Monday, December 17, 2007

Toronto Film Diary

I think there's a fundamental difference in the way that reviewers and critics look at movies: critics are far more likely to look at a film in relation to the whole of film history going back to the Lumiere brothers' first films, while a reviewer looks at a film in relation to what's playing right now, which is perfectly appropriate to discussing new releases: as wonderful as Todd Haynes' new film is, it's still too early to say how it stacks up next to Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987), Poison (1991), Safe (1995) and Far From Heaven (2002) (I still haven't seen Velvet Goldmine [1998], though by reputation it's the least of his films). Obviously then, this is the approach I've decided to take here, since I'll be seeing--hopefully--more than one movie a day rather than watching the same movie more than once in the hopes of getting inside it and looking at its guts. Nope, this week's all about getting my Pauline Kael on.

12/16

I'm Not There (Todd Haynes, USA)
I knew next to nothing about Bob Dylan going in, and after watching I'm Not There, the fifth feature by Todd Haynes, an impressive American independent with a background in semiotics (!), I feel like I know even less. This dizzying, achronological and highly unconventional (non-)biopic, "Inspired by the music and the many lives of Bob Dylan," uses six different actors to embody aspects of Dylan's persona(lity), though none of them actually play characters named Bob Dylan even when they sing his songs. While I feel as though I've only begun to scratch the surface of this challenging film, I was never confused, and although the six (non-)Dylans never add-up to a single person, at times even contradicting one another (the radical androgyny suggested by casting Cate Blanchett as Jude Quinn, a folk singer who alienates his fans by going electric, is cancelled out by a misogynistic actor/Heath Ledger who played a Dylan-like character in a film--suggesting Dylan's alienation from his own image; the film makes the point that all the (non-)Dylans are acting--and whose marriage to an abstract painter/Charlotte Gainsbourg runs parallel to the Vietnam war), one can trace a thematic continuity that moves back and fourth through time from 1959, when an African-American boy calling himself Woody Guthrie/Marcus Carl Franklin rides the rails singing songs about unionization that are twenty years out of date (alluding to the folk movement's nostalgia for the Depression and the radicalism that grew out of it, as well as Dylan's involvement in the civil rights movement), to the late 70's when Pastor Jack/Christian Bale, a former folk singer who--like Jude--turned his back on politics and "sold out to God" in the words of Alan Ginsberg/David Cross, is profiled by a documentary film crew, complete with talking head interviews with a female folksinger/Julianne Moore, clearly modeled after Joan Baez (who, unlike Ginsberg, is alive and could sue). Rather than proceeding in a straight line (the time frames often overlap), the various (non-)Dylans feed into each-other, creating a kind of Cubist mosaic that one can enter into from several different vantage points. The hippy western starring Billy the Kid/Richard Gere doesn't seem to belong to any particular period at all, unless it's the future which would explain the apocalyptic overtones.

The overall trajectory of the film is one away from sincere engagement with politics towards insincere disengagement, which is simply a mask to conceal bruised idealism. This theme finds its fullest expression in the scenes with Jude, which are shot in black-and-white in the style of Fellini's 8 1/2 (1963). While on tour in England, Jude tries to B.S. his way through a series press conferences ("Do you have a word for your fans?" "Astronaught."), but there's one arts reporter/Bruce Greenwood who consistantly sees through his fascade; like the critic in Fellini's film, he comes to represent Jude's conscience. Watching these scenes, with Jude smoking in the middle of chaos, assaulted on all sides by reporters, hangers-on and, at one point, a video installation, and turning to drugs to deal with his mounting pressures, I found myself thinking of Rainer Werner Fassbinder--to my tastes, the greatest of all filmmakers--whose own work (particularly, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul [1974], Fox and His Friends and Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven [both 1975]) seemed to stem from a fear that his films would be used to further some one else's political agenda. In The Third Generation (1979), one of his very best films, the far right secretly bankrolls left-wing terrorists (and stupid ones at that) in order to justify government repression. The difference is that Fassbinder was better at this sort of thing: the Baader-Meinhof gang tried to burn down theaters where The Third Generation was being shown, while Dylan's deliberately enigmatic lyrics were used to justify violence by the Black Panthers.

The last (non-)Dylan, who I've yet to mention is a poet named Arthur Rimbaud/Ben Whishaw, who doesn't add very much, but it's indicative of the film's conceptual strength that when one of the individual pieces falters the whole is strong enough to carry it, so Rimbaud's monologue about life in hiding segways nicely into a scene involving Billy the Kid. I doubt I'll see a better film this week.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Christian Mungiu, Romania)
I wasn't surprised when this Romanian drama won the top prize at Cannes last May, not because it recieved better reviews than No Country for Old Men (the American press was virtually unanimous in their support for the Coen brothers' film), but because two other Romanian features, Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005) and Corneliu Porumboiu's 12:08 East of Bucharest (2006), both won the prize for Un Certain Regard; when Mungiu's film was awarded the Palme d'Or, it was widely interpreted as an acknowledgement of the vitality and importance of Romanian cinema. Personally, however, I've yet to really flip for any of the films of the Romanian New Wave; even with Porumboiu's film, the best and funniest of the bunch as well as the most original, it doesn't take off until about half-way through; yes, the early scenes are beautifully composed and, yes, they provide a meaningful contrast with the film's second half, which hilariously reproduces the bad camerawork and technical glitches one would find in a public access TV show, but they just seemed to go on and on.

This grim tale about college roommates who attempt to procure an illegal abortion for one of the women, set in the final years of communist rule, is gripping and well-acted (despite a talky start), but it's far from being a revelation. When I saw Otilia/Anamaria Marinca and Gabita/Laura Vasiliu sitting on opposite ends of the 'Scope frame looking alienated from each-other (reminding one of Martin Parr's "Bored Couples" series), and Mungiu holds the shot for a really long time while the soundtrack goes quiet except for the sound of passing cars, I knew that a sudden cut to black wasn't very far off. Similarly, I doubt anyone will be surprised to learn that, even under communism, educated people still look down on the masses, despite an entire subplot designed to make that very point. I fear it's only a matter of time before over-zealous national cinema experts start digging up the forgotten "masterpieces" of Ceauşecsu era that nourished and inspired the current renaissance.

12/17

Margot at the Wedding (Noah Baumbach, USA)
The first interesting Noah Baumbach film, it isn't a rejection of what came before so much as it finally delivers on the promise of Kicking and Screaming (1995) and The Squid and the Whale (2005). Like those films, its protagonist, Margot/Nicole Kidman, is a writer but, for the first time, this doesn't feel merely like an autobiographical reflex but a meaningful choice: Not only does Margot blab to her son, Claude/Zane Pais, that her sister, Pauline/Jennifer Jason Leigh, is pregnant when Pauline asked her to keep it a secret, but she's compelled to publish her sister's secrets in a novel that we learn was the cause of Pauline's first divorce. Similarly, where the handheld camerawork in The Squid and the Whale suggested that Baumbach had found a more dynamic way of filming his characters talk, here, working with the great cinematographer Harris Savides (Elephant [2003]), he stretches himself to become more of a visual storyteller than ever before, even something of a stylist: at one point, he places the camera inside a falling tree.

At times suggesting a remake of Woody Allen's Interiors (1978), the film begins with Margot and Claude arriving at the beachfront home where she and Pauline grew up to attend the latter's wedding to Malcom/Jack Black, a failed musician, and her presence serves as a catalyst, setting in motion various intrigues; early on, Margot alienates Pauline and Malcom's hillbilly neighbors by commenting on their abusive parenting, and Claude promptly spreads the news of Pauline's pregnancy to Ingrid/Flora Cross, Pauline's daughter from a previous marriage, who tells Malcom. The film is serious and intense (not at all slight like Kicking and Screaming), but it's also very funny; one of the things that made me laugh the most was when Malcom tries to run away from a beating from the father of a teenage girl he molested. The performances by Kidman and Leigh are especially fine, and Black turns in his best performance to-date, complicating his usual slacker persona with an undercurrent of rage and phedophilia. And Heather, if you're still not convinced, John Turturro's in it.

