Monday, February 28, 2011

Coffee and Cigarettes. (2003) Jim Jarmusch

My fourth Jim Jarmusch B&W in the previous five days takes things further than the typical nobodies going nowhere and walking dead men tossed into his films before -- this is a plot-less film, a film not about nobodies or nowhere, but about nothing in and of itself. It's a rare achievement, a film that goes nowhere purposefully, aiming to accomplish nothing and succeeding.

A simple obligatory description: twelve short films woven into a pastiche creating one big film, Coffee and Cigarettes. All twelve scenes are shot in one take involving two or three characters chatting over the title's main course, and no two scenes have any crossover whatsoever. It's like reciting the alphabet: A, B, C, D... A has nothing to do with B which has nothing to do with C, etc., ad Z.

I've heard of those less enthused with the premise, in fact I've heard about people at original screenings eight years ago getting bored or tired and finally quitting, giving up and walking out. I can't say that I blame them. This one won't be for everyone. But I think fans of Jarmusch were happy with the film, and it continues to add fans today. (I'm an addition.)

I tried to watch it years ago and don't remember if I made it through or not. With the number of films I actually see (five or six a week, minimum) this one slid to the nether regions of my brain where no memories care to exist, or if they do exist they certainly don't tell. It's the event that I know I was at, but don't remember names or faces; the gig I only know from a scribbled schedule found on crumpled paper.

It's funny how timing and the way we perceive things can change if we allow it to. Having just seen the previous three Jarmusch B&Ws in chronological order -- Stranger Than Paradise, Down By Law and Dead Man -- having spent a little time in Jarmusch's brain and witnessing his vision of the world and all its stream-of-fog-conscious features (the often overlooked simple parts of daily life, the strange coincidences that pop up in an average day), I must admit that the final film on this particular trip in the land of Jarmusch was rewarding, and felt like the perfect ending note in a small sonata.

All actors play themselves, or at least a version of themselves, perhaps the version they think that we think they are. And while all the scenes are solid, with dry undertones of a laughable yet melancholic humanity, three clearly stand out:

The first scene stars Roberto Benigni and Steven Wright. Has there ever been a more odd pairing of individuals? Benigni seems to be recapping his "Bob" role from Down By Law, essentially him playing himself but amped up to Italian with a capital "I", and Wright cracks jokes from his usual routine, stuck in stand-up mode at a sit-down diner with Bob. They fidget with their coffee cups, their nerves shot from all the caffeine, their fingers shaking as they drink, like addicts relapsing. The plan they wryly come up is the perfect entry into the rest of the shorts, and all it involves is a trip to the local dentist. If you don't find the first scene funny, or interesting at the very least, you might as well give up now. It's not for you.

Cate Blanchett gets the most fun playing herself in conversation with her jealous sister (also Blanchett). Don't know how this scene was pulled off, but the gimmick itself wouldn't work without a stellar actor in the part. Blanchett is one of my favorites, and here she doesn't let down in either character. In so many of these scenes we know exactly what's being said without either character actually saying it. Here, Cate's sister seems to be saying, "I wish I were you," and Cate just wants to connect.

Then there's Bill Murray as a waiter, again -- playing himself, taking care of a table where RZA and GZA (Wu-Tang Clan) recognize him, and as he drinks his coffee straight from the pot they tell him how bad caffeine and nicotine really are. They know the chemicals and the biological implications, they know of its danger for poor Bill Murray. At the end of the skit they head out to their studio to further enjoy the day and smoke some pot.

Iggy Pop and Tom Waits also have a hilarious scene together, as do Jack and Meg White, but if I continue I'll just have to name all of the actors and all of the scenes, and really there's no bad scene in the film.

And the fact that there's no bad scene in the film just goes to show you that if this one is not for you, then it's not. It's the final resting place of the initial thought I shared regarding Stranger Than Paradise -- this film is more about the viewer than it is about the actual film. Coffee and Cigarettes takes this idea to the extreme, where upset viewers will eventually just walk out.

Were I to deny the film is entertaining I'd be lying. Perhaps that's what its original goals were, to simply be a piece of fun, an entertainment. But it might have also been to just hook up a camera and see what happens when short films are strung together. Regardless, the series of shorts, shot over years of time, seems fine with simply Being. It's OK with sight and sound personified, and that's all. The fact that it's entertaining feels like it surpassed its goals, so there's more bang for your buck then even intended.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Oscar Reaction 2011

A Black and White February Interruption.

Not the same as usual "Meh" this year. I really felt 2010 was a great film year, many of the Oscar films included. I felt great for the wonderful The King's Speech, and happy for Bier's In a Better World, and also for Colin Firth and Natalie Portman and even Christian Bale.

I predicted nine winners this year and got eight of them right. Um, if I were at the horses, I'd be headed for the door never returning to the track.

I may never return anyway, due to my most cynical pick actually coming true -- the Oscars no longer know the difference between cinematography and CGI. Forget: "Video killed the Radio Star," now it's: "Graphics killed the visual win." Avatar and Inception are now your last two cinematographic winners, Academy. Congrats to the terminally confused. No wonder Godard hates you.

And I say this as a fan of Inception, and a fellow that didn't even mind Avatar, for what it's worth.

Dead Man. (1995) Jim Jarmusch

The strangest of the three Jarmusch black and whites I've seen this week, and as strange a role as Johnny Depp has played in a career of strangely weird films, Dead Man's posters and title give away the film's thrust without need for extra thinking involved: Here is Depp in a somewhat facetious pseudo-western, shot in the chest early in the film, now a walking ghost just waiting for his pulse to stop, which will transition him to the afterlife and all its awaiting mysteries. That he's on the run via horseback in the dry, western wilderness is a throwback to the earlier Jarmusch films I've been writing about, particularly Down By Law, where three escaped convicts traverse the Louisiana swampland on the run. Though this is the first time a lead character is practically dead and still walking, figuratively one could say that about many of the characters in other Jarmusch productions.

Depp plays William Blake (not the poet), lead by Indian guide Nobody (who considers Blake the poet, or at least feigns the belief that he is) on a road-weary journey to his early demise. Blake's parents passed away in Cleveland a few months before he was hired as an accountant and asked via mail to move out west. On a train on the way there, in one of the strangest most quiet movie openings you'll find, Crispin Glover as the Train Fireman appears to Blake like the legendary Devil. You feel like he might pull out a fiddle and challenge Blake to a duel. He basically functions as a Foreteller, telling Blake he shouldn't have gotten on the train but enjoying that it's too late.

The job is a sham, and Blake, who spent all he had to head west, has barely enough money for a pint at the local saloon. He drinks, ends up in the wrong woman's bed and has a shootout with a gun stashed away under her pillow. Two are dead, he is shot and dying, and from here on out we watch him bleed all over everything in the script. It's a film about the tracks of blood he leaves as much as the harrowing reality in front of him. You feel like the grim reaper is lurking behind every shadow, but if he is, he's wearing a black cowboy hat.

It's sort of a "Pilgrim's Progress" where Blake is being taken "from this world to that which is to come." But Blake's journey is rife with hardship and other killings on the way. He has an appointment with a similar River of Death, but Blake might be descending in his last days rather than on heavenly ascent. His final victim, a vicar of some sort, tells him, "God damn your soul to hell." Blake replies: "He already has." The vicar and another man are shot, the other falling through a swinging door with a sign that reads, "Work Out Your Own Salvation." If this is a journey of the Bunyan sort, it uses similar means to get to opposite ends. We might call this "The Pilgrim's Regress."

This sounds dour. It is and it isn't. While more serious than Stranger Than Paradise or Down By Law, it retains certain characteristics of both of those films, neither of which fit easily into any one genre. There are quiet, surreal scenes, nightmarish fights ending in bloodshed, hilarious moments of biting and witty dialogue, and the film's greatest laugh -- a big one -- with a single gun shot that rings out over one of Jarmusch's famous fade to black markers. There are also a few scenes that come close to having a Lynchian flavor to them... And if we can use the term "Lynchian" in today's Film Lexicon, then I'd have to submit that these films can only be called "Jarmuschian."

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Oscar Picks 2011

A Black and White February Interruption.

You've got to make picks, even if you think it's mostly bunk.

I shot with 75% accuracy last year, so I'm feeling pretty good about this. Then again, I chose selectively, getting three of four right. I'll aim just a bit higher than that for my 2011 predictions:

Film: The King's Speech
which nominee deserves it: The King's Speech

Director: Tom Hooper, The King's Speech
which nominee deserves it: David Fincher, The Social Network

Actor: Colin Firth, The King's Speech
which nominee deserves it: Colin Firth, The King's Speech

Actress: Natalie Portman, Black Swan
which nominee deserves it: Annette Bening, The Kids Are All Right
[note: The Kids Are All Right is one of the few I haven't seen in 2011. I'm basing this deserving on "all-time deserving," like the Jeff Bridges win last year.]

