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.

Monday, November 18, 2013

He Flies Through the Air With the Greatest of Ease

The above still comes from My Favorite Wife, a film slightly more fun in point of fact than in point of watching. The central drive of the screwball comedy comes from Cary Grant's presumed-dead wife (Irene Dunne) suddenly returning on, wouldn't you know it, the very day he has finally remarried (to a none-too-pleased Gail Patrick). The film gets probably a little too much mileage out of Grant figuring out just how to explain the whole damn thing to Patrick, as Dunne manipulates any number of awkward interactions between the three of them (even when she's not in the room) to her eternal advantage, but the picture really turns into something upon the discovery that the circumstances of her survival - she was shipwrecked and stranded on an island for seven years - were greatly aided by the presence of another man.

Even as Grant is playing down his desirability (he's a little more David Huxley than Walter Burns, though not as extreme as either), eclipsing this trait is no small feat, but one ably attained by one Randolph Scott, here the very paragon of exaggerated masculinity. The above still comes as Grant reflects on some athletic feats he just saw Scott perform at the local club, and indicates some of the finer points in the film, and of screwball comedy in general, in its ability to reflect marital anxieties without being, well, so damn reflective about the whole thing.

It's impossible to imagine such a picture being made today, in which a wife more or less comes back from the dead just as a husband has remarried, and getting away with it as comedy. The picture is not without sentiment (there are more than mere tonal similarities with the prior Grant/Dunne hit The Awful Truth, it must be noted), but those moments are inextricably bound with the comedy, and neither diminishes the other. Furthermore, that the wife character could have clearly carried on a romantic and sexual relationship, as difficult a sell as it must have been then (the censors' attempts to get RKO tone down such implications appears to have been completely unsuccessful), would be almost unheard of now. Modern sympathies would be automatically reversed, and, well, it's just a shame the way women get treated in movies these days, that's all.

And furthermore, just what was Randolph Scott doing with those two women at the Pacific Club when Cary Grant starts spying on him?

The film is credited to Garson Kanin, a more accomplished screenwriter than director (he wrote Born Yesterday, The Girl Can't Help It, and Adam's Rib, for starters), who stepped in for Leo McCarey (he of the great The Awful Truth) after the latter's near-fatal car accident. McCarey produced and co-concocted the story with screenwriters Bella and Sam Spewack, a husband-and-wife team who themselves apparently knew something of marital strife. I can't speak to the extent of McCarey's involvement on set (TCM's notes on the film say Kanin directed "portions"), but his brand of cleverly-framed sentimentality is more than a little informative here.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Thunder Road

"When I'm driving, I got a guy on the radio who talks to me…I can't see him, but he talks to me."
- Cole Trickle (Tom Cruise)

Like his dynamic, rhythmically beautiful The Fan, Tony Scott's Days of Thunder does not have the greatest reputation, even among his admirers. Obviously made to capitalize on the success of Top Gun, reuniting director (Scott), star (Cruise), and producers (Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer) to, what would appear from the outside, lesser commercial effect (though the film was far from the failure many predicted, more than doubling its budget at the worldwide box office). Top Gun was never a critics' darling, but its monumental popularity has ensured it a permanent place in the conversation, while Days of Thunder - so much weirder and more esoteric, nearly the film many perceive Drive to be - has practically been left behind, forever in the shadow of the iconic fighter jet.

Throughout much of the first half, the film lives up to that perception. Dawn-set shots of racetracks anticipate the arrival of Cole Trickle, as if summoned by another character's question, "Who is this driver?" Vrrrroooooommmm and up pulls Cruise in full Movie Star mode, seemingly a lifetime removed from his eager young cadet in Top Gun. This guy had just been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor, worked with Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone, Dustin Hoffman, and Paul Newman. And he knows it.

Days of Thunder was not, however, as has been suggested, something Tom Cruise was trapped in. His "Story By" credit (alongside Robert Towne, who wrote the screenplay from there), the only one in his entire career, was not, at least according to Scott, purely a matter of a star managing someone else's idea. "Cruise and Jerry and Don went to a school where you learn to race Porsches," he told Entertainment Weekly. "That's where it all began. They said, 'Fuck, yeah! Let's do a motor-racing movie!" That buoyant spirit carries that first half, as we're left to marvel at Cole's seemingly boundless ambition ("There's nothing I can't do with a race car" is the film's signature line for a reason), his manager, Harry's (Robert Duvall), eternal patience and wisdom, and the entire spectacle that is Nascar, the actual sport of which has perhaps never been depicted better. While television struggles to show it as anything more than cars gradually moving in a circle, Scott gets his camera right down on the racetrack, right up in his drivers' faces, right alongside the cars as they move upwards of 200 mph. And you believe it.

That sense of speed takes on a deadlier meaning once Cole nearly gets killed in a race. He's then transferred to the medical care of one Dr. Claire Lewicki (Nicole Kidman), a neurosurgeon who also happens to be beautiful enough to sleep with Tom Cruise. This element of the film has received its share of guffaws and ridicule from those who tend to believe beautiful women rarely amount to anything substantial, which, even if this particularly sexist view held any water, is actually directly mocked when Cole embarrasses himself by mistaking Claire for a stripper. You could condescendingly say the film knows what it is, and that'd be true, but it doesn't make excuses for it - it just lays it all out there without a care or second-guess in the world. "That's right," it might as well be saying, "this young, beautiful woman is a brain surgeon, and you'd be a fool to question it."