Juno (Jason Reitman, USA)
[SPOILERS] To paraphrase Roger Ebert, sometimes I like to see a movie like Juno just to remind myself that life's too short for movies like Juno. The slender storyline involves an unbearably precocious 16-year-old girl named Juno/Ellen Page, whose first sexual experience leads to an unwanted pregnancy, and after backing out of a "hasty abortion," she finds an infertile upper-middleclass couple to adopt her baby through an ad in the Pennysaver. Like Thank You for Smoking (2005), the previous film by the same director, it errors in assuming that audiences want to see the film for its snappy dialogue; the reason Noah Baumbach is a good writer and Diablo Cody, who wrote Juno, is still a promising one is that Baumbach knows that every line has to be an action. Apparently we're supposed to believe that Juno and her bestfriend, Leah/Olivia Thirlby, breathe pop culture referrences, yet watching the film I found myself picturing Cody before a word processor, carefully crafting each of the film's clever one-liners over a period of several months (I had a similar problem with the arch dialogue in Howard Hawks' His Girl Friday [1940]). If Thank You for Smoking struck one as a shallow neo-conservative provocation, Juno is too muddled to qualify as either liberal or conservative. First we're supposed to think Mark/Jason Bateman is cool for liking Sonic Youth and obscure slasher movies, but later we're supposed to find him uncool for the very same reasons (Bateman is impeccable in spite of the film). And while, in the terms of the film, Juno can't give birth before regaining her faith that a man and a woman can stay together and be happy, and reconciling with the baby's father/Michael Cera (playing exactly the same character he played in Arrested Development [2003-06] and Superbad [2007]), which only happens after a heart-to-heart with Juno's dear old dad/J.K. Simmons, the film's ending with Juno giving the baby to a newly single Vanessa/Jennifer Garner unconditionally endorses single motherhood as an alternative to the nuclear family. Also, there are two sequences I found especially queasy, both involving minority characters (if memory serves, the only minority characters in the film): the first, with an Asian abortion protestor/Valerie Tian chanting "All babies want to be bored!" outside a women's clinic, is straight out of Lost in Translation (2003); the second has Juno's dear old step-mom/Allison Janney verbally bitch-slapping a fair-skinned ultrasound technician/Kaaren de Zilva, at one point telling her to go back to where she came from (both scenes scored big laughs with the mostly white audience I saw the film with). Juno, like its protagonist, is simply far too pleased with itself.

12/18

Gone Baby Gone (Ben Affleck, USA)
The first feature directed by Ben Affleck, this begins as a movie about the search for a missing girl but then it develops into something more ambitious, arriving at a place of surprising moral ambiguity. Patrick/Casey Affleck and Angie/Michelle Monaghan are private eyes specializing in missing persons (specifically, people that owe money) who are hired by the aunt of a missing girl to augment the police investigation by talking to the people that don't talk to the police. From there, the film moves as a straight-forward procedural until it goes as far as it can in that direction; had it ended there, I would've recommended the film as a modest but engaging genre piece, although in hindsight, I realize that it never really could've ended there. Instead, the film keeps going, taking on a greater complexity and depth with each additional scene. The film's theme--that it's the things you don't choose (family, community, etc.) that make you who you are--is established in Patrick's opening narration, so it's significant that Det. Remmy Bressant/Ed Harris (in a very good performance) is originally from Louisiana but has lived in Boston longer than Patrick's been alive, because his character represents the alternative point of view. At one point, he tells Patrick about the time he framed a suspect, and when we hear why he did it, it seems like the only thing he could've done in that situation. Does Patrick make the right choice by playing by the book? I'm not sure. Gone Baby Gone puts its characters in such difficult ethical dilemmas that you'd swear it was written by Krzysztof Kieslowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz.

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (Sidney Lumet, USA)
It occurred to me afterwards that this is only the third film I've seen by Sidney Lumet, after 12 Angry Men (1957) and Network (1976), but for what it's worth, this is easily the most interesting. The movie has one of those plots that begins with a botched robbery and then circles through time to show how the best laid plans of mice and men go astray and astray and still further astray, so it's hard to know how much of the story to reveal here: how do I describe the film without ruining it? I think I'm on safe ground revealing that Andy/Philip Seymour Hoffman is a real estate agent who's being audited after embezzling money to support his drug habit, and enlists his brother, Hank/Ethan Hawke, to rob a jewelry store. Hank, who's having an affair with Andy's wife, Gina/Marisa Tomei, agrees to it because he's three months behind on his child support. This is not a film that can be said to glamourize crime (a warmly lit sex scene between Andy and Gina that precedes the robbery serves to provide a contrast with the rest of the film, which has a much cooler palette). At no point do the characters seem to think they're going to get away with anything; instead, most of the movie is about damage control. The film takes place in a closed system where there are no good options, so what Andy does in the film's final stages is as shocking as it is inevitable. Hoffman, who's one of our best working actors, has seldom been better than he is here as a man who, on the surface, seems successful and normal but is capable of unspeakable acts, which makes him a lot scarier than an Anton Chiguhr. Deep into the film, a minor character explains that the world is an evil place and some people make money off this while others are destroyed by it; Before the Devil Knows Your Dead is about the second group.

12/20

Control (Anton Corbijn, UK)
This biopic of Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis/Sam Riley is the first feature by music video director Anton Corbijn, and on the evidence available here, he has an undeniable talent for framing and lighting a shot but isn't much of a storyteller. But perhaps he's not to blame; in hindsight, it almost seems too easy to attribute the film's limitations to Curtis' widow, Deborah (portrayed in the film by Samantha Morton), who wrote the memoir upon which the script is based--which I haven't read--and recieves a co-producer credit on the film. If one accepts this theory, then it's not surprising that the film isn't remotely interested in the other members of Joy Division, who come across as insensitive creeps, let alone placing the band in a broader historical context. Nor does the film have anything to say about Curtis' creative process. At one point, we see him locked in a room with a pen and a pad of paper, and as Deborah knocks on the door and asks him to come to bed, Curtis writes at the top of the page: "She's Losing Control"; Corbijn then cuts to the band performing the finished song for an adoring audience. The movie does have some interesting insights into the pressures of being a rock star, but these don't surface until almost the very end of the film; Riley does a fine job of imitating what Curtis was like on stage, but he isn't able to convey what he was going through emotionally. The film is strongest on Curtis' affair with a glamourous Belgian woman because she provides such a stark contrast with Deborah, who isn't the least bit impressed with Curtis' celebrity; when a friend observes that he's become quite famous, Deborah replies matter of factly: "Not to me. I still wash his underwear." Ultimately however, the film shows that a biography can be historically accurate and still not touch on any deeper truths about the person's life. Though beautiful to look at, Control is dramatically shapeless, pointless and irrelevant.

12/22

The Savages (Tamara Jenkins, USA)
Engaging but minor, writer-director Tamara Jenkins' second feature is as morose and unsentimental (though never heavy-handed) as her debut, Slums of Beverly Hills (1998), was warm and ingratiating; some reviewers have described it as a comedy, but most of the laughs I heard were strained and defensive. Wendy/Laura Linney is a thirty-nine year old aspiring playwright who's having an affair with a married man, and her older brother, John/Philip Seymour Hoffman, is a theater professor who can't commit to his long time girlfriend, Kasia/Cara Seymour, even though her visa's about to expire. These terminal adolescents are finally pushed out of their respective comfort zones when their father, Lenny/Philip Bosco, begins to show symptoms of dementia and needs to be put in a nursing home. The film is absorbing on a scene-to-scene basis, but I didn't really get the point of it. I'm not saying every film needs to have a message (that said, it's downright weird for a film executive produced by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor to have a character who teaches Brecht and spends a lot of time talking about it), but I do ask that there be some underlying unity that would make the film something more than the sum of its parts. Linney and Hoffman are such fine actors that it's a pleasure to see them in almost anything, but The Savages doesn't have a purpose for them to work towards. Still, one hopes it won't be another nine years before Jenkins' next film.

12/23

Atonement (Joe Wright, UK)
Based on an Ian McEwan novel I haven't read, this big-budget weepy shows how a series of misunderstandings destroy three lives--so why does the film have to truck in all this stuff about World War 2? The film's first half, set in the English countryside in 1936, really could've been set in any era with handsome young gardeners who were secretly in love with a rich girl he had known since they were children, and precocious little girls who struggled to put on a play starring some cousins from the north who would rather play outside than stay in the house and rehearse. For all its already apparent limitations (you'd never to know it from looking at the film that a good portion of the British upper-class was quite sympathetic to Hitler), this part of the film never-the-less does an effective job of navigating a large cast of characters, but the film's second half, set four years later, mainly drifts: James McAvoy, the insipid British leading man who plays the gardener, is required to carry long stretches of the film all by himself (at one point, Jérémie Renier, who starred in La Promesse [1996] and L'Enfant [2005], turns up briefly as a wounded soldier to remind us of how a good actor can hold the screen while doing very little); and because the heroine--played as an eighteen year old by Romola Garai--isn't given the possibility of, well, atonement, there's really nowhere for the story to go. Yes, there's an astonishing piece of steadicam porn, but the intelligence behind the unbroken take seems closer to Gone With the Wind (1939) than Béla Tarr. Ultimately, this shot just underlines the problem with the film, which is that its canvas is too large for the story; in the middle of a world war, we're supposed to feel bad for two people who missed out on love (for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with the war itself, which is simply backdrop), and another who has to live with the guilt of ruining their lives for the rest of hers. Atonement is both over-ambitious and inadequate at the same time.

