Monday, July 15, 2013

Pacific Rim (Guillermo del Toro), Antoine Doinel films (Francois Truffaut), The Reckless Moment (Max Ophuls), Wagon Master (John Ford)

'Bakal' Boy Philippines

(WARNING: ALL  films will have their stories, plot details, twists and surprises extensively discussed)

Heavy metal

I can see the objections: it's a robot movie; no, a robot movie featuring giant dinosaurs; no, worse, a robot versus dinosaur movie with the cast of Top Gun emasculated to the last soprano trying to act, ferchrissake. It's a summer movie, a big Hollywood production, a multimilliondollar full-metal aesthetic prostitute out to hustle you out of your very last moviegoing dollar. On steroids.

I have to admit to loving Guillermo del Toro's vision of a postindustrial future, where the Jaegers (German for 'hunters,' the term referring to giant human-shaped mecha in the tradition of Japanese anime) clank and shudder and (unlike Tony Stark's flawlessly gleaming armor) sport rust stains and blackening from exhaust fumes, fly to the battlefield via fleet of cargo copters attached to an elaborate harness (you think of medieval knights lowered onto their horses by ropes and pulleys), step out of the Arctic mists like figures out of Norse mythology to collapse on the fallen snow. I have to admit to loving a movie that has the conviction of its cheesy drama, clunky and old-fashioned both, whose visual style is gloriously grandiloquent: human figures in a warm amber glow (they might be standing in a coal mine or--significant for del Toro--a New York City subway tunnel), the larger structures and machinery lit in a colder, more emotionally distant metallic blue. I love it when someone is pensive or makes a dramatic entrance or delivers a climactic speech and del Toro either shrouds him in a shower of welding sparks or cloaks him in roiling steam or floods him with the sun's glare--if it's worth doing it's worth overdoing in a big way. 

The kaiju (giant faintly reptilian/crustacean monsters in the Japanese postnuclear apocalypse movie tradition) lumber majestically; they rise to the ocean surface from an interdimensional portal like behemoths on loan from Poseidon and stomp or lean on or hide among skyscrapers like kids amongst towering sandcastles (you feel the urge to either admire and knock the elaborate structures down). With their mechanical counterparts they're larger than life, larger than legend, even--primal figures resurrected from our collective memories to raise havoc, perhaps even hell. 

And they're crafted. This is no Michael Bay shitpile where the director orders his team of digital SFX minions to manufacture robots by the crateload; the designs were carefully mulled over and show signs of wit. My favorites include the kaiju that (as del Toro puts it) resembles a Chinese dragon, spits out phosphorescent acid and in a wondrous moment spreads vast batwing arms; then there are the Russian and Chinese Jaegers (sadly underused), the former looking like a cross between a T-34 tank and a nuclear reactor's cooling tower, the latter having armor the color and texture of Chinese lacquer and an unsettling overall resemblance to a wolf spider. Gipsy Danger, our hero's Jaeger, is described as having the glower of the Chrysler building and the stride of John Wayne (I don't see it--the celebrity that comes quickest to mind is Babe Ruth--but like the idea). For inspiration del Toro avoided the Gojira films (which he admits to loving) and the various anime, instead seeking older sources: Goya's The Colossus, Hokusai's prints (also suspect a bit of Mignola's creature and graphic designs thrown in there, and of course Kirby).

I love it that del Toro uses as many practical effects as possible to sell the imagery, or has digital effects either helping or doing their level best to look like practical effects: the Drift suits look like the coolest Nautilus equipment ever conceived, and when the kaiju enter Hong Kong, you get a real sense of rubber-suited man stomping elaborate miniaturized set before an uptilted, overcranked camera--the details are lovingly rendered (as miniatures done by a Japanese studio often are), down to the Newton's cradle set in motion by gargantuan forces barely held in check. I love the cargo ship the Gipsy Danger drags ashore for a bit of batting practice--it's a mighty haymaker moment straight out of Walking Tall or Pale Rider, the righteous hero striding in with club in hand to set wrongs right: just as guilt-inducing, just as exhilarating. 

(Might as well throw in the observation that to my inexpert eye del Toro, unlike some filmmakers I can think of, seems to know just what happens when the cables or roadway of a suspension bridge are cut--well, his take on it is more convincing, anyway) 

It's not just the look, sound and heft of things; it's how they move, the kaiju and Jaegers facing each other like champions and dragons of yore, in grand slow motion. Del Toro shoots a little too close in but cuts at a reasonable rate, the fight sequences coming together with ease in your head. Telling that he doesn't take smaller action sequences for granted--a combat mat confrontation between a Jaeger pilot and a potential candidate boasts of intricate choreography, coherently shot and edited (though a later more conventional fistfight is disappointingly handled, del Toro apparently being more interested in martial-art matches than old-fashioned mix-em-ups).

