Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Every Man for Himself

(Jean-Luc Godard, France/Austria/West Germany/Switzerland, 1980)

Godard's "second first film," and it lives up to the title.  Godard's method has shifted over the course of his career, straying further away from - or tunneling through -  diagetic "story," an internal reality that is transmitted (or, more romantically, "expressed") through the medium, and drifting towards an increasingly rigorous investigation of the medium itself.  Of course, he's had these impulses from the start; Breathless is not as different, when it comes down to the instincts and preoccupations of its director, from the later works as critics often suggest.  Godard is a process man.  His work has remained incandescently vital because it's always engaged, always moving forward, always finding new ways to grapple with creative problems that very few other cinematic artists even bothered to notice.  And he is the least theoretical of artists, whatever his statements and reputation might suggest - everything is a matter of practice, of trial and error, of an approach being worked out on the wing. The radical reflexivity of this approach - every cut, every juxtaposition a node of inquiry - counts for a great deal of what makes him so unique.  In the essay reproduced for the Criterion collection's booklet, by Amy Taubin, she claims that "he is basically a classicist with powerful adversarial instincts." This might be true; Godard's project has long seemed to me, at least in part, to transcend the apparent juncture that separates Classical and Modern.  His view of aesthetic history - history writ large, really - is capacious and eclectic, and despite the dense allusiveness and occasional bitterness, his resolutely refined treatment of images and sound - always with an indefatigable eye for beauty, beauty! - is never deserving of the "post" appellation that's been roughly applied to -modern.

No Godard film can be viewed with even a moment's passivity; his challenge to viewers to pay close attention, think for themselves, embark on a project of criticism even as one watches the film is one of the traits that makes him, to my mind, resolutely Modern.  This is also what makes much of the work, particularly the later work, so bewildering on a first viewing.  The Criterion package, with an ample helping of supplemental interviews and commentaries, goes a long way in helping the viewer wrap their mind around the work.  Godard's long sojourn in the wilderness of 16mm and video, almost all of it produced for TV, had seen a sea-change in his approach.  It was further abetted by his partnership, creative and personal, with Anne-Marie Miéville, with whom he's continued to work and live ever since.   His excitement at returning to feature films, and 35mm, is palpable from the first shot - one of Godard's glorious skyscapes, a slow pan across the cloud-dappled blue of, one imagines, his homeland of Switzerland.   This sense of exuberance never diminishes entirely, but it quickly complicated by a ruefulness and an asperity that borders on cynicism. 

Godard claimed to have identified more with the two female protagonists - a journalist/artist played by Nathalie Baye, and a prostitute played by Isabelle Huppert - than with Jacques Dutronc's Paul Godard, whose name is only one of many similarities to the actual director.  Godard the character is that particularly French kind of nihilistic crank, incapable of having an interaction that doesn't involve obscenity or actual violence, whereas the women, although both of them suffer, have purpose and direction in their lives.  The title can be seen as a commentary on both the challenge and the opportunity of late-capitalist individualism, to which Paul Godard has responded with bitterness, and the female characters with determination, even pluck. 

Throughout, Godard employs techniques - some familiar, some novel - that disrupt and refocus our attention.  His use of stop-motion is particularly effective, if initially mysterious.  It always seems to return to seeing. Godard wants desperately to see, his faith in the reproduced image, while not without anguish, is enduring.  The question is how far we're meant to look - at these "characters," or at their images, at the ideas they represent, at ourselves?  The answer is probably something like all at once.  But to keep in mind Godard's classicism is a helpful guide.  He's a humanist, finally, a child of the Enlightenment.  He wants us to see the human, and his techniques, however jarring they might appear, are not to obscure or confuse, but to clarify.  In a world of cinema, the image must be considered; to make images without reflection, without a sense of deep responsibility, is for Godard a cardinal sin. 

The tenor of the film tilts towards stoicism.  In a world depraved by capitalism, the charge to persist is all the more urgent.  Paul Godard, imprisoned by his own despair, falls back on impulses, fleeting gratifications.  Huppert's Isabelle has no such luxury, and has hardened into an unperturbed shell of remoteness.  Baye's Denise, free and in motion, is moving forward, even if the direction is unclear.  Even in the absurdist sex games Isabelle is forced to play - a mechanical and thoroughly un-erotic orchestration by a piggish businessman, she retains an inner calm, and is framed by a still-life worthy vase of flowers.  The mechanical and the organic, so often opposed, can perhaps be resolved with cinema.  That, at least, seemed to be Godard's hope, undiminished as he entered a new phase in his career. 

