Friday, February 29, 2008

Poverty as Cinema: The Unforeseen

The Unforeseen neatly encapsulates the problems of the contemporary political non-fiction film: its importance as social document is everywhere countered by its poverty as cinema. Taking as its subject the damages (both to the environment and the fabric of communities) wrought by unchecked land development, Laura Dunn's film is content to present its arguments through typical talking heads plus archival footage methodology, relying on less than spectacular aerial and underwater footage to fill in the visual gaps. The lack of imagination of this presentation (as well as the inevitable rigidness of the argument) places the burden of interest squarely on the narrative, a burden which it has more than a little difficulty sustaining.

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

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

And Now For Something Completely Different...

The following films all represent a change-of-pace of one kind or another for their directors. The film's departure may be one of genre, or it may be thematic or stylistic. But, in each case the work is more in the nature of a one-off experiment than a springboard for further explorations in a given direction.

1. The Great Moment (Preston Sturges, 1944)
The seven films Sturges made between 1940 and 1944 represent (arguably) the highest achievement of the American situational comedy, so what to do for an encore? Before taking a three year hiatus, Sturges makes one more picture. The result: what has to be considered a rather ordinary biopic. The Great Moment traces the rise-fall-rise pattern familiar to viewers who've seen any of the countless dull retreads of the formula (Ray, Walk the Line) that have become the recipients of much unreflective critical praise in recent years. Still Sturges' film, which details the efforts of a 19th century dentist to invent a workable anesthetic, manages to present its familiar narrative arc with surprising emotional pull and complicates its conventions with a sliver of moral drama as well. Far more staid a film than we'd expect from Sturges - and played almost entirely straight - The Great Moment shows him capable of handling dramatic material with rather impressive (though perhaps not surprising, given his facility with the less comedic elements in Sullivan's Travels) assurance. Still, after a three year pause, Sturges returned to the format he helped to define, helming several more comedies before being run out of Hollywood and ending his career abroad.

2. Knightriders (George A. Romero, 1981)
In between the second and third parts of his famed Dead series (now at five films and counting), Romero crafted this overlong, but fascinating look into an undiscovered corner of American popular culture: the life of motorcycle jousters. Living by a rigid code of honor, these modern day knights travel to Renaissance Fairs where they purvey their unique artform in front of surprisingly rabid fans. When one of their number gets the chance to increase the group's exposure (and seize the spotlight for himself), he runs afoul of the incorruptible leader - the King of the group, whose resistance to commercial pressures is based partly on notions of integrity and partly on a desire for control. Either way, Romero takes a break from his socially conscious zombie pics to offer a personal reflection on the various temptations (money, fame) that can sidetrack the artist from his more elevated pursuits. Along the way, he creates a fully imagined world that fascinates through its granting of voyeuristic entry into a unique subculture at the margins of American life.

3. Secret Honor (Robert Altman, 1984)
There are no shortage of possibilities for inclusion on this list when we scour the Altman filmography; here is a director who enjoyed a great variety of achievement - continually reinventing genres, engaging in fascinating one-off projects. For all Altman's artistic restlessness, though, he remains fixed in the public imagination as a creator of ensemble films, concerned with the exploration of large cross-sections of humanity that characterize some of his most celebrated pictures (Nashville, Short Cuts) as well as some of his least known offerings (A Wedding, HEALTH). What could be further from these vast canvases than Altman's intimate adaptation of the one-man stage show Secret Honor, which confines its sole character (Philip Baker Hall as Richard Nixon) to a single, claustrophobic setting. But, perhaps the film isn't such a departure when we situate it properly in Altman's filmography. Released in 1984, Secret Honor comes in the middle of a long stretch of scaled down productions from the director, all based on stage plays. Then, the question of political corruption had long been a particular concern of Altman's. Still, as Hall rants and pleads to the camera for all of the film's 90 minutes, the filmmaker achieves a directness of address and a singularity of viewpoint that stand out even in this anomalous section of his oeuvre.

