Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Repo Men

Quite often at the theater, I sit morosely during the trailers, made to watch simultaneously the most marketable aspects of a coming attraction and everything about it that might turn me off the film -- if I wasn't so lazy and unwilling to move from my spot once I find one in a theater, even during the previews, I might take after Gene Siskel and stand out in the lobby to avoid hearing the best jokes for upcoming comedies and the unwittingly revealed plot twists of thrillers. At every screening, I suppress a groan of pain at some (at the very least) of the previews, whose offensive banality is only made worse by the mutterings of the strangers around me and the occasional friend that the film being teased looks "great" and that "we've gotta see that." I found the tables turned, however, in recent weeks as trailers for some gonzo-looking sci-fi ride called Repo Men played in advance of the few films I've attended this year. In all cases, the audiences either laughed derisively or sat in silence, leaving me to wonder, "Am I the only person who thinks this actually looks kind of good?"

That was then. Repo Men boasts a ridiculous premise: in the future, a giant corporation known as The Union sells artificial organs to patients in need of transplants. The business charges exorbitant prices, and if (or when) people cannot pay, The Union sends officials to repossess the unpaid item. Absurd, isn't it? Imagine such a world, where a profit-driven intermediary stood between doctors and patients. How could such a business, which repossesses so much of its property, make any money? What money lender would ever agree to finance staggering loans that lessees cannot hope to pay? Madness, I tell you.

Jude Law plays Remy, one of the Union's titular repo men, a cold professional who cannot be moved by pleas or threats. He zaps an overdue client with a taser, opens the unfortunate sod and reclaims the organ, no matter how vital. As a company courtesy, he asks his victims if they require a trip to the hospital, usually while they're still unconscious. Along with his best friend, the more thuggish Jake (Forest Whitaker), Remy is one of The Union's finest employees. The bond between the two is so strong that when he gets word of Remy's job hunting, Jake rigs their defibrillator to backfire, thus damaging Remy's heart. He'll require a new one from The Union. To pay it off, Remy must remain at the firm, and with Jake.

With such a clever setup, covering both sociopolitical and personal basis, the eventual failure of Repo Men comes as a major disappointment. The dynamic between Remy and Jake, as well as Remy's change of heart regarding his occupation provides an identifiable character base to anchor the social implications, but director Miguel Sapochnik does not expand upon the rich possibilities of Eric Garcia's script.

Once the plot begins to roll, it snowballs away from contemporary relevance, eventually outpacing coherence as well. Remy's wife, who is somewhat creepily made into an unreasonable bitch almost immediately without any background into her character (a particular waste of the wonderful Dutch actress Carice van Houten), throws him out of the house when he awakens from his coma, and soon he flees his bosses, unable to do his job and therefore make his payments. He meets a singer, Beth (Alice Braga), who has an artificial "everything else" to go with Remy's fake heart. Sapochnik speeds through their vague recollection of each other into a romance to insert a requisite sex scene before they band together to tear down the evil corporation through over-kinetic action scenes that dispense of the black comedy of the film's start for facile sight gags and uninteresting stunts. Sapochnik's vision of the future is dull in that drably colored, dimly lit aesthetic that has become cheap shorthand for unwelcoming dystopias, fueling both good films -- Children of Men, The Road -- and bad (don't get me started).

"Vision" may be too generous a word. Repo Men's title proves quite apt, as Sapochnik appropriates design elements, plot devices and genre tropes from nearly every significant science fiction film that can be remotely tied to it. All of its shots of the city skyline of future Toronto resemble Blade Runner's Los Angeles, and the character of Remy resembles Deckard to a T, from his proficiency at his job to the overall irony of his involvement in his occupation (provided you pitch your tent in the "Deckard as replicant" camp). Its "fugitive on the run" scenes recall Logan's Run, and damn near everything -- the notion of a future run through heartless bureaucracy, the black comedy -- from Brazil except the visual ingenuity. It even shamelessly recreates the intense hallway fight from Oldboy, sapping all the fury and comedy out of the original and existing solely, one supposes, because the director thought Park Chan-wook's film was cool.

Repo Men has its moments. Both Law and Whitaker play their parts well, underwritten as they are. Liev Schreiber ported over his gruffness from the Wolverine movie into the role of Remy's boss and one of the public faces of The Union, and his imposing presence adds both weight and humor to his scenes, wherein he gently runs through the same damn speech to every potential client and forces their hand to choose lifelong debt (though that may not be quite so long) over death. Occasionally, the action becomes as goofy and intentionally laughable as its trying to be. But I couldn't help but focus on one scene, early in the film, when Remy, determined to pull off one last job before transferring, decides to reclaim the heart of a favorite musician. In his delusion, he justifies this sickening form of hero worship and god killing as doing the man a favor; "The guy who rips out his heart may as well as well be a fan of his music." It's such a brilliantly comedic and, when the musician resigns himself and asks only to finish one last song, oddly touching scene that it points to a much better film, and the problems begin to arise as soon as this sequence ends.

The first 20 minutes of Repo Men announce the most intelligent and incisive science fiction film in years, containing a brain and a heart. But, like the organs that make up its MacGuffins, they are artificial, merely rote setups to a mind-numbing display. Capped off by a final twist that not only completes the ripoff of one of its sources but adds only one final meaningless gesture. As with all the other artistic thefts in Repo Men, it carries over only the surface, capturing none of the depth beneath it. Perhaps the key to unlocking the film's ultimate ignorance lies in its usage of the example of Schrödinger's cat, at first potentially clever until we finally hear Remy's interpretation of it, which is about as stupid as you'd expect from a man who at one point boasts that he has a "small brain, big skull."

How to Train Your Dragon

It is not enough to say that How to Train Your Dragon is the finest picture to roll out of Dreamworks Animation's studio, particularly given their nearly decade-long bath in the slop trough with a series of increasingly banal sequels and failed attempts at launching new franchises (who could forget Shark Tale, other than the people who saw it?). But the studio finally followed through on the initial promise of their early features -- Antz, the underrated Prince of Egypt, the first Shrek -- with 2008's Kung Fu Panda, and now they've put out a film that easily ranks among the finest achievements in contemporary animation, as well as one of the few delights of this young year.

One of those "the title says it all" flicks, How to Train Your Dragon is a high-concept family comedy executed nearly without flaws. It presents the small Viking village of Berk, situated on a craggy rock that barely yields enough tasteless crops to feed the populace and their sheep. Complicating matters is the routine invasion by dragons, who scorch the spare fields and seize livestock for their own gullets. Every Viking in the hamlet is raised to hate and kill dragons, and everyone excels at it.

Everyone, that is, except Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), son of the clan chief, Stoick (Gerard Butler). In a demimonde filled with bulky warriors, Hiccup is a scrawny geek, eager to please his peers and especially his father but unable to join in the fighting. So, he builds contraptions to compensate for his utter lack of muscle mass, and during one raid he uses one of his weapons to shoot down a Night Fury, an incredibly agile type of dragon so deadly that no one has ever managed to kill one. When he tracks down the wounded beast, however, he cannot bring himself to slay the poor thing, even though it would catapult him into fame.

Dreamworks, as the other major 3D animation studio of the last decade or so, always finds itself in competition with Pixar, which is like forcing the Police Academy films to compete with Dr. Strangelove. Where Dreamworks has a leg up, though, is in the company's more lenient attitude toward realism. Pixar movies occasionally hit a snag when the precise construction of their worlds come into conflict with the exaggerated character models, but Dreamworks is so inherently goofy that it gives itself a broader range. With Dragon, the studio finally takes advantage of this. The Night Fury, Toothless, looks strikingly different from the other types of dragons seen throughout the film, including a bulldog-like reptile and a two-headed beast, one of which emits inflammable gas that the other sparks. The equally outlandish Viking models, from Stoick's friend and Hiccup's watcher Gobber (a very game Craig Ferguson) to the sexy young brute Astrid (America Ferrara), who appears to have the same physique as Hiccup but can hurl axes and swing swords with the adults, stress the animators' attempt to detach us from the (often ridiculous) need for reality in the most surreal form of the most surreal medium of art.

They succeed wildly. Dragon's opening sequence is one of the most dynamic action pieces to grace a modern animated picture, so visceral that directors Chris Sanders and Dennis DeBois structure one shot in such a way that it appears as if a handheld camera was documenting the action. They also give enchantingly anthropomorphic traits to Toothless without losing his sleek, beautiful form (memorably, the animator turn his reptilian slits into heart-melting doe eyes). With this film, Dreamworks breaks wholly from the lame pop culture references and limp sight gags that propelled their limp, deflated mid-Aughts works: the humor comes from the situations and the characters, and these people feel so real that at some point you stop wondering why the Vikings speak with a smattering of Scottish and American accents led by a young'un with a nasally Canadian whine. Tedious as celebrity stunt casting is, these actors become these cartoons because they're allowed to speak lines that give themselves, and each other, depth and identity.

