Monday, January 18, 2010

The White Ribbon

Germany is a country haunted by the downsides of collectivism and anti-conformity. The White Ribbon, a haunting film which is in most respects the most formal of Michael Haneke's career, is a film that deals with these downsides. Yet it manages to leave any ideas about the collective and conformity as afterthoughts in the viewer's mind, and this is one of it's greatest overall strength. This is because it works its way, with a remarkably even hand, in to our minds both as a rural memory and a rather spooky whodunit.

The setting is a German village on the eve of the First World War. The quiet farming village recalls the flashbacks in Haneke’s earlier Cache, in which the protagonist, Georg, worked on a farm as a child. The resemblance to that film’s handling of memory is eerily appropriate, considering that The White Ribbon is narrated by an elderly version of the village schoolteacher, played by Christian Friedel, as he looks back on the mysterious events he was witness to. Those events begin with the town doctor being tripped by a wire tied between two trees as he rides his horse home. As a result, he breaks his arm, and is played as a cold and abusive man for the remainder of the film by Rainer Bock. Gradually, the events escalate from hurtfully obnoxious to sadistic; months after the farmer breaks his arm, the Baroness’s cabbage patch is ruined, then a barn is set on fire, then a boy goes missing; later there will be mutilations and deaths. All the while, the schoolteacher is trying to court a shy young girl named Eva (Leonie Benesch). While the story could have easily become a love story that took place amidst horrifying events, it remains something far more sinister here: the relationship between the schoolteacher and Eva is fraught with uneasiness from the start and one always gets the sense that it is somehow beside the point whether or not the character gets the girl. Then the film tips us off: Austria declares war on Yugoslavia in 1914, and it becomes inevitable that Germany will join the war effort. All the murders, traps and wreckage have been precipitating a widespread national chaos; human bondage, to say nothing of romance, does not stand a chance.

If this is an easy way to summarize the trajectory of the story, there is no easy way to summarize the social dynamics, the visual rhythms and the odd narrative choices in this film. The village is inherently un-ordinary, as it appears to be comprised of farmers, businessmen, and a few ultra-wealthy “leaders” who preside over everybody else. Everybody clings to religion and each person has a strict role set for themselves; many of the adult characters, like the schoolteacher, are never given proper names and are merely recognized by their profession. This is a village that is bound to breed abuses of power and rebellions against conformity. That Haneke lets us see exactly who commits two of the crimes—one being a response to an additional crime that goes unrecognized-- is not a narrative inconsistency, but rather a method of hinting that the social hierarchies present in the village are the root cause of all the madness, and that all the citizens are essentially guilty. But it is to Haneke’s credit that the film never feels like a sociology lesson, as some of his earlier films do; as a storyteller, dare we say it, he has reached his peak of maturity.

The most impossible aspect of The White Ribbon to describe is the black-and-white imagery. It is never possible, or appropriate, to explain why black-and-white photography works; it just looks right. Cinematographer Christian Berger has used it to make some surprising choices himself, and has pulled them off. For one, the village never looks evil or corrupted; it is a flat-lying village, blanketed with wheat stalks blowing gently in the breeze. It is usually sunny outside, and when it is night or we are indoors, the shadows are never too dark (with several striking exceptions). Berger’s imagery is a far cry from German Expressionism or Mountain Film-grandiosity; it more closely resembles G.W Bitzer’s lyrical pastoral imagery from several of D.W Griffith’s films. (He is also notable for executing one of the longest fade-outs I have ever seen.)

