Thursday, May 31, 2007

Movies watched, week of May 20-26, 2007

Zazie in the Metro, Louis Malle, 1960

In Louis Malle’s inventive adaptation of the Raymond Queneau novel, a foul-mouthed little girl—she seems a little younger onscreen than in the book—stays with her Parisian “Unkie” (who happens to be a cross-dressing dancer) while her mother spends a torrid weekend with her “loverboy.” Zazie is an unruly child, and soon wanders off to explore the city on her own, with disappointing results—she wants nothing more than to ride the metro, but the workers are on strike.

The film starts out as a slapsticky comedy, feverishly picking up momentum until it reaches a crescendo of insanity, teeming with absurd images, such as repeated encounters with a man wearing a polar bear costume (at the top of the Eiffel Tower, juggling fire in Unkie's performance, eating dinner in a restaurant). The over-abundancy of jump cuts and sped-up film add to the frenzied feeling. In one scene, as Zazie walks across a room to open a door, at one moment she's on one side of the room and in the next instant she pops up at the other end. While at times a little awkward, such gleeful cinematic rule-breaking is characteristic of the French New Wave, with which Malle is closely associated.

The Boss of it All, Lars von Trier, 2006

An office comedy isn’t exactly what one expects from Lars von Trierwhile it is indeed a comedy, his latest film is not unlike his previous efforts. Ravn is the president of an IT company who exploits his dedicated staff (one employee’s husband hung himself with a printer cable after Ravn fired him), blaming his unpopular executive decisions on an imaginary "boss of it all" so he won’t look like the bad guy. When phrased as such, the plot doesn’t really sound so cheery—and yet, the film’s comedic delivery and details subtly shift what could be a tragedy into a very funny movie.

The hilarity sets in when an Icelandic company requires the head of the firm to sign off on a contract—which, of course, is problematic, as the head of the firm does not exist. (This spurs a number of jokes about the apparently fierce rivalry between Denmark and Iceland, which proves rather amusing, but many of the references are probably lost on non-Danish and -Icelandic audiences). To resolve this dilemma, Ravn hires a self-important, out-of-work stage actor to portray the fictional CEO and sign the contract—but, of course, it doesn’t work as simply as that, and the situation spins out of control.

Von Trier breaks down the fourth wall a number of times, speaking directly to the viewer to reassure us that what we are about to watch is indeed a comedy, and not to worry, there will be “no preaching,” “just a cozy time.” This seems to deviate from what he's said in the past, that "a film should be like a rock in the shoe"—but as I’ve already hinted at, the rock isn’t completely missing, just a little harder to detect. It’s most noticeable in the film’s visual style and editing, which uses a process called Automavision. Essentially, the director chooses the best possible fixed camera position, then allows a computer to choose at random when to tilt, pan or zoom. The process renders the movie kind of hard to watch, with all the distracting cuts and color changes, but that’s exactly what von Trier intended. It’s a kind of witty attack on digital filmmaking—the advent of computers has made it far too easy to make a movie (von Trier once said in an interview that “all you have to do is buy a computer and you have armies rampaging over mountains”). In this instance, the computer has total control over the outcome, with conventionally adverse results.

Wanda, Barbara Loden, 1971

Barbara Loden’s sole directorial credit—in 1980, liver cancer abruptly silenced any future work (she reportedly died angry, crying out “Shit! Shit! Shit!”)—chronicles the tale of a housewife and mother who walks out on her former life with little explanation. Wanda seems to have no place in the world, aimlessly drifting from one man to the next, until she inadvertently teams up with Mr. Dennis, a criminal who involves her in his plans to rob a bank.

Loden at one point called the film the “anti-Bonnie and Clyde,” as it avoids sensationalizing the story. The action is muted, generating an understated grace enhanced by the grainy 16mm film stock, and beautiful washed-out colors. The use of handheld cameras, natural lighting, and a generally improvisatory approach evoke a cinema verite style.

Mr. Dennis meets up with his father at Holyland USA, a now defunct Christian theme park in Waterbury, CT, of whose ruins are still mostly in place (the catacombs were bulldozed when homeless people were discovered to be sleeping in them). Witnessing it as a functioning park with actual visitors was exciting for me, as I’ve only known it as a deserted ghost town of miniature buildings, populated by wayward youths and metal bands looking for sweet photo ops.

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