Monday, October 5, 2015

About Elly: That Final Shot

We've got those final shots we love. They're the ones that we look at and can't imagine a more perfect image to conclude those that have preceded it. Often times we find them simply either aesthetically pleasing to look at or thematically relevant to the film as a whole or simply viscerally ideal in terms of how we should feel based on what we've felt about the rest of the film. Rarely though do we get a closing image that accomplishes all three of these things. Asghar Fahradi's 2009 film About Elly, which only found its way into US theaters this year, is one of those rarities. Here's the image, which depicts a handful of the movie's characters attempting to push their car out of the wet sand at the end of a vacation that started out merrily and ended in a tragedy. 

In short, a group of friends and their children go to the beach for a vacation. Among them is Ahmad, a recently divorced man from Germany, and a young teacher named Elly, who has been invited in order to meet and possibly connect with Ahmad. The film's first third is a jovial affair, full of laughter, games, and good food. The second act takes on a massive tonal shift as Elly, who is by nature insecure and clearly ill at ease with the matchmaking scheme for her and Ahmad, disappears. Maybe she drowned trying to save one of the kids who had gone too far into the water, or maybe she ran away to keep the situation with Ahamd from going any further. Either way, tempers begin to flare, blame is applied to various members of the group, and what had the making of a terrific weekend is suddenly rendered something of a nightmare. The final act escalates the tension when we learn that Sepideh, who had planned the entire trip and was responsible for inviting Elly, has been keeping secrets about Elly that complicate the situation and creates a crisis of whether to reveal the truth or manipulate it. Fahradi loves secrets and even more loves to reveal them slowly and then examine how such revelations affect the psyches of his characters. While such interests requires plenty of contrivances, Fahradi's films never feel false in part because he's interested more in ethics than melodrama, and also because he manages to get a sense of realism from his performers so intense that we often don't feel like we're seeing a movie. All of these things apply to About Elly, which makes it an overwhelming experience and also allows for that final shot to be more than just beautiful.

Despite the tragic outcome of the vacation, these are all working people with families, and there will be little time to reflect on the drama of the weekend once they return to their normal lives. They must get back to the nitty-gritty necessities of every day life, the basic problems, the simple solutions. Rather than ending with all of the characters in shock or subdued silence, we see them gather to solve one of those relatively simple problems, the problems that make up most of our daily lives. Something terrible happened and it cannot be mended, so life goes on. 

On that visceral level there is a sense of sadness to the image as well. We leave feeling somewhat forlorn and empty. We wish things could have turned out better, and we wish for some sort of resolution that at least provides a sense of peace and closure, yet Fahradi cannot give us one when it is not available to give. At the beginning of the film he embraced his characters' intimacy, often packing them all in a single frame and letting the actors exude camaraderie. In the final shot they're still packed in the same frame, but we see them at a distance, feeling their sudden emotional desolation. Technically this is a 2009 film, but it's easily one of the best things I've seen in 2015. 

Mississippi Grind: A Few Impressions

* Ben Mendelsohn's been acting since he was a teenager, but most of that's been in his native Australia. While he's done lots of outstanding work there, most Americans haven't been familiar with him until recently, as he started to show up in supporting roles in films like Killing Them Softly and The Place Beyond the Pines. He finally got a lead role in the television series Bloodline from earlier this year, which basically cemented his wiry, expressive face, straggly hair, and his at once charismatic and dejected voice in the minds of the American people. Now, you can go to a theatre and see him in his first American film lead role in Mississippi Grind from the writer/directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. Here playing a compulsive gambler who's losing at all facets of life, Mendelsohn confirms that he's now the master of playing the ignoble type with an alluring mix of charm and melancholy that makes him almost impossible not to feel sympathy for. Mendelsohn's character here is a little less seductive and more self-deprecating than in his usual turns, but even when he's admitting his failures, that he owes everyone, you can't help but be caught under his spell. 

