29 December 2010

Tomorrow - The World.

  Tomorrow - The World, a movie that "portrays the personal effect of HItler's chilling declaration:  'Today Germany, TOMORROW THE WORLD,'" was recommended to me by a friend to whom I showed the first several minutes of Friedlander's The Raven.  What the supposed connection was I'm not sure, though this isn't the first time I've been led to a curious film by an unusual route.

  It would have made more sense if I'd been showing Mayo's Black Legion, '36, the Warner Bros film in which Humphrey Bogart discovers several compelling reasons to not be a violent racist.  Like that film, Tomorrow investigates  how 'normal' people were transformed into ambassadors of hate through the influence of community and the power of social pressure.  Tomorrow is the more interesting movie because several fingers are pointed. 

  The premise is that an indoctrinated twelve year old Nazi, Emil, is sent to live with a suburban American family.  Emil is a really horrible kid, even outside out of his Nazi spy aspirations*:  he's a deceitful, mean kid who lies and mistreats people.  His new aunt says he's a good example of why all Germans should be killed, and the German housekeeper, whom he corners and speaks to of 'corroboration,' considers him a megalomanic asshole.  He's such a crappy person that his new family wavers between strangling him and sending him to prison.  Point is, on the one hand he embodies hate, on the other hand so much hate is reflected back at him.  And he's so young, he's just a kid.  The movie's closing argument is basically that he's too young to be held culpable, and its final evidence is that he cries over his murder attempt.

  The surrogate father is Frederic March, from Mamoulian's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde!  Like Peck in The Omen, his journey leads to the attempted killing of an evil child.  It's interesting to consider the film as a precursor to demonic children films.  There are perhaps many Nazi in America films (The Stranger, Dr. Strangelove, Marathon Man, and Blues Brothers spring to mind).  The amalgamation of demon child and Nazi spy is an inspired film idea, undoubtedly the cause of the film's longevity, more than its philosophical handling of the material.  Like the grapefruit smashing in The Public Enemy, the sight of a young boy in a Nazi uniform continues to be unsettling; and even by contemporary standards the kid is a prick.  It's easy to imagine wanting to strangle him.

  This is copyright 1944, Lester Cowan Productions.  Germany had not yet surrendered.  I see it as a discussion about the twin problems of the perpetuance of Naziism after the war, and the veil of circumstance that both protected some genuine Nazis and condemned those morally and spiritually enfeebled by the Nazis.  Tomorrow suggests a solution of tolerance and second-chances, but the situation is one of poisoned youth and corrupted innocence, of a twelve year old boy, and I see less complexity in this scenario than in others.  It began as a play of ideals, and it retains this form in the film:  its final point is obvious, its path contrived.  It's sometimes outrageous, sometimes tedious.

* Simpsons reference:  You remember when Bart was a foreign exchange student?  He went to a miserable French country farm, and an I think Russian boy/spy came to live with the Simpsons family.  This movie several times reminded me of that episode.

24 December 2010

Silent Night, Deadly Night.

The same way you can call a delightful day with lots of relaxation and intimate pleasures a perfect day, despite perhaps the absence of extraordinary moments like lottery wins or moon landings, it's acceptable to call Silent Night, Deadly Night a perfect genre movie.  The film fully executes the splendors of its concept, and, as is often the case, the filmmakers' total conviction and commitment to the idea contributes to the film's charm; think also of Corbucci's Django and Ferrara's Ms. 45.

 This film's success is its delight in the wicked, its joyful subversiveness.  The children are sweet, Coca-Cola type doe-eyed children:  completely innocent, perfect for corruption.  The script revels in the absurdities and obscenities of its central character's descent into madness, and is tailored to the shape of their filthy ambition, his destiny as a murderous Santa.  It's reminiscent of a John Waters movie, the way it casually introduces the most insane plot elements and then uses those elements as the impetus for even stranger insanities.  The minor characters are made to pop out, be memorable.  Beyond killer Santas:  grandpa's ominous warning, mischievous sled thieves, pool-table love-makers, and a tyrannical head nun are each given humorous, indelible scenes.

"To protest the film, critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel read the credits out loud on their television show saying, 'shame, shame, shame' after each name."

What the fuck is that about, did Ebert and Siskel work for a greeting card company?  Ostensibly Christmas is a religious holiday - as I often, sometimes to my social embarrassment, forget - and certainly this Santa fellow shouldn't be sacrosanct; he just breaks into children's homes.  In fact children should be urged to see this movie, so that as they grow into adulthood they spend less money on Special Edition Christmas Oreo tins with a Limited Edition Hand Painted Santa.

22 December 2010

The Killer Inside Me (2010).

"We're kind of old fashioned.  Out here, you say, 'Yes ma'am,' and 'No, ma'am' to anything with a skirt on.  Out here, if you catch a man with his pants down, you apologize, even if you have to arrest him afterwards.  Out here you're a man and a gentleman, or you aren't anything at all.  And God help you if you're not."
It's interesting that the sheriff's example of police activity is catching a man with his pants down.  The Killer Inside Me takes the position that innocent times were a product of character crippling repression, which could rupture and contaminate the morality of a man.  Affleck is in a process of self-discovery:  he's genuinely surprised when transferred to the insane asylum, though he doesn't dispute the matter, and doesn't assert who he really is. 

It's difficult to not make some rather severe character judgements.  The homicidal sheriff, played by Casey Affleck, is horribly depraved, brutal, and savage.  He exploits the innocence and trust of a small Texas county and almost single-handedly shatters the lives of at least a dozen people.  He bludgeons a woman to near death with leather-gloved fists.  Worse, he's completely unconflicted.

But the problem with judgements is they sometimes limit a total understanding of a character, and deeper shades of truth can be overlooked.  There's an evil magnetism to this character.  The intricacies of his madness are the focus of the film, and the viewer experiences along with the town a confrontation with incomprehensible violence.  The way the local police can capture him is by understanding who he is, the spiritual emptiness of one of their gentlemen.

Winterbottom filled all surrounding roles with great actors who each help intensify and expand the scope of the story, and the performances and material are equally impressive.  The film investigates people while it investigates the crime.  You feel horrible for most of them, for even knowing the guy, and because they somehow feed the flames of his madness.   One unnerving scene involves Affleck smoking a cigar while lying on his bed, chatting with a couple men accusing him of killing five people and motivating the suicide of another.

The extraordinary accuracy in the depiction of Jessica Alba's near death is impossible to enjoy.  I wouldn't like to have dinner with a person who doesn't have to close their eyes during the scene.  Like the abortion in Enter the Void, the scene overloads me.  In The Killer Inside Me, the scene's sickness is that it enhances the theme of trust as sadomasochism (and is an example of this in a viewer-filmmaker way).  It's crucial because it exposes aspects of the character a healthy mind might not even imagine, it's a temporary window into the sheriff's dark soul.  It's the same perverse genius that makes Jim Thompson's story work.

20 December 2010

Every Man for Himself.

The number of times I willingly saw a movie in its theatrical form in 2010 is a purely fact based interpretation of my favorite films of the year.  It approximates the range of my curiosity over the year:

Enter the Void, six times
Every Man for Himself, three times
Twice: The Long Day Closes, Lourdes, Bluebeard, Fish Tank, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Around a Small Mountain
Black Swan, 1.8 times

I wish the list was trashier; or I was trashier films had been better, trashier.  I fully intended to see Wild Grass again.  My favorite glimmers of underseen America were the pickup truck, barn, and front porch conferences of Winter's Bone, the portrayal of familial politics in The Fighter, the gardener in The Kids Are All Right, and all the brilliant nuances of Strongman and Sweetgrass.  My favorite food movie was Mid-August Lunch.

Every Man for Himself is what crazy narcissists yell in mortally dire situations.  The French title is Sauve qui peut (la vie), and it means something like save your own life or run for your life; one intertitle translated Save Your Ass.  It's sort of gravely humorous in its nakedness, but also desperate and shameless.

The viewer of Every Man is given minor navigation (the title and the intertitles [Imagination, Fear, Money, Music]) for a crooked course, and so is left to explore and discover the film without guide, to simply see and experience.  It's a film that revels in the microscopic and idiosyncratic, and forgoes traditional storytelling pathways in favor of spontaneity and resonance.  Like many of my favorite films, and the ones that make me most excited, my impulse is to describe the actions of the film, moment to moment, in order to avoid constructing a personal framework for the film.  The problem is such highly descriptive stories are hard to tell right, especially when important details lie in the photography and sound of the film.

Scenes directly engage my emotions and intelligence, with all the electricity of Jean-Luc Godard's passion and skill.  He develops earlier filmic impulses and methods, themes and techniques borrowed from his earlier self, but plots a new course, and asks more from his characters.  He is both more serious and playful - indeed, the first sequence of Paul Godard and the opera singer, and then him and the bellboy, are gut busters, hilarious ideas amplified by perfect execution.  Full moments collide with impressions (sometimes punctuated by slow motion) for a blossoming revelation of the three main characters; too, some moments are strangely unexpected, because the film is both about the characters and their experience. 

Different from objective, vérité inspired films, Every Man is cloaked with the beauty and agility of cinema, the hand of Godard ever present.  His foregrounded craftsmanship generates exciting textures, dynamic surfaces:  an office scene with Isabelle, another hooker, and two men becomes a surprising sex musical sequence.  It's difficult to say the center of the film is ideas (your ideas) and feelings (your feelings) and not name those ideas and feelings, which are varied, but it's enough for me to see that the characters also hopelessly orbit the meaning of their lives in the substance of their experiences.

09 November 2010

Notes on Enter the Void.

Ben Hervey in Night of the Living Dead, BFI Film Classics: "But the midnight movie phenomenon celebrated youth and rebellion: it was about staying up past bedtime, roaming the streets while regular citizens slept, and, usually, about defying good taste … The idea of the midnight 'cult' took shape with El Topo: the 'bearded and be-jeaned set' came ritually … memorizing the lines and bringing new 'initiates.' … The repeated viewings are all about 'getting' El Topo, interpreting its metaphors. Long conversations in cafes afterwards were part of the experience. Night [of the Living Dead] lacks El Topo's metaphysical pretensions and overly psychedelic visuals, but it was a surprisingly logical follow-up … Both, despite fantasy elements, felt shockingly 'real,' 'totally convincing' … Both films were made outside Hollywood and the 'system.' And, like El Topo, Night was perceived to demand analysis, to work beneath the surface. Word had spread that it was an important, meaningful film, an urgent coded message on the state of America."

