Sunday, July 27, 2008

Jules Dassin, 1911 - 2008 (a belated tribute)

Night and the City

(Please note: plot of various films discussed in minute detail)

He looked like the gentlest of men, but in Pote tin Kyriaki (Never on a Sunday, 1960) he played an American prude and sexual hypocrite; in Du rififi chez les hommes (Rififi, 1955) he was a happy-go-lucky Italian safecracker too weak-willed to resist betraying his friends. He looked like the gentlest of men, but one wonders, from what one sees of him in his films, from what one sees in his films, how exactly did he see himself; what, exactly, did he keep hidden inside?

No idle question, this; Dassin's first directorial job is, after all, Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart (1941), about a murderer who from the sheer weight of guilt caused by the act of murder (a guilt symbolized by the relentless drumbeat of his victim's heart), reveals his crime to the police. The film differs from the short story in the that the story is told in first-person, almost entirely from the killer's point of view--inside his head so to speak--while Dassin's twenty minute film observes him from third.

It's an interesting choice; using a narrator is the obvious way to go, and in fact I've seen versions (one of them animated) that do exactly that; by shifting to third Dassin arguably takes the more difficult challenge, attempts to suggest interior states of mind through lighting, camera movement, and precisely positioned details (the two police officers constantly framing the killer, standing on either side of him like sentinel statues--pinning him in between them, in effect, to maintain the pressure, prevent his escape). Even early in his career Dassin excels at evoking the burden of guilt without making that guilt too explicit--without exposing, so to speak, the more private recesses of the mind.

He knew something about violence, too; Brute Force (1946) is startling not so much for its atrocities (the film takes its cue from World War 2 documentary footage to create what is generally considered to be the most shocking depiction of prison violence at the time) as for the intensity of the emotions accompanying the violence.

Take the death of a stool pigeon. A distraction is staged; the guards move to deal with it; left to themselves, the prisoners in a machine shop gather around the stoolie. Dassin stages the sequence like a ritual sacrifice, complete with high priests bearing flaming brands (handheld blowtorches) and a metal god (the machine shop press) waiting for its promised sacrifice. The man stumbles out of sight, the press drops down--it's the deliberate pace, the convicts' implacability, the sense of an irrevocable fate that give the scene its power.

Later, Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn) interrogates a prisoner using a rubber hose, and one remembers not the beating (which happens offscreen) but Munsey's playful manner with the prisoner--Dassin makes it clear that Munsey enjoys toying with the man, teasing him for his helplessness, is perhaps eager to have the prisoner refuse to answer so he has an excuse to torment him.

When the facility finally explodes in a prison-wide riot, Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster) is shot in the back by a prison guard. He bellows, the single most memorable sound in the film; you imagine that a Cape Buffalo maddened by a hunter's shot would roar that way prior to charging. What you can't imagine is Joe being stopped--not by the bullet, not by a high, winding staircase (Joe is mortally wounded and can barely stand, much less climb), not by Munsey whipping the ammo belt from a wall-mounted machine gun across Joe's face.

Dassin for the record disliked the flashbacks (producer Mark Hellinger reportedly insisted on them)--he believed the excerpts from their past lives overly sweetened the convicts, turned the prison into a refuge for victims of melodrama (the true sociopaths work as prison guards and deputy wardens). Good point, but at the very least the violence shown, the manner in which that violence is shown, belies the prisoners' apparent soulfulness. These are brutes, perfectly capable of brutal acts (speaking from experience, the flashbacks actually makes their characterization more, not less, persuasive--hardened criminals are sentimental, and will often tell stories slanted in such a way as to make them look the victim).

By story's end the prison doctor (Art Smith), gives us the picture's putative lesson: "Nobody escapes. Nobody ever escapes." It's the usual bone thrown to the audience, to assure moral watchdogs that a clear lesson is being taught. As the doctor moves forward, though, shadows pass over his face and the camera retreats; it slips through a barred window, the lenses staying on the doctor's face. Suddenly the doctor is himself a prisoner; suddenly the doctor's gloomy pronouncement doesn't just apply to the convicts, but to everyone and anyone in the world. Suddenly the doctor's words have become a Sartrean pronouncement on humanity.

Dassin's next project Naked City (1948) is interesting not so much for the story as for the way Dassin sets the story in New York--literally in New York, in the indisputable fact of the streets and buildings of that city (Roberto Rossellini out of necessity filmed in the bombed-out ruins of Rome some years before, establishing the neorealist movement along the way, and the contrast of Rome's rubble to New York's unyielding skyscrapers--both housing the same flawed human beings, struggling in either poverty or near-prosperity for survival--is fascinating).

Perhaps the most memorable sequence in the film is the pursuit of Willie Garzah, which ends with an ascent up the Williamsburg Bridge, New York's Finest aiming at him with their rifles. Dassin will come back to this image again and again--the killer or criminal or otherwise guilty party running from authorities, from the gang lord's tentacular reach, from his own doom, running not with any realistic intent to escape, but for the sake of running, of maintaining a sense of motion, of delaying a despair so immense and absolute that movement itself is a sign of life, of defiance.

Dassin would find himself involved in a case of real-world persecution: one night he hears a knock on the door, opens it to find 20th Century Fox studio head Darryl Zanuck standing there: "You better get out of town," Zanuck says. Word is that HUAC (the House of Un-American Activities Committee) is calling on people to reveal communists, and Zanuck wants him out of the country and working on a project before he was blacklisted. “Get a fucking script done," Zanuck said. "Begin shooting, start with the most expensive scenes and they won’t fire you, because it’s probably going to be the last picture you’re ever going to make.” The film was to be Night and the City (1950), arguably Dassin's masterpiece; Dassin was named by among others Elia Kazan, and his filmmaking career was effectively over.

Until five years and numerous aborted projects (some of them scuttled thanks to the endlessly vindictive U.S. government) later, when Dassin surfaces with Rififi. The film, just about the tautest, most elegant crime thriller ever made, is a masterpiece of understated style cunningly posing as realism. Everything seems real; everything seems to have been shot, documentarylike, on the streets of Paris (yet a crucial scene where Tony Le Stephanois (Jean Servais) and his friends sit in a nearby cafe to observe the storefront of Mappin & Webb is both set and street shoot--basically a table, chairs, and window frame set up in the sidewalk in front of the camera, through which the actors could peer upon the famous jewelry store).

The actual heist itself, thirty-two minutes of action sans dialogue, sans music, sans (almost) sound is, of course, legend. I'll repeat two of the best-known stories about it: Georges Auric, upon learning that Dassin planned to have no music, was horrified; he said "Look, I'll tell you what, I'm going to protect you, I'm going to write the music for the scene anyway, because you need to be protected," and he did. Later Dassin showed him the film, first with music, then without; Auric went up to Dassin and said "get rid of the music."

The other anecdote's even better: some countries (Mexico, for one) reportedly banned the picture because of imitation robberies. Apparently criminals who watched the film found it too educational.

As interesting if not more so are the scenes that precede the heist. Since Mappin & Webb was equipped with the Suralarm, the very latest in burglar alarm systems (maybe the storeowners should have checked with Mark Twain first on their value and convenience), Tony and his crew buy the very same device to study it and, hopefully, find a way to disarm it.

