Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Robert Altman's A Prairie Home Companion

GK: We don't look back in radio. That's the beauty of it. Nobody gets old, nobody dies. We just keep on goin'. 
Lola: What if you died?
GK: I will. 
Lola: And you don't want people to remember you? 
GK: I don't want them to be told to remember me.

In A Prairie Home Companion (2006), GK, a character played by Garrison Keillor and based on himself (he also wrote the script), stars in "A Prairie Home Companion," a radio show loosely based on the same show Keillor hosts on public radio. The fictional version of the radio show in the film is nearing the  end of its run: playing to a half-full theater, and having been bought out by a big corporation, its fictional flagship station, WLT (whose call letters mean "with lettuce and tomato," as befitting of the film's midwestern bonhomie as anything else), the show we witness in A Prairie Home Companion is likely to be the last GK will ever host. Yet he is not one for eulogizing. GK never mentions the fact that this is the show's finale to his audience; his job, on this night, is the same as it has always been: juggle everything that needs to be juggled in order to pull the show off, entertain the audience that has decided to show up (in St. Paul, Minnesota, at the Fitzgerald Theater, the home of the show in real life as well), and then go home.

The movie itself, directed by Robert Altman, reflects that same spirit in its regards to last things. It was Altman's final film, yet it is marked by neither heavy-handed gravitas nor easy sentimentality. Altman and Keillor's sensibilities are very close, and they are very similar auteurs in a sense: while unmistakably the center of attention, they exist in this film primarily to provide a launching pad for the talents of others. (It is somewhat surprising to read, in Mitchell Zuckoff's masterful oral biography of Altman, that the two did not get along). The film is about nothing more than the last performance of "Prairie," with fictionalized versions of the real show's gala of performers. Songs are sung by Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin (as dueting Minnesota sisters), Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly (as a pair of ribald cowboys), and even an endearing Lindsay Lohan (as Streep's daughter; she was never endearing before or again). Altman also turns his camera to the backstage goings-on, and his trademark technique of constant camera movements, tracking shots, and overlapping dialogue creates a gentle palimpsest of celebration, remembrance, and melancholy.

This is not Altman's best film (Nashville, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and Short Cuts are all more expansive visions of American culture; by comparison, Prairie is hermetic). It may not even be his best film this decade - Gosford Park is the best case that Altman is something like an American Jean Renoir. But it is, along with the scruffy California Split, my favorite Robert Altman film. In the Zuckoff biography (the most masterful bio of a film director I've ever read, because its method and presentation - overlapping voices speaking on Altman's life, juxtaposed one after the other - perfectly captures the sensibility of its object), Paul Thomas Anderson, who was an assistant director on Prairie (Altman could not get the film insured without a director to take over in the event of his death), shares loving anecdotes about Altman, with whom he became friends toward the end of Altman's life. Late in the book, he reveals that the final shot filmed in Prairie - the final shot filmed by Altman - was of Kevin Kline (who plays the Fitzgerald Theater "house detective" in the film) sitting at a piano while the set of the radio show (and the film itself) is taken apart and thrown away. Anderson says: "He was staring at the monitor and he just looked really sad that it was ending. I think we only did the shot twice ... I wanted to do more - not 'cause it wasn't good, but I wanted to keep shooting." Prairie contains a very intelligent depiction of grief and loss which accepts the end of things with the same tough attitude as GK himself. But it is also a film very much alive; the film doesn't end with that shot of Kline, but instead gives us one final glimpse of the "Prairie" troupe as it sings its final song. The film lets the show go on, exuding an open-ended generosity familiar in Altman.

Francois Truffaut once wrote that The Rules of the Game was one of those films you could watch once a year for the rest of your life. I feel that way about A Prairie Home Companion.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Jacques Rivette's Histoire de Marie et Julien



All of Jacques Rivette's films are built upon a love of the classical cinema, in particular the films of the classical Hollywood cinema, which he spent the better part of the 1950s watching at the Cinémathèque Française in Paris. In at least one case - his unusual 1966 film with Anna Karina, La religieuse - he built upon that love in the most direct of ways, making what was essentially a classical film, a mode he returned to recently in the ravishing The Duchess of Langeais (2007). In most of his work, though, his tribute to classical narrative is not by way of imitation, but through a trickier departure into self-reflexivity and demanding experiments with film duration. In other words, Rivette sees the classical cinema, and a critical reflection on the classical cinema, as a short cut to modernism. This is no surprise: as a critic for Cahiers du cinéma in the 1950s, Rivette spoke of favorite Hollywood auteurs (in particular Nicholas Ray and Otto Preminger) as the most modern, even revolutionary, of directors. Rereading his criticism again, it becomes apparent that they were modern to him (and for his other fellow Cahiers writers, the future directors of the French New Wave) because his love for their films never took the form of settled reverence; instead, his writing carried a present-tense sense that these Hollywood movies had the visual power to take him just about anywhere, despite the fact that most of them insisted on the kind of invisible style and narrative closure his later films would eschew.

His critical appreciation for Hollywood, while full of interesting insights, in fact only becomes concrete in his films. What Rivette urges us to appreciate is how the seemingly placid classical narrative cinema becomes phenomenally and breathtakingly alive in the right hands. For Rivette, in the eyes of the viewer trained to look beyond the film image as a mere vehicle for narrative information, classical auteurs could be seen as creators of movies that might spin into a number of different tantalizing directions all at once, even as their films exuded all the qualities of finalized aesthetic objects, proceeding as they do in the most effortlessly economical and stylishly "invisible" of ways.

Jonathan Rosenbaum perhaps said it best, in an important essay on Celine and Julie Go Boating's relationship to Hawks's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: "...one of the more pleasing aspects of Celine et Julie is the way that it clarifies and helps to redefine much of the cinema that inspired it...Seeing [Gentlemen Prefer Blondes] again after Celine et Julie reveals how even the garish cartoon-like simplicity of one of Hawks's more bloated efforts can accommodate a formal play of exchanges between the leading ladies that is far from simple ... Celine et Julie, by exploring some of the same parameters in a quite different context, illuminates the potential richness of such a film behind its various commercial disguises, throwing up a rich and ravishing jewel box of possibilities."
 
