Thursday, October 31, 2013

Spirits of the seaside

Waves are always crashing against the shore in The Uninvited (1944), lulling in a way that seems more threatening than calming—things happen when you slip into a trance. If you live near the ocean the ocean is ordinary, but ordinary things are eerie here, houses most of all. English thespian Lewis Allen’s film directing debut is a beguiling gem from wartime Hollywood, a ghost story riddled with whimsy but finally very serious about specters, and, like any good spooky movie, very focused on atmosphere. Charles Lang, Jr. won an Oscar for his cinematography, which not only renders those crashing waves as sensual and doom-laden but also manipulates the light beaming off those waves so that it enters people’s homes—that ocean really is everywhere—and plays with shadow in a way that’s mysterious and unnerving, romantic and sexy. “It’s getting almost too dark to see you,” says the film’s leading man to the woman he’s slowly falling for. The penumbra is where lovers meet, and where billowing phantoms materialize. The Uninvited is now available for inviting into your own home, on Blu-ray or DVD, thanks to the Criterion Collection.

Based on a novel by Dorothy Macardle, something about The Uninvited’s set-up strikes me as curious. Patrick and Pamela Fitzgerald (Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey) are wandering along the Cornish coast when they discover Winward House, a vacant hilltop manor with vast rooms and a bleak recent history. Before they learn of that history, which involves “a quiet, ladylike” murder, they spontaneously decide to put all their savings into buying the house. The two get along swimmingly. They’re young enough, charming enough and good-looking enough—though Pamela’s approach to her eyebrows betrays some hidden eccentricity—to give the air of a happy couple. They’re actually brother and sister. I’m not implying anything unseemly, but the odd closeness of these siblings is just one of many weird and compelling ingredients in The Uninvited’s simmering stew.

So Patrick, a music critic and aspiring composer—he actually composes 'Stella by Starlight' during the film—is a free agent, leaving him to wonder about Stella Meredith (Gail Russell), the sleepy eyed beauty whose grandfather sells Winward House to the Fitzgeralds against her will. You see, there’s familial weirdness here too: when the Fitzgeralds first enter Winward Pamela instantly feels attracted to it on account of its resemblance to their childhood home and the memories it stirs of their deceased mother; Stella doesn’t want her grandfather to sell Winward because it is a monument to her mother, who lived in the house and died when Stella was three, along with Stella’s father and her father’s Spanish mistress. Stella thinks her mother still lingers in Winward and, judging from the disembodied weeping that wafts through Winward’s rooms, she may be right.

Criterion’s Uninvited is slim on supplements, but what it’s got is pretty great. Filmmaker Michael Almereyda provides an excellent audiovisual essay that clocks in at just under a half-hour. It includes a smart survey of Milland’s long career, a biographical sketch on Russell, whose tenure in Hollywood was fraught with insecurity and reckless drinking, a chapter entirely devoid of narration, and another featuring an interview with an anthropologist speaking about the history of spiritualism, featuring a shot of Almereyda’s subject that appears to be taken from the point of view of a ghost. 

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Lou Reed, 1942 - 2013

“When you’re all alone and lonely in your midnight hour
and you find that your soul has been up for sale…”
            A song of hushed longing, of looking in from the sidelines, of devotion to and redemption through love, ‘Coney Island Baby’ may well be my favourite Lou Reed. It’s doo-wop without irony, with background vocals that caress like an ocean breeze. It closes Reed’s record of the same name (1975), a collection regarded as MOR at the time, despite the fact that the second track has him threatening to punch a woman in the face, while the fourth is a claustrophobic groove about murder as the ultimate kick, the only one left when the others don’t work anymore. Of course, for Reed and his listeners, there are kicks that endure. Reed was Jewish but his religion was music. “Her life was saved by rock ’n’ roll,” he rasped in one of the most accessible songs ever recorded by the Velvet Underground, the band he and John Cale formed in the mid-60s. Fusing literary, avant-garde and primal rock sensibilities, VU were little-known during their brief run yet forever altered their idiom. Brian Eno exaggerated only slightly when he said that everyone who heard The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967) started a band. When I discovered the record as a teenager it created a new standard that everything thereafter calling itself rock had to reckon with.

I’m avoiding looking at the news because every time I do I’m reminded that Lou Reed is dead. His disappearance “into the divine” is hard to process, partly because he never seemed to slow down. Sometimes sublime, sometimes ridiculous—sometimes both simultaneously—Reed never stopped working and never seemed to do anything that wasn’t done on his own terms. Producer Steve Albini: “…once in a while I wish to Christ I could give not a fuck as thoroughly as Lou Reed."
“When you’re all alone and lonely…” That voice that speaks directly to every listener. Reed, the late-night disc-jockey poet. He had a gift for vernacular and intimacy, his lines at once clipped and conversational. He could be infamously ornery. He made interviewers cry. But if you only listened to his music, you couldn’t help but feel he was your friend.

