spielberg occasionally returns to the theater to watch the man choking back tears and mouthing along with the words. There's a lovely piece of deadpan at the beginning when the Japanese submarine surfaces and the sailors search for targets. The commander (Mifune) asks if there are any honorable targets in L.A. to attack, and one of his subordinates excitedly shouts "Hollywood!" A running gag of the film involves Birkhead (Matheson) attempting to seduce an old flame, Donna (Nancy Allen), by playing on her erotic fixation on flying. The various double entendres and broader comedy that derives from this setup is not exactly clever but most of their scenes earn laughs despite neither actor bringing much to the film.

Some of the physical bits work as well, pushed as they are so far into the red that, if nothing else, you have to laugh at the absurdity of it all. The entire final hour of the film counters much of the leaden exposition of the first, and it plays out basically as one large fistfight/gunfight/explosion. Nothing in this lengthy stretch of film makes a lick of sense, but Belushi's madman shtick works well for the role of a pilot who might be every bit as loony and over-committed as the kamikazes, and the rapid crescendo of action across the last 55 minutes at once moves the film into even more insane territory as it finally gives the comedy a chance to catch up and join the madness instead of lagging behind. 1941 climaxes with the Japanese firing upon a Ferris wheel in an amusement park and a house falling into the ocean, and I find myself agreeing with no one in particular that it really is the only possible way the film could have ended.

It's also interesting as a Spielberg fan to watch the film and see the connection to the director's other films, particularly ones he hadn't made yet. The opening scene is of course a thorough parody of the director's own Jaws, down to the same camera shots and setup (Spielberg even brought back Chrissy herself, Susan Blacklinie, to play the skinny-dipper), only this time the woman is not dragged down by a hungry monster but launched from the sea as the Japanese sub rises from underneath her. The blazing neon signs and smoky air around the section of L.A. where the military men let off steam recall the fuzzy luminescence of A.I.'s Pleasure Island. For that matter, the use of Dumbo ties into the mention and even emphasis on the Pinocchio story in both Close Encounters of the Third Kind and A.I. The fight that breaks out inside the dance hall -- indeed, the interior layout of the dance hall itself -- brings to mind the opening scene of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The pompous Sitarski (Williams) attempts to rape the beautiful Betty, the object of our hero Wally's desire, and Wally's masculine rescue would be pasted over almost entirely into the George McFly-Biff Tannen-Lorraine Baines triangle of the Spielberg-produced Back to the Future. Now, Robert Zemeckis wrote and directed that film and co-wrote this one, which begs the question: what the hell is it with Bob Zemeckis and his perception of rape as a means to lighthearted character development?

Ultimately, 1941 is not a good movie. A neat encapsulation of what to expect with the picture comes at the start, when Spielberg transitions from the terrifically funny Jaws spoof and formation of the plan to attack Hollywood to a mercilessly unfunny scene in a diner that introduces Di Cicco, Williams, Aykroyd and a number of other major character. There's also the matter of the gentle but noticeable racism, some of which you could argue is a reflection of the way people spoke back then, particularly only a few days after the Japanese attack, but there are racist caricatures on the submarine without any brash, white Americans around (it's interesting that a few of the clips from Dumbo that Spielberg show the crows that have been since cited as racist). Despite the flaws, however, there are enough entertaining moments here to justify spending the two hours to watch the film, and Spielberg's too-slick direction even aids him at times, such as the dance/fight and a series of rapidly editing together tracking shots from different POVs involving a motorcycle sidecar separating from the bike and careening through the streets. It's understandable that such a big film could see its minor disappointment magnified to match its grandiosity, but a mild disappointment is all it remains, undeserving of some of the pure hatred directed its way.

Au hasard Balthazar

Robert Bresson's Au hasard Balthazar announces its originality and deep knowledge of the art of cinema and the individual elements that it comprises before the film even begins. The opening credits of older films can be somewhat tedious (though preferable to the current setup, in which the caterer's assistant gets a mention in the endless closing scroll), a bit of bombastic fanfare over still images of text that often clashes harshly with the content of the film itself.

Balthazar opens in a similar fashion, the lilting strains of Schubert's piano sonata no. 20 filling our ears and inviting us calmly into the movie. Then, the music abruptly halts, replaced by the sounds of agonized braying as a donkey gives birth to a foal. The intense screeching carries on for a few seconds before Schubert comes back in as if nothing ever happened. In this sequence is the entire film: a fleeting moment of beauty scarred by pure, rending pain.

It also establishes one of the key aspects of the film's technical mastery: Bresson's use of sound. The audio track of the film is crystal clear, and much of the noises we hear occur somewhere off-screen. Planes flying overhead, cars revving past characters framed in close-up. Godard said of the film that it was "the world in an hour and a half," and this usage of sound outside the frame helps craft a world through which the camera moves as opposed to a strict narrative that focuses only on what's immediate.

This would also explain the editing, an elliptical staging that often skips a number of steps between scenes. After the credits sequence, Balthazar opens on the mare having given birth to her foal as it suckles for the first time. A man and his children approach and the kids beg the man to purchase the foal. He refuses, yet in the very next cut we see the man and the kids headed home with the donkey in tow, where they baptize him. How did the kids convince the adult? Perhaps Bresson suggests that the power of children to influence those who should know better is absolute, and that's about as close as the film ever gets to anything cheery. Soon after, the man's ailing daughter dies, so he takes his son Jacques and leaves the farm. The timeline jumps several years, as the young girl, Marie (Anne Wiazemsky), Jacques' childhood friend, has grown up and lives on the land left to her father, a schoolteacher, by Jacques' dad. They still own the anointed Balthazar, whom Marie treats with tender care, but disputes between Marie and Jacques' fathers over profits from the land, combined with the indefatigable pride of Marie's pop, take everything from the family. As a result, Marie must part with her beloved donkey.

Balthazar is generally accepted to be a Christ parable, with the titular donkey traveling through various situations of abuse and neglect that reflect the Stations of the Cross, and Bresson's strong Catholic upbringing certainly lends credence to this interpretation. It's a justifiable explanation, but one that could easily mislead those who haven't seen the film. Those who would claim the film as a spiritually validating work -- Balthazar is listed as the 6th most spiritually significant film by Arts & Faith -- ignore the abysmally deep level of cynicism on display.

Consider that elliptical editing. Most of it skips over what might have been endearing or at least lighter moments to create harsh juxtapositions. One of the boys in town leads a biker gang: like a combination of Brando's roles in The Wild Ones and A Streetcar Named Desire, he wreaks havoc yet manages to retain some semblance of charisma. We see him leering hungrily at Marie and dumping oil in the middle of the road to cause passing drivers to lose control of their vehicles. Yet the next scene shows the townspeople in church, as the young rapscallion wows the crowd, and especially the previously disgusted Marie, with his angelic singing voice, emphasizing how hollow and meaningless church attendance and participation is as a barometer of morality. The thug, Gérard, and his family buy Balthazar, and the boy tortures the poor beast by burning and beating it even as he exploits it to get closer to Marie. Arnold, the local drunk, takes Balthazar when the creature nears death from a harsh winter, and we then see him leading a healthy donkey around the city. Bresson skips whatever nursing care might have healed Balthazar to jump to Arnold showing off the creature before beating it in a drunken rage. Later, he swears on the Virgin Mary to give up alcohol, yet in the next scene he is guzzling another bottle.

