Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Intimate May: Watership Down (1978)

Watership Down: a mysterious, mature animated movie about a society of rabbits abandoning their warren in search of a new home; a flight from danger through a world that's expansive, pastoral, and deceptively hazardous... like many films of great journeys, it's partly driven by the rhythmic contrasts between security and unease. The contrasts in setting are striking: at times the environment becomes outwardly dangerous and forbidding, as when the rabbits struggle to cross a river ahead of a dog, or when they infiltrate a farm to find the captive Does in a shed. At other times, there are stretches of calm: the safety of the field of flowers, the serenity of the new warren on the top of a hill. The contrast between the calm and the chaotic is what allows the filmmakers to play with our expectations: in Cowslip's warren, the sense of safety is undermined by the submissive treachery of the domesticated rabbits, who are being bred as a food supply.

This narrative rhythm, from danger to safety to danger, is repeated in virtually all "epic journey" stories. McCarthy's The Road, both The Hobbit and the Frodo story in Lord of the Rings, and Easy Rider all share this flow. One film in particular seems especially relatable to Watership Down, though it may not seem obvious at first. This is Charles Laughton's Night of the Hunter, one of the most unique and effective films to come from the film noir tradition. Night of the Hunter is about a family with a secret stash of dirty money, infiltrated and taken hostage by a criminally insane preacher after the death of the family patriarch. To escape from the murderous preacher, whose name is Harry Powell, the two young children of the family have to travel down a river in the middle of the night. Their only hope for sanctuary is with a pious old woman waiting for them at the end of their nocturnal drift.

These films seem to take place in the same natural world, draped in shadow and unsympathetic to the travelers' fragile lives. It's an empty, solitary sprawl, its folds concealing minor mysteries and dangers: a snare, a chorus of frogs, a hunting dog, an alluring stranger. This isn't the blind, deaf, hostile wilderness of Into the Wild and Grizzly Man, but it's also not peaceful or harmonious; if anything, it's a restless spiritual plane that gives shape to the journey undertaken by our protagonists. The woods are dangerous, but when there's something even more dangerous approaching from behind, their indifference becomes a protective force.

If you're sensitive to this sort of thing, you may notice that the environment -- "nature," if you will -- is given its own visual identity in Watership Down. Unlike the rabbits, animated in classic cell-based pen and ink, the environment is painted in broad strokes and textures, a landscape from the tip of a brush. This gives it the subjective beauty of impressionism, the hazy sense that it's a product of a particular eye at a particular moment, only taking on as much perfection as the point of view allows. The third dimension is created by panning foreground and background layers across one another... a technique used even today in live action films, where backgrounds are often constructed from layers of matte paintings panning over one another.

Had the current digital technologies been available to the Watership Down filmmakers, they could have added some simple touches, like parallax and perspective and enhanced lighting. One wonders how different it might have looked -- perhaps breathtaking, even by current standards of animation, or perhaps too stylized, too post-produced. Modern animation lacks the gesture associated with fine art, a strong asset that seems to have faded after the classic era of animation: Ralph Bakshi, Yuriy Norshteyn, and the film currently being considered. As it is, there's something quaint, but beautiful, in the self-aware simplicity and inconsistency of its visual treatment, and perhaps this isn't a thing to be improved upon, so much as a thing to be celebrated, a masterpiece of craftwork in an era of fabrication..

One of the defining tonal features of Watership Down is that it takes the spiritual realities of its protagonists absolutely seriously. The film is built around certain events where the rabbits are touched by spiritual knowledge, from the genesis sequence that introduces the film, to the events that initiate the rabbits' exodus... Fiver's revelations looking over the field... through his later visions of danger, death, and deliverance... and to the eventual conclusion, which goes far beyond the particular journey of the warren and instead respects the total spiritual journey of one of its members. It's particularly interesting to see that the film's spiritual trajectory has it start with the birth of the world, and of the whole protagonist species, and end not with the death of the species, or the completion of the main conflict, but rather with one particular individual's final transition. This movement, from general to specific, gives a sense of the universal to the grand narrative arc.

This dialectic -- between the epic migration and the personal journey, between nature as force of frustration and nature as guide and protector, between the pastoral serenity and the hazardous microcosmic wilderness -- is what gives the film its scope and credibility, and makes it a potently intimate account of a sweeping adventure. Watership Down is a complex film, invoking romance and adventure, spiritual transition, and drama and tragedies that's very human, considering it's being played out by rabbits. One of its most important meta-messages is that every life is lived on its own scale, and it deserves to be measured as such. In a certain way, all great stories are the tales of families, traveling across a province, looking for shelter and stability in the face of an inherently chaotic world.

INTIMATE MOMENT: Farewell to the old warren

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Intimate May: Billy the Kid (2007)

Billy the Kid: a documentary by casting director Jennifer Venditti, chronicling a short period in the life of a passionate, sensitive, conflicted, and sometimes troubled teenager from rural Maine named Billy Price. This is the perfect film for Intimate May... it's closeness, its nakedness, and its sense of purpose are like an emotional antenna, picking up and reacting to all the deeply-rooted anxieties and uncertainties inherent in adolescence.

If you read up on Billy Price's life since he was the subject of a probing documentary film, you'll find he was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome after it was created. This provides a minor insight into some of the peculiarities in Billy's behavior: his fluttering, nervous habits of making occasional eye contact, his apparent insensitivity to social cues, and his lack of a filter during conversations. However, in reality, the diagnosis doesn't really explain anything... even its medical basis is uncertain, and within the space of the film, it only really provides the illusory relief of giving us a label to put on the subject's behavioral quirks. In a certain way, discovering this label breaks down one of the film's greatest achievements: that it allows us to see Billy as a complete person, the greater product of a range of virtues and difficulties ("complications," as he calls them).

