Thursday, September 30, 2004

Playtime Directed by Jacques Tati

Certain films have the potential to be ruined if analyzed too closely. Not that they collapse under the magnifying glass, or that there is analyzable material lacking; no, it's that certain films have such charm, such charisma, that to approach from an angle too analytical is to lose sight of the spirit of the film. Jacques Tati's 1967 Playtime is one such film. With that in mind, I'll now get down to a rather dry, didactic reading of the film. Bear in mind this: I absolutely cherished this film and, just as importantly, seeing it on the big screen. I smiled and laughed - no amount of arid analysis can compare to that.

Tati set his film in a see-through Paris, where it seems that everything is made of glass. The "set", consisting of several large (read: 10+ story) buildings, was fabricated specifically for the film - largely out of Tati's own pocket. Because of this, Tati suffered financial ruin for the next ten years. Smacking of some well-deserved pride, the set came to be known as Tativille. What it meant to the director was a realized dream. What it means to the characters of the film is something different entirely. Monsier Hulot, Tati's alter ego, self-acted star of Mon Oncle and M. Hulot's Holiday, makes a reappearance in Playtime. It seems that the stately gentleman with the identifiable-from-across-the-street gait is revisiting Paris; that is, he has been here before. But this is not Hulot's Paris. Even though other people recognize him and accept him as their own, Hulot is clearly out of his element. He finds Paris to be a completely revamped, streamlined, and utterly inefficient carapace of its former self. The see-through doors are collided with, imagined, and, most effectively, used to reflect images of Paris past. Hulot seems to yearn for the Eiffel Tower, a symbol of the old Paris, but the only time he (and the audience) sees the icon is in the reflection of a glass door. Alas, Old Paris is contained, and even then merely reflected, within New Paris. And New Paris is hardly Paris at all: a tourist gazes at a series of posters showing vacation destinations. Hawaii, America, Paris, London - the names are right but the images are not. Rather than icons of these places, the posters contain identical images of the plasticine building that herself and Hulot are perplexed by. The only difference between the four destinations is their costumes - stage dressing such as palm trees, cowboys, and royal guards used to cover up the alarming influence of the modern while issuing a faux-echo of the past.

And this leads to the theme of the doppelganger. Nothing in this confounding Paris is unique or original. It all seems to point to the mundanity of life and the stagnant boredom of those involved with said life. Four men dressed in four identical suits pile into four identical cars and drive away in an identical fashion. They all carry the same identical countenance - blank indifference. Even M. Hulot, the most unique and bewildered of men is not unique. Several times throughout the film others young, old, and in between, with jackets and steps similar to Hulot's, are mistaken for the man himself. Admittedly, this could be positive as well as negative. It could be that the future is not entirely bleak - there will always be a Hulot out there to inspire originality. Or it could simply mean that Hulot is being swallowed by modernity along with everyone else.

That is essentially the first half of the film. It focuses on the hilarity of the predictability in modern life and the denizens' utter boredom. The second half is a far different beast. It is centered on life as a circus - how we are a comical species and how our modern inventions only further complicate life rather than simplifying it. The axis for this carnivalesque dissection is one of the greater setpieces in film history: a brand new hipster oriented restaurant. Monsieur Hulot saunters in, not knowing what he is getting into.

The restaurant is not quite finished: the neon lights flicker in random patterns, the tile on the dance floor is hardly secure, and the air conditioning system is non-functioning. As the patrons slowly filter in, the show begins. Tati, who also co-wrote Playtime, layers joke upon joke, allowing them all to build until they burst open in wave after wave of cacophonous hilarity. A glass door shatters, but no bother - to keep up appearances (imperative in this modern world) a man grabs the door handle off of the ground and proceeds to play-act the opening of the "door" for converging and diverging patrons. Drunken waiters over-season an entree for the wrong table. The dance-floor migrates into the dining area and, slowly, the young, vibrant dance-hall crowd overtakes the sophisticates eating foie gras. All the while, the air-conditioning is on the fritz, the place is burning up, and the bar is out of ice. Well, hey, it's only the appearance that matters right? So let's use the remnants of that broken door to pack around the bottle of champagne. In the end, the only thing that could happen does: the place literally collapses and Monsier Hulot escapes into what is now a new dawn.

