Sunday, February 27, 2011

Stuff I Like: Prince

Having been fortunate enough to miss the '80s and unfortunate enough to grow up solely on classic rock radio (home of the Eagles catalog and five played-to-death Zeppelin songs), Prince flew under my radar for many years. I believe the first real exposure I had to him came in the form of the Chappelle's Show sketch making fun of his weird personality. Shortly thereafter, I heard Kevin Smith's epic account of briefly working for the diminutive pop star in which every facet of an obvious Napoleon complex came to the fore. Content to let these less-than-flattering portraits make up the entirety of my awareness of His Royal Badness, I never thought twice about him until, on a whim a few years later, I listened to Purple Rain to see what the fuss was about.

By the time that deliriously glorious opening speech, half-cheesy and half-earnest, melted into the crunchy riff of "Let's Go Crazy," I was rewriting my simplistic, uninformed assessment of the man. By the time the album came to a close on its anthemic title track, I was a fan.

Moving deeper into Prince's discography, I found a series of albums that could drive the careers of several pop stars. Not only was he damn good, he was prolific. During his gold run through all of the '80s and the first part of the '90s, he put out double albums the way some release singles, and damn near everything he touched turned to gold. Sure, Diamonds & Pearls and Around the World in a Day weren't masterpieces, but he had four classics in the '80s alone and another two or three in the '90s.

For me, Prince is by some degree the most notable mainstream musician of the '80s. Every decade has one defining pop star, and the all tend to follow a pattern. The stars who send the fans wildest tend to be the ones to unlock the most inhibited sexuality. Elvis' gyrating hips gave way to the more socially rebellious Beatles, whose long hair perhaps informed David Bowie's androgyny, which in turn undeniably influenced Prince's full-on embrace of sexuality. Prince has a bit of all of them to his act, from Elvis' dancing to the Beatles' immaculate pop taste to Bowie's experimentation and constant reinvention. The next generation always builds off the previous ones, and Prince threw it all into one dripping stew.

He was sexually liberating, if you use "liberating" in the same sense that the US government did when we invaded Iraq: Prince tore down the infrastructure of sexual propriety and left people to pick up the pieces. His sleaziest material, released at the start of the '80s, epitomizes the post-Stonewall, pre-AIDs state of sex in America: Bowie played at being bisexual, but Prince never disguised being straight. It didn't matter. What he represented was boundless sexual euphoria, in which any form of human contact was sex. He left a clue for his unifying concept of love, lust and art on his second masterpiece, 1999 in the song "Dance, Music, Sex, Romance." It's all the same for Prince, and that energy makes his best work so enduringly fresh and wild.

It was only a matter of time before white Christian America caught wise to what he was doing, and when Tipper Gore heard her child listening to "Darling Nikki" she launched a crusade to protect America's parents from the horrible scenario of having to talk things out with their children. Imagine if she'd overheard "Sister" or "Jack U Off." Amusingly, in the endless debates the PMRC held with rock stars who generally acquitted themselves better than the would-be avatars of taste, those defending the PMRC routinely cited the Rolling Stones as an example of an edgy band from their childhood that wasn't as bad (and therefore it was OK for them to listen to then). Prince broke into the spotlight opening for the Stones on their Tattoo You tour in 1981, where he showed up in bikini bottoms and fishnets and was promptly booed off the stage. Before the PMRC cemented the dichotomy, Prince proved how tired and boring the Stones had become and how he'd come to embody all the roiling sexuality of their early, fierce work. Now it had its true outlet.

At his height, Prince's music aligned with his outrageous live presence: biracial and androgynous, Prince filled his bands with members of both genders and all races, and the music blended race music and white noise like no other. He embodied everything in himself, which is probably why he made so many of his albums practically alone, capable of playing any instrument and too egomanical to suffer anyone's opinion anyway. When he did bring players in, he drilled them as much as any jazzbo: the Revolution and the New Power Generation may not be as talented, but in terms of professionalism I would pit them against any of Zappa's lineups. The regulation and modulation of the band at Prince's every gesture can be heard even on scratchy bootleg audio, bands the size of a P-Funk house party at once loose and taut, capable of snapping to attention at a moment's notice before splintering off into conflicting yet united riffs and beats.

Trying to describe the effect of a great Prince song (especially a live one, as I've assembled a nice collection of bootlegs) can be tricky. After Elvis, Prince is the only male star who can effortlessly embody a Madonna/whore complex. Elvis stopped gyrating and glutting to sing some gospel, and Prince found the spiritual line underneath his sex long before he became a Jehovah's Witness. He finds a religious experience in that split-second after orgasm in which all control is lost and the brain just slacks before snapping back to attention. Every great Prince album builds to that climax then revels in the euphoria until worship and lust become the same thing: either way, you're on your knees.

Where the two previous entries of my Stuff I Like series have entertained me for the totality of their careers and can still be expected to produce quality work, I'm sad to say I can no longer depend on today's subject to rock out. During his heyday, Prince blew everyone out of the water, not just live but in the studio. Sadly, after fighting to break with Warner Bros. throughout the mid-'90s, during which time he pulled such eye-rolling bullshit as changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol and scrawled "Slave" on his face. Once free from the major labels, however, Prince demonstrated that his genius needed a third party to separate the wheat from the chaff. Since 1995's The Gold Experience, Prince has not released a truly great record, though Musicology and Planet Earth are solid and 3121 comes so close to classic status that part of its maddening, alluring tease is that it never quite reaches that level. Furthermore, for all the forward-thinking techno savvy of his records, Prince has proven to be something of a curmudgeon regarding the Internet, first attempting to break ground with a pioneering Web-based distribution service and perhaps growing bitter from the backlash he received over the disastrous results. Recently, he's hired representatives to troll the Internet ripping down all photos and videos of himself by claiming copyright, which stands as one of the most boneheaded artistic decisions ever made: it's as if he feels we collectively missed our chance to appreciate him so he won't let us figure it out now.

Nevertheless, the man still tears it up on stage, even if it may or may not be true he needs a double hip replacement and he no longer swears or slinks around like an animal in heat. Prince fought hard to be the next Hendrix, and he had the chops to pull it off. But it never quite materialized: people got tired of him before he got his dues or he let his image overshadow his considerable music skills. Either way, it's a damn shame one of the few great mainstream acts of the '80s got discarded when people pretended that decade never happened. Prince's recent efforts to concentrate on his guitar-playing abilities and live presence have reminded people of what a dynamic performer he is, though little in the way of studio gold has come from his efforts. Perhaps some day soon he can let loose again, not inhibiting his funk for the sake of Jehovah. But even if he doesn't, he'll still be one of the greatest showmen who ever lived, and the most underappreciated giant of late-20th century pop. It may be in the past now, but sometimes you just have to party like it's 1999.

Top Five Albums

1. Sign 'O' The Times

The spiritual successor to David Bowie's Station to Station, Sign 'O' The Times is apocalyptic robo-funk that only just manages to stay one desperate step ahead of the doom it portends throughout. Stripped of the Revolution, Prince returns to his one-man band ways, not just slinging the axe but laying down stiff but funky keyboard riffs as only he can. When he does invite the players back to help him out, he successfully condenses the manic energy of his stage show to the studio, from the rave-up "Housequake" to the actual live cut "It's Gonna Be a Beautiful Night." The album is certainly disjointed, and it's strange to think this double album is actually the focused condensation of the planned triple album Crystal Ball. Where else could a song about AIDs, the Challenger explosion and nuclear war rub up against a tune as joyous and bizarre as "Starfish and Coffee"? But it's all unified by a common idea: we could die any second, so dance and fuck until so you can go happy. W.H. Auden later rejected the idea behind one of his most loved poems, "September 1, 939" and wanted to change its most famous line, "We must love one another or die" to "We must love one another and die." The latter informs the mindset of Prince's greatest masterpiece. Question: anybody know about the quake?

2. Dirty Mind

After his eponymous second album yielded the disco leftover hit "I Wanna Be Your Lover," Prince had enough of a foothold to do a proper album but still needed to prove himself. The result was a scuzzy masterpiece, an icy-hot combination of over-processed but under-played digital noise and sultry analog funk. Sweat practically rolls out of your speakers when you play Dirty Mind. The stylistic evolution from the previous album is immense, introducing a number of hallmarks of Prince's sound (New Wave funk, poppy punk rock and burnin' hard rock) while still leaving space for all the exploration Prince would do over the next decade. The twin attack of "Head" and "Sister" are so tasteless they burn the buds off your tongue, but that just prepares you for what will come down the pipe in years to come.

