Thursday, March 31, 2011

Insidious: sneaky demons lead family "Further"

If “it’s not the house that’s haunted,” as the tagline promises, then why does director James Wan spend the listless opening credit sequence for Insidious doling out one conventionally creepy haunted house image after another (and solemnly fading to black after each and every one)? Perhaps under the persuasion of co-producer Oren Peli (creator of the mega-smash new-old school chiller Paranormal Activity), Wan’s affectionate deployment of tried-and-true creaky horror tropes is, in theory at least, more than welcome in the era of torture and mutilation as entertainment (an era Wan and screenwriter Leigh Whannell helped cultivate with their Saw franchise). The problem is that these tropes feel almost arbitrary in their placement. But then so many items in Insidious feel arbitrary.

The first member of the Lambert family we meet is Renai (Rose Byrne), the second Dalton (Ty Simpkins). Mother and son both rise early and wear matching pajamas. They seem to share a quiet curiosity and a connection distinct from those shared by the other members of the family. Renai, a struggling songwriter, is diminutive in figure and seems especially vulnerable. Unsurprisingly, she’ll be the character most tormented by apparitions and inexplicable sounds (the haunted baby monitor makes its token entrance early on) that accumulate in the film’s slow burning first act. But it’s her husband Josh (Patrick Wilson, as always, looking like he’s hiding something) that intrigues. Hints are dropped rather heavily that there’s something untrustworthy about him. He doesn’t like to be photographed. He’s a schoolteacher but seems awkward with kids. He stays late at work when he knows Renai is stuck at home, deeply upset by the weird disturbances, minding three kids, and single-handedly nesting. Josh also snores loudly, and rubs some dandyish cream under his eyes before bed.

Soon Dalton has an accident in the attic and winds up in a coma that the doctors can’t make sense of. That his coma seems directly connected to the by now unambiguously paranormal activity (a premise that could almost resemble something out of a Haruki Murakami novel) is the thing that got me especially interested in
Insidious. But a major switch in tone and tack occurs at the film’s mid-point. The Lamberts move house but the shadowy figures keep a-comin’. What was previously only suggested, sometimes rather effectively so, suddenly becomes all too visible and really, really dumb looking. Steam punk heavies, a red-faced boogeyman and many kooky, pancake make-up wearing, formally dressed phantoms turn up, looking like rejects from Carnival of Souls. A spiritualist is consulted, accompanied by a pair of bumbling ghost busters (one of whom is played by Whannell), and a whole over-complicated mythology begins to establish itself surrounding a normally invisible parallel realm called “the Further.” The aforementioned connection between Renai and Dalton turns out to have no consequence. Barbara Hershey arrives on the scene, conjuring horrorphile memories of The Entity, but ultimately for no special reason. Much of what’s set up during the first act gets shelved. Josh eventually is induced into an out-of-body experience and travels to the Further where he gets into an astral fistfight with a demon and wins, whatever that means. Insidious can’t quite decide what it wants to be, though the real problem is that what it promised to be might have been so much more satisfying.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Don't look back: Irréversible

Doubling back to revisit Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible (2002) for the first time since its initial release, after having recently endured Enter the Void, the New French Extremist’s most recent work, offered diminishing returns with regards to the film’s overall sleaze-bag sensationalism while its notorious mid-point rape scene remains genuinely unbearable, which is some sort of accomplishment. Moving chronologically backwards through its deceptively simple urban Straw Dogs revenge narrative, Irréversible begins in what appears to be a dingy flop house where a mostly naked, daughter-molesting ex-con laments how “time destroys all things,” thus announcing the theme from the outset, lest we fail to grasp it on our own. (In any event, the film ends with this dictum appearing as a closing title card. All in caps. Noé is nothing if not thorough.) From here we hit a gay sex club called the Rectum, a Halloween-lit cavernous labyrinth of cock-sucking and flagellation, and rise to our first climax in which Pierre (Albert Dupontel) smashes a degenerate’s face to a pulp before a handful of cheerfully masturbating spectators, among them the director himself. Take that as you will.

From here we jump back to find Marcus (Vincent Cassel) and Pierre on their way to said face-obliteration, attacking and insulting both a Chinese cabbie and hermaphrodite hooker along the way. “Off to the Rectum!” shouts Cassel, clearly instructed to repeat the word “rectum” as often as possible. (It is fun to say, I suppose, and, like the film's title, has the added benefit of requiring no translation into English.) After this, which is to say before, Marcus’ unspeakably lovely girlfriend Alex (Monica Bellucci) is anally assaulted and viciously beaten for eight unblinking minutes in a red-painted underpass—yet another rectal tunnel! After this, presuming we’re still watching, we learn why Alex took the tunnel, listen to a long, banal, repetitive conversation about sexual pleasure on the métro, and discover a secret Alex has been keeping that makes her fate that much more appalling and tragic.

