Thursday, May 27, 2010

Ballet Is a Bitch That Never Sleeps

Once again, the five movies I saw on my latest trip to Montreal were all resolutely old fashioned in one way or another, but only one of them was actually old. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's The Red Shoes (1948) isn't their greatest work--that would be The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), a far more ambitious, political, and moving film--but it's still a glorious achievement in its own right, outclassing any of the new movies I saw, all of which happened to be pretty good.

The story--which is divided into six large movements--begins at the premiere of a new ballet in London. First, we're introduced to some music students who arrive forty-five minutes early in order to get seats in the upper balcony. The score for the ballet was composed by their professor, who sits down in a private box with Boris Lermontov (Anton Wolbrook), the director of the ballet company. As the performance begins, one of the students, Julian Craster (Marius Goring), realizes that the professor has plagiarized his work. Meanwhile, an aristocratic lady sends a note to the professor, asking him to bring Boris to a party at her home after the show. The lady is planning to have her niece, Victoria Page (Moira Shearer), dance for her guests, but Boris tells the lady that he came for a party, not an audition. Victoria's performance is cancelled, and she has a Meet Cute with Boris, who carelessly remarks to her while getting a glass of campaign that they've been spared the horror of having to watch a performance by the lady's nice. ("Mr. Lermontov, I am that horror," she announces, rather amused.) This opening, which begins with students and bohemians, and ends at an aristocratic soirée, seems to promise that the film will be in part about class, but that's not what happens, even when Julian and Victoria fall in love.

The second part of the film begins with Julian going to see Boris at his home the next morning. Boris tells him to forget about his professor ("Remember that it is more disheartening to have to steal than to be stolen from"), and offers him a job coaching the orchestra. Victoria begins at Boris' company at the same time, and when she's offered the lead in a ballet being put on by a smaller company, Boris sees her perform for the first time. He seems transfixed by her dancing, but mysteriously leaves before the end. However, when his company leaves for Paris at the beginning of third part of the film, Boris decides to take her on permanently. In Paris, Boris asks Julian to work on the score for a ballet of "The Red Shoes" (1845) by Hans Christian Andersen. And when the star of the company leaves the ballet to get married--which Boris sees as nothing short of betrayal--he offers the lead to Victoria. Next, the story moves to Monte Carlo, where the company begins rehearsals on "The Red Shoes," and Victoria and Julian fall in love. In the fifth chapter, Boris discovers their romance and becomes enraged. He and Julian have a falling out over it, and Victoria choses to leave the ballet to get married. In the last part of the film, Victoria returns to the ballet, and the company performs "The Red Shoes" a second time.

Like Jacques Rivette's La Belle noiseuse (1991), the story comes down to a conflict between art and life. The most interesting character is Boris, who demands from Victoria complete devotion to the ballet to the exclusion of all else. "Love" doesn't seem an accurate description of how he feels about her; rather, the ballet is a means for him to possess her body solely. Though the relevance of "The Red Shoes" is obvious enough to the story (it's about a girl who can't stop dancing), it seems to have another, private meaning for Boris. When Julian and Victoria leave the company, Boris ensures that no one else will ever perform it. That she's in love with Julian is bad enough, but that it began during "The Red Shoes" adds another level of betrayal. I suspect that when he sees Victoria perform for the first time, the reason he leaves early is that he never wants to see her stop dancing.

Trains are a recurring motif in the film, associating the ballet company with constant motion. So to settle down and get married--to get off the train, so to speak--means to stop moving, both literally and metaphorically. When Victoria's predecessor decides to get married, the company takes leave of her at the train station, where she remains standing on the platform as the train pulls away. When Boris has to return to Paris at the end of the fifth section, Victoria goes to the train station to tell him that she's going to marry Julian. The next time they see each other, Victoria is on a train headed to Monte Carlo, where she's to meet her aunt on vacation. Boris surprises her at one of the stops, and as the train begins to move, he asks her if she's ready to come back to the ballet. Finally, when Victoria falls to her death, we hear the chugging of a train off camera, and see a puff of smoke from the engine rising into the air. Another motif with no obvious meaning is one in which Julian twice plays the piano for some one while they're eating a meal. The first time he meets Boris at his home, the latter is having breakfast, and as Julian plays, he pours a spoonful of sugar onto a melon. Later, during the rehearsals for "The Red Shoes," Victoria is having trouble with the music, so Boris has Julian play the score for her during meals. And as he plays for her, Victoria adds a spoonful of sugar to a glass of orange juice.

The centerpiece of the movie is the performance of "The Red Shoes" at the end of the film's third movement. In style and length, this sequence anticipates the extended ballet numbers in two subsequent Gene Kelly musicals, An American in Paris (1951) and Singin' in the Rain (1952). I have no way of knowing if The Red Shoes popularized such sequences, let alone whether it was a direct influence on those two movies, but it seems probable. (There's no such sequence in Vincente Minnelli's underrated The Pirate [1948], also starring Kelly, which was made the same year as The Red Shoes.) In all three films, the ballet is a self-sufficient narrative, and their durations are such that, after a certain point, one begins to forget about the main story line. However, in this film, at one point, we see Victoria exiting the stage to take a breather, returning us momentarily to the world of the main story. Also, here there's a thematic link between the ballet and the larger narrative that frames it. In all three ballet sequences, the style is deliberately artificial and theatrical, though in neither of the Kelly musicals is the number meant to represent an live ballet performance. However, The Red Shoes employs various effects like multiple exposures, and has numerous scene changes, which would be impossible to do on stage. Indeed, there are moments when the ballet seems to be happening inside Victoria's head, as when she confuses the shoemaker with Boris and then Julian (again bringing us back to the main story, and reenforcing the parallels between it and "The Red Shoes"), which is inconsistent stylistically with the rest of the picture (including the other ballet performances), in which we aren't given access to subjective states, like dreams and memories.

If the film has a flaw, it's that it doesn't have a satisfying conclusion. When Victoria falls to her death, the parallels between the plot and the story of "The Red Shoes" begin to feel forced to the point of taking precedence over logic, and after three viewings, I'm still not sure whether her death is supposed to be an accident or suicide.

