28 August, 2009

Movie Review: Un chien andalou (1929) and L'âge d'or (1930)

Our minds enjoy repetition and met expectations. Much of how we survive from day to day depends upon assimilating context clues into appropriate schemata and acting accordingly. When we discover strange or exciting new information, we accommodate it into a nearby schemata and make automatic assumptions about how to continue. If we see an unfamiliar cat, we still know to approach it as if it were like all the other cats we've seen before. If the new cat has red eyes, though, we begin to assess it from the context of other red eyed things--diseased creatures, legendary monsters, albinos--and using trial and error we quickly determine whether we should still pet it or run screaming.

When we can easily group something into a context we do one of two things: either we stop caring because it doesn't really concern us, or we keep trying to figure it out until we've come up with a new schemata, albeit a very particularized one. Hence our boyfriend can transform from "stranger" to "cute guy" to "handsome, tall, guy who enjoys such-and-such and doesn't like talking about this-and-that, etc.," but if we read something in the newspaper that doesn't make sense to us and isn't particularly interesting, then we soon move on and forget all memory of it. A friend may mention an unseen coworker several times in passing, but until we actually meet that coworker or have some reason to remember her, we hardly remember ever hearing about her.

When interest and confusion combine, frustration arises.

In 1929 filmmaker Luis Buñuel and painter Salvador Dalí set out to frustrate everyone. When we begin watching a film, typically we invest a certain commitment in it; we will try to watch it all, to understand it, to learn from it, and to enjoy it. The pair from Spain freely took this interest but in exchange offered something that had no context or explanation. They deliberately wanted to shock, to confuse, to offend, and to perplex.

I stand by my conclusion that Un Chien Andalou has no real meaning. You can argue with me and say that the film means such and such, that the image of the donkeys represents the triumph of so forth over whatever and that the ants crawling on the hand signify the degradation of a, b, and c, as evident by its clear allusion to blahblah. Everyone is entitled to these reactions, and I invite everyone to enjoy a film in whatever way it pleases them, but I think such explanations are merely proof of mankind's persistent need for context and not actual valid explanations of the filmmaker's intents. I don't think the filmmakers would have appreciated anyone who claimed to have completely understood the film, and I know they didn't desire mass popular or commercial appeal.

They set out to outrage, and they failed. Un chien andalou, a silent film featuring a horrifying series of images from a man slicing open an eyeball with a razor blade to a girl poking a dismembered hand on a busy sidewalk to a man pulling a piano full of dead livestock and so forth, is less than sixteen minutes long, perfectly palatable to even the most confused attention spans. We can surrender ourselves to sixteen minutes of confusion, especially since the camerawork and images are so playful, unusual, and exciting.

We can savor the the sonic richness of a nonsense poem like "The Jabberwocky" or the melody and unusual vocabulary of a meaningless tune like "I Am the Walrus." It's only when "The Jabberwocky" expands into four hundred pages of complete nonsense that we get restless and fed up.

Much to their disappointment, Un chien andalou was a very popular and huge success. So a year later, with funding from a wealthy descendant of the Marquis de Sade, Buñuel made a "sequel" to his nonsense film--L'Âge d'or. With all of what made Un chien andalou accessible removed, L'Âge d'or is over an hour long, with static camera shots, very little exciting imagery, and the imposition of an indecipherable "plot" involving a fetishistic woman and a violent man, with documentary footage of scorpions and a few jabs at the church thrown in for good measure. L'Âge d'or is a talkie with an absurd script and purposely foolish acting.

Buñuel finally succeeded. L'Âge d'or was banned and detested. Maybe people didn't like their religion being insulted, or maybe they just didn't like being insulted in such a perplexing way.

It's surprising to me that L'Âge d'or is hailed as a masterpiece, ranking #102 on the TSPDT? list. It is an important film, if only because it shows us just how unfilmly the film medium can be used. But any message Buñuel may have been presenting is today as tired as Marilyn Manson's latest CD, and I fear that anyone who tries to flesh out an explanation more varied and complex than simple anti-clericism is suffering from a bit of narcissism. If anything, L'Âge d'or is a canvas on which we can express ourselves; explaining the film reveals more about our own thoughts, feelings, and beliefs than it does about the film itself, and to call the film brilliant because of such an explanation is merely to laud ourselves for being brilliant and insightful. I don't think the film is anything much more than nonsense, and I'll leave it at that.

An inkblot can be a powerful tool for entering into our subconscious, for beginning psychoanalysis. But, seriously, it's not art.

Un chien andalou (1929)
d: Luis Buñuel w: Luis Buñuel, Salvador Dalí
(Pierre Batcheff, Simone Mareuil)
TSPDT?: #167

L'âge d'or
d: Luis Buñuel w: Luis Buñuel, Salvador Dalí
(Gaston Modot, Lya Lys)
TSPDT?: #102

Movie Review: Taste of Cherry (1997)

Throughout the winding, unpaved roads of the dusty, colorless outskirts of Tehran, a dissatisfied man (Homayoun Ershadi) drives a Land Rover. He circles construction sites and decrepit areas, idling beside young men and scrutinizing them with fear and disappointment. He is a greasy and sad-looking man, middle aged, relatively wealthy but past the point of caring.

He overhears one solitary man talking about financial troubles on a payphone, and he zeroes in on him, offering a quick, well-paying job that the young man angrily refuses. Our dissatisfied driver is persistent, but the young man threatens to punch him in the face.

The dissatisfied man continues his slow drive, over tan hills of dry earth, past abandoned cars, through the raw materials of construction. The camera follows passively. There's no music--neither in the car nor in the film--and it soon becomes a chore to continue reminding oneself of the world's unceasing natural beauty.

Our protagonist approaches another man--a simple-minded looking young man wearing a UCLA sweatshirt he found in a trash heap. This boy collects plastic bags off the sides of roads and out of garbage cans, recycling them at a plastic factory that pays by the pound. Our protagonist offers him some unusual compliments ("that color suits you") while questioning him, but eventually he drives off. Perhaps this candidate is too dim-witted.

