Tuesday, January 27, 2015

A Most Violent Year

(J.C. Chandor, USA, 2014)

Earnest and somber to a fault.  Chandor is a talented screenwriter, and as a director he has a feel both for performance and space, but A Most Violent Year doesn't go beyond handsome workmanship.  The operative qualities on display are seriousness and restraint, but these means, however admirable, do not equate to worthy ends.  Chandor wants us to share in his rueful view of the vagaries of modern capitalism, where a lucky, committed few find stupendous success and the rest must toil for scraps.  And while I agree with his perspective, and I commend his care and focus as a director, I can't admire this latest film.  Margin Call had the hermetic intensity of a great play; as cinema it was passable, but it hummed with righteous anger.  Here, Chandor checks his anger in favor of tragedy, but it's a halfhearted, muted tragedy, heavy on portentousness but almost completely absent of true pathos.  Even his cynicism is more of a gesture than a deeply felt stance.  His obvious touchstones are the moral dramas of the 1970s, but his reverence has ossified into nostalgia.  And where the badge of authenticity in the glorious 70s was "grit," every image A Most Violent Year is burnished and clean.  Although there's not a drug to be found in the movie, it feels as if everything were taking place in an opioid haze.  The performers are excellent and committed, but they're limited by Chandor's hard, schematic vision, like insects trapped in amber.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Street of Shame

(Kenji Mizoguchi, Japan, 1956)

A startling, Tolstoyean masterpiece.  As a filmmaker, Mizoguchi accomplished something original and unparalleled: the fusion of psychologically acute melodrama with lyricism.  Not content to rest there, he also managed to be a uniquely political filmmaker; somehow, amidst the mystery of poetic images, and the almost unbearable intimacy of interior emotional states, he found room to work through his righteous anger at a political system that routinely denied people their full humanity.

Mizoguchi was the best kind of political filmmaker, meaning he had no overarching agenda or theory, no discernible party line to toe, although if you wanted to, you could easily imagine him as a kind of classical liberal.  He was most dismayed by the way that unaccountable external power intruded into the most intimate regions of peoples' lives, and how those lives were impeded in their expression by that same power.  It's hard to think of another artist, in any medium, who so effectively channeled compassion and rage into work of such haunting elegance. 

Some keepsakes from the experience (I was lucky to catch it on film): The prostitutes, each sumptuously individuated, but all sharing a  hard-won stoicism in the face of a society that simultaneously needs and reviles them.  Yumeko's gold teeth, and her disastrous, doomed attempt to reconnect with her son.  Mickey's delightfully amoral insouciance, and the shattering revelation of her history and inner life, a repudiation like no other in cinema, fraught with incestuous shame.  Hanae's frumpy, unassuming civilian garb, the alter ego of the woman who must make her bread by literally dragging men out of the street and into her bed.  That late, pained angle on Yumeko, her face turned away from us, which is repeated as we learn, gradually, that she has gone mad.  And the final shot manages to be a capstone to all of this majesty. 

Perhaps the most surprising realization of the film is that prostitution itself isn't the problem; while it may be untenable in the mercenary wilds of a capitalist society, the real suffering comes from the various ways in which the women are manipulated and constrained.  Being a "courtesan" is shown, for all of its pain, to be one of the few avenues of independence available to women.  The fact that a well-meaning society, seeking to "better" itself, would be so blind to the nuances of the reality, is a perfect illustration of the power of that art holds which politics cannot hope to touch. 


(Howard Hawks, USA, 1962)

An old favorite that I hadn't seen since I was a teenager.  What do I think now, with the benefit of age and a familiarity with the critics of the politique des auteurs, for whom Hawks was a kind of Platonic exemplar?  Rollicking fun, first and foremost.  It's full of typically Hawksian horseplay, heightened with symbolic frisson.  There's something pleasing about Hawks's depiction of this merry band of misfits, a piratical troupe led with typically no-nonsense Duke-ishness by Wayne's Sean Mercer.  They're a surprisingly egalitarian bunch. Although Sean is the clear leader, his authority rests on a combination of respect and indulgence; he's humored for his brashness and his quick temper, even as he's respected for his acumen as an adventurer. (There's also the matter of the young Brandy, who is the troupe's de facto "boss" by inheriting the business from her late father, who had a fatal encounter with a rhino.) Everyone has their niche; even the women, always potential catalysts for trouble in Hawks, are quickly subsumed into the natural order of the group.  Together they form an oasis of order within the wilderness, with results both humorous and gravely serious.  All of this fits within the Cahiers formulation of Hawks as an undercover Great Artist, working through a series of variations on themes with an aesthete's vision and obsession. Beneath the breezy fun roils a stew of primal instincts that are kept in check only through a series of subtle accommodations: friendship, honor, mutual assistance, competence, and the dispensing with cheap, easy illusions.  The Hawksian hero is a man who knows his limits and who has discovered them through a rigorous testing of his will against the world; annealed through experience, he knows how to live, and accepts, however painfully, all that he can't control.

But two things glared in the eyes of this contemporary viewer: the way the animals were treated, and the non-roles of the African lackeys who linger in the background.  Watching with a family of a decidedly non-cinephile bent, it was clear that they were pained by the sight of giraffes, wildebeasts, and monkeys, sometimes young ones, being chased down and trussed by a gang of humans in trucks and safari gear.  And I shared their discomfort; despite the ostensible benevolence of Mercer's mission - they're catching the animals for zoos, not killing them for skins and horns - it still bespeaks, in harsh terms, a lack of respect for the creatures and their natural environment.  Basically, the beasts, like the beautiful Great Rift Valley around them, are there to be exploited.  While killing baby elephants (even if it's done out of mercy) is too rash by half, chasing down and caging countless other creatures for fun and profit is, we're meant to see, all good entertainment.  Given the severity of our ecological moment, this speaks to a dimension of world-knowledge that Hawks was blithely ignorant of, and it's impossible to ignore that today.  The second world-historical dimension doesn't fare much better.  Although there are a couple keys scenes of remarkable documentary value in which Hawks casts a respectful, interested eye on the local natives, they're undercut overall by a sense of obliviousness.  This is only aggravated by the fact of a class of secondary employees, all of them nameless and voiceless, who do the dirty work for Mercer's crew.  Altogether, how do these limitations - historical, political -  inhibit an appreciation of Hawks' artistry, if at all? 

Well, they do inhibit it, but in unexpected ways.  For me, Hawks remains an auteur to appreciate and admire, but not love; while I enjoy the obvious pleasure he takes in the cinematic, sexual, and power games he orchestrates in Hatari!, I don't see the depth to the moral dimension that would elevate the games to the level of art.  There is something missing in its rendering of landscape and atmosphere; while the escapades of animal capture are gloriously kinetic, and the scenes of sexual roundelay are nicely effervescent, the overall effect of the movie is oddly airless.  In the end, the hermeticism of Hawks, the stubborn way he kept to the same set of concerns, regardless of setting, works against him.  His political shortcomings become aesthetic.