28 May 2009

Goddamnit, Kazan

I just finished watching Elia Kazan's 1961 melodrama Splendor in the Grass, a movie I found myself very absorbed in. I've mentioned my love for melodrama before, especially as done by Douglas Sirk, but my love for those films have always come from a more intellectual level -- I get a kick out of the subtle hints of interior meaning or catching some bit of irony -- or are based on purely aesthetic reasons -- the colors, widescreen composition, framing. The emotional aspects of the films does connect sometimes, but never completely.

Splendor in the Grass, however, had me emotionally invested in the characters in a way completely devoid of irony. I mean, sure, some scenes with the parents did seem like overt caricatures, but every character has more than one layer, and some of them have several. Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood as Bud and Deanie are multi-faceted, beautiful, stupid, sympathetic, and tragic and I loved watching them. Despite the grandness (and maybe heavy-handedness) of the messages and situations in the film, there is an earnestness that gives the film its life.

Kazan most certainly has a gift for working with actors (a bit of an understatement, sure), and his investment into performance adds the transcendent element of his films. Some may say that the many highlighted performances in Kazan's films are over-reaching displays of forced emotion that verge on camp, but I tend to disagree. If you are in the right mood these characters can really get to you, despite whatever standards we have of "realistic" acting nowadays. I was knocked out by Brando in On the Waterfront, nearly heart-broken. I remember seeing James Dean in East of Eden and being completely convinced of his insecurity and longing despite his stunning beauty. I was even blown away by Andy Griffith in The Face in the Crowd, who felt so large and explosive on screen and went way beyond whatever preconceptions I had about him.

These are all great films too, not just great performances, and I want to cherish Kazan. But I can't. And this is simply because he named names during the '50s under the HUAC investigation. It's such a nasty bit of information that it gives Kazan a stigma worse than almost anything else except being part of the Nazi party or the KKK. I forgive a lot for the sake of artists -- affairs, craziness, being mean and awful to people -- but for some reason Kazan's naming names feels almost unforgivable. Perhaps it's too easy for me to say in hindsight fifty years after the fact from my computer, but I don't know, it still bothers me.

As much as I love On the Waterfront, the fact that it is an allegory to justify ratting people out really tears at me. I remain conflicted. Are there worse crimes? Probably. If I were at the Oscars (dream on) the year Kazan received his honorary award, would I -- like Ed Harris and Nick Nolte -- refuse to stand and applaud? Maybe not. I would probably just sit and clap sarcastically. Or perhaps I would pretend I had to go to the bathroom and avoid the whole thing.

18 May 2009

Suburban Living in BIGGER THAN LIFE

At one point in Nicholas Ray's Bigger Than Life (1956) Ed Avery sits down to dinner with his wife, Lou, and his son, Richie. By this time in the film it is already clear that Ed is in the midst of severe psychosis caused by his addiction to the drug Cortisone, which is supposed to suppress some deadly, rare disease. The normally intimate setting is rendered extremely tense and rigid -- both wife and son nervous about setting off the ticking time bomb that Ed has become. It's a setting that is echoed in other films (remember this melodrama-inspired Oscar winner?) and one that often allows for sudden, unexpected outbursts from over-burdened men.

Bigger Than Life is probably the darkest depiction of suburban family life that I've ever seen come out of Hollywood in the '50s . The story focuses on Ed Avery (played by James Mason, who also produced), a middle-aged, middle-class school teacher who secretly works a second job at a cab garage a few days a week to provide for his family. He suffers from some dizzy spells and occasionally starts fainting, finally being admitted to the hospital when his wife catches him. The doctors describe his condition as a rare one induced by stress, for which they suggest Cortisone as a remedy. They warn Ed that it is a new drug and that there may be harmful side effects, but Ed seems to think all of his problems are automatically solved by the miracle drug and takes the doctors' warnings lightly. Of course, Ed starts becoming addicted to the drug and abuses it, resulting in fits of rage and psychosis that builds to the point where he plays God and attempts to murder his son.

