Sunday, September 26, 2010

I'm Still Here

In my film classes this week, we're looking at performance, and the idea that performance should be understood in larger contexts. The two contexts I've broached in class discussions - stylistic and the extra-textual "star persona" - allow for students to understand the gestures, expressions, and movements of the actor in relation to both stylistic choices made by the other filmmakers as well as the larger construction of the "star" understood from the actor's previous roles. It's fun to watch students progress from describing a performance in an unsatisfyingly general way - "funny" or "sad" - to something more concrete and particular: the movement of a performer around a room, the relationship that performer carves out with objects and other actors, the role of that performer in a larger stylistic system, and, in turn, the meaning we make as we carve out our relationship with the actor as the film unfolds.

The most useful book I've read for opening up these questions for students is Andrew Klevan's masterful Film Performance: From Achievement to Appreciation, which for this reader is the best and most accessibly challenging volume I've encountered so far in the Wallflower Short Cuts series. (Klevan is also the author of Disclosure of the Everyday: Undramatic Achievement in Narrative Film, an unjustly out-of-print book from 1999 that, for me, has been key to understanding the subtleties of acting in cinema; and a forthcoming book that looks at the links between screen acting and philosophy). Klevan is marvelous at showing how actors work to coalesce with the film world and how they develop meaningful bonds with the objects in their world. He discusses the famous scene in Queen Christina in which Garbo delicately glides her hands over the objects in a bedroom she shares with John Gilbert. Building on the ideas of Charles Affron, Klevan states:

Affron responds to Garbo's placement and relationship with the room and furniture around her, and to their texture ... He responds to the unfolding of posture and gesture and its changing relationship to the camera as the 'unnatural turn of the body ... leads into the increased focus of face upon pillow.' In addition, he responds to the rhyming of gesture that allows patterning across the sequence, so that the 'wooden bedpost' coming after wool and pillow, can now take on a 'pillowlike tenderness' ... Most importantly, however, Affron is alive to the 'processes of reappraisal and reinterpretation' (my italics) that Garbo's configurations engender. (Klevan, Film Performacne, 11; the Charles Affron book he's quoting is Star Acting: Gish, Garbo, Davis, from 1977).

Here's the scene:

I tell my students to think of the actor as a guide into the film world, as another narrator. Each gesture reveals more about character, has the potential to vibrantly call our attention to the details of objects in the film world (perfectly exemplified by the clip above, and in any film where actor and mise en scene develop fascinating relationships), and to draw us into the story in complex ways. I think watching actors work in relation to the stylistic contexts their directors create for them is one of the joys of moviegoing.

Joaquin Phoenix shits on all of these ideas in I'm Still Here, a pseudo-documentary "expose" of his recent "retirement" from performance. I'm choosing my word "shit" carefully here, and in precise relation to the object I'm talking about: at one moment in the movie, we see Joaquin's friend, Anton, drop his pants as if to take a shit on him (only Phoenix waking up prevents this from happening). Perhaps Anton doesn't shit because it's Phoenix that's got the expulsion of body fluids covered: in a later scene, we watch Phoenix curled over a toilet bowl, after his debut as a rapper in Las Vegas. The use of scatological "humor" draws our attention closer to Phoenix, his body, and the bodies of those around him, but suffice to say, everything in Klevan's book has been thrown out the window in I'm Still Here. Phoenix engages in an act of self-destruction that, while fake, manages nevertheless to destroy, at least while the move is running, the profession Phoenix is seeking to distance himself from.

Simply put, although Phoenix's body - unshaven, unkempt, and unhealthy - is in nearly every frame of I'm Still Here (and is in our minds firmly even when he is not on the screen), he tells us nothing of the film world he has created, narrates nothing, develops no interesting relationship with other objects or "performers." Needless to say, the other performers are, in part, us - the ones who consumed (or didn't) Phoenix's antics on Late Night with David Letterman a couple of years ago, the ones who donned Phoenix's now-trademark shaggy beard and sunglasses (recall Ben Stiller's riff on this persona at the 2009 Oscars) to either celebrate or poke fun at the actor's "transition," and the ones who are buying tickets to this movie. But Phoenix's film is narcissistic (and intentionally so, it would appear) not because we are all clamoring to buy tickets to see him but precisely because we aren't: the film's apparent status as a financial flop seems built-in to the logic of Phoenix's anti-performance. Far from Garboesque, Phoenix refuses to draw us into the objects on the screen, fails (again, an intentional failure) to draw our attention to the textures of a world that he has, by all appearances, decided to discard. (It's telling that no mention of the war in Afghanistan occurs in any of this movie, and that Barack Obama's inauguration, the backdrop for Phoenix's trip to Washington to meet Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs in the middle of the movie, is barely registered on-screen).

