Monday, January 16, 2017

The Dead Body In The Pool In The Beautiful Rented Villa

A Bigger Splash (2015) direted by Luca Gaudigno is like his superior I Am Love an exploration of the lives of people with too much time on their hands.  Splash is much, much slighter, a mere improvisation with a premise of stunning predictability.  

Of course, that is probably immaterial to Mr. Guadigno.  We Americans preach narrative economy above all, and drive headlong from story point to story point.  Texture is just for cinematographers or post-production sound mixers.  But like most European filmmakers, Mr. Guadigno is not afraid to slow down and let the rhythms of life flow by, which makes this film about 20-25 minutes longer than it would be under an American film director.

And then you would have lost one of the strangest and most interesting grace notes of the film.  I hope it's not too much of a spoiler to learn that one of the four principal characters pictured above dies in a pool before the film is over.  In an American picture, we would barrel ahead to the interrogations, the unanswered questions, the betrayals, etc., etc.  But we are in Italy, and this is a rented house.  And the film takes its time to show just how unpleasant and uncomfortable it would be to have someone die in the pool of your beautiful rented villa in Italy.  The uniformed policemen come and put up some very tatty crime scene tape.  Then the pool must be emptied, and that takes time.  A lot of time.  Time enough that one can go down to the police station and back and it's still not quite done and the body has still not been extricated.  The whole matter is just ugly and nasty and even if the dead person in the pool wasn't close to you, it still would throw an awful shadow over your vacation, as if someone had thrown sewage into the wine barrels.

I don't think many American filmmakers would have stopped to note that.  They want to focus on who and how and how that makes the protagonists feel, but that approach would have missed the comical upbeat at the end of the movie, in which the police chief insists on getting an autograph from vacationing rock star Tilda Swinton in the middle of an absolute downpour.  Does that explain anything?  No, but it helps make A Bigger Splash just a bit more special than it would have been.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017


I saw two films recently -- neither film was released recently, but I experienced them that way, within a proximity of weeks, and although their intentions were utterly apposite, one to entertain, the other to inform, they seemed to me to both be attempting to create an immersive experience on film.  That one failed and the other succeeded and the means by which they did that seem worth examining.

The first was Cinerama Holiday (1955) one of the original feature-length films designed to demonstrate the three-camera, three-projector Cinerama format, develop and audience and a a demand and possibly suggest to filmmakers that what might be seen as a gimmick might have narrative possibilities.  The film has been restored for Blu-ray and evidently does the best it can to simulate that overwhelming experience in the home setting.  Actually, the photography and sound are still impressive.  What prevents it from becoming overwhelming is the overall mundanity and lack of imagination in the design of the film.

The content is simply two intercut travelogues, representing a young American's trip through Europe, and a young Swiss couple's trip across America.  Thankfully, there is no phony story cooked up, no chase, no lost passports or jewelry, no getting caught up in foreign intrigue.  There is a certain goofy naive integrity to the whole Cinerama project, which probably inspired the hiring of one of the squarest of the square filmmakers, Louis DeRochemont, creator of The March of Time to execute CH.  After all, the financiers didn't want anything "extra."  They just wanted to show the world how awesome Cinerama was, with no other frills or furbelows.

Cinerama projects at about a 2.75 ratio, but on an enormous screen that was often 40 feet high and about 110 feet wide.  If you sat inside the curve, the projected picture could occupy your entire peripheral vision.  You were literally inside the picture.  This was augmented by super-duper-multi-stereo recording, which must have been pretty startling to mid-50s filmgoers (remember home stereo records didn't arrive until 1958) and still sounds pretty good, especially in the field recordings of actual sounds, such as the bobsled run and the hiss of skis on snow.  The approach is to envelop, surround and dominate the viewer, reduce him or her to a state of helpless surrender to the sheer scale of this form of filmmaking.

(In home video, the picture is deliberately distorted in a "Smile Box" as show in this video, to simulate in two dimensions the look of a huge curved screen.)

It's really not too bad -- the sheer novelty holds the interest for most of the two hours, although some of the scenes of the country fair in Vermont hardly justify this kind of spectacular approach, and their are interludes that lag.  Still, to blow up what is ordinarily a 10-minute feature before the film, the travelogue, and make it a feature attraction has its own sort of audaciousness.

But you can't call this a moving or an emotional experience.  And strangely, it's not really that immersive, at least not in home video.

On the other hand, the winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film of 2015, Son of Saul, takes what might be called the reductive approach to immersion.  Released in Academy ratio, that is commonly known as 4:3 or 1:37, the camera doggedly follows a Sonderkommando at Auschwitz carrying out his hellish duties in a hellish environment.  When I say follow, I mean follow.  Probably two-thirds of the film is a shot of his upper back and shoulders.  The camera uses a very short focal length, which means that nearly everything except that which is very close is out of focus.  It is hard to make out what is going on, which at times is a mercy, especially in the most ghoulish and horrific parts of the story.

Conversely, the soundtrack is rich and complex, if just as incomprehensible.  I am told eight languages are heard, or rather barked, languages of captors and the captured carrying out their literally insane duties.  In the clip I've embedded here, you can see just what a confusing and relentless existence this is.

And yet, better than any documentary I've seen, any dramatic film from Schindler's List to Europa Europa to Fateless to The Boy In The Striped Pajamas, etc., etc., Son of Saul conveys the feeling of being inside this bizarre and historically unparalleled phenomenon.  There is no solemn music, no extended speeches (barely any complete sentences in the entire film), no musing on the meaning, no plea for help or understanding or anything except a request that a boy's body not be burned, so that Saul, who believes the boy to be his son (the film never resolves that question) may have the Kaddish said over him and buried with proper respect.  There is a parallel story about the attempted uprising of the Sonderkommandos -- I'm not sure if it was necessary, and it certainly never becomes central or even very well explained.

But that's the point.  Nothing is explained.  No one makes sense of anything, because this is a world without sense.  Instead of pre-empting your peripheral vision, like the Cinerama screen, director Lazslo Nemes has chopped off your peripheral vision with the use of the square format picture.  In its place he has given you super hearing, but what you can hear is chaotic and untranslated, and is mostly of little help, being its own source of confusion and terror.

And so, by cutting off your senses and forcing you to try and piece together what is happening, Nemes has provided much greater immersion than Louis DeRochemont's gigantic Cinerama experience.  Which is just the kind of paradox that a filmgoer has to love.

See Son of Saul even if you're fed up with Holocaust films.  I promise you, you will not be bored for one single solitary second.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

What the camera likes

Reality saves the fiction film
It was without intention that this blog moves from Good Kill to The Good Lie (2014), but here is another issue-based film in which deflection and dissembling may be the key to survival.

In the one and only film course I ever took, the instructor had us read large portions of Siegfied Kracauer's Theory of Film.  Kracauer was not a working film critic, but a philosopher and sometime historian.  He conceived an idea that because film recorded the reflection of light taking place in front of its lens, that a natural photo-chemical process place took place during the process of film-making, that the medium was drawn towards true events -- sports, dancing, even porngraphy.  Because cinema was most cinematic when it heeded the dictates of the real world.

I'm not sure how digital filmmaking affects this theory.  The electrons don't care much about how the 1s and 0s arrange themselves -- they are agnostic about content, and it seems to me that artificial manipulation is not a lesser method of arranging electrons than exposing a photo-sensor to light, other than permitting a bit more of chance in the latter.  But that does not seem to me to be "better" only different.

