Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Spare a little change: Junebug, coming home, and the eerie effects of the parental gaze

So I’m sitting by the window in this café and the proprietor who I’m friendly with sits besides me and starts telling me about this guy across the street who used to date his sister in high school and was always talking and talking, and there he is now, across the street, 20 years later, and still he’s just talking and talking at someone as though not a moment’s gone by. “If there’s one thing I know about life,” the proprietor announces with absolute conviction, “it’s that people never change.” I ask him why he feels so strongly. He tells me he’s got three kids and that no matter what they do or say as they grow up he saw it all in them from the day they were born. I ask him if perhaps the reason they’ll always seem to the same to him isn’t that they never change but rather that, being his children, he’ll never be able to see them any differently. The proprietor considers this for a good moment and then, quite graciously, concedes that I might have a point.

I told this story to my colleague David Berry and he confessed that he more or less agreed with the café proprietor. People change in little ways, David said, but our essential selves stay the same. But I wonder how many little things need to change to constitute essential change; how much about who we were needs to change before something has changed right down there in that indefinable essence?

When I first left home at 18 and moved to another city, every time I returned felt this involuntary regression. I’m back in the house where I was raised, trying to feel at ease with my family and their habits, yet within minutes we all slip into precisely the same dynamic we’ve always had, the same presumptions and alliances, the same grievances and useless responses. I truly believed that I’d changed, significantly, yet once I entered that house it was as though everything was frozen in time and only physical escape could break the curse of stasis. It took me some years to shake off the frustration that accompanied these reunions. With the holidays here and many of us returning to our families, perhaps for uncomfortably long visits, it got me to thinking about movies that illustrate this scenario.

I thought of
The Godfather (1972), how Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone comes back home a war hero, college educated and well-spoken, so different from his siblings, all of whom seem to be easing into their assigned roles within the family’s ethnic tribalism and business of organized crime, and yet by the time the story closes Michael has assumed the position his father once held, as though fate, as it did with Oedipus, were simply meandering on its way to delivering his proscribed sentence. I thought too about Five Easy Pieces (70), which I wrote about last week, how Jack Nicholson’s Bobby Dupea pathologically seeks to reinvent himself as someone from not only a different sort of family but a different class, how he winds up just as unhappy playing the role of a California roughneck as that of a gifted Oregon concert pianist, and how after returning home to find no resolution has no other choice but to keep on running from everything in order to stave off his incessant sense of vacancy. I thought about Brand Upon the Brain! (06) and Guy Maddin’s hero returning to the lighthouse orphanage of his childhood to somnambulistically paint its walls, and about My Own Private Idaho (91), where Keanu Reeves’ male hustler embodies the role of Prince Hal. I also thought about Dogtooth (09) and what happens when the children never leave home. Literally. But that's another story.

The movie that finally struck me as being most emblematic of the experience that had been on my mind was
Junebug (05), the debut of director Phil Morrison and writer Angus MacLachlan. After years away, living in Chicago, George (Alessandro Nivola) returns to his rural North Carolina home with Madeline (Embeth Davidtz), his new wife. What’s especially interesting about this homecoming is how George initially recedes from the central storyline upon arriving home. While Madeline awkwardly attempts to ingratiate herself to her in-laws, George seems to be constantly passing out on the sofa, exploring empty rooms or going out. It’s only when he’s called upon by the local pastor to sing a hymn that George breaks the spell and instantly seems to change before Madeline’s eyes into the homey, family-loving Christian his parents raised him to be. “Ye who are weary… Jesus is calling, o sinner, come home,” George sings in a voice so pure it could’ve come from a boy.

Morrison subtly emphasizes the role home and place play in George’s transformation through still, often unpopulated, almost painterly shots of houses, rooms, vast lawns, and churches with immense parking lots. Madeline is a diplomat’s daughter, born in Japan and raised between South Africa and DC—a person without roots, as far as George’s mother’s concerned—and no matter how hard she tries she’ll always stick out everywhere she goes in George’s town, while George, after only a short time there, virtually disappears—from Madeline’s view—right into the town’s tapestry. Then a crisis emerges, George helps his sister-in-law through the crisis, and when he emerges from the event he’s suddenly anxious to leave. In what is perhaps the movie’s boldest move, George and Madeline depart and the story ends with George callously expressing his relief at getting out of that place.

Yet we’re not meant to take this as a simplistic finale, nor as disrespect for George's family on the part of the filmmakers. I think we’re to intuit that George’s family will go on with their lives and George will go on with his and both paths involve some irreducible mixture of free will and stubborn changelessness. It’s only when returning home for a few hours, a few days, maybe a few weeks (!), we are all, or at least most of us, susceptible to this eerie magic that renders us a child once more, unable to assert our individuality and wondering how we ever made it out of the driveway on our own. Until of course we do make it out, and repeat the experience all over.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Rock Crystal: Lost in the glittering winter darkness, and happily so

“In most places, midnight as the very hour of his birth is solemnized by ritual of great splendor, to which the bells ring out their heartsome invitation through the still darkness of the wintry air; then with their lanterns, along dim familiar paths, from snow-clad mountains, past forest-boughs encrusted with rime, through crackling orchards, folk flock to the church from which solemn strains are pouring—the church rising from the heart of the village, enshrouded in ice-laden trees, its stately windows aglow.”

