Saturday, July 16, 2016


"The worst thing that could happen to a director is that someone starts calling them a master. It's an empty word, one that runs contrary to the way cinema, which is bigger than any director, works. It's got a really bad tendency to catch on, too. Two possible things that can happen: a promising director will let the word go to his or her head; a great director will ignore it and keep living the same way they always have, though that tends to do nothing to stop the tales of their "mastery." Great directors are therefore always damned, and in a sense Renoir has been damned by reputation for unsurmountable perfection, even though part of the greatness of his films lies in their rough, human mess."

Sunday, April 17, 2016

More Stuff on The Fly

I wrote a little bit about The Fly several weeks back and have expanded on it for no real reason except that I feel deeply about it. And that feeling grows with each viewing of it. I can't get over how emotional this movie is, and also just how much of an outlier it is amidst its fellow 80s exercises in genre craftsmanship. It's also one of those films wherein the emotions I feel are probably limited due to my time on this earth and my experience on it. Matt Zoler Seitz wrote a pretty perfect piece on it a few years back and ended it with this: 

Cronenberg is one of the most sophisticated chroniclers of romance in modern cinema, and I’m surprised critics haven’t made more of this over the decades. Why? Perhaps it’s because Cronenberg deals in symbols and metaphors as well as witty dialogue and plausible behavior. It can be hard to sense the human heart beating beneath the blood and goo that engulf some of his finest adult dramas. The Fly is a rare horror film—and a rare big-budget Hollywood movie, period—that is adult in all the ways that count. I would never show it to a child, or even a young adult, not because of the sex and gore, but because they would have no way of processing the feelings it evokes. You have to have lived a bit to truly appreciate this movie, and it only becomes more powerful as you grow older.

I do realize that perhaps I don't entirely get the movie's emotional core, but that's a good thing, because I know that someday I will. The fact that I might appreciate The Fly even more down the line seems baffling given my deep love for it today. But that possibility also greatly excites me. 

Amidst rising steam and whizzing sparks, a giant fly fused with chunks of metal emerges from a broken pod, while a man lies wounded nearby and a woman watches in sheer horror. The camera cuts in close to the creature and we see its massive, round looming eyes as they squint in pain. It’s almost unsettling how mournful and pitiable it looks. For a film that’s a remake of a cheesy 1958 science fiction movie—itself based on a short story that premiered in Playboy—that tells the story of a man turning into a fly, and that’s directed by the often cold and clinical David Cronenberg, it does come as a shock that The Fly is so emphatically emotional, sad, and human. 

It’s the goal of many a science fiction narrative to grapple with the issue of what constitutes a person by sizing them next to things that are non-human. Because it’s a question ultimately limited to philosophical speculation, the way the question is asked takes on great importance. Perhaps just as crucial as the questions though is the idea that if a film can’t tell us what it means to be human, can it make us feel more like a human being than before we began watching it?

Though the film’s centerpoint is of scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) fusing into a fly, and though the movie itself is a triumph of direction, visual effects, performance, and efficient storytelling, it’s all in the service of Cronenberg’s fascination with the human being: what it feels, how it feels, and why it feels. 

Love stories have always been great human stories because they’re about that part of humans in which ambition, money, glory, and utility are hindered by that nebulous but inexplicably powerful urge to care and feel for another—both our inner, deeper aspects and also our bodies encased in flesh. It’s no surprise then that despite its trappings as a special-effects filled science fiction thriller, The Fly is really a love story, a drama about men trying to love in childish ways and learning to love in more selfless adult ways.

In the world of The Fly, which is so limited in characters (three, plus a few bit parts) and locations that it could almost work as a stage play, there are two uniquely different men who are nevertheless dealing with love in the two aforementioned ways. First there’s the scientist Brundle, and second a magazine editor, Stathis Borans (John Getz), who is attempting to expose Brindle’s teleportation device “that’ll change the world as we know it!” Though they’re wildly different types— Borans the smug, womanizing office man and Brindle the awkward, amicable genius whose experience with girls seems equivalent to that of a prepubescent twelve-year old—they both happen to be trying to love the same woman: Veronica (played by the ravishing Geena Davis). 

Davis radiates a kind of old school Hollywood charm as Veronica: As a journalist working for Borans, she’s cut-throat and crafty with a dose of sardonic wit and some Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday, and as a person she’s beautiful and slyly seductive, a la the Rita Hayworth of Gilda. These qualities are brought out from the outset, when Brundle takes her to his laboratory/apartment (a big, gray building made austere by slow tracking shots that accentuate its creepy shadows and hollowness), and she playfully removes a stocking to test in his teleportation device. Then, upon realizing that Brundle is serious about his pods and that they actually work, she discreetly flips on her tape recorder in her bag and starts asking Brundle questions about his invention. Davis plays Veronica with all the confidence and playfulness she can muster. When Brundle—having learned that Veronica had a previous fling with Borans in college—asks “is he still in love with you?” she answers with an air of flippancy: “how could he not be?” It also helps that Davis stands a striking six feet tall, so whenever Cronenberg frames her with either Goldblum or Getz in tight two shots, you really sense that she can hold her own and won’t be looked down upon.

Not that Brundle is a particularly intimidating presence early on, though. When they initially meet at a science convention, Cronenberg avoids an establishing shot of them and instead starts with a medium-close-up of Brundle explaining his invention to Veronica, followed by slightly awkward reverse one-shots that highlight Brundle’s own social naivete. While Brundle somewhat desires to showcase his invention, he’s just as interested in using it as an instrument of seduction. When he later explains that his pod can only transport inanimate objects, he claims “I must not know enough about the flesh myself. I’m gonna have to learn.” Whether he picks up on the multiple implications of his words or not, we certainly do. I grin every time I see Goldblum in this movie. He speaks in the excitable rapid tone of a geek who can’t say enough about his work, but he’s also tan with lush black hair and a large, well-built physique. It’s an intriguing mixture, and it’s no wonder Veronica falls for him so quickly. 

From Crash to A History of Violence, Cronenberg has always treated sex as a vital part of human interaction and he uses it as a way of investigating ideas that interest him—often dark and disturbing ones. He’s less bleak here. The physical relationship between Veronica and Brundle allows us to view her as sensitive and caring, someone who wants to give Brundle the sort of love he’s never had before. And for Brundle, it’s an ironic occurrence because just when he’s finally breaking ground with his teleporting device in which a living body can hopefully jump from one place to another, he’s encountering the very different thrill of an intimate interaction with another living body. Yes, changing the world with scientific advancement is a great, important pursuit, but what good does any greatness do if you can’t make time to simply exist with another human being?

As Cronenberg presents this dichotomy between science and love, there’s another drama that he gives a surprising amount of attention. Initially, the character of Stathis Borans seems created to be purely antagonistic. Even his name sounds like it was created for a great horrid villain. A more predictable film might keep him as the asshole who constantly pursues Veronica while attempting to use Brundle’s invention to help his own publication—like a real Harry Ellis type from Die Hard

Early behavior—like his sneaking into Veronica’s apartment and surprising her in the shower, or his attempt to exploit the teleportation device without Brundle’s consent—certainly indicates such a type. But there’s a scene between him and Veronica in a department store that always struck me as highly unusual and also as an indicator that Borans does not allow for easy categorization. He tracks Veronica down while she’s shopping and crudely berates her over her recent romance with Brundle. In high dramatic fashion, visible to everyone in the store, he exclaims “you’re a goddess! Thank you for making my most paranoid fantasies come true!” and then kneels down to her feet, as if in an act of worship. It’s very strange, and while you could just see it as childish or comical—he’s aggressive, jealous, and a spoiled brat all at once—it also implies that he really cares for and loves Veronica deep down inside, and is petrified of the idea that she would be with another. He loves her so much that he acts out like a kid in public not getting his candy. 

This is where parallel lines can begin to be drawn between him and Brundle: they’re both attempting to love, but they’re doing it in ways indicative of an adolescent mindset. Borans wants what he has lost so much that he becomes like a rash maniac whenever the possibility at getting it is threatened. Brundle wants what he has never had before, and similarly cannot handle himself when he learns that Borans is Veronica’s ex and then wrongly suspects that she’s still seeing him. 