Just as a side note, in Montreal I saw a restored 35mm print of the film, and though it looks fine, there's a very noticeable, constant hissing on the soundtrack throughout the entire movie, which is also audible on my pirated Korean DVD. I wonder if the restoration was only for the image, or if due to damage to the original negative, this is the best sound we can hope to have.

Moving from the really old to the really old fashioned, Juan José Campanella's The Secret in Their Eyes (2009) is the kind of squarely conventional procedural that Hollywood used to churn out in the 1940s and '50s (the dialogue is salted with references to Mike Hammer and Perry Mason). It has clear-cut good guys and bad guys, a romantic subplot, and the hero even has an alcoholic sidekick, who has sudden inspirations about the case and belatedly redeems himself with a heroic gesture.

As the film opens, its hero, Benjamín Esposito (Ricardo Darín), is a retired DA--or whatever the Argentinean equivalent of a DA is called--who's haunted by a case he investigated in 1974, which he plans to use as the inspiration for a novel. What's special about the case is that the woman who was raped and murdered was Benjamín's ex-girlfriend. The opening sequence is a flashback to the last time he saw her alive, as he boarded a train. (Again with the trains!) This turns out to be the first of three possible openings Benjamín is considering for his book, each shown in a separate flashback (the other two are of him having breakfast with the woman just prior to boarding the train, and her being raped). In the second sequence, Benjamín pays a visit to his former boss, Irene Menéndez Hastings (Soledad Villamil), and tells her he's having trouble getting started. She recommends that he start with his most vivid memory, triggering a flashback to Irene's first day on the job, introducing the second main thread, which is Benjamín's unrequited love for Irene. If you're hoping for a self-conscious meta-narrative in the spirit of Alain Resnais' Providence (1977), you can just forget about it; there's nothing to indicate that Benjamín is doing anything but sticking to the facts, and when he shows the book to a friend to get some feedback, they remark that it reads like a long memo.

The story is broken up into five large sections by fades to black. (If you haven't seen the film, you may want to skip the next three paragraphs.) The first and longest portion of the movie is principally about the identification and arrest of the killer. Looking through some old photo albums kept by the victim's last boyfriend, Ricardo Morales (Pablo Rago), Benjamín notices that one of the woman's friends, Isidoro Gómez (Javier Godino), is staring at her creepily in several pictures. And luckily, Ricardo keeps fastidious records of the names of each person in every photo so as not to forget who they are. I suppose one might accuse the film of lazy screenwriting in this department, but all clues in murder mysteries are essentially arbitrary, so I don't mind Campanella taking shortcuts to expedite the identification of the killer. Furthermore, one could add that it speaks to the film's themes of photography and memory, the point being that, just like how a photograph is a moment frozen in time, Benjamín and Ricardo's love for the dead woman is an unchanging constant.

Isidoro is obviously the one whodunit, but the case is stalled by bureaucratic red tape when he goes into hiding in another province. (There's a running gag about the ridiculous amount of paperwork that Benjamín and his colleagues always have piled on their desks.) That's when the sidekick, Pablo Sandoval (Guillermo Fancella), gets his sudden inspiration, which is also completely arbitrary. Meanwhile, Benjamín instantly falls in love with Irene, but lacks the courage to say anything because he thinks she's out of his league (she went to an ivy league American university and has a Scottish name), and eventually, Irene gets engaged to another man.

In the second part of the film, Isidoro gets out of prison by informing on subversives (at that time, Argentina was under a dictatorship), and comes after Benjamín. At the same time, Benjamín makes some progress with Irene; she knows how he feels about her, and one day makes an appointment to meet him after work. However, he never makes it due to Pablo's heroic act. In the next section, Benjamín goes into hiding, leaving Irene behind, and again there's a farewell at a train station. This is where Benjamín's book ends, but not the film, and in the fourth part of the movie, he resumes his quest to bring Isidoro to justice after a twenty-five year hiatus. He goes to visit Ricardo at his home in the country, and discovers that the latter was only able to find justice (as opposed to revenge) by imprisoning Isidoro in his basement for life. And in the final section, Benjamín finally makes his move on Irene. If you want to get psychoanalytical about it, the film is about the failure of the male to protect the woman, which represents a challenge to his manhood, and it's only when that threat, embodied by Isidoro, is neutralized that he feels confident to pursue another relationship.

At the level of local texture, there are some memorable isolated sequences. For instance, there's a wonderfully funny scene in which Benjamín and Pablo search the home of Isidoro's mother. Sequences like this, in which the hero is snooping around somebody's house for clues, are almost inherently awesome (see Howard Hawks' The Big Sleep [1946]). And there's one particularly effective shot in which Benjamín is sitting on a bed in the foreground, reading some letters he found in a drawer, and in the background, out of focus, we see a figure enter the room and slowly creep up behind him. Also, there's that really neat handheld sequence shot at the soccer stadium. Part of it was obviously done on computers, but most of it is just crazy, pointless ingenuity.

Some commentators were surprised when the film won this year's Oscar for best foreign language film, beating out Jacques Audiard's Un prophète and Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon (both 2009), although after last year's ceremony--in which the Academy passed over festival favorites like Laurent Cantet's Entre les murs, Götz Spielmann's Revanche, and Ari Folman's Waltz With Bashir in favor of Yojiro Takita's Departures (all 2008), which I haven't seen--I was sort of expecting something similar to happen this year. Not surprisingly, Campanella's film is the sort of crowd-pleasing middlebrow effort that the French like to call "cinéma de qualité," and which Roger Ebert would deem a "real movie." I liked it only moderately (for one thing, it's not as ambitious as the films by Audiard and Haneke, nor is it as accomplished stylistically), but for an old school Hollywood thriller, it's pretty good--not in the same league as The Ghost Writer, but better than Shutter Island (both 2010).

