Friday, June 27, 2008

Shadows (1959)

John Cassavetes' first film, Shadows (1959), is something of a mutation, and that is not a criticism. Cassavetes screened Shadows in 1957 and 1958, but the reception to it at screenings was so poor he reshot approximately half of the film. The original cut is reportedly lost. At the end of the film, the words "The film you have just seen was improvised" appear. How much so remains a source of question, however. Evidently, it was the original cut that was practically all improvisational, growing out of acting improvs. After largely bombing in its screenings, Cassavetes went to work at a partial screenplay for numerous scenes for two years. Shadows in this form, however, received a good deal of acclaim when it was released in 1959.

The film remains remarkably supple, its apparent claim to being more or less wholly improvisational notwithstanding. The plot, if it can even be called such, is simple and quite "unstructured"--characters weave in and out, are summarily dismissed from the proceedings with some returning only quite late. Cassavetes deserves so much credit for his daring contribution to American cinema, which was to work outside the studio system--as early as the mid-1950s with his first directorial effort--experimenting with the art of film in an anarchic, free-spirited cinematic philosophy similar to Jean-Luc Godard, Fracois Truffaut and other Nouvelle Vague representatives in France.

Feeling like a warmer, even more pared-down cousin of Stanley Kubrick's Killer's Kiss (1955) and Martin Scorsese's Who's That Knocking at My Door?/I Call First (1967), Cassavetes' New York City-based drama--widely considered the forerunner of the American independent film movement--defiantly irrupts itself into our consciousness with its jazzy soundtrack, beatnik hangouts and hip zoot suits, recalling an era that was both sedated and tumultuous, a kind of peaceful but uneasy time and place that seems so distant and yet so near. Cassavetes' camera behaves like a pervicacious, clear-eyed observer amidst groups of people speaking to one another like real people, without impatience and only some discrimination.

Hugh (Hugh Hurd), Ben (Ben Carruthers) and Dennis (Dennis Sallas) are three brothers. They have a sister named Lelia (Lelia Gordoni). Hugh is a dark-skinned black, and Dennis is conspicuously black as well, while Ben and Lelia are quite light-skinned. Hugh is older than his siblings--his intelligence and self-knowledge as a talented but down-on-his-luck jazz singer has left him at least somewhat embittered. Ben is an angry young man, volatile in his overprotectiveness towards Lelia. Dennis is humorous and intellectual in his reasoning, and frequently tries to play some kind of peacemaker between family members. Lelia, meanwhile, is honestly the film's center, certainly emotionally speaking.

Lelia finds herself in a romantic entanglement with Tony, a white fellow, played with a greater sense of actorly self-awareness (and perhaps even the slightest bit of unfortunate self-congratulatory on his part) by Anthony Ray (son of director Nicholas Ray). At first, Cassavetes playfully throws scenes at us that today look like rip-offs from the French New Wave, particularly Godard and Truffaut (Breathless and Jules et Jim both feel borrowed from--but they aren't at all, as the release date of Shadows will attest to), with Tony and Lelia frolicking through Central Park. However, the situation eventually descends into a (fortunately relatively brief, for the sake of the viewer) stretch of psychodrama: rarely has an act of indiscretion been made more heartbreakingly true and powerfully painful than an excruciating scene of dialogue with Tony and Lelia resting abed, he trying to sound comforting despite the thinness of his personal, genuine understanding and empathy, she unabashed in her earnest appraisal of their physical encounter.

For a directorial debut, this is particularly sensitive and feels strangely haunted, perhaps wounded in its outlook. Characters make mistakes that feel palpably, terribly real. Cassavetes does not judge, but neither does he merely meekly acquit them, either. When one behaves like an inconsiderate and wrongheaded jerk, Cassavetes lets us first muster legitimate anger, and then see the cracks develop that invite empathy. Are we so confident as to suggest we would behave entirely differently? Cassavetes' cinema seems informed by the fact that each life is brimming with mistakes, both innocent and sinful ones. In A Woman Under the Influence, just for one deeply troubling, penetratingly sad example, Peter Falk's Nick Longhetti may not be primarily responsible for the disintegration of his wife, Mabel, but when he barks at her he knows he could have, should have, would have, been a better husband if not for the eternally available misbegotten conjunction but. So it is for Cassavetes' characters, and it was a reality from Shadows onward.

Shadows is not a great film, but it represents the birth of Cassavetes' filmmaking journey, a journey that ushered in something of an American New Wave, which--unlike Cassavetes, who would frequently continue to stay far outside the studio system, financing his own films to the breaking point himself, and booking theatrical exhibitions on his own, travelling across the country in some cases in order to show his newest film to audiences--was in the dire times of the mid- and late-'60s, given the keys to the Hollywood castle to "remake" Hollywood as an artistic haven. Cassavetes himself, though, never wavered and he made films of such unbridled humanism as even the Stanley Kramer-produced drama that he wished to dissociate himself from, A Child is Waiting and the equally tender and robust humor of Husbands and Minnie and Moskowitz and the harrowing, probing character studies A Woman Under the Influence and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie.

