Wednesday, March 28, 2012

"...if you can touch the skin you can touch the spiritual...": Tran Anh Hung on Norwegian Wood

A story of sexual discovery, devastating loss, self-realization and all kinds of love in various geometries, set amidst the political unrest of Tokyo university life in the late 1960s, Norwegian Wood is the fifth feature from Tran Anh Hung, who’s works include The Scent of Green Papaya and The Vertical Ray of the Sun. Tran’s films possess a sensual languor, a vivid fecundity, a certain tenderness and grace that, despite the fact that he was born in Vietnam, lives in France, and doesn’t speak Japanese, made Tran an ideal filmmaker to adapt Haruki Murakami’s beloved 1987 heartbreaker-breakthrough, the author’s sole novel that contains no elements of the fantastical, in which the shy yet charismatic Toru Watanabe wrestles with irrepressible youthful desires, ambiguous relationships, an innate resistance to the youth movements enveloping him, and the suicides of more than one of his closest friends.

The lead performances by Kenichi Matsuyama, Kiko Mizuhara and Rinko Kikuchi, who most of you will probably recognize from her Oscar-nominated turn in Babel, balance varied degrees of physical or social awkwardness with glimpses of inner turmoil and sudden sparks of preternatural wisdom. The photography by Mark Lee Ping Bin, best-known for his collaborations with Hou Hsiao-hsien and Wong Kar-wai, would seem almost too sublimely pretty if it weren’t so utterly precise, governed by the dictates of narrative and close attention to the actor’s impulses. The music by Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood, who previously scored There Will Be Blood, seems born of a bubbling caldron of romantic-modernist strife. And the sweaters are to die for. (Costume credit goes to Tran Nu Yên-Khê, the writer/director’s wife and frequent star.)

I think we cover a fair amount of ground in the conversation transcribed below, so I’ll refrain from whipping up much in the way of analysis here. I spoke with Tran while he was visiting Toronto last October.

Tran Anh Hung during production on Norwegian Wood

JB: Norwegian Wood is arguably Murakami’s most overtly personal work. Certain elements seem almost autobiographical. Do you feel any kind of similarly personal connection?

Tran: Yes, but only because of the broad themes. Someone finds first love and then loses it, someone is first confronted with grief, or first has to accept the consequences of major life decisions—all this is universal. On a certain level it could have happened to anyone. I think the international success of the book comes from this.

JB: But there’s also this specific theme of suicide and its effect on those left in its wake, the suggestion that when you encounter suicide at a young age it throws a shadow over everything in your life from that point on. All of the choices Watanabe makes after coming into contact with suicide seem influenced by that contact.

Tran: This is true, but we have to recognize that suicide is also a narrative mechanism. The suicide of Kizumi at the beginning of the movie is traumatic for Naoko, and the mechanism starts to work on her when she has sex with Watanabe. Suddenly she doesn’t understand why she couldn’t make it with Kizuki yet now she can make it with a boy she doesn’t love. This mechanism is at work throughout the story. Life is just experience. You can only harness the beauty of experience through art. As an artist you have to find out how to express experience so that the audience can draw the beauty from it. You want the audience to leave the theatre carrying some trace of that beauty with them.

JB: Norwegian Wood closes on quite a bracing note, just the black screen and those final words spoken about how Watanabe’s friends will be 17 and 21 forever, while he has to continue to grow older.

Tran: Yes, I’m quite proud of that. [Laughs] Those words exist somewhere in the book, but to pluck them out and place them at the end feels very right, better than anything I would have created by myself.

JB: I imagine Norwegian Wood demanded a very different development process for you. Your preceding films are rather spare in incident and you give a lot of room for scenes to breathe; with Norwegian Wood you have a great deal of plot to manage. Did you find that process enjoyable? Or was it frustrating?

Tran: Everything that is difficult in the creative process is enjoyable. I like having problems to solve. When you move from one form to another, you have to build emotion from the devices specific to the new form. For example, you have this sequence where you see Watanabe mourning by the sea, then in the next scene he’s making love with a woman, then in the next scene he calls another woman and says, “I love you.” It’s disturbing. Normally such behavior is not acceptable. But when you’ve surrendered to this story it seems acceptable. My challenge is to make an audience intuit this without fully understanding exactly what happened. When Reiko asks Watanabe to make love to her, it’s a rescue scene. Meaning that by making love to her he would give back to her what she has lost—her sexuality. By saving her he feels his guilt towards Naoko lighten. Which means he can reclaim his life and tell Midori that he loves her.

JB: The book has a framing device: a man—the narrator—sits on a plane, hears some music, and is drawn into the past. So it’s all channeled through memory. In the movie that framing device survives only through a very sparing use of voice-over. Did you ever think of structuring the movie similarly, as a memory collage?

