Monday, September 29, 2008

Silent Light and Miracle at St. Anna

The first shot (a slow pan down from a starry sky to a barren field, time-lapsing from night to an impossibly sun-streaked day) borders on the transcendent. The second (a family gathered around the breakfast table as seen reflected in a clock pendulum) is no more than a bit of arch aestheticizing. And somewhere in between the two lies the achievement of Silent Light, Carlos Reygadas' visually ravishing, but emotionally inert film. Everything from the grand splendor-of-nature visual set-pieces to the picking out of intimate details - a bead of sweat on a post-coital face - to routine stagings around the breakfast table is perfectly calculated for aesthetic effect, the unerring eye of Reygadas and cinematographer Alexis Zabe taking in the sublime and the mundane with equal precision. Then too the picture's aural design is a thing of wonder. Amidst a generally silent backdrop, the filmmaker isolates each individual sound, bringing to the front of the audio mix the banal thud of footsteps or the bleating of barnyard animals, emphasizing the full weight of quotidian routine. Later, when at a key narrative moment, a scream punctuates the soundtrack, Reygadas holds it back in the mix, disassociating it from any specific voice and making it seem rather the muted cry of the film itself.

But for all the care the filmmaker takes in establishing his aesthetic program, his presentation of narrative and thematic concerns remains somewhat diffuse. Set in a reclusive Mennonite community in Mexico, the film centers on the crisis experienced by Johan (Cornelio Wall), a married man who falls in love with another woman. Despite his coming clean with his wife, Johan is beset by guilt and sadness, feelings no doubt exacerbated by his strict religious adherence. Johan's struggle is hashed out through a series of largely inarticulate dialogues and an unconvincing crying bout in the film's first scene, but Reygadas seems little interested in engaging fully with the man's emotional crisis nor in exploring the ramifications of an unquestioned faith suddenly confronted with the realities of life. Instead we get a lot of pretty shots framing the impassive protagonist against an indifferent, if lovely, nature and a narrative that stretches on past the breaking point. With a pair of exceptions - a subtle grasping of lover's hands to stand with the "Rain and Tears" cutaway from Hou Hsiao-Hsien's Three Times and a moment of crisis filmed in long shot in a heavy downpour - there's little in the film that resonates beyond Reygadas' obvious visual/aural niceties. And that goes double for the film's ending, a scene of resurrection cribbed wholesale from Dreyer's Ordet. Without the proper emotional buildup and without a grounding exploration of what faith might mean in the compromising context in which the film's characters live, this intrusion of the miraculous comes off as an empty gesture, a failed attempt to poach some of the significance of a considerably more accomplished film.


If lack of emotional effect undercuts Silent Light's achievement, then something like the opposite marks the failure of the week's other Christian resurrection film, Spike Lee's hodgepodge war picture Miracle at St. Anna. Whereas in Reygadas' film everything is designed for aesthetic effect, in Lee's each scene is shrewdly contrived for maximal sentimental response. The story of a regiment of black U.S. soldiers stationed in Italy during World War II, the film consists of a string of overheated dramatic sequences calculated to provide a potent momentary impression, with the filmmaker quickly cutting to another scene before the viewer can register their essential absurdity. Lee certainly knows how to play on an audience's capacity for outrage (in two scenes especially - one in which the black soldiers are denied service at a diner in the South, then, in a silly bit of wish-fulfillment, return with rifles cocked to demand their God-given ice cream - another in which a row of women and children are gunned down by Nazis), but he's far less concerned with exploring the implications of these incidents. The film's talking points - touching on, among other things, the responsibility of black soldiers to an indifferent country and, more generally, what it means to be an American - are put forth in bullet point fashion, taking us momentarily out of the film's diegesis, but are quickly scrapped in favor of one more sequence of crowd-pleasing twaddle. Setting aside these moments of thematic exposition, Lee's strategy is basically to alternate scenes of extreme violence with sequences of mushy sentiment, the one softening up the audience for the other. Yes, Miracle is occasionally moving - the filmmaker's manipulations may be transparent, but they are far too skilled to be without effect - but strip away the appeal to audience emotion and there's little left that anyone can take seriously.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Last Laugh: Deluxe Restored Edition DVD

