Monday, November 26, 2007

I'm Not There

Writing about Todd Haynes' 1995 film Safe, Jonathan Rosenbaum argued that "Haynes' hatred for most of what he's showing [upper middle-class California life] is his real subject" and not the supposedly central question of "environmental illness." With Haynes' new feature, I'm Not There, the real subject seems to be, not the "lives and time of Bob Dylan" (as the film's subtitle has it), but the director's delight in his own perceived cleverness. Splitting his central figure into six different characters, each highlighting a different aspect of Dylan's persona, Haynes' film cribs its various aesthetic conceptions (a different conception for each figure) entirely from within the world of cinema and builds its dialogue from a combination of Dylan lyrics and a series of gnomic utterances which are more frustratingly impenetrable than evocative. The result is an unsatisfying pop artifact, a work that refuses to engage with any conception of the world that exists outside the cinema (or television), that strings its audience along by flattering its ability to spot the references to Dylan's music and biography and to the film's catalogue of cinematic allusions and that, finally, doesn't tell us anything about its purported subject that we don't already think we know.

The film's central sequence, the one that conforms most readily to the image of Dylan that tends to prevail in the popular imagination, provides the film's most transparent display of many of its essential weaknesses. Channelling its subject circa-1965, Cate Blanchett plays a churlish rock singer named Jude Quinn who speaks in an indecipherable jumble that mixes lyrics from Dylan's oeuvre with a series of cryptic formulations and plays like a parody of the singer's persona in D. A. Pennebaker's Don't Look Back. Ultimately, this segment fails to add anything to our understanding of either the historical or the mythical Dylan. It repeats the shopworn conception of its subject as an impenetrable personality given to chiding the media and fans who want to confine him to a single, manageable construction, but this conception fails to take us beyond Pennebaker's film and only serves to perpetuate the misleading and superficial image we already have of Dylan from a myriad of inferior sources. If Haynes reaches for the most obvious point of reference for his imagining of his principle figure, he calls on an equally unilluminating source for his re-creation of the time period. His presentation of the 1960s takes place in a simplified version of the world of Richard Lester (he alludes directly to Petulia and A Hard Day's Night) and reduces that director's milieu to a generic view of the psychedelic parties and iconic figures that have come to represent the period in the simplest version of the public imagination. Refusing to present either its subject or its setting in any way that isn't sanctified by the conceptions of other films, Haynes' self-consciously referential approach winks at viewers savvy enough to catch the allusions, while confining our conceptions of a complex time period and cultural figure to what has already been well established by previous screen presentations.

But this is only one version of the Dylan legacy. Are the other five any more illuminating? The simple answer is no. While few are as disappointing as the Jude section, practically all repeat its simplification and cinematic/pop-referential strategies. In one sequence, Christian Bale plays a folk-singer named Jack Rollins meant to recall the Dylan of 1963 and 1964. The segment is shot as a fake-documentary and recreates the biography of his real-life counterpart with some pointed changes designed as hip in-jokes between Haynes and his audience. For example, the savvy viewer is expected to laugh at the altered titles of such Dylan albums as The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan and The Times They Are a-Changin'. Except for the fun Haynes has in changing these titles and in playing (rather unimaginatively) with the documentary form, the segment really has no reason for existing. In another section, Heath Ledger plays an actor who plays Jack Rollins in a film, a meta-theatrical ploy less clever than it sounds. His wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg) spends much of her time watching news broadcasts on television, a device that Haynes uses to fill in the historical background of the period, but in an inevitably simplified manner, since the news reports merely repeat iconic images and are designed to regurgitate the "reality" we have become accustomed to believing in thanks to the perpetuation of these too-familiar representations. Like the cultural conception of the 1960s drawn from the world of the cinema in the Jude section, this presentation of the political events of the decade draws on a similarly media-sanctioned conception that further reveals Haynes' desire to limit his concerns to the world as understood from movies and television and his refusal to grapple with any reality outside this self-contained world, both in terms of his central figure and the time period he covers.

Finally, there is nothing particularly striking in Haynes' various aesthetic conceptions. If each segment purports to employ a different visual strategy, they all end up looking pretty much the same. The bright greenery of the Woody Guthrie section figures later in the Billy the Kid segment. The garish indoor lighting of the Jack Rollins sequence is repeated in the Robbie segment. With the exception of the two black-and-white sections (the Jude sequence and another sequence where a figure identified as Arthur Rimbaud stands trial), there is little to differentiate Haynes' various conceptions. And none of them looks very good to start with. Unlike the unified visual presentation of the director's vastly superior Far From Heaven, I'm Not There partakes of an anything-goes aesthetic that results in poor staging of individual shots, a dearth of interesting compositions and a general confusion over which particular aesthetic components belong in which specific conception. For a film that pretends to attempt something daring with its visual scheme, I'm Not There looks surprisingly drab.