Monday, November 7, 2016

Black Mass

(Scott Cooper, USA, 2015)

A strange agglomeration of gangster movie tropes, with a few novel ingredients but little else to recommend it.  Depp is excellent, reminding us of his range and his potential for disciplined, uncanny performances.  Here, he simmers, projecting creepy depths of evil and ambition.  His makeover - hair, skin, eyes, nose, teeth - approaches the excessive, but his skill, his sheer presence, makes it work for him, instead of the other way around.  Unfortunately, he's mostly acting in a vacuum.  The other performers can't match his magnetism or his intensity, and neither can the film itself.  Cooper seems unable to make up his mind - are we meant to empathize with Bulger, or at least to understand that some of his ruthlessness came from life reversals, like the deaths of his son and mother?  These brief interludes into what might be called the "human" side of Bulger don't do much to diminish the impact of his killings, his thuggery, his naked opportunism and apparent lack of scruple. 

It's in these scenes of violence and scheming that the movie really comes alive, so it's all the more disappointing that they often feel secondhand.  We are treated to generous helpings of warmed-over Scorsese, a dash or two of Coppola, a smidgen of Friedken.  We see people dispatched with chilly efficiency, stacks of money piling up, swaggering (if lumpish) gangsters, while a driving, period-accurate song plays on the soundtrack.  These little jolts of adrenaline easily overpower the more brooding moments, when Cooper halfheartedly examines the nexus of tribalism, criminality, and politics that make South Boston an enduring source of American mythology.

Of course, it's all based on a true story, as they say, and it's in this dimension that Black Mass reaches its most interesting state.  The fact that the Bulger brothers could have attained such prominence in their respective fields - crime and government - and that Bulger operated with virtual impunity for so long, create a kind of astonishment that is only sustained by virtue of its being true.  Tonally, the astonishment works better, jibing with the familiar thrills of the gangster picture.  But when it changes, abruptly and unevenly, into ruefulness, it quickly loses interest.  John Connolly, played with gusto by Joel Edgarton, is portrayed as a tragic figure, undone by a mixture of loyalty, ambition, and moral blindness.  But even if his story were better told, he'd still be a shortsighted schmuck.  Transfixed by the sheer unlikliness of the story's events, the filmmakers forget to tell a story.  Beyond the headlines, paradoxically, there isn't anything there.  Bulger was a clever thug, who, with some good luck, became a kingpin.  But he's a sociopath, through and through, a blank void.  Scary, but shallow.  The characters who become ensnared in his web of manipulation seem to be hapless unfortunates.  There is a tremendous amount of material that could've been explored, but Cooper didn't know where to look.  Instead, he goes through the motions of the gangster biopic with a professional but hollow studiousness. 

Friday, October 14, 2016

The Imitation Game

(Morten Tyldum, UK/USA, 2014)
What's to be admired in this film is the craft, the appreciation of watching a fine-tuned machine perform its function without hiccup or fuss.  But that kind of appeal has its limits, and in The Imitation Game they're pretty quickly reached.  Most of the problems comes from the screenplay, as good an example of Blacklist-style schematics as one is likely to find.  What appears to be an intricate nesting of theme, incident, and character is in fact the elaboration of a fairly limp metaphor for Alan Turing's long struggle to fit in - and, while he's at it, become a national hero.  We're once again treated to another imperious but hypersensitive genius, vulnerable enough to be lovable but eccentric enough to remind us of his ineffable difference; the stale cult of the Great Man, humanized through the "enigma" of human drama.

For Turing, human interaction is like an unbreakable code; everybody else seems to have the key but him.  This of course leads at least in part to his self-imposed distance from the other characters - if he can't make them love him, he'll prove that he's the smartest person in the room.  Which of course he is, with the possible exception being Keira Knightley's Joan Clarke, a bright-eyed prodigy of both intelligence and spirit.  Together, and with a modicum of assistance from the MI6 team he leads to crack the German code device, they help to win the war for the Allies.  It's a big story, and mostly true, and that doesn't even include the fact of Turing's homosexuality.  He was viciously persecuted for this by the British government, leading to a sorry end that the film relates but leavens with his triumphs, as well as a late pep talk by Joan, which of course mirrors one that Turing had delivered to her earlier in the film.

