Friday, February 14, 2014

Manderlay (2005)

Manderlay is a difficult film to understand - what is it trying to say, and more appropriately how do I interpret it?  The thing is I don’t know.  I can describe my impressions as I was watching the film, but because the film has such a unique premise, here’s a bit about it:

Grace, Lars von Trier’s lead character from Dogville, stumbles onto the Manderlay plantation.  Here, in 1933, slavery still exists.  Grace is shocked.  With the help of her father’s gangsters, she frees the slaves.  The Madame of the estate, played by the great Lauren Bacall, dies, and Wilhelm, the eldest slave, does not know what the slaves will do with their new freedom.  Grace decides to stay on at Manderlay and teach the former slaves self-worth and atone for the sins of white Americans.

Von Trier’s premises are always fascinating, if not a bit extreme and slanted.

At first von Trier seems kind of silly or at least simple minded.  Grace is a do-gooder liberal socialite, the slaves dimwitted and ready to follow orders.  The film, or at least Grace and the proudest of the freed slaves, Timothy, hammers home the fact that America had slavery, and that white Americans are to be held responsible.  While this is undeniably true, it seems that von Trier forgot that slavery originated in Europe.  It was the Europeans who took men and women from Africa and enslaved them.  And before that the Egyptians enslaved the Jews.  Slavery is not an American invention.

So at the start of the film I felt it lacked weight.  It seemed untidy and outrageously simple, perhaps because after Nicole Kidman’s brilliant performance as Grace in Dogville, it was difficult to adjust to Bryce Dallas Howard’s interpretation of the character.  But as Grace settles into her role as god of Manderlay and we get to discover the personalities of the former slaves, the film starts to pick up.

Grace, believing some order needs to motivate the bewildered slaves, introduces them to the idea of democracy, the system of America that, as Americans, they should already be well aware of.  She creates a system of voting where each person on the plantation can cast one vote.  That sounds like America, and for me the film became less about slavery and more a microcosm of American life using this extreme premise to prove its points.  The slaves collectively vote on who owns the rake, literally on what time of day it is, and when it is appropriate for people to laugh, late at night being most inconsiderate of others who sleep.  The film became interesting when it was asking serious questions: is democracy feasible?  I don’t think so.  America may be the longest surviving democracy, as a nation we’ve managed it better than other entities before us, but we are not a democracy.  We are a republic, where the majority of the vote passes.  People—some people—do not have individual freedoms.  Well, yes we do, but in our country certain people have less rights or different rights than the majority.  In a democracy this would not be an issue, but because individual rights are voted on by the majority these rights are subject.

This is not a political rant, but von Trier, an outsider, someone who has confessed his mistrust of the American government and American’s perceived (sometimes undeniable) prejudice against minorities is asking serious questions we in this country don’t often ask.  We prefer to see isolated cases or the big picture, saying that slowly things are getting better and we turn a blind eye to the difficult realities of those who have to fight for their freedom.  America is not at war with itself; there should be no causalities.  No one should not suffer in a democracy.

Von Trier should know better, though, that every nation has similar problems.  Perhaps it is America’s ideals that set us apart.  If we aspire to be better, no forgiveness is allotted to our failures, failures we have in abundance as the director points out in a horrifying and oddly beautiful photographic montage of American racism using actual photos.

A film might have the right side of an argument, or argue its misguided case well, but propaganda means nothing if the material is not engaging.  So how effective is Manderlay as a film?

One thing that puzzled me is Grace, her motivations and her ultimate failure (failure in ways that are unpredictable so I hope this sentence wasn’t too much of a spoiler).  As a liberal, I can’t help but be offended when generally liberal ideas are scrutinized, but I have to say in the context of the film the scrutiny is accurate.  Grace is simplistically idealistic and really doesn’t know how the world functions.  She puts too much faith in the concept of freedom and never asks if she should.  I won’t say anymore regarding the ending but I will ask the question: are black people offended by it?  If I were black I think it would raise my eyebrow.  Regardless, I found it fascinating, offensive, but still fascinating.

Manderlay is not 100% successful, but von Trier’s films are always rough around the edges.  The film succeeds in its own convictions.  The acting is exceptional, the casting, too.  Danny Glover has his best role in recent years.  I forgot just how powerful and commanding an actor he is.  He is very impressive, and seeing him together with Lauren Bacall was strange and wonderful.  Bacall is a legend, obviously, and such a claim does a disservice to just how powerful she is, but here her role is very small.  She appeared in Dogville as a different character but in both of her films with Lars von Trier she has not been given anything significant to do.  But her cache is enough.

Bryce Dallas Howard is not Nicole Kidman.  Kidman gave her best performance as Grace in Dogville; she was natural and frail and eager.  Howard’s performance feels like a period piece.  She seems out of it.  She’s trying too hard.  Her delivery is stagy and unconvincing, but as the film went on I accepted her.  She does, like all of von Trier’s leading ladies, some very brave things on screen.  Unlike, Björk or Kidman however, Howard’s raw presence isn’t too impressive.  She’s not bad but not on the level of a Lars von Trier film.  And I’d hate to blame an actor for the unevenness of a film but when the material is this outrageous, the right performance can cement the outrageous in a grounded world.  It doesn’t so much happen in Manderlay.

