Friday, December 28, 2007

Otto Preminger: Film Forum, January 2-17, 2007

Film Forum is kicking off 2008 with a far-from-complete but nonetheless welcome retrospective of the formidable Otto Preminger, one of the most distinctive sensibiities in the history of American cinema. Just in case anyone out there is looking for guidance, here are my two cents about which titles in the series are required viewing.

Preminger's career breaks down roughly into five parts.
  • Pre-Auteur, 1931-1944. Preminger's work before Laura has traditionally been ignored by film scholarship. Film Forum is showing three of the early films, all on January 14. In the Meantime, Darling is by far the best of the bunch - but if you're hardcore you're probably seeing the whole triple bill, and if you're not you can probably skip the early work altogether.
  • Fox Film Noir, 1944-1951. Laura made Preminger a name and ushered in his first major period, dominated by atmospheric chamber melodramas. If you see only one of these, make it the superb Daisy Kenyon, as good a film as Preminger or anyone else ever made. It screens with Laura (which never meant that much to me, for some reason) on January 2 and 3. My second choice would be the strikingly abstract Fallen Angel, screening on January 6.
  • Adjusting to Independence, 1952-1957. This grab-bag period sees Preminger experimenting with different genres, exploring widescreen, and generally taking the measure of the shifts in style that were occasioned by the advent of television and the adoption of new codes of realism. The must-see here is Angel Face, screening with Fallen Angel on January 6, and probably the best textbook from which to study the essentials of Premingerian style.
  • Big Subjects, 1958-1967. Preminger grabbed the public's attention, as producer and director, with a series of well-publicized, large-scale projects, often literary adaptations, often pegged to important social issues. I most recommend Anatomy of a Murder, the archetype for Preminger's Big Subject films, screening on January 4 and 5; and the Beltway epic Advise and Consent, screening on January 12.
  • Coping with New Hollywood, 1968-1979. Most people think that Preminger's last decade of work isn't his best - and Film Forum isn't showing any of these movies anyway.

I like other films in the series, but let's leave it at that for the sake of brevity. The Daisy link above contains some of my thoughts about Preminger, and here's a little something I wrote on a_film_by about Preminger's attitude toward characters.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Charlie Wilson's War

Charlie Wilson's War surprised me pleasantly. It contains a fair amount of commercial routine, but the heart of the film, the protagonists' manipulation of the political system, is so pragmatic and literal that it challenges the identification structure that usually propels this kind of drama. The most idealistic of our heroes is a religious right-wing extremist; the most far-sighted are intelligence officers who like to talk about "killing Russians"; the "voice of conscience" role is given to a military dictator. At the center of the operation, liberal congressman Charlie Wilson seems driven less by righteousness than a pleasure in operating large political machinery. His amorality extends beyond his private life to encompass his political relationships, and from certain angles the film can be interpreted as making a case for amorality as a social value.

Aaron Sorkin's remarkable script deserves much of the credit for the film's success, but we are reminded again that Mike Nichols can be a superb director of actors, and he guides Tom Hanks and Philip Seymour Hoffman away from the commandeering of audience identification that is the acting profession's version of original sin.

One of Charlie Wilson's limitations, however, is instructive. The film is set against the background of real-life, large-scale human suffering: Afghanistan's plight during the Soviet invasion. And yet the film is not, structurally speaking, about this large and important topic. It is in essence a caper film: its appeal is based on the excitement of watching a band of allies mount a complex strategic assault on a system.

This collision of modes is tricky to manage. There is intrinsic black humor in the idea of focusing on small-scale personal triumph in the midst of global suffering, and Nichols and Sorkin occasionally try for black humor, particularly in the film's combat scenes. But Charlie Wilson is not unconventional enough to throw away the commercial benefits of having a Big Subject, nor to steer completely clear of a sentimental "we changed the world" tone at key moments (like the beginning and ending). Inevitably, its substantial virtues are undercut by its confusion about whether the Afghan crisis is its raison d'etre or a MacGuffin.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Scarface: MOMA, December 16, 2007

It's always been hard for me to have an informal relationship with Scarface, because its legend looms so large in my filmgoing life. (I am talking about the original 1932 version. I will never get used to having to make that clear, just as some religious people probably bristle to think that "Madonna" might no longer mean the Virgin Mary to everyone.) When I began reading film literature, commentators often cited it as the greatest work of Howard Hawks, who has always seemed to me the greatest director in cinema history. (These days, I believe that it's more common for critics to give honors to other Hawks movies - Rio Bravo especially.) It was unavailable for screening for decades, like other films owned by Howard Hughes, and could be seen only at clandestine 16mm screenings until the 80s. And, once seen and assimilated into the canon, it became a touchstone, a key test case for what might be termed moralistic criticism. Every time I wonder whether a movie is getting too much pleasure from the exercise of power or violence, my thought process makes an obligatory stop: "But what about Scarface? What does this movie do that Scarface doesn't do?"

