Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Astronaut Farmer

Early in the Polish Brothers' disappointing The Astronaut Farmer, Charles Farmer (Billy Bob Thornton), a Texas rancher whose "dream" (a loaded word in this film) is to launch himself into outer space from a homemade rocket on his property, stands before an imposing panel of NASA representatives incongruously arrayed around a makeshift podium in a high-school gym, trying to win their permission to launch his rocket. After grilling Farmer on his flight plan, one of the panel members turns to the would-be astronaut and asks him a pointed question. "How do we know," he says, "you aren't constructing a WMD?" "Because," Farmer replies, "if I were building a Weapon of Mass Destruction, you wouldn't be able to find it." Apart from conveniently sidestepping the question (just because the government couldn't find it, doesn't mean they needn't worry about the possibility), Farmer's response is indicative of the film's attempts to dress up a conventional "follow your dreams" story with the veneer of an engaged political involvement. This political involvement, though, is limited to a superficial treatment of the proposed questions and is undermined by the film's insistence on Farmer's moral incontestability, an insistence which results in a muddled political program that does little to dissipate the film's dreary air of conventionality.

In addition to the WMD allusion, the film's catalog of political references includes the Patriot Act (stressing its "convoluted" nature) and government crackdowns on illegal immigration. While these are certainly significant issues, the Polish Brothers seem less concerned with exploring their consequences than with taking cheap shots at the Bush administration and then dropping the discussion altogether. As regrettable as the war in Iraq and the Patriot Act certainly are, they have, by this point, achieved almost universal recognition as such, so it is no longer a bold maneuver to simply point out these misguided government decisions. The illegal immigration angle at first seems more promising, but is quickly abandoned as completely as the other political concerns. The government threatens to deport the illegal Mexican ranch hands working on Farmer's property (who are treated by the open-minded Farmer as members of the family, an "open-mindedness" that the Polish Brothers go out of their way to emphasize since their simplistic ethical program depends on the hero's moral perfection) unless he aborts his mission, but the threat is never followed up and the issue is dropped entirely. Since none of these questions is explored in any depth, they seem like so much superfluous material added to puff up a remarkably thin work, and since the film doesn't pick up any of these issues for further exploration, they ultimately register as distractions from the work's primary concerns.

The picture's most consistent political maneuver is to restrict its portrayal of the government to the role of a perpetual enemy. In his initial hearing, Farmer makes a speech to the NASA representatives in which he accuses them of trying to control space for their own use, a compulsion which marks any challenger (whether from another country or from within the United States) as a threat. He references the Cold War space chase and offers a reading of that conflict in which the moon becomes just one more territory for the United States to colonize before the enemy can beat them to it. Any humanitarian concerns are, of course, secondary. That this government mentality is still prevalent long after the conclusion of the Cold War is emphasized by a visual quotation from The Right Stuff that the Polish Brothers insert towards the end of their picture. As in Philip Kaufman's film, the Polishes stage a tracking shot focusing on a pair of shoes (belonging to a messenger) running down a hallway, followed by a fixed shot of a boardroom in which a group of NASA executives sit nervously around a table before being interrupted by the messenger who delivers a bit of urgent news. In Kaufman's film, the messenger announces the Russians' initial orbit into space. In the Polishes' film, the messenger announces Charles Farmer's successful launch. The quotation implies that Farmer presents a threat similar to that posed by the Russians during the Cold War, a comparable challenge to the United States government's dominance. Still, the Polish Brother's commentary on government control is undercut by a too simplistic portrayal of an evil faceless ruling mechanism. From the mustachioed FBI agents dressed in generic black suits to the austere NASA agents that question Farmer, none of the government figures (with the sole exception of Bruce Willis who, in a cameo appearance as an old friend, tries to dissuade Farmer from his mission) is given any measure of actual existence outside of his role as a government representative.

The film's sentimental insistence on the importance of following one's dreams (Farmer goes so far as to name his rocket "Dreamer") necessitates a simplistic good-evil set-up, with Farmer as the unquestioned hero who, while he may put his family in jeopardy through his dogged insistence on flying, ultimately earns their full-fledged support since, in the film's equation, following one's dreams is more important than any lesser concern such as the protagonist's life or his family's well being. Just as the government is the unredeemable squelcher of dreams, so must Farmer be above any criticism. It is this insistence on Farmer's moral perfection that caused critic Jonathan Rosenbaum to attack the film's political stance, even comparing his unreflective insistence on achieving his goal to George Bush's "stay the course" strategy in Iraq, despite the film's apparent anti-Bush platform. "There's no scientific or humanist motive for Farmer's dream," writes Rosenbaum, "it's strictly personal wish fulfillment. This is the basis of the mythical potency the movie aims for and asks us to endorse, a celebration of the same innocent lunacy that often gets us Americans into trouble -- as it has, for instance, in Iraq." Farmer's dangerous mission is applauded unquestioningly because, as Rosenbaum has it, he is "the designated good guy". The film's refusal to even question the wisdom of his mission marks the work as a morally problematic undertaking which ultimately serves to undercut its own liberal rhetoric.

All this obscures what is dramatically and aesthetically a drab and unimaginative film. The tiresome story fails to deviate from the standard "man-with-a-dream" plot with Farmer overcoming inevitable opposition and initial failure only to achieve his expected success at the picture's conclusion. The film is shot in Scope (2.35:1) but, with the exception of a series of overly prettified interludes where a heavily manipulated sunscape frames Farmer on his horse against the wide Texas expanse, the screen's extra width is largely wasted on drab interiors framed by pedestrian camerawork. Given the quirky nature of the story and the Polish Brother's track record with offbeat material (both Twin Falls, Idaho and Northfork were imaginative treatments of unconventional scenarios) the dreary conventionality of the film comes as a regrettable surprise. That they try to liven this drab treatment with superficial political statements fails to help, especially when their unquestioned acceptance of Farmer's relentless mission and their Manichean understanding of the central conflict threaten to undermine any political good will they may have generated. All we are left with is a simplistic message about the importance of following one's dreams, a message that would seem to be too facile a moral for filmmakers as sophisticated as the Polish Brothers, but as if to deflect any question of this moral's insufficiency as a basis for a work of art, they insist on it with such relentlessness that the film utterly collapses beneath the weight of such a misguided ethical (and politically suspect) program.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Masculin Political Sphere and the Feminin World of Consumption

Jean-Luc Godard's 1966 film Masculin Feminin, a work which details the interactions between five young men and women in mid-60's Paris amidst a climate of political agitation, features two scenes which serve to stake out the political sphere as a distinctly male province, one in which women cannot be expected to take an interest. In the world that Godard portrays, men talk revolutionary politics, but seem more interested in sex, while the women's interests are largely confined to shallow pop iconography and a corresponding consumerism. Godard's assigning of specific spheres of activity and his insistence on separating them along gender-specific lines creates a sustained undercurrent of misogyny that marks the film as a surprisingly sour undertaking.