Most importantly, How to Train Your Dragon captures that feeling of uninhibited flight better than any other film that comes to mind. The montage of Hiccup and Toothless coming to trust each other and learning to fly together is nothing particularly original in construction, but in execution it becomes as spellbinding as the flying scenes in Avatar and magical as anything in Pixar's canon. By damaging Toothless' tail fin and rendering him incapable of flight on his own, the writers create a symbiosis between the dragon and Hiccup, who designs a replacement flap that he controls, thus giving their bond an extra dimension and their aerial acrobatics a mutually invigorating experience that is magnified on the audience. Whether gently soaring among the clouds or banking and careening in rapidly edited chases, the flight scenes are gripping, transporting and undeniable proof in the power of animation to transfix crowds of all ages -- I heard nary a peep from the engaged children in my theater, and the most enthusiastic response I heard leaving the auditorium came from an elderly couple behind me.

As with all the other movies currently slapped with a 3-D filter, one can easily enjoy the majesty of How to Train Your Dragon in two boring old dimensions. Yet I was struck that the most memorable and lasting image to take advantage of the 3-D, compared to its usual role in adding a cheap, hollow thrill to action scenes, involved Hiccup holding out his hand for the first time to pet Toothless. The directors used the gimmick to call attention to the emotional and thematic crux of the film: by showing how pre-conceived notions vastly differ from the truth and how they often lead to trumped-up fear and disgusting violence, How to Train Your Dragon suggests that the next generation might just be a little less violent and a little more willing to learn about someone or something before acting. What a fantastic message (and a fairly understated one, for a children's film), particularly in a time of increasingly extreme rhetoric being casually used in America based on fear and ignorance. Furthermore, Sanders and DeBois weave this theme into much of the film's other dynamics, preventing the contentious father-son relationship between Stoick and Hiccup from becoming too staid and adding a layer to the budding romance angle between Hiccup and Astrid. Funny, touching, insightful and as thrilling as the best of animated features, How to Train Your Dragon bypasses the hackneyed soundbite of "Fun for the whole family!" by reminding us that any animated film worth its salt should always fit that bill.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Made in U.S.A.

Starting with a dedication to Nicholas Ray and Samuel Fuller worded as if they'd actually reared Jean-Luc Godard through childhood, Made in U.S.A. marks the final kiss-off from the genre pictures that Godard loved and loved to make. Its title works as both a sign of the fondness he still at least partly felt for the old films he championed so enthusiastically and the sarcasm with which he views the usage of the phrase as an advertising tool. The film is, in true Godard fashion, as much a satire of itself as it is a earnest attempt to make a political thriller. The mere sight of Anna Karina (in her final full-length collaboration with Godard) walking through "Atlantic City," which simply must be placed between quotation marks, in her garishly bright mod outfits immediately situations the film in opposition to the dreary trench coats and dull fedoras that made up the unofficial uniform of the private detective.

Karina's Paula Nelson is indeed a detective, fashioned, save for the fashion, after Humphrey Bogart. Yet she wades through a world of such vibrant hues that even she compares her caper to wading through a Disney film. Paula heads to "Atlantic City" to meet with her former lover, Richard P...well, P-something, as a noise always drowns out his surname when someone speaks it -- I wonder if Tarantino based his equally arbitrary and cheeky decision to omit The Bride's name from the soundtrack of Kill Bill from this film. Upon arrival, however, she finds him dead, or at least officially so, with naught but a tape recording of his leftist rhetoric to give the character presence.

Naturally, the disembodied voice belongs to Godard, who stands in for his own stand-in as the radical and the jilted lover. With its numerous, striking closeups of Anna Karina, whose faced was simply made for closeups, Made in U.S.A. is as much a kiss-off to Godard's ex-wife as it was the genre films that informed his early efforts. The plot quickly spirals out of control, the masking of Richard's surname indicative of Godard's wry overemphasis of political thriller tropes. Like The Big Sleep, every piece of acquired information only raises more questions, questions typically directed at the increasing jumble of half-baked ideas, cast-off lines and confusing characters.

Rapidly, the importance of the narrative falls away, leaving behind fascinating aesthetic and thematic choices that far outweigh the interest of the entangled plot. As filled with pop culture references as it is aligned against the growing Americanization of French culture, Made in U.S.A. is the hippest film Godard made since Band of Outsiders. Aesthetically, it not only looks incredible -- more striking even than Contempt and Pierrot le fou -- but displays the director's constant wit in his arrangement of image and sound. Apart from the masking of Richard's name, Made also returns to the comic book imagery of Pierrot, cutting from a hand snaking out of a corner to yank in Paula to a graphic reading "Bing!" before returning to find our heroine stirring from unconsciousness.

Jonathan Rosenbaum likened the film to "a Rauschenberg painting in motion," which may have been Godard's intent. Robert Rauschenberg was one of the artists who aided the transition from Abstract Expressionism into Pop Art, Pop Art of course being the grounding aesthetic of all of Godard's '60s features in color. A 2006 article in the Village Voice called him the American Picasso, and Godard references Picasso directly in the film. Certainly, Made in U.S.A. shares some of Rauschenberg's principles of collage and artistic appropriation and, more simply, they really do look similar, brightly colored puzzles that can be worked out, or not, and retain their charm. The imagery in Made in U.S.A. can be every bit as stupefying as its narrative, and it's important to note a character at one point saying "mise-en-scène" as the subtitles translate it to "mirage."

Made in U.S.A. also builds upon Godard's radicalism. His recorded diatribes harangue the Right, castigating their "sublime parry" which "gives the masses the facile emotion of courage without risk and pride without sacrifice." Yet Godard does not put forward merely a liberal rant. By setting the film a few years into the future, he can create a fake news bulletin that all politicians will received armed protection on election day. Even as he criticizes, through the visuals and the speech, the commercialization of French culture and the country's increasingly uncomfortable synergy with the American government, Godard does not ask for a break. In one of those tapes, he dismisses the idea that France can only retain its identity through a break from the U.S. Such a solution is reactionary and isolationist, and Godard wishes to keep it out of leftist rhetoric. The final few minutes of the film make for one of Godard's more memorable finales, as Paula discusses politics with Philippe Labro, a journalist playing himself. They get down to the obsolescence of the current political dialogue -- "right and left, it’s a completely outdated question. That’s not at all the way to pose the problem” -- but when the time comes to provide a new solution, the film ends, leaving that answer for another time.

Make no mistake: Made in U.S.A. is far from a classic. Jean-Pierre Léaud looks downright bored working through his few lines, and at times the narrative sags so badly that it challenges the benefit of doubt one might afford to Godard given his penchant for telling the story between the narrative he sets up, as opposed to following through on it. Yet a key scene in the film, one that takes place in a diner, provides a perspective for the film. One of the patrons engages in a philosophical dialogue with the barkeep (and, eventually, Paula) which leads to him arguing the nature of a sentence and how it is defined. In response to the bartender and Paula's answers, he declares, "A sentence can't be meaningless and have a fuller meaning." Godard does not seem to know whether he can make both a flighty genre exercise and something relevant and innovative, and, for a time, I don't either. Made in U.S.A. is one of the few of Godard's films that did not wow me during this retrospective, yet it's also one of the most interesting and thought-provoking. Besides, its scattershot chic provides one half of a larger framework for the film's question of the dual nature of Godard's films when contrasted with his next film, shot simultaneously during the production of this film. But that's a matter for the next Godard article.

Monday, March 29, 2010


Can there be any real challenger to Pinocchio's status as the greatest animated film of all time? History has overemphasized Disney's role in the field, rightly focusing on the studio's innovations and perfections of existing techniques, yet too often relegating the work of other studios -- of entire countries even; hardly anyone conceded the accomplishments of other nations in the field of animation until the animé blew up in the '90s -- into the periphery by those eager to establish Disney's dominion over all. Yet even those fundamentally opposed to the gargantuan evil that is the corporation's current identity cannot deny Pinocchio: it's not as colorful as Sleeping Beauty, as emotionally affecting as Dumbo, as purely artistic as Fantasia nor as varied as Alice in Wonderland, but above all entries is Disney's uneven canon it retains a certain something, a timeless of design and storytelling and a feeling of magic that Walt Disney, flawed individual that he was, used to chase so desperately.

It remains surprising, and more than a little vexing, to note that Pinocchio flopped upon its original release, a disappointment after Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs proved to be the unexpected hit of its time, arguably in all of cinematic history. Not until Disney re-released it as a part of their old business model of putting old animated features back into theaters every seven years or so to ensure that every child had the chance to see these films on the big screen (Lord, how I wish they still did this).

It is true of a number of Disney Animated Features that the animation style in some way reflects another medium of storytelling, and like most Pinocchio resembles a storybook.,Yet it also looks like a series of paintings. Brushstrokes are visible, contrasting with the most sophisticated use of the multiplane camera that Disney used from its shorts all the way through The Little Mermaid in 1989. Thus, every scene looks alternately as flat as it actually is and as deep as the complicated multiplane movements allow. Consider one of the first shots of the film, after we meet Jiminy Cricket (who looks at the camera and speaks directly to the audience, immediately highlighting the storybook setup) and leap into the book he opens: after the camera pans over a cityscape, it cuts to a shot outside Geppetto's shop. Suddenly, the camera appears to hop toward the shop; this is a 1st person shot of Jiminy moving, which exists because the animators figured out how to do it and because it makes the story that much bouncier (no pun intended).

