Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Eraserhead (David Lynch, 1977)

I have never seen a David Lynch film before Eraserhead, having always had a premonition that he was of that school of offbeat over-lauded American filmmakers that include the Coen brothers among others. I haven’t ruled it out, but Eraserhead really is too good for me not to take a sudden interest. It’s weird comic-horror tinged with surrealism, taking place in an industrialized small-town dystopia and dependent on amplified social awkwardness and convulsive, guilt-ridden anxiety in the most grotesque, but still eerily familiar, situations. The auditory projections of paranoia and entrapment, always manifest in a soundtrack of perpetual screeching, throbbing and mechanistic sounds, pack the film’s biggest punch, even more so than the gloomy hospital-room look of the interiors, achieved by uncomfortable contrasts between over-bright lighting and cast shadows. All of the episodes and dream sequences build to a horrifying view of puritanical salvation, a unifying theme that elevates the film from the status of incoherent head trip to something far more gripping and personal.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Letter from an Unknown Woman (Max Ophüls, 1948)

Letter from an Unknown Woman is one of the saddest films I’ve seen out of 1940s Hollywood. My second Ophüls film, I believe that one could devote a lifetime to studying the intricacies of his camera movements; it’s not just that there is a technical genius to the way he situates his camera and builds his dolly tracks so that the movements appear fluid and effortless. There is a profound way the camera becomes personally identified with the characters, not taking a strictly subjective vantage point, but directing itself in such a way that it obeys their thoughts and impulses. A typical long shot of Lisa, the love-stricken heroine, as a child beating rugs in the yard with her friend suddenly becomes a slow tracking shot up to the top of an outdoor stairwell to the next-door apartment of the man she loves, building suspense as she is temporarily blocked out before reaching top. As she reaches a midway point, she is in full view, but then she turns the corner and continues her trek; suddenly the camera is at a low-angle, building an even fiercer suspense than before. There is another simple shot at a candy store, where the camera seems transfixed on the exuberant motions of a toffee maker, before suddenly tracking to the left in coordination with a long wooden oven pan arriving at Lisa, eyeing her spoils with delight.

I like this so much better than The Earrings of Madame de…, which is to some his best film, because that film played along like an extended short story, reliant on baroque symbols and archetypal scenarios, methodically structured and predetermined by coincidences. Letter from an Unknown Woman depends similarly on the conflict between a woman’s love and the world’s ignorance to that love; she has spent her whole life in love with a famous composer and he only meets her twice, the first time years after she had first fallen in love and the second time not even remembering the first. He is oblivious to his responsibilities to her and she refuses to reveal herself to him; she is left by the end alone and he about to face his demise at the hands of her husband. This sounds like a stock tragic romance, but as a ninety-minute film that rushes headlong through a woman’s entire life, it makes a strong case for the necessary elisions and simplifications intrinsic to such a tale. As she states at the beginning, she cannot remember her life before she first eyed the man she loves, and whenever she sees him the entirety of her life feels compressed, as if not just romantically, but truly perceptually her life is defined by the short time she has spent in his presence. What is so devastating is that he only understands this on hindsight, after a life of ostensible success resulting in bitter failure. The final flashback montage is so perfect, such a concise disclosure of the film’s enchantment with ephemeral joy. Even without this thematic strength, the story is told so elegantly as to make it transcendent.

The film is set in a Vienna so delicately crafted in the studio that it would almost appear to single-handedly justify one of Manny Farber’s problems with The Third Man, that it wasted its on-location shooting with the kind of manipulated, oblique imagery ideal for replication on a soundstage. Letter from an Unknown Woman contrasts the war-ravaged network of criminal racketeering with a dark, dreamy land of cobblestone streets, close-knit complexes, parks and candy stores. It feels just as real and immersive, if not more so, than the Vienna of The Third Man, which to me seems like a sort of abstraction.

Monday, March 29, 2010

La Collectionneuse (Eric Rohmer, 1967)

With the fourth film in Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales, I believe that this is possibly the most astounding example of Rohmer’s aesthetically soothing but intellectually stimulating style. It is not as good as My Night at Maud’s, but it is just as complex, detailing a man temporary resigned from life at a summer villa and a subtle mental game he plays with a notoriously easy woman also residing there. The premise seems to be that she wishes to seduce him in order to add him to her ‘collection,’ while his rigid morality and egoism, as well as another woman on leave to London, prevents him from giving in. It’s a careful, airtight progression, marked out bit-by-bit by one of Rohmer’s typical introspective narrations; every spoken word is of the utmost importance in guiding the story along, while the onscreen action seems secondary. The picturesque by-the-beach villa and nearby seaport, rendered in many a glorious, vibrant long shot provides a relaxed visual counterpoint to the busy thoughts and dilemmas the characters undergo.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Friends of Eddie Coyle (Peter Yates, 1973)

