Friday, January 29, 2010

Interrogating images: Lacan at the Scene

If the title alone doesn’t grab you, let me offer the premise of
Lacan at the Scene (MIT Press, $28.95) as a best-chance hook. Author Henry Bond’s opening statement is sufficiently clear and concise as to dissuade me from any fumbling paraphrasing. It asks: “what if Jacques Lacan—the brilliant and eccentric Parisian psychoanalyst—had left his home in the early 1950s in order to travel to England and work as a police detective? How might he have applied his theories in order to solve crime?” It sounds like the prompt for a work of speculative fiction, but what this book actually is—a study of an under-examined use of photography; a method of de-mystifying an ostensibly inscrutable body of work; a series of case studies intended for practical use in homicide investigations—probably makes for a richer and more satisfying read, if a tough slog for the squeamish. Considering how appalling some of the subject matter in Lacan at the Scene is, and how brutal are some of its images, I’m almost embarrassed to admit how utterly compelling I found it to be. But I digress—this post isn’t about my personal neuroses. Okay, at least not more than any other.

In developing his proposition, Bond—a London-based writer and photographer whose author photo suggests a guy suffering from chronic insomnia—became a regular visitor to the National Archive in order to study extant materials pertaining to murders that took place in England between 1955 and 1970. He was surely regarded by the more judgmental clerks with some suspicion. He offers an anecdote in which he requested to re-examine a case file he’d already looked over only to find that it had since been deemed unfit for public inspection. When he made inquiries he was escorted by a senior archivist through hidden doors and down a long corridor into a conference room where three men waited for him, the closed case file box resting on a table between them. These men explained that Bond’s previous access to the file was granted only by accident—the file was in fact still under a sort of quarantine. “Such material is not withheld for a logistical reason,” writes Bond, “…it is simply too
contagious to release.” This assessment seems intended less as a way of poking fun at Archive policy or its cabalistic culture as much as to emphasize just how taboo the perusal of images of violent crimes is. Which goes some distance toward explaining why, despite the wealth of superb writing out there covering photography in myriad forms, the critical writing on crime scene photography remains undernourished. It is, nevertheless, the cornerstone of Bond’s thesis.

Henry Bond, looking a little more rested

Bond takes Lacan’s tripartite model of mental functioning—the categories of perverse, psychotic and neurotic—and meticulously “reads” a series of murder crime scene photos in order to uncover evidence as to under which model the killer could be classified. Bond also makes frequent use of Roland Barthes’ two categories of photographic observation,
studium and punctum—respectively, the details that appear obviously relevant to an image’s context or meaning, and those that strike the viewer on a purely instinctive level—as laid out in Camera Lucida, so as to interrogate his own process of looking. Given that psychoanalysis urges us to regard the seemingly incidental as potentially significant, there’s a whole lot of punctum being heeded here, and fruitfully so. Bond suggests an apparent order in the chaotic disarray left in the wake of a psychotic murder, for example. Whether or not this methodology signals any sort of innovation in the established standards of police investigations I have no idea. But to the layman, especially one with a special interest in photography, psychoanalysis or both, Bond’s theorizing is both fascinating and enlightening. We may enter into each of these studies with only a certain morbid, perhaps guilt-ridden interest in the sick or tawdry aspects of their implied narratives, but in every case Bond goes deeper into the psychological ramifications implicit in these vestiges of murder than you’re likely to find in Faces of Death, a Weegee compilation, or whatever equally lurid work of exploitation—or, to be generous, exploitation art—you might find yourself compulsively surveying.

The perverse killer is found in a case where a woman is killed in her back garden, in full, almost theatrically staged view of a window, or potential witness. The psychotic killer is found in a confession that explains how murder was necessitated by mortal danger emanating from a bar of soap. The neurotic killer is found in a crime scene where beside a neatly piled column of books there lies both a confession to the killing of the corpse left behind and a polite request that these books be returned to the appropriate library before they’re overdue. The neurotic impulse to “undo” violent acts is further exemplified by a case in which the killer murders the victim and subsequently places a pillow under the victim’s head and a glass of water by the victim’s side. Imaginatively citing the writings of J.G. Ballard, William Burroughs, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Slavoj Zizek—who also happens to be the curator of the series to which Lacan at the Scene belongs—and the films of Alfred Hitchcock, Michael Powell, Michelangelo Antonioni, David Lynch and Christopher Nolan, among many others, Bond offers numerous points of reference through which to contextualize his investigatory process. Straddling fact and fiction, the established and the untested theoretical, using language that is always to the point without being excessively cold or alienating, he takes the reader through a labyrinth of nightmare to gain wider insight into how our minds betray us, and how we can understand the residue of trauma. It might even help you understand non-homicidal behaviour a little better.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Who's Bad?: Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart

We see this old buck amble out of his ’78 Suburban, sunglasses on, pants undone, brimming jug of highway pee ready to be upturned on the sun-baked parking lot. He’s arrived at the bowling alley where he’s to play tonight’s show with some local band he’s yet to meet. He’s seen better days. His manager has to nag him to write some new material. He’s 57-years-old, he’s got $10 in his pocket and a bad dose of hemorrhoids, but he is, after all, a country singer, so this creaky list of lamentations means a new song should practically write itself.
Crazy Heart is the story of how this singer hits rock bottom and starts to pull himself back up. It’s a very familiar tune played with some genuine freshness. It’s a well-crafted, thoughtful movie for adults. It might have been respectable and kinda ordinary, but it stars Jeff Bridges, a fact that elevates the picture to the level of something you probably don’t want to miss.