This visual monotony, combined with a correspondingly unilluminating conception of its central figure and time period, results in the director's first real misfire. That the film has received such universally laudatory reviews is indicative of a willingness on the part of many critics to overlook a poorly conceived and unreflective historical program, a program which reinforces a static and conservative view of history, and a general acceptance of a cinematic conception that is content to limit its engagement to other films and ignore interaction with any version of an external world. With the prominence of directors like Quentin Tarantino and the Coen Brothers, films whose cinematic milieus are drawn entirely from the world of other movies have become an unfortunate staple of the American cinema. That these films often illuminate more about their directors' perceived cleverness than the world as understood from either within or without the cinema, seems irrelevant to the many viewers who are all too happy to be taken in by their surface manipulations. Haynes' film not only simplifies its cultural history, blunting the impact of its iconoclastic subject by presenting him through the clichés by which we are already accustomed to view him, but keeps us firmly locked within a media-dictated universe that prevents its creator from getting at any essential truth about either Bob Dylan or about the world that he lived in.

Friday, November 23, 2007


Redacted, Brian De Palma's furious indictment of the Iraq war, couches a straightforward story of a group of GIs who rape a 15-year old Iraqi girl and murder her and her family, in a sophisticated formal framework. The film's central conceit finds the entirety of its images filtered through an array of mediating devices designed to distance the viewer from the on-screen action and cause him to question the validity of the film's catalogue of images. Among the filters through which we view the work are the handheld camera of aspiring filmmaker and army private Angel Salazar (Izzy Diaz), a series of security cameras, a mock French art-documentary and various Internet sites. The stated goal of De Palma's formal experimentation is to call into question the legitimacy of the media's portrayal of the Iraqi conflict which forces viewers to assess the war through an inevitably biased filter (whether imposed by the U.S. or foreign governments or by individual ideologues), a theme reinforced by an early on-screen conversation in which the soldiers mock the idea of Salazar's camera as an instrument for recording the "truth". De Palma's formal design not only forces the viewer to reflect on the nature of the war images whose authenticity he is expected to take as a given, but offers a useful corrective to the reports of the mainstream U.S. media by filtering the footage through sources of various national provenance and different levels of official and unofficial discourse.

And yet, De Palma's skillful formal manipulations are undercut by his simplistic understanding of his material (his various sources offer more-or-less the same viewpoint) and his straightforward exposition. If the different filters are designed to make us question the validity of official presentations of the war, this implied skepticism is not translated to De Palma's own presentation which plays out in predictable polemical fashion and which admits of no such interrogation. The director's formalist gesture works as a distancing strategy, a device which asks the viewer to regard the film's content with a certain degree of irony, but such an approach seems ill-suited to a story as unambiguous as Redacted, especially since De Palma's tendentious attitude towards his material precludes precisely that ironic viewpoint suggested by his formal framework. The film's salient feature may ultimately be the disconnect between its simplistic content and its multi-faceted form, a form which promises a nuanced understanding of the material that is at odds with the director's blunt perspective. De Palma's formalism is remarkably inventive, but it belongs in another film, one more open to a corresponding multiplicity of viewpoint.

Much has been made about De Palma's crude presentation of his material. The stock characters that comprise his cast and the lack of nuance in his understanding of the complexities of war have been endlessly enumerated by the film's many detractors, but in this crudity lies an undeniable power. As J. Hoberman noted "the most authentic thing about Redacted is the rage with which it was made." As an instructive presentation of the "reality" of the war, it may be useless, but as an expression of the director's anger (which may ultimately be the film's real subject), it achieves a rare force. The rape sequence, despite the murky filter provided by Salazar's helmet camera, provides, with the sole exception of the final scene in The Wayward Cloud, the year's most disturbing on-screen violence. Although its staging may feel like an unfair manipulation of the viewer's reponse, slickly designed to further the director's exhortative ends, only such a brutal expression of rage can provide a fit correlative to De Palma's anguished conception of the circumstances surrounding the war.

But De Palma's simplistic understanding of his material finally works against him. As Paul Arthur demonstrates in a recent piece in Film Comment, the director's portrayal of the rapist/murderers as vulgar, immoral rednecks whose characters are fixed from the film's start blunts his indictment of the war machinery since the criminals' acts are not shaped by the military culture, but are the inevitable expressions of their essential personalities. The director's one critique of the military apparatus (as opposed to the actions of the individual soldier) comes when a conscience stricken GI tries to report the rape and runs into a hierarchical machinery designed to protect the military from any such unflattering charges, but the film's blame rests largely with its monstrously caricatured soldiers. As Arthur notes, the film "turns its murderous rampage into a weird aberration, something perpetrated by monsters exhumed from an imagination steeped in hack-Hollywood action clichés." Salazar, who attends the massacre, his camera rolling, as a supposedly objective witness (thus indicting the filmmaker who observes but doesn't interfere with the perpetration of atrocities), may serve as a example of the innocent GI who, caught up in the exceptional circumstances of war, is brought to participate in immoral actions, but De Palma's primary interest in this character is through his capacity as video recorder. Ultimately, the perpetrators are no more than the stock figures common to nearly every war picture since the 1980s. To his credit, De Palma acknowledges this reliance on shopworn models through the mouthpiece of an angry teen video blogger, but the mere acknowledgement doesn't negate the act. This refusal to bring to the material any hint of a nuanced understanding may add to the film's forceful sense of outrage, but it prevents the work from serving as anything more than an expression of personal anguish, the impotent cry of a lone individual.