Finally the driver gets someone into his Land Rover, a young Kurdistani enlisted man--freckle-faced, timid, trod upon. The man dominates the conversation, taking the hitchhiker places he doesn't want to go--both in the conversation, where he brings up money, family, and enlistment, and literally, as he drives him up the hills and out into the desolation to take him to his "special job." The Kurd is uncomfortable; not only is required to be at the barracks in less than an hour, but he also dislikes the suggestion of prostitution and murder. He's a poor, young, scrawny minority, but he doesn't want to be taken advantage of. When the man sadly scolds him for behaving as though they're not friends but merely strangers--after having only known each other for a couple minutes--the boy begins plotting an escape.

After much vague hesitation, we reach the site of the job. On the side of the road, in the shadow of an abandoned hotel, beside a lonely tree, is a small, rectangular hole, and the man--Mr. Badii--plans to climb inside of it tonight, take a bottle full of sleeping pills, and sleep forever. For the equivalent payment of six months' wage, Mr. Badii needs someone to check on him at dawn and either help him to his feet if he's still alive or bury him with twenty spadefuls of earth if he is not.

It's not as illicit a task as contract killing or male prostitution, but suicide is still expressly forbidden by Moslem doctrine, and as soon as the boy is able, he flees down the hill and to safety, leaving the depressed man alone.

Mr. Badii hunts for other recruits. A lonely nightwatchman declines because he is forbidden from leaving his nearby post, and though the friendly recluse offers to make some tea and share his dinner and some conversation, Mr. Badii journeys on in his quest for someone to bury him. He finds an Afghan seminary student, a bright-eyed young man who attempts to lecture him on Koranic law while lifting his spirits, but Mr. Badii is particularly averse to the sermon. He's already given up on traditional religion, and if he needed an expert's opinion, he wouldn't go to a student anyway. "I need your hands, not your words."

He wanders into the construction site, where tractors are heaving stones and tossing around heavy piles of dusty earth. The nightwatchman has already commented upon the tedium of the monotone, dusty landscape, but Mr. Badii disagrees. Everything comes from the earth, and all good things return to it. There is nothing more beautiful than earth, which perhaps makes his proposed method of suicide the most transcendent act he can think of doing, the most artistic expression he's capable of. He stares until the ghastly swirls of dust, the great heaving of creation hypnotizes him, and a worried construction worker finally has to shake him from his trance and ask him to leave.

Mr. Badii finds someone to help him: an old, Turkish museum taxidermist who needs the money to save his child's life. The Turk is insistent that Mr. Badii will still be awake in the morning, and to prove his point he gently offers the suicidal man the encouragement to continue enjoying the unceasing joys of earthly life, to continue marveling at the colors of the sunset, the glow of the moon, the laughter of children, and the taste of cherries. And to prove he knows what he's talking about, he references his own failed suicide attempt so many decades ago, the only words that seem not to fall upon Mr. Badii's deaf ears.

The kindly Turkish man's speech isn't particularly mind-shattering or breathtaking, but what's most inspiring about his presence is something he causes to happen incidentally. As Mr. Badii drives the man to work, the man asks him to take a left turn instead of following the normal path. "I don't know that road," Mr. Badii objects. "But I do," the man explains. "It's longer and out of the way, but it's more beautiful." And so, with the wiser man navigating, the duo travels away from the desolate sandscapes that have eroded the first hour of the film and into more colorful areas with trees in bloom and fresh grass, populated areas of Tehran where children are playing and couples are honeymooning.

Though the Turkish man's speech may not necessarily save Mr. Badii's life, it does cause him to pause before pursuing his desperate act. He admires at least one more sunset. He considers the possibility that maybe he wants to fail.

Abbas Kiarostami's 1997 film طعم گيلاس (Taste of Cherry) is not for everyone. Much of it is intentionally lifeless and ugly, as dreary and empty as Mr. Badii's state of mind. We learn little about Mr. Badii other than that his happiest days were as a young man in the army and that he has a son. We can make implications about homosexuality or his relationship with foreigners (all the men he approaches are not typical Iranians, and he seems to dwell on this fact--maybe he feels as alienated as they?), but there's no evidence to support any claim, and at one point he explains that it would be useless to know his troubles anyway, that maybe someone could sympathize or "understand" but that they could never feel the same pain that he feels. To be suicidal is a unique desperation; problems outgrow themselves. What begins as a need to reach out to someone or to meet some certain goal or scrounge up some certain amount of money becomes bigger than that problem; what difference would it really make anyway, even if that person were reached or that goal was met or that money was found? The world would continue quite the same as always. Eventually the possibility of a solution becomes unhelpful--the whole landscape of life becomes tainted with nihilism, and the mere existence of such problems becomes proof that the world is an imperfect place, that no problems nor solutions nor anything else really matters in the grand scheme, since the grand scheme doesn't care whether you live or die.

So to know the source of Mr. Badii's ailments would only cheapen our perception of him. Say his son had died. We could understand how grief-stricken he would be. We could empathize with losses we've endured. We would offer five dozen uplifting remarks about the cycle of life and the afterlife and all of that and expect that finally he would realize that suicide wasn't a solution. And if he disagreed, then we would be forced to judge him for weakness--how have we and so many others been able to endure the deaths in our families, yet he can't? Such an easily describable cause would be the etiology but not the illness; the depression driving the suicide would be far greater than mere grief. It would be akin to the realization that if all people are destined to die, than why bother living? What happens when the taste of cherries stops being thrilling? When the beauty of a sunset can no longer redeem us?

Kiarostami refuses to cheapen Mr. Badii with melodrama, but in so doing creates a cold character that we have problems relating to. He also, by doing so, weakens the Turkish man's argument at the end. What saved the Turkish man's life may not save everyone. We can never know, and the film ends with an ambiguous fade to black.

The final shots before the end credits show us the filmmakers behind the scenes, reminding us that for all its realism we've been watching a film. I'm not sure what purpose this serves other than to free Kiarostami from commitments. Suicide is a complex and mysterious subject, as evident by the fact that most of us spend our lives diligently trying to hold onto them. What gives some of us the reason to keep living--religion, familial responsibilities, earthly pleasure--may not work for everyone, and for some all of the usual arguments may be completely pointless. There may never be a catch-all philosophical cure for desperation. Kiarostami merely tells his story, treating his characters with dignity, allowing silences to dominate, and presenting a world that is both ugly and yet--because it is the world--beautiful. Kiarostami doesn't have answers to give; he seeks merely to remind us that this is a problem we're still trying to figure out.