It’s nothing new to say that Bridges is one of the most underappreciated actors in American movies. They may be actors just as good that you’ve never heard of, but none who have spent so long on the cusp of the limelight, who've starred in countless big Hollywood movies yet is most beloved for the cult favourites. (You know what I'm talking about. This isn't Bridges' first time in a bowling alley.) Bad Blake, the weary yet resilient hero of
Crazy Heart, an aging country troubadour addicted to booze, smokes, rough women and tawdry telenovelas, is yet another performance of shaggy beauty and pathos from Bridges, who already won the Golden Globe for the role and will hopefully get the Oscar he richly deserves. Bridges looks like Kris Kristofferson and sings a bit like Merle Haggard. The film’s music, a set of unusually strong and poignant songs, comes from T-Bone Burnett and Kristofferson’s late collaborator Stephen Bruton, but Bridges makes it his own, as he does with every gesture in the movie, however fleeting: the way he wakes from an accidental nap and muzzles three cigarettes from his bedside pack, the way he fumbles with a chain lock with no hook, or breads fish fillets while talking on the phone to a younger woman he’s fallen unnervingly in love with. It’s just a pleasure to watch him, even while he slips toward wreckage.

Based on the novel by Thomas Cobb,
Crazy Heart marks the debut of actor turned writer/director Scott Cooper. There are more than enough elegantly wrought moments throughout the movie to prove Cooper’s got chops, such as the shot where we watch a witness to an accident rush toward a crashed car in the reflection of the driver’s half-open window. There are wonderful bits of dialogue. “How are you, Bad?” an old friend asks. “I’m worse,” replies Bad. “What do you want to talk about?” asks a fetching young interviewer, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal. “I want to talk about how bad you make this room look.” There’s a supporting turn from an effortlessly charming Robert Duvall as a spry barkeep that’s virtually worth the ticket price alone. Duvall’s also one of the movie’s producers, and once played a country singer himself, in Bruce Beresford’s Tender Mercies.

It’s only in the movie’s last third or so that it begins to reveal its weaknesses: a baldly contrived bit of conflict to hurl us toward climax, a too-neat final scene, a little much too much squinting from a well-meaning Colin Farrell as Bad’s hugely successful protégé, and the hurried unraveling of Gyllenhaal’s love interest, a character who feels a bit undernourished for the emotional gymnastics she’s asked to perform. But such a handful of bum notes can hardly steal anything from
Crazy Heart’s resonant grace, one that flows from the heart of a rare young filmmaker more concerned with letting great actors create gentle magic onscreen than impressing restless viewers with empty glitz, two words that pretty much epitomize everything wrong not only with a lot of shitty movies but with most country music in the last 30 years or more.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Middle of nowhere: Paris, Texas on DVD

There is the man in the desert. Brown suit and tie, red cap, bearded, shrouded in dust like some forsaken antique no one’s touched. Four years ago he tried to disappear, a difficult thing to do, even in country as vast as this. He got as far as shaking off his voice. When Travis Henderson’s found passed out on the floor of some Texas tavern in the middle of nowhere they call his brother Walt, a maker of billboards in Los Angeles. Walt comes for Travis, to reintroduce him to the world. Travis could be mentally ill, autistic, or on the lam. But he’s the hero of
Paris, Texas (1984), a sort of interrogation of American life and landscape, directed by a German, photographed by a Dutchman, financed with European money, written and scored by Americans, performed by an international cast—the arresting hybrid of cultural sensibilities is right there in the title—that’s still one of the most mysterious and moving pictures I know. It’s now available in a beautifully put-together two-disc set from the Criterion Collection.

The first half of
Paris, Texas has Walt driving Travis back to California, where he and his wife live with Travis’ seven-year-old son Hunter. Along the way Travis recovers his speech, though he does not reveal where he’s been or why he left. The second half finds Travis reunited with Hunter and driving the two of them back to Texas, where Travis believes he can find his wife Jane, who, like Travis, vanished four years back, leaving Hunter in Walt’s care. Their reunion takes place in a strange sort of peep show, on either side of the one-way glass—Travis can see her, but she can’t see him. Travis speaks into a telephone, while Jane communicates through a speaker on the other side. They tell each other stories that may or may not be precise retellings of their troubled love and its collapse. So over the course of this movie Travis goes from being no voice to nothing but voice, a disembodied phantom from Jane’s past who has come back to restore something. What, exactly, is a little ambiguous, and more than a little heartbreaking. Questions linger. What makes a man give up his life, his voice, to go somewhere “without language or streets”? What makes him abandon his own child? But by the time we’ve reached the end of Travis and Jane’s stories the emotional specificity overwhelms the spare facts and unexplained actions.

The weight of Travis and Jane and Hunter’s story is alleviated by the lightness of Wim Wenders’ direction, his lack of judgment, his dogged attention to actorly nuance, his deep affection for American horizons, truck stops, and music. The score is by Ry Cooder, a bottleneck improvisation based around Blind Willie Johnson’s old blues ‘Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground,’ veering between wind-carved desolation and Mexican-tinged nostalgia. The movie, as much about walking as it is about driving, was shot by Robby Müller in such a way that emphasizes the expanse of the settings, splitting focus between faces and backgrounds and weather. The script, as such, comes from great playwright and handsome actor Sam Shepard, and if Criterion’s package focuses heavily on Wenders’ dominant authorship, I’d argue we should consider this just as equally to be a Sam Shepard movie, so in keeping with his themes and voice that even the bits not actually conceived by Shepard—the peep show device came from Kit Carson, who filled in as scripter while Shepard was knee-deep in
Country (84)—feel ripped directly from the imaginative world of his writing, one of lonesome places and bad genes, ghostly fathers and opposite brothers. In any event, Paris, Texas is easily among the greatest achievements of everyone involved, including the actors.