Now, the social critique in the film is obvious -- Ed is a victim of the pressures expected of him as a white male living in the suburbs during the '50s and suffers from severe repression in a society that is all about presentation and following the rules, yadda yadda yadda. Within the first 20 min. or so when Ed's day-to-day is shown it becomes obvious that he: is attracted to another teacher, is ashamed of secretly working a less respectable job, and is utterly tired and bored with it all -- "Let's face it: we're dull," he says to his wife after bridge night with other couples. The idea of repression in a 1950s American household has become a nearly banal observation by now, but even today Ray's film strikes me as poignant in how far he takes that idea -- to the point where it almost becomes a horror story.

Cortisone starts to offer a release for Ed, not just from his ailments, but from the need to repress his desires and frustrations. In short, Cortisone turns Ed into a hyper-male. After checking out how good his co-worker (the one he is attracted to) looks in a stylish dress, Ed takes his wife to a fashion boutique and has her walk up and down in different dresses he can't afford, sitting in a big chair and taking in the pleasure of both his wife's beauty and the ability to order around the women employees. Even after Lou becomes tired of walking, Ed insists she go on, pushing his power to give orders to the limits (and also giving us a taste of a similar scenario that will be taken to extreme lengths in Hitchcock's Vertigo). Ed's hyper masculinity is then taken out on his son Richie, who he starts to control by insisting on endless football practice and studying, denying him of food or rest. Richie becomes the outlet for Ed's own personal failures -- as a football star, as a scholar -- and his insistance that Richie do what he couldn't goes so far that it becomes terroristic torture. Beyond Richie, Ed starts bossing everyone around, from the milkman to his best friend, putting down whoever he can in order to make himself feel bigger.

Richie, though obedient at first, eventually breaks down: "I hate him. I hate him!" he tells his mother, after being forced to do math for many hours without food. He is James Dean's Jim Stark as a little kid, also wearing a red jacket. Meanwhile Lou, the ever-obedient wife, is unconditionally supportive. Lou's unconditional support of the raving maniac that Ed is a pointed critique at the lack of power given to women within the household and the endless shit they're supposed to put up with for the sake of the man. Lou (wonderfully played by Barbara Rush) never stops believing in Ed, which in many ways makes her as delusional as Ed, allowing the cycle of abuse to continue and escalate. Only after Wally, Ed's best friend, convinces her that Ed is insane does she start to take some secret action against Ed, but by then it is nearly too late. Ed takes his power trip so far that he assumes the authority of God, the ultimate patriarch, and decides that he must slay his son as Abraham was told to slay Isaac. (After Lou points out that God stopped Abraham, Ed famously says, "God was wrong!")

The nature of Ed's disease is so ambiguous to me in the film that it seems non-existant. The doctors' explanation seems as arbitrary and ridiculous as the psychologist's at the end of Psycho -- clearly for Ray, as it was for Hitchcock, really does very little to explain the true meaning of Ed's state of being. The disease seems to be life itself within this middle-class suburban milieu. It is inescapable, it is fated. The stress and fatigue that seem to form Ed's illness is caused by the worry of financial security, a burden placed on the male in the 1950s. It is something that could be made easier if Lou returned to work, but Ed won't allow it. As long as Ed lives life the way he does he is destined to suffer: he is crazy if he takes the pills, but he is dead if he doesn't. Or, perhaps more accurately, Ed is doomed, pills or no pills -- this stuff was a long time coming.

Ray's fatalistic viewpoint is made eerily clear by the film's end, in which Ed suddenly "snaps out of it" after awaking in a hospital bed, apologizing for the way he behaved to his family. The real kicker, though, is that Ed still has to take Cortisone in order to survive. The doctors tell Lou that she has to be responsible for his dosage to make sure he doesn't abuse the drug again, but as we all know and have seen throughout the film, Lou has no power over Ed. The last image then becomes a cringing, ironic one: Ed tells his family to come closer, embracing them both with one arm around each. On the surface it is an image of love and security, but on a deeper level, after seeing the worst of Ed, it is an image of a controlling father.

