25 January 2009
Like Gloria Swanson's Norma Desmond, Veronika Voss is a movie star no longer in the spotlight. She is played by Rosel Zech, who gives icy glares and constantly seems on the edge of hysteria like Swanson's character. But Veronika Voss is not as theatrically over-the-top as Norma Desmond, and not entirely as delusional; Veronika's demon is not so much her lack of work or her narcissism, but rather a very substantial addiction to heroin, making her wild fits of madness even more sympathetic.
Robert (played by Hilmar Thate, who looks like a humorless Walter Matthau) has a brief brush with Veronika on a rainy night, which begins a destructive and largely unbelievable obsession. I say unbelievable because for the most part Fassbinder refuses to allow Robert's P.O.V. to come through in the film. During moments of Veronika's seduction or Robert's increasing interest in her we are placed at a distance. For example: during their first dinner together they are shot in long shot and heavily shadowed (by Voss's insistance on candle light); when Robert goes home with Veronika we are denied scenes of seduction or lovemaking, only shown the cold, dark interior of Veronika's empty home. The close-ups we do get of Robert seem to always show him with a blank expression, refusing psychological probing. I believe Fassbinder does this on purpose, for his interest is not really Robert, though he is the main character, but those characters whom he plays foil to: Veronika and his girlfriend, Henriette.
Robert is like the two-dimensional Rock Hudson to the far more interesting split characters in Douglas Sirk's films. Veronika is frail and tortured, both repulsive and sympathetic. Henriette is beautiful, noble, smart, funny, and yet fails to leave Robert. It was Henriette I was most interested in, even more than Veronika, whose beauty I failed to grasp in comparison to Henriette. Her saintliness, and eventual martyrdom make the impact of Robert's stupid obsession even more drastic. Veronika's eventual rejection of Robert and consention of Henriette's murder for the sake of heroin makes her an anti-heroine, but more than anything she is a victim -- to the drug and the evil, bourgeoise circle of Nazi doctors who enslave her with it.
Both Lola and Veronika Voss were shot by the same DP, Xaver Schwarzenberger, who also shot Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz and Querelle. According to Jim's Film Website Fassbinder and Schwarzenberger referenced the work of the fantastic DP Gianni Di Venanzo (Fellini's 8 1/2, Antonioni's La Notte, Rosi's Salvatore Giuliano) and his high-contrast black and white work for Veronika Voss. The effect is phenomonal. The image is crisp and highly stylized. There are not many grays or any such variations between black and white, which ironically comments on the gray, murky morality of Robert's obsession and Veronika's own life. Actually, Fassbinder shoots the doctors' office, clearly the most evil characters in the film, a very sterile, in a blinding, sterile white. To contrast that, Veronika's home is mostly completely draped in black shadows. Thus, the appearance of sterile goodness, often associated with white, hides the sinister and evil of its inhabitants, while Veronika's home could be said to do the opposite, though not as absolutely. There is also a visual motif of brilliant sparkling lights. Veronika's jewelry, candle lights, studio lights, and disco balls are shot in a way that makes their dazzle pop in an almost surreal, cartoon way -- the shapes are given definite contours. The first shot of the film is almost flooded with these light shapes, though I haven't been able to understand their symbolism. Perhaps it speaks to Veronika's vanity, unsubstantiality, and transient star power; perhaps it's just pretty.
Veronika Voss ends, not surprisingly, quite sadly. The film opens with a date of 1955, though I could not discern as much about German society from the film apart from the prominence of the bourgeoise doctors and their attachment to the Nazi party (their evil is most clearly illustrated by their refusal to treat an ailing Jewish couple). I am sure there is more to be understood about postwar Germany through the film, but even as an outsider I can appreciate Fassbinder's Germany, which in this film seems like an almost alien world rendered in black and white. In any case, I can be certain to keep one message with me: don't fall in love with strange, older women you meet in the rain!
*Just a citing of funny coincidence: when I finished this post the Velvet Underground's "Heroin" came on shuffle on my Zune.
22 January 2009
Actor in a Leading Role:
I haven't seen The Wrestler, but apparently Mickey Rourke is a very possible candidate as well -- he has the washed-up-actor-making-a-comeback-in-a-sentimental-film going for him. But whatever, Penn moved me this year and I think he may have moved Academy voters as well.
