Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1983. (2010) Anand Tucker

A redemption of sorts makes its way into the final chapter of the Red Riding trilogy. The films wrap up in resolute fashion, and while I'm a tad underwhelmed at how the stories resolve, I'm still convinced this is a trilogy I want to revisit. In fact, I'd like to have it on my shelf. I'm certain a second viewing is in order. The trilogy screams to be seen more than once.

Most of the things we've not understood are given an answer in 1983, but the answer feels like Agent Dale Cooper turning into Bob at the end of Twin Peaks. With characters like the "wolf," the "owl," the "badger" -- and constant murmurs about a murder location that's "under the carpets" -- there's just enough of a Lynchian edge to send the neurons in your brain scrambling.

The more I think about it, the Twin Peaks comparison is decent. Originally a TV show about the murder of Laura Palmer, a high school senior, with FBI investigations and small town eccentricities, the end of the second season (and the series) left us with Cooper staring in the mirror, the killer staring back. It was a haunting image, never clearly resolved, a decent introduction to the main investigator in 1983.

The finale is the most emotionally invested of the three. The investigator cop, Maurice Jobson, who we've seen mostly as a supporting character, steps into the light in a leading role. He wrestles with the corruption he's witnessed, things he's evaded or taken part in, the killer that's running free due to the force's cover-up. To face these things and make it right he'd have to confront the entire institution. He wants out, but there doesn't seem to be a good out for him. The force has actually enabled a serial killer (or two) by thwarting past investigations for friends that they protect. Jobson's unseen role in 1974 is brought to the surface here -- we watch as he tries to reboot from his part in all the wrong. He won't find absolution, but maybe he can put a stop to the insanity once and for all. It would still be a sort of redemption for him, but for any character in Red Ridintg, absolution is far away.

And of course, Jobson's story is only one of several stories that intertwine and weave together a tapestry of characters who have all been profoundly affected by the murders and cover-ups. The strength of Red Riding as a whole is that it isn't one neat story, but a bunch of messy ones webbed together.

A climactic, over the top, slow motion scene toward the end will leave some stunned, and others pondering movie manipulation. I left the scene somewhere in the middle, but can't wait to see it again.

While I picked on 1974 for its inferior 16mm and applauded 1980 for its standard 35mm, having seen the final film in DV format is rather telling. When digital was first pushed in dogme films years ago, I loved it. It revolutionized indie filmmaking long before Youtube was conceived. Over the years it has gradually worn down with people like Michael Mann, unable to locate its strengths. I am no fan of the digital setting in 1983, especially the way reflected light brings these horizontal, ugly lines across the screen, which is all too noticeable and happens throughout the film. However, watching the three together as a whole rather redeems the use of the finale's digital. It is sleek, compared to the retro use of old-school devices in 1974. Understood this way, time seems to travel from retro to modern as the years of the series progress. While I'm not a fan of the way the digital was used here, I can understand it in context with the rest of the films, and even appreciate the artistic attempts at creativity.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1980. (2010) James Marsh

What I felt lacking in 1974 was nearly perfectly resolved in 1980. The trilogy is starting to only look right when seen as one unified story. Watching only one of the films will lead to disappointment -- they're meant to be seen as one, in order to be seen right. As I progress to the final film, I'm finding the best descriptor to be "Inceptionesque," except that when you go back through the Red Riding labyrnthian mind-benders you find they're actually better than last summer's blockbuster. All the pieces here fit and form a puzzle, not a million little pieces left on the floor.

I call it "near perfect" resolution only because we still don't have a clear idea of who 1974's child killer was, or the why behind the brutal slayings. Also, 1974 still unravels from a femme fatale relationship that is beyond reasonable belief; it's an over the top layer that seemed out of step with the rest of the story. But so many unanswered questions in that film, many of which would have been left behind in lesser productions, become plot points in 1980, resolving tension from both films in the most satisfying of ways.

As I had to explain the words "near perfect," I feel I now must qualify the word "satisfying." There's really nothing satisfying about the resolution other than story choices which bring clear and concise closure to events we'd thought long forgotten. Now that we're actually aware of who the bad guys are, it's rather squeamish to view the final scenes. "Satisfying" fits in a film way, but in a human way? No. But that's somewhat the point. We're not watching film noir, but in many ways it feels like it. In this world, corruption and darkness lurk around every corner -- even next to a police station in broad daylight.