Jean-Pierre Leaud stars as Paul, a rather aimless young man with the same uncertainties as his famous Antoine Doinel character, but little of his charm. He dabbles in revolutionary activity, performing pranks such as spray-painting "Paix au Viet-Nam [Peace in Vietnam]" on an American ambassador's car, but spends far more time worrying about his romantic prospects. He dates a pop singer named Madeleine (real life star Chantal Goya) who pointedly tells a reporter that she "loves Pepsi-Cola" reinforcing Godard's equation of pop consumerism and femininity, but she periodically tires of him and turns to her lesbian roommate Elisabeth (Marlene Jobert). Paul's friend Robert (Michel Debord) and his love interest Catherine (Catherine-Isabelle Duport), a young woman who prefers the company of Paul, complete the film's romantic geometry.

The film unfolds largely through a series of interviews, with the conversations between the characters (usually grouped in pairs) proceeding by give-and-take with the actors taking turns questioning each other. Godard uses two methods to film these sequences. In one, he has his actor wear an earpiece and then relays the questions he wants him to ask. In other scenes, he interviews the actor directly and then films another actor asking the same questions, a technique that would later prove influential among filmmakers such as Abbas Kiarostami. Although in most of the interviews, the questioning proceeds by this interactive process in which the characters alternate asking and answering, in one notable exception, the infamous "Miss 19" sequence, in which a young model is set up as an object of ridicule, the interaction becomes relentlessly one-sided.

Halfway through the film, Paul stages an interview with this young cover model, an interview which continues to disturb through its blurring of the lines between reality and fiction and through its brutal aggression. Claiming to work for a polling firm with a sociological bent, he begins asking the woman a series of questions. Unlike the other interview segments in the film, this sequence, which runs six and a half minutes, features only one person performing the role of interviewer and that person (Paul) does not appear onscreen, only his voice is heard. After an introductory intertitle in which she is identified as a "produit de consommation [consumer product]", Godard keeps the camera fixed on the young woman for the duration of the interview, the camera in its refusal to cut away becoming an instrument of oppression multiplying the relentlessness of Leaud's interrogation. Preliminary questions establish that the girl was chosen by a teen magazine as their "Miss 19" cover girl for the current year. Since the actress who plays the young woman, Elsa Leroy, was, at the time, herself a cover model for a similar magazine and since the character is given the name Elsa, the fictionality of the scene is called into question. According to Chantal Goya who knew Leroy, "she was exactly like you see in the movie. We knew she'd talk like that and she didn't disappoint." In other words, by Goya's account, Leroy was answering the questions as herself and not in the guise of a fictional counterpart.

As the interview progresses, the questions become increasingly aggressive, as Godard establishes the young woman as a representative of blind consumerism, blissfully unaware of any events transpiring outside her limited worldview. Godard is careful to insist, through his mouthpiece Leaud, that "Miss 19" represents "a typical French woman", suggesting an essential link between womanhood and vacuous consumption. After quizzing her on the material advantages she enjoys through the magazine's promotion, Leaud turns the interview to political questions. "Do you think socialism has a future?" he asks. "I know nothing about it," Leroy answers. A further exchange sinks the questioning into deeper levels of degradation by allowing the woman to misdefine the term "reactionary" and then milking her misunderstanding for further ridicule:

"Does the word 'reactionary' mean anything to you?"
"Reactionary means being in opposition, reacting against lots of things, not agreeing with what might happen."
"Is it good or bad?"
"It's good. I don't like people who say 'amen' to everything."
We cannot know in what terms Godard represented the scene to Elsa Leroy, but she must have had some sense of the fictional nature of the production, especially since we know from cinematographer Willy Kurant that the scene was shot at least four times to get the lighting correct, a level of thoroughness that would be out of place in a simple sociological survey. Yet, as the scene progresses, she increasingly registers as an unsuspecting object of ridicule, uncomfortable with an escalatingly intrusive line of questioning that she clearly did not anticipate. Set up as a vacuous representative of the consumer mentality, the audience eventually comes to sympathize with her in opposition to Godard's cruel manipulations, this unexpected sympathy serving to undercut the director's purpose. The scene reaches its pinnacle of sleaze when Leaud forces Leroy to define the term "birth control" and to list various methods of preventing unwanted pregnancy. Only after a final line of questioning in which we learn of Leroy's obliviousness to contemporary world conflicts does Godard finally bring the interview to a close.

The "Miss 19" scene finds its parallel in a later sequence which reverts to the previously favored give-and-take interview format, this time recording an interaction between two supporting characters, Catherine and Robert. This sequence, which takes place in a bathroom, alternates close-ups of Catherine, who chews on an apple, and a cigarette-smoking Robert, the camera focusing on the character answering the questions. The scene begins with Robert trying to convince Catherine to go out with him. After she expresses little interest in a romantic involvement, Robert, like Paul a part-time radical, begins drilling Catherine about her political indifference. (Interestingly, earlier in the film, Paul says that he thinks Catherine would make a good revolutionary, the only time in the picture Godard allows the possibility of a woman's entrance into the political sphere.) "Do you have any opinions on democracy?" Robert asks. "Not particularly," says Catherine. "Are you interested in what goes on around you?" he continues. "Sure," she says, "but it depends. Politics don't interest me, but there are things that do." When pressed to name these things, though, she cannot come up with an answer.

Although the scene is much gentler than the "Miss 19" sequence and it allows for a reciprocal interchange not permitted in that scene (after Robert finishes his line of inquiry, Catherine immediately begins drilling him about his solicitation of prostitutes), the questions and answers reveal the same (exclusively feminine) attitudes of willful ignorance to world events that Godard stressed in the earlier scene. Along with the pop-culture obsessed Madeleine and the cold lesbian Elisabeth, Catherine completes a triumvirate of beautiful, but vacuous female leads. The young men in the film may come off as immature, lascivious boys whose commitment to political causes is ultimately superficial, but at least they show some concern with the world beyond their immediate environment and are not linked to the blind consumerism Godard so clearly despises. By tying these conflicting concerns so explicitly to gender, Godard enforces a unnecessarily misogynistic program that makes the film an expression above all of the director's gender bias, an expression that undercuts any of his more successful observations on youth, consumerism and revolution and marks Masculin Feminin as one of the least appealing films of the director's otherwise imposing 1960s output.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Two Critical Takes on the New Adam Sandler Picture

I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, a seemingly dispensable Adam Sandler vehicle, has elicited some interesting commentary from a pair of New York critics. The film, concerning a fake domestic partnership between two macho New York firefighters (Sandler and Kevin James) in order to prevent the loss of a pension, was largely dismissed by straight reviewers as crude, unfunny nonsense with little of interest to say on the issue of gay rights, but two gay critics, Nathan Lee of The Village Voice and Ed Gonzalez of Slant Magazine showed a greater willingness to grapple with the film's take on homophobia and, while ultimately their opinions on the film's merits differed (Lee liked it; Gonzalez did not), both offered intelligent insights into the work, showing how even a seemingly irrelevant piece of entertainment often conceals larger issues. Both Lee and Gonzalez are acute, perceptive critics often given to spicing up their reviews with jokey asides and hip witticisms that distract from their analysis. In Lee's case these indulgences tend to overwhelm the substance of his reviews; in Gonzalez's they usually do not. In dealing with a light comedy like Chuck and Larry, inevitably this jokey side of each critic emerges, but in both cases it is balanced by useful critical analysis.

