Saturday, February 28, 2009

Frozen River (2008)

Frozen River is a squeakily schematic motion picture. The film has its central character and that central character changes, is purified or at least moderately reshaped by the aching bitterness to which she succumbs, in the way that more pedestrian independent pictures strictly enforce. The most positively intriguing element of Frozen River is probably the central character's name. Melissa Leo gives a raw performance as the masculine-sounding Ray Eddy, which fits because Ray's husband has abandoned her and their two children, leaving her to serve as both mother and father. It is this starring turn that has ostensibly sanctioned considerable acclaim for Frozen River, but it seems to have been an excuse—most critics tend to bow before the ugliness a certain segment of independent cinema peddles, over and over, perhaps because they believe anything ugly is important and worth respecting. Beautiful films, like attractive people, cannot be trusted, after all: they are either dumb or duplicitous. Perhaps many are, but when the dividends of scabrousness for the sake scabrousness are as meager as they are in the case of Frozen River, a night with Cary Grant as crafted by Alfred Hitchcock or a little farcical frolicking with Max Ophuls is the medication for the disease that is overwrought, vague and vacuous grasps at profundity.

Leo is a source of onscreen strength—and, for the viewer, along with the underrated Misty Upham as Mohawk Indian Lila Littlewolf, an incentive to hang on. Leo's countenance is a finely informative canvas for writer-director Courtney Hunt—wearily weathered, desperate but clinging to a lingering sense of dignity and conveying a history of tragic personal paroxysms to her being. Hunt makes the most out of it, in all of its melancholic hurt and, indeed, desire, wringing from Leo moments of sincerity that temporarily salve the film's more grievous errors. (Ray sees as her and her children's panacea a new home, and the film is at its most convincing when it allows Leo to inform the viewer of the import of this goal through pregnant silences.) Hunt's film, for all of its flaws and foibles, is an adequate stage on which Leo and Upham stir and smolder.

Hunt's picture is a defiantly “tough” woman's film, and for that it deserves a measured respect. What ultimately unites and even ties Ray and Lila together is their shared roles as mothers (single mothers at that). Poverty is in some ways the prime mover of Frozen River, but maternity proves to be the enduring guarantor of bonding. Hunt's film may be assailed, then, for being almost anti-feminist—the hoary bromide against male interpretations of motherhood usually insisting that the significance most men see in women bearing children is somehow sexist or at least reduces women. Yet such concerns are more unrealistic than anything Hunt has created.

Frozen River, however, is a sluggishly paced, visually dull film. The slightly surreal setting—a sizable portion of the picture does indeed play out on a frozen river—may enliven cameraman Reed Morano's compositions but the film's tinny sights and sounds tend to undermine the sense of sinking, irrevocable doom in which Hunt is so abundantly interested. More unforgivable, Hunt's widely lauded screenplay (having been in the spotlight after receiving Indie Spirit and Oscar nominations) is as disheveled as Leo's Ray, and more desultory. When Ray and Lila smuggle illegal immigrants into the United States across the from Canada through the Mohawk reservation, and a duffle bag is tossed out of a car by Ray because the two immigrants they are driving across the titular frozen river are “Pakis” (Pakistanis), it is only more manipulative than it is predictable when Ray learns what was in the bag. Her older son's affinity for the family blowtorch (“I told you to not use that when I'm not here!” Ray scolds her son) leaves no question whatsoever as to how a certain event will turn out when he attempts to use it.

Charlie McDermott is less successful in the role of Ray's older son, T.J. His line readings are too affected for a film which is so desperately striving to be an extended verite trip into despondency and despair. McDermott is never distracting, but he contributes little to the proceedings. Hunt continually places T.J. in the role of Ray's oft-inquisitor but the actor is not up to the task—though he fortunately never resorts to a grating pout or embarrassing fits of screaming.

Sifting through the film, it is uncertain what, if any, political perspective Hunt is bringing to her story about a frantic pair of women viewing the deed of smuggling people into the United States as their last hope of scrounging a life for themselves. The depiction of widespread corruption is believable, but Hunt seems unsure whether she wants to delve more deeply into the greater community's fabric—teasing the idea on several occasions, such as a few scenes in which Ray briefly deals with characters for the benefit of the story and little else. The schematic trait never dissipates; it arguably only worsens as the film approaches the final descent—signposted with the two famous last words of any crime story, “ last...” Everything—including the ending and Ray's final decision—are easily foreseeable and though Leo and Upham mount a reasonably compelling pair of entwined performances, making their characters wholly “authentic,” the film lets them down. Close-up shots of Ray's repulsively rusty shower head and bathtub seem like cynical, pretentiously arty endeavoring to exploit lower-class angst, anxiety and opprobrium. Many of Hunt's cliches are papered over by Leo and Upham's more precise moments of self-recognition and empathetic humanity, but as fine as these performances are, they can only camouflage so much. Onerous lines of dialogue pile up and Hunt's grasps at profundity begin to completely lose all appeal and meaning, until the film quietly but surely finds itself devoid of the very life it so wantonly determined to depict drains out of it like so much seepage from a melting frozen body of water.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Shotgun Stories (2008)

And it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against his brother Abel and slew him.

—Genesis, 4:8

In honor of Dionysus, the ancient Greeks performed annual plays of tragedy—or tragōidiā—in an effort to satisfy their god with dances, chants and songs. Phrynichus is often considered the originator of recognizable Greek tragedy, and the most famous tragedians, Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus have left an indelible legacy throughout the centuries. The Roman and finally Christian appreciation of the Hellenistic art form finds itself expressed in myriad ways—with a greater emphasis on “closet drama,” writings to be read rather than performed. Elizabethean England and the French Renaissance held host to revivals of tragedian writings, including William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, Alexandre Hardy and Jean Mairet.

The notion of tragedy in American independent cinema today often conjures imagery of drably downbeat movies about the hopelessness of violence or drug addiction. Shotgun Stories, however, is a cinematic tragedy that feels as deep, palpable, authentic and ineluctable as nearly any essaying of bloodlines, kin, familial bonds and masculine heartache. The picture is a compendium piece of sorts, a work of measured, almost calcified, excavation of misdirected anger and frustration. Many films traffic in roughly similar veins—violence is self-perpetuating, and people must outgrow their basest instincts if they are to completely mature—but Shotgun Stories makes its case with on a sui generis frequency, with an indelible acuity. Writer-director Jeff Nichols gifts his first feature with an emotional honesty, forged with painstaking patience and dexterous delicacy, that is finally nothing less than walloping in its hushed reticence. Nichols crafts a simple story with an attention to detail that leaves the sorrowful events depicted both cautiously internalized and lividly apparent. The final result is like witnessing a silent explosion.

The Arkansas Delta-set Shotgun Stories stars Michael Shannon (recently stealing some of the conventional thunder in Revolutionary Road) as Son Hayes, whose entire subdued presence seems to mutedly suggest rationality and an almost preternatural wisdom born from past pain. Son, as the tale's central character, is rightly the film's most profoundly tragic figure—that refutation of the hold that reason should have on thinking individuals but all too often loses out to the tumultuous emotions that restlessly animate. Son and his two half-brothers, Boy Hayes (Douglas Ligon) and Kid Hayes (Barlow Jacobs), find themselves invited to their biological father's funeral. Their father abandoned them as children and sired another set of brothers. Nichols makes the funeral—where Son cannot keep himself silent, and his words, like Cordelia in King Lear, precipitate the grave troubles to follow—the one fateful occurrence that creates the conditions for the entire drama to unravel. A mere contretemps invites feuding mayhem. That gradual process—equal parts accretion and attrition—is never less than wholly consuming. It is with an unsettling maturity that Nichols mounts his small town tragedy.

In one steady long shot, Nichols surveys the three brothers, Son, Kid and Boy, sitting on a barren street corner of their empty, dead ghost town. In one of the most accomplished moments of the picture, a brother comments on the town, saying that it is indeed a dead down. Not missing a beat, one of the brothers remarks that this deserted town seems to belong to them. Another points out that if he owned this town he would sell it. The parallels to tragedies involving royalty arise—the Hayes are, in one dynamic visage, the forgotten and the summation all at once. Their town is depicted as a wasteland but within their own world they are something approximating kings. Son in particular has the Machiavellian strain about him that seems to guard against those he suspects of chronic wrongdoing—a willingness to preserve his family as he sees it at almost any cost. This is only one of the attributes that makes Shotgun Stories so different from the independent features vaguely similar in their minimalism—Nichols' picture embraces a mythicism that couples the fact with the fictive, so the final result is one of a heightened, hypnotizing verisimilitude. This is Ballast by way of opera; the quotidian is sanctified, by Lucero Pyramid's haunting original score and Adam Stone's aesthetically ethereal cinematography.

