Monday, April 25, 2011

Earwitness to an assassination: Blow Out

Jack (John Travolta) is a sound-effects technician, and thus a gifted listener, which might be another way of saying he’s a born aural voyeur, if you will.
Blow Out (1981), Brian De Palma’s conspiracy thriller, continues a rich tradition, following Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966), which was inspired by Cortázar’s story ‘Las babas del diablo’ (1959), and Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), in that it hinges on its protagonist’s special ability to perceive an incriminating detail hidden in a recording. The inciting incident: Jack’s perched on a bridge in a park at night in search of some good wind. Wearing headphones, handling a baton-like microphone, he captures not just wind in the trees, but also a whispering couple, an owl, and, fatefully, a car skidding off a road and plunging into the river. Jack rushes to help. He can’t save the driver but manages to rescue the driver’s lovely young companion (Nancy Allen). Later, in emergency, he’s told that the driver was a popular presidential candidate. He’s also told there was no lovely young companion, or rather, he’s told that the companion will simply be erased from the official record, just as Jack might excise a single track from a soundscape. Furthermore, Jack’s told that a certain noise he heard (and recorded) just a second before the accident never occurred, a noise that sounded like a gunshot.

Blow Out navigates the elusive bridge that divides authenticity and artifice: a bridge built on technology. This theme is cleverly integrated right into the film’s opening sequence, when a screening of an excerpt from Jacks’ current project, the exploitation slasher film-within-the-film, could initially be mistaken for the film itself. It’s interrupted only when one of the slasher’s naked nubile victims lets out a scream that doesn’t sound authentic enough and the producer calls the screening to a halt. (Amusingly, the producer tries to find a more authentic scream by bringing pairs of young women into the studio: one screams into a microphone while the other pulls her hair.) Jack knows the woman was in the car; he knows there were two sharp sounds: first the gunshot, then the blow out. But he has to get someone to believe him, to listen as he listens. We in the audience know there’s no ambiguity or paranoia here: we know Jack’s telling the truth because, unlike The Conversation, Blow Out doesn’t adhere exclusively to its protagonist’s subjective experience. De Palma breaks away from Jack on several occasions to follow John Lithgow’s misogynistic hired killer with a penchant for strangling his victims with wire. (A playful linguistic doubling: Travolta and Lithgow each possess their own kind of potentially lethal “wire.”)

Blow Out is the most compelling De Palma film I’ve seen. Its camerawork, courtesy of Vilmos Zsigmond, is relentlessly inventive; it’s heightened red-and-blue-all-over production design (perhaps substituting film noir’s black and white with a punchier sort of monochromatic palate) makes for weirdly fascinating eye candy; and its obsessive replaying of Jack’s recording of the assassination, along with its cluttered mechanical milieu of tape, reels and buttons, is engrossing. I have several reservations, yet thinking about them makes me want to watch Blow Out again (something that Criterion’s velvety-gorgeous new DVD and Blu-ray editions make that much more tempting). Travolta is young, beautiful, and gives a focused, nuanced performance, yet his character feels inadequately shaded, less implicated in the story’s darkness. Yes, Jack’s got a guilty conscience about an undercover police gig that went horribly wrong, yet this shadowy past doesn’t resonate in his presence. It feels oddly incidental. Meanwhile De Palma’s use of split screens, process shots, variable speeds and 360-degree pans become increasingly leaden, and Pino Donaggio’s cartoony score thwarts at least as many moments of intimacy or suspense as it enhances.

I know many have tremendous affection for De Palma, fellow critics especially (“Paulettes” most especially). Yet there’s something in his approach that consistently pushes me out. His work deserves scrutiny on a film-by-film basis, but I’ll offer one generalization. Whenever De Palma unfurls his more expensive, grandiose set pieces, whether in
Blow Out or The Untouchables (1987) or The Black Dahlia (2006), when everything slows to a crawl and every frame is so conspicuously composed, I inevitably feel as though I’ve been asked to sit through an over-rehearsed audition. There’s a strange thinness to these sequences (not unlike the thinness that plagues certain De Palma characters). De Palma’s frequently taken to task for cynicism or irony, but the way he crafts such sequences strikes me as nakedly earnest. He suddenly wants genuine opera, and it feels awkward. Yet in the case of Blow Out the big set pieces hardly spoil things overall, and the quieter bits (that inciting incident especially) are eloquent and highly memorable. So if you happen to share some of my frustrations with De Palma, do see this one. It’s looking an awful lot like his masterpiece.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

