Monday, March 29, 2010

The Last Temptation of Christ

Jean-Luc Godard's comment from 1996 (recently quoted by Jonathan Rosenbaum on his website), that Jane Campion is a perfect example of a talented filmmaker "completely destroyed by money," is one that could be applied to the careers of a lot of directors. I don't know if I'd go so far as to say that Martin Scorsese has been "destroyed" by money, but it's effect on his work has been largely negative. The Last Temptation of Christ (1998)--his adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis' novel, which I haven't read--was one of the last films he made before his budgets started to balloon out of control, and it's sobering to try to imagine what the film would look like if Scorsese made it today with a hundred million dollars at his disposal and Leonardo DiCapprio in the role of Jesus Christ.

Admittedly, even this movie is a bit too polished for my liking. While it's still a long way off from the slick artiness of Mel Gibson's hard-sell passion play (to borrow a term from Manny Farber), in the sequence where Jesus (Willem Dafoe) has the crown of thorns placed on his head, Michael Ballhaus just can't resist lighting the scene as if he were Caravaggio (see above). The least pretentious movie I've seen about the life of Jesus is Pier Paolo Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), which presents the story as simply and as matter-of-factly as possible. And the harsh beauty of the landscapes and Pasolini's non-professional cast (including his own mother as Mary, the mother of Christ) is often stunning.

Incidentally, Pasolini was an atheist (and a Marxist and a homosexual), while Gibson and Scorsese are both devout believers. That's not to say that Scorsese's personal beliefs are irrelevant to his films, but personal filmmaking doesn't necessarily equal good movies. Mean Streets (1973) is highly personal in its tortured Catholic outlook and Little Italy setting (which never feels less than authentic, even though, amusingly, most of the film was shot in Los Angeles). But speaking for myself, I can only watch so many scenes of guys in bars arguing about debts without being bored by the repetition. On the other hand, I learn from Roger Ebert's book on Scorsese that he only agreed to direct After Hours (1985) when studio funding for The Last Temptation of Christ fell through at the last minute. But I think it's one of his very best films--and it's certainly the most tightly scripted, the funniest, and the least pretentious of all his movies.

The Last Temptation of Christ begins with a cautious title card, explaining that the film isn't based on the gospels, which ironically mirrors the pretentious quotation from the bible that's attached to the end of Raging Bull (1980)--Scorsese's previous biopic written by Paul Schrader--where we're apparently supposed to take boxer Jake LaMotta (Robert DeNiro) as some kind of Christ figure, rather than just a run-of-the-mill wife beater. In The Last Temptation of Christ, the text positions the movie as a fictional exploration of the conflict between the spirit and the flesh. Basically what that means in terms of the story is that Jesus can either chose to live like a man, and have a family, or die on the cross and be the messiah. The two key supporting players are Judas (Harvey Keitel) and Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey), who represent his conscience and his penis, respectively. As the film opens, Jesus has turned his back on both by building crosses for the Romans. As he hauls one through town en route to a crucifixion, Mary emerges from a crowd of hecklers to spit in his face. Later, when Jesus goes to see Mary at her place of employment, we learn that she only became a prostitute after her relationship with Jesus fizzled out. That'll show him. (Convincing female psychology has never been one of Schrader and Scorsese's strong suits.)

The film has been criticized for its antiquated sexual politics, with Rosenbaum writing, "Scorsese's use of females throughout the film to signify only maternity and temptation (of the male) makes me wonder if women of all denominations should be objecting to this film rather than fundamentalists of both sexes." In the film's long, climatic sequence, Jesus is tempted by the devil--embodied by a little girl (Juliette Caton) claiming to be his guardian angel--with a vision of the life he could have if he renounced his divine mission. In the vision, he marries Mary Magdalene, but she dies giving birth. The devil/angel girl consoles Jesus by telling him that there's only one woman in the world with many faces, and suggests he marry another Mary, the sister of Lazarus (Randy Danson). This leads to a curious scene in which the second Mary steps out for a second, and the girl suggests that Jesus schtup his wife's sister, Martha (Peggy Gormley), repeating her earlier statement about there only being one woman in the world in order to convince him. This is the only point in the film where Jesus is seriously tempted to do something really sinful, but it's fully in keeping with the rest of the movie in which women are portrayed essentially as things to have sex with and make babies. The only female character who winds up making much of an impression is the guardian angel, who's neither a mother nor a sex object. (Significantly, that this character was a boy in the novel.)

