Sunday, December 30, 2007

There Will Be Blood

Paul Thomas Anderson's latest is all in good fun, but it doesn't really have much to say about its ostensible subjects - religion and capitalism - except that the uses of the former can be more than a little ridiculous and often serve as a front for more self-interested purposes and that the latter can lead to an all consuming, but ultimately unsatisfying pursuit of profit, neither of which constitutes any sort of revelation. Still, Anderson's technical mastery, while occasionally obtrusive (his camera never stops moving), and his staging of a handful of truly spectacular sequences make its re-tread themes go down easy. But for a film with its apparent ambition, it's surprisingly thin.

Shooting for epic stature, the film spreads its action out over thirty years and follows the fortunes of Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), an increasingly ruthless oil speculator who amasses a fortune buying up oil land at bargain prices and then bleeding it dry. Spurning the offers of a buyout from Standard Oil (shades of McCabe and Mrs. Miller - although that film had much more to say about individual enterprise and corporate monopoly), he builds a pipeline 100 miles from his inland empire to the California coast, remaining defiantly independent until the end, only to wind up utterly alone, drinking himself half to death in his cavernous mansion.

The film begins with considerable promise as Anderson stages a long, wordless sequence which documents Plainview's initial oil discovery while digging inside a well. Building tension out of the carefully observed details of a mining expedition (which take in all the danger of the pursuit), perfectly timed cutting and the shock of the thud as Day-Lewis falls several stories to the bottom of the shaft, the scene promises the sort of expertly understated filmmaking that the rest of the film doesn't exactly deliver. Far more typical (though admittedly impressive) is Anderson's bravura staging of an explosion in the oil fields which turns the derrick into a spout of flame and sends the townspeople into a panic (as well as causing Plainview's adopted son, H. W., to lose his hearing). Handling the pyrotechnics of the fire and the movement of scores of extras with such impeccable control is a unique technical achievement, but for all its bluster, the sequence lacks the dramatic pull of the opener.

The film's finest scene, though, eschews the outdoor settings of the work's long middle section in favor of a decidedly domestic milieu. Taking place some twenty years after the bulk of the action, the scene recasts Plainview as an aging alcoholic living in a desolate California mansion. Following a long estrangement, H.W. (Russell Harvard, as an adult) pays a visit to his father in order to announce his final independence and his decision to start his own oil business in Mexico, an announcement which occasions a string of invectives and a final denunciation on Plainview's part. What is remarkable about the scene is the expository imbalance between father and son created by H.W.'s deafness and his reliance on an interpreter to communicate, while Plainview is able to give direct voice to his hatred. Not a mere distancing device, nor simply a chance for the director to show off, this mediation of language is something else altogether; it instantly transforms the meeting into an oddly affective interchange that gains its power precisely from this imaginative quirk of presentation. By making strange the ordinary functions of discourse, Anderson grants us a unique perspective on an otherwise unremarkable expression of familial hatred and desperately asserted independence. In the scene's stunning climax, Plainview demands that his son speak to him in his own voice. Anderson fixes his camera in close-up on H.W.'s face as he hesitates for several seconds. Finally, in a halting, imperfect voice, he states clearly, "I'm leaving you and I'm going with my wife to Mexico." In a scene marked by mediated speech, only the assertion of direct discourse, the ability to speak with his father on equal terms, allows for H.W. to make his definitive declaration of purpose and leave his father to his inevitable alcohol-fueled demise.

Despite these occasional triumphs, though, the film is remarkably thin in its treatment of the twin pillars of American enterprise - capitalistic drive and religious expression. Anderson makes quite clear the ways in which the profit motive has blinded Plainview to anything other than the pursuit of more profit. When Standard Oil offers to buy his land for a large sum, he wonders "what will I do then?" Retiring from business, he is faced with just that problem and can only fill the absence with booze. This may all be pretty simple stuff, but it's downright Byzantine compared to the film's treatment of religion. Through Plainview's opposite number, the hypocritical preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), Anderson posits religion as one more form of capitalism, a point made obvious in the final scene, in which Sunday agrees to denounce God if it will earn him a significant profit. The preacher strikes a ridiculous figure throughout. Barely out of puberty, with a few tufts of hair hanging from his chain, Sunday prances about the church, declaiming in typically overblown revival rhetoric, offering to cure the various conditions (arthritis, etc.) of his parishioners by driving out their evil spirits. As if the ridiculousness of the presentation wasn't obvious enough, in one scene Anderson has the atheistic Plainview attend Sunday's church in order to telegraph the audience's responses to the preacher's sermon. As Sunday baptizes the oil man (as part of a deal for land), Day-Lewis strikes ironic facial gestures and delivers sarcastic asides, making absolutely certain that the audience understands Anderson's ironic distance from his material. This sort of condescension towards religious expression doesn't mean that the director is making any sort of statement beyond the obvious about the uses of American religion; he's simply taking a few cheap shots.

Paul Thomas Anderson is clearly one of the most technically assured filmmakers working in this country. He revels in devising complex tracking shots and employing slow, Tarkovskian zooms. He's equally adept at staging huge set pieces and intimate parlor scenes. But it all seems like a little too much. Between his constantly moving camera and Jonny Greenwood's assaultive score (a mixture of low strings and aggressively ominous electronics) that - at least until the picture's conclusion - remains a near constant presence, there is little room to breathe. This aesthetic claustrophobia combined with the picture's superficial treatment of its "great" themes means that, for all the director's efforts, There Will Be Blood can't be judged a major work. That it often succeeds, and succeeds quite wonderfully, in spite of these debilitating weaknesses is a sign of Anderson's remarkable talent. But, as has been proven on an almost weekly basis this season, it takes more than talent to make a great film.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Catching Up

In preparing for my year-end wrap-up, I caught up with two fine films currently playing in New York theaters. Below are brief reviews of these two works.

