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, VĂ­ctor 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.

No comments: