Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Only Angels Have Wings

Only Angels Have Wings is an annunciation: already a major director, Howard Hawks here becomes a definition of cinema. And yet Angels is not radically different from previous Hawks films, nor a model of seamless perfection.

One's first thought might be that Hawks benefitted from an evocative visual plan, courtesy of Lionel Banks' art design and Joseph Walker's dazzling, Oscar-nominated cinematography. But Hawks exploits that plan with a directorial freedom greater than he had previously permitted himself. More than ever before in his work, we experience the set as an actors' hangout, a place to linger over drinks, to come together in musical interludes, to catnap while waiting for the mail plane to return.

Hawks always liked to send strong genre signals, in order to increase the frisson when acting and action play out quicker, quieter, more informally than the genre backdrop leads us to expect. And the beginning of Angels is a genre pileup of major proportions. The traffic and bric-a-brac of the port of Barranca are swirled together with lively non-stop south-of-the-border music, and main characters are introduced gradually as the party travels from the streets into the Dutchman's lively restaurant/hotel/airport. Hawks and his screenwriters (Jules Furthman gets the credit, but a host of others participated, including Anne Wigton, who seems to have devised the basic story concept) introduce the love story and the comic relief early, but instinctively hold off on the film's really distinctive elements until its first set piece, the tense team effort to guide Joe Souther's plane home. The extraordinary impact of this scene depends upon Hawks discarding genre trappings a bit at a time, stripping the set and the performances of adornments, leaving us exposed to darkness and fog. The peak moment is when airline boss Geoff Carter (Cary Grant) impatiently orders that the musicians in the café stop playing: the order is passed along in the background, and after a few seconds the movie's chief genre signifier drops off the sound track, leaving ominous silence.

Only Angels Have Wings has an unusual structure that bodes well for Hawks' future career. The film's first and last thirds are devoted to lengthy, well-orchestrated dramatic interludes, centered on action and suspense while weaving in other story threads. No doubt Hawks' most dazzling coup is the Joe Souther interlude, with its surprising and understated expansion of the character of Kid (Thomas Mitchell), Geoff's second-in-command, who reveals both an unusual skill at tracking Joe's plane and an uncanny symbiosis with Geoff. If the biplane flight at the climax is inevitably less evocative and suspenseful, it takes us closer to the film's emotional center, with wild-eyed Thomas Mitchell and pulled-in Richard Barthelmess shoved together in a tiny cockpit, neither one revealing all his mystery, different acting styles checking each other out, competing archetypes of Hawksian existentialism.

Between these two integrated dramatic interludes, the film's middle third, alternating between chit-chat at the Dutchman's and adventures in the flying trade, is more meandering and lighter on plot than any previous Hawks passage. Yet this looser middle section points the way into Hawks' future: it contains the highest concentration of uninhibited behavioral play, the reflexive fun-on-a-movie-set that Hawks would hang onto after he had stripped away every other component of his style. Geoff and Kid wrestling for possession of Kid's double-headed coin, or Geoff patting the Dutchman's head while talking baby talk to him, belongs to a non-narrative, almost Warhol-like layer of the Hawks universe that can be regarded as either foreground or background, depending on where we focus our eyes.

As Hawks' directorial personality flowers in Angels, so do his idiosyncrasies. Love interest Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur) perhaps suffers from the competing subplots that flourish in this relaxed environment, to the point where she has to draw a gun on Geoff at the climax to regain lost dramatic stature. The odd character dynamic between Geoff and the disgraced Kilgallen (Barthelmess) - Geoff has great empathy for Kilgallen's plight, yet treats him with contempt to his face - will surface again in later Hawks films, where it will sometimes be mysteriously labeled as a form of therapy. Angels also sees Hawks beginning to convert his world view into an ethos, with both Bonnie and Kilgallen's wife Judy (Rita Hayworth) forced to capitulate to Geoff's ideas of right and wrong. Some viewers may be fazed by the full revelation of Hawks' personality - and yet this is what we have to deal with when an artist becomes so confident and so comprehensive that the cinema becomes subordinate to him instead of the other way around.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Ramrod and Pitfall: Anthology Film Archives, August 18, 2009

A piece I wrote on André de Toth's Ramrod (1947) and Pitfall (1948) is up at the Auteurs' Notebook. The films play once more in Anthology Film Archives' One-Eyed Auteurs series, on Tuesday, August 18: Pitfall at 7 pm, Ramrod at 9 pm.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Small Back Room

The 1949 The Small Back Room may be Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's best film (the competition is Black Narcissus, I'd say), but it lacks the exotic or fantastic subject matter with which the filmmakers are associated, and in fact makes a concerted effort to hunker down in the midst of everyday, tedious life. It's fun to describe it as a film about an alcoholic bomb defuser, but that logline misses the mood altogether.

The title points the way: the protagonists work in a tiny, barely furnished, anonymous office in 1943 London, for a government entity that exerts influence on the 1943 British war effort but escapes scrutiny. Explosives specialist Sammy Rice (David Farrar), still not adjusted to the loss of a leg and the relentless pain of wearing a prosthesis, is hiding in back-room life, hesitant to emerge from the shadow of his bosses, battling alcoholism, and unable to accept fully the love of his girlfriend and coworker Susan (Kathleen Byron).

The mundane world envelopes and practically mocks Sammy; and yet P&P characteristically give it a stylized appeal. Sammy is introduced sitting at a very crowded pub, appearing at the end of a low-angle tracking shot that follows a jostled bartender delivering a message. When Susan and an Army captain (a young Michael Gough) arrive at the bar to find Sammy, an overhead shot shows them taking the wrong path in the labyrinth of pubgoers before the bartender points Sammy out. There is no narrative reason for the wrong turn, but the mood of good-natured, oblivious, encompassing quotidian life will be developed, in restaurants where functionaries seek Sammy out for tidbits of information, or in clubs attended routinely by the lovers on Wednesday nights. One of the most striking scenes takes place in a lurching underground train where Sammy and Susan huddle in their seats, Sammy trying to ignore the pain in his leg. The camera surprises us by tracking in and out on the couple in the confined space, as hordes of Londoners evacuate the foreground of the shot at stops, then fill it again. Eventually the couple stand up, and the scene ends with the train light momentarily blinking out, casting Sammy and Susan into semi-darkness as the camera withdraws and the car hurtles on. This visual drama is expended on a rather simple and unassuming scene. In a way, P&P are playing at expressionism, externalizing the suffering of the fellow in the corner seat. But the routine of rush hour underground travel is unthreatening and depicted with amusing human detail. The mundane environment is not just a backdrop or a metaphor: it's part of the film's subject.

The Small Back Room is probably P&P's most intimate and human-scaled film, attentive to the ebb and flow of Sammy and Susan's struggle for survival as a couple: the small humiliations of office life; the uneasy symbolism of the man and woman's adjacent, connected apartments; the way pain is banked and nurtured when breakup becomes a possibility. But the profusion of scaled-down observation is the cover for a capital-R Romantic battle for Sammy's soul, rendered by Farrar and Byron with full-bodied emotionality. Farrar, an actor who naturally projects force and virility, alternates here between bitterness and a childlike vulnerability: Sammy clenches Susan's hand to ward off pain, or crumples on her breast with a barely audible sigh.

Just when alcohol and self-destructiveness are about to claim the love relationship, a slow-building suspense story emerges from among the subplots, announcing its primacy with a beautiful, unreal image: a lonely moonlit beach, with an unexploded German bomb protruding from the sand, marked with a flag and guarded by a soldier. The image speaks of paradise, of the bomb waiting for Sammy at the edge of the known world, far from the torture of his daily life. Beneath the beauty, there is a threat - the bombs have taken several lives already, and we have witnessed the last agonies of their most recent victim - but beneath the threat there is more beauty, as Sammy is plainly receiving his final wake-up call. The climax of the film, played out with the sound of the ocean and seagulls for counterpoint, manipulates point of view to place us, with Sammy and the bomb, on a peaceful metaphysical plain where all mundane concerns drop away. And if this intense transformation of the film's form should make us feel that Sammy's personal transformation might be possible as well, then so much the better for the drama.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Garden of Earthly Delights

Lech Majewski's beautiful 2004 feature-length video The Garden of Earthly Delights is at the same time a clear piece of storytelling, albeit in a modernist mode, and a remarkably free exercise in the association of images and sounds. The film's beauty is the result of these two layers being carefully and continually linked.

The gimmick (not too strong a word, because it requires sleight of hand to pass it off as plausible; the work occasionally shows) is that a couple videotapes themselves almost continuously, partly because they are creating an experimental video piece based on the eponymous Bosch painting, partly because of the man's habits, and partly because of a dire medical problem which the video helps them come to terms with. We are introduced to the complexities of the situation gradually, with information doled out as it enters the visual field of the camera.

But the film's appeal is not conceptual: it grows from the power and density of Majewski's audiovisual images. One sees the actors handling the camera in a number of scenes, but Majewski gets the cinematographer's credit, and the seemingly casual video work is tunneled through with labyrinthine depth compositions and striking color and texture juxtapositions. Complicated pan-and-zoom movements are bracketed with simple home-movie visual language. The accumulated effect of the subtly larger-than-life imagery is to impart a sense of grandeur to the travails of the game but afflicted couple.

The premise of amateur self-documentation justifies a great deal of randomness and even confusion in what images are presented. It's fascinating that the tiniest dose of narrative is enough to alter our relationship (mine, anyway) to the torrent of sights and sounds. At any rate, by allowing us to piece together a story, Majewski lifts from the imagery the burden of providing unity to the movie, and assigns to it the role of providing entropy.

Enjoying the discipline of providing linkage between form and fiction, Majewski marks each evolution of the story with a small style shift, starting with the surprising pan that reveals the video camera in a mirror. Playing off the essentially exhibitionistic nature of the couple's project, Majewski chooses to reveal the illness story through the surprising mise-en-scene of the woman trying for once to avoid her lover's camera.

The Garden of Earthly Delights is, among other things, a strikingly physical rendering of a heterosexual relationship. The man (Chris Nightingale) and the woman (Claudine Spiteri) disrobe and couple frequently in the course of their Bosch-based charades, and the remote, unattended camera both justifies their shyness and heightens the tactility of the sexual imagery. In addition, the contemplation of death in this movie is expressed in bodily, even chemical terms. The nonprofessional actors are chosen to some extent because their physiques lend themselves to a pictorial allegory of classical male and female beauty. And yet Majewski manages to give the characters psychology, albeit in large strokes that do not compromise their symbolic status. Though the woman is both the visual and narrative center of the film, the man is the more mysterious and ultimately the more poignant character: while the woman confronts death with a philosophical quest, the man reacts with mute pain and withdrawal, and with a desire to cross the gender barrier and merge with the beloved object. That Majewski is as engaged with people as he is confident about form marks him as a major filmmaker and not just a talented one.

I do not believe in a sharp division between film and video: if Bazin could find identity between cinema and the process of making death masks, I think we should be able to appreciate the common ground between emulsion and pixels. But it was my pleasure to see two films last month in quick succession - the Majewski, and Jun Ichikawa's 2008 short feature Buy a Suit - where unpolished video images take on a beauty that is partly due to the narrative utility of the video, to the appropriateness of using an inconspicuous, consumer-affordable recording device for these particular stories. Of course, the beauty is partly due as well to a spatial and compositional authority that crosses media.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Jules et Jim

There's not much new left to say about this magnificent, well-appreciated film after all these years. Still, Truffaut doesn't get enough credit for finding the passageway to a form of cinematic expression that puts narrative and the artist's commentary on a fluid continuum. As a punishment for making postmodernism look easy, Truffaut is too often pegged as the McCartney/Donovan to Godard's Lennon/Dylan, where it might be more accurate to regard him as a Joyce or Proust to Godard's Brecht.

Truffaut's way of making experimentalism commercial was to create a brazenly impressionistic cinema of the mind, and then to include, as casually as an afterthought, the cinema's traditional role - the documentation of reality - as one component of mental life. So the representational is present in Truffaut, but encapsulated, so to speak, in a container of shifting subjectivity.

In this light, we can understand why Truffaut does not have and does not need a strong sense of space, why his compositions need not come together, why the sequencing of shots in his films can be quite arbitrary. Truffaut merely alludes to external reality. He sacrifices the camera's authoritative rendering of the world in favor of a more abstract description of mental states. The elongation of time via overlapping cuts (i.e., Catherine jumping into the Seine - a common figure of style in Truffaut) and the intensification of the camera's gaze via a barrage of unexpected, jaggedly edited closeups (i.e., the depiction of the Adriatic statue, or the later comparison of Catherine's smile to the statue's) are blatant declarations that the film's form is refracted through and scattered by memory and emotions.

Truffaut's expression of subjectivity is strongly linked in Jules et Jim and other films to his bold enlistment of literature on the cinema's behalf. Putting the words of the novelist on the soundtrack in abundance is a way of telling the audience that the fascination of storytelling, which induces a present-tense state of mind, has already been accomplished in another medium. Whereas Truffaut's filming is anything but novelistic, and suggests rather the phantasmagoria of experience that swirls around our orderly narrative-making impulse.

The film's script (here's an online transcription of the dialogue in English), by Truffaut and Jean Gruault from Roché's novel, is a startling and brilliant amalgam of literary description and highly abstract passages of poeticized dialogue. (Read the "Catch me!" scene, where Catherine begins her colonization of Jim, to see how purely stylized and absurdist Truffaut and Gruault's dialogue can be - and then recall that it precedes and follows scenes that devote many minutes to establishing the line of the narrative.) When Jules recites the entirety of the Marseillaise over the phone to demonstrate that he has lost his Austrian accent, or when he describes Catherine's background to Jim ("Her father's a noble, her mother's a commoner. He's from an old Burgundy family. Mama was English. So she's not average. And she teaches." "What?" "Shakespeare!"), actor and director are united in a playful acknowledgment of their desire to inflect the story with the grandeur of private mythology. Truffaut happily intensifies such dialogue with music or closeups, creating Welles-like coups de théâtre that he uses as scene transitions. As often as Truffaut has been compared to Renoir, and as often as he invoked Hitchcock, he is probably closest to Welles in the way that his films are marked continuously and openly with the amplifications of memory.

If some programmer would screen Jules et Jim annually on the anniversary of Truffaut's birth or death, I'd try to clear my schedule in perpetuity.