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.