Sunday, February 21, 2010

Nights of Cabiria

(Federico Fellini, Italy, 1957)

I approached this film with a fair amount of anticipation - besides my long-standing admiration for Fellini, it came with the imprimatur of James Gray, who spoke highly of, among other things, the deftness of Nights' finale. The idea, per Maestro Gray, is to achieve an ending which is isn't definitively up or down - that avoids being both emptily bleak and falsely consoling. The one drawback to this anticipation was that I spent the last twenty minutes of the film on the edge of my seat, my mind racing (despite my best efforts) to figure out just how this film could manage to conclude in that sweet spot.

True to the hype, the conclusion was pitched perfectly between exaltation and despair - a remarkable feat of tonal dexterity that extends to the whole story. I don't feel I can do much beyond fawn over the film's many triumphs - as a work of storytelling, as an acute psychological portrait, and as a deeply humane/spiritual picture with overtones of Christianity that aren't overbearing. The Chrisitanity issue is perhaps the oddest - it was a contentious production; in particular, the scenes comprising the pilgrimmage - in which Cabiria and several of her prostitute confederates (and a local pimp) seek salvation from God - were repeatedly interrupted by various reactionary groups. But the film went on to be a major success, and a surprisingly uncontroversial one - people were calling it a Christian film from the get-go.

It's not difficult to see why - Cabiria is a classic savior figure - downtrodden but pure of heart, embittered but possessing a soul that seems incapable of ever completely hardening despite being repeatedly burned. If she's a more than a bit saintly, though, she's also deeply human, and Fellini wisely eschews the supernatural elements that might have been included to underscore this point. In 1957, he hadn't yet gotten rolling with the fanciful techniques that have since come to define his legacy - this was Fellini before his movies became Felliniesque. Instead, his formal technique is relaxed but assured, and the story works marvelously.

This was always Fellini's secret strength: the heart of his work that keeps it "real" even as the style became more baroque and sensational. His subsequent characters would live in worlds that were increasingly surreal, but their primary concerns remained distinctly human - fear and desire, love and loss, exaltation and disappointment, hope and regret. In NIGHTS, these elements are distilled to their essence, dramatized through the misadventures of poor, adorable Cabiria, who is portrayed with stunning and brilliant nuance by the great Guilieta Masina, Fellini's wife. This is the first time I've had the pleasure, and I'm grateful to have made such a discovery. The performance is tremendous, right down to her feisty little strut of her walk. I'm very much looking forward to seeing her other collaborations with her husband.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Cape Fear

(Martin Scorsese, USA, 1991)

The best film Hitchcock never made. Okay, that's overstating the case; Marty is definitely indebted to Hitch, and this film is an ostensible homage to the Master of Suspense, but Scorsese makes it undeniably his own. It's a film that, both despite and because of its southern-fried mix of pathos and terror and pure wackiness, is truly sui generis.

Which isn't to say that Cape Fear is perfect. Relative to the rest of the Scorsese oeuvre, it would probably have to be considered one of his "lesser" films, but that really isn't saying much. It's an annoying side effect of the auteur theory that every film from a particular filmmaker (worse so if he's lauded - the more praise, the bigger problem this generally is) must be counted, even perfunctorily, in relation to what came before and after.

Putting that aside, and taking Fear on its own merits, I'm impressed that it works at all, and surprised at how much I enjoyed it. At first, it feels as though it's going to be a train wreck - an experiment that's bound to fail. Two minutes into the film and the parameters are blatant and dispiriting - this is Marty doing Hitchcock, down to the last detail; a contemporary thriller that looks and sounds like Psycho. The lighting, the color, the music - all too obvious, too artificial to take seriously - and that's before De Niro opens his mouth.