And as much as I love Celine, for me, the most "rich and ravishing" - and indeed the darkest - "jewel box of possibilities" Rivette has yet to give us is 2003's exquisite ghost story, Histoire de Marie et Julien (unlike the more recent Duchess, which was given good U.S. distribution by IFC, this film was never given a theatrical release in the U.S., so I'm partial to the French title).

Monday, November 30, 2009

We Own the Night

The first time I saw James Gray's elegant genre effort We Own the Night  (2007), I thought it was functional, but derivative. The second time - shortly after seeing, and loving, Gray's 2000 effort The Yards - I was moved by the performances in We Own the Night, and even more struck by Gray's nimble classicism, a quality rivaled only in the films of Clint Eastwood (particularly Million Dollar Baby) in the last ten years.

Since I've written on Gray elsewhere on this blog, I won't crank out too many more words here. Instead, I'll point you in the direction of two other online sources on the underrated American auteur. First, an insightful interview with Ryan Stewart over at Slant Magazine. Then, a piece on We Own the Night by the blogger Oggs Cruz. Not everyone is convinced of Gray's talent - David Bordwell essentially dismissed it as something like a routine Warner Bros. cop film from the 30s, just with more sex and violence - but I'm looking forward to seeing where Gray goes from here.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

A History of Violence

Early in his career, David Cronenberg described his films as if they were shot from the perspective of a parasite. If his earlier works - Shivers (1975), Scanners (1981), and Video Drome (1983) - burrow inside the skin of their subjects to reveal the horrifying interiors lying underneath, his more recent A History of Violence (2005) finds its disturbing vision entirely on the play and exchange of surfaces. I don't think I've ever seen another genre film made for the U.S. film industry remain so stubbornly on the exterior of its characters, to the point that it suggests that no such interiority exists. The film is about apparently mild-mannered Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), who owns a diner in a small midwestern town in Indiana, with an apparently normal wife and apparently normal kids. It turns out he has a past life he's been keeping from them, one that begins to creep back into his existence after he kills, in barely believable film-heroic fashion, two would-be killers who place the life of his employees in jeopardy during a robbery. It's an event covered by the news media, and soon an ominous Philadelphia gangster played by Ed Harris comes calling, complete with a scarred face and eye that Stall's former proclivity for violence - it's suggested he was once a member of the same criminal organization - would seem to be responsible for. Or, I should say, that Joey Cusack is responsible for, this being the name of Stall's former self, the figure he's been trying to repress in his quiet Midwestern life. The return of Fogarty prompts Stall/Cusack to confront the violent past he's been trying to hide, including a return to Philly and a confrontation with his antagonistic criminal brother, Richie Cusack (William Hurt, in a performance that was nominated for an Oscar, somewhat surprisingly in retrospect).

Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Serious Man



During my formative film-watching years, the Coen Brothers loomed high. Films like Fargo, The Hudsucker Proxy, and The Big Lebowski struck me as idiosyncratic, personal visions. These were the kind of movies that led me to understand how the film image was not simply a transparent vehicle for comforting narrative information and identification with heroic protagonists, but a shaping of perspective, moral, emotional, aesthetic, and otherwise. Ultimately, I think these movies don't really deserve that much credit: they, alongside many others, inspired me to pick up Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael, but they ultimately don't hold up when seen in the light of the sharpest concepts of those critics. Whatever their achievement as filmmakers, looking back, I think I just liked the Coens at that age because they made me feel smart. Before words and phrases like mise-en-scène and diegesis entered my vocabulary, before I really knew how to burrow into films, the Coens intellectualized the surface (and it was all surface, then) of my film-going experience through their quasi-cerebral attitude. And this was easy enough (and, in retrospect, not really intellectual at all), because nearly every character they filmed was a priori inferior to them, thus making their "vision" (really not a matter of  mise-en-scène, but just a product of their insufferable God complex) the only thing left to appreciate after we were through laughing at the poor saps played by Frances McDormand, Tim Robbins, and Jeff Bridges, affable performers who looked like they were having an awful lot of fun playing morons. But when I did start to think through films as something more than illustrated picture-books, the "vision" of the Coen Brothers began to look more like that of de-robed Emperors than canon-worthy film-makers. 

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

I'm Going Home

The back and front images adorning the 2003 Image Entertainment DVD release of Manoel de Oliveira's I'm Going Home form a familiar effort to sell expansive cinema in reductive, normative terms. On the front we see an older man, laughing, accompanied by a young boy that we presume to be his grandson, while on the back we see them joyously playing with remote-controlled cars together. The image of them playing with the cars is one of the most important in the movie, but the whole DVD package exudes a cornball heartwarmth that's hardly an exact representation of the contents inside. It's not necessarily a completely inappropriate or dishonest image, as the distance between generations is one of the film's themes, but the young boy only appears a handful of times and the relationship between he and his grandfather is largely incidental, at least in narrative terms. The film centers squarely on the experience of aging theater and cinema actor Gilbert Valence (Michel Piccoli) after the death of his family in a car accident, a situation that allows de Oliveira to investigate one of his central themes (at least in his late work): the intersection of and clash between tradition and modernity.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Beaches of Agnes





I like The Beaches of Agnès (Agnes Varda) for its modest qualities, and for its intoxicating approach to cinema, memory, life, and love as something like a puzzle. The film, a cinematic self portrait of director Agnès Varda, is ultimately impossible to firmly categorize. It's at least a start to say it flits between documentary/remembrance and fiction/invention with ease, and Varda carries with her reminiscences a gentle wisp of modernism that's refreshing in a film culture oversaturated with ironic pastiche. The film sneaks up on you with its profundities: it's like having a casual conversation with an old friend, or perhaps, given Varda's age, an especially thoughtful grandmother; then, at some point in the conversation, suddenly hitting on two or three things that seem to explain some very important part of the trajectories and textures of your entire life. The film combines footage and photographs from Varda's past along with scenes from her earlier movies (and those of her husband, Jacques Demy, whose relationship with Varda gives the second half of the film a loose structure, although not an exactly linear one, given that his death hangs over much of the film), and also contains present-day footage of the aging auteur. This is probably as good a film as Varda has ever made, and certainly the most moving autobiography of a film director I'm ever likely to see. I know it's the best movie I've seen so far in '09.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Informant!