There are two things that everybody knows about The Last Laugh—that it tells its story entirely through images and that it features a groundbreaking use of the moving camera—but both statements require further clarification or risk severe misapprehension. While it's true that F.W. Murnau's 1924 film relies on only a single intertitle, there are three other instances where the filmmaker calls on a written text to advance the narrative in ways that would be impossible through purely visual means. Further undercutting the autonomy of the film's visual program, Murnau commissioned a score from composer Giuseppe Becce which he closely oversaw and whose cadences are designed to cue the viewer's reactions nearly as much as the film's images. As for the camera movements, there's no denying the impressive maneuvers designed by Murnau and cinematographer Karl Freund which allegedly astonished the Hollywood community when the film made its American debut, but a careful viewing of the picture reveals just how infrequently the camera leaves the tripod. Instead Murnau and Freund save their elaborate tracking shots—accomplished with great difficulty given the camera's bulk—for thematically key sequences while keeping the camera locked down the rest of the time.

To read the rest of the article, please continue to Slant Magazine.


In a bit of non film-related linkage, my review of Philip Roth's excellent new novel, Indignation, has been posted at The House Next Door.

Friday, September 19, 2008

End of Summer Link Roundup

My latest reviews for Slant Magazine cover one new release from each of the next three weeks. While this week's and next week's offerings are wholly forgettable, Jonathan Demme's Rachel Getting Married opens in limited release on October 3rd and marks a promising beginning to the Fall movie season.

Links to the reviews are below.

September 19th
All of Us

September 26th
Forever Strong

October 3rd
Rachel Getting Married

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Moving Midway

In Moving Midway, unchecked commercial expansion threatens to accomplish what 140 years of post-Civil War misremembering could not: destroy the myth of the Southern plantation. Godfrey Cheshire's film - an exploration of the ambivalence felt towards that myth by himself, his family and American culture at large - takes pains to show the continued relevance of the Civil War and its implications to 21st century lives (even beginning the film with that oft-quoted Faulkner line "The past is never dead. It isn't even past") but it also suggests an approaching end to a harmful mythology that continues to exert an absurdly pervasive influence over an entire region.

The impetus for Cheshire's film - part personal essay, part work of film/cultural criticism - is the decision of his cousin, Charles Hinton, to move the family plantation (located just outside of Raleigh, North Carolina) where he grew up and where Cheshire spent his childhood summers, to a quieter area as rapid commercialization has turned the bucolic area into a paint-by-numbers shopping district. (Hinton has no qualms, however, about assisting this process, having sold the land to a developer who will transform the property into something called The Shoppes at Midway Plantation, an ill-advised name indicative of the country's lack of critical perspective toward its own past.) As Cheshire chronicles the preparations for the move, he gamely works through his mixed feelings toward the plantation - his subjective enthusiasms checked by his objective understanding of the property's historical usage. Understandably more critical of the mythology is the filmmaker's companion, NYU Professor Robert Hinton, a descendant of the plantation's slaves who thrills that the land will be paved over so that nothing can ever grow on the ground where his ancestors toiled. And yet, Hinton maintains a strange reverence for the house itself. Even as the concept of the plantation holds less and less allure for each succeeding generation, its mythology is far from being fully eradicated.

But where did this mythology - transforming what was often a dilapidated manor house run by brutal forced labor into a glorious representation of Southern life - come from? Mostly, Cheshire suggests, it didn't start until well after the Civil War, in the early years of the 20th century, and arose largely from a false nostalgia for a "simpler" time. Tracing the development of the myth through film and literature, Cheshire highlights the two key cinematic works (both based on popular novels) that cemented the enduring images of Southern life: The Birth of a Nation (which directly triggered the rebirth of the KKK) and Gone with the Wind (which presented the lasting paradigm of the plantation myth). Interestingly, the counter-myth had been developed decades before in Harriet Beecher Stowe's enormously influential antebellum novel Uncle Tom's Cabin which exposed the injustices of the slave-labor system. But as Cheshire points out, the counter-myth may have won the war, but it was the myth that won the peace. At least, potentially, until now. Americans may still re-enact the Civil War and Southerners may still talk of "state's rights," but with the rapid rebuilding of the American landscape as one continuous strip-mall, the pull of an individualized, regional past seems to finally be lessening. Charles Hinton may, like the Confederate Army after Gettysburg, be forced to retreat in the face of an encroaching enemy, but how long before his new property becomes threatened with a fresh suburban development? With the increasing homogenization of the landscape, the dying out of antiquated notions of Southern identity (as still articulated by Cheshire's 79-year old mother) and an increasingly prevalent understanding of the South as, in the filmmaker's words, a "multi-racial culture" (which can no longer be contained by the simple black/white dichotomy), comes the foreseeable end to such regrettable myths as that of the glorious plantation. Whatever the negative effects of cultural homogenization, there is at least this one positive to be found. In the end, this may be the true lesson of Cheshire's remarkable film.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Trouble the Water

