Archive for February 2011

Muriel ou Le temps d'un retour


Alain Resnais' Muriel ou Le temps du'un retour is a curiously unsettled, and unsettling, film, a continuation of the disjunctive, ambiguous dream logic of Resnais' previous feature, Last Year At Marienbad. Like the infamously unresolved Marienbad, Muriel revolves around missed connections, complicated pasts, lies and disguises, shifting identities, love affairs and betrayals. Also like its predecessor, it mocks conventional storytelling by shattering narrative into a patchwork series of disconnected events, using editing to thrust seemingly unconnected moments together. In the opening minutes of the film, Resnais' editing confounds a prosaic conversation by chopping up the scene into miniature details: bowls of fruit, a doorknob, a piece of furniture, a door, anything but the people actually speaking. This opening suggests the destabilization to come, but only partially. A few minutes later, a nighttime scene is interrupted by a series of shots of urban streets, shifting unpredictably back and forth from night to day. Resnais is mocking the convention of the establishing shot, mocking the whole idea of setting the scene through images of scenery: the only thing these shots establish is that time slips unpredictably, that location is unstable, that this is a film where the sense of reality can be disrupted at will, images thrown together without logic, randomly, so that an ordinary story becomes surreal and abstract.

And beneath it all, this is an ordinary story. As Hélène (Delphine Seyrig) says at one point, speaking of her own long-ago love affair with Alphonse (Jean-Pierre Kérien), "It's a banal story. I find that reassuring." That's not quite right, though. For one thing, Resnais isn't telling a banal story: he's telling several, all of them blended together, their facts and details mixed up and prone to change at a moment's notice. For another thing, the way in which Resnais tells this story is anything but reassuring. It's the story of a woman trying to reconnect with the lover who left her many years before, when they split apart towards the end of World War II. Alphonse comes to see his old lover Hélène, at her invitation, bringing along a woman who he calls his niece, François (Nita Klein), but who is really (maybe?) another girlfriend, perhaps one of many for this deceitful man. Alphonse stays with Hélène, perhaps for many months, perhaps for just a few days — it's hard to tell, as Resnais chops up the story into disconnected moments that seem to mean nothing in isolation, the sense of time utterly obliterated by these fragmentary montages of snatches of dialogue, silent temps mort interludes, puzzling diversions.

In any event, the story seems to be locked into a never-ending stasis, trapped in cycles of repetition like the frustrated maybe-lovers of Marienbad. Alphonse is always threatening to leave, and so is François, but neither ever does despite many conversations that seem to end with the matter resolved, with one or the other ready to depart immediately. Hélène's stepson Bernard (Jean-Baptiste Thiérrée), newly returned from the war in Algeria and obviously mentally scarred by the experience, is similarly always in the process moving out, but never seems to finish. He periodically packs up his stuff and gets into arguments with Hélène, but then in the next scene he might be back, magically reappearing from one shot to the next as though nothing had happened. At one point, Hélène says that Bernard has been gone for eight months, but could that really be true? The film's manic disregard for time and space makes it impossible to tell.

It's as though these characters are trapped by this story, as trapped as the partying bourgeois of Buñuel's The Exterminating Angel, made the year before. Buñuel trapped his characters in a physical space, but Resnais encircles these people only with the boundaries of narrative and cliché. They're hemmed in by the story, by the editing, by the illogic of a film where everything seems to be perpetually on the verge of happening without ever quite getting there. The characters keep expressing their emotions, telling and retelling their stories, exploring a past that seems to be evasive and contradictory, but they never progress beyond their state of stasis, repeating the same actions and the same arguments over and over again.


The key to all this confusion lies in the film's subtext, its hints of wartime trauma and atrocity. Bernard says he has a fiancée named Muriel, who no one has ever met, and he's always saying that he's going off to meet her. In fact, no such girl exists, even though Bernard does have a girlfriend (Martine Vatel), whose name turns out to be Marie-Dominique, not Muriel. The secret of Muriel is revealed during a sequence in which Bernard, an amateur filmmaker, provides voiceover narration over a reel of grainy, scratchy clips of soldiers. His story initially seems like a romance, like the story of how he met his girlfriend Muriel: he saw her from across an office, he went over to see her, there were typewriters, and then instead of an office it's a courtyard, and then it's a warehouse. Without warning the story has become a war story, a story of soldiers torturing and raping a prisoner named Muriel, stripping her naked, burning her with cigarettes, kicking her as she lays on the ground dying. It becomes clear that Bernard saw this during the war, that he even participated in the abuse, although perhaps not as enthusiastically as some of the others. This is the girl he's obsessed with, the girl who occupies his thoughts now, not a lover but a symbol for the horrors of the war, a symbol of the brutality inflicted by soldiers on those they oppress, a symbol for the French occupation of Algeria and the terrible effect of this war on both those fought it and those who suffered innocently under its toll. When Bernard says he's going to see Muriel, where does he goes? What does he mean? Is it that he sees her everywhere now?

The Algerian situation haunts the film, and so does World War II, the occupation of France, the Liberation. Boulogne, the town where all these memories and stories coexist, was bombed badly during the war, and was largely rebuilt. The characters speak of places that no longer exist, places that have been reconfigured: Hélène's apartment, she says, occupies the same physical place that once housed the attic of her friend Roland's (Claude Sainval) childhood home. This is why the characters, weighted down by the past and by geography, can't escape their cycles of disconnection and dishonesty, can't help but repeat the stories of the past.

For Resnais, this cyclical trap is rooted as much in things as in people. Hélène is an antique dealer, working out of her apartment, and as a result she lives, quite literally, amidst the clutter of the past — as Bernard says near the beginning of the film, one never knows what era one is in in a place like this, where the styles of the past clash against one another, multiple times coexisting in the same place. In much the same way, history — World War II, Algeria, bombings and atrocities — coexists with the present, never quite fading away. The records of photographs and audio recordings, like those that Bernard preserves, can be reminders, evidence, but they can also lie: Alphonse, who has never been to Algeria, pretends he has and presents photographs as proof. He's a tourist, like the soldiers of Godard's Les Carabiniers, insisting that snapshots can stand in for reality, that a photogenic image can paper over the real oppression of the Algerian people. Alphonse is also a bigot, a man who says he respects all races, "even the Arabs," a phrase in which the "even" tellingly reveals his real feelings, barely covered by his false civility.

Muriel is a remarkable film, a surreal subversion of bourgeois narrative, in which the unstably shifting tectonic plates of place and time create a very uneasy footing for these characters. Even the music — a spiky, dramatic score by Hans Werner Henze, with operatic vocals by Rita Streich — contributes to the instability, as the music appears sporadically and unpredictably as an accent, except that it doesn't seem to be accenting anything in particular. The music suggests suspense and action while the characters never do or say anything beyond banalities, beyond the rote repetition of their familiar cycles. The very form of Resnais' film mocks these bourgeois fakers, mocks their petty aspirations and desires, mocks the way they focus on the trivialities of their personal histories while ignoring the bigger picture. For Hélène and Alphonse, self-involved, wrapped up in their own dramas, World War II was a backdrop for their aborted love affair, but Resnais doesn't allow them to leave it at that, as complicated political contexts keep encroaching on their hermetic little melodramas.

Uk Box Office 25-27 Feb

Half term holidays meant that GNOMEO & JULIET climbed back to the top of the charts, wiht other family titles still playing strong. Eight weeks after release, and with four Oscars in the bag, THE KING'S SPEECH is the film playing in most theatres across the UK. New openers failed to ignite interest.

1- GNOMEO AND JULIET (£2,497,665) (3 WEEKS, TOTAL £12,885,321)
2- PAUL (£2,079,226) (2 WEEKS, TOTAL £10,146,390)
3- YOGI BEAR (£1,463,297)(3 WEEKS, TOTAL £7,630,225)
4- TANGLED (£1,351,039)(5 WEEKS, TOTAL £19,150,591)
5- THE KING'S SPEECH (£1,207,962)(8 WEEKS, TOTAL £39,850,418)
6- I AM NUMBER FOUR (£1,628,522)(NEW)
7- BIG MOMMAS: LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON (£993,484)(2 WEEKS, TOTAL £4,079,795)
8- TRUE GRIT (£862,259)(3 WEEKS, TOTAL £6,426,423)
9- NO STRINGS ATTACHED (£978,974) (NEW)
10- WEST IS WEST (£753,698)(NEW)

The Other Red Carpet


While the lion's share of award attention this weekend goes to the Oscars, one of the more interesting awards shows took place tonight inside a beachfront tent in Santa Monica. Currently in its 26th year, the Independent Spirit Awards honors the top achievements in indie film -- Best Feature, Actor, Actress, Screenplay etc. and often does not follow the trends of the other awards which makes it immensely more interesting.

