Wednesday, August 29, 2007
The relationship between Michael (Walter Slezak) and the Princess (Nora Gregor) registers as little more than a plot contrivance, the necessary element that disrupts the more interesting interaction between Michael and Claude Zoret (Benjamin Christensen). The ostensible association between Zoret, a "master" painter, and Michael is that of father and adopted son, but the effeminate younger man clearly inspires a passion in Zoret that discounts a strict filial interpretation of the relationship and which has allowed the painter (using Michael as his sole model) to achieve his greatest artistic success. When the Princess arrives and demands that Zoret paint her, he reluctantly agrees, but the process becomes an unexpected struggle for a painter who generally effects his works with minimal difficulty. In order to successfully depict a subject, the film suggests, one has to understand it sensually. The painting of Michael (especially in the semi-nude state in which he poses) offers little trouble for Zoret and inspires him to great achievement. Unable to work up the same passion for the Princess, he spends three sleepless nights working on the canvas and eventually, sensing Michael's growing attraction to the subject, calls on him to complete the work.
The scene in which Michael finishes the painting is one of the few that hint at the potentialities in Dreyer's filmmaking that were to find full expression in just a few years. Having finally completed the majority of the work, Zoret laments his inability to paint the Princess' eyes, the last remaining element and the one whose successful depiction would indicate the painter's full understanding of the subject. As Dreyer frames Zoret and Michael in a two-shot, he fixes a spotlight on the older man, leaving the rest of the screen in darkness. The spotlight then switches to Michael, suggesting an imminent transfer of power in their relationship due to the Princess' arrival. Frustrated, Zoret asks Michael to try his hand at painting the eyes. In a series of softly-lit close-ups, Dreyer alternates views of Michael and the Princess (pictured first in full face and then simply as a pair of eyes), shots which solidify cinematographically the connection between the two and whose vivid depictions of human physiognomy prefigure Dreyer's greater achievement in that area in 1928's The Passion of Joan of Arc. As Dreyer's camera seems to capture whatever inherent substance is to be found in the Princess' eyes, so too does Michael's brush. When the newspaper reviews of the painting come in, the critics declare the work Zoret's worst, with only the eyes (which the critcs correctly intuit come from a different painter) earning appreciative reviews. The film suggests that for an artist to successfully depict a subject, he must have a passionate engagement with that subject, which is why Zoret's painting of the Princess fails where his previous paintings of Michael proved to be so successful.
After Michael leaves Zoret's house to live with the Princess, the painter attempts one last work, a despairing self-portrait that ranks as the artist's final masterpiece. Called The Vanquished, the painting's central panel depicts a nude Zoret collapsed on a rocky surface framed against a cloudy sky. The side panels show Michael and the Princess, also naked, eyeing each other across Zoret's prostrate body. Returning to a subject for which he can muster sufficient enthusiasm, Zoret succeeds in winning back the art world's favor after the misstep of his previous effort. Interestingly, the film seems to take the critical response to a work of art as an accurate gauge of its aesthetic success. Zoret's final work is not only greeted enthusiastically by the press, but Dreyer grants the painter an ultimate moment of recognition in the form of a fixed shot grouping hundreds of appreciative guests, all raising a toast to the painter in his final triumph. That his triumph is a triumph of despair becomes clear as the desolation that allowed Zoret to achieve his artistic success quickly leads to his death. The film abruptly moves to its conclusion with Zoret calling pathetically for Michael on his deathbed, while Michael luxuriates in the Princess' embrace. As Zoret dies and Michael registers his final indifference, the cycle of melodrama is complete. From here, it was four years to Joan of Arc and the start of Dreyer's "mature" career. While there may be little in Michael to anticipate such a startling achievement, the earlier film stands up quite well on its own merits. Content to make use of an untranscended melodramatic framework, Dreyer works within the genre to achieve an effective exploration of homosexual longing and artistic creation that succeeds in achieving a lasting power.
