Saturday, July 31, 2010

It Might Get Loud

It Might Get Loud is based on a foundation so simple and ingenious that it's incredible that a dozen fan films haven't been made in the same fashion: director Davis Guggenheim, who directed Al Gore's portentous slide show An Inconvenient Truth, gets three guitar heroes in a room, and then just lets them do their thing for an hour and a half. His choices -- Jimmy Page, Jack White and U2's The Edge -- are great picks, but their sheer placement in the same room, each telling his story, instantly makes the mind think of other groupings that never were: what if Stevie Ray Vaughan got to tell Robert Fripp how much he liked the King Crimson's mastermind's work on Bowie's Scary Monsters and "Heroes"? What if Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead sat in a room with ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons and Yes' Steve Howe?

What's intriguing is the obvious fact that even Guggenheim didn't think up this brilliance, at least not at first. In fleeting moments, moments that should have been cut in post-production, It Might Get Loud displays tatters of its original intent, to chart the history of the electric guitar. Clearly, once he got his three stars in a room talking, the film changed to a focus on these three icons and these three alone, and the director attempts to piece together the possibilities of the electric guitar through the personal connection these players take to their unique approaches.

Impressively, Guggenheim gets to the root of each man's style quickly without relying solely on archival footage of songs we know and love: It Might Get Loud opens with Jack White standing at a workbench on a farm, piling assorted objects onto a block of wood. A glass Coca-Cola bottle, a guitar string, a couple of nails. Only when he nails in a rudimentary set of pickups does it become clear that White's fashioned a one-string contraption that crackles when connected to an amp, sounding as dangerous and wobbly as it looks. But White slips on a finger slide and rocks out for a few seconds before unplugging the thing before it catches fire and calmly turns to the camera. "Who says you need to buy a guitar?" he deadpans.

True to form, we meet The Edge processing his guitar through a bank of knobs, buttons and switches that morph every note into echoing walls of sound that create new notes out of the combination of effects. As for Jimmy Page, does he need an introduction? Page has the carriage of a man who knows he's royalty, lazily strolling around his country château occasionally picking up a lute like a poet prince. He doesn't break out the double neck Gibson and start wailing; instead, he lets you in to see the true Page, the one no one appreciated until long after Led Zeppelin became the most over-saturated band on classic radio and fans had to dig deeper so as not to go insane.

Once he gets them into the same room, Guggenheim splits the film between a running conversation/jam session with the guitarists and an oral history of how they came to the guitar, who they looked to for inspiration and how they evolved. We get tours through record collections, listen to early tapes of the guitarists' earliest, simplest recordings and pore over favorite six-strings, and one can easily see that none of these men is an egotistical prima donna. They all care deeply and unequivocally for their profession.

Amusingly, each has a certain aspect to his playing that annoys the others: Guggenheim hilariously segues from The Edge demonstrating his echo and chorus effects to Jack White ranting about the technological crutches players rely on these days as a substitute for ability. Likewise, The Edge speaks of his punk and post-punk influences, speaking admirably of groups like The Jam ending the reign of 15-minute instrumental wanks, meandering jams made popular in part because of Led Zeppelin's (frankly unbearable) showcases on distended live versions of "Dazed and Confused," "Moby Dick" and the like. And though he never says it, you can't help but wonder if Page doesn't reciprocate, viewing those late-'70s upstarts as responsible for killing the good times.

However, the film is most entertaining when the three start chatting and noodling and the similarities between them come to the fore. If The Edge included Led Zeppelin among those bloated dinosaurs he enjoyed watching the Ramones and The Clash slay, he doesn't show it when he and White stare at Page starting the riff to "Whole Lotta Love" as wide-eyed teenagers gawking at their hero. White speaks so reverently and analytically of the Delta bluesmen who influenced him that Page has a look in his eye that he'd quite like to adopt this wonderful young man. When they pick up their guitars and jam, the three find incredible harmonies. White, accustomed to his punk-blues style, and The Edge, inspired by the first wave of punks, nearly leap out of their skins in glee when Page displays a feral grit unheard in the jazz-folk-blues of Zeppelin's key recordings. And who could have ever expected The Edge to groove so deliciously when everyone breaks out a slide and Zeppelin's epic "In My Time of Dying" fills the ears?

Unfortunately, Guggenheim still wanted this to be a more holistic view of the guitar, and he does not commit to the far better film that's contained in these sessions. The backgrounds of each artist offer emotional explanations of what drives them, but the director follows so much of their careers that he starts to include redundancies and trivialities, taking time away from the scenes of the guitarists speaking to each other and the beautiful moments where they communicate in the only way they know how. Fascinating as these guys are, they're even more arresting when put together, when their personal philosophies come out even as they mesh seamlessly with those of the other two. Page views playing as something mystical, an arcane magic passed down into the modern age. The Edge uses his reverb effects to create layers of notes, forcing him to keep track not only of the notes he's playing but the ones that spring forth from space as if his playing attracts music floating around in the ether to filter through his pickups. Then there's White, who keeps dented, bent and tuneless guitars so that he might wrestle them back into something beautiful as if adopting abused animals and nursing them back to health. These attitudes are visible and affecting when brought out in the group, and the individual explanations of these approaches are redundant and take away some of the personal connection that forms not only between the three guitarists but with the audience.

Then again, each and every moment with Jack White is a blessing. He's certainly humbled to be in a room with Jimmy Page, and he realizes quickly that a player like The Edge is not so far removed from his style, but he still brings his eccentricities to the documentary. For whatever reason, White got a child actor to play the 9-year-old version of himself so that he might "teach himself" to play the guitar as if literalizing the entire conceit of the documentary. White and "Little Jack," dressed identically in black suits with blood-red ties, look like a wacky version of Daniel and H.W. Plainview, a madman looking to put an innocent (and sane) face on his passion. White comes off as the Quentin Tarantino of the blues, capable of recalling the most obscure track and every minute detail of the life of the artist who recorded it, then flooding all of those influences into something as plagiaristic as it is utterly original. He speaks of listening to Son House records with the hushed emotion of a man recounting a religious experience, and perhaps it was for this apostle of raw, searing blues.

Still, I would have liked to see a better balance in the styles of the musicians. White may be something of the midway point between Page's study of the blues and The Edge's minimalist punk ethos, but he clearly falls into Page's camp. Were the film the first in a series of oral histories that would track the guitar across all the genres it's touched, I would not focus so intently on this imbalance. As it is, the film feels incomplete. Guggenheim could have included a classical or metal guitarist with no less discipline and love for the instrument. Ooh, what about a jazzbo. Who wouldn't want to see John McLaughlin or Pat Metheny expounding on the astonishing areas they've taken their playing? (If you answered, "Me," you need to take a long, hard look at yourself.) Combined with the padding of individual background, It Might Get Loud doesn't quite reach the heights it continuously hints at each and every scene. When it clicks, however, the film is inspired: I can think of no purer treatise on the equalizing effect rock has on the collective soul than watching Jimmy Page put on Link Wray's pioneering "Rumble" and giddily playing along with an air guitar as if a teenager rocking out to, well, Jimmy Page.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson

Appropriate to its subject, Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson begins not with the various accolades expected of a puff piece doc but with snatches of various talking heads speaking of his final years and frankly assessing that he'd lost his touch. Rather than play into conspiratorial fantasies surrounding Thompson's death -- something that would likely amuse Thompson were he still around -- Gibney and his interview subjects make clear without coming out and directly saying it that the writer knew he was past his prime and that the suicidal thoughts that plagued him his whole life finally won out, motivated partially by political angst but chiefly through the demons that tormented him for so long.

It's an unorthodox way to introduce a film about one of the more notable voices of the 20th century counterculture, but then Hunter was anything but orthodox. Gonzo charts the writer's life from his first success with his book on the Hell's Angels in 1966 through his suicide in 2005. His was a life of alcoholism, drug addiction, an enthusiasm for guns that would put even NRA members on edge and extreme mental disability that would have existed without his vices but was certainly enhanced by them. Through it all, he was funny, intelligent, piercing and capable of inserting himself in places that were determined to keep him out, as if even those aware of him simply did not know how to handle his zeal.

One of the main reasons Thompson and his legend attract me is the uncertainty with which I view him: was he a serious, if addled, journalist on the hunt for social answers, searching for the crater that marked the cosmic death of the American Dream? Or was he a prankster to shame Andy Kaufman, a committed freak who dedicated his entire life to pulling a grand joke on the Establishment he so hated? The answer, as far as I can tell, combines the two possibilities, and the great joy of reading his mad scribblings is sorting out what of his writing is incisive fact-finding and what is utter, hallucinated imagination. Frank Mankiewicz, George McGovern's campaign manager, speaking of Hunter regarding his coverage the 1972 presidential campaign, offered an assessment that covers Thompson's entire career: "Of all the correspondents, he was the least factual, but the most accurate."

Gibney is a keen political documentarian, maker of Taxi to the Dark Side and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, two of the sharpest documentaries of the last 10 years. But those films, as they concern issues and events, require a marshaling of facts, and this is a profile of an artist, and an artist who wrote and said what came to mind exactly as it came to mind. Unfortunately, Gibney uses the same approach to profile a man as he does to profile a situation, and Gonzo essentially plays out as a visual biography of a man who already left himself in his work.

It's amusing, certainly, to see the archival footage of the gonzo journalist running for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado by appealing to Aspen's surprising hotbed of freaks and dropouts, crafting a campaign that made Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra's run for mayor of San Francisco a decade later seem purely straight-faced. Even funnier is the sight of Thompson shaving his head completely bald, simply so he could refer to his Republican opponent, an ex-Army man with a disciplined crew cut, as "my long-haired opponent." But this is all contained in his short story about his run.

More unique are the contributions of people like Jann Wenner, founder of Rolling Stone; Ralph Steadman, the sketch artist who adorned Thompson's writings with his horrifying caricatures; George McGovern, who reveals that Thompson's admiration for him was matched by his own appreciation of the writer; and Laila Nabulsi, HST's former girlfriend and the producer of the Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas film. Thompson's writings were always from a first-person perspective, but it's necessary to have the clearer views of those sucked into his whirlpool to offer guidance.

At two hours, however, Gonzo suffers from padding, and too much of the film simply recounts his glory years in the form of mentioning books and essays. Even something as significant as the journalist's effect on swaying popular opinion for Jimmy Carter in '76 receives no in-depth analysis, only a cursory mention that, yes, Hunter wrote about Carter approvingly, or that he admired the outlaw spirit in the Hell's Angels when his book on the subject expounds upon that admiration to poetic length.

The timeline is loose as well. The driving arc of the film does not seem to go further than Thompson's '70s output, not even touching upon his writings on the Bush administration and only vaguely mentioning that he lost his touch without even providing a timeframe for that claim. Granted, I happen to agree that Thompson grew too much to embrace his persona instead of using it as a sly tool for getting across good, if broadly unethical, journalism, but his descent is spoken of only in abstract terms, never pointing to any articles as proof of slipping wit or any events in his life as significant of his downturn. The last 25-30 years of Thompson's life are shoved into the final 20 minutes of the film, and the portrait of a tragic artist I'd hoped to see to get a better understanding of HST's backslide into faded celebrity felt perfunctory and hollow.

What I did enjoy about the eulogy for Hunter was the talking head of his first wife, Sondi Wright, speaking of the perception of Thompson's suicide as the last noble act of a rebel, then shredding that horseshit into tatters. Though her bitterness over the failed marriage appears to have cooled, her anger toward the reception of her ex-husband's death is righteous and right-on: she undercuts the paranoid whispers that someone took Thompson out because he was at the top of his game and threatening to expose Bush by pointing out that he was over a decade past his prime. She conveys my own feelings on the matter perfectly when she says that, instead of admit defeat and create a faux-poetic death to eradicate the weakness of his final years, Hunter should have gotten his act together and gone after Bush with the same zeal with which he pursued Nixon. Why, just look at Pat Buchanan, brought in so one of Thompson's enemies can defend himself, and that smug, jackal grin on his face, the half-smile of an asshole who knows that Hunter was better than him but still lost in the end anyway. We needed a voice like Thompson's in the wake of the Bush/Kerry election, and while I know that Hunter wanted my generation to find its own calling, he left us to clean up this mess without any guidance just like everyone else did. But goddamn is this world a hell of a lot less interesting without him.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Black Narcissus

What is it about classical British directors and their upfront focus on sensuality? Chaplin may not have let his ephebophilic predilections spill over into his films, but he couldn't disguise his taste for nubile beauties. Hitchcock, well, I'm not even going to bother wasting the words talking about eroticism in Hitch's works. But there is a difference between eroticism and sensuality, and Michael Powell catered to the latter. Eroticism is naked, brazen, firing every nerve in every erogenous zone all at once. Sensuality has the same endpoint -- sexual overload -- but it goes about reaching this goal through subtler means. The word itself appeals to the senses, to light touches, faint whiffs, half-glimpses, aftertastes and tantalizing whispers. That is how Michael Powell makes his films: unhinged but refined, teasing every part of you until your barriers shut down and you achieve a purity of mental and spiritual orgasm.

None of this may be relevant to Black Narcissus, however, which Powell himself later called his "most erotic film." I contested that point several times during my viewing of Criterion's gorgeously restored Blu-Ray of the film, having just watched their print of The Red Shoes and finding the build-up of subjective artistic expression the most satisfying cinematic experience I can name, as I did the first time I watched that movie. Then I realized I'd forgotten my own annoyance with those who lump eroticism and sensuality together: The Red Shoes beckons and teases until you'll do anything for it, then it brutally denies you because it never gave itself the choice of pleasing an audience. But Black Narcissus has such a sexual primacy to it that every nude scene, hell, every visualized romantic moment, feels empty in comparison.

Made the same year that Britain gave India its independence, Black Narcissus partially demonstrates why British occupancy failed in the first place, but its approach is far from political. In fact, the central conflict of the film only tangentially concerns the indigenous population. The eroticism of the film plays on the exoticism of the environment, a beautiful area in the Indian Himalayas where a group of Anglican nuns come to establish a convent to teach local children and to set up a hospital.

Powell immediately emphasizes the tantalizing nature of the area. The nunnery, perched 9,000 feet up at the edge of a sheer cliff face, is constantly buffeted by gale-force winds that billow through the open windows. The wind casts everything not nailed down into disarray, but it also creates a sort of song as it howls through the corridors, a combination of forceful eroticism of its physical impact with the sensuality of its musical nature. Masters of color, Powell and cinematographer Jack Cardiff (who won the Oscar for his work here because it would simply be too much of an outrage if he hadn't), constantly contrast the brilliantly dyed clothes of the peasants with the off-white robes of the nuns' habits, colored as they are in pasty oatmeal hues. One of the biggest indicators of the underlying effect of the environment's sharp distinction from the plain nuns, and the funniest, is the casually mentioned line that the empty palace where the nuns make their home used to be the king's harem. Faded paintings of Karma Sutra positions dot the walls, not immediately noticeable but always there, a fitting recurring gag on the sexual confusion of these cloistered women.

For the point of Black Narcissus is not simply to emphasize the exotic qualities of a foreign locale but to demonstrate the perils of attempting to remake reality to fit an image. The nuns come to civilize the savages, but they find a generally happy, if superstitious, people who don't carry nearly the sexual baggage that the prim ladies do. Consider the difference between the two prominent males of the film: Dean (Jack Farrar), a government agent who embodies the British imperial attitude of pompous arrogance, often drunk, always clad in revealing shorts and condescending toward the locals. Then there's the young Indian general who arrives at the nunnery in respectable dress, innocently asking to be admitted to their school for girls. The nuns try to explain why it wouldn't do to have a striking young man in their midst, and he amusingly makes a case that they're being sexist by not allowing him to learn. Of the two, the simple Indian is far more gentlemanly and devoted to higher learning.

Yet his presence, and especially Dean's, put the nuns on edge, and we soon see that many may have come to escape their own sexuality. This is certainly true of Clodagh, the young sister superior played by Deborah Kerr, who routinely daydreams of a past lover in Scotland before she took her vows, and it's easy to see why one scene was cut for the American release to appease Catholics. Despite the lack of overt sexual content, it's impossible not to see erotic energy crackling off the screen as Kerr relaxes in a lake, casting a fishing rod as the crystal-clear water reflects the sunlight all around her as if the entire environment matched her post-coital glow. Whatever went wrong with that relationship, however, drives Clodagh to take to her new role with authoritative tasking. The other women also carry their latent desires, such as Sister Philippa, who becomes so intoxicated with the surroundings and the feelings they unlock in her that she inadvertently plants flowers in the vegetable garden, denying the convent much-needed food.

The people of India may be a great deal more formal than the nuns would have guessed, but they, along with their environment, surround the Brides of Christ with pure, vibrant expressions of dormant sensuality, and the Westernization does not tame them so much as infect everything British with the same passion. The children learn English words by looking at a tapestry with drawings of various Western weaponry, which takes on an even greater phallic significance when each killing device is said aloud by kids with no concept of their destructive power. Even the film's construction mashes up British sensibilities with these unfiltered emotions: not one frame of the film was shot in India, a fact Martin Scorsese relates in the DVD commentary with the breathless excitement of a teenager who wants to show his friends something cool he just found instead of the analytical mind of a man who's dissected this film for 40 years and filled his own work with references to it. But it's not hard to understand the director's enthusiasm, as Powell's film feels too alive to be the product of matte paintings, miniatures and studio sets. Yet the truth makes more sense, as the totality of the film's construction allows Powell to maintain total control of color and lighting, able to always create a shot that will yield maximum sumptuousness. Even the casting of Jean Simmons as the tawdry dancing girl works from this viewpoint; I do not mean to excuse the racism of the casting, but Simmons, painted bronze with a nose ring and flowers in her hair, becomes a vision of the ultimate effect of Powell's manufactured Himalayas on those who seek to remake it: the environment absorbs the British, not the other way around. Thus, Simmons' role as seductress takes on a deeper meaning that exacerbates her pull, and when she spontaneously bursts into an erotic dance while cleaning the convent, you wonder why she hadn't already. Even the general, so eager for a Western education, contributes to this effect, purchasing the titular Black Narcissus, a cheap, pungent perfume from England that smells foreign to the nuns by virtue of him wearing it.

