Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Intelligent Action Film: Heat (1995) and Luc Besson

After seeing Heat (Michael Mann, 1995) this weekend, I took an Internet jaunt to find something rare and beautiful: the intelligent action movie. Now, I'm not a true action film buff (I have yet to see Lady Terminator (Djalil, 1988), which has been on the shelf in my apartment for years), but I know my way around the genre, at least a bit... I have a healthy and justifiable habit of falling in love with random action films, like Terminator 2 (Cameron, 1991) and The Rundown (Berg, 2003), and this habit stretches back into my adolescence, when many of us first discovered the great action heroes (most of whom are now in The Expendables). With the encouragement of my action film literate roommate, I've seen a number of the Van Damme/Kirk Douglas/Steven Seagal canon, and on my own power, I've gotten to check out some of the classic action sci-fi's: Aliens, Starship Troopers, and The Fifth Element. I've also engaged, on a cursory level, the kung-fu classics, including old-school Jackie Chan and Jet Li, kitsch-fests by Seijun Suzuki, and Samurai classics like Sword of Doom and Lady Snowblood. So when it comes to this discussion, I've at least got the safety off and my finger on the trigger.

Now, when I reference the hazy concept of the "action film," you'll just have to take for granted that I'm trying to keep it simple. It's pretty much any film whose, you know, primary dramatic tension is caused by, you know, violence, and resolved by some, like, extended fight scenes. I know, I know, there are a LOT of films that fit into this category. You could go as far back as Buster Keaton and old Westerns. For my own part, I'm focusing more on films after the 1970's, just to make it a little easier on myself. Anyway, I think this is when they started acknowledging "action" as a genre unto itself, with its own section in Blockbuster, totally separate from "drama" and "family" and "music videos."

When I say "intelligent," I'm totally not talking about cryptic or artsy, though I'm not specifically excluding those robust virtues. I'd call Nolan's new one cryptic, and even complex, but its intelligence isn't quite what I'm talking about. When I say "intelligent," I'm talking about action movies that feel real, and clever, without relying on gimmicks or twists; action films that don't pander to their audience. I know this doesn't necessarily make a great action film per se, and in fact, I'm ruling out all my personal favorites: Terminator 2, The Matrix, 300, The Killer, and Unleashed. Nay, I'm talking about a quality that's almost completely missing from action films: subtlety and restraint. I know, I know, it's a very narrow use of the word "intelligent," and I should have been more specific. I'm sorry. I'll do better next time.

See, this is what's so great about Heat: it cuts a razor-thin line, making violence intense and dramatic (one of the best gun battles ever filmed), but also evoking a sense of coolness and procedure. The military-style advance/cover/retreat pattern was goddamn breathtaking, but it's clear that for these characters, it's a day's work, familiar terrain on the roadmap of a disciplined and violent career. The film is refreshing free of over-the-top reaction shots, stunts (was there even a single stunt in this film?), and exposition about plots and heists. There was a time when I thought Reservoir Dogs was pretty realistic, but now it seems like another heist movie that thinks it's clever. There's no workaday rhythm to it... just a lot of shooting, hysteria, and bad planning.

And when you know how to wield the Hammer of Subtlety, you can make a film -- even a heavy-duty action film like Heat -- and still populate it with compelling characters and studies of personality. We see dimensions in Vincent and Neil that we never got to see in John McClain, despite the latter's bevy of movies and constant return to his marital and family problems. These characters express themselves in every aspect of the movie... in their withered relationships with their families, with their professional conduct and tactical decisions, and in their short, poignant moments with one another. It's hard to even count all the insights we get into Neil, including those he shares with Vincent -- his weariness, his strength of will, his loyalty to those close to him -- and those wherein they so sharply contrast -- their motivation, their use of authority, their ways of expressing personal responsibility. It's a study in character consistency, played out over some of the sickest street-set gunfights I've seen in my cinephiliac adulthood.

