Monday, February 28, 2011

Isolated man

We all know people who can't survive a week or two without getting into a relationship. With Up In The Air last year and now The American (2010), George Clooney seems predisposed to portray men who can't get into any relationship, and are not sure if they want to. Aside from the sexless Western heroes of the 1930s and 1940s, I can't think of a leading man who spends more time avoiding getting entangled with women than the purportedly sexy Clooney. Director Anton Corbijn is best known for his still photos of celebrities, and perhaps it was his intention to simply capitalize on his strengths, because The American often feels more like a slideshow than a movie.

The one-man movie is well-established, perhaps even a mini-genre. There is even a book entitled Cinema of Loneliness. In the last decade we've had I Am Legend, Cast Away, 127 Hours, One Hour Photo and A Single Man. Going back we have Taxi Driver, Blast of Silence and countless Westerns and detective movies. That's not counting all the movies in which only one person in the world, perhaps a child or other outcast, befriends the protagonist.

In the case of The American, Clooney's character goes through the motions of a romance as if he knew it was doomed, and proceeds to (presumably unwittingly) engineer his own destruction. But even if he knew what was coming, it's hard to argue he would do any differently. Like his character in Up In The Air, this man seems to have forgotten to have a life, and to have something--anything, really that he wants to do. It's hard to believe that he wants to get out of his current life and get away, because we're never convinced of his passion of whatever it is he wants to get to. It's an interesting literary idea, but it's a tough pull for cinema, because the central character seems to be without passion of any kind.

A similar issue dogs the cult classic Seconds (1966) directed by John Frankenheimer as an existential horror film. Arthur Hamilton, who has himself transformed into the handsome Tony Wilson (played by Rock Hudson) is isolated from everyone, including himself.

He is given the identity of an artist without the talent, the passion or the network of influences, teachers, friends, supporters and other persons that most artists need to sustain them. The man starts the story empty and simply inventing an identity for him as an artist (especially an artist who is already successful and has a fancy Malibu home) is a recipe for disaster. This scene illustrates the disaster unfolding, and contains some of Rock Hudson's best work, not that Hudson has a large body of great work. But he seems to respond to this idea of being placed into a hollowed-out shell of a person that he is expected to fill out and respond to it.

Note also the splendid wide-angle hand-held photography of James Wong Howe, who is most celebrated these days for the icy brilliance of his work on Sweet Smell of Success -- both impressive credits for a man in his 60s who had begun as a cameraman in the silent era.

Jack Nicholson's character, Jonathan, in Carnal Knowledge (1971) thinks he wants someone around, preferably someone with female genitalia, but his contempt for other people and especially for other people, which never changes throughout his life, dooms him to a life of solitude. His idea of a relationship seems to be merely a complex form of masturbation. Here he is describing his ideal woman as an inventory of physical attributes. He barely seems human himself:

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(Note: The language in this clip may be NSFW or for school.)

As I revisit films of the 70s, films that were first released in my high school and college days that were highly influential on me, my generation and the next generation of filmmakers, so many of them are no longer as shocking and transgressive as they seemed at first. But although Carnal Knowledge shocked many for its graphic language and simulated sex, I don't recall people being as appalled with Jonathan's sociopathology as they should have been and as I am now. The character has the cruelty of a Neil LaBute script, made doubly cruel by the fact that almost no one in the film expresses the horror we feel for this monster, with the exception of Carol Kane in the penultimate slide-show sequence. His only "punishment" for 25 or 30 years of appalling behavior are some transitory bouts of impotence, which might be exactly what he needs to take a time out from his satyrism and get a clear-eyed view of himself. Jonathan is isolated by his own doing, and likely to forever remain so.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Codes and silences

At the very least, The Town (2010) settles the issue: Ben Affleck is a real movie director, not just an actor who takes an occasional flyer behind the lens. Gone, Baby Gone was extremely accomplished, but whether because of its modest scale and star (Affleck's brother Casey) or its downbeat and somewhat ambiguous tone, it did not make a big impression in the film business community. Still, every talented actor probably has one pretty good film in them. Affleck came roaring back with another entry in the evolving sub-genre of films set in Eastern Massachusetts, wrapping his drama of growth, loyalty and betrayal in a hard boiled heist-move coating.

Frankly, the coating is more convincing than the gooey center of the film, which tries to suggest that a career criminal can win the love and loyalty of a Good Woman and then completely quit being a thief. But although that premise is hard to take, Affleck's depiction of what FBI man Jon Hamm's character calls "Irish omerta" is utterly persuasive, especially the strong ties between Affleck's character and that of Jeremy Remmer (Hurt Locker) a probable sociopath who is nonetheless fiercely loyal and, in his own way, trustworthy.

Most impressive is Affleck's handling of an urban car chase midway through the film reminiscent of the best aspects of John Frankenheimer's Ronin. Shot and edited with an economy, lightness and realistic scale that make it more convincing than many more hyperbolic sequences (e.g. The Matrix Reloaded). The light, swift style in which all the crime-action scenes are put together heighten their plausibility, even though the premise of the climactic sequence, an attempted heist of Fenway is prima facie ridiculous.

