Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Poster Personas

In "Movie Poster of the Week" at Mubi, Adrian Curry has a fascinating discussion of poster art for In a Lonely Place, the Nicholas Ray film starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame. Curry discovers that none of these posters quite gets Grahame's facial features right. I agree; I would argue that in some of them her image recalls either Lauren Bacall or Joan Crawford rather than Grahame herself. (The former makes sense, since the distributors would have wanted to remind audiences in 1950 of Bogart's recent popular cycle of films with his wife; the latter less so, since Bogart and Crawford were never paired on film).

This got me thinking about examples of poster art in which a star is represented in ways that depart markedly from his or her actual appearance in the advertised film. There are, of course, examples of willful abstraction, such as the great tradition of Polish movie posters, which often take key iconographic elements and distill them into simple lines and forms. For example, Bogart again, in Casablanca, for a 2009 re-release:

Is this Bogie, or Don Draper? As if Bogart's face were that sharp! This sort of abstraction replaces the iconic features of the star with a key narrative object - in the case of Casablanca, Bogie's iconic cigarette. These posters sometimes even replace the human figure's presence entirely with these objects, as in this utterly bizarre 1970s Polish poster art for Terrence Malick's first film:

But like Curry, what I'm mostly interested in are attempts at more or less realistic representation that nevertheless diverge from the star's appearance in the advertised film. Katharine Hepburn's image in poster art in the 1930s and 1940s is an interesting case study. This poster for The Philadelphia Story (1940), for example, softens her angularity just a bit, which seems appropriate given the film's own narrative containment of the challenging and often subversive personality she created in her earlier 1930s films:

But even so, this is way too generic for Hepburn -- the blank expression of the figure in the poster is light years away from the sharp inner life she projects on film. By contrast, the earlier 1936 American poster for Quality Street (1936) captured the angularity...

...but it's still not quite right. That chin is a bit too much, and the fawning upward glance doesn't really capture the strength with which Hepburn's characters gazed at their objects of desire in these films.

The French came up with a better representation of the energy Hepburn brought to her madcap 30s comedies. This art for Bringing Up Baby (1938) captures the spirit of her character even as it channels the specificity of her features into caricature. What results is a whirlwind of screwball movement:

Sometimes, though, the posters offer weird contrasts. The photo of Grant and Hepburn in this RKO poster (below) for Bringing Up Baby is certainly great, but there is no steamy romance in the movie as depicted here. Clearly, it's just a staged production photo. The illustration in the bottom left corner does a better job of capturing the comic spirit of the movie, even as it abstracts the iconic features of its stars in cartoon fashion: 

Upon viewing her early 30s films, such as A Bill of Divorcement (1932) and Morning Glory (1933), Hepburn's first critics often compared her to Garbo and Crawford. This is a strange comparison now, but one the poster art played up in an attempt to sell this unfamiliar woman in familiar ways. Hepburn was styled a little softer in these earlier movies, but the poster art for them actually makes her a little more gaunt than she actually was in the films. For all her sharpness, there is a real vulnerability to her character in Morning Glory, a quality this poster fails to capture:

This sharp-edged, Garbo-inflected Hepburn image lingered into the mid-1930s, even as the films themselves, such as Alice Adams (1935) departed from it. The image on the left of this American poster for Alice Adams looks like an outtake from A Bill of Divorcement or Christopher Strong (1933) and nothing like the mousy, uncertain woman Hepburn plays in the film adaptation of the Booth Tarkington novel:

The idea that Hepburn could play a "mousy, uncertain" character seems odd if all you know of her is her later, retrospective status as a figure of independent womanhood. But it reminds us how varied her 1930s characters were - and that same variation is at play in all of these posters, even as the parallels between a given poster and the film it is supposed to represent don't always make sense. By the time Hepburn became something of an American institution in the 1950s, her well-established iconic features encouraged abstraction, as in this art for 1956's The Iron Petticoat, with Bob Hope (a counter-intuitive pairing, if there ever was one. "Hilariously together for the first time," the poster says; it would be the only time!):

But even before the iconic qualities of her on-screen persona began to take more or less permanent shape, the playful unpredictability of Hepburn's poster persona itself seems to give way to a conservative consistency. The poster for Woman of the Year (1942), for example, is just right for the film, but it lacks the strange playfulness of the earlier posters, a playfulness that echoed, in the 1930s, the remarkable variation of her on-screen presence from film-to-film. Which goes to show that trying to find a single poster image that might boil down your favorite movie star to her essential qualities is ultimately impossible, for all the forgotten, contingent variations are as interesting as the timeless iconic qualities.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Killing Them Softly

There is a camera movement near the beginning of Killing Them Softly that tracks across the wide screen, from left-to-right, as two goons smash Ray Liotta through a window. Despite appearances, though, it is not a character-motivated camera movement. The camera moves in advance of the goons, arriving on the other side of the house before they emerge from it; and it centers the window in the frame before Liotta is smashed through it. Most Hollywood films shape their worlds around the movements and desires of their characters, but this one assumes a stylistic posture from which to observe its hapless gangsters and small-time criminals, as if they were dead insects pinned to a dartboard in a seedy urban bar. Or as if they are violent men in a dead-end economy - which they are. It's the antithesis of the long tracking shot following the same Liotta through the nightclub in Goodfellas (1990): the camera in the Scorsese film wants to share the energy of its wise guys. But Andrew Dominik, the smart stylist behind The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) and the helmer of this new film, is all too aware that the gangster's violent energy ends only in economic and personal burnout, and so keeps his distance.

This elegant aesthetic distance is why the televisions and radios scattered throughout the movie, all playing snippets of speeches made by Obama, McCain, and Bush II during the 2008 campaign, feel like transmissions from another planet; Dominik's achievement is to make a recent moment in American history strange and unfamiliar, even though we are still living through its consequences. Killing Them Softly's losers are mere footnotes to the recent dismal history of the American economy none of them are fit to change, and which only one of them, a wearily philosophical hitman named Jackie, and played by Brad Pitt, comments upon. The movie is full of interesting moments and longueurs that suggest the glamor of the gangster as a genre figure is as exhausted as the economy which once fetishized him. How else to explain the wheezing, palpably unappealing presence of a disgusting character named Mickey, an alcoholic colleague of Jackie's played by an actor, James Gandolfini, who only ten years ago was this genre's undisputed icon of violent cool in The Sopranos?

