Friday, April 3, 2009

Murmur of the Heart (1971)

There is an almost inescapable infectiousness beaming from and residing in Louis Malle's best films. His vibrancy and effervescence, when judiciously meshed with a compelling, mythic anecdote—both of which he himself crafted with singular delicacy—is simply irresistible. It has doubtless often been said that Murmur of the Heart, like other Malle pictures, is a filmic essaying of innocence lost, but that is itself a faux pas. Malle's work, not irregularly maligned by critics who soured on Malle's admittedly tartly acidulous aromatic palette, is best consumed with a suspicion—not of his intentions but of his art, which seems to serve as a rejoinder to the oft-repeated phrase, trust the art, not the artist (which naturally remains true in Malle's case as well). Malle's films are about innocence, period, even when it is politically, sociologically or culturally skewed, benighted and spiritually subjugated to the banalities of polity, as in the mesmeric tarry through callow fascism that is Lacombe, Lucien. Malle's cinema—imbued with an innate plausibility, but purified by a tinting of phantasmagoria—is arrestingly deceptive without resorting to duplicity.

Murmur of the Heart stars Lea Massari and Benoit Ferreux (in his first film) as Clara Chevalier and her adolescent son, Laurent, in 1954 France. As in other Malle pictures, the main pubescent-to-young adult character's insouciance is juxtaposed with the geopolitical tumult that either directly or circuitously informs his peregrination into variegated definitions of manhood, most commonly finding sexual awakening, arousal and action as the definitive fulcrum against which all else pivots. The aforementioned Lacombe, Lucien made Malle's most trenchant points concerning wartime collaboration as seen through ambling indifference—ascetically apolitical in its painterly construction but highly, almost obdurately uncompromising in its most sweeping aspects of efficaciously rendered prevarication (Lacombe's chief imperious/sexual conquest and annexation is of the pulchritudinous girl named France Horn)—but with the earlier Murmur of the Heart, Malle's edifice remained with the entanglements of the familial. As reports stream into the consciousness of Frenchmen from the losing contest in Indochina, Laurent—who, in the film's prologue is found with a friend soliciting random people for aid for wounded veterans of the colonial strife—blossoms in both expected and unexpected ways. This is a most particularly oedipal telling of the nuanced love between a son and mother.

Like Francois Truffaut's The 400 Blows, the son, here Laurent, catches his mother engaging in extramarital love affairs. The love that once deeply marked the Italian-born mother's marriage to her gynecologist French husband, for whom she produced three sons—Laurent being the youngest—has been replaced by gentle but occasionally uncomfortable silences and arguments recurrently about Laurent's nature, with the nearly overprotective mother protesting that the misbehaving child is sensitive as her husband merely throws up his hands and refers to him as a pain in the neck. “He used to be so jealous,” Clara Chevalier tells her son late in the picture. At this time, however, Clara finds herself searching for excitement and warmth of feeling from other men. Laurent's sexual confusion and deep, abiding affection for his mother collide as he catches glimpses of her running off with other men. Clara will tease him late in the film: “You're my little, jealous French husband!” The relationship between Clara and her son doubtless inspires interest from receptive Freudians.

What partly separates Malle's pictures from many others is their curious, salient repetition of movement and form. Like the heartbroken, lonely solitary figure walking seemingly aimlessly about the arid night in Elevator to the Gallows, Murmur of the Heart's cohesion—seen from Laurent's point-of-view, but legitimately adjoined to his equally cogent and misaligned multi-peopled portraitures orbiting his mother—is made up of confident visual enactments that prop up Malle's thematic touchstones. In Murmur of the Heart, these are repeatedly quite funny. One especially rewarding sequence follows Laurent's delirious older brothers playing “spinach tennis” with one another, flinging globs of spinach to one another's plate from across the dinner table. Much later in the film, the actual sport of tennis will become a metaphorical simile for the battle of the sexes, and how the entire war is a stupendously childish game of a different sort, one of Malle's most propitiously important revisited themes.

What ultimately enriches Murmur of the Heart, however, is its densely literate subtexts. In one subtle scene, a brother of Laurent's hands him reading material: “Proust to entertain you and Tintin to instruct you.” As Laurent chastises a shallow suitor for Clara's affections at a health spa, he points to the intelligence of Proust. “But you don't read Jewish writers,” Laurent notes of the apparently nationalistic, colonialist-leaning young man. “A country is nothing without colonies. Look at the English,” Clara's suitor remarks. The allusions to Proust are important to examine, as they hint at Malle's narrative structure. Murmur of the Heart is fundamentally a retelling of Proust's “Within a Budding Grove, Volume 2” from “In Search of Lost Time.” The connective tissue is myriad in its configurations. Malle's health spa—which Laurent, like the story's narrator, is a sick child, attends for the sake of his heart which suffers from murmurs—appears to be a stand-in for Proust's Balbec; the pretty blonde girl Helene seems to be inspired by Proust's Albertine, who in both the story and Malle's film is suspected to be a lesbian; like the narrator, Laurent seeks to sexualize his relationship with Helene/Albertine—Proust's delineation followed the narrator's quest to kiss Albertine whereas the sexually fixated Laurent attempts to bed Helen; and like the narrator, Laurent professes a consummate love for his mother (which again, in Malle's tale, is more acutely sexualized).

As in Lacombe, Lucien and other Malle films, from the mutedly despairing, futuristic parable of the war between the sexes, Black Moon to another rendering of maladjusted childhood fantasia and tragic malignity, Au revoir les enfants, male dream-manufacturing, like spools from which airy cotton candy are proliferated, finds both reward and dejection, elation and despondence, in the ecstatic reverie of dazed abstraction. Where Murmur of the Heart differentiates itself from both Malle's earlier and later work is that its playfulness is more earnest—and therefore brighter and truer all at once—because the child is truly enraptured with not only a conception but a real-world visage of nearly ineffable familiarity and closeness. Oedipal or not, the relationship—superbly brought to life by the effortlessly charming child actor Ferreux and the window of the mortal divine that the impossibly endearing Massari most palpably represents—somehow resides beyond all of his other explications of humans in all of their confounding complexities. Profundity of a peculiarly alien, ethereal kind presents itself in Malle's exquisite denouement. After everything, all the Chevalier brood can do is laugh together, giggling and chuckling, chortling and cackling, in a fit of sustained cachinnation, surveying not so much the world—which for all of national and intimate changes, in immeasurable and decipherable ways alike, coupling the political with the sexual, has not been irreparably altered after all—but themselves. As with almost anyone with any hint of modesty, self-awareness and humility, they have burst together, as in the most reasonable reaction to a sustained episode of looking into a mirror.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Hunger (2008)

Steve McQueen's feature film debut, Hunger, is an uneven but viscerally forceful picture. Where it fails in comprehensiveness and even filmic movement—McQueen's vignettes almost all stand apart, disparately creating momentary displeasure and disgust, never quite gelling into a substantive narrative, or at least only belatedly finding one to pursue—it succeeds in sensational conviction befitting its subject matter. Not unlike Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, McQueen's film is fervent and nearly maniacal in its unblinking stare; unlike Gibson's film, McQueen's attempt to chronicle the sixty-six day hunger strike spearheaded by Irish Republican Army leader Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) is secular in its devotionally obsessive focus. Drawing a parallel between both the cruelty visited upon the defiant and disruptive prisoners of the Northern Ireland Maze Prison by the guards and Sands' self-inflicted choice to starve himself to Christ's passion on several occasions, McQueen and collaborator (and playwright) Enda Walsh seem to nevertheless yearn to unfurl their drama with a level of detachment.

That detachment, however, is occasionally made questionable, and McQueen's actual beliefs are ostensibly betrayed by his insistence of layering stylistic flourishes atop the occurrences his film essays. One repetitive touchstone is the usage of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher verbally condemning the Irish Republican Army members as violent terrorists unworthy of the political prisoner status for which they protested. McQueen creates significant sympathy for the Irish prisoners, demonstrating with an unalloyed minimalism, as they communicate through tiny wads of paper passed along through their mouths to one another during mass. However, McQueen and Walsh exhibit empathy for the guards as well; indeed, the film opens with an extended sequence during which the camera follows along a guard who is washing and soothing his scarred-over knuckles in water. In one scene of vicious brutality, one guard appears almost traumatized, weeping as he recognizes the levels of de-humanization to which he and his peers have descended.

While examining Hunger it is advantageous to consider the chiefest qualities of cinema; its immediate fluency, and proficiency when optimally used to convey information. For example, in many of the better unironic, under-appreciated “genre” films, it is almost always the acuity of the filmmaking that enhances the narratively prosaic. It is in these films where the visual craftsmanship and aesthetic stylishness benefits the films' unalloyed machinations. When appropriately meshed, visualization supersedes what is commonly called “plot.” From Taken to Point Break, and many other examples, it is the artful accession of élan that endows the familiar.
So it is with a slightly confounded mien that it is realized that McQueen's Hunger is almost arriving at the opposite spectrum of cinema—the “story” is at the service of his craftsmanship. McQueen is trained as a fine artist, and his debut film is delineated by ostentatiousness and precociousness. The entire ninety-six minute film plays out like an exercise in quaffing precious artfulness. With the proverbial tips of the hat to Robert Bresson (the meticulously detailed manner in which the prisoners communicate with one another cannot not remind of A Man Escaped) and Stanley Kubrick (the entire film accounts de-humanization—of prisoner and guard alike—and a sequence in which a group of jackbooted thugs stand in a long hallway cannot not bring images of Full Metal Jacket to most filmgoers who will actually watch Hunger), McQueen's confidence, at least bordering on arrogance, is doubtless.

Not that there is anything wrong with a stubborn, uncompromising artistic initiative—with Hunger, it is the imagery that stays, long after the final credits have unspooled, after all, but for its second and most impressive act. Nonetheless, McQueen's picture plays like numerous sketches aligned together for the purpose of making a film. Coherence is not an issue—Hunger is rigorously minimalistic and quite slowly paced, which contributes to the pervasive feeling of crushing, listless boredom that is as poisonous to the souls of the prisoners (and guards) as the ordeals to which they are subjected as a price of their disobedience. Ocular recording of the tellurian plays heavily into the visceral potency that is Hunger's most certain attribute. As a guard sedates himself with a quiet sojourn to the yard, smoking a cigarette in the wintry weather, snowflakes fall upon him. McQueen and director of photography Sean Bobbitt capture the subsequent moment on film with fine delicacy. The guard who had earlier soothed his beaten, battered and bloodied knuckles in water finds little snowflakes weep from the sky and landing on his scars and marks of self-inflection against the heads of many prisoners. McQueen's fine artist eye catches many more undisguised flourishes. Prisoners smear their own excrement upon the walls of their cells, and McQueen's camera seems particularly attuned to the spiral patterns one prisoner creates with feces-wall painting.

The best portion of the film, however, is a bravura, unbroken sequence in which McQueen's camera remains still and there are no interruptions of cutting. For over fifteen minutes, two men, Sands, and Father Moran (an extremely stirring and profound Liam Cunningham: his performance alone makes Hunger worth the investment) speak to one another in ostensible “real time,” volleying points to one another. The steadied duration of this puissant portion creates uneasy astriction and tautness, deftly providing an atmospheric contextual support for the final act of the film that details Sands' self-imposed bodily disintegration, wherein the film finally does become soporose in its hazily blurred perspective. When the camera finally does break the hypnotic spell, it is to emphasize Sands' words as he tells an allegorical story from his childhood about doing what was right and accepting the consequences with the peace, dignity and knowledge that he had the courage to do what was right. The conversation between Sands and Father Moran is utterly bewitching and fascinating, and an instance of actors correctly taking over a film and the director allowing them the freedom, space and time with which to tell a story.

It is, then, almost humorously appropriate to consider the inherent artifice of the entire riveting conversation. By all accounts, Sands and Father Moran never spoke to one another, whereas it is clear that such events as IRA members being beaten, refusing to wear certain prison uniforms and going on hunger strikes are part of recorded history. In Hunger's major and outstanding concession to filmic progress and peregrination, it actually extols the virtues of the cinematically schematic derived by storytelling strategies and considerations of scenario. Unlike The Class, which was made intentionally visually unappealing by its director, Hunger is a film with several toes dipped in the waters of vérité filmmaking and mise-en-scene construction but with other toes hanging on to almost wheezing exhalations of exhilaratingly intense abstract artistry. That the most dazzling set-piece of Hunger almost perversely proves the efficacy of what may be loosely defined as “make-believe” is deeply paradoxical.

In the film's foggy, more asomatously focused, denouement, Sands allows his body to waste away. McQueen follows the process with a serviceable melange of the dispassionate and the assertive, engendering a cumulative tableau of a man gradually drifting away. Misty flashbacks to his childhood, the personal history from which he told the emotional story to Father Moran, abut the film's apparent moroseness in its consideration of a young man's life concluding long before it should have. The correlation to Jesus Christ becomes less distancing than it was earlier in the film—a manufactured line of dialogue from Sands in which he says that Christ's disciples were merely jumping on a bandwagon after Christ laid it all on the line himself diminishes their own respectively harsh fates and credentials for martyrdom—as McQueen visualizes Sands' earthly demise. Long, uninterrupted takes with sepia-toned dissolves overlapping atop them punctuates Sands' sixty-six days of deprivation. A flock of birds flying off represents Sands' soul taking flight in a sequence that at least borders on the clichéd, but, like so much of the film, makes itself at least stand apart through sheer force of will.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Night They Raided Minsky's (1968)

The Night They Raided Minsky's is an appropriate film to look over on April Fools' Day, as its narrative hinges on one large “trick” to be played on certain characters. William Friedkin's second feature film is an uneven but sweet and charming ode to the 1920s theaters of burlesque. As the film today exists in current form, it routinely cuts away from his own narrative and splices in many apparent pieces of footage from the time period itself, thick with grain and washed-out images. The screenplay, based on a book by Rowland Barber and written by Arnold Schulman, Sidney Michaels and Norman Lear, supplies a dangerously thin storyline, but the film is at its most fun when the mechanics of the picture are almost invisible, and mere gags and burlesque performances take the center stage.
Jason Robards, who plays central figure Raymond Paine, received mixed notices for The Night They Raided Minsky's, but today his performance seems stronger than it may have at the time of the film's release. Robards was never too much of a “leading man movie star” to diminish his own self-effacing and auto-critiquing tendencies; even in the testosterone-laden westerns in which he appeared, he often played characters either physically or psychologically wounded, such as the contemporaneous Once Upon a Time in the West, Hour of the Gun or The Ballad of Cable Hogue. With Minsky's, Robards allows his most winning attributes to mesh with his nearly continual semblance of debilitation—ever so slightly suave, his persona is crushed when confronted with hostility or projected dubiousness by others. It helps that Robards is given many of the film's best lines. When his longtime partner and friend, Chick Williams (an energetic Norman Wisdom), falls for the pulchritudinous Amish ingénue, Rachel Elizabeth Schpitendavel (a wide-eyed Britt Ekland), Robards' roguish huckster comedian undermines Chick's propriety. )(Which ties into their joined rendition of “Perfect Gentleman,” in which Robards' character sings along with Wisdom's about just how much of a gentleman he is. “You suffer from the three D's,” Raymond tells Chick, “you're decent, devoted and dependable. Good qualities in a dog—disastrous in a man.” He goes on: “Women love bastards. I am a BFC: Bastard First Class.” Robards likewise shines in a long scene in which he approaches a woman at the local deli—where a significant portion of the film's events take place—only to be surprised when her husband returns from the restroom. So Raymond smooth-talks the husband and is as smooth as the skin of a newborn. The humor is obvious but Robards is too excellent when at his best in this film to dismiss, balancing his motor-mouthed shtick with the fearfulness behind it.

Ekland is fine as the young runaway Amish woman who is blinded by the dazzling marquee. As Raymond and Chick contest one another over her affections, Ekland's debatable one-note performance never feels particularly calculated, which is key in making it fit with the long line of young ingénues who were transfixed on the idea of becoming a star of show-business. Considered unqualified for burlesque, Ekland's Rachel is manipulated by the scheming Raymond; his bright idea is to have her perform one night after being billed as “Mademoiselle Fifi,” the French starlet and heroine of pornographic literature, who is, it is constantly noted in her billing, “The Girl Who Drove a Thousand Frenchmen Wild.” Raymond figures Rachel will do what she has done in her Pennsylvania Amish community—perform a Biblical dance rather than a bawdy number. Thus, Secretary for the Suppression of Vice Vance Fowler (Denholm Elliott), determined to raid Minsky's in the event of Mademoiselle Fifi's appearance, will have no reason to shut the establishment down and Raymond's job will be safe.
Two other welcome performers are Joseph Wiseman and Elliot Gould as the father and son (Louis and Billy Minsky), who repeatedly enliven the picture. Wiseman and Gould play their parts as Jewish businessmen with significant emphasis on their ethnicity. The Night They Raided Minsky's pokes some fun at religion in general, as Rachel's stern and unforgiving Amish father, Jacob Schpitendavel (Harry Andrews), hunt her down and finally finds himself confronted with Wiseman's Louis Minsky. Louis educating two other religious men about the identities of each finger's meaning in religious terminology evokes laughter. The picture may satirize stoically religious individuals, but at this late point in the film, it does so with a genial warmth.

The Night They Raided Minsky's was released just as Hollywood films had largely been let loose; censorship in American cinema was coming to an end. So it is particularly amusing to view Minsky's as the film examines a different kind of show-biz thriving under the threatening thumb of censorship. As Elliott's Fowler chastises the men who run Minsky's, he is asked what he finds so objectionable. “Well, the women... They jiggle,” he remarks. The film is hilariously accurate in its depiction of the censoring force having to attend every show and write down in explicit detail what is to be considered lewd and improper.

Reportedly, Friedkin's cut of The Night They Raided Minsky's was a considerably different film from the eventually released 1968 picture—Friedkin's first cut was, it was almost universally agreed, a complete disaster. Editor Ralph Rosenblum worked on the film in postproduction for over a year, finding a coherent film through his assiduousness. Some may assume the concept of cutting to old footage was Friedkin's idea—perhaps an homage to Jean-Luc Godard's stylistics—but it was indeed Rosenblum who came up with the idea himself. Rosenblum, in effect, re-directed the film himself and made an alternative version of Minsky's which is today the one actually seen.

Some of the film's finest moments are simply of Robards and Wisdom engaging in song and dance with one another. The soundtrack is stuffed with modern classics as well as some songs by Lee Adams (the score was provided by Charles Strouse). The agreeable combination Robards' wise-guy next to Wisdom's naïve optimist makes The Night They Raided Minsky's seem so effortlessly mounted, though it actually was one of Hollywood's most painful births; likewise, Robards' history as a great stage actor and Wisdom's history as a great British comedian and music-hall star must have paid dividends as they excel at projecting an immediacy that draws in a live audience. Minsky's isn't a grand time at the movies, but it is fast, fun and frank—a valentine to all things just vaguely fulsome.