3. Purple Rain

It's strange to think how much tinkering Prince did with the track listing, ordering and even individual track lengths for this album considering how the final product is so cohesive it sounds as if always planned to be one giant party song. (Having heard it, I do wish the full version of "Computer Blue" might have made the cut, though with an old vinyl another one of the record's perfect cuts would have had to be sacrificed.) From the fiery guitar work of "Let's Go Crazy" to the pleading "I Would Die 4 U" bleeding into the triumphant ode-to-self "Baby I'm a Star," Purple Rain covers so much ground but spotting the breaks not only between songs but during them is a near impossibility. If you're not a fan by the time the guitar solo in the closing track morphs into a sing-along, you have no soul.

4. 1999

Dirty Mind was Prince's first masterpiece, but 1999 is his first truly definitive album, collecting the steamy, hissing, cum-drenched funk of Dirty Mind and mixing it deftly with the confrontational but awkward politics of Controversy. Prince works best when he uses politics as nothing more than the reason to keep dancing, and this is the first of his attempts to dance his way through the End of Days. The first LP in the double album is perfection, the title track giving way to the mega-hit "Little Red Corvette" (to date, the best musical metaphor for a vagina) and the aptly named "Delirious," which digitizes rockabilly and proves Elvis rubbed off on Prince in the most unexpected ways. On side two are the terse manifesto "D.M.S.R." and the half-gorgeous, half-filthy "Let's Pretend We're Married," with a catchy chorus and verses that actually seem least dirty when the word "fuck" is used; at least it's more direct than the mental images Prince conjures elsewhere. The second record doesn't reach the same heights, but once again the tracks are all great. The anti-hispter "All the Critics Love U in New York" and claustrophobic "Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)" still bite, while the elegiac "Free" is as rousing as any of Prince's finest gentle anthems -- think "The Cross" and "Purple Rain." Proof Prince could do quantity and quality at the same time.

5. The Love Symbol Album

These days, seeing 18 tracks on a Prince album would fill me with dread, as I would anticipate the artist's lack of self-restraint and quality control. But the Love Symbol Album, announcing Prince's change of name and serving as the precursor to his open warfare with his label, carries the same quality/quantity mix as Prince's finest overstuffed '80s efforts. Prince dabbles in hip-hop for the first time (on a record he actually released, anyway) on the opening "My Name is Prince," which distills the self-aggrandizing nature of rap into a fine gin. "Sexy M.F." plays like a sultry, vulgar bit of lounge jazz. "The Morning Papers" is one of Prince's finest (and most neglected) love songs, and the Biblical "7" offers one of his most appealing visions of a heaven on Earth. The album's half-executed conception as a "soap opera" hinders the cohesiveness of the whole, but when the annoying segues drop out of the picture, the incredibly varied styles work together as well as the impossible contradictions of Sign 'O' The Times.

HM: The Black Album

Originally slated to be the follow-up to Sign 'O' The Times, The Black Album wound up in that massive vault of unreleased Prince goodies just before release when the artist had a vision of the record containing a great evil. For a record to scare Prince at the height of his powers speaks to the impact of the tunes, and The Black Album does not disappoint. Sandwiched between two of Prince's solo efforts, The Black Album is perhaps Prince's most straightforward band album, 8 slices of hardcore funk that can compete with Dirty Mind for sheer partyup bump-'n-grime. The experimentation with hip-hop precedes Love Symbol Album by four years. "Bob George" viciously attacks the glorification of violence creeping into mainstream black music to Prince's chagrin, while "Rockhard in a Funky Place" surfaces from the detritus of the Crystal Ball sessions and is one of the few tracks cut from Sign 'O' The Times to be as good as anything on the final product. Profane, sneering and sinister, The Black Album is also rollicking and primal in manners both joyful and fierce.

Best Bootleg: Den Haag, August 19, 1988

The obvious choice, yes, but this recording of Prince's aftershow in The Hague not only boasts superior audio quality but features the best demonstration of Prince's ability to make even a small nightclub into a space open enough to unleash his talent. The guitar solo of "Just My Imagination," the jazzy organ and early-'70s Miles brass of "Cold Sweat" and the final jam "Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic" are explosive, tailored to the switch from stadium to club but also transcendent of time and space. "Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic" may be the shortest 20-minute jam ever performed, free-flowing enough to alternate between instrumental showcases and driving grooves but always focused to prevent the more beleaguering aspects of excess. God I wish Prince would release some of these things as live albums. He and Springsteen just sit on gold mines.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

A Moment of Innocence

When he was 17 years old, a radicalized, anti-Shah Mohsen Makhmalbaf stabbed a police officer in order to get the man's gun. In the ensuing struggle, Makhmalbaf was shot and arrested and sent to prison, where he could have expected to stay had the revolution in which he participated not succeeded a few years later. During his incarceration, Makhmalbaf used his time to educate himself and turn away from politics to art. In effect, were it not for jail, Makhmalbaf might not have turned to film, or he might have focused more on direct polemics instead of the more artistic and humanistic side of cinema.

Ergo, the self-reflexivity of his 1996 film A Moment of Innocence takes on a more personal note than the usual film-about-film structure. Makhmalbaf is not only making a film about the process of making a film, he's doing so for a film that tells the story, essentially, of how he came to cinema. It also serves as a means of atonement, for the project arises when the policeman he stabbed, now 20 years older and retired, comes to the director's home asking to be an actor.

Announcing the reflexive nature of the film are the opening credits, written on a clapperboard and read aloud by the loader as if setting up each take. Makhmalbaf holds auditions for the young version of himself while the assistant director, Zinal, works with the policeman to help cast his own doppelgänger. Makhmalbaf finds his actor quickly, collecting a group of young men and grilling them on their politics until he finds one who displays the same rebellious streak he himself displayed as a young man. The ex-cop, meanwhile, arranges his potential actors in what looks like a police lineup, merely searching for the one who looks most like him. Wryly, Makhmalbaf illustrates the different mindsets between the artist and someone used to being the audience. How many times have people praised a biopic performance because the lead looks just like the film's subject? Hilariously, though Makhmalbaf wants to set things right by letting the policeman tell his story, as an artist he cannot abide such a simplistic means of cast selection and insists upon an actor who aligns with the cop emotionally, not physically.

This action inflames the tension between the cop and the man who stabbed him, and the policeman stomps off to return to his hometown in Orumieh as Zinal chases after him. By this point, it has become clear that we were not merely watching footage of the audition process but that this is the movie. The fact that a camera monitors Zinal and the cop walking at all makes for an obvious clue, but just to hammer home the point, Makhmalbaf uses audio so crisp it sounds no different than the material he got in the studio where he held auditions. At last, Zinal convinces the policeman that he can coach the young actor chosen by the director to faithfully relate what happened to him, and the cop takes the kid under his wing to immerse the boy in his memories.

A Moment of Innocence is primarily concerned with memory and perspective. The policeman remembers every detail of the incident, as it has haunted him for 20 years. He wants the young actor to understand everything about who he was and how he felt to ensure his story gets told accurately. The policeman instructs the actor playing him on proper officer decorum, the surrounding area of his old post and the emotional process of falling in love with a woman to whom he wanted to give a flower before Makhmalbaf stabbed him and the man never saw her again. He works from deeply ingrained memory.

Makhmalbaf, meanwhile, admits to having scattered memories of the event, having changed so much in the intervening time. He knows only what happened and the basics of why he did what he did. His approach to the actor playing himself is simply to address the young man as if he were the young Mohsen, never breaking even as he offers advice and instructions. Unable to remember the event clearly himself, he molds the actor into himself in the hopes of unlocking that mindset he abandoned 20 years ago.

By committing so fully to blurring the line between himself and the actor, Makhmalbaf blends his desire to set things right and to link his past to his present, which he of course must do through cinema. A Moment of Innocence not only references itself throughout, it also incorporates all of cinema into its structure. The Iranian humor of people always getting lost on their way to destinations can be seen at the start, as the cop first comes to the wrong house, then arrives at Makhmalbaf's with only his child daughter home. Later, the policeman takes the young policeman to the tailor who used to make his uniforms, and the old man lights up when he finds out they're making a movie. He remembers all the Western movies he watched back when the shah was in power, gushing over Kirk Douglas and John Ford movies. He even made costumes for actors. The film itself recalls the self-reflexive nature of Abbas Kiarostami's Close-Up, which directly involved Makhmalbaf as the director impersonated by a film-loving con man. Kiarostami's movie dealt with the way art can save people; A Moment of Innocence shows how it can also make them forget what they needed saving from.

The pull of cinema appears to suck in those who might not even want to be in the film. As the policeman wistfully remembers the woman he thinks about daily, Makhmalbaf reveals to his doppelgänger that the woman was not only his cousin but accomplice in securing the cop's firearm. They travel to the cousin's house, but she does not want to be in the film, ashamed of her radical past. Makhmalbaf asks to use her daughter as her younger self, but the woman wants nothing to do with the film. The daughter, however, walks out to give tea to the young man, who politely refuses (his response that he does not drink tea lining up with the director's own). Suddenly, the girl slips into the role of her mother, and she and the young man start discussing plans to get the cop's gun. Iranian directors make use of non-actors more than anyone since the Italian neorealists, and here it seems as even those who might not want to be in a film cannot fight the universal truth that we are all of us actors.