One intriguing subtext of the film is the implied parallel between the Roman occupation of Israel, and the Nazi occupation of France during World War II. In the opening sequence, Jesus is visited by Judas, who's a member of the Zealots--a group not unlike the French Resistance--who want the Romans out of Israel. In the scene, Judas chews him out for collaborating with the Romans by making crosses, saying at one point, "You're a Jew killing Jews." Later, when Mary Magdalene is about to be stoned to death by an angry mob, her crime is servicing Roman soldiers on the sabbath, recalling how after the liberation of France, the girlfriends of German soldiers had their heads shaved in public. However, the parallel only goes so far, as Jesus poses a threat not only to the Romans but the Zealots as well, as his teachings offer an alternative to their (more direct) form of revolution.

Formally, the film benefits from being one of Scorsese's least stylized, most naturalistic films. Early on, when Jesus is delivering a sermon outdoors, and the handheld camera follows him in medium close-up as he moves through the crowd, the film comes within hailing distance of Pasolini's documentary approach--even if the blue-eyed Dafoe looks a little too clean for the role, his shining hippy hair always perfectly coiffed. Adding to the film's naturalism is that the characters aren't quoting the bible word for word (as in Pasolini's film), but speaking in a modern American idiom. The actors deliver their lines as if no one had ever said these things before, and they were just making it up on the spot. I learn from Rosenbaum that Kazantzakis' novel was written in the "demotic" dialect of the Greek peasantry, and in the film, the New York accents of Jesus and his disciples are effectively played against the British accents of the guardian angel and David Bowie, who gives a fine, understated performance as Pontius Pilate. Additionally, the film has an excellent score by Peter Gabriel, blending traditional Middle Eastern melodies with subtly employed electric guitars, which lacks any trace of pompousness--something The Passion of the Christ (2004) exudes from every orifice of its being, the awful score included.

In hindsight, Scorsese's subsequent feature, Goodfellas (1990), could be seen as the tipping point between his earlier, less commercial work, and the expensive blockbusters that followed. I'm sure Scorsese had artistic reasons for making Cape Fear (1991), The Age of Innocence (1993), Casino (1995), Gangs of New York (2002), The Aviator (2004), and--who knows?--The Departed (2006) and Shutter Island (2010), but because of the money involved, he's now in the position of having to make films that appeal to teenagers in the suburbs. (I haven't seen Kundun [1997], but Bringing Out the Dead [1999], a relatively low-budget character study with echoes of Taxi Driver [1976], is obviously an exception.) At this rate of decline, it won't be long until he's making 3D special effects films, and kool-aid sipping reviewers will be trying to pin the whole thing on Michael Powell in order to avoid facing up to the reality that Scorsese's been in a ten-year artistic recession.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Notes Towards a Reading of 'A Single Man'

1. Influences. Not having read Christopher Isherwood's 1964 novel A Single Man, I can't say to what extent it was influenced by Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway (1925). However, Tom Ford's 2009 film version of Isherwood's novel strongly echoes Mrs. Dalloway in its concentrated time frame (both take place over a single day), its attempt to capture a particular moment in history (London in the aftermath of World War I; Los Angeles during the Cuban Missile Crisis), and Ford's style, which finds cinematic correlatives for Woolf's stream of consciousness narration in its use of dream sequences, flashbacks, and various camera techniques to place us inside the mind of its protagonist, George Falconer (Colin Firth), although unlike Woolf's novel, the film restricts itself to the point of view of a single character. Coincidentally, the film occupies the same mainstream literary adaptation/queer cinema cultural niche as The Hours (2002), which is based on a 1998 novel by Michael Cunningham that's explicitly an homage to Mrs. Dalloway (a connection reenforced by the presence of Julianne Moore and the Philip Glassian score by Abel Korzeniowski).