Why isn't this film on DVD? We need more Nicholas Ray! I have In a Lonely Place and On Dangerous Ground coming next on Netflix. Ray is quickly becoming one of my favorite American directors.

15 May 2009

A Moment w/ Nick Ray

I recently saw Nicholas Ray's Bigger Than Life (in less-than-optimal conditions, i.e. on Hulu -- but hey, I'll take what I can get) and was struck by the incredibly dark shades with which Ray's portrait of '50s family life is painted. I intend to write a few things on it, but in the meantime please enjoy this short clip of Ray explaining a very simple, but profound, point on a hero's characterization. One of the many great examples of looking cool by talking effortlessly with a cigarette dangling on the edge of your lips.

08 May 2009

Revisiting DEAD MAN

Though I have not yet seen Jarmusch's new film, The Limits of Control, I see it has quickly become a divisive film, which only makes me want to see it more (as I eventually will). In the meantime, I revisited his 1995 film Dead Man, both as an appetizer and as a reminder of what draws me to Jarmusch's cinema.

The film begins in a surrealistic dream world reminiscent of Fellini's 8 1/2 as William Blake (Depp) travels from Cleveland to a town called Machine. Blake drifts in and out of sleep, as we so often do on long rides, waking up and looking around him in a mix of confusion and awe at the changing passengers who always seem to be staring at him. He looks out the window and sees brief glimpses of the American landscape -- prairies, wagons, teepees -- then falls back to sleep, indicated by a fade to black.

This opening sequence sets the tone for the rest of the film, which is also a bit detached, a bit surreal. Blake remains half-awake with a bullet lodged in his chest, constantly moving but with no idea where to or why -- just like the train, there is a force that keeps pulling him forward and Blake always remains a passenger.

Blake's entrance into the town of Machine is probably best described as a nightmare. The town is full of Western iconography -- dusty saloon, saddled horses, tough cowboys, wooden storefronts built alongside a muddy main road -- but they are presented in such an exaggerated, cartoonish way that they immediately invert the root of American identity that is so thoroughly glorified through American Western cinema and mythology. Jarmusch also brings a critical eye to the capitalist structure of the town -- the iron mill -- which is photographed so as to seem like some hellish labyrinth. The offices look like something out of a Kafka story, while Mr. Dickinson, the big boss (Robert Mitchum with a shotgun) is the devil incarnate -- again reminding us that the West was a place of business opportunism more than anything else.

To call Blake a Western hero would seem laughable, though that is the position he is given. Unlike the wandering heroes of traditional Western films, however, Blake lacks courage, determination, masculinity, or any of the traits one would expect of the cowboys we've seen personified by John Wayne or Jimmy Stewart. He completely lacks agency of any sort. The only time we see him really go after anything is when he wants some beans. In fact, Blake's (lack of) mission is displaced by (his Native American companion) Nobody's, who is certain that Blake is the reincarnated ghost of the 18th-19th century poet/painter/printmaker and that he must be returned to the other side. At first it seems like laughable mysticism, but as the journey becomes increasingly strange it becomes harder to tell what makes sense.

The journey becomes stranger through the changing scenery, which continues to get further and further away from the settings we are accustomed to in Western films, eventually ending up in what seems to be a magnificent redwood forest. The journey also becomes stranger through the increasingly strange characters -- Iggy Pop in a dress, a cannibalistic bounty hunter, bald twin sheriffs -- who come across Blake's path. The oddity of Blake's encounters perhaps reflect a critical reflection of the American character (blood-thirsty, cannibalistic, deranged, opportunists, racist, etc.), which is strongly contrasted by the amusing, insightful, and entirely charming Nobody. Jarmusch does not even seem to try to offer some balance in his portrayal of white Americans in contrast to the Native Americans (there is not a single likable white person in the film aside from Blake), and perhaps Jarmusch would insist that after what the Native Americans had to suffer there doesn't need to be -- things can be a little more black and white in terms of good and evil. I think Little Big Man made the same point. It's condemnation, though, is lightened by the nature of the caricatures and by the tone of the scolding, which is often comic. Perhaps the best summation of the critique comes from Nobody's catchphrase: "Stupid fucking white man."

