Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Notes on Two Films by Jean Epstein

1. Glace à Trois Faces, 1927
A portrait of the dandy as seen by a trio of women, Glace splits into three parts (plus epilogue) so our lipsticked and powdered financier can seduce women from three different social spheres: high society, the artistic demi-monde and the working-class world. Each segment follows the same pattern. The heartbroken woman confides in a friend, we flash back to the man's seduction then cut forward to an indeterminate point in time as the man writes a dismissive letter to the woman and drives off in his car. The man's continually identified with his vehicle and some of the film's most striking visual conceits are centered around the idea of motion: the driver's point-of-view shot that ends the first section as the man drives his car in a descending spiral through the exit ramp of a parking garage and, of course, the final sequence, a fast-cut assemblage of images depicting the man's fast-paced joyride down a country road. Later repeated in the final sequence in Dreyer's short They Caught the Ferry, Epstein's final sequence mixes medium shots of the car, jarring out-of-focus close-ups of the man's face and snippets from a sign warning "dangeur". In the end, as in Dreyer, the man's rewarded for his reckless driving with a fatal crash. Whatever comment Epstein may be making about a self-destructive modernity, the conclusion satisfies as pure narrative closure: we rejoice as the villain gets his comeuppance.

2. La Chute de la Maison Usher, 1928
"C'est là qu'elle est vivante," says Roderick Usher, referring to the parasitic relationship between his wife's portrait which he obsessively paints and the woman herself whose health magically declines with each of her husband's brushstrokes. But it's not the film's metaphysical concerns - the trade-off between life and art, the kinship of love and death - that count so much as the overwhelming sense of formal invention. From Epstein's decision to literalize Usher's declaration by projecting Marguerite Gance's photographic image inside a gilded frame so that we see the actress blink as Usher paints around her to the pointed use of multiple exposures - when the wife faints, when her coffin is nailed shut - everything feels as if newly invented. If the defining feature of contemporary film is what David Bordwell refers to as "belatedness," the sense that all cinematic discoveries have already been made and the best one can hope for is to acknowledge this fact by placing the repetition of the old techniques within quotations marks, then watching Usher returns us to a time when the language of the cinema could be expanded with every shot. Not to say that Epstein discovered any of the techniques on display, but that his un-self-conscious overloading of the screen with the full range of available resources marks his film with a thrilling sense of invention in a way that was possible in 1928, but has long ceased to be available to the working filmmaker.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Skywalk is Gone

While Tsai Ming-Liang’s 2002 short The Skywalk is Gone provides a succinct narrative bridge between his previous feature What Time Is It There? and his most radical work, 2005’s The Wayward Cloud, it also represents somewhat of a thematic and aesthetic holding pattern. But if Tsai seems chiefly concerned with moving his characters into proper position for his next feature while deferring any further artistic explorations, he nonetheless presents his signature concerns with a compelling economy, reproducing earlier triumphs – both through repetitions of established aesthetic strategies and direct allusion – and neatly summing up his cinematic achievement to date.

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

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Domestic Ambiguity: The Tall T

Central to Budd Boetticher's The Tall T is the idea of home, but where exactly women fit into this conception of domesticity is a question on which the film is willfully, fascinatingly ambiguous. The picture begins with a presentation of its only wholly satisfactory domestic arrangement; from there, Boetticher's subsequent catalogue of familial groupings becomes increasingly problematic.

The film's first scene introduces us to a widower station master raising his young son on a ranch, an arrangement significantly marked by the absence of women. But despite the lack of a female presence, the boy's development scarcely seems to be compromised. Instead, Boetticher presents him as a polite and knowledgeable child; the success of his upbringing signified by his expertise in watering a horse and the deference he shows to a visitor. Still, given the film's uneasy insistence on constructing a traditional family structure, the "incomplete" arrangement cannot be allowed to last; the next time we see the ranch, the station master and his son have been murdered by a group of bandits, their bodies rudely dumped into a well.