Moreover, their romance contains a heft usually left on the table in these types of pictures. In addition to not considering Claire at all when he puts himself in danger, Cole nearly kills her when he decides to race an annoying taxi driver in the populated city streets, a feat for which she justly rebukes him. Aside from a rather lovely and teasing sex-y scene, Cole and Claire are rarely satisfied with one another. Top Gun's Charlie might have disliked the type of guy Cruise's Maverick was, but Claire is completely opposed to the man Cole is. He only becomes more difficult and more determined. His idea of dates are to go to race tracks and visit fellow drivers. She wonders if he wants anything more in life; he wonders who she's really asking for. Even in their bedroom scene, the most affection she can lend him is physical curiosity - "'How can I be in bed with this guy?'" Cruise asks for her. "I know the answer to that one," she replies. Her brief cheers in the final showdown are less those of a converted fan, and more of someone genuinely concerned for his safety. Before he steps out on the track, they seem to be telling one another, "I love you, but I can't accept you," even as they're withholding even that much. People in Tony Scott movies don't always explain themselves so well, but they do understand one another.

Ignatiy Vishnevetsky's essential piece on Scott, "Smearing the Senses," addresses just this, and provides a window through which all of the filmmaker's work can be viewed and appreciated. An excerpt, describing Spy Game:
The images cut [Redford and Pitt] apart and then the editing glues them back together until it becomes clear that their camaraderie isn't just a question of professionalism, but is in fact an emotional bond existing on some kind of more subtle level. Sure, this is the usual male weepie hokum - but it's in movies more than anywhere else that hokum finds its greatest opportunity to be profound....
Scott's late period is rich with this sort of form-theme-plot unity. His hyperactive, impressionistic style made no attempt to accurately represent physical reality - and the movies, in turn, are about people who establish relationships that transcend physical presence while dealing with some concrete, physical threat which the relationship ultimately allows them to overcome. These are movies about the denial of physical reality made in a style that denies physical reality - and, occasionally, common sense - at every opportunity.

A more fitting description of Days of Thunder, there may not be. Cole, and every other race car driver, forcefully deny themselves the potential physical consequences of their lifestyle. "The only time a driver goes to a funeral is when he's actually dead," Harry says. Scott abstracts the race sequences, never letting us know the context for the race outside of what is immediately surrounding Cole, and relying on Harry to let us know his immediate goals. Yet its physicality is striking; the fragility of the cars, and their drivers, is never forgotten. They are shaken and thrown every which way as their vehicles seem on the edge of exploding at any second. The image above is at once a striking illustration of danger, and a manifestation of Cole's worst fears. Below, Scott throws in light patterns to indicate either nirvana or panic - in both cases, flirting with death, brushing up against the edges of this mortal coil.

While Cole's bond with Claire is more physically manifested, literally (in their sexual contact) and figuratively (by how often Scott places them in the same frame), Cole's with Harry is an ethereal one, lending that very quality that would come to define Scott's later work. Much of their relationship is cemented with Cole in the car, and Harry speaking to him a mile away. Look at that quote at the top of this post - "I can't see him, but he talks to me." Cole is laying in an MRI machine, desperate for someone to say something to him, so accustomed has he become to being alone in a metal box, yet accompanied by a friendly, reassuring voice.

The excitement of the race is gradually whittled away, as we see the addiction to racing and, more generally, to one's ability to survive, erode Cole's relationship with Claire and his rival Rowdy's relationship with everyone. Rowdy's deterministic, "I'll only see a doctor when I'm dying" philosophy nearly kills him. He can't remember winning the Winston Cup; even his own name seems to be slipping. We, too, question Cole's need to get back into the car for one more race. It was one thing for Maverick to funnel that "need for speed" into flying. Theoretically, he'd end up fighting for his country and all that (this isn't really the space to debate military ethics, mind). Cole gets a gold cup. Days of Thunder never really makes some larger moral justification for its sport, the way dozens of basketball, baseball, and football films do - racing brings glory, at most, and not even lasting glory. Racing is cheap, and drivers are disposable, easily replaced or moved between the cars, the real stars. In Scott's opening montage, he gives us a shot of a huge American flag, then a small Confederate one, then a whole line of corporate flags. Racing is deteriorating the type of desire that once fueled American ideology, funneling a hunger for greatness towards outmoded values and commercial exploitation.

Cole is perfect for this world, something of a blank slate, almost purely a bundle of instincts and ambitions. He's like Robert Stack in The Tarnished Angels, the kind of guy who could win the war if he had a war to win. Without one, he's nothing, just a guy with a lot of talent that needs an outlet. "Harry, where'd you say your driver's from?" he's asked, in anticipation of Cole's seemingly heroic arrival. "Eagle Rock," his partner replies. "That's up around Wilkesboro, isn't it?" "No, Glendale. California." "He's a Yankee?" Harry asks. "Not exactly. If you're from California, you're not a Yankee. You're not really anything." It's an easy way to appeal to people predisposed against the very town that produces the entertainment of which they cannot get enough, but it also violently subverts Cruise's archetype before he even gets onscreen. What appears to be a nearly mythological figure is actually just a shell. And he'll have to grapple with that for the rest of the picture.

