Monday, January 31, 2011

Future family values: Dogtooth on DVD

Sea, Motorway, Excursion, Carbine. At least three of the four “new words of the day” to be learned by the three children at the start of
Dogtooth (Kynodontas) could be associated with escape, while the word “escape” is itself unlikely to have entered their vocabulary. These children are actually adults, or at least on the cusp of adulthood, though they behave like pre-pubescents and have apparently never in their lives set foot beyond the confines of their family’s home, located somewhere in rural Greece, a clean, middle class fortress of self-imposed seclusion, complete with swimming pool, and nearly devoid of anything that denotes the contaminating influence of contemporary culture, which for some reason includes any consumer technology produced after about 1986. The parents have informed the children that they would have no chance of survival should they leave the property, and have taken a totalitarian approach to home-schooling, right down to the essentials of language acquisition. Sea, for example, is a leather armchair. Excursion is a very resistant material. A pussy is a big light. Dogtooth is a very strange, darkly hilarious, and rather ingenious movie. At least it seems strange while you’re watching it. Once it’s over, you may find yourself thinking it’s one of the most lucid studies of family life you’ve seen.

Why is that woman being driven blindfolded along a freeway at dusk? Why is that couple having sex while they both wear headphones?
Dogtooth is crafted in such a way that context is rarely explicit. This extends to the composition of the frames, which will often depict only the torsos or legs of characters, or reveal only one speaker in a conversation. (I’ve already told you more than you’d probably ascertain in the first 20 minutes.) But the movie is far too playful, attentive, and mischievous to label as withholding. What it does, and does very well, is allow us to gradually understand the rules of its cloistered world largely from the limited perspective of its inhabitants. There’s what we might call an anthropological rigour to Dogtooth. It’s about a kind of social experiment with unintentional yet deeply sinister implications. The family property even resembles a cult compound. Where our story goes is, I think, eerily logical, though it’s also, I think, oddly hopeful.

In a video interview included on Kino’s new DVD, director and co-writer Yorgos Lanthimos, explains that the initial impulse behind Dogtooth was to make a science-fiction film that imagines life in a future where families are becoming extinct, so the parents at the centre of our story must go to extremes to preserve theirs. The movie Lanthimos made no longer bears the trappings of sci-fi, but it’s certainly easy enough to locate the essentially primal urges that motivate the parents: a desire to protect the clan at all costs; a desire to maintain a sense of (false) purity for as long as possible; and most of all a desire to redesign the world to your liking and raise your children within it. Such desires inevitably lead to disaster, but they’re still not that hard to identify with.

Winner of the Prix Un Certain Regard at Cannes 2009 and easily the biggest surprise among this year’s Oscar nods—it’s been nominated for Best Foreign Language Film—
Dogtooth has clearly made an impression. It’s as entertaining as it is insightful and twisted, climaxing with a living room talent show in which the eldest child (the fearless and inventive Aggeliki Papoulia) reinterprets a sequence of Flashdance while her brother plays bad classical guitar—having no one to compare himself to, he probably thinks he’s a prodigy. The performances are uniformly detailed and focused, founded in regulated behaviour rather than conventional character development. You’d never guess these were actually normal people. I saw two of them at a party during the 2009 Toronto Film Festival, where Dogtooth had its Canadian premiere, and I was amazed to see them chatting and laughing and sipping cocktails. If they can go through all that and come out of it so seemingly civilized, there may truly be hope for all of us.

Aside from being newly available on DVD, Dogtooth is also playing at Toronto's Royal Cinema, where it can be enjoyed on a double-bill with Attenberg, the likeminded film which stars Lanthimos and was directed by Dogtooth's co-producer Athina Racehl Tsangari

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Rite: Study hard, eat well, exorcize regularly

Diagnosed with a dearth of faith, aspiring priest Michael Kovak (Colin O’Donoghue), who only joined the seminary to wriggle out of working at his old man’s funeral home anyway, gets sent to exorcist school at the Vatican, where he meets a kooky old Welshman (Anthony Hopkins) who teaches him the ropes. Their first client’s a pregnant teen who becomes a contortionist and barfs up bloody spikes whenever the Devil’s steering the bus. But what really rattles Michael’s sturdy skepticism is the way Satan seems to know his secrets, and speaks them out loud through the mouths of the possessed, in front of everybody, and in English, no less. Because
The Rite is fundamentally about the acquisition of faith, as a weapon against diabolical forces attempting to control the flesh, as a way of focusing your mind and settling on a career. This is the story of a young fellow finding his vocation, and thus doubles as a recruitment video for the Catholic Church. Come, we’re told, and fetching Italian journalists will dig you, even if you can’t make out with them. More importantly, you’ll get to put demons in the sleeper-hold on a regular basis.

I certainly appreciate how
The Rite, helmed by 1408 director Mikael Håfström, “inspired by” true events and “suggested by” a book by Matt Braglio, honours its own convictions enough to hold off on dopey spectacle and manifest its evil in relatively subtler forms—if Satan made everybody levitate and do the head-spin there wouldn’t be any reason to doubt his existence. Perhaps the central problem with the film is that its conflicts are so abstract and internal that the final showdown feels artificially protracted and actually pretty dull, with not especially riveting newcomer O’Donoghue driving the devil out of Hopkins, who in going from mentor to victim gets to transition from affecting an amusingly businesslike air to supplying a torrent of Hannibal Lecter-like taunts. At least he’s having fun.

