Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Every grain of salt

A skinny young man with a little kid’s haircut, his face bearing a hard-to-read expression, something between nonplussed and suspicious, stands in a back alley that could be tucked inside a war zone. Allen Ginsberg, bearded and bespectacled, lingers in the background, perhaps offering a blessing. The young man displays a series of cue cards featuring some lyrics to a song he wrote. We hear his recording of the song, but he’s not singing along. Maybe the cards are for us, but if so we’re going to have a hard time joining in because the lyrics are only fragments. Sometimes the wrong fragments. The young man is, of course, Bob Dylan. He’s in the first scene—which may also be the world’s first music video—of a movie about Bob Dylan. And his performance, or anti-performance, in this alley is reminding us to take everything that follows with a grain of salt. Or, as his later work would have it, of sand.

In my memory I often lump D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back (1967) in with Don Owen’s Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen (1965). Both documentaries capture the artist as a young man, half-consciously honing his image, half-letting it find its own way, on the road, hanging out backstage, in the midst of what would prove to be a career-changing and ultimately culture-changing transition: Dylan playing what would be his final shows as a solo acoustic act, with Bringing it All Back Home in the can and the new, increasingly surrealistic and increasingly personal, genre-fusing, electrified bandleader about to forever eclipse the more overtly politicized Village folk troubadour; Cohen stealing the spotlight while touring with other Canadian poets, all more established than he, giving readings that at times feel more like stand-up while wearing a leather jacket, on the cusp of leaving behind a literary career to take up music and become one of the most covered and influential songwriters in history—second perhaps only to Dylan.

Where these two films differ greatly is in their scope and stakes. Cohen was, as a popular star, still all coiled potential, and Ladies and Gentlemen, running 44 minutes, feels by comparison somewhat more utilitarian, where Dylan was exploding, an already wildly prolific supernova of song, and Don’t Look Back finds him running from rabid fans, holding hotel rooms crammed with friends and hanger-ons—Marianne Faithful, Donovan and Alan Price among them—spellbound as he casually plays a tune, and antagonizing journalists, many of them condescending and under-prepared. And one of the reasons that Don’t Look Back remains historically important is that the filmmaking mirrors the transitional nature of its subject. Popular music was undergoing a sea change, with Dylan riding the crest, while the movies were being swept up in the revolutionary tactics of the French New Wave and cinéma vérité (or, if you prefer, direct cinema), with the on-the-fly, half-observational/half-artificial, formally playful and structurally happenstance Don’t Look Back absorbing lessons from both movements. So there’s a magical alignment of two distinct forms meeting to create something that must have felt startlingly new. Don’t Look Back is the inaugural screening in Metro Cinema’s series of music documentaries, and it makes sense that it is indeed first. After Don’t Look Back, the way we made movies about music would never be the same.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Erland Josephson, 1923 - 2012

Sigh... Inevitable, the exact opposite of a shock—he was 88, after all—something I've been half waiting for since seeing his very changed, elderly figure in Saraband, but this is news that leaves me with a very heavy feeling nonetheless. What a body of work, one half of an infinitely rich collaboration, absolutely the fullest embodiment of Bergman's conception of modern middle-class masculinity, in all its weakness, wickedness and weary charisma. This was a face that represented a certain haunting ambivalence. He radiated uncertainty, the limits of repression, the persistence of desire, however inappropriate. The image above is from the work that most of us will most closely associate with Josephson: Scenes From a Marriage. Anyway, I'm at a bit of a loss. So here's Richard Brody at the New Yorker.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Ex spots the mark

From an arial view of some anonymous stretch of Los Angeles we descend into a parking lot, and in that parking lot we find a man and a woman, hiding amidst the cars, speaking hushed and excitedly, and in the midst of this exchange we cut jarringly to the man’s point of view, to a close up-vision of the woman’s sculpted, lovely face, her eyes like luminous planets, and she’s looking right at him, at the camera, at us, and this is how, with great economy and elegance, we get locked from the very start into the almost dreamlike subjectivity of the doomed hero of Criss Cross (1949). We become lost in his longing as he watches the woman he desires dancing a rhumba in a club with Tony Curtis, and later become lost in the haze of a heist gone awry, a landscape made of smoke out of which figures in suits and gas masks and carrying guns appear and disappear. The hero’s voice-over narration speaks to us of the inescapability of fate—a thesis strengthened by the film’s subtle array of grid-like imagery—and, seeing events play out from his claustrophobic perspective, it becomes hard to argue with him.