So Nichols' endowment and augmentation of all of the small moments matters. The emotional and psychological heft Nichols lends the suppositiously “small moments” is remarkable—from grabbing and throwing away a deck of playing cards to dismantling a tent, and finally a long silence of disorientation marked by pregnant pauses as Son decides to seek vengeance for a wrong committed because he cannot bear to allow the horrible loss to go unanswered. The early friction between the the purely palpable and mesmerically lyrical is slowly conformed into a strictly complementary relationship as Nichols' tightening of cinematic language waxes with each ascending sequence, each contemplative scene. It is as though Nichols is finding illumination through the process of creating his own art—as exciting an experience to be found.

As in classic Greek and Shakespearean tragedy, a character exists to relate information to the principals, often just enough to ensure their fates of despair. Shotgun Stories has Shampoo (G. Alan Wilkins), who functions as unwitting provocateur in his detailed tales. It is through this character that events spiral out of control. Nichols allows the character ample humanity, but the part is an excellent distillation of how woeful catastrophes organically sprout.

Shotgun Stories also differs from many a violence-laden picture in its depiction of violence. All too often loosely defined revenge yarns and action tales, and even nominally anti-violence films seem to relish any and all opportunity to display violence—as a kind of self-medicating bout with unfortunately wrongly-prescribed antidotes—and most cinematic violence is italicized and underlined, which all too often serves to provide catharsis. While not wholly illegitimate—cinema is a cathartic, sublimating art form—violence as act is usually highlighted, which underplays the consequences and aftermath of violence. Nichols inverts this, and the rewards are manifold: unconventional and dissatisfying, the blood-for-blood violence never takes on a pleasing characteristic, much less dimensional plane. Just as it appears as though a character is about to suffer a traumatic injury, Nichols deprives the viewer of the actual image, the certain act. In one climactic moment, just as the viewer has been offered enough visual information to ascertain precisely what is about to occur, Nichols sagely cuts to black. Francois Truffaut contended that no film which featured war could ever be considered truly antiwar; cinema has a way of making everything about life exhilaratingly delirious, including bloody, ontic violence. For Nichols, he forces the viewer's attention on the frequently forgotten aftermath. This filmmaker is not interested in providing mere catharsis, and certainly seems to be repulsed by the concept of violence being cinematically fetishized. When he finally lingers on the toll, it is with a heavy, disconsolate heart.

Nichols' interpretative reading of his characters and their setting is morose and slightly incensed—at the horrible waste and senselessness which in such unforgiving ways has doomed the Hayes progeny before they had a chance. The stifling humidity accompanies the declaiming disappointment Son has for his father, but more so for the abstraction that his father was. The bloodlines unite and divide in Shotgun Stories, and the ineluctable seething rage that spills forth is as deadly as cascading molten lava. The internecine struggle that plays itself out is allegorical, finding in its sociological context a scathing reading of behavior. Fortunately, Nichols plays with the possibilities, and exquisitely extrapolates a much more meaningful postulation. One which has everything to do with choices, and the existing, sometimes ostensibly buried, choice to escape the futility of an abysmal pathway to self-immolation and death. It is in dramatizing the choices with which his characters are confronted that Nichols finds the most disarming substance of all between these young men. That they have choices, too—and perhaps they can choose to avert the misery tragedies are supposed to have in store for their participants.

Monday, February 23, 2009

This Gun for Hire (1942)

(In the first weekend of 2009 I was kindly asked by Steve Eifert over at to write a review of the film noir This Gun for Hire. This review is available to be read there. Noir of the Week is a fine website managed quite well by Mr. Eifert, featuring many detailed reviews of classic film noirs. Not to be missed.

Briefly, I would like to inform my readers that the ten-day absence of posts was a time of dealing with many other matters. I love writing for this blog and want to diligently maintain it but at the same time blogging should not be allowed to become one's life. I plan to finish February out strong with several upcoming reviews, starting with at least one or two films from 2008 to be examined as well as much more. Thank you for your patience...)

Frank Tuttle's early film noir, This Gun for Hire, made Alan Ladd a star in the role of Philip Raven, a mentally deranged and psychologically disturbed contract killer. As Raven, Ladd would employ the particular assets that he would continue to bring to his best roles: a laconic mysteriousness and nuanced, cerebral lethality of presence that distinguished him as a rara avis among the quotidian ordinary. Having soujourned for a decade in colorlessly inconsequential parts in approximately forty films, Ladd was finally given an opportunity to demonstrate his captivating talent. Ladd's commanding ubiety in This Gun for Hire is established by Tuttle in the star's first scene, which likewise begins to etch the dour artistry of lighting by Tuttle and cinematographer John Seitz. In a scene to be mimicked by Jean-Pierre Melville for his Le Samourai (1967), the insularly framed lone gunman stays in a slightly unsettlingly empty room. In This Gun For Hire, Ladd's Raven is loving toward only one kind of creature: cats, and when Tuttle's camera captures him smiling, in two of the three cases the predominantly uncharacteristic grin is aroused by the sight of a feline. In Le Samourai, Delon's killer showed love for a pet canary. (Delon would later love cats playing a ruthless spy in the Michael Winner thriller Scorpio.) Le Samourai starred Alain Delon in the role from which Ladd's Raven serves as a template, whose similar first name draws an unintended comparison as well.

Tuttle's mise-en-scene is often rather precise, and is repeatedly marked by dazzlingly expressionist chiaroscuro lighting. As Raven holds his tool of the trade, his handgun, the low-angle camera angle accentuates the man's isolation and power all at once. The shadowy lines that span the wall behind him, and framing square and triangular shapes in the wall and ceiling, connote a subtle gradation of entrapment and doom. As piano playing gently seeps into the room, the killer behaves like a man apart, and when a pushy maid attempts to shoo the kitten away from the room's windowsill, he snaps, spinning the woman around and slapping her. As the film continues, Raven's affinity for cats juxtaposed with his moderately bemused, glassy-eyed distrust of and dislike for people will serve as an important implement of narrative and character indicia. In this instance the episode serves to highlight the character's respectful admiration for the feline as solitary animal fighting for its own survival. Later, as he strokes a cat, he will remark that a cat brings luck—which is one of the only universal things he believes in as a force of aid.

When asked by the effeminate and rotund man who has last hired him to eliminate a chemist how he feels when working, he callously replies, “I feel fine.” Ladd's delivery is flawlessly deadpan, portraying Raven's coldblooded demeanor as a sort of deeply ingrained psychical state rather than mere remoteness of attitude and feeling. Ladd's physical conciseness and verbal succinctness endows the character's most consistent attributes with a naturalness that seamlessly matches the vision of screenwriters Albert Maltz and R.W. Burnett in their fascinating adaptation of Graham Greene's novel, “A Gun for Sale.” Greene's novel was set in Great Britain, but while the Los Angeles setting significantly changes some of the atmospheric qualities of the film from Greene's book, Tuttle conjures a similar percolating quality to the narrative developments. Tuttle does this by utilizing the visual language of cinema that helped to signify the oncoming flurry of aesthetically attractive and visually communicative 1940s Hollywood film noirs.

That man with whom Raven converses after rubbing out the chemist is Willard Gates, played with an effective amalgamation of smarmy unctuousness and bubbly jocoseness by Laird Cregar. Gates is a manager at the Nitro Chemical Corps. who moonlights as manager of the Neptune nightclub, where he finds himself enchanted by an auditioning gorgeous blonde magician Ellen Graham, sensuously brought to life by Veronica Lake. Graham is clandestinely working for United States Senator Burnett (Roger Imhof), who believes the Nitro Chemical Corps. is guilty of selling secrets to America's wartime enemies. Aboard a train from San Francisco to Los Angeles, Raven and Graham find themselves linked to one another when they sit next to one another. The noirish emphasis on luckless circumstance and seemingly random misfortune is palpably rendered. When, at the twenty-nine minute mark, Graham attempts to make contact with Raven, he fittingly asks her the future question of Travis Bickle's from Taxi Driver: “You talkin' to me?”

Tuttle's mise-en-scene is especially sharp in the early and late stretches of the film. A midway excursion into an estate with a thunder-and-lightning storm appears like a horror film. When Raven and Graham are on the run together, Tuttle's camera examines them as an impossible pairing—he is a stoic killer for hire, she is the girlfriend of a police detective named Michael Crane (a feckless Robert Preston) trying to solve a robbery from which Gates has paid Raven with marked bills. The compilation of multiple threads tying into one knot is one of the more satisfying, but possibly distracting aspects of This Gun for Hire's narrative. As Raven and Graham are physically adjoined to one another, with Raven on the run from the police as he attempts to exact revenge for Gates' double-crossing, This Gun for Hire slows down and the screenplay endeavors to explain the chief source of Raven's psychological trauma. Visually and thematically dark, the scene is lit with expressionistic intensity. As Raven and Graham look out through the gaps between wooden planks in a filthy warehouse window, the light skips down diagonally on the two. As Raven describes a recurring dream in which a tyrannical woman continually beat him as a child.

