Saturday, January 15, 2011

Without Feathers (Black Swan)

You know, I kinda like Darren Aronofsky. Say what you will about Pi (1998), Requiem for a Dream (2000), The Fountain (2006), or The Wrestler (2008), not one of them was boring. And while his new film, Black Swan (2010), may not be very good, you can bet your ass it isn't dull. Aronofsky swings for the rafters with this one, and even if he doesn't pull it off, I'm still glad that he was willing to make the effort.

There's a fine line separating a film about hysteria from one that's simply hysterical, and Aronofsky boldly crosses it. The story is about a frigid ballerina, Nina (Natalie Portman), who still lives at home with her overbearing mother (Barbara Hershey) in an apartment on the Upper West Side. As the movie opens, she's up for the lead in a production of Swan Lake, but while the director, Thomas (Vincent Cassell), knows that she can play the white swan, he isn't sure if she can play her evil twin. Eventually he gives her the part anyway (because the plot requires it), and to help her get into character, he tells her to go home and masturbate as a "homework exercise" (which she does, as if the idea had simply never occurred to her before). Apparently, nobody in this movie has ever heard of sexual harassment.

Oh, there's more. Like the white swan, Nina has her own evil twin, Lily (Mila Kunis), another dancer in the same company, who's as whorish as Nina is uptight (she always wears black, and has a giant, skanky tattoo of a lily on her back). Early in the film, while walking down a spooky corridor, Nina thinks that she sees herself walking towards her, when it turns out to be just a stranger in black. Later, when she suspects that Lily wants to steal her part, Nina starts to get confused about whether Lily is Lily or if she's Nina--as if, in addition to the part, she also wanted her face. At one point, Lily and Nina go back to her apartment, where Lily gives her oral pleasure... Or is it Nina giving Nina oral pleasure? This is Aronofsky's oh so delicate and subtle way of reinforcing the idea that Lily is supposed to be Nina's doppelgänger.

The movie has one idea about ballet, and it's incredibly facile: To play the black swan, Nina must become the black swan! Similarly, the characters are all miserable clichés: Nina is anorexic and obsessed with perfection; her mother is a failed artist who's living through her daughter; Lily is a slut, and therefore always late for rehearsals (as if there were some connection between promiscuity and tardiness). When Nina is confronted by the ballet's former leading lady (Winona Ryder) at a fundraising event, her mascara is running and she's holding her drink way up high where the camera can see it, so that we know at a glance she's drunk and upset (just one of many moments in the film that veer into self-parody). The movie relies so much upon this sort of visual shorthand and stereotyping that I seriously doubt the film's writers had any firsthand experience of the ballet world.

As for the dancing, Aronofsky only has one idea about how to film ballet: Shoot Portman from the waist-up with a handheld camera spinning around her really, really fast. Armond White has compared the film unfavorably to Kanye West's "Runaway" video, and it's not hard to see his point. While West's manner of filming his dancers strikes me as functional more than inspired (Jacques Demy he ain't), at least he seems to genuinely like ballet. Here, when Nina and Lily meet some frat boys in a bar, one of them asks, "Isn't ballet boring?" And judging by this movie, it looks like Aronofsky agrees with them.

In La Pianiste (2001), Michael Haneke covered much the same territory (domineering moms and sexual repression leading to madness and self-inflicted stab wounds), but like a million times better. Aronofsky's conscious model seems to be Roman Polanski's Repulsion (1965)--again, a much better movie--and as in Pi and Requiem for a Dream, he uses non-diegetic sound effects and various horror movie tropes to place viewers inside the mind of a person losing their grip on reality. For instance, there are numerous moments when Nina suddenly backs into a person she didn't realize was standing right behind her. Ooooo!

What Haneke and Polanski have that Aronofsky lacks as a director is confidence and a gift for simplicity. In La Pianiste, there are several long close-ups of Isabelle Huppert just listening and thinking, and many scenes are played out in a single long take. Alternatively, Aronofsky shoots everything in close-up or medium shot, and covers even the simplest sequence from seemingly a dozen angles. This style is often a mask for uncertain direction: Cover everything and just pray that it comes together in the editing room. I'm not saying that's the case here necessarily, but just looking at the results, I'd be hard-pressed to tell the difference.

