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.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Current Cinema: Avatar, Kick-Ass and Questions of Film Ethics

Avatar (2009)--1/5
Kick Ass (2010)--2/5

What do I mean by "film ethics"? In a sense, I'm referring to the politics of a film. Not just in the sense of whether it can be classified as "liberal" or "conservative" or "left" or "right," as those distinctions are fairly arbitrary. In a sense, I think of ethics as being a higher, more idealistic form of politics--a way of discussing something and trying to understand the implications, assumptions and mythology of a work and--importantly--whether these are things we should accept or reject. And I would like to discuss these two films without resorting to a purely academic analysis, devoid of taste or concern for the art of a work and rooted almost completely in sociology. In fact, I don't think it's appropriate to discuss film ethics separately from film aesthetics. It's too soulless to discuss art from a purely ethical position--it's essentially a preachy and narrow way of understanding art and it deprives the artist of their identity as a creator and the art of what makes it most enjoyable--but it seems extremely naive to try to discuss aesthetics without any concern for ethics.

Critics approaching Avatar from what they consider a purely aesthetic position might say, for instance, as I actually read on Rotten Tomatoes, that the experience of watching Avatar in 3D can be compared favorably to what it must have been like seeing King Kong in the 1930s. I will always remember my moment, watching Avatar myself in 3D, that I saw a burning ember literally pop out of the screen at me, seeming to land right on my glasses, and being amazed. Can I discuss that moment from a purely aesthetic point of view? It was, well, pretty cool--someone surely spent millions of dollars and an enormous amount of time making that moment happen.
But once I mention the enormous expenditure of time and resources for that moment, I can't help but think of other moments of formal beauty in other films I've seen recently that cost much less to produce--the traveling steadicam shots through the outdoor maze in Kubrick's The Shining, which I saw on the big screen recently, or the numerous moments of formal beauty in the slow motion, over-saturated color sequences in Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood For Love. Honestly, I was more impressed by the experience of seeing Stanley Kubrick's epic horror film on the big screen for the first time, scratched print and all, than I ever was by Avatar. But that's a purely subjective judgment--other people might not have been impressed by the Shining at all and find it boring (it is thirty years old, for Christ's sake.) But--and this is as "purely" aesthetic as I care to be--Kubrick's steadicam shots are intimately wedded to his narrative--the boy is running from his axe-wielding murderous father and the camera is frantically chasing yet consistently and disquietingly not shaking as it follows boy, conveying, I think, the persistent insanity of his father--and this, to me, is the ultimate aesthetic triumph of them. The barely comparable moment of formal beauty in James Cameron's film has little more narrative justification than, well, there's a fire in the scene.

Yet, I can't--and this is where the ethics come in--say that this much more expensive moment in a much more expensive film is worthwhile aesthetically, simply because it was just so goddamn expensive. How can I, who treasure my humanism, and hence, humanity, justify spending the equivalent of the national debt of one or several impoverished third world nations to make this film? And whose aesthetic value is only partial? Is the film world of Avatar itself, aside from the unethical cost to create it, even something I can endorse?

This is where the comparison to King Kong is ironically quite apt--that film deals with a brutish animal from Africa--typically black--who covets and kidnaps a white woman with rape on his mind. When you really think about it--and you don't even have to have seen it, because its turns are common knowledge--King Kong is the white male fantasy of the African-American "threat" to their white women personified in the character of a giant black African ape. And sure, we may be responsible for bringing the ape here, we may even feel sorry for the ape, but he has to be destroyed and the white woman wrested from his clutches. Peter Jackson's recent remake scarcely improves on the original's racist premise.
And Avatar is--despite being critical of the American military--also a damaging white fantasy, even if it happens to be a "liberal" white fantasy. The film is often read in a positive light by absentminded Americans as being a metaphorical story about the tortured history of Native Americans in the U.S. --represented by the aliens here--and the American military's ruthless exploitation of them and theft of their land. But going deeper into the film there are also implications that are more troubling: the whites are able to inhabit fake copies of the alien-natives' bodies and the hero of the story is a white male who inhabits one of these bodies, passes all the tests to become one of the natives, turns the native heroine from a strong independent woman into "his" woman, and becomes the supreme messianic leader of the natives who has been foretold by prophecy! Not only that, but at the end, he forsakes his white man body and fully becomes one of the natives. If this is all metaphor and even myth--and I would argue that it is, in some sense--then I'm freaked out, because, in reality, we have never atoned for our history with Native Americans and we can never really become Native Americans. But we--and I mean liberal-minded whites like myself--do often like to proclaim our respect for Native Americans by mythologizing and idealizing them, even adopting Native art and Native names for places at times in what can be read as an attempt to claim their history and their culture for our own. I'm not arguing that Native culture should not be displayed and celebrated, that Native place names should not be used, etc., but when this popular fantasy of a film is suggesting that we can actually become Native Americans and master their culture to the point that we not only become them, but we are the best among them to lead them, then the myth is really just justifying white racial superiority. It's a feel-good movie for whites to assuage their guilt and reinforce their sense of superiority, moral and racial, not a radical rewriting of history through metaphor in which the Natives come out victorious. I don't think James Cameron is the originator of this myth--it's a common one that I've seen perpetuated in other American films as recently as The Last Samurai--but that doesn't make Avatar any more ethical or aesthetically satisfying.