Jarmusch seems constantly interested in the individual finding his place within a world often seen as harsh or absurd (and usually in America). The journey plot allows for the narrative to be constructed around a series of tableau, allowing for unique individual encounters that can exist independent of each other. Think of Don Johnston's journey into his past and the series of wives in Broken Flowers or the American scenes uncovered through the journey of Willie and Eddie in Stranger Than Paradise. Knowing this, it makes complete sense that Jarmusch would make a movie like Coffee and Cigarettes which takes his love of individual set pieces and fragments them into their own entities within a tapestry of a larger film.

These set pieces are heavily dependent on the idiosyncracies of conversation and our ability (or inability) to communicate. In Ghost Dog that communication is independent of language, as seen through Ghost Dog and Raymond the ice cream man, while in Coffee and Cigarettes it is all about wordplay and the gap that exists between intention and delivery. In Dead Man Jarmusch gives special attention to words through his quoting of William Blake's poetry through Nobody and the fact that Nobody can speak several languages. Despite that, there is a contradictory insistence that words are meaningless -- as displayed through the promise of a job in writing which yields no job, and a particularly funny scene in which Nobody puts on Blake's hat and mouths empty words (as a white man would) so as to make speech seem silly.

What strikes me most about Dead Man, however, is the numerous scenes which play on the senses. The black and white photography, though adding a distanced, historic feel, is so beautifully photographed (by Robby Muller) that the tactile quality is incredibly enhanced. The touch of Blake's hand in the river, for example. This is added upon by the meditative tone of the film, which lends itself to a more poetic, reflective mood in which more can be absorbed by the image. It is of course very ironic that Blake remains blind through half the film (since Nobody steals his glasses) since all around him is incredible beauty.

At the same time, however, that sensory quality of the film makes the violence that much more keenly felt. Certain scenes -- such as Nobody trying to extract the bullet with a knife, or a bounty hunter squashing a skull -- are absolutely cringe-worthy. We never forget the bullet lodged in Blake's chest and are constantly reminded of his mortality, and thus ours. And maybe that's the whole point (the film is called Dead Man, after all). What does it mean to be alive? What does death take away from us?

The most poetic and unforgettable moment in which we are reminded of mortality comes when Blake unexpectedly finds a dead fawn in the forest with a bullet through its neck. He lies with it and puts his hand on the body while Jarmusch photographs the scene from a God's eye view, making Blake, the fawn, and all of existence seem frail, fleeting, and (most importantly) tender, and even beautiful.

By the end of the film I feel somewhat disconnected, as if I too am floating along some river on which I have been placed and do not understand. Yet the experience of it is something unique, and to me quite rewarding. Perhaps "minimalist" and "existential" may be adjectives that are turn-offs for some, but they really only describe part of the film, and they hardly touch on the experience of it.

07 May 2009

Donald Richie Speaks

Writer, scholar, critic, and expert on all things Japanese, Donald Richie is often the first place to go to when Western people want to understand more about Japan. For me, his book A Hundred Years of Japanese Film is a constant reference point for understanding Japanese films. His book on the films of Akira Kurosawa also helped me to gain deeper insight into my favorite director's works. Here is a video of a public conversation he had recently at Berkley, discussing his relationship with Japan and Japanese film (at 85, wow). Hit the 23 min. mark for some words on Kurosawa. Enjoy.

01 May 2009

Masked Cinema: Accepted Illusions Become Reality in CLOSE-UP

In speaking about his film Ten, Abbas Kiarostami quotes Nietzsche by saying, “that which is truly deep needs a mask” (more commonly translated as “everything profound loves the mask”). Though Kiarostami uses that quote to talk about Ten, its significance in Kiarostami’s relationship to cinema is perhaps best understood by applying it to Close-Up.