Turing's story, with its combination of personal and professional peaks and valleys, must surely have been catnip to the prestige side of Hollywood; it's only surprising that this biopic wasn't made earlier.  But it does disservice to the history of Turing's achievements, which went far beyond code-breaking (he did a great deal of the founding work in the field of what would later be known as computer science, and had major contributions in mathematics and cognitive science - even biology), and it relies to heavily on shorthand methods to reveal his pathos.  There's no real impression of a point of view, either on history, on human knowledge, or on the trials of a wounded, lonesome soul; everything fits easily into the combination of uplift and sober concern which seems to have powered the film from its first iterations as a script.  As such, it's a missed opportunity, and a regrettable one.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

That Obscure Object of Desire

(Luis Buñuel, France/Spain, 1977)

Buñuel's last film, and my first viewing of his work in a long while.  It was an excellent refresher, and that inimitable mixture of Bunuel's - both sprightly and dark, intellectual and playful, fleet and severe -  brought me immediately back into the peculiar world of his films.  This world, among its many wonders, remains one of the best creative renderings of the dream state.  Approaches to the subconscious in cinema are strikingly varied - two vivid and contrasting examples are David Lynch and Andrei Tarkovsky - but nobody ever did it quite like Buñuel.  By blurring the line between conscious and unconscious, Buñuel creates a waking dream, something closer to how dreams often feel to the dreamer - that is, they feel like life, except subtly, elusively different.  Only upon waking do we realize the strangeness of what just transpired.  All of which is to say that consciousness - and by extension, reality itself - is relative, a truth Buñuel understood better than almost anybody.

Of a piece with this understanding is the awareness of the subconscious in daily, waking life - the extent to which we are powered, and often, tragically, imprisoned by our dreams.  Much of this, on a conceptual level, came right out of mainline surrealism, but Buñuel brought it to new imaginative heights, and crafted a uniquely cinematic approach.  As such, his films fuse the dream world with the world of images, and in doing so weave a glittery web that seems to catch every node of human affairs - sex, politics, psychology, metaphysics, art, etc.

Sex, of course, was paramount among these.  That Obscure Object is a particularly feverish tale, full of concentrated passion, dangerously frustrated.  Fernando Rey, a Bunuel staple, here depicts Mathieu, once again a hapless middle-aged bourgeois, host to simmering and unrealized urges.  But Buñuel is interested in far more than satire.  There's a pathos to Mathieu, for all of his lecherousness, a strain of sympathy for him and his doomed pursuit of sexual fulfillment.  Of course, he readily mixes this up with love, a fatal mistake but a universally human one, or so Buñuel seems to believe.  To some degree, Mathieu knows he's being ridiculous, and yet no amount of disappointment or stoicism will release him from his pursuit.

His object is the willfully obscure Conchita, played in alternate scenes by Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina.  This double-casting is one of the great cinematic ploys of Buñuel's oeuvre, all the more so because it doesn't readily admit explication.  It works however you need it to: highlighting the abstract quality of desire, changeable and elusive, the radical subjectivity of Mathieu, and the irreconcilability of desire with reality: only in a fantasy can Conchita be both the slut and the virgin, the temptress and the angel, the lissome model and the curvaceous dancer.

Behind all of this is the backdrop of political unrest, the frequent bombings, shoot-outs and hijackings.  But for all of this ambient chaos, Mathieu and his set can never be fully distracted from their petty interests and indulgences.  In part, this an acknowledgment is the famous Id, a roiling sub-basement of violent forces, barely contained.  But it's also a familiar world, not terribly different from our own, and we are queasily reminded of our own habits of distraction.  The full dimensions of life's folly - our pursuit of what we cannot have, which we pursue all the more ardently for its impossibility - are glaringly present in Buñuel, and for all of his humor (about which I haven't said enough - in short, it's a wonderfully understated hilarity), it is a harrowing thing to behold.   

Saturday, September 10, 2016


(Luc Besson, France/USA, 2014)

Surprisingly loopy, but the loopiness doesn't translate into much fun.   Besson's pulpy head-trip resembles nothing so much as a high-budget cell phone commercial - the sort of thing that tries, with risible earnestness, to imbue Information Technology with cosmic significance.  If advertising works by tacking cheap sentiment and banal ideas to completely unrelated consumable products, Besson's film operates in a similar fashion.  He gives us a terse, functional actioner that's tethered willy-nilly to some dizzily half-baked ideas about human potential and metaphysics. 

