Thursday, January 31, 2013

Tokyo Story

(Yasujiro Ozu, Japan, 1953)

Finally got around to viewing a film regarded by many as utterly essential, coming in as it does, consistently, as the #2 greatest ever made.  While I can't profess to being totally bowled over by the experience of watching it, there is an undeniable power to the film.   The circularity of it, the sensitivity to change, the seismic upheavals of history rendered intimately through their effect on a family; it's all there, done with meticulousness and a craftsman's control (and love.)

As far as first viewings go, I was more impressed by The End of SummerTokyo Story contains some great moments of grace and beauty, but overall seems less mysterious, more emotionally and philosophically resigned, and more narratively demonstrative than his later work (Ozu, correctly it seems to my still largely untutored eyes, called it his "most melodramatic film.") There are still elements of Japanese social decorum that seem alienating and odd; I can't help but wonder how much is a stylistic inflection, how much is documentary-like in its specificity, and how much is lost in translation/historical time.

In the same vein, it's hard to come to a workable understanding of the characters, who are alternately opaque and obvious.  The standard solution is to view the story as being fundamentally less individual-based than most Western cinema; characters are, for Ozu, like colors for a painter.   The overall depth emerges from the contrapuntal interplay of the characters, each in their own right providing some dimension or detail that only makes sense when viewed as a whole.   This works, sort of, but I'm not sure that it completely makes up for the strange lack of affect that his characters sometimes evince.  Again - how much of this is accurate of 1950s Japanese social mores?  How much is 1950s Japanese cinematic convention?  And how much is just stylistic shading on the part of Ozu?

And yet, as a master of space and atmosphere, Ozu is truly and obviously seminal.  The slow, subtly rhythmic pace, the emphasis on the quotidian, the endless framings and re-framingings of the image; it's practically ubiquitous now, at least in a certain kind of Art cinema.   It seems to me, though, that Ozu as an articulator or space is more idiosyncratic that I had previously imagined; his spaces, through framing techniques and front-on compositions, are generally flattened and positionally obscure.  His stubbornly immobile camera, lack of transitions other than hard cuts, and consistently low framing lend a kind of modular aura to the space, as if each room were its own miniature universe; it is painterly, static, compressed, even reticent.

Devil's Advocate:  For all of his Chekhovian gracefulness and subtle yet emphatic humanism, Ozu is something of a withholder who overestimates the value of "less is more" as a guiding principle.  There is an un-reckoned despair in his films, a dark side to his gentleness, an antiseptic aversion to messiness in his painstaking framing and episodic plotting.  Where is whatever lies beneath, or beyond?  Where is the ecstasy of vision, of form, of emotion?  Where is the funk?

And yet, for such singularity of vision, for such patient, insistent clarity and purpose, I find much to appreciate...more study is surely required.  Really, I've only scratched the surface of Ozu.  Hence my disclaimer...

The End of Summer

(Yasujiro Ozu, Japan, 1961)

This DVD had been sitting on my coffee table for at least a month.  I have no good excuse for such neglect, only that I haven't been much in the mood, lately, for the kind of sustained, serious film-viewing that had previously been a habit of mine.  I've still got a ridiculously long list of "must-see" films, but lately, the urgency of that designation has been lost on me.  I could blame it on an inclement work schedule, or a diversifying of aesthetic interest, or even the weather in Tubruk, but at the end of the day, it's just one of those things.  Ozu was exactly the kind of filmmaker I wasn't in the mood for; pre-1970s, restrained in style, somber (or at least subdued) in atmosphere.  But you know how these things work: what you think you don't want, in some cases, reveals itself to be exactly what you need. 