Watching Billy the Kid caused me some discomfort. Some may assume it's the discomfort of sudden close proximity to someone who seems strange to you; for me, it was the discomfort of recognition. In Billy, I see the anxiety that I lived with all through adolescence, especially when I was first interested in womenfolk. There are things I did in private as a teenager -- second-guessing myself, trying to force myself to be clever and conversant, trying to build courage and often failing, and occasionally surrendering entirely to the triumph and drama I saw in my own mundane childhood -- that I've almost forgotten about, now that I've internalized all the social conventions, frustrations, and familiarities that are required for "successful" adulthood. I may never have been as far outside the mainstream as Billy, who contrasts sharply with the socially-lubricated kids around him, but I felt all those things acutely. Those feelings are the foundation for the power of Venditti's film.

Why is it so effective at evoking these primordial anxieties? Because Billy doesn't just hide those familiar conflicting feelings under feigned confidence or shyness... he wears all of them on the outside, carries them through his day, and presents them to the camera. Billy's scenes with Heather are harrowing sequences, because he works so hard for every morsel of attention. His moment of conflict, standing outside the diner and amping himself up to enter, is crushingly familiar, and it's something I've replayed in my own head on dates, even in adulthood. His inability to maintain a smooth conversation with the people around him, and his approach to it (just keep trying just keep trying), are both outward projections of deep fears of mine, and I confront them whenever I'm thrust into a new social situation or forced to hang out with people whose opinions I care about.

The things that make Billy seem so immediate, so unmediated, are inherent to his personality, and it seems that Venditti just got lucky in finding so frank a subject. Billy has very little filter and very little sense of privacy... he's amazingly nervous and awkward, but surprisingly unselfconscious, especially about his situation with his father and his love for his family, both of which he wears as markers of identity. He is also forthcoming with his private victories, such as his love poem after he takes his first walk with Heather. These moments of triumph are treasured things, no matter how brazenly outgoing you are, and when Billy shares them with us, it feels more intimate than any of his lectures or displays of frustration.

Jennifer Venditti gives Billy a voice, and it's not always directed at us as the audience. In one surprising scene, she visits Heather, Billy's hapless love interest, and though it's off-camera, it's clear that she asks a rather personal question: "Why did you break up with him?" Heather has to rally in the face of the filmmaker, and she doesn't have a readymade response to this inquiry... her grandmother steps in and repeats an earlier explanation. This struck me as cruel, in a sense, but also as redeemable, because when we adolescent boys are frustrated in our romantic pursuits, we get a palpable sense of isolation and invisibility, and there's rarely a remedy on hand. At least Billy has someone to represent him and confront Heather about her decision (with fair objectivity and diplomacy, of course). Venditti's lens thus becomes both a window on Billy, and a proxy for him in the face of a sad but inevitable situation.

Of course, there's no doubt that the camera affected everything that came in front of it, and many of these subjects may have been characters performing roles for the filmmakers. The presence of the recording device may have suppressed some of the mocking and bullying Billy received, or it may have contributed to both the rise and the fall of his micro-romance. Of course, sometimes kids are just less cruel than we assume they are, and sometimes things are just hard to predict when you're a kid... so the general effect of the camera is indeterminate. Its only traceable intrusion is in the self-consciousness that it generates in its subjects, like Billy, who often glances at it but generally avoids making eye contact with the lens, and Heather, who seems to struggle to ignore its presence. Whether this is a polluting influence or simply an unavoidable, and therefore honest, intrusion into the lives of its subjects is a topic for discussion among methodological purists and documentary theorists; I'm just here to appreciate the honesty of the portrayal, even if it's simulated, to some degree.

Seeing Billy the Kid, I can't help but think of Chris Smith's American Movie, which was also a film about a gawky, passionate outsider whose nakedly honest self-presentation complimented his ocean of eccentricities. That was a film about a Midwesterner named Mark on a quest to produce his masterpiece horror movie. Mark and Billy are only related in the most general ways... both are outsiders in a small-town setting, both struggle to cope with a certain measure of gawky awkwardness, and both are invested in epic struggles to find their places in the world. However, there's a kinship between them, and at the very least, I can say that if you liked Billy the Kid, there's a good chance you'll like American Movie.

These are the characters that make up our textured culture, and in a society that's obsessed with financial success, generic heroism, and rebellion controlled by convention, Billy is the type of person who often slips through the cracks of the social sphere. We're lucky that Venditti gives him a forum: his voice is potent, so his film is powerful, and you may find him uncomfortably close to some tender surfaces of your soul.

INTIMATE MOMENT: I'll do whatever I want with my hair


Thursday, May 20, 2010

Intimate May: Babies (2010)

Babies: the stories of four infants during the first year of each of their lives, bracketed by birth and their first steps. The film, directed by Thomas Balmes, debuted a week ago, and this weekend I saw it with my fiancĂ©e at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema here in New York. We both responded well to the humor, pacing, and cultural insights the film provided; to her, it felt like an anthropology of childhood, as much as a tableaux of cute baby footage (thus thwarting the danger of being a film version of an Anne Geddes photoshoot). This impression – the story of four wildly different cultures, each with its own philosophies of work, play, nurture, and community – is the aspect of the film that’s easiest to intellectualize, and this is necessary, in a certain way, to build a full experience out of the movie. We may enjoy the simple sensory content of the film, but it requires a cohesive idea to act as connective tissue, so without this structure and framework, the film would have felt surprisingly empty. This angle also came naturally to her, being a researcher in cross-cultural development and education.

For my part, being a designer and an amateur photographer/filmmaker/critic/etc, I was most engaged by the babies’ direct experience of the world, which the film did a powerful job of evoking. Babies proved that the most effective way of making a film about a certain person’s perspective isn’t to put the camera behind their eyes, looking out at the world they see, but in front of them, looking into their faces as they’re seeing that world. Balmes’ camera fixates on his subjects, providing only occasional, incidental glimpses into the cultures where they’re being raised. This does a lot for the movie’s “cute” factor, but it also uses an element of craft to make an important creative statement.