Sunday, August 26, 2007
In one of those rural Southern towns that people worry about "getting stuck" in, twenty-something Paul, who has already slept with the town's 26 available women, meets and falls in love with Noel, the sister of a friend who had been away for years at boarding school, and remains a virgin. Not wanting to reduce his new relationship to the level of his previous conquests, Paul elects not to sleep with Noel (itself a decision as clichéd as any of the dialogue), but during a weekend getaway, Noel sleeps with another man (without really knowing why) and confesses to Paul, a move which predictably complicates their relationship.
The dialogue between Paul and Noel falls into two categories: an off-the-cuff banter which affects an improvisatory quality and the cliché-ridden interchanges that dominate the more serious moments. The first type of dialogue, designed to show the genuine affinity that unites the leads in their more light-hearted moments, may sound as scripted as the second type but, as delivered by the actors, it comes off with enough spontaneity to convince us of the authentically playful connection between the two. The second type of dialogue, since it represents the sole efforts of the characters to play out their complex emotions, deserves a closer look. The following is an excerpt from the film's final conversation between Paul and Noel:
Although the dialogue reads like any number of inferior interchanges from the world of motion pictures, here we get the sense of two people using the only vocabulary available to them to debate the consequences of a complex equation of love and infidelity. Interestingly, Green never gives any hints that Paul and Noel acquired their means of expression from other movies, but Hollywood nonetheless seems like the obvious source. In a society where such ersatz emotions dominate, our feelings become valid only in that they resemble the feelings of fictional characters, necessarily simplified from their real-world counterparts. In Green's film, an odd mixture results. The dialogue is taken from the cliché-ridden interactions of inferior films, but the situation being acted out is granted all the complexity of a messy real-life relationship. The characters are forced to draw on this simplistic vocabulary but, strangely, they are able to bend this idiom, largely due to the genuine feeling with which they invest it, to express the full complexity of their situations.
Paul: I'm not the smartest guy in the world. I guess what I was trying to do was become a better person. You know what I think. My problem is not anything that you did. It's between me and... me.
Noel: Well, I did what I did. It felt so... wrong. And that's when I realized that I love you. You can't understand it, but that's when I found out. It's an emotional thing, too. Nobody tells you that part.
Paul: It's true.
Noel: I'll miss your face.
Visually, the film is as assured as any of the director's efforts. Employing fixed camera angles and long takes, the film matches its visual aesthetic to the slow rhythms of small-town life. In two-character interactions, Green favors lengthy close-ups of the speaker, giving his characters time to articulate their deeply-felt concerns. Interspersed with these interactions are a series of lingering shots of the town, re-establishing the director's sure feeling for place and his ability to visually articulate the features of his specific milieu. His camera fixes both the rural desolation and the industrial backbone (a single factory) that fuels the town's economy. Although the town is a place of desperation, a place many characters wish to escape, it is a place for which Green feels an obvious affection. His loving shots capture both sides of the equation, the hopeless desolation of the empty terrain and the great beauty in the fields, junk heaps, lakes and smokestacks that comprise the landscape of small-town life.
Friday, August 17, 2007
The film begins with a long shot of an empty field in front of a public housing project, visible in the left background of the screen, with a dead tree framed in the left middle-ground, while a female voice (Nicole Ladmiral) begins her narration in a grief-inflected voice that marks her discourse as a sad lament. "On the outskirts of Paris, where the poor children play," she says, setting the scene. As she speaks, a woman, glimpsed only from the back, enters the screen in the right foreground, combining with the female voice to stake out this territory as a distinctly feminine province. The film proceeds with a visual montage of the neighborhood, comprising trains, hawked wares and children at play. Even before we enter the masculine world of the abattoirs that ostensibly represents the film's subject, we get a glimpse of several feminine images. We see an armless statue of a nude woman in a deserted field, we see a close-up of a young woman who, as the camera pulls back, kisses her lover, we see a painting of a piano lesson with a girl being tutored by an older woman. Finally, the narration takes us to the building whose presence dominates the area. "At Porte de Vanues is the Vaugiraud Slaughterhouse," Ladmiral intones, but her narration will not take us inside the doors, her exclusively feminine province is confined to the exterior.