“I dreamed about a woman. She used to beat me—to get the bad blood out of me, she said. My old man was hanged. My mother died right after that and I went to live with that woman. My aunt. She beat me from the time I was three to when I was fourteen. One day she caught me reaching for a piece of chocolate... she was saving it for a cake... a crummy piece of chocolate. She hit me—with a red-hot flat-iron! Smashed my wrist with it. I grabbed a knife—I let her have it! In the throat! They stuck a label on me: killer. Shoved me into a reform school and they beat me there, too. But I'm glad I killed her. What's the use? [There is] nothing I can do.”

This legitimate effort to create melodrama out of the hitman's origins of spiritual, mental and physical (the permanent scarring on his left wrist is used by the police to identify him) disrepair and wounds is successful in creating an empathetic attachment to the character when he continues to run away from the police. As the police struggle to locate the elusive Raven, the film takes a pessimistic but almost lightheartedly comic shot at the cops as bungling and ineffective. Raven rather easily escapes the clutches of the cops who know he is aboard when he exits the train. Over the course of the film, policemen make tragicomic mistakes when attempting to capture Raven. In one such especially personal confrontation, a lone policeman tries to handcuff Raven late in the film, only to fatally underestimate the killer, who shoots him to death for his trouble. Quite late in the film, as Raven tries to satisfy his blood lust, he finds himself looking directly at Detective Crane, who he could have effortlessly eliminated—but he knows he is Graham's man (“You're a copper's girl,” he once dismissively sneers)—and consequently spares him. Graham's gentleness and kindness toward Raven endears her to him and when a villain suggests she ought to be killed, Raven furiously comments that she has been “nice to me,” a most sparse—and perhaps, the film seems to subtly suggest, nonexistent—way in which someone has ever treated him. With a plot that veers perilously close to making This Gun for Hire another propaganda picture—in which even the stone-hearted assassin is finally moved to defend his country from despicable traitors—the screenplay and Tuttle's interpretation of it keep the dilemmas and choices personal and almost disconnected from politics. As with other Greene novels, it is the personal that informs the politics of the story, and This Gun for Hire is finally, gratifyingly, no different.

This Gun for Hire's climax would also be borrowed by Jean-Pierre Melville for his Le Samourai as the hunted killer is chased on an ominous rail bridge. As Ladd's Raven once again outmaneuvers the police, Tuttle captures the entire chase sequence in a bravura depiction of action. The memorable long shot of Raven jumping off the rail bridge onto a moving train is exciting, and the interest and care the audience has for Raven makes it genuinely meaningful. This Gun for Hire is an early film noir and its limitations and imperfections—some of the supporting players give uninspired performances and Tuttle's direction is somewhat lax in the film's midsection, as is the screenplay—while not to be overlooked, should be considered with fairness when assessing it. As such, this is a most thoughtful, interesting and important film.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

Today [Valentine's Day] is a holiday created by greeting card companies to make people feel like crap.

So thinks Joel (Jim Carrey) in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. If every holiday deserves its own film, and every generation deserves its own cinematic explication of each holiday, then surely the 2004 Charlie Kaufman-penned, Michel Gondry-helmed hip, mind-bending comedy-drama romance, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, is this epoch's most articulate annotation on that mid-February fixture of romance, Valentine's Day. As Joel awakens on this ostensibly ordinarily dismal winter day, he laments his doleful station in life. He stands, shivering, on a train platform, and—out of nowhere—decides to run off, and ditch the dismal daily peregrination to his job. For no reason in particular he runs to another train—headed to Montauk. He is not sure why; he is not, as he assures the audience through voice-over, an impulsive person. When he finally arrives in Montauk he waltzes about the beach, glaring into the bracing wintry air. It is freezing, he notes to himself. Brilliant, Joel. Montauk in February.

Where Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind goes from there is as exciting as it is touching, with an exactitude of detail that is especially rewarding of repeated viewings—though Gondry's dexterous direction makes the details appear like a baseball in the eyes of an accomplished hitter seeing his ideal pitch: enormous. Why Joel takes his little trip to Montauk will be explained, quite late, and very movingly, but the gap between action and motive, deed and desire, is where the picture most robustly asserts itself. And that is most charmingly fitting; Eternal Sunshine is fundamentally about gaps, in time, and in space, and doubtless chiefly in the mind. Memory for a character is itself is to be assaulted, as it has so many ugly ornaments of nostalgia for the sweet times, loathing and regret for the bitter episodes. Joel does not know it, but he has slipped through the gauntlet of a passionate relationship wrecked on the reef of apparently irreconcilable differences. No longer embittered, he is merely empty; like a model airplane with only some parts adjoined, he is incomplete.

Lost love, largely of the acrimoniously-severed variety, engenders a spitefulness that exceeds vindictiveness. Resigned to their fate, most men simply scorn their fallen idol; once where the woman incomparably stood on a ponderously tall pedestal, she is viewed through the prism of unyielding revision. Unforgiving, the wake of an untethered bond leaves a sourness mainly mundane in its projection, deep in its currents. Cognitively dwelling on every last irritating shortcoming, annoying habit and asymmetrical peculiarity, the person whose flaws once seemed invisible now is ensconced not in blind adoration or even respect but seething, boiling hate. Popular music consecrates the impulse to turn what was, at a different time, deliriously fawned over into the bete noire. Listening to “Time is on My Side” and “Like A Rolling Stone,” the anonymous women are given identities by the audial recipient; countenances that were so long ago angelic, seen now as warped by the ravages of time and circumstance, flash by in a melancholic mental collage of heartbreaking ids. It is perhaps the most self-deluding, and hollowest of redemptions—to envision the pitiable parallel existence the anterior loves are suffering through, all in a reveling of self-importance as figure of sustenance. Inherently egotistic and jealous, the process supplies an embarrassing counterpoise to the wounded.

Kaufman's screenplay is animated in its substance by the nectarous short cut of erasing all sensitively distressed memories. The concept is an immediate hook—and demands an accomplished level of filmic execution worthy of its incorporation into a narrative. Joel discovers that his beloved girlfriend, Clementine (a sublime Kate Winslet), has, in one of her most impulsive moments, had him completely erased from her memory. Having supplied her with this accommodation is Lacuna, Inc., which has ingeniously taken its innocuous-sounding name from the Latin term for a hollow, cavity or dip—lacunae typically referring to a body of water such as a lake or pond—the aforementioned hollow or dip would be in the lake. In the context of the science-fiction project, however, Lacuna takes on the meaning of the lacunae infarct, referring to a brain-damaging stroke that discriminatingly assaults a specific part of the skull-encased muscle, resulting in the debilitation of specific functions or expunging of particular memories. When Carrey's Joel sensibly voices concern about brain damage being a side effect of the process, Tom Wilkinson's Dr. Howard Mierzwiak replies, “Well, technically, the procedure is brain damage.” Possibly also carrying with it the papryological meaning, Lacuna, Inc. may likewise refer to the lacuna as an aberrant gap in a text (here representative of Joel's brain).

Where Kaufman and Gondry succeed most brilliantly is in the implementation of their fable. Eschewing the comfortable familiarity of species—both comic and romantic—for a skittishly-paced exhuming of a contemporary love story. With the questionable Lacuna, Inc.'s vaunted procedure consuming the great amplitude of the film's narrative, Kaufman and Gondry tell a backwards boy-meets-girl tale. If Joel is crushed by Clementine's hegira from him to unknown pastures, then Eternal Sunshine's greatest conceit is to move past the amaroidal angst of an eroding relationship, back to happier times, culminating with their very first meet-cute—over some chicken at an otherwise forgettable beach party—which plays out romantically as the fearless Clementine tests the limits of the introverted and timid Joel. As he is asked by his married friends about the “pretty girl” he was spending time with at the party, he can only reply that she was “just a girl.”