African Cats: Disnifying the wild Savannah

The first thing you should probably know about African Cats is that, despite its being billed as such, in no way should this Disney production be mistaken for a documentary. (Okay, actually, the first and perhaps last thing you need to know is that it's Disney, but I'm not willing to wrap this up quite so patly.) Brimming with truly spectacular, no doubt arduously apprehended images of Kenyan flora and fauna, of mist, thunderheads and endless skies, the presence of the cameras recording the action are never acknowledged; though the film features plenty of fighting and killing, the bloody brutality and messy mating habits of the film’s subjects are discreetly eschewed; Harry Potter composer Nicholas Hooper’s heavily illustrative score emphasizes adventure movie theatrics over observational accentuation; and while Samuel L. Jackson’s colour commentary runs all over this thing there’s a conspicuous dearth of zoological facts to be gleaned. Unless you consider “water buffalos are grumpy” to be a statement of high educational value.

Assigning names to and even presuming to discern the thoughts of its cast of lions, cheetahs and crocodiles, (“To Mara, Fang is the best dad
ever”), Jackson’s effortlessly charismatic voice-over anthropomorphizes these animals to the max, exploiting their abundant cuteness to explore, among other themes, the difficulty of single-parenting. (Incidentally, Fang’s not such an ideal patriarch after all: he hogs all the food, abandons his wife, and doesn’t say thanks when the lady lions defend the pride from a rival lion gang. The narrative imposed on these animals is not dissimilar to that of a gangster saga, replete with a conflicted moral code about traditional family values.) Highly questionable as this approach may be, there’s no argument that it can occasionally prove perfectly entertaining, such as in the scene where Jackson offers a sotto-voiced approval of a cheetah’s attack on a gazelle (“Successssss!”). It makes you wish co-directors Alastair Fothergil and Keith Scholey would have let Jackson off the leash a little more so he could go all the way and improvise a few funny voices for the animals. Alas, if only Disney didn’t cling to their irritating dictum to render everything at once tasteful and utterly shameless.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Flying in a pocket of silence: Kes on DVD

Early in
Kes (1970) Billy Casper declares that he will not grow up to work in the coal mine that consumes droves of Barnsley lads, his big brother Jud included, like so much grist for the mill. Yet even in this first scene Billy could almost be “in the pit” already, sharing a twin-sized bed with the bullying, loutish Jud in a cramped, fatherless flat in the cold gloom of an early Northern England morning. Based on Barnsley-born Barry Hines’ novel A Kestrel For a Knave (1968), produced by Tony Garrett and directed by Ken Loach, Kes, while unwaveringly focused on working-class marginality and crushed ambition, is not fundamentally pessimistic. Rather, its raison d’être lies in its authenticity, in granting its characters their due dignity by conveying their arduous lives and meager options for advancement with as much fidelity to the political realities of its era as possible.

If there’s a balm for deterministic despair in Kes it’s in the film’s warm and abundant humour, especially the scene where Billy, 15 but boyish and slight enough to slip in your backpack, attempts to let a book out from the local library, but having no membership and not wanting to wait to get his mum to sign the form claims, with utter deadpan, that he’s old enough to vote. It’s in the natural light, blue hues, gentle attentiveness and subtly lyrical camerawork of cinematographer Chris Menges. It’s in Barnsley boy David Bradley’s tremendous, artless central performance, in Billy’s tender relationship with the kestrel falcon he captures, tames and befriends, in the quiet promise of freedom Kes (as Billy dubs the bird) represents whenever she takes flight in the open spaces near Billy’s home, transforming her surroundings into a “pocket of silence” (evoked delicately through composer John Cameron’s solo flute passages) in which Billy can fleetingly take refuge from a life of abuse, neglect and outright dismissal. Kes achieves a balance rare in movies, rare even in the oeuvre of the British cinema’s most committed socialist auteur, Ken Loach: it’s at once adorable and unsentimental, endearing and appallingly brutal. It’s now available from Criterion.

