Thursday, November 19, 2009

Life Lived in New Light: Fantastic Mr. Fox

Fifteen minutes into Fantastic Mr. Fox I smacked a palm to my forehead, stunned by how much good ole-fashioned fun I was having. I'm still trying to figure out exactly how this movie charmed me into such a smile-filled stupor and so far all of my theories have led to some very serious statements about these lil' foxes and badgers and squirrels. Some very serious words, indeed, about all those stop-motion creatures crying in quarries and bounding to the Beach Boys.

Thusly, Fantastic Mr. Fox is a humanist venture, one that dares to stand up for and exemplify community and all the mindbogglingly beautiful shit we can do if we just find a way to hang together and live life. This is no new theme for Wes Anderson who has repeatedly asked his characters (and us kids who identify with them) to abandon the solitary, step out of the isolated tragedy, break from the loneliness and find some wild ride, share some primal scream with other equally lost souls. But in a really odd and totally magical way, Fox unites form and content to articulate Anderson's faith in humanity in fresh terms.

I'm talking about puppets here, people. The twitching whiskers, the nimble claws, the silent, sparkling tears melting to darken a fox snout--this movie is like nothing I've ever seen. Anderson and the army of craftsmen behind him were going for a "homemade look" and, coming from such an unwaveringly hip perfectionist, I expected Fox to look a bit clinical in its stylistic calculations. I figured that if allowed to make his pallet wholly from scratch, Anderson would delve so far into the world of patterns and coordination and symmetry and precision that Fox would fail to find the humanity we cling to in creations like Margot and Richie Tenenbaum or Max Fischer. I thought that without the limitations of the human face, Anderson's inherent will toward the indulgent would run wild and make me puke a little. But good gawd how wrong I was! The figures in Fox dress well, their faces wear honest emotion, and their comedic timing is impeccable, but you can feel the weight of human effort behind all of these minor miracles. They move swiftly through their animated world but each of their steps speaks of the arduous stop-motion machinery at work.

Perhaps Fox feels so special because my mind's tacit comparison is to the smooth stylings of Pixar and the sharp magic of the big Anime artists, but the importance of Fox feels beyond comparisons limited to the animated world. The craftsmanship, artistry, collaboration, time, and love that went into this film are recorded in its very texture, in the rush of falling water or a patch of mussed fur. It looks like these animals were cared for from their inception, their movements all careful, continuously affected by mindful human intervention. This world was raised by a whole bunch of human dreams! And the widespread energy and faith that made those dreams a reality seeps from the film's pores.

Great amounts of hard work always lurk somewhere in a film's final cut, but the forces of the cinematic illusion and the human actor work arduously to cover up the process, to present the final show as a complete, united work, like it was born whole. Fox bares its fingerprints proudly, joyfully (!), and the effect is endearing in a kind of whole-body way. It made me feel nostalgic but I don't know what for. And I think this human ingenuity, this hidden community of craftiness, and the lovely animated world it produces finds a perfect match in Wes Anderson's penchant for the sprint, the romp, the deep breath and plunge, the desperate reach for life. Mr. and Mrs. Fox's opening love-soaked mad dash to steal chickens is Royal Tenenbaum and his sweat-suited nephews' bus-ride/canon-ball/dog-fighting escapade in new clothes, but here, in the very texture of these lil' foxes' leaps and smirks, we find a remnant of the real-world dream lived--a communion of creativity. So that this time around when Wes Anderson told me I could do it all and have it all and really live if I just spread out my arms and flew, I was given a whole new way to believe him.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Bright Star


Check out my review of Bright Star, Jane Campion's new film, over at the Auteurs Notebook. Hopefully I'll be posting more writing on Campion here at What Is This Light sometime very soon. Hopefully about In the Cut. Have you seen this thing?! A lot to talk about.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Losing Your Head and Being a Lady

In Lucrecia Martel's The Headless Woman, Vero (Maria Onetto) drives down a dirt road in a little car, averts her attention in that awkward backseat-turn-around-reach, and hits something. We have reason to believe it's a dog because a dead dog lies in the road, but this film's penchant for eerie counterfactuals, for abstracted closeups, and for exploiting off-screen space, makes it just as reasonable for the hit creature to be a child or a nightmare. A ghost story of perfect disorder, Martel's picture maintains the aura around this strange car crash; the rest of the film offers up a post-trauma haze that makes routine a stranger and identity, ephemeral. It's a credit to Martel's filmmaking that the movie swallows the viewer with such force, constantly pushing on its audience that pesky Hitchcockian question: Why am I so scared?