Dassin sets it all up simply: a medium shot of Jo the Swede (Carl Mohner), Mario Ferrati (Robert Manuel), and Cesar le Milanais (Dassin himself, under the pseudonym Perlo Vita) gathered around the metal box. Tony has just tried hot wax, to be dripped through the alarm's front grill, muffling the bell; Mario points out that the vents are angled upward. Dassin has the camera move slightly to the left, following Tony as he pantomimes his thoughts with his hands (literally, 'thinking with his hands'), worrying about the problem while the others sit and joke. Mario suggests spaghetti noodles ("with parmesan!" Cesar adds); Tony absently picks up a wine bottle (to accompany the pasta, one supposes) and rubs the cylindrical shape, as if it reminded him of something. Mario starts to whistle. Suddenly, Le Stephanois picks up the fire extinguisher (the cylindrical extinguisher, to belabor the point). The whistling stops--the gang chuckles at what Tony, walking towards the Suralarm, seems to be proposing. "We're all set," Tony says with grim satisfaction, as Dassin fades on the scene. Procedurals are fascinating, but Dassin adds to the interest by revealing the men's idiosyncrasies (and goofiness) while they work the problem.

Better yet is the sequence that directly introduces the heist. A woman hums in the background as Dassin shows his images, the humming muted, casual. We see a child in bed, coughing. His mother Louise (Janine Darcy) looks at him through the bedroom doorway, turns to catch her husband Jo going down the hall and out the front door. She closes the bedroom door slowly, almost regretfully; you get the sense (through her body language, the deliberate way she shuts the door) that she wishes she hadn't seen him leave--or, more, that she had been able to shut the front door, preventing him from leaving. Cut to Mario and his wife Ida (Claudia Sylvain), bustling in a kitchen; Mario wets his fingertip, presses it on Ida's nipple, makes a hissing sound, leaves.

Cut to the nightclub; the lovely Viviane (who, it turns out, is the muted hummer) is rehearsing at her nightclub L'Age d'or (a joke on Bunuel). She stretches a leg over the table, bends gracefully; as Dassin's camera backs away she follows. She steps near the bass viola, and we hear its strumming ; steps up to the piano, and we hear its tinkling; steps past guitar and drum; skips onstage to the xylophone, picks up a trumpet, moves away from camera to hand it to its player, and we hear its blowing. By this time Cesar has appeared before the xylophone player, looks at his watch, turns to depart; as he and Viviane walk past each other, Viviane throws Cesar a lingering look before prancing away (Cesar's leavetaking is captured in a single, sinuous shot).

Scene after scene, Tony's men show us the value they put on their respective home lives--Jo takes his largely for granted (he'll eventually regret that) while Louise deliberately shuts a door on the disparity between them; Mario thoroughly appreciates Ida, little appreciates the possibility that he might lose her (or, more likely, she him); Cesar does everything with an artistic flourish (Viviane, stepping past each instrument as they start playing--a foreshadowing if you like of the precisely coordinated, wordless effort the gang will put into the heist), but both he and Viviane are too self-absorbed to do more than exchange brief looks.

When the crew's plans unravel and the rififi (chaos in French argot) begins, Dassin manages to inject a personal inside joke about his blacklisting that must have given him some satisfaction. Tony finds Cesar tied up at the nightclub's backstage (club owner Pierre Gutter (Marcel Lupovici) had frightened Cesar into pointing out Mario as an accomplice, presumably giving Mario's address). Dassin's camera moves in on Cesar--on himself, in effect--strung up against a post like so much carcass. A few brief closeups are exchanged between Tony and Cesar as Tony reveals the enormity of what Cesar has done: "Forgive me," the Italian whispers; his eyes are wide and his forehead glitters with sweat. "I liked you, macaroni," Tony tells Cesar with affectionate contempt. "But you know the rules." Cesar acknowledges with a nod what must be done; the camera moves back, watching Cesar with a pitiless eye.

If, as we see in Brute Force, Night and the City and this picture Dassin holds great sympathy for criminals, we see also in the films' various codas that said sympathy doesn't imply undue softness or sentiment (precluding the producer's interference, of course), doesn't imply extending unqualified forgiveness to the offenders for the crimes they committed, and this combination of empathy and hard judgment applies to himself as well. "Nobody escapes" Dassin has the doctor declare, just before his camera moves back to reveal the barred window imprisoning the doctor. "I liked you, macaroni," he has Tony say "but you know the rules." When Tony fires it's the director punishing those who betrayed him to the House of Un-American Activities Committee, but it's also Dassin punishing himself--why, exactly, is anyone's guess. Perhaps the artist in him refuses to create a clearcut correspondence with real life, demands some measure of sympathy for the most despicable of characters. Perhaps his moral intelligence refuses to grant anyone absolute righteousness, or complete certainty on matters of life and death. Perhaps at some level he does feel some measure of guilt, and will accept this much punishment--his own execution, enacted on the big screen.

The film's final moments, of Tony at the wheel driving Jo's son Tonio (Dominique Maurin) back from his kidnappers, continues Dassin's obsession (traced from Night and the City past The Naked City to the mine car ride in Brute Force) with motion as an expression of life, defiance, meaning, purpose. The passing countryside outside of Paris and later of Paris itself become increasingly unsteady, almost hallucinatory (they have the tremulous sharpness of images seen through eyes desperate for rest), reflecting Tony's increasingly tenuous grip on the wheel (meanwhile Tonio is as irrepressible as ever, the ironic contrast between dying man and rowdy child obvious--maybe a little too obvious (a nod to O. Henry, perhaps? Did Tonio exhaust his captor, allowing Tony to catch the man asleep in bed? And was he playing the same diabolical game on Tony too)). When the car finally rolls to a stop, it's as much resolution as relief to a long, relentless journey.

Gerald Kersh's novel Night and the City is reportedly a comic, Zolaesque view of London's underworld; Dassin worked from a script by Jo Eisinger that expunged much of the book's sordidness (the prostitutes are suggested more than dwelt upon), pointed up conflicts and antagonists (the novel, for example, ends with a general police sweep of the city, in preparation of the coronation of George the Sixth, and not with a manhunt), and replaced the book's darkly comic tone with an altogether bleaker one.

It has Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) in endless Brownian motion, running across darkened London streets, bursting in and out of the Silver Fox nightclub (where he works) to either brag about or beg money for his latest get-rich-quick scheme. He's the transplanted American as incurable optimist and hustler, willing to do and say anything and everything, even try convince the one woman who cares for him (Mary Bristol, played by a radiant if subdued Gene Tierney) to fund yet another of his wild dreams.

It's a withering portrait, one that finds distant echoes in Michael Moriarity's Jimmy Quinn, his great portrayal of a New York City heel in Larry Cohen's Q - The Winged Serpent (1982). Widmark is miles away from his debut performance as Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death (1947); the unnatural nervy laugh he makes is less a sign of sadistic psychosis than it is of a yawning insecurity, the sound of a man attempting bravado but failing, knowing everyone's aware of his failure.

Kersh sums up habitual liars like Fabian thusly: "The habitual liar always imagines that his lie rings true. No miracle of belief can equal his childlike faith in the credulity of the people who listen to him; and so it comes to pass that he fools nobody as completely as he fools himself." I like that description but disagree on this one point: I do think Fabian at some level knows what he's doing, knows the effect he has on people, but refuses to acknowledge it. Why? I'd say doing so precludes any intention of growing up (there's something infantile about Fabian that Widmark is able to refract to us, without any sense of embarrassment or need for self-protection); that he has an urge to self-destruct; that he can't find enough in himself worth saving to expend the effort. 