Manderlay (2005)
Writer / Director: Lars von Trier
Stars: Bryce Dallas Howard, Isaach De Bankole, Danny Glover, Lauren Bacall
In English
139 minutes

IMDb link:

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Night of the Living Dead is an intense film.  It starts out bleak, turns horrific when the zombies attack, and becomes hopeless when man turns against humanity.  The formula might now be unoriginal but the power this 50 year old film retains is stronger than any horror film made since.  The fact is Night of the Living Dead is the most important horror film ever made.

Zombies attack; that is the basic plot for most undead survival horror pictures, but George Romero’s original 1968 film uses zombies more like a Hitchcock MacGuffin.  Barbara and her brother Johnny travel hours outside of Pittsburg to leave flowers in a cemetery.  Johnny jokes about her being afraid.  A man attacks.  Johnny fights him and Barbara runs away.  The man pursues and chases Barbara to an abandoned house in an isolated rural area.  This is the set up.  Ben arrives and takes refuge in the house.  By now Barbara is hysterical and incoherent and paralyzed.  Ben boards up the house as zombies group outside.  Down in the basement another group of survivors led by Mr. Cooper.  They don’t come to until they are certain danger is absent.  Cooper and Ben disagree with their course of action.  Cooper wants to barricade in the cellar.  Ben feels they stand a fighting chance upstairs where there is food and radio, and where they can observe their surroundings and maybe get away if need be.  The tension develops between who is right.

The first glimpse I ever had of Night of the Living Dead was in a horror tribute special hosted by Vincent Price in the 1980s.  It was called “Creepy Classics”.  Price provided campy commentary in between movie clips, and the first sequence shown was the cemetery scene.  I was scared by the film and did not see it complete for another 10 or so years.  I always thought Barbara was the star of the piece.  The last image I had of the film was her running into the lonely house—a shelter from the undead—and never imagined that the film could shift focus from the zombies to the horror that the human characters create.

The film sets up immediately an uneasy relationship to death: the cemetery sign has bullet holes shot into it, a foreshadowing of just how easy and dismissive death will become in this tale.  We also are uncertain of who Barbara and her brother are leaving flowers for.  Is it their father or grandfather?  We know through their conversation that the deceased is close to their mother who is too old to make the trip, but Johnny claims he cannot remember the person.  He surely could remember his own father.  That both show, in their own ways, such a distance from the dead man led me to believe it was a grandfather buried in the cemetery, especially when Johnny reminds his sister that his grandfather said he would be damned to hell for scaring Barbara in the very same cemetery when they were kids.  The set up is misleading, and must have been in 1968 when such a film was new and unbearably terrorizing—there is no way to expect that in the very first scene, led into with an impersonation of horror icon Vincent Price (“They’re coming to get you, Barbara”) that a zombie will attack the defenseless people.

Night of the Living Dead began what was, up until 2005, a trilogy known as “Undead”.  George Romero wrote and directed a series of films about human behavior in the face of catastrophe.  Night seems less a satire than the following films.  It fact there are no laughs in the picture.  It’s pretty grim.  But one bit of commentary, which leads to a death we hate to witness, looks ahead to Dawn of the Dead.  As the human race outside the isolated house discovers how to kill the zombies, their behavior becomes very monotonous.  They roam the field killings zombies dead.  They become so robotic, hypnotized by their repetitive ritual that they never check if those they’re shooting are the undead or civilians.  I will say no more, but at the destitute mood at the end of the picture I thought to myself that with a little more care something more positive might have happened.

Back to my initial impressions as a kid—I was disappointed to see that Barbara is killed by the very man whose death made her catatonic.  The finale, which I will not spoil, now, after I don’t know how many viewings, is still chilling.  Forget any idea of the film being a metaphor for racism—it is chilling to think that if everybody in that house listened to Mr. Cooper and hid in the cellar, they would have gotten out alive...well, maybe.  That the most despicable and cowardly man in the cast turned out to be right all along, and to a lesser extent what happens to Duane, make us doubt everything we know about the world.

I will say after my latest viewing, I was still shrunken in my chair.  I don’t think I had moved for the final 15 minutes—I am still stunned by this picture; it was not safe to move.  I felt safer contorted in my seat.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Director: George A. Romero
Writers: John A. Russo & George A. Romero
Stars: Duane Jones, Judith O'Dea, and Karl Hardman
In English
Runtime: 96 minutes

IMDB link:

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

As a contemporary viewer familiar with war-time films of the forties, Shadow of a Doubt is a disturbing and relentlessly modern look at the corruption of small town American life. In an era when the movies all but had to portray only positive images of this country, Alfred Hitchcock was testing the limits of decency and morality as defined by Hollywood’s Production Code. Hitchcock takes the all-American family and introduces malice so true it consumes.

