26 December 2008

2008 Quick Takes

The year is winding to a close, prompting lots of year-end lists and top 10s. I've been trying to keep up with this year's films so that I can get a well-rounded opinion, though obvious setbacks like the insane price of a movie ticket and exhausting trips to New York City make it difficult to see everything. In any case, I intend to offer my top 10 on this site (and look forward to it), but not yet. Instead, I decided to give quick quips on some films I saw very recently (mostly all within the last week) since I'm too lazy to write full reviews.

Let the Right One In - dir. by Tomas Alfredson

This is a Swedish vampire film that reworks the famous myth to focus on the relationship between a young, oft-bullied boy named Oskar and his vampire neighbor Eli. The film seamlessly blends horror, comedy, and coming-of-age film genres to create an affecting story that is about vampires as much as it is about not letting the bullies get to you. Alfredson has moments of pitch-perfect dark comedy (a botched murder is especially memorable) that sometimes goes a step further than you'd expect or would like. A fantastic film overall that I dread being remade.

MILK - dir. by Gus Van Sant

MILK is one of Van Sant's more conventionally constructed films (especially in contrast to Paranoid Park, also released this year) and he doesn't seem to have any shame in going full-fledged-inspirational-Oscar-worthy in his treatment of Harvey Milk's story. Key words for the film are "hope" and "change," which evoke another inspiring politician with an endearing smile. In the same way, I allowed myself to be drawn in by the optimism and hope at the center of the film, shedding my cynicism at the door. Beyond the politics of the film, the story of Harvey Milk is one of self-determination, of seeing what needs to be done and doing it yourself. At the center of it for me, however, is Sean Penn's performance, which may be one of the best I've seen all year. Every line in his face is transformed to portray his character, on par with Daniel Day Lewis's Daniel Plainview, and just watching his face provides enough fascination to keep me watching.

Slumdog Millionaire - dir. by Danny Boyle

Slumdog Millionaire is all high-gloss and thrills, trying to push a rather tired, cliched love-deafeats-all story along solely by cool camera tricks and big music. And there are some cool shots, and there are some nice colors, and the music is affecting at times, but the film operates on that high frequency to the point of annoyance. The story's construction relies on a set of flashbacks that seem to try to reveal the horrors of Indian slum life but that largely get undercut by the banality of its love story. Coincidence and happenstance displace characterization and psychology and it thus becomes difficult to really care what happens to these characters, even though you know things will end up working out.

Man On Wire -
dir. by James Marsh

On August 7, 1974 Philippe Petit walked a wire between the World Trade Center towers for nearly 45 min. The images in this documentary of Petit's walk verge on the sublime - pure poetry in motion. Indeed, Petit's life is a poem: an audacious, irreverent, expressive, and sincere poem expressing the nature of life at its full potential that constantly asks, "Why not?" Marsh's documentary is weighed not only by Petit's walk, but by Petit himself, who retells his own story (spoiler alert: he survives the walk) with such enthusiasm and wide-eyed wonder that it is hard to imagine him as anything but a perpetual child. He is one of those people you are glad to know exists and that reminds you of life's possibilities. Beyond that, the film has fantastic archival footage of Petit and his pals mixed with reenactments that trace the painstaking planning, training, and illegal activity that went into pulling off this amazing feat. It simultaneously works as a heist thriller, with the set up of a wire on the World Trade Center being analogous to a bank robbery.

Encounters At the End of the World - dir. by Werner Herzog

Herzog's documentary takes us to Antarctica, which he likes to call "the end of the world." I was largely expecting to see images of overwhelming beauty featuring the frozen tundra (as pictured above), but Herzog instead focuses on the people living in Antarctica rather than the landscape; his encounters are not with the land but with the people living there. Like Philippe Petit of Man On Wire, the people Herzog encounters are dreamers, weirdos, explorers, and perpetual children. These are people who choose to live in an unlivable continent for the sake of adventure, for science, for the hell of it. Herzog narrates and asks many questions, both to interviewees and to us, pondering our existence and its transcience as well as the mental health of penguins (to one expert he asks if penguins ever go mad, after which he shows us a penguin trot off away from the pack to certain death in the mountains for unknowable reasons). A lovely documentary that lets us ask all the big questions without losing its humor and wonderment of it all.

Wendy and Lucy - dir. by Kelly Reichardt

This was an absolutely lovely film, one of my favorites of the year. Reichardt tells a rather simple story of a girl, Wendy, who temporarily loses her dog, Lucy, on her way to Alaska. The film is paced slowly in a "realistic" mode, depicting each of Wendy's frustrations with care and subtlety as things get perpetually worse for her. Though Wendy's homelessness can be seen as a reflection of our current economic turmoil, I think Reichardt is going beyond that to examine life on the fringes of society as a choice, not a consequence. The depiction of the society Wendy is escaping from is seen through the small town in Washington where she loses Lucy, wherein people cope with the creeping madness of day-to-day in their own way, such as the white-haired Walgreens parking lot security guard who just wants to keep a job, any job, and the tired auto mechanic whose job includes bearing bad news. The tone is not critical, but rather objective and nuanced: we know the mechanic wants to cut Wendy a break, but what else can he do? The grocery store boy is perhaps the most overtly antagonistic, but even he is a product of social molding fixed on middle management. Anyway, this deserves a longer review, but I'll simply say it is worth seeing. Oh, and Michelle Williams may have given the loveliest female performance of the year.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button - dir. by David Fincher

The great fear I had about Benjamin Button was that it would be something like Forrest Gump, which is a rather unsubstantial story that pulls on sentiments and flashes the latest technology for Oscar awards. Turns out that's kind of what it was, but better. Button features some incredible digital technology for the use of Benjamin's odd aging process that calls for a shriveled man-child for the beginning of his life. The effect is something that is a little off-putting at first, but that eventually comes to work within the world of the film, which is a bit of a fantastical, story-book New Orleans. And the film is a story-book type of fairy tale that again rehashes a story of true love that transcends time, which is not necessarily a bad thing. The problem, however, is that the love story eventually comes to replace the fantastical elements of the story. It wouldn't be a problem if the love story wasn't so typical and done a thousand times over. The shift basically comes halfway through the film when Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett enter the film as themselves. I found myself more intrigued by the CG hybrid old man getting into wily adventures than I was of Brad Pitt, which isn't a reflection on Brad Pitt entirely but rather the change in worlds and thus in interest. The film was visually arresting, though, so there was always something keeping us afloat (though I tended to drift like dead weight on a sea of banality towards the end of the film). Anyway, at least it was better than Forrest Gump or Titanic.

Synecdoche, New York - dir. by Charlie Kaufman

This has to be one of the most interesting films I've ever seen in my life. The levels of meaning within Kaufman's script reflects his audaciousness and his incredible gift for exploring the absurd. Caden Cotard is a theater director who wants to make something meaningful and full of "truth and honesty" before he dies, using money from a MacArthur genius grant. The production he begins to construct starts to become a reflection of his own life to the point of absurdity - there are actors playing actors playing actors playing actors... - and the more insane Caden's life becomes the more insane the film becomes, not only in its depiction of Cadence's life and his production, but in the film's construction as well. The more Caden tries to find out about what life and art mean the more Kaufman deconstructs our own expectations of what that means within a film. It is a brave attempt on Kaufman's part and I really think he pulled if off well. It is a film that can seem "weird for the sake of being weird" (and indeed the first thing everyone says after the credits roll is "that was so weird," right after "that was so long") but I think each of Kaufman's playful tricks and odd moments work towards a much more poignant exploration on what the cinema can do as an artform. I was reminded of Godard and Pierrot le Fou in its spirit of abandon, but unlike Godard who shoots off the hip, Kaufman is the micro manager (like Caden) - both create a type of screen chaos and anarchy, but in different ways and to different effects: Godard's exploration is more external while Kaufman's is internal. I have to see this again, but these are my immediate reactions as I just saw it today. This may end up being my favorite of the year.

13 December 2008

Add a Caption

This made me laugh today, so I thought I'd share it.