A coming-of-age film given added interest by its tumultuous setting (Iran in the 1980s and early 1990s), its finely crafted animation (adapted by Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi from the latter's graphic novel, the uncluttered, mostly black and white visual scheme overlays sharply drawn foreground figures onto undefined, airbrushed backdrops) and an effusive good humor, Persepolis is about as fine as this kind of thing can be. Detailing the early life of its protag (called Marjane and based on Satrapi's experiences) through the end of the Shah's reign and the brutal regime of the Ayatollah, as she shuffles between her native country and a stint in Vienna, the directors get down the brutality of life in a repressive, war torn country, the strong bond of family, the lure of forbidden Western pop-art (particularly heavy metal music) and the sense of alienation brought about by fitting imperfectly into two cultures. The film is full of wonderfully comic set-pieces as in Marjane's sing-along to "Eye of the Tiger" and suffused with a genuine tenderness that, like the stripped down, but expressive animation, provides the film with its affective foundation. Neither more nor less than a very good picture about growing up, Persepolis certainly doesn't transcend the genre (all its insights are confined within the usual dictates of the coming-of-age story), but it makes a strong case for its continued validity.

The second terrific "failure" of the season (following Richard Kelly's Southland Tales), Youth Without Youth's flaws may stem from its own ambition, but so do its singular achievements. Adapting a Mircea Eliade novella, director Francis Ford Coppola seems to want to cram the entirety of that writer's philosophy into his film's overstuffed framework. That this philosophy, dealing with the origins of language and the nature of religion, is continually fascinating doesn't ensure that the film's presentation of this material will be similarly engaging, but with Coppola's clear understanding of his sources and his indelible enthusiasm, it winds up being intellectually compelling in a way that few films can match. Heightened by a careful visual program (involving a muted indoor color scheme, a lush palette for the scenes in India, a series of canted angles and an adept manipulation of mirror images) and the sense of personal investment on the filmmaker's part, the picture makes up in sensory/intellectual stimulation what it lacks in coherence.

The film's central premise, which finds a suicidal professor (Tim Roth) granted a second youth, a chance to recapture his lost love and an opportunity to finish his life's work (documenting the origins of human speech and, thus, human consciousness), seems ideally suited for an exploration of Eliade's work. As Veronica (Alexandra Maria Lara), herself probably a reincarnation of the professor's youthful lover, becomes a medium for a 7th-century Indian woman, her speech regresses past Sanskrit and Sumerian and nears the very beginnings of language. For a second time in an extended life span, the professor is forced to make a choice between love and a higher calling, which Coppola posits as a sort of essential dichotomy, as if a man must renounce all worldly pleasures in order to achieve something beyond the commonplace. One can't take this as any kind of comment on the director's personal choices, but, with his latest offering (although it can't be considered an entire success - the film simply proposes so much more than it can properly assimilate), he has certainly ventured far outside the confines of the ordinary.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Tim Burton has made a career out of fetishizing the macabre. From the jokey treatment of death in Beetlejuice to the necrophilia of Corpse Bride, his dominant strategy has been a self-conscious foregrounding of the freakish. But this foregrounding is often accomplished by making the mere existence of the grotesque the film's salient fact, a point at which the director seems content to stop, as if, having successfully established his cinematic milieu, there is nothing to be gained through any deeper exploration of his material. Burton's primary concern seems to be in making a great show of his own morbidity.

For a filmmaker with Burton's priorities, Sweeney Todd would seem to be the ideal vehicle. The Broadway classic about a murderous barber whose companion serves up his victims as gourmet cuisine allows the filmmaker to place his trademark love of the gruesome front and center without having to dig too far for inspiration. Then, the fact of the film's setting (industrial Victorian London) allows Burton to create a typically fantasized world of gray skies and narrow alleys with the omnipresent smokestacks the dominant presence in the screen's background, a world that rivals any of his other fictional settings (Gotham City, the alternate universe of Beetlejuice) for imaginative grimness. But all this is par for the course for Burton. What defines Sweeney Todd is not so much the film's general morbidity, but a more specific representation of that morbidity, a repeated motif that becomes a fetishistic device for the director: the throat slit.

Sweeney Todd's preferred method of killing - luring his victim into his barber's chair under the pretense of a shave and then cutting his throat - becomes the occasion for a series of lovingly rendered shots of Johnny Depp applying his steel blade to his victims. The throat slit may be an integral part of the film's story, but Burton stages so many examples of this procedure (at one point assembling a montage of six or seven such slits) that he is clearly up to something more specific here. Rather than dismissing the bloody stagings as something peripheral to the film's program, they are so obviously at the heart of what Burton is getting at, that they have to be considered as central to whatever the picture is trying to achieve.