Adalbert Stifter

I realize now that, as a child, whatever magic surrounded Christmas for me seemed drawn exclusively from the past: old movies and old storybooks; my grandmother’s anecdotes of her own childhood Christmases; paintings, photographs, or other such images culled from or invoking of antiquity. I’ve just read Adalbert Stifter’s novella
Rock Crystal (New York Review of Books Classics, $14.95), quoted above. It was written in, I believe, 1853. I was immediately entranced and even moved by the book’s delicate evocation of a time of year that as an adult I’ve come largely to dread—I’m irreligious, have no children, dislike frantic shopping and hate most Christmas music—and this relationship between Christmas’ former allure and such elements as the darkness of long nights unadulterated by streetlamps and luminous skyscrapers, genuine quietude, ancient rites and activities, and the serenity of an era that predates modern consumerism, now seems very obvious to me. I didn’t want to be transported to a mall; I wanted to be transported back to several decades before my birth. I’ve always had a special attachment to Ingmar Bergman films—maybe I just wanted to share my holidays with Fanny and Alexander.

The story of
Rock Crystal is easy enough to summarize: two children travel from their tiny Alpine village to a slightly larger Alpine village to visit their grandmother on Christmas Eve; on the way back they’re lost in a snowstorm and forced to pass the night outdoors. The problem with offering such a synopsis is that this little drama constitutes only about half of Rock Crystal’s page-count. The first third or so, in which Stifter’s trickling prose runs through descriptions of the villages of Gschiad and Millsdorf, their inhabitants and customs, their relationship to the world beyond and most especially to the natural splendour surrounding them, initially seems to promise no drama at all. It seems rather like a work of wondrous, affectionate anthropology, until we gradually realize that everything Stifter details foreshadows the children’s journey: the hubris of their shoemaker father, the gifts provided by their grandmother, the discovery of the remains of a baker in the woods. Stifter draws his narrative from an exacting sense of place, an approach that, along with Rock Crystal’s setting, may have had a considerable influence on Visitation, a wonderful recent novel by the contemporary German author Jenny Erpenbeck.

W.G. Sebald

I don’t know how I first came to hear about Stifter, who was born in Bohemia in 1805, and died in Austria in 1868. Everything I’ve read refers to him as unknown or forgotten, but my finally getting around to reading Stifter this past week was prompted by W.G. Sebald, that specialist of the forgotten, who cited Stifter as an influence and, indeed, whose ornate sentences not only owe something to Stifter’s, but whose particular obsession with history possessed an unmistakable precedent in
Rock Crystal, whose descriptions are so rapturous that it’s as though posterity depends on sheer urgency and devotion. (Incidentally, Stifter’s description of how the residents of Gschaid “are obliged to keep their dead with them over the winter till they can bring them to the valley for burial after the snow has melted” reads almost exactly like the description of dealing with the dead in Sebald’s own Alpine village offered in Sebald’s 1998 Writers & Company interview with Eleanor Wachtel.) In the writings of both Stifter and Sebald, memory is a living force, the past inextricable from the now, and the dead remain somehow present. Reading their work inevitably comes with an air of melancholy, but it also comes with deep consolation, perhaps most of all during these longest nights of the year.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Elimination dance: Black Swan

There’s a moment when ballet impresario Thomas (Vincent Cassel), having taken a risk in casting the exceedingly demure Nina (Natalie Portman) as the schizophrenic dual lead in his new production of
Swan Lake, explains that Nina will succeed so long as she lets go of her fear. “The only person standing in your way,” Thomas tells her, “is you.” But these words intended as reassurance, spoken fairly late in Black Swan, couldn’t sound more ominous. Nina’s capacity for confusing her internal ambivalence with some external, independent, diabolical force has by now been demonstrated in myriad scenes marked by vivid hallucination. We’ve come to presume that Nina’s only path to artistic transcendence is one that requires a morbid, perilously complete identification with her role.

Black Swan makes a fascinating companion piece to director Darren Aronofsky’s previous film The Wrestler. Both closely follow their protagonists through a crisis resulting at least in part from ambitions of athletic perfection. It’s possible that Nina would have arrived at the same crisis point without the pressures of ballet, but the film seems drawn to persuading us of a hypothesis concerning the psychological cost of zero body fat and immersion in a milieu that consumes and virtually cloisters those devoted to its craft. Aronofsky revels in the amplified cracking of sore toes, in close-ups of wounds, in the eeriness of rehearsal hall mirrors, invoking the funhouse and foreshadowing the proliferation of doppelgängers to come.

Then there’s Nina’s home life, that frilly pink bedroom where her attempt at the masturbation, as prescribed by the sleazy but shrewd Thomas, is overseen by a menagerie of plush toys—not to mention Erica (Barbara Hershey), Nina’s mom, a failed ballerina herself who’s life now consists largely of suffocating her daughter with hysterical maternal concern. It’s interesting to note that in
The Entity Hershey played a woman repeatedly sexually assaulted by an invisible demon, but almost no one believes her—everyone thinks that she’s crazy. By contrast, you might say that Nina’s tragedy emerges from the fact that no one acknowledges that she’s crazy, even though she exhibits kleptomaniac and masochistic tendencies. But the film that comes to mind once we get a sense of Nina’s fraught domestic life is Carrie, with its oppressive, infantilizing mom and naïve daughter whose ascendance to queenly status seems doomed. Like both Carrie and The Entity, Black Swan is a horror film. Like Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, it’s a horror film that derives its particular effects through rigorous subjectivity.