Because Aronofsky sometimes shoots the back of Portman's head with a handheld camera, some folks have been comparing his style here to that of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. The difference is that when they do it, in films like La Promesse (1996), Rosetta (1999), Le Fils (2002), and L'Enfant (2005), it's actually for a reason. By withholding reaction shots, and holding a shot for a certain length of time, they tend to objectify their characters. It's sometimes hard to know what they're thinking and feeling. In this film, Aronofsky gives us essentially standard coverage with lots and lots of reaction shots. According to the website Cinemetrics, Rosetta has an average shot length of 33 seconds, and in Le Fils, that number jumps to 70 seconds. I don't think there's a shot in Black Swan that lasts longer than seven seconds. (Requiem for a Dream, maybe Aronofsky's most aggressively edited film, has an ASL of 4 seconds.) This is not surprising since Aronofsky presumably doesn't want his film to be shown only in art houses, which would hurt its chances of winning an Oscar.

Incidentally, although to my knowledge Rosetta has never been released on DVD in North America, you can watch the film in its entirety on YouTube. The quality's actually not bad, and if you've never seen a film by the Dardennes, it's a better place to start than Black Swan.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Flaccid Western (The Coen Brothers' True Grit)

Well, I'm against it [aging]. I think it has nothing to recommend it. You don't gain any wisdom as the years go by. You fall apart is what happens. People try and put a nice varnish on it, and say, well, you mellow. You come to understand life and accept things. But you'd trade all of that for being 35 again.—Woody Allen

The Coen Brothers' True Grit (2010) is a perfect example of the negative influence that Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven (1992) has had on the western. Ending like that film with an epilogue set in a graveyard at sunset, it is so slow and talky and sepia-tone and elegiac that it makes one long for the virility of a young man's western like Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo (1959), which ended with John Wayne fucking Angie Dickinson (or at least that's how I remember it). The problem with modern westerns is that they need to lighten up and get laid.

When did westerns stop being fun? The original True Grit (1969), directed by Henry Hathaway, appeared at a transitional moment. It had been thirty years exactly since John Ford's Stagecoach (1939) made Wayne a star, and the popularity of westerns was in decline. With the war being fought in Vietnam, audiences were understandably weary of a genre associated with celebrations of ethnic cleansing, and it didn't help that Wayne was an outspoken supporter of that war. A few years earlier, Clint Eastwood had become a huge star for appearing in a series of gritty Italian westerns by Sergio Leone that positioned themselves culturally as demystifications of the west. And Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (released the same year as True Grit) went further still in its images of indiscriminate slaughter. The next decade saw even more revisionist westerns, and Wayne continued working steadily until 1976, when he made his final film, The Shootist, but the age of the western as a popular genre in Hollywood was essentially over.

These days not many westerns get made in Hollywood (notwithstanding those set on other planets, like Star Wars [1977] and Avatar [2009]), but when they do, they're invariably made by older directors for an older audience. Eastwood himself was a notorious womanizer in the 1970s (according to Wikipedia, he's fathered seven children with five women), and part of what makes his directorial debut, Play Misty for Me (1971), so personal and memorable (if not good, precisely) is the degree to which it reflects its maker's anxieties about the possible consequences of his promiscuity. Northern California in the late '60s was his happening, and it clearly freaked him out. But twenty years later when he directed Unforgiven, Eastwood was well into his sixties, so it's not surprising that he was thinking more about retirement than getting laid. That said, when it comes to making a genuinely mature western, Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man (1995) is virtually alone in offering a serious critique and revision of the mythology of the west.

Six years after Unforgiven, the Coens made their first film with Jeff Bridges, The Big Lebowski (1998), which wasn't a big hit at the time but seems now in retrospect possibly the definitive movie of its era, given how much sagging middle-aged male flesh there is on display here. Released in the same year as the Monica Lewinsky affair and Viagra, the film contains numerous references to the western (beginning with the opening shot of a tumbleweed), but far from the Duke and Dean Martin in Rio Bravo, here both male leads are obese and hilariously ineffectual if not literally impotent. (There's even a minor subplot involving the potency of the Bridges' character's sperm.)