Even more than the (rather stale) conventions of a teen comedy, what makes makes Jacob Tierney's The Trotsky (2009) feel so much like a trip on Mister Peabody's WABAC Machine--and for these conservative times, something of a provocation--is its suggestion that the life of Leon Trotsky has something relevant and useful to teach us for the present. The film is about a Montreal teenager, Leon Bronstein (Jay Baruchel), who believes that he's the reincarnation of Leon Trotsky, and in contrast with Miguel Arteta's politically neutered and defeatist Youth in Revolt (2009), which sees teenage rebellion as an empty pose designed to impress girls, this film is unwavering in its optimism that the world can be changed for the better, including high school.

The film opens with a pre-credit sequence in which the young Leon tries to unionize the workers at his father's factory, and stages a hunger strike in protest of management's exploitation of the workers. His father, David (Saul Rubinek), has Leon arrested, which has two consequences. First, he seeks out a commie law professor, Frank McGovern (Michael Murphy), to help him sue David, but Frank tells Leon that he hasn't got a case. Leon subsequently discovers that Frank has a twenty-seven year old daughter, Alexandra (Emily Hampshire), who Leon believes he's fated to marry (and later divorce) as the other Leon's first wife was also an older woman named Alexandra. The second consequence is that David decides that Leon, like his idol, should attend public school. There, Leon tries to organize a real student union, and when the school board rejects his idea (because otherwise there wouldn't be a movie), Leon stages a student walkout (which fails) before turning to more radical action. If much of the plot (overachiever, public school, older woman), and the opening shot (an overhead view of a book), remind one of Wes Anderson's Rushmore (1998), Tierney is far less of a humanist, neatly dividing his characters into cool revolutionaries and shrill, conservative ass-holes who need to be told to, "Shut the fuck up."

Nor, for that matter, is Tierney much of a stylist. As in two other superior teen movies I can think of--namely, Allan Moyle's Pump Up the Volume (1990) and Brian Dannelly's Saved! (2004)--the screenplay and the performances are everything, and mise en scène counts for nothing.

Back in the giddy heyday of Marxist film theory in the 1970s, there was an irreconcilable split between those who thought of cinema as merely a vehicle for radical content to spur the masses to revolution, and those who felt that radical form could demystify the cinematic apparatus and/or revolutionize consciousness. In a 1974 essay titled, "Political Formations in the Cinema of Jean-Marie Straub" (Jump Cut, no. 4), Martin Walsh writes, "The central problematic of radical art has been the extent to which the form of the art work must be radical, in support of its content." Those on the radical content side of the fence tended to accuse filmmakers like Straub and Danièle Huillet of being obscurantist, and The Trotsky, which is perfectly conventional in style and structure, no doubt would've reached a much larger audience had it an expensive ad campaign on par with that for Youth in Revolt. But even if that were the case, its unlikely that the film would've inspired a revolution. However, in positing Trotsky's life as a kind of object lesson to learn from and emulate (which leads one to the question of which aspects of his legacy are still relevant, and which should be modified or discarded), the film certainly offers viewers something to think about.

If The Trotsky views the present from the perspective of the past, another retrograde Canadian teen movie, Leslie, My Name Is Evil (2009)--the third feature by prairie flower child Reginald Harkema, which is no less preoccupied with the 1960s counterculture, and the pre-'68 work of Jean-Luc Godard, than his earlier Monkey Warfare (2006)--sees both the counterculture and Godard as relics of the past with no relevance to the present whatsoever. Ultimately, Harkema's interest in both is symptomatic of a political stalemate: He despises the status quo, but sees any attempt to overthrow it as fundamentally misguided. Like Bernardo Bertolucci's equally defeatist but more entertaining The Dreamers (2003), Leslie, My Name Is Evil wants to celebrate the sexier aspects of the counterculture while giving a disclaimer that you shouldn't try this at home.

Like Monkey Warfare, the film is essentially a cautionary tale about how the counterculture turns white teenage girls from the suburbs into dangerous psychopaths. However, in Leslie, My Name Is Evil, Harkema gives us a psychological explanation for why Leslie Van Houten (Kristen Hager) became a follower of Charles Manson (Ryan Robbins): You see, her parents got a divorce, and Leslie was looking for a father-figure, and then her mom (Tracy Wright) made her get an abortion... In regards to Godard, his influence is mainly felt in the casting of Gregory Smith, an actor who resembles a young Jean-Pierre Leaud; the use of bold, primary colours; and the film's anger at civilian casualties in the American war in Vietnam (and in particular, the massacre at My Lai), leading one to wonder why Harkema is so concerned with civilian deaths in a war that ended thirty-five years ago, but apparently not at all with civilian deaths in Afghanistan in the present. It's telling that, unlike Leaud's character in Masculin féminin: 15 fait précis (1966), none of the characters in this movie are involved in the anti-war movement, least of all Manson and his followers.

The film opens with a Meet Cute, in which Perry (Smith), a straight-laced young man who's been selected for jury duty, is being questioned by two lawyers in the murder trial of Charles Manson (referred to in the film simply as Charlie) and three of his female followers. When the defending attorney asks Perry if he would assume that some one's guilty of a crime simply because they're a hippy, he takes a long look at the defendants, finally resting his gaze on Leslie. She flashes him a little smile, and Perry shyly reciprocates. The two never have a real conversation, so the film is essentially a love story in eyeline matches.

Following the credit sequence, the first half of the movie crosscuts between Leslie and Perry's lives before the trial, finding parallels between Nixon's silent majority and the Manson cult. Leslie's story opens in 1963 when she was still living at home. (In one scene, we see John F. Kennedy's funeral on a TV in the background.) After her parents divorce, she drifts into the orbit of Katie (Kaniehtiio Horn, who was also in The Trotsky), a hippy chick who introduces her to Charlie. This leads to a love triangle involving Leslie, Charlie, and Leslie's boyfriend, Bobby (Travis Milne), which is resolved when the latter pledges his alliance to Charlie. In the very next scene, we learn that Bobby's been arrested for murder, and he's never mentioned again.

