Thursday, February 27, 2014

Nebraska (Alexander Payne)

Dern good

If Alexander Payne's Nebraska were made up only of  the footage featuring all the small towns and empty landscape passed along the way, shot in stark black and white, I'd call it a great film, easy. The transitional sequences play onscreen the way the transitional passages played on the pages of War and Peace (if Tolstoy had left out all the fighting and set it in rural America)--a cumulative panorama of endless grass, straight-ruled blacktop, rusted stop signs and decayed storefronts, an epic poem as expansive if not more so than the foregrounded drama. 

And the black and white photography is essential--in color all that empty space surrounding all that dilapidated clapboard would feel so oppressively real the film cannot possibly succeed as a comedy (you see a pedestrian shuffle down a sidewalk, but so seldom that on the rare occasion he or she stands out like a diamond in a coal seam). Black and white helps stylized the bleakness, locate it a remove away from grim reality, allow enough aesthetic distance to appreciate the rust and cracked concrete as poetic rather than realistic detail. 

As a wordless movement through nearly a third of the continent's width (roughly eight hundred and fifty miles, from Billings, MT to Lincoln, NE) you can't find a less pretentious, more eloquent testament to the size and scale of this vast nation, in stark contrast to the relative meanness of its citizens' hardscrabble lives, a contrast so disproportionate it's dizzying. The film I imagine would play in an endless loop in some public space where people can sit down, watch a while, munch popcorn or slurp soda or noisily make love in the rearmost seats, leave, maybe come back to watch (or make love) some more. 

Meanwhile Payne has decided to water down this great work with people, acting out a script intended to be a comedy.

As scripts go (this one by Bob Nelson) it's not bad, the first Payne ever directed where he had no hand in the writing himself, but which so thoroughly plays as his brand of comedy it's hard to see the difference (the character of Woody Grant, perhaps? Or Woody's unnamed former love, played by Angela McEwan?). Woody (Bruce Dern) believes he has won a million dollars in prize money, and is determined to travel nearly a thousand miles to collect; his family tries but fails to talk him out of it, and looks to his son David (Will Forte) to act as driver, companion, and guardian. David agrees, hoping to spend some quality time with his father and--hopefully--keep his father out of trouble.

The film succeeds largely in terms of poetic imagery: again and again Payne  shoots Dern in full-frontal close-up, his white hair like an aureole round the head--if this were a religious film, you would be forgiven for mistaking Dern's Woody as some obscure patron saint of the American Great Plains. 

Then again, who's to say this isn't a religious film, with Woody as Payne's holy fool sent on a mission to separate true believers from foolish skeptics? Among the believers count David, his brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk), Woody's wife Kate (a funny June Squibb), and the aforementioned McEwan; skeptics include David's dim cousins Cole and Bart (Devin Ratray and Tim Driscoll), and an unsettlingly assertive Stacy Keach as Woody's old friend Ed Peagram. The believers are sorely tested, the skeptics are--well, not exactly brought low, but Payne is careful to write and shoot them as sniggering hicks who drool greedily at the prospect of knowing someone with a million bucks, despite David's warnings of a scam (Ed gently reminds Woody of money owed him, while the cousins are, well, more physically insistent). If we were to think this a religious film (and who's to say it isn't?), Payne makes it clear who has a shot at reaching heaven, who deserves to broil in hell.

It's the film's strength and limitation, I think--it has the energy and force of a faith-based film (Hail Woody!), along with said film's simplistic thinking (the world divided into two types and two types only). Keach at least has some unruly energy to him, a bit of the bottled danger you once sensed when he played Frank James in Walter Hill's The Long Riders--you chuckle, but at a respectful distance. The cousins and their family on the other hand could be zoo animals kept in cages clearly labeled and ringed with railings, behind which we can safely point and howl in delight.

As the film's icon Dern is a magnificent cinema subject, with his rimless glasses (a symbol of guileless helplessness) and old-geezer plaid (aren't saints clad in humble robes?). When he has everyone's--including the camera's--attention he freezes, allowing us to better admire the geography of his face (the crags and hollows of nose and cheek, the lush northern forest of snowy hair); when everyone's attention is elsewhere, he makes like a miracle and moves--before you know it, he's out on the street, making his slow yet stubborn way to Lincoln to collect his winnings. It's a slyly comic, star-making role, the kind that grants many a Hollywood veteran his second wind (and, though it's hardly relevant to me, his strongest Oscar nomination to date), and Dern is more than up to it--he's been playing psychopaths and eccentrics for decades, practically his entire career, and having for once been offered a role this juicy his hunger has been honed to the point that it's indistinguishable from Woody's. 

Woody probably has many literary antecedents, anyone  from Jack and his precious Beanstalk to Prince Mishkin, but what I had in mind was Isaac Bashevis Singer's Gimpel the Fool. Everyone took advantage of Gimpel but by story's end Singer grants us a privileged peek into Gimpel's mind, and against expectations, his heart is not filled with resentment and hate: "I heard a great deal, many lies and falsehoods, but the longer I lived the more I understood that there were really no lies. Whatever doesn't really happen is dreamed at night. It happens to one if it doesn't happen to another, tomorrow if not today, or a century hence if not next year. What difference can it make?" Gimpel's way of thinking not only transcends the wrong done to him, it renders any idea of being wronged irrelevant--he has other priorities, other things to look forward to. So it is with Woody, if not with an equivalent force or moral clarity--he can't let skeptics slow him down; he has better things to do.

