25 November 2007

Six Characters in Search of a Dylan

Thanksgiving tradition in my house usually involves turkey and a trip to the movies since it's one of the few businesses open to the public. It's usually a family movie that we all watch, but since the selection of movies this year was mostly unappealing to me - Bee Movie, Enchanted - I decided to see the new Todd Haynes film, I'm Not There, with my wife. I think everyone else went to see Enchanted.
The film is a mostly non-narrative meditation on the different personas, myths, and contradictions of Bob Dylan. Each of these different representations of his persona, that is, not him but what he presents to us to be him, are played by different actors (except Bale, who plays two): Marcus Carl Franklin as a 10-year-old African American boy who represents Dylan's young, romantic ambitions to be the next Woody Guthrie; Ben Whishaw as Dylan the prophet, who's screen time is strictly him looking into a black and white camera and giving whimsical one-liners while avoiding eye contact and smoking a cigarette - an emodiment of Dylan's Rimbaud persona; Cate Blanchette as Dylan in Don't Look Back when his image was most iconic in the mid-1960s; Heath Ledger as an actor playing Bob Dylan in a film within in the film whose life paradoxically comes the closest in the film to portraying actual events in Dylan's life with his marriage to Suze Rotolo (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg); Christian Bale as Dylan the young folkie protest singer, still wet behind the ears and not yet completely cynical, and as Dylan the Christian convert; and Richard Gere as Dylan's Billy the Kid persona.

The effect of all these different Dylans is something jarring, as narratives are mostly cut between each other and not presented chronologically, and can be confusing if your expectation is for a conventional narrative film. Also, this film is very reflexive of Don't Look Back and No Direction Home, the two wonderful documentaries made on Dylan by D.A. Pennebaker and Martin Scorsese, so having seen those two films or having knowledge of Dylan's life/myth is a great help in appreciating Haynes's film. In other words, this is not for the Dylan-uninitiated viewer. The film is also reflexive of '60s cinema and makes several nods to 8 1/2, Hard Day's Night, as well as to the films of Godard. In his article in Film Comment on the film, Larry Gross argues that I'm Not There is more closely tied to Godard's Masculin-Feminin than anything else in both of the films conveyence of the '60s youth culture as well as in the technical aspects of filmmaking. While I can't comment completely on this, since I have not seen Masculin-Feminin, I can certainly agree that Godard is present in I'm Not There in more ways than one. The reference of other filmmakers that is mostly inaccessible to the common viewer in itself is characteristic of Godard, who would often make pop culture references in his films that I usually need the help of audio commentary to figure out. Also, in terms of the way the film is edited, I strongly felt that Haynes was trying to not only represent Dylan and the '60s culture that comes with him, but the cinema of the '60s, specifically of Godard who brought in a whole new era of filmmaking with Breathless. Some characterstics of the editing that I am referencing is the use of jump cuts, of jumbled narrative, of mysterious, poetic voice-over narration, and of pastiche.

As far as 8 1/2 goes (I know this is boring to anyone who hasn't seen 8 1/2, but I was so excited when I saw it in the film that I just have to write about it) the entire Cate Blanchette narrative is saturated with elements of Fellini's film. There are two scenes in particular: the first one has an outdoor parlour/lounge in which everyone is having drinks and talking loudly, the second scene, which makes the reference of 8 1/2 explicit, has Blanchette floating in the sky held by a rope as if a balloon, which is the same as Guido in the opening scene of 8 1/2. The first scene I mentioned is almost exactly like the health spa scene in 8 1/2 in which Guido walks around in a type of daze and has people calling over to him, everyone talking loudly and drinking some kind of mineral water for their health. In this same outdoor parlor scene, we see Blanchette rolling in the grass with four mop-topped boys who are all giggling like Chipmunks. After Blanchette leaves them they walk arm in arm to the background where we see them chased by a mob of screaming girls as they run offscreen - Hard Day's Night anyone? The theatre laughed out loud for that one.

Cate Blanchette is a topic of discussion for a lot of people when mentioning this film in terms of her portrayal of Dylan. My wife loved it especially and said that she sometimes forgot she was watching an actress play Dylan instead of seeing the troubadour himself. I thought it was a good job, but unfair as a comparison between the other actors who had a much less literal embodiment of Dylan to play. Even so, she was incredibly convincing, even without an Adam's apple. My favorite, though, was probably Christian Bale as the young folkie Dylan. Something about the way he was able to play the innocent Dylan, singing "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" in front of a bunch of farm workers, to the fed-up Dylan realizing he was becoming more of an publicly-shaped image rather than himself (this was climaxed with a recreation of Dylan's speech at the NECLC award dinner, Haynes making Dylan's rambling an effect of his drunkenness) , and finally the completely isolated Dylan who discovers Christianity and sings a gospel in a small auditorium with a dozen people in it, his face pale and confused. His job was to show the transition between the cute kid on the cover of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan to the cynical Blonde on Blonde Dylan played by Blanchette. I thought that was really great.

