Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Open Set

When discussing Jerry Lewis’s The Ladies Man, you almost have to get the dollhouse set out of the way before getting to anything else. It is quite a sight, both for its expanse - it took up two stages of the Paramount lot, and it shows - and its versatility. The film is about a recent college grad who, in an effort to get over the girl who broke his heart, swears off women forever, a pronouncement instantly challenged by his first job - handyman and caretaker at a women’s boarding house. Every wall in the house seems movable, as the action moves from space to space, an effect that at once gives us the opportunity to explore while challenging our sense of spatial relation in a way Kubrick would nearly twenty years later in The Shining.


After a gorgeous sequence panning around the house, loosely introducing us to the cast of girls as they wake up, we finally get to see the complete set in this wide shot:


Lewis seems to at once use this shot as a point of pride - “look at what we built!” - and a method of constraint - “That’s all there is!” The entire rest of the film will play out in this seemingly-sealed world.

But Lewis isn’t exactly one to play by the rules. Just because he’s established a space doesn’t mean he can’t challenge himself. Most of the action is comprised of a series of sketches jumping off from the basic outline (though, thankfully, the sexual repression angle is more an undercurrent than a constant motivator). The longest of these involves a television program visiting the house and interviewing its owner, former opera star Helen Welenmelon (singer Helen Traubel). Once the TV cameras move in, the set (or at least our conception of it) expands, past the point of “reality,” showing the point at which the hardwood floor ends and the actual Paramount sound stage ends.


In a more aesthetics-based sense, this explosion of the film’s boundaries makes it perfectly natural to get to the scene’s most surreal portion, when Lewis enters the room from which he has been forbidden, only to find a mysterious world full of big band musicians, oddly-dressed dancers, and a flying wall that reveals a terrace looking out into the sky.

Now, Lewis was never one for trying to use the cinema to merely document a representation of what already exists, so this acknowledgement of the pure artifice of his films is hardly uncharacteristic. Rather, this precise method of doing so points to his larger working ethos. When I saw Lewis speak in a two-hour conversation at Cinefamily in early 2013, Executive Director Hadrian Belove pulled out a sign bearing a caricature of Lewis that read, “This is not a closed set. Come on in, you are most welcome.” Lewis seemed surprised to see the sign, and explained that he never understood all the restrictions surrounding movie sets, insisting that he would benefit from having a crowd to play to. With this one simple shot in The Ladies Man, Lewis almost literally breaks down the fourth wall, inviting the audience in to see how movies are made.

If you want to see a possible instance of this at play, look to the scene in which frequent Lewis player Kathleen Freeman feeds Lewis baby food (it starts around the 1:19 mark in this video).


Throughout the bit, Lewis seems to indicate to a presence just off stage right, looking at them, breaking ever so slightly, and even yelling at them at one point, “This woman is out of her mind!” The whole scene consists of a shot of just the two of them playing off a simple premise, much in the way Lewis would have performed live comedy as he was coming up as an entertainer. A live audience fuels this sort of stuff, letting the actors know which buttons to keep pushing, how long to pause, and how to keep the laughter rolling. The result works as perfectly for the film's audience as it would for those present, never seeming tired or over-rehearsed, nor underdeveloped, all too often a presence in comedy filmmaking. It helps keep the overdetermined sets and camerawork fresh, lived-in, and spontaneous.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Animal Resnais

The first frame here caught my eye upon watching, for the first time, the first half of Alain Resnais's two-part Smoking/No Smoking earlier this week, and spurred on a general reflection of the many times Resnais has merged people with animals, using the transformation to reach a higher truth, be it emotional, intellectual, or spiritual. These are the instances I recalled - any I missed?






[From top to bottom: Smoking (first half of Smoking/No Smoking, 1993); Je t'aime, je t'aime (1968); Mon oncle d'Amerique (1980); I Want to Go Home (1989); Wild Grass (2009)]

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Resnais x 3

Especially with the current revival of his beautiful Je T'Aime, Je T'Aime (currently playing here in Los Angeles at Cinefamily, via a gorgeous new 35mm print), and the recent premiere of his latest (and last) film, Life of Riley, I've had Alain Resnais on the mind even more than usual as of late. Suffice to say he was one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived, a man whose work has completely absorbed and transformed me. His death, reported today, is a monumental loss. Few filmmakers - hell, few people - remain so vital so late in life.

