Thursday, February 25, 2010

Doing it blindly; Broken Embraces

The most blatant and self-evident image that has ever passed through a film camera’s aperture is a close up of the human eye. Directors use this image with regularity, and Pedro Almodovar uses it in Broken Embraces. Unsurprisingly, each individual eye looks basically the same, and almost always have the same connotations when appearing in a film; connotations relating to voyeurism, intrusion, lust and mystery. The difference between Almodovar’s new film Broken Embraces and most other films with eyes, is that Almodovar is aiming for cinematic routine and obvious reference. Broken Embraces is all about voyeurism, intrusion, lust and mystery. It is all about the way different people percieve different images and, obviously, about the struggle of the artist. It is an excitingly conventional film.
One convention employed is the storytelling method of time-shifting, which frames the first third of the film. We begin in Madrid in 2008. A blind director, Mateo ( Luis Homar), learns of the death of a rich arch-nemesis named Ernesto Martel (Jose Luis Gomez), which brings back a set of memories from the early nineties, surrounding the production of Mateo’s film Girls and Suitcases. Then Martel’s son shows up at Mateo’s door, calling himself ‘Ray X’ and proposing a new film he wants to make with the director. But Mateo recognizes the voice, and this in turn brings back memories of Lena (Penelope Cruz), who was Ernesto Martel’s lover, but who ended up having an affair with Mateo, who’s film she was starring in. Almodovar chooses to lock us in to the past for the majority of the film after Mateo sits down with his producer and ex-lover’s son (Tomar Novas), who has just experienced a drug-induced health scare, and is treated to a story of how it all happened; how Martel made his son videotape Mateo and Lena, how he succeeded in destrorying Mateo’s film, and how Mateo tragically lost his sight. The bulk of the film is this story, which occurs in 1994. With this story, Almodovar utilizes the fractured time narrative in a way that does Tarantino’s tired schtick one better; but he wouldn’t have been able to utilize it at all if one didn’t get the sense that the film is a sly disclosure of a mature director looking back on his past, his regrets, and the mysteries of his films.
Broken Embraces ultimately wraps all it’s themes, obsessions and plot turns in to a frenzied meditation on-- what else-- cinema. Running throughout the film is an allusion to Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960), about a psychopathic cameramen who films girls and then murders them. More subtle references to Antonioni’s Blow Up  (1966) are also discernable, but the largest film reference is to Almodovar’s own Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) on which Mateo’s film Girls and Suitcases is based. If this sounds like a needlessly smarmy amount of cine-literate allusions, then it can’t possibly be, because it comprises large and crucial chunks of the film. But again, the film is, in terms of form, a film of cinematic conventions. This is both for better and for worse; there are steamy sex scenes, a hilarious genre plot within Mateo’s film about drug smuggling, and a typically ironic, yet still unexpected, car crash. There are also several stunningly predictable plot twists and an emphasis on color that makes it look like the film might have been hell for the cinematographer, Rodrigo Pieto. The most interesting choices Almodovar has made in the film, though, are one’s where it is impossible to tell whether they are directorial laziness or directorial trickery. Mateo is blind in the present day, but he never looks blind. Why? And furthermore, why do we still believe his blindness? Early in the film, our first introduction to Lena comes as a flashback, yet not one that can possibly be a memory of Mateo’s. Did Almodovar think we wouldn’t notice, or did he mean to suggest something else about what Mateo knows and remembers? These are several examples of Almodovar’s iffiness, and they are examples that appear in films all across the cinematic spectrum. But after a point, as Almodovar surely knows, intent and mishap make no difference, because it’s all an illusion anyway.
(Pedro Almodovar with Penelope Cruz on the set of Broken Embraces)

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Motion Studies: The Birds

(I don't suggest reading this post unless you've seen Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds in its entirety.)
It is an ending to a film in the same way John Coltrane’s disintegrating whirl of saxophone, bass and cymbals was an ending to his album A Love Supreme. Bloodied, shock-consumed and bandaged Melanie (Tippi Hedren) is lifted up from the sofa by Mitch (Rod Taylor) and his mother, Lydia (Jessica Tandy), to be brought outside their barricaded house where the birds that have attacked Bodega Bay await her. Rows of crows line the banisters, seagulls stand in a vast mob all over the driveway and lining the road. The white car that is their only escape sits in the center of the mob.