Not as crazy about the look of the world beyond the portal: del Toro makes the unfortunate decision to use distorting lenses and to digitally add a kind of lit-from-within glow to everything, a letdown from the neon-cathedral look of Hong Kong or the vast stormswept waves of the Pacific just minutes before (you wonder if his budget came up short for the script's final pages). 

Del Toro ramps the visual intensity up to operatic levels; he has to, because the script is barely serviceable--about how a pair of pilots (triplets, in the case of the Chinese Jaeger) are needed to operate the robots, and have to be psychically linked to each other (the official term is 'Drifted'--interesting word that evokes the sensation of dreaming, as if the pilots indulged in a shared state of somnaumbulism). Del Toro takes a page from the seminal anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion to suggest that not all the pilots are psychologically stable, that some have trauma issues that potentially make them as much of a danger as the kaiju; once the big bads come however the issue is more or less dropped, and everyone comes together for the final confrontation.

What to make of Pacific Rim? Boring title (sounds like an episode of National Geographic's "Toilet Bowls of the World") It's an empty shell of a movie, a belching, flaming, roaring carapace covering thin gruel about men bonding and fighting together--one wishes del Toro could at least have turned the picture into a workplace comedy, the way he did his Hellboy movies. Helps to have Idris Elba--looking more badass than any kaiju or Jaeger--authoritatively rolling back the apocalypse (if Morgan Freeman ever felt tired of playing President or God he's got a replacement); helps to have Ron Perlman as kaiju organ dealer Hannibal Chau (yes, a black market for kaiju body parts), flaunting a pair of shoes Joan Rivers might describe as "a crotch trap for convicted child molesters." The two veterans sadly aren't allowed to dominate the human drama, but they do reign over their respective domains nicely.

(Let me add that if the movie were set in Manila we'd have broken down the monsters' corpses into bite-sized pieces in minutes and served them with a soy dip mixed with calamansi and a crushed siling labuyo, plus a bottle of ice-cold San Miguel Beer)

(Do want to mention Burn Gorman and his thousand-word-per-minute mad scientist Hermann Gottlieb. Gorman was the intense, sex-obsessed medical officer of the Torchwood Institute--a charming bastard in the series, and couldn't be more different (though just as charming in a smaller scale) in this movie)

David Edelstein in his review might be on to something when he wrote: "In most films, scenes in which tight-ass superiors chastise maverick heroes for being mavericky are there to make the maverickness seem even more heroic. Elba makes you want to tell the mavericks to shut up and listen." Watching del Toro light Elba in his gleaming black neuroarmor as if he were Achilles urging his fellow Myrmidones to fight you can tell that del Toro is in love with Elba, or at least with Elba's character (he's given an awesome name: Stacker Pentecost. Say it again and feel all the hard consonants burst like grenades on your upper palate). 

Which I suspect says something about del Toro as a filmmaker: he loves his freaks and monsters and children. Hellboy, Blade, Jesus Gris; Ofelia, Aurora and Carlos--think about it and the juxtaposition isn't all that odd: children are most alert and appreciative of freaks and monsters, have a similar love of surprise and chaos as monsters. You might say that to del Toro children are monsters (and vice versa), that in his films this is not necessarily a bad thing, and that this attitude helps develop the distinct flavor of his films.

My point being maybe the Jaeger pilots aren't all that compelling because to del Toro they aren't compelling; the pilots are ultimately irrelevant--aren't the reason he wanted to make the film in the first place. He's here for the freaks and monster (or in this case robots and monsters), for freakish authority figures like Pentecost, and Hannibal Chau; he probably couldn't care less if the cast of younger actors were dropped into an interdimensional portal and never came back. 

And that's fine by me too; unlike Michael Bay or Tony Scott, del Toro doesn't fully buy into the need to have the male Caucasian hero (sop to the main audience demographic) dominate the dramatic landscape (probably why the picture is doing so poorly in the boxoffice). This is del Toro's valentine to the large-scale nightmares of his childhood, and he's not about to have some ho-hum clean-cut white-bread hero stand in the way of his geek obsessions.