The only movies I can think of that do the same thing, at least so far, are Luc Besson's earlier action efforts, Leon The Professional and La Femme Nikita. Besson walks a strange tightrope, essentially filming exotic romances built on action-movie premises and occasional set-pieces. La Femme Nikita was a joyous and tragic film about love frustrated by the call to violence. The Montmarte setting, practically sweating with sunlight and Paris accordion music, is a stage for Nikita's rebirth, which is accompanied by a romantic reawakening. It's unfortunate, what we know about the girl: that this rebirth is financed by a top-secret assassin's guild, and that in payment, she has to carry out its missions. The film becomes a study in tension between vulnerability and alienation, guiding us through the love affair between Nikita and Marco, and confronting us with the unbridgeable gap between them, the result of Nikita's need to keep her profession a secret. What allowed this to work so well... what kept it human... was that the violence was quick and nasty, and never romanticized or played for cartoonish effect. It just wouldn't have been much of a movie in John Woo's hands.

As a side-note -- loosely related to the raw authenticity of this film -- it's been frustrating to see the Nikita spin-offs, one after another, that miscast the main character as a steamy supermodel. Anne Parillaud is beautiful in the way that models are never beautiful, because their specifications are so precise. She's gawky at times, with a messiness around the edges of her beauty, and Besson makes it clear that for her, hypersexuality is a struggle. I'm just writing this aside to lament the subsequent casting of Peta Wilson, Bridget Fonda, and Maggie Q in reprises of the roles. They're lovely, don't get me wrong, but part of the sincerity and charm in Besson's version is that Nikita could slide so smoothly from alluring to unremarkable.

Leon: The Professional shares many of Nikita's virtues, being a study of a simmering relationship between two outcasts, each shackled in their own defenses. Perhaps the slightly Cassandratic father-daughter relationship between Leon and Mathilde is what allows Leon to expose his vulnerable side to Mathilde, despite normally being so detached and pure-business about his murderous profession. It's striking how similar Mathilde is to Nikita -- both are wrenched, through violence, from broken former lives, and both begin to express their nascent sexuality under hostile circumstances. Both are being trained as killers. Mathilde is compelling as Nikita's spiritual successor.

Again, the violence is quick and professional (movie title reference LOL), and it doesn't infringe upon the audience's engagement with the characters. These characters, in turn, can be subtle and nuanced, and know how to handle a firearm with a telescopic sight. I contend that these three are all action movies, but that they're rare cases in that the action doesn't crowd out the human drama. Anyone have any more suggestions for films like this? Something I'm missing?

Of course, there are also films like the crime flicks of Jean-Pierre Melville. In the interest of time and space and the patience of any poor readers that might show up, I won't talk about his various milestones, like Le Cercle Rouge and the brilliant Army of Shadows. I'll just talk about Le Samourai for now. In my estimation, it's the most "actiony" of his films I've seen, which tend to fixate on other things, like the psychology of characters in times of war and stress.

Le Samourai is like the previous films in that the violence is quick, dirty, and downplayed, tucked in the cracks between stalkings and stake-outs. The meat of the film is the connective tissue between these murderous moments, which are over in a flash -- the periods where Jef builds and stresses his relationships, which are inevitably constructed around his dangerous mode of employment. Jef's story is not so much a human story, filled with multi-dimensional characters. Rather, it's a minimalist, almost formalist piece of filmmaking, an exercise in tension and perception and focus, with a pervasive sense of abstraction: the bird, the blank spaces, the two woman as object and accessory.

If you're curious, I'd recommend checking out Le Samourai as a companion piece to Clooney's new hit-man film The American, which (according to a couple reviews I've read) has the same sort of silent, solitary mood. I'm guessing The American replaces Le Samourai's abstract minimalism with a more tactile reality, but I suspect these films will reward comparison. I'm rather excited to see Clooney as a tacit, technically-savvy specialist, rather than a moody socialite. Hopefully it will turn out well.

That aside, yay for the intelligent action film -- the movie that uses action beats, but provides enough space and counterpoint to them that it can avoid falling into the standard action blockbuster paradigm (no conflict or resolution except for manichean violence). These are action films that make good on those genre tropes, but ultimately make their own statement, rather than letting their genre speak for them. Please, if anyone reads this and it makes them think of some other movies, let me know.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Piano Teacher: Sick Movie for a Saturday Night

I saw my first film by provocateur Michael Haneke, The Piano Teacher (2001), and I decided to jot down my initial reflection, centered on my interpretation of the film's central theme, and the parallel themes that inform it.