Sophia Loren and Jayne Mansfield

08 December 2008

The Couple-in-Crime Film

I recently finished a rather long essay for my film genres class on the couple-in-crime (sub)genre. It focuses on a study of six films:

You Only Live Once (1937) dir. by Fritz Lang
They Live By Night (1948) dir. by Nicholas Ray
Gun Crazy (1949) dir. by J.H. Lewis
Bonnie and Clyde (1967) dir. by Arthur Penn
Badlands (1973) dir. by Terrence Malick
Thieves Like Us
(1974) dir. by Robert Altman

I uploaded the essay here and encourage you to read it if you have interest in any of the films listed. The insights aren't always brilliant, but there are certainly (what I hope to be) interesting points made every now and then.

(John Dall and Peggy Cummins in Gun Crazy)

Here is an excerpt:

"The couple-in-crime genre is an especially tricky genre to frame within certain thematic or stylistic structures and conventions since its evolution has a somewhat ambiguous starting point. For example, in many ways Bonnie and Clyde marks the genre’s full emergence, but it is a film made in the ’60s, a mid-point in the history of film, that feels like a post-modern revision of itself. Even so, I would suggest certain elements to distinguish the couple-in-crime genre. First, there is the eponymous couple, who are young and in love. Within the couple it is primarily the male gangster who is already involved in crime before he meets a female companion. The female’s decision to stay with the gangster-male despite the dangerous lifestyle cites a thematic element of love displacing fear of death. Second, the milieu which the outlaw-couple occupies is typically rural. Elements of the road movie genre can be seen as the couple constantly flees from town to town, which allows a series of tableau, a structural element of the couple-in-crime film. Third, the couple is punished for stealing/killing at the end of the film through their own death. Often they are forced into crime due to economic or societal pressures or because they are outsiders who cannot fit into society. Whether it is just the gangster-male who dies or the couple, there is a sense of inescapable death and hopelessness from the beginning of the film, not unlike the necessary deaths of gangsters in films from the 1930s. The nature of their death, however, can have different readings – tragic, justified, ambiguous – depending on the director’s depiction of the couple and the social forces (mainly the law) which bring them down."

28 November 2008

Suggested Noir Double Feature

They Live By Night (1948) dir. by Nicholas Ray

Gun Crazy (1949)
dir. by J.H. Lewis

These are both predecessors to Bonnie and Clyde and deal with couples on-the-run with a fantastic film noir treatment. One has victims and the other has sinners and they are both awesome. They are only about an hour and a half each, so it makes for a great Sunday double feature. I will be posting an essay about the couple-in-crime genre sometime within the week or so.

25 November 2008

New Drool-Worthy Website

The Criterion Collection sale is over, but an even better offering is now available: the new Criterion site. The site has a nice little intro video as well as a new layout, essays, and an online viewing scheme. The real treat, however, is a link from the Criterion site to its friend The Auteurs. This site has online film festivals that lets you watch films for free! I previewed one and the quality is very good. It is an excellent, free alternative to Netflix instant play and is even better because it provides additional information such as incredible essays and a forum. You may even make a little profile with a picture, information, and a list of your favorite auteurs. It's still in the BETA stage, so there are kinks to work out, but the ideas are promising. Free movies!

"The cinema, she is a whore. First she charge a nickel, now she charge five dollars. When she learns to give it away, she will be free.”

-Andrei Tarkovsky

17 November 2008

Dancing With Shiva

Last week I saw Rachel Getting Married, (more interestingly subtitled Dancing With Shiva) what might be my favorite movie of this year so far (well, besides Wall-E), and it's taken me that long to think of a way to express my excitement for it. I still don't think I have enough to say, but wanted to say it in case it encouraged anyone else to see it or before I end up not saying anything at all, which is what usually happens.

The first thing you notice is the camera. It frames Kym and her rehab-mates in a tight close-up, unable to stay still in home video hand-held fashion, conveying how off-kilter and out of balance Kym feels at this point in the film. The disorder continues as Kym meets her father and step-mother who pick her up all smiles. The proceeding car ride establishes a mood that Demme manages to sustain and work wonders with through the entirety of the film. Using naturalistic, spare dialogue expected between people family (and step-family) Kym asks her father about her mother, which returns a half-nervous response from her father (played wonderfully by Bill Irwin) and establishes a slight tension. The entire reveals a lot information in just rearview mirror glances, shifts in the seat, and a necessity for Kym to drink Pepsi from a fountain instead of her step-mother's bottled Coke. The mood that becomes established is a mix of understanding and uneasiness, anchored by a secret we don't know yet that slowly comes to the surface through the course of the film.

As the setting is a house being prepared for a big wedding, there are lots of people everywhere. We are as overwhelmed as Kym to find all these people we (including Kym) don't know sitting around, playing instruments, and talking as the camera follows her from room to room. The camera is still a little shaky but starts to calm down and have some more conventional shots - reactions shots, pans, etc - and the camera continues to be a silent narrator/invisible character throughout the film, guiding us along. Included in this crowd of people (whom we come to know bit by bit, especially through a dinner scene) are musicians who supply the diagetic music of the film that otherwise has no real soundtrack. This environment creates a wonderful sense of place, which feels alive and breathing, making use of ordinary sounds such as background chatter and glasses being set down that are constantly in the background. At times I am reminded of Robert Altman and Nashville and Gosford Park in the way he allows several things to happen at once - people talking at the same time, people walking in and out of rooms constantly - to establish a environment and realism.

Kym is played by Anne Hathaway with too much mascara and brittle hair, constantly putting a cigarette in her mouth which marks how much she doesn't fit into the fresh-air-clean-home environment of her own family's home. Later it becomes the catalyst for a fantastically revealing scene between Kym and her mother (played by Debra Winger). The performances throughout are fantastic, betraying insecurities, past hurt, and love equally conveyed by looks and poses as well as shouting. Kym's face upon facing her sister after her accident by itself says more than any line of dialogue could. The interactions feel authentic and convincingly explore the WASPy, upper-middle class family and their dysfunction without irony, detachment, or criticism. No character in Kym's family is completely empathetic, but the complication of their emotions come to express our own complicated feelings towards them. We want to forgive Kym, but it is hard; we want Rachel to be happy, but we also want her to shutup. It is a delicate balance that avoids cliche and is invested into earnestly by Demme and his crew. Every time we want to condemn them we are reminded of how human they are and how much they hurt.

Rachel Getting Married was a wholly satisfying experience for me and I hope to see it again sooner than later. Among the superheroes and overblown projects released this year I am glad to be reminded that there are still intelligent filmmakers out there in a year that has otherwise left me feeling a little disappointed.

13 November 2008

My Criterion Top 10 (For Now)

I just received an e-mail from the Criterion Collection, notifying me that they are having a giant sale (40% off everything) in order to move to a new warehouse. While guiltily perusing through their collection to see what I can (beg my wife to) splurge on using spend-money-to-save-money logic I started to look through some of the Top 10 lists they feature by noted film peoples. As a lover of lists and the Criterion Collection I thought I would make my own for the hell of it (as everything on this blog is "for the hell of it"). Here's what I have so far.


1) Seven Samurai / Ran
Akira Kurosawa

Honestly, I would probably pair more Kurosawa films along with these two (especially High and Low, Ikiru, and Yojimbo), but these are the two which I feel most personally endeared to. I can watch Seven Samurai endlessly. To me it nearly reaches perfection in every aspect of its construction as a film - script, camera work, editing, pacing, acting, etc. Ran is paced more slowly, but its effect by the last few shots is completely overwhelming. The totality of its emotional force never fails to affect me. Not to mention the color. Oh, the color!

2) 8 1/2
Federico Fellini

This film is filled with a feeling of surrender - to dreams, fantasies, memories, confessions, desires - that is intoxicating. Guido is charming to the point of forgiveness for all of his shortcomings, and every time I watch this movie I feel like joining that last circus parade and being led around with the rest of Fellini's crazy world. Not to mention the fantastic widescreen cinematography.

3) Written in the Wind
Douglas Sirk

I saw this in a film class and wrote a paper about it. The lecture, discussion, and repeated viewing for the paper allowed me to really appreciate this technicolor gem. The utter sense of hopelessness is delivered through brilliant colors and a fantastic cast - Dorothy Malone was imprinted in my mind for a while after that initial screening.