First published in Businessworld, 2.20.14

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Hunt (Jagten, Thomas Vinterberg, 2012)


Don't stand so close to me

Wasn't a big fan of Thomas Vinterberg's breakout feature The Celebration (Festen, 1998), often considered the first film produced under the Dogme 95 guidelines. Thought the film--about a dinner party thrown by an obscenely rich family that goes on for far too long and leads to embarrassing revelations involving rape and incest--a darkly funny setup that degenerates into a grotesque cartoon (which pretty much sums up the modus operandi of most Doggie-style filmmakers). Vinterberg wants to say profound things about the corrupting influence of family and other social institutions but instead ends up with an incomprehensible, unbelievable comedy sketch, before which he seems to have pulled down his zipper and urinated.

No such problems with the first half of Vinterberg's latest, The Hunt (Jagten, 2012--a 2014 Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign-Language Film, not that that's of any particular importance to me, personally) where he sketches a modest little Danish village, and for protagonist the modest Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen). Lucas' life is far from perfect--he's divorced, his wife has custody of his child, he's a teacher forced to work in a kindergarten because his school closed; that said, the children love him and he in turn seems to genuinely care for them, can effortlessly talk to them at their level.

Then one of the children named Klara (Annika Wedderkopp) mentions seeing Lucas' 'private parts,' and he finds himself suspended from his duties.

Vinterberg works out in thorough detail the procedure by which the whole community comes to respond to Klara's story, and to Lucas' perceived crime. You can't help but believe in the impassive solidity of the wall former friends and neighbors throw up around him; you can't help but believe the desperation with which he tries to reach out, and is repeatedly rebuffed. You even understand the motivations driving both sides: the townsfolk want to safeguard their own--are all the more fierce because they feel they have somehow failed in this regard--yet Lucas has a house here, somehow has to live here. Protect the children--it's an imperative a parent doesn't even have to think about following; on the other hand, I've talked to and dealt with sex offenders and for all their problems and all the horrifying things they have done, can't help but feel they deserve some measure of respect, of dignity, of justice. This may be Denmark and you may be reading their dialogue in English subtitles, but the whole situation and its harrowing downward spiral could be happening here, now--anywhere you have children, and around your children, predators. 

Most interesting decision on Vinterberg's part is to make Lucas clearly innocent. This isn't some exploration about the impossibility of objective truth a la John Patrick Shanley's Doubt, or the Kurosawa classic Rashomon; the director means to capture onscreen the way a community can band together and decide to consistently, comprehensively do the wrong thing. As for Klara, she isn't exactly lying--for some reason she has conflated her crush on him with the nude picture of a man her elder brother showed her as a prank--but there is no malice in her, no malevolence, and hence no doubt in everyone's mind that she's telling the truth; when she recants her story ("I've done something stupid," she admits) the adults don't even blink--they're sure she's just blanking out the episode, it's so traumatic. 

Can't emphasize enough how crucial Mikkelsen's performance is to this film. He has to convince us of the kind nature of the man in his brief opening scenes at the kindergarten. He has to undergo the various emotional phases of the wronged victim--from incredulity to outrage to betrayed hurt to sullen ingrown suffering. He has to retain one's sympathies even as he shoves his girlfriend Nadja (Alexandra Rapaport), one of the few adults left who believe him, out the door. And he has to do all this with his face gradually freezing into a mask, as he realizes just how isolated he is.

The film starts to derail about the time (skip this paragraph if you plan to see the picture) the case against Lucas derails; up to this point the story has been all too hideously real, the characters apparently driven by life itself. When Lucas starts venturing out again and insisting on his right to resume his position as a member of the community, I begin to see Vinterberg's hand forcing the situation. If I like Lucas were accused of child molestation I wouldn't even try rejoining them, I'd simply get the hell out, and consider myself lucky to have escaped. I know what'll happen if I try otherwise--just had a taste of it firsthand, earlier in the picture; anything else seems more like plot contrivance than inevitable psychology. 

Which is a pity. The style Vinterberg debuted so famously in Festen--the handheld camera, the washed-out color palette, the low-level lighting and total lack of ambient soundtrack beyond whatever happens to be playing onscreen--seemed so mannered in that earlier work, a talented novice's attempt at neorealism. Here the same style seems effortless, earned; it emphasizes without any undue fuss that this is what life looks like, this is how life is. When the film starts straying from realism into Christlike suffering and redemption, said style seems to mock the solemnity of the proceedings. It's as if Vinterberg's eye were chiding his brain: "We know how things truly are, no matter what silly scenarios you might think up; without lifting a finger or batting a lash we'll undermine your argument, show it for the hollow construct it really is."

First published in Businessworld, 2.13.14

Monday, February 17, 2014

Sherlock, Season 3

The great game

(Warning! Crucial plot points and story details to be discussed)

Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss' resurrection of the world's greatest detective is possibly even more inventive and better written overall than their recent incarnation of the world's most beloved Doctor--helps, I imagine, that they need only write three ninety-minute episodes per season (as opposed to thirteen or fourteen for Dr. Who), and have four novels and fifty-plus stories (not to mention over a hundred years of fan culture) to draw on for material and inspiration (Who counts on a mere fifty years).

"Oh, but it's set in modern times!" a skeptic might point out; "gets rid of all that tiresome period dress and decor." Yes, but to do so and still cleverly--at times brilliantly--evoke the 21st-century equivalent of nearly every tiny detail from the stories (a cell phone for a pocket watch; a phone's ring for an actual gold ring) implies close knowledge not only of Sherlock's original world but his present one (an ultramodern vision of London with the occasional (strikingly shot and lit) period setting). Sometimes the allusions go beyond clever to pointed sociopolitical commentary: when Sherlock's constant companion Dr. John Watson confesses to being a shell-shocked veteran from Afghanistan, one might recall that the original doctor was also a veteran of a similarly unwinnable war from the exact same region. Between the 19th and 21st century apparently much about war has failed to change.

A quick review of the episodes reveals an actual direction to the development of the series, and not just a collection of handsomely produced and performed adventures: the first season's premiere episode A Study in Pink introduces the sleuth (the sleekly intense Benedict Cumberbatch) and his singular methods, pairing him with faithful John (the more fumblingly warm, shufflingly comic Martin Freeman); witty fun, but the single most interesting moment is when Sherlock speculates on the true nature of John's trauma--not that he was stressed out by war, but by its absence. Early on Moffat gives us hints that he has novel ideas about Conan Doyle's characters, and will unveil them over time.

The first season's finale's title--The Great Game--is especially interesting: it might refer to the game played by The Baker Street Irregulars (arguably the most prestigious organization in the world devoted to Conan Doyle's fiction), who treat the characters as actual people, try explain inconsistencies among the stories; it also might refer to the Cold War (which historians called The Great Game 2), the titanic struggle between superpowers from post-World War 2 to the '90s--suggesting that Sherlock has become a power in the world, and in this episode meets his match in Jim Moriarty (memorably played as a fire-breathing sociopath by Andrew Scott). From the title the writers seem to suggest that they will flesh out the cardboard figures in Conan Doyle's fiction, and that said figures' struggles will happen on a more intense, far larger scale.

A note on Scott's Jim Moriarty--I've heard him described as "volatile" and "clearly insane." I think the key to understanding Jim in this series isn't that he's crazy--no one ever admits to being crazy (unless he has reason to do so)--the key is that he's so smart he's bored. That's why he does anything, from setting up vast criminal empires to constructing murderously elaborate puzzles: to entertain himself (it's why his voice keeps shifting wildly in pitch, tone and volume--he can't be bothered to speak the same way for an entire conversation, even an entire sentence). Jim obsesses over Sherlock not because the detective is his one worthy adversary in a world full of intellectual inferiors, but because the detective is his one consistently compelling amusement in a world full of middling fun. When villain finally bests hero (in Season 2's finale The Reichenbach Fall) he expresses not triumph but sad disappointment at the feat. 

In A Scandal in Belgravia it's suggested that Sherlock may not be completely immune to the charms of women; John on the other hand actively pursues them in one episode after another, in his charmingly bumbling, near-helpless manner (which for all I know women find irresistible). With The Empty Hearse we're introduced to Mary Morstan, John's regular girlfriend; by episode's end John has proposed to Morstan, leaving it to Sherlock to crack the case at hand and save the Parliament from a Guy Fawkes-style act of terrorism; the next episode Mary moves to front and center as lynchpin of the episode's plot, with Sherlock called on to act as Best Man and write and deliver a wedding speech--arguably his greatest challenge to date (at one point he calls upon Scotland Yard for help, and they witlessly respond with assault team and helicopter).

Oh, and something else happened between The Reichenbach Fall and The Empty Hearse: Holmes died. Leaped off the roof of a building and smashed his head on the pavement below. It was the second season's stunning cliffhanger, and we waited some two years to learn not if Holmes survive the drop--Reichenbach Fall's final image revealed his unsmashed self--but how. Episode's writer Gatiss grants us a few tantalizing clues--Sherlock's brother Mycroft (played by Gatiss) was involved, as was twenty-five of the Baker Street Irregulars (not the abovementioned group but Sherlock's cadre of homeless spies)--but otherwise we never really find out. Philip Anderson--a Holmes hater turned obsessed follower--points out the impossibility of keeping Watson properly positioned; later it's suggested that Anderson was really out of his mind at the time. Arguably the most spectacular mystery in the series, and the most we're offered is a fairly plausible solution, with gaping holes large enough for a  human body to fall through. 

Along the way there's been a slight but steady shift of priorities throughout the series, from a show all about mysteries to a show all about the people caught up in mysteries. Sherlock survives a fatal plunge, pretends to be dead for two years? Fine, moving on--focus instead on John's violently unyielding reaction to the subterfuge, and Sherlock's struggle to earn John's forgiveness, a in my book far funnier, more engaging--and more poignant--issue than any mere faked death. The Sign of Three is a sloppily written mystery, with an even sloppier solution (can you really not notice being stabbed from behind?), but it's also a comic masterpiece (my favorite moment being Sherlock standing up to deliver The Simultaneously Worst and Best Wedding Speech in History), and a master class in character formation. We come to know John, Sherlock, and Mary; we come to care for them deeply, be invested in their fledgling happiness.

