Saturday, November 27, 2010

Distant Voices, Still Lives

Before Lars von Trier attempted to tear down the musical with his inventive but ultimately repugnant Dancer in the Dark, British director Terence Davies managed to make a movie entirely dependent on the power and freedom of music while placing these ideas in the genre most antithetical to their expression: the kitchen-sink drama. Well, two movies, to be specific, as Distant Voices, Still Lives combines two short films made two years apart with separate crews. Von Trier at least let his protagonist indulge in a bit of fantastical revelry before smacking her down with cold reality. By contrast, the carefully arranged tableaux of family members Davies presents allow for no escape, and the flashbacks only ever seem to touch upon even unhappier times.

The first song filters over a static shot of the stairwell of a cozy but intimate home as the mother of the family (Freda Dowie) sings "I Get the Blues When It Rains." As her pure voice wafts over the soundtrack, the camera slowly swivels 180 degrees to focus on the house door, ending in a jump cut from the cloudy day to a sunny morning as a hearse arrives outside the home. Cut to a medium shot of a family arrayed in funereal blacks around a portrait of the deceased patriarch, so still and desaturated that the shot appears to be a photograph from an old family album until people begin to speak. Another cut shows the family in the same room but with wedding clothes, celebrating the betrothal of the oldest daughter, Eileen (Angela Walsh). That thin division between death and the promise of new life speaks to the hopelessness of this first part of Davies' diptych.

Before we can enjoy this happy moment, however, the children begin reminiscing about their childhood, taking us into frightening memories that unfold achronologically as memories always do. Eileen says aloud that she wishes her father could be there to see her wedding, but the other sister, Maisie (Lorraine Ashbourne), vituperatively states she doesn't, and we flash back to her begging her father (Pete Postlethwaite) to let her go to the dance as he makes her rigorously scrub the floors as if a modern-day Cinderella. At last, the father throws down some coins, then grabs a broom and beats the girl. Some memories spring from the flashbacks themselves, taking us deeper still into this domestic nightmare. One beautifully arranged sequence pans from the present, as Eileen sobs in her husband's arms for her dad, through darkness before traveling back to the past to see Tommy dutifully decorating the house for Christmas and whispering "God bless, kids" as he hangs stockings on the stairwell. Then, at the dinner on Christmas Day, Tommy suddenly leaps to his feet and drags the tablecloth and all the food onto the floor, screaming for his wife to come clean up the mess.

Another director might have used such juxtaposition to point out the victimhood of the women characters, but Davies captures the complexity of domestic abuse. Not even codependency can be used as a quick explanation for why strange feelings of connection linger, and the confused feelings in the survivors (and never has that term seemed more apt when considering the bereaved) bypass the usual dysfunctional family theatrics straight to a deeply identifiable authenticity.

That layered emotion extends to the use of music as well. Never is this more apparent than in the heartbreaking scene wherein the young children ask their mother, cheerfully cleaning windows, why she married their father. With a wistful, slightly wounded voice, she notes that he used to be such a good dancer. As she does this, Ella Fitzgerald's "Taking a Chance on Love" plays in the background. Suddenly, the scene cuts to Tommy viciously beating her and commanding her to stop crying as he does so while the music still plays over the image. Rather than use the song for ironic purposes, Davies digs into its various meanings and interpretations, initially tackling the more romantic and nostalgic side as the mother thinks back to a simpler time when she saw the rakish goodness in her man. Then, the director tackles the material from another angle, revealing that some chances lead to negative outcomes. And as the camera follows the aftermath of that beating, showing the wife's bruised face and arms as she silently resumes cleaning, we are spared even the slightest hint of black comedy from using music ironically. The closest antecedent to Davies' take on musical tunes is Chaplin's Limelight, a film actually quoted here when the son, Tony (Dean Williams), goes AWOL goes AWOL during his army training to confront his father. Thrown in the brig for his insubordination, Tony takes out a harmonica and plays the theme to Limelight, despite the anachronism. Chaplin's musical, as with the rest of his art, was at once grandiose and nuanced and, like Davies' film, autobiographical. Dissatisfied with casting his drunken performer as a dour version of the usual musical star, Chaplin too managed to add layers to his movie.

Both Distant Voices and Still Lives, the latter set about a decade later than the former, use the same locations -- the family house, a nearby pub, a hospital ward, the Catholic parish -- to elicit familiar moods. Outside the house, where the daughters and their friends go to smoke and talk, is a modicum of freedom, even if a yell from the father can send the girls scurrying back inside. At the pub is a sense of catharsis, where family and friends engage in drunken group singing that offers respite from the misery.

The difference in tone between the two films, however, is vast even as one is informed by the other. Distant Voices, true to its opening moments, is funereal, shot in faded sepia tones that take the family-photo aesthetic and sap any possible hint of golden nostalgia from it. By the time of Still Lives, the father does not hang over the film as much, allowing for a sense of happiness to intrude into the characters' lives. The shots often fade to white in this second half, suggesting a more spiritual presence, and a hopeful one.

By the same token, the sins of the father are passed onto the child, and Still Lives does not drop the ball of depressing domestic violence by showing how abuse begets abuse. The husbands of Eileen, Maisie and their friend Micky all separate the women, to the point that those pub nights become even more needed as it's the only time they get to see each other. The music of the '50s may be lighter, having progressed to the age of economic security following the cynicism of postwar blues, but society has not yet reached the rock revolution, and the gentler pop serves only to mask the tumultuous restart of the cycle.

I confess that, while I will never write off any genre or style wholesale (unless you start getting into esoterica), realism interests me the least of any major form of film structuring. Seeking only to be a reflection of reality strikes me as a waste of the artform, as I can simply turn off the movie and walk outside if I want true reality. But Davies, like the best realists, finds a way to make something genuine while still taking liberties. His tableaux may be bleak and informed by his real life, but by filtering them through memory he can bound about time as he pleases and create elliptical suggestion instead of blunt narrative. We are never all that sure when any scene is, so those repeated locations come to take on the anchoring role time normally plays.

Additionally, some aspects of Davies' direction seem to break from reality entirely. Voices filter through the ether and family members appear in shadow as if ghosts (or demons) flowing in the background of memory. The split-screen of Tony and Eileen's husband falling in slow-motion through the same skylight, Davies' way of communicating that the two suffer industrial accidents around the same time, is pure fantasy. But even something that shows a clear remembrance of detail, such as the shot of Tommy's body lying in a viewing area with pennies over his eyes, has a surreal quality to it. It transcends Catholic tradition, suggesting the father may be headed to Hades, not a Christian afterlife. The direction is so subtle that the real becomes fantastical and the subjective breaks attain an effortless verisimilitude.

The subjectivity of Davies' structure makes the film feel truer to life. No one in this movie stands for anything. Even the father is no simple metaphor or symbol to be worked out the way one obsesses over the hyperrealistic portrait of a widowed homemaker in Jeanne Dielman. As the old cliché goes, this is a film with people, not characters. Even the shadow of World War II that hangs over the flashbacks of Distant Voices is about the way the children handle it instead of the results of the constant Luftwaffe attacks, and our understanding of them deepens with these events. Because we pick up on these characters and the way they see the world, we can see the cycles getting ready to repeat as the young women beg their father to go out dancing, the same way the mother met Tommy. When Tony cries the night of his wedding, one can intuit that he fears becoming his father, knowing that this moment of bliss will not last, and that even the most minor squabble could bring out his dark side.

The film has a thoroughly British sensibility, from idiomatic conversation to obsolete pub drinks ordered each time the cast enters the local tavern. But Davies transcends any confinement: by rejecting Catholicism, he allows his film to find the spirituality of true humanism, in which people are viewed on their own terms and not as players on but one plane of existence. Too, even the Britishness, a means of expunging the cultural ties that also weigh down Davies' darker memories, does not limit the film's power to those who grew up in the ever-gray skies of London. True, a film like this set in America could not afford to be so bleak, even if Davies already contends that he softened what really happened in his life to make it remotely bearable on-screen. But who cannot identify with the family home, the local hideaway or the church that contains as many bad memories as good? All of this joins with the music, bleakly but never cynically used, to trigger and release as many of the audience's hangups as the director's. As the film's tagline says, "In memory, everything happens to music," and Davies understands that is because only music can fully capture the contradicting feelings of life. From misery comes hope, and while hope's only effect may be nothing more than to raise one's tolerance for pain so the universe doubles its efforts to break the psyche, it can still keep us going.

Little seen and outrageously left off DVD in the States (the UK didn't even get it until 2007), Distant Voices, Still Lives is one of the most profoundly moving and daringly conceived projects of the 1980s, and one of the most human and deeply felt movies I have ever seen. Normally, I must turn to Asian cinema to be so thoroughly moved. Davies has not been a prolific filmmaker since, though his 2008 documentary, Of Time and the City, won rave reviews at Cannes. Let us hope that revitalizes him somewhat. On the basis of this film alone, I would consider him to be a master of his art.

Friday, November 26, 2010


A moment near the beginning of Olivier Assayas' 5-1/2 hour epic Carlos recalled the opening shot of another 2010 masterpiece: The Social Network. Both films place the protagonist at a table with his lover. Carlos the Jackal, like Mark Zuckerberg, is unformed here, all ambition but no substance. And like Erica Albright, Carlos' female companion sees right through his bullshit: where Zuckerberg's girlfriend pegs him an "asshole," Carlos' woman recognizes the "bourgeois arrogance" behind his revolutionary zeal. Like Zuckerberg, Carlos would gain notoriety for linking people across the world. Only where the Harvard freshman gave collegiate youth a forum to broadcast drunken musings on the web, Ilich Ramírez Sánchez represented the dawn of the modern terrorist, capable of slipping in and out of cells anywhere on Earth.

Carlos the Jackal, like Zuckerberg, would become a defining icon of his generation even as both remained relative unknowns to those who vilified (and worshiped) them. Carlos, Assayas' finest film since...his last one, uses its excessive length to tear down the mythos surrounding the Jackal, the man who popularized, possibly even invented, the notion of airplane hijacking by terrorists. For years, a single photograph of Carlos, showing a pudgy, smirking man, became the symbol of terrorism, a vision of arrogant cool that today looks absurd. Just as Steven Soderbergh attempted to undermine the iconic photograph of Che Guevara, so too does Assayas dig into his own subject's portrait to demystify the Jackal.

His early actions portray an idealist whose incompetence overshadows his zeal. His first assignment for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, to execute a Zionist businessman, ends in failure when his gun jams. Later, he and another take a missile launcher to an airstrip, only to to twice miss the plane they are aiming at on the tarmac. Eventually, he starts to work with the Japanese Red Army on some raids in The Hague and Paris, always staying a safe distance away from any action. Even his first significant success, killing French police who track him down via an informant, comes only because he stops paying attention and practically invites the detectives over. But a paper prints the headline "Carlos: 3-0" afterward, assuring the terrorist of his victory. Yet onward he moves, and Assayas communicates Sánchez's restlessness with a graceful but frenetic camera, not resorting to shakycam but never pausing. Assayas uses this direction to quickly paint a portrait of a man able to outpace his own failure, somehow taking every minor thing he does right along with him and leaving the detritus behind.

Carlos himself detests immobility. He views terrorism through the same romantic lens that so many view freedom fighters, and uses the image of a dangerous man to fashion himself into something of a rock star. The locations of the film change seemingly with every cut of the camera, globetrotting on fast-forward to show Carlos and co. stirring up trouble wherever they can. As if watching a James Bond movie, we see a parade of women undressing for Sánchez as his clothes become increasingly fashionable. In one memorable scene, he seduces a woman by rubbing a live grenade over her body, demonstrating in a flash his entire perception of his actions. When he must lie low, sent to the Middle Eastern desert to train a PFLP camp, the sudden decrease in movement affects Carlos so much that even his body suddenly looks amorphous and without structure. By the end of the first part, I wondered if Sánchez agreed to train as a "proper" terrorist only so he could feel justified wearing the beret he adds to his wardrobe.

Seeking to prove his credentials, Carlos will do anything he is asked, and the PFLP humorously seems to care more about the moderates within their own cause than the imperial powers they believe keep them down. Even Yasser Arafat is mocked and denounced for daring to even meet with Israeli representatives. Carlos and the other soldiers are convinced that they must purify their own side to better attack the enemy with a unified front, but we can read between the lines and guess that the ones actually in charge of the terrorist organizations realize that an attack on one of those imperialist powers will bring the military might of those nations to bear on nations utterly ill-equipped to handle a squadron of bombers suddenly entering Syrian or Libyan airspace. The cleansing of their own house allows them to look busy and fearsome while not getting much of substance done.

Assayas makes that underlying motivation clear by shooting Carlos' defining moment, the raid and subsequent hostage-taking at the headquarters of OPEC in Vienna on December 21, 1975, from a perspective that destroys any notion that the defining moment in Carlos' life was anything but an absurd waste. Sent to kill the representatives for Iran and Saudi Arabia for breaking the OPEC embargo, Carlos and his team successfully break into the building, quell resistance and separate the representatives by how friendly they are to "the cause." For all of Ronald Reagan's mistakes and all the things about his administration I find at best neglectful and at worst abhorrent, he was absolutely correct to lay down the "we don't negotiate with terrorists" policy, and, indeed, the Swiss authorities look like clowns as they acquiesce to every demand made by Carlos. Swiss TV stations play a prepared, pro-Palestinian statement every two hours, Sánchez's demanded DC-9 plane is obtained and Swiss authorities even take one of the terrorists in their custody, a wounded German named Hans‑Joachim Klein, and release him in his hospital bed to board the plane.

Of course, not everything goes according to plan. During the raid, Carlos locks one man in his office and leaves, failing to consider that a working telephone is also in that office. Nada, a ferocious vision of mid-'70s punk incarnate, kills a cop, then sends his body down in an elevator to alert those on other floors of what's going on. And when they reach the airport, Carlos is stymied to learn that, while he got the DC-9 he requested, he did not check the aircraft's range, learning from the assigned pilot that it cannot reach Baghdad and must go to Algiers. As with everything that came before, Carlos manages to succeed only through luck and the shared incompetence of others.

The raid and escape sequence, dominating the entire first half of the second part, delineates Carlos from his hero, Che. Assayas, who, on the basis of this fantastic interview with Glenn Kenny, saw and understood what Soderbergh was trying to do with his own epic -- to bypass biography to focus on strategy, separates Che's ability to rigorously plan and execute a revolution according to plan from the Jackal's more impulsive behavior. Before he kills the Saudi Arabian oil minister, he has a heart-to-heart with the man about his reluctance to assassinate the representative of a nation whom he usually considers an ally. The minister is so confused by this chat that he pushes his luck by asking why the terrorist is even speaking to him. Later, Carlos decides to trade both the Saudi minister and the Iranian finance minister with the rest of the hostages for a massive sum of money (which he claims for the cause, of course). We also get to see the brash, naïve views of his team. As Carlos takes a step toward more political thinking, or at least self-serving greed, his comrades rage at the idea of failing their prime objective for cash. Amusingly, their fiery rants make Carlos' plan sound mature. After watching Red Army members shoot at a portrait of former French president Georges Pompidou at the French embassy in The Hague (despite Pompidou having already died in '74) and the actions of people like Nada in the OPEC scenario, we almost sympathize with Carlos, until we realize he has become the moderate he hates, regardless of how much he continues to speak against moderation over the resulting decades.

From the second half of the middle part through the end, Carlos moves to detail the banality of the Jackal's life of crime, which seems more mercenary than extremist. He continues to do the bidding of others, others who are becomingly increasingly weary of Carlos' fame and his love of it. The PFLP throws him out for failing to kill the two intended targets of the OPEC raid, and the East German Stasi is too preoccupied with its inner turmoil over potential antisemitism vs. anti-Zionism to offer much to Carlos when he relocates to East Berlin. The split between hating Israel and hating Jews comes to a head with the 1976 hijacking of the Air France flight to Entebbe, foiled by IDF agents. Klein, the terrorist wounded in the OPEC raid, notes with horror that before the Israelis stopped the hijacking, the PFLP members involved separated the Jews on-board from the rest of the passengers, preparing them for the kill. By 1977, Klein has left Carlos' independent terrorist cell and confessed his crimes to the German paper Der Spiegel, placing the other terrorists in jeopardy.