The winners tonight included:

Best Feature: Black Swan
    Best Director: Darren Arronofsky, Black Swan
Best Female Lead: Natalie Portman, Black Swan
Best Male Lead: James Franco, 127 Hours
Best Foreign Film: The King's Speech
Best Screenplay: The Kids Are Alright


Sponsored by Elle Magazine, Piaget and and the Independent Film Channel (along with a host of others), the vibe is much more low key and relaxed as seen by the red carpet arrivals.


Nicole Kidman


Jon Hamm and Jennifer Westfeldt


The Fighter's Melissa Leo
 Amanda Peet (right)


Private Practice's Kate Walsh


Jennifer Lawrence


Indie favorite Terrence Howard

Photo Credits: IFC







The Oscar Speech




The Academy Award  acceptance speech is a funny thing. It can be spontaneous (ok, you have had several months to prepare so don't act like you jotted it down on a napkin on the limo ride over), cringeworthy (Angelina Jolie and her brother), boastful (director James Cameron's "I'm king of the world" fell a bit flat), short and sweet (Joe Pesci uttered six words) or grateful to the point of thanking everyone in the family tree. Here are a few classic moments that were not drowned out by the orchestra:

Cate Blanchett (above) as she accepted the Best Supporting Actress for The Aviator (2000) "Thank you to Martin Scorsese. I hope my son will marry your daughter."

Adrien Brody lays on one a startled Halle Berry when he won the award for Best Actor for The Pianist in 2002. Audiences gasped. "I bet they didn't tell you that was in the gift bag," Brody quipped.



"You like me, you really like me" was Sally Field's exclamation when she won Best Actress for Places in the Heart in l985. The comment was the butt of Oscar jokes for years to come. To her credit, it was a reference from a line from her first Oscar winning role in Norma Rae. Unfortunately, no one got the point.




Grace Kelly said "This is one of those times I wish I smoked and drank"upon acceptance for her Best Actress award in 1954 for The Country Girl.



Robin Williams won Best Supporting Actor for Good Will Hunting in 1998 and humorously remarked,
"It's like winning the golden dude. A great honor. Before I didn't have the chance of the Jamaican bobsled team of winning...now I do."



While he was actually introducing Elizabeth Taylor and not accepting an award, who could forget David Niven's priceless observation as a streaker ran past him...."Well ladies and gentlemen, that was almost bound to happen. But isn't it fascinating to think that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings?"



Tom  Hanks chose the moment to thank  a former teacher who was "one of the finest gay Americans" when he accepted his award for Best Actor in Philadelphia. Problem is the teacher had not come out of the closet. Oops. Wasn't this recreated in a film with Kevin Kline years later?



"Hello Gorgeous." Pure Streisand as Babs accepted her Best Actress award for Funny Girl in l968.



"This is the only naked man who will be in my bedroom" noted Melissa Etheridge for her Best Song win ("I Need to Wake Up" from An Inconvenient Truth).


Forget the speech...  City Slickers actor Jack Palance chose to do push-ups instead.


And while it the moment didn't involve speeches, I would have to vote for Rob Lowe and Snow White's opening number at the 1989 Oscars possibly the most cringeworthy moment in Oscar history. The twenty minute dance number of Proud Mary was excruciating and left audiences wondering, "what were they thinking?" Thankfully Lowe's career survived.



Only in Hollywood...

Happy Oscar weekend and many thanks to The New Yorker for the Designs on Film review!

Mildred Pierce (1945)


Mildred Pierce opens with a very noirish murder, a few bullets fired, a cracked mirror, and a man lying dead in a swanky beach house by the shore, an isolated cabin in the middle of an expanse of sand, the kind of unreal, romantic Hollywood location that's prefabricated for murder. But the film isn't a noir, and it isn't a murder mystery, not exactly. Instead, it's a kind of dark, proto-feminist nightmare, the story of a woman who struggles violently against all the constraints placed on her as a woman, all the straitjackets and exploiters. Mildred (Joan Crawford) claws her way up through the world, always doing more, pushing further, than anyone expects from her, and still it isn't enough: she can't satisfy the demands of her snotty, nasty monster of a daughter, Veda (Ann Blythe), and she can't break free of all the weak people who would lean on her strength, weighing her down with their own inconsistency. Over the course of the film, Mildred pushes aside her lazy, philandering first husband Bert (Bruce Bennett), she goes to work as a waitress and eventually starts a chain of restaurants, she dodges the advances of the slimy opportunist Wally (Jack Carson), and she's alternately ensnared by and evades the decadent but now broke society heir Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott), the man who dies in the film's opening scenes.

Throughout it all, Mildred suffers and struggles, never quite getting beaten down by anything that's handed to her. The film, directed by Michael Curtiz, is a parable for the life of the strong, independent woman: sometimes it seems that every time Mildred clears one hurdle, a new and more forbidding obstacle is erected in her path. She's besieged on every side, and still she fights. The film is a class A melodrama, casting an admiring glance equally on Mildred's determination and strength and on the sheer scope of what she's forced to overcome. It's a pretty scathing portrait of men, too, as virtually none of the film's men emerge with their dignities intact. Mildred's first husband not only loses his job and fails to look for another one, while Mildred scurries around the kitchen baking pies to sell, but he runs off with another woman. Wally, supposedly Bert's friend, takes this split as an opportunity to begin instantly smothering Mildred with his attention, coming on to her like one of the girl-hounding foxes of a Tex Avery cartoon, the context for Mildred's chilly remark that he makes her feel like Little Red Riding Hood. Even Beragon, who initially seems like a more conventional movie romantic — enough so that Mildred even falls in love with him, at least for a little while — winds up being a useless, wasting loser, clinging pathetically to the last of his society prestige while accepting handouts from the more successful Mildred.

Within its melodramatic story, the film examines the struggles of a truly independent woman within a world that isn't ready for her. Mildred has a friend, Ida (a wisecracking Eve Arden), who's as independent as she is, a woman who's made her own way in business, but Ida, though she alludes to some disappointments with men, seems to have had an easier time of it than Mildred. Ida had never married, never had children, and now she simply works hard and makes a success of herself. She's a great character, with a quick wit (she gets some of the crackling script's funniest lines) and a self-assured manner that shows that she doesn't give a damn what anyone thinks of her. She's what Mildred could be, or could have been, if not for so many entanglements pulling her down; Mildred's surrounded with people, mostly Veda and Beragon, who rely on her success, who use her and take her money, but who simultaneously despise and pity her for it. There's a class component to the film as well as the gender component: it's about the idle rich's snobby distaste for those who are willing to get their hands dirty, those who work for a living. Mildred isn't afraid of work, she isn't afraid of baking or waiting tables or working long hours, whatever it takes to provide for the people she cares about. Veda, the film's villain, a little demon with a scrubbed-clean face and a chilling ability to turn her emotions on and off as though flicking a switch, leeches off of the fruits of Mildred's labor, but hates her mother for her work ethic, hates the whole idea of having to work. She sees herself as belonging to the upper class, despite her middle class birth, and she's determined to live as though she's a society heiress.


Veda is an infuriating character, and a despicable one, and the film handles her very cleverly: she initially just seems like a mildly bratty kid, a bit distant and pouty, a bit ungrateful, a bit spoiled, like a lot of teenagers. Over the course of the film, she reveals herself as something else entirely, a real outsized movie villain, hiding an almost sociopathic indifference to her mother's feelings behind her cheery, charmingly girlish face. She becomes almost terrifying in the way she exploits and manipulates her mother, draining the strength from this strong, intelligent woman. Blyth's performance, this sweet but emotionally empty aura she projects, is fascinating when juxtaposed against Crawford's tough, expressive tour de force. As Crawford runs a gamut of feelings from steely determination to near despair, delivering a powerhouse performance, Blyth maintains her slightly creepy composure except when, with obvious forethought, she turns on a particular emotional reaction to get a desired effect. The girl's disconcerting control over her emotions is captured most tellingly in a sequence where she announces her engagement to a rich young boy; when her fiance is looking at her, she's all smiles and affectionate glances, but the moment he turns away from her she betrays a flash of a cold, cruel expression, her lips curled into an expression of distaste, her eyes dead and empty.