In other news, I've started posting capsule reactions to Twitter whenever I see a film. Check out my Twitter feed if this interests you. So far, both reactions I've done have taken up exactly the 140 allowed characters... I'll try to continue this irrelevant trend!

This film, insomuch as I've discerned some order in its madness, is about masturbation: a compulsive, self-involved sexual appetite, fueled by fantasy and incompatible with reality. Erika could be a case study of a person whose inability to relate to people drives her to a life of sexual self-involvement, to the point of perverted pathologies. For starters, consider the film's obsession with hands (unavoidable, for a movie about piano virtuosity), and its themes of guilt and voyeurism, the most superficial telltale signs. The film doesn't contrive to explain Erika's obsessive self-indulgence/denial in any simple way... indeed, there are so many psychological forces hovering over her, it becomes a bit of an orgy of negative influences and broken behavioral patterns (if you'll pardon the figure of speech).

Of course, there's a few intersecting themes here... the alienation and indifference of the Vienna intellectual class is certainly a factor, having so deeply affected the psychology of the dominant characters. Only Erika's students are emotionally complete human beings: Walter with his compassion, self-possession, and vulnerability, and Anna, with her frustrated hopes and fragile self-image. The adults of Erika's world can only talk about things clinically, or judgmentally, or academically, having mistaken their aesthetic sensibilities for actual personalities.

Of course, it's hard to tell whether this clique is really so alienated, or whether we're just experiencing them through Erika's distorted lens. Haneke's cold shooting style seems objective, but to Erika, her own detached view of the world must seem equally objective, and indeed, even the earlier, quieter parts of the film are suffused with cynicism. Those who feel The Piano Teacher is objective and external have bought into one of the film's many hustles... it's actually a deeply internal film, but it's internal to a mind that's dead of sentiment and vulnerability, a purely aesthetic self-construction with no sensitivity to anything but music.

It's easy to dig into Erika's relationship with her mother for some deep Freudian explanation -- indeed, it's almost too obvious, considering the film takes place in Vienna -- but we don't really have to dig. Of all the film's relationships, this is one that wears its dysfunction most on its sleeve. It's a relationship with broken boundary issues and abusive patterns... a battle for control on the part of Erika's mother, and an already-lost struggle for independence on Erika's own part. Erika's mother's combination of physical intimidation and guilt-mongering is an extreme extension of bad parenting, and it's got Erika stuck in petulant child mode. This is why Erika's own sexuality is onanistic and adolescent: she's never emerged from that phase of childhood when we start feeling sexual urges and looking for ways to express them, but have to keep them secret from the watchful eyes of our parents. It's telling that Erika's only actual sexual encounters are in clandestine asides in public places: the bathroom of the conservatory, the closet of a skating ring, the classic refuges for guilty teenage sexuality. Stuck in such unhealthy proximity to her mother, it's natural that Erika would develop these patterns -- she doesn't even have the luxury of her own bed to have sex (or masturbate) in!

Among the most curious developments in The Piano Teacher is Erika's belief, apparently mistaken, that she would enjoy being the victim of sexual dominance. She spends the whole film reminding herself of her own power, intentionally undermining the people around her in order to keep herself in control of their emotional states. As her behavior develops, a pronounced dichotomy between reality and fantasy emerges. Apparently, Erika's obsession with dominance is rooted in a deeper fantasy about submission. Erika clearly hopes Walter can help her bridge this gap between the real and the imagined, and this belief turns out to be misguided. As unpredictable as Erika's desires turn out to be, it's even more confounding that these desires can't be fulfilled, or the whole construct comes crashing down.