Bad boy

The 400 Blows (Les quatre cents coups) is arguably Truffaut's angriest film; most disturbingly so, because the gradual sense of abandonment--by mother, by father, eventually by society itself--happens to a child of twelve (though Truffaut cheats a bit by casting Jean-Pierre Leaud, who was fifteen at the time of shooting). Paradoxically, it's also one of his funniest and most purely pleasurable. 

Over fifty years since its premiere and still the film seems astonishingly vibrant, alive. You clap with delight when Antoine Doinel (Leaud) flees an office building with a stolen typewriter and startles a flock of pigeons into explosive flight (it's like a tripped alarm no one pays attention to), or when he climbs into a centrifuge ride and Truffaut evokes the workings of a zoetrope (Truffaut pours almost every trick and bit of lore he knows into his first feature, as if he would never make another for the rest of his life (he goes on to make twenty-four)). Your heart quietly breaks when in what may be the film's most beautiful sequence the soundtrack trembles with crystalline chimes and Paris flares to life with orchards of buzzing incandescents, topiaries of blinking neons, vast arrays of blazing windows, the streets gleaming with the benediction of fresh rainfall--one enchanted image after another beckon just when Doinel is being driven away in a prison van, to be incarcerated in a juvenile institution for (as far as we know) the rest of his life

A stunning debut, and we reel from its effects decades later.

The succeeding films--Antoine and Colette (Antoine et Colette), Stolen Kisses (Baisers vol├ęs), Bed and Board (Domicile Conjugal), Love on the Run (L'amour en fuite)--roughly follow Doinel (and Leaud playing Doinel) as he grows up, finds love, finds trouble, and basically fulfills the promise implied in the first film, of raising general hell (the more accurate translation of the title). But he's never as homeless or destitute--he's constantly losing his job, but just as constantly finding goofier ways to make a living (hotel clerk; TV repair man; private investigator; remote-control operator of miniature boats for a hydraulics company; finally, modest success as writer of a thinly-veiled fictionalized autobiography)). He's never as devastatingly rejected (women push him away but end up tumbling in bed with him), or as rebellious (he's more passive-aggressive than angry)--it's as if Truffaut in inflicting his own childhood on Doinel in The 400 Blows is trying to redeem his cruelty by refusing to inflict any more radical traumas on the boy. Life may change and flow and be funny, even slapstick, but the face that gazes at us with such harrowing despair in that film's final image will never wear that exact expression ever again (he can put on any other expression, just not that one). 

Oh, Doinel still suffers--most poignantly I thought in the sad little conclusion to Antoine and Colette--and gets into trouble on occasion (as hotel clerk; as soldier; during dinner with a beautiful Japanese model); the shenanigans become funnier and definitely sexier, are enjoyable and have their own fleetfooted charm, but Doinel now seems to enjoy the unceasing protection of his creator from any permanent harm. 

You eventually realize that Doinel's seeming invincibility is itself sad. He never really faces adversity--he'd much rather avoid it, or as the last film's title puts it, 'run.' Instructive to contrast him with Colette, the last person to really wound him--in Love on the Run we learn through flashback that (as a kind of punishment, one is almost led to feel, for rejecting Doinel) she suffered a tragedy, managed to claw her way back up and become a fairly successful lawyer (albeit with strings attached). She's grown gravely beautiful (the luminous Marie-France Pisier, who Truffaut first cast in Antoine and Colette and who reprises her role years later) not just outwardly but inwardly, and Truffaut promptly rewards her with the privilege of judging Doinel's autobiography: he writes well, she informs him, but (echoing her criticism of a love letter he wrote her years before) will never be a real writer till he creates something completely fictional, from his head not his life. 

(Might as well add that there's little love out there for Love on the Run but I like it; arguably a prototype for the modern 'clip show,' it takes footage from the earlier films and deftly mixes them not just with new footage but also outtakes that Truffaut saved--suggesting the patently outrageous notion that Truffaut waited years to make this picture)

There is the faintest of hints by series' end that perhaps Doinel will settle down and grow up. Truffaut drops it at that point--or Truffaut intended to continue but God or life or random circumstance decided enough was enough (Truffaut died of a brain tumor in 1984--strange to think Leaud is now older by seventeen years). The series' very inconclusiveness is sad: there are no epiphanies for Doinel; no life-changing experiences or grand triumphs or absolute defeats, only this faintly unsatisfactory promise of a better life. Doinel's story--which ended in an ambivalent freeze-frame in The 400 Blows--ends the series with a similar pause, forever teasing us with untold possibilities.