Perry's story begins a few years later (something indicated by a poster of Lyndon Johnson in a library) when an innocent Christian girl, Dorothy (Kristin Adams), asks him if he'd be interested in hearing about Jesus Christ. And even though he's already a Christian, Perry pretends to be interested. (She shows him a comic book about a girl named Leslie who falls in with a crowd of hippies and takes acid. Likewise, the first time Leslie meets Charlie, he's tied to a cross, and he frequently quotes from the bible.) Perry and Dorothy start going steady, and when he learns that he can get out of the draft by taking a job at a chemical factory that manufactures Agent Orange, he decides to propose. However, in the second half of the film, when Perry is summoned for jury duty, he has to be sequestered due to media coverage of the trial, and their marriage is postponed indefinitely. According to Perry's father, it's his patriotic duty to serve in Vietnam and find Leslie guilty, and it's only when Perry can bring himself to sentence her to death that he's able to marry Dorothy and go to work as a chemist. (The final shot is a parodic image of a Vietnamese woman with intentionally fake-looking burns all over her body from Agent Orange, seated in front of a painted backdrop of a rice field, and holding a dead baby with smoke coming out of its eyes.) In Lacanian terms, the film is an Oedipal narrative about submitting to the Law of the Father.

Throughout the movie, Harkema maintains a satiric tone in part by calling attention to, and exaggerating, the film's artifice. When Perry is interviewed for the job at the chemical factory, he asks what chemicals have to do with the war effort, and his interlocutor replies enigmatically that sometimes the war has to be fought at home (or words to that effect). The film then cuts directly to archival footage of Vietnam War protestors clashing with police. Cut to Perry walking out of a building where he's met by Dorothy following his interview. Looking offscreen to the left, Perry asks what's going on, and Dorothy answers that it's just a bunch of troublemakers with nothing better to do (or words to that effect). Harkema then cuts back to the archival footage, as if the protest and the conversation between Perry and Dorothy were happening simultaneously in close proximity. Yet, the film makes no attempt to disguise the incongruousness of the two types of footage (fiction and non-fiction, colour and black-and-white), which are diametrically opposed to each other.

For all its formal hijinks (which more closely resemble early '90s Oliver Stone than the Godard of La Chinoise and 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d'elle [both 1967]), the film's defeatism tends to preclude the viewer from thinking too hard about any of the issues involved. It mourns the inability of the anti-war movement to stop the war in Vietnam without bothering to examine why it failed. Instead, it focuses on the Manson cult, which is a lot sexier than the anti-war movement (the psychosexual subtext of Leslie repeatedly thrusting a butcher knife into a dead body couldn't be more blatant), but is basically apolitical. Though less formulaic and more stylistically accomplished than The Trotsky, it leaves one with a good deal less to think about.

The most pleasurable new movie I saw, as well as the funniest, Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010) is a rather scathing documentary by the British street artist Banksy about his former comrade, Thierry Guetta (aka Mr. Brainwash). There aren't many movies that qualify as works of art history, and this one offers a virtual crash course in the history of street art by one of its leading figures, capturing the moment when graffiti went from being an anti-capitalist underground movement (almost a bridge between the anti-institutional bent of Conceptual Art and the aesthetics of commercial art and Pop Art) to being a very hot commodity in the legit art world.

Narrated by Rhys Ifans, the film is a straightforward account of how Guetta, who had a natural talent for making money and a private obsession with videotaping every waking moment of his life, came to document the work of several prominent graffiti artists, including Shephard Fairey (who designed the Obama "Hope" poster), and the elusive Banksy, who's identity is a closely guarded secret. (He insisted that Guetta only film his hands and stand behind him while shooting. And in the talking head interviews, his face his hidden in shadow and his voice digitally altered, as if he were in the witness protection program.) The relationship proved mutually beneficial, as Guetta needed a subject and the artists needed some one to document their work. (Guetta was also a good lookout, in case the cops showed up.) He and Banksy bonded during a stunt at Disneyland, when Guetta was detained by security for four hours and interrogated by a man claiming to be from the FBI. So what could Guetta have done to make Banksy mad enough to make this documentary about him?

First of all, though Guetta claimed to be making a documentary about street art, that turned out to be not technically true. And when he did assemble the footage he shot, it was an unqualified disaster--a structureless, monotonous turd of a movie. To distract Guetta while he reedited the footage (presumably into this movie), Banksy encouraged him to do a small show. And that's when Guetta lost his mind. The last half of the documentary is almost a step-by-step manual on how not to put on an art exhibition. Basically, when Guetta should've been working on his art, he was busy hyping the show in the press. Although Guetta had to put down his camera while working on the exhibition, titled "Life Is Beautiful," he evidently had some one follow him around with a camera to record the unfolding train wreck, and the question I have is: How on earth did Banksy convince Guetta to hand over the footage? I can't imagine they're still friends after this.

I'm not the world's biggest enthusiast of street art, but it seems obvious that Banksy is one of the more creative people working in the genre, and that Guetta, despite his talent for publicity, is not. Some of Guetta's ideas are cute, but most of his pieces (like his composite images of various celebrities' faces with Marilyn Monroe's hair) are horribly repetitive, not in the least critical, and derivative of better artists. As Bansky puts it in the film, Guetta is the true heir to Andy Warhol because, where the latter, by endlessly repeating images of various icons, made them meaningless, Guetta, in repeating the same icons, has made them even more meaningless.

Impressively, even though Banksy evidently had no intention of making a film in the first place, he and his editors bring a structure and a perspective to the mass of material that Guetta had shot over a period of ten years, and keep the story moving at very brisk pace. (I don't envy the people who had to go through all the footage in search of useable material.) The film it reminds me of is Orson Welles' F for Fake (1974), another art world documentary (although not one that qualifies as a history of art), which liberally incorporates material from a French documentary that Welles himself had appeared in. Exit Through the Gift Shop isn't as good as Welles' film (otherwise, it would be the best movie of the decade), but it is very funny, albeit in a cringe-inducing sort of way, and Guetta is one of the most fascinating screen characters of recent memory.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Funeral

Abel Ferrara's The Funeral (1996) is a collection of fragments--fascinating, eccentric, incomplete--that don't quite fit together as a coherent whole. The crowded screenplay by Nicholas St. John (his tenth and final script for Ferrara) tackles a buffet of heavy subjects, including revenge, suicide, and labor disputes, but never more than one of these things at the same time. The obvious upside of Ferrara's scattershot approach is that there's too much going on for the film ever to become boring; the downside is that he never pursues an idea to its logical conclusion.

