Friday, December 11, 2009


Earlier this year, I decided that Jim McBride, whom I had always considered a very good director, actually had the sensibility of a great director, if not the control over his career that a great director would hope for. And so I set out to obtain DVD or VHS copies of all his films that I hadn't seen. One of these, Uncovered (1994), instantly and improbably joined David Holzman's Diary (1967) and Breathless (1983) in the ranks of my favorite McBride movies.

McBride's career breaks up fairly neatly into three parts:

  • Late 60s and early 70s: He receives critical acclaim for David Holzman's Diary and enjoys a brief period of impoverished autonomy as an independent.
  • 80s: He tries making films within the commercial system, and strikes pay dirt with his second film of the decade, The Big Easy (1986). But the subsequent failure of Great Balls of Fire! (1989) seems to damage his prospects.
  • 90s: He manages to string together a series of feature works, mostly television genre projects of little prestige, barely noted by anyone.

On paper, Uncovered would seem to be as unpromising an idea as any McBride had been saddled with. Based on a mystery novel by Arturo Pérez-Reverte, the script (presumably written first by Michael Hirst, then worked over by McBride and his frequent collaborator Jack Baran) is about a young art conservator named Julia (Kate Beckinsale) trying to solve a 15th-century murder by analyzing a chess game depicted in a painting. Soon people associated with the painting's restoration are being killed by someone who is using the likely progression of the chess game to select victims.

This plot has nothing and can have nothing to do with the characters except to engage their curiosity, a quality that, not coincidentally, is also the audience's hoped-for condition. McBride had just managed to make good movies from an urban-vampire comedy-thriller (Blood Ties, 1991) and a film noir retread (The Wrong Man, 1993), so we already knew that he had a way with seemingly doomed projects. But Uncovered has a nimbleness and sense of freedom that lift it above the other films of this period.

Part of McBride's approach to projects like this is to treat the plots very lightly, to minimize weighty emotions associated with them and move them along quickly. This distance from thriller plots naturally creates a comic tone, and McBride directs genre assignments as comedies whenever possible. (The 90s McBride films that don't work well for me - The Informant (1997) and Dead by Midnight (1997) - are the ones with subject matter so grave that McBride couldn't in good faith play them for laughs.)

If McBride doesn't bother pretending that his plots are important, he turns out to be surprisingly sympathetic to other audience-pleasing genre elements. It's plain that he enjoys sex in a general, almost polymorphous way, and lacks the usual American inhibitions about taking simple sexual pleasure. (McBride came of age during that brief period in the 60s and 70s where it seemed as if American cinema might actually be experiencing a sexual revolution, and he has never lost the calling.) He dotes on romance between attractive people, and he's even got a flair for action and violence. (His Elmore Leonard adaptation Pronto (1997) contains an exceptional scene in which a somewhat comical U.S. Marshal, played by James LeGros, takes unexpected and lethal command of a threatening situation.)

More than any particular kind of story, McBride enjoys people, and no genre exercise is so contrived that he doesn't try to fill it with surprising, unpremeditated behavior. One of the prerogatives that a director almost always has, that few overseers are clever enough to prohibit, is to take characters who are designed to fulfill audience fantasies, and reconceive them so that they become the mysterious subject of our gaze as well as the receptacle for our identification.

Kate Beckinsale is at the center of Uncovered, and McBride clearly enjoys just being in the same room with her, being paid to photograph her. This Kate bears almost no resemblance to the rather formidable, shielded beauty who now graces our screens. McBride encourages her girlishness, her permeability. Her Julia occupies the role of the investigator, the problem solver, the righter of wrongs; but she lopes awkwardly through the streets of Barcelona, munching on carrots or apples; she stares at the painting she is restoring as if she were a child in a schoolyard encountering a new playmate. There is no fixity to her state of being: she comes easy to anger, easy to embarrassment, easy to fascination. Though she is smart, her connection to life seems simple and sensual, not much mediated by intellect.

McBride breaks down the boundaries between Julia's different functions and modes: he wants to mix everything together. Example: the first of the killer's victims is a former lover Julia still has feelings for. After she discovers his body and deals with the police, she returns to her apartment. This genre film will of course not treat the death with the gravity that it would deserve in life; and, in fact, the script is ready for a nude scene. To the accompaniment of atmospheric music, Julia enters the apartment and strips off her dress, so that she is naked except for panties. McBride isn't shy at all about his commercial obligations here: he pans, then tracks backwards to keep Julia in the camera's fixed, sensual gaze. Now that the film has shifted into an erotic mode, McBride and Beckinsale make a connection to the previous events: the topless girl shudders with a sob, still grieving. The scene is no longer purely an erotic set piece: it now exists between two narrative functions. At this moment, Julia looks at the painting in her living room that she has been restoring, and moves closer, as if noticing something new about it. The scene's function shifts again, back to the film's central inquiry, as Julia approaches the painting, her sorrow temporarily muted. McBride isn't fazed that Julia is still half-naked and exposed to our gaze as the mystery of the painting is evoked: Julia as sex object and Julia as driver of the narrative go together for him with no strain.