Nathan Lee's review ("Queer as Folk", The Village Voice, July 17, 2007) begins at a typically leisurely pace, full of asides, in no rush to develop its argument. But after wasting a couple of paragraphs talking about his dislike of Adam Sandler (and Scarlett Johannson), his taste in men and his domestic partnership, Lee finally gets down to business. Starting in the third paragraph, he launches an eloquent defense of the film as a radical pro-gay document. Even here, however, Lee feels the need to preface his analysis with a snide prologue: "Somewhere at GLAAD [Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation] headquarters, girlfriend is about to choke on her quiche, but here goes." Still, after this unnecessary introduction, Lee lays off the ironic observations for a paragraph or two and plays it straight (so to speak). Comparing Chuck and Larry to Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain, Lee finds the current film to be the more daring and important work. Where Brokeback Mountain brought to the surface the underlying gay content of the classic western by transporting it to a more palatable genre, the "upsacle weepie", a genre whose partisans are more likely to accept gay coupling than those of the western (Brokeback Mountain is a western only in setting), Chuck and Larry forces fans of the idiot comedy ("a far less adventurous demographic") to accept the possibility of a homosexual relationship.

Still, Lee's argument is weakened by his failure to distinguish between Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, who play an actual gay couple in Brokeback Mountain, and Adam Sandler and Kevin James in the current film who are only pretending. As Lee writes, "gay themes won't deter the Sandler cult, who can rely on their man not to be a fag," but that is precisely why the film is not as bold a proposition as Brokeback Mountain since there is no question of Sandler actually being gay. Still, by asking macho viewers to identify with a couple who are treated as gay (regardless of their actual orientation), it forces them to partake of the feelings of ostracism experienced by the couple. In addition, Sandler's courtroom speech at the film's climax in which he urges his audience (both onscreen and off) to stop using the word "faggot", comes off, in Lee's analysis, as a bold and defiant maneuver. Lee makes some fairly exaggerated claims for the picture and, even if some are less than fully convincing, he manages to make a well-considered and eloquent argument in favor of the film's empowering strategies. Capable of such strong and well-written analysis, it is unfortunate that he feels the need to indulge in the kind of silly, facetious writing that too often obscures his more serious purposes. Still, this strain of writing does allow him to provide the film with some interesting blurb material when he sums up his feelings on the picture by writing about himself, "this sodomite had a gay old time."

Ed Gonzalez's review (Slant Magazine, posted July 17, 2007) takes a much more critical view of the picture, dismissing it as a "120-minute PSA". After indulging in a rather obnoxious first paragraph in which he speculates on the sexual orientation of film's writers, Gonzalez gets down to an analysis of the film's attitudes towards homosexuality. Ultimately, he concludes, the film is "pro-gay but it's less interested in collapsing straight-male hang-ups about gay men than it is in putting on a surprisingly mawkish show of political correctness against distinctly retrograde forms of homophobia." In other words, the film plays up obviously exaggerated gay stereotypes (presumably the stereotypes that the film's core audience is used to seeing) only to explode them in rather obvious fashion. The film's good-natured attack on homophobia is undercut by its own simplicity as well as its "desperate need for gay validation" (Gonzalez sees the film as an apology for the homophobia of Sandler's Big Daddy). Between Gonzalez's jokey asides, he offers a shrewd reading of the film, showing how its simplistic view of homophobia undercuts its gracious attempt to appeal to unreflective viewers in the name of gay rights. It is not the gay stereotypes that the film continues to perpetuate that undermine its project so much as the filmmakers' "vulgar self-congratulation" at taking on an important issue, even while reducing it to its simplest possible formulation, and then expecting applause from the gay community for its efforts. Where Nathan Lee sees this forced homosexual identification among a traditionally homophobic audience as a radical move, for Gonzalez this strategy is compromised by the filmmakers' too simplistic understanding of the situation and their desperate need for affirmation.

What is impressive about both reviews is each critic's sophisticated analysis of not only the way in which the picture functions on its intended audience (heterosexual Sandler fans), but how it can be viewed by a more sophisticated (homo- or heterosexual) demographic. These reviews point up the social and political implications of even the most seemingly insignificant bit of Hollywood entertainment. Every film inevitably expresses an attitude towards the world it portrays and often mainstream films, through their seeming neutrality, end up espousing a conservative viewpoint that argues for the continuation of the social, political, and (especially) aesthetic status quo. Here, a film that explicitly tackles social issues under the guise of a light comedic program is subjected to critical analysis and found by one critic to be a "radical" gesture, while another dismisses it is as tedious public service announcement. What is important is that neither critic allows the film simply to stand as a harmless bit of entertainment, realizing that all entertainment functions in a more sophisticated manner than what the average filmgoer perceives. Lee and Gonzalez's critical analyses shrewdly illustrate the full range of social and political implications that the film elicits and serve in themselves as significant works of social, as well as cinematic, commentary.

Thursday, July 19, 2007


It seems to be classics week at the Anthology Film Archives. First Jack Smith's surprisingly drab Flaming Creatures screened on Sunday and now Wednesday evening we get Michael Snow's 1967 film Wavelength. Unlike Smith's work, though, Snow's film generates real excitement. What is exciting about the picture is its willingness to reduce cinema to a purely formal level. The film not only consists of little more than a forty-five minute zoom across a New York loft, but the zoom itself represents the film's sole subject. By making the work's form its content, Snow leaves the viewer with nothing more at the end than the cinematic language he has employed. This collapsing of content into form results in a radically reductive view of the cinematic medium that continues to excite through its sheer audacity.

This is not to say that the film is entirely devoid of the elements that traditionally form a film's substance (plot and character) but that these elements are ultimately dispensable. The film provides a slight, patchwork narrative, whose details are occasionally glimpsed in the course of the zoom, but it is always peripheral to the proceedings. The film's action is not its real content, the action's very superfluity pointing to the work's true subject, its own form, consisting in this case of the inexorable camera movement. In the course of the film a bookcase is moved into the loft, two women enter and drink a cocktail, a man falls to the ground apparently dead (after an off-screen scuffle is heard), a woman places a phone call in response to the body, and a siren suggests the arrival of an ambulance. In addition, we are given brief glimpses of the action in the street through the loft's windows (car traffic, people entering a hardware store). But all this is beside the point. The audience's visual frame of reference (dictated by the ever-moving camera) treats the action with utter indifference. It is as likely to occur on-screen as off. Manny Farber wrote about the film "if a room could speak about itself, this would be the way it would go," but the camera seems indifferent to room and human being alike. The room is merely the space through which it passes. The camera, the technical element, is all that counts.