The film's attention soon shifts to another womanless man, Pat (Randolph Scott), an expert ranch hand who has given up his professional life in favor of a comfortable, but solitary existence on his own recently purchased strip of land. En route to his spread, he's kidnapped, along with a newly married couple, by a party of three bandits, the introduction of the new groups providing the viewer with two more conceptions of familial structuring. The married couple, an opportunistic accountant and an aging heiress, provides the film's only example (at least until the conclusion) of heterosexual union and clearly represents the most degraded form of domestic organization on witness in the picture. The man makes little pretense about the fact that he's only interested in the woman's family fortune, while the woman, a middle-aged spinster whose physical "plainness" is exhaustively discussed by the film's male characters, is desperate for any offer of marriage. That the man is quick to leave his wife in the hands of the bandits at the first chance of escape comes as no surprise; it's merely the expected upshot of such a union.

The organization of the bandits' group is presented as something of an ironic perversion of the station master's family. When we first see the three outlaws, they have assumed control of the dead man's ranch and strike similar positions to those taken by the father and son in the film's first scene. They even mimic that pair's familial structure with the elder bandit, Frank (Richard Boone), standing in as a sort of wayward father figure for the younger two, but without offering any of the filial guidance provided by the station master. In one of the film's more interesting maneuvers, Frank makes an explicit identification with Pat, expressing a specific longing for a similar domestic situation and asserting the importance of owning one's own place, while rejecting any but a professional association with the other bandits whom he dismisses as mere "animals". Frank's disgust for his underlings seems largely predicated on their differing conceptions of womanhood. If the other two men view women as objects of sport (they speak longingly of a town with a population ratio of ten women to every man), then for Frank they're the necessary accompaniment to a complete domestic situation, the longing for which he uses to assert his difference from his despised employees.

In the principal exchange between Pat and Frank, the bandit responds to the hero's assertion that he's unmarried with the unequivocal statement that "a man needs a wife." Although Pat seems untroubled by his single status, the film eventually provides him with a potential mate - in fact the picture's only female character - in the form of Doretta Mims (Maureen O'Sullivan), the heiress, whose husband is conveniently eliminated by the bandits. Doretta is anything but a typical romantic lead; her plainness and her masculinity are repeatedly emphasized both through the conversation of the male characters and through her button-down costuming which hides any hint of feminine sexuality. It's widely agreed among the film's men that Doretta's only appeal is her fortune, but Pat soon discovers the "woman" buried underneath the frumpery when the two are sequestered in a cave at gunpoint. That sequence, played as a sort of parody of domestic life, also serves as a dry-run for a more formalized arrangement that develops between the romantic leads at the film's conclusion, but in it its debased imagery (domestic union as a form of forced confinement), the earlier sequence calls into question the fundamental soundness of such a mode of familial organization and undercuts the final affirmative imagery with which Boetticher concludes his film.

In the end, Pat and Doretta walk off arm in arm and we're left to assume, given the conventionality of the final image, that they will enter into a domestic partnership and take joint possession of the land. In fact, the terms of their continued relationship are nowhere specified and, despite the trial run in the cave, there is nothing to indicate any particular romantic understanding between the two. Exactly where women fit into the film's conception of domesticity remains ambiguous. For Pat, the principal goal remains home. He was happy enough to live by himself and, with the unexpected introduction of Doretta, he seems just as happy to live with her, but her inclusion in the family hardly seems a necessity. Only the demands of the genre dictate the formation of a conventionally conceived household.

The film seems obsessed with trying out all manner of familial arrangements (an obsession mirrored in Boetticher's stagings, consisting largely of three-shots which continually re-configure characters in an exhaustive variety of groupings) hoping to hit on the one that provides the greatest possibility of a workable order. But, by the last scene, all non-traditional possibilities of arrangement have been eliminated; only the central couple remains alive and Boetticher leaves us with the image of his romantic leads walking off into the distance. It speaks to the film's great achievement that, having been forced to consider the viability of a range of familial groupings, we cannot read this last image as an unambiguous embrace of couplehood. In The Tall T, the importance of home may be unequivocal, but the question of how best to formulate that household is one that is up for continual debate and to take Boetticher's generically dictated conclusion as offering any kind of definitive solution would be to deny the film its central ambiguity and reduce an object of perpetual fascination to the confines of a "mere" genre offering.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Possibilities and Frustrations: The World of Georges Méliès