An e-mail I'd sent to a local theater owner even before reading Hervey's description: "My friends and I have each seen Enter the Void multiple times at your theater and are huge fans of the movie.  The extended week thrills us, thank you.  Is a midnight screening possible for either Friday or Saturday????  That would really make our year.  The movie screams out for a midnight screening, please consider."

The film begins on a yellow neon sign: ENTER. The camera pulls out and below this sign is a 24 hr DVD sign, and then in a POV shot we look upward, over the city skyline, at a plane in the night sky. Immediately the movie answers the question where am I, Tokyo, and gives two questions: who am I and who is Linda? With such a beautiful diaphanous dress on, and with such beauty in the environment, Linda is the character's girlfriend is a good first guess. This is mostly wrong, Linda is the character's sister. I (Oscar, though I don't know it yet) ask Linda to come onto the balcony to look at the plane, which she does, but Linda doesn't care about the plane. She doesn't want to be in it because it might crash and she would die and enter the void. I (Oscar) say: "They say you fly or you die." There are many coincidental moments in the movie, and many present in the first scene, some of the coincidences seem dramatically intentional, some have greater repercussions, and some maintain ambiguity. I'd like to go through each one but that would require working through every moment of the film.

When the movie first begins, my sixth time seeing it, I know every moment to come. The lines, the transitions, the shapes of the sequences, etc, I even know when I want to lie on the ground in front of the screen (which I do). When I make my way back to my computer I do my best, but my best isn't perfect, and there's a lot to know about Enter the Void. For example the last time I wrote about it I tried to describe the scene with Linda receiving the voice message from Alex: how much I left out! The sequence truly begins all the way back at The Void. The camera follows Alex through an alley as he flees the cops. He approaches Sex Money Power but panics and runs elsewhere; the camera, however, enters above the SMP sign, glides down the strip pole, onto the floor, pokes around, then enters a hallway to intersect Linda. Mario slyly leads her into the dressing room. They begin to make out, her phone rings. She reaches for it but this annoys lustful Mario, so she ignores the call. Within the foreplay, or perhaps as they first begin to fuck on the couch, the camera makes an astral journey to find Alex as he leaves the phone message for Linda, then returns to Linda and Mario. As they fuck the camera enters Mario's head, and there is a POV of Linda's face. THEN begins the long take (probably with invisible cuts but maybe not): Mario cums, an employee hilariously yells through the door, Mario yells back, Linda reties her panties, Mario cleans his penis with a tissue and lights a cigarette, Linda gets up, Mario leaves the room, Linda picks up her phone, the camera begins to sorta pulse and quiver, the message begins, Linda sits on the couch, the camera pushes in on her, then pulls back, sometime about now going slightly out of focus, Linda cries on the couch, and the distressed camera-spirit POV enters the red light on the table in front of her, the first temporal journey since Oscar's death, the first peeling of a layer.

My point is there's an incredible amount of detail and texture. Also, though emotionally it's one of the simpler scenes in the movie, technically it's still very sophisticated. The soundscape is textured too: voices play lowly in the background (repetitions of moments from within the movie), mixing with the music and Linda's sobbing. I have seen the movie so many times because sometimes I am so amazed by what's happening on the audio track I forget about the visual track, or I'll be so ensnared by a line or character detail or something that I'll miss something else, etc, I think the experience of watching the film is perfectly prefigured by the opening credits, which I also try to pluck every detail from but always become consumed by several interesting features, usually new features I'd never noticed but also sometimes the same ones again and again because they're so great (I always look forward to Nathaniel Brown's name).

This texture has a great deal of meaning if you are the type of person who allows yourself to become curious and/or sympathetic about a film's characters. I am that type of person (are we alike)? Here now I highlight several of the more interesting details, questions, and textures that are fascinating to me.

Though, as I begin, it's good to keep in mind what Gary Indiana says about Bresson in the Criterion essay for Pickpocket: "Since I hadn't absorbed the truisms about Bresson that even then encased his work in a gelatin of spiritually heroic cliches, I was, after Pickpocket, skeptical about the thematic platitudes critics and film writers routinely and confidently attached to Bresson. Some of them were plausible, some undoubtedly true, but many just sounded convincing; once art becomes a religion, you can say any high-minded nonsense about it with utter impunity." So, plausibilities, some truths, and some nonsense:

The teddy bear Linda carries with her when Oscar meets her at the airport is a cheap way of emphasizing innocence in her personality. It's a flag, a signal, telling the audience she hasn't let go out the past. The way she kisses her brother in the next scene is less than innocent. It's easy to make judgements about the things she does, but I find it difficult to say what type of person she is. Couldn't her continual nudity, especially around Oscar, be perceived as a type of innocence? Even if so it seems naive to extend this to her stripping job and her relationship with Mario. It is significant that Oscar excitedly shows Linda the flyer for the club Maniac party because it suggests at that point club life for Linda is a departure from her ordinary routine, and this is reinforced in the Maniac scene when Oscar offers her ecstasy and she tells him she's never taken the drug before. "They're like vitamins," he tells her. She takes it. She lacks street smarts and the hard-edged personality typically used as short hand for world weary and downtrodden. She's far from demonstrating experience generated cynicism, her speech pattern is slow and mumbled, and you almost wonder how she's even grown to be an adult, who's taken care of her.

Mario is either the manager or proprietor of Sex Money Power, or maybe simply the talent scout. In a post-pregnancy scene a distraught Linda dances and the camera strays to listen, for just a moment, to a conversation between Bruno and Mario. It's assumable that Mario is attempting to buy cocaine from Bruno. This means that Mario uses or deals cocaine, and suggests at least minor hypocrisy when you consider an earlier scene when an irate Mario chastised Oscar for dealing drugs to his strippers. It's easy to see Mario himself as a symbol of sex, money, power, and the movie offers few insights into his personality. Is it significant that Linda aborts his child, and does it suggest their relationship is loveless? I understand that a significant scene between Linda and Mario is in the 7th reel of the film, the reel not being shown in American theaters, that further illuminates his relationship with Linda. I believe he moves in with Linda; in the American release he is present in the Tokyo apartment only when Victor comes to apologize. What does it mean that she calls him, among others, evil, and does she really mean he is evil, or is her anguish magnifying the scope of her outburst? What does it mean that he moved in with her, or at least visits her to support her? Is he selfish or compassionate? He seems mostly selfish, for example he defends his relationship with Linda to a stripper who accuses him of being used, he says "She want to have my baby," and then attempts physical intimacy with said stripper. Mario is likely a cad, but I feel reluctant to call him such because faced with only certain aspects of Oscar's life I could easily call him just a fuck-up junkie. I wonder the extent of Mario's feelings for Linda - and there is too always the aspect of someone you love being in a relationship with someone you don't necessarily like yourself. You keep wanting to give the person a chance.

It is Victor who suggests to Oscar that Oscar meet his mom. She was a go-go dancer before she met my father, she's an amazing woman, you should really meet her, he says, followed immediately by a dinner scene in which Victor's father relates the same tale of go-go dancing, which always makes me laugh. There's a hint of projected redemption in the way father and son gloat about her past wantonness, as if they feel certain there's no link between her former and present self, or as if their fear of such a link forces them to compensate with manly boasting. She is our creature of beauty and sexual fascination, they seem to be saying. It's significant that the only time (excepting Love Hotel) Victor appears in a scene without a major character is in a pre-abortion scene: Victor confronts his mother about her infidelity and betrayal, in the kitchen, and when his father intervenes Victor confronts him too, accusing him of not being the man of the house. Victor's father slaps him, another instance of masculine vanity. They both leave the room and the mother is left alone with her sorrows; the camera enters the stovetop flame, and from here the abortion scene begins. An earlier scene cuts into Oscar entering the kitchen to see Linda with Oscar entering the living room while wrapping a towel around his waist. Victor is in the room and glances at Oscar's penis. Victor is a background presence in many club scenes, and in one instance asks to meet Bruno, an attempt to enter the private realms of Oscar's life.

Not only does Oscar first introduce Linda to ecstasy, but there is also the post-Victor's mom sex scene, with the girl at the club. There may even be two different girls, if the girl on the balcony he interrogates about drugs is a different girl. In that conversation the girl says she has never done drugs but likes alcohol, to which Oscar replies approximately "Yeah, you like alcohol, you like drugs. It's one step, then the next." Oscar then gives either that girl or a different girl drugs before sex. It seems that not only is Oscar on drugs, but he wants everyone else to be on drugs; while such behavior seems foundational to a drug dealer, it's important to ask whether Oscar operates predominantly as a dealer or an addict and the meaning of this division. Nothing infuriates me more than the critics who dismiss Oscar's death scene as solely an instance of stupidity - as if stupidity doesn't have its meaning, and as if people are never stupid in real life. I've never understood the type of person who believes a poor choice committed by a character in a movie automatically equals either the writer's or the character's stupidity. Yelling at the cops through the door about the gun is one of a series of fatal mistakes Oscar makes within The Void sequence: the first being traveling to The Void, the second being his failure to notice Victor's behavior (though would he have blamed it on their falling out?), and the third being his inability to flush the drugs. The rift between Oscar and Victor is caused by Oscar being fucked by his mom, which was proposed to him by her as a way of making the money he needed to begin dealing drugs.