There’s also something about the way
The Rite appeals to the ostensible latent Catholic in all of us that feels annoyingly simplistic, that feeds into a childish desire for sweeping solutions to life’s most complex problems and absolutions from responsibility for our inner demons. Michael does indeed initially question church dogma and defer to psychology in his attempts to explain away freaky phenomena, but once he rises to the occasion and casts Satan out of a poor soul the implication is that he’s learned a glorious truth, one tantamount to a free lunch: by simply speaking some magic words, The Rite assures us, and doing so like you really mean it, we can each of us be cured of what agonizes us.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Mechanic: Trying to make a decent contract killer out of a punk-ass loose canon

The Mechanic distinguishes itself almost instantly from your run-of-the-mill contemporary hitman-as-antihero actioner by way of its relative efficiency, dearth of annoying cutting frenzies and absence of ostentatious computer-enhanced tomfoolery. Most pleasingly, it also sports a far more interesting soundtrack than is the norm for a Jason Statham vehicle. Statham’s stoic killer, one Arthur Bishop, digs Schubert and high-end hi-fi, lives in quiet seclusion in the everglades, and is considering purchasing a nice little yacht.

After he’s paid to bump off Harry, his aged mentor—a pleasing cameo from Donald Sutherland in a wheelchair—he attempts penance via playing surrogate big brother and all-round Mister Miyagi to Steve, Sutherland’s ne’er-do-well brute of a son, played with remarkable nuance by Ben Foster, who exercised somewhat similar neuroses as the troubled Iraq vet in last year’s intelligent war-at-home drama
The Messenger. But Steve’s something of a sadomasochist. He gets his kicks from dirty fights and punk-ass recklessness, the antithesis of Bishop’s “Make it clean” mantra. So when Bishop starts subcontracting jobs to the kid of course everything rapidly goes to hell. Meanwhile Steve, ignorant as to who killed dad, starts to wonder why Bishop’s being so nice to him all of a sudden.

Statham’s so rarely used to full effect. It’s refreshing to see him in a picture devoid of splatter, misogyny, sexual assault, inane video game aping, and bad comedy. But this remake of the 1972 film of the same name, which starred Charles Bronson, whose career certainly had its limits but could still serve as an instructive model for the Statham, rarely rises above being a classyish regurgitation of well-worn macho clichés, replete with a gold-hearted hooker who serves virtually no purpose. All of which is fine, of course, which is to say easy enough watch flicker across a screen for 92 minutes. The mostly straightforward direction comes from Simon West, who incidentally hasn’t helmed a feature since
Tomb Raider. His handling of a sequence in which a romantic evening out with two tough guys turns into a monster truck rally for humans is bracing enough. The script was co-written by Lewis John Carlino, who wrote the original, but it feels less updated than resuscitated. It does have one great line: “I’m going to a put a price on your head so high,” Tony Goldwyn’s baddie tells Statham, “every time you look in the mirror you’re going to want to shoot yourself in the face.” I’m glad Statham doesn’t actually shoot his own face, but I kinda wish he’d sever ties with his agent.

Charlie don't slurp

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Parallel lives: Allen Shawn's Twin

Twin (Viking, $32.50) is the second memoir from Allen Shawn. His first, entitled Wish I Could Be There, was a personal investigation into phobias, of which Shawn admits to possessing several. Here, picking up from themes developed in the earlier book, Shawn explores the nature of his relationship to his autistic twin sister, Mary, who was removed from the family home at eight, and has since lived in various institutions designed to assist those with similar disabilities. Allen and Mary are now in their early 60s and visit regularly, yet it’s clear that the familiarity and comfort they enjoy in each other’s presence remains accompanied by profound, sometimes troubling mysteries of identity and perception seemingly inherent in their very coexistence. “It wasn’t until I reached middle age,” Shawn writes, “that I could even begin to acknowledge that being Mary’s twin was a central fact, perhaps the central fact, of my life.”

Shawn is the brother of actor and playwright Wallace Shawn and the son of long-tim
e New Yorker editor William Shawn. He’s forged a career as a composer and teacher, though I’m far more familiar with his brother’s plays and memorable performances in Woody Allen movies or My Dinner With Andre. However, reading Twin, it becomes immediately apparent that however talented he may be in the discipline to which he’s devoted much of his life, Shawn is, like his brother, an immensely gifted writer. He displays a knack for transitioning between personal storytelling and essaying on science and history, weaving these elements into a seamless whole by way of an articulate yet arrestingly frank voice. It’s rare to encounter a book as emotionally involving from its first page as Twin—though it bears mentioning that that first page also features a joke about Mormon heaven that made me laugh out loud, and an amusing analogy between deep feelings of loss and the worry one might suffer over a vanishing pair of pants.

Allen Shawn

One chapter begins with a compelling defense of agnosticism, of acknowledging the value of religious feeling even if one isn’t inclined to value religion. This speaks to Shawn’s restless questioning and unsettledness, a fundamental aspect of his psychological makeup that no doubt feeds his continued desire to understand Mary’s inner life while never presuming that such understanding could ever be complete or even accurate. Shawn interrogates the moments in his life where he believes he may have come closest to experiencing something akin to Mary’s state of being, such as a fever-induced out-of-body experience he once endured as a child, or the feeling of being transported that comes with listening to or especially composing music. “Perhaps the closest I can come to understanding her inner life,” Shawn writes, “is when I am sick, or exhausted, or anxious, or exhilarated, or have taken a drug that changes what I hear and see and feel. Such moments at least suggest that there are different ways of perceiving and being.”