At a time when most cinematic American love stories are prepackaged, preheated and pedestrian in their creeping confluence of cynicism and naivete—made into suppositiously mass-appealing pats on the back from filmmakers who confuse wholly legitimate sentiment with simplistic gratification—Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind stands out all the more. Joel and Clementine are as a couple, beyond convincing; in Kaufmanesque shorthand, Joel is another approximation of Kaufman's ineffectualness as a lover, and here the seemingly always weary Joel tirelessly scribbles down notes to himself but is withdrawn and unable to openly communicate, even with his lover. Clementine's recklessness of being could not be more antithetical to Joel's laconic shyness; as he ineptly struggles to say much of anything, she is brash and lacking in self-censorship. Suffering from an alcoholism that is only partly funny because it is so unfortunately true (authentic and believable), Clementine is Joel's counter and it is this apparent attitudinal and psychological gulf that both disturbs each member of the partnership and, bizarrely, makes their relationship work. The very problem is in its least troublesome vein a complementary personable dichotomy; where Clementine lacks introspection—which she chooses to stave off with alcohol—Joel is acutely self-aware to the point of self-destructively tethering himself to all of his idiosyncratic ways of questioning himself. In a plausible contemporary reversal of the action-minded man and the fence-straddling woman, Clementine's impulsive passion finds in Joel a stability that is both warm and in its quotidian application, smothering.

It is in the self-effacing, whirling pool of details, that Gondry and Kaufman wrap the seriocomic sentiment that leaves bruises of its own. In most romantic-comedies or variations of the template, the filmmakers are inclined to have their cake and eat it, too. Flaws of the characters are presented to make them nebulously human, all the while being played strictly for braying laughter. Eternal Sunshine does not expurgate the moments and traits that are all too familiar, yet usually skimmed over or entirely absent in most vaguely like-minded relationship films. Joel and Clementine's personal flaws are made humorous in the way that the flaws of a friend slowly become a source of amusement. Yet there is a deflating sadness to this pair that is uncommon; Joel is such an emotional weakling that sensitive men will find in him shared pangs—of regret, frequently stemming from absurd cowardice, of over-analysis of the self. Clementine is, to an indefinite degree, the young woman Joel at his angriest declares her to be—tempting in her penumbra of multi-colored-hair mysteriousness and affected, flirtatious unattainability, but stunted in her own development. Though the film, respectively written and directed by two men, makes Joel the hero, whose past is the film's focal point, Clementine's childhood and personal history would make for a potentially remarkable film. The fleeting visibility of a long-ago, nearly mortal wound is carried with her throughout, and is occasionally only held down from complete eruption by her dipsomania.

As if the Joel-Clementine heartache and humorously adorned pathos were not enough, Gondry and Kaufman pack in an entire subplot of hopes and hurts. With such an ostensible godsend as memory erasure, abuse is to follow like night after day. Lacuna, Inc. is itself a warped, closed-off tragicomic melodrama with a clandestine love triangle—two of whose members remain blithely unaware of its existence, though there is a knowingness to each beneath their rock 'n' roll, pot-induced haze of underwear bed dancing and sex. Elsewhere, an unethical young man has fallen for Clementine during her memory-pruning procedure and has stolen an unmentionable from her. Not stopping there he has taken all of Joel's items that he has given over to Lacuna, Inc.—items that would remind him of Clementine—for himself, with which he hopes to seduce the unsuspecting Clementine. When an indescribable sense of déjà vu intervenes for Clementine, she runs away from the cynical manipulator—who may serve as a potential stand-in for Hollywood persons who churn out the strikingly overly-familiar pills like briefly soothing narcotics working from prosaically similar frameworks.

One of the attributes of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind that cannot go unexamined is its pulsating, prevailing romanticism. Beneath all of the foreknowledge and soothsaying an obviously intelligent man like Kaufman brings with him, he allows himself, and Gondry allows the film, to be an avatar for unmitigated optimism. Despite having had their minds erased, Kirsten Dunst's Mary, Joel and Clementine all stumble, through an indefatigable sense of ceaseless yearning, for their (emotionally and cerebrally) lost loves. At a time when it is nauseatingly trendy to peer into complex matters that affect humans and their symbiotic relationships to one another in variegated contexts, Eternal Sunshine—not entirely unlike Being John Malkovich and Adaptation before it, and Synecdoche, New York after it—is serenely self-confident, enabling it to securely land on a jubilant restoration. It is in that reclamation, of memory, of love, of life—what would people be, by which means would they be informed without all of their memories?—that Eternal Sunshine terrifically realizes itself, all the while plaintively recognizing the inevitable potholes in the road along the way.

For the trajectory of hate and abyssal disappointment to be reached, love must have been an occupant for an extended period of time. It is through literally viewing Joel's own memories that he comes to terms with the exorbitant riches Clementine gifted him. It is not mere cliché to achieve, through storytelling, a character “becoming a better person”; comedy, as the flip side of the Grecian coin of tragedy, historically requires characters to learn—it is one of the most unquestioned features of tragedy that characters are doomed to not learn—and Eternal Sunshine allows Joel to learn an invaluable lesson. Alexander Pope's poem referenced is itself a contradictory extolling of the more modernist embrace of ignorance as bliss. In Eternal Sunshine, it is Clementine who, like Eve, first eats from the tree (this tree literally of ignorance), but Joel and Clementine each find themselves by the end and literally say, “Okay,” to their destiny, each other and themselves. If relationships are fundamentally mirrors into which one member sees the best—including the nonexistent best—of themselves in the other, Joel and Clementine at last allow the mirror reflection to not hurt them, and to be resigned to the imperfections they each possess. As his own mental collage of Clementine unspools backwards, Joel is left, like a beggar, pleading to “...keep just this one [memory]...” Down the rabbit hole it goes, and Joel is abandoned in his own mind until Clementine rescues him, and leads him, as she had before, to better times.

A Woman Is a Woman (1961)

Jean-Luc Godard today conjures inaccessible difficulty, Marxian didactics and Nouevelle Vague enshrinement. Yet he was, at his most playful, a reverential mimic of his favorite Hollywood pictures, a cinematic romantic, a lover of the movies he had absorbed, cherished and in which he had seen greater, more philosophically rich textures than they had perhaps even intended. A Woman Is a Woman, or Une femme est une femme, is as sweet as Godard could become. Before relating the poisoned marriage of Contempt, Godard told a more glisteningly romantic story. His first color picture, A Woman Is a Woman is remarkably airy and ostensibly liberated; gone are the jump-cuts of Breathless as well as that picture's seeping sense of inevitable tragedy, which would resurface in Contempt and the riveting Le Petit Soldat but A Woman Is a Woman is an aching film on its own terms.

Starring Godard's muse, the irrepressible Anna Karina as Angela, a charming, lovely striptease artist who wants to have a baby and settle down. Captured in an ebullient light show that is in its mise-en-scene and construction a piece of commentary on the various emotional states of Karina's Angela, she is as teasing and tempting as she will be for her disagreeable boyfriend Émile Récamier (Jean-Claude Brialy), who does not wish to settle down and have a child with her. The striptease act is made into a comment on cinema itself, with the artist wooing the viewer with a promise. Godard delivers that promise by making his ode to Hollywood musicals succeed, wildly, not in spite of but almost rather because of its unconventional use of music. Viewing cinema as an ideally musical art form, through simple alterations in mise-en-scene Godard makes the arguments between Angela and Émile blossom into vociferous duets.

Godard's conception of the Zodiac club at which Angela works is hilariously tame and refined. The winking awareness of Hollywood distillation of the uncomfortable into more endearing contexts enlivens A Woman Is a Woman in its presentation. As Angela speaks directly into the camera, with an impossibly sweet, smartly sly demeanor, and an intoxicating smile, Godard's camera takes the viewpoint of the men in the audience, doubtless enamored with the young lady. Accentuating the effervescent mise-en-scene of Godard's is the stopping-and-starting scoring of music by Michel Legrand, which functions quite brilliantly as a uniform treatise on the place of music in cinema.

The third acting component is Jean-Paul Belmondo, curiously and humorously named Alfred Lubitsch. Belmondo represents a possible way out for Angela, but when they converse, and listen to a sad song about an unforgiving man surveying the ignominy of a woman, in a particularly long scene, she must confront that she still has deep feelings for Émile. This love triangle is mounted not as a contest, particularly as Émile incredulously subtracts himself from the proceedings, flustered as he is by Angela's uncontrollable willfulness and determination. Godard makes the pair of suitors pleasingly pathetic, but only in that the woman is so remarkably at ease manipulating them... even when she is doing so with such nonchalance that her desires seem shrouded.

As fine as the two men are, the acting star is Karina, while Godard is the star of the picture's ingenuity, vitality and commitment. Rarely has such an intentionally inconsequential souffle been so aesthetically wondrous and overflowing in its cinematic charity. Godard makes hallways and foyers into arenas of romantic battle, not unlike Douglas Sirk wringing melodramatic quintessence from everyday settings. Godard's assured dynamism makes each scene smoke and sizzle, layering a sumptuous patina of light by cinematographer Raoul Coutard, whose work here is awesomely, divinely inspired.

