Archive for April, 2010

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“Killer of Sheep,” dir. Charles Burnett

April 22, 2010

A stunning work of naturalism. Make no mistake, this IS a student film, with the rough mechanics and conceptual lapses synonymous with student work, but historically and aesthetically, it’s a remarkable achievement.

It looks and feels very real, but it’s approach also seems very alien compared to other films shot in places like Watts. It’s tempting to compare it to Italian neorealism, but its hazy lyricism, plotless structure and loose interactions place it somewhere between Terrence Malick and John Cassavetes. Some stretches of the film even progress like a dream, and the eclectic choices populating the soundtrack reinforce this sense of surrealism.

Again, the film’s not a seamless experience – parts of it stumble, and several scenes are too clearly acted and (presumably) scripted, betraying the inexperience of its cast. But their best moments are exquisite, like a slow dance to “Bitter Earth,” filmed nearly in silhouette, erupting in unrequited passion and ending in painful alienation.

It’s strange that Burnett can be such a beloved figure of African-American filmmaking, yet few African-American films since “Killer of Sheep” share his sensibility. Burnett himself hasn’t made many films since then, and for a while, most of them were unreleased or wallowing in obscurity. Fortunately, Milestone has brought a good portion of them back into circulation, and thanks to Steven Soderbergh’s generosity (he paid for the music clearances), “Killer of Sheep” is no longer confined to the underground.

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“The Golden Coach”/”Le Carrosse d’or,” dir. Jean Renoir

April 14, 2010

Typically described as a love letter to acting and the theater, this is one of Renoir’s finest, latter-day films. It’s a credit to Renoir’s humanism that his characters can be selfish, impetuous and jealous to an unflattering degree yet remain very sympathetic. It’s even more striking how this sensibility’s reflected in his compositions – they recall the inclusive, democratic nature of his father’s day-in-the-life paintings, where every person is an equally important element in the picture. Like The Rules of the Game, the long shots are often multi-layered compositions that constantly suggest a film divided into multiple worlds – not just in class, but even from stage to reality. The fake mirror gag, the way Camilla, the lead actress, is observed from off-stage, the way characters observe the opposite end of society in rooms or courtyards through partially obstructed windows and doorways…all of this builds to an ending that’s almost cruel in the way it separates the audience from the performers, or “the so-called real life” from the stage.

But up until then, Camilla and the others rarely recognize these divisions, and as they move back and forth between the two, their behavior smears the distinction between performance and reality. The way Camilla expresses her anger through a guitar, the king’s obligatory wig, the obvious refusals to mingle between classes…even backstage, when the actors dress, the dividing sheets are gorgeously designed like the backdrops seen in their shows. It’s a constant reminder of how these people act out their perceived roles in real life as well as on stage.

Actually, the more I think about it, the ending feels more sobering than cruel. If Renoir’s insisting on divisions between the stage and real life, maybe it’s because performance in life is doomed to dissatisfaction. At one point, the king laments that “no one dreams of anything else. Where gold commands, laughter vanishes.” He’s referring to the roles everyone’s mapped out for themselves at the expense of living.

Performance on stage is a different matter. Early in the film, Camilla’s bitter, tired and disillusioned with acting. However, her bitterness is based in professionalism. Even when their financial potential looks particularly grim after a successful performance, a fact that’s hardly lost on Camilla, she returns to the stage time and time again. Not surprisingly, Camilla’s most revealing moments often deal with conscious play-acting – whether it’s mocking societal manners over dinner with the king or, more significantly, when she’s on the other side of a performance, enjoying a bullfight.

Self-consicous stunts can be fairly hollow, as if being self-referential alone will somehow deliver so much more, but that’s never the case here.

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“Citizen Kane,” dir. Orson Welles

April 6, 2010

The most common appraisal I hear from non-majors and casual filmgoers – “Yeah, I can SEE why it’s supposed to be great, but I wasn’t crazy about it.”

So why do I love it? First off, pervasive influence has a bad habit of dimming originality, but the layered virtuosity of how this picture was put together frame-for-frame is still astounding. But stylistic virtuosity means nothing without substance, and a few detractors say Kane is a bit hollow, not much more than a bag of tricks. I think this is partly due to the story, and many say the answer to Kane’s last words simply betray a lost childhood or innocence. I couldn’t disagree more, I think Kane’s life was always empty and shallow.

In the earliest flashback, as his future’s determined inside his parents’ home, he’s playing outside by himself, shouting political slogans he couldn’t possibly understand. When he gets older and powerful, he thinks he’s a crusader for the underprivileged, and he tries convincingly, but it’s not really what he is. As his first marriage grows cold, he tries to be the romantic again, but again, he overidealizes this affair – he even puts too much stock into Susan’s vocal talents.

Whether it’s something small, like trying to be the life of the party, or something grander like romance, professional ambition or reaching for something greater than his own personal interests, Kane never does anything that’s completely and naturally him, it’s always forced. His public stature grows, but he remains as a hollow as ever. Fittingly, his surroundings grow cavernous and empty, and as he slows with age, he drifts further and further from everyone around him, and the people that remain in his inner circle grow fewer as they do distant.

A composite of two shots - notice how the image goes soft around the archway even though it remains sharp deep in the background as well as the foreground.

When he mutters his last word, he’s really grasping at one more illusion. Maybe that explains everything, being denied a normal, loving home as a child…but you know it isn’t true. It sounds too easy, too simple, and I think Thompson himself would agree, even if he found that sled. So in one way, “Rosebud” doesn’t explain anything, because it’s just another lie Kane tells himself. But, as the last and perhaps most romantic fabrication he’s made of his life, maybe it does.