Oddly enough, despite the public outcry over the film from established and heavily moralistic critics like Roger Ebert, who seemed to have no serious qualms with Avatar, I found Kick-Ass to be less immediately offensive. It was off to a good start in the first half-hour or so when it was taking on the superhero myth and playing with it, especially in the scene where the wannabe superhero Kick Ass tries to stop a couple hoods from breaking into someone's car and gets stabbed and sent to the emergency room. The comedic pacing of this scene is near-perfect and the message--essentially a cinematic deconstruction of the silly, yet probably harmless fantasy of masked vigilante crime fighters--is a much needed injection of reality into the blockbuster superhero movie genre, which has gotten pretty stale as of late. The plotline with 12-year old Hit Girl, played by the talented child actor Mindy Moretz, and her father, Big Daddy, played with spunk by Nicholas Cage, seems promising at first, because it is again playing with and undermining genre conventions, this time by placing a child in the dubious position of killing the bad guys under the direction of her psychotically driven father, which seems to promise--we could hope--some complex examination of their characters. But for some reason director Matthew Vaughn, who was also one of the film's screenwriters, decides to leave their relationship and the effect that being trained to kill from a young age has had on this young girl--who is easily the most interesting character in the film--essentially unexplored and after the 30-minute mark the film turns into a fairly conventional superhero movie with only average direction and a little more blood than we're usually given to expect.
But that's just the aesthetics--it stopped playing with genre conventions pretty quickly, spent too much time following a typical boy-who-is-secretly-a-masked-avenger-meets-girl plotline that we've seen in every superhero movie since Spider-Man and left its most interesting character unexplored. By leaving Hit Girl unexplored and her status as a "superhero" unquestioned, though, I think Vaughn made an ethical, as well as aesthetic, choice--this film was obviously banking on it's shock value to make money, as evidenced by Hit Girl uttering the word "cunt," which I really couldn't care less about, and by having her commit brutal murders, which, ultimately, disturbed me. Don't get me wrong--there was novelty in it at first--but after awhile I couldn't stop thinking about child soldiers in Africa. These are children that are pressed into military service by their families and extended families as much as by larger political entities to fight for their particular ethnic group, right? Don't they believe that they're fighting for good too? For their lives, for their people, for the morally correct cause, whatever, but this is universally acknowledged as something horrible. If Vaughn had examined Hit Girl more closely as a child soldier--which she is, make no mistake--who knows? Would we conclude that she was suffering from trauma or Daddy-induced Stockholm Syndrome (Patty Hearst, anybody?) or would we discover that the child is actually some sort of born sociopath or a created sociopath, influenced by her father and by the American culture surrounding violence to never have empathy for her victims and to never consider any real consequences of violence?

The Japanese film Battle Royale, from a couple years back, satirizes something even more transgressive than Kick-Ass--violence perpetrated by children on other children--and it examines the question of child sociopaths in a more gratifying way, but hasn't been released in a decent edition here, presumably for fear of controversy. Quentin Tarantino's films also have transgressive violence, but there too is an element of play in them and an element of ridicule in regards to violence and convention. I'm not saying that Tarantino land or Battle Royale are entirely ethical either--I'm undecided--but these examples prove to me that Vaughn didn't have to make the film unfunny or unenjoyable to deal with the stuff it brings up. Ultimately, by saying, "yeah, she's a bad ass!" and "look at that--a child committing bloody murders, wow!" and not saying anything else, not even giving her enough scenes, the film fails on both the aesthetic and the ethical count. Perhaps if these filmmakers at least thought of ethics sometimes instead of simply trying to alternately shock, awe or appease us, they'd develop more considered and interesting aesthetics too. But perhaps that would risk negating the real concerns of Cameron and Vaughn (as well as their producers), which is ultimately not aesthetics or ethics, but commerce. And to their credit, Kick-Ass and Avatar have made a lot of money.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Two Films by Wong Kar-Wai--Fallen Angels (1995) and In the Mood For Love (2000)

Fallen Angels (1995)--4.5/5
In The Mood For Love (2000)--5/5

I read an interesting article by A.O. Scott of the New York Times several months ago about De Palma defenders/detractors. One of his best points, among many, was that it is really De Palma's formal command that excites his fans--his wondrous sequences of purely visual storytelling, where he carries the film without often needing expository dialogue--but to say that De Palma is the only director who can be so purely visual is really to ignore other greats, including Spielberg and Wong Kar-Wai.