Supporting Actor: Christian Bale, The Fighter
which nominee deserves it: Christian Bale, The Fighter

Supporting Actress: Amy Adams, The Fighter
which nominee deserves it: Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit

Cinematography: Inception
which nominee deserves it: Black Swan
[note: This is my most cynical pick. If Inception wins this, as Avatar did last year, this category might as well be thrown out and turned into "Best Misunderstanding of CGI and How It Works."]

Documentary Feature: Inside Job
which nominee deserves it: Waste Land

Foreign Language Film: In A Better World (Susanne Bier, Denmark)
[note: no pick for "deserving" as I've only seen one film in this category. This pick is based on the film's reviews, which have been highly favorable, and the fact that Ms. Bier has already made countless films that are worthy of a win in this category.]
[final note: If Dogtooth wins, there will be a riot. Somewhere. Maybe only in blogosphere FilmLand, but I know it will happen somewhere.]

Friday, February 25, 2011

Down By Law. (1986) Jim Jarmusch

The title Down By Law can refer to the film's three unique male leads, arrested and dumped in Orleans Parish Prison -- but it can also be street slang referring to the unlikely bond they share when plotting a plan to escape and later roaming free. "Unlikely" because at least two of the men would rather bond with anyone else, but when fleeing they've only got each other, and they're going to need each other to survive. The third guy plays monkey in the middle like the comedic child holding two divorcing parents together.

The story feels built from the foundation of Jarmusch's previous Stranger Than Paradise, released two years before Down By Law. It's shot in a similar black and white style with black cuts between many scenes (but not all), and uses silmilarly subdued characters on the verge of nothingness trying to decipher their roles in life and the bad hands they've been dealt. But the film takes greater risks than Strangers In Paradise in roving cameras and tracking shots, exposing the outer garments of New Orleans in the beginning, and later the area bayou in an alligator infested swamp.

A difference, too, is in the film's use of humor -- where Stranger Than Paradise brought curious and delighted smiles to my face, Down By Law, when settled into the story of three convicts caught and later running together, brought big belly laughs from the pit of my gut -- ironic, since I wouldn't consider this a comedy, but I would be hard pressed to suit it to one genre.

It's about a pimp named Zack, a DJ named Jack, and Roberto Benigni as Bob the Italian (who would have guessed). Bob struggles with English, carrying a pad he scrawls words in wherever he goes, and often confuses Zack for Jack and Jack for Zack. The three are forced to spend time together in a cell, where perhaps none of them should even be: Jack was framed, Zack was set up, and Bob's story of throwing an eight ball and killing a man in self defense is as quirky as he turns out to be. "I ham no criminal," he says, in a thick Italian accent. "I ham a good egg."

This was Benigni's first major role, and his comedic presence took Ebert by surprise when writing about the film in '86. This is true Benigni, and if you've seen him and loved him elsewhere, you're sure to fall for him here, too. A jail cell scene where Bob tries desperately to cure his hiccups is quite hilarous, and when he later refers to Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Glass," it's as funny as anything he's done since.

The role of Jack is played by John Lurie (Willie from Stranger Than Paradise), and while I'm new at these Jarmusch films, a quick online scan shows he's in quite a few of the Jarmusch productions. I found him much more believable and approachable in this film.

Tom Waits does double duty providing the musical tracks as well as filling the role of Zack. The DJ can step in front of a mic at a moment's notice and make sense to thousands doing the weather or traffic on the air waves, but he's dumb enough to take a side job driving, getting drunk in the car and failing to check the trunk. He's the greater of the two framed saps, but honestly, if you're hired by a slime ball at $1000 for one drive across the city, it might be a good idea to look in the trunk first. (And not drink when you drive.)

The swampland plays a huge role in the second half when the three stooges escape from jail and wander aimlessly in the muck and woods. I don't know how as children all three dodged the Boy Scouts, but none of them know East from West and they wander in circles like alligator bait.

The final twenty minutes are killer in the most Twilight Zone of ways. No, it's not science fiction. It's much more strange than that. The delicate balance between coincidence and destiny implodes with a comic aura of love, still hanging in the Louisiana air.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Stranger Than Paradise. (1984) Jim Jarmusch

This is a story about three go-nowhere twenty-somethings that end up going lots of places, and every time they get there they don't think much of where they are.

There's a sense of black comedic despair that hangs over the three lives in Stranger Than Paradise. It's something I can't quite put a finger on, but they really make me smile. The film can be serious and sad or affectionate and fun. If there were ever a reaction that were more about the viewer, this might be the film that brings it.

It is, partially, some sort of a comment on our inherent immigrant nature, that thing inside that propels us forward when we don't even know what direction forward is. It can also be interpreted as a wry comment about America itself: the place where immigrants come and find fortune, or the place where immigrants come and get lost. For those of us born in America who understand how the place works already (or don't), it might be the story of some of us who are tossed about on its land, like a chasing after the wind, kind of drifting between cold states.

Willie, a Brooklynite who seems to despise employment, gets a phone call from his Hungarian aunt in Ohio. She informs him (in Hungarian, even when he instructs her to stick with English) that his cousin Eva is flying in from Budapest and will stay with him for ten days before joining her aunt in the Midwest.

Willie, who does little outside of the race track and neighborhood poker games, if he is true to the family, should be more than welcoming to Eva when she arrives on his doorstep with only a suitcase and a tape recorder. But he's not interested in any family ties, and he isn't exactly excited about her arrival. He offers her a bed for one night. She stays the whole ten days, and in the quiet of the apartment with only the TV and TV dinners, they form a strange bond, though it's rickety and built on anything outside of the norm.

Willie's friend Eddie, who also avoids a job and seems to not have a home of his own, quickly takes to Eva, probably because of her Eastern European look and her accent. The feeling doesn't seem to be mutual, but not a lot is said so it is hard to really tell. It's obvious that Eddie would like to spend time with Eva, and not in the company of Willie. It never happens. After ten days, she's off to Ohio to live with her aunt. She might have just been forgotten by the two, but the two don't have much else in their lives to think about.

At this point we fast forward a year, with the boys still playing poker in Brooklyn. Willie wants to get out of town, Eddie has a car, and they decide to take a road trip to Cleveland. The two don't seem like they've been anywhere outside of New York, so while they again don't say too much about it, it's probably a real adventure for them to go to Cleveland. I know there's a joke here, something about Cleveland, I just can't think of what it is.

The two make it to Aunt Lotte's house, and it turns out that Aunt Lotte is the only sign of life in the story. She's a hilarious side character played with spunk. The few scenes she's in are filled with energy, bringing life to a deadpan world.

Figuring out that working at a hot dog stand isn't a chapter in any book on the American Dream, Eva ends up with the boys on a road trip to Florida. Eva has the same tape recorder she arrived with in America and always plays her favorite song, "I Put a Spell On You." Willie hates the music, and she tells him, "It's Screaming Jay Hawkins, and he's a wild man, so bug off." Eddie, of course, loves it. I must admit that the song ingrains itself into the atmosphere of the film so much that one wonders what kind of spell Eva has put on the two Brooklynites, if that's even possible.

What happens in Florida is pretty weird. The three end up separated, and I'm going to guess they never see each other again.

If there were ever a mood film, this is it. The scenes are all straight forward and shot in one take, almost like each scene is divided for the theater. There's a black edit that falls between all the scenes, adjusting time and space for the need of the next quiet take.

The story, too, is divided in half. In "The New World," where Eva first arrives in New York, greeted by no one and navigating the empty streets on her own, she walks past a clue spray painted on a garage door: "U.S. OUT OF EVERYWHERE YANKEE GO HOME." From the beginning we see that this land might either outright reject you, or ask you to leave.

When the three head off to Florida we're in the film's second half: "Paradise." They imagine pelicans and flamingos, white beaches and girls in bikinis. But Florida is in many ways a dying man's version of paradise -- retirees head there live out their lives and find it, but they do so only after they've actually been in the state for a while.

I don't know how anything in Florida is actually "Stranger Than" paradise. But the film could also be called Escape From Paradise, because it seems like none of the three will end up there in the end. We really don't know. They'll each plod along in their own go-nowhere haze, one wealthier, one in a bit of a living stupor, and the other so far gone he won't be seen anymore. I get the feeling they were always separated by something, even in their few brief moments together.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Citizen Kane. (1941) Orson Welles

I am shimmering. I am glimmering.

I'm basking in the end credit afterglow and can't quite process this marvelous achievement.

Some people are shuffling out and seem quite joyous. Others are leaving their seats more slowly -- they look in deep thought, a little bemused. I'm stuck in my seat. I don't want to leave. It feels like a holy moment. I want to soak it all in, like the best Sunday service in memory. I need a pipe organ to kick in with a recessional.

While the Sanctuary clears, I marvel at what I've just been thoroughly immersed in. I'm in post-cinematic reflection over the stupendous Citizen Kane on the big screen.