As a final aside, Quentin Tarantino claims to likened Tony Scott to Douglas Sirk back in the early 90s, and it's one of those things that's stuck with me. Both are obviously marvelous visual directors, and Tarantino mentioned it as a way of saying that cinephiles would only realize later what they had with Scott, but the more I think on it, the deeper that tunnel runs. They're both fascinated with exploring illusions of happiness and archetypes (intense melancholy runs through many of their films), presenting characters at once the way they perceive themselves, and how they're perceived by others, and the slippery bits that fall between each side. Anyway, beyond the comparison to Stack in AngelsDays of Thunder has one of the more Sirkian titles in Scott's filmography (which also makes it one of the better ones); you could line that up alongside many of Sirk's most famous - Written on the Wind, All That Heaven Allows, The Tarnished Angels - and it'd fit right in.

Days of Thunder is far from the most exciting entry in Scott's filmography, let alone his best, but I was really struck by just how strong and affecting it is, and how it really signaled the way for everything he was about to unleash on the world over the next twenty years. It's not just the boldness of his style, his willingness to embrace a certain otherworldly quality in his images - it's the repression, the sincerity, the subversion, the true embrace of that great Ernst Lubitsch maxim, "Every shot is the most important shot." No matter how many of them there are.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013


Last weekend, I pulled up Brian De Palma'sPassion on VOD, largely because it was a new release I wanted to get under my belt eventually (and I didn't have nearly enough time to pack in Marketa Lazarova, which I've been dying to see in the month or so since buying the Criterion Blu-ray - but, you know, 165 minutes). I was surprised to find just how much I liked the film, as De Palma is not one of "my guys" by any stretch.

With Passion, De Palma's most melodramatic streak is, if not as perversely indulged as in The Black Dahlia, then certainly presenting a sort of aged exhibitionism, and his aesthetic is beautifully wrought with a thoroughness of form-is-content rigor that is better discussed in Glenn Kenny's review than I could manage here. The key passage is thus:
De Palma's style has always used split-screen, and his compositions often manipulate backgrounds and foregrounds so that one tells an almost completely different story that the other does, simultaneously. Our ways of looking at the world have caught up with De Palma's way of presenting information on a cinema screen. And as I said, it's all pretty exhilarating if you're turned in on that level.

No disagreement from me. Where I sometimes felt De Palma was being...if not excessive, then certainly extra-expressive with such split-screen virtuosities, they did make the kind of wild, inventive use of the frame that one longs for. With Passion, beyond the totally thrilling aesthetic experience they create, there's also a real narrative/emotional/thematic hook to them, as we question just what is being watched, by whom, and where each person in this arrangement is. The eventual payoff these questions anticipate is perhaps predictable (perhaps not), but is at least a cohesive viewpoint, the kind of thing that makes it frustrating when people say it's "got style, no substance," as though the two are so inextricable.

Some of that perceived lack of substance has been said to have come from the performances, namely from the two leads, Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace. Kenny again, setting the stage:
...the ridiculously flat dialogue and almost pantomime performance styles on display in Passion will not come as any surprise to a longtime De Palma watcher, although they are likely to elicit some sort of "That was stupid" reflex in non-adepts.

And then, a series of critics dancing on it...

Richard Corliss, in TIME:
McAdams, usually a winning personality, seems embarrassed by her presence here; and Rapace, who invested a Mensa fury into her Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy, looks frightened, as if assaulted by the camera's glare. 
Lee Marshall, at Screen Daily:
[T]he high-profile casting of Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace in the two main roles works a lot better on paper than it does in practice.... Whereas Kristen Scott-Thomas and Ledivine Sagnier fully inhabited their roles as domineering boss and sexy ambitious but fragile underling [in 2010's Love Crimes, of which this is a remake], McAdams and Rapace never really convince as rich, manipulative and self-assured advertising executive Christine and talented but rather innocent and insecure junior manager Isabelle. McAdams is better though at catching the playful, parody element in her role, something that Rapace, who is all intensity, seems to struggle with.
Guy Lodge, at HitFix, after describing Rapace as "utterly at sea":
No less strangely cast is McAdams, years too young to possess this dragon-in-heels role with the coolly unimpressed swagger of Kristin Scott Thomas. Still, if she seems to be playing dress-up in several scenes, at least she's playing: she deserves a more responsive scene partner when she sweetly bares her teeth and says, "You have talent. I just made the best use of it." 
Jamie Dunn, at The Playlist:
The characters are little more than noir cyphers, but both actors are game and have fun taking turns at playing femme fatale as they cross and doublecross each other throughout the increasingly convoluted narrative.

Review after review, critics are at least rising above Kenny's "This was stupid" prediction, but rarely giving anyone involved more credit than "it looked like they had some fun." Look at the word choices - they "never really convince," McAdams is "too young to possess." These are startlingly normative approaches to cinema, acting, and representation, demanding verisimilitude from a film, and filmmaker, who giddily laughs at the very notion. I would argue that what De Palma and his actresses are up to is far more intriguing, nefarious, and layered than many are recognizing, or what they're asking for. Further, I would submit instead that McAdams' and Rapace's (possible) shortcomings are to De Palma's tremendous advantage.