Like all movies, The Headless Woman lies open to multiple readings, but its stylistic and narrative abstraction seem to especially invite lots of viable, coherent critical paths. [And, duh, that's a totally awesome thing about the movies (and dreams and life): that gestures and words and a camera's stillness or anticipation can articulate very different ideas simultaneously and that, it follows, we can strive to open ourselves up to and be literate enough to read these varied meanings. And of course this seems to be the fun of criticism.] And so let me just say, there's a big fat political allegory working through this nightmare by which a richer, whiter Argentine forgets or doesn't choose to remember how a poorer, darker Argentine disappears, and all of this calls up Argentina's tortured political past in subtle if specific strokes. But so let's just leave that interpretive path behind for the one that nobody else (feminist sigh) seems to care about.
The thing I'm most compelled to mull over: that as much as this movie is about forgetting it's also about becoming, and, quite pointedly among its many mystifying qualities, about the alternately warm and alienating experience of becoming a Lady. And more generally it's a kind of rebirth story, of coming out into a seemingly strange world made all the more strange by people's and objects' unsettling insistence that they are not strange at all. It's the world's cosmic, everyday assumption that Vero's butting up against, that assumption that a person's going to shower with her clothes off, remember how to do her job, or see the dog that makes the barking. It's this earthly standard that guides us through our days by constantly, subtly reminding us who we are and, alternatively, makes insanity's precipice so horrifying, makes losing your mind (or your head, as Vero finds out) so severely disorienting. But the world's expectation of us is of course not only sensory or physical, but--no less powerfully--also social, and a loss of one's social grip on the world conceives a similar sort of grave confusion. We see a version of this in life and on film quite a bit, often with the pop-psychological tag "mid-life crisis" attached to it, in which grown-people somehow catch a glimpse of the life they've been living and stand shocked, appalled, and instantly alienated by the rules that've directed their paths, by the world's expectation of them, and (perhaps most dangerously) by the swaths of committed people still following the rules and fulfilling the expectation. Stories about women and mothers and wives seem a natural inheritor of this narrative and cinema/world history brings some shining examples. The phantasmic abstraction of Lucrecia Martel's piece is far less deliberate than something like The Hours or Woman Under the Influence or even the what-the-fuck-am-I-supposed-to-do expression worn by a 22yr-old mother of four on the bus yesterday, but The Headless Woman is part of this lineage nonetheless.

And so Vero drives away from killing something and it starts to pour and the haze descends and she's speechless. The world tries its mightiest to remind Vero who she is and, remarkably, almost all of the reminders are in some way gendered. The cosmic/social expectation here is that she's a woman and the reminders of that fact reveal themselves continuously and quietly, and in exceedingly everyday ways.

Groups of women absorb Vero in their seriously lady-centered stuff, all of which comes off as a routine that Vero, in some other well-adjusted state, usually helps to define. She and her girlfriends power walk around their boys' soccer field, decked out to stretchpant-visor-fannypack excess. Vero's mixed in with the pack, her arms swinging like the rest, but Onetta's stiff expression and slightly unfocused gaze betray Vero's outsider status. She's going through the motions in this women's world but she's a foreigner. Her skin and bones look like their working to keep her emotions internal, but her alienation is rendered external through the film's soundscape, a series of punctured silences that harken back to "the incident." There's a crunch and a distant bark that precedes one of the soccer boy's collapse. It sends Vero out of the walking pack of mothers and into the bathroom where she looks in the mirror and washes her face, trying to ground herself, to bring herself back to where she can go through the motions again.

Vero's mother, sister, nieces, and (to a lesser extent) the female maids watch an old family wedding video. They study the movie, recalling details from the day, how everybody looked and acted, who said what. Even granny remembers this stuff while Vero, as her distant expression forever betrays, exists outside of it. Left with the remote control, Vero rewinds and fast-forwards the footage, corrupting the vision of womanhood and the event (marriage) that historically has been paramount in defining it. In Vero's unsocialized hands, that vision becomes marred, disordered, unsteady--much like, as a matter of fact, Martel's filmic vision of womanhood.

So in these two scenes and a whole bunch more, Vero is swallowed up into these female cliques, assumed to be a social lady that enjoys and understands this social lady time like all the rest, who, by the way, seem to manage it with fast-talking, light-footed ease. And really, it's kind of beautiful. It's a warm and comforting place, these female spaces and conversations, only made chilly or disillusioning by Vero's varied hesitations and unfamiliarity. Here, the flip side of sudden, complete social alienation is the great reassurance that the good people around you will keep on loving you and treating you like yourself even when you're not. Maybe peanuts for being decapitated, but it's rather touching, this note of sisterly love amidst the unsettling confusion.

Beyond the grand assumption at work above (that she's a socialized Lady), the world around Vero turns vaguely pedantic, as if everything that surrounds her breathes some sort of feminine instruction. For one, she's presented a whole spectrum of womanhood throughout the film. In other words, there's ladies all over this picture--perpetually circling, crossing, carrying our headless woman--and Vero, distanced from her own experience as she is, is automatically positioned as witness to and benificiary of these diverse examples. A biker lady or fragile girl or nutty grandmother or law school student or put-together mom--all these models act as both specters and invitations, tacitly begging questions about Vero's identity as they dance around her. In a similarly instructional tone, the world around Vero drops odd one-liners all over the place that also push the issue. To name a few, people can't stop talking about her hair--they like it, they hate it, they run their hands through it, they apply things to it, she changes it. And then there's this awesome line that, though contextualized, still jumps off the screen: "the virgin's dirty, someone's handled her mantle..." And then there's the scene where Vero walks around a porch while the camera sits inside so that she's framed in one open window then another and another, her image and identity made multiple, made schizophrenic. The list goes on.