Taste of Cherry won at the Cannes Film Festival in 1997, and it is currently #643 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? list. It's an interesting film and maybe even an important one, but not necessarily a great one and certainly not one for everybody.

Taste of Cherry (1997)
d/w: Abbas Kiarostami
(Homayon Ershadi, Abdolrahman Bagheri)
TSPDT?: #643

24 August, 2009

Movie Review: Some Like it Hot (1959)

At no point in Some Like it Hot does Jack Lemmon look or sound like a woman. Tony Curtis is more convincing in that respect, but then he always looked a little like a woman, even when he wasn't in drag. Maybe in those days people were more easily fooled by crossdressing or maybe his poor impersonation was supposed to be more comical, but it makes the many real women in the film--who never once suspect the truth behind the deception--look rather stupid, especially when some of the men in the film easily realize the obvious. Of course, if the behind-the-scenes stories are to be believed--that Marilyn Monroe took over forty takes to say the line "Where's the bourbon?" because she kept asking for whiskey or for bonbons or forgetting the line altogether--then maybe that stupidity isn't so far off the mark.

Some Like it Hot is the classic story of two jazz musicians in Prohibition-era Chicago who witness a gangland shooting and must flee town in order to avoid getting shot themselves. Penniless and jobless, they don wigs and dresses because the only gig they can find is for an all-girls jazz band in Seminole, Florida. Of course, "Josephine" (Curtis) and "Daphne" (Lemmon) can't help but be titillated by all the women they're keeping close quarters with, and they both fall in love with Sugar Kane (Monroe), a ukulele player, singer, and hopeless romantic who's a sucker for the wrong kind of men.

Being heartless womanizers, the two in cognito gents both take advantage of their inside scoops in hopes of seducing the beautiful, naive musician. Joe uses her private confessions of romance to "Josephine" in order to craft himself into a third identity: the man of her dreams. Donning glasses, a yachtman's cap, and a horrible elitist accent, Joe/Josephine becomes Junior, the extravagantly wealthy heir to the Shell Oil fortune who has everything in life except for true love. Using his inside information, several lucky turns, and a manipulative ploy, he's able to seduce her.

Meanwhile, "Daphne" bags a real millionaire, a goofy, old, persistent gentleman. They dance the tango to a Cuban band, he proposes to her, and she--in the heat of the moment--accepts, so happy for her luck and her fun time that she momentarily forgets that she's not really a she. It's one of the funniest moments in a movie that really isn't very funny.

In the third act, the gangbangers from the beginning--disguising themselves (also not very convincingly) as delegates of "Friends of Italian Opera"--make a surprise appearance. The sleazy don, equipped with an earpiece, has some of the funniest one-liners in the script. Hijinx and chases ensue, Joe's relationship with Sugar and his decency as a human being is put to the test, "Daphne" makes amends with his fiancee, and a happy ending comes not a moment too soon.

Billy Wilder's film is a fun time. It's not as funny or surprising as it probably was half a century ago in 1959. The zingy screenplay by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond isn't as witty or sharp as many other scripts of the time, and though Lemmon picks up the slack in the second half, the chemistry shared by Lemmon, Wilder, and Monroe never quite reaches its full steam. Monroe is beautiful--though a fairly weak character--and her songs are memorable. It's passing strange to me, though, that this movie ranks #22 in the TSPDT? list and that it's considered by so many critics and fans to be such an American classic and a masterpiece. I suspect maybe that esteem has a lot to do with nostalgia, that maybe viewers under a certain age can't reap the same pleasure?

A decent film, but not too much more.

Some Like it Hot (1959)
d: Billy Wilder w: Billy Wilder, I.A.L. Diamond
(Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, Marilyn Monroe)
TSPDT?: #22

Four great films about WWII that feature neither Jews nor American soldiers, and one not-so-great WWII film that features Jewish-American soldiers

(As always: spoilers....)

At the end of Elem Klimov's 1985 war epic Иди и смотри (Come and See), teenage freedom warrior Florya finally fires the rifle he scavenged off of a dead soldier buried in the sand in the first scene. He's seen his share of Nazi atrocities in his travels through Belarus, from the slaughter of his townspeople to the burning of his old, harmless father to the wholesale incineration of an entire community. He has transformed from a bright-eyed and goofy-grinned boy, eager to do his patriotic duty and boldly fight for the national cause, to a withered husk of a human being, his clothes dusty, his eyes glassy, his face ashen, a permanent, wrinkled frown carved into his horror-stricken face.

The war is not over at the end of the film, but the Belarusians have won a small but important victory over the Nazi invaders, who consider Eastern Europeans beneath the level of human dignity, incapable of rehabilitation and undeserving of mercy, fit only to die quickly. As Florya and his comrades regroup and move on to bigger battles, Florya passes a puddle with a portrait of the Fuhrer lying abandoned in it. He opens unceasing fire right into Hitler's face, a cathartic moment, and the film ends with newsreel footage of the war and history in rewind. Florya takes out his aggression--violent yet harmless--on the idea of the ruthless dictator, on all the atrocities of history, and on war itself, and finally we see Hitler's baby picture, swathed in a nightie, no mustache, no swastikas, and we are reminded that even Adolph was once an innocent child like Florya.

His energy and ammunition spent, Florya rejoins the good fight. He's been through hell on earth, but he has somehow remained pure.

Throughout most of human civilization, war was a topic to be treated with dignity and honor. War turned boys into men, tested mettle, and bestowed honor. War protected ideals, chivalry, and nobility. War offered either great rewards--riches, land, political power, cultural victory, slaves--or an honorable death, to courageously lose one's brief life defending something greater than oneself. Despite the violence and tragedies of The Iliad, Homer offers no criticism of war itself. The Roman poet Horace wrote some time around 20 BC:
Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori:
mors et fugacem persequitur virum
nec parcit inbellis iuventae
poplitibus timidove tergo.