Actor in a Supporting Role:
It would be breaking some rules: giving a posthumous Oscar; giving a comic book character an Oscar. But I think there is enough sentiment and hype behind Ledger to break those rules and set a new precedent.
Actress in a Leading Role:
I haven't seen The Reader but can kind of guess what kind of performance Winslet gives in it -- some unflattering close-ups of tears and emotionally-torn anguish. I don't know, it's just a gut feeling. If it were up to me I'd give it to Hathaway or Leo though.
Actress in a Supporting Role:
I have no clue for this category. I thought Ms. Davis might get it at first, based on some strange gut feeling, but I will go with my own pick, which is Cruz. She might have a chance after all.
Animated Feature Film:
Best Art Direction:
DONALD GRAHAM BURT; VICTOR J. ZOLFO - THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON
This is mostly a guess (as most of the technical categories are), but I was very impressed with the production design of this film. It is especially notable since they go through various different locations and time periods within the film, each pretty as can be.
ANTHONY DOD MANTLE - SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE
Another tough choice, but the bright colors and excessive amount of trick shots make this the most immediate choice I think.
MICHAEL O'CONNER - THE DUCHESS
Don't the English costume period dramas always get this award? I dunno. Who cares.
DANNY BOYLE - SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE
I guess I should have waited 'til the DGA made their pick, but I have a feeling it will be Danny. These guys are riding an incredible (and overblown) wave of hype. My personal pick? Gus Van Sant.
MAN ON WIRE
I have only seen this and Herzog's film. I liked them both very much, but it's a hard category to predict. Will the voters feel the optimism of a new president and go with this inspirational film? Or, do they still feel the wounds of Bush's term and pick Katrina and Trouble the Water? Who knows.
CHRIS DICKENS - SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE
I honestly have no idea. Let's just say Slumdog will sweep.
Foreign Language Film:
WALTZ WITH BASHIR
This is mostly a guess, but it seems topical enough. Right?
Music (Score & Song):
I think Slumdog's going to get both of these. They will at least get best song for "Jai Ho."
Unfortunately. I was skeptical of its chances at first, but now it nearly seems inevitable. It's "exotic," topical, sentimental, and an underdog. My second guess would be Benjamin Button. My personal pick is Milk.
Writing (Adapted Screenplay):
SIMON BEAUFOY - SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE
Oh, God, I don't know. Will Slumdog really sweep this bad? I just hope I'm wrong (unless there's money on the line).
Writing (Original Screenplay):
DUSTIN LANCE BLACK - MILK
I'm happy to see Happy-Go-Lucky, Frozen River, In Bruges, and WALL-E on the ballot (where's Woody??), but I get the feeling that Milk might get it in the end. I would love Frozen River to get it.
19 January 2009
Lola juggles three men throughout the film: she is Schuckert's mistress; she plays virgin to von Bohm; and she has a casual relationship with the whorehouse drummer, Esslin, who is also von Bohm's employee. Lola, like Maria, is a struggling woman working from almost nothing, as a single-mother-prositute. Unlike the established screen cliche, however, Lola does not have a heart of gold inside of that exploited, undressed body. She seems to have no moral conflicts whatsoever as she manipulates and undresses for whoever she feels.
Her rise to power feels even less deserved than it does with Maria, for whom I tend to sympathize with more. Lola feels more like a child throwing tantrums when she can't get what she wants, and I think Fassbinder is certainly making that distinction between Maria and Lola clear: he places dolls around Lola's room and coats it in horizontal bars of rainbow color, like a child's fantasy room to emphasize her infantile nature. Lola's primary color, however, is red -- a color that evokes passion and blood. Anyone who enters into Lola's world wears a shade of red on their face through Fassbinder's playful and exaggerated use of light filters.
