Saturday, April 19, 2008

Diving Bell and Butterfly, Comrade X, Force of Evil, Sunrise

Le Schaphrande et le papillon (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, 2007) has got to be one of the best films last year. I vividly remember Schnabel's Before Night Falls (2000) (aside from being what I felt was the finest performance Javier Bardem's ever given (still feel the same way), it was an unforgettably lyrical film); with this Schnabel if anything proves that he is one of the most graceful filmmakers alive (his free-floating, off-the-cuff camerawork recalls early Polanski, particularly Noz w wodzie (Knife in the Water, 1962)). The point-of-view shots are amazing, as much for what they obscure (out-of-focus filaments suggest wayward eyelashes; watery distortion indicate tears) as for what they reveal (when a pretty woman comes up close, his gaze invariably falls upon her cleavage); even the way he segueways from first person to memory to third person to fantasy is brilliant.
Love the in-jokes--a bit from Les Quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows, 1959) and a snatch of Lolita (1962). What's not to like?

Some critics have complained of the claustrophobic quality of the storytelling, but who wants yet another standard-issue disease-of-the-week flick? Schnabel fits form to Jean-Do Bauby's (Matthieu Amalric) straitened circumstances, his restless intelligence (represented by a constantly agitated eye) unable to escape the cyclopean point of view except through memory or fantasy (the point is driven horrifically home when the doctor declares his other eye 'problematic' and recommends that it be 'occluded'--and we watch, every bit as helpless as the desperately pleading Jean-Do, when the recommendation is carried out).
Is there a place in the world for such personal cinema, such specialized, interiorized stories? But Jean-Do's story isn't as extraordinary as we might like to think: consider the depth of the gap between one person and another, the way we constantly struggle to hear, or make ourselves heard, and our constant failure at perfect communication (which we continue to strive to do, nevertheless). Jean-Do's story resonates because it's our dilemma, mutiplied a hundredfold; in his case he has the stubborness and energy and yes, selfishness to overcome his hurdles, to call out to us one more time in the form of an extraordinary book. Which Schnabel has transformed into an equally extraordinary film.
Comrade X (1940) is maybe not better than Ninotchka (1939) but can it, well, actually hold its own? Vidor is not Lubitsch--i'd hate to even begin to compare the two--but if Vidor doesn't have The Touch, his comedy (very possibly made to cash in on the success of the earlier flick) has more teeth; fact is, the prison and execution-squad sequence comes across as a black-comedy version of something Graham Greene might have written, set in South America. Plus I doubt if Lubitsch has done much in the way of action sequences: here, Vidor throws in a vigorous chase involving a battalion of dancing tanks (how did they do that--remote-control models?) that's a real delight (think Spielberg in 1941 mode, only really set in 1941).

And then there's Lamarr, who's definitely no Garbo; if anything, I think she's even more desireable. Garbo's a beauty, of that there's no doubt, but it's a Teutonic kind of beauty, heavy-spirited and unattainable. Lamarr has a sweet sensuality you can to walk up to and touch, with just enough hint of European mystery to make that walk forward feel daring, dangerous even.

So there're rumors she and Gable didn't get along--so what? I'm not noticing the lack of chemistry; all I can see is Lamarr heedlessly planting kisses on Gable's chiseled mug every five minutes, and thinking I'd love to shove that guy aside and take his place, I really would.

Abraham Polonsky's Force of Evil (1948) is, in every sense of the word, awesome. It's set in a great city of steel and stone (Manhattan, of course), only there's a weirdly comic mismatch because crawling all over this tremendous construct are flawed, tiny creatures, eking out a living. Joe Morse's (John Garfield) relationship with his brother Leo (Thomas Gomez) is a case in point--they're constantly bickering, but Garfield can't help keeping an eye out for the man, nevertheless. Is Joe the evil brazenly declared in the title? Maybe, but what about his concern for his brother? Is Leo evil? He has principles, but he's basically running an illegal business. How about Ben Tucker (Roy Roberts)? He comes closest to personifying pure evil, but even he has his Achilles' heel, in the form of Edna (Marie Windsor), who has eyes for Joe.

Polonsky takes an eloquent script (by Ira Wolfert based on his novel (with additions by Polonsky)) and fashions a terrific noir from it: grey, drab on-location exteriors match equally drab interiors; when danger lurks, it's high-angle shots and expressive shadows; when danger steps out in the open it's all quick cuts and abrupt, point-of-view shots. Polonsky (this is his debut as a director) orchestrates all with a confidence and elegance Martin Scorsese can't help but admire.

Then there's the finale, which can only be described as something out of Dante, a descent into a hell if not exactly frozen over, just a few degrees short of it. Joe climbs down past massive structures and vertiginously steep staircases to end at a desolate beach, where he faces the basic fact of his life thus far, and realizes what he must do in response. A great film, absolutely.

And finally (with thanks to Dave Kehr for pointing it out), this brilliant review of Murnau's Sunrise. It's critics like these (okay, maybe not a critic--but what's he doing putting forth on this subject, anyway?) that make me so optimistic about the future of cinema.

Some thoughts: maverick opinions are not of themselves valueless--actually, I think all opinions are equally of value (or are equally valueless); what adds substance and authority to an opinion is the thinking that brought the writer to that opinion, and O'Neill's way of thinking is, to put it politely, not exactly reasoned, logical, or even well informed. If instead of just noting the film's high reputation he showed some understanding of why the film's so highly regarded, then proceeded to show why such regard was flawed, why, he may have something.

It's not as if it's a perfect film, after all. Many sequences are justly famed (the tracking shot that reveals The Woman From the City; the tram sequence (Murnau, shooting through the tram windows which somehow refract the images of the surrounding forest just so, manages to give the trip a floating, dreamlike feel); the gigantic sets of the city). The story is simple, even for silent films, even for Murnau--Man, Woman, other Woman, basically--but Murnau takes advantage of Hollywood's considerable resources to create a mostly reality-based (if hugely exaggerated and stylized) vision.

Maybe my biggest problem with the picture are the subtitles. They're obvious and hokey, even for the time, even compared to Griffith's (and Griffith could be unbelievably sentimental); worse, Murnau went on to animate his titles. The effect is not unsimilar to underlining what's already obvious, highlighting it with three different color markers, then sprinkling all with glitter; if anything, I suspect the sense of over-the-top melodrama one has of the film comes largely from the titles.

Don 't get me wrong, I love the film; it's just not my favorite Murnau (that would be Faust (1924), with its opening image of a magnificent bat-winged Emil Jannings, looming over a volcano (that image has influenced films as diverse as Disney's Fantasia (1940), Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Ridley Scott's Legend (1985)), its passages of Faust flying over blasted landscapes (inspiration for some of the finest passages of John Boorman's Exorcist 2: The Heretic (1977), and its final heartbreaking sequence of the beautiful Camilla Horn, struggling to survive a winter storm with her bastard child).

Still. Not a big fan of the Oscars or of its organizers, but even they and their running media dogs should know better than to nip at the long-dead hand that, if it isn't exactly feeding them now, did much to create the reputation of quality they enjoy (and have almost entirely failed to uphold) today. Shame on them--on Cameron Diaz too, incidentally, for involving herself in such cheap shots (she should grovel on used razor blades for a chance to star in a film anywhere near as great as Sunrise).


Ma-an said...

hi sir,

i'm ma-an asuncion. from indie film making. Ron Bryant (director of ROTONDA and BARYOKE) is doing a documentary about CELSO AD CASTILLO. in this connection, we would like to interview you. we can call or email you po if you like.

'hoping for your positive reply.

ma-an =)

ps. you can email me at

Anonymous said...

Hi Mr. Vera,

New blog reader here. :) Glad to know you liked Diving Bell and the Butterfly. It was easily my most favorite movie. All throughout the film, I was just so captivated by the story, the struggle and the sentimentality of Jean Bauby. One of the scenes that really struck me was when his mistress called him and his wife picked up the phone and talked to her. With no other way to communicate to him, the mistress decided to tell his wife her feelings for him. Of how much she missed and loved him. Imagine hearing it from the other woman and having to tell it to her husband. Such difficult and powerful piece.

Will be reading your other posts here. I mostly encounter your comments on movies in PEX kasi. I admire your work. I've always been a frustrated movie critic. It's hard when you're a fan of the movies. Hehe

More power sir!

Noel Vera said...

Thankee. Don't spend much time at pinoyexchange anymore. Site moves too slow, often hangs because it's too busy, and the level of discourse of the posters hasn't been very high.