The Shawn family was unusually secretive, founded on a parental relationship at once brimming with kindness and even romance and defined in part by William Shawn’s romantic partnership with another woman, which continued concurrent to his marriage and lasted 40 years, ending only with his death. “We are a very bright, attractive and unusual family,” Shawn’s mother once told the medical staff of one of Mary’s homes. She rather hilariously compared her family to the Kennedys. Shawn doesn’t mock or take sides with either of his parents, but wonders how their complicated dynamic affected and was affected by Mary’s condition. He also comes to terms with their varied methods of accepting Mary’s separation, and his own lingering guilt. Shawn’s writing conveys such bravery and insight that it can only serve to remind us just how painfully long it can take to begin peeling back the veils enveloping our families and inherited legacies. He relates how in his final years his father once stated: “They made a big mistake making life so short.” Ain’t that the truth. But would it ever be long enough to settle such questions once and for all?

Monday, January 24, 2011

All the news that's fit to primp: Broadcast News

Tom (William Hurt) met Jane (Holly Hunter) when Jane gave a lecture at an industry conference about the moronization of the TV news. Nearly the whole of Jane’s audience of cynical, careerist colleagues just rolled their eyes, but for Tom, Jane’s words fell upon him with the force of revelation. Because Tom’s a symptom of precisely the problem Jane’s addressing. Tall, handsome and Aryan, sporting a pleasing baritone, displaying no special talent whatsoever for journalistic insight, Tom was a born anchorman. Soon he becomes Jane’s anchorman, and Jane his producer, whispering instructions in his ear at just the right on-air moments, which causes all sorts of problems not just for Jane’s sense of professional integrity—this is a woman who forces herself into sobs on a daily basis just to assure herself that she hasn’t lost her ability to feel—but for her personal life, since she discovers that she fancies Tom, and once her old buddy, the devoted reporter but less than telegenic Aaron (Albert Brooks), discovers that Jane fancies Tom, Aaron realizes that he’s always fancied Jane, and Aaron really needs to hate Tom, even though Tom makes it hard by being a basically nice guy. Things get complicated, and it’s to the credit of writer/director James L. Brooks that
Broadcast News (1987), never compromises those complications by imposing facile resolutions.

Broadcast News for the first time, it initially struck me as jarring to imagine William Hurt and Jack Nicholson inhabiting the same movie—there are simply certain stars, or certain star egos, that seem to burn too boldly to share a constellation. Brooks himself tacitly acknowledges something momentous about a Hurt/Nicholson collision by taking their few seconds of shared screen time and filling it with an enormous close-up of their shaking hands. As it turns out Nicholson’s role is almost small enough to be considered a cameo, the bulk of his performance playing out on TV monitors watched by the other characters, a little bit like Brian O’Blivion in Videodrome (83), but with better grooming and less zeal.

What’s more deeply unsettling is the experience of witnessing Criterion’s spinning “C” introductory logo being followed by the whimsical, overly illustrative strains of Bill Conti’s musical score. Whether issuing works from the giants of foreign art cinema, studio era classics or psychotronic cult obscurities, Criterion has nearly always been synonymous with durability and keen, eclectic taste, so it takes some time to reconcile their brand with music from the dude who conducts the Oscars. But, okay, so I’m sensitive to sappy music. Fact is Broadcast News does represent the zenith of a particular kind of Hollywood film, one Brooks has made a career of, sometimes winningly, sometimes disastrously (How Do You Know), sometimes problematically while under the impression that this is As Good As It Gets. His are brainy, ambitious comedies with an interest in group dynamics, social milieux and romantic frustration, that delve into their characters’ eccentricities rather than simply use those eccentricities for superficial colour. Broadcast News has also accumulated tremendous historical value by having examined how televised news was generated, consumed, and essentially downgraded at a key moment in its development, and benefits enormously from Michael Ballhaus’ superb camerawork every time we’re offering a peek behind the scenes. It’s also, of course, fairly entertaining, thanks for especially to Hunter, who can somehow be at once zany and emotionally grounded, and Albert Brooks, rather moving and very much in his element, playing a character whose relationship to his female colleague is remarkably similar to that of Brooks’ character in Taxi Driver (76). Yet, as with some other James Brooks films, I couldn’t shake the feeling while watching Broadcast News that its clever gags were actually intended to be much funnier than they are. It might be a matter of rhythm: I recall at least two scenes that end with Albert Brooks saying or doing something funny, but instead of cutting on the joke, the scene ends with Hunter’s laughing reaction. I’d have preferred it if Brooks let me laugh instead.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

"Primal experiences stay with you": A conversation with Peter Weir on The Way Back

The Way Back, Peter Weir’s adaptation of Slawomir Rawicz’s The Long Walk, concerns a group of prisoners who escaped the gulag in 1941 and traveled by foot from Siberia to India. The difference in the titles of the film and book already imply something of Weir’s authorial stamp: Weir’s story is imbued with a sense of destination absent in Rawicz’s narrative. Yet the journey itself remains central to The Way Back, its lasting impressions deriving primarily from images of unfathomably exhausted bodies staggering across seemingly endless terrain like semi-mummified pilgrims, of the small victories of finding food and shelter, and of the blisters and chapped skin that transform the topography of Ed Harris’ wisened face.

These days we might associate Weir primarily with his extraordinary streak of Oscar-winners like Witness (1985), Dead Poet’s Society (89) and The Truman Show (98), but consider how unlikely a candidate for Hollywood A-lists Weir seemed in his early years, working in his native Australia—a country that had almost no film industry to speak of when Weir started out—helming something as rigorously atmospheric and unresolved as Picnic at Hanging Rock (75) or the equally mysterious, apocalyptic and hallucinatory legal drama The Last Wave (77). Weir’s a rare talent who ushers a personal touch into films of the greatest possible scale. He’s also remarkably humble, charming, and articulate. I spoke with Weir during his visit to Toronto last week.

