Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Story of My Death

(Albert Serra, Spain, 2014)

My first Serra, and it was a pleasure and an inspiration.  I like his sly, playful, yet grounded and poetic use of ideas and the permutations of those ideas, principally: the transition from the bright, rational Enlightenment into the crepuscular Romantic sensibility, the immemorial binaries (dialectics, if you're of that persuasion) of freedom and power, sex and violence, knowledge and innocence.  A major theme - perhaps THE major organizing theme, if the film actually has one at all - is that of transformation: scientific, aesthetic, mystical, metaphysical.  Grapes become wine.  Food becomes shit.  Shit becomes gold.  Life turns to literature, and to death, which is then renewed as new life, perhaps a supernatural one at that.  Even vanquished, Casanova lives!

Less commented upon, among the notices I've read, is how beautiful Serra manages to make his digitally captured images; he adroitly adheres to the wisdom of digital-as-digital, rather than the awful fallacy of digital-as-film, and in doing so joins (for me) the ranks of filmmakers doing exciting things with this (relatively) new and quirky medium - David Lynch, Jia Zhangke, Alain Resnais, JLG, etc.  In Story, Serra truly paints with the flat, slightly murky images, and produces something that reaches heights that are transcendently beautiful, diaphanous, oneiric.  His film is far more poetic, intuitive, and sensual than the occasional flirtations with formalism have led some critics to believe and allege.  And the soundtrack is another tour-de-force, with the basso profundo horns and drums that accompany the views of Dracula's castle prompting the most authentic shivers of fright and delight I've had in a theater since as long as I can recall.

All in all, a masterwork, with new dimensions to be divined, and new possibilities portended for the medium.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014


(Bennet Miller, USA, 2014)

I was left with the phrase "senseless tragedy" buzzing in my head.  There is no faulting Bennet Miller's craft, and his actors are spectacular - Tatum is all repressed fury and sorrow, Ruffalo exudes his usual decency and intelligence, and Carrel ought to enter the annals of great portrayals of monsters in cinema, but the story offers little besides residual sadness.  In reflection, its biggest flaw seems to be in the character of du Pont.  This is no fault of Carrel's, who commits himself totally to a full-on impersonation of the sad, eventually deranged man.  Although it's clear that the filmmakers want du Pont to be a classically drawn character - with three dimensions, a history, and thus worthy of empathy - they cannot find a perspective on him other than a kind of bewildered pity.  He is doomed from the outset by his privilege and his remote, domineering mother, and so has become an overgrown adolescent: socially inept, entitled, desperately lonely.  His eventual schizophrenia is only hinted at, and the story, bowing to the crushing demands of its classical structure, becomes one of thwarted love.  We're meant to see that du Pont had something of a crush on Mark - perhaps romantic, perhaps sexual, perhaps merely the desperate seeking of companionship and validation; but it offers us no way in to this doomed attraction, since it's clear from the start that du Pont is terminally clueless in the world of human affairs.  We feel sorry for him, and we feel even more sorry for Dave Schultz when he's pointlessly murdered by du Pont, but the effect is the same as if Shultz had been hit by a bus; it comes out of nowhere, despite the story's endeavoring to make it otherwise.  We're left where we started, in Miller's oppressively somber winter of discontent: an America of fatherless boys and mad misfits, hopelessly grasping for some semblance of identity. 

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Stranger by the Lake

(Alain Guiraudie, France, 2013)

A compressed, elegant thriller that upon close inspection discloses subtle layers, like a polished sedimentary rock.  The uppermost layer is that of a sexual thriller, and at this it works marvelously.  Tense as hell, edited with Hitchcockian precision.  Beneath this is an incisive commentary on sociopolitical themes: queer life, the legacy of bigotry and persecution, the pressure-cooker that makes for a subculture that is both dangerous and honest, a haven and a prison, a paradise and a wasteland.  The are moments of erotic straightforwardness and erotic bliss that are, I think, designed with gorgeous sincerity, purely celebratory in nature.  The lake and it's environs as a kind of Arcadian wonderland of male homosexual desire, playful, open, free of shame or fear.  This is the film at its most happily meditative, smitten with the natural beauty of lakes, rocks, trees, and naked male bodies. 

