Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

The most inexplicably popular movie of all time? Danny Boyle's alleged "fairy tale" about modern India (2008) won the audience award at the Toronto International Film Festival and a slew of Oscars, but I haven't a clue as to what's supposed to be so appealing about it. The story--about an orphan from Mumbai who becomes a contestant on the Indian spin-off of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?"--is willfully unpleasant and dull, in that order. I'm sure some of the horrors depicted in the film's early scenes (most of them involving very young children) actually do happen in India, but others are purely the invention of the filmmakers. (Do the cops in India really torture people with beatings and electricity when they get too many right answers on a game show?) Once the characters manage to escape the worst of it, however, this quickly turns into a rather banal love story, with the hero going on the game show so he can win enough money to support his long lost true love, a gangster's girlfriend. As in the most brain-dead of romantic comedies, this is one of those movies where the two leads fall in love only because the plot requires it. The script by Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty [1997]) is nominally audacious in its cross-cutting between three different timeframes, and I was never bored, but I was never all that engaged, either. The film has a slick, commercial look--grainy, high contrast cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle (Dogville [2003]), bright colours and more canted angles than you can shake a stick at--that makes this a kissing cousin to Fernando Meirelles' City of God (2002). And it ends with a surprisingly lackluster Bollywood dance number tacked on to the closing credits, which I guess goes to show that the worst horrors imaginable can be made palatable to a mass audience, so long as (spoiler alert!) everyone gets rich in the end. There's a broad swipe at the U.S. when two tourists offer the hero "a taste of the real America" in the form of a hundred dollar bill, as if money solved everything, but that's exactly what the film is saying. (It's the pot calling the kettle black.) Ironically, Boyle's enchanting and underrated family film, Millions (2004), was a lot more tough-minded about capitalism, and more entertaining to boot.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Three Films By Martin Arnold

Martin Arnold's Pièce touchée (1989), Passage à l'acte (1993) and Alone. Life Wastes Andy Hardy (1998) have been grouped together as a trilogy, although I don't know whether it was Arnold's plan to make a trilogy all along (like Kryzstof Kieslowski's "Three Colours" trilogy [1993-94]) or if the films were packaged as such later on (like Rainer Werner Fassbinder's "BRD" trilogy [1979-82]). Considering that the films were made over a period of ten years, it's also likely the idea of a trilogy occurred to Arnold sometime after the making of Pièce touchée but before the completion of Alone. Life Wastes Andy Hardy--but then, I don't know for a fact that it was Arnold's idea to assemble the films as a trilogy in the first place. (My source on this is Jonathan Rosenbaum's review of Alone. Life Wastes Andy Hardy in the Chicago Reader, in which he writes that films "are described" as a trilogy without specifying by whom.)

All three films appropriate found footage from black-and-white movies made in Hollywood between the 1930s and 1960s. And in each film, Arnold uses an optical printer to replay the same action over and over, slow it down or play it back and forth. However, I'm less struck by the similarities between the films than the huge evolution from the nearly non-narrative Pièce touchée (the most severe of Arnold's films in its manipulation of the source footage) to the frankly Oedipal Alone. Life Wastes Andy Hardy, in which Arnold applies his techniques both more sparingly and more expressively than before.

In Pièce touchée, the footage Arnold begins with is practically irrelevant: a single shot from a forgotten 1950s film noir. It begins in an apartment with a woman sitting in a chair and reading. For a long time (at least, in terms of film viewing), the image is completely static. Arnold has replaced the original audio with a mechanical droning that remains constant throughout the film. Eventually, a man opens a door directly behind the woman, and Arnold plays this movement back and forth, as if the man can't decide whether he's coming or going. Then he walks over to where the woman is sitting, and by playing the action back and forth, Arnold turns this motion into a kind of spastic dance. The woman stands up, and she and the man begin walking to the other side of the apartment, the camera tracking with them. In addition to playing the action back and forth, Arnold splices in shots of the same action flipped horizontally and vertically. The editing in places is so rapid, it looks as though two mirror images have been superimposed over one another. What matters isn't what the footage shows (which is fairly banal) but how Arnold manipulates his raw material.