The analysis of that last paragraph could fill a book. It's all so damn funny that one almost forgets that it is a metaphor for the inevitable collapse of our society of appearances. It's dour, and possibly a bit over the top, but it is also very effective. We can finally breathe when Hulot makes his exit, and we wonder ourselves - is that really how we would look to an outsider. The answer is probably yes, but I do not believe that Tati condemns the whole thing. The last 10 minutes of the film are centered on a roundabout in the middle of the city. The cars are packed and barely moving. It seems like hell, but Tati turns it into, well, not heaven, but not something without redemption. Music right similar to a carousel soundtrack slowly starts. The camera begins to pick up pace and we see what is going on: Tati is single-handedly redeeming his citizens and his town. This despicable, superficial society is turned into a circus. The roundabout becomes the carousel, a tilting windowpane reflecting a busload of travelers becomes a roller coaster, and the ice-cream man is there to keep everyone refreshed. Someone once told me that the only reaction one can possibly have concerning life is laughter. All we can do is laugh at the absurdity that we observe and take part in ourselves. Tati knew this while making Playtime and, rather than stand outside and ridicule, he grabbed a bucket of popcorn and joined in with the laughter.

Also check out Kent Jones' essay at the Criterion site. It delves a little bit deeper into the circus-like atmosphere surrounding the production of Playtime.

Sunday, September 26, 2004

Double Feature: The Killers '46 & '64 Directed by Siodmak/Siegel

The recently released (in the grand scale of things) Criterion version of The Killers makes it real easy to do one of these double-feature reviews. The whole endeavor of renting or buying the release becomes a buy-one-get-one-free type of transaction. In 1946, Robert Siodmak directed a film based upon Ernest Hemingway's short story, "The Killers." Don Siegel turned around and did the same thing in 1964. Whether coincidental or not, the two films pretty much book-ended the whole period of Film Noir.

The Killers, 1946

Robert Siodmak's film bristles with noir: the shadows, the dialogue, the dame, and the god-forsaken futility of it all. The first twenty minutes of the movie are practically Hemingway's story verbatim. Two men (The Killers) walk into a cafe looking for a man called "The Swede." What are they going to do? Well, I'll tell you: they are going to kill the Swede. Why? That's bit trickier.

It seems that The Swede, a.k.a. Pete Lunn a.k.a. Ole Andreson, a former boxer, shanghai'd some money from a Job, a.k.a. larceny, he pulled with three other guys, seven years back. Not to spoil it or anything, but The Swede dies. That, in itself, lacks remark. What is impressive is that The Swede takes his death, literally, lying down. A little bird tells him that The Killers are on their way, but the Swede neither runs nor hides. This is the crux of Hemingway's story; the beauty of it being that the reader is left to infer why a man would resign himself to death without any sort of fight. Siodmak (and Siegel even moreso, in 1964) made a movie out of that idea.

The deus ex machina of the film is a life insurance claims investigator played by noir archetype Edmund O'Brien (of D.O.A. fame. Or is that infamy?) It seems that The Swede had taken out a $2500 insurance policy to be paid to a hotel manager. The reason: she inspired The Swede to abandon the idea of suicide during a three-day spell at the hotel. Like any good claims investigator, O'Brien chases down The Swede's back-story to find out whether the deal is legit or not. And there is our movie.

Now that the plot is out of the way:

The star of The Killers is really its era. Even though Burt Lancaster makes his first screen appearance, playing The Swede, the film goes far beyond what any one actor or actress could add to it. Or far below. Or something. The real point of the film is that it signified something new in America, something that the French called Noir. I don't want to get into the semantics of Noir again, but it is relatively safe to say that The Killers is one of the major films of the early Noir period. In and of itself the film is not terribly impressive. Entertaining and well made it is, a fine story it has - but there is nothing about it that blows away. Imperative is its importance to a time and place in the history of American Film. When Edmund O'Brien chases a story around the United States, only to find his actions rendered impotent and useless, Noir is born*.

*Ok ok, I know The Maltese Falcon came out in 1941 and all that, but this line is good, you know? I know it's incongruent with history, but cut me some slack, ok? Or, better yet, pretend this line applies to all film noir of the early to mid 40's, and O'Brien is Bogart, Robinson, and Mitchum all wrapped up into one All-American (but, like, second string All-American) icon. Yeah, that should do the trick.