Among the most valuable supplements in Criterion’s
Kes are its subtitles (the Northern accents are doughy as Yorkshire pudding) and an earlier Loach-Garrett feature, the made-for-TV Cathy Come Home (1966). Employing jarring jump-cuts and abrupt aural transitions from dietetic dialogue to music to collages of commentary from a chorus of citizens and social workers (Loach was apparently gobbling up a lot of Godard in those days), this bracing docudrama exposes Britain’s postwar housing shortages via the deftly compressed story of a young Birmingham working-class couple. Limited job prospects, a work-related accident and a tendency to produce offspring snare the couple into increasingly punishing living conditions, Cathy’s bitchy mother-in-law’s tiny flat being far from the worst of them. Cathy Come Home is a harrowing condemnation of classist policies that was watched and discussed by millions during its original broadcast, though the issues it addresses regarding access to affordable housing remain urgent in cities here and elsewhere. It also reminds us what a loss it was that its remarkable lead actress Carol White’s career evaporated a few years later, the result, it seems, of bad habits, bad substances and bad relationships with famous men. She died in Florida in 1991 at the age of 48.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Images 2011: Two images, one colossal sound, and water, water everywhere

The first screening of the 2011
Images Festival (not counting the “bonus” pre-fest ‘Landscape as Expression’ series, which included a Chris Marker) was Lou Li’s Rivers and My Father. The first river that appears in Rivers and My Father is a miniature, almost obsidian stream flowing along an undulation in some rain-dappled pavement, a gorgeous image, plucked from the banal and hoisted up onto the screen to hurl the viewer into watery reverie, one of several strong images scattered throughout the film, though the only one with such velvety texture. Shot in black and white, Rivers and My Father shifts from Canada to China and back again. It features maps, children, water and various forms of transportation, and recreates by the simplest possible means memories of the filmmaker’s father, prompted by said father’s memoir, entitled An Account at 60. The film becomes a platform for dialogue between father and son. Stories are told over suppers and lunches. Dudes wearing fanny-packs push scooters up stone steps. A child rides a train with a broken leg. The whole thing ends, delightfully, with a detailed critique of the film thus far from the father and the son’s equally exhaustive response. The tone remains tranquil, or sometimes just sleepy, with the filmmaker’s soft-spoken voice-over and the film’s hazy grey scale. Certain sequences lack rhythm, while others come to life via stirring discoveries or amusing discrepancies, or thanks to a quiet sense of mischief that arises in unexpected moments. Rivers and My Father won this year’s Images Prize.

Lina Rodriguez’s silent, three-minute ‘Einschnitte,’ screened in the 'Stone and Salt and Stars and Skin' program, was gleaned from three rolls of Super 8 shot while the filmmaker traversed Europe before being blown up to 35mm. It is a collage of details of aging monuments, never providing context nor revealing the sculptures in full, thus stripping them of their ostensible meanings and emphasizing surface. The imprint of history lies only in the sensual smoothness of time’s eroding effects. There are many cuts given the subject and run-time, and through these cuts we sense a suppleness, a fluidity in the immobile. That’s the element I found most alluring. The feeling that one carved slab of stone was reaching out to touch another.

Images closed with a work that combined old images with new sounds. Tod Browning’s exotic, progeny-obsessed 1928 revenge drama
West of Zanzibar was shown in a 35mm print, courtesy of George Eastman House, in the hidden yet massive subterranean movie palace that is the domain of Toronto Underground Cinema. A live score was performed by Toronto’s own Fucked Up, a band that if nothing else possesses the ideal moniker to accompany Browning’s wonderfully perverse masterpiece, in which the amazing Lon Chaney, with lame legs and shaved head, lives in an African veldt where he turns the natives into slaves and fellow American ex-pats into drunkards, patiently plots against the man who cuckolded him 20 years ago, and snuggles a chimp. Fucked Up constructs a colossal sound from the get-go, with two-chord snap-crackle building and building along to thunderous drums. Eventually you get thundered out: the thunder is utterly impressive in its own right, yet makes it tough to fully become absorbed in the bizarre narrative unfolding and the subtleties of Chaney’s performance in particular. The term ‘silent film’ is something of a misnomer generally, but when Fucked Up arrive on the scene it assumes a new level of irony. I did very much enjoy the well-oiled African dancers rocking out to what becomes the world’s loudest acoustic guitar performance.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