4) Two-Lane Blacktop
Monte Hellman

My favorite road movie. It perfectly captures the open road through naturalistic sound (that engine never stops running) and widescreen composition. Beyond that there are the enigmatic main characters who exist just to drift, to keep going. When I watch this movie I want to do the same. This also features the extraordinary Warren Oates as GTO who broke my heart more than once, and James Taylor in the role that redeems him of whatever Hallmark Christmas CDs he puts out for the rest of his life.

5) Days of Heaven
Terrence Malick

I wrote about this film in another blog. This film flew over my head the first time I watched it, but after a while it started to seep into me. The images and sounds are sublime and Malick's vision is singular. This is a valuable DVD in my collection.

6) Le Samourai
Jean-Pierre Melville

Le Samourai is all style. Jef Costello is the stoic loner played to perfection (I don't know if a tan trench coat and gray fedora have ever looked so good.) Something about Costello's isolation and the muted colors of '60s Paris at night hook me. The existential philosophy that informs the plot is perfectly delivered through Melville's attention to detail and careful pacing.

7) Bicycle Thieves
Vittorio DeSica

Everything about this movie feels authentic and it emits an honesty so earnest it is heart-breaking. It is cinema stripped down to its bare essentials, redefining what the camera can do, what film can do. Beyond it's historic significance, however, this film is just wonderful. Its hopelessness is made even more poignant to think it does not stray far from the actual conditions of that time in history.

8) Harakiri
Masaki Kobayashi

Easily one of the most powerful samurai films I have ever seen. It displaces action for an intensely sad story that aims to expose the false veneer of beauracracy, honor, and empty tradition. And after all of that the action kicks in for a finale that is sad, beautiful, uplifting, and hopeless. It was either this or Samurai Rebellion, but decided to go with this one because it feels more devastating.

9) Ali: Fear Eats the Soul
Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Fassbinder's ode to Sirk's All That Heaven Allows manages to evoke pure emotion while injecting political/social criticism in ways that go beyond Sirk. The care he feels for the characters in this film is sincere and his portrayals of them are balanced by their innate goodness as well as their shortcomings.

10) Woman in the Dunes
Hiroshi Teshigahara

This absurdist story by Kobo Abe recalls Camus's take on Sisyphus. The images are what is really so fantastic about this film. The composition is beautiful and the shots are both poetic and daring, making the claustrophic sandpit interesting enough to watch for the duration of the entire film. Every part of this movie is done to perfection, keeping the original integrity and feeling of the source novel.

11 November 2008

Film Journal: The Graduate (1967)

One of the key questions I have about The Graduate is whether or not Benjamin's form of rebellion is being celebrated and endorsed by Nichols. Benjamin certainly embodies the discontent and angst of the '60s youth generation - the ticket sales primarily supported by a young audience seem to confirm that - but there are several points which seem to highlight Benjamin's inability to rebel completely. The main comparison I am interested in is with Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause whose protagonist, Jim, is often seen as the rebel but who in many ways is a conformist seeking to reestablish gender roles of the past. I believe The Graduate has a similar sense of amiguity in terms of the idea of rebellion.

From the very beginning it is apparent that Benjamin feels trapped by the expectations of his parents and their WASP, bourgeois class. Nichols consistently places Benjamin in the margins of the frame to highlight his being off-center with the world he lives in. Benjamin's alienation and inability to understand what it is he wants is further reinforced through the mise-en-scene: Benjamin is shot in longshot to appear small - such as in the Robinson entranceway or UC Berkeley - or is in shadows or water, with his vision and our vision of him obscured. In every way it seems that Benjamin is unable to directly face the world he is living in clearly. He is also unable to articulate what it is he wants as he is constantly muttering, especially with Mrs. Robinson.

Benjamin's exploration of ways to rebel begins with Mrs. Robinson. After sleeping with her he lounges around, largely unconcerned with the future and the insistence from his parents to go to graduate school. This apathy for his future and the expectations of his parents/society seems to go directly against what everyone wants from him. While his affair with Mrs. Robinson could be seen as rebellion in its disregard for moral taboos, it also seems to further confine him in his suburban world. At the same time, it seems that sleeping with Mrs. Robinson, who he has known his whole life, is not unlike sleeping with his own mother, which suggests that Benjamin is propagating and inbreeding with his parents' generation. This mother/Mrs. Robinson double is suggested when Benjamin is shaving and we are not sure which bathroom he is in - his home or the hotel - and the figure of his mother in the mist can be confused with Mrs. Robinson's.

The need to break away from his parents and everything they stand for comes with Elaine, who forces Benjamin to leave his home (to go to Berkeley) and escape the claustraphobic, lost world of his L.A. home. It is curious, however, that Benjamin ends up pursuing the girl his parents originally wanted him to court. This suggests that Benjamin's rebellion actually helps to fulfill his parents' desires. The fact that he attends classes at Berkeley can also suggest he is fulfilling his parents' desire for him to continue his education. In fact, Benjamin uses the car his parents have bought for him - an expensive convertible that highly symbolizes his class - in order to flee to Berkeley, suggesting they are "driving" him along. Furthermore, Benjamin wants to confirm his love for Elaine in the most conventional way, through marriage, which seems to only support the ideals of his parents' generation. Romantic idealism and rebellion is overshadowed by his concern to get papers signed and blood work done in order to have things done properly.

The idea that Benjamin is not really effectively going against his parents or running away is suggested in a shot in which he is running (after his parents' car broke down) and the lense makes it seem he is running in place. When Benjamin gets to Elaine's wedding, however, more clear images of rebellion are seen: Benjamin disrupts the wedding ceremony (undermining everything it stands for, especially since he steals Elaine away after she has said "I do"), takes swings and hits at Elaine's parents and his own, and finally locks them in the church in order to run away. The potent symbolism of the cross, and the attached connotations of purity, tradition, and history, which Benjamin uses to lock the older generation inside the church suggests that all the baggage of that generation and their religion/politics/morals are things that trap them, but not Benjamin and Elaine who are able to flee.

The most curious scene for me is the last one in which Benjamin and Elaine get on a bus to escape and sit in the back. The shot duration lasts a little longer than expected and instead of embracing or showing some sign of affection, Benjamin and Elaine sit and do not look at each other, but rather smile slightly. It's an ambiguous image which does not fulfill the romantic notions of their escape nor entirely discredit them. In one sense, it could seem that their riding a public bus reinforces the idea that they are actually not in control after all, but rather are being moved forward by society, which the public city bus could certainly embody, in the same way Benjamin is being moved by the conveyor belt in the airport at the beginning of the film. In another sense, Benjamin's abandonment of his parents' car for the city bus can be seen as his final cutting off (along with the church scene) which finally establishes his removal from his parents' world.

In the end, I tend to think that either interpretation could work. I suppose I am influenced by Nichols statement that Ben and Elaine "end up like their parents" (though it could be a joke), which undermines their rebellion. At the same time, I think that however ineffectual their long-term plan may be (we don't know what happens after the end credits and can't really take it into consideration), the fact that Benjamin and Elaine did something to get away is the real rebellion and it is their spirit of defiance, not their plans, that resonated with the audience at the time. I am reminded again of Rebel Without a Cause because even though Jim wants to rebel against his parents and do something to respond to his angst, the manner of his rebellion ultimately does not really do much to change what he is angsty about. Even so, his spirit of defiance and want of change is ultimately what is conveyed and remembered. After all, neither Jim or Benjamin really knew what they wanted exactly except that they wanted it.

As far as the director's endorsement of their characters, I would say that Ray does not really see Jim's rebellion as effectual (as he takes off his red jacket to take his father's brown coat) while Nichols leaves a much more ambiguous feeling. I believe ultimately he is suggesting that it is necessary and commendable to address the angst and act, though maybe it is not always be effective.

04 November 2008

Film Journal: In Cold Blood (1967)

The issue that is most prevalent in In Cold Blood is the disintegration of the American family. This is expressed primarily through Brooks' examination of Dick and Perry and their psyche, but also through certain comparisons made between the past and present American society and culture.