Peter Weir

JB: What drew you to adapt
The Long Walk?

Peter Weir: I think it was what it usually is, which is an emotional connection to a script or book and a feeling of discovery that I can’t get off my mind for days after having put it down. When that happens I’ve already started to make it, in my mind, imagining how a scene might be realized. With
The Long Walk I kept asking myself certain questions. Could I have done it? Would I have had the strength? What was it in those people that kept them going? But after having read the book I thought it needed something else. What I added to it, amongst other things, was the idea that it was Janusz’s wife he wanted to get back to after she’d betrayed him. I didn’t want it to just be like an Olympic event or something. [Laughs]

JB: I wondered if the hallucinations were yours.

PW: Yeah. Those too.

JB: Was there a particular element of the story that compelled you?

PW: Yes. It was to be without water. I remember going without water for just a day at home, wondering about that feeling. Kind of a silly way to do research. [Laughs] But it’s easier to imagine starving, because we know from hunger strikes that a body has the capacity to go a month or more without food. But not water. You’ve got to have that within 48 hours or so.

JB: Did you read the book presuming it to be entirely factual?

PW: Oh, yes. It was an afterthought when I asked the producers, “This is true, isn’t it?” And they confessed that there was always some controversy about whether or not Rawicz was on the walk. So I told them I can’t do it—if there’s doubts then that sort of destroys it. But then I suggested that if we can prove that the walk happened, with or without Rawicz, then I’ll do the movie, but I’ll fictionalize it. So that’s the way it went. I found evidence and then went ahead and changed the characters, changed the title, and freed myself from this man’s book.

JB: It raises interesting questions about which kinds of stories we accept as fiction and which we need to regard as fact in order to surrender to them. I guess for you this was the latter sort. You needed to know it was true.

PW: Yes. Once I was able to take some distance form the book, to use the “inspired by” credit, I then became obsessed with getting everything within the story as truthful as possible. The characters I was redrawing, the incidents they went through, the behavior, the life in the camp, I wanted all of this sourced back to true accounts or interviews with survivors of the gulag. I became surrounded by advisors so that every detail, from the clothing to the conditions of the walk itself, was accurate. Cyril Delafosse-Guiramand, my technical advisor, had actually done the walk, so he was with me for the whole production period. Being attacked by Siberian mosquitoes, for example, came from an experience he’d had.

Picnic at Hanging Rock

JB: Did you have similar concerns about verisimilitude with
Picnic at Hanging Rock? Was it important for you to assure the audience that all this might have really happened?

PW: I think particularly with that film. The author opened her book with the same quote I’d used in the film. “These events happened long ago…” and so on, something that at the very least encircled the truth. I felt it was important to reiterate because for the film’s lack of resolution to work I think you had to feel it was true. Otherwise it might just seem like a bad film, like somebody forgot to write the ending.

JB: How important was it for you to give us some sense of just how arduous an experience the events in
The Way Back would have been? How do you find a balance between conveying such unimaginable hardship and crafting a thoughtful, adult entertainment?

PW: That’s very much the question that confronted the editor, Lee Smith, and myself. I had a lot more anecdotal material as they went on, but it made the film too grueling or diffused the tension. So the questions became when to move, and at what rate? You have to believe they experienced these things but it reached a point where it was just too punishing. But I don’t think that’s what audiences will find involving. I think it’s that we stripped the film of most Hollywood conventions. There’s no wicked, sadistic commandant who’s obsessed with capturing them, therefore there’s no chase. Nature is the prison. There’s very few cliffhanger incidents, people clinging to a rope after having fallen down a crevasse or something. The music is also held back. These craft choices increase the film’s emotional strength. You feel you’re beginning to know the characters, so when you lose one it has a greater impact.

JB: So many of your films that deal with survival and self-reliance. What is it about these themes that keep luring you back?

PW: I think it was Robert Hughes, the Australian art critic, who talked about the gun-powdered trial that leads back to childhood. Primal experiences stay with you. In my case I was reading adventure books and biographies of individuals who’d been in prisons and POW camps.
The Wooden Horse, Stalag 17, Reach For the Sky, and so on. Then at 20 I went to Europe by sea, which was the cheapest way back then. It changed my life. I got a sense of the vastness of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. I realized how far I lived from Europe, from my roots. Then I was hitchhiking through Europe, as you could do in 1965. I think those experiences have probably tilted me more than I would have thought toward the subjects I’ve put on film.

Weir at work

JB: I suppose it might also come from growing up in a country that had a limited art culture but no shortage of nature to explore.

PW: Absolutely. That and a very short history. A country blessed to have had no civil wars or revolutions, nor to have been invaded or bombed. Our soldiers went and fought in every war that was going, and displayed great courage, but the civilian population only ever experienced famine, drought and floods, as we are right now in Brisbane. Those things can all be very tough, but it’s nothing like what civilian populations went through in Europe during the Second World War. You can still sit as I did with people who have survived those tragic and tumultuous experiences of the 2oth century. That’s a function of these films too, to keep their stories alive.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Blue Valentine: Love rocks, then it's on the rocks

Blue Valentine begins a small child searches for an ominously absent pet. It’s a smart method of alerting us to a more general suspicion that something’s missing in the lives of its central characters, the child’s parents Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams). Perpetually robed in paint-splattered pants and goofy animal sweaters, Dean’s an affectionate, playful father to little Frankie (Faith Wladyka), but he’s also childish and needy and starts drinking bright and early because apparently drinking doesn’t hamper his ability to paint houses. Cindy is by necessity more authoritative, probably the only one who makes sure Frankie eats reasonably well and gets to school in time. Cindy’s a nurse in a nearby clinic. A doctor there is eager to convince her to accept a transfer. Cindy’s procrastination in discussing the matter with Dean is, at the very least, conspicuous.