I scream, you scream, we're all screamed out: Scream 4

The cinema’s most annoying crank caller returns in this latest installment of Wes Craven’s franchise, as does original scripter Kevin Williamson, several original castmembers and that stupid ghost-face mask. After a decade spent licking her wounds, working on her martial arts technique and writing a memoir which apparently consists of nothing but self-help platitudes, final girl Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) finds herself back in old Woodsboro, overwhelmingly white and middle-class, with tastefully-tended gardens lining the boulevards, that blander-than-life, fantasy American no-place where killing’s just too much fun to keep those rascally, movie-obsessed kids away from.

Donning the old mask and wielding the old knife, the mayhem is rebooted and mostly shamelessly rehashed: to say that
Scream 4 is more amusing than most youth-oriented contemporary horror is not much of a compliment. At once unlikely in its winky po-mo conceit and half-assed in its execution, the film’s immaculately cleansed and powdered zitless nubile babes discussing strategies for genre renovation reduces forward-thinking horror to nothing but infinite variations on “boo” moments, utterly removed from thornier challenges such as the consideration of what lies behind fear, anxiety, dangerous thrills, perverse humour or morbid curiosity. To note the film’s inherent preposterousness seems redundant, though the truth is that nothing in Scream 4 seems more improbable than a teenager who can’t remember where she left her mobile phone.

This time out there’s a geek who wears a camera on his ear so he can stream his POV on the internet, adding an ostensible layer to the film’s overall hall of mirrors thematic, which includes a sequels-within-sequels prelude. David Arquette drives around frowning as Sheriff Chipmunk while Courtney Cox’s journalist-mannequin tries to take the serial killer investigation into her own hands, invoking Sarah Palin in her declaration that she’s “going rogue.” Supposedly, these two are married. Campbell meanwhile seems at a complete loss, unable to do much besides wince angrily when confronted by yet another attack, yet another strangely listless scene of murder that at best recalls lesser bits of Roadrunner cartoons without the laughs. At least Marley Shelton is genuinely cute as a dutiful deputy, and the ending-ending, which is to say the ending that follows the predictably false false ending, is so loopy it’s actually rather winning.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Bitter harvest: White Material on DVD

Dogs cross a dirt road under headlights. A flashlight searches an abandoned house to find a man in military garb, a hole in his belly, lying wide-eyed and dead on a bed. Somewhere smoke roils through darkness and flames lap at a building. A woman climbs aboard a crowded bus, the sole white face among her fellow passengers (and how white it is, sprayed with freckles, looking papery-fragile against the red dirt and harsh sun). A peculiar flashback structure reveals itself, the first 15 minutes of
White Material (2009) functioning as a vestibule, along which fragmentary scenes are arranged in a seductively disorienting manner, their cryptic fluidity heightened by Tindersticks’ prowling lighthouse beam of a score. Yet everything key to the narrative has been planted herein and will unfurl and amass volume from here on, honed by actions whose savagery cannot be softened by the narcotic lyricism of their delivery.

New from Criterion,
White Material is Claire Denis’ third feature depicting whites in Africa, following her autobiographical debut Chocolat (1988), and her inspired transposition of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd into contemporary Djibouti in Beau Travail (1999). Co-written with novelist Marie NDiaye, the film centers on Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert), foreman of a coffee plantation in an unnamed country increasingly consumed by revolutionary (and counterrevolutionary) violence. Maria was to inherit the plantation from her ex-father-in-law (Michel Subor): she feels she belongs there, not so much entitled as embedded. When government emissaries urge her to depart (a helicopter even passes over at one point, commanding evacuation through a megaphone, raining down survival kits), Maria chooses to ignore them, staying focused on the harvest, for which she needs to rally a new group of labourers after their predecessors hastily quit: like the servants in The Exterminating Angel (1962), the staff knows it’s time to split long before the bosses. We see her speak to her black neighbours and employees as equals, blind to the fact that in their eyes the new crisis has reduced Maria to “white material,” just another vestige of the colonial past, less person than troublesome anachronism, a kind of ghost. The era that facilitated her forging a life here is rapidly closing, if not already long-gone with the wind, though Maria’s similarity to Scarlett O’Hara ends with her fierce tenacity. It’s the quality that defines her, and when it finally breaks nearly the film’s very end, it causes a violence to erupt within Maria that’s the stuff of Greek tragedy.