The men in Vero's life also seem like they exist to remind Vero--in, again, just very subtle, routine ways--of her womanhood or her impending socialization into the club. She alternately reaches for and runs away from the sexuality they summon. Her flee from her boyfriend's kisses as well as her desperate, sexual grasp for her boyfriend's cousin seem like searching gestures--Is this what I'm supposed to do? Is this who you are to me? A similar sentiment laces a teenage niece's love for Vero; the girl reaches out to Vero as an Aunt and then, navigating her own complicated teenage sexuality and femininity, as a sweetheart: Is this what you are to me?

There are so many ways for a person to get lost and Martel's piece is complex enough, smart enough that it seems to say something about them all. And yet this thing is so gentle, just pushing its focus slightly off and mixing up the world's pieces just enough to reframe Vero's routines as unnatural, peculiar. The nightmare emerges when Vero herself perceives these routines as unnatural and peculiar, and the horror descends when she realizes the whole world assumes she holds dear these same, peculiar routines. So that when the film ends with Vero pushing through a dark room full of the shadows of people she should recognize, we're left wondering who she is if not the woman the world assumes her to be and then horrified that she might be wondering the same thing.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Public Enemies: What a Movie-Loving Movie

The first line of my notes on Public Enemies trails downward across three lines in sloppy ink: "cut, cut, shot, grasp, speed, car, death." I've written a whole hell of a lot of shit recently and none of it have I found worth posting...or finishing...but there's something kind of awesome about this subconscious, written exhale...

I've had a taste of Micheal Mann in Miami Vice but I love this latest venture because it seems so concerned with doing things that can only be done in cinema. You're such a movie!, I kept mouthing back at the screen, which is to say that this film, just like Johnny Depp as Johnny Dillinger, likes fast things. That first line of my notes refers to a series of moments on the tail end of a jailbreak (the first jail break, that is...Yes, this movie is also a party!) in which Dillinger is leaning out of a speeding car, clenching a dying friend's wrist, and dragging him over the relentless dirt below. According to my mind and its faulty (or creative) memory of this desperate grasp, we see Depp's jaw, his eyes. We see hands and wrists and struggle. Along one of the frame's edges we see the curve and the heat from the speeding machine. We hear the roar--maybe an engine, maybe wheels on road, maybe altogether extradiegetic music--of a getaway. We see the dying man's face and the dust clouds that take him. But it's all splices and fragments--the edits so fast and the objects so close that the moment reads only in speeding shapes and anguish. In short, it's "cut, cut, shot, grasp, speed, car, death," precisely the sort of thing that happens nowhere but the movies, and only a handful of them at that.

Mann's camera also sprints at the hooves of horses, rides with a plane's propeller, and flees and dodges with the hunted. It charges through dark expanses straight into machine guns' sunny strobelights and it manically pulls and zooms as details in the distance dictate. And maybe this need for speed is to be expected from an action movie, maybe I could say the same things of the Dark Knight, but Public Enemies' obsession with unbelievably fast shit seems more a love of film (digital "film," that is) than of boyhood fantasy.

For one, Mann doesn't stop at recording cars; he cinematographically dissects their movement and then elliptically recomposes it in the editing room. The resulting picture is of speedy things told to us in a rapid, engrossing visual language and it's this breakneck--but oh so precise!--dialect for which thinking-people love him. In Mann's strongest visual sequences, like the cut-grasp-death moment mentioned above, shapes and shadows imply their particulars and simple fragments evoke their complex wholes. Textures suggest depths, worlds. It's an aesthetic that permits machine guns, gangsters, and blood baths to dance. Totally deft, totally handsome, in these moments the film bends toward abstraction but halts before reaching ostentation and, in fact, never even deviates from its straightforward narrative objectives. And boy are these narrative objectives straightforward (GANGSTERS! LOVE!), and boy oh boy are they supported by some terrifically cliché dialogue, but this duality is almost the best part: You feel Mann's love for the movies shine both through his aesthetic creativity and his strict adherence to genre tropes and age-old dialogue. Strangely, I find his streaks of aesthetic experimentation and genre convention to offer a dynamic relationship, one capable of articulating a bank robbery in terms of sun-soaked entrances, piles of steps, and gangsters in flight while keeping us firmly, almost comfortingly, within the known quantities of Hollywood drama.

And still, this movie wouldn't do what it did for me--that is, convince me it was as concerned with film itself as I take it to be--if it weren't for the last 20, lusciously reflexive minutes of this thing. We learn Dillinger will go to the movies that night, either Shirley Temple or a Clark Gable gangster pic, and we know that the police will be ready for him. That afternoon he wanders into the empty rooms of the 'Dillinger Investigations Squad' of the Chicago Police Department. Some of the detectives are out looking for him and some are listening to a baseball game in the back of the office, but none bother Dillinger as he walks past the walls of pictures of himself and his various associates over the years. He's attending what can be read as his own last picture show. Indeed, we're not only seeing Dillinger stare at pictures of himself, but Johnny Depp stare at pictures of himself, for a mug-shot looks awfully like a head-shot and both men seem oddly present in this moment, linked, somehow, through filmic frames and photographic frames and us. A few short scenes later we're watching Depp/Dillinger watch Clark Gable seal his fate in Manhattan Melodrama. If the "public enemy or public star?" theme came off a bit too brashly elsewhere (when Dillinger is slow-motion waving to photographers and admirers from the backseat of a police car, for instance), it seems natural here with Gable's dashing presence winking at Depp's and vice versa. We watch Depp/Dillinger's face register the moment in all its layered existence, so that when the film Public Enemies grinds into slow motion, consequently pushing Clark Gable and Manhattan Melodrama into slow motion, we feel an awesome, if tragic, sense of synchronization. It leaves one with the lasting feeling that all the speed and agility of earlier verses was, like this last beautifully reflexive ensemble, working in the name of the movies as only a movie can do.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Nature of the Struggle