Surprisingly, it is Sister Ruth, not Sister Clodagh, who ultimately cracks under the strain of all this thick tension. Where Clodagh came to India to escape memories of tragic romance, Ruth's past is murkier. Her behavior suggests sexual confusion, and perhaps she wished to escape her feelings of insecurity, only to be met by Clodagh. Why she should be so jealous, however, is a bit of a mystery, as she is played by Kathleen Byron and thus, in this writer's opinion, unnecessarily uncomfortable with her looks. (It's an opinion almost certainly shared by the director, whose dalliance with the actress led to her divorce.) But her madness is evident even in the film's early moments, such as the odd look of delight when she interrupts Dean and Clodagh's first meeting with red all over robes gushing over seeing the patient whose blood smears her habit. When Clodagh notices Ruth's desire for Dean, she attempts to calm the nun, only for Byron to leap in a flash and accuse her of wooing the man.

Byron would later attribute much of her performance to the film's lighting, which certainly ranks among the most memorable use of darkness in classic film; there is a clarity to shots with just enough lighting for outlines that it's as hard to believe that 1940s film stock could capture images at such low levels as it is to think that three-strip Technicolor could result in such a bountiful array of colors. But Byron's quote is little more than English modesty: encouraged by Powell to let loose and leave subtlety to some other film, she turns into a silent film monster to rival Max Shreck's Nosferatu, wild-eyed and flashing teeth like knives. Her performance, as with the direction, is passionate but excessively formal above all, modulated through the deliberate pacing of tension until, when Powell frames Byron in close-up as she applies blood-red lipstick, the distinction between Powell's driving direction and Byron's performance vanish, and the combined moment signals that Ruth has forsaken her vows and gone off the deep end before her true freak-out.

To beat a dead horse further, just look at the color in this film. This is not even my first experience with Black Narcissus, and yet I am still as overwhelmed by it. Cleaned up by Criterion and ITV, the new Blu-Ray erases the blurring and fading that marred the original DVD and restores the color to its fullest glory. Watch Clodagh as she prays in a drab room in the palace, only to look up and see the most beautiful blue sky you've ever seen in a high window, with just a hint of sparkling green foliage snaking across the bottom corner; the glimpse sparks one of her romantic memories, but the astonishing contrast of the white walls with the close-up of the window will spark flighty thoughts in the audience as well. More than anyone else, even more than Nicholas Ray -- who serves as a far more accurate comparison to the director than Hitch because the only link between the latter is their nationality -- Michael Powell understood the power of color, and Black Narcissus is the greatest film I've ever seen to deal with the subject of desire. The film's detractors, sparse as they are, criticize the film for caring more for color than plot, something they evidently do not know the director freely admitted. But it is precisely his use of color that drives the story: extroverted as Byron's acting may be, the film draws its tension from the gradual shift in lighting and hue as more and more color seeps into the film even as it grows darker and darker. Films of wounded faith and confused sexuality tend to be somber (think Bergman), but Powell turns serious themes into an emotional roller coaster solely through his disciplined formal progression. It is impossible to tell at the beginning of the film that it will end as a horror-opera, and the fact that you never notice the shift proves that the cinematography layered the film where the straightforward script wouldn't.

For those with minimal knowledge of the Archers, it may not mean much when I say that Black Narcissus makes their previous efforts look incomplete. But Powell & Pressburger already had a number of masterpieces under their belt, and even in 1947 were just halfway through a four-year period that produced as many classics. But the climactic sequence, which choreographs Ruth's murderous stalk through the convent and her final confrontation with Clodagh to the score, shows the director preparing for upcoming musical forays such as The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffmann, in which he would fully parlay his cinematic sensuality into its purest form: dance and music. There's even a nod to the past in a POV shot of Ruth, incensed by Dean's rejection of her, literally seeing red before blacking out, recalling the "blinking" shot of a man being anesthetized in A Matter of Life and Death. I know I haven't helped matters, but this film is about more than its aesthetic beauty, even though its looks inform everything about it. Like Georges Méliès before him, Powell was a magician, not literally like the Frenchman but certainly artistically, and Black Narcissus is his greatest enchantment. The Red Shoes is the greater experience, removing the latent politics of this film -- though Powell was a lifelong Tory and probably not too invested in seeing India win its freedom -- and reconstituting the sensuality around its purest expression, art, but Black Narcissus is likely the most beautiful film I've ever seen, one that makes me sit back in appreciative wonder during repeat viewings just as Martin Scorsese marvels over the Archers' achievement. I can only hope my own love of the film lasts as long as his.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Le Gai Savoir

Portions of Godard's Le gai savoir were filmed before he jetted off to London to muck about with the Rolling Stones, but the final product definitely has a post-May '68 feel to it. In context, Godard's minimalist movie serves to flesh out some of the vague ideas behind Sympathy for the Devil, and it takes the unfinished conception behind the splintered rockumentary to an extreme: with this film, the director wanted nothing less than to shatter the make-up of cinema, proof that Week End's final title card was not a declaration of fact but a statement of intent.

Made just before Godard entered into the often-contested (and even-more-often ignored entirely) Dziga Vertov Group, Le gai savoir represents the artist's attempt to "return to zero," to compensate for the lack of home video by making a film that essentially rewinds his other films. Using his two favorite revolutionary actors, Jean-Pierre Léaud and Juliet Berto, Godard roots the film's (in)action in a dark studio, pitch-black but for the gentle stage light that illuminates the two actors. They introduce each other as the descendants of Rousseau (Léaud) and Lumumba (Berto) and immediately launch into polemical discussions that reconstitute politics around art in Godard's usual fashion. Then they splinter off, agreeing to monitor the relationship between sight and sound in three phases for three years, first simply observing, then critiquing and finally acting upon their theories. Only now do the intellectual touches of the director's previous works seem tame: at least they came in the form of aesthetically beautiful and narratively spry movies.

By far his most confounding and layered work to that point, Le gai savoir exists in a fractured state, jumping between the two actors in the studio to jarringly bright still photographs and bustling, candid shots of people on the streets. Sounds overlap. Images are drawn on, recolored, juxtaposed and then folded into the audio. The only prop in the studio with the actors is a clear, plastic umbrella that they intermittently wave about while they speak in a manner that breaks up every sentence between the two of them.

All of this reflects Godard's deconstructionist attitude, even the umbrella, reduced to a basic, transparent outline. A critic, of course, breaks down a film into its various elements and discusses each and how they relate to the film as a whole. As such, there may be no better example in Godard's canon to illustrate his contention that the best way to criticize a film was to make another. Le gai savoir takes this idea past the point of film and into society: early on, he displays still photographs with letters written on them as if teaching the alphabet, albeit one whose examples are relevant and political (i.e. Vietnam for V); he echoes this later when Léaud's Emile rants about the illustrated words in a child's dictionary might display terms like "soap" for 'S' but neither "sex" nor "syndicate." The O's in words scribbled onto the screen are emphasized through underlining or capitalization, stressing how much they look like zeroes. Even the back-and-forth between the actors played over these photos and illustrations takes on a quality similar to those instructional cassettes used in languages classes for reading comprehension.

So, is Le gai savoir a lecture? Well, yes, but compared to the didacticism of Sympathy for the Devil, Godard returns to his playful self. The mood of the film is, despite the headiness of its objective, appropriately childish. Godard even brings in a kid to play a free association word game as Berto and Léaud lob words from off-screen for the boy to respond to. It's unclear whether the actors are actually speaking to the boy, unlikely, even, considering he somehow knows to say the word "October" in connection with "Revolution" despite being no older than 10 (he also links "Chinese" with "Earth," playing into Godard's Maoist fascination by implying that the nation's people are attuned with the planet). Then the director and actors do the same with an old, half-deaf man, and the nature of the game equalizes the old man's experience with the young boy's innocence by limiting the players to simply saying what first comes to mind.

The dominant force behind the film is, naturally, Godard's gift for montage, here reverted to its foundations in Russian political cinema. I cannot hope to have picked up anything but a fraction of the various juxtapositions of images, sounds and writing, but the overall effect of the constant cutting is a surprising cheekiness that showcases the director's wit in the midst of his polemics. A picture of a nude woman in a magazine pops on the screen, with the word "Freud" written by her head and "Marx" written, well, a little further south, inverting the popular perceptions of the aims of the two thinkers and hilariously positioning Marx as the man of "action," as it were. Lyndon Johnson and Charles De Gaulle are routinely paired with Hitler and Stalin through images and dialogue, making them all into false prophets who abused the public trust, the only difference separating them is that the people can actually rise up against Johnson and De Gaulle where the others brutally crushed dissent. The most brilliant moment involves Berto, clad in a period dress, reading nonsense in front of a backdrop of comic book characters as Léaud, wearing contemporary clothes, reads aloud coherently. Seemingly random, this one scene contains numerous dialectics, between classical and pop art, lingual meaning and gibberish, and the old (the dress) versus the new (Léaud's modern garb).

"Theoretically, these two sounds have nothing to do with one another," Berto says of some noises Godard assembles, and Léaud completes the thought by adding "But they could eventually have a connection." That idea propels Le gai savoir, which uses its minimalistic foundation not to completely destroy the cinema (though it ultimately ends in blackness with only a whispered narration to suggest that the film is still playing) but to stage a film of infinite possibilities. Berto and Léaud are often obscured in shadow because they are merely symbolic, Berto of theory, Léaud of revolutionary action. But the people on the street, the comic books, the war photographs? Those are all crisp and beautiful, even when horrific, and the director's editing of them makes the movie come alive even when you're tearing out your hair to pinpoint it.

