Sunday, February 24, 2013

Undercover Al goes down the Mine Shaft

“How’d you like to disappear?” The question is posed by NYPD’s Captain Edelson (Paul Sorvino) to Officer Steve Burns (Al Pacino), whom he wants to go undercover, to flush out an apparent serial killer preying upon young men who frequent the city’s hardcore leather and studs scene. Edelson chooses Burns because Burns fits the profile of the killer’s victims. Edelson flatly enquires into Burns’ homosexual experience; Burns insists he’s never had any. Yet as Burns burrows deeper into the S&M underworld, that initial question—specifically that word, “disappear”—assumes various shades of meaning. Something in Burns—in fact something in Cruising (1980), the movie he inhabits, one very much a case of outsiders looking, or rather peering, in—wants to become lost in that underworld, to disappear into it, to not only taste but to devour the unknown pleasures once taboo and now, thanks to occupational circumstance, permitted. As a crime thriller, Cruising has its points of interest, but as a study in flamboyant masculine sexual-criminal curiosity—not to mention as a glimpse of a New York that no longer exists—it’s an exceptionally fascinating document. 

Though made from an original screenplay written by its director William Friedkin—who seemed drawn above all to the milieu; there is a genuine, if very seedy sociological focus at work here—Cruising had its roots in the true story of Randy Jurgensen, a New York City patrolman who took an assignment very similar to Burns’ more than a decade earlier. The based-on-a-true-story clause would eventually be taken up by the film’s producers when New York’s gay community learned of the film’s premise and violently objected to what they regarded as its demonizing representation. They began to stage large-scale protests and acts of sabotage, making loud noises and flashing mirrors during location shooting. Yet however dubious the film’s political agenda may have been—and I strongly suspect that Friedkin had no political agenda whatsoever—time has made the notion of Cruising as being slanderous to gays seem fairly obtuse: as Pacino himself said, he didn’t regard the subculture depicted in Cruising as representing the entire gay community anymore than he regarded the mafia family in The Godfather as representing all Italian-Americans.

Still, things get hazy when one begins to consider the note of ambiguity the film lands on. I don’t want to give everything away if you haven’t seen Cruising, but let’s just say that the identity of the film’s killer remains elusive—elusive in such a way that it could be any number of the leather boys Burns encounters in the Ramrod or the Mine Shaft. Which kind of implies that the evil is perhaps ubiquitous, even inherent in the very desire to seek sexual thrills and camaraderie among vigorously liberated men in aviator glasses and buttless chaps. So, viewed from a certain stance, Cruising a troubling film. But it’s also, I argue, regardless of the filmmakers’ intentions, all the more valuable for it.   

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

I cover the Waterfront

From that startling first image of handful of men exiting a shack, dwarfed by a colossal ship, to the final bloodied Christ-like stumble of the unlikely hero toward the man in the coat hollering everyone to work, there is in Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954) a steady pulse of the extraordinary. We’re not watching a merely great movie but a transformative one, and that transformation, so layered, complex and electric, is something I believe viewers can sense even without a deep knowledge of film history. This is high drama and gritty realism, a moral tale mired in moral ambiguity. It went aggressively against the aesthetic, commercial and ideological grain of its times—and still won eight Oscars, including Best Picture.

Criterion’s new edition of On the Waterfront is among their most heavily supplemented releases—with good reason. Even after his death, Kazan remains contentious on every front, one of Hollywood’s enduring enigmas: his immigrant background and roots in the Group Theatre; his co-founding of the Actor’s Studio and his ushering of a new wave of actors into the movies; his cooperation with the House Committee of Un-American Activities that destroyed so many careers during the peak of the Red Scare. The film, which concerns a dockworker who testifies against a corrupt union boss, has often been read by many as a defense of Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg’s naming names to HUAC. Among Criterion’s most interesting supplements is the documentary Elia Kazan: An Outsider (1982), shot by the great Québécois cinematographer Michel Brault, in which, decades after the HUAC hearings, Kazan still seems over-eager to justify his actions through a complicated set of circumstantial explanations. In another excellent supplement, produced by Criterion, the critic David Thomson offers his own compelling explanation for Kazan’s choice to name names, even when he knew it would make him an object of considerable scorn in the industry for the rest of his life: “I think that it really came out of a psychological need to be an outsider.” (This same documentary features commentary from scholar Lisa Dombrowski, a welcome addition to Criterion's pantheon of critics. She wrote an excellent book on Sam Fuller a few years back that I can't recommend enough.) 