So the other morning, as the day began to swelter precipitously, I popped in the disk and watched.  And it was terrific.  Ozu is a master, so seminal to Asian cinema and some of the most exciting and original directors coming out of that half of the world, that it's hard to give him his full due.  Ranking is silly, but it works as a quick shorthand, and for me, Ozu only is slightly beneath Mizoguchi, and a hair above Kurosawa, in the canon of Important Japanese Directors.  He was one of the first auteurs to manage the trick of being audacious, even radical, through his apparent subtlety and reserve (a trick he learned from John Ford, among others.)  He's not the spiritual visionary that is Mizoguchi, or the transcendent master of high drama that is Kurosawa, but he nails his own completely distinct and galvanic place in turning the melodrama of the everyday into a dazzling evocation of the deepest questions and values of existence.   His subject was usually middle-class Japanese life - the day to day concerns and anxieties that make up what we usually refer to as the quotidian - but his interest ran far deeper, into the very rhythms of a life, and how they reflected deeply urgent intellectual, moral, and emotional yearnings.  Ozu's world is a private world, and he sees, in the everyday rituals and emotions of ordinary people, the inner workings of the universe.

In the End of Summer, we view the life of a family as it is disrupted by the sudden decline in health of the family patriarch.  Ozu's exploration of the individuals' lives is as gentle as it is lapidary.   His use of symbols (there is a particularly brilliant usage of a blue lantern) is matched only by his ability to evoke a specific time and place.  Through glances, quiet conversation, and idle play, a entire web of family relationships is created and dramatized.  The overlapping spheres of childhood, youth, middle age, and old age are deftly brushed and detailed.  Tradition and decorum are alternately observed and protested against.  Hou, the patriarch, has created a family that spends a large, perhaps inordinate, amount of time worrying about him.  His charming, raffish, devil-may-care demeanor has had the impressive effect of giving him a comfortable life while everyone around him struggles and frets - over the faltering business, over their love lives, over his love life, etc.

In the end, when the carefree soul must finally face his own mortality, things take an interesting tonal shift.  (Incomplete...)

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Jack Reacher

(Christopher McQuarrie, USA, 2012) 

An old-fashioned shoot -'em-up without a shot wasted, and with its tongue planted firmly in cheek.  McQuarrie can match pretty much any "action" director working today, and is much better than most (I'm looking at you, Paul Greengrass).  He's also an especially talented screenwriter, which doesn't hurt.   While there isn't much that Jack Reacher could be accused of being "about," it does rather adroitly deal with the status of the alpha-male action hero circa 2012.   Reacher the character is a throwback to at least twenty-odd years ago, when the American action-movie hero as rugged, lone individual was still alive and well.  What makes McQuarrie's treatment distinctly of-the-moment is the way it deftly plays that archetype for all of its obvious hoariness and absurdity, but at the same time not denying its cartoonish appeal.  Jack Reacher is a man out of time and out of place; in the digital age, he is refreshingly (and quaintly) analog.  He's a rough-hewn hero, brainy and brawny, who traverses the country by Greyhound, searching for wrongs to be righted and bringing only his impressive skill-set and the clothes on his back.

The main appeal of the film is how successfully it plays through what are by now the classical tropes of the whodunit.  Compared to pretty much any other recent film starring Cruise as action-man, the stakes here are comparatively low; we're not talking about the end of civilization as we know it, but a case of small-city justice.  Several people have been murdered in an apparently random sniper attack in Pittsburgh, and the charge is to find out who is responsible.   From the beginning, we know that a conspiracy is afoot, but the exact details and motivations are kept hidden until towards the end.  The info is parceled out with a skill and craft that one can't help but admire; it's real bricks-and-mortar screenwriter stuff, but done with the mark of a truly gifted craftsman.  This, from the (deservedly) Academy-feted McQuarrie, is to be expected; what isn't (at least to those who missed the thrilling precision of The Way of the Gun) is how good the action scenes are, especially the film's centerpiece car chase.  McQuarrie films the sequence with rare wit and muscular grace, balancing the movement of cars, camera, and the rhythm of montage with a maestro's expertise.  He forgoes the current fashion of manic cutting and spacial incoherence, instead delivering a chase that is both ripping good fun and impressively elegant.