Ergo, the final part in the three-episode miniseries depicts Carlos as a man slowly, quietly coming undone from paranoia and the mounting realization that he's a has-been. As a journalist seeking an interview rightly notes, without the papers, there would be no Carlos. Thus, when his activity begins to slow in the '80s, he's left to continue evading capture, no longer acting on the offense but the defense. We are treated to mad sights like Carlos and his German comrade, Johannes Weinrich, hiding guns in the mansion Carlos buys as a "home base" (which sounds by this point to be the hip, geopolitical update to calling a man's house his "castle") before taking Carlos' wife to the hospital to give birth. We watch many of Sánchez's late dealings with terrorist-friendly governments on surveillance video, seeing beyond the discussions to note that even those ostensibly sympathetic to Carlos' convictions had begun recording him in case they needed to burn the man. Finally, Carlos, fat, tired and dealing with testicular pain, is betrayed by his own comrades who view him as nothing more than a liability and a waste of resources. When he's captured, he regrets that he won't be able to get that liposuction he was planning. A fine end for a committed Marxist.

The chief complaint I've heard registered against the film is that this last third is too slow, too concerned with staking out the banality of Carlos' life when that had already been made clear. But I found the final part the most revealing, especially because Édgar Ramírez's performance reaches its peak at the end. I've not yet commented on what is easily the finest acting work of the year, reluctant to approach the subject too soon for fear of never getting back on track with the rest of the film's greatness. Resembling a Hispanic Mark Ruffalo, Ramírez exudes animal magnetism: you have to keep reminding yourself that Carlos is, ultimately, just a foot soldier doing the work of superiors because he has a way of convincing all those around him he's a leader. He even seduces his second wife, the German revolutionary Magdalena Kopp, from being a radical feminist to a classical housewife -- in one of the film's most bizarre and darkly funny moments, Magdalena sobs over her husband's affairs while randomly screaming her desire to rejoin the cause.

Yet Assayas never commits the sin of making this man truly appealing to the audience. By balancing the farce with which he plays out Carlos' actions with the irresistible performance given by Ramírez, Assayas creates a well-rounded portrait of the man, starkly capturing the hypocrisy in the Jackal's actions but not discounting some hint of idealism that must have motivated him somewhat. To further ensure the audience doesn't get too caught up in action revelry, a great deal of violence is left off-screen. While guns fire throughout the first two parts, the shootouts are anticlimactic, and late-stage violence, such as Carlos' paranoid murder of a comrade in the next room over from his sleeping baby daughter, are announced in retrospect. Assayas also uses stock news footage after a number of terrorist actions, not only to make up for some of the detail the fast-paced camerawork managed to blitzkrieg past but to offer looks at the aftermath without the allure of big-budget explosions. When Carlos bombs two TGV trains, we see the real result, twisted, collapsed metal, instead of watching the train skid off the rails over loud music.

Speaking of music, the use of post-punk songs from bands like Wire is a brilliant method the director uses for getting inside the heads not only of Carlos but some of the people around him. This is what they hear in their heads every morning when they wake up, the soundtrack to their own movie, their own Battle of Algiers. By using post-punk instead of classic punk bands like The Clash or Crass, Assayas makes an important distinction: post-punk took the attitude of punk and, with exceptions, replaced politics with the personal, even making more socially aware tracks more intimate. Likewise, these people tend to view terrorism only through their own lens, seeing themselves as heroic for intervening on the behalf of others. If a post-punk just wanted to make music, these guys just want to make trouble. Only Nada gets an actual punk song, the Dead Boys' seminal "Sonic Reducer," and that's because she's the only one crazy and committed enough to warrant one. ("She's like the MC 5 of terrorism," Assayas hilariously but astutely notes in the aforementioned interview.)

If anyone else had been in charge of the last two hours, Carlos might have screeched to a halt and entered stereotypically "biopic" territory. But Assayas and Ramírez are not interested in the various events that befall our protagonist but why he lets himself fall apart. Carlos, for its epic length, might make a number of rewarding double-bills. The first comparison is of course Che, where one could compare Guevara's downfall in part two with Carlos' much more protracted slide into oblivion (plus, if you thought Che lost his way by sporting a Rolex, consider that Carlos buys a damn mansion). One could also pair the movie with Munich, Steven Spielberg's even-handed look at the failures Israel's Mossad made when seeking revenge for the 1972 massacre at the Munich Olympics. Those revenge attacks provoked Carlos' own actions, and the combined sight of unforgivable mistakes made on both sides of Isreali-Palestinian situation would prevent easy alignment with either cause. I'm so used to "Based on a true story" banners at the start of films that I was amazed that Assayas, who thoroughly researched his film with greater journalistic integrity than dots most biopics, would go to painstaking lengths in an opening disclaimer to note that this is a work of fiction. Ironically, by admitting that he must lie, Assayas is more truthful to us than most, and that same contradictory honesty makes Carlos one of the greatest films of the new millennium and a document of terrorism that can intrigue and enlighten people on both sides of the political spectrum. It also speaks to the truth hidden in plain sight in that old photograph of Carlos: look beyond that vague aura of smug cool and you'll see nothing more than a fat, smirking fool with bad taste.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Kanye West — My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

Let me just be clear from the start: I love Kanye West. I love his production values, I love the ambition of his raps (even when he overreaches) and I love the impressive range of his sampling. But most of all, and this is where I break from the majority, I love his ego. These days, it's impossible to find a true egomaniac in pop music. There are self-absorbed celebrities a-plenty, but they don't have ego so much as adolescent petulance. The only time you see any true self-worship now is in the loathsome back-patting of the Bonos of the world, acting as if increasingly stale music and stage shows that suck up untold megawatts are going to save the planet. Kanye West doesn't waste my time acting as if he's important to the vitality of the Earth; he just comes out and lets everyone know that he's better than us, and when he's done singing to a crowd that paid top dollar for concert tickets, he'll go party like a king.

No one else has managed to combine product-placing, corporatist hip-hop culture with the equally hollow "fuck you" attitude of stadium rockers who live on merchandise sales. If West's ego wasn't as massive and self-sustaining as it is, he could never position himself as the last great rock star in an era that demands everything be small and manageable. You can't handle Kanye, and that's what I adore about him.

Thus, when he stripped his sound down to the mellow, minimalist electronica of 808s and Heartbreak, Kanye lost his most precious asset: his bombast. By the same token, it was a logical progression for the man who'd turned himself into the David Bowie of hip-hop, smashing together contradictory genres and complex, occasionally revealing lyrics through a removed, self-aware prism and somehow making it all work within the mainstream. Tom Breihan of the Village Voice rightly compared it to Bowie's Low, though I believe the comparison only applies to the thought process behind it, not the quality. Where Bowie found a way to deliver plaintive desperation through Krautrock hiss and beeps, West stripped the self-love of hip-hop to delve into ideas of loneliness and forlorn love via black roots instead of white noise. At times, the album touched upon R&B; in other places, it traveled all the way back to the tribal drums that formed the basis for all of humanity's music. A great many parts of 808s worked, and the decision to truly give into self-examination after circling the idea in previous albums was a surprisingly candid move for the artist, but he could never fit all his ideas into the sparer sound.

With My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye finds the bridge between the introspective, forward-thinking pop of 808s and the swirling, cataclysmic excess of his fiery early work. Not only is it West's best album to date, it is the finest mainstream hip-hop album in years, perhaps since OutKast broke out of their rewarding but esoteric sound with Stankonia, or at least M.I.A.'s Kala.