My lack of sympathy, and even interest in, Lola is accomplished not only through her child-like behavior and her ammorality, but in the way she gets displaced by the far more interesting and nuanced Schuckert. Schuckert is a loud, naturally-magnetic man who is portly, rich, and laughs out loud at everyhting. He is the most outspoken (and corrupt) member of the city's unashamedly corrupt govnernment, who altogether seem as if they walked off the screen from THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISE and into Fassbinder's film. On paper, Shuckert is a complete scumbag -- he is an opportunistic, filthy rich society man who sleeps with a whore (who he claims he owns) that tries to take down the noble-minded von Bohm -- but he is played with such charm and energy (by Mario Adorf) that you can't help but like him against your better judgment. He is like the drunken Falstaff whose cowardice and corruptness is terrible, but who you love anyway. The mixed feelings that Fassbinder previously stirred up through Maria Braun is brought on by Schuckert in Lola instead of the female protagonist -- to me anyway.
Though von Bohm (who looks a bit like Jack Nance from the Lynch universe) at first seems like the "good guy" of the film for whom we are supposed to want to model ourselves after, Fassbinder (of course) ends up making him as contradictory and amoral as everyone else. Fassbinder refuses any clear answers in his films and does not offer any models of goodness since he felt such representations would be disengenuous -- you are being spoon-fed ideologies and ways to be, which is counter-productive to Fassbinder's intention which is to discover your own self and your own sense of morality.
I found a very interesting and insightful summation of Fassbinder's intention in this regard on Jim's Reviews:
"Fassbinder believed that all people are fundamentally sado-masochistic, caused by childhood rearing which makes them excessively dependent. He saw this desperate need for a 'leader' continue throughout [his] entire life, even as he observed people's simultaneous frustration and desire to destroy the 'superior' whom they had raised up. Consequently, he saw fascism as a latent condition of middle-class life, not only in the period leading up to the Nazis, but long before, and not just in Germany. (Fassbinder said that this was why he repeatedly broke with people who had become too dependent on him, or he on them: take that explanation as you will.) But he was not a confirmed pessimist, believing that 'mutual dependence,' and the resulting fascism, could be overcome.
Fascism, he believed, can only be stopped when it is understood through self-awareness, which begins with the individual – who has moved beyond mutual dependence and other forms of socially-induced blindness to an authentic state. Of course, none of the characters in the BRD films achieves that ideal of self-awareness; and that is exactly Fassbinder's point. As he once remarked, social 'revolution should take place not on the screen but in real life.'"
17 January 2009
In this case, the heroine/anti-heroine is Maria Braun, a newly-wed woman who works herself up the economic ladder through manipulation and assertion of will. I say heroine AND anti-heroine because she is certainly a mixed character with varying levels of allowed sympathy. She begins the film as completely sympathetic: her husband is off to the frontlines the day after she is married, he is assumed dead, and all the while her conviction of his return and her love for him are unwavering. As the film progresses, however, the Maria's morality and the degree of her love for her husband start to become questionable as she discovers the value of her body and as she makes herself sexually available for things she wants. Eventually, it seems as if the desire for materialistic wealth displaces the genuine love shown in the beginning. However, it's not really that simple, as we are forced to ask: Who says she doesn't deserve what she can manage to get, especially in a war-torn country?
The film certainly plays with the idea of transition in several ways. The film begins in muted colors -- grays, browns, dull greens -- as it begins in a still-ravaged Germany directly after the war (the opening sequence, by the way, is one of the best I've ever seen: it is a mix of absurdity, violence, and comedy that caught me so off guard I found my mouth had somehow opened when it was over) and gradually gets brighter and more colorful. Maria herself goes through a physical change of sorts through her gain of material possessions and wealth, particularly in the way she dresses and carries herself. Both of these things mirror and match the economic boom happening throughout Germany in the world of the film, though I would suggest that they are done so ironically. It seems the brighter the film, Germany, and Maria's economic status get the darker and more morally ambiguous she becomes as a character. This culminates in the explosive ending which takes place in Maria's beautiful house in her finest gown on a sunny day.