It is already obvious I'm headed to Rant-land today, so let's clear the air of all facade and I'll open my Reaction with full disclosure:

[ / Fan Boy Rant Fully On]

The ever fascinating story of Charles Foster Kane, the idealist publisher corrupted by capitalist wealth -- the boy who needed love becoming the man who couldn't love -- is legendary, credited with inspiring more directors than any film in history and frequently referred to as the greatest film of all time. It was selected to the Library of Congress National Film Registry for preservation in 1989 as one of the most important films in American cinema history.

Citizen Kane is, to me, one of those "chicken and egg" scenarios. Did I start loving it before I'd heard the stories of its glory, or did I hear how great it was first and then run off to find it on VHS? No doubt I first heard from mature cinephiles in whose steps I hoped to follow that I needed to check it out. I'm only approaching 41 years; the film was hailed as the Second Coming long before I was even born. Yet I can't remember any one person telling me to see it. Maybe it was Ed. Maybe it was Armand. Maybe it was Dave. Maybe I just stumbled across it at Blockbuster in the early 90s.

All I know is that I did see it, I did fall in love, I hailed it as a masterpiece and have seen it every few years since -- except for recently. My theater trip today marks the first time I've seen it in over eight years (if I'm to trust my Film Journals, which I do), but today is also the first time I've seen it on the big screen.

Though it has been some time since my last viewing, it is amazing how much I remembered of the story. It's like it is a part of me now, integral to every other story I see: the young Kane inheriting an empire upon an empire of wealth, holding the loot of the world. Disinterested in the money, he takes a publishing job for one of the papers he owns shares in, set for telling the truth (and using the headlines as a personal tool of revenge) until he learns that the message is the truth when it's printed in large letters, boldened in black on the highly visible front page. He marries but fails in marriage -- at the end of his first marriage his wife sits across the table reading his main competitor's newspaper. He marries again and fails, ghost writing a bad review for his wife's public opera, a singing career he forced her into.

And of course, all of these stories find their way into his papers. If anything, he learns how to promote his own name there -- suited to the opinions he likes, structured to the truth as he sees it.

I remembered that the film was visual, but oh! To see it on the big screen makes it not only larger, but deeper and wider, with better contrast in the darkened room. I don't know if the forty other (mostly older) folks in the theater were there for their first theater screening of the film, but there's nothing like that setting to see it in. And see it you do. The visuals -- the smokey interiors filled with grim light and ominous shadows, the darkened figures in alleyways and balconies, the large rooms of the mansion Xanadu filled with collectibles from the earth and puzzles from a wife in flight, the delighted laughs and transformed anger on faces in various stages of life -- they come to life like a marathon runner from the opening shot off a starting block, but they never seem to break a sweat.

The things I'd forgotten about were amplified, too: the screams of a fight outside a room while Kane's wife, in a fight with him, stares blankly ahead; an interrupting, jolting edit of a cawing bird flying away as the wife leaves Xanadu for freedom. The audio, too, in these two quick mentions is as breath taking as anything else. Surely this film stretched the boundaries of aural and visual cinema in the time of the day it was made.

When I think about Citizen Kane and everything that went into it, from the perplexing character of Kane to the jumps in the storytelling timeline, from the witty, quick dialogue to the innovative use of sight and sound,I feel sorry for any film that followed after it -- I dream that all movies ended right there in 1941. They just halted, came to a complete stop. No need to make a movie ever again after that, because we have a full understanding of what makes the ultimate film experience.

And whether intended or not, Welles dropped a film that matched my worldview. Kane, the unloved and unloving, the one who fights all and grows old and keeps fighting when he can't remember what the fight was even about -- he, who collects millions of dollars of junk to stuff in closets in lieu of an emptiness inside, is representative of the parabolic words recorded in Matthew: "What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?" And that's Kane.

Rosebud might be a childhood item that Kane lost which has never been found. Kane himself might be a man that was lost in childhood and can't fully find himself. He had the whole world, but like any other man, didn't have an understanding that the whole world brings nothing, it is a clashing of cymbals or a clanging gong without love. Kane always thought love could be bought or traded. He was rejected time and again not because he wasn't loved, but because he couldn't love himself.

This film deserves all the accolades it has been given, no matter how extreme, no matter how hyperbolic. It puts all other films to shame -- it is the greatest film ever made.

[Fan Boy Rant Off / ]

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Ashes and Diamonds. (1958) Andrzej Wajda

After the Nazis we were baited by the Russian bear
Our "liberators" wanted Poland for a thoroughfare...

-Steve Taylor, "Over My Dead Body"

The lines from the alterna-ccm song from 1984 kept floating through my head in regard to Ashes and Diamonds.

The third in Wajda's loosely connected trilogy of films based on Poland during the second World War, Ashes and Diamonds is set in May, 1945, in the same few days that their Nazi oppressors unequivocally surrendered to Allied Forces.

Poland is scarred, in battle-tattered shambles, and will stay that way for quite some time due to neglect from the oncoming Communist party which will annex the land as its own. As someone points out early in Ashes and Diamonds, the war might be over, but the battle has just begun.

A group of Polish patriots on a mission to assassinate a mid-level party functionary botch the mission, killing two of their own in the process. The rest of the story revolves around their guilt, their new course of action, and the small role they play in the larger story of Soviet annexation -- their startled country, where millions have already died, is caught in the throes of "liberation."

Maciek, the trigger-man, acts like a duty-bound soldier taking charge of the failed mission, but his interior thoughts are of a man not mentally prepared for the next phase. He's tired of the ever-present destruction, the waste he sees all around him; he no longer cares about Germany from the West or Russia to the East. He simply wants to go back to school, to be a student in his homeland and live a normal life.

While waiting for a second chance at the mark he originally missed, he has a few drinks at a bar and falls for the pretty bartender. To his surprise she stops by his hotel room that night, and they mistake lust for love in a time where both are nothing more than a fleeting thought. He wanders with her through the city in the night trying to decide whether to leave the assassin's life behind, or whether he can pull off the deed that's still to be done and not have to get on the next train out of town.

It was a forceful film in its day, a story resonant with the times and devastation that won't ever be forgotten. I'm not so certain the film is capable of translating to audiences today, especially audiences that are younger and foreign. Even the most educated and pure in the film buff crowd will have a hard time making it through Ashes and Diamonds. It's exceptionally made, especially for the time and place it was made in, with quite a few scenes that are nothing short of cinematic. But it remains a tough sell. It wouldn't be my first suggestion to the artsy hipster crowd trying to find out more about the end of WWII -- however, if a college kid were looking to write on Poland at the end of the war, this might be the best piece to track down.

I've been to Poland, briefly, but admittedly know very little of its history. The film seems to suggest that in 1945 only the Nazi and the Bear had any vision for the country. While there were small groups like the patriots in Ashes and Diamonds, it seems that most were only scrambling, hoping for resistance but more concerned about staying alive. It took decades of oppression and a visitation from a homecoming Pope to galvanize the populace for political reform -- but this is a film about a people who are lost, caught in the midst of a terrible affliction, practically burned blind by the things they've been witness to. They tremble at the notion of an approaching Soviet darkness, but the light of their freedom is decades away.

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Earrings of Madame de... (1953) Max Ophüls

This post makes five bloggings in a row with a threesome.

Oh, don't get me wrong. The Earrings of Madame de... is French, certainly, but made in 1953 and not that type of a film. But going back through my four previous B&W entries, there's Following, Notorious, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, A Place in the Sun, and now this: a film in which one central character is torn between two lovers, feelin' like a fool. If February blogging was meant for black and white as I originally intended, I guess it's also meant for red -- it is no surprise you'll catch VD* in this peculiar film month.

The thing that may set The Earrings of Madame de... apart from those films, or at least closer to Hitchcock's Notorious, is its carefully crafted lensing. A masterwork of cinematography, it's a feast for the eyes, with sweeping, long, mobile shots of characters popping in and out of frame, gently followed from one position with visual delight. The central character Louise, the madame in Madame de... is seen gliding down staircases, dancing around elegant ballrooms, surrounded by onlooking men who tend to gaze along with a grazing camera. She's the focus of the story, and the lens, too, which fixes on her beauty as she spoils it with her deeds.

Louise, a wealthy socialite referred to as the Countess, is frantically searching through closets and jewel boxes in the film's first long take. She's looking for something to sell -- she's spent too much, and it's suggested this isn't the first time. She'll have to pawn something to get out of debt, and keep the whole thing a secret to herself.

Several items she glosses over have worth. We can tell by the jewelry, the furs, and noticing the lavish decor. But she comes across an item that should have sentimental value, given as a gift from her husband the day of their wedding: a pair of earrings with a diamond heart -- costly, and gorgeous to behold. They should be treasured and held as a memento from the one most dear to her. Sadly, for whatever reason, they are not.

She's off to the jeweler, pawning sentimentality for cash, telling the workers in the house to be vague if her husband -- the General -- asks about her whereabouts.

The jeweler isn't interested in the purchase at first. He sees the earrings as belonging to the General, the Count and not the Countess. This may be culturally true, a fact she'll learn soon enough. She uses the appeal of her status and her stunning good looks, and finally a quick fainting spell to win him over to her reasoning; he quickly agrees to buy the earrings he once sold to the General for his bride. The money is on its way, but now she needs to make a little lie for the whereabouts of the earrings sold off. Her stories beget stories, and the story of the earrings begins.