When we are confronted with the prospect of an ostentatiously violent sequence in film, we must ask ourselves what purpose the staging serves. The sequence may be thrilling to the viewer's sensibilities, it may cause us to question our own reactions to onscreen violence or it may be played for laughs. In the case of Burton's throat slits, none of these purposes really fits. Instead, they seem the expression of a very specific form of fetish on the director's part. They clearly aren't meant to entertain or to provoke critical reflection. Nor are they particularly gruesome. Their most salient quality is their frequency. From the moment Depp digs out his old blade and treats it to a loving serenade to the film's final scene when the blade is applied to his own throat, Burton treats the instrument as a fetish-object, filming rapturous close ups of the razor in Depp's outstretched hand long before he has a chance to put it to murderous use. If Burton's typical method as a director is to pick out a handful of morbid or gruesome plot points and provide them with graphic, if stylized, expression, thus confirming beyond a doubt his status as connoisseur of the macabre, then his insistent throat slitting represents a more pronounced expression of this system. Burton's source material already provides plenty of grotesque elements; to make his own hand felt in the staging, he hits on the device of the gratuitously bloody throat slit as an eminently repeatable motif (repeatable because of its centrality to the plot) that he can employ as a kind of artistic signature. The very fact of its superfluity is what defines it as an emblematic gesture.

That Burton is saddled with a particularly weak set of songs from which to fashion his film requires him to hit on different strategies for making his film palatable. One strategy is the casting of charismatic leads Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. Another is the creation of a heavily stylized fictional world, a squalid London which looks as good as any comparable screen treatment. But the most welcome strategy is the creation of two grotesque supporting characters who offer a welcome respite to the dreary proceedings. As played by Timothy Spall, Beadle Bamford, toady to the film's arch-villain, is marked by his long greasy hair, rancid smile and patronizing bow. Sacha Baron Cohen too adds some leavening humor as Signor Adolfo Pirelli, whose fake mustache, phony Italian accent and skin-tight pants obscure a devious set of motives and who provides the film with its finest moment when he engages in a public shave-off with Todd. But, terrific as they are, these caricatures aren't enough. What could have been a deliciously nasty picture just turns nasty as Burton settles in the end for an easy cynicism which culminates in Depp throwing Carter into the oven and Depp's young assistant providing one last expression of Burton's imprint by cutting his master's throat. Rather than making some sort of comment about (for example) the brutality of the industrialized marketplace, Burton stages his conclusion as a final expression of his desperately asserted morbidity. Content to push forth a weakly pronounced nihilism which obviates any attempt at providing a coherent viewpoint, he brings down the curtain on a notably downbeat tableau. After all, this is Tim Burton and, in case you hadn't realized, he's one sick fellow.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Aesthetic Failings (and Brief Triumph) of Atonement

Visually, Atonement's a mess, simultaneously overloaded and underdeveloped, but if director Joe Wright hasn't created a coherent visual scheme, it's not for lack of trying. The whole thing is shot through with a deliberate fuzziness, perhaps meant to underscore the central character's inability to understand what she sees (a miscomprehension which sets the film's events in motion), but this slight visual blurring has the unfortunate side effect of absolving Wright from properly situating his characters in the frame, the deliberate obscurity covering for the scattershot mise-en-scène. When he does find time to frame his figures, he frequently stuffs them into awkward positionings as when James McAvoy pins Keira Knightley to the wall in a gravity-defying love embrace. Wright directs with a great impatience, an impatience which causes him to eschew well-thought out compositions in favor of a series of amateurish tricks which fail to increase our understanding of the material or even provide any autonomous aesthetic pleasures. Among the tricks he resorts to are a series of quick cuts between Knightley's and McAvoy's perspectives, unnecessary close-ups of the word "cunt" being typed on a sheet of paper, a montage of several earlier scenes played in reverse and (auditorily) an annoying insistence on working the sound of typewriter keys into the film's soundtrack. Unlike The Diving Bell and the Butterfly in which Julian Schnabel's similarly ebullient direction succeeds in conjuring up the rich inner life of a paralyzed man, Wright's manipulations seem like the desperate gestures of a filmmaker who lacks the imagination to give cinematic expression to source material (Ian McEwan's novel) that is, admittedly, difficult to film. (It helps that Schnabel has a much richer visual understanding than Wright.)

The one exception to Atonement's visual failings is the famed five-minute tracking shot along the beach at Dunkirk during the film's World War II section. The sequence has been widely attacked (like the entire film) for the coldness of the authorial manipulation, an attack granted additional fodder by the director's admission that his reason for staging the shot was that he "just like[s] showing off." The sequence's detractors claim that, technical virtuosity aside, the shot doesn't add anything to our understanding of the film's characters and has no emotional resonance. Ed Gonzalez, for example, dismissed the sequence as "a triumph of extras casting and production design but completely devoid of emotion." These objections must be granted, except that the scene does provoke a certain emotional response, albeit one unconnected with the film's story or characters. It is instead the response triggered by a pure aesthetic pleasure. Of course, the viewer can only experience this pleasure as "pure" if, having taken in the film's prior failures, he has already given up on it. No longer entertaining legitimate hopes of experiencing a satisfying work of art, he is free to view the tracking-shot independent of its context in the film's overall scheme, enjoying it on its own autonomous merits.