But boundaries are doomed to be porous.  The outer world cannot be kept at bay forever, and the inner world, with its snarls of conflicting impulses, will out.  Love becomes possessive.  Desire clouds judgement.  Solidarity only goes so far; here, by this lake, it is repeatedly trumped by lust, and also by fear - fear of too much visibility, fear of rejection, but strangely, very little fear of death.  Not many critics seem to have noted that the action of the film (pun intended) is darkened by the long shadow of the AIDS crisis, itself a byproduct of social neglect, fear, and hatred.  Michel, then, besides being a statuesque god of sex, is also an avatar of the danger inherent to gay sex of a certain era; the threat that any unknown partner could carry a death sentence.  We see hints of this - a squabbling over the lack of protection (Franck is blithely unconcerned with wearing a rubber, but one of his partners is more circumspect), the indeterminate time period (although likely contemporary, there are no specific markers of when or where this is taking place), and the preference for giddy barebacking shared by Michel and Franck.  We're at least partly removed from the height of the crisis, but the acts of forgetting and remembering are subject to human capacities and priorities, which are shown here to be slippery at best. 

Finally, this symbolic dimension connects us to the old imponderables - the proximity of sex and danger, the power plays that cannot be fully purged from intercourse, the existential quandaries posed by our basic needs and our better judgement.  Sex as holy rapture, sex as one-way ticket to hell, sex as haunted always by death.  Nature giggles at our binaries and our boundaries - straight or gay, naughty or nice.  Desire is as undeniable and inarticulate as a tree (or, as Giraudie is eager to remind us, as an erect penis.) We can play at being naturists, but in the wild, we are never far from peril.  Nobody knows what monsters lurk in the lake, or what secrets a stranger holds, which may be exactly what turns us on.  On a strange lake, or in a strange forest, among strangers, we're all cruising. 

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Neon Bible

(Terrence Davies, UK, 1995)

Streamed via Amazon Instant Video, and the quality was abominable: Lo-res and chopped on either side of the frame.  Still, Davies' images astound.  He works very much at his own tempo, and the film sometimes gets tripped up, but when he's in the groove, it's a masterpiece of poetic cinema.  Painterly, yesofcourse.  The film abounds with perfectly apposite frames for the world he depicts: a hothouse of desire and yearning under the sway of repressive, dogmatic powers.  Davies channels the American South beautifully, hauntingly, proving himself an apt student of Williams, O'Neill, Faulkner, O'Connor, and (of course) Toole: a place of overabundant fertility, almost seethingly erotic, strange, gloriously weird, but which, perhaps by virtue of these same qualities, attracts such vicious hatred and fear that it seems always to be under the shadow of tragedy. 

We see this in his portraits and still-lives.  But there are no truly static scenes; everything in the film seems to breathe, rising and falling almost imperceptibly, as we're borne back into the past through a string of vignettes.  There is plenty of camera movement, too; the frame moves up, down, over, sideways - never ostentatiously - to depict not just physical but emotional movement, and movement through time.  It's a montage of his own, abounding with possibilities.  And all the while there is sound - crickets at night, the creaking a screen door, branches tapping at the window in a storm, and music, music, music.  Davies works in the dream-mode most prominently; he has mastered his own cinema as a vehicle of memory, dream, and interior experience, both musical and literary, both historical and intimate.  Despite the occasionally clashing notes (certain performances don't fit into his staging, which requires a kind of theatrical brilliance and stillness that is exceedingly difficult to capture on film, and the final, desultory burst of violence) it is a film, and a style, to be reckoned with and rejoiced for.