I don't necessarily mean these words to be negative: evaluating I'm Still Here is about the least interesting thing you can do with it, and the fact that I mostly did not enjoy watching it is merely sucked into the discursive world that the movie generates automatically, by means of its existence. Every movie generates discourse, of course, but in this case the actor has abdicated his role as collaborator with and in relation to that discourse: Phoenix's gestures, movements, and expressions guide us into nothing, they disavow any relationship with a larger film world (variations on "what the fuck am I doing here?" are a common motif of Phoenix's dialogue). And this is precisely the point: just as Phoenix sinks into the water in the final shot, so too does he sink any notion of his role as collaborator with the viewer from the opening frames.

So, we're left with only ourselves to make sense of this, but again, the evaluations don't ultimately matter: this is precisely because performance art (the only category I'm comfortable slotting this undeniably singular "documentary" into) is a criticism-eater. No matter what you say about it, what you've said immediately becomes part of the object. And because the object has given up all claims to intrinsic meaning, what you say about it is the only thing it's got. All this dates back to at least Marcel Duchamp's Fountain (1917), a radically displacing "sculpture" which relies totally on the viewer's response (to a urinal turned upside down in a museum) rather than any idea of intrinsic meaning. In throwing up/shitting out any sense of interior value, Phoenix is not doing anything new here, of course, although this is a fairly new move in the context of modern performance, which tends to operate with the assumption that actors manipulate media to craft persona, but rarely shows us that manipulation in such frank, naked action. (And I mean naked: Phoenix spends a good deal of the movie shirtless, and his friend Anton drops his pants at least three times).

But I'm Still Here also reminds me how difficult the fields of performance art and film studies are to reconcile. Performance art is conceptual art: it exists to give rise to response, not to develop intrinsic form. A lot of media scholars do away, in theory, with the idea of intrinsic form, preferring instead methods that focus on context, discourse, history. That's all well and good, but few film scholars I know would do away entirely with the idea that gestures matter, expressions matter, movements matter, and that these are the concrete, particular, intrinsic things that act, in the bodies of actors, as collaborators in our meaning-making experiences of films. (Perhaps this is another way of saying that I find this idea of collaboration a much more interesting way to conceive the relationship between viewer and object than the view that levels everything into a world of textual play). In other words, I don't know many scholars who would really want to watch I'm Still Here, no matter how tidily its ideas about acting and meaning fit into their theories.

I think I'll just go watch We Own the Night again.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Recent films seen

In Christopher Nolan's Inception, human beings have developed the skills and technology necessary to enter and explore the dreams of others. Some explanations are given for why they do this, but presumably it is  because they have nothing else interesting to do in reality. The movie stars Leonard DiCaprio, Marion Cottilard, Ellen Page, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Michael Caine (in a role that manages to actually be less substantial than his one in Jaws the Revenge). But despite the best efforts of this attractive and talented cast Nolan's would-be masterpiece never rises above trickery and exposition. You can variously interpret the movie: it has either three levels of dreamscape, or four, but Nolan's main point in either case seems to be that human relationships are now more substantial in our dreams rather than in our social world. This is because the only moments of human contact seem to occur in the dreams: DiCaprio seeking to make peace with the ghost of his wife; Levitt planting a quick kiss on Page's cheek, a potentially delightful little bit of business that goes nowhere; the son of a rich industrialist emotionally confronting his father for the first time. Since Nolan has been anointed an auteur, I have to ask: if this rather mechanical deploying of cinematic poetics amounts to a vision of the world, is it one we really want, or need? Surely we still make meaningful contact with one another when we're not asleep? Allegorical defenses of the film are no doubt forthcoming, but since I think the most fundamental ground on which to defend an auteur is on the level of the human relationships he or she sets into dramatic motion, I'll take Nolan's Insomnia (2002) over this any day. And the one where the guy dressed as a bat chases around the circus clown for 2 1/2 hours.