Whatever the movie's genre revisionism, its star is still one of its central interests. Pitt has built - perhaps not quietly, but without the salient critical acclaim one might suspect he deserves - one of the most interesting filmographies of any beautiful male star in the history of Hollywood movies, and this audience-displeaser is a fascinating addition to his resume. He is lucky and smart enough to star in American films directed by filmmakers (Dominik, Fincher, Malick, Soderbergh) who demand more of his presence than mere presence, and that ask questions. Do gangsters steal because of tough economic times, or do tough economic times merely provide a new kind of excuse for lowlifes with guns? This is the question Killing Them Softly poses, without answering. I do not know the answer, either, but these times have provided an intriguing context in which to contemplate the lives of men who know the other only through the barrel of a gun. 

Monday, November 19, 2012

Douglas Sirk's All I Desire

Douglas Sirk's All I Desire (1952) arrived just before the German-Danish director helmed several key 1950s women's pics in Hollywood: Magnificent Obsession (1954), All that Heaven Allows (1955), Written on the Wind (1956), Imitation of Life (1959). It shares with those films a concern for a similar central figure, a heterosexual, middle-class woman with repressed desires; but it locates this interest in a turn-of-the-century character who prefigures the more modern figures played by Jane Wyman and Lauren Bacall in the later movies. Naomi Murdoch (Barbara Stanwyck) was a wife, a mother of three, and a lover, illicitly; however, when Sirk joins her, she is living a fiction of her own creation. Having left her former life upon the community's discovery of her affair with another man, Naomi is at the tail end of a failed acting career. But in her letters back home to daughter Lily (Lori Nelson), herself an aspiring actress, Naomi claims she has found success as a Shakespearean player in Europe. In contrast to the later Sirk films, in which women are often isolated from each other (think of Wyman staring into her reflection in the TV set in Heaven, or Bacall suffering alone through a miscarriage in Wind), Naomi's bond with Lily is the chief emotional interest in All I Desire. But this bond slowly unravels when Naomi returns home, after years away, to see Lily's earnest performance in an amateurish high-school theater production.

There is every indication that Sirk wanted to shoot this film in color. (He lost out on that, and on the ending, too, a ridiculous bit of tacked-on happy business reconciling the wife and husband in an uncomplicated and unconvincing manner). His 1952 film Has Anybody Seen My Gal is shot in sumptuous Technicolor; by contrast, the shadowy silver sheet of All I Desire must find other strategies to locate the emotions that find their signature expression in his color films. For a viewer who looks at this after the later Sirk melodramas, in fact, it's hard to believe that All I Desire is not in color. Some subjects demand color: the unbridled passion expressed through Dorothy Malone's feverish bedroom dance in Written on the Wind is unimaginable in black-and-white (at least, who would want to imagine Malone's ridiculous jitterbug in anything other than its vibrant reds and pinks?), just as the melancholy blues that color All that Heaven Allows ground the the film's enabling soap-opera conventions in a painterly style.

But Sirk's methods in 1953 still manage to suggest the emotional undercurrents that the color of the later melodramas would amplify. In the first shots of All I Desire, his camera placement (in a high angle, looking down at the small town below) prefigures a camera position that would become the opening signature of All That Heaven Allows:

These sort of high-angle shots imply an omniscient view, a knowing figure outside the film who can frame, cut, and color the repressed emotional undercurrents of the fiction but is not subject to those same undercurrents himself. In Vincente Minnelli movies, there is a push-and-pull between the director's and the characters' control over mise en scene, exemplified by the glorious widescreen palette of The Cobweb (1955), which conveys the characters' dueling wills to control the color of curtains in a mental institution. In Sirk melodramas, by contrast, the mise en scene is often established, almost entirely, by forces beyond the control of the figures in the film.

There is a brief exception to this rule of Sirk's cinema in All I Desire, however, and it's an exception manifest in the film's play with black-and-white shadows and light. All I Desire, like the later Imitation of Life, is about an actress, so it is telling that its most salient emotional revelations arrive when characters are self-consciously performing for others. At a dinner party, Lily implores her mother to perform a reading of an Elizabeth Browning sonnet, one of her ex-husband's favorites. Immediately Naomi controls the mise en scene, turning down the lights for her reading and taking the "stage" at the top of a staircase. Cloaked in low-key lighting, Naomi seems to have designed her stage presence in this domestic space in order to avoid being seen, even as the servants spy her performance from the "wings" of this makeshift theater, and just as her daughter and family watch her reading from below:

Naomi later moves down the steps, and addresses her "audience" in what is surely the best bit of acting in her career (if not Stanwyck's): 

As narrative, this scene works to bring Naomi closer to her husband. Interestingly, this narrative push gradually erases the control Naomi wielded over the environment just a moment before: as Sirk begins cutting to more conventional close-up shots, the low-key lighting Naomi has insisted on for her reading is replaced by relatively even illumination:

These moments are not "written" by the character, ultimately. Although she begins by expressing herself through the control of light, the words on the page are not her own (they are written by another author, and they signify, in this context, a bond with a husband responsible for the repression of her desires). What is ostensibly a moment of emotional fullness achieved by a character (a connection established between Naomi-as-actress as her family, and specifically her husband) is subsequently re-framed as a loss of control and agency, one that prefigures the forced ending in which Naomi is thrown (not by Sirk, but by the film's producers) into the arms of her husband, who will bring her no closer to the successful acting career she desires. (An aging actress herself at the time this film was made, All I Desire's disappointing ending is content to suggest that Naomi/Stanwyck's best years are behind her).

If this sequence in All I Desire effectively encapsulates the loss of agency which is a recurring motif in Sirk's melodramas, it is also quite different in its assumption that this woman has some control over her social world in the first place; in the later Sirk movies there is no pretense for such control, and no other Sirk woman after All I Desire is able to fully control environment in the way Stanwyck, at least initially, does in the above shots. In Written on the Wind Lauren Bacall is a Madison Avenue advertising secretary (with a lot of control over the images she produces within the mise en scene)...

...but this is not when the film actually joins her. In All I Desire we first meet Stanwyck as her character explains the relative control she has over the fictional life she leads as an "actress," but the plot joins Written on the Wind at the end of its story, with Bacall colored in humid, warm colors which anticipate her fainting spell:

What I am suggesting here (and it is a hypothesis in need of testing via more re-viewings of Sirk's films, particularly Imitation of Life, which is also about an actress) is that as Sirk's authorial identity was fulfilled as the 1950s progress, the identity of his characters-as-authors was thoroughly effaced. The auteur's color gives us emotional plenitude and satisfaction as viewers, and it helps create his signature; but it carves out emotions from the women on the screen, leaving them empty and without agency.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Master

I was a big fan of Paul Thomas Anderson in the late 90s and early aughts. In watching Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, and Boogie Nights, I was witnessing a director claiming and channeling the influence of directors such as Scorsese, Altman, and Kubrick with the same zeal and energy I spent watching their movies. Indeed, P.T.'s early films are driven by the confident enthusiasm of immature cinephilia. They rarely stray beyond southern California, and when they do, it's to the even more comfortable world of an alternative cinematic universe where a rainstorm of frogs and a deliriously complex tracking shot or two carry as much emotional weight as human relationships. But there was more to the young P.T.'s talent than just youth and there was more to those films than invigorating immaturity. He was chronicling the present-tense movie-filtered reality of the American southwest through characters living special, fraught, distinctive lives; they talked and acted in a certain way - and to each other - that felt as distinctive as Quentin Tarantino's movie people, but deeper. Whatever show-offy pleasure P.T. was taking in discovering and wielding his enormous cinematic skill with those first movies, he was also getting at real human pain (in Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love, especially) which suggested that simple technical skill would never be enough by itself. 

With his last two films, Kubrick is now the primary source of P.T.'s anxiety of influence, and perhaps my dislike of The Master simply boils down to my personal preference of Altman and the loose, jaunty film aesthetics he emblemizes. But to have to make this choice seems false in the first place. In retrospect - and even at the time - the shift represented by There Will Be Blood seemed sudden, and simply weird. Much of P.T. was still there, of course, and enough to suggest the same auteur was in place: The seductively obtrusive music, which offered the ear an aesthetic signpost through which the eye could find ways into the widescreen imagery; the willingness to give over a meticulously crafted narrative to the work of actors; the gestures of camera movement and framing, regarding the characters askance even while giving over the narrative drive to their thirsty ambitions. But much else was lost. The great warmth, and love, for the characters - a nearly musical love in Punch-Drunk Love and Magnolia - was replaced by a visionary, epoch-grasping fascination for their greedy ambitions, and for the new way this fascination, as the primary source of a skeletal cause-and-effect, seemed to provide an excuse for exquisite images. The Altmanesque interest in collaboration was still there, to the enormous credit of Anderson and his crew; the most focused and exciting performances in any Anderson film can be found in the work by Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Dano in There Will Be Blood.

But instead of great stories, with the characters themselves taking us on miraculous journeys (that end in frog rain or love-soaked sojourns in Hawaii), Anderson's films now have vision. Rather than following his characters the director is now relentlessly, distantly looking at them. The grunt and shit of war, the reason why Freddy Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is the way he is after World War II in The Master, is never quite felt, which makes his eventual turn to a strange pseudo-religion known as "The Cause" more enigmatic and puzzling than revealing. I admire any filmmaker who eschews simple, pre-digested psychological explanations, but the early P.T. films eschewed those, too, and remained interested in exploring psychology, in guessing, in the heat of the emotional moment, at how it might work. By contrast, I am not sure what Anderson means to say through the relationship between Philip Seymour Hoffman's Lancaster Dodd (the eponymous Master of "The Cause") and Phoenix's Quell. Athough their relationship takes up a good share of the running time, their bond is not developed enough to take on the complexity of the father-son pairings in his earlier films, and for some reason the film also pulls its punches with the homoerotic subtext (which would have been a new shade to Anderson’s oeuvre but is barely a suggestion here). The real frustration with the movie, however, is, now squarely with Anderson's now strangely unloved characters. Everyone in this film is a figure, an abstraction, rather than a character; and that seems strange for a director who burst out of the gate a postmodern humanist.

Abstractions, of course, are not an inherent problem. Lawrence of Arabia pivots around a dizzily beautiful, politically fascinating Anglo-Saxon abstraction played by Peter O'Toole. But what remains fascinating about that film (ongoingly, in a startlingly beautiful 4k digital restoration screened on October 4 at many of the same theaters also showing The Master) is the ability of David Lean to find an emotional and physical context for that abstraction, and to poetically uncover a few of the historical mechanisms which made that enigma a possibility. Although Lawrence's motivations for uniting Arabia remain locked behind Peter O'Toole's thirsty blue eyes, Lawrence is ultimately interesting because of the historical and physical landscape into which his confused quest is thrust. In The Master, by contrast, both history and landscape are foreshortened where they should be explored, framed in fussy still images when we should be moving through them.

There Will Be Blood has a grand vision and a great performance at its middle, and although I don’t emotionally connect with it, I feel that grandeur in every frame. There, Anderson's vision was enough; it resulted in a suitable shaping of form and content into a passionate moral investigation into the fraught marriage between American capitalism and religion. By contrast, The Master shapes images and frames people without investigating them, composes theses in shot compositions instead of making us feel its ideas. Both films are important works of art, and should be seen, repeatedly; The Master's mastery is never in question. What is mastered here, and to what meaningful purpose, is another story.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Teaching performance

This semester I've had my first crack at teaching Film Performance and Stardom as an upper-level undergraduate class. This subject brings the empirical and the theoretical closer together than anything I've taught before: students learn how to closely follow and interpret the moment-by-moment work of an actor, but they also learn to mediate that emotional/intellectual attachment through theories of star-image construction and a larger understanding of historical trends in acting.