Nonetheless, there is still something about Kracauer's idea that still tickles our brain, no matter how the images got there.  We are curious about the integrity of what we are seeing and audiences at Q&As want to know if a stunt was really done, if the star did it, did those animals really do that thing, did those children really say that or was that written for them?  We can't help asking, "is it real?"

Coupled with that phenomenon is the fact that there are stories in which the stakes are so high, the importance of truth and precision is so great, that it is almost insulting to build fictional narrative on such a sensitive base.  Such might be the story of the Lost Boys of Sudan.  Screenwriter Margaret Nagle did, as one would expect, exhaustive research on this difficult complex structure.  But then she did the unexpected -- she did not base her story on a true story. Nor did she get some brilliant actors to portray the Lost Boys.

Nagle made up a composite story and she cast actors who were 15 years too old for the roles.  They were too old because they were some of the real Lost Boys of 2000.  They are the film's entire raison d'etre and your reason to see the film.  Yes, it has some canny storytelling and good performances from Reese Witherspoon (in a supporting role she clearly took in order to assist with the financing of the film) and the rest of the American company, but the reason the film works at all is the simple and real presence of Arnold Oceang, Emmanuel Jal, and in this clip, Ger Duany, to bring the breath of real life to what could have been a mere "liberals feeling good about doing good" exercise.

There is a lot more that could be said about the film, but what fascinated me was the indissoluble lump of documentary truth in the middle of what is otherwise a "lies like truth" story.  These three and the other Sudanese Lost Children appearing truly save the film from itself.  From them, the film takes a sense of quiet decency instead of the passionate sermons one might expect, given the subject matter.

Me and Earl And The Dying Girl (2015) would seem to have no documentary impulse whatsoever. At its surface it seems like a Cody Diablo script written for Wes Anderson to direct.  It starts with both feet firmly planted in the Land of Twee.  It happens that I like Twee, especially when we are talking about self-conscious young people, who tend to label and categorize the components of their lives as a way of handling the inherent ambivalence and confusion of it all.

The 2.40 ratio used to show the distance and awkwardness of this relationship.
And although the artifices are dialed down as the story becomes more serious and the relationship between the two principal characters becomes more real, it still is at heart a "made-up" story.  Nonetheless, reality helps anchor this movie and makes it work more profoundly than it would otherwise.  No, not the "reality" of facing down death at a young age, nor of realizing that as a teenager, you are often more mature than the adults around you (Connie Britton, Nick Offerman and Molly Shannon all do excellent if mannered turns as the neurotic adults in the story).  No, it is the "reality" of actors really performing together in a real space and in real time, without the benefit of camerawork and editing.

It comes about two-thirds of the way through the film -- deep enough into their relationship for geeky Greg to feel free to scold Rachel for starting to give in to death.  The camera is set in a low corner with what looks like between a 10 and 20mm lens, as in the picture above.  Rachel is large in the foreground, still, listening.  Greg is farther from the camera, small, impotent, almost squeaking out his protest against Rachel's gathering indifference to the fate she is headed toward.  She neither dismisses him nor agrees with him, but her quiet ratchets up his frustration.  The scene must run six or seven minutes without a cut, a testament to the writing, to the confidence of the direction and to the skill of these very young actors to pull off this sequence which is on the one hand theatrical in concept and on the other, documentary in effect, due to its eschewing all but a few of the tools in the kit of the narrative filmmaker.  The result has an ascetic quality in a movie which begins in a rather antic mode.

I seem to find myself in a death-ridden mode in my films this week.  There is an odd resonance to events in my own life, but let us leave that aside.  The Farewell Party (2015) is packed with the kind of eccentric yet everyday old people that leaves one surprised the film comes from Israel and not the BBC. The story is simple to the point of being rudimentary, and in structure, it takes a turn to the left, another turn to the left, a turn to the right and home again, home again, jiggety jig. You know, your typical assisted-suicide comedy. Astute filmgoers will have no trouble staying ahead of its slim narrative.
For now the folks of THE FAREWELL PARTY are full of life.

But Farewell Party is not really about death or even about life.  It is about that awful moment that most couples put off and put off until they can't -- the recognition that no matter how close they are, no matter how much two people become one thing, there will be a cruel and merciless parting. That is probably the reason those of us without religious faith still hope for some sphere of existence beyond this one -- the wish for a reunion, somewhere, sometime.

Yes, love outlives death, but still exacts its price, and we must honor its power by making sure we have a good leave-taking.  Of the three suicides in the film, the first is devoutly-wished by the spouse who sees her partner's suffering.  The second is by an old woman who has no partner and no one to answer to but herself.  The third is not suffering pain, and to the eye looks healthy; but she is already leaving the earth by stages and decides she'd rather do it at once.

What makes a film which is paradoxically light-hearted in the face of these terrible questions so powerful is the real presence of these no-longer-young actors.  Sure, they probably have years to go before these questions come up, but not as many as you and I have.  And the simple quiet good sense of these characters makes everything less silly yet more entertaining. Would that we would all go on from this place in such good company as the cast of The Farewell Party.  Without old people, this movie would be offensive.  Would them, a story about the best way to die counts as a good time.

I forgot to mention there are some big walloping belly-laughs in this movie.  Don't be afraid to show it to Grandma and Grandpa.  It will probably bother them less than you.

In the end, whatever you think you can do for the dying, it is inadequate.  And that is OK.  You might as well have a good laugh when you're forced to sit in Death's front parlor.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Remote controlled

How would warriors of the past done with their CO riding them all day?
Andrew Niccol (creator of the airless Gattaca) is a bloodless sort of filmmaker, which makes him either the best or the worst person to guide Good Kill (2015), a movie about the toll the drone war puts on the people conducting it.

How to explain? Well, for example, there's that damned Peter Coyote, our modern-day Alexander Scourby, an actor who sounds so inhumanly good he is instantly unbelievable. You know Peter Coyote, he's the guy you that makes you think "I thought Henry Fonda was dead" when you hear his voice-over work.  He was even featured on-camera as the announcer at the Oscars.  As a former counter-cultural figure, he once was an avatar of authentic independence and quirkiness.  Now he is the simulacrum of those American qualities.

In Good Kill the voice of Peter Coyote is employed with implicit satirical intent as the voice of the CIA, telling military personnel who to blow up and when, regardless of the violation of military rules of engagement.  But Coyote does not sound like a Man Who Knows.  His authenticity has been sanded off.  He sounds like what he his, an experienced actor who has recorded his lines very well. Given this is about an artificial remote-control war, perhaps that is the intent.  But the result is that all the scenes in which his character, code-named "Langley" (some code), appears are slack, lacking tension, suspense or really any interest after his first appearance.

You can't critique slickness and artificiality unless you have something to compare it to, and Good Kill lacks any actual human behavior to form a critical baseline.  Ethan Hawke is an impossible Boy Scout.  Bruce Greenwood plays the same gruff and lovable CO that we've seen in the movies since Ward Bond's heyday.  January Jones plays an empty-headed blonde wife.  Zoe Kravitz is a Latina soldier, so she is disciplined, yet spicy.

Doesn't anybody write second drafts anymore?