The zoom proceeds not in a steady procession, but in discontinuous bursts that, in their crudeness, place the attention squarely on themselves. The zoom is also accompanied by a series of auxiliary techniques (the insertion of different colored filters on the lens, double exposures, intentional blurring) which serve both to maintain audience interest in what could quickly become a monotonous exercise and to underscore the artificiality of the proceedings, an artificiality which in its conspicuousness confirms the primacy of the film's technique over any extraneous content. The colored filters, which change at a moment's notice, provide a particularly jolting (and visually seductive) reminder to the viewer of the author's technical manipulations. As Farber describes them, we see "violent changes in color in which the screen shudders from intensities of green, magenta, sienna: a virtuoso series of negative and positive impressions in which complementary colors are drained out so that the room, undergoing spasms, flickers from shrill brilliant green to pure red to a drunken gorgeous red-violet". As these filter changes subside near the film's conclusion, the camera finally comes to rest on a picture of a wave-filled seascape thumb-tacked to the wall. This image, on which the camera lingers for several minutes before fading to a final white, recalls the film's title and further emphasizes the fact that the film is about itself.

The soundtrack is largely composed of a steady electronic buzz built on a conjunction of sine waves which begins roughly a third of the way into the picture and continues uninterruptedly (except for the occasional sound introduced by the intrusion of the film's plot) and with increasing shrillness until the conclusion. The sound waves (the "wavelengths" of the title) are the aural equivalent of the zoom, the contentless audio counterpart to the pure visual technique. Just as the on-screen appearance of the film's "characters" interrupt the authentic procedure of the work, so these off-screen audio intrusions (the sound of the struggle, the siren) detract from the film's pure (because without concrete content) audio program. Like the video intrusions, these audio interruptions further emphasize the primacy of technique as the film's true subject through their sheer irrelevance to the proceedings. It is this insistence on, not merely the privileging of the technique, but the elimination of any other content, that marks Snow's work as such a radical postulation. That the film manages to maintain a certain hypnotic thrall despite its academic premise and mixes its intellectual rigor with a formal eloquence that maintains viewer interest throughout marks Wavelength as one of the most successful cinematic experiments yet attempted.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Flaming Creatures

Jack Smith's 1963 classic Flaming Creatures played last night at the Anthology Film Archives and forty-four years after its original controversial screening it registers only as a mildly diverting artifact. Smith's visually blurred, impressionistic orgy of a film may have become a cause celebre for its explicit sexual content (especially after Jonas Mekas' defiant insistence on screening the film, a defiance which led to his arrest) but, like that other classic work of "obscenity", Lady Chatterly's Lover, its artistry doesn't quite sustain what, without the external spice of the legal battles, is an ultimately unsatisfying, and surprisingly drab, work.

A favorite of the camp crowd as well as a bevy of critical champions from Susan Sontag to J. Hoberman, Flaming Creatures captures, on a variety of film stocks, all washed out to varying degrees, a mass of tangled bodies (usually of indeterminate sex) in diverse states of undress. Much of the film's humor (and initial screenings allegedly had the audience in an advanced state of hilarity) derives from lingering close-ups of breasts and penises being manipulated into states of constant motion and the camping of an assortment of transvestites. Apparently inspired by the kitschy acting of Maria Montez and the lavish 1930s films of Josef von Sternberg, Smith attempts to create a lush, sensual bit of entertainment built not only on imagistic voluptuousness (undercut though it is by the film's faded visual aesthetic, an aesthetic which at least has the advantage of imparting a dream-like quality to the proceedings), but on a diverse and ever-changing soundtrack combining such disparate sources as rumba, doo-wop, opera, pop and, in a sequence that surely represents the film's high point, a fake advertisement for lipstick. The advertisement, which includes the film's only spoken words, describes an "indelible" heart-shaped lipstick and unwinds to the visual accompaniment of the picture's various actors (of both sexes) applying the product and making deliberately exaggerated lip-smacking noises. The campy narration, the joyful application of the lipstick and the intercutting of a vulgar (if under the circumstances appropriate) question on the soundtrack ("does it come off when you're sucking cock?") combine for a successful level of invention that the rest of the film can't sustain.

The film's other highlight comes in the ravishing of a voluptuous actress, groped by three or four actors simultaneously, signaling the full swing of the picture's orgiastic program. Accompanied by screams on the soundtrack, the (somewhat) unwitting victim becomes just one more body in a joyful celebration of sexuality. Despite her earlier reservations, she is quickly won over as an enthusiastic participant in the proceedings. Still, her initial reluctance, as well as the screams which continue on the soundtrack throughout the primary orgy sequence, run against the grain of the film's ecstatic life-affirming approach. With the last note of tension resolved, however, the film is free to indulge in an increasingly banal second-act. Having spent its creative energy in the first half, the remainder seems like so much time-marking until the inevitable fade to black. Although the entire non-narrative picture is inevitably marked by a static quality, (suggesting for critic Jonathan Rosenbaum the attainment of - as opposed to the continual process of striving after - earthly paradise), without the accompaniment of continued invention, this static quality quickly results in a leaden dullness. We get the introduction of a new participant, a blond transvestite who emerges from a coffin, we get a new series of bodily contortions, we get a mise-en-scene centered around a potted plant, but it all feels like so much repetition. By the time we get to the film's final image, an extreme closeup of a slowly bouncing breast synched to the Everly Brothers' cover of "Be-Bop-a-Lula", the film has most certainly run its course.

When Jonas Mekas and other like-minded apologists came to the film's rescue after its initial obscenity charges, they attempted to intellectualize the film in order to give it a solid critical grounding, turning what was intended as comic entertainment into an over-analyzed work of art, a move that profoundly disillusioned Jack Smith who never again exhibited a completed film. Perhaps this over-intellectualized approach continues to work against the material (the film's audience at the recent screening indulged in little more than polite chuckles) since the picture clearly cannot measure up to the high intellectual expectations created by its unwieldy reputation. Still, on the level of a pure, campy entertainment, despite the film's occasional moments of amusement, its too-limited powers of invention have difficultly sustaining even the work's 45-minute running time. An interesting artifact from the 1960s underground, it represents one of Smith's only finished films (another is the mostly forgettable 3-minute Scotch Tape, which also screened last night), but his enormous importance as a cinematic pioneer cannot be detected in a single screening of Flaming Creatures, especially when compared to the much-richer output of contemporaries or near-contemporaries like Kenneth Anger, whose 1954 classic Inauguration of the Pleasure of the Dome, which takes in a similarly sensual, campy milieu, holds up much better than Smith's film. Smith's legendary performance parties which made use of the director's unedited footage no doubt played a large role in establishing his legendary influence on the American avant-garde. It is unfortunate that, in assessing Smith's work, we are left with little more (at least in terms of finished product) than his occasionally amusing, but ultimately unsatisfying 1963 film.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Ace in the Hole

Billy Wilder's 1951 masterpiece Ace in the Hole (coming to DVD Tuesday after years of unavailability) is so merciless in its depiction of a dollar-obsessed America that, if not for the occasional levity brought about by the film's (still acerbic) humor, it would be nearly unwatchable. Following the machinations of a down-and-out newspaper man who stumbles upon a goldmine of a story in rural New Mexico, the picture illustrates the two great truths about the newspaper game (truths all-too evident today in the content of not merely tabloids like the New York Post but in more respectable publications as well): "Bad news sells best, because good news is no news", and the "human interest story" which focuses on one unfortunate individual is much more palatable than a story dealing with the faceless masses.