We then meet Dean and Cindy several years earlier, not long before they first met each other, when Dean worked for a Brooklyn moving company and Cindy studied medicine. A pattern is quickly established: for every scene that draws the younger Dean and Cindy closer together we’re given a counter-scene that shows the current Dean and Cindy moving farther apart.
Blue Valentine, the sophomore feature from director Derek Cianfrance, written by Cianfrance with Cami Delavigne and Joey Curtis, proposes to carve out a love story by contrasting the moment of its birth with that of its apparent death, replete with bad sex, screaming, and violence. There are many insightfully rendered fragments of this relationship scattered throughout the film, many extraordinarily frank, even touching moments of vulnerability between Gosling and Williams, often shot in tight close-ups that at once heighten a feeling of intimacy and mutual isolation, so I’ve been struggling to sort out why it is that the film ultimately left me feeling unsatisfied. My best guess is that by focusing exclusively on either end of this story, by excising everything that happened in the middle, Blue Valentine neglects to give us a fully convincing sense of what this couple has shared, of the real hard work of marriage, of any sort of deeper connection between them besides the circumstantial. This manner of using only glimpses of a relationship’s progress to suggest something larger, complex and meaningful can work heartbreakingly well in, say, a song—given the working-class, east coast flavour, we might imagine Blue Valentine as a Bruce Springsteen song, or, given the film’s title, early Tom Waits—but as a feature film this love story feels a bit under-loved by its authors.

Much of what really works very well here occurs in the first half, including Cianfrnace’s imaginative use of instrumental versions of Grizzly Bear tunes. Dean’s conversations with his male coworkers at the moving company about how men and women fall in love possess a shaggy fraternal warmth that recalls similar scenes in David Gordon Green’s George Washington, particularly because of Dean’s somewhat overstated naïveté. Cindy’s more introverted and remote, yet the way we see her coasting through a mismatched relationship with a wrestler, caring for her grandmother, or ignoring the freaky outbursts of her father, a guy who’s got major problems with meatloaf, tells us something about her. As is so often the case in romantic love, Dean and Cindy’s convergence seems dependent on coincidence and impulsive decisions. Their courtship is basically a single impromptu date, incorporating a ukulele serenade and tap dancing, that’s very cute to watch unfold. They meet by chance, and by chance Cindy gets pregnant right around the same time. Feeling such longing for a woman he really doesn’t know yet, and having no clear ambitions to betray in any case, Dean hurls himself into becoming a husband and father, or at least the idea of it. Cindy’s reasons for being with Dean may be more practical, and fair enough, I guess. But I don’t think anyone whose ever given themselves to love-term love will recognize the foundations of something like that here. So do see the film for those sometimes vivid glimpses of passion and playfulness, for its most inspired floating moments of ecstasy or ache—just don’t expect it to all add up.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Raw sensationalism on a shoe-string: Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss on DVD and BD

For those who invest their hours in the careful examination of cinematic artfulness, Sam Fuller’s best movies have a way of grabbing your presumptions by the throat, throwing them out the window, kicking them down the street, and setting fire to them just before they get run over by a truck. Fuller was a master of raw, unbridled sensationalism. His method of social critique was to lunge at a sensitive subject before dragging it half-conscious into the hot-lit arena. His work prompts us not to forgo the appreciation of cinematic elegance but to redefine it. A black mental patient convinces himself he’s a white supremacist and leads a posse of fellow inmates howling down a corridor to exact a mock-lynching, or a bald-headed prostitute beats her drunken pimp to the floor with a spike-heeled shoe, and we’re hurtled into a territory where tenderness is the progeny of audacity, where emotional precision emerges from melodrama, and where poetry rises out of action like smoke signals. “If anything irritates anyone,” Fuller once declared, “that makes me happy.”

Criterion’s new editions of
Shock Corridor (1963) and The Naked Kiss (64) form a sort diptych portrait of Fuller’s transition from a career forged partly within the studios to one of arduous independence. Low-budget, sparely furnished, continuity-negligent and starkly illuminated—with photography from the great Stanley Cortez, who shot The Magnificent Ambersons (42) and The Night of the Hunter (55)—these movies prowled the greasy peripheries of American life for tales of murder and prostitution, corrupt public services and pedophilia, incest and repressed rage. The discs feature numerous terrific supplements, including an episode of The South Bank Show that finds its featured guest Fuller in top-form, but their most inspired elements are the illustrations that adorn their packaging and screen menus, courtesy of Daniel Clowes, author of the graphic novels Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron (93), Ghost World (97), and David Boring (00). Enveloping these movies in Clowes’ art enables us to better appreciate the graphically dynamic, sophisticated comic book quality of Fuller’s work.

Shock Corridor opens and closes with an epigram from Euripides that implicitly instructs us to regard what unfolds here as myth rather than mere realism or social commentary. It’s about an ambitious reporter named Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck) who pretends to have sexually assaulted his sister so as to gain admission to a mental hospital where a patient was murdered by a still-unidentified assailant. The woman reluctantly posing as the victimized sibling is actually Johnny’s girlfriend Cathy (Constance Towers), an unhappy burlesque dancer whose nightly act is captured in an extended long shot that renders Cathy puny and isolated, her choreography far more awkward and tawdry than would a conventional montage of close-ups and medium shots. In one of the movie’s masterstrokes, Fuller then revisits the burlesque act during Johnny’s institutionalized nightmares, in which a miniature ghost version of Cathy dances scantily-clad around Johnny’s sleeping head, taunting him with allusions to the desires that, now living in confinement, he can no longer satisfy.

