Archive for April, 2012

h1

Slacker – The Austin Scene

04/27/2012

Boy is this a weird one.  The mumbling philosophical dilemmas of every generation’s young people are manifest in this 97-minute effort by writer/director Richard Linklater.  There is a story, but it’s near invisible.  There is a plot, but it seems designed specifically to keep us from acknowledging it.  I wonder if it inspired Seinfeld in its love of nothingness.  Both are driven by zany conversation.  But there is deliberation here.  Nothing is random, and judging from how easily the camera follows the blocking, I’d say that everything has been heavily rehearsed.  Still, the impression is of a voyeur.  The point of view may not be omniscient, but it is roaming.  That really is the heart of this film.

I imagine that when writing this script, Linklater probably walked around Austin simply hanging out with folks and hearing what they had to say.  I also wonder if he wrote the script based on locations that he saw every day, or if he found the locations after writing the script.  At any rate, the changing buildings and locations serve as new characters, each with their own stories.  For instance, one character walks into a diner full of crazy people, and then walks out.

I do not know who this character is.  All I know is that his appearance is precipitated by a mystic woman’s warning: “the next person who passes us will die in a fortnight.”  And sure enough, as soon as he’s off-screen we here a car screech to a halt with the driver yelling, “get out of the road!”

It seems as though the film is a compilation of points, punctuating what it means to be a part of a sub-culture.  If you were to listen to it, you may not even realize how many speaking parts are in the film.  All the characters are basically having the same conversations.  I sense that the conspiracy guy from the 15 minute mark might get along well with the two stoners debating the capitalist propaganda in Scooby Doo.

The goal of this movie appears to be a celebration of the meandering lifestyle.  Characters have impulses, passions, and interests that exist outside of the film narrative.  Our voyeurism takes us into and out of their lives.  Yet the pacing is still very deliberate and the emotional rhythm has just as many ups and downs as any traditional narrative.  If you were to structure it all out, you would see a heightening of tension as the film progresses.  Characters make fun of each other, the conflict with each other.  There is a broad paranoia at work concerning the government and the media.  One character mentions missing persons, whom we never find, but we do see signs posted up on walls reminding us of their absence.  Another character attempts to rob an old man’s house, only to find himself confronted by the world’s most articulate anarchist.

What does this do for the audience experience?  Well, as one character says, “you’re either with us or against us.”  If you are not a youthful vagabond in early 90’s Austin, you may not find yourself at home with this film.  There is however, something timeless about that age-old frustration with the previous generation’s failures.  Every young person is looking for his or her way to contribute something great.  But when all the old people are telling you to go away and “do something with your life” you are faced with a choice: to submit, or to rebel?  Not all the characters in the film are young however.  The anarchist is much older, but still seems to find a place with the youngsters.  He embraces their rebellious attitude, and welcomes the idea of being stolen from.

The film takes us through a full 24 hour period (and then some) by starting with a young man’s arrival at the bus station in Austin, and then ultimately culminating with a group of film students that drive off into the country to film random bits of fun.  Its as if the final moment is a “Gotcha!” style punch line.  We came into it expecting something profound, but ultimately it’s a film made by the characters it portrays – slackers.

h1

Editing in Memento

04/27/2012

Christopher Nolan’s sophomore film, Memento, is arguably a giant experiment in editing.   It re-invents the needs of montage editing for its own narrative purposes.  By opening the film in reverse, then playing subsequent scenes in not only the wrong order, but in the reverse order, Memento forces the viewer to reevaluate everything previously established in montage technique.

The editor of the film, Doty Dorn, has said in interviews that her first responsibility as editor was to read the script several times.  This is not normally the case with editors, who are more concerned with daily footage than over-arching plot.  It is up to the director to decide the plot, the editor just assembles the cuts . . . normally.  But in this film there is a special relationship between the editing and the story.  The editing, more than the camera even, is what puts the viewer inside the character.  There are aids, like Guy Pierce’s voice-over, but really it is in the pieces of information that are given at the beginning and end of each scene that helps us to find our footing.

Each scene opens on some clearly identifiable object, a memento, if you will, that we must immediately observe and interpret to acquaint ourselves with our surroundings.  It makes the viewer hyper-conscious of visual exposition.  Our brains focus on the seemingly mundane aspects of these characters lives – what sort of drinks they have, or how they’ve done their hair.  This creates an inner feeling of intensity, and contributes to an overall sense of paranoia.  Anyone could be a liar; anyone could be a friend or a foe.