In the first post this month, I mentioned Deleuze’s theories about the close-up, which is the paradigm case of what he calls the “affective image.” This sort of shot has the primary effect of isolating the expressive surface (i.e. the face) from its surroundings and making the emotion itself the primary subject of the shot. Babies makes inspiring use of this technique, and it’s one of the most affect-intensive movies I’ve seen since the The Trial of Joan of Arc. The entire two hours of Babies frames the reactions of these brand new humans as they fiddle with objects, scan landscapes for their parents (or for food), and exhibit pride and frustration in very small events (the annoyance with a confusing toy, the victory of dragging a roll of toilet paper across the room).

This is the life of a baby, a life that most of us have completely forgotten: an adult passes through a frame, we hear a fragment of a conversation, feet and hands distract us for a moment, words become meaningless white noise added to an abstracted soundscape. Rooms lose their emotional significance and are reduced to boundaries, and yet, as we inhabit these spaces, we see their meaning beginning to form: Ponijao’s watering hole, Hattie’s play room, the epic horizons spread out in a circle around Bayar. We have no relationships with these spaces, but through our baby subjects, we begin to form them. At the same time, all the actions and gestures of the adults are rendered insignificant, the automatic motions of unfamiliar objects, things we can consider for a second, and then dismiss as irrelevant to the current moment. This is probably why we forget our early childhood: there is no anchor of meaning or significance to remember it by. There’s just the passing of volumes, colors, sounds, and spaces, punctuated by an occasional fetish object or mother’s face, the first semantic building blocks of the child’s life-world.

The key moments in Babies, by my reading, aren't the adorable shots where the protagonists sit next to kitty cats or reach for their own feet... they're the immersive scenes of the babies are caught up in the mundane world, which they still find so alien. The shot of Mari cruising through a supermarket, overwhelmed by its kaleidoscopic colors; the scene where Ponijao is on his mother's back while she's washing clothes, and he experiences the process as a disorienting rocking forward and back, like he's on a boat in a storm; even the shot of Bayar being washed with his mother's milk, subject to a custom he doesn't necessarily understand, but whose significance for him is wholly different from its significance for us. We've lived in this world long enough to forget that it's a strange place. We have to see it through Mari, Hatti, Bayar, and Ponijao's eyes to remember.

INTIMATE MOMENT: Standing up is hard (also, like, the whole movie)

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Intimate May: Following (1998)

Before The Dark Knight and The Prestige -- even before Memento -- Christopher Nolan had a first feature, his proving ground for his directorial skill. In this debut, the tight, twisted neo-noir Following, Nolan exhibited the first traces of his special touch. The plot is convoluted, fraught with betrayal, and revealed in a succession of game-changing expositions. It's a seedy, non-linear drama with just enough of a psychological edge to demand interest in its characters. In Following, you can see the seed of Nolan's career, which is escalating to this day.

The initial premise of Following, its titular obsession, is that the main character (the Young Man) follows people around the city in order to research characters for his writing. On the streets of London, he has turned people-watching into voyeurism. When he meets Cobb, a young fellow Londoner, he discovers a kindred spirit, a man who burgles houses for the sake of getting inside his victims' lives and changing them. If the narrator is a pathological people-watcher, Cobb is a pathological rifler through peoples' bookshelves and DVD collections. His profession -- stealing and selling CD's -- is secondary to his mission, just as the main character's writing is secondary to his own obsession with people.

This plot thickens quickly with jarring changes in loyalty and intriguing treatments of perspective. Following is ostensibly told from the point of view of the main character, the nameless young man who narrates the story to a police officer. However, as the film goes on, we learn things in a different order, seeing certain scenes that are beyond the narrator's range of awareness, and grasping certain twists before the main character; this is especially true of the final betrayal, which we discover before the narrator could possibly know it.

Following is a film about digging into peoples' lives and getting to know them; interestingly, by the end, we know the least about Cobb, one of the three main characters. We get at least a reasonable picture of the main character, who gives us some fragments of his background, and we get glimpses into the life of his love interest. However, Cobb's story is always undermined by his enigmatic self-presentation. Even to the end of the movie, we aren't sure if he's a professional cat-burglar, a hit-man, a broker for illegal goods, or something else entirely. We just know he's the only guy who was able to keep track of the situation, when the pathways of loyalty and communication were shifting.

This lack of insight actually becomes a core concept in Following, which, for a movie about uncomfortable proximity and fixation, actually feels rather remote. The film starts with a montage of the Young Man following random pedestrians, and he explains why he does it, but on-screen, it's surprisingly mundane; if there's something about these people that continues to fascinate the Young Man, we the audience don't get access to it.

This remoteness could be construed as a weakness of the film, but it can also be argued as an ambiguous strength: in the end, Cobb shows the main character the danger of reaching too deeply into dark places, of getting too comfortable with your obsessions and fixations. For a character like the Young Man, who's not prepared to deal with true manipulation and betrayal, intimacy leads to vulnerability, and rather than discovering the truth about a few interesting people, he gets himself entangled in a web of lies that he ultimately can't escape; he digs himself his own rabbit hole, and he's left there.

Thus, one of the movements of the film becomes the move from scrupulous voyeurism to self-involved intimacy, and the danger of the predatory unknown when you try too hard to bring it to light. In fact, the last illuminating moment of the film is one of the most personal: the Young Man's confession to a police officer, his decision to finally come clean and straighten out the situation he's in. Unfortunately, this final revelation is also the final step into a trap that's been comprehensively set and baited.