If the first section of the film presents a rather compelling story marred by the director's cute visual tricks, the tracking sequence, which critic Robbie Freeling correctly notes is "completely aesthetically opposed to the rest of the film," represents precisely the reverse. Dropping the pretense of advancing the story, Wright grants us a stand-alone sequence in which, unlike the earlier sections, he is completely in control of the material. Against a thoroughly denuded color scheme (gray sky, gray sand), the camera follows Robbie and two fellow soldiers as they walk along the beach past hundreds of others who bide their time, some singing, most staring blankly, one performing gymnastic exercises on a stranded pommel horse; stopping to highlight a beached ship, a horse being shot, a Ferris wheel spinning in the very back of the screen. The only justification for the scene is that, taken alone, it is the one section of the film that, on a strictly aesthetic level, works without question. Given the strenuous efforts on the director's part at infusing the whole film with this kind of visual liftoff, efforts whose failures seem to stem from Wright's inability to develop a visual program appropriate to his material, the fact that he does succeed so thoroughly, if only once, makes the scene all the more remarkable. The Dunkirk sequence is by no means enough to salvage the film, especially given its lack of emotional connection to the rest of the work, but it succeeds in providing five minutes of visual delight in an otherwise ugly, ugly picture.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Five Essential Pieces of Criticism from 2007

1. "Marie Antoinette and the Ghosts of the French Revolution" by Alexander Zevin Cineaste Volume XXXII, No. 2 (Spring 2007)

Not so much film criticism as a work of cultural/historical analysis, Zevin positions recent attempts at rehabilitating the French Queen's image (Sofia Coppola's film, yes, but also Antonia Fraser's biography and Sena Jeter Naslund's historical novel) as dangerous historical mis-readings (especially dangerous because their revisionist goals necessitate the de-contextualization of their subject) which result in the promotion of a conservative, anti-revolutionary agenda. Zevin's sophisticated readings of the revisionist texts as well as extra-textual responses (the booing of Coppola's film at Cannes, for example) and his keen historical understanding support his intricate and fully-articulated thesis, offering an important demonstration of the way art transforms history for its own purposes. Zevin shows how the new vogue for presenting Marie Antoinette "as young and misunderstood, a prisoner of protocol, her royal relations and of France," whatever the authors' ostensible goals in offering such an interpretation, results in a negation of the positive significance of the Revolution and furthers a reactionary mindset which precludes any effort at altering the current status quo. The best (or at least most exuberantly) written piece on this list, Zevin's article mixes nuanced academic prose with wittily sarcastic asides that reduce his opponents to misguided simpletons in a matter of a few words. The result is one of the smartest and most satisfyingly nasty pieces written on film/history/culture this year.

2. "Scenes from an Overrated Career" by Jonathan Rosenbaum New York Times August 4, 2007

"Bergman Vs. Bergman" by Kent Jones Film Comment Volume 43, Number 6 (November/December 2007)

What impresses is the sheer boldness of Rosenbaum's conceit: no sooner has the universally acknowledged "great filmmaker" been lowered into his grave, then the critic dissents from the legion of fawning and unreflective eulogies by calling for a negative re-assessment of his career. Although Rosenbaum insists that his piece is by no means the complete dismissal of Ingmar Bergman that many read it to be, the article nonetheless calls for a complete re-consideration of his status as Major Director. The charges against Bergman are striking: a "reluctance to challenge conventional film-going habits," a refusal to engage with the modern world, the essential theatricality of his cinematic methods. If these charges seem a little unfair, and particularly harsh given the man's recent decease, they cannot, however, be so easily dismissed. While Bergman has made many undeniably great films, much of his work simply doesn't feel as fresh today as the films of Antonioni or Resnais, among numerous other contemporaries.

Still Rosenbaum's piece, perhaps because it appeared in the Times, a publication not given to challenging the wisdom of accepted viewpoints, received an unprecedented number of outraged responses, from Roger Ebert and Owen Gleiberman to a host of lesser-known writers and film bloggers. One of the more measured and intelligent responses came from Rosenbaum associate Kent Jones in the most recent issue of Film Comment. Jones gets at the reasons for the Bergman backlash by tracing the historical trajectory of the director's public image, from the moment Bergman became a brand name, through the late-sixties reaction when the director started to seem "out-of-touch," to the triumph of the auterist model which finally had no room for the commercially successfully and artistically independent director. If the image of Bergman that exists apart from his films is cause for backlash even today, then only by looking closely at his work and seeing what he actually accomplishes (according to Jones, a unflinching engagement with his doubt-tormented characters and "explorations, in the very best sense of the word" of what it means to be human) can we come to a true understanding of his lasting importance. Ultimately, Jones' counter-argument may be no more "provable" then Rosenbaum's argument (they rely on diametrically-opposed interpretations of essential aspects of the filmmaker's methods), but he brings a nuanced understanding of the reasons for such anti-Bergman sentiment as well as a clear sense of how such arguments can be effectively refuted.

3. "The Philosopher and the Fan: Jean-Luc Godard and Quentin Tarantino" by Kenji Fujishima A Band(e) Apart (blog) October 13, 2007

Those two legendary reflexive filmmakers Godard and Tarantino may make use of many of the same inter-textual strategies, but they use them to achieve wildly different ends. In this online only piece, Fujishima explores the differences between the two filmmakers' cinematic orientations through a close comparison of Bande à Part and Pulp Fiction and offers informed speculation on the ways in which the differences between the two directors (particularly the political engagement of the older director and the apolitical stance of the younger) can be accounted for by differences in personal background and the historical contexts of their films. Although this last part of Fujishima's argument may be his least convincing, he offers enough evidence to demand a serious consideration of his speculations. The author's most interesting move may be bringing in Frederic Jameson's discussion of the difference between parody and pastiche (the former a critique by imitation, the latter a judgement-free approximation) and using these definitions to outline the differences between the two directors. Fujishima's conclusion that the ultimate "difference between Godard's art and Tarantino's is the difference between a philosopher of the movie image and an obsessive movie fan" gets to the essential dissimilarity between the two filmmakers, a difference that (notwithstanding the author's arguments to the contrary) can't be wholly explained by historical context. This one inconsistency aside, Fujishima's piece is closely argued throughout and offers a balanced and mostly convincing look at exactly what the two directors are up to when they make one of their frequent allusions to another work of cinema.