Within each scene, there is a clear aim to direct the audience’s attention to specific things.  For instance, during the sequence where Guy Pierce’s character is burning his wife’s possessions, there are frequent close-ups specifically of these things.  Following the “Hitchcock Rule” that says the largest object in the frame is the most important, it cues the audience to place value on those otherwise insignificant objects.

What we can take from this is that Nolan has placed within us a sense of Persistent Reveal, where we are ever conscious of the revelations being given.  This expositional technique is also used in shows like Lost, and Nolan’s other film, Inception.  By opening on mystery and maintaining a progression of revelation, Nolan makes us feel as if we are detectives, investigating correctly and putting the pieces together based on new pieces of evidence.

If the story were told in chronological order, the movie would show its flaws quite readily.  For instance, played in order, there is no real character arc.  Guy Pierce’s character is just floating along on a vendetta that he’s barely invested in, having only assumptions based on tattoos.  If played chronologically, the film has no resolution in relationships between characters.  You would see Carrie Ann Moss be mean to Guy Pierce, then sleep with him, then help him, then nothing.  There is no real resolution.  In fact, and I’m sure this is deliberate, Carrie Ann Moss’ character only fits the “femme fatale” archetype when played in reverse, because if you play the film in order, she fits more the romantic interest type.

As a whole, the editing in Memento does a good job of taking you through the paces and energies of a traditional noir narrative, but the fact that it does so in reverse demonstrates an understanding of the relationship between structure and the audience rather than structure and the character arc.  In a traditional narrative of any genre, the character arc is directly tied to the structure.  As inner conflict increases, so does outer conflict.  But Memento plays these things against each other.  Guy Pierce’s character has very little growth from scene to scene, as he must identify himself anew, each time.  This allows him to explain his “memory problem” to characters at the end of the story, but at the beginning of the plot.

As the outer intensity increases (shootouts with drug dealers, etc) the editing gets faster and more intense.  But in the more meditative parts of the film, the cutting is slower.  This is a story where all the most intense parts happen toward the beginning, and the less intense parts happen at the end.  But with the plot showing this backwards, it creates the growing intensity we’re used to experiencing in these types of films.

h1

The Scorpion and the Ants – A Meditation on The Wild Bunch

04/25/2012

Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch is a profound deconstruction of cinematic violence.  Sequences of impressionistic violence are punctuated by zooms, quick-cuts, slow-motion, POV shots, and 180 line breaks.  He uses the sort of techniques that can only exist in film.  His edit gives you the impression of violence, and has been borrowed by films like Hard Boiled, Bad Boys 2, and The Passion of the Christ.  It is what Alfred Hitchcock would call “pure cinema.”

The film’s opening title sequence is a montage of men in soldiers’ uniforms marching into town.  Along the way, they pass some children who are watching a scorpion fight what looks to be a million little ants.  It is a classic example of a superior power overwhelmed by a larger number of opponents.  The scene goes on in an all-too-regular sort of way.  We see the soldiers bump into an old lady, but politely pick up her things and walk her across the street.  It doesn’t take a cineast to see that something bad is about to happen.

Our first clue really is in the titles themselves.  They splash onto the screen with a noise and aggression that is unfounded in the relative calmness of the scene.  And sure enough, when they walk inside that railroad office, they get mean.  On the adjacent rooftops is a gang of bounty hunters, who have set an ambush for the robbers.  The only thing stopping them from cutting down the mock-soldiers is a parade of Church people, walking through the street after a morning service.  But when the ambushers are spotted, there is a blitzkrieg.

The following ten minutes are a nauseating compilation of violence.  The geography is confusing.  There appears to be no relation between shots of men firing weapons and shots of people dying.  To quote an old Monty Python film, “Let’s not worry about who killed who . . .”  After all, we are only a few minutes into the film, we don’t even know who to root for yet.  It is the sensory experience that matters, not the narrative experience, at least not yet.

The sequence is edited in such a way that prevents us from ever feeling comfortable.  Peckinpah clearly understood how quickly audiences adjust to what’s onscreen.  As long as there is some consistency, audiences will relax.  But Peckinpah used precise inconsistency to throw off this comfort.  This meant relying on many different film techniques, especially ones that are never intercut.

Slow-motion photography does not cut well with zoom-pans.  But that’s the point.  It hurts to watch.  A zoom-in is intercut with a zoom-out that is intercut with a stationary shot of a woman being trampled by a horse.  This aggressive editing is specifically designed to present you with the simultaneous awe and disgust of the violence onscreen.  Even the prolonged length of the scene is designed to rob you of your standard sense of relief.

