Harmony Korine stated somewhere that the characters from his film Gummo, he found, were “transcendentally beautiful.” It is unclear just what the so-called “beauty” of the characters transcends. Korine has also said that he is not into “shock for shock’s sake.” Rather, he calls himself a “provocateur.” Tomatoes, tomatoes, it would seem. This day-in-the-life style narrative rather voyeuristically watches and then enters into the existence of rural, low-income young people who unwittingly wallow in what, it would seem, we bourgeoisie would call “the ugly,” “the abject,” “the disgusting,” “the filthy,” etc. Somehow, many of the most deplorable aspects of these characters are the least explicable, such as the main boy’s hair. It would not repel one on its own, but placed in this context, it somehow adds to an overall collage of grossness. Certainly there is a subjectivity here that must be acknowledged, but it is at least fair to say that the film wouldn’t be what it is if it didn’t have a largely disconcerting effect on mainstream, middle-class America. Can this all be chalked up to class difference, though? Much of what goes on here is morally problematic if not reprehensible: torturing and killing animals, unplugging life support without a care in the world (let alone anyone’s consent), anarchic destruction, parental neglect, and a sadistic hatred toward anyone not conforming to the macho male ideal. Of course many will find this sort of response predictable and insist that there is humanity and beauty here. This seems comparable to saying that war is beautiful because it displays valor and courage. These good things can shine much more brightly without being clouded into near-nothingness by the ugliness of their unnecessary settings. Not hard to believe Korine wrote the screenplay to Kids.
Onibaba (Demon Woman) from Kaneto Shindo is uncannily similar to Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Woman in the Dunes, released in the same year. These are “art films,” as the saying goes, rich with long, abstract shots of claustrophobic natural surrounding: long and thick reeds that form a dense carpet with little bald spots of huts (Onibaba), and sand dunes with an almost organic quality that spill into a dungeon-like house-pit (Woman in the Dunes). In both films, the silent yet perpetually active landscape creeps in upon the physical space of the characters and into their psyches, causing an arousal of erotic desire, manifest in that inhuman tendency to copulate with anything – moving or otherwise. An eerie nightmare of subconscious surrealism results in each story. Onibaba is known as a horror film, but it only fits that genre in the sense that The Twilight Zone fits it. The mask seems to be a direct connection with Rod Serling’s show, with the same consequence when the character who selfishly donned the mask finally removes it. Shindo, if anything, is a master of activating the senses, using palpable and earthy sounds and images the way Hitchcock used camera movement and editing. The Japanese New Wave is evident here in 1964, as it becomes clearer why Kurosawa, in between such masterpieces as High and Low and Red Beard, started losing his popularity and his sense of how to make movies for the new Japan.
Tarsem Singh’s previous film The Cell was an exercise in psychoanalytic cinema at the most un-subtle possible level, as well as in really poor casting (Vince Vaughn as a P.I., Jennifer Lopez as the mind-trekker). Most recently, “Tarsem,” as he is simply known, indulged in what is clearly a labor of love, The Fall. Anywhere you read about it, there seems to be the urge for people to point out that it was filmed “in 20 different countries over a 4-year period,” as if that kind of explains its self-proclaimedly (literally) “epic” nature. A good case has been made here arguing for a cult-classic status for the film. Certainly the cinematography is a thing to behold, with a striking visual texture and exceedingly bright colors. Beyond that, this is a very odd movie, one difficult to define. At every point when it seems to fit into some kind of genre, it defies classification, but not in any coherent or deliberate way. The story is told without a goal in mind, the arbitrary narrative of a depressed, possibly-paralyzed man who wants to entertain an injured girl in order to persuade her to steal meds so that he can end his misery. The story he tells presents itself as an allegory, but it seems devoid of any referent in the real world. The two of them become characters in the fairy tale, but it feels like a story for its own sake, or for the sake of the drugs. Humor pops in every so often, at times when it feels inappropriate to laugh, like a person who cracks jokes at the worst possible time. This is a non-psychoanalytic film with a poorly-told story and a very confused conclusion. It presents itself as a happy ending, though the man has completely ditched a girl and her needy family in order to pursue a succesful film career. Perhaps it can be said that this is a confused success, or an expertly conceived and bizarrely executed, genre-less series of images. Some have tried to compare or contrast it with Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, but the similarities seem to cease after a young female protagonist and the element of fantasy. There is surely something more constructive to be said about The Fall, and it must be admitted that preconceived notions about it may have prevented a proper reading.