4. "Like a Complete Unknown: I'm Not There and the Changing Face of Bob Dylan" by J. Hoberman Village Voice November 20, 2007

Like Jonathan Rosenbaum, J. Hoberman is at his best when he has the chance to stretch out a little, an opportunity he rarely gets anymore within the increasingly straitening confines of the Voice's film page. For the release of Todd Haynes' free-form meditation on Bob Dylan (or "Bob Dylan"), a work Hoberman calls "the movie of the year," the critic takes the extra space to offer his own reflections on Dylan's relation with the cinema - examining the singer's various efforts at filmmaking, his appearances in both concert films and fictional features and his insistence on viewing his public image in terms of the cinema ("he imagined his own life as a movie," Hoberman writes) - as well as offering a review of Haynes' latest effort. Hoberman's analysis of the current film represents an honest and impassioned attempt to come to terms with a work that remains (like its subject) difficult to pin down to a single interpretation and his continual questioning offers a refreshing alternative to the frequently-assumed stance of the critic who has all the answers. "Is I'm Not There intelligible to anyone beyond the cognoscenti?" he wonders, speaking to the difficult question of the director's presumptive audience and the varying reactions likely to arise among viewers with different levels of familiarity with Dylan's life and work. Hoberman's shrewd understanding of the subject's shifting identities and the difficulty of carving out an authentic self get to the heart of his reading of the film. The article represents a remarkable synthesis of various texts - not least the singer himself - and does a fine job of providing a larger context for Haynes' film. Given the chance to "write long," Hoberman shows he's still one of the most perceptive (and challenging) critics in the business.

5. Slant Magazine: 2007 Year in Film by Ed Gonzalez and Nick Schager

The year-end best list may represent a rather dubious contribution to film criticism, but Ed Gonzalez and Nick Schager of the film/music website Slant offer a welcome exception through their annual refusal to regurgitate the same tired choices that clog up the majority of these rankings. Slightly less adventurous than in years past, their 2007 offering nonetheless does a valuable service in highlighting such forgotten (or undiscovered) films as Apichatpong Weerasethakul's terrific Syndromes and a Century and Philip Gröning's hypnotic non-fiction film Into Great Silence. Accompanied by a pithy capsule review, each entry tersely articulates its film's particular merits and often, through the writers' tightly packed prose, ends up being far more illustrative of the work's singular achievements than any number of full-length reviews. We can argue all we want with the choices (both critics picking Rescue Dawn?!!), but Slant's list provides the only justification for such a frequently mis-handled project - offering a diverse and provocative selection of films that forces the reader to go back and make a new set of discoveries.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Year's Most Disappointing Films

1. I'm Not There
The season's most hotly anticipated film and also one of the worst. Splitting Bob Dylan into six different characters, each designed to represent a different aspect of the historical/mythical figure, Haynes manages to tell us nothing about his subject (either real or as imagined in the media) that we don't already think we know. Refusing to engage with a world outside film or television, Haynes repeats the usual clichés surrounding his central figure and the 1960s and gives us no sense of what Dylan actually means for him, except to tell us that he views him (and the times he lived in) the same way that everyone else does, thanks to the ubiquity of a few media-sanctioned images. The dialogue is compounded of Dylan lyrics and a bunch of farcical blather and Haynes everywhere flatters the viewer on his ability to spot the allusions to the singer's life and work, while doing nothing with these allusions except showcasing his own alleged cleverness. The disappointment is compounded when we consider that the director's previous efforts (Safe, Velvet Goldmine, Far From Heaven), while largely informed by the imagery of other films and/or television, nonetheless had plenty to say about the world we actually live in.

2. Rescue Dawn
By far the dullest thing Herzog's ever done and all the more disappointing coming on the heels of his 2005 trifecta of gloriously unconventional non-fiction films. Although Herzog shows himself adept at handling heart-pounding POW action scenes and he brings a surprising warmth to the proceedings with the Christian Bale/Steve Zahn camaraderie, the whole thing feels remarkably ordinary from its unimaginative dollies to its ridiculously sentimental conclusion. Rescue Dawn may prove its director's ability to make a passable Hollywood film, but Herzog's talents are entirely wasted on such a project. There are, after all, many directors capable of doing what he does here, but none capable of matching his achievements in Stroszek, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser or his previous film, The Wild Blue Yonder. Baseball great Greg Maddux once chided hard-throwing teammate Jason Marquis for trying to pitch like him. "If I had your stuff," he said, "I wouldn't pitch the way I do." Rescue Dawn is Herzog trying to direct like a much less talented filmmaker.

3. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
The year's worst looking major film was bound to disappoint given the avalanche of buzz it generated following its New York Film Festival debut, but it's astonishing just how uninspired the film actually is. A tale of a botched robbery and its aftermath, the film is leavened by none of the absurdist humor of the director's earlier botched robbery and its aftermath offering Dog Day Afternoon. Instead Lumet treats his material as the stuff of high tragedy. Announcing his intentions early on by including the last scene from a high school production of Lear, the director aims for both that play's nihilistic viewpoint and its tragic grandeur. By insisting on the latter, he undercuts the former objective, trying to grant his meaningless events an unnecessary significance by staging the concluding filicide as if it were a shocking and revelatory occurrence, instead of merely the logical conclusion of an absurd and futile stream of events. The film's colors are relentlessly drab, the compositions seemingly picked at random and the whole thing looks like slapdash hackwork. The film ultimately fails to achieve the significance that Lumet intends to bring to it; his efforts would have been far better spent trying to bring a coherent visual program.