The most mysterious part of the film is the title itself, which refers to a Christian practice in which a band is tied around a child’s arm after they have ‘sinned’ in order to purify them again. This is also the most ironic aspect of The White Ribbon, because it reflects the notion that Haneke, Berger, and the rest of the crew probably thought they were achieving something closer to pure cinema, after the modernity and experimentation of Haneke’s previous films. But The White Ribbon is still a long way from pure cinema: there are unnecessary dialogue diversions, and there is never a clear sense of the layout of the village, and where people dwell in relation to one another. Perhaps this latter choice was intentional, but it poses too much threat to the overall structure. But the film nonetheless proves that dark films to not have to look dark and a director with a clever spirit can still tone down that clever spirit and mold it in to austerity and quiet agitation. The agitation here is never overt or typically cinematic; it is one that we can feel creeping up on us from those lovely, grassy fields…

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Youth in Revolt

Youth in Revolt is one of a number of films-- and television shows—that apparently is meant to evoke some sort of darkly comic and satirical world and ends up invoking a nightmarish, demented reality filled with people I wouldn’t go near even if I was wearing protective, anti-cynicism gear. The film could have been a Sundance winner, or a blockbuster, or any number of Hollywood comedies. It has it’s roots not so much in the foreign films it playfully deals with as in American Beauty and Fight Club: it is about a place (reality), which is funny and mock-able to a point, but ends up being vapid, uncaring and defeatist, because that’s what people are like anyway.

The film approaches us as a clever and outrageous take on the familiar premise of the dork who can’t seem to lose his virginity. Michael Cera plays that dork, named Nick Twisp here, a bored sixteen-year old suburbanite who lives with his flakey mother and her overweight boyfriend (Zach Galfinakis). Nick mainly prefers classic French films like Breathless to mainstream fare, and gets ridiculed for it. His voice-over narration betrays a sense of having cooled to the idea of humanity so long ago, it’s hard for him to even laugh at it; and in this sense the film is very honest in the way it fits voiceover with theme and content. Nick, his mother, and her boyfriend go to a lakeside retreat for the weekend where he meets a stunningly beautiful girl named Sheeny (Portia Doubleday), interested in all the same things he is and fed up with her Christian parents. Nick finds his optimism about his sexual inexperience rising. After he returns to his suburb, Nick sets about finding a way to move back to the lakeside retreat to be near Sheeny, even if there is the complication of her boyfriend, Trent. To get back out there, he will invent a suave French persona named Francois, who assists him in wrecking his mother’s ex-boyfriend’s car, so that his mother will kick him out of the house to go live with his father.

The rebellion implied in the title kicks in to high gear at this point, and it is a cinematic rebellion that bears some resemblance to—what else—certain Godard films in which the hero is on the run, the car is a central object, and the girl is always gotten; but not without a lot of postmodern cross-referencing to tag along. But while the parallels to Godard’s films are no doubt intentional, the tone of Youth in Revolt is not so much intellectually ballistic as it is rude, ironic and, well, predictable. Here we have a girl who acts so artificially hip and so teasing that we are ready to scold Nick for falling for her, beautiful as she is. Yet in Nick himself, we have a kid whose idea of revolt is to sedate his love with sleeping pills until she is expelled from her French-language boarding school. In his mother we have a woman unbearably trashy and self-centered and in Sheeny’s parents we have two obnoxious, shallow Christians. Grownups are a drag and kids are just unstable. The film depicts a world going to hell in a hand-basket, not an energized uprising.

Of course, you are meant to laugh at this. The film does manage to recognize the nightmarish of its humor to an extent. When Nick drives his car off a cliff only to crash it in to the shallow water below rather than sink it as he intended, the police on the other side see a confused kid wearing only boxers run up to the edge to see what has gone wrong, and it is an unexpected slapstick foible that manages to do the foibles that came before one better. And every scene with Fred Willard is a delight; as Nick’s hippy- activist neighbor who manages to get him out of one rough spot only to end up shirtless and zonked out on mushrooms later, Willard managed to squeeze a spirit in to the film that is not a pathetic caricature or a shallow pincushion; he is an earnest guy who is a total screw-up, in the great comic spirit that runs through Keaton and Sellers. Yet the other characters are not meant to amount to much, and as a result, the laughs may come up short or be stifled. This is a film that handles people callously, with cold hands. Perhaps this is best exemplified in the way that certain characters are picked up and then dropped, without any explanation or any sense that we should care; an Indian student whom Nick befriends and a grouchy girl who briefly helps him in his schemes are dropped off the storyline from a far greater height than Nick’s car was from the cliff. It’s also a great height to fall for American Comedies.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Police, Adjective

Police, Adjective is my favorite film of what is known as the Romanian New Wave thus far. This is because it utilizes the stylisms of that movement—stretched-out, languid shots, amplified natural sound, gray, urban color tones and a deadpan outlook on social problems—but not for some sort of real-time affect, or for artsy seriousness, as was the case with previous Romanian films. It utilizes these stylisms for the sake of comedy. Police, Adjective is a stretched-out, gray, deadpan comedy. In this sense, the film becomes a self-effacement of it’s own form, and suggests that the only way to actually change social problems is to laugh at them.