A tumble, a tussle, the cinematic couplet brought to me by the Dardenne Brothers (and my gross inertia toward all things anxiety-ridden) left me trudging through the night with a fair few bruises and a serious case of blurred vision. L'Enfant (2005) and Rosetta (1999) mark my official introduction to the Belgian duo, though I've had the repeated displeasure of reading "Dardenne-esque"--or a similar phrase of reference--stand in for analysis of movies that I like a lot. (Displeasure because I didn't know the referent and found that endlessly frustrating and just wished people would say what they mean. Now I know what they mean but still really wish people would just say what they mean.)

When I call this doubleheader a tumble and a tussle, I'm not working in metaphor: I really was inside a fight. L'Enfant follows Sonia and Bruno, a pair of very young, very new parents who are, to varying degrees, trying to march through life at the same speed and with the same levity and self-serving impulses, even though they've got this little blue package, who happens to be a nine-day-old person named Jimmy. Things get hectic when Dad sells Jimmy for cash, leaving Mom astonished and torn apart by the fact that Dad doesn't feel the connection to this baby, let alone the meaning and the weight of that connection, in the same way that even she--another child--does. And then there's Rosetta, a temper tantrum of a movie about a young lady who is just trying to fucking hold it all together: her trailer park home, her drunk and desperate mother, her jobs, her dinner, her shoes, her conviction to lead a "normal life." It's a constant war she's waging in which the stuff of the everyday--eating, working, sleeping--prove menacing, threatening and beckoning from some seriously dark places.

Even from this not-so-sensitive narrative summation you might see these films' potential to carry some harsh blows, to portray a battle ground of sorts. But these two films' physicality worked to spell out another dimension; this battle ground was brought all around us, pushing an innocent bystander onto that uncertain dirt and into the center of the brawl, whether she liked it or not. L'Enfant had more love built into the narrative and Rosetta more abstraction and grit, but both films---I am having a hard time thinking of them separately...how good of an idea are doubleheaders, really?---had both characters and cameras pulling and pushing and running and biting. Indeed, the camera trails it's unbridled subjects with the same ferocity exhibited by them, experiences the same conniptions of desperation they do. This is more than a commitment to a "hand-held look," it's a cinematographic (and philosophical?) choice to prioritize sensation over information. With every whip of a tree branch across "our eye" (the camera lens), with every door shut in "our" face, with every blurred sprint upstairs or across traffic, with every confused scuffle and surprise swipe at the head, with every shadow and jerk and jolt of vision, we feel like we're in the fight...or at least certainly not at the movies, where cameras and narratives are supposed to grant us special vision into things unseen, to illuminate hidden emotional and physical worlds and, through their illusions, bring us closer to things like "truth" and "reality." The camera is that thing that allows us to see and the process by which its images reach us is one perfected toward clarity--it's 24 frames per second, not 25, and there are focus options and multitudes of lenses and light meters and filters and editors to help eliminate any visual noise that might confuse the point. But here, with these Dardenne movies, the cinematographer's tools of clarity are used toward the opposite means, their mission inverted and pushed, at times, to the point of abstraction (...and sometimes distraction). The most straightforward example: the close-up, obviously used to give us a clearer, closer look at the details of emotion, is pushed too close here and used in abundance, so that a face can never fully be captured because with every little movement part of it leaves the frame--we're so close but can never get a good look. Fragmentation, blurs, smears, trails, assaulting sounds--all of it creates an abstraction of violence and anxiety, of struggle. And what is at the nature of this struggle? We search through these shaky cinematic pictures and can't find many deeper clues than the immediate circumstances, and sometimes even those are in the business of obfuscation: there's something terribly wrong with a stomach, but all we see is its smooth brown surface--one of the calmest images of the film; the stroller is often empty; a blue snowsuit stays firmly between us and the baby, the instigator; two big rocks shelter a hidden pair of boots. But even if we could see through the fog, as we do for a few brief, often tender moments in these films, even if we could see through the fragmentation and the abstraction and see things as their whole, still selves, even when we do see exactly what the situation is and even a way out of it--there's a forceful potential in this life for suffocation, in the face of which, redemption and hope tremble and hesitate. The dark pull is very dark. It beckons. Things are not going right. In both films' climaxes of action and anxiety, the metaphor for this potential appears as water, surrounding us, taking every crevice for its own, attempting to fill, suffocate and drown our most innoncent, or the most innocent parts of ourselves. These snarling characters struggle against this natural force; the nature of their struggle is a struggle against nature. They are battling themselves. And their redemption, however incomplete it comes, is sweet.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Le Quai des Brumes


Here in Brooklyn we're gladly gliding along the distant edge of summertime and hoping that all the must-see flicks screening in the next few months fall on rainy days. Not so with Port of Shadows (Le Quai des Brumes), which showed some nights ago as the second installment of BAM's Prix Louis Delluc series. Spring fever falling all over the place as it is, Marcel Carné's baleful sea, consuming fog, and augural sensibility had its work cut out. As dark and misty as 1938 France looked and as lost as Carné's fated were, Port of Shadows proved winning even in the midst of Spring's sun-soaked beginning.