As the camera enters the abattoir, the film's tone suddenly switches. The narration is picked up by a strangely uninflected male voice (Georges Hubert) who brusquely presents us with the instruments of destruction that the workers use on the animals (the pole ax, the captive-bolt pistol). Abandoning the poetic narration of the earlier segment, the film suddenly takes on the tone of an educational film, a straight documentary that draws no judgment on the material it presents. Hubert's narration, despite later picking up a rhetorical flourish or two, maintains, for the most part, a seeming objectivity of tone that guides us through the brutal slaughters (slaughters which render such recent depictions of abattoirs as Fast Food Nation irrelevant) and enhances their brutality through the narrator's seeming indifference. Unlike the lingering poetic images of the exterior sequences, the footage of the slaughters is delivered with the same blunt actuality as the narration. All this serves to insist on the strict masculinity of the slaughterhouse environment, a claustrophobic factory whose inhabitants are confined to the building's interior and the adjoining courtyard and who are never seen outside of this confinement. The one female worker at the slaughterhouse is so obviously intended as a masculine presence (her large size and gruff features contrast conspicuously with the "feminine" women shown in the film's first section) that she is undifferentiated from the other workers in terms of gender, seen strictly as another man. The fact that Franju depicts one female, but presents her in strictly masculine terms, only emphasizes the masculine nature of the slaughterhouse sphere.
The feminine presence returns for two more sequences, once in a brief interlude and once at the film's conclusion, but both times it is depicted as something entirely separate from the masculine interior world. The dialectic between the film's two worlds is only approached directly (though ultimately left unresolved) in one extraordinary sequence that explicitly juxtaposes the interior and exterior spheres. In the middle of a documentary sequence, Georges Hubert informs us that "Henri Fournel can split an ox while the clock strikes noon." We see Fournel, his blade poised at the top of the ox hanging from the ceiling, while he puffs away on a cigarette. Suddenly the narration stops and the ambient noise is eliminated from the soundtrack, replaced by the sole sound of a tolling bell. Franju then cuts to an exterior shot of a public clock, before returning to Fournel. Then, while waiting for the twelve bells to chime, Franju returns us to the exterior, introducing a montage of scenes from the surrounding neighborhood, many exact quotes from the film's first sequence. Finally, the camera returns to Fournel who finishes cutting the ox and the masculine narration and ambient noises resume. By deliberately intercutting images from the exterior world, images we have already been taught to accept as feminine, with the explicitly masculine act of cutting an ox, Franju brings the tension between the two worlds to the film's forefront. That this maneuver fails to resolve this tension (the rest of the film reasserts the two clearly delineated spheres) makes it no less important a gesture at confronting the two gendered conceptions with each other and letting their inherent tensions play out.
The film's conclusion returns us definitively to the feminine world with Nicole Ladmiral leading us away from the slaughterhouse just as she brought us there at the film's opening. Following a shot of two nuns walking outside the abattoir (signaling the switch in gender), Ladmiral intones, "the day is ending. In the pen, the sheep, still agitated, will fall asleep in the silence. They won't hear the gates of their prison closing, nor the Paris-Villette train which sets off after nightfall for the countryside to gather tomorrow's victims." Her pseudo-poetic narration references the slaughter that we have witnessed but, in its vague lyricism, it represents an outsider's conception of the activity, one who has not witnessed the stark brutality of the actual undertaking. As her narration concludes, we are firmly in the world of the exterior as Franju introduces one last photo-montage, shots of townspeople, abandoned fields, a ship on the canal. By both beginning and ending the film with these feminine sequences, Franju creates a sharp contrast with the savage activities that take place within the abattoirs, a contrast that both tempers the harshness of the slaughter and sets up a tense dialectic between two distinct spheres. Although this tension is never resolved, its existence grants an added complexity to what would otherwise stand as a striking, powerful, but ultimately one-dimensional work.