The earrings are a sort of character of their own. They do a bit of traveling, out of the country and then back, touching the hands of a cast of lives who are intertwined and woven together. Their voyage and return sheds light on those who touch them along the way: the General is at the end of an affair and gives the earrings to his exiting mistress; the Countess is beginning an affair and receives the earrings from her man as a gift; and the Jeweler that sells the same earrings four times -- he's probably the happiest of anyone in the film.

"Coincidence is only extraordinary because it is so natural," says the General in reference to the jewels that mysteriously return. He might as well be describing the Countess, misplacing her passions in an affair with a foreign dignitary, Baron Donati.

It seemed like fate when she kept bumping into the Baron: meeting in the street after locking eyes weeks earlier at a train station, and later introduced to the Baron by the General himself. It's a case where events seem less random than somehow synchronized. But thinking that the Universe is aligning to bring you a love life is self-centered at best, delusional at worst, and one rarely considers that the events of fate could be aligning for your unhappiness, or even your end.

Along with the mistake of believing in fate, the Countess stops by church when facing emergencies, throwing fire escape prayers at the heavens. The prayers, like destiny, help little with her problems. There's either a God that's unimpressed with those wishing to avoid consequences, or, more likely in Ophüls' world, prayer and God are like destiny and are only constructs. The only thing found when Louise walks into a church is the gaze at her stroll by men who came there to pray.

Her husband -- the stern military General outside, the Count within, the firm "head of the house" -- might have had his own hypocrisy in a misplaced affair, but it won't stop him from ending hers.

In a few short months Louise has lost her place of standing. Everyone knows of her rendezvous. They know about the earrings, the Baron, and all the lies. She's humiliated, isolated, left to rot away the hours solo in a dimly lit bed. She's surrounded by wealth but willing to give it all up for love, surrounded by comfort but uncaring.

When he finally feels she's been put her in her place, the General, who has been gentle to this point but remains a military presence to be feared, turns the crank even harder on her unhappiness. Telling her humiliation is the easiest of things to get over, he cruelly assures her a fate that is sealed in more suffering, making her ever unhappy, even as he claims that unhappiness, "Is our own invention."

I have little patience with lovesick fools in film, those who think that love or the lack thereof is worth dying for, killing for, or killing yourself for -- that the only thing that matters is that one other person, like the the empty thought of those horrible words uttered by Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire, "You complete me." That's a lot of potential drama dropped in the lap of someone else, and they can hoist it to foil you whenever they want.

Louise lives a false reality of that perfect lover that completes her. She thinks that she can't be whole on her own without another, and if that was ever the General, it certainly isn't now. When that notion of another is gone, when the lovers have all moved on, when there's no happy ending in context in sight, is there really and truly nothing left?

It's better to be complete in the first place and not find someone to complete you. Louise is one of many lovers in film (and, unfortunately, life) who thinks that two halves make a whole. She forgets that 1 X 1 = 1.

I won't hold this too hard against such a finely crafted film. The fact is that there are millions like this all around the planet, every day in real life, at your office or on the job. I guess if they exist, which they do, they ought to be present in a few films. The problem is that the films tend to reinforce their misguided thinking.

The Earrings of Madame de... is a beautiful film with misguided people at its core. Some of the best stories and films are a lot like this. It's a film I'd recommend, but encourage one not to buy into its notions. If your true love leaves you, it doesn't give you the right to go all Romeo + Juliet.

Madame de... has had a large awakening over the past few years, especially with its 2008 DVD release by Criterion. As is often the case with Criterion, an education awaits when delving into the features on their disc. Packed with enough in-depth extras to almost rival the film itself, the commentary alone by film scholars Susan White and Gaylyn Studlar is wonderfully suited to the Netflix crowd. Plumbing Freud, feminist film theory, philosophy, psychology and sociology, it's like a film class tailor made for DVD. These are two wonderful scholars that are wonderfully scholarly.

But for those willing to lay down cash for the whole package, there's a booklet containing the original novel, an excerpt from the book "Max Ophuls," by the fimmaker's longtime costume designer Georges Annenkov, and an introduction by Village Voice writer Molley Haskel, aptly entitled, "The Cost of Living." Haskel's writing is superbly written, feeling like a sort of ode to a film she's fallen in love with. Pointing out subtle nuances, especially in much dialogue I never picked up on, it also gives a bit of the history and background of the writers and makers of the film. Her writing is spellbinding -- it made me go back for another viewing, for all the beauty she finds in it.

* Valentine's Day.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A Place in the Sun. (1951) George Stevens

A Place in the Sun has its moments, but it has its problems, too.

Stevens won an Oscar directing the film in '51, and for the life of me, I can't see why. Most of the film's problems stem directly from the top, to the overseeing of production and technical aspects, the job of a film's director.

The film also took home an award that night for "Black and White Cinematography," and that, is just plain absurd. Also nominated in the B&W category that year were A Streetcar Named Desire, Death of a Salesman, The Frogmen and Strangers on a Train. I'm only familiar with two of those and it's been a long time since I've seen them, but I can't imagine their cinematography was any worse than A Place in the Sun; that it won suggests that promotional campaigns then might have been as fierce as they are now.

A Place in the Sun is so uninventive in its lensing as to leave actors' backs to the camera for minutes at a time with no narrative reason or rhyme. It also fails to bring light to quite a few of its darkened scenes, thinking that the lighting of a cigarette or the fact that there's a small bit of light in an open window is somehow a measure of success in dealing with nighttime shots. It isn't. Viewing these scenes today feels like the film was edited without looking at it; for it to receive an award for its visual presentation is laughable.

The story riffs on Sunrise, the 1927 silent by F.W. Murnau. Both films are about a man trapped between two women, with his responsibility leaning toward one but his sense of love and freedom leaning toward the seductive other. Both films have a rowboat incident in which the tense male lead has to decide whether or not to pitch his old flame overboard. Both are also about the fallout -- neither of the men following through with the crime -- but Sunrise is a tender, classy tale of temptation and betrayal and the ultimate test of loyalty, whereas A Place in the Sun is mostly meaningless schmaltz. It made quick cash for Paramount Pictures appealing to a mostly female fan base, but other than the women who saw it and are still alive, the film has been largely forgotten, and rightfully so.

For the record, even twenty-five years earlier Murnau knew how to light nighttime scenes. I've seen both films on the big screen, and I'll forever remember Sunrise as one of the all-time achievements in cinema -- nevermind the fact that it is a silent.

A Place in the Sun I hope to remember for Elizabeth Taylor, but even she might disappear into the lost jungle of my memory banks.

The reason I darted out of the house to catch the film on the big screen was that I'd just finished ripping on Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and truth be told I was feeling bad for Liz. She's had a hard life, at least lately, and I've never written about her before lambasting a film she starred in in the sixties. I don't know too much about Taylor other than knowing about her failed marriages (and who can possibly not know that?), and of the friend she was to Michael Jackson all the way to his early demise. I've got youth on my side in my lack of Taylorian knowledge, but as a film guy it's a turd in my closet.

She was radiant in this film. Gorgeous, intelligent, and headstrong, she filled the role as best it could be done. She was radiant.

I suppose there was a time when she was radiant in general. I'll try to keep this in mind for continued investigation as I check out films from when she was lovely and young, and not the drunk I so despised in Virgina Woolf -- a film I am still trying hard to simply forget.

It's not that A Place in the Sun is horrible from beginning to end. Like I said, it has its moments. It's just not the film I was thinking it was, with all the awards and accolades I've seen along the way.

But the last half hour, which goes on into eternity, made me constantly fidget in my seat like my pants were still wet from a short run in the dryer. It's a 120 minute film that could have have easily wrapped at 90 minutes and not lost any of the steam it had built up to that point. It was at that point in the story that the male lead, played by a rather boring and dull (read for the ladies: mystique!) Montgomery Clift, was arrested in the woods and carted off to jail. Hitchcock would have abruptly ended the film right there, and he would have been right in doing so. Instead we get Raymond Burr as a prosecuting attorney (wasn't he just an investigative cop a few scenes before?), and a whole new film about the courts and juries and the penal system and the death penalty. We transition from some type of a love story -- or, rather a "caught between loves" story -- to Dead Man Walking, and wow, is that last half hour a total waste.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
Mike Nichols

Who would want to spend time with these people? They're so busy zeroing in on everyone else's defects in character they can't notice the gaping issues in their own lives, the clutter on their floor. If one of them approached me at the bus stop, or more likely in a bar, I'd know in two minutes I wasn't interested in any further conversation. Some people lack the ability to at least cover their digged up dirt. What is it that's sometimes said about first impressions being the only impression? It's a good thing everyone in Virginia Woolf already has a job, because they're all too calloused at this point to even remember the days of prepping for an interview.