INTIMATE MOMENT: Someone else's stuff

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Intimate May: Le ballon rouge / The Red Balloon (1956), in context with The Snowman (1982)

The Red Balloon: a portrait of a boy and his relationship with an everyday object of fascination, a large red balloon: colorful and striking enough, especially against the grays of the Paris setting, that it becomes an object of fascination for us, too. The balloon starts as mere window-dressing, a prop that distinguishes the boy from his surroundings, but it seems to take on sentience as the movie goes on. This is true for us as the audience, and it follows that this is what is happening for the boy, as well. I didn’t know they made balloons this red, or this big… maybe any balloon of this color and size would turn out to be sentient and loyal. I don’t know. I’ve never been in the presence of such an awesome balloon.

Lamorisse’s camera maintains a medium distance, keeping company with the boy and his balloon without crowding them. This is never a close-up per se, but it seems to act like a full-body close-up, focusing us on the boy’s actions and personal space, and decontextualizing him and his immediate surroundings. We travel with him, and we get to know him as a friend; in a sense, we identify with him, but we’re never forced to adopt his perspective. The film is at its best when we are standing on a hilltop with the boy (who I will henceforth refer to as Pascal, since that’s the actor’s real name), or running through narrow streets with him to escape from a gang of older boys, or waiting in a deserted courtyard to enter an imposing school building. At these moments, we share Pascal’s everyday experience of the world, frantic, nervous, and hopeful as it is.

The balloon doesn't seem to wake up immediately; whether it remains truly inanimate for a while, or it just hasn't become comfortable with Pascal yet, it appears to start out as a mere thing. It seems to be Pascal's concern for the balloon's dryness during the rain that actually turns it from a toy into a companion. It also spends some time playing with Pascal, establishing some dynamic to their relationship: when he tells it to obey him, it taunts him a bit, and only falls in line when he seems to give up and start walking away. Even following him, it plays tricks on him, hiding and forcing him to come back and look for it. This give-and-take is a playful ritual, a chance for Pascal and the balloon to establish themselves as peers, rather than strictly as dominant and submissive.

The framing and staging of The Red Balloon is playful, as well, with simple shots rotated just slightly on the Y axis. In this way, Lamorisse brings a hint of depth to shallow shots, and a bit of tilt to his horizons. The film is less "diagonal" than slightly tilted, its scenery a sequence of layers creating almost-parallel lines. This creates a minor tension between the roundness of the balloon and the structure of the background, its order undermined by imperfection. This is a world of discovery, simple but slightly disjointed, seen through a camera that's personal, but not pushy.

The Red Balloon reminds me of another children's film, this one from my actual childhood. This is The Snowman, a 27-minute animated short directed by Dianne Jackson, released on the BBC in 1982. Like The Red Balloon, The Snowman is about a child wandering landscapes both familiar and unfamiliar, in the company of an anthropomorphized object that becomes his friend. In The Snowman, the boy (James) creates his snowman during a blizzard, and at midnight, at awakes and befriends him. James shows the snowman around his house, admiring the Christmas lights, scaring the family cat, and trying on clothes, makeup, and false teeth. After the snowman shares James's fascinations, it takes the boy out into the snowy world, and together they fly into the night sky and cross the countryside in a sequence not unlike Aladdin and Jasmine's explorations on the magic carpet. Eventually, they reach the North Pole, where they have a Christmas celebration with the animals and the spirits of the forest.

The similarities are fairly obvious... both stories highlight the power of a child's imagination, and the ability of the young to see life in everything around them. Both hinge on a scene where the magical companion carries the child away into the sky, and both end bittersweetly. The Red Balloon's "flight from reality" scene has been criticized as too convenient, perhaps because it is downplayed almost to the point of being undermined; Pascal's deliverance is too easy, and we never see where he goes. The Snowman, on the other hand, contains one of the most sweeping and compelling flight scenes I've seen in any movie. It represents an unfolding of the endless world before the child's imagination, and it evokes all the mystery that the untracked landscape has always held.

This is symptomatic of a difference in tone between these films, a point of worthy comparison: both are playful, open-ended tales embodying the spirit of childhood, but they manifest this mentality differently. The Snowman undoubtedly takes itself more seriously, celebrating childhood in a more sentimental way and probing the young imagination with more reverence. The Red Balloon is playful and enigmatic, as well, but it has a touch of teasing and slapstick. Having seen my first movie by Jacques Tati a couple months ago, I can see the relationship between the two French films: the silliness in the face of authority, the power that the directors give to subversive humor. Where The Snowman is a film about affection and curiosity, The Red Balloon is a film about loyalty and mischief.

The endings actually provide the strongest thematic diversion between the two movies... in The Red Balloon, the world of imagination - represented by the balloons, in all their color and unpredictability - offers redemption, celebrating Pascal and carrying him away from the cruel tragedy of the real world. The final tragedy in The Snowman is more personal, more intimate, and inescapable, the cruelty of reality reasserting itself in the childhood fantasy. In a sense, these two movies offer opposing arguments: The Red Balloon is about holding onto your childhood, and The Snowman is about celebrating it in light of its inevitable loss.

Differences aside, the broader common theme is one of tension between an outside world, sometimes beautiful and sometimes hostile, and a mysterious inner world where one can, in a certain sense, forge a friendship with oneself, and thus with the rest of the universe. I would suggest that this has to happen in children's films because it's a psychological leap that must happen through a child's eyes. Pascal and James may simply be imagining their adventures, but they're also making the larger leap of discovering something in the world they can love, via the intermediary of an inanimate object brought to life. The literal, everyday reality of adults and cities hasn't yet taken over these boys' perception, and the whole universe becomes an interior space where the child can learn to communicate with him or herself. These are beautiful landscapes without context, necessity, or "Other"-ness, and it's a place I hope to return to every once in a while, when I need to escape from anxiety, obligation, and intellectualization.