Tran: No. Structures relying on flashbacks feel too mechanical. I don’t really like them. But there’s a more important reason. Normally when you move back and forth between present and past you need to show how the past changed or influenced the present somehow. In the book there’s nothing like that. It’s just a voice. So for me to follow this structure I would need to create other events happening in the present. I prefer to focus on the past. To show the wound when it’s fresh. Using a little voice-over was just a way of bringing the melancholy out of the story.

JB: I guess if you tried to weave in the present then you’d be stuck shooting a lot of coverage of some guy on an airplane, thinking.

Tran: [Laughs] Yes. Airplane, then hotel room... Not really interesting.

JB: Murakami’s characters tend to be very composed, at least externally. Your rendering of Norwegian Wood features at least two elements that seem to counter that. One is your allowance of Naoko to succumb to these tempests of convulsive weeping. The other is Johnny Greenwood’s music, which expresses a lot of high emotion.

Tran: Murakami’s characters are always meant to be normal people. Given the romantic nature of this story he could have created moments where the characters go really crazy, do spectacular things. But he always stays with normal people. That’s a great strength. Everyone can identify with his characters. So I had to maintain that aspect while at the same time give voice to the romantic side of things. Johnny Greenwood has a special talent for creating very serious, very dark music that has this captivating beauty. I don’t like the idea of creating so many variations in music. I wanted it to speak to the deep, dark parts of the characters.

JB: I like that you say that, because the movie strikes me as having a very bold sort of sonic division. The diegetic sound serves one purpose, the popular music serves one purpose, and the score serves one purpose.

Tran: Yes. I’m happy about that.

JB: I was also very drawn to your use of landscape, the specificity brought to looking at the geography of living spaces, the fact that the camera, in my memory at least, seems to be moving almost constantly. There’s the sense that these characters and their intimate story are always set within a larger, very particular landscape.

Tran: I think this is very important. You need to have the physical feeling of a movie. Watanabe’s life is suspended, floating, so you need to find a way to shoot every scene to create a sense of that instability. Every set that we built, every space that we used needed to allow us to move a certain way. Every landscape needed to give wings, somehow, to the emotions of the characters. To be lyrical. That mourning sequence by the sea, for instance. Because what Watanabe is feeling is very primitive, something inside all of us, something that was probably inside the first man on Earth, I needed to find a place that resembled the beginning of life. Only rocks and the violence of the water and the wind. It’s all very essential. All this violence needs to be forceful enough to break through Watanabe’s reserve, to let loose the tears. You cannot explain this to the audience—they just need to feel it. And they way we did this, with this combination of elements, is something that you can do only with movies. When I wake up in the morning it’s precisely this kind of challenging that I’m seeking, that I’m looking forward to as a filmmaker.

JB: Are you familiar with the work of Hiroshi Sugimoto?

Tran: No.

Mediterranean Sea, Hiroshi Sugimoto

JB: Because he has this very famous series of photographs of the sea that have been gleaned from all over the world but in each case the composition is identical.

Tran: Ah, yes! Now that you describe it, of course.

JB: His whole rationale behind that series is very similar to what you were saying about finding a landscape that erases all traces of history, that reflects an idea of landscape—or rather seascape—that exists in some primordial part of the brain.

Tran: Yes, I’ve seen some of these. They are very beautiful.

JB: I want to ask you a little more about camera movement, because it seems like no matter how much activity is transpiring within a scene—I’m thinking specifically about the bit where Watanabe moves through the university campus, with demonstrators passing by—the camera seems to give this feeling of isolation and loneliness to Watanabe that I don’t think we would have found if the camera remained fixed. I don’t know if your approach to camera movement or mise en scène has any sort of overriding philosophy behind it…

Tran: No. It’s only about emotions. The camera in this movie needs to give you the feeling that things are unsettled. You cannot seize the moment easily. Yet, though you may not remember it, there are a lot of scenes where the camera is still… Well, still but not really. [Laughs] Okay, it’s usually moving a little bit.

JB: Something distinctive about your films, something that’s become increasingly precious as we interact more and more with digital media, is their emphasis on sensuality. In the weather, the objects, the way you frame hands and faces and bodies, there’s this sense that we’re being asked to really feel what it’s like to touch things.

Tran: Yes. My idea is that you cannot touch the spiritual directly, but if you can touch the skin you can touch the spiritual, so let’s give the skin to the audience. Everything I’m dong with costumes, lights, locations, everything needs to be there to make the skin more palpable. I don’t need everything to be natural, but I don’t like it when it’s purely symbolic either. Like in The Tree of Life, when you see movement that’s too symbolic I don’t like it. But the movies need to be sensual. People need to feel things. Rain, wind, other people, everything that makes contact with the skin is very important. Paradoxically, I use digital cameras to capture the right feeling of skin. Celluloid has these grains in it, and somehow it puts a layer on top of the skin. With digital cameras you don’t have that anymore. So now I’m shooting all my movies with digital cameras. I don’t want that layer. I want always to touch.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

A dogged faith in redemption

“An animal can only take so much humiliation,” explains Joseph (Peter Mullan), “before it snaps, fights back.” Our protagonist is referring to a neighbourhood dog that eventually attacks a child, but the implication is clear from Tyrannosaur’s opening scene, in which Joseph, in one of his alcoholic rages, kicks a dog, his own dog, to death: Joseph’s the animal here, and his is a fury with no coherent target upon which to vent itself. He’s been beaten by life and beats back blindly whenever that fury surges. He’s not an easy guy to be with, and Tyrannosaur isn’t an easy film to sit through, but I think there are at least some of you reading this who’ll find a sober sort of reward from seeing Joseph’s story unfold in this earnest, well-crafted exercise in British miserablism, actor Paddy Conisdine’s feature debut as writer/director.