The Killers, 1964

Basically the same plot as the 1946 version with some exceptions:

1. There is no claims investigator. Instead, The Killers themselves (played by Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager) go on a mission to find out why they killed this guy, why he did not run, and, oh yeah, there is also chance they could get $1 Million out of the deal. Makes the title a bit more appropriate, does it not?
2. There is no opening sequence in the cafe, thus no reference to Hemingway's story. The actual title of this version is Ernest Hemingway's The Killers. Makes the title a bit inappropriate, does it not?
3. The Swede (played by John Cassavetes) doesn't look Swedish and he was a racecar driver instead of a boxer.
4. Ronald Reagan plays a rich bureaucratic thief. (Pardon my effacing the dead, but it does make you go, "hmmm," does it not?)

Now that the plot is out of the way:

First, a word of warning: I found this film entirely inferior to the first. The rear-projection shots seem dated and cheesy (not in the good way), the aesthetics of the film were flat, and the directing was entirely mediocre. Another word of warning: this film was originally intended for television, but released on the big screen due to the violence. Also, many claim that the flatness of the film was meant to convey the flatness of modern life. As far as I know, there are no excuses for the directing.

On the flip side, this seems to be a fitting end for what many consider the definitive Noir era. That might be pushing it, actually. A case can be made that Noir began in 1940 with Boris Ingster's Strangers on the Third Floor and ended in 1959 with Robert Wise's Odds Against Tomorrow. So maybe this is the ushering in of a new era: Post-Noir.

As noted above, Director Don Siegel threw away several integral elements found in the first film. By titling the film Ernest Hemingway's The Killers, and not referencing Hemingway's story at all, Siegel is effectively saying, "I can keep the title, but change the story. This ain't Papa's genre no more." Same goes with The Swede becoming rather un-Swede like - it doesn't make sense, but that is a-ok because, you know what, life don't make much sense. And, finally, in Siodmak's version there is resolution. The raison d'etre is apparent - even though the journey turned out to be meaningless, at least an answer was found. In Siegel's version everyone dies and nothing matters and it all is pointless anyway, isn't it?

In spite of all the great overtones Siegel's version has, its execution leaves it stuck in the mire of mediocrity. Siegel seems aware of said overtones, but never fully develops them into themes. The matte finish on the film seems to hint at the banality of life, but is handled in such way that it just might be an accident. The rear projection driving shots are less Notorious cool and more Herbie Goes Bananas bad. Final coup de grace of so-close-to-being-right-the-crap-on-but-actually-very-off: the high points of the film are Ronald Reagan and a cameo by Seymour Cassel.

So, what was the point of all this?

Got me. Noir has its Post-Noir, now reviewing has it's Post-Reviewing.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring Directed by Kim Ki-Duk

It would be so easy for Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring to pigeonhole itself into the tightly cramped corner that is Buddhist Cinema. The film is replete with all types of imagery that the average (or even above-average) westerner would find impossible to wrap their mind around. Thankfully, instead of creating a niche piece, Kim Ki-Duk made a film that is as universal as breathing.

First things first: in all aspects of the word, this film is beautiful. The cinematography, the directing, the script, the themes - all beautiful. The film is set entirely on a floating monastery in the midst of a small valley. The occupants - the two main characters - are an old monk and his young pupil. The film uses the season motif in the title as a tool of progression, with the length between seasons varying from circa 10 to 20 years. Mostly, the film is a coming-of-age story. We watch the young pupil age into an old man and, as he ages, gain wisdom through experience.

S.S.F.W...a.S. is a fable. Like all fables, it uses archetypes to convey life lessons. The floating island, the old monk, the young pupil - all of these might seem a scoche trite in any form outside of the fable. They work fine here because Ki-Duk never strays from them. The boy lives an idyllic life, collecting herbs, rowing around the lake, and gleaning life lessons from daily routines. A simple, yet profound, lesson is taught during the first Spring of the film. Quickly the boy learns about life, death, and the burden of guilt. It is an extremely basic set-piece, but overwhelmingly effective in conveying its meaning.

As Summer rolls around the boy is now a teenager. It is made clear that he has a better understanding now of his monastic life. He seems proper and perfect in his Buddhism - but he is still not free from the outside world. The monastery functions as a place of healing as well as den of worship and solitude. A sick young girl is brought to the old monk for healing. While she remains on the monastery, the pupil and her fall in love. She is healed (apparently because of the tryst) and the old monk tells her that it is time to leave. Unable to bear the burden of distance, the pupil leaves as well.

