Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Wings (Larisa Shepitko, 1966)

Soviet director Larisa Shepitko had only completed four feature films when her life was tragically cut short at the age of forty after a fatal car crash, one that also claimed the lives of four people on her film crew. The first movie to bring her international attention was 1966's Wings, an impressive and deeply considerate elegiac tone poem to nostalgia and the sense of isolation that so often accompanies it . The film follows Nadezhda Petrukhina (famed Russian character actress Maya Bulgakova), a former fighter pilot and wartime hero, as she goes through the motions of her current mundane existence as a school headmistress. Nadezhda comes across as a confident, proud woman, and the character carries these qualities through much of the film's first half, as she marches through the dour day-to-day routines that make up her life, which includes breaking up fights between school children, babysitting her neighbor's kids, and supervising the remodeling of the school house. Nadezhda's personal life is equally drab, and comprised mainly of two significant relationships; one with her boyfriend, a nice but otherwise tepid director of a local museum (which houses an exhibit on Nadezhda herself), and one with her only daughter, a grown and independent minded woman who feels a massive disconnect with her mother, and can barely bother to introduce her to the man she's just married. The pacing of this fist half is measured and the camera observant, and in only a couple of fleeting moments - involving fantasy-laden shots of cloud filled skies - do we get a sense of the angst and restlessness that may lie beneath Nadezhda's sturdy, firm demeanor.

As the film progresses, the layers of Nadezhda's life begin to peel away, and here we get some true insight into the character. We find out that her daughter isn't even her real daughter, and while the circumstances that led up to Nadezhda becoming her mother remain unclear, what is clear is that this is a secret she has kept in terror for a long time, gravely afraid of losing one of the truly important relationships in her life. As Nadezhda slowly becomes more and more drawn into her daydreams of returning to the skies, a narrative begins to form out of these bits and pieces, and we soon realize that the daydreams aren't even really daydreams, that Nadezhda is in fact remembering back on one of the great tragedies in her life - the death of a lover during the war - and so these flashbacks thus become less about Nadezhda escaping her life through fantasy, and more about how she can't even do that without being haunted by her past. The realization that the character is trapped within this poignantly vicious cycle - the drabness of reality feeding haunted memories and vice versa - exponentially adds to the ever-increasing sense of Nadezhda's alienation, something that had only been hinted at up to now. The character continues to display signs of mounting existential anxiety and isolation, and this is often enforced by Shepitko's brilliant compositions which, while they range from tight, cramped interiors to expansive, glorious shots of the skies and airfields and beaches, are all rendered equally bleak by the sheer alien presence of the former fighter pilot, oblivious to her surroundings, a wandering, lost soul with no destination.

Perhaps the most successful aspect of Wings is how Nadezhda is not merely depicted as an existential quandary on two legs, but rather as a feeling human being, capable of complex thoughts and emotions. Bulgakova, with her hard, weary face, delivers an exceptional performance, giving Nadezhda, along with her complexity, a certain grace and dignity, even in her gloomiest moments. The character is firm, but kind; sad but not bitter; and manages to hold her chin up throughout it all. She is even capable of still feeling joy, as shown in the film's most wonderful scene, when Nadezhda wanders into a lonely diner, and soon strikes up a deep conversation with the owner, a woman around her age. Nadezhda bemoans the fact that she's just walking through life, from one place to the next, with no pleasures at all. The owner talks with much vigor and enthusiasm towards life, contemplating how fast time seems to pass and recalling her school days as though they were just last week, a concept that works in stark contrast to Nadezhda's flashbacks that could have been (and in a way, are) from another life entirely. The two women sit, eat and drink, and eventually play a song on the radio and dance with each other, carelessly and with much laughter, as these two polar opposite perspectives on life briefly unite and mingle for one transient celebration of the moment.

