Archive for October, 2009

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“The Searchers,” dir. John Ford

October 29, 2009
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Martha Edwards (Dorothy Jordan) sees her brother-in-law, Ethan (John Wayne)

Despite its canonization, The Searchers has had its share of detractors, and I always felt that the skeptics outnumbered the devotees in my generation. Compared to many of the Westerns made in the past 20 years (the revisionist Unforgiven, the off-beat Dead Man, the politically correct Dance with Wolves), I can understand how someone can dismiss it as “off-putting to the contemporary sensibility.” But such a statement betrays some historical arrogance in one’s taste.

The first time I saw The Searchers, it looked uneven – I thought there was too much shlock, and I believed Ford’s approach was too broad. When I saw it again a few years later, and again a few days after that, all those alleged flaws appeared deceptive, and that’s when I really noticed a subtlety in craft that was powerful as it was economical. The build up to Lucy’s terror, the traumatic moments that are never seen but completely felt, the hatred conveyed in one chilling close-up…Ford knew how to get under your skin without any emotional bullying. But Ford could also be sentimental without crossing the boundaries of taste, and The Searchers can be surprisingly moving. One of the most tender scenes comes near the beginning, when you realize what’s there between Ethan Edwards and his brother’s wife, Martha. A silent, understated miniature, it’s all the more poignant in the way Sam Clayton chooses to witness it. Classic Hollywood has always been lauded for its “invisible style,” an approach to editing and composition that doesn’t draw attention to itself, but this scene is an extraordinary example of this.

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Unfortunately, films with a reputation like The Searchers are often burdened with misguided expectations of perfection, and to be fair, there are some awkward moments in The Searchers. (The wedding near the end comes to mind.) But the biggest mistake you can make is to count the number of flaws instead of appreciating the weight of its merits. For me, it’s one of the first great depictions of racism in a Hollywood film – ambiguous but unflinching and accurate in its complexity. Some critics have even accused the film of racism, a credit to the film’s lack of didacticism.

The story of two men who look for a girl kidnapped by Comanches, The Searchers makes it clear that if she’s alive, the Comanches will probably make her one of their own. As the picture shows the lengths some will go to preserve what’s acceptable in civility, the division between what’s savage and what’s civilized appears more and more precarious.

That wedding may have been clumsy, but it leads up to a startling confrontation between Laurie Jorgensen, arguably the sweetest character in the whole picture, and Martin Pawley, the adopted brother of the kidnapped girl. One-eighth Cherokee, Martin and Laurie are/were lovers, and it’s all the more disturbing that she would say those things to Martin considering who he is.

If there’s anything else I’ve grown to appreciate about The Searchers, it’s John Wayne’s brilliant performance, proof he can be great despite his limitations. No one else could have brought the same weight to Ethan Edwards, one of the most fascinating, enduring characters in cinema. He’s the embodiment of everything mythic and virulent about the Old West – every bit the alpha male while flirting with psychosis.

But when the film ends, he appears unexpectedly vulnerable. Ethan and Martin put everything on the line to find Debbie, sacrificing years without knowing how many more would be spent. They’re the ones who restore their family, but unlike Martin, Ethan can’t be a part of it. He’s always known it, that this was a way of life could never be his, but that doesn’t stop him from ever wanting it. That one small gesture, grabbing his arm before he turns and leaves, tells you everything you need to know. Not many people would consider it a desolate ending – he’s found some measure of peace – but it always seemed tragic to me. Ford films it beautifully, mirroring the beginning, and I don’t think any film has ever had an opening and closing shot more perfect than The Searchers.

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“Shoah,” dir. Claude Lanzmann

October 18, 2009

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A monumental accomplishment, all the more impressive considering the absence of archival footage. Few documentary filmmakers would be willing to make a 9 1/2 hour picture in this manner (even stills were not used), but with Shoah, it never feels likes a restriction. When they teach you about the Holocaust in grade school, it can feel a bit abstract – even taught by a survivor sitting in front of you, it can be a history lesson on something very distant. With Shoah, it feels a lot closer, a lot more real and concrete. Casual, anti-Semitic remarks from ‘present-day’ individuals reinforce this feeling, but much of it is visually accomplished as well. Testimony from surviving witnesses are connected to contemporary visuals, many of which would appear ordinary and mundane in a different context. Visits to quiet, barren sites of mass murders, seemingly lost to nature and time, feel incredibly uneasy.

Watching this film is really an experience, something that really stays with you long after you watch it, and I think that becomes clear in the last 15 minutes or so. A Jewish survivor recalls a moment during the war when he briefly escaped a ghetto and saw normal civilization for the first time in a long time. Lanzmann cuts this with contemporary footage of everday life. Again, in another context, this would seem very mundane…but after watching the first 9+ hours of this picture, seeing this footage while hearing this survivor’s story creates a startling moment of empathy, of feeling so alien to normal, civilized life after emerging from one long nightmare.

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“Far From Heaven,” dir. Todd Haynes

October 15, 2009
Dennis Haysbert (Raymond Deagan) and Julianne Moore (Cathy Whitaker)

Dennis Haysbert (Raymond Deagan) and Julianne Moore (Cathy Whitaker)

Going in, the concept felt odd. Unlike Fassbinder (who re-worked Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows into his own masterpiece, Ali: Fear Eats The Soul), Haynes retains the look and feel of Sirk’s films right down to the smallest detail. The result is neither derivative nor an ironic statement – it’s a loving homage that’s every bit as rich as its sources. And yet even as it keeps all the artifice and heightened drama of those pictures, it’s even more affecting.

The story is a classic portrayal of 1950s suburbia: societal rules suffocates true passions, and it covers them in alluring, manufactured surfaces. Everyone knows their place, to the point that they’re accessories to their own clothes. It’s easy to peg this to a bygone era (and understandably so, considering how impeccably it’s been recreated), but as devoted as the film is to the period’s detail, it never betrays a hint of condescension. Everything is relevant today. Laws and societal conventions may have changed, but the feelings of conformity, the importance given to appearances, and the cost of living in self-denial behind such pretenses have not gone away.

And those costs are all the more tragic by how much is self-inflicted. As tormented as Frank is about his homosexuality, he becomes far more furious when Cathy’s seen around town with Raymond. Believing her innocence is not enough, it’s how they’re perceived that really matters.

Given the importance of appearances to this story, the meticulous production is not only appropriate but very impressive. It’s marvelous to look at, and one gets the sense of the director’s hand in every detail, a misguided notion that’s really a testament to the outstanding collaborative work on display.

Cathy meets Raymond's daughter, Sarah

Cathy meets Raymond's daughter, Sarah

Sandy Powell deserves recognition for Moore’s costume designs alone. Notice how they hint at an inner kinship between Cathy and Raymond’s daughter, Sarah; how a purple dress can isolate her in her own world, then beautifully blend her in to a new one; and later how they swallow her up in public anonymity. All of this works in tandem with Haynes and Lachman’s virtuosic use of color, which do more to define these characters than the dialogue itself. In two key moments, the startling use of green breaks up the visual and behavioral status quo. In another, Cathy, too distraught to speak, is frozen in a tiny sheet of blue. And later, when she hangs on to a marriage that can only slip away, bursts of autumnal warmth scurry through a shot cast in deep, cold blue. This is possibly the best use of color since three-strip went out of fashion, and it needs to be seen in a good theater.

"Far From Heaven"

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“Le voyage du ballon rouge”/”The Flight of the Red Balloon,” dir. Hou Hsiao-Hsien

October 12, 2009

"The Flight of the Red Balloon"

Not as audacious or as rich as Hou’s best work, but rewarding all the same. As gorgeous as, say, Christopher Doyle or Roger Deakins’ work can be, the cinematography here is even more impressive, absolutely stunning in the way complex, layered compositions are captured in the most ordinary settings. The way sunlight reflects over a train window, or how reflections frame the characters inside a café…These aren’t fabrications or alterations rooted in the filmmakers’ imaginations, they’re the result of phenomenal observational skills, and it’s all done with a naturalist aesthetic, using the most basic tools. (Only the obvious tricks involving the reappearing balloon betray any post-production trickery, a fact Hou sardonically acknowledges in the film.)

And like most of Hou’s work, this is a film built around subtle moments – small, fleeting expressions that reveal so much. During one crucial scene – played out in a long, well-orchestrated take – Juliette Binoche’s character, Suzanne, is overwhelmed and nearly pushed to collapse. The payoff comes after the flood of action leading up to that moment, when we witness the gradual changes in Suzanne’s face as she slips away from breakdown and dissolves into contentment, a sea change of emotion in what’s otherwise a slow, uneventful minute. (If you’re not fluent in French, it’s even worth seeing again without the necessary distraction of subtitles.)

Juliette Binoche (Suzanne) in "The Flight of the Red Balloon"

Juliette Binoche (Suzanne) in "The Flight of the Red Balloon"

There’s no escaping the strains that continue to chip away at Suzanne – her husband has been away for years, she has tenant problems and the separation from her daughter is also taking its toll. But she always finds her way back, through her work, through what she sees in Simon (shielded in childhood from the adult pressures she faces) and most importantly through Simon’s babysitter, Song, who’s appropriately enough a Chinese film graduate, making her a virtual stand-in for Hou…

Which brings me to the balloon: unlike the original French short, the actual red balloon in this picture keeps its distance. When it pops up, it’s usually seen outside a window, like an observer. It’s a perfect metaphor for the sensibilities at work here, of one culture gliding through another, and the comfort one now brings to the other.