Purely in terms of direction, director Corneliu Pomumbriu (who previously helmed 12:08 East of Bucharest) must be commended for a stunning sense of orientation. The set-piece to remember in this film is an extended scene in which the film’s hero, Cristi (Dragos Bucur) stands beside a concrete barrier serving as a post for street signs in a destitute neighborhood of Bucharest; in between him and the pot-dealing boy he is on the lookout for is a dug-out area blocked off by construction tape and cones. Cristi lights up a cigarette and tries not to look suspicious (he is as average Romanian-joe as possible). Then he watches the boy meet up with two other friends in a parking lot across the street and they light up a joint. Then he follows the girl, who had smoked with the dealer, back to her house along an empty street going up a hill. He makes no moves this entire time, and the shots are alternately from Cristi’s point of view and from the perspective of an omniscient establishing shot. Although they are ugly and unmoving, the concrete barrier he stands against and the haphazard construction site are somehow key elements in the scene. At the scene’s end, we see a shot of Cristi’s write-up of everything he just did.

I can think of no other director who would take such an approach to composing a scene. In Poromboiu’s hands, the write-up we read at the end serves as a clarification of everything we saw in the wordless procedural, and, more importantly, an introduction to the main theme of the film: words. Words dance right through this film. They are addressed, confusedly, in several other key scenes; when Cristi eats dinner with his literate yet pop-music loving girlfriend, and when he must confront the police chief with his admission that he does not want to bust a harmless pot-dealer, because he feels it is a waste of time.

Words are also a primary source of humor in the film. Yet this is not a quotably humorous film; it is one in which visual gags are plentiful but subtle and in which the sheer awkwardness of real communication is played for humor. If Police, Adjective sometimes feels like it could have functioned as a short student film—it is surprisingly long as 115 minutes—then think of its unnecessary length of part of the dry joke. The film ultimately resembles a performer that comes in unexpectedly, does something clever and strange, and leaves. Eastern Europe, known for it’s dourness in cinema, and it’s continuously crumbling view of society, has a sincere humorist in Corneliu Porombiou.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Men in a Desert: the history of an image.

Images in films are actually echoes. If they are not echoes of day-to-day life, then they are echoes of other cinematic images. One of the best and longest-lasting echoes originated in Battleship Potemkin; the upper-figure of the battleship commander, shown in an ironically reverential close-up, as he barks orders at the starving crew and points, is the original shot of countless introductions to tyrants, or emphases of their tyranny. Tracing shots to their logical, (usually) silent beginnings is not merely film scholarship; it is a way of getting to know a large family. Cinema, though, is a medium that became attracted to the aesthetics of individual people and objects early on. The image from Potemkin can bear this out, as can the close-ups of Maria Falconetti that frame The Passion of Joan of Arc, and later, the iconic depictions of Charles Foster Kane, Don Corleone and Neo. In regard to objects, a gun firing in to the camera, a branded ‘M’ and a gigantic baby floating space all have their own lineages of both parody (2001’s gigantic baby) and homage (Train Robbery’s shot in to the camera) Cinema, that most collaborative of all the arts, loves its individuals.