INTIMATE MOMENT: Be a good balloon

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Iron Man 2 review. Intimate May? Not exactly, but whatevs.

If you want my opinion of whether to see this film, go for it. It’s a lot of fun. If you want a more detailed breakdown of its essential merits, see here: My review on BlogCritics. If you’d like a lonely observation from my cultural criticism superego, read below.

There are two Russians in this film: one is a beautiful judo-dancing spy woman, and the other is a hardened mafia-conditioned gulag prisoner.

Two pitch-perfect Russian stereotypes in an American action movie whose subtext is patriotic military-corporate cooperation in pursuit of world peace: even for a good movie, this might start to smell a little too strongly of Cold War nationalism. You know you have a problem when your movie is a case-study on entries from TV Tropes: Mother Russia Makes You Strong and Sensual Slavs.

People say you shouldn’t be unconventional for its own sake, but let’s keep it in perspective: every time you rely on convention for characterization, you give up a small but important chance to be creative, interesting, relevant, or whatever other virtue scores well in your book. It would NOT be hard to subvert these kinds of nationalistic stereotypes, at least a little. Favreau and his script-writers can’t really appeal to the comic books as a defense, either, since the Marvel film universe is actively reimagining the comic book universe (which has been mired in stereotype reinforcement for decades). Shouldn’t we take these opportunities to make something a little better-informed?

Sorry to use my blog as a forum for bitching, but my positive evaluation of the film needs to be balanced out by my critical assessment, at least a little.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Intimate May (sort of): Nosferatu the Vampyre (Herzog, 1979)

Nosferatu the Vampyre – an homage to, and riff upon, F. W. Murnau's 1922 film Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens – which is itself a copyright-violating reconstruction of Bram Stoker's Dracula – is an art-house treatment of a classic tale of gothic doom. Herzog restores some of the original character names, including the Harkers and Dracula's, but he mostly cribs his shots and angles from the Murnau version; by doing this, he executes an interesting reintegration of two divergent versions of the same mythology. Of course, being Warner Herzog, collaborating with Klaus Kinski, he also manages to turn this mythology into a film that's challenging and personal, structured around three interwoven destinies: Jonathan Harker, his wife Lucy, and Count Dracula.

Nosferatu provides a shining example of one of Werner Herzog's greatest skills – the skill of constructing a distinctive space where his narratives can play out. Stroszek, with its barren and heartless middle America; Aguirre, with its fetid, hostile, alien jungle; Fitzcarraldo, with its Amazonian spiritual labyrinth; and especially Nosferatu the Vampyre, which is a constant exercise in world-building. Herzog starts with the sanitary but uneasy atmosphere of Wismar, an enclosed pocket of peaceful civilization, and later contrasts this with the apocalyptic emptiness of the outside world. This is the world of the Carpathian Mountains, riddled with vagrant encampments, forbidding canyons, and vast, empty tundras. These are the breathtaking landscapes that inspire curiosity, but don't welcome intrusion.

In fact, it seems that Wismar is the only stable human settlement in Nosferatu... every human outside the city limits is traveling, from the coachmen to the Roma in their caravans. They all seem to realize they're not wanted in the natural world, and they all know to stay mobile, passing under the radar of the unknown world. Countless barriers stand between them and Count Dracula, including Borgo pass, which threatens to swallow anyone who enters, and castle Dracula itself, which inspires near-panic from the tribe. They have no interest in trying to surmount these barriers, respectful as they are of the unknown. Unfortunately, Jonathan Harker has no such scruples.

He agrees to go to Castle Dracula, ostensibly because he wants to buy a bigger house for Lucy, but this rationale is thin. After all, Lucy herself wants him to stay, and there's no evidence that she's the type of woman who would go for a pimped-out crib anyway. It seems that Harker is really following a call to danger that men know all over the world, a potent but sometimes self-destructive curiosity about the world, and about one's own limits. In pursuit of this goal, he seems determined to surmount every obstacle and spurn every warning, which is a bad idea when you're a character in a gothic-horror-romance from a famously cynical director.

Lucy is the Cancer to Jonathan's Saggitarius, issuing warnings and acting on her intuition. She is intensely loyal and maternal, her first line being an admonishment of her husband's stress level. She takes up Nosferatu's challenge, attempting to hunt hum down in Wismar, but she appears to do this largely to protect Jonathan. Her foresight and spiritual awareness make her a different kind of outsider, the kind that sits alone in cemeteries and gazes out to sea. Lucy and Jonathan's relationship is best captured in their walk along the beach, before Jonathan leaves for the Carpathians: they walk on the boundary of the known world, loving one another as wanderers and outsiders, unwilling to fully surrender to mundane everyday life. This is both their power and their folly, as they will stir up the evils of the great beyond and provide them with a gateway to Wismar.

It's easy to see Jonathan as a tragic hero of this apocalyptic narrative, but he's actually one of its supporting villains, along with Renfield (a disturbingly brilliant performance by Roland Topor). Harker may be hapless, in a sense, but he is far from innocent: his insolence in the face of so many warnings, his insatiable need to explore forbidden spaces, is the catalyst that leads to the destruction of his soul and his home.

When the ship arrives in Wismar, it initiates a complete collapse of the idyllic town, brought on by plague-ridden rats and the long shadow of The Count. Like the plague he accompanies, the Count is viral, hitching rides with unsuspecting travelers; he is also parasitic, attracted to healthy bodies (the Harkers, the cargo ship, and ultimately Wismar itself) so that he can use their resources and destroy them. Wismar's collapse is orchestrated by Herzog like a ballet, choreographed with lines of coffins and deranged danses macabre in the empty town square.