2. Narrative. The film is bookended by two dream sequences. In the first, George comes upon the scene of the car accident that killed his longtime lover, Jim (Matthew Goode), eight months earlier, and lays down beside his corpse in the snow. (We discover later that George wasn't present for the accident, but learned of it by telephone.) Distraught by Jim's death, George intends to commit suicide. Late in the film, George, who teaches literature at a university, runs into a gay student, Kenny Potter (Nicholas Hoult), at a bar, and the two decide to go for a late night swim. George nearly drowns, and the bond between them is sealed when Kenny pulls him out. Since it's his friendship with Kenny that convinces George not to kill himself, it's as if Kenny saved his life twice in one night. However, when they go back to his house to dry off, George has a heart attack and dies. In the film's final scene, Jim appears to him to deliver the kiss of death.

In between these two dream sequences, the film follows George as he goes through the motions of a normal day. As he gets dressed in the morning, he says to himself in the mirror, "Just get through the goddamned day" (that's what they'd call in the screenwriting manuals the statement of goal), before commenting wryly in the narration, "A bit melodramatic." The opening scenes establish five main lines of action. In the morning, George takes down from his bookshelf a copy of Aldous Huxley's After Many a Summer (1939), which I haven't read, in preparation for a class. As he's doing this, the ringing of the telephone triggers the first of five flashbacks spanning sixteen years, which recount George's relationship with Jim in reverse chronological order, ending with their first meeting in 1946. While rereading Huxley's novel on the toilet, George looks out the window and sees his neighbors, the Strunks, on their front lawn. The phone starts ringing again, and this time George answers it. It's his best friend, Charley (Moore), calling to invite him for dinner at her house. Lastly, he packs Huxley's novel and a revolver in his briefcase before leaving for work.

3. Minorities. An Englishman, a homosexual, and an intellectual, George is a minority thrice over. In class, he departs from his planned lesson on After Many a Summer to talk about the fear of minorities who pose an imaginary threat to the majority. On the surface, he's talking about the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany in response to a student who believes he's found a veiled anti-Semitic remark in Huxley's novel. And George's allusion to minorities who can make themselves invisible might be interpreted as a reference to the Jews, since not all Jewish people have quote-unquote "Jewish characteristics," which is why the Nazis made them wear the star of David; the idea was to make them more visible. But on a subterranean level, George is clearly talking about gays--another group targeted by the Nazis--albeit in a kind of code. Overall, his comments don't go over very well with his students since only Kenny is capable of cracking the code. After class, Kenny asks him why he doesn't talk so candidly in class more often, and George explains that he has to be cautious about what he says, because not everyone would understand. Later in the afternoon, when George meets a gay street hustler, Carlos (Jon Kortajarena), in the parking lot of a liquor store, the two men converse in Spanish, which in this context functions as another means of sending coded messages.

However, being invisible cuts both ways. The first flashback in the film is to an evening eight months before when George received a phone call informing him of Jim's death. The call is made by an empathetic cousin without the knowledge of Jim's parents, who didn't think George deserved to be notified. When George inquires about the funeral, he's told that the service is for "family only." Jim's parents are treating George as if he were invisible by refusing to acknowledge his very existence.

After hanging up, George runs over to Charley's house in tears. Later in the film, when he goes there for dinner, as he walks through the door, there's a sudden flashback to him collapsing on her doorstep. After dinner, Charley asks George if Jim wasn't a substitute for a "real" relationship, which understandably causes him to explode. These are the only two scenes in the movie where George loses it emotionally, and in both, the other party (Jim's parents, Charley) is denying the validity of his relationship with Jim. Appropriately, the call that triggers the first flashback is from Charley.

4. Time. The film begins with a title card, "Friday, November 30th, 1962," that's only slightly less specific than the one that opens Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960). Indeed, at one point in the film, George parks his car in front of a giant billboard for that very movie. Throughout the film, there are inserts of clocks which betray the influence of Wong Kar-wai. (It's not a coincidence that the movie features music by Shigeru Umebayashi, who composed the scores for In the Mood for Love [2000] and 2046 [2004].) And when George has a heart attack, as he falls to the floor, he knocks his alarm clock off his bedside table. On the soundtrack, we hear a loud ticking that abruptly stops at the moment of his death. This emphasis on time points to another one of the film's themes, which is letting go of the past.

