Thursday, July 12, 2018

Ghost Stories (2017)

Just watched Ghost Stories written and directed by the team of Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman, and starring Nyman, Martin Freeman, Paul Whitehouse and Alex Lawther. This was a bit of a surprise insomuch as it mainly succeeds as a kind of 2010s take on 1940s British horror pictures, perhaps most incisively the spooky 1945 ghost-themed anthology film Dead of Night, after which Ghost Stories tends to play as almost wholly postmodern but at least, when truly necessary, earnest--and yet, by turns almost bombastically humorous and deeply-but-fleetingly sad--tribute after a sort. Numerous other horror pictures, not all of them British, are lovingly recalled, too, but this is not mere pastiche. The screenplay by Dyson and Nyman is a sturdily-constructed piece; even if a certain final act shifting of meaning does not fly for particular viewers, the point that it seemed readily apparent that this was where the entire 98-minute skein was destined all along mitigates from the sensation that at least some people may have in believing the film has played some cruel trick on them.

No, if anything the final movement of Ghost Stories is almost too pat, too pedestrian. That the film features a visual schema that keeps the viewer guessing at all, even if there is nothing especially singularly shocking in the way certain antagonistic supernatural specters and apparitions are depicted or the meaning behind their appearances is brought to overarching meaning, is commendable. Fortunately, the almost soothing nature of the picture's murky and shadowy mise-en-scene wins us over in spite of whatever limitations the film's trajectory become apparent. 

It is in that atmospheric minutiae, in the sweeping vistas such as a wind-burnt knoll dotted by a pair of caliginous silhouettes, that the hard-earned lucubration of the horror genre falls away from us, almost akin to suspending disbelief entire, and the film makes the most out of that audience participation in allowing the magicians to do their work. An extended sequence with the claustrophobic setting of a condemned women's mental asylum playing its own character is altogether predictable but almost surprisingly effective, heightening tension through tricks involving sight and sound. A much-later set-piece in a large house is perhaps the film at its strongest, following Freeman's snorting, ostensibly insouciant character as he discovers a terrible secret.

The film boasts plenty of calling cards, from the aforementioned Dead of Night to The Haunting (Robert Wise's classic), from David Lynch's Eraserhead to a host of late twentieth century and early twenty-first century horror pictures. Ghost Stories, to reiterate a point, is quite funny in places and reminiscent, too, of Hammer Horror features, particularly ones marinated in a sense of tongue-in-cheek British humor. The Monster Club by Roy Ward Baker with its three tales of ghosts and paranormal entities is another signpost as Ghost Stories mixes the funny with the ghoulish, the offbeat British wisecrack with the macabre. 

While the film exhibits plenty of surprising elements, what lingers most, even after a final credits serenaded by an inspired, rather shocking popular tune, is the psychological ramifications for the protagonist and the orbit of sinister and wicked forces about him. And, especially, one horrifically motionless shot, of a man in bed and some sort of specter quite deliberately haunting him, lights flickering on and off like some rock concert stage. Sometimes a good "B-movie" gives one a great deal to chew on, as it were, with one lasting image. Ghost Stories fits the bill.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Hereditary (2018)

This is a troubling but also troubled film. It will sound like a cop-out but this is an instance in which the term "mixed bag" is judiciously applied. Firstly, the tale itself: nearly as bleak as it gets, this is a film unafraid to visit some caliginous corners of the mind, heart and soul. Much has been made out of the listless, almost languid pace. First words overheard in the cinema as a couple were leaving, from the man: "I kind of liked it, I guess, but it was sooo sloooow..." Yes, this is a film willing to test the patience of a population largely only interested in instant gratification. So kudos. Likewise, while the writer-director Ari Aster does deliver some requisite-for-the-genre "jump scares," that is not what Hereditary is largely trading in; most of the film is built, as though Aster is his lead protagonist Annie--played with a commendable sense of visceral, unkempt despair by Toni Collette--and he is, as she does with so many small models of houses and strange, unnerving scenes, constructing this tale piece by piece. 

A sublimer variation of Hereditary would have correctly drawn comparisons to the Led Zeppelin classic rock skein "Stairway to Heaven," as Aster assiduously builds this cathedral to the macabre and hopelessness, working it toward a culmination that sees a twenty-minute or so stretch of the film in its third act play out in almost transcendentally discomfiting fashion. An agonizingly glacial sequence in which a character wanders about a possibly empty house after awaking, migrating from one pitilessly black room to another, is a genuine showstopper of earned existential horror, and, for a little while, the casual, matter-of-fact revelation of a chilling actuality that catapults the motion picture into its denouement--a swath of the film, which, it must be said, is far less convincing--is one of the most simply, consummately realized pieces of horror filmmaking this century. Let it be said that when Hereditary hits its peaks, it grazes against unconditional greatness. 

Unfortunately, the film is, for all of its ubiquity of the same general mood of unrelenting despair and misery, rather surprisingly uneven. One third act twist is almost laughably telegraphed from the moment a particularly helpful character showed up. Consequently the sense of shock Aster was doubtless going for is a gigantic, wheezing misfire. Moreover, though the film is largely impeccably cast--Collette is terrific, Gabriel Byrne, playing a passive husband and father, nevertheless displays exquisite artistry in how he simply listens to other thespians speaking through their characters--some characters have such a minimum of agency and the screenplay is so repetitive in making Hereditary a bruised and blistering saga of familial heartache and trauma, that the process of crawling over the broken glass Aster has sprinkled about for the audience to traverse over is not particularly rewarding from either a rote, narrative perspective or from the macro-thematic vantage point. It is here where the film stumbles most thoroughly, falling well short of films such as Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist, horror epics representing a sort of unabashed flexing of genre muscles while deftly, deeply surveying a litany of sociological, religious, familial and perhaps fleetingly even political considerations. Hereditary, were it a dish, would be cooked turkey with turkey dressing, served after the completion of a set of cold-cut turkey hors d'ouevre. While the film's quality waxes and wanes like the mountains serving as foreboding background to a critical funeral about a third of the way through, Aster is, to a fault, as it turns out, committed to the same dismal tone, visual gloominess, disorienting close-ups of faces as though this were an early and unembarrassed Steven Spielberg-, Brian De Palma- or John Carpenter-authored late '70s, early '80s fright-fest by way of an especially claustrophobic Ingmar Bergman chamber piece such as Cries and Whispers. It's all of one taste, even when the picture takes a misstep and loses its way, either by endeavoring to downright shock and disturb--one grisly close-up is admittedly almost unshakable as visual touchstone--or by having a lack of more fluid characterization, which comes to harm it as Hereditary attempts to raise the stakes, even when it does, however briefly, succeed in becoming a legitimately scary film. 

As one who adores Roman Polanski's horror films such as Repulsion and The Tenant, this film's slow-burn approach generally works best. However, it is the sameness of the film--until things truly spiral out of control once and for all--that is wearing audiences down and compelling any to complain about the film's running time, not the picture's length, not in the era where most Marvel movies are well over two hours.

From the beheading of a bird that recalls Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon to a sequence involving fire that was more arresting as part of the film's trailer than it is as part of the actual film, Aster's Hereditary, in simultaneously extending its reach and being dreadfully deterministic about it, finds too many pitfalls to altogether work, ironically succumbing to the very genre trappings the film seems to want to keep at proverbial arm's length. The conclusion in particular strikes one as distinctly familiar territory for this sort of film, and the mechanics of the contrivances and possible conspiracy, leading toward the inevitable horizon line remain, in unison, both distinctly predictable--especially when brought to the fore in the personage of that aforementioned helpful character--and almost obtusely impenetrable. While the film's dark despair feels like genuine heartache and self-examination by Aster, the mounting of paranormal ornamentation is at its best when it obscured, behind creaking walls or hovering over a teenager's bed, abstract and only defined so much as it must be the approximation of entering hell for a parent to lose a child. Conversely it is at its worst when Aster attempts to shoehorn the investigative tropes of, say, The Conjuring, spoon-feeding the audience in the final minutes when for the better part of two intentionally painful hours he had kept said audience on a strict diet of spartan rations. That's a considerable problem for Hereditary, which only moments beforehand seemed to be on to something unmistakable and terrifyingly true, not just of ghosts or demons or entities, or other supernatural entities... But the more bluntly and perhaps importantly how vital it is that families do not fall apart just when seemingly everything in heaven, hell and earth want them broken up and perhaps sold as spare parts. 

First Reformed (2018)

The film features a multitudinous array of parallels with Ingmar Bergman's Winter Light. This is one of Paul Schrader's mountains, and feels like a summation to his art. The aspect ratio, the stinging, biting cinematographic unease conjured by the picture's stark cinematography, Ethan Hawke's sensational, mesmerizing performance.. Everything First Reform presents haunts, bewitches, chills. This effort is latter day Schrader's mightiest swing for the fences. Achingly well-written with empathy for all characters but next to no reachable solace for any, the film is about how people address the gaping gulf, the merciless, vexing void which exists in their lives and must be addressed. Hawke's pastor eloquently contending that wisdom rests in comprehending the duality of hope and despair and accepting that paradigm is as lucid as it is captivating. 

Channeling Robert Bresson yet again, as he did so many times before in his career, most pointedly with the endings to both American Gigolo (where the appropriation admittedly failed for the most part) and Light Sleeper (where it worked perfectly), borrowing from the final visual and audial note of Bresson's Pickpocket each time, here Schrader adopts and adapts a loose rearranging of the set-up and protagonist from Diary of a Country Priest. Here, much as with Bresson's 1951 drama, Schrader doggedly follows the internal battle within the "country priest" or pastor as he passionately posits that in a world atomized beyond the point of pervasive loneliness, the act of loving someone or nurturing one's own troubled faith or finding solace in expansive political causes, even when adopting deeply flawed methods, find in their common root the bitter, suffocating void. 