Among other things, the man knew how to film two people walking away together, towards a future both rapturous and grim (see also Love Unto Death, the finale of which relates while also challenging this pattern).




From top to bottom: Last Year at Marienbad (1961); You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet (2012); Wild Grass (2009)

Friday, February 7, 2014

The Pretty One


I must say, I was faintly surprised to find that, in addition to starring in The Pretty One, Zoe Kazan did not contribute to the screenplay, so marked it is by the same wishy-washy sensibility that dragged the premise of her 2012 feature Ruby Sparks down from the mountain of its spectacularly dark premise (a writer's fictional creation, the embodiment of everything he wants in a woman, suddenly comes to life) and into the valley of forceful reassurance and tonally deaf endings. LaMarque's film, her first feature, also has one hell of a premise (though familiar to those who saw, or at least saw ads for, the Sarah Michelle Gellar TV show Ringer) - following a deadly car accident, Laurel assumes the identity of her more-successful-and-popular twin sister Audrey (both played, skillfully, by Zoe Kazan).
At first, Laurel is merely mistaken for Audrey, but once she recovers her own memories, she can't help but continue the charade (fantasy?). After all, Audrey lives in her own spectacular apartment, while Laurel has remained at home, caring for her father, since their mother passed; Audrey has a successful career as a real estate agent, while Laurel helps their father create forgeries of famous paintings to sell to collectors (get it, because copies); Audrey has been immensely successful with men, while Laurel only just lost her virginity to a high school boy she used to babysit. And worse, she's far more into he than vice-versa. Moreover, assuming Audrey's identity becomes a way for her to still feel connected to her sister. There's plenty that LaMarque and Kazan suggest about the grieving process that is, or at least could be, incredibly rich material for a film.
Unfortunately, LaMarque sticks instead with letting the entire dramatic tension hinge on whether or not Laurel will eventually reveal who she is, and when that's your dramatic premise, she can't just not say anything. The film is so eager to please and reassure its audience that by the time the chips are down, not a word is left unsaid. The rest of the film becomes a series of declarative statements, some of which are fairly affecting (John Carroll Lynch is especially good as her father), many of which are just way too desperate to appear vulnerable that they feel false an manufactured. Kazan hits some very spectacular notes early on, but there's something about LaMarque's compositions (sometimes wide, sometimes shoving her subject into a corner of the frame) that distances us from the immediacy of the emotion without offering an intellectual consideration to embolden it. It seems at once somewhat reaching to be haunting and dreamlike but also super-likable. The cast comes close to grasping that goal, but the confused direction and tame screenplay keep it forever bound to mediocrity.
It doesn't help that it exists in one of those worlds in which no one has an actual job that they actually have to report to five (or even two) actual days each week, yet never seem to struggle or have to make compromises in their made-up careers. It's great that Laurel's father can just fake paintings all day, so successfully that he doesn't even have to sell any of Laurel's shortcoming efforts, or that Laurel's new boyfriend (Jake Johnson) sells used books from his house, but they're more excuses than explanations for how they can just do whatever they want, whenever they want. This is one of those sort of stock complaints about the cinema in general (Roger Ebert wrote, of Billy Wilder's 1960 classic, "In many movies, the characters hardly even seem to have jobs, but in The Apartment they have to be reminded that they have anything else), but seems exacerbated here by the simple fact that so little seems to truly affect these people in a permanent way (even the grieving process is more alluded to than invested in), at least give them a stressful job or something.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Her Limitations


I've been thinking a lot about Her over the past week or so. I've only seen it once, at the end of November, and I liked it a lot, but something kept me from embracing it entirely. As I started to put my top ten list together, I knew I'd be considering it, but as soon as I prioritized other films, I quickly let it slip and kind of put it out of my mind. And now it's come rushing back, and, unlike what usually happens when I turn over films of which I am quite fond again and again, it has diminished somewhat in my estimation (mind, it's a very fine film, just not a great one), and I think I've figured out why.