It is nigh impossible to watch this film without wanting to chop it into five segments for memory's sake. In segmenting it, it is also difficult to not compare and contrast the segments with/against themselves. If I were to do this, I would proclaim Fall to be the King of the Seasons. Now at the age of 30, the pupil returns to the floating island. Without giving too much away, something terrible has happened to (and because) of the pupil. The old monk knows of what the pupil has done and the frustration and pain inside his heart. Even though he is aware of what has happened, the old monk neither admonishes nor comforts his student. The pupil attempts suicide and the monk steps in to save him. The monk knows that the student cannot take his own life without first confronting what is inside of him and reconciling with himself. Fall ends with the most remarkable set piece of the whole movie. I cannot bring myself to ruin it for the unaware.

As Spring returns we are reminded of the cyclical nature of life. To put it in American terms - what goes around comes around. The pupil is now between the ages of 50 and 60 and the old monk has died. The former pupil, now master, has taken over the monastery. Kim Ki-Duk himself plays the monk at this stage in his life, adding a note of autobiography to the film. Further elucidating the bond between the old monk and the new, a baby boy is left to the monk for him to raise.

I call this film universal because the themes, even though they are shown in the context of Buddhism, apply equally to everyone. Everyone has some semblance of what it means to grow old and to, hopefully, grow wiser. With this two-shot portrait of life, Kim Ki-Duk has created a truly beautiful film.

Friday, September 17, 2004

Stray Dog Directed by Akira Kurosawa

In 1995, Michael Mann directed a film called Heat. A really good film in its own right, it also boasted something that has not happened before or since, something of a milestone to a fan of great acting: Robert De Niro and Al Pacino together in the same scene. The scene is a profile two shot of the actors discussing their conflict over coffee. While watching Kurosawa's 1949 film, Stray Dog, I got the same feeling seeing Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura in a medium two shot as I did watching De Niro and Pacino. In a word - awe. I hate to sound like I'm genuflecting at a well-worn altar, but these actors, all four of them, have it. They remind me of the reason I started watching movies in the first place. Which was...I be entertained. I would like to think that as I have grown older I have also become more mature, both in my attitude and in my taste. Due to this, hopefully, entertaining me has become a more difficult endeavor for the film industry. So, why does Stray Dog entertain?

I like Kurosawa. Like being the operative. I thought Ikiru was top notch. Seven Samurai was pretty sweet. Hidden Fortress was a lot of fun. None, except Ikiru, really knocked my socks off though. I actually found Rashomon to be a bit dull and Dreams to be absolutely horrid. None of these films really entertained me the same way that Stray Dog entertained me.

Importantly, it isn't one of Kurosawa's period pieces. While being visually impressive and thematically pregnant, Kurosawa's period films, like almost all period films, leave me a bit cold. Call it laziness on my part; call it a lack of understanding, but they just do not do it for me. That being said, Kurosawa's are the best I have seen. So please do not throw your stones just yet. Stray Dog is a good old 1940's crime story, replete with all kinds of Americanisms - baseball, Broadway gals, and a score of hard-ass cops. Toshiro Mifune is the young rookie who loses his gun; a gun that shows up in a series of robberies. Bad news for the guilt-ridden greenhorn. Enter Takashi Shimura, the sage-like veteran who has seen it all. He builds the rookie's confidence and acts as a mentor. Together they search for the gun and, more importantly, the criminal behind the gun.

Sounds like something directed by Wilder. But, even though he was considered the most American of Japanese filmmakers, Kurosawa still had a ton of Japanese blood flowing through his veins. Amidst the search for the gun, Kurosawa sketches a portrait of Japanese post-war life. Using a wide-angle lens that he would eventually drop in favor of a telephoto, Kurosawa shows the decrepit environ that the lower-class Japanese lived in. Shacks substituting for houses, a run-down market where it is nearly impossible to buy anything, people bartering for food ration cards - all this is examined under Kurosawa's unflinching gaze. Amazingly, he doesn't reprimand or condemn. Even though there are some truly despicable things done in the film, they are shown as products of the time, not decisions of the people. Yeah, yeah - it could be seen as self-righteous blame displacement, but I do not think that was Kurosawa's point. I think his point was that there is hope and solidarity amidst the Japanese people, even in dire straits. Mifune's character never gives up - he is stubborn as a mule. Rather than fire the rookie for losing his gun, the Homicide chief softly reprimands him and gives him some advice. Instead of going without food, the people do whatever they can to survive.

So what was my point? Oh yeah - entertainment. I think my tastes have matured. But, I'm still a bit of a kid at heart. With Stray Dog, Kurosawa allowed me to have my cake and eat it too. It provides the mental stimulation filled with deep thoughts and stuff, and also the action of a classic crime story. Gosh, I love film.

