Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Dominus In Absentia

Suddenly, Last Summer (Mankiewicz, 1959)

Gore Vidal's adaptation of Tennessee William's one act play is a powerful investigation of memory, trauma and, of all things, lack, the power of an absence. The only son of southern grand-dame Violet Venable, the ghost of Sebastian Venable haunts nearly every moment of this movie.

I don't mean "haunt" in the paranormal sense. There are no deep shadows, eerie apparitions or other tropes of horror films. Rather, it is the obsessive memory of Sebastian that confronts us at every turn. Sebastian is never seen, not completely. At the end of the film, at best, we get his white silk suited silhouette, but never his face, never his undeniable presence.

And there are some impressive actors present. Katherine Hepburn delivers a portrait of a grieving mother with overtones of crippling loss, incest and a meandering poetry that both fascinates and deeply disturbs. Elizabeth Taylor plays the confused and persecuted Cathrine Holly with understatement in most scenes, which makes her near-psychotic breaks all the more compelling. Keeping a firm anchor in this sea of (let's be honest, rather misogynistic) female insanity, is Montogmery Clift as Dr. Cukrowicz, with a calm and analytical performance. His character is a surgeon, but his role is more sedative - like the one he administers to Catherine before the penultimate scene.

With such a pantheon of actors all bringing their A-game to Williams's dense play, it is no surprise that the focus is mostly upon words. Evocative metaphors abound in sprawling monologues, images some times half-glimpsed, some times brightly conjured, that dance about the real problem: the deceased Sebastian.

It is his absence that is the true motor of the plot, of Catherine's supposed insanity and Mrs. Venable's real psychosis. His name appears everywhere, and his description varies from character to character as the movie slowly builds the complex portrait of a son, a poet, a philosopher and a manipulative gigolo. This ever-present absence is also felt in the few artful touches of the director: the occasional skewed frame, the swelling music, the over-the-top garden at the Venable estate. When Sebastian's figure finally makes an appearance, we only see him from behind, through the haze of superimposition - through Catherine's drug-induced and traumatic memory recall.

Sebastian's ghost brings ambiguity and polycentricity to this otherwise realistic and straightforward work. He is many things, but nothing. The idea of him raises more questions than answers. This is the greatest strength of the film: fearless ambiguity and terrifying ambivalence. Ultimately, the movie breaks down the artificial barriers between reality and memory and reveals the detritus left behind in the act.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Wages of Fear

Wages of Fear (Le Salaire de la peur), Clouzot, 1953

On one hand, one could critique several things about Henri-George Clouzot's multinational adaptation of Georges Arnaud's novel. It would be generous to call the characters two-dimensional; they are types more than people. The feral Linda (Véra Clouzot) is as a misogyntic a depiction as they come, Bill O'Brien (William Tubbs) is an underhanded corporate suit, barely a step up from the thug he used to be, and only Mario (Yves Montand) and Jo (Claude Vanel) show any kind of development - all of it downhill. No one is likeable: a libidnous café owner, thieves, expatriates and thugs are the only people that live in the hell hole village of Las Piedras. The plot is episodic, especially the last act, in which four desperate men encounter a series of improbable obstacles on an impossible mission to deliver nitroglycerine over a barely-tamed South American countryside. The final scene is gratuitous; it seems almost tacked on to nail home the film's nihilism.

On the other hand, it is important to approach this masterful thriller in the appropriate frame of mind. If Hitchcock were a Frenchmen, this is the kind of movie he would make. Le Salaire de la peur isn't concerned about realistic drama or storytelling. The psychology of the characters is of use only to propel them into impossible positions where they confront that greatest of existential bogeymen: the absurdity of death. This movie is an existential allegory par excellence and its derives its power from two things: its conventional weaknesses mentioned above and a paradox of improbable plot and the ontological effect of cinema.