All Hawks' films work off of a genre background that creates expectations about how formally, how quickly, how emphatically scenes will play. And then the execution happens more casually and rapidly than expected, creating an illusion of realism, and releasing energy. Depending on the genre, different aspects of Hawks movies can become part of the genre background; and in Scarface I have the feeling that whole chunks of the movie, even scenes with important characters, exist primarily to establish its genre credentials. Despite an amusing reflexive bit in the first shot - in which a janitor bats impatiently at the elaborate Sternberg-like decor, trying to clear the set for Hawksian use - Scarface doesn't truly announce its Hawksian intentions until the violence starts flowing freely. But then the film knocks us back in our seats: not with especially graphic violence, but with the speed and frequency of the mayhem, and also with the directness of its presentation of such frightening material.

The exhilarating effect is hard to deny. What does Hawks do to prevent our celebrating the violence? I'm not really sure that he does anything. Certainly he does not spare us Tony Camonte's cruelty, or hide his crudeness and unattractive qualities. Neither is he much interested in condemning him, despite the studio's many distracting attempts to placate the Hays Office by inserting socially responsible commentary. One feels that Camonte interests Hawks the most as a character in the scenes where he plays parent and teacher to his team of hoodlums, revealing a childlike nature that is comically inadequate to grasping moral issues, and that makes him, if anything, more sympathetic to the audience.

One notes that the thrill of the violence doesn't prevent the film from making an honest account of human suffering. For instance, there is no sense of reversal or contradiction when a brutal shooting scene ends with a barrel of beer rolling into a basement apartment and presumably killing one of its offscreen inhabitants (we hear the wailing of a woman as the scene ends). In general, it doesn't seem that we need to identify with Camonte or his men to appreciate the violent scenes: in fact, the audience probably wouldn't mind much if one of our monster/protagonists met his end amid the sensory overload.

But the joy of combat is represented as well as its human cost. The most exciting and perfectly realized scene in the film, in which Camonte and his minion Rinaldo score a machine gun from the gang who is attacking the restaurant in which they are eating, is very similar in tone to the final shootout with the Burdett gang at the end of Rio Bravo - our excitement at the onscreen violence is intentionally conflated with Camonte and Rinaldo's adrenaline rush from being under fire. The fact that the protagonists are lawmen in Rio Bravo and ruthless gangsters in Scarface does not seem to be a key factor.

The conclusion I draw is that Scarface gets away with giving us enormous pleasure from unspeakable actions because it promotes in us a sense of intellectual and emotional mobility. It does not have to romanticize violence or violent people to get its effects; it does not have to create a narrative that denies us one perspective or another on the violence. In this context, our thrilled response to killing registers simply, a fact among other facts.

You probably won't read this in time, but Scarface screens again at MOMA on Sunday (tomorrow), December 16 at 2 pm.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

La Soledad: Walter Reade, December 13 and 14, 2007

In my previous post on the Walter Reade's Spanish Cinema Now series, I mentioned Jaime Rosales's La Soledad (Solitary Fragments). Turns out I liked it quite a lot: it's playing again this afternoon at 3 pm, and tomorrow (Friday, December 14) at 9:15 pm. In the comments section for the Spanish Cinema Now post, Spanish critic Miguel Marias and I have been talking more about Rosales (who is not one of Miguel's favorites). Along the way, that same comments section wanders into discussion of neo-Bressonianism, depictions of unpleasant family life, and silent movie accompaniment....