Time diminishes shock value.
Irréversible’s structure is cleanly aligned to its themes of entropy and inescapable doom, though, seeing the film again after all these years, its effect-before-cause formalism strikes me as little more than a nihilist-sadist pulp thriller version of Jeopardy!: answer first, question second. This is mostly because once you get the gist of Noé’s concept and adjust your senses to the vertigo-inducing camera work there’s little left to explore and so very much to deplore. The actors are obviously of a higher caliber than those in Enter the Void, but they have little to say (the dialogue is blather) and not much to do besides endure ghastly torment or exact medieval violence. I don’t think I’ll be reversing through this one again.

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Prowler on DVD: Stop, look, and listen

The opening shot of The Prowler (1951) peers in out of the night through the luminous bedroom window of Susan Gilvray (Evelyn Keyes). We suppose we’re assuming the eponymous prowler’s point-of-view, but who exactly is the prowler? Officers Bud Crocker and Webb Garwood (Van Heflin) arrive to check for signs of trespassage, the latter condescendingly reassuring this nervous and attractive wife of a late-night disc jockey while admiring her affluence and formulating plans to seduce her. But it’s not at all clear that our heroine’s adversary (and soon-to-be lover) was the opening’s peeper, though Webb will briefly inhabit the very same perspective as that first shot while surveying the house’s exterior. The identity of the bearer of the eyes through which we first leer at Susan remains ambiguous. Audaciously so, considering the film’s titled after this creature-voyeur ostensibly nestled in the shrubs. Does he (or she) even exist? Are we the prowler?

Previously unavailable on DVD,
The Prowler has finally appeared, released by VCI and gorgeously restored by the Film Noir Foundation and the UCLA Film and Television Archive. Directed by Joseph Losey and secretly written by blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, The Prowler is brooding yet taut as a timing belt, brimming with lust and petty ambitions yet complicated by a thicket of unarticulated, conflicting emotions. With its overt perversions and premarital sex, it’s one of the period’s most flamboyant violators of the production code. A broad abstract of its plot promises a retread of Double Indemnity (44), replacing femme fatale with homme, but there’s so much more going on here. Every new sequence renegotiates the story’s direction and tone. At times it’s a comedy of discomfort, at others commentary on class envy. While moving through Susan’s cavernous bungalow it carries the air of a horror picture: there’s that monster, and he wants inside. But as we move from Los Angeles suburb to Nevada highway to a desert ghost town, the film’s landscapes become increasingly oneiric, the couple’s motives increasingly bizarre—yet somehow it all makes an eerie kind of sense.

Oblivious to his own douche-bag menace, Webb is Heflin at his finest: those round, Wellesian eyes that keep glancing backward as he swaggers away from Susan’s door, the way he abuses his authority to make himself at home, worming his way in, asking for milk, thumbing the records in search of some Guy Lombardo. Webb and Susan discover they share roots in rural Indiana—they attended the same football dances—and with this tenuous connection Webb commandeers their affair, delighting in toying with Susan’s feelings. He tells her he wants to buy a motor court in Nevada. Every time he’s in Vegas he drives out just to see if it’s still there. At first Susan says she married her older, wealthy husband to get away from guys like Webb, but she still falls for him. Is Susan lonely or mentally ill? Is she genuinely drawn to this creep? The elegance of Keyes’ performance lies in its sustained uncertainty. It’s often impossible to discern what she’s thinking, though it’s clear she’s thinking
something. And it’s probably a bad idea.

Susan’s husband is heard on the radio during their trysts. (I love that the voice is supplied by Trumbo.) That voice assures the adulterers of the husband’s absence, yet it also makes him perpetually present, a bodiless chaperone, announcing song titles that read like chapters in the novel of his wife’s affair. When Webb kisses Susan the camera swings over toward the radio as if seeking a reaction shot. Susan never describes her husband physically, and that first fleeting moment in which we finally see him is also the last. In this way Losey’s film becomes a delicious, rigorous study in what it means to see and to hear in the movies. Everything out senses are given is precise and provocative. “I’ll be seeing you, Susan,” the husband says each night as he signs off, and we’ll be seeing her too: The Prowler is a noir masterpiece, and deserves to be revisited again and again.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Death trip: Enter the Void

Central to Enter the Void is not so much a character as a point of view. Oscar (Nathaniel Brown), a young American living, loafing and dealing various drugs in Tokyo, is observed relatively little (though for a while we get a rather thorough study of the back of his head) yet is, in the loosest sense, present in every scene. Gaspar Noé uses Oscar’s consciousness as a cinematic vessel: we see and hear what he sees and hears, a device familiar from its fleeting employment in slasher films but, documentaries aside, is rarely used in extended duration, some memorable exceptions being Russian Ark, The Lady in the Lake, and the first part of Dark Passage, whose title could easily be substituted for the one Noé settled on for this, his follow-up to Irreversible and third feature as writer/director/editor/cinematographer/provocateur/