Wenders wanted Shepard to play Travis, but this is impossible to imagine once you’ve spent two minutes with Harry Dean Stanton, in what sadly remains his sole credit as a leading man. He was pushing 60 then, while Nastassja Kinski, who plays Jane, was only in her mid-20s, if radiating preternatural maturity onscreen, having already worked with—and in some cases been romanced by—Roman Polanski, Francis Ford Coppola and Paul Schrader. Kinski’s depth of character, the suspicion and longing in her gaze, and the gentleness and frustration mixed into Stanton’s voice, gestures, and face—itself a sort of road map—doesn’t leave you preoccupied with how Jane could love this man. Their long climactic scene together more than assures us that a thick and thorny story lay behind their union. Hunter Carson as their son feels playful and alert, yet never falsely ingratiating in his scenes with Stanton, while Dean Stockwell gives a warm performance as Walt, patient and anxious and mystified by this guy who happens to be his kin. To think that when Wenders cast Stockwell he was ready to give up movies for a career in real estate, a footnote in the movie’s history that nicely echoes one of its key moments, when Travis shows Walt a dog-eared photo of some land he bought in Paris, Texas. It’s just an empty lot, but it only makes sense that Travis would want to invest in a place where there’s nothing.

Criterion’s supplements are superb, including an audio commentary from the very articulate Wenders, as well as a fascinating interview he did for German television back in 2001. A major highlight is the 43-minute documentary
Motion and Emotion: The Rood to Paris, Texas, gorgeously and inventively edited using a blend of talking heads and clips from Wenders’ already prolific body of work, and featuring commentary from Wenders, Cooder, Müller, Dennis Hopper, Patricia Highsmith, and even Sam Fuller, chomping cigars, of course, and offering memorable assessments of Wenders such as, “He can be very slow, but his mood is like a fire!” My personal favourite supplement however would have to be a new, 20-minute interview between Kent Jones and Claire Denis—one of my all-time favourite critics talks to one of my all-time favourite directors! Denis was assistant director on Paris, Texas, Wenders having managed to convince her that the best way to move forward on making her first feature would be to help him make his movie. Her stories are rich, vivid, funny—she affectionately calls John Lurie a snake-face; I guess you can do that when you’re French—and full of love for what would become a defining moment in her life.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Secrets between silences: Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould

The solitary figure wanders through the autumnal Ontario hinterland, in famous overcoat, gloves and cap, lingering here and there, swinging his arms as though conducting the rivers and woods to ripple and sway with greater zest. We hear the figure’s disembodied voice, expressing a sense of “distance from the world” as being an endemic virtue of music and art. Of course the figure only seems solitary, only seems distant, a triumphant escapee from the oppressive hubbub of the world—someone else, after all, is operating the camera.

Having exploded on the world stage in the mid-1950s, Glenn Gould was arguably the most thrilling, iconoclastic concert pianist alive before taking his final bow just a handful of years later at the age of 31. Only half-jokingly, he once referred to audiences as “a force of evil.” He continued to make records and developed a career in broadcasting and theory that would in some sense equal the dynamicism and brilliance of his virtuosic musical performances. Yet this retirement from the stage also indulged Gould’s considerable quirks. It was accompanied by a retirement from public spontaneity. His public persona became honed to the point where nothing could escape his meticulous design. So we should not mistake that lonesome kook in the wilderness as anything less than a calculated, and highly marketable image. Which is not the same thing as mistaking this as a false image. Just as Gould’s more considered, more meditative 1981 recording of Bach’s
Goldberg Variations should not be mistaken for some sort of false reworking of Gould’s youthful and more frenetic 1955 recording. Both possess their disparate authenticity. One Glenn Gould is not necessarily more real than the other. This elusiveness of singular truth in biography or in art is among the compelling subjects of Michèle Hozer and Peter Raymont’s new documentary Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould.

While it isn’t able to delve very deeply into certain areas of his diverse achievements, especially as a theorist, Genius Within offers a coherent summation of Gould’s major artistic feats, not to mention his well-known eccentricities—the drugs and hypochondria, the humming and unusually intimate relationship the keyboard, the Petula Clark fixation—with tributes from the likes of Russian conductor and pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy and Canadian philosopher Mark Kingwell. Where Genius Within boldly strays from the established Gouldology is in its focus on Gould’s personal relationships, such as his friendship with the recording engineer whom he asked to become his legal brother, and most especially his affair with painter and mother-of-two Cornelia Foss, who was still married to composer and conductor Lukas Foss for the duration of her five-year relationship with Gould. She provides some of the most candid and insightful comments about the hazy region that spans the gap between Gould the solitary, difficult artist, and Gould the sociable, romantic, child-friendly domestic.

Genius Within Hozer and Raymont emphasize the gray zone between the myth and the essentially unknowable man, all the while enriching our appreciation of the music. They also, as the title implies, subtly attempt to get at what it is that constitutes the genius of one such as Gould. Happily, some mysteries remain too durable to penetrate.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Landscape-blackout-landscape: Lake Tahoe

A landscape, a blackout, then another landscape. And then, in the next blackout, the crunch of collision. Juan (Diego Cataño) has banged his red Tsuru into a telephone pole. He’s okay, and the damage to the car seems minimal, but he can’t the damned thing going. He’s on a country road, so he needs to walk into town for help. He’s got about $12 in pesos.

The landscape-blackout-landscape pattern continues, and a fair bit of
Lake Tahoe (2008), now on DVD from Film Movement, will play out this way, keeping considerable distance from its characters, often implying more emotional content through these landscapes and blackouts than through the faces and bodies and interactions onscreen. Especially since Juan’s private turmoil is buried, albeit shallowly, and it will be some time before we come to understand the reasons behind it. The first half of the movie is task-oriented, with Juan’s attempts to get his car fixed repeatedly thwarted. Those he encounters en route to repair include a Shaolin enthusiast and ostensible mechanic more eager to make friends, play video games and take in a screening of Enter the Dragon (73), than to deliver the desired distributor harness; a young single mother who minds the counter of an auto parts shop and who nurtures ambitions to be a singer—and to seduce Juan; and an old guy who loses his beloved dog and enlists Juan’s help in the search.

In a nod to the movie’s debt to neorealism, the old man’s dog—a boxer, who delivers my favourite performance in the movie—is named Sica, after the director of
Umberto D. (52), a movie about an old man who loses his dog. But Lake Tahoe, the second feature from Mexican director Fernando Eimbcke and his co-scenarist Paula Markovitch, who previously collaborated on Duck Season (04), owes much more to the cinema of Jim Jarmusch, and, to a lesser degree, the leading lights of the current wave of Latin American low-budget, observational formalism. (In what’s surely a coincidence, the relationship between the enigmatic, place-based title and the final scenes of Lake Tahoe is mirrored with remarkable fidelity in Lisandro Alonso’s Liverpool (08).)

I’ve no idea whether this was a conscious thing for Eimbcke, but there actually seems to be a strong overall influence of American art traditions on
Lake Tahoe. Filmed entirely in Progreso, a fairly sleepy seaside town just a short drive from Mérida, the capital of Yucatán, the movie ’s fixated on bland, flat, anonymous architecture, which it surveys in persistently square compositions that distinctly recall the work of numerous American photographers of the mid-20th century, artists who helped to forge a modern visual vocabulary of urban space as seen through the windows of a car.

Which brings us back to Jarmusch and his trademark dry humour that, in early works like
Stranger Than Paradise (84) especially, blossoms from entire scenes that unfold through extended medium shots. There are moments in Lake Tahoe that echo this strategy fruitfully, buoyed on warm humour and a nice feeling for the virtues of community. But there are an awful lot of other moments that feel pretty flat, protracted without apparent purpose, too loosely edited for the humour or internal rhythm to fully come through, too miserly with its actors to capitalize on their individual nuance, and generally overburdened by a sense of formal rigour that simply hasn’t been pushed far enough to make much of an impact. Its heart seems to be in the right place, but basically there’s a lack of frisson here between form and content. Granted, I’m probably a little harder on Lake Tahoe because it’s exactly the kind of movie I’m supposed to like…

For other reasons I might say the same of
Cairo Time (09), out on DVD from Mongrel this week, a slow burning almost-romance between mature characters. Patricia Clarkson’s magazine editor, killing time in Cairo while her husband is endlessly delayed by his UN mission in Gaza, and Alexander Siddig’s unmarried local café owner, who has nothing but time, are a warm, welcome presence onscreen together, especially in scenes where they do almost nothing—as David Berry noted in his review when the film briefly hit theatres last October, the richest scene in the movie is the one where Clarkson and Siddig silently enjoy a train ride home together from a wedding. But that scene lasts about a minute, maybe, and is bracketed by a whole bunch of other scenes that are quiet and calm and verging on pulseless.

Cairo Time largely suffers the opposite problem of Lake Tahoe. Where Eimbcke keeps his camerawork to a stifling minimum, erring on the side of allusion, writer/director Ruba Nadda seems dependent on way too much coverage. Her scenes are cluttered with too many angles, too much needless lingering, too many indicators, too many limpid phone call scenes, too many redundancies overall—the tone seems subtle, but the storytelling isn’t subtle at all. Still, you might want to give it a whirl anyway. There are moments here—a hesitant kiss that results in an adorable “Oh!” from Clarkson before she escapes into an elevator—that hold some genuine immediacy and truth.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Touching from a distance: Penélope Cruz and Lluís Homar on all that's elusive and alluring in Almodóvar's Broken Embraces

The first images we glimpse in
Broken Embraces are difficult to locate in the chronology of its fevered, convoluted narrative. They hover somewhere in the midst of not only the movie but also the movie’s genesis. We see an actress on a film set preparing for another take. Her name, we’ll later learn, is Lena, and she’s played by Penélope Cruz. But these images were taken on the fly, without Cruz’s knowing they would be used in the movie, that she was meant to be performing. So in a sense it’s Cruz herself, not Lena, who we observe in this moment of pure presence pulled loose from the self-consciousness of the actor working for the camera, a stray fragment striving toward some symbiosis of art and reality. It is in any case a captivating entrée to this fourth collaboration between Cruz and writer/director Pedro Almodóvar.

“We are like lovers,” Almodóvar has said of he and Cruz, who decided to be an actress after having seen Almodóvar’s Tie Me Up, Tie me Down (1990) as a teenager. Indeed, Broken Embraces can be read as a love letter from an auteur to his muse. It’s a story told in four parts, encompassing two different periods in the life of its protagonist. Mateo Blanco was a successful director, until one day he decided to make a very Almodóvar-like comedy called Chicas y Maletas and cast as its lead an unknown named Lena, who was smart, gorgeous and possessed a raw talent. But Lena was tethered to a rich, older, fearsomely possessive man named Ernesto who once helped her when she was desperate. Mateo and Lena fall in love and gradually everything goes to hell—Ernesto is the movie’s financier, and he won’t let her go, even if it means destroying the project. Tragedy strikes, Mateo loses both Lena and his sight, and with this double-loss he also abandons his name. So Mateo Blanco is killed and Harry Caine takes his place, just a writer now, not a director, blinded, and thus better equipped to retreat into the shadowy embrace of the past. Until the past catches up with him. Mateo can’t get Lena back, nor can he regain his sight. But Harry Caine can illuminate some lingering mysteries about how it all happened. Turns out he can also finish his movie the way it was intended, which in Almodóvar’s cinema of cinema adoration is some kind of happy ending. In Mateo’s movie, if not in life, Lena can live forever.