West's latest album is, of course, colored by his tumultuous behavior in recent years. On-stage tantrums over malfunctions, huffy reaction to VMA shutouts (they're VMAs, Kanye. Like you can't just buy any kind of bookends to serve the same purpose?), a hilariously angry blog that poured from a stream of consciousness, all of these things reflected an increasingly erratic MC. People started to turn on Kanye, and even his mother's death from elective surgery could not win him a break as fans descended upon her still-warm body to cluck tongues and speculate over her plastic surgery. It all culminated, of course, with the 2009 VMAs, during which Kanye leaped on the stage as Taylor Swift accepted her award for Best Female Video with a now-infamous (and parodied to death) rant that set the media ablaze with condemnation. Everyone fell upon a black man for ruining some innocent, porcelain doll-faced white woman's moment in the spotlight, and even Jay Leno used the first episode of his execrable 10 p.m. show to humiliate West for ratings, having the gall to bring Kanye's dead mother into the fray. What no one mentioned was that Kanye was right: Beyoncé's video was better, and even MTV agreed when it awarded her Video of the Year -- and I don't recall anyone making a fuss over Beyoncé somehow making the best video period but not the best by a woman (or, for the matter, why artists are credited with music videos they have little to no creative input in). The damage was done, scarring West from the burns of the media and sustaining Taylor Swift's fleeting career for a whole extra year.

With that pressure still weighing on him, West has decided, after trying to make amends in noble but misguided efforts, to take the only sensible route: to laugh it off, get some shots in at himself, and then introduce the public to the most egotistical Kanye yet. Oh, you thought he was a jackass before? Well, just try to withstand the sonic onslaught of a rock star putting aside his personal record and returning to the arena. God help anyone caught in his path.

Opening with an electronic take on "Once Upon a Time" fairy tale introductions, "Dark Fantasy" wastes no time leaping into Ye's fever dream, backing up the invitation to read a hip-hop fable with choir vocals, at last sending West in to start upping himself from the word go. West's flow sounds immensely improved, no longer overstuffed with too many words that threaten to collapse the meter. Only the stray line "Too many Urkels on your team/That's why your win's low" screeches to a halt (it is the worst moment of the album, but at least it passes in an instant). With its church choir chorus, "Dark Fantasy" brings back the religious icon feel of Yeezy. Only West could use such a bombastic and self-serving track as the gentle introduction to his self-promotion.

"Gorgeous" moves into the other side of the album, in which West comes to term with the more insufferable side of his pompous personality. Referencing, among other things, South Park's scathing takedown of his arrogance, West takes stock of the down side of his ego, reframing it around the feeling of being hated by seemingly the whole world. That self-pity turns to self-righteous anger as West refuses to give in to these feelings of victimization, even as he softens his ambitions. "What's a black Beatle anyway?" he asks of his desire to be a legend, "A fucking roach?"

Elsewhere, Yeezy gets deeper into the heart of the war between his ego and the world. "Power" brilliantly samples King Crimson's "21st Century Schizoid Man," a song that described man with everything and nothing. "Nothing he's got, he really needs," intones Greg Lake through distorted vocals, a perfect encapsulation of where Kanye's at right now. The album's centerpiece, "Runaway" pays tribute to himself by way of honoring the "douchebags, assholes and jerkoffs." It's a 10-minute marvel, one of the most garishly self-loving pieces of music ever recorded, but the range of moods covered -- sarcastic, tragic, boastful -- is impressive. By the time it ends, you too will be ready to give a toast to the douchebags.

But not even Kanye can spend the entire time praising himself. "All the Lights" places a number of guests front and center, and the most affecting line is Kanye's brief mourning for Michael Jackson, one of his heroes. "Monster" plays out nearly as a rap duel, pitting Jay-Z, Rick Ross, even the frontman Bon Iver(?) against each other. Then Nicki Minaj bursts in and just destroys them. It's a fierce number, and another that Yeezy entrusts to others. Yet his hand guides these tracks, his expertise with production orchestrating the guests until they feel like conduits for Kanye's vision. I've heard a handful of complaints regarding the production values of this album, and I just cannot comprehend them. West has never been so able to capture the full bombast of his self-love, but here he at last directs everything back to its source: himself. It's utterly shameless, and utterly brilliant.

Wronged by the VMAs and humiliated at the hands of no less ignominious a villain as Jay Leno, West uses My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy to make his own plaudits. When he closes out "Blame Game" with an extended Chris Rock bit, he makes his own talk show in which he is the beloved star, not the butt of a joke. It turns the album into a variety hour, complete with the parade of musical guests, all of them working to make Kanye look good. The voices come together on "Lost in the World," all auto-tuned to magnify the sound further as West gets some last minute proclamations in, and it's amazing how fresh the album still feels at this point.

With nowhere else to go, West releases us from his glorious present and looks to the future, taking a spoken-word performance by Gil Scott-Heron to tackle the vicious political climate that has resurfaced in America. Scott-Heron's portentous poem, punctuated by profane innuendo, lets us know that Yeezy knows of the problems that affect us mere mortals, but the hilarious suggestion inherent in the track is that West considers the self-immolation of the United States as it enters the final stages of its days as a superpower the only implosion more spectacular than his. "If God had an iPod," CyHi Da Prynce raps in "So Appalled," "I'd be on his playlist." It's a line West must wish he'd said himself, but by the end of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, even a self-promoter like Kanye must have realized that particular truth was self-evident.


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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Wah Do Dem

When Wah Do Dem co-director Ben Chace won a free cruise to Jamaica, he decided to buy additional tickets for friends and crew and make a movie. It's the sort of ingenuity made possible in the modern era, in which cameras are affordable and anyone can make a movie on a whim. For the first 10 minutes of the film, however, I could not help but wonder if that clever idea was the only one anyone had for the movie, as the stereotypical mumblecore elements were presented with such clumsy execution that I could scarcely believe several friends recommended it to me.

Then, nearly everything changed. If the usual mumblecore film focuses on an group of hipsters as their isolation crumbles from the vague intrusion of real-world issues, Wah Do Dem breaks the mold by throwing its plastic-glasses-wearing protagonist into the larger world without a net, stranding him until he might see how myopic his perspective actually is.

The film's rocky start presents Max (Brooklyn musician Sean Bones) planning his free cruise to Jamaica, only for his girlfriend (Norah Jones, giving one awkward, perfunctory cameo) to casually dump him and walk away before anyone can raise questions about how transparently phony the scene is. Max's hipster friends are even worse, a collection of hipster assholes who dismiss whatever pain Max might be feeling to rag on the ex. They encourage him to go on the trip anyway, and so do we, as it means putting thousands of miles between Max and these cretinous voids.

Once Max boards the cruise ship, however, the film picks up. Chace and co-director Sam Fleischner marvelously capture the feeling of isolation Max feels as he walks the ship's hallways and decks alone, surrounded by the old retirees who populated these sorts of cruises. (Think a drier version of Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which derived much of its comedy in the first act from the pointlessness of going to Hawaii alone.) As with all cruise liners, this ship is packed with garish, flashy entertainment, mixing the refined and the pedestrian. Patriotic T-shirt-wearing pensioners play nickel slots one one level while another section features faux-upper-crust music designed to make everyone feel like an aristocrat before they use their coupons at the buffet. Surrounded by the elderly and constantly accosted by a potentially predatory male admirer, Max spends most of the cruise hidden away in his cabin ordering room service.

Upon arriving in Jamaica, Max distances himself from the tourist pack, buys a Red Stripe from a local vendor and chats up a local who speaks in thick Patois. The man takes a liking to Max, and he and a young woman take the American to a beautiful beach, where they rob him. Left only with a pair of waterlogged shorts, Max cannot return home and must find a way to get to the American embassy in Kingston, an hours-long car ride away from the ship's port.

By actually taking the trip to Jamaica and forcing Max to deal with another culture without even his hipster glasses as a shield, Wah Do Dem serves as an auto-critique of mumblecore. The first shot of the movie shows Max playing soccer with some buddies, having fun but perhaps doing so partially because soccer isn't as popular in the U.S., which allows him to fit in. In Jamaica, soccer is huge, and the lazy horsing around Max did in Brooklyn doesn't cut it with even the friendliest of street players, who mock his lack of hustle and skills. He at least has the wherewithal to be ashamed of the fact that, hard up for clothes, he must accept the charitable contribution of two fat, ultra-tourist Americans who give him a souvenir store T-shirt with cheap Jamaican slogans on it.