From the complex, resonant depiction of white-black love and misunderstanding in Shadows to more of the same, this time made both whole and more complicated in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Cassavetes carried with him a reckless but halcyon, daring but contemplative outlook on many social issues made personal by thoroughly realistic characters. When Cosmo Vitelli (Ben Gazzara) goes to a payphone after having a tire blow out on the freeway before executing the titular Chinese bookie to check in on what is happening at his strip club while he is away, we do not question it--the act makes sense because to Vitelli it is what matters. Just as when Hugh whines and complains about having to introduce a group of dancing and singing girls at a club to make end's meet, declaring that he will not go through with it, we understand. Cassavetes understands the obsessions we all have--normally rooted in half-pride, half-defensiveness, both vain and necessary--that mask our despair. And through the indelible lifelike imagery he renders, he makes us understand, whether we want to or not.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Mongol (2008)

Many directors seem to struggle for much of their career. Why? Some can attribute the problems from which they long suffer to a great bevy of reasons: not being fully prepared to grapple with the inherent themes of a screenplay; suffering from a miscast pivotal actor that harms the film and prevents the director from extracting the best performance he could theoretically summon for this specific part; some forms of bad luck... What have you. Yet sometimes the easiest explanations can also be the truest. In the case of Russian writer-director Sergei Bodrov, it seems that it's the issue of (for him) appropriate subject matter that often holds him back.

Perusing Bodrov's filmography, I was somewhat startled to discover just how many films of his I have seen, and just how many I have found--to one degree or another--wanting. In S.E.R.--Svoboda eto rai, which won big at the Montreal Film Festival in 1989, Bodrov's ostensibly blunt, frequently ham-fisted variation of humanism is so hopelessly wrapped up in itself that it suffocates the narrative. Katala or The Gambler, also 1989, was even more exasperating: so many truly interesting moral dilemmas, none of them ever properly fleshed out, key relationships narratively squandered and again, a kind of painful smothering of nuance with almost instantaneously obsolete dialogue. Ya khotela uvidet angelov (1992) was a thoroughly botched surreal "fairytale," again devastated by bumptious, witless dialogue.

The best film of Bodrov's I had seen before Mongol was Kavkazskiy plennik or Prisoner of the Mountains (1996). This, a wartime drama with purposefully broad characterizations and sketchy concepts, suited Bodrov. It was simple yet narratively at least somewhat refined, with a strong universalist message that was easily communicated by a competent director. 1999's Running Free was a kind of joke of a movie, about a horse--I only vaguely remember it at all, and do not even remember why I watched it. And, finally, The Quickie (2001), was a dreadfully boring movie that promised some kind of steamy, sexy "happening" amidst what ought to have been the fairly captivating milieu of the Russian mob in America, but reneged on even that base level of cinematic pleasure just as it reneged on practically all of its narrative inevitable momentum and impetus in favor of puerile trickery. Jennifer Jason Leigh tried hard and there's nothing wrong with giving a more quotidian dimension to mob life, but did it have to be such a plodding, inert monument to tedium?

Which brings me to Mongol. Like Bodrov's best film (that I have seen) pre-Mongol, Kavkazsky plennik, this is in many ways a war movie. It is also an historical epic, a kind of David Lean/artsy Cecil B. DeMille "old-school" (which in today's parlance primarily indicates a limit to the CGI) adventure story with action aplenty. And with this film--nominated for Best Foreign Language at this last Oscar ceremony--Bodrov seems to have found the calling about which I speculated after viewing Kavkazsky plennik. In film after film, he has tried, unsuccessfully, to employ subtlety at the most elemental level of storytelling (the kind of story one's telling) when it's apparent he ought to be letting his operatic self go and just have fun being a potential Russian counterpart to Walter Hill or perhaps Oliver Stone, or just maybe even Mel Gibson (gosh, what a motley trio there). War films and epics tend to rely on action to explain motivation as much as motivation supplies reason for the action. Especially when life is as barren, desolate and desperate as it was for most Mongolians in the late twelfth century. By making a film that can arguably be more purely cinematic in its atmospherics and tropes, Bodrov seems to have found himself.

Which isn't to say that the unfortunate traits have all disappeared. Even with a film so naturally at home with mere glances and gestures sufficing for communication, Bodrov pours on the awkward, staged and distractingly mannered dialogue scenes. Like an old, dusty DeMille spectacular, these sequences are stifling in their lack of irony and implementation in providing the next extended scene of nebulous psychoanalysis. Genghis Khan, correctly known as Temudgin, is played by restrained and intelligently composed Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano and his wife, Borte, is given life by a convincingly rugged Mongolian actress, Khulan Chuluun (who is also quite fetching). In one scene, Borte tells Temudgin that Mongolian culture has declined and worsened since the last time they were together (it's a long story, and I'll let you enjoy it for yourself sans the taint of spoilers), and Mongolian warriors typically do not follow old Mongolian customs and ways, such as sparing the lives of innocent women and children. Her message, which is that the Mongols are severely lacking in a central force of power that can unify and properly legislate codes of conduct, actuates a long scene in which Temudgin explains in a kind of voice-over to the viewer that he is newly committed to the unification of Mongol tribes and passing down of laws. Most scenes such as these are of a depressingly literate nature, though sometimes the dialogue seems sufficiently authentic to warrant sequences of phatic verbalization.