There's a playfulness to the film that crops up intermittently, and some of Besson's visual ideas are arresting and even beautiful, but for most of the time it's a slog.  Like so many contemporary action-adventure movies, it doesn't really trust its audience, and so must favor speed and sensation over inspiration and insight.  It's hard to tell the proportions of cynicism and ingenuousness at work here: much of the time, the fortune-cookie philosophy and pulp sci-fi seems extraneous, nearly an afterthought.  But as the film gathers momentum and the concepts spiral ever higher - as Lucy's brain capacity approaches 100%, giving her Godlike omniscience - it seems more likely that it's the pop-sci stuff that really gets Besson going, and he's using guns and sex appeal to appease the attention-deficient ticket-buyers. 

That may be Besson's method, but what's his object?  The whole "we only use 10% of our brain" notion is widely reported to be utter bunk, and even if it were true, the idea that unlocking more of our "cerebral capacity" would make us into sexy wizards seems, well, silly.   Besson can't quite decide how seriously to take his material; how far to push the kitsch, how much destruction to orchestrate, and how much gravitas to conjure, even if it's simplistic and hollow.  He's having a good time, but he's also going through the motions, offering up a tacky gloss on serious questions with a explosions to spare.  Johansson is game and works hard for the money, but her natural presence and talent can't quite rescue the film from being a trifle.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Van Gogh

(Maurice Pialat, France, 1991)

Pialat's interest in Van Gogh is neither academic nor practical; despite Pialat's own history as a painter, and his reverence for the medium, which he favored above all, even cinema, his considerations of painting itself are mostly absent from Van Gogh.  The work is not the point; Van Gogh could be a musician and the movie wouldn't be terribly different.  Van Gogh the dreamer, whose notion of beauty as a worldly miracle, and of the kind of society that might better appreciate its creation, doesn't make an appearance.  Neither does Van Gogh the lonely, spiritual pilgrim, who would with childlike naivete seek Gaugin's partnership in an arcadian painter's colony.  Pialat at times seems almost perversely self-restrained, denying his own affections in order to purge the film of sentimentality or grandiosity.  What is left is a steely, hardened look at a long-suffering man as he stumbles bitterly towards a bleak, self-inflicted end.

And yet, for all of that, the film is undeniably, irrepressibly gorgeous, and contains moments of pure joy.  Pialat shoots with a painter's eye - it has to be admitted, however cliched it might sound - and his natural feeling for emotions is breathtaking.  Still, there is a risk in the way Pialat presents his hero.  In the film, Van Gogh has the aura of a Christ about him - an enormous amount of the film's gravity is generated by Lutronc, whose weary, ironic mein speaks volumes with a single glance - and that's part of the trouble.  Lutronc and Pialat's Van Gogh is perhaps too inscrutable, too tempestuous, and yet too assured in his march to oblivion.   His suffering most often takes the form of anger, and by the end we are made to understand that while his faith in his own greatness is complete (he bitterly rebukes his brother for selling paintings by everyone but "the greatest of our time," meaning himself), it's the world's and his brother's indifference that drives him to suicide.  His fits, he also reveals, were dissimulations; he isn't truly mad but rather driven to desperate measures by neglect. (It's possible that this is a lie designed to upset Théo; in any case, its ambiguity suggests at least a canny, manipulative person, driven as much by jealousy as by mental instability.  The point here isn't to demand a more virtuous Van Gogh, but that the vision offered in the film has a strangely narrow attitude towards suffering, which can at times seem to mirror Pialat's own legendary irascibility.) His slightly stooped posture isn't due to an external burden but to an intense, dark, inwardly-focused energy, as if some essential part of him thrives off of the idiocy of the world, and revels in denying it the full glory of his genius.

Pialat's Van Gogh seems to carry the secret of his own future success, and his dyspepsia, selfishness, and sorrow at neglect can therefore have the appearance of resentment, and his recurrent hauteur the just desserts of an unheralded hero.  But Pialat is too good a storyteller to leave it at that, and so he gives us glimpses of other versions of Van Gogh: the playful Vincent, the tender Vincent, even the loyal Vincent, who is willing to sacrifice anything, it would seem, for his beloved family.  He is thus an exquisitely conflicted person, hurt and bitter, noble and kind.  Pialat's own bleak view of the human scene would be unbearable if he didn't also show us the bright side, the moments of potential goodness.  He is at his weakest when he insists upon churlish outbursts of familial recrimination; at his strongest, I think, when he looks with sudden, unearned sympathy on the limitations of enormously willful, difficult people.  Pialat adores contrariness and spite as perhaps only a Frenchman could, but his ruefulness at his own shortcomings, personally and aesthetically, lend his films a human vitality that is one of the richest treasures of cinema. 