Every edit seems to paint a bleaker portrait of mankind, whether it follows the donkey or Marie. Both, in essence, are treated the same way, shuffled off from one abusive, domineering master to the next. Yet there occasionally converging arcs differ in their subtext: Balthazar's story reveals the ineffectual, even cruel, nature of religion and the Church, while Marie's trials bring out the dispassionate pain brought on by modernity. Those cars and planes that pass by outside the periphery highlight how stifling the world has become. The schoolteacher prospers with the farm because he follows traditional methods as laid out in old almanacs and guides, and he is undone by lawsuits. Marie's own status as every bit the tradable community that the donkey is comments on the same thread Godard spent most of the '60s examining, that of the sociopolitical pressures weighing down women. Gérard abuses her, horribly so near the end, and at one point she winds up at the home of the miller, a miserly old man, soaking wet and starving. She brushes off the lecherous man's advances at first, but he offers her money, which she takes in order to help her father. "That’s what happens when you region honor above everything," the miller says, "He’s spent his life creating obligations for himself. What for? …Do I have any obligations? I’m free, obliged only to do what serves my interests and can bring me a profit. Life’s nothing but a dazzling ground, a marketplace where even your word is unnecessary. A bank stamp will do." Modernity has placed a price on everything, including decency and independence.

The blocking of the film could be another jab at modernization. Balthazar is one of the most meticulously blocked and visually orchestrated films I have ever seen, each character arranged in such a way as to be immediately identifiable and separated from the crowd. In retaliation to the influence of verité among the contemporary French filmmakers and their attempts to find truth by staging their films as if accidents (and perhaps as a response to his own Pickpocket), Bresson makes here a film that, for all its minimalism, makes no bones about its staging. How strange and perfect, then, that it should paint a more complete portrait of the world than the up-and-comers. Martin Scorsese once said, "Cinema is a matter of what's in the frame and what's out," and Au hasard Balthazar stands balanced between the two, placing as much emphasis and weight onto the sounds of objects and people outside the frame as the carefully blocked mise-en-scène; characters often stand slightly out-of-frame as if to further stress this dichotomy. Bresson combines the two into a nearly hopeless vision of the present, yet one that proves emotionally visceral and incessantly moving. Besides, if the boring, clinging Jacques, the symbol of a more traditional time in Marie's life, is any indicator -- to say nothing of Balthazar's status as a Jesus stand-in -- the director hardly has any flowery thoughts for the past either.

The final section of the film bridges the two storylines as the narrative builds into a massive rejection of the social and religious constraints that no longer hold any meaning. Marie's father turns his back on the priest as he sits on his deathbed. Outside, his wife prays, "Lord, don’t take him from me too. Wait. You know how sad and miserable my life will be.” Before she can finish the final syllable, the priest beckons her inside to find her husband dead. She then treats Balthazar, returned to the farm, as a saint in honor of her husband, a moment that combines so much despair, delusion and desperation I started to check the credits for "Ingmar Bergman" or some alias thereof.

Nothing can compare, however, to the ending, as Balthazar, burdened as ever with contraband, collapses on a hill and dies as if on his Golgotha. After watching the poor ass' mistreatment through winces for an hour and a half, this quiet moment of death hits harder than all the previous torture. It is said that the ending is transcendental, the capper to the Christ parable that communicates His sacrifice. To that I would ask how anyone could find redemption or the slightest sliver of faith in this scene. Balthazar is initially surrounded by a group of sheep -- sheep of course being one of the most dominant symbols in Judeo-Christian mythology -- but the flock moves on as he dies, a visualization of the rejection of Christ at his death but also clear, terrible proof that Jesus, despite being killed as public entertainment, died alone. Further calling attention to the hollowness, the horror and the pain of this moment is the final shot, as we can clearly see the donkey still breathing. Perhaps the ass they used was simply a "bad actor," but to see the beast still breathing, to be dying instead of dead, adds a whole other dimension of suffering and agony. Frankly, I should have known better, as Bresson clues us in from the start. "Au hasard" means "by chance," proving that this donkey isn't Jesus: it's just a beast like any other, left to die alone in a field.

Au hasard Balthazar
is a technical marvel and an emotionally draining experience. It is one of the greatest masterpieces I have ever seen. I cannot claim it to be Bresson's finest, having seen only two of his features, but if he made a better film then he must be one of the truest masters the cinema ever saw (even if he didn't, that claim is hard to argue). But spiritual? Tell that to the carcass rotting out in the French countryside.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Brian De Palma: Greetings

Though it shares only the most minimal of stylistic traits with his previous two features, Greetings marks the spot where Brian De Palma began to pull it all together, "it" in this case being De Palma's cheeky love affair with the artifice of cinema, his scatological interpretation of Godardian form and his gift for lowbrow, high-concept humor. As with both The Wedding Party and Murder à la Mod, Greetings discards narrative flow, even coherence, for the sake of style, but here his preoccupations with form at last help, rather than hinder, the film.

Greetings plays out in a series of gonzo vignettes revolving around a trio of friends: skeevy Jon Rubin (Robert De Niro), vivacious, paranoid Lloyd (Gerrit Graham) and shy, lovesick Paul (Jonathan Warden). They splinter apart after the beginning, and De Palma spends the rest of the film tracking back and forth between the three, jumping away from one character just as they appear on the cusp of doing something. De Palma calls further attention to the division of the narrative via title cards, jump-cuts and, once more, sped-up film for any scene featuring characters walking between scenes.

As with Murder à la Mod, Greetings even bends the content to fit the form. The three friends spend the first few minutes of the film intricately planning their attempts to dodge the draft. They try on flamboyant clothing when considering the option of posing as homosexuals, and they act out the speeches they intend to sell to the draft board psychological examiner. In a manner reminiscent of Tim Roth's laboriously prepared "true story" that he uses to convince Joe of his authenticity in Reservoir Dogs, the men practice every syllable and enunciation of their pledge to go to Vietnam and kill everyone in their path, including minorities and other "undesirables" in their own units. Watching them is akin to sitting in a theater as an acting troupe runs through rehearsals, and their apartment even looks like a theatrical set.

The trio's fear of going to Vietnam is preceded by the film's open on a T.V. broadcast from President Johnson -- the entire television set is visible, yet another artificial complication -- as LBJ attempts to sell the public on the war, offering up the ludicrous, half-hearted stab at populism: "I'm not saying you never had it so good, but that's true, isn't it?" Left to their own devices, we see why each man fears deployment (other than the obvious reason). Basically, Greetings morphs into a free-from travesty of late-'60s issues.

For example, Floyd proves to be a vivacious and talkative ladies man who prioritizes his fondness for conspiracy theories over nookie. He hopes to uncover the truth behind the Kennedy assassination, and Graham uses his scenes to build himself into a frenzy, marking the supposed wounds with markers on a nubile young companion and looking straight into the camera as he triumphantly "proves" that one shooter couldn't have caused all the wounds that Kennedy received. In one of the cheekier moments of the film, Floyd holds up a series of photographs pointing to a police officer who fired the actual shots, but De Palma bleeps out the officer's name, as if the Warren Commission and other forces Floyd so fears have already gotten to him and covered up his revelations.