Whereas in 1974 we followed young and cocky journalist Eddie Dunford, who appeared truly caring in tracking down the killer for his paper, 1980 gives us Paddy Considine as Peter Hunter, the upstanding cop who also has unanswered questions from the first film's closing shootout. Frustrations with an investigation finding nothing after thirteen murders, and Hunter's known integrity and fearlessness in pursuing justice land him a job on a special task force, what the press calls a "super squad," appointed to apprehend the killer and solve this mysterious case once and for all. Like Dunford before him, Hunter is over his head before he even knows it. What he begins to solve is a mystery, indeed -- but not the one he was jobbed out for.

Police corruption once again takes priority. The Yorkshire Ripper will certainly be caught, but he once again takes second fiddle when Hunter starts digging in the files. I wouldn't call the serial killers MacGuffins, it's just that these are extremely large stories and Red Riding chooses to prioritize the story within the story.

Two or three things became immediately apparent only a few seconds into 1980:

1. The look of 1980's 35mm shreds 1974's 16mm, which was obvious from the first frame. There's a cinematic quality here that leaps the production up quite a few notches.

2. We now understand that there's more than one murder mystery. In fact, there are at the very least three.

3. Sometimes one simply prefers one directorial or cinematographic style over another, and it can make all the difference in the subject matter and one's experience in dealing with tough material. Like watching Hannibal Lecter, or Se7en, there's nothing easy about this subject matter. Frankly speaking, some of it is sick and goes back to our Old Testament fascination with the strange side of humanity most of us only relate to through story. That we're grappling with an issue that's been around since Cain and Abel makes it no less easy to watch, and stories like this are going to make certain that the horror of it stays with us for a while. But personally I can say that it was easier to take with James Marsh at the helm. It's probably that he simply knows how to add filmic pizazz without it necessarily being noticeable. There are also moments of reprieve that weren't present in 1974, moments when we get a breather from the ickiness.

At the end of 1974 I was left wondering whether this was going to be a worthwhile endeavor. At the end of 1980 I'm left dazed, spellbound. I cannot wait for 1983.

But I also found myself wondering why four novels were reduced to three films. What happened to 1977? I remembered a Film Comment article from nearly six months ago in which Graham Fuller gave an answer and introduced a festering sore:

Tony Grisoni adapted 1974 from the first novel in David Peace's "Red Riding Quartet," named for a Grimm's fairytale, the color of blood, and the West Riding district of Yorkshire. He also adapted 1977, which wasn't filmed; 1980, which was directed by James Marsh; and 1983, directed by Anand Tucker. The absence of 1977 doesn't dilute the overall intensity, but producer Andrew Eaton still hopes to greenlight it once Ridley Scott has completed his American Feature adaptation of the entire quartet. It's been mooted that Scott's film will be set in a run-down industrial state such as Pennsylvania, but whether the screenwriter, Steve Zaillian, will feel obliged to replicate the fierce regionalism of Peace's novels, as did Grisoni, is another matter.
I don't know how I feel about 1977 being created later than the rest of the trilogy, but -- Ridley Scott? A feature length film? "Such as Pennsylvania"? Are you friggin' kidding me? No serious film lover would think it possible to pull off all this material in one film, and no one that's seen Red Riding would think the maker of Robin Hood and Kingdom of Heaven would be the guy to entrust it to. This is silly. It'd be like someone reducing The Godfather Parts I and II to a ten minute short for the festival circuit. I suppose it can be done, but it's like adding sequels to The Matrix. It leaves a stain on the legacy of the original.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1974. (2010) Julian Jarrold

Addendum: The writing below is unchanged from when I wrote it, but having now seen about half of the second film, I am certain 1974 had nothing to do with the Yorkshire Ripper. Little girls were the target in 1974, and the killings there all took place before the Yorkshire Ripper's time, which began in 1975. Also, the Yorkshire Ripper's killings seemed to target prostitutes, not little girls. This was confusing as I'm American and less versed in UK serial killer history, and all the summaries only mentioning the Yorkshire Ripper didn't help. However, this is the web, where we make corrections as we go. People have said for years that the web is a place of half-lies and hopeful truths. I'm reminded that I've even seen Ebert get things wrong in print that he later corrected on the web. The power of the web for the average movie watcher has turned the film experience into a more powerful probing of truth. Consider this next time you diss wikipedia.