Georges Méliès' world may be marked by an atmosphere of wondrous possibility, but it’s also reflective of a perpetual frustration. For every fantastic voyage that ends in new discovery and a safe trip home, there's a character who's prevented from carrying out the most routine tasks (sitting on a chair, eating a meal) by the manipulations of malevolent (that is, directorial) forces. On the new Flicker Alley box set, which comprises all 173 extant Méliès films, spanning from the "actualités" of 1896 to the mini-epics of 1912 and 1913, we're given a chance to trace the entire trajectory of an extraordinary career. What we find is a world opened up to new possibilities of the fantastic by both technological advance and the transformative power of the imagination, but at the same time complicated by a marked ambivalence on the filmmaker's part. Still, if the earlier works are more likely to conceive of this world as being governed by a comic mischievousness, then many of the later efforts, even while maintaining an undercurrent of menace, look on the unknown with an open sense of wonder.

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

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Man's Favorite Sport?: A Rappaportian Reading

Having watched Mark Rappaport’s film essay Rock Hudson’s Home Movies before seeing Man’s Favorite Sport?, I confess I came to the latter work pre-disposed to view it, at least in part, as an allegory about suppressed homosexuality, an interpretation which the actual viewing did little to discredit. Rappaport’s film, a deconstructive reading of Hudson’s body of work, consists of dozens of isolated clips from the actor’s movies that, taken out of context, implicitly acknowledge his sexual orientation. If Rappaport devotes a disproportionate amount of screen time to clips of Howard Hawks' 1964 comedy, it’s because that film, rather than offering only occasional moments that seem to foreground the actor’s homosexuality, provides a coherent framework for a sustainable allegorical reading: as the efforts of a closeted gay man to conform to a social structure that only acknowledges a sole model of familial organization.

If we object to reading the film in such reductive terms (or to the fact that such a reading necessitates an essential reliance on extra-textual information, i.e. our knowledge of the actor’s sexual orientation), it nonetheless lends itself very easily to such an interpretation. If we prefer, it’s easy enough to look at the film in more general terms as playing out the implications of the fear that most of us have that, in one way or another, our life is a fraud and that sooner or later we’ll be found out. Hawks' picture is also certainly expressive of a more specific kind of male anxiety about living up to societal notions of masculinity. But, it’s worth looking at the film as explicit gay allegory, not only since the picture supports such a reading, but because it’s important to understand the subversive possibilities of the Hollywood system – even as by 1964, that system had largely disintegrated - that allowed for a much more radical, if subtextual critique, than has become possible in the more explicit, but far more conservative framework of the contemporary industry.

In the reading proposed by Rappaport, Hudson’s character, Roger Willoughby, an “expert” on fishing who makes his living selling fishing gear based on a false authority, represents a closeted gay man, while the act of fishing – which he’s never actually performed – stands in for heterosexual intercourse. (And the animal itself – for whose sliminess Roger has a particular aversion - is equated with female genitalia). That the two “sports” (fishing and “girls”) are implicitly linked is made clear through the figure of Abigail Page (Paula Prentiss), a young woman charged with teaching Roger how to fish so he can participate in an important tournament, and who seems to fill the role within the conventions of the genre (romantic comedy) of the love interest. As she instructs him in the ways of fishing, she also becomes attracted to him and repeatedly attempts to get him to kiss her. Thus the connection between Roger’s two forms of education are explicitly equated and, as the audience expects him to succeed in mastering fishing, so it’s understood that he’ll simultaneously wind up with Abigail. But, just as he never develops any aptitude for the sport (although he wins the tournament, it’s through sheer dumb luck), he never convincingly demonstrates an attraction for his romantic lead. Excluding the final scene, which seems a tacked on contrivance to bring the film in line with generic conventions, his two efforts to kiss her seem wholly unromantic – the first a perfunctory peck, the second a more spirited attempt, but one which Abigail dismisses as “terrible”, as if, having summoned up the resolve to perform a clearly distasteful activity, Roger was unable to wholly suppress the distaste. (That Abigail later claims to have been lying in her negative assessment of Roger's kiss doesn't negate the lackluster presentation of the act that we witness on screen. To say there's no chemistry between the two leads would be an understatement.)