The idea for this film was so good, that it's a shame that this placeholder film had to be first.  To its credit, it tries to be fair.  It is not an extreme liberal anti-war diatribe.  Even the unreflective aggressive military types are given time and space to be right.  Bruce Greenwood's character points out toward the end that if we walk away from this war, the enemy won't.

But Good Kill is constantly cheating.  [Spoiler Alert]  Defying orders, Ethan Hawke takes aim at a terrorist fighter not on the target list, but whom he has seen raping a virtuous mother.  At the last moment, the woman steps into the kill zone and Hawke believes he has killed rapist and victim at once.  That is a smart story idea about going out on your own without support, without preparing, without a rationale, just operating on emotion, and the terrible toll rash action can have, even if acting for the best reasons.  But then the film does the old Disney switch (they've been doing this since The Jungle Book) and hurray!  the woman is not dead, but just knocked down by the impact of the blast, and Hawke was right all the time.

Well, that (a) settles nothing morally; (b) is super-phony and (c) smug.  A hat trick of bad storytelling.

In similar fashion, Hawke has to agonize for perhaps minutes about losing his airhead civilian wife but attracting the romantic interest of the smart female officer who sits next to him all day.  Introduce problem -- solve it conveniently within minutes.

I'm no fan of Syd Field, but are we going to complete ignore his observations?

Maybe the best thing we can do if we want to contemplate the danger of remote-control war is not to make a new movie, but just take another look at Dr. Strangelove.  [Confession -- when in doubt I always watch Dr. Strangelove.]

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Slow, maybe; Kiwi certainly, but completely bad-ass

The scarecrow's resemblance to the Reaper is no accident.
Slow West (2015) is a stunningly sensitive bad-ass nuanced balls-out Western that looks like a John Ford picture, if Utah were in Colorado and Colorado was in New Zealand.  Over the last decade, Westerns have been forced into the false choice between repetition of standard tropes for an undemanding audience (usually of cable TV subscribers) and European-style deconstructionist elegies both for an historical moment that may never have really existed and for an era of filmmaking when art could comfortably hide behind genre formulas, undetected by the mainstream press, and happily taking care of itself without anyone getting wise.

It seems only Quentin Tarantino can make a Western for the theatrical market without being accused of Art, which is ironic, given that Tarantino's Django is one of his usual post-modern collages of other people's work, decipherable only in a world of manufactured objects and without reference to real people, real history or the real world at all.  If that's not arty, I don't know what is.

Slow West may be a Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner (how many Westerns have ever come out of Sundance?), but it has a story simple enough for a Randolph Scott-Budd Boetticher film, a similar running time and Michael Fassbender in a part Scott would have been comfortable man, the bad man who has decided to do something good for a change and a little bit of money (which of course turns out not to matter).  A Scottish boy pays an ex-bounty hunter to guide him West to claim his love, whose father has taken her with him a-pioneering.  That's it -- just a lot of hard country to pass through, and, as you will expect if you know Westerns, a destination far different than the one anticipated.

I think this clip demonstrates the tantalizing balance between heavy consequences and light reaction that guides the film.

Sure, Jay almost died a gruesome death and got an arrow through his hand, but Silas's reaction is "Nice catch."  And the slapstick payoff would have made Buster Keaton proud.

Certainly an American fan is going to miss familiar markers -- Bronson Canyon locations, oft-used character actors, dialogue tropes (I don't think one person says the word "reckon" in this film), but otherwise it is absolutely completely satisfying as a piece of Western entertainment, fusing the Ford-Hawks vision of the individual in the landscape with the long, slow buildup to terrible violence of a Leone film.  The two styles live very well side-by-side, with a surprising and terrible conclusion, that is satisfying, right and largely unanticipated.  The final encounter between Jay and his beloved, (Caren Pistorius) results in two acts of brutality that are beautifully and poetically balanced.

And, as evidenced by the clip, the film has a wonderfully black sense of humor -- the finale (which seems to have been directed by a morbid Harold Lloyd) gives new life to the phrase "rubbing salt into the wound."

Not many films today give such balance to word, picture, character and story as does writer John McLean here; although he does seem to favor picture.  I commend to you a stunning sequence with a farmhouse under siege, the villains hiding in the tall grass you see at the picture at the top of this post.  Given that the occupants in the house have barely any ability to fight back, it probably is not necessary that each gunman pop up, fire a shot and then disappear like a lethal brand of Whack-A-Mole.  But it makes for a lethal yet funny sequence, the illogic of which one forgives for the sake of the visual poetry.

And, oh yeah, there's three Congolese guys singing in French in the middle of the prairie.  For no good reason.  Gotta love that.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Stage directors portrayed on film

Birdman's theater scenes were shot in the legendary St. James Theater
This year's Academy Award Best Picture is the story of an actor-turned-playwright and stage director.  One Facebook acquaintance's reaction was, not in these words, "if I want to see a stage director in a movie, I prefer Warner Baxter."  This set me off thinking about the character of the stage director on film, and once I dipped my toe tentatively into that particular rabbit hole, I realized how deep it was.  Which suggests that the stage director has some deep resonance in our culture, deeper than film directors, who are statistically rarer.

Perhaps that is because more of us have experienced stage directors.  We did plays in school or in community groups.  If we were in a student film, the direction was probably minimal (fledgling directors have too many technical issues to work through to have much brain space available to direct the actors).  Stage directors have little to do except worry about the performances.  (Yes, they can amusingly scream at the costume designers, but that really is a side show next to berating the actors.)

Movies have reflected that experience and our collective ideas about the people who direct plays and musicals.  And despite a wild diversity in these portraits, they have two things in common.  (1)  They are brilliant; and (2) They are complete a**holes.

This is not an exhaustive list, it does not include documentaries, and we start with talkies, because it is hard for a theater director to make his personality felt without the use of his voice (Marcel Marceau and Bill Irwin can sit down now).

Warner Baxter in 42nd Street    It is hard to see what Baxter actually accomplishes with his direction.  Someone else does the choreography (the improbable but very diverting Frank McHugh), not to mention the writers, who are shadowy figures in the orchestra seats (as they should be).  Baxter's direction seems to be limited to regularly scheduled temper tantrums, demanding everything be done louder and faster.  Nowadays this childish behavior would motivate no one, but Baxter manages to produce a hit that winds up killing him.  (No tears.)

He does, however, get to deliver all the best speeches in the movie.

John Barrymore in Twentieth Century  This portrait is ground zero for the concept of "director as Svengali" the man who creates stars by his own sheer force of will, with or without talent from the actress.  In fact, Svengali and Trilby are referenced by name in this film, which is based on a play which no one produces anymore except in its musical comedy adaptation On The Twentieth Century.  Although he had recently enjoyed a major turn in Grand Hotel, Barrymore was well on his way to becoming a parody of himself and director Howard Hawks encouraged him over the brink.  Oscar Jaffee is clearly a madman, dreaming up lavish tasteless spectacles sprinkled with late-Victorian literary respectability.  How Lily Garland became a respected actress amid such overinflated hogwash is hard to understand, but the film works because Lily is at least as crazy as Oscar.  (And although Lombard had been in movies for over a decade, this is the picture that sent her off into the pantheon.)  Here the director is not the leader of a vast horde, but a Pygmalion sculpting his one perfect Galatea.

What makes the whole thing palatable is the positive passion these two characters have for destroying each other as an expression of love.  And to his credit, Oscar is absolutely dedicated to the work and his expectation that everyone should themselves to a frazzle is based on his own willingness to do the same.