But where The Big Lebowski provides an affectionate ribbing of baby boomer anxieties about decreasing virility, in their subsequent neo-western, No Country for Old Men (2007), the Coens attempted to elevate the same concerns into something far more grandiose. Adapted from a 2005 novel by Cormac McCarthy (who fathered a child in his seventies--what's he trying to prove?), it starred Tommy Lee Jones as a Texas lawman who's metaphorically impotent in the face of the world's evils, represented here by a sociopath with an obviously phallic cattle gun. Perhaps it's a sign of the times that even in a western as vigorous as Jones' The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005) there would be jokes about male impotence.

By my calculation, Hawks was about fifty-four when he made Rio Bravo (roughly the same age the Coens are now), and Hathaway was eight years older when he made True Grit, yet neither film feels like the work of an old man. The latter film ends with the Duke giving a joyous display of his mastery of horse riding, set to an upbeat western theme with horns that go dah dah-nuh dah-nuh--an image that all but shouts, "I ain't dead yet, partner!" Bridges, on the other hand, seems to have modeled his performance after the alcoholic doctor in Béla Tarr's Sátántangó (1994). To say that the film lacks energy would be an understatement; it is a depressed and lethargic slog of a movie. I think what the Coens need is some Viagra and a weekend with Angie Dickinson.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Make Way for Yesterday (Distant Voices, Still Lives)

How is that Terence Davies, conceivably the greatest of all British narrative filmmakers, is also one of the most neglected? To answer this question, one has to begin with what's been termed the cinematic apparatus: that is, the processes regulating the production, exhibition, promotion, and discourse around motion pictures. In short, theatres need a constant supply of new movies (or they'll go broke), but for customers to want to see a particular film--whether it's a blockbuster like Inception or an indie film like Winter's Bone (both 2010)--it has to be well promoted. For instance, the latter film might have disappeared into the void with hundreds of other low-budget features which are produced each year had it not been accepted by the Sundance Film Festival (where it won the grand prize) and received across-the-board rave reviews from the English-speaking press.

However, when it comes to films that can't be easily classified or summarized (unlike Winter's Bone, as good as it is), all but the most adventurous distributors tend to lose their nerve. And the majority of reviewers, whose allegiances are to the studios more than filmmakers or audiences, are likely to react to such a film with hostility. If you go to the Telegraph's website, you'll find their two-paragraph review of Davies' Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) from the film's 2007 rerelease buried under much longer reviews of the Adam Sandler film Reign Over Me, and a documentary called Hacking Democracy (2006) originally made for American television (both unseen by me), which are evidently much more important to the art of cinema than Davies' film.

Davies wasn't the first filmmaker to receive this sort of treatment, nor was he the last. One only has to think back to last spring and the uproar surrounding Godard's Film socialisme (2010) from reviewers like Roger Ebert and Todd McCarthy. I've only seen the latter movie once, but I suspect that twenty-two years from now, when Winter's Bone and the rest of the year's Oscar contenders have all faded into insignificance, Godard's film will look almost as good as Davies' does today. But because the brilliance of both Davies and Godard--like that of Leos Carax, Pedro Costa, Philippe Garrel, Miklós Jancsó, Béla Tarr, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul--is more a matter of combining sounds and images than conventional screenwriting, their films don't fit into the steady, mindless flow of commercial movies that wash up on the multiplex every week.