If The Friends of Eddie Coyle has a fatal flaw, it is the score by Dave Grusin that seems more attuned to a TV police drama than an observant look at the inner workings of the Boston mob. The film is so ordinary that the attempted enhancements of the awfully dated keyboard track collide tragically with the plain, unadorned action to which it is set. Besides that single distraction, The Friends of Eddie Coyle far surpassed my expectations. Roger Ebert’s glowing review cites the bank robberies as unnecessary, because he believes it to be Mitchum’s film. And while Robert Mitchum, with his droopy eyes and turned-down mouth and effortless ability to convey world weary sadness and years of pain, is at his best, the film is truly an ensemble piece, and without the bank heists and the gun exchanges and everything else that doesn’t involve Mitchum, the viewer could never get an overarching view of the Boston mob as a network of various deals and encounters, all of which are marked by an only customary formality and a terrifying paranoia. Kent Jones’ insightful essay describes the film as a showcase for some of the best character actors of the seventies, almost none of whom ever got a better opportunity to shine. What I found so haunting about the film is the starkness of it all; it is not an insistent, manipulated tone of foreboding, but in its frank subject matter and grimy Boston locales there is an extremely tacit sense of fear—the fatal deadlines of a gunrunner’s drop-offs or the deadly misunderstandings implicit in the complicated relationship between mob and police. It is without a doubt an early seventies crime gem, easily in the same range of quality as The Godfather.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

One Wonderful Sunday (Akira Kurosawa, 1947)

With One Wonderful Sunday, I find that I officially prefer Kurosawa’s meditations on postwar Japan to his extravagant samurai epics. Prompted by a recent blog entry by David Bordwell, in which he expresses some skepticism about Kurosawa’s major films and studies with enthusiasm some of his forties output, I decided to sit down and watch this little gem of a movie about a disillusioned veteran Yuzo (Isao Numasaki) spending a Sunday with his fiancé Masako (Chieko Nakakita), both of whom are poor and struggling in postwar Tokyo. The film has a lot of Capra-esque populist sentimentality, but this is given an affecting realist weight by the on-location shooting and narrative lapses into bitter sadness and defeatism. A shattering of the fourth-wall in the film’s final movement is obviously going to strike some viewers as going too far to make a statement or elicit an audience response, but the sheer desperation with which Masako pleads feels like a sincere beckoning to the people of Japan, and is doubtless warranted by the state of the nation during Allied occupation. There is no grand triumph of the people, but there are flittering moments of everyday whimsy and joy; all this, together with wonderful camerawork—dolly shots that slide across the rainy city streets and a slow, low-angle inward tracking shot that builds suspense as he approaches an embittered shopkeeper are two noticeable examples—make One Wonderful Sunday one of my favorite Kurosawa films, and prod me to explore more of his early work.

In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai, 2000)

The look of In the Mood for Love includes out-of-focus splashes of fluorescence, intricate patterns adorning wallpaper and drapery, bright lights in dim rooms that imbue faces with a gleaming amber, and numerous uses of toned down lighting to heighten all manner of saturated colors. And that’s just the mise-en-scène; Wong also loves rapid unpredictable cutting, slow motion, and ping-pong camera movements. This style is more intoxicating in his 1995 film Fallen Angels, my only other exposure to his work, but in In the Mood for Love it drenches the screen with a more formal beauty; at the beginning the subdued colors and translucence creates a mood of plaintive isolation, but this eventually grows into a lovely romantic overlay of a profoundly affecting love story. Because of the melancholy and indecision that remains at the heart of the characters, however, the two modes of feeling coexist, and the result is powerfully bittersweet. Isolation is also a theme of Fallen Angels of course, but that is the loneliness of urban existentialism; this is the sad mourning of two people panged by adultery, who fall in love and together contemplate their lives and their marriages. The ending is a devastating ode to the intangibility yet clarity of memory, a poetic lament to what was and can never be again. Critics, and even Wong himself, seem to have their own interpretations of the couple—do they really refuse each other for moral reasons? is there a buried sense of perversity to their relationship? do they actually consummate their love? and so on and so forth. On a first viewing I prefer not to probe the inevitable wells of emotional ambiguity that clearly lie at the heart of a film defined by a moody stillness and preference for atmosphere over action. I would rather let the indescribable mystery of the film, the delirious, enigmatic aftertaste of the shrouded imagery, the intermittent violin theme, and Wong’s vision of the beautiful, heartrending stasis of love remain undisturbed.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Passing Fancy (Yasujiro Ozu, 1933)