In the opening narration, George says that, for the first time in his life, he can't see his future as he simply can't imagine living without Jim. And Charley is likewise stuck in the past. ("Living in the past is my future," she quips at one point.) A fellow Brit who evidently has no other friends in Los Angeles, Charley is a boozy divorcée with a cheerfully vulgar sense of humor who would feel right at home in John Cassavetes' Faces (1968). In flashback, George explains to Jim that they were once a couple in London ("Doesn't everyone have sex with women when they're young?"). And Charley evidently still has feelings for him. In anger, she shouts at George that if he hadn't been such a "poof," they'd both be happy. (George might not be, but she would.) What keeps both of them from moving on with their lives is the memory of a past relationship.

In the closing narration (as George burns the suicide notes he's written), he describes having moments of total clarity that bring him back to the present. Accordingly, for most of the movie, the colours appear faded except when George has one of his moments of clarity. The first time this happens in the film is when George arrives at the university. There, he compliments a secretary (Kerri Lynn Pratt) on her beehive hairdo, and when she smiles, the red of her lipstick instantly becomes much brighter. Given the film's debt to Martin Scorsese, which is evident in Ford's taste for high angle shots and slow motion, I wonder if Ford wasn't inspired by the desaturated colours in the bloody climatic sequence of Taxi Driver (1976), where the colour was taken out so the film could get an R rating.

5. Appearances. George is very guarded about his emotions. Even though his heart is (literally) breaking, he keeps it all bottled up, as if it would be impolite to bother anyone with his problems. Similarly, the Strunks are at pains to keep up the pretense of being the perfect family. In the morning, George looks out his window and sees Mrs. Strunk (Gennifer Goodwin) playing with her three children on the lawn. The only crack in the facade is when Mr. Strunk (Teddy Sears) walks out the front door, and he and his wife appear to have some argument. (Like George, we can't hear what they're saying.) Later, while at the bank to clear out his safety deposit box, George is approached by the Strunks' young daughter, Jennifer (Ryan Simpkins), who repeats to him some of the homophobic comments her father makes behind closed doors. We gather that Mr. Strunk has a rigid idea of what's normal, is making his wife and himself miserable by attempting to impose it on their marriage, and he fears and despises gays because they don't fit into his narrow view of how people should behave.

The film makes a point of George being highly observant. In complimenting the secretary, he observes that she always looks beautiful, and the extreme close-ups of her eyes and lips imply a close, scrutinizing gaze. Following Scorsese's example, Ford uses slow motion to suggest heightened concentration, as when George, while talking to a colleague about the Cuban Missile Crisis, becomes distracted by the spectacle of some shirtless college boys playing tennis. (For George, who's already planning to commit suicide anyway, the potential annihilation of the entire planet is a great deal less immediate than his feelings of lust for athletic young men.) Conversely, in the sequence where George is staring at the Strunks, Mrs. Strunk sees him at his window and waves a friendly hello, reversing the gaze. Caught being a peeping tom, George immediately tries to hide from sight. After class, when he's clearing out his office, George appears to be alone. But as he's getting into his car, he's approached by Kenny, who saw him packing up his things and wants to know if he's going somewhere. Like George, Kenny is unusually perceptive and senses that the older man could use a friend. Later at the bar, George tells him that he's exactly as he appears to be--if you look closely.

6. Conclusion. I've only seen the movie twice, so these comments are preliminary rather than exhaustive. I haven't said anything, for instance, about the contrast between Jim, who's carefree and an anti-intellectual, and George, who's just the opposite, or the significance of dogs in the film. And in discussing the film generally (its basic structure, some major themes), I haven't done justice to the sensuous experience of its moment-to-moment unfolding--particularly, the rather astonishing performance by Firth, but also the subtle jump cuts, which I only noticed on second viewing. Like its protagonist, it's a film that merits a closer look.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

An Open Letter to Martin Scorsese

Dear Marty,

Really, dude, this is getting embarrassing.

