Sunday, January 26, 2014

A Touch of Sin

(Jia Zhangke, China, 2013)

I caught this film during a run of "Overlooked and Underseen" films, a series at the excellent CineFamily theater (my first time there, and I was impressed and pleased.)  As a fan of Jia's since viewing his visionary Still Life, I'd been meaning to see A Touch of Sin after hearing that it would receive US distribution, but had missed it the first time around.  Saturday evening, I got lucky.  The film is a trove of wonders, a symphony of strange yet fruitful juxtapositions: ethereal beauty and gory violence, lapidary realism and rich symbolism, anguish and humor.

It was also my first truly satisfying theater experience of a digitally shot and projected movie.  As with any medium, it takes an artist to make what is new seem timeless; never before (in my experience) have the idiosyncrasies of digital image capture been taken to such poetic heights.  Jia uses what usually amount to limitations - the stilted, too-sharp crispness, the stinginess in range and depth of light, and the slight queasiness of digital's motion blur - to produce a panoply of moods and effects.  Jia's visual taste - in terms of color, composition, movement, and space - is, for my money, unparalleled in contemporary cinema, so it's no surprise that he can summon such nuance from the technology. 

The film comprises a series of semi-connected vignettes, all of them variations on a theme: the extent to which conditions in modern-day China have created such rampant dehumanization that violence has become endemic.  Jia's vision is driven by fury; his sympathy for the downtrodden, forgotten, abused, and disenfranchised of China is palpable, as is his rage at the systemic corruption that's led to such an abject state of affairs.  But the film is no revenge fantasy.  Jia keeps his feet planted firmly in a moral stance.  He retains a certain detachment throughout; a fluid awareness that deftly moves between the political, spiritual, aesthetic, sexual, and symbolic realms.

Violence, in A Touch of Sin, is everywhere, and yet remains an aberration, a flaw in the design of the universe.  The body count could rival that of a slasher film - I lost count of how may characters are dispatched over the running time.  But in Jia's view, the violence is symptomatic of a deeper history of abuse.  He shows us with the camera: there is the violence that cuts roads through the mountains, that sets high-speed trains on a collision course with each other, than strains familial bonds to the breaking point, that crowds young men and women into factories and dormitories like cattle in a feedlot.  Animals, here, are used to resonant symbolic ends - from obvious touchstones such as the abused mule (a nod to Au Hazard Balthazar,) to live oxen being driven to market in the back of a pickup truck, to snakes as part of a traveling roadshow.  (Other members of the Chinese Zodiac - a monkey and a tiger - appear in key moments).  What's suggested, most importantly, is the destruction of humanity; tradition, history, community, and even love aren't spared.  The China of today, Jia avers, is a perfect storm of widespread regression.  And yet the animals also reflect what is lacking in this world.  They serve as a rebuke: strikingly alive and aware in comparison to the downward gazes and muted gestures that seem to characterize so many of the people.

In A Touch of Sin, the sin has roots, and they can be traced.  The violence, when it erupts in bloodshed, is an expression of something long repressed.  It harkens back to old conflicts, grievances that have gone unredressed.  Elemental forces of destruction have been awakened, unleashed on the world.  A breaking point has been reached - people have been punished for being people.  The sin of oppression, of the denial of justice, always concentrates at the bottom of a society.   And eventually, after enough has been collected, the dam breaks.  Jia, in his subtle, undeniable way, has fashioned a revolutionary film.  Not a call to action, but a cri de cœur, a chorus of righteous anger, crafted with incendiary artistry.  

Monday, January 13, 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street

(Martin Scorsese, USA, 2013)

A comedic saga, full of mania and absurdity and excess, that builds, by way of Scorsese's singular cinematic imagination, into a kind of majesty.  

Accusations that the film endorses or condones the behavior exhibited are nothing more than well-meaning nonsense.  Scorsese does enjoy the revelry, to a great extent, and extends that enjoyment to us; it provides a frame, and a fuel source, for his vision.  All that Marty loves, he is free to indulge in; scads of music cues, whip pans and tilts, tracking shots, zooms, pounding smash-cuts:  it's all there for the taking.

And yet it isn't a movie without restraint.  It has a shape - long, delirious, twisted, but still a shape, a momentum, and an unmistakable rhythm.