Passing Fancy borrows from I Was Born, But… the theme of a son’s shame for his father, but Ozu is straying slightly further from the comedy of his two earlier films. I may still prefer I Was Born, But… for its lackadaisical view of childhood, following a carefree schoolyard narrative before erupting in the momentary pain of the boys’ contempt for their father’s poor social standing. The moments of rebellion are heartbreaking, but there is a whimsical grace to it all, and it doesn’t take long for the father to placate the two boys before they return to the schoolyard yet again, ending in an extended, lyrical long-shot. Passing Fancy is a more intimate film, apparently inspired by King Vidor’s Depression-era film The Champ, comprised of far more low-to-the-ground close-ups and meticulous still-shots; Donald Sosin’s isolated piano score accentuates the careful rhythm of Ozu’s analytical cutting. The result is a more plotted out film about a very lovingly crafted child/father relationship. The jokes are sparser and the atmosphere less quaint and immersive, but the even more fastidious camerawork and attention to details, be they emotionally charged objects or simple hand gestures, makes Passing Fancy a more layered and pungent pathos-driven work, the closest a silent film has come to making me cry after The Passion of Joan of Arc.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Trafic (Jacques Tati, 1971)

Jacques Tati’s Trafic was released the same year as Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop, an existential American road movie of wide stretches of pavement—the three main characters can get where they need to go but they exist in a sort of stasis without having a real destination. Trafic has a more humorously skeptical view of automobiles; Mr. Hulot and his team have an urgent destination, but are thwarted at every turn by border control, car pile-ups, gas shortages breakdowns, and, of course, traffic. Cars are constantly coming close to crashing and traffic signals are always faltering; the blaring sounds of the car radio encroaching on the score and drivers in a perpetual state of boredom. Not nearly as funny as the three previous Hulot films, not surprising given the financial disaster of Playtime four years before, but it has plenty of echoes of Mon Oncle and Playtime especially. Roads, cars and gas stations chop up the countryside, hearkening back to Mon Oncle’s dichotomy between the rustic and the modern. Many visual cues from Playtime are peppered throughout—streetlights, homogenized parking lots, car windows producing the same effect as Paris’s glass doors—and the Amsterdam car show begins as the Paris airport, a vacant delineated space whose silence is only interrupted by a monotone female voice over loudspeakers, before it blossoms into a chaotic swarm of people and objects. The most poetic scene in the film comes toward the end, when instead of rushing to Amsterdam to show off their camper car, Hulot, Maria, Marcel, and the mechanic they have found take advantage of their nifty little vehicle near the bank of a river for a little picnic; for one brief instance they have forgotten the mad racetrack of the highway and their obligations to the automotive company, choosing instead to bask in the quaint stillness of each other’s company. The ending, in its own small way, is as lyrical and vivacious as that of Playtime, and is one of my favorite scenes out of all the Hulot films. Even on a commercial low-budget project, Tati finds it in him to create a poetic fusion between modernity and antiquity, and that is why Trafic remains great, if not at the heights of its predecessors.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Avanti! (Billy Wilder, 1972)

I owe my recent viewing of Billy Wilder’s overlooked Avanti! to a perusal of Jonathan Rosenbaum’s top 100 favorite films. For whatever reason (I have yet to read a convincing one) it falls outside the bounds of the conventional Wilder canon and is rarely talked about or acknowledged. As it stands, Avanti! is a masterful evocation of time and place, an on-location shoot in Italy elevated by a lilting, melodic and romantic score that seems like something two-time Tati composer Alain Romans might have cooked up had he been under the breezy spell of the small by-the-shore town of Ischia, Italy, or perhaps Nino Rota in Amarcord mode. Grounded within this atmospheric seascape villa is the following premise: Jack Lemmon’s Wendell Ambruster, Jr. goes to retrieve the body of his dead father for a nationally televised funeral. When he meets the daughter of his father’s mistress, Ms. Piggot (Juliet Mills), things really get going, and Wilder takes great pleasure complicating the story until Lemmon simply can’t take anymore. It’s one of the better tourist comedies, not so much because Lemmon’s stiff-lipped, rude American finds it difficult to conform to the Italian rituals and customs, but because he is unwilling and ardently set on retrieving his father’s body to the exclusion of all else, and it is Mills who eases him into the charming serenity of the resort. Lemmon’s sense of urgency is combated at every turn by the leisureliness of the Italian lifestyle, and eventually he must settle into it and, naturally, fall in love with the perky Londoner. Likewise the 144-minute runtime allows the film to bask in its own grace and sweetness without any rush, and gives the audience all the time it could ever need to enjoy it.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Belle de Jour (Luis Buñuel, 1967)