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Iron Man 2

Iron Man 2 is the anti-superhero superhero movie with a genuine antihero (not the Dirty Harry-like ruffian typically associated with the term but the Camusian definition of such), a quarter-lazy, quarter-crazy, quarter-bored and quarter-decent guy in Tony Stark played by a nearly sheepish Robert Downey, Jr. The Iron Man movies have taken a curious, if not entirely surprising course due to their protagonist's singular station (he is naturally the one man who could privatize world peace, as he declares to an overbearing Senator at a committee hearing)—they tend to play out like in-the-moment snapshots at the dull underpinnings of being at the top of the world. Stark's world is that of fast-moving sojourns to the latest cocktail party, decorated by wandering champaign glasses and fetching women who appear to adore him. When confronted by a rival arms manufacturer with the crushingly obvious name of Hammer (a slumming Sam Rockwell who endeavors to craft a personification of obnoxiousness and just about succeeds in his single-minded quest), Downey's Stark verbally slaps him away like a feckless gnat. He undermines Hammer's interview with a pretty young female reporter. He upstages him whenever given the opportunity. Before long the battle of pettiness and no-bid contracts seems to approximate a schoolyard rivalry between a couple of bratty children. The 2008 Iron Man at least attempted to embroider a slightly credulous human relationship between Downey's Stark and the evil father figure honcho played by a cagey Jeff Bridges in lieu of Stark's own long-gone distant father. The sequel, however, lacks the delicate subtlety of narrative that made the first Iron Man accessibly fugacious junk food that tasted well enough in the moment only to be forgotten about momentarily afterwards.

The Iron Man movies represent a franchise-specific coloration that recall the “white telephone” movies of the 1930s. In the mire of financial crisis and an unending recession wedded to a “jobless recovery,” Americans can approach Stark and his band of over-the-top friends, associates and enemies as a quick-fix dose of escapism. And like the “white telephone” pictures that today play in remastered clarity on Turner Classic Movies, the Iron Man movies present the rich and famous (in this franchise largely made up of arms manufacturers and variegated “masters of the universe”) in a way that undercuts the glamor with the creeping sensations of banality and tedium. The way Stark orders up one computerized hologram after another in his spacious, empty workshop only to toss them aside paints a portrait of a man battling the one feature of his life that outlasts the otherwise impermanent day-to-day meet-and-greet deluge of nothingness, sheer listlessness and boredom dragging down a man characterized by almost extreme pococurantism. Like the “white telephone” films of yesteryear that simultaneously glorified and scrupulously scrutinized the rich elite, Iron Man 2 at its most ambitious strives to be some kind of engaging balancing act between offering hagiography and harsh critique of its protagonist.

While it is refreshing to see at least one superhero who is not crippled by angst, nor woefully embarrassed by his superpowers or capabilities, the commendable yields to the wrongheaded as the exasperatingly tired narrative overtakes anything else. To make amends for the lack of moral considerations on the part of the franchise's hero, the film is bogged down in the quicksand that is Tony's great malady that is quickly killing him. He's dying because of his own powers. The core of his chest—symbolically representing the coolly unrevealing Stark's open heart—is poisoning him. And thus the picture spends an interminable period during which Stark conducts one of the most monotonous and boring science projects ever recorded by the cinema. Watching the picture unfurl, it becomes apparent that the average child would rightly be driven to madness by the film's lack of drive and dynamism. What is left is Stark toying around with his gadgets and formulations, his narcissism redeemed by his unerring ability to become better and more fulfilled by his father leaving a reel of film for him telling him that he really did love him after all. And so the symbolic cuteness of the circular “heart” finds replacement in a triangle, probably for no greater motive than to create a new line of Iron Man action figures at Toys R Us.

There is a Russian named Ivan Vanko out for revenge against the Stark name in the franchise's umpteenth enactment of “the sins of the father revisiting the son” played by Mickey Rourke, who just so happens to have the four or so lines of dialogue that are actually sharp from Justin Theroux's rambling screenplay. Rourke is an actor who finds a way to persevere through the most pedestrian material and here he speaks in a gloriously heavy Russian accent while mumbling on about the Starks being a “family of thieves and butchers” who “rewrite [their] own history.” What would possibly be insurmountable for others, Rourke finds merely tant mieux and he keeps running with the ball. It turns out that Cold War sins still haunt a couple decades later as Rourke's malevolent Muscovite seeks simple retribution against the exemplar of American grandiosity and eminence, the Stark family, as one son vows to destroy another for the lives their fathers led.

What honestly lingers, however, is the almost smothering hipness of this sequel. Each of the big three cable news networks is shown at separate times and with each visit, Stark grabs that trustiest of domestic weapons, the remote control, and mutes the motor-mouthed talking heads with the assured ruthlessness of a billionaire eccentric. Stark, in his visit to the Senate, informs the panel of imperious wannabe autocrats that the rogue nations and terrorist groups who threaten civilization are “years away” from acquiring the technology of his own Iron Man suit (with or without gorgeous custom paint job, he does not reveal) in a perspicuous nod to current events involving Iran and critics of a heightened posture against the Tehran regime arguing in identical language. The painting of Stark to mimic the “Hope” picture of Obama is the icing on the cake. The movie is, weakly, anemically and yet somehow relentlessly, pointing to its own relevance as some kind of barely-cloaked political satire.

All other characters seem lost in this movie. Iron Man two years ago told a feminist-leaning tale of an under-appreciated executive assistant Pepper Potts played by Gwyneth Paltrow; took some time out for a buddy portion with Rhodey (an enthusiastic Terrence Howard here replaced by an excessively modulated and sober Don Cheadle); scaled a poor man's Oedipal conflict as the central story arc that at least registered as important to Stark; and most essentially wrapped these threads together around the central character to create the Aristotelian and rewarding spectacle of a faux-solitary man directly affected and altered by his orbit of personages. Compared to this sequel, that film was an accomplished tale of the intimate and the epic. Visually, too, there is nothing that lingers about this effort. When Stark, adorned by a poor man's prototype for the Iron Man suit, a sterling-colored, unwieldy body suit, burned the pan-generational work of the Stark name, father and son alike, it represented a pop-cultural appreciation of the ancient, and gave mainstream voice to concerns older than the Homeric relating of Priam and Hector juxtaposed with Odysseus and Telemachus. This is almost ironically where Iron Man 2 bites off far more than it can possibly chew with its sidestepping into prosaic tangents and general lack of narrative potency. What came off as effortless once, appears impossible now. Something is not right when the consumer tries to piece together what the junk food was supposed to taste like.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Shutter Island (2010)

Like all Martin Scorsese pictures, his newest, Shutter Island, is chiefly about sin. How it helps to define the human condition, how it affects the protagonist in life and the detrimental value it has to the eternal soul. Catholic filmmakers have varying ways of addressing sin and most pointedly guilt—but Scorsese's pictures are laced with it like a poisonous substance hidden in a cinematic tonic. As he has aged, Scorsese's films have become increasingly somber in tone. No longer is the rabidly gnawing theme allowed to remain a largely unspoken undercurrent beneath the characterizations and their journeys but it has emerged, front and center, as the monstrous entity meriting its own blunt manifestation. Consequently, Scorsese's films have become ostensibly more garish, brassy and intentionally meretricious. Whether it be an aging Scorsese's shift into the darkest underbelly of city life juxtaposed with deeply religious iconography and sacrificial angst (Bringing Out the Dead); his personifications of brutish, unforgiving violence (Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York); or Satanic depravity and unyielding narcissism (Frank Costello in The Departed)—the latter of whom are each allowed to be viewed as seductive demons with Jack Nicholson's gangster explicitly uttering, Non Serviam, a quote directly from James Joyce's own embodiment of Satan; or the despairing madness of Howard Hughes partly viewed through the prism of masculine dominance over the female (The Aviator).

Scorsese characters have tended to mature with him. From the perplexing sexual frustration of Who's That Knocking at My Door? to the feral screaming and yelling of Mean Streets serving as backdrop to prayerful hope to the inchoate, raving ramblings of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, Scorsese's principal characters now speak of the decay and rot of civilization (Gangs of New York), are once-in-a-lifetime inventive eccentrics (The Aviator) and judiciously quote Joyce and Nathaniel Hawthorne (The Departed). To take on two of Scorsese's mobster odysseys, Goodfellas and Casino, part of the fun is recognizing the punchline about two hours before the characters do: what they are engaged in cannot last forever, and they will, to quote Scorsese himself concerning the former, “pay and pay and pay.” Goodfellas remains a compelling gangland tale not because any character voices his innermost unease—here Scorsese's characters remain frustratingly standoffish and deeply insecure with themselves, telling (through voice-over) the details of their myriad crimes and underworld schemes but never letting on that they wish they had changed something about themselves rather than the simple, unfortunate details. (This is probably because the characters are sincere. Henry Hill's final address to the audience is unconcerned with forgiveness or genuine remorse. It's actually a pathetic cry of self-pity.) Casino, openly more grand and operatic as early on as its opening credits (again, not coincidentally Bach's "Passion According to St. Matthew") before which the protagonist is engulfed in hellish flame, operates similarly, though the visual and musical motifs are more robustly signposting ruin and damnation. The 1995 picture's tagline, “No one stays at the top forever,” is quite the understatement.