My knowledge of Spielberg is enough that I can think that, yeah, okay, Raiders of the Lost Ark has all those playful sequences that are purely visual jokes--such as Indy pulling out his gun to pop off the flamboyant swordsman--but about Hong Kong based Wong Kar-Wai, I knew absolutely nothing.
Four or five months later, after finally hunting down a couple of his films, I can say with confidence that Wong is probably the most exciting director working in East Asia today (though apparently he made an English-language film in the States, which flopped a couple years back, in large part because some aspects of his style were lost in translation--hopefully he's back in China working on something new.) His filmmaking technique seems rather extraordinary and extraordinarily like the working method of Jean-Luc Godard and his disciple Krzystof Kieslowski--Wong improvises with his actors on set with a bare-bones script that he writes during or shortly before filming. Unlike Kieslowski, who can sometimes feel a little contrived, and Godard, who is undeniably great, but can sometimes grate on you when he has some forceful political point to make, Wong Kar-Wai, judging from what I've seen, is naturalistic as hell, even at his most stylized.
Comparisons with Spielberg and De Palma are also apt, on the level of technique, because all three directors are known for their small sequences dispersed across their broader narratives, sequences that wouldn't feel out of place on the silent screen. But somehow Wong's sequences are more ingrained in his overall narrative technique, which is often quite experimental--Spielberg and De Palma are arty pop, but Wong-Kar Wai is pop art.

Fallen Angels is the more immediately exciting of the two films and feels like a 90s equivalent of one of Godard's earlier gangster-themed films like Breathless or Band of Outsiders. In Fallen Angels, two parallel plot lines deal with a hit man who displaces his affection for his business partner by sleeping with a girl he meets at McDonald's, who is Hong Kongian, but has bleached her hair platinum blond, and another with a young man who is mute and breaks into shops after hours and forces people to be waited upon and served by him with his fists to make a living.

There are many gunfight scenes that seem like arty allusions to John Woo and mainstream Hong Kong action cinema--these scenes are basically throwaway compared to the themes of love, longing and loneliness, which are treated in this film and in In the Mood For Love with romantic gravity without being fake or sentimentalized.

My only problem with Fallen Angels, really, is that the style of it is so over the top and overwhelming that sometimes it can be disorienting--a problem that Eisenstein, who was also very styilized, solved with some more normally shot and paced scenes in his otherwise rapidly cut, fast-paced films. It doesn't help that the picture quality of the edition I watched was somewhat poor, making film look like grainy video at times. Perhaps if I see the new Kino DVD my feeling about this film will jump from 4.5 (fucking amazing) to 5 (masterpiece.)

In the Mood For Love, though, is an out and out masterpiece. Five years and two features later, Wong is here considerably toning down his style, though his use of colors and slow motion is quite voluptuous. In the Mood For Love deals with a Shanghaiese couple living in Hong Kong in the early sixties, who find out that their spouses are cheating on them with each other and get together to discuss and sometimes re-enact the conversations that they assume their estranged husband and wife are having. It wasn't really until the second time I watched this, after seeing Fallen Angels and seeing an interview with Wong Kar-Wai on the second disc of the Criterion Edition of this film that I fully appreciated the attention to detail and emotional subtlety of it, which is a far cry from Fallen Angels on a surface level, but actually only serves to reinforce Wong's auteur status, showing him repeating and developing his same thematic concerns, while also demonstrating that he is completely capable of tailoring the style of his films to whatever he needs to tell the story.

Some things to pay attention to and think about when watching In the Mood for Love, an experience that I highly recommend:

1. Think about the placement of the camera, what is shown and not shown. You will notice that either Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung or both are almost in every frame of the film, whereas you never see the faces of their spouses.

2. Notice how spatial relationships are played with in the editing. Often, the editing conveys Tony and Maggie being close together, while your sense of the geography of each scene may prove that they're not... physically.