4. Almanac of Fall (Béla Tarr, 1985)
Tarr had filmed in color before (1981's The Outsider), but it never looked like this. One of the more radical explorations of the possibility of onscreen color, Almanac of Fall surrounds its characters with vast fields of red, green or yellow, a scheme that the filmmaker reconfigures for every scene. With the film consisting of a series of dialogues between any of the five people sharing a dilapidated mansion (and all preoccupied with the possibility of personal gain), Tarr frequently divides the screen into two fields of color, each encircling a separate character. Thematically, the chromatic coding follows no consistent schema, but experientially the bright bursts of color add emotional resonance to a dryly told, cynical tale of the pursuit of individual gratification. In his subsequent films, Tarr would retain Almanac's sarcasm and bitter view of humanity, but aesthetically he moved in another direction entirely (despite his claims to the contrary). Having made some sort of ultimate statement about color, the director chose to stick to black-and-white from here on out, increasingly experimenting with long takes, intricate camera choreography and a focus on the minutiae of daily living.

5. I Want to Go Home (Alain Resnais, 1989)
Alain Resnais' 1980s films are a rather diverse lot, but they all share several essential features. They focus on restricted settings which grant the pictures the intimacy of chamber pieces. They feature the same cast, the four actors who came to represent Resnais' stock company. And they're all pretty heavy going. That is, until 1989's freewheeling comedy I Want to Go Home which wrings fresh laughs from a familiar set-up: the boorish American in Paris. That the boorish American is eminently redeemable is clear from the fact of his profession; a newspaper cartoonist (whose creations assume a life of their own in the film and converse freely with the characters), Joey Wellman (Adolph Green) comes to Paris both for a retrospective of his work and to reunite with his estranged daughter. The film represents several notable departures for Resnais - it's mostly in English and it's unapologetically silly - but it makes sense in light of the director's lifelong obsession with comics, a medium which he claims as the primary influence on his editing style. In the end, the plot sticks pretty closely to The Ambassadors: the younger generation returns to America, while the older, more adaptable one stays on. All told, it's a fairly slight, but thoroughly likable, change-of-pace from one of the greatest of all filmmakers.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

L'Amour à Mort

If death will always remain the artist's one inescapable subject, then Alain Resnais' L'Amour à Mort (Love Unto Death) takes us somewhat farther than most artworks by bringing us just past the brink of mortality, suggesting through both speech and abstract visuals what a hazy netherland between life and death might feel like. That the film is careful to call into question the actuality of this perceived afterlife doesn't diminish the power of its possibility, it simply represents a necessary concession from its firmly earthbound creators.

Following a brief tracking shot through a forest which establishes the film's principal setting as an isolated country house, Resnais confronts us immediately with the fact of death. The camera registers the panic-stricken face of Elisabeth (Sabine Azéma) who, we soon learn, has just watched her lover collapse. No sooner is the man, Simon (Pierre Arditi), pronounced dead then he returns both to life and perfect health. Determined to take advantage of his second life, he plans trips to America with Elisabeth and notes a heightened passion in their lovemaking, designated visually by garish red lighting during the sex scenes. But soon Simon becomes obsessed by the tantalizing glimpse of death he's received and it's not long before he suffers another fatal collapse, this time definitive, which causes Elisabeth to consider suicide in order to join her lover in the afterlife.

That Simon, an anthropologist, is essentially atheistic in his orientation seems to mark him as the ideal subject for mortal confrontation since he's not burdened by any of the doctrinaire blinders of his minister friend, Jérôme (André Dussollier), which would inevitably color his view of his experience and taint his report from the afterlife. Still, when we learn later of his lifelong obsession with mortality, we have to question how much of his alleged experience can be attributed to this desire for a beautiful death and entertain the possibility that, as Jérôme believes, Simon simply dreamed the entire encounter. But, the fact of his "resurrection" (a word used in the film with varying degrees of irony) certainly defies the explanations of both science and orthodox doctrine and grants Simon's report a certain authority which can't be so easily dismissed.

Either way, the film's representations of the experience of death take us well beyond the limits of what most films dealing with mortality are prepared to engage with. The verbal representation of this experience, Simon's relating of his encounter to Elisabeth, is given added force by Resnais' striking chiaroscuro framings. Cutting back and forth between the two lit faces emerging out of a near complete darkness, the director places the emphasis fully on eyes, mouth, lips as the characters negotiate their experience. As Simon speaks of a horrible coldness, followed by a crossing over and finally a feeling of great warmth and happiness, the close photography captures both his joy in the recollection and Elisabeth's sorrow at being separated from her lover by a gap that can only be bridged through death.

