Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Immigrant: A Few Nice Shots

There are enough great shots in The Immigrant to make an album. Here are three of many that I personally really like. 

This could be a painting.


This is when Bruno is listening to Ewa's confession. One of the many Gordon Willis-style shots in the film.

The Immigrant has so many dark interiors that whenever it uses broad daylight the effect is always startling. This is when Bruno and Ewa are running from the police towards the end of the movie.

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Immigrant: Funeral Canticle

I've always admired James Gray's music choices, particularly his ability to place that perfect piece of music at the perfect time (even his decision to use a pop song like "Heart of Glass" to open We Own the Night just worked really, really well). The Immigrant is no exception. Chris Spelman wrote a sparing but lovely score for the film, highlighted of course by the theme that opens, closes, and is also scattered throughout the movie. 

But my favorite music choice in the film is the decision (I assume on Gray's part) to use John Tavener's "Funeral Canticle" during two crucial scenes. For those who don't know, Tavener, who died last year, had a prolific career composing religious music. His best work could described as both aching and sublime, and it touches on the notion of the transcendent better than any music I can think of. His composition "The Lamb" was used in last year's The Great Beauty, and you may also recognize "Funeral Canticle" from The Tree of Life

It's a very emotional and grand piece of music (though not without a strong melancholic edge to it), and seems ideal for a montage or gorgeous steadicam shots through nature or a great city. Gray however chooses to use it during two of the most closed-in scenes in the film. The first is when Ewa is in the deportation center and is looking out the small window of her cell door at a religious procession (possibly a funeral?) going through the hall. The music begins, but rather than being obtrusive, it's very quiet, almost as if it's being played in the procession and we're hearing it from Ewa's cell. But it's just loud enough that we can hear it and be emotionally affected by it as Ewa prays-with a combination of desperation, exhaustion, and hope-to Mary to help through this terrible situation. 

The other scene Gray chooses to play it in is even more intimate. Ewa has just gone to church for the first time in a while, and afterwards she goes to confession. As Bruno secretly listens outside the confessional (this review notes that Bruno's probably never even been in a church before), Ewa tells the priest how far she has fallen, and how ashamed she is. Gray doesn't want to keep Ewa's feelings a secret, and a confession scene is ideal for expressing them. Cotillard provides a lot of the emotion in this scene, but having Tavener's piece play again really makes it truly moving. Once again, he keeps the volume low, letting the melody quietly affect the emotion of the scene rather than intruding on it. 

The first time Gray uses the piece, Ewa has fallen at her lowest; by the time he uses it again, she's sunk even deeper into despair. The melody however suggests redemption and grace, and though Ewa is not literally hearing it, one gathers that she's being affected emotionally the same way the viewer is by the song. Call it what you will-grace, the instinct of survival, love-but there seems to be something she's getting in spite of her suffering that is enabling her to persevere. 

If you haven't heard the piece, or have and need an antidote for exhaustion, grief, or weariness, this 23 minute full version of the song does wonders.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Immigrant: Dreaming

 With its opening shot of The Statue of Liberty, its period setting, and its proclamation that The American Dream is waiting for you! one might expect The Immigrant to be a movie rife with metaphors and symbols. While one certainly can find them if they want to, they're more than likely to be untended consequences on James Gray's part. What's remarkable about Gray's film is that it seems designed to go, from its definite setting, outward, forward, and beyond. This could easily have been a movie about finding universals in particulars, and yet, while, one could look at that way, Gray is really trying to move inward the entire time. He's not attempting to take an immigrant's story in New York during the 1920s and say this is what this means, this is what this represents. His method is really much more intimate, much more psychological, and so invested with the characters that any ideas The Immigrant might be broaching come from them, rather than the other way around. In other words, this is much less a movie about grand statements than about small, but vital gestures, time, place, pain, and the insoluble nature of conformity versus individuality.