Mario isn't even a villain - he's neither that important nor ambitious, merely a former thief and con-man with no scruples stuck in the middle of nowhere. At no point is he a sympathetic character: he uses his lover to steal cigarettes and then beats her, he befriends the newcomer Jo and eventually runs over him with a truck, he betrays his friend and roommate, Leo, just for Jo's tenuous friendshp. Nonetheless, as he skirts death again and again during the nitroglycerine run, we more than feel for him - we fear for him. Clouzot achieves this with great cinematography. There's nothing fancy about the cutting or the camerawork, but rather what the director puts in front of the camera: a multiton truck half-dangling over a cliff or a breakneck run over a washboard road with 5 tons of nitro on board (while barreling towards another truck just ahead). Everything about the episodic final act is unforgivingly taut, and the strain on the characters translates to the audience. This movie is exhausting.

This engaging cinemtography transforms the character types and thin plot from lamentable to allegorical. The walled-off Southern Oil Company is a thin stand-in for the French Colonial Empire, or post-war American mercantilism, or brutal Stalinism - take your pick. The rag-tag dispossed of Las Piedras are you and me pared down to the ugly interiors we try to hide. There's nothing romantic about any of this, just abstracted to the point of art and allegory. Le Salaire de la peur is bleak, but it doesn't use that to lead us to suicide but rather some poignant philosophical meditation. Exiled from everything we ever knew, our leg broken, half-drowned in oil and carting tons of explosives through a barren wilderness, what would your dying thoughts be? Jo remembers the Parisian street he used to live on, the passers-by, the shops and cafés - and the fenced-off lot at the corner. What was behind the fence he wonders?

"Rien. Il n'y a rien."

There's no moral to this, and there's no hope, either. You run through the wilderness at 40 miles per hour with tons of TNT in back just for a few bucks and in the end you blow up, you bleed out or you drive off the cliff on the way home. In other hands, this story would become a heroic tale of redemption, down-on-their-luck Joes give taking their one shot and proving their worth. And that would ruin it, cheapening the underlying critiques of corporatism and tunnel-vision that plague our world even today.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Why is Downfall Great?

Oliver Hirschbiegel's 2004 account of the last days of the Third Reich does not begin in April of 1945. Instead, the movie opens with a simple documentary head-shot of an aging woman who wonders about some unnamed woman. Her narrative ends with the simple phrase "I could have said no." Similarly, the movie does not end with the death of Adolf Hitler, nor the victorious arrival of Russian troops, but with the same woman: "It was no excuse to be young and it would have been possible to find things out." This is Traudl Junge, the real Traudl, secretary to Adolf Hitler.

Bookended with this documentary footage, Downfall (Der Untergang) is a triumph of historical filmmaking, combining the art and ontology of the cinematic medium with a courageously incomplete testimony. The film is foremost an example of historiophoty at its best, combining the inherent realism of cinema with the ambiguities of any artistic endeavor, finding a synergy between these two antithetical poles. There are no camera tricks or open acknowledgments of artificiality; on one level, the movie adheres closely to the precepts of realism that most audiences have come to expect - especially of historical reconstructions. However, there are a few artful touches, ones that are most frequently heart-wrenchingly underplayed: a defenestrated dolls, a letter montage, a series of vanity tableaux, the slowly-emptying bunker. These moments of overt artfulness contrast with a painstaking physical and, most importantly, psychological , realism. None the personages are caricatured, no matter how brutally absurd they may seem to our post-modern sensibilities.

This abstention from judgment is the second part of Downfall's triumph: an incomplete testimony. Most narratives, even historical reconstructions based on personal experience, are complete - they seek to label, categorize and understand past contexts and actions. It's not surprising; this is the essence of psychological closure. Nonetheless, the bravest of historical reconstructions understand that somethings cannot be understood no matter how thoroughly we explore them or how carefully we may articulate the circumstances.

Traudl Junge, a 22 year-old woman, is our effective protagonist. Nonetheless, she is a difficult entity to characterize: naive but sympathetic, uncertain, in state of continual shell-shock, yet never so removed from reality that we feel an identifiable distance from her. Like in a third-person limited narration, we see most of the world over her should, through her affect, even when not literally at her side: Hitler at turns psychotic and charming, harsh and then frail, the infectious gaiety of Eva Braun that belies her dangerous insouciance, the desperate bickering of Nazi generals, the disturbingly frank talk of suicide that is as ubiquitous as unending bottles of alcohol.