A conspiracy theory built on the notion that Russia is still a major threat to the United States is at work in Philip Noyce's Salt, a perfectly functional new action movie that posits Angelina Jolie as the great American hope in answering the next generation of Russian spies. The film is full of reversals, all of them pretty well telegraphed in advance and none of them sensible, and all of them keyed into the idea that Russia is once again out to get the U.S. (Comparatively, the film leaves North Korea in the rearview window after its opening minutes). Ultimately, though, it's difficult to reconcile Salt as belonging to the genre of conspiracy films (The Parallax View and The Bourne Identity being among the best) because ultimately this is not a movie about nations, or international relations, at all: it's about Jolie's own private life, her desire to protect her husband (and then avenge him) without any regards as to the cost. (Note how many innocent bystanders get plugged away in this one; I haven't counted, but I suspect not even the average Michael Bay film can quite touch the number of extras who get laid to waste here). And, of course, it's in turn about us looking at Jolie (all the positive reviews - see Stevens in Slate and Ebert - cite her singular, individual badassness as the source of the movie's virtue).

On one level it's obvious why we're all looking at Jolie. But this individuation is also keyed into the film's strangely insular worldview.The film's insistence on the Jolie character's purely private motivations is related to the problem of Noyce's functional but uninvolving style. Unlike The Bourne Identity's intensely visceral pulse, which wraps up the viewer's body like a piece of immersive techno music, implicating us in the larger meaning of Bourne's wild ride, in Salt we're just observers. The national and international stakes seem hardly to matter, and we don't bat an eye when the film's president in shot in a war room. We just marvel at Jolie (and Robert Elswit's always striking cinematography) but remain rather puzzled as to why her private interest in hearth and home is somehow more important than, say, the life of the President. Or the hapless intern who works for him, and who just happened to be in the wrong room when Jolie lets loose with her Tomb Raider-esque revenge.

Michael Caine isn't in Salt, unfortunately. 

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

End of a hiatus: films recently seen

In-between Despicable Me's trio of adorable orphans, Steve Carell's effective vocal performance as the quasi-dastardly super-villain Gru, and a gaggle of squat, interchangeable yellow minions familiar from the film's advertising, the movie almost fools you into thinking it is clever and charming. But it's not; it never creates a vibrant, autonomous filmic world for its animated beings to call home (like the best animated films do, including even the worst of Pixar and last year's fun Fantastic Mr. Fox). Gru and his minions are just sort of there, and the orphans (adopted by Gru in a half-baked attempt to steal the secret weapon of another super villain) are just sort of there, too, floating across the textures of a rather generic animated surface that invites spot-the-product-placement more than the personal treasuring of cinephilic details. (The yellow minions were probably the film's best chance to have some funny business going on in the background, but amazingly, this never really happens; perhaps the little fellas - who are undeniably, aggressively cute - were too exhausted by the marketing campaign to go out and make a better movie). The cleverest bit is over the end credits of the 3D version, in which we see the yellow minions (perhaps a prequel could explain where in blazes these little guys came from) use ladders and canons in an attempt to break the frame of the screen and become a part of the audience's world - presumably because they have no singular aesthetic context of their own to call home. (Or perhaps it's just to sell us crap at Best Buy; turns out the 3D credits were added just to sync up with a Best Buy marketing campaign. Despicable, that).

A curious problem sometimes occurs when a cinephile encounters a movie made by a cinephile. Film lovers delight in finding details and thinking through images in movies, but when auteurs themselves are so enamored of detail and so cerebral in their construction, it is possible for a viewer to feel as if very little is left over for discovery. That's the case for me with Alain Resnais, a master whose films nevertheless sometimes strike me as self-sufficient and not needing of my presence; this thing is already drenched in movie love, so why am I here? That's the case with Wild Grass, an intermittently amusing ode to all things cinema. The film circles around a simple narrative scheme: Georges Palet (Andre Dussollier) finds the discarded stolen wallet of Marguerite Muir (Resnais's wife and frequent collaborator Sabine Azema), and begins obsessively stalking her. Partially driven by an event in his life the film intentionally eschews explaining, we do learn that he is attracted to Muir because of her experience as a pilot (he locates her pilot's license in the wallet), which has some vague connection to his father's dream of becoming an aviator. One does not expect, or want, a Resnais film to make either psychology or backstory clear. But one is free to wonder why Resnais bothers to use color and decor to express the characters' psychological states (as he explains he does in a recent Cineaste interview) when these components are only meant to be opaque in the first place.The sparse plot jumps from noir to romance to the family melodrama, and the cinephilic citations range from the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare to a play with end titles, but the cinematic pastiche cooked up, a few striking moments of mise en scene besides, does not spring forth any inspiring film-phenomenological bon mots. Mathieu Amalric (always a hoot) and Emmanuelle Devos (why is she not in every film?) are both in it, but not much, which made me want to turn on an Arnaud Desplechin instead.