Although Passage à l'acte appropriates a longer stretch of film (an entire scene rather than a single shot), and the footage is taken from a film that's easily recognizable (Robert Mulligan's To Kill a Mockingbird [1962], which is ripe for taking apart), I don't think that the content of the source footage is any more important in this film than in Pièce touchée. For one thing, the chosen scene is fairly inconsequential in terms of plot. It begins with a boy racing out the kitchen door after finishing breakfast and being called back in by his father, who tells him to wait for his sister. Although a black maid is visible in the background of one shot, and the children's mother never says anything, I don't think one could reach any conclusions about the film's representation of minorities and women or the nuclear family that aren't already on the surface of Mulligan's film.

In contrast with Pièce touchée, here Arnold includes the original audio, and his manipulation of it is more striking than what he does with the images. When the boy runs through the screen door, Arnold replays it several times so it sounds like a series of gun shots. In alternating close-ups, the boy tells his sister to "Hurry up," and she replies, "I'm plannin' to." (In a third shot, the father raises his head from his meal to look off-screen right, presumably at the boy, and the mother raises a teacup to her mouth while looking off-screen left, presumably at the girl.) Arnold stutters the footage, showing a little less of the boy's command and a little more of the girl's response each time. And the resulting squawking and squealing makes this for me the funniest of the three films.

Although Arnold seems to have been attracted to the "Andy Hardy" films of the 1930s and 1940s as a source of footage because of their banality, the content of the images used in Alone. Life Wastes Andy Hardy is of far more importance than in the previous two films. Significantly, it's Arnold's only film that references the source in the title. And it's even possible to summarize a plot. However, not having seen any of the "Andy Hardy" movies, I can't say whether the film's Oedipal drama was latent in the source material or if Arnold invented it, nor do I know if all the footage comes from a single film or if it's a composite of several.

The film begins and ends with a kiss. In the first scene, Andy Hardy (Mickey Rooney) is standing behind his mother in a kitchen and kisses her on the back of the neck. Arnold plays the image back and forth several times so that the look of anguish on the mother's face registers more fully. Jarringly, Arnold cuts from this tender, borderline incestuous scene to one of Andy being slapped by his father and told to, "Shut up"--a transition that recalls Terence Davies' Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988), a film about an abusive father. A close-up of Andy touching his cheek is made creepy by the presence of a ghostly Judy Garland in the background. Arnold uses Garland's spectral presence as a kind of pivot point to cut to her in a brightly lit dressing room, singing a plaintive song about loneliness that gives the film its title. In the next scene, Andy is dressed in a tuxedo and his mother asks him where he's going. Andy replies coyly as he walks out the door, "You know where I'm going." Arnold cuts rapidly between the mother's horrified expression in an isolated close-up and Garland's surprise at seeing Andy in a tuxedo. "Andy, you look beautiful!" she exclaims. The film ends with Andy and Garland kissing and then laughing nervously about it. Arnold plays their laughter back and forth, extending their mutual embarrassment. Where Arnold's techniques in his earlier films made the people in his films seem inhuman, here he uses the same techniques to emphasize strong emotions. In other words, the difference between Pièce touchée and Passage à l'acte and this film is the difference between livening up banal footage through avant-garde techniques and using those same techniques to unearth troubling feelings in a seemingly innocuous movie.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Zabriskie Point

Michelangelo Antonioni's only American film, Zabriskie Point (1970), wasn't thought very groovy when it came out and it's still something of a film maudit today. To be sure, no Antonioni film is without interest, and I was intrigued by the director's method of de-dramatizing the narrative through a dispersion of an already loose story and his elliptical handling of certain plot points. However, though the film is often masterful in its execution, the script (credited to no fewer than five screenwriters, including Antonioni, his usual collaborator, Tonino Guerra, and Sam Shepard) is startlingly half-baked in ways that the director's style can't fully compensate for.