Just as Jewish artists become more concerned with Jewish questions as they age (for two current American examples, the Coen brothers and Steven Spielberg), Scorsese's admitted fixation on religion and his Catholic faith has found itself increasingly naked within his films. The Last Temptation of Christ posited the question of Christ's divinity as a kind of test. And that is most fitting: Scorsese's films are tests, and he is most comfortable in letting his characters fail because Catholic teaching demonstrates that we all fail. That is a most sobering realization, demanding stringent acceptance, and it is unsurprising that Scorsese's films have only become more consumed by this as the consummate filmmaking artist becomes an older man. With Shutter Island, Scorsese approximates the late Catholic, Alfred Hitchcock, as well as the horror “B movies” produced by Val Lewton. Scorsese produced and acted in the 2007 documentary, Martin Scorsese Presents: Val Lewton—The Man in the Shadows and his appreciation for the films shepherded by Lewton and directed by such noted stylists as Jacques Tourneur and Robert Wise is heralded by Shutter Island. The film is a kind of melange of eerie horror, suspenseful film noir and psychological drama with Scorsese's own fascinations embedded throughout. Based on a Dennis Lehane novel of the same name, Scorsese stays only too faithful the the original source material (much more on this later), but provides the visual palette with a richly-defined atmospheric dread that seems all his own. Imitating the stark black and white cinematography of such noted directors of photography as Nicholos Musuraca in numerous “grade-B” cult classics, Scorsese and his cinematographer Robert Richardson etch a color scheme that is riddled with sinister shadows, unsettling silhouettes and the disorienting contrast between characters' flesh-colored faces and the gray, nubilous backgrounds. Almost jarringly, this aesthetic is bracingly layered under an epical emulation of the works of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger in the skyward fantasias: in particular, a cliff sequence recalls Black Narcissus almost impeccably.

Shutter Island is said to be, at its heart, a genre piece, but that term becomes more of a self-contained statement of compromise than anything else. Scorsese is not so timid as to avoid linking his “genre piece” to Hitchcock, Lewton, Merian C. Cooper (Shutter Island's opening involving a fog-shrouded ship approaching an eerily beckoning island cannot help but remind the viewer of another favorite classic of the director's), Scorsese favorite Samuel Fuller and Robert Aldrich (the picture's specific plot points to Fuller's Shock Corridor and the comments concerning red-baiting and fear of hydrogen bombs from insane patients echoes similar concerns as Fuller and Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly). If films by those and other helmers can be more rigorously appraised than merely labeling them a “genre piece,” surely Scorsese's imitation of same can be surveyed in similar fashion. Scorsese is something of a cinematic extremist, which can yield diverse reactions in an audience when he is approaching an ostensibly more traditional canvas of content (all that has to be read is the basic plot synopsis and suddenly every imaginable suspense/mystery- and horror-tinged Hollywood trope presents itself: spooky island, hurricane, mental asylum, a missing woman, a possible neo-noir conspiracy). Shutter Island's opening is so deliciously old-fashioned—hardly a better term exists for it—with the terse, hardboiled dialogue with deliberate, hair-raising beats (Mark Ruffalo's Chuck: “All I know is it's [the complex on the island they are approaching by ferry] a mental institution...” Leonardo DiCaprio's Teddy lets the words soak in, squints as he wrestles with his cigarette and chimes in for sheer effect: “For the criminally insane....”). This is linked to the most shamelessly ominous, drumming thriller score for a major Hollywood picture made by an A-list filmmaker this side of a Spielberg-John Williams collaboration—here, Scorsese and famed songwriter and singer for The Band, first documented by Scorsese's 1978 rock show documentary The Last Waltz, Robbie Robertson, go all out, complementing the foghorn of the vessel in the opening seconds of the film with ascending French horns adorning Ingram Marshall's marvelously piquant and frightening “Fog Tropes.” The picture is bursting at the seams with ingenius musical inclusions of such noteworthy artists as John Adams, John Cage, Morton Feldman, Gyorgy Ligeti, Lou Harrison, Alfred Schnittke, Max Richter, Nam June Paik and Giacinto Scelsi, as well as Brian Eno, Mahler and Dinah Washington (for the end credits). Though scoffed at as being excessively melodramatic, the score and soundtrack of Shutter Island are no more inappropriate or distancing than the Penderecki-influenced Jonny Greenwood score for There Will Be Blood. Some critics have perhaps misjudged the extent to which Scorsese and his collaborators (Robertson, Richardson and longtime Scorsese editor Thelma Schoonmaker) have gone in attempting to not merely imitate but recreate the pounding psychological barrage of sight and sound filmmakers of the era depicted (mid-1950s) sought to create in their time.

Scorsese has long named Orson Welles and John Cassavetes as two directors who inspired him the most. This paradoxical appreciation of the respectively robustly theatrical and the sincerely quotidian means of presentation has long found itself deep within Scorsese's canon. What makes Scorsese's more propulsive pictures rather outstanding is the way in which he celebrates the artifice of filmmaking itself. This most increasingly rare celebration of filmmaking finds itself compactly molded into each sequence and sometimes each frame of a Scorsese picture. This Hitchcockian adulation of artifice and artificial cinema creates an immediately more meta reading of Scorsese's films. The viewer may not be gasping when a police captain falls to his death in The Departed—he may be counting the X's and chuckling at the connection to the Howard Hawks gangster saga Scarface, which, with its sheer animalistic ferocity, can be seen as a clear precursor to Scorsese's own mob chronicles. Likewise, when Shutter Island's psychologically and sensorially wracked protagonist hurriedly ascends a lighthouse's spiral staircase, the viewer may not be entirely wrapped up in the moment of the plot's winding down, but rather note how the lighthouse serves as firstly ominous location, secondly as a tangible goal for the hero's journey narrative, thirdly as a thematic pun, particularly in how the mysteries locked away inside are to shed light on the protagonist's sacred quest and fourthly as the venue in which Scorsese recreates the final climax of Hitchcock's Vertigo, also about a deeply troubled man haunted by guilt and subconscious yearning to spiritually self-immolate while apparently searching for all of the answers of his own entrapping conspiracy; meanwhile, the spiral staircase itself is a reminder of director Robert Siodmak and his atmospherically gothic mystery The Spiral Staircase while creating the same physical and spiritual ascension to answers that Hitchcock engendered for Vertigo's conclusive movement.

Shutter Island's underlying theme resonates as a Scorsese motif unto itself. DiCaprio's Federal Marshall, Teddy Daniels, is, according to one of the more sinisterly-depicted doctors of the institution, Doctor Naehring (Max von Sydow, once again playing a German immigrant), a “m[a]n of violence.” This common Scorsese archetype wedded to the director's obsession with guilt finds itself at the center of Shutter Island, but in the case of the actual plot, serves as a kind of running joke (of the dark-humored variety) tying in with the realities of the picture's climax. Though some of the connections may be overtly artificial, it is not invalid to pursue what certain details mean in Scorsese's oeuvre. Teddy, like Travis Bickle, is a veteran of war. The wartime experiences of Teddy are narratively drawn out by the inclusion of a Mahler record. Scorsese's own flourishes are vivid and reminders for later on when the viewer attempts to appreciate the picture a second time, of how subjective memories truly operate. (For two examinations for how vitally subjective sensorial memory plays out when beautifully rendered through recent cinema, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Tetro are suitable excursions into not entirely dissimilar territory.) What Scorsese recognizes is that the mind thinks and remembers in cinematic fashion (and to accommodate the haphazardness of the mind, Scorsese fractures the backstory flashback narrative, since, unlike film, memory does not unspool from beginning to end in perfect linear fashion). A row of Germans is mowed down at the Dachau concentration camp, and Scorsese's camera follows in one of his usual tracking shots, as each guard is killed in nearly flawless right-to-left order (for the American soldiers). Is this an artistic flurry or commentary on the lack of realism? One of the admittedly enjoyable aspects of Shutter Island is that its plot, characterizations, usage of flashbacks and even the memorable final sequence stir debate and questions as to what is real (in the context of the film, since none of it is actually real, to paraphrase Brian De Palma's editorial on cinema) and most importantly what is intended. How much of the picture's facade is directly tied to the mechanics of the plot—sometimes rewarding (such as a couple of cute cutaways to a character who's “in on it” all along while being spoken of by a mental patient questioned by another character), sometimes dubious at best (the entire premise, without being too liberal in how Lehane's narrative resolves itself, is ultimately a less convincing and vastly more earnest variation on William Peter Blatty's The Ninth Configuration)—and how much of it is simply part and parcel of Scorsese's filmic auto-critique on film?

Lehane's novel is honestly one of his better offerings, and it is not difficult to see why Scorsese would be attracted to the material. The novel is intrinsically cinematic, with many potentially juicy visuals for the big screen, and it more than dabbles in Scorsese's aforementioned concerns of masculine violence and exhausting guilt. Scorsese gifts Lehane's clumsier bits and pieces with a gracefulness, and condenses much of what needs to be condensed: Michelle Williams as DiCaprio's deceased wife haunting him dreams is probably the most pointed example of both improvements, and the way in which Scorsese shoots her, from her demise into ash that blows away in Teddy's longing arms to mimicking the famed Vertigo sequence by panning the camera around DiCaprio and Williams ala James Stewart and Kim Novack. The beautifully-rendered interweaving of Teddy's concentration camp experiences with his long destroyed domestic life to the case he is working on at the institution in an extended dream sequence is disconcertingly jarring and authentic to the way in which the mind constructs epic settings for symbolic chimeras to sometimes run amok. One character has himself created a monster responsible for a most heinous crime. The figure is a grievously scarred, terribly ugly embodiment of all that represents wrongdoing to the character who has created him. The screenplay by Laeta Kalogridis includes cutting comments by at least two inmates whose insanity may make them perversely more sane than others: they are horrified by the reality of the hydrogen bomb. And the unnamed warden of the mental institution, played by Ted Levine, is given a chilling speech about Teddy's violent tendencies and the violence of God (exemplified by a devastating hurricane storm on the island). The warden's comment that he and Teddy have “known each other for centuries” posits the picture's weightier delineation between violent men on possibly opposing sides. The warden's remarks that the only moral order is, “Can my violence overcome your violence?” ties in with Teddy's earlier statement that the warden looked like an “ex-military prick,” reestablishing the correlation between the role of the military in conditioning men of different times in different wars like Teddy and Travis, to countless late '40s and early '50s film noir protagonists, into creatures of violence. (Max von Sydow's Dr. Naehring offers the difference between referring to Teddy and Chuck as “men of violence” and calling them plainly “violent men.”)