Working from a script by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John J. McLaughlin, Aronofsky keeps things moving at a remarkably clipped pace. Even on a second viewing I marveled at the way the film gallops through a lot of story without slackening. I think the problems with
Black Swan become prominent when all that story seems to evaporate ahead of schedule. We start to feel this when Thomas repeats the exact same, maddeningly vague critique of Nina’s work—that’s she won’t “let go”—for the umpteenth time. Despite Portman’s radical transformation during the final act, the film never gives us any sense of what makes dance either dynamic or staid, sensual or frigid, because Aronofsky doesn’t appear to be the slightest bit interested in dance. Aronofsky is much more engaged in the deployment of his Goyaesque bestiary, perhaps echoing Ingmar Bergman’s somewhat similarly themed Hour of the Wolf, but a significant difference between Bergman’s film and Aronofsky’s is that the more obviously hallucinatory Black Swan’s hallucinations become, the cornier and more shallow the film’s entire notion of psychological frailty feels. Aronofsky deftly gets us worked up as the film builds toward its climax, but the entire last act finally feels silly, those escalating spasms of psychic unease that make a lot of fuss without taking us anywhere new, other than offering further attempts at shock with diminishing returns. Still, I heartily recommend taking Black Swan’s mostly riveting journey to the end of Nina’s psychic tether. I just don’t want to lead you to believe that there’s any place to fall once that tether slips out of her grasp.

Monday, December 20, 2010

A safe place for cinematic risk taking (and lots and lots of Jack Nicholson): America Lost and Found: The BBS Story

The initials stood for Bert, Bob and Steve, but however cavalier, cutthroat or chaotic BBS Productions may have been during it’s short but tremendously influential run during the late ’60s and early ’70s, this was the home of an extended family of multi-talented movie artists head-deep in collaboration. The name could just as easily have been LKJ, for László, Karen and Jack, as in cinematographer Kovács, actress Black, and writer, director, producer and, of course, actor Nicholson, each of whom could seemingly always be found working in some capacity on some movie somewhere within the BBS boutique. Seven such movies, a couple of them produced before the inauguration of the BBS brand, can be found in
America Lost and Found: The BBS Story, a new box set elegantly curated by the Criterion Collection, released last month on Blu-ray, last week on DVD. A cinematic roadmap of post-studio era, pre-Star Wars Hollywood, it’s easily one of the most remarkable thematic assemblages currently available on home video.

Producer Bert Schneider and director Bob Rafelson, their partnership initially dubbed Raybert, made a splash with
The Monkees on TV in 1966. Neither the eponymous band nor their show could be regarded as an auspicious foundation for creative daring, but Head (1968), ostensibly the Prefab Four’s own Hard Day’s Night (64), took the Monkees’ image in an audacious direction, openly confirming the critique that had been accurately leveled against them from the start: the band was manufactured from market research. “The money’s in/We’re made of tin/We’re here to give you more,” goes the chipper chant that launches this free-associative satire on antiquated genres and politics. Written by Rafelson and Nicholson in offices, closets and Harry Dean Stanton’s basement while under the influence of LSD, drunk on Brecht by way of Godard, brimming with bizarre cameos by the likes of Frank Zappa, Annette Funicello and Victor Mature, Head responded to the needs of a youth movement who didn’t identify with what movies had been, an audience grooving instead to Bonnie and Clyde (67) and 2001 (68). Truthfully, unlike everything else in Criterion’s box, Head, its satirical targets as broad as its humour, feels at best like a time capsule.

Everything changes, for Raybert as well as the entire industry, with Easy Rider (69), bad-boy actor Dennis Hopper’s directorial debut, which took the aggressive, drug-addled provocations inherit in the exploitation cheapies helmed by Roger Corman—the producer who gave many BBS associates their first breaks—and elevated them into the realm of personal statement. A story of hippy bikers touring a country with whom they share a sense of mutual alienation, their restless journey unfolding to a soundtrack of Dylan, Hendrix, the Band and Steppenwolf, Easy Rider meant a great deal to me when I discovered it, as people generally do, in my teens. If it means slightly less now it’s partly because Hopper’s career only became more strange and fascinating from here on, partly because its most enduring innovations have their roots in richer European predecessors. Easy Rider made buckets of money. Shocked studios scrambled to mimic it. The biggest feather yet in Schneider’s cap, it gave birth to BBS, Rafelson’s first serious narrative film, and a peculiar star by the name of Jack Nicholson.

Five Easy Pieces (70), scripted by Nicholson's friend Carol Eastman from Rafelson's own story, remains Rafelson’s most fully realized work. If it tells us a lot about the ’60s, it does so strictly through the lens of a textured character study that’s got nothing to do with flower power. When we meet Bobby Dupea (Nicholson) he’s working oil rigs outside Bakersfield, going bowling, drinking beer, and living with Rayette (Karen Black) who dreams of becoming the next Tammy Wynette and is frequently found perched on the bathroom sink like a giant witchy kitten. We gradually learn that Bobby comes from a very different class, region, and skill set, that Bobby has seemingly condemned himself to a life of constantly frustrated escape attempts. Discovering that his father’s ill, Bobby ditches drives north to visit his family. He’s at home nowhere and perhaps for that reason seems most in his element on the road, where he can let his mind wander while hitchhikers babble on about Alaska or memorably tell off cold-blooded waitresses. With Five Easy Pieces Nicholson finally found himself on-screen, capitalizing on that callous confidence that masks a fathomless despair. Bobby Dupea is mostly an asshole, but his fascination with other people and how they live their lives outweighs his contempt.

With Drive, He Said (71), based on Jeremy Larner’s novel, Nicholson proved to also possess directorial chops, using the contrast between a libidinous college basketball star and his prankster/activist friend as an opportunity to swing between classical and fragmented, sensation-oriented storytelling. For all its interest in student demonstrations it’s not as politically engaged as it might want to be, but the film is lively, unpredictable and sometimes hilarious, very playful with form and music, and very concerned with male potency and its multiple shortcomings. And Nicholson clearly loves the court—I can’t think of another basketball movie that captures the same nimble fluidity.

Having long been familiar with the more celebrated titles in
America Lost and Found, my single most exciting personal discovery arrived in the shape of the hypnotic, haunting, at times hallucinatory A Safe Place (71), the debut of writer/director Henry Jaglom, whose constant shuffling of images from different points in time recalls Alain Resnais’ Muriel (63), and who, not surprisingly, helped cut the stroboscopic transitions in Easy Rider. It’s based on, of all things, a play, which Jaglom wrote for Karen Black, though the film’s lead is Tuesday Weld. Slipping between various Manhattan apartments and rooftops and stretches of Central Park, the film deliberately dissembles chronology in favour of rippling, disorienting psychological portraiture. The story as such is simple enough, concerning a love triangle between Susan (Weld), Fred (Philip Proctor) and Mitch (Nicholson), yet one of the most arresting sequences features a monologue spoken by a secondary character played by Gwen Welles, and one of the most memorable characters is a magician played by Orson Welles (no relation), intent on making someone or something disappear. Disappearance is indeed a goal for Susan, whose life, fraught with emotional turmoil, has become so unmoored and dreamlike that she almost seems to be disintegrating from the start. Though it’s initially shocking to see Nicholson in this supporting role (!), I dare say he gives one of the greatest performances of his career, at once seductive and sad, heartbroken and horny, encircling Weld, eating a sandwich, showing up in the middle of the night, desperate for companionship, yet almost palpably uneasy with cuckolding Proctor. I don’t know that he ever registered such genuine surprise on-screen again.

Okay, there’s still more praise for Nicholson to come, but in the meantime let’s remember that once upon a time Hollywood raconteur—that’s French for shameless name-dropper—Peter Bogdanovich made truly wonderful movies. Based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Larry McMurtry, The Last Picture Show (71) seems at first the antithesis of a hip BBS production: a period film, shot in black and white, rife with homage to the great American studio era directors Howard Hawks and John Ford. But this is a story about aimless youth, pointless war—swap Vietnam for Korea—and most of all sex, a force which rules, changes and never quite ruins lives in a small Texas town in the mid-’50s, where everyone knows everyone’s business and the local disc jockey never runs out of Hank Williams records to play. Bogdanovich’s bittersweet erotic web includes an achingly young Cybil Shepherd, Timothy Bottoms and Jeff Bridges, and the not-so-young, but quite possibly aching, Ben Johnson, Cloris Leachman and Ellen Burstyn. The town’s most respected bachelor dies, the kids go off to fight or get an education, and the beloved movie house closes down. Everything is ending in The Last Picture Show, yet life is stubbornly just beginning for its soft-spoken, irresponsible, uncertain hero.

The King of Marvin Gardens (72) begins David (Nicholson) speaks in darkened space, his face in close-up, telling a story about the everyday terror of family suppers. Turns out David’s a late-night talk radio storyteller. He’s timid, wears owlish spectacles and ties, is resigned to solitude—in other words the opposite of Jack Nicholson. Yet Nicholson’s superb here, as is Bruce Dern, who plays Jason, the lively younger brother hell-bent on convincing David that they’re about to hit the big time by building a casino on a private island in Hawaii, though the bulk of the story takes place in a wintry Atlantic City. Rafelson, collaborating with László Kovács, who previously shot Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces, never moves the camera, preferring to let these mismatched brothers face-off against bleak land- and seascapes that feel frozen in time. Of course Jason’s a con-man, and everything goes bad, but there’s a muted vitality to The King of Marvin Gardens that makes it a perfect note to finish America Lost and Found on. There would only be one more BBS production, the documentary masterpiece Hearts and Minds (74), which Criterion has already put out.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Tron: Legacy: Grid-locked!

It’s been two decades since programming genius and former ENCOM CEO Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) fell off the grid and disappeared into the Grid, leaving behind a son so baffled and dim he never bothered to check the wall behind dad’s
Tron arcade game for the secret passage leading to the electronic rabbit hole. Perhaps Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) preferred being a wealthy orphan, having inherited dad’s company without having to assume any of dad’s responsibilities. When asked what he thinks happened to his father, Sam, now 27, shrugs amiably and replies, “He’s either dead or chillin’ in Costa Rica. Probably both!”

When Sam does finally follow Kevin into the infinite geometrical plain of the Grid, he actually seems more at home there than in Vancouver, where
Tron: Legacy was filmed. Having simply traded one world without sunlight for another, Sam’s immediately stripped of earthly clothing, covered in flatteringly body-hugging electro-goo, given an “identidisc”—a sleek LP-sized object which slips snugly into your backpack and records everything you do—and sent off to play killer Frisbee in the neon coliseum. Sam proves a natural gladiator, literally shattering his opponents in quick succession and breaking away to find Kevin, who’s been hiding in some pocket where Clu (also Jeff Bridges), his evil renegade avatar who now controls the Grid, can’t find him. Kevin, now bearded and gray, wears comfy looking karate gear and sits barefoot and cross-legged, still pondering the possibility of “a digital frontier that will reshape the human condition” and “a system where all information is free and open… Beautiful.”

