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.