The horror is, of course, Uncle Charlie. He visits his sister and her family in Santa Rosa, California, and develops a strange relationship with his niece, Charlotte, affectionately referred to as Charlie in honor of her uncle. She soon suspects her Uncle Charlie of being the Merry Widow murderer and is plunged into turmoil over her family obligations and the vulgarity of his acts.

The director’s previous American films had had a distinctly English feel: gothic, elegant, mild-mannered, even Saboteur, the American remake of The 39 Steps. Hitchcock was keen on capturing the America he’d been seeing, and Thornton Wilder was hired to script the original story that was, by Hitchcock’s own admission, his first American film.

Hitchcock would often advise his actors on a technique he called negative acting, where an actor would be smiling at the beginning of a scene and then lose the smile after a dramatic blow, capturing the extremes of human emotion. He was working in archetypes, presenting clearly made movies to mainstream audiences. The structure of Shadow of a Doubt unfolds similarly. When we’re first introduced to the Newton family, it’s a kind of clichéd look at bucolic family life. Everybody is nice and genteel and pleasant to an almost cartoonish degree, or at least to a laughable one. This might appear dated when we, less as Americans and more as human begins, know that this isn’t the reality of daily life. But the light atmosphere Hitchcock cultivates in the film’s early scenes heightens the dark aspects of the story to follow, dark like the column of smoke snaking behind Uncle Charlie’s train.

Perhaps the most glaring detail of the film is the Young Charlie’s relationship with her uncle. Throughout, Hitchcock connects the two Charlies with similar visuals, setting up the recurring Hitchcockian theme of doubles. Young Charlie is always saying how alike they are... like twins! There is even a disturbing scene where Uncle Charlie gives to his niece a ring from one of his victims. While the thought is innocent enough I guess, the Uncle slips the ring onto her finger not unlike in a marriage ceremony. In the end, Young Charlie is forced into becoming like her Uncle because of her Uncle. I was always struck by Young Charlie’s line, “Don’t touch me, Uncle Charlie,” after she confronts him with her beliefs. This is the moment when Charlie has lost her innocence. She later threatens to kill her uncle if he doesn’t leave the family.

Originally it seems their relationship was to take an even edgier turn. In Hitchcock’s own story outline, dated May 11, 1942, he writes, “...her (Young Charlie) being attracted to him (Uncle Charlie) is going to possibly upset the humorous state of affairs between the Uncle and the family.” Is Hitchcock detailing their relationship as it exists in the finished film, or is this a direction the director would have liked to travel with his unconventional family drama? It reads to me like the latter, and while it is clear that Young Charlie has very confused feeling towards her Uncle, the family never is bothered by their friendship. Of course the extreme relations would never have been allowed to continue into a second draft of the screenplay back in 1942, but this idea gives us excellent insight into Hitchcock’s lifelong obsession with unusual sexual behavior.

(The outline for Shadow of a Doubt is published in Dan Auiler’s invaluable book, Hitchcock’s Notebooks, which gives a full understanding of Hitchcock’s working methods from conception to release. The book is a patchwork made up of materials covering Hitchcock’s entire career.)

The performances in the film are among the best in all of Hitchcock’s work. In a marked detour from his usual mother figures, Emma Newton (Young Charlie’s mother) is not just the sweet and doting martyr expected of the era. One gets the feeling she’s on the verge of a breakdown, and Patricia Collinge gives a complex and heartbreaking performance that perhaps went beyond the call of the script. Teresa Wright is perfect as Charlie. She expels the structure of the story exactly; acting naive by way of Shirley Temple in the beginning, then tortured and conflicted at the end. Though it is the showiest part, it should not be overlooked: Joseph Cotton as Uncle Charlie, for a 1940s movie killer, is unique. When I first saw the film and even now, I was surprised by how much Anthony Hopkins’ performance of Hannibal Lector mirrored Uncle Charlie, especially when Cotton gives the speech at the dinner table about “those silly wives.” His voice is emotionless and monotone, as if he’s slipping into his compulsion. It’s a remarkable portrayal not only for its time but now. It elicits a response from today’s audiences that maybe they were not expecting from such an old film.

An unsuccessful element of the picture is the recurring image of the dancers’ waltz. It is shown after moments of great tension, almost the euphoric release of a satiated killer. The image can be seen as Hitchcock’s visual attempt at Uncle Charlie’s unstable mind, but I’m afraid the technique is just bewildering. It is not a dated element of the film; I can’t see it working in the 1940s either, but we’ve seen the director use this technique in his silent days. It feels like the weak cousin of the famous shot in The Lodger of the fade-away glass ceiling. Since Hitchcock could not dramatize the footsteps from the floor above in sound, he simply showed us the suspected villain walking over the heads of the innocent family below. The similar theme in Shadow of a Doubt never works as the director intended, and in fact feels like a copout. Instead of showing us the emotional resolution to very intense scenes (the finale on the train, for example) this shot quickly fades up, accompanied by the tune of the Merry Widow’s Waltz.