Chico Marx in Room Service  Bet you didn't remember this one.  It really shouldn't count, because it is an accident of circumstances.  RKO bought a play for the Marx Brothers to do on screen, a play that wasn't written for them and a play that didn't really fit their personae, except for the endless busy-ness and prevarication of the established Groucho character.  Reaching for something for Chico to do, screenwriter Morrie Ryskind found the director, named Harry Binion, the typical a**hole genius director type given to taking his clothes off in moments of inspiration, inspiration that results in a vision of the Theater of the Future..."I can see it... no audience....just scenery and critics."

That sort of passion was inappropriate for Chico, renamed Binelli, and again, his directorial contribution was probably limited to eating walnuts and pinching the girls in the cast.  The only thing we know for sure is that play "makes a great-a rehearsal.  I still think it's a terrible play, but it makes a wonderful rehearsal."  Thereafter Chico is required to help Groucho put his scams over and rehearsing the play seems to be forgotten.  This is the stage director portrayal that breaks the mold.  Clearly any idiot can do the job, and Groucho has found just the idiot.

Gary Merrill in All About Eve may not be a genius, and if he's an a**hole, he's the kind of a**hole you drift into an affair with.  We'll start with the name -- Hugh Marlowe.  That's the name of a stiff from the get-go.  He's not about inspiration.  He's all about sweat and effort and utterly dismissive of glamour, as we see from this colloquy.

I try to avoid extra-textual analysis, but it is necessary to point out that Bette Davis met Merrill on this picture, they married and stayed married for quite a few years, producing some children and several more joint appearances.  So perhaps Marlowe's realism rubbed off on his portrayer.

Jack Buchanan in The Bandwagon is a hybrid, though.  All at once, he is humble practical man of the theater, Welles-ian visionary and razzle-dazzle performer.  The part was conceived as a mild rib of actor-director Jose Ferrer, who once had three shows he had directed running concurrently on Broadway, appearing in one of them himself (The Shrike).

Once the effete Clifton Webb turned them down (evidently he was still trying to live down his song-and-dance origins), they turned to English stage performer Jack Buchanan, who had the charisma to make everything believable, but had to force the ego-ridden and tyrannical qualities of the character.  Stumped to find a way to show the director trying to handle his recalcitrant stage star (Fred Astaire), writers Comden and Green gave him an imitation of Vincente Minelli (director of the film we're watching).  Buchanan pulls director Astaire aside, blithers some incoherent nonsense at him that sounds like a pep talk and then flings him back into the scene, more confused than ever, but completely energized.

Ultimately, Buchanan's vision fails, but Comden and Green play fair.  It's not merely a matter of Buchanan's director being pretentious; it's that his pretension is misplaced.  It's the wrong approach for the very light material turned out by the characters Comden and Green based on themselves (and they were indeed very lightweight writers).  Buchanan gets to prove he is a good sport and he and Astaire meet on their mutual territory of tail-coated suavity.

Jose Ferrer in Enter Laughing  got to respond to his kidding in The Bandwagon with his own prissy-genius portrayal as a Depression-era down-at-the-heels shyster (another Marlowe!) who makes money charging apprentices to rehearse for his never-to-open bilgewater productions.

It's not clear from the film (directed by Carl Reiner from his own novel and the play Joseph Stein made out of it -- which explains Rob Reiner's appearance in this clip) whether Marlowe had talent at some point, but by now he has clearly drunk it away and is marking time until he takes his final bow.

Christopher Hewitt as Roger DeBris in The Producers, on the other hand, may be at the very height, or perhaps the very nadir of his feeble talents -- the difference is almost imperceptible.  Whereas Chico is an idiot in Room Service, Roger is a useful idiot in The Producers.  And yet, and yet, I can't help feeling that the hiring of Roger DeBris (and of L.S.D. to play Hitler) is a textbook example of placing a hat on a hat.  Clearly Franz Liebkind's demented vision of a lovable singing and dancing Hitler was quite repellant enough to guarantee certain disaster, without the overlay of incompetent cliche that Roger plasters over the show (not to mention LSD's drugged-out departure from the agenda completely).  Perhaps the audience is meant to see that a faithful production of Springtime For Hitler could not be topped for flop-abbility, but Max Bialystock is a greedy and desperate man and his desperation seeks the companionship of the Prince of Flopsweat, Roger DeBris, who obviously cannot bear to leave a terrible idea untouched, but must highlight and decorate it to a "T."

Before rehearsals begin Roger promises that this show will not be just the same, "turn turn kick turn," but that is, of course, exactly what he delivers because it is all he knows.

Roy Scheider in All That Jazz has a lot more on his mind than kick-turn because he is playing a version of theatrical choreographer and innovator Bob Fosse, not coincidentally, the creator of the film we are seeing.  Here the genius a**hole paradigm is turned inward in one of the most remorseless self-indictments any artist has ever created, and certainly the one with the most singing and dancing.  The onscreen Fosse gets to pay for his crimes against humanity by elaborately dying on screen, but not before he is lashed himself (and everyone else around him) into a lather trying to re-arrange the same old sparkle-dazzle into new shapes and forms of expression (see Cabaret and Chicago to experience Fosse's meta-showbiz).

Despite Fosse's apparent self-loathing, in the audition sequence above (which is so well staged and edited that, for me, it obviates the need for a film version of A Chorus Line), Scheider's character is quite sensitive and decent, showing real respect and sympathy for his auditionees, even the most incompetent.

But Fosse earns his a**hole credentials, not in relation to the other characters in the film, but in his utterly indulgent and narcissistic celebration of his own death.  I suppose he was actually hoping that the audience will shout "get on with it!" because this is the longest, slowest death since Victorian melodrama, even with the dancing girls.

Christopher Guest in Waiting for Guffman is almost a-hat-on-a-hat, because he is only a genius-a**hole in his own mind.  Which is what makes him so lovable.  True, he is not actually creative, talented, or, indeed even competent, but neither is he the martinet he believes himself to be, but rather a petulant child, taking us back to those Warner-Baxter-stomping-his-feet days.  On top of these qualities, Guests's Corky St. Clair is unicorn-and-double-rainbow-delusional, but in a way that his uninformed cast finds inspirational.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Synecdoche, New York is probably a genius, but has veered into solipsistic incoherence, allowing a replication of his own life to become larger and larger drilling down farther and farther into an endless series of Russian doll-type scenes, so packed with meaning that meaning has been exploded.  His creation has literally turned into a city with no audience.  This film is the definition of a work disappearing up its own wazoo, but in this case quite deliberately.

It is fitting to let Orson Welles in Orson Welles and Me have the last word.  Welles is the great exemplar, the theatrical genius who was also a cinematic genius.  Perhaps if he had taken up landscape architecture, he would have been a genius at that.  This neglected film tells the story of Welles' first Mercury Theater production, the modern dress Julius Caesar whose visual echoes can be seen not only in theater to this day but in Citizen Kane and from there throughout all of film noir.  Christian McKay as Welles portrays all of his facets -- charmer, martinent, brilliant stager, manipulator, publicity hound, artist, interpreter of poetry and leader of men -- to virtual perfection.

