Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Artist

(The Artist/2011)
      Of course, if some projectionist were to bring a print of The Artist in to a time machine and go back to the late 20’s, viewers would recognize that it is not really a silent film at all. Michael Hazanavicius’ film has plenty of knowing tip-offs to this fact; first of all, in the opening credits, which begin on a black screen in the lower right hand corner in the manner of modern films, before becoming silent-movie style credits. Then there are the numerous dolly shots, which last longer and look smoother than anything Keaton or King Vidor might have attempted with a dolly. Then there is the fact that the actors are having far too much fun with this project for it to be an authentically hammy picture from the 20’s, with one of the leads, actress Berenice Bejo, abandoning any pretense of naturalism in her performance. Then there are several scenes that break from the film’s concept altogether and… well, to say more would spoil The Artist, and give away why the film is so fascinating and uneven.
            The story is one sustained volley of movie allusions. In the name of the protagonist, George Valentin, we have a reference to the silent film star Rudolph Valentino, whose career had a similar trajectory—though a far more tragic ending—as that of George Valentin’s. But in George Valentin’s life story, we actually have the story of a handful of silent films stars; an actor who is famous on the silent screen in 1927, but whose studio chooses to switch over to talkies at the end of the decade; who then gets a double whammy with the stock market crash of 1929, and becomes a destitute nobody by 1932. In the film, Valentin meets and falls in love with Peppy Miller (Bejo) early on, and spurs her from a mere dancing career in to a film career. She excels in the talkies where he fails; their love is unrequited, partly because Valentin is married, and partly because of the very fact of changing times. George refuses to participate in the talkies, while Miller takes his place as the big star in Hollywood, but they stay in love all the while. 
(The Artist/2011)
If there is a parallel with the modern film business anywhere in this film—the means of production change, the old stalwarts snub the new technology, the economy crashes, and the old ways become even more irrelevant—then Hazanavicius wisely downplays it, preferring to indulge us in the full-course of movie genres and styles that erupted in that great decade of the 1920’s. He gives us a surrealist dream sequence that rings of Bunuel and Dali, a fast-paced Zorro movie that looks like one of the original Zorro’s from the early 20’s  (or any action movie of the time), and an ornate composition on a large stairway within a studio that looks like something Keaton might have arranged and plays the way Chaplin might have played it. These are just a few of the silent film references. What is strange is that Hazanavicius apparently has no problem alluding to sound cinema, either. Bernard Hermann’s famous Vertigo theme comes up in one crucial scene near the end of the film, causing one to wonder if Hazanavicius is not simply willing to deviate from the form of silent cinema; we wonder if he thinks we are watching a silent film at all.

(The Artist/2011)
(The Artist/2011)
            So the paradox of The Artist stands; in one sense, it is a massive concept movie, in another sense, it’s concept is deceptive; this is not a silent film, and not quite an homage to silent film, either. It is more of an homage to our perceptions of silent film, and an admission that this memory has largely eroded after decades of sound. In this sense, The Artist is a very touching work, but it still leaves one feeling that perhaps it isn’t taking itself seriously enough by the end. The final scene, while clever, is nonetheless a touch predictable and leaves the viewer thinking that perhaps this film was too cynical about its own subject. We got some great nostalgia, but not enough of it.
            There is one great scene that does spawn from that nostalgia. When George and Peppy meet for the second time, on a film set, with the studio boss (John Goodman) calling the shots, a slate comes in to the frame, snaps, and a dancing scene commences. George dances with one woman, then Peppy, then they awkwardly depart. There is an overexposed white out of the frame that cuts over to the next take. The slate returns, and the dance continues, but this time George departs from Peppy and begins dancing with another man before realizing his error. Another white-out, another take. At some point in this sequence, we realize that perhaps this scene is not being shot, per se. Perhaps it is a memory of George’s, or of Peppy’s, or a mash of their collective memories that they are revising again and again, because they didn’t dance together in quite the right way. Their encounter is still imperfect. Their moments of dancing are blissful, but the scene requires that they move on to other partners. The end of the last take leaves a confused and disappointed Peppy standing alone in the crowd of dancers before another white-out, and the last cut. Film was then, and has always been, just a revision of collective memories. It is a way of getting them as close to ideal as you can before the overexposure.
(The Artist/2011)