The shape of Fabian's character arc (I can't think of another Dassin film so dominated by one character) is a sharp parabola; he's brought up high, almost within reach of controlling the single most popular wrestling venue in the city (the proximity is maddening), only to be thrown swiftly and utterly down. Part of the fascination is in seeing how unwieldy his plan is, how dependent on quick promises and the unlikely event that Fabian's very vice (his loquacious dishonesty) becomes his strength (after years of poor luck, Fabian finally experiences a run of the good kind). The luck's temporary--it always is--and Fabian's tragedy is that he fails (or refuses) to recognize this. The seeds of Fabian's destruction sprout with Fabian's sudden bloom, have been planted there from the very start; as Philip Nosseross (the great Francis L. Sullivan) whispers softly to him: "You've got it all, Harry. And you're a dead man."

Dassin's feel for various cities--New York in Naked City, Paris in Rififi--is justly celebrated; his vision of London here rivals that of Carol Reed's Vienna in The Third Man (1949) or, perhaps more relevantly, Reed's Odd Man Out (1947). But where Reed's Vienna softens the wartime rubble by surrounding it with the backdrop of romantic decay (the film makes full use of the city's beautiful Baroque architecture), and his Belfast is on occasion seen through the haze of heavy rain and, most memorably, snow (they're like benisons granted to soothe a painfully haunted city), Dassin's is an unrelentingly dark urban landscape, no trace of inclement weather and no prominence given to old structures; it's London here and now, and Dassin refuses to allow anything to step in the way of his camera's clarity.

The plot--as befits something Fabian has created, whole cloth, out of his fevered imagination (someone notes: "Harry is an artist without art")--is complex, but I'd rather concentrate on three key figures that function opposite of Fabian, and how Dassin treats them. 

For Gregorious Dassin actually made an effort to seek out Stanislaus Zybyszko, a former world championship wrestler Dassin remembers from his childhood (he found Stanislaus raising chickens in New Jersey). Dassin shoots Gregorious like a massive living monument, especially in the film's climactic wrestling bout where he battles The Strangler (Mike Mazurki, who also choreographed the wrestling). The two resemble oversized toddlers covered with an abundance of pale, flabby flesh, growling and groaning, with a tendency to spend as much time lying on the side as they do standing on their feet. If Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull (1980) uses quick cutting and animal roars to emphasize the speed and ferocity of boxing matches, Dassin's Night with its long takes and solidly planted camera gives us the terrible slow-motion nature of wrestling--how one hunts for the perfect hold and holds it, and holds it, and holds it, until one's opponent gives in.

Gregorious' son Kristo (the Czech-born Herbert Lom) is a deeply conflicted man, caught between the demands of managing his wrestling empire, and his sense of having betrayed his old man's ideals about wrestling (the matches Kristo stages are in stark contrast to Gregorious' classical Greco-Roman style of wrestling). Dassin never suggests that Kristo is dangerous: the man is repeatedly shot from medium distance, rarely if ever from an ominous angle, and not once does he ever raise his voice--but you know without being told that he's dangerous (Dassin knows that Lom without trying can be threatening and works against that--suggests instead the outwardly bland but powerful bureaucrat that Kristo really is). Kristo's knotty relationship with his father, on the other hand, complicates our feelings, keeps us from dismissing him as the plot's mere villain (he puts paid to the notion that a motiveless killer like Heath Ledger's Joker in The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008) is the ultimate expression of evil. We don't doubt that Kristo loves his father; we also don't doubt that he'll order someone killed without hesitation, if it suits him).

Francis Sullivan's Philip Nosseross recalls Sidney Greenstreet in the way he's shot (mostly from low angles, to emphasize his bulk) and treachery of character (he promises Fabian monetary support that he intends to later withdraw). Nosseross differs in one respect, however; like Kristo he's cursed with a hopeless love, in this case for his wife Helen (Googie Withers, in yet another of the film's memorable performances), who frankly hates his guts. Little bits of business betray the man--his lascivious sniffing of her fox fur (he's like an overweight child gobbling forbidden candy); his lost, childlike manner when talking or thinking about her.

With Fabian, however, Nosseross shows little hesitation. For their final confrontation Fabian enters Nosseross' club basement from the stairway; the camera peers at him from long shot, with Nosseros on the right foreground, and the angle is more or less conventional, the lighting low and shadowy. What follows is a kind of pas de deux where Fabian dances around Nosseross like a mongrel teasing a bear, bragging about his accomplishments while tapping on the various drums and cymbals stored there (beating his own drum, in effect); like an oversized Salome Nosseross gradually drops his polite condescension, revealing to Fabian just how he's betrayed him and why Fabian is finished. Fabian retreats the way he came; Dassin uses a similar shot to cover the retreat, only this time from a low angle; stonework looms over Fabian, reminding us of the massive prison walls that enclosed the convicts in Brute Force. Reverse shot: with Fabian in the foreground, we watch Nosseross cross from right to left, to the cymbals Fabian had been playfully toying with earlier; he gives the cymbals a single resounding crash, and it's the starting signal for Fabian to leap into action, into a run that will endure for the remainder of the film (more or less--there's still Gregorious' battle with The Strangler coming--but Fabian has been given his marching orders), and the rest of his too-brief life.

I've mentioned how Dassin seems to be fascinated by runs, chases, futile journeys that end in death and oblivion; I've also mentioned Dassin's strong identification with the very criminals and lowlifes he depicts onscreen, even when they're wrong, even when he shoots them in such a way that we sense his disapproval. Nowhere are these elements so strongly expressed as they are in Fabian's final moments in Night and the City. The night is unrelentingly black, the surrounding ruins and buildings unmoving, implacable (one is reminded of the convicts surrounding the stoolie in Brute Force), the people around Fabian lost in their own concerns and obsessions (money being the common, indeed overarching, theme). Dassin, cutting loose, achieves extraordinary effects: a car stalks Fabian, and its shuddering headlights pin him like some great predator's eyes; Fabian later hides in a shot tower, and as someone tries the door he and the camera slide sideways to the left, tilting more and more upwards (this suggesting the kind of vertigo one experiences from extreme terror) until it's looking up the inside of the tower from below.

The finale has much in common with his other works; it also has, I submit, the look and feel of a summation, a terminal work of art. "it’s probably going to be the last picture you’re ever going to make," Zanuck told him, and for all we know, he took Zanuck's word--hence the heedless profligacy , the sense you get that this is his last chance, and he's throwing everything on the big screen: his art, his intelligence, his morality, loneliness, fear.

When dawn comes it's seen through bleary eyes (the way Tony's gang does, after working for most of the night in Rififi) as largely unwelcome--Fabian will have even less opportunity for concealment, escape. 

Possibly the film's most haunting image Fabian points out himself--men standing on Chelsea Bridge, presumably searching for him. They look like angels (thanks to the bridge's distance and height) watching, waiting. It's nearly film's end and Dassin, after having tormented poor Fabian for a full hour and a half, relents by granting him a glimpse of the next life, and what may be in store there.

I started this tribute with questions: just how does Dassin see himself, and what's he hiding inside? I'm no closer to a final answer, but can perhaps hazard a few guesses: there is little flattery in Dassin's self-perception, even less leeway in his self-judgment. He has suffered his share of fear and self-loathing, enjoyed his share of courage and defiance, longed to reach the angels on the bridge (a wish only recently granted to him). What he might do then, is anyone's guess. 

7.27.08

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan,2008)

(Plot discussed in minute detail)

Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight (2008) is arguably the biggest event of the summer, and not just because of the running time--it's got an endless variety of explosions, an elaborate interlude in Hong Kong, and enough underground, aboveground, interior, exterior, over-water and mid-air stunts, vehicle collisions and fight sequences to satisfy the most jaded of viewers (the only thing missing is a Batsub, with our hero donning a Batlung for underwater action).

All good and fine--summer is not the month for restraint and highbrow art in the multiplexes. Nolan presents Batman as a noir crimefighter in black Kevlar armor (with a titanium weave, for added strength and flexibility) and a multibillion dollar collection of nonlethal state-of-the-art weaponry (including a nifty device that turns all cellphones into sonar transponders). Where in Batman Begins (2005) the director was saddled with a weak, unmemorable villain (all I remember is waking up from a snooze in time to catch Liam Neeson riding a monorail), here he corrects the error with an altogether more life-sized, more believable, more vividly played villain.

Nope--not talking about Heath Ledger. Aaron Eckhart's Harvey Dent undergoes a dramatic character arc, from crusading criminal lawyer to anguished avenger. We understand Harvey, we sympathize with his situation; our feelings for him are more complex since we're aware of where he comes from, and why he does what he does. Shakespeare knew as much: his greatest tragic characters--Lear, Macbeth, Hamlet--were men lifted up to the level of greatness, then brought down by their own inner flaws. Harvey's flaw here (unlike in the comics, where he was undone by a rather callow vanity about his good looks) may be an undue fascination with the mysteries of chance (his coin flipping), and perhaps too much attachment to the life he presently enjoys (a promising crusader's career, the love of a beautiful woman).

Yes, Ledger's performance is good, his makeup design brilliant (reminds me of a neglected. life-sized Raggedy Andy doll after a bad thresher accident)--but once the Joker's introduced, what you see is pretty much what you get: random villainy, chaotic malevolence. Fear of what he might do next is the main emotion inspired in the audience, and that's about it; his unpredictability is his greatest weapon. To their credit writers Nolan and brother Jonathan come up with cute little plot twists that keep one guessing--but does the Joker inspire the horror of seeing a good man turned bad, of a great love turned inside-out. into an equally great anger?

It goes beyond that, to the very nature of the characters Bob Kane and the criminally unsung Bill Finger created in the early forties--as conceived by Kane and Finger, the Joker was a largely unexplained force for anarchy pitted against Batman's fascistic notions of law and order. The contrast was seductive--hilarity vs. gravity, madness vs. melancholy, bright clown vs. dark knight.

But Batman's villains often provided more than color contrast--the very best of them were victims of their own immoderate fears and desires (I'm thinking of, among many others, Ra's al-Ghul (Neeson's bloodless portrait was a travesty), Man-Bat and Clayface (at least in his third incarnation)); Batman himself had a reason for coming into being (parents killed by mugger). I've never considered the Joker's hazy origins to be anything more than a weakness--a failure of the imagination to come up with a compelling reason for his acting the way he does (his original story, as the master criminal formerly known as The Red Hood who goes insane after a chemical bath turns his face a ghastly white (he dove in to escape Batman), struck me as especially lame).

(Which may be why the best ever take on the character I've ever seen is from one of the finest writers working in the medium--Alan Moore's The Killing Joke, where Mr. Moore tackles the real reason the Joker's so wild (turns out that behind the Red Hood story is another story). There--and only there, I believe--was the Joker truly the Batman's archnemesis)

Hence my admiration--and preference--for Eckhart's Dent. I'd noticed Eckhart before, particularly in Brian De Palma's much-maligned, tremendously underrated The Black Dahlia (2006), where I thought he gave a memorably over-the-top performance, the motivation for which De Palma reveals at a fascinatingly crucial moment (motivation, always motivation--Renoir himself said in his most famous film 'Le plus terrible dans ce monde c'est que chacun à ses raisons,' and they do, and that's what compels me). To Eckhart's credit he's very fine here, before and after transformation (a makeup job that makes him look like a porterhouse grilled black-and-blue on a cast-iron skillet); he makes of Dent a persuasive hero and an equally persuasive villain, and for my money promptly steals the movie from under Ledger's nose.

Motiveless killers are quite the fashion nowadays, hence (I suspect) the Nolans' reluctance to give the Joker a backstory--witness the (almost as overrated) No Country for Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007), or Michael Haneke's smaller, leaner, far crueler (hence the critical drubbing, I suspect) Funny Games (both the original 1997 Austrian production and the 2007 American remake). Not, if you haven't guessed already, a big fan of the genre, but if one must have all-powerful psychopaths with inscrutable aims, make mine Haneke (both Austrian and American).

And if we're still talking Bat-villains, give me the characters Tim Burton created from a script by the oft-censored, oft-brilliant Daniel Waters. I'm thinking of the Penguin (another Finger creation), here turned by Burton and Waters into a pale-skinned freak straight out of Charles Dickens, driven by a thirst for vengeance (he'd been abandoned as a child) to kill all of Gotham's firstborn (he's like an unholy cross between Oliver Twist, Bill Sykes and Mister Micawber, blown to gargantuan proportions by a diet of sewage and bile); I'm also thinking of the glorious Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer)--yet another Finger creation--all sex and psychosis wrapped in tight black latex.

Was Burton's take more 'comical?' More lightweight, perhaps? I think not. He loved to amuse, he loved to horrify and I suspect he loved above all to mix both emotions in endless variations. He adored clowns, and I for one would have wanted to see his take on the Joker if Waters instead of Sam Hamm had written the script (Jack Nicholson playing the character from Hamm's script--now that's comic-book). Burton for all the visual and verbal gags is quite the sophisticated storyteller, sacrificing narrative drive for the odd joke, the striking image (the Batplane framed by a full moon; the Penguin escorted by his beloved Emperors; Catwoman confronting a handgun with whip in hand, reciting a nursery rhyme), the throwaway scene that's as revealing of the filmmaker's themes as it is an aside (Catwoman swallowing a bird; the Penguin chomping down on a nose; Batman lying helpless under a mistletoe, talking of being poisoned by its consumption). It's a nervy high-wire act, balancing genres with a deliberately flimsy script, and I think Burton collaborating with Waters succeeds to a startling degree.

(On the subject of substance Nolan pushes a lot of hot buttons--9/11 style terrorism, civil rights vs. national security, etc., etc. Burton's treatment dwells on less timely if more human concerns--the nature of identity, the fear of self-disclosure, the loneliness between fellow social outcasts, the irrational cruelty visited on cats and women (especially women))

Nolan for all his bells and whistles is a conventional filmmaker of the Syd Field school of scriptwriting who insists on a beginning, a middle, an end, on a plot that moves forward linear fashion (by way of innovation he gives us Memento (2000), where the narrative does the exact same thing, only backwards). He's got no feel for comic horror, a more difficult genre than one might think--his numerous scenes of the Joker menacing a potential victim are more about creating tension than they are about provoking giggles, and they have absolutely no interest in making gears really clash and inspiring both simultaneously (about the only moments when he's successful is when Ledger does that gila-monster lip-licking, and at the hospital, when Ledger struggles with a recalcitrant bomb detonator (it's more Ledger's timing, I suspect, than anything Nolan does that provides wit).

I can see where Nolan's coming from, of course; he's trying to tap into our anxieties about terrorists, our beleaguered sense of hope, our sense of being surrounded from all sides by a seemingly invincible, invisible foe (they're everywhere; they're nowhere), he has Batman, Gordon and Dent at wits' end, questioning the very validity of their methods (I'd question their methods too--didn't anyone think to put continued security on both Eckhart and Dawes? Why, if they know the Joker's so dangerous, did they lock other people in the same cell? And why, if Batman wanted the truth quickly and civil rights be damned, didn't he try sodium pentothal, or the serum codenamed SP-17? Not much more reliable, but it takes a heck of a lot less effort).

Nolan's dramatic highlight has Joker insisting that for Batman to beat him he has to become him, but this isn't any kind of elevation he's talking about, it's a diminution--Batman turned into a fellow agent of random chance. Contrast this to Moore's Joker, who explains himself not as some mere symbol of insanity, but as a perfectly human reaction to an insane world ("any other response would be crazy!"). Moore's Joker wants to bring Batman over to his appreciation of the world--it's one human being (or psycho, if you wish) reaching out to another.

I'm rather suspicious of the movie's politics--when late in the film Lucius Fox (a quite good--but the cast is excellent, particularly the supporting roles (Maggie Gyllenhaal is a gorgeous, far more talented replacement for the flavorless Katie Holmes)--Morgan Freeman) confronts Batman with regards to the way he's altered Fox's sonar technology (turned it, in effect, into a gigantic wiretapping effort), Batman partly reassures him by putting "all that power" into Fox's hands; Fox gives in "just this once." Oh, one wants to ask--was that the line the Bush administration fed the phone companies? Should they be hiring Nolan as press secretary?

Nolan writes a nice, conventionally Syd Field script (slightly right-wing, but you can't have everything); perhaps in some future movie he'll give us the driving force behind his Joker, and then maybe we'll have something. In the meantime, however, can he possibly hand the directing reins over to someone else? His fight sequences are pathetic; he doesn't know how to cut or shoot action, his shaky-cam trembles beyond coherence, and his big setpieces are merely big--there's no beauty or dark poetry or visual wit to them (by way of contrast, Guillermo del Toro's Hellboy 2 is all wit and dark poetry, wrapped around a script that reads more like an Altman film (all character interaction, not much plot) than a conventional summer blockbuster (I hear The Dark Knight has quickly outstripped del Toro's at the boxoffice. But of course; the latter is fine dining, to be savored by those with special appetites; the former I consider largely fast food wrapped in a serious case of self-importance)).

If Nolan's scriptwriting skills have a serious flaw (I mean, besides the linearity and literalism), it's his tendency to have his characters pontificate--witness the scene where the Joker tries to win over Harvey; he persuades by fiat, by plot necessity rather than by saying anything actually persuasive (he's no Richard III (that gun handed to Harvey was a dead giveaway) wooing Lady Anne)--"I'm an agent of chaos. I don't have a plan." Compare to Waters' Catwoman, and her pithy summation of herself: "Life's a bitch; now so am I."

And Nolan goes really over-the-top with solemnity when he has Gordon intone a requiem for Batman (to the strains of an unmemorable James Newton Howard/Hans Zimmer score): "he's the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now...and so we'll hunt him, because he can take it. Because he's not a hero. He's a silent guardian, a watchful protector. A dark knight." I kept thinking this would have played so much better with some Cole Porter: "You're the top! You're the Coliseum. You're the top! You're the Louver Museum."

Don't get me wrong, I don't think The Dark Night is a bad movie; I just don't think it's The Greatest Comic Book Picture Ever Made (I'd rank it high above Nolan's earlier effort and far below del Toro's Hellbox sequel). It's a nice little diversion for the summer months, a sufficiently witty excuse for ducking into the theaters and enjoying their airconditioning for two and a half hours. But it's no Diabolik (Mario Bava, 1968); it's no Popeye (Robert Altman, 1980); and it's definitely no Batman Returns.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Hellboy 2: The Golden Army (Guillermo del Toro, 2008)

Iron Man can keel over dead, Wall.E rust in a corner, Kung Fu Panda choke on his chopsticks and Hancock sear his black butt on a hot grill; the most satisfying summer movie to date has to be Guillermo del Toro's flat-out beautiful Hellboy 2: The Golden Army.

Never been a fan of CGI, not the way it's being churned out by Hollywood nowadays, but del Toro's are actually palatable--he puts in enough texture and seen-through-the-corner-of-one's-eye visual blur that you accept much of it as solid, even real

And more than the solidity is the sheer beauty of some of the creations--the slumbering stone giant, the forest god rampaging in Brooklyn, the prince and princess with their pale pallor and shared injuries. Del Toro gives his pop pulp a poetry he feels it deserves--feels so strongly you're halfway persuaded, yourself.

Along with the elevated visuals are elevated emotions, like soap opera on a larger stage. Liz and Hellboy's relationship enters a new phase, Abe Sapiens finds a new reason to be around, and even the putative villains--a father, son, daughter--are playing out a family drama with consequences that reach beyond their own underground realm. One thinks of them as Muslim insurgents, exiled royalty, sole survivors of a dying culture, and this sense of tragedy colors the film's conflict. As the prince puts it to Hellboy: "You have more in common with us than them, demon."

Great fun, wonderful art. Go see.

Toki wo kakeru shôjo (The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Mamoru Hosada, 2006)

Leaping to the top of her class


Mamoru Hosada's Toki wo kakeru shojo (The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, 2006) is easily the finest animated feature to come out in recent years (never mind Dreamworks' fitfully amusing if infantile Kung Fu Panda or Pixar's shamelessly Chaplinesque and overly sentimental Wall.E, both released this year). If anything, I'd call the film the best animated feature since Hayao Miyazaki's own anti-war epic Hauru no ugoku shiro (Howl's Moving Castle, 2004) some two years previous (Diana Wynne Jones' novel wasn't so clearly anti-war--but this was just after the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, and the impact of its firebombing scenes in the context of the times (arguably the first great film on the war) is unforgettable).

It's not as if Hosada was in Miyazaki's league--far as I can see, he's been director of a One Piece feature and some Digimon episodes, and was key animator to both a Crying Freeman and Galaxy Express 999 sequel. But he's teamed with excellent collaborators: Gainax's character designer Yoshiyuki Sadomoto (Shin seiki Evangelion (Neon Genesis Evangelion, 1996), Ôritsu uchûgun Oneamisu no tsubasa (Wings of Honneamise, 1987)), art director Nizou Yamamoto (Mononoke Hime (Princess Mononoke, 1997); Hotaru no haka (Grave of the Fireflies, 1988)), all working on a novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui (Paprika, 2006) written way back in 1967.