Enter the Void follows, or rather inhabits, Oscar as he gets profoundly stoned, walks to a nightclub, gets killed, and thence drifts in spirit-form through a narrow network of past and present. His life seems to have consisted mainly of one major source of trauma (his parents’ death in a car accident when Oscar was a child, an event he was present for) and one of comfort (his sister, with whom he’s made a pact to always be together, even after death). It is in any case these items that doggedly haunt Oscar’s afterlife and Noé’s project. Over and over we witness the accident from the backseat, the lifeless bodies, the sister wailing. The memory repeats until it no longer shocks us nor deeply troubles Oscar, the implication being, I suppose, that he’s letting go of earthly woes. Over and over we visit Oscar’s sister (Paz de la Huerta, frequently naked and, less appealingly, screaming), usually while she’s getting laid or dancing in a g-string. Oscar’s protective impulse and incestuous desire for his sister merge into a single focused longing for reunion that finally manifests in a sequence that ushers Oscar toward reincarnation via one particular anatomical dark passage that, it’s probably safe to say, the movies have never taken us through before.

Equal parts mind-blowing and incredibly boring, I can no more deny the tedium of
Enter the Void than I can its ingenuity. Maybe that’s just it: displays of ingenuity are tedious, at least when undertaken by artists who seem drawn to nothing so much as their own sublime gimmickry. (To be fair, the tedium is surely more oppressive in the 160-minute version I’ve seen than in the 137-minute version that’s screened in some theatres.) The first half-hour or so, where Oscar trips out to visions of branching galactic veins of pulsating, morphing beauty, where paranoia burgeons and fades, where his buddy Alex (Cyril Roy, oddly charismatic, and giving the closest thing to a two-dimensional performance) comes by to explain the Tibetan Book of the Dead (Noé’s source material), is easily the most engaging and witty section. Noé’s evocation of Oscar’s reeling response to his narcotic cocktail, which includes DMT, is uncanny: anyone who takes drugs for extra-medicinal purposes will recognize the sensations carefully conjured here. But once Oscar goes astral, momentum and insight is largely discarded. Yes, the soaring-over-Tokyo camerawork is wondrous, a milestone even. But Oscar’s a bland cipher, his afterlife hardly the sort anyone truly invested in spiritual questions would choose for such extensive cinematic examination. His posthumous wandering might have worked better as an installation or visionary video game, which it resembles in many respects. Stanley Kubrick and 2001 especially are touchstones, though Noé has yet to muster up even Kubrick’s negligible level of interest in characters. Enter the Void is one hell of a trip, but you may find you’ve come down long before its final fade to black.

Monday, March 21, 2011

To be assembled posthumously: The Windmill Movie on DVD

Richard P. Rogers was born into East Coast WASP privilege and most of its accompanying neuroses. His people summered in the Hamptons. They sent him to Dalton and Harvard to make something of himself. But Rogers became an experimental and documentary filmmaker—a filmmaker’s filmmaker, marginal and respected. He also became a beloved educator at SUNY Purchase. His familial legacy left him with pangs of unease regarding his inability to accumulate wealth and a facility with small talk and tennis. He was simultaneously envious of his more successful (ie: rich and famous) peers and so hopelessly rebellious there was no way he could ever have followed their paths. Most scandalously, he fell for Jewish girls, and eventually, while dying from cancer, even married one, the esteemed Magnum photographer Susan Meiselas, with whom he’d shared decades-long romance marked by long absences and affairs with other women—Rogers was an unlikely yet prodigious Don Juan. He died in 2001 at the age of 56.

Rogers was undoubtedly a man of many curious and contradictory qualities, but those listed above are the ones that linger with me after seeing
The Windmill Movie (2009). It’s a strange and fascinating artifact: a memoir by proxy, an 80-minute essay constructed from some 200 hours of material shot or collected by Rogers with the vague intention of being either a self-portrait or a critique of the culture that spawned him. Maybe, inevitably, both. It was produced by Meiselas and David Grubin, and directed, edited and written by Alexander Olch, a student of Rogers with a somewhat similar background and a sense of kinship strong enough to encourage Olch to compose narration in Rogers’ voice. Watching The Windmill Movie, you can’t help but wonder if it wasn’t all designed this way, if only unconsciously. Keep in mind: though you may not have heard of him, Rogers was a prolific, hard-working, at times very personal filmmaker—not a dilettante. So if he never finished his Windmill, even when diagnosed with a terminal illness, it might be that he never truly planned to. It’s someone else’s Movie now, someone else’s portrait, though still suitably subjective, poetic, uneven, uncertain, and shot through with lust, indecision, and existential doubt. It’s available this week on DVD from Zeitgeist.