This imbalance--plot over character initially, later shifting to character over plot--is I'd say corrected in the third season's finale, His Last Vow, with the introduction of Charles Augustus Magnussen (Lars Mikkelsen), a foe to rival Scott's Moriarty. Magnussen trades in information (call him Moffat's take on Rupert Murdoch), with his media empire and tendency to use unscrupulous means to learn a person's 'pressure points.' Unlike Moriarty Magnussen practices caution; he is useful even to Mycroft, and occasionally serves an important function to the world--is presumably careful to continue to act in that capacity. On a personal level Magnussen is a monster: he gets up close and personal, and is not averse to being intimate with his victims, either sexually or scatologically. He has designs on Sherlock and friends, and intends to use his fabled database called Appledore--a series of gigantic vaults hidden underneath his palatial home--to destroy the three.  

With The Sign of Three we see Sherlock, John and Mary forge a bond together; with His Last Vow we see those bonds bend and buckle under the stress of Magnussen. It's a thriller of an episode, no doubt of that--Sherlock penetrates Magnussen's office to try recover an incriminating piece of evidence--but it's also a revelatory one, as every twist of plot gives us key pieces of John's psychological profile (questions first put to our attention, as I've pointed out, as far back as A Study in Pink): why he's so devoted a friend to Sherlock, what actually attracted him to Mary in the first place. And as the tension escalates and the plot resolves itself it also resolves for us questions about the three respective characters: who cares for who, why, and how much--what price each are prepared to pay, in effect, for the guaranteed happiness of the other. 

And here we might pause to consider what Moffat the writer's really all about. He's clever--on the basis of this series alone we know that much. He has a tendency to not kill off main characters, or if he does, to somehow negate the permanency of their death, an oft-repeated criticism of his plotting (though someday I'd like to spend a whole separate article arguing why this is actually a more not less cruel tendency in him). He betrays himself to us as early as his 2000 series Coupling, where a series of friends partake in the eponymous verb both sexually and socially amongst each other (yes it recalls a US TV series, but I'd say it compares to Friends in terms of comic and imaginative writing the way Bandello's original sex comedy must have compared to Much Ado About Nothing)--you're reminded of John's romantic flings, and eventual settling down with Mary. Moffat probably also modeled the relationship between John and Mary and Sherlock after a similarly constructed trio in his initial seasons as Dr. Who showrunner (a pair romantically linked--'coupled' if you like--plus a third hovering close, like a third wheel/best friend/guardian-godfather). 

But perhaps the most revealing possible source/inspiration is Moffat's take on Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: the six-episode mini-series Jekyll. The writer has this irritating/fascinating tendency to reduce or sum up a character or complex situation into a single phrase or word (the Tenth Doctor: "The Man Who Regrets;" the Eleventh: "The Man Who Forgets;" Amy/Rory and The Doctor/River: "It's called marriage!"); or rather, he likes to pin a label on a person/complex situation that forces you to think about that person/situation in an entirely different way. One running gag/question that ran throughout the six episodes of Jekyll was: who or what was Hyde? By series end Moffat offered an answer: "Hyde is love." In that word and the implications of linking that word to Stevenson's famed monster we see Moffat's thoughts and attitudes towards this basic emotion, and hence his thoughts and attitudes towards John, Mary and Sherlock's cautiously constructed yet passionately maintained relationship.

It's a fine ninety minutes of television, so sleekly directed by Nick Hurran it's hard to think of as mere television. Entertaining, dramatic, funny, but also--in its own idiosyncratic, sociopathic way--poignant. Might be too much to call Sherlock the smartest series on television at the moment (I've been there before, with Breaking Bad), but somewhere along the way this series with the oversized brain and scintillating intellect has somehow grown a beating, swelling, full-blooded heart; not the worse thing in the world for a series could do. 

First published in Businessworld, 2.6.14 

Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Flowers of St. Francis (Roberto Rossellini, 1950)

Fool for love

(WARNING: story, plot twists, and ending of the film to be discussed in close detail)

Roberto Rossellini doing a film on Francis of Assisi is confronted with a formidable problem: how to adapt a book not just about a saint but one of the more extreme saints in the Catholic canon? How to present someone so obsessed with suffering, so selfless and sacrificing he seems not just improbable but out-and-out insane, not just demented but downright ridiculous in this skeptical, self-centered world?

Easy: you do it as a comedy. 

Friday, February 07, 2014

El Filibusterismo (Gerardo de Leon, 1962)

Thanks to Video 48 for the image

A dark masterpiece

El Filibusterismo (The Subversive) is one of two of Jose Rizal's major novels, Rizal being (to the Philippines anyway) a combination of Benjamin Franklin and Abraham Lincoln--a founding intellectual of the country as well as its single most beloved historical figure (which has its good and bad points...but that’s a whole other article right there). El Filibusterismo is to Philippine history what Les Miserables or Huckleberry Finn would be to…well, not completely true: Les Miserables and Huckleberry Finn are masterpieces of world literature, and not many would claim as much for El Fili (our fond nickname for the novel).

El Fili and its companion piece, Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not), did, however, inspire a nationalist movement, and the death of their author did inspire a nationwide revolt--one which ultimately led to what is generally considered the first-ever democratic republic in Asia. I doubt if Les Miz or Huck Finn could boast of as much direct influence in their respective countries’ histories, classic literary status notwithstanding.

But it’s not just the historical importance--emotionally and culturally the two novels are still very much alive to some 75 million or so Filipinos. It and Noli are required reading in high school; more, every other high school in the country is named after the author (not to mention every other street, drive or avenue--if not after Rizal, then after characters in his novels: Maria Clara Drive; Simoun Street; Dona Victorina Avenue…).

