Saturday, March 26, 2005

My Own Private Idaho d. Gus Van Sant, 1991

I have a VHS copy of My Own Private Idaho sitting on my shelf (that belongs to my friend Robb - sorry Robb.) I attempted to watch it some 5 years back (at the humble age of sixteen - that's right you dancers, I'm 21. The cat's out of the bag.) and mostly failed. Mostly because I thoroughly enjoyed what I saw, but stopped seeing right at the point when Mike (River Phoenix) is left by Scott. Why? I can't remember, but it was probably due to my then-girlfriend, whose filmic tastes began at Tarzan and ended at The Matrix. Chances are I was watching it when she came over - needless to say (hell if that'll stop me), a surreal art film about two grimy street-hustlers - one a narcoleptic, the other a Shakespeare spouting heir apparent - wasn't exactly her cup of tea. Yet again needless to say (and yet again hellfire will not hold me back), we soon parted ways. Things I remember about My Own Private Idaho from way back when:

    Some type of homosexuality

    A bizarre middle bit with a fat man and Shakespearean language


    Not bros before ho's

    A road

I wasn't wrong, per se, but I wasn't exactly right-the-fuck-on either. My rememberances (ah! the good ol' days) were much like when your mom asks you, "So honey, what have you been up to?" And, not wanting to mention the excessive drinking and general state of apathy, you reply, "Oh, you know - stuff."

I see now that I should have dumped the girlfriend earlier. I also see now that the Shakespearean bit in the middle is really a neat little recapitulation of Henry IV, pt. I, with Scott (Keanu Reeves) as Prince Hal, his father as Bolingbroke (aka Henry IV), and Bob as Falstaff. It's charming, really. What was Van Sant after with this, though? Possibly he really liked Henry IV, pt. I (as he should - it contains W.S.'s best scenes outside of Henry V and Hamlet), or maybe he was after something.

I assume all of you are familiar with both Henry IV, pt. I and My Own Private Idaho. But, in order to avoid embarrassment, a refresher. Henry IV, pt. I (heretofore H41) is the second part in Shakespeare's tetralogy, which deals with the dethronement of Richard II, the rise of Henry IV, his fall, and his son's (Henry V) rise and fall. It's great reading, really. H41 deals mainly with the idea time v. power, but also of (now listen closely, because this part concerns the matter at hand) societal position (class) & the differences in treatment of class. Van Sant latched onto this last part, but also added a twist of lime to call his own: Mike is none of the characters in H41, so where does that leave him? It leaves him alone, meaning that Van Sant added something slightly foreign to W.S. - the idea of the loneliness of man.

Scott is the hero of this squalid group of midnight cowboys, the rich kid slumming it up a bit in order to rebel against daddy. For the rest of the band, he's a one-way ticket out of the gutters. When his father dies (i.e. dethroned), he inherits a lot of money, putting him and his friends in the black for life. Mike is Scott's best-friend. He's A-OK, #2, the right-hand man. But the deal is, class is permanent. Just as Mike cannot become a member of the jet-set elite, Scott cannot permanently "reduce" himself to the tier of "street-walker." Van Sant is using tired cliches (rags-to-riches, riches-to-rags, class warfare) in order to examine homosexuality, love, and the very real differences between, say, myself and Steve Jobs. When Scott actually inherits his father's money he abandons the gutter life for opulence, opting for the sure thing rather than a life of caprice. Van Sant leaves it open - who's better off? This group of baudy young men and women, or the stable and permanent Scott? Which, in the end, is truly alone?

The over-intellectualize the film is miss the point though - My Own Private Idaho is, above all, fun. Inventions and digressions abound; your best bet is to merely revel in it.

Friday, March 18, 2005

L'Eclisse d. Michelangelo Antonioni, 1962

Like Antonioni's first (and seminal) work in his Eros Trilogy, L'Avventura, L'Eclisse is the type of film that could easily, and rightly, be described as boring. The characters make little sense, there isn't much to enjoy formally (outside of the beautiful, plaintive long shots), and, above all, nothing happens. Look deeper, and the discontent of one woman in two relationships becomes the focus. Look deeper still, and the discontent (or impossibility) of all humanity in all relationships becomes the focus.