The least effective, I thought, was the use of the Billy the Kid persona played by Richard Gere. The time period, message, and situation were pretty foggy to me, though that could be due to my ignorance of the full story of Billy the Kidd or its connection to Dylan besides his admiration of him and his iconic resemblance. Haynes does open with a shot of Gere's eyes opening and then end it with him on a train, so the character is certainly important. All I could really take from it is that Billy the Kid, or Dylan, is an outcast, completely detached from the rest of the world in some small cabin in the middle of the woods, hiding from the world, yet somewhat above it. The Billy the Kid scene does feature a made-up Jim James (of My Morning Jacket) singing a beautiful cover of "Goin' to Acupulco," which brings me to the MUSIC.

A film about Dylan, no matter how impersonal or indirect, has to include his music since it is so closely connected to everything he is and presents us to be him. In the recreation of the Newport Folk Festival where Dylan first goes electric with "Maggie's Farm," Haynes plays a great cover done by Stephen Malkamus & the Million Dollar Bashers. This song and others featured in the film, such as the aforementioned Jim James cover, Mason Jenning's cover of "Hattie Carroll," as well as thirty others not featured in the film are compiled in a wonderful soundtrack, which I bought the day after. The music is fantastic! Unlike a lot of cover albums which can seem uninspired and hacked, this soundtrack has a texture and continuity that melts together the essence of Dylan as well as that of each of the performers. A lot of this has to do with the repeated presence of a lot of the same artists (Malkamus has three songs, Jennings has two, etc.) as well as a type of house band - the Million Dollar Bashers - which is comprised of members of Sonic Youth, Wilco, and original musical partners of Dylan's touring troupe, that is featured as back up to Tom Verlaine, Eddie Vedder, and Malkamus and whose members play in other songs as well. Another house band of sorts is Calexico, whose acoustic, folkie elements complement Dylan's sound. Another reason the soundtrack works is that they don't use tracks that you would find on a Greatest Hits collection, but a lot lesser known material and a lot of stuff I didn't even recognize. For example, there is no "Like a Rolling Stone" or "Rainy Day Woman" or "Forever Young." There is "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," but its covered in a way its meant to be covered by Antony of Antony and the Johnsons - SO creepy.

Specific highlights for me are: Cat Power's cover of "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again" for the way Chan Marshall is able to mimic Dylan's intonation while maintaining the charm and sultriness of her own voice; Jim James and Calexico's cover of "Goin' to Acupulco" for his soaring voice (chills!) and the horn arrangements; Stephen Malkamus & the Million Dollar Bashers cover of "Maggie's Farm" for its sonic power and Malkamus's quirkiness, which is not unlike Dylan's; and, Jeff Tweedy's cover of "Simple Twist of Fate" for my biased love for Tweedy and Wilco.

17 November 2007

Coen Country

I just came back from seeing the Coen brothers' new film No Country for Old Men and I wanted to write about it while it's still fresh in my mind.

The film's plot involves a drug trade gone wrong and its aftermath. Josh Brolin's character, Llewelyn, stumbles upon 2 million and a truckload of heroin amidst half a dozen dead bodies, including a dead dog. He takes the money and plans to retire with his wife with it and move out of their shabby Texas trailer home. But of course other people want the money including Mexican gangs involved with the drug trade and a terrifying loneman psychopathic killer played by Javier Bordem. The plot's simple enough, but what the Coen brothers do with it is nothing short of brilliant.

Bordem's character, Chigurh, is one of the most frightening film creations I have ever seen. What makes him so frightening is not just the blank, cold expression on his face or the way he uses air-pressurized weapons, but his completely nihilistic approach to life. No rules of morality or ethics apply to him whatsoever. His way of rationalizing or accounting for his actions are completely unknowable and chaotic - Woody Harrelson's character makes a comment on it in the film - and thus there is never the option of taking pity, of mercy, or of reasoning. Why he is like that isn't clear, but after a while you start to wonder if he even really cares about the money or if he is simply killing for the sake of killing, according to his own psychopathic reasoning. In one scene he drives upon a bridge and slows down to shoot a bird that is perched on the rail. Why not. Eventually every character seen within the same frame as Chigurh can be assumed dead.