Danny Kasman's assessment at Mubi is far more attuned to De Palma's wavelength:
Remember how Rebecca Romijn watches Stanwyck in Double Indemnity at the beginning of Femme Fatale, as if taking notes? The characters in Passion have taken notes from Femme Fatale: an abstraction based on a fiction based on a fantasy. It is complex, dextrous, and awkward: Rachel McAdams plays and acts the seductive, power hungry blonde in a performance that is like a kabuki imitation of the type; Noomi Rapace is her underling, friend, object of love and obsession, our heroine and, therefore, at first, directed to act “normally.” (This film's skewering of cinematic female friendship is twisted, sinister, cynical and terribly interesting.) Like in Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, but far more knowingly, cleverly, the director is here forcing a confrontation between two entirely different acting styles and kinds of characters. In Passion, one is ostensibly a hollow signifier, the other our, the audience's, psychological subject, person of empathy. Except the film, lurchingly structured in three fascinating sections, with the middle one styled radically differently, introduces a third character, another woman (which brings the collection to: a blonde, a brunette and a redhead), who begins to appear more normal as Rapace's character enters deeper into the story and begins to be abstracted by the movements and conventions of her plot. 

De Palma has no problem outright saying he felt he could improve upon Love Crimes immediately after seeing it. And yes, Kristen Scott Thomas might be better suited to Christine, an exploitative, manipulative business executive from a casting director's perspective. Thomas is nearly twenty years McAdams' senior, and is perhaps (I've not seen the film) a little bit more believable in the role of someone who has risen to such a position.

De Palma's never been about "believability." McAdams' relative youth actually gives him more to play with, not less, and the extent to which she is posturing as an actress capable of a certain heightened, just-this-side-of-camp performance mirrors the way her character is, in a sense, performing as an executive, as a manipulator, as a sexual deviant, etc. Every stilted, "awkward," pronounced line delivery of hers is the sign of a woman whose construct of herself is inseparable from the real thing. Christine's (and perhaps McAdams') inability to convince us mirrors, and feeds into, the contempt her staff has for her. People have a certain level of respect for somebody who has worked long and hard to get where they are, even if they are unpleasant - Christine commands nothing of the sort.

But she keeps acting the part, down to her costume, or lack thereof. In a film consumed with sex and sexuality, we see Rapace naked, but not McAdams. Let's suppose that she would have been willing - how much does it say about her character that she insists upon covering herself up in the midst of otherwise rather outlandish sexual predilections? "Even the sexual decadence is of the clichéd lace and carnival-mark variety," Marshall writes, noting that Christine "lives in an apartment that comes across as a tad too brash and flashy for her character." Which, again, might just be the whole point. As with everything De Palma, style is content. Christine's blonde-blonde hair, pale (sometimes sickly) white skin, red-red lipstick (and sweaters, dresses, and high heels), and black, elaborately-strung lingerie are as much a character-born formation of Powerful Woman as De Palma's inclination towards what he wants to see onscreen. In a recent interview with, he had this to say about that:
Men have been undressing women in various art forms since the beginning of visual art. You could make this film with two men, but, I mean, all you have to do is look on your television screen or go Googling or pick up a magazine, and what do you see? Women, dressed and undressed. That's what people are interested in.

Of course, De Palma trying to insist that he's just giving the people what they want is sort of laughable in considering a film as weird and alienating as Passion. Since it's also concerned with the recording and representation of oneself through images, though, it's not an unfair place to begin. In fact, the MacGuffin of sorts that sets the entire plot in motion is an ad Isabelle (Rapace) creates, centered around a smartphone, placed in the rear pocket of a shapely pair of jeans, capturing images of guys ogling a woman's derriere. That is what people are interested in. Christine is a reflection of our desires, or what she (and De Palma) perceive them to be. One character says of her that "she gets what she wants," and that may largely come about just as much from giving everybody the image they want.

Isabelle, by contrast, fashions herself a more removed, down-to-Earth, "authentic" "cool boss" type, forever the victim of Christine (until, you know, she's not), and that formation has largely consumed her outward persona. She doesn't know how to land a client at a party, doesn't know how to speak up when Christine steals her idea for an ad, doesn't even know quite how to behave when Christine shares an extended kiss with Dirk, her lover. It's only in private - to her assistant, or to her lover - that we see the truth. She certainly knows what to do and say around a man, and not just any man. Her relationship with Dirk is barely sketched and never described, but it's a whole other dimension to a woman who is apparently too shy to speak to someone at a social gathering. In bed, she's more rawly sexual than Christine's constructed lust, and will slowly unleash a cruelty more personal and pointed than Christine's cold calculations.

The way those two personalities play off one another are key to the film's rather evolved and considered notions of...certainly not good and evil; some reversal of sympathies. Christine may be more outwardly repugnant, unpleasant, and motivated purely by selfishness and greed, but she's never doing any real harm, and is able to view all her actions through the lens of "business." Isabelle, meanwhile, has our sympathies, and we can identify with her more personal motivations, but her ends are drastic and horrific. She's playing the victim just as much as Christine is playing the villain, and her commitment to that role goes down far darker paths.