It's been a class of good conversations. By far the best conversation we've had so far was about the luminous ending of Charlie Chaplin's City Lights - no surprise, since there's so much to talk about in that final scene. A six-page reading of the film in Andrew Klevan's Film Performance: From Achievement to Interpretation (London: Wallflower, 2005) guided our thoughts. Klevan is very good on placing the performance in the context of the whole film. For most of its running time, as Klevan shows, City Lights places Charlie in various states of obliviousness, and our relation to his character as an audience is often one of superior knowledge. Two things change in the final sequence: the close-up "closes off," in Klevan's words, Charlie from the surrounding context, prompting us to deal with the subtle details of his facial expression, at the exclusion of his bodily gestures, for the first time. We are no longer in a position of superior knowledge, since we, like Charlie, have no idea how the girl will react to him now that she can see:

Klevan's approach is big on the idea of the "moment-by-moment" interpretation of what an actor is doing. This has its virtues: it implicates our subjectivity in the performance's meaning and pays close attention to the larger aesthetic contexts that frame what actors do. If the approach has a drawback, it's that Klevan's "viewer" is not informed by theories of spectatorship. But that's OK, I think; many of the other readings we're tackling this semester will fill in that gap.

Here's the full slate of films I'm teaching this semester, along with a brief note of the readings we're tackling for each:

North by Northwest (Klevan's introduction; James Naremore's Acting in Cinema)
Far From Heaven (a chapter from Cynthia Baron and Sharon Carnicke's Reframing Screen Performance)
City Lights (Klevan)
Eyes Wide Shut (Pam Cook's work on Nicole Kidman)
Training Day (material on Denzel Washington from SUNY's Stars series, as well as a chapter from Reframing Screen Performance on Laban's acting theories)
The Artist (David Denby's article on silent acting; Janet Staiger on acting in early cinema)
Holiday (Naremore on Katharine Hepburn)
On the Waterfront (Naremore on Brando)
Some Like it Hot (a portion of Dyer's Heavenly Bodies)
Raging Bull (director-actor collaborations; Sharon Carnicke, "Screen Performance and Directors' Visions," in More Than A Method: Trends and Traditions in Contemporary Film Performance)
Avatar (performance and CGI: articles from Matthew Solomon's recent edited dossier in the Winter 2012 Cinema Journal )

Monday, September 10, 2012

Films recently seen

During an early conversation scene in Killer Joe, there is a clear eyeline mismatch in a shot/reaction shot, a choice I took to be artistic until I realized that it never happened again during the film and that it served no motivated purpose during its single appearance. This kind of aesthetic shagginess is arguably suited to a story that hovers around crooked trailer park denizens in Texas cooking up a murder scheme for insurance money; but for a film that seems to want to insist on the flavor of its location (the backwaters of Dallas), no sense of place or milieu is ever really developed. The film’s political allegory is either incoherent or painfully obvious - I can't decide which - and, in any event, it is at least five years out of date. And while Matthew McConaughey’s desire to distance himself from Zellwegerian romantic comedies is commendable, I want to gently suggest that performing an orgasm with a fried chicken leg inserted into the mouth of one of your co-stars while keeping your pants on is perhaps going too far in the other direction. Killer Joe is a strange, discordant footnote in the actor's recent, and otherwise mostly entertaining, career re-direction. 


The Proposition is about the procedures of emasculated civilization attempting to claim frontiers previously governed by the mysterious laws of hyper-masculine violence. And this is what makes John Hillcoat interesting as a director; most filmmakers intrigued by masculinity push it to the forefront, as if mere bloodshed is an insight into the gruff male’s condition. Hillcoat, by contrast, keeps violent maleness brooding in the shadows, emerging into light only in quick, startling, blood-curdling flashes that are over as soon as they begin: a shovel over the head, a knife across the throat. Lawless is, setting aside, about pretty much the same thing as The Proposition, the earlier film’s themes distilled into a simpler scenario and more economical scenes. Now civilization comes in the form of a flamboyant Chicago fed played by Guy Pearce, and the mysterious, brooding hyper-masculinity is embodied by Southern-fried bootlegging brothers Tom Hardy and Jason Clarke. Shia LaBeouf, playing the youngest moonshining brother, is caught in the middle, lacking both Hardy’s brooding physicality and Clarke’s traumatic Great War experience. LaBeouf tries his hand at outwitting Pearce and wooing a local church girl, two incommensurable tasks that give the movie fleeting tension; his scenes with Mia Wasikowska are the best in the film and give it a momentum it sometimes lacks. Nick Cave’s script develops a perspective for its violence about halfway through, when an intriguing ellipsis and, later, a possibly unreliable voice-over suggest that all of this brooding alpha-male posturing is little more than American mythology without content. 

Gary Oldman’s presence falls somewhere between a cameo and a rumor. He disappears after about an hour. I do not have the space or time to adequately transcribe the glow of Jessica Chastain’s gestures, so I will settle for an appreciative inventory of the objects in Lawless that come alive only after she touches them: several cigarettes, a misplaced hat, a potato peeler, a coffee pot, a bed railing, a shawl, Tom Hardy. 

Spike Lee’s passion was never in doubt. In his best films, this passion finds vibrant aesthetic correlatives that impact the audience. In Do the Right Thing, it’s the hot reds of a set design meant to indicate the hottest of hot New York summer days and the percolating tensions in a racially divided community; in Malcolm X it is how the intensity of his camera movements meet Denzel Washington’s stirring turn in an enlightening historical groove; and in 25th Hour it is his unflinching look at the wounds of 9/11 at a time when most Hollywood movies were erasing all reference to the twin towers. Red Hook Summer is full of passion but, unlike these earlier films, I do not think it ever finds ways to consistently convey the feeling to the audience. Its main motifs suggest that it is a transitional work in Lee’s career, looking back at his origins in independent film but at the same time wondering where this return to indie filmmaking might go. Red Hook follows a young character named Flik (Jules Brown), who arrives in Brooklyn to spend the summer with his grandfather, a preacher named Deacon Zee (Thomas Jefferson Byrd). The generational gap between the two of them is evident from the beginning: Flik frames the world through his iPad 2, documenting the world around him through visual means, while the preacher insists on the Word, using his sermons as a means to draw young Flik into the religious fold. The preacher’s work makes for an entertaining spectacle, but Flik is the real story, and his sweet friendship with a teenager named Chazz (Toni Lysaith) provides Red Hook with most if its grace notes. 