Liz Taylor won a second Oscar for her restless role as malcontented Martha in this adapted theater production, a perfect post-VD* hangover film. It's a story that makes you want to forget rather than remember the significant other in your life; makes you want to stay single, break your engagement, call off the family vacation or get divorced before you get old and fall into relational zombification: drunk and distant unless hungry and ready to consume the human you live with.

Plot summary: George and Martha invite a couple over for the night. Everyone has too much to drink, and yes, once the liquid party begins all bets are off, and it is off to the races. The film takes place over a five or six hour period on a Saturday night, the get-together at George and Martha's actually being a post-party party beginning at 2 am. Though at one point they make a pot of coffee, no one sobers up, ever, and we're enveloped in the onslaught of discontented lives.

Martha gets mean when she drinks, but at certain points everyone has their moment; if they're not downright mean, they're still certainly ugly. So we have over one hundred thirty minutes of drunks who mock the cruelty they dish out while simultaneously trying to make sense of their existence through a stupor and a haze. They all thoroughly inhabit the crawlspace of their own humanity.

Does it go without saying at this point that I didn't enjoy the film?

One might respond that enjoying it isn't the point, but then again, what would said point be? That alcoholism is a bad idea? Or that staying married to the wrong person and living a lie is just as bad? Common sense tells us enough about this already, and any film that tackles the subjects should do more than stand in and represent. As far as the better films on the subjects go, see: Alcoholism: Tender Mercies; Bad Marriage: Revolutionary Road.

To give an idea of how much the film hates any mix of Cupid's arrow or sobriety in general, below are some of the great words of dialogue offered in only the first fifteen minutes of the film, even before the guests arrive at George and Martha's house. It only seems fair to list the quotes, as yesterday I listed quotes to illustrate the romantic tension between the spaces in Notorious. In Virginia Woolf, the words are searing, full of contempt, always bitter, always condescending. They're a poking of a finger in the spouse's open eye.

"What a cluck you are."


"Fix me a drink."

"You make me puke."

"You are such a simp."

"You pig."

"Fix me another drink, lover."

"There isn't an abomination award that you haven't won."

"I swear if you existed, I'd divorce you... I can't even see you. I haven't been able to see you for years. You're a blank, a cipher, a zero."

"No more sickening sight than you drunk and your skirt over your head. Your heads, I should say."

"...subhuman monster..."

"Goddamn you!"

It's at this moment that the guests walk in.

One would think that when the guests arrive, George and Martha might straighten up. If there are guests in the home you might want to stuff it and at least give the appearance of being cordial for the sake of the guests' serenity. Not so here. Alcohol is constantly poured, and I'm sure that plays a part for the rest of the wretched night, but the truth is that George and Martha are so wound up in their world of spite and spitting that they're past the stage of social manners or even a form of suburban plasticity. After years of forming their relationship into an alliance of animosity, turning the house they live in into a war zone with only allegiance to themselves, they simply don't give a shit what happens at home anymore, whether isolated together or with guests in the house; they don't care who they shit on or show their shit to. They're addicted to their shit, and like an addict who has bottomed out, their shit is on display. It's with them everywhere they go, a stench to anyone they encounter.

There are plenty of reasons to hate the characters and thus, hate the film, too. There's an argument made that catharsis is reached in the final chapter of the story. I don't buy that argument. Even a death in the family wouldn't change the hearts of these worn out and hollowed out characters. If anything, it would amplify their hideous hearts of vile and venom.

* Yesterday was Valentine's Day, and I took that opportunity to blog on the romance between the spaces in Notorious.

2011 A&F Top 100

The gang at IMAGE/Arts & Faith have counted all the votes, and the 2011 list is now fully on display! Check out the latest iteration of the Top 100 Here.

I can't say enough about how this forum, these people, and lists such as this have shaped and changed me for the better. They have expanded my worldview, challenged me to a higher plane in my viewing habits, taught me about the morality of forms of cinema, and all the while let me grapple with words like "Christian" and "spiritual" along the way. This is a cutting edge group grounded in the traditions of faith and cinema, intentional about better viewing, better thinking, and better living. I am glad to be a part of this community, and I'll do and be my best to preserve the beautiful thing we have.

Voter turnout this year spiked from 44 to 65 votes -- another record turnout and more representative of the community as a whole, though over a thousand are currently registered.

This year we created a "three per director" rule to make way for several areas we may have overlooked in the past. Dreyer, Bergman, and Kieslowski are still represented, but the seven Bergmans on last year's list left a bit of a bad aftertaste. (Although I must admit, I kinda liked it.)

We created another rule that some of us have since changed our minds about, that all films must be feature-length. This has stricken Brakhage from the list, which, for a list that originated with the words "spiritually significant" attached, is a devastating loss. Through the absence of Brakhage and shorts, we've apparently also lost our link to the world of abstract film. It's my hope that this is a temporary issue which will be corrected in the next vote; the list lacks balance with the absence of a few of the shorts, and abstract filmmaking in particular.

The Top Ten basically stays the same from year to year, but two remarkable things happened in 2011: Ordet was dethroned for the first time in our history (and I am aghast, although it was dethroned by another Dreyer, so that does help the pain in some small way); and a new film came out of nowhere, cracking the Top Ten and landing at number six -- the first time I remember this happening. The reason for the latter is a multitude of voters who were introduced to the film in 2010 (myself included); the reason for the former is impossible to determine. (I think it was rigged.) (OK, I am joking when I say that, but I believe it must be some strange anomalous occurrence, that's the only explanation I can come up with.)

Another first: this year we took a vote on a separate list of a genre specific twenty-five. The idea is that we'll be doing this from time to time. Our first genre specific vote was horror; the list is Here, and I believe it is the finest list of horror films I've seen. I used to think I was a horror aficionado, but looking at the seven films I've not seen makes me think I might have been a bit haughty in that self-assessment. Regardless, this is the finest list of horror films I've seen from a bunch of Christian critics and bloggers.

The cherished and esteemed Stephen D. Greydanus has a perfect introduction to the new Top 100 Here, and the respected and appreciated Jeffrey Overstreet, a friend whom I've previously praised here, has the Intro the the Top 25 Horror Films Here.

I've added blog-spots for my contribution as well; I wrote three blurbs for the Top 100 and they're reprinted here at Filmsweep. I also scratched out a few sentences about the horror films, too, so check it out whenever you get the chance, and be certain to check out as many of these wonderful films as you can!

Code Unknown. (2000) Michael Haneke

A melting pot of social, racial and biological interactions, with injustice and violence and voyeurism thrown into the mix, Code Unknown is a film about owning up to the mystery of human relationships -- how we stumble to connect through the maze of our own expressions. The film's continual emphasis on cameras, and on the deaf and their sign language is a reminder that gestures carry just as great a weight; that symbols are as important as words.

On a business day on a crowded Parisian street, Anne (Juliette Binoche, outstanding as always), a local actress, is surprised by her lover's little brother, Jean, who has run from his father's home and needs the code to get into her flat. She loans him the key with a stern reminder that the place is small and that his stay will be short-lived.

On his way back to her flat he discards a wrapper on the lap of an immigrant woman sitting in the street. He is immediately challenged by a young black man, Amadou, about the rudeness towards the woman. Amadou seems interested in justice and demands that Jean apologize to the woman, who at this point seems to want to get away from the developing scene. The hardened kid refuses an apology, a street scuffle ensues and the police are quickly on the scene.

In the first key misfire in deciphering a social disruption (a sort of "code"), the police arrest Amadou and the immigrant woman is detained, and later put on the next plane out of France. Sometimes you speak for justice only to create a larger, more alienated mess. The scene cuts away suddenly, as do many scenes in the film, leaving you wondering how the strange event ended up.

The story picks up with Anne’s acting career -- she is constantly in front of cameras and directors (her photographer-lover Georges is out of the country snapping war photos for a feature in a respected journal) -- and several immigrant families and their isolation in a Paris that, for them, is harder to live in than they thought.

The fragmentation of society and the isolated lives within it are at the film’s central themes -- regardless of the social or economic status of the individual.

At one point Anne stands on an empty, dark theater stage in an audition for an upcoming production. For several minutes in a static, still shot, she gives her lines in character, giggling and laughing hysterically, absorbed in the lively role. At the end of her lines the room is silent and still. With the spotlight in her eyes, she can't see anything in the room. "Anyone out there?" she questions, and it feels like the central question of the film. Yes, the director and his assistant are still there. Yes, they've seen and are evaluating her scene. She waits like a refugee for an answer.

And yet in another brilliant moment the film counters the notion that we're alone, that someone will be there in the middle of our need. On the subway, Anne is later threatened and intimidated by some kids with nothing better to do but act like jerks to traveling passengers.

Their intentions are not known, but one of them gets a taste for barking at Anne and abusively follows her around on the car. When he gets nothing but the silent treatment, he goes so far as to spit in her face. A man she's never met takes a great risk and stands up to the kid. He stands the kid down, and when the kid gets off, Anne, who has been courageous up to this point, finally falls apart in tears. A stranger has just come to her aid.