The same year as the previous post’s film was released (8½, in 1963) Luchino Visconti adapted to the screen The Leopard (Il Gattopardo), the novel by Giuseppe di Lampedusa. Was looking forward to the film, having just finished reading the novel. Di Lampedusa’s book is epic in small scope, a personal account of a man growing old and outdated. The story gives the reader the impression of being in the mind of Prince Fabrizio, with access to all his thoughts and feelings and that kind of immediately-forgiving perspective that comes from being witness to one’s own weaknesses and failures. It must be admitted that a novel is slightly more conducive than film to this kind of intimacy, although master filmmakers have succeeded in making very personal films, even without first-person narration. It’s hard not to think of a character such as Michael Corleone in the film sculptor’s hands of Francis Ford Coppola. For all of Luchino Visconti’s reputation as one of the great neorealist directors of Italy, The Leopard feels very much like a genre imitation of the American epic/Western, replete with a very Technicolor color palate, extreme wide angle shots, panoramic scenery, and that sense of overal gaudiness that probably existed in 1860s Sicily but detracts from a film focused around an individual. Only in the film’s final act does Visconti go to pains to get into the psyche of Fabrizio, the Leopard. By then it seems too late, or it seems as if he’s tired not so much from the life that has preceded the film but by the short segment of his life that the film depicts. Di Lampedusa’s novel begins with a tired prince whose days of glory are drawing nigh. One realizes that the film is under no obligation to imitate the novel. And it is interesting to consider a film like this next to contemporaries such as Fellini’s aforemtioned 8½ and Antonioni’s L’Eclisse. These films, which happen to be in black and white, personally and impersonally focus on alienation and the world’s failure to deliver what it promises to the successful and affluent. Fabrizio has succeeded at least as well as Fellini’s and Antonioni’s characters, but the film has him walking away pitifully, tail between his legs, as if the audience should feel sorry for him. It’s an unappealing thought to protrude one’s lower lip for the sake of someone who has everything in the world. In the novel, the Leopard is allowed to grow old with a sense of gracefulness, even as he knows the dead end that will meet him at the end of his life. He rejects pity from those closest to him and maintains respect, not bitterness, for those whose futures are bright. This isn’t a case of another film that didn’t measure up to the book, but one character presented in a much more compelling way than another. Finally, Burt Lancaster, this one wasn’t for you.
The argument is out there that 8½ (Otto e mezzo) is not an autobiographical film and should not be interpreted thus. Cited as evidence is the thematic dialogue within the film about the fictional director’s intention to make a film with no relation to reality. Obviously, the fictional director, Guido, is conflicted about this. He contradicts himself both in words and actions by casting characters who correlate nearly perfectly to the reality of his own life. 8½ is such a self-reflexive film that the argument shouldn’t have to be made that Fellini is clearly grounding Guido in himself and the narrative in his own life. This is obvious from the small example to the big picture common sense. The film, as Kriss Ravetto-Biagioli observes, doesn’t offer a close-up shot of Guido until following the opening dream sequence, and when there is a close-up, we only see Guido through a mirrored reflection. If this isn’t an early sign that we are watching Fellini watch – or better yet, recreate – himself, then what else could it be?
Then there is Fellini’s infamous admission that he is a liar, or as a later, truly autobiographical film has it, Fellini: I am a Born Liar. The classical paradox holds up well here: what do you believe when someone tells you he is a liar? Do you take him at his word and allow him to contradict himself (lie) or do you disbelieve him, tell him he’s actually honest and thereby make his statement a lie? Tropes throughout Fellini’s oeuvre offer consistent evidence that Fellini wanted to redefine himself. He himself has said how bored he get with the same old stories. Films like 8½ serve the double purpose of allowing Fellini to rebuild his identity while simultaneously defending his right to live out his lie. The film’s title directly refers to the number of films Fellini had made at that point. Guido’s age is exactly Fellini’s age while making the film. Guido is a famous Italian director without an idea for his next film other than to film his own director’s block. He loves his wife, in a sense, while cheating on her constantly. Examples continue. But thankfully, this isn’t the most interesting aspect of 8½.
Fellini’s break from neo-realism began before this, with La Dolce Vita, but here Fellini allows his famous fingerprints to take over not only the style but the form of the film. His affinity for clowns and the circus has been noted often, with La Dolce Vita structured as a sort of circus spectacle for the spectator. With 8½, the ringmaster is within the film, even as the circus sometimes takes over him and he becomes the spectator. Ravetto-Biagioli notes the ritornello, both within the musical soundtract as well as the camera positioning, moving back and forth from Guido’s point of view to our point of view of him. Fellini’s disdain for truth and non-fiction is on display as he shrugs off reference to reality whenever it suits his fancy, presenting a narrative devoid of any ground for objective reality. Not only do the film and the film within it blur together, but reality and ream become more and more difficult to discern.
Notes. Fellini’s struggle with the church not only as institution of authority but as embedded moral standard continues, though he now shows more signs of putting it past him than he did in La Dolce Vita. Misogyny is just shameless enough (and Italian enough) to be viewed satirically, though Fellini and Mastroianni lived it out before, during, and after the film. For all his talent, and for all the praise that should be lavished upon 8½, Fellini is not a subtle director by any means. A psychoanalytic reading is hardly necessary, since he spells it out so explicitly, connecting Guido’s obsession as a man with his frustration as a boy. Circuses, however, are not intended to be subtle, but spectacular, overwhelming, musical, and tingling to the senses. That Fellini infuses such beautiful chaos with intellectual coherence and premeditated style justifies, to say the least, 8½. Also, no man in cinema has ever looked as flawlessly stylish as Marcello Mastroianni here.
Being filmed only a couple years after Lifeboat, it’s not hard to see Notorious, among many other things, as Hitchcock’s forgiveness and vindication of the German people following World War II. Lifeboat features some classic conflict scenes between a group of paranoid Americans and a fiendish Nazi captain prolonging their time adrift after a German sub took out their ocean liner. The captain deceives the gullible if incredulous Americans (and token Brit) multiple times, practically guaranteeing that they will never reach land again. That Lifeboat was released in 1944, a year before the war ended, is not insignificant. Hitchcock demonstrated the consequences of trusting a Nazi: at least disappointment, probably death. Notorious came out a year after the war. It sets the stage for Ingrid Bergman’s character, the daughter of a convicted Nazi criminal, to rise above her traiterous father and help to seduce and capture an old friend of daddy’s. As William Rothman has noted, this is one of the precious few Hitchcock films with a happy ending, at least for it protagonists. (He notes North By Northwest as Hitchcock’s late-career exception that proves the rule.) With its happy ending, Notorious illustrates human responsibility in all its potential for both good and evil. Contrast this with the The Birds-like ending of Lifeboat: wide-open, without resolution, and rather cynical.
A few notes. Ingrid Bergman almost begins the film in bed (hung over by her own hand) and almost ends it in bed (poisoned by her evil husband). Notorious shares also with North By Northwest that quintessentially Hitchcock narrative twist of cutting from an established (familiar) setting with established characters to a shot sequence as follows: the outside of a building (maybe a government building?), then an inner conference room with a long table and a number of suited men deciding the next direction the narrative will take. In North By Northwest, the scene occurs in Washington D.C. following Cary Grant’s character being framed for murder in the United Nations building. In Notorious, after Grant and Bergman have their first little moment of intimacy, the film moves to a group of unfamiliar men who will soon inform Grant’s character of the nature of the scheme. Hitchcock’s typical mommy-issues are quite present, with the priceless Claude Rains, perfectly small in stature but large in ego, dwarfed by his overbearing mother while he gets weepy. Sexual imagery is as rich as ever: super-long kisses, cigarettes, and beds. The famous zoom shot in the atrium, moving toward the key in Bergman’s hand, is remarkable. Grant’s character begins the film in the shadows, as Bergman talks to him, the party crasher. This is fitting, since the film becomes not so much Grant’s but Bergman’s star vehicle. Humor is not as sparse as in Rebecca, but sparser than most of the master’s films. Rothman also remarks that in Rebecca and Suspicion, the audience identifies with the woman, fearing as to the intentions of Lawrence Olivier and Cary Grant, respectively. In Notorious, Hitchcock lets his audience in on the scheme. Co-identifying with Grant and especially Bergman, the suspense is palpable and overwhelming when Grant goes upstairs to rescue Bergman in a house filled with Nazi conspirators. In conclusion, the similarities with, cough, Mission: Impossible 2 are so uncanny that this can be no accident. Every remotely significant plot detail is repeated, down to the binoculars at the horse race. Never has such a masterpiece been transferred to such schlock, a guilty pleasure though the latter may remain.