For some reason it has become an uncommon treat to see a movie that tells a story so well, without fuss, pretension, or languor.   Jack Reacher is not a masterpiece, but it is what is perhaps best described as a handsome film; well-crafted and functional, like a good armoire.  It hasn't picked up much in the way of critical love, an oversight that can be variously attributed to reflexive Tom Cruise hating, the less-than-pedigreed source material (who is Lee Child, again?) and its conspicuous lack of a high concept.  But most important to the film's success, and what I can't imagine otherwise perceptive people missing, is how damn funny it is.   McQuarrie, and I would argue Cruise as well, never lose sight of how silly the whole thing is, and their acknowledgement of the kitsch allows the film to transcend its kitschiness.  But here's the thing: it's not overtly showy or cutesy about itself.  McQuarrie is smart enough to know that the way to make the silliness work for, rather than against, the story is to play it straight.  Thus he avoids the laziness and exaggeration that a lesser director would employ.  He cares about the thing, which is secure in its status as smarter-than-average entertainment, enough to make us care also.

p.s. - McQuarrie has a great, serious drama (or perhaps comedy) in him.  I hope that his return to the director's chair of a reasonably successful mainstream movie affords him enough clout to make something more personal.  We'll have to wait and see.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Tim Me Up! Tie Me Down!

(Pedro Almodovar, Spain, 1990)

One of Almodovar's early joints in garish color and sexy-cool swagger.   It's taken me some time to warm up to his films, but I think I get them now: they are about pleasure.  Well, sort of; it's more that pleasure is the operating principle by which Almodovar deals with his subject (which is often, but not limited to, pleasure.)  The trick that Almodovar pulls off, with impressive consistency, is being able to have his cake and eat it too, aesthetically (and what better metaphor for his utterly confectious creations?)  He touches upon (and with some later, more serious efforts, like All About My Mother, really digs into) sorrow, loss, and truly exquisite existential pain, but does so with such élan, with such effortless charm, that you can't help but marvel at the wonders of aesthetic transfiguration.  It's the human condition with a wink and a hand-job.

Átame!, like so many of Almodovar's films, operates on the razor edge of ridiculousness.  It starts off seeming haphazard, even reckless, but by the end, if you're paying attention, you realize that this was all part of the trick.   Pedro excels at teasing both your morals and your libido - he dares you to take him too seriously, and then provides enough laughs and titillation and warmth that you'll forgive him for practically anything.  All of which could prompt the more skeptical audience member, after the buzz of the film has worn off, to cynicism.  Could it be that this decadent Spaniard is playing on our pleasure centers a little too effectively?  Is he a mere manipulator, a huckster, no better than one of our domestic weepie-makers?  Beneath the charmingly fabulous decor and top-notch performances, is he just giving us fancy, Euro-flavored fluff? 

Plenty have accused him of just that: for all of his success as a true international art-house sensation, there have always been a healthy contingent of naysayers who don't take kindly to the sumptuous treats that Almodovar is able to dream up.  But at least in this case, I found myself helpless under the spell of his movie.  Whether this is because I like to have my sense of taste flattered is, I suppose,  beyond my ken, but I'm willing to lay out a straightforward, if simple defense.  Átame! succeeds as Art because it is, finally, palpably free.  That is to say, it manages to overcome its own inborn constraints.  Even though the film is dangerously close to being overdetermined, it is liberated by its moments of helpless imaginative fancy.  Almodovar, even in this relatively early film, is already expert at allowing the film to take its own shape; just when you think you know where it's going, it goes somewhere else.  Miranda actually does fall in love with her kidnapper, and it does feel both inevitable and completely surprising (not to mention a little deliberately incorrect, politically).  And that's not the end of the film's surprises. For all of the careful construction of the premise, as the story gets rolling, it dispenses with the obvious questions and instead follows its own weird & kinky road map.  Like any great seducer, Almodovar manages to make giving in seem both naughty and perfectly natural.   We should be grateful he's so eager to woo us. 

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Year of the Dragon

(Michael Cimino, USA, 1985)

An overheated mess of a movie, but no less glorious for it.  YOTD is Cimino's take on the cops and robbers genre, and it barrels along at breakneck speed for every one of its 134 minutes, cramming social commentary, racial politics, spectacular action sequences, and febrile melodrama into the mix.  It's a sprawling, rococo hybrid of a film, part crime epic, part damaged-alpha-male character study, part ripped-from-the-headlines social novella.  The film manages to demolish any formal structure you might attempt to impose on it, behaving like a bull in a china shop (apologies for the pun), but its virtues are powerfully redeeming and well worth parsing. 