That said, there are certainly some symbolic shots peppered throughout the film, most notably in the all-time great final image. Also of note is the dream sequence that occurs about forty minutes into the picture. The timing for the dream is vital: Ewa has just arrived at her relatives' house, and she has her first look of comfort and assurance as she's being put to bed, with her aunt comforting her that "the nightingale always sings sweetest at the darkest hour." She can dream easy now, as it seems that everything may end up okay after all. As her aunt and uncle leave, the camera slowly pans through the cozily lit room before the screen fades to black. Next we see bright light and this shot of Ewa outside, shielding her eyes from the sun, a look of happiness on her face that we haven't seen from her yet.

 Ewa is dreaming, but there is realism in the dream's emotion. It suggests a time of innocence and bliss when she was with her sister in Poland. We don't know what Ewa is smiling at until the screen cuts to this image of Madga, laying out a blanket for a picnic. The transparent, silky look of the blanket add to the scene's lyrical quality. In reality, people use thick blankets for picnics, but this is an idyllic dream of the past, a metaphor for how simple and nice the old days were. The image right after this one is a half second shot Madga looking very ghostlike. If you blink you miss it. 

Next we see Madga pouring some liquid from a glass jug. Silk blanket, glass jug, nah, this ain't real. Note the light green grass, a sign of early spring, of life, of hope. 

Cut back to Ewa, no longer shielding her face, but still smiling. She's at her most content right here.


Gray then glides his camera along the blanket and then up across Madga right up into the sky. It's the most dreamlike shot in the sequence, a camera movement more of emotion than logic. 

By going to the sky, however, he allows for a nice transition to the second part of the dream, which starts with this shot of Madga suddenly in a field, consumed by the grass almost to the point of invisibility. This is actually a pretty creepy shot, and it reminded me of a particularly haunting image from Jack Clayton's 1961 horror classic The Innocents

Cut to Ewa, looking at her, standing in shorter grass that suggests they're now being set apart. The dream has taken a striking turn. There's a sense that Ewa's idyllic past is not just ending, but literally disappearing, never to be had again. Even if she does find her sister, the sense of innocence in this scene will be gone.

When we see Madga again she's turned her back on Ewa, and is walking away. The separation between the sisters represents their current separation. The dream began with them so closely united because as she is going to sleep, Ewa is thinking she will soon be with her sister again in reality. Yet the sudden shift in the dream also suggests that somewhere in her subconscious she knows that things aren't going to be so easy yet. And sure enough, when she wakes up, she learns her uncle has turned her in due to her controversial behavior on the boat from Europe to New York.

The dream really starts to get unsettling here, as we get a slow motion shot of Ewa running after Madga before the soundtrack, which had been slow and peaceful, and a little mysterious up to this point, is dominated by what sounds like  horse hooves pounding against the ground.

The summertime and the brightly lit field is suddenly replaced by a fleeting shot of a dour, barren landscape in winter, at the center of which is a dead tree, the tree of death. Spring, hope, life, are all gone.                                                

 The final shot tells us where those horse hooves were coming from. The image is also fleeting, maybe about a second, but its impact is startling. Ewa's dream, already having taken a turn for the worse, has suddenly become a nightmare. Ewa has previously explained that she was forced to see the decapitation of her parents, and this soldier, saber in hand, likely is connected to that awful memory. 


Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Immigrants

The Immigrant, 1917

The Immigrant, 2014

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Immigrant: Strange Light

 The Immigrant is one of the most beautifully shot films of the year, and the first time I saw it there were several images that stuck in my mind long afterward. Among them was this shot of Ewa lying in bed after she's left the deportation center and agreed to work as a prostitute for Bruno.