Where the film works completely, then, is in its fluid, almost rhythmically serene action. In this regard, Mongol is everything Stone's Alexander and last year's laughable 300 wish they were: an enriching cinematic illumination of the ways of man on earth, bound to his primordial instinct of violence juxtaposed against the pitiless tides of history. (Though Troy is quite flawed, Wolfgang Petersen--who, with remarkable skill delved into these themes coupled with a more modern "anti-war" bent in his seminal submarine epic Das Boot--managed to grapple with this draining issue, one perhaps older than the Greek playwright Sophocles' heartbreaking and bleak Antigone, from which the question--"Why do the gods allow bad things to happen to good people?"--would merely find one echo after another throughout history.) The film's depiction of twelfth-century Mongol warfare is startling in its immediacy, and ultimately sumptuously spiritual. Indeed, the film is completely devoted to the mythical aspect of the Genghis Khan, who possibly consults with the Mongol god, Tengri, God of the Blue Sky, in the form of a wolf on two separate occasions. As a child, Temudgin runs across a barely frozen-over lake, and falls through. Bodrov boldly allows the image to linger, and then merely move on. How Temudgin escaped death is unanswered. The force of divine intervention seems to be assisting.

Jamukha as a child became a blood brother to the young Temudgin, and is much later asked by Temudgin to go to war with his enemy tribe, the Merkits, after they have stolen Temudgin's wife. Honglei Sun plays the adult Jamukha with a considered but playful braggadocio, repeatedly cracking his neck when bemused by the circumstances that surround him. His likable, almost too modern presence (he seems to be a man who has seen photographs of himself) gives the film just a hint of comic relief while foreshadowing the concept of anarchic disorder in Mongolia at this time, as alliances are habitually formed and broken.

Thankfully, Mongol is the first part of a planned trilogy. I say thankfully for two main reasons. Firstly, because Mongol is an engrossing film that concludes just as the history on which it is based is becoming ever more interesting (just as he has attained the title of Genghis Khan in 1206). And secondly because it appears as though Sergei Bodrov has found the form in which he was always best suited. Why do directors sometimes seemingly perpetually struggle, only to find great success? Sometimes they finally succumb to being themselves. It's almost Aristotelian. "Revolution within the form."

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Little Caesar (1931), The Public Enemy (1931) and Scarface (1932) [College Course Viewing]

In the three seminal pre-code Hollywood gangster films--Mervyn LeRoy's Little Caesar (1931), William A. Wellman's The Public Enemy (1931) and Howard Hawks's Scarface (1932)--the titular characters, as portrayed by Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney and Paul Muni are emblematic of the anti-prohibitionist, anti-government attitude that most of the American public embraced in the years of their respective releases. Though the characters are different from one another in many areas (the most different being Cagney's Tom Powers in The Public Enemy) they do share certain similarities, the most obvious of which is their common disregard for the law, police and public order so long as those things stand as barriers between them and success. These characters may be cruel, harsh and unsympathetic--often plagued by neuroses or personal problems stemming from some kind of sexual proclivity or peculiar desire--but they conveyed a grassroots antipathy toward the government's disastrous crackdown on the selling of alcohol. Ultimately, what unites the three gangster characters the most is that they were vicarious beings, certainly autochthonous-to-America, through whom audiences could project their own anger at the establishment that had legally banned alcohol, only facilitating an entire market of economic business for the gangsters in the process.

The three characters played by Robinson, Cagney and Muni are of varying within the general gangster mold (and would each set different templates for future takes on the underworld archetypes) yet they share a transparently clear trajectory in at least one sense. All three are Horatio Algers gone bad, men who had to scratch and claw their way up the economic food chain of America, pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and doing whatever was necessary to escape their existence as "suckers," enchanted by the concept of finding the paradise of a vastly superior standard of living. Materialistic greed was their credo; capitalism run amok may have been the only way for them to eventually prosper. That their methods involved murder, extortion, racketeering and assorted other sins, was in their eyes--and in the eyes of many a moviegoer--incidental to the overall scheme at large. This is why legions of Americans could almost instantly identify with those instant archetype-molding characterizations whatever their faults, these men were rugged entrepreneurs who did not wait for a miracle from the heavens to occur or beg for handouts. The Robinson, Cagney and Muni characters are ruthlessly effective businessmen who saw an untapped market and responded.

Prohibition's final outcome was that the illegal status of alcohol made the price increase dramatically. Bootlegging was an attractive way to climb the economic strata; the illegality of alcohol made the selling of it far more lucrative. Fourteen years of alcoholic illegality after the Volstead Act of 1919 fostered an era of disquieting criminality. In the latter years of this stretch, pre-code Hollywood films depicted the realities (with exaggerations, dramatic license and lots of inaccuracies and frequent censor-demanded moralizing) of the gangsters who stepped in to fill the massive vacuum that existed due to governmental interference. People may have "known better," but they instinctively sided with the hoodlums largely because they had grown weary of the government's prohibition.

