Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Films of the Millennium (so far)

The somewhat cheeky (if not inaccurate) title - as well as the concept - for this post come from a similarly named feature at Stylus Magazine from late 2007. Not withstanding my previous reservations about the efficacy of the list in film criticism, I view this as a good opportunity to reflect back on the previous eight-plus years of film and to collect a sampling of online criticism - both popular and semi-academic - covering the ten features that I've selected, even as, per the post's title, we've got another 991 1/2 years left to go.

Below you'll find the ten films ranked in order and followed by a selection of links to the relevant critical pieces.

1. The Werckmeister Harmonies - Béla Tarr - 2000

2. Platform - Jia Zhang-ke - 2001

Acquarello, "Platform"
Ed Gonzalez, "Platform"
J. Hoberman, "All the World's a Stage: Pop Art as History in a Chinese Epic"
Darren Hughes, "Platform"
Chet Mellema, "Platform"

3. Mulholland Drive - David Lynch - 2001

James Crawford (with Nick Pinkerton and Jeanette Catsoulis), "Amazing Grace: Jean-Piere and Luc Dardenne's L'Enfant"
Ed Gonzalez, "L'Enfant"
J. Hoberman, "A Child Escaped"
Ian Johnston, "We're Just Taller Children"
Armond White, "Baby Dance"

7. Grizzly Man - Werner Herzog - 2005

Michael Atkinson, "Claws and Effect"
Dan Jardine and Ben Livant, "Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man"
Chris Justice, "Grizzly Man"
Omar Odeh, "Signs of Life"
Nick Schager, "Grizzly Man"
Andrew Schenker, "Flaherty's Indifferent Universe; Herzog's Malevolent Universe"

8. Millennium Mambo - Hou Hsiao-Hsien - 2001

Charles Taylor, "Millennium Mambo"

9. The Duchess of Langeais - Jacques Rivette - 2007

Nick Pinkerton, "Holding Court: The Duchess of Langeais"

10. INLAND EMPIRE - David Lynch - 2006

Dan Callahan, "A Woman in Trouble is Rescued and Loved"
Fernando F. Croce, "Inland Empire: Dark... and Inescapable"
Ed Gonzalez, "Inland Empire"
J. Hoberman, "Wild at Heart"
Jonathan Rosenbaum, "Hollywood from the Fringes"
Keith Uhlich, "Strange What Love Does: David Lynch's INLAND EMPIRE"

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Man of the West

In writing about Man of the West, the temptation is to focus exclusively on a few mind-blowing shots - and indeed director Anthony Mann and cinematographer Ernest Haller do things with the CinemaScope format that other filmmakers seem never to have conceived of - but the danger of such an approach is that we risk slighting the overriding unity of the picture's narrative and thematic conception. Along with The Searchers and perhaps two or three other films, Man represents the high-water mark of the "mature" Western, signalling that moment in the late 1950s when the genre was still culturally viable, but had progressed to the point where self-reflection was possible and the morally unquestionable hero gave way to an obviously flawed protagonist whose heroic function was undercut by any number of unglamorous character traits.

In Man of the West, that protagonist is Link Jones (a weary-eyed Gary Cooper in one of his last roles), a former outlaw who's opted for a peaceful family life in a small settlement away from civilization. So removed is he from modernity (circa 1860) that, when he takes a train at the film's beginning, his complete unfamiliarity with the jerky motions and cramped spaces of that mode of transport marks him out as an absurdly anachronistic presence. En route to Fort Worth (Jones' been entrusted with hiring a schoolteacher for the settlement), bandits attack the train and Jones gets left behind with an oily, but good-natured gambler (Arthur O'Connell) and a beautiful singer (Julie London) for company. Stumbling across a house, Jones begs shelter for the night and we soon realize that they've come across the hideout of Jones' former gang, led by graybeard Dock Tobin (Lee J. Cobb), the man who raised him as a father, and who makes it quite clear that he expects him to rejoin the group and participate in a series of robberies.