* The movie's not all about Mendelsohn though. It's actually a buddy road movie, and his partner in crime is Ryan Reynolds, who plays a young hot-shot who initially seems to just be a playboy who can get whatever he wants but turns out to be a fairly controlled person who, unlike Mendelsohn, seems to know when to put on the brakes. Matt Zoller Seitz beat me to the observation, but it's still worth stressing: one of the film's strokes of genius is having the younger friend be the anchor, the one who makes good decisions (relatively) and has the good advice, while the older, seemingly more experience man is the one whose life and ability to make good judgements is in shambles. There's a lot that's already fairly predictable in the film, which makes a little move like this all the more vital. One more thing about Reynolds: this is probably his best work to date, not because he's been bad in other films, but because he honestly has been taking the wrong roles. I've always thought he had a lot in common with Ryan O'Neill, another pretty-boy who managed to be bring unexpected emotions to his characters when he took on the right dramatic part.

*The film's not perfect as a whole, with Mendelsohn's personal troubles coming across as a bit trite, and the final twenty minutes or so a little too tidy compared to the rest of the film's rambling, extemporized tempo. But in its best moments, usually the quiet ones when Reynolds and Mendolsohn are talking in a bar or when they hook up with some ladies in St. Louis, the film seems completely invested in its characters and the way people talk to each other in real life. The chemistry between the actors is amazing, a little reminiscent of Newman and Redford, who were so good together in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid that they reunited for the gambling caper The Sting. I guess that means Mendelsohn and Reynolds have to make a Western together next. 

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

In a Lonely Place: Solving Artistic Malaise

Why is the artistic process so mysterious? How come one day you sit at your desk, or on your couch, ride a bicycle, go to a coffee shop, shaking your head, baffled, frustrated, unable to come up with any inspiration, and the next ideas and inspiration fill your head and you feel like you’re unstoppable? Also, the emergence of artistic inspiration fluctuates not just on a daily basis: sometimes it’s hour to hour, week to week, month to month. For Hollywood screenwriter Dixon Steele (played by Humphry Bogart) in Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1950), it’s even more extreme. “You haven’t written a hit since before the war,” he’s told early in the film. There’s no clear-cut answer as to what causes artistic stagnation or inspiration since everyone will probably have different descriptions of both that disheartening walk through the creative malaise and that soaring sensation of the imagination buzzing like an electric spark. But if ever there was a more fascinating and adventurous example of this process, it might be Steele being given an “epic” novel by his agent and how he adapts it into a screenplay.

Now, Ray’s film is many things: a character study, a film noir, a murder mystery, a devastating romance, and yet all these elements can serve as frameworks for Steele’s creative dilemma.

As the film opens, he’s driving through the nighttime streets of Hollywood, the streets cloaked in an eerie darkness (courtesy of the great cinematographer Burnett Guffey) and at a stoplight a woman in the car next to him calls out to him that she was in a film he recently wrote. It’s ambivalent whether Steele recognizes her or not, but he acts like he doesn’t, saying, “I make it a point never to see the pictures I write.” This is a common practice with artists, a very pure and selfless demonstration of their concern with good work and utter disinterest with commercial incentives or audience judgment. And yet just a few moments later, while walking to a bar, Steele is stopped by a few kids, one of which asks for an autograph. “Don’t bother, he’s a nobody,” the other says, to which Steele responds: “She’s right.” Ray establishes immediately a sort of weary honesty in Steele. He’s aware that he can produce good work, but he’s also candid about his shortcomings, not even trying to trick a kid into thinking he’s somebody.

The mystery/noir aspect of the film gets under way when Steele invites a hat-check girl who’s riveted by the novel he’s supposed to adapt over to his apartment to tell him what it’s about. Though he knows he’s under pressure to come up with a good screenplay, this isn’t exactly a project he’s thrilled about, evinced by the fact that he’s not even planning to read it. It’s a bit ironic that just before they depart for his apartment, Steele says to a waiter, “there’s no sacrifice too great for a chance at immortality.” This is the kind of mindset that probably made Steele a hit screenwriter at one point, but at this point we can’t quite be sure whether he still believes it.