Coldness and warmth, the traditional dichotomy of womanly behavior, are embodied in these two characters, mother and daughter, but not in the usual ways. Mildred, for all her independence, for all her strength and ability to survive without a husband, isn't a caricature of the cold, loveless career woman. She feels a great deal, maybe even too much — her compassion, her love and tolerance for people who don't deserve it, is her ultimate weakness. It's Veda who's the cold one, Veda who isn't strong at all, who only knows how to use and exploit people, how to take advantage. Veda is contrasted, in the early scenes of the film, against Mildred's younger daughter Kay (Jo Ann Marlowe), another independent woman in the making, a girl who likes to play, who likes to join in on the boys' games, not caring if she gets dirty, like her mother who digs in at work, and very unlike the prim Veda. Mildred takes Kay for granted, knowing that the girl isn't demanding, that like her mother she can take care of herself — it's Veda, who can't, who gets all the attention. This situation symbolically comes to a head in a staggering tragedy, as Mildred loses Kay, loses the girl who might have otherwise grown up to be like her strong, spirited mother. Later in the film, when Veda returns to Mildred after a time apart, a photograph of Kay is tellingly placed in the foreground as Mildred runs to the window to see her inconstant daughter. The photo is a reminder of the very different daughter who'd suffered the fate of so many other cinematic independent women.

Mildred Pierce is fascinating for the way it both upturns and upholds these kinds of stereotypes about independent women: the film is conflicted at its core, torn between rival visions of womanhood. Its ending, sadly, suggests a compromise, a return to the dependency of marriage, as though Mildred hadn't learned any lessons from her ordeals. This is a pretty insubstantial reassertion of the romantic norm, however, a weak gesture towards convention that does little to reverse the subversion of marriage and motherhood represented by the rest of the film.

Clash of the Cults - Nolan and Fincher

At any given point on the internet, chances are pretty good that someone will be deconstructing a director or film while others support or detract, usually in large and vitriolic numbers. When this happens I find myself generally disengaged from the discussions, debates and diatribes taking place, usually because I'm a little late to see the movie. Other times I simply lack the energy to get in the middle of another 1,000 comment forum fight. However, just because I don't get obsessed about debating the merits of one director or film over another doesn't mean I don't appreciate the folks who do.


And when it comes to obsessively arguing the merits of one director over another one can hardly do better, or worse, than the cults of David Fincher and Christopher Nolan. It's not enough that they make good movies or excellent ones and sometimes mediocre or bad ones, no, that won't do. It must be proven that one is a cinematic genius (Fincher) while the other is an incompetent fraud (Nolan). Fortunately, this is one of the few debates or discussion or whatever the hell you want to call it on which I can authoritatively opinionate as I have seen every movie, save Following, that both directors have ever done. So far, just that one eludes me and maybe I'll watch it this week just to get it out of the way.

I will admit, here and now, that if I was forced to choose one over the other I would, without hesitation, choose Fincher. He seems to me the better director. I will further admit that I agree with many of the criticisms of Nolan, the principal being that he is visually clunky, or to put it another way, I find his films utterly lacking in visual grace. Action sequences can often feel visually awkward to say the least, what with all the going back and forth and coming in from the wrong angle after position has already been established. This means, in the movies, that when you establish a plane is flying from the right side of the screen to the left because it is going to California, you then show it from left to right when it is returning, only Nolan would show it going the same way both times and claim he was filming the plane from the other side on the way back so it was still correct, but visually clunky, awkward and confusing. That's pretty much Nolan visually. Sometimes, it really does feel like he's a blind man behind the lens.

But!

I would not go so far as to say Nolan's films are, on the whole, much better or worse than Fincher's. In fact, my main beef with Nolan is his visual clunkiness but I'd say he gets good performances out of his actors and paces his films well. Now, I know, having a strike against your visual ability as a director in cinema is a bit like having a strike against your throwing ability as a quarterback in football. It's kind of the main thing you're expected to do, and do well. However, Nolan can throw well, just not consistently.

His sense of visual consistency seems fine in movies like Memento and Insomnia and The Prestige so I'd have to restrict my criticism to say his main visual clunkiness seems relegated to action sequences, and, as a director, that's an acceptable level of incompetence, especially if you're not in the habit of making action movies. Of course, Nolan is in the habit of making action movies and that's the problem. He keeps making movies that exploit his primary weakness as a director. It seems a very odd thing to do, consistently return to your weakness, but in all fairness, plenty of modern filmmakers don't shoot action very well so Nolan's not even that unique on this front. And so, even though I think action's a problem for him, I find "takedowns" of his work to be generally unconvincing, hence the scare-quotes.


This "takedown" of Inception by A.D. Jameson, a movie I didn't like, works a lot better if you haven't seen the movie. Once you've seen it, many of the 17 points don't seem to work. Now, don't misread me here: I don't think Jameson is being dishonest at all in his piece, nor do I disagree with it on the whole (I'm about half and half in agreement/disagreement with the piece). I think Jameson honestly sees all of these things but I question how much of it could also apply to a director Jameson liked. Rather than go through the entire piece (please go to the link and read the whole thing for yourself) I will discuss the first six points and then jump to some points with which I agree rather than continuing to deconstruct all the points with which I disagree (five of the first six).

The first point is how much dialogue there is which leads into the second point about how "relentless" Nolan is with expository dialogue. He criticizes Nolan for using too much dialogue, in which the characters explain everything, and writes, "His primary—indeed, practically his only—tool for delivering information to the audience is character dialogue. Rarely does anyone shut his or her mouth during the 148 minutes that are Inception."

I didn't get that watching the movie. I watched it and found it had as much, or as little, dialogue as any other movie, including long sequences with no dialogue. He then provides this fairly weak example of how characters explain everything for the audience:

the line where Cobb points out to Michael Caine’s character—a university professor teaching in Paris—”You know extradition between France and the US is a legal nightmare.” Yes, Mssr. Professor Caine probably does, in fact, know that! But I’m sure that somebody way in the back row was happy to hear.

First of all, the way Cobb phrases it is obviously meant to signal that he knows Caine is full of shit when he tries to say Cobb could be extradited. Like if someone said to me, "Greg, I just caught the latest Pixar movie. Can't wait to see the review on Cinema Styles," and then I responded, "Now, you know I don't review Pixar movies on Cinema Styles." Of course they know, that's why I said, "Now, you know..." It's a common colloquialism. If that's the best example Jameson can come up with, and he alludes to the fact that it is, then you have to put a hash mark in the Nolan column on that one.


Then he complains that Nolan's characters repeat everything three times for the audience, you know, like in The Godfather, where Sonny and Tom are talking about how Sollozo must be dealt with and then Michael repeats this and explains how he will deal with it and then when they've decided on it, at a later time, Sonny goes over it with Sal and then Sal with Michael until the audience has been notified four times that Sollozo will be killed. You know, like that. Or how the director/reporter in the screening room in Citizen Kane says not once, not twice but three times that they need to find out what "Rosebud" means. Oh, but wait, those are two universally acknowledged great films, I probably shouldn't have used those examples. Or maybe those example are fine because it's only bad when Nolan does it. Again, I didn't notice this "flaw," a historically common enough device in cinema, any more here than with any other movie.

His third point chides Nolan for using too many insert shots, i.e., when Cobbs wife is mentioned we see a shot of her or when he's talking to his kids on the phone and when they speak we see images of them. Well, sorry, but insert shots are as common in cinema as the closeup. I can see to a small degree Jameson's point, which is that Nolan uses too many, but frankly, complaining about insert shots in cinema feels a lot like splitting hairs.

His fourth point is about the quality of Nolan's dialogue and here we fully agree. I was never engaged by the characters and much of this was due to all of them speaking like characters in an action movie rather than like people in the real world.

Point five is the weakest, I think, of all seventeen. He starts by saying, "Herr Wunderkind Nolan can accomplish in thirteen shots what it takes most directors six to do!" and then outlines the fourteen shots used in the opening scene ("1.slow motion pan of waves crashing against a rock 2.slow motion shot of waves 3.close-up of Cobb’s face as he lies on the shore 4.point-of-view shot of a boy on the beach making a sandcastle 5.reverse shot of Cobb’s face..." etc).