The film's expose of the news machine is especially prescient in its disclosure of two trends that have become increasingly commonplace in the 21st-century media, the culpability of the journalist in creating (as opposed to merely reporting on) the story, and the turning of a hot scoop into a "media circus", an expression here literalized as the carnival comes to entertain the story's observers. Kirk Douglas, at his hard-boiled best, stars as Chuck Tatum, a once prominent journalist who has been kicked off of every major newspaper for a variety of indiscretions, ranging from drunkenness to having an affair with the editor's wife. Desperate for a job, he signs onto the small-time Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin hoping to stumble across a story that will put him back in the big time. After a year of frustration, he comes across a man, Leo Minosa, trapped in a cave on a ranch in rural Escudero and, calling on the local authorities, he turns a seemingly insignificant event into a media extravaganza while securing exclusive rights from the local sheriff to enter the cave and speak with the trapped man. Apart from merely profiting off the misery of Minosa, Tatum takes an active role in prolonging this misery. Against the chief engineer's recommendation that the cave be reinforced and the rescue effected from inside (a process that would take 18 hours), he insists that they drill through the cave from the top, deliberately prolonging the procedure and allowing for more days of valuable newspaper copy. Because of the deal Tatum has struck with the corrupt sheriff who controls the town, the engineer has no choice but to comply. As the days go on, the crowds of observers increase in number to the thousands and reporters from the major Eastern cities arrive. The shameless carnival atmosphere that Wilder creates, which finds its antipodal counterpoint in a series of claustrophobic shots of the increasingly desperate Leo Minosa, his face almost completely blackened by dirt, imparts a very bitter, but nonetheless palpable, sense of amusement to the film's audience.

The Albuquerque newspaper office is decorated by a quaint needle-point canvas stitched with the paper's motto "Tell the Truth", an assertion everywhere undermined by the reality of the media's operation when faced with a chance to break a big story. The Sun-Bulletin's owner, Jacob Q. Boot (Porter Hall), may be scrupulous in his morals, but his paper is content to cover stories of limited interest and will never achieve the kind of success of its big-city counterparts. The naivete of the needlepoint motto is everywhere mocked by Wilder as he exposes the relentless machinations that serve to replace honesty with financial success as the chief operating value of the country. As the crowds increase arond the hapless Minosa and create a kind of village, the spectacle expands into a illustrative microcosm of America, a nation here exposed as one built on greed and operating on the lure of pure spectacle. Ace in the Hole creates a nightmare world in which everyone is selling something. Apart from Tatum (who brokers a thousand dollar a day deal with a New York paper after the story breaks), Leo Minosa's wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling) is glad to see her husband buried since it gives her the chance to earn significant amounts of money feeding the tourists from the restaurant she owns. The sheriff, with his eye on the next election, strikes a deal with Tatum in which the newspaper man will turn him into a hero in the papers, ensuring the continuation of his office. Even the tourists cannot resist a chance to promote themselves. When interviewed by a local radio station, an insurance salesman uses the on-air opportunity to further his business interests. A troubador performs a song about Leo Minosa and sells the sheet music to the crowd. Souvenir stands abound. Everywhere, something is for sale.

In Kirk Douglas, Wilder found his ideal Chuck Tatum. Fresh off his Oscar-nominated performance in Champion, Douglas continues his mastery of portraying the unscrupulous opportunist. As Manny Farber wrote about Douglas (in reference to another role), "[his] mad-dog style of acting is bound to make any character into a one-sided surface of loud-pedaled ugliness". This mad-dog style of acting is everywhere evident in Ace in the Hole. From his rants denouncing small-minded Albuquerque with which he treats his newspaper co-workers to his unflinching manipulations of the local sheriff, Douglas is never less than dynamic, his shrewd intelligence continually on display as he deftly outmaneuvers his rivals. Although his performance is mostly one-sided (only at the fim's end, when his plan unravels and his unshakable confidence gives way to a kind of frenzy, is his character complicated), it is exactly what is called for in the portrayal of a cynical, success-mad newspaper man who knows every inch of the game and has little difficulty manipulating the local rubes who stand in his way. Lorraine Minosa defines his character best: "I've met a lot of hard-boiled eggs in my time, but you, you're twenty minutes". The supporting cast is more or less forgettable, but Ray Teal stands out as the oily sheriff, his phony bluster easily giving way to smarmy ingratiation when it suits his interests.

Wilder's visual scheme takes advantage of high contrast black and white and a deft manipulation of the ever-increasing crowds to create a vivid self-contained world. The camerawork is more or less typical of 1950s Hollywood, built on a series of long shots, close-ups and pans, but it suffices to clearly convey the interactions between the film's visual elements. The script, written by the director in conjunction with Walter Newman and Lesser Samuels, is full of Wilder's typically caustic wit, given an additional bite by the relentless cynicism (cynical even by Wilder's standards) of his vision. In the video afterward included on the DVD release, Spike Lee says of the film that it is "dark for 2007", let alone 1951. In its unrelenting depiction of the cynical operations of the media machine and its understanding of the relentless greed that forms the core of American society, Wilder's picture remains a landmark, one scarcely equaled in the fifty plus years since the film's first release.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Seven Recent Experiments

The following is a brief look at seven films that represent bold cinematic experiments in a more or less narrative context, all taken from the last ten years. The experimental nature of the selections ensures that the films represent varied degrees of success, with a couple of outright failures sprinkled among the triumphs.

1. Psycho (Gus van Sant, 1998)
What justification can there be for a shot-by-shot remake of Hitchcock's classic? Despite van Sant's claim that his goal was to bring the film to an ignorant public and the equally unconvincing justifications of the film's few defenders, the picture's very existence is essentially pointless. But it is just this superfluity that makes it such a bold conception. Trading the black and white of the original for a garish color scheme (courtesy of Wong Kar-Wai favorite Chris Doyle), the film feels completely out of place in time, at home neither in 1960 nor 1998, adding to film's unsettling quality. Although the shots are all determined by Hitchcock, by filtering them through van Sant's visual sensibility, a new and completely unique product emerges. Written off as a cynical (and unnecessary) marketing strategy by its detractors, the film actually stands as a unique cinematic artifact, a work at once derivative and wholly original. Only Vince Vaughn's dismal performance as Norman Bates puts a damper on the proceedings.

2. The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sanchez, 1999)
Although The Blair Witch Project represents an admirable (and surprisingly successful) attempt to subvert the traditional Hollywood marketing system and the film's conception exhibits a similarly commendable willingness to forgo the conventions of the horror genre, the picture itself is nearly unwatchable. Shot in hand-held pseudo-documentary style purportedly filmed by three students investigating the presence of a witch in the local woods, the film consists of a jarring series of camera movements that not only refuse the expected payoff but leave the audience with no images sufficiently suggestive to fill in the resultant sensory gap. In the end all we are left with is a feeling of nausea brought about by the film's jerky visual aesthetic and the sense that the characters are much more terrified than we are. The film's internet campaign, which shrewdly targeted its expected audience, and turned a truly independent production into a hit remains the most radical thing about the picture, even if its example has rarely been followed.