Andrew, this one’s for you.
Having never seen Walk the Line and having a general distaste for films of the musical biopic genre, it would have taken and did in fact take my artistic mentor to force a screening of Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. My predispositions being the case, it turns out that Walk Hard went down easily and not without a chuckle. Coming down somewhere between poking fun at and mocking Johnny Cash and Ray Charles movies, this movie rode the line between mockumentary and shameless goof-fest. This isn’t to say that it didn’t fall down a number of times – this is anything but an exercise in well-balanced cinema – but at least it broke out of the toilet-humor kind of mold that, I would think, defines all those Scary/Date/Epic/Etc. Movie movies. It’s nice not to see John C. Reilly taking himself as seriously as he did in Martin Scorsese and Paul Thomas Anderson movies, but this Will Ferrell-turn in his career is a bit sad to watch. The phallic title meets its match in various close-ups as the pop-comedy genre continues to make its return to the late-70′s-early-80′s naughtiness of Airplane!, Stripes, and Caddyshack. Seems at this point that my words are generally restrained or negative. Sorry, Andrew, they’re not meant to be. I would imagine this is more fun to watch with you than by myself on Netflix Online.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind probably takes the cake as the best Valentine’s Day movie ever. After a thorough scouring of our (ever-growing) shelf, it became clear how few romantic movies that aren’t (strictly speaking) comedies or musicals end on a feelgood note. Those that do tend to be adaptations of Jane Austen novels (which can be quite good) or melodramatic saccharine (copies of which we have none). Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry are a match made in heaven, with Gondry’s dreamy camera giving Kaufman’s sometimes-overly-heady content a healthy and lighter perspective. This film could have easily sunk into incoherence and narrative contradictions, even without the forgiving subjective point of view. My Valentine pointed out the abortive nature of memory-murder, one that attempts erasure of the past, traumatizes rather than heals, and rejects personal responsibility. Through these allegorical spectacles, a series of uncanny similarities comes into crisp view and shows an effective though accidental parallel truth. A deep and willing immersion into the affections of another reveals hidden convictions. In amorem veritas.
With every beginning to every movement, exaggerations of description abound. For all the importance of Roberto Rossellini’s Roma, città aperta (Rome, Open City) in setting a precedent for Italian Neorealism, the account given by Millicent Marcus in Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism seems to glorify a little the birth of this cinematic baby. To push the illustration, it’s not unlike a description of the beauty of childbirth that neglects the very real (note, not “neo”-real) and painful mess that delivery also tends to be. Roma, città aperta was not a documentary and had to intention of being one. Marcus claims that the film is “antirhetorical,” intended to display the real situation of wartime Rome. Not only, Marcus points out, are all the events based on true accounts, but scenes such as Manfredi spitting in the face of an overly talkative and torture-happy Nazi officer offer support for the thesis that Rossellini’s location shooting, natural lighting, and documentary-like style were intended to cut through cinema’s overly rhetorical nature. Why would Rossellini particularly want to undercut rhetoric? Because of Mussolini and all of his empty talk. However, it can be just as easily argued that a more life-like depiction of the wartime dilemmas of Roman citizens is itself the most efficacious kind of rhetoric, a kind that may dispose of verbal arguments in favor of cinematic ones. Cinema gives priority to the image over the word, anyway, so perhaps it was deft of Rossellini to utilize the kind of rhetoric he did. Aside from this, however, Marcus offers a helpful interpretation of the film. He points to the juxtapositioning of humor with tragedy, the shift that occurs halfway through the film at the death of Pina, Rossellini’s anti-pietistic but decidedly Christian sympathies, the identification of Don Pietro with the symbol of Christianity in St. Peter’s (“San Pietro”), and the film’s conclusion with a boy carrying the namesake of the (re-)birth of Rome: Romoletto. Rossellini holds his characters responsible for their failures and dreams of better days to come for the Open City, when actual Don Pietros will guide the people without need for filmic examples. As Marcus observes, that day has yet to arrive.