The severity of Nadezhda's crisis eventually leads her to her former army airfield, where old buddies greet their war hero with open arms. Thinking that she's experiencing merely a bout of good old nostalgia, the men push her around the field while she sits behind the cockpit of a landed plane, allowing her to feel the wind on her face and possibly get a taste of her former glory. But Nadezhda has something else entirely in mind. For a character that kept her head in the clouds - both figuratively and literally - for much of her life, was there really any other way for it to end? And yet I'd be lying if I said I still didn't wind up with a huge lump in my throat when the inevitable occurs. While the themes that make up Wings - isolation, alienation, responsibility and the reconciliation of one's past with the present - are far from original, rarely if ever are they handled with the level of tenderness and compassion, and indeed effectiveness, captured here by Shepitko. Wings remains a remarkably bold and mature work of great wisdom and vision, directed by a young master who was taken away far too soon, yet still managed to leave an indelible mark on the world of cinema.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Quintet (Robert Altman, 1979)

Robert Altman's 1979 post-apocalyptic sci-fi feature Quintet stands as somewhat of an oddity within the late, great director's sizable body of work. Often dismissed by many as an ill-advised blight on the tail end of arguably Altman's most distinguished and prolific decade (the 70's saw from the director such masterpieces as Nashville, McCabe & Mrs. Miller and M*A*S*H), there nevertheless remains a staunch contingent of Altman devotees who hail the film as an under appreciated masterpiece. I've been a great admirer of Altman since I first watched Nashville when I was younger, and have since slowly worked my way through the majority of his more notable films, finding a lot to love in his quirky, genre-crossing career. After watching - and being blown away by - his 1973 mindbender 3 Women for the first time late last year, I became quite interested in delving into some of the great auteur's lesser known work. The polarizing nature of Quintet, combined with its out-there premise and fantastic cast (Paul Newman, Bibi Andersson, and the great Fernando Rey) has always sparked a fair amount of curiosity in me, and so getting into an Altman-mood (as I'm prone to do once a year or so), I finally decided to pop the film in and see what's what.

In short, Quintet didn't work for me. At all. But before I go into the problems I had with it, let me first provide a quick outline of the plot: The movie opens up sometime in the distant future, with two figures traversing a barren, snowy landscape. The couple are Essex (Newman) and his wife Vivia (Brigitte Fossey). They are traveling to a settlement where Essex grew up. They arrive in the small, ice covered village, where Essex quickly reunites with his brother. The people in this mysterious place do nothing but play 'Quintet', a complex game involving a pentagon board, rocks, dice, and animal figurines. One day while Essex is out shopping in the market, his brother and wife are blown up in what appears to be a random terrorist act. Essex spies a man fleeing the scene, chases him down, and subsequently gets drawn into an overly-complex plot involving a group of hardcore Quintet players, including Ambrosia (Andersson) and Grigor (Rey), who don absolutely silly costumes that give them the appearance of thrift-store genies, and who hold secret underground Quintet tournaments that may very possibly be incorporating real life murders into the gameplay.

So there's that. The first thing I should probably bring up is a very audacious choice Altman made in regard to the visuals. You know that effect where vaseline is smeared around the camera's lens, giving the edges of the frame a hazy, out-of-focus texture? You've probably seen it in countless dream sequences from other movies. Here, Altman opts to film the entire movie in this way, in an effort to (I'm guessing) further cast a dreamy, hallucinogenic effect over a premise already filled with ambiguities and surreal touches. A little of that goes a long way, and though it does work well in adding to the moods and ambiance of the shots that take place outside in the snowy landscapes, these moments are few and far between. For the most part, all this gimmick manages to do is completely undermine the strongest aspect of the film, that being the wonderfully interesting set design. The unnamed settlement where the film takes place is split up into 5 sectors, each one inhabited with dilapidated old buildings such as casinos and hotels, once opulent in their prime, now in filthy shambles. There is an earthy splendor to the look of the film, and you can almost smell the decay and grime that has settled into the various structures that make up this village. The most impressive set is simply called the 'Information Center', a claustrophobic location comprised of heavy, swinging glass walls, all intricately carved with symbols and maps and various colors. But as good as the film looks, it's almost impossible to enjoy this, as that damn vaseline effect continuously obfuscates the image and keeps most of these interesting details from creeping into the frame. For as much time as their is in this movie where absolutely nothing is happening on screen, it would've been lovely to at least have been able to admire the details of the wonderful set, but even that's difficult to do, and I can't tell you the number of times I was taken out of the movie by this frustration. The whole vaseline trick ends up not only being a failed gimmick; it becomes an unpleasantly obstructive one.