Monday, November 19, 2007

What We Mean When We Call a Film "Boring"

The vocabulary we use to talk about films fundamentally defines our attitudes towards the cinema. As we watch a movie and begin to formulate an opinion, we call upon our own personal vocabulary, mentally assigning the film to one or more evaluative categories based on the different descriptors we apply to the work. Since most of the vocabulary used in thinking and writing about film has become hopelessly trite thanks to years of overuse (think of unilluminating expressions like "a meditation on..." or "an exercise in style"), and generally focuses on what makes a film similar to any number of other works rather than defining what makes it unique, we tend to bring stale, passive attitudes towards the viewing experience and continue to think about the most challenging films in the same old terms. When these challenging films don't fit any of the old categories, we fall back on dismissive formulations to invalidate the work, since we have little or no prior cinematic grounding from which to evaluate it. (We may say, for example, that a film is "pretentious"). The directors of these films may have employed a new cinematic vocabulary in their work but, too often, we are still locked into our old critical vocabulary which has become insufficient to describe many of the important contemporary works being made. A failure to adjust the language in which we think about film inevitably leads to a failure to adjust to the new aesthetic strategies being employed by the world's leading filmmakers.

One of the more dangerous accusations that an unreflective viewer can inflict on a film is the charge of "boredom". The question of a film's being "boring" - or in its euphemistic critical formulations "slow moving" or "deliberately paced" - poses a unique problem, since the speaker is often less than clear as to what he means when he uses the term. Saying a film is "boring" is not merely to abjure the responsibility of actively engaging a given work, it is to fundamentally misunderstand the proper uses of film viewership. Writing in 1965, Susan Sontag noted, "the charge of boredom is really hypocritical. There is, in a sense, no such thing as boredom. Boredom is only another name for a certain species of frustration. And the new languages which the interesting art of our time speaks are frustrating to the sensibilities of most educated people." She was speaking specifically about the art of Antonioni and Beckett, artists that forged a new vocabulary (cinematic and literary) to challenge the by-then largely assimilated language of the modernist movement that was beginning to weigh down much of contemporary art. Today, the question of a unique cinematic "language" that is often dismissed as "boring" is no less an issue than it was in the 1960s, as most of the best filmmakers working today, Béla Tarr, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Jia Zhang-ke, Alexsandr Sokurov and Tsai Ming-Liang, employ an aesthetic approach (long takes, an emphasis on strong visual composition, a refusal to grant primacy to traditional notions of character and narrative) likely to frustrate those unwilling to engage the filmmakers on their own terms. When someone says of one of these filmmakers that his works are boring, he is betraying his inability (or unwillingness) to respond to the filmmaker's singular aesthetic presentation. What the viewer means is not "this film is boring," but "I lack the cinematic grounding to engage this film's unique language". Outside of a small number of the world's more discerning critics, the works of these filmmakers have largely failed to connect not only with a majority of viewers (educated or otherwise) but with many short-sighted film writers as well, who employ a modified version of the vocabulary of their lay counterparts to the same dismissive ends.

To describe a film as boring is, in many cases, to assert a definition of the cinema that is hopelessly narrow: film as a narrative-centered medium, relying heavily on dialogue to grant its characters the illusion of psychological complexity; a medium that presents a closed, self-sufficient world and is carefully engineered for easy viewer consumption. There aren't too many critics who would, in theory, subscribe to such a limiting definition of the art form, but when writers like Todd McCarthy take filmmakers to task for refusing to adhere to these very limitations, we know that something is very wrong with the predominant critical attitude towards contemporary cinema. When McCarthy writes something like "the various influences of Chantal Ackerman [sic], the Dardenne Brothers and Bela [sic] Tarr have moved numerous filmmakers to abandon the shaping and dramatizing of events in favor of recording mundane daily activity and presenting repetitive behavior ad nauseum" in his 2005 report from the Cannes Festival, he is again giving expression to a fallacious understanding of the medium. By insisting that only films that "dramatize" their material are worthwhile, McCarthy and writers with a similar critical orientation lay the groundwork for damaging accusations of boredom. Granted, every filmmaker that follows the example of Akerman, the Dardennes or Tarr may not be as successful as their models, but they are still attempting to speak in a fresh cinematic language, a language that may seem "mundane" or "repetitive" (two synonyms for "boring") to its detractors, but is perpetually invigorating for those willing to engage it, just as the language of Antonioni and Godard was for receptive viewers in the 1960s. Those who insist on "traditional" passive notions of film viewership will always fall back on their stock vocabulary (or new variations thereof), but, by doing so, they automatically preclude themselves from properly experiencing the truly important work being done in the medium.

