Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Lovers rock

The movie opens turning, the night’s stars unstuck and blurring, the 45 of Wanda Jackson’s ‘Funnel of Love’ loping on the turntable, the twin images of our far-apart lovers reclining in their respective nests. For some minutes, everything moves clockwise. (If only the screen were a circle!) It’s an ingenious way of getting us thinking about time in broader terms. It also gets us literally into the groove of Jim Jarmusch’s latest seriocomic cosmic concoction, a blend of genre mischief, thing/place/notion fetish, corny comedic routines, ruminations on time, science, civilization and technology, and the sort of normally neglected incidentals that Jarmusch has always aspired to construct movies from—few filmmakers so clearly enjoy just watching people do stuff: roll a cigarette, dance, play dominoes, select books to travel with. Only Lovers Left Alive is itself a trip, an appropriation of vampire lore as a way to address the nature of long-term love. It’s been done before but, in my experience, never so resonantly and, despite a heavy-handed moment or two—the historical references get a little old—so lightly.

There comes a point in relationships where living apart emerges as a viable option. In the case of Eve (Tilda Swinton) and Adam (Tom Hiddleston) it may have taken a century or two. Only Lovers begins with Eve in Tangier and Adam in Detroit—an undead city if ever there was—where he holes up in a dilapidated house making smoldering anonymous records he may or may not want people to hear. She embraces life and modernity, he’s a recluse despairing at the world’s entropic idiocy, obsessively accumulating objects from the past—though it’s notable that only Eve can carbon-date these objects with a mere touch. Adam’s gloom burgeons to the degree where suicide becomes a consideration. Eve, sensing this—there is some discussion of spooky action at a distance—takes a chain of redeyes to come meet him. But Eve’s arrival is followed by an unexpected visit from her little sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska), also a vampire. For a time the film becomes, of all things, a comedy about annoying in-laws who invade your place, touch your stuff, put the moves on your buddies, and drink all your blood.  

From Down By Law (1986) to Dead Man (1995), Jarmusch’s films have always transmitted ambivalence toward narrative, something he seems to regard largely as scaffolding through which he can weave digressions. Only Lovers has just about the friendliest balance of story and incident in any of his later, woozier, formally looser works. Ava’s tempestuous entrance and an eventual crisis involving dwindling blood supplies give the film enough midpoint momentum to support its loveliest, less urgent passages, the White Hills concert, or a wee-hour tour of the Motor City, complete with a visit to Jack White’s house and the Michigan Theatre, a movie palace-turned parking lot, on the site where Henry Ford built the first car. (The building recently featured in Peter Mettler’s The End of Time.)

What else? The revenant fashions are to die for, the angular drones of Jozef Van Wissem score drape scenery in aural smoke, and the typically eclectic cast, which also includes Anton Yelchin, Jeffrey Wright and John Hurt, accentuate the film’s supple tonal shifts. Eve is the anchor in the central relationship, but Hiddleston is the anchor in the cast, embodying both the gravity and mirth generated by this film made by a mature artist who, I’d guess, is reflecting on his own experiences negotiating love over the long term. Only Lovers is, in a sense, about the special pleasures of revisiting what’s known: books, records, friends, lovers. Or the work of beloved irreverent filmmakers who endeavour over time to keep finding new routes to explore, while adhering to certain old ideas about what their art should be, regardless of changing fashions. 

Monday, May 19, 2014

The mermaid of Venice (Beach)

We see lonesome seaman Johnny Drake (Dennis Hopper) on shore leave, in dress whites, smoking on a Venice Beach footbridge, wondering where to go. He loiters in a drug store, checks his weight for something to do, smiles for the photo booth, a handsome young orphan who’s done little, been almost nowhere, and wants to know who he is, or is going to be. Later in the bar a jazz band is playing. Johnny doesn’t know whether to drink from the bottle or the glass. He sits beside the drummer and from that vantage point sees a woman all alone. Her name is Mora and she’s the mermaid in a sideshow. He wants to talk to her but she wants to hear the music. He manages to walk her to her little apartment over the merry-go-round. She won’t invite him up but they make a breakfast date. A peculiar romance has begun and everything feels captivatingly eerie. Mora seems nearly angelic but people warn Johnny off her—her last two boyfriends vanished and turned up dead. Doesn’t Johnny know that sirens lure sailors to their doom? Mora confesses she believes herself the descendant of sirens. And by about now it becomes clear that Night Tide (1961) is a descendent of Cat People (1942), the first of many atmospheric horror films Val Lewton made for RKO, and a most welcome variation on a rich and wondrous theme.

I first saw Night Tide on a dying VHS tape as a Hopper-obsessed teenager. Its recent restoration has been followed up with a DVD/BD release from Kino, and the film is actually stronger than I remembered. Hopper’s excellent, very early in his career yet already he’s got that strange alertness to the alien in ordinary things. He chews gum like it’s a secret project. His Johnny is both credulous and suspicious of everything—except those things he should genuinely fear. “Guess we’re all a little afraid of what we love,” he says at one point, but the appeal of Johnny is that he doesn’t yet know what to love or fear.