The Kite Runner (Marc Forster, USA)
Another year-end Oscar contender adapted from a prestigous novel I haven't read, this is involving enough but I don't think I can quite recommend it. Although its story--which begins in Kabul in 1978 on the eve of the Soviet invasion and ends in San Francisco in 2000--ends just before the American-lead occupation of Afghanistan (alluded to only indirectly when the hero's father/Homayoun Ershadi, says of the Soviets: "Everyone leaves eventually. This country isn't kind to invaders"), the film doesn't trade completely in moral certainties. When the protagonist, Amir/Khalid Abdalla, returns to Afghanistan after two decades in exile in America, there's a sequence in an orphanage where we see a good man doing his best under impossible circumstances. Similarly, there's a scene in which Amir's father almost gets himself killed by standing up to a mercenary Russian soldier. These sequences seem to suggest that it's not always possible to live by one's principals. However, this sort of nuance is the exception rather than the rule: the film seems to forget that the U.S. backed the Taliban when they were fighting the Soviets, and the highly improbable climax, with Amir travelling to Kabul in search of a child who's been kidnapped and forced into sexual bondage, reminded me of John Ford's The Searchers (1956). Directed with the same heavy-handedness that marred Forster's Monster's Ball (2001) (when Amir tries to flirt with a nice Afghani girl/Atossa Leoni, we get not one but several jealous reaction shots of the girl's mother), this is absorbing but it pales next to a great film like Gone Baby Gone, which also deals with child abuse. The Kite Runner isn't a terrible film but I can't recommend you see it when there are so many excellent movies in theaters right now.

Into the Wild (Sean Penn, USA)
First of all, these are the ugliest titles I've seen in a long time, and this is a film with a lot of text in it, from the hideous green credits to the hand-written yellow text, signifying the hero's letters to a grain elevator operator he meets on his adventures (which Penn superimposes over second unit shots of the American landscape), to the chapter titles to dates and places. I know Penn is going for an early '90's vibe, but this is pushing it. Adapted from John Krakauer's non-fiction novel about Christopher McCandless/Emile Hirsch--a 22-year-old man from a middle-class family who suddenly dropped out of society and lived in an abandoned bus in the Alaskan wilderness for one hundred days--the film cuts between two different time frames, juxtaposing scenes set in Alaska with McCandless' travels across the southern United States where he meets a number of people who come to be like his second family: Jan/Catherine Keener and Rainey/Brain Dierker, a hippy couple travelling the country in their van, who are like his new parents; Wayne/Vince Vaughn, the aforementioned grain elevator operator who suggests an older brother; Tracy/Kristen Stewart, an aspiring folk singer with a Fünke-like affinity for cut-offs who's like his younger sister; and Ron/Hal Holbrook, an elderly man with no family who offers to adopt McCandless ("I could be your grandfather"). At times suggesting an American remake of Agnès Varda's Sans toi ni loi (1985), it lacks that film's critical distance from its protagonist; narrated by McCandless' biological sister, Carine/Jenna Malone, I think the film wants us to view him as both a troubled kid and the, uh, messiah at the same time. At one point, Rainey even asks him (albeit jokingly) if he's Jesus Christ. I'm not saying characters can't have contradictory attributes--far from it--but this is pushing it. It's one thing to be troubled and charismatic, but I draw the line at troubled and Christlike. The film's cinematographer, Eric Gautier, has photographed films for Olivier Assayas, Catherine Breillat, Leos Carax, Patrice Chereau, Arnaud Desplechin and Alain Resnais, so I'm guessing--just guessing--that the pointless and unattractive split-screen effects weren't his idea. Into the Wild has some intriguing elements but not enough for me to recommend it.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Trouble Every Day

One of the first films I wrote about for this blog was Claire Denis' Trouble Every Day (2001), and since I wasn't happy with what I wrote--the idea was to write anything just to get into the habit of writing--I'd been thinking of doing a revision for some time. When Heather showed me her paper comparing Denis' Chocolat (1988) with Diane Kurys' Coup de foudre (1983), I thought now might be the time to do it, if only as a supplement to her essay.

Part of the reason I was so dissatisfied with what I wrote is that, at the time, I was interested primarily at looking at the politics of cinema, taking form for granted, which is why I hesitated before tackling more avant-garde film and video makers like Len Lye and Bill Viola. This approach I've found is best suited to mainstream cinema, where style is supposed to be invisible and which is generally thought to be apolitical entertainment, but applied to a maker of art films like Denis, its limitations become more apparent. One of my more successful attempts at this kind of criticism was the piece I wrote on Arrested Development (2003-06), but even there I was defeated by the sheer volume of the narrative, which points to another limitation of this approach: the necessity of fitting everything into a coherent thesis means either ignoring everything that doesn't fit or robbing the work of its strangeness by over-interpretting the text. In the late 1970's, Robin Wood wrote a piece on Jacques Rivette that argues Céline et Julie vont en bateau (1974) presents a challenge to the existing patriarchy, linking Rivette's film--which is playful, funny
and beautifully acted--with George Romero's Dawn of the Dead (1978), which isn't any of those things. (1) (Of course, Wood is careful not to express a preference for either film, as if only an elitist snob would make a distinction between a French art movie and an American genre piece, regardless if the acting in the latter is flat as a pancake and its satire of consumerism broader than the backside of a barn.) However, the more I look at Rivette's film, the more it seems to teeter of the verge of gibberish. If, on first viewing, one glosses over its discontinuities and ruptures so that it appears to be coherent, the closer one looks the more it stops making sense. When Céline/Juliet Berto tells Julie/Dominique Labourier about her former boss and the two women chasing her, she seems to be describing the scenerio in the haunted house at 7 bis, rue de Nadir aux Pommes, but her story about the passports doesn't fit into its endlessly repeating narrative, and even if it did, how could Céline remember it without the aid of a magic candy? (By this point, the film has already established Céline as a compulsive fibber, so one might dismiss her story as a pure flight of fancy except that it seems to trigger associations for Julie.) Similarly, the notion that this or any other Rivette film can be read unproblematically in feminist terms in undermined by the director's own statement that his main motive for becoming a film director was to meet his favorite actresses. (2)

One of the most successful attempts I've encountered to bridge the percieved gap between form and content is Kristen Thompson's 300-page Neo-Formalist analysis of Sergei Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible (1944-46), which draws a parallel between Eiesenstein's unusual film (pointedly compared with Hollywood models like John Ford's Mary of Scotland [1936] and Howard Hawks' Sargeant York [1941]) and the unusual use of language in poetry when placed against the background of everyday conversation. Much of the book is devoted to certain devices--visual and aural motifs, ambiguous spatial relationships, expressionistic production design, etc.--that reenforce the film's themes but function independently of the chain of causes and effects that make-up the narrative. One of her more provocative insights is that the process of following a story takes place entirely inside the viewer's memory. Taking this a step further, I would argue that narrative, which is simply a sequence of events, is as much an aesthetic element as cinematography or art direction that one can enjoy for its own sake, regardless of whether there's a unifying vision behind it. I enjoyed Berardo Bertolucci's La Luna (1979) up to a point for the melodramatic (if familiar) storyline, the gutsy lead performance by Jill Clayburgh, Vittorio Storaro's gorgeous cinematography, the director's stylish camera movements, the opera music on the soundtrack and a clever intertextual referrence to Bertolucci's own Last Tango in Paris (1972), but ultimately I was disappointed to see these things placed in the service of such a reductive theme. Basically, the film argues, a boy needs a father (only biological ones need apply) or else he'll become a drug addict who's never outgrown his Oedipus complex. At the moment of reconciliation between mother/Clayburgh and father/Tomas Milian, the boy's girlfriend/Elisabetta Campeti, who's been absent for most of the picture, magically reappears to usher the boy/Matthew Barry into a normal, heterosexual relationship. Alternatives to the nuclear family--specifically, the boy's relationship with his stepfather/Fred Gwynne--are, in the film, tainted by their association with drug use. To fall back on a cliché, La Luna finally adds up to something less than the sum of its sensational parts.

In general, horror movies tend towards excess--piledriver effects at regular intervals to keep the audience from becoming bored. (The nine films Val Letwon produced for RKO in the 1940's, including masterpieces like Jacques Tourneur's Cat People [1942], I Walked With a Zombie, The Leopard Man and Mark Robson's The Seventh Victim [all 1943], are notable exceptions.) Thompson outlines three types of motivation: realistic, compositional (narrative) and artistic; she doesn't address horror films at all, but I would argue that the excessive gore and nudity, and sudden loud noises that practically define the genre are simply unmotivated--momentary jolts of sensation rather than part of a larger design, and by definition, not artistic. Although I described No Country for Old Men (2007) as film noir in a previous post, on later reflection, horror seems closer to the mark. It has more of a story to motivate its violence than Dawn of the Dead, but given what an obvious MacGuffin the suitcase full of money is, not much more. And with its virtually unexamined nihilism ("We believe in nothing!"), the film is finally less than meets the eye. The one time it comes close to refuting this bogus non-metaphysic is the scene in which Carla Jean/Kelly McDonald asks Anton Chigurh/Javier Bardem to spare her life, telling him "You don't have to do this," but ultimately, it's his point of view that the film endorses: he kills Carla Jean anyway (albeit off-screen), and just so we're not unsure, Anton gets in a car accident in the very next scene as he's leaving the scene of the murder.

