Saturday, February 16, 2008


Nightjohn (1996) is about a runaway slave who returns to the plantations to teach his fellow slaves how to read. The film was directed by Charles Burnett, who struggled as an independent during the '70s and '80s when he only made two features, Killer of Sheep (1977) and My Brother's Wedding (1983), neither of which were properly distributed before 2007. His third, To Sleep With Anger (1990), fared slightly better on first release but still isn't available on DVD. During the '90s, his productivity increased dramatically, though he continued to struggle within the mainstream. During this period, he made America Becoming (1991), a documentary about immigration; The Glass Shield (1994), a studio feature with Ice Cube and Elliot Gould that was recut by its distributor, Miramax, who barely released their version; When it Rains (1995), a fifteen-minute short for French TV that Jonathan Rosenbaum considers the greatest of all Burnett's films; Nightjohn; The Final Insult (1997), an hour-long video about Los Angeles' homeless; The Wedding (1998), a TV miniseries produced by Oprah Winfrey and starring Halle Berry; Dr. Endesha Ida Mae Holland (1998), a documentary short about the civil rights activist; The Annihilation of Fish (1999), an independent feature starring James Earl Jones and Lynn Redgrave that wasn't distributed; and Selma, Lord, Selma (1999), a TV movie about Alabama during the civil rights movement (1). One is almost tempted to read Nightjohn as an autobiographical statement about Burnett's struggle for independence as a filmmaker.

In 2007, after Killer of Sheep and the director's cut of My Brother's Wedding received a limited commercial release, both films, as well as the longer version My Bother's Wedding and several shorts (including When it Rains), were released on a two-disc DVD set. As welcome as this belated recognition is, especially as some one who's wanted to see these films for years, the continued neglect of Burnett's more commercial work confirms what Rosenbaum said in his review of Nightjohn, reprinted in his book "Essential Cinema": that Burnett's (limited) success within the system has only added to his anonymity. The film was made for the Disney Channel, which means it reached a wider audience than any Burnett film had up to that point, though it's unlikely the original audience was aware of who directed the film. I was only able to see it because my local library had a VHS copy. At the same time, there seems to be little or no interest in distributing new Burnett films like Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property (2003) or Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation (2007). I can't imagine why this should be the case when Nightjohn prooves that Burnett can "deliver the goods" and still make something fascinating and personal at the same time.

Based on the novel by Gary Paulsen, which I haven't read, Nightjohn is narrated by Sarny/Allison Jones, who begins by telling us that this is a story about Nightjohn/Carl Lumbly, and then contradicts herself by adding that it's also about her, "since I'm in it and some of it happened to me." In fact, because Sarny and the film view Nightjohn as a fully formed mythic hero, he registers more as a static supporting player rather than a protagonist. In her closing narration, after Nightjohn is sold to another plantation, Sarny says she never found out what happened to Nightjohn afterwards, though she met a number of people who knew him and "even more that knew some one who knew him," adding to his mythic aura. (I haven't seen Selma, Lord, Selma, but the story of a 12-year-old girl/Jurnee Smollett who's inspired by a speech by Martin Luther King sounds a lot like Nightjohn.) Arguably as important and more interesting is the plantation owner, Clel Waller/Beau Bridges, who isn't unambiguously evil although it's not big jump; after Sarny is born in the opening sequence, he promises her mother/Robin Michelle McClamb not to sell the girl, even though girls are worth less as slaves ("Thought you said it would be a boy" is his first line in the script), and keeping his word, he sells the mother instead.

Words--promises, passes, letters--are what Nightjohn is all about. The two main subplots both involve forbidden love affairs in which words play a crucial role. When Sarny starts working in the house, Clel's wife, Callie/Kathleen York (who the film has already established as a romantic and a dreamer with a fondness for books), has her deliver letters to a man/Tom Nowicky living nearby, each of whom pays Sarny a penny for her secrecy. "One penny at a time, they were making me a rich woman." The other involves a young slave, Outlaw/Gabriel Casseus, who's in love with a young woman on another plantation; Clel forbids a marriage since law states that, in such an event, Outlaw would marry into the other plantation. Finally, the two lovers escape using forged passes, written by Nightjohn and Sorny, to buy them some time before anyone knows they're gone.