Friday, September 10, 2004

Shock Corridor Directed by Samuel Fuller

In 1963 Samuel Fuller made Shock Corridor, by all accounts a low budget, borderline B-picture. Outside of Charade, it was the best American film of the year. What made this The-Little-Picture-That-Could was its harsh look into (literally) the psyche of America.

Now, when I say low budget, B, and The-Little-Picture et cetera, I make it sound as if Samuel Fuller was some fresh-faced Hollywood dream-come-true story. In reality, Samuel Fuller had been around Hollywood since 1949 when he started work on The Baron of Arizona, and became a Name in 1951 when The Steel Helmet was released. Truthfully, Fuller liked to work in the low budget arena. It seems to me that he was proud of doing a lot with a little. And with Shock Corridor, he did a whole lot.

Peter Breck plays Johnny Barrett, a journalist who has an idea - to pose as an insane man in order to infiltrate an asylum, crack a murder case, publish an article on the endeavor, and win the Pulitzer Prize. I know, this is the stuff of a $0.10 pulp novel, but in Fuller's hands it's golden. While planning the coup, Johnny hardly mentions the murder; he talks only of selling papers and winning the Pulitzer. When his girlfriend, a stripper with her own problems (a limelight fetish and very possibly some nymphomania rising), brings up the subject of morality, Johnny becomes defensive and retorts that this is the stuff that sells papers. So here we have Fuller indicting the Journalists of America: give them news, sure, but, most importantly, Give Them Thrills. It's the crux of the story, and Johnny's actions from here on out determine Fuller's take on the industry.

The question at table is who killed Sloan in the kitchen? The answer: well, not yet. Three patients (not inmates, we are told early on) witnessed the murder, therefore becoming Barrett's bosom buddies. Using each character to portray a different aspect of the culture, Fuller takes another stab at American Dogma. Before I go on, I don't believe that Fuller is intimating that America on the whole is terrible. I do believe that he is saying that certain institutions and ways of thinking in America are corrupt.

The Three Inmates, er, Patients:

1) A veteran of the Korean War who gave it all up and went AWOL. He then joined the Chinese Communist Party because of the bigotry and hatred he dwelt in while growing up. He even says that he would have joined any enemy - his environment gave him no reason to be proud of his country. It gets muddy here (comes with the pulp territory, I'm afraid), but from what I gather he returned to the U.S. and went insane. The implication is impossible to miss: American Cinema had just emerged from the Red Scare and Fuller was pretty relieved. But he hadn't forgiven anyone yet. This man's sickness is not due to Communism, but to his own homeland. Due to the lack of understanding, the ignorance, of his very own country. Barrett does not empathize with the man in any way, he just asks over and over, "Who killed Sloan in the kitchen?" In other words, he wants a name, the only thing that matters. Smacks of a certain senator from the 40's, don't it?

2) An experiment. In the late 50's the government enforced the desegregation of schools. This man, Trent, was one of the first African Americans to be imported (to be crass) into the "white" schools. He freaked out, went insane. Barrett jibes, "a lot of people were counting on you. You let a lot of people down." Now Trent imagines himself as the founder of the Ku Klux Klan - a man who hates black people and even incites a good ol' fashioned lynching attempt in the ward. Here the culprit is the bureaucracy. Specifically, the quick fixes made by the bureaucracy that are completely ineffective in dealing with the problem.

Before #3: Meanwhile, Barrett is undergoing his own mental breakdown. He is slowly becoming a psychotic in his own right. Ergo, the journalistic system is breaking down as well. It might be a tad much to attach Barrett to the entire journalistic sphere, but I wouldn't doubt that Fuller is willing to condemn the whole shebang. Barrett dreams of his girlfriend whispering far-from-sweet nothings into his ear at night, he slips in and out of mental cognizance during the day, and manages to get himself thrown into a straightjacket. Twice. And, unlike Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, this was hardly due to the protagonist's design. Read: the system is collapsing on itself because of itself.

3) A former scientist. A brilliant man who worked for NASA. He now paints suns, people, and houses of the callow variety. Formerly one of the greatest minds in the world, he is now reduced to the mental capacity of a six year old. Slowly, Barrett nurses the man back to full cerebral fortitude. In a moment of complete lucidity, the scientist tells Barrett that NASA invested a huge sum in beating the Russians to the moon. And for what? To say they got to the moon first. He goes on to say that the Russians were the first to study the mating habits of seahorses, so the government must now beat Russia to the goal of being the first country to examine a grasshopper's brain. Then the man divulges his secret: an attendant named Wilkes killed Sloan. Barrett, breaking down himself, violently turns on the man and immediately the man regresses back to his former pathetic state. The rub here is twofold: a stab at gov't responsibility and a mimetic stare at the debilitating power of journalism. Through the space-race, journalism fueled the public's hunger for victory. As the saying goes, "the lord giveth, and the lord taketh away."