At only 78 minutes, A Moment of Innocence might seem overstuffed, what with its corkscrewing narrative always falling into a new cycle just when everything seems settled. As the cop instructs the young policeman how he held the flower and told the girl the time when she stole his heart, a girl walks by and innocently asks for the time. Later, we learn that the girl was the one playing the young cousin, and she inadvertently asked the other actor the time without knowing who he was. The policeman, also unaware of all that just happened, is ecstatic. "It happened just like that!" he enthuses. When the time comes to film the scene, however, the policeman has learned of the real woman's connection to Mohsen, and when the young actress walks up and asks the time, the old man leaps out and asks if she is with young Makhmalbaf. When she confirms this, he flies into a rage, conflating the actress playing the woman with the actual woman and interpreting her response as confirmation from the "horse's mouth" that she was always in league with the man who sent him adrift for two decades. In his fury, he tells the young man to change events, to draw his gun and shoot the woman when she approaches as if killing her in a film might send him back in time to avoid 20 years of pain.

Amazingly, such dense developments do not break the film's slim running length. Makhmalbaf finds ways of always maintaining interest, and he even draws narrative suspense from the behind-the-scenes structure. A funeral passes by the policeman, young cop and Zinal and the two old men walk with it to pay respects. The young man also tags along, setting down the flower. When he returns, the plant is gone, and his frantic tear down the alleyways looking for the person who took it carries a hefty suspense considering the puny flower is transparently just a prop.

With its conflicting perspectives fleshing out both sides of the story but muddying a clear progression of events, A Moment of Innocence recalls Rashomon, but instead of both characters trying to absolve themselves they want merely to make the other understand how he felt. Slowly, the actors begin to exhibit not the feelings of the director and cop's younger selves but of their current mindsets. Mohsen needs the young man to reflect his old radical hostility, while the cop, for all his lingering anger, still wants to know what would have happened if he could have asked that girl out. But the young cop wavers between the flower and the gun, as torn as the actual policeman, while the young Makhmalbaf suddenly breaks down when rehearsing the stabbing, sobbing that he cannot kill a man and that surely he could save the impoverished people of Iran some other way.

The film culminates in the shooting of the incident that defined both men's lives, but as the tension mounts from close-ups of the young cop's hand on his pistol grip and a piece of bread draped over the knife in young Mohsen's hand, something remarkable happens. At the last second, both actors change their minds, the cop handing the girl the flower instead of shooting and the young Mohsen handing out the bread instead of the knife. The film freezes on the symbolic image, and the improvised action by the two young men displays the true desires of the actual people involved and visualizes an atonement for past and present anger. It may be the most powerful freeze-frame I've seen in a film, beating out even the finale of Close-Up, in which Makhmalbaf helped facilitate another reconciliation. Not only does the image make peace between the two men, it unites the people of Iran, pro- and anti-shah, in nonviolent, empathetic terms. It is a unifying vision of the Iranian people beyond politics and nationalistic identity. No wonder the country's government banned it.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Capsule Reviews: Alice in Wonderland (1951), Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs

Alice in Wonderland

The animated Alice in Wonderland does not represent Disney's storytelling peak. Even for a movie that takes two surrealist books and hacks up what limited context existed between them, Alice in Wonderland is thin. A series of half-connected vignettes that always seem to be building toward a story that never comes, the film at least uses its nonsensical threads as an excuse for experimenting with animation forms, and the overcrowded staff of highly talented but disparate animators certainly used one of Walt Disney's dearest projects to let loose. It's certainly a beautiful film, especially in Disney's restored Blu-Ray, which lets Mary Blair's striking background colors pop even more, but animator Ward Kimball (one of the Nine Old Men) had a point when he brought up too many cooks being in the kitchen.

Nevertheless, the film is one of Disney's most sumptuous visual feasts, behind only a handful of arguable contenders, and the loopy comedy floats the movie when it sags even at its spare running length. In some ways, the film is ahead of its time, if only because its gentle surrealism made it perfect for the love generation about 15 years later. Seen today, it's more worthy of artistic admiration than actual enjoyment, though it is by no means a bad film; it would probably just miss my own ranking of the top 10 Disney animated films. At the same time, I only ever process it as a whole and can barely retain anything that happens, remembering only the bold colors, the crashing noises and overwhelming contradiction of it all. But I don't tend to remember much about my dreams, either.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs

Having never even heard of the children's book upon which the film was based, an unappealing trailer failed to grab my attention when Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs neared its theatrical release. Even when I started to hear positive reviews in the press and among friends, I never got around to watching it, and when I saw the Blu-Ray on sale the other day I finally decided to give it a whirl. It was fantastic.

The same simplistic premise that failed to grab my attention in the first place -- a wannabe inventor who strikes it big with a device that makes food rain from the sky -- turns out to be its biggest strength. It latches on themes of father/son relationships, feeling unaccepted and the desire to prove oneself, but the film never sags even though its dense 90 minutes covers some surprising story turns and an admirable depth of character. It is also hilarious, from a monkey fitted with a thought translator serving as the protagonist's companion and assistant (voiced by Neil Patrick Harris, no less, who shouts one-line non-sequiturs) to a sly bit of satire in the form of a Guatemalan weather cameraman revealed to be a doctor and pilot who came to America looking for a better life only to do menial labor.

And the visuals. Dear God is this film gorgeous. Sony Pictures Animation previously struggled with finding an aesthetic, first going the Dreamworks route with the cartoony but bland Open Season before using more realistic character and background animation à la Pixar. Here the animators have found their niche, using expressive and interpretive character rendering without resorting to the sloppiness of Open Season. The color palettes are dazzling, fuchsia clouds sparkling with cobalt lightning as they dump burgers and ice cream onto a small, economically devastated island. Character animation looks believably human but makes the necessary adjustments to avoid plunging in the uncanny valley, from Flint's sloping nose to the ingenious face of his father, bushy unibrow covering eyes and like mustache obscuring mouth.

I would say that the film forces some of its points, but I rarely have the inclination to take a children's film to task for its childish moments, especially not when so many other areas are grown up. I have a special fondness for the scene where the love interest is acknowledged to be more attractive and true to herself by, in a reverse Pygmalion, putting her glasses back on and pulling her hair back up into a ponytail (and seriously, who decided that ponytails were not, like, the sexiest thing ever in all those "let your hair down" movies?). One of the most charming films I've seen in some time.


In most circumstances, the narrative of Leila -- a couple unable to conceive dealing with the incessant interference of nosy relatives -- would make for domestic satire, a send-up of people always finding astonishing ways to pole vault over taste. In Dariush Mehrjui's hands, though, it becomes something altogether more devastating, a demonstration of social mores restricting Iranians, even when the government is nowhere to be seen.

We meet Leila (Leia Hatami) in a brief flashback as she recounts meeting her future husband: over graceful shots, Leila helps thicken a cauldron of pudding by adding spices and sauces to a white liquid until a yellow paste forms and is spooned out into bowls. As the gathered people eat, Leila notices a man at another table. Three months later, she and the man, Reza (Ali Mosaffa), have married and act like high school sweethearts. Reza delights in making Leila laugh and brings home absurd gifts such as a gigantic stuffed animal to amuse her. He always succeeds. With only a handful of scenes, Mehrjui communicates their deep love for one another and gives the audience a relationship rare even in Western movies.

On her birthday, however, Leila learns she is infertile, and at the birthday party Reza's family throws for her, open hints are dropped as to the family's desire for a child. The mother (Jamileh Sheikhi) even walks into a medium-close-up and addresses the camera directly as she speaks of how much she wants her son, her only male child, to have a son. On the way home, Leila broaches the subject of not being able to have children with Reza, laughing as she does so to make the question as innocent as possible. Reza says he would love that, as he does not want kids.

Then, they head to the doctor for official results, and the laughter that rolled out of them dies in the throat as Leila sits numbly as the doctor calmly and clinically describes the couple's inability to have children. As the words wash over Leila, the soundtrack dampens as if submerged underwater, sounds dully thumping against her dumbstruck face. Mehrjui cuts to the couple back home after the two have told some relatives, and for the rest of the film, the phone rings. Mothers, uncles, siblings, everyone calls up to offer advice or inquire about eggs and sperm. The sexual potency of family trees are also defended. The horrifying invasion of privacy is hilarious at first, the sheer effrontery of it making every joke about pushy Catholic or Jewish families meaningless in the face of these Muslim families.

Reza does not care about his wife's infertility, but his mother will not accept her son not producing an heir, and Leila begins a series of tests and treatments to try to find some way to conceive, despite the fact neither she nor Reza particularly wants a child. After teasing the audience with a vision of a modern couple living in Iran, tradition breaks through, and what might have been humorous morphs into a heartbreaking horror film of the insurmountable crush of ingrained codes of conduct.