The economy of the shooting is mirrored in the elliptical dialogue (Affleck is also co-writer of the final shooting script with Aaron Stockard). Here's how we learn of the loyalty of Remmer's character (James) to Affleck's character (Doug):
Doug MacRay: I need your help. I can't tell you what it is, you can never ask me about it later, and we're gonna hurt some people.
James Coughlin: Whose car are we gonna take?
And later they discuss the big job that could set them for life, either as wealthy men or permanent prisoners:
Doug MacRay: You know if this thing goes right, could be your turn to step away, too.
James Coughlin: Yeah. Sure. What am I gonna do? Dougy, huh? Go down to Margaritaville, drink half a yard and fall off the [bleep]in' bar stools?
Doug MacRay: Do me a favor, the weight of this thing...pack a parachute at least.
James Coughlin: You know the funniest thing about being in prison guys pretending they wanna get out. I can't do any more time, Dougy. So if we get jammed up, we're holding court on the street.
The criminal mastermind in The Town runs a flower shop as a front, as does one of the rival gang leaders in what is often cited as the film that kicked off the gangster film cycle of the early '30s, the romantic Underworld (1927).

Journalist and future screenwriter Ben Hecht concocted a hard-boiled story, is first for the movies, of a gangster's rise coupled with a bit of romantic rivalry, trying to be as true as he could be to the real Chicago gangsters he new personally. Paramount assigned the story to the struggling young Josef von Sternberg, who had established two reputations, one as an efficient technician and "movie doctor" and the other as a visual poet with less interest in narrative than in pictures. Luckily, this was a perfect qualification for a director of silent film, in which the best stories were the simplest ones which could be explored in purely pictorial terms.

Von Sternberg took Hecht's gritty story and made it an operatic love triangle, a competition between two spiritual brothers, one "Rolls Royce", representing Mind, and the other, "Bull" representing Body, for the possession of the sensual yet ethereal woman, evocatively called "Feathers" (and covered in them most of the time). Von Sternberg's reputation rests on his exploration and exploitation of actor's faces, of subtle details of eyes and corners of mouths. But he is also the master of light and shadow and the moving camera. The sequence below begins with what is quite clearly an attempted rape, without showing anything which could seriously disturb a censor.

If you don't want to take the time for this entire clip, start at about 4:00 and see how von Sternberg absorbs the lessons of German cinema in staging and lighting, and how he allows his audience thrill to grotesque violence without showing it directly (yet without cutting away). Then von Sternberg exercises a superb economy, cutting straight from the murder of Buck in his flower ship (just like The Town) to Bull's sentencing; from one kind of justice to another.

One of the toughest things about watching dramatic silent films today can be the long focus on faces which seem to be barely changing. In sound film, a silent reflective moment can be effective, but when all the action is silent, long close-ups can seem really languorous. But von Sternberg keeps the story alive even as we see thought flicker over the characters' faces. I don't know of a silent feature which is so consistently engaging and absorbing, even with its simple characters and symbols. (Look, for instance, at the confetti which covers the floor of the Criminal's Ball like a thick soup of moral squalor.)

But powerful as it is, Underworld doesn't really feel like a true ancestor of those rise-to-the-top gangster films like Little Caesar, The Public Enemy and the original Scarface. (And incidentally, every fan of The Godfather, Wiseguys, the Scarface remake and The Sopranos owe it to themselves to see those primitive antecedents, many sequences of which are still blood-chilling.) Bull Weed is a well-established success at the beginning of the film, and Underworld has more to do with choices and loyalty than about the role of the gangster in society and the manner in which he gathers power, which is at the heart of the 30s cycle.

That trope is, however, central to the latest remake of The Public Enemy, the South African crime epic Gangster's Paradise: Jerusalema (released theatrically here in 2010). Although it incorporates real-life story elements such as the collapse of apertheid and the use of rent strike law to acquire title to real estate, the film still feels like a long-distance echo of the old Warner Bros. classics, for which black skin stands in for Irish heritage and cocaine substitutes for illegal booze. The central character even dies of a fatal gun show surrounded by cops exactly like Jimmy Cagney in The Roaring Twenties and Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar. All that is needed was for Kunene to gasp out, "Mother of Mercy, is this the end of Lucky?" Jerusalema is even directly derivative of Michael Mann's Heat, as Joburg gangsters imitate one of the key MOs in that film, plowing tractor-trailers into armored trucks.

The one truly original. element is the first half-hour of the film, depicting the future gangsters as clueless and inept youngsters, stealing trucks they don't even know how to drive, and planning to hijack drivers while standing under a sign warning drivers that they are likely to be hijacked in this area. The mix of English, Zulu, Afrikaans and pidgin is also quite interesting and illustrates the slippery social distinctions of the South African criminal world (specifically, the depredations of the refugees from Ghana).

But for all the trappings, the elements of gangster films remain the same: poverty, lack of opportunity, violence, family, loyalty and betrayal. I don't think any of this is going away soon.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Round and flat characters

Conventional wisdom has it that Toy Story 3 will win Best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards this weekend, and that seems probable. Nonetheless, the animation community saw fit to award its high honor, the "Annie" to How To Train Your Dragon (2010) in 15 of the 24 categories in which it was nominated, including Best Animated Feature. It's impossible to know why; one suspects that the fact that Dragon was not a sequel, that it had some new design and a host of attractive and well-animated characters contributed to the victory.

