Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Ballast: BAM, May 31, 2008

Lance Hammer’s American art film Ballast, which premiered at Sundance this year, gets a NYC theatrical release from IFC Films on August 29. But you can preview it this Saturday, August 31 at 9 pm when it screens in BAM’s Sundance series. A quiet fable of despair and salvation among the impoverished residents of the Mississippi Delta, Ballast is visually overwhelming from its first shot: the camera work is simple and direct, but the natural light of the overcast delta gives Hammer’s widescreen, horizon-line compositions a palpable realism. (Is conventional film lighting necessary at all? Seems to me that most of the really dazzling effects I see are the result of imperfections that point up the limitations of the photographic image.) The first movement of Ballast, jumping mysteriously between solid blocks of image and sound that allude to the story rather than narrate it, is sublime: a documentary stalked by a horror film, a subtle infusion of naturalism with the uncanny. If the film ultimately settles into a more conventional form of storytelling, it retains an exciting connection with the intractable personalities of its non-professional performers and the darkling barrenness of the terrain. The proof of Hammer’s artistic intuition is that he hinges the story’s climax on a magical event that only a committed realist could get away with; the proof of his artistic commitment is that he lets the film’s bleak setting and ominous imagery have their way with the potentially heartwarming ending.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Late Marriage: Walter Reade, May 28 and 31, 2008

Dover Koshashvili's remarkable 2001 debut has, I believe, not had a NYC screening since its 2002 theatrical run, and is in some danger of being forgotten. The story, about the fierce resistance that an Georgian family in Israel puts up when its son (Lior Ashkenazi) falls in love with an Israeli divorcee (Ronit Elkabetz), primes the audience for a Romeo-and-Juliet-style, love-conquers-all drama. Instead of triumph or tears, however, we get a grueling analysis of the mechanics of social pressure, which thrives on the divided feelings of its targets, and which seems even more formidable here because of its psychological fluidity. Koshashvili stages the film in five or six large set pieces, played out in continuous time and space, but with large gaps in between. The structure made me think of Dreyer's Gertrud - and once that association was in my head, I also picked up more than a hint of Dreyer's quiet implacability in the way that Koshashvili observes the emotionally charged situation without endorsement, as if there were no point in rooting or protesting. Late Marriage screens twice in the Walter Reade's Israel at 60 series: on Wednesday, May 28 at 4:15 pm, and Saturday, May 31 at 9:20 pm.

If you don't have a 9-to-5 job, you should also pay a visit to Keren Yedaya's daringly stylized 2004 Or (My Treasure), screening Monday, June 2 at 4:15 pm and Wednesday, June 4 at 4:30 pm. To my mind, these are the two finest films that Israel has produced.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The First Legion: Walter Reade, May 26 and 27, 2008

The First Legion is the high point of the driest period of Douglas Sirk's career, the stretch between his adventurous independent American films of the 40s and the full-bodied Universal melodramas upon which his reputation stands today. Transitioning between Columbia and Universal in the early 50s, and stuck with a series of unpromising projects at both studios, Sirk went indie one last time to film Emmet Lavery's script (based on Lavery's own play) about the wave of enthusiasm that sweeps a monastery after an alleged miracle. Starting to move away from the distanced compositions and deliberate pacing of his 40s work, Sirk hints at the visual style that would flourish in his late films, deploying his actors as destabilizing foreground masses against the well-observed background of monastic life. The First Legion even culminates in one of the feverish plot twists that Sirk had to learn to master in order to ascend to power at Universal - but at this point in his career, for better or worse, he is still unwilling to abandon restraint and intelligence in the pursuit of melodrama. Almost never screened, the film plays twice in the Walter Reade's Charles Boyer series: on Monday, May 26 at 2 pm and Tuesday, May 27 at 4:40 pm.

(I'm presuming that most readers of this blog don't need to be hipped to the glories of Frank Borzage's History Is Made at Night and Ernst Lubitsch's Cluny Brown, which are also screening in the Boyer series.)

Monday, May 12, 2008

Children and Dogs

Here’s an old idea that I’ve tossed around on a_film_by once or twice.

We are all used to seeing people die in movies and not having it ruin our day. Many people believe that this restrained reaction is due to our knowledge that we are watching a fiction, our awareness that no one is really dying.