It's a dicey proposition to try to deduce how much of this is intentional, to what extent the actresses are playing into it, but since when has intent mattered anyway? Christine and Isabelle are playing something they know themselves not to be, and their uncertainties and hesitations are ultimately their undoing. Perhaps that goes for the actresses as well. Part of the challenge of directing is channeling everything an actor has to give - which might include accounting for their weaknesses - towards some artistic effect. However De Palma tuned his instruments, the result is indeed electrifying and playful, but also intriguing, layered, and resonant.

Thursday, June 6, 2013


If you're not already listening to Rudie Obias and West Anthony's AuteurCast, well, you ought to do that. Every few weeks, they pick a filmmaker, discuss all of their films chronologically, with an episode dedicated to each film (they release two or three episodes a week, typically), in the hopes of analyzing, in Rudie's words that open each episodes, "what makes them an auteur, or at the very least, what makes them worth watching."

They've been gracious enough to let me blab about on their show before, but they really went insane by inviting me onto four episodes in their series on Michael Bay. If you want to find those specifically, just check out Armageddon, Bad Boys II, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, and Pain & Gain, but again, highly recommend checking out all the films in the series, and any other episodes they've released in general. It's good stuff.

It is fortuitous that this series should conclude right around the time the discussion surrounding the whole practice of "Vulgar Auteurism" has reached its fever pitch, although for I know it may rage on for years to come (this is the Internet; it will not). It's a movement which I could be said to be a part of, but, chiefly because it has a separatist tendency to which I object (by saying Tony Scott is a "vulgar auteur," it's at least saying he's different, if not outright inferior to, someone like Wes Anderson, to which I would strongly object). Anyway, if you're not familiar with that whole thing, head on over to Peter Labuza's excellent blog, where a discussion is raging on about this very topic, to which I contributed the bulk of my concerns in the comments section.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Constantly Revised and Remembered

This post contains spoilers for Trance.

Danny Boyle's Trance speeds past the super-narrative trend of modern cinema and television into a kind of total narrative, one in which the plot is being reconfigured or reframed not over a series of acts, but almost moment to moment. Joe Ahearne and John Hodge's absolutely batty screenplay is responsible for much of this, setting up a basic series of rules before discarding with any allegiance to reality, never mind the inherent question as to what that would even constitute. Boyle's familiarly hyperkinetic style is both tempered (no more three-way splitscreens showing one action) and intensified, accomplishing much more within each shot to the point that any traditional definitions of structure are obliterated. The basic plot, about art auctioneer Simon (James McAvoy), who sets up the theft of an especially valuable painting, only to steal the thing for himself, take a blow to the head, totally forget where he left it, and seek out the help of hypnotist Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson) to delve back into his memories, is already pretty wild stuff, but about halfway through the picture, the possibilities for this set-up have been completely exhausted, and indeed, Ahearne and Hodge seem to have come to a similar realization.

So there are double-crosses, and triple-crosses, and lots and lots of people explaining "what's really going on" only for that, too, to be total hogwash, until finally, we're left with something that must be the truth because seriously how much crazier could it get? It's all a bit much, admittedly, and perhaps the film would have been better to deliver its exposition in less didactic terms (though my screening had the benefit(?) of the sound cutting out during an entire section of revelation, so hey, who's to say), but by the point it really reaches overload, Trance has already accomplished so much that it hardly mattered.

Chiefly, the film is about the effort to bury one's inner (and outer) demons, to restrain the absolute horror show that exists beneath the cool, calm, collected surface. But where the film really pulls out the rug is in illustrating that Simon's surface is far from the only one worth examining. We're given plenty of reason to doubt him throughout the film, and the gradual revelation of his violent nature, while heartbreaking, seems almost inevitable. He claims he's never fired a gun before, and perhaps that's true, but he also takes to it extremely easily. Elizabeth provides a perfect counterbalance - speaking in a totally collected manner, we assume her to be a sort of standard female role in a genre picture, one which Dawson has played many times before, operating as little more than a device.

And then things get weird.

The discovery of Simon and Elizabeth's dark past is at once the film's defining moment, and yet its most obvious - there's a look of recognition in her eyes the moment we see them meet. It becomes a truth we'd known without ever quite stating, and this late confession ends up operating more as confirmation than a real revelation, not dissimilar to how the end of Shutter Island operated. We'd been seeing the story through this window the whole time, but now we know what the house looks like.

James McAvoy has a sort of naturally broken, almost animalistic quality to him; that he became violent with her is a natural progression, retrospectively. But the ways and extent to which we come to find that Elizabeth, too, is absolutely nuts is pretty great. Women in these pictures are usually victims or total aggressors, if they're entities at all, but Trance complicates these simple roles by having both Simon and Elizabeth be mutually destructive. You can identify where she's coming from, while at the same time thinking she's definitely in the wrong, while feeling sorry Simon, given the torture she puts him through, while also knowing that Simon kind of has it coming. Never mind the audacity of the scheme as it's unraveled, which, yes, is completely silly, but is also completely secondary to the emotional tenor of the film.

Boyle never strays too far from the pulpy fun of the piece, teasing out information in the most delectable of ways (Elizabeth communicating with Simon via notecards is a great cinematic scene, but the precise way it plays out suggests she already knows what he'll say), and providing the sort of pulsating aural and visual experience for which we've come to know him, but he hardly ignores the true depravity of it all. Quite the contrary. The sexual overtones quickly reach explosive levels, culminating in the kind of nudity that one very rarely sees onscreen, all at once alluring, filthy, and - best of all - haunting. It doesn't take much to make sex look either great or pitiful, but it's quite another to suggest some degradation of the soul.