At the core of Steven Soderbergh's new film, The Informant!, is a protagonist without a center. Matt Damon is cast as Mark Whitacre, a corporate whistle blower in an early-90s FBI investigation into price fixing by Archer Daniels Midland, manufacturer of invisible synthetic food ingredients that dot the lists of nutritional information in supermarkets across the world. Layered by uglifying make-up that adds one more mask onto a character who's already tricky enough to pin down, Damon plays Whitacre in two broad registers. In his relationships with other people - his wife, the FBI agents he imagines himself friends with, and the co-workers he's secretly trying to bring down - he projects the constant need to be seen as a moral do-gooder. But in his first-person voice-over, Whitacre is presented as a delusional man given to waxing philosophical over the magical properties of lysine, a manufactured amino acid used in agriculture and the object of ADM's price fixing. Neither of these two levels - which intersect powerfully in the final minutes of the film, when Soderbergh uses the voice-over to anticipate how Whitacre will respond to other characters right before the fiction he has built around himself comes crashing down - draw us inside Whitacre, the man. And, the film seems to be telling us, the impossibility of knowing Whitacre the man apart from the corporate world that serves as his fantastical measure of all things is precisely the point.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

On the value of lists


In a Salon column posted about a month or so ago, Andrew O'Hehir writes about a poll taken by Iain Stott of the cinema blog The One-Line Review. The poll asked a variety of film critics, historians, and bloggers (with the greatest number of participants coming from this last category, although I can't say how many of these also fit into the other two categories as well) to pick their "fifty greatest films." O'Hehir is at once surprised by the "flexibility and idiosyncrasy" of the list, but also begrudges it for same: taking to task, for example, the ranking of Annie Hall over the likes of Raging Bull, The Passion of Joan of Arc, and Grand Illusion. (Whether or not listing a film like Annie Hall, which, to my mind, is already canonized - it has a BFI Film Classics volume dedicated to it, after all - is really a sign of "flexibility and idiosyncrasy" is another question entirely; perhaps if Crimes and Misdemeanors or Deconstructing Harry had made the final list I'd be more convinced). More interestingly, O'Hehir suggests that while the list leans too American (even the sole foreign choice in the top ten, Seven Samurai, is a heavily American-inflected choice, as O'Hehir points out) his main beef is not its tendency to skew close to home, but rather its exclusion of new films. The cinephiles taking this poll, O'Hehir suggests, are most comfortable with old favorites - suggesting that cinephilia itself, at least on the face of it, tends to repeat received knowledge rather than create knowledge anew. "In the bigger picture," O'Hehir writes, "over the last 20 years the tastes of critics and film buffs seem to have ossified around a central canon of classics that may shift position but don't change much. There are only four films on this entire list made since 1980, and only one made after 1990."

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Hurt Locker and the war film

I don't like war films very much. As a good cinephile-liberal, I want my war films to be antiwar, but without functioning as ideological treatises that force my thought in too particular a direction. In other words, I still want them to be works of art and not pamphlets, admirable though the making of a pamphlet may be. But that's a tough request, particularly since the making of an effective work of art still frequently requires a coherent, if not forced, political perspective. And for an industry that pivots around the celebrity star's persona, it is hard for the war film to avoid endorsing, or at least admiring, the central actions their frequently appealing and even glamorous protagonists undertake.

Samuel Fuller, whose films are often forthrightly, and powerfully, unglamorous, once suggested otherwise. In his thoroughly enjoyable posthumous biography A Third Face, Fuller waxes philosophical on the reception and intended purpose of his 1980 war film, The Big Red One:

In a strange twist of fate, some people got the idea I was a warmonger, that my films promoted war. What bullshit! For Chrissakes, war is living hell. I hope no one ever has to have that goddamned experience again, either as a soldier or a noncombatant. Never! We must avoid war at all costs (219).

The first half of that quote captures the insolence and beautifully single-minded determination of the Fuller who made crackerjack and paradoxically inimitable (because they were works of genre) films in the 1950s. I want to believe the passion behind Fuller's statement: his Run of the Arrow (1957) still stands as one my most revelatory cinematic experiences - seeing it alongside my first French New Wave films, it helped me understand how the stylistic construction of a film could generate, rather than merely illustrate or invisibly convey, narrative content. But as much as I admire him, the second half of Fuller's quote strikes me as bullshit. If Fuller didn't want anyone to have that "goddamned experience again," why make a movie about it?

Monday, July 6, 2009

A trip to the moon


It's hard to avoid the lure of biological determinism when speaking of Moon. Its director, Duncan Jones, is David Bowie's son; just as his father cemented a reputation as a chameleon effortlessly able to weave various musical styles together, so too does Jones' film flit through the recent history of metaphysical science fiction in a stab at achieving a revealing synthesis and unique identity. (One is especially reminded of Solaris - both the Tarkovsky and Soderbergh versions, particularly through the motif of the apparition, especially important to Moon - and 2001: A Space Odyssey). But while casual Bowie listeners will readily associate his son's film with his father's first major hit, 1969's "Space Oddity" (from the album of the same name), as J. Hoberman does in his recent review, in another sense Moon parallels the 1997 platter Earthling, Bowie's undervalued effort to carve out a distinctive vision through the (even by '97) well-plumbed stylings of trip hop and techno. Although Bowie's music has, with only a few exceptions (most from the 80s), never been known for its earnestness, Earthling's richly textured but icy surfaces are distancing even for a rock star thoroughly trained in the art of surface irony. Moon's existential sci-fi feels, in its own way, just as coolly distant: Jones is more interested in playing with surface than plumbing emotional depths.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Toback and Tyson