Paul stands at the other side of the spectrum from Floyd, a shy, wholesome boy who cannot adjust to the burgeoning free love movement. He tries out a series of computer dates (they had those in 1968?), each comedic in its own way. His first date is stand-offish and interprets Paul's nervousness as boorish lewdness, yet she intimidates him by flaunting her cleavage and legs as she shows off the clothes she purchased for their date. This synthesis between consumerism and sex suggests that the push for increased promiscuity is an orchestration by the very system the hippies, the most visible adopters of the free love ethos, reviled. It recalls the World State in Brave New World, a place that deified consumerism (even setting up Henry Ford as their god), where sex is seen as a fun distraction that involves the purchase of contraceptives to ensure someone makes a profit on love-making. Later, he stumbles across a revolutionary selling a far-left newspaper that fights capitalism through its primary weapon, advertising, as the editors superimpose images into the ads that connote what the ads are "really saying," a sort of superliminal message. Paul's third date is a foil for his first experience, as he meets a lady who's into eastern practices and attempts to align their auras and other glorified euphemisms for foreplay. The punchline is a devious premature ejaculation joke, as the two disappear off-screen to really align their spirits and we hear the woman stop and exclaim, "What happened to your source?!"

Rubin falls somewhere between his two buddies in terms of his sexual freedom. Not as successful with the ladies as Floyd nor as reserved as Paul, Jon is instead a voyeur, spying on a woman in a bookstore through a shelf as if peering through a window. He confronts her later after she leaves the store, and he claims to be an artist who captures what he calls "private moments" as if conducting some sociological study (he even claims that he's discussed the project with a museum curator). "You've heard of Pop Art?" he asks the increasingly awed and excited woman. "Well this is Peep Art." As Rubin convinces her to become his chief model and "actress," a woman undresses in the window behind them, further making obvious that Rubin has simply found a clever new term for being a peeping tom.

Rubin's arc holds perhaps the least social relevance, but the subject it broaches is likely the dearest to De Palma's heart. Jon acts as the hyperbolic stand-in for the growing independent movement, of which De Palma was still a part. The theme of voyeurism already popped up in Murder à la Mod, and we see Jon here filming his willing model through a window as he shouts commands at her to take off her clothes and writhe about on the bed. She constantly expresses hesitation and says that she wouldn't throw her dress on the ground the way Jon tells her (as if she's a method actress) but continues anyway, oblivious to the fact that acting against her natural habits undermines the "private moment" bullshit Rubin peddled earlier.

Her own overacting might be a bit of self-criticism against some of the performers De Palma placed in his earlier films (and this one), and it's but one of several moments of unadulterated playfulness from the director. Paul's second date never happens; after the title card introducing the date, Paul shows up at the wrong address, apologizes, and then the story simply moves on to other matters. One shot opens on a picture of a bullet on the cover of one of Floyd's Kennedy books, a particularly phallic object that only looks more so as the camera pans out and we see the book resting on the lap of a nude woman. One of Jon's stalking expeditions is interrupted by another amateur pornographer who pitches Rubin on buying his own films as if a traveling salesman. There's even a shot of a woman holding a copy of Hitchcock/Truffaut.

Perhaps the grandest joke of the film comes with its coda, as Rubin finds himself in 'Nam after the draft examiner accepts his lunatic ramblings about killing anyone and everyone and passes him along anyway. Jon walks through the long grass as a television news crew stumbles upon him (we're watching their broadcast) and follows him as they come into contact with what may be a member of the Viet Cong. Jon instructs the crew to wait where they are as he moves ahead to find that the person is a Vietnamese woman and, as the news camera continues to fixate on him and the "VC," Jon attempts to make another one of his Peep Art films on the spot, communicating futilely with the woman as she somewhat follows his instructions. There's some sort of metaphor for the war there, but I'm not sure how. The joke is only made funnier by the film's close on the same LBJ clip that opened it, a cyclical action that reminds us one final time that it was all just a show and it'll start again just as soon as the staff come in and sweep the theater floors. So much of Greetings is unessential, even cumbersome, but this sort of carefree, self-reflexive attitude makes what would have been an embarrassment in someone else's corpus a breakthrough for De Palma. Is this the same guy who made Scarface?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Carpenter's Tools: In the Mouth of Madness

As I have said repeatedly in my trek through John Carpenter's filmography, the most entertaining and rewarding aspect of his filmmaking is his simplicity. In a time when every blockbuster is artificially inflated to 150 minutes without fail in order to fleetingly justify high ticket prices to complaining consumers, Carpenter's films recall a time when people actually accepted quality over quantity, finding a taut 90 minutes preferable to suffering through repetitive sequences and limp humor simply to get a better money:time ratio. (Heck, even comedies suffer from bloat; in the unofficial and unnecessary battle of the wheel-spinning slacker gurus, I will always side with Kevin Smith over Judd Apatow because Smith knows that brevity is the soul of wit.) Carpenter's films are direct, on-the-nose and predictable and they are often better for it.

That's what makes the unabashedly Lovecraftian In the Mouth of Madness such an anomaly in the director's canon, and such a delight. Here is a film that folds back on itself, that distorts perspective and, finally, pulls the rug out from under us before it, like its protagonist, cackles at itself. In true Lovecraftian fashion, it begins in a mental asylum, as its newest inhabitant, P.I. John Trent (Sam Neill), recounts the tale of what led him to his new abode. The first clues pointing to the film's cheeky nature come in a wonderfully pulpy tracking shot across cells of asylum and a quasi-self-reflexive spin of the Carpenters' "We've Only Just Begun" as Neill, who'd worked on the director's previous film, sighs "not the Carpenters."

What follows is a delicious slice of metafiction, made all the more gleefully entertaining as filtered through Carpenter's matter-of-fact approach. Trent investigates the disappearance of one Sutter Crane, a massively popular horror writer who's become the most widely read author of the 20th century, according to his publishers. Before he meets them, Trent fields an attack from an ax-wielding madman who calmly asks the investigator, "Do you read Sutter Crane?" before lunging for him. Crane's editor, Linda Styles (Julie Carmen), informs Trent that the man was Crane's agent. Within minutes, Trent manages to find clues in the book covers of Crane's novels that form a map of New Hampshire pointing to a location of his fictional setting Hobb's End (a nod to Stephen King and his fondness for fictional hamlets in Maine), and he and Styles head out to find the author.

Rapidly, things go awry. They cannot find Hobb's End because it doesn't exist, but Linda suffers a terrifying drive at night as John sleeps, at first passing by the same cyclist before accidentally striking him, driving on what appears to be the top of a storm cloud before somehow winding up in broad daylight in the town of Hobb's End. Naturally, Trent stirs only at the end and compliments Linda for finding the place.

From the start, everything in Hobb's End seems off, from the jittery old lady running the desk of a hotel (her name, Mrs. Pickman, a reference to Lovecraft's story "Pickman's Model," which somewhat informs the structure of this story) to a looming, black, Russian cathedral that we learn houses Crane. Linda begins to spot real-life corollaries between Crane's novels and events occurring in the town, and soon the two spot hideously mutated creatures roaming about causing violence. Crane shows Linda the manuscript for his new book, the titular, In the Mouth of Madness, as she sees both events that have already happened and events that will come to pass. In the process, she too becomes a monster.

Carpenter's cheek can be seen all over the place in the film, as Trent slowly realizes that everyone in the town, including himself, is a character written by Crane. A man in a bar kills himself in front of John, saying "I have to. He wrote me this way." This semi-religious speech is hinted at earlier when news briefs discuss the frenzy over Crane's books and the violence that erupts at bookstores when operators cannot meet the demands of his incensed fanbase and a pundit asks "When does fiction become religion?" I am reminded of the cases in the late-'80s and early-'90s when parents and distraction-hungry politicians railed against heavy metal for driving young fans to lives of debauchery and suicide, ignoring both the impact of Reagan's economic plan on the deification of fast, loose living involving a lot of spent cash and the unanswered question, "What band wants to kill its audience?" In Carpenter's metafilm, he parlays the hysteria over music into pulp fiction with a straight face that makes the whole gag that much funnier. Crane places something in his writing that causes hallucinations and paranoia in people's minds, leading them to tear humanity apart so that Crane might turn over the planet to a race of monsters he envisioned who worship him as a god. When the agent listening to Trent's story in the framing device asks Trent how Crane expects to control the world when so many don't read, John smiles and replies, "They're making a movie."

