Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Silence (Mohsen Makhmalbaf, 1998)

(This post is a contribution to the Iranian Film Blogathon hosted by Sheila O'Malley at The Sheila Variations. This blogathon is celebrating Iranian filmmaking in light of the imprisonment of Iranian director Jafar Panahi. I encourage everyone to check out Sheila's wonderful site and read more.)

My familiarity with Iranian cinema pretty much begins and ends with the great Abbas Kiarostami, and though I've only begun to explore his work in the past year or so, he currently stands as one of my very favorite working filmmakers. The Kiarostami film that has arguably had the greatest impact on me and the one many call his masterpiece, 1990's Close-Up, is a fiction-documentary hybrid dealing with an unemployed cinema-obsessed man by the name of Ali Sabzian who, with motivations that remain murky, dupes a family into believing that he is filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, with Makhmalbaf himself making an appearance during the film's remarkably touching climax. Makhmalbaf's career and vast influence in Iranian film culture is touched on quite a bit in the wonderful commentary from Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa and Jonathan Rosenbaum that accompanies the Criterion release of the film, and it got me quite curious to delve into the man's work at some point. And what better opportunity to do so than for this blogathon, with the film of his I selected being 1998's The Silence.

The opening scenes of The Silence ease us into the world of a blind Tajik boy named Khorshid (Tahmineh Normativa) who lives in a small apartment with his mother (Goibibi Ziadolahyeva) and works in a nearby town as a lute tuner for an old man's music shop. As we are introduced to him, Tajik sits alone in his room listening intently to the buzzing of a bee trapped inside a glass jar, and prays for the goodwill of the insect before letting it free. There is a rapping at the door from the landlord, bringing bad news that the mother has five days time to pay the rent or she and her son will be thrown out. And so Khorshid's job, which he is quite good at, becomes more critical than ever, but getting him to the music shop, as we come to find out, is a whole task unto itself. Khorshid is reliant on the help of a slightly older girl, Nadereh (Nadereh Abdelahyeva), to get him to and from the bus terminal, however his world is one of such intense textural and aural pleasure that something as simple as a pretty voice or instrument will capture him and lead him astray from his route, often making him late for work and putting his job in increasing jeopardy. On the first morning after the news of possible eviction, such an incident occurs when Khorshid becomes lost in a marketplace after hearing intoxicating music playing in the distance, and in a beautiful scene pitched with an overwhelming tenderness that will pervade throughout the movie, Nadereh searches for him by closing her eyes and allowing her other senses to take over, a poetic and instinctual act that eventually does lead her to the location of Khorshid.

Makhmalbaf has a real poet's eye for the sensual beauty of nature and its ambiance, and The Silence is rife with moments where this is on display. Perhaps the most striking among them occurs when Nadereh, having delivered the boy to his job, visits a nearby spring and accessorizes herself with pieces from the surrounding forest, taking a pair of cherries that share a stem and draping them over her ears as earrings, and mashing bits of colorful flower petals onto her nails, while the spring water shimmers in the foreground, reflecting the towering trees that surround. She then visits Khorshid in the shop with her new getup, performing a little dance as the boy tunes one of the horribly out of tune instruments, and the rhythm of Khorshid's strumming along with the hypnotic movements of the girl transforms the jangling discord of the unpleasant strings into something beautiful. This type of playful spontaneity is echoed in later scenes when Khorshid finds himself wandering through unfamiliar parts of the city, and instead of asking for directions, he asks the young children pounding pots for a living to pound them in a more rhythmic fashion, something which foreshadows the film's rapturous, orchestral climax. The theme of making malleable our everyday surrounding sounds into something more palpable and pleasurable is further highlighted in a scene where Khorshid rides a young boy's wooden pushcart to follow a musician he has heard on the bus, and Makhmalbaf, as he is prone to do, plunges us into the subjective world of Khorshid. He takes in all of the sounds of the street - the wooden clanking of the cart wheels, the young boy's panting breath, the passing horses and their clapping, and the passing automobiles - and swirls them together, forming a grandly enchanting contrapuntal orchestra being played out right in the middle of the road for anyone who so chooses to tune in.