Few sounds are as completely annoying as the ring of a European-style telephone, but in no time at all I decided I'd rather hear it ring eternally than for Leila or Reza to answer it and let relatives torment them further. Both Leila and Reza know full-well what every phone call will bring, and each tells the other not to answer. And yet, they answer. Every time. It's like a damn Buñuel film: some force compels them to answer the phone, to invite the abuse and to never tell anyone to shove it.

And no one interferes like Reza's mother. She is not the first, nor shall she be the last, character I have wanted to reach through the screen and slap. But that's far too gentle a punishment for someone like her. Sporting giant, bug-eyed glasses on a flattened face, the mother resembles an aged Mafia don, a figure who exudes deadly, irrefutable authority. To say she acts like a royal bitch over her sister-in-law would be akin to saying Stalin "didn't play well with others." Laying on the guilt, the mother attacks Leila with the full force of Iranian tradition, speaking in gentle tones but making her manipulative insults plain as day. She conveys that same subtle obviousness, that abstract bluntness, that normally makes Iranian cinema so joyous, layered and humanist. Here, that power is used for evil. In one scene, the mother brings over a necklace as a gift, but the exchange feels stilted, and the jewelry comes with a price: she wants Leila to step aside and allow Reza to take a second wife.

Remarkably, Leila internalizes this idea. The mother bats away any protest about Reza's own wishes and twists them around to throw back at Leila. Oh, he said he didn't want any children? Well that's only because he did not want to hurt your feelings, of course! The Machiavellian ploy succeeds: not only does Leila retroactively adjust the meaning of her husband's tender reassurances, she then starts interpreting every new statement from her husband as further proof that she must allow him to find a wife who can bear him a child. Reza, baffled, attempts to make her see reason, not going to tell his mother to shove it because he can't. Mehrjui does not simplify Reza by making him a spineless momma's boy who clicks his heels together when his mother beckons, but he finds himself as helpless as Leila to the old crone's powers. Instead, he vents his frustration with his wife for not standing up for herself, though he's just as guilty.

Over time, the two grow set in their desperate attempts to make the other happy. They simply disagree on what that happiness entails: Leila believes Reza wants a child and thus encourages him to take another wife. Reza just wants Leila to say "stop" so he can cease pursuing new brides. Both have the power to end this, yet both carry on.

Part of the mounting horror of the couple's situation comes from those who pressure them into fragmenting. Reza comes from wealth: his family lives in a multi-level house with modern amenities and gadgets. But it is they, not Leila's loving and more accepting middle-class relatives, who follow in the strictness of tradition. Having watched this film so closely on the heels of Crimson Gold, which culminates in a bravura sequence in a rich man's lavish apartment, I could not help but think how, despite the issues Iranian filmmakers have simply getting their films played at home, much less abroad (though in many cases this is easier than domestic distribution), some target a Western-thinking audience. It would be so nice to see the more Westernized Iranians holding aloft the beacon for social, not just technological, progression, that the inevitable fall of the theocracy in favor of commerce would also bring social liberation. But the problem is too complicated for such simplistic hopes, and whether it's the playboy misogynistically ranting about what he thinks is period blood on his bathroom tiles or a manipulative matriarch enforcing ancient codes of filial succession, the rich and more educated do not hold the keys to deliverance.

But let me back up. It would not be fair to blame the whole of Reza's family, but those who protest hold their tongues until they can slip away from the matriarch. The father reminded me of Jim Backus in Rebel Without a Cause, a henpecked weakling who sits by feebly as the mother domineers. But the father here has a moment to shine in a brief but powerful conversation with his son in a car. Away from his wife, the dad reveals the wisdom behind his silence, and he tells his son directly to go home and stop this foolishness and to stop blaming Leila for being warped by the mother. Meanwhile, Reza's sisters, who head out looking like the witches in Macbeth (if, instead of speaking in vague portents, they spoke in REAL TALK) and sit Leila down and try to talk sense into her. They lambaste their mother and even take Reza to task for not silencing the old woman and essentially tell Leila to grow a spine.

The two love each other, and that love is so strong that, when twisted only slightly, spirals out of control until the desire to please the other leads to the relationship's destruction. At times, their original, tender love bleeds through, such as the scenes of Reza driving out to meet a potential second wife. Leila accompanies him to each one, getting out of the car and walking around a park as Reza goes on a date. It is a maddening sight we endure over and over, but when Reza returns, he describes each date by honing in on faults and tics, making each person into an absurd caricature, and Leila laughs wildly just like she used to do. One time, Leila notes a potential wife's father is an army colonel, and Reza spins it into a joke about how the woman is actually the colonel and the two start speculating as to what deformities she might have picked up in battle, from artificial limbs to gold teeth. The scene says more about the pair's undying affection than a thousand "I love yous." Earlier in the movie, when Leila discovered her infertility, she quietly asks Reza what he wants to do. With a casual tone, he says “We could stay home, whip up something to eat, moon over each other...then maybe watch a movie?" God, I wanted so badly for a film without true conflict. Leila and Reza could stand as proof of a couple that is not only interesting when happy but engrossing, and to see them suffer under the intangible but crushing weight of social expectation breaks my heart.

The performances are uniformly excellent. Hatami and Mossafa have such an effortless chemistry that one can only respond to the news they married a few years after making the movie with "Of course." Hatami, who got her major breakthrough with the film, is magnetic, and not just because she's one of the most beautiful women I've ever seen. She's capable of owning the film after her character completely changes and mires herself in a situation that could invite audience scorn. With a less talented actress, the crowd might have turned on the film, but Hatami modulates the character's progression, making her ossifying emotions believable and heartbreaking. Hatami reminds me of Amy Acker, not only in a surprising physical resemblance but in acting styles: Hatami isn't playing Leila, isn't going through some motions to boost her profile. That she shares her name with her character clues us in, but she simply is Leila. She finds the basic emotional purity in complicated narrative progression and wrings gulfs of meaning from the simplest actions.

Hatami carries the film, but the supporting players do their part. Sheikhi is one of the great understated villains, capable of destroying opposition through mere suggestion. I half-expected her to throw an arm around Cassio and proclaim reassuringly "'Tis a night of revels!" in-between her protracted warfare on Leila. Also memorable was Mohamed Sharifinia as Leila's uncle, a boisterous, overconfident but lovable goof whose constant butting in belies the strategy behind his intrusion: he makes the situation about himself to distract the constant scrutiny from Leila and Reza. He, like everyone else in the film, is a person, not a character written to be the quirky comic relief.

While I will not reveal exactly what happens at the end, I cannot hold back the immense sadness I felt when Leila stopped. Iranian film, by virtue of the travails inflicted upon it by repressive government authority, carries innate political qualities, or maybe that's just the expectation. At the start of the film, Leila and Reza were such a pure couple that I not only wished them happiness but projected onto them a hope for Iran's future. Then the world collapses on them, and the social implications fall to the wayside to make room for the full horror of a loving couple unwittingly imploding through the warped displays of that love. Whatever deeper meanings lie within the film, Leila works directly, the acting and the inevitability of the direction and pacing suffocating the initial burst of joy until it turns purple and goes limp. It makes the confused commitment of Breaking the Waves seem childish in comparison.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Announcement: Cinelogue Contributing

Good news everyone! I have been invited to be a contributing writer to an upstart online publication called Cinelogue. Begun last April, Cinelogue already has a crop of excellent writers, and I'm thrilled to have the chance to write with others. More importantly, I at last have an editor. Be still my beating heart. Let us all observe a moment of silence for the poor soul (or souls, as this may be a group effort) left to organize my ramblings. They've asked me for contributions, but don't let that dissuade you: it really is a quality site.

The editor, Mark Mesaros, was kind of enough to say I could cross-post anything I wrote for the site here, but I'd prefer simply to link to their site. Without wishing to seem presumptuous, I'd like to send traffic their way if at all possible. I will still post exclusive content here routinely, and I hope to be back up to my normal production levels soon. My first post is -- oh for the love of God, yet another piece on The Social Network, that little-known film that obviously needs my constant critical support. This time, the focus is on Fincher's development of key themes through mise-en-scène, from the use of the Old North Church in the idea of creation myths to the use of Harvard buildings to illustrate clashing modernity and tradition. I had been working on the piece for about a month, looking into some of the landmarks used and, frankly, getting distracted by other things. But I'm glad to finish it and thrilled to see it on a proper website, and I'll have more content for them soon.

So thanks again to everyone at Cinelogue, and I can't wait to start contributing in full.

(I'd also like to thank Carson Lund of Are the Hills Going to March Off? for recommending me to Mark. I've been a fan of Carson's for a while and I deeply appreciate the vote of confidence.)

