Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Tolerance and Variety, Without Moderation: Notes on James Card’s Seductive Cinema

Nothing gets me excited about seeing movies like reading enthusiastic and well-informed writing about them. And sometimes it’s not the extraneous bits of negative criticism that are important to glean from a critical work—in fact, they may be best avoided. Truth time: I’ve only seen two of the numerous silent films mentioned in this book. The fact that both—The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and L’Age D’Or—are treated with a reverence that I share for them is pleasing to me—at least, it lets me know I’m in good company—but should I avoid seeing D.W. Griffith’s epic Intolerance, which inspired my beloved Eisenstein (not to mention Pudovkin, Dovzhenko and Vertov) to experiment with cross-cutting and montage, because of the whim of an old and much respected film collector? Probably not.
            James Card began collecting film prints at a time when such a “hobby” was roughly on par, in most quarters, with hoarding Transformers figurines or antique gaming consoles (this metaphor, of course, is my own extraneous negativity seeping through—don’t let me deter you from anything you hold dear.) Card’s perseverance as a film collector and preservationist—which in fact became his life’s work—turned in his own lifetime from a distasteful low-culture pursuit into something venerated by museums and universities worldwide. His insights into the work of directors Josef von Sternberg, King Vidor and Cecil B. Demile seem invaluable to me, coming from a well-versed (or well-seen) man of his generation, and completely valid as artistically minded criticism, yet his relation to the basic shift in the social status of cinephilia in the United States—which appears to have come in the mid 1950s—is love-hate. In the only chapter in this otherwise canny book that put me off, Card lumps the early critics of Andre Bazin’s famous film magazine Cahiers du Cinema in with “academics” and “semiologists”, all of whom—if he’s to be believed—were dryly engaged in a (successful?) conspiracy to remove all pleasure from cinema and cinephilia.
            Yet, from the way Card tells it, von Sternberg’s early silents (which, to my delight, have recently been released in a Criterion Box set) sound like they foreshadow the poetic long shots of Antonioni’s L’Avventura and the film-within-a-film soul searching of Godard’s Contempt—sixties art house staples both, which Card implicitly rejects--just as much as they do Hollywood melodramas of the early sound era, many of which were directed by von Sternberg himself. And in this, I think may be some sort of key to what cinephilia actually is and how it survives. I have a friend who, among many things, seems to eat 80s vigilante cop actioners for breakfast, early Truffaut for lunch and recent selections of Hollywood and World cinema for dinner or a late night snack. Another who seems to care every bit as much for Seinfeld as for Jean Cocteau. And yet another anecdotal film person, who on our first encounter was watching the live action Mario Brothers movie on the internet while waxing poetic about Bergman’s Seventh Seal and suggesting we watch Pierrot Le Fou with her other cinema pal, who has a particularly delightful taste for hard-boiled forties film noir. As for myself, I’ve probably seen (and loved) just as many slasher films, dystopian sci-fi flicks, and screwball comedies—from The Thin Man to Wayne’s World—as I have anything normally accorded the status of “film art.” Like many voracious fiction readers I know, many cinephiles customarily consume the high with the low—say, by analogy, something by Nabokov or Joyce, followed by a Dan Brown book or a superhero comic. 
    All of us younger cinema-people are probably way too indebted to things like DVD, the internet and television as means for grasping our cinema to hack it as true cinephiles with rapidly disappearing elder generations who still emphasize movie theatres as the only way to truly experience film. Yet, in a sense, James Card, long deceased, whose extensive collection of silent films formed the bulk of the Eastman House’s early catalogue, may be more of a kindred spirit than he could have realized. He certainly, like many of us, seems to have loved and cared for many things cinema, not all of them doubtlessly prestigious or dubiously pulp (but definitely a few.) Cinema has changed and will continue to, but cinephilia (colloquially known as movie love or film nerdom) stays the same.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant (1992)

Werner Herzog released Bad Lieutenant: Port Call of New Orleans starring Nicholas Cage this last year in homage to director Abel Ferrara's trail blazing film Bad Lieutenant, which stars Harvey Keitel in one of his finest performances. Bad Lieutenant was one of the first films to receive the NC-17 rating (for, I assume, the extreme amount of drug use in it) and, as such, never received wide distribution. Distribution has always been a problem for Ferrara and he readily admits that whatever people know of him stateside has been from seeing his films on video and DVD. He is fairly well known in Europe as a quintessential New York filmmaker and his films have picked up prizes at the Cannes, Venice and Berlin film festivals, but his insistence on making his own movies rather than hacking for the studios as well as his peculiar mixture of metaphysics and seemingly z-grade subject matter has kept him more than an arms length from the mainstream here.