The murder mystery is to some degree a macguffin, Fuller’s excuse to get his arguably already unstable hero into the ward with its seemingly endless central corridor—the forced perspective enhanced by Fuller’s use of dwarves pacing in the middle-ground—and mold the inmates into overt surrogates for the ostensibly normal Americans outside the hospital gates. There’s the aforementioned black KKK leader, a morbidly obese man who believes he’s an opera star, a communist turned southern Civil War nut, a nuclear physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project but has regressed into infantile doodling, and a dude who thinks he’s pregnant. EST, nymphos and hallucinations come into play. Fuller piles on hysteria with a paint roller—no one could actually believe this to be an accurate representation of the mentally ill—yet there’s a precision to the neuroses that aspires to some vivid, outrageous parable. One of the movie’s most stirring effects is its peculiar use of sound, especially Johnny’s voice-over, which seems to be coming from a half-busted speaker phone on the other end of a drain pipe. Or maybe it’s just coming from the other end of that long, abysmal corridor from which it seems no one fully returns.

The Naked Kiss opens with that arresting sequence noted above, the one with the bald-headed hooker. Her name is Kelly (Towers again, in an utterly fearless performance). We quickly discover that she’s got a maternal side to her, a soft spot for crippled kids especially, that she’s an autodidact with a thing for Beethoven and Byron, that’s she’s capable of changing her life completely if they’d let her, and that she’s also got one wicked violent streak. Two years after breaking ties with her chiseling pimp, Kelly's grown her golden locks back and finds herself in a small town, where she immediately has a date with a local cop named Griff (Anthony Eisley) who tells her to keep her tricks on the other side of the river, where a madam named Candy keeps a stable of delectable “bonbons.” Kelly opts for retirement from prostitution instead and finds work at a hospital for sick kids. She discovers a hidden talent for inspiring joi de vivre in the youngins through dress-up games and elaborately arranged musical performances, which culminate in Fuller’s most brilliantly shameless sequence, in which Kelly and the flamboyantly untrained tykes share vocal duties on a melancholy little ditty translated from the French, entitled ‘Mommy dear…’

Kelly also wins the heart of Grant (Michael Dante), the ascot-wearing scion of the town’s founder, a wealthy bachelor who uncannily intuits Kelly’s dreams of self-betterment. The relationship irks Griff, Grant’s best friend, who begins a campaign to drive Kelly out of town. But complications I can’t bear to spoil here arise and Kelly’s past is exposed in tandem with the perverse underbelly of the town itself. Fuller feasts on the hypocrisy of it all, though his relish never interferes with his bracing narrative economy. The Naked Kiss is a scathing take on the “woman’s picture”, like Douglas Sirk with all the nerves exposed, complicated in its vulgarity and the intensity of its affection for its flawed heroine. Deliciously over the top, it’s perfect in it way, and might be seen as the last fully realized work Fuller would make, capping a period where the writer/director/producer seemed permanently on fire. He’d made 17 movies in 15 years. In the next 33 he’d make only five more.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Paul Bowles at 100

There’s an incident described in Paul Bowles’ autobiography Without Stopping, relayed without sentiment or much elaboration, in which the author flips a coin as a method of deciding between two actions: heads he sets off for Europe as soon as possible, tails he overdoses on barbiturates. Bowles doesn’t recall having had the idea to do this, only suddenly, compulsively, performing the act. “It occurred to me,” he writes, “that this meant that I was not the I I thought I was or, rather, that there was a second I in me who had suddenly assumed command.” Whichever “I” took command of Bowles’ life at such turning points was clearly drawn to games of chance, and at times to outright danger—yet perhaps this “I” had a shapr eye for the odds. Had Bowles found tails, and had he followed through with its dictates, he would have died far too young, far in advance of most of the journeys and friendships with famous and talented people that would bless his life, far in advance of becoming the celebrated composer and fiction writer so many cherish. But Bowles got heads, went to Europe and many other, much stranger places, married a woman who would also prove a marvelous, eerily like-minded writer, produced a great deal of music and wrote or translated a good number of books, and lived until the age of 88. Last 30 December he would have turned 100. So this is a belated happy birthday.

As usual I reminded myself that since nothing was real, it did not matter too much.
Without Stopping

William Burroughs, who came to know Bowles in Tangier in the 1950s, once quipped that Bowles should have titled his autobiography
Without Telling, referring to Bowles’ indefatigable reticence regarding his sexuality. But Without Stopping actually tells us a lot about this very particular, very peculiar man, especially his enduringly hazy sense of volition and sense of the fluidity of self. That troublesome “I” referred to above tells us something about the narrator of ‘You Are Not I’, an escapee from a mental institution who seems to undergo some sort of psychic transference by placing a stone in her sister’s mouth. I read Without Stopping only after reading Bowles’ more famous works, namely the novels The Sheltering Sky and Let It Come Down and those incredible short stories, and found it to be easily one of the most vivid and fascinating items in the canon, though to be sure, it only deepens the mysteries surrounding Bowles’ life and work. The couple traversing the Sahara in The Sheltering Sky find only death or perdition; the widower in ‘Pages From Cold Point,’ who relocates he and his son to a remote island so as to escape what he deems a doomed and grotesque civilization, finds that what’s most repulsive about the life he’s left behind has been following him all along. Nearly everything Bowles published reads like a warning to Westerners to stay home, yet Bowles, raised comfortably—if under the terror of a reportedly draconian father—in the Eastern US, cultivated a legacy as the quintessential expatriate, always seeking roads less traveled and living out much of his life in North Africa. He couldn’t bear staying home. Thing is, however terrifying or fraught Bowles made traveling sound, something in his stories remained seductive. He certainly made me want to go everywhere.