As striking as Simon's recounting of his encounter may be, Resnais understands that both words and concrete visual images can only go so far in depicting experiences beyond the usual capacities of human understanding. To this end, he punctuates the film with brief (2-10 second) interludes that provide an abstract correlative to Simon's conception of death. Consisting of a dark field of color (usually black, but sometimes lit dark blue) often streaked with white particles (stars? snow?) and accompanied by a slightly dissonant orchestral score, the latter perhaps suggesting the celestial music that Simon reported hearing when he died, these interludes, which Resnais employs as punctuation after particularly salient lines of dialogue, find the director grasping for (and achieving) a way of expressing visually a state of being that stubbornly resists all efforts at conventional expression.

The film's final third details Elisabeth's mental preparations as she resolves to commit suicide, thus "rejoining" Simon and fulfilling her deathbed promise to her lover. At first, Elisabeth's decision seems merely like the desperate act of a grief-stricken lover, who vainly grasps at the dubious prospect of some kind of unspecified cosmic reunion. But, as she hashes out her explanations to Jérôme and his less doctrinaire wife, Judith (Fanny Ardant), we can come to understand her decision not as an act of grief but one of hope. Although, she admits, she has no idea what to expect on the other side, she makes it clear she believes in the possibility of a literal reunion with Simon and that, either way, she'd rather attempt it than live without him. Although this may strike the viewer as silly romanticism (particularly since she's only known Simon for two months), I think we have to take her decision (and the possibility of a satisfying afterlife) seriously. As Judith points out, there are many different kinds of love and so there is nothing to suggest that Simon's and Elisabeth's brief, passionate affair is any less significant than Judith and Jérôme's sober ten year marriage. Then, the film has already suggested the very real possibility of an afterlife. Although we may have reason to doubt Simon's report, we certainly can't dismiss it out of hand. Ultimately, Judith characterizes Elisabeth's act as a courageous one and I think the film works best if we accept it as such. After all, despite Resnais' efforts to take us past the brink of mortality, he continually rubs up against that inevitable point beyond which further exploration becomes impossible. There remains a single way to achieve full understanding and the director's willingness to grant this knowledge to his central characters feels, under the circumstances, like an act of great generosity.

Monday, February 11, 2008

How Far We Haven't Come: The Film as Novel or The Film as Film

In a recent piece at The House Next Door, Matt Zoller Seitz notes how the introduction of sound in the movies in the late 1920s burdened the cinematic enterprise with unfair literary expectations, a burden as evident today as it was 80 years ago, especially if we consider its prominence within the dominant critical approach. "Critics' predisposition to talk about virtually all narrative films as if they were plays or novels," writes Seitz, "is an indicator of how far we haven't come." Excepting works so self-consciously aestheticized that their visual qualities can't be ignored, the majority of films are viewed primarily in terms of narrative deployment and that murky quality known as "character development," critical criteria that owe more to the world of literary analysis than to the practice of film criticism, properly conceived.

So what's wrong exactly with this dominant critical approach? Aren't some of the great pleasures of the medium derived from just these orthodox criteria? To be sure, the appeal of a masterfully unfolding narrative is not to be downplayed, as even a cursory look at the best films of Hitchcock makes clear. The question of characterization is rather a more difficult issue (and one I've touched on at more length in an earlier article). The primary objection to a too insistent focus on characterization is that the film medium, unlike the novel and (to a lesser degree) the play, is incapable of achieving any deep complexity of human creation, and that, viewed in this light, any attempt on the filmmaker's part to devote his primary attentions to endowing his characters with an intricately constructed psychology has to be seen as a fundamental misuse of the medium.

What then must a critic look for when evaluating a film? He must, for one thing, have an understanding of the ways in which the director manipulates his materials. Pauline Kael may object that the role of the critic should be confined to evaluating the final film product and not worrying about how it was achieved, an area of inquiry which she dismissively consigns to the category of "technique". What she ignores is that if the critic has no understanding of what it is the director is doing technically, then he's not in a proper position to evaluate the success of what he actually achieves. If we fail to consider how the filmmakers deploy their cinematic resources, then we really haven't gotten much beyond the "liked it"/"didn't like it" judgments of the casual filmgoer.