Added to all these themes is a genuine talent in filmmaking. The camera bobs frenetically and the editing cuts wildly - both imitating the fractured headspace of a mental patient. And even with all the heavy subtext, Fuller manages to make a film that works as pure entertainment as well. If one were so inclined, one could watch this film without a single thought and still get great enjoyment. The visuals, the acting, the plot - all add up to great fun regardless.

In the end Barrett writes his story. He wrangles a confession out of Wilkes via the tried-and-true: fisticuffs. But the story does not end there. Flash-forward at least a month and we see Barrett's girlfriend pleading with Barrett's former doctor. Seems that Barrett, after writing his story (guaranteed to win the Pulitzer, by the way), broke down. Completely catatonic, the doctor says that Barrett had no idea what he was getting into. A man cannot subject himself to the company of confirmed lunatics and all those psychological tests without going batty himself. Meaning: sooner or later the media is corrupted. When it is placed in a closed-minded society with a jingoistic government any other result is impossible. Hardly an uplifting note, but, from what I gather, Fuller was not exactly the jolly type.

Monday, September 06, 2004

I Vitelloni Directed by Federico Fellini

Vitelloni is the Italian word for a young fattened calf or an immature male loafer. Both definitions apply aptly to the Vitelloni of Federico Fellini's 1953 film. The story is of five young men (the Vitelloni) that cruise through life in a small town in Italy. One sings, one romances, one writes, one makes trouble, and one observes. They deal with unexpected pregnancy, marriage, money (or lack thereof), and the ultimate dream - getting away. This is one of the bridge films of Fellini; it came right after 1952's The White Sheik and right before the 1954 film La Strada. In its own right, La Strada is seen as a bridge between the Italian neo-realism of early Fellini and the big top surrealism of later Fellini. But it seems to me that I Vitelloni and La Strada are two halves of the same bridge, with the former belonging to the neo-realist Fellini and the latter belonging to the surrealist. I Vitelloni lacks the beautifully intrusive camerawork, the unconventional plot, and the broken narrative of later Fellini, but it is the first film to carry and fully develop one of his major life-long themes - the growth-stunted male.

Notably, because of its strong ties to the doctrine of neo-realism, I Vitelloni has a much more intimate feel when compared to Fellini's later works such as 8 1/2 or Amarcord. This is the microscopic life of a small town; a place where everyone knows everyone and the audience is allowed to candidly observe. Fellini was only 30 when he made I Vitelloni and, because of that, the film is full of unbridled life. The characters are constantly dancing, singing, and partying - doing everything they can to either avoid their problems or forget they had any problems in the first place. Being 30 also allowed Fellini to delve deeply into the theme of the young man-child. The Vitelloni comprise the major facets of Fellini - his love for music, his penchant for romance and trouble, his artistic side, and, perhaps the most important attribute of a filmmaker, his ability to observe. While all five of his characters occupy a specific niche, none are complete. Moraldo, the observer, while able to see and understand what is going on, is completely unable to comment or affect the situation he is observing. He walks in on his friend Fausto running away from home but is unable to tell him to stop, he sees Leopoldo, the writer, making a fool of himself in front of an esteemed actor, and can do nothing but watch. His child-like innocence and naivete are the result of his being a child still. Fausto, the romancer, cannot commit. He impregnates a young girl (Moraldo's sister) and attempts to run away. Through the heavy-handed persuasion of his father, Fausto marries the girl. Still, he cannot commit - he chases other women until his wife runs away.

Tied into the theme of the 30 yr. Old boy is the compulsory need for the five to get away. They all speak of leaving their small town; by leaving they will get money and with money, they can finally grow up. Of course this is a mirage, a pipe dream. It is true that leaving is the only savior in their situation, but their situation (that of being children trapped in men's bodies) makes it impossible for them to leave. They are tied to their families, their fun, and their dreams - dreams that are too impossible to attempt a realization. But Moraldo has no dreams. It is made clear at the beginning of the film that he is the youngest of the troupe. This is important because, in being the youngest, he is a genuine adolescent - a child without excuses. Because of this, Moraldo can leave. He has not encountered the pseudo-adult life that keeps others tied to their home while wishing only for the outside. And Moraldo does leave. In the next to last shot of the film he boards a train without the knowledge of anyone else sans one person (more on that later.) Moraldo is making a clean break for a new start.