The Immigrant contains lots of shots of Ewa lying in bed, but usually the lighting is cold and unflattering, with her face registering desperation and/or weariness. This however is the first time we see her after she's been fully subjected to her demeaning profession. Initially I was a bit surprised with the way Gray lit the scene. Golden rays of light pour through the window, giving the room a romantic, cozy glow. The way the shadows play across her skin (and because it's the first time we see her with her hair down) made me think Gray was turning to another dream sequence, until we realize there's a customer in the room and Ewa has reached her most degraded state yet. But by bathing the scene with such a warm glow, Gray seems to be focusing less on Ewa's sense of guilt than on the fact that she's now a little bit closer to her goal of saving her sister. To simply say that the lighting and the hair suggest heat, sin, and passion would be reductive. It's a comforting scene, really (the customer even gives her extra money for her sister), which, like those mentioned yesterday, bespeaks Gray's intelligence as a filmmaker. One of his goals is to make Ewa's experience a dark and harrowing one. She's in a new land that seems to be trying to push her back where she came from. And yet Gray isn't out to hit the viewer over the head with her difficulties, but rather to give them an experience in tune with the complicated nature of man. In Gray's world, pure evil, pure oppression, simply does not exist. Thus, this scene, which certainly has all sorts of negative undertones, doesn't come across as icy and terrible as it could have been. It's sad, for sure, but it's also something more. 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Immigrant: Supporting Players

Most of the character discussions of The Immigrant center around Ewa, Bruno, and Emil, and rightfully so. They--particularly Bruno and Ewa--are incredibly rich and immersive individuals, worthy of the utmost amount of consideration. They also happen to collectively take up majority of the movie's running time. But 
The Immigrant is also full of other characters, most of whom only get a scene or two, but are nonetheless treated with reverence and care by director James Gray.

Three standouts that on a surface glance seem to merely serve the plot end up being, at least for me, small but important contributions to The Immigrant's power. 

The first is Leo Straub, the physically and characteristically mousy young man who is coerced by his father into sleeping with a woman because he's not manly enough. They go to Bruno seeking his help, and after Bruno whispers that he can provide a male if needed (which goes to show that, even in the stringent 1920s, Bruno makes no exceptions when it comes to obtaining money), the father indicates that he wants Ewa for his son. Meanwhile Leo stands their feebly, and the viewer can't help but feel a little sorry for him. Cut to Bruno's apartment, where Ewa, asleep, is awakened by Bruno, who has brought Leo with him. Leo, terribly shy, tells her that he's here on his father's accord, not his. It's a double act of coercion, and Ewa, just as afraid as Leo is (though her fear is more connected to morality), resists his touch. At this point Bruno comes in and, leaning close, delivers some of the film's most crucial lines: "I don't want you to do this, either," he says in a hushed voice. "But it's not my decision." This defines much of Bruno's character. He's an ethical human being in that he understands and cares about human dignity, but he doesn't hold it high enough to keep from subjecting others to degrading experiences in order maintain his position and cash-flow. It is almost as if he's paradoxically embarrassed by his treatment of others yet also prideful of his image as a businessman who gets people what they want and when they want it. Then, in one of the film's truly great lines, he tells her "the truth is, we both know you're going to see this boy, because your sister's well-being is more important than your own." But then he very clearly says, "if you do not wish to see this boy, tell me now. I'll send him away." This is crucial. By presenting Leo as so reticent, Gray is making Ewa's descent into prostitution all the more tragic. She actually has a choice here in the sense that Leo, rather than the red-blooded male one would expect, is so nervous that he'd probably be partly relieved if Ewa said no. Bruno knows this, as does Ewa, yet she still cannot say no. It's as if her survival instinct has kicked in, saying here, only money matters. This greatness of the sequence partly has to do with the fact that the viewer gets their first really good look at Bruno as both human and businessman-and under Gray's careful writing, it happens almost simultaneously. What makes it a truly unique and original scene though is the fact that Gray is subverting the ways in which coercion usually works. A lesser script would have the double act of coercion concern a ferocious male forcing himself onto Ewa, and Ewa being pushed by her employer to take part in the act. Instead, Gray makes the coercion on Leo's part due to his shallow father, and on Ewa's a result of a deeper principle built around family, love, and survival. 

