Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Movies watched, week of March 18-24, 2007

Knife in the Water, Roman Polanski, 1962

For me, the most memorable aspect of this film is how visually stunning it is (though the visuals certainly don’t overshadow the plot, a complex, understated exploration of jealousy and exhibitionism). The crisp, black and white images are exceptionally striking, every shot framed in an interesting way, so that it seems as if any given still could serve as a museum-worthy photograph.

Scent of a Woman, Martin Brest, 1992

A typical prep school coming of age movie, wherein a young, naïve student and an old man are paired together and end up teaching one another about life. Pacino is an amazing actor (see The Godfather, Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico) but even he can’t save this cliché-ridden, saccharine, Hollywood version of a “profound” movie. It conveys a message I can get behind, but the problem is that the message is delivered in the form of a not-so-subtle speech, after which an auditorium full of people stands up and applauds. (Please.) I guess it seems kind of mean to make fun of a movie about a blind man, but come on—it’s just a movie, and a mediocre one at that.

Monty Python's And Now For Something Completely Different, Ian MacNaughton, 1971

While this is billed as their first feature, it’s not so much a cohesive film as a collection of sketches that are rather seamlessly segued into one another (except for when John Cleese announces, “And now for something completely different!”). While not as strong as later films like The Holy Grail and Life of Brian, there’s nothing all that problematic about this one, because whether or not there’s a single, unifying plot, it’s still funnier than most comedic movies could ever hope to be. (Hell’s Grannies, anyone?)

Manderlay, Lars von Trier, 2005

A lot of people seem to take offense to the fact that a European director is criticizing their country when he’s never even been here—that, however, doesn’t stop American filmmakers from making films about countries they’ve never visited. Moreover, I don’t see why one has to spend a holiday here in order to comprehend the impact we’ve effected on the world, nor to understand and express the facts of our history as recorded.

That said, Manderlay, while perhaps more accessible, is not quite as strong as 2003's Dogville. The minimalist set, consisting of a sound stage marked off with chalk and the occasional one or two-walled façade, which seemed so fresh and innovative before, doesn’t quite produce the same effect when used a second time. The film would likely have been more compelling if it hadn’t continued with the same characters from Dogville, acting not necessarily as a direct sequel, but the second film in a thematically linked trilogy. Nevertheless, Manderlay’s premise of introducing democracy to a community is a timely, topical one (it’s pretty clear in its paralleling of the situation in Iraq), and remains as thought-provoking as its predecessor.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Movies watched, week of March 11-17, 2007

Life is Beautiful, Roberto Benigni, 1997

As I watched the first half of this film, which chronicles Guido's (Roberto Benigni) romantic pursuit of his future wife, Dora, I thought it seemed a little strange that a story about the Holocaust would be so slapsticky, a style of humor that, while it's Benigni's specialty, seems like it should not be associated with the systematic annihilation of millions of people. But I watched on. When Guido and his son, Joshua, are whisked off to the concentration camps, the change in the story's pattern seems rather abrupt, although I suppose that's appropriate—it must have been jarring for the people who really experienced it. Guido starts pretending that their capture is really part of a game, in an attempt to protect Joshua from the harsh reality of the situation. But it seems highly implausible that the charade could be kept up for the duration of their capture, not to mention that the conditions of the concentration camps seem rather tame—no dead bodies to be seen, and their sleeping quarters look a hell of a lot cleaner and more comfortable than I would have imagined. I can see what Benigni intended with this—a life-affirming story that portrays the power of love between a family, and the sacrifices a father made for his son—but the plot is so unbelievable that it's rendered ineffective. I’m aware that Benigni calls it a “fable,” but I don’t think that sufficiently justifies it.

Pie in the Sky: The Brigid Berlin Story, Shelly Dunn Fremont & Vincent Fremont, 2000

This documentary about Brigid Berlin, a former debutante turned Warhol superstar, chronicles her transition, both physically and psychologically, from rich privileged socialite to subversive artist and speed freak (her nickname of “Brigid Polk” refers to her penchant for giving herself a “poke”). Of all the people who hung around the Factory, Brigid seems to me the most exceptional artist (perhaps overshadowed, however, by others around her); her work includes Polaroid double exposure photo montages (she’s considered by many to be the inspiration for Warhol’s use of Polaroids and tape recordings), her Cock Book (a blank book filled with drawings by various colleagues and artists of, you guessed it, although Leonard Cohen’s page reads “Let me be the shy one in your book,” to which Brigid understandably rolls her eyes) and “tit prints” (again, no explanation necessary—you can see her in action creating these).