What, after all, prompts the accident resulting in Brundle’s terrifying transformation other than in a fit of jealous rage getting drunk and throwing himself into the pod, failing to notice a fly has entered with him. Rarely have I seen a film that deals with the folly of scientific ambition contain so much raw, primitive human emotion. 

In all this, you feel the most sympathy for Veronica, who is like a tennis ball being whacked back and forth across a court scorching with male desire. She loves Brundle but is horrified of what he’s become, and disdains Borans but can’t escape his pursuits. 

Brundle’s physical transformation is disturbing, and Cronenberg lets it slowly manifest itself like a tiny trickle of water moving across the ground: a bristle sticking from his back, then a date scene in a coffee shop where he puts spoonful after spoonful of sugar in his coffee. His voice changes to slightly higher pitch, and words leave his mouth with an excited buzz, akin to the energy of a fly zipping around your face. Then comes the copious consumption of candy bars and doughnuts. A tooth falls out, a fingernail peels off. We cringe. Soon he’s lost enough little parts of his body his medicine cabinet “is now the Brundle Museum of Natural History.” Critic Dave Kehr suggests that this an “awful parody of puberty, with Goldblum discovering mysterious hairs on his body, devouring junk food and feeling himself possessed of a strange new power and self-confidence.” This make sense, especially given just how childish Brundle appears in the early stages of his romance with Veronica. The tragedy then is that his natural progression towards emotional maturity and a greater understanding of love is thwarted by the rapid rate at which his transformation occurs.

His emotions range from creepy, to confused, to ultimately sad (that Goldblum manages to convey so many different types of behavior in the movie is astonishing). When Veronica visits him and Seth Brundle as human is nearly unrecognizable, she cries in horror and disgust as one of his ears simply falls off, like some scab. Something like this could have been campy, but Cronenberg treats it all with utter sincerity, and when he follows it with Brundle weeping and begging Veronica to help him as he hugs her, you can’t help but feel a tragic pain inside. Sort of like The Elephant Man, when we encounter the grotesque and it’s treated with conviction and skill, we’re left feeling compassion. 

It’s the third act of the film in which both Brundle and Borans transition from trying to love to learning to love. With echoes of Grecian and Shakespearian tragedy, we see Borans realize the severity of Brundle’s condition and move from Veronica’s mad pursuer to her heroic protector. While his love for Veronica had previously been his weakness, now it becomes his strength, a chance to prove his worth. Brundle, the tragic victim of science-gone-wrong, clings to his last hope of maintaining any human semblance by attempting to fuse himself with Veronica with the use of a third pod. 

Borans intervenes with a shotgun, destroying the pod cables just before the fusion, and we’re back to that devastating image of Brundle, now a massive fly, begging for death. Brundle never quite figured out the proper way to love, but as his massive bug eyes stare into those of the woman he’s cherished, what but love could prompt him to point the gun in the direction of his head? Given the extreme circumstances, is this not the very act of learning to love? Veronica weeps, heeding her lover’s request with a shotgun blast. Since when has a climax been so submerged in sadness? 

Watching The Fly, we get overwhelmed by the amount of love that is present and how that love interacts with the grotesque. We cower at the sight of Brundle’s disgusting transformation. Humans are terrified of becoming something non-human, something non-loving. Perhaps the fact that we feel such terror only exemplifies just how loving we are. Cronenberg gets this. We don’t watch The Fly to cringe because it provides some sort of pleasure or thrill. We watch it because when we cringe as Brundle becomes The Brundlefly, we get overwhelmed with our fears and loves, our personhood.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Matinee: Naomi Watts

Matinee, which might be my favorite Joe Dante movie, has all sorts of things movie lovers can find and embrace. One that you might miss first time around is when a couple monster movie buff brothers, Gene and Dennis, begrudgingly attend a crappy double feature in the vein of 1960s Disney live action flicks. One, a truly idiotic looking thing called The Shook Up Shopping Cart, features a really young Naomi Watts for a brief film-within-a-film moment. The funny thing is, I always thought Watts as the kind of actress who always looks the same through the years, and here, even though filmed in the early 90s, she looks pretty much as she does today.  

Breakdown (1997)

Breakdown, a 1997 action film co-written and directed by Jonathan Mostow (whose career since, which includes the likes of the third Terminator movie and Surrogates, has unfortunately only been okay) is filled to the brim with pleasures: Kurt Russell getting to play the kind of blue collar everyman-turned-hero-by-circumstance that he excels at, J.T. Walsh in his last great performance, gorgeous vistas of the American West, and a rare plot for its time that breaks the action narrative down to its essentials of simple good guys fighting simple bad guys. This last aspect makes the film especially refreshing. It seems like every other action movie from this era in the 90s involved assassins, globe-trotting narratives, the FBI or CIA, European thugs, corrupt government officials, and so on and so forth.

Not that there's anything wrong with that, if it's done well (the Renny Harlin/Shane Black extravaganza The Long Kiss Goodnight from a year earlier is a great example). But here Mostow takes a more elemental approach to the action film, stripping it down to basics and allowing the simplicity of its story, characters, and environment to heighten the sense of panic a viewer feels during a good action thriller. There's nothing else to distract us, no ulterior agenda or lavish decorations. The film's both refreshing and great.

A bit like John and Annie Greer from Seven Men from Now, Kurt Russell and Amy Quinlain play financially struggling husband/wife duo Jeff and Amy, who are heading West with the hope of a brighter future. Along the way their car fizzles out, hence the film's title. J.T Walsh is the amiable truck driver Red, who stops to assist and gives Amy a lift to a nearby phone while Jeff watches the car. Of course, it's no surprise that Red's friendliness is just an act, prompting a transference of the film's title on us: as Keith Uhlich notes in this video essay, once the film's wheels start turning, it becomes about how a movie can reach the level of suspense as to give the viewer an emotional breakdown. 

Of course this wouldn't mean a thing if Mostow didn't have a good sense of how to conduct a movie of this sort, because when a film vies for just the most basic elements of its genre, it runs the risk of being boring. But Mostow understands what this sort of story needs like a good cook understands that just the right amount of basic ingredients makes one hell of a soup. There's just enough character details to make them seem real (Jeff and Amy's financial situation is important for the way we empathize with them as characters, and then it also serves as a crucial aspect of the plot later in the movie), just enough strangeness and mystery to give the film suspense (a few great scenes in a diner come to mind), and the perfect amount of high-octane set-pieces to allow the director to showcase his prowess as an action filmmaker.

The real genius of the movie though comes in its ebb-and-flow structure, wherein problems arise followed by positive outcomes, proceeded by yet another complication, a pattern that drives the film. Just about every great sequence in the film is predicated on the idea that Jeff is ingenious enough to get out of a tough situation, but too damn unlucky to stay out of it (the best of these moments comes when Jeff's control of a situation is undone by the appearance of a kid with a rifle). It gets its momentum though by the fact that the troubles the main character finds himself in heighten as the movie progresses, climaxing in an crescendo in which clashing metal, panicked faces, and pavement-all central ingredients to the film-are sort of morphed together. It's completely over-the-top but also quite fitting given this structure and what it's building towards. 

To me, Breakdown is one of the great action movies. In stripping it down to something more primitive, it accentuates the fundamental aspects of the genre, and then utilizes those aspects brilliantly. It sweeps away the mess of convolution that defines far too many action movies, sort of like someone mopping up mud from a floor to find tiles, and then ripping up those tiles to find out what's underneath. 

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Late Spring: Setsuko Hara's Smile

Setsuko Hara, one of the greatest and also most beautiful of all Japanese actresses, died last year, and if you've never seen any of her films, Ozu's Late Spring would be as good as any place to start. The film itself is a masterpiece, the beginning of Ozu's late period that found his themes and style becoming more contemplative and earnest as he investigated conflicts of generational divides and friction within family dynamics. 

In Late Spring, Hara plays Noriko, 27 and still living with her father, Shuckichi (Ozu regular Chisu Ryu). She acts as his caretaker, and despite pressure from her aunt, her friend, and eventually her father to get married, she's bent on staying single and a caretaker at home. It's a complicated situation, one built around her love for her father, her sense of responsibility towards him (especially because his wife has died), and also a fear of moving forward and making a life for her own. 