As Elizabeth walks towards us in a distorted reflection on the floor as the camera pans up, revealing, as if out of his unspoken fantasies and desires, her completely nude, the pit into which Simon (and we) sink is at once a pleasure garden and an abyss. He's almost shuddering as she stands before him, but this is not a moment of complete agency for her, either; there's trepidation in her voice as she answers his questions. "How did you know?" he asks, regarding a particular, fetishistic indulgence. "You told me," she says, vaguely afraid of what either of them might do. To this point, we're to believe had only met her a couple of days ago, and the total unbalance that's created from her knowing something so intimate and personal makes it abundantly clear that we've only glimpsed whatever power she holds in this relationship, and whatever's going on beneath, she is equally afraid of its outcome.

This is hardly the first, nor the last, time reflections will be used to suggest emotional undercurrents. Almost too numerous to list, refractions are a recurring motif, suggesting the usual stuff about broken psyches, but also the feeling of being torn five different ways, or having one's mind in an area apart from one's body. Elizabeth floats around inside Simon's head as he looks at her through a window. She emerges in places she does not belong, invading dreams, hallucinations, and everyone's imagination, an object of obsession and a haunting spirit, as much a creation as a reality. It's a very common mistake to assume that the person to whom you're attracted can solve all your problems, and Trance makes literal this blunder by Elizabeth's position in the story. Dawson gives an astounding performance, perhaps the best of her career, constantly suggesting something is amiss while quietly reaffirming what we're supposed to believe about her. Her sexuality has been both exploited (Sin City, Clerks IIDeath Proof) and almost insistently downplayed (Eagle Eye, Unstoppable) throughout her career, and Trance offers a real merging of the two, introducing her as an almost asexual professional before unveiling her to be just as kinky and depraved as the men who constantly lust after her. As with everything else, Dawson toes the line beautifully, happily deluding herself as thoroughly as she is everyone else.

The resolution Trance offers feels at first far too pat, but upon further reflection, the illusory aspect of that may, too, be a cover-up. It's easy to present only one side of yourself when you're not personally delivering a message (the way someone can effect a situation without being physically present is another recurring motif), and it'd be difficult to surmise that, given everything that's transpired, Elizabeth is truly as content as all that. At least until she finds the next set of lives to burn to the ground. She remains, at best, an enigma, one which the men, even after everything she's put them through, are helpless before, gazing into even the idea of her presence when she's really far, far away.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Happy 100th Birthday, Bob Clampett!

Patient Porky (1940)
There's no real overstating the effect Bob Clampett's work has had on me. Far and away my favorite director of animation, Clampett's cartoons were truly looney, unafraid to push gags to their most extreme, or characters to their most unlikeable. His were the first cartoons in which I really sat up and paid attention to whose name the title card bore, and in this way, was as instrumental to me understanding the role of the director as seeing O Brother, Where Art Thou? or The Royal Tenenbaums for the first time when they were released. Like the Coens or Wes Anderson, Clampett's style was so distinct that, try as I might, it was difficult to find others like it. Before these guys, I assumed - as, I think, most people do - that there are a set number of styles and genres in which a filmmaker could work. Especially looking at a set of Looney Tunes, one sort of understands the rules of the game, as it were.

There were no rules for Clampett. No barriers. Tex Avery or Frank Tashlin could sometimes be just as wild, sure, but there were territories only Clampett could chart. He brought surrealism to the cartoons, not just his (justly) famous Porky in Wackyland, but through the smallest touches - Daffy Duck whacking himself on the head to create two other Daffy's with whom he could consult in The Daffy Doc, The Little Man From the Draft Board mirroring Daffy's improvised disguise in Draftee Daffy, Daffy looking through a magnifying glass, only to stick his head through it for a closer look in The Great Piggy Bank Robbery, singing cheese and disappearing milk in Porky's Poppa, a falling plane stopping just before it hits the ground because, whadya know, it ran out of gas in Falling Hare. Always a set-up that seemed funny enough on its own, until Clampett shot it into the stratosphere, making it funnier, you could swear, than anything you'd ever seen. No element of reality was off-limits, from the rubbery objects that surrounded the characters to those characters themselves. They could bend, stretch, mold, shrink, multiply, or be removed into several pieces, all with a matter of frames, and somehow it all gelled together in motion. Look at these frames from Falling Hare (1943), after Bugs has just been whacked on the head! Most directors would have his head shake from side to side in rapid succession, maybe with some ghosting elements...

...but this? This is the kind of license only Clampett gave his animators. Kristen Thompson explained it thusly:
Some of the character movements in Clampett's films are so fast and brief that they come across as a flurry of images too fleeting to register. Frozen, they reveal some of the extraordinary means that the director and his animators used to achieve those effects of speed. Clampett was also adept at highly exaggerated reactions and hilarious distortions of the animal body. Watching these cartoons with a finger on the pause button can yield hilarity and teach you a lot about the normally hidden aspects of the art of animation.
I won't say too much about Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs, as it's...undeniably uncomfortable in so many respects, but it is such an incredible, absolutely stunning piece of animation, completely out of control and desperate to keep up with its own rhythm. Even amongst Clampett's work, there's nothing like it, and while I might still prefer Draftee Daffy or The Great Piggy Bank Robbery, it's very, very easy to see why many consider it his masterpiece.