Oscar, Linda, Alex, Victor, and Bruno are all foreigners feeding off the energy of Tokyo; the largest local character is Mario, whom Oscar and Alex disdain for being involved with Linda. More than anything else Enter the Void is about relationships (mainly the relationship between Oscar and Linda). It's a slick, pop art, psychedelic midnight movie character study, and as such, all characters major and minor are part of the film's fabric. Oscar's drug dealer, Bruno, never becomes more than a drug dealer to Oscar, as drug dealers tend to remain, but as a drug dealer we know him fairly well. We know his sexual proclivities and aberrations, his choice of pet, where he lives and what he's like as he deals, and that he's paranoid. He's in the movie as an agent of destiny, but also because he's likable. He is given secondary status in the film as he is never seen alone, he's always an additional component to scenes about central characters. When Oscar smokes DMT at the beginning of the movie he knows it's the good shit because Bruno gave it to him, and he wonders if Bruno wants to give him a blow job and what Bruno thinks of him. He wonders. He doesn't really know the guy. Alex's roommate never becomes more than Alex's roommate, and Linda's friend never becomes more than Linda's friend. This is who they are to Oscar, and the movie doesn't force a greater bond between them for the sake of dramatic stimulus.

Alex is the best friend Oscar has: he gives Oscar advice, listens to him, hangs out with him, and has a crush on his sister. Alex is hunted by the cops for being the friend who introduced Oscar to Bruno, and though he exhibits signs of genuine tenderness toward Oscar and Linda, he is truly at the roots of the film's drama. Linda is right to express skepticism about his influence in the first scene. Her words are mostly accurate: Alex changes Oscar, as friends change friends, and it's Alex, who truly cares, who sets in motion the death of Oscar. There is some truth to Victor's failed apology to Linda: both Linda and Alex were motivating factors for Oscar beginning to deal drugs (but I feel it was wrong for him to say this because he really is most responsible as he tipped off the cops and that wasn't inevitable).

One person I saw the movie with looked at me when it ended and said, "That's not what my trip was like," and it was then, my third viewing, that I remembered drugs were real and the movie was meant to convey a drug trip. Noé has stated a non-belief in reincarnation and says the second part of the film is the final moments of Oscar's life and his drug addled mind structures a reality-based fantasy based on prior knowledge of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The film works best from this perspective, but I think, within the film, Noé isn't entirely dismissive of a true mystical reading, based on the other Tibetan guidelines followed through the film and his structuring of the final scene. There are at least two curious intercuts in the Love Hotel sequence. The first is an out of focus shot of a couple on a bed with a small child, and on the floor by them an older child in a dress walks with what seems to be Linda's teddy bear. The camera floats out the window and it's the NYC skyline with a plane in the air and the Twin Towers on the horizon. Those are the Twin Towers, right? If so the scene can't be a future scene and must be a scene from Linda's past - perhaps a vision of the family that adopted her. But why was the scene placed there, and doesn't the male on the bed kind of resemble Alex? The ambiguity is compounded by the insemination scene - it is first clearly Alex and Linda making love, but when the camera enters Alex's head for a POV shot it becomes Oscar's mother we see, then a child at the door, then back to the girl who transforms back into Linda. After the insemination there is a birth, and Noé is adamant that the out of focus face is Oscar's mother. Then why place the scene there, and why have her face out of focus? I think it's as simple as Noé, as with other aspects of the film, wants to allow your curiosity and imagination to wander, he wants to allow you to believe the film has an instance of reincarnation if you so desire. For example, the film's currency for me is purely emotional, and I like the idea of reincarnation because it creates an infinite loop of love between Linda and Oscar; if he's simply dying and dreaming, I like that his dreams are mainly about Linda.

I love, love the shot in the Maniac club when Oscar is framed to the center and on his left is Victor, whom he's discussing drug dealing with, and on his right is Alex's roommate and his date AND further to the right is Mario buying drinks for Linda.

If Linda and Mario had a loveless relationship, is it better that the baby was not born, because it might have experienced the fissures of broken love its entire life? It's a relevant question that fails to encapsulate a full view of the situation. I wonder if Noé was attempting to signal the dramatic significance of the abortion by displaying it so forthright. That's the best possibility for the scene in Enter the Void that is the hardest and most uncomfortable scene to watch, and the worst possibility is that Noé showed it to be confrontational. One linking line at the beginning of the movie is Oscar telling Alex that if Mario and Linda have a baby together he'll kill it - and I think a literal interpretation of this line is plagued by issues of malice and ill-will, unless the final or penultimate scene is interpreted as Oscar choosing to reincarnate himself in the womb of Linda, inseminated by Alex. Then there's some real tangled feelings. Or, what if it's just an abortion, what if Linda doesn't want the baby and she aborts it and that's all there is to it? We see it because it happens to her, and Oscar watches it in astral form exactly because it is so emotionally and physically damaging to her - he doesn't leave or look away in order to be there for her, to comfort her as he can, to share the pain.

Does Linda die twice, and are they nightmare experiences as Alex described to Oscar from the book of the dead? There is first the instance which occurs in a sequence of death - Oscar's death is revisited and a series of scenes begin: a person scrubs Oscar's blood from the floor, Oscar's body is identified at the morgue by Linda and Mario, and Linda lies in a Tokyo (?) playground, twitching by a spilled bottle of pills. It's curious that Noé drops this scene into the sequence without relevant juxtaposition. Conspicuously jarring is the scene when Linda enters Alex's cab and they talk intimately for a moment until she screams look out and the childhood car crash is re-experienced. Is it a memory, a present moment, or a Tibetan nightmare?

This scene, except for a couple bizarre intercuts, reinforces the concept of the film as Oscar's death fantasy. In a flashback moment Oscar first sees the Love Hotel in neon model form in Alex's roommate's room, and he remarks approximately, "Wouldn't it be cool if the walls were invisible and you could see inside? All your friends were fucking … and there were giant orgies." This is what happens at the end of the film, in an ecstatic and gorgeous sequence. When the camera astral journeys during this sequence we find that Tokyo has become a lot brighter, there's tons more neon, and the soul leaves the building only to directly reenter. Many characters from the movie are inside fucking, and also I believe some people not otherwise in the movie. Different types of lovemaking for the different personalities, and spectral light emanates from the genitals of all. Bruno, curiously, is the only one not having sex (excepting the other man waiting for Victor in the elevator), but he's content enough watching straight sex and smoking drugs.

The structure of the film parallels the reality of getting to know two people: the experience is somewhat indefinite, cumbersome, mysterious, obsessive. The narrative's questions have mainly specific answers and their specificity weds them to the particulars of my life, which too is its own special drama. Knowing Enter the Void is like knowing a person, or getting to know a person. Because the texture of the storytelling shifts so drastically between the first and second sections I'm not sure it could have been told linearly, and even if it could have been, it doesn't mean the nonlinear structure can't be both fascinating in its depiction of elements of the Tibetan Book of the Dead and interesting as a metaphor for a relationship shared by two people. It might have been more difficult to leave out certain things if it had been told linearly, it might have been even more confusing and fractured. Plus, it's a carpet of emotions we ride in the second half, and I love that.

I can't see the movie again for a first time, though I wish I could. And someday it'll be 2011 and so on, and I'll be able to better see how Enter the Void fits into the filmworld continuum. There is in the present a noticeable shift toward immersive filmmaking technique, on technological and narrative levels, and I have been telling people that I believe this movie belongs to the future. I might be right or wrong. I'm definitely being vague. What I know is that the movie deploys highly sophisticated digital alteration that serves only to enhance the experience of the story: the effects erase the camera, bring you closer to the character (sometimes literally enter into his wounds). The effects aren't to replace reality, but to help the audience feel its beauty.

Popular opinion seems to be that Enter the Void is too long. I have asked people how they liked the movie and some have told me "I kept wanting it to end," and sometimes that is even the nicest thing they say about the movie! A sect of these people believe that the film is supposed to mirror the experience of a drug trip - the purpose is for the film to drag on so you want it to end even though you know you can't make it end. That may be true, but it's not how I experience the movie. Tell you the truth, my favorite astral journey is both a long one and a later one. It immediately follows the scene of Victor's apology to Linda: the camera leaves the apartment and travels through Tokyo as usual, but doesn't head to any of the usual locations, instead roaming sky-high down a major road, up over the streets of Tokyo, over the Tokyo Tower, into the clouds, and into a plane with a baby Oscar being breast fed by his mother. That's one of my favorite moments in the movie, and I'm not at all waiting for the movie to end when it occurs. I think it's beautiful and moving. One reason I don't mind the astral journeys is because I interpret them as emotional responses from Oscar; another is because I like to observe the streets as they pass by.

Inside the lightbulb bar, directly following Linda and Oscar's exit from Maniac. It's eye-scorchingly beautiful, and their words are so romantic and tragic that I sigh and swoon each time. A drugged and drunken Linda emphasizes the fun she's having, and that she feels free, very, very free, and doesn't she look like a woman now? She asks Oscar to promise they'll always be together and he agrees, saying he'll never die. Never? Never. We're immortal? Yes.

04 November 2010

Underworld (1927).

Of course I romanticize the careers of screenwriters such as Kuang Ni, Ennio De Concini, and Ben Hecht, prodigious as they were, and it's nice that they each wrote films now considered classics, it's nice that they were successful, but who cares, they wrote and wrote, dozens and dozens of films, and the facet I most romanticize is my perception of them as full-time, professional daydreamers. They lived a continuous fantasy, yes, but also fantasies of their own design. They had projectors for minds, and their eyes were tunnels that led to the treasures of their skull-sized kingdoms; this I admire most.

I read Ben Hecht's treatment for Underworld before I watched the movie, figuring it would hardly spoil anything as he was "legendarily unhappy with Josef von Sternberg's revamping." It was my first unfiltered Hecht experience and it was great. Dreamy, hard-boiled prose, meaningful and expressive, written and constructed with intelligence and aplomb. This treatment, I believe the first Underworld treatment he wrote, and I believe he wrote a second with Art Rosson, is divided into twenty-one sequences. There's a letter insert in the twentieth. The story is of a criminal named Bull Weed (they all have adorable nicknames: Paper Collar Sam, Piano Joe, Slippy Lewis, etc.) who escapes from prison just before his scheduled hanging. Hecht was a Chicago journalist who specialized in prohibition era gangsterism and his emphasis is a kind of poetic realism - the final sequences bank on a motif of fate - and perhaps in its time Underworld was penetratingly real. The dramatic structure (it bounces between parallel searches and reactions to Weed's escape) is transparent and compounded with Hecht's writerly voice nothing, including the behaviors and emotions of the characters, strikes me today as particularly authentic.