In the early parts of the film, Noriko, despite devoting most of her time to her father, comes across as somewhat child-like. Note how in many of the early scenes, much of Hara's performance is defined by her smile, a playful innocent smile that despite its charm feels somewhat forced. She's acting too innocent, it seems, suggesting a callowness stemming from her lack of experience in the world. 

In one scene, she goes to a bar with a friend of her father, where she refuses to drink any sake, but asks to pour his drink. It reminded me a little of when I was a kid and would ask my mom if I could pour the wine at dinner, because it seemed sort of exciting to a young, innocent mind. They begin to talk, and when she finds out that the friend has remarried, she expresses disapproval, going so far as to call it "nasty," but all the while keeping her childlike smile. The idea seems to be that she doesn't quite know what she's talking about in passing this judgement because the only world she really knows is living with her father. The smile functions as a kind of safeguard for Noriko, a mask that suggests all is well and good, life sweet and content. 

There's another scene a little later when Noriko converses with her friend Aya, who is pressuring her to go ahead and get married. Noriko continues to just smile, as if the idea is so absurd it's funny, and when Aya continues to pressure her, the smile's not enough and she says she's hungry and needs some bread. We sense more than ever, though, that this smile is a disguise, Noriko's constant reliance on it simply evincing how artificial it really is. 

After this we get a similar scene, this time between Noriko and her Aunt Masa, who tells her about a man who looks like Gary Cooper and would suit her well. Noriko explains her problem in the simplest of terms: "If I left home father would be lost." But it's more complicated than that, for she also says, "I'm used to him and can handle him," which implies that it's not simply a sense of filial responsibilty that keeps her at home, but also because it provides her with a sense of security, the ability to deal with what she knows as opposed to venturing into the unknown. At this, her aunt responds: "Then you can never get married." We cut back to Noriko and we see her smile yet again, yet this time it's changed, less wide and joyous, a hint of both selfishness and guilt behind her large white teeth. "I don't care," she says. 

This is one of the reasons Hara was so great: she could express who a character was by a smile and the way she altered it depending on the dramatic context. In this latter example she makes just a minor adjustment, and we sense her underlying discomfort and guilt because she's just admitted she doesn't care if she doesn't get married. Rather than desiring marriage but remaining with her father out of love, she's subtly acknowledging that she's also staying with him because she's afraid of a world in front of her she knows she has no experience with, and is afraid of.

Murder Party (2007)

With the great Blue Ruin from a few years back, and hotly anticipated release of Green Room next month, Jeremy Saulnier is one of the more exciting young filmmakers working today. He joins the ranks of guys like Jeff Nichols and Jim Mickle, a generation of directors raised on 70s classics and John Carpenter's windscreen visuals who are making completely sincere genre pieces that have a classical concern for character development and psychology. 

A lot of people probably think Blue Ruin was Saulnier's first film, but he actually made a horror comedy back in 2007 called Murder Party, which I don't believe ever got a theatrical release, but did play at some fairly big festivals. It's got a pretty original premise in which a lonely man named Christopher foregoes his Halloween tradition of eating candy corn and watching shlock VHS horror movies to attend a party, an invitation to which he found in the streets earlier in the day. He puts together a cheap cardboard knight costume, bakes some pumpkin bread, and ends up at the party that consists of a group of strangers in a warehouse who plan to kill him. 

It's all played for laughs, but the film's neither very funny nor that entertaining, and even though it's only 80 minutes really starts to drag once we realize that most of the film is simply Christopher bound and gagged and watching in terror this group of weird sickos argue over how to carry out their plan. It does finish strong, though, as the blood bath that the title suggests eventually arrives and the film manages to fit in some memorable moments, like a clever use of a conveyer belt and one of the more disturbing uses of a chainsaw you'll find in a horror movie. 

Though it's weak overall, it's still fun to see Saulnier harness his steadicam chops, which he would put to much more effective use in Blue Ruin (which he also shot and made after a three year hiatus in which he worked exclusively as a DP on other projects), and also to see that film's lead actor, Macon Blair, show up as one of the friends at the party. It might be worth checking out while waiting for Green Room, which actually sounds vaguely similar to this but that I hope and expect to be far a far more accomplished work. 