Note also how shadows seemingly grow and shrink as if real when the camera moves, and how, brushstrokes and all, Pinocchio is still one of the most finely detailed animated pictures ever, which automatically makes it one of the most detailed films period. If its color scheme is not as vibrant and immediately arresting as that of Sleeping Beauty, Pinocchio nonetheless features the richest color scheme of any Disney feature. Geppetto's shop is filled with magnificent clocks and music boxes of all shapes, sizes, colors and rhythms. The film's episodic structure gives the animators a freedom of scope that might not have been allowed for a more rigidly plotted film.

Thus, both the characters and the "sets" contain the most imaginative work ever conceived for a Disney picture, at once existing for the pleasure and ego of the animators, who'd managed the impossible with Snow White and now wanted to prove their mastery, and to enrich the story, which would be terribly lacking without it. Everything strikes the perfect balance between reality and fantasy: Figaro, drawn by Eric Larson into an adorable ball of fluff, looks and walks exactly as a cat should, yet he has the personality of a spoiled child, and without a single word he becomes as human as the living puppet. Bill Tytla, greatest of animators, morphs the villainous Stromboli into a great mound of flesh: so large is he that his fat appears to break out of the lines that confine his character, rolling with every syllable and step. He's such a presence that the room itself appears to quiver along with his folds. Gustaf Tenggren painted the initial storyboards for the backgrounds, which the animators transposed so masterfully that one would never think to insult the tracers of the world after seeing the process (shown in a fairly thorough making-of). Completed with the insertion of the tiniest details by Albert Hunter, made all the more clear by the phenomenal job Disney did with its Blu-Ray restoration and upgrading, the world of Pinocchio is as tangible yet abstract as the characters. The effects animation is just as spectacular: the use of water, drawn to exacting perfection to resemble nature, has a certain look and feel in its movement, realistic as it is, that sets it apart from all future attempts to simply draw water as water is. It's almost as if the water is sentient, capable of moving and reacting to Monstro the whale, a beast so gigantic and fearsome that the water surrounding him attempts to flee along with the sea creatures. No live action effects work approached the level of expertise and seamless integration into the film for decades.

This combination of identifiable animation with bold experimentation carries over into the narrative, which plays out in the typical storybook fashion but finds a fresh presentation through the character of Jiminy Cricket. Voiced by the vaudevillian and character actor Cliff Edwards (the first "name" actor to appear as a voice), Jiminy replaces the usual dry narration in favor of a streetwise, cocky guide who routinely addresses the audience, undercuts a severe moment with levity and offers snide rebuttals. "A very lovely thought," he says when Geppetto wishes upon a star for Pinocchio to be a real boy, "but not at all practical." He is responsible for the film's biggest flaw, however: when Honest John sweeps Pinocchio into Stromboli's puppet show, Jiminy looks upon his ward's success and decides that Pinocchio must not need him any longer, neglecting to consider how Geppetto will feel about losing his boy and how crowd adoration does not equal happiness. At least this misstep ends with a nice punchline: "What does an actor want with a conscience, anyway?"

Even the music in Pinocchio is exemplary. Leigh Harline's score is one of the best in cinematic history: he covers a massive breadth of moods and styles, capturing the first truly maudlin feeling in a Disney work when Geppetto heads out into the rain to look for Pinocchio or the scene where Pinoke and Jiminy return from Pleasure Island to find Geppetto's home empty (a scene no less gut-wrenching than anything found in Dumbo, Disney's most heartbreaking feature). He cascades through cultures in the vamp of Pinocchio's number "I've Got No Strings to Hold Me Down," starting with a cabaret feel before speeding up and flavoring the song with international tones. Complementing Harline's brilliant soundtrack are the lyrics of Ned Washington, who makes "I've Got No Strings to Hold Me Down" so darn catchy and crafted the musical summation of Disney, practically the anthem of the corporation*, "When You Wish Upon a Star." There aren't five better songs written for a film in all of cinema (only "Over the Rainbow"comes to mind**), and never has a song so fully tapped into the mindset not of a single film but the entire ethos of its architect.

If all of these elements are so good, so beautiful and so entertaining, you may ask, how could the film have flopped? Hey, beats me, but there are some indicators. Pinocchio cost twice as much as Snow White, and it came out when Europe was too besieged to give a damn about film distribution, thus limiting foreign intakes to better insure against losses. The likeliest answer, though, is that the film is terrifying: it takes the petulant cad of Collodi's original serials and makes him into a beacon of innocence, and then forces that softened boy to face the same gamut of perils that a far more unsympathetic character endured in the original stories. For the original Pinocchio, such tribulations likely seemed justified or at least peevishly enjoyable, but Disney's version never does anything to deserve such punishment. Each episode leads the boy further into hell: tricked into joining a show run by a man who initially seems amicable -- his roly-poly body communicates geniality -- but he quickly turns into a monster, throwing Pinocchio into a cage and threatening to make firewood of the boy when he outlives his profitability. The lad escapes, only to find himself carted by a sinister Coachman to Pleasure Island, which I must say is far more troubling in its aesthetic than I remember. It's a hedonistic den when all the naughty children of society may play until they turn into donkeys to work in the salt mines below the park. When Pinocchio at last returns home, he finds it empty and receives a note informing him that Geppetto was swallowed by the great whale Monstro. Pinocchio is, simply, a series of downers. (This explanation does little to account for the later success of Dumbo, which was even crueler to a character that managed to be even more innocent than the wooden boy).

Yet Pinocchio also has a sweetness characteristic of all Disney films, and if the cruelty is necessary to prevent the sugary side from becoming saccharine, so be it. The film deals in truisms that are openly stated as well as visually illustrated: "A lie keeps growing and growing until it's as plain as the nose on your face," "Give a bad boy enough rope, and he'll soon make a jackass of himself." As with the best of the studio's pictures, Pinocchio is simple in effect, which is not, naturally, to say that it is simplistic. It's far too technically accomplished for that, and besides, it utilizes its simplicity to widen its appeal. In the wake of the death of silent films, animation became the most universal of film styles, capable of speaking to audience across age and cultural divides. Disney would soon adjust its demographic in order to turn a profit, aggressive targeting children instead of crafting grand cinematic achievements, and Pinocchio, though not the last example of Golden Age animation, stands as the apex of a time when a cartoon about a wooden boy facing challenges could be as staggering and timeless as the most lavish Hollywood production.

*This is almost literally the case now, as "WYWUaS" has been played before every Disney feature since the second Pirates of the Caribbean movie came out in 2006.
**I nearly pitted "Singin' in the Rain" against it, until I realized that the song was written far before the film. Funnily enough, it was sung, small word after all, by Cliff Edwards.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Steven Spielberg: Raiders of the Lost Ark

How Steven Spielberg and George Lucas ever got Raiders of the Lost Ark is as impressive a feat as the finished product. Made on the heels of the director's first box office disappointment, Raiders compounded its risky prospects with its very premise. Released one year after Heaven's Gate put the kibosh on New Hollywood, the thought of another historical epic coming out so soon after Cimino's effort tanked must have put Paramount on edge.

Spielberg avoided falling into the same trap that ensnared Cimino, though, through some key differences. One, Raiders of the Lost Ark, unlike Heaven's Gate, does not strive for historical veracity, as it pays tribute to the old adventure serials that Spielberg and Lucas enjoyed in their childhood. Two, the fact that the film draws from those serials gave the film more commercial prospects than the more dramatic Gate. Three, and this is most important, Spielberg still had 1941 weighing on him.

The two friends spent years working on script revisions and storyboards, so when Paramount finally greenlit the film Spielberg didn't spend time (or money) wracking his brain over the story or how it should be told. Despite the film's grandeur and multiple location shoots, Spielberg started and stopped principal photography in only 73 days. He shot as few takes as possible and rewrote planned action sequences into shorter, wittier bursts -- thank Harrison Ford's dysentery for possibly the most memorable moment in the film, when a sword brandishing warrior challenges Indiana Jones, who simply draws his gun and shoots him, bypassing a planned fight sequence. He kept costs low and avoided the sort of indulgence that sank other big pictures. "Had I had more time and money," Spielberg said later, "it would have turned out a pretentious movie."

Raiders of the Lost Ark is as much a passion project as any of the other latter-day accomplishments of New Hollywood, drawn from the inspirations of its auteurs' youths and mounted on a scale that would previously been afforded to only the most proven masters. It also cements, for better and worse, Spielberg and Lucas' "takeover" of the box office, begun with Spielberg's double-whammy of Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Lucas' first two Star Wars pictures. If I keep comparing Raiders to Heaven's Gate, it is because they, taken in tandem, show the handoff from one era to the next. Like guards at a border crossing, they separate the boundaries and reflect some of their cultural traits despite being right next to each other.