The word collective usually means some form of teamwork, and this brings up an irony of cinema: although making a film takes immense teamwork, we don’t see much of it on screen these days. But at their inception, it was okay for films to portray collectives, beautifully. The Lumieres shot the first filmed image, of workers leaving a factory, which was a collective depiction. In Soviet realist filmmaking, too, images portraying the collective were key. But the Lumieres and the Soviets were isolated in history; rarely have their images been outright imitated or expanded on by anybody outside of their immediate period or nationality. Most other collective images have been incidental, or glanced over by filmmakers who look in to the vaults of their’ profession. Yet in regards to one of cinema’s favorite genres—the Western—one particularly charismatic collective image has had a long, grand cycle. This image is of a group of men moving across a desert in the daylight, in formal procession. Let us call it the Men in a Desert image.

To this film-viewer’s knowledge, the origin of this image can be traced back to D.W Griffith. Furthermore, there is no director more appropriate to trace it to. Griffith is the reason for most of the flourishes that made a film narrative a film narrative. With cameraman G.W Bitzer he founded crosscutting, close-ups, above-the-waist shots, fish-eye shots and an assortment of other techniques that enhanced the story of a film. What he created after years of working with certain founded techniques was an appropriate way of shooting the Men in a Desert image. His version first appeared in his 1913 film, The Massacre. For the shot, what Griffith had to figure out was a way to frame large ensembles. In his version, a large ensemble is the central object. Griffith presented them in a very wide shot. The twin ensembles of Indians and soldiers are circling on their’ wagons and horses around the base of a canyon. Smoke from their gunfire crowds the screen like a main character. The true main characters are the group of people—swaying and confronting—and the jagged cliffs and contours of the desert—heartless, neutral, ever-present.

Before the image comes, a story about a love triangle is established; the woman is pregnant; her lover’s, two soldiers, are friends. She has the baby and one goes off to help the pioneers move out west; the other soon follows, with the girl. Naturally, all three will meet up, and find themselves in the heat of the battle. The story seems routine and simplistic, and this is why Griffith found it necessary to do what later filmmakers would not dare do; he began to show the individuals in relation to the collective. The collective, as it is introduced, is a large procession of settlers and soldiers. They are what are presented in the many shots leading up to the men in a desert image.

The many variations on the images of the settlers moving, on their wagons and horses, include animals walking in to the frame as the ensemble passes by, or an Indian in a large headdress—meant to appear animalistic himself—walking in to the frame and spying on the intruders. Griffith used these as establishing shots, but he was careful not to put the master product of the men in a desert until the last third of the film. When the two ensembles of the Indians and the white soldiers clash, and guns start firing and the white smoke begins billowing, then we see the widest possible version of the men in a desert. The film has come in to its own at this point; the story finally permits chaos and grandiosity in a wide frame. This shot is, in fact, what ends the film; following a wide shot of wagons and soldiers moving around uncertainly, as if victory is the white man’s for now but maybe not later, a title card reads “In Memoriam.” In just a half hour, Griffith and Bitzer had developed a major collective image to its most grandiose potential, and let themselves get sentimental immediately afterwards. While a formulaic western film in many ways, The Massacre nonetheless was the first western to find such an image, and from that point on, the genre had higher expectations.

Some forty-three years later, a big-budgeted, yet somewhat perplexing western was produced called The Searchers (1956). The director, John Ford, was well established—probably better so than Griffith was in his time—as the go-to western director. He had previously shot Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine and Rio Grande, among other popular westerns. All these films had been borne from traditional western themes: masculinity, guilt, redemption, expansion of western civilization, the clash of Indians and white Americans. The Searchers was the first western to explore all sides of these themes, implicating racism, male self-destruction and the complexity of familial bonds as sub-themes within them. For these reasons, the film was groundbreaking, yet it is the disciplined stylistic traditions that The Searchers adheres to that make it a great film. One of these traditions was its continuation of the men in a desert shot. All of Ford’s aforementioned films had utilized this shot as well, especially Stagecoach, with its plot that hinged on a nothing more than a collective moving across a desert. Yet The Searchers is more interesting in this case because it also showed how far films had moved towards the individual object since the advent of sound. The Searchers is too obsessed with the contours of John Wayne’s face, and with the framings of individuals in doorways, on horses, or set against the desert sky to be called a collective film. Unlike The Massacre, it is not structured on collective imagery. But Ford, being a disciplined traditionalist, felt obligated to reconcile a film about an individual with the men in a desert image as much as possible.