And so, the film ends with Trent, having walked out of the ransacked asylum and its massacred inhabitants and found his face on a movie billboard advertising the film we've been watching the whole time. As he sits in a vacant theater watching his own life played back to him, he begins to laugh maniacally. Is he insane? Is the entire film set inside Crane's novel and Trent is indeed the protagonist? Or is it all true, that Trent has been forced into bringing about the apocalypse and monsters are currently overrunning the humans that didn't already kill each other? John just laughs harder at the possibilities, a desperate final act to keep the darkness at bay for just a few more seconds.

Right behind him is Carpenter, laughing just as hard at his own demons. Carpenter had once again returned to horror after an attempt to branch out into another genre met with critical and commercial indifference, and the same fate would befall this feature. People were moving beyond Carpenter, even though most action/horror cinema of the '90s was a large step down from the quality of his best work, and Madness simply got lost in the shuffle. Yet Cahiers du Cinéma would place In the Mouth of Madness on their best of the year list, recognizing it as a top-notch oddity in the director's work that nevertheless displayed all his usual, blunt charm. For my money, it's Carpenter's finest since The Thing, and one of his key works.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Shutter Island

I noticed when I signed into my Blogger account to write this a whopping five posts in a row discussing Martin Scorsese's much-belated B-movie Shutter Island. Given the broad disinterest shown in the bloggers I follow (not to mention myself) concerning the 2010 features released up to this point, I got a kick out of seeing everyone snap to attention. Adding to my amusement was the fact that the miniature excerpts from all five were variations on "Warning: contains spoilers." I plan to cross-review this for my school paper and I'm too lazy to write two entirely separate articles, so I shall avoid spoilers in this review.

Besides, the various twists and turns of Shutter Island just do not matter, and Martin Scorsese knows it. I have heard grumblings through the grapevine that Shutter Island marks Scorsese's attempt to ape twist-master M. Night Shyamalan. This is categorically untrue; if Scorsese wanted the unlocking of the narrative to be the film's ultimate payoff, he would not have telegraphed it from the first minute. Anyone remotely paying attention to the film can and will deduce its ultimate truth by the 10-minute mark, what with the pointed looks and deliberately overacted emphases on certain key phrases such as "defense mechanisms."

What the director does instead is use the messy pulp of Dennis Lehane's novel -- which I have not read but feel confident on the basis of the film saying is far, far, far removed from his usual output, about as far as Shutter Island is from native Boston -- is craft his best film since Gangs of New York, and his most brazenly cinematic since Bringing Out the Dead. Like Scorsese's underrated mid-'80s style-over-substance feature (After Hours), made in direct response to the aborted first attempt to make The Last Temptation of Christ, Shutter Island is Kafkaesque, though not in a particularly deep way. Where After Hours played its psychological mire for laughs, Shutter Island works as a thriller, but the two share a kinship in their display of Scorsese's boundless visual form and the jollies he gets from throwing caution to the wind.

You can see that the director is having a ball from the first frames of the film, as U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonard DiCaprio) converses with his new partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) as they ride a ferry to the titular island. The camera jumps between them as if Godard had sneaked into the editing room, further interrupting these jump cuts with visual asides to Teddy's past, of his wife (Michelle Williams), whom Teddy says died in an apartment fire. The two men are headed to Shutter Island and its mental health facility, Ashecliffe, to investigate a missing patient, whom the doctors say managed to slip through the facility's considerable security measures "as if she evaporated straight through the walls."

For the sake of spoilers, I shall go no further, nor would I feel much inclination to continue following the narrative even if I felt no obligation to protect the mystery for readers. Shutter Island is a giant red herring, and more than that a red herring that flops about and speaks like those awful singing basses that so woefully became the rage around the turn of the millennium when we are all so happy to have survived Y2K that we made some very poor decisions indeed. Unspooling a complicated but hardly complex yarn would suck all the enjoyment out of the movie, as well as the pleasure of discussing it.

What is important, or at least relevant, is how much Shutter Island runs into the open arms of the glory days of the cinema. The overacting, while easily justifiable in retrospect, clearly harks back to the days before Brando tore apart the rulebook, when actors emoted with a capital "E." As an epic psychological thriller, Shutter Island most clearly derives from two sources: Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo and Powell & Pressburger's Black Narcissus (the nature of the asylum and the overacting found within obviously brings to mind Samuel Suller's Shock Corridor). The sheer cliffs of the island match the rock faces that trapped the nuns in Powell's tripped-out vision of India, while the structure of the film, particularly the camera's alignment with the point-of-view of a detective who wrestles with his own perception, comes straight out of Vertigo.

It also marks a return to Scorsese's best kind of filmmaking, the sort that places his camera into the fractured POV of a warped character. Scorsese hasn't filmed in this style since his final collaboration with Paul Schrader, the criminally underappreciated Bringing Out the Dead, and he hasn't lost his knack for spellbinding shots that you can't always trust, even if he's telling a far simpler tale with Teddy than he did with Travis Bickle, Jake LaMotta or Frank Pierce. Helping matters tremendously is the gorgeous photography by Robert Richardson, who won an Oscar for his work on the director's The Aviator.

Combined with Scorsese's energetic, freewheeling direction, the Powell-influenced cinematography makes for some startling moments. Who could sit there and argue that the film isn't "real" or "deep" enough as Scorsese gives us a horrifying glimpse into Teddy's past as a WWII veteran, a scene framed in the same "movie movie" style as the rest of the picture yet filled with a weight far heavier than the heartstring-tugging content of what's on the screen? And what of the foray into the dreaded Ward C, where the most dangerous psychopaths are kept, its dizzying, rusted metal staircases and walkways resembling a post-industrial version of M.C. Escher's Relativity?

So, yes, Shutter Island is, at its heart, a 140-minute paean to Scorsese's abilities as a visual stylist. But for all of us who guessed the ending before moving out of the first act, how many could have expected the inevitable reveal to be so moving, so like Vertigo in its striking moment of pure empathy between audience and character, even if that moment is forced upon us by the director? Shutter Island could mark an important turning point for the director, who suffered under the yoke of the Weinsteins on Gangs of New York and lost The Departed to Jack Nicholson. Now, with Oscar in hand, Scorsese is confident enough to be himself again, something we haven't seen in years. His long-discussed adaptation of Shusaku Endo's Silence appears at last to be on track, and Scorsese himself asked for the final delay in this film's release to tweak a few more odds and ends in post-production, effectively removing the film from receiving any Oscar attention this year or the next for the sake of making the movie he wanted. Let us hope, then, that Scorsese makes of this decade what Spielberg made of the last one: a period of astonishing late-career creativity by a director who no longer has anything left to prove.

Friday, February 19, 2010


The climax of Todd Haynes' Safe is so intense, so gripping, so utterly terrifying and yet so impersonal and calm at the same time that it cements the film as one of the great horror pictures of our time. Like the rest of the film, it features no monsters or villains, nor even does it resort to a single shock cut. The ending serves as the flash point of the film's insidious vibe, in which it becomes horribly clear to the audience that something has gone wrong with this world. Haynes' masterpiece -- and it is a masterpiece, possibly the greatest work of unorthodox horror since Kubrick's take on The Shining -- never gives us a second of comfort, subtly but insurmountably building until you'll beg for it to stop.

