Saturday, October 24, 2015

Salt of the Earth

(Herbert J. Biberman, USA, 1954)

A kind of miraculous achievement.  Salt of the Earth is so unusual, so sui generis, that it prompts me to examine my fundamental ideas about cinema, and art in general.  It's not a film that excels on the merits of style, which makes it difficult to fit within the framework of autuerism.  Biberman is a capable director - he has a feel for pacing, mood, and manages to conjure some bracing images.  And he isn't without style: the film has clear antecedents in Italian neorealism, Biberman having learned much from Rosselini in his skill with nonprofessional actors, his brisk, straightforward framing, and his focus on the rough textures and flashes of beauty that one can find in squalor.  He also exhibits a knack for staging melodrama, a theatrical skill that isn't often spoken of in relation to neorealism, but which is as essential to it as handheld camerawork and deeply lined faces.  

But all of that is transcended in the story, which takes on a kind of documentary immediacy, and even more strangely, develops a glow of prophecy.  Not that it portends some future revelation, but that it is itself a kind of revelation, a vision of something that is true, and thus timeless.  Because this isn't a story that can be told, or that has been told.  It's a kind of revelation of a personal nature, so intrinsic to human history and yet so commonly suppressed, that it contains the urgency of a suddenly remembered trauma.  My guess is that one needs to be attuned to this history to recognize how exceptional it is.  The notices upon its release ranged from hysterical to dismissive.  Plenty of people who considered themselves apolitical were scandalized by the film, which despite their apolitical nature still managed to stir a strong aversion in them.  I won't impinge on Zizek's turf, but this is ideology in action. 

Several scenes are clunky, and the nonprofessional actors are, with a few notable exceptions, easy to spot.  But it's in this neorealist gambit - casting everyday people, some of whom were actual participants in the strike that served as the basis for the story - that Biberman reveals his genius.  A more polished production, with more money and the artifice to spend it on, would easily tumble into treacly sermonizing.  It's the documentary quality that brings the story to life, that fuses with the subject matter of everyday people taking control of their lives, living out there convictions, and struggling against their limitations, internal and external.  It's Biberman's focus on the actual living conditions, the real hovels in which the minors were housed, the clothes they wore, the way they stood in the cold, that elevates this story to the level of great art.  

As a culture, we are made uniquely uncomfortable by political art, and have been for over a century.  But that's not entirely true, since all art is political on at least one level.  Better to say that we are uncomfortable with art that is honest about its political content, that treats the moral underpinnings of its political attitudes as worthy of acknowledgement.  We have become used to the idea of our art as anguished, obscure, even nihilistic (as if that weren't a question of morality), art that is cagey about its conception of human value.  Audiences still don't know what to do with a movie like Salt of the Earth.  In the fifties, it was easier just to ban it, and the critics were happy to comply.  It might have given the Feds hives, but its greater and more dangerous effect was to make bourgeois critics and audiences squirm.  Taking the film seriously means suspending, even temporarily, the lies we live by: that wage labor is an acceptable price for comfort and the illusion of freedom, that women still (still!) aren't quite on the level of men, that the Latino migrant workers might have it worse off, but what can you do?  Better them than us. 

Salt of the Earth is a film that dares to speak plainly about unspeakable things.  In 2015, it feels absolutely contemporary.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Spectacular Now

(James Ponsoldt, USA, 2013)

Although it doesn't transcend the strictures of the coming-of-age romance, there's a lot to admire in this one.  Principally, the acting is excellent.  Kudos all around, including Ponsoldt, who elicits performances of subtlety and naturalistic flair.  Miles Teller establishes himself as fine actor - a natural, but one of capable of great focus and precision - he's got that Brandoish emotional access, but without the cerebral quality that made Brando at once immediate and remote.   Shailene Woodley elevates her role as the "nice girl," hinting at a complexity that the story doesn't quite allow her to pursue.  Ponsoldt ably orchestrates the mood of the film, with long takes that emphasize the pent-up energies of adolescence and the soft, rich greens of rural springtime.  Ponsoldt's perspective is humane and adult; he views the teenagers and their troubles with earnest sympathy, but remains essentially detached from the action.  This is fine, but it winds up underlining the inner conflict of the project, which is essentially a high school romance with sprinkling of real-world danger and adult tragedy.  That sounds harsh, but the fact remains that the movie, which begins with what appears to be an ironic nose-thumbing at the college entrance essay ("Describe a challenge from your life, and what you learned from it"), winds up buying that idea of overcome adversity whole-hog.  Yes, Teller's Sutter takes some hard knocks - his dad is a selfish drunk, he's well on his way to a similar fate - but these harsh realities are dimmed in favor of an optimistic glow that is never fully earned.

The most remarkable narrative choice is the treatment of Sutter's alcoholism.  He's a full-time drinker, we learn pretty quickly, who takes frequent nips from a flask and fortifies his Big Gulp with hard liquor, thus keeping a constant buzz.  Other characters have varying levels of awareness; his ex-girlfriend, whose dumping him is in part a response to his drinking, makes passing mention of it, his mother seems to be in the dark, and Woodley's Aimee - who is, like Sutter, the child of an addict parent (in her case, the dad has been killed by his disease) - falls easily into his habit, joining in his immoderate imbibing.  It's only directly addressed once, at the end, when his boss (the stalwart boob Bob Odenkirk) confronts him over it.  The boss, paraphrased: "If I was your father, I'd say something about what you're doing to yourself."  Sutter:  "If you were my father, you wouldn't have to."  It's a nice dramatic couplet, but it has the unfortunate effect of being pat, of papering over Sutter's destructiveness with a sudden burst of self-reflective clarity and eloquence, as if all at once, the key to Sutter's drinking has been revealed and exorcised.  Next thing we know, he's decided to get his life in order. The kind of ledgerdemain that a well-liked addict can create to protect their addiction is a fascinating phenomenon, a worthy subject for a film.  But in the end, this isn't what The Spectacular Now is about, and the risk is that Sutter's compulsion is just one of many problems to be overcome by a combination of gumption and forgiveness, something to be outgrown, almost, by the end of summer.