4. Margot at the Wedding
From the sweet/bitter (and very funny) The Squid and the Whale to the bitter/slimy Margot is quite a drop-off for Noah Baumbach. The director's previous film might not have looked like much, but its low-slung aesthetic was well suited to its clear-eyed take on coming-of-age in 1980s Brooklyn. Deftly mixing offhand humor and gently observed family drama, the film never overplayed its hand and treated even the most serious moments with an appealing warmth and lightness of touch. In the more recent film, Baumbach seems less sure of his material, and the dim indoor lighting and handheld camerawork do no favors for a film that is already rather too messy to start with. The writing, as well, is considerably less sharp this time around and the director too content to bask in his characters' sliminess without offsetting his studied cynicism with the earlier film's redeeming warmth. While Squid's observations on adolescence and literary smugness had the sharpness of truth, Margot seems somehow opaque, its situations far less clearly sketched. Baumbach, on an off day, can still write dialogue better than most, but the whole thing, from the scattershot visual presentation to the insistent ugliness of the characters, results in an unusually sour undertaking.

5. The Simpsons Movie
The Simpsons
may have been the best thing on television fifteen years ago, but it hasn't been much good for at least the last five. Substituting a racier (but less funny) brand of humor for the shrewd, gently satiric observations of American society that were the program's trademark, the show continues to slog limply on towards its inevitable cancellation. Still, there was hope that the film version would revive some of the bite of the franchise's glory days, but instead it plays like an extended episode of the program as it exists today. Half-baked political satire mixes with crude, unfunny gags and the film veers completely off-course with an extended sequence set in Alaska from which it never recovers. With this film and its obnoxious marketing tie-ins, the final collapse of The Simpsons is, at least, achieved.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Zabriskie Point

Michelangelo Antonioni's lone American production, 1970's Zabriskie Point, has long been regarded as a sort of ill-conceived folly blighting the director's otherwise unblemished body of work; but, viewed today, it looks a lot better than most films of the period, including its celebrated predecessor, Blowup, the filmmaker's commercially successful, but somewhat limpid look at existential uncertainty in swinging London. In the later film, the director may show little facility in handling the romantic interaction of his two leads (excepting a surrealistic sex scene in Death Valley), but he gets just about everything else right: the smog and ad-saturated Los Angeles cityscape, the mutual racial distrust of 1960s America, the expansive beauty of the desert and the efforts of corporations to sell it - and stages several of his finest set-pieces. Antonioni's status as an outsider hardly results in any sort of unique perspective on the material (and indeed his insights into 1960s counterculture are not really much different from any number of other contemporary films), but he brings to the proceedings a feel for place-specific detail, a wry humor and an eye both expansive and exact, in addition to a final destructive glee that stands as a fantastic antidote to the film's acknowledged triumph of corporate over idealistic culture.

The thin thread of plot - more anecdote than story - comes from a news item the director read about a student shot to death by the police after returning a plane he stole from a Los Angeles airfield for a joyride in the desert. In the picture's first scene, a debate among student radicals filmed as handheld vérité, the young man, Mark (Mark Frechette), responds to the criticism of black leaders against the alleged lack of real commitment of their white counterparts by declaring himself willing to die and then staging a dramatic exit. That scene, with real-life Black Panther Kathleen Cleaver delivering the denunciation, captures in just a few minutes of screen time the racial and socio-economic divisions in the radical movement, a fascinating bit of pseudo-documentary footage, even if its themes are not picked up again in the picture. In fact, the rest of the film takes a largely un-ideological view of revolutionary activity. Although Mark eventually fulfills his declaration and dies at the hands of the cops, there is no indication that he died as part of any committed revolutionary gesture and indeed his political motives throughout the film are never really illuminated (even if he gives his name to the police as Karl Marx). Antonioni's refusal to grant his would-be radicals an ideological consistency becomes a wonderfully ambiguous stance. While he offers a definitive denunciation of murderous policeman and greedy land developers, he is deliberately fuzzy on the motives of their adversaries. It is difficult to tell exactly where Antonioni stands in relation to his characters, but this sense of uncertainty positions us exactly in a world where, while it is easy to identify the villains, it is difficult to locate a morally unambiguous opposition.

The initial meeting between the two romantic leads, and one of Antonioni's several expert stagings, occurs via a round of North by Northwest airplane stunts conceived as a form of foreplay. As Daria (Daria Halrpin) drives through the desert, Mark orchestrates a series of near-misses as his airplane continually skirts the top of her car. Antonioni is fine in handling his romantic leads as long as their interactions are confined to dumb gestures. Unfortunately, the aerial acrobatics soon give way to a rather limpid verbal exchange but, after quickly discharging the necessary dialogue, the director turns to another memorable set-piece, an epic love scene set in the dunes of Death Valley, unfettered copulation imagined as cosmic orgy. As the leads begin their love making, Antonioni intercuts close-ups of a voluptuous tangle of bodies against the sandy background that expands Mark and Daria's individual joining into a universal sexual expression. The young leads may be too ordinary as individuals to excite much interest, but the interweaving of their well-shaped bodies, multiplied to encompass a dozen such couplings, creates a decisively paradisaical moment as Antonioni finds suitable visual expression for his beautiful, vapid couple.