The film opens with the ominous Perry in the shadows of a public bus who is discovered by a young blond girl. Immediately, the idea of anonymity in a crowd is presented - anyone on that bus could be a killer, we just happen to know it's Perry. This idea is later reinforced through a scene in which a character (psychiatrist? cop?) who has read a profile of senseless murderers answers the question of who could fit such a profile by pointing his finger out the window and saying, "Take your pick." Dick and Perry are seen in a crowd of people walking in the street, again suggesting that even though we know who the killers are, it could really be anybody.

It could be anybody because the profile that is read is really vague enough to fit the description of really anybody: sexual inadequacy, raised by single parent or no parents, inferiority complex, etc. Brooks examines the ways in which Dick and Perry specifically fit that criteria not as singular, unique individuals, but as representatives of a larger whole, which could be interpreted as modern society and a new generation.

Dick and Perry are largely presented as the sons of fathers, a generation apart - a pivotal generation, it seems, which largely clashes with the old. The exploration of the past against the present seems to be present in all of the works we have been exploring by Brooks: in Blackboard Jungle it is the rebellious youth against Dadier the adult, in Catered Affair it is the split between the parents and children, in The Professionals it is the Old West vs. the New West. In In Cold Blood, I would suggest Brooks is dealing with those same elements. He gives much attention to Perry's cowboy father whose values and traditions do not fit with Perry the artist. Similarly, the nostalgic feeling for America's pioneer past is ironically commented upon by Kansas, the heartland of America, being the setting of the murder and Las Vegas, a symbol of the decadence of the modern age that displaces the desert wilderness, is where Dick and Perry get caught.

The ineffectual parenting of both Dick and Perry's fathers seems to largely influence their behavior. Perry's act of violence against the Mr. Clutter could even be seen as a misdirected form of revenge towards his father, whose image appears before he kills him. The characterization of the Clutter family is made as vanilla as possible; they appear as a Leave It to Beaver-type of '50s family who embodies the American ideal. Their death by the hands of Dick and Perry could possibly suggest how that type of family can no longer exist as it is destroyed by the new generation. For all we know, the Clutter son who secretly smokes in the garage could have ended up somewhat like Dick or Perry had he lived.

I believe the characterization of the past and past values is somewhat more complicated than in Brooks' previous films. While the Old West is nostalgically embodied by the professionals of The Professionals, the Old West of In Cold Blood, as embodied by Perry's father, is seen as empty, violent, and destructive. Thus, though Dick and Perry kill the Clutters who represent the past nuclear family, their actions are a result from the past which is embodied by their fathers. Thus, though Dick and Perry can be seen as breaking away from the past, their actions can largely be seen as a continuation of it, a continuation of what their fathers have done to them. There is ultimately not as clear a split between the past and goodness.

Dick and Perry can even be seen as the new nuclear family, to again contrast the Clutters. They are a family not united by blood or lineage, but through a common neglect of their fathers and older generation and through a disenfranchisement with their values. As Dick and Perry travel they often talk to each other in affectations similar to a married couple: Dick often uses words like "baby" or "honey"; Dick says "the family that sticks together lives together" when talking about how he and Perry should never split; and eventually Dick even mentions how they have run out of money from having to pay the bills for groceries and gasoline. Dick and Perry are the new American dysfunctional family.

03 November 2008

Film Journal: Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

The romanticizing of the gangster figure in Bonnie and Clyde seems to be primarily shaped by the transformation of the gangster from tough-guy to sex symbol. The importance of Bonnie and Clyde as sexual figures is apparent from the first shot of Bonnie's red, pouty lips in extreme close-up, which is followed by her naked back. Though it is not directly stated, the restlessness Bonnie feels in her room seems to come from a sexual need - as if she is waiting in bed for someone. Paired with this sexual pulse is a narcissistic self-consciousness of Bonnie's own image. From that initial setting of the bedroom there is a mirror and a smaller one accompanies Bonnie everywhere else, as Bonnie touches up her lips or straightens her hair. The importance of image also applies to Clyde, whose dark blue suit and white hat betray his narcissism. The matchstick in his mouth does not light a cigarette, but is merely an accessory to add to his image.

The gangster has always been a self-conscious screen figure. The importance of nice suits, material excess (Tony "Scarface" Camonte wants to wear a new shirt every day), and a public lifestyle defined their need for and acquisition of success. This emphasis on image is directly affected by the relationship the gangster has with newspaper headlines. The self-consciousness of Bonnie and Clyde, however, goes a little further than those early screen gangsters. Unlike Tony Camonte, Tom Powers, or Cody Jarrett, Bonnie and Clyde know that they will die. Their awareness of their imminent death (confirmed especially by Bonnie's ballad) suggests that every action they make constitutes towards the establishment of their legend. From the very beginning, Clyde is aware that he is forming his story as he admits, "We rob banks" before they actually do. In the same way, Bonnie insists on taking a picture with Hamer in order to inform the world that the Barrow gang are a nice bunch - she constructs their personality through a decision rather than acting spontaneously.

Since Bonnie and Clyde are aware of their fate, as is the audience, the central dramatic conflict does not really derive from their lives as gangsters. Instead, Penn focuses on the drama of Bonnie and Clyde as lovers. As suggested before, Clyde's arrival in Bonnie's life offers Bonnie the sexual fulfillment she seeks. This sexual fulfillment is a mix of violence and lust, as suggested by a shot of Bonnie stroking Clyde pistol in the street. Clyde's impotence, then, really serves as the central conflict of the film and it is only when Bonnie and Clyde can be united sexually that the central tension is resolved. This resolution, however, is not solely dependent upon a successful night in bed for Clyde because his impotence can only be overcome by the fulfillment of his legend. By fulfilling his self-created myths, substantialized through Bonnie's ballad in the press, Clyde is able to finally sexually fulfill Bonnie and provide a resolution to the central conflict and thus closure for the film before their inevitable death. I would sugges that this mix of self-created myth, violence, and sexuality is at the core of the film, each element existing to provide for the other two.

Unlike other urban and rural screen gangster, then, Bonnie and Clyde appear to have a type of happy ending through their sexual union. It is something that cannot be taken away from them, unlike their life. Thus, to have Bonnie and Clyde die in such a violent way at the film's finale results in a mixture of contradictory feelings. On the one hand we know it is inevitable, yet we feel angry at the severity of their death at hands of the cold, faceless Hamer. At the same time, however, we know they will die and can be somewhat satisfied that they at least were able to fulfill their sexual needs and establish their myth. The manner of their death is also a contradiction between violence and beauty; as they are riddled with bullets, Bonnie and Clyde's bodies seem to even dance in balletic movement as they turn to face each other one last time, confirming their eternal love. Though they are punished for their deeds, like all other gangsters, Bonnie and Clyde are heavily romanticized through their love story and their sexuality which make them tragic victims even more than those others gangsters.

21 October 2008

Film Journal: The Chase (1966)

It seems difficult to say anything insightful about The Chase after reading Robin Wood's essay, but I'll try. I want to focus my discussion of The Chase on its invocation of and the family melodrama and the Western genres, using Wood's schemata as a guideline. As Wood notes, The Chase works effectively in conveying meaning through its use and inversion of genre conventions. I want to try to identify some of those conventions, compare/contrast what Penn does with them, and suggest how they either fit into Wood's schemata or have some other implied meaning.

The melodrama I am most reminded of is Sirk's Written on the Wind, especially in the oil tycoon as father figure. Jasper Hadley and Val Rogers are both rich men with one son to whom they wish to pass down their fortune. Like Jasper, Val Rogers is disappointed in his son, seeing more strength of character in someone else. For Jasper, it is Mitch Wayne; for Val, it is Calder. However, unlike Jasper, it becomes apparent that Val actually did love his son as he cries out for him as he lay dying. Calder, unlike Mitch, also does not return affection for Rogers, to whom he makes a final break from when he refuses to allow him into the jail cell. The result of this, as Wood notes, is a "collapse of confidence in patriarchal authority," and marks the complete isolation and destruction of Rogers and his empire - any potential candidates have walked away (Calder, Anna) or died (Jake). In Written on the Wind however, Marylee is left to inherit the family business which is her great tragedy. In this case, the patriarch figure, though dead, continues to hold a grip on his family, which Sirk makes clear through Jasper's portrait holding the same oil rig statuette that Marylee cries on. Thus, I would suggest that the view of the patriarch of Sirk's '50s film is much bleaker than Penn's. Wood notes this slight hopefulness at the end of this essay by noting how Anna is able to walk away as a representative of a new generation unrestrained by the father figure (Anna also disowns her father-in-law early in the film when we first see her). I would say that Anna is able to do what Marylee is not.