Beyond Joaquin Phoenix's involvement, I thought a lot about The Master, my favorite film of last year. Both films are in some way about loneliness, about desiring to make meaningful connections at a time in one's life when such a thing seems very difficult, if not impossible. They're both very melancholic, very sad, sometimes elusive. But where Her falters for me is in speaking directly to it, in getting very plotty with its dissection of loneliness and isolation. Theodore (Phoenix) will directly state everything that's wrong with him. His ex-wife (Rooney Mara) will point out that he's always wanted a relationship that he can control entirely, so dating a computer is all too perfect for him. In response, Theodore will begin to doubt the legitimacy of his emotions. It's the kind of very connective, A happens, then B happens, so thus C happens, tissue that works well in a more dramatically-motivated structure (crime films and romantic comedies, especially), but feels out of place in something that's so concerned with feelings we have a hard time classifying or understanding, which, at its best, is Her's primary concern.

The main reason I've come to value Paul Thomas Anderson so much is his willingness to go with an absolute gut instinct, and run all the way with it without stopping, no matter how weird or seemingly out-of-place the moment may seem on paper, and still manage to make it cohere emotionally. Her is dealing with a very unusual relationship, but plays it quite safe in its plotting, too timid to strike a note that may seem discordant, yet still resonate (the surrogate scene comes very close, but take the easy way out). It can't chase a feeling on an uncharted path, moving resolutely instead towards its inevitable (yet still quite affecting) conclusion, and thus it cannot truly represent the experience of the emotions it's exploring. Loneliness and frustration and jealousy do not follow straightforward trajectories; the films that represent them best will be wild, unpredictable, deeply uncomfortable, often hurtful, and outlandishly daring.

Friday, January 10, 2014

The Top Ten Films of 2013


I always like to say, first of all, that there's no such thing as a bad year for film, and I mean it. I saw 150 new-release films last year; there were a lot of bad ones, but when I started to assemble this list, I was once again struck by just how many were really quite good. This was a year in which many a director really went all-out, aimed for something truly grand, and hit varying degrees of success along the way. That there were people willing to finance and/or distribute films like TwixtPassionThe CanyonsThe Wolf of Wall StreetThe Bling RingSpring BreakersStokerThe Act of KillingA Touch of SinBlancanievesBeyond the Hillsand Leviathan is nothing short of astounding, even if none of them made the list below. Add to that Upstream Color, which its filmmaker distributed himself, and more perhaps normative, but still exceptional, films like Frances HaNobody's Daughter HaewonThe Place Beyond the PinesWhite House DownFurious 6Captain PhillipsAbout Time, and Before Midnight, and it's hard to really complain at all. That said, in all fairness, I should note that my pick for the year's best film, one I find absolutely wonderful, singular, vital, and so deeply moving, would have only barely cracked my top five in 2011. That isn't to diminish this year's achievements - as you can already gather, they were considerable - just to place it all in context.
And so, onward we go.

10. Star Trek Into Darkness
You know, I’m not big on the idea that the best movies are the ones you want to pop in on a rainy day and watch over and over again, but I certainly understand the mindset, and do think there’s quite a lot of merit to those films that spark such interest and passion. And so we have Star Trek Into Darkness, a film I was amazed to love so much (I am not a big Trek guy, but have an operational understanding of, and occasional appreciation for, its most popular incarnations) that I saw three times in theaters and now own, very happily, on Blu-ray. J.J. Abrams has built, as he did with Mission: Impossible III, a freaking machine, moving briskly from conflict to conflict, doing away with all the squabbling that made the first film so relentlessly dull and sticking us instead with a group of people who are very good at what they do, genuinely respect and like one another, but have different ideas on how their collective job should be done. The aesthetics of the conversations - the vocal patterns, physical stances, quickly-dispelled dialogue - are as rousing as they are reliable (never mind more traditional aesthetic pleasures - Dan Mindel’s genuinely anamorphic, boldly-lit celluloid images are breathtaking). That it also has the two best action set pieces (the ship-to-ship space jump and the Enterprise falling) I’ve seen all summer, and probably in many years, is no small bonus.
There is the matter of the plot, which is, it must be said, kind of a chore, but even as it simply, repeatedly rips off the beats and often direct actions of an earlier beloved entry in the Star Trek franchise, doing so actually has the (probably accidental) effect of justifying the absurd decision they made in the last film to make this universe a parallel timeline to that which we are most accustomed. By regurgitating so much of The Wrath of KhanStar Trek Into Darkness suggests that all of this was fated to happen in various configurations, and there’s only so much one can do to change the course of history, which, for a reboot said to be dreadfully low on such things, is a pretty Trekkian concern. (Available on DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Instant, iTunes, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube, and Redbox Instant)

