31 March 2008

How the West Was Watched

Earlier in the year I half-way sarcastically mentioned that my New Year's resolution was to watch more Westerns. It's not really a resolution of any kind, but I have been watching more Westerns, (more out of interest than obligation, really). Along with that I have been watching some revisionist-type Westerns or movies that make a comment on the Western in an updated sense. I'll go through a brief list and let you know what I think:

Stagecoach (1939) dir. by John Ford
My Darling Clementine (1946) dir. by John Ford

These are the two that started this whole fascination. I watched both of them for an American Film class and was impressed by how surpisingly engaging they were. Not only that, but I saw a lot of similar characterizations, film techniques, and situations that were echoed by Kurosawa, who I am much more familiar with.

Stagecoach was also my first real film experience with John Wayne, who always existed as an American icon, but who I did not really recognize other than a stereotyped (often mocked) caricature. My Darling Clementine made me like Henry Fonda even more, making him one of my favorite classic Hollywood stars.

The Searchers (1956) dir. by John Ford

A follow-up to my interest in Ford westerns was this 1956 film featuring John Wayne as Ethan Edwards, a Civil War vet (for the Confederacy) who is disillusioned, angry, and a stranger in his own home. This is often cited as one of Ford's greatest films. There are lots of underlying themes and tensions in the film, not to mention pointed framing techniques that convey meaning. Take a look at that still on the left - Edwards is outside the home framed by the door, the wilderness in the background; he belongs nowhere.

Tin Star (1957) dir. by Anthony Mann

I bought this one on a whim after remembering it being mentioned by a friend of mine a while ago. I figured I liked Anthony Perkins and Henry Fonda enough and that Anthony Mann is supposed to be an interesting Western director, so it was a safe bet. I was right. Perkins is an effeminate (again?) sheriff who needs Henry Fonda to get him to toughen up and shoot straight in order to assert his authority in the dead-end town. Classic.

Red River (1948) dir. by Howard Hawks

Another class-required screening, which I happily Netflixed. John Wayne is an overbearing self-made cattle driver who brings up young Montgomery Clift as his son/protoge. Eventually Clift takes control when Wayne reaches a level of near insanity, which I think is fantastically portrayed. You can also see a divide between the two characters in terms of acting style, Clift being one of those who practiced "the method." (You know it's funny; as I was typing this post my iPod shuffled to "Right Profile" by the Clash, a song about Montgomery Clift. How appropriate.)

Fistful of Dollars (1964)
For a Few Dollars More (1965)
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) dir. by Sergio Leone

There is no one cooler than Clint Eastwood as the man with no name. I actually saw The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly a long time before I saw the other two (and maybe even before all the other movies on this list), but could appreciate the trilogy as a whole after knowing more about Westerns and the intertextual dialog between Ford, Kurosawa, and Leone.

The visual style and overall feel to these films are so quirky that they completely transport you to a different world, some madeup Western landscape with non-synch sound, with people too cool to be real, with washed-out color, and with an INCREDIBLE score behind it all. The music to these films is so good; each has its own little theme (the one from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly probably being the most instantly recognizable) that plays throughout the the film as almost chapter headings or act transitions. Anyway, yeah, awesome.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) dir. by Robert Altman

A sad and wonderful poem of a film. The washed out visual style (shot by Vilmos Zsigmond, who also did Altman's Long Goodbye, among other things) gave the feeling of a faded photograph, a moment passed. The film is a revisionist Western in that it is dealing with the same time period of Western expansion in US history, yet decides to revise the content - not the historic content, but the content and conventions of the Western film. There is no glory to the man with the gun; the film actually makes him extremely unattractive in an emblematic scene containing an obnoxious gunslinger and a passerby on a bridge. There is almost nothing romanticized in the film other than the beauty of nature and the longing of one person for another. "I've got poetry in me!"