James Toback's filmography is dotted with sensitive male intellectuals and artists revealing hyper-masculine and violent components of their psyche. In Fingers (1978), a film that captured the energy (and a measure of the misogyny) of a certain strand of brat-pack New Hollywood Cinema towards its tail end, Harvey Keitel plays a pianist in a pulp plot that focuses on the split between his love of art and his desire to murder his deceased father's lingering enemies (seedy material that, in good post-French New Wave fashion, is treated with the utmost art-cinema seriousness by Toback). In Two Girls and a Guy (1997) an artist played by Robert Downey, Jr. is compelled into two destructive (and dangerously intertwined) love affairs, the two girls of the title serving less as a challenge to his idea of himself and more as a simple reflection of the contradictory aspects of his own psychology. Of what I've seen of his work, those are probably Toback's two most successful films, largely because they abandon any serious interest in a female perspective - not one of Toback's strengths - almost immediately, instead choosing to trod the hyper-masculine territory that Toback can investigate with some authority. When Toback deigns to tell the woman's side of the story, it results in a film like When Will I Be Loved (2004), wherein the woman (Neve Campbell) is ultimately just a projection of masculinist fantasies of what "female sexuality" (these films paint with very generalizing brushes) must be like.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Abbas Kiarostami on the Internet


Geoff Andrew's BFI Modern Classics volume on Abbas Kiarostami's 10 (2005) is the third book I've read on the Iranian director (the other two being Alberto Elena's magisterial The Cinema of Abbas Kiarostami and Jonathan Rosenbaum and Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa's collection Abbas Kiarostami). One frustration I've encountered in reading each of them is that they often discuss early Kiarostami films (many of them shorts produced prior to his more well known works) that I've never been able to see. This is not any kind of flaw in the books, of course, since I think in each case discussion of the early work is obviously justified (and I appreciate at least knowing about these early films even if I can't see them). But due to my own situation as a viewer and the poor (non-) distribution of Kiarostami's early work, at least in the U.S., it's still a problem.

It is for these reasons that I was happy to find that at least a few of Kiarostami's early films are now available on the Internet. Everything I've found so far has been posted on You Tube and on other download sites, although I imagine more digging might reveal more digitized Kiarostami lurking elsewhere. (If I come across any more in the future, I'll add them to this post, barring copyright restrictions). I thought it would be useful to have what I could find located all in one place. These are no substitutes for the actual prints or high-quality DVD transfers of the films, the latter of which I hope exist someday. But at least they give us some sense of what Andrew, Elena, and the other authors are writing about in their monographs.

These videos are organized chronologically. (The Chorus, by the way, was never released in two parts; that's merely how it's presented on the You Tube site).

Bread and Alley (1970) (Note: Due to copyright restrictions, You Tube had to remove the soundtrack from the film, which features a piece of music that could not be reproduced. However, if you look hard enough, the full version of this film is available w/soundtrack on the Internet. Google, my friends).



The Breaktime (1972)



2 Solutions for 1 Problem (1975)



The Chorus (1982) (file divided into two parts):



Monday, March 2, 2009

It's in the genes: The Films of James Gray

Time for a bit of straight-up auteurism, since that seems like the best approach to discuss the merits (and also the possible limitations, at least in his work as it has been realized so far) of this fascinating filmmaker.
***
In an interesting recent interview, director James Gray described his approach to telling stories as a search for "authentic emotionality." It is perhaps telling that such an intelligent filmmaker has to use an awkward, and potentially misleading, phrase to describe movies that are so carefully, elegantly, and intelligently crafted. Gray intends "authentic emotionality" as a description (or at least the beginnings of a possible description) of the four films he has helmed - Little Odessa (1994), The Yards (2000), We Own the Night (2007) and Two Lovers (2009). We can understand the phrase more concretely through Gray's commitment to understanding character and relationships between characters, and the ensuing commitment to derive narrative and stylistic structures that organically emerge from the dynamism and development of those relationships. Ultimately, then, these films suggest a far simpler word to describe them: classicism. Gray is not quite as immediately brilliant as Wes Anderson or Paul Thomas Anderson, whose films operate no less beautifully - and with no less acute a sense of what is needed cinematically to suggest character emotion and relationships - but in ways that tend towards a more noticeable use of style. (Of course, here a massive footnote would need to be inserted to discuss all those things that pass by quietly on a first viewing of films as rich as There Will Be Blood and The Royal Tenenbaums, but for the sake of time and argument I'll just assume it's a safe move to regard the Andersons as far more "stylish" than Gray). Neither are his crime films as immediately gripping as Scorsese's (who has, in his flawed but still interesting recent work, become more mannerist relative to his earlier classicism), even though both The Yards and We Own the Night have stayed with me far longer after I saw them the first time than anything the Italian-American maestro has made since Casino. "Classicism" seems like the right word because I have come to value these films' tendency towards that quality of lingering - the gesture of an actor, or a camera movement, a mise-en-scene, or a color scheme - that in classical cinema registers its affect almost imperceptibly, the image otherwise being devoted to simply telling a story.

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Argentine and Guerrilla: Soderbergh's Che

Steven Soderbergh's lengthy rumination on the revolutionary fighter Che Guevara is currently making the rounds in two forms: a roadshow version showing both parts of the film - The Argentine and Guerrilla - as one presentation, divided by an intermission, and as two films shown separately. IFC Films has made some small effort to make the roadshow a special event; in my city I received a program to go along with the film, and while it contains little besides set photography and credits, it's a nice souvenir. In either context, it's hard to grasp the logic behind seeing one of these films and not the other: in total, Che is a difficult but rewarding work, and what Soderbergh and Benicio Del Toro, who plays Che, do in one installment is refracted in the other. This is because the film, far from settling on one vision of who, exactly, Che was, works to juxtapose impressions of the man and his moment in a series of composite sketches that accumulate significance.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

My Top Ten Films of 2008


1. WALL-E (Andrew Stanton)
2. Che (Steven Soderbergh)
3. The Duchess of Langeais
(Jacques Rivette)
4. Paranoid Park (Gus Van Sant)
5. My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin)
6. Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt)
7. Still Life (Jia Zhang-ke)
8. A Christmas Tale
(Arnaud Desplechin)
9. Happy Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh)
10. JCVD (Mabrouk El Mechri)

