Tuesday, February 26, 2008

DVDs: Ratatouille, We Own the Night, Only Angels Have Wings

I was looking at Brad Bird's Ratatouille (2007) on DVD again and on second and third viewing it's even more unimpressive than ever. Yes, as Bourdain notes, they get many of the moves right (though I still maintain that the omelet Remy cooks is overdone, and no self-respecting fine dining restaurant would ever put on marquee lights that bright and vulgar), but it's basically your Pixar/Disney movie with the usual concerns found in American animation: guy/mouse must go after girl/dream/acceptance, and not let villain/critic/weak-willed self get in his/it way. If it comes to animation about food, the Japanese have done better, not just once but twice, maybe more. That hair-control bit still seems silly (in the DVD extras they show more reasonable alternatives, with Remy guiding Linguini's hand or hiding in a drawer while sipping soup), and I still can't believe that Linguini is stupid enough to send Remy away for stealing (I don't care if Remy stole the Crown Jewels, or crapped in Linguini's underpants, or copped a feel from Colette's ass; you don't throw out your meal ticket to fame and fortune, not for any reason).

Then there's Anton Ego's (Peter O'Toole) monologue towards the end, where he basically eats crow. "In many ways, the work of a critic is easy," he begins, and right there we disagree. Critics unless they have television shows and maybe several books to their name (I'll not name names, except that the 'critic' I have in mind discussed his colonoscopy a few years back) do not earn a lot; most I know sideline in related fields (teaching, advertising, technical writing, event management, marketing and promotions); the Filipino critics I know mostly ride public transport and have daytime jobs that buy their daily bread, the critical work being mostly a labor of love. Critics as a whole get precious little respect and even less money.

"We thrive on negative criticism--" Speaking for myself (though I'm sure there are other views), there's nothing more disappointing in the world than a bad movie. A movie, any movie represents many hours of work and money put together by mostly talented people in a sustained, concentrated effort; to sit down and watch only to find that it's a piece of shit doesn't please me in any way, shape, or form. So when I sit down and find myself sinking deeper and deeper in my chair, realizing that what I'm watching would do better service to the world being chopped up and spread over a wheat field, I'm not delighted, I'm pissed; the filmmaker has just wasted both his time and mine. If at times I vent my anger and frustration in my articles, well...all I can say in response is "go see the picture yourself" (if you did see the picture and disagree with me, that's a whole other matter).


(Now's as good a time as any to point out that while it's true that Ego is a food critic and I'm all knotted up about Bird's misrepresentation of film critics, I do think that 1) much of what I said applies to both, and 2) Who are we kidding? Bird's a filmmaker, not a chef, and he's addressing film, not food, critics directly with that little speech (though I can't imagine why he's so defensive; he's made some of the best-received pictures in years))

"We risk very little--" Yeah, right. Spoken like one who's hung his balls out in the open for everyone to aim at. We risk ridicule, harassment, plenty of extremely negative emails, one or two suggestions at expiating our sins that seem painful in the extreme and not a little humiliating to carry out (you'd never believe some of the stuff I received after writing about Mel Gibson's
The Passion of the Christ (2004)--and from priests and pastors, too!). But that's just salad dressing; I'm more worried about writing a bad article on a film, of course. Of not doing justice to something I liked, of being too unfair to something I didn't like, of being totally off the mark with my reading of the film. I'm also in constant fear of actually boring someone, somewhere.

Ego goes: "the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so--" this being easily the most offensive and wrongheaded bit of text in the whole movie. Criticism can be art; Agee, Bazin, Farber, Rosenbaum, Kehr, even the occasional Kael piece can rise above mere pan or praise to approach, however distantly, the peaks of literature. Whereas almost anything from Disney and Hollywood in general is worse than junk (junk can be recycled): it's toxic waste, actively softening our craniums and molars and encouraging us to settle down to a lifetime of gumless chewing of the well-marketed mediocrity.

The speech isn't exactly Brad Bird's proudest moment as a writer. It's a failure of imagination, I think, an inability on the part of the filmmaker to put himself in a real critic's shoes. More, the character of Ego is essentially dishonest--Bird's fantasy of a critic humbling himself before the greatness of an artist rather than a real character dealing with the inversion of all his assumptions. Give me Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi's
Persepolis (2007) anytime.

Looked at
We Own the Night (James Gray, 2007) on DVD as well, and it's as handsome, complex, subtle and enthralling as I remember--the shrinking to a TV-sized screen has done little to lessen its impact. The dialogue is functional, reflective mostly of character and social class, and only occasionally striking ("Better to be judged by twelve than carried by six") as I think dialogue should be (we're not Cary Grant, and our conversations are not written by Preston Sturges). The acting is superb--more realistic by far than the epic scenery-chewing Daniel Day-Lewis had to do to earn his second gold doorstop. The camerawork--well, on the commentary Gray cites Coppola (of course), Visconti (the slow zooms and pans across rooms), and even Mikhail Kalatozov's Soy Cuba (I Am Cuba, 1964) as influences and yes one can see them in this; one can also see the care Gray takes in keeping everything authentic, the occasional telling detail (the aforementioned dialogue; the charcoal poured down the mouth; the way guns are held and fired) taken from Gray's many ride-alongs with the police.

Gray in the DVD commentary talks about Bobby Green's destiny, and how the slow and leisurely pans and zooms reflect its inexorable pull over Bobby's life; he also points out how the car chase that occurs two thirds of the way into the picture is in a way a parable of Bobby's life--a planned and predictable transport going suddenly, unavoidably wrong. He notes how car chases in most movies fail to include two major elements: point of view and weather (the last mainly because no stuntman in his right mind would stunt-drive a car in the driving rain). The film's major setpiece does much to correct that neglect--the rain is a hurtling, slanted hell through which the vehicles attain a terrifying velocity (think of a speedboat racing down a raging river--the turbulent water only increases the sense of unstoppable speed), the wipers slapping windshields as if in panic. Much of what follows happens from Bobby's point of view, and as a consequence much of what happens is startling, incomprehensible, and all the more frightening.

Gray confirms the thesis I put forth, that Bobby attains some kind of redemption, only to pay a terrible price. Can't say a lot about this kind of validation--it's a bit unsettling, to agree with a director this much; Gray could have talked more about trivia and biographies and left some of the mystery in his intentions and technique intact--but that could just be me and my preference for mystery talking. Said this before, will say it again: a great film, and easily my favorite American feature of 2007.

Howard Hawks'
Only Angels Have Wings (1939) is striking for the way it covers a period of time and a great deal of space but still manages to evoke a sense of intimacy; the way it includes outdoor scenes of great heights and vast expanses, but sets much of the action indoors, in cramped little rooms (corollary to this is the observation that, like in Hawks' own His Girl Friday, much of the film takes place on overtly theatrical sets, but the overall effect is undeniably cinematic).

Then there's the use of signifiers, a la Bresson. The roar of a propeller engine is a signal for instant attention: of some thing approaching, bringing good or bad tidings. The lookout's voice is a seer, giving the pilots advanced warning of danger ahead. Fog and rain are veils that hide possible disaster, wind the agent that brings said veils to fore. Women and their emotionality are a different kind of veil--trouble, in other words, to be avoided if possible; so are condors, oddly enough (though women have their compensatory virtues--there's no warmth to high-altitude rain, and it's no fun kissing a condor). A man or woman looking off into the distance is cause for concern, or for an extended period of tension (the direction in which his or her gaze is turned gives us a clue as to the direction of the source of concern). It's as if Hawks, recognizing the gargantuan task he has undertaken, seeks to cut corners--seeks shortcuts towards achieving his effects, saves money by showing the response to an event (a plane's approach, for example), instead of the event itself, stretching an admittedly large budget because, large as it is, it's not enough to show everything.

And the special effects--the model work with all its astonishing detail, the use of wind and splashing water to add speed and life to a takeoff or landing, the textures (the weather effects in particular) still beyond the capabilities of the most powerful computer to imitate. The effects are so wonderful that when you see real footage of planes in flight--a breathtaking shot of a plane rounding a plateau, for example--the sense of wonder remains largely undiminished.

The ending is a masterpiece of signifiers. An all-clear radio call; a woman packing her baggage; an unresolved conversation; a coin, closely examined; a wide-open smile on a man taking off--all point to a pure and powerful emotion rushing like a tidal wave over the people involved and, by extension, the audience at large. A great film, definitely.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, 2007)

Portrait of a bank-robber as a rock star

Love it or hate it, Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a sight to see. It has the stateliness of an Andrei Tarkovsky film, the sumptuous slow camera pans and zooms that indicate a leisurely investigation into a profound mystery, but it's in its handling of white that the film really comes into its own. White linens, white-clouded skies, white canvas, white light streaming in through frosted glass--seems to me cinematographer Roger Deakins was asked to bring forth every variant in shade and hue that he can think of, and fashion the film accordingly (even in the night-time sequences, of which there are a few, your eyeballs have been exposed to so much white that you blink at this sudden change, as if at an affront).

And why not? The film is shaped and paced like an elegy, and while white is not usually associated with death or dying (in the more recent West, that is; in China and even medieval Europe, white signifies mourning), the purity of the color (or rather, lack of) is such that it suggests a preoccupation with the next world, not this one.