If, however, at the end or a row of anonymous movie extras being gunned down, the assistant director should accidentally place a child or a dog, the theater owner will hear about it. Some people’s days will in fact be ruined.

This surplus sensitivity to the onscreen deaths of children and domestic animals is extremely common. Spectators who endeavor to elevate their compassion for adult victims may succeed in leveling the playing field to an extent; but almost everyone understands, on a gut level, the special status of children and animals.

It seems to me that the near-universality of this reaction effectively refutes the idea that our indifference to onscreen death is due merely to our sophistication in recognizing the difference between fiction and reality.

Asked to explain this phenomenon, almost all interviewees say the same thing: “The child/animal is innocent.” The implication is that the adult is presumptively guilty, or at least that the occurrence of guilt in adults is sufficiently high that we should take no chances with them.

One can put forth an evolutionary explanation that we divide the world into members of our tribe, who help us survive, and others, who are a potential threat. Or one can opt for the more Freudian explanation that we all harbor an atavism that gives us a simple pleasure in the death of others, and that we feel freer to indulge this atavism with the excuse of self-defense.

In support of the evolutionary thesis, we observe that makers of fiction are skillful at using identification to change our reaction to the death of fictional characters. All filmmakers know that bit players will die unmourned, that the protagonist’s best friend is good for a bit of manageable sadness at the end of the second act, and that the death of the protagonist is an emotional experience that must be handled carefully. In effect, some characters become part of our tribe.

However, we are still capable of enjoying a tragedy in which the protagonist dies. The evolutionary thesis alone cannot explain this.

It could be that all three considerations – the argument from artistic sophistication, the argument from tribal affiliation, the argument from atavism – operate within us and combine to govern our reaction to onscreen death.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

The Tracey Fragments: Village East, starting Friday, May 9, 2008

I already blogged slightly about Bruce McDonald's The Tracey Fragments. Anticipating its limited theatrical release in NYC on May 9, I blogged about it in more detail at The Auteurs' Notebook.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

60s Godard via Le Petit Soldat

I don’t love Godard’s Le Petit soldat - I don’t know why: I want to, and feel as if I should – but I’m fascinated by it. It’s the closest Godard has come to being a pure stylist: one can almost imagine that he was a director for hire on a relatively commercial project, and that he turned in work which didn’t completely alienate his producers. For this reason, it lays bare aspects of Godard’s approach that, though always present, are less conspicuous in his other films because of the sheer density of creativity. I’m far from a Godard expert, but I’ll put in my two cents about how his 60s films work for me.

Topic #1: How Much Can You Undermine a Story and Still Have It Function As a Story? The torture scenes in Le Petit soldat, which are the structural center of the movie, get a lot more screen time and attention than Godard usually gives to structural centers. This is probably why Soldat feels more mainstream than other Godard works.

But one couldn’t mistake the scenes for the work of any other director. Immediately one notes that Godard wants to flatten the tone by removing, not just emotional highs and lows, but even references to them. Subor’s voiceover does a lot of the flattening: he discusses his torture in cool, analytical terms, mentioning pain only as a catalyst for his thought processes. And the images of torture inflict on the audience few signs of Subor’s discomfort. I believe that we hear no cries and see no anguished facial expressions.

We see this flattening again at the film’s other emotional high point, the ending. I won’t spoil it, but exactly the same techniques are used: the voiceover is tipped in the direction of detachment, and we aren’t shown grief or pain. However, the ending is unlike the torture scenes in that Godard shortens it almost to the vanishing point with ellipsis and truncation.

This second example is closer to Godard’s usual handling of narrative in the 60s period. It’s a fairly general practice for him to skip quickly and elliptically over scenes that would be narrative high points in a mainstream production. In addition to the ellipsis, the scenes are flattened emotionally as well. Far from feeling that big moments are being pulled away from us by the ellipsis, we often can’t even spot the climaxes as climaxes because of the flatness. Pierrot le fou is a good example of a Godard story that is potentially a thriller, but that has been systematically deprived of all narrative urgency, so that the progression of the action story is little more than facts thrown at the audience in passing.

Of course, Godard doesn’t always move quickly. He can dawdle with the best of his art-house contemporaries. But the storytelling moments that demand deliberation and emphasis in commercial cinema are usually weakened in his films.