The second character is the guard who puts Ewa in her room after her uncle reports her to the authorities. In a movie sympathetic with immigrants (though, it should be made clear, this is not a film about immigrants, or immigration, but about the immigrant, the humanism in an individual person whose circumstances at this particular time in her life pertain to trying to make it from Poland to America) it would have been easy to show the authorities as harsh and one-sided, but in this scene Gray once again demonstrates his care and attention to the small and unexpected moments. Ewa asks if she can see her sister, and while the guard says no, his tone is gentle and sympathetic, his eyes kind; he views Ewa as a human person, but he also knows he has a job to keep, rules to follow. He's the one who informs her about Emil's show, and, though he knows he can't personally help her, he tells her that it if she looks better for the board it helps (this results in one of my favorite moments in the movie when Ewa, looking in an old, faded mirror, pricks her finger and rubs blood into her checks for color, and on her lips for lipstick). The guard's role is small, but while that scene could have easily just been a disposable generator for the plot, I noticed something more in it, and I feel that was Gray's intention. Despite Ewa's harrowing experiences, she encounters good people who nonetheless are at the hands of a system. But Gray wants us to notice them just as much as he wants us to feel the cruelty of the system, and that he does reflects his profound and carefully articulated sense of humanism. 

Lastly there is Belva, one of the burlesque members who relies heavily on Bruno and subtly blames Ewa for Bruno's run-ins with the law. There's not a lot to say about her, but she still serves a few interesting functions in the film. Firstly, she represents the kind of woman that Ewa is desperately trying not to become, namely someone who depends on Bruno to the point of a kind of idolization. "At least I don't kiss the feet of the man who makes me feel like a piece of trash," Ewa says during a key conversation with Belva late in the movie. She may rely on Bruno for money, but, unlike Belva, she'll also do anything to escape his clutches. Also, it's never quite clear what Belva's (or any of the other show members) relationship is with Bruno, but one gathers that she's vying for his affection, and then begrudges Ewa when she realizes Bruno might be in love with her. 

One Day

Linklater may be the most widely loved person on the planet right now. Boyhood opens in Dallas friday.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Immigrant Week

When I saw The Immigrant in theaters on the first day of its theatrical run in Dallas, I was overwhelmed, overjoyed, and terribly moved. I saw it again a few days later and afterwards could think of no reason not to join the semi-cult of movie lovers and movie makers that consider it a masterpiece, a truly great film, one of the best in years, even (though to use the word cult in relation to such a refined, gorgeous, and classical piece of filmmaking almost seems belittling). 

The only problem is that such an opinion isn't more widespread. It's not because the film is polarizing (almost everyone I know of who's actually seen it really likes it) but because not enough people have seen it. By now it's old news that though the film was a success in Europe last fall, American distributors were afraid of giving it a release in the states. The film came frighteningly close to a straight-to-DVD/VOD release, and even when it finally was rescued and released theatrically in May, the marketing was dreadful, leaving it mostly up to eager cinephiles to spread the word and get as many people to see it on the big screen (where it begs to be experienced) as possible. 

However, out of nowhere, before it was even released on DVD, the movie showed up on Netflix monday, making it available for everyone. I saw it for a third time only to eagerly await seeing it a fourth. Unless you don't have Netflix, there's no excuse not to see it. At the very least, a viewer will know nothing of James Gray or why the movie plays like something so utterly out of touch with modern modes of storytelling, and yet they will still hopefully be emotionally involved with Ewa's (Marion Cotillard) journey and Bruno's (Joaquin Phoenix) complex relationship with her. At the most, one will know Gray as the great auteur that he is, catch the influences of Kazan, Visconti, silent cinema, opera, 19th century painting, and 1970s visual styles and still be baffled by the way it comes off as both utterly clear and completely opaque. "I've seen The Immigrant three times and I still don't know what it's about," writes Richard Brody in his review. It's not that the film is ambiguous (it has ambiguous elements, for sure, but for the most part it's got the directness of a Douglas Sirk film), but that it captures the ridges of the human emotional landscape that go far beyond New York, the 1920s, burlesque shows, and the American dream. 

