Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Keeper of the flame

The second scene of Nostalghia (1983), Andrei Tarkovsky’s penultimate film, offers us a broad view of a road weaving through a misty Italian countryside. A car enters the frame, exits the frame, and, some moments later, enters again; a woman and a man exit the car and move into the landscape, those cottony spectres of mist. The scene is conveyed in a single unbroken shot—no other director in history is so closely associated with extended shot duration as Tarkovsky. It is entrancing and beautiful, but also indicative of this film’s general air. Nearly everything that departs returns, while characters move through a fog that increasingly blurs present-tense reality from dreams of things lost.

Kino released Nostalghia on DVD and BD earlier this year, prompting a handful of critical reconsiderations of this, one of two films from the less-admired exile period in the oeuvre of the Russian director, who died in 1986. But anyone who watches any Tarkovsky film more than once knows well the way his films have of shifting with every visit—or even within a single viewing. How many times have I struggled with some aspect of these unusually personal, sensual, meandering, philosophy-smacked, sometimes downright cryptic films, only to reach the end and feel redeemed by their exalted, breath-taking visions and uncanny ability to find poetic closure? Cinema as travel: I’ve yet to encounter a Tarkovsky film that hasn’t left me feeling as though I’ve been transported, been through something.

Tarkovsky had certainly been through something by the time of Nostalghia’s release. He wouldn’t have had an easy time making his films in any country, but his frustrations with the micromanaging Soviet industry were particular and many, to the point where working abroad could mean permanent separation from his family. He’d been thinking of making a film in Italy since the mid-70s, and the project came about in part through his friendship and collaboration with Tonino Guerra, Antonioni’s regular co-scenarist. Yet Nostalghia is anything but a radical departure from the themes or MO of Tarkovsky’s previous films. As the title suggests, it is soaked in longing for the past, as well as apocalyptic sentiments about the present.

The story, such as it is, concerns a homesick Russian writer in Italy to research the life of a Russian composer who once lived there and suicide upon returning home. The writer travels with a young interpreter, a Renaissance beauty whose allure he seems to be working to resist, perhaps because of the wife waiting back home, perhaps because of some general contempt he feels toward a spiritually bankrupt West. Enter Domenico (Bergman regular Erland Josephson, oddly cast but completely captivating), a local lunatic in the soggy Tuscan village where the writer wanders. Domenico claims that if he could just manage to cross St. Catherine’s Pool with a lit candle he could save the world. Nostalghia’s dramatic climax finds Domenico atop a statue in a public square, ranting about the world’s slide into perdition before immolating himself in front of a scattering of impassive onlookers. From fiery spectacle to one tiny precious flame: Tarkovsky cuts from Domenico’s flailing to the writer attempting the ostensible world-saving traversal Domenico hadn’t managed. Then comes the film’s final and most emblematic image: the writer seated before a Russian dacha that, impossibly, is nestled in the ruins of a colossal Italian cathedral—an image explicitly echoes the final image of Solaris (1973). A happy ending? It seems so to me. A reconciliation of past and present, cinema magic as a way of allowing both to exist simultaneously.

There are things that irk me in Nostalghia, like the writer’s condescension and somewhat insufferable gloominess—the guy could almost be an Antonioni protagonist—and Tarkovsky’s tendency to reduce women to symbols. Yet the sense of dream and memory’s hold on our psyche infuses the film with a watery soul-hauntedness that will stay with you forever. 

Sunday, April 13, 2014

"She might be making mistakes, but she’s alive": Sebastián Lelio on Gloria

The camera spies her from across a large room crowded with tipsy middle-aged minglers. The first thought is that she looks like Tootsie, with outsize owlish glasses emphasizing length of her face. But we quickly come to understand that Gloria (Paulina García) is a sophisticated, daring, sexy, mature woman. She’s 58, has two adult children she adores, an ex-husband she perhaps only tolerates. She sings along to power ballads on the car radio. She does yoga and laugh therapy. She loves to dance. She may be losing her sight, slowly. She meets a dubious ex-naval officer who recently changed his life, leaving his wife, though his daughters never stop calling. He’s struggling to inhabit a role that he can’t commit to, but look at the way he looks at Gloria. Can she really afford to turn him away?