YOTD came out only five years after the debacle of Heaven's Gate, Cimino's previous film.  Considering the Chernobylesque fallout of that 1980 flop (a brilliantly radical epic that was basically shat upon by the critical establishment), it's kind of amazing that Cimino cobbled together the funds to make another movie, especially one with a reported budget of $24 million.  In 1985, this was far from a modest cost, and the fact that Cimino found not only the money but the nerve to get back on the horse after the disaster of Heaven's Gate strikes me as heroic (although possibly not as heroic as it likely struck Cimino, who has always been a shameless self-mythologizer.)

Even so, the damage wrought by Heaven's Gate-gate is palpable.  Cimino hadn't exactly lost his nerve, but does seem to have misplaced his equilibrium.  The movie feels rushed - not just in its frenetic plotting, but in it's utterly bizarre lapses in taste, rhythm, and even common sense.  Granted, this is part of what makes the film so compelling; it's an auteurist's dream, full of tics and wrinkles that can only be the product of its famously obsessive and idiosyncratic director.   There is plenty in YOTD to sneer at it, and 1985's audiences and critics did so with apparent alacrity.  The model-cum-actress Ariane, cast in the entirely thankless role of the successful Chinese-American TV newscaster, is lacking all but the most rudimentary acting chops, and even the scene-devouring presence of Mickey Rourke isn't enough to distract from her obvious deficiencies.  How did Cimino, the director whose inspired casting of Isabelle Huppert and Meryl Streep, manage to botch this one so badly?

These and other burning questions must, unfortunately, remain unanswered.   There is plenty in the film that comes across as almost brazenly formulaic; one imagines that surely Oliver Stone (who co-wrote the screenplay with Cimino) and the director were aware of how shopworn it would be to have Rourke's grizzled Captain White shout to one of his querulous subordinates "fuck their civil rights!"  And yet it does happen in the film, along with several other lines seemingly torn straight from the pages the Good Cop w/ Bad Attitude playbook.  Rourke fights with his bosses.  He fights with the mobbed-up Chinatown bosses.  He fights with his wife.  He just doesn't give a fuck.  We are reminded over and over that he is a good cop but he doesn't know when to stop, a point sometimes stated verbatim in the dialogue, apropos of nothing other than an apparent suspicion by the filmmakers that the audience must consist entirely of amnesiacs. 

It would be easy to toss all of this extraneous text-based junk into Stone's court and forget about it, but that would be giving a pass to Cimino that he doesn't quite deserve.  His sense of control is unmistakable, even as the movie approaches a shambles. When Cimino is really cooking, the movie takes on the familiar widescreen splendor and baroque yarn-spinning that had become, over just three films, his trademark.  The compositions, whether static or mobile, are always jam-packed with meticulously curated detail; the interiors of the sets vibrate off the screen with authentic filigree and the thrown-together detritus of life.  He wrangles stupendous feats of acting from his best performers: Rourke's portrayal of the tortured and monomaniacal Stanley White transcends the banal scripting and catches fire.  It's as jagged and intense as anything Rourke has done before or since, and it's free of the preening affect that he has a tendency to slip into.  And somehow it all hangs together, orchestrated with obvious relish by the director, who doesn't seem so much oblivious to the movie's flaws as weirdly compelled by them.   It's as if they form a springboard for his more esoteric tastes and indulgences.

And of course, the clunkiness isn't entirely novel.  From The Deer Hunter onward, Cimino's biggest flaw has always been his penchant for drippy, overblown melodrama.  Well, that, and his apparent lack of an adequate cliche-sensor.  His films are littered with double-underlined metaphors and set-pieces that don't quite know when they've outstayed their welcome.  Even Heaven's Gate, in which he substituted graceful, grandiose image-making for the schematics of the screenplay, still suffers from a kind of febrile excess.  (Does the final battle really have to be that long?  Do we really need to see that last surviving immigrant blow her brains out?  Really, Michael?)  But this has always been accompanied by his genius for detail, a counterbalance to his excess in its zen-like concentration on the nuances of a set's decor, the lingering gaze of an actor, the majestic swing of the camera around a crowded room.   All of that is there be to enjoyed in YOTD, if you look past the stuff that doesn't work. 