At its core, Safe functions as a sort of common ancestor for Mulholland Dr. and Haynes' own Far from Heaven. It shares the hauntingly oneiric tone and the sinister, synthetically bubbling score that made Lynch's best film so unsettling, and its subversive period recreation would form the basis for the equally pristine-yet-somehow-off presentation of Haynes' ode to Douglas Sirk. Where his most well-known picture used its period to examine then-current issues of race and gender roles through the prism of modern ethics, Safe's late-Reagan setting is merely a means of tracing an issue that affected the country in 1995 (and today) to a point in time where it first became noticeable.

For its 1987 setting corresponds to the first public mentions of something known as environmental illness, dubbed Multiple Chemical Sensitivity or, more popularly, the 20th Century Disease. Its diagnosis stated that patients suffered a reaction to chemicals present in air and food, though the verdict is still out if the rashes and other reactions were purely physical or triggering psychologically. Some have made Safe out to be nothing but an examination of the disease, of Haynes' morbid curiosity with a bizarre illness and, perhaps, an AIDS allegory as well. But that ignores the inherent implications of the disease, to say nothing of Haynes' remark that he "sided with the disease."

The afflicted protagonist of Haynes' film is Carol (Julianne Moore, in her finest performance), a well-off homemaker in Southern California who enjoys the beneficial side of Reagan's voodoo economics. She lives in a mansion with her husband, where she spends her days fussing over interior decorating and lunching with other rich wives. As the opening credits roll, we ride home with Carol and her husband Greg as the camera takes in the high-class suburbia around them, rows of equally garish mansions spruced up with the "personal touch" of the bored, jobless women in each one. They arrive home where Carol sneezes as they get out of the car and complains about how cold the garage is. Haynes then cuts to the couple engaging in passionless sex -- in the missionary position, further emphasizing the banality of the coupling -- focusing on Carol's vacant face as Greg grunts his way to climax. The next day, Carol heads for a workout at one of those aerobic dance centers that used to be so popular, where her friends comment that she didn't sweat a drop.

This becomes the harbinger of a slow breakdown, as Carol's cushy world slowly constricts around her. She cannot stop coughing after being caught behind a truck that spews fumes, disorienting her as she speeds through a parking garage seeking a place to stop and catch her breath. Her nosebleeds at the salon after receiving a perm. At a friend's baby shower, she exchanges vapid pleasantries with the guests and their children ("She's gotten so big!" before suffering what appears to be an asthma attack. Doctors can't figure out what's wrong; neither can psychologists. An allergy tests reveals only a sensitivity to milk, which Carol drinks without incident throughout the film. Everyone assures her that this is all in her head, but her condition worsens until Carol's well-kept appearance deteriorates into a haunting visage of dry, outbroken skin. Her inability to pinpoint what's happening to her drives her to paralyzing fear of the world around her.

Haynes' aesthetic strongly emphasizes her growing disconnect from the world. He films in long shots with flattened composition, as if filming the pages of the furniture catalogs Carol no doubt peruses constantly to find the next accessory to make her house just right. A deliciously sly gag early in the film involves Carol receiving new couches -- those awful, modern things that look like the manufacturers removed the squashed mattresses inside fold-out couches and placed them inside large cushions for resale -- in the wrong color; she complains that they don't match anything in the house, so movers bring out the correct versions, which actually do match the house and thus magnify how creepy and off-putting the place is. Haynes captures the sets under stark, artificial light, a hyper-sterile version of the sickly, dripping lighting of your average David Fincher picture. The lighting does an even better job of undercutting the plush environment than Brendan Dolan's score, painting the world in a frightfully antiseptic tone, visualizing the chemical sheen that affects Carol so violently.

Eventually, Carol's desperation leads to full-blown paranoia, to the point that she walls herself off from the world and carries around an oxygen tank. At a hospital, she hears of a place in the desert called the Wrenwood Center, devoted to helping sufferers of Environmental Illness. Its leader, Peter Dunning (Peter Friedman), waffles between earnestness and creepiness. His solution for EI is a complete reprogramming of the immune system, accomplished by removing patients as much from the world as possible. Wrenwood forbids any irritable substances, be it food, cosmetics or controlled substances; activities are sexually segregated, and every patient gets his or her own room. Dunning teaches self-love as a means for building up the immune system, holding each patient responsible for willing himself well.

What makes Safe so gently terrifying is, at least partially, its ambiguity. Any discussion of the film will only spark debates over what it is actually about in the first place. The first half plays out as a wicked satire of Reagan's socioeconomic effect on America, focusing on its regressive impact on social and gender roles as a result of Reagan's celebration of the wealthy and his courting of the so-called moral majority. Carol devotes her life to appearances, never even sparing a thought for her child, who isn't really hers anyway but Greg's son from a previous marriage. Carol attends a support group before heading to Wrenwood, and after the speech she gathers with other women suffering from the disease and they prattle on like the gibbering nabobs with whom Carol normally associates herself. The character is often regarded, as with the rest of the film, as a test-run for Far from Heaven and its protagonist, and that speaks to how far back people like Carol took women. When she meets her psychologist, he asks her about her job and she says, "I'm a housew- um, a homemaker." She's just self-aware enough to realize she should be embarrassed for fitting such an old, reductive type, a trophy wife who spends money that her husband earns, but that doesn't make her any less an emblem of that type.

The second half blurs the themes somewhat, introducing various interpretations. The Wrenwood Center itself mocks religious cults, New Age liberal hangouts or both, depending on your perspective. Dunning not only suffers from EI but AIDS, so, according to one fawning disciple, "his perspective is incredibly vast." This open admission of AIDS confirms my suspicions throughout the film as vague references are made to a mystery illness that does not sound like EI. Near the start of the film, Carol chats with one of her friends who mentions a death in the family. Carol pauses; "Was it...," she hesitates. "No, not at all...He wasn't married," comes the reply. The doctors' puzzlement and vexation over Carol's illness could be a proxy for the initial reactions of confusion to the HIV virus, not only in their inability to treat it but from the wild rumors that sprang up over what caused the illness.

Which brings us to the third major interpretation, one supported by the director -- though he seems to be doing his damnedest to keep the mystery of the film alive, so we shouldn't be so ready to jump at the first explanation that he gives -- that it is a "gay" film. Haynes, an openly gay man, would certainly have an insight into the feelings of isolation and abnormality in a world that still doesn't fully understand homosexuals and certainly didn't 23 years ago. If Carol herself is meant to be gay, the only evidence lies in her ambivalence toward sex with her husband, but that's too vague to be considered proof and she need not be gay for the film to address the angst of the homosexual community.

The link between these varied explications is the idea of normalcy and the innate human need for it. How many homosexuals today display self-hating characteristics, particularly those in religious and conservative circles, in an attempt to fit in? (Hell, the contested notion of Don't Ask, Don't Tell stipulates that gays must pass for heterosexuals to serve in the military). The normalcy argument in regards to AIDS can be proved by looking to the far more obvious Oscar vehicle Philadelphia, an admirable if overbearing picture that visualized the paranoid frenzy over the disease by showing AIDS as such a source of madness among the uneducated that people would actually avoid the chance to hang out with Tom Hanks.