Set during the Depression, the film is a gangster story about three brothers. The movie opens with the coffin containing the body of the youngest brother, Johnny (Vincent Gallo), being delivered to the home of the middle brother, Chez (Chris Penn). The oldest, Ray (Christopher Walken), wants to find who did it and take revenge, but his wife, Jean (Annabella Sciorra), who still believes that the family can be saved, pleads for him to let it go. In a flashback to Ray's childhood, his father (Gian DiDonna) has him kill a man as a kind of rite of passage, explaining that if they were to let him go, the man would inevitably come back and kill them in case they changed their minds.

Also in flashback, we see the days leading up to Johnny's death. One day, a rival gangster, Gaspare (Benicio Del Toro), comes into the brothers' bar, representing a factory owner who wants to pay the brothers a thousand dollars a week to have the union lay off the factory owner. And Johnny, who's a communist, takes an instant disliking to Gaspare ("You could hire a lot of workers for a thousand dollars"). Later, Johnny starts sleeping with Gaspare's wife, which makes Gaspare a suspect in his murder. In the middle of the night, Ray's henchmen bring Gaspare in, and Ray comes to the realization that he can't let him go, even if he didn't kill Johnny, echoing the scene with Ray's father ("I have no choice. You're never going to forget this"). For his part, Gaspare seems remarkably coolheaded about the prospect of having his legs chopped off with an axe.

Additionally, there's a third subplot involving Chez, who has a traumatic flashback of his own. We learn that their father committed suicide, and as a result, Chez suffers from depression. His wife, Clara (Isabella Rossellini), wants him to go to a clinic in Belgium for treatment, but when she assures him that no one would know, Chez replies, "I'd know," which effectively ends the discussion. If the revenge plot is an awkward fit for the stuff about labor unions, this whole subplot seems to exist in isolation from the rest of the movie, almost as if their father's suicide had no effect on either Johnny or Ray.

Maybe Ferrara wants to show that all three brothers are beyond saving, although that probably wouldn't matter to Johnny, who's almost certainly an atheist. In any event, there's a curious sequence set in a whorehouse in which Chez offers a teenage prostitute five dollars to go straight home ("You could have a life," he tells her). The girl replies that, if he gave her five more, they could have sex; Chez responds by giving her twenty and then raping her while shouting, "You just sold your soul!" Ferrara takes Catholicism, and the conventions of film noir, too seriously for women to have any role in the story except as nagging wives or whores.

Ferrara is willing to spend a lot of time on scenes that are not particularly essential to the plot. In one long sequence in a bar, a friend of Johnny's acts like a drunken buffoon, which starts to wear on Gaspare's nerves. A little later, when the friend goes outside to pee against a wall, Gaspare stabs him in the belly. I think the point of this sequence is to show that Gaspare is capable of killing, making him a more credible suspect in Johnny's murder, but the length of the sequence is far out of proportion to its importance to the story. On the other hand, when Ray uncovers Johnny's killer, both his identity and his motive seem rather arbitrary. We don't even see the event that motivated Johnny's murder, which is probably just as well since it sounds more like something Chez would do. Likewise, Gretchen Mol is supposed to play Johnny's girlfriend, but unless I'm mistaken, she and Gallo don't have a single scene together.

Would Ferrara produce a better movie if he were more disciplined? His best known work, Bad Lieutenant (1992), also has a rather full plate and again Ferrara creates some memorable isolated sequences (the scene in which Harvey Keitel pulls over two teenage girls is some kind of creepy masterpiece), but there, the film's apocalyptic vision of Dinkins-era New Yawk gives the story a kind of scuzzy coherence, so it adds up to something greater than the sum of its parts. The Funeral has some very good scenes, but they don't add up.

I haven't seen all of Ferrara's films, but at the risk of generalizing, The Funeral feels like a tipping point between the relative coherence of Bad Lieutenant and his more confused (but still interesting) later films, like Mary (2005)--that is, the moment when structure and theme go out the window, and the scene becomes everything. In addition to The Funeral being his last collaboration with St. John, all of his subsequent films--with the exception of 'R Xmas (2001) and his documentary Chelsea on the Rocks (2008), which I haven't seen--have been shot abroad, presumably because it's become too expensive to shoot in New York; Martin Scorsese hasn't made a film there since Bringing Out the Dead (1999), and Woody Allen works primarily in London now. If Ferrara's become unhinged structurally and geographically, the results are often thrilling, as in his more languorous and experimental New Rose Hotel (1998), but they also lack resonance.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Around the World in 48 Hours, Part 2

Not to be confused with Shortbus (2006), Anat Zuria's critical documentary Black Bus (2010) begins with a title informing us that the women profiled in the film grew up in Israel's ultra-orthodox community, against the backdrop of its "modesty revolution," which places appalling restrictions on the freedom of Hasidic women. For instance, there are special buses for orthodox Jews, in which women are required to sit in the back third of the bus. Even for a woman to enter by the front doors is forbidden.

The film is about two women who've left the Hasidic community: A blogger, Sara, who writes about her own experiences, as well as those of a few informants still on the inside; and an amateur photographer, Shulamit, who confronts the orthodox community more directly by taking pictures on the street and on the bus. As she no longer has any contact with the community, including her own family, the only arena in which Shulamit (and Zuria) can engage the Hasidic community is in the public sphere.