There are particular things to watch for in the minimalist editing and camera movement in Code Unknown. The film is based on a series of one-takes which lends an honesty to the way the story develops. There's no deception in the image, and no soundtrack to manipulate the viewer. The well-acted scenes are relayed in a pure way; they live and die by the strength of the acting.

The camera also follows this route in aiming for full disclosure, almost moral in its use of tracking and still shots, in prolonged takes that are horizontal in motion in honor of human connectivity and concern. Watch for movement that sweeps from right to left, and back, until one of the final, lingering images, where an unknown code is lost while a key character gazes skyward.

As Georges says, when going through photos from a recent trip: "It's easy to talk about the 'ecology of the image,' and 'value of the non-transmitted message.' What matters is the end result." It sounds like the resolute words of our story-teller, director Michael Haneke, on his most honest and well thought-out film to date.

Dogville. (2003) Lars von Trier

What — or rather, who — is Grace?

Perennially controversial and once again in a mood to provoke, Danish director Lars von Trier has in Dogville constructed a minimalist tale of a bygone era on a simple symbolic stage. The film’s depiction of evil and our own response to it inevitably generates intense debate.

The story centers on runaway Grace, hiding out from both the mob and police in the small town of the film's title. Nicole Kidman, as Grace, brings one of her finest performances to the role. She, and her story of blending in and serving the town's people, are quite subtle — almost kind — at first.

But Dogville is a huge crescendo of a film, ending on the grandest scale possible, a Shakespearean-style tragedy of Biblical proportions that's willing to swallow whole anyone that gets in the path of Grace.

The director's well-known and worn out trademark from recent films is his misogynistic treatment of the leading women in his films. Take note: Dogville is no exception to this. But to this viewer von Trier makes a habit of being concerned with capturing the suffering and, in general, the abuse of grace as well. He is a consummate artist whose ambitions are often to wrestle with or against the sky, whether he admits there's anyone up there or not.

Von Trier, as the one who holds the Joker and stacks the deck, is sometimes compared to Werner Herzog in his probing of things natural and eternal. These are artists willing to strike first and ask questions later; they are sometimes despised for their willingness to take risks.

Dogville's greatest strength is in its ability to evoke so many (sometimes infuriating) views and perspectives. It spawns multiple readings, which are as varied as its viewers. Critics often talk about the film's political agenda, but there are quite a few interpretations that are overlooked: New Testament grace in light of Old Testament law; how far grace is willing to go before judgment steps in and takes over; blood ties of a prodigal daughter and the lengths a father goes in bringing her home; and the typical critic's view, which is American puritanism (then) vs. capitalist, imperialist greed (now).

The latter is obviously the anti-American angle, and the reading, judging from the film's closing credits, isn't undeserved. The song of choice (David Bowie's "Young Americans") that plays over the credits is like poking a finger in your face if you happen to live in what the film calls, "The US of A."

There's a lot to chew on here, but the subject remains the disposition of Grace. Some viewers may forget the meaning of the word when it begins with a capital G, but that may be the deepest meaning of all in this provocative film.

Ratcatcher. (1999) Lynne Ramsay

An art film disguised as social melodrama, Ratcatcher funnels Scotland's notorious garbage strike of the 1970s through the eyes of children in an impoverished Glasgow housing project. The film's beautifully captured images of these kids beset with hardship are remarkably honest, sometimes disturbing, and often haunting.

On the banks of an infested sewage canal running adjacent to their home, young James and neighbor Ryan Quinn are playing or fighting
-- it's hard to know the difference growing up in urban decay. The kids are prone to the typical adolescent problems one expects in a neighborhood like this; if growing up is difficult anywhere, then growing up here can be downright traumatic.

After their brief encounter, James isn't certain of his guilt or innocence in Ryan's death. He fled the scene too quickly to know for sure. What he does know is that he bullied the smaller Ryan, and when he fled the scene Ryan was in the cold currents of the canal, being drawn underneath to a quick and frightening end.

The guilt eats away at James, creating a rubbish in his heart like the clutter no trash man can take away. The bulk of the film follows James and a guilt constantly there behind his eyes, reflecting a conscience he somehow holds to in the midst of many crises. An alcoholic and unemployed dad inside the home and bigger-boy bullies outside, he needs to get away from a world he sees in a perpetually rotting state.

As the kids chase rats in the piled up heaps outside, James hops a bus to nowhere, no destination in mind. He finds a new, more prosperous housing project on the other side of town -- the kind his family wants to move into. Even the same sky with the same clouds seems prettier in new structures and open fields on the town's other side.

Ratcatcher is a film about learned behaviors, from James being bullied and then becoming a bully when he can, to street kids who create the same sexual tension they've seen at home, to a housing project left in disarray, where even the ever-present garbage symbolically speaks of a neighborhood left behind.

There's a neighbor kid, Kenny. He's a bit slower than the rest, not quite as bright. He functions as a sometimes comic relief in a film that desperately needs him. All of us have a Kenny in our lives -- the person who is often overlooked, the one that gets by in the joy of his own world, a world that when shared is seen as "different."

Kenny doesn't need much attention as he tends to his own quirky behaviors. He's also the "ratcatcher" in the film, and as such gives us an unexpected, delightful scene of imaginative reprieve from the spiritual and social squalor of trash-infested Glasgow.

Rich, raw visuals fill up Lynne Ramsay's debut directorial feature, lending poetic imagery to the hardship she depicts. Criterion's choice of subtitles helps with what would be unmanageable Scottish accents; titles are available on the disc as well as streaming at Netflix. This is a good thing -- the film is in English, but it's barely recognizable, which adds to the other-worldly feel of this neglected neighborhood.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Notorious. (1946) Alfred Hitchcock

So, it's Valentine's Day. Time to check out some black and white love.

Finding the love in this film, however, is less like waiting for a watched pot to boil and more like waiting for the same from a swimming pool. But a sizzler of a swimming pool it is.

Here are some of the awesome, awesome anti-love quotes that build to a stunning, intense, climactic attraction in Notorious:

Devlin: Why do you like that song?
Alicia: Because it's a lot of hooey. There's nothing like a love song to give you a good laugh.

Alicia: I like to make fun of myself. I'm pretending I'm a nice, unspoiled child, whose heart is full of daisies and buttercups.
Devlin: Nice daydream.

Alicia: The time has come when you must tell me that you have a wife and two adorable children, and this madness between us can't go on any longer.
Devlin: I bet you've heard that line often enough.

Alicia: That isn't fair, Dev.
Devlin: Skip it.

Devlin: Pretty fast work.
Alicia: That's what you wanted, wasn't it?
Devlin: Skip it.

Alicia: Well, you never believed in me anyway, so what's the difference?
Devlin: Lucky for both of us.

I'm certain the printed lines don't translate half as well as they do when performed by Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman -- two well liked and well known actors playing "notorious" characters in a film by cinema's most admired and beloved director.

The romance in this film, or rather the built-up tension in the lack thereof, is, in the words of Jim Carrey in The Mask: "Sa-mokin." The chemistry between Grant and Bergman is of feverish intensity, but circumstances create a situation where only the wrong words can be said.

I always hated what I referred to as the "soap opera dilemma," which is that a bad situation could be 100% corrected if only just one line were spoken, but it never is. There's time for the line, but for some reason the info never gets relayed. In soap operas, the reason this happens is that people writing the show have to continue writing every day, and if they solve the problem today they'll get a bad case of writer's block tomorrow.

But here's a film that takes that space between the words and makes sense of it. There's always a reason the right words don't get said in Notorious, and the film is just as amazing for its perfect use of dialogue as it is for the dialogue left unsaid until the hopeful ending finally arrives.

It's plot is like a spy-thriller, a device Hitch fell in love with. Devlin is some type of Fed bringing Alicia, the loose, rich woman into an investigation against some post-war Nazis, where only she has what it takes to get inside. Her Benedict Arnold dad had connections with Germans setting up a company in Rio de Janeiro; she's to infiltrate the group by falling in love with one of its key players, but things nosedive when she falls instead for Devlin and the key player asks for her hand in marriage.

Last year I made a vow to myself to see more films by Hitch. I'll never aspire to cult status as a true film buff unless I make this so. I re-watched Vertigo and Rear Window, and for the first time took in North By Northwest, The Man Who Knew Too Much ('34), and Notorious. I'll freely admit that it took me a few viewings to really get into the world of Notorious, but I've fallen in love with this film over the past six months and can't get over what a masterpiece of cinema it is.

There's a shot in the middle of Notorious that begins at the top of a balcony with a long, winding staircase. You barely notice Ingrid Bergman on the floor below. The camera begins a long, steady zoom, as if gliding past the spiraling staircase, until you notice that it's got part of her back in the frame. You might wonder for a second why she's a little off center, not completely the center of focus. But the camera keeps zooming in, and now the picture is lopping off her head. She rests her hands behind her back, and we're not done zooming yet. Behind her back, her left hand is more and more revealed until finally, in perfect focus, the shot rests on a key in her hand, which is significant to the story in that moment. It is a breathtaking shot, to say the least. I didn't know they had cameras that could do this sort of thing sixty-five years ago, but it would still be an incredible shot by any of today's cinematographic standards.