That is easily the profoundest idea the film has, or is able to visualize; the rest seems more like a sketch of profundity, an attempt to evoke it that misses the real thing. The film focuses on the erstwhile Judas of the story, Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), and his unabashed admiration for James (Brad Pitt), who he meets during the latter's last few years of life. Ford worms his way into James' confidence--how, I'm not quite sure; Ford as Affleck plays him gives off such creepy vibes I'd have slapped a restraint order on the man before I would talk to him--accompanies him through what can more or less be considered the bandit's decline, then (I'm not exactly spoiling anything, am I? The climax is telegraphed by the very title) sends a bullet through James' head when his back is turned.

One if the film's biggest problems is the narration: Hugh Ross speaks endlessly throughout the length of the two-hour plus film, explaining to us actions carried out onscreen, telling us exactly how this or that character feels, giving us the impression of momentous events taking place. Writer-director Dominik seems to lack confidence in his writing abilities, or loves the Ron Hansen novel so much he has to quote pages and pages of it (or at least give the impression that he is); he doesn't trust silence itself, the way say Michelangelo Antonioni or Andrei Tarkovsky--or their artistic descendants Bela Tarr, Gus Van Sant, Terence Malick, Lav Diaz, to name a few--would trust it, trust the audience to find meaning in it, and in the mysterious images onscreen.

("But what about Robert Bresson?" one might ask. Sure Bresson used voiceover narration extensively, but when you think about the connection between words and images, the relationship is never simplistic. Bresson doesn't just use narration to mickey-mouse the action; the narration (most famously in
Journal d'un cure de campagne (Dairy of a Country Priest, 1961) done by the protagonist himself as if reading from his eponymous dairy) often stands out in ironic counterpoint, or adds something to the image--a hidden inner mood, a stray thought or idea--that we otherwise couldn't be aware of.)

Affleck is the film's focus, but there's no question that Pitt's James is the picture's star, and here I think the filmmakers commit a disastrous mistake--Pitt's a handsome camera subject and a cunning comic actor, but for something this solemn he's simply not the man for the job. You see him set his jaw in a sullen line, his eyes flicking this way and that, and Pitt would probably justify this as his way of suggesting that James is alert to his surroundings but I think it's his way of seeking escape from the straitjacket he's confined in. Pitt's quick reflexes and even quicker wit comes out on occasion, when James is required to demonstrate psychotic behavior in motion, but for the most part the actor seems like a man buried alive, his lithe body contorted in a series of lifeless poses, his best instincts smothered in a ton of art-film pretense.

Casey Affleck's Robert Ford is the film's heart, of course, and for the most part, especially after James' death, he manages to win our sympathies; it's mainly the way his character is conceived and used that's problematic--the aforementioned creepiness, for example, that only the totally oblivious or an idiot would fail to consider. When Pitt as James is eliminated, Affleck's Ford comes to fore, and the film gains some kind of tragic grandeur; without Pitt's lesser-than-life presence, James can finally become the mythic figure Ford constantly struggles against, and ultimately loses to.

It's not as if Dominik is without talent; with Deakins' help he manages to create gorgeous imagery (on occasion he manages to re-create the blurred edges found in pinhole photographs); during the rare gunfight he eschews the fast cutting and mostly dizzying handheld camerawork fashionable of action films nowadays and simply keeps his lens trained on the man with the gun, sustains the moment, allows us to squirm in anticipation of the hunk of steel in the man's hand detonating.

Critics have likened the film to Altman's classic Western McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) for its wintry disposition, but I think the more instructive comparison is with Philip Kaufman's
The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, (1972) made a year later, which actually involves Jesse James. Where Dominik's film is stately and not a little self-important Kaufman's is lively, inquisitive, seemingly curious about not just its main characters but everyone onscreen (even the crazed homeless man who pops up wandering the streets turns out to have a crucial role in the story). James (played by Robert Duvall) is a sniggering, dull-minded psychopath--a more historically accurate portrait, in my opinion. The real focus of interest and the one whose point of view closely mirrors the film's (you might say the director tells the story through his eyes) is Cole Younger, played by Cliff Robertson as a worn yet somehow wide-eyed amateur philosopher and mechanical enthusiast, eager to explore the world and its many curiosities (as Younger would often put it "ain't that a wonderment?"). Dominik's and Kaufman's films cover different periods of James' life (the end of James' life; the end of the James-Younger gang), emphasize different issues (the passing of a famous man into myth; the ironies and intricacies of the world), and take widely divergent approaches to their subject matter (James seen as a rock star in decline; James as a brute); call it prejudice or bias, but I much prefer Kaufman's film.

(First published in Businessworld, 2/22/08)

Thursday, February 14, 2008

There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)

Bloody fun

There Will Be Blood (2008), Paul Thomas Anderson's loose--very loose--adaptation of Upton Sinclair's 1927 novel Oil! is a huge mess, is being (like its heavily award-nominated fellow production, the Coen brothers' No Country for Old Men) hugely overrated, but is nevertheless an entertaining romp. I can't deny it has impact, however scattershot, misshapen, or misguided.