One of the great strengths of the film is the logical ordering, and simultaneous incomprehensibility, of the main character's psychology. Haneke's storytelling is profoundly unpredictable, building up to missing climaxes (like poor Walter) and staging character developments at moments when the audience's expectations are off-balance. Yet, at the end of the film, all of the characters seem to make sense, their pathologies exhibiting an enigmatic insight into the strangeness of cognition and behavior. Hard to watch? Perhaps... but only because we recognize these twists and turns, though we purport them to be entirely beyond our ken.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Genre Attack: Westerns by way of the spaghetti

The Spaghetti Westerns have reminded me that the whole Western megagenre is concerned with the creation of myths. Whether John Ford realized it or not, his Ringo Kid and Ethan Edwards and Scar were made to be timeless, the embodiments of the wandering spirits of the frontier. Ethan’s emergence from the lonely prairie, and his final departure from society through an open door, are the stuff of icons. For most of the film, Scar is practically a whispered name, an invocation of evil; the Ringo Kid is a rumor come to life. This legacy provided the essential capital for the Spaghetti Westerns that came some thirty years later, trading as they did in nameless heroes and mythical villains: The Man with No Name, Silence, Django, Angel Eyes. The Sergio’s knew how to work with archetype and universality, those essential ingredients of mythmaking.

It’s only recently that the Western genre has become preoccupied with breaking down mythologies, rather than building them up. It may have started with the directorial work of Eastwood, whose later cowboys were less heroic than their distant forebears. It’s a noteworthy theme in 3:10 to Yuma, where the dangerous central villain, a notorious jailbreaker, gradually reveals himself to be a fallible, sympathetic human being. It’s also an important theme in No Country for Old Men: Llewellyn Moss is on the way to becoming a mythical hero, but at the moment of truth, his capital runs out, leaving only the mythical murderer. These used to be myths of redemption, after all… the Coens deconstructed them into Anton Chigurh, a myth of terrifying, unstoppable destruction.

Tommy Lee Jones’ The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is noteworthy in this context, as well, being a sort of reactionary Western, dissolving myth into the mundane and depicting a journey that ends in ambivalence. A slow-burning campfire of a film, Three Burials takes Plato's cave, the feeling of gradual ascent toward some sort of personal revelation, and imbues it with the hopelessness that comes with living in a perfectly imperfect, incurably impure world. It’s got the same oppressive feeling as No Country for Old Men, but Three Burials emphasizes the banality of the main character’s personal agenda, and so forks directly away from No Country’s heroes-of-the-frontier mythological drama. In this, Three Burials makes No Country--and virtually all other Westerns--look like common action films, full of unrealistic gunplay and contrived suspense. I’m not going to go disparage the classics or anything, but still, it’s a striking vision of how two different filmmakers can take the same attitude in two different narrative directions.

Or, more amazing, a single filmmaker, if he's brilliant enough, can take things in two directions all by himself. I'm referring to Sergio Leone, the star-child of the Spaghetti Western, and the inspiration for so much of the genre's later development. It's a credit to the guy that he revolutionized the Western with the Man With No Name, and created an absolute archetype... but it's even more brilliant, to the point of transcendence, that he brought the genre to completion in two different ways: first, as a culmination, with Once Upon a Time in the West, and second, as a send-up, with My Name is Nobody.

It's understandable that recent revisionist Westerns have had to go down the claustrophobic and understated routes, because after Once Upon a Time in the West, it's hard to imagine anybody taking another shot at the epic Western of frontier violence. The film is built around the vast American enterprise of manifest destiny, and the hole it carved in the older traditions of open space and Native American culture. It's about the American way springing up around that point of infiltration... complete with its ruthless capitalism, its social and ethnic diversity, its political vendettas, and its rugged individualism.

And within the context of this American myth, Leone creates a cast of mythological characters: "Harmonica," an ethnic outsider, weathered and solitary, and his counterpart, Cheyenne the bandit, whose gang has staked its claim to the prairie with guns and dusters. Claudia Cardinale's Jill McBain is the vengeful wife, the siren, the independent woman, a survivalist and an entrepreneur, at times resembling Scarlett O'Hara. Harmonica's background is the essential motif that links Once Upon a Time in the West to the whole tradition of Spaghetti Westerns that it maxed out. Each character has their own musical theme, and each has their archetype to uphold and their role to play.