Carol's illness serves as her body's rejection of the norm of her comfortable life, a break that terrifies her and drives her to extreme actions to cure herself. Still, Dunning's techniques, however stringent, do appear to work for people, leading some reviewers to cite the ending as cautiously optimistic, suggesting that they either saw an alternate cut of the film or simply lost their minds. But this ignores the key element of the film, that the disease actually helps Carol even as it makes her the closest the movie has to a villain. It separates her from the world and drives her to fear and hate it, a reaction that, despite her deteriorating condition, strikes one as healthy after surveying the horrible world in which she lives. Ergo, the final moment of the film, in which we see Carol move into the most seclusive and sterile room in Wrenwood, where she finally feels comfortable enough to look in the mirror and say, "I love you." This shot suggests that she might be cured after all, but the clear implication of the film is that the cure is worse than the disease, and the idea that she might one day rejoin society with the same obliviousness she'd viewed it with previously is more frightening than any violent climax. In its title card, Safe appears enclosed in brackets an indication that even the title attempts to protect itself. But Haynes suggests that being safe is the problem; Carol is safe at the start of the film in her rich, well-tended neighborhood, complete with Hispanic maid to be bossed about, and she's even more secure at the end, locked away in the most solitary room of a solitary camp. What could have been the turbulent metamorphosis into a superior creature instead becomes a willful -- desperate, even -- attempt to return to normality.

Safe doesn't try to instill a fear of what's under the bed, in the closet or next door. It does not even seek to make you dread something as vague as the dark. That's letting us off easy. No, Safe makes you fear the food you eat, the luxuries you buy, the political system you support, the economy you exploit, the vapid chit-chat you trade with your equally clueless friends, even the simple act of breathing. It is a hallucinatory snapshot of the hole we've dug for ourselves, and we can be sure that Haynes agrees, albeit with more cynicism, when Dunning gently assures his patients that they are the only ones to blame for their illness. What makes it even more horrifying is the knowledge that, 15 years after the film was made and 23 years after its setting, everything is exactly the same. There's a thought to keep you up at night.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Vivre sa vie

Doubling back as I am to catch Vivre sa vie, one of Jean-Luc Godard's most beloved films (oddly out-of-print until Criterion puts out their restored copy in April), I can easily spot parallels with subsequent works. It has the same tragic romanticism of Pierrot le fou, albeit inwardly, not outwardly, directed (it also reverses the gender of the dissatisfied spouse who leaves behind a partner and child). Its vision of a modern Paris forms the aesthetic backdrop for Alphaville. Its combination of verité and formalism builds on that found in Breathless and points to the clearest synthesis of the styles in Band of Outsiders.

The clearest descendant is, of course, Une femme mariée, but not for anything so simplistic as their female leads. Well, that is indeed a part of it, but Vivre sa vie can largely be seen as the much more humanistic run-through for the cynicism and critical sympathy of Godard's elegy to the married woman. Made earlier in Godard and Karina's relationship, Vivre sa vie clearly allies more strongly with its protagonist, seeking not to explain away whatever it was about Karina that vexed him so and instead invested in this character and desperate to help her even as he plots her doom.

The film marks Godard's first heightened usage of Brechtian techniques to alienate the audience, using intertitles that would later pop up in Une femme mariée. While Godard and Coutard head through the streets in a verité manner, they use not a hand-held 16mm camera but a heavier model meant for more classical filmmaking. Thus, the camera tracks on a dolly, it pans and tilts smoothly as if on a set. The effect is dissonant, breaking us from the action and heightening the artifice by nature of its harsh clash with the realistic scenes the camera depicts.

Yet Vivre sa vie is emotive, wrenching even, thanks to Karina. We meet her and her husband in a café, with their backs to the camera and their faces only somewhat visible in mirrors in the unfocused background, signifying that these people could be anybody. Nana discusses her unhappiness as her husband tries to convince her not to leave, but she's made up her mind. She's bored of her life and wants to be an actress, so she sets out on her own, sure that she'll escape her ennui in no time. But the offers don't come, and money becomes tight. So, Nana decides to become a prostitute.

But does she decide? As with the glitzy world of Une femme mariée, the Paris of this earlier feature is basking in the neon glow of capitalist progress. Pinball machines fill the cafés, bright lights advertise the cinema and other businesses; here, the City of Lights has become but one giant, flashy billboard. As he is wont to do, Godard reframes the sexuality of the story around sociopolitical implications, suggesting that Nana does not have the freedom to make her own sexual choices, that her decision to prostitute herself is not even a decision but the inevitable result of the economic and sexual shackles that bind her. Nana deludes herself into thinking that she's taking up streetwalking of her own accord, but her dire financial straits force her into the life. Later, she hitches her wagon to Raoul, the first pimp she meets, and we see how gender roles hold her back.

Karina brings warmth and tragedy to a role -- and a film -- structured to separate the audience from the material, and the result is oddly hypnotic and more involving than a melodrama that would have intentionally set out to grab our heartstrings. Her expressive eyes register mostly dispassion as she learns to set aside her feelings for her new job: she stares straight ahead as a client kisses her neck, the look on her face no different from the bored one she sports at the cafés. Raoul takes a hit of his cigarette and kisses her, and she blows out the smoke, but what might have been romantic with someone she cared for looks unsettling, as if she'd just made out with a demon.

Occasionally, though, Karina gives us a peak inside to the real Nana, and Godard manages to attune the camera perfectly to these brief but overwhelming emotional outpourings. Nana heads to one of those swanky new cinemas, amusingly to see a classic film, Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc. As Nana sits in the completely silent film -- Godard cuts the sound out of his own film in this scene out of respect -- we see the utter perfection of the film choice as an allegory for Nana's own life: like Nana, Jeanne is the victim of forces beyond her control, an invaluable asset, even a necessity, for the men who exploit and ultimately sacrifice her because they don't understand her. And when Godard cuts between Renée Falconetti's wild, tortured eyes and Karina's own, the effect is so heartbreaking you won't think it's too on-the-nose for a second. Little touches, such as Nana measuring herself with only her hand or her playful dance around a jukebox, show us the Nana that might have been, the carefree young lady buried under the thousand-yard stare and the boredom.

Godard's own playfulness makes Vivre sa vie inviting and amusing despite its emotional impact, and the director uses the film to build on the experimentation with sound and image editing he began in earnest with A Woman is a Woman. His shots are not alienating simply by their objective movement in a highly subjective and empathetic story but their obscuring mise-en-scène: Godard highlights the loss of the last vestige of Nana's freedom by placing Raoul's head in front of hers when he becomes her pimp, blocking out her face as they discuss details. Once again, Godard hires Michel Legran to score his film and, once again, he splinters the composer's soundtrack, each piece of music starting and stopping in fits as one tableau transitions to the next. Godard even breaks up one of Coutard's elegant pans in one scene, as he edits jump-cuts into a smooth pan to match the sound of machine gun fire outside a café. Besides the aforementioned silence during the Jeanne d'Arc segment, the sound cuts out unexpectedly after Nana has a conversation with a philosopher near the end of the film, in which she surprisingly holds her own though she doesn't realize it. The philosopher discusses the inherent limits of oral and written language, and in the next scene Godard cuts out the sound and places subtitles on the screen before inserting his own voice as narration.