It's about a soldier who deserts the front, ends up in a shady port-town, meets a cast of lost-souls--lost to alcoholism, insecurity, sin, youth and troubled youth, or just a mind's relentless self-rumination. He falls in love with one them, a seventeen year old lady who sports a transparent raincoat and, uniquely, pushes against her ugly circumstances to reach out for life. And then, as all of the film's wandering souls do (or will do, we are confident, even if it's many off-screen years in the future) our main man eventually meets a fate that seems writ on the impenetrable, engulfing fog. I'm not just talking about death and, in fact, am talking about a certain kind of life. Though I don't know so much about philosophical ideas of nihilism...or about very many hopeless things at all, it seems that the truly terrifying feature of a nihilistic perspective is not a sense of imminent death but a lack of agency and a sort of colossal claustrophobia in life. And I suppose this fate-writ-on-the-fog business in Port of Shadows is why, like a firm punch to the stomach, it leaves a lady, not sad, not disappointed, but out of breath. This also probably explains why the Vichy government implicated this movie in France's defeat by the Germans, for it seems, above all, war necessitates a nation's steady, deep breathing. (Carné's charming response to this accusation: "Does one blame the weather on the barometer?")

Carné puts forth a human landscape of lost and fated beings in lots of smart ways, so many I wish I had a copy of the movie (or at least some notes) so that I could tell you about all of them. To follow my intuitions from the paragraph above, very few characters make decisions in this movie (meaning, in their lives) and any life-altering decisions that do exist happen off-screen, affecting the plot only in their seemingly random implications for other characters. Consequences are broken from their Actions; Causes are uprooted from their Effects; Intentions are obsolete; the world and its blind populace is sloppy.

The tidiest example of this universe's randomness comes about a third of the way into the movie when an artist, one of the lost-souls at this strange port, commits suicide. Of course we don't see it first-hand, the event being one of the film's few big decisions; we only experience the event as a peripheral thing which frees up clothing for our protagonist. And that leads me to my second point of fascination about how this movie communicates a world so lacking in human agency: once our rough and tough, quick talkin' main man puts on the artist's clothes, people start treating him as the latter. As the soldier--donning the new civies and holding his new passport (also the dead artist's)--sets out, a friend reminds him not to forget "his" paint box and the soldier quickly scoops it up as if it had just slipped his mind, as if it were instantly and sincerely his hobby. Continuing in this vein, the soldier introduces himself as an artist, gets asked art-related questions, and even steals words from the dead artist's mouth...which, quite beautifully (and famously?) are something like: "I paint the things behind the things. When I see a swimmer, I immediately think he'll drown, so I paint a drowned man." The soldier's strange and unnecessary adoption of the dead painter's persona pushes along a broader thesis about human beings as basically what the world makes of them. There's nothing to us but projections thrown upon us from the outside; we're just messy assemblages of the world's vague impressions and this, lacking in purity and meaning, is a poor substitute for an identity... something along those lines. And so, the soldier adopts a dog just because it won't go away and everybody keeps asking if it's his. Mistakes, projections, illusions, delusions--this is how most "things" happen in this movie.

So how did this dark punch of cinema find such a comfortable home in this, the vibrant season of birth and re-birth? It was a strange thing: the film's plot, mis-en-scene, characters: they all point to the themes discussed--a world of fatalism and inevitability--but, the remarkable thing is, they do so downright gleefully! Mist meets celluloid with a warm embrace, casting a fuzzy spell over every corner of the theater. The French phenom, Jean Gabin, plays the soldier with a special kind of masculine gusto, one that melts around the edges into something soft and self-deprecating. With a loving hand from behind the camera, Carné holds his characters and their troubles dear, even as the wrought world around them closes in. And, perhaps most magically, this movie is really funny; a teenage girl howls with laughter as her boyfriend gets slapped across the face, and gangsters look like babies right before they cry, and seemingly sophisticated romantics make amateur mistakes. There are bumper cars! In short, there's passion pulsing through this film, entering from every imaginable angle and illuminating from the inside out. French critic Michel Ciment introduced the film by revealing the cast and crew to be, at every turn, the supreme talents of the day. From directing (that old so-and-so, Marcel) to music (Maurice Jaubert) and costumes (the see-through raincoat is Coco Chanel's [!], apparently) to the script (poet, Jacques Prévert) to the acting (in addition to Gabin, a sweet and sticking performance by Michéle Morgan in the female lead)--genius reined over Port of Shadows. And how queer, really: a group of the most talented artists joining together with commitment and sincerity to create a beautiful, effective film about the limits of human beings and the indomitable, if invisible, forces that govern them. Such creativity pouring into something that asserts the impossibility of true human creativity! Such mindfulness and intentionality at work in the articulation of a world where people's thoughts are rendered meaningless because nobody can make a real choice! It's a wonderfully odd relationship between the artistic world outside of the piece and its innards, one in which values and philosophies reflect and refract, bouncing between the two spheres to prove a higher point, a point I think quite appropriate to the precipice of Spring: even in the most dire of straights, when hope has deserted us and meaning evades the most desperate of grasps, if we can find a way to articulate that state of desolation, if we can just use our tools (even, maybe, muster a sense of humor), then we become something after all, meaning returns, and the world fills our outstretched hands like never before.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