Brigid’s life is marked by compulsive behavior, which she often explores in her art (or perhaps it’s simply an aspect that comes through unintentionally), most notably in recordings of conversations with her mother, pillows stuffed with shredded magazine clippings of penises, and “trip books” of tiny repetitive circles and dots created while high on amphetamine. Her apartment is kept in almost museum-like order, and, still battling with her weight, her eating habits consist of weighing everything on a scale (for example, .5 ounces of yogurt, .5 ounces of cottage cheese) before consuming it. At the start of the film, Brigid is down to an almost unhealthily skinny 123 pounds, but midway through she caves in to her weakness for key lime pies and rapidly gains 40 pounds after consuming, by her estimate, at least 50 pies in a month.

While she appears fairly put together and functional, Brigid is a troubled woman, dominated by her compulsions, and haunted by her past. She at one point recites, word for word, a long tirade directed at her by her mother (a traditional society woman who vehemently disapproved of Brigid’s associations with Warhol), her voice audibly distressed, even though the conversation probably took place thirty years ago; when the filmmaker takes her to the Chelsea Hotel, Brigid’s one-time home, she grows increasingly uneasy, finally saying, “I want to get out of here.” The look on her face is undeniably haunted, but she seems unsure as to why the place makes her so uncomfortable.

Shadows, John Cassavetes, 1959

There seems to be some confusion as to the degree of improvisation that John Cassavetes’ debut film can actually claim. At the end, there is a title card that reads, “The film you have just seen was an improvisation”—which, while it does achieve a kind of freeform, flowing impression, seems an extremely impressive feat on behalf of the actors (so much so that I momentarily forgave their occasionally poorly executed lines), as the dialogue and actions feel rather scripted. As it turns out, Shadows was originally filmed as an improvisation but Cassavetes was so embarrassed by it that he wrote a script and trashed all but about 30 minutes of the first version. This seems a more accurate representation, as it still retains an improvised, low-budget feel, but the written script pulls it together (I can’t imagine what a truly ad-libbed film would look like—an interesting experiment, but as far as quality is concerned, an inevitable failure).

Somewhat reminiscent of the French New Wave, which was happening simultaneously so I can’t really say whether either influenced the other, the film delves into interracial relationships and prejudices amidst the Beat-era jazz and literary scenes in New York.

Touch of Evil, Orson Welles, 1958

I find it incredible that Orson Welles, who made what is widely recognized as the greatest film ever made, was never again able to achieve the success of Citizen Kane—in F For Fake, he says, “I started at the top and have been working my way down ever since.” While Welles may not be blameless, the fact that Hollywood studios butchered his subsequent films in the editing room could not have helped matters. When Welles heard that Touch of Evil had been recut (including the addition of several scenes that he hadn’t even filmed), he delivered a 58-page memo imploring the studio to restore it to its original edit, but until 1998 his requests went ignored. (The current circulating version attempts to incorporate as many of Welles’s instructions as possible.)

The opening scene in Touch of Evil is a magnificent three minute-long continuous shot, starting with an unidentified person installing a bomb in the trunk of a car, then following the car from above, craning up and down in a complex set of movements, over rooftops and neon signs, as two people unwittingly drive off to their death when the bomb explodes. In the previous version, this sequence had titles printed over it, blocking much of the action and diluting the power of the shot, and included Henry Mancini music that obscured the natural street noises that Welles had intended for the score—it’s unbelievable that people whose job it is to make movies could be so clueless as to the art of filmmaking. It’s not even as if their edits made the film more commercial; for years it was considered a low-grade crime movie.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Movies watched, week of March 4-10, 2007

Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee, 1989

An extremely balanced, merciless portrayal of the degrees of hatred and racial prejudice that people exhibit towards one another in one Brooklyn neighborhood in the late 1980s (though it could be applied to anywhere). Excepting the film’s few voices of reason—the radio DJ Mr. Señor Love Daddy, Da Mayor of Bed-Stuy, and a few others—no one has respect for anyone else, exemplified in the scenes in which various people face the camera and spit out strings of racial epithets. Along with the oppressive summer heat, with temperatures seeming to climb throughout the day, their intolerance comes to a boiling point, wherein everyone loses control, from the cops, to the local pizzeria proprietors, to the neighborhood’s residents.

The Conversation, Francis Ford Coppola, 1974

Sound is the most significant aspect of this 1974 Coppola film. Harry Caul, a legend in the surveillance business, is assigned to record an exchange between two people. Their voices are peppered with robotic blips and bursts as Caul refines the sound quality through a filter, which immediately lends the film an odd, unnatural ambiance. With each tweak of the knobs, the voice’s meaning becomes clearer, though as we eventually realize, it doesn’t quite manage to capture every subtle nuance and inflection. Caul, however, isn’t all that interested in what his subjects are actually saying—this may, perhaps, be the first instance where he’s paid any attention to the content at all—but is fascinated by the technology that’s been used to record it. This seems to be the case with most surveillance professionals—when Caul attends a convention, he’s surrounded by crowds of other middle-aged men who are obsessed with the workings of hidden cameras and tiny microphones concealed in lapel pins.