Interesting to note general features in the film, and how they sprout out of obsessions Anderson has nursed time and time again in his previous films. We have the sprawling, overambitious narrative (pretty much a given in his works); we have the strained to the point of rupture relationship between young man and father figure (Sidney, Boogie Nights, Magnolia); we have the evangelical character as a figure of evil, hypocrisy, pathos (again, Magnolia--you might call this an expansion of that previous film's biblical, early-half-of-the-previous-century's tendencies). We've got endless yelling and shrieking, occasionally terrific shots and terrifically edited sequences, and yes, blood--glimpsed at throughout the picture, lingered on (if not directly looked at) in the final scene.

The opening ten minutes are the film's finest, a wordless prologue with Daniel Day-Lewis' oil-drilling Daniel Plainview (Plain view, changed from Sinclair's J. Arnold Ross--Anderson is not one for subtlety), struggling all by his lonesome self to set an explosive charge, suffer a mishap, then drag himself into the nearest town for treatment. Anderson has admitted to being inspired by John Huston's The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948), and this could be a sequence lifted wholesale from that classic (with oil substituting for gold), but the Huston influence doesn't stop there: when Plainview finally opens his mouth, it's Huston as Noah Cross in Roman Polanski's Chinatown (1974) that speaks. In probably the nuttiest decision Anderson has made on this or any other of his pictures, he (or Day-Lewis) decided to base the actor's entire performance on Huston's voice, mannerisms, walk in that picture.

I don't know how that's supposed to work. It's distracting, but it's also fun as all hell, watching Day-Lewis try get away with it, pretend he's giving us something original, taking it to town and several suburbs beyond in size, intensity, well-salted meatiness. Hate it or love it, it's a memorable performance--as if Anderson wanted to give us Cross' life story, oil substituting for water (one thing missing is the incestuous relationship with his charge--for some reason Anderson doesn't want to go there with H.W. (Dillon Freasier), the boy Plainview adopts after the father dies from one of many drilling accidents (one wonders why the issue of on-site safety is never once raised)).

The music's fantastic. Always thought Anderson relied too much on his collection of rock and pop records for borrowed atmosphere and secondhand poignancy; with the help of Jonny Greenwood he applies a score that sounds miles away from his previous efforts, both dissonant and barbaric--like an idiot savant with a pair of steel pipes, banging away his idea of a symphony inside an oil rig.

Visually Anderson's dialed down his in-your-face faux-Scorsese pyrotechnics--instead of the camera rushing up to a main character (always wondered how the actor could just stand there without flinching), we get long shots of the surrounding terrain, as if Anderson had noticed for the ver first time that yes, America has beautiful vistas, and yes, they are worth looking at once in a while. I won't say he has a feel yet for landscapes--he's no John Ford--but he does give us a sense of Plainview's isolation early on and later, of the vast spaces within which the oilmen have had the effrontery to raise their matchstick apparatus, penetrate the earth's skin, suck out its black blood (blood and oil--and later milk--are equated in many ways). Later Anderson pulls off several sumptuously paced coup-de-theatre setpieces--a leavetaking in a train that tugs (okay, yanks) at one's heartstrings; a powerful eruption turned oil fire that burns day and (most spectacularly) night, the flames casting a diabolical glow on the workers' faces; a scene at a privately owned bowling alley that not only gives us sense of exhausted opulence (the camera's slow movements keeping us constantly conscious of the expensive-looking bowling lanes, of the remains from a previous night's meal scattered on the polished hardwood), but also of a game (an unstoppable ball. a helpless tenpin) being violently played out between two men.

Structure is the film's and Anderson's characteristically biggest weakness. Anderson has almost always been interested in dramatic climaxes--an interesting premise to introduce his characters, then a quick lunge at some kind of climax without bothering to bring in such boring niceties as character development (think Julianne Moore freaking out at the drugstore counter in Magnolia (1999)). Thanks to Sinclair's novel Anderson has enough incidents to help shore up his usual shaky structure (it just wobbles a bit here, there). Perhaps his least persuasive ellipse comes between 1922 and 1927, when Plainview's child H.W. has become a young man (Russell Harvard). The final scene between father and son is the worse in the picture, I think, because we've barely been introduced to the grown man (what happened to his firestarting tendencies? His antisocial slapping? We get some suggestion that his girlfriend-turned-wife reformed him, but that's like slapping a Redeemed by the Power of Love sticker on his forehead and assuming all is forgiven) before he's wrangling out his relationship with Daniel on a permanent basis. Plus that sign language interpreter that sits in on their meeting (H.W. lost his hearing in yet another of Daniel's 'accidental' oil explosions) is a golden chance lost--the interpreter is previously shot and presented as harboring some fondness for the boy, but during this crucial sequence Anderson can barely spare any interest in him. Aside from wasting all that furtive characterization spent on the man, his perspective of Daniel, H.W. and their relationship together might have added dimensions to the scene (Is Daniel such a monster? Is H.W. such an innocent? Is he--the translater--some kind of mediator, a father substitute, perhaps?), dimensions Anderson denies us by denying the translator any voice on the matter.