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Naked Kiss

After working in the studio system throughout the 50s and scoring a few hits along the way, Samuel Fuller realized his interests and methods were becoming increasingly incompatible with the conservative, audience-wary executives and elected to align his independent style of filmmaking with an independent style of financing. Together with Shock Corridor, The Naked Kiss marked Fuller's move to small-scale studios and microscopic budgets. Fuller's films always looked as if he made them without much money, but he at least had a pick of some well-known stars and could make a color film or two. Now, he was back to black-and-white and unknowns.

Necessity, though, is the mother of invention, and the stylistic choices Fuller made to sidestep the budget shortcomings led to some of the most impressive direction of his career. A combination of Sirkian melodrama and lascivious noir, The Naked Kiss contains sequences wholly removed from the pulpy realism of the director's early work, even as it still bears his instantly identifiable stamp.

The Naked Kiss opens in a bewildering sequence that alternates POV close-ups with third-person medium shots in a frenzy. We don't even know who these characters are, what they do or why the woman is beating the man with her shoe. When the man grabs her hair and yanks, it all comes off, revealing her to be completely bald. Damn it, Sam, it was weird enough as it was. The woman beats the drunkard unconscious and takes out a wad of cash from his pocket, only keeping "the $75 I got comin' to me." She grabs her wig, straightens it out and the frame freezes to throw up the title. Who the hell couldn't love Sam Fuller?

When the action resumes, we follow the woman, Kelly (Constance Towers) to a small town called Grantville as she leaves the city looking to start over. The local sheriff, Griff, spots her and seems to know her true profession before she says a word, though she plays at being a traveling champagne saleswoman. Griff knows the deal: buy the champagne for $10, and for another $10 you can have the dame to go with it. He takes Kelly back to his place and enjoys her services, then informs her to take her business across state lines. "“If I let you set up shop in this neighborhood," he says, "the people would chop me like a ripe banana.” Griff recommends she get a gig at a bordello across the river disguised as a farcical candy shop. Why, he can even put the good word in, as he's a friend of the madam, Candy, and, it seems, a frequent guest.

Disgusted by the rank hypocrisy and looking for a change of pace anyway, Kelly decides to stay in town and get work as a nurse's aid at a children's hospital caring for handicapped kids. I suppose Fuller had to go out of his way to out-blunt the overused and unsubtle Madonna/whore dichotomy. As we learn late in the film, Kelly cannot have children of her own, and Fuller peppers the film with clear indications of her maternal desire, from the baby carriage visibly in the lower third of the screen as Griff pulls her aside in a park in their first meeting to the smiling faces of the crutch-ridden children who look to her for help and support. She proves a fine nurse, and the head of the ward, Mac (Patsy Kelly, who speaks as if, with every line, she considered using a Scottish accent but said "fuck it" halfway through) sings her praises to Griff, who can barely contain his fury. He accuses Kelly of using the hospital as a front, but she insists she's making a change.

Fuller's wit runs through the film: when Kelly finds a place to live, the landlady tours her through the room and proudly shows of the bed, which Kelly admires. "Do you realize we spend about a third of our lives in bed?" the old woman asks innocently, and the smile freezes on Kelly's face as a light sigh hisses out of her. The landlady also has a creepy, headless dresser's dummy upon which she has fastened a shrine to her late suitor Charlie, who died in WWII and never came home to marry her (the helmet on top of the mannequin has the insignia of the Big Red One on it, the division in which Fuller served). The woman kindly offers to take the thing out of the room, presumably to prevent horrible nightmares, but Kelly doesn't mind and jokes that she'll have someone to talk to. The landlady says that Charlie will always agree with her, with a chuckle that conveys a cracked madness.

Eventually, Kelly finds herself in the mansion of the man who gave the town its namesake, J.L. Grant (Michael Dante). When she arrives, he's returned from Europe and brings gifts for all his friends. Though he did not know of Kelly being invited, Grant has a spare for her, a trinket from Venice, which lights up her eyes. Grant looks like a vampiric Garry Shandling, and his spacious, ornate home feels drafty and frigid. He takes a shine to Kelly, his flattery conveying a predatory mood. "Intellect is seldom a feature of physical beauty," he says when Kelly mentions Byron, "and that makes you a remarkable woman."

Fuller moves between cynicism and unabashed sentimentality so rapidly that the two bleed into each other without clear separation. At the hospital, Kelly can be stern with the children to make them do their exercises, but we also get to see her ad-libbing a story about the children learning to walk again, leading to a dreamlike sequence showing the kids running outside without crutches or braces. Kelly's courtship with Grant is even more stylized: Grant shows Kelly silent video from Venice, and the sofa on which they sit slowly sinks into an abyss surrounded by infinite black as the setting switches back and forth from the Venice seen in the film reels and the sofa. To enhance the mood further, falling leaves drift into both places. These dips into full on cinematic expression show Fuller fully embracing his skills. He even inserts some self-reflexivity: playing at the theater when Kelly rides into town is Shock Corridor, and the book she reads is Fuller's own pulp novel The Black Page.

The more daring aesthetic informs the greater effrontery of the narrative. By this point, Fuller had put his deliberately unsubtle, aggressive writing to issues of American imperialism, racism, Communism and more. Here, he travels into the seedy underbelly of quaint small-town life, predating David Lynch by nearly two decades. Buff, another nurse in the children's ward and Griff's unofficial child after she lost her father in Korea, can no longer bear the sight of kids struggling and considers working as a Bonbon. Candy even gave her a loan as a sort-of default payment. Kelly literally slaps some sense into the girl, who defiantly says she can make major money at the shop. “You’ll hate yourself," Kelly intones, as much to the audience as Buff, "because you’ll become a social problem, a medical problem, a mental problem, and a despicable failure as a woman.” Afterward, Kelly takes the $25 Candy used to buy Buff and shoves it in the madam's mouth. It takes a prostitute to take down another, apparently, as Griff certainly isn't rallying troopers across state lines to bust the place.

And Griff's hypocrisy at the start is nothing compared to the truth behind Grant: Kelly returns to his mansion to show him the wedding dress she bought for their wedding, only to find him with a little girl. Fuller avoids displaying anything lascivious but makes the intent all too clear. Grant collapses at Kelly's feet, begging her to marry him. "You understand my sickness. You've been conditioned to people like me," he says with wild eyes. But not even the prostitute can stomach this, and Kelly grabs a phone receiver and strikes Grant dead. Instantly, the world collapses around her as Griff assembles old enemies from Kelly's dirty past and a vengeful Candy brings in all new foes to keep her in jail.

Though it does not attain the same fever pitch as Shock Corridor's maniacal build-up, the climax of The Naked Kiss brings out the fury of Fuller's aesthetic and writing. The man Kelly beat at the start returns and is revealed to be her pimp and the man who shaved her head, but Griff accepts his excuse that she stole from him. Candy breaks Buff into lying about Kelly's attempt to help her and finds a few more character assassins. Fuller clarifies an earlier moment of hesitation that crossed Kelly's face when Grant kissed her and also explains why he chose his title: Grant gave her "the naked kiss," the sort of liplock that communicates when a man is a pervert. She recognized it instantly but still allowed herself to hope, to aim for the idyllic lifestyle she sees around her despite the ironies piling up before the audience.

Even when Griff finally sees reason and finds the girl who can exonerate Kelly, Fuller does not relent. Griff, having bought Kelly's explanation when Buff later confesses in private, urges Kelly to coax an alibi from the scared girl, even to manipulate the child. At last exonerated, Kelly emerges to find a crowd assembled to praise her, but they look as if they'd gathered earlier that day as a lynch mob and only just learned the truth before Kelly came outside. They spin from outrage to adoration on a dime, and while Kelly desperately seeks their approval, she must also understand how meaningless that approval is.

It's a devastating indictment and goes some way toward explaining why the director, artistically liberated, all too soon found himself without work. After The Naked Kiss, Fuller would only make one theatrical film (Shark!, which he disowned) and spend the rest of his time in television until he rebounded with his most personal yet epic film, The Big Red One. The Naked Kiss may not be the strongest film in the director's canon, but no other movie so nakedly displays his contradictory, meaty, throat-grabbing style in such overwhelming force. No wonder the industry retreated from him after this.

Crimson Gold

[This post was written for Sheila O'Malley's Iranian film blogathon running Feb. 21-27. I encourage all to participate. More details here.]

Crimson Gold opens on a static shot in darkness as a scuffle is heard over the soundtrack. The black of the title card gives way to an undulating, impenetrable molasses eventually revealed to be a man pressed up against the camera. His attacker pulls him back, revealing a giant, shadowed man holding an old jeweler as he demands the key to the safe. The thief drags the man out of frame, but the camera does not follow, now looking outside the door as an accomplice stares uncertainly and a potential customer obliviously pulls up and walks in, even making conversation before she spots the gun and screams. The distraction allows the jeweler to set off the alarm, trapping the robber inside. In a huff, the man shoots the jeweler and looks outside as a crowd gathers to gawk at the caged animal. At last, the camera begins to zoom in on the man, who turns around to face the camera, backlit by the bright sky outside. Realizing his fate, the man at last turns the gun on himself, the camera at last cutting as the shot rings out.