It’s fascinating to see Almodóvar play with Cruz’s persona in
Broken Embraces, peppering her image with a little Audrey Hepburn, a little Goldie Hawn, a flash of Rita Hayworth in Gilda (46). Yet Lena surpasses references, emerging as a complex and finally terribly moving character, the ostensible femme fatale overwhelmed by her own allure. She’s a woman desired into oblivion, tormented by compromise, crushed when she attempts an escape. Cruz hauntingly embodies this woman slowly being torn apart. I and a gaggle of other writers were able to sit with Cruz and during last fall’s Toronto International Film Festival, where Broken Embraces had its North American premiere. More diminutive than I’d imagined, especially after having seen her inhabit the screen so fully in Almodóvar’s Volver (06), Cruz wore a simple floral print dress, pink cardigan, and platform sandals. She sat cross-legged, as if attempting to fill more of her chair. Yet when she spoke it was with a confidence and grace that defied her stature. “I don’t think Lena is weak,” she explained. “She has one challenge after another. She becomes a great actress in life, if not in movies. I see her as three women in one: who she really is you can see briefly when she’s in love; then there’s the character she creates to be with Ernesto; and there’s the character that she plays in Chicas y Maletas. Some days we would go from one to other…”

Some of Cruz’s earliest work was with Almodóvar. In
Live Flesh (97) she was a prostitute giving birth on a bus. In All About My Mother (99) she played a nun. At some point she attracted the attention of American filmmakers and appeared in a flurry of American movies, like All the Pretty Horses (00), Vanilla Sky (01), and Sahara (05), yet she was rarely cast imaginatively. She might have become lost in Hollywood, another beautiful face with an exotic accent, typically required to do little more than fulfill a stereotype, arguably not unlike her fellow countryman Antonio Banderas, whose career was also launched with several highly memorable appearances in Almodóvar movies. But Volver changed that. Almodóvar had no difficulty imagining Cruz as more eccentric, more dynamic, more robust, and Cruz got an Oscar nomination. She didn’t win for Volver; she won instead for her supporting role in Vicky Christina Barcelona (08), where she did in fact play a stereotype of the fiery, nosy, lusty Spaniard—though she did it with tremendous verve, thank you very much.

Cruz with Almodóvar

Cruz is grateful for her success, yet seems equally cognizant of the role of luck in navigating the vagaries of the film industry. “The moment Lena meets Mateo and tells him she wants to be an actress—I couldn’t do it without crying,” says Cruz. “I was getting the feeling back of meeting Pedro when I was 17, and I was thinking, ‘What would my life have been had I not been able to share with him that I want to be an actress?’ I had to cry between takes.” Cruz and Almodóvar are close friends, so close that they feel able to read each other’s thoughts. But their camaraderie doesn’t compromise their work ethic. “I feel the same butterflies in my stomach when I’m on the set working with him as with any other director,” Cruz says. “My biggest worry is to have him go home disappointed at the end of our day of shooting. I want him to be happy, to feel that I’m giving him 100%, because he’s given me time after time huge amounts of trust. It’s intimidating because he’s so honest. He’ll tell you if you’re good, he’ll tell you if you’re bad. He’ll tell you in great detail. That’s what’s so addictive about working with him, this honesty.”

Almodóvar’s famous perfectionism and frank criticism had the same effect on Lluís Homar, who played Mateo/Harry. Not only a veteran of Spanish film and TV but a long-established actor and director in Barcelona’s theatre community, Homar had a significant role in Almodóvar’s
Bad Education (04), but couldn’t have foreseen the commitment he was to take on with Broken Embraces. Homar also turned up to do publicity during TIFF, an endearing figure clad in red jacket, tight black jeans and cowboy boots, with pale eyes that sparkle in the sunlight. Those eyes spend much of the movie lost in some melancholy inner-vision disguised by Mateo/Harry’s habitual amiability. Homar and Almodóvar spent countless hours with a multitude of blind people to get a sense of Mateo/Harry’s state of being. It was only when they finally met a blind man who didn’t seem blind did Almodóvar tell Homar, “There’s Harry.” “It’s very strange,” Homar said of this model for his character. “He looks you right in your eyes, but he doesn’t see anything.”

In a sense, Mateo/Harry’s blindness helped Homar surrender to Almodóvar’s process. There are key scenes in
Broken Embraces where Almodóvar will cast off his dominant shot/reverse shot pattern and let the camera simply glide between two characters in conversation, falling on one or the other in turn, though not necessarily when you might think. When asked about this method Homar shrugged and laughed, admitting that after the first few takes he had to just forget the camera altogether, to be truly blind as it were. Homar never worried about making a wrong choice because he trusted Almodóvar completely to set him straight. “He knows the characters so well,” Homar says. “Even when he says things to you over the course of production, things he just tosses off very casually, you want to run away and find a microphone to record every word. Each sentence or each gesture you’re to perform—he knows exactly what he wants.”

Among the elements that make
Broken Embraces an essential chapter in Almodóvar’s career are scenes that literally demonstrate an aspect of his working methods. Toward the movie’s end, 14 years after Chicas y Maletas was released in a mangled version, Mateo is able to re-cut the movie, comparing various takes. Cruz initially thought that the “bad” takes would allow her and her co-stars to indulge in some broad acting, but her director was after something far more suggestive. “It was hard because we thought we could do whatever we want and just make it fun and exaggerate,” recalls Cruz. “But Pedro wanted something so subtle. I think that’s the point. If you see a scene play out, and then you see the same scene just two degrees lower or higher… it’s like music, if it’s just a little bit off you don’t feel the connection. It’s hard to explain what it is.”

Hard to explain yet unmistakable when you see it work.
Broken Embraces is a somewhat wordy movie by Almodóvar’s usual standards, yet it still contains images so rich as to seem almost indescribable. There’s a moment when Harry approaches his television. On screen is the last image ever filmed of he and Lena together. He has the image slowed down so that each frame is frozen for a moment. He places his hands on the screen, fingers spread, as though able to touch what’s long gone, to embrace a faded memory through the intangible magic of the moving image. It may just be the most personal image Almodóvar has produced.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Thing: Fear the familiar face!

When Hollywood endeavored to remake
The Thing From Another World (1951), the late screenwriter Bill Lancaster wisely opted for a radical re-imagining, going back to the source material for inspiration, a novella by John W. Campbell Jr. entitled Who Goes There? Chief among the distinctions between The Thing From Another World and what would simply be called The Thing (82) was the decision, very much in keeping the Campbell’s narrative, to render the titular alien not as an angry salad bar in human form but rather an interplanetary chameleon, a parasite able to rapidly assume the form of whatever host organism it came into contact with after being thawed out by a Norwegian research team in Antarctica. They say mimicry is the highest compliment.