Rappaport’s interpretation is bolstered by several additional screen elements that he doesn't have time to sufficiently elaborate on and which deserve a brief mention here. The film deliberately saddles Roger with a fiancée, but one who barely appears on screen and for whom he seems to have even less attraction than he does for Abigail (indeed he refers to her only as “Tex”, a nickname not commonly given to a woman, suggesting that Roger can only view a potential mate in masculine terms). One of Roger‘s fears is that his fiancée will discover his fraud and refuse to marry him, a fear that serves to further connect his inability to fish (the ostensible subject of his anxiety) with his disinclination for heterosexual union (the subtextual one). As Roger’s professional deception can no longer remain hidden (he must compete in the tournament), so his social deception must also come to light as he enters into marriage. This double fear highlights the dual nature of Roger's initiation; on the eve of his entry into domestic life, he must simultaneously master both forms of “masculine” behavior or forfeit his expected position as the privileged head of a fledgling household.

In addition, the film features two “coming-out” scenes in which Roger‘s secret is treated first as an object of shame and then as inescapable fact that can no longer be kept hidden. In the earlier scene, Roger takes Abigail and her friend to a "Piano Museum" where various coin-operated player pianos create the necessary din to prevent anyone from hearing the shameful admission that he’s never been fishing before. In the second scene, at the end of the film, Roger calls his boss and his clients together at a bar and confesses himself as a “fraud”. Predictably, he’s forced to concede his tournament championship and is immediately fired from his job. Notwithstanding the film’s positive final twist, in which Roger is re-hired and is allowed to win the girl, the consequences of his “transgression” are clear: in the patriarchal world in which he operates, there’s simply no room for alternate modes of behavior. Just as Rock Hudson was forced to assume the guise of Hollywood ladies' man, so too Roger Willoughby can only achieve success through a deliberately "fraudulent" identification. But, in a social order that often dictates an essential disconnect between public and private identities, the question of an "authentic" self becomes highly problematic indeed.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Zora Neale Hurston: Jump at the Sun

Of the two great African-American novels of the late 1930s, Richard Wright’s Native Son is overtly confrontational, urban-set and passionately concerned with the problems of racial conflict. By contrast, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God is more interested in the wider questions of personal identity and is set in rural black communities where white characters are largely absent. Defiantly refusing to place the “race problem” at the heart of her literary enterprise, Hurston was chiefly concerned with documenting the patterns of individual lives—the way people speak, their daily rituals, the ethos of a community. For Hurston, this defiance formed part of a larger pattern of behavior, an outspoken earnestness which often led to controversy—and consigned her to eventual poverty—but was inextricable from the literary genius that led to the creation of a highly distinctive and permanently enduring body of work.

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

Saturday, April 5, 2008

My Blueberry Nights

In My Blueberry Nights, Wong Kar-Wai's up to his old tricks and, unlike in the series of occasionally breathtaking films he made in the 1990s and the early part of this decade, they no longer feel particularly fresh. Perhaps because his trademark aesthetic is placed in service of such unimaginative, but insistently dramatic material - a banal self-discovery plot, an interpolated tale about the sad fate of an alcoholic - each slow motion cutaway, each impossibly lovely shot of an overhead train, each pop song repeated on the soundtrack begins to feel like so much drab aestheticising, a talented director taking refuge in the comforts of a "signature" style.
Despite a somewhat heavier reliance on standard plotting (and an American setting), My Blueberry Nights is really not too dissimilar from what Wong usually does; it's simply that he doesn't do it nearly as well. Wong's films have always been mostly interested in surfaces; they're best at building distinctive moods out of carefully orchestrated visual patterns and appropriately atmospheric music, while only occasionally offering anything more than immediate sensual pleasures. At their best, these pleasures can be heady. But where Fallen Angels conjured up an unmistakable sense of nocturnal disorientation and In the Mood For Love evoked a woozy romanticism, Nights struggles to achieve a comparable distillation of mood. In the end, Wong leaves us with little more than an occasional visual loveliness which, in the absence of any substance on which to anchor its aestheticism, grows quickly tiresome.

