Sunday, April 27, 2008

Charly: Tribeca, April 27 and May 1 and 3, 2008

After her debut Demi-tarif, and even after the first 30 minutes of her second feature Charly, it wasn't clear to me that Isild Le Besco was going to find a way to integrate the sensual immediacy of her film style into a larger structure. But I think everything is going to be all right with her. As the film's young, enigmatic protagonist (Kolia Litscher) is adopted by the eponymous trailer prostitute (the excellent Julie-Marie Parmentier), Le Besco's fanciful, free-floating universe is invaded by psychology and fairy tale at the same time. To watch the semi-literate boy and his OCD-afflicted hostess get excited about an impromptu reading of Wedekind's Spring Awakening is to realize how many layers of meaning Le Besco has been sneaking in while we were listening to the tiny shocks of ambience change on each cut. After three days and nights, the trailer idyll culminates in a startlingly beautiful sex scene and the emergence of the boy protagonist as the author of his own fiction. Charly screens three more times at Tribeca: on Sunday, April 27 at 9:45 pm at the 19th St. East; on Thursday, May 1 at 10:15 pm at the Village East; and on Saturday, May 3 at 5:30 pm at the Village VII.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Paper Will Be Blue: Walter Reade, April 21, 2008

If you haven't made plans yet for tomorrow (and if you're not headed to BAM to see Tomu Uchida's rare and well-regarded Twilight Saloon), I recommend Radu Muntean's The Paper Will Be Blue, screening in the Walter Reade's Romanian film series at 6 pm on Monday, April 21. A 2006 Locarno premiere, Paper shares a subject - the Romanian people's moral confusion as the Ceauşescu regime teetered in December 1989 - with Corneliu Porumboiu's 12:08 East of Bucharest, but is closer in style and attitude to Cristi Puiu's superb The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. (Paper and Lazarescu share a writer, Razvan Radulescu, whom I'll be looking out for from now on.) Like Lazarescu, Paper racks up sharp observations of a large number of characters in a shifting geography, but does not use many closeups or focus on individual character development. After a stunning opening that shows off Muntean's skill in deploying the signifiers of documentary, the film perhaps takes on a bit of a static quality, not quite attaining the subterranean mythological development that Lazarescu's subject matter provides. But the film never loses its intelligence and its balance between satire and sympathy. Maybe there really is a new Romanian film movement after all....

Friday, April 18, 2008

Bazin at 90

André Bazin would have turned 90 today. In his honor, I opened the new e-issue of Cahiers du Cinema, which has been publishing (and translating into English) one of Bazin’s uncollected articles each month. Here’s a tiny snippet from this month’s article, “To Encourage Quality Films, We Have to Change the Law for Subsidizing Cinema” (Radio-Cinéma-Télévision, no. 64, 8 April 1951), translated by Bill Krohn.

“...the producers reply that it is impossible to apply the criterion of quality. To hear them talk, one would think that this notion is as impossible to get hold of as a sea serpent or a flying saucer, as untrustworthy as the testimony of a five-year-old child about the trauma of being weaned. This terrorizing assertion, energetically repeated, is simply ridiculous.”

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Dramaturgy and Two-Ness

As I was watching some Thorold Dickinson films during his recent retrospective at the Walter Reade, I started thinking about dramaturgy, and how it relates to my tastes. Dickinson is a gifted, proficient filmmaker who nonetheless doesn’t appeal to me very much. He resembles Hitchcock more than he does anyone else: he has an acute sense of event, of the viewer’s involvement in the drama; and of the way that the camera can exploit the wholeness of space to heighten involvement. All the films of his that I’ve seen build slowly and carefully to well-managed dramatic peaks: the bedroom confrontation between Anton Walbrook and Edith Evans in The Queen of Spades, the terrorist act in which Valentina Cortese is implicated in Secret People, the Rear Window-like confrontation between Walbrook and Frank Pettingell in Gaslight. The last is Dickinson’s most dazzling film (though for me rather painful to watch), partly for the way it manipulates audience sympathy to sustain agonizing suspense for almost its entire length. (Gaslight was oddball material for Cukor, but characteristic and defining material for Dickinson.)

What bothers me about Dickinson is that he doesn’t seem to have much interest in creating a film universe with interesting and coherent internal connections. All his energy seems to be devoted to the problem of positioning the viewer vis a vis the story. His characters tend to be reduced to a simple configuration of behaviors that reinforce their role in the drama: compare Walbrook’s signifier-level villainy in Gaslight and The Queen of Spades, exemplified by his luxurious drawling delivery of treacherous endearments, with the same actor’s evocations of intelligence and introspection for Powell/Pressburger or Ophuls. Dickinson is quite capable of using realistic elements for counterpoint (as in the superb sequence in Gaslight where the boarding and renovation of a house conveys the passing of years) or providing social context (like the street sweeper in Gaslight who guards the safety of the working-class urchins as a horse passes). But these skills remain in the periphery: when it comes to telling a story, Dickinson’s thoughts are fixed on our reactions. There’s not much in the way of character arc or development in his films, and what there is (the protagonists of Secret People, my favorite Dickinson film, go through a few changes) is greatly simplified in the name of narrative clarity.