He has extra reason to feel embarrassed, as Wah Do Dem takes special care to soak in the vibrant, even dangerous culture of Jamaica. Some cited the characters Max encounters as stereotypical, but there's a sociological curiosity in the film's direction. While some characters exist as clear fabrications, much of the movie was improvised with regular people. I expected Max to sneer at the jumbled patois dialect, but he never does. At first, he feels his ability to suss out the basic meaning of what's being said makes him closer to the natives and therefore cooler than the tourists, but after his humiliation he continues to ask locals for translations in a humbler manner. Visually, the film captures the luminescent, bounding anarchy of street life at its most appealing and terrifying, an overwhelming crush of conflicting styles, anachronisms and color palettes so bewildering one wonders how eve the residents can navigate their way through a community.

The impending election of Barack Obama forms a current flowing under the film, occasionally popping in news updates of the final days of the election. On the boat, Max looks up international opinion of Obama and finds that 97% of the Jamaican population supports Obama over McCain. This leads to a beautiful, spontaneous moment as the cameras capture the genuine, live results of the election as a crowd gathers in a bar, leading to an explosion of joy that radiates off the screen. Just as the film breaks mumblecore of its emotional isolationism, so too did the election of Obama announce, however briefly, the reemergence of America as a part of the world and not merely its own, shrouded empire. The locals, who'd been gently teasing Max the whole time, suddenly embrace him as a brother as they weep and dance jubilantly. Of course, since that election, Obama's presidency has come to resemble the cruise: initially a promise of good fortunes before melting into a cynical bore.

"Surprise, surprise, you don't fit in everywhere in the world," spits Max's quasi-stalker upon being rejected, failing to realize the last thing that would surprise Max was learning he didn't fit in somewhere. But by being completely removed from his tether, the young man finds how much he does share with others, a thought admirable communicated without simpering, feel-good liberalism (an even more impressive feat considering the indirect role Obama plays in all this). The film's final sequence is its most hilarious and its most poignant diffusing a comically tense situation through the equalization of Max and the character who confronts him. At last, the Brooklynite no longer seems a tourist but a credible member of this chaotic, beautiful community, and the thought that he will eventually return to what is technically his home feels like a loss.

Wah Do Dem is patois for "What's wrong with them?" and the unspoken answer to that question is that even America's liberals have walled themselves off from the outside world. Compared to the Jamaicans who wait with baited breath the whole film to hear of the election outcomes, Max probably didn't even vote, despite his desire for Barack to win. It's easy to read the Huffington Post, harder to place all your hopes on another country's leader so that conditions domestically can improve as a result. But I'm making this sound like a political film: Wah Do Dem is not a film about the end of the Bush administration. In a wry twist, grand political change is used as a metaphor for personal involvement, not vice versa. I nearly gave up on the film at the start, so thoroughly did I hate those opening scenes, but Wah Do Dem emerges as one of the most interesting and insightful off-mumblecore movies in some time, and also one of the most visually stimulating.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1

Having re-read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows before seeing the first half of the story in David Yates' latest, I entered the cineplex ready to dub the latest adaptation of the most popular book franchise in the world Harry Potter and the Interminable Holocaust Allegory. This would not be entirely Yates' fault, mind you; there are fundamental flaws in the story that cannot be blamed on anyone involved with the production. The problems inherent in the film version of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows are the issues inherent in J.K. Rowling's final entry (one hopes) in her wildly successful series. When I devoured the closing chapter of Harry Potter's saga as an 18-year-old leaving high school just as the most visible pop culture symbol of my childhood came to a close, I loved every page. Absorbed by the action, I plowed through 759 pages in mere hours, sad to see these characters slipping away even as I propelled myself toward the end with breakneck speed.

What I saw upon a second reading, however, was the weakest book of the series since it moved into darker territory in the third entry. Pacing problems mired the first half in directionless muck, wallowing in dystopic Holocaust/post-9/11 allegory until exposition suddenly kicked in and never let up until the end (even the epilogue, which I found deeply unsatisfactory even on the first read, summarizes the futures of the characters with banal resolution). Yates' biggest contribution to the three Potter films he's helmed has been his commitment to retaining as much as possible of the novels while still releasing films at acceptable blockbuster length. Even The Order of the Phoenix, the longest and most meandering of the books, was whittled down to one of the shortest running times of any of the franchise movies without sacrificing the core of the work.

Ergo, his decision to split Deathly Hallows into two parts speaks less to the overflow of great ideas in Rowling's epic than a misguided attempt to use the final entry to give fans what fans always want: the entire book transposed to screen. Of course, fans don't know what they want, and it's interesting that the only fully successful adaptation of Rowling's books, Prisoner of Azkaban, owes its power to sacrificing the familiar plot elements to reach for a more magical and unpredictable atmosphere. There's nothing of the sort to be found in Yates' films, which suck the feeling of wonder from Hogwarts -- this was particularly evident in The Half-Blood Prince, which intriguingly dug beneath the oppressive and despairing tone of Rowling's best novel to find the feeling of appreciation and nostalgia for that which will soon be lost in the coming war, only to bungle this fascinating insight with a drab visual style.

I say all of this negative stuff to come to a surprising conclusion: David Yates got it right this time. More than that, he corrected what has been horribly wrong with the film franchise. If the director's defining trademark on the series so far was to ably cut down on excess while getting the story across unscathed, he proves by giving himself the space to breathe that, while he is still not cut out for the magical side of Harry Potter, he is abundantly capable of doing the one thing that no previous Potter film has managed: delve into the characters.

Whether shackled to the plot or simply under the impression that everyone had already read the books and thus did not need introduction nor updates on the characters, Harry, Ron and Hermione have often felt like spectators in their own saga, ushered from setpiece to setpiece before being made to deliver some line about the necessity of getting some Macguffin, the red herring that is Severus Snape and/or the importance of friendship, usually in the most breathless manner possible (Emma Watson in particular has always spoken her lines as if a mule kicked her in the stomach before the director yelled "Action!"). Here, however, Yates uses his spare running time to focus on the characters, and if Deathly Hallows Part 1 is about anything, it's about how these three young adults react to the horrifying situation in which they find themselves, a predicament so dire that even these battle-tested youths feel hopeless and directionless when confronted with it.

Undoubtedly aiding Yates and his aversion to the more mystical side of the mythos is the fact that Deathly Hallows is by some measure Rowling's most straightforward book, even if it is a tangled web of exposition. More indebted to Lord of the Rings than anything, the final book relies on an epic sweep of action to make up for a confounding and unsatisfying explanation for the final battle and heavy exposition throughout. Its emphasis on Holocaust imagery allows Yates to finally apply his more standard visuals to great usage, managing to turn a color palette that consists primarily of grays and grayer grays into something expressive.

So how does Harry Potter and the List of Schindler turn out? From the opening moments, as the sound of rusting and shrieking metal builds over a black screen before violently cutting out as the screen flashes an extreme close-up (the young woman in front of me actually dropped her popcorn tub in shock at this moment), Yates does a spectacular job of creating a sense of extreme discomfort, using Alexandre Desplat's dissonant score to keep you on edge even when the characters are sitting in a home. Nowhere is safe, no one can be trusted and it's only a matter of time before Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) uses his new control over the Ministry of Magic to track down his prey.

What, then, is a chosen one to do? After unloading a heaping pile of angst onto the audience with the film installment and indulging in puppy-dog teen romance with the sixth, Harry Potter and the Seven Beauties throws young adults into the real world, and the idea that Rowling plundered imagery from the most catastrophic event of modern times is a shrewd statement on how jarring true adulthood can be for increasingly sheltered youth. There are a few light chuckles to be found here as Rupert Grint continues his adorable "aw shucks" goofiness as Ron, but the dominant mood here is one of horror. Every time the kids manage to teleport themselves away from a fight, someone else finds them, and it's a wonder any of their hearts ever stop racing enough for them to sleep. After being decently entertained by the fourth film, bored by the fifth and frustrated by the misplaced emotional focus of the sixth, I was suddenly riveted. I even wanted to cover my eyes at times, so shaken by the world collapsing around these characters.