3. Mysterious Object at Noon (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2001)
Thai director Weerasethakul's debut feature is structured around the storytelling device known as the Exquisite Corpse, in which one storyteller picks up the narrative thread where another left off, often moving the story in a completely different direction. Here, Weerasethakul visits a cross-section of the rural Thai population and enlists them as storytellers, intercutting documentary footage of the narrators with fictional reenactments of the tale. The ever-evolving story, which takes in kidnappings, aliens, and a certain mysterious object, is told by a hard-luck young woman, a dance troupe and most memorably, a group of children who embellish the tale with delightfully surreal touches. Weerasethakul's attempt to democratize the narrative process results in a diverse, but surprisingly unified work.

4. Russian Ark (Alexsandr Sokurov, 2002)
The most difficult conception to achieve technically of any film on the list, Russian Ark is a single 95-minute take shot in St. Petersburg's Hermitage Museum, involving a remarkably intricate choreography among the film's cast of thousands. But the technical achievement would mean nothing if the film itself weren't so beguiling. A guided tour through one of the world's greatest art museums led by two hosts, a 19th-century Frenchman (seen onscreen) and a 21st- century Russian (who remains offscreen), the film takes in 300 years of Russian history, as historical events and social phenomena are re-enacted for the audience's benefit. The work's stunning conclusion finds the narrators intruding on an intricately staged costume ball, a set piece in which the technical achievement is matched by the sensual pleasure of the proceedings. After the ball, the cast slowly files out of the museum and the film comes to an end. The period costumes, the grand staging and the museum's unmatchable collection ensure that the film has no shortage of visual delights. More than simply a bold conception, Russian Ark, in its awesome historical sweep, is one of the finest pictures of the decade.

5. Irreversible (Gaspar Noe, 2003)
In many ways, the elements that would seem to be the most radical in Noe's film (the reverse chronological narrative, Monica Belluci's 12-minute rape scene) register as surprisingly conventional. It is certainly no longer a revolutionary gesture to tell a story backwards and the rape scene simply adds length to an already well established cinematic conception. What seems boldest about both moves is the complete lack of necessity of either one. There is absolutely no justification for telling this particular story in reverse and the whole film (a not particularly interesting revenge story) is built around superficial effect, of which the rape is just the most obvious example. A completely superfluous film may not seem like a particularly bold proposition, but Noe's total obliviousness to the conceptual demands of his cinema coupled with his devil-may-care attitude create one of the most unnecessarily jarring films in recent memory, a film so over-the-top in its effect and ultimately so pointless that it takes the cinema of sensation to new levels of audacity.

6. The Wild Blue Yonder (Werner Herzog, 2005)
Another offbeat gem from the perennially inventive Herzog, his "science fiction fantasy" The Wild Blue Yonder alternates a long monologue with video footage taken from a space expedition and from beneath the polar ice caps and combines them in a single unified conception. The monologue, full of genuine disgust, is delivered by Brad Dourif in the guise of an alien who years ago fled from his planet to the earth. Now, he explains, earthlings are fleeing their increasingly uninhabitable planet in search of a more sustainable world, a search that ends with humans discovering his former home. The space footage stands in for this fictional expedition, and the water beneath the polar ice caps becomes Dourif's planet. A bold imagining of a not-too distant future, Herzog skilfully puts documentary footage to fictional use and confuses the boundaries between fact and fantasy in a way that adds to the audience's unease at the imagined demise of their planet.

7. INLAND EMPIRE (David Lynch, 2006)
The latest offering from David Lynch is his most radical yet, a work that gives final reign to the expression of his psyche. INLAND EMPIRE represents the furthest possible extension of the Lynch aesthetic, with the director replacing anything resembling a linear chronology with a narrative conception that forks off in a myriad of directions and continually snakes back on itself. Lynch's film relentlessly probes the multiplicity of his nightmare world, with characters appearing in different guises, locations constantly shifting and standard cinematic techniques eliminated in favor of a hand-held digital camera and a murky lighting scheme. As far a step past Mulholland Drive as that picture was beyond the rest of this strain of filmmaking, INLAND EMPIRE is as bold a cinematic conception as any work in recent memory.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

In Between Days

If Aki Kaurismaki's Lights in the Dusk represents the triumph of style over substance, In Between Days, the debut feature from Korean director So Yong Kim (playing alongside Lights at the IFC Center) represents something like the reverse. This is not to say that Kim's unusually perceptive film lacks a distinctive artistic signature, but that its imperfectly executed style often undercuts the observations being made. Shot on handheld DV, the picture focuses on Aimie, a teenage Korean girl living in an anonymous North American city (although shot in Toronto, the film is deliberate in its lack of cultural specificity), specifically her relationship with her best (and only) friend Tran, a relationship ambiguously defined in terms of unrealized romantic fulfillment.

Charting the dual alienations of adolescent life and the immigrant experience, Kim's film is unusually sure in its knowledge of its lead character, played beautifully by first time actress Jiseon Kim, a surety that finds its best expression in her complex relationship with Tran. Although Aimie clearly harbors romantic feelings for him and suffers an acute jealousy when he begins spending time with a fully assimilated young Korean (who speaks only English; Aimie speaks almost exclusively in Korean), she is unwilling to give into his flip requests for sex or to express her feelings in any direct form. Tran, for his part, is perfectly content to spend time with Aimie and even to ask for sexual favors, but is mostly unwilling to acknowledge any sort of deeper feelings on his friend's part, even while feeling an obvious attraction to her. Take, for instance, a scene where Tran attempts to touch Aimie's breast while she sleeps, only to be abruptly rejected. The next day he comes to reconcile with her and tells her that he was only joking. He felt he could joke with her, he explains, because he views her in the same light as a male friend. From a too sexualized approach to an asexualized approach, Tran completely misses the middle ground that takes into account Aimie's confused feelings. In response, Aimie tells Tran that she had kissed a boy at a party in order to elicit a reaction from her friend, and having achieved an appropriately jealous response, she retracts her statement.

The film perfectly captures the loneliness of a young woman in a strange city. Two repeated shots, showing Aimie, wrapped in a heavy jacket, trekking through a deserted, snow-filled urban landscape, and walking through an empty highway overpass skilfully evoke this sense of alienation. Apart from Tran, Aimie communicates with almost no one. She lives with her mother, but she is almost never at home and barely talks to Aimie when she is. In one scene, Aimie attempts to console her as she lies crying on a couch after an unsuccessful date, but the mother quickly dismisses her, telling her to go to bed. In a bid for communication, Aimie narrates a series of short letters to her father, who we are told left the family years before. The letters run throughout the film, providing the normally non-communicative Aimie with a direct voice. Although they reveal nothing profound, they allow her to express her feelings of loneliness and confusion in a way such non-understanding interlocutors as Tran and her mother make impossible.

