Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Mélo (Alain Resnais, 1986)

Many canonized directors often wind up endlessly lauded for a single work, and for Alain Resnais Last Year at Marienbad is that film. I had heard about it numerous times before ever once hearing about a single post-sixties film of his, or even his 1963 Muriel, made only two years afterwards. I suppose like many people, I started with Marienbad, deemed it the first experimental film I had ever seen that I simply could not get into, and then soon after billed Resnais as a pretentious French intellectual. The past few months have brought me up to speed on Resnais. I watched Muriel and found a painful, relevant, and all too real story, the shattered chronology a profound reflection of the characters’ shattered emotions and overall disillusionment. I then read up a bit about Resnais and among other things learned that he loves comic books, and came to a perception of him radically different from that I had formed after my novice viewing of Marienbad. A few weeks ago I revisited Marienbad and was completely absorbed; watching films on a laptop is not always an immersive experience, but I never once removed my eyes from the screen during the film’s entirely, viewing it as a hypnotic fairytale rather than a puzzle to be solved.

Today I watched Mélo, a film so far off from avant-garde snobbery I would imagine people whose only familiarity with Resnais is Marienbad would be genuinely shocked at its melodramatic restraint. The film consists of five or six lengthy scenes with a few interludes in between, a red curtain showing up three times to mark the end of each act. Associating Resnais primarily with montage, it is something of a surprise that Mélo is comprised of lengthy takes filmed with an inquisitive and at times interrogative camera. His mise-en-scéne reflects the 1920s in its cubist, but otherwise non-showy, set design, and to emulate the feeling of a theatrical production, he unnaturally dims and brightens his lights during shots to heighten the drama. The story is too conventional for anyone to take notice, a love affair leading to a suicide culminating in a confrontation between the widower and his wife’s lover, both of whom happen to be best friends. Reading what Bazin says of Renoir’s The River, he discusses how the film’s content is conventional to the extent that a novel (either its source material or yet another adaptation) would be subpar; the reason the film is a masterpiece is that Renoir goes beyond the conventionality of his dramatic conflict to craft a film more concerned with visual relationships and analogies and thematic conveyances of the eternal cycle of life.

Mélo, a film I believe to be greatly superior to The River, is a film based on a Henry Bernstein play I can’t imagine is much better than the Rumer Godden’s novel that formed the basis of The River. And yet instead of trying to transcend his source material by arriving at some kind of insight about life or painting over it with lush visuals or removing the necessity for linear plot, Resnais stays true and adheres so firmly to melodrama, the term in which the film’s title originates, that his film becomes a beautiful and more importantly unpretentious telling of a sort of typical story. Resnais directs his actors so carefully and shoots their scenes together so intimately, that the result is endlessly touching. Mélo is perhaps the zenith of what one might call an un-cinematic stage play, and yet, paraphrasing what Bazin said of Wyler’s The Little Foxes, it registers precisely as cinematic by nature of its restraint and asceticism and lack of formal exertion. This is a great film.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Juliet of the Spirits (Federico Felilni, 1965)

If Fellini doused the story of 8 ½ with elements of the surreal then when it comes to Juliet of the Spirits, he submerges the film entirely in bizarre dreams and hallucinations and doesn’t let it come up for breath. What results is a cartoon under the guise of a prestigious art film. The genius of 8 ½ is that the subjective visions and flashbacks are on one level psychodrama and on another parodies of psychodrama, critiquing Guido as he tries to compartmentalize his life based on clichés of Catholic guilt and male fantasy. Juliet of the Spirits relies on the shopworn Fellini images and scenarios invoking similar themes—a school stage production of a martyr burned at the stake, a licentious father flying away with his young mistress and an exotic otherworldly sex party—but emboldens them until they become garish symbols and bases for the heroine’s day-to-day behavior and pseudo-meaningful Freudian determinants. Of course the film is so silly that it’s impossible to really put stock in any of them; the ending retraces 8 ½’s steps by accumulating all the arbitrary mysticism into one big hellish mass that Juliet must rise above or surrender to, except in this case there is no real thrust or structure or suspense. That there is no delineation between reality and mysticism and that it is all just a hodgepodge of overtly psychological projections relating to Fellini’s own marriage to Giulietta Masina may make it a work of genius to some, but I found it a self-indulgent bore, a vacuous showcase for Fellini’s brand of cinema without anything to latch onto. It is some of the best mise-en-scéne I’ve ever seen, and Fellini never fails as a ringleader of his imaginative ghostly carnival, but I honestly don’t think it amounts to much more than unrestrained excess.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The River (Jean Renoir, 1951)