Stick with the film through its silliness, though, and a curious thing happens. It begins to seem less silly and more scary. The projected menace of De Niro, so deliberate at first, begins to feel credible. Even his mangled southern accent eventually recedes into the background. The mood becomes organic, not a forced product of the stagy lighting and elaborate camerawork. And then there's the humor, which I submit is the saving virtue of the film, and the glue that holds together its chaotic molecules. When Scorsese keeps at least one eye trained on the twisted comedy of the story, the film is wicked fun. Only when it crashes overboard into the swirling waters of self-seriousness does it feel like a mishap.

It's tempting to look at this film as a formal exercise above all - the chance for Scorsese to play with a new set of toys - the toolbox of Hitchcock, as it were. The plot is focused, brisk, and efficient, and this enables all sorts of stylistic discursiveness, which in the hands of any other director wouldn't be nearly so exhilarating. But beneath the elements of "exercise" there's actually a fair amount of thematic red meat: an intense portrait of a family in crisis, and an alarming reminder of the limits of the Law. The family dynamic Cape Fear is familiar enough at the outset; like a good 99% of all families, there are already currents of discontent. Husband and wife (Notle and Lange) are nominally happy, but we soon find that they live in a barely-suppressed state of mutual resentment, which only makes their adolescent daughter (Lewis) even more eager to flee the nest. When the catalyst of Max Cady is added to the mix, all hell breaks loose, and we are given a harrowing look at the limits of our social constructs - at what point to love, loyalty, trust, and the law break down?

These questions are taken seriously by the film, and it's the precise method in which they're taken seriously which reveals the seams in this otherwise sound vessel. Hitchcock's genius was his ability to create dazzlingly suspenseful movies with rich psychological subtext - he built his stories on a solid foundation of lust, obsession, betrayal, etc - all the sordid things we don't like to think about unless we're in certain environments - the movie house being one of them. The artificiality of the films made for a safe place to explore the dark territory of the subconscious. Modern filmmaking, in which realism has become naturalism and the high-artifice of the films of yore has become passé, goes more directly for what used to be only hinted at. Scorsese, in a gambit that I laud for its ambition, attempts a kind of fusion of the two traditions - the stylistic tropes of 50s and 60s cinema combined with a level of explicitness and postmodern self-awareness that didn't exist back then (at least not in mainstream cinema), and this produces some tonal dissonance. The most obvious example is the tempestuous final sequence of the film, wherein Leigh (Jessica Lange) makes her desperate appeal to Cady (a brilliant performance by Lange), Cady soliloquizes about the Law and quotes reams of Scripture - all of which is a deeply odd combination of pathos and psychosis - and all of which is repeatedly interrupted by fire, floods, waves, thunder, lightning, and fist fights. And it goes on for what feels like hours. There's compelling, heady stuff in these scenes (and others), but when its tossed in a blender with all the other noise, the subtext loses much of its effectiveness.

Plenty of the film does work. The exchanges of dialogue are top-flight noir; alternating nicely between funny and disturbing. Scorsese does manage at least one sequence of suspense that would have done ol' Hitch proud - when Cady infiltrates the house and kills the private detective by dressing up as the housekeeper. The reveal of this moment is shocking and delightful, and it's too bad the rest of the movie couldn't maintain such a careful balance. But that's okay - even after the climatic storm on the titular cape, it winds down to a satisfyingly uneasy conclusion, and feels as though it has been worth the ride.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room

(Alex Gibney, US, 2005)

If there's a film that serves as a better indictment of late-modern capitalism's particular brand of perversity, I'm unaware of it. As a journalistic-style documentary, E:TSGITR is tight and incisive; it covers the salient points of Enron's rise and fall, and it keeps the narrative grounded in the stories of the people who were involved (for the most part, the perpetrators and not the thousands of victims, but such is the focus here). While the film is by no means comprehensive - several gaps of detail and exposition exist in the story - at no point did I feel that it was lacking any crucial detail; after all, it's basically an adaptation of the book, and any additional info is available at the local library. What makes the film truly exemplary is its focus on ideology - a recognition that Enron was not an anomaly, a bad-apple case. Gibney, taking more than one cue from his source material, sketches Enron as an avatar of contemporary capitalism - the black heart at the center of a diseased system. It's to his credit that the film doesn't devolve into proselytizing, and is instead framed as a human tragedy. And like any grand-scale human tragedy, it's compulsively watchable, even when it enrages you or makes you queasy: The raw hubris and greed on display gradually mounts, and as an audience member, to see behind the curtain is simultaneously fascinating and bizarre. How could they be so greedy? How could they be so mendacious? How could they be, finally, so freaking stupid?