So why was he legendarily unhappy with von Sternberg for adding "sentimental touches that falsified his story" is beyond me. Maybe it was more of a general thing that Hollywood kept doing to all stories and Hecht wasn't able to separate this precise incident for an objective evaluation. Josef von Sternberg's story is better told. Feathers has a much stronger presence. In Hecht's story her charm is toxic, while in von Sternberg's it's multi-dimensional, and her magnetism to competing love interests is better motivated, better explored. As for the different endings, I prefer the concept of willed destiny to inescapable fate, dramatically speaking. The truth is both Hecht's initial treatment and von Sternberg's film depend on a last-minute instance of altruism (the gravest sentiment? the most Hollywood, yes) from a character to bring the story to a close. Hecht gives it to a supporting character, von Sternberg gives it to the main character.

Underworld the 1927 Josef von Sternberg film begins with the same clock imagery used in Hecht's story but then opens on Bull Weed robbing a bank, and from there introduces Rolls Royce (Weasel in the story) and then Feathers, blossoming their love triangle as the story and characters grow too. The images of the film are so strong, may I say the film is less black and white and more lightning bolts and thunder clouds? As a true filmmaker von Sternberg is conscious of the connectedness of the major aspects of film; he weds photography, editing, and (in this film) story, creating a film that eighty-three years later retains its white-knuckledness. Perhaps a really great white-knuckler is always such, as this quality is achieved by fluidity and grace of cinematic design, elements incorruptible by time, founded on inalienable concepts of film theory.

Though timeless as a piece of art, one of the joys of Underworld is how grounded in the 1920s it is. Eternal human traits are expressed through social characters now vanished. The above party scene, saturated in streamers and populated by men in suits and women in gowns, evokes all the bygone romance of its time. As the character of Feathers embodies both romance and destruction, so too this party sequence features champagne happiness and backroom despair. The "devil's carnival" montage of faces is the type of playfulness and technical splendor sorely lacking in many contemporary films. I can't explain what the recurring cats in the film mean dramatically, but their inclusion adds to the sense of reality. Von Sternberg's not a filmmaker to erase cats from history, no, he pushes against the walls of drama, expanding them with his cinematic mastery and perceptive eye. The way he choreographs scenes (the famous jewelry store robbery), composes his photography, dresses his sets, and his dramatic use of lights, all bulge and breathe, pulse and quiver, encapsulating the beast of cinema for all to cherish and behold (if you don't mind me saying).

02 November 2010

Enter the Void.

Some data and triviality, beneficial to both me and the potential reader as a way of organizing my entry points into this movie, a way of demarcating my cinematic tastes, and as a general prelude (skippable as preludes tend to be). A couple months back the Criterion release of Black Orpheus sparked debate in some circles about the merits of the film (helped along by the Criterion supplements themselves), and an interesting component of this conversation was the release year of the film, 1959, and its quality of storytelling and character design as compared to other New Wave films. For example I noticed some people are still enraged about Black Orpheus receiving the Palme d'Or over Truffaut's The 400 Blows. It's an interesting conversation for a number of cine-political reasons, but of course it's completely trivial, because the only person who should decide which film better is you, I mean it's a personal question with internal battlegrounds and exterior debates unconcerned with discussing the films themselves are just farts in the wind. I bring it up because I feel slightly the same way about last year, when The White Ribbon, Un Prophète, Thirst, and Fish Tank were the major winners at Cannes. These are all great films (as I think both The 400 Blows and Black Orpheus are great), but I felt they were safe films, more reflective of the past than progressive or demonstrative of new avenues for exploration. It reminded me, as the Black Orpheus/400 Blows conversation reminded me, that prestige, acclaim, and awards are superficial elements of film studies, illusory in their power and scope. The best films are the films I like the best, and the two films that most excited me that also played at Cannes 2009 are Police, Adjective (winner of Un Certain Regard), and Enter the Void (which just simply premiered to mixed reviews). I've had the opportunity to see Enter the Void three times now, as I write this, and hope to see it at least three more times before it leaves the theater (it must be seen in the theater!). I had planned this past week to write about Tim Burton's Ed Wood with companion discussion of Bela Lugosi in The Raven and The Invisible Ray, and I'd wanted to write about Dial 1119 as well, but once I saw Enter the Void it bulldozed all other thoughts and indeed for the first few days I couldn't even watch other movies (Kings of Pastry was the first movie I saw afterward, a documentary, and Thief of Bagdad was the first narrative, it was like going from the hot tub back into the pool - though I like them both too, I'm just saying that's what it was like). On The Omen blu-ray there's a video in which Richard Donner explains that to him The Omen features extraordinary coincidence and is about Peck's character being driven by these amazing coincidences to the point of insanity where he would harm a child. To me it's more baffling to consider The Omen as a literal story, and it's fascinating to me that Donner would believe in astronomically absurd levels of coincidence before he'd believe in anything even a little spiritual. What I mean is, he's right, The Omen is more interesting as a literal story.

Don't read if you haven't seen.

"'Making a film is difficult, but making a great film is an almost impossible task.'
This quote from Spielberg is perhaps not completely accurate, but that’s how I remember it. However, some examples of great films do exist, including the film which had such an influence on my existence: 2001, A Space Odyssey. Without professing to be able to create such a masterpiece, trying to make a film that is, at the same time, a large-scale entertainment, suitable for adults and complex in cinematic terms, is one of the most exciting undertakings one could wish to tackle. And if one does not set out with the aim of making a great film, one can be sure that it will not turn out to be one.

Few of the arts can satisfy man’s need to be uplifted as immediately as film. And none (except interactive video games) can yet reproduce the maelstrom of our states of perception and consciousness. In the past, certain films have tried to adopt the subjective point of view of the main character. enter the void will try to improve upon its predecessors and accompany the hero just as much in his normal state of awareness as in his altered states: the state of alertness, the stream of consciousness, memories, dreams...
The visions described in the script are inspired partly by the accounts of people who have had near-death experiences, who describe a tunnel of light, seeing their lives flashing past them and ‘astral’ visions, and partly by similar hallucinatory experiences obtained by consuming DMT, the molecule which the brain sometimes secretes at the moment of death and which, in small doses, enables us to dream at night. The film should sometimes scare the audience, make it cry and, as much as possible, hypnotise it.
In recent years, films with labyrinthine structures have proved the audience’s ability to follow storylines in the form of a puzzle, and its desire to move away from linear narration.
But a complex form where the content does not move the spectator in any way would only amount to mathematic virtuosity. Whereas this film is above all a melodrama: the universal melodrama of a young man who, after the brutal death of his parents, promises that he will protect his little sister no matter what and who, sensing that he himself is dying, fights desperately to keep his promise. A film where the life of one person is linked to the love he has for another human being.
The reason for choosing the most modern areas of Tokyo as a setting is to further emphasize the fragility of the brother and sister by propelling them like two small balls in a giant pinball machine made up of black, white and fluorescent colours.
My previous two films, which were far less ambitious, were once described by a critic as being like roller coasters playing with the most reptilian desires and fears of the spectator. enter the void, whose themes and artistic choices will be far more varied and colourful, should, if I succeed, be the Magic Mountain which I, as a spectator, dream of riding on."
Gaspar Noé

Gaspar Noé is an intelligent filmmaker and in interviews avoids injecting the film with mystical or spiritual or other unwarranted meanings. Although I think there's tremendous sub-surface depth to the film, Noe's point must be to keep the focus on the film without exaggerating its already intrinsically melodramatic dimensions. Enter the Void is a simple story, and that's one of the criticisms that has been brought against the movie, although it's clear those were Noé's intentions.

Its simplicity is pronouncedly vast, and Noé sometimes over-amplifies foundational dramatic moments. For example, the death of Oscar, and the subsequent voice message Linda receives. Oscar's death scene is actually a very long sequence (justifiable as the film hinges on this moment). It is also a moment revisited. The voice message scene is a long, long pull out from Linda and the camera first becomes unfocused and then begins to quiver. The scene's monomania and stylistic excesses make it feel like a music video within the movie, but also these two scenes are, in my opinion, excellent rebuttals to the criticism that the film is too simple. Simple in this instance refers to the narrative complexity of the two moments - moments which could be handled more swiftly and efficiently - but the criticism overlooks the emotional complexity of death.

Enter the Void challenges the concept of narrative complexity by challenging the conventional behavior of films and filmmaking, characters and story. This happens in both obvious and subtle ways within the film, and is a source of conflict between interpretations of the narrative after Oscar dies. I accept Noé's declaration that the film isn't about reincarnation, and when I accept this I begin to wonder about the relationship between the first section of the movie and the remainder. The questions that form can only be answered based on how I choose to interpret the characters, their scenes, and their lines. What does it mean that Oscar promises to kill the baby potentially conceived by Mario and Linda's relationship, and especially what does that mean in light of the abortion scene that actually occurs.

I'm not sure, but I experience it regardless, and Enter the Void is very much about the experience of the film (the digital work on the film flat-out amazes me). The experience seems independent of a structural or ideological analysis of the film, firstly, and secondly the efficacy of the narrative seems secondary to the ambition of the filmmaker and the force and range of his vision. This is the effect the movie has on me, and why it's so important to me, because more than in any other movie my feelings are subordinate to the currents and passions of the film, I am superseded by Oscar's experience, and of course it's my opinion that Noé succeeded in his intention to make the most obsessively subjective film yet. It's the strange behavior of the film. The dramatic tradition has always been a sort of bridge between the audience and story, a conversation between the two, a co-dependency, and film has mostly followed this tradition because film has sometimes assumed itself to be the inevitable offspring of plays and novels, but I've always felt this wrong, and Enter the Void is for me the loudest yet voice to declare the unique possibilities of film narratives (there have been other great ones recently, Police Adjective, The Headless Woman, Hunger, Silent Light, the films of Weerasethakul, try to adapt these movies into novels and you'll fail as adaptations of great novels onto the screen fail).