"This film is not the film that needs to be made," Godard confides in us in his closing whisper, already chastising himself for his shortcomings in trying to capture the world, his political zeal and a buried optimism in a spare 92 minutes. What he wants of Le gai savoir instead is for the film to show him the path back to the beginning, to the vantage point where he can see all the trails cinema forged for itself. Only then, only by following the paths back and studying them along the way, can he make a new one. There it is in a nutshell: Le gai savoir is a half-meta, half-literal visualization of Jean-Luc Godard as the ultimate cinematic trailblazer.

Sympathy for the Devil (a.k.a. One Plus One)

[Note, in the wake of Jean-Luc Godard's final work of his "classic" period, Week End, I will continue to review works by the director, but I cannot promise that I can find all of his films, even with the benefit of torrents. I will watch what I can when I can get my hands on it, but forgive me if this series suddenly stretches out even further than it already has.]

Whenever an artist loses control of his or her work, one naturally sides with the wronged party, raging at the profit-driven system that relegates those who actually make the art to the sidelines to satisfy those who use art as a tax write-off. Sympathy for the Devil, originally titled One Plus One, may be the one film where, appropriately, we actually do sympathize with the enemy. If this is the final product, what on Earth were the producers working with, and could Jean-Luc Godard have made a more complete movie if he'd retained control?

As with his subsequent, Le Gai Savoir, Sympathy for the Devil was made in a time of tremendous sociopolitical upheaval around the world: during the course of recording the titular song, the band had to amend a mention of the Kennedy assassination to the plural in the way of Robert's death in June of 1968. May '68 had unleashed the pent-up sexual tension of French youth, and riots broke out across America for various reasons. In Vietnam, growing resentment, fear and hostility toward the Tet Offensive early in the year led to the My Lai Massacre (though the revelation of this event would not be revealed to the American people for another year). Everything was going to hell, and a fully radicalized Godard needed something to crystallize his revolutionary thoughts.

As youth spurred the protests in America and France, Godard decided that rock 'n' roll bad-boys the Rolling Stones would be the perfect catalyst to spread his Maoist message. At the time, this must have seemed a keen decision: if sexual frustration was openly fueling one social cataclysm and at least partially influenced some of the riots on the other side of the pond, who better to kick-off sexual freedom than the most nakedly sexual rock band on the scene?

By the 10-minute mark, however, I was already checking my watch. It is difficult to write about Sympathy for the Devil without lapsing either into a list of outrages or a strained grasp at straws to forgive some of its numerous issues. When I first started this long retrospective in an attempt to get a handle on Godard, I had an image of the artist in my head of a pretentious intellectual who valued his ideas over how he used them. Very quickly I realized I was mistaken, that even at his headiest, the director could combine the intellectual with the sensual; who else could make an essay film like 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her into such an affecting portrait when most of its shots are plainly symbolic shots of industrial production? Even the brazenly radical La Chinoise had a wry twist that kept matters from becoming too serious. Sympathy for the Devil is the first film to conform entirely to that initial, reductive vision of Godard, a mash-up of intellectual images without a bedrock of emotion. Granted, this is the producer's edit, but most of the vignettes are themselves lifeless and not even Godard's editing genius could save all of them no matter what tricks he pulled.

For Godard is not content to sit in the studio with the Stones and watch them compose the titular track. Instead, he intersperses his footage of the band with various sketches demonstrating his radical stances, albeit in the vaguest terms possible. A voiceover reads what sounds like erotic fiction with political conviction. A bookstore sells comics, pin-up magazines and radical pamphlets where paying customers must give the proprietor the Nazi salute and slap two bound Maoists. Various vandals spray-paint messages onto walls and windows, and Black Panthers read militant texts while handing out rifles as if preparing for a race war.

Each of these vignettes certainly has a purpose when stacked against the slow progression of the Stones' greatest track from its beginnings as a loose acoustic outline. Just as the band is composing its most sinister, relevant song, so too are the battles lines being drawn around the UK and, by extension, the Western world. Those spray-painted messages are rarely completed before Godard cuts away and, even though the film came out after the tumultuous events of the year, the director sought to make a film about preparing for revolution.

Yet the fact that, despite the continuation of social unrest for years, the movie was dated upon release severely undermines its impact. It's interesting to see some of the crosswords the vandals make of their graffiti, such as writing "HILTON" and then using the 't' to draw "STALIN" vertically, insinuating that companies can be as dictatorial and ruthless as political tyrants. I also couldn't help but look upon the scenes with the Black Panthers, situated in a junkyard sitting among derelict cars, and not think of Detroit and the upcoming post-industrial fallout, even though the scene, as with everything else is filmed in the UK.

Such moments are fleeting, however, and Sympathy for the Devil quickly morphs into a mess. The Panthers bring in white women as one of the group reads from the texts of Eldridge Cleaver, specifically his rapacious ideas concerning white women. By the end of the film, several of the ladies have been shot and one hangs from a movie crane. Godard's second wife, Anne Wiazemsky, appears in a scene as "Eve Democracy," a woman who walks around as a film crew follows and responds to increasingly complex sociopolitical questions solely in the affirmative or negative. Godard links the pornographic bookstore with fascism, but wasn't the whole point of hitching his wagon to the Stones that they represented sexual anarchy?

Speaking of ideas that don't gel with what the Stones were about, the threatened violence of Godard's revolutionary skits is completely at odds with the titular song, a composition about the temptations and downfalls of evil behavior. The murderous Panthers do not even take their armed revolution to the streets, settling only for killing a few white women (thus conforming more to an alarmingly racist vision of militant blacks than a depiction of oppressed people finally fighting back). As I watched Godard abandon the dialectical method that allowed him to counterbalance his radicalism with more measured study, I thought of that aforementioned line from the Stones' magnum opus: "I shouted out, /'Who killed the Kennedys?'/When after all/It was you and me." I also considered just how terribly the band would blanch at violence just a year down the road when their free concert at Altamont would erupt into fighting and murder.

I don't know who this film could thoroughly please. Not Godard, certainly, forced to contend with the producer's take on his vision and also confronted with a band that clearly failed to meet the philosophical importance he'd placed on them -- it cannot be coincidence that the band are never actually interviewed or shown doing anything but rehearsing the tune. Not the Stones, who, as previously mentioned, do not do anything on-screen other than work out a single song and work as a group solely because of their roots-rock simplicity and suffer from the intellectual attention. Fans of either camps also have nothing to latch onto, from the Godard lovers who won't understand why the director is wasting his time with one of the thicker bands on the scene and not the Stones fans who have to put up with the director's meandering nonsense.

Godard objected to the use of the full song over the end credits, and it's easy to see why. Made during social upheaval, he wanted to make a movie about preparing for the coming revolution he perhaps thought inevitable. Pay attention to the beautiful tracking shots with which Godard captures the Stones in the studio: they get more complex each time, reflecting how the song comes together from an initial acoustic sketch through a more complex arrangement as keyboards and increasingly layered percussion stack on top of the sound in each session. The spray-painted messages are never fully completed before Godard cuts away. Clearly, the director wishes to visualize how revolutions start, as gestating ideas that must bud and bear fruit before the time is ripe for an uprising. Unfortunately, what the unfinished thoughts of Sympathy for the Devil primarily illustrate is that, for the first time in his career, Jean-Luc Godard went off half-cocked.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Insomnia (2002)

That Christopher Nolan's first film, Following, should go largely unheralded makes sense. The public often views an artist's first significant success as his or her debut project, and the little-seen, no-budget indie noir understandably falls through the cracks at times even if some significant publications should really know about its existence when they discuss Nolan. But the relatively anonymity of the director's follow-up, Insomnia, defies simple explanation. Memento won him a cult audience, Batman Begins would convert that pocket of thousands of fans into millions, and in-between lies this thriller, a remake of a Swedish film. Some point to its remake status as reason for the blind spot in discussion concerning Nolan's corpus, but that ignores that every one of his features save his first and his latest is an adaptation of some sort. The cast, too, suggests a far more popular picture, as it openly boasts three Academy Award winners.

Whatever the reason, the public's overlooking of the film is a shame, as Insomnia is not only a crackerjack thriller but perhaps the most coherently, tightly structured film in Nolan's canon, even above Memento. I have not yet seen the original film, but its alleged existential preoccupations are displayed in Nolan's film, naturally, in concrete terms. The titular insomnia plagues protagonist Will Dormer, an LAPD detective sent with his partner, Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan), to investigate a homicide in Nightmute, Alaska for a number of reasons. Yet the most visible source of his torment is the midnight sun of an Alaskan summer, always present, wreaking havoc with the systems of those unaccustomed to it.

It morphs into a symbol of the constant oppression of his condition, an unending day that ironically sheds light only on the cop, not the criminal. For Dormer is not simply an ace detective but one who has a single nagging issue in his past, a case of falsified evidence that he produced to convict a kidnapping/murder suspect. As he heads to Alaska to help the investigation, Internal Affairs looks into the discrepancy in Dormer's file, and perhaps they sent him so far away that he could do nothing to affect the inquiry. Not only that, but Eckhart, who implicitly reveals that he at least knows what Will did if not actually abet him, cut an immunity deal to protect himself, ensuring testimony against his partner.

This weighs down on Dormer as much as the sun, and he seems distant and unfocused from the start. He proposes an ingenious method of luring the killer back to the crime scene, but immediately second-guesses himself in front of his colleagues, afraid that the ruse is not airtight and could lead to further IA issues down the road. But the others convince him, and a stakeout is organized. One of the locals jumps the gun, however, and before anyone can get a good look at the killer he realizes what's going on and escapes through a tunnel in the cabin. As the officers pursue him in heavy fog, the killer wounds one, but the real shock comes when Will takes aim at a figure and fires, only to find that he's mortally wounded Hap.