The ease with which Jones re-adapts himself to his surroundings is striking, even as we understand that he's playing along with Dock in order to avoid being shot and has no real desire to rejoin the gang. But, as the gambler remarks to him, "you're a completely different person than you were," and he quickly adopts the tough-guy routine of the Western outlaw. And although it's clear he has no inclination to resort to his former ways - his shielding of the singer against the improprieties of the other men serves to mark him apart as a beneficent protector - it's not long before his former penchant for violence is awakened, even as it's directed not against innocent victims, but at his former allies.

That penchant comes to the fore in one of the film's most notorious sequences, an uncharacteristically fast-cut brawl between Jones and Coaley (Jack Lord), a member of the gang and, perhaps not surprisingly given the dictates of the genre, what's at stake in the exchange is Jones' manhood. In an earlier scene, Coaley had forced the singer, who had been posing as Jones' girlfriend, to perform a lurid striptease for the men. When Jones objected, Coaley drew a knife to his throat and commanded the singer to continue, forcing Jones to watch his "girl" remove her clothes' for another's delectation, while being unmanned by his inability to intervene. Thus the savageness with which the normally stoic Jones rips into Coaley, orchestrated in a virtuoso sequence that takes in all the close physicality of the brawl - the awkward punches, the rolling on the ground - until, several minutes later, having bested his opponent, Jones begins ripping off his clothes, attempting to reclaim his sense of manhood by sexually humiliating his opponent. From here, it's only a matter of time before he's strapping on a gun-belt for the first time in years and again accepting the necessity of violent engagement, even if this time it's in the service of "good" and not "evil". Although as the film makes clear, a man's actions can no longer be defined in such purely unambiguous terms.

As fascinating as all this psychological maneuvering is, it wouldn't be half as striking if it weren't couched in such an inventive, but carefully controlled visual program. From the first scene in which the camera follows Gary Cooper's entrance into town in a long right-to-left tracking shot, taking in a pastel of reds, blues and browns, before Julie London tops them all when she descends to the street decked head to toe in an off-red dress, to the intricate indoor stagings where Mann skillfully maneuvers six or seven characters in extended takes, to the glorious final mountaintop showdown, the film's a virtual textbook of widescreen framing. But it's the penultimate sequence, an extended showdown that unfolds in a mountain-side ghost town, that provides one of the true pinnacles of 'Scope staging. If Fritz Lang famously declared the format (in Godard's Contempt) to be only suitable for filming "snakes and funerals," then Mann and Haller are clearly able to tease out a few additional uses.

The ultra-wide screen is, of course, naturally suited to capturing the sprawling landscapes of the West, but five years into the format's existence, Mann seems to have unlocked some new staging possibilities - the depiction of two simultaneous actions in a contiguous space, even when a large physical distance separates the two. In the shoot-out sequence, a gunman perches atop the roof of a building, while another crouches on the porch of an adjacent house. With the two men situated at opposite corners of the screen (upper left, lower right), Mann conveys a sense of the great distance between the two, but without ever losing the impression that they exist in the same space. Thanks to the wide-angle lens and the wide screen, the composition never feels cramped and the staging always remains completely legible. At the sequence's conclusion, after Jones has dispensed with his enemies, he walks off into the distance at the right side of the screen, while another man, a town local, walks into a building on screen left, having just realized that his wife - an innocent bystander - has been shot. These two concluding actions are presented as distinct incidents - only tangentially related - but their simultaneous presentation increases the pathos of both discoveries - Jones' wistful acknowledgment of his continual capacity for violence and the loss of the other man's wife that resulted indirectly from that capacity. As the camera holds steady while the two men continue their walk, staging and theme come together perfectly. In that shot is the meaning of Mann's film.

Friday, May 16, 2008

The Parson's Widow

The satisfactions of early Dreyer – say pre-Joan of Arc – are available to the viewer in a somewhat limited quantity. Those looking for embryonic signs of the director’s signature style, augmented by the occasionally spectacular sequence – Michael’s painting of the Princess, for example, or the climax of the Inquisition episode in Leaves from Satan’s Book – will find what they’re looking for; those expecting fully formed masterpieces or even any kind of consistently sustained brilliance, alas, will not. Still, if there’s one early work that satisfies most completely on its own terms, it’s probably the filmmaker’s 1920 feature The Parson’s Widow and that’s largely because, until a sudden late shift in the narrative, it’s played pretty much as comedy, an approach that seemed more amenable to the young Dreyer than the epic solemnity he would undertake in Leaves or the heavily educed melodrama of Michael, and allowed him to narrow (as well as deepen) his focus by shifting his attention to the smaller scale lifestyle of a tiny Norwegian village.