It’s unfortunate that Rizal was too spread out, too involved in concerns personal, political, commercial, and scientific to pour his considerable energies into making the novels more artful. Mind you, they are genuine novels, in the classic sense of the term--the characters develop over the course of the narrative, the prose (in the English or Filipino translations, anyway--have not read them in the original 19th-century Spanish) is florid but occasionally eloquent, and full of sharp, satirical observations. But they can't be considered groundbreaking or even outstanding examples of Victorian fiction--El Fili, for one, is obviously indebted to Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo without, unfortunately, inheriting that book's drive and genius for colorful detail (of course Rizal had other things in mind besides writing 'entertainment'). And Simoun may be a fascinatingly shadowy figure but pales in comparison to Dumas' Count, whose thirst for vengeance burned him deep into our collective consciousness.

This, I think, is where the film versions come in.

Officially there is no existing print left of El Fili. Rumor has it that one exists in some lab in Germany--but no further news has been heard since. I managed to catch the film on Viva Channel years ago, in what appears to be a poor video recording of a faded print, with almost none of the dialogue discernible (the cable channel no longer exists, and I have no idea what has happened to their copy). In a way, it was like watching a silent film adaptation of a literary classic.

And it works; the plot is complex, but all you need to know can be learned from the images onscreen. Proud white mestizos hover high and haughty over dark-complexioned indios; heroes Basilio, Isagani, Kabesang Tales--indios with rare courage and intelligence--defy civil and church authority. And behind all loom the shadowy figure of Simoun: jeweler, master manipulator, representative of all that is black and bitter within Rizal himself.

There are the interludes between Basilio and his beloved Juli, who meet by a tree on a high seaside cliff, a striking location composed of tree and cliff, sea and sky. But a pair of twisted crucifixes stand silent nearby, the graves of Juli's mother and sister, and add a note of foreboding to their courtship.

There is the subplot of a priest and a town official conspiring to rob Kabesang Tales, the farmer. When Tales finally picks up a rifle to pursue the two villains, De Leon shoots all three in extreme long shot, running like ants through a vast landscape--an image not unworthy of Erich Von Stroheim's Death Valley sequence in Greed.

Many of these sequences are not in the novel--Rizal mentions Basilio and Juli’s lovemaking only in passing, while the death of priest and politician is suggested by a pair of dead bodies found the morning after. By actually filming the events De Leon pushes Rizal’s political and social agenda into the background (where I for one would say it belongs), and brings to fore the characters' everyday struggles, their essential humanity.

Actually, Rizal had many intentions for his two novels--they were to serve as a panoramic assessment of Philippine society; a clarion call for reform; a scathing critique of the Filipino character as a whole. Ibarra/Simoun was meant to represent the fresh idealist turned soured revolutionary; Basilio was his younger, lower-class self; Padre Salvi, Dona Victorina, Cabesang Tales, Don Custodio and Ben Zayb represent various strata of Philippine society as it was then (and, in many ways, still is now). Cramming in all these characters with the full weight of their significance would have sunk the picture; De Leon, however, employs a  technique filmmaker John Huston often used in adapting literary classics--when faced with characters rich in symbolism and subtext he focused on incident, dialogue and detail, trusting the story as it unfolds to reveal the characters’ full meaning.

It’s a risky gamble--Huston’s flat adaptation of Under the Volcano, or overambitious staging of Moby Dick (sunk by the miscasting of harmless Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab) shows how this style of storytelling can go wrong. But De Leon is working with (admittedly) simpler material, and in the case of El Fili the technique works remarkably well. De Leon’s classical yet dynamic sense of composition--a sense that owes something to John Ford, Sergei Eisenstein, Akira Kurosawa--and clean storytelling style pares away much of the novel's dense underbrush, turning it into the intense drama of vengeance it always wanted to be.

Then there's De Leon’s conception of Simoun the jeweler, “The Brown Cardinal”--tall and silent, wearing dark cloaks and even darker spectacles. Simoun is the Gothic figure Francis Coppola probably wanted from Gary Oldman in Dracula but failed to get (perhaps because Coppola surrounded Oldman with so much extraneous silliness). De Leon keeps it simple, and his Simoun is truly menacing--rarely speaking or smiling, always standing in one corner of a shot, always peering at unfolding events like an artist examining his handiwork, or a spider its prey. In one wonderful scene Simoun leans back on a rocking chair and addresses a row of three bandits--with his body in a pose of total languor, his eyes masked by mysterious spectacles, he nevertheless dominates the three before him.

Which is metaphorically apt; Simoun, after all, is the figure behind all the machinations that drive El Fili--its heart of darkness, so to speak. Where in Noli Rizal, hoping for reform, wrote to expose the cancer eating away at Philippine colonial society, his message in El Fili is different: that the failure of reform may lead to violent revolution. He needed a hero diametrically opposed to the naïve Crisostomo Ibarra (played by the earnest Eddie del Mar) in Noli, and practicing both the principle of economic means and the principle of narrative symmetry, turned Ibarra into Simoun.