Portraying artists in the arts is tricky, because you're going to have to deal with the art.  Either you keep it completely out of sight and risk being dodgy, or you put it on display and risk the art itself not justifying the acclaim that your fictional artist receives.  McKay's Welles is as fine a representation of a performing artist on film as has ever been.  Here, he displays the charm and decisiveness that made him easy to become his follower.

This little clip hardly conveys all the charms of this film, which is very true to the experience of making theater, and I urge you to seek it out.  Sadly, Welles himself never made an entire film about the theater.  On the other hand, given his penchant for expressionism and symbolism, maybe ALL of his films are really about theater.

I haven't yet seen Polanski's Venus In Fur -- I am very much looking forward to seeing just how big a fool Polanski is willing to make himself as the besotted would-be Svengali.

So why does this trope appear so frequently?  Is this a way for a film director revealing himself in disguise?  Acting out a fantasy of control over actors?  (Ridiculous, because film directors ultimately have much more control than stage directors.)  Distancing oneself from the embarrassing revelation inherent in being any creative artist?  In any event, this character is as likely to disappear from the screen as he is from real life.

But so far, he is still only male.  A gender shift may have to be the next important development...

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Dialogue in film is so 2009

Is Under The Skin looking into the rear-view mirror of film history and aesthetics?

You've probably learned at some point that once The Jazz Singer debuted in the autumn of 1926, with Al Jolson not only singing, but ad-libbing dialogue, every studio rushed to get into the talking picture game and that the silent film died almost immediately.  That is almost completely untrue.  (If you are interested in the much more complex true story of this relatively rapid technological changeover, a precursor of a process we live through a couple of times per year nowadays, I highly recommend Talkies:  America's Transition to Sound by Donald Crafton, part of the University of California film history series, possibly the best series there is.)

A few weeks before The Jazz Singer opened, Warner Bros. opened another film for which they had high hopes, which represented a format they believed would be more enduring and popular than the novelty of synchronized speech and song.  The film was Don Juan starring John Barrymore, and it had a synchronized sound track, but only of score music and selected sound effects.  The dialogue was still delivered in title cards.  (Jazz Singer has title cards for most of its length, BTW.)  Here is a sample.  The Spanish subtitles on the title cards are not original, but I wanted to use this excerpt because of the swordfighting sequence.

From the filmmaker's point of view, this format offers the best aspects of silent and sound film.  It preserves the universality of film, since characters are not only not tied to any language, as title cards are replaced in each territory with those in the local language, but not burdened with a voice which does not match either the character nor the actor's appearance.  Undercranking and other silent film devices are still possible.  Yet the filmmakers can ensure that the audience is given the proper emotional cues with either a specifically-composed or a hand-selected underscore, rather than being dependent on the whims (and often limited skills) of the local musicians in each theater.  And key sound effects can be included as may be advisable to inform the audience, and reducing the need for close-ups on noise-making objects, often needed in silent film to call attention to unheard sounds (as if the audience had to be reminded that things CAN actually make sounds, even in the strange dream world of silent film).

This, the moguls of 1926-7 believed, was the technological future of movies, mixed with a program of short subjects with synchronized sound featuring singers, dancers and novelty acts; plus occasional synch sound features to show off singing stars of Broadway and popular music.  But a film was to have a truly dramatic story, it needed to be shot silent with music and effects added in post-production.

History went another way, and by 1928, it was important for films to be All-Talking, All-Singing, All-Dancing, All-Run-Around-And-Bop-You-On-The-Head-With-Our-Synch-Sound.  But perhaps, at least aesthetically, those moguls of the late 1920s were right about the technology.  We've put up with too much jabber over the last almost 90 years of film, and it's time to put things back.

Scarlett Johansson might have felt that way herself, having to yak non-stop in three Woody Allen movies, and (after Under The Skin was produced) being heard but not seen in the super-creepy Her (2013).  Under The Skin (2013) is Ms. Johansson's boldest and most significant project choice since her breakout role, Lost In Translation, and the first since that earlier film to employ her somewhat unreal aura, after so many projects which attempted to root her in everyday reality.

As you can read in a thousand other places, Johansson plays a visitor from another planet who wears the body of a young woman provided by its handler.  The alien uses that woman's allure to draw in young men who are consumed or transformed in some way that looks like this.

What is more interesting, and what makes the film worth seeing, is the alien point-of-view of our world the film presents so successfully, employing some documentary techniques to place the glamorous Ms. Johansson in the least glamorous environment in the world, the city of Glasgow, a working-class city, the largest in Scotland.

In fact, although I lived in Glasgow for a year, the accents were so thick that I had to switch the titles on for the scenes Johansson improvised with non-actor Glaswegians, shot by hidden cameras.  Nonetheless, those scenes are the ones I found the most valuable, though their aesthetics might cause Abbas Kiorastami to weep in recognition.  (That's a small joke.)  Her reticence, the use of the fewest words possible and the blankness, the "silence" of her facial expression is what makes this part of Under The Skin so effective.  This clip also features the main theme of the brilliant score by first-time film composer Mica Levi.

Tellingly, director and co-writer Jonathan Glazer has revealed that the original version of the script contained lengthy preliminary explanations of the aliens, their plans, their methods, all of which were deleted and replaced with a few stunning and mysterious images which, on re-examination, are visually packed with hints and clues about the story.

Curiously, strange and disorienting as they may be, the sci-fi special effects come off as more conventional than the "van" footage; nonetheless, Under The Skin would be almost meaningless if it had unpacked its heart with words like a very drab.  Its very opacity makes it not unclear (except to the willfully obtuse) but clears the deck to let the pictures convey the meaning instead of the text.

As I wrote earlier in this blog, silent pictures may be coming back.  No, not silent pictures -- the music and sound are too important to the title effect.  Pictures with sounds, instead of the years of illustrated radio which is so easy and comforting for film financiers but so limiting for film artists.

Paradoxically, this may have been enabled by the shift to digital imaging.  The new cameras handle low light extremely well, encouraging filmmakers to move cameras into environments that require less artificial preparation.  Moreover, long takes are easier (no worry about how much film remains int he magazine) and breakdowns within a take are less of a problem, since editors can digitally stitch together two different takes into a single seamless entity.  Whereas long takes are looked at as being theatrical in the work of Welles, Wyler and Renoir, these new long takes constitute a new definition of cinematic, as cameras weave together multiple events and multiple environments into a unified physical and emotional environment.  First digital tools and non-linear editing sped editing up, encouraging the rapid cutting that vapid and lazy journalists called "MTV editing"; now digital filmmaking has not only resuscitated the long take, but made it the norm, liberating actors and cinematographers into more complex and revelatory work.

We just might be entering a silver age for pictures that move.

Friday, August 15, 2014

PRISONERS took no prisoners, and paid the price

Back in September 2013, a challenging drama called Prisoners.  It was fairly well-reviewed and had reasonable commercial success, but by the time of the award season it had been swamped by such inferior material as American Hustle.  The only Academy nomination it received (and thoroughly deserved) was for Roger Deakins's cinematography, and although Aaron Guzikowski's sceenplay, written on spec, won a number of several script competitions, including The Black List and The Blue Cat, it got very little attention when prizes were dispensed for actual films.

What happened?

Before going any further, I need to say that you should see this film.  It is too visually and morally complex to adequately describe or summarize in a blog post like this, and it will repay your time.  Put it in your queue or get it from your library or borrow it from a friend, clear out an evening and watch this, preferably not alone.  And if you haven't seen director Denis Villeneuve's previous film, Incendies, go back and see that as well.  My guess is that like me, you will try and see all of Mr. Villeneuve's films in future.