"How sweet and fitting it is to die for one's country:
Death pursues the man who flees,
spares not the hamstrings or cowardly backs
Of battle-shy youths."

From Biblical wars to the Crusades to Lancelot and his fellow knights, never was war seen as anything other than a sometimes-tragic means of achieving grand goals. The titular character of Shakespeare's Coriolanus, the invincible Roman general, finds peace only on the battlefield, and when he refuses to put his wounds on public display in order to win a political victory, audiences for perhaps the first time met a living casualty of warfare, for war had changed Coriolanus, making him beastly, short-tempered, and arrogant, and he could no longer exist comfortably in a society at peace. Centuries ahead of his time, Shakespeare may have been the first artist to realize that war was not just a temporary condition but a damaging illness that left its mark even on the survivors.

By the American Civil War others like Stephen Crane with his Red Badge of Courage were beginning to promote a new war genre that was more critical and realistic, and after the modern horrors of trenches, gassings, and machine guns in the First World War, anti-war art became as prominent as pro-war propaganda, from Erich Maria Remarque's brutal All Quiet on the Western Front to the horrifying expressionist paintings of Otto Dix to Wilfred Owen's reworking of Horace's ode:
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Pro-war film continued through World War II. Among the Allied films starring the likes of Erroll Flynn, Ronald Reagan, and John Wayne was a series of seven documentary films entitled Why We Fight, commissioned by the United States government and directed by the lovable Frank Capra. The first of the series won the very first Academy Award for Documentary Feature, and none of the films did anything to discourage enlisted men, to challenge the concept of war, or to humanize the enemy.

On the Axis side was director Leni Riefenstahl and Joseph Goebbels, with his doublespeak professional title "Reich Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda," who churned out narrative and documentary films that highlighted the beauty and unstoppable courage of the Aryan race and culture while illustrating the many flaws of inferior Semitic and anti-socialist villains. Among these films was, of course, Triumph des Willens (The Triumph of the Will), considered a masterpiece of editing and innovative cinematic techniques.

All of the outright and empty-headed propaganda coupled with the many deaths and horrors of World War II eventually took their toll on audiences, though, and in the latter half of the twentieth century, anti-war films became much more common. The year 1957 saw the releases of both Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory and David Lean's The Bridge on the Rive Kwai. The grisly, full-color, live photojournalism of the Vietnam War was the final nail in the coffin for the glorification of war, and now very few realistic war films exist that don't in some way illustrate that we are all members of one human race, that war destroys us all, ruins families, endangers society, and forces men to become monsters.

At least not until now with the release of Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, which features at its heart a movie theater, Joseph Goebbels, and a soldier-turned-actor. Beyond espionage killings, there is very little combat in this war film--the bulk of the battle footage is depicted within the film's film-within-a-film, a propaganda piece directed by Goebbels entitled Nation's Pride, starring a young, somewhat handsome Nazi sniper (Daniel Brühl) who survived three days in a clock tower behind enemy lines and in that time killed hundreds of enemy combatants and won the city for the Axis. The once humble young man is now doing his best to put his lethal past behind him and enjoy his new celebrity as a war hero and film star. The clips of the film, as watched by a packed theater of Nazi elites--among them Adolph Hitler--, reveal something that is hardly humanistic or well-rounded. The sniper shoots one nameless Allied victim, then another, then another. A victim loses his head. The sniper says something patriotic and reloads. A victim falls from a window. The audience in the film laughs and rejoices. The real audience is reminded that such glorification once existed.

And then the climax of Inglourious Basterds comes, nameless Nazis are killed by Jewish heroes, and the final scene of Come and See is reenacted, only this time it's not a framed portrait of Hitler but the real deal and there are no baby photos to distract us. Tarantino has placed us in an uncomfortable position--he wants us, with our cultural relativism and our sensitivities, to relish in the glorification of war. He wants us to rejoice that Nazis are being slaughtered. It's not too much to ask for--at this point, "Nazi" is synonymous with unsympathetic--but to someone (like me) who's prone to overthinking things and who has a penchant for compassion, it's a difficult moment.

My first response was: he hasn't earned it! The Nazis are just nameless and faceless caricatures! He doesn't give us any hope of possibly understanding them. But that's a dangerous thought. They're Nazi elites; they did countless horrible things, some of the worst things in history. What's there to understand? And besides, two of the most well-developed, nuanced, and complex characters in the film--the sniper and a detective Hans Landa (played by an Oscar-worthy Christoph Waltz in one of this year's best performances so far)--are Nazis. If anything, it's the Allies and Jews who are one-dimensional. With the revenge tragedy (in which the avenging hero loses his own life and sanity in his endless, escalating, cycling quest for revenge) dating back thousands of years and the anti-war theme firmly established, can a viewer in the year 2009 abandon those ideals and simply admit that sometimes reckless, bloody, unmerciful violence is a good thing?

I haven't been able to answer that yet. It's been three days and I still can't decide if I absolutely hated Inglourious Basterds or somehow secretly loved it. My boyfriend despised it but isn't quite sure why. I've read reviews by people claiming it's phenomenal, mature, bold, and exciting but who provide little explanation as to why it's all those things. On the one hand, the film is the very definition of "self-indulgence." Tarantino has become a parody of himself, of self-referential pastiche, of post-modernism. The soundtrack is anachronistic, with most of the music taken from the Ennio Morricone scores of Spanish and Italian Westerns from the 1960s and 1970s, with orchestral tracks lifted from 1980s horror flicks, with a prominently featured David Bowie song and one memorable motif that Tarantino already used in Kill Bill. It's a constant reminder that we're not watching anything that actually existed in 1944. In one scene a hepcat Samuel L. Jackson, sounding like he's stepped out of the Harlem Globetrotters cartoon, narrates some exposition about nitrate film while archival footage plays, once again reminding us that this is all fake. Scenes drag on for much too long. Michael Myers makes an unnecessary appearance with a bad British accent and a veiny, alcoholic's nose.