Lee is interested in exploring the contours of this community circa 2011, and it clearly is in tatters: where Do the Right Thing saw divisions in a community through race, in this semi-sequel the divisions are primarily economic, intra-communal, and religious. A strange and unexpected plot development, about 90 minutes through, reveals that these communal seams might have their origins in deep-seeded psychological traumas. However, this narrative turn never quite settles into the larger narrative context surrounding it, and Lee’s performers, who are mostly non-professionals, are not quite able to convey the gravity of the situation. 

Friday, August 17, 2012

Unpacking my (film) library

A visitor to my home would be forgiven for thinking me a literati. The bookshelves on the first floor are lined, mostly, with novels (flanked by some philosophy and art history). I don't think of this as a "collection," though, and my personal attachment to these volumes is a little chilly. I have never thought of them as particularly valuable or irreplaceable, and I am not sure that all of these novels, taken together, enjoy much of the personality of a collection. They are a bunch of books I read once and (mostly) enjoyed. And then I put them on a shelf. I am happy to still have them, to open a page and reread a paragraph and have the themes and the characters and the world of the story come flooding back to me. But they don't tell much of a story about me.

It's upstairs, with the film books on my office bookshelves, that I am to be found. Walter Benjamin, in his essay "Unpacking My Library," identified the book collector as one who has a special relationship with the collection as material forms with their own kind of life. This is why his essay identifies the activity of collecting with the unpacking of books: the handling of them, the appreciation of them as artifacts as well as repositories of knowledge. None of my film books (to my knowledge) is particularly valuable in monetary terms (although until recently, Gilbert Adair's out-of-print Flickers went for a pricey amount on Amazon). But many of them have a place in my personal history that, for me, far exceeds exchange value, and even anything that is actually written in them. "Not that they come alive in him," Benjamin wrote about the books of a collector, "it is he who lives in them."

The first film books I owned were about Charlie Chaplin, whose films I fell in love with, at age 12, after seeing and liking the Attenborough biopic; Peter Haining's Charlie Chaplin: A Centenary Celebration contains all sorts of beautiful film stills from the Chaplin movies I had enjoyed on VHS in the darkness of my suburban bedroom on a 13" television screen - plus plenty of stills from Chaplin films that weren't available at my nearby mom and pop video store, but that I could imagine by looking at the images in this book:

French cinema was what I fell for next; I saw my first Truffauts and Godards while I was a senior in high school. I can hold Eric Rohmer's Taste of Beauty in my hands and have all that personal history flood right back to me; a few underlined passages (and even the creases on certain pages, and certain folds on the paperback cover) remind me of being in certain places and times and reading this -- and also at how deadly seriously I took this book when I was about 21 years old. There was a six-month period (at least), a long time ago, when every film I saw I judged on the aesthetic principles articulated in this book. Not recommended as an approach! Nevertheless, this book still helps me understand Rohmer's cinema, and winding my way through Rohmer's sometimes dense academic prose prepared me well, in retrospect, for my first film theory classes:

Apart from Chaplin's autobiography (which I did a book report on in eighth grade - I have sadly lost my copy of that book over the years), my first memorable acquisition of a biography was Bernard Eisenschitz's Nicholas Ray: An American Journey. I bought it because I really liked Rebel Without a Cause and They Live By Night, and read it all the way through even though I hadn't seen any of the other films. (I promptly re-read it, several years later, after having seen the rest of Ray's work). I remember reading his chapters on The Lusty Men and On Dangerous Ground and just from his descriptions I knew that I would love the films (and I eventually did):

During my PhD years I grew fond of small paperback books of film criticism and theory from the 1960s and early 70s -- books that contained mostly "impressionistic" auteur and genre criticism but also the first flowerings of theory. My battered copy of Peter Harcourt's Six European Directors (which still contains some of my favorite writing on Godard) is my favorite of these:

Often used books contain inscriptions bearing the names of recipients. I recently bought a copy of Garson Kanin's book on Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in a local used book store. Several weeks later, when I finally opened it, I noticed that it had been signed, dedicated, and dated in 1972 by Kanin to its owner, a man named Jonathan Phelps (likely the Atlanta radio broadcaster who passed away last year at the age of 83). So, here is a book signed by Kanin, who not only wrote about Hepburn and Tracy but also knew them intimately, and was instrumental in creating the public mythos of their relationship. And he wrote Adam's Rib! It's sad that this book had to be orphaned, but I'm glad it ended up with me: 

I think any cinephile should be able to trace a very important part of a personal history, a way of thinking about movies, through all the film books he or she has owned.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Stripping down: Magic Mike

Steven Soderbergh has worked with George Clooney, Michael Douglas, Benicio Del Toro, Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, and a host of other stars, but lately he seems more intrigued by the non-actor. The Girlfriend Experience and Haywire are anchored by the awkward, wooden performances of, respectively, porn star Sasha Grey and fighter Gina Carano; and while the professional acting in Magic Mike includes Michael McConaughey's justly celebrated turn as the impresario of a strip joint, it's also full of scenes with supporting actors that feel more like line readings than glimpses into the lives of fully embodied characters. All of this can be explained away with just a dash of auteurism and a bit of Brecht, seeing Soderbergh's films as a daring balancing act between Sidney Lumet and Jean-Luc Godard. Of course he's interested in characters, but he wants to reveal the workings of cinema too. So in some way Magic Mike is not only about a bunch of Tampa-area strippers: it's also "about" the idea of performance itself. Bad acting becomes film theory.

Channing Tatum is good, actually, but I wonder how much Soderbergh had to do with this: Tatum used to be a stripper. I assume the moves he puts on display in this film are some of his golden oldies, staged for the camera with a few new inflections. (McConaughey is more impressive because you can imagine him and the director having long conversations about the exact number of gyrations necessary in a given scene: there is actually some new work being done there). I am not sure anyone else in the movie is very good, though. Cody Horn is a good sport, but her main achievement is to disprove the Kuleshov effect when she watches her little brother strip: What are we supposed to be reading into her face, exactly?