You used to make character-driven films like Taxi Driver (1976), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), and Bringing Out the Dead (1999)--all three, incidentally, written by Paul Schrader--but now it seems you just want to make big-budget blockbusters.

Of your last four films--all of them, incidentally, costing in excess of one hundred million dollars, and starring Leonardo DiCapprio--the best is undoubtedly The Aviator (2004), an exuberantly overambitious biopic of Howard Hughes (himself something of an overachiever) that was funny, stylish, and fascinating for all of its three hours.

However, the other three are more impersonal. Gangs of New York (2002) is a threadbare revenge drama with an Oliver Stone-like fixation of good and bad father-figures. I know that you'd dreamed of making this film for a quarter-century, but I have little idea as to why.

Even worse was The Departed (2006), a bloated remake of a forgettable Hong Kong policier, Infernal Affairs (2002), which is an hour longer than the original, is full of violence where Infernal Affairs relied on suspense, brings out the worst tendencies in Jack Nicholson, and is again about young men torn between good and bad father-figures. It's undistinguished even on the level of a frankly commercial genre film.

Your new film Shutter Island (2010) begins promisingly. It's based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, whose work also inspired Ben Affleck's Gone Baby Gone (2007), one of the most powerful and thought-provoking films of recent years, although it opens more like a Val Lewton B-picture with two U.S. marshals (DiCapprio and Mark Ruffalo) traveling by ferry to a mental hospital on a secluded island off the coast of Massachusetts to investigate the disappearance of a patient. (That said, at 140 minutes, it's twice as long as a Lewton film.) I was intrigued by the mystery, and in terms of pure craftsmanship, the film is flawlessly made. But Marty... Marty, Marty, Marty. That twist is just so lame.

I know, you didn't write it. But is this really the kind of film you want to be making? We already have an M. Night Shyamalan. My advice is to do another small film, like After Hours (1985). Make a movie just for the love film, whether or not it has commercial appeal. And if DiCapprio loves working with you so much, let him take a pay cut.

Your friend,

Inferno and a Prophet (Montreal Film Diary)

One way of approaching Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea's L'Enfer d'Henri-Georges Clouzot (2009) is to look at it as two movies for the price of one. On the one hand, it's a documentary account of the making of a film by Clouzot, using interviews, narration, and archival footage to explain why the project was never completed. On the other, it uses the footage Clouzot shot in 1964, as well as camera tests and dramatic reenactments (shot by Bromberg and Medrea), to give viewers a sense of what the film might've been like. However, unlike its nearest precedent, It's All True: Based on an Unfinished Film by Orson Welles (1993), where the archival material assembled by Bill Krohn, Myron Meisel, and Richard Wilson provided an introduction to the footage shot by Welles in the 1940s (and edited after his death by Ed Marx), in this film, Clouzot's material is intercut with interviews and archival footage. In other words, while Welles' material in It's All True retains its autonomy, here Clouzot's footage is integrated into the structure of the documentary, turning it into another form of archival material.

The plot of Clouzot's L'Enfer echoes Alain Robbe-Grillet's novel Jealousy (1957) in its story of a husband who suspects his wife of cheating based on ambiguous evidence. Inspired by Federico Fellini's 8 1/2 (1963), Clouzot intended to incorporate into the film several dream sequences in which the distorted images were symbolic of the husband's distorted view of reality. Prior to shooting, Clouzot and his team spent months doing camera tests, experimenting with a wide variety of techniques, including multiple exposures, lights that circle around the actors' faces, and inverted colours with the actors wearing green-grey makeup so that their skin tones come out looking normal. The tests resemble a cross between the nightmare sequences in Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927), a Kenneth Anger film, and a late '60s psychedelic head movie.