In Defense of Interrogation


The last three times I've mentioned that I have Blindness--Fernando Meirelles' 2008 adaption of the José Saramago novel--in my netflix queue, I've received variations of "didn't that go straight to video?" Well no, and in fact, I wish I'd seen it in the theater. There are a few disgusting choices in this movie as well as an intriguing expression of a familiar idea. There's something to be said about Blindness; we cannot stop at the surface, the surface, the surface.

Its plot charges through what happens when All Of A Sudden (!) everybody starts to go blind, epidemic-style. Of course "The Government" has to quarantine folks and of course that means things quickly shape up to Lord Of the Flies dimensions and of course our protagonists (Julianne Moor's cheekbones be poppin' and Mark Ruffulo oddly still pulls off Cute) navigate toward a new freedom. I'll account for the above sass by spelling it out: Yes, yes indeed well-read critics, here the movie sits contentedly with the trite. Blindness' plot serves up the apocalypse and when we feel the film using well-worn tactics, it might be frustrating, boring, or downright painful.

But here's something, I didn't want to watch just another bad movie about the fragility of humanity, so I didn't. Which is not to say that that cliché is not in motion here or that every film is just what we make it--I see the narrative stilts Blindness depends upon; I hear its corny lines; I don't emotionally comprehend a whole lot of the character motivation and I find the pacing of this project (either a crawl or a sprint) to be at odds with its goals--but with a case like this, my favorite people in the world do at least two things that was Rarely done in the critical reception of Blindness; they probe their discomfort or boredom enough to see if there's anything substantial at its roots and, with that accomplished, they ceaselessly look for the best or the most provocative emanations that the object, individual, or artwork has to offer. This isn't about obsessive interpretation nor is it about finding a way to straight praise, it's about seeing the world with an eye toward productivity and construction. It's about wanting to learn so badly that it becomes possible to acknowledge the things that we find dumb and the things that bore us, acknowledge why this is so, and work to push past them and to find something real to talk about. It's true, some films make this critical aspiration nearly impossible or, when exercised, sound naive and altruistic, but Blindness is not that film. With Blindness, it feels at once dangerous and boring to let certain lines in this cinematic drawing go unexamined. It feels dangerous and boring to stop at the surface.

The film's lack of plausibility is not just a disappointment; the lack of comprehensible character motivation isn't just an annoying narrative failure; the empty valor and villainy thrown on characters isn't just silly. These aren't clichés to be bored by, but choices that prove problematic in the most terrifying and grotesque scene in the film. Oddly, nobody I've read says much of anything about the mass-rape scene lying in the dark center of this movie and, I think quite astonishingly, nobody even mentioned that it either shook them from their bored disposition or embodied their complaints with the film. The omission of the rape crime from the "critical" "discourse" (excuse the snarky quotes, but actually don't, just embrace them, thanks) around this film is strange; it seems only natural that the shortcomings of a film would become most apparent in the scene where the stakes are highest and, with Blindness--a movie with a lot of feces and crying and potential treachery, but very little actual violence--the stakes are highest (or the film asks the most of us) when, in explicit detail, eight women are brutally raped and beaten, leaving one woman dead. Here, the film is careless. Importantly, it's not the inclusion of a violent rape scene that I find so offensive--perhaps Saramago's novel pulls it off--but the reliance on action-movie tropes and the clichés of the Lord Of The Flies genre. When you're asking a viewer to watch gratuitous violence and torture, issues of plausibility, character and plot development, and the use of Hollywood/genre cliché become more prescient. What comes off in other scenes as something to scoff at here seems downright irresponsible, leaving (apparently only) this viewer wondering, "Wait why am I watching that terrified woman get screamed at, fucked, and punched to death with all the anger and force her male aggressor can muster?" Here's where it seems to really matter that I found the plot progression--often forced into awkward time lapse/montage sequences composed of visual queues that point at emotional impact without actually achieving it--unconvincing. In this scene it becomes important that the film seems to justify its movements by lazily relying on the audience's cultural cache of Apocalypse/Anarchy genre cliché instead of reinventing and freshly articulating the problems and motivations. We do not know the characters (both rapists and women) deep enough to understand how and why they are making these immense choices (the women "choose" to be raped because they are bartering for food) nor do we know them in a cursory, nameless, apocalyptic fable sort of way which would allow the film to completely abandon the story at hand in favor of a larger allegory. Instead, the film asks us to take these people and their choices seriously while giving us no depth of reason to believe them. It asks us to open up to and allow the most brutal of rape scenes to unfold, with the loudest justification being, "this is just what happens in these types of stories." To make matters worse, by the happy ending of the movie, we're shown three of these women's bodies showering, giggling, calling each other beautiful in all their carefree, sexy glory. Instead of cracking jokes about the cheeseball-factor of happy puppies and cleansing rains at the end of the film, maybe we could take seriously the idea of empty redemption and how that rears a particularly ugly head when we're asked to voyeuristically (framed either as if we're looking through a window or standing back in a dark room and looking through a distant door and stealing glimpses of bare, wet breasts) look upon the naked bodies that were so brutalized previously.