Herzog's Dracula is one-of-a-kind. Where Murnau's Nosferatu seemed twisted and remote and eerily absent, even when he was a scene's centerpiece, the Count is treated with close attention, imbued with a personality, and grounded within the rest of the film. As far as Vampires go, The Count seems oddly helpless, a slave to self-preservation. His voice is quiet and whispery, barely rising above the sighs of the wind when he waxes poetic on the nature of loneliness and the pain of immortality. He hitches a ride to Wismar on a doomed ship, apparently by vanishing into the substance of the rats and the soil he's transporting, never actually appearing until the ship is docked at its destination. His desperation shows in his junkey desperation in biting Jonathan's hand, and in his hesitation when he intrudes on Jonathan's room; he follows this by feeding on Jonathan and then locking him into the castle without trying to offer any sinister speeches or explanations, which comes across as a little passive-aggressive. The midnight feeding in Jonathan's room is the most harrowing scene in Herzog's film, as the Count looms over Jonathan's bed, looking as inhuman as any human actor can be.

I didn't have Intimate May in mind when I picked up Nosferatu the Vampyre, but there's something appropriate about it. The fear that Herzog evokes is, in fact, an intimate fear – far from the panic of Monster movies, or the jump-scares of serial killer horror, it's the anxiety and unease it creates to be very close to something aversive and dangerous. This is an effect of making Dracula so weak, desperate, and parasitic: when he hovers over Jonathan, or stands behind Lucy in her bedroom, we can practically smell him. The key scenes are filled with silence, devoid of soundtrack, empty of atmospheric sounds except for the wind and the occasional sound of plague-ridden rats. This creates an enclosed, decontextualized space for the action, whether it involves conversation or sucking blood.

It's clear to me at this point that my diet of classic and art-house movies has changed my sensibilities. I'm now a lot more sensitive to individual shots, and more patient with them when they're held for a while. I'm also more appreciative of ambiguities of character, unforecasted changes in narrative and tone, and details that I once would have considered non sequiturs. Before I'd undergone this shift in sensibility, Nosferatu the Vampyre probably would have just seemed kind of incomprehensible. However, watching it through this lens – listening for its subtle tensions and suggestions, responding to its unbalanced psychology and metaphysics – I think it was among my favorite of the horror-oriented films I've seen.

INTIMATE MOMENT: Jonathan's fate is sealed

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Intimate May: A month of microscopic films

American cinema is often an endeavor of epic scale. We're defined by the Western and its deep-focus, panoramic landscapes, and we have a proud history of action films and Hollywood's multi-million dollar budgets. But there are other trends in cinema history, arguably deeper-running than the interest in the massive; when you dig through the canon of influential films, you'll find equal parts epic and intimate, grandeur and nuance. This month will be dedicated to the oppositional trend in film, so often found in European and independent cinema, but also alive and well on the side-roads of Hollywood: the trend toward intimacy.

Deleuze wrote one of the definitive books on cinema with Cinema 1: The Movement-Image and Cinema 2: The Time-Image. In Cinema 1, he broke the semiology of cinema down into three aspects. One of these is the affection-image, which Deleuze strongly associates with close-ups and shots of the face; he asserts that any shot of a face is essentially an image of its emotions, and that any close-up... even of an inanimate object... gives its subject a face, in a certain way, allowing it to express an affectation isolated from the action of the environment. In these passages, Deleuze was providing an important exploration of the capacity of cinema to act on an intimate level, creating mythic events from the simple acts of looking, reacting, and betraying an emotion.

Deleuze briefly discusses a film that's indispensible in a discussion of cinematic intimacy: The Passion of Joan of Arc, the iconic, bold, and powerful film from Carl Theodor Dreyer. Deleuze points out that this is a whole film made up entirely of close-ups; Joan's suffering is truly the whole substance of the film, which only covers her trial and her execution. This is a level of intimacy pushed to its furthest limit... Dreyer frames his shots in such a way that there's no visual set or context, and he edits them in a way that doesn't create any relationships between the participants (as pointed out by Matthew Dessem of The Criterion Contraption). Thus, each face, whether it suffers or condemns, is isolated and treated with a searing purity of representation.

Dreyer shows us what true film can really do: it can create an almost unbearable level of sympathy, whether for joy or for suffering. He shows us the capacity for film to make us feel strangely uncomfortable, confronted with a raw rush of emotion; the cutting of Joan's hair was harrowing for me when I watched The Passion, so engaged was I with Joan and her trials and humiliations. Cinema's ability to create an enclosed world is obscurely matched by its less-appreciated ability to obliterate that world, and every other world, in order to frame an emotion in its purest form.

There's another film whose intimacy made me uncomfortable at times, less as a result of shared suffering, and more because it transgressed some rigid boundaries that I didn't expect to see crossed. This is Harold and Maude, a beautiful if unconventional love story made in 1971, and another prime example of intimacy on the movie screen.

The Passion is an intimate treatment because of its technical decisions; Harold and Maude is intimate because of its characters, and the audience's exposure to them. Roger Ebert claimed the movie was "a movie of attitudes. Harold is death, Maude life, and they manage to make the two seem so similar that life’s hardly worth the extra bother." This would be true, if it wasn't for the inconvenient ambiguity in the characters that Ebert seems to ignore: Harold's youthful side, expressed in his enthusiasm for his morbid hobby; Maude's interest in balance, rather than life per se, and the undertone of denial beneath her sweeping joyfulness.

The film starts with a focus on Harold and his antics, and this sets him up as the character we identify with. We get to know his obsession very well, and as his mother tries to socialize him, we gradually discover that it's actually a self-defense mechanism: death is his way of shielding himself from a deadening world around him. Our understanding of Maude is slightly shallower, as we see her through Harold's eyes, but nonetheless, as avid voyeurs, we are able to start penetrating her personality. She is an old woman who has adopted the attitude of a child, a spirit of irreverence that leads her to gestures in pursuit of simple beauty, even if they involve petty crimes. She is the flower-matron of the 60's, an artistic eccentric... there are only one or two moments when we see beneath this facade and realize she has overcome great hardships. All it takes is a pensive moment and a flash of a tatoo on her arm for us to see the difference between her and Harold: he obsesses about death simply as a cosmetic decoration on his annoying life; she is cavalier about her life and dismissive of death, but only because she knows its face far better than her young paramour.