The setting is somewhere in Northern England. Joseph’s unemployed, a widower wading in the deep end of middle-age and frequently deep in his cups. He hangs out in public houses even though everyone seems to piss him off. An altercation leaves him hiding in a thrift store. He crouches behind a rack of sweaters, trembling, clutching a pool cue, tells the store’s clerk that he’s Robert De Niro. She prays for him. Hannah (Olivia Coleman) seems kind and gentle and big on Jesus. Joseph has none of it. “God’s not my fucking daddy,” he snarls at her. “My daddy was a cunt, but at least he knew he was a cunt.” So much for conversion. Yet this encounter will prompt changes for Joseph and Hannah both. They become close after Hannah flees home following a particularly sad and evil scene of domestic rape. Later you might get to wondering if maybe Joseph couldn’t reach out to Hannah until he saw her all beaten up. At one point Hannah says she feels safe with him, but how do you gauge such a statement when it comes from someone already so shattered by abuse?

Tyrannosaur’s abundant sadism is somewhat balanced by Considine’s sensitivity to behavior and space, to interiors that sooner or later darken, though the penumbra brings with it rich greens and golds. His film is above all a showcase for Mullan, an old hand at stunned, wounded brutes who wield cruelty as an emotional shield (My Name is Joe—again!), and Coleman, whose complexity and vulnerability are nothing short of a revelation. 

Monday, March 26, 2012

Exit stage left, then keep dancing

The first space is just a stage, a place we expect dance to happen, but that stage soon feels like a world, one made of some coffee-like soil, one whose inhabitants were long ago condemned to wear only beige, where a fearsome collective anxiety accumulates with the appearance of a red slip. The inhabitants’ gestures read as self-flagellation, their bodies move in a manner that’s captivatingly neurotic, addled, electrified, as though possessed by some great and mysterious force. This is a world that German choreographer Pina Bausch built.

I’ve never seen Bausch’s work performed live, so her death in 2009 came with the extra sting of knowing that I’d truly missed something. But Bausch lives on, not only through ongoing revivals but also through this remarkable film from her compatriot Wim Wenders, whose undisguised reverence infuses this, his best work in more than a dozen years. That he made it in 3D, a format traditionally reserved for the biggest and often dumbest sort of genre pictures, is itself remarkable. Photographed by Hélène Louvart, Pina is both the most straightforwardly conceived and best employment of 3D I’ve seen—if you’re going to film something normally experienced in three dimensions, why not shoot it so that it looks three-dimensional? The bottom line is that, however variable his later films may be, Wenders has always possessed an unfailing eye for texture, shadow, colour, and sweeping cinematic splendour, and he’s one of very few filmmakers who has thus far managed to incorporate 3D without sacrificing beauty.

Beauty—a mischievous, obsessive, intelligent, enigmatic beauty—could be said to be one of the subjects of Pina, which is neither biographical documentary nor a performance film in the strictest sense. It’s an homage, by Wenders, his collaborators, and also Bausch’s collaborators, who appear in the film not as talking heads but in silent portraits over which their spoken memories of Bausch float. “Meeting Pina was like finding a language,” says one of her wildly diverse dancers, and Wenders ensures that we understand what’s meant by language in this context: Bausch developed an essentially immutable, bodily vocabulary that swayed playfully between the primal and the sophisticated. Pina shows us dancers dancing with veal chops in ballet slippers outside a factory, having strange encounters on elevated trams, or marching with expressionistic smiles across fields in formal wear. Perhaps best of all, Wenders includes a generous except from Bausch’s famous Café Müller—a work some filmgoers will recognize from Almodóvar’s Talk to Her, which used the dance both as its opening scene and perhaps its source material—in which women scurry blind through a room crowded with tables and chairs while men yank the furniture out of their trajectories. It is, among other things, a testament to the balance of trance-like surrender and devotional support that combine to make art this dynamic, alluring and haunting.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Shit his dad says

The title of the source material, a memoir by poet and playwright Nick Flynn, is Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. The title of the movie, scripted and directed by Paul Weitz, is Being Flynn. I don’t know about you, but this discrepancy in tone already gave me pause—would this adaptation suck all the bite from the book and replace it with middlebrow Hollywood bullshit? The good news is: not really. Being Flynn exudes polished, pedestrian, professional directorial style, but its heart’s in the right place, by which I mean a tough-minded, tough-love kind of place. This is the story about a boy trying to become a man while living in the dual-shadow of a suicided mother and a long-absent, crazy motherfucker of a father who returns to this boy’s life when he shows up one night looking for a bed at the homeless shelter where the boy works. Too late, obviously, to make up for lost time—the boy’s now in his 20s—but just in time to challenge the boy’s undigested notions about maybe-kinda becoming a writer. Jonathan Flynn never published a word in his life, yet even as a going-on-elderly homeless drunken babbler, he remains convinced of his innate literary genius. And of his son Nick’s inheritance of this genius.

So yes, like many a memoir this is also the story of a writer discovering his craft. Thankfully, rather than spending time watching the writer try to write, Being Flynn focuses on the experiences that engender literary insight. Nick (Paul Dano) is uneasy with any career path that might make explicit his creative desire, so, following his father’s oft-stated and, as it turns out, ironic dictum that “we are put on this earth to help other people,” he works night shifts trying to give a modicum of comfort to the city’s downtrodden. The movie’s depiction of life at the shelter gets a surprising number of things right, partially through casting the likes of Lily Taylor, Wes Studi and Eddie Rouse as Nick’s more experienced colleagues, partially through Weitz’s uncondescending framing of the shelter’s clients.

Nick may be Being Flynn’s protagonist but its star performance is unquestionably Robert De Niro’s Jonathan. The movie wisely capitalizes on De Niro’s iconic status, rendering Jonathan as a variation on Travis Bickle some 30-odd years after Taxi Driver. Not just because Jonathan’s last job was driving cab, but because, like Travis, Jonathan regards himself as possessing some rarefied, god-like view of mankind in all its frailty, a view that allows him to go on manic, fevered rants against homosexuals, women and racial minorities. Neither Weitz nor De Niro strain to ingratiate Jonathan to us, understanding that it’s up to Nick to figure out how to come to terms with his father’s less palatable attitudes. And without resorting to mere camp, De Niro has an awful lot of fun with Jonathan, singing “You Are MEE-eee!” to his son from his skinny cot or throwing a tantrum while wearing a makeshift toga. And Jonathan does have things to teach his son about what it means to be a writer. The key midpoint scene involves Jonathan calling his son on the fact that he’s working at the shelter to gather material. Nick, horrified, denies this. Indeed, it isn’t the whole truth, but, make no mistake, it is a truth, and the proof is in Flynn’s book and in this flawed but very worthwhile movie.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Stay hungry

Based on the first installment in the same-named mega-selling young adult science-fiction trilogy by US novelist Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games imagines a future dystopia where society’s divided into a single, opulent, super-hi-tech Capitol and a dozen rural Districts where the bulk of the population live in destitution and toil to support the affluent, wasteful fascist chucklehead minority. The clownish big city-types dress like they’re trying to get into the next issue of Fruits—Stanley Tucci sports a blue-rinsed Salieri wig and a toothpaste advert Joker smile and Wes Bentley’s face is marred by the all-time most pretentious hipster-wannabe sculpted beard—while the teeming proles take their fashion tips from Little House on the Prairie.

If all that didn’t already seem like a drag, every year two kids are selected from each District, given some rigorous training and thrown into a vast, elaborately booby-trapped wilderness gladiatorial arena where they do battle with the elements—forest fires, hallucinogenic genetically engineered wasps, poisoned berries and bloodthirsty overgrown bulldog-like beasts that at the push of a button materialize out of nothing at all (so much for internal rules or even a modicum of verisimilitude)—and, of course, with each other. The event, now in its 74th year, is broadcast and apparently maintains a rabid fan-base. I guess reality television really is here to stay.

A contestant’s success in the Hunger Games is as dependent on showmanship as on survivalist or combat skills. It’s not altogether unlike becoming a movie star. And the star of The Hunger Games is that young, talented, apple-cheeked beauty named Jennifer Lawrence, whom you’ll hopefully recognize from Winter’s Bone. To some extent Katniss Everdeen is something of a reprise of Lawrence’s Oscar-nominated lead performance in Winter’s Bone: she again plays the eldest daughter of an absent dad and might-as-well-be-absent mom; she’s tough, woods-wise, protective of her little sister, a practiced hunter with nothing against squirrel meat. But then Katniss becomes a hopeful in the Games and gets Lenny Kravitz as her personal stylist. Katniss is a strong archer and more mature than most of her fellow contestants, but her big handicap is that she doesn’t want to hurt others, most especially Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson, aka Laser from The Kids Are All Right; guy's having some kind of luck with goofy character names), the other kid from her District who also happens to have a huge crush on her. You can see where this is going.

Helmed by Seabiscuit director Gary Ross, the film is perplexingly belabored, with a long-long-long first half that lingers over the pre-Games activities without really providing much milieu detail or developing the characters. The draggy pacing feels obligatory, dictated by the ostensible momentousness of the occasion, by which I mean to say that The Hunger Games is such a hugely popular book that the movie version simply has to be Oscar-length, ie: well over two hours long. While the hungry hardcore fans might savour every extra minute of running time, for the rest of us it’s really a shame that The Hunger Games couldn’t have aspired to a fleet, efficient, say, 92 minutes. If it had, I think it would have gotten much closer to becoming the bracing thriller it wants to be.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Shivering in the Shadow

When we first meet Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) he’s laying on a bed, fully dressed, face weighted with brooding, waiting for some men to come and prompt his next move. When we first meet the teenaged Charlie (Teresa Wright), Uncle Charlie’s niece, she’s laying on a bed, fully dressed, face weighted with brooding, waiting for a miracle to save her immediate family, whom she feels is stuck in a perilous middle-class suburban rut. Turns out that miracle is... Uncle Charlie! Somehow—perhaps, as Charlie suggests, via telepathy—Uncle Charlie heard his niece’s psychic summons. He’s coming to Santa Rosa on a train that spews one colossal black cloud, coming to visit his adoring elder sister and her rather perfect little American family. (The only element that betrays this sense of perfection is the unusually advanced age of the parents, considering that their youngest looks to be no more than six.)

Let’s not call Shadow of a Doubt (1943) noir exactly. It’s a touch too early, and, despite its title, not too concerned with expressionist atmospherics, nor does it exude toughness or underline its characters’ darker impulses. But it fits quite beautifully into Metro Cinema’s Film Noir series because it emanates a murky, resonant perversity that finally out-obscures many of the more overtly noirish pictures to come. Its director, Alfred Hitchcock, often said it was his favourite among his films. I wonder if it wasn’t this very perversity, so neatly nestled in a seemingly innocent small town setting (the film’s main scenarist was Our Town author Thornton Wilder), that earned Hitchcock’s special affection (and looks forward to David Lynch’s Blue Velvet). Because Shadow of a Doubt is without a doubt a love story—between an uncle and his niece. The way she just looks at him in those early scenes, starry-eyed, sort of floating in place, like she’s beholding a dream-figure, is fraught with a woozy ache—one that might not have been so near-palpable if the both script and Wright’s performance didn’t maintain a surface of essential sweetness. Every time I watch Shadow of a Doubt I wonder if it wouldn’t be juicier if we saw more of Uncle Charlie’s hidden shadows reflected in little Charlie—which is the same as saying if we saw more noir—but then I look at Wright melt before Cotten in the kitchen, where he gives the sort of gift one gives a lover one’s come to court, and those doubts fall away.

If you haven’t seen the film you may be wondering what are these hidden shadows exactly. It’s best to let them sink in slowly. Uncle Charlie’s never been photographed and he’s never stayed anywhere long. He brings money and lavish gifts but doesn’t specify just how he acquired them. He gets especially uneasy when he hears a certain waltz. And every now and then he lets his mask of gentle charisma slip and says the nastiest things about people, about women in particular. Some years later, in another masterpiece, Cotten would embody the American innocent abroad. But here, still fairly young, still fairly new to moviegoers, he is the epitome of American corruption. And the juxtaposition of his sordid allure next to Wright’s purity still sends a shiver up the spine.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Master monster maker

Roger Corman takes aim at needlessly inflated production values

Roger Corman started his career as a reader for Fox. When his notes on the excellent Gregory Peck western The Gunfighter (1950) were used without due accreditation his innate rebelliousness, or chutzpah, or spite, first made itself known. He quit, and without any studio support made Monster From the Ocean Floor, aka Monster Maker, aka It Came From the Ocean’s Floor (1954)—I could use up my entire word-count on alternate titles—whose budget, says IMDb, was $28,000, though I could be persuaded that the actual money spent was far less.

Few noticed it at the time, but a giant of American cinema was born, an absurdly prolific producer/writer/director who would redefine the bottom line, innovate the industry, and recognize the audience’s willingness to go along with the baldest discontinuities, flimsiest sets and most ridiculous plots if there was a pay-off at the end. He spotted and set trends, capitalized on controversy, got bikers' engines running, gave pivotal breaks to young artists who would go on to become some of the most revered filmmakers of our age, and blazed a broad trail for this slippery thing we call independence. Corman directed more films in 1957 than most filmmakers make in an entire career. His product dominated drive-ins for decades, and the oft-made claim that none of his pictures ever lost a dime is only a slight exaggeration. Though he would eventually distribute work by Bergman, Fellini and Kurosawa, the question was always a matter of delivering the goods and bringing home the bacon; art was largely accidental, or a bi-product of audacity. Audacity came naturally to Corman, and there’s a case to be made for audacity elevating some of his 400-plus films to their own kind of artistry.