When the Red Riding trilogy hit my neck of the woods this year, all three films showed up for one week and one week only, and then they were gone. It's a terrible marketing strategy. Why would you show interest in seeing 1974, the first film in the trilogy, if you knew that if you liked it you'd have to cram hard to get to a theater twice more in the same week? Who plans a week for a trilogy when they don't even know from the first film whether the following two garner interest?

With such a horrible marketing strategy it seems the trilogy is more suited for Americans to see on DVD. The three DVDs came out this week, and I made sure to throw them in the top of my queue.

Judging from the first film I would have been very conflicted about the next two had I had to face that week of the trilogy in theaters. I simply can't tell from the first one whether this is going to be worth an investment of my time.

Ebert compared the films to the Italian epic The Best of Youth. In terms of the time invested, I guess the comparison is apt enough. For those six hours you had to plan two trips to the theater, but the comparison ends there. The Best of Youth was up and down, all over the place emotionally, full of the highs and lows of life, the greatest joys and the bleakest despairs, but like most of life there was always an upside to the many downs.

After 1974, I am persuaded that Yorkshire is a county full of people of bleak despair, and nothing but.

I guess I should take into account the subject matter. Maybe a serial killer in the neighborhood really would make this an awful place to live. And maybe the rampant police and civil corruption of the early to mid-1970s would add to the bottom-of-the-barrel feel of all the characters in this film. But -- yuck. Are the next four hours going to be as icky as this?

The trilogy is loosely based on the Yorkshire Ripper, a serial killer who took thirteen lives in England between 1975-1980. It is a very real case which lit up the community, landing the killer in prison for life and causing quite a stir at the corruption and ineptness of the West Yorkshire police force. 1974 follows young reporter Eddie (Andrew Garfield) who seems to be the only one who wants to bring the killer to justice, but I'm sure he wants a way into covering the hottest case in town, too.

It's not that it's not an interesting story, because it is, and it's not that it's not told really well, because there are exceptional moments. In the beginning we're focused solely on the story of the Yorkshire Ripper, not even fully convinced of his existence, but as the film progresses we lose that focus and a new mystery begins to emerge. We never return to the original mystery. In the end, we seem to, but we're somewhat sure we actually haven't. And that narrative ambiguity makes its way into the acting, the choreography and the general atmosphere as well. There are moments of utter lostness, hallucinogenic, like groping in the dark. The grainy, organic 16mm feel suits this fictional film based on a true-to-life serial killer.

But it is miserably hopeless, and that's why I'm having difficulty deciding whether it is actually going to be worth it or not.

Originally broadcast on BBC TV, the trilogy is made by three different directors in three different formats (the next two films are shot on 35mm and digital video, respectively). I know I'll make it through at least the second film in the trilogy, because 1980 is directed by James Marsh, and I loved his documentaries Man on Wire and Wisconsin Death Trip. The completist in me will most likely want to see the third once I've seen the first two. I guess I'll continue reporting as I go.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Wild Strawberries. (1957) Ingmar Bergman

I had a very strong reaction to Wild Strawberries when I recently watched it again. It's probably been close to ten years since I last saw it. I think this is the third time I’ve seen it, but it is definitely the first time it really moved me.

Apparently, I’m getting old.

This is the perfect example of a film that's going to grow with you as you age, because in many aspects the film is about aging.

An elder doctor on his way to a ceremony in his honor travels by car with his daughter-in-law, who kindly tells him why he’s despised as a cold, calloused old stickler. They meet two sets of travelers which, each in different ways, compliment the initial conversation the two started earlier.

The old man has quite a few moments where he falls into dream-like states, either reflecting on his youth, mistakes made years ago, or in actual dreaming, being judged by his peers now for advancing so far in the community to the neglect of those closest to him. Several of these stages of dream consciousness are unnerving. They are cruel taunts of his guilt, accusation at his life's choices.

He seems to understand that even now, in his old age, all is not lost. He still has time to do something about the guilt. He can find redemption from those in his dream who would accuse him of growing old and calloused. There's the idea here that maybe, just maybe, someone can actually change when they see how wrong they are, no matter the age, no matter how far they’ve gone astray. It's just one small aspect you can admire in the story. I’m sure there are more but that’s the one that really stands out to me now.