Remarkable images reappear throughout
The Windmill Movie, as though circling Rogers’ psyche. Hands at a garden party, the corner of a sail brushing reeds, pretty young bronzed thighs on bicycles or beach blankets: one of the possible themes of Rogers’ project was summertime, the feeling that important things happen in this seemingly most leisurely of seasons. Rogers recalls being taken to the beach as a child and falling in love with other people’s mothers. He reflects on his own mother, abandoned by his father. She appears before his camera, in old age, wearing a wig, at one point shoveling dirt into a car. You imagine her sharing cocktails with reclusive socialite Edie Beale, made famous in the Maysle Brothers’ Grey Gardens (75) and a Hamptons neighbour.

Olch’s assembly is respectful, but not too respectful. He doesn’t flatter Rogers. He understands the perils in making a film about a filmmaker struggling to make a film about a dead filmmaker struggling to make a film, and thus grounds
The Windmill Movie in specific memories and encounters, successes and failures. Some of Olch’s additions don’t entirely work. Rogers’ old friend, actor and playwright Wallace Shawn shows up, reads aloud some of Rogers’ musings, and finally feels underused, present mostly as a talisman. But for the most part Olch finds ways to honour his subject while establishing his own voice. There’s little in The Windmill Movie to indicate Rogers’ accomplishments as a filmmaker (nor is this film the place for it), but thankfully Zeitgeist has included two really wonderful shorts by Rogers: ‘Elephants: Fragments of an Argument’ (73) and ‘226-1690’ (84), which chronicles a year in Rogers’ life via views from his New York apartment window and messages left on his answering machine.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Untapped potential: Limitless

Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) was just another New York slob dodging his landlord and trying to write a science fiction novel about “the plight of the individual in the 21st century” until he ran into his shifty ex-brother-in-law and got hooked on NZT 48, an experimental underground drug that grants imbibers access to those proverbial underused regions of the brain. Suddenly everything Eddie’s ever read, heard, or seen becomes organized and available. He finishes his book in four days, wins back his girl (
Bright Star’s Abbie Cornish), learns multiple languages, and masters the stock exchange. The side effects? Paranoia, some vertiginous crashing, and a nasty addiction. He also has ever-burgeoning gaps of missing time. During one such gap he may have even killed someone—but Eddie’s got other things to worry about. Like getting rich, impressing Robert De Niro’s mega-mogul, and surviving business ties with the Russian mafia.

Pay It Forward producer/screenwriter Leslie Dixon based Limitless on Alan Glynn’s The Dark Fields. Glynn’s novel came out in 2001, but the premise feels more resonant in 2011 and its everything/everywhere/all-the-time access to data via portable technology (which some depressingly predict will eventually be wired into our bodies). Its deeply fertile premise is finally what carries Limitless, which is never less than engaging. Dixon’s script is fun and structurally inventive (including a pleasingly abrupt little bitch-slap of an ending) yet curiously generic (it’s so focused on being a solid, twisty thriller that it seems to forget that it could potentially be so much more). Meanwhile, Neil Burger’s direction mirrors that of his effects-fussy, thematically kindred 2006 breakthrough The Illusionist. His teaser/opening credits sequence feels like a trailer and seems especially inspired by Google Earth. His camera likes to zip through windshields and hair salons. There’s too much music cluttering the soundtrack and far too many cutesy, overly illustrative visual enhancements, such as the fridge magnet letters showering down on Eddie while he plunges headlong into writing. This tale of fantastical drug abuse could have benefited from a sober approach. Or David Fincher. Or, come to think of it, David Cronenberg, and his cool insights into the latent beast within.

As you consider all that Eddie might accomplish under NZT you start to realize not only how frustratingly limited
Limitless’ imaginative circuitry is but also how much of a selfish prick Eddie is. Which is a perfectly legitimate way to go: film noir is full of guys like this, compellingly repulsive antiheroes hard-wired to look out exclusively for number one. The problem is that Eddie’s not written or realized in a way that seems cognizant of his character flaws (the movie wants to like him too much), and thus fails to exploit these flaws for good, gritty drama. Cooper’s fine in the role, but brings nothing extra, nothing that imbues Eddie with that special quality that makes you both envious and appalled, wondering how you might get your hands on some of what he’s got. Perhaps we’ll be seeing more stories like this one in the coming years, stories driven by our apparent urge to merge the mind with someone’s ideal computer gadget. Perhaps these other stories will go farther. In the meantime, Limitless is worth checking in with, if only to ponder the outer limits (of which this would have made a pretty good episode).