One of the things I always want to do when I rewatch Enter the Void is go out into the streets of Tokyo with my friend Alex (who needs to shower when he sees me, but the poor guy won't be able to shower for days, hiding in alleys and building small fires to stay warm), and one joke I always make with myself is that this time I (Oscar) will stop for a soda from one of Tokyo's beautiful vending machines. Imagine if that happened! The texture of Enter the Void is so rich, so lush, so detailed and specific, that all its major and minor details are important aspects of its experience, and everything that is meaningless or absent in most movies is in the foreground of this movie. This also includes the natural speech patterns of its characters, who say wonderful things but never utter 'lines,' and whom I quote, but my quotes are like "Thanks. (Beat). Thanks thanks." Smaller things too, like the club The Void inside the movie, and its dirty floors.

It's the texture of reality that's so often compromised by dramatic form in cinema. After Oscar's death the film's texture shifts from a direct experience into an indirect, intangible emotional experience. Again, not all answers are given, it's not entirely clear who Oscar and Linda are. In my mind this isn't underdevelopment, this is the actuality of knowing someone. So much life is missing from the screen, but they have missed each other through so much of their actual characters' lives. I wonder about Oscar and how he changes Linda, if he changes her. I picture her at the airport with her stuffed animal and wonder if Oscar corrupts her with drugs and nights at the club, but I don't really know, because I don't really know what she's been doing for so many years. I am able to wonder these things because Enter the Void first establishes the rhythms of reality, and then establishes the rhythms of emotion, and this enables and empowers me as the viewer to ask away, to crawl inside the characters - not their drama; their lives, their personalities.

Some drama, too, though, and I interpret the story as an exploration of the difficult realities of impossible love. I interpret it this way because of the answers I make for the characters, but I don't believe this is how everyone sees the film (I guess it's pretty close to what Noé says in the quote at the top). The abortion scene is a crucial moment in terms of how the audience member receives the film: how the viewer feels about Noé's decision to show it authentically, revisit it through the aborted blood, and also how that abortion meshes with the rest of the film. It's the most difficult scene in the movie and I think if you don't have trouble sorting through your emotional response to the scene you're probably broken inside. I think Noé gives us the highs and gives us the lows, and I admire his courage to show it all, but tell you the truth I take comfort breaks during the abortion scene when I see the movie now, and haven't fully sorted out my own response to the scene.

14 October 2010

Scarecrow, Aloha Bobby and Rose, The Last American Hero, and Macon County Line.

Beginning with a rewatching of a personal favorite of mine, Straight Time, I began an impulsive streak of American film watching that both fascinated and exhausted me. It's low point was Wrong Turn 2: Dead End, of which I could not have a conversation without becoming violently offensive. If I must say something positive about it, I'd invoke a sentiment first expressed to me in a Ralph Ellison book, something about the closeness of hate and love in reference to specificity. Is it made-to-work or made-to-suck? It's made-to-suck. Compare to Adam Green's films, Hatchet and Frozen I watched, which are made-to-work.

The best theatrical moment in the rush was The Social Network. Fincher and Sorkin's movie leaves Pilgrim in the slow lane, as I like to say. For clarity, emotional accuracy, and dramatic speed, Social Network was fascinating. Another positive was Andrew Garfield, who then appeared in Romanek's Never Let Me Go (+ earlier in Gilliam's Parnassus). And that movie crushed me, as they like to say, with its tonal precision, emotional nearness, and vibrant vision. It's a beautiful movie, with sharp, natural colors, and subdued, steady expression. The meeting toward the end was my favorite scene from any film this year.

More distinctly, I also began a succession of American 70s films, ones with smaller legacies and followings, maybe you'd say second-tier American 70s films. I watched Jerry Schatzberg's Scarecrow, with Gene Hackman and Al Pacino, shot by Vilmos Zsignmond, co-winner of the 1973 Cannes Grand Prize (second-tier?). I mostly think of Pacino as intense (rewatched Carlito's Way recently - love the movie, but the problem is Carlito [Pacino] is the only compelling character in it), but here he's happy and easygoing, playful and kind. The movie is solely about the relationship between Pacino and Hackman's characters, and that relationship is exposed mainly through their contact with each other, the way they treat other, the way they behave, the way they speak and what they do. A pure-blooded character movie. Would've loved to have seen this in the theater.

Aloha, Bobby and Rose, with Paul Le Mat from Demme's Melvin and Howard! I was excited about this one. It's a dirty, sad, blue-collar 70s LA point of view on life and love, executed with the typical delusion and self-contempt of the period. Some filmmakers of the time veiled their films with illusory impartiality when depicting low-lives and deadbeats: authentic looking actors, naturalistic dialogue, regional atmosphere; yet so many of the films uniformly depict their lives as pathetic, irredeemable, and lost. Real people without real pain or joy. As a movie it has a few memorable moments, including an okay car crash, and I think someone orders ice cream, which I love in movies. And I think Elton John's Tiny Dancer is playing in the background! Would've loved to have seen this movie projected onto a white sheet in a friend's backyard.

The Last American Hero, with Jeff Bridges!, is a truly idiosyncratic movie, a totally American one that captures well some of the South's less exportable expressions of their famous virtues. Bridges has less room for personal expression and spontaneity in his performance than the actors in the previous movies because the script itself is more vocal about certain convictions. For example: Bridges plays the son of a moonshiner and becomes a Nascar champion, and it's titled The Last American Hero. I love it because Bridges never quite expresses his emotions yet somehow always does, he's always proving something. There's also a tremendously touching scene involving an office lady at a certain race track, who takes a personal interest in the drivers and follows them, supporting them, encouraging them, and sometimes sleeping with them. Sort of an office groupie. She's so sweet in this one bed scene it kills me. She tells a story of a horrible experience at an Atlanta frat party that involves ridicule and shame, and it's the most you learn about the character, so you don't really know who she wants to be, but once her party story is over, you know who she doesn't want to be. She doesn't want to be this person she once was. She isn't going back. It really worked for me. The moonshine and racing aspect and Bridges character were pretty interesting and easy to follow, though also formulaic, for example the same basic story is told in Robert Mitchum's earlier Thunder Road. Would've loved to have watched this one on a shitty tv in some third-rate hellhole hotel in the south, with a hooker, and pizza.

The films which brought me to the point of satiation were last night's Lee's Do The Right Thing (watched She's Gotta Have It earlier, a charming, wonderful movie) and this other 70s American movie set in the south, Macon County Line. It's at mid-point between Aloha, Bobby and Rose and The Last American Hero. Two Chicago brothers spend a few weeks joy riding through the south before Army duty, but by circumstance are involved in a gun battle with a local police officer. It's a homicidal misunderstanding. The film feels like a trip from Los Angeles to the south, and never manages to feel truly Southern, and it's never convincing, straight down to the father (police officer) and son relationship (although crucial for a late-movie moment), but it's always nearing something. For example: the brothers are supposed to be switchblade, hellbent Beach Boys, and that's fine in my book, but that's the most I learn about them, and so they remain only that. The craftsmanship in the final showdown moment is laudable, as is the payoff. Would've loved to have seen in it at a drive-in.

01 October 2010

Max Headroom, Episodes 1-4.

Television audiences today respect the outlining tenets proposed by a show's pilot, I think, I think they accept the interior logic of a show if that logic is conveyed persuasively and followed loyally. A show like Max Headroom could be done really well today. As it is, this episodic show - in its first four episodes, the ones I viewed - consistently commits self-betrayal and violates narrative and real world logic for the sake of cheap entertainment.

It's unfortunate, because the underlying concepts of the show are impressive. "Twenty minutes into the future" major network television stations compete for massive audiences (200 million at a time - assumably the world's population has continued on a precipitous path) and dire financial stakes. The leading network, Channel 23 XXIII, has an ace reporter named Edison who frequently risks personal and professional injury in order to expose corruption, scandal, exploitation, and the like. His show is very popular. It must be a cornerstone of the network because in the very first episode his critical eye turns on his own network: the episode is about him uncovering the tragic, body-exploding consequences of Channel 23's revenue generating blipverts (adverts shown in rapid montage, too quickly for anyone to turn the channel!). People explode because their nervous systems are underused and the accumulating energy from this stagnation is ignited by the mentally intense blipverts.

Max Headroom does an okay job of explaining the bullshit it makes up. A friend of mine recommended this show told me. He described it as prophetic, the way it depicts the pervasiveness of technology in everyday lives, but its representation is far removed from our present reality, and my friend should have told me that the show was prophetic about the way writers would use absurd technological imaginings in order to explain away plotholes in adventurous storylines. Anyway I watched the show because he used the word cyberpunk in his introduction, and there certainly is plenty of cyberpunk weirdness. According to Max Headroom, in the future people will be confused by places called Body Banks - they'll be clueless as to what goes on inside of them. There will be a thriving black market of human organ selling, safely concealed behind the impenetrable veil of the name Body Bank - what goes on in a Body Bank, who knows, the name is so misleading, life is complicated, there are so many people and such violence, no one can stop to figure out these Body Banks. Also, even though Edison's show is massively popular, he has no imitators. Everyone else is complacent, so it really is up to him.

I'm writing myself out of the idea that this show has a strong foundation. There are lots of glaring annoyances like I'm describing. In Episode 2 the youth strap engines onto their skateboards in order to move at the same speed they already do; there is apparently no advantage because the skaters continue to perform inside half-pipes. The magic of the show is that it even attempts to invent these things. Engines on skateboards - that's interesting, isn't it? I've never seen it before, but here it is in Max Headroom.

That's what I mean though, in the television days of Max Headroom you didn't have to think about these things, there was an uncanny suspension of disbelief. Or maybe not - the show only went fourteen or so episodes. Why underestimate the people of the past, why assume they bought this hook, line, and sinker? I doubt anyone thought Get Smart was an intelligent and penetrating expose into the world of spies. Yes, I'm missing the point, and the point is entertainment.