Most of this sounds pretty dour, but I Vitelloni is a film brimming with hope. There is the hope that each character will find their own spot in their small township. And it is not an entirely improbable hope. We do believe that Leopoldo will write plays one day - he just needs to write from his heart, not his mind. We do believe that Fausto will settle down - the last act of the film nearly guarantees it. And it is probable that Moraldo will make it on his own.

The last shot of the film is not of Moraldo's train careering down the tracks and disappearing into the horizon. It is of a boy named Guido walking along the rail of the track in the opposite direction. In every film that he makes Fellini has a character that he cares for deeply, a character that he keeps above the fray of life. In La Strada it is Gelsomina, in 8 1/2 it is Guido, and in I Vitelloni it is this young boy. These characters are directly affected by the actions of others - the fray of life - but they do not partake in it. In the case of the two Guidos, they are alter egos for Fellini - the filmmaker observing the lives around him.

If Moraldo observes everyone, then Guido observes Moraldo. He is the only one that encounters Moraldo during his late night walks, and he is the only character that Moraldo seems to have complete faith in. Most importantly is that Guido sees Moraldo off - he becomes a talisman of sorts that assures a safe journey. And after Moraldo's train leaves, Guido continues. He walks along the rail back towards town, assuring us, and the town, that life will go on.

Thursday, September 02, 2004

Chinatown Directed by Roman Polanski

Film noir. Neo-noir. Post noir. An homage to noir if you're really French. Whatever you want to call it is ok with me, but let us get down to some of its basic tenets:

The Femme Fatale

She's beautiful, motivated by an ulterior, and much smarter than our protagonist. Also: usually blonde.

The Protagonist

He often dies. If he does not die, well then, he ends up in prison. It should be noted that this is normally due to the Femme Fatale.

The Plot

Thick. Often convoluted. And you can bet large sums of money that it involves death. Generally speaking, the plot involves the Femme Fatale tricking the Protagonist into killing someone, usually the FF's hubby.

The Lighting

Low-Key. Often with piercing slanted beams of light to signify some form of entrapment. Equally important is the film stock - it really has to be black and white, with grittier = better.

The Dialogue

Terse and bold. The actors speak in cliches, but it sounds ok for some odd reason.

The term Film Noir came from the French. They noticed a darker mood and atmosphere to the films that started trickling in from American when they regained their feet after WWII. A clever journalist dubbed the new style Film Noir; literally black film. In actuality the genre can trace its lineage to the writers of the era; namely, James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, and Dashiell Hammett. From there, directors like Billy Wilder and John Huston ran with it, creating classics such as Double Indemnity and The Maltese Falcon.

But, even though I've now devoted almost 250 words to the subject, I'm not here to talk about film noir. I'm here to talk about Chinatown, Roman Polanski's 1974 picture. That's what I was getting at in the first sentence. Various people have called Chinatown various things: noir, neo-noir, post noir, et cetera. First of all, I believe that it is ultimately pointless to argue the nomenclature of the genre with anything more than a passing vigor. Secondly, I do believe that Chinatown could easily fit into any of the branches on the noir tree. Which is really remarkable when you stop and look at the film.

There is no Femme Fatale. Faye Dunaway is beautiful, and she is blonde, but she's hardly of the vicious type that is becoming of a fatale. Her motives are pure - she just wants to get away from her past. Plus, her hair is only slightly blonde.

The Protagonist does not die. Nor does his story terminate at a jail cell. Quite the opposite, actually.

Ok, so the plot is thick and convoluted. And it does involve death. But (but!), it does not involve any of the usual conniving between the FF and the Protagonist. And it definitely does not involve either one of those two murdering someone else.

The lighting has noir elements, but not nearly as heavy as usual. In fact, many of the key scenes are shot during the day; which is a big no-no for noir. Also, the film is in color. There's a red flag if I've ever seen one.

The dialogue is remarkably poetic. There are some of the noir one-liners, but the flick doesn't abound with them.