Because Godard uncharacteristically takes his time during the Soldat torture scenes, the flattening of storytelling affect is easier to spot.

Topic #2: Men Are a Lot Like Cameras When They Look at Women. Soldat slows to a contemplative crawl during the scene in which Subor takes photos of Anna Karina. This fascination with women was well-established even at this early stage of Godard’s career. (The short that played with Soldat in Film Forum’s "Godard’s 60s" retrospective, 1958’s Charlotte et son Jules, is suspended in such a moment of contemplation from beginning to end.) Typically in this period, scenes devoted to visual contemplation of the female lead are so protracted and laden with emphasis that they bend the film’s meaning, giving centrality to a love interest who might play a marginal role in a commercial version of the same story.

Godard's fascination with women is often presented explicitly as a gender gap. The male protagonist expresses misgivings and insecurity about, as well as desire for, the woman, either in dialogue or in voiceover. Whereas the woman has a more centered demeanor: she is carefree, content, not especially focused, and enjoying her status as spectacle. If the man is harsh to the woman, it generally does not affect her mood. The man usually raises questions about what is going on inside the mind of the woman, questions that force the conclusion that the woman cannot be known, either to the man or the camera.

It is not lost on Godard that the audience is staring at the woman exactly as the male lead does. And it often happens that the woman will turn her attention directly to the camera instead of to the man, with the same flirtatious insouciance. The reflexivity that stalks every frame of every Godard film seems to take on a special gravity here: filmmaking may be a game, but the fascination and the mystery of the woman are not.

One can judge this fascination in different ways. The word "essentialism," not a compliment in gender studies, comes to mind. And Godard’s fascination with women often seems to be just a hair’s breadth away from anger and hostility. But I confess that my love of his films is closely associated with his fixation on the otherness of women, and the films that move away from this fixation usually engage me less. Godard’s love/hate gaze across the gender gap is the place where the rubber meets the road, where his pleasure in filmmaking most sympathetically makes contact with his engagement with life. The maleness of his 60s stance, the lack of distinction between women and what women make him feel, would be a handicap if he were a philosopher. But an artist needs an angle, a gimmick, an entry point to human experience.

Alan Rudolph, 1985 (short version)

As discussed in the comments to the last blog entry, I wrote a 40-page monograph on Alan Rudolph back in 1985, which was to be included in a book coordinated with the "10 to Watch" series in that year's Toronto Festival of Festivals (now the Toronto Film Festival). The book project fell through, and the monograph was never published. However, a much shorter version of the monograph was used in a booklet that was handed out at the festival. Someday I'll probably go to the effort of scanning the long document and putting it online; for now, here are parts one and two of the short document.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Breakfast of Champions: Anthology Film Archives, May 3, 6, and 8, 2008

Alan Rudolph’s little-seen 1999 adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel received what might be charitably called mixed reviews. Rudolph has always been attracted to the grotesque, and here he dedicates himself to that principle without reserve, stylizing all his performers - Bruce Willis as a suicidal small-town used-car dealer, Nick Nolte as his cross-dressing boss, Albert Finney as writer/philosopher/bum Kilgore Trout - to the brink of parody. It seems like a formula for disaster, but Rudolph has a talent for keeping his eye on the serious emotions latent in absurd situations. And here he seemed more immersed in his material than he had in years, more willing to stand behind the curtain and let his clownish characters stumble toward their epiphanies under their own steam.

Breakfast was originally a Robert Altman project: Rudolph adapted it for him in the 70s, writing the script in eight days between drafts of Buffalo Bill and the Indians. After the Altman film fell through, the script was Rudolph’s dream project for years, and was finally realized thanks to Willis’ patronage, and presumably also to the success of Rudolph’s previous film, 1998’s Afterglow. (Willis does not get enough credit for the many eccentric projects to which he lent his bankable name.)

It screens at Anthology Film Archives as part of a series programmed by French critic/filmmaker Luc Moullet: on Saturday, May 3 at 9 pm; Tuesday, May 6 at 7 pm; and Thursday, May 8 at 9 pm. It’s hard to imagine the film ever finding too large an audience, but maybe it’s inching its way toward cult status.