The Waltz was infused into the dramatic score by frequent Hitchcock composer Dimitri Tiomkin. The score itself is melodramatic and evasive, and indeed Hitchcock’s scores were the typical European sound the Golden Age is remembered for. It is an unsettling sound for this picture, one that distracts too much from the action onscreen without support. It wasn’t until the director teamed with Bernard Herrmann in the mid-fifties that the Hitchcock film found its music. Herrmann’s music would take on narrative dimensions that would have served well a film like Shadow of a Doubt, but taken on its own Tiomkin’s score is very good. He himself is an underappreciated composer from the era, and his score for Hitchcock’s I Confess is actually very good.

Ultimately, Shadow of a Doubt remains one of Hitchcock’s best movies because it is a clear example of the director’s sense of the world. From out of the censored studio era, it’s refreshing that an artist could commit to celluloid a personal, cynical voice. Nothing, it seems, is as it should be in a Hitchcock film, and I’m not talking about genre. While his films are certainly nail biters, I believe the reason Hitchcock was so great was because he understood the human condition and its flaws. Psycho is not a horror film. It’s a complex study of trapped souls. Nor is Shadow of a Doubt simply a suspense film. It’s a story of morality and of people trapped within themselves, almost certainly a parallel of the repressed social conditions. To call Alfred Hitchcock’s films shallow is to ignore the complexity that is bubbling beneath the surface of his facades.

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writer: Thornton Wilder
Stars: Joseph Cotton, Teresa Wright, Patricia Collinge
In English
Runtime: 108 minutes

IMDB link:

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Great Dictator, The (1940)

The Great Dictator begins with a note telling us that any resemblance between Hynkel the Dictator and the Jewish Barber is purely coincidental. Is this supposed to be a joke, or is it Charlie Chaplin’s way of separating his comic persona from Adolf Hitler? Chaplin, a world recognized celebrity since the nineteen-teens, was arguably the most popular man in the world when Hitler took power in Germany in 1933. It is said the dictator crafted his mustache after Chapin’s Little Tramp to feed off of the comedian’s popularity. Was it also a coincidence that Chaplin retired his Tramp persona in 1936’s Modern Times?

Charlie Chaplin’s most daring film takes place in a fictionalized version of Germany called Tomainia. In a prologue set in 1918, years before Adenoid Hynkel takes power, a bewildered Jewish Barber is thrown into WWI and suffers a severe injury that keeps him in hospital until WWII. Chaplin plays the Barber and, of course, the dictator, giving credence to the fact that the opening note may be a lighthearted wink to the audience who, in 1940, would recognize Chaplin anywhere. But The Great Dictator is an unusual comedy, something more sinister for it satirizes one of the darkest memories of world history. The Barber escapes, eager to return to his beloved shop just as the Tomainian storm troopers begin severe persecution of the ghettos. The Barber meets Hannah, a Jewish girl, who assists in fending off the storm troopers. This is one of the many scenes that are laugh out funny but exist with an undercurrent of dread, panic, and sickness because the true events, 70 years later, fueled further by modern examples of bigotry, are no less painful. Perhaps because WWII exists so vividly in motion images the horrors will never fade.

The Great Dictator contrasts the experiences of Hynkel and the Barber during changing times; for the dictator, changes towards perfection; for the Barber, a disintegration of everything he understands.

The film’s most famous scenes give us a stark contrast to both of Chaplin’s characters, and stand as perhaps the greatest examples of Chaplin’s dedication to rehearsal and perfectionism—in short, to his craft. The first is the chilling, beautiful and bizarre dance Hynkel performs with a feather-light globe of the world. His Ministry of the Interior, Garbitsch, informs him that with their new plans Hynkel will become Emperor of the World, a thought that sends the ruthless dictator up the wall, literally. He dances to the music of Wagner, incidentally Hitler’s favorite composer. It is the opening to his Lohengrin, a light, airy but pretentious piece of music. Chaplin’s moves are narcissistic and bold, graceful but futile. In trying to juggle the world, cradle it, domineer it, Hynkel pops his globe and is left with a deflated, impotent piece of rubber. The Jewish Barber then shaves a man to Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5. Here Chaplin’s Barber is a cousin to his famous Tramp. The Barber lathers the man’s face, takes his blade, sharpens it, and with perfectly precise motions hits every note of Brahms’ innocent, frenetic music.

It is interesting that with all of Hynkel’s ambition, his contribution to the world ends with a deflated balloon—a waste for someone who, like Hitler, had the brilliance to muster the masses for a common goal. The simple Barber, with the mere shaving of a man, enriches the world with his craft. The choice of music, too, shows Chaplin as a Renaissance Man and as someone who, despite preferring silent films, was keen on using every element of sound to make his point: Hynkel is marked with heavy, pretentious music, the Barber with humane culture.

Chaplin’s craft belongs to an era of silent film comedy. In both sequences, silent except for the music, we can witness the skill and precision of Chaplin’s art. He was not improvisational as many might hope; someone who could simply step in front of a camera and command it. He rehearsed. The choreography, the timing to the music, is such that we know that music was prerecorded, and that Chaplin would go from beginning to end mastering every gesture, would perfect difficult tasks like spinning a ball on his fingertip, scaling a tabletop with grace, and memorizing not only the music, but the particular performance of the music so that his impact is striking. This is not something that can be achieved in post production. Like Fred Astaire, Chaplin is seen often in medium or long shot, and the camera simply stays on him and we see his performance with minimal cuts, and in the case of the shaving sequence, arguably more awe-inspiring, one continuous shot. Among other things it allows us to lament the loss of great talent when we view our contemporary movie comedians. Chaplin understood that moviemaking was not spontaneous but the result of dedication, obsession, and doing and doing again.

It is difficult to look at the realities of the Nazi’s activities, but Hitler himself, someone who was so serious and seemed to lack humility, is prone to satire. It is one of the purposes of art to critique the world, and the powerful who control it, and to create for the public a better world. Chaplin does all this, and that he managed to create his epic in 1940, in Hollywood, after a war and great depression, with political tensions high and politicians eager to prosecute anyone who would contradict their ideology, is a testament to his popularity and socio-political awareness. He often resembles Hitler perfectly, no more so than when wearing the double-cross trench coat, and his inflections and diction when speaking his Tomainian gibberish remind me of Hitler’s great speeches in Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. That Chaplin is a great comedian only helps him further, but the scenes with the Jewish Barber in the Ghettos were not so funny. Yes they were, but I felt sick watching them. We know what went on there, what would happen if the Nazis arrested anyone for any reason, where they’d end up. I don’t think it was inappropriate for Chaplin to make this film. The subject should not be off limits. My great admiration from the director stems from the fact that his films are often sad. They’re filled with pathos and meaning and have relevance to our society. In The Great Dictator, there are numerous scenes of the people hiding in the Ghettos, afraid and angry. I could imagine the real life scenarios like this, and unlike in Chaplin’s film things would not turn out so well.

Much has been made of the film’s controversial ending. It was Chaplin’s Jewish Barber’s speech to the soldiers of Tomainia that got him a file at the FBI; the Barber, mistaken for Hinkel, is to make a speech about the recent invasion of Osterlich. While facing the podium, unlike Hinkel whose words were so brutish that they’d bend the microphones, the Barber pleads for peace, preaches against greed and intolerance, and offers all those listening an opportunity for change. This speech, some 6 minutes long, is a stark difference to the rest of the picture. I think it’s a great ending, something that caps Chaplin’s political satire and offers hope where in real life at that time there seemed very little.

I will say no more to add to these discussions. I’d rather examine the film’s beginning. I don’t think it works. It’s not funny and feels like a separate piece to the rest of the film. We see the Barber fighting in WWI, how he becomes injured. In fact this prologue serves the narrative later as here he befriends a soldier who will become prominent in Hinkel’s Tomainia, but the sequence feels more like a one-reeler Chaplin might have made early in his career. And indeed did make in the 1920s. The comedy is broad and general, the effects small and unprofessional, and it throws off the structure of the film. It also seems remarkably unprofessional, as if it was an afterthought thrown in after the rest of the picture was cut together. We don’t see Hinkel’s rise to power, and seeing the Barber’s, I feel, gets the film off to a slow start.

There is a reason Chaplin is considered the greatest screen comedian of the 20th Century. His films stood for something more than broad physical comedy. They have touching stories, and his images often contained gaiety and gravitas. With The Great Dictator, a boldly political work, he risked offending the dictators of the world when instead he could have made a film about Napoleon. At the time, many of Hitler’s “great” military accomplishments were still ahead of him, and the US had not officially entered the war, and Chaplin, sensing as much of the world probably did, what was about to happen, decided to do something about it.

Great Dictator, The (1940)
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Writer: Charlie Chaplin
Stars: Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, and Jack Oakie
In English
Runtime: 124 minutes

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Kissing on the Mouth (2005)

Kissing on the Mouth is a most appropriate title for a movie in which all four—four—of its characters are whiny children playacting as adults. The most profound words out of their mouths are, “Just, like...,” “Seriously!” and the popular, “What?” They have no insights into themselves, don’t understand what it’s like to be an adult let alone alive in 2003 (the movie’s release year), and they look around like zombies at each other, smirking because they don’t understand what their friends are saying and they are uncomfortable. I hate to say this because it is not a worthless picture, but it was a depressing experience to sit through this movie.

