Wednesday, November 26, 2008

An Insidious Strategy: Delayed Revelation Cinema

As a nascent 13-year old cinephile, I was so taken with Peter Weir's Fearless that I immediately declared it the film of the year (a claim that was quickly amended when I caught up with Robert Altman's Short Cuts a few weeks later). Nothing could dampen my enthusiasm for that tale of redemption wrung from heaviest tragedy, with Jeff Bridges as a survivor of a plane crash who walks away from his family responsibilities in an air of perceived invincibility only to be recalled through revelation to the importance of his prior existence. Chief among my enthusiasms was the film's bravura climactic sequence in which Bridges' character, nearly dying from ingesting a strawberry (his lifelong allergy to the fruit, in abeyance since the crash, suddenly returns) relives the circumstances of the tragedy, Weir intercutting between shots of the plane ripping apart and Bridges suffering the torments of his near-fatal reaction. At once aesthetically adventurous, thematically satisfying and emotionally resonant, this bit of "impressionistic montage" as enthusiast Todd McCarthy labeled it, seemed to me then to represent the very peak of cinema.

But not everyone shared my enthusiasm for Weir's showy setpiece. A film-critic friend-of-the-family who had been rather influential in shaping my developing tastes loathed it. "It's so manipulative," she explained. "You know the whole way through that they're going to show the crash at the end. And then when they show it, it's completely overblown." Needless to say, I hadn't known that the entire picture was leading up to that one moment of revelation, so it had taken me quite by surprise. But, while I haven't revisited Weir's film in the 15-year interim and while I'm not particular fond of the term "manipulative" as a critical descriptor - all narrative film plays on its audience's expectations to one degree or another - this critic was quite shrewd in her identification and characterization of a particular mode of narrative structuring.

An increasingly common strategy in what I'll call, as a convenient short-hand, the middle-brow art film, the delayed revelation of past event is a highly problematic approach. This structuring device saves for the film's conclusion the full disclosure - either through dialogue or through visual reenactment - of a formative event in the characters' lives about which the audience knows some, but not all, the details. There are two variations to the approach: in one, which generally relies on dialog, the chief function is the imparting of a key piece of information to the audience. In the other, of which Fearless' ending stands as an example, and which relies wholly on reenactment, the audience already knows most of the factual details about the event and the filmmaker's aim is to wring emotion from the viewer by forcing him to experience the moment of tragedy along with the character.

Both approaches betray an unpleasant degree of arrogance on the filmmaker's part. "Here I've created a situation and a set of characters so fascinating," he seems to be saying, "that all I have to do is withhold this key bit of information and I can string the audience right along until my revelatory conclusion." In theory, such an approach can prove valid - after all, the delayed imparting of information forms the very crux of the mystery genre - but when taken, as it often is, for the structuring principle of an otherwise drab domestic drama, this approach seems less like an essential organizing strategy and more like a bit of haughty presumption about the audience's narrative needs. Ultimately condescending toward their perceived middle-brow viewers, these pictures' endings provide the art-film habitué with the same superficial payoff that the action movie fan gets from a much anticipated explosion or shoot-out, while allowing their supposedly more sophisticated viewers to partake of the simulacra of art. Flattering rather than challenging their audience, these films relieve the viewer of the troubling burden of ambiguity. "Here," they say, "don't worry. All will be revealed. And in a scene of great cinematic artistry, to boot."

While I didn't share the distaste of many of my colleagues for Julian Schnabel's 2007 art-house hit The Diving Bell and the Butterfly - I thought it created a coherent and compelling inner world for its paralyzed protagonist - for me, the ending nearly negated the film's numerous achievements. Rendered immobile after suffering a stroke and retaining movement only in his left eye, former playboy and fashion editor Jean-Dominique Bauby learns to "speak" by blinking his one working organ, eventually dictating a book through this unlikely mode of communication. Partaking of the same narrative strategy as Fearless, Schnabel defers his big dramatic payoff for the film's conclusion. Carefully skirting the circumstances of Bauby's paralysis, the film withholds any information until its final moments, when it offers a comprehensive reconstruction of the event. Schnabel's presentation of the incident is thankfully restrained, but his unwavering faith in the audience's essential curiosity regarding the full details of the paralysis is indicative of his troubling presumptions about his viewer's narrative expectations.