Tuesday, August 14, 2007
Perhaps because she is forced to consider the consequences of the disease, Cléo's narcissism begins to dissipate during the course of the film. The key moment in the singer's change of view comes halfway through the film when, having divested herself of her wig and her furs, she strolls out alone on the Parisian streets. Coming to rest by a mirror outside a Chinese restaurant, she again addresses her reflection, but this time with a notable modification of viewpoint. "My unchanging doll's face, this ridiculous hat," she says, taking off the newly purchased headpiece that she earlier attached so much importance to. "I can't see my own fears. I thought everyone looked at me. I only look at myself. It wears me out." As if to test this formulation, she then proceeds to a crowded café where she plays her hit single on the jukebox. The reaction of the crowd ranges from minor annoyance to complete indifference. Of vast importance to herself, she is here forced to acknowledge the minor role she plays in the lives of others who have their own personal concerns and cannot be bothered with the presence of a minor pop star.
Reflecting Cléo's acknowledgment of her relative insignificance, Varda alters her aesthetic approach during the film's second half. The mirror motif, so prevalent early on, is nearly absent from the film's conclusion. In addition, Varda's numerous jump cuts, whirling camera movements and rapid-fire montage give way to a more restrained aesthetic of longer takes, fluid camera motion and even a series of fixed shots. These later dominate a sequence in the park where a talkative soldier, on the eve of departing for war, befriends Cléo and the two sit on a bench and talk. The constant motion of Paris gives way the to the quiet of the relatively natural setting. Since the soldier is unaware of her celebrity status and she no longer feels the need to be defined as "Cléo", the singer introduces herself by her real name (Florence) and is free to interact with her interlocutor in a more honest interchange, unfiltered by any of the artificial barriers that she had previously required to define herself in her relationships with others. As Varda fixes the characters in a two-shot on the bench, the park's lush greenery dominating the background, she achieves for her heroine a sense of freedom not possible in any of the film's previous scenes. Although Cléo's attitudes have not entirely changed (she tells the soldier, "for me nudity is indiscreet. It's like night and illness," suggesting again the need to dress up one's actual self, the alternative being ugliness and death), the scene acknowledges her capacity to achieve at least a momentary happiness free from the demands of her prior narcissism.
One of the real pleasures of Varda's film is its vivid depiction of early 1960s Paris. Shot on the streets and in the cafés of the city, the picture intercuts Cléo's story with what can only be described as a photo-essay detailing a very specific time and place. Lingering close-ups of the faces of ordinary Parisians, snippets of conversations picked up in cafés (often discussions of the Algerian War), shots of student protesters, footage from a generous sampling of the city's neighborhoods, these documentary elements combine and alternate with the fictional story to both grant immediacy to Cléo's trials and to create an important historical-social document in their own right. Varda neatly integrates these segments with the narrative, while allowing them to exist as a distinct cinematic element. For example, in one scene, Cléo rides along in a car with a friend. The friend pulls over and briefly runs inside a building to perform a quick errand. As Cléo waits, Varda introduces a montage, intercutting footage of a series of people on the street that the singer observes. Although ostensibly representing Cléo's viewpoint, the footage registers as an autonomous segment, a mini-essay set neatly apart from the world of the film's characters.
Probably the best-known formal element in Varda's film is her decision to shoot the picture virtually in real-time, following Cléo between the hours of 5 p.m. and 7 p.m., trimming the film's two-hour diegetic time-span by half an hour to fit the 90-minute running time. Like the documentary footage and the quick cuts, this approach (of which the audience is continually reminded by a series of chapter headings which display the current time) adds a real immediacy to the film, reflecting the genuine sense of crisis (both of identity and physical health) experienced by Cléo, but the film offers the viewer so much that this gimmick's function is largely reduced to serving as a narrative framework and is soon forgotten amidst the film's more lasting pleasures. A fully realized work and an early entry in the Nouvelle Vague, Varda's film is one of the more succesful (if infrequently viewed) achievements of that movement. At once a highly personal and a universally resonant work, Cléo From 5 to 7, which had a brief run at the Film Forum earlier this year and is available on DVD from Criterion, is now readily viewable and should soon come to assume its rightful place in the cinematic canon.