Actually, the film's relationship to its source material's more interesting than that: Tsutsui (a popular novelist and science fiction writer) has had his novel adapted many times, including two live-action features, a TV movie, and at least two mini-series; this is the first time the story has been turned into an anime feature, and it's not a direct translation, more like a sequel (the main character from Tsutsui's novel makes an appearance here as the protagonist Makoto Konno's (Riisa Naka) beautiful but mysterious aunt).

Have not seen any of its previous incarnations, but from what I understand, they are straightforward adaptations of Tsutsui's time-travel romance (set in a Japanese high school) with its bittersweet conclusion. Tokikake (as it's often fondly nicknamed) belongs roughly in the shojo (girl) fiction genre, in particular "realistic school life romantic comedies" with a twist of fantasy (time travel, to be exact) to spice things up (yep, Japanese anime has that many sub-sub-sub genres).

If we cast a bit wider, time travel fiction is a time-honored literary genre (everyone from Mark Twain to H.G. Wells to Robert Heinlein to Ray Bradbury has written on the subject); paradoxical fiction, or fiction where dilemmas are created through the journeying of a time-traveler, is at least as old as Heinlein's short story "By His Bootstraps" (1941), as recent as Richard Matheson's novel Bid Time Farewell (1975), James Cameron's Terminator movies and TV series (1984 to present day), and any number of Star Trek (from 1966 to the upcoming 2009 feature) and Doctor Who episodes.


(Steven Moffat's scripts for Dr. Who in particular are fond of twisting linear time lines into witty little knots; actually his entire output (to paraphrase Jean-Luc Godard) from Coupling (2000 - 2004) to Jekyll (2007) tends to tell stories with a beginning, a middle, and an end--but rarely in that order. His script for Blink (2007) brilliantly pieces together a convoluted plot (it begins with an innocent girl encountering the video image of the fully aware Doctor, ends with the thoroughly forewarned girl briefing a newly arrived Doctor) in such a way that full understanding occurs only at the end of the story (with plenty of tension--and not a little poignancy--generated along the way); his relatively simpler Girl in a Fireplace (2006), where the Doctor skips across moments important and unimportant in a young woman's life like a stone along a pond's surface, captures the piercing transience of time--it waits for no man, not even a Time Lord, and before even he realizes it, the moment's gone).

Seen from this context, one can appreciate how difficult it is to try tell a time-travel story with any conviction or sense of coherence (time travel stories are open to paradoxes and plot loopholes, and the film has more than its fair share (if, for example (spoilers galore within the parenthesis!), the jump count changed when Makoto was brought backwards doesn't the jump count change every time she makes a leap? Why, considering the rules and their consequences, does Makoto admit to knowing about time-leaping--and why does telling a lie (or at least a prevarication) seem to make a difference? Why, if they care for each other so much, doesn't he take her with him? Or, conversely, doesn't he stay with her?)), much less introduce anything even remotely fresh to the genre.




Hosada and scriptwriter Satoko Okudera interpreting Tsutsui to their credit don't even try; the girl without much ado stumbles (literally) onto the device and starts jumping back and forth, and the film's first half is a fleet-footed comedy about what a Japanese high school girl might do with time travel, given half the chance. "I was glad an idiot (got it)" a character says; "I was worried about someone using it for bad things." You can't help but agree--if the device had fallen into the hands of an evil man, we'd have had an overwrought shonen (boy) drama full of gigantic mecha bristling with energy weapons, and very little of the delicately wrought humor Hosada and his team brings to this effort.

Where Hosada and Okudera alter Tsutsui's material most radically is in exploring the consequences of one's actions through time travel; they manage to use repeated motifs and incidents to create dark, even tragic effects (the incident with the fire extinguisher could easily have involved a handgun; as it is, the young man's feelings are unsettlingly raw and intense, and understandably so; we are taking a brief foray into the subject of bullying in Japanese schools). With Makoto's central dilemma we leave behind mere manipulation of people's feelings and step (lightly, always lightly) into the realm of tragic inevitability (we all must die; it's a matter of when and how).

Hosada was slated to direct Hauru no ugoku shiro before Miyazaki took over, and it's no small irony that his film has the feel of much of Studio Ghibli's "school life" anime (I'm thinking of the delightful Umi ga Kikoeru (Ocean Waves, 1993); Mimi wo sumaseba (Whispers of the Heart, 1995), and master Isao Takahata's lyrical Omihide poro poro (Only Yesterday, 1991)). Hosada doesn't have the graceful minimalism of Takahata (the time traveling, while a lightly used gimmick, is still a gimmick; Takahata's heroine travels through time as well, but doesn't use anything so clumsy--memory is her secret technique); this film, however, can be compared to Studio Ghibli's works with little embarrassment--high praise, in my book.

As for the criticism that this could as easily have been made into a live action film--frankly, I'm tired of that old canard. Animation film directors choose to do their work in their chosen field, and in this particular case I think Hosada does a superb job. Some effects--of Makoto running a length of street (her relentless panting, pumping limbs, fluttering cloth); of Makoto sitting at a beachside (distant pedestrians walking in one ear and out the next, it seems, in a foreshortened shot that makes one think of Gulliver in Lilliput); of Tokyo frozen in time (Hosada's camera moves about suspended objects in a way that eerily (it's the emotional impact that makes the effect unique) evokes depth and space)--would make any filmmaker from any medium sit up and take notice. A lovely, lovely film.

(First published in Businessworld, 7.11.08)



The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is one of the films in the J-Pop Anime Matsuri section of the ongoing Eiga Sai 2008 Japanese Film Festival. Eiga Sai 2008 is ongoing until July 13 at Shangri-La Plaza; and will screen on Aug. 7-10 at the Cultural Center of the Philippines; and Aug. 11-14 and 15 at the UP Film Institute. J-Pop Anime Matsuri, meanwhile, will run from July 26-27 at the Shangri-La Plaza. All films will be shown with English subtitles. For more information, go to www.jfmo.org.ph or call 811-6155 to 58. Admission is free

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Hancock (Peter Berg, 2008); Wall.E (Andrew Stanton, 2008)

Perhaps the best part of Andrew Stanton's Wall.E (2008) is the largely wordless first forty minutes depicting the robot's goofball infatuation with Eve, the sleek 'droid sent to Earth on a classified mission. Stanton manages to creat a remarkable junkyard world of rusted metal and scrapped items, and his main character (much as Chaplin or Fred Astaire did decades before) turns each sample of pop culture into an object of mystery, inventive comedy, wonderment (funny how much of it comes from '80s America (even the recording of The Music Man (1962) is replayed in the form of a VHS tape)).

The latter half cribs its best ideas from Aldous Huxley's Brave New World; turns out the humans here have degenerated into immobile fat slobs, and have their lives planned and acted out for them. Consumerist society satire--rather broad satire at that (rim shot); what doesn't quite compute is the speed in which the humans spill out of their traveling sofas to take action, and why it's so all-fired important to get that silly seedling to the holowhatsit to confirm that life indeed exists on Earth . The end credit roll is a direct steal from Miyazaki, where the end credits continue the story after the final image.

All in all, not bad--Pixar's a decent enough animation outfit, probably the best in the United States--but still largely aimed at children, and still years behind what the Japanese are doing now.