Yet another aspect helped to arguably romanticize the gangster. The charismatic acting of these figures, like the snarling Robinson, sneering Cagney and growling Muni reinforced the savagely seductive nature of the modern outlaw. Many audience members saw the gangsters are irresistibly glamorous individuals, the ultimate antiheroes, as we know the term today, frequently outwitting the hopelessly inept cops who tried to stop them. Yes, the gangsters got theirs in the end, but their gloriously wild rides to hell seemed to make it all worthwhile. In The Public Enemy, for instance, Cagney plays Irish hood Tom Powers with all of the charm and sociopathic etiquette of a sleek, prowling panther. He has a joyfully swell time dashing about in his tailored suits, shooting up uncooperative speakeasies and pitching woo to Jean Harlow. He brooks no complaints whatsoever against his wanton, vicious behavior. The better part of America's citizenry packed the cinemas to spend an evening in the dark identifying and empathizing with Powers' vibrant heedlessness.

Powers' demise in the film--winding up wrapped in mummy bandages and tossed like an unwanted parcel onto his dear mother's doorstep--concluded The Public Enemy with a dour and shocking dose of judiciousness. Members of official society were complaining that these swaggering mobsters, like Cagney's Powers, were setting an egregious example. Hollywood elected to avoid a considerable problem down the road and beat the milling forces of censorship to the punch by setting up its own Production Code, the infamous Hays Office, officially adopted in 1930 (to become effectively enforced beginning in 1934), which stipulated--along with myriad other items--that films would never depict criminals conclusively benefiting from their illegal stunts. This prompted Warner Brothers to run the following civic-minded announcement just after the opening credits of The Public Enemy: "It is the ambition of the authors of 'The Public Enemy' to honestly [sic] depict an environment that exists today in a certain strata of American life, rather than glorify the hoodlum or the criminal." Finally, after Cagney's gangster corpse bounces headlong onto his mother's threadbare hallway carpet, the audience is subjected to yet another announcement of virtuous intent: "The END of Tom Powers is the end of every hoodlum. 'The Public Enemy' is not a man, nor is it a character--it is a problem that sooner or later WE, the public, must solve."

One must truly ponder the troubling question, that being, did the good people at Warner Studios truthfully believe they were struggling for the benefit of the masses to solve the Tom Powers problem? As Leonard Maltin has written on the subject of gangster films of the era, the written cautionary notes placed at the beginnings and endings of various gangster dramas were a formality, a kind of public service announcement that was intended to ensure that Hollywood could continue to make profitable gangster films unabated.

Meanwhile, Little Caesar demonstrates a man played by Robinson, Rico, who climbs the gangland ladder the way a wily, tenacious and highly successful CEO might have rapidly flown up the building in which he works. Robinson's Rico brushes off the cops, badmouths his gangster rivals and talks big about his plans for dominating the mob scene in his city. Backing up his bravado and machismo, he makes alliances with those who can ensure his power only waxes; as one after another fellow mob boss goes down, Rico's share of the city exponentially expands. Eventually, Rico must confront his best friend--a relationship that may be a homosexual one--when he takes up with a woman and demands to be allowed to pursue his own career in dancing rather than continue the gangster life with Rico. When Rico finally confronts his friend and points a gun at him, he simply cannot kill him. Robinson's ever expressive face shifts from anger to grief to forlornness to horror within seconds as he threatens the man's life. In the end, he "goes soft," and spares his friend's life despite what he believes to be numerous, rational reasons to eliminate him. Rico's lieutenant barks at him, "Now you're going soft!" A reference to Rico's cavalier rantings in several earlier scenes in which he wailed that the biggest mobsters who were once above him slowly but surely went soft and left opportunities open for Rico. The tie-in with capitalism--that those who fail in business have "gone soft" and that the only way to ensure one's position is through merciless shrewdness--is beyond evident.

In the case of Cagney's Powers, he is depicted early on in life as being a no-good. The signs of a callous sociopath are present in the way he finagles things for himself and his criminal friend, both of whom steadily climb their neighborhood's criminal underworld as adolescents. Unlike Little Caesar and Scarface--which boasted two gangsters whose actions are depicted solely in the time-frame of the federal government's prohibition and the Great Depression--The Public Enemy first unveils its gangster as a youthful tough, in 1909, demonstrating his cold and conniving ways at a very young age. That The Public Enemy's gangster is markedly less sympathetic in many areas than his film-conjured contemporaries does not mean that he is an unworthy character, however. Nor does it seem to be an invalid approach to depict a fully-developed sociopath as possessing narcissistic and fiendish qualities as a youth. Though disparaged as "unrealistic" by some fellow students in class after viewing the film--due primarily to the caricatures that represent polar extremes of his father and mother (his father mechanically beating after wrongdoing on his part, and his mother, all the way through the film to the very end, hopelessly denying the obvious realities of her son) and Powers' lack of reasoning as an entrepreneurial criminal chieftain--it does not seem an entirely inaccurate approach to focus upon a loose cannon who does not turn to the criminal life because of some anti-heroic, Horatio Alger-like inspiration but because he would probably be lousy at anything else. After all, in more recent gangster films such as Goodfellas and Casino, Joe Pesci's embodying of raging, screaming and psychopathic characters has been hailed as both devilishly entertaining and in many ways frighteningly realistic. Though Cagney's most violent and insane character of his career would be eighteen years away in the searing Raoul Walsh classic White Heat (1949), his turn in The Public Enemy foreshadowed the standard depiction of the lowbrow lowlife in mob films since.