Bergman, ever the auteur, is all over this thing. He wrote and directed it at a moment when he was struggling with identity, his role on the planet and whether or not there was still a God who was interested in the struggle. It shows in his art, and as he did so many times through the years, he made a film we connect with. We wonder with him at the wonder of life, guilt, redemption, and that the cosmost might be involved in all of it, but then again, they might not be -- but there always seems to be a hope that weighs in on the positive side.

No one is making films like this anymore. We settle for so much less. Where have all the auteurs gone?

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Stalker. (1979) Andrei Tarkovsky

Trying to write about a film by Russian auteur Andrei Tarkovsky is like trying to write about the book of Ecclesiastes, or Shakespeare, or the new Arcade Fire CD. Sometimes you just have to experience a work in order to understand its insights, its challenges, its poetic feel. It's not always easy, and you won't typically get it the first time around. These are works in which you must immerse yourself in both the experience and the context in which it was made, and even then you might need more than one experience with it to latch on to all the "in-between the lines".

While this is the first time I've sat down with Stalker, I'm familiar with Tarkovsky, having sat multiple times with several other films: The Sacrifice, Solaris, Andrei Rublev -- the latter of which leaves a hum in your system on the second viewing. Tarkovsky lived as a Christian filmmaker/artist under Soviet rule. His films subtly hold a mirror to the oppression he lived in, and even more subtly suggest a better way found through faith. When working under a regime you often find yourself dealing in subtleties.

His films are highly artistic, almost like wandering into an art gallery that instantly catches you by surprise, taking your breath away. They're also profound and poetic, both at the same time -- but sometimes the films feel numbingly slow.

I can understand it when a person says Tarkovsky's films are not for them, that the pacing it too great a challenge, that they can't fall into some of the surrealist acting or spiritual metaphors. But I wouldn't understand if one couldn't appreciate the political and spiritual search for freedom of expression that's anchored at the core of his work. A boundary pusher in a system that needed him, Tarkovsky carried a torch that could have landed him, like recent Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, in trouble with the system and in jail.

To not understand at least that much of the context and then to watch any of Tarkovsky's films would make the experience a real bore. Education is a must when approaching and trying to understand the mark he left.

On the surface, Stalker is a very simple science fiction story of a man that takes some visitors into a mysterious post-apocalyptic land called "The Zone." The Zone seems to strangely affect those who break through its militarized border to get in. Various interpretations try and explain the power that's found there. I have my own. It's different, but I think it's got teeth.

Having been to Russia quite a few times, even before the collapse of communism, having been in all kinds of churches there and knowing what people of the Christian faith dealt with in those years, it's really admirable -- of the highest sort -- to think that Tarkovsky made this particular film in 1979, almost a decade in front of glasnost and Polish solidarity but twenty years after Brother Andrew visited Moscow. I don't know what kind of freedom of speech was available in 1979 in either the church or in art in general, but consider all of the following elements found in communist-era Stalker:

A telling of the story of the road to Emmaus (without mention of the identity of the stranger that appeared); a pronouncement of unforgiveness while  a major character is wearing a crown of thorns; the idea that a violent act will bring an end to the thing that might liberate someone (a bomb in the zone); and a little girl -- once called a mutant, born of the "Stalker," a man whose sole life purpose is to guide visitors through The Zone -- who is more powerful than anyone thinks, with strange psychic powers in the film's end.

All of this leads me to believe that the Zone is actually a place of peace and restoration, Garden-like in its state of tranquility, and that the world outside of the Zone is simply a world afraid of change and left in its own dismantled state. The little girl is a representative of the next generation who is going to "feel" the Zone out before she arrives.

The Zone in the context of Soviet Russia seems to suggest that there are ideas on the other side of oppression, that there is visible peace in sight. Note how peaceful the Zone is. Note how when they arrive the Stalker immediately feels a connection to the land. He feels like he's come home. It is humanity's natural state to desire freedom from oppression, whether from tyranny or more suggestive oppression in lack of freedom of speech or political correctness. He feels at home here, and he feels a peace, yet every step is feared. It's a life he's not known before. Sure, it's in color, but there are going to be pitfalls and traps along the way. But it is a place he wants to navigate, because the human heart longs for liberation.