Monday, March 14, 2011

Variations on life's first-times: Au revoir les enfants and Yi Yi turn blu

As rendered in Louis Malle’s autobiographical
Au revoir les enfants (1987), the Petite-Collège d’Avon, which rested on the grounds of a Carmelite monastery and neighboured Fontainebleau, and which Malle attended during the Nazi occupation of France, seems austere and bone chilling, especially if you’re permanently garbed in short pants. Yet it’s also an oddly wondrous, comforting place, nestled in fecundity, where boys could get away with a little horseplay and develop a scrappy camaraderie. Under Malle and cinematographer Renato Berta’s earth-toned, always fluid gaze, the Petite-Collège feels like home, even its sleeping quarters, where too many bunks cram a single room and a it’s only a matter of time before a serial bed-wetter like Malle’s surrogate Julien (Gaspard Manesse) gets outed by his merciless peers.

The masterstroke in Au revoir, now available on gorgeous blu-ray from Criterion, lies in Malle’s respect for the past, his resistance to burdening it with the gravity of hindsight. In keeping with the experience as lived by Malle’s adolescent characters, much of what passes feels essentially ordinary, even if historical circumstances are extraordinary: reading by flashlight, playing on stilts in the courtyard, dodging the air raid drill to rattle off some boogie-woogie on the school piano, getting treated to a screening of Chaplin’s The Immigrant with live accompaniment. The film traces Julien’s friendship with Bonnet (Raphaël Fejtö), a story which stumbles along playfully and awkwardly the way childhood friendships do, until that day that forever changed Malle’s life, the day the Gestapo arrive to take Bonnet and three other boys away to their deaths, along with the school’s headmaster Père Jacques, who took them in and attempted to conceal their Jewishness. Before this final sequence Nazis remain in the background, spied outside the classroom window asking to confess, or, ironically, shooing away collaborators attempting to throw Jews out of a local restaurant. By largely eschewing overt, artificial portent, Malle’s finale becomes infinitely more moving, and every scene leading to it, however mirthful its tone, becomes pierced with unbearable loss.

The fleetingness of childhood (and adulthood) and ordinariness punctuated by sudden violence (which is ordinary enough) also dominate Edward Yang’s
Yi Yi (2000), also new to blu-ray from Criterion. It follows a middle-class Taipei family through a rough patch: grandmother slips into a coma, mother into a spiritual crisis, father into two parallel ethical crises. Sister undertakes her first brush with romance while little brother quietly absorbs everything, translating it into images. Eight year-old Yang-Yang’s nascent experiments with his father’s instamatic, collecting evidence of those aspects of ourselves that remain invisible to us (he takes pictures of the backs of people’s heads), arguably make him the world’s youngest conceptual artist. Not that he knows it.

Yang’s group portrait is also a portrait of urban life and its inherent merging of disparate experiences. Public scenes are observed entirely through windows, neighbours are heard fighting through walls, surveillance cameras track movements. Sounds, music or dialogue from one scene bleed into the next. Yang-Yang, whose name invokes the film’s writer/director, is
Yi Yi’s richest source of discovery and amusement. He’s cute, of course, but also vividly alert to the world and all its contents he can’t understand. A scene where Yang-Yang beholds a pretty schoolmate standing before the projected image of a documentary on thunder is elegantly echoed in a later scene where he dives into a swimming pool during a thunderstorm.

Yet I find myself most drawn to scenes involving NJ, Yang-Yang’s father, who, like Yang-Yang, is unassuming and wears clothes three sizes too big for him. The scenes where NJ dines and hits a karaoke bar with a Japanese colleague, their exchanges limited by their broken English (the only language they share), constitute marvelous moments of adults connecting. “Why are we always afraid of the first time?” the Japanese asks. Yi Yi brims with so many resonate variations on life’s first-times, and even if Yang allows them to be harrowing, he nonetheless consoles us with the fact that we can at least share them, though conversation, physical contact, or the compressing force of art.

Friday, March 11, 2011

All at sea: Film Socialisme

When asked in a recent interview about the scene where Alain Badiou gives a lecture on geometry and philosophy to an empty auditorium on a cruise ship adrift in the Mediterranean, Jean-Luc Godard explained that he announced the lecture on the ship’s activities calendar but, sadly, nobody came. I hope there’s a better turnout when
Film Socialisme screens next weekend at Edmonton's Metro Cinema, but I can almost guarantee that any prospective viewer, regardless of their facility with either philosophy or geometry, would surely have had an easier time grasping the thesis of Badiou’s lecture than that of Godard’s latest bricolage. Abrasive and staccato, fragmented in image, music and language, its multilingual dialogues obscured by Godard’s choice to offer only partial subtitles, riddled with references to politics and art yet withholding of context or commentary, this tripartite Film seems founded on the conviction that the medium itself is corrupted by signifiers that collectively fail to provide meaning. Call it Babel at 24 frames per second. Except that, for the first time in Godard’s oeuvre, it’s all video.