There's a concept of good fiction being a sustained, dreamlike illusion, where we forget that we're reading or watching something, where we forget that we're passively receiving some fictional, carefully arranged information and surrender ourselves to the world, its structure, its time, and its rules. We forget ourselves and our world. Our surrender is seamless. Tarantino says, to hell with that.

At the same time, some of the scenes are quite suspenseful, the dialogue quite clever, the characters quite memorable. There are genuine surprises and laughs. Hans Landa, the famed "Jew Hunter" who fluently speaks German, English, French, and Italian (and possibly many other languages) and never allows a subtle detail to slip from his grasp, is a fantastic character ranging from an intelligent conversationalist to a charming flatterer to a boyish jokester to a ruthless killer in sharp and spontaneous instants. He's a delightful character--both frightening and admirable; if he were on our side we'd give him a TV series and root for him every week.

Someone has suggested that one of the film's themes is the loss of personal peace, that the film creates a world where tension is constant and unyielding, where secrets are always being exchanged and withheld and where lives are always at stake. This is true, and the best scenes in Inglourious Basterds are the ones that most effectively achieve this suspense, but for non-stop anxiety in Vichy France I point to Jean-Pierre Melville's 1969 masterpiece L'armée des ombres (Army of Shadows), a spine-tingling, nail-biting, foot-shaking, edge-of-the-seat thriller about undercover resistance fighters trying to win back their country.

In Melville's war-haunted France, one's never sure who's on one's side. Anyone could be carrying death, and trust is a rare commodity. After a suicidal escape from a concentration camp, the political criminal Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura) ducks into a barber shop for cover. With the sirens blaring outside, Gerbier conceals his escaped convict status by casually requesting a trim and a shave. In a deliberately paced and nerve-racking scene, we stress over whether the barber might slit his throat with the straight razor. Instead he saves his life and gives him a free coat to conceal himself.

At one point two brothers (played by Jean-Pierre Cassel and Paul Meurisse) attempt to have a normal conversation. Cassel's character has just joined Gerbier's resistance and completed his first mission, but he doesn't mention this nor anything else about his involvement in the war. Instead they chat rather lifelessly about rations, the weather, the past, and food. Afterward he reflects on his educated brother's pathetic, helpless role in the new occupied France, alone and useless, wasting away. Only later does he learn that his brother is actually a high-ranking member of the Resistance, who likewise was concealing his dangerous private activities and probably thinking the same thoughts of his younger brother.

The incredible Simone Signoret plays Mathilde, a dedicated mother and housewife who engages in life-threatening espionage in her free time. She keeps the two different worlds completely separate--for her comrades to know her family's identity would threaten her family's well-being, and for her family to know of her secret involvement in the Resistance would endanger her comrades and their success. In a world where compassion is a costly affliction--where close friends can turn on you, where impostors and rats must be brutally silenced, where the lives of your friends and families can be used as a threat against you, and where too much emotional involvement can destroy your clarity, will-power, and determination--Mathilde makes a dangerous gamble by living both lives simultaneously.

In a chilling scene, the three spies, disguised as Nazi soldiers, learn that their comrade and friend--who they have come to rescue--has been tortured beyond relief and is close to death. No matter how shocked, saddened, and outraged they must be by this information, they must conceal it all, guarding their disguises as disinterested Nazi soldiers or else endangering their own lives.

In Melville's war, victory, logic, swift-acting, and determination cannot coexist with love, friendship, and compassion. Though the successful end of the war may reintroduce these most human of elements to society, they cannot continue while the war wages.

Roberto Rossellini's Roma, città aperta,(Open City) is another film (from 1945) about resistance fighters who must conceal their most important desires and thoughts while pretending to lead normal lives in fascist Italy. A central figure in the underground movement is Don Pietro Pellegrini (Aldo Fabrizi), a Catholic priest whose role of authority allows him certain freedoms to help the resistance (such as being out past curfew) and whose religious convictions assure him that the fight for freedom and equality is the most Christian path. His actions are dangerous, and he loses all sense of normality--even whistling a pop tune becomes a charged action--but the film lacks the suspense and emotional depth of other films, and most of the scenes are never quite as engaging as they should be. Maybe it's because I watched a dubbed instead of a subtitled version--the unsynchronized sound and the strangeness of the American voices speaking in bad Italian accents was distracting and took away from the otherwise realistic filming of the movie. I discount the film now, but reserve a firm opinion until I see it as it was originally made.

I want to circle back from occupied France and fascist Italy to the final (often forgotten) frontier of World War II: Eastern Europe. Nazi fighting in Belarus and Russia was ruthless. Whereas Nazis thought of Jews and non-Aryan Westerners as profoundly evil people, they thought of Eastern Europeans as less than human, an unsalvageable, populous race of dim-witted and dangerous beasts who needed to be exterminated before they could cause too much trouble. Germans killed Eastern Europeans quickly and in large numbers, murdering women, children, and old people and destroying entire cities at once. No prisoners. No occupation. The Russian army required all the help it could muster, and so child partisans were a common occurrence, hence Florya in Come and See and the twelve-year-old Ivan of Andrei Tarkovsky's 1957 Ива́ново де́тство, (Ivan's Childhood).

Played by Nikolai Burlyayev, a skinny, blond boy, Ivan is a tiny scout who acts and speaks like an adult and expects to be treated like one. Ivan became an orphan when Nazis murdered his mother and sister. He would have been killed himself except that he was hidden at the bottom of a well when the attack occurred--not because he was seeking refuge from the war but because he was caught in a moment of childlike wonderment, transfixed by the reflection of the sun underneath the well's water. Many flashbacks fill Ivan's Childhood, showing us a tan, smiling, giggling, exuberant twelve-year-old boy. In a beautiful scene, a joyous Ivan, bursting with love and life, rides with his sister on an apple cart during a rainstorm. In the present narrative, however, Ivan does not smile. His innocence has died with his family, left at the bottom of that well. Now he does his duty, makes his advances, and is prepared to die for the freedom of his country. He is deeply offended when superior officers patronize him, and he proves himself to be more mature, serious, and experienced than a soldier who is at least ten years his senior.

