Monday, October 20, 2014

Espiritu de la colmena (Spirit of the Beehive, Victor Erice, 1973)

Reprinting this because--well, there's no reason not to read about Victor Erice either.

The greatest Spanish film ever made?

First saw Victor Erice's Espiritu de la colmen (Spirit of the Beehive, 1973) maybe seven or so years ago, on a poor video projection with a standing crowd in the way, and it looked impressive, but I wasn't moved--which was a pity; in a thirty-three year career, Erice has made only one film a decade, starting with this one (he makes Terence Malick look prolific). Saw it again in TCM recently (I just caught it by accident) and it's just tremendous--he plays with the metaphor of the Frankenstein creature, transforming Shelley's myth of hubris and failed responsibility into one of the lonely outsider (which is more in line with Whale's vision, and with what kids readily respond to). Over that is the metaphor of the beehive, which Erice has Fernando Feran Gomez looking at repeatedly like a god observing his subjects under glass. And over that is the developing consciousness of the children, which sees all through enchanted eyes, transforming the Spanish countryside into a fantastic dreamscape.

It draws from disparate sources: Spanish political history, Grimm fairy tales, Mary Shelly's novel, and I would say Swift in Gulliver mode (the creature is to the girls as the girls--or the father--is to the bees; perception shaped or modified by perspective), and I suspect Rene Clement's Forbidden Games. In turn, it has probably influenced films like Cinema Paradiso (a coarser, more sentimental treatise on the power of the cinema to fascinate the youth), My Neighbor Totoro (two girls exploring a lovely countryside, and encountering a mysterious figure (both have their threads of pathos, which the creators take in different directions)), much of present-day Iranian cinema (especially those that deal with children) and even The Shining (dysfunctional family in a large habitat; plus a shot of Ana at the typewriter, hearing a strange noise, moving away (along with the camera) from the typewriter into a series of doorways, to glimpse something terrifying behind a closed door). 

 Incredible complexity, and yet it comes across as hushed, simple, moving: you choose to see the connections if you so wish, but it works supremely well as the story of a young girl who wishes to make a friend and finds one, with all the attendant consequences.

Some notes: Erice rhymes and repeats images, sounds, textures, emotions. The day after the children watch Frankenstein, a schoolteacher unveils the figure of a man without internal organs; her lesson consisted of the kids putting the correct organs in place, a schoolroom parody of Dr. Frankenstein's work method. The sequence ends with Ana putting in the crucial component--the eyes--with which the figure, previously a collection of colored cardbored cutouts, suddenly acquires life and expression and perhaps even a soul. Ana looks on her creation with an ambigiuous expression: just what is she feeling? Longing? Fear? Pride? A masterful example of child acting (the actress, incidentally, made just one other film). The mother writes to a French lover, posts the letter at a drop box by a train's side, spots a handsome young man seated in a cabin. When her husband prepares for bed, the camera remains focused on the mother's face as she pretends to sleep, the father heard clomping around much as Frankenstein's creature does; when he finally climbs into bed, we hear a train whistle, and we're almost certain we know what--or who--she's thinking about.

Erice creates incredible imagery (with the help of the great Luis Cuadrado, who started to go blind during this production, and took his life in 1980). There's one that stays with me, even if it has little other significance: the father comes out of the house, the day just dawning, the the windows still lit, the house beautifully framed in the strengthening light; we follow him as he crosses down the path to the fields beyond and suddenly it's another composition, this time of the sun breaking over the horizon, the camera moving slowly past some tree branches to get a better view.

I read a college website that considers Ana a representation of the innocent Republicans, the older Isabel a representation of the corrupt, materialistic Nationalists. Possible, but I can't help but recoil from such bald symbolism. Isabel tells lies and teases Ana, but they both seem equally innocent, equally caught up in their childhood world (Isabel just seems more capable of using it to her own ends). One startling image of her developing beyond childhood is a scene of her with the cat. She strokes it lovingly, then in a fit of childish pique or excess affection, squeezes it; it hisses and bites her finger. She goes to the mirror and, looking at her face, spreads the blood across her lips. Remarkable image of oncoming sexuality, with the blood on her lips forshadowing the blood that will come forth another time. 

This is considered by some the greatest film ever to come out of Spain. I don't know if I disagree; at the very least, I think I understand where such people are coming from.