If we don’t count his appearances in a brief flashback and as Clu, whose face is digitally air-brushed to make Bridges look 27 years younger and really, really creepy, Sam’s reunion with Kevin about marks Bridges’ proper star entrance, 30 minutes or so into Tron: Legacy and not a moment too soon. 20 years trapped in a video game and Bridges still seems like a human being, while Hedlund, whose performance involves a great deal of face squishing, feels like a figure out of a video game from the very start. Bridges’ approach is so loose, funky and tender as to be refreshingly antithetical to the one-dimensional performance style that dominates these sorts of effects-heavy 3-D fantasies. Despite being a fugitive in the now fascist state of the Grid, Bridges’ Kevin retains a youthful enthusiasm for his grandiose project, which might as well be an organic farm on Mars. “You’re messing with my Zen thing, man!” The Dude abides… in virtual reality!

(There is one other notable actor of considerable skill and subtlety in Tron: Legacy, but unfortunately Michael Sheen, whose work I generally enjoy very much, here in creamy platinum Ziggy Stardust mullet, is working very hard at something that just doesn’t seem to fit. He plays this Mad Hatter nightclub owner. His clientele is uniformly sedate, but he dances around shouting and playing air guitar with his dandyish cane. As I write this it occurs to me that Sheen’s incongruous mania probably sounds pretty funny. If it is, I missed the gag the first time around.)

To be honest, though Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis’ script is somehow simultaneously underwritten and confusing, if not completely nonsensical—How
do flesh-and-bone people get sucked into the Grid? And how do they eat that sucking pig?— there’s a lot about Tron: Legacy that feels like a welcome alternative to your average contemporary science fiction blockbuster. Rather than assault the viewer with frames saturated with extraneous detail and Redbull-addled editing, Joseph Kosinksi’s directorial debut, with production design by Darren Gilford, ushers us into a disco-lit world of smooth plateaus and distant thunder that’s austere enough to allow the action to become more graphically dynamic. The outfits, motorbikes and ships employed by the bad guys emanate a warm orange glow that reminds me of the inside of my toaster oven, and Daft Punk’s pleasingly percolating synth washes enhance the film’s overall liquid vibe as Sam, Kevin, and Quorra, Kevin’s lovely, almond-eyed Girl Friday (Olivia Wilde), attempt to cross the Sea of Simulation. It’s both a chase movie and the cinematic equivalent of a warm bath.

Tron: Legacy ends however not in the Grid but back in our gungy material world. Kevin’s big epiphany during his years away was that perfection needs to be cultivated rather than designed or dictated: “Bio-digital jazz, man!” The final shot, which of course alludes to another Tron sequel, implies that it’s the world we actually live in that contains the real adventure.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Cronos: moving parts

An aging seller of antiques is bitten by a strange device, begins to thirst for blood, and is rendered immortal, yet the word “vampiro” is never uttered in
Cronos (1993), allowing our experience of the film to expand far beyond the limits of genre or myth. This is a film where the balance of explicit and occult knowledge is kept carefully calibrated at all times. We know only what’s essential, even if what’s essential sometimes includes the seemingly trivial. Every character, even the most minor, is endowed with distinct attributes, eccentricities and preoccupations, most all of them concerning the imperfections of the flesh, while at the film’s centre lies an insectile machine inexplicably compelled to merge with flesh, blood and bone, luring all those who make contact with it into fathomless addiction.

When I first saw
Cronos I was delighted to discover a horror film that seemed to share the labyrinthine thematic network of David Cronenberg’s corporeal cinema, so rich as it is in cerebral metaphor and arresting, guttural imagery. Yet Guillermo Del Toro, Cronos’ writer and director, would prove to possesses his own unique imaginative universe, one which embraces the fabulous and the supernatural in ways antithetical to Cronenberg’s materialist sensibility. Cronos was but the first giant step in a prolific career that would quickly, and rather deftly shift between the commercial and the personal. Nevertheless, even after The Devil’s Backbone (01) and Pan’s Labyrinth (06), Cronos remains my favourite Del Toro film. It’s not as lush nor as honed as the later work, but it has a shaggy perfection all its own, and that special air of an exuberant, exacting young artist trying everything for the first time. Del Toro has said that the worst thing a filmmaker can have is everything he or she needs, and maybe there’s something about Cronos that generates some extra electricity out of sheer hunger and determination. The film is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Criterion.

So Jesús Gris (the great Federico Luppi, giving a marathon performance) unknowingly falls victim to the 400 year-old device. It comes to him by accident, latching onto first his hand and then his heart, its golden claws inserting themselves into his skin. Thenceforth desirous of human blood, Gris is haunted by need, and like any junky he endures humiliating scenes to fulfill this need, such as licking some stranger’s nosebleed off the marble floor of a public washroom. Gris is hunted by one Ángel de la Guardia (Ron Perlman, so funny and precise in his bits of behaviour), the nephew of a dying industrialist (Buñuel regular Claudio Brook) who knows of the device’s powers and wants it for himself. But Ángel would just as soon never find the device; he’s waited too long already for his uncle to die and leave him the generous inheritance which will finally allow him to get that nose job he’s dreamt of for so long.