Soderbergh does attain a deft mixture of immersion and distance in the beefcake scenes. At once plunging us into the sweat and swelter of a male revue circa midnight (or into the middle of a stripper's sex romp with one of his clients a few hours later), he also comes up with just the right composition to remind us that we are watching a movie.  Of course, no one is going to see this for the film theory, and it's not a tract against consumer capitalism in any event: the closest Magic Mike gets to the critical edge of New Hollywood cinema circa the 1970s is when Soderbergh uses the old-school, Saul Bass-designed Warners logo at the beginning of the film, which is without question the coolest thing I have seen in any studio release this year. (More auteurs should pay tribute to old-school intros like that: I remember getting chills when David Gordon Green brought out the great United Artists logo from the 1980s at the beginning of Undertow). There is, however, a very nicely achieved feeling of economic desperation coursing throughout this movie, an attention to the simple everyday necessity of dollars and cents which is more acute than anything in American cinema since Take Shelter. The major plot point in this film turns not on Channing Tatum's abs, but on his character's flaccid credit score.

Monday, July 2, 2012

David Thomson on actors

When David Thomson writes about directors in his Biographical Dictionary of Film, he sometimes gets into trouble. I've never met a cinephile who takes seriously Thomson's remark that Abbas Kiarostami's work is "funerary art," for example. That is just late-90s death-of-cinema stuff. Nevertheless, Thomson is great with actors. Or, he achieves a certain kind of critical greatness: in just one sentence, one turn of the phrase, he can (sometimes, almost cruelly) come up with words that put a performer's entire career into perspective.

He's really good on Gary Oldman:

After a dozen or so films, did the public have a better idea of Gary Oldman's own personality than before he began? That is not ingratitude, merely a way of observing that Oldman seems like a blank, anonymous passerby (like someone in Dallas on November 22, 1963, running interference for a real Lee Harvey Oswald), who waits to be occupied by demons. He is a suit hanging in a closet, waiting to be possessed, which means that he brings an uncommon, self-effacing service to his roles. Part of that attitude is his complete and easy readiness not to be liked. So he is both vacant and ingratiating: it will be intriguing to see how long such a career can last (721).

One look at an early scene in Bram Stoker's Dracula supports some of Thomson's impressions. Oldman's Count is shrouded in Coppola's dense, atmospheric soundtrack; the visible bats, spiders, and armadillos of Tod Browning's classically creepy 1931 film starring Bela Lugosi are replaced in Coppola's version with sonic shrieks and howls. At one moment, Oldman's Dracula lashes out with melodramatic venom (and a sword) at Keanu Reeves' Harker. But the overall effect is not so much of Oldman actively occupying this role. Instead, Coppola's atmospheric aesthetic takes the actor over, almost like Dracula himself will infect those he bites. Example: one of the most striking aspects of the mise en scene, Dracula's autonomously moving shadow in the background, is not a contribution of the actor. It is the product of a special effect, and of Coppola's own cinephilic reference to a similar effect in Dreyer's Vampyr:

Perhaps this is what led to the well-documented conflict between Oldman and Coppola on the set: Oldman's agency as actor was stifled as Coppola's visionary aesthetics took charge.

Of course, further analysis of this scene would pinpoint those little details that Oldman does contribute; but I think Thomson is accurate in his impressionistic description of the overall feeling one gets regarding the collaboration. In this film, and despite accusations of over-acting that have dogged his career, Oldman became a self-effacing figure "waiting to be possessed." And this idea winds its way through Thomson's musings on Oldman's other performances. Although a lot of cinephiles seem to dismiss any pretense of taking Thomson seriously as a critic, I would offer that this is what he is so good at: delineating a key idea about a single role in his critical appreciation of an actor that serves, in turn, as an explanatory device for understanding that actor's entire body of work. And, arguably, he was on-target with Oldman, who often seemed a passive presence in his endless villain roles and perfunctory appearances in franchise films as the decade wore on. A more charitable reading of Oldman (one I'm partial to) would view him as one of the cinema's skillful chameleons, able to sink into various roles without a star persona ever taking over. But Thomson, I think, articulates a fair counterpoint to this argument, seeing an empty vessel where others see a shape-shifting artist.

Thomson's writing on Oldman contains several of his hallmarks in his writing on actors. Descriptions of the actor often blend with descriptions of the roles. For example, in the paragraph above, Thomson uses Oldman's performance as Oswald in JFK as a shortcut to a description of the actor himself. And there is a sharp incisiveness that always cuts the star down to size (Oldman is like a "blank"), followed (or sometimes preceded) by a retreat, almost an apology, perhaps out of fear that he has been too cruel: he still likes these stars, after all, and so much of his writing is centered on the idea that they are even more important than auteurs to our film experience. But the fact that Thomson even brings Greta Garbo down to earth ("...there was plentiful evidence of how ordinary and how dull the real woman had been...", pg. 366) proves his interest in critically deflating star power while at the same time trying to articulate the content of that power. 

Thomson's limitation, however, is that he does not say much about what actors actually do. It is difficult to recall sustained passages where he pays attention to gesture, movement, and expression. Even in his 2008 book Nicole Kidman these details are often missing. He is quite good at describing the impact of their appearances, of course. (Not surprisingly, these descriptions are often about his favorite actresses). But even in these pieces there is a push-and-pull in his prose: at once taking the shape of a fawning mash note, his prose then makes a dialectical turn with a distanced, objective, cutting rejoinder to his own affection. On Juliette Binoche...

Watching Blue ... you begin to wonder if there has ever been a more beautiful woman in movies than Juliette Binoche. You fancy that Kieslowski has succumbed to this thought, too. How many ways are there of watching her grave face? Are the cheeks carved by love's gaze? Did that hair fall on her head like night? And the eyes ... are they part of her life, or their own living creatures? And yet ... if only this magnificent, melancholy, and nearly stunned woman had just a touch of ... Debbie Reynolds?  (94)
Most of the "analysis" here is actually not on the page: Thomson almost seems interested in the relationship between Kieslowski's style and what Binoche is actually doing. He almost actually describes her narrative presence, although his fixation for particular details in her appearance, and his interest in translating those details into literary metaphors, short-circuits a potentially more detailed description. His writing is closer to the confession of a besotted cinephile. 