In keeping with its geographical ambiguity (the film was shot in Cameroon, but could be numerous places in French West Africa),
White Material’s overt political scenario is largely peripheral to the main action: the child soldiers swarming the countryside, the pro-insurgent DJ narrating the rebels’ advance over the airwaves like Supersoul in Vanishing Point (1971), and, though based on Thomas Sankara, the film’s rebel leader, known only as the Boxer (Isaach de Bankolé), remains a mysterious, iconic figure throughout, though, in a wonderful detail, we glimpse a tattoo on his arm that reads “Jamais K.O.” or “never knocked-out,” which seems bitterly ironic until Denis’ eloquent final image implicitly applies this bit of bravado to the spirit of Boxer’s cause, rather than his mere mortal existence. (An amusing coincidence: the name of Bankolé’s character is echoed in the matchboxes Bankolé’s nameless protagonist collects in The Limits of Control, released the same year.) But White Material’s internal politics play out vividly in the stray destinies of the Vial family. Maria’s ex-husband André (Christophe Lambert, his voice reduced to a Gallic growl since his Highlander days) has married and had a child with a black woman and lives in a house right next to Maria’s. He’s now selling off the plantation behind Maria’s back to pay off his debts. Maria and André’s son Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle) meanwhile has grown into a lazy, aimless young man, born and raised in Africa but an outsider nonetheless, who suddenly finds a dubious sense of purpose by identifying with the child soldiers, disposing of his blonde hair, and attempting to position himself as their prospective leader by gleefully and recklessly bribing them with goods. As with Maria’s final wrathful act, something about Manuel’s transformation feels a little more symbolic than real: our agrarian heroine’s offspring is but a different sort of bad yield. Yet I can’t honestly say that these initially jarring, metaphorically-minded dramatic shifts spoil anything essential in my deep engagement with White Material, partly because the performances of Huppert and Duvauchelle are so superb, and partly because their actions do finally feel of-a-piece in this unforgettable work from one of our greatest directors, who, as always, rigorously follows her own elliptical, idiosyncratic muse.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Hanna: wild thing runs fast

Our titular adolescent home-schooled superathlete (Saoirse Ronan) grows up near the North Pole receiving instruction in hunting and fighting by her survivalist dad with a past (Eric Bana). When she’s finally ready to leave their frozen nest she does so knowing that a certain nefarious CIA operative (Cate Blanchett) will instantly be out to kill dad and maybe do something worse to her: there are intimations that she’s got some sort of top-secret experimental juice in her genes. A genuine wild child whose knowledge of culture has been culled entirely from a slim encyclopedia but whose strength and agility is ninjalike, Hanna’s story slides between her discovering the world and her killing a whole lot of people in it. (Though, if it makes you feel better, she doesn’t seem to enjoy her displays of lethal child-violence nearly as much as Chloë Moretz does in

Director Joe Wright reportedly inherited the project from Danny Boyle, to whom
Hanna, with its pulsing chase narrative, techno-friendliness and air of childish awe, seems more naturally suited. But then again, Wright, who previously helmed Pride and Prejudice and Atonement, hasn’t really distinguished himself as being naturally suited for anything besides ultra-high production values, which he exploits very professionally (and I don’t use that word casually). Employing jump cuts, flashing lights and the Chemical Brothers, Wright seems eager to shake off the stateliness of his extant work, get the blood pumping, and start acting his age (he’s not yet 40). Some of this is pretty fun and intriguing, but it’s also uneven and confused, its sci-fi aspects are barely even glazed over, and I’m just not sure what to make it as a whole. I appreciate Wright’s willingness to eschew certain globalized thriller conventions (there are no titles announcing our current location being typed over establishing shots) and focus on sensation over story (a good thing since David Farr and Seth Lochhead’s sub-Bourne script is riddled with gaping holes: where did our snowy middle-of-nowhere forest-spawned Hanna learn to use handguns and personal computers anyway?), but if my praise feels miserly it’s just that Wright’s rebooted stylistics feel tacked on much of the time, more schematic than suasive. Bizarrely, Wright claims to be influenced here by David Lynch, while Hanna feels so much more like less trigger-happy (with regards to both guns and editing) Tony Scott.