If you lack material for Film and Philosophy 101, you could probably do worse than Predators, a nicely crafted little sci-fi horror job that is yonks better than the B-movie Iron Man should have been but wasn't. Because Samuel Fuller is no longer around, the movie doesn't use its jolts and scares to give us pointed political lessons, and because Jacques Tourneur has passed, its creeping surfaces are not used to say something or other in a psychoanalytic vein. Predators limits itself to a rather general discourse on the predatory nature of human existence, using a few different stock types and a handful of tautly shot and cut setpieces - and, indeed, a bunch of those same creatures California's governor did battle with back in the 80s. None of this prevents the movie from being stupid - your class will have to buttressed by, you know, actual philosophy or social science in order to justify blowing a couple of hours on this perfectly entertaining detritus. Nimrod Antal is the director, and he has a nice eye for textures and detail - if he ever gets a script about something he might turn out to be a pretty good genre craftsman.


I can't imagine how I might have missed seeing Robert Benton's Bad Company (1973) until now, since it seems so much of a piece with its period in American film history, which I really love. Among other things, its sharply chiseled 1.85:1 images recall the poetic Midwestern ennui of both Badlands and the Benton co-written Bonnie and Clyde, two favorites of the period that also happen to be sharp genre revisions and sensitively mounted New Hollywood films. In the movie, Jeff Bridges, in a weirdly endearing performance (aren't all Bridges performances / characters weirdly endearing?), plays a young scamp, Jake, who avoids Civil War conscription by riding the frontier, stealing wallets, and double-crossing friends. His eventual partner of sorts is Drew (Barry Brown, an actor I did not know before this film, and who died at a young age in the late 70s; he recalls a slightly more suave Jason Schwartzman), a young man from a well-to-do family who reveals hitherto untapped reservoirs of anger and aggression in the West. Jake starts out as a tough guy and is revealed as a sensitive soul struggling to make it through the West, while Drew's elliptical narration (again with the Malick link) suggests a gap between Western myths and lived experience in the landscape. The movie is vaguely counter-cultural, but reflects a late 60s counter-culture in tatters, disorganized and fighting within itself rather than directing its resistance toward some greater purpose or value.  Roger Ebert is right when he notes that the ending is unsatisfying and sudden. We know that Benton loves Truffaut, but it makes no sense to end this movie with a gesture borrowed from The 400 Blows, since its reflection on the nature of myth, the West, and masculinity builds itself up to be something deserving of a more complete and declarative ending, maybe in order to achieve the kind of allegory that it seems to gesture toward. So, Once Upon a Time in the West it's not, but still worth your time. Exquisitely shot by Gordon Willis.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Terence Davies and The House of Mirth

At seven, I saw Gene Kelly in Singing in the Rain, and discovered the movies, loved them, and swallowed them whole. And my love was as muscular as my Catholicism, but without any of the drawbacks. Musicals, melodramas, westerns, nothing was too rich or too poor for my rapacious appetite, and I gorged myself with a frequency that would shame a sinner. - Terence Davies
What a great quote that is. It comes from Terence Davies' Of Time and the City (2008), an autobiographical tone poem about Liverpool and childhood that also serves, in part, as a meditation on cinema - or, if you prefer, a sensually intoxicating reflection on the sensuous itself, and the way cinema embodies that. Rendering the concession stand utterly redundant with a few deft turns of phrase, Davies - delivering the above text in voice-over in the film, alongside images of famous Hollywood stars walking the red carpet - suggests that all the gastronomic pleasures we need are right there on the screen. Perhaps outside of another Ter(r)ence, Malick (and Wong Kar-wai), there's not another film-maker who drinks up the world and turns it into sensuous images like Davies, evinced not only by these words but also by the luminosity of Of Time and the City, Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988; still hard to see, but it's available on the Interwebs), and the best of the three films of his I have seen, The House of Mirth (2000), one of my favorites from the last ten years.

The comparison with Malick is a mere convenience of first names, and thus can only be pushed so far, but it nevertheless paves a way. Malick's films are set in history and - through their voice-overs - suggest narratives that frame history differently. In The House of Mirth Davies tells the story of Lily Bart (Gillian Anderson), a heroine with a tragic belief in the intrinsic value of social capital, against the backdrop of turn-of-the-century New York. She desires to reach the upper echelon of high society. Her desire is driven by nothing more than the fact that wealth itself exists: It's there, she can conceive of nothing better, so wealth it is. Her world is populated by back-stabbing friends (Laura Linney, strangely evil where she is usually so warm-hearted and real) and weary fellow travelers (Elizabeth McGovern suggests entire worlds of weariness that still await Lily simply through the way she takes a drag on her cigarette). The men have similar desires, although they are more concrete in nature: for Trenor (Dan Aykroyd), it is extramarital sex; for Rosedale (Anthony LaPaglia) it is money; for Lawrence Selden (Eric Stoltz) it is books. (Although this is a feminist film, I'm tempted to say these three men give the best performances in the movie: They craft their characters in the quick, but bold, strokes necessary relative to the little screen time they are given, enabling Davies and Anderson to get on to other matters).