A quick list of the most epic epics would have to include (but of course not be limited to): Ran, Lawrence of Arabia, 1900, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Seven Samurai, Apocalypse Now and Andrei Rublev. Not only is a more abbreviated blog format striking my fancy, but justice couldn’t begin to be done to a film like this in any essay, let alone one “published” here. Thus, some notes: poetry, allegory, biography, and, for lack of a better term, “pure art”; a film about art and an artist crafted by an art poet; a film that is, fittingly, the favorite of my college English prof. An aside: why is there so often the urge – unavoidable, really – to elevate through language a work that transcends it and – whether or not it transcends it – speaks for itself? Does this inevitably cheapen the work and all others, rendering them merely the impetus for catharsis, the trigger of the sublime within me, the subject? Is that a “cheapening”? However those questions are answered, and despite the reality that Andrei Rublev can and should be subject to critical scrutiny, in the end there is just the film in all its glory and power. When one -or at least, this subject – listens to Andrei Tarkovsky himself comment on the film and its meaning, the great director himself comes up severely lacking. His summarized interpretation is comparable to describing an ocean as “wet” or the sun as “bright.” It seems to be less of an injustice to restrict this discourse to the film’s influences, backwards and forwards. These are intuitive and reflexive, so only possibly legitimate; backwards: Lang, Eisenstein, Griffith, Kurosawa; contemporary: Bergman; forwards: Kieslowski. Sequence of note: Theophanes offers partnership in art to Kirill, who at first refuses, then agrees on the condition that Theophanes come personally to his town and invite Kirill publicly and, especially, in the presence of the great Andrei Rublev. Rather than come “himself,” Theophanes sends a messenger. The messenger invites not Kirill but Andrei. Kirill is incensed, furious; he leaves the holy work for a secular career, crying out accusations of hypocrisy all the while. Andrei, meanwhile, is humbled to the point of shock and immediately drops all to follow Theophanes. Part of Kirill’s fury is due to Andrei’s assent without first consulting him. That such an allegory should fit into a narrative by the name of The Passion According to Andrei is more than fitting. That these events are followed by death, temptation, sin, flagellation, and rebirth is ineffable if not sublime.
In Alfred Hitchcock’s world, nothing is more certain than death and attempts to cover up death. This seems to be a common thread from Lawrence Olivier’s character in Rebecca all the way to the last features, such as Frenzy and Family Plot. Psycho probably features some of the more shocking and infamous scenes of disposing of dead bodies or living with them. The Trouble With Harry, however, features the funniest. In this film, Hitchcock comedically drops the curtain on his rather cynical yet accurate view of human nature: everyone’s guilty, whether or not they’re guilty in the strict, judicial sense. The film’s opening scene has a young boy (the soon-to-be Beaver from the famous TV show) walking through the quaint woods with a toy gun. This sanitized picture of an “innocent” child carrying a “harmless” weapon of death is revealed as exactly the menace it is when gunshots are fired and the boy instinctively ducks for cover. Immediately, Hitchcock does violence to his viewers by showing them their refusal to acknowledge the threat of violence in the most mundane images of postwar Americana. The film maintains its critique of depraved humanity throughout the film, demonstrating uncannily the truth that he who hates his neighbor is guilty of murder. The unanimous disdain for Harry leads to multiple confessions, not in the Murder on the Orient Express style of group-executor but the worse kind, wherein apathy pervades to such a degree that though all are somehow guilty, no one quite knows how. Hitchcock’s subtle critique on the stereotypical image of 1950s America as suburban, domestic, tidy, and perfect in every way may be the most interesting aspect of The Trouble With Harry. In the age of Ike Eisenhower, deleting the recent past (Pearl Harbor, Normandy, Hiroshima…) and ignorance of the present darkness (iron curtain, American nationalism, red scare…) had become all too normal. Turn away from death, and it’s as if it isn’t there. The closet door in this film reminds one of the persistent nuisance that is death, always there, yet always ignored, unfixable, always invading and interrupting.
Images from here.