An idea that I see run through The Chase and some Westerns is that of the Western hero being ushered out by capitalism; the days of the gun come to a close and the cowboy becomes irrelevent. We saw this idea with The Professionals through the juxtaposition of the old-fashioned Western heroes and J.W. Grant, the capitalist businessman. The Professionals made those heroes relevant by reinforcing their ideals of justice and goodness through their saving of Raza and Maria and their rejection of Grant's money. There is a certain nostalgia for those heroes and those values and even though their future is probably limited as cowboys by the film's end, Brooks reasserts their value by showing how they can survive against people like Grant and the age of capitalism. In The Chase, however, the spirit of the Western hero, as conveyed through Calder, is absolutely defeated. Calder is the connection to the past, signified by his hat and old-fashioned holster and he is not respected nor is able to protect anybody - Bubber is shot, Lester is beaten, Jake dies, and he himself is beaten to a pulp - and eventually has to leave with his head down. Unlike the professionals of Brooks' film, Calder's old-fashioned values and heroics cannot keep up with the time he is in. A poignant moment comes when he laments with "I should have called for backup," when he realizes that he can not do it on his own as the old-fashioned Western hero. I believe Penn's film is the most pessimistic in its view of the Western hero being killed out. In a film like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the Western hero, Tom, at least makes the choice to hand over the West to Rans after doing his last noble act; though he does not go publicly recognized, he still has some dignity left recognized by Rans. In The Professionals they have one last grand adventure. In Penn's film Calder is simply defeated on all fronts. It is particularly interesting to compare The Professionals with The Chase because they were made in the same year, meaning that they are reflecting the same time historical period in America, only with incredibly different views.

15 October 2008

Technicolor Dreams

The Criterion Collection just revealed their new releases set for January and Magnificent Obsession is included! Safe to say I am psyched for a new Douglas Sirk release. I have some unexplainable love for the saturated technicolor hues and Rock Hudson. Jane Wyman was great in All That Heaven Allows so I look forward to her paired up with Hudson again in this film. I shouldn't get too excited; it's three months away. In the meantime I'll stare at this beautiful DVD cover art. Now if they'll just jump on getting Tarnished Angels released...

13 October 2008

Film Journal: The Professionals (1966)

In many ways The Professionals can be seen as a swan song for the old-fashioned Western hero. There are many implications of a paradigm shift in the West at the beginning of the 20th century (the time period of the film) with the cowboy being less of a relevant or necessary figure, largely displaced by business tycoons and property owners, represented in the film by J.W. Grant. Brooks makes his film in the latter half of the ‘60s, a time when the traditional Western film sees endless revision and transformation. John Ford did The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance four years earlier, a film that can be seen as Ford’s own farewell to the West and the Western hero, and a film which I think resonates with The Professionals thematically. As a revisionist western in itself, The Professionals evokes nostalgia for the old West through its central characters and reaffirms those values by addressing issues of the 1960s such as race relations and the Vietnam War.

The premise of the film is based on a genre convention: a group of men decide to do one last mission for money. Though this has been seen in Western films as well as heist films, I believe it has a further implication in being not only the last hurrah for the characters, but a last attempt to assert the values of the Old West before they die. We get the feeling that with the death of the characters comes the death of the Western hero as the film takes place around 1915, making Rico’s crew the last generation of cowboys. Standing in contrast to that is J.W. Grant, the moneyman who is able to buy whatever he needs and who rides trains and automobiles instead of horses.

As the hunt for Raza continues through the film, the morality of stealing back Grant’s wife becomes highly ambiguous; the line dividing good and evil becomes incredibly blurry. We find that not only did Rico and Bill fight for the Mexican rebels alongside Raza, revealing a more vulnerable and idealistic side of the tough guy characters, but that Bill was in love with Chiquita. The embodiment of this romantic idealism for Raza is Maria, who would be suppressed and emotionally killed if she were to go back to Grant. The moral dilemma of returning Maria or not is further complicated by the old school code of professionalism that Rico has to simply get the job done. However, it is ultimately not Rico who acts as the agent for change in the film, but Bill, who we find is not unlike Raza. Just like Ethan Edwards and Scar are two sides of the same coin in The Searchers, Bill and Raza are both headstrong, tough, and resolute and it is in a long, confusing sequence in which they face off in the boulders that we find they are motivated by the same thing.

This particular sequence has unmatching shots pasted back to back, making almost no attempt to clearly distinguish spatial perimeters between Bill and Raza. At times it seems they are in clear view of each other, at others that they are boulders away. At first it comes off as just bad shooting and editing, but I believe it is done that way on purpose to convey both Bill’s internal state as well as our uncertainty about who to root for at this point in the film. The more I find about Raza and the way he loves Maria genuinely, the more sympathetic I feel towards him and the more I am unsure whether I want him to live or die. The more Bill is reminded of his time fighting alongside Raza, the greater the struggle in his face. It is at the moment that he shoots Chiquita that I think Bill finally realizes he has made the wrong choice to fight against Raza. Chiquita embodies not only his past love, but the romanticism and idealism of his past in fighting with the radical Mexicans; it is that independent, rebellious, and honorable spirit which comes to define the Western hero and their values. I think this moment also finalizes the comparison between Raza and Bill, as Raza needs Maria and Bill needed Chiquita.

The ambiguity of Bill’s feelings in that moment and regarding his past is voiced several times throughout the film. At one point he says, “What were Americans doing in a Mexican revolution anyway?” The unfolding of the film’s final moments allows Bill to reclaim his past and to find again what it means to do “good.” This question of fighting a war for the sake of other people alludes heavily to the current events at the time of the film as American involvement in the Vietnam War is a topic of great moral strife for Americans. The professionals of the film, particularly Bill and Rico, can be compared to Vietnam veterans who return and are disillusioned about whether their service there was really serving justice or not. By having Bill’s disillusionment be resolved through a reigniting of his original Western hero spirit and values it seems the film is asserting that regardless of the outcome of the battle, the American spirit, in this case the Western hero values, is what is being celebrated. As topics relating to race were especially prominent in the United States during the ’60s, it is appropriate that Brooks includes a black cowboy as part of the gang in order to not only suggest that blacks and whites can get along, but that black people are part of the history of America and the West and are to be valued as such. Even as late as 1966 there were hardly any black actors being hired for starring roles in Hollywood aside from Sidney Portier, and they appeared even less in Westerns.

By the film’s end as the group ride off I get the sharp feeling that though they have won in the one scenario over Grant they will nevertheless fade into oblivion, just as the old-fashioned Western has faded. There is an irony in those characters: they are characters on the margin of society – outlaws, rebels, lonemen – but are only able to get money from the likes of Grant. Though they triumph and soar over Grant in terms of spirit and character, it is Grant that will continue to live and prosper and someone like Grant who will eventually run the country. The Old West has faded and I think Brooks is taking one long look back in admiration amidst the problems of his modern world.

07 October 2008

Film Journal: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

One idea which occurred to me when watching Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is that George and Martha, though adults, remain children due to their inability to become parents. The most defining relationship they seem to have is not really with each other as husband and wife, but as children under their father or father-in-law. These patriarchs hold the most power in the film, even though physically absent, and it seems that as long as George and Martha remain without child they will continue to be under their control. Thus, George and Martha’s attempts to have a child seem to be a way in which they can gain back some control in their life, by being in that position of power over their own child. Since they are unable to have an actual child, they invent one in order to feign order and control in their life, a false front that comes tumbling down over the course of a long night and an obscene amount of drinks.