To read the rest of this article, please continue to Not Coming to a Theatre Near You.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

On the Terminal in Cinema

In his monograph on Samuel Beckett, A. Alvarez famously characterizes the author’s trilogy as “a terminal vision, a terminal style and, from the point of view of possible development, a work at least as aesthetically terminal as [James Joyce’s] Finnegan’s Wake”. As used by Alvarez, the term denotes both an artistic vision thoroughly steeped in mortality, an “undeviating withdrawal from [...] the exterior world”, and a stylistic approach that represents an end in itself, where no further explorations are possible in a given direction. Just as Joyce’s nocturnal language comprised of every conceivable extant language and a slew of neologisms is not an approach that can be duplicated or an example that can be built upon, the increasingly deconstructed language employed by Beckett in his trilogy, comprised of an endless, repetitive stream of words stripped of grammar, narrative thrust and (largely) meaning, is an approach that represents the termination of another line of æsthetic inquiry. What remains at the end of Beckett is a pure stream of language.

To read the rest of the article, please continue to Senses of Cinema.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Battle for Haditha

In all, I haven't found The Battle for Haditha to be nearly as schematic as a number other reviewers (Fernando F. Croce of Slant Magazine, for example). Yes, Nick Broomfield's docudrama, an account of the real life slaughter of twenty-four Iraqi civilians by a handful of Marines in retaliation for a fatal bombing, makes sure to skew our sympathies towards the Iraqi people (the civilians certainly, but the insurgents as well), but it's careful to situate the Marines' actions within the context of the daily stresses of occupation and, despite the "kill them before they kill us" mentality of the soldiers, at least one partially sympathetic (if thinly sketched) figure emerges from the group. And certainly Broomfield avoids the sort of diagrammable character charting that characterizes a truly schematic filmmaker like Paul Haggis, in which each person is given a single positive trait and a single blind spot in an a half-hearted stab at creating "complexity".

No, what proves to be Broomfield's undoing is his heavily manipulative presentation, at once unpleasant and unenlightening, of the central atrocity. If the obvious reference point for Battle is Brian DePalma's Redacted, then Croce is shrewd in invoking the example of United 93 as well. While he refers to the "dubious Paul Greengrass mold, complete with camera shakes, contrived drama, and spurious 'humanization,'" the real lesson of the comparison is to consider the degree to which such harrowing recreations of tragic events can ever prove illuminating. While United 93 was essentially unjustifiable, milking taut suspense from a series of horrifying events that were all too well known to the public and whose detailed presentation could thus serve no socially useful, not to mention aesthetically gratifying, purpose, Battle can at least claim to be bringing awareness of U.S.-perpetrated atrocity to a public (although given the film's limited distribution a very small one) that may not have been aware of the events.

Still, like Greengrass with his tear-wrenching sequence of the doomed passengers calling their families to say goodbye, Broomfield engineers a transparent manipulation of his audience to achieve maximum rhetorical effect. Any narrative film engages in some form of viewer manipulation - after all, there is always an authorial viewpoint directing the audience's perception of events - it's just a question of how much the viewer is willing to tolerate. Broomfield's presentation, which happily takes in women being shot, Marines picking off Iraqi civilians while exchanging high-fives, little girls with blood on their face, is enough to make any viewer cry foul. Yes, these events actually occurred, and Broomfield's recreation does stir up a fair measure of fury, but I can't see what purpose there is in sitting through such an insistently unpleasant presentation of atrocity. Before too long, the political point is made and we're left with Broomfield's gleefully overblown aesthetic and little else of any value.