The pervading men in a desert image from The Searchers is not much different from the one in The Massacre. A group of soldiers, along with veteran Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) and his nephew Martin (Jeffrey Hunter), ride on horses. They are in the ever-shifting desert of Monument Valley—though it is Texas in the film. Sometimes they are riding through open, gently sloping desert, always in view of a plateau. Other times, they are beside a reservoir at the bottom of a hill. The apex moments of these shots are when the men encounter the Indians; who are in their own winding band, making their own way through the desert, on a similar mission involving the aggressive protection of their home. Early in the film, the small group of soldiers marches parallel to a ridge when they spot an Indian scout on top. “Keep moving,” commands the leader, Captain Clayton (Ward Bond). This time around, the men are viewed in a series of medium shots as they try to hurry away from the Indians in an awkward acceleration of speed. The Indians are seen amassing in the background, trailing them.

Just as Griffith added variations on the men in a desert image, so does Ford. The primary difference is that his variations are meant to show that the individual of his film—Ethan Edwards-- trumps the collective. Soon, a fight breaks out at a reservoir, as the Indian warriors gallop down a hill and cross the water in droves while Ethan and the other soldiers shoot at them from the cover of rocks on the other side. Many images have passed by now, all of them collective, but each one is a progression towards re-focusing on Wayne’s Ethan Edwards. Ethan fires his rifle at the retreating Indians as if reloading the gun from his nerves. He is trigger-happy and the disturbed expression on his face is counterpointed with two shots of the retreating Indians. It is at this point that the white men experience a rift; Clayton jerks Edward’s rifle down so he shoots the ground, telling him to cut the Indians some slack at last. Edwards, it is now clear to us, is a different breed from these other men; a genuinely brutal sort of beast, ravaged by war and loneliness. This is not the same cohesive group we saw in The Massacre. Because of one individual, this is an agitated, complicated group. A modern viewer would say they are closer to real people.

The Indians still serve the pure function of the collective, as they do in The Massacre; though even their collective also becomes complicated later in the story. Ford’s fealty to the men in a desert image must always come back to the plight of the individual, Ethan Edwards. So Ford’s shots are choppier, and move from wide shots to close-ups to medium shots by necessity. Storytelling in film had secured itself in this complexity by this point (the mid-50’s) and there was no going back to Griffith’s utter precision.

(Daniel Day Lewis in There will be Blood)

There will be Blood (2007) is the most recent western that is indebted to Griffith’s men in a desert tradition. But first it gets us acquainted—though not without obstructions—with early American silent cinema. The first twenty minutes contain no dialogue and could have been outtakes from any of Griffith’s westerns were they produced at the turn of the twentieth century. Much of its allusiveness to the silent cinema era is simply collateral. The film is set between the years of 1898 and 1927, the same years America began turning its cinematic cogs. The film contains images of oil, an image pervasive and practical to the film, gushing out of the ground, in to the air, or splattering one’s face; these shots suggest the geysers of wheat showering down on the greedy businessman at the bottom of a vat in Griffith’s early film Corner in Wheat. The sacred cinematic object, the train, plays in to the film in key intervals; First Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis) rides a train further west with his adopted son; later, he abandons the boy on another train. The film illustrates the colonial progress of America at the turn of the century in the same way that film was colonizing the world at the same time.

Yet the film strays from Griffith dramatically in that it is only about one man in a desert for the first third. Daniel Day-Lewis, as Daniel Plainview, is a hard-nosed capitalist and a rugged individual whose image drips with irony over the course of the film. It is his figure, always wearing a hat and with a mustache planted in the middle, that dominates the desert, along with the shivery musical score. The men only start to enter this mix when Daniel allows them.