Panic (2000)

Panic is a hitman story that treats the job as a quiet, haunting, matter-of-fact profession. Rather than shown to be the daring, exciting lifestyle that a lot of Hollywood films depict it to be, here it's just another job, something that's cold, calculating, and unemotional. Donald Sutherland is the patriarch who got into the business because of his wife, but we never find out who he actually works for or the reason behind the hits. He raises his son Alex (William H. Macy) to be his partner, taking him out to the woods to kill a squirrel as a boy, and then slowly teaching him the tricks of the trade so that by the time he might know better, a sense of indifference over killing people is already engrained in his mind. 

The drama of the story though concerns Alex as a middle-aged man with a wife and kid of his own, and his trouble coping with life in general: the idea of being a hitman is starting to wear down on him, but he's also just emotionally fraught over how sad he feels, how disconnected he is from his wife and how a young woman named Sarah (Neve Campbell) is the only thing that makes him feel okay. 

He meets her in the waiting room of a psychotherapy office, where he has regular meetings with a psychologist, played by John Ritter. Though this is supposed to help him, it doesn't really. The idea is that this is a man who simply cannot get relief from anything in life, where everything is stressful, awkward, or painful. He makes a half-assed pursuit of Sarah, who's the kind of strange, open-minded, and honest person who doesn't see this is a problem, but his devotion to his wife keeps him from having the kind of affair she might find exciting. But he still feels guilty over this and his wife senses it, causing tensions to brew beneath the surface at home.

On top of that, his father wants him to carry out another hit, but Alex is torn between obeying and getting out of the family business. You get the sense that because his father trained him from a young age, Alex still feels his authority over him, that he's like a young boy afraid of getting punished by acting against his dad's command. Macy's always been best at playing characters who possess an almost youthful naiveté and then who stress out over stupid situations they get in, so this is really the perfect role for him. It helps that physically he sort of looks like the kind of person who sans the facial wrinkles probably looked just the same when he was a kid. 

Sutherland is also ideal casting here because contrary to Macy he's got a domineering physical presence and an intimidating voice. It's the kind of power that a father luring his son into the business of killing would need to have. "I'm not sure I've ever gotten angry," Alex says to his psychologist. "You've never gotten angry at your father?" he asks. "No," Alex replies with a kind of smirk of disbelief that that would even be a possibility. I gathered that the chilly machinations of the killing business (the hardest part, the father explains, is not the act itself but keeping the job a secret) and his father's sense of power over him has sucked any possibility of expressing emotion out of him. If there's an overarching point to the movie, it might be the terrifying feeling a man gets when he realizes he's needs to feel something and doesn't know how to.

 Sutherland also captures the underlying stress that the father also feels, because he knows he's getting old and that he can't rely on his son the way he used to. In a great scene we see Alex's son receiving a model plane for his birthday from his grandfather, who tries to put on the face of a kindly grandpa but then suddenly explodes when the boy accidentally sprays the model glue over the table. 

Despite its subject of hitmen, and one sort of dumb plot point that's contrived to give the film some suspense, Panic is less a thriller than a lean, taut character piece. It's only 87 minutes and it moves with the fluidity of a really good short story where there's a lot happening but every element is carved down to its essentials. And that's not surprising since it was written and directed by Henry Bromell, who made a career mainly as a novelist and a screenwriter and whose script is clearly the work of someone with years of experience with dramatic structures under his belt. 

As a director, he's not much of a stylist, his camera rarely moving (probably the most showy move is in a parking lot where Alex prepares for his first kill: we get a medium shot of the man to be killed in his car, then a cut to a crane shot as the camera slowly moves downward to reveal Alex and his father watching from a distance in their car, but it feels clumsy and a better director could have staged it more effectively) and always exactly where you'd expect it to be, but the lack of creative choices here seems fitting for the cold, spare storytelling at hand, and also the no-nonsense aspect of carrying out kills. "Never get complicated, keep things simple," the father explains to Alex in a flashback to his first hit.  This is not supposed to be a glamorous life, but it's sustainable if the execution is flawless. But few things are, and Panic shows with quiet devastation the impossibility such a thing when our volatile selves emerge. 