Shutter Island is home to numerous solid performances. DiCaprio is a pleasure to watch for most of the film, in part because his patina of innocence serves as a suitable contrast to the picture's generally gloomy mood and environs. Mark Ruffalo is perfectly cast as Chuck, and he is as adapt as any current Hollywood actor at playing roles in a straightforwardly naturalistic way. Here, Ruffalo reminds of an early 1950s Dana Andrews. Perhaps more importantly, in the case of Chuck in Shutter Island, a novel and motion picture leave a character underdeveloped for an important reason. A certain early scene in which DiCaprio eyes Ruffalo's handing of his sidearm provides the groundwork for their chemistry as actors and characters throughout the rest of the picture while touching upon Scorsese's more blunt approximation of the gun as masculine phallic symbol. Ben Kingsley as Doctor Cawley is a case of an actor being almost too well-cast in a certain role. Patricia Clarkson acts up a storm as a red herring character whose primary function is to provide a fairly provocative retelling of Plato's Allegory of the Cave while cranking up the viewer's senses of paranoia. Emily Mortimer has a standout scene that plays out quite differently depending on the context of the quantity of the viewer's acquired information (several performances, including a brief visit by Jackie Earle Haley, fall under this classification in Shutter Island).

Most troublesome is predictably the picture's protracted explanation-laden denouement. The voluminous, tiring expository feels decidedly mechanical, as though Scorsese himself is almost gritting his teeth at the alleged necessity of it. That the film struggles in aping the novel at this juncture comes as no surprise at first, though Scorsese does rebound with reasserting a visually rewarding aftertaste involving the final flashback's staging, and optically rendering the stinging reality of Teddy's identity. Scorsese's most disconsolate films always end on one last, final, excellent statement, and here Scorsese finds his best, most natural and memorable coda since The Age of Innocence saw Daniel Day-Lewis's Newland Archer found himself utterly forceless and feckless, unable to muster the slightest measure of resistance to his fate. Ruffalo initially steals the scene with a powerful head movement that resonates long after the final credits. Yet DiCaprio's best line of the entire picture is saved for last, and its evident duality plays to the ambiguousness of his condition as the film's running time expires. Is he, like Jake La Motta in Raging Bull, beyond all hope, wounding himself as surely over and over as the boxer piteously did in one of Scorsese's most iconic scenes? Or is he following an epiphany and pursuing it through a zealous martyr's conviction?

Whether or not Shutter Island succeeds in its key goals is up for the viewer to decide, as with any film, but at least the Scorsese picture feels like new ground for the filmmaker. The Departed was understandably chided by some as a kind of “leftovers” picture for Scorsese, and his previous two films were deemed by many as vaguely empty lunges at Oscar's approval for decades of great filmmaking (ironically, it was the “leftovers” movie-movie that gifted Scorsese with his long-elusive Oscars for Best Director and Best Picture). All of those films, however well-crafted, did not seem to boast much in the way of artistic progression for their creator. While Shutter Island is itself a contradiction of sorts—a movie-movie on the surface that is actually a formal genre exercise, an outwardly “minor” work that nevertheless recalls some of Scorsese's most personal works such as the ethereal parable Bringing Out the Dead—there is an unmistakable joyfulness to watching it, even if it comes with the knowledge that it is flawed. Whether one wishes to see the institution's various wards as Scorsese's meditations on Giovanni Boccaccio's The Decameron with its almost bitingly caustic manner in which each level of the asylum's heirarchy is depicted like medieval avatars of the church (which would follow with the film's essaying of science—psychiatric as well as physical, in the overpowering of mind and population with psychopharmacy and hydrogen bombs—as the twentieth century's religion); the fetishization of Scorsese's leading man for the umpteenth time (Scorsese's specifically Catholic linkage between the spirit and the flesh finds expression in both the ritualized disrobing of the male protagonist and also, as in the 1991 remake, Cape Fear, iconic Christian tattoos reappear in one of Shutter Island's more disturbing sequences upon the back of a Ward C “patient”); to Scorsese's establishing of Teddy's images of his deceased wife to correlate with the “Scorsesean” trope of the whitely “virginal” femme prototype (arguably complemented by the wife's pallid, almost ghostly complexion); to simply creating a film his long-ago cinematic shepherd, Roger Corman, would admire and be proud of, Shutter Island is at least indicative of a director taking a step forward and reaching back to his roots, all at once.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Sleepless Soliloquy

His fists clenched the now recreant blanket, its frigid facade sending merciless tingles of despair and discomfort. Cold, caliginous environ seals him off from the whole world, the voluminous blackness of which could only be surmised from this most desolate posts. As the pitiless night consumes this seemingly forsaken earth, the minutes tick. The incandescent digital lines configurated into numbers tick by, the glowing green splashing against the ponderous gulf of the dark which separates all corners of the clammy, nearly gelid bedroom. Eyes briefly closed, a terrible white flash compels them to reawaken. Troublemakers equipped with flashlights, traveling on the nearby sidewalk, busily exploiting this most dreadful of nights? A most disquieting sensation caresses the forehead; cool air, as though it were breathed from a malevolent, hovering demon, funnels downward. Eyes dart about in directionless frenzy. A finger nervously twitches. The heart begins to race.

Time stands still. Minutes drone on and on, until the barren vastness of this humble room consumes whole hours. Eyes struggle to shut, only to reopen at the slightest peculiar noise. Each aural disquisition of the little, merciless devils who run amok at the unholy witching hour attracts immediate attention. If only the ears could be closed with the effortlessness of the eyes; yet infernal imagery flashes regardless. The unknown of the grimly dismal room is less awful than the sights of the mind. Hands and arms will themselves downward under the covers. The crisp, chilled air resumes its mockery of what should be a plaintively soothing zephyr.

Neck muscles tighten; the skin contracts against the crucial bone structure. Long hair curls back against the tip of the left ear. Or is that what the spirits want him to believe? A crashing boom jars the chronological descent into paralyzing madness. The dryer has bellowed in the middle of an ominous night once more. Gasps provide a pulsating, nerve-wracking agitato to the incongruous proceedings. The window, a sliver of which is visible beyond the frighteningly insouciant white drapes, appears to become opaque, sinister fog and dew smothering it with inexorable, mephitic gleefulness.

Trapped. Retracting and tucking in the legs and feet to rest beneath the covers. The ceiling slowly, ceaselessly, drops downward. Inexhaustibly descending, its gradually increasing proximity to his torso resembling the crushing weight of the specter that taunts and menaces him with utmost jubilance. Eyes rapidly close and reopen. A clanging sound emanates from somewhere in the pivotal hallway that lay beyond the room. Eyes dart in a vain hope of seeing what lurks behind the corner of the door frame.

Resolute rejection of the tormentors and unusually brave determination to close the eyes and disregard the angagic onslaught follow. Prayer remains a most viable option: cast out the malignant sons of Belial. The enveloping spiritual darkness moved about the fallen earth like a forever voracious marauding army. These evil beasts were vulnerable. They had been too clever for their own sake in creating such an outlandish ruckus.

The once-piercing fear dissipated, quickly fading. Eyes open. Close again. Sleep beckons. It must be near.

And, just as security seemed to be at hand, and the battle over, the most horrifying, petrifying visceral, guttural growl. To the right! Just outside the wall adjacent to the bed. The ferocious, monstrous growl lay only a foot or two away from him, just outside his home. The gnawing, rumbling, snarling guttural growl tortuously shifted into the most bloodcurdling, hair-raising, and unnerving howl and roar. He jumped out of his bed and backed away. Backed into the numinous nothingness of the black blanket that was the hallway. Finding himself move about in a parallel course with the beast that lay behind the wall, moving about as it did from one section of the front porch to the next, evidently locked in deadly combat with one of its wretched rivals.

Sleep remains beyond his grasp.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Horse Boy (2009)

(The Horse Boy was one of four films screened on Poterero Avenue on the evenings of September 23rd and 24th. Reviews of the other three films will be published here soon.)

The Horse Boy is a ninety-three minute documentary by Austin, Texas-based filmmaker Michel O. Scott which unfortunately feels much longer. Its story is an intriguing one, ostensibly brimming with love and hope. The Horse Boy is produced and narrated by the film's star, Austin journalist, writer and father, Rupert Isaacson, and the tale is based on his book, “The Horse Boy: A Father's Quest to Heal His Son.” The book and now film chronicle Isaacson's journey to Mongolia with his wife and young autistic son Rowan in the effort to find shamans who, the father hopes, may heal him.

The genesis of the trip was the son's usually dyspeptic demeanor, punctuated by seemingly endless tantrums, one day becoming singularly serene whenever he rode a neighbor's horse named Betsy. Whenever the child rode atop Betsy, he seemed remarkably peaceful. Isaacson considered this and coupled his own experience with the Bushmen of Africa, related in his 2004 book, “The Healing Land: The Bushmen and the Kalahari Desert.” Isaacson's research pointed to the Mongolians as having the longest history of using horses, so he coupled the knowledge he gained from his sojourn to see the Bushmen with the Mongolian shamans who, like the Bushmen, spiritually healed those addled by disease. Isaacson convinced his comparatively skeptical wife to take the journey to Mongolia to see the shamans based on these points. The documentary unfortunately does not address why this seemingly radical alternative to the western medication the Isaacsons use on a daily basis must be taken. The correlation between the African Bushmen and the Mongolian shamans remains tenuous. Could, for instance, the child have been escorted to an American Indian tribal medicine man closer to the Isaacsons' home of Austin? Rowan's reaction to the horse, which spurred Isaacson to take this action, may be explainable as simply a child's innate affection for the animal, and for something new. If Rowan's reaction is indeed quite significant, it would be helpful for the documentary to more greatly illuminate, on autism in general and Rowan's case in particular.