Some commentators have mentioned that the extensive violence seems out-of-keeping with the film’s story, which does not necessitate such extended sequences.  But it is squarely within the director’s purpose to extend and exaggerate the experience, to de-sanitize it.  The film is about violent men living violent lives that end violently.  The content is tied directly to this theme.  These characters choose this way of life.  They see something in it that we do not.

The film never really tells us what they enjoy about shooting each other to pieces, but I imagine it has something to do with the camaraderie they share.  There is a strong theme of loyalty that runs deep through the film, and counter to that is the theme of betrayal.  Our main character is Pike Bishop, the leader of the Wild Bunch.  He has a number of flashbacks to those he’s betrayed.  By his words, we see that he is either in deep regret of those instances, or he is a hypocrite who keeps the others around for his own protection.  Judging from the final scene, I’m inclined to say it’s the former.

The third act of the film concerns the group’s decision to abandon one of their own to the torturous intentions of a corrupt Mexican general.  At first they leave him.  Then they try and buy him back, to no avail.  Finally, after attempting (and failing) to relax with some prostitutes, they turn back with guns raised – ready to for the bloodbath to end them all.

There is tremendous significance to Pike’s decision here, and it speaks volumes about his character.  After the first heist turns out to be a bust, Pike laments that he wanted one final score before he retired from his criminal ways.  His friend rebukes him and reminds him that for men like them, there is no other life.  Thus, at the end of the film, Pike is faced with the decision to either accept a ton of gold and leave his friend to be killed, or abandon the money and finally step up to show the loyalty he always prized, but never demonstrated.

While attempting to relax with the Prostitute at the end, Pike is distracted by a crying baby.  He looks back and forth between the young woman and the child; they represent the family he might one day have, if only he abandons his friend, as he has several others before, he could settle down with his gold and grow old.  But here, at the end of his life, he chooses loyalty, and this choice gets him killed.

Like the scorpion at the beginning of the film, being eaten slowly by ants, Pike seems near invincible.  The final death toll is colossal, and is punctuated by frequent cut-aways to children and women, some of whom become collateral damage.  The children at the beginning of the film controlled the violence with the scorpion, even to the point of laying burning grass on top of it.  But in the real violence, the children have the least control.  If the fire on the scorpion symbolizes all-encompassing gunfire, then we may consider that perhaps the children symbolize The Wild Bunch.  They take joy in violence they control, but are vulnerable to violence that they do not.

So is Pike’s loyalty really to his friend?  Or is it to the violent lifestyle that he knows he can never leave?  Either way, he and his pals recognize that the two in this case will be synonymous.  And to show loyalty will mean a violent certainty.  But at least it is, if anything, certain.

h1

In The Bedroom – the one about acting

04/25/2012

Some films are about the fantastic.  The performances in them are based on the audience’s need for connection.  But in any drama there is a need for something else.  You might call it an artistic distance.  For films where the actors need to “become” the characters, there will always be something about the performance that is different, in an uncomfortable way.

Human beings have natural nuances that are less than flattering.  We don’t look, sound, or behave as “coolly” as characters on the big screen.  We snot, wince, and stutter.  Tom Cruise would never do that, would he?  After all, one of the great appeals of the cinema is that it can offer us “life with all the boring parts cut out,” as described by Martin Scorsese.  But what happens when we are thrust into the lives of those characters that share our negative qualities?

There is a certain hypnosis to empathy.  When we sense that someone like us is in a situation that seems possible to us, then we automatically project our sensibilities into their decisions, and participate with their life events.  All storytelling works on this principle.  And good actors will present their actions in a way that is conducive to this character/audience relationship.

The performances in In The Bedroom have that sort of hypnosis.  They draw you in with little subtleties.  The wandering eye-lines, stuttering dialog, and inconsistent intonations all serve to take the perception of intellect out of the action.  Real people are impulsive.  We rarely think about the little things we do.  Any heavily rehearsed action is easily discernable because of how clean and deliberate it is.

These actors have done away with any semblance of forethought.  Their instances of shock and romance have all the nuances of reality.  If you follow their eye-lines, you can see their realizations.  It is easy to participate in these characters decisions, precisely because these nuances feel so real.  The reactions they have are as close of a representation of what we might be like in that situation as I can imagine.

Posture and blocking is a big part of all this.  We follow the little head bobs and fist clenches.  These little actions represent the tracking marks for the Audience Bond.  The plot offers these characters only a handful of major choices for the audience to participate in, but the little blocking moments fill in the gaps.  You can tell a lot about these characters based on where they’re looking.