When Hurricane Katrina submerged much of New Orleans in August 2005, I had just finished reading José Saramago's celebrated novel Blindness, a book that seemed to me eerily prophetic of the increasingly horrific occurrences that were then unfolding along the Gulf Coast. In Saramago's novel, an entire population is suddenly struck blind and then confined by military force to an abandoned mental asylum. Within the asylum, a group of criminally minded inmates, taking advantage of official indifference to the plight of the detainees, assumes de facto control of the facilities and makes increasingly oppressive demands on their fellow prisoners. As the hurricane victims were shuttled off to New Orleans' Superdome for shelter, a similarly grotesque spectacle began to play out on the nation's television screens. Everything was as it was in Saramago: reports began to roll in of armed aggression, rape, the hoarding of supplies and, it seemed, it was all made possible due to the authorities' preoccupation with containing the "undesirable" victims rather than offering them any real assistance. The only thing missing from Blindness was the segregation along racial lines.

Three years later, art and life again intersect though not in such explicit fashion. As Katrina's third anniversary comes and goes, a new threat to New Orleans materializes, necessitating another evacuation of the city. Gustav proves to be a minor burden for Gulf Coasters, nothing like its ruinous predecessor, but it serves as another reminder of the vulnerability of an already devastated city. Meanwhile, in Manhattan, posters for Fernando Meirelles' film version of Blindness begin to crop up on construction sites in advance of the picture's September 26th release date. The opening film at this year's Cannes, Blindness seems to have been pretty near universally reviled at the festival and, if the director's previous efforts (City of God, The Constant Gardener) are any indication, there's little cause for optimism that Meirelles' latest effort will, like its source, offer any relevant insight into either the aftermath of an event that still haunts the nation's conscience or indeed into any of the proto-facist tendencies of contemporary America.

Meanwhile, the IFC Center is currently screening the grunt's-eye view Katrina doc Trouble the Water which may not tell us anything we don't already know about the hurricane, but by placing the poorest of New Orleans residents at the heart of the narrative - and making the country's racial divide one of its central concerns - Carl Deal and Tia Lessin's film offers a stirring reminder of the underlying attitudes that allow a natural disaster to become a national travesty. Making ample use of the home footage shot by the film's central subject, aspiring rapper Kimberly Rivers Roberts, Trouble focuses on her efforts, along with her husband Scott and a community of friends and neighbors, to ride out the storm - they lack the financial means to leave their neighborhood - even as their house becomes entirely submerged, to evacuate the city and eventually to start a new life, first in Memphis and then back in New Orleans. Roberts' home footage is necessarily rough but, from its pre-storm evocation of a woefully impoverished community to its depiction of a completely submerged city block to its post-storm survey of war-zone rubble, it is unusually revealing. The central couple themselves bring a note of stubborn optimism to the proceedings, never giving into panic and seizing on the disaster as a chance to begin anew, determined to wring fresh opportunity from heaviest tragedy. If not for this hint of uplift, the film would give in entirely to despair.

Deal and Lessin are everywhere concerned with tracking the official indifference - at all levels of government - that contributed to the disastrous aftermath of the storm. From the refusal of local authorities to provide public transportation to help evacuate those residents living in the city's most vulnerable (and uncoincidentally poorest) areas to the White House's well documented unconcern, the filmmakers document an entire culture of calculated neglect. Perhaps the key quotation - first heard in an opening aural montage and repeated later in the film - comes from George Bush: "We’ve got a job to defend this country in the war on terror and we've got a job to bring aid and comfort to the people of the Gulf Coast, and we’ll do both." Which is really to say that, for the government, the Iraq War comes first and any significant number of troops can simply not be diverted to New Orleans. When we do encounter a regiment of National Guard troops, the filmmakers treat them with evenhanded sensitivity, understanding that they too are victims of governmental unconcern, having just been transferred from Iraq and, we learn in the film's postscript, soon to be redeployed for a second tour.