Death and vanity loom over everything in
Cronos, and the film brims with ghoulish humour. It also features moments of touching connection between Gris and his eight year-old granddaughter Aurora (Tamara Shanath). Aurora speaks little and rarely drives the action, yet she might be the film’s real heroine, hiding the device in her teddy bear—just like little Pearl hides the money in The Night of the Hunter (55)—and gradually learning to let go of her grandparent as a child’s first brush with death. That sense of loss and wonder is what lingers in the film’s final moments, and most especially its closing dedication to Del Toro’s grandmother, their relationship having inspired the one shared by Gris and Aurora. It’s a satisfying, somber resolution to a captivating journey through morbid pursuits, one that in all its errant Catholicism, its peculiar relationship to the United States, its wily suspicions about its colonialist past, and its inventive violence, could perhaps have only come from Mexico.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Vision: this nun won't take nein for an answer

The titular 12th century Benedictine magistra and mystic of writer/director Margarethe von Trotta’s
Vision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen was a preternatural renaissance woman of the highest order, writing plays, botanical and theological texts, composing music, and founding an independent, all-woman monastery on her way to canonization, feminist revisionism and cinematic stardom. While scandalizing her peers, she was deft in her dealings with both church and state. But she was human like anybody else and suffered from longings and envy, which allows Vision to see-saw engagingly between the steady accumulation of its protagonist’s accomplishments and her occasional surrender to overwhelming emotions.

There’s a superfluous and fairly silly prologue involving a millenarian sect gathering to mark the last night of the first millennium and its implicit apocalypse. But the sun insistently rises the next morning and the world’s stage is set for von Bingen’s entrance… about 98 years later. Von Trotta quickly dramatizes von Bingen’s childhood cloistering before darting ahead 30 years to the moment when she assumes the role that will facilitate her destiny as maverick and renown polymath. Around this point we catch a glimpse of von Bingen’s visions, replete with sudden zooms into our heroine’s supernaturally blue eyes and psychedelic cloud formations. It would seem advisable to regard such religious experiences as best left to the imagination, but von Trotta’s approach to this material generally feels ambivalent about whether to mime it’s subject’s austerity or follow Ken Russell’s example as to how to shoot nuns: on the one hand Vision is almost elliptical in its efficient rendering of biographical bullet points; on the other it employs expressionistic hand-held camerawork and contemporaneous but decidedly non-diegetic choral music that could furnish several Omen sequels.

“God loves beauty,” declares von Bingen in
Vision, and the proof is manifested in von Bingen herself, embodied here by the positively ageless Barbara Sukowa in her fifth collaboration with von Trotta, the pair of them having forged their careers four decades back as important figures in the New German Cinema. Sukowa makes an agreeably radiant visionary, though her beauty doesn’t distract from the character’s chaste integrity. For secular viewers at least, Vision will feel most alive when von Bingen throws a bit of a tantrum upon discovering that her young protégée, also rather fetching, will be leaving her for another convent. There’s nothing beyond our own suspicions to imply anything erotic transpiring between the two during those long, lonely Dark Age nights, but perhaps there’s no harm in us having our own visions of transgression nonetheless.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Tourist: Searching for Mr. Wrong

The movie opens with all these guys following Angelina Jolie around with cameras, scrutinizing her every move, so you could be forgiven for wondering if you’re watching a documentary. But no, this is Paris, Jolie speaks with an English accent, she receives an envelope with cryptic instructions, and we get about 40 different camera angles just to cover a half-minute of action—and if those clues don’t assure you that we’re in the realm of pure hokum, the deliriously fussy, overbearing, almost instantly annoying James Newton Howard score will. The director is Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who helmed
The Lives of Others. Like that earlier film, this one is heavy on surveillance. Consequence, not so much.

You could shave off the first 15 minutes of
The Tourist and just start the thing with Jolie’s expensively tailored mystery vixen approaching Johnny Depp on a train, since he is, I think, our protagonist, or at least steals every scene from Jolie. She’s given precious little to do aside from look gorgeously worried; Depp, bearded and slightly husky-looking, at least gets to be funny and bumblingly charming. He’s terrific in their early exchanges. If only he and everyone else didn’t have to speak so many of their thoughts aloud. Redundancies accumulate, the bloat becoming near-palpable by the movie’s mid-point. I haven’t seen Anthony Zimmer, the French film The Tourist is based on, but if nothing else the original was at least shorter.

So Jolie uses Depp, a Wisconsin schoolteacher meandering through Europe on holiday, to mislead British fuzz and some nasty thugs led by a billionaire Steven Berkoff. The heavies all want to track down Jolie’s ex-lover to collect some six-figure debts—could Depp be that rascal in disguise?
The Tourist is a Wrong Man movie, playing like Polanski Lite or neo-Hitchcock, with its doubles, snarling villains and chase scenes through the lovelier canals of Venice. If I sound grumpy it’s only because the movie had every reason to be fun, if forgettable. Unfortunately it’s far too dumb to generate suspense, and the deeply predictable “unpredictable” ending is wildly nonsensical. The movie also fails to offer us a single truly compelling character, one we can believe in, even on the story’s own flimsy terms. Jolie’s character wears this medallion on a bracelet that features the two heads of Janus. She says her mom gave it to her to remind her that everyone has two distinct faces. But after watching The Tourist, two sounds luxurious. Me, I would have settled for one.