Back to my question.  First, Prisoners is a godawful title.  Yes, it makes sense in a philosophical metaphorical way AFTER you've seen the film and had some time to think about it.  But most people don't want to see a movie about prisoners, unless they're American GIs breaking out of WWII prisoner camps.  Moreover, it is a confusing description in a literal level.  I am not going to exhibit hubris sufficient to propose alternate titles, but I know this one is absolutely terrible and had to have contributed to the general audience indifference.

Second, the film was marketed as a thriller.  In fact, it begins by employing thriller tropes, but by 45 minutes in, it is clear we are in deeper waters than the typical Liam Neeson movie.  (Admittedly there is a thriller-style twist ending, and the only hint I will give you is to pay close attention to the casting.)

Overall, Prisoners feels more like a neo-noir than a thriller, especially in its look, as in this clip.

More significantly, Prisoners shares the noir ethos that no one is in sole possession of the moral high ground, nor is any villain made of pure villainy; stylized as it is, noir recognizes that life is more mixed than melodrama would have it.

There are certainly allegorical or at least metaphorical aspects of the story, in that Jackman's character, a good guy who captures a boy-man suspected of kidnapping his daughter and brutally tortures him, is reminiscent of the United States succumbing to fear and cowardice and engaging in torture to combat terrorism.  But the allegory doesn't hold for long, because the film has more subtle and complex moral fish to fry.  (And that is a terrible use of idiom there.)

Next, as far as awards and nominations go, Prisoners does not end on a triumphal note (though the ending is not as ambiguous as a lot of obtuse people want to think), and the good guys and bad guys are all muddled up morally.  Moreover, the stellar cast is truly used as an ensemble, which makes handing out award nominations much harder.  (The National Board of Review actually nominated the cast AS an ensemble.)  If there is someone to be singled out, it has to be Jake Gyllenhall, with the best work of his I have seen yet.  Here's a little bit.

Prisoners is not a film that calls for a sequel, but I would like to see Gyllenhall play this character again.

If you're still on the fence about the rewards of seeing this film, I urge you in the strongest terms to click this link and look at this superb and detailed analysis, written by cinematographer Matthew Scott, of the look of the film and the depth of its craft.  As an example, here is the still I put at the top of this post, as de-constructed by Mr. Scott.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Movies with high demands

The cowboy life Flanders-style
"When I go to the movies, I don't want to think.  I just want to be taken out of myself," I hear.   And I think there will be many, many years to not think when you're dead.  Mindless entertainment makes me restless and bored, and too much of it physically nauseates me, especially since it's often built on lies.  Shoot me, but I like a movie or a play to actually be about something more than bringing me 100 minutes closer to my death.

Broken Circle Breakdown (2013-USA) is a tough and a tough-minded movie.  At first sight, it is exhiliaratingly free-sprited and wild, about the careless romance between a sometime phlegmatic Flemish bluegrass musician (he and his pals sing in perfect American English) and a whilring dervish of a tattoo artist, a romance interrupted by pregnancy.  That pregnancy brings joy, then heartache, all reflected through the music in a way that recalls the Irish film Once more than the structure a conventional stage musical.  Tough as that all becomes, the film then ventures into darker areas than you ever thought -- not pessimism or morbidity, but the absolute truth about the way married people can talk to each other and the stupid unthought things they can say.  And the pain that becomes more poignant as there is little or no time to take back the words.

This clip gives you some small sense of how the music plays with and against the image and just how good Belgians can be singing country music.  (Well, Flemish people anyway-- I'm prejudiced, as the Lockharts purportedly emigrated from Flanders to Scotland...)  By the way, the end of this clip is by no means the hardest part of this movie.

But if you like to be challenged, if you appreciate the echo of real life instead of the recycled BS of our commercial myth-machines, you will like this film.  Downer as it is -- and I wept through the last four minutes of the film -- I felt better for having seen it.

One side note:  the most unbelievable thing about this movie is that it has been adapted from a play by the playwright and the film's director.  I cannot see the fingerprints of theater anywhere in this movie-- not in the scenes, the language, the structure, the performances, the music, nothing.  I've never seen the whiff of the footlights so thoroughly eradicated in any other such adaptation.

So often actors think that good acting is theater acting.  Meryl Streep, formerly a fine artist, is spiralling down into a maelstrom of twitches, sniffs, shrugs and counter-intuitive line readings, trying desperately to help the poor crippled script across the street, when in fact plays like DOUBT and AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY need no such help, and in fact are marred by Streep's determined eccentricity.

Irene still remembers she loves Craig
She could take a lesson from the clear-eyed, economical and completely true performance of James Cromwell in Still Mine (2012), a film that is Canadian not only in terms of financial resources, but has the kind of unpretentiousness, directness and plain common sense one associates with Canadians.

Based on a true story, it tells of a farmer in his 80s who sees his wife sinking into dementia or worse and decides a smaller, more manageable house for them to live on, on his own property, using wood from timber he owns himself.  The "A story" as they say in television is about Craig's legal battle to build his house his own way, despite laws and regulations designed to protect the unknowing from the unscrupulous, but in this case, barring a man from living his life his own way on his own land on his own terms.  But that A-story is driven by the B-story, the fierce cleaving-together of this unsentimental, but very-much-in-love couple as she drifts away from him.  Fans of independent film might be reminded of Away From Her or the more light-hearted The Castle.  But this film has a clear-sky clarity like the New Brunswick skies it was shot under.

And at the heart of that clarity is the model performance of James Cromwell, playing his first leading role in his early 70s.  Never once do you catch him "acting."  There is no big speech, no big moment in this movie; just a lot of real true human behavior (something you could also say about Broken Circle Breakdown).

Cromwell reminds me of Spencer Tracy here, and his acting is, if anything, even more invisible.  It doesn't get fake-folksy, nor fake-eloquent, but treads that narrow in-between ground of smart but not over-educated people talking about what they truly know.  When Cromwell as Craig Morrison tells what his father, a shipwright, taught him about wood and about building --well, he never uses the word "spiritual" or "soul" but there is a profound, mystical religious quality about Craig's faith in what he has learned and what he can do that links him both to the earth and to the dozens of generations before him.  It is a master class.

There's nothing wrong with stupid movies in their place and time.  But you can't live on marshmallow, and if you'd like some good strong fibre of human life in your movie diet, check out these films.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Silent film lives

This might be wishful thinking, but I think I am detecting a mini-trend in films that eschew dialogue, at least as a means of conveying narrative information.  Even in some fairly talky films, what seems to be important is who is talking to each other and why, not whatever it is they're saying.

I'm not talking about the obvious examples such as The Artist or Biancaneves, which aspire to an earlier form in a self-conscious way, but the stripping away of dialogue in order to arrive at deeper narrative revelation that words can cover up.