Which brings us to what YOTD is supposed to be about.  In his previous film, Cimino had depicted an America that was cannibalizing itself, a degraded and chaotic state that was still fighting for its identity.  And in this film, thing's haven't changed all that much.  The modern America, in Cimino's vision, is still the same roiling stew of blood, corruption, romance, and power.   The difference, simply put, is television.  A world of raw materials - soil, gunpowder, fire, sweat, etc. - has been replaced by a world of images.  The pecking order of corporate bosses and their bureaucratic water-bearers remains basically unchanged, but appearances have shifted radically.  Public relations and corporate infotainment are the perfect handmaidens to unaccountable power, and Stanley White, who is, of course, transparently a do-gooder, despises this.  True heroes, like White - and Cimino is a great believer in the American myth of individual self-creation - now must work in the shadows, burrowing beneath the artificial veneer.  The villains have outsourced their cruelty; they work out of boardrooms and city offices, marked as baddies because of their willingness to compromise with evil.

In the film's climatic showdown, a breathless car/foot chase around the port of New York, White finally manages to corner his chief nemesis, Joey Tai.  Tai, fatally wounded, asks White for his gun.  White, beside himself with rage and exhaustion, has a moment of clarity, and hands Tai the pistol so that Tai may die honorably of suicide.  White despises Tai, but suddenly he recognizes their basic affinity; both men are unable to compromise, fanatically selfish and singular in their quests.  White wants to fix the world, and Tai wants to be king, but neither of them is living in the right century. 

There is a nostalgia in this worldview that borders on the atavistic, and it is part of Cimino's enduring fascination that he seems to openly embrace it.   While there is more to his movies than the heroic American loner, there is an abiding skepticism about society that can be felt across the director's body of work.  Heaven's Gate was praised by many (especially in retrospect) for its clear-eyed critique of American class divisions.  It's true that the bad guys in Heaven's Gate are classic one-percenters, but it's also true that the movie's protagonist is a rugged, white-male individualist, himself descended from American aristocracy.  The immigrant community, meanwhile, is depicted in a light that is hardly flattering; they appear mostly as carousers, unwise and unreliable, and they very nearly turn on each other.  The beginning of The Deer Hunter is deeply rooted in the community, but it is the individual character of Michael who winds up as the true subject of the film - another rugged, if tragic, individualist.

But all of that still doesn't quite capture the nuance of these stories.  For now, it's best to say that Cimino's attitude towards the individual's role in society is appropriately complex.  Recall that Averill is among the most passive of Western heroes (he hardly does anything until the very last minute, and even then all he does is survive the climatic battle.  When we see him again, he seems to have reverted to some kind of soul-deadening aristocratic life of leisure.)  Rourke's White, for all of his piss and vinegar, manages to get loved ones and colleagues killed in his maverick quest for justice, and winds up, after letting the main villain kill himself, powerless to stop the overall rot of corruption in Chinatown.  Cimino's lone heroes are tragic lone heroes, and their true nemesis, it seems to me, is actually Fate.  Averill cannot escape his class, any more than Rourke can escape his.  Both men fail to prevent or end the violence they fling themselves into, and both men are obsessed with their inability to play a larger role in the immense, tidal exertions of history.