If Diving Bell stands as an archetypal example of the revelation by reenactment approach to delayed exposition, then a more recent film prefers to fill in its audience through dialog. Philippe Claudel's I've Loved You So Long spends most of its running time dancing around the circumstances of its lead character, Juliette's (Kristin Scott Thomas), long ago killing of her 6-year old son for which, 15 years later, she has just been released from prison. Coming to stay with her sister and her family, she initially registers as icy and distant, but gradually warms to her surroundings and successfully builds a new life for herself. As Juliette becomes more acclimated to her post-imprisonment lifestyle, we learn more about her past and come to suspect that her crime must be tempered by extenuating circumstances. But we don't know for sure until the film's concluding sequence when Claudel satisfies the audience's final curiosity in an exchange that plays as a near-fatal misstep in what had been a mostly restrained bit of character-driven drama. Finally confronted by her sister about the exact details of the killing, the formerly self-possessed Juliette gives in to a bout of hysterical screaming (showing too the "range" of Oscar-hopeful Thomas' abilities) before explaining the painful and fatal disease that her son had been suffering from, thus recasting murder as generous act of euthanasia and obliterating our last doubts about her character.

But if Claudel miscalculates by withholding a bit of information that we've already suspected and that wasn't really too interesting to begin with and then revealing it in a moment of overheated revelation, he may betray a certain distrust of his viewer, but he's hardly alone in his approach. As I learned back in 1993 and I've been reminded every year since, when a filmmaker - whether low-brow genre director or art-house maven - has no respect for his audience, he falls back on certain strategies for making sure the viewer gets his point. Delayed revelation may be among the more insidious of these strategies, flattering the viewer even as it insults him, but it allows the filmmaker to have it both ways: he ensures himself that the audience doesn't miss a key bit of information and makes a virtue out of this spoonfeeding by tarting it up in sufficiently fancy dress. But don't confuse the simulacra with the real thing: any film deserving the name of art, whether a B-picture by Edgar Ulmer or a high-flown masterpiece by Andrei Tarkovsky, demands that the viewer meet it squarely on its own precise terms.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


As a way into Blue, Derek Jarman's densely constructed and aesthetically daring cinematic tone poem, we might take as a point of reference a quotation from the film's soundtrack. Well into the advanced stages of AIDS, and struck with a form of blindness (his vision reduced to a field of blue with occasional bursts of red and black) due to lesions in his retinas, the director, who narrates the film, describes the sensation in the following terms: "Awareness is heightened by this, but something else is lost. A sense of reality drowned in theater."

And so the film sets out to recreate the odd confluence of hypersensation and lack of grounding experienced by the suddenly blind. Stripping the visual plane down to a single image of light/medium blue - although necessarily flecked with splotches from the film emulsion - which continues unchanged for the entire film, Jarman whips up a dense aural collage whose sounds, by turns assaultive and comforting, mirror the heightened awareness of the non-visual senses that characterize the filmmaker's condition. The sophisticated density of the sound design reaches an early high as Jarman describes the noises made by several of his household appliances and immediately follows by concocting a nightmare soundscape compounded of the whirr of domestic machinery: the spin cycles of a washing machine, the buzzing of a refrigerator.

Then Blue is nothing if not a good show. Betraying a taste for the theatrical, Jarman's voice-overs - part matter-of-fact detailing of the day-to-day miseries of sickness, part lyrical reverie on friends lost in the past, the nature of image, the various associations of the color blue - reverberate with the authority of a resounding articulation and the film's sophisticated aural collage, set front-and-center in the audio mix, sounds like it's being broadcast over the soundsystem of a first-rate theater. Singing dirty songs with the help of a chorus of long-time collaborators (Tilda Swinton, Nigel Terry) or intercutting his reading of a horrifying list of medication side-effects with a round of obscene circus music, dropping bits of Blake and Shakespeare into his discourse or spitting off happy formulations like "cum-splattered nuclear breeders," Jarman is every bit the showman. Though Blue may approach levels of intimacy rare even in the context of confessional first-person filmmaking, the impression remains of an alternately amusing and heartrending (mostly) one-man stage production.

Of course the stage in question is restricted to the film's audio track. The blue screen may exercise a form of hypnotic draw, but its essential function is to force us to focus attention on the movie's sound design. "Pray to be released from the image," Jarman intones, "the image is a prison of the soul." And so in his film as in his life, the primacy of seeing is undercut. Blue makes apparent how much we tend to rely on the visual as our primary means of orientation in the cinema, but it also shows us that this need not necessarily be the case. And yet, as Jarman notes of his condition,"something is lost" in the exchange. For all the film's brilliantly conceived aural montage - and Jarman's appealing showmanship - it's a very difficult work to find one's grounding in. And that, quite clearly, is the point. Blue defies critical judgement as much as it does rigorous analysis; as a final testament, it confirms for all time the joys of artistic invention; as a work of cinema, it is thrillingly, maddeningly sui generis.