Honorable Mentions:

The Edge of Heaven
Encounters at the End of the World
The Last Mistress
Man on Wire
Redbelt
The Wrestler

Worth Seeing:

Ashes of Time Redux
Boarding Gate
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Diary of the Dead
Flight of the Red Balloon
Frost/Nixon
Gran Torino
I've Loved You So Long
Milk
Pineapple Express
Reprise
The Romance of Astrea and Celadon
Shine a Light
Synecdoche, New York
Vicky Christina Barcelona

Friday, January 16, 2009

Different Versions of Malick's World

One of the challenges of the last chapter of my dissertation, a critical study of Terrence Malick's films and their relation to certain aspects of philosophy, is dealing with the multi-textuality of the director's most recent film, The New World (2005). Although rumors of a six-hour version of The Thin Red Line (1998) have circulated for years, such a film never saw the light of day, and there has never been any discussion of Malick's first two features, Badlands (1973) or Days of Heaven (1978) existing in alternate cuts. But three different versions of Malick's rendering of the John Smith-Pocahontas legend exist, all of them released in a period of just under three years. The first, distributed to qualify the film for Oscar consideration in December of 2005, is a 150 minute cut. This version is now available on an Italian Region 2 DVD, pictured adjacent to this paragraph (which lists its length as 144 minutes, although this discrepancy owes to the fact that PAL uses the slightly faster framerate of 25 fps) and also as a digital download when you purchase a copy of the Region 1 disc of the longest cut (discussed below; this digital copy is actually advertised as the three-hour cut, but it's the Oscar-qualifying cut you actually receive from the download). The second, essentially a shorter cut of this first version, is the most widely seen, having seen wide release in January of 2006, and runs at 135 minutes. Finally, in October of 2008 a third cut of the film was released on DVD in North America: the "extended cut," which, in addition to an extended runtime of 172 minutes, also features chapter titles within the film itself, a change which serves to make the director's experiments in narrative fragmentation even more radical.

Slant Magazine's Ed Gonzalez has written one of the most passionate and insightful short reviews of the film, and his comments regarding the film suggest the differences between the three versions are negligible. He's right, to an extent. One of the central arguments I'm trying to develop about The New World is that, despite its attention to certain aspects of historical detail, it regards the world it presents on the screen as something like an ongoing dream, mediated, for viewers, not only by centuries of artistic production (the film is rich in allusion - its sources, cataloged by this valuable You Tube video, range from Virgil's Aeneid to the Bible - suggesting immediately that we cannot perceive either Smith or Pocahontas as the unified "characters" or implied persons of classical literature and cinema but rather as mythical figures who we know only through the fragments of the cultures mediating our understanding of who they were) but also, for the characters themselves, by the elusive nature of love and memory. All three versions of the film explore this theme, although with different inflections.

Also equally valid for all three versions is one of Adrian Martin's observations about The New World, developed in his contribution to the second edition of The Cinema of Terrence Malick: Poetic Visions of America (Wallflower Press, 2008), namely that Pocahontas and John Smith struggle to be faithful to the "event of love" throughout the second half of the story. This is an idea which also resonates within Malick's entire oeuvre, insofar as it echoes the recurring theme of the individual's struggle to reconstruct and understand his or her own past. I would go even further than Martin, however, and say that all three versions of Malick's film make it difficult to tell even when, why, or how the "event of love" happens in The New World. This in part owes to Malick's fragmented narrative (this is perhaps the most discontinuous film in the history of Hollywood) and in part to the film's own carefully developed themes of spectating and dreaming: Jamestown, in The New World, is as much dream as reality as its two central characters are a fictional construct of Malick's. While the film obviously lacks any obvious reference to the cinema (it is the first of the director's three films not to be set in the twentieth century) the consistent manner in which its characters perceive the outer environment of colonial America as a kind of interior projection, or residue of a lost dream, recalls our own situation as spectators of Malick's lush imagery. Note, for example, how the film introduces John Smith (Colin Farrell), not as actor on the stage of world conquest or the protagonist of a linear, cause-and-effect costume epic, but as a viewer, in chains due to his attempt at mutiny prior to the start of the narrative, looking at the arrival of the colonial ships through an opening in his cell:


For lack of time, I'll defer most of the rest of this argument regarding the film's theme of spectating to my actual chapter. Although all three cuts all share certain features, my primary interest in the balance of this post is to contest Gonzalez's idea that all three versions of Malick's film are essentially the same. Key differences, I think, exist across all versions, differences that must be dealt with in any reading of the film which refuses to regard any one of the versions as a single "authoritative cut" (since none exists). Although the major themes I've already mentioned are at play in each cut, major tonal (and thus interpretive) differences occur, I think, in regards to four aspects of the film across its three versions: Smith's status as either complicit in or resistant to the European colonial project; the new world as dream; spoken and written discourse; and the character of John Rolfe (Christian Bale).

Smith's resistance

All of Malick's films have what might be called "fateful structures": stories whose ends are either telegraphed far in advance, or whose thematic focus on the mortality of the central characters puts the viewer in the position of expecting one or more of their deaths. Malick's voice-overs frequently serve to figure characters, then, as resistant to the forces of history. Smith is perhaps the most overdetermined of Malick's characters; a wealth of historical speculation precedes Malick's re-vision of the character, so we come to the film knowing at least certain aspects of Smith's legend, like any schoolboy. All three versions of The New World, however, refrain from giving their viewer the sense that Malick's Smith is cognizant of his salient historical role in the events ongoing around him. Farrell's Smith is uncertain, hesitant, and only quick to action at particular moments (he is more frequently seen in a still, contemplative pose). I've already mentioned his passivity, his role as a viewer rather than an actor in Malick's film, and this continues even after he is released from his chains; throughout, he is figured as simply taking in the sensuous new environment of the new world rather than confidently acting within it:



Nonetheless, each of the three cuts projects a slightly different kind of Smith. In the 150 minute version, Smith, although guilty of mutiny, is figured as ultimately complicit with the European colonial project in rather stark terms; his rebellion is seen as the exception to his character, not the rule. After being released from chains, Malick spends time in each of the film's cuts depicting Smith wandering through the landscape. But in the 150 minute version, his wanderings associate him with an entire culture's encounter with what we now know as Virginia, as Malick pairs Smith's first contact with the wilderness of America (after he is released from his chains) with shots of other individuals, and in one image an entire European family, making their first landing on the shore. In the other two cuts, Malick removes many of the images of other arriving Europeans, narrowing his focus for most of this particular passage on Smith's relative isolation from the other colonialists. In the 172 minute cut, in particular, this isolation is soon felt as an active resistance to the European colonial project, a rather radical re-interpretation (one might just want to say "re-creation") of the Smith figure. This is because Malick adds a brief but crucial passage of dialogue not contained in either of the other two versions. After Christopher Newport (Christopher Plummer) recommends Smith as the leader of an envoi to open trade negotiations with the Powhatan king (which precipitates his first meeting with Pocahontas), a moment that is present in all three versions, in the 172-minute cut other members of the nascent colony, particularly Wingfield (David Thewlis), suggest that Smith would teach the Indians European forms of warfare and rebel against the colonialists. It's a very brief exchange, but it gives Smith a personal history as rebel that the other two versions of the film lack. Rather than situating him as an colonialist, the 172-minute cut begins by framing him as a potential threat to the colonial project.

This "extended cut" then goes on to provide some evidence to Wingfield's framing of Smith as resistant to that project, for it includes several more minutes of footage of Smith engaging with the Powhatan upon his arrival to their part of the woods. Although this is perhaps just a matter of impressions, I'd argue that we get a more palpable sense of Smith's joy at being a part of the Powhatan clan (no matter how briefly) in the 172-minute cut than we do in the other two versions, which cut to his intimacy with Pocahontas more quickly (thus framing his relationship with her as a relatively asocial one). There is one particularly moving sequence added in the 172-minute cut in which he saves a young boy from drowning. After Smith saves the young boy, he is figured apart from the Powhatan (who move away from Smith to gather around the saved child), an individual viewed apart from their world:


Then, they move back into the frame, as the camera tracks ever so slightly back. They welcome him, in effect, into their society, unifying formerly separated figures in the mise en scene (Smith is no longer an individual viewed apart from the Powhatan; he becomes, at this moment, a part of them):


In both the 132- and 150-minute cuts of the film, Smith and Pocahontas nurture a relationship that is frequently felt to be at odds with their given societies. Because of these additions, however, the 172 minute cut opens up Smith's and Pocahontas's eventual relationship as a social intervention within the Powhatan clan (and within Smith's European lineage as well), even as something of a ritual which welcomes Smith into the fold. In the longer cut, it is only after saving the young boy and proving himself a worthy member of the Powhatan society that Pocahontas and Smith begin their romance; in the shorter versions, their romance is felt more as something apart from the rest of the Powhatan tribe as a whole. Not only does Smith emerge as more resistant to the English colonial project in the longest of the three cuts, then, he emerges in great part as a member of the Powhatan society, his relationship with Pocahontas felt to be a part of a larger welcoming ritual. This throws into relief his return to the struggling English colony, already diseased and ruined, all the more strongly.

The new world as dream

Long passages of the film proceed without dialogue between interlocutors; Malick frequently eschews shot-reaction shot structures in favor of a more open-ended engagement with space. Characters more frequently look at one another, not within the circuit of exchanged gazes, but in ways which figure the other as distant and apart, in another world. Take, for example, the first encounter of Pocahontas and John Smith. Neither one is quite visible to the other; the other exists only as part of a landscape to which the other has not yet learned how to relate:



As the film progresses, then, we get the sense not simply of two individuals or two worlds encountering one another for the first time, but of two different elements of mise-en-scene - separate at first, only observed by the other, but slowly becoming unified. For example, historians have often questioned the validity of John Smith's story about Pocahontas saving Smith from the hands of her father, who wanted to kill him. Many instead believe the Powhatan arranged the saving of Smith as a spectacle and a ritual which would inaugurate Smith as part of the Powhatan society. Malick preserves this sense of spectacle in this sequence which depicts Pocahontas's "saving" of Smith, situating both the Powhatan and Smith as a part of a spectacular mise-en-scene that is finally brought together at the moment in which Pocahontas throws herself onto Smith. He even foregrounds the fact that this ritual, and his filming of it, is an artistic construction, inserting several disorienting jump cuts into the sequence. The "reality" of what we see unfolds along a discursive train that jumps the tracks, so to speak. The sequence as a whole, too, is bound up with theatricality; the Powhatan hut looks like nothing so much as a theater stage, complete with rafters and shafts of light emerging from above:


The fragile unity established between Smith, Pocahontas, and other Powhatan is broken once the Powhatan king sends Smith back to his own colony. As viewers, Malick's discontinuous editing strategies have already cued us to query the reality of what we see on the screen; similarly, for the rest of the film, both Smith and Pocahontas will speak of their initial romance as a "dream," suggesting once again the film's theme of subjective projection and the unstable nature of objective reality. In the 132-minute cut of the film, Malick establishes this "dream" primarily from Smith's point of view. In a sequence in which Smith trades with Indians after having left Pocahontas, Malick cuts to new images of Smith and Pocahontas together, but never firmly establishes these moments in the diegesis. We are instead cued to recognize them as originating from Smith's own subjectivity. They constitute, in the shortest cut, fleeting fragments of a past (or perhaps of an imagined future?) which are fading from Smith's memory (in the following chain of images, for example, the third shot of Pocahontas functions as subjective flashback):


In both of the longer versions, however, Malick works initially to situate this second meeting with Pocahontas as an actual part of the film's diegetic reality by establishing it as an autonomous narrative segment, rather than as images which we are cued to recognize as emerging from Smith's memory in the segment involving the trading. This is a much longer sequence in both of the longer cuts, and it is framed as reality, not memory - at least at first. Near the end of this second tryst, however, we are given the following images (not in the 132 minute cut) of Pocahontas drifting into sleep, and then Pocahontas and Smith lying asleep some time later:


After first being led to believe this second meeting is an actual occurence, are we then perhaps to assume that this second meeting is Pocahontas's dream, rather than Smith's (given that she figures more centrally in the above images depicting sleep?) In all of the versions, Malick de-stabilizes diegetic reality, suggesting that what we see of Jamestown may be only a subjective projection, but in the two longer cuts he invites us, I think, to consider that this may be Pocahontas's dream as well as Smith's, granting the former character a greater degree of agency and more depth of subjectivity within the narrative.