A better title for Thomson's book might be The Autobiographical Dictionary of Film, since this is largely a text about what these stars mean to Thomson, and not what the actors themselves have actually done or how their visible, moment-by-moment achievements on the screen contribute to film narration. If he cuts the actors down to size (sometimes with remarkable invention - who else would find fault in Binoche for not being Debbie Reynolds?), it's not so much to celebrate their work, but to see what their work, described in self-consciously literary prose, has meant to him. This strategy, of course, contains a crucial element that is present in all good criticism: the desire to report what one has experienced in watching film, and what this experience has meant to that individual. Perhaps at once celebrating and then deflating the star's power is one way of establishing critical agency and individual voice. 


Thomson's method is one of a number of different approaches to writing about film performance that are currently salient:

1) the impressionistic method. The way of most mainstream film criticism, of which Thomson is a master. Little is said about what is actually achieved. The performance is 'translated' into literary affects. This kind of writing bridges the gap, I think, between "star studies" and "performance studies" (of course, not in a strictly academic vein).

2) the descriptive method. Andrew Klevan, in his admirable book Film Performance: From Achievement to Appreciation, is the most skilled practitioner of this method. This approach uses the viewer's experience of the film as a key ingredient in descriptions of the moment-by-moment, gesture-by-gesture role that actors play in the narration of films. Klevan's work takes Stanley Cavell and classical cinema as points of departure, but he also generously quotes Thomson at the beginning of his book, suggesting a complementarity with the impressionistic method.

3) the historical-theoretical method. Situates the actor in a larger historical context of practice and usually develops a key set of terms, proceeding from a clearly stated theoretical approach, to analyzing the actor's work. The masterpiece in this tradition is James Naremore's Acting in Cinema, and recent anthologies such as More Than a Method and Reframing Screen Performance are also really good. David Bordwell's Figures Traced in Light is not really about acting, but it is complementary to these kinds of works and similar in its sober, nearly scientific approach. (Elena del Rio's thought-provoking Deleuze and the Cinemas of Performance is a "high theory" example of this kind of work).

The best writing in each of these categories, of course, contains elements of the other two: for example, Thomson knows his history and has a method (even if it is unstated and even if most 'serious' academics don't take it seriously) that generates rhetorical tropes and recurring ideas in his writing; Klevan's work is situated in the classical era (a clear historical context) and his love for cinema emerges in his work as sharply as does Thomson's, even if it is qualitatively very different; and Naremore is certainly very good at describing key moments in performances even as his eye remains on larger methodological concerns and terms. All of this work suggests that we are at a point where a once-neglected area of film scholarship has become quite developed, full of conceptual options and points of departure for engaging with different kinds of actors in a range of films.

Source: David Thomson, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film: Fifth Edition (Knopf, 2010).

Friday, June 15, 2012

Revelations above the border

How often do you get to see what might be the two best films of the last two years in the same day? While in Toronto at a conference yesterday, I had the opportunity to see The Tree of Life in a way I had never seen it before: at the magisterial Lightbox theater in Toronto, the cinematheque where the TIFF is held (a beautiful space only exceeded, in my experience, by the BFI in London). The sound was a revelation: I was hearing things in the mix I had never heard before (one particular sonic detail led me to completely rethink Brad Pitt's character and his relationship to his children). The digital projection was so sharp and translucent; I was seeing a depth in the imagery, and a luminosity to surface and skin, that had previously eluded my visual grasp. To say it felt like I was seeing the film for the first time is an overstatement - but it was close. It did feel, however, like an unrepeatedly perfect experience: if I ever see another Terrence Malick film in a cinema under such pristine conditions, I'll be surprised.

The quieter revelation came later that evening, when I caught up with Patrick Wang's equally (although differently) luminous In the Family (a 2011 film which is receiving its wide release in North America in 2012). I'll be cagey in my plot description, because I think the affective experience this film offers is most intense when you know very little about its central plot points. This film contains one of the most quietly beautiful performances I know of, that of Patrick Wang himself, playing the lover of a widower named Cody. I have never quite seen another character on film like Wang's Joey Williams before: through Wang's deft combination of image duration, flashbacks, and carefully chosen actors in supporting roles, his Joey emerges as one of the most fully realized, humanely generous, and subtly complex characters I know of in recent American cinema. Joey is the surrogate father of Chip, Cody's young son; after another tragedy befalls their family, Joey is left with the messy situation of defining what it means to be a homosexual father in a grossly intolerant social context. What is so remarkable about this film is that its anger is never worn on its sleeve, and it is never used to judge those characters that we feel Joey himself would be perfectly just in condemning. Wang simply lets us be with Joey and his son on the screen, and through Wang's mastery of duration and light (this is one of the most beautifully photographed independent films) the rightness of their lives together shines through. This is a remarkable debut, and I can't wait to see where Wang goes next.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Moving forward with film-philosophy

Ryerson University in Toronto is hosting the Varieties of Continental Thought and Religion conference next week, and I've been lucky enough to receive an invite to respond to Robert Sinnerbrink's new essay on The Tree of Life. This has given me the opportunity to rework some of my ideas about the film and also think about the state of film-philosophy more generally.

The interdisciplinary field of film-philosophy seems to have evolved to the point where we are wondering where next to take it, how to move forward with it. A recent discussion on Girish Shambu's blog queried the ongoing value of film-philosophy, wondering if perhaps the recent turn to philosophy by some scholars was yet another move to view films in the context of Grand Theory -- here is the philosophy, and there is the film that illustrates it. While there is always the danger of reducing the film in question to a set of preexisting concepts (John Mullarkey argues that this is, on some level, unavoidable), I think the best work in the field has been oriented precisely against this perspective. 

This is why the idea of response has been crucial to the most interesting recent work in this sub-discipline. In contrast to illustrative theories, Sinnerbrink has summed up the sensibility of film-philosophers who want the films themselves to have a place in discussions about them: "[W]e need to be open and receptive to the 'thinking' that films themselves unfold via image, narrative, and style," he writes, "and remain committed to finding thought-provoking ways of translating this thinking into a fitting philosophical idiom, perhaps evne one that might subtly transform what we take 'doing philosophy' (of film) to mean." (See page 43 in his essay "Re-enfranchising Film" in the collection New Takes in Film-Philosophy). The subtlety mentioned here isn't just about concepts: it's about the act of writing and talking about movies. When we describe films we do not merely perform a redundant act that 'replicates' the film in our discourse. We inflect our discourse with what the film has shown us; every descriptive act is a different kind of aesthetic response, prompted by particular films.