Caul is a bit of a paradox, in that his profession, which he takes quite seriously, is to invade the private lives of strangers. And yet, he is secretive about his own private life to the point of paranoia, which only intensifies throughout the film: he hides his telephone in a drawer and tells people he has none, he doesn’t want his landlady to have a key to his apartment, he refuses to disclose any information about himself to the woman he’s romantically involved with (even after she’s clearly distraught about it, even after she asks him to leave if he won’t tell her something). When he discovers that his own apartment has been bugged, he tears apart every floorboard, smashes every object, desperate to find the device; the final image of Caul sitting in his wrecked apartment playing his saxophone is a strong one.

Bad Education, Pedro Almodóvar, 2004

Bad Education possesses distinctly Hitchcockian tinges; Vertigo, specifically, comes to mind, in its muddling of identity. In Vertigo, a man pretends that a woman is the woman he loves, not realizing that she actually is the woman he loves. Here, it’s even a little more complex than that—a man is well aware that another man is pretending to be the man he loves, but he allows himself to go along with the fantasy. Throughout the film, we are presented with three versions of, essentially, the same story: a childhood love affair between two boys, Ignacio and Enrique, is interrupted when a priest from their school, Father Manolo, discovers them together. Manolo desires Ignacio, so he expels Enrique out of jealousy. The young lovers meet again by chance fifteen years later, at which point Ignacio is plotting to blackmail Father Manolo for the money needed to complete a sex change operation. Our introduction to these events comes in a mostly fictional adaptation—a film within the film, if you will. Then, the “true” story on which the fictional film is based slowly emerges, ostensibly, until the real Father Manolo shows up and reveals the strangest, yet ultimately the truest, version. While this may sound rather complicated—and it is—it never seems quite as confusing while watching it onscreen.

2 or 3 Things I Know About Him, Malte Ludin, 2005

In a “typical German story,” Malte Ludin, the youngest son of German diplomat Hanns Ludin, explores the impact his father’s Nazi affiliation, as well as his eventual execution in 1947, has had on his family by interviewing his surviving sisters and brothers, as well as nieces, nephews, and his own son. Incredibly, many of his siblings insist that their father could not have known that by convincing the Slovak government to comply with deporting Jews to labor camps, he was actually sending them to concentration camps. Somehow, they manage to argue with Malte about degrees of responsibility, rationalizing their father’s actions. Admittedly, it must be extremely difficult to acknowledge that your father was responsible for so much suffering and death, and yet, the evidence is there. Watching them cling to their fond memories of their father while ignoring the facts isn’t so much touching as disturbing.

This reminded me a little of 51 Birch Street, in that the filmmaker interviews members of his family in order to come to a deeper understanding of his roots. While I find this genre of documentary filmmaking intriguing in theory, in practice it tends not to be as effective as one might think it should. Here, it seems unclear as to what Malte is trying to get his family to admit; no definite thesis emerges.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Movies watched, week of February 25-March 3, 2007

The Devil and Daniel Johnston, Jeff Feuerzeig, 2005
Half Japanese: The Band That Would Be King, Jeff Feuerzeig, 1993

The subjects of these documentaries are interconnected (The Fair brothers appear in The Devil and Daniel Johnston, and, more subtly, Jad plays a Johnston cover in The Band That Would Be King), as friends, musical collaborators, and, simply, members of similar musical scenes. And yet, there is something inherently different about these two performers that strongly affects the tone of each film. I’ll be discussing this at much greater length in an upcoming Terminal Boredom column.

Sweet and Lowdown, Woody Allen, 1999

This film about a fictional 1930s jazz guitarist, Emmett Ray, culls elements of both documentaries and biopics, with the narrative interrupted continuously by music experts and journalists who offer their perspective on the subject. Ray is extremely egotistical, yet noticeably insecure. He’s obsessed with the guitarist Django Reinhardt (it is mentioned at various points throughout the film that Ray fainted both times he saw him perform, and can’t listen to his music without crying), often uttering the phrase, “I’m the greatest guitar player in the world,” then hanging his head and muttering, “Well, except for this gypsy in France.” A flagrant ladies man, Ray meets Hattie, a mute laundress, on the boardwalk in Asbury Park, and, though at first he’s annoyed that she can’t talk, in an odd way, he falls for her. One might even say she’s the great love of his life. While he treats her as more of a servant at times, and has multiple affairs, she seems to understand him far better than the pseudo-intellectual dilettantes who swarm after him, smitten until they’re dumbfounded by his hobbies (the man loves shooting rats and watching trains pass).