Consider me impressed that peoeple would rather whip out their quips and talk about the size of their yawns than touch this terrifying scene and its aftermath, which seemed to exemplify many of the criticisms pingponging around the film's reception.

I'd like to push my larger point--that there's no time for snarky bullshit when a film holds things (there's almost always something!) to unravel--from another angle.

As you may or probably don't know, this blog is turned on by light, which is to say, films that play with it, make it dance, shut it all the way out or drench a world in it--these films most definitely tickle What Is This Light's fancy. This fascination with light-tricks is (often) a facet of a larger love for cinema speaking on cinema, of formal and narrative self-referentiality whereby a film uses its medium to say something about its medium. Also in this self-reflexive category: concepts of seeing, blindness, and virtually any formal or narrative concept that draws comparison between extradiegetic actions and diegetic actions. This self-referentiality was part of cinema from its starting blocks around the world, became more complicated with the arrival of modernism in film, and grew more abstract as permutations of this cinematic modernism emerged. From this lineage we get not only things like Man With a Movie Camera (1929) or Haji Agha, The Cinema Actor (1933), but also all those New Waves around the world, and Rear Window's binoculars and Blow Up's camera, and Sunset Boulevard, and Caden Cotard and Esther Kahn's (astonishingly different) wills to experience through imitation. It's a rich and deep and sprawling history, one in which I see Blindness operating with intention and invention.

Enter Ben Polk, who said it best:
"I actually found Meirelles' dark, disorienting visual style appropriate and really powerful. The film's overwhelming whiteouts and blackouts, its chaotic closeups, the darkness and blur on the frame's periphery all serve to undermine our (the viewers') trust in our own vision (a fairly ballsy step for a filmmaker, I'd say) and allow us to share the characters' claustrophobic, radically unstable perceptual experience. Much of the film's power centers on explorations of this experience. There are moments of incredible delicacy, as characters grope and stumble through space or desperately reach for each other. And there are moments of suspense and even real horror as we share in their profound, frantic lostness.

So let me suggest, then, that blindness is neither symbol nor metaphor but the very subject of the film itself."

To continue in this vein, I felt this movie drawing a peculiar connection between the viewer and on-screen action. These people suffer from a "white sickness," a blindness of overexposure as compared to the dark universe usually portrayed. As Ben describes, this gives birth to a certain dark and bright aesthetic of confusion. I think this looks good but I also love the way this aesthetic operates; we don't watch the action unfold around these people as a normally-seeing, unaffected person might and, even with all the dark and bright washes across the screen, we also don't ever fully align with the vision of the afflicted. In one of the most beautiful sequences of the film, a woman walks into the ward calling for her husband. The screen is white but we see her outstretched, red-nail-polished hand come in and out of focus as if we and the camera are seeing from her perspective, with her damaged sight. But as we walk on, following her red nails through the white and listening to her forlorn call and response with her husband, the camera drifts and spins and, though the screen is still shrouded in white, it's clear this is no point-of-view shot; her delicate search extends from a separate body and finally both she and her husband come into the frame, burning at the edges with white, their hug celestial. It's beautiful and it exemplifies the third vision being created here: not the distant, untouched observer's, not the diegesis-bound blind, but a third perspective whose exact location is unknown. The vision granted us here is a gift, an expressionistic light-obsessed lens that allows us, quite miraculously, to at once watch the film from the outside and see as our protagonists do. With this single sight, both visual spaces are navigable. In a way, this type of third-party perspective could be argued for any number of films (we perceive a film as a rational outsider and as the insane person at its center, for example), but here, with the ultimate boundaries of light and dark, the Blindness' address to the audience feels explicit. Light literalizes this third perspective (or, really, vision) in a way that, to go back to the example, can't be done with the perspective of insanity; sitting in a movie theater, you can make me see white or experience a completely dark room but you can't make me insane. When the world of the film, when our lens goes white or dark, the extradiegetic Brooklyn 2am bedroom hits pitch black or lights way up. These light-tricks are a literal connection between me, Martha in real time, and the vision put forth by the film. To place this back in film's lineage of reflexivity, this can only be done at the movies. In what other medium would this strange vision, so dependent on light and movement, be possible? Concerned with various ways of seeing, Blindness is a movie that reflects and capitalizes on a special potential of its medium.