3. Notice Maggie's costume changes, as you can judge the passing of time by the dress she is wearing, which is often the only indicator.

4. In the interview with Michel Ciment, Wong mentioned a few details which he regretted were probably lost on Western audiences: the food that is eaten in the film, which would be familiar to Chinese, changes with the passage of time in the narrative because certain things are eaten in certain seasons--another time marker; and the characters in the film are exiles to Hong Kong, which was a British Protectorate until 1997, from Shanghai, having fled Mao, and they all speak Mandarin, whereas the Hong Kong natives speak Cantonese. It's interesting to note that too, although these are both considered "dialects" of Chinese, they are not mutually intelligible languages the way British English and American English are mutually intelligible. Thus, this is really a film about members of an ethnic minority within the Cantonese Hong Kong milieu.

All in all, Wong Kar-Wai is a filmmaker worth watching and watching again. Concurrently with my Bunuel project, which I plan to finish before November, I plan to write from time to time now about more films by Wong and forcefully encourage all my friends, film nerds or not, to give him a shot.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Surreal Picture of American Racism, Circa 1960--Bunuel Review #6

4/5 The Young One (1960, available through Lion's Gate in a boxed set with Gran Casino)

A wonderful small film. This is one of two Bunuel films done in English with American actors and it's definitely a worthwhile endeavor. A black man flees a Carolina lynch mob by boat and ends up on a small island game reserve which is run by a racist game warden. Evie is a young girl--about fourteen--who had lived on the island with her grandfather, who never cared to get her baptized or show her any of the "feminine ways," and when he dies, the game warden takes her under his wing, although he obviously desires her.

The film takes a little while to pick up speed, but when it gets going, it's a hell of a time--there are plenty of reversals and rounds fired, even some hand grenades. The warden ends up raping the girl and when a preacher and an even more psychotically racist local show up, the local and the game warden hunt down the Traver, the black man, and hog tie him. The girl cuts him free and the preacher finds out about the rape and uses it against the game warden to stop him from killing Traver, who was falsely accused of rape. There is a bizarre redemption sequence for the game warden and an exciting knife fight between the local and traver, ending with the line "I ain't gonna give them a reason to lynch me white trash!"

Bunuel certainly shows an aptitude for black humor (the African-American kind, but also the other) and culture--you feel that he, in the brutal yet sympathetic tradition of his Las Hurdes and Los Olvidados, is a natural fit for telling the stories of the dispossessed. His characterization of racism in America is psychotic and even surreal (at one point the local, who drops the n-word in about every bit of dialogue he has, says "there are some soft people who think blacks are men. You'd have to be a man for me to hate you") and I honestly can't think of another American film as radically pro-black until Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing was released almost thirty years later.

Yet you don't feel that Bunuel is trying to be didactic here either--he's not a propagandist and he lets Traver be a human being who can admit that when a white lady asked to have sex with him, he just wasn't that attracted to her, because she was old and smelled too much like whiskey and cigarettes. Although the preacher is a sympathetic character, Bunuel makes some little jabs at his pretensions too--when he promises the girl a "Golden Key" and then baptizes her, she yells at him and says that she would have preferred the silver plated revolver the warden promised her.

The only reason I can't wholeheartedly endorse this film is its use of child rape, actually. I know that for Bunuel, it's all just a sick joke--the racist white American turns out to be the real rapist, not the black jazz musician. This is all good and fine--even a little funny--and I'm up for showing this racist guy as a complete hypocrite. The game warden's pseudo-redemption is fine (he makes up with Traver, though the preacher may still turn him in for rape), but what I'm not okay with is showing the girl recovering so easily. Admittedly Bunuel gives the girl some time--she is really upset the day afterward, obviously so--and this is more than someone like De Palma would give a rape victim, but I have to bend over backward to find justification for her being cheerful at the end of the film (is she repressing it?) All in all, it's just a little tiresome to see rape portrayed lightly over and over again in film and literature. Bunuel was definitely ahead of his time here and in 1960 there must have been a lot of shock value in showing something like this at all, but for a modern viewer like me it's kind of a turn-off. Check out Belle de Jour though--Bunuel has made a film about women as dispossessed, in keeping with his other films about oppression, and his empathy there is astounding.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Resnais' "Night and Fog"

5/5 Night and Fog (dir. Alain Resnais, 1954)

Available to watch here.