More "actorly," in a sensational, more method fashion, Paul Muni's performance as Antonio "Tony" Camonte, loosely based on and modeled after Al Capone and Capone's exploits in Chicago, is a dynamo of screen acting. Muni simply overtakes his film and commands all attention in Howard Hawks's classic. Scarface is truly the most violent, chaotic, overpowering and sexually charged of these films. Muni's Camonte is an insatiable carnivore, plying his trade by nonchalantly murdering people who get in his way. Scarface exhibits a kind of gleefulness in its violence that had to be truly shocking at the time of its release. If Martin Scorsese in a past life ghost-directed a pre-code Hollywood picture, it was the 1932 Scarface (Scorsese would borrow the X's seen in the film as warning signs of imminent death for his The Departed). An example of the senselessly wanton depiction of gangland violence is the very first murder, shortly after a nonsensical intro card (which only heightens the morbid hilarity moments later), wherein the finding of the corpse is played into a kind of joke. Way ahead of its day, Scarface's scenes involving Camonte's obsession with his sister would be echoed in films that dealt with sordid characters whose personal lives impacted their criminal businesslike lives. Usually, the gangsters' lust for power is equaled only by their lust for the good life--for gorgeous women, priceless estates and vast, accessible wealth. The very flamboyance and glamour of their lifestyles once attaining their crime lord position is what can--and usually does--destroy them. Whether in Brian DePalma's remake of the Hawks film--in which a fanatical murderer from Cuba played by Al Pacino sets up shop in America and lacerates his way to the top of the criminal world--or several other more recent gangster movies, it is the very good life and incredible success to which these characters strive that almost always takes them down. Henry Hill's easy access to drugs in Goodfellas cripples him through addiction; Rico's loss of his vast illicit wealth and power, ending up in a pathetic homeless shelter, eats away at him as his ego is prodded by the police in an effort to make him come out of his hideout in Little Caesar. Hawks's Scarface illustrates that it is the character's peculiarly sick possessiveness of his sister--culminating in his murdering of Guino Rinaldo (George Raft) at a crucial point in the film after Camonte's sister and Rinaldo have been married--that brings the charismatic crime lord down. When the sister's image of her dementedly overprotective and courageous brother wilts when his fear of being caught or killed by the police is palpable in the closing moments of Scarface, Camonte becomes wholly unhinged. Francois Truffaut noted that Muni's performance is positively apeish in Scarface, and by the time the climax occurs, he is indeed more uncontrollable beast than rational man. He's a wild animal and the cops are charged with gunning him down in the street.

If Cagney's Powers leaves audiences cold, Robinson's Rico and perhaps especially Muni's Camonte provoke more complex responses. The most interesting today is probably Camonte, the unmitigated self-destructive type whose stubbornness and confused ethics (he guns down Raft's character after separating his sister from he and other fellow hoods because he wants to protect her from that kind of life, like a gangbanger today who checks up on his sibling and tells them to go to church every Sunday) invite psychological probing and deeper narrative- and character-based analysis.

Whether one considers it surprising or not that audiences during prohibition would actually side with the cinematic gangsters--perhaps seen by many as a necessary evil of sorts, some others wishing they could emulate the criminals--it becomes clearer why this is so when examining the characters who populated the fledgling genre. Played by great, charismatic actors and aided by rough one-liners and violent outbursts, tempered only by their own whims, it is not so surprising that they would come to be seen as sinful heroes.

Monday, June 16, 2008

RIP, Stan Winston

You've probably seen/heard it by now. I was offline for well over 24 hours, so I was in the dark myself until just a little while ago. Stan Winston has left us at the age of 62. Incredibly sad. So young. I really don't have anything to add to what countless others have said. Considering what he did, and how he helped to make so many films magical, I think the man's credits speak for themselves.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

OSS 117: Cairo--Nest of Spies (2008)

Opening like an action-adventure, Nouvelle Bond picture, OSS 117: Cairo--Nest of Spies commences in 1945 as a villainous Nazi tries to escape to South America as the Third Reich is in the unceremonious process of disintegrating. Aboard a small plane, the Nazi is eventually liquidated by our ridiculous but well-intentioned hero, OSS 117, Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath, who quite frankly looks the part of Sean Connery's incarnation of Ian Fleming's English hero, 007, James Bond but intellectually echoes Peter Sellers' incorrigibly clueless Inspector Clouseau. OSS 117: Cairo--Nest of Spies is the second film I know of in this decade to open with animated credits ala Saul Bass (the first being Catch Me If You Can). Once this teaser involving the doomed Nazi (shot in black and white) and flashy, colorful animated opening credits bit concludes, the film jumps ten years to 1955. OSS agent Jack Jefferson has evidently been killed in Cairo just as all international hell is breaking loose (the English want the Suez Canal, a Soviet ship last seen in the region has disappeared, a radical sect of militants are on the precipice of igniting all kinds of mayhem, and the French are reeling from their losses in Indochina while trying to keep myriad lids on tight elsewhere) and the obliviously bumbling OSS 117--who considers Jefferson a great friend (the reveries of past playing games on a beach are hilarious)--is assigned the task of figuring out just what happened.