Following Double Indemnity (1944), the second film in Metro Cinema’s Film Noir series leaps ahead five years to a moment when both the major studios and poverty row were churning out moody crime thrillers like so many bratwursts. Yet it’s remarkable how consistently good these films were, as though whatever, in retrospect, makes these films noir—artful atmosphere, moral ambiguity, social commentary, hot sex—makes them good. Director Robert Siodmak and star Burt Lancaster had already collaborated on the sublimely fatalistic, extremely liberal adaptation of Hemingway’s The Killers (1946), and while Criss Cross revisits somewhat similar thematic terrain, Daniel Fuchs’ script, based on Don Tracy’s novel of the same name, offers some fascinating variations on by-now familiar motifs. We’re back in the realm of secret affairs, criminal plans to escape or do away with an oppressive male power figure, and the femme fatale’s capacity to drain the hero’s better judgement—presuming he ever had any—familiar from Double Indemnity. But in this case the deadly female, played by Yvonne De Carlo, a considerably more angelic actress than Barbara Stanwyck, is no stranger taking advantage of the hero’s ignorance. She’s his ex-wife.

So Criss Cross is the story of a marriage. Lancaster’s beefy, hopelessly romantic armoured car guard already tried sharing a life with De Carlo’s object of desire, and, he says, they fought like cats and dogs. He left town for a while, then came back, and with one look at her on the dance floor, she not even knowing he’s watching her, he’s drawn in again. Since he went away she got herself glued to a very amusing douche bag crime lord, deliciously embodied by Dan Duryea, so she and Lancaster begin an affair—if you’re no good as spouses, maybe it’ll work as adulterous lovers. It doesn’t, of course. They want too much, nostalgic for what never really was. I hope I’m not spoiling things when I tell you that things end badly. But how do we get to that ending? Believe me, you’ve got to experience Criss Cross to really understand.

Friday, February 17, 2012

The mark of Cain

Here’s what I think of when I think of Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944): Barbara Stanwyck’s legs, coming down the stairs, wearing that anklet, of course, but more than that it’s the gait, the stride of a woman (or a jungle cat) who knows, somehow, that she’s finally been cued to assume her long-anticipated, destined role; Fred MacMurray’s apartment, where he and Stanwyck luxuriate in barely disguised postcoital bliss; the grocery store where Stanwyck and MacMurray meet, in sunglasses, to discuss their nefarious plan in deadpan tones, not facing each other, surrounded by anonymous canned goods; the cigarette Edward G. Robinson lights for MacMurray while MacMurray lies slumped in the front doors of his insurance company’s headquarters—it is the only moment of genuine affection shared by any two people in the whole film. MacMurray and Stanwyck’s story is one of lust; MacMurray and Robinson’s is the film’s (platonic) love story.

So: an insurance salesman (MacMurray) conspires with the wife (Stanwyck) of a client to have the client die in an ostensible accident and thus collect twice the normal rate on client’s life insurance policy. That’s the story in a nutshell, but what we’re trading in here is philosophy, impulse and, above all, mood. Double Indemnity is the inaugural film to be screened in Metro Cinema’s Film Noir series for a reason: the film encompass myriad elements that, about ten years later, would be declared key motifs of the noir style, ie: voice-over, low-key lighting, hard-boiled banter, lust, crime, fatalism and femme fatale. But, unlike so many other beloved and canonical films noir, it was also classy, very much an A-picture, with stars, production value and the kind of backing that gets you seven Oscar nominations. (Though the film didn’t win a single statue.) Its narrative trajectory and heavily poured-on attitude has become so ingrained into our collective notion of noir that some viewers may regard it as trope-laden kabuki, but the film, which was co-scripted by none other than Raymond Chandler, transmits these elements with such confidence as to feel sui generis, organic, and though it were inventing its own ritual and cosmology as it goes along—which it basically was, even though Chandler had considerable contempt for his source material.