Because the film views the orthodox community entirely from the outside, it requires in spots a leap of imagination. In one sequence, Shulamit is lying on her bed, uploading some photos to Facebook, and Zuria frames her face in close-up. After a while, Zuria inquires from offscreen if any of Shulamit's friends have also left the Hasidic community. She answers that one did, but it's a sad story and she's not ready to talk about it. Zuria keeps recording, at one point panning down to show that Shulamit is fiddling with her glasses, and then back up to her face as, gradually, tears begin to form. It's a very long shot, and there's something shockingly intimate about it (especially if you're watching the film in a theatre, as I was, sitting in the second row), yet at the same time, something is being withheld, and the tension between intimacy and mystery is really intriguing.

In so many words, the film shows us only the tip of the iceberg and asks us to imagine its depths. In the film, we see Hasidic men and women as they appear in public, while the recollections of Shulamit, Sara, and her informants (whose faces are blurred so they can't be identified) invite us to envisage what goes on behind closed doors. Incidentally, one of the things we learn is that the orthodox community is obsessed with appearances above all else. Sara recalls how, when she was living with her parents, if her clothes were acceptable, that meant she was acceptable. Her family never really saw her, just her clothes. I'm reminded of a quote from Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence (1925): "In reality, they all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs."

There is at least one thing I agree on with the orthodox community: couples kissing in public. I don't want to see that, but by doing it out in public, it's like they're forcing me to look at it. And if I do look, then I'm the one who's creepy. Have some shame, people.

David Ridgen and Nicolas Rossier's American Radical: The Trials of Norman Finkelstein (2009) is an interesting but ultimately unsatisfying documentary about Norman Finkelstein, an American political scientist of Jewish descent who's become a pariah for his views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and his book The Holocaust Industry (2000). Using talking head interviews, and video of Finkelstein giving talks at various universities and in Palestine, the film traces Finkelstein's life from his childhood in Coney Island to the controversy around his writings, and in particular, his feud with Alan Dershowitz, but it leaves the substance of his writings largely untouched.

From what I've read on Wikipedia, the crux of Finkelstein's writings is that Israel has one of the worst human rights records in the world, and that a powerful Jewish lobby has exploited the memory of the Holocaust to portray Israel as a victim state, while at the same time, shaking down western Europe for huge legal settlements, which ultimately go to the lobby and its lawyers rather than Holocaust survivors. In Dershowitz's book, The Case for Israel (2003), he argues that Israel has done more to obey the rule of law than any country with comparable security risks (a thesis he succinctly reiterates in the film), and Finkelstein refutes this claim in his book, Beyond Chutzpah (2005).

What do we see in the film? Finkelstein goes on a speaking tour of Canadian universities, and when one student challenges him on his likening of Israel to the Nazis, he shouts at her until she cries (something roundly applauded by most of the students in attendance), while a vocal minority tries, in turn, to shout him down. On a radio debate with Dershowitz, Finkelstein not only argues that The Case for Israel leans heavily on Joan Peters' From Time Immemorial (1984) as a source--a book which Finkelstein himself is credited with discrediting--but goes on to accuse Dershowitz of outright plagiarism. Dershowitz, in response, accuses Finkelstein of being an anti-Semitic Jew, and leads a campaign against his receiving tenure, which is ultimately successful.

More than once in the film, Finkelstein says that--though he's been smeared as a self-hating Jew, and his writings marginalized by mainstream academia--no one has actually challenged his research or his conclusions. I'm not a political scientist, but after reading the article on Israel's human rights record on Wikipedia, my impression is that the country has the best human rights record in the region by far, so long as you don't live in the occupied territories. Obviously it's a complicated issue, more so than either Finkelstein or his critics appear willing to concede. On the one hand, Finkelstein demonizes Israel by likening it to Nazi Germany (while at the same time uncritically endorsing Hamas and Hezbollah), which leads his detractors to demonize him in turn as an anti-Semitic Jew.

Rather than interrogating the factual claims of either side even a little bit, the documentary wants to teach the controversy with the result that it winds up confirming the viewer's pre-conceived ideas on the subject, no matter which side you happen to be on. Despite their attempts to keep it fair and balanced, Ridgen and Rossier are obviously sympathetic to Finkelstein; simply by making a documentary on him, they help to legitimize his work, and they make no attempt to debunk his theories. However, waiting in line for Black Bus, I overheard the guy in front of me say that Finkelstein had an Oedipus complex and was sexually frustrated. Like an afternoon of watching cable news, American Radical is entertaining but not particularly edifying.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Around the World in 48 Hours, Part 1

Populist in the best sense of the word, Lee Yoon-ki's My Dear Enemy (2008) is a beguiling South Korean comedy about people sticking together when times are tough. One of the movie's strengths is how quickly it gets the plot moving: In the opening sequence, Hee-su (Jeon Do-yeon, from Milyang [2007]) confronts her ex-boyfriend, Byeong-woon (Ha Jung-woo), demanding that he repay her the 3.5 million won (or three thousand five hundred dollars) he borrowed from her a year ago, just prior to their breakup. Byeong-woon, who isn't the most reliable fellow, doesn't have the cash, and the film follows them over the course of a single day as Byeong-woon visits several other women he's acquainted with in order to the borrow money to repay Hee-su.

Although this is essentially a light comedy, and the lilting, jazzy score--which recalls the music in Jacques Tati's Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (1953) and Mon oncle (1958)--indicates that we're not supposed to take its story too seriously, the movie nevertheless gets into some tricky territory involving money and ethics. At first, Hee-su appears to be unambiguously in the right, demanding repayment from Byeong-woon on an overdue loan, but as the day goes on, she feels less and less comfortable taking money from him. The first person they visit is a successful businesswoman, who readily hands over a cheque for a million won. But afterwards, Byeong-woon explains that the collateral for the loan is his having to do whatever the businesswoman wants, which may or may not involve sleeping with her. And by accepting her money, Hee-su is complicit in Byeong-woon's compromising behavior.