Again, I read this and immediately thought, "Fourteen shots doesn't seem like a lot for establishing an opening scene." Not every movie can start with a clean unbroken crane shot, ala Touch of Evil. In most cinema, cuts are pretty common. I went to Netflix Instant and started going through classic movies from the fifties and before, a period known for slower pacing and longer shots and I'll be damned if everybody still didn't use multiple shots to set up an opening sequence.

As an example, I picked one I felt would be unassailable, Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo. It sails so far past fourteen it's not even worth counting. Let's see, first Dean Martin opens the door and looks in. Then, we see what he's looking at (the bar). Then we see him walk along the back of the saloon. Then he looks at the bar again. We see what he's looking at (Claude Akens, taunting him by pouring whiskey he knows Martin wants). Then we see Martin again. Then Akens again. Then Martin, again! Then Akens, AGAIN! Then. Martin. A-G-A-I-N! Then Akens... AGGGGAIN!!! Now, from this point until Akens shoots and leaves, we have fifteen more shots to come. That's a total of twenty-six shots, way past fourteen. So does that mean Howard Hawks was incompetent or this kind of thing is beyond common in establishing story and character? That's a rhetorical question by the way.


At point six ("Much of what is mechanically and prosaically explained to the audience throughout the film’s first hour—the set-up—turns out not to matter.") he quotes Jim Emerson asking why Nolan puts all the amazing visuals up front and then go prosaic during the climax of the actual dream sequence? Emerson asks, "Why would Nolan intentionally stick the movie’s most tantalizing images up front, instead of saving them for when the real action gets underway?" This isn't a bad question but, for me, I'd say it's because it would confuse the action too much (I know, I know, Nolan does that anyway) and as explained very clearly in the film (remember, apparently one of Nolan's faults is that he over-explains things) Cobb wants his dream architect, Ariadne, to create a realistic environment, not a dream environment. They make that pretty clear and the early phases of walking her around the surreal environments is a way of getting it out of her system in one regard and using the valid teaching method of pointing out what you shouldn't do, in the other.

In other words, what was "mechanically and prosaically explained" in the first hour does matter. The second half looks as it does because it HAS been explained in the first half. That was the point of the exposition and if one followed the exposition, one wouldn't ask the question that Emerson asked, which is a puzzler because Emerson described it in enough detail to prove he did pay attention. So, yeah, you got me on that one.

Now, this could go on but I should get to some more of Jameson's points that I agree with as well. Number four was one, number twelve is another, in fact, the biggest one for me, which is Nolan's too literal-minded storytelling. Jameson writes, "as is always the case with his movies, disappointingly, one can bank on things moving toward the simplest solution." Again, read the whole piece to get a better idea of that but, basically, Nolan doesn't go in any unexpected directions. For those who haven't seen the movie, here's a general example. Let's say you're watching a mystery. At the start, a body is found and the butler is seen standing over it with a bloody knife. Now, the story could provide all kinds of twists and turns and multiple characters with motive, were it in the hands of someone like Agatha Christie. However, in a Nolan movie, a detective shows up, asks a bunch of questions and then arrests the butler who, in fact, was guilty just as the opening sequence showed him to be.

Like in The Prestige (MAJOR SPOILER ALERT), another of Nolan's films. Our lead character (Hugh Jackman) goes off to find Nicola Tesla (David Bowie) to discover the mysteries of teleportation. Tesla seems a bit flaky, runs some tests that don't work then, suddenly, is shown to have inadvertently created cloning. Our lead buys the technology and goes back to his show. Now, the audience wonders, has he been conned by Tesla? Did he kill that drunken double he used in previous shows to frame Christian Bale? If he did, how did he manage to get Bale to go backstage the night he killed him? Maybe the double killed the magician. Wow, that would be a turn of events! Oh my, so many questions, there's no way we can possibly figure this out. And then... it turns out he really was cloning, just like we were told. No surprises, no twists. In other words, everything - EVERYTHING - in a Nolan movie can be taken at face value. He is, to a fault, a literal writer. If a character says what his motives are, that's what his motives are. There is never misdirection. Never. So if you see The Prestige after knowing this about Nolan, the second you see Bowie produce all the hats and explain they were cloned, you know that cloning is real and that the solution to the murder frame-up is that Jackman is killing his clones each night. At the moment you see the hats, you can stop watching because you know that Nolan never misdirects. End of movie solved. Nolan just told you.

Now, that's not necessarily a bad thing but it is a dull thing. It means once you've seen a couple of Nolan's movies, you stop expecting to be surprised. When the characters say, "We want to get this guy to break up his father's company," that's what they want. They're not conning Cobb, there is no setup, there are no red herrings. There is no twist in which Cobb is actually the one having info extracted from by the bad guys but being made to think he's the one in charge. Nope, they are doing exactly what they say they're doing and when they're done, the movie will end, and does.

So, I agree that Nolan has his faults but none so overbearing as to warrant him being called out as vehemently and as persistently as is the case.

On the tail end of this coin is David Fincher. He has the opposite problem of Nolan in that I read all too many writers who see a lot of magical qualities in him as a director that I don't. As I said above, I'd pick him over Nolan anytime because I think Fincher is an excellent director but not a particularly ingenious one. I find that Fincher's fortunes rise and fall with the quality of his scripts more often than not. If the script is, say, Zodiac, everyone agrees, Fincher is a genius. If the script is The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, not so much.


When I look at Fincher's credits (The Social Network, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Zodiac, Panic Room, Fight Club, The Game, Se7en, Alien³), I don't see the resume of an all-time great but a skillful director with a lot of potential. And in The Game, he even uses the same literal, face-value storytelling that Nolan does (in other words, yes, it is, in fact, a game). With Fight Club I see immaturity (philosophy for people who never quite grew up or took on adult responsibilities), Panic Room a ho-hum thriller, Se7en, the same and so on. What happens with Fincher is exactly what happens with Nolan: the movies that don't fit the bias get forgotten. With Fincher, all those other movies are ignored in the face of, say, Zodiac and The Social Network, and with Nolan, any movie that doesn't quite fit his takedowns, like Insomnia, gets ignored too.

And, hell, I'm fine with all of that. But when Fincher gets a good script, suddenly he's a genius again. This piece by David Bordwell gives so much credit to David Fincher, based primarily on the making-of documentary on the DVD, I can't really take it seriously (although Bordwell does make excellent points about actors' faces and how they're used throughout the piece and I highly recommend reading it). Bordwell focuses on the eyes and eyelids and eyebrows of the actors in The Social Network and says Fincher guided how they used them. I did theater in Washington, D.C. that was performed for several different school groups who would get to ask questions of the actors after the production in an onstage forum. Let me tell you, in all shamelessness, actors and directors promote themselves and what they do to ridiculous heights and we all play along with it. I can just see Fincher and lead actor Jesse Eisenberg going on about how David said to use the eyebrows in this way and tone them down in that way and... har, har, come on! Bordwell sees actors doing things that, in reality, would ruin a good performance. If an actor really did decide to pay attention to every tiny, minute detail of their face while trying to give a performance they'd be as wooden as Sherwood Forest during the dry season.

Those eyelid expressions and eye dartings and everything else come from an actor who knows how to instinctively put a performance together and a director who knows how to let them do it. Once an actor starts thinking, "Okay, now, when I say this line I'll curl the left side of my lip and lower my right eyebrow. When I react to the response, I'll narrow my eyes..." he's sunk. Now, he may still do those things and in that exact order but not because he focused on them but rather because he is acting as he believes his character would and those things naturally come out of that performance.

So what am I left with, after all this back and forth over Christopher Nolan and David Fincher? Pretty much nothing except my opinion, which is this: I found Inception to be fairly boring and I didn't like it. But guess what? I didn't dislike it because I thought Nolan was incompetent as a filmmaker, I disliked it because it was an action movie with a lot of explosions (another thing Jameson and I agree on) and that will usually bore me every time.