L'Argent (Robert Bresson, 1983)

Reprinting an old article Bresson because--well, because there's no good reason not to read about Bresson (list of my posts on him as follows): 

Au hasard, Balthazar, 1966), Journal d'un cure de campagne (Diary of a Country Priest, 1951), Mouchette (1967), and Un condamne a mort (A Man Escaped, 1956)

On bread alone

(Note: plot discussed in close detail)

The ostensible subject of Robert Bresson's last film L'Argent (1983) is money (hence the title), and in fact Bresson uses the pulling out, counting, and passing over of franc notes from one person to another as a kind of repeated motif throughout. But it's the love of the stuff that causes the real trouble (a distinction Catholic priests like to remind us of in Sunday mass) and initiates the central movement in the film, the downward slide of Yvon Targe (Christian Patey) from heating-oil deliveryman and husband to convict and axe murderer.

The film could play double bill to Bresson's earlier Pickpocket (1959), where Michel, the eponymous petty thief, traces an opposite course: already outside of society at the film's beginning, he makes his long and tortuous way to prison and a strange, ironic redemption (ironic in that it's when he's shut away that he finds spiritual freedom and human contact). The conventional wisdom is that Bresson was deeply religious in his early films, became deeply pessimistic in his later ones; Bresson himself, according to Colin Burnett's 2004 interview with crew-member Jonathan Hourigan, preferred to use the word "lucid"--implying that he believed his view of the world has become clearer, not just darker.

Bresson takes characters and incidents from Leo Tolstoy's "The Forged Coupon"--a story about the widening effects on several people's lives caused by the spreading of counterfeit money--and to some extent modifies them. In Tolstoy's story as in Bresson's film those who do wrong are not immediately punished, and those who are wronged are not immediately vindicated; the workings-out of fate (or God's will, as Tolstoy might put it) are more tortuously complex than that.

Where Bresson differs radically is in the emphasis and emotional reading he gives each story and its outcome--and I don't mean just the characteristically stylized acting of his "models" (so termed because Bresson never uses actors, never allows his performers to act in the conventional sense). In the case of the photographer (Didier Baussy) for example, he is saved by an unexpected act of kindness in Tolstoy's novella; in the film, the same miraculous rescue occurs, but the reading of the scene is more ambivalent; the photographer and his partner (Beatrice Tabourin) are as much insulted by the effrontery (the benefactor had stolen the money from them, and is actually returning a portion of the loot) as they are grateful for the gift.

In Yvon's case the changes are even more radical. Yvon on film is a conflation of the novella's Ivan Mironov, the man falsely accused of intentionally spreading counterfeit money, and Stepan Pelageushkine, the man who murdered him--a strange combination, you might imagine. Yvon shows the stubbornness and pride of the labor class: when accused he attacks his accuser; when found guilty and fired, he refuses to beg for his job back; when financially desperate, he resorts to being hired as driver in a robbery, is caught, and sent to prison.

Bresson carefully documents Yvon's transformation in prison, a transformation with no direct equivalent in Tolstoy. A series of letters (and we know how much Bresson loves the use of correspondence, and the reading of them) bring a series of catastrophically bad news; a fellow convict, commenting on Yvon's life, says philosophically "We fear death because we love life." He says this at the sight of Yvon face down on bed, weeping; it's Bresson's classic technique of having an act or idea spoken aloud same time he presents it onscreen--in this case, we see Yvon mourning his lost love. But weeping also implies an outpouring of tears, emotion, an outpouring that stops when tears and feelings run out. Yvon has lost much of his love of life, has also lost his fear of death--both of his own (he attempts suicide), and of others (he reacts to an insult by raising a hand intent on violence).

When released, he's a changed man, literally--he has become Tolstoy's Stepan, who thanks to the act of having killed Ivan (in the film, Yvon before imprisonment), has acquired a taste for shedding blood (When someone puts the question to him, Yvon replies simply: "I enjoyed it." Bresson's trademark deadpan performance style has never to my mind been put to a more chilling use). He's torn through the fabric of French society to end up in prison; inside (thanks to his antagonistic attitude towards fellow inmates) he's torn through the fabric of prison society to end up in a state of near-total isolation. When released, he's reached as low a status as anyone can possibly reach--has broken past (so to speak) all levels of civilization to stand alone on the other side.