And as much as most Looney Tunes prey some way on violence, jealousy, and general bad manners, there was something especially depraved about his work that I sensed on some level even as a kid. I mean, you watch something like The Wacky Wabbit, which ends with Elmer Fudd attempting to physically extract a gold tooth from Bugs Bunny's mouth, that leaves a mark. Draftee Daffy, perhaps his most subversive work, has Daffy cheering on the U.S.A. from the comfort of his own home, but when Uncle Sam comes calling in the form of the Little Man From the Draft Board, he does everything in his power to escape, eventually flying away on a rocket that crashes into the ground and sends him straight to Hell. Old Grey Hare, which imagines Bugs and Elmer Fudd in the future, ends with Bugs digging him own grave, only to shove Elmer into it and bury him alive.

Somehow, the way he extended these gags let them sit a little longer than the onslaught of violence to which we're accustomed in most Looney Tunes. We'd have time to actually wrestle with these, so while the dynamite or getting-whacked-on-the-head gags could still be brushed off, he'd still work in these sort of uncomfortable, extended acts of cruelty that made his versions of these even-then-iconic characters much less than simple mascots. They were our Id, unleashed in spectacularly wild form onscreen. His colors (when he had colors) were a little more washed out, a little grimier, than the bold-color house style of Chuck Jones or Friz Freleng or Robert McKimson, lending his later work an earthy, can't-quite-wash-off-the-dirt feeling. I remember as a kid finding what I now know to be his Bugs uniquely uncomfortable. Whereas Jones' version was sly and sort of reassuring, Clampett's Bugs was dastardly in a decidedly unsafe way.

As for his Daffy, well, to me there is no other version. He still possessed much of the selfishness and bitterness that would come to define him during Jones' reign and, sadly, forever since, but, in addition to lending him the spirit of a real prankster, the expression of this was much looser, more unwieldy, more unpredictable. Draftee Daffy is one of the funniest films I've ever seen, so much so that it's almost impossible to highlight individual moments, but the one that always, always, always get me are when Daffy, certain he is finally rid of the Little Man From the Draft Board (having stuffed him in a safe and put a brick wall around it), yells "so long, Dracula!", jumps on a rocket (atop a sign that says "Use In Case of Induction Only"), and flies away. Some who knew Clampett personally said he really was Daffy Duck in real life, prone to wackiness himself and given to dispatch with problems in bizarre manners - he'd have a meeting with a boss, and if he sensed trouble coming, he might excuse himself to make a phone call and never come back. Perhaps he wished for a similar escape to the one he granted Daffy, but knew, like in his creation, that trouble would rear its ugly head again.

But more than anything, he just makes me laugh, so hard, no matter how many times I've seen a given cartoon. They're so fast-paced, so packed to the brim with seemingly-spontaneous bits of humor, you'd think they were crafted precisely at the pace they play out. How someone could plan these bits out over such a long time (the cartoons usually took about a month to make), yet still make them feel spur-of-the-moment never fails to astound me. There are throwaway gags in his work funnier than most feature films. Elmer Fudd drawing and X, winding up, and then proceeding to dig in an entirely different spot; Daffy answering an especially tall telephone marked for long distance calls; Humphrey Bogart tossing Lauren Bacall an enormous cigarette lighter in a scene played totally seriously; Daffy carrying an entire stretcher by only holding one end, then flipping a coin with one hand; ink spilling from and then refilling a bottle as a ship rocks back and forth...there's no end to it.

Today would've been Bob Clampett's 100th birthday, had he not died in 1984. He lived not without controversy, and was alternately revered and despised by those who worked with him at what would come to be dubbed Termite Terrace. I certainly don't know the truth of the accusations lobbied against him - maybe nobody still living does - but as far as I'm concerned, the work speaks for itself. Whatever favoritism was granted him seems wholly earned. If he stole others' ideas, he either stole all of them or twisted them to such an extent that they were unrecognizable. He left everything else in the dust, and in the process, showed what this form was really capable of - not having a laugh at reality, but having a laugh at complete unreality.

So celebrate his birthday with me by watching a few. Many are available online, or through the excellent Looney Tunes Golden Collections (you can buy the whole lot (six in total) for a mere $100), which remain among my prized DVDs. For now, I leave you with more images from Clampett's work. It should be noted that, according to Bill Melendez (the great animator who went on to bring Peanuts to film, and who worked in Clampett's division), Clampett rarely did the drawing himself, but gave the animators free reign to play on the gags and stories he outlined. He inspired then, and he inspires now.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Super Suits, Molotov Cocktails, and Nude Demons

Depending on whereabouts you live, there are three films of varying quality opening tomorrow. Iron Man Three (I still can't believe that's how the title is presented onscreen) will, of course, be everywhere, and provides a good example of why using reviews as a consumer report is a bad idea. I thought it was just okay, didn't especially care for it, but I totally get why so many others are flipping out over it, and suspect many of you will as well. But I'm pretty up front in my review for Battleship Pretension about loving Iron Man 2, so that should be enough for many to totally write off my opinion, perhaps with good reason.