Harold and Maude is an intimate movie because it penetrates deeply into the personalities of its two eccentrics, giving us enough insight into their lives that we could write psychological profiles on them (in fact, I first saw this movie in a psych class!). It's also an intimate movie because it doesn't back away from their physical and emotional proximity, a closeness that many of its original viewers found unsettling.

Small subjects, private moments, and uncomfortable closeness: these will be the themes of my run of movies in May. There are some good movies coming out that speak to these motifs. First, at the end of this week, there's Babies, a mainstream documentary whose premise is deceptively experimental, when you get past the cuteness: it's a chronicle of the first year in the lives of four brand new humans, no narrative or dialogue, relying on expressions and juxtapositions to drive an understanding of a sentimental subject. Second, screening in New York from May 12 to May 16, is Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo, a documentary about the obsession with bugs and etomology in Japan. Finally, slightly less relevant: Micmacs, a new film from chronic eccentric Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who brought us Amelie, City of Lost Children, Delicatessen, and Alien: Resurrection (weird on that last one, huh?). I don't know about Micmacs, but I know Jeunet is a master of uncomfortable closeness and intimate eccentricity.

As far as old movies go, I have a few lined up. Tokyo Story, a story of a family's changing relationships in post-war Japan, is one of the absolute essentials of cinema, right up there with Dreyer's Passion. Watership Down is a dark animated film about a society of rabbits, caught up in dramatic struggles within the animal kingdom. Au Hasard Balthazar is a journey through a harsh world through the eyes of a girl and her beloved donkey. Billy the Kid is a documentary about a young boy's coming of age in a small town in Maine; Hard Candy is a psychological thriller about a girl who creates a trap for a child molester. Finally, if I get through all those, I'll see Kikujiro, a film about the bond between a little boy and a crass drifter, by Japanese director Takeshi "Beat" Kitano.

I like this theme, but I found it a little difficult to find movies that fit it very well. I know it's a bit cryptic anyway, but if anyone has any other suggestions, please let me know. I'd especially apreciate suggestions of movies that are more high-spirited (there's a lot of sad ones up there), or movies that have a little more action to them while still fitting with the general idea of "Intimate May."

Monday, May 03, 2010

Indie Update NYC: Independent Films in May 2010

This month, I'm trying out a new feature. I've noticed that it's easy to get a general overview of mainstream releases for each month, via Fandango, or whatever... but it's hard to get a general feeling for what's happening in the indie theater space. This would be super-valuable, because independent theaters show some of the coolest new releases when they're just hitting big screens, and furthermore, they often schedule screenings of classic films, one-of-a-kind exhibitions, and stuff that you wouldn't want to miss, if you were aware of it. Unfortunately, without a central space to browse all the upcoming screenings at independent theaters, there's simply no easy way to plan your viewings for the month.

So I'm taking the initiative to scour some of the most prolific theaters' web sites and collect their upcoming films for May. I won't list everything... I'm going to try to capture the "interesting" stuff by going for things that are somehow significant. I'll try to write something on every single movie, even if it's a tiny little snippet. If this feature proves to be useful, I'll keep doing it each month. It seems like something our city could use, doesn't it?

Theaters mentioned: Landmark Sunshine Cinema - Film Forum - Angelika New York - IFC Center - Village East Cinema

Indie Happenings in May

Metropolis (Fritz Lang - May 7, Film Forum)
Among the most iconic films in cinema history, Metropolis is the silent saga of a post-apocalyptic caste society built on cruel technocratic principles. This is a movie many of us have only seen on small screens as part of our film studies courses, and seeing it in a cinema - as it was meant to be seen - will add an extra level to our appreciation. Note: if you're a mainstream movie-goer looking to see something outside your comfort zone, skip this one. It's technically and historically interesting, but its early cinema conventions won't jive with your contemporary cinema experience, so it'll probably seem kind of strange and boring.

My Name is Khan (Karan Johar - May 7, Angelika)
A thus far little-seen film drawing on the Bollywood tradition, with reviewers noting its sweeping emotional scope, and its warm and interesting treatment of some of its primary themes: love under the burden of religious conflict, American nationalist paranoia, and personal struggles (in this case, Aspberger's syndrome). Not a perfect film, from what I understand, but quite an emotional journey (partial source: Cinematical)

The Oath (Lauren Poitras - May 7, IFC)
A documentary that apparently plays like a narrative, about a taxi driver in Yemen who used to be deeply involved in Al Quaeda's innerworkings, and whose brother is a Guantanamo Bay inmate. I don't know too much, except what the website says... for instance, that it won a bunch of rather prestigious awards.

Teza (Haile Germina - May 7, Village East)
A film with few reviews, but all of them very strong: an Ethiopian expat returns to his country of origin and struggles with his connection to the homeland, which (from what I gather) evokes both nostalgia and frustration. According to the reviewers, Teza offers a nuanced look at the African American experience, via the diaspora, that's painfully lacking in Hollywood cinema.

Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo (Jessica Oreck - May 12, Film Forum)
A documentary whose elliptical, poetic approach is often noted, covering a topic many of us aren't even remotely aware of: the Japanese obsession with insects and entomology. Most of the press for this film is linked on the film's website itself, so it'll be favorably skewed, but it's from a lot of highly credible sources. Go ahead and check it out.

Best Worst Movie (Michael Stephenson - May 14, Village East)
A documentary about the making of "Troll 2," widely considered one of the worst movies in history, even to the point where it's gained a cult following for that distinction. Best Worst Movie scored well among reviewers, who generally note that its humor, humility, honesty, and demonstrable love for filmmaking bring out the beauty even in an epic filmmaking fail.