There hasn't been a truly great piece written on The Immigrant (though a handful really good ones) and I sure as hell don't feel qualified at this point to try and write one. Instead I've chosen a fragmentary approach in which for the next week I'll post something about the movie each day. It might be an analysis of a scene, a character, it might be an underdeveloped idea I'm wrestling with about the film, a look at the filmmaking or the acting in a certain scene, or it could just be an image I find especially stunning. It'll pretty much just be whatever I'm thinking about in The Immigrant on that particular day, because to be honest, that's sort of how the film has worked on me. It's such a massive thing in its entirety that I almost feel too overwhelmed to contemplate it as a whole. Rather I like to think about a scene, an image, a line of dialogue, a piece of music in the hope to work up a more complete and focused idea of the film. Someone wrote on Letterboxd that no one's written the great American novel yet, but James Gray went ahead and made a movie out of it anyway. It seems like a half-joking, half-serious statement, as if there's something almost inexplicable about this movie's existence, as if it came from nowhere but ended up being everything, and only because it's cinema. 

Bruno Leads the Way

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Jubal (1956)

The pleasures just keep on coming in Delmer Daves' 1956 psychological technicolor Western Jubal. That sentence alone describes two of them (it's a technicolor Western and its directed by Delmer Daves, two things that must be considered good), but on top of that the viewer is treated to a cast of classic male macho stars (Glenn Ford, Ernest Borgnine, Rod Steiger, and, just when you thought it couldn't get any better, a young Charles Bronson), one of the most lovely but unsung screen actresses ever in Valerie French, and a story that takes both storytelling and ideas seriously. 

It's been likened to Othello for the way the characters create grudges and manipulate truths, but while the film doesn't come close to the psychological complexity of Shakespeare's 17th century masterwork (and to be honest, what has?), it still has a lot more intelligence and thoughtfulness than most Westerns of its day. It deserves to be considered a classic. 

The title refers to the central character (Ford), who, rather than being the mysterious drifter who enters the film on horseback, is found stumbling up to a ranch worn down, hungry, and smelling like sheep. It's not the most magnificent start for Ford's character, but he'll soon prove to be one of the most capable, honest, and admirable men to have ever occupied Western. One of the hallmarks of Daves' filmmaking is his adherence to focusing on good people, who, whatever their complications, don't just strive for moral ideals, but actually live up to them. With that in mind, Jubal may very be the best representation of the director's career-long concern. Jubal is no saint, a man who has been on the move his entire life, afraid of facing a world he's never paused long enough to actually consider. The ranch belongs to Shep Horgan (Borgnine), a bustling, aggressive, and often jolly cattleman who brings on Jubal as an extra hand at the ranch. This gives him a chance to finally stop moving and put into practice virtues he more than likely has never actually embodied. 

It's not long before Shep sees that Jubal is a born leader and more than capable of working the land, and thus offers him the job as foreman so that he can spend more time with his wife, Mae (French). The only problem is that Mae is terribly drawn to Jubal as well, in part because he's a handsome, honest fellow, and also because Shep is both too possessive of her and completely clueless as to how to make her happy. After she takes a bath, he embraces her, proclaiming, "you smell as good as fresh cut hay!" You get the idea. 

Jubal clearly likes Mae, but he also respects Shep and considers him a friend. In an out-of-nowhere shocker scene in which Jubal explains how his mother hated him and wished for him to die, Daves may also be suggesting that Jubal is wary of a  female relationship due to his traumatic childhood. Mae is blatant in her attempts to seduce Jubal, but he holds strong every time, refusing to betray the trust Shep has in him. When she first hints at her interest in Jubal, Daves uses a medium long shot reverse shots to indicate their initial distance, but soon she's making serious advances, even going so far as to kiss Jubal in Shep's presence when he isn't looking.  Adding to his troubles is Pinky (Steiger) a vicious, scheming ranch hand who doesn't care for Jubal from the beginning, and only grows more jealous of him when he gets the foreman job. With such dilemmas established, it's not hard to see where the Othello references might come from.

The pleasure of watching Jubal though has less to do with the Shakespearean elements than with the committed performances, the way the film takes its time with the story and lets suspense quietly build, and with Daves' keen visual eye (he's a master of wide, bright pans and tracking shots, but just as impressive here are his intimate scenes cloaked in so much darkness it's as if they were shot by Willis or Savides). It's an incredibly well-balanced Western that has the moral seriousness of a John Ford film when it could easily have descended into a display of pulpy macho posturing.