In Zabriskie Point, as in Antonioni's other movies, the film has a desultory narrative in which events aren't linked by a strict causality. Early in the film, the hero, Mark (Mark Frechette), and some other young men occupy a building on campus. When the police use tear gas on them, most of the men surrender peacefully, although one (an African-American) is shot while walking through the smoke. Mark manages to slip out undetected through a different exit (one detail that's particularly unconvincing, as if the cops wouldn't have the building surrounded). In retaliation to the death of his friend, Mark shoots a cop in the back and runs away. In a conventional film, the rest of the plot would be about Mark's flight from the law, but here the movie almost seems to forget it happened. After the shooting, Mark walks into a diner and asks the cashier to trust him for the price of a meal. He comes away empty handed and wanders onto an airstrip where he gets into a small plane and flies off. In the desert, he meets a girl and makes love to her at Zabriskie Point. They paint the plane in psychedelic colours, but Mark is shot by a cop while trying to return it. In the film, things just happen rather than one event following logically from the last.

Furthermore, the story is full of digressions that don't lead anywhere. The girl Mark meets in the desert, Daria (Daria Halpin), is a secretary who's on her way to Phoenix to stay with a rich land developer, Lee Allen (Rod Taylor). Before she meets Mark, she stops at a country 'n' western bar to ask for directions to a town whose name she can't recall. Upon learning she's unwittingly found the town, she explains to the bartender that she's looking for a friend of hers who lives there and takes care of sick kids. The bartender says he knows the person she's talking about and wishes he would take the sick kids and get out of town. Outside the bar, she finds a young boy plucking at the debris of a piano. Suddenly, she finds herself surrounded by young boys. One of them asks, "Can I have a piece of ass?" No sooner does she reply, "Would you know what to do with it if you got it?" than the boys try to molest her. Daria never finds her friend. One effect of this creepy sequence--which has nothing to do with the rest of the story and is never referred to afterwards--is to momentarily displace the narrative.

Additionally, the film elides a number of important events. We don't see Lee inviting Daria to come to Phoenix, but only learn of it once she's on the road. Similarly, we don't exactly see Mark shoot the cop or see him being shot later on. In the earlier scene, Antonioni shows Mark pulling up his pant leg to reveal a pistol in an ankle holster, and then immediately cuts to the dead cop falling to the ground. Later, we do see the cop shooting at the plane, which comes to a stop on the runway, but Antonioni leaves us in suspense for a moment as to whether Mark was hit. The camera circles slowly around the cockpit, which at first appears to be empty, until we can see Mark's body slumped over the controls. In most films, the death of the hero would be a major event (usually signaled as such by a reaction shot of a screaming woman onlooker), but Antonioni presents it so casually that it hardly seems to matter at all. (By contrast, the scene where Mark harasses Daria by flying the plane just a few feet above her car is drawn out so long that it registers as the most important sequence in the film.)

Zabriskie Point was made at a time when Hollywood studios were desperately trying to tap into the counterculture, both as a subject and an audience, and many reviewers in 1970 saw the film as a particularly inept attempt to do just that. (In her review of the film, Pauline Kael wrote, "If it weren't for [...] the embarrassment you feel for Antonioni, this would just be one more 'irreverent' pandering-to-youth movie, and (except visually) worse than most.") And I suspect one reason that it's never been critically rehabilitated is that a lot of what reviewers said about the film at the time was right on the money. Indeed, the two leads both give flat, tone deaf performances, but despite the fact that neither of them had any previous acting experience, I'm not sure it's their fault given how thinly their characters were conceived. In the opening sequence, Mark stands up at a student meeting and declares that he's prepared to die for revolution, and later, he insists that revolution is a matter of survival for him. But if the cause is that real for him, shouldn't we have some clue as to what's radicalized him? When he and the other men occupy the building on campus, they make no demands and have nothing they want to protest. (Curiously, the film makes no mention of the war in Vietnam or any other political issue.) In making the hero a radical and using Pink Floyd and The Grateful Dead on the soundtrack, the film positions itself as a counterculture movie, but since the filmmakers--like their hero--don't have any demands or anything they want to protest, it's ultimately just an empty pose.