Belle de Jour is similar to That Obscure Object of Desire in the sense that our female protagonist withholds herself from her husband, but while That Obscure Object of Desire was deliriously consumed with Flabert’s desire for intimacy, Belle de Jour is a more serious work intent on Séverine’s desires, which she buries into her subconscious until they are only displayed in her dreams. That Obscure Object is more in Buñuel’s nihilistic comedy mode and while it is certainly a puzzling, dizzying film about sexual morality, Belle de Jour surpasses it for sheer psychological mystery.

The opening scene, which begins with a careful long shot of a distant horse-drawn carriage that slowly moves into close-up, is both emblematic of the enigmatic qualities of the film and leads me closer to charting out Buñuel’s style. It is a dream in which Séverine is brutally beaten by her husband’s coachmen after he infers from her introversion that she is cheating on him behind his back. This dream has many interesting implications—not only does she desire masochistic pleasure, but she also anticipates her eventual employment in a brothel and how conflictingly she feels about being found out—and it is also a bitterly realistic dream, lacking any of the usual surreal touches and focusing in abundance on the damp earth and tranquil scenery. I am also coming to understand the particularities of Buñuel’s relatively long-take style. Throughout the film there is an illusion of fixed space. The opening shot begins as a lengthy static shot before a sudden pan, and the camera often begins in a set position before it begins tracking or prowling or zooming in or zooming out, and it is always as if our initial perception of a set space is being encroached upon or distorted. The camera often pans between husband and wife or rotates around an axis between à la Contempt, and it also follows according to Séverine’s gaze à la Madame de…. Buñuel undoubtedly wields one of the most curious, voyeuristic cameras in film history.

There are snippets of flashback into Séverine’s past that I suspect have certain autobiographical flourishes for Buñuel, who was raised Catholic and then came to abandon the faith. All of his protagonists seem predetermined for certain sexual transfixions, and while Flabert of That Obscure Object is a grotesquely comedic example, Séverine is more fully realized and her flashbacks that depict a Catholic upbringing seem like Buñuel delving into his own childhood. Is Buñuel casting a moral light on Séverine’s decisions, either approvingly or disapprovingly? Her actions result in a violent disaster and yet Buñuel clearly looks on his heroine with profound affection. In what I now know to be typical Buñuelian fashion, the outcome of Pierre’s learning his wife’s fatal secret is given to us as a dream. Dreams are the means by which he approaches life and the means by which his characters either cultivate their desires or retreat into themselves.

Friday, March 12, 2010

That Obscure Object of Desire (Luis Buñuel, 1977)

I began with Buñuel’s early Surrealist works and have now jumped over forty-five years ahead to the end of his career. Though his vehement anti-Catholicism and willingness to offend has always been offputting, I do admire, having seen That Obscure Object of Desire, the cohesion of his work, that he has the same touch of black comedy and erotic fascination that he did in both Un Chien Andalou and L’Âge d’Or. I also admire the puzzling moral positions of his characters, the respectable man who desires the virginal woman and what is entailed both by his passion and her refusal to giver herself completely to him. Desire factors in almost every decision for Flabert, played by Fernando Rey, who not only ardently yearns for Conchita, but who believes he can get what he wants by playing on the desires of others. Conchita ostensibly wants nothing, neither money nor sex, and she recoils when he attempts to buy her from his mother. When they are finally together as man and mistress, she denies him her flesh. Through this denial, she casts a peculiar light on Flabert that illustrates the savagery and foolishness of his pursuit and would seem to suggest that true love can only exist if the fulfillment of sexual desire is withheld. But instead, this prolonging becomes a spiral of jealousy, decay, and frustrating moral ambiguity. Played by two actresses, Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina, Conchita is endlessly mysterious and her temperament ever subject to sudden shifts and changes. She remains a virgin throughout, but her actions become ever more rash and hard to decipher.