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Le Samurai: Ending

The climax/ending of Jean Pierre Melville's iconic 1967 gangster flick Le Samurai remains one of the great moments in movie history: Jeff Costello (Alain Delon), realizes he's like his beloved bird that he keeps in his apartment: trapped in a cage surrounded by murky grey walls. Only instead of a cage, he's surrounded by underground criminals who realize he's a problem, and a chief officer who goes to unrealistic measures to bring him down. And the grey walls are replaced by grey morality, where codes of honor (regardless of whether they existed, they were a major part of the films that influenced Le Samurai) are supplanted by the notion that the only thing that matters is keeping the status quo, order at the expense of honor.

Thus, a film that's remarkable for how little feeling it packs into its narrative concludes with one of the most deeply emotional shots in cinema: that of an empty gun, taken from the hand of a dead man who accepted his fate not just to outsmart a system he despised, but to suggest he really was the final samurai, the one who held the idea of who he was over convenience, pleasure, and well-being. 

The greatness of the movie is partially due to how restrained the rest of the picture is in relation to its impactful end. in this passage from Ebert's Great Movies essay on the film, he writes: "The movie teaches us how action is the enemy of suspense--how action releases tension instead of building it. Better to wait for a whole movie for something to happen (assuming we really care whether it happens) than to sit through a film where things we don't care about are happening constantly." 

I'd extrapolate within the context I've mentioned except that Ebert said it perfectly, and if you've seen the film, you know exactly what he's getting at, and how it relates to the film's outstanding finish.  

Heaven Knows What (2015)

Movies about drug addiction can only say so much about the subject before arriving at the expected conclusion of the detrimental effects of such an addiction. So it seems mightily important then that the way these stories are told take precedence over the limited range of ideas they can arrive at. It also helps if there's a love story at the center of the story, because it inevitably raises the question: is my relationship stronger with my lover or with my drug? The Safdie brothers seem to fully understand the constraints of the addiction narrative and, as their film about it indicates, are fully equipped to deal with them. 

The film, which was released last year, has a pretty neat origin story in that the brothers found an actual addict in New York, Arielle Holmes, and convinced her to write a memoir of her experiences, which then served as the basis for their film. On top of that, Holmes stars in the film as Harley, a fictionalized version of herself. The movie traces her experiences living in New York, homeless and at the mercy of both heroin and her lover, Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones, who, after this and his role in God's Pocket, shows he's one of the masters at playing unhinged creeps). 

The movie begins where a film with a more traditional structure might end, with Harley attempting suicide after Ilya's twisted taunt that if she really loved him she'd already have killed herself. While the reason Holmes initially moved to New York and got into heroin was because of Ilya, the film, after this bleak opening, becomes less a story of their relationship than a chronicle of Harley's everyday routines: traveling to Brooklyn to pick up her belongings at a homeless shelter, hanging out with other addicts, asking around for money, and of course, getting high. 

This is fairly predictable material though, depicting the kind of behavior I see on a regular basis during my daily train commute through downtown Dallas. This is a really good film though, and a lot of it has to do with the filmmaking chops of the Safdie brothers. They let their agile camera roam freely between characters, letting certain scenes breath and other times pushing into uncomfortable and unflattering handheld closeups. Given this and the fact that much of the film is about the routines of homeless survivors, it might seem that the Safdie's are taking a realist approach to telling Holmes' story. 

This is further enhanced because the dialogue is rife with stupid profanities, arguments, and banal chit-chat, and because the two actors with the most screen time, Holmes and Buddy Duress (he plays Mike, a friend Harley turns to to get away from Ilya after her attempted suicide), are extremely convincing non-professionals--all factors that help accentuate the movie's sense of authenticity. The only professional actor in the film is Jones, who gives the film's most actorly performance, but isn't really in the movie very much (interestingly enough, he's also the only character who keeps the name of his real life counterpart). All of this underscores the harrowing and miserable state these people are in. Each day's like one long panic attack until they get money for drugs or booze, at which point they get a brief moment of respite until it's the next morning and they have to do it all again. This is all in the service of an attempt to give us a sense of what this kind of living feels like, and the Safdies succeed mightily. I totally felt it. 