It goes to show how the things from the past come more fully into focus over time, and how perfect they can be when we slowly let the picture zoom in on its aged, artistic majesty.

This is a wonderful film. It's an interesting love story, but it's best for the love in its spaces.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Following. (1998) Christopher Nolan

Like Europa, blogged only a few days ago Here, Christopher Nolan's Following has all the main ingredients for the making of a modern film noir: a down and out writer, an investigating cop, a sassy blond dame, a gangster, a blackmailing, and a few double-crosses where characters are as quickly and easily betrayed as they are discarded. Shot in black and white on a shoestring UK budget, the writer/director's debut deals in what would later become standard in his stories: time-shifting mazes, non-sequitur paradoxes, and the schemes of powerfully weak characters voyaging to a certain elusive section in the dark corridors of the human psyche.

Nolan likes puzzles. There's no doubt about that. His films are like navigating that old brain boggler, the Rubik's Cube -- it can be done, but it's never easy, and you might have to twist and turn along the way. Even Nolan's 2010 blockbuster Inception gave us a summer popcorn movie plugged with references to Escher, lost labyrinthian corridors and the architecture of a dreaming mind in disarray. The Maze is a regular character that turns up in Nolan's stories; it's one of the reasons we look forward to new projects that bear his name.

The stories are always different; there's no regurgitation from film to film. But The Maze is always involved, one that characters endlessly grapple with and stumble around in. There are many different ways to put it on display, and Nolan always has a knack for a new entrance into it. Where Inception and The Dark Knight challenged the popcorn crowd with layered dreams, higher moralities and paradoxes -- and earlier films like Memento and Insomnia dealt with memory and its survival in time -- Following is the film that set these circular themes in motion. It's the smallest of Nolan's films, but feels unmistakeably Nolanesque, launching the vibe he would be known for: the weaving of layered schemes and stories together.

An unemployed and somewhat bored twenty-something, who fancies himself a writer, takes to the streets to find subjects for his own interests, and maybe he'll get some some writing done, too. He, who the script calls "The Young Man," and maybe lies about his name when he says it is Bill, becomes addicted to "Shadowing," his own term, which is following different people around. Any age, race or gender, he just wants to see who they are, where they're going and why. He makes rules to keep himself safe in the daily hobby, like never following a woman down a dark alley, or never shadowing the same person twice. It's when he breaks these codes of conduct that the hobby becomes more of a burden than he intended.

He's cornered and confronted by a man that he's followed into a diner -- Cobb, also the name of DiCaprio's thief-character in Inception. Cobb has noticed the fellow shadowing him, but he's been up to an interesting hobby himself -- he's taken The Young Man's idea of following strangers to an even higher level of danger. He quickly takes The Young Man under his wing.

Cobb isn't interested in simply following people around or guessing what they're like. He knows how to find out everything about them without ever saying a word. The answer, he says, is in home invasion. He teaches "Bill" that sneaking into someone's flat can provide an adrenaline rush like one has never felt before, and as a bonus you can steal things if you want to. Burglary isn't really the point though. The point, says Cobb, isn't found in any valuables within the house. The point is to see into their consumerist lives, and to take, so that they realize what they had.

When they end up thieving together, they aren't interested in jewels or gold or cash that might be hidden under a pillow. They're more interested in CDs from the family room stereo, or digging through a resident's underwear to leave at another victim's place. They're into mementos and family pictures, diaries and books with personal notes in them. "Stuff" is not the ultimate goal of these robbers -- it's privacy, and the knowledge that they've been there. They'll take only one of the two earrings in a woman's jewel box -- leaving just one behind only adds to the mystery.

At one residence they pop the cork from a bottle of wine, but barely drink a drop before being caught in the act of drinking it. They've got to act on their feet quickly to get out, but the couple in that place will remember them forever.

I've heard of people that need to break out of the structure of their isolationism, but this is ridiculous.

The idea of a burglar that isn't interested in material possessions almost sounds Robin Hood-ish, like stealing from the rich to give to the poor. I'm unconvinced of Robin Hood's nobility in the first place, but I can see the parallels in such a tale (depending on which version of the legend). However, there's nothing noble about these robbers and their habit of breaking into flats, even if only for a peak. It's voyeurism gone extreme -- social studies for the socially maladjusted, on an urban sprawling scale.

"You take it away to show them what they had," says Cobb -- but it's unconvincing when he speaks, like someone talking to a cop about a speeding ticket. Cobb's real motives remain elusive even at the end of Following, but Bill is just pathetic, useless, bored, and slightly dangerous in his boredom. He's an un-magnificent man in an un-magnificent life. He's going nowhere fast, following nothing that nourishes him, so why not follow the first thing that comes by on the street or in the local mall? The idea that people so easily fall into traps like Jonestown or Heaven's Gate is more understandable when considering a man that blindly follows.

There's a noted difference between Following and Nolan's, um, following films in the way-too-indie feel of the production. The first film from a debut director is obviously not going to have the production values of something like The Dark Knight or Inception, but it's the music in Following that bugged me most. It's lifted from public samples of some amateur software like Sonic Foundry, and in many scenes it sounds generic, or sometimes grating, or just filler. I imagine this is where most new filmmakers have to begin -- they don't any money so there's no orchestral composer on hand. Still, the samples aim for a Trent Reznor industrial-type background, and as easily seen in The Social Network, only Trent Reznor can be Trent Reznor. I don't think this film would have worked with more silence, so I don't have any answer to this, just an opinion of what didn't work as well.

The black and white visuals are edited tightly in and rather save the film from its audio implosion. There are a few holes in the story itself, a plot that doesn't hold up when fully thought through, but you don't necessarily think about it while you're caught up in the back and forth time shifts of the events. It is, in a way, like dealing with a less humorous black and white Pulp Fiction. You don't worry about missing holes, because you're being tossed back and forth in so many.

The ending is rushed -- I do think this 70 minute film would have worked a bit better at 80 minutes -- but it leaves its central character "The Young Man" grasping at straws, reminiscent of classic noir. It's not a perfect film by any means, but remains an interesting look into the beginnings of Nolan's universe -- where chaos and collision and moral mazes and memories, and even where the name "Cobb" comes from.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Europa. (1991) Lars von Trier

I'm gonna have some splainin' ta do.

So before I talk about Europa and why I think it's worthwhile (or not), let me first approach the confessional booth like a dogme filmmaker breaking a vow of chastity:

I've been aiming to only cover black and white films this February. This film is not entirely black and white. It is, shall we say, mostly black and white. But splashes of color are gingerly brushed in as the mood of the moment dictates. (And together, the two styles are an engaging combo, I might add.)

The film is still in line with themes I've been aiming for this February. At least, it feels like it is in my head. The monster movies have been out there. Lynch is most certainly out there. And if in my last post I called Eraserhead the film I'm still most fascinated with, then Lars von Trier is the director I unapologetically remain most fascinated with.

Europa, called Zentropa when it came to theaters two decades ago, was a step into the big-time for von Trier. It was the third film in his first trilogy, but it would break out of Scandinavia in a way the first two films never could. Made with a bigger budget, a more polished film crew, and shot mostly in a foreign land (Poland) with 500 extras on the set, it would send the great Dane into notoriety at Cannes for one of his first great wins on the world's greatest film stage.

Poland in 1990 was a perfect choice for locations that looked like Germany at the end of the second World War. I was in Poznań playing music in the winter of 1990 and I assure you there were places that still looked devastated. I remember taking a taxi through the outskirts of the city late one night, and my view through the falling snow was that of dilapidated buildings, even 45 years later.

The location and the setting are worth mentioning because the strength of Europa is in its presentation -- not just that of a land that still looks wasted from war, but the way that place is captured and presented to its audience. The strength of Europa is in von Trier's urge to present an engaging film experience, mostly through sight and sound. The story, though good, is somewhat in the background to the actual experience at hand.

We meet Leo, an American in Germany, working for the Zentropa train line. During the war, Zentropa was used for transporting Jews in cattle trains to concentration camps. The war has ended, the German nation is in disarray, and these days much of the train's use is in transporting American officers first class as they watch out for "werwolfs" -- a resistance that won't end the fight even though the war is officially over.

Leo came to Germany as some kind of human symbol of peace and unification. He seems genuinely interested in lending a hand to the country. He's somewhat innocent, maybe naive in his desire to be a comfort to a traumatized land. He quickly learns that the war may have ended, but it doesn't mean there aren't sides that still want him for their cause. He falls in love with a woman who seems to flirt in the camp of the werwolfs, and like a sheep to the slaughter he feels a tug from both sides, when all he wanted was peace for all.