The best film ever made about the Holocaust is 32 minutes long and makes a partial, fictionalized and hopeful film like Schindler's List seem like something akin to Holocaust denial. Resnais blends found footage and photographs with technicolor tracking shots of the empty camps, shot by the interminable cinematographer Sascha Vierny. There is no diegetic sound, just narration and music. See it, see it, see it--shocking, smart, tragic, educational. Whether or not you have any interest in French New Wave cinema or not, I cannot emphasize this enough--see it! It still feels urgent sixty years later and the urgency has rubbed off on me.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Jean-Luc Godard's Band Of Outsiders--Poet of Boredom?

5/5 Bande A Parte (1964)

I'm taking a little furlough from Bunuel to write about that other favorite of mine: Jean-Luc "Cinema" Godard. I've been recently working my way again through some of his sixties movies concurrently with my Bunuel watchings and rewatchings. Recently, I've seen Alphaville again, Pierrot Le Fou, Masculin-Feminin, Breathless again, and Contempt. But really what I want to write about is Band of Outsiders, which I've watched twice in the last two months after seeing it for the first time about a year ago.

There are some Godard movies that I've instantly liked--Breathless, Pierrot Le Fou, Week End, and La Chinoise (the name of my blog is an attempt at punning with this name, which is itself a pun on the French words for "Chinese" and "foolishness")--and others that have taken awhile to grow on me, especially Alphaville and Band of Outsiders. Band of Outsiders, compared to Godard's works with weightier (sometimes ponderously weightier) subject matter and style, feels like a fluffy, puff-ball of a movie. At least that's how it felt the first time around. And I can't help but feel sometimes that Godard's more political movies, which he made after Pierrot Le Fou (65), up through Week End (67), after which he, by all accounts, went all the way to become a batshit-crazy Maoist "guerrilla" filmmaker, have been the less popular of his productive 60s period because people don't like the questions Godard is exploring and find his politics undesirable (I, on the other hand, have a healthy appreciation of 60s social revolution and tend to really dig these movies.) Band of Outsiders is solidly in the earlier half of Godard's sixties' filmography and thus is more "romantic," as is often the term for the first phase in his work.

What I've realized on repeat watchings of Band of Outsiders, though, is that it really isn't a fluff picture. Sure, this may be Godard at his most playful, but he's still playing with some fairly serious stuff--kids so obsessed with old Jimmy Cagney movies that they decide to commit a real crime and who are borderline unsympathetic characters because of their abject cruelty and stupidity.

I got my girlfriend to watch Band of Outsiders with me last night, and as always, since she's so smart and literate, she inevitably had ideas about the film that were surprisingly perceptive, although she only sort of liked it (I busted her French New Wave cherry awhile back with Truffaut's The Bride Wore Black and The Wild Child, both of which she loved, but this was her first and only (?) Godard movie.)

Some intelligent comments from Anna:
Before watching it, she said, "[Band of Outsiders] sounds interesting--kind of like Crime and Punishment."
And afterwards, her main criticisms: "What did they even do for that whole first half of the film? They didn't do anything!" and, "Arthur was a total dick and I wanted to like Franz, but he was a dick sometimes too. I felt bad, because the guys kept making fun of her, but Odile [Anna Karina's character] really was stupid."

Somehow, it wasn't really until this third viewing with Anna that I really fully (?) understood Band of Outsiders. The first time I perceived it as enjoyable fluff. The second time it was starting to dawn on me that this was really a movie about boredom and media-saturation. The third time, I finally saw that although this film has some of the most poetic/romantic sequences in any film I've ever seen--the English teacher reciting Romeo and Juliet as Arthur passes Odile notes in class, the cafe scene with the "minute of silence" and the dance, Odile singing on the train as Godard segues into montage (my favorite) and the scene of running through the Louvre and beating the record of "Jimmy Johnson of San Francisco"--"romantic" is really an incorrect term for the film, because Godard is obsessed with the same things here that he always is, namely how culture, technology and especially pop-culture (be it 60s pop-Marxism, pop music or old American crime movies) mediates our perception of reality and how we deal with the absolute boredom--I can't think of another way to put it--of being modern and having more time on our hands than maybe ever before in the history of the human race. Shit! Godard is a film artist if ever there was one--these are themes suited to a great novelist or an epic poet, but also, curiously enough, there may not be a better way to express this state of being than by making a film in the characteristically off-the-cuff turned-on style that Godard adopts here. Tarantino may admire Godard, I admit, but he has nothing on him either--although he borrows some characteristically Godard-like themes of media saturation, Tarantino obviously plans out his films as much as Hitchcock ever did, using closely honed scripts and a lot of storyboarding, though his latest film Inglorious Basterds evidences a little more (and enjoyable) improvisation.