How, then, are we to evaluate the relative success of a given work? What sort of cinematic achievements are to be prized by the critic? Obviously, the sheer variety of great - or at least interesting - works of film art make it difficult to narrow down our criteria to a sole model of evaluation. But, I think we can say that the success of a given film must start with its aesthetic approach. Building a visual and aural program that is both aesthetically satisfying and appropriate to the film's material - a good film should not recognize a disjunct between form and content - must be the first step of the working filmmaker. From there, we must look in turn at all the other factors that constitute the total work of the film and consider how their application helps define the film's achievement. If we start with questions of aesthetics and then work our way through the rest of the film's components, we give ourselves a clearer picture of the ways in which the film actually functions and we learn to look on the work in the terms that it demands. To be sure, film shares many qualities with the literary forms, but it is in the differences that we must look for our fundamental definition of the cinematic medium and begin the proper evaluation of a given work of screen art.

Unfortunately, too many films today demand to be looked at in strictly literary terms, so that it's not simply the critic who must accept the blame for an excessively uncinematic orientation. Dwight MacDonald may have compared L'Avventura to a novel and Godard may have defined Hiroshima, Mon Amour as literature, but whatever points the two critics were driving at, it's clear that these two films are conceived in uniquely cinematic terms. But setting aside such self-conscious "art" films, we can see a vast difference even between the celebrated studio pictures of the 1930s and 1940s and their contemporary counterparts. Unlike the contract directors of the studio system, the best of whom were redeemed from their anonymity by the auterists, most of today's studio filmmakers settle for a bland, generic aesthetic that demands that the film's interest reside entirely in fast-paced narrative exposition and psychologically coherent, but ultimately superficial characterization. To be sure, a film like The Big Sleep essentially subsumes style to narrative, but Howard Hawk's direction is inherently aware of the visual demands that his material creates and he skillfully maintains the menacing aura that the film's noir orientation calls for, even while operating within the aesthetic conventions of the Hollywood system.

In contrast, an acclaimed contemporary picture, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead by celebrated studio director Sidney Lumet, betrays very little aesthetic awareness, the director's camera placements seemingly determined by a roll of the dice. We are forced to confine our interest to the unravellings of the plot (which seem to get away from the director as the film wears on), the performances of the leads and the general nihilism with which Lumet seeks to endow the picture. That many critics were quick to heap praise on the film, completely overlooking the work's immense aesthetic shortcomings, just serves as one more reminder of, as Seitz puts it, "how far we haven't come."

Wednesday, February 6, 2008


Mohsen Makhmalbaf's masterful 1996 film Gabbeh is about nothing so much as color. Taking as its theme the mantra "life is color, love is color," the film establishes the truth of this equation by building a visual program which continually fills the screen with vibrant splashes of reds, yellows, blues and greens (seen in clothing, flowers, fabrics) and which corresponds to the hopeful possibility of love that drives the picture's narrative before giving way to a drained, monochromatic palette in the final section when the film's world becomes marked by sexual repression and death.

The film, an imaginative fantasy, begins with an elderly couple washing their gabbeh (a decorative rug) only to find the central figure in the design (a beautiful young woman, who like her older counterpart, is draped in bright blue cloth) come to life and narrate her story of thwarted love, a story which the film then literalizes. A member of a nomadic tribe whose family gives nominal approval to her romance with an outsider (seen always on horseback and always from a distance and designated by an ominous wolf's howl) while devising a series of obstacles to perpetually defer her moment of consummation. Intercut with the story are documentary segments (the film was originally intended as a non-fiction picture) detailing the making of the gabbehs - a process of wool gathering, dying and weaving - and which emphasize the vivid hues of the product, a work of art - like the film - whose chief attribute is an absolute insistence on color.