9. 12 Years a Slave
This is not a film about slavery. Granted, it takes the system as its subject, but what makes the film so powerful is the way in which director Steve McQueen and writer John Ridley use it as a means of exploring the very idea of institutional evil, the way it can develop and, more damningly, the way it can flourish. They take for granted that you know that slavery was a bad thing, that the people who profited from it were bad people, and then show the kind of delusion required for someone to convince themselves that they are in the right. For some it’s religion, others the law, others a sense of power, and many simply the supposed morality of the free market - it’s good because it works. Those are themes not at all bound only to 19th century America. They then go a step further and show the complicity required not only of the profiteers, but of all of us, in order for such an evil system to thrive; no, this is not only a story of one man’s suffering, but how we all, constantly, every day, then and now, tacitly allow these things to happen for any number of reasons. Maybe because the problems seem too vast, or too entrenched. We’ve grown up with them, so they must be a fact of existence. Maybe we have turned away from them so much that they hardly seem like problems at all. Maybe the punishment for opposing it would be too great. Or maybe we simply avoid them for fear that the total acknowledgement of how much suffering results from the systems that bring us life’s most essential ingredients - food, clothing, shelter - seems almost too much to bear, or even comprehend, and we cope with them for our basic sanity.
That’s what 12 Years a Slave is about - being forced to look at something so bizarre and inhuman and awful from which we, as so many characters (including its protagonist - the flashback to him in the shop isn't there merely to establish the shopkeeper) do throughout the film, so often turn away. (Currently in theaters)

8. Trance
As films about the desire to uncover something horrible buried in oneself goes, I understand why many value Shane Carruth’s spectacular Upstream Color more, but for me, Danny Boyle’s truly nasty, lurid thriller resonates much more palpably, in no small part for refocusing that horror as a true part of the protagonist, and not something foisted upon him. Simon (James McAvoy) is an art auctioneer who teamed with a gang of thieves, lead by Vincent Cassel’s Franck, to steal an incredibly valuable painting; when a whack on the head renders Simon unable to recall where he stashed the damn thing, he goes to a hypnotist (played, hauntingly, by Rosario Dawson) to try to recover the memory, and thus the painting. And that’s just the surface of how truly ludicrous and silly the plot is. As one might guess from my set-up, however, she and Simon uncover a great deal more than that, about each other and about a very real, honest desire we all have to forget our worst traits and actions, and the horror that comes about in being forced to face them. Boyle layers the film with the ache of memory, familiarity, sub- or unconscious passion, with so many frames (Anthony Dod Mantle’s cinematography is extraordinary) echoing elements palpable and yet unnameable. (Available on DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Instant, iTunes, Google Play, Vudu, and YouTube)