Jean Dujardin, a French comic, is impossibly brilliant as the eponymous French secret agent. His timing is both impeccable and repeatedly, surprisingly, offbeat. His demeanor is perfect. Like Sellers at his most playfully precocious, he plays his character with just a pinch of knowing self-awareness; there's plenty of room to breathe and reflect on the characterization while never even beginning to give the game away. From the pitch-perfect send-ups of numerous spy tropes ("How's the veal stew?" simply means, "How's the veal stew?" and nothing more) to the quirky, perfectly related subtle touches that round out the main character (combing his hair in bed while being served breakfast by a beautiful temporary colleague; being genuinely annoyed by the dust that finds itself on said temporary colleague's car; pausing in the middle of a hand-to-hand fight in a hotel room to tell a gorgeous, treacherous onlooker, "I love to fight," while grinning almost from ear to ear), Dujardin's probable modifications and decisions all work out swimmingly for the character.

Having no earthly knowledge of the actual pre-2000s existence of an OSS 117, looking into the whole thing has been truly revelatory. Apparently being American means you only know of one agent whose code name is numerically composed (the aforementioned 007). America and England, united and divided by a single language all at once. Anyway, OSS 117's roots go back to 1949, the year the famous Gallic spy began appearing in novels (apparently 143 in all by a few separate counts). He then appeared (in a presumably more straight-laced fashion) in a few French films of the '50s and '60s. What a startling discovery as it casts the new film in an entirely different and even more interesting light. For one thing, if the first novel in the OSS 117 canon, penned by Jean Bruce, was written in 1949, it means he's actually a little older than his English counterpart, who first appeared in Fleming's 1953 "Casino Royale."

Ultimately, OSS 117: Cairo--Nest of Spies is to me what the Austin Powers movies would have been if they had been either funny, or smart, or, heaven forbid, both. The protagonist is utilized by director Michel Hazanivicius and screenwriter Jean-Francois Halin to probe the time (mid-'50s) in all of its various ways while taking the novels, written by. As Halin notes, "The novels contain everything that France was in the in the '50s--the Fourth Republic, the end of the colonial empire, a rather macho, rather misogynistic relationship with women, but also a kind of condescension towards colonized people." Halin wraps all of these elements into his superb screenplay, as though juggling some of the weightier issues of the past century amidst the three-ring circus that is so much of the film's more frontally positioned pleasures.

Unlike the Mike Meyers vehicle franchise, which relied on far too much juvenile brashness to make much of a coherent point beyond the pathetic status of that series' outdated hero (and even this aspect was later abandoned in favor of more insipid gags after the first installment), OSS 117: Cairo--Nest of Spies ably and surreptitiously weaves together important sociopolitical points that are not disparate at all, but rather cumulatively more vital to take in than perhaps ever for Americans. Like the somewhat charming but inept, strong-willed but thick-headed and well-intentioned but completely over-his-head French super-spy, we risk alienating the world through our insensitive globe-trotting and disregard while nominally attempting to preserve global order.

When taken aback by his lovely Egyptian colleague (the Argentinean Berenice Bejo) refusing to drink alcohol because her religion forbids it, the tactless and haughty Frenchman unthinkingly blurts out, "What kind of stupid religion would forbid alcohol?" When awakened by a muezzin calling the faithful to prayer, he angrily attacks him, thinking he's merely some sort of self-centered loudmouth spewing nonsense into the microphone for the whole city to hear. His lack of interest in the pyramids coupled with his foolish remark that Egyptians should feel national pride because of the Suez Canal (which he also mistakenly believes was created 4,000 years earlier), created by the British in their own interests, cast his understanding of the colonized Arab-Islamic world that his superiors bizarrely believe he possesses in a funny-because-it's-probably-true light.

Yet one can allow the more deeply cerebral and thoughtful subtext slide right on by if one wishes to (though how one could unless one were a child is beyond me; it's an outrageous comedy, so nuance is not its most treasured asset, though the screenplay certainly has it in abundance in any case). The film is just perfectly hilarious with a central comedic performance that somehow feels both more singular and more belonging to a rich lineage of past, assorted incarnations than any other I can think of in a very long time.