The focus couple in L'Eclisse is comprised of Vittoria (Monica Vitti), a recently singled (read: ripe for the market as of ten minutes into the film) woman, and Pietro (Alain Delon), a money-hungry financial investor. This relationship is a sort of rebound for Vittoria - the opening scene of the film consists of a tense, denial-filled breakup between her and her (now former) fiancee. The heretofore Ex throws a tantrum, unable to understand why Vittoria would leave him. Antonioni seems to refuse comment on Vittoria's motives as well. Seems being the operative word. Antonioni speaks not through dialogue, but through mise-en-scene, the spatial relationships and juxtapositions of objects and individuals, and the placement of the camera that captures them. Underlining and surrounding this first scene are the sounds and images of invention - a fan ubiquitously hums, lights glare, and pieces of architectural art spire menacingly into the frame. Antonioni works entirely with closed forms in this scene, ensnaring Vittoria within her fiancee's environment. Vittoria never says why she must leave, but when she opens the shades to look at the dawn outside, it becomes clear that Vittoria is suffocated in this relationship - her nature is blocked by her fiancee. She passes a mirror, turns to look at it, and recoils in horror at the image she sees - she hardly recognizes herself because her self is clouded by her fiancee.

This theme of modernization overwhelming, and destroying, nature is the lynchpin of L'Eclisse. The man Vittoria turns to, Pietro, is an analogue to this theme - he cares only for money and the objects money can purchase. As Vittoria knows, at least subconsciously, money cannot purchase a sense of self. Nonetheless, she aligns her herself with Pietro, caught by his good looks and charming manner. The final shots of Vittoria and Pietro, the shots in which we learn that their relationship must also end, show Pietro behind his work desk, imprisoned by the things that earn his living - telephones, pens, sheets of paper filled with financial figures. Pietro's nature, his self, is lost to these things, so lost that, up until this point, he does not even realize that something is missing. The next shot, of Vittoria, follows her as she walks down the street. As she surveys her surroundings, she is overwhelmed by the modernization around her. The camera captures her behind an iron fence - her nature is trapped by the artifice of modern life. The camera then tilts up, showing all the trees metaphorically trapped behind this fence as well. Antonioni then jumps into a seven-minute "essay", juxtaposing nature against modernized civilization. The result is a very unsettling portrait of modern life destroying nature.

The idea is that, in the modernized destruction of nature, the nature of humanity is destroyed as well. Therefore, relational sincerity in between humans is rendered impossible - how can one sincerely express one's self to someone else when one has no idea of one's own true self?

Without a doubt, L'Eclisse is a masterpiece. It builds upon the ideas Antonioni developed in L'Avventura while simultaneously streamlining the narrative structure. If one cares to look deeper than the surface narrative, a compelling, and sometimes frightening, visual portrait of the struggle between nature and modernization is created, a portrait worthy of the time and effort spent to see and understand its meaning.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Taxi Driver d. Martin Scorsese, 1976

Now I see this clearly. My whole life is pointed in one direction. There never has been a choice for me.

Martin Scorsese was intent on writing and directing Genre Pictures in Hollywood. Westerns, Sci-Fi, War films, Musicals - he wanted to make traditional pictures influenced by the auteur theory. Even though he abandoned this idea as a career, Scorsese still made a few attempts at the genre film. Taxi Driver is, among other things, a final apotheosis in the evolution of Film Noir. Not a strict Noir, not even a Neo-Noir by most standards, Taxi Driver nonetheless contains many of the elements found in the traditional Film Noir - the modern fatalistic protagonist just returned from the war, chiaroscuro lighting, voice-over narration, an ambient jazz score. Unlike the war the original Noir protagonists were returning home from (WWII), Travis Bickle's war (Vietnam) is entirely senseless - devoid of purpose and meaning. The life Bickle returns to - New York City in the late 70’s - is equally senseless. Ergo, just as Bickle is differentiated from the previous Noir protagonists by war and society, the form and technique in Taxi Driver is differentiated from that of the former Noirs as well. Each element is pushed to its utmost limit. The lighting obfuscates to the point of surrealism - people are bathed in the red glow of neon or lost in the sable shadows of the night. The voice-over wavers between a tight, sensible narrative ("June twenty-ninth. I gotta get in shape") and an insanity-limned, detached ramble ("Listen, you fuckers, you screwheads. Here is a man who would not take it anymore. A man who stood up against the scum, the cunts, the dogs, the filth, the shit. Here is a man who stood up.") Taken any further, these elements would cease to be Noir, instead mutating into a completely different animal. This is the point - Travis Bickle is a man on the edge. The first half of the film could be a modern neo-noir ala Chinatown or Body Heat, but Travis Bickle slips over the edge, dragging all of the Noir trappings in his wake.