The film makes no clear comparisons between Rowan and other autistic children. Autism itself is very briefly covered, with gradations momentarily discussed, but Rowan's case is never directly scientifically scrutinized in relation to other cases of autism. The Horse Boy uses a multi-person panel of apparent experts in the field of autism including Austin psychotherapist Dale Rudin to expound various thoughts and postulations concerning the disease. The soundbites from the rotating doctors often contradict one another. The specifics of autism as a disease, even in relation to Rowan himself, are left frustratingly muddled. This is not entirely unreasonable unto itself yet the myriad comments are often vague or cliché-ridden. Those with a genuine interest in autism, such as beleaguered parents with autistic children of their own, will probably be rather disappointed by The Horse Boy's regrettably shallow pseudo-intellectualism.

The Horse Boy, as a documentary, sadly lacks much in the way of documentation—aside from the trip the Isaacsons take, it documents little. Evidence, examples, basic factual support are all conspicuously missing. This damages the cinematic missive; while it is obvious Rowan has been diagnosed as autistic, what does this truly entail? The lack of answers leaves The Horse Boy appearing woefully incondite at times. The film, through the patriarchal Isaacson, does relate that Rowan suffers from interminable and inconsolable tantrums, an inability to relate to or play with other children, and severe bowel incontinence. (The documentary pushes the audience's patience and embarrassment with at least one too many sequence detailing the latter symptom.) One overwhelming problem with the film, however, is that Rowan's autism is displayed in disparate contexts. In one scene, Isaacson expresses wonderment and happiness when his son throws a tantrum apparently because he was being separated from the shamans. Isaacson notes that this is a good sign; he believed his son would probably throw a tantrum when he was placed near the shamans. Does this comport with average autistic children? Are their symptoms chiefly brought about by emotional reactions?

This gleeful shedding of concrete, rational science as part of the potential equation extends to the Isaacsons readily accepting the shamans' belief, upon examining the family, that a “dark spirit” entered the womb of Isaacson's wife, Kristin Neff. Neff, with an earned Ph.D. in Human Development from Berkeley, rarely receives the focus of The Horse Boy; the picture either occludes or limits all other voices but Isaacson's own. Neff does briefly relate that her deceased, mentally unstable grandmother, the “dark spirit” of whom the shamans speak, suffered from manic depression and this “spirit”/genetic history has directly led to her son's autism. Rowan's parents subject themselves to ritualistic whippings by the shamans, compelled to not scream lest the ceremony be for naught. While the shamans' rituals are displayed visually for the film, the reasoning behind them are left vague. Likewise, Isaacson endeavors to lunge at various other possibilities of healing, including recuperative springs and visiting the “Reindeer People” of Mongolia. Isaacson's open faith may or may not be laudatory, but these developments in the documentary's narrative make the picture rather arduous with only the vistas of beautiful, wondrously open and commodious Mongolian terrain providing steady relief.

Almost humorously, or simply embarrassingly, Isaacson is depicted as hopelessly naïve in his own inexperienced impression of Mongolia, and especially of the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar, a desolate, chalky city packed with impoverished slums. After landing in the benighted city, Isaacson confesses that this reality is not what he was remotely expecting in his apparent fantasy of Mongolia. In one of the rare piercing comments made by Neff, she confirms this. The Horse Boy, as composed by filmmaker Scott, seems to relish the thoroughly “open-minded” Isaacson's lack of basic prudence—partly as romanticization, but perhaps more calculatedly as celebrating the prime mover of the “plot”—at the expense of greater insights into the more intriguing subject matter that is largely unexplored. While personalizing the film is necessary when dealing with such inherently intimate subject matter, the film never quite becomes more than validation for Isaacson. Consequently, best intentions notwithstanding, it never presents itself with the compelling, involving urgency that best suits the cinema.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds represents something of a commencement for its maker. Tarantino, now in his mid-forties, has found himself in that nearly mind-boggling predicament every major populist artist endures. Reduced to mere generalities, Tarantino's reign as American film's biggest, brainiest bad boy and correspondent of cinematic delectations has followed a fairly predictable path: amazement and adulation, followed not so slowly by backlash, resentment and cynical incertitude—and, depending on the individuals (each, for argument's sake, belonging to a certain cinematic-consumption stratum: critics, audience members, “cinephiles”), this has been repeated in the past twelve years. For some, Tarantino had definitively lost his way, or was at least adrift—the Kill Bill movies are so obscenely overloaded with richness and deliriousness of the genre-picking sort that they are readily divisive endeavors. Tarantino's partnership with Robert Rodriguez in creating Grindhouse, with Tarantino's Death Proof the picture endlessly argued about, defended and loathed by many who viewed the entire experience, caused a significant portion of film connoisseurs to begin to write him off for good. Here was a man who was, to liberally paraphrase from one noted, dissatisfied film blogger, crawling up his own ass and losing all bearing of reality.

Tarantino, however, knows that reality and film are two radically divergent worlds. Like one of his immediate ancestors, De Palma, he sees cinema as a fundamental lie, but like the noted Hitchcock-devotee, he interprets it as a benign lie, one as necessary as nighttime fairytales. You were either on board with this outlook or not—with Tarantino or not—and this dramatically influenced one's opinion of Tarantino's post-Jackie Brown work. Was he simply playing around or was there more behind the facade? For the critics, however, the mere question necessitated a correction of course; Tarantino, it was said, had to now put or shut up, almost like he was beginning all over again.

Let it be said that with Inglourious Basterds Tarantino puts up. Most immediately resembling his most universally acclaimed film, Pulp Fiction, in its multi-chapter structure with parallel, rotating stories, this cine—superficially World War II men-on-a-mission adventure, naturally it is first and foremost a Tarantino picture and everything that entails—is so headily unaware of its own grandiosity that it manages to be oddly intimate and downright recondite in its shadings of its cornucopia of distinguished gallery of Tarantino characters. That may be viewed as a kind of backhanded compliment, but it is not: Tarantino is so assured and inspired here, whatever quibbles or questions arise are almost instantly discarded. From the first frame to the last, this feels like the film Tarantino wanted to make after Jackie Brown but held off on—and, according to him, it was the screenplay he began working on after Brown, but the work became too massive and sprawling for its own good, and Tarantino redirected his energy behind Kill Bill—an unmistakable new, bold chapter to the Tarantino saga behind Tarantino's filmic journeys.

There is a moment early on in Inglourious Basterds that is in its own way a microcosmic description of the film entire: Colonel Hans Landa, with a honeyed, bright demeanor and grin, is coyly interrogating a Frenchman depicted as a virile, physical worker in the first of many comments on national and ethnic stereotypes Basterds makes. (The French dairy farmer with three daughters hiding a family of refugees may come from Tarantino's much-beloved Tonight We Raid Calais, a noted favorite of the director, from 1943 by John Brahm, about a British intelligence officer plotting to destroy a German munitions plant in France, hiding out with a French farmer and his daughters who—not unreasonably—blame the British for the fall of France.) The Frenchman reaches for his corn pipe and begins to smoke, and Landa quickly reaches for a pipe of his own—naturally, this Colonel known in France as the “Jew-Hunter,” a keen detective who is the distilled personification of a man who loves to play cat-and-mouse, has one that recalls Sherlock Holmes. The absurdly oversized pipe will make many a viewer of the film want to chuckle, but the chuckle is fleeting. As with other Tarantino creations, Landa is stunningly three-dimensional; whatever excesses and peculiarities he may possess are sadly all too human and strangely plausible. That pipe is a signpost: Basterds plays with people the way Tarantino films do, but the writer-director never ceases to insist that his characters are people. What follows is most crucial, for it reveals that Landa, an ostensible non-smoker, already knows that the French farmer smokes, and came prepared. Tarantino cuts away from the sight gag of the pipe to Landa's steely eyes, and the laughter dies down. Landa may be funny but he's no joke. No Tarantino character truly is, even the jokers. And like many a Tarantino character, Landa—like Mr. Pink arguing against automatic tipping in Reservoir Dogs or Bill discussing the subtextual meanings of the character of Superman in Kill Bill 2—patiently, coolly relates why he can think like a Jew by discussing the characteristics of a hawk, a rat, and, circuitously, a squirrel, in an early demonstration that the film has a provocative outlook on the issue of hunters attacking prey, most emphatically embodied by Landa himself.

Tarantino's opening is as rapturously mounted as anything in his oeuvre; he shoots the Frenchman working with his three beautiful daughters, and visions of Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West and myriad spaghetti westerns unfurl within the cinematically-trained mind. Tarantino follows suit with repeated excursions into filmic convention: like his seedy crime yarns that play with gangster movie conventions or Death Proof that seemed to exist as a kind of instrumental covering of many of Tarantino's favorite kinds of movie—cheap, tawdry horror movies, exploitation flicks of all kinds, road trip movies of sundry incarnations—Tarantino's multiple chapters in Basterds take on vibrant cinematic attributes found in spaghetti westerns, countless men-on-a-mission war films, romantic spy melodramas, of which there were plenty in the 1930s and '40s, and even a possible melding of horror-tinged religious cinema (a French heroine becomes Tarantino's approximation of Joan of Arc, devoured by flame before her tormentors) which feel at one with giallo and Catholic filmmakers' representations of their fear and guilt. This may mislead many who partake in Basterds' multitudinous delights of sight and sound—Basterds is admittedly enormously informed by Tarantino's love of cinema, including German expressionism, the brilliance of G.W. Pabst, Leni Riefenstahl's work and Henri-Georges Clouzot's Le Corbeau, the latter of which may signify Tarantino's acknowledgment of a “bad boy” of another era, in which one was not rewarded for the sharp attitudinal edge of one's film but rather punished for it as Clouzot was for Le Corbeau—but a pastiche it is not. Tarantino has reached a higher plane insofar as his recollections—part personal (the titular Inglourious Basterds stalk their German victims with knives like the psychopaths who terrified a young Tarantino in The Last House on the Left), part historical (Tarantino affords much banter about popular culture, once again, but it is confined strictly to figures of the time period such as Max Linder and the film character King Kong) but these gropings at cinema are heartfelt and genuine, as well as seamlessly stitched into the fabric of Basterds' very filmic identity.