“You don’t take a honeymoon alone,” he interrupted.
You might.” She laughed shortly.
—‘Call at Corazón’

It’s easy to emphasize Paul Bowles’ weirdness—we’re talking about a guy who took an extraordinarily long time to differentiate between the sexes as a boy, and one who happily married a woman despite the fact that both he and Jane Bowles seemed primarily if not exclusively homosexual. But I think Bowles’ manner of grappling with ambivalence in both his personal life and his fiction is what resonates so intensely with readers. Those characters who most resemble Bowles seem perpetually torn between companionship and solitude. In an especially memorable chapter of
The Sheltering Sky Port returns at night to a desolate, beautiful place he’d visited earlier in the day with Kit. By returning alone and in secret he seems to be correcting the earlier, shared, and somehow flawed experience of the place. Yet Port isn’t tempted to abandon Kit—he wants to keep sharing things with her, even at risk of spoiling some of them. Perhaps this tension is itself desirable. Perhaps, for all its detached, quietly unnerving qualities, The Sheltering Sky is simply an accurate portrait of marriage. It is, in any case, as good a place as any to discover Bowles if you’ve never read him. That or The Delicate Prey and Other Stories.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Rabbit Hole: Group therapy

Rabbit Hole begins eight months after affluent suburban New Yorkers Becca (Nicole Kidman, also the film’s producer) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart) lost their four-year-old Danny to a car accident, so the more flamboyant displays of grief have receded, and the couple is now entrenched in establishing a new status quo, grudgingly accepting, or at least pretending to accept, that life somehow goes on. Because the object of loss is already absent, our story, adapted by David Lindsay-Abaire from his own play, can focus more closely on the mid- to long-term effects of Danny’s death on his parents’ marriage. While Becca appears determined to assume control of the situation and coolly goes about redistributing Danny’s things, Howie gets up nights to watch home movies and resolves to continue with group therapy, even after Becca dismisses some fellow grieving parents’ attempt to find consolation in religious thinking (a scene that’s probably devastating for the couple on the receiving end, but is unnervingly amusing for the rest of us). Their sex life has evaporated and shows no sign or return, despite Howie’s plying of Becca with back rubs and Al Green. The question swiftly arises as to whether or not Becca and Howie’s relationship can endure such a catastrophic rupture.

Soon Becca is stalking a teenage boy (I initially thought, and sort of hoped, that it was because the boy looked like the teenaged version of Danny, but the truth is slightly less neurotic) while Howie enters into a precarious friendship with someone from group (Sandra Oh). These relationships, not extramarital exactly, but rather extra-domestic, seem designed to imbue both characters with intricate psychologies, and the performances, from Kidman especially, who’s always so good with these sorts of icy emotional renegades, are richly layered. Nonetheless, the writing leaves the couple in general, and Howie in particular, feeling more like sketches than full characters, their vagueness exacerbated by the film’s broadly conceived design elements, the almost uniformly drab grays and beiges of the couple’s clothing and home décor, or details like the art photos of empty cavities of buildings mounted on their otherwise sparely adorned living room walls.

Rabbit Hole is festooned with a supporting cast who supply such colour and funk so as to set Becca and Howie’s ostentatiously muted realm into relief. Oh injects some terrific deadpan comedy, sometimes without saying a word—just catch the look on her face when, having smoked a bowl before group one night, she tries not to crack up over another man’s catalogue of miseries. It’s also nice to see Giancarlo Esposito turn up as the musical dad to Becca’s unborn niece, even if he barely gets to speak. But the biggest acting treat comes from Diane Wiest as Becca’s mom Nat, who so desperately wants to comfort her daughter but is most often pushed away. In her worn-out old sweaters, Nat clearly lives somewhere on the opposite end of the socioeconomic spectrum from Becca and Howie (not to mention from Gina, Wiest’s wonderful recurring character on HBO’s In Treatment) but Wiest wisely eschews from “playing” Nat’s class, just as director John Cameron Mitchell eschews from over-emphasizing it. Wiest instead relishes in Nat’s earthiness and middling ability to disguise her true emotions, even when she’s deliberately trying to keep potentially spiky moments cheerful, as in the scene where Becca’s sister Izzy is celebrating her birthday in a bowling alley and Becca gives her a fancy set of towels instead of something that might acknowledge Izzy’s advanced pregnancy. Even the way Wiest lets out this forced-excited little “Aw!” when the gift is unwrapped—like a little burp accidentally let loose in public—before suddenly retreating, provides her scenes in Rabbit Hole with such texture, warmth, and a welcome untidiness. It goes to show how sometimes the investments a film makes in its background can make so much richer all that passes in its foreground.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Sins of the father: Harlan on DVD

In the years following the Second World War, Veit Harlan, darling of the Third Reich and director and co-writer of the notorious propaganda film
Jew Süss (1940), was twice tried for crimes against humanity and twice acquitted. Felix Moeller’s documentary Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss (2009), now available on DVD from Zeitgeist, is thus less concerned with re-opening the case, so to speak, than enriching our understanding of its consequences by attempting to take measure of that titular shadow, which loomed not only over Harlan’s life, which came to a quiet end in Italy in 1964, but which still looms over the lives of his many descendents. Moeller’s film is less polemic than family portrait, less investigative report than biographical essay. For the most part its value lies in its narrative density, which only accumulates as it goes.