What Film Noir hinted at, but rarely examined, was the solitude - the utter isolation and personal confinement - of individuals living in post-war America and, to a lesser extent, the rest of the world. Travis Bickle's descent into madness is the result of his isolation. His voice-over (his audible thoughts and journal entries, really) begins in a state of coherence - the day's events, feelings about life, etc. As Bickle wallows in isolation, his only attempts at some type of bond being rebuffed, his narration becomes grim, morbid, and fragmented. His logic begins to fail; his syntax collapses. Bickle is a character of duality: the Everyman, but also the Pariah. He talks of cleaning the streets of filth and scum (like the Everyman would), while simultaneously embodying the lifestyle of that filth (attending porno theatres, and, you know, plotting out assassinations and stuff.) Because of this, Bickle is a stand-in for the societal whole; that is, his place in society is both everywhere (due to his plurality) and nowhere (how can a person embodying everyone fit in any one place?) His descent into madness is not clear to the viewer – is he truly psychotic or is he a lucid vigilante? Scorsese's direction, Paul Shrader's script, and Robert DeNiro's performance (to the credit of all) leave this point decidedly ambiguous. Once again, Bickle is a stand-in for the all - both the sane and insane.

This point - the pluralistic dichotomy of Travis Bickle - is illustrated throughout Taxi Driver. Scorsese seems to be commenting not only on Bickle, but on society as a whole. Bickle's interior - that is, the forces acting within him - are as much a part of society as Bickle's exterior, or the forces acting upon him. Bickle's attempts to eradicate the filth via violence are as much suicide as they are homicide. Therefore, the same can be said of society's violent and bickering back-and-forth between paradise and perdition.

This is where Noir steps in - the overarching theme behind Noir is pointlessness and fatality. Keeping Taxi Driver from being Noir is its ultimate lack of these concepts. Bickle works by means fatal, but his fatal actions bring new life and meaning. In the last five minutes of the film, Scorsese deconstructs the Noir genre, claiming that sense can be born out of senselessness; the two halves of Bickle (sane/insane, everyman/pariah, etc.) are united to form a complete person. Scorsese's idea, therefore, seems to border on fascism - in order to achieve balance and sense, these ideas must first be abandoned completely, leaving destruction in their wake. Or: in order to make an omelet, you gotta' break a few eggs. Regardless of subtext (I may be right, I'm probably wrong), Taxi Driver is an intriguing, obscured portrait of one man struggling to find his place in the world, and reaching for a rope to pull himself out of solitude.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Touch of Evil d. Orson Welles, 1958

The end of Noir, or so they say. This film was a bit of a disappointment after all the talk-up it has received (or at least that I have heard.) The opening eight minutes (one brilliant, mind-blowing shot) is rather breathtaking - Welles has technical bravura and bravado both. What he lacks is a good editor and a judicial hand with said technical prowess.