I think Day-Lewis also knew that this scene was poorly written and conceived; he looks restless here, as if he wanted to put the young drip aside and get on with the real meat of the movie. Every scene Day-Lewis has with Paul Dano as Eli, Daniel's evangelical adversary, is terrific, they have real chemistry together, and for all of Day-Lewis' considerable skill Dano manages to steal the limelight every time. Their final confrontation is the film's proper climax, with a strong sense that the power play going on between them has gone on for a long time (they previously appeared onscreen together in a baptism scene that managed to be both horrific and hilarious, an unholy union of Dreyer's
La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (The Passion of Joan of Arc, 1928) with Dano in the Falconetti role, and something by Abbot and Costello).

What does any of this have to do with American history, with relations between big business and religion? Precious little, I'd say; my experience with big business is that it's all too ready to embrace the many hypocrisies of organized religion, that both institutions are too eager to collaborate, share too many interests, too many common enemies. If anything, organized religion is a business, and many businesses with their philosophies and corporate cultures present themselves as a kind of religion--in which case, this relationship, the most adversarial in the film and source of its crude energy, is hardly an accurate portrait of America, or any version of it in the past. I can't consider Blood a serious work of art (though of the pictures nominated for that damned golden doorstop, it's easily my favorite), but it does have an outsized feel, a ponderousness that's new to Anderson (and therefore refreshing, fairly), and you do see him pull a few new tricks (the Greenwood score, for one) out his sleeve. Add Day-Lewis' amusing (if nonsensical) film-length Huston impersonation and, why, I think we can call this Anderson's best work to date.

First published in
Businessworld 2/15/08

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Eye (David Moreau and Xavier Palud, 2008)

I see dumb movie

People talk about new laws for Hollywood movies, some way of reforming the American rating system, for example--that rarely coherent, fairly irrational and at times
politically motivated method they have of slapping "PG 13" on some titles, "R" or even "NC 17" on others (they should complain; we've been saddled with the MTRCB (Movie and Television Ratings and Classification Board) for decades). No one talks about actually banning projects outright, though--stupid high-concept comedies; even stupider high-concept romantic comedies; torture porn; sequels and prequels of tiresome franchises; remakes of TV shows, Hollywood classics, international successes--Asian horror in particular. I can think of dozens of other laws that should be passed, even ratified by the United Nations and enforced on a worldwide scale, but these would make a good start.

David Moreau and Xavier Palud's
The Eye (2008) is the latest and easily most eloquent argument for said law. A remake of the Pang Brother's 2002 hit Gin gwai, the picture tells the story of a beautiful blind violinist (Jessica Alba) who receives corneal transplants then starts seeing "dead people," as her skeptical psychologist (Alessandro Nivola) puts it (at least scriptwriter Sebastian Gutierrez had the smarts to turn the picture's obvious debt to M. Night Shaymalan's The Sixth Sense (1999--which in turn stole its gimmick from Herk Harvey's great cult film Carnival of Souls (1962))--into a throwaway gag). We are treated to Alba recoiling from a traffic jam of the spiritually restless, speeding this way or that down half-lit corridors (Why do hospital corridors in horror pictures always have to be half-lit? Why don't directors realize that the surest sign of an unconfident filmmaker is the use of hoary, blatantly unrealistic scare tactics?). Sometimes the dead stand and stare at her, which may be even worse--you're not sure if they want to frighten or sexually harass her, maybe both.

It's not as if the original material was worth reprising anyway. Was not a big fan of the Pang Brothers' movie; thought it tried too hard, that it had the Hong Kong drive to keep its audience riveted without enough Hong Kong style to make it memorable, that it used too much of the music-video filmmaking so beloved by American horror filmmakers. And it isn't as if the Pangs are geniuses at terror--that famous elevator sequence (faithfully reproduced in this remake) seemed more hilarious than horrifying, the floating corpse like a moth-eaten suit on string, wobbling out of the elevator to scare the kiddies (much better is the elevator sequence that climaxes Hideo Nakata's
Honogurai mizu no soko kara (Dark Water, also '02)--at least that was more persuasively staged (no skeletons on string, thank you), made more narrative sense, and packed a dramatic power that went far beyond its ostensibly simple plot twist).