Bruce Dern doses Peter Fonda in The Trip (1968)

Corman’s still at it. Alex Stapleton’s Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel catches up with him in Puerto Vallarta, deep in production on Dinoshark (2010). Early in the documentary we get some deadpan practical filmmaking tips from this slim, sophisticated octogenarian: “We feel the monster should kill someone fairly early…” But most of Corman’s World is comprised of archival footage and talking heads. These elements are sewn together in a pretty pedestrian manner, and occasionally the editing fumbles with the coverage (why we need to keep switching from wides to close-ups in the interviews is beyond me), but the story Stapleton wants to tell, that of Corman’s singular legacy—the burned bridges and betrayals, not so much—is told effectively and very, very entertainingly.

top: Peter Bogdanovich
bottom: David Carradine

There are lively testimonies from Corman’s most stalwart collaborators, his wife and co-producer Julie Corman most notably, from Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy—couldn’t they have found some more interesting critics?—and, of course, from the stunning roster of filmmakers who were supported by Corman in their youth. Martin Scorsese, Peter Fonda, Ron Howard, Jonathan Demme, Bruce Dern, Joe Dante, Pam Grier, John Sayles, William Shatner and Robert De Niro all drop by to describe Corman’s persona, techniques, mystique and work ethic, though I think the best material comes mainly from David Carradine, whose insightful in both his praise and criticism of Corman’s career, Peter Bogdanovich, whose tale of trying to incorporate half-naked telepathic women into Gill-Women of Venus, aka Voyage to the Planet of the Prehistoric Women (1968) is priceless, and Jack Nicholson, who actually cries—at least I think he does; he’s wearing sunglasses and covering his face—as he declares his gratitude to Corman for being the only guy in Hollywood to give him work for the first ten years of his career.

Jack Nicholson

Metro Cinema’s screenings of Corman’s World are paired with screenings of two of Corman’s finest works as director: X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963), starring Ray Milland, and the LSD-exposé The Trip (1968), written by Nicholson and starring Fonda, Dern, Susan Strasberg and Dennis Hopper, which I must of watched about a dozen times as a teenager, and probably only one of those times while actually high on LSD.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Everyone is to blame

Gilda (1946) begins with the formation of a friendship between two men that practically implores us to read it as much more. Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) is an American hustler abroad. He’s down on his luck and his luck has found him all the way down in Buenos Aires—and that’s about it for backstory. He’s rescued from a lethal hold-up by casino owner Ballin Mundson (George Macready) and Mundson’s “little friend,” a walking stick whose foreskin pulls back to reveal a long silver blade. “You must lead a gay life,” Farrell says to Mundson, and believe me, a contemporary interpretation of the lingo is not inappropriate.

Mundson hires Farrell as... what exactly? Let’s say his right-hand-man. Farrell is fiercely loyal. How loyal? Mundson comes home from a holiday with Gilda (Rita Hayworth), his new bride and, it turns out, Farrell’s old flame. Gilda, a singer and dancer who’s every hair-flip is shot through with more sex than the deftest lap-dance, is allure incarnate, and clearly married to Mundson—a peeper, a wealthy creep who buys his allies, and a monstrous control freak—for reasons other than love. Gilda still wants Farrell, but Farrell’s drive to stay true to Mundson is enormous. What’s going on here? Is this a love triangle? A love square? Who are we meant to identify with? Farrell’s our narrator, but he’s cagey, opaque, repressed, maybe crazy. Gilda’s captivating, but astonishingly brazen for 1946. The film’s key scene: Gilda performing ‘Put the Blame on Mame,’ a song about scapegoating feminine sexual power, and ending the number by inviting the lust-crazed audience to take the stage and take off her dress.

Directed by Charles Vidor, written by Jo Eisinger and Marion Parsonnet from a story by E.A. Ellington, and shot by Rudolph Maté, who would go on to direct the essential low-budget noir D.O.A. (1950), Gilda is almost singular in its fusion of high glamour and thorny, dark sexuality, a cautionary tale about possession and self-denial with a tidy resolution that much more striking for being implausible. And for all these reasons and more, it’s also a superb choice for the next film in Metro Cinema’s excellent film noir series.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012


But first we need to talk about Lynne Ramsay, or at least take a moment to emphasize just how promising the Scottish writer/director’s career has been. With Ratcatcher (1999) and Morvern Callar (2002), not to mention the award-winning shorts, Ramsay quickly established herself as an ambitious young filmmaker with a strangely seductive if whispery-hermetic way with atmospheres, as well as an ability to convey female identity through existentialist channels the movies typically reserve for men. Most of us who saw Morvern Callar and its stunning breakthrough performance from Samantha Morton had been waiting a long time to see what Ramsay would do next. That what she was doing next involved Tilda Swinton only whetted the appetite more.

But We Need to Talk About Kevin, her adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s bad seed novel of the same name, is the most frustrating sort of follow-up. Because from start to finish it exudes so much of what’s made Ramsay’s work intriguing, yet the net result feels so divested of urgency, almost hollow. It begins with moments that ooze portent: billowing curtains, memories of Swinton body-surfing amidst tomato-people, a dysfunctional doorknob and paint-splattered house. The narrative is delivered in puzzle-like pieces, there are eerie links between photocopiers and ultrasounds, and the audacious deployment of a Japanese music score. But soon this tale of 100% justifiable maternal anxiety, set in the US, starts to creak with facile choices, such as Ramsay’s hokey Americana: the strip-mall travel agency with zombified employees and crumpled destination posters from 40 years ago, the supermarket where they play the muzak version of ‘Greensleeves.’