Minus 30 nights in dirt-cheap under-heated basement apartments with only candles, alcohol and 'Sweet Jane' to keep us warm. Talking a friend in another city off a ledge with the grandiosely bleak Berlin (1973) as consolation through recognition. Late nights spilling over into early mornings with Rock and Roll Heart (1976) and Street Hassle (1978) on the hi-fi. Huddling in the van in a strange city, getting stoned to the diamond-studded swagger of Transformer (1972). Reed’s music has been with me all these years, the years when adolescence tumbles into adulthood and musical discoveries burn into your brain and the world expands exponentially, but also the years that start to slip away vertiginously and require more fortified shots of panic and wisdom.
Reed made the exotic familiar. Drugs, sadomasochism and domestic abuse: no subject was taboo. Suicide, vengeance, fear, self-loathing: he made all feelings easier to bear, acceptable in thought if not in action. He made the worst of us better for the four minutes it took to tell some exhilaratingly sad song. “Have you ever had rage in your heart?” Reed asks near the close of a live version of ‘Dirty Blvd.’ He seemed to have everything in his heart.

Above all he had restless, idiosyncratic, vulgar audacity. See ‘Sex With Your Parents (Motherfucker) Part II,’ from Set the Twilight Reeling (1996) or ‘I Wanna Be Black,’ from Street Hassle, in which the narrator wants to die in the spring like Martin Luther King, shoot 20 feet of jism, and “fuck up the Jews.” ‘Mad,’ from Ecstasy (2000), files complaints by a philanderer caught with his pants down. “I know I shouldn’t a had someone else in our bed/But I was so tired… Who would think you’d find a bobby pin?” My girlfriend actually shouted at the stereo to fuck off. There’s the hour of electronic clamour that was Metal Machine Music (1975) and the alienating comedy act of Take No Prisoners (1978). There’s that tune from The Velvet Underground (1969) in which rock’s dominant purveyor of transgression seeks guidance from Jesus. Did I mention he was a Jew?

But Reed’s tenderness was equally potent. It was there, fully formed, from the start: is there a more generous declaration of love than ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’? Love could be remote (‘Satellite of Love’), multifaceted (‘Some Kind of Love’), a set-up for the greatest betrayal (‘Perfect Day’) or immaculate (‘Heavenly Arms’). “People are always telling me their secrets,” Reed wrote, “and I often put them into song as if they happened to me.” He sang for Lisa, Stephanie and Caroline, for Perdo and Romeo Rodriguez—“A diamond crucifix in his ear is used to help ward off the fear/that he has left his soul in someone’s rented car”—for Candy, in a tremendously affecting gesture of identification with someone frustrated by the bounds of gender. “I’ve come to hate my body and all that it requires in this world,” goes ‘Candy Says.’ “What do you think I see/if I could walk away from me?”

As time passed, Reed’s guitar became more angular and fluid, his manipulation of feedback and distortion more controlled. His voice quickly lost its Velvet-softness, but while age limited his range he actually became far more expressive a vocal stylist. Grunts, growls and stutters became supple, funky, more passionate. It was almost rap, that hostile amphetamine babble at the top of ‘Gimmie Some Good Times’ that sounds like nothing so much as coming up for air. “Where’s the number where’s a dime and where’s the phone?” he snarls in the searing ‘Temporary Thing.’
Time also made Reed’s intrinsic morbidity acute. As a young man he extolled a longing for protracted spells in oblivion, or to slip far back in time. ‘Venus in Furs’: “I could sleep for a thousand years.” ‘Heroin’: “I wish that I was born a thousand years ago.” But as a middle-aged man Reed was firmly stuck in the present. “I wished for a magical way to deal with grief and disappearance,” Reed wrote of Magic and Loss (1992). That record’s gorgeous lead track wondered what makes life worth living when friends vanish.

“I worry that my liver’s big and it hurts to the touch,” Reed sang on The Blue Mask (1982). After giving up drugs Reed always looked to be in amazing shape—71 seemed like nothing. But he had a liver transplant earlier this year. He died on Long Island, where he grew up, with his longtime companion, artist and musician Laurie Anderson, near. Did he see death coming? If so, was it the ‘Beginning of a Great Adventure,’ or a final disappointment? Did he feel himself burning out, a “shooting star,” or “a star newly emerging?”

“You loved a life others throw away nightly/It’s not fair, not fair at all.”
“"In the end it was just an ordinary heart pumping blood!"
“Linger on…” 

Friday, October 25, 2013

Suffering as spectacle

Solomon Northup was an educated husband and father, a talented violinist and a free man in his early 30s when, in 1841, he lured from Saratoga, New York to Washington, was kidnapped, sold into slavery, shuttled down to New Orleans and is thereafter brutalized, humiliated and forced to work. Not only did he lose every vestige of the life he knew, he was coerced into denying his identity. 12 Years a Slave, adapted by John Ridley from Northup’s bestselling memoir and directed by British gallery artist and filmmaker Steve McQueen, appropriately depicts the beginnings of Northup’s journey as a nightmare: he is misled and drugged; he wakes in shackles; he’s informed that he isn’t who he knows himself to be but rather a runaway from Georgia; he’s viciously beaten for no coherent reason. From this point the film becomes a sort of perversion of the picaresque, with Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) being moved from one plantation to the next, at one point indentured to a benevolent master (Benedict Cumberbatch), at another to an alcoholic sadist (Michael Fassbender), never knowing if salvation may suddenly appear out of the blue or forever elude him until he is either worked or beaten to death.

McQueen’s third feature is less formalist than its predecessors. With its somewhat more conventional coverage, litany of star cameos and sweeping Hans Zimmer score, the film, which counts Brad Pitt amongst its producers—and famous bit-players—incorporates the tropes of the Hollywood historical prestige picture, though it does so with more austerity and less sentiment than anything from Steven Spielberg, whose own slavery epic, Amistad (1997), isn’t among the director’s renown works. I came to the 12 Years a Slave with some skepticism. The phony bathos and shameless showmanship of McQueen’s Shame (2011) prompted me to wonder whether or not I really did like Hunger (2008), his debut. In any case, both of those films trade in suffering as spectacle, and in this regard 12 Years a Slave—which features a protracted, painterly, unbroken shot in which Northup dangles from a noose, his toes tapping desperately on the muddy earth that can’t quite relieve him, while his fellow slaves going about their business for fear of meeting the same fate—is hardly a departure. How could it be? The eerie, awful beauty of this shot doesn’t mitigate the moral imperative to make this nadir in Northup’s story as grueling to behold as possible. It’s just that McQueen’s realization draws as much attention to his impeccable craft and cool audacity as it does to its horror.

Whatever my reservations—and whatever yours may be—I hope it’s clear that 12 Years a Slave is about as close to compulsory viewing as any movie can be. The question, raised in some recent essays prompted by the film’s release and immediate acclaim, as to whether atrocities such as slavery or the Holocaust can or should be the subject of movies isn’t very helpful when trying to reckon with the work itself. See the film, struggle with it, admire it, if you will. Remember that Northup’s is just one story among millions. And let’s indeed celebrate the fact that the wonderful Ejiofor has finally found the breakthrough role he’s so long deserved. Given the nature of the material, his performance is one of immense, nuanced restraint. The smartest thing he and McQueen do in bringing Northup’s story to cinematic life is to leave the fathomless emotions largely to the audience. 

Monday, October 21, 2013

Mother daughter blood types

Byzantium begins with Eleanor Webb (Saoirse Ronan) writing the words “The End.” But for her there is no end. She turned revenant, or vampire, or soucriant—her preferred term, derived from Caribbean folklore—some 200 years ago, and is thus immortal, more or less, cursed to remain forever 16, forever on the cusp of womanhood. A natural storyteller in a film about storytelling, Eleanor is always writing her biography, throwing the pages to the wind, and beginning again. Sometimes a stray page will find itself in the hands of one curious enough to seek out its author. That’s a very dangerous curiosity to exhibit, but Byzantium, adapted by Moira Buffini from her play A Vampire Story, is in part a reminder that stories can be inherently dangerous things.

Director Neil Jordan’s second stab at a vampire story easily trumps its predecessor, 1994’s somewhat dull Interview With the Vampire, starring Tom Cruise. Working from Buffini’s far more cinematic script, Jordan strikes an appealing balance of narration and action, these two forces being embodied by his two protagonists, the melancholy, contemplative Eleanor, whose approach to satisfying her bloodlust typically puts her in the role of an angel of mercy, and Clara (Gemma Arterton), her beguiling, charismatic mother, a less discriminate killer, more pragmatic by both temperament and experience—she was forced into prostitution during the Napoleonic Wars and has kept it up as her go-to source of revenue ever since. Moving back and forth between past and present, between Eleanor’s voice-over narration and Clara’s adventures—the film opens with Clara in arresting lingerie giving a lap dance, busting a nose, being chased and sawing off someone’s head—Byzantium is a sensual gothic about the slippery frontier that separates appetite from need.

The title is drawn from the name of a dilapidated hotel located on a sumptuously gloomy English coast that Clara reopens for business as a brothel, though her enterprise is threatened once she begins to receive visits from some figures from her deep past. Ronan and Arterton are equally superb in their contrasting and complimentary roles, while Jordan deftly negotiates the story’s subtle shifts in tone, heightening atmosphere with weird storybook images of cabbage fields, dazzling scenes seen through mirrors and glass, lyrical spurts of blood, and a minimum of silly looking CG bats.