Unlike the Malick characters, however, Lily Bart is given no voice-over. It would certainly be possible to extract one from the wealth of interiority Edith Wharton's novel provides. Instead - eschewing, thank God, the middlebrow costume drama just as Malick astutely avoids the commonplaces of the Hollywood historical film - Davies locates Lily's singular presence in history in other ways.  The narrative arc of The House of Mirth traces the residue of the aristocracy to the rise (well underway when the film opens) of industrial capitalism as a line drawn between two different types of predatory misogyny: Aykroyd's Tenor cloaks his intentions in a facade of good manners while LaPaglia's Rosedale is an upfront, aggressive entrepreneur. (Stoltz's Selden is lodged firmly in-between them; as a lover of books, he appreciates them as aesthetic objects like any good aristocrat, but also collects them for their monetary value). But this narrative arc is not the source of the film's power. The most salient shots frame Lily alone, wrested away from the machinations of her "friends," in images that do not seek realism, but rather evocation. They imply what the voice-over might have said in another imaginable version of the movie:

Raul Ruiz once wrote that most narrative films today are structured around something he calls "central conflict theory," the idea that "good dramatic construction" is realized around the structuring of a series of melodramatic events that depict conflicts between characters. Ruiz detects a way of thinking behind this:
In daily life's subtle tissue of purposeful but inconsequential actions, unconscious decisions, and accidents, I fear that central conflict theory is not much more than what epistemology describes as a "predatory theory": a system of ideas which devours and enslaves any other ideas that might restrain its activity. (Poetics of Cinema, 14).
The social players in the New York of The House of Mirth have to work to repress conflicts in the polite language of turn-of-the-century society (and to repress the vulgar presence of the cash which enables their language and their politeness). So, this narrative trajectory, tethered as it is to "central conflicts" that are all structured around the possession of money, and Lily, by a group of men, is definitely predatory. But because these conflicts mostly involve the flow of capital, they're also invisible. We are more interested in Lily, and the possibility of her agency, of her ability to write a different narrative, and so is Davies: He wants to make visible what the forces of the society he's depicting work to restrain. This results in exquisitely intelligent cinematic feminism: The House of Mirth neither absolves Lily Bart en route to boo-hoo melodrama, nor does Davies linger unnecessarily on the pathos of social cruelty. Instead, he accepts tears, tension, and barbarism as social facts, and adroitly moves beyond them - resists them - by getting to the business of style. And it's style that gestures toward the voice that Lily is never able to possess.

So Davies emphasizes the sheer visual power of those liminal moments of narrative boredom (or, better, exhaustion): Lily, cutting a sophisticated figure as she walks alongside a disembarking train; Lily, abandoned by her friends, wandering alone in the city (as if one could ever wander alone in New York, then or now); the camera, just before Lily takes a vacation with a friend to collect herself, washing over the surface of a pond dotted with raindrops; Lily, having taken her own life, with the red liquid of the choral leaking out of the bottle next to her, as if in a substitute for her blood, just as Davies substitutes quietude for melodrama and reflection upon the tragic social situation of Lily Bart for the "conflicts" we're more used to consuming.


One more thing: Gillian Anderson. Before this she was the skeptical spirit of a TV show about aliens and UFOs (The X-Files). I have friends who swear by that show and the first film it spawned. (I know no one who liked the sequel). Although I have always found her intriguing, Anderson's appeal to me does not derive from that show, which I recall only having seen two or three times, but from this film. The question of whether or not it is a great performance seems to linger, though. Nobody I read or speak with talks about her much anymore. She's done little that was notable since, and during the year of the film's release (2000) she was ignored at the Oscars. The film itself seems aware that her performance is a bit of a tryout: While watching the film again last week, I recall one or two moments when I suddenly felt that I was not watching Lily Bart, but rather Gillian Anderson reading the part of Lily Bart. Some of the dialogue is almost mannerist in her hands. Yet this seems right. It's obvious enough that Lily is attempting to act herself into a certain social role, and Anderson's performance captures the sense that Lily's every moment with another social agent is something of an ongoing try-out. That she never asks if the role is actually worthy of her is one of the sources of the film's sadness.  At any rate, I don't mind those moments; we shouldn't simply sink into the story world of this film - or, rather, we should sink into it differently. We gobble up Davies' luminous images, as they accrue across the body of the film, but a few of them stand out, as images that exceed history as it was lived at that moment. They remind us that the story Lily might have written had she not been a victim (of her own choices, and of the awful company she keeps) is not actually inscribed in this film, or anywhere else.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Nicholas Ray : Why this classical cinema?