‘Des choses comme ça,’ the first of Film Socialisme’s three sections, struck me in my single viewing as the most coherent. Perhaps because the cruise ship seems to lend itself most easily to persuasive metaphors. A sampling of global citizens, among them a Russian detective, a hunter of war criminals, a Jewish banker, an elderly man accompanied by a young woman, and Patti Smith, found busking in the lobby, are on board, sharing a confined, landless, mobile space constructed for leisure, inaccessible to the underprivileged, offering magnificent views (Godard’s images of pure sea, sometimes almost black, are breathtaking), and containing the possibility of large scale disaster. Crowds gyrate to crushing music in the ship’s apocalyptic discotheque, captured crudely enough to seem almost abstract on what would appear to be a cell phone camera. Models stroll the decks. (There are hot young babes—a Godard staple.) Europe is “humiliated by liberty.” Everything feels vaguely ominous. Or rather ominously vague.

‘Notre Europe’ unfolds on land, amidst a family, their gas station, their llama and his donkey. It irked me to see them let the water gush at full blast while casually brushing their teeth or scrubbing a dish, but otherwise they seem decent enough folks, and there are genuinely endearing moments shared by mother and son. A TV crew arrives. I’m not at all sure they get the coverage they need. ‘Nos humanités’ promises a return to the cruise ship but proves the densest, least grounded section, a travelogue montage of war and atrocity, with visits to Palestine, Egypt, Naples, Hellas, Barcelona, and Odessa, where a re-mix of the most famous moments in
Battleship Potemkin forms just one of countless flamboyant appropriations lining Film Socialisme. (Herein lies the title, perhaps: a property-dissolving collective creation, though helmed by a cinematic legend and rigorous anti-populist.) There are quotes from Shakespeare, Balzac, and Derrida, a French cover of ‘Flashdance… What a Feeling,’ and pieces of Cheyenne Autumn, if I’m not mistaken—and I could be, about many things here. My memory’s at sea. I’d need to see Film Socialisme several times to say more. But there are so many Godards to revisit, and several from the middle period especially that I still have yet to see. It might take a while to get round to this one again.

Film Socialisme screens at Metro Cinema from March 18 - 20.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Battle: Los Angeles: What's alien for Oorah!?

The disasterama alien invasion opera Battle: Los Angeles can’t have been the easiest project to provide production design for: despite the film’s inane if commanding title, much of the action is set in Santa Monica, nearly every square inch of which gets blown to kingdom come. Yet early in our story, as marines troll the corpse-strewn resort town for survivors, a clever and conspicuously placed SUPPORT OUT TROOPS sign looms. It’s a straightforward plea and a sort of moral summary of what follows, which teeters on the cusp of bald armed forces propaganda. Battle: Los Angeles is more war movie than science fiction, and within its genre more Pearl Harbor than Thin Red Line. In a pivotal third-act scene, the most heroic of the movie’s uniformly heroic marines attempts to comfort a small child who just lost his civilian father and is several hours into a pants-kaking apocalypse by declaring that “Marines never quit!” Am I the only one who found this an inappropriate opportunity for recruitment?

The three-alarm meteor shower that kicks things off reveals itself to be a full-on hostile extraterrestrial colonization attempt just when guilt-ridden Staff Sergeant Nantz (Aaron Eckhart, well-cast, oddly enough) was supposed to be retiring from service following a tragic “tough call” which cost the lives of several members of his company in a curiously unspecified foreign conflict. Massive destruction is thus occasionally interrupted by portentous gossipy grumbling about Nantz’s lethally neglectful leadership, leading up to the token grossly overwritten bathetic monologue in which Nantz explains his actions and regains the confidence of his fellows. The attempt to generate some character development is noble enough, but what screenwriter Christopher Bertolini contrives is so generic that it mostly feels like draggy distraction from questions like why has no one mentioned nuclear bombs yet, or where’s our ubiquitous snarling explosion movie go-to girl Michelle Rodriguez… Oh wait, there she is!

Reunited with cinematographer Lukas Ettlin, the pair having teamed up previously for
Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, director Jonathan Liebesman evokes the chaos of battle through jittery camerawork and aimless fidgeting with the zoom. The gunplay and scurrying is at least fairly coherent, and there’s a pretty nifty bit where Nantz fools a flying alien drone by having it follow a bunk radio signal. There’s also a memorable sequence involving some sloppy, syrupy alien surgery, preceded by what’s easily Bertolini’s finest piece of dialogue, given to an attractive civilian (Bridget Moynahan) and potential love interest for Nantz in the inevitable sequel: “Maybe I can help. I’m a veterinarian.” The aliens of course never utter a word, not even in alien, so you’re waiting in vain if you hold out for their leader to mount the Griffith Observatory and announce that they’ve come to liberate us.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Marcellus Emants' Posthumous Confession: Notes on life as a dirty brown spot

Arresting from its first stark sentence (“My wife is dead and buried”), nearly relentless in its catch-all combo of misanthropy and self-loathing, yet consistently compelling and perversely insightful,
A Posthumous Confession (NYRB Classics, $16), Dutch author Marcellus Emants’ 1894 novel, newly back in print, translated and with an introduction by J.M. Coetzee, with a perfectly chosen detail from Edvard Munch’s Self-portrait in Hell as its cover art, is as elegantly wrought as it is deeply repulsive. So, in other words, a must-read.