Citizen Kane was monumental, earning Welles high marks for his technical, emotional, and thematic excellence alike. Touch of Evil contains the same technical brilliance as Kane, but without the substance that gives the technique meaning. High and low angle shots are used throughout Citizen Kane to denote power - who holds it, who does not. In Touch of Evil, the same technique is used, and to the same effect, but at times unncessary. Welles wields his eye for composition and serpentine camera movement like a sledgehammer rather than a paintbrush. In addition to this slight misstep (and, despite my harping, it is slight - Touch of Evil is still a very good film, I just feel that something, anything, negative should be said about it.), Welles' editor seems absent on several occasions. Scenes run on - without humor, point, or necessity - to the edge of boredom. I'm thinking specifically of Heston confronting the night man at his wife's hotel. Which brings up another gripe - Heston. The man, in addition to being a blind tyrant of a testosterone (someone please render his hands cold & dead), is hardly worthy of the denotation, "thespian." Even if I'm exaggerating, his presence as Mike Vargas (that's right - M. Heston plays a Mexican man) is flaccid, causing him to seem absolutely lifeless in comparison to Welles' ironically vivacious Hank Quinlan.

If this was truly Noir's coffin-nail (and Noir, somehow, no longer exists. WTF, mate?), then it was an apropos way to go. Welles' films cause me to think that the man was trying to say something about himself. Casting himself as the larger-than-life Charlie Kane, only to knock himself down the ladder upon which he climbed. Or Mike Quinlan, the quasi-despicable vigilante policeman who sits above the law, lamenting the days of yore. Welles, the multimedia wunderkind, seems to comment on his own frailty; his own grandiose pomp and pathetic manner in which that pomp is deflated. He is, in essence, the Noir Hero. He possesses the fatality, the finite power, and the dreams and aspirations grown too large. So, with Touch of Evil, Welles gathers all these confluences - the genre elements, the technique, and, most of all, himself - and molds them into one final, flawed farewell to the defeated spirit of post-war modern man.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Goodbye, Dragon Inn d. Tsai Ming-liang, 2003

Tsai Ming-liang's paean to the cinema, Goodbye, Dragon Inn, contains only two short exchanges of dialogue. That is to say, this is a slow film. In his deliberately metered shots, linking non-event to non-event while existing virtually devoid of editing, Tsai captures closing night at the Fu-Ho Theater. From here on any reading or interpretation of mine could be argued just as easily from the other side - that is, one could maintain that I am projecting myself onto the film rather than the film actually meaning anything at all. Uh huh. Whatever.

Goodbye, Dragon Inn is the type of film loved by cineastes and loathed by the overwhelming majority of people that comprise everyone else. Even among cineastes the film has both its pro- and opponents. I find myself somewhere in the middle; I love the themes that Tsai is getting at, but am somewhat less enamored by his technique in getting at said themes. Fr'instance: the essence of Goodbye, Dragon Inn is the past - the inability to obtain it and the inevitability of the future tied into the concept of the past. The Fu-Ho is a theater that, when one considers its massive size, once must have been a lucrative and thriving cinema. Now it houses two employees and a small, rotating handful of patrons. Tsai emphasizes (over-emphasizes?) this point with multiple multi-minute static shots of the sparsely populated theater. After minute two - give or take - the point is home. After minute seven - once again, give or take - the point is home, sitting in his easy chair, and sipping an ice-cold longneck.

The reason Goodbye, Dragon Inn is a film for cineastes is that it examines the life of a cinema. The projector is turned away from expelling the outside onto the screen and toward reflection back on itself. What we see in Goodbye, Dragon Inn are the inner-workings of the Fu-Ho Theater and all that comes with the experience of being in the audience. Loud, obnoxious people sit behind a man. He turns to glare at them and they pay no attention. He moves. The man, now in a new seat, sees another man enter the theatre. This second man, seeing hundreds of empty seats, chooses to sit directly adjacent to the first man. It is painfully humorous, especially for someone who attends the theatre often and deals with this same type of scenario regularly. Then Tsai tackles film itself. Woven into the "narrative" of Goodbye, Dragon Inn are elements of Romance, Horror, and, thanks to the film playing at the Fu-Ho throughout the movie, Martial Arts. Meanwhile, all of this takes place against the constant sibilant aural backdrop of the projector humming away at 24 frames per second. We are surrounded by cinema.

Goodbye, Dragon Inn is truly Tsai's love-letter to cinema, and an aching one at that. It laments the passing of an era, when people came out in droves to see The Show. Moreover, it is a slow-reading, dryly-written letter, but if one can see past its iniquities, it has a great deal to say.