With a narrative functioning as mere coat hanger for the precocious playfulness on display, Godard makes his filmic excavation of Hollywood cinema densely configurated as a meta contextualization of romantic musicals. Echoing Vincente Minnelli in New Wave trappings, Godard whittles the process down, so that, as in his best work, the proper story is truly Godard's incisive critical (as he had been a critic with fellow New Wave founder Francois Truffaut) commentary on cinema itself. When Karina finally addresses the audience at the film's very end, Godard shoots her in such a way as to emphasize the spotlight-like, key-light-like artificiality of movie love filmmaking. Like the funny breaching of the fourth wall in Breathless, A Woman Is a Woman's nimble reworking of standard conventions is lubricated with flourishes that amazingly enhance the entire virginal color palette, visually complementing the illumination Godard lends to the characters' relationships with one another.

Endowed with a delightfully sardonic wit, Godard comments on the titular flirtation with sexism (a woman is a woman, after all, and Angela believes the only thing that can salvage her relationship with her boyfriend is a baby). Angela's glittery ambivalence, however fetching, also speaks to the picture's upending of stereotypes and tropes, all the while essaying them through involved observation. Deciding that her current relationship is hampered by the lack of a child, her approaching of Alfred to accommodate her wish is an effort to ignite jealousy in Émile. Émile is a difficult nut to crack, however, and her test of him eventually becomes his test of her. The gender dynamics and halfhearted suggestion of a triad-structured symbiosis are an avenue on which Godard travels, making comments that would turn more mythical and realistically embittered all at once in Contempt, again playful in his most deliriously fun film, again starring Karina, Bande à part, and the more aggressively sociopolitical cine essay, Masculin féminin.

A Woman Is a Woman, however, still stands out as a harmoniously derived pastiche that is as loving a film as Godard could create. Processing Hollywood's genius for finding the physical and numinous pulchritude in the implausible, Godard's picture is a work of sincere gratitude to a way of making movies that may sadly be extinct. Lars von Trier's more recent attempt with Dancer in the Dark, while intriguing, was never as successful in its complicated melange as Godard's more gracefully crafted 1961 concoction. Godard would turn to more, superficially or not, important subject matter, complete with humorless characters and controversial, politically charged narratives, and as he remained vibrant, so did they, too. Sometimes, however, the irresistably frothy mixtures are more satisfying than the larger, more laborious meals. There is nothing inherently wrong with exploring the insuperable dilemmas of life, but as A Woman Is a Woman demonstrates, sometimes those insuperable dilemmas are everyday matters, challenging artists to make them appetizing.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974)

Rainer Werner Fassbinder's cinema is uncommonly sensitive and sumptuous. Nuanced and thoughtful, it is also earnestly emotional and compassionate. Normally Fassbinder's work is concerned with those who fall outside the “norms” of society, and in his case, this society is the West Germany of the very late 1960s to the very early 1980s. As a bisexual, Fassbinder saw himself as existing just outside the framing typicality of his own society. Viewed through this sociologically bountiful prism, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is possibly his most purely beautiful work, concerned as it is with the relationship between a strongly virile foreign Arab worker named Ali (El Hedi ben Salem, who was Fassbinder's partner at the time of the film's production) and an older German cleaning lady named Emmi Kurowski (Brigitte Mira).

The quite loosely-followed basis for Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is the Douglas Sirk melodrama All That Heaven Allows, and it is worth noting how much Sirk's cinema influenced Fassbinder. While Sirkian aesthetics were not the most crucial component for Fassbinder, theoretical command of mise-en-scene and the adroitness with which Sirk weaved powerful social commentary through his exquisite precision. Fassbinder wanted to emulate the ocular symmetry of Sirk's films, and was especially moved by the intelligence that buttressed Sirk's stingingly palpable love stories. Fassbinder's filmic treatises on social ostracism and rejection were often searingly muscular, but with The Merchant of Four Seasons, made in 1971, Fassbinder's admiration of Sirk became visible. The Merchant of Four Seasons was the first film Fassbinder made after meeting Sirk at the Munich Film Museum, and he would continue to extrapolate Sirkian touches in his work. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul was the culmination of this strain when it was made.

Decades before Fatih Akin would make films examining German-Arab and German-Turkish relations through narrative, Fassbinder crafted a plausible romance between Emmi and Ali. The film begins with Emmi, as played by the amazing Mira, a slightly stereotypically stout German woman, walking into a bar to escape the rain. Emmi wears clothes with loud colors, and the clothing makes her, as a physical figure, more arresting and interesting, as well as remarking on the unconventional and unorthodox openness of the character that most meticulously comes forth through the narrative. When Emmi walks in, the bar seems strangely motionless; when the plain older lady tells the blonde barmaid that she will have a Coke, a group of customers turn and glare at her. Remarkably, it is Emmi who is perceived as the outsider, and justly so, as her actions create the seemingly irreconcilable firth that becomes a gulf between the central characters and the people who exist in their orbit. As the blonde returns to the bar, she taunts Ali into dancing with the older woman. “Ali dance with old woman?” Ali asks. Yet he decides to move to her table and ask her to dance. As the two dance, the camera focuses with the two in the foreground and the other characters in the background; as Ali and Emmi dance, the rest of the people inhabiting the bar are staring at them.

Ali accompanies Emmi home. As they converse, the dialogue renders the relationship in rigorous terms, while expanding on the characters themselves. Emmi talks about her first husband, who was Polish, as her name suggests. Emmi talks about the importance of wearing colors that make one feel happy. She kindly admonishes Ali about his dark-colored clothes. She says that he should wear bright, colorful clothes. Later he will. The scene is heartwarming, and is mostly shot in a drab apartment complex hallway. The isolation and absence of other characters enhances the separation from all others that most who fall in love experience—while on another plane elucidating the harsher reality of Ali and Emmi's marriage, which carries with it the caveat of (in an expressionistic manner) divorcing the rest of the world.

Ali is limited in his German, and the statements he makes—which always sound and read like maxims—such as “Always work, always drunk,” when describing his days and nights or “German master, Arab dog,” when conveying just how alike he and Emmi are in their social stations (she tells him that many people look down on her when they find out she is a cleaning lady), inform the title itself. The original German title, Angst essen Seele auf, translates as Fear Eat Soul. And Ali indeed tells Emmi that “fear eat soul”; it is, Fassbinder instructs, fear that has pushed Ali and Emmi outside the comfortable ordinariness. Separated by race and age, Ali and Emmi are viewed with contempt; a group of women who live in Emmi's apartment building become incensed that she is living with an Arab. These women are primarily linked together by their shared occupation as cleaning ladies, and so Fassbinder comments on the socio-economic experience that creates bitterness out of despair. One woman says she would rather die than live with a “dog.” Another remarks that “they... only want women” for “one thing.” Most damaging is the fear and loathing Emmi is confronted with from her own immediate family. One son violently kicks in a television set (echoing All That Heaven Allows) upon learning of his mother's lover's identity.

Fassbinder sagaciously utilizes simple devices and creations such as those hallways, windows and doorways, the spaces around tables, and other objects with which to frame Emmi and Ali—and their attendant romantic desperation—which transmit the characters' valiantly heedless acceptance of one another, finally as man and wife, pitted against a large, imposing group of ethnocentric societal guardians of “purity,” a veritable haut monde for the purposes of Fassbinder. In one humorous scene, Emmi is confused by a man to choose between a “rare” and a “medium-rare” dish; she believes rare to mean unusually excellent. In a scene far more disconsolate and tragic scene, Emmi and Ali, sitting at an outdoor table at which they hope to dine, are placed apart from nothing less than all of humanity by a metaphorical forest of empty yellow chairs. As the German and Moroccan quietly converse, she finally succumbing to the shattering realization that she and he are apparently doomed to stand out as the others through their marital bond, director of photography Jurgen Jurges aids Fassbinder in creating a bravura sequence of sight, color and sound in suspended animation.

For Fassbinder, the development of his characters takes on an unrestricted intimacy that is bracing. The act of ablution is made into an experience of cleansing that transcends bodily limitations. Ali is framed, naked, washing himself, and Fassbinder, capturing his naked lover, lends the character and actor portraying him a nearly embarrassing genuine love that surpasses the utilitarian concepts of filmmaking that are as surely used as a man's legs in a brusque gait. Shot in fifteen days on a small budget, between two much larger productions, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is a redoubtable case of a writer-director squeezing more distilled pathos and integrity out of a “small” film than many “big” ones. The long, almost intermittent stretches of silence, in which life itself seems paused for Ali Emmi, makes the racial tensions both more invisible and present all at once. Defined by his appearance, Ali is gradually accepted by the very women who had earlier feigned repulsion at the mere thought of him. In an extension of the showering scenes, Fassbinder comments on the fetishism of the exotic, as a small circle of German women beam, each happily caressing and gripping the muscular biceps and triceps he possesses. This fetishism of the other is made purposefully whole, as Emmi herself routinely describes her husband as featuring a “foreign mentality”—which is certainly not untrue.