The film’s outsider is, of course, Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando), a disgraced ex-boxer, now dockworker, who begins the story as the darling of Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) the lethal union leader with mob ties, and ends it as Friendly’s enemy. On the Waterfront has a dizzying number of wonderful performances, but those of Brando and Cobb make for the strongest contrast because they’re both so damned good, yet so different. Cobb, at times genuinely fearsome, eating with his mouth open, eyes darting around a room as he lectures Terry, gives a gutsy, gorgeous performance, but he’s also a bulldozer, shouting his way through key moments.

Brando meanwhile is a fountain of nuance, seemingly hyper-masculine yet so vulnerable, even effeminate in his tenderness—along with Monty Clift and James Dean, his stardom would instigate an attack on Hollywood gender stereotypes from the male perspective. (And Jesus is he ever handsome here.) In that early scene where Terry realizes he set up a fellow dockworker for murder, he seems caught off guard by his own guilt, absently clutches at himself as though in response to acid reflex. Later he’ll chew gum as a way of transmitting thought. He’s comical, yet touchingly earnest in his scenes with Eva Marie Saint—which are to me the best scenes in the movie—shoving his paw in her little white glove, saying lines like “I don’t like the country, the crickets make me nervous.” Brando does some shouting as well, but behind the shouting there is an almost palpable net of impulse, a psychological busyness, none of it decoration. Brando is a revelation here, and his approach brought out the best in his co-stars, Saint most of all, who is the picture of innocence, yet also feisty, yet also uncertain, yet also fascinated with Brando with a nascent eroticism that rises to the surface in unexpected ways. Crazy to think that this is the same actress who just a few years later would be the sophisticated, sexy Hitchcock blonde in North By Northwest (1959). 

What else? Boris Kaufman’s bleak and sumptuous cinematography, Leonard Bernstein’s intrusive yet stunningly beautiful score—a way of telling the story all on its own. I love Bernstein's score, but half wish I could take it out of the movie and just hear the sounds of Hoboken and water, and wintry gasped breaths. But I'll draw this to a close. Just take my word for it: Criterion has given us the best possible home video experience of On the Waterfront, a singular masterpiece from Hollywood’s great transitional decade—and it rewards investigation into who made it, how it works, and how it came to be. 

Monday, February 11, 2013

Drawing a Blank—and killing it

A man in a prison cell is all shot up. He collapses on the floor in a heap, hands twitching, staring at the ceiling, or at heaven, or into an abyss. Or, perhaps, into his own past. Or future.

The injured man slides into the sea. Over the soundtrack a female voice speaks of Alcatraz’s history. And, just like that, the man is now in a suit, looking calm, no longer dying, on a ferry circling the infamous island penitentiary. (That voice belongs to a tour guide.)

The man will walk a very long hallway, heels clacking. We won’t know where that hallway is or where it leads, but the man arrives at a bungalow occupied by his wife. He storms in, pistol in hand, grabs her, then rushes to the bedroom and blows the hell out of the empty bed. (Later he’ll shoot a telephone.) “I’m glad you’re not dead,” says the wife. But is he? Not dead? Might this be Purgatory? Fantasy? Is this dream? The man’s name is Walker. But it might just as well be Sleepwalker. Or Walking Dead.

Point Blank (1967) was based on The Hunter, a bracing crime novel by Richard Stark, a pseudonym of the late, great Donald Westlake. The project was initiated and closely protected by Lee Marvin, its star, and John Boorman, the director Marvin chose. I believe both men respected the book, but what they constructed is so purely, adventurously cinematic as to resemble a violent, intricate, heartbroken puzzle/fever dream/temporal weave which the book scarcely suggests. The oneiric compression of exposition in that first mesmerizing montage, enveloped in composer Johnny Mandel’s funeral brass. It’s a fusion of genre and modernism more indebted to Last Year at Marienbad (1961) than anything in Hollywood’s gangster pantheon. And its influence has proved immense: Point Blank is written into the DNA of The Limey (1999) and The Limits of Control (2009).  

Marvin was no one’s idea of an arty type, yet he seemed to connect with Point Blank, perhaps because its compelling balance of violent vengeance drained of emotion and Walker’s haunted pathos and abandonment did justice to Marvin’s own guilt over surviving the assault on Mount Tapochau during World War II, where most of his company was killed. Marvin was cannier than his tough persona might imply. Surely he was aware of just how marvelously complex and layered—and challenging to mainstream audiences—Point Blank was. That complexity includes the very curious friendship between Walker and Mal Reese, the man who tries to kill him, who steals his money and his wife. Mal eventually drops the wife in favour of the wife’s sister (a sumptuous Angie Dickenson), and Walker’s revenge campaign eventually incorporates making the sister his own as well. Two sisters, and two men so close they may as well be brothers (of the Cain and Abel variety). The two men each love the same two women—perhaps as a way of loving each other. This isn’t so far out a reading. Just look at the way the men rush to meet each other at a crowded party. It’s much more of a love scene that anything involving the women. 

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

"Right now, right here, in front of me. This moment." A conversation with Peter Mettler

Cinema is the assembly of captured moments, the repurposing of the past in fragments, what Andrei Tarkovsky called sculpting in time. Swiss-Canadian filmmaker Peter Mettler’s latest takes this most essential of cinema’s raw materials, this definitive dimension of existence and identity, and claims it as its central subject. The End of Time is both a hypnogogic object of meditation and a spectacular, absorbing thematic exploration, riddled with fascinating characters and seemingly fantastical locales. It is a question machine: What is time? An illusion? Some false ordering we impose upon the passage of instants? Does its passage change depending on how we spend it? Is it really just space? Does it even exist?

Seeking answers—or, as it turns out, deepening mysteries—The End of Time takes us to the European Organization of Nuclear Research, or CERN, where physicists recreate the Big Bang in the massive Hadron Collider particle accelerator; to Hawaii, where a man named Jack Thompson knowingly lives within the annihilating lava path of an active volcano; to Detroit, where the ravages of time can be read in nature’s reclaiming of the crumbling vestiges of civilization; to India, where religious ritual promises escape from time’s enslavement; to Mettler’s editing suite, where time is manipulated to tell stories; to some liminal space made of hypnotic geometries and flickering images generated by Mettler’s own image-mixing software. Film as journey: we feel we’ve been taken far away, bedazzled, perplexed, enlightened, and safely returned, all in under two hours. 

The End of Time follows the modus operandi of Mettler’s other extraordinary first-person travelogues: Eastern Avenue (1985), Picture of Light (1994), in which Mettler goes to Churchill to film the Northern Lights, Balifilm (1997), Gambling, Gods & LSD (2003), in which Mettler travels to Switzerland, the American Southwest and India to meet people seeking transcendence through diverse means, and Petropolis: Aerial Perspectives on the Alberta Tar Sands (2009), in which Mettler gets in a helicopter and surveys the draining of bitumen from the boreal forest, the unwitting creation of a sinister kind of land art, and landscapes that feel like homages to Antonioni’s Red Desert (1964), at first spectrally beautiful, then horrifying when you realize this isn’t some alien planet but our own province. Some have regarded The End of Time as a conclusion of this cycle, but I get the impression that Mettler’s approach isn’t something devised for any particular project; it is a way of moving, looking, listening, being, an activity that just happens to result in some of the most important films this country has produced in the last 30 years.

I spoke with Mettler last year, when The End of Time was premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival. 

Peter Mettler 

JB: When you’re in the act of shooting, does time stop? Or do you feel more sensitive to time’s passage when the camera’s running?

Peter Mettler: I think what happens when I’m shooting is that time disappears. It’s one of the occasions where I feel most present. You’re aware of being caught in time’s flow, which you’re always in, but now you’ve added this layer of recording. You’re creating time, in a way, creating a time experience for somebody. Ironically, that makes me feel present. I’m certainly not thinking about time. It’s more about when to turn the camera on and off and when to move it. It’s more about body reactions than intellectual reactions.

