Saturday, October 31, 2009

Bright Star

Having seen only Jane Campion's debut Sweetie, I cannot comment on whether her latest, Bright Star is, as some say, her finest since The Piano. I also don't know if it displays her trademarks, if any, and I would venture to say that comparing direction techniques is largely a waste of time as I'm sure she altered her style from the quasi-surreality of Sweetie at some point before the more formalist technique that informs Bright Star. (I did notice, though, that she hasn't lost her flair for extreme close-ups, though the effect is about as far from the grotesquerie of Sweetie.) However, perhaps there is a silver lining to jumping from Campion's first feature 20 years ahead to this, her seventh, as I can safely say that it as marvelous achievement irrespective of past works, and it may be the most interesting period romantic drama I've seen since Martin Scorsese's The Age of Innocence.

Campion's elliptical style of storytelling is still a part of her writing it seems, and I was surprised at just how much she was willing to leave out when so many biopics attempt to force every researched nugget somewhere in the film. As with Sweetie, as much can be gained from these gaps as can be determined in what we actually see; besides, it's nice to see a period biopic break the rigidity of its three-act structure in favor of something unique. Furthermore, Campion does not center her story on the poet John Keats but on his neighbor Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish). On a practical level, it makes sense: when Keats died, he had the letters he wrote to Brawne destroyed, yet her correspondence to him survived. Yet this simple re-framing allows for a more honest exploration of these characters outside of the "genius" of the artist or their relationship.

Opening in 1818 and continuing through Keats' death from tuberculosis in 1821, Bright Star deals with a time when the English upper class was slowly heading towards the edge. The French had already crumbled under the weight of its aristocracy bankrupting itself to keep up appearances, and a similar situation was unfolding in Britain, though the revolution that ultimately reshaped the country was not civic but industrial. Fanny clearly belongs to a dying breed: the member of a well-off family run by a widowed mother, Fanny lives in a large town home with her younger sister ("Toots," played by an adorable Edie Martin) and brother, designing and stitching all of her own clothes.

Brawne meets Keats (Ben Whishaw) at a social function, and later she sends Toots to the bookshop to buy one of his books, Endymion; "My sister just met the author and wants to see if he's an idiot," Toots explains to the owner. Though Fanny enjoys the opening (the famous line "A thing of beauty is a joy for ever"), she dislikes the epic overall and has no qualms telling the author so. For his part, Keats finds Brawne to a style-minded minx with no knowledge of literature that would make her opinions worthwhile.

Eventually, the Brawnes move into the house next to the one occupied by Keats and his rich friend Charles Brown (Paul Schneider), and Fanny teases Keats that he's sleeping in the bed she used to, and that their rooms are adjacent to each other (think of the building setup as a duplex, if duplexes were made with two mansions). Soon they enter into a chaste romance, spurred when Fanny sees John caring for his dying brother and sees him as more than just a shiftless layabout avoiding real work. Fanny asks him to teach her poetry, resulting in lofty, but direct and beautiful, thoughts on the nature of poetry. "A poet is the least poetical thing in existence," Keats notes, implying that those who stop to analyze the beauty of the world are breaking nature's flow. Bright Star wisely avoids getting trapped in the mire of explaining an art as intangible as poetry, particularly of the Romantic variety, yet thoughts like these made me want to give poetry a serious try, outside of what we were made to read at school.

Naturally, their romance runs into opposition, but Campion adds dimensions to these familiar elements, separating Bright Star from the indistinguishable tide of period dramas. Mrs. Brawne knows that Keats, who's not only a poet but a critically despised one at that, has no financial prospects to support Fanny or her fashion. She does not forbid the romance, though, preferring instead to let it die of its own accord, and when it doesn't she largely accepts the pair's love. Charles Brown, the closest thing to a villain, actively seeks to separate Keats from Fanny, arguing that a woman will hamper the poet's talent, that Keats cannot write about the unrestrained freedom of nature if he is not free. Yet Campion undercuts this typical macho nonsense with subversive truths: if Keats must always be shackled to Charles for financial support, how is he any freer than if he spent his time with Fanny instead? Charles himself has a bit of an infatuation with Keats and stands in awe of his friend's talent; in a way, Charles and Fanny are simply two lovers quarreling over the object of their affection. These were real people, obviously, but the sheer proximity of their surnames stresses this.

Bright Star shows a willingness to present a romance against the backdrop of the most romantic expression of all, poetry, while still allowing for realistic emotions. Keats seems to agree with his friend's assertion that he needs to be away from Fanny to create, even though he enjoys his most fertile period at her side. Both characters have their moments of immaturity, though Fanny's outbursts tend to concern John's feeble arguments for leaving. Though these two never progress their physical romance past kissing, John and Fanny's relationship plays more like a contemporary one set in the 19th century, and the film suffers for it not once.

Campion gets the most out of her two leads, letting Cornish keep Fanny's fiery temperament rather than be "tamed" by her relationship and maintaining Whishaw's balance between Keats' lofty poetic quality and his more grounded stubbornness. There are also moments of great wit in Campion's script and direction, such as an encounter between Charles and Fanny where Fanny boasts to Charles that she just read all of Milton, The Odyssey and a number of other collections that week alone. Charles, knowing full well that this is impossible, asks if she found Milton's rhymes too "bouncy." "Not overly so," Fanny responds, and Charles just smiles to himself having caught her out. There's also the matter of Keats and Fanny's dress, him always clad in blue and her in pink, symbolically separated by gender. Campion presents this simplistic equation ironically and, like all the other conventions of period dramas, she gently turns it around into something that places both people on equal ground.

A Serious Man

Throughout their careers, Joel and Ethan Coen have drawn heavily upon the work of grotesque moralist Flannery O'Connor. Black humor, bleak outlooks on humanity, many of the Coens' central themes can be traced back to O'Connor. Except, that is, O'Connor's spirituality: the Coen brothers have a decidedly anti-humanist streak and, barring the Hell imagery of Barton Fink, have never really dabbled in the spiritual side of things, perhaps because they find their characters so morally repulsive that they see no point.

A Serious Man seeks to rectify this, and the Coens' retelling and reworking of the Biblical story of Job brings their work closer to O'Connor's oeuvre than ever before. Opening with a made-up Yiddish folk tale about a man who may or may not have invited a dybbuk (a corpse possessed by a wandering spirit) into his home, A Serious Man wastes no time taking stock of and poking fun at the brothers' storytelling conceits. Once the story cuts to its present, in 1967 Minnesota, the film draws from the Coen brothers' own lives even as it develops its Biblical parallels.

Job's stand-in here is Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a physics professor at a local university. He looks like he already has something nagging at him, but he has no idea what he's in for in the near future. He returns home to discover that his wife wants a divorce. "You knew this was coming," she hisses, though we can see from the bewilderment on his face that this is clearly not so (hilariously, his confusion only angers her more). She's fallen in love with Sy Abelman (Fred Melamed), a much older widower who treats Larry in far too friendly a fashion as he's stealing the man's wife. Larry's two teenage kids already seem to know, though the only attention they show their father is in demanding he fix the TV vane or simply stealing from his wallet.

As Larry worries over his private situation, work life begins to turn south as well. The question of his tenure hangs in the balance, just as a disgruntled Korean student attempts to bribe his way out of an F. Before Larry can officially report the boy, the student's father comes and threatens to sue for defamation of character if Larry exposes the bribe. But if Larry keeps the money and doesn't change the grade, Clive's father will out him for taking the money. I'm not accepting your son's bribe, Larry pleads. "That's defamation!" the father retorts, dooming Larry to carry the envelope filled with money around in a sort of limbo.

Interestingly, as the world comes crashing down on Larry piece by piece, A Serious Man contains little in the way of actual story. Characters have unexplained, impossible-yet-bizarrely-plausible quirks that get them in trouble, someone dies long before the climax and without reason (it's a Coen brothers film), but nothing that really moves a narrative happens. What the Coens accomplish instead is a thorough deconstruction of Jewish faith through its pop culture byproduct: Jewish humor. The brothers clearly took from childhood experiences growing up in late-'60s Minnesota as Jewish lads, but their efforts reach far beyond the merely autobiographical and instead into stereotypes and tradition. The stress of a Bar Mitzvah, harpy women, neurosis, phlegm, all are dismantled and reassembled by the Coens.

Even the overall structure of the film aids this; as life spirals out of control for Larry, he visits three rabbis to ask why God is punishing him. Re-arrange that sentence into, "So, this guy is having a lot of problems, so he visits these three rabbis..." and you've got a setup for a joke. Each of them has his own stereotypically Jewish response: one simply stammers that God can be mean sometimes, then tries to point to the bright side of life by looking out of the window, which only shows the synagogue parking lot. Another, with all the time in the world on his hands, has his secretary inform Larry that he's "busy." The second rabbi is the funniest and most Coenesque of all: he spins a long-winded fable about a dentist who discovered Hebrew engravings on a Gentile's teeth. He comes to the same rabbi to decipher why God would place those markings on the man's teeth...Oh, you want to know how that turned out? "Who cares?" the rabbi says with a smile.