Monday, December 6, 2010

A few things about the Earrings of Madame de...: Chance, Objects, Lightness

Once you’ve fallen under the spell of the great yet often forgotten Max Ophüls it can become difficult to decide which of his films is best, but so many have argued so convincingly for The Earrings of Madame de… (1953) that I feel little compulsion to contest the consensus. Moving between Paris, Constantinople and the French countryside, concerning an affair between a French general’s wife and an Italian baron, the film is something of a love triangle, as well as one of cinema’s most elegant essays on chance. “Coincidence,” one of its characters tells us, “is only extraordinary because it’s so natural.” Indeed, there’s something strangely inevitable about the journey undertaken by our unnamed heroine’s earrings, first sold to remedy a mounting debt, then sold back clandestinely to her spouse, then bestowed upon a mistress sent off to a faraway country, then lost in a gambling binge, then purchased by a traveling aristocrat, then returned to France and… Like the sublimely fluid camera work for which Ophüls is famous, you get to feeling these objects could go anywhere, never rushing, yet never still.

The first images we see in the film are of our heroine’s many things. She surveys, assesses, strokes them, trying to decide which is least essential. Objects and desire are ceaselessly aligned in
Madame de… Some, such as our heroine’s dance card, which is promptly filled by her not-so-secret lover, become fleeting talismans or symbols of what’s to come: the acceleration of the lovers’ flirtation is conveyed through a montage in which they close down multiple dancing parties. Aptly, many of the film’s most conspicuous objects are employed to enhance seeing, such as a monocle, or a tiny telescope mounted on a staff. Nonetheless, objects finally prove meaningless. Gesture becomes everything. A prayer, a fainting spell, a challenge to a duel: these actions are invested with meanings that alter the characters’ lives, until the opulence surrounding them withers in significance.

Danielle Darrieux plays our heroine with such a puzzling blend of conviction and coquetry that only those inclined to dismiss her on account of her elite status can remained unmoved by her emotional maelstrom or unintrigued by her mystery, something written into the very ellipses of the film’s title. Her husband, played by Charles Boyer, is similarly contradictory, tender and remote, amorous and stoic. Played by Vittorio De Sica, the baron, a foreigner, a visitor to their social circle, is necessarily less ambiguous. He must make his intentions clear from his first glimpse of Darrieux, but his charisma, like his barely disguised swoon, possesses its own richness. (De Sica the Italian neo-realist director is far more important to film history, but may I suggest that De Sica the occasional actor is more seductive.) These performances attract marvel not only for the pleasure found in the actors’ graceful transitions from placidity to torment, but for their perfect alignment with Ophuls’ gliding, fundamentally weightless approach to melodrama. Lightness is absolutely essential to Ophuls’ methodology. The film addresses tumultuous emotions without ever succumbing to tumult itself, allowing us to be swept along without being dragged under by heavy-handed sentiment. There’s a moment when torn letters become falling snow, and this, perhaps more than any other gesture in
Madame de…, represents the film’s spirit, those fragments of feelings expressed and sent out into the world, only to become the lightest flecks of moisture caught in the wind, before finally disappearing into the shifting landscape.

The Earrings of Madame de... screens at Edmonton's Metro Cinema this weekend.

Monday, November 29, 2010

That old-time religion, spectral, beautiful, spooky, everlasting: The Night of the Hunter

On the knuckles of one hand is the word LOVE, on the other, HATE, and let’s just say the former’s there mostly for show. Preacher Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), a charismatic psychopath, likes to employ these stark tattoos to recount an inane little religious parable about the war between our better and lesser selves, the whole thing wrapping up in a triumphant wrestling hold and a slack facial expression that presumes his listeners rapture. There’s a scene where a boy tells his sister a bedtime story, and another where an old woman narrates the discovery of the baby Moses for a gaggle of children. People sing each other songs and tell each other tales throughout
The Night of the Hunter (1955), which is itself balanced on the frontier of rural noir and horrific fairy tale, though we might well just call it Southern Gothic. The only movie ever directed by the great actor Charles Laughton and one of only two ever written by the great critic James Agee, this resides in its own category, a peculiar, and tremendously beautiful work that has a nagging tendency to stick in the minds of all who see it. It’s available now on DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection.

John (Billy Chaplin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) watch as the cops come for Ben (Peter Graves), their father, soon after sentenced to death for robbery and murder. Ben spends his last days sharing a cell with Harry Powell, and after Ben’s execution Harry’s left haunted by the question as to where Ben hid the stolen cash. Upon release, Harry finds, weds, and ultimately disposes of Ben’s all-too naïve widow Willa, played, with a little too much theatre, by Shelley Winters, in a role that very much anticipates her unlucky widow in
Lolita (62). “My body’s just a-quivering with cleanliness,” she exclaims at one point. She longs for new baptism and in some macabre sense finds it at the bottom of the same river where Ben was said to have installed his treasure. The image of Willa below the water’s surface, seated behind the wheel of a Model T, her hair flowing behind her in chorus with the weeds, a spectral tableau of death photographed by Stanley Cortez.

That image is more haunting for the absence of underscoring, its near-silence finally broken only by Harry singing ‘Leaning on the Everlasting Arms’ unaccompanied, the same song he’ll later sing in a wonderfully unlikely duet with Lillian Gish’s tough, shotgun-wielding foster mother and fierce child protectress while he encircles her house in the dead of night. The resistance to over-cook such moments with obviously portentous music or framing is emblematic of
Night of the Hunter’s exquisite elegance. There’s a scene where Pearl makes paper dolls with some of the secreted bills and a handful of them are blown by a night breeze right past Harry’s feet without his noticing. Laughton knew when he’d cast his spell. You’ll say it’s a shame that Laughton never directed again, yet when someone does it so perfectly once perhaps that’s enough.