The film only gradually reveals information about the two leads. In an early scene, they stop to get a snack at Kentucky Fried Chicken, and when Hee-su refuses to share her food (which is common in Korea), Byeong-woon remarks, "Still don't like sharing food?" In other words, Hee-su has always been a self-reliant person, and the film (which is Korean to the core) argues that it's better to be generous. The last person they visit is a single mother, and when Hee-su (who doesn't need the money) tries to refuse, the woman insists that Hee-su take it, as she made a promise to help Byeong-woon. (Keeping promises in order to save face is a big deal in Korea.)

Though the film lacks the dramatic shifts in tone we've come to expect from Korean movies and TV shows, such as Lee Chang-dong's Peppermint Candy (1999) and Boys Before Flowers (2009), it does have a varied style. The film opens in a parking lot with a man and a woman (who are never seen again) talking about a friend of theirs who made some money in real estate. (This not only introduces the theme of the movie, but anticipates a story involving a man, a woman, and a car.) As they walk away from their car, the camera continues following them in an unbroken steadicam shot. When the couple passes a group of men, the camera begins following them, and then Hee-su as she enters a horse racing track. This lengthy tracking shot is immediately followed by a rapidly edited sequence showing Hee-su frantically searching the track with a jump cut every few seconds. The rest of the movie is somewhere between these two extremes, and what Lee appears to be doing here is preparing the viewer for the film's elastic rhythm. Written, photographed, and edited with impeccable precision, this is popular filmmaking at its near-finest.

Sebastián Silva's discreetly charming Chilean black comedy The Maid (2009) is similarly quick about setting up its premise. The film opens with the title character, Raquel (Catalina Saavedra), eating alone in the kitchen, while the family she works for has dinner together in the next room. Afterward, while washing the dishes, Raquel takes a pill for her chronic headache (our first indication that she's unwell), and the family's mother, Pilar (Claudia Celadón), suggests hiring some extra help to lighten Raquel's workload--an idea Raquel fiercely opposes. In the course of the film, the family tries out three different maids, and each time, Raquel tries to scare them off.

In the same scene in which Pilar suggests hiring a second maid, the family's teenage daughter, Camila (Andrea García-Huidobro), goes into the kitchen to get a snack, and Raquel chases her away, introducing a subplot involving Raquel's irrational hatred of Camila. (We've already had an indication earlier in the film that Raquel's affection for the children isn't equal. When the family wants her to come into the dining room, they have to send the eldest son, Lucas (Agustín Silva), who's her favorite, to fetch her.) Why does Raquel hate Camila? We learn that she started working for the family a year before Camila was born, and considers herself a member of the family. And like the new maids she tries to chase away, Raquel sees Camila as a rival for the parents' affection. (Raquel's real family lives in the north of the country, and her only contact with them are infrequent phone calls from her mother on Raquel's birthday and at Christmas.) In so many words, the movie is about how the bourgeois nuclear family is making the working-class heroine sick, both physically and mentally. However, its class politics are less clear-cut than in My Dear Enemy, as the family is portrayed rather affectionately, while Raquel is kind of a weirdo. (In this regard, the film calls to mind Claude Chabrol's La Cérémonie [1995].)

The narrative is structured around various rhymes and repetitions. In the opening sequence, the family calls Raquel into the dining room, and she pretends not to hear them--something she'll do several times throughout the movie. Raquel locks each new maid out of the house in turn, and twice turns on the vacuum cleaner to make it seem like she can't hear them calling her. Earlier in the film, she uses the vacuum cleaner no less maliciously to annoy Camila while she's trying to sleep. And when each new maid takes a shower, Raquel goes in afterward and disinfects the tub with bleach, not because she's afraid of germs but to make the new maid feel unwelcome. (The film is almost an encyclopedia of different ways to express hostility through cleaning.) There are two birthday parties, and twice in the film Raquel gets a phone call from her mother which takes her away from a different surrogate family.

At first glance, the film might look like a work of low-key observational realism (something apparently confirmed by the handheld docudrama style), but it gets steadily weirder as it goes on, and I didn't know how the story was going to end. My initial guess was that either Isabelle Huppert was going to show up and kill everyone, or that Terrence Stamp would show up and have sex with everyone. Needless to say, I was way off, and the movie has an ending that's not only unexpected, but absolutely right. The Maid is a wonderfully peculiar, playful, and surprising film.

In contrast with My Dear Enemy and The Maid, Jacques Audiard's epic French prison saga Un prophète (2009) is more stately and novelistic. Spanning six years, the story--which is broken down into chapters by fades to black--begins with a French-Arabic teenager, Malick El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) arriving at prison after being convicted of hitting a cop. There, the guards throw out his old sneakers and give him a new pair, which are promptly stolen by two other inmates. Sneakers are a recurring motif throughout the film, and in the final episode, in which El Djebena is released from prison, as he walks through the doors, the camera pans down to his feet.

Sandwiched between his arrival and his release, there are four major episodes. The first begins with a snitch, Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi), arriving at the prison. The Corsican gang wants him dead, but they only have fourteen days to do it before Reyeb gets transferred to another prison. One day in the shower, Reyeb makes an offer to El Djebena to give him hash in exchange for oral sex. The latter initially refuses Reyeb's offer until he's approached by a middle-aged Corsican mobster, César Luciani (Niels Arestrup), with an offer of his own: Kill Reyeb or be killed by César. The film then flashes forward a year. Before he dies, Reyeb advises El Djebena to learn how to read, and in class he meets Ryad (Abdel Bencherif), who's about to be released due to ill health. In the next segment, El Djebena goes into business for himself, dealing hash with another inmate, Jordi the Gypsy (Reda Kateb). With his sentence half over, El Djebena becomes eligible for day release, and César has him do various jobs on the outside. But when César discovers that he's dealing hash, which could cost El Djebena his day release if he's caught, César attacks him with a spoon. In the last long episode, César sends El Djebena to Marseilles to meet Lattrace (Slimane Dazi), who tells El Djebena that one of the Corsicans is a rat. And when César uncovers his identity, he asks El Djebena to kill some one for the second time. I've had to leave a lot out of this summary, and despite Audiard's patience in unfolding the complicated story, I couldn't always follow the plot in all of its particulars, even on second viewing.