But the descriptor "boring" does have its critical uses. It applies quite nicely to a work like Pan's Labyrinth, a film that mystifyingly received near universal critical acclaim upon its 2006 release. Clinging to a tight narrative structure and conventionally defined characters (that is, given a consistent, if shallow, psychological grounding), Labyrinth everywhere plays it safe, confining itself to too narrow a set of boundaries and then failing to generate any interest within these boundaries. Certainly a film that follows traditional notions of cinematic storytelling can achieve great success, but it must do something with its narrative elements other than simply allow them to unfold in a predictable chronology. The film presents two levels of narrative reality - the brutish existence of resistance fighters following the Spanish Civil War and the fantasy life of the young girl, Ofelia - but both play out without surprises, the clichés of political oppression alternating with the clichés of the fairy tale. The Francoist is a typically brutal chauvinist, one of the most ordinary screen villains ever created. The girl is a poorly conceived example of the typical "imaginative" kid. A film can be wholly successful without developing interesting characters (and in many of the best films of today, character "depth" is largely beside the point), but in the terms set by Guillermo del Toro's film, the terms of strict narrative development, character inetivably plays a central role and del Toro seems content to rely on the least imaginative conceptions to build his principal figures. The film's interest may not lie in characterization, but it needs to lie somewhere. The director seems to have saved all his imagination for the creation of the mythical creatures that inhabit Ofelia's fantasy world, because it is only in these vividly imagined figures (and the accompanying makeup and costuming) that the film generates any interest, visual or otherwise. What finally makes the film so dull is its insistence on drawing extremely narrow limits to its cinematic conception and then failing to do anything worthwhile within those limits. A failure even within its own highly constricted terms, Pan's Labyrinth is a film for which the frequently mis-applied descriptor of "boring" fits all too well.

This post was selected as a "link of the day" for December 2nd, 2007 on the excellent collaborative blog The House Next Door. It generated a lively discussion both on that site and right here on The Cine File consisting of (mostly) intelligent commentary. Check it out here.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Southland Tales

In the end, it's just one more apocalypse fantasy. But Richard Kelly's sprawling, satirical pop sci-fi epic Southland Tales cuts such a wide swath through our political-cultural landscape, fills the screen with such an unassimilable mass of information and is so insistent on playing the whole thing for laughs that, even though it offers little more than a superficial treatment of its vast catalogue of topical concerns, the overall effect is of an overloaded, wonderfully skewed, but decidedly pointed projection of the fears and fantasies of contemporary America.

After opening with footage of a family barbecue (shot as a mock home-movie) that gives way to an unexpected nuclear attack on Abilene, Texas and the onset of World War III, the film shifts gears to bring us up to date on the state of global affairs in a sequence that quickly establishes Kelly's information-saturated attack. Taking its cue from Godard films like La Chinoise, Southland Tales assaults us with more data than we can reasonably assimilate. But Kelly's film ties this sense of information overload specifically to the mass media whose dulling assault on our sensibilities Kelly simultaneously approximates and critiques. A mock news broadcast, the screen littered with text, fills us in on the ensuing events, the ongoing war with Iraq, Iran and other Middle-Eastern powers and the curtailing of civil liberties at home. A key recurring image in the film's iconography of media-saturation finds Nanna Mae-Frost (Miranda Richardson), director of the newly appointed government agency (USIDent) responsible for controlling all the country's information portals, seated in front of a dozen television screens each tuned to a different image. Mirroring the device popularized by CNN, many of the screens offer simultaneously three distinct pieces of information, an image, a caption and an update from an unrelated story at the screen's bottom. The concurrent barrage of information, which the viewer cannot be expected to fully process and the tight control under which it's placed create a unique situation in which we are simultaneously given too much and too little information. The result is a confused state of affairs in which informed analysis is all but eliminated as a possibility for a nation's citizenry.

Of its varied concerns, the film spends the most time negotiating the trade-off between personal liberty and government control in the face of the constant threat of annihilation. The discussion is crystallized around the upcoming vote on Proposition 69 (the bill's title played for sophomoric humor) which aims to reduce the nearly limitless powers granted USIDent following the nuclear attacks. The debate plays out largely through a series of television commercials, political discourse pointedly given its principal expression through the detritus of mass media. In one ad, a redneck with a shotgun asks the camera "do you think your personal privacy is worth more than my family's safety from terrorist attack?" and then proceeds to threaten anyone who would challenge his priorities. But the film's concerns take in far more than the civil liberties debate; among the myriad of topics covered are the Iraq war, alternative energy sources, drug addiction, television punditry, police aggression, the space-time continuum and the ensuing apocalypse, the last prefigured in a series of quotations from the Book of Revelations that a monotonal Justin Timberlake invokes at various intervals throughout the film. With such a comprehensive catalogue of concerns, Kelly is understandably prevented from treating any at length. Rather, by mashing such an overwhelming range of discourse into one undigested mixture and not worrying about such lesser concerns as coherence, he builds a confusing, disjointed but powerfully resonant picture of our society, a society that combines stultifying government control with a barely-checked self-destructive impulse.