I recently remarked to a friend that I felt like Godard had no real descendants besides the music video (Odile's singing scene here seems like a precursor) and reality television (i.e. interviews and confessions straight to a camera in an essentially unplanned way.) I guess I can see throughout film since the late 60s, though, some of his jump cuts and, especially since the 90s, some of his jittery post-modernism, carried out in America by Tarantino, the Coen brothers, etc. But nobody, except maybe Altman, who for some reason I can't really get into, has been as wholly off-the-cuff and improvisational as Godard--this, to me, is the most important possibility that he revealed in cinema. Despite their obvious stylistic differences, maybe it's really Kiarostami who most makes films like Godard used to--his films feel similarly unscripted and similarly post-modern (especially in Close-Up.) As Jonathan Rosenbaum has remarked more than once, Kiarostami's rural explorations of Iran in the 90s and 2000s, which are invariably poetic and strangely modern, having relevance far beyond the Islamic Republic, may have an analogous relation to Godard's 60s movies, which often feel like chunks of 60s urban modernity, not merely taking this as their subject.

In any case, Band of Outsiders is a great film. The kids seem to commit the crime out of boredom. They're horrible and hilariously witty at the same time. Godard's inventiveness here is intimidating--something interesting is happening in every sequence, and as with me, you may not pick everything up on the first viewing. As always, his sense of shot composition is awe-inspiring--you could watch this film, as I talked about in my article about art films and Lynch's Inland Empire, just for the shot composition alone and have a hell-of-an-enjoyable time. Watch it, rewatch it, dig his experimental use of sound, dig the love triangle, dig the comment on modernity, dig the silly gangster plot, just watch it!

Friday, March 26, 2010

All You're Ever Going To See: Thoughts On A Technical Glitch--Bunuel Review #5

?/5 Abismos de Pasion (Wuthering Heights, 1954)

I have never read Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, but apparently it was a favorite of the Surrealist group in Paris as a precursor to some of their own work, because it deals with a passion and obsession that completely overwhelms law and logic. As far as I know, this was Bunuel's only costume drama, though he occasionally adapted works of classic literature and set them in the present day. From the looks of it, Abismos de Pasion is a semi-faithful adaptation and full of some characteristic Bunuelian tropes, such as turning one of the characters (Linton, perhaps, here called Jose) into an amateur bug collector and the use of
Wagner's Tristan and Isolde in the final scene, which may be a Bunuel invention, where the Heathcliff character, called Alejandro here, breaks into Catherine's sarcophagus to be with her and hold her hand one last time. He is gunned down as he hallucinates her visage in a wedding dress.

Now for the hard part: I've only seen nine minutes of Abismos de Pasion. Why? Because I couldn't find suitable subtitles for it. I know, I know... I feel as though I should watch it without subtitles and just try to enjoy it that way--my Spanish skills might lend me about a 5% comprehension of the dialogue, but I could watch it for the "visual language," as the hardest core cinephiles call it, and perhaps, through the acting, blocking, and camera movements, come to understand most of the film.

But with twenty or more Bunuel films still to watch or rewatch and write reviews of, it seems pointless to spend a few hours on a film that only I and a handful of English-speaking IMDB obsessives (and, of course, the entire Spanish-speaking world, who probably don't read my blog) will ever watch and which my comprehension of will only be spotty at best.

There were a single set of English language subtitles on allsubs.org, but their timing, when applied to the .avi file containing the film, was so far off that I couldn't really tell who was saying what. There is a way in the free, excellent VLC video player to mess with the timing of subtitles and offset it a few seconds earlier or later, so that you can adjust bad subtitles to fit the film, but the problem I encountered, watching the first two scenes with the subtitles was that the offset even between scenes was different: the first scene started out 4 seconds too fast, then only two, then it was on, and the second scene was showing subtitles about 6 seconds too early, from what I could tell. The translations seemed correct, but the timing was awful.

This suggests another possible problem, as it seems weird that someone would make subtitles with the timing so far off: there may be two different cuts of the film floating around, one for which the subtitles are on time, and another for which they are off. As I remember, the video file that I downloaded was the only one I could find, though now I'll certainly try downloading another copy and seeing if the subtitles fit it. And although I would certainly watch a print with accurate subtitles, it seems troubling that I wouldn't necessarily know or be able to tell which print was the more "correct" original release.

To the best of my knowledge, this is also one of the films which is unavailable for sale anywhere with English subtitles.

