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.

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