Kelly fills out his cast with such pop figures as The Rock (Dwayne Johnson), Timberlake, Bai Ling and Mandy Moore, but rather than subject his unlikely actors to a judgemental irony, he mines their personae for their iconic cultural significance. The Rock trades his signature eye-wink for a less certain gesture, a nervous rubbing together of his fingertips that becomes a running gag, but it is his status as a media icon that counts, his presence expanding the film's inclusive cultural landscape. Beyond these figures, the work is overloaded with characters and plotlines. The various strands may be defiantly incoherent, but, after enduring their separate adventures, the characters are all herded together for the film's impressive conclusion, the onset of apocalypse in downtown Los Angeles. As rioters surround the Staples Center and the city starts to burn, the governmental figures float above the fray in a sleek zeppelin, its safety undermined by an upended ice cream truck magically floating nearby. Kelly alternates footage detailing the action from ground level, aboard the zeppelin and from an unspecified aerial point of view, the latter shots bringing the fantasy of annihilation, the destruction of Los Angeles so frequently imagined in film, into full view. As the rioters swarm the streets, they register on the screen as barely discernible, slow-moving splotches eating away at the city, while the glory of the fully lit metropolis turns to an even more glorious fire as the high-rise buildings begin to burn and the zeppelin is consumed in flames. This vision of apocalypse, effected from within, even as the city faces the external threats of nuclear warfare and environmental instability, registers as the final expression of the collective deathwish of American society and the culmination of the picture's endless catalogue of contemporary ills. In the end, if we find Kelly's imposingly inclusive vision too much for us to fully assimilate, we can't fail to recognize ourselves in his splintered, disturbing and very comical portrait of a world inexorably committed to its own destruction.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

No Country for Old Men

At its best, No Country for Old Men comes off as a sensational fast-paced actioner that happens to look terrific. At its worst, it finds the Coen Brothers wallowing in their trademark indulgences - sketching a condescending gallery of rural caricatures designed for the ironic amusement of their pseudo-sophisticate audience and betraying a cynically concocted attitude towards violence which combines hyperstylization and exactly-detailed gross-out gags to ensure a rise from the viewer, the preferred reaction being a mixture of laughter and groans present in equal measure. Still, at least until the film's final third, the Coens' brisk pacing and strong visual program swallows up any of these other concerns in a whirlwind thrill-ride, a wholly successful entry in the action genre which achieves its greatest success within the limits of the genre rather than through any attempt to transcend them.

Adapted from Cormac McCarthy's rather forgettable novel, the central action of the story consists of a chase across Texas that spills over the border into Mexico: Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbles across two million dollars from a botched drug deal and is pursued for the rest of the film by the psychopathic Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). The chase device allows the Coens to eschew their usual method of characterization, allowing their lead figures to simply exist without burdening them with one or more of the irritating quirks that the filmmakers' generally assign to their characters - the Midwestern wholesomeness (and accent) of Marge Gunderson and the squeamish stupidity of Jerry Lundegaard in Fargo, the exaggerated naïveté of Norville Barnes in The Hudsucker Proxy, the condescending self-righteousness of Barton Fink. Here the Coens subsume character in action - the men of the film count in so much as they act. Surprisingly, the filmmakers succeed by hewing to the demands of the genre (at least until the film's final act) - creating suspense, handling pacing, delivering the expected payoffs - rather than using the genre framework as a springboard for their trademark pop culture musings. Chigurh may be a typical villain, defined by the pleasure he takes in his villainy, but, with his unchanging expression, his bass voice and his absurdly asymmetrical bowl-cut, he is a particularly effective one. Moss is completely ordinary, a man seized by ordinary motives (greed), involved in continual activity. The third major character, a sheriff played by Tommy Lee Jones, is likewise wholly unremarkable but, in his case, the Coens attempt to add some heft to his characterization by including a few feeble conversations that fill in his backstory and which mar two of the film's three final scenes. In this film, the principals are too ordinary for the Coens to condescend to; the filmmakers refrain from providing them with those unwanted quirks that too often invite the audience to feel superior to their main characters whose idiosyncrasies mark them out as objects of ridicule. But, lest the Coens' sense of superiority find no outlet, they save the condescending impulse for a gallery of hapless supporting rubes. The exaggeratedly obese woman who works the desk at a trailer park, Moss' mother-in-law who says things like "it's unusual to see a Mexican in a suit", a dim-witted motel clerk, all are defined by their grotesque inferiorities which identify them as dispensable rural beings whose only use is as figures of amusement for the film's more sophisticated audience. They may be confined to the margins of the film this time around, but their presence is still cause for regret.