In a subplot, this older--but still quite childish--officer falls in love with a young nurse. It's an impossible romance; they can't possibly achieve any lasting happiness given their circumstances. The scenes illustrate how maybe we're all too young for war, regardless of our age. Only once we've either lost all hope or experienced war first-hand can we truly be old enough to handle its ravages.

Ivan's Childhood is a leisurely paced, expressionist film about the perils of growing up. The mournful, nostalgic film need not be seen as just a war film, but as a solemn reflection on the loss of childhood beauty and happiness. Even without war, we sometimes lose sight of the joys of the sun reflected in a pool of water, of a drenching rainstorm, of a ripe apple, of a run down the beach, of a beautiful piece of music. Vadim Yusov's cinematography is incredible, and even in scenes of despair it reminds us that beauty abounds.

Come and See, made almost three decades after Ivan's Childhood and building upon a very similar plot and themes, is a superior film, often referred to as the most realistic and powerful war film of all time. It subtly references the previous movie--at one point Florya stares at a star at the bottom of a well--while introducing us to some of the most disturbing images of war atrocity: charred, talking corpses; distantly seen piles of corpses; slaughtered livestock; Nazi heartlessness. The title of the film comes from a verse of Revelations, and while the film maintains a level of complete realism, it manages to achieve the most startling depiction of the Apocalypse ever captured on film. Even the eating of lobster is given a horrifying, nauseating charge.

Klimov's film, with cinematography by Alexei Rodionov, is perhaps the most important World War II film of the ones I've just discussed, somehow managing to remind us of both the need for retaliation, the horrible unjustness of Nazi occupation, the high cost of war, the occasional necessity of war, and the fact that even Hitler was once an infant.

Come and See (1985)
d: Elem Klimov w: Ales Admovich, Elem Klimov
(Aleksei Kravchenko)
TSPDT?: #312

Inglourious Basterds (2009)
d/w: Quentin Tarantino
(Christoph Waltz, Brad Pitt, Daniel Brühl)

Army of Shadows (1969)
d/w: Jean-Pierre Melville
(Lino Ventura, Simone Signoret, Paul Meurisse)
TSPDT?: #490

Open City (1945)
d: Roberto Rossellini w: Sergio Amidei, Federico Fellini
(Aldo Fabrizi, Marcello Pagliero)
TSPDT?: #98

Ivan's Childhood (1962)
d: Andrei Tarkovsky w: Vladimir Bogomolov
(Nikolay Burlyayev)
TSPDT?: #591

09 August, 2009

Movie Review: LA Confidential (1997)

I watched LA Confidential the other night, but I'll keep this review short because even though it ranks #471 on TSPDT?, I find the film largely unimportant and as dismissible as I perceived it ten years ago.

A plot-heavy neo-noir set within the innerworkings of the police department of 1950s Hollywood, director Curtis Hanson's 1997 film follows the hunt for a young, clean-cut, unpopular lieutenant detective (Guy Pearce) to uncover the true motive and killer(s) behind a shooting spree at an all-night diner. In his quest for real justice, the by-the-rules detective involves a rouge bully cop (Russell Crowe), a schmoozy cop-for-hire of a popular television show (Kevin Spacey), a corrupt police chief willing to go above the law in order to protect it (James Cromwell), a glamorous prostitute who looks exactly like a famous Hollywood starlet (Kim Basinger), a suave millionaire with criminal and legit dealings (David Strathairn), and a seedy tabloid muckraker and profiteer (Danny DeVito).

Of this all-star cast, only Strathairn and Bassinger come across as halfway believable in a film that's altogether too shiny to be any sort of reality. Pearce, Spacey, and Crowe never seem like people who actually spend their days carrying badges and guns, wearing uniforms, and doing police work. They exist only within the boundaries of the screen, manifesting straightforward psychological make-ups: Pearce's character watched his father be killed by a man who got away, so now he's eternally following the true, virtuous principles of justice and legality, trying to capture all those who think they can get away with it; Spacey's character can be bought and sold for the right price and is more attracted to glamour and money than any ideals, but he still maintains some shred of decency; Crowe's character helplessly watched his father beat his mother to death, so now nothing can stand in the way between his brute force and men who think they can abuse women. Every character has a motivational, psychoanalytical homunculus living inside of him, clearly dictating every action he performs so that his symbolism can be conveyed to the audience in as few quiet scenes of lucid introspective narration as possible. And except for one deviant moment where Crowe's Woman Protector actually slaps the woman he loves, the characters never get deeper than that.

Case in point: James Cromwell's police chief is a blatant ripoff of Orson Welles's Hank Quinlan from Touch of Evil. They are both men willing to break the law in order to uphold it. Quinlan, though, was a mess of realistic contradictions. He did terrible things but also noble things. He was disgusting but courageous. His track record for serving justice was incredible, even though he was a criminal. Quinlan had only a "touch of evil;" Cromwell's character is nothing but, and the results are not nearly as thought-provoking.

LA Confidential has a decent, somewhat intriguing plot full of relatively predictable revelations and twists. The set design is nice, and the soundtrack is enjoyable. There isn't much deeper to the film than a bunch of shiny surface, though, and every theme it tries to convey--the relativism of ethics, the dangers of fame and money, sons living in the shadows of their fathers--has been accomplished with much greater success and mastery in other films. LA Confidential is an ensemble film in which the sum is mediocre and each of the parts adds up to almost nothing, and I'm not sure why it has received all the attention it has from critics, fans, and the Academy.

LA Confidential
d: Curtis Hanson w: Brian Helgeland, Curtis Hanson
(Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, Kim Basinger, James Cromwell)
TSPDT? #471

04 August, 2009

Movie Review: Last Year at Marienbad (1961)

A hypnotic French voice, fluid and unemphatic like so many cinematic French voices, plays over the soundtrack, describing the architectural features of a vast, ornamental, palatial hotel--the stucco, the columns, the staircases, the clerestory windows, the stucco, the columns--as the camera glides through, we assume, the same hotel, focusing on nothing, seemingly lost. A gorgeous and ghostly hotel, labyrinthine, almost preserved in formaldehyde. An unemotional organ plays, and the voice begins to repeat itself; however, the man's descriptions are somehow at once very particular and tantalyzingly vague, rapid fire yet soothing, and since nothing sticks to memory in the hodgepodge of imagery, it's hard to tell what's being repeated, what's being changed, and what is entirely new.