For all the film's carefully drawn observations about adolescence, however, its visual style too often proves distracting and continually subtracts from the film's achievement. Kim, using a murky, hand-held DV camera, favors tight shots that place the focus on the character's faces. The immediate stylistic comparison that comes to mind may be the Dardenne brothers, but where the Dardennes invest their approach with an absolute deliberateness of purpose and produce a series of clear, precise images, the camerawork of Kim's cinematographer, Sarah Levy, results in an distressingly opaque visual program. The dark, grainy image of the video (recalling at times the look of David Lynch's INLAND EMPIRE, a film for which this aesthetic approach is much better suited) may find some justification as a visual corollary to the confusion of the young protagonist, but this murky look, along with a shot selection that seems too often selected at random (the two shots mentioned above, which frame Aimie against a snowy, isolating urban terrain are exceptions, but even their impact is diminished by a lack of visual clarity) and occasional trick shots like filming one or more characters reflected in the window of a bus stop, undercuts the extreme precision of the film's presentation of its characters. Aimie's confusion is clear enough without a disjointed aesthetic program to emphasize the point. What is needed is a visual look corresponding to the absolute sureness with which Kim presents her world. For a film that relies so heavily on the close-up and in which facial expression counts for so much, it would be nice if the faces weren't so frequently obscured by deliberately fuzzy camerawork. This is a film that makes a lot of effort to know its characters (down to such observations as the chipped nail polish on Aimie's fingers). If only it had achieved a corresponding aesthetic conception instead of leaving us with a muddled visual mess, In Between Days could have been among the year's triumphs.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons by Jonathan Rosenbaum

Jonathan Rosenbaum's 2004 book Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons stands not only as the finest work in the writer's increasingly impressive oeuvre, but as arguably the most important work of film criticism written this decade. Rosenbaum's work begins with a discussion of the concept of canonization, a concept that has largely fallen into disrepute and with which the academic world (both in film and literature) refuses to have anything to do. The danger with such a dismissive attitude towards canonization, Rosenbaum argues, is that it leaves the task up to those who deliberately misrepresent the importance of specific films in order to further their own particular interests. The canonical lists that currently dominate the American film landscape are either poorly-considered rankings like the American Film Institute's list of the 100 "Greatest American Films", rankings that regurgitate a static canon of questionable contenders while serving the interest of the studios that own the represented films, or lists of box office receipts that equate financial success with quality. Either way, such lists are myopic in the extreme. But with academia unwilling to offer an alternative, they are the only canons that prevail. In response, Rosenbaum offers his own list of 1000 films that, although he is quick to qualify as no more than a list of "personal favorites", is nonetheless an attempt at a more intelligent, world-cinema savvy and idiosyncratic canon that is unafraid to be prescriptive rather than passively descriptive. The critic, Rosenbaum argues, must take an active role in shaping the canon, since simply reproducing the self-serving choices of the industry canonizers clearly serves little useful purpose.

Despite his passionate defense of canonization and the inclusion of his own list of important films, the idea of the film canon ultimately finds its primary function for Rosenbaum as an organizing strategy to anthologize a selection of his previously published criticism, most of which was written in the ten year period between 1992 and 2001 for the Chicago Reader. This follows a similar strategy to that taken in two previous collections of his work, 1995's Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism and 1997's Movies as Politics which organize a selection of previously published reviews around different aspects of the critical apparatus and various conceptions of the political nature of film respectively. Here, Rosenbaum organizes his writings into five categories that each represent different aspects of the process of canonization, but unlike Andrew Sarris' qualitative categories in his own classic work of film canonization The American Cinema, Rosenbaum's categories deal with specific issues surrounding the functioning of the process, such as Special Problems, a section treating films that present unique practical complications in their consideration for the granting of canonical status. Ultimately, however, when the reader becomes enmeshed in Rosenbaum's reviews, the categories are quickly forgotten. It is not, in the final analysis, any exploration of the nature of the film canon that gives the book its value. No, what makes the book so important is simply that it represents the world's best writer on film at the peak of his art. In an era when American film criticism is splintered into the mainstream review and the dense academic article, the middle ground of accessible but insightful film writing is continually disappearing and Rosenbaum's work represents the most impressive exposition of this middle ground whose continuance is essential in order to maintain an acceptable level of critical film discourse in this country.

What is most impressive about Rosenbaum's writing is his adeptness at handling discussion of all the varied aspects of film. Equally comfortable in aesthetic discussion as he is delineating the social or moral problems posed by a specific work, Rosenbaum is able to effortlessly call on a vast historical knowledge to reinforce his points, but is equally at ease engaging in a casual address to the reader. Not afraid to insert himself into his reviews, Rosenbaum is also the most honest of film critics. If every critic necessarily brings his own biases to his writing, Rosenbaum argues, it is better for the critic to foreground these biases by taking a candid approach and, rather than pretending to speak objectively, inform the reader of his unique background which has shaped his attitudes towards film. Active in criticism since the 1960s, Rosenbaum had refined his critical approach by the 1990s, resulting in a perfect mix of academic and popular writing that is not afraid to bring in comparison to literary masters like Faulkner, but is always written in clear, straightforward prose that, even when used in the service of complex arguments, is as easy to follow as the most simplistic of mainstream capsule reviews. His discussions of individual films bring in a wide variety of historical and extra-textual perspectives and are always filled with perceptive analysis. Although well versed in theory, Rosenbaum never allows these analyses to spill over into academic buzzspeak. This refinement of his approach, which filtered out some of the academic indulgences that tended towards overrepresentation in his past writings, marks Essential Cinema as his finest work, a collection of the best of his mature criticism.

Among the best pieces in the book is a discussion of Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver which considers the contributions of the work's four "auteurs" in shaping the morally problematic film. Interestingly, Rosenbaum includes composer Bernard Hermann among these auteurs (along with Scorsese, screenwriter Paul Schrader, and star Robert DeNiro), a figure not normally considered an important factor in the film's creation but who, Rosenbaum shows, was as influential as the other four in shaping audience reaction to the work. Rosenbaum's discussion of the film's score is one of the best analyses of film music in recent memory, canny in its understanding of the different threads of Hermann's work and the different effects they have on the viewer's understanding of the film. Rosenbaum's skilled analyses of four aspects of the cinematic art, composing, directing, acting, and screenwriting and his understanding of how these (often contradictory forces) contribute to the shaping of the final work, create a unique and unusually perceptive reading of an important, but problematic film. Rosenbaum shows how Paul Schrader's original script, which portrays the Travis Bickle character (DeNiro) as a highly questionable protagonist is glossed over by the romantic score, the arty direction, and the charismatic star performance which transforms a racist, misogynistic serial killer into a hero. The film's ending which portrays Bickle in this heroic light may be intended as ironic, but the contributions of Hermann and DeNiro tend to obscure this ironic intention, an irony lost on many viewers who tend to view the charismatic Bickle with admiration. Although Schrader may be the least willing of the four "auteurs" to let Bickle off the hook, he too contributes to this whitewashing of the character by putting all the racist sentiments (that Bickle obviously feels) in the mouths of supporting characters. Rosenbaum's perceptive analysis is one of the best pieces ever written on the film and illustrates both the work's problematic moral program and accounts for the lasting appeal of the Travis Bickle character, an appeal most evident in the continuing popularity of his famous and much imitated "you talkin' to me" speech.