Here's hoping I found some version of productivity.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Silent Light: An Image Essay and a Prayer

Maybe film stills, individual frames, aren't the building blocks of moving pictures and maybe the cinema's constitution is based in movement itself (or an idea of movement), but sometimes it seems still frames betray a film's deepest sentiments, even illuminate its greatest accomplishments. Watching Carlos Reygadas' recent marvel, Silent Light, I was struck by a desire to break down this already very still, very quiet movie even further, to sit among its most impacting frames, and experience their sum in a different way. My impulse to take Silent Light to a base, photographic form seems in line with Reygadas' larger aim toward both the celestial and the simple; it's a film about moral struggle in a religious community and, opening and closing with a meditation on things (the sun and its spectacular will to rise and fall!) much greater than humankind, the film takes on the form, pace, and focus of a prayer. Help us be better than we are. Help me find and recognize my place among the cosmos above and the flowers within reach. In form and content, Silent Light works to break things down and then recognize the grandeur of the pieces. If I've succeeded in carrying (what I believe to be) Reygadas' driving force to its next incarnation--that of the still/ photo essay-- you'll find each piece below at once basic and overwhelming, simple and humbling, and the sum of the parts to be somewhat of a prayer.

Three Sweet Trailers

It seems great trailers are few and far between, most films choosing to go with a revved-up music video style that manages to hit every plot point in 2 minutes. I think this is too bad; to my eyes, the film trailer can be a space where the world of advertising can give itself over to art, where a commercial can be a work unto itself. I know people argue that commercials always carry this potential and I know that the winners of this year's Television Advertising Awards probably want to hold up their own medium as an artistic one. But film trailers are an especially intriguing form; at 2-4 minutes, they can drop gags and hooks in favor of things that take just a bit more development, like rhythm and tone. What other form of advertising could work to establish rhythm and tone without the weight of a clear, pushy message? And, with a parent film behind them, the trailer at its best is a fascinating editing exercise that--in movement, language, and concept-- both capture something essential of their parent features and create something new and beautiful unto itself. With that, let's hit my top three:

#3: Inland Empire--David Lynch
I love this thing because with every terrifying breath it seems to elude to a firm plot. "This looks riveting! What are those creepy bunnies doing in there?! Why is Laura Dern freaking out like I've never seen her before!?!? I've gotta see this thing!" And then you hit the opening night performance or add it to your netflix queue only to ask basically the same questions throughout the film. Both trailer and film use strange tonal devices to terrify, but the trailer holds a hope that these will be revealed in a fantastic play-by-play Hollywood escapade while the film just throws a nightmare at you with no hope of explication. Once any allusions to a firm narrative are found faulty, the trailer becomes a perfect miniature of the film itself.


L'eclisse--Michealangelo Antonioni
This trailer works beautifully because, in a way, it really embraces its advertisement yet manages to be a pretty and intriguing object unto itself. We get Antonioni's name up on our screen first, then the name of the film in big block letters, and then our two stars get portraits with their names shining bright. We're told it's "an exceptional film!!!" and it's bookended with that silly twist that makes you wanna shake a leg in 1960s Italy as soon as possible. And behind all these traditional hooks, we have just seven shots, dispersed among a full 2 minutes, that almost mathematically set up oppositions. The distance and space of the first shot coupled with the crowd of the stock market; the portraits of individuals in their elements against that strange lovers' hand-tango; that dark barn beneath the the words "The Eclipse"--these things play off and against each other in a tidy sort of poem. I find it at once quite practical and quite beautiful.


And Finally,

Toni--Jean Renoir
I could watch this thing once an hour for the rest of my life. I've really stopped thinking of it as connected to a larger project because it stands alone so extraordinarily. A tune welcomes us into a world where a train gives birth to two lovers walking down a path. Grapes to bees to hugs. Then a series of dark, shocking images and, though the tune progresses, the ominous sounds of moving trains slowly rise. These mechanical churnings push the tune into mournful territory and suddenly we find ourselves among the surreal--on a quiet lake, alone and scared; standing by while rock slides and crumbles; a moment of confrontation; a desperate, suspended sprint. In 1 minute 21 seconds and without a word of dialogue, this thing conjures grand emotions. From those bright grapes to desperation above serene water, this trailer demands we take it seriously unto itself and feel its beauty without reference to another site.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Must Read After My Death


Kjerstin Johnson over at Bitch Magazine just posted a stellar interview with Must Read After My Death director, Morgan Dews. Pieced together from tape recordings, home movies, and written diaries, the film documents the life of Dews' grandmother, Allis. Take a look at the interview above and the trailer below and that'll make you wanna come back up to this link to find out how and where you can see this remarkable project.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Happy Birthday Sam

It's a strange and magical thing, the way meaning sprouts up around a film, transforming it into a security blanket, a recurring nightmare, a sensory memory. It's a privilege to associate, to be overwhelmed by connotation, to adopt external, self-contained objects into our own systems. I still can't believe a movie can be both itself and a legitimate, involved Experience in its viewer's life. I still can't believe how much we can let film form us. E.T calls to mind the fabric of my old couch and the sounds of my mom looking for kleenex in the kitchen. I remember what I was wearing when I watched The Flight of The Red Balloon. And so, on the occasion of my brother Sam's birthday (and on the occasion of him STILL living in Indonesia and STILL being only able to receive online presents) a ridiculous image essay from films that speak his name to me. These things are soaked in meaning because we watched them together and they remind me, in all sorts of conscious and unconscious ways, that my big bro is and has always been seriously Loving and also that our childhood was rad.