OSS: 117--Cairo, Nest of Spies is a wonderment, then. Like Borat (but overall superior, I do believe) one senses that a comedic classic has possibly been rendered. A revisiting will be most welcome. It is a DVD I will have to own. I would like to take another look at the Peter Lorre impersonator, and the Nazis in the pyramid, and the chicken-chucking fight, and the hilarious scene of "intelligent" conversation ("Women change their hair when they change men," OSS 117 relates), and the Cairo competitor giving OSS 117 an ultimatum (Hubert actually diverts himself from his main mission to concern himself with his cover and a nefarious fellow wanting to rub him out--oh, it's hilarious!), and the hysterically-used '50s-style rear-screen projection, and the spa torture scene and the reveal of the... Oh, I've said too much.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Roman de Gare (2008)

Claude Lelouch returns with this breezy concoction, a tasty thriller with more Hitchcockian red herrings, blind alleys and methodical set-ups than you will likely see in several recent thrillers put together. Dominique Pinon plays Pierre, a man who just might be or might not be a fugitive from prison, an escaped pedophile and murderer, or perhaps he's a school teacher. Could he possibly be a ghost to famed crime mystery novelist Judith (Fanny Ardent)? What are his motivations in approaching a pretty lady abandoned at a gasoline station by her fiance after a bitter argument? And if he is a pedophile and serial killer, what is he going to do when he meets that lady's young sister? The woman left at the "rest stop," as she calls it, is Huguette, played with a kind of seductive sublimity by Audrey Dana.

After meeting, being taken for a long ride with and enjoying the company of Pierre, Huguette decides to have him do her a favor. Since you like impersonating other people, she says, after he's told her a seemingly all-too-fanciful story about being the ghostwriter for the famous French author Judith, only to state that what he has told her is untrue, why not impersonate her fiance for the consumption of her family? Her folks are expecting her and a doctor she's engaged to, but they do not know what he looks like. Going to a country home and farm, where pigs are killed for dinner, Pierre seems to take up the entire impersonation as an elaborate challenge, changing himself only enough to be believed as Huguette's fiance.

This is all flashback. The film's true opening is of Judith being interrogated by a detective (Zinedine Soualem) about a disappearance and/or murder. Who's been murdered? Who disappeared? And why? The basic hook of the film is this incredibly brief interrogation scene, shortly followed by her relating a story of being in the wine country in the pursuit of research as she desires to write a novel set in that region. Much later, we will learn more about this trip. The film repeatedly and joyously entices the viewer with apparent answers, or pieces of them, either to abandon them like the fiance driving off in anger after an acrimonious verbal fight, or to finally return to them, giving full life to the little details like blowing up small airless balloons, penultimately enlarged and then, finally, tied up.

The three pivotal performances, by Pinon, Dana and Ardent, are all carefully attuned to the screenplay that spawned them. Lelouch doubtless has instructed each of them to play their roles with equal measures understatement and fierceness. Pinon, who is certainly the "lead," sharing a great deal of screen time with the two vastly different women, is the most purely knowing, and it works all the more because of it. He has the charm and disarming qualities of a raffish but sweet-natured fellow while occasionally giving subtle signs of possessing the intellectually cat-and-mouse determination of some sort of miscreant. If his character is Judith's ghost--no revealing here--it makes sense. His is a mercurial demeanor and being, and its varying layers of intrigue are the most compulsive aspect of the entire enterprise.

"Roman de Gare" evidently means something loosely translated as "an airport novel," fiction that is infectiously addictive but fundamentally shallow. Also translated as "pulp fiction," it does share an understanding with Quentin Tarantino that an audience wants to see how the traps and rigors of life ensnare characters on a more immediately important plane. In Pulp Fiction, Vincent could have followed his friend's path and left the employment of Marcellus Wallace, but not believing Jules' ostensible superstitious streak after narrowly living after being shot at repeatedly at dangerously close range, he himself is gunned down by Butch. In Roman de Gare, however, things operate less at a character-driven level of completely engrossing "pulp fiction," and more like a Swiss watch with characters frequently fulfilling plot demands whenever called upon do so. Tarantino and Lelouch are different beasts, with one interested in the nuances of his troubled characters, both "good" and "bad," while Lelouch's films typically work like puzzles in which we belatedly find out just who is "good" and "bad." Godard's insistence on form seems to motivate Lelouch while the French Nouvelle Vague militant's unbridled interest in what drives evidently self-destructive people to be the way they are strikes Tarantino's fancy.

Like Hitchcock, too, Lelouch enjoys playing games with the audience. Sometimes these knotty, labyrinthine constructs work like the aforementioned Swiss watch, and sometimes they fall apart. Roman de Gare's insights into human behavior are not in the least bit groundbreaking--indeed, at least occasionally the film is maddeningly blind to the deeper truths of characters, like Pierre's unfulfilled sister, who winds up with Soualem's detective after regularly meeting with him in the search for her missing husband--but few ever read airport fiction in the quest for deep humanist shadings. Lelouch, in this sense, is simply a more minor, more easily "read" auteur than the slightly related Hitchcock and Tarantino. Yet he knows what he does well, and Roman de Gare is a case of him having a blast, both flummoxing and inverting our expectations with the characters, giving "reveals" such as the fate of the escaped pedophilic serial killer--is he and Pierre the same person or are they not?--like a songwriter kept rapt with his newest lyrical undertaking.

Deliberately fugacious in its afterglow, then (why else give your film the apparently unpretentious, possibly base title "Airport Fiction"?), Roman de Gare asks nothing much more than our complete attention, cheerfully asking us to decode it as it progresses. There's a reason why Pierre is given the attribute of being a magician whose tricks easily entertain and distract children and it goes beyond possibly being a disgusting pedophile: it's a metaphorical talent that practically begs for the spectator to attempt to decipher just how the magician is trying to fool you with his sleight of hand. Lelouch's trick is not entirely original but it's done with such charisma and panache that it nevertheless captures our interest, encouraging us to look ahead to the next scene, like a tricky and clever writer making us want to flip the page to see what happens next.