But okay, I think I can spot the Lynch-pin. There are some roaming kooky villains on little Hanna’s trail. The sadistic leader (Tom Hollander, who it must be said really seems to having a great time) wears silly jumpsuits and does a little soft-shoe while interrogating an English family in a yard full of shipping containers, all very theatrical. His underlings are all skinheads, because apparently it’s easy as pie to find neo-Nazis just hanging around in North Africa, right? Does self-consciously quirky, menacing nonsense constitute a “Lynchian” touch? Perhaps if you don’t watch Lynch’s films very carefully. Or at all.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Win Win: So-so

Win Win immediately announces itself as the natural successor to actor-turned-writer/director Tom McCarthy’s The Station Agent and The Visitor. McCarthy very deliberately steers his alternately desperate or lonesome characters into each other’s paths, his quiet collisions challenging them to reach out, to make space in their troubled lives for unlikely, difficult, though finally rewarding alliances. But Win Win is where the filmmaker’s tendencies begin to look less like variations on a theme and more like formula—and somebody else’s formula at that. By shifting away from the somber warmth of the first two films into a sort of humanist comedy, McCarthy has, perhaps inadvertently, sacrificed what measure of tonal distinction his directorial approach had previously nurtured. The result is a perfectly likeable if belabored go-for-it movie that may very well get McCarthy his broadest audience yet, though few will likely walk away from it wondering about or even remembering who made it.

Paul Giamatti plays Mike Flaherty, a Jersey lawyer, family man and high school wrestling coach burdened with enough problems (dwindling practice, losing team, clogged toilet, busted copier, falling tree, dying boiler...) that by the time he does something underhanded we’ve already forgiven him. Mike siphons some revenue out of an elderly client in the early stages of dementia played by Burt Young, an endlessly entertaining actor to behold when he gets pissed off. Along comes said client’s grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer), a teenager with an atrocious dye-job on the run from a bad situation in Ohio. Having just delivered Leo to a nursing home and unwilling to send Kyle back to an empty house (mom’s in rehab), Mike decides to take Kyle in… and soon discovers the kid’s a tiger on the mat!

You can see where this is going. Which, you know, is okay I guess, but it really takes a while to get there. There’s at least one utterly superfluous character here (
Station Agent’s Bobby Cannavale, also with bad hair) and a half-dozen scenes that add precious little to the story or stakes, including an annoying paint-by-numbers mid-point montage set to Bon Jovi. The casting of Giamatti’s a no-brainer: save a couple of pep-talky scenes where he strains a little, he’s very enjoyable in another sympathetic shlubby bit. Shaffer’s so natural you almost don’t notice him. Amy Ryan as the take-no-shit wife gives Mike’s home life a little gravity and consequence: she works to fill each of her scenes with some sort of spark. It's clear that McCarthy has a special gift with actors—it’s just that Win Win feels too dependent on these actors to supply all the nuance.

Monday, April 4, 2011

The war against forgetting: Salvador Allende

Patricio Guzmán has devoted much of his career to navigating the foggy history of his native Chile, particularly those few jubilant and turbulent years marked by the unprecedented non-violent ascension of its democratically elected socialist government and that long trail of dark years marked by terror, torture, order and oppression, by ostensible prosperity and cooperation with imperialist foreign powers, that followed. There’s this notion that Chile’s elder populace (those who didn’t, like Guzmán, go into exile), thinned out along its peculiar narrow stem of diverse topography, have constructed their national fog by way of a collective willful amnesia surrounding those aforementioned years. This amnesiac fog is invoked in the very title of Guzmán’s film
Chile, Obstinate Memory (1997). I wonder if the process inherent in journeying through this fog, unable to apprehend a view of what’s ahead or behind, hasn’t contributed to that special wandering, uncharted feeling that accompanies some of Guzmán’s finest, most personal films.