In Makhmalbaf's picture, this insistence is given its clearest expression in a central segment where the young woman's uncle teaches a classroom of young children about color, a lesson which doubles as a demonstration of the transformative powers of art. As the uncle points out features of the surrounding landscape and asks the students to identify the color of each item, he reaches out his hand and brings back samples of the utmost vibrancy. In the case of the more tangible items (flowers and grass), he returns the actual object, in the case of more ethereal quantities (the sun, the sky), his hands return dyed in yellow and blue paint. As the uncle extends his reach, Makhmalbaf films his hand grasping air in front of generically rendered landscapes. By this abstract signification, the director makes clear the magical nature of the uncle's offerings. Since the uncle doesn't actually appear to be making physical contact with any of the items, he accomplishes instead a mystical reification, creating objects of an impossibly vivid expression out of mere conceit. As his character gives concrete visual representation to the abstract concept of color through a unique process of transformation, so Makhmalbaf effects a comparative conversion through the aesthetic rendering of his filmic landscapes.

As long as the narrative's central romance remains hopeful, the film retains its remarkable vividness, but when the woman's father leads the family on a nomadic expedition and prohibits her, at gunpoint, from joining her lover, the screen suddenly sheds its vibrancy and becomes dominated by the neutral colors of the landscapes the family covers - the gray of sand dunes and the white of snow - with only the occasional red of campfires to provide any visual variety. When the woman finally flees her repressive surroundings and joins her lover, the latent threat of violence becomes actualized. As the embodiment of both the violence and the repression, the father is noticeably identified with a monochromatic visual scheme. In contrast to the vibrant clothes of the tribe's women, he remains garbed in light khaki. The final section of the film, the only section in which he registers as a central presence, is also the only segment in which the landscape remains untransformed by color, as if his repressive blight had spread to the surrounding environment. As the father threatens both "love" and "life," so, it follows, per the film's central equation, that color must likewise vanish. But not before leaving us with a presentation of remarkable visual richness and making a strong case for the central importance of aesthetic perception in the filmgoing process.

Monday, February 4, 2008

A Pair of Disappointments

This last weekend I caught up with two current releases which both proved disappointing, Pere Portabella's latest fiction/non-fiction hybrid The Silence Before Bach and Tony Gilroy's Oscar-nominated morality play, Michael Clayton. Below are short reviews of the two films.

The Silence Before Bach
An essay film in structure only, The Silence Before Bach is better characterized as a series of loosely-connected vignettes that riff on various aspects of the music and life of the German composer in a rather half-hearted attempt to suggest some measure of their contemporary significance. The film's title comes from an E. M. Cioran quotation which speculates that before Bach, "there must have been a world... but what was that world like? A Europe of empty spaces with no resonance." But far from being an essayistic exploration of the significance of the composer in a contemporary pan-European context (the film's characters speak German, Italian, Spanish and French), the work is rather a collection of unilluminating stagings that, while providing the occasional visual and (especially) aural pleasure, don't much advance our understanding of the composer's importance either in terms of personal significance for the film's director and participants, or in terms of his transformative influence on the modern world as a whole.

The film begins in complete silence in a whitewashed corridor, before a player piano - moving autonomously through stop-motion animation - saunters playfully down the hall, pivoting sideways and back as it turns out the Goldberg Variations. This opening, which, as J. Hoberman notes, neatly literalizes the film's title, offers the simultaneous promise of an exploration of the significance of the epochal silence-breaking effected by the titular composer and a certain jaunty lyricism, neither of which the rest of the work is able to fulfill.

Michael Clayton
As a thriller Michael Clayton has no problem delivering the expected payoffs, but as a moral drama it's considerably less accomplished. Writer/director Tony Gilroy's strategy for establishing an ethical framework is to present the two sides of the argument as dialectically opposed absolutes muddied by only the barest hint of troubling nuance and then allow his hero (played by perennial good-guy George Clooney) to move from a morally suspect position to a (mostly) unconditional embrace of goodliness with predictable ease. Although Gilroy tries to keep Clooney's final actions a question of perpetual speculation, this moral decision making registers as the least suspenseful component of the director's narrative program. The film's social concerns - outlining the responsibilities of corporations for the collateral damage they inflict on surrounding innocents - are admirable, but as in those other self-congratulatory "conscience" pictures of recent years (Blood Diamond, The Constant Gardener), the ethical debate is presented as excessively schematic and the moral incontrovertibility of the hero's final decision (even if the character retains lingering uncertainties, the filmmakers are never in doubt) is understood as all too inevitable.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Absence and Presence: Towards a Working Conception of Screen Characters

This article can be accessed in the latest issue of the online publication Bright Lights Film Journal.

Comments for the piece can also be found at The House Next Door.