Trouble Every Day has its share of sex and gore, but Denis' engagment with the material runs much deeper than surface effects--something one can glean from the score by Tindersticks, which is so well integrated that I didn't even notice it on first viewing. A kind of vampire movie set in contemporary Paris, it tells the story of two couples. Léo/Alex Descas is a research scientist desperately working to find a cure for an unnamed disease that's afflicting his girlfriend, Coré/Béatrice Dalle. We first see her on the outskirts of the city for an illicit rendezvous with a truck driver/Arnaud Churin; when Léo finds her in a field, not far from the driver's body, she has blood all over her face. The other couple is a pair of American newlyweds honeymooning in Paris: Shane Brown/Vincent Gallo is a former colleague of Léo's suffering from the same affliction as Coré, unbeknownst to his wife, June/Tricia Vessey. Denis works out the film's thematic tensions--between English and French, purity and contamination, lust and caution--as much through her choice of locations, recurring visual motifs and the wonderful performances from the four leads as she does through the sequence of events that forms the narrative spine (which is not to say that the film doesn't have any excess).

Boundaries, whether they be geographical, temporal, social, etc., are at the heart of much of Denis' work. In Chocolat, a white houseguest/Jean-Claude Adelin has the privilage of "going native," but it's unthinkable that Protée/Isaach De Bankolé would be allowed to sleep in the master's house. Similarly, the bookending sequences in post-colonial Cameroon illustrate the impossibility of returning to the past. On the beach, an adult France/Mireille Perrier meets an American man/Emmet Judson Williamson who returned to Africa expecting to be embraced by his people only to get ripped-off at the airport. (Beau travail [1999], her only other film to consider the legacy of French colonalism on present-day Africa, is also told mainly in flashback.) In Trouble Every Day, the film alternates between the parts of Paris a tourist is likely to see (expensive hotels, gothic churches) and the far less glamourous suburbs where Léo lives and works. In an early scene, a patient/Albert Szpiro who can't afford to pay Léo tells him he forgot his wallet at home. In all the scenes where Shane and June are present, the French characters speak to them in English, even though Shane used to live in Paris and presumably speaks the language.

The fifth character in the film, Christelle/Florence Loiret, who works as a maid at the hotel where Shane and June are staying, is positioned somewhere between the two couples. Like Protée, she has a certain ammount of access to the other world (she has a key to the Browns' room) while remaining excluded from it; Denis shows her stealing unopened jars of complementary jam the hotel guests don't use. We also she her in the bunker-like employee changing room where she changes into and out of her uniform, suggesting an intermediate zone between French-speaking world and the English-speaking world. And like Protée, who is never seen when there aren't any Europeans present, she remains unknowable; the only thing we learn about her life outside the hotel is that she's picked up from work everyday by her boyfriend/Slimane Brahimi who, like Léo, drives a motorcycle, reminding one of the Rolls Royce in Jean Cocteau's Orphée (1950) that escorted the newly deceased into the land of the dead.

This theme of the unknowable Other even extends to June's growing awareness of how little she knows about her husband. When June visits Shane's former landlady, Jeanne/Aurore Clément, late in the film after finding her address on Shane's computer, Jeanne shows her an old picture of Shane and asks if he's changed much; June replies she doesn't know. In the film's very last sequence, June returns to the hotel room where Shane is taking a shower after raping and murdering Christelle. As Shane tells her he wants to go home, Denis cuts from an insert of a drop of blood running down the shower curtain to a close-up of Shane, and then an extreme close-up of June's eyes. It's unlikely that June sees the drop of blood (she remains as much in the dark about Shane's condition as she was at the beginning of the film); rather, Denis communicates their sense of disconnection by showing them looking in different directions as opposed to making eye contact. (There's a more dramatic example of the same principle in Steven Spielberg's Minority Report [2002]).





Thompson only devotes a few paragraphs to the performances in Ivan the Terrible, generally treating the actors merely as elements of the mise en scène, which perhaps speaks to how difficult it is to talk about what an actor does. Even though actors themselves vote on the Academy Awards, I suspect the reason the prizes for best acting often go to the most acting--much like how the trophy for best editing usually goes to the film with the greatest number of cuts--is because Forest Whitaker's showoffy impersonation of Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland (2006) is a lot easier to sum up in a ten-second Oscar clip than the more nuanced performances he gave in Jim Jarmusch's Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999) and Abel Ferrara's Mary (2005). When an actor takes on a historical figure like Amin, or plays a character who's mentally handicapped or has a debilitating disease, it's presumed that the challenge is to make the audience forget they're looking at an actor (similarly, classical Hollywood style aims to not to call attention to the cinematography, editing, art direction, etc. through realistic motivation), but I'm not convinced that acting should be judged according to veracity; in the case of Eisenstein's film, the campy performances are an essential part of the overall design.

There's nothing campy about the acting in Trouble Every Day, despite the horror movie trappings (parodied in a sequence where Shane and June visit a gothic church with the former imitating a vampire and the latter a damsel in distress), but neither are the performances strictly realistic; since Denis keeps the dialogue to a bare minimum, one can't impose notions of method acting or psychological realism onto the film. Instead, Denis seems to choose her actors for their phsyical essences (incidentally, three of the four leads are Denis regulars: Dalle and Descas also played a couple in J'ai pas sommeil [1994], and Gallo had a much more verbose role in Nénette et Boni [1996] as an American expatriate married to a French pastry chef/Valeria Bruni Tedeschi). In Chocolat, Protée's physical strength corresponds to his moral integrity. And the title of Beau travail--the masculine variation of "beautiful work"--can't be translated accurately into English given the importance of homoerotic spectacle to its story: the protagonist, Galoup/Denis Levant, is a soldier in the French foreign legion whose training exercises are observed (with much bemusement) by the local women. (3) Here, Coré is like an insatiable animal without psychology, trapped in a perpetual Now; when we see her in flashback, smoking a cigarette in a lab, it's the only time in the film Dalle seems to be acting, as if Denis were simply at a loss to imagine what Coré was like before her disease. Like Protée, Léo is another one of Denis' hard-bodied protectors, locking Coré in their bedroom everyday before leaving for work, but even his strength is not enough to match her hunger, which seems at times more metaphysical than medical: even if he can keep Coré in, he's helpless to keep out a curious French teenager/Nicolas Duvauchelle who's irresistably drawn to her.

In her analysis of Ivan the Terrible, Thompson outlines three encompassing narrative threads that relate to Ivan/Nikolai Cherkasov's goal of unifying Russia: his relationship with the Boyars, his relationship with the Russian people, and the war with Kazan. Since Ivan's ability to achieve the goal is beyond doubt, the function of each of these threads is to keep the film from ending prematurely. In Trouble Every Day, where Shane's defeat is every bit as certain as Ivan's victory, the soul retardation device stopping him from having sex with June--literally delaying gratification--is his search for Léo, whom Shane believes has a cure. After he finds Coré covered in the teenager's blood and strangles her to death (the conclusion of his search for Léo), Denis cuts to Shane and June kissing in bed, but when he becomes arroused, Shane runs into the bathroom and masturbates. This is followed in loose succession by two sequences building up to Christelle's rape. In the first, where Shane stalks a woman on the street/Laure Guérard, the handheld close-ups rhyme with an earlier sequence in which he and June follow Christelle to their hotel room. Similarly, the scene in which Shane presses his body against a woman on the subway/Véra Chidyvar (which is observed by a teenage girl/Alice Houri) recalls a sequence earlier in the film where Shane attempts to molest a woman in the hotel/Céline Samie.







Even when sipping champagne with June aboard an airplane, Shane seems deeply uncomfortable. Often when a reviewer says an actor looks uncomfortable they mean to indicate poor direction, as if the actor simply didn't know what the director expected of them (Roger Ebert's review of Elaine May's Ishtar [1987]--a film I liked, incidentally--is merely the first example that comes to mind), or that they're simply miscast. Needless to say, in real life people are uncomfortable all the time, but in most Hollywood films we're invited to over-identify with characters who are stronger, more confident, more perfect than we are; Thompson observes of Eisenstein's film, for instance, that he treats Ivan more as a mythological hero than a psychologically convincing person. Here, however, that's precisely the effect Denis is going for. Twice in the film, characters offer Shane a glass of water out of concern: first on the airplane when he runs to the bathroom and later in a laboratory where he uses his hand to shield his eyes from the bright lights. An insomniac, Shane spends his nights smoking in bed, pacing on the balcony or wandering the city aimlessly. His discomfort is particularly palpable in a sequence where he stands over June as she lies in the bathtub; opening her eyes, she's surprised by his presence, and Denis even supplies us with a menacing low-angle shot of Shane looking down on her. Kneeling down, he touches her hair gently and asks "Were you frightened?" She quickly changes the subject. In the middle of an embrace, he notices a bite mark on her shoulder, suggesting the danger he poses to his wife.

As indicated by the two scenes cited above, in which Shane is offered a drink, water is a recurring motif in the film. Thompson makes a particular point of how Eisenstein calls attention to his motifs, which would otherwise remain part of the background mise en scène. Here, for example, Denis cuts from an enigmatic shot of a couple kissing in the backseat of a car (neither the couple nor the car is seen again) to a river on the outskirts of Paris, which is followed by the opening credits over a black screen. It's here that Denis bares the motif as water ripples appear over the names of the actors and crew.