It’s a thoughtful and enigmatic story, made all the more strange by the bizarre present-tense sequences, in which Flabert proudly tells his story to fellow train passengers, all of whom appear to be strange caricatures of respectable civilians. One of the first notable incidents in the film is Flabert’s pouring a bucket of water on Conchita’s head, and at the end of the film she reciprocates by doing the same to him, as if the brutal beating she endured the morning before was absolutely meaningless, and surely enough the two are soon back together yet again. The ending may provide some insight into this final absurdity, one that seems to communicate that their game will go on ad infinitum, by taking the theme of terrorism that has always been present, and using it to put an explosive end to everything. The shocking, freeze-frame ending, together with both the image of a woman mending a torn dress behind sound-proof glass and the soothing music that plays a moment after the loudspeakers announce an alliance between terrorist organizations, suggests that throughout all of Flabert’s and Conchita’s cat-and-mouse game, in which everything that has mattered is the immediacy of desire, they have been almost entirely oblivious to the real world, shrugging off encounters with violent radicals as if they were inconsequential impediments, and that perhaps all is arbitrary and meaningless in the grand scheme of things. With That Obscure Object of Desire, Buñuel appears less a provocateur and more a refined moralist, and I am ever more inclined to seek out more of his films.

An Affair to Remember (Leo McCarey, 1957)

Leo McCarey’s An Affair to Remember, my second of his films after the heartbreaking Make Way for Tomorrow, affirms beyond all doubt his sincere love for and idealization of the couple, and he romanticizes to no end the affair between Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr until it loses the glossy lavishness of a sentimental fling and hopes to attain true longevity. As in Make Way for Tomorrow, McCarey details how the world conspires against the consummation of true romantic love, turning the couple into tabloid fodder or targets for derision. Only a beautiful, transcendent interlude, in which the couple visits Grant’s grandmother in France at a humble, secluded mansion that houses a chapel, far removed from the dimly lit glamour of the cloistered cruise-ship, assures them that they belong with one another forever. This is what makes the film; the scene exults a romantic Hollywood couple to a plane of spiritual togetherness. Instead of cautiously exchanging flirtatious double-meanings, they pray together in the chapel and share a wholesome time with the elderly woman, who shares all the dignity of Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi.

Of course their fateful meeting atop the Empire State Building is delayed, and what ensues might rub a few viewers the wrong way, perhaps as needless padding or cruel delay of what the audience has been waiting for. Especially perplexing is an entire musical number performed by the young children Kerr has come to teach at a small Catholic school. But McCarey must send his characters through a period of turmoil and humbling before they can effortlessly get what they desire, and it is moments like the corny children’s performance that provide much needed glimmers of joy that also serve as a personal mementos for McCarey, one of the most Catholic of directors. Grant’s torture, meanwhile, is depicted without a word; the camera lingers over him as he suffers the sights that marked the first stages of their love, and the fond memory of his grandmother’s piano playing that recalls that quaint nostalgic day they spent together provides one of the most convincing uses of music as gateway to sentimental remembrance that I have yet come across in a film. The final ten minutes, marked by jarring suspense, proceed along an awkward path of cautionary dialogue until in the last few minutes the unbridled force of the theme rushes out of the floodgates and drenches the screen in the purest of romantic love, and the final embrace takes place not atop the Empire State Building, but in a homely little room in a tucked away building.

McCarey’s innocent charm with which he paints Manhattan as a romantic snowcapped wonderland does more for me than all the gritty or intellectual imbuement customary of the most famous New York directors, among them Allen and Lumet. Meanwhile, Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr’s performances are so fraught with turmoil, embarrassment and pathos, that they are immediately believable as the unlikely couple that meets by chance and falls in love, and McCarey allots equal care to both characters. The end result is a masterpiece I’m shocked to find drifting into low-tier McCarey and hokey romance canons.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Network (Sidney Lumet, 1976)

Network is a good movie that goes down easy, more palatable than Lumet’s other prominent mid-seventies news media discourse, Dog Day Afternoon. Both are about sensationalism, how a troubled man with violent tendencies can become a crude populist attraction devoured by television and radio networks. But Sonny is a more convincing human being than Howard Beale, played by Peter Finch in his final performance as a raving lunatic news anchor, and Network’s over-the-top hyper-real satire, running amok with ratings-hungry executives and self-centered shareholders and all the now-typical clichés, pales in comparison to Dog Day Afternoon's restrained and focused character study. Network is problematically connected to the real world, beginning with the presence of actual television networks and continuing into the running commentary on ‘our times,’ bolstered both by the network's attempted negotiations with a leftist terrorist organization for a hit series and by Beale’s running commentary on politics and the economy. While Dog Day Afternoon humanizes what the media would objectify, Network achieves no such potency, and the result is a fun film weighted down by a self-important script. It seems to be at once bombastic satire and serious, real-world drama, and this inconsistency is to its detriment. Watching a scene of shrill, painful marital breakdown devolve into more of the same old satirical meta-awareness made me feel unforgivably toyed with, and character drama doubling as blunt, shallow exclamations about the coldness of networks and corporations continues throughout William Holden’s and Faye Dunaway’s side plot, though Holden’s Max Schumacher is sorely needed as a voice of sanity. There’s a reason Network was nominated for ten Oscars, and Billy Wilder’s similarly prophetic and far more ahead of its time film about the media’s marginalization of human beings for the sake of profits, Ace in the Hole, was nominated for but one. One might chalk this up to the wide gap between conservative fifties audiences and jaded seventies audiences, but the fact remains that this is a pop satire and very surface-level commentary that ultimately leaves the viewer without any powerful reaction, though perhaps with the illusion of one. But it’s fun, the cast is great, the New York feel impeccable, and it sure goes out with a bang.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Jezebel (William Wyler, 1938)