Europa might be about Germany and the war, and it might actually be about post-WWII Europe in general, but it has the look and feel of a classic American film noir. Well, strike the word "classic" from that last sentence. It's a noir, but updated with every trick in the book that a film can pull off half a century after classic noir. If you haven't seen Europa, it might help you to know that my recent viewing reminded me of another film that carries the same style: Sin City. Although that film is far more bloody and violent, it seems like it must have borrowed heavily from Europa.

The visuals are key to the enjoyment of this film, and that's what I remember from when I first saw it twenty years ago: Silhouetted lighting sets the visual tempo of a noir, but the modern is captured in subtle split screens, front projection against matted backgrounds, remote control cameras rotating on ceilings, and shots that seamlessly glide through windows, turning corners for an entirely different view. Walking platforms are often used as characters stroll along in color against archived film or black and white Poland in the background. The trick visuals and lighting are extraordinary in Europa, and it's fun to see von Trier in his youth and in his element. At this time in life he's still experimenting, still looking for the "zip." He's already trying to prove he's the greatest director in the world.

The shots are hypnotic, matching a hypnotist who narrates. This is one for the film school students still looking to be impressed.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Eraserhead. (1976) David Lynch

Of the thousands of films I've seen, and the many I've written about, this is the one that remains the strangest. And in the twenty years since I first started grappling with it, it's still the one I find most fascinating. Easily.

It's an art film that never lets up on fully immersing itself in a viewer. It submerges you into its world from the very first frame, and it simply never backs off from its opening dream-like moments.

It fuses fantasy and reality to a point where the two get a bit confused. Lots of films do this, but Eraserhead does it best. In disturbing little scenes, where fear comes to life and actually takes over the bulk of the script, the blending of the real and the outlandish is near lunacy, like a trip into the pit of the surreal.

Eraserhead is "too much" for some, but their distance from the film is telling: They were impatient, or it scared them. They thought it was artsy or self-indulgent. They only watched it once, and wanted to forget it, or they had no desire to interpret its meaning.

The plot is so simple you can spoil it and not ruin a thing:

1. Henry Spencer is invited by ex-girlfriend Mary X. to dinner at Mr. and Mrs. X.'s house.

2. Henry is told by Mrs. X. that during their time apart Mary gave birth, and it is his to care for. His responsibilities in the matter will begin when they are wed.

3. Mary and the baby move in with Henry. Mary is suffering from postpartum depression. She'll have no further sexual relations with Henry, and the baby's crying is driving her over the edge.

4. Mary moves back in with mom and dad. In her absence, Henry watches over the baby and has an affair with "The Beautiful Girl Across the Hall."

5. Abandoned with the child, Henry has nightmares, dreadful daydreams, hallucinations, and awful ideas, both about his own infidelity and the fate of a baby that is growing more sick every day.

6. Henry, in a sort of Abramic despair, in a predetermined act commits the film to true horror by doing the one thing Abraham couldn't -- an act that is either merciful or barbaric, depending on how you want to reason his involvement with the film's world.

The plot serves only to advance an interplay of image and ideas. The film may have a plot, but it's more about relaying a language of expression, particularly the expression of human experience through: sex, fidelity, parenthood (most specifically fatherhood), moral responsibility, fear of abandonment, the alienation of modernity, isolation, resentment, adultery, and what is described best in the Kierkegaardian sense as "introversion" -- knowing your own despair and not finding it in anyone other than yourself.

All of these are expressions of the film's greatest emotion -- fear.

Lynch uses several methods to achieve this language of expression. The first is in letting his actors funnel their character's inward disposition through outward manifestation. Characters seize, violently convulse and atypically smile for prolonged periods of time according to the psychology of the moment itself. In other films, we would credit the actors for relaying these feelings without necessarily showing them. In Eraserhead it is quite the opposite. Outbursts of inner fears come across so strongly that they shock us with their feelings on display. These are people who express everything, a shock to normal viewing expectations. Think about it: Do you say everything you always think?

In the early scene at Mary's house the emotions set the tone. The oncoming, inevitable discussion over the birth Mary gave is intense, and it's relayed through seizing and convulsing (both Mary and her mom), and wearing a constant fake smile to bring peace (dad).

Things seem so out of the ordinary because we're seeing the emotional, perhaps the spiritual, brought to a physical presence. Henry wouldn't continue chatting away with mom during Mary's seizure in the living room; likewise Mary and Dad wouldn't simply go on with life while mom goes into convulsions at the kitchen table. Henry might have thought the dinner looked a little undercooked, but the chicken wouldn't wave its legs at his disgust, and mom may be intrigued at the sexuality of her daughter but she wouldn't lunge to seduce Henry when she finally gets a chance to talk to him alone.

Lynch takes this expressionist acting to the extreme in the crafting of the film itself. Relying heavily on its gruesome imagery and its looming, terrifying sounds, the film is constructed and layered to attack viewer expectations. Every aspect of manipulation you've seen in any movie is amplified to extreme proportions -- purposefully so. It works because the bulk of the film is so quiet, suggesting that much of normal life is also quiet, but when the nervous system kicks in, it kicks in hard. (Have you ever found yourself falling asleep while tipping back in a chair?)

Freud would be happy with me, because my reading after a recent viewing is the same as it has always been, although perhaps I have incorporated a bit of depth over time. A subtext of sex runs through every portion of Eraserhead, beginning right at the start of the film with a sperm exiting Henry in the opening montage, floating endlessly in space until finding its way to a sort of ovum, where it is drenched in a liquid life, eventually bringing about conception. Henry's sperm -- gigantic, like everything else in Eraserhead -- is a recurring theme throughout the film: it's between Henry's sheets, representing masturbation after his wife's rejection; it's being stepped on in his dreams, like the ones that got away; and in a final scene in direct confrontation with Henry, one is standing up on end and hissing angrily at him -- while his child, which resembles the creature, taunts and laughs when he can't locate The Beautiful Woman Across the Hall for sex.

In Eraserhead, sex is portrayed more honestly than in much Hollywood fare: sure, it is a fascination, an object of desire, but it's also something to fear, and even fear its humiliation. It has the power to create, but its drive has the power to tear apart and ultimately destroy.

Suggestions of determinism in the sexual are found in an unknown figure called "Man In The Planet," a behind-the-scenes Dark lord who predestines events by flipping this or that switch in the universe -- he's the one responsible for driving the giant sperm to its final location for conception (a large hole of light lined with what appears to be pubic hair). There is a something, even someone at work behind the scenes. Whether he's a deity or an unnameable force we're uncertain, but whatever he is, he assigns Henry to his fatalistic role. The Man In The Planet guides the sperm, creates the birthing process, and throws the switch at the end which launches Henry into the furious motion of the dreaded grande finale.

Henry, the abandoned father, the alienated man in his dark, one room apartment, dreams of a glowing, dancing lady in the radiator. After climaxing with The Beautiful Girl Across The Hall, Lady in the Radiator sings about heaven. The placement of the song "In Heaven Everything Is Fine" is usually taken out of context, but we need to remember that it was sung shortly after Henry's infidelity, actually culminating in his adulterous climax. The sexual innuendo is endless in Eraserhead, but so too are the ramifications. Very shortly after the episode of adultery, Henry finds his own head cut off (his mind racing with the insane pace of the new world he finds himself in). His brain might as well be ground into erasers at this point, so naturally, in this film, it is.

I agree with a few online friends who have said the film changes as you age and have kids. Fatherhood and the fear of failure as a man stand out to me now that I have kids. I didn't read the film that way when I first saw it years ago, but since then have dealt with things like colic, crying, postpartum depression and restraining your anger in the heat of the night. Having a baby can truly be a maddening experience, especially if you're like Henry and are not prepared. The deformed creature, that crying baby, is monstrously ugly because it is perceived that way by unprepared parents. It's an intrusion, unwanted, and they're left to the daunting task of somehow keeping this sick thing alive.

Sonically, there are few films that rival Eraserhead. The sound in the film is overwhelming. Even thirty years later the sound is a mark of the film's genius. Easily remembered are: the space sounds when Henry's sperm is fully launched, the carnival music as Henry meanders along, the hissing radiator and ticking clock always present in the apartment, and the howling wind when the baby won't sleep at night. Perhaps the most jarring sound of all is ripped straight from earlier b-movie horror: upon noticing for the first time how sick the child is, a dramatic organ chord with bellowing pedal tones comes crashing out of nowhere, a jarring effect in what was once a quiet scene. The wrestling between silence and atmospheric fury sets the tempo for the visuals people remember.

There's a brilliant piece of writing on Lynch, from his early days in school, his struggle with his first films, and the making of Eraserhead. It's Here. It's been on the web for quite a few years, and seems to be reprinted from a magazine sometime in the early 80s -- it's fair to assume that the info there is accurate. It's one of the better pieces of writing about the film on the web.

At the site there's a capsule about Eraserhead that, to me, brilliantly sums up why the film draws the viewer in: "What Lynch does is to distort what is familiar; at first one perceives it as strange, but as one gradually comes to see its familiarity, one is forced to reevaluate what is usually accepted without question. By showing us the familiar in the strange, he makes us aware of what is strange about the familiar."