To his credit, immediately after the slaughter, Broomfield shifts his attention to questions of individual consequence, highlighting the guilt and anger of the Corporal who led the assault, the only Marine allowed to exhibit any remorse. Throughout the picture, the filmmaker's shown a sensitivity to the situation of the Americans (if less than that extended to the Iraqi civilians), navigating a hostile environment where they can be blown up at any moment by insurgent bombs. He's also attempted to give a minimal depth to the Corporal by providing him with a backstory (tough childhood in a Philadelphia ghetto) and saddling him with a series of recurring nightmares, meant to signify his uncertainty about his actions. But, this bit of post-incident handwringing, hung on so flimsy a characterization, finally proves unconvincing and by the time the Corporal's charged with thirteen counts of murder, we've learned a little bit about the bureaucratic machinations of the U.S. military, but almost nothing about the experiences of the average American soldier or Iraqi citizen, except that both sides are placed into difficult situations in which an unclouded moral certainty becomes impossible. That this uncertainty finds its dramatic expression in a meticulously detailed slaughter doesn't mean Broomfield's addressed its implications; all he's really done is indulge in a useless, and highly rhetorical, bit of showmanship.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Survivor Madness: The Memory Thief

"I have a hard time remembering my own past, so I remember the pasts of others," says Lukas (Mark Webber), a 20-ish toll collector explaining his increasingly pathological identification with the sufferings of Holocaust victims. From the moment he meets a Survivor passing by his booth, he becomes obsessed and it's not long before he's poring over endless videotaped testimonials, papering his wall with newspaper clippings and having a concentration camp number tattooed on his arm—all to fill up the banality of a completely ordinary life. In The Memory Thief, first time director Gil Kofman is concerned not so much with the events of the Holocaust itself, but their availability to anyone interested in co-opting the suffering of others for whatever psychological gain they can extract. But, if Kofman uses Lukas' obsessive identification to raise provocative questions about the responsibility of the ordinary citizen for the world's sufferings—as well as that of the filmmaker/videographer to document those sufferings—he quickly loses sight of his thematic concerns and the film soon gives way to a rather rote depiction of the onset of madness.

To read the rest of this article, please continue to The House Next Door.

Monday, May 5, 2008

I Shot Jesse James

I Shot Jesse James, Samuel Fuller's first film, is a sharp piece of work: efficiently dramatized, imaginatively staged and committed to bringing a fresh perspective to familiar material. In Fuller's conception, Bob Ford shoots James because he wants to settle down and have a family, but (as in Andrew Dominik's recent film which covers much of the same narrative ground) the aftermath is considerably more complicated than imagined. Shifting the focus from James himself (presented here as a figure of Christ-like generosity) to Ford, Fuller devotes most of his picture to the aftermath of the killing, with everyone seeming to insist that he feel shame for his "cowardly" action, but Ford refusing any outward admission of wrongdoing, instead weakly repressing the guilt, which remains completely transparent in the discomfort on actor John Ireland's nervously scrunched face.

For a first time filmmaker, Fuller directs with impressive confidence, risking several unorthodox stagings that must have been rather surprising to encounter in a 1940s B-picture - most notably a bathtub scene between James and Ford which follows immediately after Ford's decision to shoot his friend. As James soaks in the tub, Ford picks up his .45 (a gift from James) and Fuller cuts in several lingering shots of James' back, a mole prominent in the center. But Ford hesitates, and James gives voice to the viewer's thoughts when he says: "What're you waiting for? There's my back," but it turns out he just wants Ford to scrub him. (It's hard to ignore the rather blunt sexual implications here. The scene suggests another layer to the central relationship and deepens our sense of Ford's conflicted feelings over his actions).

Later, after the shooting, Ford takes a job re-enacting the assassination, but the act of reliving the events - represented by Fuller in a double exposure flashback which forces the viewer to experience the past simultaneously with the present, approximating Ford's own vivid experience at the moment - proves too much and he flees the stage to a round of jeers. If Ford's feelings of guilt are rarely given explicit outward expression, this is one moment when Fuller calls on imaginative technique to make concrete the character's interiority. The only other time we're told in such unambiguous terms what Ford thinks is when he lies dying on the ground at the end of the film and gives voice to what Fuller's already implied throughout the picture. "I'm sorry for what I done to Jess," Ford says, his face filling the screen in a final close-up, "I loved him."