For Raiders has the same scale as Cimino's film, yet Spielberg uses it to different effect. This is, at heart, nothing more than a crowd pleaser. Indiana Jones wanders through epic expanses, but he is not Lawrence of Arabia, nor Colonel Blimp; he's just a man charismatic and magnetic as he may be, and Spielberg cares not for who he is but what he does. Note that we meet him in the midst of an escapade, out in the jungle where he navigates booby traps in a temple to reach a golden statue, which unleashes a boulder that nearly crushes him. Only after this sequence finishes do we learn anything about our Dr. Jones, and even then we glean scarely more than the knowledge that he is maybe the worst professor a university could hire, showing up to teach a class only when he feels the need to recharge the sexual fantasies of his female students.

The dialogue is ludicrous, the effects -- incredible as they are -- designed to remind us of their cartoony artificiality. No one could accuse Harrison Ford of being too dynamic and actor, and his primary moods as Jones waver between frustrated and just plain angry. Karen Allen brings pluck and fire to the role of Marion Ravenwood, yet her spark is snuffed in favor of turning her into the typical damsel in distress. Everything has been modulated to resemble the old serials, down to acting styles and scripting. Raiders has one advantage over its influences, though: Steven Spielberg never directed those old serials.

Dubious politics and stilted acting aside, Raiders of the Lost Ark is so masterfully constructed that it effectively parlays a forgotten genre of filmmaking, warts 'n' all, into a fresh genre that renewed interest in the adventure film even as it set such a high standard that filmmakers did not begin to approach its achievement until computers allowed them to recreate much of the size of it for less money and effort. Even in a purely expositional scene such as that early stint back at the university, Raiders never sags, propelled by one of John Williams' better scores (buoyed, of course, by one of his most recognizable themes) and the sort of sure hand that the director didn't show on his previous feature but did everywhere else. Had anyone else been at the helm of this material, including George Lucas, Raiders would likely have been one of those films that comes with the immediate qualifier "for it's time." Oh, the film was OK, for it's time; the effects were well done, for it's time.

Every year, at least one filmmaker or writer or actor (or some combination thereof) will defend a film he or she made as dumb fun, as if making something stupid and dispensable is an actual achievement. Raiders of the Lost Ark is a dumb movie, but it is ingeniously mounted, and thus it lives on as mindless fun for generations. Its serializes structure lends itself to bigger setpieces: Indy can run from a perfectly spherical boulder in the first ten minutes before jetting off to Nepal to fight some Nazis before rummaging through Cairo to find clues leading to the titular Ark of the Covenant.

Even with the director's attempts to cut economic corners with fewer takes, Raiders never feels slapdash. As this fantastic article by J.R. Hudson points out, every shot, even the calmer ones, is meticulously planned, enhancing the thrill of the stunts and maintaining interest in the dialogue scenes. When Indy must do battle with a great brute of a Nazi at an airfield out at the archaeological site, Spielberg cuts to shots of spilled fuel gushing toward flames that will lead back to the plane that Marion cannot escape. When the gas finally catches, though, Spielberg frames it in the background, racing at the plane as we take in the entire situation: the lit fuel, the spinning plane, and the fight between Indy and the thug. When the big Nazi bites it, chopped up by the plane's propeller, Spielberg conveys his demise through a red spray across the emblazoned swastika on the plane's tail.

With all the Nazi caricatures, most notably Ronald Lacey's scenery-chewing Gestapo interrogator Maj. Toht, it's easy to forget what a compelling character Indiana's true foil, René Belloq (Paul Freeman) is. A French archaeologist who competes with Jones for every find and allies with the Nazis because they will fund his expeditions, Belloq is memorable precisely because of his proximity to Jones: they both seek the same treasures, look as out of place among the natives they hire (or exploit, and the lines separating the two are not so clear), and even pine for the same woman. Belloq addresses this, saying, "You and I are very much alike...I am but a shadowy reflection of you. It would take only a nudge to make you like me. To push you out of the light." Compare this honesty to, say, Avatar, which positions the scientists who sympathize with the Na'vi as beacons of ethics when they're just as responsible for the rape of Pandora as the corporation that mines it. It's a fleeting moment of understanding, of the character of Indiana Jones and the entire genre he represents, that speaks to the intelligence Spielberg brings to the project even in his boyish enthusiasm. Too, Belloq's character would stand out even more had Spielberg's idea for Indy's characterization, an alcoholic à la Humphrey Bogart's character in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, panned out, as Belloq in many ways plays like a funhouse mirror perversion of Claude Rains' character in Casablanca.

Raiders of the Lost Ark ends with just about the best over-the-top ending ever committed to celluloid: I may be pissing away what little credibility I've stockpiled recently among some other writers in the online community, but God damn it, you show me a film that melts a Nazi's face and I'll show you a film that just sold a ticket. It is so dizzyingly absurd, so top to bottom (and back up again) ludicrous that it has no business whatsoever in a director's "comeback" feature, and yet there it is, a sticky puddle of fleshy sludge that probably congealed into a stiff middle finger just below the frame. Raiders is a grand simplification, of history, of character and of entire races and nationalities, which makes its own iconic status in Hollywood's timeline so amusing and fitting. Released in 1981, it precedes the explosion of action features it indirectly inspired and adventure epics that were practically remakes given how heavily other directors and screenwriters mined Spielberg's opus. Yet it's superior to all of them, anchored by a directing capability that far exceeded the talents of the copycats and given just enough self-awareness to gently poke at its own artifice and contradictions without getting too postmodern about it (which would make a great film on its own terms but would stick out like a sore thumb here). It's easy to forget how staggering the effects on this film are, living as we are in the wake of Peter Jackson conjuring armies and battles through computers, but one need only pop in a DVD of Indiana Jones' first, and by many leagues best, film and marvel at how brilliant "dumb fun" used to be.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Gangs of New York

Gangs of New York is the epic, self-destructive companion piece to Who Shot Liberty Valance. It posits that one need not have traveled out west to find romantic lawlessness, and that one could not find the answers to a more productive society back east. It is also proof that Martin Scorsese can make masterful work no matter the circumstances. Gangs of New York is his most artistically compromised picture, trimmed down even at its 167-minute length from a reported five-hour cut and commercialized in a futile attempt to make the film into some sort of hit. Yet it remains his most personal, above perhaps his erstwhile passion project, The Last Temptation of Christ, the ultimate paean to Marty's beloved hometown and an exorcism of his hangups.

The impositions placed upon the film by Miramax hindered this vision, yet perhaps they fueled the more bombastic visual choices that serve Scorsese's deconstruction of his career. Besides, the marketing of the film provides for a misdirection Scorsese attempts with the film itself, goading the audience into identifying Amsterdam, the underdog character who enjoys a romance and narrates the picture, played by an actor still known for being a teenage heartthrob (Leonardo DiCaprio), as the protagonist. He is not.

The real crux of the story, and the personification of the choices made by the film's director, is William Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis). He symbolizes the dying New York, at once Liberty Valance and Tom Doniphon. He's a bigot and a ruthless killer, but he has a sense of honor. So do many villains, of course, but Gangs of New York is about the transition in New York's history, not from anomie into civilization but the loss of the "nobility" of violence. Bill is not the symbol standing in the way of progress; he is the last of a dying breed.

Day-Lewis' performance here has been eclipsed by his work in There Will Be Blood, and Daniel Plainview is indeed a testament to the actor's ability to captivate an audience even with a character diametrically opposed to identification or empathy. Yet William Cutting has an emotional complexity that runs deeper even than Day-Lewis' earlier Christy Brown. When he kills the father of DiCaprio's character, Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson), in a street battle at the start, Cutting refuses to allow any of his gang, the Natives, to spoil the body. "He'll cross over whole," Bill declares, despite his vicious hatred of the Irish Catholicism Vallon represents. For Bill, why he's fighting someone is less important than how those enemies conduct themselves. In a quietly piercing scene, Bill confides in the adult Amsterdam, whom Bill accepts without learning his true identity. Draped in an American flag, Bill condenses his power, the power of anyone who holds it, into fear and the ability to manipulate it. He tells the boy about Vallon, what a great man he was; in one skirmish, Amsterdam's father got the best of ol' Bill and nearly killed him, sparing his foe's life only to force him to live with the shame. Bill notes that he cut out one of his own eyes because he could not look at Vallon.

Like the film, Bill is visually outlandish, absurd even. He routinely sports a red coat as if in a Nicholas Ray period piece, complete with pants that manage to be even longer than Day-Lewis' lanky frame can allow. It's the sort of get-up that sticks out even in a period picture: here is a man who doesn't need to care what others think. It's funny, then, that Bill should reflect Scorsese's aesthetic, given the issues he suffered, even as a universally acknowledge master, at Miramax's hand.