But the source material was absolute gold. James M. Cain wrote novels that practically begged to be filmed—if only they could make it to the screen with all their tawdrier bits intact. There are many things to recommend in Tay Garnett’s adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), but the sunny ending ties itself into increasingly risible knots in its effort to try and redeem Cain’s hell-bound characters. (I remember watching it with a packed house at the Film Forum some years back and getting irritated by all the laughter coming from the audience, though in those final scenes, who can blame them?) Whereas Todd Haynes’ five-part miniseries adaptation of Mildred Pierce (2011) is as brilliant and transportive as it is in part because it’s so faithful not only to Cain’s narrative but to his dialogue and character conception. Double Indemnity kind of splits the difference, cloaking its less savoury traits in a tasty fusion of Chandler’s romanticism and Wilder’s wickedly cynical humour. The result is smoldering, seductive and unforgettable. No one film defines noir, but this one is as good as any for getting the conversation started.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Magic Markers

“The first image he told me about was of three children on a road in Iceland, in 1965. He said that for him it was the image of happiness...” These words, spoken by a woman never seen or named, and, rather briefly, the image these words describe, constitute the vestibule of Sans Soleil (1983), a film so devoutly forged upon inspired impulse and seductive digression as to result in a something like a labyrinth of sound and image. It’s a film I long to get lost in. The woman comments on, or reads directly from, letters she’s received from a vagabond cameraman named Sandor Krasna, over a dizzyingly diverse, rhythmically varied stream of images, presumably taken or compiled by Krasna. We visit Japan, Cabo Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Île-de-France, San Francisco, and, of course, Iceland. So maybe Sans Soleil is a travelogue, maybe an essay, maybe amateur anthropology. It’s associative and lyrical, playful and meditative. We circle themes of memory and history, time and its ceaselessness. There are continual leaps in editing, sudden freeze-frames, and the fleeting, rebellious thrill that arises when a subject looks directly at the camera. Sans Soleil is one of the best-known works of the reclusive 90 year-old polymath who calls himself Chris Marker. It feels like a hazy miracle, daring you to slip in and out of concentrated states of viewing, demanding repeat viewings. You can now watch it over and over again on blu-ray, thanks to a gorgeous new disc from the Criterion Collection that collects both it and Marker’s other most famous work, the masterful, haunting, equally sui generis “photo-roman” about traveling back in time before World War III, La Jetée (1962), aka, for a lot of people my age, the film that inspired 12 Monkeys (1995).

Revisiting Sans Soleil for the first time in years, what the film now reminds me of most is W.G. Sebald’s uncategorizable literary masterpiece The Rings of Saturn. We have the intimate voice that’s mostly talking about others, the rigorous wandering, the compulsive thought-detours into subjects such as street parades, video games, holidays, revolutions and military coups, panda death, Vertigo, television, Jean Jacques Rousseau, volcanic ash, public sleeping, Apocalypse Now, wildlife, the absence of adjectives in Japanese poetry, and large-scale advertising: “pictures larger than people, voyeurizing the voyeurs.” It’s a film for those who feel at home everywhere but at home, who are fascinated by the sacred-exotic, who want to remember everything even though they know perfectly well that memory’s really just the lining of forgetting. Or it’s for anyone drawn to the essence of movies, because that’s also what Sans Soleil is essentially about. In one of Criterion’s superb supplements filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin describes Sans Soleil as “a secret map.” Which again calls to mind the travelogue, except that Marker’s navigational skills are all tied up in the facilitation of his wanderlust. Which has guided him through a long career that embraces many forms, formats and themes. He’s still at it, some 60 years after helping to found the Left Bank movement, still embracing new technologies, still merging the very personal with the global, the political, the arcane. And he’s still too little known. My wish list for future Criterion releases? More Marker, please!