7. Museum Hours
My high school drama teacher used to say that there were really only basically two stories - boy meets girl, and new guy comes to town. I don't agree, but it’s still interesting to consider just how many stories more or less fall into these two fields. Museum Hours has both, but not with the usual connotations. Johann (Bobby Sommer), a security guard at Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Art Museum, befriends Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara), a visiting Canadian, but they’re hardly on the path to romance. Moreover, she’s not in town on pleasure or to escape her sordid past or whatever; she was the only family member available to visit her cousin, whose illness has sent her into a coma, and they were never terribly close. Jem Cohen crafts an air of melancholy, yes, and the emotional effect of the film is considerable, but it’s the way he interweaves very personal conflict and intimate relationships with the museum’s art that really makes this an exceptional work. By showing so much of the painting so prominently and intercutting it with Johann and Anne’s trips around the city, along with a museum guide or two along the way to explicate the innumerable approaches and interpretations of the original art, we begin to pick up on the connections this art, hundreds of years old, has to our contemporary lives, and how little separation there is not only between classical art and our everyday experiences, but by extension, our lives and those who lived hundreds of years ago. We are all part of the same continuum; their art expresses something of us as much as it did theirs. It may not be a gigantic revelation to those who think about artistic expression on a regular basis, but Cohen has found a very emotional, personal way to express it that lifts the supposition out of its academic nature and into the streets, as it were; to our economic hardships, our losses, our joy, our momentary elation and our everlasting satisfaction and despair. (Available on DVD, Blu-ray, iTunes, and Vudu)


6. To the Wonder
Describing this as a “minor” film by Terrence Malick is both informative and revelatory, in that it is not perhaps as fully-formed an idea or piece as his previous films, and yet is so staggering and wholly felt that it just goes to show how gifted an artist he truly is. Forty years after his debut film, Malick has found a team of collaborators that allows him to use the cinema as another type of artist might sketch, expressing the urgency of certain feelings that would be stifled under further refinement. His familiar traits are present as always, bringing out the beauty and grace in the most everyday and ordinary (a laundromat, a drive-thru), never mind those things theoretically earthbound but quite actually fantastical (the breathtaking Mont Saint-Michel). But he hasn’t dwelled with such specificity on this film’s inner themes, of the way people pull intensely together only to almost unconsciously drift apart, since 1978’s Days of Heaven, but whereas that broken relationship came from poverty and greed, this comes merely from incompatibility and an inner, unquenchable desire and yearning. Malick directs his cast not to any sense of realism, but to using their bodies as means of expression, so that every element is truly felt rather than said. (Available on DVD, Blu-ray, Netflix Instant, iTunes, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube, and Amazon Instant)

5. Enough Said
If there are two cinematic mainstays from which I have come to expect very little in this day and age, it’s the romantic comedy and the mid-level, character-based, quasi-indie “dramedy.” That Nicole Holofcener could combine the two and create something so potent as this seems nothing shy of a miracle. Or at least a massive creative accomplishment. Taking a premise as built for screwball as any - middle-aged divorcee (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), finds out that the man she’s dating (James Gandolfini) is actually the ex-husband about whom her new close friend (Catherine Keener) has been complaining for weeks on end - and downplaying it at every turn, Holofcener has built a film that speaks to the way we protect ourselves in romantic endeavors, all within the form of a frequently hilarious, densely-but-not-suffocatingly-structured 90-minute comedy. Louis-Dreyfus and Gandolfini are in peak form, doing all the complex work that it takes to just play regular people, with all their foibles and faults, none of which diminish their humanity, or, if you like, “likability,” but rather enhance it tenfold. It’s been years since a film carried itself so well by just giving us two characters worth caring about. And getting quite a few laughs along the way, at that. Louis-Dreyfus’s expression of confused disgust at herself when she says “Yeah, I got real boobs” on their first date will forever make me laugh. (Available on Amazon Instant, iTunes, Google Play, and Vudu; on DVD and Blu-ray January 13th)

4. The Strange Little Cat
One small apartment. A seemingly-ever-expanding family gathering for a meal. A number of small machines on the fritz. And a cat perhaps not as odd or diminutive as the title would suggest. Ramon Zürcher’s debut film combines all of these, with healthy doses of Jacques Tati, Robert Bresson, and Alain Resnais for good measure, yet emerges the most singular and undefinable cinematic experience experience I’ve had all year, one so enrapturing I restarted it the moment the credits had finished (its 65-minute running time was certainly complicit in this instinct). I can guess at its themes, if it has any, but I’d rather not. I’d rather just mention that nothing else this year provided such sheer delight. Zürcher, by dispensing with any requirement to reveal even the barest of plot concerns, uses every minute for invention, for controlled bits of chaos, for quiet observation and the surprising abnormality of everyday life. (Currently without distribution)