This feeling is certainly among the most compelling elements of Guzmán’s
Nostalgia For the Light (2010), a masterpiece essay film that traverses the Atacama Desert in search of distant stars and bones of the disappeared. Yet this feeling can even be found in the more conventional documentary Salvador Allende (2004), now available on DVD from Icarus. After repeatedly encircling the Allende enigma, most famously in the three-part, Chris Marker-produced The Battle of Chile (1975-79), Guzmán took this project as an opportunity to take direct aim at Chile’s controversial fallen president, about whom there remains a conspicuous paucity of commentary. Yet there’s nothing especially direct about Salvador Allende. It finds its path as it proceeds.

Guzmán narrates
Salvador Allende, emphasizing the first-person approach, while his soft voice can also frequently be heard off-camera posing questions. Guzmán was in his early 30s when Allende came into power (and passed 15 doubtlessly despairing days of detainment in the National Stadium following the coup) and is able to cull a healthy portion of Salvador Allende from his own archive of footage, shot between Allende’s 1970 inauguration and 1973, the year of that other September 11, when US-backed military forces ousted Allende’s government (a day Guzmán hauntingly evokes with repeated images of flames consuming the Palacio de la Moneda following the aerial bombing). Early in the film, Guzmán explains that he wants to get to know the Allende beneath the icon. He travels to Allende’s native Valparaiso, where the city’s former mayor persuasively insists that Allende (who received support from Cuba, but not from the USSR) was neither Marxist nor Leninist but libertarian, having received his first political education from an anarchist Italian shoemaker. But as the film goes along this effort to focus on Allende the man quietly dissipates, replaced by a more straightforward chronicle of Allende’s pre-presidential political career, conveying his charisma and popularity, highlighted by memorable images such as the one of gleeful rural children chasing his departing campaign train.

Later in
Salvador Allende Guzmán details Allende’s difficult presidency, his agrarian reforms and nationalization of the mining industry, the hostilities directed at his policies, and his outspoken contempt for US interference and multinational corporations. A notable, revealing interview with former US Ambassador to Chile Edward Korry confirms Nixon’s explicit commands to get rid of Allende by any means necessary. Yet, appropriately for a film about a politician devoted to workers and the poor, Guzmán finds many of his strongest sequences by giving the floor to ordinary Chileans. He documents a lively debate between several former UP militants about whether or not Allende should have defended the government and properly armed the militia. This debate also pries open the thorny question of Allende’s suicide, undertaken just as the army was about to take him prisoner, an event which only compounds the mystery of his life. One could argue that Salvador Allende falls short of its ostensible goal in that Allende is virtually as enigmatic a figure by the film’s end as he was at its start. But the fortitude of this enigma is also, it seems to me, the film’s point. Allende, though revered by Guzmán as he is by millions around the world, is a truly singular, enduringly contentious figure—so singular that very few have made significant attempts to tell his story. The value of Guzmán’s film is that even in its limitations it makes an enormous contribution to a conversation about Allende that needs to be maintained. In Guzmán’s films the personal inevitably merges with the political, and the articulated memories of the filmmaker and his subjects continue to wage a non-violent war against the perils of forgetting.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Herrmann, Welles, War, Time, Art(ifice)

Bernard Herrmann, the greatest of all film composers, died on Christmas Eve, 1975, expelling his final breath, as legend has it, shortly after completing the score for
Taxi Driver, his final masterpiece. Were Herrmann still with us we'd be celebrating his 100th birthday this June. The coming of the Herrmann centenary was the first prompt for the Art of Time Ensemble's production of The War of The Worlds, which opened at Harbourfront Centre's Enwave Theatre in Toronto on Thursday and closes this afternoon. I attended last night, along with a packed house that included Micheal Ondaatje and Atom Egoyan. Yet, since the original Mercury Theatre/CBS Radio broadcast did not actually feature much in the way of original music from Herrmann, Art of Time decided to preface their man event with a marvellous surprise: a suite of Herrmann's film music inventively pastiched and arranged by Dan Parr, accompanied by a wonderful montage of images from the films referenced. Thus, as the music undulates with doomed romanticism, shrieks and bellows, whirlpools and crashes, the paths of Marion Crane and Travis Bickle, Max Cady and Charles Foster Kane, cross in dream-space; Cary Grant's drunk driving leads to Robert Ryan's wintry footprints which lead to Jimmy Stewart's endless descent; plumes of NYC steam merge with the smoke of burning books; and Klaatu disintegrates rifles gripped by baffled US troops over and over in a lulling apocalyptic rhythm.

What followed intermission was a condensed recreation of Orson Welles' (in)famous 30 October, 1938 alien invasion radio drama. The stage became a studio, occupied by the Ensemble, conducted, as was the Herrmann suite, by Art of Time Artistic Director Andrew Burashko, a trio of actors, including Don McKellar in the Welles roles, and Foley maestro John Gzowski, all of them in period dress, shirt sleeves rolled up, Luckys dangling from their lips, huddling around elegant chrome microphone stands under a suspended glowing sign announcing that we are ON THE AIR. I loved it when all the musicians joined in the vocal hubub to scream together in deathly agony the alien slaughter of earthlings commences, some of them cracking up while doing so. The Brechtian dissonance between the visual and aural experience made for superb entertainment: laughs when eyes were open, chills when shut. Gzowski was inevitably the star of the show, darting silently in stocking feet between a dozen or more bizarre devices, including, of course, a Theremin. It took a moment to adapt to McKellar, given that some degree of imitation is inevitable and he simply doesn't possess Welles' full-bodied resonance, but his cadences were nearly impeccable, his readings compelling, and the prankster's focus he conveyed while instructing his collaborators his impatient gesture and eye contact added to the sense of Halloween mischief.

The most captivating passage of The War of the Worlds however arrived with the broadcast's final section (the one I completely forgot about), in which the mock-live reportage falls away and is replaced by what is virtually a monologue, backed by eerie underscoring, from a lone survivor of the Martian attacks describing in past-tense his journey through the ruins of New York and New Jersey. This part was read by Nicholas Campbell, whose hair has turned white sometime in the past few years, and who settled in under spotlight and delivered a performance of engrossing intimacy, at once playing it for the microphone and, more subtly, the watching audience.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Wrecked: lost, beaten, alone, oblivious

It opens bleary-eyed, gurgling itself into what may or may not be its protagonist’s waking state. He’s battered, trapped, at a complete loss as to where he is or how he got there. It was early enough in the wintry morning that I felt not entirely dissimilar as I settled in. I went into a press screening of
Wrecked with my preferred amount of foreknowledge regarding its content, contributors, and genre: I didn’t know a damned thing about it. If you’re likewise ignorant of these factors and are still inclined to see the film anyway, by all means, stop reading. Having said that, the following comments shy away from excess synopsis. Wrecked, a US/Canada co-production, is assuredly simple, a modest yet promising double-debut from two resourceful Canadian filmmakers, director Michael Greenspan and writer Christopher Dodd. So I’ll try to keep this review simple too.

Here’s where we start: Adrien Brody finds himself trapped in a car that’s smashed into a tree in a dense forest. Corpses he doesn’t recognize slouch in the backseat. He’s got no food and little water and the radio assaults him with fuzzy, dated pop hits. (Tiny Tim eerily trills away twice in one weekend;
Insidious also uses ‘Tip-toe Through the Tulips’ for retro-creep-out effect.) He seems to suffer from amnesia. He has no idea how to negotiate his survival in this place, wherever it is. The only words spoken during the first 15 minutes are largely torrents of expletives. In keeping with Brody’s desperate, frazzled state, Greenspan and Dodd deftly manage our degrees of orientation. The camera angles even make it difficult to discern up from down. It’s hard to know what’s even meant to be real: when you can barely remember a thing about your life it seems your dreams and hallucinations conform to your immediate circumstances.

Okay, okay, Brody does get out of the car. He makes friends with a dog that’s pretty easy to love. He starts crawling on his belly. Bleached-out flashbacks accumulate. Here’s more: there’s a radio broadcast regarding a bank robbery in Abbotsford. But how presumptuous should we be about the significance of this shard of clearly significant information? More interestingly, how presumptuous should Brody’s character be? Dodd wisely gives him little to say, resisting killing time with needless jabbering. Brody works fluently with what’s he’s got, sometimes using his nasal voice to simply aid his arduous forward movement. Sound design and music emerge as unusually dominant elements, and Michael Brook supplies both with equal parts evocation and ambiguity. I can assure you that it’s all going somewhere, but it’s uphill all the way, and looks pretty painful. Still, if you’re curious, you might just want to follow along.