Scorsese's direction is without question the loosest in his oeuvre, or at the very least since Mean Streets threw the director far ahead of the minor accomplishments of his first two features. The opening gang fight, set to anachronistic music and even edited as if a submission to MTV, sets the tone for the film's structure as it draws a line in the sand separating those willing to play along in Marty's meticulously recreated sandbox from those expecting a more conventional movie. Yet Scorsese's direction tests the patience even of the loyal: scenes jut about as if someone unleashed a wild chimp into Thelma Schoonmaker's editing suite and the director simply trusted that his longtime collaborator knew what she was doing when he got the results back. Sudden transitions, awkward breaks, unnecessary cutaways in the middle of an action for a reaction shot or something else to break the scene: all of these issues exist in the film, the result of both the trimming and whatever held Scorsese and Schoonmaker's fancy.

Yet this seeming clumsiness allows the director to break entirely from the tropes that bind the genre. Scorsese worked within them for his superb The Age of Innocence but gave the characters an emotional resonance so many of these pictures chase but never obtain. Gangs, however, belongs firmly with his gangster pictures. Indeed, he casts all of the characters, be they actual gang members, policemen, whores or politicians, as gangsters. The women seduce and take from the men, who take from others to cover their losses, before giving their cut to corrupt coppers and bosses like Bill, who use the money to pocket politicians. It's far too tangled a web to be called a "vicious cycle."

Scorsese films these characters with the same passion he afforded to his earlier films, the ones that mixed character with aesthetic to make everything more visceral, more felt. He lost himself in the jumble of The Departed, but here Marty manages to convey the states of mind of both lead characters. He charts both Amsterdam's rash bravery and the loathing he feels for himself and his self-doubt as well as Bill's sadness at the "rising of the tide" that will wash away everything Bill values. The two characters (and moods) play off each other, Bill's nobility and paternal treatment of Amsterdam compounds the boy's feelings of guilt for not avenging his father, and when Amsterdam finally does make his move, in a craven attempt to get the jump on the Butcher, Bill's feelings toward the changing world are confirmed: Amsterdam is not an evil man, and certainly not a villain in the same way that Bill isn't, but he represents the shift of gangsterism from something done out in the open with a set of rules to a world governed by backstabbing, literal and figurative.

Because Scorsese somehow taps into two mindsets at once through his disjointed style, everything is magnified. The sets, painstakingly crafted in Rome, are massive and establishing -- it's a telling contrast of convictions that George Lucas, upon visiting his old friend during production, remarked, "Sets like that can be done with computers now." Like the sets, the jargon is so accurate that even the characters seem to have no idea what the idioms mean and need many translated. The story is Shakespearean, and Monk McGinn (Brendan Gleeson), a big Irish mercenary who once fought for Vallon, even says so when he sees Amsterdam save Bill from assassination. Later, Amsterdam kills the crooked cop Jack (John C. Reilly, the best of the supporting cast) in a scene that recalls Hamlet stabbing Polonius through the arras. Too, the curtain that Jack yanks down in his death throes reveals a comically outsized cross, at once a reminder of the guilt that drives Amsterdam to avenge his father and Scorsese's pointed jab at himself for redirecting the Catholicism in his films squarely on the guilt that he's still exploring in this film.

The film's amplified visuals reach their apex with the climax, a thunderous vision of the Draft Riots that grows so huge that even an elephant roams the street at one point. Gangs of New York, which halted post-production for a time in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, is about not fighting wars that are not yours to fight. Amsterdam spins his wheels for most of the film because his subconscious recognizes that Bill's conflict with the Vallons ended with his father's death, yet he presses on because he feels the need for vengeance. Many of the Irish immigrants who arrive in America are the first to be conscripted in the new draft, and Scorsese overlaps a scene of a batch of soldiers being shipped off on one of the same boats that brings home a hold full of coffins with every docking with an Irish ballad that mourns the state of the immigrants, forced to flee starvation only to find themselves forced into someone else's war. Ironically, the one war worth fighting, the war to preserve the union, is met with indifference, then aggression from the New Yorkers who see themselves as their own entity. Thus, the greatest city in the Union is reduced to what might look no different than a bombed Confederate city, to be rebuilt as a part of the Union through the same backhanded procedures that returned the South to the fold. Scorsese isn't asking us to keep quiet and accept violence against us, but he also asks that we stop and think before fighting, and as such Gangs of New York becomes not only a companion to John Ford but Bruce Springsteen, specifically his own post-9/11 triumph, The Rising.

In the slaughter and smoky haze of the riots, Amsterdam and Bill settle their score. This is the last chance Bill will have to die "a true American," and he takes it, killed honorably by Amsterdam rather than face the world he sees on the horizon, even through the massive cloud kicked up by the shelling. Note that, at the end of the film, Bill, not Amsterdam, rests in the grave next to Vallon's, and as Scorsese suddenly jumps through history to the present (well, just before it, as he leaves the World Trade Center intact), we see time forgetting the men who helped shape the city, and the fact that the movie is about those who created and not destroyed is why the Towers remain. "The appearance of the law must be upheld," Boss Tweed (Jim Broadbent) told Bill early in the film, "especially when it's being broken." That dishonesty stuck in Bill's craw, and he later tells Tweed, "You can build your filthy world without me." Thus, he wouldn't feel so bad about being covered up by the vines, forgotten by the world he laid the foundation for -- as the tagline reminds us, "America was born in the streets -- and we shouldn't pity him either, not simply because of his violent acts but because obscurity is far nobler than cheap veneration.

Bigger Than Life

 [Revised 8/15/2011]

In my senior year of high school, I was sufficiently ahead in my English classes that I could take two electives broken up across semesters instead of one year-long course. In the fall, I took the invitingly named "Evil in Literature" course, where my teenage aversion to Shakespeare gave way to stormy love for Othello and I found myself surprisingly captivated by the density of Milton's Paradise Lost. In the Spring came the less-appealing -- in title, at least -- course on Southern literature, which ignited my passion for Flannery O'Connor. Strangely, though, we read little of William Faulkner, perhaps because our teacher thought him too much even for an honors class in a private school. Yet we learned a great deal about Faulkner the man, the self-immolating Romantic who always seemed to teeter on the abyss.

With increased familiarity of both Faulkner's and Nicholas Ray's work in the meantime, I always link the two, if not in the aesthetic approaches they take to their respective media then at least in the doomed, self-annihilating private lives that inform the strain of sacrificial romanticism in their art. Certainly, Humphrey Bogart's grim alcoholic and indifferently received writer in In a Lonely Place recalls Faulkner, who found himself cleaning up scripts for B-pictures to fuel his addiction in the latter stage of his career (some of those screenplays, though, rank among the finest ever produced, such as his brilliantly nonsensical The Big Sleep). Rebel Without a Cause, with its expressionistic fatalism casting a pall over its doomed characters, taps into some of the writer's Southern Gothic vibe without porting over its aesthetic.

Bigger Than Life, the second follow-up to Rebel after Hot Blood, captures the curious balancing act of Faulkner's writing, evident even in his short stories, of managing a loose, stream-of-consciousness style and a steady direction. Of the Ray films I've seen, Bigger Than Life is the most deliberately modulated and paced, building the mounting rage of its school teacher protagonist, Ed Avery (James Mason) through his increasing addiction to cortisone*. Rebel Without a Cause demonstrated that teenagers didn't need to come from a broken home or poverty to feel alienated and outraged, yet Life reveals that those "normal" families aren't quite so nice as they look.

We meet Avery as a genial man, who allows one of his thicker students to leave for Easter break instead of making the poor lad remain in the empty room struggling to come up with the right answer for a question. One of the other teachers, Pat, asks him to give her car a push, but he instead asks another teacher, his best friend Wally (Walter Matthau), to do it in order to set the two up, and he even tells Wally to bring Pat to the bridge party at Ed's house.

At that party, however, we see cracks begin to form. The guests prattle about the most insufferably banal topics imaginable, with one woman claiming that she needs to get a new vacuum cleaner to eradicate the dust in her house before she would consider having a baby. Ed walks into the kitchen to get a drink, and Mason pauses at the refrigerator, choking back his boredom and revulsion until he releases it with a deep sigh. Once the guests leave, even his wife Lou (Barbara Rush, playing the typed '50s wife, obedient and soft-spoken) calls some of their friends, the Joneses, "dull," to which Ed can only chuckle and reply, "We all are." "Can you tell me one thing that was said tonight that was funny, startling, imaginative..." Ed begins, until he suddenly collapses.

The first shot of Ed showed him nursing his head as if in pain, and we learn in the hospital that he's been suffering for six months, but this was his first blackout. A series of tests, which pile up bills for the nervous schoolteacher, reveal that he suffers a rare inflammation of the arteries, and without constant use of cortisone for the rest of his life, he will die. It's a heady proposal, yet the cortisone eliminates the pain and stops the blackouts, and Ed emerges from hospital a new man who feels "10 feet tall." This change in attitude at times seems to be confirmed; Wally later notes that he even looks taller.

But Ed's renewed vigor sours quickly. Pat comes to school in a gorgeous new dress, prompting Ed to take out Lou to buy her a designer dress and shoes before getting his son Richie (Christopher Olsen) a sleek new bike. Ed already took out a second job as a cabdriver to supplement his erstwhile thin income, yet he drops cash as if he'd walked out the hospital having made money instead of facing higher insurance payments. Ray demonstrates Ed's struggle to maintain an image of prosperity through the visual dimensions of the Avery home: the family members often stand in the foreground with long hallways in the back, a visual exaggeration of both the house's unnecessary size and the mountain of debt he no doubt incurred to acquire it. As he took the second job before the film's narrative started, we can infer that he's been living beyond his means for some time; the cortisone only weakened his resolve further.