So why exactly is this a noir? Put simply: the mood. Put complicatedly: the first thing that the French picked up on in Film Noir, the reason they called it Film Noir, was the atmosphere. The atmosphere was heavy with people that were doomed as a whole. Even the respectable people in a noir have skeletons in their closets and are very aware that their lives are slowly, but surely, coming to an end. And Chinatown has that. All of these people focus on the only thing they have - a future that is becoming shorter with each passing minute.

Many critics speculate on what Chinatown is. That is, what the Chinatown of the film's title is referring to. I can hardly resist that temptation. Some have said that it is literal, referring to the actual Chinatown that our hero, Private Investigator Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), once worked in as cop. Others have said, no, Chinatown is the mood of the piece - the macabre and sinister that works its way into every moment of the film. I say Chinatown is the past. Gittes never wants to face his past, his tour of duty in Chinatown. Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) does not want to face her harrowing past involving her father (played masterfully by one of the fathers of noir, John Huston.) This is her personal Chinatown. And when Gittes tries to change and make sense of the ending of both Evelyn and the film, he is told by a colleague to, "forget it, [...] it's Chinatown." After all, you cannot do anything about the past. You can't make sense of it, you can't come to terms with it, and God knows you can't change it. That is Chinatown.

This is the most important tenet of Film Noir: whatever happens, happens. The players are pieces moved around by fate. They chase money, love, sex, and happiness but find none of that. They find death and tragedy and they live with it, and it's ok, because they're always one day closer to the end. And Chinatown practically breathes that concept.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

A Nous la Liberte Directed by Rene Clair

It is now fairly common knowledge that Charlie Chaplin ripped off Rene Clair's A Nous la Liberte when he made his 1936 film, Modern Times. The story goes that Tobias, Clair's production company, filed suit against Chaplin but Clair called the whole gig off, citing Chaplin as one of his favorite directors. This isn't an argument or a comparison of the two films - I'll leave that one to Michael Atkinson of Village Voice fame. No, A Nous la Liberte and Modern Times are remarkably different. So much, in fact, that they can hardly be compared excepting their industrial overtones. And even those vary 'twixt the two.

The film opens with two prisoners planning some form of escape. We know them only as #'s 155 & 119. Their habitat is extremely efficient. Men are metered off in straight lines, their mealtime is neatly rationed, and every move is closely monitored. Remarkably, they manage to make an escape attempt. By using 155 to support himself, 119 is able to slowly cut through the metal bars of the elevated prison window. Once out, the jig is up. After 155 scales the first of two walls, the spotlight is fixed on 119. After realizing that there is no escape for him, 119 gives up his chance at freedom to tell 155 to flee. Rather he yells, "Run for it, Louis." 155 (heretofore Louis) retorts, "Thank you Emile." Both of these men have managed to escape. 119 is no longer 119 - he is Emile. Regardless of residence, he is Emile. 155, on the other hand, has the better end of lollipop - being both Louis and Free.

Out in the free world, Louis works himself up to the position of CEO of a phonograph company. The film never tells us how long Louis spent in prison, but I gather it was awhile. As soon as he gets to the outside world, he recreates the prison. Louis builds a factory replete with strict lines, heavily portioned and mechanized meals, and (get this) guards to monitor the workers' progress. Clearly there was something of the prison that stayed with Louis. We find out later that Emile has escaped prison and landed himself a job at Louis' factory. The meeting between the two ex-cons is one of the more endearing heterosexual meetings between men that I've seen on film.

Later on there are the unavoidable trappings of an early sound comedy: Louis is confronted by former "affiliates" (of the criminal sort, if ya' get me) and is threatened with the loss of his company, there is a chase scene that smacks of Keystone, and the two pals end up more or less where they started: rather destitute with only each other. So what does it all mean? What does it add up to? Well, under all of this is the mantle of capitalist bashing. Every character in the film, sans Emile, chases money exclusively. The best scene features a valise full of loose 1000-Franc notes strewn about a courtyard and roughly 100 bourgeois, tuxedo clad men clamoring after said notes. The camera bobs with frenetic ecstasy, watching these gentlemen tear at each other for money that does not belong to them. But I don't know what to make of the ending: whereas Modern Times condemns the machine, Clair dares to capitalize it - Machine. The workers are shown as happy and docile now that the machine (Louis' final invention) has come to replace them. They bask in their simple life of fishing and singing, content to live an idle day. Perhaps, despite the fantastic rip at the upper-class in the courtyard scene, the film's real goal is show freedom. What it is, the film finally realizes, is different for everyone. A socialist might argue that to be able to work is freedom. Clair would argue that the choice of whether to work or not is true freedom.