As in It's All True, the audio from Clouzot's film didn't survive, apart from a twenty minute test of distorted sound effects he intended to use in the dream sequences. (Technically, there never was a soundtrack for Welles' film, since the project was cancelled before he had time to write the narration, much less record it.) Some of Clouzot's sequences, such as the husband (Serge Reggiani) following his wife (Romy Scheider) through the streets of a tiny resort town, are carried entirely by the images, so Bromberg and Medrea have only to add foley effects and a George Delerue-esque score by Bruno Alexiu. For the dialogue scenes, they have actors (Bérénice Bejo as the wife and Jacques Gamblin as the husband) deliver the lines in a generic theatrical setting. Conversely, when the filmmakers interview members of Clouzot's crew, they're seated in front of a green screen with clips from the film and the camera tests playing behind them.

Ultimately, the documentary is of limited interest. The tests Clouzot shot, though sometimes bewitching, are hardly groundbreaking. After all, filmmakers like Lang have been incorporating avant-garde techniques into narrative films since the silent era. (More recently, one can point to some of the trippy effects Martin Scorsese uses in Shutter Island [2010] during the dream sequences, such as Leonardo DiCapprio inhaling a puff of smoke in reverse motion.) Perhaps if Clouzot's footage were more exciting, his inability to complete the film would take on the tragic dimension of a lost movie, like Welles' unfinished Don Quixote. As it stands, the documentary should appeal to people who are interested in film technique, and are intrigued by Clouzot's experiments, but the behind-the-scenes drama isn't very compelling, as it lacks a Quixotic director-hero for us to root for.

The moral seems to be that Clouzot, beginning with a simple idea, lost his bearings during the months and months of camera tests. So when it came time to shoot, he no longer knew what he wanted. Early in the film we're told that Clouzot's American backers, after looking at some of the early tests, decided to give the director an unlimited budget--effectively handing him the rope to hang himself with. Not an easy director to work for at the best of times, Clouzot became truly insufferable on the making of L'Enfer. The director had three camera crews, so that while he was working with his actors on one shot, the other crews could do the next two set-ups, or at least that was idea. What actually happened is that Clouzot wanted to supervise everything, so the other two crews would have to wait while he watched one working. It's fitting that Clouzot's inspiration was 8 1/2, which is about a director who can't make a film; the difference is that Fellini's film is only about a confused director, not the product of one.

Since narrative films are generally less fun to write about, I'll be brief about some of the other films that I saw on my last trip to Montreal:

Tomm Moore's The Secret of Kells (2009) is a mind-numbing animated feature from Ireland, set during the time of the Viking invasions. The story essentially boils down to a conflict of father-figures: Will the young hero obey his strict uncle, or follow his dream of becoming a manuscript illuminator with the help of a laid back monk? The only slight pleasures in this long 75-minute film are the two-dimensional animation style, which looks like a cross between a medieval religious icon and a Saturday morning cartoon, and the sound of Brendan Gleeson's voice.

The Messenger (2009) is the disappointingly conventional directorial debut of Oren Moverman, who co-wrote the screenplay for Todd Haynes' I'm Not There. (2007) A returning soldier (Ben Foster) with three months left in the service is assigned to casualty notification under the guidance of an older officer (Woody Harrelson), who believes in doing things by the book (i.e., no touching!). But Foster is more empathetic and gets involved in the life of a young widow (Samantha Morton). Romance and male bonding ensue. Since Moverman isn't doing anything creative stylistically, the entire enterprise rests on the story and characters, which are both terminally familiar.

Jacques Audiard's Un prophète (2009) is a novelistic crime saga set in a French prison. A nineteen year old Arab (Tahar Rahim) arrives in the joint, and is aggressively recruited by a Corsican gangster (Neils Arestrup) to whack a snitch in exchange for protection. Male bonding definitely does not ensue. The film's principal pleasures are the patient unfolding of a complicated narrative spanning several years, and the precise understanding of the ins and outs of the criminal underworld, which both invite comparisons with Scorsese's Goodfellas (1990). Although the drab institutional setting of this film is a world apart from the expensive period furnishings of a Hollywood film like Scorsese's, Audiard offsets his documentary aesthetic (handheld camera, shallow depth of field) with magic realist touches. From time to time, the protagonist is visited by the ghost of the dead snitch, who tells him the future. A must-see.