From approximately 1955 to 1973, Arab workers were immigrating to Germany to fill the vacuum of manual labor in the great postwar German economic recovery and boom. Invited in to work, these foreigners often found themselves marginalized by a society whose leadership had requested their presence. Creating social commentary out of the already ripe tale of volition and romance Sirk had etched less than twenty years earlier, Fassbinder's film remains abundantly relevant. Yet in some ways more importantly, this motion picture remains most incendiary in its discomfited self-contained vicinity—its wonderful insistence to tell a complete, human story about two people with all of their unsentimental flaws. Ali strays from Emmi and resorts to rendezvous with the blonde barmaid who dared him to connect with the older woman. The blonde provides Ali with two things his wife cannot, his favorite dish couscous and sex. Coworkers of Ali's are cruel toward Emmi when she visits him at work, asking Ali, “Is that your grandmother?” Nevertheless, through everything Ali and Emmi sustain their great love. Fassbinder's patient, watchful camera captures every last delicate moment, and takes the frighteningly personal viewpoint, which is always more perilous. It is from here he paints with the colors of those framing objects that create gorgeous portals through which to view Ali and Emmi through their many experiences with one another. Again and again, primary colors are utilized, always, it would seem, to italicize the primary urges, desires and needs these two characters so trenchantly carry with them.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Scandal Sheet (1952)

(Scandal Sheet was screened at the San Francisco Castro Theatre on Friday, January 23 along with Deadline USA as part of Noir City 7.)

Scandal Sheet is directed with a particularly pungent, uncensored acumen by Phil Karlson, whose fidelity to the screenplay by Ted Sherdeman, Eugene Ling and James Poe, based on the novel “The Dark Page” by Samuel Fuller, enriches the film for its entire eighty-two minute runtime. (The film's title in the United Kingdom was The Dark Page.) Karlson, aided by cinematographer Burnett Guffey—whose lens seems to inescapably capture every last sealed crevice on the gritty sidewalks or clammy characters' faces—creates a verisimilitude out of mise-en-scene that perfectly imparts the scabrousness of the picture's very story. Surveying the relationships in a scandal rag “newsroom” controlled by a bulldog of a man who behaves almost like a centurion guard, managing editor Mark Chapman (a relentless Broderick Crawford), Karlson makes the camera an impartial observer, making casual note of the rampant, anfractuous headline-grabbing (and -making) that is made into a virtue by the avaricious Chapman. Chapman's running of the newspaper, once a respectable publication, The Comet, creating a “scandal rag,” has dramatically increased the circulation of the paper, and he reminds the partnered owners of the institution of that unalterable fact.

Fuller's novel, “The Dark Page,” came about when he decided to write a book about some of the more outstanding experiences of his career as a newspaperman. Fuller had to serve in World War II (with the “Big Red One”) and was notified by his mother while he was away that a publisher was quite interested in purchasing the rights to his first draft. Only a couple of years later, Fuller learned that none other than Howard Hawks was quite interested in adapting the book into a film, and bought the rights for $15,000. Fuller's mother was ecstatic and sent her son $1,000 while he and his unit were fighting in Europe. Sadly, Hawks never made the film, and sold the rights for several times what he paid for them. The buyer was Columbia Pictures, and Karlson would direct it.

The atmospheric component Karlson brings to the picture makes it somehow more compulsively watchable than most films with similar “set-ups.” Crawford's Chapman, like almost all of the best noir protagonists, is a man who has skillfully managed to escape his past, but, as in so much of noir, it is the past that he cannot truly evade. And, as in most noir, the chilling hand of irony finds itself practically slapping Chapman's face—it is through a very idea originated from his greedy mind that his past catches up with him. The newspaper actually hosts a “lonely-hearts ball,” where many companionless people are brought to one venue. Chapman's cynicism is unrestricted, and he guarantees a prize to a couple who marry on the very evening they meet one another: a bed, with a built-in television set.

It is at this “lonely-hearts club” event that Chapman's past runs into him and he is eventually placed in an unenviable position. Suffice it to say he makes a mess out of an already unfortunate situation, and is compelled to cover up a crime he has committed. In pursuing that crime, however, his ace reporter, the young, handsome Steve McCleary (an exceedingly effective motor-mouthing John Derek), digs up just enough dirt to make it into a story—and one so sensationalistic that Chapman is practically forced to run his reporter's story in the newspaper, despite it being highly dangerous to himself. The delicious paradoxical scenario—the potential undoing of Chapman's person due to his own recalcitrant desire to see the most controversial subject matter splash across his front page to ensure wider and wider circulation—is quite the cinematic meal to be engorged.

Fuller is widely attributed the line that the very beginning of a film should give the viewer a “hard-on,” which crudely approximates what his directorial outings would later achieve. (Including the fine newspaper noirish melodrama Park Row from the very same year.) Scandal Sheet almost achieves that standard of criteria—Derek's McCleary behaves like a policeman gleaning gruesome details of a murder, only to be thrown out of the crime scene by a disgusted cop—but unlike Fuller's dyspeptically fast-paced book, it is has less alacrity to its rhythm. Whereas Chapman's irredeemable act occurs right at the beginning of Fuller's novel, Karlson's film is slower to uncover it. Fortunately, Scandal Sheet gains momentum in its aftermath. One highly memorable scene involves a group of woebegone drunkards being questioned by McCleary and his partner Biddle (a well-realized and queasily comical Harry Morgan), as the newspapermen attempt to get to the bottom of the crime at the film's center. Donna Reed as morally upright Julie Allison sometimes veers into didactic, lifeless platitudes, but her relationship with the borderline courting McCleary is well-rendered and believable.

In many ways, however, Scandal Sheet is a film that would not be nearly so sibilating without Crawford's ardent performance. Known for barking like a bulldog, Crawford utilizes his (at this point in his career, especially after winning the Oscar for All the King's Men) on-screen identity, and creates an indelible noir protagonist driven to sheer desperation. As he finds himself committing yet another unspeakable crime against a sympathetic character simply to hide his earlier ones, the audience may find in him, not quite empathy, but responsive connection. It may help that Crawford's Chapman is softened and curiously mollified; in Fuller's novel he is far more incorrigibly awful a person. In Karlson's film noir, however, that aforementioned callous hand of fate entraps Chapman, and makes an already ugly person only far uglier. The very ending of Scandal Sheet may be interpreted as a sight gag of sorts, but it reinforces the smoke-filled verbal lacerations that have come before. (For an example of only one brutal comment to be found throughout the film, McCleary once refers to a dead woman as a wonderment to Reed's Allison—a dame “with her mouth shut.”) The last shot of Scandal Sheet in actuality surpasses its apparent comicality, and comments on the paradoxes that haunt Chapman, driving a man to destroy himself through his own megalomania.

Frost/Nixon (2008)

Richard Nixon was perhaps the most bizarre figure to ever occupy the presidency of the United States, and especially an aberration in the televized era. That he could lose the presidency once primarily due to that oncoming omnipresent fixture of American life, the television set, speaks to the man's knowledge of what had done him in. He knew he was, almost hilariously, the anti-political animal that a John F. Kennedy was. It was not that he was dumb, or particularly more treacherous than most politicians who attain that most noxiously overused phrase mistakenly reserved for highly ambitious rulers of the world, “greatness.” He was simply all wrong for politics. The moment Nixon endeavored to appear and sound respectable and earnest, many people assumed he was lying to them. Words as innocuous as, “Good evening, my fellow Americans,” spilling forth from his glistening-from-perspiration lips, wreathed in his eerily ominous bass voice, made people grimace and groan. Nixon was actually quite bright, especially for an American president of the latter half of the twentieth century—perhaps another, more underappreciated reason he still sticks out today—and constantly made notes to himself to correct this deficit of charisma and manufactured affinity many successful national hucksters respectively employ and engender. In his first term as president, he would tirelessly scribble such embarrassing instructions in self-help as, “Add element of lift to each appearance. Understanding the young... Lift spirit of people—Pithy, memorable phrases.” Nixon knew how the game was played, especially in the era of television—he had once been its chiefest victim, after all—and he desperately wanted to connect with the people through the art of appealing sloganeering and pandering.