The child-like qualities of George and Martha come out in several ways. I think it is more obviously seen with Martha at first, as she seems to be all id with her near-hysterical laughter, her manic change of moods, and her playfulness. George, who speaks intelligently and surrounds himself with the books on the shelves, seems to be more mature at first, but only before his third drink. George assumes child-like postures when he sits on the swing by himself and then immediately afterward when he trades stories with Nick. He also makes suggestions of games such as “Hump the Hostess” and “Get the Guests” which are obviously not games, but which suggest that George is more of a frustrated child than anything else. The way George and Martha seem to rationalize life seem to be to make everything into a type of game: the way they relate with each other is a type of power game; they invent a child and a story for it as if it were a game, which has certain rules; they play act with each other. It is these types of games which keep George and Martha going, simultaneously stimulating some kind sadomasochistic libido in Martha.

I believe the issue of parenthood is more important for George than for Martha. After all, it is the father figure who is the one in power and thus it is by George becoming a father himself that he can gain equal footing. It is significant then to consider that it is George who is sterile, not Martha. His inability to have a real child causes him to produce a novel as a type of surrogate son, a labor of love which also could not come to fruition. Martha notes other failures and embarrassments of George throughout the night – his getting punched in the face by her, his failure to become head of the department – and it becomes clear that the burden of not being parents, rich, or of status lies on George’s shoulders. I think it is then appropriate that George is the one to kill the imaginary child by the film’s conclusion. This may be the first assertive act towards a renewed relationship and life that George has taken, a symbolic killing of the games he and Martha play and the hint of ascension from childhood to adulthood. This is reinforced through the idea of hope by the final shot of joined hands and dawn’s light coming in through the window, an image that could come from any family melodrama (All That Heaven Allows, for example) to signify a happy ending. Though George is still not able to become a parent, the killing of the fake son suggests that he is at least no longer a child; maybe it is the shift from childhood to manhood.

28 September 2008

Film Journal: Mickey One (1965)

There is an inherent didacticism in the existential themes of Mickey One in which large ideas – such as the human condition, questions of God and fate, etc. – are very directly addressed. As Robin Wood notes in his review, it seems these more abstract thoughts and ideas displace the concrete elements of the film – plot, character, setting – so that meaning feels heavy-handed and forced rather than implied. The result is something of a na├»ve statement rather than an artful exploration. This didactic quality is easy to come off as unpleasant for those viewing (as it seems to have for Mr. Wood) because it starts to feel preachy and maybe even pretentious. While I can certainly agree to a large extent, certain parts of the film leave me to wonder how seriously Penn really takes himself and his message. There is a bit of comic absurdity in the film which I could not help but notice and which really struck me as something significant in conveying Penn’s intentions.

A major question for me is why Penn chose to make Mickey a comedian. I feel it is fitting for the world and situation of the film that the main character is a performer or an artist (if only for that single scene with the black stage and the spotlight), but there are plenty of other possibilities – musician, actor, singer, etc. I believe Penn’s choice in having Mickey be a comedian is reflective of the way in which Penn’s message is to be taken, or maybe even the way in which Penn approaches life’s big questions: with a smile. It seems that the absurdity of life is at times so absurd that it is funny, the only appropriate reaction to which is laughter. Instead of being strictly somber, as Kafka’s The Trial may be taken (especially in Welles’s hands), Penn’s existential dilemma is one that he seems to take less seriously; he may even be laughing at himself.

A few examples of comic absurdity in the film stick out rather obviously, much like the other separate pieces of the film. The first that comes to mind is a sequence in which Mickey cleans up his apartment room in sped-up time, possibly citing the silent film speed of 18 frames-per-second. The camera trick comes out of nowhere and is never repeated in the film – it takes us by surprise and comes off as so unnecessary and unexpected that it warrants a laugh. There is also a scene in which Mickey is trying to escape and sees a chance out of the window where a man with a shirt that reads “TRAMPOLINE INSTRUCTOR” is jumping on a trampoline. This nonsensical mechanism is the way in which Mickey finds his way to escape and get free, possibly an emblematic moment in which Penn is suggesting that the silly thing is that which offers man freedom. This thought could certainly be reinforced by the nameless clown who continues to follow and beckon to Mickey throughout the film and who makes a show out of a mechanical contraption titled “YES.” The show demonstrates a machine that serves no real purpose other than to amuse. The clown happily grins and even after the machine is destroyed by fire, when a sole joint of the machine still functions, the clown still smiles with delight. It seems that the clown and his contraption are a vehicle through which Mickey is able to rediscover the humor and comedy which offer him transcendence from an otherwise miserable existence. When Mickey goes with the clown, the clown does not ride away from the world, but in fact returns Mickey to it, guiding him to a path in which he ultimately finds meaning.

What I am suggesting through pointing out these moments of comedy and their importance in the film is that Penn’s intention in making the film may not have been as didactic or somberly existential as it seems. Penn may not take the film he is presenting to us as seriously as we do. If the way in which Mickey finds transcendence is through a laugh, then maybe we as an audience would appreciate the film more if we lightened up a little? I can’t say for sure, but I think it is certainly possible to find comedy in the absurd and to then derive meaning from that comedy – to me, that’s what watching Woody Allen films are about. That is not to say I think Mickey One is a comedy, but rather that Penn’s approach to the existential dilemma of the absurd is to laugh at it a bit. I feel this is heavily contrasted to a film such as Welles’s The Trial which is just as absurd and densely symbolic and insistent on visual elements as Mickey One is, but which seems to deliver its message with a straight face.

RIP Paul Newman

RIP Paul Newman
(Jan. 26, 1925 - Sep. 26, 2008)

Paul Newman died Friday in Connecticut, due to cancer. Newman is an actor whose presence on screen instantly draws me in. He is exceptionally handsome, but also a serious and incredibly talented actor, not unlike his method acting peers Brando, Dean, and Clift. When he got older, he seemed to be able to reinvent himself as an actor, with a whole new look and presence on screen, the wrinkle of wisdom and know-how deeply imprinted in his forehead. I particularly remember him as the big business mogul in Hudsucker Proxy. Apart from that he was a great activist and humanitarian, a person you couldn't help but love on screen as well as off. Hearing about his death made me realize I have all these films of his on my Netflix queue that I have had on there for a long time. I think now is the time to watch them, maybe a mini-Newman festival. As for now, I will always have my first impression of Newman that continues to stay with me as Cool Hand Luke, someone who taught me that "sometimes nothing can be a pretty cool hand."

24 September 2008

Film Jounal: The Left Handed Gun (1958)

I want to discuss the use of visual elements, specifically close-ups, and their effect in conveying meaning in The Left Handed Gun. The film seems to focus largely on Billy’s internal state and his psychological/emotional turmoil. Penn expresses this internal state through techniques in framing certain key shots a particular way and paying special attention to moments alone with Billy rather than action sequences.

When we are first introduced to Billy, we see him staring in a spaced out way, not really looking at anything, possibly deep in thought. Penn pays particular attention to this aimless gaze, giving Billy several key close-ups. The first one I noted came after his employer dies and Billy tells his plan of avenging his death to McSween. The camera dollies in on Billy’s face to a close-up. The room is dark and there are shadows on Billy’s face. In the same frame on the bottom we see a magnifying glass or some sort of glass object through which the image is distorted. This key close-up marks a transition towards darkness in Billy’s character, which is also reinforced through other stylistic elements such as the changing of Billy’s wardrobe from light to black. This scene has weighted significance given the symbolic meaning of glass in the Bible quote Billy has learned from Tunstall – “through a glass darkly” – conveying the distorted view through which Billy views life from that moment on.

Other key close-ups I noted express Billy’s fear of death and his eventual destruction. In one scene, before Charlie is shot, Billy is approached (I forget by whom and unfortunately didn’t note it – I believe it is Pat Garret) at his hideout shack. Penn has another close-up on Billy here as he talks and does his undirected stare. As he talks, Billy supports himself by a short rope that is hanging off the porch frame, his hands meeting the rope next to his neck. I believe that this is Penn’s way of showing what Billy is both destined for and afraid of: being hanged. Later, after Charlie is shot and Billy is alone, we have a scene in which he plays Charlie’s(?) old recorder then looks out a broken glass pane on the door. The close-up frames the hard angles of the shattered glass in the center of Billy’s face, signifying both his inner turmoil and his imminent doom.