The answer, made simply and directly, is that it was actually quite easy. Enron was not a case of high-flying, predatory villains who somehow snuck into the ranks of High Capitalism unnoticed and set about wreaking havoc. It is the logical eventuality of a system that is desperately, fundamentally flawed, and it is only the tip of the iceberg. The antagonists of Enron are portrayed not as monsters, but as people who became grotesque and monstrous when given enormous amounts of money and power. That's not to say that they weren't flawed to begin with; certainly, if one were inclined, one could concoct all manner of psychological explanations for their behavior (Skilling was a picked-on nerd out for revenge, Lay was a deeply insecure ninny who was blinded by a vapid religiosity, etc.) These details aren't elided, but neither are they given emphasis that's out of proportion with their actual relevance to the case. The main point is that the Problem is bigger than Enron, bigger than Skilling, bigger than Lay, and even bigger than Cheney and Bush. It's woven into the fabric of our economic system, and it will happen again and again unless the system is changed.

It's tempting to make this film something it isn't, and I could go on at length about all the juicy ideological complexity undergirding the film's subject. Principally, it is straightforward journalism, a polished version of the kind of thing you'd see on TV as a true crime show. And as far as that goes, I mean it as a compliment; its an exemplary investigative document, portraying in detail how Enron rose and fell. This isn't a mean feat; as has become the norm, the financial shenanigans were recondite and surrounded by secrecy, and the filmmakers are adept at breaking it down into a somewhat straightforward narrative. Basically, Enron's big idea was to building a trading exchange for securities made up of energy "products"; in effect, they were building a virtual casino. The worth of the company was a fiction, based on posited future prices of energy that were backed up with little actual infrastructure and all kinds of mind-blisteringly abstruse mathematics. In covering all of these details, there are plenty of blank spots. It's a minor fault, though, and a more thorough treatment of the nuts-and-bolts of Enron's devious schemes would surely require a mini-series. The information that is on display is presented directly enough to make it clear that this tendency toward reckless gambling and make-believe profits wasn't just the product of one or two disordered minds. It was an integral part of the overall system.

In case all of this is sounding familiar, it is: this is exactly the kind of thing that occurred with mortgage-backed securities and credit-default swaps. What struck me so deeply about the material in E:TSGITR is that (if we're to trust the filmmakers and journalists) Enron can be looked at as a canary-in-the-coal-mine of the present woes. All the raw materials are there: deregulation, securitization, reckless betting and speculation, a blinkered optimism in the continued growth of the market, and the complete disconnect from physical products and process by the financial institutions. As has been repeated ad nauseam, the United States doesn't manufacture things any more. We make financial products, and we show the rest of the world how to bet on them. Enron was the first instance of that exact ethos in all of its potential danger, and the collapse of the housing bubble is only the most recent.

This isn't what the movie is about, exactly. But it is the heart of the movie's message, and it's the most important thing to take away from watching it. Five years ago, it would have been just another sharp little doc about corporate malfeasance. Seen today, it seems uncannily prescient.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010


So why not?

Why not not, then, if that's the best reason you can come up with?

Why not not not, then if that's the best reason why not you can come up with?

Thus, we cast aside logic and expand the purpose, nature, and function of this blog. Nothing too big for the moment, but I've lately thought that rather than starting up another blog for other interests, fascinations, trivialities, etc., it would be better to loosen things up around these here parts and incorporate images, videos, and what have you, at the Noisy Tree.

Photo Op

Early January, Red Hook, Brooklyn.