Now will they attack her and finish their work? That is the question that goes through our heads in sync with Mitch and his mother. Melanie cries “” in a voice hardly her own and lurches back. But Mitch and Lydia pull her forward. The camera dollies closer to the car. Then the angle switches to a tight shot of Mitch, Melanie and Lydia, dollying backwards. We glance at several crows perched on the porch railing. They flit their wings and crow. The three humans move closer to the car, down the wooden steps. Now from above, Melanie is carried through the ground-swarm of seagulls, who cautiously scoot out of the path of the three humans whom they are making sure will flee. Melanie is lifted in to the backseat and Lydia climbs in with her. Mitch stands in the doorway of the driver’s seat as his teenage sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright) comes to the house doorway and nervously asks if she can bring the lovebirds (which Melanie purchased at the film’s beginning) because “...they haven’t hurt anybody.” Mitch agrees, and we see Cathy and Mitch take the lovebird cage out of the house in a pan from the porch to the car. They both climb in. A weary Melanie looks in to the eyes of her lover’s mother and squeezes her wrist. Lydia smiles and leans her head against Melanie’s. The car pulls away. The seagulls craw. The crows craw and flap their wings in slow motion. The mob of birds craws, hoots and flaps their wings as the car disappears down the road, in the breaking sunlight, and out of sight.

Hitchcock, the master of orientation, displays his mastery of orientation here in full dramatic flight; from the porch, towards the car, with birds on either side; back to the porch, then back to the car, then back to porch and fade out on the birds. This orientative shooting allows us to fear every careful step these characters take out to the car. But Hitchcock also proved himself a master of the mystical and ambiguous ending in this film. The birds do not fly away; only the car moves. What will happen to Melanie and Mitch? Will she be okay? Will they marry? And what of the birds? Are they crowing because they now rule Bodega Bay, or does their crowing represent the closure of some psychological aspect of Melanie’s relationship to Mitch? This does not at all come as a pretentious reading by the end of the film, because Melanie’s paranormal connection to the birds has only been brought up once, briefly, previous to the ending, and only now is it subtly suggested that the main characters are willing to believe it. Hitchcock probably didn’t end another film on such a moody note. All his other films are inclined to pat resolutions, or contemplation of the protagonist’s misdeeds rather than dizzying, metaphysical ambiguity.

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Road

The finest scene in the road comes straight from one of the finest scenes in Cormac McCarthy’s novel on which it is based. The Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is scribbling in a notebook what he sees in front of him; a desolate brick building, across from his father’s deserted childhood house, in a landscape charred and in a permanent state of November like everywhere else after the Apocalypse. He cannot put every object with its word, nor can he put form to replications of objects; so his drawing is a mess of green black and gray scribbles. He sets the paper down, knowing he is trying out a hopeless craft; then he sees an object in the window of the brick building. He runs after it, calling out. The figure of a boy ducks behind the building. The Boy calls to him that he shouldn’t be afraid, but the other boy has vanished. The Boy’s father (Viggo Mortensen) is running out from the house to seize his son and scold him for what he is doing even as he holds him as a loving father would.

The Road, directed by John Hillcoat, who made the fiery, McCarthy-esque western The Proposition in 2005, is undyingly faithful to its source material. Three of McCarthy’s books have become movies by now and it is not hard to see why, even if his books are not so much cinematic as post-cinematic. The Road could have just as easily become a videogame, in which the player is The Boy or The Man, travelling down an ongoing road after humanity has died out in some nameless catastrophe, sometimes fighting cannibals, other times exchanging food and caged pleasantries with destitute survivors, and still have retained the full story. But because the story takes the form of the most natural cinematic narrative—that of physical travel-- means filmmakers want a piece of this kind of story. McCarthy’s books are probably considered too highbrow for videogames, anyway; they are admired for their Faulknerian sentences, for the way the dialogue comes without quotations, as if it is part of the landscape, and the for the way they blend stream of consciousness with intense narrative description in ways that are sometimes indistinguishable. But these are all stylistic qualities that do not translate to cinema easily. What translates automatically is the stories; about maniac serial killers on western rampages, or troubled youths on Bildungrosmans across the desert, or here, about a man and his son trying to survive in the aftermath of the Apocalypse. But Hillcoat is not quite brave enough to try and approximate McCarthy’s style, with the exception of the one scene with the Boy drawing, which just about gets it.