Also, I liked The Social Network and Fincher's amazing eyebrow magic aside, found little in it that I would call startlingly innovative and, believe me, I expected to because its most ardent supporters treated this goddamn thing like the Holy Grail of Cinema. It's a very well-crafted film, much better than Inception but if next year, Nolan had a movie that was much better than a Fincher movie I wouldn't be the least bit surprised, nor dismayed. And yet I know, if that happens, the Nolan haters will ignore it completely or attempt to explain to those of us too blind to see why it really isn't very good at all, using arguments that could apply to everything from Casablanca to No Country for Old Men. And I'll show up, late to the party and with no horse in the race, still wondering why I care at all.

*************

I recommend, again, reading both pieces referenced here in their entirety, Seventeen Ways of Criticizing Inception and The Social Network: Faces Behind Facebook.

I also recommend this review of Inception by Ed Howard and this review of The Social Network by Bill Ryan. In both cases, they pretty much sum up my feelings on both films.

Before the Revolution


In his second film, Before the Revolution, Bernardo Bertolucci, infected with the enthusiastic cinephilia of the French New Wave, and obviously impressed by the films being made by his peers in France, leapt headfirst into the new cinema, adopting its style and concerns for his own, translating the style to a post-war Italy in a mood of uncertainty and instability. The film's characters are haunted by "fevers" of one kind or another, and the film itself is heady with the fever of moviemaking, the passion for images that capture, in their immediacy and vibrancy, the mood of an entire generation of cinema-hopping would-be revolutionaries. Fabrizio (Francesco Barilli) is a young man on the cusp of adulthood, unsure about where his life is headed, swept up in the idealism of Marxism. He joins the Communist Party, under the guidance of his teacher Cesare (Morando Morandini), but he remains aimless despite his newfound convictions, and when his friend Agostino (Allen Midgette) dies in a drowning accident that might be a suicide, he really comes unmoored. Over the course of a summer following his friend's funeral, he engages in a passionate but ultimately unhappy love affair with his visiting aunt, Gina (Adriana Asti), and in the process replaces his youthful idealism with a more "adult" attitude that might be called pragmatism or, less euphemistically, fatalism.

Bertolucci's film is very much of its time, in every way. It captures a precise and very important moment, not only in this young man's life, but in the history of Italy and Europe at large. Just as Fabrizio, poised on the verge of adulthood, could continue to engage with the world and with his strongly held ideals or retreat into bourgeois security and emptiness, the forked road ahead for Europe must have looked very similar at the time, in the years leading up to the peak of the student rebellions in May 1968. In retrospect, Bertolucci's film is "before the revolution" that would briefly sweep across the western world in the late 60s, and his pessimistic ending — a declaration that, for aimless young people like Fabrizio, it's always "before" a revolution that never comes — is a bleak but accurate prediction of the disappointments to come.

The film is of its time stylistically as well, in that it's drowning in style. Bertolucci was invigorated as a filmmaker by the French New Wave, and it shows in his jittery appropriations of their restless aesthetics. In one scene, early on, as Gina talks about death, Bertolucci uses zooms and pans the way Breathless deployed jump cuts, with seeming carelessness, a casual disregard for the rough edges, for what's left out. Gina theatrically plays with the camera, turning away from it and then abruptly thrusting back, widening her eyes at it like a melodramatic primadonna, and the camera's zig-zagging motion further discombobulates the composition. The camera is constantly zooming in, focusing momentarily on her eyes or mouth, then losing track of her as she moves away, briefly lingering off to the side, in the texture of her hair, before she bobs back into the frame. The effect is distracting more than invigorating, as Godard's early, jazzy innovations were, but maybe that's the point: it's style for its own sake, style divorced from content. The hyperactive gesticulations of the camera mirror the restlessness of the protagonist: in a later scene, as Fabrizio shifts nervously from one seat to another while trying to explain his discontent to Cesare, the camera pans drolly back and forth, as though amused by the young man's indecision, amused by his very bourgeois, entitled troubles.


At another point, Fabrizio goes to see Godard's A Woman Is A Woman, but he barely pays attention, and afterward is deaf to his friend's rhapsodic words on the film's style — ah, the friend says, realizing that his friend is in love, it's not a matter of style but of content. But is it? This friend parrots back many of the favored sayings of the Cahiers du cinema critics — morality is a matter of tracking shots, and tracking shots are a matter of morality — and rattles off lists of movies and directors ("you can't live without Rossellini," he shouts to Fabrizio as a parting shot) but he doesn't seem to have much to say about anything that he can't see in a theater. For him, Anna Karina will someday define his generation in the same way that Louise Brooks and Bogey/Bacall had defined earlier ones — a prescient prediction, that, but not one that does anything to help Fabrizio figure out just where his own life is heading.

Bertolucci at times seems to care more about his camera's meanderings than about the self-absorbed whining of his protagonists, or about the actors, who deliver fine, emotionally naked performances (especially Asti) into a vacuum of motivation and emotional grounding. Again, that's part of the point: these bourgeois dreamers, trying to break free, trying to live their own lives, hardly know why they're suffering or why they're feeling what they're feeling, and the film's jumpy, elliptical style breaks down their pointless love story until it feels as empty and silly as it is. It's all about style in search of some content.

Which doesn't mean that Bertolucci doesn't locate some genuinely affecting images within all this stylistic grandstanding. The scene where Fabrizio confronts Gina after she's been unfaithful to him is a case in point: Fabrizio walks away, disgusted, and Gina starts to follow him, walking away from the man she'd been with. She reaches a corner, stops, and in closeup looks toward Fabrizio, who's only an indistinct blur in the back of the frame, and then she looks back towards the other man, Bertolucci's camera panning to follow her gaze, finding another indistinct blur, another gray nothingness moving away from her. Quite literally, wherever she looks, she sees disconnection and emptiness, sees other people moving away from her until they seem to be swallowed up whole by the landscape. In another great sequence, early on, Agostino plays on his bike, drunk, and the camera gets drunk with him, wavering as the young man wheels by, standing on the bike's seat or putting his legs up over the handlebars, falling over again and again. The framing is lazy, drunken, often capturing an out-of-focus image of the young man wobbling by on the bike before he crashes to the ground, falling off camera, the image getting blotted out by some obstacle or another. It's a wonderfully offhand and playful encapsulation of this kind of aimless goofing around, capturing among other things the hint of homoerotic fascination that the watching Fabrizio nurses for his friend.


This is all Bertolucci's loving ode to his French contemporaries, to the cinema. Whatever the themes of Fabrizio's struggles with his political consciousness and his doomed love affair, the film is at least as much about the cinema as it is about anything that happens outside the frame, in the real world. Casual references to French filmmakers like Godard and Resnais abound, as do namedrops of the Hollywood auteurs, like Hawks and Hitchcock, so adored by Cahiers du cinema. There's a color sequence when Gina views Fabrizio through a camera obscura, and the resulting scene somehow simultaneously pays tribute to Hollywood technicolor and silent comedy. When Gina and Fabrizio make love for the first time, they self-consciously fall into the same pose, the same shadowy lighting scheme, as the similarly ill-fated couple at the beginning of Resnais' Hiroshima mon amour — another couple doomed by misunderstandings and miscommunications, by unbridgeable gaps dividing them from one another. By the end of the film, when Fabrizio vainly tries to find Gina within the shining white maze of an opera house, only to finally find her so they can talk past one another, the lovers seem to be reliving another Resnais film, trapped within the alienating façades of Last Night At Marienbad.

At times, this endless referentiality makes Before the Revolution seem like a cineaste's dream, a young man's film (Bertolucci was only 22 when he made it) about youthful fascinations with cinema and politics, youthful ambitions and desires, youthful introductions to love and disappointment. For all the verve of its style, the film is a dark vision; it's a film about idealism made by a young man obviously already tinged with his own streak of cynicism. The film's arc is relentlessly downward, as embodied in the treatment of Fabrizio's fiancée Clelia (Cristina Pariset) at the beginning and end of the film. In an early scene, Fabrizio goes to see Clelia for what he says is the last time: he just wants to look at her one last time before making a break with his bourgeois existence, and indeed she won't appear in the film again for most of its length. Fabrizio finds her in a church, with her mother, and Bertolucci films it like a holy moment: the actress is stunning, radiant in closeup, and she's chatting with her mother, smiling, while the soundtrack remains silent, the substance of her words unimportant in comparison to the stark beauty of that image, a beautiful woman who represents everything Fabrizio is leaving behind. Or everything he'd like to leave behind, because in the end he finds that he can't, and his fiancée returns, still with nothing to say, still just a smiling, flawlessly pretty symbol of a certain kind of life. Earlier in the film, that brief glimpse of her seemed vaguely spiritual and affecting, but upon her return she comes to represent staid bourgeois marriage and the abandonment of youth's ideals. This is a bleak ending, though not as bleak — or as darkly hysterical, or as emotionally shattering — as the film's very last shot, a freeze frame that implies that the whole cycle of youthful idealism and disillusionment is about to begin again.