Between these key close-ups, Penn gives us other clues as to Billy’s tragedy and to his internal state. In a scene in which Joe Grant draws on Billy, Penn frames a particular shot with Grant and Pat Garret in the foreground, looming large, and Billy in the background, small in comparison. This reflects Billy’s fear of being outdrawn and killed by larger, older men, and his insecurity in not being able to draw fast enough. Right afterward we see Billy practicing his draw with his left arm. In another shot towards the end, as Billy enters the town that he will eventually die in, the camera frames a shot of him coming into the town on his horse with the structures of the gate largely encroaching on Billy’s space in the frame. This suggests the way in which the forces that are to bring about Billy’s death are encroaching on him and suffocating him.

Another thing I wanted to point out about the film was the violence. For the most part, the violence was rather tame – people got shot, they covered the wound with their hand, and they fall down and die with no blood – but there are two scenes in which the violence, for me, was exceptional. The first instance is in the death of Charlie. When Charlie gets shot at first, he does not die instantly. When he is first shot, he lies on the ground paralyzed from being shot in the spine. He then tells Billy, “I feel my blood,” which I thought was particular since it brings attention to the actual physical and horrific nature of being shot and it also prolongs the death so that we as viewers really have to take it in and watch him die slowly. After Billy throws a type of tantrum, he throws Charlie out the door and he is shot again, this time flying through the door, and dies. The seemingly exaggerated way in which Charlie flies through the door from the shotgun is seen again in the most violent scene in which Billy shoots a pursuer with a shotgun from the roof of the building he was held prisoner. This particular shot very much reminded me of the violence to come in The Wild Bunch, particularly the opening scene. When Billy shoots the shotgun, the camera captures it in slow motion – again, we are told to examine the violence. Not only do we see the impact of the shot slow motion – he victim also flies back – but we see the exit wound and all the blood in it, the bullets tearing the flesh in the most explicit way seen in the film. When the townspeople come to the scene of the shooting a little later, we see that the victim was literally shot out of his boot. This seems like a very symbolic gesture on Penn’s part, to suggest possibly that the new revisionist Westerns and their violence to come will knock the traditions and conventions out of the boots of the old Westerns.

15 September 2008

Visions of Lynch

I just finished my David Lynch mini-retrospective which included Elephant Man, Eraserhead, Mulholland Drive, Wild at Heart, Lost Highway, Twin Peaks, and some short films. I decided to go through with this because I've always been interested in David Lynch but had only seen Blue Velvet. After watching the pilot for Twin Peaks I knew I needed to see more. I'll share my thoughts in the chronology of Lynch's output and not the sequence in which I saw the films.

Eraserhead (1977)

Lynch's first full-length feature and many people's favorite of his. It's now a midnight movie cult classic. I had no idea what to expect going into this film, only being familiar with the wild-eyed Jack Nance (who appears in all the other films except Elephant Man) and his crazy hairdo. Watching the film is like entering the dark areas of a person's mind, the unknown subconscious, in its dreaming state. The surreal mixes nightmarish imagery and awkward comic absurdity. These are key elements to the world of David Lynch. Key thematic elements are present that Lynch will manipulate and build upon throughout the other films: dreams/nigthmares, sexual desires, the grotesque, secrets, freaks, music/songs, and velvet curtained rooms. The last of these isn't a theme really, but certainly an element of production design that manages to be in every Lynch film. In this film it is the background of the stage in which the Lady in the Radiator sings. More about the curtains later. Anyway, I liked the film very much because it made me feel so strange and confused and uncomfortable in a way that truly evoked a surreal nightmare. I feel other Lynch films attempt to give the same feelings but don't work as effectively. Certain images in this movie will never leave me.

Elephant Man

When I first watched Elephant Man I was struck by how emotionally compelling it was. At times I felt very sad and even misty-eyed. Pulling myself away from the movie, however, I felt as if maybe I was insincerely manipulated. The way in which John Merrick utters his polite remarks and the severity of the cruelty he got from the people outside the hospital seemed almost exaggerated. Was Merrick really so polite, so instantly genteel and literate when shown kindness? Were people really so blindly cruel? It seemed almost like exaggerated melodramatic cliches. I started to suspect that this was a satire. After looking up John Merrick and actual photos of the historical person, I was a little reassured as the accuracy of his actual deformity. Even so, I feel that this is still very Lynch, even when restricted by the demands of a big studio production. Certain elements of the Lynch world find themselves in the film such as the extreme cruelty and dementia of people that we pass everyday - their own secret worlds - such as those of the freakshow proprietor and the people who come to see Merrick at night. The grotesque also seems to fascinate Lynch - grotesque ways in which one can get mutilated or killed or even just plain appearance. The Elephant Man himself is exceptionally grotesque and it's understandable that Lynch would be intrigued by such a project. In the end, this was the most "conventional" film of Lynch's that I watched.

Blue Velvet (1986)

My favorite David Lynch film, hands down, and arguably his best. I didn't rewatch this movie as part of the retrospective (though I probably should have), but its imprint still feels fresh in my mind despite the time that has passed since I last watched it. The film is an obvious satire, but the way in which Lynch uncovers the darkness of Lumberton layer by layer until it becomes so twisted and so bizarre is both seductive and frightening and we are pulled along into it along with Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan). The prototypical image in this film is that of the voyeur, specifically of Jeffrey behind the blinds of the closet, looking in on Frank (Dennis Hopper) and his sexual perversions being taken out on Dorothy (Isabella Rosellini). This image is preceded and set up by Sandy's claim that she can't tell if Jeffrey is a detective or a pervert, a perfect summation of the themes and motifs of the film as well as Jeffrey's character. Sometimes in Lynch's later work (which I'll touch upon) I ask myself the same thing about Lynch - is he being artful or is he just perverted? Is my reaction to the images more telling of myself than of Lynch? Anyway, that's for later.

One thing I notice about the Lynch world is the way in which all the small things are exaggerated and made more bizarre. A small example comes from within the first few moments of the film in which Jeffrey's father gets falls over in the lawn. The way in which he falls and holds his neck, twisting the hose and making noises, is almost farcical, approaching something somewhat frightening and yet humorous. The same thing happens when we see the father in the hospital and the extremity of his condition when seen at first is so absurd it almost warrants a laugh, but we see it is supposed to be taken as serious (which is what makes it funny, really). The point is that in a more traditional Hollywood film the way in which the father falls and his physical state in the hospital would not be so exaggerated. These are just small examples which only reflect what Lynch does with other aspects of the film in an even more absurd way.

Wild at Heart (1990)

This film plays with the road movie genre, which made me very eager to see how Lynch would handle it. Starring Nicolas Cage as Elvis in a snakeskin blazer under the name of Sailor and incredibly sexual Laura Dern as Lulu on the run from the law and from Lulu's mother, the film brought to mind the Bonnie and Clyde storyline of lovers on the run. What happens as they take off, however, is a grotesque display of odd violence, sexuality, and daydreams. This sound like typical adjectives for a Lynch film, but it manages to go a step too far, losing any kind of humor or meaning along the way. There are a couple of good characters, such as Willem Dafoe's Bobby Peru, but they are not enough to really save the car wreck of a film this becomes. It feels like all style that is so labored over in its framing and production that it ultimately feels empty. The way in which Bobby Peru's head explodes from his own shotgun, for example, goes a step too far unnecessarily. It's odd and disorienting, which we expect from Lynch, but it doesn't connect for me and it left me feeling a bit annoyed. The sexuality also started to become questionable to me, leaving me unsure if it really served the story in anyway other than to scorch the screen with Laura Dern's body. Nevertheless, there were some good use of Elvis songs in the film. And, on top of everything else, Nicolas Cage kept reminding me of Raising Arizona and his H.I. character more than Elvis.