Christiane Kubrick

The Harlan clan forms a diverse and conflicted chorus. On one end of the spectrum we find Harlan’s daughter Maria Körber, who says dad had plenty of Jewish friends so surely he had no anti-Semitic feelings of his own, and who claims that she was forced against her will to cast off her infamous surname when she began her own career in movies—a claim which Moeller situates so as to sound a subtle echo of Harlan’s claim that he was coerced into making
Jew Süss, a project “commissioned” by Joseph Goebbels. On the other end we find Harlan’s son Thomas Harlan, who seems to have bore the sins of his father most heavily, who became involved in researching Nazi war crimes and in helping to mount socialist revolutions in Chile and elsewhere. Thomas is probably Moeller’s single-most fascinating subject, his life seemingly one extended, rather flamboyant reaction against his father’s legacy. It’s interesting that chief among Thomas’ grievances is the fact that Veit Harlan returned to filmmaking after his acquittals rather than assume some other profession, as though resigning from filmmaking could have served as a kind of meaningful penance. Of Harlan’s extended family the most notable and articulate testimony comes from his niece Christiane Kubrick, who married the director Stanley Kubrick, who happened to be Jewish, and who, sadly, never managed to fulfill his dream of making a film about Harlan and the German film industry under National Socialism.

Veit Harlan

Chance plays such a haunting role in all this. It suggests that there are two kinds of evil, the kind so potent that it will find an outlet no matter the circumstance and the kind that might never manifest without just the right set of opportunities to prompt it. Harlan’s collaboration could be regarded as an evil of the latter category, which makes the fall-out, for all involved, that much more arduous to draw conclusions from. When rigorously following the threads of the Harlans’ life stories, Moeller’s film is totally captivating. Moeller only runs into trouble when he seems unable to distinguish which threads are most vital to the core of his project—he spends too much time with some of Harlan’s youngest grandchildren, who mostly have little to say, and refers too frequently to scenes from
Jew Süss, which, when pried loose from their context can seem misleading. So Harlan is finally a bit overlong and at certain points under-focused, but what’s best in it more than justifies the time invested.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Robinson Crusoe on Mars on blu-ray: Lonely planet made less so by monkey, alien miner, sense of wonder

There exists in so much science fiction a fantasy of heroic, ennobling loneliness, of entire planets available just for you to explore, or perhaps for you and an unobtrusive little companion, a robot, say, or a primate. Special effects pioneer-turned-director Byron Haskin’s wonderfully imaginative
Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964) begins with US astronaut Commander “Kit” Draper (Paul Mantee) crashes on the red planet. It proves just barely inhabitable, a world of desert canyons and columns of flame, like Death Valley meets Kuwait after the first Gulf War. Draper has lost his one and only shipmate, Colonel Dan (Adam West, a couple of years shy of Bat-fame), who it seems to me may have quite possibly also been his secret lover, and from whom he’s inherited Mona, a feisty little monkey in an orange space suit who does all sorts of very funny little monkey things but is clearly no replacement for a buddy, colleague, or boyfriend. Fortunately, Draper is fit, resourceful, endlessly curious, and, most of all, lucky.

Fascination with Mars overpowers grief or despair, its glowing, oxygen-rich rocks like hot potatoes, its subterranean deposits of pastel-coloured stuff, its peculiar vegetation, which Draper consumes and gradually converts into very silly-looking tunics and Robin Hood hats, and most of all its gorgeous landscapes that expand and undulate, traversed by balls of fire that meander the terrain like wandering bison. Early on we’re offered a rather long sequence during which Draper silently makes his first baffling geological discoveries. There is then a subsequent scene where Draper simply describes all of them into his recording device. The movie takes its sweet time, it’s true, but it’s never hard to watch, being so vibrantly visualized and so dramatically scored by Van Cleave, whose themes reminds me of some of the music Howard Shore’s composed for David Cronenberg. If you happened to have sees
Cast Away (2000) you might recall that the best parts of the movie by far were just Tom Hanks wordlessly negotiating his survival on the desert isle. There’s a somewhat similar dynamic at work here, a focus on tasks, labour, and reward. Long stretches of the movie resemble a fake documentary, an episode of Intergalactic Geographic, if you will, yet with enough time Draper will inevitably discover that he’s not alone, that like Daniel Defoe’s hero he gets his own Friday (Victor Lundin), an alien who looks a lot like an ancient Egyptian with immaculate grooming, and whose language sounds not unlike Nahuatl. However, like the archetypically asinine American abroad, as soon as Draper learns that Friday can talk he immediately assumes his new friend will have to learn English.

There’s a wealth of future-retro imagery to enjoy here—the tape decks, pulsating radar, and buttons like Starburst candies—but the aesthetic of
Robinson Crusoe on Mars is far too magnificently realized to be reduced to kitsch, and its science is actually remarkably sound given what we knew about Mars at the time, and some of Draper’s equipment, such as his portable video camera unit, are positively prescient. The special effects are fluid and striking, like those mining ships that appear in the Martian sky with unnerving swiftness, though they look an awful lot like the terrifying Martian ships that arrived to slaughter the citizens of Earth in Haskin’s earlier War of the Worlds (53). Not least among the movie’s most impressive elements are its sounds, such as that of Draper’s ship rocketing through space at unfathomable speed in the very first scene. It’s reason alone to seek out the movie on Criterion’s brand-new blu-ray edition, along with its terrific documentary explaining the movie’s relative scientific verisimilitude, and a cute music video for a song about the movie composed and performed by Lundin, whose lyrics imply that maybe he really wanted to play the lead.