My Own Private Idaho (1991) dir. by Gus Van Sant
Midnight Cowboy (1969) dir. by John Schlesinger
Easy Rider (1969) dir. by Dennis Hopper

I am grouping these films together because they are all modern responses to the Western film and each of them in some way references the myths and ideals of the Western hero and turns it inside out. In Midnight Cowboy we have Joe Buck coming from the West into grimy New York City. In My Own Private Idaho we see a the staple Western campfire scene in which Mike confesses his love for Scott - homosexual cowboys? Easy Rider is most blatant, I think, in their reference to the Western myth as Wyatt (Earp) aka "Captain America" and Billy (the Kid) go from West to East on their bikes in search of "freedom." I like the first two films on the list very much, especially Midnight Cowboy. I think My Own Private Idaho is my favorite Van Sant and arguably his best. Easy Rider is an okay movie that felt a bit too self-conscious to me, though it contains a great side character played by Jack Nicholson.

3:10 to Yuma (2007) dir. by James Mangold
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) dir. by Andrew Dominik

I group these two together for kind of obvious reasons: they are updated Westerns that were both released in 2007. 3:10 to Yuma was a lot of fun to watch and it made me want to dig back deeper to take look at older Westerns (this is also after having seen Stagecoach and My Darling Clementine). Anything related to the Western that I'd seen of films from the late '60s to the present had been kind of ironic or sought to reverse the conventions of the Western, like the group of films listed before this. However, to find straightforward, non-ironic Westerns being made today was kind of refreshing. The Assassination of Jesse James was less of a "straight-forward" Western, but still an unironic drama that was soaked in the period without wanting to turn it inside out. Come to think of it, I can probably even include No Country for Old Men in this list, though it only really has Western elements as opposed to being a typical "Western."

Well, that's about it. I have lots of more films to watch. I have The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and The Wild Bunch at home waiting for me, as well as tons of other stuff in my Netflix queue. Overall, I'm excited to have been able to more deeply explore a genre I knew little about last year. I think it would be interesting to have a different genre focus every 6 months or every year, since there's always so much to learn and take in.

26 March 2008

Going Back Home: The Longing to Return in Written on the Wind

*Disclaimer* I realize that probably none of my few readers will actually read this whole thing, but I figured I should at least put it out into the world of the interweb should some needy film student need inspiration (material for plagiarism). It's a paper on the concept of "home" in Written on the Wind by Douglas Sirk, a film that has become a favorite of mine and which I feel I can watch multiple times.

In Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind, the Hadley mansion is absurdly huge; with a winding staircase and high ceilings that echo emptiness off the white walls and marble floors, it is clear that this house is not a home. This large, extravagant house that cannot be filled is the most striking of Sirk’s interior constructions in the film and, like other interior upper-class spaces throughout the film, makes a comment on the affluence and emptiness of post-war 1950s America. In his half-ironic portrayal of the Mitch (Rock Hudson), Kyle (Robert Stack), Lucy (Lauren Bacall), and Marylee (Dorothy Malone) and in his carefully arranged elements of mise-en-scene such as color, sets, and composition of shots, Sirk asserts that “home” is not a place, but a natural state of comfort and innocence – a place that exists in the nation’s past and can only be longed for through the confines of the structures it has built around itself.

A strong contrast that is established early in the film comes through the characters of Mitch Wayne and Kyle Hadley; while Mitch is easy going and obedient, Kyle is an impassioned and irrational alcoholic. Later we find that Mitch comes from a Daniel Boone-type outdoorsman father who lives in the woods, while Kyle has grown up in affluence and privilege due to his father’s fortune made through oil. The dichotomy between these two characters established through their respective homes and their fathers, as well as the relationship they keep with their fathers, reveals Sirk’s interpretation of home in 1950s America.