Exhibit A:  Blue Caprice (2013), an abstract fictionalization of the 2002 Beltway sniper incident.  Although there is a soundtrack, it is one of the most profoundly silent movies made in the last few years, both literally and metaphysically.  It seems to have infuriated many of the critics that the film offers no explanation or motive for the violence this would-be father-and-son team inflicted.  But really, what explanation would be possible?  The point of it WAS motiveless crime.  It's even sketched out by John Muhammed (played by Isaiah Washington) in those very words.  What makes the crimes insoluble is their sheer motivelessness, their lack of connection and lack of predictability.  Go ahead -- you explain that.  Irrationality is the heart and soul of the act.  So the film is built on a spiritual silence as to what these acts mean or what their purpose is, a silence it never ever breaks.

C'mon kids, artists are not here to explain.  They are here to observe, to re-interpret and re-present the world back to us.  Judgments are for the audience, not for the artist.  You want an explanation for terrible violence? Check out the psychiatrist scene in Pyscho.  Boring.  Meaningless.  Just there to give everyone a chance to calm down from all the screaming before they leave the theater.  Explanations don't belong in movies.

But there are even more profound and localized silences around the deaths in Blue Caprice.  The first on-screen shooting incorporates a visual misdirection and an audio clue that the shooting has begun.  As one victim passes into oblivion, an oblivious shopper goes by with her cart.  The placid surface of the carpet-like grass disturbed by the incongruity of a snowblower.  The rampage is represented by the sounds of police calls playing asyncronously against shots of police cruisers and pictres of crime scenes.  The arrest itself is literally silent as far as the film is concerned, since it takes place offscreen.  And once that arrest happens, Muhammed disappears utterly (and silently) from the film, and his "son" Richmond's only utterances are to confirm his intention to maintain his silence.

Critics seemed to get downright angry about this film.  Why wouldn't it explain the roots of gun violence, they said?  What is it avoiding?  But the film is not about gun violence -- it's about psychological violence.  The child abuse of a man who picks up a drifting boy and turns him into an emotionless killing machine, seeking only the "father's" approval for a well-aimed shot.  Sorry -- no socio-economic, legal, policy explanations behind this tale, just complementary illnesses.  The film portrays the very lack of affect that makes such crime possible -- which is its strength and the very reason the professional opinionators and verbalizers are uncomfortable with it.

Such chilliness would have been anathema to Hitchcock, who I suspect would have loved All Is Lost (2013), given all its very deliberate limitations.  For one thing, Redford's virtually wordless turn is the kind of eloquent, expressive performance that places him alongside Hitchcock favorite James Stewart, as well as Gary Cooper and Clint Eastwood (the latter two nearly always better when they're not talking.)

Paradoxically, the film was built as an explanation for a brief letter that writer-director J.C. Chandor wrote in the earliest stages of creation.  It was an apology and a confession.  As he read it, Chandor realized that this imaginary farewell was built on the unspoken question, "How long is hope reasonable?"  Here is the text:
13th of July, 4:50 pm. I'm sorry... I know that means little at this point, but I am. I tried, I think you would all agree that I tried. To be true, to be strong, to be kind, to love, to be right. But I wasn't. And I know you knew this. In each of your ways. And I am sorry. All is lost here... except for soul and body... that is, what's left of them... and a half-day's ration. It's inexcusable really, I know that now. How it could have taken this long to admit that I'm not sure... but it did. I fought 'til the end, I'm not sure what this worth, but know that I did. I have always hoped for more for you all... I will miss you. I'm sorry.
Other than the sentence in the middle about "soul and body" and "a half-day's ration" nothing in this sentence calls for a story about a man lost and alone at sea.  Which is what makes the nit-picking about the safety details of this film so ridiculous.  (So what if the man had had an "EPIRB."  Then he either gets rescued or the EPIRB is somehow made non-functional.  Narratively or emotionally speaking, what has been added by attending to such a detail?)  It is a real boat and not a real boat.  It is the Indian Ocean and not the Indian Ocean.  Our Man is a real man or not.  They are both at once.  It doesn't matter.  This is a metaphysical journey from hope to reality and the necessity of letting go.  The subject itself is profoundly silent -- it lives at the core of the soul and not subject to debate or persuasion.  It is a feeling question, and therefore perfectly suited to film.

It is about accepting failure.  It is one of the most painful movies ever made.

It is wordless but not at all silent.  Wind, water, the creaks of the boat, some expletives.  But mostly wind and water.  And pictures of a man thinking.  He thinks deliberately.  He moves slowly, with purpose. No panic.  No false hope.  Reasonableness.  Reasonableness defeated.

Two "silent" films -- one cold, the other cool, both warming themselves at the glowing hearth of the origin of film -- pictures in motion, without the intervention of theatrical chatter.  "Look at this" says Film.  Don't measure it, don't judge it.  At least not yet.  Just look, then look closer.  Only see.

What did you want?  A speech?

Thursday, January 2, 2014

You Can't Cheat An Honest Man -- or can you?

Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill's characters discuss their legal options.
There are a certain amount of feathers ruffled among traditional business circles about the rampant amorality to be found in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) a black-comedy romp directed by Martin Scorsese that could be described as "Goodfellas without the murders."  Personally, I believe you should be suspicious of anyone who is offended by the fact that the characters in the story receive only minimal incarceration and fines for their extensive misdeeds and appear to learn nothing from the whole debacle.  At the end they are just as greedy and stupid as they were at the start.

Being offended by such things is just silly.  First, the punishments administered adhere to the facts of the true-life case, which acknowledge the extensive assistance the defendants gave in making cases against other malefactors.  Second, if incarceration and fines comprises your concept of punishment, you need to check your moral compass.  Third, people rarely learn and scarcely ever change.  Certainly, legal sanctions rarely have the power to instill a genuine sense of right and wrong in a sociopath -- only a surface understanding of what the social expectations are.  (To this day, the person on whom DiCaprio's character is based has not made complete payment of the restitution due from his plea deal of 10 years ago.)

One of the things Scorsese does best is make films about closed social groups.  Mean Streets, Goodfellas, After Hours, The Age of Innocence, Casino, Gangs of New York, The Departed, Shutter Island all deal with tight-knit communities and the way they can close ranks against outsiders.  (Not surprising considering Scorsese's own background.  Incidentally, his other great mode is the story of the Loner, also unsurprising when you know how much time he spent alone, sick in bed, as a child. Many spectators have complained that Wolf does not show the damage caused to decent citizens and their financial security by its characters' depredations.  The answer is simple -- the film is told from the characters' point-of-view (DiCaprio frequently addresses the audience directly).  They had no idea of, nor any concern for, the effect of their actions on anyone else -- that's the nature of a sociopathic personality.  It is true, there is no one in the film that expresses moral disdain for what is happening.  Even the FBI man played by Kyle Chandler is mostly anxious for the kill, for the success of the hunt, for bringing down the big target, than for rendering justice in any cosmic sense.  He's also a career builder, albeit one who is content with his modest means.

Judgment, says Mr. Scorsese, is for you, the audience.  If you're not up to that, you may not be up to a Scorsese film.