I've used the word "café" numerous times in this review, because it's one of two main locations, the other being the hotel rooms where Nana makes her living. She embodies the same ennui and angst of the characters in Breathless; she just doesn't talk about it so much. The café, with its promise of stiff drinks and numbing parlor entertainment, may be the only respite for people like Nana, even though they don't yet realize what they're hiding from. The political message of Vivre sa vie, of the growing burden of capitalist excess weighing down Paris, is not fully-formed here because Godard doesn't fully see it yet. The transition from the parliamentary Fourth Republic to the presidential Fifth Republic offered a tremendous economic boon, but De Gaulle fancied himself too much in the American style, promoting an independent France even as he accepted an influx of American imports. So, the Paris of Vivre sa vie bustles with brand-new American autos and glitzy fashions and entertainment, but no one seems to have any money. With Une femme mariée, Godard successfully pinpointed this problem of pre-Reagan voodoo economics and its effect of materializing human life, but here he is tracing along the page, aware that something is wrong but unable to put his finger on it.

As Breathless ended with Michel finally getting his wish to emulate the gangsters of Old Hollywood just as he realized how pathetic it all was (not to mention his failure to remember that, under the old system, Hollywood baddies had to die or be brought to justice), so too does Nana meet her end at the hands of a world that just doesn't give a damn about her. But the power of the film is telegraphed hauntingly with this final moment, as the camera itself cannot bear to see Nana's crumpled body. It's a moment of cowardice, yes, Godard unable to look at what he himself wrought because that's his wife on the pavement playing a character he, for all his aesthetic distance, pities. But it also serves as the most human, touching moment of his career through Pierrot le fou, evidence that there is some line Godard can't cross, even if he did later in the cataclysmic finale of Pierrot. It certainly isn't the first, nor remotely the last by the looks of it, moment of capital-R Romanticism in the intellectual's bag of tricks, but it's the most searing and rending, the first definitive proof after the hoopla over Breathless' stylistic abandon and A Woman is a Woman's carefree grace that Godard was destined to last.

Lost — Season 5

[Warning- contains spoilers]

As with the Oceanic Six at the start of Lost's fifth season, I fear I spent too much time off the island. For all my sudden and passionate interest in the Abrams-Cuse-Lindelof mindtrip after its fourth season not only pulled it from the brink but turned the series into something finally worthy of its rabid fanbase, I still found myself easily distracted from continuing to catch up with the series in time for its final season. No doubt, some part of me didn't particularly feel like getting up to speed, only to have to experience this often frustrating series in real-time, forced to wait seven days between non-sequiturs and shock reveals instead of simply plowing through to the end. But I've been steadily swayed by the rabid Facebook status updates, the whispered "can you believe what happened?" onslaught in my classes, and if I could stand watching the final, cryptic season of Battlestar Galactica as it aired, absurd, year-long mid-season break included, I could suck it up and deal with the cliffhangers.

The first and most noticeable change in Lost's narrative -- calling it such seems a kindness on my part at times -- is the addition of, saints preserve us, time travel. Sometimes, you just have to sit back and marvel at the inventive ways these writers can spin their wheels. Following the events of the fourth season finale, in which Ben left the island to save it, the entire island vanished into thin air as Jack and the rest of the Oceanic Six looked back from their escape helicopter and finally understood that the place did have a power after all.

Those left behind move with the island, and soon they find that their camp on the beach has disappeared, and everyone's favorite loony genius, Daniel (Jeremy Davies), says that the survivors can't find it because it hasn't been built yet. Sawyer acts as our stand-in in this moment by promptly getting pissed and channeling all our "you've got to be shitting me" rhetorical exclamations. The troubles are just beginning, however, as Locke is separated from the group and finds himself in the '70s, where he learns of his eventual death from Richard before jutting back to the present and sets off to leave the island himself to bring the people who left back to stabilize the island's time-space jumps.

Most of the information presented in this season, be it answers to old questions or yet more queries comes in the form of "not yet" or "It will," as characters pop through the timeline before Locke's departure from the island stops the time jumps and strands our heroes in 1977 while the rest of the survivors remain in the present...I think. A Lost viewer has to expect a certain amount of run-around and nonsense from the program, and at least the writers get it out of the way fairly early this season. We only need to put up with the huge time skipping for five episodes before they stabilize the timeline, regardless of where the characters ultimately end up. I was particularly pleased that the Oceanic Six arc wrapped up so quickly, terrified as I was that the writers would continue to wring out the "We have to go back!" histrionics until the season finale.

Of course, the nature of their return to the island raises further questions, and involves another plane crash that leaves any new characters (as well as Sun, Frank, Ben and a curiously not-dead Locke) in the present and launches Hurley, Sayid, Jack and Kate back to 1977 to find their buddies living comfortably with the Dharma Initiative, having acclimated three years ago and monitored the building of everything they later found in the present. The return of the missing heroes throws off the idyll the other survivors enjoyed, particularly the relationship between Sawyer and Juliet.

This season, more than any of the others, benefits most from a binge-like watching style. It never hits the highs of the previous season, nor the abysmal lows to be found in seasons two and three. It is generally enjoyable all the way through, provided you never let yourself stop long enough to question just how preposterous it's all become. The time travel angle opens typical questions, such as the possibility of changing the future and preventing Oceanic Flight 815 from crashing in the first place. While I often lose myself in the tedium of what can be changed already was changed, the future is determined/not determined and the circuitous logic inherent in a discussion about looping time, I confess a certain weakness for time stories, albeit mainly for the amusement I wring out of their zany hypotheticals (the Bill and Ted movies are still the best time movies because they completely understand how ludicrous time travel is). The writers certainly string us along as they always do, but they manage to use the skewed logic to move us closer than ever to understanding the island, even as each revelation makes it only more of an enigma.

What I do find wearisome -- what I have always found taxing about the show -- is the writers' predilection for killing off interesting characters or dull characters just as we're given a reason to care about them. Daniel was far and away the best addition to the show since the loss of Mr. Eko: we could see he was fundamentally a good guy under his fried brain and that whole "turning his girlfriend into a vegetable then leaving town" chestnut. He was sympathetic and interesting naturally in a way that so many other characters on the show never were despite desperate attempts on behalf of the writers to make them palatable or at least fleshed out. Even the writers seem to understand and appreciate his appeal, choosing as they did to use his death for the milestone 100th episode, appropriately titled "The Variable" to balance out the first Daniel-centric episode, the mini-masterpiece that was "The Constant." But "The Variable" lacks much of the power of its predecessor, with a weak reveal and a death that's meant solely to move the plot forward. Daniel isn't the only high profile character to die this season, but he appears to be the only one who doesn't come back (oh, what a long story).

Still, even when some characters do return in flashbacks, different time periods, apparitions and other odd events, we're still seeing less of them and thus devoting more, more, insufferably more time to the Jack and Kate Show. At what point do the writers admit that these characters hit the wall of development before they even left the first season and stop acting like anyone cares about them. The most ardent Lost fans I know mock Jack and his endless flow of "jears" and nobody likes Kate. That is a generalization, one I cannot remotely prove, but I will adamantly state it because I cannot bear the thought that people in this world find Kate a compelling character.