The mask is a potent symbol for the paradox of reality and the limits of understanding – it works to cover up one identity and to reveal another, both being parts of the same whole. Perhaps most significantly, a mask insists on accepting fantasy and mystery in a way that makes illusion a part of reality; it asks us to accept the paradox. Similarly, Kiarostami’s Close-Up forces us to confront the paradox of the truth claim in documentary cinema by mixing direct documentation (fact) and reenactment with characters playing themselves (fiction) in order to suggest that perhaps they are one in the same – illusion is reality; fiction is fact; fantasy is truth.

The masks in Close-Up appear in the various forms of presented reality that frustrate our desire to know the truth of the story. The first of these comes through the journalist, Farazmand, with whom the film starts. As he rides to the Ahankhah house in a taxi cab he says that Sabzian’s case “seems like a good story” and that it’s “sensational,” bringing awareness to the process of storytelling and interpretation through the newspaper, a medium which claims factual authority. Kiarostami does this in order to make a comparison of it with documentary cinema, another authoritative medium, and his own film in its attempt to get at the truth of Sabzian’s case – Kiarostami goes further to make the connection between the newspaper and his film by having the opening credits play over images of newspapers being printed. In both cases, a form of artifice, a mask, is being presented as authoritative truth when underneath it there lays a deeper reality. What that reality is, however, can only be discovered by acknowledging the artifice through which it is being presented, which is why Kiarostami so strongly plays out the reflexive elements of the film.

When the Ahankhahs are introduced to the film, the son explains that the way they are depicted in the newspaper does not reflect the reality of their character: “The article depicts us as credulous; that is not true.” Thus, Kiarostami unveils the mask of the newspaper, citing the shortcomings of interpretation. However, in doing so, the issue is only further complicated by the fact that Kiarostami has already acknowledged that his film cannot claim any more truth than the newspaper – the mask of the newspaper story is unveiled to reveal the mask of the film. Though it appears that the interview Kiarostami is having with the Ahankhahs is direct documentation of an actual, organic conversation, the self-awareness in the son’s comment forces us to question whether it is an actual interview or one that Kiarostami has written and is being acted. Even if the interview is an actual one, we would have to consider whether the Ahankhahs are being themselves or are acting as idealized versions of themselves for the camera. At the beginning of the conversation the father pleads, “Mr. Kiarostami, the plaintiffs in this case wish to be presented favorably,” highlighting their awareness of the fact that they are presenting themselves for public evaluation and want to appear a certain way. To add to the ambiguity of the situation, the father tells Kiarostami that he actually knew Sabzian was a hoaxer the whole time and was playing along, raising suspicion to how much he can be trusted – if he lies to his family, then how are we to trust him in this interview? His desire to be presented favorably certainly allows us to be suspicious of anything he says. He goes on to say, “Now you are giving me a different version and I am confused.” He certainly isn’t the only one. What is Kiarostami’s different version? Is it a script the family did not want to recite? Is it the newspaper’s article?

The numerous unanswered questions and layers of ambiguity presented in the beginning section of the film seem to function toward a state of complete confusion for the viewer. It is as if Kiarostami purposefully fractures the chronology of the narrative and presents us with these contradicting understandings of the story in order to disallow us to form our own opinions on Sabzian in any definitive way. Sabzian’s entry into the film then serves as Kiarostami’s suggestion of a solution to all the questions raised in terms of presentation, truth, and the layers of ambiguity between them.

When Kiarostami meets Sabzian he asks him why he confessed to attempted fraud if Sabzian insists that he is not a crook. Sabzian then replies, “Because what I did looks like fraud.” This is a key line in the film, and it serves as a beginning point towards understanding Kiarostami’s intention to explore reality as an accepted illusion, as a mask. In Sabzian’s response he shows cognition of the way others may view him and his actions, much as the Ahankhahs did, but what is remarkable is that Sabzian accepts his fate according to the reality created by those views – what looks like fraud in perception becomes fraud in reality. When Kiarostami further asks, “What is it really?” Sabzian merely replies, “I am interested in cinema” with no further explanation. The attempt to understand the reality of Sabzian’s motivation only reveals another enigmatic answer; cinema is an answer that poses even more questions. The beginning of Kiarostami’s conversation with Sabzian has the camera slowly dolly forward towards Sabzian’s face so that it appears larger and larger on the screen. By the time he utters the stated line he is framed within a tight close-up, as Kiarostami is trying to punctuate the significance of the moment in its insight into the nature of truth.