But not all military members come off as sympathetically as these soldiers. When Scott Roberts approaches a nearly abandoned military barracks in the direct aftermath of the storm and asks for shelter, he's greeted by the cocking of AK-47s and a series of death threats from a squad of irascible soldiers, actions that later earned these hardened military men special government commendation. The official machinery is everywhere committed to a policy of containment, if not outright indifference. We can't be bothered with these indigents, it says, let them fend for themselves. Indeed, whether the setting is the lower Ninth Ward, the overcrowded Superdome or Saramago's mental asylum cum military prison, those who require the most assistance are systematically confined to the most miserable accommodations. As long as they remain invisible, the attitude runs, we don't have to worry about them. Fortunately, Trouble the Water, among its other achievements, goes some way toward restoring the forgotten victims of Hurricane Katrina to visibility.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008


Vicky Cristina Barcelona

It seems to me that our reading of the film's central threesome determines our reaction to the entire picture. As Javier Bardem shacks up with both Scarlett Johansson and Penelope Cruz (after having already bedded Rebecca Hall) in an impossibly perfect artist's villa, the set-up seems at first the grotesque fulfillment of Woody Allen's observation at the end of Annie Hall that since things rarely work out in life, in art one has a chance to correct them. But in the earlier film, all Allen wanted was to make things work with Annie and in 1977 the filmmaker's nebbishy charm was at its peak. Here, his stand-in Bardem is all arrogance disguised as Mediterranean forthrightness and he not only wants but expects the world as his birthright.

Still, lurid darkroom Johannsen/Cruz kissing aside, the sequence in which the three live together seems an honest enough testing ground for a more fulfilling alternative mode of living. As Johansson describes the arrangement to a straight laced couple, it's a mutually loving relationship in which all three members are sexually and artistically fulfilled and, even if it would be difficult to imagine Allen proposing a male/male/female trio and even if the arrangement is inevitably short lived, it represents a genuine flowering for all three involved. With Cruz's hysteria (unfortunately the chief component of her characterization) kept in check, Johansson receiving a crash course in the art of photography and Bardem hitting new heights of painterly excellence, the three forceful personalities are, if only for a moment, held in a perfect balance.

Allen's chief representation of patriarchal norms comes through the relationship between Rebecca Hall's character (Vicky) and her by-the-numbers husband (Chris Messina). A caricature of the rich, preppy, uncultured New York professional, Messina spends his time fretting over whether to buy a house in Westchester or Connecticut, addresses his wife as "babe" and - the kicker - dismisses an abstract painting as a mess of "Rorschach blots". If Vicky's always craved order, she soon realizes that marital norms may not be for her, at least if she has to share a life with this boorish specimen. If Allen stacks his cards a little too heavily against the desirability of continuing the marriage, he presents Vicky's struggle as an honest attempt to break free from such strictures, while acknowledging the comforting pull of convention that causes her to be fearful of interrupting her perfectly structured life. The husband may cut an absurd figure but, to his credit, Allen doesn't condemn Vicky for staying with him. In the end, the filmmaker eliminates any satisfactory modes of living from the film's catalogue of arrangements, but at least he's given us - in the Bardem/Cruz/Johansson threesome - a tantalizing glimpse of possibility. Even if he can't envision a world in which alternatives to an oppressive insistence on monogamous coupling can thrive, Allen freely acknowledges the necessity of seeking out new models of domestic organization.

Day of Wrath

Two moments of diametrically opposed readings. When Absalon looks in his young wife's eyes, he sees purity and innocence. When his son - in love with his mother-in-law - looks in those same eyes, he reads mystery and danger. When son and mother-in-law, now lovers, look at a tree reflected in a lake on the eve of their parting, the former notes sad resignation while the latter, still hopeful of continued romance, reads only longing. So each person sees what he wants; each gives his own preferred reading to events.

This time around, I submitted to the hypothesis that in the film's world witchcraft exists. There's certainly evidence to support it - from the clergyman dying after being cursed by Herlof's Marte to Absalon sensing his oncoming death when his wife secretly wishes it. Of course, we need not be confined to a single reading and, as Jonathan Rosenbaum points out, what's important is that everyone in the film believes in the very real existence of witchcraft, but the film works quite well if we accept that the townspeople are right. Certainly it makes the film's shocking ending easier to accept (or at least to understand) in terms of character motivation, but this reading definitely doesn't come naturally to the modern viewer, especially when other interpretations are equally available.

Witchcraft existing; witchcraft existing only in the minds of the characters. Two diametrically opposed readings. Two ways of seeing. Both perfectly legible.

Shotgun Stories

The Netflix description labels Shotgun as a "cautionary... tale" and for once it's not inaccurate. But the film's less interesting as a warning against the dangers of old-fashioned Southern Grangerson/Shepardson blood feuds (whatever their contemporary political relevance) than as a sharply lensed portrait of languorous Arkansas life among a handful of "poor whites". We're firmly in David Gordon Green territory here (it's no surprise to see the George Washington filmmaker listed among Shotgun's producers), but not relying on that director's pseudo-poetic voiceovers and self-consciously pretty landscape shots (not meant as a criticism - I thoroughly enjoy those features of Green's films), Jeff Nichols gives us more of a feel for the patterns of the lived existence of his characters. Which is perhaps to say that Nichols has a more conventional expositional sense than Green - relying more heavily on standard narrative progression - but there's no question that he handles both incident and non-incident with enviable command. Recommended.

Bitter Victory

[Editor's Note: This review is part of the The Mystic: The Films of Nicholas Ray feature at Not Coming to a Theater Near You.]

Late in Nicholas Ray’s fascinating World War II film Bitter Victory, Captain Leith turns to his colleague Brand and, speaking in a tone of sly insinuation, delivers an accusation that stands at the heart of the picture’s concerns with the metaphysics of war; “We’re all murderers now, aren’t we? Welcome to the club.” Taken by itself, the quotation seems a simple enough observation about the ways in which warfare turns seemingly civilized men into savages, but proper contextualizing reveals Leith’s words – as well as the film itself – to be far more complex than mere superficial platitude.

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

Monday, September 1, 2008

Mondo Topless

[Editor's Note: This review is part of the Bosomania!: The Sex, the Violence, and the Vocabulary of Russ Meyer feature at Not Coming to a Theater Near You.]

Early on in Mondo Topless, one of the numerous strippers that constitute the film’s subjects insists on the essential insignificance of her profession. “All that you’re doing is a dance,” she says, “it has no meaning whatsoever. It is entertainment and there is no other meaning than a dance.” It’s easy enough to apply her formulation to the film itself, but even taken on this simplest level – as little more than a device for delivering cheap titillation – Meyer’s picture, which consists primarily of a series of topless stripteases performed by real-life professionals, proves somewhat of a letdown. Which is certainly not to suggest that the film is without interest, but simply to note that the imagery on display has a difficult time standing up to the puffed up rhetoric of the film’s spoken text.

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

Hot Blood

[Editor's Note: This review is part of the The Mystic: The Films of Nicholas Ray feature at Not Coming to a Theater Near You.]

In Hot Blood, the film’s Los Angeles gypsy community may be marked by insistent patriarchal attitudes, but they weren’t counting on Jane Russell. As the male figures aim to dictate the terms of the colony’s life, Russell’s character, Anne Caldish, attempts to work out her own place in the community and, with the exception of the tacked-on reconciliation between her and her husband at the film’s end, repeatedly thwarts any attempt by the male authority figures to force her into undesired roles. Still, for all the film’s concerns with the structures of patriarchy, director Nicholas Ray seems less interested in teasing out all the thematic implications of Jesse Lasky Jr.’s screenplay and more concerned with staging a glorious Technicolor extravaganza, delighting in arranging his characters and their variegated costuming across the ‘Scope screen and even staging several dance numbers. Still, if it’s difficult to argue with the results from an aesthetic standpoint, this shift in focus on Ray’s part nonetheless makes the question of constructing a coherent reading of the film somewhat problematic.

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