Which might be the film's true subject--money not as a source of evil per se, but as symbol and operative medium (both fuel and lubricant) of a larger concept, civilization itself. Money here is the crust on which we all subsist on, stand on, and we'll do anything--lie, cheat, steal, kill--to keep that brittle, fragile crust from crumbling, and us falling through. Yvon has fallen through, and has found the experience strangely liberating--he kills, then carelessly spends the little money he has taken from the murders. Money has stopped being the motivating factor--it never was meant to be one anyway; rather, it was the signpost that marked where society begins and ends, a signpost Yvon has uprooted and is swinging wildly over his head.

Yvon follows an elderly woman (Sylvie Van den Elsen), presumably with the intent of robbing her, perhaps killing her; instead, she takes him in. It's tempting to see the kind lady as Yvon's second chance--his opportunity for redemption, in Tolstoy's terms--and at one point she does explicitly say "If I were God, I would pardon the whole world." She is reprimanded for this, however, even slapped (as is usual with Bresson, we hear the slap, not see it), and Yvon as a result becomes curious about her as a person. She explains that she cleans and cares for her father (grown drunkenly bitter after being widowed) and married sister. "Why don't you drown yourself," Yvon asks with the directness of the truly innocent "Are you expecting a miracle?" The housekeeper's kindness, especially in the face of her knowledge of Yvon's crimes, is well nigh inexplicable, unless you see them as being two of a kind--people who have been brought so low they recognize each other in their loneliness. I think it's telling that when Yvon lifts the axe he's holding the housekeeper looks upon him with a terrible serenity: she seems to see Yvon not as a dangerous stranger, but as a liberator.

Yvon turns himself in and the film abruptly ends--no credits, no music, just the crowd of men and women staring at the doorway where he just passed, staring even when Yvon is long gone; then cut straight to black, arguably the single oddest cut in the film (in all of cinema, arguably). You wonder if the crowd realizes that Yvon's arrest is incidental, that what they're really looking forward to is this black, blank screen, the way the housekeeper, gazing at Yvon, seems to be looking forward to the massacre to come.

In Tolstoy's novella, Stepan goes to prison and undergoes a gradual change of heart, made convincing by Tolstoy's detailed chronicling of the man's inner state; Bresson telescopes this, suggests that Yvon has already had his change of heart in prison, that he emerges from prison free of all illusions of society's essential goodness and necessity, that he goes forth with knife or axe in hand ready to free us from our miserable lives. Not exactly kosher Christianity, and Michel from Pickpocket (to name someone from an earlier work) might look upon this later incarnation of his character with profound horror, but this seems to be the kind of bleak conclusion to which Bresson has arrived, at the end of his career. If there's a note of hope at all in all this, it's in Yvon's willingness to turn himself in; he of all the characters in the film, from the photographer to the counterfeiting youths to the photo shopkeeper to the shop assistant, feels the urge to answer for his actions. He, of all the characters in the film, seems to have arrived at a state of terminal lucidity. 


Gone Girl (David Fincher, 2014)

Happy together

David Fincher's Gone Girl is the kind of film that (once the theater lights go up) makes you want to take your wife into your arms and say: "I love you, I want to take care of you, I will never leave you. I promise." 

Something's inevitably lost in the translation from print to screen,  in this case Flynn's cut-gem comic prose, the witty way she arranges the chapter titles ("Nick Dunne The Day Of;" "Amy Elliott January 8, 2005;" "Nick Dunne The Night Of;" "Amy Elliott Dunne April 21, 2009"), interleaved so that you quickly grasp the structure: Nick's story (his wife Amy's disappearance, what happens after) told in present time, Amy's (her introduction and marriage to Nick, what happens after) told in flashback. Fincher does approximate the leisurely rhythms of Flynn's story, captures how the plot blooms like an origami swan being slowly unfolded, revealing how it all comes together--a lovely piece of prestidigitation, in print and on the big screen.

Of course most of the film involves that process of unfolding, which if we're to deal with in any substantial manner we need to talk about explicitly, plot twists, surprise ending and all. So for those who haven't seen the film yet--here there be tygers.