In one scene between Tom Wilkinson’s character, Doctor Fowley, and a Prosecuting Attorney, we are given very deliberate close-ups of what the doctor is looking at.  He doesn’t seem to be listening to what the lawyer says.  Instead he is distracted by the lawyer’s nonchalant mannerisms, such as the way he plays with his car keys.

Another example is when Mr. and Mrs. Fowley have their big fight in the kitchen.  She focuses her physical attention on the dishes, inputting a few harsh critiques of her husband’s apparent lack of mourning.  He starts to leave the room, but is brought back in by the insult.  As he slowly loses his patience, he investigates what she meant by her remark.  At this, she smashes her plate on the floor and runs out of the room.  The physical beat marks a change in dramatic tone and shifts action to a new location.

The motions give us a sense of subtext.  Is she leaving because she can’t stand her husband?  Or is it because she she’s hiding from something.  This particular instance in the story is probably caused by the subconscious need for revenge.  In their case, the need is unsatisfied by the courts, and they are unable to see the punishment of their enemy.  Is it possible that they replace that enemy with each other?  Perhaps the insults they throw at each other are coming from this need for vindication.  They can’t punish the real criminal, so the punish each other.

The audience is involved in all of this.  We are sympathetic to both sides, and even empathetic to them as well.  As the characters proceed through their grief, we share their search for answers.  And at the end of it all, we may not understand why we are in this place, but at least we have some satisfaction by joining in the character’s need for revenge.

h1

Femme Fatales in the Work of Billy Wilder

04/05/2012

The movies Double Indemnity and Sunset Blvd. are two of the most notable examples of classic Film Noir archetypes.  They have all the major pieces associated with the genre, voice-over narration, sassy dialog, contrasting visuals, and the femme fatales.  The hero is led into a murderous plot, thanks to a manipulative woman.

The principal character in Double Indemnity is Walter Neff, an insurance salesman who lustfully falls for Phyllis Dietrichson, and plots with her to come up with an insurance scheme where they kill her husband and make off with all the life-insurance money.  In Sunset Blvd. the lead is a down-on-his luck screenwriter who ducks into what he thinks is an old abandoned mansion, only to find out that it is still lived in by one of the classic silent film stars.

 

The women are basically simple.  The first is Phyllis Dietrichson, a wife and stepmother.  She has dreamt of her husband’s murder for some time, but it is only when she meets this new man that she thinks her dream can become a reality.  And with the Gloria Swanson character, the woman has a goal (to return to the cinema) that she is unable to achieve until the male protagonist enters her life.

In both these cases, these women are, in a way, classically dependent upon their male partners.  But there is stark contrast here between this sort of dependency and the traditional damsel in distress scenario.  These women are trapped by their own ambitions.  It is the inner foe that enslaves them.

This reversion of dependency has garnered widely different reactions amongst feminist commentators.  Some see this as a growth in female independence and identity.  Others consider the femme fatale archetype to be the epitome of chauvinistic sexism.  But no one can deny that the women in these films are the strongest motivators of plot.  These women are assertive.  They are pushers, movers, and shakers.  They will overcome a man’s will and conform it to their own.

There’s a certain sexual subtext here that one cannot ignore.  In traditional male-based protagonism, the woman’s role is supportive to the male’s more dominant desires.  But in any story with a femme fatale, it is the man who becomes dependent on the woman.  In the case of Double Indemnity, it is lust that keeps him tethered to her.

But in Sunset Boulevard, the appeal is something else.  He does not appear to be attracted to her physically, and in his voice-over he even describes being repulsed by her.  But he stays with her, and is even mothered by her.  She dresses him and feeds him.  She daily proclaims her love for him.  And despite his shame, a part of him sort of likes it.  Joe Gillis, the screenwriter, has always dreamed of Hollywood success.  Now, through his relationship to the femme fatale, he can experience it.

 

The relationships between the men and women in these films is toxic, to say the least.  These films are not nearly so much about murderous plots as they are cautionary tales about poisonous relationships.  They demonstrate the step-by-step process of falling head over heels for a girl, only to realize that she’s gotten you killed.

Are these roles sexist, as some have suggested?  The question really lies in whether or not a negative archetype is the same thing as a prejudicial stereotype.  Femme Fatales are powerful to a fault.  They could represent Wilder’s view of how a relationship might be distorted if a woman is in control.  On the other hand, they could also represent the general negatives of a dangerous attraction.  The roles could easily be reversed to produce a commentary on battered women.