Chilean director Sebastían Lelio’s fourth feature is a character study of uncommon brilliance, and García is captivating every moment she’s on-screen—which, come to think of it, is every moment of this film filled with telling ellipses, free of scoring, bubbling with incident, each one contributing to a deeper understanding of a woman of a certain age who refuses to stop changing, searching, dreaming, even if that means she might wind up alone one painful morning, on a Viña beach, with torn stockings. See this movie. It’s beautiful, smart, moving. Like its heroine, it follows its own path.

I spoke with Lelio earlier this week in Panama. He was there for an award ceremony. I was there for the film festival, where Gloria was screening.

Director Sebastián Lelio

JB: Your scripts don’t have any dialogue, so you depend on your actors to provide the words in every scene. But in this case you’re dealing with Paulina García, who besides being an incredible actress is also a writer. She must have had strong intuition about how to work those scenes. 

Sebastián Lelio: Yes, but that kind of intuition can be a problem just as easily as a solution. Sometimes that intuition makes you want to say something very meaningful, and that can be the enemy of the kind of dialogue I’m looking for, which isn’t meant to be informative or even literate. It’s emotional. It’s not text, but texture. Perhaps 70% of the dialogue in Gloria is irrelevant. They could say one thing or another. Dialogue isn’t the point.

JB: Some of the scenes that stuck with me most are those in which their significance isn’t obvious. I think especially of the scene at the party, with the father and daughter singing Jobim's “Waters of March,” and Gloria just listening with that curious gaze of hers. That’s the entire scene. I can’t say exactly what’s happening there, but it feels important. Some kind of quiet discovery is happening, though I don’t know that Gloria is even aware of it. 

SL: I would say that this scene is the soul of the film. Gloria is, for me, a bossa nova, a form which is sensual, but the lyrics can be very harsh. I wanted the film to be like that. You’re trapped by the storytelling and the character. Hopefully there is a sensuality in the textures and rhythms. Hopefully you’re sort of hypnotized and just really in the film. “The Waters of March” is about everyday things, a chair, a ray of light, a little piece of bread. That’s what the film deals with. It’s all about feelings.

JB: Did working with García help you discover things you didn't know about the character? Were you surprised what happened to Gloria in her hands? 

SL: I try to conceive of scripts as open devices. The problems are not solved in the script. That’s the territory of the shooting. I need to make the real discoveries during the shooting. So yes, Paulina and the whole process were always revealing to me not only the nature of the character but also what the film was really about. When you go to camera, you go half-blind. There is a point where words are useless. Someone has to trust that we’re going to get somewhere with this map we’re sharing. That’s where the mystery of cinema lies. I never understood Gloria. I was fascinated by her. And now I have to deal with this problem that women think I understand them. I don’t! I love them. I don’t understand them.

JB: You're a 40-year-old man, not a 58-year-old woman. But in exploring your desire to tell this story did you wind up seeing some reflection of yourself?

SL: That’s an interesting question. I guess my main connection with the character, or what I admire about her, is that she’s willing to live her life without fear of what price she has to pay for it. She might be making mistakes, but she’s alive. She manages to keep that way of being in the world. I would like to be like that. So I guess it’s like a message that you send to yourself in a very unconscious way. The other important message is, Relax, you will keep having sex for many, many years. [Laughs]

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Arm's length

The title is confusing, right? It reads like Captain America is the Winter Soldier. But he isn’t. The Winter Soldier is some guy with grunge hair and something like one of those masks they put on digs who bite people. A nasty piece of work, he’s a killing machine: insistent, determined, affectless, walking doom. Anton Chigurh with a super-powerful metal arm. I don’t think he blinks. He and Captain America face off several times in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which obviously should have been called Captain America Versus The Winter Soldier. Anyway, it’s long. 136 minutes long.

It’s also, for at least half of the movie, action-packed and fairly engaging. Not unlike Captain Phillips, Captain America takes on pirates. Samuel L. Jackson tells a story about his elevator operator grandfather that I quite liked. Scarlett Johansson jumps around and kills people while wearing really tight pants. There are deftly staged chase scenes with many crashes and explosions. Then we get to this turning point that’s entirely dependent on a dopey conspiracy theory that suggests the evil Hydra organization is somehow behind every act of malfeasance over the last 60 years, and are days away from launching an evil scheme to kill millions of hapless citizens for nothing other than the possibility of their future crimes. A Minority Report kind of thing, but on an apocalyptic scale. Big themes: free will versus pre-determination, the perils of a world in which algorhythms are taken as the word of God, and so on. But even within the comic-myth-logic of the movie, things start getting way too silly and excessive.