The lack of fixed rules and a sense of reality inhibits my ability to enjoy the show. Television, like film, is fundamentally manipulative, and almost always a lie, but when you misshape your show's design for the sake of a single episode, you betray your own set of lies, and destroy some of the bridges you've formed with your audience. Sometimes rules are betrayed for subversive means, but in Max Headroom it's always for dramatic purposes, and that cheapens the entertainment because it's hard for me to value what they themselves don't. For example, this spontaneous rule making applies also to Channel 23. It's headache inducing to examine how this station is supposedly run - the autonomous Max Headroom, whom I haven't even yet explained, and won't, supposedly goes live on the air at any moment, interrupting whatever else was on. According to this show, in the future there won't be television programming or scheduling, just whims and chaos.

In each episode Edison is put in a perilous situation, but in each episode he escapes. There's not much weight to his danger, then, and there certainly isn't an escalating sense of danger over a course of several episodes. Each episode has its little threats and its unique reasons with little communication between the episodes. These qualities do help keep the show fun. The dialogue is sometimes very snappy, and the camera is extraordinarily mobile for a television show. The characters are sharply defined, and the social backdrop is vibrant and compelling. Some of its central questions are meaningful, and its objectives are worthwhile. If only the created world of Max Headroom had been cherished. A great movie, with a little love and attention, could be made from the first episode alone.

16 September 2010

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done.

A top-shelf director works on the outskirts of Hollywood with a limited budget and a short production schedule. The cast is also high quality, as is the crew. It's a crime film about a killer, told in an expressionistic way, with flashbacks, and parallels of ancient themes. Co-written by the director (over a week's time in a secluded part of Austria), the film feels slightly mechanical (Herzog says precise), but with a director's strong imprint.

The filmmaking spirit of My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done feels close to the popular view of film noir; though the style is far removed. Maybe the hard-boiled style of Port of Call was closer, but further in spirit. And maybe they are both somehow closer to classic Hollywood filmmaking traditions than their contemporary grindhouse counterpoints, films typically made by young filmmakers reverent first to style and attitude. The only way to be faithful to a true original is to be a true original yourself.

In My Son, My Son, you feel the constrictions of a police procedural bend to the convictions of Werner Herzog. He wants to make the movie his own way: the fabric of the film pulses with his personality, and sometimes there appear gaping, naked moments, fragments and details like flamingos, oatmeal, and gospel music, and larger revelations about the weight of an instant, transformations of personality, and creativity/madness. Conceptually there's a lot to admire, and Herzog continues to be outside our time.

It challenges the priorities of other crime films. The act of murder is never shown, the interior of the house during the hostage negotiation is never shown (I think it should have been!), the peripheral charters' interior lives are mostly ignored, and sleeping pills aren't slipped under the cheese of a peppery pizza. Typical aspects of a crime film, like a goal-oriented narrative, and a killer derived cathartic release, are foregone. Many details of the real life case are omitted (Herzog continues to refer to fact based narratives as possessing 'an accountant's truth'). The center of the film is a murder, and the narrative is a swirling mass of personality, metaphysics, police procedure, and murder mystery. It seems unfocused.

The film's tone suggests neither a crime film nor reality; it's too distanced, too impersonal to be auteurism. Its chaotic masquerade is the biggest problem in terms of appealing to an audience, the same criticism commonly attributed to diffident, underimaginative filmmakers who lack the will and sense of vision needed to beguile an audience, filmmakers nothing like Herzog. But it seems difficult to praise the film beyond these connotations without the background knowledge of who Herzog is and the context of the production, there's too much order and not enough force of personality to give the film a clear shape, and it's easy to see the film as underdeveloped, poorly written, and poorly executed. For some, the idea might trump the execution. A more exciting and rewarding option is admiring it for what it is.

Herzog has begun to use Hollywood actors, but there remains a sense of a madman running the show. The appearances of Willem Dafoe, Chloë Sevigny, Udo Kier, and Grace Zabriskie were inevitable and logical. He continues to best use Brad Dourif. He wants to take Michael Shannon to new places, though I struggle to see all of what Herzog sees in him. He lacks both madness and authenticity.

Speculation: it's a thrill to work with Herzog as an actor. His brand of artistry is boundless jubilation and curiosity, wonder and adventure, and he asks his actors do things other directors don't. According to Herzog, during a dinner scene in My Son, My Son, he decided he wanted a freeze frame, and instead of freezing the frame in post-production he simply directed his actors to freeze (not move) at the end of the scene. You can see, for a moment, the actor's respond to this request, and then they freeze, and Herzog holds.

13 September 2010

Cría Cuervos.

At the drive-in of my heart, 3 Women and Cría Cuervos double-feature together, all the time. Their skeletal structures are similar, they have in common the 70s, auteurism, and female protagonists, and a dissection reveals the sharing of vital, essential characteristics. They the two movies are psychological dramas that obtain their narrative intensity through careful observation of minute, idiosyncratic behaviors of their central characters.

The lead in Cría Cuervos is Ana Torrent, the lead from Victor Erice's The Spirit of the Beehive. In Spirit she was seven, here she is ten (in real life). The layers of the narrative are draped over her performance. I've always respected the precocity, energy, and commitment in Natalie Portman's Léon The Professional performance, but she's stagey, histrionic, and vociferous compared to Torrent. I'd call Ana Torrent the little girl James Dean, but she's better than James Dean. She possesses the magic light of a secret, like all truly great actors. The presence of so many of the complexities of childhood depend on the nuances of her performance, and the believability and verisimilitude of these films are partially a product of her strengths.

Physically, Torrent is virtually the same in both movies. She's a girl with tremendous eyes, pretty short. Her emotional range crosses frequently into adult territories (her favorite movie is Frankenstein, she's an attempted murderer), though doesn't stray far from archetypal childhood characteristics (her innocence and compassion, her playfulness - she literally plays).

Unlike other child actors who are written roles in which they 'perform' as children, Torrent is given the chance in Cría Cuervos to behave like a child. When the housekeeper tells the story of the local girl who claimed a virgin pregnancy, Torrent admits she doesn't understand anything being talked about. Only a child could somehow earnestly issue multiple death threats without moral consequence. The narrative works so well because it simply asks Torrent to absorb, to experience, and to encounter, like all children, with a child's limited knowledge of the details and intricacies of adult relationships. She isn't meant to grasp certain social or age related components of the story, and anyway her journey is a deeper one, into the nexus of the soul.

Torrent confronts the death of her mother, followed by her father. She naturally assumes her father died from a poison she herself had stirred into his milk. It was a vendetta for her mother. A question is: will she kill again? Would she just kill everyone whom she doesn't like? Though it isn't a movie about a killer, it's a movie about a little girl, and a single girl, not 'all little girls.' Her psychological make-up is specific to her and her experiences. Some of her actions reflect the behaviors of her parents, there's a clear outline of a person, and she has a multi-dimensional personality.

The film is remarkably well-written. It's told nonlinearly and with dreamlike emphasis; it's written from Torrent's emotional point of view. The exterior portions are vastly interesting themselves. Following her father's death, her aunt and grandmother, from her mother's side, take charge of the house and the upbringing of Torrent and her two sisters. The grandmother is wheel-chair bound and mute, so the aunt shoulders the burden of raising the children. I think the aunt would use the word 'burden,' and the film highlights well her strengths and weaknesses in a motherly role. Another significant character is the housekeeper, who remains employed and has old friendships with the three sisters. Torrent prefers to hang out with the housekeeper, sharing stories and making jokes, or else goofs off with her sisters (they're on vacation from school). There's a kind of warden-prisoner rivalry between the aunt and Torrent; or at least a bitter, difficult period of them getting to know each other.

Also, an adult version of Torrent's character sometimes narrates from a future time beyond the story. There are flashbacks of the parents, and sometimes a surreal blurring of temporal divisions. Like kids on vacation, the narrative isn't superb at keeping track of time. As an audience we record the development of characters, and an emotional progression, more than a sense of real time. We the audience are then as surprised and grounded by the revelation of a school day as the children are. The mention of school reminds us of clocks and schedules and routines.

There are political dimensions to the film as well, but I'm not familiar with all the elements, which might be pretty explicit because the film's Criterion synopsis is "Carlos Saura’s exquisite Cría cuervos . . . heralded a turning point in Spain: shot while General Franco was on his deathbed, the film melds the personal and the political in a portrait of the legacy of fascism and its effects on a middle-class family (the title derives from the Spanish proverb: 'Raise ravens and they’ll peck out your eyes'). Ana Torrent (the dark-eyed beauty from The Spirit of the Beehive) portrays the disturbed eight-year-old Ana, living in Madrid with her two sisters and mourning the death of her mother, whom she conjures as a ghost (an ethereal Geraldine Chaplin). Seamlessly shifting between fantasy and reality, the film subtly evokes both the complex feelings of childhood and the struggles of a nation emerging from the shadows."

It was the emotional specificity of the story that really attracted me. The film is light but deep, fun but serious, wise but innocent.

02 September 2010

Screamers ('95).

Screamers begins with scrolling text over black. A background story, to catch the viewer up on the happenings of Sirius 6B and conditions between the NEB and Alliance. This is extremely helpful for those of us not yet familiar with the ongoings of 2078, but it's not necessary. Most of the information emerges organically as the story develops; though the text is helpful in an orientating sort of way. It's nice. Why it's mostly sci-fi and fantasy films that begin this way I'm not sure, I think it'd work to the same extent in a romcom or action movie. One possible reason is that scrolling text requires reading and a modicum of patience, factors that obstruct enjoyment for some movie goers, yet are acceptable for some sci-fi geeks and the like. Though a lot of times when a film cuts to text I can feel some of the audience turn against the idea. The text, of course, is anyway read to us by a narrator, and maybe it's simply more sophisticated, artistically, to have a visual counterpoint to the narration. Many movies of all types begin with a voice over narration, but only in sci-fi and fantasy films does the text function on an ornamental level.

Scrolling text is a slow opening, and Screamers does little to ignite its jet thrusters in the moments following. The first scene is atmospheric. It establishes the forlornness of the protagonists, the malevolence of the landscape, and introduces the screamers. Screamers are an advanced version of the worms in Tremors. They stalk you subterraneously. They're murderous. They're mechanical. They're self-sufficient. They improve themselves, in order to better kill. They're Phillip K. Dick inventions, and the movie is based on his "Second Variety," adapted by the also-great Dan O' Bannon, co-written by Miguel Tejada-Flores. O'Bannon writer of Alien, stalwart genre writer and sometimes actor and/or director, whose breakthrough was with John Carpenter and Dark Star.