At the level of local texture, Audiard's patience as a storyteller and his attention to detail are evident in the build-up to Reyeb's murder. After César makes his offer in the yard, El Djebena walks away mumbling to himself that he can't kill some one, setting up the next six scenes in which we see his reluctance to go through with it. El Djebena makes two attempts to get out of it, first by trying to speak to the prison warden. Immediately, two Corsicans barge into his cell and put a plastic bag over his head to show that they mean business. Later, when a fight breaks out in the prison sweatshop where El Djebena works, he walks over and starts kicking one of the prisoners involved in the fight. Viewers like me, who aren't too swift about these things, might wonder why he did that until the next scene, in which César asks him if he wasn't trying to get thrown in the hole. Meanwhile, in three separate scenes, we see El Djebena preparing for the murder. In the first, a Corsican explains the plan to him (he's to use a razor hidden in his mouth), and later we see him practicing alone in his cell. Finally, we see El Djebena rehearsing with the same Corsican who explained the plan to him. Of course, when the time comes, it doesn't go smoothly as planned, except for the fact that El Djebena manages not to step in any of the blood. (This movie's all about the sneakers.) Conversely, when César sends El Djebena to kill another snitch later in the film, he pulls it off like he's Uma Thurman in Kill Bill (2003-04).

Throughout the movie, Audiard employs the silent movie technique of masking the edges of the frame. He first does this in the opening sequence to create a sense of disorientation, and it appears again whenever the camera assumes El Djebena's point of view, as when he takes a reading test and in two dream sequences. After César attacks him with a spoon, El Djebena has a dream that the former is yelling at him, and the fourth long episode begins with a multiple exposure dream sequence in which the camera moves out of the prison and down a country road with galloping deer, which turns out to be prophetic. (After his death, Reyeb appears to El Djebena in visions like a guardian angel and makes predictions about the future. Lattrace is about to uncover the fact that El Djebena's the one who killed Reyeb when the car they're driving in slams into a deer, saving his life. Afterward, Lattrace asks him, "Are you some kind of prophet?") Another silent movie technique is the use of onscreen text, which Audiard employs to introduce several supporting players--Reyeb, Ryad, Jordi the Gypsy, Latif the Egyptian (Mamadou Minte)--in conjunction with either slow motion or freeze frames, as well as two montage sequences ("Eyes and Ears") and to establish time ("One Year Later," "Christmas"). Like the Truffaut of Tirez sur le pianiste (1960), Audiard is broadening his stylistic options by reaching back into a silent movie syntax.

Though not quite a masterpiece in my books, Un prophète is a hugely ambitious work with a narrative density and formal sophistication that puts it in the same league as Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather (1972) and Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas (1990). Now let's just hope that Audiard doesn't freeze up completely like Coppola and Scorsese.

Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani's Ajami (2009) is another novelistic crime story with a prophetic character, although it's less accomplished stylistically and its use of onscreen text is more predictable ("First Chapter," "Second Chapter," etcetera). Set primarily in an Arab-Israeli neighborhood in the city of Jaffa, the film is even quicker than My Dear Enemy in getting its plot moving: The film opens with a pre-credit sequence in which a young boy is fixing his car on the street when some gangsters pull up on a motorcycle and shoot him. We subsequently learn through flashbacks and narration that the intended target was the boy's neighbor, Omar (Shahir Kabaha), who had recently sold his car to the dead boy. The motive for the killing was revenge, as Omar's uncle shot a gang member who came into the restaurant where the uncle was working and started shooting. Even though the gangsters had already burned down the restaurant and shot the uncle in retaliation, they still wanted to kill Omar. Omar's parents decide to send his younger brother, Nasri (Fouad Habash), who narrates the story, to live in another city, but Omar chooses to stay behind. We only get our first glimpse of Omar at the end of the first sequence, as the car with Nasri pulls away from their house, in anticipation of the first chapter in which Omar is the focus. Additionally, the flashbacks in the pre-credit sequence prepare us for the film's non-linear structure, in which we see the same botched drug deal from three different points of view.

Not including the pre-credit sequence, the story is divided into six chapters, each one following a different character with a different problem. In the first chapter, Omar goes to the head of a rival gang, Abu-Lias (Youssef Sahwani), for help, and learns that he can buy a ceasefire for a price. And to raise the money, he turns to dealing drugs. The next chapter follows Malek (Ibrahim Frege), a Palestinian who works illegally in Israel at Abu-Lias' restaurant. He too needs money, as his mother has leukemia and requires an operation, and decides to sell drugs with Omar. In chapter three, a friend of theirs, Benj (Copti), comes into possession of a large quantity of crystal meth. The fourth chapter follows a Jewish cop, Dando (Eran Naim), whose son went missing during his military training. In the fifth chapter, Abu-Lias discovers that his daughter, Hadir (Ranim Karim), is in love with Omar, which is forbidden because she's Christian and he's Muslim. And the last chapter returns to Nasri, who insists on coming along with Omar to the drug deal, because he senses (correctly) that something bad will happen. Because of this layering of perspectives, each time we see the botched drug deal (at the end of chapters two, four, and six), we see more of what happened, so that by the end, we know more than any of the characters do individually.

Network narratives have gotten a bad rap lately, thanks to the likes of Crash (2005) and Babel (2006). And for the record, I sort of liked both of those films (although given how overrated they were, the backlash against them is understandable), not to mention superior examples of the genre, such as Atom Egoyan's Ararat (2002), Alain Resnais' Coeurs (2006), Matteo Garrone's Gomorra (2008), Shira Geffen and Etgar Keret's Jellyfish (2007), Miranda July's Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005), and John Cameron Mitchell's Shortbus (2006). Ajami probably won't appease the folks who thought that Crash was "contrived," as the screenplay relies on old devices like coincidence, mistaken identity, and a token which reveals a killer's identity at the most dramatically opportune moment possible--which is actually one of the things I like about it. With its intimations of predestination, the story is clearly meant as a contemporary Greek tragedy, and as such, it's pretty darn good.