One of the more interesting conceptualizations of certain post-World War II Hollywood film-makers comes from Joe McElhaney's The Death of Classical Cinema, an optimistic book despite its title. In the text he explores the late style of Alfred Hitchcock, Vincente Minnelli, and Fritz Lang, choosing one film from each (Hitchcock's Marnie, Minnelli's Two Weeks in Another Town, and Lang's The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse), reading each film as posing a crisis in classical filmic language. Moments of transition, in particular, become salient: doors, in particular, are of interest. On the one hand, they are invisible, as they are in all classical films: characters move through a door to a new space, and the cut (and thus, to a certain extent, the door itself) is elided as the machinations of the invisible style move on. At the same time, however, McElhaney finds that the door becomes charged with affect, and is seized by the cinephile - cinephilia is very important to his framework - as a highly visible moment. Moments of transition are not elided, but noticed, and in this respect the films gesture towards a kind of affective modernism (echoes of Hansen's "vernacular modernism" here, a concept McElhaney cites). And, as with all kinds of modernism, this one throws into doubt the value of the normative tradition from which it emerges.

We don't usually think about classical films as posing questions to us, at least not in their ideal forms: the style of classical films is meant to be functional, and is intended to stitch together a world of plenitude that we simply sink into. Most contemporary Hollywood films still more or less function in this way; I'd argue that every visually salient CGI effect in the latest blockbuster playing near you is ultimately intended to draw us into diegetic space, rather than out of it. In this respect, I take McElhaney's interest in these three directors as signaling a larger interest in classical (and perhaps even contemporary) films that, while ostensibly functional (you can just watch them as classical films for their stories, without noticing all this other stuff), nevertheless ask us: why move forward through this space? Why not another one?

In working on Nicholas Ray recently, I've seen affinities between his work and the film-makers McElhaney describes. Yet Ray's late 40s/1950s/early 60s films - the same moment in which the three directors above began their "late phase" - don't function as signs of "the death of classical cinema." McElhaney can read the late work of those film-makers as he does because their late style is relative to an earlier one in which the classical norms of their institution were not questioned. Ray had no late style: his career in Hollywood was not long enough. In part because of his unstable personality, and in part because of the conservatism and cowardice of the industry in general, his career in the industry was cut short. Further, all of his films - even the ones he attempted to make after Hollywood, including the indescribable We Can't Go Home Again - are perpetually youthful. This is obviously true of Rebel Without a Cause, and gloriously true of the first frames of They Live By Night ("this boy...and this girl...were never properly introduced to the world we live in") but it's more generally a sensibility rather than a content. In a sense, Ray never stopped making his first film: the search for a way to negotiate the strictures of the classical cinema was always just beginning, and because his films are expressive struggles rather than clean expressions, each asks us: why this classical cinema? Why not another one, which might look a little bit like this, if the story is told in this way? (Recall Ray's famous dictum, "if it's all in the script, why make the movie?")


In organizing my writing on Ray, I've found myself resisting the chronological, film-by-film approach to authorship. Such an approach would seem to suggest that the authorship of its filmmaker is a fully recoverable aspect of cause-and-effect film history, just lying there in the archives, waiting for its articulation. For many reasons, for reasons of time I won't go into just here, I do not think we can conceptualize Ray's authorship in this way. His films seem to me to be interventions into Hollywood history rather than merely reflections of a certain period of its existence, and for that reason I've seized upon cinephilia as a reading strategy to understanding his work. As Christian Keathley suggests, cinephilia's fascination with details in films can become the beginnings of a new way of writing film history - not necessarily against any other way, but simply a way that asks to be heard from a subject position that is not addressed in any other framework and is not reducible to currently existing paradigms of film form and style. I can't imagine a framework more suitable to exploring Ray, not only because cinephiles have loved his films for several generations, but because Ray so often describes his film practice in cinephiliac terms. For example: 

 If, after wrestling with ... everything else at work upon and within me as a director every hour of the day, I discover that little surprise ... that's the kind of accident I mean. It's a revelation ... a wonderful, magic moment, when I see it's there. - Nicholas Ray, "Ray's World According to Ray," in Film Comment 27, no. 5 (September-October 1991), 49.
These magic moments, I think, are our points of entry into thinking through how Ray asked us to imagine the potential of the classical Hollywood cinema differently.Like McElhaney's privileged film-makers, his films are expressive struggles, rather than expressions. But unlike them, the films are not laments: they're imbued with the utopic dimensions of Ray's 1930s work in the socialist theater and in architecture, and there's a certain optimism in all of his films, no matter how lonely or alienated they frequently feel.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Road

My review of The Road appears today over at JG Cinema, a new international and bilingual online journal on cinema in a global society.