These tendencies show There will be Blood following the same pattern as The Searchers; of the collective in relation to the individual. Everything is shown winding back to Daniel Plainview. So it is no coincidence that the epochal men in the desert image from There will be Blood is one which has been engineered—ironically, we shall see—by Daniel Plainview himself. After the gigantic oil well the men working for Union Oil (Plainview’s company) bursts, Daniel rushes out of his cabin to rescue his son, who was hit by the blast and fell on his back on the platform of their oil rig. Daniel Plainview jumps on to the platform, grabs his son, and rushes back to the cabin with him in his arms, both drenched in oil. It is early evening and the setting sun reflects in faint reds and blues on the sky. Plainview’s workers are running in the opposite direction of him; towards the gushing well, which has burst in to flames. This is the image all the smaller gatherings of men in the desert had been building up to, along with the rising-headache musical score, which now becomes a steady banging of percussion. After laying his son, who has fallen deaf within seconds of being knocked away by the blast, down in the cabin, Plainview races back to the burning well. Now he is running along with his men and shouting orders to them. This image introduces an element of panic to a greater degree than the images from The Searchers and The Massacre. It feels more panicky in no small part due to the emphasized camera movement, something Griffith had virtually no use for and Ford only a little. The camera here fluidly dollies alongside Daniel and against the men. This image, as with most others in the film, gives way to a shot of Daniel with his son, and then an individual shot of Daniel cutting the ropes to the rig loose. But it also gives way, for the first time, to shots of things that Daniel is not in control of. At the end of the sequence, Daniel and his men stand a safe distance from the raging fire, in the twilight, looking dumfounded. There will be Blood offers this as a dark closure to the men in a desert image; the image has become uneasy, chaotic and full of disaster.

(from The Ten Commandments, 1923)

Griffith, Ford and Anderson each represent their own era’s of filmmaking, yet each found themselves producing westerns, and have therefore became students of this particular image. It must be said that the men in a desert image is not particular to westerns, per se; this is because there have been a good deal of films set out west that do not count as part of the western genre, and because men are everywhere, in all imagery. So the men in a desert image indicates a certain tendency in the western genre, and is a means of adhering to said genre’s conventions; in Griffith’s and Ford’s cases, of showing cowboys and Indians fighting; in Anderson’s case, displaying the bonding of men; in all three, showcasing a spectacle set against a harsh and empty landscape. It is an image that signifies homage to silent cinema, conventions of the western genre and a sense of the establishing shot; at the most practical level, it shows the bigger picture.

It is doubtful that this is the best the image can show; Ford and Anderson’s approaches to the image are gorgeous-looking, but Anderson’s in particular is too choppy. Griffith may have been a simpleton, and his simpleton-ness barred him from getting at psychological complexity in his shots. But it also allowed him to create an ideal rhythm for a beautiful shot; a wide-shot held from a far distance, on a static camera. Each director’s image was necessarily followed by cuts closer to the action, but Griffith always returned to the wide shot, with only the barest variation.

Had Ford and Anderson decided to stay with this simplicity of storytelling, would that mean cinema had stood still, or would it have branched off in different directions? Should they have disregarded the individual and focused entirely on the collective? The obvious answer is no, because then Ford would not have given us the dark dolly’s towards John Wayne’s face, as he tries to suppress his reaction to disturbed white girls rescued from Indians, and Daniel Day Lewis would not have been able to convey the transformation of Daniel Plainview from pale-faced idealist to sniveling creep. That collective imagery has moved closer to individual imagery does not mean the pure collective image is disintegrating; though it may be in trouble. But it can be placed in a framework of silent-cinema grandiosity, as Ford taught us; it can be mixed in with camerawork-leaden flashy techniques and still serve the purpose of homage to silent cinema-style collectivism, as Anderson realized.

At best, filmmakers can continue to home in on the details of Griffith’s master image. Ford homed in on the individual; Anderson homed in on natural elements and the individual. Griffith’s purity of imagery can never be repeated, but then, the lamb-days of cinema are so far in the dust that imagistic corruption has taken on it’s own beauty and has become it’s own seed for more cinematic sprouting. Future filmmaker’s must show the beauties of the ways Anderson’s men move their feet, or the reactions of Griffith’s horses and their relationships to the men who ride them. Griffith’s men laid out all the groundwork; the corruption is for keeping.