Night Tide was the debut feature of Curtis Harrington, a fascinating figure. By this point he’d already written a book on Josef von Sternberg, been mentored by Maya Deren, collaborated with James Whale and Kenneth Anger, and made numerous experimental shorts and a documentary about the work of artist Marjorie Cameron, who was also an occultist and the wife of Jack Parsons, the rocket engineer and cohort of Aleister Crowley. Cameron inhabits Night Tide’s most enigmatic role, one of its most overt call-backs to Cat People, an older spectral woman who appears to Mora, most memorably during a moonlight beach dance, and speaks to her in some language only Mora understands. Even after the film’s resolution, Cameron’s character remains a mystery, and the scenes in which she features are weird, sexy, and beautifully photographed, like so much of this film, a gem of early ’60s low-budget spookiness nearly on par with Carnival of Souls (1962).

Filmmaker Curtis Harrington

Kino’s disc has a relaxed but hugely informative audio commentary from Harrington and Hopper, both now deceased, and some terrific interviews with Harrington, including one from some appealingly oddball old cable show. Those compelled to look deeper into Harrington’s life and work can check out the book Nice Guys Don’t Work in Hollywood and a DVD/BD entitled The Curtis Harrington Short Film Collection, both of which were published last year by the mighty Chicago record label Drag City. 

Friday, May 16, 2014

Time, stillness, returning, remaking

How do your memories, your visual memories, come to you, as stills or as moving pictures? I have a hunch about this, but I wonder if the answer is generation-dependent, photographs no longer holding the monopoly on our access to the past they once did. Still, there’s something poignant about the arrested moment, the sense of having stopped time. It’s surely one of several reasons why La Jetée (1962), despite being a featurette (it’s only 28 minutes long), remains the mysterious French filmmaker Chris Marker’s most famous movie. Despite being a featurette, yes, and maybe even despite not exactly being a movie. Comprised of still photographs, voice-over narration, music and soundscapes, La Jetée calls itself a photo-roman. It is something between cinema, comic books, photo albums, radio drama and storytelling. And it’s a perfect marriage of form and content, this “story of a man marked by an image of his childhood,” an image of someone dying on the pier at Orly Airport, an image that is actually two images: he also remembers a woman’s lovely face. The man is one of a small number of survivors of World War III, forced to live underground due to poisonous levels of radiation on the planet’s surface. Because his fixation on this childhood image is so acute, so powerful, some rather sinister scientists select the man for an experiment in time travel, a way “to call past and future to the rescue of the present.”

Marker was inspired in part by Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), and the homage made explicit by a scene in which the man and a woman, just like Scotty and Madeleine, examine the rings in an old tree as a way to read time. Like Vertigo, La Jetée is about projection and morbid nostalgia, about the desire to fashion the current object of one’s affection into a copy of someone long-lost—and in both films, the current object of affection and the long-lost love are the same person. The woman is played by Hélène Chatelain, an actress about whom I know little, but whose screen presence, whose captivating ability to transmit thought and emotion in just a handful of still images, is absolutely essential to the haunting power of La Jetée. There is a sequence, which could be memory or dream, in which the man remembers watching the woman sleep, the images of her slumbering head draped in light shadows, dissolving one into the other until that astonishing moment when this photo-roman, ever so fleetingly, becomes motion picture.

from Je t'aime, je t'aime (1968)

So this singular little masterpiece of French cinema is a genre film, a work of science fiction—another reason to love it. It could be a Philip K. Dick story. And it inevitably became a major influence on subsequent films, most obviously 12 Monkeys (1995), which Edmonton's Metro Cinema will be screening as a double-feature with La Jetée on May 24th, and which is essentially a big-budget, star-studded, elaborately designed extrapolation of La Jetée, though there are many, many others. (An eerie coincidence: between watching La Jetée and 12 Monkeys on DVD at home, I went out to a screening of Je t’aime, Je t’aime, Alain Resnais’ rarely seen 1968 film, which I bought a ticket to for no other reason than it’s being a rarely seen Resnais. I knew absolutely nothing about it. But my jaw dropped when about ten minutes in I realized it was about a guy haunted by an event from his past who’s selected by a group of scientists for an experiment in time travel! Also, for the record, it is deeply creepy, intermittently baffling, and very, very good.)