What Inglourious Basterds proves is that Tarantino is still obsessed with human beings rather than a more accessible instigator of movement—his films are made up of a few, long, extraordinarily detailed scenes, as though they are visual, character-based novels. Those who harshly critique Tarantino's modus operandi appear foolhardy. Do they wish him to no longer invest such passion and care into his characters? Would they be happier if, for instance, Basterds were more cosmetically satisfying? It surely would have been easier to create a knockoff of The Dirty Dozen and leave it at that, but Tarantino's tapestry demands altogether greater scrutiny. Almost ironically, Tarantino's very artistic behavior—to lovingly dwell on the minutest of details, to bathe in the minds and hearts of the people he, like any significant writer, simply follows—is what has helped to make him so durably popular. If he were to abandon it, he would be sacrificing that which makes him a unique voice.

That voice helps to shape the aforementioned Colonel Hans Landa (a sensational Christoph Waltz), whose thrill of the chase and hunt (predominantly cerebral) is fetishistic and unnerving. He asks for a glass of the farmer's milk from his cows. Like Anton Chigurh's grabbing of a bottle of cold milk in No Country for Old Men, the villain's commandeering of the satisfying cream appears shameless and even saturnalian. Landa is an apt avatar for the Third Reich; his rapacity is on open display as he hurriedly swallows an entire glassful of the milk belonging to the French. Landa is undeniably acute and fully commanding but he lacks the patience to savor that which he ingests. A later scene in which he almost mechanically rips apart a piece of strudel with requested cream, taking turns between munching on a bite and asking a probing question, reinforces this amusingly sad characteristic. Waltz is at one moment quite humorous, and in the next downright chilling. Like Samuel L. Jackson's Ordell in Jackie Brown, Landa is self-protective to a fault, with an air of melancholy. Just before he violently snuffs out a fellow German's life—one of Tarantino's most uncomfortable and ugliest scenes, far more devastating than any scalping or baseball bat-beating by the Basterds—he has a look of sadness that reminds of Ordell's final, quiet warning to Max Cherry, before resuming his role as natural predator. The long, opening act establishes Landa's genius, as well as Tarantino's: a request to swap French for English in conversation between German and Frenchman first appears to be a bow to the commercial, so that Americans need not read anymore subtitles for a while. However, Landa's language-switch has a deep, sinister purpose. Late in the film, Landa kisses a handkerchief with a woman's lipstick and signature, and soon thereafter confronts the woman in a revoltingly warped recalling of Cinderella while indulging in Tarantino's much-discussed foot fetish. Basterds' men are, like other Tarantino guys—Vincent Vega, Max Cherry, even Bill—largely astonished and aroused by women because they recognize that they know so little about them. Such is the case with two Germans, Landa and particularly German war hero Fredrick Zoller.

Zoller's crush on a young French woman who runs her own cinema develops Tarantino's incendiary depiction of cinema itself, as a moral reckoning, distorter and demigod. The French woman is Shosanna Dreyfus, renamed Emanuelle Mimieux (Melanie Laurent)—Shosanna was the last surviving member of the Dreyfus family, sheltered by the French farmer before Landa and his men killed all but one. Tarantino's framing of Shosanna against the silhouetted front door frame of her father's farm, running away into the wilderness from the ruthless Nazis, exhibits a borrowing from John Ford's The Searchers. As the leader of the Basterds, Lieutenant Aldo Raine played by Brad Pitt (an obvious homage to American tough-guy actor Aldo Ray, complete with throat scar substituting for fatal throat cancer) informs his men, he is part “Injun,” and the Basterds will conduct themselves in the fashion of Apache warriors, scalping and mutilating Germans wherever they find them. The American Indian theme blossoms: Tarantino is himself part-“Injun,” drawing comparisons between his and Raine's own ancestry and respective raison d'êtres. Raine tells his men that the Germans will come to know this special secret squad of men and fear them—a kind of yearning for fame, or infamy, based on thuggery and shock, perhaps representing either an auto-critique by Tarantino or augmentation of argument that Tarantino's cinema is only at first glance about such mainly unimportant matters. At the beginning of the final chapter, the vengeful Shosanna applies her makeup as though she is meditatively donning warpaint. Never before has Tarantino's fixation on film been more irrepressible, as Shosanna's scheme to exact revenge on the Nazis responsible for murdering her family involves her sacrificing cinema—her own theatre as well as many reels of nitrate film she has in storage. Shosanna's final act of the film—one of both compassion and distraction—prove Tarantino's point, and establish just how frightening the efficacy of the cinema truly is. As with another woman—Dietrich-like German film star Bridget van Hammersmark (an entirely pleasant and surprisingly strong Diane Kruger)—Tarantino brings about the fates of his feminine forces to an anguished height, finally reaching the crushingly realistic conclusion of his long-fascinating depiction of “girl power” in manifold forms.

Bruhl's Zoller exists at once as Tarantino's twist on the American Audie Murphy story, reversing the mirror shot, so to speak, following other such reversals as the American soldiers being depicted as butchers juxtaposed with a decorated German, Sergeant Werner Rachtman—who honorably, judiciously and with great dignity informs his baseball bat-wielding executioner he earned his medal “for bravery,”—and exploring the inner-workings of the Third Reich's film industry through the perspective of Joseph Goebbels as overarching filmic auteur/movie executive. (Winston Churchill, played by Rod Taylor, asks a British expert on German cinema whether Goebbels considers himself the German Louis B. Mayer.) Zoller, however, is generously expanded upon by Tarantino. As a construct, Zoller could have been just a Tarantino meta-comment—the character says Goebbels wants him to become “the German Van Johnson,” terrifically editorializing on the cinematic image of toughness against that of the tangible world (the strapping, 6'2” Van Johnson versus the 5'5”-½ Audie Murphy). Zoller is a German war hero who, all alone, killed literally hundreds of enemy soldiers in Italy and now his story has been told in a propaganda film starring none other than himself. (Zoller excitedly tells one character that he has been hailed as the German “Sergeant York,” another example of people of one country discovering the story of another nation's hero through cinema.) Zoller is an intriguing character, made all the more abundantly arresting by the picture's remarkable climax. Viewing his own “heroics” on the giant screen, Zoller is in actuality disgusted; he cannot continue to watch, and leaves to “annoy” the owner of the cinema. Zoller represents the mature filmgoer who can at least empathize with if not truly live the violence glorified by Goebbels' picture, merging the previously disparate themes of the violence enacted by the Basterds, often cheered by Tarantino's moviegoer. Like Jules in Pulp Fiction, he has seen a terrible, unshakable visage—and it is of himself, in another materialization—and can finally look back on the killing he has committed with a comprehensibly enhanced perspective.

Tarantino indulges himself with British Lieutenant Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender, last seen starving himself in Hunger), expert in German film, writer of two published books and published film critic. Tarantino's anointing of the cinephile as conduit and guiding force of Tarantino's own, phrenic world is here even more robust than in Death Proof, which saw a group of female film buffs and film crew members fight back against Stuntman Mike. Shosanna, Hicox, Zoller, Goebbels, von Hammersmark, the numerous German enlisted men and officers who are bedazzled by von Hammersmark, Shosanna's black film projectionist and clandestine lover, Marcel (Jacky Ido, an African in a cast heavily populated by Europeans and Americans), and others are all either directly or indirectly endowed with a special, durable connection to and appreciation for the art form of the motion picture. Yet while von Hammersmark's presence connotes the renowned fashion, glamor and elan of movie icons (a stereotype to which Tarantino gives plentiful twists); Zoller is, one could contend, the “exploited” person, the individual whose real-life escapades provide fodder for the insatiable beast; and Shosanna is the practically sanctified Tarantino demigoddess who readily sacrifices cinema for her own personal vengeful victory; it is, with disturbing and cutting clarity Lieutenant Hicox whose knowledge of cinema informs his decisions. Confronted by an overbearing Nazi Major Dieter Hellstrom (a superb August Diehl) in a pivotal tavern, Hicox resorts to his encyclopedic knowledge base to throw the inquisitive major off the scent that the undercover Englishman is indeed not a German. Hicox is briefly saved by his fondness for a Leni Riefenstahl film, The White Hell of Pitz Palu. Moments later, however, he gives himself away in a manner that reveals Tarantino finally confronting himself and perhaps his critics who deride him for being so hopelessly stuck in movies. Hicox's fate points to the admission that film, though especially indispensable to a cinephile, ultimately cannot teach one about everything, about every group of people, no matter how well-informed one may be. The brutal irony that Hicox was especially an expert of German cinema makes the point all the sharper and clearer.

Tarantino's World War II epic is conspicuously skewed, both surprisingly and not surprisingly, in almost being a weird, “proto-black man's view” of the war. Samuel L. Jackson lends his voice to two brief narrations. As though this were not enough, the one character who is viewed with wholly uncomplicated sympathy is Shosanna's lover, Marcel, who is obedient to his woman, kind, tender and evidently fearless. This is not alarming coming from Tarantino, whose occasionally ostentatious affinity for and relationship with black-oriented features has flowed into these filmmaking decisions. Most penetrative, however, are a pair of speeches delivered by Nazis—first by Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) and later by Hellstrom—respectively commenting on the unique place blacks have had in America, as athletic competitors and previously as slaves. This threading connects World War II to the black experience in America, and suggests Tarantino's contention that “America,” as an abstraction, or reduced to specific characters (“Basterds”), was not the uncomplicated hero of the war. This is never distracting; only a source of moral bemusement.