In Bad Lieutenant, Harvey Keitel plays a bad cop who we pick up just as his life is beginning to fall apart. He's racked up a $15,000 debt betting on the World Series and keeps doubling the bet and losing, till he owes $120,000 to unseen mob bookies. In addition to being a serious alcoholic, he's become addicted to crack cocaine, which he steals from crime scenes and smokes to keep himself going, and is starting to get into heroin, which he moves through the film from freebasing to eventually shooting up. A nun is raped on the altar by two teenage boys and L.T. gets the idea that he should solve the case to claim the $50,000 reward, but there's a problem: the nun has forgiven them.

Keitel is insanely erratic here, as we would expect him to be, sometimes pulling out his police-issue automatic and threatening people with it, sometimes firing warning shots to bend people to his will. Yet Ferrara constantly frames him in medium shot, giving enough to place him in his claustrophobic inner city environment, but never making a complete person of him, which gives L.T. a strange trapped-rat-in-a-cage continuity throughout, as if everything he's doing is just a way of scratching at the walls. And the walls in the end seem to be existence itself, or as the peculiar redemption sequence suggests, God or God's absence. There's an odd continuity between the themes in some of Scorsese's films (Mean Streets, The Last Temptation of Christ, and Raging Bull especially) and Bad Lieutenant, which makes some sense as Ferrara and Scorsese are both Italians from a Catholic background and New Yorkers to boot. Where Scorsese and De Niro created a Jake LaMotta who never achieves redemption and ends up as a sort of hollow man, reciting lines from an old boxing movie that mean nothing to him though they should mean everything, Ferrara and Keitel's L.T. achieves redemption and proves to be full of life rather than hollow, though this is what kills him.

Though I go back and forth in my feelings for Frankfurt School Marxist Theodor Adorno and his multitude of rejections, his comment that "where great art is ascetic and unashamed, the Culture Industry is pornograhic and prudish," seems entirely relevant here. Though both Scorsese and Ferrara are admirers of Roberto Rossellini, who I can see as a model for both men and is indeed as ascetic and unashamed as a film artist has ever been, Scorsese's films (except for, perhaps, The Last Temptation of Christ) are sensual phantasmagoria of hopelessness, receiving wide acclaim and distribution throughout the mass media industry. Where Scorsese's Raging Bull ultimately bares little influence of Rosselini, Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant is an oddly neo-realist film, with few frills, seeking truth and hope in the most disgusting person in our society--a corrupt guardian of power and property whose ultimate selfless and redeeming act is to let two young criminals go free.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Exterminating Angel--Bunuel Review #7

The Exterminating Angel (1962)--5/5

One of Bunuel's most potent films and one of the most challenging to pin down in a review. Exterminating Angel follows a group of bourgeoisie unable to leave a dinner party... for a month. At first social niceties prevent them from leaving--everyone else is staying tonight, so shouldn't we? But it quickly becomes apparent after the butler serves breakfast that there is something else keeping them trapped there. People approach the threshold of the adjacent dining room and start to cry uncontrollably, the men try to reason their way out, eventually they all turn to religion. One group of women even try some aberrant sorcery with parts of a chicken. Eventually they all despair and several commit suicide. This film is so perfectly calibrated that you can chart the characters' devolution by gradual changes in their mannerisms and costumes--at first, the host and hostess consider chastising a couple of men who remove their tuxedo jackets, but by the end everyone is dressed down in clothes that look like dirty rags and engaged in plots to kill each other hoping to lift the curse.

This is apparently the only Mexican production that Bunuel had complete control over and, as such, it shines as one of the three or four masterpieces of this period (Los Olvidados, Ascent to Heaven and Simon of the Desert are also good candidates.)

The Exterminating Angel is a close cousin of Bunuel's other black comedies about the upper crust, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and L'Age D'Or, but where a lot of elements of those films play as comedy, a lot of this film is just black. L'Age D'Or is completely wild and irreverent, the film of a younger man excitedly yelling "fuck you!" at bourgeois society, and Discreet Charm is the film of an old man, happily ensconced in art houses and cinema canons worldwide, picking fun at his old adversaries. Exterminating Angel is Bunuel coming off his first international success in years--Viridiana, which won him the Palm D'Or at Cannes in 1961--and using that success to conduct a methodical, even etymological, study of vicious third-world bourgeois, who he'd then been living among for more than ten years. It's as if these bourgeois characters were a colony of fire ants, headless without a queen, or sheep lost on a rocky precipice without a shepherd, doomed to suffering and death because of who and what they are by some surreal-absurdist form of divine vengeance, which may only be a metaphor, as the closing sequence suggests, for a popular uprising. As is characteristic of Bunuel's best Mexican films, this film is brutal, disaffected socially-conscious art.