Lost Highway (1997)

The first half hour or so of this film was incredibly intriguing and genuinely pulled me in. The set up is like a horror film - Bill Pullman and his wife are left videotapes of someone filming the exterior of their house and eventually their interior. The fear and paranoia it causes distorts the house into the belly of some hellish beast where the shadowed hallways seem to swallow the characters and where nightmares can breed. Once that part of the film ends and Bill Pullman disappears, however, the film rolls steadily downhill. The Pullman character is displaced by another body who is supposed to be the same person in a story that seems to go backwards and forward at the same time. After a great set up I feel a little betrayed by the film, almost as if I had been abandoned or that Lynch had given up. The story that develops for the rest of the film involves a young guy and his interaction with an incredibly sexed up Patricia Arquette. This film made me feel very uncomfortable at some points with the consistent sex scenes and more than the other films I feel manipulated into feeling like a pervert and a voyeur. This film seems to be popular with younger kids my age or younger and I think a lot of it has to do with placing themselves in this young protagonist's shoes, living through him in a sexual fantasy in which he gets to have his way with more than one beautiful woman and to be buddied up with the mafia. I did not understand this film and I'm not sure if there is way to understand it beyond what the screen shows us, which left me feeling empty and swindled. The creepy man with the white face that moves in and out of dreams was a genuinely creepy character, though; Lynch has a talent for envisioning freakish beings.

Mulholland Drive (2001)

In many ways I feel like Mulholland Drive takes the ideas and themes Wild at Heart and Lost Highway had and realizes their full potential in a way that is incredibly effective. works as a satire of Hollywood as hinted right away by the title as well as by Naomi Watts character, Betty, whose bright-eyed giddiness and naievete deserve a chuckle. Lynch makes this a satire of Hollywood not just through a plot or through characters, but with more subtle techniques and through messing with the film itself and our expectations as viewers. One of my favorite examples comes through Betty's rehearsal for a bit part in a film. When she rehearses her lines with Rita she gives them in a forceful way, with a clenched jaw and practiced rage. We are introduced to these lines before we are aware that it is even a rehearsal, taken aback at her sudden anger towards Rita. But oh! it's not anger, it's a rehearsal! We are smart enough now not to get fooled by her acting, though Watts delivers in a way that is powerful enough for us to forget for a moment. Later, when we see the actual audition Watts auditions the scene in a completely different way, saying the same lines with intense sexuality and femme fatale sultriness. Lynch does not explain why this happens (of course!) but its effect is powerful in a couple of ways: 1) we realize how we have been manipulated by Betty's acting in both of her deliveries of the script. 2) we realize how we have been manipulated by Naomi Watts as an actress playing Betty playing an actress. 3) we become self-conscious of us viewing a film again, a construction of lighting, camera, acting, set, direction and Lynch's overseeing hand. This is the kind of clever manipulation and addressing of the stuff of cinema that fills the film. When Lynch switches characters with actors the effect returns in an even more confusing and frustrating way. Either way, unlike Lost Highway, you stay engaged. This mostly has to do with the totality of Lynch's vision and how well made the film is - it doesn't let you go even though you don't understand it. This kind of effect can be analyzed in its contraptions but ultimately in looking back it's almost an X-factor. I certainly need to go back and watch this film again.

Well, that's it for the individual films. I suppose I could make an entry for the "Twin Peaks" pilot as a self-contained film or for the series as a whole, but I think it would be too much. It is probably my favorite thing Lynch has given me other than Blue Velvet, but writing about it would be too much. What I want to conclude with are some elements of Lynch's films that I've noticed repeating and being reused.

Red velvet curtains - There is usually an isolated room with dim lighting, maybe with a single piece of furtniture in it, whose walls are made of red velvet drapes or curtains. This usually sets the scene for some kind of strange dream-like encounter, character, or performance. In Mullholland Drive we have the studio executive who sits in his recliner as well as a stirring rendition of Roy Orbison's "Crying." In "Twin Peaks" it is the place in Cooper's dreams in which he is visited by characters such as the giant who give him clues. In Blue Velvet the curtains are blue instead of red (obviously), but they are still there. There are other examples in the other films and in the ones I mentioned, but I won't go through them all. I think this is an effective setting that Lynch makes use of in creating a surreal mood/environment. What it means other than that is really beyond me.

Music - I have heard that Lynch is a musician as well as a filmmaker (among other things?) and I would already have guessed that from his movies if no one had told me. If not a musician, then at least a heavy music appreciator. Mostly all of the films I've seen have great uses of music and little codas of musical performances within the films. Part of this is the choice of Angelo Badalamenti to score his film (his "Twin Peaks" soundtrack is remarkable!) but I'm more talking about his choice of pop music. He seems to have a big thing for Orbison, who he uses unforgettably in Blue Velvet, but also in Mullholland Drive. Then of course there is the song "Blue Velvet" itself, a '50s tune that I will never hear the same way again. Wild at Heart has some great Elvis song scenes. Lost Highway, on top of all the other things I don't like about it, has the least memorable soundtrack, featuring Rammstein and Marilyn Manson. Also, there always seems to be a musician cast in his movies, even for a brief cameo appearance. There's been John Lurie, Henry Rollins, Billy Ray Cyrus, Marilyn Manson, and composer Angelo Badalamenti (this must have been my favorite one). Also, though I haven't seen the film yet, David Bowie and Chris Isaak are in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.

Dreams - This may seem like an obvious one, especially since I've talked about it in several of the films, but dreams play a major role in Lynch's films. They allow a surrealistic quality to exist in the films and often allows the film (or TV show) to escape the entrapments of a linear storyline or even logic. Often times we are not even sure if what Lynch is presenting is a dream or reality or a mixture of the two.

The Grotesque - Lynch likes to stretch what can happen with the human body in the way it can be destroyed or mutilated. It is not enough that Bobby Peru gets shot in the head, but his head must fly off in a gory explosion. It is not enough that someone trip and hit their head on the corner of the coffee table, but their head slice into the head between the eyes deep enough to keep the stuck onto the table like grape on a razor blade. I think Lynch is very interested in how horrifying the human body can be and our fragile mortality. He also like to cast some very strange looking human beings - midgets, giants, incredibly ugly people, etc. - or make up humans to look like some horrifying human-like thing. Examples are abundant. When it is not the human body, he likes to imagine grotesque flesh-like creations that nearly invoke gag reflexes. A couple of examples are the infected baby thing in Eraserhead or the fleshy plant that gives birth to a grandmother in his short film Grandmother.

Reflexivity - There is a great deal of reflexive elements in Lynch's films which have the film bring attention to itself or to how its made or what its referencing. He does this by playing with genres, referencing some conventions and then twisting them, or by having us pay attention to the elements of filmmaking. Sometimes it is unclear whether Lynch's intention is to do so. For example, some of the acting on "Twin Peaks" is so stinted and self-conscious, bordering on soap cliche, that it's hard to take as earnest. The main reflexive element for me is the way Lynch likes to manipulate us as his viewers and then make us realize that we have been manipulated. I noted on this with Mulholland Drive.

Sexuality - This is something that I think is present in some way, shape, or form in all of the films I listed. Sometimes the sexuality is straightforward, such as in Wild at Heart (though I would argue that in this case it is exaggerated and emphasized), and other times it is hinted such as in the freak show curator's obsession with the elephant man. In Blue Velvet the intense cruelty and strangeness of the sexuality is the center of attention. In this case it is the type of sexuality that hides behind closed doors, which also appears in "Twin Peaks" in the case of the Laura Palmer sadomasochism, her rape, and the goings-on at One-Eyed Jacks. The sexuality of Mulholland Drive between Betty and Rita is made confusing, strange, and twisted when the characters start changing names. The sexuality of Lost Highway is so overt it makes us self-conscious as viewers.

Anyway, there is a ton more to say and discover - lots of other repeated elements I haven't even touched on, lots of other themes, analyses to be made - but I think my responsibility as a blogger is satisfied with this much, ha. Books, after all, are written about Lynch and he remains a director to be studies, scrutinized, and admired. My experience in his world was both frustrating and elating and in the end I am glad I entered and took a look around.