Diss is Done

Dissertation Completed. Hallelujah! Almost three years later, I came out the other end...



Goodbye For Now....

Try as I might, I cannot seem to post. It makes it worse when I see my ideas and concepts that I've had for years taken (some may say stolen) and watered down by other Black film blogs. It really irritates me, in fact, and I need to direct that focus elsewhere.

So instead of holding this energy of guilt over this blog, in addition to being highly annoyed by certain other ones, I will be concentrating my energies on my other projects. I've been quoted from this blog, nominated for awards, and linked to major media outlets, so I feel like I've definitely accomplished something here, but onward.....


I have a Blog Talk Radio Show called "Cinema In Noir", and it's on every Sunday at 6pm EST, (3pm PST), and we have fun. I do it with three other female Black Cinema bloggers, Kimberly Renee, Rebecca, and Candice, who all sincerely love film just as much as I do. We decided to have a show all about Black film from a Black female perspective, but male listeners love it too...and trust, we are definitely not spending our time commiserating about Tyler Perry, lol.

You can listen to our podcast here; my name is Rocky (now you know) so you'll know when it's me:

http://www.blogtalkradio.com/cinemainnoir


I will be writing a weekly column for the fabulous "Black Box Office" blog:

http://theblackboxoffice.com/


I really do talk about film almost all day, every day, just not here, haha. Please join me to talk about it with me and my comrades over on Twitter. You can find me here:

http://twitter.com/BlkCinemaAtLarg



Finally, and very lovingly, I've been curating Black film screenings in the San Francisco Bay Area under the moniker "Black Cinema At Large". This is my passion and my love, and my ultimate mission since I first started this blog in 2007. I will eventually put up a link to which screenings are when and where, sort of a calender of events.

I am very stoked to be a California affiliate of AFFRM, which is as 100% dedicated to spreading the beauty of Black film as I am. It is a collective network of Black Film Festivals and Curators bringing QUALITY Black film to your neighborhood, which ordinarily would not be seen through the "conventional" studio system.

You can read about AFFRM and it's mission here:

http://www.affrm.com/



Like the old show Siskel & Ebert used to say before signing off; "See you at the movies".

Love!!!


UPDATE

3/14/11: Ms. Invisibelle finally joined 2008 by starting up her Facebook for real, haha. You can find me here: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Black-Cinema-At-Large/152521598124915

Duel


Duel was the first film of Steven Spielberg, made for TV and adapted from a short story by pulp author and screenwriter Richard Matheson. It's a remarkably simple, stripped-down film, a teeth-gritting suspense thriller that unrelentingly increases the pressure on the traveling businessman David Mann (Dennis Weaver) as he faces off with a vicious truck driver who seems intent on killing Mann. Spielberg slowly builds up the suspense, seemingly from thin air: the first time the truck appears, Spielberg's low angles and uncomfortable closeups of the truck's rusty grille and thick, rotted fenders already suggest something sinister. The film begins with innocuous jockeying for position on the road, as the impatient Mann, late for a meeting, passes the truck, only to have it pass him in return, promptly slowing down again as soon as it's in front of him. It wouldn't play as anything other than ordinary highway machismo if it wasn't for Spielberg's menacing camera angles, which make the truck loom over the much smaller car, its grille like a hungry maw, its whole surface grimy and rusted, its driver obscured so that the truck seems like an inhuman, mysterious threat. When Mann pauses at a gas station, the truck pulls up next to him, and Spielberg shoots from above, looking down over the truck's cab at Mann and his little red sedan, emphasizing how he's dwarfed by his adversary.

The subtext of this highway duel is masculinity, as suggested by Mann's phone conversation with his wife when he calls her from the gas station, before the action begins in earnest. They'd had an argument the night before because they'd been at a party where a friend or business associate had obviously been all over Mann's wife — "he practically raped me," she says, as the couple's two kids play innocently nearby — and Mann had done nothing to stop the harassment. With the incident behind them, she's willing to let it drop now, but it's obvious that it was a failure of masculinity for Mann, a failure to protect his wife and defend her honor, a failure to assert his strength and dominance as a man. (His name is even Mann: get it?) A sexual failure, too, the failure to maintain his exclusive sexual possession of his woman. This brief conversation colors the entire film, as does the radio program that Mann listens to during the introductory scenes, a conversation in which a man worries that he's not the "head of his household," that his wife really runs things. Mann, when a gas station attendant tells him, "you're the boss," makes a similar joke, wearily tossing off, "not at home," suggesting that he, too, feels like his masculinity is not entirely secure, that he's also not the head of his household.

These concerns are echoed in a later scene where Mann, during a respite from the truck's assaults, comes across a school bus that's stranded by the side of the road. The bus driver wants Mann to push the bus out of the dusty shoulder, but Mann simply gets their bumpers locked together and gets stuck himself, as the kids in the bus make faces at him and mock him, their laughing faces captured in uncomfortable closeups that emphasize Mann's humiliation. When the truck suddenly appears and easily pushes the school bus back onto the road, the symbolism couldn't be more obvious: it's a visualization of impotence, as Mann's car fails to have the power or vitality to do the job, while the big, powerful truck just charges in and pushes.


Maybe it's this psychological subtext, but there's something very Hitchcockian about Spielberg's debut. The film is populated with colorful Hitchcockian bit players — especially a vibrant old lady who runs a roadside gas station slash rattlesnake farm — and has moments of suspense and dark humor worthy of the master. At one point, at a café, Mann's reveries are interrupted by the loud clatter of silverware as a waitress tosses down a place setting and asks for his order, the woman seeming to loom over Mann as she's shot from a low angle: everything begins to unnerve the poor guy, who looks around the café trying to figure out which one of the men here with him might be the truck's hateful driver. More generally, all these wide open spaces, coupled with the general situation of a man pursued by a vehicle seemingly intent on his death, evoke the crop duster showdown of North By Northwest. But the film Duel resembles the most, in some surprising ways, is actually The Birds. Much as in the Hitchcock film, Duel is about senseless, incomprehensible violence, about something innocent turning on the protagonist and seeking his destruction without any apparent reason. Just as the birds have no purpose, no cause for their sudden violence, the truck driver in Duel remains inscrutable, his face always obscured — the most Mann ever sees of the driver is his boot and his forearm. This sudden violence makes no sense, it's a nightmare of helplessness, as inexplicable as it is terrifying.

Spielberg, even at this early stage, has a real feel for these scenes of suspense and action. The editing is crisp but not choppy, alternating between wide angles and long shots that show the car and the pursuing truck winding around twisty mountain roads, and closeups that capture the contrast between the implacable, monstrous facade of the truck and the sweaty human desperation of Mann in his car. Throughout it all, the sun beats down on the cars, bright and huge, spreading its white glow diffusely across the whole sky, refracting in the chrome and dirty glass of the dueling vehicles. The film feels hot and dusty, with Mann trapped between the steaming heat of the sun and the clouds of dust kicked up beneath the tires of his car.

That atmosphere, coupled with the mysterious, almost apocalyptic aura of the unyielding, unstoppable truck, makes Duel a consistently powerful debut film from the soon-to-be blockbuster director. The film does bog down during its middle section in the café, where Mann tries to grapple with what's happening to him. His internal monologue, delivered in voiceover, is awkwardly handled and doesn't add much to the film that isn't conveyed much more potently without words. This is a concept that requires few words and few adornments, and once Mann returns to the road, pursued by the unrelenting truck that haunts him, the film picks up speed again and never slows down until its fiery conclusion.

The Mirror (1997)

[This is a contribution to the Iranian Film Blogathon hosted by The Sheila Variations. The blogathon is inspired by imprisoned Iranian director Jafar Panahi, and focuses on both his own films and those of other important Iranian directors. The blogathon will run from February 21-27, so check out all the related posts at Sheila's blog during this week.]