The Marriage of Maria Braun marks a rather large departure from my previous two viewings -- Chinese Roulette and In a Year With 13 Moons -- in its production and tone. I suppose this film is characteristic of Fassbinder's last "phase," which is his Hollywood phase. The story is derived from Michael Curtiz's Mildred Pierce starring Joan Crawford, which I have not seen. The other two films in the BRD trilogy play on ideas seen in other films Fassbinder has a fondness for (Lola is Josef von Sternberg's Blue Angel; Veronika Voss is Billy Wilder's Sunset Blvd.). The film still manages to have visual flair through interesting camera movements and art direction, but these things call less attention to themselves as they had in the previous films. It feels like Fassbinder is working more within the realm of realism, only with bits and pieces of Brechtian isolation and humor popping up every now and then when you least expect it. One extreme example is seen when Maria is leaving a restaurant towards the end of the film. She is suddenly pushed to the background in a constricted frame as she faints (or does something, I don't remember, or I wasn't watching) while int he foreground in a larger frame a waiter is groping the bare breasts of a woman. All the while a radio announces that Germany has decided to go through with rearmament on the audio track.
Other than little bits like that, however, Fassbinder's film feels more conventional, more Hollywood. I believe the film gets less conventional as it goes on (apart from that tragicomic opening), though I would have to watch it again to confirm it. I did notice that the editing was done in a rather fragmented way, making it difficult to keep up with the passage of time in a jumpily linear way. We also are not shown what one would think to be an essential scene: Maria and her husband romantically together. Her (apparent) undying love for her husband is Maria's motive for everything, but we hardly know her husband on screen and thus it seems Maria hardly does either. She even says they had only known each other a day and a half past the marriage -- a wedding night we are denied of. Thus, Maria's love seems incredible and perhaps Fassbinder is suggesting that that's not quite it entirely.
Maria Braun is played by Hanna Schygulla, who reminds me a bit of Naomi Watts and does a really fantastic job. She manages to have me both sympathize with and loath Maria, in love with her either way. There are other levels of meaning to Fassbinder's film -- such as the use of the name Braun (as in Eva Braun, Hitler's lover) or other aspects of Germany's history -- which are somewhat lost on me without research. In any case, The Marriage of Maria Braun was really excellent and I look forward to the next two parts of the BRD Trilogy.
14 January 2009
The story focuses on Elvira, a lonely man-turned-woman who underwent a sex change operation in Casablanca for the man she loves. Things start badly for Elvira from the beginning of the film, when she is beaten by male whores, and get even worse as she tries to seek Anton Seitz, her love interest, to give an apology and to seek his love. Seitz is now a powerful pimp-turned-millionaire businessman who hardly remembers Elvira (as Erwin, her former male self). The forgiveness Elvira seeks has to do with an interview she gave in which she mentioned his name, later fearing he will be enraged by slander. The trip Elvira takes to Anton is a search for identity, love, and life's meaning, which turns into a dream-like and surreal journey which unfolds in a series of bizzare tableau.
Elvira is powerfully played by Volker Spengler, who invests into the portrayal of Elvira's emotions and inner-turmoil with everything he has. At first Elvira looks absurd. When she first appears on screen she so little resembles a woman she seems almost laughable: a rather well-built man with a big jaw walking around in garters, silk underwear, and a bra. After a while, as Elvira's lover Christoph makes a big break up scene with her and she is tormented, it is clear that Elvira is not a burlesque character, but rather someone confused, lonely, and hitting wall after wall of bad luck. Spengler's acting and the tone Fassbinder sets through camera duration allow for Elvira to be relatable and sympathetic in a way that looks past the exterior and goes straight for the heart.
Though there is plenty of attention paid to the exterior as well. As with the two previous Fassbinder films I've seen (Fear Eats the Soul and Chinese Roulette), 13 Moons is visually beautiful. For someone who makes films at such an incredible rate, it's hard to believe that Fassbinder's films feel so fully-realized: the style is so finely-tuned to effectively convey the emotional/thematic content that there is hardly ever a time when sound and image aren't working together in an intriguing and fascinating way.