Dragon is also to be praised for eschewing the usual Dreamworks smart-aleck pop-culture-reference tone that disfigures Shrek and many other DWA projects. The film is based on a 9-book series, so it would not be unreasonable to expect some follow-ups. At the time, way back in the Spring of 2010 (remember then?), there was so much chatter about 3D release versus 2D, particularly in the wake of Alice In Wonderland, but I saw the film flat and it seemed just fine. And more recently, with the release of Tangled, 3D seems to be an afterthought in the marketing.

Essentially the film marries two old story tropes -- we don't have to fight our perennial enemy; we can befriend them/it; and A Boy And His Dog. That said, the characters are more rounded, literally and figuratively than usual and the film has some interesting creative quirks. I particularly like that once Hiccup begins learning how to train Toothless and discovers that he is missing a side fin on his tail that helps maintain balance, he creates a (presumably) leather adaptation device. This makes Hiccup and Toothless both mutually dependent and mutually reliant, literally symbiotic, at least while in flight. Hiccup must be on Toothless' back, manipulating the fins with his feet to maintain balance in order for Toothless to fly; and of course, Hiccup, being a mere human, couldn't even begin to fly without Toothless. And the film has the grace never to state this point explicitly -- one simply sees the principle in action.

And happily, the other characters come around to a new point of view in ways and at times consistent with their personalities, which makes them what English teachers like me call, "rounded" characters. Which contrasts them strongly with the animated figures of The Secret of the Kells (2009) which was a contender in last year's Oscars.

There is some internal logic in employing this kind of design; the film revolves around the creation and protection of illuminated manuscripts, and the characters and their setting reflect the style of those Celtic books. The final image in this clip is in direct imitation of the decoration of the first letters on a page.

This is one of those stories about the fetishization of and attribution of magic powers to books, independent of whether any one reads them, thinks about them, or communicates their ideas to others. The physical book objects are possessed of mystical supernatural power. This is especially perverse, since the book in question is the bible, which was supposed to supercede the magical thinking of the time before. No matter, everyone just transfers their irrational magic thinking to the new beliefs, without any fundamental change in their belief system. God doesn't even get a mention in this film, lest anyone be offended.

The result is that the whole thing becomes so abstracted, it is difficult to tell what is it at stake, why or what anyone could do about it. It's like those Star Trek in which everyone is in terrible danger until the science officer says, "Let me reroute the Power Postule through the Infidibulous Watanabe," then pretends to push some buttons on the flat piece of plastic and everything is OK. I mean, what is it? Were we in trouble or not? Didn't we always know we could push some buttons? See what I mean in this clip. Can you tell what it is our hero is battling? Have you any idea what might defeat it?

Help! Help! I'm being attacked by abstract art!!

Secret of Kells it is not helped by extreme stylization of the figures, especially the monks and the abbott, making it nearly impossible to identify with them or to relate to them as human characters. Yes, they are wonderful design, but they are terribly inexpressive. Even in this scene, which is meant to present terrible human loss, it is so abstracted it becomes merely an empty homage to Seven Samurai.

Although the animation is far from limited, the drastic simplification of people and objects is reminiscent of cheap television animation. It feels more like a budget than an aesthetic statement.

So despite the railing against 3D and CGI animation and general descrying of the death of cell animation, it is possible for a cartoon to be too flat and too cartoony, especially when it is as ambitious as Secret of Kells.

Reality and its alternatives

Exit Through The Gift Shop (2010) is not only a contender for Best Documentary at the Academy Awards this Sunday, but is being hailed as re-writing the entire concept of documentary, of being a complete breakthrough in the form.

I can only conclude that the people who write this sort of thing don't see many documentaries. The novelty of Exit is that a documentary was begun on one subject, but the effort was diverted into a different direction. This happened to Errol Morris, who began a film on "Dr. Death", James Grigson, an "expert" whose testimony was always tied to death penalty prosecutions. This led him to the story of the wrongful prosecution of Randall Dale Adams, and Morris's Thin Blue Line helped secure Adams a retrial and acquittal. Les Blank intended to create a "making of" film about Fitzcarraldo, but his resulting film, Burden of Dreams became about how the director, Werner Herzog turned into the victim of his own obsessions, and wound up being more interesting than Fitzcarraldo.

The point is that real documentary filmmakers change course all the time, because the footage dictates what the film will be. (Television documentaries are an exception, as they are tightly controlled and budgeted and may even be shot to a script.) No one is surprised when a novel or play turns out differently than the author intended, but somehow this is radically startling in documentary film.

Exit is a little different in that it is not clearly established who is controlling the film. There is no director, although one has to suspect Banksy, the renegade graffiti artist, as the guiding hand. The film was originally intended to be a portrait of Banksy and his work to be shot and directed by an indefatigable video shooter named Theirry Guetta, who in time aided and abetted street artists in their technically illegal pranks. Guetta shot a great deal of high-quality material but delivered a film that was an incomprehensible non-narrative stream of flash cutting; interesting for a few minutes, but headache-inducing thereafter. Banksy decided he needed to seize control of the project and suggested that Guetta himself became an artist.