Maybe coming right off of the narrative elegance and emotional complexity of Chris Marker (and Alain Resnais) spoiled me. Maybe I’ll just never completely get the ostensible appeal of Terry Gilliam’s trademark cartooniness, his Dutch angles and bulbous long-lens close-ups. (This cartooniness strikes me as much more controlled and effective in what’s widely accepted as Gilliam’s masterpiece, 1985’s Brazil.) Maybe, no matter how much I’ve grudgingly come to admire his work in recent years, I’ll never stop feeling annoyed when Brad Pitt acts “crazy” and surrenders to that fidgety finger flinging he does when he seems to not know what else to do. (And yes, Pitt was nominated for an Oscar for this.) Maybe all of the above and other biases dulled my experience, but 12 Monkeys left me underwhelmed. The film utilizes every essential aspect of La Jetée’s story, yet seems to have misplaced that story’s soul.

That paucity of soul certainly can’t be blamed on any lack of woundedness being conveyed by Bruce Willis, in the role that seems to define his battered and bruised, vulnerable macho man persona. (He actually gets pretty hysterical at points.) And it’s hardly as though there’s any lack of imaginative production design: those cavernous, at times seemingly infinite interiors; the frost-encrusted post-apocalyptic surface ruins overrun by wildlife (who apparently aren’t affected by radiation?); the subterranean cages in vertical rows that make it look like living in the future will be like being trapped in a mine for your entire life. (Though all of these locations are weirdly over-lit, or just ugly-lit.) Perhaps it’s simply that, for all its 129 minutes of impressive spectacle, 12 Monkeys never takes the time to stop time, to suspend us in a single moment-image like the one that marks the man. Perhaps the only way to travel through time is to learn how to be truly still. 

Monday, May 12, 2014

Mute, but not to be silenced

She’s introduced only at the end of the opening sequence, when her paternalistic douchebag employer dismisses her with a pat on the head. Thana (Zoë Tamerlis Lund) is a seamstress working in Manhattan’s garment district, her beauty woman-childish, her doe-eyes and pouting lips arresting but do not express confidence or wantonness or any interest in the superabundance of crudely catcalling lechers who form ogling hedgerows everywhere she goes. The epitome of a woman without a voice, Thana is mute. In no way is she “asking for it.” But she gets it. In fact, she gets it twice in the first ten minutes of Ms. 45 (1981), Abel Ferrara’s low-budget rape revenge cult classic, a definitive portrait of pre-Giuliani New York, a feminist exploitation film, if such a hybrid can be reconciled. Drafthouse has re-released the film in theatres (it plays Edmonton's Metro Cinema next Wednesday night) and on home video.

Written by Ferrara’s frequent collaborator Nicholas St. John, the well-calibrated Ms. 45 strikes a compelling balance between artifice—goopey fake blood, outlandish coincidence—with gritty realism—the brilliant location work—and bracing sociological critique—the ubiquity of rapacious males, not limited to but encapsulated by the pair who perpetrate Thana’s consecutive rapes, the first premeditated, the second performed as an afterthought when a robbery is interrupted. The narrative reason for the double-rape is utilitarian: it pushes Thana over the edge and into some fugue state. The rest is opportunity: Thana is able to stun her second rapist before spotting her hot iron—itself a gendered implement, an icon of homemaking—and beating him with it in a shot that would be quoted and grossly expanded upon in Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark (2000). Thana then appropriates her assailant’s firearm: the voiceless finds a vehicle for expression. She becomes a ventriloquist, the .45 her dummy. She quietly goes about employing it in a campaign that might initially seem guided by vigilante vision but gradually proves driven by pure misandry. Thana is only able to kill men, so even when a woman picks up a knife, wielding it conspicuously at cock-level, and moves to attack, Thana can’t fire in self-defence. Like the tragically programmed titular animal in Sam Fuller’s White Dog (1982), transformative trauma renders Thana single-minded in her deployment of violence.

As noted, Ms. 45 has been quoted, and it is itself riddled with quotes, from the obvious—Thana mirror poses with her gun recall Taxi Driver (1976)—to the curious—one shot recreates the poster tableau from Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979)—to the provocative—scenes of dead body disposal and blood swirling down the drain recall Psycho (1960), and make us wonder if Thana isn’t to be regarded as some variation on Marion Crane, who this time around survives her attack but never recovers her wits. The film is a composite of politics, cinephilia and an almost documentary sense of place: the shit-faced panhandlers, the trash-strewn alleys and abandoned boxes butted up against aluminium fences, the bat-shit busybody landlady, the pimps shaking down their ladies for ostensibly hidden reserves. Young Ferrara—who, incidentally, has a cameo as Thana’s first rapist (!)—exhibits remarkable control over all of these resources while fully surrendering to the inherent trashy outrageousness of the material—a meat-grinder will make a memorable appearance. The striking Tamerlis Lund, meanwhile, is perfect, her fear near-palpable, her character sympathetic but not to be identified with. Tamerlis Lund had a woefully abbreviated career, one that included co-writing the script for Ferrara’s sleaze masterpiece Bad Lieutenant (1992). She died in 1999, at age 37, from heart failure prompted by cocaine use. She appeared on screen precious few times, but Thana is enough to burn her face into your memory forever.