Tarantino's essaying of the Basterds themselves will doubtless bring about divergent reactions. One may interpret the American “Basterds” as ridiculous, over-the-top cartoon characters—although Tarantino does not afford most of them much time or weight, beyond Brad Pitt's Aldo Raine, Eli Roth's “Bear Jew” Donny Donowitz and Til Schweiger's Sergeant Hugo Stiglitz—so the cartoon quality of the characters is perhaps actually softened. Pitt is fine in his role and repeatedly quite funny. Pitt's presence lends balance to the film's air of the star-studded international cast, even if he is less obvious for Raine than former Tarantino hombres like Bruce Willis or Michael Madsen. Roth is solid as the “Bear Jew.” The Basterds are in truth defined by their comparative absence from the world of cinema in relation to the film's other characters. As Raine tells a doomed German, watching Donny Donowitz split open German heads with his baseball bat “ is the closest we get to goin' to the movies.” Tarantino's sly comment about the possible, cathartic need for filmic violence as a substitute to real-world bloodletting cannot go unnoticed. Beyond this, in a typically Tarantino-esque, twisted manner, the Basterds may represent some form of pitiless conscience, and more than simply existing as a group of Jewish soldiers slaughtering Nazis about France, the point made by Raine on two highly memorable occasions is worth pondering, particularly for Jews victimized by the Nazi terror. Will these Nazis abandon their uniforms once the war concludes and go about their lives without consequence? Though the Basterds are sadistic and fiendishly violent, the question resonates in the final chapter as Landa himself, who, in the prologue, relished the title given to him—“The Jew Hunter” (early in the film, Landa says he believes Heydrich in Prague should be proud of his nickname, “The Hangman,” perhaps a reference by Tarantino to one of Lang's wartime propaganda pictures, Hangmen Also Die about Heydrich)—feigns recoiled horror at the label when he is negotiating a cunning deal. The Basterds, then, could be sincerely deciphered as unforgiving avenging angels before the fact. This does not, however, remotely excuse the barbaric bloodthirst of the Basterds, nor the hideous oversimplification of viewing every Germanic soldier as a demonic Nazi. This is a thorny extension of Tarantino's obsession with revenge, which has seemingly become more explicit with each release. As with the Kill Bill movies and Death Proof, when the revenge is finally meted out, Tarantino does not glorify or romanticize the violence—this is in fact only truer with Inglourious Basterds, which features violence as a swift reckoning—all too fast, ghastly and terrible, the outbursts explode at the end of long set-pieces of dialogue.

What perhaps makes Inglourious Basterds so intoxicating and enthralling is the opaquely ambagious, unpredictable route it so gleefully travails. Tarantino, for all of his homages and love letters to cinema, has never shied away from happily departing from the trusted formula. Inglourious Basterds actually delivers the usual Tarantino multilayered, two-for-one special: on one basic narrative level, his pictures conclude precisely where they must (Mr. White discovering Mr. Orange's secret in Reservoir Dogs or The Bride confronting Bill in the Kill Bill movies being especially straightforward destinations) and so does Inglourious Basterds (which two male characters do you believe will finally meet before the picture concludes?) but the circumstances, emotions and emphases are always stunningly different in their laminations and most importantly their meanings from what most audience members are anticipating.

Tarantino's characters, it must be said here, are always meeting ends unforeseen by all including themselves (even an important character who has elected a kind of grandiose, operatic martyrdom does not meet the exact fate they had envisioned). Basterds displays once more the circuitous manner in which Tarantino characters finally get what is coming to them. Characters receive tragic ends that have little or nothing directly to do with their past sins. Basterds augments this entrenched trait by playing things firmly “down the middle,” so to speak, like an umpire, Tarantino dispassionately surveys all of the characters, with an impartiality and probity that takes the lackadaisical, conventional triteness that even suffocates supposed “satire” (Starship Troopers and the recent District 9 both suffer inordinately from this laziness) out of the way, throwing the audience's wanton desire for mayhem and death back into their collective lap. Whereas Tarantino's first batch of films were based to one degree or another in a criminal underworld, which usually feature more ambiguously-defined roles of “hero” and “villain,” Inglourious Basterds takes on the static mythology of World War II, with its elephantine and nearly preconceived “heroes and villains.” This is chiefly played with by Tarantino with regards to Zoller, who even explicitly tells the French beauty to whom he is attracted that he is more than a uniform, coupled with a humanizing comment that all German soldiers are “somebody's son.”

Beyond Zoller's plea that he is more than a uniform—a direct thematic rebuttal to the Basterds' campaign—Tarantino's film is bustling with not only textual and subtextual reversals (and even textual reversals during which the subtext remains the same, including a late-inning gambit by one particularly unscrupulous but brilliant figure), but also simple reversals of identity. As with other “men-on-a-mission” pictures, some of the Basterds along with the aforementioned Lieutenant Hicox must pose as Germans. Throughout the long, intentionally languorous visitation of the tavern, the parlor game played serves as a shockingly direct substitution for the very serious game being played; that Tarantino's device runs exactly parallel to his suspense-driven plot situation and very few find it excessive proves he has become only more successful at partially veiling his intentions with a layer of apparent frivolity that is in actuality part and parcel of the critical narrative conditions. The scene itself plays like a combination of Tarantino sequences in which people look like they are letting their proverbial hair down while only masquerading or belatedly revealing their true selves. The tavern exists with a thoroughly detailed environment and, like other Tarantino set-pieces, feels like that from a novel or play with its purposeful limitations (one reason Tarantino is never called “stagy” is because people tend to enjoy the long, winding monologues and repartees he produces)—the intersecting of characters feels as though it belongs to the spirit of such locales as Reservoir Dogs' hood hideout, Pulp Fiction's diner, Jackie Brown's dark bars and Ordell's chief homestead, Kill Bill's several sequences of predator finding prey and the Tarantino character's bar in Death Proof. The playing with identities in Basterds is not unheard of for Tarantino; his first film, borrowing liberally from the original The Taking of Pelham 123, followed criminals with unknown identities with one another beyond their color names, and indeed his subsequent films all tend to fall in that line, to be partly about characters discovering others' true, or truer, identities. Tarantino's playfulness has been known to extend to the brutal, and Basterds is no exception: the last German man standing, weeping and frantically distressed, the most ostensibly “cowardly” of his squadron, is rewarded first by the Basterds for giving information Sergeant Rachtman refused to bequeath and then by Adolf Hitler himself, who makes the (physically and spiritually disgraced) German soldier the veritable hero of the cover story that has now become “official” reality. In one of the film's most piquant visual mirrored reversals, one character strangles another; the character being murdered helplessly grabs a hold of anything, such as the carpeting of the floor, and later the strangler is himself mounted, and, like the character he terminated, can only grip and pull at grass in unspeakable pain.

Inglourious Basterds places Tarantino above one of his closer antecedents, Brian De Palma, and probably places him on roughly equal footing with his most nakedly revered idol from the past, Jean-Luc Godard. Tarantino's much-denied moralistic streak is akin to De Palma's; their inversions of normalcy are startling but very much related to one another. Basterds concludes on a note of female anguish and annihilation—a redux of Carrie and possibly The Fury (with Bruhl's Zoller approximating John Cassavetes in his final, distasteful speech)—that feels completely earned and directly corresponding with Tarantino's long-documented half-guileless, half-goofy relating of “girl power,” which he himself utilizes as fragmentary stand-in for his piqued curiosity of the fairer sex (like most Tarantino male avatars). Tarantino has proven he is no cinematic or cultural revolutionary—he is nearly the anti-Godard in the sense that Godard posited his homages as necessary conditional trappings to create something of a new cinema, while Tarantino's love of anterior cinema overwhelms most other impulses. Countering this, however, is that Tarantino's love of cinema almost circularly takes him into a realm not dissimilar from Godard at all—especially as the young Godard sought a degree in Ethnology at the Sorbonne, Tarantino's undying infatuation with cinema has given him a dramatically different but equivalent studying of disparate cultures and their origins. Comparisons to Hitchcock become perilous, but Basterds is teeming with references to the man who jubilantly placed the moral responsibility of his World War II spy films' carnage on the audience, as in a pivotal movie theatre scene in Saboteur, wherein violence takes place against the backdrop of the silver screen's applauded and cheered violence. Tarantino's sense of morality is persuasive insofar as the filmmaker refuses to confess that it exists; by simply “following” his invented tale, he can live by the conceit that he is not judging the proceedings, gavel in hand, as he crafts his screenplays and films. Pungently, Tarantino openly assaults history, and therefore saves millions of lives in his alternate world by concluding World War II much earlier than it did in fact end (possibly averting the Russian overtaking of Central Europe as well). The film asks a pointed question: if the war's final year could have been averted, would the story's destructive massacring, and furious, merciless climactic conflagration, been seen as justified?

Another inspiration of Tarantino's—Leone—is easily discovered in the relation between a known war and a complete, beautifully unfurled fictive fantasia, as in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. The sequence in the tavern likewise recalls spaghetti westerns in its careful attenuation of competing characters. There is even a new father, a German soldier, whose appearance along with several of his compatriots is a classic, painful example of the wrong people being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Both like, and more quotidian than, the iconic Confederate soldier being given a “smoke,” Tarantino's Germans are fully flesh-and-blood—something one may not expect in a film so divergent from standard historical fidelity—as well as being endowed with sheer, cunning smarts. Landa, Hellstrom and others are all viewed as intelligent, almost insidiously astute adversaries. (Humorously, Landa is offended late in the picture when a noted enemy does not appear to afford him the kind of respect he believes he demands.) Like other Tarantino film scores, the music recalls Ennio Morricone's larger-than-life melodies in its euphonious depiction of various individuals as archetypes.