Guetta evidently became an artist the way a film producer does -- by hiring people to execute his vision, and trying to assemble it into a gallery show in imitation of Banksy. Even though it was unoriginal and organized in a slapdash fashion by loyal employees who realized that Guetta was incompetent or distracted, it became a huge hit and Guetta is today a successful "artist."

It is hard to say what any of this means. That genuine grass-roots creativity can be seized upon by entrepreneurs and transformed into product? That street art is itself a hoax? Or that it is both art and hoax at the same time? In any event, none of these revelations are earth-shattering, nor is any of the filmmaking. It is a perfectly good assemblage of what was reportedly a staggering amount of unsorted footage, but it does not write a new chapter in documentary. The most remarkable thing is what a charming impression Banksy makes, though his face is obscured and his voice distorted throughout.

The strangest thing about Exit is the number of people who assume that it's story is a fake. It's both too credible and too eccentric to be fake. For an example of a fake story in a fake documentary, one can turn to I'm Still Here (2010), although I don't recommend doing so. This was the film around which Joaquin Phoenix and director Casey Affleck concocted the fabricated story that Phoenix was retiring from acting in order to become a hip-hop artist, despite never having displayed any talent in that direction prior thereto. The entertainment news media reacted with the hoped-for consternation, while David Letterman managed to have some fun at Phoenix's expense. That encounter proved, among other things, that Phoenix lacked the ability and experience in improvisation that might have made this experiment work. This is the kind of thing that Christopher Guest or Harry Shearer or somewhat of that ilk can carry off without batting an eye, but Phoenix was clearly stumped. (He even felt the necessity to apologize for this appearance a year later, but he should have apologized for the film as well.)

The problem is that Affleck and Phoenix not only lack the skill, but the courage and conviction to pull this idea off. There is a choice here-- one can either use the documentary form as a narrative frame and style within which to construct a fictitious world and story, as in The Office television series, This Is Spinal Tap and the rest of the Christopher Guest movies. Or one can commit completely to a prank (see Banksy above), as in Candid Camera, Punk'd and Pauly Shore's entire career. But the makers of I'm Still Here tried to have it no way and both ways.

Phoenix's character (also named Joaquin Phoenix, but clearly not the real Joaquin Phoenix) is surrounded by flunkies and sycophants who humor him in his insane whims. But they are not real flunkies and sycophants, but people associated with Phoenix and the film who are in on "the joke." Similarly, Sean Combs (appearing as "P Diddy") was made aware that Phoenix's hip-hop pretensions were not sincere, and he also lacks the acting chops to simulate the real confusion and horror that he would have felt upon being presented with Phoenix's incompetent creations to "co-produce." So the whole "fly-on-the-wall" and "catching people's candid reactions" only applies to Phoenix's recorded media appearances, which show up in clips in this film. In all the original footage shot by Affleck, the fix is on.

Even this might have been worthwhile if the film said anything or had anywhere to go. What it tells us is that celebrities are spoiled babies and have no idea what they're actually good at and why, and need people who will help them, not enable them. This is hardly worth sitting through 108 minutes -- yes, you read that right, over one and three-quarters hours, to find out. (At best they had about half the content they needed for this movie.) Anyway, I sat through it so you don't have to. You can leave your thanks in a comment below.

Monday, February 21, 2011

All talk

Easy A (2010) sets out to be a modern gloss on The Scarlet Letter in which a woman who is actually a victim becomes an outcast for her presumed audacity; whereas the film actually corresponds more closely to another fictional work about Puritan New England, The Crucible, about the importance of honoring the truth, and the value of preserving one's good name.

It is also an hommage to the 80s teen comedies it explicitly references, especially in that the very prospect of a girl acknowledging having had sex causes a sensation throughout the school. I cannot imagine the high school in the United States in 2011 where this would be a sensation, nevertheless it is an essential premise of this story, without which nothing would follow. In fact, the entire film takes place in a strange make-believe world, which is probably what makes some unpalatable ideas tolerable.

Happily, this make-believe world is populated with superbly funny supporting character actors whose presence is clearly aimed at moviegoers older than the apparent intended audience. It is difficult to conceive that the lovable, affable hippies played by Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson could have raised such a well-balanced character as Olive, but it is an attractive fantasy. (One wonders about the non-intuitive pairing of Tucci and Clarkson, who exhibit flawless teamwork until one learns that they are longtime close friends.) Thomas Haden Church, who used to excel at playing obnoxious jerks is here admirable, not least for the fact that his character behaves as if he was a jerk, not acknowledging how caring and funny he is. And Lisa Kudrow deserves a medal for consistently not giving a damn about her "image" and seeking out the interesting roles.

Finally, there is Dan Byrd, who has emerged from the mill of TV sitcoms and here lends an unexpected depth of emotion to what begins as a farcical solution to a farcical problem. As is typical for these films, the high-schoolers look old enough to be delivering their doctoral dissertations--one of them is actually identified as being 22, but he is hardly the oldest-looking "student" around. Some day someone will make a high school movie with 16-year-olds and the universe will probably implode.