Wednesday, August 8, 2007
But those early scenes are among the most effective in Cassavetes' oeuvre. In one, the three men ride a deserted subway car. As they kick up their legs, Cassavetes arranges them in a fixed side-angle shot and we get the first sense of the discontent in the men's lives as Archie (Falk) expresses his regret at not becoming a professional athlete. The film is filled with an endless stream of words, but since they largely come from three men who don't know how to properly articulate their discontent, what results in a series of amusingly oblique outbursts that only hint at the character's frustrations with their unredeeming lifestyle. In one of the film's signature monologues, Archie, arranged comfortably on the subway bench, after speculating on the appealing life of an athlete, proceeds to list all the sports he enjoys: "I like baseball, I like basketball, I like golf, I like track and field..." before coming to a stop after he can't think of any more. "What else is there?" he asks. Archie's speculation leads to a pickup game of basketball which relieves the men from their need to talk and lets them express their inarticulate anxieties in a matter more befitting their characters.
One of the reasons Husbands is generally not as warmly regarded as Cassavetes' other films is its unrelenting masculinity. The three characters often lapse into the most vulgar, debased forms of masculine behavior, as when Archie taunts a woman for her poor singing at a bar and then strips naked hoping to inspire her to better vocal efforts, and the tempering influence of family life is, despite its centrality to the characters' lives, conspicuously absent from the film's diegetic world. Except for a final scene when Gus (Cassavetes) returns home and we see his kids, the only time any family members are glimpsed is during a nightmare sequence in which Harry (Gazarra) goes back to his house after his first night out for a messy confrontation with his wife, a confrontation in which she pulls a knife on him and he responds by hitting her and which prompts the spontaneous trip to London. The focus on the more macho aspects of male behavior, telegraphed by a series of still photographs during the opening credits which show the friends flexing their muscles, is certainly a valid approach to depicting the way three frustrated married men, approaching middle age, might act when fueled by alcohol and stimulated by their own company, and, though occasionally off-putting, represents a quite genuine attempt at an authentic characterization of three very specific, hyper-masculine individuals. To be sure not all men would behave in such a manner, but the point is that these three would, a consideration that provides ample justification for Cassavetes' machismo-fueled indulgences.
The scenes in London, which consist of the men's attempt to pick up women at a casino and the aftermath of their success, bring the characters' crises to a breaking point, since they must decide whether to stay in London or to return to Long Island. Although he takes up with a quirky, British blonde (Jenny Runacre) who he's "crazy about", it is never in much doubt that Gus (and Archie) plan to return home and resume their lives where they left off, especially since, as Gus points out, between them they have "three garages, five kids, and two lovely wives." Harry finds his life at more of a genuine crisis following his violent encounter with his wife and, while the other men go back at the end of the four days, Harry remains in London to continue his debauch. Seeing the men interact with the British women gives us a different perspective on the characters (from Gus' charming loveplay to Archie's frustrated babble), but the film functions best in a world populated only by men where the characters are free to indulge in their (admittedly childish) antics. When the film forces them to engage in one-on-one conversation with women, it occasionally sputters, since their inarticulateness is not met with reciprocal understanding (as when the men are alone) and without this masculine affirmation, Cassavetes seems less sure of his characters, uncertain how to have them interact with individuals other than themselves. It comes as a genuine relief when Archie and Gus return to the familiar suburban streets of Port Washington.
After the screening, a woman was heard remarking that the film was "very real," a common assessment of Cassavetes' work among the uninitiated, given the apparent documentary quality of his filmmaking and the apparently improvised lines (they are actually almost entirely scripted), but Cassavetes' approach is not necessarily more "real" than that of other filmmakers. Certainly, this pseudo-documentary aesthetic aims to get nearer to the truth of its characters' lives than would be possible by more conventional methods, but the idea that Cassavetes' technique is somehow purer, less artful than that of other directors seems entirely false. If films' styles represent different ways of seeing the world, then they are all necessarily contrived by the director (or other creative members of the crew) to fit a personal vision and Cassavetes' approach is ideally suited to capture his unique understanding of the discontent of approaching middle-age, but his filmmaking uses just as many manipulations (careful compositions, a studied "authenticity") to achieve this effect as any more "conventional" director. Still, thanks to this distinctive style and three strong lead performances, Husbands remains a potent vision of suburban frustration that, if it revels in its masculinity to the point of risking alienation and if it runs out of steam a little bit at the end, ultimately leaves a lasting effect on the viewer that a more restrained aesthetic approach would be incapable of achieving.