If the American cinema suffers from a general unconcern with the visual aspects of film, thankfully the Coen Brothers can not be accused of furthering this disturbing neglect. In the past, they have perhaps tended too frequently towards an overstylization which occasionally caused them to lose their feel for setting. In the current film, the filmmakers have no trouble evoking the landscapes of rural Texas and their strong visual achievement only strikes a wrong note during some of the violent discharges. The wide expanses, the garishly lit interiors, the framing of characters, all contribute to a work that is as visually assured as any American film of recent vintage. In one scene, Chigurh dips a rag in oil, sets it in a car's gas tank and lights it on fire. He slowly walks away from the car and enters a drugstore. As he goes through the doors, the Coens place him in the center foreground of the screen. In the right background, through a window, we see the car and a tiny flame coming from the gas tank, umemphatically set into the mise-en-scène. Suddenly, the car explodes and Chigurh, without breaking stride, continues walking and, the staff distracted by the explosion, goes behind the vacated counter to seize whatever drugs he needs. The scene, for all its expert staging, gains its power from the single image of the small square of flame set off against the blue of the car so matter-of-factly wedged into the screen's background. This little detail leads to the more conventional aftermath of a routine screen explosion, but it is the tiny flame rather than the ensuing conflagration that sticks in the mind. This eye for detail within a general framework of expansive exteriors and constricting interiors ensures that the film never lacks for visual interest.

But the Coens' visual inventiveness is put to more dubious use in the scenes that depict the gore-heavy aftermath of the film's frequent violent encounters. David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises, another of year's most celebrated films, likewise included jolting gore-heavy violence but, if Cronenberg's film can't exactly be called a critique of violence, it at least calls upon viewers to question their attitude towards its on-screen portrayal. The Coens' sole concern with the uses of screen violence seems to be the reaction they can elicit from the viewer. As in the infamous wood-chipper sequence in Fargo, this reaction is often one of laughter, but not the sort of self-critical laughter that results from Cronenberg's absurdist presentation. This laughter is more akin to the yuks that Quentin Tarantino gets from his own violent scenes, an unreflective laughter predicated on the director's cleverness in presenting mutilated flesh. In one scene from the Coens' film, Chigurh gets in a car accident and afterwards sits to the side, writhing in agony. As two boys approach the scene, we notice a piece of bone sticking out from Chigurh's arm. But, even if we didn't notice, one of the boys is there to continually remind us, as he can only keep repeating "his bone's sticking out of his arm." The image of the bone, like the fountains of blood gurgling from Stephen Root's slit throat in an earlier scene, is a masterpiece of makeup calculated to achieve the maximum effect but, not merely horrifying as it would be in real life, it is stylized into an odd sort of beauty that only make the uses to which the filmmakers put it all the more disturbing. In a way, the boy who notices the bone is the Coens' ideal spectator. He seizes on the most sensational detail and rapt by its gory spell stands in willful ignorance of the situation's other concerns - the fact of the injured man's pain doesn't seem to bother him. The other boy, by contrast, shows a genuine concern and stands as the only figure in the film not consumed by selfish motives, but it is the first boy who mirrors our reaction to the situation, at least if we buy into the Coens' cynical shtick. But, even if we don't, even if we object to their uses of screen violence and their ironic condescension, their latest film offers enough excitement and visual pleasure to make it continually worth our while.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Sullivan's Travels: A Dialectical Reading

Sullivan's Travels proposes a world in which only two types of movies exist; between popular genre pictures and import-laden message films, there is little to choose. The film sets up a neat dialectic between the two warring conceptions which, at first glance, it seems to resolve in favor of the former (represented primarily through the light comedy), but the film itself, in its multiplicity of cinematic modes, represents another solution to the problem, a true synthesis which culls what it finds useful in the opposing conceptions and uses it to comment on the very notion of the dialectic that inevitably results from the genre-fication of films intrinsic to the studio system. The titular character, Hollywood filmmaker John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) may favor first one than the other type of picture before being confirmed in his initial preference, but he is incapable of seeing beyond the dialectic. To take Sullivan as the film's mouthpiece is to read Sturges' work as a confirmation of the simplistic and hidebound choices that Hollywood proposes as a filmmaker's only options but, fortunately, the film itself makes nonsense of such a narrow reading by successfully combining any number of cinematic modes of inquiry to critique the very machinery that aims at preventing such a combination.

The film begins with Sullivan's declared intention to stop producing the type of makeweight comedy with which he established his reputation (example: Hey, Hey in the Hayloft) and focus on a more serious type of film which would take in the harsh realities of Depression-era America and treat that liberal creation known as "the common man" rather than his customary middle-class milieu. As Sullivan puts it, he wants to make a film that "would realize the potentialities of film as the sociological and artistic medium that it is", a film with "social significance" that "teaches a moral lesson"; in other words the sort of overblown feel-good nonsense that routinely wins major awards and which the film continually ridicules. Throughout the film, Sullivan's defense of the "significant" social picture comes off as shopworn and hopelessly naive; Sturges' ironic presentation of his lead character's discourse allows him to critique both a type of picture (the message movie) and the trite assumptions that enable its creation.