But Easy A's greatest accomplishment is to have made a teen sex comedy without any sex, which brings me back to my initial point -- the story is about names, the names you're given and the name you make for yourself. At the outset, our heroine is Olive because she believes she is drab. Her girl friend is Rhiannon, a name nobody heard of until some celebrity turned up with that made-up concoction. Her gay friend is Brandon, who has both been "branded", that is, marked as gay (and therefore outcast), but also might turn out to be Brando, both a great actor and a celebrity (and leaves Ojai to find out). Her object of desire is not like other high school boys; although handsome, he is (T)odd. So I only wish that Olive, instead of adopting Hester Prynne's "A" which she has not in fact earned, had at the end, when she decides to start telling the truth about who and what she is had only repeated the words of John Proctor, who upon being asked why he will not sign his name to a false confession, thought it could save his life, tells his judge:
Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!
[My daughter praised the film for being an accurate reflection of what it is like to be an under-estimated over-achiever, the kind of girl whose accomplishments and good sense are so taken for granted that she can inadvertently be given the latitude to make the kind of serious mistakes that more average kids may never have. And such a person's abilities are taken for granted, his or her judgment may be over-estimated -- thus, they can find themselves over their heads without a real confidant or mentor to be relied on to dig themselves out.]

I was reminded of another sexless sex comedy based on a lie. Marriage Italian Style (1965) is a terrible title (meant to remind filmgoers of a prior success, Divorce Italian Style) for an adaptation of a classic of the Italian stage, Filumena Marturano. The story begins with a lie: Domenico's long-time mistress, Filumena is dying, and he needs to marry her before she expires and goes to hell. The marriage proceeds, the deception revealed and Domenico is furious, and seeks an annulment on the basis of deception.

This is the reverse of Easy A -- Filumena is being denied the name "Signora Soriano" although she is clearly entitled to it. She runs his household, keeps the books for his businesses, and, unbeknownst to him raised the son she had by him, along with two other sons by other men. Ostensibly, Domenico will not marry her because he wants to marry his younger girlfriend, but what that really means is that Filumena HAS already become The Wife -- the undesirable but indispensable life partner whose loyalty a man hopes to purchase at the lowest price possible -- even nothing, not even affection. (One wonders if the Latin man has a problem with this because he has been conditioned to love the woman who cannot be desired The Mother. Once The Wife becomes a Mother, either to one's children or to oneself, she is, by definition, undesirable.)

It is interesting to see Sophia Loren at this relatively early stage in her career (about 10 years as a star with 45 to follow--so far) playing the cast-off, the discarded woman; although of course, she is quite able to play the desirable young trollop in the flashback scenes. And Mastroianni was always the master of spiritual weariness. What is particularly striking is Domenico's odd formality with the three young men, any of whom might be his son. What frightens him and prevents him from showing genuine warmth is not the fear that they will make demands of him, but that he will feel attachment and need for his son -- or worse, for all of Filumena's sons. The fact that none of them want his money confirms it. Domenico cannot relate to a family member who is not a supplicant; and one who may give him something he can't admit needing: love and respect.

The film is not afraid to be abrasive, to make both Domenico and Filumena seem cruel at times, and one wonders what sharper, harsher directions Easy A could have gone in; a different set of parents, a girl with less sense of self. A girl who could let herself be victimized until the day...

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Running order

There is not much to be said about a vigorous pot-boiler like Salt (2010). Briskly directed by ultra-professional Phillip Noyce and edited to within an inch of its life by Stuart Baird and John Gilroy, it is a machine designed to relentlessly divert for 95 minutes, and performs its function efficiently. Certainly, much of it doesn't make sense and it makes total hash of Newtonian physics, but that's not what you go to the movies for, is it?

Jolie has already demonstrated on a number of occasions that she is as effective an action film lead as any of her male competitors -- more than most, since Bruce Willis, Harrison Ford and that cohort are now eligible for Social Security. So that is hardly breaking news. And the era of CGI has rather spoiled the pleasure we take in big outrageous stunts. Apparently, a number of Jolie's best gags, such as leaping between the tops of moving tractor-trailers was done on location -- with safety lines and precautions -- but done in real places, not a greenscreen stage. Nonetheless, it hardly matters, since we never know if we can believe what we see, and therefore reflexively disbelieve, which is destructive to the entire action film genre.

What CGI can't fake is the performer's natural speed and grace. Here Jolie has it. There is a moment early in the third act (and this film practically announces each act with a flourish of trumpets and tap-dancing usherettes) in which Jolie, now dressed in a flattering white shirt and dress slacks is only required to run down a hall very fast. For me, that was as entertaining as anything in the movie, and not for any salacious reasons. She is fully dressed, and nothing is moving in any sort of suggestive way. She is just flat-out running like an athlete (albeit an athlete who is trying to prevent an international incident) and she looks terrific. An action hero needs a good run. Fairbanks and Flynn had it. Buster Keaton and Jackie Chan run wonderfully. Burt Lancaster ran like a god, as he did almost everything. This harkens back to the simplest atavistic pleasures of motion pictures, being able to study bodies in motion, and it just may trump all the explosions and shoot-outs which so liberally lace a movie-movie like Salt.

That's why I recommend action film fans seek out the series that began with District B13 a.k.a. Banlieue 13, the parkour films from France. Yes, there is a cool near-future narrative frame and there is a political skew that is sadly missing from so many action films. But mostly there are a number of people doing things on film that look as though they are impossible, and yet they are actually executed for the camera, real time, real space.