As much as the film revolves around Beckinsale's magnetism, it's an ensemble piece, and it contains at least two other memorable performances: by Paudge Behan as Domenec, the street-gamin chess expert who overcomes Julia's hostility, and by John Wood as Julia's queeny lifelong friend and guardian Cesar. Wood in particular does a terrific job of steering clear of cliché. He camps it up as hard as any gay best friend in the cinema, but he and McBride channel his exhibitionism into the character's life instead of brandishing it as a distraction for the audience: we quickly understand that Cesar must be taken seriously at all times, though he does not sacrifice his flamboyance to that end. Nearly the entire cast partakes of the film's diffuse but overt erotic vibe: man or woman, sympathetic or unsympathetic, everyone gets to strut before the camera and try to seduce it.

The plot is wrapped up tidily; the characters' lives less so. Julia's first line of dialogue, a spontaneous "Fuck me!" as she discovers the covered-up inscription on her painting, feels a touch provocative and open-ended, coming from this still slightly unformed woman-child. And her last line of dialogue is a refusal of closure: an impatient "Sssh!" to her new lover Domenec as she eats a pastry and watches with absorption the auction of the painting that had so occupied her. The impatience does not make us question the value of the love relationship: it merely suspends Julia, and us, in the eternal present.

Monday, December 7, 2009

My 100 Favorite Films of 1999-2008

Everyone is making lists of their favorite films of the 00s, and I've been feeling left out. I do enjoy a good list, but not when it feels premature; and the vagaries of international distribution make it impossible for all but a few ardent festival-hoppers to know yet what has happened in 2009. Even my list of 2008 favorites is just stabilizing.

A solution finally occurred to me: exclude 2009 from my decade list, and include 1999, which was shafted in the last round of decade-end list making.

My 100 favorite films of 1999-2008, in very, very approximate order of preference.

1. Michael Clayton (Tony Gilroy, USA, 2007)
2. Esther Kahn (Arnaud Desplechin, France, 2000)
3. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Cristi Puiu, Romania, 2005)
4. Night and Day (Hong Sang-Soo, South Korea, 2008)
5. Vera Drake (Mike Leigh, UK, 2004)
6. The Child (Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Belgium/France, 2005)
7. Fat Girl (Catherine Breillat, France, 2001)
8. M/Other (Nobuhiro Suwa, Japan, 1999)
9. The Tracey Fragments (Bruce McDonald, Canada, 2007)
10. Raja (Jacques Doillon, France/Morocco, 2003)
11. Late Marriage (Dover Kosashvili, Israel/France, 2001)
12. The Sopranos: "Made in America" (David Chase, USA, 2007)
13. The House of Mirth (Terence Davies, UK/USA, 2000)
14. La face cachée de la lune (Robert Lepage, Canada, 2003)
15. The Son (Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Belgium, 2002)
16. Far from Heaven (Todd Haynes, USA, 2002)
17. The Forsaken Land (Vimukthi Jayasundara, Sri Lanka/France, 2005)
18. Ana and the Others (Celina Murga, Argentina, 2003)
19. Primer (Shane Carruth, USA, 2004)
20. Topsy-Turvy (Mike Leigh, UK, 1999)
21. Bled Number One (Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche, Algeria/France, 2006)
22. La Puce (Emmanuelle Bercot, France, 1999)
23. Still Life (Jia Zhang-ke, China, 2006)
24. Ballast (Lance Hammer, USA, 2008)
25. Sangre (Amat Escalante, Mexico, 2005)
26. The Wayward Cloud (Tsai Ming-liang, Taiwan, 2005)
27. Silent Light (Carlos Reygadas, Mexico, 2007)
28. A Week Alone (Celina Murga, Argentina, 2008)
29. All Around Us (Ryosuke Hashiguchi, Japan, 2008)
30. Une Vieille Maîtresse (Catherine Breillat, France, 2007)
31. Japon (Carlos Reygadas, Mexico, 2002)
32. Waking Life (Richard Linklater, USA, 2001)
33. Bully (Larry Clark, USA, 2001)
34. Vibrator (Ryuichi Hiroki, Japan, 2003)
35. Crashing (Gary Walkow, USA, 2007)
36. Tout est pardonné (Mia Hansen-Løve, France, 2007)
37. Darling (Johan Kling, Sweden, 2007)
38. Triple Agent (Eric Rohmer, France, 2004)
39. Chopper (Andrew Dominic, Australia, 2000)
40. Zero Day (Ben Coccio, USA, 2003)
41. Happiness (Hur Jin-ho, South Korea, 2007)
42. Lady Chatterley (Pascale Ferran, France/Belgium, 2006)
43. Woman on the Beach (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea, 2006)
44. Haut les coeurs! (Solveig Anspach, France, 1999)
45. The Garden of Earthly Delights (Lech Majewski, UK/Italy/Poland, 2004)
46. Or (Mon Tresor) (Keren Yedaya, Israel, 2004)
47. Toutes ces belles promesses (Jean-Paul Civeyrac, France, 2003)
48. Ken Park (Larry Clark and Ed Lachman, USA, 2002)
49. Ten (Abbas Kiarostami, Iran, 2002)
50. Jealousy Is My Middle Name (Park Chan-ok, South Korea, 2002)
51. Shara (Naomi Kawase, Japan, 2003)
52. Return of the Idiot (Saša Gedeon, Czech Republic, 1999)
53. The World (Jia Zhang-ke, China, 2004)
54. Roberto Succo (Cedric Kahn, France, 2000)
55. Be My Star (Valeska Grisebach, Germany, 2001)
56. Avant que j'oublie (Jacques Nolot, France, 2007)
57. The Darjeeling Limited (Wes Anderson, USA, 2007)
58. Stella (Sylvia Verheyde, France, 2008)
59. Grain in Ear (Zhang Lu, China/South Korea, 2005)
60. Nights and Weekends (Joe Swanberg and Greta Gerwig, USA, 2008)
61. Mid-August Lunch (Gianni Di Gregorio, Italy, 2008)
62. Turning Gate (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea, 2002)
63. Wolfsbergen (Nanouk Leopold, Netherlands, 2007)
64. Jesus, You Know (Ulrich Seidl, Austria, 2003)
65. Paris: XY (Zeka Laplaine, France, 2001)
66. The Believer (Henry Bean, USA, 2001)
67. All or Nothing (Mike Leigh, UK, 2002)
68. Crimson Gold (Jafar Panahi, Iran, 2003)
69. No Rest for the Brave (Alain Guiraudie, France, 2003)
70. Forty Shades of Blue (Ira Sachs, USA, 2005)
71. C.R.A.Z.Y. (Jean-Marc Vallée, Canada, 2005)
72. Rain Dogs (Ho Yuhang, Malaysia, 2006)
73. Catastrophe (David Mamet, Ireland, 2000)
74. The Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors (Hong Sang-Soo, South Korea, 2000)
75. Johanna (Kornel Mundruczó, Hungary, 2005)
76. A Tale of Cinema (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea, 2005)
77. Brick (Rian Johnson, USA, 2005)
78. Beat (Gary Walkow, USA, 2000)
79. Head-On (Fatih Akin, Germany/Turkey, 2004)
80. One More Day (Babak Payami, Iran, 1999)
81. The Sopranos (pilot) (David Chase, USA, 1999)
82. Boogie (Radu Muntean, Romania, 2008)
83. Hannah Takes the Stairs (Joe Swanberg, USA, 2007)
84. The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, USA, 2001)
85. The Fluffer (Richard Glatzer and Wash West, USA, 2001)
86. The Paper Will Be Blue (Radu Muntean, Romania, 2006)
87. The Banishment (Andrei Zyvagintsev, Russia, 2007)
88. Platform (Jia Zhang Ke, China, 2000)
89. Dog Days (Ulrich Seidl, Austria, 2001)
90. Harmful Insect (Akihiko Shiota, Japan, 2001)
91. The Days Between (Maria Speth, Germany, 2001)
92. Idle Running (Janez Burger, Slovenia, 1999)
93. Four Nights with Anna (Jerzy Skolimowski, Poland, 2008)
94. The Return (Andrei Zvyagintsev, Russia, 2003)
95. Cinema, Aspirin and Vultures (Marcelo Gomes, Brazil, 2005)
96. Qui a tué Bambi? (Gilles Marchand, France, 2003)
97. The Tuner (Kira Muratova, Russia, 2004)
98. Mutum (Sandra Kogut, Brazil, 2007)
99. The Embalmer (Matteo Garrone, Italy, 2002)
100. Palindromes (Todd Solondz, USA, 2004)

The decade shows its strength in long lists like this. The 00s had a great bench: talent showed up in more places than ever before, and in as great quantity as in any period of cinema history.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Experimentalism in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

Alfred Hitchcock's 1956 American remake of his 1934 British thriller The Man Who Knew Too Much does not attract as much critical attention as several other Hitchcock works from this period. And yet it reveals quite plainly a growing artistic abstraction in Hitchcock that comes close to blowing his cover as an entertainment filmmaker.

The Sedative

After an unexceptional exposition, in which the protagonists are characterized as rather stodgy Midwestern tourists in Morocco, the plot mechanism is sprung when the McKennas' child Hank (Christopher Olsen) is kidnapped to keep his parents from revealing incriminating information that they have stumbled upon. Having received word of the kidnapping first, Dr. Ben McKenna (James Stewart) must break the news to his wife Jo (Doris Day).

Ben insists that Jo take a sedative before he tells her what has happened. This scene so outraged the feminist sensibility of the students in a Hitchcock class I took at UCLA in 1978 that it's been marked in my mind ever since as a political football, and it wasn't until last week that I watched it without a particular ideological reaction. What I saw was something of a spiritual exercise, not unlike the scene in Torn Curtain in which Hitchcock illustrates just how hard it is to remove life from a healthy human body.

Hitchcock's reasoning in conceiving the scene probably went something like this: "Here the characters must undergo an unbearably painful experience before they can recover their ability to act, and the plot can advance. It is usual in moviemaking to pass over this pain, or to stylize it with a brief evocation of pathos. But I don't feel right about dodging this scene: it renders this movie superficial if I minimize the parents' ordeal. What if I conceive the scene as a problem? The doctor must break the bad news to his wife, but he knows that she will be devastated. How can he get from A to B with as little anguish to her as possible?"

And so the scene must depend on duration: ellipsis will defeat the purpose. And it must confront the mother's agony. It will take much longer than a brisk suspense plot would usually permit. Jo is smart, and cannot easily be fooled. The scene is subtly structured from Ben's point of view: we see his calculations, his reformulation of plans. He tries to push a sedative on his wife with no justification, but it doesn't work: she has taken a pill too recently, she perceives that his behavior is odd, and she resists his attempt to use his professional authority to bully her into drugging herself. He therefore has to hurt her a bit: he lets slip that something bad is going on. Despite his euphemistic phrasing, she is instantly alarmed. "Here's the price of finding out," he says, holding out the sedative. Desperate for information, she takes the pill. Now Ben must drag the story out to give the drug time to enter Jo's bloodstream. She is impatient, but he manages to dawdle until she shows signs of weariness. The bomb is dropped. It's as if the sedative did nothing at all: Jo shrieks in terror and must be restrained. After this unnerving moment, Hitchcock finally permits himself an ellipsis. We see Jo lying in bed numbly as Ben packs a bag, and we realize that the drug has probably softened the blow after all.

It goes without saying that experiments in duration were not common in the American entertainment cinema at this or any other time, and that Hollywood's Master of Suspense was in fact rather an arty guy. But no doubt some regard this scene as an exercise in sadism...and it would be disingenuous to dismiss this imagined charge lightly. There is no doubt that we are being put through a painful experience at a quite leisurely pace. And yet, there is a sense that Hitchcock is putting himself through the experience with us. The scene is more about the discomfort of dealing pain than it is about actual pain or even our anticipation of it. The artist's energy is principally deployed to make us share Ben's problem, his discomfort in using unpleasant tactics on his wife. It is a little fanciful to interpret the scene as being about the filmmaker's dilemma in hurting his audience - but the conceit has some dimension.

The Concert

At the film's climax, Hitchcock once again goes experimental on us. The assassination attempt that the McKennas have inadvertently uncovered is to take place during a concert at the Royal Albert Hall. Earlier, Hitchcock shared with us the assassins' plan to fire a gun in synchronization with a particular cymbal clash in Arthur Benjamin's Storm Clouds cantata. He even played the passage with the cymbal clash three times, in order to familiarize us with the moment when the gun will fire - though we are given no information about how long the piece is or where the cymbal clash occurs in it. As Jo and Ben arrive independently at the hall, with imperfect knowledge of what will happen, we realize that Hitchcock intends to show the performance of the piece (with his composer Bernard Herrmann at the podium) without ellipsis: a nine-minute stretch.

This experiment in duration is not as emotional as the earlier one. The intended victim is an anonymous minister of a foreign country; we are encouraged to share Jo and Ben's horror at the assassination attempt, but the stakes are relatively abstract. During the performance, Hitchcock must keep a few balls in the air: he must show Jo gradually realizing where the key players are and what is likely to happen; he must show Ben arriving, and position him for his role in the action dénouement; and, above all, he must find enough variety of form and content, and create enough development, that the nine-minute visual accompaniment to the music doesn't bore us. The musical performance is elaborately documented, with various elements of the rather large orchestra and chorus highlighted at different times, and many shots of Herrmann conducting and of the fatal cymbalist preparing for his big moment.

Here the effect of the scene does not depend on the exact structure of the visual accompaniment - Hitchcock could have sequenced the footage in any number of ways - but rather on the mere fact that the entire piece is played. All suspense depends on an appropriate elongation of time, but this elongation goes well beyond the demands of suspense. Hitchcock wants us to take home some art with our entertainment: not just Benjamin's music, but the cinematic art of confronting the intractability of time.