The reading session ends up being a humorous trifle, with the hat-check girl dramatically explaining the plot while drinking a ginger ale with a twist of lemon (“it’s called a horse’s neck”) while Steele listens disengaged, bored to the point that he wanders into his room and gets distracted by his female neighbor standing on the balcony. She will become the other central figure in the story once the police show up the next morning with the shocking news that the hat-check girl has been found dead on the side of the road.
Steele is a potential suspect, not just because the girl was at his apartment the night of the murder, but because he also has a violent temperament, ready to beat someone up even over the most trivial of issues. While this turn in the plot could have been the grounds for a meaty murder crime story, it ends up being more of a backdrop for Ray to investigate Steele’s character and his creative problems.

This is partly why the film has always fit awkwardly in the film noir canon. The element of crime is always ebbing and flowing in and out of the narrative, with the audience never being entirely engaged in who actually killed the girl, instead being fascinated by the change in course it produces in Steele’s life.

Steele shows no anxiety over being a suspect in the case, instead treating the entire situation like a blast of much-needed excitement to counteract the deterioration of his life. He has a playfully snide encounter with the police chief, his indifference to the situation suggesting he sees this as a game, or something out of a movie. “I have a lot of experience with matters of this sort,” he says. “In pictures of course.” And perhaps he doesn’t try to defend himself because he feels a spark from the entire situation and if he stopped playing games perhaps that spark would go away.

Steele’s alibi comes by way of the Laurel Gray (played with sultry allure by Gloria Grahame), the woman on the balcony who saw the hat-check girl leave Steel’s apartment alone. More importantly this gives rise to a romance between Laurel and Steele. She initially says she just likes his face while teasingly evading his approaches. “I said I liked it. I didn’t say I wanted to kiss it.” But Steele’s infatuation with her soon leads to a full-on love affair, and watching the way he goes from exhausted cynic to beaming, almost giddy lover shows a spectacular acting range on Bogart’s part.

The murder mystery lingering around and Steele and Laurel growing closer and closer produces a massive change in Steele’s creative output. I opened this piece with the question: what brings us artistic inspiration? For Steele it’s these two elements, and while it’s a bit more extreme than, say, listening to a song or having a talk with a friend, it makes sense given Steele’s intense and fiery personality. You get the sense it takes a little more than most for him to get inspired, but when he does he has a similarly extreme creative output.

There’s a great scene where we see Steele’s agent visit in the morning to find Laurel essentially taking care of Steele and poking fun at him in a gently teasing way while he sits at his desk writing away. The romantic chemistry between Bogart and Grahame is almost palpable, yet the focal point is simultaneously on the fact that Steele’s been up since the day before working on the script. We’re never entirely sure what Steele is writing about other than the fact that he’s deviating strongly from the source material, but regardless, creative inspiration is in full force for him. The utter thrill his agent gets when he sees him lets us know we’re seeing the old Dixon Steele, free from creative lethargy.

As the love story and Steele’s writing continue to grow, the murder investigation sneaks back into the film, as Steele learns at a lovely picnic by the beach that he’s still a suspect. While earlier the investigation was something he actually needed in his life, now Steele has found what he’s looking for. Consequently he becomes irate that he’s still under suspicion. On the drive home he sidesweeps another car while speeding, and when the driver angrily confronts him, Steele nearly beats him to death.

This is the turning point in the film, the beginning of the end of Steele’s creative and romantic bliss. Laurel was aware of his violent tendencies, but now having actually seen it in person she gets frightened and increasingly weary of their relationship. While they’re driving back, Steele tells her a great line he has that he wants to put in the script: “I was born when she kissed me…I died when she left me…I lived a few weeks while she loved me,” and then asks her to repeat it. It’s a damn good line for a script, but in the film it’s emblematic of their mutual realization that their own romance is dwindling. Steele’s relapse into his old, destructively temperamental self ends up being his downfall. The film doesn’t dig too deep into why he has such a bitter edge to him, instead simply acknowledging that it’s an unfortunate part of his nature. “You knew he was dynamite,” Steele’s agent tells Laurel. “He has to explode sometimes.” For Steele it all but ends this brief euphoric moment in his life.  After all, those moments of creative inspiration can’t last forever.

The murder mystery is solved, and the Laurel and Steele’s relationship ends in predictably tragic fashion, but I won’t comment on those elements now. Because despite the fact that Steele’s left forlorn by the end of the film, his script has been turned in and it’s been met with immense praise.