Complimenting the directors (as well as Roger Deakins, back with the duo after missing Burn After Reading) seems a waste of time, yet one has to note how their perfect depiction of '60s rambler home suburbia goes beyond simple period goes beyond simple recreation. As with Barton Fink, the compositions of shots can never fully be trusted: sometimes the camera pulls back to capture something huge like the absurd height of Larry's cluttered chalkboard, but mainly the walls close in, always compressing Larry as some new development only makes things worse for him. Aiding the visuals is Skip Lievsay's flawless sound design, which adds gags through barely audible noises (such as Larry's brother Arthur constantly yelling that he'll be out of the bathroom in a minute even when no one on-screen has asked him about it) and even total silence. Tying them together is some of "Roderick Jaynes'" finest editing to date: the editing in No Country For Old Men largely facilitated that movie's suspense, and the same is true here, but it also recalls the more madcap, for-laughs technique of Raising Arizona or The Big Lebowski.

Stuhlbarg's performance is worthy of a nomination; we meet Larry just as the first domino tips, and never get to see him remotely happy. He stands at the epicenter of an increasingly turbulent nightmare, buckling under the pressure until he's ready to burst. Yet Stuhlbarg plays this chaos with hysterical deadpan passivity, reacting with bewildered looks and awkward smiles and tics but rarely losing his composure completely. You can believe that this man would come apart dealing with an ever-phoning bill collector from the Columbia Record Club, demanding payment for albums Larry never ordered. Surrounding are a host of unknowns (in stark contrast to last year's star vehicle Burn After Reading), all of whom are even more believable as their kooky characters for, as far as we know, these actors might simply be these people.

By the time we reach the end, the Coens have taken Judaism and Jewish humor and reconstituted them as one and the same. A Serious Man shows their greatest thematic range to date, covering topics such as faith, morality, family and suffering, but all with the devilish wit we're used to them using. The film opens with their idea of an old Yiddish parable and it ends as a whole new one in its own right: a version of Job in which man fails God's test. Its ending is sure to anger many viewers -- though how many times do people need to see a Coen brothers film to know that the ending will throw you? -- but it's perhaps the best example of their take on Jewish humor in the entire film: after all that Larry has suffered through, here at last come the real ordeals.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

1989 Rewind: Sweetie

Jane Campion made a splash in the mid-'80s with a series of short films that received considerable critical acclaim. Her first, An Exercise in Discipline: Peel, won the Short Film Palme D'Or at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival. In 1989, she parlayed her new clout into a full-length debut, and I can safely say that Sweetie is a film unlike any other I have ever seen. Well, perhaps it's not so original; for all I know, Sweetie could be the logical, for lack of a better term, progression from her shorts, which I have yet to see (though I note that the Criterion DVD of Sweetie, which I can assure I shall be ordering soon, collects her short films). Regardless, Sweetie belongs on the short list of the all-time greatest feature-length debuts, and it boldly announces a fearsome talent in Campion.

Campion opens the film on Kay (Karen Colston), a timid, mousy woman somewhere in her 20s, having tea leaves read by a fortune teller. The teller spins the usual yarn, but Kay hangs on every word, especially when the fortune teller mentions a man in her future with a question mark on his forehead. As fate would have it, she heads to work only to find that one of her co-workers has just gotten engaged to a man with a mole on his forehead that aligns cosmically with a wayward curl of hair to form the symbol. She meets Louis in the parking lot, tells him that they're meant to be together, and the two start having sex right there under a car, quite literally under Louis' fiancée's nose.

The film then jumps 13 months into the future, the first of many narrative ellipses. The couple, last seen lost in mutual infatuation on the concrete ground of a parking lot, are moving into a house together. We can only assume things have been going well, as Louis celebrates the occasion by tearing out their clothesline to plant a tree. "It'll be our anniversary tree," he chimes. But Kay, already shown to be superstitious, remarks that the leaves are yellow and, despite reassurances that all the plant needs is water and light, she begins to fret that the tree will die, symbolizing a doomed relationship.

Here, the cracks in an otherwise arty but still relatively straight-faced story begin to form. Kay, distressed that the tree will die and take their relationship with them, tears out the sapling in the middle of the night and hides it under the guest bed. Soon after, she catches cold and moves into the guest bed, though she declines to return to the marital bed when she recovers, looking relieved not to have to worry about sex anymore. For his part, Louis doesn't seem to mind too much either, and when the two get in bed at one point to try and have a go at it, both of them undress methodically as if it were a job, and they come to a mutual agreement that it feels too much like mating with a sibling.

Before Kay and Louis can figure out where they stand with their relationship, however, Kay's family comes out of the woodwork, collectively suffering from their own issues. Kay's parents, Gordon and Flo, have decided on a trial separation, though why or how they've reached this stage they don't tell us. Flo heads off into the Outback, and Gordon comes to live with Kay for a while to keep his anger and grief in check. Gordon's appearance causes a subtle amount of stress in Kay's life, as she too must try to glean what happened between her parents as she tries to salvage her own relationship.

But whatever discomfort her father caused cannot compare to the re-emergence of her big sister Dawn, a.k.a. Sweetie (Genevieve Lemon). A spoiled brat that never outgrow being a child (and not in that playful way we refer to people as "big kids"), Sweetie breaks into Kay's house when no one answers the door, and her sister and Louis return to find Sweetie clearly in the middle of a romp with her new "producer," Bob. We glean from interactions between Sweetie and Gordon that the father doted upon the daughter and favored her above both the other child and the wife. His enthusiasm for whatever attention-grabbing trick Sweetie pulled as a child has ingrained in her a pathological need to be the center of attention.

Sweetie's return sets up a Freudian nightmare of sibling conflict: Kay, the paranoid superego versus Dawn the unrestrained id. Dawn, now overweight and hanging on to a junkie as her producer/agent in total oblivion that her dream of being a star died long ago, is seductive and wild. But she also acts like a petulant five-year-old and, as we are presented this story from Kay's perspective, Sweetie is presented as a tormentor of souls; in a brief flashback, we see only Gordon fawning over Dawn, but no younger Kay nor Flo. One cannot argue, though, that this middle-aged, spike-haired Loki sows a certain level of peevish disruption among the other characters, most notably in Louis, who, suddenly sharing living space with someone with a sexual appetite, finds his own sex drive reawakened, further straining his and Kay's relationship.

Yet Campion gives us enough space to draw our own conclusions about Sweetie. Kay, unsympathetic, cold and demonstrably selfish -- she tore apart a seemingly healthy relationship just because an old bat read her tea leaves -- is not exactly an ideal person herself, and Sweetie's actions betray as much psychological imbalance as Kay with her paranoia and superstition. When Kay at last tires of Sweetie's hellraising antics she kicks her sister out of the house, and Dawn's reaction is to run to Kay's room and shove Kay's collection of miniature horses into her mouth. It's certainly childish, but when she spits them out we see that the horses were fragile and they've broken, cutting up the roof of her mouth. In that immature tantrum is a very serious will to self-harm, which is revisited at the end when, in protest, she climbs nude into a treehouse and stomps its unstable floor. She's so trapped in a failed childhood that people speak to and about her as if a kid; even Louis, who only just met her, tries to calm a vengeful Kay when Sweetie tears the sleeves off of Kay's blouse. "We've already talked about it," Louis states calmly as if he and Kay were parents discussing their daughter's misbehavior, "and I think she knows what she did is wrong." As much as she is annoying, egomaniacal and borderline psychopathic -- she growls and barks like a dog when angry -- the chief sentiment I felt towards this creature was pity.

But if Sweetie is, by her placement in the title and at the top of the opening credits, the impetus of the film's story and Kay is the true protagonist, then Gordon is the key to unlocking all of this. Clearly he still believes in Dawn, and the scene where he jubilantly encourages Dawn to show off her "chair trick" -- involving her simply standing on a chair, tipping it forward and "riding" it down without falling -- is a moment of pitch-black comedy and a subtle level of psychological horror. The sheer banality of it is funny, as Louis cannot even pretend to care about it and walks away bored. Yet the way that Gordon pushes his daughter to perform this little party trick, and her own excitement at the opportunity to show off, demonstrates how both are trapped in a world of delusion, each unwilling or unable to see the reality of their lives or to inform the other. One night, Kay spots Dawn helping their father bathe, the nonplussed look on all their faces suggesting that sort of thing isn't new and that perhaps none of the have ever heard of an Electra complex. After Kay, Louis and Gordon head to the Outback to reconcile Gordon and Flo, the mother implies to Kay that the reason for their separation was his continued dotage upon Dawn.

I was struck throughout the film by Campion's visual style. For the first 20 minutes or so, I almost expected Sweetie to concern the slow suffocation of middle-class domestication à la American Beauty or its ilk. In reading this description of the plot after Sweetie's arrival, you might expect a searing family docudrama along the lines of, say, Secrets & Lies. But Campion has a decidedly off-kilter style, at least at this stage of her career. In some ways, her use of high, awkward angles, color saturation, and bizarre, depraved dream sequences invokes David Lynch, or at least a mainstream version of the modern David Lynch, who is quite mainstream itself. Thus, I wouldn't call her style surrealistic by a long shot, but at every moment Campion seems to be setting up the story as more a fable than a document of one twisted family. Strangely, the most interesting aspect in her script (co-written with Gerard Lee) is the gaps in narrative: what happened in that 13 months that turned lovesick "destined" lovers into a frigid pair who acted as though they'd been trapped in a loveless marriage for decades? What exactly is the deal with visual flourishes like that odd cowboy dance out where Flo moved for the month? Campion gives us only one flashback, which itself offers no information that cannot be gleaned from the rest of the film and, I suspect, exists only to provide us with an image of the young Dawn to be used at the end of the film. Visually, her most striking element is a number of extreme close-ups that isolate characters, even when they're in the middle of a dialogue.

That isolation adds a larger element to Sweetie's themes, which include a subtle commentary on how negligent or doting parents can affect a child's psyche into adulthood (one could also take from that a more feminist viewpoint of how these two fragile women were warped by the men in their lives). It suggests that these characters, or all of us, can't connect with each other: Kay's frigidity prevents physical connection with Louis, Sweetie's insanity prevents self-awareness which isolates her from others, and Gordon's delusion prevents meaningful connection with any of his family, despite desperately wanting to keep them all together.

Sweetie ends on a tragic note, but one that perhaps signals the potential for change. The death brings out Kay's humanity at last, which she could share with her boyfriend; we see a close-up of Louis' feet, soon joined by Kay's, and the gentle, cautious game of footsie suggests sexual reconciliation. Then the real coda follows, and it's truly one of the creepiest scenes in any film: Gordon has a vision of the young Dawn, singing off-key but adorably so. I'm not entirely sure what to make of this: has Gordon at last seen the real Dawn, the one who never grew up, only more grotesque? Is this what he always saw when he looked at his daughter, incapable of processing that his little angel grew up to be a demon? Is this a hallucination that provides comfort, or is it torture? I don't know, but frankly I can't decide which interpretation disturbs me more. I'm never complaining about my family again.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Paris, Texas

The wilderness through which Travis (Harry Dean Stanton) wanders at the start of Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas is alternately beautiful and hauntingly empty. Like the siren's song, it is enticing and seductive but also foreboding and lethal. Sporting jeans and a baseball cap, traditional American wear, Travis could be any healthy American male. In the middle of a desert, however, shuffling aimlessly and aged prematurely by a wild beard and sunken eyes, this vision of the American male becomes something ominous: even in the endless expanse of the Americas, a man might be unable to find a home.

Severely dehydrated, Travis passes out in a gas station and is taken to a hospital. The doctor, a German, looks through the man's possessions and calls Travis' brother Walt (Dean Stockwell) to come get him. By the time Walt gets down to the US/Mexico border, though, Travis has set out again, and Walt must routinely find his brother on the side of a road, put him in his car, lose Travis when his back is turned, and so on. I'm so used to seeing Stockwell as the off-kilter, often evil character (Blue Velvet, Battlestar Galactica), that to watch him try to nurse this silent, traumatized man back to life was initially jarring.

Wenders' film unfolds with minimal plot. We learn that Travis has been gone four years, that he lost his wife and son, Hunter (Hunter Carson), though why we're not told -- Travis has been walking the desert so long that he's lost his memory. Walt and his wife, Anne (Aurore Clément), took Hunter in when Travis left as did the boy's mother, and the first half of the movie generally deals with Travis' slow re-acclamation with his brother and son. Hunter, only 3 when his father left, understandably has few memories of him, so father and son must essentially start over from scratch. Carson must play the typical child role, the one that positions the kid as both realistic brat and unconsciously profound savant, yet he does so with a greater balance than I've seen in 99% of all other child performers.

Wenders does not bring Travis and Hunter together with your typical exchange of child's outrage at abandonment and parent's tearful expressions of regret and pleas for forgiveness. Hunter is at the age where potentially life-altering occurrences can pass largely without comment (when I was 6-7, my mom remarried and I was adopted to change my surname, and I never thought anything of that decision until years later), so he just starts calling Travis "Dad" even as he continues to do the same to Walt. Travis doesn't waste time apologizing because he cannot remember what he did that requires an apology; instead, he attempts to reconnect with his son with as little turbulence as possible. In a dry moment of comedy, Travis heads to a clothing store to try to dress like a dad, and he models the sort of goofy get-ups that dads stereotypically wear in a manner not unlike all those montages of gorgeous teens searching for the perfect outfit.

Eventually, the two bond enough that Travis takes Hunter with him to Houston to search for his wife, Jane. Travis learned from Anne that Jane sends a check to Hunter once a month, so he and Hunter stake out her bank, eventually giving cautious chase to a red Chevy that Hunter believes contains a woman who looks the one in the photo Travis gave him. Wenders manages to eke an impressive amount of tension out of this scene, as Travis attempts to tail a car that may or may not contain his wife, especially after he catches up to the car only to find another, identical red Chevy next to it and must choose which one to follow.

I've long been a fan of Stanton; a prolific character actor, his seemingly effortless control of emotions through body language and his ability to fit in naturally in a working-class sci-fi nightmare (Alien) as well as he does in a ludicrous, flag-waving blockbuster (Red Dawn) adds an extra dimension to his projects. Paris, Texas contains what is perhaps his finest performance: Travis does not walk the desert because he's insane but because he has been destroyed by grief. Without saying a word for the first ten minutes or so, he manages to establish his character with the saddest eyes I have ever seen. Before Walt even asks the futile question, "What happened?" we know that this man's life has gone wholly and catastrophically wrong. When Travis heads to Hunter's school the first time to walk his son home, the look on his face when the boy rebuffs his dad to ride home with a friend -- more out of laziness than rejection -- is devastating.

But Stanton makes these earlier moments look like pantomime compared to what he pulls off when Travis is at last reunited with Jane, only to discover she works in an adult theater where men sit in a room with a two-way mirror watching women strip. Stanton, who had so few lines for the entire first half, engages in long conversations with Nastassja Kinski, who also puts in an incredible performance as the broken Jane. His first conversation is, understandably, awkward: stunned at the revelation, he can barely contain his tears as he talks to an unknowing Jane, though we sense even in this moment that he's planning something. Jane seems to catch on rather quickly, glancing at the mirror though she cannot see who's behind it. Travis returns, determined to reunite mother and son, and he delivers one of the finest monologues written for the screen: at last aware of what happened between them, Travis weaves a tale of youthful romance that turned into jealousy and drunken spite. With the marriage in shambles and Jane and Hunter already gone, Travis woke up one night to find their trailer on fire. He stumbled out and simply began to run away, never looking back. He concludes by telling Jane where her son is, and that the boy wants and needs her.

Paris, Texas draws a number of parallels to John Ford's seminal The Searchers, which is apparently the de facto choice for roundabout remakes (don't forget that Scorsese and Paul Schrader based Taxi Driver upon it as well). One could certainly compare Travis --also the name of Taxi Driver's protagonist -- to John Wayne's Ethan Edwards; at the end of the film, Travis stands on a roof watching the child reunited with his mother, and like Ethan he rides off into the distance. Where Ford's film positioned Ethan as your typical Western, indomitable hero, Wenders, working with Sam Shepard's no-nonsense script, suggests that Travis simply can't exist within a normal family.

One could certainly argue that Travis' interactions with the child and his evident love for his wife demonstrate a healthy potential for reconciliation, but Wenders uses the film to set up a sort of fable concerning the lengths one will go to for love. Having driven the three of them apart with his behavior four years earlier, he's simply too scared of doing it again, and so he sacrifices his chance to be with his wife and child to ensure their happiness together. It's an excruciating decision, though it's hard to imagine the character acting any other way: Ry Cooder's sparse acoustic guitar soundtrack is as spacious as the visuals, but it also doubles as a representation for the mixture of immeasurably deep agony and the belying sense of detachment within Travis. It meshes beautifully with the visuals (photographed by Robby Müller who, incidentally, would capture the same dichotomy of beauty and doom in the American West ten years later when he served as the cinematographer on Dead Man), which often cast close-ups of Stanton's masterpiece of a face against a massive background of wide open spaces, littered with rusting metal and fading billboards. It suggests, in a not altogether hopeless way, that some of us can never attain our vision of happiness, but perhaps we can find a certain solace in letting our dreams die.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Taste of Cherry

The action, for lack of a better word, of Abbas Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry occurs almost exclusively inside the cramped car of one Mr. Badii (Homayoung Ershadi). When the camera does leave the passenger seat, it's only to film the car from a 3rd person perspective high above, framing the vehicle within the huge, dusty landscape of Iran. Yet no matter how far away from the car the camera moves, the microphone picks up noises around the vehicle as if the camera never moved at all. That lack of aural barriers could signify the decreasing boundaries between people brought on by cellphones and the like, a theme that stands in sharp contrast to the personal separation evident in the characters who ride in Badii's Range Rover.

The film opens with Badii riding around Tehran, seeking a laborer but turning away the throngs of hopefuls who crowd him and immediately start haggling without knowing what the job is. Unsatisfied, he heads to the city's outskirts, loitering around a construction site, but the laborers here all have jobs and don't want to be seen deserting their post to go for a ride. At last, the driver stumbles upon a soldier walking to his barracks, and the young man accepts the lift. Instead of taking the lad to the barracks, however, Badii takes the increasingly worried soldier farther and farther out of town, enigmatically alluding to a "job" for which he's willing to pay a great deal of money. Just as the lad thinks he's about to be sold into sex slavery or some such, Badii finally reveals his intent: he intends to commit suicide, and he needs someone to bury him.

Getting to the plot introduction takes 20 long minutes, and Badii's statement of intent comprises the vast majority of what you might call plot. That leaves a good hour and ten minutes of Badii wandering Tehran and the outlying area searching for someone willing to bury him for a hefty 200,000 Tomans (even if he doesn't kill himself, the participant gets the money). To say that Taste of Cherry has a "measured pace" would likely earn you a tax break for charity: Kiarostami's flattened compositions capture the epic monotony of the rural landscape just outside the capital city's boundaries, all the more repetitive because Badii keeps driving through the same locations. Long stretches of the film pass without dialogue, as Badii drives about with the same blank yet faintly haunting look on his face.

But to dismiss the film as an aimless art picture in sore need of a better editor would be the height of foolishness. To fill the gaps left by a lack of narrative and character development, Kiarostami subtly inserts political commentary and, more importantly, challenges our notions of suicide. Each of the three characters Badii ultimately coerces into his Range Rover to hear of his job is not a native Iranian or is at least some sort of outsider: the young soldier is a Kurd, an inhabitant of a once-distinct region divided among neighboring Middle Eastern countries in the aftermath of the fall of the Ottoman Empire. The Kurds have long been embroiled in some conflict or other with bigger powers, as have the Afghanis, who are represented by a seminarian. The final passenger is a Turkish taxidermist, desperately in need of money to aid his ailing terminally-ill daughter.

The way each of these men responds to Badii's request, and the dialogues that follow, provide insight perhaps into deeper examinations of the resilience of these immigrants and refugees, as well as an incisive debate on the morality of suicide. The Kurd, a victim of generations of warfare and himself a soldier, simply flees when Badii shows him the hole he's already dug, an indication of a fundamental set of human values that cannot be corrupted. Before he leaves, though, he argues with Badii over his inability to bury a man. "You can't throw earth on someone!" he says proverbially, only for the driver to counter that, when the boy hypothetically comes to bury him, he will be dead and, thus, no longer a person. The seminarian, naturally, turns to religion to counsel Badii from killing himself, noting that the Koran calls suicide a sin. Badii's response is, I must say, one of the most intelligent rebuttals to this notion that I've heard: "When you're unhappy you hurt other people," he says. "Isn't that a sin too?" Wouldn't it be better to free oneself from pain and be with God sooner without lashing out in despair?

The Turk, as a member of the nation that once ruled over the Middle East, initially attempts to break the tension by telling an off-color, stereotypical joke. But he offers the most substantive debate with Badii over suicide, as he once contemplated it himself. Bagheri states that he stopped short of hanging himself when he stopped and tasted some mulberries near the tree where he tied his rope. "A taste of cherry," by which Bagheri means the "little things," is worth living for despite the burden of living. In these scenes, the enigma of the impetus for Badii's sorrow allows for a more universal commentary on human suffering and the acceptability of ending life to escape it.

This is the first Kiarostami film I've watched, and I was struck by his stark brilliance. One might look at the flattened countryside around the car as a weakness, but remember that Kurosawa's compositions were flattened as well. But his shots often contain comments upon Badii's mental state, which is impressive considering we are almost never given an insight into what the protagonist is really thinking. At the cement-mixing site where he meets the seminarian, Badii looks up to see a bulldozer pouring a load onto a massive dirt pile, a vision of post-industrialist boredom but also the act that he's trying to pay someone to do for him. His conversations with potential helpers involve him arguing that he's already dug the hole and he'll be the one to kill himself, so all the aide has to do is pour dirt on him. At one point, some women walk up to Badii's parked car and ask him to take a photo of the group; "It's all set. All you have to do is press the button," she says. Scenes like these demonstrate Bagheri's idea that little, beautiful moments abound in our lives, yet Kiarostami doesn't present this interpretation as "truth" as these moments contain those allusions to Badii's planned suicide.

As I sat with the film, I couldn't help but think of Ramin Bahrani's latest opus, Goodbye Solo. Bahrani has never shied away from acknowledging his influences, and if Taste of Cherry had no impact on Solo's plot I'll eat Werner Herzog's shoe: like this film, Bahrani's takes place largely in a car, between a man who wishes to commit suicide and never explains why and the man hired to drive the other to his grave. Bahrani's film even contains the same juxtaposition between visual and aural proximity. Bahrani sacrifices Kiarostami's more universal and spiritual contemplation, but I have to admit that Goodbye Solo is the more arresting and engaging of the two, not that such criteria make it superior.

The film ends on a mysterious note, never revealing if Badii goes through with his suicide, but far more interesting is the footage Kiarostami tacks on after the fade-out. If we accept that fade-out as Badii's life ending -- we must of course at least accept it as the end of the narrative -- then the behind-the-scenes footage showing Kiarostami instructing Ershadi takes on a profound meaning far beyond the credits fodder that outtakes typically signify. The self-reflexivity breaks the realist touch of the film, but seeing the actor who plays Badii walking around after his character possibly died potentially symbolizes the continuation of life, and that a man's life -- fictional yes, but wholly believable -- is art. I don't know that I'm chomping at the bit to sit down with this film in the near future, but it's one of the most thought-provoking films I've ever seen, and I hope to revisit it down the line when I've studied Kiarostami more.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Black Dynamite

In general, parodies only work if the creator loves whatever is being parodied (mocking that which you hate is satire). That's certainly true of Black Dynamite, a loving homage to the low-budget, often low-value blaxploitation genre. Its star and co-writer, Michael Jai White, clearly sat down with a stack of DVDs and a notepad, and the result is the finest parody film since Shaun of the Dead.

White plays Black Dynamite as a combination of Richard Roundtree and Jim Kelly, a street savior dedicated to keeping the ghetto clean who just so happens to know kung fu. When the mob kills his brother, however, all hell breaks loose. BD gets what information he can from his old CIA buddy-cum-police officer O'Leary (according to the plaque on his desk, he has neither a title nor a first name), though most of their conversations involve hysterically over-expository background details of their time in 'Nam. With the perfunctory warning that O'Leary won't tolerate a street war no matter how close their bond, Black Dynamite leaves the station and, without hesitation, starts a street war.

White, 41, has been a character actor for years, with a resumé that's bound to include at least one film you've seen. I know I've seen three of them, yet I couldn't possibly link his face or voice between them. With Black Dynamite, though, he has a role that will finally turn him into a recognizable star. White holds black belts in seven different martial arts, yet Black Dynamite's style, involving a great deal of ostentatious posturing following by one or two actual punches, fits in line more with the untrained skills of blaxploitation stars, or at least their directors' inability to film them properly. Dynamite is the sort of cat who melt a woman "with a wink and a smile," though his idea of smiling likely doesn't gel with any other person's. Though the ghetto looks upon him as a hero, BD is given to mood swings and outbursts, and more than once he explodes when someone mentions that drugs are killing the ghetto's orphans.

Using a combination of mocked-up stock footage and saturated Super 16 film, director Scott Sanders perfectly recreates the low-budget look of '70s B-movies without scratching up modern stock like Tarantino and Rodriguez did with Grindhouse. Black Dynamite moves through a neighborhood populated by people with names like Cream Corn or Honey Bee, and the homes these people live in are appropriately ostentatious; even with the film's naturally fuzzy look, the garish decorations and nauseatingly cheap interior paneling make themselves known.

Sanders appears to be having just as much fun as White: the camera often shifts out of focus without cause or lingers on a close-up long after the actor has finished speaking (to the point that they all express a certain mock discomfort). A boom mic dips so low into frame that White stops in the middle of a line to stare at it. When Black Dynamite leaps up into one of his fiery speeches of civic outrage, the camera belatedly tilts to follow the action, then overshoots and must lower again. With the dialogue containing some sort of joke in almost every line and the visual style layering jokes onto the words and filling the few gaps, not a minute of the film fails to elicit at least one laugh.

At the end of the first hour, however, Black Dynamite goes from a first-rate genre parody into a broader farce involving a conspiracy on the part of the Man to bring down the black community that ultimately leads to showdowns on Kung Fu Island, and beyond. I won't comment too much on this section as it would involve major spoilers, but suffice to say as funny as the last half hour is (the protracted process by which the gang uncovers the truth behind the evil conspiracy is one of the funniest things I've seen all year), it lacks the cohesion of what preceded it. Nevertheless, you have to give points for originality, and anyone who tells you he saw it coming is a bald-faced liar.

Black Dynamite certainly doesn't have any lessons to impart to the viewer, and I don't know if, uproarious as it was, anything in it was as parodic as a POV shot in the original Shaft in which a man attempts to strangle the camera as if it was Shaft and you can plainly see his thumbs grip the rectangular frame of the camera. But it's filled to the brim with jokes, in-jokes and metajokes, with sight gags and exceedingly clever dialogue that warrant and reward multiple viewings; heck, you'll need to see it again just to catch what you didn't hear from laughing at the previous jokes. Black Dynamite had a bit of a problem with distribution earlier in the year, when Sony Pictures dropped it after purchasing the rights at Sundance. What, did they think they wouldn't make a profit on the funniest movie of the year, and one that only cost $3 million?

Assassination of a High School President

Brett Simon's Assassination of a High School President wants to be many things -- a straight film noir, a tongue-in-cheek spoof of same, a commentary on the seedy underworld of youth and an examination of high school politics. Unfortunately for Simon and writers Tim Calpin and Kevin Jakubowski, the television program Veronica Mars already did all of this with infinitely more finesse, charm and wit. Indeed, the specter of Mars is all over this picture, from its alternately popular/shunned protagonist to its hip quotation of classic noir tropes and dialogue. Where this film seeks to capture that lightning-in-a-bottle balance of styles and themes of the show's first two seasons, however, it can only shoulder up to Veronica Mars' third season: it rambles, it lacks much bite and you can figure out everything several steps before the main characters.

Reece Thompson plays Bobby Funke (pronounced "funk," though no one says it properly), a wannabe journalist who fancies himself the best writer on his school's paper despite never finishing a single article. He pines for the editor, Clara, though his romantic loyalties apparently extend only so far as the person he believes might go for him. Clara, likely fed up with Bobby staring at her legs all the time, gives him a puff piece to see if he can finally see an article to completion.

Sent to cover the Student Government Association, Bobby finds himself with a real story on his hands when the beloved SGA president Paul Moore, a star athlete who has already mastered the fine art of referring to himself in the third person, is injured at a basketball game. That same night, someone steals the SATs from Principal Kirkpatrick's (Bruce Willis) office. Coincidence? Not on your life, sport. Bobby, constantly professing his love for Woodward and Bernstein, attempts to solve the crime in order to secure a spot in Northwestern University's summer program. He finds circumstantial evidence linking Moore and the theft, and he takes the story to press without definitive proof. Suddenly, he's the most respected and feared kid at St. Donovan's.

Up until this point, Assassination played out like an above-average comic noir, its facile breakdown of high school and too-hip dialogue notwithstanding. Naturally, no mystery is ever solved by the halfway mark, so Bobby discovers that everything might not have been so cut-and-dry as he thought, and he needs to find the whole truth before Northwestern finds out and retracts their invitation. Compounding his need to clear Moore's name is Bobby's new relationship with Paul's ex-, Francesca (Mischa Barton), the most popular and beautiful girl in the school.

Here the various comic exaggerations boil over into outright farce, even as the writers ratchet up the drama, creating an uneasy dichotomy between moods. Some aspects of this magnified comedy greatly amused me: a literal beer garden of kegs outside a frathouse, a Fincher-esque detention hall with flickering lights and inexplicably damp brick walls, a mysterious fact-checker from Northwestern who can magically ring whatever phone Bobby happens to be standing near in order to keep up the pressure on this applicant to prove his story. But nearly all of the actors fumble with the stylized dialogue; hell, most of them couldn't even convince me they were remotely high school age. Worst of all is Barton, though that might be true only because she's given more dialogue than the completely two-dimensional background characters: she makes the increasingly popular choice to play her character without an ounce of emotion. When did actors get together and decide that the best way to play teenagers was lifeless? Maybe I'm just naïve but I don't think we were all on Adderall.

Assassination runs out of steam long before it actually comes to a halt, and to fill the gap it stretches the mystery out beyond the breaking point. Every clue Bobby receives leads in one glaringly obvious direction, but suddenly a heretofore unseen character or motive presents itself to offer a possible outcome. We must also suffer through the school turning once again on Bobby, returning him to his place at the bottom and indeed digging a hole under the ladder to lower him further. Nearly all of the dialogue concerned with Bobby's social status, really, borders on the groanworthy: when a rival writer plants a story that Bobby framed Moore to gain fame, Clara gives the perfunctory "I thought you wanted more than popularity" speech that is wholly without context to any of the film's action. Also, why is it that Bobby's story is (justifiably) torn apart by fact-checkers and other students while Tad's is accepted without a doubt?

The only reason I ended up remotely enjoying myself was the strength of Thompson and Willis' performances. Willis, very much in "Bruce Willis" mode, plays Kirkpatrick as a deranged Desert Storm veteran, a man who cares more about whether Bobby has gum in his mouth than the conspiracy Funke slowly uncovers. It's a cheap strategy, but there's no denying he steals all of his scenes simply by being loud and bizarre. But it's young Thompson who proves most interesting, and he stands to break out with the picture. With an identifiable voice (Wikipedia tells me he did voiceover work as a teen) and as a Veronica Mars substitute he impressively holds his own with a natural screen presence. As much as I wanted the movie to end, I found myself equally wishing I could follow this character a while longer. It's not enough to save the movie, but hey, every little bit helps.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Away We Go

Perhaps it's the indie quirk, the token acoustic pop soundtrack and the simplistic parallels between plots, but as I watched Sam Mendes' latest feature, Away We Go, I couldn't help but think of another preggo-indie feature of late: Diablo Cody's Juno. Both are stories of smarmy, self-absorbed protagonists forced into sudden maturation when saddled with a child. Where Juno was a self-styled teenage rebel, though, the characters of Mendes' film play like the sort of teenagers that litter the Sundance selections, now in their '30s and still wrapped in their naïve shells.

Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida's script certainly has a way of grabbing your attention: any film that opens with a scene of a couple discovering a pregnancy when the man comments that a certain part of his partner's anatomy "tastes" different certainly deserves to be seen until the end, regardless of its ultimate outcome. For a group of thirtysomethings who aren't married and can barely support themselves, Burt (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph) seem happy with the news, and we can assume that the six months the film suddenly jumps passed without much incidence anyway.

That changes, however, when the couple learns that Burt's parents, played by Jeff Daniels and Catherine O'Hara, have finally decided to go through on their 15-year-old dream and move to Antwerp. "The city of light!" Daniels exclaims euphorically, utterly failing to notice the look of shock and mounting fear on Burt and Verona's faces. The two moved to Colorado simply to be with Burt's parents, and their protests that Gloria and Jerry will miss the first two years of their baby's life mask a clear but unspoken concern that they're losing the people on whom they have depended for so long and almost certainly would saddle with co-raising their child. Well, it's not at all bad: Gloria and Jerry could find a renter for their house, so Burt and Verona can live there for the next two years. Oh wait, do I hear the phone ringing?

Quickly, perhaps too quickly, Burt and Verona acknowledge that they've been spinning their wheels all through their '20s, that the only thing they're sure of is each other and that's simply not enough when it comes to raising her child. So, they decide, instead of getting their lives together, to visit old friends in the search of a surrogate family to support them emotionally and guide them in child-raising.

The various visits largely contrast the straight man performances of Krasinksi and Rudolph with broadly cartoonish characters who have handled their own maturation and pregnancies with varying degrees of insanity. Allison Janney (also of Juno) somehow makes the repugnant, shrieking harpy that is her character work: Lily loudly swears and insults her children and Verona's baby bump, and her husband (Jim Gaffigan) has the thousand-yard stare of a veteran of unspeakable horrors. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays a professor with radical ideas for parenting that include a moratorium on strollers ("Why would we push our children away from us?") and making love to her equally out-there husband in front of their children to teach them about sexuality.

Through all of this wander Burt and Verona, communicating their shock and mounting outrage with the tastelessness of their old friends with sideways glances and that deer-in-the-headlights look you sport when you hear something so outrageously offensive you cannot be entirely sure that you imagined it in some dark crevice of the brain, for no actual human could say such a thing. Kransinski of course has this sort of role on his resumé: as Jim on The Office, he has to field the outrageous behavior of fools every week. The same role has also prepared him for the sweeter side of Burt's character: he might be a tad elitist when it comes to these minor characters (as if any of us would look upon them fondly), but he's also an impossibly kind person who has nothing but love and support for Verona. He's so nice that eventually Verona, who needs an excuse to keep her heart rate up anyway, asks him to be angry with her now and again and yell. This leads to some amusing scenarios in which Burt suddenly bursts out swearing, with a look on his face not of anger but of childlike peevishness and a showy grin that begs for approval.

The real discovery, though, is Rudolph. I don't know that I can remember many of her sketches on Saturday Night Live, and I recall her more as the person who filled the quota of people needed for sketches than a driving force. Yet she has a wonderful chemistry with Krasinski and his bashful charm, and she gets more than one laugh simply from the way she fields that minefield of a question "How far along are you?" Her character is not subjected to the sort of cheap hormonal humor that one must normally suffer through in a pregnancy comedy, and instead she gets as many jabs (as well as moments of loveliness) as the male character.

Sadly, the film hits the wall in the second half, in which the the largely successful mixture of moments of sweetness, quiet ironic commentary and loopy side characters give way to Serious Moments where Burt and Verona are inexplicably put in the position of experience and knowledge over the minor characters just as we meet a new group of supporting characters who are all in some way stable and down-to-earth. A pair of old college buddies have married and adopted kids, but their steadfast love is marked with tragedy and pain. Before Burt and Verona can even make sense of what they learn about these people, they must fly to Miami to deal with the wife of Burt's brother leaving him. The script loses focus in these segments, thrusting Burt and Verona into a position where more level-headed people turn to these wholly unqualified slackers for help, only to cut away from such situations without maturing Burt and Verona or exploring the levels of despair these other couples are facing that drive them to our protagonists. Eggers has a tendency to ramble, but where his lack of focus often aided the atmosphere of his recent Where the Wild Things Are, here it hinders the wonderful performances of Krasinski, Rudolph, and many of the supporting players.

Still, there's a certain charm to the picture. Mendes has never been a terribly interesting director; his most visually striking film, Jarhead, placed so much emphasis on looking pretty you practically see his nose bleeding from the concentration. Away We Go certainly doesn't buck the trend of Mendes' pedestrian direction, and at times the film seems to succeed despite him. For the most part, Away We Go works well within the increasingly rigid "Sundance" formula, elevated by its actors and a few well-written nuggets: there's something infinitely appealing about a film in which characters travel to Montreal not simply to see their friends but to see if Canadians really do put gravy on their fries.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

1989 Rewind: The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover

Films concerning food, or featuring food prominently in certain sections, typically work up an appetite in their audiences. Eat Drink Man Woman, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, hell, even Ratatouille have me jotting down plans for what to buy at the store or what type of restaurant I'm going before I'm done watching them. Peter Greenaway's The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover takes place almost exclusively in a restaurant, where the chef is such a master that he toils over the artistic presentation of the food as much as its taste. However, anyone who could come away from Greenaway's picture looking forward to any sort of meal has any iron constitution to be feared and respected.

I'll give Greenaway this: he doesn't pussyfoot around. In the opening scene, the Thief, a gangster named Albert Spica (Michael Gambon) has a man stripped and covered in dog feces to teach him a lesson about making his payments on time. Spica somehow secured himself ownership of a gourmet restaurant, and he believes that by eating there every night he can slip into the upper class by way of imitation. But his boorish behavior, as well as that of his crass crew, belies his hysterically transparent aspirations of social advancement, and Greenaway juxtaposes him with the genuine class and composure of the Wife, Georgina (Helen Mirren). Georgina is detached and bored, though one suspects her seeming patience comes not from being aloof but for catching a beating whenever she dares question her lout of a husband.

As Spica and his gang drive customers away in droves with their behavior, Georgina suffers in silence, until she spots a quiet man reading a book across the dining room. The two engage in an affair without even speaking to one another, making love under Albert's nose and very nearly being caught several times. Though they initially make no emotional connection through words, we can sense what the two see in each other: Georgina finds someone with her dignity and carriage, a gentle soul who gives her comfort in sex. The lover, Michael (Alan Howard), an intellectual bookshop owner who finds the idea of a woman sitting so quietly by such an ogre so interesting that he's drawn to her sexually. After days of engaging in secret sex -- which the Cook (Richard Bohringer) knows about but never remarks upon -- the couple finally gets to properly introduce themselves when Albert notices Michael reading at his usual table and invites -- in his own way -- the man to come to his own table and meet his wife.

The story between the four forms a Rabelaisian view of Thatcherian England. Every night, the same group of thugs comes to terrorize the employees and patrons of the restaurant, and even those of us who don't treat ourselves to the fancier side of cuisine can tell that the massive, ostentatious dishes served to the table are unappealing and serve only to fill a fat stomach (one suspects this is the kitchen's form of rebellion against its new, oppressive, know-nothing overlord). Albert gives the cook, the man he beat and smeared at the start, two trucks filled with meat, but the bitter chef refuses them. So, they stay behind the restaurant, their contents rotting until authorities at last come because the stench is overpowering [as a side note, I wonder if the images of the rotting meat, possibly the most shocking sight in a film that truly gives you your pick of the litter, are a reference to the symbolic rotting food in Roman Polanski's Repulsion; both mark the passage of time as well as the mounting of chaos]. It's a picture of the sickening excess and waste and greed of Thatcher's politics, presented to us with images that become progressively more shocking as the true depths of Albert's mania manifest themselves.

Greenaway is first and foremost a painter, having originally applied to the Walthamstow College of Art with the intent of becoming a muralist, and the influence of art on his film is evident even in its title. The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. Like the title of a painting, it flatly describes what's in it, but not what it means, what these characters do, how they think, what they represent. The way that Greenaway uses and frames these characters certainly makes use of his artistic knowledge as well, though I confess my shameful lack of knowledge with nearly anything to do with art precludes me from speculating on his influences. If you do know your stuff and/or are simply curious, you can find a marvelous analysis here. However, I can readily see a connection between Greenaway and another artist-cum-director, David Lynch. Greenaway's use of lighting and color recalls Lynch's contemporary, more mainstream artistic usage of color and lighting to evoke moods and ratchet tension (though this film features an astonishing score courtesy of Michael Nyman, supposedly the man who coined the term "minimalism"): occasionally, he floods the screen with so much red light that distinguishing between objects is nearly impossible, as if the frame of a Bergman red fade got stuck in the middle of the fade-out.

One could also draw parallels between Greenaway and Stanley Kubrick. Both have a commanding vision and a keen understanding of cinematography, art design and acting, but they also have a similar sense of detached satire. In 2001, Kubrick defined humanity by our tools, the objects that strip us of our humanity by doing all of our jobs for us. Greenaway's script certainly has moments of dark hilarity, particularly some marvelously foreshadowing -- when Albert learns of the affair, he says he'll kill Michael and eat him, and Georgina asks Michael why he keeps so many books, saying at one point that he can't eat them -- but Greenaway's vision is considerably darker even than the outpourings of Kubrick's twisted mind. Comedian Bill Hicks once fatalistically said, in response to the notion of the beauty of mankind, "We're a virus with shoes." Greenaway largely follows that line of logic for his film: he films so many disgusting scenes of scatological, sexual and violent content to break us down to our essences. He seems to be saying that humans are nothing more than urine, crap, bile, blood and whatever other juices and fluids our bodies secrete.

That anti-humanist sentiment might explain why the actual restaurant draws our attention as much, if not more, than the characters. Each area of La Hollondais has its own specific color scheme: the exterior, where Albert first exercises his wrath and where the meat rots slowly, is dark blue and foreboding. The dining hall, where Albert makes a pig of himself and frequently explodes, is red. The kitchen is a faint green, cooler and more inviting but also faintly sickly. Interestingly, the physical properties of the kitchen warp depending on the overall mood of the concurrent events: at times it is a model of order and cleanliness, a kitchen worthy of a five star restaurant. At others, however, it is a dank, festering display of medieval barbarism choked with great slabs of uncleaned food, with fetid steam rising everywhere as if the place were built upon a giant manhole. Hilariously, the bathroom, a place where one deposits human waste and where Georgina and Michael engage in adulterous sex, is virgin white. One could easily read from the color scheme that the lovers' actions are not sinful because they find respite and joy in one another, but it also clues us into to the director's unflappability concerning our bowel movements and an acknowledgment that they are not dirty because they are a biological necessity.

Having watched The Informers recently, I was struck by the similarity between Greenaway's vision of a society choking itself on excess and the work of Bret Easton Ellis. But Greenaway sets himself apart from Ellis' literary output with a sense of artistry and a firm grasp of satire that Ellis never had, and cinematically no one, not even Christian Bale with his Patrick Bateman, has come within a league of Michael Gambon's terrifying performance as Albert; Albert is so utterly vile that even I, a professed cynic, psychologically could not see him live. He's the sort of character who, if he escaped the movie unpunished, would inspire you to go straight to the top and demand your money back from Greenaway himself. One must also note Helen Mirren's fearless performance, bottling her character's fear until it creates tension simply by manifesting itself, not to mention the bravery of spending so much time nude on a set (Howard also deserves kudos for this).

A number of reviews have agreed, some of them verbatim, that the characters each symbolize a certain aspect of late-'80s England: the Thief stands for Thatcher, her arrogance and her policies that supported mass greed; the Cook is a dutiful laborer who does as he told but grumbles privately against his master; the Lover is the liberal intellectual railing against Thatcher's policies. The Wife, of course, is Britain, who is shackled to the Thief and suffers his abuse, but ultimately triumphs and slays the beast. Who would have guessed that a film featuring excrement, a stabbing, several scenes of torture, a grisly murder and cannibalism could end on an optimistic note?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Horse Thief

I first heard about Tian Zhuangzhuang's film The Horse Thief in a retrospective "Best of the '90s" episode of At the Movies where Martin Scorsese, filling the seat left vacant by Gene Siskel and then unclaimed by Richard Roeper, cited it as his favorite film of the decade, with the caveat that it actually came out in the '80s. His pick was justified due to receiving almost no exposure in the United States -- barring festivals and limited releases in the usual places (Chicago, L.A., New York) -- until the '90s, and I quickly found that it remained unavailable in the States, still unreleased on DVD unless you import a copy from China. As I waited to see if a company would distribute it, my impatience grew as I stumbled over raves here and there, most notably from Jonathan Rosenbaum, who listed it as the best film of 1987 and placed it on his list of the best films of the '80s. I finally found a way to see it -- far from my liking -- online, as a tiny, low-quality stream. But beggars can't be choosers, so I figured I'd try to make the best of it.

I can see right away why Scorsese was drawn to it. Scorsese of course is the master of cinematic Catholicism, charting the ways it manifests itself variously as guilt, anger, pride and a desire for redemption. Much of the same qualities define The Horse Thief, albeit filtered through Buddhism, not the Church. The protagonist indeed steals horses, but as a result of crippling social restraints, not greed. Norbu, a deeply religious man who observes all of the rituals and prayers of Buddhism, cannot justify stealing horses, but has no other choice if he wants to feed his family.

When word gets out about his "occupation," Norbu's tribe exiles him and his family into the harsh Tibetan wilderness, compounding the pressures placed upon Norbu to protect and provide for his family. Faced with cold and starvation, Norbu's young son dies. Stricken with grief, Norbu repents for his sins and vows never to steal again. Eventually he and his remaining family find their way back to their tribe, where they are welcomed back after hearing his promise to reform. When hunger and poverty threaten his other child, though, Norbu must return to a life of crime.

It's a simple plot, so basic that even at 88 minutes it might strike some as overlong, but the majesty of Tian's direction and his way of putting forth a political message with sparse dialogue makes for a masterclass in filmmaking. Characters only speak when they must interact with each other, and even then they remain brief and on-topic. Filling the space in the soundtrack are the thundering sounds of hooves riding the empty landscape as well as the constant drone of the music, a score that emphasizes the Buddhist connection to the film as much as Tian's frequent, detailed depictions of rituals.

Tian captures the beauty and harshness of Tibet in equal measure; in many ways, it acts as a variant upon the Old West. Of course, the sense of lawlessness combined with the vicious crackdowns of a government that neither knows nor cares about the living conditions of their subjects also recalls the darker side of the Western. The director uses close-ups intermittently, preferring instead to capture the full scale of the world around Norbu, the better to dwarf him physically to reflect his utter lack of status within society. Numerous shots focus on vultures, perhaps the only creatures to thrive in the unforgiving land, as they feast upon its victims. In the long, static takes I've come to expect from Asian films, Tian lingers on beautiful images until they become haunting and on unsettling images until they morph into something transcendent. One shot, of Norbu walking barefoot in deep snow to bury his son, struck the finest balance between the two, and I've yet to get that picture out of my head.

The detail and composition of Tian's shots are breathtaking. Asian cinema, barring the more Western technique of directors such as John Woo or Kurosawa Akira, tends to be radically different aesthetically from our own, yet I also find that their masterpieces often transcend cultural boundaries more readily than the finest examples of American cinema. The Horse Thief is no different: by simply featuring scenes in Tibet, Tian gives non-Chinese audiences something that they genuinely couldn't see otherwise, as the Chinese government bars outsiders from filming there, especially if it in anyway actually concerns Tibet. But the director uses the landscape to craft a story that can speak to all cultures. With documentary-like precision and realism, he takes us into a world of the past that is shockingly, tragically, so barely different from our present.

Before I watched the film, I spoke to someone about my desire to see it, mentioning Scorsese's praise of it and admitting near-total ignorance of the project. Nevertheless, my friend asked me what it was about so, feeling slightly annoyed, I sardonically replied, "It's like The Bicycle Thief, but with horses." Turns out, I wasn't too far off the mark. Where the protagonist of de Sica's film stole because the poverty of postwar Europe and the crimes inflicted upon him left him no other option, Norbu must steal because of the entire social framework of Tibet and China's subjugation of it. Not only is Tian examining the element of each society that turns to crime out of necessity but how China's imperialism, even post-Mao, affects a country. I can scarcely fathom the director's courage, which eventually cost him his career when Chinese censors buried his work for a decade and sent him into commercial exile. Even taken out of context, though, The Horse Thief is one of those marvels that erases the boundaries between cultural tastes and understanding, and it should be studied and beloved until the end of days for its aesthetic beauty and its uncompromising politics.

Where the Wild Things Are

There are so many places where Spike Jonze's third feature Where the Wild Things Are could go wrong. If I told you that the first ten minutes consisted of the director setting up its protagonist as a child in a broken home, neglected by a divorced mother trying to keep her job to continue to support her children, you'd probably -- Hey, come back! Let me finish. What on paper sounds like the beginnings of some half-assed Sundance feature becomes, under Jonze's wondrous direction and Dave Eggers' celebration of pre-pubescent angst, one of the finer films of the year and a technical marvel.

Jonze has a genuine find in Max Records, who plays the young hero Max. Imaginative but petulant, Max cannot connect with either his teenage sister nor his mom, and when mom invites a boyfriend over, an already cheesed Max acts out and ultimately runs away. Suddenly, he finds a sailboat that looks suspiciously like a small model he made for a miniature world in his bedroom, and sails until he reaches an island inhabited by huge monsters. Eggers and Jonze don't waste time in these first 15 minutes: as soon as he stumbles across the monsters, locked in the middle of some sort of argument, Max proudly strides in the middle of them and avoids being eaten by declaring himself their king.

Now that he's established the plot, Jonze slows the proceedings down and begins to explore this strange little world and its characters. Each of the monsters reflects a certain aspect of pre-teen moods: Alexander (voiced by Paul Dano), a goat-like beast, is timid and largely unheeded despite his keen observations; Judith (Catherine O'Hara) has the general snottiness and tactlessness of an impish child. Carol (James Gandolfini), the most prominent of the wild things, comes closest to Max's full range of emotions; Carol is the first to accept Max into the group, and he places all of his hopes on Max to keep the splintering wild things together.

Jonze has proven his visual acuity with his music videos as well as, to a more formal extent, his work directing his previous two features, both of which nicely juggled believable scenarios and set design with the skewed vision of Charlie Kaufman. Here, he at last unleashes the full range of his visual skill. The sharp, stripped branches jutting out from trees, and the houses and forts made from those sticks, reflect the characters' feelings of angst and loneliness, and one wonders how these large, hollow balls offer any sort of warmth or comfort to its residents. In one lovely segment, the wild things all pile on one another and Max, who is so dwarfed by this giant fur dome that he can wander freely in the middle of his new buddies.

I cannot honestly say, however, how well children might respond to this adaptation of a beloved children's book. Maurice Sendak's short story consisted of only 10 sentences and communicated the rest through illustrations, leaving a lot of space for Jonze and Eggers to fill. The script contains a number of fantastically funny moments -- many of them involving Alexander's quiet protests -- but for the most part the two focus on the sadder side of youth: their Max doesn't rebel because of unrestrained adolescent impudence but because he feels unloved and unwanted. Jonze keeps this idea grounded by presenting his mother's neglect without words and also inserting a number of shots that clearly demonstrate people caring for Max to prove that some of his feelings are hyperbolic and selfish. The mixture allows him to present Max both as a typical brat, but one with some pathos that never allows him to drift into the extremities of either unlikability or transparently sympathetic. The wild things also have their issues, and I found myself caring as much about whether this weird family stayed together as Max and his problems.

Interestingly, one segment of the film draws not from Sendak but Antoine de Sant-Exupéry and his classic Le Petit Prince: as Max and Carol wander through a desert (itself a clue to the scene's influence), Max relays something his science teacher told him earlier, that the sun would die one day. With only a moment's pause, Carol happily shuns such thoughts. "You're the king, and I'm big!" he says, "How could guys like us worry about a tiny little thing like the sun?" For all the film's dark themes of alienation and isolation, that one line is like a Beatles song in prose: I defy it not to bring a little cheer to people.

Most striking about the film, however, is the bizarre and magnificent design of the wild things. A combination of CGI and traditional puppetry and animatronics, the monsters can tread the line between purely fantastical (their heads are wider than their shoulders) and the realism that comes from an actual object being in the scene with the human actors. Often these creatures can be frightening, but I found myself strangely wishing to hug one of them, just one (probably not Judith).

Sadly, the film occasionally falters, such as its large storyline concerning a romance between the petulant and childlike Carol and the more reasonable KW (Lauren Ambrose), which drifts in and out of being interesting and grinds the picture to a halt when it isn't, as well as the ending, which to be fair couldn't really drawn upon Sendak's lack of resolution but fails to effectively conclude the story in its own way. These are minor quibbles, however, in the face of this charming but introspective young adult -- that's likely the area the film should be placed in, irrespective of the book -- feature that celebrates and contemplates the unrefined emotion of youth in equal measure. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go try to start up a dirt clod fight.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

For the first hour of Michael Powell's epic The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, I felt slightly uncomfortable at its overt Britishness. Released in 1943, the film contains a number of moments that play up the fading nobility of the Empire, putting positive spins on the country's involvement in the Boer War and the First World War. But once the characters reach the end of WWI, Powell shifts gears, and the first hour is revealed to be a protracted, lush setup to quite possibly his funniest and most satiric film.

Nominally a reference to the satirical comic strip of Colonel Blimp, a comment upon the reactionary jingoism prominent in British attitudes in the '30s and '40s, Powell's film keeps only an approximation of the character's appearance but uses and subverts the characteristics David Low's over-the-top creation to inform the protagonist Clive Candy. We meet Candy as an old general enjoying a bath, when a young officer barges in and "captures" the residents of the mansion as a training exercise. When informed, Candy is furious. "War starts at midnight!" he fumes, but the lad responds that he simply tried to prepare for actual warfare with the Germans. Candy wants to hear none of it and scuffles with the boy.

Powell then jumps back to Candy's own youth as a rising officer, and slowly he and Emeric Pressburger peel away at the silly old man clinging to absurdly dated notions of the "propriety" of war until we're left with a virile young idealist, a hopeless romantic who does not feel entitled to a sense of nobility in his old age but earns it instead. Candy's flashbacks begin with the Boer War, on leave after being award the Victoria Cross. He received a letter from one Edith Hunter, an English schoolteacher in Berlin who writes to the military complaining of anti-English propaganda in Germany over the war. The two meet and, though his superiors understandably refuse to allow this low-ranking officer to meddle in international politics, Candy decides to help out anyway. Unfortunately, his idea of foreign relations involves pranking the German propagandist until he manages to offend the entire German officer corps, to the point that they must draw lots to determine who shall duel him.

To avoid setting off a potential scandal, the two sides agree to announce that the duel concerns a dispute between Candy and his opponent, Theodor Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook), over Edith. The duel occurs off-screen, and Powell cuts to a hospital in Berlin where the two recuperate and quickly become friends. Combined with Edith, who must stay with them to keep up appearances, they form a fascinating trio. Edith is fiery and intelligent: when she meets the old-fashioned Candy, she winds up launching into a diatribe about how women are constantly belittled in society, refuting his increasingly meek suggestions of homemaking and governing boarding houses as "jobs" for women. Her spirited and well-organized arguments put the first cracks in Candy's boisterous, cocky facade, which totally crumbles in the face of the well-mannered and kind German officer Theo. When the two recover, Theo, whose English is still rusty, comes to Candy and asks if they are really friends. When Candy agrees, Theo challenges him to a duel for Edith's hand in marriage, failing to grasp that Edith is Clive's "fiancée" only for PR reasons. Candy ecstatically congratulates the two and sets off home, only to realize upon returning how much he actually did love Edith.

Candy is so desperate to find some approximation of Edith that he takes out her sister as soon as he returns to England, only to find her personality reflects nothing of his love. Being away from his more down-to-earth friends brings back the pomposity in Candy, and Powell marks the passage of time between the Boer War and WWI with a wicked montage exhibiting the various kills he makes on international hunts, each with their own little plaque marking the date as if they were significant achievements.

By the time Candy, now a Brigadier General, sees the end of World War I, he's more or less the boisterous, nationalistic codger we met at the start of the film: when the shells stop falling and news of the armistice reaches the trenches, Candy turns proudly to his aide Murdoch and says that the Allied victory is proof that "might is right," that their side won without resorting to the atrocities of the Germans (mustard gas, torture, etc.). The problem is, not five minutes before, he asked a German POW about his old friend Theo and, after he left with no information, another soldier implies that they will extract the news from the POW one way or another. Candy has retained all of his youthful idealism and patriotism, but he's also retained all of his ideas about how things "should" be, and we start to see the lovable romantic slowly fade due to his unwillingness to change, something not helped by his wife Barbara (also played by Kerr), physically and mentally Edith's duplicate, in a romantic gesture makes him swear not to change his ways until the house they live in is flooded into a lake.

Livesey and Walbrook give defining roles as Candy and Theo: I actually wondered who played the old Candy at the beginning until the film wound on and the brash, fresh-faced youth slowly transformed through makeup and his own craft into that bloviating fool in his ivory tower, then ultimately showing that man's lasting beauty and nobility -- at one point, Theo remarks that before he met Clive, he didn't know Englishmen could be so romantic. In that sense, Livesey's more cartoonish role has more layers than Halbrook's even as the latter adds the sort of depth you'd rarely expect to find invested into an enemy combatant in the middle of a war. Upon fleeing to England, this man, who has no real reason to care for the country other than it being a haven from the Nazis, pleads his case to a board that will place him in an internment camp if they deem him a risk. It is one of the most heartbreaking speeches I can recall ever hearing in a film, not a stirring condemnation of Nazi principles or a declaration of the glory of England but a devastating account of loss and regret, a reminiscence of his country's spiral around the drain brought on by external and internal forces, and a sense of hopelessness allieved only when he decides to leave his homeland for the home of his dearest friend.

Anyone who's ever seen one of Michael Powell's features knows his mastery of Technicolor, and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp ranks among his most beautiful pictures, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes. But where those two used color to gradually build a mood of horror, Blimp builds into a sweeping romantic epic. Red of course plays a large part in Powell's color palette, from Kerr's ginger hair to a miraculously intact café that is so full of red it's practically bleeding. When one of Kerr's characters is not on-screen, however, the colors fade to military drab, emphasizing not only Candy's hardened, reactionary mindset but the loneliness he feels without Edith or someone who reminds him of her. When he's got someone to bring out his charm, he becomes not a caricature of outdated British nobility but a shining example of a core set of values that make Britain great, no matter what lesser ethos to which they might be applied (imperialism, jingoism).

It's somewhat surprising, then, to hear how virulently Churchill and the War Office tried to suppress the film. They pointed to Walbrook's Theo as a too-sympathetic depiction of a German officer, and indeed he demonstrates far more pathos and ready humanity than the more symbolic Candy -- at the end of World War I, Theo openly fears for Germany's future, and Pressburger's script makes plain the role of the Allies and their list of reparations in the shaping of Hitler's eventual rise to power. But Theo represents a good German, one who flees the Nazis to England, where he was a prisoner of war once and almost becomes one again until Candy comes to vouch for his friend.

Churchill might have thought himself, a veteran of the Boer War and a proudly militaristic leader, the target of Powell's satire, and that might be true to some extent. But The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is, and I don't mean this as a criticism, a piece of propaganda. Yes, it balances many of its two-dimensionally pro-British sentiments with examples of contradictory behavior, but that is only because Powell and Pressburger are stripping away the emptiness and the hatred of propaganda until they're left with something that British citizens can truly be proud of as they deal with the constant threat of German invasion. Perhaps the War Office hated it so because it contains a very real sadness concerning war that one doesn't find in propaganda, not an outright rejection of the need for a country to defend itself but a quiet reflection here and there on the ever-growing scale of conflict. When the two are reunited, Theo and Clive talk of the current war, and Clive puffs out his chest by drawing parallels to German techniques in the current war and WWI, rhetorically asking, "Who won the last one?" Theo replies, "We lost it, but you lost something too" and tears down Clive's outdated sense of the honor of war, saying, "This is not a gentleman's war. This time you're fighting for your very existence." One could read a sense of nostalgia for a more falsely noble and sexist time in this, but I think that Theo succinctly captures the madness of it all in a simple statement: "Do you remember, Clive, we used to say: 'Our army is fighting for our homes, our women, And our children'? Now the women are fighting beside the men. The children are trained to shoot. Whats left is the "home." But what is the 'home' without women And children?"