Let me mention one more: Truffaut wrote a treatment, a sequel to The 400 Blows that shows an alternate life for Doinel, flitting in and out of juvenile institutions, serving in the military--a treatment that was eventually turned into Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless. Can you see Leaud's Doinel transformed into Belmondo's Michel Poiccard? Can you see Godard's feature debut as the true sequel to Truffaut's feature debut, Doinel running past the freeze-frame that ends The 400 Blows to flout for the rest of his brief life both social laws and narrative conventions alike? Mind you I've got no documentary basis to support this idea...but the mind nevertheless boggles.


You hear the name "Max Ophuls" and think luxurious melodramas like Letter to an Unknown Woman and The Earrings of Madame de...; great noir doesn't readily come to mind.

And yet The Reckless Moment is great noir. You might guess the radical angles, the menacing shadows, the sense of gargantuan urban architecture looming over hapless bits of humanity characteristic of noir would be anathema to Ophuls, but no--he takes his long tracking shots and retools them just so, their trademark qualities subtly transmuted to suit the genre: instead of smooth elegance (the camera's catlike glide), a sense of urgency; instead of displays of decadence (sailing past outspread candelabra, waltzing couples, towering potted palms), lean and malevolent inevitability.

Bennett's Lucia Harper is matriarch of the house holding fort while her husband is on a business trip, rushing from kitchen to living room to boathouse out back to resolve each domestic crisis with a kind of distracted competence--'distracted' because her mind is on other matters: her daughter may have killed her boyfriend, and someone is demanding money to keep from going to the newspapers.

Lucia dashes here and there with Ophuls following and not once does he pull back, not once does he explicitly clue you in but somewhere along the way you realize what this life is to her: a mousetrap, an elaborate inextricable trap designed to keep her paying her bills and instructing her housemaid and upbraiding her kids--all the thousand little things that make up the domestic life forming links in a chain caught tight around her neck, choking off her breath. Lucia races faster and faster just to stay at the center of her typical upper middle-class life, and before we know it the camera's stately drift has turned into an accelerating slide towards some unknown doom.

That's Lucia's life through her eyes: through the eyes of blackmailer Martin Donnelly (James Mason, magnificent as usual), her life means something else entirely--the road not taken, the kind of ordinary family life he never had a chance to create, much less enjoy. When Lucia and Martin talk you get the sense of two diametrically opposing points of view struggling not just to dominate but understand the other; you get the sense that Martin envies the absent Mr. Harper's position in Lucia's heart, that Lucia covets the disreputable freedom Martin (she believes) enjoys. 

Ophuls doing noir--unlikely, you say? But on the evidence of the film at hand, he makes the mismatch not just workable, but effortless, natural. Tragic that he wasn't given the chance to make more.

Family guy

Once got into a discussion on the merits of Kurosawa and Ford; the proposal was made that Kurosawa took what Ford did and improved on it. 

"I don't think so," said I (paraphrasing from memory); "Did his own variation, sure, canted the Fordian angles a little more, held the camera on the action a little longer, cut the footage a little faster. 

"What Ford did well that's inimitably his is that sense of a teeming community, of ordinary life bursting the frames of the movie screen. Kurosawa could do that to some extent--Seven Samurai, Lower Depths, Dodeskaden--but he always had to be dramatic about it. Ford's communities are often calm villages and towns that you recognized as part of the rural West (or at least the West of our collective imagination); the turmoil was often brought in by the hero, was eventually resolved, often in favor of the community. With Kurosawa there was often an intrinsic flaw to the community against which the hero struggled; what was important was the hero's struggle, not his eventual integration (or failure to do so).

"Ford delights in the community and the commonplace, where Kurosawa focuses on the individual and the extreme."

Which brings us to the wonderfully understated, horribly underseen Wagon Master. Where in most of Ford's films we find the community in place and having already put down roots (Innisfree in The Quiet Man, a Welsh village in How Green Was My Valley, Tombstone in My Darling Clementine) in this film the community--a group of Mormons--has been forcibly uprooted and told to move out. They plan to settle in the San Juan Valley in Utah, but have no means or skills to reach it till they meet a pair of horsetraders (Ben Johnson and Harry Carey, Jr.) who agree to help. 