The loving attention to detail in scenes like those is remarkable, and Makhmalbaf even extends this sentiment towards the supporting characters in the movie as well. If only through brief snatches of dialogue, Makhmalbaf fleshes out his minor players with backgrounds that shade the spare story with complexities, such as in a late scene with the mother, who up until now had only popped in the story briefly to tell Khorshid when the money is due, where she shares with a friend the situation surrounding her son's father's departure from the family, and why the pair are so strapped for cash. There is also a moment when we learn that the old man who owns the music shop had a son who was killed in war, which could go some ways towards explaining his cranky spirit, one that eventually leads to the firing of Khorshid. But despite the fact that Khorshid does get fired, and that the family's bleakly depicted condition doesn't appear to be on the upswing by the end, The Silence is a movie that nevertheless teems with hope and vitality. It's a loving, gentle, sensuous ode to life, one that depicts a world experienced through the prism of an interaction with and a passion for both music and the natural world. It was a wonderful introduction for me to Makhmalbaf's work, and I look forward to further exploring the films of this important and exciting director.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Big Clock (John Farrow, 1948)

(This post is a contribution to For the Love of Film (Noir): The Film Preservation Blogathon, which is being hosted by Marilyn Ferdinand of Ferdy on Films and the Self-Styled Siren. You can go here to read more about the Film Noir Foundation and its efforts to preserve important films for future generations, and you can go here to make a donation.)

The first image is a cluster of New York buildings standing in front of the night, cloaked in shadow, with Victor Young's moody, haunting jazz score in the air. The camera pans up and over the constructions as they become taller, darker, more ominous. Black smoke billows desperately from the chimney of one. The camera finally settles on a specific building, this one well lit, and we sense correctly that it will be the hub of most if not all of the activity that is to follow. It's a brilliant opening, all at once conveying the existential loneliness of the night-time city and the many seedy stories it surely contains, eventually halting at the entry point for the very story it intends to tell us. The building is Janoth Publications. The movie is The Big Clock. And off the top of my head, I can't think of a more sublimely noirish opening scene.

The camera pushes in through a window of this building, a towering publishing empire named after its founder Earl Janoth (Charles Laughton), where we catch up with a man named George Stroud (Ray Milland), sneaking around in the darkness and evading night watchmen as he maneuvers his way towards the company's signature giant clock, which sits in the lobby, synchronized to tell time from all over the world. And from here he will recount the events that led up to his current predicament, one which has him cowering in fear of being shot on sight in the very building he works for.

George, we find out, was editor for the popular Janoth publication Crimeways, where his talents for utilizing throwaway facts from the street help him build up profiles that allow he and his detectives to sweep up criminals who for one reason or another have evaded the police. It's a job which unfortunately brings very little family time, and under the domineering thumb of his tyrannical boss, George has been forced to flake out on his wife and son time and again, not even having as much as a honeymoon to show for his year-long marriage. One day George, fed up with the lack of personal time he is afforded, stands his ground and as a result is fired. He soon finds himself at a bar getting blotto with one of Janoth's mistresses, Pauline (Rita Johnson), where seeds of a blackmail plan against the wealthy mogul are planted. George eventually passes out at Pauline's place (no infidelity is implied), before being roused from sleep and forced to leave quickly. Janoth arrives, and is able only to make out the vague shadow of a man leaving his girlfriend's place, but that's more than enough to create a heated argument between the couple that ends with Janoth bashing Pauline over the head, killing her. The plan is to pin the murder on the shadowy figure Janoth saw leaving that night, and so he re-hires George to help Crimeways catch this mysterious "murderer". Thus, George finds himself in the unfortunate position of conducting a manhunt against himself, and what develops from there on is a rousing psychological cat and mouse game between he and Janoth, who each have everything to lose and little time to spare.