By the end of the film, art seems to be treasured as a way of capturing something precious and ephemeral, whether it’s those gorgeous visuals I mentioned earlier or a sense of ease that needs to be preserved.

"The Flight of the Red Balloon"

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“Days of Heaven,” dir. Terrence Malick

October 11, 2009

Days of Heaven

Absolutely beautiful. This film’s typically hailed for Almendros and Wexler’s stunning cinematography, but such praise can be misleading, defining the picture as a sequence of pretty postcards.

With Alberta, Canada filling in for the Texas Panhandle, the natural surroundings have been fused with the story’s themes and characters, creating an organic mix that breaks away from the demands of conventional narrative. This is almost a wholly visual experience, where everything floats by with an air of mystery, tantalizing in an opaque richness that’s difficult to articulate even when its strongly felt.

At times, the relationship between characters and landscapes invites comparisons to Michelangelo Antonioni, but whereas Antonioni’s backgrounds seem like direct expressions of a person’s emotions and psychology, the effect here is much more lyrical and abstract. Not since Murnau has a filmmaker crafted a picture like this (and appropriately enough, the film pays homage to Sunrise on at least two occasions).

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The story focuses on three characters engaged in a love triangle, and very little’s laid out in dialogue; most of the words come through voice-overs from a peripheral figure, and even then they’re not there to guide the audience. Like Malick’s previous film, Badlands, a teenage girl supplies the narration, but unlike Holly, Linda’s words have no flowery aspirations. Her tone is remote, and her cerebral, if simplistic, observations create a striking counterpoint to the passionate emotions threatening to consume the film’s central characters.

Early on, Linda recounts apocalyptic stories she’s picked up from someone in her past; when their idyllic life begins to crumble, those fire-and-brimstone images creep into her observations. The film may glow with lush romanticism, but what makes it so extraordinarily alluring is also destructive. Infatuation and marriage is fed then ruined by the same deceit and cold calculation. And just as the landscape’s natural beauty is breathtakingly gorgeous, so is its violent devastation. What seemed so elegiac at first feels more like a ravishing obscenity that looked deceptively sacred.

A perfectly-realized work from an elusive filmmaker, this is a landmark achievement that redefines modern cinema even as it reaches back to an aesthetic nearly left behind in the silent era.

Days of Heaven

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“طعم گيلاس” / “Taste of Cherry,” dir. Abbas Kiarostami

October 10, 2009
Mr. Badi (Homayoun Ershadi)

Homayoun Ershadi (Mr. Badi) in "Taste of Cherry"

When I first saw this, I was bored and completely baffled as to what Kiarostami hoped to accomplish. After watching his other films, his ideas and methods finally took hold.

Whenever a filmmaker makes a choice in storytelling, it usually involves reaching out to the audience and taking control. At worst, it’s manipulative, just pushing the right buttons, but even done with a light hand, it’s still invisibly guiding the audience’s sympathies and emotions.

For Kiarostami, this creates an ethical dilemma, one that informs the conscience of his work as well as his style, and here, he inverts the conventions of filmmaking. There are a few exceptions (such as one late scene that tantalizes us with a potential reversal in the plot), but otherwise, Kiarostami deliberately avoids anything that smacks of manipulation; his choices in composition and editing generally do not nudge the viewer in any clear cut direction.

Active participation is a necessity, but it’s not meant to be alienating or challenging in an elitist way. What’s needed is immersion. There is no plot to unravel (we’re never given a concrete reason as to why Mr. Badii is trying to commit suicide), and this isn’t about sympathizing or grieving over a man’s choice to kill himself. Kiarostami provides only a skeletal framework, and to flesh it out is to figure out what it means for someone to be untouched by life, by surrounding beauty and to feel only a need to die.

With this morbid concept in mind, what otherwise seems mundane or opaque becomes incredibly evocative. It’s often subtle, like the way debris from a labor site suddenly disrupts a motionless shot, trickling down a hillside as Badii watches on. But a few striking instances do call attention to themselves: at the same labor site, Badii’s shadow is seen on a cascade of earth pouring down a grate, and the shape of his figure ripples like it’s in a constant state of disintegration even though it remains intact.

Most people generally avoid the questions at the heart of this picture, and the evasiveness one would expect from any viewer is reflected in the strangers’ unwillingness to assist Badii in his suicide (a fairly minimal task, mostly to confirm his death). One person, a soldier, flees. Another, a religious student, falls back on his faith. A third tries to relate through his own past experience but finds only a superficial resemblance.