This setup completely shifts the film from a mere cat-and-mouse thriller into something else altogether; in fact, Nolan freely gives away the killer's identity by the halfway mark. What he crafts in its stead is yet another rumination on duality, of two men who cannot be easily separated when placed together. The murderer understands this and initiates phone calls to Will to both taunt him with the revelation that he saw the cop shoot his partner and to attempt to plead his case. The mysterious man even sympathizes with Will's insomnia, noting that he too couldn't sleep when he first came to Alaska.

Will soon figures out that the man on the other end of the line is Walter Finch (Robin Williams), a pulp writer whom the murdered girl loved to read and entered into a nebulous relationship with. After a failed confrontation, Finch arranges for the two to meet on a barge, and their conversation stands as one of the finest exchanges between curiously close polar opposites in Nolan's career; hell, it even deserves comparison with Pacino's great meeting with De Niro in Heat. Williams has always been a notorious mugger -- frankly, Pacino doesn't have much subtlety anymore either -- but his low-key efforts are as chilling and captivating as anything any great actor has ever delivered. Without ever raising his voice, shedding a tear or making any outward display, Williams dives into Finch's feelings over killing Kay, calmly recounting how he never intended to hurt her, but that a few missteps led to a situation in which he panicked. That line between intentionally and accidentally killing someone is reflected in Will, as we cannot be sure whether he shot Hap by mistake or deliberately killed his partner to prevent his testimony. After all, how is it that Will couldn't make out his partner in the fog but Finch could stand farther away and see the whole thing unfold? Ultimately, the only difference between the two may be that, when he messes up, Finch calmly removes evidence from a crime scene, while Dormer plants it.

For Nolan, the suspense of the film comes less from the situation than the characters' reaction to it. He visualizes Dormer's thoughts through rapid intercutting: first he reenacts Kay Connell's murder in his mind as he studies her corpse in a manner similar to the various flashbacks of CSI shows, but soon the jarring editing becomes symptomatic of his mental breakdown due to lack of sleep, and Nolan's camera drifts off at times to focus on random items within the frame.

The director also enhances the drama with the addition of a third major character: Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank), a local detective fresh out of the academy who obsessively studied Will's own cases. Her overeager attitude amuses Will at first, her breathless recitation of textbook answers marking her only significant dialogue. Yet her bookish dedication parlays into good fieldwork, and it is precisely through her taking Will's aphorisms and methods to heart that she begins to uncover the "small stuff" that Dormer says to always look for, finding discrepancies in his story of Eckhart's shooting. On some level, Will may expect this and may even encourage Ellie to figure out his lie by not signing off on her report of Eckhart's death until she further reviews the facts. Will's transgressions are handled with sympathy: he planted evidence on that alleged kidnapper in L.A. because he could not bear to see a man he knew was guilty go free, and -- as far as we know -- he did not intend to kill his partner and covered it up out of shame and fear. Yet Ellie's seeming decision to go through with revising the report and incriminating Dormer is the one redemptive act of the film: with both Dormer and the killer covering up accidental issues and making everything worse, Burr proves a truly great police officer by not breaking the law based on emotional whim.

Warner Bros. slyly re-released Insomnia, a film about a man driven to madness over a lack of sleep, to coincide with Inception, a film about people who flirt with insanity by getting lost in dreams. That such a good film, one that made twice its budget at the box office upon original release, required a clever bit of marketing is baffling. Insomnia not only delves into Nolan's pet themes in an intelligent and intuitive manner, it's simply an entertaining film, free of the convoluted puzzles of the director's other movies. Maybe that's why it doesn't enjoy any significant reputation these days: Nolan's strength, after all, is his ability to make his Escher-like mazes coherent and engrossing enough to pass seamlessly as mass entertainment, but Insomnia is no dumber for proceeding in linear fashion. I, for one, would not hesitate to call it one of his finest works.

Breaking Bad — Season 2

*Warning – contains spoilers*

Breaking Bad
's second season leaps so far above the bar it set for itself with the first seven episodes to such an extent that television audiences did not even have to wait a full year to watch a show in the same league as The Wire after David Simon's masterpiece went off the air. Clearly the series struck a nerve, as the opening moments of the season premiere, itself actually a flashback of the final moments of the previous finale, looks crisper despite being recycled footage. AMC rolled out the high quality film stock for its critical smash, and the visual upgrade serves as an immediate symbol of the extreme boost in the quality of the show's writing, placing the series into the pantheon of great shows with only 20 total episodes to its name.

The first season ended with Walt and Jesse having solved their distribution problems by hitching their wagon -- or RV -- to drug dealer Tuco. The partnership immediately created a new issue, however, in that Tuco's insanity made them expendable at a moment's notice, likely for no reason at all. Indeed, the final act of the last season, and the first part of this one, showed Tuco beating one of his crew to death with his bare hands simply for talking tough to the amateur meth producers on his boss' behalf. After the ordeal with Krazy 8, Jesse and Walt were understandably wary of getting in over their heads, but they clearly entered a whole other realm of danger with Tuco.

Sure enough, the crazed dealer rounds up his new suppliers by the end of the first episode, convinced that the increased DEA pressure on him is less a result of his horrific, hyperviolent management of his territory and instead the product of someone in his crew being an informant. Walt, increasingly withdrawn from the family he's attempting to care for with his new trade, botches several opportunities to reconnect with his pregnant wife due to his paranoia, only for his fears to be founded when Tuco shows up to kidnap him just as Skyler nearly sets an ultimatum for Walt to spend more time with the family.

That increasing strain between Walt and Skyler forms one half of the larger arc of the character development. By this point, Walt has told too many lies to keep track of, and he must continue to spin fabrications as he dedicates himself even further to meth production to cover the costs of a surgery that will run his family nearly $200,000 and to satisfy the demands of his "customers." Where he could once get away with a few lines about "needing to get away," now Walt has to explain his days-long absence by stripping naked in a store and pretending that he blacked out for several days. Even worse, he uses the excuse of visiting his mother in a rest home to tell her about his disease in order to spend the weekend cooking up a massive amount of crystal meth.

This marks a shift in Walt's personality from a man uncomfortable with deceiving his family even as he did what he did to help them to someone who can lie with ease and base his mendacity in horrible personal areas that will cause unbearable pain if and when someone finally pulls a thread and unravels his falsehoods. Reflecting this change in his personal life, Walt's attitude toward the drug trade takes a much darker turn. His chemical ingenuity saved his and Jesse's lives more than once in the first season, but these were last-resort methods of self-preservation. But when Walt stands over a gut-shot Tuco after he and Jesse manage to overpower the dealer and escape his desert hideaway, we can see that this is not the same man who reluctantly killed Krazy 8 despite knowing that the first distributor was going to kill him. That Walt even apologized to his attacker as he choked the life out of the dealer, but this bald, hardened man looks down on Tuco and decides to let him bleed to death in agony rather than put a bullet in his head for instant gratification.

Over the course of the season, Walt increasingly identifies with his alter-ego "Heisenberg," the sobriquet he chose for his business dealings that becomes a hushed whisper among the drug community. Hoping to avoid yet another incident with a dealer, Walt finally decides to distribute his stuff himself, using several of Jesse's friends as street-level dealers. He speaks knowledgeably about infrastructure and the need for foot soldiers and enforcers as if he'd been in the game all his life, and even forces Jesse to handle two thieves who rob one of their dealers lest word get out that Heisenberg's crew are easy marks. By the end of the season, he's viciously warning wannabes to "stay out of [his] territory" and going to incredible lengths to stop a blackmailer from pushing him around. He even hires a lawyer, Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk, who gives maybe the greatest performance of a sleazy attorney ever seen), to take care of busted dealers and find a way to launder his cash.

Bryan Cranston more than earned his Emmy for his work in the first season, capturing the stress of Walt's condition and forcing the audience to consider what might drive anyone -- not just an innocent (and white) high school teacher -- to get into the drug trade. What he proves in the second season, however, is that a show doesn't need a likable protagonist to be captivating. Walt may not be a psychotic on Tuco's level, nor a calculating killer like Krazy 8, but the game is changing him, making him more ruthless. Consider how he reacts to the incredible news of the chemotherapy's success, driving him to flashes of anger and a need to repair the whole house to vent his frustrations with normalcy. Even Skyler, so desperate to help her husband through his ordeal despite being in the advanced stage of her pregnancy, begins to pull apart from him in disgust. Cranston handles this shift without breaking a sweat: where neurotic bemusement and outright fear creased his face, now his shaved head furrows in choked rage: rage at Jesse for his constant screw-ups, at rivals for infringing on his profit, even at his family, who continue to ask questions of his behavior that he grows tired of excusing. Only rarely does he betray humanity, such as seeing his son make a web site about his dad's struggle that praises Walt to the entire world, or arriving to see his newborn daughter after missing the birth due to a drug exchange.

At all times, Cranston and the rest of the cast are backed by the writing. "Down," the single best episode of the show's first two seasons, plunges both Walt and Jesse into personal crises. Jesse's parents, aware of the DEA breathing down his neck after the Tuco incident, finally crack down on their son, and the cardboard painting of a future that Jesse made for himself gets torn apart when he suddenly finds himself homeless. Meanwhile, Walt has the chance to at least partially explain himself to Skyler and ultimately chooses, perhaps permanently, to place his new occupation above his own family. It is one of the most heartbreaking episodes of television I have ever seen.

Elsewhere, however, the same comedy that made so much of the first season a riot comes back into play, particularly the scenario in which Jesse accidentally drains the battery of the RV out in the middle of nowhere and subsequently puts out a minor gas fire in the backup generator by pouring his and Walt's entire water supply onto the machine, shorting it out. Even Walt's slow breakdown into a monster contains elements of dark comedy, seen most visibly in the celebratory party Skyler throws when they get a favorable diagnosis, a party Walt ruins by making his son drink until he pukes and starting a fight with Hank. And who can forget the mad image of a cartel snitch (Danny Trejo!) named Tortuga -- Spanish for "turtle" -- beheaded and placed onto a tortoise with the words "Hola DEA" painted on its shell?

That mix of comedy and horror is but one small facet of Breaking Bad's vise grip on emotion. Even when the show moves quickly, it takes its time to subtly build and break down characters: when Jesse pulls some of his affairs together and gets an apartment, he befriends the young landlady, Jane (Krysten Ritter), a tattoo artist who runs the apartment for her dad. They enter into a relationship, and Jane's status as a recovering addict, combined with Jesse's wake-up call, creates the hope that the young man might finally straighten himself out. When the Mexican cartels begin to push on "Heisenberg," however, the pressure leads Jesse to old comforts, and he and Jane enter into a frightening spiral that hooks Jesse on even more dangerous poison. If Walt is slowly being undone by Skyler's growing distrust of him, Jesse suffers even more by finding someone to care for; it seems as if no one can win in their line of work.

Even the direction adjusts to this nightmarish turn of events. With Jesse and Walt involving themselves more personally in the business, the various directors take us into a dark underworld only briefly glimpsed in the first seven episodes. When Walt dispatches Jesse to deal with those meth thieves, the partner stumbles into a cracked-funhouse-mirror vision of a home, littered with various pilfered goods and uncleaned food remnants, with a malnourished child who barely has the strength to turn on a television as his parents, covered in festering sores, spend their days robbing and shooting up. Jesse inadvertently walks away from the situation with some credibility, but he looks as shaken by the end result of his addictions as we are, and the world of Breaking Bad slowly comes to resemble the hell that Walt makes for himself across the season's 13 episodes.

The most crystalline moment of this downward trajectory, however, involves the random intersection of two characters who don't understand how close they really are. Jane's father, aware that she is using again, happens to sit across a bar from Walt, and the two strike up a conversation. As both can only think of the addicts close to them, each speaks vaguely of the frustrations of watching young ones destroy themselves for nothing, and they share a moment of understanding despite not knowing who the other really is. Afterward, Walt commits his most heinous act yet -- without even lifting a finger -- and Jane's father will himself be responsible for an action that could be marked as a jumping the shark moment if it wasn't hauntingly teased all season and ultimately such a perfect metaphor for the cataclysmic place in which Walt has found himself by the end. I came away from the second season not knowing if he could possibly redeem himself, yet the true beauty of the series is that such a big question is among the least of my worries for these characters as they move forward into an apocalyptic situation.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Parallax View

When The Manchurian Candidate hit theaters in 1962, critics loved its audacity, its tight structuring and the freshness and twist of irony that it maintains to this day. Audiences, however, generally stayed away. Perhaps its light sarcasm played as overly campy, its plot devices too fantastical to be considered an appropriate manipulation of Cold War fears. Twelve years later, Alan J. Pakula made The Parallax View, and the mood -- and box office reception -- could not have been more different.

Where John Frankenheimer's film did not take on a lasting relevance until after Kennedy's assassination -- at which point it had been withdrawn out of both lackluster box office rentals and a sense of decency in the wake of the murder -- Pakula's thriller has an air of possibility around it. Those who could not conceive, even at their most fearful of Soviet Russia, that the presidency could be compromised damn well knew it was possible by 1974. Compounded with the discovery of Nixon's corruption -- a subject, of course, that would inform Pakula's next film -- The Parallax View appeals less to a current of fear than a concrete event, and as such it appeals to an idea of probability that terrorizes more than a more abstract (and satirical) thriller.

For Pakula's world is one in which those with the knowledge of the truth can be instantaneously found and dispatched by an unseen presence. The truth is not an unknown property so much as an execution that no one will sentence himself to. The opening sequence shows Sen. Charles Carroll (Bill Joyce), a supposed independent whose refusal to bow to any party makes him a presidential hopeful, riding in a parade in Seattle. Throngs of supporters line the streets and his best allies meet him at the top of the Space Needle, where he is suddenly shot as he prepares to speak to reporters.

Watch the camera in this moment: it wheels around as if a member of the crowd, disoriented and frightened. However, it clearly recognizes two different gunmen, one of whom is chased and accidentally killed while the other escapes unnoticed. The implication of this direction is that at least some people managed to glimpse what really happened, even after a special committee assures the public that the assassination was the act of a lone gunman (gee, sound familiar?). Sure enough, the plot begins in earnest when one of the people present that day, a reporter named Lee (Paula Prentiss), shows up at her friend Joe Frady's (Warren Beatty) home with news that multiple witnesses to the assassination have all died under mysterious circumstances. A few minutes of screen-time later, so is she.

In Frady, Pakula has a terrific contrast to the real-life reporters who featured in his next thriller: unlike Woodward and Bernstein, Frady gets his stories by stretching facts to fit a preconceived agenda. Where most paper editors in the movies slowly turn against their star reporters when deadlines approach and leads fall through, Frady's chief distrusts him from the start and knows that the man will just come up with another fantastical story that he'll just have to retract.

Of course, anyone who caught a peek of what Frady eventually uncovers would surely kill his article too. The more he snoops around, the tighter the frame becomes; where All the President's Men operated entirely in the shadows, The Parallax View stays in the light, but Pakula maintains the same sense of mysteriousness. People turn on a dime when Joe comes to town: in one scene, he starts a fight with a deputy in a small-town bar, only for the sheriff to laugh and invite the reporter for a drink, but the next day the same officer traps Joe by a dam as it opens to release water, pulling a gun on the bewildered muckraker. Soon, oddly familiar faces keep popping up in crowds, and before you can ask yourself whether it's déjà vu, something horrible happens.

With his string of three great features in the '70s, starting with Klute and carrying through this and All the President's Men, Pakula established himself as a master of thriller direction; had he kept it up, he might well have stolen away Hitchcock's claim to the title of "Master of Suspense." Exceedingly little happens in his political thrillers, but Pakula places the thought into the audience's mind that something is happening, that someone is watching from the shadows or even in plain sight.

Eventually, Frady uncovers evidence of a group called the Parallax Corporation, revealed to be a training group for political assassins. In the film's chief flaw, Joe discovers this group with astonishing ease, and even manages to find their facility and "apply" as if a Wal-Mart just came to town. Once within, however, the momentary lapse of reason gives way to a terrifying conclave whose members are innumerable and anonymous. Like the precursor to Fight Club's Project Mayhem but with a purpose, the Parallax Corporation is at once small and unknown yet omnipresent, capable of infiltrating any location and escaping undetected. And by the time Frady realizes just how complex and unstoppable the organization is, they've framed him for another assassination.

For the director, political power has completely corrupted, and their power renders them capable of striking down any dissent. Consider the opening: the fictional candidate campaigns on the image of being an independent who will change Washington, but his parade is farcical and transparent. The politician looks as if his float for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade got severely off-track and found its way to the opposite end of the country: dressed like a buffoon, Senator Carroll waves as children in Native American costumes dance about in front of his car. The judiciary committee that reviews his assassination is seen only in extreme long shot surrounded by pitch black, a few dots of flesh-colored blobs against a mahogany wall in the middle of nothingness. The message is clear: government, especially under Nixon's heavy centralization, now exists in a vacuum, able to refuse the press the right to investigate matters, to even ask questions, and to maintain the status quo regardless of incident. Is it any wonder that the most suspenseful use of music in the film involves patriotic marching band music played at a political rally?

But what of Parallax, then? If the government is so vile, aren't Parallax's members doing society a service by eliminating these crooks? No, because, if you'll note, the organization's targets are ideologues. Even if they're just putting on a show, politicians like Senator Carroll inspire the people, motivate them; by killing these fakes, Parallax puts the fear into genuine agents of change, thus solidifying the status quo that the entrenched government promotes in the face of these events. The darker implication of this is that the government itself is behind Parallax. It's too easy to find for it to be much of a secret, after all, and each killing only numbs the public further.

What really sets The Parallax View apart, though, even from its superior successor, is a montage past the halfway mark of the film that must surely ranks among the most transgressive six minutes to make any Hollywood film in history. Upon applying to Parallax, Frady is sent into an isolated room, completely dark but for a light shining down on a chair. A voice on a PA tells him to sit and watch a film, which begins abruptly. Looking like an experimental film from the '60s, the short comprises nothing but still photographs intercut with title cards. Initially, the titles -- LOVE, MOTHER, etc. -- correspond to appropriate images of couples kissing and women cuddling babies. Then, the soft music turns brassy but not overblown, and the images and titles slowly shift. Armies, death, aggressive sex, comic book images and more flash on the screen, in juxtapositions that the brain barely has time to process: take for example, an image of the pope and of Nazis separated only by the word ENEMY. The frantically edited mash-ups of serious images with comic book cells recalls the mid-'60s work of Jean-Luc Godard, and it would not look so out of place in his superb Pierrot le fou. Here, however, this borderline surreal montage stands out even more in the stark, geometric perfection of Pakula's style: his films attain their suspense partially through the perfection of his shots and the jarring effect that any movement has when something shifts and breaks up the static frame.

While (understandably) more preposterous than the realistic chills of his next political thriller, The Parallax View forms one half of the greatest double feature a thriller director ever made. Practically every great understated thriller of the last 30 years -- The Insider, Zodiac -- owes this and All the President's Men, the use of shadow, of ever-present evil just outside the frame and idealists whose commitment causes as much harm to themselves as good. Separated by the assassinations that inform the film by five years up to a decade, The Parallax View nevertheless feels of the moment, and the mood regarding those who would try to change Washington today suggests that we still haven't moved beyond the mindset of the post-Kennedy generation, which may be the film's most uncomfortable aspect.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Prestige

Every year promises at least one case where two films hit theaters with remarkably similar premises, and the stale nature of Hollywood programming typically assures a number of films that could be easily swapped for each other. Occasionally, however, the unified thread of two films comes seemingly out of nowhere. It happened back in 1998 when two computer-animated films about ants somehow came to fruition within months of each other, but the most puzzling example of recent times must be 2006's double dose of period films about magic*.

I saw The Prestige twice in short order after it first hit home video in late '06. A 17-year-old with no concept of cinematic nuance nor any inclination to examine a film beyond a superficial reading, I enjoyed the various twists and turns of the plot, liked all of the actors and thought that the movie looked beautiful. But once the final twist threw me for one last loop, I emerged feeling I'd nothing left to gain, and the second viewing was an arduous one. A year or so later, shortly after my "awakening" (to use the most pretentious, haughty term possible) but some time before I truly committed myself to film, I caught the other 2006 magic film, The Illusionist, and took far more readily to its twisted tale of romance over Christopher Nolan's examination of professional and personal rivalry.

I couldn't help but think of the film again as my anticipation for Inception grew over the course of last week, and I noticed that, as the various movie blogs began writing a multitude of posts on Nolan in preparation for his latest (especially a terrific blogathon over at Things That Don't Suck). What caught my eye the most was the attention given to The Prestige, with some writers I highly respect not simply rating it at the top of Nolan's canon but among the finest works of the previous decade. Intrigued, as well as giddy with post-Inception euphoria, I picked up Nolan's fifth feature to see what I'd no doubt missed as a half-interested teenager, and I could not have guessed just how much had flown over my head.

What hell it must have been to review this film for a publication upon its release, with nought but a single screening to sort out its labyrinthine plot and an inability to discuss the film without discussing the ending, which one couldn't do in circulated print. Yet the great irony of the difficulty of tap-dancing around spoilers is that the film deliberately spoils itself in the opening. Not only does it contain key shots that will become clear only at the end, the film presents the rest of the ending in open sight, merely changing the mise-en-scène. I cannot go into great detail without stealing at least portions of Bryce Wilson's magnificent post on this sneaky trick, but those who have seen the film might be amazed to see the parallels if they pay attention to the canaries John Cutter (Michael Caine) keeps for his boss' illusions, as well as Cutter's enticing sell of magic. He tells those listening to him, within the film and without, that we subconsciously do not attempt to figure out the trick until after it's completed because we "don't really want to see it. Not yet."

Having now established himself as the great trickster of contemporary mainstream cinema, Nolan positions The Prestige as, if nothing else, the decoding phrase that unlocks his filmmaking ethos, the "keyword" that the two warring magicians constantly fight over to unlock trick-explaining codes. Everything lies out in the open, perhaps to the point that all the objects choke and clutter, but we never notice. If we do, we pass it out of mind, unwilling to spoil the act until it's completed. With a good enough showman, an audience will overlook practically anything. I know that's not exactly a ringing endorsement of Nolan as a filmmaker, but I think it suggests that, even if he didn't enjoy the hype afforded to him, he could still enrapture a crowd to the point that his shortcomings become part of the act, a misdirection that teases the audience further.

Writing about The Prestige presents a distinct challenge, even when one allows for spoilers, and there will be spoilers. The revelation that the beginning contains the ending is liberating, because getting at the ending in fine detail would require such a constant spoiling of each event leading up to it that such a review would be better served by simply pointing readers to where they could acquire a copy of the film's screenplay. Still, there's no way to get at the depths of the film -- and more than any other Nolan film, perhaps even the layered Inception, The Prestige has extreme depth of vision -- without discussing a few elements of the story, and while criticism is always best enjoyed after seeing the film in question, I stress even further the need to see the film before reading anything about it.

From the start, Nolan throws the audience. The timeline jumps so erratically that the primarily linear nature of Memento's reverse storytelling looks like child's play in comparison. In short order, we see a magician placed on trial for the murder of another, falling back in time to a moment in which the deceased performer was alive and had pilfered his rival's journal. The diary then throws the audience back once more, to the beginning of the two magicians' relationship. Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), a working-class grunt with a deep understanding of illusions, pairs with Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman), an aristocrat who slums it by making a living out of his hobby. The two work as plants for "Milton the Magician" (actor-magician Ricky Jay), a talented but banal performer whose safe routines bore the adventurous Borden. The entire point of magic, he argues, is that it shows an audience something they've never seen before. For a magician to stick to the same routine for years is no different than a stand-up comedian becoming so stale that an audience, even an enthused one that doesn't realize what it's doing, nails the coffin lid shut by shouting out the punchlines in misplaced excitement.

So, the two set out on their own, accompanied by Cutter, the ingénieur who designs their tricks, and Angier's wife Julia (Piper Perabo). The combination of Angier's charisma and Borden's ambition makes for a lucrative partnership, but a few gently ominous lines about Borden's knot-tying in relation to the water escape trick leads to tragedy when Julia drowns on-stage, unable to free herself from the ropes and break out of the box. Naturally, the act collapses due to the performers' shock and bad publicity. Angier, consumed by grief, not only terminates his friendship with Borden but devotes himself to destroying the other magician.

What follows is a constant game of cat-and-mouse: one magician plants himself in the audience of the other, ensures that he is the chosen volunteer, then shames and wounds the rival in front of everyone. Angier sabotages a bullet catch trick that costs Borden two fingers, and Borden, a master of disguise, comes on stage to "assist" Angier with a collapsible birdcage and triggers the device early, killing the dove and crushing the fingers of the refined, upper-class lady also chosen to help with the act.

Rivalry morphs into obsession, and the thin line separating the two fits neatly into the director's fondness for duality and the evenly matched war between yin and yang. Borden has the talent, the ambition, dedication and skill to make better illusions, while Angier has the showmanship. Their stage names communicate this split: Borden becomes "The Professor," a name that connotes brilliance to the point of boredom, someone so skilled that they cannot relate to the uneducated. Angier chooses the sobriquet "The Great Danton," a name that makes no sense but doesn't need to: it has "great" right there in the title, and magic relies on that ostentation. People don't go to a magic show to learn, they go to see a man in a mustache pull shit out of a hat.

This opens up a subplot that Nolan wisely does not over-stress, the idea that the audience for mass entertainment will always choose a distraction over real art. Angier understandably omits the water escape trick from his act, and Cutter skirts around the real motivation to a theater owner skeptical of the performer by explaining that people want to see such things out of a latent desire to see them fail. Even those who do not openly pronounce a sense of schadenfreude secretly hope to see something go off the rails. When Borden crushes the bird and the woman's fingers, the crowd gasps with artificial concern but makes no move to help the injured lady. The patrons of the bar where Angier shoots off Borden's ring and little fingers openly laugh at the magician's pain, delighted to see him shamed so terribly. Thus, Nolan implicates the audience in the fracas, making them responsible for driving the demand for the magicians to perform more dangerous stunts and encouraging the very public feud between the two because they will accept nothing less**.

Through it all, Nolan uses legerdemain as a way of blurring the line between the two men. Only at the end does one emerge looking more twisted than the other, and everything that comes before it makes "allegiance" impossible: one understands Angier's anger over his wife's death, but his vicious response to an accident makes Borden into another victim. Then, we see Borden slip in and out of an abusive attitude toward his wife, Sarah (Rebecca Hall), that so torments her that the audience can no longer exactly root for him, either. The point of The Prestige is not to divide the audiences into facile "Team ____" camps but to show how such obsessions ruin people. When Angier's assistant/mistress Olivia (Scarlett Johansson, saddled with the only underwritten part in the film), seemingly defects to Borden and insists to the streetwise magician that she's telling the truth about wanting to come to him, he rightly notes, "Now that is a slippery notion in our line of work." We cannot be sure if she is lying, even though the hurt she expresses at having been originally sent to Borden by Angier as if a mere pawn appears genuine.

Johansson and Hall bear most of the film's emotion as the men harden over the course of the narrative, and their constant feelings of neglect and bitterness over being relegated to secondary importance in the lives allow Nolan to step outside what might have been a solipsistic venture to show how others are affected by such quibbles. Never is this more evident than when Olivia is in the room when Angier's hatred moves beyond its original motivation: "I don't care about my wife," he screams when unable to figure out Borden's Transported Man trick. "I care about his secret." Her look of shocked disgust mirrors our own, and it's no wonder she leaves him before he eventually stoops to reusing the water escape and actually invoking his wife's memory as nothing more than a method of enticing the crowd.

Yet Nolan's greatest method of stepping outside the fight long enough to gauge both its absurdity and its universality involves the bizarre but ingenious use of Nikola Tesla. David Bowie not only gives his best performance, a dubious honor in a secondary career consisting mainly of extended cameos. But he tops even his performance as Thomas Jerome Newton in The Man Who Fell to Earth. Tesla is the perfect historical figure to feature in Nolan's period piece, as, like the faithful set design, he comes straight out of reality but, like the madness of a magician's war, he has an element of absurdity to him. Nolan flew out to meet Bowie directly after the rocker turned him down, an action that seems less a case a fandom and more proof that Nolan knew exactly what and who the part called for. Bowie certainly knows his way around a silly concept, and his straight-faced take on something as inherently ludicrous as Ziggy Stardust suits him to play Tesla in middle age, no longer enjoying the respect he once commanded but not yet a broken old man lost in his ideas. Tesla's eccentricity bubbles to the surface, but Bowie checks it behind an exterior of aloof propriety. Having become rock royalty, Bowie behaves like a self-made aristocrat, refined but kooky, with the added suspicion that he might lose everything as he was not born into his status.

Tesla exists in the film mainly to supply Angier with a great plot device that will take his magic show to the next level, but he also serves to take the audience outside of the main story to show how commonplace something as ridiculous as professional rivalry turned personal. Tesla hides in a compound surrounded by electrified fence, wary of the goons of Thomas Edison, who eventually find and destroy his lab. Like Angier and Borden, Tesla and Edison were both masters of their shared profession, and together they could have advanced technology even more than they did on their own. Instead, Edison brutally stamped out Tesla, portraying the Austro-Hungarian emigré's alternating current technology as the deadly, uncontrollable work of a madman. Thus, Tesla's presence in the film plays beautifully into Nolan's method of making the fantastical concrete: lest we think this story of fighting magicians be ridiculous, consider that these two innovative geniuses were reduced to slandering each other, too stubborn and greedy to ever concede that the other could ever be right. Amusingly, Tesla grounds the film even though he introduces its most absurd element: the device that allows Angier to perform what is for all intents and purposes real magic, leading Cutter to marvel that a "wizard" designed the trick. The scientist's bitterness over his colleagues' complete rejection of his poetic ideas about science are tucked neatly not only in his caustic quote that man's "grasp exceeds his nerve" but in the letter he sends to Angier with his completed machine. Tesla urges the magician to destroy it, but even in print his plea seems hollow and perfunctory; magicians are the only people left who can get away with showing people something they cannot fathom. To do so as a scientist is career suicide.

Without going into complex detail of the machine Tesla gives to Angier, its side effect brings the theme of duality to an extreme. Where Inception visualized the duality in a person by internalizing it and showing how two projections of the same person could walk around his mind, The Prestige takes one person and multiplies them (here come the spoilers I want to get at). Tesla's machine produces copies of Angier, and only one can survive each show; suddenly, the crucifixion pose of martyrdom that the magician makes at the beginning and is repeated later takes on a chilling implication. Meanwhile, the revelation that Borden's ingénieur and assistant Fallon is his identical twin explains the sharp divide in personality. Suddenly, the occasionally stiff performance Bale gives morphs into his finest work: when he looked half-enthused when Sarah came to him with news of pregnancy and muttered a throwaway line that Fallon should have been there to hear the news, now we understand that it was Alfred's brother who received the news. In retrospect, the performances Bale and Hall give are heart-wrenching, which may feel like a cheat but see how affecting they are as you watch the film more than once to see that there is genuine emotion here. Hall in particular is devastating: Nolan turns the idea of seeing a calm, loving person one day and a monster the next plays as a low-key take on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but it's Sarah who's left not knowing whether the man she interacts with each day will be the one who loves her or the one who cares for Olivia.

That depth of understanding and character insight amidst the broken narrative makes the best case yet for Nolan as a filmmaker with a grasp on his ideas: where he and editor Lee Smith let too much get away from them in The Dark Knight, but this film grants them the freedom to toy with expectations while still having a clear idea of what each cut means. Borden marvels at a Chinese magician who pretends to be crippled even off the stage, something his then-friend Angier cannot spot because he could not imagine taking his act with him. Later, we see Borden's own commitment, not simply with the nature of his and his brother's portrayal of Fallon but in a key scene where Borden does not take off his mustache at dinner with Sarah because he feels he needs to keep up appearances for those who might have just watched him.

Only after an hour passes does the opening shot, of a bunch of top hats lying in a field, become clear, but by then it's taken on a metaphorical importance, a sort-of magician's graveyard where rival conjurers are sent after destroying each other. By the time the film reaches its final shot, that idea has become cemented in a horrifying surreality, and Nolan has made his film into an unlikely treatise on the lengths artists go to for their craft. On repeat viewings, this theme echoes gently in the shots of those hats, and the refrain of magicians needing to get their hands "dirty," accompanied by later images of the murderous actions of both leads, finds a hauntingly poetic conclusion placed at the beginning of the story along with the rest of the ending.

I use the term 'poetic' in relation to Nolan -- for the first time -- with confidence. The Prestige adheres to his usual, economic style of placing in the frame that which is necessary to convey the scene and scarcely more than that; that is not to call him minimalistic, which would be egregiously off-base, but rather utilitarian. Items pop up in the mise-en-scène that are too ornamental for minimalism, but they serve a purpose beyond mere prettiness. With this film, however, Nolan successfully turns that style toward a slightly more abstract aesthetic to match his far-out subject matter. Who can forget the shot of Angier standing inside Tesla's complex under a blanket of heavy fog, only for the scientist's assistant, Alley (Andy Serkis), to flip a switch and illuminate hundreds of light bulbs unencumbered by heavy, direct current wires, merely free bulbs that grow in the mist as if the souls of those who once owned those cloned hats.

Pay attention as well to the way the director uses the spotlight. Stage lights are hellish things, so bright they blind those on-stage, which has the upshot of preventing nervous performers from seeing anyone in the crowd but the problem of forcing the performer to look head-on into a miniature sun for an hour or two. They also give off intense heat, and even someone giving an undemanding performance for a high school band recital will be sweating within minutes. But the spotlight in The Prestige is cold and soft, extremely bright but in a way that seems to absorb the other lights in a room rather than overpower them. The light recalls the same spotlight, stolen from a cold winter's moon, that shone on Alex in A Clockwork Orange when his reprogrammers "demonstrate" him to a crowd of skeptics. There's nothing enticing about this limelight, only a soul-sucking maw that never looks more horrific than when it catches Julia drowning in the box, surrounding her with an ethereal aura that makes her look like a dying angel. Nolan returns to the power of that shot in the final moment, which adds the weight of its reveal even as Nolan overlaps the same speech Cutter gave at the start, making the true twist of the film that we truly knew everything about it after three minutes.

That Nolan should place the ending of his film right in the beginning should not surprise those familiar with his work. The director routinely bookends his films with matching shots, in which he returns to the first scene with similar, if not exact, mise-en-scène but radically altered circumstances. Memento showed us an unchanged protagonist who’d nevertheless become the antagonist. The Dark Knight ended under similar circumstances, though the hero who’d dipped into villainy understood what he’d become, and the savior seen at the beginning morphed into the shade of the true hero would save Gotham. Inception’s first shot only became clear at the film’s end, once the director had proven that, for him, dreams did not look so different from reality after all (or that he was making a meta-cinematic movie about movies, but that's a subject for another article).

I cannot quite say whether The Prestige is Nolan’s best work to date, not without a few more viewings of Inception under my belt (I think this will still come out on top). But what both films share is a visual adventurousness not characteristic of the director’s other movies and a focus on genre (and genre breakdown and subsequent reconstruction) without letting the themes overpower the movie, as they occasionally did in the otherwise magnificent Dark Knight. Additionally, the two show Nolan’s clearest grasp on densely layered narratives, leaving a trail of crumbs leading through his mazes that the audience does not notice until its unknowingly scuffled some of the trail and must piece a few broken segments back together.

I used to say that I preferred The Illusionist because I felt it better conveyed the feeling of wonder and excitement that magic created, yet now I see that no other film so perfectly embodies the twists, misdirection and density that great illusions require. Though Nolan has always loved his tricks, it nevertheless surprises that he should be the one to capture magic in the actual direction. What's fascinating about magic is that we all con ourselves into believing in it. No magician pulls his illusions to manipulate audience; he fills a need within ourselves that wants to see something strange, even if we know it's not real. So, Nolan really is a con artist, pulling the wool over our eyes to stretch out a three-minute experimental short film into a complex, thematically rich tale of obsession, artistic martyrdom and dualism that is literalized, then made abstract, then made literal once more when the magicians ultimately flip roles, Borden becoming the showman who embarrasses Angier, who, with the aid of "real magic," becomes the artistic genius. But it is only when it becomes clear that neither party truly wins that The Prestige cements its status as one of the strangest but most beautiful mainstream movies of the last 20 years, and perhaps the one Nolan film I could press myself to call a masterpiece.

*In yet another funny twist, 2006 contained a third magic film, Woody Allen's Scoop, set in modern times and starring both Jackman and Johansson.
**Consider how many people go to see actors shoot at each other and "die" in choreographed explosions compared to the number who will see a movie about a family dealing internally with a relative's death.