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.

14 August 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

Edgar Wright is a terrific filmmaker. I continue to wonder if the films he makes are any good. Part of me was worried too big a deal would be made of Scott Pilgrim, and then part of me was disappointed it appeared fourth on Friday's box office list. I don't think there's any doubt that Wright is concerned about the b.o., and as I've said in the past, things like the b.o. and award season matter to me only to the extent to which they matter to the filmmakers I care about. It's only Saturday, and Friday's numbers are likely estimates, but it might be that Wright learns this weekend he indeed has much in common with his heroes Dante and Landis, etc, i.e. he occupies a particular niche and his successes will come sporadically and based on the material he handles.

I love the lovable surface of Scott Pilgrim, a movie that moves so quickly you can like five things and hate three things about any particular sequence. Wright's talent is in manufacturing genial creative exercises, ataractic and panoramic studies of cinematic splendor. Extravagant fun. In fact, Pilgrim is too high-strung for Wright, I kept wanting him to chill out, I kept wanting Pegg or Frost to come in and take these characters by the hand and mellow them out.

And anyway, the style already proved itself with Speed Racer. I've noticed only the bravest critics have compared the two movies, which share a stentorian voice. That critics hate one and love the other is an expression of filmmaking politics, I'm sure, and I for one couldn't even say which is the better movie.

Wright works on expansive canvases, which I hate, but paints with rich textures, which I love. To me it's not even debatable that Knives Chau is the most likeable character the movie offers; probably my favorite part of the movie was her watching the band practice post-breakup from the exterior, and the hand print she left on the window afterward. For a movie with limp action scenes, my favorite was her disappearing highlights. And although I snoozed through some of the musical performances, the other band duplicating the envy and scorn of Scott's band was a great little detail as well. I'm talking about the first battle of the bands.

By the way, the currency in Pilgrim is fantasy, so why in fantasy world is it wrong for a guy to hit a girl? Isn't that fucked? I mean the implication is that it's perfectly ordinary and acceptable to start a fight with another guy - so I'm not offended on behalf of women's right to equality, I'm offended on behalf of all pacifist men. It perpetuates that like medfuckingieval (for Christ's sake) mythical vision of damsels in distress and male knights and all that shit, and I wish it wouldn't draw such clear lines on matters of violence. That's having and eating a cake. Although I guess it also empowers the female sex, because of those fight up-skirts? Classy. Maybe some people want to say it offers a complicated, multi-layered and contemporary view of sexual politics, but those people are wrong. It's your classic alpha male oriented point of view. That's not a criticism, but neither is its consideration means for applause.

Before I went to Scott Pilgrim I rewatched Shaun of the Dead. I wrote a two-parter about that film, about my love/hate relationship with the movie. Pilgrim crystallized what the Wright experience means for me. It's kind of like eating a bunch of sugary food that's my favorite kind of sugary food, and then there's the inevitable stomach ache. I doubt I'll ever learn my lesson, and I don't believe it harms me enough to try and stop. Though how much better for me would it be, if he could only give me some cinematic broccoli?