When Kyle first brings Lucy home to his father after a long vacation, Mr. Hadley talks with Lucy and expresses his trust in her due to Mitch’s insight. “So you trust Mitch’s judgment more than Kyle’s?” she asks. After Lucy asks him to trust Kyle a little more, Mr. Hadley responds with, “How much liquor has he been putting away?” It is no wonder Kyle took such a long time coming back home after his wedding; the judgment from his father and their inability to communicate with each other are strong signs of a family barely held together apart from blood and money. In fact, the only intimate conversation Mr. Hadley shares with anyone is with Mitch, expressing his wish for Mitch to marry his daughter. Then, only after Mitch’s approval, does Mr. Hadley talk alone with Lucy. We never see Kyle and his father sharing any words alone together.

Unlike Kyle, Mitch shares a close relationship with his father, to whom he confides his love for Lucy, his most personal secret, and from whom he finds comfort and advice. It is not accidental that the setting of the Wayne home is in nature, on a wooden porch not unlike the early homes of Western pioneers romanticized in Westerns and early American expansion. It is exactly this type of romanticized notion of America’s past associated with nature that Sirk is evoking in his portrayal of the Wayne home and contrasting against the Hadley’s. In fact, Sirk never shows the inside of the Wayne home, only the outside, which connotes feelings of freedom, naturalness, and openness. These same feelings are again associated with nature through the use of the river as a symbol of the past and of purity, especially for Kyle and his sister, Marylee.

As Kyle takes his final steps out of the Hadley house after he has been shot his final words are, “What are we doing here? Let’s go to the river where we belong. I’ll be down at the river waiting.” His death immediately afterwards makes the river seem like a type of heaven that Kyle wishes to go to, a place equally as beautiful and unattainable in his adult life. Marylee also goes to the river, replaying a childhood scene in her mind that embodies the innocence and splendor of days past. She even drags Mitch there, wanting him to share the same feelings she has – both her nostalgia for the river and her love for him. Sirk’s view on past and present isn’t black and white, but rather ambiguous. That is to say, Sirk is not suggesting that America needs to return to a more natural and simple way of life before big business and the shiny veneer of affluence, but that this return can solely remain as a longing, for the past is the past and it can not be returned to.

One critique that Sirk is more clear about in Written on the Wind is the emptiness and constriction of the affluent life built up by the wealthy such as Jasper Hadley. Sirk suggests that the glamour of their money – seen especially in the hotel room scene in which Kyle eagerly shows Lucy her drawers filled with treasures and closets filled with gowns – is only an outer display that conceals a broken and repressed interior. Again, the Hadley house is the most prominent and striking example. Even though it is a grand and impressive home from the outside, inside there is a family that does not communicate with each other, with broken-hearted individuals longing for meaning.

The most striking and effective way that Sirk conveys this idea is through the way he sets up and shoots the interior of the Hadley house. Sirk makes full use of color by having the hallway and entrance painted in cool whites with high ceilings that give an even greater feeling of coldness and emptiness. Sirk also uses domestic objects to frame his shots – doorways, window frames, mirrors, and screens. The effect of such a composition is the conveyance of restriction and even claustrophobia; it is as if the house is trapping the characters within their frame. Mirrors add even greater effect by conjuring up images of things that can not truly grasped, but only seen; seeing through a glass darkly. Through a glass darkly is exactly how Kyle and Marylee look back to the river and to the past, their own constructed ideal of home.

Towards the end of the film the Hadley house itself becomes such a source of menace that Sirk has Mr. Hadley die by falling down the winding stairs. As Kyle leaves Lucy after slapping her she says to Mitch, “Take me out of this house” as if the house was the embodiment of everything she wants to get away from, and possibly a pointed reflection of Sirk’s own opinion. The open front door with the wind blowing in dead leaves adds to the effect by confirming the Hadley house is a cold, dead place.

The portrayals of the Hadley house suggests that Sirk is saying the concept of home is not defined merely by location – even the more romanticized natural Wayne house is not a solution since Mitch wants to leave from there as well – but that it is an ideal state of being. For Kyle and Marylee it is the river, a symbol of their past, for Mitch and Lucy it is a retreat from the life they know. In Sirk’s other excellent melodrama, All That Heaven Allows, the transcendentalist Ron Kirby tells socialite Cary Scott, “Home is where you are, Cary.” This idea of internally self-realized value as a source of comfort, a source of “being home,” is again reiterated in Written on the Wind; it is only when Mitch and Lucy finally decide to be together and break away from the things that were restricting their true feelings that they become fully-realized and it is in that scene that Sirk offers a happy ending.