...On the other hand, I'm not sure my charge sticks.  To clarify: I'm not sure that Ponsoldt is intending the film to be anything other than an unusually polished Young Adult entertainment.  Drinking and divorce are real and ugly enough, but they aren't exactly unknown in the genre.  The overall sheen of the film, with its filmic softness and subtle performances, suggests currents of discord and energy that aren't pursued, and belies the low aim of the story that serves as its basis.  One feels tempted to take the tack of a guidance counselor:  there's untapped potential here.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Man on Wire

(James Marsh, USA, 2014)

Delightful.  Although burdened by various trappings of the contemporary documentary - an overweening musical score, copious re-enactments, ginned-up narrative tension - it remains a compelling, moving portrait of an artist.  That's the primary virtue of the Marsh's film: its willingness to take Petit at his impassioned, wildly unreasonably word, and frame his tightrope walk between the Twin Towers as a major work of art; furthermore, as one that reaches for sublimity.  Petit's search for transcendence, with all of the willfulness, self-regard, and obsession that such a search entails, comes to appear almost anachronistic.  In this era of performance art, which caroms between obscure and blandly provocative, is there someone else who can match Petit's courage, his instinct for drama, and his fierce emphasis on joy?  Marsh's direction is straightforward and procedural; Petit's irrepressible personality centers the film and drives it forward.  Woven throughout is a thin thread of critical reflection, not fully pursued, but not absent either: what are the costs of this kind of passion?  Petit seems none the worse for all of it; his magnificent stunt made him an instant celebrity, and he never looked back.  But his collaborators all bear, to one degree or another, a sense of having been burned by his incandescent quest.  They are uniformly grateful for having been present, but are also aware of the gulf that separates them from Petit, a gulf that seems as inevitable as it is vast.  In the end, there was only one man on the wire; the rest of us were merely spectators.  As close as we can get, we'll never be able to know what it was like, out there between the towers.    

Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Canyons

(Paul Schrader, USA, 2014)

As a fan of Schrader, I'm inclined to grade this bleak, moody, shoestring-cheap foray on a pretty steep curve.  In a way, it's fascinating to see what amounts to a kind of experimental film: what do you do when you take Schrader, a veteran director, and a visionary to boot, and pair him with a so-so script by a writer (Ellis) of a distantly related sensibility, and almost nothing in the way of a budget?  The one thing to add, it appears, and which saves the film from catastrophe, is cast Lindsay Lohan.  She is undeniably terrific, showing a heroic range of talent: vulnerable, haunted, feisty, sexy, terrified.  Most of the best stuff in the film is simply Schrader knowing how to frame her face; with her reactivity, her skittishness, her summoning courage (almost all of which has meta-textual resonance, adding to its potency) she turns the film from a tawdry exercise in well-trod territory (especially for Ellis, who seems to have written the script in a single afternoon, possibly while napping) into something that actually contains flashes of greatness.

Lots of other crap intrudes.  Too often, Schrader is forced to settle for second (or third, or fifth) best.  His cast (excepting Lohan) are game but woefully ill-equipped, the script is sloppy, the camerawork middling.  But the first scene is a kind of master-class in effective direction, and there are, again, moments that are simply charged with a dark, gloomy brilliance.  As always, Schrader's eye is one of a great moral seriousness, unable to turn away from the inescapable fact of sin.  His writing was the anguished Protestant that gave rise to some of Scorsese's most ornately Catholic creations, and true to his tradition, he remains the more raw and unstable of the two filmmakers.  He has very little of Scorsese's visual genius, but he has a psychological grasp that is perhaps unrivaled in contemporary American cinema.  Schrader is a working man's director.  Without the kind of afflatus of a Scorsese, he builds each film from scrap, with whatever is at hand.  His taste is inconsistent, his temperament is reckless.  He's still scrapping to get his films made, God bless him. 


(Lisandro Alonso, Argentina, 2013)

Beautiful, but somewhat limited its detached formalism.  It's Alonso's least structuralist work, and what he discards from his rigidly observational method he makes up for with an increasingly poetic approach.  Rather than an immersive, "you are here in this world, in real time," he orchestrates a kind of expanse-in-minature: the arid wastes of southern Argentina are painterly and limpid.  The action, which includes both sex and violence, is likewise held at a distance, balanced in the frame, as if it were happening on stage.  Artifice is heightened, and the symbolic weight of the story is foregrounded, while the mood is kept tightly in check.  As far as durational cinema goes, Lisandro is carving out a secure niche for himself.  He isn't a maestro of dreamlike atmosphere, like Apatchitpong, or a poet of urban alienation, like Tsai; he has none of the political-diaristic fury of the great (dearly departed) Ackermann.  He somehow manages to be both reserved and restless.  The ending sequence, which launches the film into a new realm, literally and metaphorically, is a brilliant and thrilling gambit; I'm not sure it worked.  But I'm happy he went there.