Australian director John Hillcoat's stately Western "The Proposition" (2005) was a stark, mystical story about a civilization's confrontation with its own barely repressed savagery. In mounting an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's austere apocalyptic novel "The Road", Hillcoat is working with a similar theme, and has found an even more suitable narrative context for the earlier film's end-of-a-world tone, eschewing only the dust browns and evening blues of "The Proposition" for the harsh whites, grays, and blacks appropriate to the wintry devastation of McCarthy's vision. Although Hillcoat thus comes well prepared to an adaptation of The Road, his film version nevertheless has the disadvantage of greeting legions of viewers, less familiar with "The Proposition", perhaps, than with McCarthy's novel, who may be suspicious of an attempt to transpose the book's rigorously affecting prose to the cinema. His effort is also coming on the successful heels of 2007's film version of McCarthy's "No Country for Old Men", an Oscar winner and an intimidating benchmark by any measure.

Read the full review

Monday, January 25, 2010

Colossal Youth

It feels a little wrong to include Pedro Costa's gravely beautiful narrative poem Colossal Youth (2006) on a list of my favorite films from the last ten years. Apart from having not lived with this film very long (I only saw it last year), Colossal Youth is not meant for lists because it is not about looking back; it is hardly the kind of work you can simply slot away on a list and feel as if you've mastered. (Given that it's the only Costa I've seen, and that I'm not any kind of expert on Portuguese cinema, I'm especially unqualified to attempt such a feat). Since Colossal Youth feels like the beginning of a new adventure in world cinema rather than a punctuation mark on a moment that's already past, it seems best to proceed piecemeal, grasping at a few motifs and ideas that seem to me particularly important:

Monday, January 11, 2010

As fleeting as the green ray ...

Eric Rohmer (Jean-Marie Maurice Schérer, 1920-2010) has passed away (Dave Kehr in The New York Times.)

"My films, you say, are literary: The things I say could be said in a novel. Yes, but what do I say? My characters' discourse is not necessarily my film's discourse ... What I say, I do not say with words. I do not say it with images either, with all due respect to the partisans of pure cinema ... After all, I do not say, I show. I show people who move and speak. That is all I know how to do, but that is my true subject." - Eric Rohmer, from "Letter to a Critic: Concerting My Moral Tales," in The Taste for Beauty.

"The cinema flashes a whole scene before our eyes, from which we are free to extract one of many possible significations. This is opposed to the other arts, which go from the abstract to the concrete and which, in making this quest for the concrete their goal, hide the fact that they aim not to imitate but to signify. Meaning in film is extracted from appearances, not from an imaginary world of which appearances are only the sign. We can see why reality would be useful here, its necessity coming from the contingency of its introduction into the film: It could not have been, but it can no longer help but be, now that it was. For the first time, along with the power of expression, the document attains the dignity of an art." - from "Such Vanity is Painting," in The Taste for Beauty

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Spike Lee's 25th Hour

After a brief prologue, Spike Lee's 25th Hour (2002) opens with a series of images of the lights at the site formerly occupied by the World Trade Center.

The lights, and the way they both materially and immaterially intersect with the skyline of New York City, offer the perfect metaphor for Lee's narrative, which tackles the events of 9/11 obliquely, insisting on the absence of the towers as a social fact of post-2001 New York City life but in a film that is not directly "about" the events of that day. In the title image, we see another framing of the lights that, in retrospect, embodies the film's central theme:

It's an evocative image that pulls in two different directions at once. We see the lights "look" up, as if to the heavens in search of forgiveness and redemption. But the light also seems to be coming from the heavens, as if bestowing that very forgiveness upon the subject asking for it. To be sure, 25th Hour is an entirely secular film. The story involves a drug dealer named Monty (Edward Norton) who has been sentenced to seven years in prison. The film narrates his final hours of free life before heading to prison; seamlessly interspersed in the film are flashbacks of the events leading up to Monty's arrest, and the facts of his past that he regrets but can now no longer change.