The voice repeats itself again and again. Maybe the camera pans once more down the same halls it has already traveled, or perhaps not. The organ continues.

And so Last Year at Marienbad, the 1961 dream of director Alain Resnais, begins. It's the 93rd film in the 2010 edition of the TSPDT? list, and from what I gather, no one has ever said with certainty just what the whole film is all about.

As a recreation of a dream world, the film is masterful. Distinct characters appear with neither name nor relationship, play some pivotal part in the proceedings, and then disappear, sometimes for good. Background characters are often motionless, always silent. Conversations proceed one line at a time, with all background noise muted, and yet it's hard to tell what's ever being said, where any conversation may be headed, whether anything is factual or improvised, surprising nonsense. All that's important in any given scene is exactly what's being focused on--whether it's a statue or a speech--and when something else draws attention, everything else is free to change color, dimension, orientation. Maybe years are being spanned, maybe just hours--it's difficult to keep track--and the game the men play in the lounge is at once very simple, fair, and obvious but also impossible to win.

Last Year at Marienbad must be experienced passively as dreams are experienced. Like some dreams, it is beautiful, surprising, and ingenuous. In dreams, we take everything as it comes to us, moment by moment with no long-term memory. We experience emotions viscerally; when logic starts to enter the picture, we get frustrated and usually wake up. But if three plus eight is supposed to equal twenty-four, then it does. If we realize that by running really fast we can fly, then we do. If our dead grandmother is sitting in the kitchen of a house that no longer stands, we're eight years old, and our grandfather looks exactly like our old science teacher, then that's just how it is.

Like most dreams, there is a story in this film, but we all know how boring it can be to try to explain the plots of our dreams as if they were straightforward narratives. The events, twists, continuity, and transitions are never well defined, and in the end of our tepid attempts at surmising, we write it all off with, "You just had to be there. It was absolutely terrifying."

Last Year at Marienbad's story goes something like this: There's a theatrical performance at a big hotel with all these people, and after it's over the people start to socialize. A woman meets a man, and at first it seems like they're a couple, but then it seems like they've never met each other before, and then finally he starts trying to convince her that they had met once before a year ago, possibly at the same hotel, maybe at Marienbad, maybe somewhere else entirely. Not only did they meet, but they had a romantic relationship which was cut short. She doesn't remember. Maybe she doesn't want to remember, maybe he remembers wrong, or maybe he's just lying in an attempt to seduce her. But there's this other man who's probably her husband but could be her brother or who knows what else, and this man--who doesn't really seem to pose any problem--stands in the way of them rekindling whatever love may or may not have existed in the past.

And that's it. Thinking too hard about it is a fool's game. The passion, regret, suspense, and despair must simply be experienced rather than analyzed. And in that respect, the movie disappoints. Mulholland Drive was also set in a dream world, but in that picture the characters were vivid and evocative. Even random characters who didn't make sense to the plot were still colorful enough elicit fear, laughs, tears, and thrills. The characters in Last Year at Marienbad are uniformly stiff and bland, as if Resnais forgot the loud and unbridled emotion that dreams can contain, opting instead for one hypnotic but monotonous atmosphere that mistily fills every shot.

Last Year at Marienbad is beautiful, clever, and innovative. The picture above illustrates how the geometric disharmony of the cinematography complements the thematic ambiguity and structural contradictions. On all levels--sound, editing, cinematography, script, acting--the film is unsettling and strange, a uniform disharmony that somehow seems normal. The film sticks in the mind, and I'm sure every repeated viewing offers new reactions and surprises. Having seen it once, I can acknowledge that it should be required viewing for any cineaste but must also admit that it failed to move me on any deep level--something which even the most uninteresting of dreams often accomplishes.

Last Year at Marienbad
d: Alain Resnais w: Alain Robbe-Grillet
(Delphine Seyrig, Giorgio Albertazzi, Sascha Pitoeff)
TSPDT? #93

03 August, 2009

Silflay hraka!

I finished Watership Down a few days ago. It's Richard Adams's 1972 adventure novel about a group of bold rabbits who flee their endangered warren, trek several arduous miles across the British countryside, and set up a new, utopian home on a hill free from danger.

Along the way, they meet several different groups of rabbits living under diverse circumstances, and the book got me thinking about the relationship between authority and society.

When the book opens at the Saddleford Warren, we witness a fairly typical governing structure. There's no immediate, undeniable threat to the rabbits of Saddleford--aside from routine harassment by foxes and stoats, the occasional bout of white blindness and other illnesses, and a bad winter or two. The rabbits think of themselves as the race with a Thousand Enemies--dogs, cats, men, owls, etc.--so they are fully accustomed to these obstacles. The threarah--or king, of sorts--is nice but aloof, comfortable and distant in his position of power, safely assuming that everything will continue as always. His Owsla--or military, kind of--is prone to power-tripping, over confidence, and machismo, but they're not particularly corrupt. The every day rabbits, those who don't hold positions of authority, occasionally feel the dominating shadow of those above them in the hierarchy, but for the most part their lives are quotidian and uneventful.

Like the frog in the pot of water steadily increasing to a boil, the Saddleford rabbits are so accustomed to everything working out decently that new and unusual signs of danger are imperceptible to them. When Fiver, a small and generally ignored young rabbit with the rare rabbit gift of psychic insight, receives a premonition that nearby humans are bringing unbridled terror to their homeland, the majority of his rabbit compatriots are too comfortable to heed his warning. Only those with nothing to lose and those who trust in possibilities beyond what they can plainly see in front of them follow Fiver in his quest for safer territory, the threarah and many others staying behind with no worries.

What happens to Saddleford is nothing short of a rabbit holocaust, perpetrated by human building developers.