Comparing Nakata to this sorry lot the difference is so dramatic it's not even funny. Nakata knows how to use silence, stillness, long pauses, and subtly but brilliantly angled shots to unsettle and at times terrify his audience. The Pangs--and for that matter Moreau and Palud--need to sit down and study Nakata's work frame-by-frame, maybe stay away from filmmaking till they learn to at least approximate it (Perhaps even give up directing altogether, which would be unlikely but nice). They opt for a hysterical filmmaking style and soundtrack to match, not realizing what Nakata must have realized long ago, that ghosts are far more effective set against a recognizably realistic background (with all the shrieks and hoots and chop-suey editing in this picture, everyone looks half-dead; the more supernatural characters need to overact to get noticed at all). The Pangs, Moreau, and Palud (they sound like a U.S. immigration law firm) seem to subscribe to the philosophy that if they make a loud noise you'll feel fear; if they make a louder noise you'll feel more fear (What I'm really afraid of is going deaf from the busy soundtrack, perhaps feel nauseous from the even busier camerawork).

As for Jessica Alba--well, she's no Angelica Lee (who made much of the silliness in the original halfway persuasive); she's definitely no Madeline Stowe, who in Michael Apted's 1994 thriller Blink also played a blind woman regaining her sight (as you see, there are few if any truly new ideas in cinema). Lee was an angel of a sufferer, and you felt for her and felt she didn't deserve any part of the ordeal she went through; Stowe played an earthier, sexier woman, and her combination of sensual confidence and vulnerability is refreshing. Alba looks as if she'd just been invited to the junior prom, and never recovered from the initial joy; she's got a cheerfully inane smile stapled across her mug that's impossible to wipe off--her face suggests that smile whether she's paralyzed with fear or crushed by despair (I'm guessing those are the emotions her character is supposed to feel--can't go by her acting alone). She's easily the most inept beautiful actress working in Hollywood at the moment, with one bad performance after another adorning a string of even worse movies; this one is probably the crown jewel of her career--the one that ends it, I mean. Well, one can always hope.

First published in Businessworld (2/8/08)

Friday, February 01, 2008

Is Charles Burnett for real?

I mean is Burnett, as so many critics are saying, the great champion of naturalism a la Renoir (a major influence in his life, as he himself is fond of saying)? Which I agree is true to some extent, but is he really only about that? In To Sleep With Anger (1999) there's the suggestion that Harry (Danny Glover) is actually the devil; by the film's final shot a trumpet note, once shaky and amateurish, miraculously turns smooth and beautiful (Stuart Klawans writes about that exact detail in his contribution to Little Black Book of Movies). In The Annihilation of Fish (1999) James Earl Jones has daily wrestling matches with an invisible demon who he daily succeeds in tossing out the window (he's not as cracked as you might think; a second after his hands fling out empty air, the bushes below shiver from the weight of a dropped body).

But even as early as Killer of Sheep (1977) Burnett's been serving up striking, even witty images in a deliciously deadpan manner. A young girl dons a dog mask (Saint Bernard is my guess) and the camera shoots her head-on as she hangs about the house and back yard, forlorn and faintly comical; the camera looks up and a group of children leap across rooftops, their sudden appearance in the bright Angeleno sky as startling as pork in flight.

It's not all visual jokes, though--at the eponymous man's place of work, sheep are hung upside down by the leg and sway gently to and fro, their cut jugulars spraying wool and a nearby wall with a fine coating of blood. And Burnett's camera lingers noticeably on Stan's (Henry G. Sanders) own, often half-naked body, beautiful and powerfully muscled the same time it's almost entirely without power, barely able to muster the energy to pick up a knife and cut linoleum (in my interview of him Burnett notes how pictures of black men being lynched often showed the size and majesty of the man's body; was this something in his mind when he photographed Sanders?). Stan's lethargy is one of the film's central metaphors--he can't sleep, he can't make love, he can hardly do anything (you feel for his wife, who's practically throwing herself at him) beyond draping his sorry ass at the breakfast table and sipping coffee (at one point when Burnett shoots the table from the side the furniture takes on an unsettling resemblance to a chopping block, the people dining on it sides of beef waiting to be butchered).

Then there's the film's title, which is its other central metaphor, not to mention visual and verbal pun--Burnett shoots the slaughterhouse as if it were something out of Dante, but there's a damned beauty to the images; even here (the thick air, the harsh lighting, the bleating goats (their hiccupping cries a parody of annunciating trumpets), the lazily swinging carcasses) Burnett can't help but transform what he sees: the quotidian becomes particular, the ghastly dreamlike and graceful. The reality isn't erased--we see the blood, we see the filth--but Burnett's camera looks at it from a certain angle, lit a certain way, and it becomes more than just blood and filth.

One counts sheep to go to sleep, of course; watching Stan slaughter and strip these creatures makes one think: he's murdering the very animals that might help him sleep, he's murdering his own sleep--a killer of sleep, in effect. The sheep, upside down, are the biggest joke of all: they're limp and languorous, their muscles totally relaxed; they're enjoying their rest--the eternal kind--to the utmost.