In Antonioni's California, the desert stands at the opposite end of the landscape from the ad-choked freeways of Los Angeles and Alfio Contini's camera spends equal time lingering on the billboards and traffic jams in the city and the skies and dunes of the desert, granting full visual expression to these opposed conceptions. While the former is conceived as a space of violent unrest, the latter, at least initially, offers a form of Edenic escape and becomes the only possible setting for such a radical gesture as Antonioni's love-in. Still, this setting is subject to the perpetual threat of corporate developers who plan on turning the desert into a simulated community for weary city-dwellers. That Daria works for a particularly aggressive developer (and becomes her boss' lover) complicates her sympathies, even if she only took the job because she "needed the bread". Still, after she hears of Mark's death, she loses her final illusions about her position and, in the film's spectacular finale, imagines the explosion of the corporation's Phoenix-area compound. In one of the film's early shots, Antonioni fixes Daria's boss (Rod Taylor) against his office window, framed majestically by a particularly blue sky, a golden skyscraper and the American flag, establishing as well as any gesture on the actor's part the character's embodiment of an ultimate corporate power. In the final scene, this sense of power and all its accoutrements meets its (imagined) end. As Daria stages a mental picture of the destruction, Antonioni follows a half-dozen shots of rather ordinary explosions (all taken from different angles) with a series of slow-motion captures of capitalistic debris flying apart against a smoky blue background.

Antonioni's two great articulations of the counter-cultural ethos, the love-in and the mass explosion, are both staged as fantasy sequences, an acknowledgement of the corporate reality that stands to win out over any more idealistic conception and of its inevitable corollaries: the replacement of the landscape by a reductive simulacrum fitted to a modern suburban sensibility and the elimination of the possibility of unfettered romantic coupling in favor of an uninspired domestic lovemaking. Still, the director, working in the fantasy medium of film, retains the privilege of the last word, and as he slowly lingers on the destruction of refrigerators, designer clothing, cereal boxes and electronics before turning to a final glimpse of a desert sunset, he gives delirious expression to a destructive fantasy that marks a final desperate act on behalf of an exhausted struggle. As 1969 spills over into 1970, the fulfillment of the corporate project may be all but complete, but in the world of Antonioni's cinema, the counter-gesture of orgiastic destruction remains a last, lingering expression of revolt, a defiance whose imagined triumph stands as the film's final, hallucinatory image and as the director's ultimate articulation of a comprehensively frustrated idealism.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007


How can we justify the existence of a film that consists of little more than a constant series of sadistic sexual tortures and humiliations, a film that devotes a lengthy segment to forced coprophagia and that is finally unbearable in its despairing view of the human condition? Notwithstanding the numerous efforts at interpretation that have attempted to make the film, if not more palatable, at least comprehensible as an artistic gesture, Salò is ultimately impervious to understanding unless we are content to view it solely as a personal expression of rage and disgust on a level unachieved in any other screen effort. Whatever the trigger for these emotions (and given Pasolini's insistence on setting his film in 1944 Italy and identifying his torturers as fascists, the explanations offered for the film are generally political), it is the absolute expression the filmmaker gives them that counts. Trying to justify the film as some sort of comment on the persistence of fascism in contemporary Europe or as a statement about consumer culture (although its political context can't be entirely dismissed, it should not be overemphasized either) makes nonsense of what Pasolini is actually giving us, an ultimate vision of power and debasement that defies all efforts at rationalization.

Pasolini's aggressive conceit is compounded by the shrewd way he draws the viewer into the film through a program of forced sexual identification. The acts being committed may be indefensible, but they are, at least initially, arousing and Pasolini is unwilling to deny this inherent attraction in even the most horrifying sequences. The eighteen victims are evenly split between male and female, so as to appeal to viewers of all orientations and they are all young and well-shaped. In an early sequence, the victims are selected, brought in front of the four Masters and then forced to "audition" for the men (and viewing audience) by stripping and having their physical merits assessed. Later, this voyeuristic program is repeated when the victims are again stripped bare and arranged in a semi-circular pattern with only their buttocks exposed. The men walk around the semi-circle, judging which victim has the "best ass". The judgement is based solely on the feature in question, since the rest of each victim, including his face, is hidden. Thus the individual, reduced to a body in the initial scene, is further debased by having his identity defined by a single feature, a feature frequently viewed with shame and disgust. In both scenes, the film's audience finds its voyeuristic mirror in the Masters since, like them, its members are (presumably) fully clothed and watching the (at least occasionally erotic) proceedings from a safe vantage point. As a singular expression of disgust, Salò is harrowing enough, but when the viewer is so thoroughly included in that disgust, it becomes almost unbearable.

As a work whose content consists principally of sadistic torture, Salò was certainly exceptional in 1975, but today this content has largely been mainstreamed through the efforts of such "torture-porn" offerings as Hostel and Saw, films which are no more justifiable than Pasolini's. So what separates the earlier film from today's offerings, apart from the fact that it's considerably more imaginative? Authorial intention, as far as it comes across on-screen, would seem to be one of the chief differences. While the current crop of products evince a calculated nihilism, Salò feels like the genuine expression of a single outraged individual. Directors like Eli Roth cook their product for maximum saleability, concocting a crude series of bloody gags and a cool cynicism to match, satisfying their largely youthful audience who, they believe, wants to have its blithely nihilistic world-view confirmed. In addition, such directors seem to take a real delight in staging their bloody humiliations. If the directorial presence in Hostel is aligned with the torturers, in Salò it seems more in line with the victim. It is not that Pasolini evinces any sympathy on behalf of the victims - if anything, he is more brutal with them than Roth - but, his anguished presentation of their suffering implies a degree of personal identification that doesn't extend to the Masters. Regardless of its author's actual mindset at the time of filming (and whatever insight biographical accounts can offer us doesn't change what comes across on the screen) Salò registers as a brutal howl of pain, a pronouncement of a despair personally felt. In expressing this despair on the screen, the director takes, not the position of a gleeful torturer, but that of a committed artist who, in staging the humiliations, forces himself to experience them as well. It is this personal stake in the project that, if not able to provide the film with a justification that it doesn't need, at least endows it with a certain importance, the importance of an ultimate, deeply felt aesthetic gesture.