Only the greatest of artists could dare to place an ending such as this at the beginning, but Crimson Gold bears the input of two of the greatest today: Jafar Panahi and Abbas Kiarostami. Panahi, who got some of his first post-collegiate work as an assistant director under Kiarostami on the latter's Through the Olive Trees, has collaborated with the Iranian master through his career but has his own artistic identity. Where Kiarostami reaches for the bigger target, bypassing national boundaries to make observations on all humanity, Panahi cannot overlook the tangible ills plaguing the society in which he lives. Together, the two bring out the best in each other: Kiarostami's writing channels his understated but razor-sharp wit toward more pointed political satire, while Panahi's direction absorbs some of the poetry inherent even in Kiarostami's scripts.

Like his mentor, Panahi loves shots of vehicles traveling, but where Kiarostami changes up his long-extreme long shots for shot/reverse shot close-ups inside a car, Panahi maintains the same distance throughout (typically a medium long to mild long shot) and moves outside the vehicles. Here, Hussein, the man who robbed the store and shot himself at the start before the film flashed back two days, drives a motorcycle, typically carrying his friend and, later, accomplice Ali. Their conversations are terse, and where Kiarostami normally uses trips to subtly bring out the philosophies and traits of his characters, here he deliberately walls Hussein off, preventing any deeper reading of that blank face or those dead eyes.

The nonprofessional actor playing Hussein, Hossain Emadeddin, is purportedly a paranoid schizophrenic, and while clues are dropped regarding a past in the Iranian military and a need to take pain medication, neither Panahi nor Kiarostami does anything to suggest that the character has the same condition. But the hint of boiling emotion and internal war raging behind the expressionless face complicate the otherwise banal Hussein, which in turn gives his flat line readings an untraceable menace. Of course, the fact that we saw the end of his life first, a darkly comic but ultimately despairing murder-suicide also contributes to the attempt to figure out what made the gentle man snap.

As with so many Kiarostami-penned films, however, Crimson Gold does not settle for easy linearity, even the tangled linearity of a psychological breakdown. Throughout the film, I thought of Kiarostami's The Wind Will Carry Us, in which a director travels to a remote village to film an old woman's death, only for new ideas to arise when she stubbornly continues to live. The piercing wit of that film gives way to a more pointed political examination of modern Iran, albeit one filtered through a humanism that blunts polemics.

Hussein, working as a pizza delivery man, rides his bike around the disjointed metropolis of Tehran, routinely wanders into the wealthy districts to make deliveries, and the juxtaposition of his simple clothing and stark living conditions and the almost Western level of comfort enjoyed by the rich is eye-opening, unmissable yet understated. On the first delivery we see, Hussein buzzes in at an apartment complex, and the man who answers tells Hussein that the elevator is broken and makes him abandon his bike and climb four flights of stairs. Hussein heads up there, and when the customer opens the door we see red-painted walls and candles.

The pizzas cost 18,500 tomans, roughly $18. This well-off man gives him 19,000 and tells him to keep the change. Hussein does not budge. Just as I thought he would strike the man for this infuriating offense, Hussein introduces himself and reveals that he and the man served in the military together. Struck by the realization, the customer gives him a larger tip out of sympathy but clearly wants to avoid anything but the barest discussion with this lumbering man, bloated by cortisone and spare pizza. Even among war buddies, some just get forgotten.

That brief moment conjures a plethora of feelings, from social outrage to frigid comedy to heartbreak, all of which inform the film's most memorable (and long) sequences. The first is a masterpiece of anti-comedy, as Hussein travels to an apartment complex to deliver a stack of pizzas to a party. Just as he reaches the intercom, a policeman walks up and pulls him aside. As it turns out, the police and military are staking out the party and waiting for people to come down. Why they are doing so is never said; the camera stays with Hussein, who is made to go stand aside, unable even to leave because he is now a "witness." For what feels like forever, he stands next to a teenage soldier as people arrive at the apartment and are detained as the police wait for the partygoers to leave so they can be arrested.

Proving the combative, non-submissive nature of the Iranians, everyone protests being pushed around by the police, not a one of them simply following orders. But Panahi does not come down too hard on the cops: Hussein, aware that he will not get to make his delivery, offers the pizza to the police chief, who accepts a slice, then to the rest of the cops. Hussein spends most of his time standing next to a teenage soldier holding a rifle about as tall as he is, nervous with anticipation and fear. He tells Hussein he'll shoot anyone who makes trouble, but he has no clue why he's waiting for rich people to stop carousing and disperse. Panahi pulls back the camera just enough to capture an eerie, pale green glow mingling with soft moonlight. He moves around the alley slowly, taking in the absurdity of the situation and how everyone there is trapped by forces they cannot explain.

Near the end of the film, Hussein makes another delivery, this time to an absurdly lavish apartment. The man who answers the door is huffy, the two women he invited over having left abruptly. They wanted the pizzas, he rants, so why should he pay for them? Hussein barely listens; the camera cuts suddenly to a POV shot of his head whirling around the sights behind the customer's head, the fast tilts and pans relaying the stupefying impact of the marble staircase, Greek statues and other adornments on a man who, only minutes earlier, we'd seen return to an apartment with naught but a minuscule poster dotting a cracked concrete wall.

Guilty for subjecting Hussein to his invective (yet also wanting to keep him around to vent more), the man invites him in to share the pizza and talk. The mult-tiered apartment is an astonishing setpiece, displaying the dominant Western influence among the rich. Hussein stumbles around in a stupor even before he later gets drunk and jumps into the indoor pool, but Panahi does not attack the rich for the extreme disparity between the haves and have-nots: the man, who lived in the West but returned to his parents' pad out of homesickness, is nouveau riche but not condescending toward Hussein. As can be seen with the women, who darted out of the complex in Western clothes, even the rich are restricted by social repression. The man calls the women sluts in his anger, but the clear implication is that they left because he was trying to coax them into a threesome. As is always the case, a sexually repressed society obsesses over sex and its implications far more than a liberal one.

This is but one commentary Panahi makes on the plight of women here. The two films that surround Crimson Gold, The Circle and Offside, directly concern women. Here, Panahi's holistic approach to the clashing forces pulling at Iranians incorporates his gender observations into other facets of shifting yet frustratingly static Iranian lifestyles. During the protracted police stakeout, a married couple returns to the apartment and tries to go back to their place. The police grill them as to what they were doing, and they protest that they were just going out. "What kind of a man goes out with his wife?" asks one cop without a hint of irony, seriously unable to imagine such a scenario.

Even the main characters exhibit sexist views. Ali is a pickpocket who steals women's purses, yet no one seems to care. He even empties one out on a table in a restaurant without anyone raising an eyebrow. Hussein is set to marry Ali's sister, and Ali admits he worried no one would have her. As he rides on Hussein's bike, he tells his friend as they pass ladies, "I look more at the purses than the women" even as he gently tests Hussein's restraint by tempting him to look at other women.

Hussein too seems to bear some of the socially ingrained sexism: he brings his fiancée with him to the jewelry store he will later rob, and when she lifts up her shawl for only a moment to try on a necklace, Hussein's icy demeanor cools even more. He heads to the jewelry shop several times looking to buy her something, yet when she appears with him he scarcely says three words to her. He just wants the condescending old man who runs the place to acknowledge him and uses his fiancée as an excuse to return there.

Panahi's cultural criticism is unique: it is plain and unhidden, be it the difference between the respectful oppression the rich suffer compared to the battered-down doors and shouts the poor endure, the subjugation of women or the influence of the West that appears to have seeped in only in materialistic ways. Yet he also crafts subtle, even poetic ruminations from the obviousness of his targets, and if the setup is always predictable, the payoff never is. Crimson Gold takes such turns and moves with such dreamlike imprecision that I forgot Hussein would kill someone else and then himself by the film's end. First, I expected an anti-heist movie in the vein of Sidney Lumet's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, then something akin to Taxi Driver and it Dostoevsky-inspired breakdown. But I was foiled at every turn: the stakeout, with its soft neon glow, long-shot comedy and exquisite framing, looked like something out of a Tati film, while the other major sequence brings forth a despair in Hussein amidst the modernity of the rich man's accoutrements that, though the feeling was not as strong as the Tati connection earlier, made me think of Ozu.

When Ali sifts through the woman's purse near the start of the film, an old con artists walks over and marvels at the openness of their theft. He instructs them not to steal simply for the pocket change of a poor woman's purse or for the thrill of the chase but to understand one's motives and one's existential need to steal. He leaves them his card, leaving open the possibility of him becoming a mentor to Hussein and Ali, but they never contact him. Hussein simply resents being dismissed so casually by the man and continues on without ever figuring himself out. We can guess at why Hussein eventually murders the jeweler -- in keeping with the slight connections to Taxi Driver, I kept thinking about the protagonist's encounters with the uncaring officer in Notes from Underground and how badly Hussein simply wanted to be acknowledged by his "foe" -- but answers remain insidiously out of reach.