The farther back we move into William Wyler’s career the more liberal he seems with camerawork and cinematography. The absence of deep focus in Jezebel leads to dramatic focal contrasts between foreground and background, and he still has a way with framing groups of people in the same shot. However Jezebel is one of the worst costume dramas I’ve seen, Gone With the Wind lite, where every heated moment gives way under the impenetrably thick, false Southern accents, and where every black character is comic relief. Wyler’s New Orleans also lacks much to distinguish itself. The opening dolly shot through a crowded market place is an excellent example of staging and is at least competent at lathering on some regional flavor, but it’s more or less dissociated from the rest of the film. Everything else takes place in manors and banks and ballrooms, and it’s rather interchangeable with the unspecified Georgia setting of Wyler’s The Little Foxes, although that particular film is a far more accomplished work of daring theatrical asceticism. Jezebel overreaches by drawing dubious parallels between Julie (Bette Davis) and the Biblical Jezebel, and the film is unsuccessful at keeping the primary character dynamics within a larger historical context. Maybe if I were to re-watch the film with subtitles I would have liked it more and wouldn’t have zoned out so much, but as it stands, this is my second least favorite Wyler so far.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Sans Soleil (Chris Marker, 1983)

Sans Soleil is an essay film that follows in the footsteps of F for Fake, a film made by Orson Welles about art forgery, which takes many detours and makes many references and plays with editing to make statements and connections without ever forming a complete whole. Chris Marker’s film is a more serious, wide-reaching, and conclusive travelogue that explores an endless array of philosophical and anthropological topics, but can be boiled down as an exploration of memory, and by extension history. It is about how videogames interpret reality through delirious imagery, television is a substitute for our dreams, a city is a monumental comic strip, a seemingly lifeless procession through a subway is its own symphony, and Pacman is the perfect graphic metaphor for the human condition. Just about every idiosyncrasy of Tokyo is a gateway into a cultural history that is at once made expansive and compressed. Everything can be connected or represented in a multitude of ways, and one feels that Marker’s juxtapositions and graphic parallelisms are but a few among infinite possibilities. He is interested in memory as a circular phenomenon as opposed to a linear one. I can finally see how Vertigo is a reference point for him, and his intensive analysis of it as it pertains to time and space describes the opening spirals as the perfect embodiment of a memory that is at once expanding outward and concentrated in a singular point, both moving along a fixed path and yet concentrically situated. The abstract and the specific are all swirled together in a grand symposium of humanity’s collective memory; two dogs prancing about on the beach on an overcast day cuts to a grand scale ceremony for the year of the dog, a few girls in kimonos exist to the exclusion of every possible apocalyptic catastrophe, and a transient ritual performed by a priestess, upon whose death it will dissipate forever, transpires in spite of the bombastic, Americanized city just two miles away. The film’s fascination with technology as a means of supplanting memory comes to a head in the ending, when our narrator peers into the year 4001, when perhaps nothing in history will ever be forgotten, and it is at this moment that all of history is neutralized and strung together in a fluid progression toward an arbitrarily marked, hypothetical pinnacle, and the concept of collective human experience becomes beautiful, exciting and poetic.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Platoon (Oliver Stone, 1986)

I found the viewing of Oliver Stone’s Platoon a truly reprehensible experience. The first half hour or so juts nice on-location wilderness shooting up against every war movie cliché and Vietnam War movie cliché specifically. There are horrible voice-overs, profanities over-emphasized as if the film were a 1970s holdover, the soldiers defined by how loudly they argue with each other, and there’s even an obligatory scene of that one soldier who’s showing off the photograph of his girl back home. Family, race, social standing—yes Platoon thinks it has something important to say about all of it. A lot of this was starting to thankfully wear off when the raid on the village sequence made me hate the film about fifty percent more vigorously than I did beforehand. Watching amoral American soldiers hold guns to little children’s heads, attempt rape on young women and crush a man’s skull with a rifle absolutely disgusted me, and it’s not the proactive form of disgust, which might result after a provocative, thought-provoking film that sets out to call my attention to a truly abhorrent real-world issue. Rather it’s a Vietnam war film, made well after the Vietnam war film was already its own subgenre, relying on cheap exploitation to make the audience feel petrified with shock and disgust, only to result in our young protagonist calling out his fellow animalistic soldiers and then in a dramatic long shot of the burning village, the accompanying operatic music meant to make us respond emotionally as only Oscar-hungry war movies can. As soon as the mean-old scar-faced sergeant Barnes murders noble Willem Dafoe and then lies about it, a plot twist so intent on making the audience cringe and accumulate hatred for the film’s posited villain, I decided I was going to disengage myself from the film completely. I knew it wasn’t worth caring about upon hearing all the hackneyed dialogue afterward: “I saw it in his eyes!” “Death? What do y’all know about death?” “There’s the way things ought to be and then there’s the way things are,” and the worst offender, “We did not fight the enemy; we fought ourselves. And the enemy…was in us.” The closing monologue, intended to conjure up metaphysical ideas and feelings about the war, is one of the worst things I have ever heard and everything else is an action movie.

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ... and Spring (Ki-duk Kim, 2003)

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring is my introduction to Asian film of the past decade, and it makes me hungry for more. Not a masterpiece by any means, but a lovely storybook parable enhanced by lush nature photography and near-perfect visual storytelling; contemplative close-ups of statues, animals, and written figures, and placid long-shots of the temple resting on the lake and the surrounding wildlife. The title blatantly evokes the cyclical and seasonal nature of the film, which in turn indicates its Buddhist simplicity, and simplicity enhanced by lyricism is one of my favorite modes of filmmaking.

Friday, March 5, 2010

L'Eclisse (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1962)

In the first scene of the L’Eclisse, when Vittoria (Monica Vitti) leaves her lover Ricardo, Antonioni alternates between framings that compress the space between the two and deep focus shots that maximize distance. Spatial proximity is Antonioni’s primary tool, and part of Vittoria’s existential crisis is reflected in the visual battle waged between natural forms and artificial ones, and whether the natural will dissolve into the artificial. This opening scene, then, creates ambiguous visual relationships between not only Vittoria and Ricardo, but also the couple and their environment. The remainder of the film will explore these relationships between human beings, and human beings and their environment in an increasingly modernized world.

The most initially striking element of Antonioni’s style is the ascetic approach to sound, wherein all is silent except for isolated noises manipulated to grate on the viewer by encroaching either on tranquility or sanctity. The roaring, ear-splitting sound of plane propellers puts short end to the momentary beauty of flight. A moment of silence held out of reverence for a recently departed associate at the stock market exchange is interrupted by ceaseless telephone ringing. Antonioni’s apprehension over how modern mechanics and architecture affects our daily lives seeps forth in every creaking door and blaring car horn.

In conjunction with isolated sounds is an assault on art and iconography, namely the reproductions of man and nature that would appear to equate them with objects. Photographs of Kenya, landscape paintings, wildlife wallpaper, and even a man’s crude sketches of flowers on a notepad establish this recurrent motif, and each time these reproductions appear can be argued to be an instance of grasping out at a natural world all too absent in the modern industrial ghost town of Rome. Vittoria searches the photograph of the Kenyan plains in vain for her friend’s farm, which is cut off by the restrictive framing, and the man who draws flowers in his notepad does so in miserable response to his losing 50 million lire in a stock market debacle. Vittoria is noticeably uneasy about making love in Piero's apartment, which is filled with busts and novelties that marginalize the human figure, all of which look grotesque in her eyes.

This argument that man and object are becoming interchangeable is fully communicated in two crucial lines of dialogue. The first is Vittoria’s statement that holding a man is like holding a pen or any other object, a statement that is made visually manifest when Piero (Alain Delon) finds himself, soon after Vittoria’s leaving him, among his desk pens, sitting erect in the foreground, every bit as prominent as he. The other arrives soon after Piero learns that his car, stolen the night before by a drunkard, had been driven into a lake. Expressing no sadness over the man’s death, whose mangled body he has seen draped across his wrecked automobile, he worries instead about the damage. Both the drunkard and the man tragically affected by the stock market are examples of strangers that Vittoria tries, in vain, to reach out to. Antonioni juxtaposes alongside his abstract statements about man’s collective dissipation in response to modernity more specific concerns over our inability to connect or empathize with other individuals.