The discourse of history

The 132-minute cut and 172 minute cut of the film include the following image in the film's first half-hour, which depicts Smith sitting alone and writing:

This image is removed in the 150-minute cut (which tends to focus less on Smith's isolation early in the film). It is the 172-minute cut, however, which evokes most strongly Smith's own writing of history and an insistence on the inevitably multivocal nature of history. The historical Smith wrote several books on the subject of colonial Virginia. Malick's longest cut begins with Smith's own words:


Smith's words, however, do not cue the linear, historiographically verifiable unfolding of history in Malick's film. Instead, the film insists repeatedly upon the polyphonic nature of voices. At certain junctures in the film, Malick's use of the voice-over, far from establishing an indexical relationship to just one character, becomes a palimpsest. Consider the following words, spoken by Farrell as Smith on the film's soundtrack as this image appears on the visual track:

How many lands behind me?
How many seas?

What blows and dangers?
Fortune ever my friend.



Smith's words are an allusion to Virgil's Aeneid; to complicate matters further, we also here the diegetic voice of Plummer's Christopher Newport, although it is difficult to locate his voice in precise spatial and temporal terms. In addition to this, we have the image of a Powhatan Indian climbing the skeleton of a European fort, posing explicitly the question of the extent to which we can understand the reality of Indian-European relations through Smith's (and Newport's) words. Instead of granting us a vision of historical reality confirmed by the writings of past historians or a single diegetic subjectivity, then, in sequences like this one, all three cuts of The New World (which include the above sequence) work hard to establish history as a deep palimpsest of voices to which we may continue to bring our own interpretive work.

John Rolfe

An interesting essay by Kent Jones - originally published in Film Comment, and recently included in his anthology Physical Evidence (Wesleyan, 2007) - praises The New World, but also takes Malick to task for the way in which his editing strategies can make mincemeat of the work of performers: "Given the discontinuous presentation, actors often commit the cardinal error of 'playing' emotions, and they have to be as resourceful and intuitive as Nick Nolte or Sean Penn or Christian Bale...to hack out a viable character" (Physical Evidence, 103). I'm not sure what Jones's aesthetic criteria for a "viable character" are, but his mentioning of Bale is perceptive. In the 132-minute cut of The New World, what we know of John Rolfe is mostly communicated for us through Bale's peformance. The 172-minute cut continues to rely heavily upon Bale's intonations, gestures, and expressions for the viewer to "hack out" a character in the act of interpretation, but Malick has made some additions which deepen Rolfe as a character, and complicate his relationship to the colonial project in ways that echo Smith's uneasiness in the first hour of the film.

The central addition involves a scene in which Rolfe approaches Newport and other authorities about the idea of marrying Pocahontas. In this sequence, Rolfe's superiors make clear the understanding that the marriage will function instrumentally, that is, as a way to unify the European and Indian people politically. In the shorter cuts, Rolfe's intentions towards Pocahontas - despite his obvious love for her on a human level - often reflected this kind of mentality which viewed the Indian as an instrument for "enlightened" European progress. (One of Rolfe's remarks, which has always struck me as cold, suggests that Pocahontas "knew the culture of tobacco well.") In all three versions there is a sequence, after Pocahontas learns that Jphn Smith is still alive, in which Rolfe also reacts equally coldly to the idea that Pocahontas could have ever possibly been "married" to Smith (which situates Rolfe clearly on the side of English law). However, in the 172-minute cut, the sequence in which Rolfe confronts the authorities illustrates his discomfort in treating Pocahontas as an instrument for European progress, primarily through the addition of one voice-over:

The governor requires of me a letter stating acceptable reasons for our union. (A beat) Humiliated. (A beat). And yet it does not touch me.


This scene goes some way in complicating the character of Rolfe, depicting him ill at ease with his complicity with colonial oppression. Yet his rejoinder "And yet it does not touch me" functions ambiguously. We could read it as an act of resistance to the project of which he is a part, a statement that reserves his right to love Pocahontas in ways that do not conform to the relationship's political significance. It is equally possible to read it as simply another sign of Rolfe's coldness - unwilling to grapple with his involvement in colonialism in ways that might refigure his relationship with Pocahontas as anything other than the European instrument of progress which it became. In this and other additions, the Rolfe character becomes more complex.

***

This post has been an attempt to cataloge, and briefly comment upon, several significant differences between the three different cuts of The New World; it is by no means exhaustive, and not every difference has been accounted for. Other additions to the 172-minute cut include, for example, a passage furthering our sense of Pocahontas' disorientation in the English colony, and her grappling with new modes of cultural existence, prior to her meeting Rolfe, and a particularly disorienting sequence shortly after Smith returns to the colony for the first time, which discontinuously cuts across different moments in Smith and Pocahontas's relationship, in a manner that recalls nothing other than the sudden jump-cut "flashbacks" without a clear individual, psychological referent in Godard's Contempt. (This last sequence, in particular, deserves a blog posting of its own, given that Malick's lyricism in The New World is not too far away from the ardent modernism of Contempt itself). And there are more, which I hope to expand further upon in my actual chapter.