Several Friends (1969) was a short done before Killer, and you can see it as some kind of early prototype: the black-and-white photography, the directionless narrative, the similar scene in the car of friends chatting, even the sense one has that the characters, on encountering a problem or issue, prefer to sit around a table and talk it to death. Most striking about the short that I remember was the fight the people sitting in the car were watching, a kind of slow-motioned slapstick routine where neither party seems to get seriously hurt, but neither do they get anywhere, either--violence as aimless, pointless, even surreal play.

The Horse (1973) is a sharp little vignette that features Burnett's use of the long shot, enabling the surrounding farmland to dominate and swallow the characters. It's also, until The Glass Shield (1994) onwards, his most explicit work at that time to deal directly with racism (afterwards, of course, there's Nightjohn (1996), Selma, Lord Selma (1999), and Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property (2003). In Burnett's first two features the white man isn't so much dealt with as excluded, an irrelevancy in a rich and teeming non-white world; in The Horse a gang of men gather around the farmhouse to talk about a black farmer and his son as the two deal with the farmer's horse (a knife hanging from a ceiling beam trembles, almost as if in rage at their casual effrontery). Perhaps most interesting is how Burnett treats said animal, like a fellow if mute character with its own closeups and a sudden blackout that leaves its ultimate fate entirely to our imagination.

My Brother's Wedding (1983) is his follow-up feature to Killer, and it tells the story of the prodigal son from the son's point of view. Burnett does a nice little balancing act here--he doesn't excuse Pierce's (Everett Silas) weaknesses, but by telling it this way he allows us to understand the man, even sympathize a little. Yes, Pierce is rude and even cruel to his brother and sister-in-law to be, but Burnett also implies that Pierce's antipathy comes from his belief that his brother has sold out--delivered body and soul to the Devil (or Mammon) to become yet another upper middle-class white-wannabe. Most visually notable is the Laundromat, presented as a portal through which passes all kinds of visitors bearing all kinds of gifts (desire; danger; heedless mischief), and the storage room behind, a forest of plastic-wrapped mystery, befuddlement (the occasional lost item), even erotic abandonment (quick sex on the floor, atop piled-up laundry). Like The Horse, My Brother's Wedding has a longish buildup to an abbreviated end--here, a giant, fateful closeup of the wedding ring that has caused so much trouble.

Killer of Sheep may be one of Burnett's best-known works, but the almost entirely unknown When it Rains (1995) is easily critic Jonathan Rosenbaum's favorite
. A lovely little parable set in the Watts district and scored to some wondrous jazz, the film chronicles an old man's (Ayuko Babu) attempts to raise money for a mother and her daughter in danger of eviction on New Year's. From the opening image--of a Christmas tree leaping a wall--onwards it's full of fabulous imagery; for its last shot Burnett tracks slowly away from a jazz player blowing on a trumpet with three horns, its music filling the soundtrack. On either side of the player--his feet planted on a street corner, of course--are a pair of latticed windows stretching outward like wings, the whole staged and shot as if the player were on a concert stage receiving the full star treatment.

That final image just about sums up Burnett's magic. He's no mere realist; he's a poet of realism. He employs actual locations and non-actors partly out of necessity (he rarely has the money to do or hire more), partly out of preference (non-actors, he says in a recent NPR interview, have no ego nor agenda). The end result is a firm foundation of realism from which his camera is able to take off on startling flights of fancy. The material Burnett deals with--poor to middle-class African-Americans, from their slavery past to their economically and racially oppressed present--is perhaps too grim for straightforward documentary treatment; or rather, Burnett feels it's not so much intolerable as incomplete. There is beauty out there, even in the poorer sections of Los Angeles, even in the cotton plantations of the South--you just need to look at it from a certain angle, through a certain sensibility. Burnett finds those angles, develops that sensibility, shares them with us on the big screen.

Cloverfield (Matt Reeves, 2008)

Monster mash

Cloverfield is fun, perhaps not as fun as the brilliant hype around it would have us believe--no Cthulhu-like creature evoking H.P. Lovecraft's complex mythology, more's the pity--but if disappointed fans can bring themselves to settle down and relax and actually watch the damned thing, they could appreciate it for what it is--a clever little of meditation on the different forms of modern media and communication and how they interact with each other, presented in the form of a monster movie.