In Sunset Boulevard, the unhealthy relationship with Norma Desmond is contrasted with a growing healthy relationship with a young script reader named Betty.  This is an evolution of the archetype from Double Indemnity, where the hero was exclusive to the woman.  It’s an incredible contrast, comparable to a prostitute falling in love.  He has allowed himself to become Norma’s pet.  She feeds him and tells him where to sleep.  She adores him, but belittles him.

Betty on the other hand looks up to him.  She can’t provide for his material needs, but she loves him.  She represents a choice in Joe’s life: a choice between the body and the soul.  Norma Desmond may have his body, but she’ll never have his soul.  And when he makes this plain by leaving her, she demonstrates her power over him by separating his soul from his body.  We do not really see Betty’s reaction to the murder, but we do know that she is now one of the offended parties.

 

Double Indemnity is similar.  Walter’s body and soul both belong to Phyllis and when he tries to separate from her, he is killed.  Though in Phyllis’ defense, Walter had become a genuine threat to her, whereas Joe Gillis was only a perceived threat to Norma.

As we examine these characters more fully, they produce more depth.  It is for this reason that I am inclined to disregard claims of sexism in Wilder’s noirs.  These characters have more psychological baggage than most other movie villains.  Though I suppose that is in part because being a villain and being an antagonist is not necessarily the same thing.  The women here are not technically antagonists; since they do their best to enable the men they’re with.  But they are most definitely villains.

h1

Dramatic Tone in The Searchers

04/05/2012

John Ford’s The Searchers has gone down in history as one of the most definitive dramatic westerns.  And yet, by today’s standard, parts of it feel remarkably camp and silly.  The heart of the film is rough, dark, and disturbing.  So much so that Ford resorts to broad comic relief in order to offset the depressing effects for his audience.  Movie-going audiences in the 1950’s would simply not have been ready for the thematic darkness that this film offers.

Comic relief has been a traditional means of supporting the audience’s willing projection into the character.  We escape from our world into the west with Mr. John Wayne.  Should that escapism become too disturbing, we will disconnect, and escape back into reality.

In the case of The Searchers, sequences of intense racism and bigotry are played against slapstick.  The comedy is the emotional reverse of the drama.  A modern audience will find that the broad comedy throws them out of the story, but we can tell how intense those darker scenes would have felt to the 50’s audience based on how incredibly broad the comedy is.  After only sixty years of cinema, audiences were simply not accustomed to taking in such subject matter.

For a few decades, the Hays Code was a stark censorship of film that prevented overt portrayals of violence and sexuality.  It protected audience’s sensibilities from cultural “indecencies.”  Thus, in The Searchers, director John Ford had to come up with a way to tell this darker story, subverting the traditional western heroics, without offending this code.  The most obvious way to do this was to soften the blow through comedy.

John Ford plays Ethan, a racist outlaw who seeks to find his kidnapped niece in order to kill her.  Her white purity has been soiled by a forced marriage to Comanche Chief Scar.  His only companion is Martin, a 1/8th Indian boy adopted into the family.  Ethan treats him poorly because of this small racial defect. And yet, he is never framed this way for the audience.  Instead is presented primarily as the vessel for comic relief.

When romantic drama starts to heat up, a bucket of water is poured over Martin’s head.  As the hunt goes on, Martin accidentally marries an Indian woman.  When Ethan returns home after a few years on the hunt, Martin gets into a fight with another comic relief character over the right to marry the village hot chick.  But what people really remember are the moments in between, of harsh racism and bigotry.

John Ford has described The Searchers as a “psychological epic.”  It traverses the landscape of the mind.  As Ethan’s outer journey discovers the darkness of man, so his inner journey uncovers his own darkness for the world to see.  His conflict culminates with him scalping the Comanche war chief, Scar.  From it, he is hardly redeemed.

At the end of the film, Ethan returns home with his niece.  The family opens up to her and welcomes her inside.  But Ethan himself does not enter.  He stands on the porch neither expecting an invitation, nor receiving one.  He would no more welcome himself into that household than he would be welcomed.  Instead, the door closes on him as he turns to face the sunset.  No community will last that is able to abide a bigot.

These tonal shifts represent a tremendous social commentary for the 1950’s.  Audiences were used to western heroes that they could root for.  John Wayne traditionally played the sort of hero that would defend women and children to the death.  This whole examination of racist psychology is a subversion of that heroic ideal.  A subversion that is so grading the normal viewer, that it must be contrasted with slapstick and other cheap laughs.  But a bucket of water on someone’s head is not sufficient to erase the image of John Wayne threatening to kill a young girl.