3. Pain & Gain
Michael Bay has made several very good films in the past. This is his first masterpiece, the kind that makes even his fans reexamine those that came before, and his talents altogether. Following three bodybuilders (Mark Wahlberg, Anthony Mackie, and Dwayne Johnson) who hatch a scheme to steal everything from one rich asshole (Tony Shalhoub), Pain & Gain so thoroughly eviscerates the commercialized portrait of the American Dream that it’s a wonder there was anything left of it for a half-dozen other films to tackle this year. The bodybuilders aren’t just looking to become successful - they want the fame, the glory, the women, the drugs, the boats, the LIFE. And they want it now. And Bay gives it to them on their terms, framing them the way they see their lives, on the edge of desert cliffs, against American flags and churches and neon lights, more than a little complicit in their sociopathy. Where Martin Scorsese couldn’t help but judge his Wolf of Wall Street protagonists, Bay is just enough a degenerate director to completely soak you in the psyches of his, leaving you questioning your own complicity in even viewing the damn thing. But by contrasting that with their actual behavior and complete stupidity, he more forcefully undermines his entire aesthetic than ever before. The result isn’t just ideologically invigorating, but wildly entertaining and by far the funniest I’ve seen all year. Wahlberg hasn’t been this good since Boogie Nights, completely unafraid to warp his natural earnestness into total moral corruption, but somehow, Dwayne Johnson still steals the show as a drug-addict-turned-evangelical-Christian-turned-drug-addict who’s never able to totally square the warring factions of his own psyche, even when they seem to be quite clear. I could not have possibly loved this film more. (Available on DVD, Blu-ray, iTunes, Google Play, YouTube, and Redbox Instant)

2. Inside Llewyn Davis
Joel and Ethan Coen have made so many great films that each new one causes me to wonder if they’ve ever done anything better, and so it is with Inside Llewyn Davis. It feels like their best, but that can’t possibly be true...or can it? Ah, well, it’s a good problem to have. Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a folk singer in New York in 1961. He plays gigs, sleeps on friends' couches, accidentally impregnates women, insults damn near everyone sooner or later, and lives by intense principles to guard his ability to continue to play other people’s songs independently. We can mourn Llewyn’s difficulty in making a living, but one must ask oneself, what, really, does he have to contribute? Among its many other noteworthy points, the last scene cleverly suggests that it is not simple exposure he lacks, but inability to stand out from a flock of others doing the same thing just as well. Yet he remains a deeply sympathetic character, an outlet for so many of our worst impulses, and as potent a figure in mourning as the cinema has ever seen. The Coens and Isaac craft dozens of small moments that belie years of struggle and hardship; the film takes place over a single week, but seems to encapsulate a year. Who would have the best attitude after all that?
Isaac, so good in so many unremarkable films over the past few years, gives the best male performance of the year, deeply in tune with precisely what film he is in and how he can contribute, able to convey depths of regret, uncertainty, and misplaced aggression with the line reading of a single word. His relationships with the few characters given more than one scene seem to constantly deepen; what stands out first as contemptuousness later feels more like jealousy, then like compassion, then like mutual understanding of respectful differences. Llewyn, like the Coens, looks at first glance like a guy who snobbishly insists that he has it all figured out; the closer you get, the more you see the doubt, the fear, the longing, and the despair. (Currently in theaters)