Norman Mailer famously claimed that the one character a novelist could never successfully imagine is a writer greater than himself.  Pialat isn't a Van Gogh, in either the scope of his imagination or the obscurity of his circumstances.  He is wise enough to leave Van Gogh's genius out of the story, focusing instead on the quotidian aspects of his existence, and hoping to catch a glimpse of the genius in the margins.  At times, he does; the extended sequence in the dance-hall/brothel is a vision of explosive joy, with undercurrents of tragedy.  The borders between art and life are momentarily erased, and the ecstasy of pure, happy experience shines brightly enough to illuminate even the darkest corners of life.  It's a rare enough achievement, captured by an artist of dogged skepticism and rueful self-critique, to find a way to present us with a human being who happened to be one of the greatest painters ever to pick up a brush.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Love Streams

(John Cassavetes, USA, 1984)

Cassavetes' valedictory masterpiece, anguished and freewheeling, intensely imagined and intimately fractured.  My longtime misapprehension, formed by film-school screenings of Shadows and Faces, was to count Cassavetes as a homegrown Neorealist, when he has always been a lavish, formally daring symbolist and emotional impressionist.   The early, raw work gave way over the years to Cassavetes insatiable imagination, which combined with modest budgets produced a wholly new style.  Today, it's everywhere, so ubiquitous that it hides in plain sight, showing up in filmmakers from Martin Scorsese to Wes Anderson, from Andrew Bujalski to Noah Baumbach.  More than mere style - although that's there, too - it's the attitude that we should recognize, the discovery of volumes of emotion in forthright deployment of the tools of cinema: a camera, a face, a line of dialogue.  Cassavetes' cinema is the cinema of independence, but as spiritual ideal more than economic reality. 

Love Streams is a culmination, embodying all of Cassavetes' personal and aesthetic concerns.  It's the tale of a triumphant survivor, made by a man who was close to dying.  As the story unfolds, Cassavetes' ruthless self-exposure and sputtering ecstasies nearly rend the film in two; but there is a serenity at the center that is as moving as it is surprising.  Rowlands is typically magnificent as the radiant, fragile Sarah Lawson, who mirrors her brother's hopelessly shambling quest for love.  As Robert Harmon, Cassavetes the man is uncomfortably present, portraying the artist as ludicrously selfish, arriving at the end of his rope and realizing that a lifetime of self-indulgence has left him with very close to nothing.  He's ill, and it shows.  And yet he's a live wire, undaunted in his pursuit of more life and more love.

There are moments along the way where I'll admit to confusion;  the blunt realism of some scenes can refract dizzily in Cassavetes' symbolic prism.  Harmon's shambolic suavity, and the ready indulgence of many of the women in his life (most of whom he pays) seem at times to reveal uncomfortable assumptions about gender relations.  His drunken, aggressive pursuit of a lounge singer ends, incredibly, with his charming the pants (almost) off the singer's mother.  This is after he has all but kidnapped her, and then cracked his head open on the sidewalk.  She takes him in; her mother nurses his wounds.

And yet none of this is portrayed as the least bit admirable or attractive; Harmon is understood from the beginning as a more-than-slightly-ridiculous character.  While his passions, and the seriousness with which he follows them, are never in doubt, he drifts through the world in a boozy, smoky haze, spouting dubious epigrams about love, women, and secrets.  His ubiquitous tuxedo becomes a kind of clown suit, tragic and idiotic at once.  Against all of this is Sarah, his other half, a wreck in her own right but also the only hope Harmon has of finding substantive love, rather than the ersatz stuff he spins to sell his books (which have apparently made him pretty rich.)

The ending sequence, which is justly celebrated as a cinematic high point, coalesces like a cracked, late-Romantic symphony, in which brief flashes of tenderness can be spotted in a sea of mania and sorrow.  Sarah, who understands and appropriately reveres love, doesn't have the emotional resources to weather its storms; Robert, learning too late the difference between pleasure and joy, scrambles to retrofit his life, but can't quite pull it off in time.  It's a bittersweet, eloquent ending to a legendary career, crafted with dedication and not a little love.