I have a tendency to criticize filmmakers for failing to do the dramaturgical work of harmonizing character developments with story developments. Recently I expressed my misgivings about the talented Kiyoshi Kurosawa in similar terms: I am always dissatisfied by how his plots do not express and amplify the emotional dilemmas that plague his troubled characters. (I wrote a tiny bit more about this issue once on a_film_by.)

I am implicitly using a classic dramaturgical model to beat up these filmmakers. Even the most elementary narratives generally strive to create a wedding between the issues of the characters and the workings of the plot. For instance, a character who is a coward traditionally inspires a story in which he or she must perform bravely to resolve a crisis. Complicated art can complicate this procedure a great deal, but the tendency to bring together action and character development is ancient and persistent.

Obviously there are issues of taste involved here, so I don’t want to posit classical dramaturgy as any kind of aesthetic absolute. And it’s not as if I think that the cinema peaked with silent melodrama: good narrative films show infinite variety and subtlety in their weaving of personal stories and event. Perhaps it would be fair to say the movies that I criticized above are ones that foreground dramatic construction, while seeming to me not to care enough about its implications for character development.

The reason I bring the subject up is that, while watching Dickinson films, it occurred to me that classical dramaturgy could be seen as a way of creating a relationship between internal and external views of a work of art.

By “internal view,” I mean the idea that the work of art is its own universe independent of us, with its own coherence. When we criticize a work of art for psychological plausibility, for instance, or for having plot holes, we are thinking of the film universe as a self-sufficient world that has its own motors and laws, and expressing a desire that the filmmaker not play fast and loose with its integrity.

And by “external view,” I mean the idea that a work of art is a spectacle for the audience, intended to entertain or trouble or stimulate us. In this view, we are thinking less of a film universe, apart from us, than of a film mechanism that exerts an effect on us. The relationship between entities in this view is not character to character, but filmmaker to us.

Every work of art can probably be regarded from both these viewpoints. I routinely look at every movie through both prisms. In fact, I tend to require that both perspectives give satisfaction for me to consider a movie good.

There’s a big question, for me at least, raised by this consideration of the internal and external views of art. Why should I care that these two realms be brought into relation with each other? Why does this create aesthetic value for me? Why would I not be satisfied with getting one good thing, and instead require two?

Maybe the answer is simple. Sometimes I think that there is something crucially important about two-ness in art. In fact, sometimes I think that what creates artistic value for me is the presence of two separate kinds of pleasure, given at the same time by the same gesture. The pleasures might be extraordinarily simple ones: I don’t see a lower limit to how simple they can be. Nor do I see restrictions on what kind of pleasures can be involved. But if these pleasures come one at a time instead of two at once, I notice that I resist calling them art.

According to this theory, classical dramaturgy is valuable (to me - I have to remember to keep sticking that qualifier in, because it's obviously not true for everyone), not because of some sophisticated philosophical relationship between the internal and external views, but simply because both the internal and the external views give some elementary pleasure when they cohere, and because classical dramaturgy creates both coherences at the same time with the same act.

A few days later, I saw a movie that got me thinking about one-ness and two-ness in the context of visual style instead of dramaturgy. Introducing his intriguing La France at a New Directors/New Films screening, Serge Bozon cited the influence of directors from the American classical cinema, naming Walsh, Fuller, and Jacques Tourneur. I wasn’t so sure about Walsh and Fuller, but some of Bozon’s shots did indeed evoke Tourneur in their compositional quietude, and in an artificial illumination of space that seems both friendly and eerie.

And yet the effect was not at all the same for me. The postmodern approach of Bozon and his co-writer Axelle Ropert removes the propulsion of the story: events in La France are characteristically cut off from each other, suspended in a state of direct address. The visual containment and illuminated backgrounds of Tourneur exist in the context of narrative conviction: an image that is saturated with otherworldly serenity might also serve the function of introducing a zombie. By stripping away narrative momentum, Bozon’s beautiful images seemed to me to be deprived of the double function of Tourneur’s shots.

I don’t rule out the possibility that Bozon offers other complexities in place of Tourneur’s story-based approach, and I don’t want to propose La France as an example of failed art. But it does illustrate that Tourneur’s visual impact for me is based on a two-ness that I detect in his visual style, and when one of the two functions goes AWOL (as it did for me, at least), the artistic impact drops by much more than 50%.