But despite the filmmakers' realist concerns, there are also elements that are highly formal and that definitely draw attention to themselves. Part of this has to do with the pulsating electronic soundtrack they use, which recalls certain 80s action movies except that the thumping tempo here seems implemented to augment the movie's sense of anxiety and dread. It's generally accepted that a lack of music in a film lends to its sense of believability. In the realm of addiction narratives, you can even find an example in the 1971 Al Pacino quasi-classic The Panic in Needle Park, which in its attempt to give us a raw portrait of heroin addicts, opted against the use of a soundtrack. But here the Safdies' rely so much on score that it imparts the sense that we're seeing reality and a horror story unfold simultaneously (there's even a scene where Harley and her friends are getting high while watching a Hellraiser movie). 

This is of course fitting, as the idea seems to be that there's a correlation between these peoples' lives and horror movies. Note how the film doesn't focus on anyone in the city accept for the addicts, as if this is their world and everyone else exists in the background, foregrounded only when they have some change to give. In a scene late in the film, when Harley gets back together with Ilya after he nearly dies of an overdose, we see them lying together on the sidewalk in a passionate embrace, as if living on the streets means they own them as well. Or look at the opening credits sequence where we see Harley in the hospital as she argues with other patients, but instead of dialogue we get the throbbing electronic score and the big black-lettering of the titles, which makes for a pretty creepy sequence. And (spolier), towards the film's close, we see Ilya's tragic end not as it happened in real life, but as he's engulfed in flames after sleeping with a lit candle, the final image of him a closeup of his face melting off. If this were a genre film, Ilya would be the villain: always dressed in black, he appears and disappears at random throughout the film. You get the sense that he's everywhere and nowhere. He seems only capable of causing trouble, and his death carries the sense of ugly fate that you only find in movies. And the fact that Harley loves him feels more like a curse than anything. Whether it's a metaphor for the idea that life for the characters in this film is like a hell, it's a fairly blatant and terrifying scene in its own right, but also one that feels out of place-or not.

I'm left scratching my head slightly over these elements of the movie even though they I'm not left without an explanation for them. And that's a good thing, because the last thing we need is another cut-and-dried tale of addiction. It's as if the Safdies gave themselves the material for a fictional documentary and then asked themselves: how can we both stick to reality and go beyond that? Reality for these characters is not reality for most people, and the Safdies take this idea and run with it in exciting directions. Instead of making an argument, they let the possibilities of the medium communicate ways in which we can view the experiences of these people. They use it freely but never overstep their bounds. The result is a film that feels deeply liberated but also quite responsible. 

Friday, February 26, 2016

Thou Wast Mild and Lovely (2014)

I've known about Josephine Decker for a bit, mainly through Richard Brody. He's become one of her main champions, going so far as to call her the "most extreme" example recent filmmakers seeking a "reappraisal of narrative" as a kind of solution to the banality of current filmic storytelling. He cites movies like Upstream Color, To the Wonder, and Holy Motors as recent examples, and perhaps we should include something like Claire Denis' The Intruder as well. I'm still not sure how necessary this new form of narrative is or how exactly it is to be defined other than the fact that it seems to rely on a combination of spontaneity, emotion, and traditional stories/themes to create a radical narrative form centered on the image. 

I recently got around to watching Decker's most recent film, Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, which is partly inspired by Steinbeck's East of Eden but really feels more like a bad dream directed by Terrence Malick. In one sense it's a good thing, as Decker takes all sorts of Malick trademarks-sun-bleached images, handheld shots following characters through fields, lots of images of animals and insects-and subverts them. While Malick was attempting to capture beauty, Decker's trying to instill in the audience a sense of dread and unease. The story, which concerns a somewhat aloof man named Akin (Joe Swanberg) working on a farm for a father (Robert Longstreet) and his daughter (Sophie Traub, who could easily pass as a sibling of Elizabeth Moss) sounds like melodrama but in Decker's hands feels strange and unsettling.

Does it work? I think it does in moments, mostly the ones where Robert Longstreet gets to create really awkward and creepy table talk. But really if you like this sort of thing, you know who you are. I won't vouch for it fully, and what I appreciate about it is its recklessness, something that can never get old.