The source of Nightjohn, and later Sarny's strength is in their ability to read. The most pointed line of dialogue is spoken by Nightjohn to Old Man/Bill Cobbs, a slave who lost a finger for learning to read, a fate that later befalls Nightjohn as well. "Words are freedom, Old Man. 'Cause that's all slavery is made of: words. Laws, deeds, passes: all they are is words. White folks got all the words and they mean to keep them. You get some words for yourself and you be free." At the beginning of the film, Sarny is too shy to speak a word, but by the end, she's stolen enough of them from Clel--namely, the figures from a ledger kept by Clel with the dollar values of each slave--to render him powerless, and without glossing over the physical pain of Nightjohn losing his index finger, the film suggests that it's essentially a symbolic guesture, since Nightjohn's value as a slave means Clel would never do any thing to limit his productivity, much less kill him, which is why no number of whippings can break his spirit. However, it's something of a Catch 22 that Nightjohn's refusal to be broken actually makes him less valuable as a slave, with Clel purchasing him for only a fraction of his worth. The dependence of the white characters on their slaves is echoed in the character of Callie, who needs Dealey/Lorraine Toussaint (Sarny's principle caregiver who gets her a position in the house) to do her hair before a dinner party, and her youngest son, Homer/John Herina, who's about six and still hasn't been toilet trained.

Clel and Callie's oldest son, Jeffrey/Joel Thomas Traywick is conflicted about inheriting the plantation and initially is made to seem sympathetic (at one point he tells Clel that Outlaw is his friend), but one of the striking aspects about the film is its pessimism about crossing racial divides. The paper for the two forged passes is taken from a bible Sarny steals from the house, and Clel beats Jeffrey for losing it. When Jeffrey finds the bible in the cabin where the slaves sleep, he says to himself "And twice on Sunday," recalling Clel's warning that a smart slave will fool him everyday of the week. In contrast to the self-congratulatory notion that Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves, Nightjohn suggests that freedom has to be taken; the film would make a great double bill with Lars von Trier's Manderlay (2005), in which the characters are incapable of breaking the psychological bonds of slavery sixty years after the end of the civil war.

I've only seen a few of Burnett's films so far, but for the moment my two favorites are Killer of Sheep and Nightjohn, which are in some respects polar opposites: the former is an episodic portrait of life in the ghetto made in relative independence, and the latter is a polished piece of didactic storytelling made inside the studio system. You would never know they were directed by the same man; admirers of Killer of Sheep might turn their noses up at Nightjohn because it was produced by the Dinsey Channel, while the latter film's original audience had probably never heard of Killer of Sheep. I'm more than a little skeptical of Pauline Kael's defense of Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde (1967) as a film that appeals to every kind of moviegoer--why should a film that's so much more than a gangster picture have to please people who aren't sophisticated enough to appeciate it except on the lowest possible level?--and Nightjohn unintentionally exemplifies the dangers of making a film that works on more than one level: Disney wanted from Burnett something professional and boring, and when he delivered something personal and wonderful that still works for its intended audience, the studio insisted on treating it as something professional and boring anyway, and it's entirely possible that no one working for the studio knew what they had. By the same token, while Killer of Sheep was almost instantly recognized as a classic and was one of the first movies selected to be preserved by the Library of Congress in 1990, until a few months ago, it was nearly impossible to see. And at the time Burnett made To Sleep With Anger, he was averaging a film every decade. Whether working in as an independent or within the mainstream, Burnett's been unfairly marginalized his entire career, and it's filmgoers who lose out in the process.

1. Just to clarify, here's a list of the Burnett films I've seen as of February 15th, 2008: Several Friends (1969), Killer of Sheep, the longer version of My Brother's Wedding (I've only sampled the shorter version), When it Rains, Nightjohn and Quiet as Kept (2007).

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Why Is Every Movie I See These Days Such a Bummer?

[Note: There will be spoilers.]

It's relevant to note who the action stars of the 1980s are backing in the U.S. presidential elections: Chuck Norris is campaigning with Mike Huckabee and California Governor Arnold Schwartzenegger (R.) has officially endorsed John McCain. The retro nostalgia for both, which manifested itself in a Walker: Texas Ranger lever ("Walker told me I have AIDs") and a successful bid for the governor of California, respectively, speaks to a particularly post-9/11 sentiment: a desire to re-live the Regan years. Back then, we knew who the bad guys were: the Communists and Saddam Hussein (after he invaded Kuwait, of course). It was obvious Al-Qaeda was bad and the US was good, which made it easier for people to believe in action heroes again.