Now if you are a reasonably sophisticated filmgoer, you will figure that the fight scene which begins at about the 4:00 mark in this clip involves a lot of wire work. I urge you, don't just stream this from Netflix. Get your hands on the disc and look at the special features, which has some camcorder video of the rehearsals of that fight. There are no wires. There are tremendous acrobats and athletes operating at their best.

Perhaps it is not that we crave narrative, but that we are seeking conflict, tension and resolution. Narrative provides that in a safe, comfortable way, but as former hunter-gatherers only lately out of the cave, we are just as happy with physical conflict. A few million women who become grass widows every Sunday afternoon in the fall would probably agree with me.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Bodies in motion

My first exposure to film theory (a sorry excuse for an academic discipline if you ask me) was Theory of Film published in 1960 by Siegfried Kracauer, who was a philosopher, not a film scholar. (I'm not sure film scholars existed in 1960, other than self-proclaimed ones.) Being my first framework for analyzing movies, rather than just taking them in with a dull, open-mouthed stare as I did in younger days (I've learned to close my mouth), I've never really shaken the spectre of Kracauer.

One of his shibboleths was the camera's affinity for actual events. Actual events, be they disasters or dancing, were fundamental to cinema, and the place they part from dramatic theater. (Of course there is vaudeville and circus, where some performers demonstrate actual physical skills, such as juggling, trapeze and animal training, and those things do turn up in the movies.) To that end, film which documents high levels of physical skill feel inherently more cinematic. Perhaps that's why swimmer Esther Williams and skater Sonja Henie could become film stars, without any discernible acting talent. They could do real actual things, and even if you criticized their acting, their clothes or their hair, you couldn't take their real skills away from them.

Which perhaps explains the preponderance of ballet movies, given ballet's minuscule place in our cultural landscape. It's hard to make a ballet movie without a real ballet dancer, who can really do it. (The Turning Point cuts itself off at the knee in my opinion, because they put in real ballet star Baryshnikov, who performs a great solo from "The Prodigal Son" in which he could school Michael Jordan about staying airborne for huge amounts of time. Then the film moves to Anne Bancroft and Leslie Browne and tries to convince you that they are great ballet stars, and frankly that dog won't hunt.) There is always going to be a grounding in reality no matter how crazy a ballet movie gets (and they get pretty crazy). The camera just likes recording that sort of extreme level of skill.

For present day films such as Black Swan (2010), it is now possible to past movie star heads onto great ballet bodies, and although that means we are tinkering with reality, we still have the reality of the dancing that was done, regardless of the head involved or not involved. And it gives director Aronofsky the opportunity to make a film whose meanings and ideas will be expressed in almost exclusively visual terms. Yes, there is dialogue--the modern film audience is not prepared for a dialogue-free film, but this film would be completely comprehensible if about six title cards were substituted for all of the talking. We can hear Nina's mother haranguing her, but her face and movement convey all this is necessary, not to mention the bedroom full of little girl things (which Nina tellingly tries to discard and destroy partway through the movie). Sure, the choreographer tells Nina she must express herself sexually, but I think the scene of him groping her and forcing a kiss on her is far more communicative and expressive. Honestly, if they had had CGI in 1924, Lillian Gish could have done a fine job with this film.

Black Swan is hypnotic and mesmerizing just the way great silent film can be, and great care has been taken not to break the spell. Case in point, we need to see Nina travel from her home to the theater. We see her walking from the back. There follows what is technically a jump cut from city street to stage door area, but since the camera's relationship to Nina remains the same, both in direction of movement and relative size of her image, the transition is virtually seamless -- and suddenly we have gone from home to work without thinking about it. The seamless and unemphatic use of Nina's doppelganger visions follow a simple pattern. The effect is that the warp and woof of the fabric Nina's mind gradually develops a pretty drastic warp, but incrementally throughout the brief period of the story.

I honestly cannot understand why anyone in 2010 or 2011 would find this movie confusing. Aronofsky states what he is about from the very first scene. (I believe most people miss or forget first scenes when they are not part of the narrative continuity that follows immediately. How often have you seen a film which, in its final sequence, harkens back to the first sequence and you hear all around you, people saying, "Oh," clearly having forgotten that first scene and never giving any thought to where it might be headed. Maybe everyone's still digging around in their popcorn bags at that point.) We see a ballet dancer on a bare, empty stage. No set, no context, just dancer and light. The camera is steady and, if not fixed, moving with great smoothness and slickness. Then the perspective changes. The camera is handheld, wobbly and jittery. (As I saw it I was trying to recall if I had EVER seen a ballet sequence shot handheld. Do any of you recall one? Please leave a comment, if so.) The black bird appears, menacing and cruel. The ballerina has become prey. And after some brief, suggestively violent montage, the dream--or nightmare--ends and the film proper begins. But we have been warned -- do not rely on what you see. Do not rely on it to be stable or predictable, and do not rely on it to represent objective reality. "Wake up, folks," says Aronofsky, "you're going to be messed with." And yet many writers on this film profess surprise at being messed with. SPOILER ALERT - The film is not obscure at all, presenting a straightforward, if subjective account of a person undergoing a psychotic break. My wife suggests that the principal character is probably schizophrenic and she points out that she is exactly the right age for such symptoms to appear. Nothing difficult to figure out here.