However, Lancaster’s script also differs from the earlier movie in that it features not a single woman. While the presence of women in the earlier movie could be written off as pandering to a broader audience with the arbitrary injection of a love interest, an argument of equal merit could be made that a great opportunity was lost in the resolve to make this an exclusively masculine story. A feminine perspective could have pleasingly complicated the deeply uneasy, paranoid group dynamics of
The Thing, and you have to wonder if the absence of women didn’t emerge above all from squeamishness on the part of the filmmakers, all of them men, who may have felt uncomfortable with desecrating female bodies with the same infamously ferocious and nauseating zeal applied to those of men and canines throughout.

The Thing begins with a pretty corny looking flying saucer crashing into Earth, leaving no ambiguity as to what we’re dealing with from the get-go. There’s only a short, divertingly portentous half-hour or so between this cosmic establishing shot and the first manifestation of the alien presence in the encampment’s Husky cage, with flesh flying off of this poor pooch’s skull like a self-peeling banana, and blood-smeared spaghetti whipping around the room to ensnare the other dogs. The alien’s use of familiar flesh as a sort of Trojan Horse reveals a similar tactic to that of the aliens in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (56), which was also imaginatively updated and remade in a version directed by Philip Kaufman in ’78. But in The Thing, directed by John Carpenter, the process of transfiguration is itself the central concern of the movie. It veers away from the concerns of science fiction and into that of horror, emphasizing repeatedly the body as a site of grotesque violence and chilling anonymity.

The Thing, when not making you want to vomit, is pretty fun, another Carpenter siege drama where evil is evil and the good guys do what it takes. But I can’t help but imagine a David Cronenberg version, a movie far more curious, speculative and precise in its biological exegesis and bearing greater pathos. Undoubtedly Cronenberg, like the scientist in The Thing From Another World, would be more sympathetic to the alien than Kurt Russell, who rarely puts on a hat in the –40 tempests and eagerly torches everything in sight. But maybe we should be imagining a Werner Herzog version. Early in The Thing a characters named Windows tries to get in touch with his colleagues at McMurdo Station, the setting of Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World (07). Would those endearing misfits at McMurdo, spanning many countries of origin and encompassing both genders, have been able to fight off the alien? Or might they have embraced it as just another fellow outsider, far from home and in search of communion?

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Under the influence of a reckless moment: The Headless Woman

It begins with an accident on a country road. The driver, the sole occupant of the vehicle, stops the car, but keeps her eyes forward. Her name is Verónica, or Vero, for short. She does not examine what it is she’s run over, and this moment of decision or neglect or shock and confusion extends like a prolonged exhalation—or better yet, like a scream trapped in one’s throat. The moment is maddeningly still, chilling, and transfixing. Vero composes herself and drives on.

Things start to get strange. Vero goes to a hospital to be examined. She goes to a hotel instead of going home, even though home doesn’t seem that far away. She sleeps with a man who is not her husband, whether out of habit or in a sudden fit of desire is uncertain. She takes a shower with her clothes on. Of course, we don’t know yet where her home is. We don’t know yet who her husband is. We don’t know yet that she even has a husband. Exposition has been forsaken in lieu of something tantalizingly ambiguous. We’re asked to collect clues on our own, to stay a little more alert than most movies ask us to be. If you treasure the experience of entering a mystery blind you might want to consider just watching
The Headless Woman (2008) and reading the rest of this later.

Vero’s behaviour is as compelling as her motives are nearly inscrutable, to the degree that certain sequences become comical, such the one that finds Vero sitting calmly in the waiting room of a dental clinic, as though she’s a patient and not one of the resident dentists. Vero banged her head in the collision—does she suffer from amnesia? There are more than enough noir flourishes in
The Headless Woman to suggest such a movie-movie conceit. There’s something sufficiently elliptical in this slowly unraveling tale to suggest that all that follows may be the depiction of some extended fugue state. We’re immersed in subjectivity. We’ve perhaps entered a dream, but if so it isn’t a dream of mist and echoes but one of precise and vivid realist detail. One from which one doesn’t ever entirely wake.

This is the third film from the Argentine director Lucrecia Martel, who had something of an art house hit with
The Holy Girl (04), which is warmer than this latest film and actually a sort of comedy. Martel’s uncompromising sense of open-endedness and refusal to orient audiences either narratively or morally is tempered by her humour, her singular eye for fascinatingly peculiar bits of human interaction, and her immaculate, almost classical craftsmanship—a combination that’s allowed her to make her last two films under the auspices of the Almodóvar brothers, who are credited as co-producers. Although it played in very few theatres in Canada and the US, The Headless Woman is now available on DVD from Stand Releasing, which means that we can watch and re-watch it and piece together the shards of Vero’s posttraumatic daze. Once you do it’s surprising how coherent Martel’s narrative actually is—there isn’t a minute of this movie that’s not integral of the whole.

Yet the film’s brilliance, what makes you want to bother to seek out this coherence in the first place, is that no matter how much plot you glean certain shadows linger, expanding beyond the immediate story until it spreads into the sociological. Vero’s world is one where race and class-based inequities are less discreet than ours, and the meaning of her crime in this context can hardly be missed. When Vero gradually begins to recall or accept what’s transpired and attempts to resolve the situation however she can, the film’s creepier implications are revealed. She needn’t worry about her hit and run being discovered because there are others of her same social standing who, like friendly little elves, are cleaning up her mess while she recovers.