The most dramatic example of this would certainly have to be the butchery scene. Elvira and her friend Red Zora walk through a slaughterhouse as Elvira speaks about her past as Erwin: how she used to work in the slaughterhouse and loved it; how she met her ex-wife, who stayed with her even after the sex change operation; how she used to rehearse with Christoph for his acting parts. As Elvira says all this, the image of her and Red Zorba become displaced by the incredibly graphic images of cows having their throats cut, hanging, being skinned, and butchered. Thus Elvira's monologue becomes a voiceover of sorts as the two bodies are seen walking through the hanging carcasses, which removes enough realism for the horror/beauty of the slaughterhouse to seem like some delirious dream. This sequence reaches a rather incredible climax as the audio tracks have Elvira reciting Goethe in crescendoing volume while Handel's somewhat melancholy concerto plays at the same time. As this happens the images of the butchery become somewhat more graphic (I think skin being ripped off). The result is somewhat dizzying and horrifying. The butchered animals could be interpreted several ways, but for me the scene reminded me of man's fate to die as flesh, which is both melancholy and somewhat insightful.
My heart ached to see Elvira as she continues to seek Anton. I don't want to give away any spoilers, but things don't go well. There is a dark irony in the way we find out how Elvira has decided to castrate herself and become a woman, and it becomes almost unbearable to the point of becoming the blackest of comedy. And Fassbinder does inject some humor, too (in the form of a Martin and Lewis musical number, and in Anton himself), which only makes things sadder. In the end, however, 13 Moons is a completely honest film and I feel like it says a lot about Fassbinder, especially knowing that he made it after he discovered his lover committed suicide. Though it is a bit of a downer, it is not completely dreary -- Linklater points out that Fassbinder insists that suicide claims the happy moments in life, not the sad ones. He quotes a character of Fassbinder's previous film, Third Generation, as saying, "As long as movies are depressing, life isn't." Let's hope so.
12 January 2009
Chinese Roulette starts with with Sirkian images of a woman looking out of a large bedroom window, with high, brightly colored (yellow in this case) walls squeezing her from both sides. The use of glass is very important for Sirk films for it underlies the thematic ideas of false surface images vs. reality as well as the ability to see outside but be trapped inside. Fassbinder makes use of this by having characters constantly shot through, looking through, or touching glass.
"There is a wonderful expression: seeing through a glass darkly. Everything, even life, is inevitably removed from you. You can't reach, or touch, the real. You just see reflections." - Sirk
Fassbinder also has a wonderful way of shooting within domestic spaces, making full use of compositional framing and camera movement to emphasize the claustrophobic nature of homes. In Chinese Roulette he starts in a roomy apartment and then moves to a mansion in the country, both managing to reflect the same sense of claustrophobia by shooting characters between door frames or objects such as liquor cabinets and furniture. Many times a character's face will be obstructed by a door frame, by someone else's face, by a bottle of Cognac, suggesting both a sense of crowding as well as emotional isolation.
The story is centered around a crippled girl's plan to confront her parents simultaneously about both of their affairs by managing to have them unexpectedly meet at the same summer mansion. The father and his lover, played by a slightly aged Anna Karina, enter the parlor to find his wife and her lover on the floor in the primary stages of love-making. The couple get up from the floor and then the husband and wife laugh while the men shake hands and the women kiss. The girl's plan almost seems to have failed as her parents seem to be the least bit shamed, which evokes a strange emotional reaction. When the daughter arrives at the house she is loathed by everyone - from both her parents, their lovers, and the hired help - which seems understandable as Fassbinder makes her completely unattractive, spiteful and malicious, despite her handicap.
This lack of emotional connection lasts throughout the film as no one is identifiable as completely sympathetic. This is further pushed by the stilted, unrealistic acting and stylistic diversion of Fassbinder's camera and art direction. All of this results with an incredibly cold, isolating film. I suppose this could be considered part of Fassbinder's stage and anti-theater education, though I can't really comment on that. The Brechtian isolation through mise-en-scene is something that Sirk constantly employed. During scenes of emotional intensity there would be some incredibly obtrusive object or color that would draw your attention away from the character's emotion towards that object. For example, during the finale of Written On the Wind in which Marylee (Dorothy Malone) tearfully admits that Mitch did not kill her brother, the emotional intensity is undercut by the ridiculous, huge black hat she wears. The effect is one of removal from the screen world and a forced consciousness of the film's construction; we notice style and are reminded that everything we are watching is fake.