It's not quite right to think of this film as topical.  As has been repeatedly pointed out, Belfort, though he stole millions, was a small fry in comparison to the real plutocrats.  The film's resonance with our current troubles is significant, deliberate, and worth noting.  It should make us feel uneasy, and it does.  But this isn't a grand statement about the rot on Wall St, which, if we're paying attention, ought to be painfully obvious.  It's about a much more general - dare I say universal - topic: the seduction of power.  Unlike Oliver Stone's Wall Street, which is basically a kind of glossy fable, telling a simple story with a moral, Scorsese's opus is more elusive, more artful, and more brilliant.

Scorsese's great theme has always been power, in all of its guises.  Power as a drug, power as a manifestation of the will, power as a bulwark, however impermanent, against the awareness of mortality.  He is obsessed with characters that take what they want, regardless of the consequences.  Characters who dare to betray and transgress, who feel themselves exempt from the fetters of civilized life. Jordan Belfort, as imagined by Scorsese and his collaborators, might be the purest iteration of this character, boiled down to a crust of rapacious appetite.

Ironies abound.  It is clear that his subjects are by-and-large a lot of contemptible assholes, but they never loose their humanity - not entirely.  There is a strange, fascinating, and ultimately, terrifying innocence about Jordan.  Partly this is due to DiCaprio, who, despite his considerable talents as an actor, is unable to completely extinguish his movie-star charm.  This serves the movie well, in that he never looses the look of the kid in the candy store; wide eyed and consumed with desire, utterly captivated by all that can be had.  For Jordan, it's all in good fun.  He jokes that he feels justified in fleecing his clients because he knows better how to spend it - on drugs, women, and cars.  It's also telling, and psychologically astute, that he exhibits such contempt for those he swindles; in the twisted, darkly hilarious demonstration he gives to his new cadre of budding stockbrokers, while on speakerphone with a dupe, Belfort repeatedly flashes the bird, mimes anal penetration, and generally makes it clear that this person is, to him, less than human.  This is classic emotional distancing, a well-known slipperly slope of dissociation that starts with lies and ends with murder.   To be a predator, which label Jordan proudly self-applies, it's of paramount importance to deny your victim any feelings.  Dehumanize them, and it quickly becomes possible to whatever you please. 

We see, in hints and glances, that Jordan isn't entirely sui generis; his father, for all of his raging disapproval, is ultimately an enabler of his son.  One gets the sense that Jordan's energy, and his insatiable appetite, are partly the product of his upbringing.

And then there's the irony of Belfort's epiphany on the boat: in a flash of insight, he goes from trader to motivational speaker, essentially degenerating into self-parody.  He never stops selling - when they take away his broker's license, he begins to sell the only thing he has left, and the thing that has, ultimately, been selling all along: himself.  His final iteration, ushered on stage by his real-life basis (who seems, despite it all, to have retained something of his unhinged frenzy) is not flattering - this is the paunchy, swollen, blotchy-faced husk of the former Jordan.  Life has finally caught up with him.   

The last shot is indeed among Scorsese's most affecting, eloquent, poetic, and mysterious.  Are these people meant to reflect us?  Are they representative of his victims - earnest, striving, desirous people, somehow hoodwinked into thinking that this broken-down former lunatic swindler has anything of value to offer us?

The chaos and mania of unbridled appetites: there is plenty of revelry, but not much genuine fun.  Belfort is an adept huckster and prolific self-abuser, but he's ultimately an amateur hedonist.  He shows no aptitude for connoisseurship - it's all about quantity over quality.  His indulgences are haphazard, reckless, sloppy, and ultimately desperate; he is a man numbing pain, as all addicts eventually become.  He does the drugs that he thinks he's supposed to do - cocaine and Quaaludes chief among them - because that's what master-of-the-universe types are supposed to do.  He never really comes out from under the shadow of the Mephistophelean character played to sublime comic perfection by the great Matthew McCaughnehey.  Coached in the ways of the world by a self-described depressive (not in so many words) who uses all manner of distractions, from masturbation to binge drinking, to sand off the edges of the central fact of his life: he creates nothing, he merely takes.  He is a purveyor of lies, which gradually eats away at one's soul.

There is also all of the very dark, no punches pulled (literally) final quarter-or-so of the film.

But yes, it is an exhilarating, and very fun ride.  Scorsese has his natural flair for capturing the fascinating variety of human behavior, with a special eye to the antic and the illicit.  Yes, he understands, and makes us understand, the appeal of such indulgences, of living as if one could not die.  Amazing comic chops from a never-better cast.

Some scenes do seem to outlive their welcome, but that's part of the desired effect; the extended 'lude overdose is a prime example of excess in form, tone, and content.  No, we don't need to see all that crawling around, but it does take the piss out of what could otherwise be a mere comic beat.  Same with the scene between Donnie and the drug dealer/money courier.  As the comic value decreases, the patent insanity of the characters grows.

