Thursday, August 29, 2013

Journey to Italy, Secret Sunshine, Silver Linings Playbook, Bullet to the Head

On the occasion of Ingrid Bergman's birthday, re-publishing this old post (the Bergman film is discussed last)

Last Action Hero

Bullet to the Head is easily the best recent American action flick around, and Walter Hill can teach both Tarantino and Nolan a thing or two about action filmmaking.

You heard me. 

"But what about the script, a standard-issue buddy pic filled with standard-issue dialogue? What about Stallone, who hasn't given a good performance in years?" Actually the script is 1) a decent workhorse plot with a handful of fairly clever twists, the dialogue a touch more amusing than it has any right to be ("Bang. Down. Owned." "You had me at 'fuck you!'") because Stallone and co-star Sung Kang have good chemistry; and 2) if you want good dialogue and acting, go watch a stage play; the real reason to watch this is to welcome the return to the big screen of one Walter Hill, filmmaker--last reported retired, apparently not quite.

Hill speaks today's action filmmaking language--handheld footage, ADHD editing--with admirable fluency (he was after all doing hardcore action back when some of these directors were still in grade school). He knows how to shake 'em and cut 'em, only unlike some of the relatively younger turks (I'm looking at you, Nolan) he only flirts with incoherence, mixing up the footage with more stable shots that anchor the action to their confined urban spaces.

And it isn't as if he were repeating himself; the Hill that did The Long Riders or Southern Comfort or The Warriors used slow motion; Bullet does not, and you can almost hear Hill saying "That's for kids;  real men do it in real time." There's a showdown involving fireaxes that I thought was within shouting distance of Toshiro Mifune's spear duel in The Hidden Fortress--high praise, I know, but I think the choreography, camerawork and editing deserves it. A New Orleans critic called the confrontation "a choppy series of frustratingly quick cuts that end up turning the whole sequence into a generic blur of clanks and blood spatters." I say the man needs to see more Bob Fosse; Hill has the confidence to zoom in close, shake things up a bit, even accelerate the cutting rate to the point of confusion and just at the right moment pull back and allow the whole thing to come together inside your head.

And Hill unlike some filmmakers (I'm looking at you, Tarantino) knows how to evoke setting; knows how to evoke atmosphere;  knows that the throwaway shots that fill the dead space between action setpieces are what help distinguish a coked-up hack from a real filmmaker. New Orleans here may be an urban fantasy every bit as unreal as New York City in The Warriors, but it's a memorably stylized fantasy--Stallone drives past an abandoned factory and it sits in the bright Louisiana sunshine like a disintegrating Czarist palace; old industrial spaces gleam with rust and dripping water, as if dipped in oil; Bobo's shack squats over the gleaming bayou like an oversized poison toad. When a car explodes and flips (we're told that Stallone's character was trained in demolitions, helping explain--barely--all the gratuitous detonations) the flame and smoke rise pyramidlike from one corner of the screen, and your spine can't help but tingle at this bit of gorgeously served mis-en-scene.  

Are the boys back in town? Not really--the film has earned the smallest amount of boxoffice of any in Stallone's career, and barely registered in the local multiplexes before being pulled out, presumably due to poor ticket sales. But from the evidence onscreen Hill is back, and he's back with a vengeance.

Lovers on Lithium

David O. Russell's Silver Linings Playbook shows how a pair of lovers meet and struggle with each other, the catch being both suffer from a mental condition; it's a romantic comedy, of course.

That takes more and less courage than one might think. No, Russell doesn't depict the extremes of the condition: Bradley Cooper's Pat is bipolar but not cripplingly so, at least while he takes his meds; Jennifer Lawrence's Tiffany has something unspecified which probably involves depression (she mentions taking Effexor) and she does just fine, more or less; Pat Sr. has an obsessive-compulsive disorder that he manages to keep undiagnosed, though after five minutes of watching him (the relentless viewing of every Eagles game; the even more relentless observance of football superstitions) anyone would come to that conclusion. 

They're not that bad off; if they were, this would probably be a different movie, and probably not a comedy. That said, it's amazing the things they do get right--I love the scene where Pat and Tiffany start talking about their meds, throwing names like Seroquel and Klonopin and Trazadone around like so many types of Hershey's Chocolates. It's a funny way to connect that feels perfectly true, with everyone around wondering at the foreign language they're suddenly spouting. I love how Pat seems to focus on a specific topic, then suddenly leaps into a plan of action: "I don't have an iPod. I don't have a phone. They don't let me make calls. I'm going to call Nikki." Some of the dialogue sound as if recorded or scribbled down from real institutions, then handed over for the actors to use.

I love it that the finale--a dance contest where Pat and Tiffany don't mean to win, just earn enough points for a parleyed bet--doesn't show a pair of lovers giving a great dance number, just two reasonably limber actors pouring their hearts out clumsily and heedlessly on the dance floor, letting their chemistry instead of their meager dance skills speak for them. Russell's signature brand of nervy cutting and over-the-shoulder handheld footage makes for a good fit--the style suggests Pat's precariously high-tension worldview nicely. His camera rushes the lovers like a fan shrieking for an autograph, giving them the unadulterated star treatment (he'd been more respectful of the veteran dancers, keeping the camera relatively still to better capture their expert choreography). 