The problem I had with Fassbinder's implement of Brechtian isolation was that the emotional content of the film never feels that genuine. Unlike Sirk's films, Fassbinder does not even seem to pretend that there is something worth weeping about. Everything is stilted and sterile. Thus, the isolation through style is not really detracting from emotional content but from itself, making for a less interesting contradiction. The performances were never engaging in the first place and none of the emotions believable. In any case, the film was still incredibly interesting and visually fantastic (this film was shot by Michael Ballhaus, who shot many of Scorsese's films). I suppose this just isn't the best place to start for Fassbinder.
07 January 2009
1. Synecdoche, New York dir. by Charlie Kaufman
Kaufman takes his examination of the creative process to incredible lengths, offering an intriguing, complicated, and often times profound film that warrants repeated viewings. My head was spinning after seeing this and I almost immediately wanted to see it again.
2. Wall-E dir. by Andrew Stanton
I dare anyone not to love Wall-E. It has been said many times before, but the first half of the film chronicling Wall-E's existence on Earth by himself with his cockroach and then courtship with EVE was the most enjoyable 40 min. I've had all year.
3. Rachel Getting Married dir. by Jonathan Demme
I feel this film has not been given enough love (except from A.O. Scott at the Times), but it affected me in a very direct way. I certainly appreciated the Altman-esque atmosphere. And Anne Hathaway can act! Who knew?
4. Let the Right One In dir. by Tomas Alfredson
Probably the most fun (besides Wall-E) I had in the theater all year. Equal parts terrifying and funny (mostly at the same time), I was constantly glued to the screen: either for its wonderful compositions, interesting characters, or to see the unexpected.
5. Frozen River dir. by Courtney Hunt
An incredibly original low-budget thriller with solid performances and convincing story. There are moments in this film in which I was almost overwhelmed with sadness.
6. Wendy and Lucy dir. by Kelly Reichardt
A quietly poignant film that resonates on several emotional levels (most immediately with my love for dogs). Michelle Williams is absolutely lovely and controls the film's tone with her fantastically engaging performance.
7. Flight of the Red Balloon dir. by Hsiao-hsien Hou
A wonderful, meditative film that quietly pulled me along with Simon, the son of separated parents. The floating, detached nature of the red balloon seen throughout the film reflects the established mood -- through long takes and shots through windows and glass. Reminded me of Yang's Yi Yi in its quiet power. Binoche is great.
8. Vicky Cristina Barcelona dir. by Woody Allen
It's the Woody Allen I love -- sardonic humor, intellectual snobbery, moral conflicts -- paired with lovely cinematography and an intriguing cast: Hall channels Woody, Bardem acts the way you think he would, Cruz absolutely burns up the screen, and Johansson is Johansson: attractive and unlikable.
9. Milk dir. by Gus Van Sant
Harvey Milk was the most inspiring screen figure of the year. The unabashed optimism and assertive claim on life (underlied with a slight sense of doom) that Van Sant conveys through Penn's Milk was sincere and effective. Strong performances all around, especially by Penn and the smoldering Brolin.
10. Happy-Go-Lucky dir. by Mike Leigh
I didn't think I would like this film at first. Poppy was too annoying and her "happiness" wasn't contagious. After a while, however, I realized that Leigh was going after something more nuanced and balanced than "we should all just be happy." And the colors are lovely.
Runners Up: Man On Wire, Encounters at the End of the World, Dark Knight, In Bruges, Gran Torino
This list excludes some films I haven't seen (Che; Soderbergh, The Wrestler;Aranofsky, Waltz With Bashir; Folman, among others) which might very well replace some on this list when I do see them.
06 January 2009
McCabe & Mrs. Miller
Presbyterian Church is an elegy
to the West -- a deathbed
of snow and loneliness where
men talk under their breath
to no one in particular,
asking for a drink or
maybe some love.
He sits and wipes his hat,
flashes the smile of a stranger
while he deals out hands
some hope to win, though
And she loves him
like some feverish dream,
but cannot show it,
not even to herself;
And he loves her,
the funny thing,
but can't say
how or why.
So faceless men chase him
in the bluewhite death
of a landscape that is his
to walk alone,
wherein his last goodbye
is made to a yellow orb
floating in a glass of whiskey.
For she is staring at the surface
of some false egg
on which she dances with him
and is only then able
to smile and say:
I need you,