Pancho Magallona who plays Simoun gives what I consider to be one of the greatest performances in Philippine cinema. No Gregory Peck he, every moment he’s onscreen he radiates a sense of malevolent forces kept in careful check. Yet good as he is with his glasses on, with his glasses off (the rare moment recalling some awful memory, or undergoing some pang of conscience) he's even better, the eyes warm, sad, full of pain. Suddenly the monster that dominates much of the film acquires a human face and heart; suddenly, De Leon complicates the texture of Rizal’s story of revenge with the possibility of redemption--the forlorn hope that Simoun, despite his hatred, despite all the evil he has done, could somehow be turned around and saved.

One complaint I might lodge against El Fili--you don't really see De Leon cut loose here, not the way he does in the earlier Noli, when Elias runs across a phantasmagoric landscape while members of his dead family berate him for his failures. You don't see the De Leon of Sanda Wong with its hauntingly beautiful drowning scene, or endless rain of pythons summoned by a magic ring. You don’t see the De Leon of The Moises Padilla Story with its painfully extended torture sequence that visually parallels the crucifixion and death of Christ.

What you do see is an amazingly sustained piece of cinematic storytelling from one of the best filmmakers in Philippine cinema, translating to the big screen one of the most important novels in Philippine history--and, a rarity in literary adaptations, doing it well.

Though I hear Daigdig ng mga Api (The World of the Oppressed) is De Leon’s true masterpiece (the film’s prints and negatives are, tragically, lost), this one reportedly comes close. Easily the best De Leon I’ve seen to date and one of the greatest Filipino films ever made.

First published in Menzone Magazine, a Businessworld publication, May 2001

Thursday, February 06, 2014

The Stunt Man (Richard Rush, 1980) - belated tribute to Peter O'Toole (1932 - 2013)

The God complex 

(a belated tribute to Peter O'Toole (1932 - 2013))

On the passing of Peter O'Toole last December 14, I had hoped to talk of one of his many memorable performances in many a memorable film, but couldn't bring myself to write about My Favorite Year (fan of his performance, not the film), or The Lion in Winter (fan of neither performance nor film), or perhaps his best-known role, in Lawrence of Arabia (fan of both performance and film, but but but).

So I picked The Stunt Man.

Richard Rush picked up Paul Brodeur's novel--about a fugitive who evades capture by posing as a stunt man during a film shoot--back in 1971; decided it was a fascinating metaphor for his own life as a filmmaker; took seven years independently raising the money and shooting the film; took another two years to find a studio willing to distribute this bizarre action / comedy / love story / movie about a movie / deft metaphysical dissertation on the nature of reality.

As for the finished picture: Rush basically picked out the theme of reality and fantasy gradually becoming indistinguishable from Brodeur's densely literate (and to be honest barely readable) novel, injected his own knowledge of both low-budget independent and studio-financed film production, and (taking his cue from a book he had attempted but failed to adapt early in the decade: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) redrew the characters, from cartoon grotesques capering in a bizarro world to fairly recognizable (if eccentric) human beings negotiating the phenomenologically slippery world of filmmaking.

Of course the appropriately surnamed Rush tells it all in his own unique headlong style--not so much the shaky-cam, chop-suey editing of today's action pictures (which leave us behind right at the starting gate, scratching our heads at the incomprehensibility), but with the disreputable urgency and speed of the biker flicks, racing pictures, acid-trip features, and cop movies he cut his teeth on early in his career.

Take an early scene on the bridge. Cameron (Steve Railsback, who Rush discovered playing Charles Manson in the TV movie Helter Skelter) boards an elegant old Duesenberg--and is immediately kicked out by the driver. Cut to a rear shot of the car taking off, door slamming shut just above stunned would-be hitchhiker's head; cut to a pan of the vehicle violently careening (quick inserted close-up the car's monstrous rear end screeching to a halt only inches from the viewer); cut to a repeat shot of Cameron on the bridge before the Duesenberg, only this time the car's roaring directly down at him--he reaches for a nearby steel bolt, hurls it at the windshield, rolls; the behemoth bellows, its roar reverberating into nothing; Cameron stands and (here you see Rush's unique touch) the Duesenberg has vanished from the bridge. 

Rush would stage one action sequence after another thusly, as series of intricately linked stunts unreeling with little explanation or apology, topped with a generous dollop of impossible. Some critics complain that this is hardly how a film is shot, but 1) it is the way action (if properly done) is perceived by the audience, 2) and (I submit) how Hollywood might present the making of an action flick, the drawn-out reality being too humdrum to warrant attention. Rush wants you to feel the connectedness of the scenes, the intensity of the experience, wants to keep you aware of all the people furiously at work maintaining the wildly arbitrary blend of real filmmaking and a filmgoer's naive notions of what filmmaking is like. Rush in effect is asking you to take his hand and vault past the insane inconsistencies, the pretentious intellectual baggage, the freakish fusion of art film and genre flick--an admittedly terrifying leap of faith--to a state of conditional belief where, yes, maybe films do feel this way at (or near) the moment of creation, at least when the daily rushes have been roughly assembled in the screening room and not all the moments when the camera accidentally catches offscreen action have been edited out. 

And in the end what does the filmmaker say? That the act of filmmaking and its effect on the psyche represents any number of things, from an inability to trust one's beloved to an inability to trust one's fellow man (to the point of global conflict) to an inability to trust reality itself. If anything Rush's own experiences prove the veracity of his theme: he suffered not one but two heart attacks due to the stress of attempting to finish and release this film (the whole not uninteresting story--in yet another metaphysical twist of plot--transformed into yet another film, the companion documentary The Sinister Saga of Making The Stunt Man).