Sunday, August 5, 2007
Reportedly edited from over 320 hours of footage, Costa's picture takes its shape from the lives of the people he met during the shooting of two earlier films in the same district and, rather than forcing his non-actors to conform to a pre-arranged narrative, he shapes his work around their lived experience. Ventura (the actor and character share the name) is more a passive observer than active participant in this world. Content to let others speak, he seems to come alive only during his endless recitations of a proposed letter to a lover in Cape Verde that he repeats in a series of variations throughout the film. This recitation, always accomplished with an air of sadness, provides a thematic continuity to a film held together more by visual conception than narrative.
Of all the "children" he visits, Vanda (Vanda Duarte), a recovering junkie, provides the work with its most effusive personage. In an environment dominated by passive withdrawal, her endless flow of words, punctuated by a chronic hacking cough, marks Costa's film with a sense of vibrancy lacking in the rest of its diegetic world. In a scene that can be taken as the film's centerpiece, Vanda narrates the difficult birth of her young daughter, a narration that takes on a certain epic quality through its sheer number of convolutions. Costa establishes a tableau with Ventura, Vanda and her daughter arranged on a white bed. (The scenes in Vanda's apartment favor a rather brightly lit mise-en-scène with whites replacing the film's customary grays and blacks, a color scheme that surely tells us something about that character's vitality.) Perennially tired, Ventura lies down, while Vanda sits on the bed's edge, transfixed by her own narration. Costa's technique throughout the film is to carefully arrange a scene, fix his camera and let it run its course without directorial interruption. Here, in one of the film's longest takes, Vanda's narration of her obstetric difficulties results in a strangely mesmerizing sequence that creates a hypnotic pull from the barest of materials, a carefully arranged three-shot and a gruff but vital voice.
One of the unfortunate features of nearly every film that deals with slum life is a tendency to either focus too eagerly on the violent aspects of the characters' lifestyles or to treat them with an off-putting condescension, but Colossal Youth clearly has other concerns. The minimal violence that transpires in this world takes place entirely off screen. And Costa's aesthetic conception, variously described as minimalist or formalist, provides his characters with an unexpected dignity through its refusal to draw judgments (either positive or negative) on their actions. Clearly such an approach cannot be described as objective, especially given the care that Costa takes with visual composition (his mastery is especially apparent in his lighting schemes), but it provides full opportunity for his actors to fill the screen with their uncompromised presence and escape any aesthetic contrivance that would prejudice the audience in their reactions to this presence.
The world of Fontainhas is so tightly constrained, most of all by the darkness of Costa's visual conception (with the exception of the scenes in Vanda's apartment), that when he cuts away from this world it registers as a shock. The lush greenery that dominates the several scenes in Lisbon provides an obvious contrast (and one shot in particular, a long pan - one of only three in the film - across a vast expanse of green to reveal two characters rowing a boat down a canal, provides one of the film's most unexpected visual pleasures), but so do the scenes shot in the bright, antiseptic whiteness of the housing project where Ventura moves as part of a government plan of relocation and urban renewal. Unlike the brightness of Lisbon, however, this illuminated setting is aesthetically unredeeming. If the film is above all about the aesthetics of our perception of the world (as Nathan Lee wrote, "the movie is as much about looking at people and buildings in a certain way as it is about any specific individual or address"), then we must understand the different levels of meaning attached to the film's various settings through the corresponding changes in the film's visual conception. Regarded in this light, the film is about the movement from one visual aesthetic (the cracked grays of the hovels, which are nonetheless captured in shots of great beauty) to another (the drab homogeneity of the subsidized housing). Only the brief moments of escape to the city provide a measure of visual, as well as spiritual, relief, both for the audience and for the burdened inhabitants of Costa's rigid and uncompromising world.