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Lars Von Gloom

(Melancholia/Zentropa Pictures, 2011)
          Twice I almost walked out of Melancholia. Both times were late in the film; the first being when Justine (Kirsten Dunst) plainly speaks to her sister about her disbelief in any other life in the universe, and her acceptance of annihilation; the second being when Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) looks through a crude circular instrument made of wire and sees that the planet Melancholia is actually much larger than it was the day before. I did not wish to walk out because I hated this bewitching movie, but because I felt like I was being crushed.
            Despite his reputation for sadism, and for perpetuated cynicism, this crushing sensation was not the fault of filmmaker Lars Von Trier, who has made what is almost certainly his finest film to date. It was the fault of gloom, a feeling that encroaches on too much modern imagery. Melancholia, whether its wobbly camera portrays an awkwardly well-lit wedding or a woman contemplating the Tarkovsky-esque Sea outside her manor, is no exception to all this imagery. What it is an exception to is the remainder of Von Trier’s career; both what came before and will come after. Because although Von Trier is not likely to produce a better film, it is a certain sigh of relief that he finally unearthed depressing visions instead of dictating them. His gloom in Melancholia is crafty and, more so than most contemporary filmmakers, cinematic.
            The opening scene is several special affects short of pure cinema. The strings of Wagner’s 'Tristan and Isolde' glide over dark clumps that must be birds falling from a tinged sky behind Justine’s accepting stare. It then echoes through Justine clutching flowers floating down a riverbed in a bridal gown. A horse collapses in a field sparse with trees at what must be one hundred frames a second. Justine moves through the same field at the same frame rate while globs of tentacled mud stick to her gown. Volts of electricity shoot from her fingertips to the sky. A blue planet moves towards Earth and, in shots that look nearly like sperm fertilizing an egg, hits it with a splash. The strings end. The title comes on screen. The audience shivers from a chill that came from somewhere.
(Melancholia/Zentropa Pictures, 2011)

            This prelude in theory recalls the prelude to Antichrist, Von Trier’s previous film. But in practice Melancholia’s opening minutes are refined bits of film, whereas the prelude of Antichrist was a work of garish exposition and lazy sensationalism. It might be hard to make cinema out of graphic shots of intercourse cut together with babies falling from windows; steadily moving objects closing in on a defined space might make cinema. Maybe Von Trier was at a point when making Antichrist where he did not care about craft so much as zealous expression. He has been at that place in the past, for sure. Or maybe he never could tell the difference between the two; maybe his DP (Manuel Alberto Claro) or Editor (Molly M. Stensgaard) gave him a hand. It does not change the prelude, which is, in practice, a summary of the chronology of Justine’s interior experiences. Holistically, it is a film in its own right.
            The first part of Melancholia shows Justine’s wedding, gone to the pits just as soon as it begins. The Bride (Justine) and Groom (Michael, played by Alexander Skarsgard) arrive two-hours late to the reception. Justine’s sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is furious, while her parents (John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling) do not appear to quite believe in the ceremony at all. We’re not sure if we believe in it either. There is something too strange about this ceremony, stylized in orange like a nervous ritual played out while the sun sets. There is never anything right with Justine, who keeps sneaking off to be miserable in any variety of ways, and to stare at a red star in the distance on the family’s rented golf course. It is not quite a real wedding, with all in attendance aware of its unreal-ness. 
(Breaking the Waves/Zentropa Pictures, 2011)

            This first half is also one big revision of the opening minutes of Breaking the Waves (1996). In that film, a similarly unstable woman married, while her fright-wigged sister (played then by Katrin Cartlidge) did the doom saying. But that scene was choppy and self-consciously grainy. The wedding in Melancholia is choppy without hurrying itself; on the contrary some scenes are slowed to a near molasses pace, even as the camera jumps a handful of frames. It is not self-conscious or grainy; it relies on wild lighting, ambiguously open spaces, and a lot of costumes. Whereas Breaking the Waves feels like a skillfully directed story etched in the coldest possible stone, Melancholia feels like a filmmaker probing here and there, flexing and un-flexing his muscles. Yet, unlike Breaking the Waves, the sequence never feels pompous because it picks a form and does not move from it. The shots of Justine walking out to the golf field, gazing at the star that we will later learn is the planet Melancholia, are the gorgeous earmarks of the ensemble/large space form Von Trier chose. Justine may feel like she is part of that cold stone—and she gets worse in part two—but the wedding sequence feels like a tragic observation. It does not forcibly insert the viewer in to Justine’s head; it places us in that dim field just outside of it.
(The Idiots/Zentropa Pictures,1998)
(Europa/Zentropa Pictures, 1991)