And what about that history?  Cimino found himself in political hot water after the release of Year of the Dragon, which some, especially several Chinese-Americans, felt denigrated their community and wallowed in crass and offensive stereotypes.  It must've felt eeriely familiar to Cimino, who had also faced harsh condemnation for his depictions of Vietnamese people in The Deer Hunter.  This is, naturally, a complex and thorny issue.  While I agree with some of the criticisms of TDH, I didn't find Cimino's treatment of Asians and Asian-Americans in YOTD to be problematic.   TDH was guilty of playing fast and loose with history.  No amount of that film's dramatic and cinematic ingenuity could excuse its callousness about the fundamental criminality of the American's role in the Vietnam War.  Viewing the film again recently, I was reminded of how little of 'Nam we actually see; of all the films of that period that dealt in some way with Vietnam, TDH is the one that actually seems to be the least "about" it.  And yet that, in a way, makes it all the worse; its use of a large-scale atrocity as mere mise-en-scene for an epic psychodrama becomes a grotesque kind of opportunism.   TDH makes no attempt to come to terms with the guilt or shame of America's invasion of South Vietnam.  To be fair, it isn't telling that story, but the point is that on some level it is.

As far as YOTD goes, it has no such historical burdens.  It likely exaggerated the extent and scale of the corruption in Chinatown, but for me, this is within the bounds of permissible dramatic license.  Added to this is the fact that Cimino and/or Stone repeatedly insert, at times pretty awkwardly, several discourses on the history of Chinese immigrants in America, the long and tawdry history of exploitation and strife, and it seems as though the filmmakers are actually going to some length to broadcast their sympathies, racial-politics wise.  White is frequently accused of being a racist due to his time in the Vietnam war, but the film, in probably its deepest character work, actually portrays him as profoundly conflicted about his immigrant status (he's a "just a dumb Polack," in his own, oft-repeated words.)   He is both fascinated and almost cosmically aggrieved by the apparent chasms that exist between cultures in America.  It's as though he wants desperately to believe in the myth of America-as-melting-pot, but, as an apt pupil of history, he is all too aware of the eternal tendency towards tribalism and blood-based enmity.  The main reason Chinatown sticks in his craw is its insularity; it won't open itself up, it won't subject itself to the rigors of modernity, the way seemingly every other ethnic culture has.  This, of course, is part of his fascination with it; the cameras can't get in.  The corrupt Chinese elders speak often, with obvious disgust, about the "white press."  Because, of course, they have their own, and it's no threat; the media has yet to penetrate their inner sanctums.  It isn't hard to imagine how this must make White green with envy.

YOTD ends with a strange, desultory scene, in which White, bandaged and bloodied from his fracas with Joey Tai, barges into the stream of mourners at Tai's funeral in some manic attempt to arrest the remaining evildoers.  Tracy Liu and his old cop pal (and boss) Louis (the excellent Raymond Barry) manage to drag him from the fray, and White winds up grinning about his own inability to change:  "I just don't know how to be a nice guy."  When it was released, many critics saw YOTD as Cimino's defiant rebuke to those who had failed to appreciate the genius of HG.  In some ways, this is a perfectly cogent reading.  The parallels between Stanley White and Michael Cimino are plain enough; two self-styled heroes who "care too much" and are angrily mystified by a world that seems to prefer compromise, mediocrity, and corruption over truth, justice and beauty.  But very few critics took this reading past its surface, preferring to forget the film entirely (as so many did with HG) and sling mud about Cimino's vanity.  Because, like HG, there is a pervasive sadness about YOTD.  White is a man on a hopeless mission.  He isn't going to purge America of its rotten core, or bring the truth out into the light; the house always wins, and TV is here to stay.  There's a lovely, understated scene towards the end of the movie in which Louis takes to lecturing him on his inability to get along.  He makes a few salient points, remarking that life is compromise.  People going along to get along, in a series of arrangements.   White, wracked with grief over his recently murdered wife Connie, tells Louis that he doesn't want to argue, an in a gesture as tender as it is jarring, leans over to kiss Louis on the cheek, then rises to leave.  But before White exits the bar, he turns back and bitterly reproves his old friend: Your "arrangement" White says, is what got Connie  killed.  This isn't exactly true, of course, but he's correct to assert that corruption is a kind of arrangement, too.  Such an observation represents the tragic bind in which the hero finds himself - unable to accept the world as it is, he resigns himself to suffer for the world as it should be.  His America is pitted against America - and he means to fight to the death.