PS: Random cool thing I found via Wikipedia: the full text for Sans Soleil.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The canvas moves

“My painting will have to tell many stories,” says the artist, slightly hunched, eyes watchful as an owl. “It must be large enough to hold everything.” What is that everything? It is woodcutters and weeping women; Spaniards in red tunics on horseback flogging heretics; children, carrion birds and gallows; the shadow play of gears on fat faces; circles of dancers; the echo of wooden shoes on floorboards; the windmill in the Lord’s position, high up on the narrow mountain, and the heavy-bottomed clouds receding into cold blue. There is much, much more.

But wait, this everything is a conflation of two different everythings: there’s the painting, Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Way to Calvary, completed in 1564, and there’s the movie, Lech Majewski’s The Mill and the Cross, completed in 2011, drawn from Bruegel and from Michael Francis Gibson’s book of the same name. What’s especially remarkable about Majewski’s hybrid of art history, political history and formalist ensemble drama is the way it merges the composed with the naturalistic, the still and painterly with the fluid and cinematic. The Bruegel imbues the movie with monumental vastness and historical sweep; the movie makes you hear sounds and discover action in the painting. This is art conversing with art—and the conversation’s well-met on both sides.

Majewski, who co-wrote the script with Gibson, follows the Bruegel in its insistence on conjuring narrative primarily through the visual. Words are heard mostly as monologue, uttered by some pleasingly familiar voices: Rutger Hauer as Bruegel, Charlotte Rampling as Mary, Michael York as Nicolaes Jonghelinck, a banker and art enthusiast (we glimpse Bruegel’s The Hunters in the Snow on one of his walls; it was actually painted in 1565, but I’ll grant Majewski his poetic license) appalled by the treatment of the people of Flanders at the hands of the Spanish. Their voices enhance the movie’s trance, luring us into its particular moment, where brutality is transformed into beauty by one who aspires to reveal multitudes on a single coherent canvas. Majewski has the distinct advantage of having a canvas that moves and talks and is 91 minutes long, but he uses that advantage rather well.

Monday, February 6, 2012

The joys of being broke at heart

Wong Kar-wai knocked out his 1994 pop romance portmaneau Chungking Express (Chung Hing sam lam) over just three months. The project was a break from the lengthy postproduction of his period martial arts epic Ashes of Time (1994/2008), and indeed, Chungking unfurls with a dizzy, kittenish, revitalizing playfulness that runs counter to Ashes’ more belaboured and intricate aesthetic gestures, despite the fact that these films share many of the same themes and motifs: above all, young people trying on personalities; the durability and masochistic allure of sustained broken-heartedness and melancholy memories; and the comforts of quirky metaphors and magical thinking in times of loss. Yet for all that the film is pretty damned gleeful. It makes housework, breaking and entering and playing with toy airplanes look like an awful lot of fun. (The Mamas and the Papas on the soundtrack helps.)

The film’s twin narratives, both set in the crowded, florescent-lit Babel-labyrinth of pre-hand-over Hong Kong, feature two police officers, known only by their badge numbers, a pixie-like take-out kiosk clerk and a drug smuggler whose look was apparently modeled after Gena Rowlands in Gloria (1980), though something about the combo of her sunglasses, make-up, oversized overcoat and big blonde wig always makes me think she looks like a drag queen. The four stars, two of whom were hugely popular singers, were all East Asian box office gold at the time, but the face who remains most familiar to Western audiences also happens to be the one with the wounded eyes and the role most lovingly loaded with Wong’s signature tropes. Tony Leung’s No. 663 is a soft-spoken cop with a crying apartment, an “emotionally charged towel” and a giant stuffed Garfield doll to whom he talks while waiting for a flight attendant girlfriend who’s never coming home. It’s easy to imagine this character, or any of the others, really, collapsing under the cuteness and wistful sentimentality of Wong’s voice-over monologues, but each of the actors, perfectly in step with their director, very wisely play it cool.