I find myself with such dashed hopes watching Jean Renoir’s The River, a beautiful Technicolor film brimming with gorgeous soft hues and a cyclical feeling of interminable drift. What let me down was that the Indian culture must be seen from the outside by a British colonial family, very few of the Indians counting as actual characters. I suppose I must account for a double standard given my love for Black Narcissus and its clear Orientalism, but I find a difference between a studio production striving for loony, delirious cartoon horror than an on-location shoot designed to make the viewer a part of Indian culture. Except for Melanie, who herself is half-white, none of the Indians count for more than props, and except for the lovely shots of the river or of the bazaar or of Indian daily ritual, the majority of the film is upper-class British melodrama, India almost used as a backdrop. Though it is a stunning film, I felt as if in fully embracing his Impressionistic eye for color, Renoir was betraying his more impulsive shooting style. It’s closer to Powell and Pressburger filming Meet Me In St. Louis in India than it is to a close observance of an enlightening culture.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Wind Will Carry Us (Abbas Kiarostami, 1999)

Anyone who doesn’t get anything out of The Wind Will Carry Us isn’t trying hard enough. Kiarostami evokes the frustration inherent to Bresson in his insistence on keeping things off camera and relying on a realistic, almost ritualistic observance of life interspersed with fleeting moments of transcendence. The Wind Will Carry Us may even be more challenging than a typical Bresson film in how adamantly it insists on denying us crucial characters and even the story’s central emotional pivot, the one-hundred year-old woman who is expected to die. We are even denied any scene at nighttime, at least until the end, to lull us into the idle stasis of the central character, a telecommunications engineer from Tehran who has traveled to a mountainside Kurdish village seeking to film the mourning ritual following the woman’s death.

In being refused a look at the elderly woman, we almost become implicated in Bahzed’s and his film crew’s opportunistic attitude towards her approaching death. Kiarostmi almost insists that we view her unscrupulously as an abstraction, a number, a symbol, without offering any of the usual pathos. So we have to take initiative and search elsewhere, as in canvas-like shots of landscapes set to the words of a doctor’s on the wonders of life and nature, or in the distantly audible tears of the woman’s family signaling her passing, or in any number of transient moments of beauty and poetry scattered throughout. The many subtle instances in which Kiarostami makes us and his protagonist morally and emotionally invested in the death of this woman expound until the ending. After we have been stuck in two-weeks of sunny midday for the entire film, the moment Bahzed has been waiting for finally arrives and in the breathtaking glory of the early morning and the tragedy that has befallen all he can muster is a few pitiful snapshots.

As someone whose grandfather may not have long to live and who has been struggling with the inevitability of death, with the stereotyping of the elderly, and especially with the reverence and emotional response I feel I am obligated to have, there is something so unexpectedly, almost unattainably life-affirming in the Mrs. Malek’s grandson’s response to Bahzed’s questions about her, a casual “I hope she gets better.” Bahzed is taken aback by his simple and natural hopefulness, and all throughout the film he is coming to terms with these same questions and issues in regard to death, life and old age (he himself is missing a family funeral for the opportunity), as well as the morality and ethics of how he is coming to terms with them, but we never know exactly what he is feeling and he remains almost wholly ambiguous all throughout the film. Only the final gesture gives us a hint of where he stands by the film’s conclusion, one that results in an indescribable moment of cathartic poetry.

Of course the film is about so much more than this. It is about media and communication. One of the villagers tells Bahzed that the village is ideal for communication, which is visually connoted by its multiple pathways and zigzag layout. Though he works in the field of telecommunications, he humorously finds himself having to drive to a mountaintop to answer his phone, often finds himself making many verbal fumbles to various villagers, and even conceals his reason for his journey. The telephone wires and a man’s digging a hole in preparation for the erection of a radio tower are ever-noticeable details establishing the reaches of the media’s figurative empire. There is a further irony in that Bahzed the media engineer’s idleness in the face of the constant farm work of the young men of the village. That the story, as I have already noted, is almost exclusively told during daytime gives the village women ample screen time. The film ultimately amounts to a series of observations and depictions of antiquity and modernity as they apply to our changing way of life and our perceptions of life itself, both of which are attributable just much to the world as a whole as to Iran.

I feel like The Wind Will Carry Us reveals many of my own shortcomings, and that is due just as much to the emotional reaction I had to it as to the reaction I didn’t have and feel I should have. I will surely be revisiting this in the future.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Jacques Demy, 1964)

The Young Girls of Rochefort is the Demy I’m most hungry for, but it’s difficult to believe it’s much better than The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, the sublime and experimental French musical about a doomed love between two people. Instead of formulaic alternations between stagy song-and-dance numbers and expository dialogue scenes, Cherbourg blends music with all of the little rituals of life; every word is sung and Michel Legrand’s score never lets up. The opening shot is one of the most soothing opening credits sequences I have yet seen, an almost Tati-esque feat of geometric framing that tilts down from a gorgeous long shot of the city of Cherbourg beyond the harbor to a perfect bird’s eye composition that renders all of the passersby as the tops of umbrellas gliding forward in straight lines or diagonals, crisscrossing each other’s paths or forming processions. This colorful, abstract, painterly shot sets the tone for the over-saturated colors and vivacious Parisian streets. In the same way that this extravagance of mise-en-scéne clashes with the more impressionistic impulse Demy has for gently capturing rain on cobblestone and overcast days, so does the exuberance of the music clash with the profoundly ordinary story the film tells, one rooted in the oft-tragic rhythms of lower middle class life during France’s conflict with Algeria as opposed to something more polished and contrived.