But none of these protagonists can match Frank, the villain, for sheer screen presence. The bandit Cheyenne and the mysterious Harmonica make good on their archetypes, but it's Frank who creates his own legend, right there in the course of the story. He's almost a deranged father figure, with kind eyes and a winning smile, sweeping through the story and destroying lives... not for money, or apparently for loyalty, or even gleeful sadism, but simply because this is the person he was born to be. Leone makes it clear, with Frank, that the West is a fertile ground for tyrants to carve out their empires, and only the willpower of the American frontiersmen, driven by vengeance, will prevent this open space from becoming a wasteland of Franks. Interesting take on the subject, Sergio.

Of course, having brought the Spaghetti era of Westerns to completion in Once Upon a Time in the West, Leone would go on to turn it inside out and inspect its guts in My Name is Nobody (directed primarily by collaborator Tonino Valerii). Having mastered the art of myth-building, Leone was to use Nobody as a vehicle for interrogating and exposing those acts of mythologizing that he had become so good at. After all, Nobody isn't just the trickster figure, following in Eastwood's footsteps... he's also the young guide for the old generation of cowboys, orchestrating both the immortality and the departure/"demise" of his idol, Jack Beauregard (welcome back, Frank).

What's so cool about My Name is Nobody is that it satires the genre, but never loses its sense of respect (an virtue destroyed by the Friedberg/Seltzer comedies, but also preserved by the occasional Black Dynamite-type indie). The shot-glass shootout is among the coolest sequences in any Western I've seen, one-upping the hat-shooting scene from The Great Silence, using the same formula to create a joyous cinematic moment. And Leone/Valerii give shout-outs to their contemporaries, including a couple smirking tributes to Sam Peckinpah, who, by all accounts, should be the one showing his appreciation to the Italians.

Harmonica may be the pinnacle of a slope started with The Man With No Name, and Nobody may be the little flag at the top, but interestingly, the greatest Spaghetti hero might be a character tucked away in a different movie. This is the aforementioned The Great Silence, whose titular protagonist is the epitome of the Spaghetti Western enigmatic cowboy.

After all, Silence is a truly lonely, enigmatic warrior, the product of torture, tempered in the fires of vengeful rage... a motif he shares with myriad Spaghetti protagonists, like Man with Black Coat (For a Few Dollars More), Bill (Death Rides a Horse), and the great Harmonica himself (Once Upon a Time in the West). He has a weapon that nobody has seen before that can play a decisive role in a gunfight (his Mauser), a trait he shares with Django (the gattling gun), and with John Mallory of Duck, You Sucker (the explosives). Like Nobody and the main character from the Dollars trilogy, he has no name, except for the pseudonym determined by his hardship.

And if these things aren't enough, the striking, downbeat ending of The Great Silence provides the air-tight seal on Silence's claim to mythical status. I'll try not to spoil it for you. Needless to say, even if you're not a spaghetti western afficianado, you should try to see The Great Silence, a beautiful, sweeping, and epic Western experience, tempered in the frozen mountains of its unique wintry setting.

I could keep writing about this evolving genre forever... in every sentence, I'm torn between analyzing the troubling and complex themes of fatherhood and violence as a patriotic ideal, and waxing poetic on the beauty of these films, with their vistas and their alluring remoteness. I need to stop myself before I wander off on another tangent. For now, before the summer's end, I simply urge you to go see some more Westerns, the fires where American mythology is forged. Get thee to thy Netflix!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Scott Pilgrim: Attention-Deficit Love Story

Part of the reason the classical reviewers are very lukewarm on Scott - and many of them make the old-hat complaint that they "didn't care about the protagonists" - is easily explained by the whiplash-speed barrage of references and developments. Three or four things happen in each scene, and no scene seems longer than five minutes. The enthusiasts of the previous generation of cinema, raised on Antonioni and Scorcese, want some idle time with their characters, and they want enigmatic and elliptical flashbacks, and they want a gradual succession of insights ("layers," as Shrek might call them). This is how they get to know those characters, and thereby get invested in their conflicts. Pacing.

Wright knows that this shit doesn't work any more, now that we've reached an era when YouTube and video games are as much a part of the cultural discourse as Twain and Joyce. Manipulating the surface is the key, and rapid recognition is invaluable. Scott Pilgrim and his supporting characters are built around confirmations of his audience's expectations: Stephen Stills is the leading man, cool enough to be nigh invisible (Scott Summers with a guitar), Kim Pine is the unstoppable force of tomboyishness and alt-rock angst, Young Neil is the wide-eyed groupie who's made friends with the older kids (his lack of an instrument being his mark of apprenticeship), and as he's directly referred to at one point, Wallace is the "cool gay roommate." I've been some of these characters before, and I've known all of them.