“If you want to arrest a thief, you’ll have to arrest the world," recites the old con artist to the men, and as Hussein emptily wanders around Tehran without expression, one cannot help but feel that someone or something has stolen a piece of him as well. Without that missing piece, Hussein is incomplete and less than human. So invisible is he that, in the end, Hussein must hold a gun to a man's head just to see a necklace. The dark comedy of the beginning now morphs into engulfing despair: I laughed fatalistically at the doomed fool, and now I wanted more than anything to find some way to get him out of that shop before he did what he was fated to do. Kiarostami and Panahi do not yank the carpet out from underneath you, they gently slide you off a plank.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Ulysses, Chapter Two: Nestor

The Nestor episode of Ulysses instantly changes up the novel from its first chapter, altering setting, structure, symbolism and thematic exploration. If the Telemachus chapter contained hints of thoughts haunting Stephen that mar an otherwise neutral beginning, the second episode gets steeped in misery. Stephen, our beloved anti-Establishment outsider, has returned to Ireland with his aesthetic ideals honed, only to find himself working as a substitute teacher in a boy's school, lecturing uninterested, ignorant teens on Milton and history. Cut to once idealistic English teachers solemnly nodding in empathy.

Reflecting Stephen's (and Joyce's) continuing difficulty at truly leaving the Church, Chapter Two is structured as a catechism, the call-and-response style used to educate a congregation in Catholic doctrine. The chapter begins with Stephen asking questions of the students, who respond by rote and without passion. But Stephen is amiable, despite his intellectual self-absorption, and he amuses himself by asking questions to catch the lads off-guard. When he dismisses the boys and speaks to the headmaster, Mr. Deasy, Stephen does not ask questions so much as speak tersely as Deasy carries on in block paragraphs of vacuous speech which Stephen transcribes to a letter.

The sense of gloom that pours out of the pages in this chapter is untraceable unless someone clues you in on where to look. The key color of the chapter is brown, though nothing is every simply described as such. Instead, Joyce mentions objects one knows to be brown, letting the audience envision their color. Leather, wood, old books, all of them evoking the color without Joyce outright saying it. Elsewhere, Joyce has proven a master of vivid description, poring over each image from afar and up close; here, however, he demonstrates what a great journalist he would have made: without many adjectives, he conjures immaculate portraits in the mind. But why does brown connote such misery in Joyce's writing? It's a drab color, to be sure, but not depressing.

Then I learned that, for Joyce, brown signified death, which only raised more questions. Why would he equate the two? Isn't black the more obvious choice? At last, it slid into place: "History," Stephen famously intones, "is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake." As a European, Dedalus is caged in by history, the stifling weight of nearly two millennia of accumulated history restricting movement. Eddie Izzard jokes about this whenever he speaks of America, about how people in this country are amazed of anything that lasts 50 years, whereas, in Europe, anything that doesn't last that long must be one giant POS. History suffocates. But it also liberates in the worst way, allowing people to attribute ills to history and not seek to move beyond them. In the first chapter, Haines expressed some guilt for England's treatment of Ireland, only to absolve himself by placing atrocity in the past. The students Stephen lectures have no true concept of what Ireland still is because they view it through a historical lens: "For them too history was a tale like any other too often heard, their land a pawnshop."

History is coated in brown. It's bound in leather-bound books, stacked on wooden shelves and debated in old halls. Stephen, who wants to live for the present, to glory in the new, is weighed down by the the immovable block of history that stands between mankind and progress. Even Irish nationalism is too rooted in centuries-old debate to be fresh enough for Stephen, and to identify with any nation would be to tighten the leash that binds him. Ironically, Stephen has a better command of history than anyone he talks to, versed in both literary classics and world history. He even meshes the two, interpreting Julius Caesar at least partially through Shakespeare. His immense knowledge of both kinds of history, fictive and real, allows him to speculate on alternate versions of events. Joyce pours everything into his writing, every perspective, every anticipated outcome, so of course he wonders what might have happened if Caesar had not been betrayed or Pyrrhus had not fallen. The what-ifs turn history into narrative, and no narrative can exist without excluding all but one story. Unless you're James Joyce, of course, in which case you can just flood the damn thing.

In The Odyssey, Telemachus visits Nestor, a kind-to-a-fault old man whose perceived wisdom belies a frustrating gap in awareness of the one piece of information Telemachus needs from him. Like Nestor, Deasy is ingratiating to the point of irritation with Telemcaus/Stephen, Nestor lavishing hospitality onto the man looking for his father, Deasy forcing Stephen to put up with his rambling nonsense to get a meager pay. And just as Nestor's speeches contain lofty, drawn-out claims that lead nowhere, so too are Deasy's proclamations void of any useful information to Stephen, who tempers his own disagreement with Deasy's simple-minded opinions of English loyalism, thrift and the supposed evil of Jews. Only the smallest protests are spoken, but Stephen understands that any attempt to engage this moron will only prolong his torture, so he copies down Deasy's halting thoughts -- the statements are so short, empty of analysis and direct that each period almost sounds like a telegraph stop -- and promises to pass them along to acquaintances at some newspapers.

Nestor was a tamer of horses, and the image of "vanished horses" dots the walls of Deasy's office. Whatever verve and authority the man might once have commanded are long gone by the time he pours out his crotchety old "Abe Simpson" rants, his transparent ignorance not remotely masked by the quantity of his words nor the fleeting stabs at verbosity nestled within them. Deasy is only just smart enough to see how bored Stephen has become with his situation (though he believes it's the school constricting him, not Deasy as well) and wisely notes that Stephen will not remain at the school long. "You were not born to be a teacher, I think," Deasy says. "A learner, rather," Stephen replies. Stephen looks at Deasy and sees the end result of becoming complacent with knowledge: unless he is always seeking more, the knowledge he has will atrophy until it becomes useless and toxic, infecting young minds with hollow thoughts disguised with big words, big words Stephen claims to fear despite his own use of quite a few of them. He knows that big words too are made through inflation and contain nothing but air inside them.

Just as the structure of the novel shifts from straight narrative to catechism, the subject being deconstructed moves from theology to history. Yet Joyce cannot tackle one, particularly when dealing with Irish history, without discussing the other, and religion factors into Stephen's thoughts and discussions. Deasy too brings God into it, his antisemitism springing from religious indoctrination passed down through history condemning Jews and his misogynist screeds rooted in the concept of original sin. Stephen continues to have none of it, proving his does not align with Deasy's Tory beliefs just as he rejected Davin's radical leftist leanings in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

The Nestor episode is short, sweet and direct, yet the level of detail it conjures using mere back-and-forth dialogue and blunt but evocative description builds upon the jumbled but vivid first chapter even as it drastically alters the direction. Ulysses may be a seemingly aimless drift around Dublin, but the manner in which Joyce deepens and links his pseudo-narrative makes the sudden shifts in style coherent.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Some Kind of Monster

Some Kind of Monster is one of my favorite documentaries of all time. That so many Metallica fans hate it, hate it, only cements its impact. It is one of the most viciously anti-romantic films ever made about a person or group considered heroes and legends by millions. Metallica has a reputation for being one of the hardest (and hardest partying) bands around, yet the movie shows essentially one long group therapy session, with a liberal dose of midlife crisis sprinkled in for spice. Anyone hoping to see "Alcoholica" destroying hotel rooms and using blocks of heroin as pillows found what may be the event horizon of metal, an inescapable force of gravity sucking in the last bit of fury from the '80s into the void.

Hammering home how much the band has changed, the film opens with the crushing news of Jason Newsted's departure from the band and, perhaps more devastatingly, the band convenes in a Ritz-Carlton to discuss the new album with a management-hired therapist leading the chat of the personal quibbles and hangups tearing at the band. The band wants their next album to sound like a return to raw, aggressive playing, a subtle outgrowth of their desire to prove to outraged fans that the Napster episode did not demonstrate the band fully abandoning their fiery side. If they can just make something to tap back into Kill 'Em All, all will be forgiven.

Yet the transparency of the act is astonishing. The band insists on not going to the same old studio and cranking out one of their increasingly standard, hard rock album, yet they end up going to the Presidio in San Francisco, the idyllic setting wholly at odds with the basement tapes feel they want to create. Then again, the setting is the least of worries, as the band soon collapses into inaction, bickering and tedious hand-wringing over which direction they should head toward to regain their spot at the top. The band is situated between two extremes: run back to the well and hope the fans disregard every slip-up (which is a safe bet in the world of metal), or try to stay "current" and cater to the then-explosive nü-metal fad. Anyone who has listened to St. Anger knows which decision won out.