It is in this sense that Bigger Than Life functions as a document of postwar middle-class ennui in a strikingly similar fashion as Todd Haynes' Safe explored the same subject in the post-Reagan era. Mason has a dignified persona and accent that makes him perfect to play a person like Ed, so desperate to preserve his social status; in essence, Ed strives to rise above his station as a low-paid teacher to live a life befitting the carriage of the actor who plays him. Perhaps the most complete vision of Ed's sad life can be seen in the football Ed keeps on his mantle, a trophy of the high school game he helped win. The deflated football, a reminder of the game he, a third-string substitute, managed to win despite any effort on his part, is one of the most tragic (and tragicomic) images to ever depict the sagging truth of nostalgia and the constantly re-inflated touchstones of a dull life. As Ed gives into the delusions of grandeur that the cortisone loosens in him, that football becomes an ironic counterpoint to his feelings of moral and intellectual superiority.

Ed's breakdown separates him from the society he used to try so desperately to fit into, suddenly finding the world around him distasteful. He comes to see society as a construct that promotes mediocrity, blaming outward forces for the dullness he saw in himself at the start of the film. Yet Ed's madness makes his perceived radical ideas muddied. At a parent-teacher conference, he launches into a rant of the effects of "permissiveness" and "self-expression" on the youth and calls for a return to harsh discipline and instilling of a sense of duty into kids, which naturally wins over the crowd. For all of Ed's new revulsion in society, his proposed solution will stunt any possibility for changing the status quo: he does not really want to better society, only to place himself above it. He's begun to see the truth in society, but he's mixed the good -- progressive education -- and the bad -- stultifying social codes -- into one fetid stew that requires his "fixing."

Much of the success of the film can be attributed to Mason, one of the most versatile and just plain interesting actors of his or any other generation. He had a knack for seeking out established or up-and-coming talent to work with -- he sought out the professionally exiled Michael Powell for Age of Consent and helped secure the young Stanley Kubrick for Lolita -- and he finds his greatest star vehicle in this, a film with almost no commercial prospects in postwar America, where hardly anyone would have cared to see the cultural aspirations and dreams of capitalist dominion laid bare as hollow and perverse. To match Ray's expressionistic visuals, Mason must run the gamut of emotions, from haughtiness to impotence to rage, and his performance is every bit as precisely formed yet explosive and unpredictable as Ray's design.

Mason syncs up perfectly to Ray's direction, which is as striking today as it was then. Bigger Than Life is brightly colored but dimly lit, a dichotomy that subconsciously unsettles the viewer. He constantly looks for ways to shrink the frame: even when characters stand in the exaggerated expanse of the ground floor of the Avery house, Ray segments the characters in the foreground by separating rooms via molded arch prosceniums that break up areas into sections. The lighting allows Ray to play with shadows, which he fashions into suggestive and expressionist visions of horror and dread. The stairwell that leads from the large ground floor, where guests come and marvel at how well the Averys are doing, to the smaller top floor, where the bedroom are located and where much of the conflict takes place, is occasionally filmed in such a way that the bars of the stairs form shadows on the opposite wall. It makes the stairwell into a cage, a tunnel that leads from the lie downstairs to the terrible truth above it. The sight of Ed's shadow looming over Richie as he forces his boy to perform challenging math equations, a gargantuan blackness that dwarfs everything in the room, including Lou's shadow when she enters and stands right next to her husband, is the most frightening use of umbrage since Max Shreck's Count Orlock slunk up the staircase in Nosferatu.

Ray uses his shadows and his colors to instill fear in the audience because it is fear that drives these characters. Lou, a smart, capable woman who nevertheless gave up her own career to conform to society's wishes, will not contact a doctor (and flatly refuses a psychiatrist) to deal with Ed's increasingly erratic and dangerous behavior because she fears the social repercussions that would befall the family if word got out -- notice also that, despite her initial protests at Ed's spending spree, she accepts the lavish clothes. Ed fears his own mediocrity, which gives way to revulsion, aimed at himself, his family and his friend Wally, whose gym teacher physique reminds Ed how out of shape he is. Thus, he invents himself into a guiding figure, for his family and for society. He becomes a caricature of demanding patriarchal figure, seeking to return to harsh upbringings demanding athletic perfection from his son. These are all-too-normal traits of the traditional dad, yet in Mason's hands they become grotesqueries: for all of the truth in modern complaints of the softening of kids, who could watch Ed's psychological torture of Richie -- using the very same football that torments Ed himself -- and pine for the days when children were practically expected to be the receptacles of their parents' failed ambitions and broken dreams? Like Julianne Moore's character in Safe, Ed wants nothing more than to fit back into society, despite his own proclamations of superiority to it. Moore's Carol already existed near the top of the middle class, where Ed wants to redirect himself. But the fact that he wants so dearly to make his way back to society reveals his radicalism as nothing more than a reactionary nostalgia gone horribly awry.

Ray takes the suburban malaise of Rebel Without a Cause and ups the ante: Ed's overblown masculinity and patriarchy proves far, far more damaging than the sight of Jim Backus in an apron. James Dean's Jim Stark cried, "You're tearing me apart!" over his parents' petty squabbling, but poor Richie, who often wears a red jacket reminiscent of Jim's iconic garb, must sit in the middle of the dinner table as his father berates his mother and says that the boy is the only reason he stays in the house. He's caught in a tug-of-war between his mother, who until nearly the end is willing to jeopardize herself and Richie for the sake of keeping their disintegration insular and unseen, and Ed, who literally attempts to kill the son in a mad religious fervor inspired by the story of Abraham and Isaac. But God spared Isaac, he is reminded. "God was wrong!" comes Ed's reply, and the commercial failure of Bigger Than Life is far less surprising that the mystery of how such a line ever made it into a feature in the mid-'50s.

Bigger Than Life is more relevant than ever, with its depiction of people living beyond their means in pursuit of the American Dream. Had the film been made today, Ed likely would have driven his family into foreclosure and an irreconcilable amount of credit card debt. Even the current health care debate finds a link, as Ed, before he gives into madness, considers returning to the hospital but refuses because he "can't get sick again." He cannot afford to miss more work, to incur more bills, and his prescription costs him dearly each month, a problem still facing those who require constant medication. His desperation and fear leads him to terrifying ideas and actions, many of them in direct opposition to what he wants, in the same way that sociopolitical fears have driven some in this country to lunacy and hysteria.

Like Safe, Bigger Than Life ends with false happiness, as Ed lies in the hospital after his attempted child sacrifice and awakens from a coma. He recognizes his family and they make amends, but even as the film ends on uplifting music and a shot of the nuclear family cooled from its meltdown, smiling and laughing, it reminds us that Ed will remain on cortisone, as it is the only medicine that can treat his condition. This is but a gentle reprieve, the eye of the storm, and no one can know what will happen when the side effects arise once more.

*Ray was right to regret giving the pills an official name, as their effects would be even more potent if the audience was made simply to accept them as "pills."

Friday, March 26, 2010

Dark City

Alex Proyas' Dark City opens in spectacular fashion, zooming in the window of a hotel in a futuristic city that looks older than the seedy live-ins that exist in our time. Inside, a man lies asleep in a bathtub as a rickety light swings over the room, illuminating its sick-green tiles and casting them in darkness once more. The man awakens, less familiar with his surroundings than even the audience. Next to him is the brutally, ritualistically murdered corpse of a woman.

This disorienting opening, made satisfactorily more bewildering by the director's cut, which removes the enforced voiceover that spoiled some of the mystery, sets the tone for the most intelligent blend of forward-thinking sci-fi and nostalgic film noir cues since Blade Runner. Its cast of characters bears the off-kilter yet strangely identifiable characteristics befitting Old Hollywood types, from Rufus Sewell's alternately wide-eyed and steeled protagonist John Murdoch to William Hurt's Inspector Frank Bumstead, a pastiche of hard-boiled, lonely detectives. Most memorable is Keifer Sutherland as Dr. Schreber, a breathless bundle of nerves whose skittishness becomes evident when we learn his purpose in the film.

Schreber aids a group of alien parasites known as the Strangers, who inhabit the bodies of corpses and have chosen humans as test subjects in their attempts to preserve their dwindling species. They force the frail, obsequious Schreber to program memories for the humans of their city, which we learn is a construction of their telekinetic minds. Every midnight, the Strangers halt everything -- the cars, the trains, people -- to imprint the new memories and redesign the entire city before resuming the next day.

As such, Dark City naturally works as a cyberpunk iteration of Plato's Allegory of the Cave. Murdoch, who awoke in the middle of his "tuning," is the prisoner freed from the shackles in the cave, capable of seeing the creatures that form the shadows he and everyone else accepted to be real. As such, he is unrecognized to his wife, Emma (Jennifer Connelly, who mercifully receives more screen time in the longer cut and uses it) and Bumstead, who knows something isn't quite right about the world around him but is unable, or unwilling, to put his finger on it.