I watched the final scene without subtitles and enjoyed it--maybe at the end of the project I'll just suck it up and watch the film as is. Until then, I'm chalking it up with the other unseeable films: two which are unavailable with English subs and must be purchased to be seen and two more which are just unavailable.
I have to admit that along with Godard, another favorite of mine, Bunuel is just one of those universally recognized masters of cinema whose films are easier to read about than to actually get ahold of and watch.


My faith in the internet has just been restored. I found the correct subtitles at http://www.foriegnmoviesddl.com/2009/12/abismos-de-passion-wuthering-heights.html. Check this site out: tons of Bunuel available for download here!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)--Bunuel Review #4

A year later, when the film had been nominated for an Oscar, four Mexican reporters tracked us down at El Paular, where we were already at work on another project. During lunch, they asked if I thought I was going to win that Oscar.
"Of course," I replied between bites, "I've already paid the twenty-five thousand dollars they wanted. Americans may have their weakness but they do keep their promises."

--Luis Bunuel, from his autobiography, My Last Sigh

5/5--The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972, Criterion Collection)

Bunuel considered this film (which did indeed win the Best Foreign Film Oscar in '72) the second part in a triptych of films dealing with similar themes, especially, as Bunuel puts it, "the search for truth, as well as the necessity of abandoning it as soon as you've found it." In this case, although the film is quite comedic, this truth is rather harsh: the bourgeois characters are silly, self-involved and superficial, though they do have intermittently attractive qualities.

I can't speak on the first film of the trilogy, The Milky Way, which I haven't seen, but which apparently deals with religious themes as well as the satire of bourgeois culture found in the other two films. The final film, which was Bunuel's second to last, is The Phantom of Liberty, which is quite good and marks a return to the free-associational filmmaking style of Un Chien Andalou and L'Age d'Or.

Compared to Belle de Jour, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is more heavily rooted in the dream world and contains many wonderful dream sequences and dream-like occurences, such as cockroaches crawling out of a piano which has been converted into an electric torture device and a beautiful revolutionary showing up at the house of the ambassador from a made-up South American country (played with a lot of spunk by frequent Bunuel collaborator, Fernando Rey) with a bag filled with lettuce, a handgun and "the key to dreams."

The basic plot of Discreet Charm, which is superficially similar to Bunuel's late Mexican film The Exterminating Angel, follows a group of wealthy upper class friends who are constantly thwarted in their attempts to have dinner with one another (though they always seem to find time to sleep around.) The guests arrive late or on the wrong day, get arrested, end up at restaurants that are either out of food or having a wake, get barged in on by a military squadron that is preparing for maneuvers, and eventually get gunned down by terrorists, although by this point the film is entirely taking place in the realm of dreams.

The film is essentially a surrealist black comedy, and satirizes the upper crust's obsession with food and drink, as well as the ridiculous niceties of etiquette, and (did I mention?) it is full of uproarious moments, such as when one of the dinner guests at a General's house tries on the General's Napoleon memento, and Rey remarks that it is a "ghastly" and "slightly effeminate hat."
A few more things: there is a recurring character who plays various young military men and recounts some startlingly frightening dreams, such as one where he meets dead friends and relatives on an empty street, which is obviously a cardboard set.
Another dream, involves an elaborate table setting with fine food that suddenly, reflexively, turns into a stage with a jeering audience and a man in a box whispering lines to the guests, who are shocked speechless.

All in all, this film feels like a revue for the 29 films that preceded it, a real-career capping achievement, which can either be a good place to spark a new obsession with Bunuel or go to see the old master again at the peak of his game. By the end of the film, the viewer is unsure what in the film was dream or reality, but Bunuel uses the dreams quite aptly to humanize the victims of his otherwise viscous comic satire, and we come out of the film feeling like we know them all quite intimately and even (gasp!) like them a little bit.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Notes on Belle and Simon, esp. Cinematography--Bunuel Review #3

4/5 Belle du Jour (Woman of the Day, 1967, available in Martin Scorsese-sponsored Miramax edition)

5/5 Simon of the Desert (1965, available through the Criterion Collection)

I'd like to start off by saying that Belle de Jour is a very good picture and everyone with an interest in Bunuel should see it and form their own opinion about it. It's a classic of French cinema, a milestone for Surrealist cinema, features some very famous French actors (Catherine Deneuve is famous enough to even get name-dropped in something as mainstream as TV's Gray's Anatomy and Michel Piccoli, who starred in Godard's Contempt, also has a large role--they're both in the picture below.) But in terms of Bunuel's other pictures, in my opinion, it is only a very good picture among a host of total masterpieces.