Water--which comes to be associated with a healthy libido (the couple in the car), purity and cleansing (a shot of June washing her feet in the bathtub in the hotel room is contrasted with Christelle washing her feet in a sink in the hotel's basement)--is opposed by the blood motif, which is associated with contamination and a blocked libido: Shane can't make love to June because he's afraid of contaminating her, if not killing her. This is established in a dream sequence that bares the blood motif: aboard the plane, as Shane sits in the bathroom, he's tormented by the image of June lying in a bed covered in blood--an image that's rhymed with Coré covered in the blood of one of the teenagers. The final sequence, with Shane taking a shower to wash away Christelle's blood, brings together both of these motifs.

Up till now I've defined excess entirely in negative terms, referring generally to the cheap thrills offered by conventional horror movies. Thompson, however, uses the word excess positively to refer to the surplus pleasure one derives from watching and listening to a film--the jouissance of the image, which can't be exhausted by a shot's function in the narrative. Conventional films define space coherently through establishing shots in deep focus, match cuts and matching eyelines. In discussing Trouble Every Day, I want to examine briefly how Denis and her cinematographer, Agnès Godard, at moments of great pleasure and pain (which often overlap), cut to disorienting extreme close-ups or otherwise sever the characters from the surrounding space. Shane's nightmare of June covered in blood takes place in a quasi-theatrical, abstract space with darkness on all sides--what Gilles Deleuze might call (if I understand him correctly, and I'm almost certain I don't) an any-space-whatever which, as a fantasy, exists outside the time and space of the narrative. Later, when Coré is having sex with the teenager before killing him, Denis and Godard film his torso from above, moving slowly across the surface of his skin. Without an establishing shot to even establish whose torso we're looking at, the effect is to take us out of the past-tense of the narrative--the sequence events leading up to any given moment--and have us really look at the film. This relates to the emotional states of the characters (June, Coré, the teenager) who, at both points in the narrative, are completely in the Now, like animals acting on instinct.

I'm not certain Trouble Every Day has a point or a message, but there is (as I hope I've shown) an underlying unity of story, acting and cinematography--the technical aspects of film--so that the whole adds up to something greater than the sum of its parts. Even the abrupt, unsatisfying conclusion is abrupt and unsatisfying in a way that's deliberate and meaningful. Neither Shane's desire for a cure nor his desire to make love to his wife can be satisfied, so it's appropriate that Denis leaves us hanging. If there's such a thing as "pure cinema," this is it.

Footnotes:
1. Wood's article, "Narrative Pleasure: Two Films of Jacques Rivette" is available online at
http://jacques-rivette.com/.
2. This statement was made at the world premiere of Rivette's Duelle (une quarantine) (1976) at the London Film Festival. My source is Jonathan Rosenbaum's review of Duelle and Noroît (also 1976; I haven't seen either) in the Chicago Reader, which is available
online. If all this talk of Rivette seems gratuitous--and I'm not saying it isn't--it's worth noting that one of Denis' first jobs on a film set was as a production assistant on Rivette's Out 1 (unseen by me in, either it's twelve-hour version, Noli me tangere [screened once in 1971 at Le Havre over two days as a work print, after it was rejected by French television, and not seen again until the 1989 Rotterdam film festival in a slightly re-edited form], or the four-hour Spectre [1972]). In 1990, Denis directed a feature-length documentary of an interview with Rivette, conducted by the film critic Serge Daney, titled Jacques Rivette, le veilleur (also unseen by me) for the television series "Cinéma, de notre temps."
3. The exception that proves the rule is Denis' atypically talky and Linklater-esque "Vers Nancy," her contribution to the sketch film Ten Minutes Older: The Cello (2002), featuring the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, whose autobiographical essay on having a heart transplant was the basis for Denis' subsequent feature, L'Intrus (2004). More typical of Denis' work, L'Intrus has very little dialogue and the cast is full of Denis regulars: Michel Subor (Beau travail), Grégoire Colin (Nénette et Boni), Katia Golubeva (J'ai pas sommeil), Descas, Loiret, and Dalle as "The Queen of the Northern Hemphisphere." Although I saw it twice, I wasn't able to enage with it on either occassion.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

the role of the couple in Coup de Foudre and Chocolat

While the films Coup de Foudre (Diane Kurys) and Chocolat (Claire Denis) approach their subject matter very differently, similar themes are dealt with in both. They are both period pieces, but of a biographical nature rather than glossy epics. Both are domestically oriented tales which feature characters who appear to be struggling with repressed desires to overcome modes of behaviour imposed by 'civilised' society in order to satisfy the primary needs of sexuality and emotional comfort. Each film also discusses and deconstructs a different sexual stereotype - the stereotyped exotic sexuality of the black African in Chocolat, and the filmic exploitation of lesbian relationships in Coup de Foudre. Both films present characters who are challenged with stereotyped roles and taboos. Through these challenges we are offered a new look at the conception of "the couple," although neither relationship is fulfilled physically. These debateably adulterous relationships provide a critique of marriage as an institution, and the gender roles traditionally implied therein. This examination of marital dissolution extends to the implications of family. The children in both films are used as neutral observers, or an embodiment of 'uncivilised' human nature.

Coup de Foudre (also called Entre Nous) chronicles the relationship between two married women. Both Lena and Madeleine are in marriages that are emotionally unfulfilling. When they meet, they are automatically drawn to one another, and immediately begin spending a lot of time together. In each other they find a friendship that is ambiguously defined, so that it might be construed as a lesbian, albeit unconsummated, relationship. The two women make plans to leave their families and start anew in another city. With Chocolat,we are presented a marriage that is both cold and literally distant. The film is centred around a family living in colonial Cameroon. The father of the family, Marc, holds a position with the colonial administration which frequently takes him away from his family. His wife, Aimee, and young daughter, France, are left in the care of a black male servant, Protee, who assumes the role of protector of the family. His name, taken from the Greek god Proteus, is very fitting for his role as the protector. France spends much of her time with Protee, who teaches her about his culture and plays games with her. Aimee, also, has an attraction to Protee that extends beyond his role as her servant to an unfulfilled sexual desire.

None of the female characters in either film actually go so far as to commit the act of adultery, but if the term is expanded t
o include emotional infidelities, then all three women could be considered 'guilty.' Lena and Madeleine do not pursue a sexual relationship with one another, but they find in each other the emotional support that is lacking in their relationships with their husbands. This straying of commitment and attention towards their husbands, and, by extension, their families, is exemplified when Lena's young daughter is lost in an outing in which Lena and Madeleine discuss their business venture and escape. Rather than caring for their child, which is the basic role of the mother, they are indulging themselves in their own 'selfish' dreams of opening a store together. In Chocolat, Aimee is more clearly unfaithful in her final expression of physical desire for Protee. In an understated but emotionally intense scene, Aimee sits on the floor in the dark, and rubs Protee's leg. With dignity, and almost violence, Protee rejects her advance. And so the adultery is not consummated in this film either, but the intent is explicit. So, even though there is technically no adultery in this film, there is a mental infidelity.

Generally, it is men who are portrayed as adulterous
, and this is not always shown to be negative. There is also a tendency in films, though, for females to be portrayed as deceitful and adulterous. Women in films are often fetishized, and shown as sexual objects, but by the same token are punished for their sexuality. Both of these films subvert that stereotype to some extent. With Lena and Madeleine, we forgive them their emotional infidelities because we feel empathy for their cold marriages. Seeing how unhappy they are with their husbands, we are unable to begrudge them the happiness they find with each other, particularly when they commit no overt acts of adultery. In Chocolat, Protee is shown as replacing Marc as the protector of the family. France is closer to him than to her own father, and chooses his company over that of her parents'. Beyond his role as a care-giving servant, Protee is also ordered to protect the women from the wild hyenas that terrify Aimee, in no less than the private sphere of her bedroom. This comfort derived from Protee is compounded with, and serves to reinforce, Aimee's sexual desire for him. We see her repress this desire for the majority of the film, and watch her restraint crumble into the almost innocent and child-like touch. She seems broken as she sits prostrate on the floor; she seems sincere in her feeling of guilt. Her restraint until that point is admirable and so we are inclined to believe that she honestly cannot control her physical and perhaps emotional need for this man. Since she has tried to hard to combat her desire, and seems genuine about her moral standing, Aimee, also, is forgiven. The compulsion of the audience to empathize with the desires of these characters negates the image of the deceptive 'whore.'

These borderline adulterous relationships are also subv
ersive when taken out of the context of an unfaithful marriage. The ambiguous portrayal of Lena and Madeleine's friendship, and hints at lesbianism are quite taboo, particularly when considering the time period chosen for the story. Not only is woman's reliance on man for fulfillment questioned, but the approach taken in portraying the friendship acts to subvert the conventional male gaze. Many films, and other facets of society, exploit lesbian sexuality. It is desired by heterosexual males, and used as a 'turn-on.' Kurys eliminates the sexual aspect of the lesbian relationship, leaving the emotional 'friendship' to be discussed, and taken more seriously. Since the relationship is never taken to that sexual level, the male gaze is not gratified with imagery of lesbian eroticism. The idea of non-sexual life partners, or the valuing of friendship over marriage, is also, in itself, a nontraditional look at the idea of the couple as a lifestyle choice. As Phil Powrie examines in his article on the film: "...this also seems to be the point of the scene in the nightclub, where the two women decide not to follow up on a possible encounter with two men who have been watching them dance. The two women leave arm in arm, Lena saying that she did not feel like it because 'he had a skinny bottom.' Again, the possibility of heterosexual exchange is contrasted with non-sexual female intimacy." The idea of female friendship is also a bit of a departure from many films, which ofte portray women as 'catty' and backstabbing. Lena and Madeleine are entirely supportive of each other.

The desire to transcend social constructs is presented in Denis' film. Just as forbidden as homosexuality, or perhaps even more so, is the desire between a white woman of high standing and her black servant, particularly in a colonial setting. There is also a negative stereotype of black, and specifically African, peoples being promiscuously sexual beings. This stereotype also is denied here with Protee's dignified refusal of Aimee. Here the male gaze is subverted, as well, but in perhaps a less positive way. The female body is not fetishized, but here it is the male body. Protee's body is emphasized in many shots, most obviously shown showering in the open, his body left open to this now female gaze. This can be seen as a response to the male gaze, but the danger is that it is simply a role reversal.

The combination of thee ideas of a justified or sympathetic infidelity, and the desire for sexual and emotional satisfaction over the proprieties of marriage, provide a critique of marriage itself. We see seemingly good, happy families that are cold and distant, and we almost root for these women to cheat on their husbands. With the presentation of these issues we are led, as an audience, to question the validity of the matrimonial institution. In both of these films, marriages serves to keep the women domesticated, dependent and unhappy. In relationships that are somehow forbidden to them, they either find or seek what is lacking in their own households. This would lead us to believe that marriage is not the redeeming, sanctimonious ideal that previous generations seemed to hold as true. On the other hand, they do not provide unrealistically positive alternatives. Aimee's advances are adulterous, and would have had negative ramifications for her family. Lena and Madeleine have a positive relationship, but it still has a negative impact on the children., This shows more of an exploration into the roles, rather than a simple reversal.

Often, issues like this are examined in stories with the nature of parables, They are simplified, with complicating factors extracted so that they might be considered elementally. Here, though, in these two films, the additional complication of children is introduced to these marriages. Not only are we looking at the institution of marriage, but also the effect that its critique has on the family. In a way, this has been simplified, though. The children are all rather neutral, they seem not to 'take sides' with their parents. Neither the children in Coup de Foudre, nor France in Chocolat seem to be overly aware of the discomfort of their parents' marriages. They take everything in, but it is impossible to see what they make of it, or precisely how it affects them. This, then, becomes a problem more for their mothers, particularly in Coup de Foudre, and it is a question of guilt. Just as we, the audience, do not know how the children are really responding to their family situations, so, too, do the mothers wonder.

It is interesting, too, to consider that these are period pieces with "progressive" themes. Why would a filmmaker with a forward thinking agenda decide to place their story in the past? This play with time perhaps reinforces the messages being relayed. Being citizens of our own time, when presented with models of the past, we cannot help but judge them against the ideas of contemporary society. So, then, to watch a film which features characters or situations that are considered progressive, such as Coup de Foudre, we must ask why characters from the past still appear modern to contemporary audiences. Have we really not progressed as far as we like to think? On the other hand, a film like Chocolat reminds of some negative roots, such as colonialism and domestication of women, which are no doubt still haunting current society. To solve today's problems, we must examine yesterday's decisions.

While both of these films are set in different times and places, and deal with different matters, they examine many similar principles, namely an investigation into the validity of marriage as an institution. Using examples of infidelity, and looking carefully at its effect on the family, these films show us marriages that embody the opposite of what a marriage is meant to be. Both films subvert the stereotype of woman as being an inherently deceptive and adulterous creature by taking a humanistic view of situations that might lead someone to an infidelity. The relationships in question in each of these films is taboo not only in its adulterous nature, but also on their own - the one examining interracial 'couples,' and the other looking at, or at least hinting at, homosexuality. Children are used in both films, both as the storytellers, and as observers who remain in the background. Finally, both films are set in the past, but deal with issues that are still relevant to contemporary audiences.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

No Country for Old Men

There will be spoilers.

Plot Synopsis

Adapted from an early novel by Cormac McCarthy ("Blood Meridian") which I haven't read, Joel and Ethan Coen's No Country for Old Men is about a Texas man, Llewelyn Moss/Josh Brolin, who stumbles upon a drug deal gone bad while hunting in the desert, and steals a briefcase containing two million dollars in cash. After returning to the crime scene to give a jug of water to a dying man/Eduardo Antonio Garcia, he finds himself pursued by Anton Chigurh/Javier Berdem, a sociopath whose weapon of choice is an abattoir air gun. Pursuing Anton are the local sheriff, Ed Tom Bell/Tommy Lee Jones and a professional bounty hunter, Carson Wells/Woody Harrelson. In exchange for the money, Anton offers not to kill Llewelyn's wife, Carla Jean/Kelly Macdonald, but Llewelyn refuses and Anton kills them both. Unable to catch Anton, Ed decides to retire from police work.

"We believe in nothing"

This is one of the most pessimistic films I can recall seeing; although the desert setting makes it seem like a western, it's actually closer to film noir (in an early scene in Llewelyn and Carla Jean's trailer, a 1940's noir is even playing on the television). Then again, I'd be hard-pressed to find a film noir with so much evil and so little good. Leaving the theater, we overheard a woman say to her companion "Too much killing for me," which is both perfectly understandable and adorable. The film's message is that some people are just plain evil, bad things happen to good people and everything's a matter of chance. At one point, Ed mentions to Carla Jean an item he read in the newspaper about a couple in California that murdered old people in order to cash their social security checks. "They tortured them first. Maybe the TV was broken." Ed reflects the failure of law enforcement to prevent murders like that from happening in the first place.

This is a limited conceit as it precludes interrogating where evil comes from, instead treating it as a pure, metaphysical state--one might argue its position is exactly opposite that of Jean Renoir's La Règle du jeu (1939), in which Octave/Renoir says at one point "Everyone has their reasons." The motif of the coin is first introduced in a sequence in which Anton walks into a gas station and decides to spare the attendant/Gene Jones' life based on the result of a coin toss. It recurs again in a climatic scene where Ed stands outside a motel room which Anton has broken into, using his air gun to break the lock. To enter would mean certain death for Ed (see next paragraph), but when he opens the door, Anton has mysteriously vanished. On the floor, Ed finds a coin like the one in the gas station. In the next scene, in which Anton just as mysterious appears in Carla Jean's home, he denies responsibility for his actions when she tells him "You don't have to do this" by responding: "I got here the same way the coin did," recalling the moment in the gas station when he tells the attendant that the coin, which was minted in 1958, had taken twenty-two years to make it to this spot. As he's leaving, he instructs the attendant to put the coin anywhere but his pocket, where it'll get mixed in with other coins and become just another quarter--"which it is."

Anton's Big Cock

From the first sequence, in which Anton strangles a deputy sheriff/Zach Hopkins with his handcuffs, the film views him with a kind of mythic awe. Without backstory or motivation, he's endowed with such supernatural ability (Ed compares him at one point to a ghost) that the film threatens to feel over-determined: Anton is so obviously stronger than Llewelyn that the ending is almost inevitable. As in Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1957), where the hero/Max von Sydow plays a game of chess with Death/Bengt Ekerot, the ending is a foregone conclusion. By the time Anton follows Llewelyn to a motel where the latter has cleverly stashed the loot in an air vent so the tracking device hidden in the case points Anton to the wrong room, it already feels like Llewelyn is being chased by the devil. The one time he's able to wound Anton physically, it's using his own weapon, which in this context comes to represent a kind of fetish object and phallic symbol--the source of Anton's magical powers. There's even an example of The Denzel Washington Shot in which Anton walks towards the camera in the foreground while a car explodes in the background.

In his review of the film, Jonathan Rosenbaum speculates that the film is hitting such a nerve with audiences partly because of its timing; linking it to The Silence of the Lambs (1991), which was released during the first Gulf war, he argues that Americans who feel uneasy about the war might find something reassuring about Anton's ability to kill a lot of innocent people without one shred of remorse. While I don't totally agree, he's definitely on to something in terms of our over-identification with Anton. In her essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," Laura Mulvey argues that Hollywood cinema gives us identification figures stronger and more perfect than we possibly could be; one might apply a Nitzchean reading to the film, in which Anton is the ultimate übermensch who exists outside conventional morality--at one point, Carson even says that Anton operates by a moral code of his own. Complicating matters (or at least clouding them) is the fact that we're meant to identify equally with the three leads.

"I'm still out a shirt"

As gripping as it is as a piece of storytelling, the film falls flat on its face when it attempts any kind of social analysis. Although the story is set in 1980, the Coens make no attempt to tie the story to anything happening at the time; both Llewelyn and Carson are Vietnam vets, but this bit of backstory exists merely to set-up a later sequence in which an American border guard/Brandon Smith decides to let Llewelyn back into the United States only after he learns that he's a vetern. Even worse is the film's reliance on Mexican stereotypes: when Llewelyn first crosses the border, there's a shot of a sleeping Mexican border guard (by comparison, the American border guard is a total hard-ass); after Llewelyn passes out on the street, he's woken up by a Mariachi band; and although we're invited to feel superior to Carla Jean's mother, Agnes/Beth Grant, when she says "It's so rare to see a Mexican in a suit," (a) he's a drug dealer, and (b) his tacky suit and pencil mustache don't exactly look professional. There are two amusing sequences involving different groups of young boys who negotiate the price of a shirt with Llewelyn and Anton on separate occasions that illustrate the corrupting power of money, but even these scenes are pretty broad--both times, there's literally blood on the money.

Rhyme Effects

The repetition of a line of dialogue or certain composition serves to underline the similarities between the three leads. The most obvious example of this happens fairly early and is so obvious it effectively bares the device: the film cuts from Anton telling a hapless man/Chip Love to stand still, so he can kill him with his air gun, to Llewelyn hunting animals in the desert; while eying his target through the scope of his rifle, he tells the animal to stay still for a second. Later, Ed goes to Llewelyn's trailer just after Anton has left (he discerns this from the fact that the milk bottle is still sweating); calmly, Ed sits in the same spot where Anton sat, pours himself a glass of milk and stares into the TV screen which neither man thinks to turn on. And at the motel, both Llewelyn and Anton request a map. The implication is that all three are, at various stages of the film, the hunter and the hunted. In the last two examples, both Ed and Anton are actively trying to put themselves in the shoes of the other man.

Auteurism

With the exception of O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), The Lady Killers (2004), which I haven't seen, and this film, all of the Coens' previous films are original screenplays; however, given the range of genre and tones, their debt to classical Hollywood (especially Preston Sturges--the title of O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a reference to Sullivan's Travels [1942]) and the unevenness of their work, one hesitates to call them auteurs. At best, they seem like clever stylists with an encyclopedic (if Amerocentric) knowledge of film history and a gift for appropriating everything in sight. While less reference happy than, say, The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), No Country for Old Men contains references to Hitchcock's Psycho (1960)--a high-angle shot of Carson ascending a flight of stairs in a hotel that tells us he's about to be killed even before Anton appears behind him--and Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971), which was released during the Vietnam war and regards a milk-drinking sociopath with an almost equal level of Nitzchean awe. More abundant, however, are references to the Coens' own films: the Texas setting, Ed's opening narration and the long stretches of silence recall Blood Simple (1984); Anton's super-human strength reminds one of the bounty hunter/Randall Cobb in Raising Arizona (1987); and the low-angle shots racing down the highway at night, illuminated by a car's headlights, are straight out of Fargo (1996). The ability to take some one else's material and make it your own is a sign of an auteur, but here, the similarities are pretty superficial. At best, they add up to a game of reference spotting, in which one tries to find allusions to all of the Coens' previous work.

Conclusion

Reading back on what I've written, I realize it might come across like I didn't enjoy the film very much, and while I don't think it's quite the masterpiece it's being touted as, I did enjoy it a fair bit (or else I wouldn't even be writing about it). As a film about serial killers and a piece of social analysis, it's limited when compared to Fritz Lang's M (1931), in which the killer/Peter Lorre is given more humanity (by treating Anton simply as a monster, the filmmakers are in effect providing him with an alibi: he's not responsible because he doesn't have a choice) and the social analysis cuts a lot deeper (ultimately, Lang's film tells us nothing about what produces a serial killer either, but uses the killer as a device to reveal the hypocrisies of German society in the early 1930's). However, purely as a thriller, this is one of the Coens' most entertaining movies, along with Blood Simple (still their most interesting film), Barton Fink (1991), The Big Lebowski (1998) and The Man Who Wasn't There (2001). The performances are uniformly excellent, the elaborate cat-and-mouse game between Llewelyn and Anton is genuinely suspenseful, and the sound of Anton's air gun shooting open a lock almost gave me a heart attack. Whatever quibbles I might have, I wasn't bored.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Passing

The Passing (1991) is a video by Bill Viola that juxtaposes various kinds of footage--nocturnal desert landscapes, slow motion shots of bodies underwater, an elderly woman dying in a hospital bed (and more)--with shots of the artist himself in bed, unable to sleep because of a neighbor's barking dog, which invites the interpretation that everything else in the video is being dreamt of by Viola. At 54 minutes, it manages to do a number of things at the same time: it's a travelogue of the American southwest, a home movie about Viola's family, and a religious allegory for birth and death.

I first encountered Viola's work in my foundation year at NSCAD, and at the time, I found him boring and pretentious. The former complaint, of course, turned out to be pure nonsense once I developed better reflexes, and my initial reaction against Ancient of Days (1979-81) and Chott el-Djerid (A Portrait in Light and Heat) (1979) mirrored my response to a trio of commercial narrative features I first encountered at about the same time: Alain Resnais' L'Année dernière à Marienbad (1961), David Lynch's Eraserhead (1977) and Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker (1979)--all three highly meditative works where the exploration of a particular space (an hotel in eastern Europe in Resnais', various industrial wastelands in the United States and Russia in Lynch's and Tarkovsky's), and the eerie moods conjured up by the sounds and images, count for more than incident or character. And while I admire all three a great deal now, I still have some lingering doubts. As many times as I've seen it, I still can't make heads or tails of Resnais' film, but I can't stop thinking about it either; like its hero/Giorgio Albertazzi, who can never win the game with the matches, I find myself drawn back to the film again and again only to be frustrated once more. And while Lynch's and Tarkovsky's would both be in my top 100, I have to admit they're pretty sexist. The former strikes me as too implicated in the protagonist/Jack Nance's disgusted attraction to the opposite sex to comment on it in any meaningful way. That his idealized fantasy woman/Laurel Near is a wholesome, Doris Day-like figure who's completely asexual (unlike his bitchy girlfriend/Charlotte Stewart and his promiscuous neighbor/Judith Anna Roberts) suggests a conservative reading of the film--and Blue Velvet (1986)--as reflecting a desire to return to life as it was before the sexual revolution; one may counter that Lynch's version of small town innocence in the latter is highly ironic, but he doesn't make the alternatives seem very appealing.

Viola may not be a raging misogynist like Tarkovsky, whose view of motherhood as a woman's highest and only calling was informed by his religious beliefs (this attitude is even more apparent in his anti-feminist Nostalghia [1983]; it's only evident in Stalker when the Stalker's wife/Alisa Frejndlikh delivers a pathetic monologue to the camera towards the end of the film), but like Tarkovsky, Viola seems to view his art as a kind of spiritual calling.

Paramount to the notion of the image as sacred object is the icon, a form found in both oriental and occidental tradition... An icon can be any image that has acquired power through its use as an object of worship. In fact, the status of icon was the goal and even the measure of success of the majority of visual artworks created in the great traditions of ancient Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism. The presence of art critics was not required as devotees instantly knew, at first glance, whether or not the work in question qualified. The artists created their works for God, not for the art world... [Icons] are necessarily functional objects, their function fufilling a most basic primary and private need within the individual. (1)

This quote is taken from a collection of Viola's writings about his work, but it could just as easily be a quote by Tarkovsky. Central to many of Tarkovsky's films is a belief in the transformative power of faith or ritual; in the final episode of Andrei Rublev (1966), which takes as its subject the titular icon painter/Anatoli Solonitsyn, a young man/Nikolai Burlyavev claims his father passed on the secret of bell casting before he died and commands a large crew with unshakable confidence; later, when the bell has been cast, the boy confesses that he knows nothing and his father took the secret to his grave. On the British National Gallery's website for their exhibition of Viola's The Passions (2000-02) (2) I found this statement:

Viola describes a kind of awakening when he saw a woman in the Suntory Museum of Art in Tokyo looking at a statue of Kannon, the embodiment of compassion--an image that Viola had been conditioned to consider merely a work of art. He watched her slowly bow and begin praying to it--putting it to use. Viola intends his art not for decoration or diversion or education but for transformation.

As a non-believer, I find this pretty dubious. And while I've yet to hear of anyone slowly bowing and beginning to pray in front of one of Viola's installations, I'm reminded of the split reaction to Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (2004), which Christian viewers--or at least a good many of them--found to be deeply moving, while secular types like me--or at least a good many of us--found it to be not only religious kitsch but bad religious kitsch. Still, regardless of the negative reviews, devotees instantly knew, at first glance, that the work in question qualified. I remember the day Gibson's film opened, I was on the bus going home when a group of women got on and started discussing the film loudly; one said it made her feel as though she was there, which ties into a point Viola makes in the article quoted above:

Icons are timeless images, and even though in the West they often depict temporal events (the Annunciation, the Flight out of Egypt, ect.), the mythic or religious existence of those events (i.e., their present tense) is far more important. Icons maintain their currency by being continually updated to the present, by sustaining a constant relevance to Now. (3)

Given the abudance of slow motion shots in Gibson's film and the lack of any kind of narrative progression, one wonders whether he was consciously influenced by Viola's The Passions. (Gibson's production company is named Icon Productions.) The emphasis on Christ/Jim Caviezel's physical suffering in Gibson's film reminds me of the Hindu ceremony that concludes Viola's I Do Not Know What it Is I Am Like (1986), in which the participants pierce their bodies with long needles and walk across hot coals. Because we're not given a word of context about the ceremony, Viola seems out of his depth--a kind of spiritual tourist whose fascination with Hindu beliefs begins and ends with his amazement at its Otherness; that my father, who's a practicing Hindu, thinks the people who do that sort of thing are nuts indicates how far removed the ceremony is from mainstream Hinduism which doesn't seem to interest Viola in the slightest.