The first half I'd call the more resonant: Amy and Nick's marriage disintegrating under the double blows of the internet revolution (where print media and its writers and critics (particularly in film) either moved online or are laid off en masse) and the '08 recession. Flynn had lived through those times, and the despair captured in her pages feels real--may be one of the better portraits of the period in recent pop fiction. 

Fincher's film doesn't do as vivid a job, but much of that anxiety can be found on the face of Ben Affleck's Nick. As in Hollywoodland, Affleck draws on his insecurities as an actor too smart and self-conscious to be comfortable with his bland handsomeness (don't you get the sense that what he really wants to do is comedy?) to create a sharp, funny portrait of a man too smart and self conscious to be comfortable with his too-perfect marriage. Every public fumble, every faked smile he flashes at the camera confirms his innocence--only someone with no idea what's really going on can be this obviously guilty.

By contrast Amy's diary entries are the very definition of fairy tale, from the meet-cute (standing near a bakery, sugar swirling round like a Hollywood-style snowfall, Nick wipes the powder from Amy's lips preparatory to kissing her) to the marriage proposal (in a scene not found in the novel Nick points out to reporters at a book launching party the central flaw in Amy's life, and promptly corrects it). 

Gone Girl is really Nick's story--the matrimonial dolt who ultimately realizes that the resolution of his direst problems and realization of his dearest dreams do not necessarily result in perfect happiness--but the motor driving the story is Amy, who when all is said and done doesn't make much sense. Would a schemer so meticulous in planning every detail be so careless as to stuff her moneybelt under a motel mattress--allow it to drop at the most inconvenient moment? Would she risk arrest and a murder charge to avoid a man she didn't love (wouldn't she rather marry him, keep him under her capable thumb--maybe enjoy Nick on the side as a lover?)? Both novel and film--the film more than the novel--are a satire on the media, but isn't her dramatic return to her husband too much to swallow, even for TV news hosts? Sure the twists exist within the realm of possibility (roughly), but every turn of events has the narrative's front fender corners grinding excruciatingly against concrete.

Fincher's choice of Rosamund Pike as Amy goes a long way to addressing the problem--as Amy, Pike embodies the character's contradictions with an enchanting enigmatic grace (Fincher in an interview admits that what intrigued him about her was his failure--despite a self-declared ability to decipher others' expressions--to read her face). The character still doesn't make sense, but that quality of Pike--that you can look at her as often and hard as you like (Fincher begins and ends the film with a closeup) and still not feel you know her at all--makes the lack relatively inconsequential somehow

Fincher takes his cue from Amy and creates an elegant, vaguely menacing visual style--not just the open McMansion doorway Nick confronts before walking in but also the grubby motel where Amy hides (when someone comes knocking you know the outcome won't be good), and the superluxurious lake home where Amy's former lover Desi (Neal Patrick Harris, in a hilariousl creepy-pathetic supporting role) keeps her as guest/prisoner, complete with unblinking security monitors (nice Fincher touch--fact is, the various onscreen habitations effectively fill in the cracks in their owners' respective personalities). The novel might be Nick's story but the film tells that story as if Amy sat in the director's chair, marshaling every element (must mention Jeff Cronenweth's velvety cinematography) with confident ease.

Is it Fincher's best work? Don't think so--despite the stylishness, the clever plotting, the wonderful cast (Tyler Perry as a cunning Johnnie Cochrane lawyer, Carrie Coon as Nick's twin sister Margo, Lola Kirke as a cunning Ozarks girl, Missi Pyle as a grating Nancy Grace parody); despite the devastatingly filmed and scored finale (also need to mention Trenton Reznor and Atticus Ross' unsettlingly discordant music) that both cynically parodies and bitterly affirms boy-stays-with-girl romantic endings, the film doesn't have the sprawling true-life messiness and mystery of Zodiac, (arguably Fincher's masterpiece) recognizably grounded in '70s San Francisco; it doesn't have the methodical step-by-step, piece-by-piece investigative process memorably depicted in Fincher's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo remake (while Rooney Mara doesn't hold a candle to Noomi Rapace's fire-breathing original she's still more persuasive than Pike's Amy). Gone Girl after all is said and done is the hollow shell of an art film; that said, it's one hell of an entertainingly seductive shell. 

First published in Businessworld, 10.9.14
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