As remarkable as Martel’s writing and direction is, The Headless Woman would still be only half a movie were it not for the central performance of María Onetto. With her bottle-blonde hair—which she eventually changes, like a guilty heroine from Hitchcock—her heavy lidded eyes, and her sedate smile that could speak to some inner mischief as easily as serenity, Onetto reminds me most of some tranquilized version of Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence (74). Neither ingratiating nor alienating, Onetto doesn’t judge Vero but instead fully embodies her to the point where, against all odds, we identify with her. As with many a noir protagonist, we know she’s done something at least a little awful, even if we’re unsure of the gravity of the consequences of her actions—yet we can’t take our eyes off of her. And neither can Martel, who frames Onetto in ways that are endlessly curious, paying special attention to her neck and ears. Martel and Onetto insist on our intimacy if we’re to stick with the film, until by the end we too feel a little headless, totally intrigued, entertained, creeped out, and probably wondering what these women will do next.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

"To disappear into something greater than you...": a conversation with Willem Dafoe

It’s 2019. The citizenry of our unnamed setting are pale, listless, and seem perpetually hung-over, garbed in Prada undertaker. You can smoke again on subway platforms, where you can also grab a coffee that’s 20% blood. A devastating pandemic has rendered nearly everyone a vampire. The non-vampire population, whose fluids are essential to vampire survival, is rapidly dwindling. Social commentary abounds in
Daybreakers: sustainability, the erosion of civil rights, drug addiction, and health care are all carefully woven as key metaphors into what’s otherwise a pretty familiar narrative that fuses horror movie tropes with science-fiction’s grandiose scope and goofy expository dialogue.

Daybreakers (2009)

Our hero, a vampire hematologist played by Ethan Hawke, is captured by renegade humans, led by the charismatic Lionel, who’ve devised a cure for the vampire disease. Dressed in baseball jacket, T-shirt and jeans, comfortably scarred and ready to kick undead ass, Lionel’s entrance literally breathes life into
Daybreakers. It should come as no surprise that Lionel, who greatly helps to ensure this sophomore effort from the brothers Michael and Peter Spierig becomes something pretty fun, is played by Willem Dafoe. Both a character actor and an occasional leading man, Dafoe has one of the most interesting faces in movies, though those familiar with his extensive background in theatre, his long-time association with New York’s Wooster Group especially, or those who’ve seen his more flamboyantly physical performances in films like The Last Temptation of Christ, Wild at Heart, Body of Evidence, Shadow of the Vampire or Antichrist, know that Dafoe also inhabits one of the movies’ most extraordinary bodies, which at the age of 54 still seems capable of just about anything.

I had the great honour, and pleasure, of speaking with Dafoe about his work on
Daybreakers and much more. An inspiring, unusually articulate and thoughtful yet utterly unpretentious actor, he was delightfully engaged and generous, making the most of the short time we had.

Shadow of the Vampire (00)

JB: What drew you to

Willem Dafoe: It seemed like it would be fun. I was in the mood to do something like it. It’s always a combination of things that make you want to do something. I was very struck by the Spierigs. I saw their first film,
Undead, and while I wouldn’t call it a masterpiece it certainly had some stuff in it. It was very inventive. I admired how they made it, practically self-financing it, doing all the effects in-house, by themselves. While the results aren’t always of the highest level technically, sometimes that homemade feeling has an immediacy I can really appreciate.

JB: Resourcefulness seems an especially attractive quality in your choice of collaborators.

WD: That’s true. A script or a character is not enough. Those are things you can only anticipate—I have more faith in people. I like being around people that are excited and passionate about what they do, and who are very clear about how I collaborate with them. With a horror movie, traditionally at least, the performances aren’t that important. You scratch your head and say you could get anybody to do this. But they way the Spierigs talked about the material was very specific and they wanted me to have some input, so it seemed like a creative proposal.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (04)

JB: Your character, Lionel “Elvis” Cormac, has gone from being human to vampire and back again, he’s survived being roasted alive—nothing seems to get him too worked up. He’s about as cool as they come. Is it more fun to play these cocky, confident characters, or do you prefer playing someone more vulnerable, like Klaus Daimler from
The Life Aquatic, for example?

WD: Klaus is pretty cocky in his own way; it’s just he caves in every once in a while. Basically, with Lionel, I liked the idea of this blue-collar custom car modification guy who’s working with a scientist and a woman to save the human race. That’s pretty good!

The Last Temptation of Christ (88)

JB: I’ve been watching your work since I was a kid, and I’ve been trying to decide which performances or collaborations have kept me the most engaged, and I find myself coming back to your work with Paul Schrader. If we count
The Last Temptation of Christ you’ve worked with on six projects now. Would you describe your experiences with him as unique?

WD: Each one is very specific. You’re right that he’s the guy that I’ve worked with probably more than anyone else outside of the theatre. He always proposes something interesting to do. I like his writing. His approach is very pragmatic. He deals with very hot things in a very composed, clear way. That’s an interesting aesthetic.

JB: Do you have a sense as what it is he especially likes about you?

WD: I don’t. And I never pressed him on it. As I say, each time I’ve functioned differently. Three of the things that I did with him were quite small, because we’re friends and he knows I like to support his work and to be around him. With
Affliction, I knew Russell Banks very well, the novelist. I liked the story very much. I liked the cast. That one I didn’t do so much for Paul but because of the whole project. With Adam Resurrected, he really needed me to do that to help get it financed. The Walker was just a quick thing, and I thought it was interesting. The more expansive ones, Light Sleeper and Auto-Focus, those were just flat-out good roles.

Light Sleeper (92), Auto-Focus (02), Adam Resurrected (08)

JB: I always felt like
Light Sleeper was a sort of turning point in your career.

WD: It was important to me because it was a role that was very thinly veiled. I could have been that guy if my life was different.

JB: There seemed to be less of a mask.

WD: Yes, less of a mask. I enjoy working with a mask, but that was very sincere. As far as it being a turning point, it’s hard to say. It had its admirers, but it wasn’t widely seen.

Wild at Heart (90)

JB: I imagine Schrader as very clear. Do you find you’re able to respond to direction that’s more abstract? I recall another interview you did where you said that while working on
Wild at Heart David Lynch once asked that a scene go from “a maroon to a deep brown.”