Proyas has a fine knack for letting the incongruities of this world pile up gently until we are unable to view it in the same manner as we did in the start. As Murdoch flees the crime scene in the hotel room, the clerk demands payment for the three weeks Murdoch has stayed there, which he of course doesn't remember. When Bumstead arrives to investigate the scene, he interrogates the clerk on-hand, who recalls elements of the conversation between himself and Murdoch that confirms the man to be the person who spoke to John earlier even though the gruff white man we saw earlier has been replaced by a calmer black man. As Murdoch no longer falls asleep during the tuning process, he can see the world morph around him; the only constant is the Strangers' lair, a vast auditorium with an unsettling aura not too different from that putrid green that tiled the bathroom at the start. There, the amassed Strangers buzz like the bugs they are, chattering away in mounting fear as Murdoch's ability to resist and fight back against them grows.

Aesthetically, the film draws, as has been mentioned already, from the world of film noir, particularly Fritz Lang, whose sci-fi epic Metropolis informs many of the establishing shots of the city. Yet the biggest influence appears to come from the paintings of Edward Hopper. I've always been fascinated with Hopper, before I cared about film and long before I gave traditional art a chance: he started producing noteworthy works around the turn of the century and continued through his death in the '60s, but I always think of World War II when I see one of his works. Even when he depicted multiple subjects in one painting, Hopper captured a feeling of ineffable loneliness (which he purportedly never sought to express). When I look at his most well-known work, Nighthawks (the biggest influence on this film's look), I see not only the space between the few characters in that diner that's already set against the emptiness of the city street around it, I see that era. Everyone was fighting in World War II or working in a factory, leaving behind the old and the infirm to putter about alone. In one of the talking heads accompanying an episode of Band of Brothers, one of the surviving members of Easy Company mentioned how two men in his hometown were denied by the Recruiting Center for flunking their physicals. They committed suicide rather than face the shame of staying. I think of that now whenever I look at Hopper, and his cool, cinema-tinged paintings make me sadder than the most tortured portrait.

Dark City operates in much the same fashion. Few people roam any given scene, separated by the constructs of their gods. That open on the hotel window, a fishbowl-shaped oddity (and a recurring image), establishes the entire world as nothing more than a plastic prison for the aliens to gawk at and study the subjects within, and the image of the round window is contrasted with a later shot of a projector lens that throws up slides from Murdoch's manufactured childhood. This juxtaposition, between the audience (and, we can assume, the Strangers) looking in on John through the hotel and John looking at "himself" by way of a past he does not remember because it is a lie, gives the Hopper-influenced visuals an air of desperation to complement the solitude. Consider the scene where John and Bumstead converse: John gets through to Bumstead's feelings of unease by asking when he last saw the sun. This is such a noirish world that no one ever even gets to see daylight. Only the faint "memory" of sunny Shell Beach, which everyone knows but no one recalls how to reach, gives anyone the impression of experiencing the day.

Dark City came and went a year before The Matrix hit theaters and changed, well, damn near anything, yet one can easily see the film's effect all over the Wachowski brothers' blockbuster. The Matrix borrows from the film's tone, aesthetic and narrative. Both villains rely on humanity for their survival, but the computers who control the Matrix resent mankind and exploit them solely as a power source; however, the parasites who inhabit dead humans -- the agents who enforced the Matrix's protocol could pop into any human plugged into the program, remember -- try to figure out the human mind in an attempt to unlock their own mysteries. They cannot afford to revile mankind.

Like Neo, Murdoch becomes the new force in this world, but where Neo used his powers to lead others out of the cave, Murdoch cannot lead the citizens of Dark City to safety -- where are they to go in the middle of space? So, he becomes the new demiurge, the shadow-caster for the rest of the prisoners. He does not liberate this world because it first needs to be stabilized, so he hits the reset button and attempts to give this world a normalcy its residents can accept. This level of doubt, humanized by the cautious re-beginnings of John and Emma's relationship, vastly outweighs the sense of optimism unfairly awarded to the end of the final installment of The Matrix, wherein the same unanswered questions of mankind's future are posed yet for some reason we're left feeling everything will be A-OK. That willingness to leave a question unanswered and not to lie to us about it, combined with the superior visual invention over mere trickery, elevates Dark City over its more successful progeny, and it stands as one of the most sadly under-appreciated works of its era. Thank God for Roger Ebert or we might all still be in the dark.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Céline and Julie Go Boating

The great problem with film criticism -- or at least the shortcomings of my own critical faculties -- is that the best films are often the hardest to describe, both because they grab the viewer in ways that the overwhelming majority of good, bad and ugly movies inure us against and because the critic wants to preserve the effect for the audience. A movie, good or bad, is an experience, and describing a transcendent one will always be more challenging -- and infinitely rewarding -- that cataloging the woes of an alienating one. I recently mentioned this on other blog that listed Terrence Malick's The New World as the best film of the decade, and how I'd left Malick's film off my own list because my single viewing of the film awed and hypnotized me too much to trust my critical senses. I shall spend more time with that film and its alternate versions, and perhaps I can one day soon write about the sheer magnitude of the experience of Malick's film, which was too staggering to put into words when I watched it over a year ago.

The pinnacle of cinematic achievement typically arrives when the filmmaker in question understands and visualizes the distinct difference between truth and honesty. The two are related, yes, but one is objective, cold, uninviting. Truth, that is to say the actual truth and not the putrid infotaintment perpetuated by pundits, politicians and writers, is the alpha and omega, undebatable and, frankly, uninteresting. Honesty, however, can be passionate; it is subject to the whims of emotion, and yet those emotions are genuine. Those who understand this best -- among them Godard, Scorsese and Herzog -- are eclectic yet identifiable because of their underlying quest for the honesty that lies beneath truth.

Which brings me, finally, to Jacques Rivette and his breathtaking, captivating and quietly experimental opus Céline and Julie Go Boating. I have never before seen a Rivette film, and before I began to seriously read Jonathan Rosenbaum about eight or nine months ago I admit I'd never even heard of the director, all the more stunning considering his importance to the French New Wave. Rivette was to be the Cahiers writer to break the group of filmmaking critics, but setbacks in his debut gave Truffaut and Godard the leg up, and they exploded into international stardom while Rivette placed his affairs in order and finally released Paris Belongs to Us in the wake of The 400 Blows and Breathless. By the time he released Céline and Julie in 1974, Rivette had only managed to craft an additional three features (well, four, if you count the different cuts of Out 1, which would make sense considering the massive difference in running times). Where his colleagues and friends hit the ground running, Rivette crafted gargantuan character epics that struggled to receive backing and distribution. By the time he sorted out these problems, the New Wave had already passed.

But, if anything, Céline and Julie Go Boating is a key summation of the Paris Godard sought to capture with his own increasingly radical cinema, signaled in a cosmic way by its near-perfect balance between Godard's experimentation and sociopolitical concerns and Truffaut's more optimistic humanity. The entire film is a Möbius strip, following Celine and Julie until we return to the ending and we find ourselves now watching Julie and Celine, with the promise of a whole other three-hour feature to be seen in some alternate dimension (look out for the heavy mirror imagery in the film). Or an alternative to the alternate dimension in which the film occurs, as Céline and Julie is truly otherworldly. It is unlike any film I've ever seen or any experience I've ever had, and it has given me an insight into Rosenbaum's occasional crabbiness: who wouldn't be continually outraged to see the creator of such a work go unheralded? And if this is not Rivette's best film, how the hell can so many see fit to exist without him?

The initial meeting of the two characters occurs in a park, where Julie (Dominque Labourier), whose big glasses and frizzled hair give away that she's a librarian long before anyone tells us, spots a young woman dropping possessions and continuing unfazed like the White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland (numerous comparisons to Carroll's book pop appear in the film, to say nothing of the two works' similar explorations of magic and wonder). Julie makes some noises to get the lady's attention, but Céline (Juliet Berto) walks on. For nearly 15 minutes, Rivette leads the audience through a laid-back "chase" as Julie walks behind the woman who no one else notices and eyes her curiously. Approximately 12 of these minutes pass without dialogue, playing into the silent film homage established from the opening credits, jaunty piano et. al, and the title cards that pop up occasionally only strengthen Céline's ties to classic cinema (there is more than one overt reference to Feuillade, particularly Les Vampires). When Julie finally reaches her target, the two barely speak and part, but Céline shows up at the librarian's house shortly thereafter and they become fast friends.

The two scour Paris together, their adventures filled with a airy sense of elation that slowly separates them from their jobs and normal lives without consequence. Rivette films with an improvisatory feel befitting the New Wave style that nonetheless cannot disguise the intricate planning of the film, both in its dialogue and structure. Céline and Julie overflows with puns, undoubtedly more than I can spot as the subtitles (which could do with a new translation, judging from the track I used) can only rework so much of the French wordplay. The title of the film itself is a play on the phrase "aller en bâteau," the French idiom relating to shaggy dog stories, that is, a protracted tale that leads to a deliberate anticlimax. At over 3 hours with an ending only gently different from the beginning, Céline and Julie Go Boating certainly qualifies as a shaggy dog story, but its precise lack of a narrative endgame is partly what make it so enchanting.