Much better, however, is Olivier Assayas' Something in the Air (a.k.a. Après mai, which translates to After May, and, given the late-60s French setting, is a much more informative title), which should also be available in some sort of Video-On-Demand capacity for those who don't have a local art house theater. Well worth seeing in either format, for reasons one could explore in my review of that, also at BP.

The best of all of them is both by far the most challenging, and, not coincidentally, the most difficult to see. I'm pretty sure Post Tenebras Lux is only playing at Film Forum in New York, but will be opening at the beginning of June in Los Angeles , and will presumably come someplace else throughout the year. It was in my top ten for last year, and my review, written soon after seeing it, is about as close as I could get to expressing how deeply I loved it while acknowledging that my attempts to understand it were pretty distant at best. I still couldn't explain it, but I've come to understand it deeply, and personally, and I highly recommend it on the very uncertain possibility that you might, too.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Alien's Great-Great-Great-Grandfather?

Sprang brayk forever, y'all.

Le Plaisir (Max Ophüls, 1952)

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

That Certain Female

Last night I watched Joseph Pevney's 1955 film Female on the Beach, based entirely, I don't mind saying, on a short piece Richard Brody wrote on his blog. Noting that Pevney's "work in film ranges from the ferociously expressive to ridiculous, sometimes in the same sequences," he goes on to write:
Female on the Beach reveals Pevney to have been a good bad director whose way with images ranges from the stodgily conventional to the weirdly idiosyncratic. He has a single tone to offer, one that stretches to fit all but is, nonetheless, alluringly negative. ...
He may have been, at times, deliciously incompetent, but his impulsive or uncontrolled failures came closer to art - and are certainly likelier to spark the imagination of artists - than the calculated successes of those whose greater skill masks lesser inspiration. Such found objects of cinematic wonder converge with a wonder at existence itself.
I certainly agree with Brody's conclusion, as Female on the Beach is, I suppose, nothing special in the overall, but wondrous in a million tiny details. Take, for instance, this image below. Joan Crawford plays a widow who's moving into her late husband's beach house until she and her real estate agent can find a buyer. She's actually never been to the house before, so the agent is showing her around, mentioning, "It's too bad you never lived here. Mr. Markham was very fond of this house, before you were married." And then Crawford throws her this glance, which lasts just a little longer than perhaps a more polite woman would allow... if to say, "what did you know about my husband's fondnesses before we were married?" Brody's point about the fiercely expressive converging with the ridiculous is well taken in just how wide, and how long, Crawford holds this precise expression, which boils over just as Pevney cuts the shot, and the heat.

Where I'm not sure I agree with Brody is when he says, "The essence of [Pevney's] art is, to a great extent, his lack of authority." While he unquestionably is more than open to a certain wildfire element of cinema, there's a passage in Female on the Beach that's as beautifully, and specifically, executed as something out of Hitchcock (Vertigo and the Master of Suspense's own abandonment of emotional control, Marnie, sprang to mind immediately). Mrs. Markham has become friendly, on her own icy terms, with beach bum Drummy (Jeff Chandler), whose relationship with an elderly couple (Cecil Kellaway and Natalie Schafer) is a great deal more sinister than the familial terms on which they present themselves, the nature of which is unmistakable given the way the film opens, but which is explicated a great deal more when Mrs. Markham finds the diary of her former tenant, Mrs. Crandall.

Here, Pevney really shows us what he's made of, using double- and triple-exposure to show intersecting memories (or are they imaginations?). Sometimes they're stately and lyrical, almost something that might be framed at the very sort of beach house around which the film takes place...

...other times they're wildly claustrophobic and sinister, as characters begin to exist on, we acknowledge, two separate planes, but because of the crushing nature of two-dimensional photography, seem to sit side-by-side. In one moment that doesn't quite translate into stills but is boldly evident in motion, Mrs. Crandall comes in and comforts herself. Here, she seems actively concerned over her own well-being (and the eye peering out, just pass us, through the page is certainly cause for concern), even though the two Mrs. Crandalls in this image are far apart, temporally and emotionally.

The extent to which Pevney planned how these images would interact is, of course, impossible to say, but also represents its own kind of authority - the certainty that the total sequence would yield a particular effect, regardless of the particulars, and that it does. Crawford's manner upon arrival is pretty distinctly standoffish, though she rarely descends into outright rudeness; it's a sort of polite contempt, rigid and unrelenting. She has to make a very definite departure from here, and while Crawford is a skilled (and unpredictable) enough performer to sell that transition, Pevney does her, and us, a great service in using such a bold and terrifying sequence to set her off.

That it, coming so early, is perhaps the highlight of the film should not indicate that the film is somehow lesser for peaking early, as the thematic and dramatic waters it then enters are more than vicious and lurid enough to engage. For whatever tameness to which the story may succumb, it always navigates towards some strange, sideways, and (thus?) all the more effective means of expression, often in the images but, not to be discounted, also in the dialogue ("He's very tall, isn't he?" a detective asks Crawford of Drummy, in a manner that makes clear he's talking about everything except the man's height). As straightforward women-in-danger thrillers go (and its placement in a TCM boxset of the same name is not unreasonable), this one is anything but.