WD: [
Laughs] I figure that’s the most interesting part of my job. Every time I do something, I adapt to the dominant way of working. I almost don’t have a preference. I know I have certain tendencies, but I like to fight those tendencies. The truth is every time you approach something you reinvent your process. I think of myself less as an actor sometimes than as a person who makes things. In order to do that I usually attach myself to a director with a very strong vision of what they want.

JB: You recently had the opportunity to work with Werner Herzog. He’s habitually worked with actors who are either infamously eccentric, such as Klaus Kinski, or who aren’t really actors at all, such as Bruno S. or the stars of his many documentaries. Was he an effective communicator?

WD: He was very clear. My role was very clear. It’s not that I don’t try to make it a full character, but the role I played in
My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done is very much a device. It’s a case where I have to have a certain clarity, a certain tone, to enter the world and serve the story. Maybe it wasn’t the sexiest collaboration in the world, but he’s a very bright guy and he’s great to be around. I had a good time working with him and I hope to do it again in a more expansive way, where there’s more stakes emotionally for me.

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? (09)

JB: I wonder how he directed you in that peculiar scene where you and Michael Peña are sort of hovering very still outside of suspected killer Brad McCullum’s house for a long while. I guess with your particular theatrical background your task in that scene can seem more straightforward than it might for other actors.

WD: I don’t ask. I try to be receptive. You’re right that because of my theatre background I’m a little more flexible. If you remember, there was that beautiful song playing, that spiritual. [
Singing] “I was born to preach the gospel…” Remember? Now, that song is beautiful, and where he places it in the story is beautiful, so as an actor I can invest myself in the pretending, in the situation of being a cop out there, but at the same time there’s another part of me that’s listening to the song and taking in how beautiful it is. It’s a magical cinema moment that I can absolutely get behind.

Idiot Savant (09)

JB: You recently closed a show in New York with Richard Foreman. How was that?

WD: I worked with him 25 years ago. I’ve known him for years. He’s always been one of my favourite theatre-makers. He’s one of the great granddaddies of the American avant-garde as far as I’m concerned. Many people I know, including Elizabeth LeCompte, who I worked with for so many years at the Wooster Group, were influenced so much by his work. He says
Idiot Savant will be his last show. Some people don’t quite believe him, but I sort of do. I felt honored that he chose me—the show very much hung on my character. He’s got a very rigid way. He’s very clear about what he likes and doesn’t like. But I found that it was one of the most satisfying collaborations I’ve ever had.

JB: Different as they are, do you find that your theatre and film work feed one another?

WD: Always.

JB: Are you aware of learning tricks of the trade, so to speak?

WD: I don’t think those are necessarily what you learn. You learn a character thing, a personal philosophy of how you activate yourself. This thing I said about receptivity, that’s something I learned doing theatre. There’s a physicality that I’m reminded of when doing theatre that’s typically missing in film, where sometimes it seems that everything conspires against you using your body. Film is so influenced by television that the close-up has kind of polluted film language. There’s a tendency to act from the shoulders up. But to answer your question, I know nothing! [
Laughs] All I know is that I feel stronger, more confident, very turned-on when I’m working in the theatre, and that helps my work in film.

Platoon (86)

JB: As you said, some of your strengths an actor are receptivity and flexibility, but have you ever had to fight for a choice you believe correct?

WD: Nope. It’s funny. When I’m approaching a scene I have certain things that I anticipate—those are usually the things you should let go. The stuff that you cling to or that you’re proud of sometimes is the stuff you should wriggle free of. Obviously I make choices, but I make them instinctively. When I don’t feel comfortable, or when I’m limited, I’m very vocal, very clear. I try to find out why I feel stuck. But I don’t think of conveying something. It’s more a feeling, a sense of being in a world, having the story work on you. When I fight for things I’m usually fighting for a feeling that I’m on the right track.

JB: Is it hard to watch yourself in movies?

WD: I go through phases. Sometimes I can’t stand it. Sometimes I sort of enjoy it. Generally I try not to dwell on things. When watching your work, if you like what you see it doesn’t necessarily help you, and if you don’t like what you see it doesn’t necessarily help you. There’s a part of you that wants to know how it turned out in a very practical way, but as far as learning lessons or studying it, I can’t do that. I’m too close to it. It’s a record. It prompts associations, and that’s all I can think about. The experience of making the movie, for me, is always stronger than the movie itself.

To Live and Die in L.A. (85)

JB: What about watching something you did say, 20 years ago?

WD: That’s even worse, because I’m thinking things like, my god, you look like such a little kid! Suddenly I have an onslaught of memories of my life that don’t even include the movie. It becomes the family album, a meditation, a stirring of memory that can be disturbing, can be pleasurable.

JB: I know Jim Jarmusch never watches his movies, not even when he’s asked to do audio commentaries.

WD: That makes sense. But if I’m at a film festival, let’s say, and something’s playing, I don’t close my eyes. On the other hand I don’t say, hey, I’ve got a little time on my hands—let’s take a look at
Streets of Fire! Let’s see how that one holds up!

JB: Your work has been so diverse, but I wonder if you get a lot of scripts that seem to be trying to cater to a Willem Dafoe type, whatever that may be?

WD: I’ve been doing this long enough that hopefully there are different Willem Dafoe types for different people. I feel like as I get older the range of what gets offered to me is, oddly enough, broader. I shouldn’t brag, but even as movies are shrinking I feel like there’s actually more for me to do.

Inside Man (06)

JB: Do you think you’ll be doing this for the rest of your life?

WD: I do. You know, I’m an idiot! I love performing. I love the state it puts me in. It allows for this experience of working on something with people where you don’t know quite what it is. It parallels life. It’s a wonderful game, and the playing of it is a wonderful way to disappear into something greater than you. We all seek that in our different ways, but I’ve very much found it in this strange trade.