By the time he finally sets down to write about his life—to confess, as it were—Willem Termeer (a name that fittingly prompts images of termites) is 35, friendless, and, having been recently widowed, “free again.” But free to do what? He says he’s killed his wife, Anna, though the circumstances are unclear. By his own claims Termeer, a man without profession, whose biography is encrusted with botched attempts at hedonism, is hopelessly apathetic. How did he manage to become a murderer? Until we reach the final pages, all we’re given to speculate upon are cryptic summaries: “one thing followed from another far too gradually.”

Termeer’s chronically mistrustful, solipsistic, a compulsive liar. His sense of inferiority, even to those whom he despises, is paralyzing. In one especially memorable anecdote, he meets a student who he instantly dislikes, only to realize that they’re exactly alike, and Termeer befriends the younger man so as to enjoy feeling superior on account of his elder status. In another episode he develops a middling interest in a Swedish pianist (Anna also would play the piano) that becomes a blazing desire only with the appearance of a rival. He gradually resolves that the only way for him to function socially is to perform: “if it was impossible for me to become a good man I would at least aspire to live like a good man.”

Emants worked predominantly as a playwright, and part of what makes
A Posthumous Confession so readable is the momentum and intimacy of its monologue. Termeer’s vulnerability sometimes yields emotional colours he might not even be cognizant of. His descriptions of fumbling teenage courtship are surprisingly tender, even sweet. Perhaps this sweetness helped to facilitate the profound sourness to come: “my love disappeared like a raindrop in hot sand: all that was left was a dirty brown spot.” Elsewhere, his wild pessimism is conveyed with such throttle that it actually becomes really funny: “O death, death—how frightened I have always been of it! Yet I have so often asked myself, ‘Were you unhappy before you were born?’”

Coetzee notes that
A Posthumous Confession is a singularly pure example of the confessional genre, and Emants indeed invests an unusual degree of attention to developing Termeer’s distinctive literary voice and approach to self-analysis. His reasons for wanting to write become incrementally lucid and may even represent the most altruistic impulse Termeer is capable of feeling. “Who knows how many there are who are just like me,” he wonders, “yet will realize it only when they have seen themselves mirrored in me.” Yet there is also a sly bit of preternatural postmodernism emerging here. Termeer goes to see a play entitled Artist by one Marcellus Emants. It “made a deep impression on me because of the many features of resemblance between the artist and myself.” He even goes on to critique Emants’ play.

A Posthumous Confession’s most obvious antecedents are Dostoyevsky’s Notes From Underground and certain tales of psychological frailty by Poe. The novel also bears a certain likeness to early work by Emants’ Norwegian contemporary Knut Hamsun. But where do we find this underground figure in more recent decades? Perhaps in the work of Thomas Bernhard. Or perhaps we need to go to the movies. “I don’t believe that one should devote his life to morbid self-attention,” Travis Bickle confesses in Taxi Driver. “I believe that someone should become a person like other people.” If only becoming “a person” were that simple.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Fabric fantasies narrate ruinous love in Senso

The first sequence of Luchino Visconti’s
Senso (1954) unravels like a long bolt of silk let loose from the vertiginous upper balconies of Venice’s Teatro La Fenice. A performance of Verdi’s Il trvovatore is underway, the aria climaxing with a near-riot breaking out amongst the Fenice’s patrons. It’s 1866, the Italians are getting restless, the Austrian occupation in its twilight. The War of Liberation is eminent. Nonetheless a romance ignites between the Italian Countess Livia Serpieri (Alida Valli) and the Austrian Lieutenant Franz Mahler (Farley Granger). You’ll note that their first exchanges are made with the opera being performed literally in the background of their two-shot, and it’s no accident. Visconti, scion of wealthy aristocrats with centuries of rule behind them, conflicted Communist, by then already a pretty major name in theatre and opera as well as cinema, unshakable in his vision and not to be rushed or compromised, uses this first sequence to lay the groundwork for what will be an absolute, go-for-broke, multilingual melodrama. So get ready.

The 1882 source novella by Camillo Boito, also entitled
Senso, has Livia young, vain and inexperienced, but Visconti’s interpretation very smartly opts to make her older and more complex than Franz, with more to lose, and the brilliantly cast Valli, who was in fact four years older than Granger, actually seems over the course of the picture to look increasingly wrung dry by l’amour fou. Her naked shoulders, loose, waist-length hair and kittenish gaze in the early post-coital scene brim with fortifying eroticism, while the final scenes find her face strained and body seemingly unable to stay erect. Valli was still fresh from The Third Man (49), as was Granger from Strangers on a Train (50), so Senso was indeed something of a star-studded affair. Granger is even seductive at points, though the Italian version’s isn’t his voice, which makes an enormous difference. (Criterion’s new edition features the English version too, titled The Wanton Countess—with dialogue by Tennessee Williams and Paul Bowles!—as a supplementary feature.)