Ellen is recently out of college, still dependent on her parents for a job on the weekends, and spends her free time having sex with her ex-boyfriend, Chris. Ellen’s roommate, Patrick, is working on an audio project, recording interviews with people as they tell of their breakup stories, their dreams from when they were young, their parents, and every other illusion that is shattered once you become an adult. Patrick and Ellen do not have a sexual relationship, but I think Patrick has a crush on her. In one scene I think he imagines making out with her in the shower. I say I think because I wasn’t sure if the woman was Ellen or her best friend, Laura. Looking on IMDb, the actress playing Laura seems to be related to writer / director / actor (producer / editor/ photographer, etc) Joe Swanberg, who plays Patrick, so they’re probably brother and sister so he wasn’t making out with her. It’s sad when a movie is sloppy you can’t tell the characters apart. When Patrick learns that his roommate is still seeing her ex, he gets passive-aggressive.

The movie is filled with improvised dialogue and conversations; the characters stutter, spout out one word phrases and stop to think, hum and ho while trying to think of what’s next. Swanberg is one of the more prolific Mumblecore directors and this is a trademark of the movement, but a talent like Aaron Katz knows the right tempo for his characters’ mumblings, and knows enough to create powerful visuals without, for example, showing an untold number of close-ups of hands or bare feet. At first, the shots of the characters’ feet go along with the title and the images it congers, ideas of childhood wonder and naiveté, but after the tenth such image I began to realize that if Swanberg couldn’t rely on these images he just might have to find the truth and honesty in his scenarios. Such as it is, he dodges every honest moment for convention, with dialogue that is not funny, profound, or insightful. The best piece of dialogue made me laugh out loud, though: Ellen and Chris have just had sex, he wants to talk. He thinks he’s going nowhere. Ellen says, “No one is. Have you heard Patrick’s project?” It’s a funny line, one that was probably written down in some sort of script. The underlying story, a woman in need of sex with a familiar partner though unwilling to emotionally commit, is interesting, but inexperienced filmmakers need to know that looking at a character’s face, or hands or feet, or random out of focus shots, does not a profundity make.

In general the film looks amateurish. We can’t really fault the filmmakers, though. Mumblecore is an underground movement, one that offers true originality among an increasingly homogenized American independent market, but this is poorly lit digital filmmaking, the sort made with an untrained eye. Swanberg does not know how to mount the camera to a tripod. This is probably intentional, but a shaky camera is a superficial way to add drama or tension in a scene. That should have occurred in the writing stage.

One plus for the film is its explicitness, and beyond that the bodies the movie uncovers. Swanberg, actress Kate Winterich (Ellen) and actor Kevin Pittman are all naked in Kissing on the Mouth. None of them are conventional beauties, though Winterich has moments of elegance. There’s an awkwardly framed shot on Pittman putting on a condom, and Chris and Ellen’s lovemaking scenes are as honest a sexual coupling I’ve ever seen on the screen: folds in their skin, blemishes, realistic sexual positions, the quite. It made me recall the sounds of lovemaking as I’ve experienced them, and it’s always soft breathing and something like pressure or tension filling the background. Patrick masturbates in the shower, and Swanberg, in what must be a ballsy move for a director, actually shows himself ejaculating. He shows off his round, pale belly, and this explicitness was exciting and refreshing.

But this is not a very good movie. At only 78 minutes it was an endurance test. Nothing much happened, and I generally love when movies don’t tell a story. At least we’re compensated with atmosphere and character. Kissing on the Mouth is the work of a young filmmaker who may or may not have something interesting to say. Joe Swanberg should try to think about what it’s like living as a 20-something, trying to make it for yourself, and hoping to enjoy as much of it as you can. He probably has great insights just as a human being, but he can’t render them onscreen quite yet. Years have passed since this one, so maybe he has.

Kissing on the Mouth (2005)
Director: Joe Swanberg
Writers: Joe Swanberg and cast
Stars: Kate Winterich, Joe Swanberg, and Kevin Pittman
In English
Runtime: 78 minutes

IMDB link:

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Times of Harvey Milk, The (1984)

I had never heard of Harvey Milk before seeing the documentary made by Robert Epstein. Milk took up a cause similar to other socio-political leaders who dared to challenge so-called moral convention by introducing to a wide audience a different way of life. People like Martin Luther King. Both Milk and King have had effects on the course of American history and indeed have inspired millions of people around the world. Why then did I not hear of the name Harvey Milk until I was 22?

Milk was America’s first openly gay elected official. San Francisco mayor George Moscone had divided up the city into districts allowing for neighbors at large to vote for more personal representatives, people the people could feel would do more for them. Milk was elected as City Councilman for District 5, the Castro area where an ever growing gay population was finally winning recognition and civil rights. But with the election of a gay man to public office taking the issue of homosexuality out of hushed whispers and screaming it loud inside newspapers, conservatives began proposing legislation to deny and in some cases strip Americans of their rights. While there was reason to celebrate Milk’s victory and the victory of gay people across the nation, communities in America were passing laws against gay people. The Briggs Initiative was proposed as Prop 6, a law that would fire all gay teachers from public schools in California. The reasoning behind this was that gays who want to live openly could more easily prey upon children.