This is easily one of the best romantic comedies I've seen recently--is probably the only romantic comedy I've liked recently, which is a whole miracle right then and there.

Massive trauma

Lee Chang Dong's Secret Sunshine is easily the most harrowing film of recent years; with its deceptively bright and artless cinematography (by Cho Yong-kyou, who also did Timeless, Bottomless Bad Movie and Barking Dogs Never Bite) it conceals the machinations of a vast uncaring world ready to pull the unsuspecting in, chew them up in horrific ways, spit 'em out like gristle

Like Ozu or Naruse it seems Lee is able to sketch with elegant strokes the complicated life of a young woman named Shin-ae (Jeon Do-yeon in a tremendous performance) who has already suffered a tragedy; with son in tow she wants to replant roots in her dead husband's hometown of Milyang, which in Chinese apparently translates to 'Secret Sunshine.' Lee is a modern master at the art of understatement, unreeling with relentless deliberation a story of suffering, anger and loss--leavened with not a bit of satire and observational, sometimes perverse, humor.

It's perhaps useless to compare Lee to a seasoned sadist like Lars Von Trier; personally I find the contrast instructive. Lee's heroines are generally less passive, more likely to possess a sense of wit or imagination (I just have to think of Emily Watson's Bess or Bjork's Selma to shudder at the sheer sense of victimization involved). Von Trier has often said he suffered from depression; watching his films I often feel he wants to dump his depression on us, bringing along all the advantages of personal involvement (strong motivation, extensive experience) as well as disadvantages (a lack of perspective). Lee from the evidence of his films doesn't seem as emotionally entangled, bringing to the table his advantages: the patience to refrain from pushing till the victim (sorry--viewer) is numbed past the point of belief or suffering (at a certain point you stop weeping and start giggling); the judgment necessary to inflict only as much pain as necessary to prove the film's thesis--not as much pain as will satisfy the filmmaker's bloodlust.

Arguably the single most painful moment in the film (skip the rest of this paragraph if you plan to see the picture) is the conclusion: as Shin-ae grasps desperately at one thing or another (church, sex, suicide) to steady herself, she finally and unexpectedly finds peace...and hence the cruelty. Some kind of resolution, even one involving death, even one involving her death, could have provided closure; instead she's granted breathing space, a moment of grace that enables her to move on, accept whatever else life has in store for her. She's ready for more punishment in short, and you feel that Lee has a varied and limitless inventory set aside waiting for her--that's the frame of mind you're put in, after watching this film.

Cinema is dead

Simplest description of Roberto Rossellini's Journey to Italy: two Northern Europeans' odyssey through the mind and sensibility of a Southern European filmmaker. Second simplest description: the fracture and eventual disintegration of a middle-class marriage.

That second's what I was thinking of when I thought: "This would make for an interesting double feature with Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut." Both tell the story of an angry and jealous spouse wandering a strange city, one for sex, the other for she knows not what, exactly; both have a scene of the wife telling the husband of a former love or fantasy, an episode lifted from Joyce's great short story "The Dead"--you might call this among other things Rossellini's retelling and reimagining (what happens after she tells her tale?) of the Joyce story.  

Kubrick's film is more explicit--more  nudity, more stylized performances, a more explicitly poised comic tone. Cruise's Dr. Bill Harford dominates Kubrick's film, with his real-life, reel-life wife Alice (Nicole Kidman) relegated mostly to the film's first half and the eventual  conclusion; Ingrid Bergman's Katherine dominates Rossellini's (movie and life), with a relatively more generous allocation of running time given to Katherine's wayward husband, Alex (George Sanders).

I don't think I'm just pointing out parallel details here; the basic difference between Kubrick's and Rossellini's respective approaches is  the difference between night and day. Kubrick's is a comic masque with fucking in place of dancing, and Gyorgy Ligeti's tremblingly sinister piano in place of conventional music; the basic message goes "Don't you dare step beyond the matrimonial boundaries little man, you are screwing with forces too large for your mind to grasp." Rossellini keeps to the confines of classic melodrama, and the message of his philandering husband story is: "I may be a heartless and dissolute bastard, but even I have a line I cannot cross." Not that Alex doesn't sleep with other women--this is George Sanders we're talking about--but that he won't sleep with this woman, this night. Viaggio in Italia is not really Alex's story, though, more Katherine's; it's her troubled sensibility that helps define the film's direction, though you do see how deftly Rossellini folds the man's story into the wife's, point counterpoint.