Incidentally, I had never known Mr. S to be a maestro of slapstick comedy, but the sequence illustrated above, exhibits some of the best physical comedy seen since Peter Sellers's stuntmen retired.  Mr. DiCaprio's character has taken an inordinate number of Quaaludes which suddenly take delayed effect, rendering him incapable of walking or talking.  The way he slithers into his Lamborghini, opening the gull-wing door with an exquisite scissor-leg move, and then tries to prevent Jonah Hill's character from talking on the bugged telephone, in a slow-motion, rubber-muscled tussle on the floor, can only be compared with this masterpiece:

The 1980s con games in Wolf of Wall Street are relatively crude, especially when compared with CDOs and the other entertaining manipulations of the 2002-2008 period.  American Hustle (2013), on the other hand, manages to con even the audience, including your obedient servant, a lifelong Jerseyite, convincing me that the 1970s-era story was shot on my native soil, whereas it was made entirely in Massachusetts (those rapscallions!).  Whereas DiCaprio invites you along on the ride, though he lies right to your face, Christian Bale's character would like to keep you and everyone else at arm's length so you can't see how the faux-hair is pasted on under the combover and exactly what is hidden up his sleeve.
Bradley Cooper adjusts Christian Bale's accoutrements.

Thusly, the film pulls some remarkable surprises and a full-out concluding con comparable to the finale of The Sting, yet it doesn't seem to be about that.  And what's more, unlike Wolf, Hustle toys with your notions of who is the good guy and who is the bad guy and everything in between.

Two slam-dunk predictions, and a few chancier ones.  Hustle will be nominated for Costumes (they make a huge contribution to both the atmosphere and in establishing the characters) and for Jennifer Lawrence as Best Supporting Actress.  She is truly the new Meryl Streep, in that she disappears into variegated roles, and, I would argue, disappears much more completely into them.  Her Rosalyn is rife with telling detail.  (No disrespect to Amy Adams, although one wonders why David O. Russell gets work out of her that no other director does.  Is that they don't think to ask?)  Presuming there will be 10 Best Picture Nominees, Hustle will make the cut (and Wolf probably will, too).  Russell will be nominated as director, and the screenplay will be as well.

Beside the dodgy relationships with money, Wolf and Hustle have much in common stylistically.  Rapid dolly-in shots and fast cuts, bright colors in the design (especially the retro clothes in both films), nostalgic soundtracks (American Hustle offers some real boomer-bait).  But thematically, they part company over the old con-man ethic expressed in the title of this post.  Irving Rosenthal, the role played by Christian Bale (who will not be nominated because toward the end of the film he appears to be channeling DeNiro), is a true classic con, who can live with himself morally because he only cheats those who want something for nothing, or an unfair advantage over another person.  You Can't Cheat An Honest Man, they say.  You take money from those who deserve to be taken.  And Rosenthal refuses to hurt the people that matter to him.  That puts him 180-degrees diametrically opposed to Jordan Belfont, DiCaprio's character, who has no idea and no concern who he hurts and how.  These films live comfortably side by side, yet inhabit totally different moral universes.

But don't take it from me when you can get it from the horse's mouth.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Trying to get time onto our side

No (2012) and Stories We Tell (2013) both play interesting games with time and memory, and use similar means to do so, specifically by employing outdated technology

No, the based-on-fact story of the advertising campaign employed to unseat Pinochet as dictator of Chile in 1988 confused me when I first popped it into the DVD player, because the picture is in the 1:33, Academy ratio, often called "Fool Screen."  I couldn't believe that a distributor of serious foreign film was still issuing full screen additions, and had to check Imdb to confirm that the film was indeed shot in the old television ratio, and for a very specific reason.  No was shot on 3/4" Beta so that its original footage could be seamlessly integrated with historic advertising and news footage.  Some scenes actually show the same real-life figure shot in 2011 side-by-side with 1988 footage running on a nearby monitor.

So No hopes to make the intervening years melt away for the viewer, not by bringing the past up to the present, shining it up and making it contemporary, but sending the present back to a fuzzier, grainier time with bad clothes, bad music and even worse haircuts.  And somehow it works, making the present-day performances and the old videotape blend into one slightly blurry but still quite legible artifact.  Which contains its own irony, in that the whole story is about a manipulation of the truth which was engineered so as to make the truth possible to be spoken aloud.

For somehow, somewhere, someone realized that we are not rational beings.  We do not vote, or purchase things, or live places, or fall in love based on any kind of rational measuring of the risks and rewards, costs and benefits.  We live emotionally, and most especially we vote emotionally.  So the tiny band that wanted to unseat Pinochet, given an absurdly small volume of resources, limited money, personnel and a mere fifteen minutes a night, had to turn the enormous slow-moving ship which is a nation's politics 180 degrees from the direction it was moving.  (Pinochet was seeking a vote of confidence and to give the illusion of fairness the television stations -- all state-controlled of course -- granted fifteen minutes per night for the "Vote Yes" and the "Vote No" contingents.)  The old anti-Pinochet crowd wanted to trot out all the old sufferings and martyrdoms, the torture, the suppression, the shunning by the rest of the world.  But the marketing consultant they bring in (a composite character played by Gael Garcia Bernal) points out that you can't vote against a negative.  There is no such vote.  You have to vote for something.  And Bernal proceeds to market the new Chile like a new soft drink, car, or even charity appeal (one part of the campaign includes a "We Are The World" type anthem, a recording session recreated by the original participants).

To these eyes, we were plunged back into 1988 (especially the corny advertising of the day), the intervening time elided and the filmmakers doing their best to render the film itself transparent so as to let the rather astonishing events show through clear.

Stories We Tell, on the other hand, is reflective to the point of being reflexive, a film about itself, a film seemingly determined to eat its own tail -- or perhaps to be eaten by it.

It's the most familiar old kind of family secret -- I feel as though I've seen two or three films this very year that have turned on this device (although here it is not a device, because it is what really happened in and to this family.)  But the focus is not on the story, but the telling of it, or more precisely, of them, of stories in the plural, which is the whole point.  Everybody has a story, or at least a point of view about the central story and everyone is permitted to chime in, much to the discomfort of some of the participants.

Like the central character of No, Pinochet, the central character of Stories We Tell is dead and cannot speak for herself.  So she must be created out of the collective recollections of her family, friends and extended family and friends, like the elephant described by the blind men, or a whole gang of people describing their own shadows in Plato's cave.  Also like No, the illusion is aided by blending authentic antique Super 8mm footage with newly staged and newly shot Super 8mm with lookalike actors and artificially created settings supplementing the real footage.

However, to be honest, the stories don't really contradict each other, but only inform them.  The only real conflict (this is tricky to do without writing a spoiler) is between Polley and the man who would like to be accepted as part of the family, but is not and cannot be, who asserts that only he knows The Truth, whereas he knows his own truth, which he refuses to share because it will not be accepted as the sole or at least the primary truth.

And finally there is one piece missing.  Polley herself never addresses the ambiguity of her own situation caused by the events she relates in her film.  We see her interacting with her father and with other family members who refuse to be passive participants in the film and can't resist the urge to drag her into the storytelling, whether she wants to be included or not.  And we see her working with her director of photography on the staged sequences, yet never clearly labels or identifies which sequences are real and which are re-created -- in fact she does not even acknowledge the artifice but for editing in these "making of" shots into her film.  Her father points out on camera that she will take all the interviews which in all fairness should run unedited at length and chop them out and put them in counterpoint with each other to create a new narrative, "her" narrative, a constructed thing.

But honestly what is her choice?  To make a film is always to force a liason between reality and artifice and the question is what balance will be struck.  No film will ever live entirely in one camp or another, so why all the embarrassment and reticence about the very medium Polley has chosen to explore these questions?  She needs to take a look at Exit Through The Gift Shop or even Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story to see just how this bargain can be made without equivocation, in fact with the kind of cheeky grin that Stories We Tell could really use.