This is probably why Malick has been a popular director in these kinds of discussions, above and beyond his now rather dusty philosophical credentials (he translated Heidegger and attended Harvard over four decades ago). His films, I think, demand aesthetic response as a mode of viewing; they set the search for ideas in motion, and make the response to the aesthetic and natural world a part of their cinematic, thematic, and experiential texture.

In this respect, The Tree of Life might be the perfect film for the subfield right now, not because it cites theology or philosophy explicitly but because it takes the possibility of moving forward with ideas as one of its themes. Early in the film, the camera follows Mrs. O'Brien (Jessica Chastain) as she answer the doorbell. She receives news, we will learn later, of the death of one of her three sons. As she reads the words Emmanuel Lubezki's steadicam remains in medium close-up, but from slightly behind and at a respectful distance. This handheld movement is fragmented by two jump cuts. As fragmented  as Malick's recent editing strategies are, his use of jump cuts is still relatively rare, so this is a striking moment: Like Mrs. O'Brien, the film has become momentarily unsure of its own continuity -- it is as if the film is placing the ongoing possibility of continuity, in the context of a personal tragedy such as this, under momentary question.

Chastain’s performance (and this is true of all the performances in The Tree of Life at different moments) is here pitched at a register we do not always see in film. As Andrew Klevan has suggested, film actors often suspend their characters above moments of revelation, on the one hand, and moments of withholding emotion, on the other. This is a tension between public disclosure and private reticence that is at the heart of dramatic narration in both mainstream film and art cinema (and, indeed, much social life). Directors will typically operate to one or the other side of this tension in the making of films; and Malick is, of course, one of the most respectful of directors, refusing to bind the emotions that pass across the faces of his characters to immediately consumable narrative information. But the performance here goes beyond simply disclosing the psychological content of affect or keeping it withheld. The character, understandably, is not quite sure how to respond, not sure how to go on living with the ideas about grace and nature that "the nuns taught us" (established in the preceding few minutes of the movie), the ideas which have hitherto symbolically defined her life and provided it existential continuity. She has nothing to disclose or withhold besides the simple fact of her devastation, and the character is not "choosing" to reveal this: it simply happens, forced by this tragedy. The question is now not which path is the right one (grace or nature) but whether or not this very idea, as a conceptual guide to experience, will survive her tragic loss. Just as Mrs. O’Brien does not quite know how to move forward here, the film, having itself been affected by her devastated presence, also invites wonder at how it might continue.        

Malick's movies are full of moments like the above, where passages that feel like affective wholes (such as the first few minutes of the film, which presents Mrs. O'Brien's childhood and her parenting of her sons as a kind of graceful bliss) suddenly give way to loss. All of Malick's films are about this loss of old worlds and the uncertain movement into new ones. Malick sees these "worlds" not in any grand sense, but in the tiny details of life, experience, and nature, themselves open to the responses of viewers. The question in The Tree of Life is not what something means at any particular moment but how we go forward with our preexisting meanings after making contact with something so affecting. This is probably the best way to understand film-philosophy, too: an ever-evolving structure of feeling and thinking that is perpetually affected by films, and is perpetually reshaping its structures (in subtle rather than grand ways) in the process.
Cited: Robert Sinnerbrink, "Re-enfranchising Film: Towards a Romantic Film-Philosophy," in New Takes in Film-Philosophy, eds. Havi Carel and Greg Tuck (New York: Palgrave, 2011), 25-47. 

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom

A recent trip to Paris and London provided me with all sorts of cinephilic pleasures. These included a great digital restoration of Grand Illusion at the BFI and a nice repertory print of Vincente Minnelli's 1955 film The Cobweb in the same theater, as well as a trip to the Tim Burton exhibition at the Cinematheque Francaise. (A montage of clips from his career in the exhibition has me pining to watch Pee Wee's Big Adventure and Batman Returns again). But the unequivocal highlight of the film portion of my trip was the unexpected treat of seeing Wes Anderson's new Moonrise Kingdom on the night of its Cannes premiere, when it simultaneously opened throughout Paris.

My initial impression of the movie - which I liked a lot - is that it's Anderson's best since 2004's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Even while it does not quite scale the heights of his best work (for me, that would be Zissou and The Royal Tenenbaums), it repeats Anderson's signature motifs with enough emotional variation to keep things interesting. A first-love story about two twelve-year old runaways, an orphaned boy scout named Sam (Jared Gilman) and his artsy suicidal crush Suzy (Kara Hayward, playing a girl who is in some ways a younger version of Gwyneth Paltrow's character in Tenenbaums), Anderson's film is also equally about the adult disappointments of the parents and authority figures who go chasing after them on New Penzance Island. The first hour of the movie is a slow build, constructed on Anderson's usual deft attention to quietly powerful affective moments. Bill Murray (as expected) and Bruce Willis (as, perhaps, not expected) are responsible for the most memorable of them (although the most engaging adult presence might be Bob Balaban as the unnamed narrator).

The best stretch is the final act (I finally and fully connected with Moonrise Kingdom when Jason Schwartzman made his first appearance), a moving and exciting blend of action that is reminiscent of the action setpieces in The Life Aquatic. These scenes, and indeed the entire film, are full of some of Robert Yeoman's most memorable and striking frames, but the movie also contains several dolly shots that clue us into the ways Anderson's characters attempt to escape from the minutely detailed worlds they've created for themselves. (This is also signaled by scenes in which characters shed the shackles of their costumes, always a key sign of the identity of Anderson characters. When Sam and Suzy strip to their skivvies in the middle of their escape, it's a sign of both freedom but also the inevitable march toward adulthood: eventually, they're going to have to put their clothes on again). The soundtrack is, as usual, full of little delights: front and center is Benjamin Britten's "The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra," which provides a sonic metaphor for Anderson's own subtle variations on his familiar auteur themes.

This is the most melancholy entry in his filmography, ultimately: once and for all in Anderson, there is no going back to those lost worlds of childhood, and the community built in their place (always present at the end of every Anderson film) has never felt more tentative, or sadder, than it does here.