Railsback's eponymous stunt worker is the ostensible protagonist, but no one's really fooled--the film's true center, around which everyone revolves like planets round their ruling star, is director Eli Cross, and as played by Peter O'Toole he's not just God Almighty on the film set but the Devil Incarnate to boot.

Cross' entrance is godlike enough--we don't see him at first, just hear his voice (in the chopper), see his hand chuck a bitten apple out the window; later we glimpse him from a distance (through the chopper window) and the camera cuts back to reveal a familiar behind him: a man with a movie camera. The entrance proper is a low-angle shot watching patiently as the chopper descends from the sky and Cross climbs out, looking massive, monumental; cut to a medium shot of him walking, his gait disconcertingly heavy--you sense a habitually graceful stride that today is somehow off-kilter, as he delivers the bad news of Burt's (the stunt man Cameron replaces) untimely death.

What's so intriguing about O'Toole's movements (based partly or so he says on the present film's director, partly on the most impressive filmmaker he has ever known, David Lean) is that they suggest not just power (as everything leading up to his entrance would imply) but power enveloped by an elegance, or an ennui--a laziness almost (once he climbs out of the chopper he almost immediately rests his head on crossed arms). He's forever lounging about, leaning against backrests and doorways and posts; if he raises an arm it's to gesture briefly then drop, like a freshly severed limb. Oh, he has many moments of wit and, on occasion, energy (near film's end while walking briskly towards his beloved chopper he does a sudden about-face that's a pleasure not just to watch but rewind), but for the most part he radiates not enthusiasm but exhaustion--specifically, exhaustion as consequence of an interminable struggle. He moves as if he were a strongman bearing a near-unsupportable burden and wearied of the load--is presently conserving strength for some unforeseen crisis, or for the long haul. Without having directed a feature in his life O'Toole manages to convey the toll on a filmmaker's strength; he manages to explain (without once explicitly doing so) the reason why filmmaking is considered one of the most stressful of occupations, having killed some early (Jean Vigo, Rainier Werner Fassbinder), driven others to obesity (Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles) and yet others to longtime retirement (Richard Lester, Stanley Donen).

The performance is in direct contradiction to the flow of the film itself, but O'Toole probably realized that the best way for a man to stand out is to point him against the general momentum. It's an interesting way of representing authority--you don't give a damn which way the narrative is headed; you have other worries.

This sense of reserve adds to the mystery, and one can't help but ask: is Cross a humanitarian? A megalomaniac? Some variation of either or combination of both? As Railsback's Cameron puts it (flashing his Charles Manson eyes): "can't take my eyes off the sonofabitch!"

Cross is no rounded character with a dramatic arc the way Cameron is, but that doesn't matter--he's the director. He shouldn't have to work so hard at establishing his presence, he doesn't work so hard, and still you can't take your eyes off the sonofabitch. 

Perhaps the closest equivalent to the character--and yet another possible source for O'Toole's performance--is John Huston's Noah Cross in Roman Polanski's Chinatown (what's with all these powerful mystery men surnamed 'Cross?'). Like Eli, Noah is an authority figure; like Eli, Noah harbors secrets. Robert Towne's script for Chinatown skillfully pins its protagonist (private investigator Jake Gittes, played by Jack Nicholson) front and center, whereas Railsback's stunt man for all his intensity and physical eloquence tends to recede into the background, overshadowed by Cross' comic, metaphoric, visual incandescence. 

Partly I'd say it's the narrative design--Cameron is meant to be in hiding, after all; partly it's because Railsback doesn't have the charm or likeability of either Nicholson or O'Toole (though he does have a poignant chemistry with his leading lady Nina, played with unguarded ardor by Barbara Hershey). Partly I suspect it was Rush's secret intent all along to transfix Cross as the film's true center--or at least its most fascinatingly diabolical, maybe transcendental, character (take your pick). 

A final observation: film critic Pauline Kael in an otherwise admiring review took the film to task for pulling back on its dark vision of mistrust, revealing Cross as being essentially benign (he only wants to cheat Cameron of some three hundred and fifty dollars in stunt fees). Not sure I agree--the amateur excruciator will interrogate his client nonstop to exhaustion, sometimes death; a professional allows his client to recover, so they can begin again. I see Cross as a professional, is all, to the point that he keeps even his role in the proceedings ambiguous. Is he or isn't he? You'll never truly find out from him, and that uncertainty is itself excruciating. 

(First published in Businessworld, 1.30.14)

Monday, February 03, 2014

Manila in the Claws of Neon (Lino Brocka, 1975)

Photo thanks to Video 48
With the film's digital restoration and premiere at the Cannes Festival, and subsequent Feb. 9 Saturday at 8 pm screening in New York City's MoMA, a reprint of my thoughts (pre-restoration) on the film:

Maynila at the edge of greatness

(Warning: plot discussed in close detail)

Lino Brocka is the best Filipino filmmaker ever; his masterpiece, Maynila sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Neon, 1975) the greatest Filipino film ever made.

That was the consensus arrived at some time after Maynila first came out, and the idea has persisted ever since. Has, in fact, been given greater legitimacy with a top spot in the Urian's list of the ten best Filipino films in the past thrty years, and by inclusion in the book Film: the Critic's Choices--a list of what some critics consider the 150 greatest films ever made.

That's what they say. What about us--you, me, the mere mortals? What do we think?