Many of Rosenbaum's other pieces deliberately spotlight such lesser-known but important cinematic figures as Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Edward Yang, and Joris Ivens. Long a proponent of an inclusive view of world cinema, Rosenbaum's writings represent an important antidote to the increasingly myopic cinematic view of American criticism. An early champion of Taiwanese and Iranian film, Rosenbaum's repeated efforts to promote these national cinemas have gone a long way towards making cinephiles aware of two of the world's most creative film centers. Not afraid to take what he calls the "media-industrial complex" to task, Rosenbaum has in the past (most notably in his book Movie Wars) exposed the institutions (the major studios, film distributors, mainstream newspapers and magazines) that have prevented the works of these filmmakers from achieving wider recognition in America. In this work, he largely refrains from the sort of invective (rightfully) directed at these institutions, but serves a similarly admirable purpose by promoting these lesser known works (many of which are unavailable on video in the US) and including them in his canon. Needless to say, any reader will make his own share of discoveries by reading Rosenbaum's work; both the author's vast knowledge of all forms of cinema and his enthusiasm for many lesser known films means that even a knowledgeable reader will encounter much that is foreign to his cinematic worldview. This process of discovery is one of the true pleasures of cinephilia, a pleasure in which Rosenbaum delights and imparts to the reader on every page of his remarkable book.

Monday, July 2, 2007

The Moral Problem of Revenge: Fritz Lang's Fury

Late in Fritz Lang's morally problematic 1936 film Fury, Katherine Grant (Sylvia Sidney) makes a speech (presumably representative of the film's ethical position) equating her fiance's cunning revenge scheme with the actions of the twenty-two people who had tried to lynch him, even going so far as to suggest that his actions are worse than theirs, since his ordeal was over in a matter of hours, while his victims were forced to endure their torment for weeks. The speech is symptomatic of the film's troubling and contradictory attitudes towards the notion of vengeance, attitudes which make it impossible to read the film as the simple condemnation of mob violence it purports to be. The way these attitudes play out throughout the picture continually undercut the work's assumptions about the moral equivalency inherent in the notion of revenge.

The film's plot traces a standard injustice and revenge narrative until its conclusion when the hero's conscience comes into play and overcomes his insatiable need for vengeance. The relative simplicity of the film's action obscures the complex morality underneath. In the picture's beginning, Joe Wilson (Spencer Tracy) travels from Chicago to meet Katherine in a small town where she works as a schoolteacher. Upon his arrival, he is unexpectedly arrested, falsely accused of kidnapping a baby girl, and before he can stand trial, a mob of twenty-two townspeople converge on the jail and burn it to the ground. Although presumed dead, Joe has miraculously survived and appears to his two brothers demanding they bring the townspeople to trial, while he allows everyone else (his fiancee included) to believe he is still dead. In the ensuing trial, the townspeople are found guilty of murder, but before they can hang for the crime, Joe has a change of conscience and shows up in the courtroom as the sentences are being read and saves them from execution.

The film shrewdly condemns the sort of automatic vengeance that many American films, from both the 1930s and today, treat unreflectingly as an appropriate response to the wrongs their heroes have suffered, and it is canny in the way it links lynching (a way of circumventing the law) with Wilson's subversion of the legal process by pretending to be dead, but to put the two actions on the same moral plane is to complicate the film's anti-lynching message. This message is given its clearest expression in a didactic speech delivered by the prosecutor which would seem to sum up the film's position on mob violence, except that the ways in which Lang's attitudes towards justice play out, while admirable in their willingness to attack any form of proto-facist behavior (especially given the director's recent escape from Nazi Germany), serve to undercut this message by advocating an alternative in which no form of punishment is likely to occur. The problem with placing Joe's tactics on the same level of the mob is that if he had not taken this course of action, the mob would likely have escaped any punishment (legal or otherwise) for their crimes. As the prosecutor explains, of the thousands of people involved in lynchings in this country, less than 800 have even been brought to trial, as the townspeople in these cases continually protect each other from prosecution. The townspeople in the film are certainly willing to lie in order to establish alibis for each other and only the presence of a film camera on the scene which recorded the entire proceedings serves to falsify these alibis and bring the criminals to justice. Even the sheriff who stood up against the mob during the lynching has been cowed into submission and refuses to identify the townspeople that were involved. Against such a firmly entrenched system of mutual protection, Joe's actions become understandable if not wholly excusable. Because Lang's screenplay equates Joe's action with that of the townspeople by insisting on identifying them both as "lynchings", it forcefully condemns mob activity but further strips an already powerless legal mechanism of its ability to prevent them.

When Katherine learns that Joe is still alive, she follows his brothers back to his hiding spot and confronts her fiance with the evidence of his brutish behavior. "They're not murderers," she says, excusing the townspeople, "they were part of a mob." And then, comparing their plight to that of her fiance, "what you've felt for a few hours, they've had to face for days and nights and weeks." This ludicrous defense of the lynch mob in comparison with her husband's actions recalls Isabella's defense of the wicked Angelo at her brother's expense in Measure for Measure. Like Isabella, Katherine excuses the greater evil and attacks the lesser. It may be easier for today's audiences to condemn Joe for falsifying his death than to blame Claudio for fornication, but the inappropriateness of Katherine's comparison nontheless recalls Shakespeare's troubling speech. When she says to Joe, "You're hanging twenty-two people for something they didn't do," she is technically correct, but Joe's response seems much closer to the truth: "No, I'm not. I'm hanging twenty-two rats for something they did do." But it is Katherine's notion of justice that wins out in the film's conclusion.

What is most problematic about this conclusion is that Joe's final confession in the courtroom, in which he takes responsibility for his revenge scheme, seems to absolve the townspeople of their own responsibility. Even though he makes clear that he is confessing for himself and not for the sake of his would-be murderers, in relieving them of the homicide charges, the film leaves the viewer with the sense that they are correspondingly relieved of all guilt for their actions. Indeed the film ends before the trial can reach a proper conclusion, but given the way legal justice has been conducted throughout the film, it is questionable whether the jury (fellow townspeople who could have been potential lynchers themselves) would convict their peers in light of the confession. Although the trial is left unresolved, the film implies that the townspeople have (rightfully) escaped justice simply because Joe survived the burning and their actions (however reprehensible) failed to achieve the desired result. In its refusal to carry the trial to its conclusion, the film creates an atmosphere of moral uncertainty in which the audience is unsure whether Joe's confession will still allow the townspeople to be convicted or if, what is more likely, he has prevented the very justice he sought from being carried out. The prosecutor's moral lecture which seems to summarize the film's anti-lynching attitude is thus undercut by the film's conclusion which endorses a moral equivalency between mob action and Joe's proposed revenge that prevents the proper function of the legal mechanism and allows for the continuation of the very lynchings that the film claims to condemn.