Saturday, November 15, 2008


JCVD might resonate with the Van Damme faithful, but for the rest of us, it's just one more bit of (not so) clever self-referential filmmaking. In Mabrouk El Mechri's meta-fantasy, the Muscles From Brussels stars as himself, that is, a 47-year-old out-of-work actor fighting for the few roles still available to aging action stars with archrival Steven Seagal. Following an unsuccessful custody battle in Los Angeles (his fate sealed when his daughter informs the judge that she doesn't want to live with her father because her friends make fun of her whenever he's on TV), he returns to his native Belgium and, arriving at a bank to receive a much needed money transfer, stumbles into a robbery in progress.

The film's central joke is that while Van Damme can't seem to land any onscreen roles, as soon as he returns home to take some time off, he's thrust, quite unwittingly, into the part of a lifetime. Seizing on the actor's popularity - he's something of a folk hero in his hometown - the robbers cast him as their lead; the police having mistaken the action star for the perp, the crooks force him at gunpoint to continue the charade, articulating their demands to the cops over the phone. In one of the film's more inspired bits, Van Damme draws on a lifetime of B-movie knowledge to help orchestrate the negotiations - recalling a conceit from an early role, he suggests that the cops strip down to their underwear before approaching the bank so that the robbers can be sure they're unarmed. As in any meta-movie, film informs reality as much as the reverse.

But J.C.V.D.'s captors have him completely miscast; as everyone knows, he always plays the hero. Except, perhaps, in this film. In the picture's celebrated centerpiece, Van Damme steps out of character - or rather "Jean-Claude" becomes Jean-Claude - and delivers an unbroken monologue reflecting on his life's successes and (mostly) failures - touching on his early days as a scrawny, penniless kid, his drug use, the cruelty of the movie industry - and finally dissolving into tears as he wonders, "What have I done on this earth? Nothing." As uncompelling a figure as Van Damme has been throughout the film - and El Mechri's chief miscalculation is to build an entire movie around such a flat "character" - his monologue is curiously affecting, getting at the reservoir of self-doubt beneath the confident movie star exterior - even as it seems something out of an entirely different picture.

Van Damme's heroic image largely undercut throughout the film, in the end he can only imagine his customary triumph: a moment of crowd-pleasing ass-kicking that rewinds to reveal that it was all in the actor's head. Instead our hero winds up in jail, and on the undignified charge of extortion to boot. All told, El Mechri's hit on an interesting conceit with JCVD - and no doubt it's a real fillip for the film's underutilized star - but told as it is through a drab heist narrative, spiced with perfunctory, if occasionally amusing, bits of reflexive observation and filmed in an ugly near-monochrome palette, the execution falls far short of the considerable promise.


Sony's Budd Boetticher box set seems likely to be the DVD release of the year. Collecting five of the seven films the director made with Randolph Scott (Seven Men From Now is already available on DVD from Paramount and Westbound is by all accounts negligible), the set rescues these works (all previously unavailable on region-1 DVD) from the stuff of semi-legend and restores them to their proper place alongside the other great works of the late-western (Man of the West, The Searchers, Rio Bravo). What strikes me about the films in the set - and I haven't made my way through all five just yet - apart, of course, from their stunning location shooting and deftly staged action sequences, is their concern with rethinking the norms of social organization. From The Tall T's obsession with testing out different arrangements of domesticity (a topic I've written about here) to Decision at Sundown's unmasking of patriarchal notions of female sexuality, these films are, if nobody's idea of radical critiques, at least fascinating in their ambiguous relation to the traditional assumptions of the western. Well worth checking out.

Monday, November 10, 2008

An Alphabet of Favorite Films (after Ed Howard)

Taking up Ed Howard's challenge in a recent meme (which originated on the Blog Cabins site), inviting readers to construct an alphabetical listing of favorite films (one per letter), I've essayed my own list. As Howard notes, the result of such a project is inevitably "very different than what [one] might pick if simply asked for favorite films without such restrictions". I've paired each film selected with an accompanying review and, just as I've limited my selections to one work per director, so I've restricted the reviews to one piece per critic.

Angels with Dirty Faces (Michael Curtiz, 1938)
Review by Travis Mackenzie Hoover

The Black Cat (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1934)
Review by Josh Vasquez

Céline and Julie Go Boating (Jacques Rivette, 1974)
Review by David Phelps

Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler (Fritz Lang, 1922)
Review by Ian Johnston

Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick, 1999)
Review by Michael Koresky

F for Fake (Orson Welles, 1974)
Review by Robert Castle

Gertrud (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1964)
Review by Eric Henderson

His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks, 1940)
Review by David Bordwell

Inland Empire (David Lynch, 2006)
Review by Keith Uhlich

Judex (Louise Feuillade, 1916)
Review by Ray Young

The King of Comedy (Martin Scorsese, 1982)
Review by Roger Ebert

Life of Oharu (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1952)
Review by Gary Morris

Man of the West (Anthony Mann, 1958)
Review by Andrew Schenker

Night and Fog (Alain Resnais, 1955)
Review by James Leahy

The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)
Review by Wagstaff

The Puppetmaster (Hou Hsiao-Hsien, 1993)
Review by Nick Schager

Quintet (Robert Altman, 1979)
Review by Nick Pinkerton

The River (Tsai Ming-Liang, 1997)
Review by Jonathan Rosenbaum

Solaris (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972)
Review by Acquarello

They Drive by Night (Raoul Walsh, 1940)
Review by Bill Chambers

Unknown Pleasures (Jia Zhang-ke, 2002)
Review by J. Hoberman

Vengeance is Mine (Shohei Imamura, 1979)
Review by Leo Goldsmith

Werckmeister Harmonies (Béla Tarr, 2000)
Review by Fred Camper

Xala (Ousmane Sembene, 1975)
Review by Fernando F. Croce

Yeelen (Souleymane Cissé, 1987)
Review by Ed Gonzalez

Zero for Conduct (Jean Vigo, 1933)
Review by Jeffrey M. Anderson


My review of House of the Sleeping Beauties has been posted at Slant Magazine.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Heavy Hitters

As awards season begins in earnest, this weekend sees the opening of two films that deal with particular weighty subjects: child abduction/sex slavery and the Holocaust. Unfortunately neither Damian Harris' Gardens of the Night nor Mark Herman's The Boy in the Striped Pajamas seems to have much of an idea of how to treat its material. Click on the links above to access the reviews at Slant Magazine.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Chop Shop

Ramin Bahrani is no Rossellini. But even if he were, his dry aping of the signature neo-realist aesthetic - location shooting, skittery camerawork, use of non-actors, a certain foretold sense of doom - seems regressive, an attempt to revive dead forms through slavish copying. Filmmakers as diverse as Abbas Kiarostami and the Dardenne Brothers may make pointed use of some of the central features of the form, but with Bahrani it never amounts to more than an act of uncritical appropriation. Whereas the neo-realism of the former directors is always complicated either by a self-conscious reflexivity or impressive technical refinements that go some ways toward invigorating the genre, Bahrani, by contrast, films as if he invented the approach, as if cinema hadn't developed much beyond 1945.

Which is not to suggest that Bahrani's films are unpleasant to watch. If anything, given their grimy milieus, they go down too easy. 2005's Man Push Cart may have suffered from the introduction of some melodramatic bits of plotting - itself a staple of neo-realism - but 2007's Chop Shop wisely pares the exposition down to narrative essentials. Set amid the semi-legal garages and trash heaps of Queens' soon-to-be-demolished Willets Point neighborhood, the film follows 12-year old Alejandro (Alejandro Polanco) as he ekes out a living for himself and his older sister, a part-time prostitute. A bustle of activity, Ale always has his eye on the next hustle, belying his scant frame with his ecstatic motion and his relative success in turning a buck. Saving up with his sister for their own food truck, he supplements his income as an auto-garage gopher by trying every scam in the book: shopping bootleg DVDs, selling candy in the subway (with that well-worn refrain familiar to any New Yorker: "I'm not gonna lie to you. I'm not trying to raise money for my school basketball team..."), even robbing purses at the U.S. Open.

In his unflappable energy, endless capacity for work, and single-minded pursuit of the profit motive, Ale would seem to be some sort of prototype of the up-by-your-bootstraps American. Locked into decidedly unpromising circumstances - emphasized by Bahrani's occasional long-shot framings of his protag dwarfed by the distant Manhattan skyline, that other New York standing as simultaneous goal and reproach - Ale's opportunities for advancement are notably limited. There's a certain inevitability to the boy's defeat, as if, like with the Pakistani street vendor in the director's earlier picture, Bahrani had foreordained his failure from the start. And indeed, amid the film's self-contained world of one-room squats, rusty junkyards and forty dollar blowjobs, Ale never had a chance.