Ramona, being the love-interest, starts as one of the strongest stereotypes: the mythical New York hipster chick. She's beautiful and cynical and savvy, hooked up and culturally literate, and worthy of a main character's obsession. Her roster of ex-boyfriends is pretty insane, comprising a movie star, a rock star, a pair of competitive twin DJ's, and a bigshot hipster record executive. You don't need to have known this girl to know her archetype... every 20-something who migrates to New York has this image in their head.

Ramona's character, kick-started by this detached, irony-ridden archetype, is then given time to develop by way of on-screen quirks and mannerisms. Her snarky attitude is offset by her tenderness on that first date. Her indifference to the fuss being made about her is entirely expected, and as it becomes well-established, her fight with Roxy provides an important turning-point for her character. Ramona has been so aloof in the presence of her exes that up to that point, she was starting to get annoying; it's a good thing that with Roxy, she puts her own pride and her boyfriend's safety on the line.

Even now, it's hard for me to convince myself that a movie can be good on these merits: the fast-paced character shorthand, the jokes and references that are so rapid they're almost impossible to follow. But those things only make the movie fun, and stylistically distinctive... they don't actually make it good.

What makes Scott Pilgrim good, and provides the backbone of its relatability, holding up all its crassness and stylistic excess, is the very human love story, an emblem of young adulthood. The dynamic between Ramona and Scott is very subtle and carefully-handled, providing the stable emotional substance beneath the frills. It starts out as a crush (as desperate and enveloping as those are at that age), and after a few days and a few dates, it suffers from a backlash of resentment (the incomprehensible force that makes Scott act like a douchebag to Ramona for a while). Its intensity is heightened by gossip and social pressure, those slippery experiences of watching your new love getting to know the other people in your life.

The excitement of seeing your crush at the top of the stairs, or among the anonymous crowd at a party you're both attending -- the sudden rush of panic as you realize your girlfriend-on-the-outs has shown up at the same place as your new crush -- the tentative, delicate play of conversation and intimacy that provides the substance of a first date -- the dismay that comes at exactly the wrong moment, when you realize this girl isn't always perfect, and that she may occasionally set off your own negative triggers -- these are the moments, perfectly rendered by Wright and his cast, that make the story of Scott Pilgrim so human, whether on the page or on the screen.

And somehow, the frenetic stylization of Scott Pilgrim enhances this familiar love story, rather than distracting from it. However complicated the on-screen widgets seem to be, Scott Pilgrim is not complex; this kind of observation is usually used as a criticism, but here it's a compliment. The spastic enthusiasm of each scene is engaging, and the simple, emotionally-intense love story is broadly relatable. Scott Pilgrim is a film that lives entirely in the moment: the cultural and historical moment, the emotional moment, and the cinematic moment.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Genre attack: Spaghetti Westerns

I have been watching spaghetti westerns. These have included For a Few Dollars More (the last of the Dollars trilogy I hadn't seen), Duck You Sucker, Death Rides a Horse, The Great Silence, and Django. It's a worthwhile exercise in genre exploration... this is an amazingly homogeneous body of films, all drawing on the same tropes and archetypes, and after three or four, they all start to blur together. Incidentally, it helps me see why Leone is considered such a master of the genre: he brought the loner anti-hero to its apex in Eastwood (he's a stronger protagonist than Django, Silence, and Bill combined) and he also created some of the most distinctive entries in the genre. Duck, You Sucker breaks down the style Leone had established and rebuilds it in service of a revolution movie, a film whose characters inhabit a completely different ethical space from his earlier amoral Westerns. John, the Irish expat cum professional revolutionary, is an incredible hero, a unique voice among all these silent gunslingers.