Critic Kim Morgan called In a Lonely Place “one of the most heartbreaking love stories ever committed to film.” I agree. But if you choose to read the film through the lens of the artistic process, I actually think it is in it’s own strange way rather inspiring.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Results (2015)

After reaching arguably a new level of strangeness with his 2013 oddball comedy Computer Chess, it's probably best that Andrew Bujalski followed it up with the romantic comedy Results, a more visually mainstream, narratively and emotionally accessible movie that also represents the first time he's used professional actors. That, of course, is by his standards though. There's still a level of strangeness and also plenty of human-behavior riddles that Bujalski's is dealing with that make it a film that takes a little thinking and openness to understand. As a whole though the film's breezy playfulness and investigation of more broad ideas like love and happiness make it more attainable for the average moviegoer and indicates Bujalski's not limited to movies that wear extreme idiosyncrasies on their sleeve. 

Bujalski's always had a really good sense of different types of human psychology and its relationship with what his characters do for a living, and it's no exception here. While the initial premise-which concerns a rich, lonely man named Danny (Kevin Corrigan) who tries to get his life together by joining a fitness gym-sounds like an indie comedy cliche, Bujalski puts it to great use by scrutinizing the habits and mindsets of people in the fitness industry. There's a massive dichotomy between Danny and the gym owner Trevor (Guy Pierce) and his trainer Kat (Cobie Smulders). Danny is a rich loser (his seemingly unlimited supply of cash is put silly use on multiple occasions, like when he gives his neighbor two hundred dollars to fix his tv and then throws in another hundred to show him how to connect his laptop to it) who smokes lots of pot and eats lots of pizza but at least is honest about it. Trevor tries to put on the air that he's mastered life through successfully starting a business and being a master at helping others be perfect, yet we see on a number of occasions that he's not very good at the business side of his gym, while at night he hangs out alone with his dog, messes around on his drum set, and has trouble sleeping. Kat meanwhile is extremely comfortable with her's and other's bodies when it comes to fitness and training, yet seems shows all kinds of anxiety when it comes to having an intimate, personal relationship with another person. Both characters are also dishonest to others, which is emblematic of the fact that there's something artificial about their lives in general. I can only speculate, but Bujalski seems to think there's a correlation between such artifice and the fitness world, that those obsessed with a perfect body image are only masking imperfections when it comes to dealing with themselves and others. 

Results is ultimately about getting to the point where you don't care as much about perfection, and how ceasing to do so delivers a certain kind of liberty and contentment in life. The film asks that we don't take things too seriously, with the reward for doing so being an alleviation of anxiety. While this may sound like a celebration of the pot lifestyle (and there's plenty of it smoked in the film), Bujalski's main solution seems to be confronting people upfront about problems as opposed to beating around the bush or simply avoiding them altogether. Danny is the catalyst for the change in Trevor and Kat's lives, as they wind up happy and in love. Danny, on the other hand, never gets what he wants from his honesty, but at the end there's still a freedom he experiences from his decision to be fearless and blunt with other people. At the end he asks a group of sorority girls living in the neighborhood if they want to go to a party he's throwing, ensuring that he's not a creep but just wants people to have a good time. The film ends with a euphoric dance party, maybe the ultimate expression of letting go of your fears about others and yourself. Not bad for a romantic comedy. 

Friday, September 4, 2015

This Makes Me Very Happy

Can't wait for more on "good" movies! Watch the first episode of the AV Club's Film Club. 

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Jacques Demy: Initial Thoughts

I've finally come around to seeing some Jacques Demy movies. Not sure why it took so long, as I picked up the box set Criterion released nearly a year ago, but regardless, here's some brief thoughts on his first three films, all of which are terrific:

Lola (1961). Dedicated to Max Ophuls and named after Marlene Dietrich's Lola Lola from Von Sternberg's The Blue Angel, Demy's debut is an absolute blast, a love letter to great cinema that preceded it while also a unique piece of filmmaking on its own terms that never feels like just a pastiche of his idols. It's set in the large French city Nantes but it feels much smaller as characters are constantly running into or narrowly missing each other on the streets. As one character leaves the frame another will enter, a labyrinth trick of coincidence that gives the film a kind of circular quality, which of course is one of Demy's ways of paying homage Ophuls, the master of the circular narrative (see La Ronde or Earrings of Madame De). While Demy embraces the contrivances of his narrative, at its heart the film has something a little more serious on its mind, namely the conflict between responsibility and selflessness and carefree selfishness. The titular character, Lola (Anouk Aimee, the gorgeous actress well known for appearing in Fellini's La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2), a cabaret dancer who struggles to make ends meet while raising her son, embodies the latter, while her old lover Roland daydreams, watches films, visits book stores, and suffers from the anxiety that he wants to do great things but is in fact doing nothing. 

 Bay of Angels (1962). For his second film, Demy went much darker, dealing with a couple of gamblers, Jackie and Jean (Jean Moreau and Claude Mann) as they dig themselves deeper and deeper into the world of addiction by succumbing to the lose, win, repeat mentality that casinos rely on from their patrons. It's a love story as well, but Demy is very smart about the romance in the way he shows how it's structured around Jackie and Jean's fortunes at the roulette table. If they come away on top, their emotions shift and their riches bring them closer together, and if they wind up on the losing end, Jackie particularly becomes temperamental, scrounging around for whatever she can to get back to the casino despite Jean's warnings. It's never quite clear what Jackie really thinks deep down because we know that she's been abandoned by her husband and child due to her addiction and that she might just think it's valuable having Jean by her side because he brings her luck and more importantly, usually has some money in case she runs out. If the film feels repetitious it's because Demy seems thoroughly invested in the way gambling addiction works, which by nature is a repetitious and impulsive practice. It also adds to the circular interest he established in Lola, only this time it's not a trick but result of the nature of gambling.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964). One of Demy's most popular films, this was his first musical (though rather than individual songs, the characters simply sing their lines the entire film) as well as his first film in color. But it actually shares a lot of the sentiments with Lola, as well as one of that film's main characters, who drifts into the narrative a third of the way through--a Faulknerian technique Demy would continue to employ throughout his career. The film begins as an idyllic romance between two young lovers, Genevieve and Guy (played by Catherine Deneuve, in her first major role, and Nino Castelnnuovo), but soon turns somber as Guy leaves to fight in the war and Genevieve takes on a new suitor despite the fact that she's pregnant with Guy's child. What was a bright breezy little musical turns into a somber meditation on the pain of waiting, reality vs dreams, and the challenge of adapting to new ways of life based on the behaviors of others. In other words, its themes are almost identical to those explored in Lola. It's also a gorgeous technicolor achievement, with bright, exaggerated walls and costumes clearly in the vein of classic Hollywood musicals--but at the same time more extreme in their eye popping hues. I was reminded a little bit of Wes Anderson's use of color, and because there are several instances when Demy uses closeups of his characters directly in the middle of the screen, it wouldn't surprise me if this had a big impact on Anderson's visual interests. 

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Remembering Wes Craven: The Hills Have Eyes (1977)

There are many sides to Wes Craven's legacy: there's the personal affect, in which we remember him for a key memory of when I was 14 and alone in the house and watched so and so and was terrified...there's the cinematic, which could be broken up into various parts, but in general consists of his influence-along with folks like John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper-on creating the horror film as we know it today, and then there's the broader cultural ideas he brought to his films, expressed in a specific genre and addressing them when they were most relevant. In short, Craven managed in four decades of filmmaking to confront ideas about the American culture specific to the decade in which they were made. But why do this within the horror genre? Craven explains in a fantastic Post-Mortem video interview: "I was broke. I was getting nowhere with being anything but a horror film director. And once I did the second one, then that's who you are. So take everything that you loved about your learning and teaching and just put it in there. It doesn't have to be shallow. Anything you're capable of putting in this genre, it will take it, and there will be a smart audience that will see it." 