Daddy Longlegs (Josh & Bennie Safdie - May 14, IFC)
This sounds like a fairly honest family film about navigating personal relationships and mid-20's life in New York. There's very little press, aside from the Sundance website, which shows the film winning awards at Sundance and Cannes. So far, it sounds good, but a bit generic, perfect fodder for "indie" cinema. If you know more about it, or have seen an insightful review, please post in the comments, Kthx.

Looking for Eric (Ken Loach - May 14, IFC)
A comedic drama about a man living in Manchester, UK whose life is falling apart, and who looks to his football (soccer, for us Americas) idol Eric Cantona. Reviews are positive; they hint at a movie informed by the director's social realism, but with a heightened sense of spontaneity, or amusement, or good nature, or whatever... at any rate, it sounds like a safe, honest, and uplifting film.

Princess Ka’iulani (Mark Forby - May 14, Angelika)
Historical epic about Hawaii's resistance to annexation by the US, focusing on the last heir to the throne, and her valiant but unsuccessful campaign to keep her country's independence. Very little press is available, but the film screened at the Hawaiian International Film Festival and sold out its screening. See also the film's website.

Touching Home (Logan & Noah Miller - May 14, 2010)
I don't know if any critics liked or disliked this film, but it has a hook: it was created by a pair of first-time filmmakers on a desperate quest to honor their recently-deceased father. In pursuit of this goal, they somehow managed to round up a brilliant Oscar-toting crew, including actor Ed Harris, and guide them into creating this dramatic-looking autobiographical movie. Most of the press focuses on this backstory... it's up to us to decide whether the film itself warrants any real interest. This is all gleaned from the film's website.

Cremaster Full Cycle (Matthew Barney - May 19, IFC)
Matthew Barney, Bjork's husband (which in itself should be considered a creative accomplishment), made this series of sweeping, surreal, and visceral art films with grotesque sets and costumes and a hopelessly opaque and elliptical narrative. You've probably heard a lot about it, but if you're like me, you haven't had the opportunity to rent it (it's never really been legally released on DVD), and your curiousity hasn't quite driven you to download the whole ridiculous thing. This is a rare opportunity to see it on a big screen, if you're into that bizarro iconic experimental thing.

Two in the Wave (Emmanuel Laurent - May 19, Film Forum)
A film for the academic cinephile, using original footage to document the relationship between Truffaut and Godard, two giants of French art film. According to Variety, it's a bit uptight, unable to make the cerebral material more accessible to an audience in need of entertainment. Still, for some people out there, it will be an amazing study.

Bad Day at Black Rock (John Sturges - May 21, Film Forum)
A well-regarded 1955 classic, combining tropes of noir and Western, and therefore a good study for appreciation of some current films. Old classics = solid entertainment + cultural substance, as long as you're on board with the early Hollywood pacing and technical conventions.

Solitary Man (Koppelman/Levien - May 21, Angelika)
A comedy-drama about a midlife crisis for Michael Douglas's character... not the fake "I wish I was young again" kind, but the real "Ut oh! My life actually sucks!" kind. Not much press, and not the most fascinating premise, but I can get behind the cast, and Michael Douglas seems like the guy for the part.

Man With a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov - May 25, IFC - with sound editor and filmmaker John Walter)
A 1929 poetic documentary about the Soviet Union, showing different facets of everyday life, intercut with footage of the film being created by the cameramen and editors. For something that sounds so empty, it's an amazingly intelligent, rhythmic, and compelling experience, one of my favorite experimental films of all time... it was created partially with the intention of abandoning all theatrical conventions and creating something akin to "pure filmmaking." It should be an excellent experience on a big screen, and the session with John Walter is an additional selling point, making this screening irresistable, at least to someone with my slightly eccentric cinematic tastes.

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (Werner Herzog - May 28, IFC)
Herzog's Nicholas Cage-starring drama about an incredibly corrupt, comically abrasive police officer isn't going to land in his "great films" canon any time soon, but it looks decent for Herzog, and great for Cage. I thought I should mention it, in case you missed it on its first indie-theater run. Herzog is a brilliant filmmaker, and it's worth seeing this just to see what he's been up to.

Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard - May 28, Film Forum)
Godard's unrivaled classic of French New Wave cinema, about a petty criminal modeled after the old films he's spent his life watching, and whose criminal life suddenly becomes serious when he commits murder and turns into a fugitive. His flight leads him into hiding, and into romantic and existential entanglements. It's another film that many of us will only see in classrooms, unless we care enough about cinema history to go to screenings like this.

Coming Home (Hal Ashby - May 28, IFC)
A 1978 movie from Hal Ashby of Harold & Maude fame, this is apparently the story of Vietnam War veterans and their struggles with changing relationships, and with their own relationship to the war that's so fresh in their minds. It sounds like a significant personal drama: great cast, proven director, and multiple awards. Probably deserves some curiosity.

Father of My Children (Mia Hansen-Love - May 28, IFC)
There's not much press on this movie, but the Times Online provides an adequate synopsis: it's a film portraying and critiquing the lives of the French intellectual class, who seem to get by purely on charm and high-minded conversation. This is something that might not interest many people, but should be of some interest at least to film nerds, for whom this lifestyle is often rather romanticized.

Micmacs (Jeunet - May 28, Angelika, New York)
I don't know how good or bad this will be, but the filmmaker is a proven force, having directed the whimsical Amelie, the hallucinogenic City of Lost Children, and the twisted and unnerving Delicattessen. Micmacs appears to be a film involving an eccentric savant (a la Amelie Poulain) finding a home among a band of misfits, and... oh yeah... also in search of revenge against the industrial establishments responsible for his lifelong misfortunes. Should be interesting, to say the least.