When the studio executives argue that he knows nothing about his potential subject matter, Sullivan decides to go undercover as a hobo and learn about the harsh realities of life in order to better prepare himself for his undertaking, a decision which prompts him to journey from Los Angeles to Las Vegas with only ten cents in his pocket. Lest he become too lonely, he takes with him a beautiful aspiring actress played by Veronica Lake who also goes disguised as a bum. Lake's character, who tellingly prefers Sullivan's light comedic films to any Hollywood message movie, serves as a necessary deflator to his high flown, but ultimately ineffectual rhetoric. As Sullivan speaks enthusiastically of a self-important picture called Hold Back Tomorrow, the Girl snappily replies "you hold it." When Sullivan asks her "don't you think with the world in its present condition... that people are allergic to comedies?" she looks at him disgustedly and offers a definitive "no." Ultimately Sullivan's journey provides him with a superficial glimpse of the down-and-out lifestyle, enough to gather material for a movie, but not enough to suffer more than the occasional discomfort or inconvenience. To his credit, Sullivan eventually acknowledges the superficiality of his travels, concluding "I haven't suffered enough [to make the film]." Only later, after his journey has supposedly reached its end, does he suffer genuine privation, a circumstance which, ironically leads to a reversal in Sullivan's cinematic priorities, causing him to embrace the role of a comedic filmmaker and abandon his plan to make serious films.

The scene in which Sullivan's attitude towards the two types of pictures alters is the key to understanding the film; the viewer's interpretation of the scene dictates his interpretation of the entire work. Following a series of mishaps, a dazed Sullivan attacks a railroad employee and is sentenced to six years at a brutal Southern penal camp. The only respite offered the prisoners from their excruciating labors is the occasional trip to a local church where, after the service, the men are treated to a screening of Disney cartoons, which they find uproarious. Sullivan initially seems baffled by the inmates' exaggerated reactions, but soon joins in with laughter as hearty as any of the others. The ostensible reading of the scene and the one offered by Sullivan at the end of the film, is as a celebration of the Hollywood screen comedy since, as Sullivan notes, laughter is "all some people have." Yet, the scene itself plays more like a parody of a general film audience responding disproportionately to the most debased screen offerings. The faces of the prisoners, which Sturges shows us in a series of close-ups (and repeats in a montage at the film's conclusion) are deliberately scruffy, emphasizing their status as what Sullivan would condescendingly call the "common man". As Sturges intercuts shots of their oversize reactions with footage of a rather ordinary Pluto cartoon, the effect is so incongruous that it seems to make a mockery of Sullivan's simplistic interpretation. Is this the kind of product that Sullivan's Travels is celebrating when it grants its highest valuation to works that provoke laughter?

Fortunately, the film itself represents an eloquent solution to the dialectic by positing a sophisticated synthesis of the two exclusive modes of cinematic possibility. Interestingly enough, the film begins with a false synthesis, stated even before the terms of the dialectic are introduced. After the opening titles, the first sequence depicts a struggle between two men atop a railroad car which seems to establish the film as a typical action picture. Shots are fired, the men try to strangle each other and they eventually push one another off the train and fall into an adjacent river and die. The words "the end" appear on the screen and Sturges' film begins anew, this time in earnest. The first thing we see is Sullivan, who holds the action picture up as a model of the type of movie he wishes to make, offering his own interpretation. "You see the symbolism of it?" he asks. "Capital and labor destroy each other. It teaches a lesson." To which a studio executive aptly replies "who wants to see that kind of stuff?" The mock-film which opens Sturges' picture offers a wholly unsatisfactory synthesis of the two strains of cinema. It takes the crude filmmaking of the mindless genre picture and attempts to grant it a sliver of significance by overlying a crude allegory onto its flimsy framework. The result is a failed attempt to the meld lowbrow entertainment and middlebrow moralizing which exemplifies the worst qualities of each.

Sturges' film, however, is much more successful in its appropriation of multiple cinematic modes and in combining them to produce a film that has plenty to say, but that, unlike the message films Sullivan aspires to make, is anything but simplistic in its discourse. Sturges is equally capable of calling on outright slapstick (as in an early scene in which Sullivan hitches a ride with a lead-footed boy and leads his entourage on a high-speed chase), sophisticated verbal comedy, melodrama and gritty "realism" (the prison scenes) when it suits his purposes, refusing to confine himself, as the Hollywood of the film's diegetic world insists on its directors doing, to one mode of exposition. That these different modes are used in the service of the film's primary concern, an exploration of the possibilities of filmmaking within the Hollywood system, illustrates a remarkable sophistication on Sturges' part. He uses the conventional tools offered the studio filmmaker to question the efficacy of those very tools. Within a single film, Sturges crafts simultaneously a comedy and a message movie, both as effective as the efforts of any other Hollywood filmmaker. The message offered by Sullivan's film, however, is that such generic divisions are ultimately arbitrary conventions and severely inhibit the creative filmmaker. Only a director of Sturges' genius could prove capable of finding his way out of this restrictive dialectic.