Everything about Kevin feels numbingly overdetermined, most especially the relationship between its protagonist—Swinton’s doomed mommy—and antagonist—Ezra Miller’s titular kid from hell, seemingly born to torment mother and finally become a mass murderer who’s into collecting fingernails orally but is otherwise bereft of personality. Its portrait of marital entropy is equally flat, with Swinton’s woozy motel sex with John C. Reilly all-too-glumly reduced to bland bourgeois suburban boredom. (Curiously, following Carnage, this makes two in a row where Reilly has a rotten kid and is completely insensitive to guinea pigs.) At times it’s tempting to describe it as a Todd Solondz movie but not funny. But the truth is that for all its problems it is unmistakably Ramsay, and thus excellent proof that auteurism is not in itself any guarantee of cinematic rewards.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Riddled by the facts

The credits float over the image of cylinders of light moving across flattened government-issued documents. The first scene proper unfolds over a single static shot taken in a small judicial chamber, where we learn of a petition for divorce between Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Moaadi). Simin has been granted official permission to move abroad and is anxious to take advantage of it. Nader has decided against joining her, his stated reason being that he refuses to abandon his elderly father, who suffers from Alzheimer’s and lives with the couple, though we gather there may be other, more complicated reasons involving a sense of comfort, of home, an idea of Iran. Simin and Nader also have an 11-year-old daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), and both parents want custody. Simin and Nader speak directly to the camera when stating their case. Just as the credit sequence is shot from the point of view of a photocopier, this first scene is shot from the point of view of a judge. Which is to say, we’re the machine, we’re the judge, the apparatus. We’re the ostensibly neutral observer. But how neutral can we really be?

Writer/director Asghar Farhadi’s fifth feature, which was the first Iranian film to win the Golden Bear at Berlin, as well as the Golden Globe and the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, does indeed feel like a landmark, encompassing many of the hallmarks of the great Iranian films of the last 20 years—viewers familiar with the work of Abbas Kiarostami or Moshen Makhmalbaf will recognize that particular way in which discussions develop over extended scenes through a busy mixture of legal, religious and ethical arguments, as well as the placement of great burdens on children—while possessing a gripping urgency and lack of authorial imposition that counteracts the potential alienation that may otherwise leave certain international audiences cold. A Separation is a film about process, and about how much of it occurs outside the controls of courtrooms. Nader hires a pregnant woman to look after his father—there’s a bizarre (at least to me) scene where the woman calls some sort of religious hotline to ask if it would be a sin to change the father’s soiled pants—but circumstances prompt the woman to do something stupid that endangers Nader’s father, and then Nader does something stupid in return, and that stupid thing causes the woman to lose her unborn child. Or does it? This is a film riddled by facts: the more we learn the more ambiguity festers. The two facts that are never in question are Simin’s determination to leave Iran and Nader’s to stay. Between them stands Termeh, who over the course of the film is forced to make a number of devastatingly difficult decisions. It’s her future more than anyone’s that’s at stake, and for all the diverse forms of support her parents bestow upon her, she’s given no help in choosing what to do.

As A Separation is set to (finally!) open in Edmonton, Farhadi himself has just been quoted as saying that he has no intention to leave Iran, that he loves his country despite its mounting difficulties. But it may not be so easy for him to keep working there. Apparently, following Kiarostami’s example, he’s to shoot his next film in Europe.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Men aren't from Mars, but some of them would like to live there

Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars began its initial serialized publication exactly 100 years ago; it reflects a nostalgia for the vanishing frontier common to that period of increasing urbanization. If the last century—and its many westerns—have made it difficult for us to share that same romantic view of the Old West, then John Carter, a long-gestating adaptation of Burroughs’ beloved novel, should perhaps be characterized as a work of nostalgia for a bygone nostalgia. (Among its scenarists is novelist Michael Chabon, who also did a draft of Spier-Man 2, and who’s made the complication of nostalgia and renovation of ostensibly outmoded fantasy genres into the foundation of a busy career.)

The film’s eponymous hero (Taylor Kitsch, remarkably good at working the film’s very particular tone and interacting with its sprawling special effects) is a prospector and Confederate veteran, both a fierce warrior and fiercely individualistic—a good old boy with a bad attitude. “I don’t fight for anyone,” he defiantly declares, which of course tips us off to the fact that this is going to be the story of a guy who finds something to fight for. The twist is that Carter needs to travel to another planet to do so, one where the racial and territorial squabbles bear a close resemblance to those of the world Carter left behind, and whose enviro-political crises mirror resemble those of our current era. (The film’s director is Andrew Stanton, who previously used the fantastic to speak to apocalyptic anxieties in WALL-E.)

Life on Mars—known by locals as Barsoom—is both technologically advanced and diplomatically deficient. Some Martians look like us (in fact, some of them look like Ciarán Hinds and Mark Strong), some look like giant frogs with four arms (with the voices of Willem Dafoe and Samantha Morton). There are several tribes and nobody’s getting along very well with anybody else, primarily because the resources needed to sustain life on Mars are dwindling. Being a natural outsider, Carter finds himself in league with other outsiders, chief among them Sola (Morton), the rebellious daughter of one of the froggy people’s most revered fighters (Dafoe), and Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), Princess of Helium, a feisty fox being forced into marriage with Sab Than (Dominic West), Prince of Zodanga, and an obvious prick. Sab Than’s cut a deal with some shadowy figures with unfathomable powers who, like the capricious gods of antiquity, live only to quietly manipulate the fates of hapless mortals. A robust embodiment of American ambition, Carter catches on to the grand plan and has none of it. His drive to thwart the shadow-people’s designs is about one-part spite, one-part triumph of the free will over mysterious forces of determinism.

But Carter’s other, less explicit motivation is his burgeoning desire to become, as the film’s closing revision of its title tells us, John Carter of Mars. Rather than pining for return to the familiarity of Earthly existence, Carter, a widower, realizes he prefers this strange, brutish, arid planet, because it more closely resembles the untamed places of his past, because it lets him be unique (and endows him with superpowers unattainable on Earth), and because his capacity for domestic pleasure has been revived by romance with Dejah. There’s something pleasing—especially given that we’re watching a Disney film—about Carter’s interplanetary/interracial urges and his utterly unsentimental regard for Home. For a story grounded in nostalgia, John Carter has a nifty way of shrugging off longing for whence its hero came. And where the rest of us, like it or not, are stuck. (For the time being, at least.)

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

That old "irresistible impulse"

The protagonist of Anatomy of a Murder (1959) is a Michigan attorney who reveres his trade yet seems far more concerned with fishing; he’s a self-described “country lawyer” who loves, and plays, jazz; he’s an aging bachelor who retains certain seductive qualities yet spends all his time with an amiable yet fashion-impaired drunk. When he goes to trial, defending a killer and Korean War vet whom he’s nudged ever so lightly into pleading insanity, he flies into tantrums that can be awfully hard to distinguish from calculated performance. Paul Biegler is charismatic, riddled with seeming contradictions, and even after two-and-a-half hours the central figure of this film remains chillingly opaque. The most brilliant move in the construction of Biegler is the casting of James Stewart, once a paragon of earnest virtue, who by this point in his career was suddenly turning his persona inside out (see Vertigo, released the year previously, for another prime example), so that, as historian Foster Hirsch puts it in one of the supplements on Criterion’s new release, he made you rethink all those previous beloved Jimmy Stewart roles—were they too not simply performances?

Anatomy of a Murder is a Hollywood masterpiece, the product of Otto Preminger, a great director/producer who build his cred under studio contract before going independent, seizing every aspect of a large-scale production to maximize impact by knowing precisely when to force and issue—he would tolerate no euphemisms in the trial scenes, which led to a lot of panties—and when to hold back and revel in ambiguity. No one in this story is innocent, least of all Biegler’s client, Lieutenant Frederick Manion, played by the late Ben Gazzara with a cold inner fire, and his wife, Laura Manion, played by Lee Remick with a still-astonishing fearlessness. The Manions’ claims that Laura was raped by the man Manion subsequently murdered is the lynchpin in Biegler’s case, yet, as coolly directed by Preminger, whose detached mise en scène consistently avoids emphasis and thus places the onus of judgement on his audience, the film saddles Laura’s already fraught narrative with only more complications as it goes along. She may very well have been raped, though, outside the courtroom, she does just about everything to fulfill the troubling criteria for the proverbial woman who’s “asking for it.” Her unapologetically bold sexuality has certainly prompted a deep freeze in her marriage—the handful of brief, wordless interaction between the Manions are enigmatic to say the least—and Remick does nothing to render Laura more obviously sympathetic or trustworthy.

All this is to say that Anatomy of a Murder is indeed an homage to American law, but perhaps what it celebrates above all is law for law’s sake—not any sort of moral justice. Shot entirely on location, brimming with loving local detail, buoyed by Duke Ellington’s genius, careening, shrewdly used score, framed by Saul Bass’ graphically austere yet subtly violent and unnerving title designs, the film is a chain of persuasions, suggestions, negotiations and “irresistible impulse,” haunted by a fundamental unknowability with regards to fatal actions and motivations—I say “haunted,” but it’s only we viewers who are haunted; no one in the film seems too distraught by the inconsistencies in the Manions’ story. So it’s mystery on a higher level. Utterly entertaining yet perversely withholding of the very facts that would allow us a sense of closure, even as we gaze upon that abandoned shoe dangling tauntingly from a vacant campsite garbage container before the final scattering of squeaks from Cat Anderson’s trumpet hang in the darkness, deliciously unresolved.