The screenplay by Jonathan Latimer (adapted from a Kenneth Fearing novel, which was also basis for the 1987 Kevin Costner thriller No Way Out) is lean and nasty and darkly humorous, with typically bleak twists and turns, as well as instances of - as Detour's Al Roberts would say - fate sticking out a foot to trip its characters up. The cinematography from legendary John F. Seitz (whose massively impressive body of work includes noir classics Sunset Blvd. and Double Indemnity) is consistently crisp and stylish, his nimble and patient camerawork an excellent meld with Farrow's proclivites for capturing the simple and routine rhythms of daily life in a large publishing company with as much interest as he does the naked existential fear exhibited from his characters. In fact, as suspenseful as the plight of the George Stroud character becomes, for me the most intriguing aspect of The Big Clock is the visual flair given to the large Janoth Publishing building. It is a business atmosphere that quite literally revolves around the precision of time in the form of the titular universal clock, and that same neat precision manifests itself in the characters trim pinstripe attires, as well as the modern architectural designs of the building, where seemingly every room, office, lobby and elevator displays clean rectilinear motifs in the form of patterned walls, furniture and drapes, some of which frequently cast shadows that give off the appearance of prison bars, an analogy that becomes particularly salient once George, having been identified as the murderer and unable to escape, literally becomes a prisoner trapped inside the building. The sleek, meticulous visual world of Janoth Publications and its inhabitants is continuously contrasted against the messier, more humanized outside world, one dominated by smoke, booze, emotional shadows, and the physical and mental clutter of domesticity.

Milland is fantastic in his role as the suffocating protagonist, trapped by the truth, whose intelligence and charm can only get him so far before a whole world of witnesses and various incriminations begins to twist in on him. And the wonderful Charles Laughton is never less than riveting as the slimy and eccentric business tyrant, whose fate is to become literally swallowed into the dark, empty stomach of his empire.

There are those out there who discount the notion of The Big Clock as a true noir because of its lack of femme fatale, its comedic elements and the tidy ending. It's true that there's no incendiary femme fatale present in the movie, but couldn't one easily argue that Laughton's character - duplicitous and destructive, with implied sexual hangups - qualifies at the very least as a twisted version of an homme fatale? And if there is indeed a lack of any fatale-type character, isn't it in service of focalizing with exceptional intensity on one of the most crucial noir character types of all: the innocent male victim, framed for a crime uncommitted, whose life whirlwinds so quickly out of control? And yes, the prevalence of dark comedy present is uncharacteristic of the genre, but it's fluidly integrated into the story and never undermines the tensions of the drama, nor does it ever come across as gratuitous. And as far as the ending goes, and to the extent that it can be called "tidy" or "happy", I would ask one to keep in mind the domestic issues of the characters remaining, and how far they actually are from being solved, as well as this Orson Welles quote: "If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story". The Big Clock remains a unique and impressively crafted entry in the noir canon, one that explores in its own distinctive ways many of the techniques, themes and preoccupations that make up the genre so many film lovers can't get enough of.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Jacket (John Maybury, 2005)

Take a look at the images above. They are examples (among many) of what makes The Jacket so interesting at times. They are from the quick montage sequences that play out as Adrien Brody's character Jack Starks "travels through time". I put that in parenthesis because it's never quite apparent whether the character actually time travels, or whether he's merely experiencing an illusion (or delusion) of the concept; all possibilities pretty much remain open. But what is interesting here, regardless of what is actually going on, is the way the concept of time travel is contextualized in these fleeting, almost subliminal moments in a way that so many movies dealing with time travel neglect entirely or gloss over: they convey the sheer abysmal, abstract horror that the experience of such a process would likely reap on the human psyche. Too many movies, ones more concerned with sprawl and gamesmanship, are saddled with lame, pat side effects accompanying their time travel: nosebleeds, earbleeds, headaches, whatever. But in The Jacket, you might as well lose your mind.