Yet, with all due respect to the story and performances, the most dynamic aspect of
Senso however would arguably be its décors. Desire is the undoing of Livia, but it’s money that poisons Franz—but how could he not succumb to avarice when surrounded by such boundless luxury? Fabulous fabrics are endlessly flowing across the screen like a current of punch-drunk longing made tactile: veils, capes, bedclothes, night gowns, curtains, skirts that could provide shelter to entire families of very short people. The sets, the clothes, the furniture, the battlefields, the extras, those perfect patterns of grime on the doors of the Austrian officer’s dormitory: Visconti’s urge toward grandeur spared no expense. In fact, production ran three times longer than scheduled, went through three cinematographers (the first, Aldo Graziati, died), and finally bankrupted Lux Films. But watch how the look of everything in the film it what tells the story, from the morbid elegance and rich colours of Venice, to the final scenes in Verona, which looks like a sooty smudge, barren, used up, shadowy and blackened as an abandoned fireplace. It strikes me as apt that this story, which could be regarded as something of an adult, corrupted version of Romeo and Juliet, draws to its close in the very city where Shakespeare’s beloved teenage tragedy took place. More apt still that Visconti’s assistant director was none other Franco Zeffirelli (and if Granger’s memoir, excerpted in Criterion’s package, is to be trusted, Zeffirelli was also Visconti’s lover at the time), who would go on to helm the cinema’s most celebrated version of Romeo and Juliet (68). But then everything about Senso, maybe even the film’s failure to find international success, seems to conform to the dictates of destiny.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Atrocity Exposition: Winter Soldier

He can’t remember how many times he’d seen prisoners bound and blindfolded with copper wire and thrown from mobile US aircraft, but Rusty Sachs, 27 year-old veteran of the US Marine Air Wing, thinks it must have been somewhere between 15 and 50. Sachs describes this activity, performed in the spirit of competition (the prisoners were being tossed from choppers not only for sadistic amusement or some perverse notion of efficiency, but to see who could throw theirs the furthest), in the opening moments of
Winter Solider (1972). This documentary, chronicling the Winter Solider Investigation, which took place during the winter of 1971 in a Detroit Howard Johnson, wisely gets right down to business. Nothing that’s discussed over the course of the film’s 96-minute running time is for the faint of heart or anyone nurturing illusions about Americans in Vietnam. Winter Solider, along with Hearts and Minds, is one of the essential films about Vietnam, and as such is utterly devastating.

The film was produced by the Winterfilm Collective, which included Sachs, documentarian David Grubin, and Barbara Kopple, who would go on to make Harlan County, USA (76), another of the greatest, most valiant nonfiction films of the era. But the decision to attribute Winter Soldier to a collective rather than a single filmmaker or even handful of filmmakers is appropriate. Few films seem as necessarily subservient to simply assembling participants for the purpose of condensing and conveying vital information. What sensibility emerges feels very much the product of likeminded activists whose private ambitions are secondary to the event unfolding before the cameras. Solidarity is woven into the film’s core. All we get, interspersed with footage from the war, are testimonies, both formal (speakers on stage, with a microphone, before a small public) and informal (veterans and citizens comparing notes during breaks in the hearings). Among those veterans who speak out against the war is future Presidential candidate John Kerry. The images, particularly the long, unbroken close-ups, are somewhat overexposed, with lots of hot white in the Caucasian faces, the details blasted from the background, nothing to distract from what’s being said and how, all of it very wintry indeed.

What’s discussed? The list of atrocities could consume the span of this review and some. Torture, rape, mutilation, humiliation, disembowelment, destruction of property. The slaughter of children. The regarding of all Vietnamese as the enemy, especially once they’re dead. Wildly inflated body counts. Nightmares. Patriotism. Racism, perhaps as a bottom line that goes so much deeper into history and the social fabric than the then-current conflict. Soft-spoken and handsome in his dark beard, Scott Camil, who was discharged after having received 13 medals and attained the rank of Sergeant, recalls going to Vietnam to find out what kind of a man he was. Even after witnessing countless flamboyant violations of the Geneva Convention, Camil still believed he was doing what was right for his country. Beyond the atrocities committed, beyond policy, beyond whatever we can regard as history or as an ongoing, fundamental concern about government and war,
Winter Solider haunts us with the question of how it is Scott Camil became what he became for the four years he served. At least we know that whatever he became, he could somehow, eventually, come back from it, and tell his story.

Winter Soldier screens this weekend at Edmonton's Metro Cinema.