As hinted above, Downfall is often a study in contrasts: pristine ideology (Magda Goebbels) versus brutal reality (the Hitler Youth stand-in, Peter). Yet despite intense moments of barbarity, it never seeks to explain, only to witness, to bear testimony of what was, mostly Junge's testimony. The film has the courage not to tidily box things up with labels like "insanity" or "innocence," but rather only to question with needing pat answers. Rather than point to past events and then carefully explicate them, Downfall only underlines them and lets the spectator comes to his own conclusions - no small task, but one to which we may take with the courageous skepticism that Traudl eventually learned: to find things out on our own.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Etre et avoir: love and hate

Nicolas Philippe's 2002 documentary about a secluded French one-room school opens with a suite of deliberate metaphors: cows being herded in a wintry tempest, the warm cocoon of an empty classroom (turtles tortuously moving across the floor), and finally snow-covered pines swaying in the wind. There is a singular lyricism to it, like the rest of the movie, that patiently follows Maître Lopez and his charges through the school year. Bit by magical bit, Lopez exercises patience and diligence, dexterously overcoming the challenges of teaching 13 children aged 3 to 10 all in the same room practically at the same time. All action takes place surrounded by the picturesque countryside of the Sainte-Etienne region of southern France, as if, again a deliberate touch by the filmmaker, in a fairytale. It is a charming meditation on education, on finding oneself, on the the first steps of the difficult socializing path that we all tread, toddler, adolescent or adult, and the wizardly power of those who usher us through each stage.

And here is precisely where this "feel-good movie in the noblest sense" (Screen International) goes awry for me. Let's look at the opening sequence again. The first image is herding cows; in an interview contained on the DVD Philippe avows this to be a (somewhat clumsy) metaphor for education - brainless beasts being cajoled and pushed across the field into a (socially accepted) place to be. The second take is the warm cocoon of the schoolroom, empty but for the absurd little turtles; patience will be necessary and maybe a sense of humor for this movie; fair enough. But what particularly interesting is a single image that stands out in the order of the classroom: a globe, out of place, lying on the floor, upside-down. And finally, the magical touch of the swaying trees, a rather ambiguous sign, at once expository (this is the countryside and not the city) as well as evocative (life moves differently out here). Therefore, we can read this series of vignettes as: dumb beasts (children) being herded (to school) which is artificially unlike home (abounding with exotic creatures) where the world is turned upside-down, a fairy tale in the original Grimm sense: through a dark wood into the terror of the Id.

From the first images, read in this way, I initially anticipated this movie to be a sideways but virulent critique of the French school system (which, with its overcrowding and antiquated methods, has much to criticize). Yet, no, this movie is a loving and, yes, lovable ode to Maître Lopez and his countryside unified classroom, his 30 year-old methods and the simple way in which his students plan to live their lives. (As teachers and veterinarians, they say, but more likely as farmers, like their parents and their parents before them.) Don't get me wrong, there's a lot to like about M. Lopez. As a professor, I see a lot of myself there: the various ways of teaching, the touchy interpersonal conflicts that arise and require meditation, the wisdom to know when to put your foot down and when to let things slide. The nobility of the teaching profession and the magical, yes, magical frisson that occurs when your students suddenly (or not so suddenly) succeed. The joy of teaching and the bittersweet goodbyes at the end of the school year.

And yet, there is a hidden conservative agenda to this documentary that grates despite everything that it has going for it: charm, lyricism, nobility... a saccharine patina over a portrait that more to do with the ideals of the French State than the actual state of affairs in most of France in 2002. Mind you, 2002 - only three years before the 2005 riots that ripped through the Paris suburbs and various other major cities. Riots that were perpetuated by immigrants and second-generation immigrants very much unlike Lopez (whose father came to France from Andalusian Spain), people whom the French school system and social network had failed. Young people trapped in rampant unemployment, in overcrowded, run-down, underpaid, understaffed and under-funded schools. It may be most instructive to watch Etre et avoir alongside L'Esquive (Kechiche, 2003) or even Hate (Kassovitz, 1995). Though these may be purely fictional films, they have more to say about the real state of affairs for much of the French population is recent times, certainly more than Etre et avoir.