The Mirror uses a clever conceptual device as a way to observe, in pseudo-documentary fashion, the day-to-day rhythms of life in the city of Tehran. For the first half of the film, a young girl (Mina Mohammad Khani) tries to find her way home after her mother fails to pick her up after school. The girl gets a ride from a friendly stranger who calls himself the General, until his motorcycle gets smashed in an accident. Then she gets rides in various buses, seemingly picking them at random, hoping that they'll get her home. As she rides, she listens in on various conversations going on around her, and the film provides a glimpse into the lives of the ordinary people of the city, capturing attitudes in flux and the small complaints and pleasures of everyday life. Then, halfway through the film, the girl suddenly turns to the camera and says, "I'm not acting anymore," rips off her fake cast and the coat she'd been wearing, and storms off the bus, refusing to take part in the film anymore. After a hesitant interlude in which the film crew, including director Jafar Panahi, try to decide how to deal with their young star's sudden bout of anger, Panahi decides to continue following Mina anyway. As a result, the second half of the film mirrors the first, as the film crew follows Mina as she continues to try to find her way home — supposedly to the actress' real home now.

The film's structure calls attention to the continuity between fiction and reality, as the staged scenes of the early part of the film are mirrored by the supposedly "real" scenes of the latter half (even though it's doubtful that anything in the film is actually unscripted). Both halves of the film concern a girl trying to get home, lost in the city, and Mina's character — stubborn, independent, wise in her childish way — hardly changes when she says she's going to stop acting. At one point, in the second half of the film, Mina meets an old woman who had been on a bus with her earlier, talking about her uncaring children and her feeling that her life is miserable. Mina sits with the woman and finds out that she hadn't been acting earlier, that though she'd been paid to be in the film, everything she'd said had been a description of her actual life and her actual feelings. Later in the film, someone who'd been watching the filming compliments Mina on her acting but especially singles out for a praise a scene where, supposedly, she hadn't been acting, a scene after she broke character and quit the film. The line between fiction and reality is blurry here, and it seems to be Panahi's assertion that, in both fiction and documentary, artists are attempting to capture the essence of reality, and in that sense it hardly matters if something is factual as long as it's true to the emotional and social reality that the camera captures. And in spite of the metafictional gimmick at the heart of the film, it's obvious that The Mirror is true to reality, that Panahi is trying to present a portrait of life in the city with all its complexity.

One interesting aspect of this portrait is the emphasis on the role of women. During a cab ride towards the end of the film, the driver and some passengers debate the roles of men and women in a society where tradition remains ingrained even as a few changes are beginning to shake things up. A woman in the cab passionately argues that women shouldn't be slaves to their husbands, that it's not the woman's duty to be a maid or a housekeeper, and that men should help out their wives. The driver and another man argue against her, trying to maintain that men earn the money while women should stay at home and keep the house in order. But as the woman points out, this strict division of labor is no longer always true, as women begin to work outside of the home, too — a situation that calls into question the codification of the man as the worker and the woman as the child-rearer and housekeeper. This exchange suggests a society in flux, a society where new situations and new values are threatening the traditional understanding of men and women. This open, honest exchange is juxtaposed against the buses, where men and women are segregated from one another in separate sections, with one of the film's most charming moments being Mina's observation of the shy, sweet smiles exchanged between a young man and a young woman, separated from one another across the bus but connecting anyway with their glances.


The subtext of the film is rebellion against what's expected. Mina rebels against the film crew, against the instructions of her male director — and Panahi continually inserts little jokes at his own expense, to undermine his authority as director. Mina is a fiercely independent young girl, in both incarnations of her character. She is occasionally helped along in her long odyssey home, but more often she resists the condescending help of the adults around her. She wants to find her own way, even though she's hopelessly lost and doesn't know the names of any streets, only being able to navigate by her memory of certain landmarks. Though dwarfed by her surroundings — she has to clamber up the wall of a phone booth to put her coin into the phone's slot before making a call — and obviously overwhelmed by the rushing traffic and chaotic crowds that surround her everywhere in the city, she tries to contain her fear. She asks many people for help, but she wants only limited assistance. She doesn't want to be delivered anywhere, she just wants directions and then she can go running off, her head down, her little feet pumping rapidly as she runs with a sense of purpose even when she has no real idea where she's going. The patter of her feet on pavement, captured by the microphone that the film crew leaves on her when they follow the rebelling young actress, is a recurring sound on the soundtrack, even when Mina herself dodges out of view behind traffic or gets lost in the crowds on the sidewalk.

More than anything else, the film is about the frenetic energy of Tehran, packed with cars and bikes and pedestrians, a dangerous and active city where frequent accidents — at one point a smashed car is lifted out of the center of a traffic jam with a crane — only add to the confusion. The people Mina meets on her journey home are often interesting in their own right, with their own stories and their own concerns, from the General's anxiety about his relatives' fashion choices at his son's wedding (he seems to think that their old-fashioned style will embarrass him) to the musician who used to earn his living by dubbing the voice of John Wayne in imported American films. Although overt commentary is impossible, Panahi seems to be implicitly examining the state of modern Iran, suggesting submerged clashes between modernity and tradition, between homegrown and outside influences.

Panahi, who was recently arrested by the Iranian government and effectively banned from making films, uses his unassuming pseudo-documentary style to consider the changing roles of women in this traditionalist country. The film is utterly apolitical on its surface, and yet at the same time it is unquestionably a film with a real social consciousness, an alertness to the ways in which ordinary people live their lives, the pressures they face from the intersections of religion, tradition and more modern influences. Mina, though she wears the head-scarf and clothes of a traditional woman or girl, seems like a thoroughly modern woman in terms of attitude: self-sufficient, bold, reluctant to bow to the demands of her elders. Panahi, from behind the camera, displays the same traits, the same determination, and if he is truly prevented from making any more films by the Iranian government, it will be a great loss, not only to the Iranian people — who need an artist this sensitive, this perceptive, this creative — but to the entire world.

Frankensteinia for the Rondo

The Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Awards are entering their ninth year and remain fan-based in both their nominations and awards. One of the awards handed out, the one that concerns this piece, is for Best Blog. One of the 25 nominated blogs, Frankensteinia, run by Pierre Fournier, has my support to win the top honors this year, as it had my support last year, though it did not win. Last year that honor went to Max Cheney of The Drunken Severed Head, an excellent blog in its own right. This year, Max e-mailed me to let me know he was endorsing Pierre and hoped I would again, which of course I do.

Frankensteinia is a blog of superb distinction and the amount of detail, devotion and love that Pierre Fournier pours into it deserves, at long last, to be honored. I have rarely come upon a blog so thorough in content, so pristine in quality and so sincere in devotion to its subject as Frankensteinia. If you find yourself obliged to vote for the Rondos, please make your way to the ballot for Best Blog and cast your vote for Frankensteinia. Thank you.

And While We're At It...

See the post above for my support of Pierre Fournier of Frankensteinia for the blogging award from Rondo. But if I may bitch for just a second...

I have some blogging buddies, four in particular, not nominated that should have been. See, what bugs me is that there are 25 nominees and yet no room could apparently be found for Arbogast on Film, Love Train for the Tenebrous Empire or Billy Loves Stu. Cinebeats wasn't nominated either and even though I have always viewed Kimberly's excellent blog as a period blog rather than a genre blog (Kimberly doesn't focus on horror any more than I do) she still writes about it as much as some of the nominees and, well, she's better at it and has more passion than most of them put together so I say, "Nominate her!"

But I also want to say this about Arbogast on Film, acknowledging that this in no way takes away from my love for Kimberly or Pax or Kate and the excellence of their blogging pursuits: Arbogast of Arbogast on Film is one of the best goddamn writers out there! One of the best writing about film you will find anywhere, in fact. His insight, style and wit are wonders to behold and if an entire group of horror fans can't muster up enough intellect to see that then to hell with all of them.

Seriously, the blogs nominated make for some good reading and good analysis but next year, dammit, can we get some freakin' love for Arbo, Kate, Pax and Kimberly please?!

The Week in Retreat

The For the Love of Film Noir winds down today but please, keep giving if you can.

This past week represented a slight retreat from the blog for me as I let the blogathon, run by Marilyn and Farran, take center stage here. I was going to write more, much more, but then pulled back at the last moment.

My wife and I saw Scarlet Street at the AFI a couple of months back as a part of a noir retrospective touring the country and I was going to write that up but then noticed several Scarlet Street posts and realized I'd add nothing new except how awesome the movie-going experience was at the AFI, which isn't exactly news to anyone coming here as I regularly sing its praises on these pages.