O'Bannon tends to build his scripts upward, and this is the experience of Screamers. He gives you as a gift the death of the message boy by screamers in the beginning, and then backs off and develops his characters, the severity of their plight, and the stakes. Few writers, compared to the whole, give their characters this much consideration. I consider O'Bannon a-grade, though Screamers is a b-grade genre film in terms of budget and acting, with the exception of the also a-grade Peter Weller as the main character. Weller isn't a-grade simply because he's RoboCop. His performance in Screamers is textured: you sense his loss, his struggle, his growing disillusionment, vestiges of discipline, a protracted sense of responsibility, fragments of sympathy and goodwill. You sense both the ice in his veins and the restorative warm blood in his heart.

Mysteriously, perhaps unnecessarily, a plane crashes outside the Sirius 6B Alliance base. The only survivor, unfortunately, is Andrew Lauer. Lauer gives the kind of performance that projects insecurity and astonishing insincerity. I can easily see Lauer on the Late Night couch, right ankle propped on left knee, telling David his experience in the weird sci-fi film. Lauer deserved the sitcom sidekick hell to which he was later banished. There's not a moment of believability in his entire performance. He's the worst part of the film; I'd believe in space colonies before I'd believe a moment of his acting in Screamers. There's too his role as the ace new-graduate of military school who's dying to get out and shoot some guns and prove himself, a pretty annoying and single dimensional character in the first place.

So there's that. Weller chooses to bring Lauer along with him. They set out in response to the message of peace delivered by the boy in the first scene. Their journey from the Alliance base to the NEB base is another moment of mood setting and orientation. This is when we the audience see the devastation nuclear war has borne upon Sirius 6B. It's also when we the audience are allowed to explore the environment and see the extent of the filmmaker's imaginings of this fictitious planet; it's a real powerful genre moment, I mean it, and perhaps partly the depth of this experience relies on a certain development of appreciation*, a building of understanding about the avenues of innuendo and allusion genre filmmakers explore while creating films of fantasy, because if you're tuned in on their wavelength, if you're experiencing the inner genre of the film, you're seeing shadows of real pain, you're seeing the skeleton of a belief system, suggestions of fear, paranoia, insecurity, anxiety, longing, patches of dread, bursts of horror, and genuine human feeling and thought. A good genre film gives up something personal, and if it does that, and you can read it, a connection as powerful as what happens in dramas or romances, whatever, occurs, a sharing of world views between the filmmakers and the audience.

D.H. Lawrence, for example, uses landscapes composed of emotion to enhance the depth of his characters in Sons and Lovers. Some of his text could fit into a Philip K. Dick story, and illustrates the dramatic range of landscape metaphor and allegory.

"Their two hands lay on the rough stone parapet of the Castle wall … He was brooding now, staring out over the country from under sullen brows. The little, interesting diversity of shapes had vanished from the scene; all that remained was a vast, dark matrix of sorrow and tragedy, the same in all the houses and river-flats and the people and the birds; they were only shapen differently. And now that the forms seem to have melted away, there remained the mass from which all the landscape was composed, a dark mass of struggle and pain. The factory, the girls, his mother, the large, uplifted church, the thicket of the town, merged into one atmosphere - dark, brooding, and sorrowful, every bit." (Clara chapter)

At any rate, part of the delight of a sci-fi film is often the exhibition of the unfamiliar elements. The presence of Lauer interferes with the effectiveness of this long scene, in which Weller and Lauer encounter a young boy, named David, in the ruins of a major city on Sirius 6B, and bring him along with them to the NEB base. David is small and dirty and clutches a stuffed bear. He says very little, mostly "Can I come with you," and is only slightly more tolerable than Lauer. The presence of them together is insufferable. In these moments Weller is outnumbered, and the film is statistically at its lowest point.

Dramatic justice services the young David a rifle-shot through the chest, delivered by the bunkered Roy Dupuis (badass with tear drop tattoos) and Charles Powell (geeky and skittish with glasses), two off course NEB soldiers being sheltered by the strong-willed Jennifer Rubin. David is a Level 3 screamer, a weapon disguised as a boy, and Dupuis and Powell know this from previous experience. Rubin, Dupuis, Powell, Weller, and Lauer compose the largest and longest staying group of characters in the film, and together they set out into the perilous deserts of Sirius 6B, determined to reach the NEB base.

Things get worse. The NEB base is devastated, no one remains. Weller can't contact his Alliance base due to radioactivity interference. Powell and Dupuis can't get along: the overbearing Dupuis easily frustrates and enrages the fragile and nervous Powell. Their feud is a high-point in the movie. Progressed in increments, their mutual antipathy culminates in the killing of Powell by Dupuis, who claims to suspect the former of being a screamer. What and who are the screamers evolving into is an important question for the rest of the film.

* I mean development of appreciation in both a positive and negative sense. I understand that certain sci-fi films and novels require a heavy level of commitment from the audience, and I understand why for some people that would inhibit the performance of the work as dramatic material. Completely understand. James Cameron recently referred to contemporary sci-fi as fractal, and said that he doesn't read it anymore because of the high entry level. The king of filmic sci-fi doesn't even have the time or intensity of dedication required to consistently/excessively engage with the material.

Screamers is an old-favorite of mine, a film I was exposed to at an early stage and so I cherish with a fondness peculiar to emblems of nostalgia. Last night I attempted to watch it with fresh, impartial eyes. I was mostly successful, I think, because I could see the film's problems: its over-active camera work, its concessions to action film tropes, its sometimes lousy acting, and its overambitious scope in relation to its budget and potentialities. It comes on pretty strong. I also think there's a lot to admire about the film, perfectly expressed by the film's trailer.

27 August 2010

Mala Noche.

"No se puede vivir sin mar." (No one can live without love). - M. Lowry
Epigraph for Mala Noche or If You Coger With the Bull You Get the Horn (original novella)

In an interview on the Criterion dvd of Mala Noche, Gus Van Sant says he used much of the original Walt Curtis prose as voice over because it was a way to preserve the poetry of Mala Noche the source material. The raw, in your face style of the novella. The decision enshrined the voice of the writer whose work inspired Van Sant to create his first Portland feature.

Mala Noche the movie started Van Sant's career down the path toward becoming America's premier portrayer of alternative lifestyles. One of America's strongest filmmakers. Which is to ask the question, does the voice of Curtis crowd the vision of Van Sant? The novella itself is simple, gorgeous, and violently emotional. It's a boozy daydream diary of unrequited love. The fragments of voice littered across the film take full shape in the novella. The passionate intensity of the source isn't completely transferred to the screen, but its beefy foundation inspires a visually-specific Van Sant to drape visual poems across its bones.

This visual poetry, intelligent in chiaroscuro, makes the film emotionally vibrant. Van Sant's vision replaces and attempts to recreate Curtis's voice. The protruding portion of Van Sant demonstrates a compassion and curiosity still present in the filmmaker's work. Van Sant understands his characters. Mala Noche, a beautiful film, represents an underdeveloped understanding at how to express his characters cinematically.

The fluidity of feeling in Mala Noche is more efficient and remarkable than its cinematic grammar. The feeling > the form. Though the film searches for solutions.

In narrative terms, the film has a murder, which the novella does not. Why did Van Sant kill Pepper? I wonder if it was simply to have that third-act punctuation, or if he thought it heightened the racial message. I fear the former was the reason. The gun scene, like the earlier sex scene, is told through a montage of close-ups and medium shots, characters moving through light and shadow. The technique is transparent in purpose: it's slightly riveting. But the characters suffer slightly from this degree of manipulation, and it hinders them from finding full expression, compared for example to the fully believable, followable, and sympathetic murder in Van Sant's recent Paranoid Park.

Even in this early film it's clear that Van Sant is in pursuit of desperate questions, deeper meanings, and wants from cinema all that he asks. In Mala Noche, as always, Van Sant investigates cinematic form. He experiments with time lapse photography, point of view, voice over; he edits, composes a song, produces, and casts. This is the film in which Van Sant mixes his blood with cinema. Ultimately it has in common with Detour an overall elevation by powers not measurable, an intense and palpable interest in the fate of its characters that is the single most overwhelming component of the film. Mala Noche reminds us of the characters at the heart of Van Sant's films, his investment in them, and his investment in cinema. It's a brilliant start for a filmmaker, and Van Sant's brilliance continues to grow.

20 August 2010


"That's life. Whichever way you turn, fate sticks out a foot to trip you."

Sometimes I worry about the perils of critical distillation. Hardly ever is the critical element of film appreciation a multi-headed beast, only in special circumstances do you hear about the technique of the filmmaker, and his/her method of expression as a collaboration between talented and creative pre-, post-, production crew members. The art of filmmaking is a processes involving the transformation of human emotions and ideas into celluloid, and as the art continues to grow so does the intensity of these facets and the attention to detail in the components of film design.

Douglas Trumbull recently stated that the future of special effects is the creation of an immersive environment and a straying from traditional narrative. The semantics of the statement seem to de-emphasize the writerly aspects of filmmaking, but Trumbull is really talking about a journey away from narratives of traditional form toward narratives of senses, and the identifier and creator of sensual experiences has been and continues to be the writer of the film. It's like Trumbull is talking about a tastier cake, and it's not that we shouldn't record the recipe, but we need to examine the ovens, the ingredients, the chefs; we need to explore the chemistry and science of our recipes, ask ourselves the hard questions about flavor, color, texture, and presentation.