There isn't much of a story: the traders lead the Mormons, the Mormons intone a few songs (the film is a trove of old Western melodies), the wagons trundle forward. Gradually the realization comes to you that this, not the Mormons' quest for a new home, is the heart of the picture: lyrically shot and staged imagery of wagons rolling across the magnificent Moab landscape, of ordinary folk cooking and bathing and sitting together at camp, singing--a visual poem if you will of the great American migration westward, as seen through the eyes of the thoroughly ordinary people who did the migrating. 

A medicine show joins them featuring the prominently displayed charms (see above) of Joanne Dru, and the showfolk and Mormon folk and horse traders bond cheerfully, with much comic friction. Later the Cleggs, a family of outlaws, step in, figuring to hide amongst their number from a pursuing posse--and yes, there is tension, there is danger, but an odd thing happens: they start bonding with the Mormons too (about as open and charming a depiction of that branch of Christianity, incidentally, as any I've seen on the big screen). Not freely, no, and of course there will be the inevitable showdown, but one effect of travel and hard experience (Ford seems to say) is that even the unlikeliest of folk forge a connection. 

Perhaps the most vivid example of this comes when the wagon train chances upon a Navajo tribe--or rather the tribe chances upon them; the braves gallop into attack, to stop when they learn that the travelers are Mormons. "White men are big thieves," the Navajo chief maintains "Mormons only little ones." He invites them to camp.

Post-supper Navajo and white folk gather and dance in a ring round the firepit, the camera panning from one face to another--a visual summation if you like of what America is all about: races, professions and temperaments of all kinds come together to enjoy the mutual warmth and security of a blazing bonfire.

Suddenly a scream; we don't understand what's being said (and Ford to his credit makes it happen a touch faster than we comprehend) but the offending Clegg is tied to a wagon wheel to be whipped. The men whisper only a few terse words to each other, but their looks speak pages: we are in danger, we need to get out of this alive, but to do so we have to sacrifice one of our own. The fear is palpable and shared, so is the horror at what must be done. 

Aside from being one of the more interesting portraits of Native Americans in a Ford film (the Navajos here remain fully in control,  practice a coherent if rough sense of justice, enjoy a trenchant sense of humor) it's about as intense and memorable an example I can think of of--well, the consequences will be more complex (the Cleggses won't forget the incident, nor will they let the others do so), but for a moment the men form one of Ford's trademark communities, his band of select brothers, responding to stress and crisis the best they can. 



Anonymous said...

In my review of Pacific Rim, couldn't help but point out two - or make it four - tributes to Japanese Super Robots. The undersea origin of the Kaiju recalls Getter Robot while the control method of the Jaegers recalls Daimos through The Five Star Stories. In one part where the Jaeger whips out its chain sword and cleaves the airborne Kaiju, I had to restrain myself from screaming "Volll-tessss Faaai-vaaaaaah!!!!"

For more, click this link:

Noel Vera said...

On anime, you're the expert.

JC said...

I sure wish Del Toro had chosen to pull the "camera" back during the Kaiju/Jaeger battles, to give a better sense of space and size. For the most part, given how most of the fights took place in the murky rain, or underwater, when they locked up, I didn't have much more luck making out what they were doing to one another than I did with the giant robots in those bloody Bay movies.

As it stands, lots of flashing lights and a pummeling score, and probably the most generic movie Guillermo's ever made. I hope he goes smaller next time.

Noel Vera said...

Well there's incoherent and there's incoherent. I submit this is a little close in but as clear as say a Fosse dance sequence; while Bay isn't capable of a single coherent, continuous line of thought in his head. Throughout his entire career.

Generic? I don't know; it's del Toro's childhood, thrown on the big screen. It doesn't even have mass appeal, as I pointed out possibly because it doesn't follow the Bay style of dramaturgy (all about the boy and his toy), instead saving the big moments and hero lighting and angles for the veterans (Elba, Perlman). And the toys & reptiles.

But yeah del Toro's done better.

Ramona said...

This is fantastic!

Igor said...

what do you think about the politics of the film? I'm not sure what to think, in spite of Del Toro's words. I can't avoid to find it militarist in the figure of the militar who really knows what to do in the moment of truth opposite to the inept civilian authorities who want to cut military budget.
Great blog,

Noel Vera said...

I'll cop to Del Toro's line and say it's more a band of fighters doing a job--they're not called general or colonel but ranger and marshal, they're more overequipped park rangers out to handle dangerous animals, and so on. Lame, I suppose, but I've generally stopped seeing the military as a single great evil in the general scheme of things(sexist and racist and capable of serious abuse, yes). Big corporations, now that's a different matter.