1) You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet
Like Francis Ford Coppola (whose beautiful Twixt finally came to Blu-ray this year), Alain Resnais is making old man films with a young man’s vitality. Perhaps that has contributed to neither being terribly fashionable anymore, and I guess I just have to square whatever that says about me with the fact that I adore the work both have done in recent years, most of all this new wondrous film by its 91-year-old auteur. Such a promise as the one contained in its title would be tantalizing from anyone; from Resnais, who has given us such singular and undefinable experiences as Last Year at MarienbadMon oncle d’AmeriqueJe t’aime je t’aimeProvidence, and Wild Grass, it seems downright impossible. And yet, I do believe it to be true. In it, a group of actors, all playing themselves (they include Sabine Azema, Mathieu Almaric, Pierre Arditi, Anne Consigny, Lambert Wilson, and Michel Piccoli), assemble to watch a recording of a new production of the play Eurydice, in which they all starred many years ago in various incarnations. As they view the film (which was made separately from the production of YASNY, and directed by Bruno Podalydès), they begin to casually recite their lines along with the actors, before finally standing up and gradually performing the play themselves, sometimes interacting directly with the film they are viewing, with Resnais infusing CGI backgrounds to fill the imagined space of a black box theater.
So the film is at once a straight adaptation of Jean Anouilh’s play, and an expression of longing for one’s youth, giving these older actors a chance to dig into emotions they’ve perhaps long left behind. Azema in particular is extraordinary, and those who have seen the work she did with Resnais in the 1980s will certainly find much to celebrate; those who have not will doubtlessly seek it out. Anouilh used the legend of Orpheus as a jumping-off point to explore the intense selfishness of young romance, and there’s something about Eurydice that seems almost unhinged in how totally committed she becomes to Orpheus, especially given the past she gradually reveals, and Azema plays right into Eurydice’s wild-eyed amazement at the tiny joys and unacknowledged tragedies that we quietly accept every day. As the title indicates, Resnais has a playful streak within him, but never at the expense of the drama, either inherent to the play or the extratextual themes he’s exploring, making for a tragic melodrama that’s a lot more fun to watch than one might expect. Approaching his 70th year of filmmaking, Resnais continues to find new ways to reinvent his chosen medium, and I couldn’t be happier to be here experiencing it. (Available on DVD, Netflix, iTunes, Google Play, and YouTube)

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Strike Anywhere


I wrote this piece for a class in college, with a prompt from Christian Keathley's wonderful book, Cinephilia and History, or The Wind in the Trees, which asked participants to focus on a specific, seemingly meaningless moment to speculate on and draw from it larger, probably unintended meaning. To coincide with the recent release of Red River on Blu-ray, I thought it'd be a fitting time to revisit it. It has been modestly revised over the years.

In his review of the film as part of his Great Movies series, Roger Ebert declares:
Red River is one of the greatest of all Westerns when it stays with its central story about an older man and a younger one, and the first cattle drive down the Chisholm Trail. It is only in its few scenes involving women that it goes wrong…The three scenes with Tess (Joanne Dru) are the movie’s low points, in part because of her prattle (listen to how she chats distractingly with Matt during an Indian attack), in part because she is all too obviously the deus ex machina the plot needs to avoid an unhappy ending.
Essentially, Ebert is right. Tess’ purpose is to make two people – Matthew Garth (Montgomery Clift) and Tom Dunson (John Wayne), suddenly get along after a bitter feud arose between them. I disagree, however, with Ebert’s assertion that Tess’ scenes are the low points. She provides the film’s most magical little moment. In her first conversation with Dunson, she swings her arm down and strikes a match on her table. It’s the swing of her arm and the instant ignition of the match that has me mesmerized. The swing itself suggests a casual nonchalance, and firmly establishes that she is in control of the scene; despite his cultural image, John Wayne appears quite small here, even weak. A lot is done with simple staging – she is standing and he is sitting – but it’s the match strike that instantly and naturally commands our attention.

First, the means by which director Howard Hawks accomplished the shot is a minor miracle unto itself. He cuts quickly after the match is lit, but not right away – the shot lingers just long enough to show the match catch fire. The first thought that might roll through an audience member’s mind is that Tess had a strike anywhere match, a very common item today. However, this sequence takes place in 1866, but strike anywhere matches wouldn’t be developed until the early twentieth century.

