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. Apr├Ęs 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.