A few examples of Craven's cultural concerns include Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), which examined the fears and anxieties of a generation of youths growing up in a post-nuclear family, consumerist culture, and Scream (1996), which explored how adolescents a decade later had now adopted a cynical, mean-spirited attitude about their parents' generation a midst a world where the line between media and reality was growing increasingly obscure. This also continued in the 2000s with Scream 4 (2011), as Craven showed the ways in which our media obsessed culture has transitioned to the web, and how people exploit the internet for personal fame without any substantial achievements. "We all live in public now," says Emma Roberts' character at the end of the movie. "How do you think people become famous anymore?" In many ways, Craven's career (or at least his best work) has been structured around a framework that asks how the faith of progress during modernity gave way to a more skeptical perspective (which is just one facet in the ever-complicated problem of what post-modernity really is and when exactly it began). 

In honor of Craven's invaluable contribution to American horror movies, I sat down to The Hills Have Eyes, his second feature, which was released in 1977. On the surface it's a brutal and unsettling story about a suburban family vacationing out to California who stop at a gas station in the desert only to encounter the kind of horrific trouble that's the stuff of nightmares. The family consists of the father and mother, Bob and Ethel, their son Bobby, and two daughters, Brenda, and Lynne, who also has a husband, Doug, and a baby daughter. 

In short, there's another family of primitive-looking cannibals hiding in the nearby mountains who prey on travelers passing by (apparently they're inspired by Sawney Bean, a cult leader from 16th century Scotland, who, along with his clan, murdered and ate 1000 people before being caught). When Bob crashes the station wagon (there's a travel trailer attached to the back as well) while driving off road to find an old silver mine, they're left stranded and a war between the two families ensues. 

Now, Craven came from a very traditional, strict Christian fundamentalist family, and growing up his cinematic exposure was limited to innocent Disney cartoons. He talks in an interview how he snuck off to see To Kill a Mockingbird and realized "if this is considered sin, they gotta be wrong. That was my exit." Yet he also dealt with persistent fights between his parents, as well as their eventual divorce. Craven experienced first-hand early signs of the decline of the American family, and with that knowledge I found myself speculating that this is something that's at the heart of The Hills Have Eyes.

It wasn't the first horror film in the 70s to explore this idea, though. In a film class I took a few years ago, I wrote this (with reference to Kendall Phillips' book Projected Fears) about Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which came out three year's prior to Craven's film: 

In 1974, there were enormous shifts that in turn enabled Texas Chainaw to make legitimate points about American society. Phillips points out that the combination of Nixon’s presidency, the counterculture movement, and the fact that the family was no longer an end goal for people produced what could be called Hooper’s apocalyptic vision. While Hooper’s obviously not literally suggesting an apocalypse, the film does seem to make some pretty serious claims about the state of two important aspects of American life: the youths and the family. The youths are painted as classic types of the era: wanderers, rebels, and as Phillips says, determined to “drop out” (117). Yet one thing I found to be interesting is that they perhaps have some notion still of the value of family due to the fact that they’re out looking to make sure their grandfather’s grave is safe. In a way, they’re going back to family (literally stopping at their grandparents’ old house) and what they find is the Leatherface and the new family. It’s of course a symbolic representation, but nonetheless Hooper’s viewpoint seems quite bleak. Rather than developing, the suburban family has been torn apart by 1970s American society. If the Leatherface family is the new family, then Hooper is suggesting that the family is all but gone.

The Hills Have Eyes takes a similar idea in that it takes a group of people who encounter a structured family unit (the cannibals have a definite uniformity about them: the father and the two sons are named after planets, the sons refer to their parents as mama and papa, and the father isn't simply the biological father of his children, but possesses strong patriarchal qualities, too) that engages in horrific, sub-human practices. Like the Leatherface family, this comes across as a mock version of the classic American family, and a symbolic representation of its decline. 