I'm going to discuss Eastwood's character and Corbucci's directing a bit more, but first, a chart. In an effort to disentangle the undifferentiated heroes of the Spaghetti Western genre, I've broken them down into their essential character tropes, and I've charted them below. They all seem to have facial hair that's either scruffy and untamed, or perfectly clean-cut mustachioed. And most of the mustachioed heroes are played by Lee Van Cleef. Also, they generally seem to be working through some abandonment issues -- either taking revenge for the death of their family, or for the death of a lover. And despite their cracked cynicism, some of them manage to soften up and find love in the course of the stories. Obviously, for those who don't, I'm assuming their epic struggles have made them entirely incapable of it.

Let's compare our heroes.

Now, here's an important technicality... when a character once had a true love, but seems to be crippled by loss, do I count them as "Capable of Love" because they once managed it? Or do I call them "Incapable" because the possibility is henceforth ruined for them? I think I'm going to put them in the latter category. Thus, if the character has a check next to "Capable of Love," it means they find love in the course of their movie. If they have an "X," it means it's clear that love isn't really on their current agenda, whether it's because they've lost it (I'm looking at you, John Mallory!) or because they're just a cold-hearted bastard (*coughEastwoodcough*). If they seem nice enough but the topic just doesn't come up, they get a question mark.

It's notable that The Man With No Name is the only character with two red check marks, indicating in a roundabout way that he's the hero we learn the least about... despite the fact that he's in the most movies! This, among other things, indicates Leone's brilliance. He gave us one of the most interesting spaghetti western heroes, and one of the most compelling amoral cowboys, and he built the character from scratch, right there within the films. He didn't need a profound backstory or a tragic tale. He's a phantom, a thunderbolt, a ghost of the desert. He's inhuman, the fastest shot and the shrewdest player in every game. If he had psychology or personal motivation, he would be too human.

And he's not human. He's an outsider, through and through, the spitting image of the mythological trickster. He's obviously always after the money (those titular Dollars), but he seems to take just as much pleasure in confounding and confusing the people he interacts with, upsetting their images and undermining their assumptions. Whenever he's called upon to perform, whether by a frontier town tyrant or a comrade extending an open hand, he accepts and subverts, reverses the decision and its conditions, and generally screws up everyone's plans.

Sergio Corbucci is considered one of the masters of the genre, and though I wouldn't put him above Leone -- his plots are a little too fixated on the central theme of facile love and the revenge instinct -- I give him credit for pushing some aspects of the genre far beyond Leone. In particular, I'm impressed with Corbucci's riffs on setting. Django takes place in a mud-soaked alternative to the dry, dusty desert, a swampy wallow where the prostitutes mud-wrestle and stench and decay invades every safe space. This is interesting in itself, bringing a more tactile sense of incurable filth, but it's nothing compared to the stark tundra of The Great Silence, which was a bold film if ever I've seen one. At the same time that it participates in the spaghetti western genre tropes, it also confronts them, replacing the Mexican/Italian villain with an Aryan opportunist and substituting a stark, naked, frozen landscape for the dirt and sweat that gives the genre its archetypal tone.

The Great Silence is a harsh and beautiful movie, and before I finish my current entry, I'd like to praise it for a moment. The snow and titular silence pervades every relationship in the film. They all look at each other with a sort of frigid dispassion, and even the daring sexual relationship between Silence and Pauline feels vaguely strained and sterilized, though this gives it a razor-sharp intensity. The Great Silence also creates a strong, effective contrast between shelter and exposure... the snowy landscapes evoke the anxiety of coldness and emptiness, and the dark stony interiors feel temporarily safe, though always under siege. Silence isn't just the hero's rather cheesy moniker -- it's also a command that reverberates through the film. It's a movie about the forbidden corners of conscience and instinct, unspeakable acts committed in distant and echoic voids that stifle cries for help -- a fascinating cinematic achievement.

By the way, that crazy pistol Silence uses... that definitely exists. It's called a Mauser.

My final film in my spaghetti western series will be Once Upon a Time in the West, and after I check that out, I'll write a final blog entry about it.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Cinematography Fix: Black Narcissus: White walls and unknown spaces

For my next group of related films, I'm wavering between two very different threads: either spaghetti westerns, or films renowned for their cinematography. I was ready to commit to the latter group over the past week, so I saw Black Narcissus. But last night I threw in For a Few Dollars More, because I wanted something escapist, and now I'm back on the fence. I think I might have to follow both paths simultaneously.