Besides that opening shot above, the film makes no reference to anything spiritual (or religious), at least until its final montage sequence. This is something of a dream sequence in which Monty's father, James (Brian Cox) presents Monty with the possibility of absconding from his responsibility to report to prison. He suggests to Monty that he flee out to the American West (Monty has never been west of Philadelphia), in hope of a new life. Of the many images we are shown in the sequence, we see:

Because 25th Hour is set so intensely in New York City, the above image, like others in the dream sequence, feels almost as if it had dropped from Mars. But its strangeness offers Monty no escape. For Lee, religion, or any other single institution or answer, offers no respite from the moral questions of 21st century American life. The redemption sought in the title image is of another sort entirely, and something the film does not exactly articulate: it merely frames the need for it, and its possibility. In other words, 25th Hour is one of the few Hollywood films of the decade to grapple with the questions of moral life in American after 9/11, although it does so in a narrative that is ostensibly about other concerns, and without answering any of the questions it poses.

Instead of further standard plot summary, it's best to indicate what 25th Hour is about in visual terms. The low-angle shot of the lights is matched by a quartet of high- and low- angle shots that appear throughout the film. They are not of lights, but of the film's characters looking up or down at another person, or at us (if we may extend the word "character" to include the protagonist's dog). Each of them will have to reflect upon the morality of their actions at some point in the film (or, in the case of the dog, will serve to reflect a human figure's morality). In these shots, they echo the lights reaching for heaven which we have already seen, looking as they are for some kind of redemption:

Each character, despite their various pleas for forgiveness or help, isolates himself from the world. Monty lives in an expensive apartment, paid for by drug dealing. Saving his dog Doyle (seen in the first image above, looking up like the others, asking for a second chance - he is the only figure in the film who unambiguously receives it) is one of the few good acts he has performed. Frank (Barry Pepper, who in this film proves he could have been Christian Bale's understudy on American Psycho) lives in a world of Red Bull, ruthless stock exchanges, and Maxim Magazine. Like Monty, he earns his money through the suffering of others (in the sequence which introduces the character, he cheers the rise in unemployment numbers). The most thoughtful and reflective character in the film is the teacher Jacob (Philip Seymour Hoffman), but he carries his own sense of guilt, in part because of his privileged upbringing, and his lust for a flirtatious student (Anna Paquin).

Although the film takes place after the turn of the century, there is an almost pre-millennial tension at work throughout. Monty is on a ticking clock, a short fuse (the choice of the particular Springsteen song used over the end credits is the most perfect of any closing song in American cinema during the last ten years). The film makes us feel it: the flashbacks are less conventional than most, absent of the clear markers of temporal transition, thus functioning more as sense memories seamlessly located in a present that is slipping away. During at least three junctures in the film, too, Lee distends narrative time, filmically repeating, in a quick cut, an action that occurs in the story only once (Jacob hugging Monty and Monty falling into his girlfriend's arms after being beaten up by Frank near the end of the film; there is at least one other example of this in the film that escapes my memory at the moment):

In each case, time is expanded when Monty falls into the arms of another character; it is almost as if just a few more seconds of embrace would be enough for his salvation. During at least one point in the film, too, our attention is held in a relatively long take unusual in the American narrative cinema. The absence of the towers are explicitly referred during a conversation between Frank and Jacob that lasts for almost five minutes of screen time, and is punctuated by Terry Blanchard's affecting score:

Here the film forces the audience to reckon with the social (and visual) fact of 9/11 in a mainstream narrative film simply by keeping Ground Zero on the screen for what for some viewers may be an uncomfortably long time. Lee, in this conversation between two characters, is mixing up the public and the private, prompting us to query the compartments of our own moral lives.

It is almost as if these subtle distensions and expansions of narrative time were attempting to increase the amount of time Monty has left in the free world, to give him (and his friends) more time to grapple with the moral implications of their behavior. Of course, the manipulation of film time gives more time to the spectator as well, who is prompted to come to terms with the American world posited by the narrative of the film.

I do not think 25th Hour is an allegory about 9/11. Instead, 9/11's aftermath is a material fact of life in its New York City, a scar that serves to bring to the fore the hitherto repressed moral dimension of daily American action, behavior, and speech. (The film, perhaps not surprising for Lee, tackles racism and prejudice, but only as part of its tapestry, and not its central focus). At the end of the film, Norton's father, speaking in a strange liminal zone between reality and dream as Norton nods off in the car taking him to prison, distends the narrative one final time. But despite the seductiveness of the father's dream-narrative, which promises an escape from the consequences of Monty's behavior, Lee (and his character) don't budge. This is an unflinching film, and Monty, like much of the humanity around him, is called upon to serve his time.