Friday, October 14, 2016

The Imitation Game

(Morten Tyldum, UK/USA, 2014)
What's to be admired in this film is the craft, the appreciation of watching a fine-tuned machine perform its function without hiccup or fuss.  But that kind of appeal has its limits, and in The Imitation Game they're pretty quickly reached.  Most of the problems comes from the screenplay, as good an example of Blacklist-style schematics as one is likely to find.  What appears to be an intricate nesting of theme, incident, and character is in fact the elaboration of a fairly limp metaphor for Alan Turing's long struggle to fit in - and, while he's at it, become a national hero.  We're once again treated to another imperious but hypersensitive genius, vulnerable enough to be lovable but eccentric enough to remind us of his ineffable difference; the stale cult of the Great Man, humanized through the "enigma" of human drama.

For Turing, human interaction is like an unbreakable code; everybody else seems to have the key but him.  This of course leads at least in part to his self-imposed distance from the other characters - if he can't make them love him, he'll prove that he's the smartest person in the room.  Which of course he is, with the possible exception being Keira Knightley's Joan Clarke, a bright-eyed prodigy of both intelligence and spirit.  Together, and with a modicum of assistance from the MI6 team he leads to crack the German code device, they help to win the war for the Allies.  It's a big story, and mostly true, and that doesn't even include the fact of Turing's homosexuality.  He was viciously persecuted for this by the British government, leading to a sorry end that the film relates but leavens with his triumphs, as well as a late pep talk by Joan, which of course mirrors one that Turing had delivered to her earlier in the film.

Turing's story, with its combination of personal and professional peaks and valleys, must surely have been catnip to the prestige side of Hollywood; it's only surprising that this biopic wasn't made earlier.  But it does disservice to the history of Turing's achievements, which went far beyond code-breaking (he did a great deal of the founding work in the field of what would later be known as computer science, and had major contributions in mathematics and cognitive science - even biology), and it relies to heavily on shorthand methods to reveal his pathos.  There's no real impression of a point of view, either on history, on human knowledge, or on the trials of a wounded, lonesome soul; everything fits easily into the combination of uplift and sober concern which seems to have powered the film from its first iterations as a script.  As such, it's a missed opportunity, and a regrettable one.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

That Obscure Object of Desire

(Luis Buñuel, France/Spain, 1977)

Buñuel's last film, and my first viewing of his work in a long while.  It was an excellent refresher, and that inimitable mixture of Bunuel's - both sprightly and dark, intellectual and playful, fleet and severe -  brought me immediately back into the peculiar world of his films.  This world, among its many wonders, remains one of the best creative renderings of the dream state.  Approaches to the subconscious in cinema are strikingly varied - two vivid and contrasting examples are David Lynch and Andrei Tarkovsky - but nobody ever did it quite like Buñuel.  By blurring the line between conscious and unconscious, Buñuel creates a waking dream, something closer to how dreams often feel to the dreamer - that is, they feel like life, except subtly, elusively different.  Only upon waking do we realize the strangeness of what just transpired.  All of which is to say that consciousness - and by extension, reality itself - is relative, a truth Buñuel understood better than almost anybody.

Of a piece with this understanding is the awareness of the subconscious in daily, waking life - the extent to which we are powered, and often, tragically, imprisoned by our dreams.  Much of this, on a conceptual level, came right out of mainline surrealism, but Buñuel brought it to new imaginative heights, and crafted a uniquely cinematic approach.  As such, his films fuse the dream world with the world of images, and in doing so weave a glittery web that seems to catch every node of human affairs - sex, politics, psychology, metaphysics, art, etc.

Sex, of course, was paramount among these.  That Obscure Object is a particularly feverish tale, full of concentrated passion, dangerously frustrated.  Fernando Rey, a Bunuel staple, here depicts Mathieu, once again a hapless middle-aged bourgeois, host to simmering and unrealized urges.  But Buñuel is interested in far more than satire.  There's a pathos to Mathieu, for all of his lecherousness, a strain of sympathy for him and his doomed pursuit of sexual fulfillment.  Of course, he readily mixes this up with love, a fatal mistake but a universally human one, or so Buñuel seems to believe.  To some degree, Mathieu knows he's being ridiculous, and yet no amount of disappointment or stoicism will release him from his pursuit.

His object is the willfully obscure Conchita, played in alternate scenes by Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina.  This double-casting is one of the great cinematic ploys of Buñuel's oeuvre, all the more so because it doesn't readily admit explication.  It works however you need it to: highlighting the abstract quality of desire, changeable and elusive, the radical subjectivity of Mathieu, and the irreconcilability of desire with reality: only in a fantasy can Conchita be both the slut and the virgin, the temptress and the angel, the lissome model and the curvaceous dancer.

Behind all of this is the backdrop of political unrest, the frequent bombings, shoot-outs and hijackings.  But for all of this ambient chaos, Mathieu and his set can never be fully distracted from their petty interests and indulgences.  In part, this an acknowledgment is the famous Id, a roiling sub-basement of violent forces, barely contained.  But it's also a familiar world, not terribly different from our own, and we are queasily reminded of our own habits of distraction.  The full dimensions of life's folly - our pursuit of what we cannot have, which we pursue all the more ardently for its impossibility - are glaringly present in Buñuel, and for all of his humor (about which I haven't said enough - in short, it's a wonderfully understated hilarity), it is a harrowing thing to behold.