L’Eclisse’s mise-en-scene is always full of blunt juxtapositions between dense, obstructive walls and pillars and the more lyrical beauty of the natural world. An early shot, which finds Vittoria in her apartment, positions her to the right of a massive wall, as she peers sadly out of a window at the trees blowing in the wind that populate the left half of the composition. As in the last shot of L’Avventura, the stone wall blocks out nature in its totality, replacing an immersive, picturesque image with a flat, imposing structure. Vittoria communicates to many people through windows and walls, and even the would-be intimate kisses she shares with Piero transpire on either side of glass doors, rendering the action an illusory mockery of the real act.

Vittoria’s and Piero’s relationship receives no closure, and their disappearance from the film may be said to be their immersion into the larger environment, that being a desolate area of the city inhabited by construction sites, streetlights, and apartment complexes. Antonioni calls attention the rigid trees pictorially transcribed onto these monumental structures, similar to how characters are often transcribed onto architectural fixtures or vice-versa. The finale of the film is one lengthy meditative montage surveying this eerie sector of the city. Axial cutting is used at two points for potent effects; the first gradually renders a portion of an apartment building abstract and lifeless, and the second begins with an extreme close-up of an old man’s face, every ridge and contour strikingly visible, and ends with his departure from the frame. The second to last shot presents a row of streetlights receding into the horizon. The one closest to the camera is positioned in such a way that the fluorescent light looms over the entire frame. The final shot reveals this to be the eclipse of the title, an eerie close-up of this artificial light that renders it as supreme light source, made all the more unsettling by the fact that I actually did mistake it for the moon upon first glance of the preceding shot.

In so many films, I tend to extract some sort of thesis the director is attempting to make and then move on after mentally applauding his skill. I see fascinatingly, but to no real provocative effect, that his visual style will tend to reflect his message. But in L’Eclisse, I was blindsided by Antonioni’s visual and auditory arguments, the formal elements of the film not merely reflections of a point already made clear in the narrative, but the entire substance of what he wishes to say. I feel that I did adopt Antonioni’s anxiety over the dehumanizing effects of modernity, and at some point it hit me that there is one moment at the beginning of the film when an electric fan caresses Vittoria’s hair, and that every subsequent shot of natural wind has it rattling metallic poles or blowing through wooden scaffolding. This observation, for whatever reason, sent a chill down my spine.

Shadows (John Cassavetes, 1959)

Shadows is my introduction to John Cassavetes, and perhaps my introduction to independent American cinema of this period. I was surprised by how ahead of its time it felt, its improvisations and overlapping conversations reminding me of Altman, while the brutal violence erupting from racial tensions and the glimpse of intellectual New York culture reminding me of Scorsese and Allen respectively. Sadly the DVD I viewed the film on was accompanied by horrible picture quality, which is hopefully remedied in the Criterion release. Even so, Cassavetes’ jumpy, freeform style is a wonder to behold, even in its awkward editing and unpolished sound. It’s a rough hodgepodge of beatnik culture and dingy Manhattan living, eruptive character relationships and existential angst, and it ends without any coherent finality, preferring instead to leave its characters waltzing forward to the beat of the saxophone solos.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Two by William Wyler: The Letter (1940) and Mrs. Miniver (1942)

My Major Filmmakers class continues with these two films by Wyler, and while they are an arbitrary pairing, I like the contrast they provide between wonderful pulpy noir story and bloated wartime propagandist Oscar favorite. Made before Wyler became a name synonymous with deep focus cinematography, The Letter, even in its conventional noir trappings, is far more complex than the simpleminded Mrs. Miniver. A film about a married woman who murders her lover in a fit of passion and can only be convicted if a letter she wrote on the night of the murder enters the hands of the prosecution, The Letter has something interesting to say about the respected British citizens of Singapore and their feelings toward their native cohabitants. The glittery lavishness of the mise-en-scene and Max Steiner’s exotic score make them feel strange and otherworldly, while Wyler appears to implicate Davis’s character, part of whose motive was her rage over her lover’s daring to marry a native islander. Mrs. Miniver, meanwhile, conforms to a very banal ‘big picture’ model, depending on Theresa Wright’s perkiness, Greer Garson’s nobility, German caricatures, and pandering speeches about how it is everyone’s duty to contribute to the war effort, made by a priest no less, to rally the Allies in that particular moment in world history. Unfortunately, it is entirely hollow, and Wyler was right to conclude that his experience in the war gave him the proper experience necessary to make a truly relevant film about the effects of the war, The Best Years of Our Lives, which far surpasses the comparatively shallow exercise of Mrs. Miniver.