Though the appearance of Sabzian within the film works towards a greater understanding of Kiarostami’s intention through his acceptance of illusion as reality, there are still many questions left unanswered. The biggest source of ambiguity lies in our inability to tell which scenes are reenactments and which are actual documentation. This is further complicated by the trial. More so than any other scenes, the trial is made to look like direct documentation. Kiarostami goes so far as to have the sequence open with a clapper board and even the film stock seems rougher so as to suggest first take on location shooting. We are still left to wonder, however, whether it really is direct documentation. In either case, Kiarostami seems to address us as an audience by addressing Sabzian in the film – Sabzian becomes our surrogate. He tells Sabzian, “Some things are more complicated than they seem. The camera is here so you can explain things which people might find hard to understand.” At this point Kiarostami’s statement seems both helpful in its direction towards understanding and ironic in our expectation to be further confused.

The nature of a court trial adds more layers of performance and skewed reality. Sabzian is not only talking to a camera, but he is talking to a judge and to the plaintiffs, needing to impress each in some way or another. In doing so, Sabzian becomes harder to know in terms of getting to the truth of his character; it is easier to be persuaded by what looks like a candid conversation between him and Kiarostami than a trial in front of a crowd and camera. At the same time, the crime Sabzian is being accused of, committing a hoax, adds to our inability to fully trust what he says on the surface. At one point during his explanation of why he pretended to be Makhmalbaf, Sabzian says, “I really felt it; I wasn’t acting anymore. I really became that character.” Again, we are reminded of Sabzian’s submission to fantasy until it becomes reality. According to Sabzian’s testimony he was so committed to the fantasy that he could not stop playing the role even though he was aware that he would get caught. When Kiarostami directly asks Sabzian if he is acting for the camera during the trial he replies, “I am speaking of my suffering; that’s not acting. I’m speaking from the heart.” Or so he says.

There is ultimately no way to know whether the trial sequence is an actual document or a recreation or if Sabzian’s explanations are sincere or acted, and ultimately Kiarostami is suggesting that it doesn’t matter. Perhaps Sabzian is unable to tell truth from illusion and perhaps he believes the masks he wears are part of his true character, but that doesn’t invalidate the reality in which he exists. Kiarostami plays with our perception and our own inability to differentiate truth from delusion so as to take on Sabzian’s view of reality, which is intuitive, which acts upon feelings. As Sabzian says during the trial, “art is the extension of what you feel inside” and Kiarostami seems to be validating the importance of feelings over facts – truth arrives from a resonance with emotion and feelings, not with logical deduction and facts. Thus, Kiarostami’s statement on the documentary film and on cinema as a whole seeks to emphasize the internal essence of human beings which can be arrived at through all of the contradictions, ambiguities, and masks. The documentaries films that attempt to claim truth through facts and direct observation miss the point.

Though Sabzian’s submission to his fantasies and delusions landed him in jail, they ultimately give him the happy ending he wanted: he gets to act in a movie playing himself; he gets the story of his suffering on film; and he meets Makhmalbaf (in an utterly convincing and touching scene). While the numerous doubts raised throughout the film about Sabzian and his story are never quite gone, the emotional power of the film’s finale overrides the intellectual doubts and purifies them to a feeling of joy for Sabzian as he rides with Makhmalbaf. We can accept Sabzian, flaws and all, in much the same way we can accept the film despite our inability to differentiate the actual footage from the recreated footage. In this way Kiarostami argues for a cinema liberated from rules of documentary or lines dividing fact from fiction since the truth and essence of human beings can only be gotten through an acceptance of the whole – the masks, the illusions, the realities, the documented footage, and the reenactments. More subtly, perhaps Kiarostami is encouraging us to pursue our fantasies as it can lead to its actualization in reality.