This post was selected as a link of the day on The House Next Door for December 6th.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly may consist of a self-consciously "inspirational" story overlaid with art-house trappings, but the story is, for the most part, consistently compelling and, visually, the film is wonderfully effusive, even if director Julian Schnabel occasionally seems to be striving too hard for effect. Schnabel builds his film from unlikely narrative material, relating the real-life story of Jean-Dominique Bauby (played by Mathieu Almaric), chief editor of Elle France who, suddenly paralyzed by a stroke, retains movement in only his left eye. Overcoming his initial urge to surrender (one of his first communications is "I want to die") and through the selfless aid of a series of more-or-less interchangeable women (his speech therapist, his amanuensis, the mother of his children), he adjusts to his situation, learns to communicate by blinking and eventually pens a best-selling memoir, the basis for Schnabel's film, only to die ten days after its publication. If this set-up sounds rife with sentimental possibilities, the director does not always try to avoid them, but, by relating so much of Bauby's narrative through a carefully-constructed visual program, he manages to find an effective solution to the problem of filming a premise so dangerous in its possibilities for bathetic indulgence.

Aesthetically, the film is unusually rich, if a little overloaded. If Schnabel tends to subordinate character to visual presentation, we can hardly fault his priorities, since they offer a welcome corrective to the typical middle-brow art-film which pays lip service to aesthetics and expends its efforts in propping up its dull characters with superficial complexities. As Bauby realizes the two assets remaining to him, his memory and his imagination, Schnabel begins conjuring up the rich inner life of the character, a reverie comprised of personal recollection, private symbolism and vivid fantasy. Apart from the titular images, recurring shots of a man in a diving suit sinking underwater and a bright panorama of flowers and butterflies, we get the attractions of an 19th century Empress in period dress walking down a hospital hallway, a hallucinatory funeral, images of glaciers melting into the sea as well as the same footage played in reverse and a series of flashbacks from Bauby's former life, often set to pop music.

The film's engagement with the real-world present is conceived in two aesthetic models, the first-person and the third-person. The scenes shot directly from Bauby's perspective are overlaid with a blurry filter, reflecting his imperfect vision and favor crudely-darting camera jabs mirroring his rapid eye-movements. The third-person scenes are likewise subjected to a certain visual muting, mitigating the self-consciousness of Schnabel's occasionally too-studied compositions. Many of these shots are arranged as stand-alone images, like a repeated seascape with Bauby in his wheel-chair sitting on a raised platform surrounded by waves. Outside of such shots, Schnabel generally keeps his camera moving with a series of graceful dollies that provide a nice contrast with the crude camera-thrusts in the first-person segments. The subdued color-palette and refusal to provide visual immediacy (which keep all Schnabel's images at a certain remove from the viewer) only give way to a greater luminosity in several of the fantasy sequences, an appropriate gesture for representing the inner life of a man forced to live for such mental pleasures. When the director grants us the central image of the butterfly (a symbol for Bauby of his triumph over his situation), he switches to a bright, unfiltered presentation that instantly registers as a shock and justifies the use of a rather simplistic symbolic program by rendering the potency of its personal meaning in all its vivid immediacy.

Still, the whole thing occasionally seems a little too calculated, a little too neatly constructed for maximum viewer response. Bauby's change from self-pitying whiner to sympathetic optimist is effected with a startling abruptness early on in the picture so as to quickly dispel any unpleasantness of character that might get in the way of the film's smooth operation on its audience. The first third of the film is shot (almost) entirely from Bauby's limited point of view, with the blurred shots and constricted range confining us within his narrow perspective. Then Bauby suddenly announces that he will no longer pity himself and the film's viewpoint shifts to the third-person, reflecting his refusal of his previous self-absorption. This may be a neat trick, but it is too easily accomplished. The viewer rightly expects some sort of intermediate stage in his transformation, some sense of struggle, but Schnabel refuses this satisfaction in the interest of getting the narrative quickly out of the way, so he can focus on the (admittedly more interesting) question of Bauby's mental imagery. Schnabel's neatest manipulation though is saving his dramatic payoff for the film's conclusion. The unfolding of the narrative carefully skirts the circumstances of Bauby's paralysis which the film intentionally withholds until its final moments, when it offeres a comprehensive reconstruction of the event. Schnabel's presentation of the incident is thankfully restrained, but his belief that the viewer is so curious to find out the details that it is necessary to present this information as a sort of final revelation seems like an uneccesary presumption about the audience's narrative/structural requirements. Still, considering Schnabel's refusal at nearly every other moment to make the standard assumptions about his audience - that they want the narrative material milked for all its sentimental possibility, that they want their stories conveyed primarily through dialogue and simple action rather than through a complex program of evocative imagery, that they are unwilling to accept challenging formal strategies- his occasional manipulative indiscretions seem like thoroughly pardonable offenses.