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Thinking About Sound

After I posted a few weeks ago about the films of Humphrey Jennings, I started thinking again about sound and what it means to movies. In particular, I often try to put my finger on how sight and sound function in different ways for us, about how they might each have a different function in a sound film. Sometimes I'll hear a critic or filmmaker talk about how sound has barely been explored by filmmakers relative to the image (Godard was talking like that in the early 80s, around the time of Passion; I recently a piece by Andi Engel on early Straub-Huillet that took the same tack), and I always feel that they've got hold of the wrong end of it: surely there are reasons that sound and image have been used in different ways. Bazin had a different, more holistic view of sound: to him, film was not fundamentally a visual art, but rather an art based on the realism of the photograph; and the addition of sound to cinema was simply the filling of a gap, a development in perfect harmony with cinema's primal mission. I'm down with Bazin's sentiment (which was largely prescriptive, a description of the kind of cinema that Bazin valued most), but even in real life sight and sound do not function symmetrically with regard to each other, and I'd like to understand more about it. Does anyone know of literature that takes a stab at distinguishing between the psychological effects of vision and hearing?

This time around, I started by thinking about a commonplace idea that rings true for most of us: that a deaf person feels cut off from other people in a way that a blind person does not, and that, though we think of vision as the most useful sense, we might be happier to lose it than to lose our hearing. At least part of the force of this idea is connected to our emotions about spoken language. The content of language can be conveyed visually; and so can the enormous complexity of human personality; but perhaps only spoken language delivers both these payloads simultaneously, so that the two seem inextricable from each other. When we imagine what we would lose by being deaf, we think first of voices.

But one can leave voices aside in this consideration. Imagine being Robinson Crusoe on an island and having to sacrifice one sense or the other (a bad deal, admittedly). I, for one, would still feel more connected to my environment listening to its noises than looking around it. More helpless, without a doubt; but more present, less distant.

Is this because sound is panoramic (coming from all directions, not just one) and continuous (never turned off by anything analogous to an eyelid)? If we could see in every direction, and if images came to us even as we were sleeping, would that be enough to make vision as intimate and oceanic a sense as hearing? I can't decide. Maybe it would.

Anyway, the word "helpless" that I used above is suggestive to me. It's often been observed that vision is associated with power: we select what we see, manipulate our sensory apparatus to our advantage. And the visual aspect of cinema is easy to imbue with the urge to dominance: editing or camera movement that is executed with energy often connotes an assault, a campaign of control. Sound can, of course, become just as obtrusive as the image. But a noisy sound track suggests to me chaos more than strategy. And a fairly straightforward sound track often has something of the passivity of that blind Crusoe crouching in the bush: it absorbs and registers everything around it, makes no sudden moves.

Even if one credits this impressionistic attempt to associate visuals with the active principle and the soundtrack with the passive, it's certainly possible to use images to suggest passivity (e.g., the "master shot" style of so much of today's art cinema) or sound to suggest activity (e.g., Hollywood trailers). In both cases, though, I'm aware of the work required. Whereas if I consider basic, Griffith-inspired, Gunsmoke-editing-project film language, I get a sense of the image imposing itself on reality, and reality imposing itself on the sound track.

A possible corollary: I wrote recently about a connection between auteurist tastes in cinema and the passive principle. And it also seems to be true that contemporary French art cinema, which still shows the influence of Nouvelle Vague technique, is the school of filmmaking most dedicated to the importance of natural sound.

Anyway, this is off-the-cuff speculation, probably subject to revision in the coming minutes.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Spanish Cinema Now: Walter Reade, December 7-27, 2007

I haven't seen any of the films in the Walter Reade's upcoming Spanish Cinema Now series (none of the new films, anyway - I saw Pilar MirĂ³'s The Cuenca Crime long ago, and wrote a short review at the time), but I thought I'd share my pre-fest notes.

  • The item I'm most anticipating is Jaime Rosales' La Soledad (Solitary Fragments), which screened in Cannes' Un Certain Regard section this year. Rosales made an impressive debut in 2003 with La Horas del dia (The Hours of the Day), a deadpan account of a Barcelona shopkeeper whose occasional murders seem unmotivated.
  • Iciar Bollain (the teenage actress in Erice's El Sur), whose film Mataharis is screening, did a very nice, character-driven drama in 1999, Flores de otro mundo (Flowers from Another World). Her 2003 followup, Te doy mis ojos (Take My Eyes), disappointed me, but I'm still keeping tabs on her.
  • Among the unknown quantities, Miguel Hermoso's Lola, la pelicula looks like a totally unpromising biopic of a famous flamenco dancer - except that the trailer reveals a really cool, old-fashioned widescreen compositional style, and even a nice action moment. I'm very curious.
  • Santi Amodeo's Cabeza de perro (Doghead) has a more interesting subject, but the trailer has a flashier, more suspect visual style. I'm rooting harder for Lola, la pelicula, but this looks like the most interesting of the series' unknown art films.