Considering how stylized this kind of melodrama eventually becomes in the hands of Antonioni and later Kubrick, it's fascinating to see how Rossellini perfected the original model. As with Kubrick Rossellini makes use of the surrounding landscape to shape his protagonists' reactions. Kubrick's film was shot on a gigantic estate and employed dozens of beautifully naked masked women (why masked and naked? Did he really need the sensual anonymity--or a parody of same?) cavorting with formally clothed masked men; Rossellini had Rome. I'd say of the two Rossellini had the advantage.

At one point Katherine visits some catacombs, and the narrow passages widen out into cathedral-like chambers with row upon row of grinning skulls, interrupted by the occasional pew (it's as if to the obscenity of death is added the obscenity of asking you to worship death). The imagery is overwhelming, yet not immediately so; Rossellini allows you to wander with her along passages before they open up into vast cavernous tombs filled with endless skulls and pews. Like Kubrick or Antonioni he's also concerned with space and movement, only the concern is fully integrated with the narrative.  

Rossellini brings husband and wife back together for an even more powerful reminder of death. An archeologist in Pompeii demonstrates to the couple one of the earliest use of plaster of Paris on the site; poured into the empty spaces that dot the dead city's grounds, the spaces (after years of being ignored as random geologic phenomena) are suddenly recognized for what they really are: a kind of negative recording of a man's presence--a record of his absence, rather. The dirt is brushed away, the dead are revealed--a couple, maybe married, maybe even to each other, caught at the moment of expiring in each others' arms. Katherine is upset, wants to go home; Alex is similarly moved. They've just been reminded of the inevitability of death, have just been told without a word spoken that sometimes you don't even leave behind a body; sometimes you only leave empty space. The best response one can make in light of such an epiphany, I suppose, is to hang on to each other. 

Following this scene is a totally unnecessary and prolonged sequence where husband and wife return from the archeological dig to their parked car--unnecessary and prolonged, however, only if you haven't yet been clued in to the true nature of Rossellini's evolving sensibility. As Katherine and Alex carefully climb steps, turn corners, clamber through rubble, occasionally peer about them to regain their bearings (Alex sometimes leading, sometimes assisting his wife, Katherine sometimes setting the pace, sometimes looking back) the two confess thoughts and feelings, discuss issues, occasionally snipe at each other--in effect the trip to the car is a visual and verbal precis of their entire marriage to date, with the emotional terrain being considerably more fragile, considerably more treacherous, than the physical one

The ending seems unlikely (again avoid remainder of paragraph if you intend to watch the film), only Rossellini undercuts the implausibility by having an unlikelier miracle happen just seconds before (a crippled man waves his crutches in the air); he squares away the scene by having the two stand in the plaza clutching each other while the world rushes by, trying to catch sight of the showier miracle: yes it happened but the world doesn't stop because it happens, the world rushes on like it always has, always will. Rossellini lingers on a final image of a cop sternly scanning the crowd for troublemakers; he is prepared to do his job, despite the chaos, despite everything.

Unlikely ending or not, what does the film tell us? That under the polite surface of the most sophisticated people there lies unspoken tensions, seething resentments, longstanding injuries; that even amongst the reasonably well-to-do or even among basically decent people to maintain as elemental a social unit as a married couple can be a struggle; that in the chaos of life rushing across a civilization full of dead and memories nothing can be certain, not even the ostensibly happy ending (which feels as if it had been decided on the flip of a coin--a shocking way to determine the direction of a masterwork, but very much part of said masterwork's point).

About ten years after making the film Rossellini famously declared "Cinema is dead." He wasn't completely right (he'd go on to direct not films, but television dramas), but you can understand the sense of frustration--after a film like this, what more can be said or done in the genre of narrative filmmaking?



Sher Shayari said...

The movie was very interesting romantic love story.Pat became mad eventhough and at last Nikki got him back. So i like this picture and i will suggest my friends to see very good lovely story.

Noel Vera said...

If you can, see Journey to Italy for a complex, moving, and very painful love story.

Dennis Yu said...

I'm a bit surprised you like Silver Linings Playbook. Jessica Zafra, in her blog, thought the movie was "adorable" and "romanticizes manic-depression". I feared you might think the film is too tactful and done in too much good taste.

Personally, I liked it (Pat intrigued by Tiffany's sex history with women, Tiffany pointing out the link between Excelsior and New York, Pat and Tiffany giving 2-minute synopses of Farewell to Arms and Lord of the Flies, etc) very much :-)

Noel Vera said...

I don't think Zafra has worked with bipolar kids. I have.

There was real interaction here, contained in a romantic plot. Russell knows the difference, and how to balance his film accordingly.

Anonymous said...

thanks for share..

Casey said...

Glad to see someone still cares about Walter Hill. While I didn't think Bullet to the Head showed him in top form, it was a solid piece of craftsmanship, demonstrating his understated mastery of the genre. Sad it didn't do better at the box office. People throw their money away on bloated, big-budget rubbish, and ignore an old pro like Hill.

Noel Vera said...

Oh, it's far from his best--which is miles and away better than Nolan, Snyder, Greengrass, Bay, Scott, what have you...

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