Home is also the social unit of the family in Written on the Wind; it is certainly true that Mitch has a home with his father while Kyle and Marylee do not. It can also be argued that another reason that Mitch and Lucy can end up together is because they can have children together, they can create a nuclear family. The fact that Mr. Hadley is without wife is significant. Instead of marrying again, he is married to the business – this is encapsulated in the painting hung above his study in which he holds an oil rig statuette instead of a wife. Indeed, Mr. Hadley’s wealth and business displaces the affection and care he should be sharing with his children.

Kyle and Marylee’s lack of parental affection results in repressed and emotionally unfulfilled characters that seek for love in the wrong places. Marylee wants Mitch possibly for the fact that he is able to step in the shoes of her father, who she never received love from. Kyle wants to marry a girl like Lucy possibly for the approval of his father, something he never gets. When they can’t get what they want they resort to symbols of moral deterioration and vices of the rich: Kyle takes to the skies in his private plane or drowns himself in scotch; Marylee hunts around town for a man. Their fondest memories of the river are attached to a time in childhood before any of these psychological afflictions could fully take root.

During the final scenes of Written on the Wind, Mitch and Lucy get into a car as they prepare to leave the Hadleys for good. On the margin of the screen and through the framed window is the figure of Marylee, peering out to watch as the person she loves most, Mitch, leaves her. Inside, she sits in her father’s chair, clutching an erect oil rig statuette in despair then stroking it in longing – she will unavoidably continue her father’s legacy. The sequence, and the movie, ends with Mitch and Lucy leaving the gates of the Hayden estate, which close behind them and frame the house in vertical bars like those of a prison cell.

By the film’s end, Sirk’s message on the concept of home is left slightly open-ended. As discussed, it is not a physical location, but a state of being. However, this state of being can be realized, as in the case of Mitch and Lucy, or it can’t be, as in the case of Kyle and Marylee. The determining factor, then, seems to come from the past. Kyle and Marylee were raised on the affluence of a big businessman, a social condition which restricted their growth and leaves them unfulfilled. Mitch comes from a natural, pioneer-like home reminiscent of America’s own past, which eventually allows him to be self-realized and accomplished. Lucy, who seems to have no past at all, has nothing holding her back.

To audiences of the 1950s, the decade in which the film is supposed to take place, the situation of Kyle and Marylee may have been the most distressing. It may seem that Sirk is offering a warning on the pursuit of a lifestyle that bears internally empty, home-less children such as the Hadleys, but the film actually goes beyond that to say that America’s situation is the very same as the Hadleys’ and that characters such as Mitch don’t exist anymore – he is merely a vision of the past that America cannot attain again but can only long for in the same way Kyle and Marylee long for the river.

25 March 2008

RIP Paul Arthur

I just found out a film professor of mine, noted film scholar Paul Arthur, passed away this morning due to cancer. The news came as quite a surprise since he was still young and seemed healthy to me. He was a respectable professor that knew a great deal about film and was known to be demanding of his students, expecting the best from their responses and their participation. Even as haughty as he came off, it is clear he loved film and he would light up when someone would say something insightful or inspired in class. In any case, it is a shame that he is gone and his passing made me think about my own mortality, as death often does.