And I saw more Oscar nominees and decided that, once again, I feel out of step with the passion guided towards some movies and the apathy towards others. I found myself upset at the state of writing in print and online and decided I was going to write about that, and the nominees, all together in one big mess of a post. And I will, though perhaps not all at once. I found myself bitching to friends about all of it, from Bill to Arbogast, and making jokes on Facebook about this week being "Anger Week" at Cinema Styles as I vent all my frustrations.

Of course, as expected, given time, much of the anger dissipates. Still, I've got a few things I'd like to say, and will, this week. But more importantly, give whatever you can to the Film Noir Blogathon. I know times are tough (my wife and I still haven't recovered from me being out of work for a year and trying to get a kid through college) so any amount is okay, and welcome. Thanks.

The Sound of Fury


[This is a contribution to For the Love of Film (Noir), the second Film Preservation Blogathon hosted by Ferdy on Films and Self-Styled Siren. The blogathon has been organized for the benefit of the Film Noir Foundation, who do important work to restore and preserve the noir heritage. Please consider donating to the Foundation during this week. The blogathon will run from February 14-21, and during this time I'll be posting about some noirs to raise awareness of the blogathon and its worthy cause. The film I'm writing about today is the actual film that is going to be preserved and restored due in part to the efforts of this blogathon; every dollar contributed through the blogathon donation link will go to restoring this film.]

Cy Endfield's The Sound of Fury is based on the same true story as the Fritz Lang-directed Fury from fourteen years earlier, and both films are concerned with the mob mentality of lynchings and revenge. The films approach this story from very different angles, though, and they wind up being completely different films with somewhat overlapping themes. In Endfield's film, Howard Tyler (Frank Lovejoy) is a struggling family man with a pregnant wife (Kathleen Ryan) and a young son. Tyler is determined to find a job, but in a depressed economy he's not having much luck, and all his prospects come to nothing. When he returns to his home after a failed job-hunting trip, it's heartbreaking to see the hope and joy in his wife's face when she momentarily thinks that he's found something, as though she's been restraining her worries for so long that they finally burst out in a brief burst of hope. As in Lang's film, economic pressure is at the forefront here, straining what would otherwise doubtless be a good relationship, but unlike in Fury, Tyler is not an innocent man. Tyler cannot resist the temptations of crime, not when he can't find any other job, not when his wife breaks down crying at their kitchen table because they don't even have the money to buy groceries and they're quickly running out of credit. So when Tyler meets the smooth-talking Jerry Slocum (Lloyd Bridges), initially thinking that he's being an offered a straight job at last, he decides to become Slocum's accomplice on a series of gas station holdups.

This is an archetypal noir scenario, the basically decent man who's corrupted by his circumstances. What's interesting about The Sound of Fury is the sympathy that's developed for Tyler, even as he willfully abandons his decent suburban life in favor of an escalating crime spree. He increasingly exists only at night, leaving behind his home and the daytime, spending his nights behind the wheel of a getaway car, watching Slocum rob gas stations and return to the car with fistfuls of bills. Endfield captures this ordinary guy's moral degradation with a direct, emotional style, contrasting Tyler's guilty conscience and hesitation against the smirking, sinister Slocum. Bridges seethes with intensity here, initially coming across as simply a cheery huckster — and something of a dandy, admiring his muscles in a mirror as he smears on cologne and puts on his silk shirts — who eventually reveals much darker undercurrents. The first scenes between Slocum and Tyler are staged like a seduction, as Slocum takes Tyler back to his apartment, where he shows off his wealth and his muscular torso. It almost seems like a gay come-on, but really what Slocum wants is to lure his prey into being his accomplise.

The darkness lurking beneath this dandy persona comes to the fore when Slocum hatches a plot to bring the duo's criminal partnership to the next level by kidnapping a rich man's son and holding him for ransom. The kidnapping is one of the film's best sequences, a tense and shadowy nighttime set piece as Slocum and Tyler kidnap the rich young man and try to stow him at an abandoned military base while awaiting the ransom's delivery. Of course, the plan goes wrong almost instantly, and Slocum reacts with a horrifying act of violence, fully revealing the raving evil that had been lurking just beneath the surface of his slick gangster image. Tyler tries to stop his partner, but when he fails Endfield frames Tyler in the foreground, his head in his hands, sobbing in despair and weakness, as in the background Slocum pounds a rock, brutally and repeatedly, onto the head of their victim.


The film also deals, like Lang's, with mob violence and the threat of lynchings. Throughout the film, Endfield occasionally intersperses Tyler's story with scenes involving the reporter Gil Stanton (Richard Carlson), a yellow journalist who believes that he's performing a valuable public service by stirring up public sentiment and appealing to the public's most virulent emotions. Stanton's editor convinces him to drum up circulation by exaggerating Slocum's scattered gas station robberies into a massive crime wave perpetrated by a vicious criminal gang. This is only the start of the newspaper's complicity in creating a public atmosphere conducive to punishing the criminals in the most violent possible way. As in Fury, these scenes are extremely didactic, hammering home the point that the justice system shouldn't be subverted, that innocence is presumed until a fair trial proves guilt, that journalistic sensationalism inflames ugly emotions by appealing to the worst in people. Stanton's friend (Renzo Cesana) provides the moralistic voice delivering these sentiments, lecturing his friend — and the audience — about the importance of fair trials and the dangers of the media's influence. Such concerns seem almost quaint now, in an era of widespread media saturation and sensationalistic coverage of everything and anything, but this film presents exaggerated newspaper headlines as though they're capable of tearing apart the fabric of the world.

As a result, the film's climax takes on a hysterical tone as the jail where Tyler and Slocum are being held is surrounded by a massive angry mob, eager to pull the two criminals outside and enact mob justice without waiting for the courts. The soundtrack becomes shrill and deafening, dominated by the crowd's screams and the frazzled rants of Slocum as he rattles around in his small jail cell. The contrast between the resignation of Tyler — who knows that he's done wrong and feels crippling guilt as a result — and the caged-animal rage of Slocum creates a compelling tension in the scene, even beyond the slow-building tension of the mob gathered outside. The roar of the crowd, the constant noise clattering on the soundtrack, abruptly cuts off for the quiet finale as, nearby, the sheriff and the newspaper reporters wait helplessly as the crowd drags Slocum and Tyler away to be killed. The eerie silence of the scene is shattered twice, with a distant cheer like at a sporting event, one cheer for each man who's dying. It's a chilling scene, with the seeming joy of the crowd contrasting awfully against the horror of what they're celebrating.

Also very compelling are the earlier scenes in which Tyler and Slocum, before they're caught, go out with two girls, Hazel and Velma (Katherine Locke and Adele Jergens), as cover for their mission to mail the ransom note in a neighboring town. The justification for this outing is narratively flimsy, but what's fascinating about it is how Endfield briefly pulls the focus off of the main story to focus on these two girls, who know nothing about the kidnapping plot and simply think they're going out on a fun date. Velma is Slocum's long-time girl, a statuesque good-time girl whose relationship with this unpredictable sociopath is as volatile as expected, alternating between steamy passion and bouts of anger and mutual violence. Hazel is very different, a shy and lonely woman who says she's saving herself for marriage, and who immediately clings to Tyler despite his brooding manner. The scene where the two women prep for their date, chatting and exchanging their hopes and dreams about the happiness and glamour they'd like to experience, is an interesting moment precisely because it's so peripheral to everything else that happens, an acknowledgment that these characters, who would be mere plot devices in any other movie, have lives and dreams of their own. (Interestingly, the two girls are much more thoroughly developed than Tyler's weepy, melodramatic wife, an utterly boring personality vacuum.)

In the end, The Sound of Fury is a fine noir that chronicles the descent of a normal guy into crime, driven there by economic desperation, and though the film is unflinching in examining the consequences of Tyler's weakness, it's also a bold plea on behalf of justice and order, a rejection of the bloodthirsty drive for revenge. Endfield's film is very much deserving of the restoration effort being conducted by this blogathon and by the Film Noir Foundation. As one can no doubt see from the screen captures included with this post, the film, with its heavy blacks and dark atmosphere, is definitely in need of a restoration so that one could descend, with Tyler, more completely into the inky blackness of his sad fate.