These are some intense reasons in the narrative structure and mystery of the Zone to fall incredibly in love with everything Tarkovsky lays out here in 1979. I haven't even gotten to the high-level, immense beauty of the cinematography, the intensity of the bedroom and the marriage in this context, the magnetic visuals that also blow the viewer away.

But I'm quite conflicted about Stalker. Actually, I'm more conflicted about my own experience with it than I am with the film itself. Moments definitely have a trance-like, hypnotic feel, and after a bit you are simultaneously enjoying the mesmerizing scenes while wishing for it to move on. That is why I love a quote I found on the Arts & Faith board, a quote which pretty well sums up my confliction for Tarkovsky's great film:
One of the things I'm trying to unpack is the possibility that some aesthetic experiments are more likely to evoke widely varying responses even within the same viewer, precisely because the element being experimented with is a particularly subjective and changeable one. And that the experience of time is just such a thing.
It tried my patience at times, to be sure. But in reflecting on it after only one viewing, I have no doubt I'll be visiting again -- especially after the final scene, where a lot of the film came together for me.

There is no doubt Tarkovsky is one of the great masters. I'm only learning to finally catch on.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Virgin Suicides. (1999) Sofia Coppola

Sofia Coppola's directorial debut from over a decade ago is still a dreamy, atmospheric, suburban fairy tale, somewhat realist, about an over-protective Michigan Christian family so backward the parents smother their teens in isolation. The girls can only respond to their parents' stifling control by the terms of the film's title.

The stifling suburban Michigan parents aren't a joke. There are families like this here in some of the segregated white suburbs of Grand Rapids. The Christian Reformed Church in places like Byron Center makes sure the town responds in subtle rejection if your kids aren't atheletic or sporting blonde heads and tall physiques.

Think I'm kidding? I know a (black-haired) family moving out of Byron Center right now because they are sick of the religious, non-Jesus nature of hard-line, rich conservative "Christians" in the town.

It's funny that churches outside of the Grand Rapids area see a place like Mars Hill as "Hipster" and reactionary to American mainstream Christianity -- in reality, the place might be somewhat reactionary, but the reaction is sometimes more localized, reacting to overbearing Michigan Christian bigots. (I had a hard time putting a capital "C" in that final phrase.)

I read The Virgin Suicides years ago and loved it. The film itself uses a dark approach in humor to give a lift to these repressing themes. The film would suffer without the gentle touch of black comedy. Coppola handed in a winner her first time out, showing she's more than simply her father's daughter, and Kirsten Dunst gave her best performance at a young age, proving long ago she can do more than simply look pretty.

It remains one of my all-time favorite films, and it was a joy to watch again. It takes on a greater significance now that I'm living in West Michigan and have more of a feel for the authenticity at the core of this fictional work.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Fog of War. (2003) Errol Morris

This is a quick post to launch my blogging in September. I don't want to forget about Filmsweep even as life is in crazed (packing and moving) motion.

I watch The Fog of War once every few years. I seem to learn something different every time I see it. The late Robert S. McNamara offers eleven invaluable lessons from his life: from his WWII years as an analyst for the Office of Statistical Control overseeing B-29 bombings all over Japan, to his role in the Ford Motor Company and how observing raw data there forever focused Ford's role as a major competitor in the auto industry, to his job as Secretary of Defense under both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, being heavily involved -- and blamed, perhaps unfairly -- for the quagmire in Vietnam.

Here are the three things I took away from my most recent screening. I forgot about the first two staggering facts, and the third is simply a brand new thought:

1. Japan was already obliterated long before the two atomic bombs hit in 1945. They were fire bombed to the point of 67 major cities no longer existing. McNamara claims he knows of 100,000 citizens -- men, women and children that were killed in one night.

2. McNamara claims that had we lost WWII, he would have been tried as a war criminal. This fits firmly into the notion of one the strongest of his eleven points: In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil. WWII had much evil involved, but only the winners got to create the way to teach the war historically. Hence, many haven't heard about the fire bombings I spoke about in #1.

3. How much has America changed in the past 60 years? This much: McNamara claims he was able to change the Ford Motor Company because out of 1000 executives that were there, less than ten had college degrees. Think it is like that anymore? Think there is even one Fortune 500 Company that can make that claim today? I defy anyone to tell me that there is no caste system in America today. It is an entirely different looking country than the one on the same soil sixty years ago.