The only exception to this seems to be a flip of the coin, in which Chigurh makes his victim-to-be call a side, giving them that option from either a sense of guilt buried deep, deep within him or just as a way to watch them squirm. I believe the reasoning is a mixture of the two. It is clearly a form of sadism in which Chigurh gets to watch the other person sweat, but psychologically it seems that Chigurh offers fate to be decided not by himself, but by some random chance. The tension between self-determinism and fate seems to play a role in the film's theme; Chigurh is the nihilist for whom nothing matters, the extreme contrast to that being the existentialist premise of self-determined meaning. Chigurh wants to believe in the flip of a coin because he believes life works in the same chaotic, meaningless, random way. This way of thinking allows him to be so cruel in his killing. When Llewelyn's wife refuses to call a side and tells Chigurh that "the coin doesn't decide" but that he does, his eyes widen and we can see the extreme tension in his face: he doesn't want to even allow the possibility that he determines anything, for that would make him accountable for everything.

That may be going a bit too deep, but in any case this film is the darkest, most mature of all the Coen brothers' films. When the credits rolled and I walked out of the theatre, I turned to my friend and said, "That was the most nihilistic film I've ever experienced" to which my friend only looked blankly and shook his head slowly. Hidden in the darkness of the film is some subtle humor displayed through sharp dialogue (a Coen brothers trademark). The usual proportions of a Coen brothers film seem to be a majority of comedy with a dark twist, but this film is the opposite. I believe this is central to the philosophy of the Coen brothers; to them violence and death are almost inseparable from comedy. The absurd nature of violent tendencies within human beings is sometimes so shocking and baffling (think of Steve Buscemi going through a wood chipper in Fargo or Dan Hedaya being buried alive after assumed dead in Blood Simple) that the viewers knee-jerk reaction is a type of confused, half-restrained laughter. There is a very telling piece of dialogue Tommy Lee Jones has in which he describes gruesome deaths from a newspaper article to his young protoge who responds with stifled laughter and an apology to which Jones says something along the lines of, "Sometimes you can't help but laugh at stuff like this."

14 November 2007

New Feeling: I'm Back!

It's been a very long time, but I'm back. I've changed the look a bit. I created a new banner - the images were borrowed from the Criterion website and pasted together with the aid of some very primitive Photoshop work. I've also added a link of other bloggers who are friends of mine. Discovering/rediscovering these other blogs is what inspired me to keep this one up.

The images in the banner reflect some of my favorite things in film:

1.) The first is a still of Tatsuya Nakadai in Sword of Doom by Kihachi Okamoto. I have this almost inherent love of samurai films and samurai culture, possibly from a fascination I've had with anything Japanese since I was a child. Being half-Japanese probably has something to do with it.

2.) Akira Kurosawa. He is possibly my favorite director. This is certainly connected to my fascination with Japanese film in general, but more specifically Kurosawa films acted as my gateway into a deeper appreciation of film - specifically, Seven Samurai and Ran. When I saw these two films, especially Ran, I experienced movie-watching in a way I never had before. This opened my appetite for a higher level of art and filmmaking than those movies which I had previously been content with.

3.) The third image is a still of Vittorio DeSica's Bicycle Thieves. The epic scale of Ran was incredibly contrasted to this neo-realist film and I loved it. It was another encounter with something that broke my concept of what movies could be. Handheld cameras, non-actor actors, location shooting, realistic, everyday situations. I loved the ordinariness of it. I think its ordinariness in situation and setting is what made it so heartbreaking and thus profound for me, not only in technical terms or aesthetics but in theme.

4.) Jef Costello has already appeared in my blog as one of my favorite characters. He is the protagonist in Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samourai. I know, I know, Japaneseness seems to appear again, but not really. Le Samourai represents my love for noir and neo-noir films, of which Le Samourai is an excellent example of the latter. This is also an existentialist-themed film, which is a favorite theme of mine.

5.) Lastly, Jean-Luc Godard. Godard is a director whose films constantly baffle and excite me. They are filled with heady concepts and philosophies about the nature of life and film and when I'm able to get it it really stimulates something in me intellectualy (track commentary usually aids in being able to understand/appreciate his films). Band of Outsiders was the first film I saw of his and ever since I've been hooked. Godard is also a key figure in the French New Wave movement which as a whole I am fascinated with.

So that's that. There are other things that I would include up there, but there are only a few pictures that pop up on the Criterion site that I can borrow. If there was a picture of Woody Allen or a still from The Big Lebowski I think I would have put those up there, too. Oh well, at least it looks pretty.