The Times of Harvey Milk, created out of masterfully used archival footage and straight-forward, honest talking heads, shows a segment of a debate between Milk and Senator Briggs, cultivator of the initiative. Milk correctly points out that most pedophiles are straight males, and Briggs, apparently unfamiliar with this info gathered by several sources including the FBI, offers his reasoning for removing gays, in his estimation 5% of the population: if gay teachers were fired, than there is a 5% less chance that children would be sexually assaulted. This reasoning gets a laugh out of Harvey. Why not go ahead and remove the 95% of heterosexual teachers to totally protect the children? The thinking is ludicrous, and Prop 6 lost by a wide margin.

I think the documentary genre is suffering now more than ever. Most would disagree, and statistics would show me up: documentaries show in major art-house theaters, and in rare but evident cases they play in multiplexes across the nation. They make money, and the genre is quite popular with young film buffs... to an extent. I think it’s still a specialized genre or form of filmmaking, but when I say that documentaries are suffering I’m talking about the art of the medium. This is why The Times of Harvey Milk works so well. Most modern documentaries feel, look and sound like reality shows. They have a central character, often the filmmaker, taking up a task and accomplishing it with a camera in tow. They usually provide narration explaining what’s happening on screen. Often the interview segments are cut together so that the subjects form complete but superficial thoughts through the splicing together of many sound bites, and wall-to-wall music is laid in to I guess keep the audience awake, and this music is poorly chosen and repetitive.

The Times of Harvey Milk is relatively quiet, eloquently photographed, and it features subjects with insights and personalities, and the filmmaker brings them out fully formed characters. And director / editor Epstein lets these people speak. Some of them break down when talking of Harvey’s death and San Francisco’s reaction. Epstein isn’t a cheat; he doesn’t go for extreme close-ups of their eyes or their hands fiddling with a handkerchief, or even worse out of focus shots of completely uninvolving objects around the room. He lets us watch their faces, see the rage and pain of Harvey’s death, the joys that accompanied his many accomplishments, and their fondness for the man. And again they all speak so brilliantly. A labor union leader who admits to before having known Harvey having somewhat anti-gay tendencies goes through a complete story arc. He reveals that because of his association with Harvey through their like-minded political views he is in favor of gay rights.

I hate to be personal beyond my opinion, but with documentaries like The Times of Harvey Milk it seems impossible to disassociate myself from the story I have seen. I came out around the time I first saw the documentary in a college class... maybe a year earlier. It’s been so long I can’t remember now. When I was watching the film I couldn’t believe that this man, Harvey Milk, who accomplished a lot in a short career, has, since his death, been ignored by the mainstream media. He is certainly not forgotten; not in San Francisco where he was assassinated by a colleague: a statue has been erected of him. And indeed Milk’s name is not buried under the rubble of history. The problem is people have to search for him, unlike other leaders or influential persons who’ve charged their constituencies and extended themselves beyond them—history and the American population have exalted these men as exemplary, have named days after them, and their life’s work is taught in history books. But not Harvey Milk’s. Why?

The documentary is asking this question but in a larger context: if Milk were straight, would his murderer have served only 5 ½ years in prison? Would or should he have not instead been serving life?

Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone were killed by Dan White, elected to office at the same time as Milk, and he is made the antagonist of the film. White is an interesting character: an idealist whose spirit is crushed by an ever-changing and degrading society, at least this was the defense’s position. White sunk into the City Hall with a loaded gun and extra bullets after resigning his position and then later wanting to recant his resignation. It is against the law for White to regain his job, and when Moscone supposedly told White he would not be reinstated White shot him, and then shot him again. He did the same to Harvey Milk: shot him to the ground, shot him three more times in the head, and then delivering one final execution shot at point blank range. It is clear who the murderer was, but the jury, supposedly a jury of straight white conservatives, a true group of Dan White’s peers, found him guilty of manslaughter, a crime that sentenced him to 8 years in prison. He was paroled after 5 ½.

The aftermath of Harvey’s death is quite spectacular: thousands took to the streets for a candlelight vigil beginning on Castro Street, where Harvey Milk lived, and it spread several blocks to City Hall. The aftermath of the jury verdict was quite different. A mob stormed City Hall, fought with police and set cars. One image I found striking was a protestor holding a sign, “Avenge Harvey Milk”. I was angry that Milk’s death meant nothing to those jurors and the millions they represent then and now in the United States, but despite it all I was depressed that this was the reaction. This violence was not what Harvey Milk campaigned for. A close friend of his says this in the documentary. And it depressed me because ultimately, at least in the short term, Harvey Milk had lost. His death inspired violence, and I was further discouraged to learn that Dan White committed suicide in 1985, a year after the documentary was released. When I first saw this film in class, many of the students felt that justice was finally served. Not I; the final chapter in this story was simply another death. What a waste.