Perhaps the real star of Chungking Express is Christopher Doyle, the internationally beloved wild-man cinematographer who developed what would become his singular, shooter-as-auteur approach while working in close collaboration on Wong’s early features. Before revisiting the film to write this piece I hadn’t seen Chungking in many years. I realized that nearly everything I remembered about it and held most dear had much to do with the way Doyle used the film’s array of cramped locations, channelling his pent-up energy into buzzy, brushstroke-like camera moves; the way he coasted down corridors with a wide-angle lens and adored his lovely young subjects in lyrical close-up. It was a visionary aesthetic built largely on necessity—like most visionary aesthetics. And it begs, down on all fours, to be seen on the big screen.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

"I want good movies, not vehicles": Daniel Radcliffe on The Woman in Black... and shaking off the ghosts of the past

Faces in windows, figures in the garden, death, loss and a vast, dark, eerie country house: The Woman in Black is an atmospheric English period chiller very much in the tradition of The Turn of the Screw, though it eschews the supple ambiguities that are part of the reason why Henry James’ novella is so enduring and so often imitated. Based on Susan Hill’s novel, scripted by Jane Goldman and directed by James Watkins—whose 2008 debut Eden Lake was an effective, well-cast little hillbilly horror—The Woman in Black concerns a very young yet very troubled London lawyer named Arthur Kipps. He travels to a village tormented by the titular phantom lady whose now-vacant mansion is surrounded by marshlands and whose estate Arthur is charged with settling.

The film’s a little too drawn out in places, a little too bogged down in its own mythology, a little too dependent on boo moments to generate tension. But it has wonderfully eerie locations, a gasp of an ending, a superbly measured supporting performance from Ciarán Hinds, and the imminently watchable wounded eyes of its protagonist—eyes you will likely recognize. “I don’t want to be in anything that people are going to go see just because Daniel Radcliffe’s in it,” Daniel Radcliffe told me when we met in Toronto to discuss The Woman in Black, his first film since the close of the Harry Potter franchise that made him extremely famous. It should perform well this weekend, better than most British genre films, but, despite his wishes, I suspect that Radcliffe’s name on the poster may have an awful lot to do with its draw.

Radcliffe’s career has indeed been dominated by no less than eight Potter films, but it’s worth remembering that in making those eight films Radcliffe got to work with four very different directors, including Mike Newell and Alfonso Cuarón. He’s also starred in Equus and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying for the stage, and has published poetry under a pseudonym. So, while only 22, the diversity of Radcliffe’s experience betrays his age and star image. He struck me as smart, conscientious and genuinely enthusiastic about the work. He’s articulate about craft and critical of his performances. He talks a lot, but he doesn’t talk shit. He said he liked my pants. I quite liked his jumper.

JB: There are sequences in Woman in Black where, if you don’t count the ghosts, you’re pretty much flying solo for quite long stretches. In such situations do you feel like you need to employ different tools as an actor, to pay a different sort of attention to facial expression or gesture or camera placement?

Daniel Radcliffe: Those are situations where you just stick by your director. Because you can slip into this trap where you feel like you’re just making the same face over and over. No matter how different the thought process is you’ve got to look continually fucking terrified, and there are only so many variations of facial expression that do that. So you have to keep checking in and trust the director to tell you if he’s not getting what he needs. I was also helped enormously by a brilliant set that really allows you to lose yourself walking around in it. You have to think of the house as being the other character you’re interacting with.

JB: You’re playing a widower, a single father, a guy who’s in danger of losing his job—and this is before we even get to your first encounter with the vengeful ghost. I don’t know how one prepares to embody a character loaded with such heavy psychic burdens.

DR: It’s tricky. You’ve got to balance his general sense of feeling completely devastated while letting him be reasonably reactive. I knew I could never fully imagine what it’s like to have lost someone as Arthur has, so I met with a bereavement councillor and I read a couple of books, C.S. Lewis’ Grief Observed and one called You’ll Get Over It, which was fantastic. Another thing that helped with Arthur was talking to friends who’ve suffered from depression. Something that struck me as especially useful was that they all said how physically tired you get. So I started from a place of exhaustion. I imagined that Arthur felt exhausted every day of the last five years, and I wondered how that would have affected his outlook, his mental state, and his relationship with his son. One of the things that drew me to this project was that it’s really about what happens to us if we fail to move on from a loss. Arthur is unable to even look at his child without remembering the death of his wife.

JB: You yourself are a writer. I wonder at this point what you’re looking for in scripts. Is it good writing, per se? Is it more about certain stories or themes? The right kind of character?

DR: Good writing is important because good talent is attracted to it. Smart people gravitate toward each other. Compelling stories are important because I don’t want to be in anything that people are going to go see just because Daniel Radcliffe’s in it. I want good movies, not vehicles. My choices are also be based a lot on directors. I want to work with people who are going to push me.

JB: To offer a variation on something you’d mentioned, one of the themes of The Woman in Black is that the past never really lets you go...

[Radcliffe laughs knowingly]

JB: Do you think The Woman in Black will help to shake off the ghost of that first, enormously popular phase of your career?

DR: I never thought there could be any one movie where people would go, “Oh, well he’s not Harry Potter anymore; he’s totally changed!” I always knew it would be a longer process of working on consistently good films, so people can say, “Okay, he’s got good taste, he’s a good actor and he’s making good movies, regardless of what he did in the past.” I don’t think it’s going to happen with this film. I think it’s a good start.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Up with bottoms: Belle de jour

According to the film’s co-scenarist, Jean-Claude Carrière, the great psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan was once asked to present a lecture on female masochism. Lacan simply screened Belle de jour (1967), and afterwards claimed he had nothing more to add. Indeed, for all its fathomless mysteries, for all that’s abbreviated, blurred, mischievous or left unspoken, this sublime and, in its way, fairly radical adaptation of Joseph Kessel’s 1928 novel feels devoted to invoking the troubled psyche of its haut bourgeois Parisian housewife, married to a handsome and unspeakably dull young surgeon, who secretly becomes a prostitute so as to fulfill her desire for controlled debasement and humiliation. The film is faithful to Séverine’s experience of life as a merging of fantasy and reality. Whatever that is.

Belle de jour, now available from Criterion (with typically excellent transfer and supplements), was a turning point for its director, Luis Buñuel, the then-sexagenarian Spaniard and one-time card-carrying surrealist. It was an atypically elegant production, his greatest commercial success, and thus met with suspicion by the sort of admirers who are conservative in their ideas about subversion. It was also the turning point for its star, Catherine Deneuve, even more so than Repulsion (1965), because it used her icy reserve as a gateway to transcending reserve: the moment, following a date with a hulking Asian man who speaks almost no French and carries with him a lacquered buzzing box that scares everyone else away, when Séverine raises her tousled platinum head from the bed upon which she’s experienced what was likely her first truly satisfying sexual encounter, is one of the cinema’s great entrances. It’s the entrance of the complex, intimidating, empowered woman hiding behind Deneuve’s girlish neurotic.

The famous fantasy sequences, which find Séverine whipped, bound, and pelted with mud, were nowhere in Kessel’s moralistic novel; they were inserted by Buñuel and Carrière, based on interviews with women. They were integral to the film as an autonomous work, not just as a manner of asserting Buñuel’s signature but as a way of fomenting Séverine’s journey of self-realization. This is a story of a woman desperately attempting to juggle two seemingly irreconcilable worlds and it ends with what, however baffling it may be, functions as a convergence—the shot leading into the final sequence is, quite literally, a dissolve (photographed by Sacha Vierny, a guy who knew a thing or two about the textures of ambiguity). And as a way of resolving the conflicting desires that exist between a husband and wife, it is so much richer, and more haunting, than the somewhat similar but clumsy, over-explanatory ending of Eyes Wide Shut (1999).