Second, I cannot understand the complaint that the film is "overdone" that it is "too much." By the same token Phantom of the Opera and Dracula are kinda overwrought, too. Because we are really dealing with a psychological horror film and "over the top" goes with the territory. If someone is shocked because Nina's imagined quills sprout and she turns into a full-fledged black swan in the course of the dance, I cannot imagine what film they thought they were watching. It's a cinch they've never seen Polanski's Repulsion, which I was reminded of when the first rash appeared on Nina's back and which an interview with the screenwriters confirmed was an inspirational source for Black Swan. (And why is Black Swan excessive but the typical Quentin Tarantino bloodbath is "inspired cinema." How is depicting the inner imaginings of a diseased mind more unrealistic and overstated than balletic shoot-out that supposedly represents some sort of objective reality. I think film critics need to learn more about how guns and gun wounds work before they decide what's realistic and not.)

Another surprising revelation from hearing the screenwriters speak is to learn in what detail the film was scripted even before Aronofsky's involvement, and even once he took over the project. It is odd that Arnofsky did not earn a writing credit for his work with the final scriptwriter, because the work of screenwriter and director appear to be seamlessly fused. The direction is burnt into the script and the script scarcely exists independent of its direction. There is no film apart from its visual embodiment (which is as it should be, but is rarely true). I only wish Griffith and Hitchcock could see this film. I don't know if they'd like it, but I'd hope they'd recognize how it is a culmination of what they began.

Jackie Chan doesn't even need CGI to become the physical embodiment of film (in fact, his films which employed CGI are unquestionably his worst work). Many viewers assessing the Coen Brothers' True Grit have tried to make too much of their idea that John Wayne is a "real movie star" whereas Jeff Bridges is not. This is nonsense. John Wayne was simply around so long that it is hard to imagine him as anything but John Wayne, whereas Jeff Bridges is a more protean artist. Over time, people took him for a symbol of what he had portrayed on screen. Wayne was not a hero (other than the personal heroism of battling with cancer, a heroism demonstrated by millions every day); he never served in the armed forces, and was in fact an avid draft-dodger, which is why his career was in good shape in 1945, when many of his former competitors -- James Stewart, Clark Gable, who had gone to fight had to struggle to re-establish themselves. Dick Cavett recently revealed that Wayne was very familiar with the work of ultra-sophisticated and gay theater artist Noel Coward. When Cavett told Woody Allen this, Allen replied, “It reminds you that he’s an actor, not a cowboy.” But he was an actor who made a lot of movies, and a lot in which he played characters with many shared traits.

But while Jackie Chan is a pretty good actor (and a pretty good singer, too) he is far more than that. I would argue that, along with Douglas Fairbanks, Buster Keaton and Fred Astaire, he is a metastar (NOT a megastar), whose physical gift and qualities embody the very idea of motion pictures. They do not need characters, situations or settings. Like the traveling actor who only needs a few planks and an audience, a metastar like Jackie Chan need only step before the camera for cinema to take place.

A modest proof of this can be seen in the remake of The Karate Kid (2010), which Jackie shares with Jaden Smith, who could be a metastar in the making. It cannot really be called a good film. (The very fact that it was entrusted to a director whose credits include Cody Banks and Pink Panther 2 suggests that the people in charge were doing their best to prevent a good film being made.) It inherits the cheesy and illogical series of story events from the original film (which itself was directed by John Avildsen, Master of Cheap Schlock, whose previous film was the excruciating and manipulative Rocky, beloved of gullible rubes everywhere.) Unmotivated and relentless bullying, an unexplained tournament lacking any sort of rules of entry, a popular and respected martial arts teacher driven by sadism, not to mention getting a 12-year-old into peak physical condition in two months, none of this troubles the kind of lazy, sloppy filmmakers who engineer stuff like this. Well, what do you expect from people who use the title Karate Kid to make a film about learning kung fu?

Luckily, they were not in charge of the real training and fighting sequences, and Jackie was. From developing an analog to the famous "wax on, wax off" trope (and check out the special features on the DVD to see how beautifully Jackie does this), to Jackie's opening six-on-one battle, to the very palpable accomplishments of young Mr. Smith in the fighting sequences, due in great part to training under Jackie's direction, Jackie Chan lifts a piece of run-of-the-mill commercial product into a demonstration of the power of capturing human movement on film. That is why he is larger and more important than any film he is in, and why he may never be in a great film. To do so, he would have to be able to put himself at the service of a great filmmaker, to subordinate himself to ideas and visions, and serve a narrative greater than his simple triumph over opposition. It's not Jackie's fault, but I'm not sure that it's possible. Jackie Chan is a great folk artist, and he is best left to continue working on the same film with the same elements over and over, endlessly fiddling with details, like a great naive painter who keeps working on the same still life, or a blues artist working over the same three chords and six melody notes, ringing endless changes from a few small objects and an immense human soul.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The sons of Norman Bates

The Killer Inside Me (2010) is entitled to film noir credentials due to its source material, a novel by Jim Thompson, perhaps the bleakest among celebrated hard-boiled writers. But the story takes place under a blistering Texas sun, and the film manages to feel like noir without ever looking like noir. Instead of moody shadows from overturned lamps or shiny wet pavements reflecting the streetlamps, we have the blank, affect-less face of Casey Affleck, an actor who, after Gone Baby Gone, is on his way to becoming his own hard-boiled genre.