Friday, June 6, 2008

The Fall (2008)

The Fall, directed by Tarsem (The Cell), is, it seems, the most divisive film of the year. It is currently resting at Rotten Tomatoes with a 52%, it has inspired the greatest panoply of critical reactions and it has stirred many while leaving many others completely cold. How does one view such a work but through the most subjective of interpretations? If there is no widespread consensus, why bother even attempting to conform one's own opinion? (Not that it should be a necessity to do so even when there is a widespread consensus; one should always stick to one's guns, even when facing the world in opposition.)

The Fall stars Lee Pace as Roy, a Hollywood stuntman in a Los Angeles hospital, around 1915, whose legs are paralyzed after performing a reckless stunt for a movie. Now, physically and emotionally crippled (he has lost his beloved to another man) he desires nothing so much as killing himself with a bottle's worth of morphine pills and being unable to get out of bed his instrument in committing suicide is a sweet, innocent little girl named Alexandria (Catinca Untaru), sharing the same hospital with a broken arm. How does he decide to utilize this girl? Telling her a fantastic story, an epic fairytale, and using the almost inevitable stoppages in the story's telling as an inducement for her to do as he wishes: extract a bottle of morphine pills with which he can "go to sleep."

If filmmaking were public service, like being a policeman, Tarsem would have gone above and beyond the call of duty with The Fall. As Roy verbally tells the story, Tarsem's camera, which found itself in over a dozen different countries around the world, catches spectacularly beautiful vistas, marrying gorgeously enrapturing imagery with a kind of pure, perhaps silent movie-inspired (since the film is partly about silent movies, and the stunts done in their service) basic storytelling. The film manipulates the viewer in a more archly cinematic fashion than the vast majority of this era's films, most of which tend to reduce the beauty of imagery for the sake of greater narrative clarity. The Fall is wholly unafraid to be alive; to be both alone and representative; to be. It's both impossibly traditional and somehow monumentally futuristic in its ramifications: beyond computer generated imagery and many of the tropes of today's cinema, Tarsem's defiant work is wedded to the equally humble and grandiose proposition that there is nothing more technologically and narratively enriching as the camera suffering from nothing so much as repletion.

The Fall is a rarity, a film that does not so much function and mechanically work as it breathes, and pulsates. In terms of a three-act structure, it is imbalanced, and awkwardly paced. Yet why criticize, much less belittle, such an overwhelming sense of being? The Fall seems to represent the cliche that bedevils today's filmmaker: critics and many ardent film enthusiasts frequently bemoan the lack of individual creativity, bitterly complaining about the lack of freshness and the homogeneous nature of cinema. Yet when a film that strives for greater truth, perhaps borne from folly, emerges, it is regularly lambasted and draws mixed reactions. And Tarsem does have a pragmatic strategy tied to the peripatetic arc of his labor of love. What initially appears to be a bait-and-switch involving the physical fate of Roy at approximately the halfway point is merely the table-setting for, again, both an extremely traditional and transcending catharsis.

Pace, just recently seen as Mr. Right for Amy Adams in Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, is singularly endowed with a natural affability that eludes the majority of the cinema's greater stars. His pained Roy, both petty and benevolent, selfish and compassionate, is a paradox that would probably fall into one camp or the other with more definitiveness, less humanistic understanding, with the majority of today's widely accepted movie stars. Late in the film, his sense of guilt is palpable and heartbreaking, knowing that his instructions and manipulations have directly led to tragedy.

The sights titillate and exercise the retina while stimulating the brain, unraveling in intellectual ratiocination, compelling the viewer to accept its motley group of fairytale heroes driven to overthrow the power of their arch-nemesis, Governor Odious, who rules the fantasy world. "Real-life" Los Angeles characters also inhabit the fantasy world, with Roy himself being the protagonist, the masked "Black Bandit," his lost girlfriend playing a treacherous princess and Governor Odious given the avatar of Roy's girlfriend's new lover. Alexandria herself enters the fantasy, as children are apt to do, when things are looking bleak. One must grin at the sight of a river-bound palace that recalls the Fritz Lang serial The Indian Tomb. Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, Second Movement was used for pretentious rationales in Irreversible but Tarsem utilizes it to encapsulate the imagery's respective beauty.

The Fall is primarily about the power of storytelling. Tarsem seems to know that art seduces and counsels. Whether lowly in aspirations and driven by harsh economics, or meritoriously high and crafted with indulgent passion, it is ultimately at the service of its maker while performing an indispensable duty for those who consume it. As parents tell bedtime stories to their children so they can go to sleep, or occupy them with a movie to not be bothered by them, artists wish to impart messages that reach others, and those who make the regular journey to the cinema crave the dualistic challenge and comfort of being taken on the artist's journey.

And that is the most important dimension of The Fall. It is a marvelous visual essay in its subject matter, a powerful exhibit in its own cinematic analysis. Yet it somehow manages to not only be that. It is a celebration of art.