Lastly, and possibly most importantly, Inglourious Basterds is a paean to propaganda. For the first time, Tarantino has scaled the mountain of the propaganda film. Tarantino has mentioned in interviews that he reads the propaganda films of the United States, Great Britain and Germany with great, unbridled engrossment. Expectedly, Tarantino pays tribute to the very national stereotypes bolstered by the respective countries' own propaganda—the heedless voracity, brashly indomitable spirit and brutish instincts of the Americans, the stiff upper lip propriety, earnest self-challenging derring-do and remote chilliness of the English, and the shrewd, wily and skillfully manipulative Germans, all double-edged swords—while discussing the correlation between German film exec Goebbels with the American film execs who immediately pushed for propaganda pictures after Pearl Harbor and the morale-boosting English pictures of the same time. Riefenstahl may have a most dubious position in history, but her films shed voluminous light on the character of the people she tirelessly observed through her film work. Tarantino certainly admires the role of the propaganda film—it is, perhaps, the ultimate (and government-sanctioned) exploitation picture, after all—and his treatment of the much-hyped Nazi propaganda film at the heart of Basterds is curiously unaffected, with a definite ambivalence that over the course of his picture covers highly contrasting emotions stemming from pride, affection, passion, mockery, ridicule and disgust.

At a recent Marin Shakespeare Company presentation of “Julius Caesar” in San Rafael, California, this writer overheard one patron discussing Inglourious Basterds with his family and friends. “It's a World War II Pulp Fiction,” he roared. At a presentation of a play written by the Bard a millennium and a half after the events took place, in which a kind of historical, Roman propaganda takes shape on each side of the play's expansive argument—Cassius cajoling and soothing Brutus that his name shares the weight of Caesar, followed by the emotional, powerful demagoguery of Mark Antony—this was a most intriguing venue to consider Inglourious Basterds. The dualistic nature of Basterds suggests Tarantino's meta-contextualizing of the propaganda film, matching his previous forays in digesting all of the properties of his variegated subjects. To compare Tarantino with the Bard in any fashion may be correctly considered disturbing—yet their respective analyses of historical propaganda reveals a commonly sober, balanced reading. That level of maturity is not easily quantified, nor is it usually appropriately appreciated. Perhaps Tarantino, speaking through Pitt's Aldo Raine in the picture's final pre-end credits moment, is indeed correct—Inglourious Basterds “just might be [his] masterpiece.”

Friday, July 31, 2009

Tetro (2009)

In 1972, a film about a family swept the world by storm. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, The Godfather was an epic retelling of King Lear in the wardrobe of the Sicilian Mafia in post-war America. The Godfather was a tale of brothers loving one another but chafing under sibling rivalry, partly born from the influence of a wise father. Coppola allowed the firmament to be the limit to his tale, and the picture was an instant classic which helped to alter the face of American cinema in the 1970s. Coppola's endearing, occasionally maddening fixation on the ties between brothers—brimming with trials and tribulations—continued in earnest with The Godfather: Part II as well as his essaying of adolescent brotherhood in The Outsiders and Rumble Fish. And so now it continues with Coppola's latest, Tetro.

Coppola's Tetro is a film that seeps into and out of the viewer like moisture. Iridescent and pellucid, fragmentary and oblique, all at once, it feels like a living organism that is ferociously but quietly seething, like an animal recently injured. Coppola veils this dyspeptic, tempestuous undercurrent with a luscious layer of visual serenity. It is like squeezing and spreading sweet frosting over a rough, nutty and tart apple coffeecake. Most of the film takes place in the ambiguously defined “present,” shot in an exquisitely sharp 2:35:1 with High Definition digital cameras employed by cinematographer Mihai Malaimare, Jr. to utter perfection. Few films shot in this format have so abundantly showcased the rationale for adopting the technology as Tetro, which creates nearly glittery palettes of richly-textured and -detailed tranquility. Coppola's Youth Without Youth was ponderous but inviting; cinematographically refined and polished, that picture was unfortunately too prepossessed with itself to completely, haphazardly present itself to the viewer the way two people first meet one another. Tetro is formal but with an unruly, brusque side, befitting its protagonist, the titular Tetro (a brooding, sullenly countenanced and erratically arbitrary yet entirely natural Vincent Gallo in one of the great performances of the decade); Coppola has resumed his dream to create bracing, personal art like a young, impulsive filmmaker with both everything and nothing to prove.

Coppola's Tetro is such an incredibly wounded film it could be just as ponderous and remote as Coppola's last film before it, but the director and screenwriter has allowed himself the room to navigate his personable tale of familial heartache and nearly-ensanguined tragedy. Periodically Coppola will intrude upon his own gloriously realized visage with pounding, startling excursions into the past, captured in comparatively grainy (shot on film), hand-held 1:85:1 color photography, looking like bumptious family video-camera shooting. These bubble up to the once-harmonious surface the way troubling, painful memories always do: the figures viewed as harmful, such as an imperious, egomaniacal and corrupt father figure (Klaus Maria Brandauer) are distorted, their faces always belying their spoken words. Vivid and eerily haunting, these episodic color sequences never disrupt Tetro's heedless momentum, and that has to do with Coppola's steady, almost omnipresent command—his Tetro feels like a film which, from the first frame onwards, is overlooked in its progression by its creator but never thwarted nor tripped up by ruinous excessive dabbling. That these episodes are also highly important in uncovering the shrouded truths of Tetro only increase their durability and import without ever diminishing the linear narrative's potency.

Everything about Tetro feels positively naïve in a most exuberantly beautiful way. Coppola has metamorphosed, it seems, and he follows through with the ostensible promise of his last film, which featured the word “Youth” not once but twice. Coppola's vernal sensibility is dazzlingly, deliciously refreshing. As too many truly young filmmakers exercise their craft under the umbrella of rampant, sometimes trendily poseur cynicism, Coppola at seventy years old is rediscovering youthfulness in its myriad sources of energy and genuineness. Tetro establishes that Coppola is not simply a votary—he has been quite truthful in his interviews: he has effectively gone back in time, and the results are exhilarating. Likewise, Coppola's insistence that he would think of Elia Kazan while shooting Tetro rings true as the film lingers within the mind. The performances seem to fit the black-and-white photography with a preternatural precision. Images of A Streetcar Named Desire, another classically-framed black-and-white drama with a nebulously humid and tropical environment (here Buenos Aires doubling for New Orleans), with characters revealing their true selves to the audience, one another and to themselves, flash as Tetro continues onward. Coppola nurtures these performances the way a gardener chaperons his beloved greenery. Coppola, it may be said, plays the sage father to the young performers, particularly the unknown Alden Ehrenreich as Bennie, whose limited on-screen dynamism may be chalked up to an inexperienced actor, or may be one of Coppola's ways to present the questioning character as a figure of comparative blankness. Since Bennie is the audience's surrogate—knowing as little about the enigmatic Tetro as the viewer—Coppola's drama begins with many a viewer perhaps holding onto Bennie the way a tired swimmer may grab a buoy in the ocean.

Quite gradually, however, Coppola and Gallo peel away the outer shell of Tetro, and this complex portrait is presented with an unapologetic, phlegmatic propinquity, displaying a fully formed being as a living, breathing perplexity. As the tale continues, it may be Tetro whose initially bizarre and perhaps outrageous behavior threatens to alienate some viewers, who is the more principled of the two brothers. Bennie's curiosity leads to breaking Tetro's trust—not an uncommon problem between family members, much less one in which the relationships are this strained. Tetro's live-in girlfriend, an angelically beautiful Argentinian named Miranda (a poignant Maribel Verdú), understands the titular figure in a way no other person on the world can. The back-story to their bond is afforded much needed time by Coppola and his legendary editing partner, Walter Murch, and so when that bond is tested by the imposition of Bennie, the breaking of Miranda's remarkable endurance in the face of Tetro's often overwhelming inability to display himself in all honesty to even her, much less to anyone else.

Coppola's indefatigable presence as an authentically Italian-American voice helps to shed light on the meanings of Tetro. Naturally, the picture is not “legitimately” autobiographical, but the truths the tale uncovers are so specific, they must at the very least touch a palpable chord with all who have felt the exhausting, desolating pain of a family compelled to lie to itself, or the ugliness of being hurt by those one loves. Like the adopted Tom Hagen in The Godfather: Part II, Bennie's near-idolization of Tetro only helps to make the bitter, salt-in-the-wounds lashing he receives from him sting all the more. (“Why do you hurt me, Michael?” Tom once asked.) Like a kaleidoscopic trip through Fellini's cinema, Tetro is at once burningly personal to its creator and doubtless deceptive in its myriad details. This mirrors the cryptic, only partially revelatory comments of the man behind the film. “Nothing in it happened, but it's all true,” Coppola has said of his latest opus. As the picture mirrors known aspects of Coppola's life—his father, like Tetro's, was a musical composer, and he has said that he has had a somewhat tumultuous relationship with his brother—Tetro is his most nakedly, vulnerably personal film.

It is parlous to delve too deeply into Tetro's filmic treasures. This is finally the consummation of Coppola's marriage between art and commercial demands, but now Coppola's artistically-minded focus—always operatic, here played out like a composition of Bellini or Verdi meshed with vaudevillian three-ring circuses that emit a rambunctious, anything-can-happen vibe and jubilantly hedonistic sexual discoveries (the latter both extending the kinship with Fellini)—is brighter, his instincts more pleasurably unrestrained. Many critics have failed Tetro because they have not caught on to Coppola's piquantly rediscovered virtuosity. The Godfather staged the death of a man's soul against the Catholic backdrop of baptism. In Tetro, the truths of family (“Every Family Has A Secret,” the film's tag-line promises) are so awful they make one recoil, and gaze, like a pitiful deer into ineffably, brilliantly blinding headlights. Yet Coppola does not relinquish his newfound youthful confidence—Tetro finally concludes on a note of resigned reconciliation. Thirty years ago, Coppola released Apocalypse Now, the film conventionally referred to as his final operatic masterpiece. In 2009, he has gifted filmgoers with another composition, and one of the best films of the year.