The film begins at an outer-borough café that, except for the elevated train that passes by every time a character steps outside, seems the lone presence in the darkness of a thoroughly depopulated street. The setting feels deliberately displaced - bearing little relation to any conception of a real New York, it invokes instead an anonymous nighttime city - an impression reinforced by Wong's strategy of spatial disorientation in which nearly every shot is a close-up and the backgrounds remain completely out-of-focus. With the absence of the usual orienting markers (establishing shots, legible backgrounds), all we're left with are faces. In this case, they belong to Jeremy (Jude Law), the café owner and Elizabeth (Norah Jones), a young woman coming off a bad breakup. As the two talk over blueberry pie, their conversation gives rise to inevitable romantic stirrings, the attachment cemented through a rather icky conceit in which Jeremy kisses the remains of whipped cream from Elizabeth's lips after she falls asleep at her table.

Hoping to escape her old romantic patterns, Elizabeth then cuts out, leaving town without a word, heading West and supporting herself with a series of waitress and bartender jobs. That her voyage is intended as one of self-discovery is a point that Wong seems rather too insistent on making. Not content to have his heroine continually try out new variations on her name - we watch her name tags change from Lizzie to Betty to Beth* - he has her report directly on her findings at the film's conclusion. We learn, for example, that she tried to view the world with distrust and was pleased to find she couldn't. As spoken by Norah Jones - well established as a singer, but making her screen debut - combating a newcomer's tentativeness with too much insistence, all this, unfortunately, sounds rather unconvincing. It would take a far more confident actor to sell these kinds of trite life-lessons.

Elizabeth's first stop on her journey is Memphis, where she works as a bartender and befriends an alcoholic cop, his addiction intensified by the breakup of his marriage. After nearly shooting his ex-wife, the cop wanders off in a booze-filled stupor and fatally crashes his car. Why Wong chose to devote so much time to such a conventionally melodramatic story, unenlivened by any singular details that might have added a hint of dramatic interest and why he chose to place the whole thing at the center of his film is an open question. It's also unclear why he set the sequence in Memphis since, except for an Otis Redding song repeated on the soundtrack - meant to signify that particular city - there's nothing location-specific about his presentation.

The film threatens to bottom out completely in the section's conclusion as the ex-wife (Rachel Weisz) tells her side of the story to "Lizzie", until a surprising final gesture goes some way towards dissipating the dreariness of the preceding scene. With the two women seated outside the bar on the sidewalk - Weisz occupying the foreground of the screen and Jones remaining out-of-focus in the background - the ex-wife fills us in on the not very illuminating details of a story we haven't much cared about to begin with. After she's done speaking, Jones leans consolingly towards the bereaved woman, her movement bringing her out of the background and into focus. In the subtlety of this final staging, Wong brings a touch of grace to a scene marked throughout by a heavy-handed banality.

The next section, too, serves to at least partially revive what, by this point, has become a rather moribund undertaking, thanks largely to Natalie Portman's enthusiastic turn as a gambling obsessed rich-girl who befriends Elizabeth in a Nevada casino. Unfortunately, this segment gets bogged down in a sort of psychological reductivism, as Wong introduces an unnecessary sub-plot (Portman's character attempting to work through her issues surrounding her dying father), but at least the actress, rigged out with a platinum-blond dye job and giving off an air of agreeable unpredictability, injects the sequence with a certain animation that's noticeably absent from the rest of the film.

But, after she helps Elizabeth negotiate the purchase of a used car, there's nothing left for the latter to do but return to New York and tie up the film's romantic plotting. The rather indifferent conclusion, conceived as one more series of blurred background close-ups and consummated over a final slice of blueberry pie, finds Wong struggling even with the sort of understated romantic presentation that he once pulled off so effortlessly. In the final analysis, what defines My Blueberry Nights is just this failure to achieve the expected results from the old cinematic strategies. Far from being a great departure for the filmmaker, Wong's approach to the material is the same as it's always been: subject it to a heavy dose of aestheticising. It's just that this time around, it doesn't seem to take and, setting aside the uninspired drivel that comprises the film's central narrative, this empty aestheticism is all that remains.

* In the film's final section, her name-tag is never clearly legible and from what we can see, the name seems longer than "Beth". But the Natalie Portman character (Leslie) continually addresses her by that name and that's the only way she's identified in the segment. It's possible that the tag read "Elizabeth" and Leslie took the initiative of shortening the name, which would be wholly consistent with her aim of trying to mold Elizabeth's character. In the end, Elizabeth rejects Leslie's efforts to imbue her with cynicism and when she returns to New York, she identifies once again as "Elizabeth".