Some Kind of Monster does not quite fit into the Spinal Tap mode that has become expected of any profile of a hard rocking outfit, but it contains its own set of cringe-inducing dark humor. James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich argue like an old married couple, and poor Kirk Hammet sits between them always trying to diffuse the situation, the young child who just wants to get through one dinner, just one, without mommy and daddy going at it. James has become so used to getting his way as the frontman of Metallica that his life spirals out of control: he up and goes to Russia on a hunting trip and misses his son's first birthday. The producer, Bob Rock, looks as if he wants to quit at every second to go make the same money without all the hassle elsewhere. Family commitments become horrid reminders of how much these men have mellowed, and even their hobbies (Kirk's surfing, James' vehicle collecting, Lars' land-buying) come off as the sort of things middle-aged men do to feel cool.

And then there's the therapy itself. The "therapist" (actually a "performance-enhancing coach," a terminology that recalls steroid use, which might explain the scrotum-tightening rage he produces whenever on-screen) is a complete charlatan. Armed with a collection of shirts he rescued from a burning souvenir shop in Disney's Polynesian Resort, Towle is a huckster, not seeking to help the band so much as manipulating their stress to ingratiate himself among them and reap the benefits. One look at this asshole and you just know that, had someone documented the band during their '80s heyday, he'd have been one of the faux-psychologists on Oprah or Donahue talking about how this music was polluting young minds and that the answers for how to protect the children could be found in this book he's conveniently written. At one point, he actually suggests lyrics to the band members. Never mind that the final lyrics of St. Anger sounds as if the band cribbed them from freshman-year diaries littered with doodles of the English teacher being decapitated by a dragon summoned by Ronnie James Dio; this is such a massive breach of ethics, morality and, frankly, sanity that someone should have pushed him out immediately.

Yet, in a strange way, Towle largely succeeds in reuniting them, precisely because they all rally around hating him. As the band becomes aware of Towle's BS, they grow resentful of his presence, and one of the funniest moments of the film comes when James says, without a trace of irony, “I think Phil is under the impression that he's actually in the band.” Maybe that's Phil's ingenious plan: be so cloying and ridiculous that people at each other's throats dispel their anger at the third party, but considering how incompetent and useless he is as he dispenses trite advice, I'm disinclined to believe that theory.

More than fictive films, documentaries tend to be memorable through individual moments over the overall story (though that's important too, of course), and Some Kind of Monster has moments to spare. After the Napster fallout, the band is wary of anything that might make them look like sellouts, but the label strikes a deal with radio companies to have the band record promos for some asinine contest. However, this cynical marketing helps the band, as they push the image of their lavish homes and huge tracts of land out of mind to sarcastically ruin each take, tapping into their goofy younger mood and making them a group of kids again instead of 40-somethings mired in arguments. Then there's Lars' dad, an amazing old man with a beard down to his navel and the direct tone of English spoken through a Dutch accent. Torben is so deadpan it hurts, and when Lars lets him listen to what the band has put together so far, his pacing suggests he's more terrified of what Torben will say than anyone. As the rambling warble comes to a close, Torben strokes his beard and solemnly intones, "DELETE THAT." Torben! The best. Just the way he says it, like the proclamation of a Norse god through the calm, detached avatar of Werner Herzog, is so devastating and funny. If a storm ever manages to breach the Dutch levee system, it must be retroactively named Hurricane Torben.

As James and Lars tear at each other, the others begin to show the strain of dealing with this for years. Long-suffering Kirk patiently deals with the bickering, but when Hetfield and Ulrich decide to leave solos off the album in a transparent attempt to fight back into the mainstream trends of the day, Kirk can stay silent no more. He accurately claims that leaving off solos does not prevent dating the record to the past: it only cements the band in an ephemeral present. When the filmmakers interview Jason, his measured, relieved tone cannot disguise the lingering resentment for not being accepted as a true member of the band.

Neither can compare, however, to Dave Mustaine, that tragic figure. Twenty years on from being ejected from Metallica just prior to the band recording their first album for substance abuse, Mustaine still cannot see the impressive career he carved outside the group. Sitting down with Lars while James is away in rehab, Mustaine makes painfully clear why he cannot let it go. It is not simply a matter of being angry for being fired. Dave then spent the next 20 years watching Metallica conquer the world while Megadeth, celebrated as they were (and are, far more consistently these days than 'Tallica), always played second fiddle. Sheila O'Malley calls him Shakespearean, and that's an apt description. He actually refers to himself as a failure, though thousands would call him a legend, all because he missed his shot to make it with his friends, who became his bitterest foes (the feud continued for years after this movie and was, in fact, prolonged in part because of it, though all now seems to be well at last). I am never emotionally prepared for the moment where Mustaine quietly says he misses "my Danish friend."

The greatest aspect of documentaries and reality television is the manner in which directors and editors must make drama out of spontaneity. Even if reality TV is scripted or a documentary subject is playing to the camera, there is still a degree of the unknown far greater than that of a regular film. For example, I believe the editing on Jersey Shore is something of a masterpiece, a series of consistently hilarious juxtapositions that know exactly the right facial expression to use in a reaction shot and how to make the inherent, sleazy absurdity of the program all the wilder. The filmmakers here achieve a similar degree of inventive comedy, finding just the right shot or quote to puncture the ballooning self-loathing and let the bilious self-awareness spill out.

Without question, the funniest of these examples comes when Robert Trujillo attends his first meeting as a member of Metallica. Trujillo, the clear front-runner among some massively talented competition (I was particularly surprised/pleased to see Scott Reeder, one of the most underrated bassists working, trying out), is ecstatic. The band briefly discussed looking for someone their age, and though Trujillo technically fits that criterion, his youthful vivacity is a blast of fresh air in the jaded airing of grievances seen throughout. If someone had pulled him aside during the audition and asked how badly he wanted the gig, he'd almost certainly have said he was just glad to be in the same room as these guys, and he'd be totally sincere.

Which is why it is so achingly funny when he gets the gig and shows up to a meeting. I was talking on Twitter about the movie with Sheila, who is also a fan of the film, and we both laughed over this scene. Trujillo is overwhelmed: not only is he joining one of the bands that set the standard in his youth, that band also goes by the nickname Alcoholica. God knows what he's fantasizing about when he walks in that room. (My personal belief, as I related to Sheila, is that somewhere in his head he was strapping on skis to slalom around hookers down a mountain of blow.) He has it MADE. And then, James Hetfield starts pouring out his soul. He comes to the point of tears as he talks about how much he doesn't want to face the idea of working without his friends. And the cameraman, that blessed, ingenious cameraman, just moves onto a shot of Trujillo not making a sound. He thought he was going to be in one of the baddest bands of all time, and he showed up for some form of platonic marriage counseling. I have laughed harder and more consistently at that one shot than the totality of nearly every comedy I've seen in the last decade. It is perfect.

Complete with well-assembled archived footage -- just compare those dorky, teenage versions of James and Lars headbanging at Lars' house with the multimillionaires of the present -- and excellently shot concert footage, Some Kind of Monster does not seek to undermine the image of a legendary band but honestly deals with issues most headbangers would prefer not to confront. The first few times I watched the film, I cringed whenever James or Lars' children would come to the studio, because they just deflated the men, who stopped screaming and thrashing to listen patiently to toddler speak and make their own noises for the kids' amusement. Only recently did it even occur to me what a horrible reaction this was: why was I so angry at children for, basically, existing? They represent the band getting older and having to shift their lives. We all have to do it, and so do artists. While Ulrich may have a huge collection of art he can sell on a whim for millions of dollars with which to buy other works of art or Kirk can get himself a nice ranch, their mellower attitude does not mean they've sold out. We all like adults who are big kids, but everyone has to act like an adult at some point.

Near the end of the film, Metallica plays a gig at San Quentin, and Hetfield gives a brief speech to the inmates. "There's a lot of misspent anger that has come out sideways for a lot of people. Including yourselves. And if I hadn't had music in my life, it's quite possible I could be in here, or not even in here, be dead. And I'd much rather be alive." He doesn't chastise them, doesn't preach. Most importantly, he recognizes that any of them are harder than he or Metallica could ever be, so he just gets something off his chest and gets back to entertaining, and the crowd eats it up.

By the time Some Kind of Monster comes to a close, you'll be hard-pressed to look upon the quartet as bad-ass partiers ever again. Yet the band does not completely tarnish themselves with the level of access they allowed the filmmakers. Whatever happens behind the scenes, hell, whatever happens on each new record (at the time, new Metallica generally brought only more grumbling, an issue not rectified until Death Magnetic), none of it matters on the stage. Even now, when Metallica takes the stage, they give a goddamn show, and by ending on a concert, Some Kind of Monster reminds the audience why they fell in love with Metallica in the first place, and why no personal action by one or some of the band members can ever stop a tour from selling out. These guys have to play, and when they get on-stage, they only have time for the performance, not for the baggage. That they can still mop the floor with lesser bands shows that nothing can ultimately keep these guys down.