Matches have been around for centuries in one form or another, but it wasn’t until 1827 that they became anything close to what they resemble today; that is, based on friction, designed to ignite only when run against a specially prepared surface. Beyond that, the safety match wasn’t developed until 1844. Prior to this, matches shot sparks around and had pretty uncontrollable flames. Given that no sparks emitted and the flame was relatively under control, Tess was probably using a safety match. The striking surface required to ignite a match, however, was typically composed of 25% powdered glass, 50% red phosphorus, 5% neutralizer, 4% carbon black and 16% binder – probably not the rough makeup of Tess' table, which looks like it was coated with leather. Whatever it was covered with, it would be absurd for a table in a wagon train to be covered with a material that only really exists to strike matches on.

So what happened? Does Tess have some cunning skill with a match? I propose instead that this sets Tess up as a force in the film. Roger Ebert noted that Tess is there basically as a plot device, and that’s true. But the film continuously tells us she has some sort of otherworldly quality. In her introduction, she’s receives an arrow to the shoulder and scarcely has a reaction; if it has any effect, her expression indicates it’s one of heightened sexual attraction. This, combined with her mastery of fire, tells us that Tess is more than just a person, but a force, which she proves to be when she somehow makes everything okay between Matt and Tom at the end. She’s capable of controlling the world around her.

Besides, Tess is a “strike anywhere” girl. The strike-anywhere/safety dichotomy runs throughout Hawks’ work, and echoes into cinema today. This dichotomy typically comes in the form of two potential mates one of the protagonists must choose between. The clearest example comes in Bringing Up Baby - David (Cary Grant) is all set to marry the safest of all possible women, Miss Swallow (Virginia Walker), who wants nothing more than to support David in his work, even though that means denying him all of life’s pleasures. That is, until he meets one of the wackiest women in the history of film in Susan Vance (Katherine Hepburn), who grabs every chance life throws at her and lives every moment as though it were her last, a true “strike anywhere” woman if ever there were one.

That’s not all, folks. Only Angels Have Wings shows a less immediately conflicted Cary Grant stuck between a woman who understands his love of flying, and one who wishes he’d just stay on the ground. His Girl Friday flips the gender roles, with Rosalind Russell torn between the very safe, secure Ralph Bellamy and the wild, unpredictable, fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants Cary Grant. In The Big Sleep, Philip Marlowe seems to only run into “strike anywhere” types, from Vivian’s younger sister sleeping with every guy in town, to a bookstore employee who closes early to secure some private time with Bogart. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes takes this to the extreme, as we see Lorelei constantly pulled away from her obedient, soft-spoken fiancée towards a life of debauchery and extravagance, Dorothy somehow emerging as the stable one in the twosome, only looking for a man to truly love.

Again and again, Hawks seems drawn to these dynamics, and regardless of where the script draws its ideological line (and it sometimes lands on “safe”), Hawks is always sure to posit the “strike anywhere” as by far the more interesting, more fulfilling possibility. Even when Cary Grant settles on the safe choice in Only Angels Have Wings, he does so as he rushes out the door, eager to get in the air again, and all the way up to that point, Jean Arthur, the “safe” one, is painted as too hysteric and anxiety-ridden to grasp what makes these men shoot up into the air. 

This strike-anywhere/safety dichotomy lives on today, albeit in the much less interesting Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Now a staple of all things quirky, one need only watch films such as Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Garden State, Elizabethtown, Superbad, Clerks II, or The Last Kiss to catch at least traces of girls who really have nothing else to do in their lives except be completely unpredictable and rescue the guy from his bland, boring life. What separates the modern trend from the one Hawks presented is that there is no second thought given to the modern “strike anywhere” girl. She is so obviously the right choice from the start, not just to the audience, but to the protagonist as well. In Hawks, Bringing Up Baby in particular, we see the natural, destructive end such behavior would no doubt bring about, not just to the protagonist’s personal life, but also to his or her job and everyone they come into contact with. Like Tess in Red River, Susan Vance seems to make the world around her conform to her whims, as David suddenly starts living the life Susan creates for him. This makes David’s decision all the more interesting and satisfying, as we know he’s attracted to her for her faults, not in spite of whatever faults she may one day reveal. And if that isn’t love, I don’t know what is.