The historians often mention the typical “Emmett Ray story,” the type of fable of mythical proportions, of which there are multiple versions, none of which can be confirmed. In one particular story, Ray’s new wife, Blanche, and her lover, Al, arrive at a gas station, while Ray hides under the seat of the car, having followed them. The gas station just happens to have been held up at that moment, and the robbers run out and decide to use Al’s car as a getaway car, while Ray is still hiding under the seat. One of the historians then cuts in, saying, “That’s not what I heard,” and his version of the story is then played out from start to finish, with multiple versions ensuing. This is the type of playing with narrative, of pushing the limits of what a film can do, that I’ve come to expect of a Woody Allen film. Unfortunately, I’ve been pretty disappointed lately.

Three Women, Robert Altman, 1977

More on this later.

The Lives of Others, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006

In 1984, Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler, a member of the East German secret police (more commonly known as the Stasi), is assigned to spy on the playwright Georg Dreyman and his girlfriend, their apartment freshly bugged. Wiesler sits alone in an austere room, empty save for some mechanical equipment, wearing headphones and jotting down a report of their daily activities. His is a lonely life, accentuated by a visit from a prostitute—he implores her to “stay awhile,” but she, of course, has business to attend to elsewhere.

In the beginning, Wiesler is portrayed as a hard-line, unsympathetic interrogator; when one of his students argues that his practice of questioning suspects for lengths of 40 hours or more is inhuman, he brushes off the idea with a blue checkmark next to the student’s name. And yet, he quickly changes his mind once he is assigned to observe Dreyman, his sympathies falling on the playwright and his plight. Even after he comes across some information worthy of reporting to his superiors, he chooses to protect Dreyman and his colleagues, writing that they are preparing a play to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the GDR, as opposed to their actual project, an article about the GDR’s suppression of information concerning the number of suicides occurring in their country, which they smuggle out to the West to be published.

Wiesler’s actions are not without emotional conflict—at one point he calls the border patrol to warn them that one of Dreyman’s colleagues will be sneaking into West Germany, hanging up at the last second. Nonetheless, I was at first not convinced: Wiesler’s dramatic transformation from ardent Socialist to political deviant seemed sudden and unlikely. Once the film ended and I had a chance to mull it over, however, I determined that his change in beliefs did happen somewhat gradually, from a few subtly planted scenes in which he observes his superiors acting hypocritically, culminating in his discovery that the investigation of Dreyman’s activities has been initiated solely because the Minister has the hots for his girlfriend and wants him out of the picture. Wiesler, as mentioned previously, leads a solitary life; he is a man of few words. His feelings are communicated through facial expressions, and, most likely, inflections in his speaking voice, something that subtitles cannot communicate. Thus, my failure to grasp the arc of Wiesler’s transformation may stem not from any weakness on the filmmaker’s behalf, but simply from the fact that I cannot understand German.

The Spirit of the Beehive, Víctor Erice, 1973

Comparisons of this film to the recent Pan’s Labyrinth are not without precedent; both take place during the Spanish Civil War, the main character a young girl who pays daily visits to a “spirit.” But that’s where the similarities end. In Spirit of the Beehive, the political elements are much farther from the foreground, perhaps only mentioned when the girl’s mother writes lamenting letters to her lover, who she has not heard from since he went off to fight in the war.

Two sisters, Ana and Isabel, see a Spanish-language dubbed version of James Whale’s Frankenstein at their local town hall. (This part reminded me somewhat of Cinema Paradiso, in the characters’ sheer excitement over a movie, any movie, coming to town; in Beehive, the children crowd around a truck that’s just pulled up, shouting, “The movie is coming!”) Ana is profoundly affected by the screening, particularly the part in which the monster and the little girl throw flowers into a pond. Isabel, the older and somewhat worldlier of the two, tells Ana that Frankenstein’s monster is really a spirit who lives in a nearby abandoned farmhouse; he only comes out at night, but if you are his friend, he will appear to you if you close your eyes and talk to him. At first visit, the farmhouse appears empty, though Ana discovers a large footprint in the dirt, which she gingerly steps into with her own, much smaller foot. Eventually, she discovers a wounded soldier hiding out there, though she understands him to be the spirit.

The film masterfully captures the feeling of childhood innocence. Impressionistic and heavy with symbolism, the beautiful cinematography conveys a striking image; when I think of this film I envision the barren, golden fields surrounding the girls’ home, empty except for Ana’s tiny figure running across them. As characterized by these barren fields, the girls are isolated from their parents, and, it seems, from other children as well. We rarely, if ever, see them all together as a family, and the girls are usually left on their own.

Unlike Pan’s Labyrinth, this film, while achieving an intense, dream-like quality, is firmly planted in reality. Thus, the sad inevitability of life comes through in the ending: while Ana’s fate is left somewhat ambiguous, she will most likely grow up and forget about her youthful fantasies of the spirit in the farmhouse.