I have already drawn up a preliminary list of things I will and wont miss about Lost when it comes to an end this year. While I'm still no über-fan, I will miss its interesting plotting and its hypnotic effect (though the constant series of reveals and cliffhangers breaks up that mood). In the "what I won't miss category," I wrote "Kate episodes," then I wrote it again and again until I wrote over existing "Kate episodes" and eventually the page fell apart from the amount of ink on it. In this season, Kate at last moves from being an uninteresting, cumbersome character into the worst the series has ever seen. "But Jake, what about Shannon?" I imagine you saying. "You've been away so long that you've forgotten about her." No, no I remember. But Shannon had the good grace to waste our time then die an honorable death. She didn't stick around for five seasons gently harshing everyone's buzz. Kate has become petulant and selfish, making the off-island Oceanic Six arc unbearable with her outrage toward Jack for wanting to return to the island and also undercutting the captivating stuff with the Dharma Initiative. I don't know which aspect of her trouble-making persona annoys me more: the trouble she causes by dint of being a woman in-between the two most prominent male characters on the show, or the trouble she causes by demanding that she get her way at all times and glaring when someone dares suggest something she finds distasteful despite usually being wrong and simple. I cannot even fathom what it is about her that so attracts the men that Sawyer's relationship with Juliet, an interesting, three-dimensional actually human character, should be threatened by her re-emergence. I do not even mean to suggest that Evangeline Lilly is a bad actress, and even if she is, no actor deserves such an atrociously written character.

At its best, Lost successfully taps into that self-mythologizing, ever-mysterious vibe of Twin Peaks, the series it so desperately wants to emulate. At its worst, it is a platform for regressive, one-dimensional scripting from writers who appear to be under strict command to neither show nor tell. The fifth season has the same broadly enjoyable vibe as its first season, albeit filtered through the "WTF?" prism of what's since come. The finale isn't as striking as the previous season's, and its big emotional moment is undermined by intrusive musical cues, but its a damn fine capper on a season that, to my great surprise, held my attention even when it didn't seem to hold the writers'. The increased burden of Kate's vacuous, egocentric pouting notwithstanding (it's downright understandable, given the degree to which everyone on the show has bent over backwards for her), there's some fine character growth, especially concerning Miles, Linus and Locke, who takes an abrupt left turn that is explained only in the finale and raises very interesting questions indeed. Most welcome is the added focus on Sawyer, easily the most interesting of the top three protagonists (though a stuffed animal has more personality than Jack and more requisite cute than Kate); James Ford has been biding his time for five seasons for the chance to take front and center for an extended period of time, and he makes the most out of every second. The fifth season, as one would expect, serves mostly as a warm-up for the current and final season, but the generally high standards of the episodes -- if a step down from the last batch -- points to something suitably big, weird, rewarding and infuriating in the future. For reasons I can't quite explain, I can't wait.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Tokyo Sonata

That the director of Tokyo Sonata, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, is primarily known for his contributions to J-horror seems fitting. Despite the lack of monsters, murderers or critters, Tokyo Sonata is very much a horror film, one with a terrifying message, made all the more frightening for how universal it is. As a study of the effect of the global downturn in the economy, it replaces the occasionally precious wit of Up in the Air with something a great deal more honest. So honest, in fact, that you'll need to run right back to Jason Reitman's film when it's all over so you can laugh away some of the pain.

Tokyo Sonata follows the Sasaki family, chiefly its patriarch, Ryûhel (Teruyuki Kagawa), as the world threatens to crush them. Ryûhel works as an administrator for a healthcare company, but Chinese associates move into the firm and offer to work for less money, and soon the 46-year-old finds himself out of a job. (How strange it is to see a scenario in which non-citizens actually do take jobs people might want, compared to all the blustering we hear in the States over immigrants working manual labor). Ashamed of his predicament, Ryûhel does not tell his wife, Megumi (Kyoko Koizumi), and each morning he dresses in a suit, grabs his old briefcase and heads out as if going to his job. Instead, he heads to a job search center and stands in line at a soup kitchen.

There he meet Kurosu, an old friend who also met with downsizing and masks his shame. Kurosu rigs his phone to ring intermittently throughout the day to give the impression that he is fielding calls from clients, sets up a separate bank account for his severance pay to avoid suspicious deposits and gives specific advice for collecting unemployment insurance. They meet every day at the food line, well-dressed and tidy among the homeless, and their shame turns to desperation. Kurosu invites Ryûhel to dinner in an attempt to put off his wife's growing suspicion, but their teenage daughter understands what's going on. Later, Ryûhel learns that Kurosu forced his wife into a double suicide by gas poisoning.

Kurosawa creates an eerie, hollow version of Tokyo, one that recalls the terrible vacancy of a post-infection London in 28 Days Later. We see only a few cars in the streets, and only a few pedestrians, but the lines at the unemployment office and the food line are immense, lines snaking around as far back as the eye can see, as if all of Tokyo has been put out of work. Kurosawa's mise-en-scène is spare but crushing, the lights in the Sasaki home hanging low, so low they appear to touch the characters' heads. We learn of the troubles of the rest of the world when Ryûhel and Megumi's rebellious elder son Takashi announces his intention to join the US military, who are so hard-up for recruitment that they will accept volunteers from other countries. Ryûhel tries to forbid it but has no response when Takashi asks what he can do in Japan. New reports play in the background like Greek choruses, discussing rising troop levels in the U.S. or China's growing economic domination, weighing down further on the family.

Eventually, the pressure begins to affect Ryûhel. He endures the ignominy of the job search, his administrative background awarding him the shot to manage a Happy Mart. When he does get a shot at another office job, his prospective employer humiliates him and forces Ryûhel to sing karaoke to back up his skills. His youngest son, Kenji, spots a piano instructor teaching a child on the way home from school one day and asks his dad for lessons. Ryûhel refuses, so Kenji secretly takes lessons and pays with his lunch money. When Ryûhel finds out, he beats the child despite his teacher's enthusiasm for Kenji's talent and insistence that he's a child prodigy.

What makes Tokyo Sonata such a delight, even in its deeply unsettling effect, are the little truths and details sprinkled throughout. After eating that dinner with Kurosu, Ryûhel returns home and, before he walks inside, pauses at the door and buries his pain and self-loathing until he can force a smile and enter the house. Kenji finds a discarded keyboard in a trash heap and brings it home where he discovers that it doesn't work, but he practices on it nonetheless, trusting to find the right notes like Beethoven, only in this case it's the piano that's deaf. The various burdens of the other family members weigh collectively on Megumi, who knows her husband is unemployed but says nothing, approves of Kenji's desire to learn the piano but cannot sway Ryûhel into agreeing. As he awaits his plane to America, Takashi asks her why she doesn't divorce Ryûhel, and her quick, vague response belies that it's a question she asks herself routinely.

In the third act, each of the three family members who remain in Japan undergoes an event that brings their existential uncertainty to a head. A robber ambushes Megumi at the house and takes her hostage when he discovers no money in the house. She resists at first, but her frustrations with her husband and the feeling of life's futility leads her to follow the robber to a shack on the beach. Kenji attempts to run away from home, and in the process he tries to help a classmate escape his own abusive father. Meanwhile, Ryûhel, now a janitor in a mall, becomes despondent after his wife sees him at his new job. Each scenario plays out in largely an anticlimactic fashion, but there's a blunt sort of poetry to these events, bringing each character face to face with what's eating them and letting them process it quietly.

Tokyo Sonata is a mostly quiet film. Its characters only occasionally shout, and when they do it their yells are dissipated into the void and annihilated like a fire dying in space. Punctuating this low soundtrack are the strains of Kenji's rapidly developing piano playing, which is given its full spotlight in the coda. One of the most moving sequences of any film in recent memory, the recital at the end of the film pulls the characters back together and taking stock of the changes. As Kenji flawlessly plays Debussy "Clair de Lune," we see the final, beautiful message of this surprisingly beautiful horror film: bad things happen and you can't reverse them, but you can adapt and, maybe, find happiness in the world. Not bad for a guy who got his start making generic yakuza pictures and hit big with revenge thrillers.