At the end of the film, Sullivan decides not to make his epic of the common man and instead return to the light entertainment that had been his trademark, offering a lame argument about the necessity of laughter. Sturges makes sure his hero hasn't learned a thing either about class (in prison, he continually attempts to call on his Hollywood prestige, disdaining to think of himself in the same terms as the other prisoners) or about cinematic priorities (he moves from one term of the dialectic to the other but fails to acknowledge the possibility of a synthesis). What is so unsettling about the film's ending is that Sullivan's final acceptance of the importance of cinematic comedy seems to preclude the necessity of making any other type of film. It is as if to say that the cinema need aim no higher than Hey, Hey in the Hayloft or a Disney one-reeler. Fortunately, the totality of the film we have just watched definitively undermines Sullivan's simplistic understanding of the cinematic project. Where Sullivan failed, Sturges succeeds. He certainly understands the importance of laughter (he is responsible for some of the funniest films ever made), but he is also willing to acknowledge the greater possibilities (as satire, as a tool for interrogating our roles as consumer, as social being, as watcher of cinema) of screen comedy. There is a world of difference between the intelligent, thoughtful comedies Sturges makes and the feeble-minded product that Sullivan turns out. It is this difference and the uses to which Sturges puts it that ultimately account for the film's singular achievement.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Get Out Your Handkerchiefs

Bertrand Blier's riotous 1978 feature Get Out Your Handkerchiefs takes as its central joke the idea that a 13-year old boy can do what two men cannot: satisfy a grown woman. The two men are Raoul (Gérard Depardieu), the woman's husband, a burly, well meaning, but ineffectual petit bourgeois who claims to teach at a driving school but never seems to work at all and Stéphane (Patrick Dewaere), a parody intellectual complete with beard, glasses and a wall full of books (he owns the complete collection of éditions poches but is never seen reading any of them. In another running gag, he continually waxes lyrical about his love of Mozart, but is completely unfamiliar with the work of any other composer). The woman, Solange (Carole Laure), is a grotesque exaggeration of traditional notions of femininity - she is beautiful, nearly silent, completely without opinions, and perpetually engaged in her sole hobby: knitting.

The film, which plays out as subdued farce, begins with a restaurant conversation between a bored Solange and Raoul, discouraged by his inability to make his wife happy (her dissatisfaction manifests itself alternately in an utter indifference to life and a series of minor physical afflictions - fainting spells, headaches - which the film treats as a form of "woman's hysteria"). This dissatisfaction is easily understood (at least by Raoul) as explicitly sexual in nature and finds its clearest physical expression in her inability to get pregnant, a sign for Raoul of his lack of virility. This sexual shortcoming is unacceptable to the husband who takes the extreme measure of picking out a random man from the restaurant (Stéphane) for his wife to sleep with, hoping to achieve a sort of potency by proxy, an arrangement to which Solange is typically indifferent.

The disturbing peculiarity of so readily offering up one's wife for another man's pleasure is evinced in an early scene in which Raoul shows off a sleeping Solange to Stéphane, describing the unsuspecting woman as an angel, the peculiarity furthered by the discrepancy between the descriptor (angel) and the woman's actual function (whore). As in a later scene where Solange is glimpsed naked unawares as she sleeps, the aggression of the male gaze directed on the unwitting female registers as an extreme form of invasion, an invasion that is extrapolated to include the everyday life of the central couple, since Solange's sleeping is really only an extension of her general passivity. Raoul may claim to act with no intention other than to make his wife happy, but as he proudly shows off his sleeping wife for another man's delectation, his violation embodies a hypermasculine attitude which imagines the woman as a bill of goods, able to be transferred at the owner's whim. Blier is canny in how he links this attitude to generalized male fears of sexual inadequacy. The two circumstances really come from the same source, an inability and unwillingness to understand the female sex, an attitude which relegates women to the realm of the mysterious and then, frustrated by this mysteriousness, attempts to reduce them to a more easily malleable form in which this impenetrable personhood becomes a lack of personhood altogether. In the film's first half, Solange obliges by remaining both inscrutable and perpetually passive, but in the second act, she begins to assert a sort of capricious will that proves to be no more comprehensible to the male characters than her initial passivity.

When Stéphane proves as incapable of satisfying Solange as her husband, Blier introduces a fourth character, Christian Beloeil (Riton Liebman), a 13-year old boy, the son of a factory owner in Northern France. The intelligent (he boasts of a 158 IQ), but socially awkward boy not only makes Solange laugh for the first time, but shatters her indifference towards men and, in a final twist, succeeds where Raoul and Stéphane have most shamefully failed, by impregnating the supposedly frigid woman. The film's great joke is that a man so concerned with asserting his sexual potency that he is willing to pimp out his wife is undone by a virginal child who, in contrast to Raoul's burly, masculine appearance, is physically frail and whose long hair stamps him as markedly feminine. That Christian outdoes both men in their alleged areas of strength - he exhibits genuine potency in favor of Raoul's outward virility and offers real intelligence in place of Stéphane's intellectual posturing - only adds to the thorough evisceration of their desperately asserted conceptions of masculinity.

A savage excavation of man's sexual fears, Blier's comedy exposes these fears to an ultimate ridicule as his two male leads end up in jail and humiliated, which the film posits as the logical extension of their misguided efforts to assuage their Freudian anxieties. For the director, man's inability to understand women finds its clearest expression in farce. That the woman, fickle and inscrutable to the end, doesn't come off any better than her male counterparts may grant legitimacy to the men's fears, but it is ultimately they who must suffer for their lack of comprehension.