19 March 2008

Van Sant and Paranoid Park

In a class I took last semester entitled "Major Film Directors," my professor (Paul Arthur of Film Comment and Cineaste among other things) decided to include Gus Van Sant out of all five possible film directors whose work we could squeeze in the semester (the other four were Fritz Lang, Hitchcock, Spike Lee, and Claire Denis - weird, huh? I suppose his selection was influenced by an attempt to consider a range of different filmmaking viewpoints - male, female, black, white, old, young, gay, straight, etc. - but it did strike me as curious nevertheless). We watched Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho, and Elephant. (We were scheduled to watch Last Days, but the class was canceled). I have never seen any of Van Sant's "bigger" films such as or Good Will Hunting or Finding Forrester (and frankly, I don't really care to), but the films I just mentioned prior to that helped me to develop and idea of Van Sant's visual style, techniques, and themes. I also did a close study of his remake of Psycho, which I posted earlier, which also reflects Van Sant's style, though in a restricted way since it was a shot-for-shot remake.

Van Sant's latest Paranoid Park revisits a subject matter that Van Sant seems drawn to: outsider youth subculture. Amateur pill-popping dealers in Drugstore Cowboy, male prostitutes and druggie squatters in My Own Private Idaho, and "disturbed" school outcasts in Elephant. Had I seen more films I'm sure there could be more correlations made. In Paranoid Park we get the skateboarder subculture of Portland, focusing mostly on Alex, a soft-spoken 16-year-old with a mop of brown hair hanging in front of listless eyes.

The "outsider" is appropriate for Van Sant because his focus in film is centered around "non-straight" filmmaking. This isn't to say everything about Van Sant is prefigured by his homosexuality, but I mean to use "non-straight" as in unconventional or with disregard to preordained rules (though it sometimes does explicitly pertain to homosexuality, such as in My Own Private Idaho). Van Sant loves to mix bits of experimental film techniques between the passages of straight-forward narrative, which often catch the viewer off-guard. Van Sant also loves to play with time, cutting up narrative so as to go from past to future to present to flashback almost with no indication of what is what. The sequences in Elephant are repeated, as if Van Sant is pressing rewind on his film and making us watch the same passage again, maybe from a different angle the second time. Paranoid Park is also jumps in time, repeats certain scenes, and goes from dream to reality in smooth transition. Van Sant would give us information early on in the film that wouldn't make sense to us until we see several other scenes much later, mixing the past and present, but all the while guiding us along in a way that's easy to understand.

Van Sant also has some lucid, almost sublime footage of skateboarders shot in slo-mo through a filter that gives the image a home-movie look (a visual effect that Van Sant seems to enjoy and associate with memories and dreams). The visual aspect of the film was probably my favorite; even when I started to care less and less for the character, I was still stuck to the screen by beautiful compositions. Watch this one:

Aside from the visual aspect, the main character, Alex, and eventually the story, were incredibly dull. I think Van Sant used mostly all non-professional actors, except for Alex's girlfriend (she was the little who in Ron Howard's How the Grinch Stole Christmas!) and the detective, and their mumbling, self-conscious presence on screen was less engaging than talking to an actual glaze-eyed teen. Maybe that's what Van Sant was trying to do, but... ::yawn:: To give Van Sant some credit, at least he portrayed how teens actually talk, as opposed to the pun-a-second Juno. Still, after watching this character that you care less and less about, the story surrounding him involving manslaughter (and a particularly gruesome scene) and the detective bringing together clues starts to fall apart and eventually does as the film comes to close leaving things up in the air. Van Sant may argue that the point of the film is not in the crime thriller aspect but on Alex's self-redemption, but it's still a let-down.

In the end, it is a pretty film which I would suggest renting. Actually, see My Own Private Idaho and Drugstore Cowboy first. If that doesn't stop you, then see Paranoid Park. It's certainly interesting considering Van Sant's other work, but as a stand-alone film, it may bore (or even upset!) the average viewer.

04 March 2008

A ONE AND A TWO... : Three Well-Spent Hours

Netflix has been a God-send for me. Having two DVDs sent to me at a time from an insanely huge list of DVDs that are generally hard to find or not affordable is really a wonderful, wonderful thing. Sometimes during the school semester, however, I find my red envelope sitting next to the TV for up to a month or even more - things get busy with school or work and it's hard to find time for a movie. What exacerbates that situation is that sometimes the film is long or known to be "difficult," requiring a particular mood and chunk of time, both of which are hard to come by. Yi Yi by director Edward Yang, had been sitting in its red envelope for a long time; since I saw that it's three hours long and I didn't know anything about this director's work, I had to put it off for a while. After finally deciding to sit down to watch it (actually, it took two installments), I found myself elated with a wonderful surprise.