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Capote (Bennett Miller, 2005) in tribute to Philip Seymour Hoffman (1967 - 2014)

In tribute to Philip Seymour Hoffman, a reprint of an old article:

Little boy blue

Capote--about Truman Capote's five-year quest to write a book on the killing of a Kansas family, the friendship he develops with one of the killers, and the consequences of that friendship--is terrific, and beyond what I would have imagined director Bennett Miller was capable of. His previous feature The Cruise was a documentary about an eccentric New York tour guide, and other than the fact that both films train a largely unwavering eye on two loquacious urbanites--one openly gay, one not so open (the tour guide in The Cruise maintains that he's straight)--it's hard to believe they were the product of a single filmmaker.

The subject and glory of the film, of course, is Philip Seymour Hoffman's Capote. He gets most of the mannerisms down pat--the baby whisper, the fluttering hands--and even manages to make himself look smaller than his usual bulky self, but that's just the basics of the performance; beyond the nuts and bolts, he builds a portrait of a man who'll do anything--charm, bribe, lie, even tell uncomfortable truths about himself--to get the information he needs to write the book that will guarantee him literary immortality. This interpretation of Capote owes much to Dan Futterman's screenplay, I think (based on the biography by Gerald Clarke), and Hoffman runs with it--no mean feat, considering that much of the details are suggested rather than stated, and conveyed by the sequence of events rather than semaphored via one character's privileged speech, the way they are in most biopics.

Beyond Hoffman, the rest of the cast is terrific. Catherine Keener is a warm (if underwritten) Harper Lee, playing Capote's Girl Friday and liaison with the townsfolk, overall suggesting the kind of compassionately levelheaded woman that might write a novel like To Kill a Mockingbird; Chris Cooper's Officer Dewey is exactly the kind of suspicious, stolid citizen you might meet in a small town; Bruce Greenwood is modestly low-key as Jack Dunphy, Capote's longtime companion; Mark Pellegrino is chillingly cynical and crude as Dick Hickok, one of the two killers. Only Bob Balaban's William Shawn, the famous New Yorker editor who serialized the novel in his magazine, seems off--from what I've heard, he's a lot more quiet and shy in real life.

Clifton Collins, Jr., as Perry Smith (the other killer) doesn't have Robert Blake's chilling eyes in Richard Brook's 1967 film version of Capote's In Cold Blood, he does however, complement Hoffman's seductive candor with his own blend of sensitivity and neediness.

Perry and Capote's relationship is the focus of the film, of course; I'd call this a less romanticized version of Brokeback Mountain, where two men form a bond (experience friendship, perhaps even love), meeting occasionally over several years, and one of them--true to his character--proceeds to exploit said bond to his advantage. Capote sees something in common with Perry, in that they were two sensitive souls who had been neglected as children; he also perhaps sees in Perry's psychopathic capacity to kill a reflection of his own ruthlessness with regards to other people. Perry in turn responds to Capote's attention hungrily, sensing someone who for once might actually understand his situation (it never occurs to him to wonder how Capote might use that understanding). As Perry's legal fortunes wax and wane, the relationship accordingly blows hot and cold, and it's fascinating to see how this affects Capote, to see how Hoffman suggests his inner conflict: his Capote complains about the difficulties of writing the novel, about his various aches and pains (he was famously never fond of keeping his thoughts and feelings to himself), about everything in the world except what's really weighing down on his soul--the fact that while Hickock and Smith are still alive, his novel has no ending.

It's interesting to re-watch Brooks' film adaptation, aware all the time of an invisible presence walking through the corridors of the Clutter house and sitting in the jail cell beside Perry, aware that Capote had as much a role in determining the fate of the killers as anyone else around them but never once mentioning himself. Probably idle speculation on my part, but was this part of his strategy in writing the novel, that he thought it would go over better if he didn't insert himself (much less admit to what he did?)? Was it some kind of penalty he imposed on himself, a kind of self-erasure (or self-denial), in response to the guilt he felt for Perry?

The film has its minor flaws as mentioned, and one major--like Clarke's biography, it largely accepts at face value Capote's claims to have invented a genre, the "nonfiction novel" (actually there was John Hersey's 1946 Hiroshima and Luis Perez's 1947 El Coyote: the Rebel), and of the book's literary stature (Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song, for example, while heavily influenced by Capote's novel, at the same time improves on it by including the kind of critical self-awareness that Capote avoided). Like Spielberg's Munich, Bennett's film relies too much on the accuracy of a single source (George Jonas' Vengeance, in Spielberg's case).

That said, it's an astonishingly assured debut fiction feature for Miller, a career-making performance for Hoffman as Capote, and one of the best mainstream (or near-mainstream) films to come out in 2005.

An odd final note (please skip this paragraph if you plan to see the film): Miller seems acutely aware of the physical act of breathing in much of the film. Early on we hear Capote huffing and puffing, suggesting that in the ordinary course of life he has to struggle (thanks, I suppose, to his alcoholism and health problems) to keep up; at their execution we hear the far healthier Smith gasping desperately, as if trying to store up enough air for the time when he knows it will be totally cut off. When Smith drops--a startling moment--Capote finishes the convict's interrupted breath for him by exhaling a long stream of air. It's a sigh of relief and a sigh of sympathy--Capote's breathing because he can and Smith can't, and the film suggests that that's a difference he'll carry with him for the rest of his life.

(First published in Businessworld, 3/3/06)