In the previous instalment we learned how Steve Rogers became Captain America during World War II. He got injected with a special serum that made him really muscular and sped up his metabolism—this is before those sports doping scandals—and kicked Nazi ass. Then he got frozen and woke up in 2011, but they really don’t explore the Rip Van Winkle thing anywhere near enough. Captain America’s the opposite of Batman in that he’s very earnest and un-cynical, but like Batman he’s more souped-up-man than superman. Which is what makes parts of Captain America: The Winter Solider so annoying. Captain America seems invincible, and invincible is boring. Dude leaps out of airplanes without a parachute, seriously? Winter Soldier seems invincible too. Everyone seems invincible, except Robert Redford, because—spoiler alert!—he’s an evil psycho Nazi prick. I suppose they want to “give you your money’s worth.” It gets wearisome. 

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

A long film about killing

Welsh-born director Gareth Evans’ The Raid: Redemption brought a dizzyingly high level of craft and invention to its martial arts siege movie set-up. Pretty much the entire film unfolded in a dilapidated Jakarta high-rise lousy with ultra-nasty criminals who would continually charge en masse upon our hero, Rama (Iko Uwais), a good cop in a bad, bad city, a guy with extraordinary fighting skills, sturdy morals and a family he’ll do anything to protect. Evans’ The Raid 2 picks up right where its predecessor left off, stylishly snowing us with exposition in an arresting and audaciously elliptical opening sequence that, in short, sends our poor battered Rama right back into the maw of danger. Though that high-rise mafia haven was conquered, it turns out that Indonesian corruption is far more rampant than we initially thought. The city is caught in the grips of organized crime, and plenty of baddies still need to be smoked out. (I couldn’t stop thinking about The Act of Killing while watching The Raid 2—that appalling and brilliant documentary of last year makes any movie about institutionalized violence in Indonesia suddenly seem a lot less fanciful.)

Rama gets sent to prison to make pals with Uco (Arifin Putra), an elder crime boss’ precariously hubristic heir. Upon release Rama becomes Uco’s bodyguard, just as Uco and rival crime boss Bejo (Alex Abbad), a wimpy Strangelovian dandy-sadist with shades, a cane and leather gloves, conspire against Uco’s dad and another Japanese crime family to start a turf war. Lots and lotsa fights ensue, many of them dazzling, many of them in unnervingly cramped spaces, such as a disgusting prison toilet or the backseat of a moving car. An especially memorable early sequence finds Rama in a massive brawl in a prison yard-turned-mud bath the colour of mocha gelato. So long as the fights go on, I promise you that The Raid 2 is 100% gripping. It’s all that other stuff—story, character, causality—that doesn’t work so well, or even make much sense.

The fact that every single character in The Raid: Redemption was a world-class fighter was a conceit I was happy to roll with, especially since everything about the film was so contained. Extending this conceit to the sprawling urban stage of The Raid 2 is just ridiculous—even tubercular Z-grade pornographers know how to fight like UFC champs. This sequel is bigger, badder, longer and more expensive-looking, but not even close to better. There are novelty act villains—let’s call them Bat-dragger and Hammer Girl—who show up to make certain scenes more protracted and more baroque than they need to be. At times Evans seems to be aping the films of Korean auteur Park Chan-wook—there’s a very silly scene in which dozens of thugs ambush an old master assassin in a nightclub and the old master’s demise is played as tragic opera. (I’ve no idea why, if they just needed him dead, they didn’t just shoot him.) At other times Evans makes sly nods to David Lynch’s taste in décor and accoutrements. I genuinely appreciate Evans’ impulse to expand his MO, but these influences are an awkward fit, playing against Evans’ strengths as a maker of furious, relentless, no-nonsense action sequences. Everything in The Raid 2 is already so busy and on such a huge scale, you have to wonder what could possibly come next for Rama. Intergalactic jujitsu mobsters? Whatever. Just make them fight.