Mind you, there are a number of stumbling blocks in the film. For all the skill with which Yates handles the downtime, Harry Potter and the Boy in the Striped Pajamas still drags on far too long. A good 20 minutes could and should have been excised from the film for better flow. The gag of Harry's friends using Polyjuice Potion to disguise themselves as him to become decoys leads to some painfully unfunny humor too quickly out of the gate. Moreover, the dialogue in and around this scene is shamelessly expository, recalling not only moments from previous films but bits that were cut from the books for time. Another holdover from the book, Ron's petulant attitude toward the other two, is tired by this point: Rowling had so exhausted Ron's jealousy of Harry by the seventh book that she had to use the MacGuffin of the Horcrux, one of the seven enchanted objects that holds a piece of Voldemort's tattered soul, to bring out that tension again. At least Grint sells it well, and as much as this sort of thing brings back the angst that Rowling and the filmmakers separately beat to death with the fifth installment.

Actually, let's talk about that acting. I've always felt bad for the child actors in this series, forced to grow up and look talented when blanketed by, you know, every major story in modern British film. Still, they've never excelled, and Radcliffe in particular has never proven himself a star. Whether the result of maturation or the desire to go out with a bang, the three principal actors have dug deep and found a well of talent from which they'd not previously drawn. When Grint goes into his jealous fit, his eyes terrified me; I honestly thought he might lunge for not just Harry but Hermione as well. Watson tones down the histrionics and drops the endearingly nerdy side to tap into Hermione's insecurities at being the child of two Muggle parents, a fear exacerbated in the pureblood frenzy engendered by Voldemort (whose own blood is "tainted" with Muggle non-magic just as rumors abound to this day that Jews nested in Hitler's family tree). As for Radcliffe, he's come a long way from the boy who agonizingly ruined the terrifying revelation of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named's return in The Goblet of Fire.

Yet these deepened insights come not from me-time showboating but group interplay. The way the three characters play off each other brings out these new traits, and for the first time all are developed in equal measure. Yates inserts a scene that was not in the book, placed after Ron, corrupted by the Horcrux, leaves his friends to try and find his family. As a devastated Hermione hugs a radio, Nick Cave's "O Children" comes on, and Harry, aware that they might both die at any second, extends a hand to his second-oldest friend and the two share a cathartic slow dance. This sequence is so ingenious, so well-executed and so planned-ahead for a later vision of Harry and Hermione kissing that torments the addled Ron that Rowling should call up Yates and writer Steve Kloves and thank them for improving her work.

When the action picks up, its more straightforward style allows Yates to focus less on the awe of a magical duel than the sheer terror of being hunted. After that failed lighthearted scene with the Harry duplicates, the Death Eater ambush that awaits the gang as they move to a safehouse is fantastically executed, harrowing and bewildering in the sudden assault. Harry Potter and the Day the Clown Cried even throws in a noble death that has already inspired various "Never Forget" messages and is a surprisingly tear-jerking moment considering the character in question hasn't shown up in the film series since The Chamber of Secrets. Even when Yates gets a bit too frenetic with a forest chase sequence, the action here is exhilarating and the kind of stuff that makes you grab your seat arm tighter. I also adored a brief animated sequence used to provide background on the titular deathly hallows, a bit of Gothic shadow puppetry that is as dark as anything in the film proper. Ben Hibon, who designed and directed this segment, went all out to make a haunting piece that resembles a sort of Slavic woodcarving of an old fairy tale, the kind that made even the happy endings fatalistic.

Naturally, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I feels incomplete, the setup to a finale that won't come until May of next year. But if having to wait six months is the price to pay for a Harry Potter film that finally passes muster, it's worth it. Previous films have used that who's-who supporting cast as a crutch, cutting to one of Alan Rickman's deliciously drawled one-liners or Maggie Smith's pert, slightly condescending humanism. Here, there's no one to distract from the principal cast, who are working without a net. They succeed beyond my wildest expectations, and after debating whether to see this at all or just wait until I unethusiastically double-bill the two parts of the film in May to break myself of the mediocre imagining of a key part of my childhood, I am thrilled that everyone involved finally got it right. The previous top dog of the films, The Prisoner of Azkaban, had the magic but not the story. This film, which lacks the magic by design, balances the visual impact with solid, if imperfect, storytelling, and it's all buoyed by terrific acting. Who could have guessed that the film to break Hollywood of its string of mediocre, audience-insulting blockbusters this year would be the latest entry in one of the most mediocre and audience-insulting blockbuster franchises of recent years?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Le Vent d'Est

After the combined weight of British Sounds and Pravda collapsed the last bridge connecting Jean-Luc Godard to his former life, he and the Dziga Vertov Group now had the freedom to build a new structure, one that could take them wherever they pleased. Le vent d'est ("Wind from the East") still contains all the elements that are grating about DGV films, but if the agitprop itself still fails, Godard and the others slowly put together a way to tell their story inventively, even cheekily.

Opening with a held shot of two people lying in a field, the warring narration that defined the last few films returns as a woman and man overlap each other. The woman wins out, speaking of her bourgeois father's work at an aluminum company. She mentions that mounting union pressure led the man to lock himself in his office in fear, leading to panicked conversations between "Daddy and Uncle Sam" in which the man begged for aid from the capitalists. In dad's mind, the poor are used to being poor, so the continued exploitation of miners will not affect them, but for the rich to suffer even the slightest loss of money would be bewildering and far more harmful. I couldn't help but smile at that bit of dialogue as I thought of all those screaming "redistribution of wealth" now, in a time when the rich continue to profit off the recession they created. For all the hullabaloo over May '68, France did not change as drastically as some would have you believe, but the threat of mass union uprising shifting the power back to the worker could easily have put the terror into the wealthy.

That, sadly, is one of the last moments of the film that makes any sense, as Godard, Gorin and the rest waste no time overlapping sound and image until, once again, they create incomprehensible agitprop. Yet where the polemical dialogue fails again, the film's form demonstrates Gorin and Godard getting the hang of their new radical cinema. Godard always believed that the best way to criticize a film was to make another one, and never before has a work of his been more of its own critique. "What does it mean to ask the question 'Where are we now?' for a militant filmmaker?" posits the female narrator, and Godard's attempt to answer that question make for his most interesting filmmaking since Le gai savoir.

We see a film-within-a-film being made, what appears to be a spaghetti Western made in West Germany. As the actors prepare their roles, the narrator delves into the idea of revolutionary film. She castigates Sergei Eisenstein for being influenced by the "imperialist" D.W. Griffith and angrily laments that he went back in time to find an event of social upheaval for Potemkin rather than using an examination of then-current social strife to instruct through his lens. Of course, for Godard to slam anyone for looking to past movies and events is rich, but he acknowledges that and used Le vent d'est to grapple with that nagging sense of cinephilia that beckons to him as he tries to move beyond his previous life.

At last, Godard returns to placing provocative and even beautiful images on the screen. The actors, walking around a large field, put on flowing gowns that make them look as if they got lost on their way to the nearest Bergman film, and the narrator repeats "Death to the bourgeois" as a saintly clad Anne Wiazemsky reads in the meadow as hands bearing a hammer and sickle threateningly close around her head before pulling back again and again. The jumbled title cards bring back the invention of Le gai savoir's use of written word on the screen. As the narrator attempts to figure out how to proceed from May '68 (and, alternately, how Godard expects to move forward with his radical cinema), the words "que" and "faire" (literally "what to do") appear on a piece of paper over and over in perfectly arranged columns as if a kindergartner's copying assignment. The word "repression" uses the Schutzstaffel insignia for its SS. Lutte, meaning "fight, is scribbled over a page with a heavy black marker used to write "CRITIQUE" over everything, suggesting the manner in which Godard and Gorin have chosen to wage their fight against the bourgeois is through savage criticism.

The agitprop is, as ever, maddening, but Godard never lost track of his ability to see the aspects of Communism that failed. He delineates between "worker Leninism" and "student Leninism," and he takes aim at himself when he dismisses the latter as being naïve and unfocused. A shot of mass graves reminds everyone of what happens when a maniac like Stalin takes power. At any rate, Le vent d'est also takes the time to consider the Western wind, and compared to the more Maoist leanings of previous DGV films, this feature examines less the virtue of Communism than the ways capitalism undermines individual freedom even as it purports to be the most free societal structure. Godard is, of course, too scathing toward capitalism as a whole and not the abuse of it, but there are some valid points buried in the aural muck. His most damning critique, naturally, is of Hollywood, which he charges with being falsely liberal. My ears perked up at this, as I've been hating on Hollywood's love of cheap, faux-liberalism for years, the sort of pandering hogwash that serves only to rake in cash to studio executives (which doesn't exactly scream "socialist," does it?). Over an image of a man riding a horse, the narrator rages that Hollywood would have us believe that the horse on-screen is really a horse. Not just that, that it is more than a horse. Even as the DGV tries to uncover the true nature of the contemporary political climate, Godard still carries his pet theme of the illusory quality of the cinema, a them the film industry in Hollywood just sweeps under the rug because it raises too many questions.

Le vent d'est continues the director's deconstructionist streak, but for the first time since joining the DGV he begins to reconstruct images as well. A great deal of the film doesn't work, especially as it's nearly incomprehensible aurally or visually from taking low-quality source elements and blowing them up far beyond their capacity (not to mention the only way I could find of viewing the film was on a horrendous VHS rip), but I was finally interested in Godard again. I couldn't wait to see what he'd do next, and I felt rewarded by straining my eyes to make out what it was I was supposed to be looking at. Godard makes the camera into the general assembly with this film, posing questions about the revolution for other to answer. After talking down to us for the last few films, Godard continues to pontificate but finally lets the audience formulate its own thoughts and asks us for responses to the questions posed. We're not out of the woods yet, but Le vent d'est was a pleasant surprise after suffering the Dziga Vertov Group's nonsense for what felt an eternity after but two films.

Brian De Palma: Home Movies

Considering the often-questionable acting prowess seen on the screen in Brian De Palma's movies, to say nothing of the borderline anarchy of his early work, accusations that the director had no idea what he was doing were understandable, if myopic. Of course, both of those traits were deliberate moves by a man both obsessed with the artifice of cinema and always on the lookout for a good joke, preferably at the expense of the audience.

Made during New Hollywood's implosion, this low-budget, 16mm comedy, filmed during De Palma's time as a guest lecturer at Sarah Lawrence College, looks on the surface like an attempt to return to the director's early mode of filmmaking, that hyper-political, Godardian slapstick. But it might also be the director's answer to those critics who charged De Palma with being an incompetent: if they thought he didn't understand film form before, just wait until they got a load of this.

Granted, that interpretation gives away my opinion of the film, not to mention suggests that De Palma intentionally made this to be a nearly unwatchable train wreck. But I cannot lie: he and his students, who coordinated with the director on the project, crafted one stiff comedy. While I do not hold most of the earliest films of De Palma in highest regard (with the exceptions of Hi, Mom! and Phantom of the Paradise), I find those early comedies funny precisely because the humor is as reflective of De Palma's deep knowledge and rejection of film form at the onset of his career as the direction itself. De Palma knew the rules before breaking them, and he appears to use the students to see what would happen if someone never bothered to learn the "proper" way to make a film. I think of this wonderful quote by bass virtuoso Victor Wooten: "If you take a newborn baby and put them on the instrument, they're going to get sounds out of it that I can't get out of it, so we're all the best." Perhaps by letting these people make the film they want before someone tells them how to do it, they can become the next generation of movers and shakers. And by limiting the budget, De Palma not only teaches others but himself how to be ingenuous in a time when budgets were starting to inflate beyond reason.

At the same time, Home Movies' central flaw is the uneasy tug-of-war between its more chaotic side and a loyalty to conventional comedy structure that makes what could have been free-form brilliance into a sloppy take on what looks suspiciously like an attempt to hitch wagons to the National Lampoon's contemporary success with teen comedies. Plus, the students at Sarah Lawrence had an advantage most film students do not: they got to make their movie with proven actors, either old character standbys from De Palma's films or some of his stars. Nancy Allen is a major character, and Kirk Douglas himself appears as "The Maestro," an obvious De Palma stand-in who instructs the classroom full of students working on the film.

Ostensibly the story of Dennis Byrd (Keith Gordon, essentially laying the framework for his career here as a shy, likable geek), a young man trapped in a highly dysfunctional family, Home Movies immediately throws the audience for a loop, playing the beginning of Byrd's story through the classroom as the Maestro lectures not only the class but the film crew he brings with him at all times. Dennis, pining for his brother's fiancée, Kristina (Nancy Allen), not only attempts to convince her that his domineering brother isn't the saint people inexplicably think he is but tries to uncover his surgeon father's infidelity. The Maestro occasionally intrudes upon Dennis' life, chastising the boy for sitting in a tree spying on his dad and making himself an extra in his own life instead of the star. He instructs Dennis to film his own life to ensure that he finally becomes the protagonist of his existence, meaning that Home Movies follows The Maestro and his class watching a movie of a young man's life as that man also films that life. It might be worthy of Charlie Kaufman if the execution wasn't so clumsy.

I do not like to guess a filmmaker's motives unless I am feeling particularly dismissive; it's all too easy to forgive or damn a film by building up a strawman of the director's intent and hanging interpretation off of a wild guess. With Home Movies, you can't even speculate on the construction: De Palma's themes and style are all over this movie, from the focus on film's artifice and voyeurism to the constant division within the frame by beams and lines, effectively creating homemade split-screen. And even with the 16mm stock, Home Movies does look cinematic. Does this mean the director edged aside his students to make entirely his movie? Or did De Palma, renowned for paying tribute (if not outright stealing) to the films he loves, encourage his students to spoof him?

Home Movies certainly has some of the feel of De Palm's early films, with such exaggerated madness as Dennis' mother stumbling in on Dennis making out with a woman, being reminded of her husband's own tomfoolery and subsequently faking her suicide by pill overdose (a sequence that ends in one of the few funny bits in the film as the doctor husband pumps her stomach). Elsewhere, Kristina appears to be possessed by a stuffed rabbit that brings out her id, making for yet more oddball comedy that is just too silly to work. Kristina's attempts to cure herself of her addictions, chiefly to fast food and sex, make for the funniest recurring joke of the film, but the joke eventually wears thin.

To be honest, the aspect of the film that made me laugh the hardest was how natural Keith Gordon was. Nearly everyone in all De Palma films up to this point has been deliberately exaggerated, but Gordon is one of the few to act like someone who just got told to make a film of his life. At long last, a performance people could praise, and it's in the one film that would have benefited from total wackiness.

Still, there are some things that work here. The comedy may be a dud, but the ideas behind Home Movies are intriguing, if infuriatingly unfocused. Dennis' brother, James (Gerrit Graham), teaches a course he calls "Spartanetics," a hypermasculine, young adult version of the Boy Scouts advancing the idea of male self-sufficiency. De Palma ruthlessly skewers this idiot, even as most of the characters in the film look up to him. Likewise, the Maestro's class, Explorations on Star Theory, encourages people to make themselves the matinee name in the film of their lives, but with manly man Douglas preaching the message, the course puts out a subtly patriarchal view. De Palma was on the cusp of a string of films that would earn accusations of misogyny at almost every turn, but the director is openly mocking of chauvinism here, and by filtering some of the masculinity through the Maestro and his brand of filmmaking, De Palma even spares an attack for the sexism inherent in cinema.

By titling the film Home Movies, De Palma suggests one of two things: that he loves the cinema so much that he would equate the act of helping students get their first hands-on experience at filmmaking with tapes of babies learning their first words or taking their first steps, or that, in making the film, he realizes that his early style of filmmaking is stuck in the past where he cannot return to it. Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in-between. In an interview with Gerald Peary around the time of the film's release, De Palma explained his issue with film schools: "The real trouble with film school is that the people teaching are so far out of the industry that they don't give the students an idea of what's happening. Students should be exposed to the best people in the profession. If you study surgery, you study with the best doctors working in the hospital. You don't study with the ones who couldn't get a job." 1 That's an interesting take, but also one that underlines how much of a vanity project Home Movies is, De Palma's excuse to use the clout he'd gathered up to hide from the mainstream for awhile just as he was starting to break into it. There's an air of sadness at the end because of this, as De Palma assembles the final cut and realizes he can never go back to what he used to be. If he could have seen the critical bloodbath that awaited him in the coming decade, Home Movies might well have been a full, Grecian tragedy.

1Interview with Brian De Palma, by Gerald Peary. Originally published in Take One, January 1979.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

35 Shots of Rum

Claire Denis' 35 Shots of Rum may be the warmest depiction of an Electra complex ever put to film. In fact, it's such a minutely layered, understated work that to pigeonhole it with such a lazy bit of Freudian explanation does a great disservice to its subtlety. Denis' film is not elliptical, merely unspoken, relying on the faces and slightest action to tell the story. As captured by Agnès Godard's quiet but expressive color palette, 35 Shots of Rum makes cinema of the trace elements of life.

Immediately, the director delves into the dynamic between Lionel (Alex Descas), a widower who conducts RER trains in Paris and its suburbs, and his daughter, Joséphine (Mati Dop), a beautiful graduate student working as a teaching assistant at a local school. Jo spots a rice cooker in a shop window and notes how she wants it, coming home later that day after purchasing one only for her dad to surprise her with the exact same thing. "I didn't think you'd remember," she says gratefully as she keeps her own copy out of sight. One naturally assumes that she doesn't tell her father about the cooker she bought out of consideration, not wishing to hurt his pride, but Denis leaves so much hanging in the air that the audience can think about the nature of the father-daughter relationship. As more pieces fall into place, we can better see that moment as a reflection of the intimate but increasingly impersonal bond that links the two: clearly, the death of the mother brought father and child together, and they care so much for each other that no one else seems to register. Yet that is a relationship based upon convenience and proximity. It's only natural that a family should find comfort in each other following a tragedy, but instead of moving on, Jo and Lionel got used to their bond and do not seek anything that might shake up their lives. Dating is hard; not growing up is easy.

Yet there are several hints that the two do not understand and appreciate how close they are. Jo doesn't expect her dad to remember about the cooker when she is the only woman in his life. In turn, Lionel doesn't even have to play the role of the stern dad when boys come calling because Jo turns them all down on her own. A bouncy, middle-aged cab driver, Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue), lives in the same apartment complex and clearly has feelings for Lionel, but when she comes looking for her beau, Joséphine turns frigid and lightly confrontational. Whether they realize it or not, father and daughter have created a matrimonial relationship, and they subconsciously act to maintain that thread by edging out any other force.

Slowly, however, the pair come to terms with their existence. Lionel attends a retirement party for his friend René, who smiles good-naturedly at his friends' toasts and gifts but looks slightly troubled. He pops up throughout the film, not saying much with his voice but speaking volumes about the predicament in which Lionel might find himself in a few years: by devoting his life to his job, René has nothing left when he retires. If he ever had a family, his offspring moved on, just as all children, even Jo, must. When he reappears every so often, he hangs in the background, a specter in tiny cafés and bars that Lionel sees in his peripheral vision and cannot shake. Denis intended the film as a loose homage to Ozu Yasujiro (it particularly borrows some elements from Late Spring, and René reflects Ozu's solemn musings on the existentialist nature of industrial livelihood: the man retires in good health, but because he defined himself as a train conductor, his life is over.

Also hanging over Lionel as a dark portent is Gabrielle, whose lovesick longing not only gives the man a chance to change his life path but also shows him the danger of pining for something until it's too late. Gabrielle wants to be with Lionel, and Lionel wants to stay with Jo. But once the young woman can no longer fight the nagging urge to make her own life, what will Lionel have?

Denis' camera moves more than Ozu's, but she displays the same eye for body language and the power of a look. Descas has one of those masterful faces, seemingly chiseled from obsidian and filled with dramatic weight. His is a Stoic look, breaking his poker face only to let the slightest hint of deep pain out from behind those eyes. Dogue, on the other hand, is brilliantly convincing as a lovelorn fool awkwardly attempting to hang around the object of her affection until maybe he accepts her. So convincing is she that I thought less of a middle-aged person trying to find love than a hopeless romantic of a teenager hanging around the school halls doing anything to impress the cool boy or girl. Dogue constantly arcs her back and neck, leaning with all her might to stay in Lionel's sight even as he turns away. Even her smile, radiant and wide, carries a hint of desperation, and she may be more heartbreaking when at her most outwardly cheery than she is when that smile fades.

The film's centerpiece occurs about halfway through the film, as Lionel, Joséphine, Jo's sort-of boyfriend Noé (Grégoire Colin) and Gabrielle pile in Gabby's car to head to a concert. It's a stiflingly uncomfortable ride, with cautious looks exchanged all around and Gabrielle breaking the tension only to add even more awkward silence by saying, "We haven't gone out as a family in years." In the middle of a pouring rainstorm, the cab breaks down, and the four of them all look more relieved to be standing outside pushing the Mercedes minivan down the road than to be back in the car.

When they stop in a bar to dry off, something magical happens. The Commodores' "Night Shift" strikes up on the jukebox, and Denis' camera, formerly the same mix of intimate and detached as the characters themselves, suddenly becomes so sensual your toes will curl. She lingers on Gabrielle's back as revealed in her low-cut dress, the look of nervous, budding love on Noé's face and the self-awareness mounting in Lionel's. Not a single word is spoken, but as partners change hands for friendly but revealing dances, the entire structure of the characters' social order rearranges. From that moment, the inevitability of Jo's progression is made plain, while Lionel continues to swim in circles despite seeing his options clearly for the first time.

Fundamentally, 35 Shots of Rum is about the necessity of living life. When Noé invites Gabrielle and Joséphine to his flat, he discovers his 17-year-old cat dead. Without shedding a tear, he grabs the poor thing by the neck and stuffs it into a trash bag along with toys and all the cat's other "effects." The women, speaking for the audience in this situation, simply gaze in horror and ask sensible questions like "A trash bag?" (which would have been exactly the way I phrased that question, too), but Noé's action shows an exaggerated model for moving on from grief. Buried in Noé's rushed attempt to throw everything away is the desire to not be reminded of his cat's death, but he also frees himself by placing the reminders in the bin. As soon as he finishes, he mentions taking a job overseas, which he can now more easily accept because he does not need to worry about his old, sick cat anymore. It's a bit callous, yes, but Jo understands the deeper meaning, and when she gets home she obsessively cleans the flat of her mother's stuff, trying to throw out the shackles that keep her and Lionel chained to their lives. Lionel, of course, intervenes.

Rarely does the film do anything wrong, but two extraneous scenes do drag the more subtle and evocative story. A scene in Jo's class serves only to bring up Denis' usual attention to race and class dynamics, but it's the only moment of the movie to do so, making the academic arguments of the students regarding international development seem even more stilted and rehearsed. Late in the film, Jo and Lionel head to Germany to visit the dead wife's sister, Jo's aunt. Played by Fassbinder regular Ingrid Caven, the aunt has a monologue that is not so obvious that it detracts from the visually-oriented mood but makes the mistake of trying to put into words what has already been bountifully expressed through the camera.

But these are fleeting moments, hiccups in an eloquent and insightful look at familiar and familial relationships. Much subtler is the symbolism of Lionel's job, always moving but trapped on the same circuit, that small but key distinction from Gabrielle's own status as a public transporter (and is Lionel's name a reference to those train sets that let us play conductor as kids?). Jo's own, part-time job, a music shop clerk, comes right out of adolescence and is as demonstrative of her trapping herself in young adult years. These are symbols handled with a deft hand, open enough to be guessed on a first viewing but left in the hands of the viewer to work out. Thankfully, it is material like this that defines Denis' film, not the minuscule broad moments.

The film ends with Joséphine set to finally move out into her own life, and to commemorate the event, Lionel downs the titular 35 shots in a personal ceremony that looks as much a wake as it does a wedding reception. The final shot shows Lionel coming home with a new rice cooker, one that appears to be made for one, not two. It's a moving moment, but also a hopeful one. We are spared trite epilogues, left instead to ponder whether the man has processed the various clues sent to him about the state of his life and whether he can alter it before the window of opportunity closes. As with everything else in 35 Shots of Rum, these final moments are as haunting as they are affirming. And compared to the films that sandwich it in Denis' canon, it's proof that she is capable of absolutely anything. Americans tend to outdo each other with spectacle; Denis proves her mettle by stripping all away but the essence, and what is left is overwhelming.