Comic book movies were popular before September 11th (X-Men [2000], for example), but Sam Raimi's Spider-Man (2002) and Spider-Man 2 (2004) (1), without ever directly referrencing the twin towers, deliberately tap in those sentiments. In the sequel, there's a sequence on a train in which ordinary New Yorkers express their solidarity with Peter Parker/Tobey Maguire after he's unmasked. This is America as it would like to would like to see itself, coming together for the common good--as opposed to President Bush telling people in a speech after 9/11 to keep shopping.

I'm as glad as anyone that the New Innocence of the Spider-Man films didn't last, but I'm not sure the New Cynicism of the past few months is necessarily an improvement. I loved the moral ambiguities raised by Ben Affleck's Gone Baby Gone; Sidney Lumet's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead contains a great performance by Phillip Seymour Hoffman; and Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood at least has chutzpah going for it, even if I miss the sweetness of Hard Eight (1996) and Boogie Nights (1997). The Coen brothers' No Country for Old Men--adapted from a novel by Cormac McCarthy, who's been writing novels since the mid-60s but only came into vogue recently--is a skillfully made thriller but its unchecked nihlism leaves a sour aftertaste, despite a strong supporting turn from Kelly MacDonald as a heroic but ultimately doomed housewife. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is, far and away, the most interesting thing Tim Burton's ever done, but the film is almost as single-minded in its obsession with murder and revenge as its protagonist/Johnny Depp. And then there's Brian De Palma's Redacted, which ends with a gruesome montage of documentary photographs of civilian victims of the war in Iraq (many of them very young children) that left the audience I saw the film with stunned. Rarely have I heard such quiet; nobody argued the film's merits leaving the theater or even made small talk, as if too traumatized by the experience to speak.

I don't think it's a coincidence that three of the films mentioned above (Lumet's, the Coens', De Palma's), and Woody Allen's Match Point (2005), are about collateral damage. Like Jerry Lundegaard/William H. Macy in Fargo (1996), Andy/Hoffman in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is a white-collar family man who's desperately in debt and plans an inside job that goes very, very wrong (here a robbery in his parents' jewelry store rather than kidnapping his own wife), but how Andy responds to the situation, particularly towards the end of the film, is specific and shocking in its amorality. Appalled by his actions, Andy's brother Hank/Ethan Hawke asks him: "Have you gone crazy?!" I couldn't have said it better myself. Reading the reviews of No Country for Old Men, it's curious to see critics talk about Anton Chiguhr/Javier Bardem as a "force of nature" rather than a character in the conventional sense of the word, as if he didn't have any other choice but to kill nearly everyone who crosses his path. This confirms my sense that the climatic dialogue scene between Chiguhr and Carla-Jean/MacDonald (the only likeable character in the film and a spiritual cousin to Marge Gunderson/Frances McDormand) in which she forces him to make a choice is, at best, too little too late, or at worst, muddled and diluted by the surrounding context: Chiguhr kills her anyway, and then promptly gets into a car accident in the very next scene; the film gives the last word to Sheriff Ed Tom Bell/Tommy Lee Jones, who reflects the impotence of lawmen to prevent murderers from striking in the first place or even understanding them. Match Point is essentially a superior remake of Allen's own Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)--more confident as storytelling, which is to say not Bergmanesque. The major difference between the two is that, in the latter, the protagonist/Jonathan Rhys Meyers (2) pulls the trigger himself, and then kills an elderly neighbor/Margaret Tyzack in order to make it look like a break-in. It's as if the only way for American filmmakers to represent the civilian casualities in Iraq is to conceal it behind the mechanics of a well-oiled thriller.