The plot of the movie ostensibly deals with Brody's character Starks, a Gulf War veteran living in Vermont in 1992 after surviving (or did he?) a gunshot wound to the head from a child during combat, for which he was thought to be dead before miraculously blinking back to life on the medics table. As we catch up with him he is hitchhiking the snowy Vermont roads, and stumbles upon a little girl and her mother stranded on the side of the road with car issues. The mother is babbling incoherently and throwing up, clearly either intoxicated or heavily medicated. Starks helps the girl rev the car back to life. He forms something of a close bond with her in the few minutes they spend together on the road, and Starks gives her the dog tags from around his neck before making his way on. Soon after he hitches a ride with a young redneck (Brad Renfro), and eventually blacks out and and suffers a bout of amneisa - a side effect of his brush with death during war - before waking up to find that he's being arrested for the murder of a cop who was shot to death in the middle of the street.

Starks is sent to a mental institution, where he becomes the subject of experiments performed by Dr. Becker (Kris Kristofferson), involving Starks being injected with various drugs, tied up, and shoved into a morgue drawer, where haunted memories flood into his head through some Brakhage-ian filter, and seemingly form a portal that allows his conscious to travel 15 years into the future while his body remains in the morgue in 1992 (it plays very similar to what Lost would do with its Desmond character a short time later). These scenes are among the best in the movie - effectively claustrophobic, utilizing tinny acoustics and various cramped angles that lend a greater sense of urgency and dread. And Brody has the perfect eyes for this kind of scene.

In 2007, Starks (or his conscious, or whatever) meets Keira Knightley's character, a bitter, unpleasant alcoholic with emo tendencies, in front of a coffee shop, and hikes a ride with her. He ends up back at her place because he has nowhere else to go, and discovers (by finding his dog tags) that she is the grown up version of the little girl he met on the road back in 1992. He also comes to discover that he is to be murdered on Januray 1, 1993, only a couple of days from the time where he's still laying in the morgue drawer, and so the thrust of the second half of the movie becomes finding out how Brody's character is killed, by who and under what circumstances.

But the movie isn't really a murder mystery, and neither is it really a time travel thriller. It's not even really a romance either, which it basically positions itself as when Brody and Knightley begin sleeping together. I mean it certainly takes all of those elements of the story seriously, at least on its surface, but what does one make of the many obscure seeds and signs of something else entirely afoot that are planted with consistency all throughout? There are way too many of those to tie the movie down into any one particular reading or genre, creating an elusiveness that only adds to the movie's overall oddity. Obviously the prospect of the whole thing being a Jacob's Ladder-like dying fever dream of a man killed in war hangs over the proceedings (an alternate ending on the DVD confirms this), and then there is also the strangest scene in the movie, where Dr. Becker relates to Starks the story of a former patient who raped and strangled a seven year old girl, and convinced the courts he was sick by climbing into the trees and howling after his heinous act. Throughout Becker's story, the camera is intently focused on Kristofferson's mouth and eyes, sometimes laying them over top of each other, giving the story an air of having far more importance to the narrative than it should. Also during the story Starks acts particularly nervous and twitchy, his eyes rolling around in the back of his head as he makes some ambiguous gestures with his hands. Becker's story ends with this line: "I asked Ted then, if he could remember what the little girl he'd slain was wearing. "Oh yes," he said. "I remember it. I remember it well." And in light of this piece of dialogue, perhaps the movie's title makes a little more sense. The vague creepiness that lies behind the idea of Brody's character romancing a girl he befriended when she was a small child comes into focus a little more. It almost seems in this scene that the filmmakers are setting the movie up to be some sort of Lost Highway-esque psychogenic fugue taking place in the head of a man coming to terms with his illness and horrific crimes, but aside from one ominous shot later on when the camera catches Brody peering up at some trees, it's never suggested again. It's simply one of many transient nuggets that exist in the story, present one minute and gone the next, seemingly designed solely to open the movie up to as many interpretations as possible.

Of course this approach means that it's difficult to discern whether the movie actually has anything to say or not, and I'm not sure that it does at all, but at least it manages to offer up some interesting twists and ideas on the genres it's playing with. Late in the movie, some of the pretzel logic that generally accompanies all time travel movies sneaks its way in, and the scene has to do with Starks - still trapped in the morgue drawer in 1992 - confronting Dr. Becker in 2007, determined to learn how he gets murdered. Becker claims to know nothing of how Starks got (or gets) killed, and he in fact only has one sole memory of the man, but it's one that haunts him. The memory is of Starks emerging from the morgue drawer one day and whispering the names of men who Becker had failed to cure during his career. "Well who do you think told me about them?" says Starks to the '07 Becker. "You did. I'm in that drawer right now. You're haunting yourself, old man." It's a haunting exchange and scene, again highlighting only eyes and mouths, and in it the movie offers up one of its most interesting ideas - the notion of time travel not as the opportunity for knowledge or repair or destruction, but as a form of psychological self-abasement.

The Jacket was released in theaters March 4, 2005 to a tepid critical reaction and very poor box office numbers (the other two movies released the same day, Vin Diesel's The Pacifier and the Get Shorty sequel Be Cool, got just as bad if not worse reviews but made boat loads of cash), and quickly faded away into that ever growing belt of unoriginal, processed Hollywood cinema that comes and goes year after year and is all but forgotten about. It's better than that. Whether the movie is at the end of the day a success - that is to say, whether it ultimately amounts to much more than a jumble of intentional ambiguities and half-formed schemes - I'm still not sure. But it's slyly haunting, never uninteresting, and not without ideas. It's nearly equal parts hackneyed trainwreck and pure inspiration, and that alone makes it more interesting than many movies.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Ford & Faces

Lately I've been working on filling in some holes in my John Ford viewing, which there are sadly way too many of, and one of my most pleasant discoveries yet is his 1933 film Pilgrimage, starring Henrietta Crosman as a crotchety and bitter small town Gold Star mother who makes the titular trek to France to visit the grave of her son who died during combat. It's quite a nifty and frequently enthralling piece of filmmaking, switching modes often and at the drop of a hat, morphing from domestic chamber drama to tragic love story to an overseas comedy of manners to finally becoming a redemption piece, Ford's deft touch and Crosman's endlessly witty performance giving the whole thing a remarkably cogent feel. Aside from the motley narrative, there are plenty of interesting things going on visually in the movie, and in particular I found the opening 15 or so minutes, taking place on Crosman and her son Jim's (Norman Foster) Arkansas farm home, to be the most arresting. Aside from the evident riffs on Murnau that take place, there is an incredibly odd, almost insular bubble-type quality to the way Ford shoots the pair and their neighbors working on the land, as if they are the only humans left on the planet or something.

Anyway, my favorite moment in the film, the one that struck me the most and the one that the three shots above are from, takes place about 20 or so minutes in. Jim, after having already been shipped to war, gets a quick visit with his girlfriend Mary (Marian Nixon) during a brief stop at a train station. Mary reveals that she's pregnant, and Jim pleads with his superiors to give him additional time to go and quickly get married, which he is denied before promptly being wrestled back onto the train. And here the camera cuts to Mary's face as she stands alone on the platform, anxiously watching her lover board the train. He screams out that he's sorry, she screams back not to worry and to write when he can. Neither of them know it will be their last time seeing the other. The camera continues to stay on Mary's face as the commotion reaches a pinnacle, and the train begins to chug. The chugging accelerates, and we can hear the train moving along now, but the camera stays on Mary. She clutches her face and seems overcome with grief - maybe she does know it's the last time they'll see each other. We now hear the train moving along even faster, horn blowing as it shoves off further out from the station, and a weird tension quickly develops because it really feels like the editing should cut to a shot of the train departing, but Ford is relentless, and the camera stays on Mary. Tears have welled up heavily by this point, and just as it reaches an almost unbearable level, the train - way off in the distance by now - toots its horn one more time, as if to give a final goodbye, before Ford finally relieves the suffering with a fade to a war bunker.

Ford's impulse to fix the camera on Mary's face for the entire duration (nearly a whole minute) is brilliant and heartbreaking, elevating into the realm of aching poetry a moment that in the hands of most would serve as mere melodrama. What a scene, what a movie. What a director.