I began this essay by referring to Harvey Milk in a more formal way by calling him “Milk”. When revising it, I noticed that half-way through I began calling him Harvey. I promise that this was unintentional. The film, I think, breaks down barriers between you or me and its subject. We get to know who Harvey Milk was, his kindnesses and tenacity, both terrific qualities in friends and public officials. We grow to love this guy through archival footage, and more importantly by how he had shaped the lives of everyone the filmmakers chose to speak with.

Why then is Harvey Milk still a relatively unknown figure? Why don’t we have a national Harvey Milk Day? Are there no politicians, gay or straight, with the balls to support such an honor? Would committing political suicide not be worth honoring the life of one man who died for making the world better for others?

Times of Harvey Milk, The (1984)
Director: Rob Epstein
Writers: Judith Coburn, Rob Epstein & Carter Wilson
Stars: Harvey Fierstein (Narrator)
In English
Runtime: 90 minutes

IMDB link:

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Inspector Bellamy (2009, Bellamy)

There’s a lot going on in Inspector Bellamy. What could have been a simple mystery instead layers multiple story threads, each working separately the way real life does, and in unison, creating a psychological portrait not just of its lead character but of the world he inhabits.

Inspector Bellamy is curious; about the machinations of life, the reasons why. He is on vacation with his beautiful, youthful wife Françoise, but cannot get away from what we assume is his passion: crime. A mysterious man shows up with a confession—he has killed someone. We know from the opening credits that a car has crashed off a cliff, killing—deforming—the driver. Television reports tell us the deceased man was not who everyone thought it would be. Instead of the insurance salesman who owned the car, the victim is an unknown, and the insurance salesman has attempted to defraud his company and is now in hiding. The man who visits Bellamy is in fact the missing man, at first under the thin alias of Noël Gentil but really Emile Leullet. Who is the dead man then, and why does Inspector Bellamy indulge Leullet in his late night confessions? Does he want to single-handedly solve a popular mystery for fame? For justice? His own curiosity? The answer comes after the climax which is less anti-climatic when viewing the film as a straight-forward mystery, but the reason for Bellamy’s indulgence allows us to understand his entire career as an inspector.

The story threads of Inspector Bellamy are slow in revealing themselves, but the film is more rewarding for it. In comes Bellamy’s brother, Jacques, handsome, young, a loser and a drunk. Bellamy and Jacques have a tense relationship, and Françoise is the mediator between them. But the more The Inspector discovers about the Leullet case the more he is convinced his life mirrors it, that his wife is having an affair.

I admit at first I was lost. That is to say so many small things were happening in short bursts that I did not know what the true story was. For example, characters are introduced who seemingly have no narrative purpose (they will not advance the mystery—this includes the brother character); there are too many convenient personal connections between unlikely characters, etc. It is lucky the film was directed by the seasoned professional Claude Chabrol and stars Gérard Depardieu. Depardieu especially leads an extraordinary cast through a series of twisting scenes with (at first) no purpose and succeeds in making them interesting, so even when I was lost I was not frustrated. Tensions are hinted at, maybe only suggested, by Chabrol, and little by little these present themselves as more menacing and complicated to the extreme.

Chabrol is known mostly as the French Master of Suspense, a moniker that does as much a disservice to him as it did to Hitchcock. Both filmmakers used a popular genre to convey personal interests and demons. Here Chabrol is concerned with being old and overweight, married to a beauty and feeling insecure. There is more, some of which I’m sure exist in my own reading of the film, but anything beyond a superficial telling of the plot is harmful. Things are more fun to discover on your own. But understand the thriller plot is merely the starting point for a personal film filled with character and insight and commentary. The final scene in court where Leullet’s lawyer defends him with a song is a kind of mocking sting at the absurdity of the judicial system which often feels as if it’s working for those who know how to circumvent it rather than for justice.

The film gives me renewed interest in Chabrol’s past films. I’ll admit to not being a fan. I’ve enjoyed his recent work and think Inspector Bellamy is his best effort since 2000, but his past masterpieces, laid during the infancy of the French New Wave, have always bored me. He seemed to me a pale imitator of Hitchcock’s, someone whose work felt more like cheap but brisk 70s American television. I noticed with Inspector Bellamy how this film, more than his other recent works, mirrors his earlier output, particularly Les biches. The machinations of the plot seem to service the dysfunction underneath, and with this renewed interest I may pick up again on Chabrol’s early career.

There isn’t much more for me to say. The film is entertaining and surprisingly subtle. I don’t want to talk about how the various subplots merge into the ultimate story being told, and beyond that the film can stand on its own. Being Chabrol’s final film and first collaboration with Depardieu, this is a film that doesn’t need my recommendation to endorse it.

Inspector Bellamy (2009)
(a.k.a. Bellamy)
Director: Claude Chabrol
Writers: Claude Chabrol and Odile Barski
Stars: Gerard Depardieu, Clovis Cornillac and Jacques Gamblin
In French
Runtime: 110 minutes

IMDB link: