Saturday, March 29, 2014

Looking without seeing, enlarging until vanishing

Blowup (1966) found Michelangelo Antonioni at the peak of his renown, yet, rather than resting on his laurels, he was embracing all things new. Following the astonishing Red Desert (1964), it was only his second film in colour, and every arresting hue feels precisely selected and shot-through with wonder. Blowup was Antonioni’s first film in English, with dialogues written by playwright Edward Bond. Most notably, while Antonioni was already well into middle-age, Blowup is immersed in the youth culture of its moment, its costumes colourful, scanty and modern, its London fully swinging, populated with the likes of Jane Birkin, Verushka and the Yardbirds, and with kids running wild in the streets, or anyway as wild as a troupe of mimes can get. We see these merry-making mimes flood into frame at Blowup’s beginning and at its end, when they enjoy a tennis match sans ball or rackets, serving as a reminder that the visible world is riddled with illusion. Is seeing believing, or is the reverse true? Is a photograph a way of obscuring reality or does it reveal a reality we’d otherwise never see? These questions haunt Blowup—and, as is often the case with Antonioni, they’re questions that will remain dutifully unresolved.

An unnamed photographer (David Hennings) takes photos of a man and a woman in a park. The woman (Vanessa Redgrave) demands the negatives. The photographer tells her she has to wait as he has other things on the roll. Eventually the photographer develops the film, makes prints of the images taken in the park, and, as takes photos of the photos, enlarging one detail until it becomes clearer and then more abstract, he comes to believe that he’s photographed a crime. The script was put together by Antonioni and Tonino Guerra, but a prominent credit is given to a story, alternately translated as ‘Blowup’ or ‘The Devil’s Drool,’ by the great Argentine author Julio Cortázar. It’s a generous credit, in that what happens in Blowup echoes its source material only in essence; its characters, setting and situation are very different. But Antonioni was an artist who appreciated just how rare a truly perfect idea is—and the idea of Cortázar’s story is so good it inspired at least two more excellent movies, Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) and Brian De Palma’s Blow Out (1981), though both cleverly trade photography for sound recording.

It must be said that Blowup does nothing to counter Antonioni’s tendency to put utterly unpleasant men at the centre of his films. Ostensibly based on photographer David Bailey, Blowup’s protagonist is a prick, treating models in a way that alternately reads as sexual harassment or verbal abuse. Still, watching him work is fascinating, and his lack of empathy, or rather, his overwhelming focus on his own creative work, drives the story forward in a way that a more sensitive and sociable protagonist wouldn’t have managed. All he wants is the most compelling, most beautiful, most mysterious images possible, and if he has to disguise himself as a homeless person, scream at models or put himself in danger to get these images, so be it. Though on first glimpse Blowup seems locked in time, a closer examination reveals a timeless notion at its heart, something about truth and technology, and what happens when the world is broken down into frozen fragments. Which begs the question: where is the Blowup for our digital age?   

Thursday, March 27, 2014

A very particular collaboration

Here are some of the films Ingmar Bergman made with Liv Ullman: Persona (1966), Shame (1968), Hour of the Wolf (1968), The Passion of Anna (1969), Cries and Whispers (1972), Scenes From a Marriage (1973), Autumn Sonata (1978), Saraband (2003). If you know just one or two of the films on this list—to which I should add Faithless (2000), the excellent film Ullman directed from Bergman’s script—you probably know that we’re surveying one of the great collaborations in cinema history. Great not only because Bergman was a visionary director and Ullman an actress of singular gifts, but because each of those films were elevated and deepened by their creative dialogue. Actors were far more essential to Bergman’s cinema that is the case with most of the great auteurs, and Ullman was so much more than a muse.

Begrman and Ullman were married for a time, and had a child—another collaboration—and theirs is a fascinating, at times chilling love story. He was over 20 years her senior, a notoriously difficult, neurotic, particular man already on his fourth wife—whom he’d leave for Ullman, just as Ullman would leave her first husband for him. He bought a house for them on Fårö, the island where they shot Persona and many subsequent films, and surrounded it with a high stone fence. He wanted to keep her there and she needed to spread her wings, which in time she did, embarking on an international career with few filmic highlights that didn’t possess his signature, but with numerous successes in the theatre. They remained close friends and creative allies until his death in 2007. Their relationship deserves serious investigation. It deserves so much more than the narrow, sentimental gloss it gets in Dheeraj Akolkar’s Liv & Ingmar.

The film’s chapters are given titles like ‘Love,’ ‘Loneliness’ and ‘Pain.’ The music feels best suited to a soap opera or a commercial for long distance rates. There are shots of tastefully arranged photos and letters which Ullman’s hand gently glides across, and shots of Ullman gazing solemnly from a beach or an empty stage, or through the window of a car. In short, this documentary, about people who made some of the most austere and emotionally brutal films ever made, is super-cheesy. More importantly, it seems largely devoid of curiosity. Ullman is the only interview subject. Akolkar apparently spoke to no one else, not even Bibi Andersson, Ullman’s frequent co-star, and another of Bergman’s actress-lovers. There are no archival interviews with Bergman or cinematographer Sven Nykvist, his other great collaborator. There’s almost nothing about the nature of Bergman and Ullman’s working life—which surely can’t be separated from their love story—how it was negotiated, given their intimacy, how characters and stories were developed, and so on. It’s hardly the case that Ullman isn’t articulate on these subjects—though only a fraction of the duration of Liv & Ingmar, the interview Ullman gives on Criterion’s new Persona DVD/BD (see previous post) brims with insight into their process.

There is a moment near the film’s end in which Ullman describes following an impulse to go visit Bergman on the last day of his life. The scene is almost unbearably moving, but what makes it so moving—the phenomena of having someone whose life is so utterly intertwined with yours—only emphasizes all that this film lacks.    

Monday, March 24, 2014

Persona's still-haunting sliver mirror

There is no settling into Persona (1966), so let’s not settle in. A projector’s viscera glows white hot, whirring celluloid flutters by, a cartoon prototype appears, then a shard of silent slapstick: set to modernist horror movie music, the prelude reminds us we’re watching a movie; it’s also incorporating spectatorship into the realm of its story. A sheep is slaughtered, a spike is driven through a hand, a tarantula crawls across a white surface, a bespectacled boy (Jörgen Lindström) wakes up in, it seems, a morgue; at least, the elderlies sharing his pale space look dead enough. Perhaps the unnerving images that preceded were excerpts from his dreams; perhaps they were the dreams of the dead surrounding him, their psychic vapour. The boy tries to read Lermontov (!), but gets distracted, like us, by the screen, or, for him, the lens, but, actually, a barring window or membrane separating him from the dissolving images of two women’s faces. He reaches out, to that screen-lens-membrane, to us, to the women, or some elusive, amorphous mother that the pair represents. Hard cut. Prelude over. Roll opening credits. We’re not so much acclimatized for Persona as sufficiently jarred to enter it.

Nearly 50 years after its debut, Persona can seem less like a linear experience than a cinematic ecosystem, a movie-place containing interconnected elements, most famously, images of Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullman, the film’s ingenious actresses, their merging and/or interlocking faces and hair. But that sense of the film as an object to behold and puzzle over dissolves once you start watching it. The opposite of ponderous, the economy of the opening expository scenes is bracing. Alma (Andersson), the nurse, is debriefed by her superior (Margaretha Krook) about their their new patient, Elizabet (Ullman), an actress who stopped speaking one night while playing Elektra on stage and has yet to recover. A hard cut to a brief flashback appears in the midst of this: a tight close-up of Elizabet in the moment of her sudden pause—a pause yet to be broken. It’s as though, all at once, a veil fell away and she became paralyzingly aware of the sham of her performance, or of this play, and that awareness followed her into the rest of life. Authenticity was in that moment all but drained from the world, through the rare moments when she’s presented with something undeniably authentic—a television broadcast of a self-immolating monk in Vietnam, a photo from Jürgen Stroop’s report on the suppression of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising—she recoils.

Does Elizabet’s crisis mirror that of Persona’s writer and director, Ingmar Bergman? He’d spend the first part of the 1960s making increasingly strange, inventive and claustrophobic films exploring the traumas and liberation of living in the absence of God. During those same years younger filmmakers were renovating film language, making the movies exhilaratingly self-conscious, producing, for example, movies about genre in place of more genre movies. With Persona, Bergman took that new self-consciousness and went inward instead of outward—he applied these new tools to an exploration of inner life. As Paul Schrader eloquently puts it in an interview included in Criterion’s superlative new Persona DVD/Blu-ray package, Persona is a milestone not because it was the first shot in a revolution but, rather, because it was the second. Me, I didn’t live through the revolution in question, but this second shot, once it came to me, was the one that wounded me permanently. I first saw Persona when I was 16, and it was the most transfixing, mysterious and, frankly, erotic experience with moving images I’d had. It remains all of those things for me. I’ve seen thousands of movies since, but every time I come back to Persona all those movies seen only heighten and reinforce my appreciation.

I was saying something about story, and, truly, for at least half of Persona the story remains crisp, clipped, just cryptic enough to intrigue. Alma and Elizabet are sent to Alma’s superior’s cottage on the island of Fårö. It’s summer, the sun never sets, and the scene seems idyllic. Elizabet remains mute, but her beguiling face could be read as sympathetic, even fascinated. So Alma talks and talks and her life, which she previously described as “decided,” begins to seem looser, at once less fixed and more interesting. She tells stories, and in the same way that this movie works as profoundly as it does because it acknowledges its movieness, her stories possess the transfixing-mysterious-erotic power they do because they come to us as stories—flashbacks would never have the same impact as the sentences so deftly delivered by Andersson. Elizabet becomes something like a best friend, or a therapist, or a vampire—later on she’ll actually drink blood. Does she truly care about Alma’s life and career, or about that impromptu orgy she partook in and never told a soul about before? Is Elizabet genuinely interested in Alma or just searching for material? For an artist, maybe for actors (and writers) most of all, are both things not always in play?

Persona’s key moment, or the whole movie in one scene: Alma in bed, the night not dark but slivery, the air almost smoky, and Elizabet soundlessly enters her room like a Japanese ghost. Like the boy, the two women will gaze into the screen or mirror, faces close, stroking hair, a seduction, a spiritual merger… And then comes some sort of betrayal; petty revenge; a simmering resentment that briefly tears up the physical substance of film itself; friendship becomes a duel; then a visit from Elizabet’s confused husband (Gunnar Björnstrand) and a turning of tables—maybe Elizabet’s real fear wasn’t of being false but of being ordinary, like Alma. You can explore the emotional geometries in this movie for ages. This is the trick: certain fundamental mysteries endure, but the character dynamics and the feelings involved are only too identifiable. “Persona” means mask and masks continually fall away in Persona. But, in spite of all these haunting close-ups, how do we know for certain when we’ve arrived at a real face?   

Persona was always my number one when it came to movies that I felt begged for inclusion in the Criterion Collection. Criterion hasn’t neglected this happy occasion. This gorgeous new package has the best looking transfer I’ve seen. The strongest supplements are, for me, the interviews: one with Andersson, Bergman and Ullman at the time of the film’s release; one with Bergman from 1970 for Canadian television; a new interview with Ullman, in which she emphasizes the rigour of Bergman’s collaborative process and the many important elements that were discovered only during production or in the editing room; and the aforementioned interview with Schrader, who supplies sturdy historical context and still beams like a schoolboy when expressing his admiration for this film. If you could see my face right now, I suspect I’m beaming too. 

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Birth disorder

At the heart of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Like Father, Like Son is a study in contrasts. On one side we have the upper-middle-class Nonomiya family. Father, mother and well-behaved six-year-old boy reside in a spacious apartment in a modern high-rise, every room immaculate in its tastefulness; whether donning business or casual attire, they all dress well, if blandly; when first we see them they’re being interviewed for a high-end school, and even the manner in which they’re seated, postures erect, with just the right distance separating their chairs, exudes order and exactitude. Nonomiya patriarch Ryota (Masaharu Fukuyama) works hard, rarely takes a day off, and seems the pride of his company.

The Saikis, meanwhile, mother, father and three kids, live in a set of cramped, cluttered rooms attached to their modest suburban appliance store. Yudai (Rirî Furankî) seems perpetually disheveled, wears garish pattern combinations, is openly thrifty, unabashed about looking for a handout, and happy to avoid work. His motto: “Put off for tomorrow whatever you can.” The upshot is that he’s more amiable than Ryota, spends more time with his family, and seems able to fix anything.

If directorial style is anything to go on, Kore-eda clearly relates more to Ryota—though he might envy Yudai. Kore-eda’s films, which include After Life (1998), Nobody Knows (2004) and Still Walking (2008), are clean, intelligent yet humble, subtle, even somber, and overwhelmingly favour symmetry. In the case of Like Father, Like Son, this symmetry is heightened by the use of Gould’s Goldberg Variations and other piano pieces that at times have the unfortunate effect of leveling the film’s emotional spectrum. It is to their enormous advantage that several of these films, which have regularly focused on families, feature adorable, fascinating, expressive children, which either Japan has a surplus of or Kore-eda and his casting directors have an exceptional knack for tracking down. Children bring life and merry disorder to Kore-eda’s films, and Like Father, Like Son concerns the fates of two children: Keita (Keita Ninomiya), the Nonomiyas’ boy, and Ryusei (Shogen Hwang), the Saikis’. The film begins with the belated discovery that Keita and Ryusei were switched at birth, and the central dilemma is about whether the families should swap the kids or leave them with the families who’ve raised them so far. From the instant resentment that Ryota feels toward his wife when the truth comes out to her growing guilt over dividing her love between two boys, to the peculiar ways in which the boys adapt to their changing living arrangements, there’s so much in Like Father, Like Son, in all its characterizations and individual journeys, that is observant, sensitive and wise. But the film’s protagonist, the one whose capacity for change will determine the story’s outcome, is Ryota. I won’t be so presumptuous as to say that Ryota is a stand-in for Kore-eda, but I like the fact that Kore-eda is willing to invest so much in his film’s least likeable character.

The premise is sensational, but the execution is anything but. At times I found Kore-eda’s pacing too deliberate; admirable, dutiful, and a little dull. But the Saikis come along often enough to throw everything a little off-kilter, and while Kore-eda refrains from sentimentality or facile resolution, he understands what emotional pay-off will come from Ryota’s gradual realization that he might be able to better his life by learning a thing or two from this family he quietly despises.