What separates the films though is that the victims of the Leatherface family were friends and products of the hippie era, whereas here, Craven gives us an actual family. The parents are aging (Bob has just retired from the police force, and he and Ethel are about to celebrate their silver wedding anniversary, hence the visit to the silver mine) and one feels that this trip is an attempt to salvage a family that's becoming undone. Bob, using harsh language, blames Ethel for the crash, while Ethel mainly frets and relies on the grace of God to keep the family safe (one wonders if they're actually modeled somewhat after Craven's own parents--also, the last time we see the family entirely together, they're grouped as one asking for God's protection. Watching what comes next, further speculation could be made about the decline of religious practice amongst American families, but I'll leave that for another time). Meanwhile, Bobby and Brenda's bickering goes a little uncomfortably beyond innocent sibling quarreling when Brenda keeps referring to her brother as the creep

It seems a fairly legitimate claim then that Craven is dealing with, to some extent, the decline of the American family. Another important clue is the fact that the desert where the film takes place is also a nuclear testing site, and that the reason the family crashed in the first place is because some air crafts came out of the nowhere and flew dangerously close to the car, frightening the father and causing him to veer off course. Nuclear testing had been going on in America since the early forties, but in the 60s and 70s the number of tests rose exponentially, with as many as 52 performed in the 1969-1970 Operation Mandrel. While there was paranoia directly related to these tests, they were also a part of the age of paranoia in America, which was also caused by serial killers like the Zodiac and the Mansons, political scandals such as Watergate, the Vietnam war, and the threats against national security. This is also the period when the flower power generation became skeptical of traditional American values, contraception and abortion became more readily available and acceptable than ever before, and, predictably, divorce rates rose inexorably. 

The Carters are a product of 50s suburbia, yet entering this new era there are all sorts of social problems and fears that probably are having detrimental effects on their stability as a unit. Yes, they end up taking down the cannibals, but not before the core of the family is ripped apart. The parents are dead, and Doug, who gets the final shot in the film as he expresses uncontrollable rage, will be like a lot of other dads in America: single and with a kid to raise. 

Craven shows us a model of the nuclear family moving forward in time, yet by encountering and being torn apart by the cannibal family-a family that almost seems to have traveled through time from the dawn of man-he may be suggesting that in going forward the American family is really moving back to a place when values didn't matter and people could really do what they want, and do awful things. 

Yet in the end at least some of the Carters come out alive, so in no way can we call the film defeatist. 


Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Motion and Editing: The Double Life of Veronique

Krzysztof Kieslowski's The Double Life of Veronique is one of the most gorgeous looking films you'll ever see, largely for its almost fantastical use of light and sense of composition. It's one of those films where the pause button is useful: you can simply stop on an image and look at it, admire it, soak it in. 

Yet Kieslowski also had a great sense of camera movement and editing. With carefully calculated camera movement and precise editing, a scene that could be boring, a bridge to get from one place to another, becomes invigorating cinema on its own. In this case, there's a moment early in the film when Weronika spends the night with her boyfriend and then in the early morning has to rush off to school. Let's take a look at how Kieslowski takes what could have been a simple bridge moment and makes it interesting. 

We start with medium still shot of Weronika running around a curved street


                                        As she goes around the bend, the camera moves with her as she goes up these steps

       She turns right and so does the camera, as we now follow her through railing and vines running alongside a building

We could see her face at first, but now it's cut out of the frame as the camera begins to move downward with the action

It continues its decline, cutting off more of Weronika

And more...

And more...

And now we find out why. There's a puddle, and Kieslowski wants use to really hear the splash

And see it

This then prompts an abrupt cut to a closeup of Weronika running

As the sun fills the screen, Weronika is rendered almost invisible. It all happens in a flash, but the juxtaposition of the puddle and splash to this dazzlingly bright close up provides a jolt for the viewer. But there's also a nice correlation because the splash of the puddle prompts a cut that splashes the screen with sunlight. Because she's running we can guess Weonika is late for school, and so we can speculate Kieslowski wants to give a sense of palpability to that urgency. 

Before we know it the split-second burst of light is gone

and the camera slows down and lets Weonika run away from it. End of scene

How could this have been boring? We see it all the time in movies. That shot of something in motion with the camera placed in front of it, and as it goes past the camera does a neat pan and watches it move away from it. Kieslowski simply made a few decisions to change this, and while it may have taken a bit more time, the viewer notices it, and more importantly, in this case, feels it. 

All of this is simply to say that for filmmakers, think about how you can take a simple moment like this and employ smart camera movement and editing to make your film more interesting.

And for viewers, look for things like this that are strange or unusual and ask yourself: why? Good directors fill there movies with moments like this from The Double Life of Veronique, and so often they go unnoticed. Always try to notice more.