Saturday, February 26, 2011

MACBETH, Take One (Welles)

Consensus seems unduly weighted toward the demeaning notion that Welles's 1948 Macbeth is but an amateurish experiment of little worth except to film schools. Watching it, I understood instantaneously why Godard and Rivette spent eight hours on a single day watching repeated screenings. It is the grandest synthesis of theater and cinema I have yet laid eyes on. The sequence in which Macbeth, plotting with his malevolent lady, mulls over his predestined murder of the king, shot from a fiercely low angle that is transfixed on the king's cavernous quarters engraved in the side of a craggy, gothic spire even as the silhouetted performers occupy two-thirds of the frame, single-handedly renders Bazin's analysis of the staircase murder in The Little Foxes obsolete. It is theater at its most grand and artificial, even as the filmic space transforms the hovering themes of guilt and psychological oppression into indelible images, the cavern of the king standing for a forbidden place in Macbeth's mind where he dares not go, a moral threshold to ascend and from which he can never return. The whole film is drenched in such soundstage imagery of gargantuan thematic proportions, and the chiaroscuro lighting that is Welles's trademark forms the textures, obfuscations, and oppositions that are at the heart of Shakespeare's play and this masterful interpretation of it. It is ripe for theoretical deconstruction even as it is infinitely more visceral and intense than Olivier in his tepidity could ever hope to aspire.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Double Feature (Cukor and De Palma)

Most of the fun of Sylvia Scarlett (George Cukor, 1935) film lies in Cukor's theatrical acuity, his reliance on simple mid-level compositions and compressed space in total service to the performances and how he very quietly swivels his camera around his actors for maximum performative impact. Sylvia Scarlett is a bumpy ride in that it moves briskly and changes gears from scene to scene, Katharine Hepburn and her gender-bending heroine the focal point that draws the rest of the film's disparate elements into some kind of cohesion. It's an enjoyable 30s road movie, but because the film's apparently subversive elements were unable to win me over to the side of its most outspoken admirers, that's about all it remains to me.

I preferred Brian De Palma's Phantom of the Paradise (1974), a histrionic amalgamation of seminal metaphysical texts into a rock-'n-roll horror show. De Palma is like a trashy, tacky Godard, freely taking whatever he wants from the pantheon of pop culture to create something so energetic and visually ferocious that it hardly matters if it's amateurish, formless, or, in the long run, dispensable. Peering through its impenetrable outer shell of glossy wide-angle shots, split-screens, and frivolous scenery, one can still latch onto its classicist underpinnings and absorb the agony and the anguish of its Faustian protagonist, even as the absurdity flowers into infectious camp. It's just a lot of fun.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

My Return to Blogging

I have returned from a long sojourn, during which I came to feel that regularly blogging, in addition to being fatiguing, was not worth my efforts. Capsule reviews can be catalogued on various forums and i am too nervous to publicize this site outside of its meager readership.

But alas, I find myself more immersed in cinema now than ever, consuming books, journals and films themselves at an alarming rate. I need a hermitage wherein I might calmly reflect on my recent thoughts and exploits without the frenzy of a message board. As such, this blog remains a diary, a journal, a day-by-day chronicle of what is on my mind, as I continue to sail the seas and weather the winds of cinephilia.

For today, I produce a small sampling of short film reviews I have penned over the last few months, many of which I take some pride in. Enjoy.

Zabriskie Point (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1970)

A worthy companion to Two-Lane Blacktop as an early-70s zeitgeist masterpiece of the existential anguish of fundamentally empty characters, here coping with Antonioni's favorite theme of modern malaise and the yearning for escape. As in Antonioni's The Passenger, the protagonist leaves his life behind to embark on a reckless odyssey that conjoins him with a similarly undefined woman. Their time together converges on a beautifully fragmented and disorienting scene of landscape lovemaking, as the film itself culminates in an extended reverie of breathtaking, picturesque destruction.

Duel in the Sun (King Vidor, 1946)

Duel in the Sun is a film simmering with volatile conflict: the clash between Texan rurality and encroaching industrialization, the heated confrontation between an old-world patriarchal rancher and his New-England-minded son, the heroine's exoticism at odds with Southern femininity and the painful coexistence of her unshakeable lust for a rotten scoundrel and her torturous yearning for civilized married life with his brother. The film is an odd production, Selznick emulating Gone With the Wind for more big-picture success with a lot of matte paintings and horse stampedes, while Vidor as a director seems far more attuned to the stylized intimacy that unfolds in the expressionistically lit interiors. The Technicolor seems all over the place and the acting is always at the same high pitch. If there's anything that keeps the film together it's the sense of romantic and emotional torture that seems to pang all the characters, no matter where they are, and every scene broils with so much passion that Vidor's grandest achievement is in his ability to channel it all into a climax that's more tense and electrified than all the scenes that precede it. The final image of two virtueless lovers drenched in sweat and dust and blood from each other's bullets is the ultimate hauntingly romantic capstone to one of the most unusual but breathtaking Westerns i've ever seen.

Christmas in July (Preston Sturges, 1940)

Capitalist competition gone haywire, miscellaneous Joes scattered around New York staring to the brightly lit Maxwell Coffee building as a heavenly monument to the wealth and success they all crave, every one of them having entered in a $25,000 slogan contest for the coffee conglomerate. It's a satirical conceit made depressing when considering Jimmy MacDonald has been submitting similar slogans in various contests for years, all in the hope that this will get him, his fiance and his mother, all barely scraping by in a dilapidated boarding house, somewhere just a little more comfortable. The misunderstandings that ensue when some mean-spirited co-workers forge a telegram informing Jimmy that he has won spark a farcical snowball of events full of the most trenchant digs at frivolous consumerism, corporate hierarchies, and commercial selectivity i've seen in any film, while the generally despondent but still resiliently optimistic conclusion is heartbreaking. A million times better than The Lady Eve and sure to get me coming back to Sturges in the near-future.

Point Blank (John Boorman, 1967)

Ultra-slick ultra-modern semi-comic existential thrillerfull of hard edges, gaudy colors, vertical blinds, and reflective surfacesabout a double-crossed man out to collect $93,000 from his former partner, and by extension the corporation he works for. Part of the beauty is how the ever-stoic Lee Marvin, with his hard, blocky features, blends into the architecture. The frequent flashbacks initially have the feel of rhythmic, jolting sensations, but as Marvin ravages his way through the company's top ranks, they come to thread together his encounters with the executives into inadvertent repetitions and catchphrases, highlighting the absurdity of each one's automatic reluctance to fulfill his simple request even after he has more than proven himself a serious threat. There are tons of doubling effects and thematic symmetries, all of which are complemented perfectly by the labyrinthine, right-angle geometry of Boorman's visual schema.