Like his debut, The Terence Davies Trilogy (unseen by me), which consists of three short films made over a period of eight years (1976-83), Distant Voices, Still Lives is technically two shorts filmed two years apart. Both segments are set in Liverpool in the 1940s and '50s, and centre on the same working class family. Distant Voices opens (and closes) with the death of the family's tyrannical father (Pete Postlethwaite), which is followed sequentially by the marriage of the eldest daughter, Eileen (Angela Walsh), to a man who turns out to be just like him. Still Lives begins with the second daughter, Maisie (Lorraine Ashbourne), giving birth to her first child, and ends with her younger brother, Tony (Dean Williams), getting married. Much of the film's second half takes place at a local pub where the family goes to celebrate the birth of Maisie's baby, and these scenes, and the flashbacks they lead into, elaborate on the relationships between Maisie, Eileen, her childhood friends Micky (Debi Jones) and Jingles (Marie Jelliman), and the men they're married to. Needless to say, this brief description fails to do justice to the film's emotional intensity.

Unlike a traditional plot-driven movie, where Event A leads to B which leads to C, all in a logical sequence of causes and effects (even in films that play with chronology, like Memento [2000]), Distant Voices, Still Lives consists of a series of discrete moments of intense emotion. Early in the film, while posing for a wedding photo, Eileen remarks to Tony, "I wish me dad were here." The camera then turns to Maisie, who says in voice-over, "I don't. He was a bastard." This leads into the film's first flashback, in which the father forces Maisie to scrub the basement floor before giving her the money to go to a dance. As she scrubs the floor on her knees, the father throws some coins on the floor and then viciously beats her with a broom. This episode doesn't have any far-reaching consequences, nor is it ever referred to again later; it's simply the first of several instances in the film where the old man physically abuses the female members of his family. (Although he's emotionally distant with Tony, we never see him hit the boy.) Adding to the feeling of narrative stasis are the film's planimetric tableaux stagings, in which the characters seem to be forever posing for family portraits.

Whereas a traditional narrative film would give specific reasons for the father's outbursts (something would happen to set him off), Davies makes no attempt to understand his behavior, leaving open the possibility that he's just insane. The only time his behavior seems even somewhat understandable is during a flashback to the Blitz. The children are all outside collecting firewood when the bombs start falling, and after narrowly escaping an explosion, they're finally led into a bomb shelter by a soldier. There, the father slaps Eileen (played as a child by Sally Davies) and orders her to sing a song. (Her rendition of "Beer Barrel Polka" is one of the most moving moments in the whole film.)

I don't know if Davies intended this, but I can't help but draw a parallel between the randomness and viciousness of the Blitz and the father's sudden outbursts, and his need to hear a song--any song--as a means of dealing with the reality of the bombings and the pleasure the other characters take in listening to music throughout the film. Earlier in the movie (which is later in the story), when Eileen and Micky want to go to a dance, the father remarks that the two of them are, "Bleedin' dance mad." Even under the most difficult circumstances, the characters stubbornly attempt to go on with their lives.

The achievement of the film is that, while the characters' feelings are presented as pure states of emotion, without the usual narrative justifications to get from one moment to the next, at no point do the film's emotions feel under-motivated. A good example of this is the film's second flashback, which begins with Tony (who's gone AWOL from the army) punching out the windows of the family home and shouting at the father inside, "Come out and fight me, ya bastard!" The next shot shows Tony inside, calmly offering his father a beer, his hand still bleeding from the broken glass. The third and final shot of the sequence shows Tony being dragged out of the house screaming by two fellow soldiers, and tossed in the back of a van. Later, in a separate flashback, we see Tony in the brig playing the theme from Charles Chaplin's Limelight (1952) on the harmonica, which seems especially fitting in that Chaplin was another British filmmaker who specialized in moments of strong emotion, but wasn't much of a storyteller.

Although it was made a quarter of a century ago (Davies began filming on Distant Voices in the fall of 1985), Distant Voices, Still Lives, as well as Davies' subsequent features, The Long Day Closes (1992) and The Neon Bible (1995), feel like movies from the future--despite the fact that all three are steeped in nostalgia for the Hollywood cinema of the 1950s. As with the best films of Godard, all three are so far ahead in terms of sounds and images that, in comparison, most commercial filmmakers just don't seem to be trying very hard. But until distributors figure out a way to market this kind of cinema, and reviewers find a way of writing about it (and I should note that Jonathan Rosenbaum has written about all three films at length), we're doomed to living in a world where the multiplexes are full movies and there's still nothing to see.