JB: It seems there was a point in film history when all movies became, in some sense, about time, capturing pieces of time. They became self-conscious. So it’s as though you’ve taken this hidden subject of all movies and dragged it to the foreground.

PM: I wasn’t aware of that so much. It was only by making the film that this became apparent, how you point a camera at anything and you’re addressing time itself. But I didn’t initially set out to make a film about time; the original subject was clouds, what goes into them, the vapours and where they come from, how they travel, how they return to the ground or the ocean. My intention was to follow those cycles in a very literal way. Petropolis came out of that, because the tar sands is a particularly toxic place that was adding all this junk into our clouds. By chance, Greenpeace contacted me to do something for them and that project spun off into its own thing. Nonetheless, by studying clouds I started thinking about time. If you recall, a physicist in the film talks about how in some languages weather and time are the same word. So I became more aware of transition, transformation, those occurrences which are what we call time. Then it was a matter of questioning what this thing we call time really is.

JB: There are mesmerizing passages in The End of Time in which you allow a lot of time to simply pass before the camera, the part with the lava fields being an especially memorable one. As you were figuring out what this project was, was it ever going to be just that? Just lava, say? Just allowing time to speak for itself before the camera?

PM: I could easily see myself just making a film about lava. Not even about lava—just watching lava. [Laughs] Lava for 90 minutes! We’ve done this, just watched lava footage for that length of time in the editing room. It’s intoxicating, really interesting where your mind goes. But here we are, living in this particular time and use of media. So how do you present ideas? What’s the format? We chose the feature film format and the documentary genre; you can’t show a 90-minute lava film in that context. The rationale involves who you’re communicating with, using familiar aspects of cinematic language while simultaneously trying to lead the viewer to look at things a little differently. That lava sequence is quite long for a traditional film. I think it’s about six minutes.

JB: Numerous elements in the film break from documentary conventions. When you introduce commentators, for example, there are no supers telling us who they are, and many of their comments are abbreviated.

PM: One thing I’m trying not to do is to make a film that’s just informational, you know? One that’s didactic or that uses words to illustrate ideas. I’m much more interested in taking the viewer through an experience, to form their own ideas and associations. Often when we see a label telling us this is such a place or this is this person’s name. It rarely matters, actually.

JB: That’s true. You almost never remember.

PM: I’m trying to make you feel and see and wander and not be distracted by that stuff. I know this is a challenge, because you want to know where you are. But I believe it’s better for my ends to be provocative in that way.

JB: Is there any correlation between the sequence of the film’s sections and the order in which you were discovering these things, going to these places?

PM: Funny you should ask, because Gambling, Gods & LSD was chronological. That was one of the rules in the edit of that film. I really wanted to respect the logic and the mystery of how experience unfolds, how one thing leads to another. With this film that was not the case. In fact a lot of the film had already been edited by the time we were shooting in India. So it was more constructed. But I think that logic of experience was still an influence in how we were cutting.

JB: Movies so often feel very digested by the time you see the final cut. It’s exciting to watch a film where you can sense questions being asked in the midst of its making.

PM: Absolutely. I don’t know where I’m going. Which is kind of terrifying in some respects, but you have to have faith that things will find themselves. It happens that way in evolution, so why not in a creative process?

JB: Having visited CERN and met with people who do a lot of thinking about the physics of time, do you feel more enlightened? Or did this research just compound the mystery?

PM: It was inspiring to see what they were doing at CERN. I’d always imagined physics as more defined, but talking to these people I got the impression that everything is very theoretical, philosophical, in some ways similar to the pursuit I’m on with my cinema, with observing. They call it “basic research” when they don’t know where they’re going. I really became fond of that term. If you apply it to our cinematic process of exploration, you know you’re going to end up with something, but you don’t know what it is. That openness allows you to discover new things.

JB: Do you feel like making this film has altered your sense of time’s passage?

PM: What it’s done is made me appreciate transformation more deeply. Watching clouds or something else in nature, it’s just made me more appreciate of being able to be with whatever is happening right now, right here, in front of me. This moment.