I realize too that, to some extent, a value judgment has emerged in the above comparisons, one which would esteem the longest of the three cuts to a greater degree. To some extent, I think this view is justified, given my feeling that the 172-minute version expands and deepens themes that are only nascent in the shorter cuts, yet the shorter versions benefit from a slightly accelerated rhythm (the longest cut is more contemplative and exploratory). In the end, all three versions function most effectively when viewed in tandem, differences in structure and rhythm in one version finding comparative meaning through relations with the other two cuts. In any event, to extend the discussion, here are two more authors who share a few impressions regarding the different versions in a single blog posting:

The House Next Door

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

A shot at redemption


The release of Gran Torino comes about two months after the disappointing Oscar bait Changeling, and if Clint Eastwood's latest entry feels more modest and carefully crafted, it is not for lack of scope. Gran Torino, a story about a bigoted pensioner living, after his wife's recent death, in resentment of the growing Hmong population in his Detroit neighborhood, seeks nothing less than a reevaluation - a spiritual cleansing, perhaps - of one of Eastwood's central, and most troubling, personas. (Let me make clear: it is not Eastwood's only persona, but merely one of his most central; I'd argue it at least inflects his entire ouevre). It is the same figure familiar from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and Dirty Harry as well as from Eastwood's own films as director, including even certain aspects of the relatively mild-mannered boxing manager in Million Dollar Baby, who initially bristles at the idea of a female fighter. This figure is a conservative who, when pushed, is willing to put his own sense of self-security in jeopardy when he scents that the very conservatism he holds dear - which allows for his self-security - is put at risk. Usually this "risk," especially in the films by Sergio Leone and Don Siegel, results in violence, the climactic shootout in which the Eastwood figure aggressively justifies his principles. His is an authority operating through the sense that the right principles have already been figured out, and that there is nothing more to discuss in defense of those values.

In other words, it's the same thing that once drove Pauline Kael to label Dirty Harry a fascist film: the idea that authority needs only itself to justify its violence. Eastwood's latest character is not exactly a fascist, but rather the worst kind of libertarian, one whose defense of self reliance is founded on the denigration and avoidance of others (and, especially, Others). Self-justification (or perhaps just an inward retreat into the self) is present in almost every scene in the first act of Gran Torino, as Eastwood's protagonist, the Vietnam vet Walt Kowalski, spews racial epithets and, even more often, wears an unwelcoming sneer (Eastwood is not so much acting with these sneers as he is channeling a composite ghost of past characters). Kowalski's racism is not particularly aggressive or violent, but it does shut down any attempt at social dialogue when the potential emerges. (Tellingly, an older Hmong character, a grandmother who sits on the porch of the house neighboring Walt's, is every bit as prejudicial, suggests that Americans have no sole purchase on xenophobic self-reliance). But although Walt is not exactly Dirty Harry, Eastwood does provide a few hints that aggressive and racist violence are buried within the character's past. Far from providing us a comforting nod that the violence he was complicit with in Vietnam was merely the product of following others' orders, Eastwood implies that such violence was simply the outgrowth of Walt's racism (although he leaves the question of exactly what acts Walt was responsible for during war, beyond abstract references to murder, ambiguous). In a sense, this evokes the theme of personal responsibility, familiar from Changeling, situating Walt's bigotry as the product of an individual's psychology, rather than an attitude that was institutionally produced.

But even if Gran Torino stops short of locating Walt's racism within American society as a whole, it does, to its credit, see the absolution for that racism in society. After a local Hmong neighbor, Thao (Bee Vang), attempts to steal Walt's car, the titular Torino, in an attempt to impress a gangland cousin, Walt slowly comes out of his shell and begins to socialize with his neighbors (in part through his very gradual recognition that Thao is a good person caught up with the wrong crowd). The film, up to this point, has been intermittently schematic and superficial: for example, Walt's grizzled authenticity is developed less through a depth of subjective narration (do we ever really get to know who Walt is, beyond the persona through which Eastwood channels him?) than through simple contrasts, such as that between Walt's hard-working, Ford-factory blue collar philosophy and his granddaughter's navel-gazing (literally), gum-popping materialism (this is, on one level, just the whining of an old fart: if Eastwood had made this film fifty years ago, certainly hula hoops and rock and roll would have come under attack). And in contrasting the "good" Hmong who draw Eastwood's Walt out of his bigoted shell with the "bad" Hmong that populate the Detroit neighborhood's gangbanging streets, Gran Torino dangerously slips from economical and tightly structured to simplistic and politically naive. Such moves harm the film's dramaturgy as well: Thao, and his sister (Ahney Her) function less as fully developed characters, and more as foils: she, as the hard-willed, Asian variation of Eastwood's own individualistic self-sufficiency (she is not really that different; that she is so like Walt is what makes their relationship possible); and Thao as a younger version of Walt, perhaps, willing to learn and intelligent, but naive and without the proper authority figure to guide him into adulthood.

Gran Torino never quite overcomes these structural problems, but benefits (what recent film wouldn't?) through comparison with Changeling, primarily since the latter's missteps become even more apparent in contrast to the former's narrative economy. More importantly, the relationships are more genuine, despite the fact that Thao, as a character, never quite transcends the hole into which Eastwood and his screenwriter have pegged him. For all of his missteps in representing non-white communities and individuals, the relationship between Walt and Thao is affecting. After Thao's sister is beaten and raped by several of the same young men who earlier pressured Thao into stealing Walt's Tornio, Walt's palpable sense of complicity with the crime clearly suggests Eastwood's theme of racism and hate as a vicious circle begetting violence. To that extent, the film's ending is tragic: Walt, forgoing Dirty Harry's tendency to mow down the innocent before they can be proven guilty, can still only answer violence with violence, albeit of a sacrificial kind - the kind of violence which (in a perhaps unavoidably hypocritical way) demonstrates that more violence is not the answer. That both Walt and Eastwood see the future of America lying with Thao, rather than Walt's bratty, overprivileged grandchildren, is a relatively liberal gesture on Eastwood's part, albeit a highly limited one due to the fact that we're left wondering if either Walt or Eastwood really know who Thao is. One awaits, then, for Thao to ride into his next movie, in which he might function as a character existing apart from his director's own stab at spiritual and social redemption.