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.