Moreover, director Michael Winterbottom has a history of making films, most notably Tristram Shandy, which are about themselves. This may be more admirable than making films about other films; it is at least less derivative. So we are spelled the Brian DePalma-style quotes from better movies in favor of drilling deeper and deeper down into an empty man.

Is Lou Ford a sociopath or psychopath? Is he a seething volcano or a emptied-out husk? Neither Thompson nor Winterbottom seem to want to answer that question, but simply scatter random clues, especially about Lou's mother who apparently taught him to use women as punching bags. The film favors long takes with traveling cameras carefully displaying the spatial relationships among locations, and especially between cars and interiors, as if the film were being shot by a crime scene photographer. It is hard to make sense of the plot, for though it isn't complicated, the offered character motivations don't make much sense. And as if to throw up their hands in confusion with Affleck's polite and obsequious killer, a character A.O. Scott of the New York Times described as "Eddie Haskell on his way to strangle a puppy," the filmmakers do not let him escape as Thompson did, but leave him a self-started, but somewhat ambiguous housefire.

Lou Ford may just be the latest of nice young men who kill. I suppose the great-granddaddy of them all (aside from Dr. Jekyll and Dorian Gray) is probably Danny from Night Must Fall a twice-filmed Emlyn Williams play which feels in the theater as if it is two hours about nothing except whether or not there is a severed head in a hatbox. It set off a plethora of similar pleasant yet homicidal young men, culminating in Norman Bates (or was it his mother?). And Norman and his co-creator, Alfred Hitchcock established that most dangerous of rules of film in the post-Classical age: you can't trust anyone or anything.

Norman also set off some direct imitators in the first decade after his debut, such as Keir Dullea in Otto Preminger's Bunny Lake is Missing (1965). My feelings about Otto Preminger seemed to have been shaped more by the public persona he used in the 50s and 60s to promote his movies; the Prussian tyrant director, forever purchasing expensive literary properties, cramming them with stars and making glacially-paced superproductions such as Exodus and Hurry Sundown. Now that I examine his work without the baggage of his publicity, I see an interesting use of space and a respect for actors. His films are theatrical but in the good way. Not theatrical meaning given to overacting and static cameras, but in the sense of framing the action broadly (in this case using the 2:35 proportions well), giving actors distance and room to establish characters and relationships, rather than using close-ups and editing to create a performance, and the use of long takes both to enhance those performances and to delineate the space among them and between different loci of action. Look at this clip and how clearly Preminger sets the relative statuses of the characters, the jockeying for control between Keir Dullea and Laurence Olivier and the precise layout of the school from which Bunny has disappeared.

(Production of this film was undoubtedly the inspiration of the observation by Noel Coward - who plays a supporting role - "Keir Dullea, gone tomorrow.")

Preminger's approach suggests a respect for his collaborators, especially the writers John and Penelope Mortimer (John Mortimer was most famous as the creator of Rumpole) and the actors; it contradicts the pose of the arrogant self-sufficient autocrat the Preminger projected. (Of course, the whole facade was a sham -- Preminger was not Teutonic, as he played in Billy Wilder's Stalag 17, but an Austrian Jew.) Bad manners or not, Preminger lets things unfold, and in a swift efficient manner unlike most of his 1960s epics. In fact, it goes swiftly enough for most of the audience to have overlooked nice young Keir as the possible culprit in Bunny's disappearance. Most of the film is engaged in trying to suggest that Carol Lynley is mad.

Speaking of madness, Anthony Perkins, the original Norman Bates himself, got the tables turned on him in the game of "Who is Crazier" in Pretty Poison (1968) a pitch-black comedy variant of Lolita. Like, Killer Inside Me, it is a sunlit noir, here in a sun-dappled early New England autumn. Perkins, freshly paroled, seeks to seduce Tuesday Weld, here at the tail end of a 10-year period of playing prom queen types, with tales of being a secret agent under cover as a criminal and hints of involving her in his dangerous escapades. Perkins adds the wonderful quality of appearing to very possibly believe his own stories. Weld appears to succumb to his fabrications, even offering her own innocence; but that gift becomes a weapon, and in this scene she suggests they push their relationship to the next stage -- flight.

The would-be predator becomes the tool of the real predator, especially as Weld convinces Perkins to participate in the murder of her mother, played by B-movie icon, Beverly Garland (still alluring at 50). Lolita becomes Double Indemnity and the madness keeps spiraling up.

Pretty Poison has some nice visual flourishes beside the healthy-looking all-American countryside. The factory Perkins works in produces a chemical waste the color of blood, presaging the violence to come and echoing the fears of the then-emerging environmental movement. There is a multiplicity of viewing devices and lenses - binoculars, windows, an industrial lens at the plant, amplifying the sense of the male gaze on Weld's character. And the denouement is perfect, with Perkins pulling the pin of the grenade on himself, and Weld seeking out her next victim. It both recalls the femmes fatale of the 40s and suggests that Norman Bates was never as great a threat as Norma.