I use cake as a simile because great filmmaking involves an irreversible reaction in which the components of the film combine in spiritual, emotional, chemical ways. A great film should change you while exposing itself as a piece of work beyond pure formal theory. It should be like a tornado sweeping through the small-town of your imagination. This is what I think. Sometimes I mind wrestle ardent intellectual types who pontificate an idea of 'perfect' art, which I suppose means flawless design and technique, and I guess inarguable results. I've heard that axiom about how your response to the Mona Lisa reveals more about yourself than anything about the Mona Lisa. I agree with that to the extent that please reveal your opinion of the Mona Lisa so that I can learn more about you! Because for fuck's sake if we just stick it on a wall and call it great great great forever it's going to become some boring, immaterial and inhuman artifact. Art should never be like the Grand Canyon, I don't think so, I subscribe more to the eccentric view of 'magical electricity' than the view of 'perfect art,' because I don't want to say "That wonder of the world gorge there, yeah, just fuckin' erosion and other natural processes. Magnificent, sure, otherworldly, no." The Mona Lisa as a piece of great art should defy natural order! I believe Leonardo's mind was in direct contact with something incorporeal, something emotional and non-scientific, when he created the Mona Lisa.

Leonardo was a great fucking painter. Painted two of the most well known and lasting pieces from the Renaissance. You don't have to tell most people about Leonardo, they already know. Can a film like Detour affect a person on the level of the Mona Lisa? Fuck yeah. And that's art, and how art extends beyond perfection.

The first thing most people will say about Detour is that it's not very good, and the second thing is probably that they liked the movie. I love the movie. Even without a sophisticated or mature sense of cinematic technique it achieves existential levels of contemplation and deep currents of guilt, sadness, futility, struggle, endurance, suspense, drama, intrigue, etc. It's a film of naked emotion, the more naked due to the less production gloss. That's art.

The cowardice, emptiness, and bad luck of main character Al Roberts seem a reflection in the pool of human imperfection. He works on his own as a dimwitted protagonist whose miserable circumstances lead to a downward spiraling narrative, but he takes on greater meaning when seen as a symbol for the human condition: the human condition of being yourself, being conscious of yourself, and lacking control of your future. I can see the death of Charles Haskell Jr as a genuine mistake, but I detect or project animus in the eyes of Roberts as he tugs on the telephone chord late in the movie. There seems to be a moment in which the violence of his efforts penetrates his mind, and he wonders in fear what the results of his emphatic frustration could be. The moment works on its own as an instance of strangulation, but works better as a symbol of the destructive power of fear and ensnarement.

That's a popular noir trope which continues to be used today, as in 2008's The Square, the idea that all is forgivable on the path of redemption. A lot of revenge fantasy films isolate and amplify this concept. A difference here is that Roberts is no badass, he's pathetic. Sartre would have either hated the guy or been fascinated by him, because he gives up all control of his life, avoids his freedom and independence, and constantly searches for a way to be irresponsible and unaccountable. He's ecstatic that Vera might alleviate the burden of his circumstance, and although as an audience member you know it can't end well, you also cheer Roberts's minor salvation, this new buffer between him and the painful misery of his crime. Because you can't imagine Robert managing any aspect of his life, you accept his reception of this new person, who, even with her hostility, constitutes companionship.

He works on his own, but he's better as a symbol of our desperation, and his ability to function as a symbol makes Detour good art. I just simply believe that human imperfection is our own greatest mystery. Beyond the mystery of the stars, the big bang, etc. I like the astronomical theory that we are formed by the dust of the universe, that we are the remnants of energy from stars, and I believe there are ever expanding ever growing and impossible to fathom territories of the interior, as with the exterior universe, and that unlike the exterior universe, parts of ourselves cannot be explained or observed with instruments, processes, or intellectual constructs. I believe this because I believe in art as a portal into the unknowable.

Of course, Detour isn't without design. The characters work because of the story, and the production isn't so horrible as to be devastatingly obstructive. The actors are okay. Edgar G. Ulmer had legitimate directing chops. Fellow blogger Roger Ebert demystifies the experience of the film I'm describing. Hell, he isn't even overwhelmed by the intrusion of chance, "`Detour' is an example of material finding the appropriate form. Two bottom-feeders from the swamps of pulp swim through the murk of low-budget noir and are caught gasping in Ulmer's net. They deserve one another. At the end, Al is still complaining: 'Fate, [or] some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me, for no good reason at all.' Oh, it has a reason."

His response is justifiable. His pronouncement human. The feeling that the weak deserve their fate is an expression of nature and evolution. As I've said, I believe art is a battle with the natural. And so I say that the end of Detour is reasonable is of secondary importance to the central force of the film, which is the unreasonableness of the whole goddamn cosmos, always creating in order to destroy. Or maybe that's what Ebert meant. I think it'd be better though if I framed it so that it appears I'm building on Ebert's ideas rather than reiterating his point. Anyway it's headed toward this: Detour is imperfect, its characters are imperfect, but it suggests perfectly a simple human question. And that's art.

Detour couldn't withstand a comprehensive analysis of its construction. Or at least, the results wouldn't be flattering. Certain mistakes have to be overlooked, or rather, certain mistakes shrink in stature when next to certain towering strengths. A film like this gains from critical distillation, is allowed to shine as brightly as better made films. What, then, of the better made films? Aren't they worth examining twice, thrice more thoroughly? What is the relationship between critical dissection and emotional appreciation? People sometimes ask me if the more I know about films the less I enjoy them. They mean they don't even want to look under the hood. They mean they fear the parts under the hood. I think sometimes criticism ignores what's under the hood, and that's bad. I think sometimes criticism ignores what's under the hood, and that's good.

Breathless ('60). Okay, also some Breathless ('83).

"Truffaut was too complacent, too precious, too superficially cinephilic, too sentimental about children, and far too willing to let his extraordinary cinematic fluency carry what would otherwise have been so much inconsequential bourgeois fluff. Let it be said that this position is rather heavily dependent on a comparison between Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, and between their respective approaches to politics and narrative during the crunch moment of the late sixties - Godard the revolutionary antinarrative firebrand versus Truffaut the apolitical storytelling lapdog. As May '68 and its polemical extremes have faded into the distance, Godard's cinema has retained much of its power, while his politics have come to seem modish and fairly ridiculous. Meanwhile, Truffaut's body of work has only become more impressive with each passing year. His often remarked facility with the language of cinema, as evident in his great films as in his minor ones, now seems less noteworthy than his daring sense of speed, his attraction to complicated emotional states that few of his colleagues would even touch, and the always remarkable proximity of life and death in his work. Not to mention the continual sense of surprise."

Kent Jones introducing the Criterion edition of Shoot the Piano Player. I thought of it last night during a screening of Breathless, as I was wondering the extent of Truffaut's influence on the film. He's credited with the story. The legend is the film began without a full script; Godard wrote scenes in the morning and fed the actors lines, sometimes during the scene.

Though I sensed a lot of Truffaut during the hotel scene between Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo. There's his brand of philosophical playfulness and romantic insight; most of the adjectives Jones used in his above introduction as ways of describing Truffaut, as ways of differentiating between the filmmakers, are present in the scene: speed, complicated emotional states, proximity of life and death, continual sense of surprise - doesn't that describe Breathless? It's rather fun to hang out around the film and ask these questions, to speculate using a knowledge of the filmmakers and their films. What seems manifest is a shared ideology, whether Truffaut wrote lines or not, Breathless feels like an utterance of many.

The question of creative leadership has a curious corollary, How much of Godard is in Breathless? What percentage of Godard's capabilities, as we know them in the present, are detectable in Breathless? One of the fascinating aspects of Godard is his remarkable dexterity and amazing leaps in style. He seems capable of true invention and fantastic vision, classic and romantic pursuits in cinema, and incredible qualities for a filmmaker who makes daring, masterful use of dramatic form, and hovers his narratives conspicuously near his characters, as to ground them in a human element. Godard is about the explosion of cinema from the interior self to the exterior screen. There is playful presaging of this theme in Breathless, in the strong presence of cinema throughout. Belmondo admires Bogart's photo outside the cinema; a police pursuit ends in a cinema; Belmondo and Seberg experience cinematic dimensions as filmic characters when they see a western movie they end up becoming. The special effect is a trigger of the imagination, the elevation from reality by the channeling of characters' desires as interpreted by the grammar and reality of film.

So is Band of Outsiders a fuller Breathless, for example? There seems so little trail-blazing in Breathless today; it feels like an essential statement, a first-voice moment for a great filmmaker. Whatever conventions Breathless challenged upon its release, whatever expectations of narrative it reversed, were further untangled and unbound in Band of Outsiders. What's more beautiful and makes better use of Raoul Coutard, Breathless or A Woman is a Woman, or My Life to Live, Contempt, Pierrot le fou (or a non-Godard?!)? The questions seem to impose their answers on the experience of the film, though they shouldn't. I see enough footholds and special attributes within Breathless to allow the perpetuation of the question, How good is Breathless?

It's pretty fucking good. It still feels spontaneous, fluid, and frenetic; dangerous, sensuous, and playful. The match-cuts of Seberg in the convertible are riveting, Les Champs-Élysées is ever as gorgeous, and Belmondo is eternally charming. The movie is a game of meaning between Godard and the audience, and of seduction (shimmers of love) between Seberg and Belmondo. I don't think the diminishing power of its stylistic luster exposes surprising flaws; it might allow a clearer view of the emotional range of the characters. The films tours the minds of two characters pinned to Paris, 1960, and you really get to know and experience them, really enter their heads. I wonder if its specificity, in style and content, narrows the entry doorway in the present. It doesn't for me, but the projectionist last night told me there were an unusual number of walk-outs, and most people I know don't even bother seeing Breathless anymore.

Is one viewing of Breathless enough? Is it not a great film? Is there a better Godard film? Back to these questions, somehow back to these questions. The cinematic well of Godard goes deep and continues to deepen, and I think back here at the start is a great place to be. I think we have to continue to ask ourselves where we're coming from if want to know where we're going.

So last night was the first time I'd seen Breathless as a bigger fan of Truffaut than Godard, and the film still worked. It was also the first time I'd seen Breathless ('60) since I saw Breathless ('83). The latter Breathless is a remake that's faithful to the letter but not the spirit of the film. Mostly the same things occur, transplanted to '80s Los Angeles. The director is Jim McBride, the co-writer is L.M. Kit Carson, Gere stars in it, and everything else about it is average. It doesn't have the magnetism of Godard's film, nor the scope. But it's not horrible. I don't think it's horrible. It was even effective as an agent in further appreciating the original, because it allowed me to see the first film's intentions explored, to have a point of reference, and an expanded interpretation of the film.