And so, the problem with The Road is the same problem the Coen Brothers had with their McCarthy adaptation, No Country for Old Men; it is a perfectly solid film without enough dark exuberance. Although there are an unnecessary amount of scenes with Charlize Theron (playing Mortensen’s deceased wife, who makes a hard decision when the end is nigh and cannibalism starts running amok), the other scenes are neither too long nor too short, and what happens to both protagonists, literally and emotionally, is always crystal clear. There is a fine turn by Robert Duvall as a nearly blind ninety-year old man and a strangely appropriate appearance by Guy Pearce (who starred in The Proposition). The other bones to pick with the film are mainly the same bones one could pick with the book. (The people in this story are no strangers to seeing bones being picked, for sure). But Hillcoat has resorted to wrapping a grayish, sentimental, film-score laden style around what was a hypnotic and, again, darkly exuberant piece of work in prose. If there is a director out there who could bring out the dark exuberance in a story, the only one to come to mind is the Hungarian mammoth Bela Tarr. But try getting him to come over here, and film this story in black and white (the only realistic interpretation?) For now, directors are too concentrated on filming McCarthy’s plots; they are scared of his sentences.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Motion Studies: The Iron Horse

(John Ford, Mystic)

John Ford took imagery from the vaults of cinematic consciousness created by D.W Griffith and Cecil B DeMille and did those filmmakers one better: he charged this imagery with poetic rhythms that have stylized the western genre from then on.

The image in question comes a little more than halfway through The Iron Horse (1924). A herd of black and white cattle progress through a desert reservoir with two horsemen driving them from behind. Cut to a closer overhead shot of the herd; one cow circles around, strangely suggesting the human reaction to having forgotten something, yet not being certain. After a moment, the cow pivots back around and rejoins the herd. Now we cut to the herd moving on to the shore. Fade out as the horsemen reach the shore.

The motion here has a poetic quality mainly because of what it comes after: a scene of an Indian chief rallying his tribe with the call “My brothers, we will stop the Iron Horse forever!,” followed by a whirligig of horses stampeding across a desert ridge. (If there was ever a film that should be watched with a scratchy print, it is this one; the scratches compliment the constant flurries of dust.) The herd of cattle moving slowly and unassumingly across the water looks both foreboding and forlorn following this threat; will they be stopped forever? Are they pushing ahead for no reason? Man pitted against an obstacle is the ingredient of the story form, and film is the great condenser. Ford condensed the implications of an obstacle in to an image of slow motion across a body of water.

But the most important ingredient of this image is its use of the fade-out. The fade out was a device that was used before Ford more often as a melodramatic way of signifying that a scene was over. Ford may not have been the first to realize the greater possibilities of this device, but the used fade-outs and fade-ins in The Iron Horse, rather than suggesting that the scene had ended, suggest that nothing has ceased, but has rather moved on to a world other than the physical one our eyes see. The landscape the cows trudge through is never ending, the horsemen’s work is never ending, and the threat of violence on a group is a complex matter that cannot be contained in one scene. This is what the fade-out suggests. By using fade outs in such an ambiguous way, the delicacy of the image is preserved. The viewer wants to remember these cows and these men and does not want to fathom the true extent of their progress.

The Iron Horse is about people who just keep on progressing—the ideal kind of film—and it keeps fading in and out on them. This makes it one of the earliest Westerns to achieve a mystical attitude towards progression and the evils of the world. The film’s ongoing landscapes are a backdrop to this mysticism and the animals that work alongside humans while subtly adapting human qualities (the lone cow is not the only one) are oddities within this mysticism. Ford may not have known exactly what he had stumbled upon yet—he was still a young director, new to the epic form—but later directors would maximize on this Western mysticism and we must remove our hats to Ford for this stumble.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Here is a still from a film production in the works on the rainy streets of Paris. The blurry look was not