The religious themes in The Passing are more palatable because of Viola's personal investment in the material (the piece is dedicated to the memory of his deceased mother) and because it's possible to appreciate it on a more modest level: while the piece hasn't transformed me, it has given me a great deal of pleasure. Viola's spiritual side is most evident in the opposition of birth and death in the piece; at one point he seemlessly transitions from a flowing white sheet in one of the video's underwater sequences (in this context, suggesting the womb) to a similar white sheet being placed over a dead body. Elsewhere we see a mother holding her child only moments after giving birth, and a panning shot around a living room combined with a wipe to another shot panning around the inside of a hospital room where an elderly man sits by his dying wife, suggesting a continuity between the two spaces. In Viola's work, death is always paired with a sense of renewal; one of his best videos, The Reflecting Pool (1977-79), begins with the artist emerging from the wilderness in the background and approaching a reflecting pool which occupies the foreground. Standing between the two, he jumps into the air but, rather than cannonballing into the water, his image freezes while in the fetal position (the water continues to ripple as a series of dissolves compresses a period of a day into just a few minutes). Slowly Viola's image begins to disintegrate, and at the end of the video, he emerges from the water, naked, suggesting a kind of rebirth. Here, Viola's mother is paired with his young son, first seen running on the beach (the next to last shot shows him attending his grandmother's funeral).

At times the highfalutin symbolism can be a bit much, but what I enjoy most about The Passing is resolutely material: the desert landscapes, comtemplative pacing, the ambient soundtrack (mostly Viola's heavy breathing), and some particularly dreamlike underwater shots. One recurring image is a desk and chair in what at first appears to be an abstract, theatrical space with one intense studio light illuminating it from above. Our second glimpse of it, however, is rather distorted, indictating that it's actually underwater, though I couldn't quite believe it until a bit later when the table is suddenly turned over and some of the objects on it float away. The one thing this multifaceted video can't be said to do is tell a story, which I mean as an observation and not a criticism. Watching Arrested Development (2003-06) on my new HD TV, one of the things that's striking how much faster the editing seems on a larger screen; no shot is held longer than absolutely necessary for it to establish a point. In the episode "Not Without My Daughter," when Michael Bluth/Justin Bateman is interrogated by the police, the camera zooms out to reveal that Detective Fellows/Jonathan Penner is sitting beside his young daughter, who's occupying herself with a coloring book; seemingly the moment the camera stops zooming out, there's a cut to Detective Streudler/Kevin McDonald, who turns around to reveal that he's holding an infant. Additionally, the long zoom lens flattens the space of the image and reduces the depth of field, resulting in a greater emphasis on the information that each shot presents--which makes sense given the time restriction placed on a half-hour television program, and is largely what makes the show so funny. In The Passing, and particularly the desert sequences, Viola is giving us the time to really contemplate a space; if shows like Arrested Development assume a reactive viewer (the desired reaction to the sequence described above being surprise and laughter), Viola's work calls for a much more active form of spectatorship.

Whatever my doubts about the spiritual themes in Viola's work, he's a major figure in the field of video art and The Passing is a exciting, multifaceted work that I don't feel I've fully exhausted even after three viewings. It's a video that takes elements which themselves are extremely familiar--the landscape of the desert, home movies, birth and death--and, through the dreamlike images in black-and-white and the austere soundtrack, makes these things seem strange and unfamiliar. As an artistic stratedgy, this implies not only a more active approach to viewing media but, by making us look at things we take for granted as if seeing them for the first time--as Viola's son is--it implies taking a more active approach to looking at the world.

Footnotes:
1. Viola, Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House: Writings 1973-1994 (Boston: MIT Press, 1994), page 199.
2. The image on the right is of Viola's The Quintet of the Admonished (2000).
3. Ibid, p. 199

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Free Radical: The Films of Len Lye

Screened twice last week at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD, as the kids call it), this 67-minute program consisted of fifteen experimental shorts by the New Zealand animator Len Lye, made over a period of half a century (1929-79). The crowd I saw it with greeted many of the shorts with derisive laughter, which seemd to me entirely appropriate. The program guide helpfully explains, for instance, that A Colour Box (1935), the second film in the program, "was funded and distributed by John Grierson's GPO film unit on the condition that Lye include some postal messages at the end," which simply means that about three and a half minutes into this four-minute abstract film, in which Lye provides "colour accompaniment" to a piece of Cuban dance music, tacky advertising slogans for the British post office suddenly flash on the screen, at which point everyone at the screening started giggling. "In Venice, the Facists disrupted screenings because they saw it as 'degenerate' modern art," but a more accurate way of describing it would be sublime kitsch.

The program is divided in two parts by a short reel change, and apart from the unfortunate Musical Poster #1 (1940), which I talk about below, the later films are more successful--if that's the word for it--at adapting Lye's talents to commercial ends. In Colour Flight (1938), the triangular shapes that move across the screen suggest paper airplanes, so it almost seems logical that the piece would end with a plug for an airline, with the musical choices--"Honolulu Blues" by Red Nichols and a rumba piece by the Lecuona Cuban Boys--evoking an exotic destination. This seems to me a vast improvement on the film preceeding it, N. or N.W. (1937), a stilted and, in its odd film grammar, highly mannerist live-action narrative, in which a relationship is saved by a friendly postman. The program describes the ending as "a very tongue-in-cheek treatment of the sponsor's message," though the irony was lost on me. The only other live-action piece in the program, Rhythm (1957), which edits black-and-white footage of a Chrysler assembly line to African drumb beats, is at best kitsch Dziga Vertov.

The use of African music in Rhythm, Cuban rumba music in A Colour Box, Kaleidoscope (1935) and Colour Flight, and a blues track by Sonny Terry in Colour Cry (1952-53), which Lye "imagined to be the anguished cry of a runaway slave" (begging the inevitable question: why a runaway slave?), all point to an unacknowledged colonial subtext running throughout his work. His first film, Tusalava (1929), in which the shapes on the screen move between abstraction--suggesting here a world before language--and primitive representation, was inspired by an Australian Aboriginal creation myth with a string of circles on a white background, reminding one of a tapeworm, evolving into a lizard-like creature that competes with early humans (deliberately rendered in the style of a cave drawing on a black background). In The Birth of the Robot (1936), a puppet animation piece comissioned by Shell Oil, a white colonalist drives his convertible over the pyramids. After dying in the dessert, he's resurrected as a steel man; then comes the punchline: "A modern world needs modern lubricants." This dichotomy between the primitive and the modern reaches its most distilled form in the aforementioned Rhythm, where Lye presents industrial labour as a primitive expression of masculine vitality (incidentally, Chrysler hated the film).

Tusalava was originally accompanied by a live piano score by Jack Ellit, which has since been lost, so it's impossible to know how this would've changed the tone of the piece, which in its present form inspires a certain thoughtfulness in the viewer; it was virtually the only piece no one laughed at. Recently, Michael Sicinski argued that Jim Henson improved on his hero, Norman McLaren (a filmmaker inspired by Lye), by making films explicitly for children, and that criticism could just as easily apply to Lye. I learn from the program that he "was adamant that wartime films did not have to be gloomy," and Musical Poster #1 begins as pure abstraction to draw the viewer in before hitting us with a series of paranoid slogans to the effect that "the enemy" is listening to everything you say (one title reads "Don't tell him where you go," and the word 'go' is shivering with fear).

Avant-garde filmmakers like Stan Brakhage are often credited with influencing the style of commercials and music videos, either as an indication of their signifigance (1) or in order to illustrate how oppositional art becomes assimilated by the mainstream, so it's amusing to discover how the avant-garde was influenced by advertising. The man who curated the screening, Roger Horrocks, was of course at pains to present Lye as a neglected artist who really had no choice but to whore himself out, and indeed there was a period in the 1960's where he abandoned film to pursue sculpture (a body of work of which I know nothing), though if it were true that every filmmaker had to sell-out just to get ther films made in the first place, I probably would've outgrown my interest in cinema a long time ago. (2) Even in Free Radicals (1958), a black-and-white abstract piece where Lye's scratchings on the emulsion suggest lightning and rain (to my tastes, his greatest work), which doesn't advertise anything, I can't say I felt very challenged by it. How then to explain the enthusiasm of P. Sitney Adams, Brakhage and Jonas Mekas for his work (all three are quoted in the program)? As a classmate of mine put it, the films were probably good for their time.

Footnotes:
1. I haven't seen Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis (2006), Mary Jordan's feature-length documentary about the maker of Flaming Creatures (1963), though according to the reviews, it credits Smith with being a major influence on mainstream figures like Fellini, John Waters and Andy Warhol.
2. Pauline Kael was an expert at rationalizing the artistic compromises inherent in big-budget Hollywood filmmaking. Of Hud (1963), she argued that the conflict between the desire of the filmmakers to make a noble, liberal-minded message picture and the masses' hunger for a nihlistic western was integral to the film's "Americanness."