With Frost/Nixon, director Ron Howard has created another monument to ahistorical sophistry, much like his A Beautiful Mind and Cinderella Man, which both wildly distorted true history to serve artistically meager ends of making one character wholly “heroic” while, in the latter case, libelously casting one figure as a loathsome villain. Howard's movies are so impersonal, so slick and inconsequential, that his repetitious bludgeoning of the audience with his subjects' importance is not only alienating, but at this juncture downright comical. Frost/Nixon is based on a stage play, originating in concept from a series of interviews three years after Nixon resigned from office, with the Englishman David Frost. The film is not interested in truly excavating the putrid ugliness of paycheck journalism at the pathetic story's heart—Nixon was paid $600,000 for the interviews, with a third of that up front, and contractually guaranteed twenty percent of all profits derived from the show's exhibition, the latter point being completely lost by Morgan's condescending screenplay.

That is the strategy Morgan and Howard pursue, from the beginning to the conclusion: obfuscation, dishonest revisionism and mischaracterization. How ironic that they doubtless would see in Nixon the very malfeasance of which they are historically and artistically guilty. Why shy away from the ignominiously venal networking between Morgan and Howard's faux pairing of David (Frost) and Goliath (Tricky Dick)? It would deprive them of ensuring that the audience is assuredly relating to Frost as a vicarious interrogator on behalf of virtue and justice when he attempts to slay the demon in their extended boxing match. And Howard does portray the Frost/Nixon interviews as contests of boxing, with two massive personalities dueling. While Howard petulantly strives to make his uncomplicated documentation of pugnacious pugilism, Morgan's screenplay affords Frank Langella's Nixon with a feasible melancholia that treads dangerously close to sloppily sentimentalizing the thirty-seventh president. Moments of loneliness and paranoia unsurprisingly occupy much of Nixon's lackluster post-presidential routine, and Morgan and Howard delineate his fallen star's trajectory through speaking engagements and most confidently in a boozy phone conversation that is probably the film's most curiously efficacious moment.

The performances of Frost/Nixon have received great attention, but they are not especially impressive. Langella as Nixon has the juicy, more carefully modulated part with which to work, but many of his acting choices are either pedestrian or merely adequate. Anthony Hopkins's searing interpretation surpassed imitation; like the Oliver Stone film in which it appeared, it made an embellishment out of not solely Nixon but the “Nixon era” itself—erecting an epic Shakespearean and Marlovian tragedy out of a time, place and man that is effulgent and glowing in its resonance. Langella's hangdog weariness juxtaposed with his Nixon's fits of hysteric yelling recalls some kind of fleeting, off-kilter confluence of Robert Mitchum, Walter Matthau and Al Pacino. However, the film's most perspicuous vacuum is in Michael Sheen's thoroughly uninteresting and inauthentic performance as Frost. Sheen plays Frost as a breathlessly boyish lightweight—and the turn is a total failure as a result. Lost is Frost's public persona, doubtless exaggerated and affected for consumption, of the professorially languorous, vaguely captious purveyor of the postulations of the intelligentsia.

It is oddly fitting that so many of the easily researched factoids of the Frost/Nixon interviews are wholly disregarded, as the entire conformation of the film, and probably the stage play, are in essence a half-truth. Howard is determined to depict these confrontations as the culmination of the entire time period in large part defined by the former president. They were, however, while slightly interesting, little more than one opportunistic figure cashing in on the opportunism of another. Probably unwittingly, Morgan and Howard have essayed the cynical handling of national disgrace as a form of entertainment.

Unfortunately, the screenwriter and director seem incapable of not twisting the facts of the interviews to service their lusterless agenda. In one pivotal moment of the film, Nixon describes himself as “the last casualty of Vietnam”—which would be an intolerable example of hyperbole and self-aggrandizement if it were true. The actual transcript reads, “Frost: ...[P]erhaps you were the last American casualty of the Vietnam War.” To which Nixon seemingly unthinkingly mumbled, “A case could be made for that, yes.” It may seem like a fairly small detail, but it is microcosmic of the artless efforts of legerdemain that characterizes Frost/Nixon, from the dishonest visual conception of the interviews, with the camera inching closer to the two subjects' countenances, to the trite exploration of the rather unexceptional link between them, which may be best understood as an interdependence.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Harder They Fall (1956)

(The Harder They Fall was screened along with Johnny Stool Pidgeon on Tuesday, January 27 at the San Francisco Castro Theatre as part of the film noir festival, Noir City 7.)

The Harder They Fall was Humphrey Bogart's final film, which has forever endowed it with an historic import transcending the content of the film. Bogart had played so many haggard, world-weary characters that perhaps his rather obviously tired comportment and demeanor in The Harder They Fall seemed completely natural to many moviegoers. The movie star would die shortly after completing the film, leaving behind one last wholly solid performance. The Harder They Fall would probably not work as well with anyone else in the part, if for no other reason than Bogart's placement as the picture's star bestows upon it a stipulation: like so many other Bogart avatars, his down-on-his-luck ex-sportswriter Eddie Willis is another archetypal representation of the figure that would partly serve to define the “Bogart mystique,” that of the apparent cynic busily, dispassionately pursuing his own interests, only to finally melt before the sweltering heat of conscience and indignation.

One of the gravest problems with The Harder They Fall, however, is that Bogart's final redemption comes too late, and its impact is too little. The screenplay by Philip Yordan, based on novelist Budd Schulberg's book, miscalculates in its manipulation of the “Bogart mystique”; Willis is, while empathetically drawn and comprehensively rounded, a fairly dirty character. That the selling of his soul is done with Bogart coolly inviting audience sympathy from time to time—looking on in abject horror and disgust at the rampant wrongdoings (always laced with nauseating self-righteousness) of the mobster Nick Benko (Rod Steiger)—does not diminish the fact that Willis has sold his soul. Benko believes he has found the greatest meal-ticket in the world, a giant Argentinean he can shamelessly market as a heretofore unknown boxing powerhouse in America, to be ridden all the way to a championship title bout in New York City. Willis (only barely reluctantly) agrees to be Benko's front-man for the press, issuing statements that always help Benko in achieving his ends.

Mark Robson directed The Harder They Fall; he had directed the noirish boxing saga Champion (1949) starring Kirk Douglas. That film was fearless in its zeroing in on the machinations of media in making the Douglas character—a brutish, unsympathetic raging bull—into something of a hero. The Harder They Fall is likewise interested in media manipulation and the manner in which the fourth estate can be so readily utilized by the crooked. Robson's direction of Champion, which was predominantly confident and visually arresting, is not matched here. An opening sequence of cars racing to a boxing studio is a bravura set-piece, laying the gauntlet down for the rest of the picture, but Robson cannot sustain that kind of nervous energy. Much of the film takes place in close quarters, with hotel rooms, arena locker rooms and home living rooms making up the majority of the various, vaguely monotonous settings. Robson finds a certain sizzle in the boxing bouts, with arenas full of people viewing the spectacle of the giant Argentinean Toro Moreno (Mike Lane), and Bogart and Steiger are up to their respective tasks but the film's lack of visual prowess from Robson makes The Harder They Fall dependent on Yates' screenplay and the actors.

The Harder They Fall, introduced by the always highly knowledgeable Eddie Muller at Noir City 7, is, as Muller recounts, loosely based on the astonishing career of 1930s heavyweight champion Primo Carnera, a gargantuan-sized lumbering Italian titan. Pushed to the top of the boxing world, and attaining the championship, the unscrupulous promoters behind his meteoric rise allowed him to be devastated in the ring. In his title fight with Max Baer, he was knocked down eleven times, losing the championship to Baer. As Muller noted in his introduction, two powerful gangsters on the east coast attempted to take over the game of boxing. Muller assured the audience that he was not manufacturing their names—Paul John “Frankie” Carbo and Frank “Blinky” Palermo. Carnera was their prized selection, and so Steiger's Benko is informed by these shadowy real-life men by Schulberg's fire-breathing, outraged novel.

Where The Harder They Fall succeeds most vociferously is in its almost documentarian examination of boxing; in an ad-libbed, unscripted scene, a physically and economically broken-down ex-boxer named Joe Greb is interviewed. Bogart's Willis is forced to view the scene in all of its pathetic unsightliness. Yates' adaptation of Schulberg's fiery indignation still stings. Bogart makes the shame that periodically swells and rises up in him like indigestion palpable, though the foreordained resolution of his character—based on sportswriter and promoter Harold Conrad—neither diminishes nor validates Willis' unseemly involvement in many of the film's most repugnant moments. One painful episode details a gracious veteran brain-scrambled boxer's efforts to leave the boxing game with one final, losing fight against Toro, only to be served as a veritable lamb led to slaughter. Willis' anger and hurt at this makes him a compelling figure, but the unvarnished truth of the aforementioned boxer's condition makes the final redemptive moments only hollower.