For escapist documentary, Etre et avoir receives full marks; for creating a role model of Lopez, vignt sur vignt; for a degree of artistry that I love to see in films of any kind, especially documentaries, bravo. But for creating such a frothy, magical and abstract portrait of a national education system in crisis; for embracing and praising a manner of education and population that is so homogeneous, so conservative and therefore so much what is ripping France apart from the inside today, this movie deserves a ripping counterpoint.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008


Automatic Writing 16 April, 2008
whiskey on your breath hold it in don't let it go
grasp with frail fingernails the last fading wisps of fever dreams
all delirious and lucid navigating the seas of sleep
to rhythms distant and strange beneath alien stars
fell alcoholic winds billowing the sails
and all the while bail now bail until the sea is empty
and the land is full of long, wet dripping women
all those sirens now drowned in their own song
keep the cadence but give the melody sway

take a rest
just a beat
and then three

and after the coda of waking dive in again
the symphony of forgetfulness to live a life not your own
beneath the skin of someone else
to never know how far you may go
how long it may take to return to the same old song
the long and happy dirge we may sing at your wake
toasting you with whiskey on our breath

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Sideways (Payne, 2004)

Sideways. Dir. Alexandre Payne. Paul Giamatti, Thomas Hayden Church, Virginia Madsen, Sandra Oh. Fox Searchlight, 2004.

is the kind of movie that is, alas, in short supply in American movies - maybe in contemporary cinema, period. Its deeply, deeply, flawed protagonists are an audacious step; its dexterity allows the film to swing from drama to cringe-worthy depravity to rollicking humor; the cinematography attains moments of profound beauty; its story, so mundane, so absurd on the surface, keeps you glued to the screen even when the pace lulls. In short, Sideways is a movie that inspires.

And I don't mean "inspire" like the cookie-cutter, feel-good, hard-work-and-faith-triumph-over-all-comers sports movies that Hollywood has churned out like so many hot dogs recently. This is nothing so obvious or facile. Neither is Payne's movie instructional because its characters make so many bad decisions (and do they ever.) Rather, Sideways is inspirational because its characters are screwed up like we are: Giamatti's Miles is a failed novelist, bored with his job as a middle-school English teacher, bitter about his divorce, negative, depressed, anxious, so much Bukowskian flotsam - and he has the razor-like intelligence to realize this without the wherewithal to change his condition. Neither is Hayden Church's Jack any better: a has-been TV star, panicking about his upcoming marriage, desperate to reclaim a sense of adventure (sexual and otherwise). Where Miles floats through life in a haze of Zanex and fine wine, Jack bullies his way from bad decisions to worse without a second thought. They are incredible foils and their relationship is equally complex, moving beyond love-hate to that deep simpatico of long time association and frankly platonic love.

What is truly inspirational about Sideways is that the characters are dynamic, but not magically so. They have their epiphanies, but not the kind of Earth-shattering moments that Hollywood dishes out like so much slop. These are small moments that shift the characters along a spectrum. Jack, after spending most of the week cheating on his fiancée at every possible moment, confesses: he would be lost, he would be nothing without Christine. It is a bitter moment, a truthful moment. And we witness it without rancor or smug justification, but actually deep compassion and satisfaction. Miles finally opens his bottle of '61 Château Cheval Blanc (drinking it with fast-food and from a styrofoam cup), and we realize with almost Zen-like passivity that this really is a special occasion: a moment unlike any other in a long series of wine glasses.

Perhaps the best thing that I can say in closing is that I now fully intend to read the novel by Rex Pickett upon which Sideways is based. This is not to damn with faint praise, but another inspiration of the movie: to send me outwards, to contact other moments, other texts, other people and seek out my own beautifully mundane epiphanies.