Mulholland Dr. (David Lynch, 2001)

Comparing Mulholland Dr. to Eraserhead, it would appear that David Lynch is obsessed with throbbing background noise, awkward social tension, out-of-nowhere vignettes that may or may not mean anything, and subjective, psychological horror. Mulholland Dr. ups the ante with a limitless number of around-the-corner point-of-view suspense shots, a bifurcated structure in which one or both parts are dreams, and loads of jigsaw puzzles, recurring objects and images, and a conflicted perspective of Hollywood that is both cynical and nostalgic, lurid and fascinating.

My interpretation (spoilers): the popular interpretation is that the first part of the film is Diane’s (Naomi Watts) hopeful, idealistic dream interspersed with nuggets of the grim reality that emerges in the second part. Jumping off of that, I believe that both parts are equally dreamlike, and the story elements unrelated to Betty’s (Diane’s dream identity) predicament almost completely concern Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux), the talented director who becomes broke, learns his wife is having an affair, and whose latest project is overtaken by mobsters. The first part presents a bitter, cynical life that is remedied in the second, wherein he is almost a caricature of a successful celebrity director. I believe this suggests mirror dreams, Camille (or Rita, played by Laura Harring) in each one a doll for either Adam or Diane to shape in his or her ideal image.

If one of the central themes of the film is the frustration of an artist trying to maintain control of his art in the face of the limitations of the Hollywood studio system, then perhaps there is a chronology that runs between the two realities, the first part depicting Adam as a frustrated artist forced to sell out and the second part depicting his wonderfully shallow, superstar life afterwards. From this perspective, Diane would appear to be the talent that got shafted in favor of the studio’s commercial choice, Camille. When the struggling Diane explains that both she and Camille vied for the role and that the latter won the part, she may be recounting events surreally dramatized in the first part, in which Adam’s statement, “that’s the girl,” makes Diane (or in this case Betty) panicky and uneasy, as if she is either recalling the defining event that drove her to failure or actually enduring it as it unfolds in a heightened dreamworld.

What is fascinating to me more than anything is that both parts of the film seem to exist simultaneously, given the plot threads that tie them together with such a compressed temporal proximity and overlap, and at the same time they seem like they could very well be years apart, as if there is some kind of consistent reality that binds them together (the neighbor who wants her dishes back for example) and doesn't compartmentalize either into a fully dream or fully real world. Finally, the stem of so much of my frustration and intrigue has to do with Diane being awaken from being asleep (or dead) only to return to the same pose upon killing herself, as if it is cyclical, and the Cowboy may as well come back to resurrect her (or wake her up) yet again.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Great Dictator (Charles Chaplin, 1940)

In Jean Renoir’s autobiography, there is a chapter on internal and external truth, in which Renoir describes a sailor played by Chaplin, his scenes filmed on a soundstage, as infinitely more real than one played by an experienced and dedicated actor striving for authenticity, his scenes filmed on location in an actual sailboat. The Great Dictator is one of the strongest cases for Renoir’s assessment of ‘realism’ in cinema, and it is also the film that greatest aligns with Renoir’s belief that, during the rise of Hitler, it was a filmmaker’s duty to use his art to combat fascism whatever the cost. Despite the grave nature of the subject matter, the almost awkward pantomime and slapstick in the face of dictatorial oppression and discrimination, the film is never unbelievable. Chaplin plays both a Jewish barber and dictator of Tomania, Adenoid Hynkel, and he commits to both roles so completely that the film’s credulity never suffers, and even in the midst of so much silliness, there is something indelibly true about the film. As Chaplin abandons all comedy at the end to speak right to the heart of the screen in a desperate, but in the fictional world of the film successful, plea for liberty and goodness, there is the unmistakable mark of sincerity, of rising to an occasion, and of abandoning all characteristic clumsiness to do what must be done. It is a similar kind of transcendent comedy to City Lights.

Two by Jim Jarmusch: Dead Man (1995) and Ghost Dog: the Way of the Samurai (1999)

I basically have to defer to Rosenbaum’s reviews of these two Jarmusch masterpieces; he not only delves into each film’s respective strengths, but also describes what makes them kindred spirits of sorts. Dead Man is possibly everything I love about cinema; zero unnecessary plot elements, poetic storytelling, beautifully stark nature photography, and an undercurrent of enigmatic spirituality bubbling beneath the surface of it all, like a Tarkovsky film with a more concrete literary and historical basis. Ghost Dog is a more mainstream effort, but it presents such a grandiose overview of a world full of fascinating multicultural intersections and overlaps. My generally pessimistic friend, upon seeing it, told me that he was excited by its view of America as harboring such radical possibilities for cultural fusion. Binding the two films are the themes of cultural transgressions, extinction, repeating scene transitions serving as unifying punctuation, and poetry as a basis for a character’s actions.