While Allen, Lumet and the Coens, consciously or not, allude to the civilian casualities in Iraq indirectly, De Palma's Redacted is a frontal assault on the audience even before the final sequence, which is why it's been marginalized. Of course, this could never be film for mainstream audiences, even if more staid Iraq-war movies weren't dropping like flies at the box office (In the Valley of Elah, Lions for Lambs, Rendition). De Palma obviously wants people to see these images, which he's stated in interviews were the main reason he made the film, but nobody really wants to see a film with these kinds of images (at one point I closed my eyes, they're so awful). It's self-defeating. As for everything leading up to it, it's decidedly a mixed bag. There are some interesting things in the film, particularly the final dramatic scene in which a returning soldier/Rob Devaney is prodded for a war story by an off-screen voice (De Palma himself) until he breaks down and confesses to participating in the rape and murder of a 15-year-old girl and the subsequent murder of her family. At this point, the off-screen voice shouts out for everyone in the bar to applaud the war hero. This would be enough, but like every other sequence in the film, we are aware of the presence of the camera. Are the tears simply for the camera? Based on a true story, in which American soldiers in Iraq really did rape and murder a 14-year-old girl, the film mediates its narrative through a wide variety of sources--a French documentary, blogs, YouTube, Arabic and central European news reports, etc.--which sometimes overlap, so when an American soldier/Ty Jones is killed by a mine, we see it first from the perspective of another soldier/Izzy Diaz who's keeping a video diary and then again on an insurgent website. This fragmented approach suggests a mosaic, yet instead of a plurality of truths that would address the complexity of the situation, we get an aray of perspectives on a single truth: Graphic images of the war in Iraq have been kept hidden from the American public. As a piece of storytelling, it's limited because the characters are so narrowly defined (i.e., This guy reads books so he's okay, this guy's a redneck so he's a rapist) and De Palma is incapable of relating to the Iraqis themselves except as victims or terrorists, rather than people.

I left De Palma's film feeling sad and deflated, but maybe that's the point. I left There Will Be Blood, which I saw the next day, feeling not as sad and deflated but I don't think I was supposed to anyway. It's a better film than Redacted, and sometimes a great one (the entire first reel--nearly twenty minutes--unfolds without a single word of dialogue), but it's disappointing to invest two and a half hours of your time in a film only to see one character bash in another's head with a bowling pin. Then again, how else could this film have ended? All of Anderson's films are about family, and one can neatly divide his ouvre into those about adopted families (Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood) and those about biological families (Magnolia [1999], Punch-Drunk Love [2002]). But where the adopted families in his first two features, despite their flaws, were far more appealing than the nightmarish biological ones in the second category, as well as the opening scenes of Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood is the first Anderson movie to suggest that the characters would fare better on their own. I admired the film, and Sweeney Todd, for creating thoroughly unlikeable, obsessed and insane characters, and then refusing to compromise one bit. At least in Burton's film, however, there's Mrs. Lovett/Helena Bonham Carter who wants to offer Sweeney a new life; she's the film's emotional center and, in the final scene when Sweeney throws her into a giant furnace, I genuinely recoiled in horror from the moment--all the more so because Burton seems to linger on it for so long. Did I care about anyone in There Will Be Blood? Plainview's adopted son, H.W./Dillon Freasier, to an extent, but he has very little agency.

Taken together as an indication of the zeitgeist, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, Match Point, Redacted, Sweeney Todd and There Will Be Blood are bleak movies for a bleak time. While Huckabee, McCain and Mit Romney fight over who's more Reganesque, on the Democratic side, Barak Obama's being compared to John Kennedy, suggesting a desire to re-live the early 1960s. Maybe it's not a coincidence that the most purely delightful movie I saw in 2007 was the remake of Hairspray, about the civil rights movement, which appeals to an optimism about change. I'm not sure it's a viable political strategy, but I'd much rather watch Hairspray a third time than see No Country for Old Men again.

1. I didn't see Spider-Man 3 but everyone seems to agree it's a dud. I wasn't even crazy about the first two.
2. I haven't seen a single episode of The Tudors or read Philippa Gregoire's "The Other Boleyn Girl" (coming soon to a multiplex near you!), but it seems relevant that Henry VIII is suddenly back in the mainstream consciousness.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