I have been trying to pinpoint why Belle de Jour has never been a favorite of mine. The film deals with the life of a wealthy young woman who is somewhat frigid with her handsome doctor husband, but has wild masochistic sexual fantasies. She decides to start working at a whorehouse on the first anniversary of their marriage, where she hopes to find her much-wanted sexual degradation. It is definitely an intriguing picture and full of more feminist sentiment than one might expect.

Belle de Jour was Bunuel's first collaboration with Jean-Claude Carriere, who co-scripted almost all of Bunuel's films from this point on (Bunuel always enlisted the help of other writers and he had a particularly good relationship with Carriere, who he maintained a close friendship with until his death.) It is also the first in the string of late art house masterpieces and near-masterpieces that Bunuel made in France in his third and final period of filmmaking. Of the four of these I've seen, I would rank them with The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and That Obscure Object of Desire vying for the first slot, The Phantom of Liberty coming in a close second and Belle de Jour easily in third.

In any case, I think Belle De Jour has a great script and I think it is excellent in it's characterization of Severine (a.k.a. Belle de Jour, played by Catherine Deneuve) and especially so in it's characterization of her jealous lumpen proletarian boyfriend, Marcel (played to perfection by Pierre Clementi), who ends up sending her husband into a wheelchair-bound coma and gets shot down in the street in a scene quite reminiscent of the final moments of Godard's Breathless.

My main problem, actually, is the cinematography. This is strange because the cinematographer Sascha Vierny lensed some of the most visually stunning movies I've ever seen, including having a long working relationship with both Alain Resnais--for whom he shot notoriously beautiful films like Night and Fog and Last Year at Marienbad--and, much later, the little-known, but immensely talented Raul Ruiz, working on Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting and The Three Crowns of the Sailor, among others.

The key may lie again in Bunuel's autobiography, where Bunuel, though he doesn't specifically talk about Vierny, makes fun of people who speak of him as a stylist, because "aesthetic concerns never occupied much of my time." Bunuel is character-driven, plot-driven, idea-driven, and image-driven, but he's right--style is rarely a factor. Although Resnais and Ruiz are in many ways Bunuel's worshiping surrealist disciples, they are definitely very style-oriented filmmakers: Resnais is often accused of ripping off style-as-content avant-garde filmmakers from the U.S. in Marienbad and Ruiz is as much a disciple of Orson Welles' showy, beautiful chiascoro-lit compositions as he is, in every other matter, following in Bunuel's footsteps.

Vierny doesn't seem to have much to do here--there are a lot of complex tracking shots, coming well before the invention of steadicam, which must have been challenging to execute, but seem a little too self-consciously mannered and showy for a great Bunuel film. It's as if Bunuel didn't know what to do with such an arty cinematographer and just left him to rove around the set with a crane. The style in your typical Bunuel film--if you can speak of cinematographic style in his films at all--is very upfront, matter-of-fact and even in-your-face, which is rarely the case here.

The other great cinematographer that Bunuel worked with was Gabriel Figueroa, on his last Mexican film, Simon of the Desert. Figueroa seemed to really understand Bunuel's style and perhaps too, with Simon stuck on top of the pillar for most of the film, there was necessarily less roving around--many of the tracking shots feel extremely economical and there are many gorgeous stationary camera compositions.

Simon of the Desert follows, as I mentioned in another review, the life of a religious ascetic who lives and prays, unwashed and unshaven, on top of a tall, but not very spacious pillar in the middle of the desert.The whole film is a reworking, as I understand it, of Christ's Temptation, and based on the lives of a few saints who actually did habitate the tops of pillars. Simon is filled with some of the most hilarious bits of (sac)religiously-themed humor to be found anywhere, though there are basically only two actors at work for most of the hour long film, Silvia Pinal as the Devil-as-woman-in-various-costumes(and who also played the lead role as the chaste do-gooder in Viridiana) and Claudio Brook as the long-suffering Simon.

Simon of the Desert is definitely one of the masterpieces and I won't even go into the details of the plot any further, which everyone should discover for themselves, and just say that it is one of the most stunning works, visually and otherwise, in a long career filled with various moments of shock and awe.* It is interesting to ponder that many people have referred to Bunuel as one of the most religious of filmmakers, even though half his life's work is explicitly making fun of the Church. The Milky Way, apparently, is so full of clerical in-jokes that some people accused Bunuel of having become a convert. He followed it up with a vicious satire of a the priesthood in Discreet Charm though, and I doubt anyone questioned his religious opinions again.
* (Pauline Kael's review of this film is especially good and a little more critical. A selection of her reviews, which were my movie watching bible for half a year or more can be found at your local library or on my bookshelf, if you're so inclined.)