Future movie-watching aside, I feel I should address Black Narcissus. It's a film deserving of critical consideration, and I want to remember it. It's the second Archer film I've seen, after The Red Shoes (one of my favorite films of Chromatic March). Black Narcissus is no less colorful, though its moods are very different and its tensions spring from a different part of the psyche. It won Jack Cardiff the Best Color Cinematography Oscar in 1947, and has become an essential Powell & Pressburger landmark.

And how different the photography and camera-work was, back when Black Narcissus was made! Today, virtually all films -- big action films and subtle romances alike -- revel in movement and boldness of frame, swinging from picturesque landscapes to intense close-ups, and always setting medium shots in motion, following characters and panning from focus to focus. This is an age of expressive cinematography... when a character has a moment of intensity, their face fills the frame. When they're at peace, the camera takes a leisurely stroll through the garden with them. At moments of strength, we look up at them from the floor. We always seem to be chasing down the emotional cues, carrying our cameras like butterfly nets.

So much of Black Narcissus was stable and calm, even at moments of anxiety and tension. Scene after scene was shot with a dedicated method of composition: the camera would establish the space, and then the characters would move through it, carefully blocked in their action, always part of their surroundings. When Sister Clodagh stands at the top of a stairway and speaks to Mr. Dean, we don't need to follow her up there, or shift between speaker and listener. We can look through Cardiff's lens and see the whole layout of the space, its walkway and its ceiling and floor, and we can appreciate how these characters relate to one another.

In his essay for Criterion, Kent Jones discusses Black Narcissus' use of elevation as a motif: the constant sense that characters' interactions are structured by high and low, whether it's embodied in the status difference between Kanchi and the Young General, or in the moralistic position of the convent at the top of an inaccessible mountain. However, in addition to this, the film also employs a motif of interior and exterior, created through intensive control of color, space, foreground and background (the endless valleys depicted in the film's matte paintings). The nuns never leave the oppressive white stone of the convent, but through every window, and over every precipice, we see the green of the native lands. It's sensual, mythical, and downright dangerous, populated by mystics and hostile natives.

Sister Ruth's journey into the valley to find Mr. Dean is a revealing exploration of this interior/exterior structure. She finds herself deep in the jungle, clad in a bloody red dress (madness embodied in bright red is carried over to The Red Shoes), and she finds the place she's looking for, but not the solace. This lush red and green world is a stage for her insanity, and once she descends, she becomes "native" in all the ways the film constructs them: she becomes a creature of passion and sensuality, and she discovers her hatred for the chalky white world from whence she descended.

In Sister Ruth's final confrontation with Sister Clodagh, there's a flood of symbolic significances. They are on the threshold between the disciplined inside and the wild outside, occupying one of the borderlands that pervade the film: a ledge where you stand in the shadow of the convent, but where the jungle stretches all around you. This threshold has been there throughout the film, buttressed by wind, patrolled by troubled Sisters clinging desperately to their faith, the bell and the stone of their bastion of morality.

And in returning to this protective shell, Sister Ruth wants to kill Sister Clodagh, but not just by stabbing her or bludgeoning her... she wants to rip her out of the convent and cast her into oblivion, returning her to the primordial surroundings to which Sister Ruth herself has succumbed. This space is both outside and below, and Sister Clodagh's fall would represent the defeat of the bastion of order by the sensual world beyond it.

The problem is, the nuns cannot defeat the outside world, because that blood-red sensuality -- the flowers, the lipstick, the errant wives and dying children -- have already invaded the palace. Indeed, they've been there from the beginning. It's fitting that the nuns' only escape is to leave this uncontrollable world behind, letting the "order" they fought to create collapse into the mountain behind them.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Inception: Genealogy of a Poster

Nothing really deep here, but I noticed that Inception's poster is a combination of some of the previous design (I guess the studio is using the same people for print advertising, huh?), plus the work of one of my favorite photographers (i.e. photomontageists), Scott Mutter. Hope this minor moment of recognition brightens your day.