            This more reserved, but still intense, exercise of style is something new for Von Trier, and with it he has at least made one of his visual-angst films the equal of his breezier, looser Danish-language movies. The Idiots (1998), The Boss of it All (2006) and his documentary The Five Obstructions (2004) are on a different world from Melancholia, one that even the director’s fans seemed to have never sufficiently appreciated. At least this time, the visual angst crowd has a point. Not since Europa (1991) has Von Trier been able to exercise style so freely, and with such pleasing results. But Europa, too, exists in a different world than Melancholia. Von Trier’s early efforts are easier to explain, because they belong firmly to the world of movies. Melancholia belongs to some unreachable, interior place. Its overall themes are strikingly obvious, but its overall construction is both awkward and resolute. Its story is a common one, but its images are things that you only see before falling in to a troubled sleep. Melancholia is the most psychological film of the year, and perhaps the most psychiatric ever.
            There is not much point in describing the second part of the film, equally as beautiful, if a little more dragging, than that first half. It concerns Justine’s sister Claire more than Justine, and it concerns the steady encroachment of the vast blue planet Melancholia, which will soon destroy earth. It contains several scenes as beautiful as anything in the first half of the film—snowflakes falling in a garden on a sunny day as Justine stares at a bird flapping overhead, the final scene—but its scene craft is not as important as its conceptual craft. Von Trier has usually structured narratives involving the rest of a community encircling one central protagonist. With Antichrist, he homed in on just two people and apparently forgot about the rest of the crowd, but we saw how that worked out. In Melancholia, he homes in on two individuals and also incorporates the crowd. The victimization complex, so annoying in his earlier films, is still there, but it comes within a more nuanced context; the crowd is not evil, or unlikable, but they do suffer from a form of madness different from Justine’s, and a form of ignorance different from Claire’s. Von Trier has arrived at a conclusion, and set it in to two enthrallingly cinematic situations; a strange gathering in an absurdly vast estate under the stars and a deadly object steadily approaching a familiar object. His sense of orientation is almost perfect this time around, and his sense of tension and rhythm is not dulled by any messages or cynical asides. Part of the reason Von Trier is such a successful foreign filmmaker is actually because he has a sense of pop lost on some other filmmakers; he knows how fun it is to see planets exploding, grand gestures by actors, random violence. By the time the second part ends, we’ve seen him in pop mode. Given the final scenes, we've also seen him in sentimental mode.
Melancholia/Zentropa Pictures, 2011)

            And so I left the theater easily, shrugging off the gloom of the theater and stepping out in to a rain that felt life affirming, rather than some element from an older Von Trier movie. Formality, a relaxation of the things a director should do, a straightforwardness that cuts through genre and experimentation—it all cuts through Von Trier’s inherent gloom. Melancholia might be this year’s most relevant movie, but not because we’re all gloomy these days, like Von Trier. It is relevant because it lets you leave a darkened space, full of unreal images, and stride through the rain, just accepting that it’s raining, finally.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Double Motion Study: Blood and Trash

(Antonio Banderas in The Skin I Live in/2011)
          A gloved hand sticks a hypodermic needle in to a plastic bag full of blood and slowly withdraws a sample. It is the hand of a mad doctor who specializes in reconstructive skin surgery. On the following shot of his studied, dark Spanish face, a naked, out of focus body is visible on an operating table just behind him. The doctor ejects a droplet of blood on to a microscope slide and there is a cut. Bees buzz around a bees’ nest. A faint zoom from what looks like some kind of gothic fish tank, outlined in red, blue swirling through the middle. It must all be blood cells. Dr. Ledgard’s hand places a glass slide over the slide with the drop of blood. The blood expands just enough to not drip off the sides. Strangely, it turns a less wicked, orange-red. The doctor’s hand tamed it. A hand that can tame blood can only belong to a dangerous person, such as Dr. Ledgard in Pedro Almodovar’s wonderful freak-out on film, The Skin I live in (2011).
            On unfocused film, in a hut on a tropical island, another doctor, this one a biologist, finds himself alone with a needle. This means some sort of experiment. He injects the needle in to his tanned arm. He removes it and drops the blood very slowly on to a set-up we can’t quite see, on a makeshift table. The low-angle shot brings his face out of focus. The blood droplets pool. He brings a microscope up to them and examines his own blood. Suddenly he seems, unlike anybody else in the surrounding film that is Lucio Fulci’s very trashy Zombie (1975), exalted. 


            Why did film choose blood as its fixation? Is it because it’s red, or is it because it comes from our bodies? It is not a mystery that in this most perverse art form, the only one that rewards perversity, it is the most universal, most life signifying of all bodily fluids that has completed the most concrete imagery, and elevated the highest number of trashy films. The mystery is what blood itself signifies. It cannot be called a metaphor for life/lust/envy/death, because it is also a metaphor for emotional extremes/illness/solitude/obsessive behavior. It is not possible to pin down (well, that’s because it’s liquid). Yet of the two mentioned films, only Zombie needs such a loaded image to elevate it; Almodovar’s The Skin I Live in is an outstanding achievement; a film that has been shrugged off due to its deliberate exhibitionism and the tiresome productivity of its director, it is in fact one of the few cathartically weird delights in recent cinema. Zombie is a cult film from the late 70’s made by a professional trash director of the Italian horror school. Yet both use blood in their most obtuse moments, and in one or more of their moments of pure cinema.
 Almodovar and Fulci both chose it because it is an easy fixation. More so, they managed to create a mirror; the obsessed skin surgeon and the exalted biologist are the plain representations of the film viewer, or the filmmaker; the one’s so fascinated by trash, they will take it upon themselves to make sure they watch it, jeer it, gasp at it, stare at it, inflict it on themselves to the end of cinema until they at last have understood the mystery of that central ingredient: blood.