For Céline and Julie is a film of magic and magical feeling. The book Julie reads at the beginning concerns magic and magic spells. After returning Céline's scarf, she returns to the library and plays with tarot cards, and her reading reveals that she's in a stagnant place in life but also chucks out a contradictory statement about her future being "in the past" that sets up the constant reversals of the film, conveyed visually though the heavy mirror imagery. Céline herself works as a magician, and we see her work her act in a seedy nightclub where we cannot help but suspect that Céline, dressed as she to reveal every last inch of her legs, will perform tricks that may not necessarily have anything to do with magic. But she slowly removes her gloves and casts suggestive looks at the men in the club and then performs her magic show. It's both a fiendish subversion of what the audience might naturally expect a sexy young female in a smoky nightclub to do and the ultimate striptease, never removing anything more than a pair of gloves; this shaggy dog has blue balls.

As the bond between the two deepens, Céline and Julie can swap roles with no one else noticing: Céline dresses up to confront an old semi-romantic liaison from Julie's childhood named Gregoire, whom she teases as her friend. Their conversation builds from the initial exchange of pleasantries to gentle reminiscences that spiral into sexually charged lust that boils over until the poor lad can no longer contain himself and his trousers suddenly drop to the ground (in front of a playground no less). Céline then stops the frenzy cold and tells the man to "go jack-off among the roses." Gregoire later calls the real Julie to announce that he's joining a monastery and that it's entirely her fault; she is of course puzzled over the outburst. After hanging up, Julie suddenly grows indignant and picks the phone back up to shout "Go masturbate in the daisies like a Gregorian" (a pun on his name Gregoire). Gregoire has of course already hung up, but had he stayed on the line he would be more convinced than ever that Julie really was there at the park with him. Later, Julie tries her hand at Céline's magic act and, despite her shyness, plays up the tease aspect of the show more than her more bohemian and open chum. Their ability to mesh into one and live out each other's lives plays in some respects like a whimsical version of Bergman's Persona, replacing despair with carefree cheek.

The relationship between the two characters is so tight that some might be tempted to describe it as a romantic one. Disagreeing with this assertion can be tricky, as I've read some reviews throw out this interpretation as if to say that suggesting a lesbian relationship is an insult. The two may very well be closer than just friends, given heightened physical contact and the way that their exploits recall a more free-form version of the puppy love montages of so many rom-coms, but what I find insulting about some of the suggestions of a romance is the implied idea that no straight women could act this freely and independent of men. A casual scene in which Julie hangs a few dolls on a wall and pins a boy figurine by its feet is a giddy visualization of this, but this theme runs far deeper. Those aforementioned role reversals involve the females rejecting the men who hold some sway on the life of the other. Julie kept a photo of Gregoire with a rose as if a shrine to a lover lost in a battle, so Céline breaks her of the lingering crush by alienating the man. Meanwhile, Julie performs as a magician and ends up castigating the same seedy men who ogled her friend, calling them pimps before storming out of the place. Because both similarly break the other away from men, Céline and Julie free themselves to hang out with each other, and it's interesting how the rejection of men coincides with the ladies' break from normal society and, before long, reality itself (one should also note that Julie leaves her job as a librarian to live in her own piece of fiction). Talk about women's lib.

The theme of female bonding offers one interpretation of the film, but Rivette plunges into the deep end of cinematic exploration in the movie's second half, which revolves around a mansion at the fictional address of 7 bis, Rue du Nadir aux Pommes (the Worst of the Apples Street, a.k.a. bad apples?). When one of them enters the house, she emerges later with no recollection of what transpired inside and finds a candy in her mouth, which she saves, assuming it to be of some importance. It is indeed, as sucking the candy unlocks the memories of the mansion visit.

Here Céline and Julie becomes about movies themselves, as well as the act of movie-going. Inside the mansion is a play of sorts, featuring a group of women vying for the hand of the widower who lives among them. Also inside is a young girl, the widower's, who may or may not be murdered just as the candy wears off and Céline and Julie can no longer watch the story. This narrative within the narrative represents the old style of French filmmaking, poetic realism, both in its structure and especially its more rigid and melodramatic acting. Céline and Julie, of course, with their insouciant wandering and giddy conversations, embody the New Wave, and Rivette pits the styles against each other to craft a more wholesome cinematic language. He tears it down almost immediately afterward, which may be the point of the film, but more on that later.

The Proustian affectation of the memory candies in some ways predates the idea of a VCR, which had been invented by 1974 but not yet condensed and cheapened sufficiently for widespread home usage. The friends process more of the elliptical story with every visit and use of the candy, in the same way that re-reading a book or re-watching a movie can yield all new details and interpretations. Céline and Julie debate over the mystery and what this story has to say like critics looking for a film's meaning, all too fitting for a film with as many readings and enticing mysteries as this. In the "replays," the character who entered the house assumes the role of the young girl's nanny, Miss Angèle Terre, which splits into two relevant puns: "Miss Terre" equates to "mystère," while "Miss Angèle" becomes "mise en gel" (i.e. frozen). The characters insides the mansion are frozen in their doomed one-act play, a mystery compounded by the editing ellipses, a mystery that the two women attempt to solve, or at least fashion into something in their liking.

Thus, the second half of the film becomes a paean to the spirit of New Wave filmmaking. After watching the "movie" of the mansion over and over -- in one sequence, Rivette inserts quick cuts to shots of Céline and Julie gawking into space over their shared memories, recalling Truffaut's quote about the most beautiful sight in a movie is to look away from the screen at all the upturned faces -- until they brew a potion that allows them to actively influence the events in the mansion. They go from film watcher to filmmaker, much in the same way that the Cahiers writers took their impressive knowledge of film and parlayed it into an exciting new movement. When they enter simultaneously and begin to change the "narrative," the two notice the people inside suddenly slathered in too much makeup -- à la the massive pancaking done back in the silent era -- and stiffer than usual. Céline and Julie rework the story so that they might save the young girl, who escapes with them.

This sequence reveals the extent to which Labourier and Berto guided the film in addition to Rivette. Their real-life friendship adds yet another facet to the metastructure of the film and certainly influenced their improvisation with each other. They'd certainly had their own experiences in radical art, particularly Berto, who had of course gotten her break in Godard's late-'60s pictures as he was coming into his so-called radical period. Perhaps then, the widower inside the mansion represents the typical male director they normally had to deal with: he flatters the two women who vie for his attention and we can see him guiding them into action -- his implication to the women that he can never re-wed while his daughter is still alive creates the impetus for the mini-story and the slimy depths men will go to get their way. Berto even said of Rivette that his primary job on-set consisted of taking the improv of her and Labourier and condensing it into some sort of working narrative.

By that measuring stick, Rivette "fails," but the film he makes instead is far more rewarding than any possible attempt to force the giddy whimsy of the dialogue and the waltzes through Paris into a story with a definite endpoint. He emphasizes the proud femininity of the characters and sacrifices none of their charm. His use of jump cuts, even, add to the sense of wonder and unpredictability. Such edits break the timeline, the flow of the images to remind us of their falsity even as these cuts only add to the effect of being swept away into the film; once these cuts begin to show the fractured pieces of the mansion narrative, they become more concrete than abstract, representative of the bits of memory the two experience through the amnesiac fog the mansion places upon them. The sudden cuts to close-ups signify the little details that stick in the minds of attentive viewers, a facial expression or a seemingly random trinket that means as much as anything in the story. The fact that we see these jump cuts before they align with the mansion story suggests that the film we started watching at the beginning was just the latest iteration of this looping story, which starts in a slightly altered repeat when the film cuts out three hours in (on a shot of a cat no less, a clear reference to the Cheshire Cat). So, maybe Céline and Julie, with its juxtaposition of liberating New Wave techniques and ideals with more formal and repressed classic cinema, will loop until Rivette figures out the perfect balance between them.

What he doesn't realize -- or perhaps he does -- is that the oil and water combination of the two styles seen here is no less intriguing than a homogeneous mixture. Céline and Julie Go Boating is stuffed with intellectual and cinematic allusions, analysis and mysteries (some of which I hope remain insoluble even after repeat viewings), yet it's more engaging, delightful and transcendent than nearly all films that aim for the heart instead of the brain. The film, for all of its light surrealism and double-back structure, captures the Paris of the 1970s with that honesty I mentioned earlier, from Céline's hippie-chic garb to the greater liberation as the failure of May '68 began to morph belatedly into the liberal reform the movement sought to bring. Whether it's a lesbian date movie, a defiant entry into feminist cinema, a commentary on the cinema and the role of the audience or all of the above, Céline is one of the greatest works of cinema's greatest decade, and one of the most tantalizingly playful. In what other film could two grown women raid a magic store at night wearing black catsuits and roller skates?