Mitchum, usually the essence of cool anyway, likewise never winks at us, largely keeping his focus singular and Satanic, only to suddenly transform into an animalistic fiend, almost cartoon-like, in two key moments. His Harry is a very American sort of false Messiah, a chastising, sexually repressed misogynist convinced he holds private conference with God, with whom he’s worked out his own personal moral order. This arrangement grants him complete license in pursuit of his goal, and so he follows those kids relentlessly as they make their way slowly down-river on a skiff, overlooked by turtle, owl, toad, fox, sheep and rabbits, storybook emissaries. Harry’s in no hurry. I’m not even sure he really wants the money. He’s convinced of his right to some strange and bloody destiny and follows it without pause for remorse, ambling along by horse or by car, taking what he needs, exterminating whatever blocks his path on his way to glory—and right into the highest niches of cinema history.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Mysteries of performance: John Cazale and Thierry Guerra grace a pair of must-see DVDs

He always seemed tormented, but what set his performances apart were his painstaking efforts to
hide that torment. With those alternately dewy and reptilian eyes peering out from below a looming forehead covered by a sheath of skin so thin as to make its contents look unnervingly susceptible to direct sun or strong winds, John Cazale probably wasn’t anybody’s handsome, but given time he surely would have found the leading roles he desrved. Take a look at the younger actors lining up to sing his praises in Richard Shepard’s I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sam Rockwell, and of course Steve Buscemi, who’s obviously closest to some kind of cinematic heir. You can tell a lot about Cazale by the actors who still revere him more than 30 years after his untimely death at 42. They include not just the talents listed above, but also Meryl Streep, who met him when they did Measure For Measure in the Park, quickly fell in love, and stood by him through his losing fight with cancer, as well as Al Pacino, who looked up to him as a thespian, let him steal a few scenes in their movies together, and who says for Shepard’s camera, “I think I learned more about acting from John than anyone.”

You might not recognize the name, but if you don’t know that face you either weren’t watching movies in the 1970s or haven’t yet caught up with that magnificent decade and its “New” Hollywood. The oft-cited factoid about Cazale is that he was only in five movies, but every one of them was nominated for Best Picture. Now, maybe that means something and maybe it doesn’t, but whether adding texture to the already claustrophobic world closing in on Gene Hackman in The Conversation (1974), or having the world close in on him via a fraternal stranglehold in Godfather II (74), Cazale left unforgettable traces of pathos, desperation and endearingly awkward acts of ingratiation in his wake—qualities not so different from some of those we attribute to Warren Oates, another great, though very different sort of character actor who had a much longer run than Cazale, but who I bring up because he also had a mid-length documentary made about him called Warren Oates: Across the Border (93) that, like I Knew It Was You, is a pretty standard sort of made-for-TV profile yet is elevated by its inspired choice of subject and the genuine affection bestowed upon him. I Knew It Was You, now available on DVD from Oscilloscope, is worth seeking out as an introduction to Cazale or a friendly reminder of what he achieved in such a short period. Among its supplements is an extended interview with Pacino that’s both enlightening and very touching.

Another documentary profile (maybe) of an artist (maybe) on the margins of the mainstream,
Exit Through the Gift Shop is also out on DVD from Mongrel, and if you didn’t catch it during its theatrical run last spring, do yourself a favour. Attributed to Banksy, the mysterious English street artist who rose from standard tags to audacious pranks of wry social commentary to six-figure sales at Sotheby’s, the film’s about a guy named Thierry Guetta who ostensibly wanted to make a film about Banksy, but through a combination of incompetence and colossal enthusiasm became instead the subject of Banksy’s crazy, clever, and very, very funny work.

Thierry is a 21st century variation on the obsessive-compulsive image archivist we find in the stories of Italo Calvino and Javier Marías, or in
Camera Buff (79), the brilliant early feature from Krzysztof Kieslowski. Once Thierry gets hold of a video camera he can’t stop shooting for fear he might miss something—a foolproof way of missing out on an entire life. After Thierry logs countless hours of street art in action, and gains the trust of the ruthlessly camera-shy Banksy, he finally churns out a virtually unwatchable documentary about the whole movement that seems to take its designs from Lou Reed’s legendary noise manifesto Metal Machine Music (75), though without the sense of purpose. (Truth is, I kind of like Metal Machine Music.) Banksy, basically as a way to get of him and re-work the footage on his own, talks Thierry into trying his hand at street art instead, and while Thierry seems hardly better with this new medium, his concept-free, wildly appropriative pop art becomes a smash. It’s been pointed out that Thierry’s entire story might be complete bullshit. All I know is, whatever the facts are, the absurdly inarticulate but relentlessly game Thierry gives what’s easily among the funniest performances of the year.

Exit Through the Gift Shop’s coolest extra is probably the postcards and stickers in its sleeve, but there’s also a pretty good short about Banksy that more straightforwardly describes his progress as an artist. It features glowing appraisals from not only the late actor and collector Dennis Hopper, but also art world superstar Damien Hirst. But, just so you don’t get your hopes up, you still don’t get to see Banksy’s face.