“The fight game is like show business. There are no great fighters anymore. Whoever is the best showman becomes the champ.” So declares Benko (with Steiger giving the dialogue everything he has) to Willis. The scathing cynicism is unleashed by Bogart's Willis, to Toro: “What do you care if a bunch of bloodthirsty, screaming people think of you? Did you ever get a look at their faces? They pay a few bucks hoping to see a man get killed. To hell with them! Think of yourself. Get your money and get out of this rotten business.” When a certain boxer is being wheeled out of an arena, a venomous woman screams at him for losing his match. While Robson's mise-en-scene is awkward and stilted at times, Yates' screenplay knows exactly what its target is, and that surpasses only Benko and his henchmen. This makes for a somewhat schizophrenic film, which simultaneously has designs on being a movie with a message and a story about some crooks cashing in on boxing. As Toro is finally mercilessly beaten to a pulp in the picture's final contest, with onlookers booing and hissing him in his moment of agony, it is prudent to remember Muller's first comment in his introduction to the film at the San Francisco Castro: boxing is noir.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Taken (2008)

Taken is being widely interpreted as an action film, which is true in its effect but not nearly as much in its implications. Likewise, it has been battered by some acutely politically correct film critics as a reactionary, George W. Bush-era fantasia of fetishistic vengeful torture and bloodletting, inflicted by an American on Albanian and French villains. That misses the point; the ethnic particulars of the characters, while successfully engendering plausible paradigmatic dynamics—immigrant Albanian gangsters are a source of criminality in France, and human trafficking is a major global industry in which such notorious organizations partake—are not crucial to understanding and processing Taken's efficacy. The producer and co-screenwriter (with Robert Mark Kamen) is Luc Besson, whose penchant for action-infused narratives is occasionally matched by a happily received interest in human relationships. This distinguishes Leon—easily Besson's greatest film—which possessed a sentiently delicate growing affinity as its pulsating bloodstream, not the frantic, sensorially overpowering action sequences that complemented it. Taken functions not as mere pyrotechnic showmanship, but as a curiously restrained exercise in genre-renewal, so to speak; Besson and director Pierre Morel strive to enhance an admittedly weary vessel, that of the revenge action thriller. Eagle Eye was an action movie with a stimulative concept, though the film's more formulaic rendering was less than completely noteworthy. Taken is, at times, spiritually not unlike The Limey or the film that inspired the 1999 picture, Point Blank. There is a gradual, simmering intellect operating beneath the incendiary Taken: if it does not merit unconditional accolades, it should at least not go unmentioned.

Taken is an intriguingly paced picture. At ninety-three minutes long, it allows the first act of the narrative to be dedicated to constructing the consanguinity that serves as the cylinder for the film's intangible pilgrimage. That odyssey serves as a microcosmic statement about fathers and daughters—and, like The Limey, illustrates the undying love an absentee father tirelessly possesses for his little princess. This is (almost wordlessly) demonstrated in the near-opening scene, which is of Liam Neeson's retired American master spy Bryan Mills responding to his own knowledge of his daughter—when he was in her life, he gleaned that she wanted to become a singer. The gift he purchases for her birthday represents that memory. He proudly hands her the gift, which he has poured his heart into, and she fleetingly responds, but when her immensely rich stepfather Stuart (Xander Berkeley) gives her a thoroughbred horse one moment later, she is overcome by the astonishing, living present. Bryan's nonplussed countenance speaks volumes about the socio-economic reality, as well as the fecklessness with which he has attempted to reassert himself in his daughter's life. When his ex-colleagues come by for a barbecue, he explains to them (admittedly in too neat and expository a fashion) why he has left his former life behind. He wants to simply reconnect with his daughter. Taken's economy of style is largely slyly coordinated, but its acceptance of a few short cuts may alienate some. Conveniently, Bryan and his friends have taken a one-night moonlighting job providing security for a pop diva in Los Angeles—opening the stage for Bryan to ask the youthful but famed singer for any advice on behalf of his daughter. Too obvious? Perhaps, but the film, behaving in an almost slumberous manner—befitting the faux superannuated demeanor of Neeson's retiree, belied by his razor-sharp senses and eventually unveiled expertise—spends enough proportional time to make such occurrences fairly believable within the picture's framework.

Once the “plot” of the film begins, however, the patience afforded to establishing everything that matters to Bryan is eschewed in favor of purely cinematic, unpretentiously compact storytelling. The end result is a deliriously fast-paced, hectically unsettling olla podrida portrait of kinetically tumid hostilities. Taken's color schema is a washed out, almost bilious canvas. Cinematographer Michel Abramowicz captures leading man Neeson in a recurring haze of gas, smoke, steam, fog and both natural and artificial light. Contributing a deft numinousness to the proceedings, the visually stimulating mise-en-scene seems to continually enshrine Bryan's actions as the consequences of casuist love for one's own blood. Recalling the casuist St. Alphonsus Maria de Liguori and his monumental book, Theologia Moralis, when Neeson's Bryan stumbles on one camp of beleaguered, drug-addled sex slaves after another, the film intelligently posits his reactions as legitimate. By systematically penetrating the Albanian traffickers' network, he is cast in a virtuous light; that his motive is limited to finding and rescuing his own daughter is wisely viewed as understandable. Tuning the very foundation of comprehending the nature of ethics is highly difficult, in its myriad contradictions when applied to the various incarnations of humanity, but Taken's casuistry is refreshing. Bryan is not a man of absorbed abstractions and ideologies, but a breathing source of specific correction.

In an undeniable way, however, Taken is a parable and model for absentee fathers. The Limey examined the gash in the lives of its father and daughter's connective emotional fluency, while Taken allows itself to imbibe the cathartic trappings more typically attendant to films broadly defined by their interpretations of vengefulness. Unlike most films of this kind, however, Taken is far more serene and troubled, inclusive and off-putting all at once. Bryan's emotive, unconditional love for his daughter—so commendably conveyed by Neeson (the scene in which he is doomed to listen to his daughter's kidnapping finds resonance in the actor's magnificently indefatigable and transmitting face)—provides an investment of audience emotion lacking in the Bourne franchise, for instance, which, in all of its hyperactive dramatics and pyrotechnics, was fundamentally about a man running to express anger at his employers.

Taken's visual patterns and intelligently mounted singularities make Morel's film more nutritious than the great bulk of films often defined by their instances of gun-play. From the very beginning, Taken gently surprises the viewer. The first surprise is the presentation of the title itself. As Neeson's Bryan walks past a picture of his daughter, the film's title appears—large, and in white text, against a dark background. Yet the filmmakers keep the title planted on the screen as the background changes with the next scene—the uncharacteristically bright glare of daylight, with Neeson's Bryan parking his car. This slight jolt created by the mere retaining of the title on the screen accurately describes the subdued yet effective manner in which Taken nudges one peppered surprise after another throughout the narrative. When Bryan's best friend refers to him as “Rambo,” the film later takes this statement to a meta conclusion, as the film comments on the action film: Bryan actually refers to himself over the phone to his inevitable adversary as his “nightmare.” In one scene of derring-do, the trendily loud sounds of machine gun fire are brilliantly subverted by the filmmakers, as the sound actually drops as the gunfire occurs. This creates an intrinsically more surreal recording of the action sequence unfolding. Happily, there is only one major explosion throughout the entire film, and it is perfectly calibrated as the punctuation of a series of gasoline barrels being knocked down like bowling pins in a rhythmic dance. This is linked to the film's one major car chase sequence, which is largely captured through low shots that make the battling jeeps look like giant carnivorous animals in the mud. The chase scene is capped off by a beauteous shot of large globs of mud spilling downward like melting icicles from a wintry roof, splattering about a villain's windshield at just the musically perfect moment.

Certain ubiquitous moments of the “action” genre remain, and it is always worth wondering why villainous infrastructure is never quite trustworthy. However, Morel simultaneously emphasizes and modifies the tale's most pointedly resonant properties. An exchange between sinister snake and heroic avenging angel like, “It wasn't personal. It was just business,”/“It was all personal to me,” may have initially read as prosaic and formulaic but are gifted by an aesthetic propulsion of sight and sound. As Bryan pitilessly shoots a man to death in an elevator, a cloud of smoke wafts and mushrooms in the small environ. That smoke—representing the hell the slain has to look forward to, and the anagogic endorsement of Bryan's conduct—speaks volumes and bolsters the dialogue as simply the words people have for one another juxtaposed with the commentary of visages afforded by the filmmakers. Taken allows itself to be viewed as a wish fulfillment exercise for missing-in-action fathers—Bryan's daughter's abduction provides him with the condition to prove his heroism and love to her, leaving the horse-giving, rich stepfather in the proverbial dust—as well as the blessing of good mercilessly vanquishing evil, and an ethically casuistic tale of the love a father has for his child.