The Castle

Franz Kafka left "The Castle" unfinished, and I can understand why: written in breathless run-on sentences and paragraphs that often stretch across four or more pages, it unfolds like a delirious piece of automatic writing that ends mid-sentence, as if Kafka simply had no idea what Gerstäker's mother should say and simply stopped there. Chapter breaks were determined retroactively, and the centerpiece of the novel is an extended monologue that stretches across three chapters. I read the novel in anticipation of seeing Michael Haneke's 1997 adaptation, made for Austrian TV (like all of his films before The Seventh Continent [1989], a body of work that was shown last year at a retrospective in New York and about which I know nothing), and while reading Kafka's prosafragment (as it's referred to in the film's opening credits), I tried to keep myself innocent of Haneke's film, avoiding pictures or cast lists (the only actors likely to be familiar to North American audiences are the late Ulrich Mühe from The Lives of Others [2005] as K. and his real-life widow, Susanne Lothar, as Frieda, who played an insane piano mom in Haneke's La Pianiste [2001]; they also played the married couple in Haneke's Funny Games, made the same year as The Castle, though I haven't been able to determine which came first). It seemed to me an almost impossible task to adapt Kafka's prose into cinema, for a number of reasons: the dreamlike sense of space and time, metaphysical doubts and, of course, Olga's monologue all get lost in the translation. For a time I wondered if Haneke wouldn't have to restructure the narrative completely in order to accommodate Olga's story; instead, he reduces it to a few sentences, and in the process, he seems to miss the main point of the story: that the gentlemen never actually responds to Amalia's rejection, and therefore, may not have been offended by it at all. Similarly, when Pepi/Birgit Linauer offers an alternate interpretation of K.'s relationship with Frieda, in the novel it's a scene akin to the climatic sequence in Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut (1999) where Zeigler/Sydney Pollack gives Bill Harford/Tom Cruise an alternative version of the previous night's events, and K.'s rejection of Pepi's hypothesis effectively throws the matter back in our laps, since both versions seem equally valid. However, unlike the extended seventeen-minute sequence in Kubrick's film, in Haneke's The Castle, because Pepi's story isn't given that kind of weight, we're more likely to view it as the idle daydreaming of a naïve girl, and by capping the scene with a close-up of Pepi's tearful expression, Haneke places the emphasis on K.'s shattering of her illusions. I suspect the only filmmaker who could've done justice to the story's ambiguities is another Austrian-born director and one who, like Kafka, was a trial attorney: Otto Preminger--except that Preminger's fiercely objective long shots and moving camera are the opposite of Kafka's subjective delirium. (Although the film preserves much of Kakfa's prose through the off-screen narrator/Udo Samel, like the dialogue, it's abridged in such a way that the tone is subdued.) In theory, it seems natural that the director of 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994) and Code inconnu: Récit incomplet de divers voyages (Code Unknown: An Incomplete Account of Several Journeys) (2000) would be drawn to the fragmentary nature of Kafka's novel, but the unfinished "The Castle" is actually a model of fluidity, and the sudden cuts to black which Haneke uses in many of his films simply correspond to the chapter breaks in Kakfa's prosafragment, rather than signifying a narrative ellipsis, and the mid-sentence ending consists of K. and Gerstäcker/Wolfram Berger walking through the snow in one of the film's many right-to-left tracking shots, while the narrator calmly recites the last few sentences Kakfa wrote. If anything, Haneke did a better job of capturing Kafka with his original screenplay for Funny Games, which builds its scenerio one step at a time with insidious logic, and the two villains using language more than force to exercise control over the situation. Indeed, while K.'s two assistants, Artur/Frank Giering (who played one of the villains in Funny Games) and Jeremias/Felix Eitner, in the novel recall the villains in Funny Games, in the film they're more sympathetic and funnier. In the novel, it's easy to accept that the assistants are difficult to tell apart--and in addition to that, easier to tell apart when seperated--but in the film, where they're played by actors who look nothing alike, we're more likely to conclude that K. is treating them rather poorly. And while in the novel, a scene in which the superintendant's wife, Mizzi, looks for a piece of paper in a cabinet has a nightmarish quality to it, with a seemingly endless number of pages flying out of the cabinet, in the film, the assistants' attempts to put everything back in its place--juxtaposed with K.'s conversation with the superintendant--is played for physical comedy. And indeed, the asssistants in the film are funny (I especially love their high five), while in the novel, we're more likely to share K.'s irritation with them. (Conversely, in Funny Games, the villains think they're funny when they're not and Haneke knows this.) Still, Haneke and his art director, Christoph Kanter, have done an impressive job of building the village of Kafka's novel, which is at once medieval and futuristic; the movie's village is a bit more bunker-like than I would've thought, though I admired certain details not found in the book, like a 1950's radio in the inn where K. spends his first night. One interesting ommission is that Haneke never shows us the Castle, while in the novel, K. is able to see it in the distance after the fog lifts, and Barnabas/André Eisermann gives him a detailed description of the offices that's missing from the film. Also missing is Klamm, who K. spies through a peephole