Likewise the chilling asides about the broker who married the office associate and later killed himself, and about the dealer who winds up dying suddenly from a heart attack, which information we hear over visuals of him being treated to money, whores, and booze.

The specter of death haunts the whole film - the sudden deaths of some of the characters (such as the aunt, the dealer, etc.)

More ironies - the naked striving of the Stratton Oakmont boys, too much never being enough, and the constant renunciation of their selves; Donnie's ridiculous presumptions of WASP respectability, down to his loafers and bright sweaters.  The ridiculous sight of his masturbation in such a get-up, nicely mocking both the character and the banal edifice of the rotting moneyed-elite of America. 

Jordan's no better - his house, on the Gold Coast of Long Island, with pretensions of old-world money, sending his kids to get riding lessons, etc.

For Marty, the drug is cinema.  In The Wolf of Wall Street, he is flying high all day.

And yet, there is the creeping quality of the rough-hewn, even unto messiness, that is generic to Scorsese's films.  Granted, there is a fine line between genuine inelegance and the idiosyncratic messiness of Scorsese's imagination.  He is never imprecise; but his tendency towards overlap, towards hurrying, and towards an embrace of artifice in all of its bordering on shoddiness, that have never sat completely well with me.   Don't get me wrong - there is a wonderful thrill to be obtained from this libidinous expressiveness.  It would be correct to say that Marty's stuff is deceptively messy, that he manages to accomplish a great deal in what appears to be dissonant; an analogue would be certain kinds of Jazz and Rock music.   There are wonderful moments in Marty's film that feel like happy accidents, serendipitous occurrences.  The best artists are best at responding to the original as it is revealed to them in the moment.  This is a process that must happen faster than analysis, so a keenly developed instinct is necessary.

And yet, what about the images themselves?  This has long been a bugbear of mine, and may be expressed as a kind of polarity: the cinema of images, and the cinema of montage.  These two need not be mutually exclusive, but very film filmmakers manage to make both of them work at all times.  Scorsese does so fitfully here; the last shot comes to mind as a pristine example of imagistic integrity.  But so many others are slapdash - the exteriors are often graceless, flat, and digital-looking.  Of course, the art of the cinema is the art of the montage; various film artists have strived mightily, in as many ways, to maintain integrity of the image.

The shell game of salesmanship in America, as illustrated by Belfort.  Levels and levels of deception.  Jordan sells his clients shit that they not only don't need, but that will actually harm them.  He sells his friends on the scheme, so they'll come to work for him.  Ultimately, of course, he's selling himself, too - on the idea that all of this excess is fun, that it can offer fulfillment.


Some considerations here, and a re-viewing of the film, prompt additional rumination on Scorsese's latest.

What fascinates me about this film?  Why do I like it?  A second viewing confirmed its pleasures, but also deepened the sense of malaise I associate with the film - a consistent strain of disgust, like a faint queasiness.

There is a plot, but its episodic and often repetitive, in terms of the action depicted.  When we, the audience, ask the classical-structure Q of What Happens Next, it seems that the answer to the corollary Q (why do/should I care?) seems to be: what new frontier of debauchery will Belfort embark upon?  What taboo will he violate next?  How much longer can he keep this binge of a life going?   But is this enough to account for the pleasure I derive from the film?  It seems insufficient, echoing the complaint of the film's detractors, who decry what they see as pointlessly excessive and repetitive. 

Regarding the Q of Character, it also seems as though there isn't enough there for us to claim that any of these characters are well-developed.  Certainly, their behavior, from the loopy to the grotesque, is captivating.  But there is no real development or change; we don't see much of their inner lives at all, unless we count Belfort's aspirations of getting as fucked up (and fucked) as possible.  It could be argued, as some have (most notably Richard Brody), that it is the pure, primal drives on display - the appetites, be they monetary, sexual, pharmacological - is what we can identify with.  Even if we know that such indulgences are dangerous and in some cases morally wrong, and eventually kind of gross, we can (if we permit ourselves) live vicariously through the ambition on display.

I accept that this is partly the case, but I also think something else is going on.  For me, a big pleasure of any Scorsese movie - any movie that I wind up enjoying, for the most part - is aesthetic.  I love the way Scorsese shoots the film - I love his stylistic choices, his use of music, the way he edits together scenes.  I love the serene velocity with which he tells his stories.  But it would be incorrect to say that I'm enjoying the film on a formal level only - clearly, there is a connection between the form and the content, with one deriving energy from another, which then seems to feed back into the other.