When Badii completes his attempt, we’re literally left in the dark regarding his success. That’s when Kiarostami ends the picture with a clear reminder that all of this is fiction. Granted, it did get the film around Iran’s exhibition board, but the ending is far more than a practical necessity. Pulling the film from the brink of manipulation, the final sequence stays true to the film’s original intent, allowing one to walk away with a real lesson in spiritual renewal and not a sense of fabricated despair.

"Taste of Cherry"

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New York Film Festival • “Henri-Georges Clouzot’s ‘Inferno’,” dir. Serge Bromberg

October 5, 2009
Romy Schneider indulges herself in this outtake from "Inferno"

Romy Schneider indulges herself in this outtake from "Inferno"

Bromberg is known for finding rare films that have either been lost or kept from the public for many years. For his latest documentary, he convinced Clouzot’s widow to license him the footage from his aborted production, Inferno.

Bromberg discussed his encounter with Clouzot’s widow when he introduced the film at the New York Film Festival, and much to the audience’s delight, Bromberg kept delaying the start of the picture with his anecdote. It was clear that he and film critic Scott Foundas had rehearsed this little routine, but it was a charming way to open the movie.

According to Bromberg, many people had already approached Clouzot’s widow about Inferno, but she was never compelled to release the footage. She agreed to meet with him anyway, and every time Bromberg believed he had convinced her, she would shoot him down, pushing him to grovel a little bit more.

When Foundas cut off Bromberg, he was recounting his pleas to Clouzot’s widow as she escorted him to the elevator. At that point, Bromberg told us he would finish the story after the show, and when the film started up, the first words we heard were: “Our story begins in a dark elevator in Paris…”

•          •          •          •

When the French New Wave landed in 1959, they apparently raked Clouzot over the coals.* To them, Clouzot was part of the French filmmaking establishment they were rebelling against, and with Inferno, Clouzot was determined to show them a thing or two.

What followed actually recalls the Beach Boys’ SMiLE album; the film was never completed and Clouzot suffered greatly for it (though not as much as Brian Wilson did for SMiLE). But what little survives is revelatory and stylistically audacious.

Most of the unearthed footage appears to be test shots, and as can be expected, the experiments are hit-or-miss. The kaleidoscope effects in particular look very dated, but some effects look absolutely stunning. Coming from Clouzot, it was even more impressive; nothing in his previous work had anything like this. How often do you see an established, successful veteran leaping out of his comfort zone and swinging for the fences?

One of the more fascinating experiments dealt with color – some of the visuals Clouzot had in mind were difficult enough, but he wanted to forgo photographic processing altogether and do everything in-camera. For example, much of the film takes place around a lake, and he wanted to alter the color of the water and the landscape while retaining the actors’ natural skin color. Clouzot apparently accomplished this with the help of body make-up, painting the actors in blue tones so that they would look ‘natural’ on film.

Unfortunately, the production didn’t last long, and very little was ultimately shot. The documentary doesn’t even show any dialogue scenes; instead, Bromberg had to film recreations with Berenice Bejo and Jacques Gamblin, framing them on blank sets.

What we do get is two sequences that are close to completion. Inferno deals with a husband’s pathological jealousy, and both sequences are compelling portrayals of this mindset.

The first one follows the wife through the local marketplace, and it unfurls many of the experiments seen in the earlier test shots. It’s hardly subtle, but it all works, with every trick rooted in the husband’s warped perspective. Clouzot handles everything with just enough discipline to keep it palatable.

The second is far more tantalizing, with the husband observing his wife with another man. This time, a stronger narrative runs through the sequence, and Clouzot’s bold experiments feel wholly organic to the storytelling. For example, Clouzot shifts back and forth from color to black and white, the former representing crazed delusions and the latter reality. Even better are the brilliant compositions scattered throughout this sequence, with the best one involving a train running over a bridge. (When I find a still, I’ll post it.)

The last few minutes of the documentary is dedicated to a series of color shots involving Romy Schneider, who played the wife. Most of these were intended as brief inserts, and Bromberg believes they would not have survived in their entirety had they been edited into the film. Seen uncut, they comprise one saving grace of the production’s failure. (I doubt a slinky has ever been filmed with more suggestiveness).

•          •          •          •

Which brings us to the conclusion of Bromberg’s story. As luck would have it, their elevator was stalled for two hours. During that time, Bromberg and Clouzot’s widow got acquainted on a personal level, and it was only then that she agreed to loan the footage to him.

A year later, when Bromberg showed her the completed documentary, she was visibly upset throughout the entire screening. When the lights went up, Bromberg believed his film would never see the light of day. Instead, she told him, “this is exactly how it happened,” and no changes were ever made to the Bromberg’s documentary.

* Bromberg conceded that Truffaut wrote Clouzot a gushing fan letter, but he said that “Truffaut wrote a lot of letters to everybody…if you went through Leni Riefenstahl’s files, I’m sure you would find a letter from Truffaut.”