As a creature feature it's not all that much--the brute doesn't change the way the creature in Ridley Scott's Alien (1979) does, and it doesn't have that creature's faintly erotic biomechanical look (thanks to H.R. Giger) or fairly fascinating reproductive system (lifted from the 1939 story "Discord in Scarlet" written by A.E. Van Vogt--who in turn had borrowed the idea from digger wasps). It doesn't unbend from beneath a bridge with all the grace of an uncoiling acrobat (a la Bong Joon-ho's
Gwoemul (The Host, 2006)), or lope gracefully on the ground like a herd of antelopes (or rather, a herd of antelopes monstrously fused into a single agile mass). Actually, it's not much of monster, period-- it's got a massive hunched back, a complex-looking series of inset mouths (a la Giger), and rather malevolent life-forms dripping from its shoulders (Are they tadpoles? Parasites, maybe? If the monster had been some kind of biological fractal, constantly generating smaller and smaller exact reproductions of itself, we might have had something). Easily the most compelling aspect about the big mother is that we don't see it--or that we only glimpse parts of it, in between collapsing buildings, along Manhattan's shadowed streets, swinging a tentacle up out of the East River to swat at the Brooklyn Bridge. When the whole thing finally lurches into view, you can't help but feel let down---it would have been better off skulking around in the dark, pretending to be more than what it was.

Actually, the entire movie was better when it pretended to be more than what it is, by turns a cunningly marketed, internet-driven teaser campaign (complete with puzzles and dark hints) worthy of Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez's 1999 horror mockumentary
The Blair Witch Project (from which this movie borrowed much of its camerawork); the latest production by TV wunderkind J.J. Abrams (Lost); a possible tie-in to Lovecraft--but that's part of the fascination of this sort of project, the way buildup can be achieved early on, and the eventual, almost inevitable, disillusionment (in a movie all about metatexts, couldn't the whole thing--from provocative previews to fairly successful commercial run to ultimate critical backlash--be seen as the film's ultimate metatext?). The final product is unsatisfyingly short of context, explanation, exposition, not because we need the picture to make narrative sense, but because we'd like a potent metaphor--unexplained monster trashing New York City--to at least try carry more than its weight in poetic and philosophical baggage. Even Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds (1963) paused briefly to allow its characters to thresh out the significance of what's been happening (even if all explanation is cut short--dismissed in effect by Hitchcock and his characters as being for all intents and purposes useless--by yet another attack). Cloverfield tries to get away with even less than Hitchcock did, but it doesn't quite fly; you can only get so much from a bunch of people running about and screaming in the dark. Director Matt Reeves and writer Drew Goddard should at least have made their characters a few I.Q. points smarter, so that they could speculate intelligently while on the run--it's not impossible; the good Doctor (David Tennant in his latest TV incarnation) does this all the time.

I haven't forgotten saying that I did like the picture, even if I've spent most of this article poking holes in it and pointing out where it (and even its sources) lifted its (their) best ideas; I do like it. I don't think it's superior--that it beats the haunting, otherworldly beauty of Alien, or the poignant melodrama (and offhandedly fluid bestial loveliness) of Gwoemul, or that it presents the kind of precision-tooled escalation from unaccountable event to apocalyptic terror that The Birds did, but it's a welcome addition, a sort of shakier, grimier, newly-born cousin to its superior predecessors.

And it does have a fascination uniquely its own. If, nowadays, a monster is not content to stick to its own initial form (Alien); if a monster movie is not content to stick to its own genre (Gwoemul, with its combination of creature feature, family tearjerker, and slapstick comedy), Cloverfield does do its own serious morphing--not so much in genre, as in the terms in which it tells its story. The picture starts out as found footage--titles declare to us that this tape was found in the sector "formerly known as Central Park," which implies a number of things, not many of them good. It turns into a POV documentary, initially of a pair of lovers going on a subway trip to Coney Island, then of a cocktail party full of beautiful young things--I'd call them "yuppies," only that term is so '80s--ostensibly a farewell shindig for one of them, who's about to leave for Japan. When the creature attacks, the documentary turns into a reality show, with its own set of basic challenges (Run Brooklyn Bridge without falling into the East River! Walk a subway tunnel while being hunted by spider creatures! Evade U.S. military with orders to detain and deport you! Climb a building leaning at a 45-degree angle!). The movie finally devolves into a video testimonial, with the heroes identifying themselves for future generations that might find the footage (which, as the opening titles suggest, is what happens--yet another idea lifted from Blair Witch).

Cloverfield is not entirely without sting--perhaps the most interesting shot in the whole picture is of the cameraman gaping at a news broadcast of the monster, realizing where it's happening, and stepping outside to witness the real thing (talk about a shift from representation to reality, and the paradoxical loss of realism (he had a better view from the news broadcast)); perhaps the most poignant are the insert shots of the lovers on their summertime idyll, idiotically innocent and unaware of the heartbreak and horror to come. It would help if we actually get a better sense of the lovers and their friends as people--as is, Cloverfield is eighty minutes of watching a group of youthful supermodels getting mussed and muddied--but even the sight of plastic mannequins being slaughtered is not entirely unmoving. I approve.

(First published in
Businessworld, 2/1/08)
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