It's easy to relate to Saddleford's courtship with imminent demise. There are those who proudly buy gas guzzlers without caring to think what might happen when all the gas runs out. There are those who rifle through hundreds of pounds of disposable plastic a year or who willingly buy into the vast, mechanical meat industry without regard to biological mutations, chemical washes, exorbitant amounts of methane/greenhouse gas, e coli and mad cow outbreaks, and the American obesity epidemic which threaten all of our livelihoods. We happily light the next cigarette because none of the others have killed us yet. Or we allow corrupt powers to escalate to the point of blacklistings, witch hunts, or fascist rule.

But a dozen or so male rabbits, led by Fiver and his trusting, headstrong friend Hazel, escape in time, journeying across rivers and rough terrain, putting unused skills to the test, discovering about themselves and each other and how to survive, and learning to trust and appreciate what everyone has to offer.

Eventually they encounter the rabbits of Cowslip, a utopia named after a prized and tasty marigold flower. The rabbits there--who live in a huge, well-worn, extremely comfortable warren on fruitful land completely devoid of predators and ill weather conditions--are large, healthy, and well-fed with shiny coats and a strange, regal smell. They are also a bit strange, engaging in strange social habits and modern forms of art and poetry quite unlike their own traditional, heroic storytelling. Though the Saddleford refugees believe in the divine craftiness of the legendary El-ahrairah, cunning father to all rabbits, the Cowslip rabbits have learned not to believe in such things; they are hopeless, dreamless atheists, cynical and obedient, and their communication with each other is elusive and lacking in intimacy.

Of course, utopia steams from words meaning "nowhere," and Cowslip is hardly as great as it first appears. The Cowslip warren is on the outskirts of a farm, and the farmer feeds them well, protects them from predators, and allows them to live full, happy lives until--every so often, and not so often as to cause alarm--he kills one of them for supper.

And so the Cowslip rabbits, who have forgotten how to use their unnecessary natural skills--how to find food, how to outsmart a cat--have attempted to escape through suicidal poetry, teaching themselves not to expect too much from life and not to develop too close a bond to anything or anyone on earth. They live their spoonfed lives forever unchallenged and often unthinking, and then they die, and such is life.

How closely does the resemble a life of shutting off alarm clocks, going to the office, walking down the grocery aisles, using the credit card, eating fast food, watching the television, drinking a beer, and falling asleep? All while a million advertisements for a thousand time-saving, new, and spectacular devices compete for our attention. The Internet, streaming three-way video chat, and one thousand text messages a month in our pocket. Slaughtered chicken on a bun with lettuce, pickles, and tomatoes tasting and looking the exact same three hundred and sixty-five days a year, assembled by half a dozen minimum wage workers, for only ninety-nine cents. Liposuction without having to move a muscle, earlobe remodeling to fix those saggy ears, and a tiny, white pill to keep you from thinking about killing yourself--may cause amnesiac sleep-driving, excessive gambling, and suicide.

They escape from Cowslip and settle into what will become their own warren in the perfectly suitable terrain of Watership Down, but only then do they realize that they're a society of men with no hope of prolonged survival through the generations.

Their quest for does brings them to two other groups of rabbits.

On a nearby farm they encounter a hutch with four naive pet rabbits, much like the Cowslip rabbits in size and health but with no deceptive pretense of freedom. The hutch rabbits know they're not wild. They know they are the playthings of a nice, little human girl. They have nothing to fear, nothing to worry about, no need for government, and very little to think about. They're neither happy nor sad, and they're quite stupid. Adams doesn't dwell too much on them.

And miles away is the nearest warren, Efrafa, a concealed, underground military dictatorship. The threarah, General Woundwort, once suffered at the hands of human interference, and since then he has lived his life in fear of the evils of men. With a thirst for power and an allegiance to the necessity of discipline in order to safeguard freedom and the future, Woundwort organizes a tightly run totalitarian state. Rabbits are evenly assigned to different groups at birth, and they remain in these groups for life. The smallness of the groups allows for closer, more orderly control. Rabbits cannot leave the warren except with their small groups at appointed times, and always under close inspection. Allowing no rabbits to wander freely and openly ensures that no humans or predators will ever be alerted to the presence of the warren, insuring the ongoing existence of the warren. For this reason, no rabbits can ever emigrate from the warren, drawing attention to it in the process. All wandering rabbits caught within range of the warren are taken prisoner and forced into the vast, underground, prison-like network, never to wander free again. Disruption from the status quo is met with harsh punishment, the only hope of reward is from being considered worthy enough to join the corrupt owsla and reap its meager rewards, and the only means of escaping is by dying while on a patrol.

Efrafa is a society where freedom has been exchanged for security, where fear of supremely evil and powerful enemies dictates all of culture, where a power hungry, slightly insane, and wholly misguided leader gradually takes more and more liberties within his position of power, and where the majority of rabbits generally succumb to the idea that they are powerless to change their desperate lots in life. Sounds a lot like the Bush Administration.

Watership Down is a great, fun read, always engaging, sometimes humorous, and at times emotionally resonant. I enjoyed it far more than The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Like Tolkien, Adams dabbles in "allolinguistics"--the creation of fictional languages. He has introduced Lapine, the rabbit tongue, and Hedgerow, the lingua franca of woodland creatures, to the world of languages. It makes me more certain that allolinguistics is something I want to play with in my own fiction one day.

Adams also got me thinking about the possibility of using non-human characters in novels. He also wrote The Plague Dogs, which I'm interested in reading.

What's compelling about the rabbits and their mythology is that, like humans, they think that they are the most important and divine species on earth. Humans point to the use of tools and language, the knowledge of their death, the existence of the soul, the (questionable) ability to reason, and other such attributes as proof of their predominance; rabbits point to their ability to speedily reproduce, to fill the earth quickly and joyfully, to their speed, their cleverness, and their martyr complex.

So what about cockroaches? Unchanged for hundreds of millions of years, outliving the dinosaurs, resistant to radiation, capable of surviving half an hour underwater, forty-five minutes without air, a month without food. They reproduce like crazy. They live clandestinely everywhere, much to the folly of the so-called human rulers of the earth. And sometimes it's nearly impossible to kill them.

How about a book where cockroaches are god's master race?