Now Hancock--Peter Berg uses too much shakey-cam, edits incoherently, veers wildly all over the place in terms of emotional tone and can't seem to build up any momentum or dramatic tension for any appreciable length of time, yet the movie has enough of a subversive kick to be more interesting than Iron Man or the recent Hulk movie. The sight of Will Smith weaving and stinking of booze is enough to make one sit up and take interest; yes, Robert Downey downed a few martinis as Tony Stark, but when he dons his overcomplicated tin suit (stray note: how do we know--like Tom Cruise in one sequence in Steven Spielberg's Minority Report (2002)--that something won't go horribly wrong when he's being fitted into that suit and get skinned alive?) Stark is pretty much a teetotaler (it's Marvel--can't have their heroes be too negative; scares the kiddies). Smith is a pissed-off superhero; he does good, but doesn't get any Boy Scout sense of righteousness out of it. He's angry, and that anger coupled with the possibility that he might lash out with it at any moment, for any reason, is what makes him so intriguing.

Well, not that intriguing; I wish they made him a lech as well--but hey, I'm grateful for what I have (somewhat).

Think it's a relief too to see him have such intense chemistry with Charlize Theron--when since the days of Richard Fleischer's Mandigo (1975) did sexual sparks fly so unapologetically between a black man and a white woman? Even Spike Lee's Jungle Fever (1991) implicitly condemns such a union, and Craig Brewer's Black Snake Moan (2006) confines the fireworks to the film's frankly exploitative poster. I'd love to have seen more but hey, in these timid, feebleminded times, just the suggestion that Smith and Theron were once husband and wife seems somehow satisfactory (like I said--grateful for what I have). Interracial sex? Absolutely, I'm all for it, more power, and hope to see butt cheeks with more shades to it than boring white on the big Hollywood screen.

The picture ultimately self-destructs faster than Superman mainlining uncut powdered Red Kryptonite, but even falling flat on its face Berg manages to make it compulsively watchable--I mean, the idea of an ideal other half being the basis of a superhero mythology (the Greek gods, come to think of it, were some of our first superheroes); or a second-rate villain being dangerous not because he's any smarter or any more powerful, but because Hancock's Achilles Heel (in fanboy speak: his Kryptonite) has been found; or an ordinary man becoming genuinely heroic (okay, maybe not that last one--but Bateman as the improbably idealistic PR man is improbably entertaining).

Like I'm saying--not good, exactly, but interesting. And better than the cookie-cutter superhero movies coming out of Hollywood recently.

Angst essen Seele auf (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1974)

Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Angst essen Seele auf (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, 1974) is as direct as a white man's contemptuous glare, as mysterious as a black man's serene gaze.

Fassbinder uses color, stylized theater acting and camera movement to point up the extreme isolation felt (and developing bond shared) by two lovers--Emmi (Brigitte Mira), an elderly cleaning lady, and 'Ali' (El Hedi ben Salem), a young Moroccan immigrant worker who came to his name by mistake (his real full name is El Hedi ben Salem M'Barek Mohammed Mustapha).

Their first meeting at a bar, for instance: we first see Emmi entering the establishment's front door, the row of small tables (topped with a rich red tablecloth) emphasizing her distance from the camera. Fassbinder cuts to a shot of the bar's other end, where Ali, bar owner Barbara (Barbara Valentin) and friends stare at Emmi as if at a personal affront. Cut back to Emmi, who at this wordless assault gropes for a chair to pull back and sit down.

Ali is asked to dance with Emmi; he goes forth to comply. Cut to the seated Emmi as Ali asks; their shared posture--Emmi at her chair looking to the left, Ali standing behind her bent slightly in the same direction--already has the look of a casual pas de deux. Emmi seems flustered at the question, somehow finds the perfect answer ("why not?") then stands up; like a butterfly shedding her cocoon she drops her black overcoat to reveal a bright white-and-yellow dress; not spectacular, but a bit startling to see on such a humble mouse of an old lady. She and Ali walk to the back, Fassbinder not cutting (as he did when Ali went to Emmi's table) but following them, underlining the drama of their gesture (handsome young man asking, shy senior citizen accepting), the fact that both ends of the bar has suddenly been united.

A red spot is turned on; the couple dances slowly under its heavy glow. We listen to their conversation and it's easy, casual; the two feel totally at home with each other, chatty Emmi curious at her dance partner, Ali easygoing and open despite the stumbling block of his faltering German. If there's any electricity to the moment, any tension, it's coming from Barbara and friends, who stare at the shuffling couple as if at a personal affront doubly insulting (now there's two of them).

Emmi returns to her table, Ali following; behind them Barbara walks up to set Ali's beer (which he had left at the bar's other end) on the table. Barbara walks away, and the camera which had held the table in a medium shot glides sideways to catch Barbara stopping midway down the bar to turn and look at the couple; Emmi's table up close, Barbara in mid-distance, the figures at the far end--all three sets of figures plus the bar's considerable length help emphasize the distance between elderly stranger, Moroccan, and disapproving watchers.

Emmi decides to go; Ali decides to escort her home. As they stand up to leave the camera suddenly pulls back from them, Fassbinder's way of underlining the significance of the moment. But the shot has yet another function: when Fassbinder cuts to a reverse shot it's to Barbara, looking at the departing couple; we realize that the camera has leaped from table bystander to Barbara's point of view--from sympathetic viewers, in effect, to silent onlookers, silently judging the two.

At the hallway of Emmi's apartment building we see Fassbinder building their intimacy through dialogue, staging and, again, camera movement. The scene begins with a long shot as the two enter the front door; Fassbinder breaks this into two separate shots, cutting from Ali asking questions to Emmi answering. Then Fassbinder brings them together again by having Emmi walk from one side of the room to the other, wheel Ali is standing, but behind her, out-of-focus. Emmi is talking about her job; suddenly she turns to look at Ali (who snaps into focus) and notes that he would look better in lighter-colored suits (turning her focus to Ali transfers our attention from her and her past to Ali). When she talks of children, Ali moves forward to finally stand beside her; mention of family, of being with them and being without, has brought the two closer together. From polite strangers trying to maintain an interested conversation Fassbinder swiftly and persuasively shows them becoming good friends, sharing secrets, sharing vulnerabilities.

When the two finally become lovers Fassbinder makes this such a natural, uncomplicated development it takes one's breath away: Fassbinder, master of melodrama, baroque storytelling, extremes of suffering and emotion, is also capable of creating scenes of simple tenderness and transcendent joy, in some ways a more difficult achievement.

As their intimacy grows, so does resistance to their union. Fassbinder uses a variety of means, but the gossipy women chatting in scandalized voices is such an old and familiar device I had to laugh--Lino Brocka, whose sensibility comes closest to Fassbinder's than any other significant Filipino filmmaker I know, has used small-town gossip-mongers at least one other time, in his early masterwork Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (You Were Judged and Found Wanting, 1974) (and in fact there Brocka also had his version of a couple utterly isolated from society, in the form of a leper and a madwoman (Mario O'Hara and Lolita Rodriguez, in arguably their finest onscreen roles)).

In interracial dramas the character whose race is the issue is often a paragon of virtue, and for at least the picture's first half that's what Ali is: patient understanding, charming, somewhere this side of lifeless. In the film's second half Fassbinder takes his walking cliché a step further: he grants Ali the right to be willful, self-destructive, even cruel--to be fully human, in effect, free to experience and inflict every form of suffering such a state of existence implies. At this point Fear Eats the Soul transcends its racial issues and becomes an observation on the mysteries of human nature; the relationship, unhappy because of stresses without, starts to crack from stresses within. The strange and somehow beautiful finale brings the film full circle, and we can see Emmi and Ali continuing on, but on a sadder, not necessarily wiser level (or if wiser, not necessarily capable or willing to act on that expensive bit of wisdom). A great film, one of Fassbinder's finest.

The Goethe-Institut’s Rainer Werner Fassbinder film festival kicks off on July 5 with a screening of a documentary on the director, I Don’t Just Want You to Love Me (3 p.m.), followed by a discussion on Fassbinder by Teddy Co at 5 p.m. and a screening of Fear Eats the Soul (Angst essen Seele auf) at 6 p.m. The film festival, which will run until July 26, will be held at the Goethe-Institut Manila, 5F Adamson Center, 121 L.P. Leviste St., Salcedo Village, Makati City. The movies will be screened on Fridays, 7 p.m., and Saturdays at 3 and 6 p.m. There is also an exhibit of posters of his films which will run during the duration of the festival. For more information, call 817-0978. The screening schedule is available at www.goethe.de/manila. Admission is free.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Martha (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1973)


Till death do them part

Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Martha (1973), based loosely on Cornell Woolrich's short story "For the Rest of Her Life," is ostensibly a television movie, but the themes, visual look and complexity of this supposedly minor work (in a supposedly inferior medium) puts most major motion pictures to shame (fact is, I can't think of anything that came out of the multiplexes, this year or the past few years, that could even compare).

It's basically a tale of domination, of a man oppressing his wife. It's a melodrama, but in the hands of a master like Fassbinder (taking his cue of course from his earlier, endlessly acknowledged master, Douglas Sirk) melodrama is the glittering surgical tool that pries open life's hard shell, revealing the darker flesh within.

To play Martha, Fassbinder commissioned Margit Cartensen, who often essayed Fassbinder's more neurotic, more emotionally extreme women; for her husband Helmut Salomon, Fassbinder picked--an inspired choice--Karlheinz Bohm, who once played a tormented serial killer in Michael Powell's unforgettable Peeping Tom (1960).

Fasssbinder introduces us to Martha by way of her father; we meet them in Italy, where (startling in conventional dramas but no big deal in melodrama) the father promptly drops dead on Rome's Spanish Steps; we receive a hint of the kind of relationship Martha has with her father when he, dying, breathes to her: "You always want to touch me…let go of me, Martha." Martha in her brief, early scenes is a spoiled brat of a child-woman, virginal (she's never been to bed with a man) yet allowed to paint her face with the thickest makeup, the reddest lipsticks; when her father dies, she's devastated, wide-open and vulnerable to the notion of a new man in her life.

When that man steps in we're made to know the impact he has on her by a hilariously (yet appropriate, considering Fassbinder's tactics) literal expedient of Fassbinder, with the help of long-time cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, whirling the camera around Martha and Helmut as they circle past each other  (think James Stewart and Kim Novak kissing in the Empire Hotel, in Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958), only turbocharged). Ballhaus has always considered that circling camera to be his signature shot (he's used it in everything from Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ 1988 to Steve Kloves' The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989)), but never before Martha, and never to such spectacularly dramatic effect.

From the stylized visual pyrotechnics of the Rome scenes and their first meeting, bypassing the wedding (which is mentioned only in dialogue), plunging straight into the brooding claustrophobia of Helmut's house, we see the vivid contrast in Martha's life before and after marriage. She's not allowed to go outside; she's criticized on her taste, her appearance, her very smell; Helmut even comments on her taste in music. At one point, Martha's vulnerability is made strikingly apparent when Helmut allows her to sunburn; naked in bed, she trembles as Helmut's hands hover over her raw and tender flesh (yes, there's plenty of sadomasochism in this picture, all the more horrific for being implied rather than explicitly shown).

Martha herself is transformed, from self-centered brat to paranoid hysteric; given the chance to meet someone new, she hides her relationship as if hiding a full-blown love affair; when she learns that Helmut has come home early, she shrieks that he "has just bought me a present, he's going to kill me!" Martha suffers horrifying emotional stress under Helmut's 'care,' not all of it sexual, and very little of it satisfying, even from a masochist's point of view (endless facts and figures involving dam technology and concrete and steel stress factors are mind-numbingly read aloud). It's fascinating to observe, then, how deeply she's involved in her own captivity, from meekly submitting to Helmut's most outrageous demands to heedlessly (perhaps even willfully) enabling her own self-destruction (one wonders if Fassbinder sees such women as not just victims of society's patriarchal authority structures, but active collaborators). Which, if one were to think about it, is contemptible and pathetic, both.

I'd seen the film after having been reminded of it by Chicago film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, who had noted its similarities to a Filipino film he had just seen, Mike de Leon's Kisapmata (Blink of an Eye, 1981). De Leon and Fassbinder couldn't be more different stylistically of course: Fassbinder directs with heedless abandon, using baroque camera moves and striking compositions; De Leon directs with a chilly, understated realism. One might compare them thusly: Fassbinder's style is as if a brilliant, more rigorously ironic Martha were in charge of the camera; De Leon's is as if Helmut had picked up the equipment and started shooting.

Both, however, take melodramatic stories and use dark humor to spice up the material, enliven it, make it fresh and fascinating for its audiences. I remember the audience Rosenbaum and I were watching Kisapmata with (it was at the 2006 Rotterdam Film Festival), and they were laughing nervously, as if they weren't sure this was supposed to be funny (it was; even the uncertainty is intentional). I remember watching Martha on DVD, and laughing my head off, as much out of recognition as out of surprise. The cruelty, the manipulativeness, the sense of guilt and resentment and paranoia and seething, suppressed sexual tension was so similar, yet so outwardly different. Fassbinder was parodying an old and corrupt culture, taking the lid off to allow us to sniff the stink of ancient decay; De Leon was giving us an intimate view into the workings of his own mind, at the same time revealing to us the kind of ingrown, introverted evil found in a more primitive society, where family dynamics haven't progressed far beyond Spanish colonial times, and even the father's massively brooding paranoia has the innocence of an unselfconscious brute, squatting in his cave. Fascinatingly differing cultures, arriving at fascinatingly similar conclusions, from fascinatingly different directions.

(First published in Businessworld, 7.5.08)

Martha is one of the films that will be shown during the Goethe-Institut’s Rainer Werner Fassbinder film festival which kicks off on July 5 with a screening of a documentary on the director, I Don’t Just Want You to Love Me (3 p.m.), followed by a discussion on Fassbinder by Teddy Co at 5 p.m. and a screening of Fear Eats the Soul (Angst essen Seele auf) at 6 p.m. The film festival, which will run until July 26, will be held at the Goethe-Institut Manila, 5F Adamson Center, 121 L.P. Leviste St., Salcedo Village, Makati City. The movies will be screened on Fridays, 7 p.m., and Saturdays at 3 and 6 p.m. There is also an exhibit of posters of his films which will run during the duration of the festival. For more information, call 817-0978. The screening schedule is available at www.goethe.de/manila. Admission is free.

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