The film focuses on the nuclear family of the Jiangs living in modern day Taipei and peers into the lives of each of its members, each dealing with their own crises - NJ, the father, meets with an old lover while trying to deal with a failing business; Min Min, the mother, struggles to find meaning in her life with her mother in a coma and retreats to a Buddhist seminary; the gentle, moon-faced Ting Ting, the teenage daughter, finds out some tough realities about love and life for the first time; and Ying Ying, the grade-school boy, tries to keep himself occupied without getting into too much trouble at school (while also discovering his first crush).

The film opens at a wedding, with lush red velvet colors and strongly contrasted black and white tuxedos. From the onset we see the gathering of family, indiscernible at first except for a chubby groom and pregnant bride in white. After a little while we see a loud, brass woman yelling and screaming, then getting on her knees to seemingly apologize to an old woman saying, "I'm sorry. It should have been me marrying your son today," only to be ushered away by the arms. Immediately, Yang establishes the motif of the clash between past and present, decisions and regrets,love and hostility between family, and individual problems beneath a normal, happy veneer. Not that this hasn't been done before. Such a description could bring to mind Sam Mendes's American Beauty (1999) or Ang Lee's The Ice Storm (1997) among a dozen other films about family life. However, Yang is working in a different vein, a much gentler, nuanced and delicate examination of everyday life more akin to Yasujiro Ozu and any number of his family dramas.

Like Ozu, Yang does not move the camera very much. At most we will see the camera pan, but there are no dolly shots, no hand-held camera, not even tilts. Yang's camera sets us up as the quiet observer, composing most of his shots in long shot or in full shots of characters within interior and exterior spaces. This lack of visual camera style speaks to the nature of the film, which is supposed to be uninterrupted, ordinary life unfolding. He especially likes to shoot scenes from the reflections seen in glass. We either see the reflection of the city against the glass with the characters behind it, or the city behind the glass and the characters' reflections playing out the scene. This technique reinforces the idea of anonymity - these are just some people in a city; it could really be anyone. Even so, their stories are compelling; the ordinary is extraordinary.

What makes Yi Yi so special are the way life's biggest questions are brought up and dealt with in an inconclusive yet affirming way. For example, NJ has a chance to reunite with an old lover, someone whom he seems to connect with better than his own wife. Did he make the wrong decision? It goes without saying that regrets and the hold the past has on us are things that each viewer can relate with. Yet, instead of offering a black or white - this was the right decision/this was the wrong decision - Yang offers us this through NJ towards the end of the film: "I had a chance to relive my youth and thought I could make things turn out differently, but they turned out much the same or not much different. Then I thought that even if I was given a second chance, I wouldn't need it. I really wouldn't."

This bittersweet reflection is added upon by his wife's realization after coming back from a Buddhist temple in search of enlightenment and meaning after an existential breakdown, in which she says, "Things aren't really so complicated." The implication being that they really are, but the way we deal with them should not be. In each of these realizations there is a submitting to absurdity and in that an affirmation to go on living, lined with an inescapable sadness.

The wisest, however, seems to be NJ's son, Ying Ying. As he gets into the car with his dad, NJ, he says, "Daddy, I can't see what you see and you can't see what I see." NJ says he doesn't understand and Ying Ying offers this: "I can only see what's in front and not what's behind, so I can only know half of the truth, right?" NJ laughs and says that it may be true and that's what Ying Ying needs a camera for. From there Ying Ying takes pictures of the backs of his classmates' heads, offering to show them what they can't see. This little emblematic metaphor for truth is both cute and insightful, like Ying Ying. Yang suggests that truth is something we know, yet do not completely know, like the back of our heads.