As hinted at in the above paragraph, another fundamental problem is that the movie is just simply an interminable bore. The narrative plods along at a sluggish pace, and as the Newman character slowly becomes involved deeper and deeper with the Quintet tournament and it's players (which doesn't occur until halfway through the film's two hours), the plot loses all coherency as the murders and questions pile up, and the conspiracy becomes increasingly muddled to the point where it's impossible to follow (and not in a charming, The Big Sleep-kind of way). While there is a fair amount of interesting ambiguity present (the nature of the planet's current condition; the mysterious past of the Newman character; and the history of the game itself), the film crosses the line from ambiguity to willful confusion as it fills much of the dialogue in the second half with mumbo-jumbo involving the complex rules of the Quintet game; rules which the film never bothers to flesh out at all, leaving the viewer (or at least me) a disinterested and passive spectator as the whole mess unfolds. All the while, Newman delivers a spectacularly bland performance, so void of energy and emotion is his Essex character that it reaches nearly comical heights, such as in the scene where Newman dashes back to his brother's home after hearing the deadly bomb go off, only to find the dead bodies of his pregnant wife and dear brother. After gazing intently at the carnage for a few seconds, the character bends down, picks up a flimsy stick, snaps it over his knee, and let's out a frustrated huff of cold breath. That's it. I don't know whether Altman's direction had a large impact on the acting, or if Newman simply felt uncomfortable with the material, but whatever the case may be, it is a listless performance, severely disengaged from the rest of the film.

I don't want to be entirely negative though, so I will point out a few nice touches that I admired along the way (aside from the aforementioned awesome set design). Altman makes great use of a pack of ominous black dogs who are inexorably tied to death throughout the movie. Newman first spies the dogs as he approaches the village in the beginning, while they are crowded around and feasting on a corpse, a small moment that immediately infuses the film with a sense of dread. The dogs are often seen prancing around somewhere on the periphery of the screen, and seem to always pop out of little nooks and crannies as soon as fresh blood is spilled. There is a great, evil little moment where Newman is carrying his wife's dead body, and when he briefly lays it down in the snow, not a second later does one of the dogs pop out of seemingly nowhere to take survey. They are effectively used in little moments like this all during the movie, and serve as a potent, constant reminder of the death that permeates this territory. I also thought it was really interesting when the film began to explore the nihilistic philosophies and principles of the Quintet players, how they view the game as the last form of intelligent expression, and how it serves for some merely as a means of validating the thrill of life. It's an aspect I wish the film would have paid more attention to, and perhaps if it had focused more on this and not as much on the incomprehensible logistics of the game itself, we could have been in some really interesting territory. Altman was really thinking outside of the box with this one, and I am of the mind that no director can ever be criticized for that. It just unfortunately doesn't work in this case. As it stands, I have to call Quintet as I saw it: an uncharacteristically murky, ponderous and ultimately unsatisfying offering from one of the greatest of all American directors.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Scenes From A Career #4 - John Cassavetes


"The most difficult thing in the world is to reveal yourself, to express what you have to. As an artist, I feel that we must try many things - but above all we must dare to fail. You must be willing to risk everything to really express it all."

- John Cassavetes (1929 - 1989)

Friday, May 14, 2010

Tomorrow We Live (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1942)

Tomorrow We Live was the first film legendary B Movie auteur Edgar G. Ulmer directed for the Poverty Row studio Producers Releasing Corporation, the same studio under which Ulmer would go on to make more notable films such as Detour, Bluebeard and Strange Illusion. This strange story centers on a young college dropout named Julie (Jean Parker) who lives with her father Pop (Emmett Lynn), a temperamental sadsack who operates a lonesome gas station in the middle of the desert. Pop is also in cahoots with a local gangster (Ricardo Cortez), who simply goes by the name "The Ghost", due to his having survived multiple attempts on his life that have left him walking around with bullets lodged in both his brain and his heart, injuries which could kill him at any time. The Ghost makes a play for the lonely Jean, and she soon finds herself intrigued by the mysterious criminal. But the abrupt arrival of Jean's boyfriend Bob - who had hastily departed for the war years earlier - leads to a tumultuous love triangle as the pair battle it out for Jean's love amidst the bleak desert terrain.

Tomorrow We Live is not one of the stronger of the handful of Ulmer's that I've seen, but even with that, there is a lot to like here. Particularly in the looser, more free-floating first half, where Ulmer successfully negotiates the picture's meager budget with his sharp sense of aesthetics to produce a number of striking and distinguished moments, often forsaking exposition for mood and atmosphere. Because of this, the exact relationship between a number of the primary characters remains a bit hazy for a portion of the film, but it never bothered me a bit, as one feels that clarity and cohesion aren't particularly high on Ulmer's list of priorities with this particular project. Instead, the first half is ripe with Ulmer's German Expressionism influences and background. In one early scene, Julie has a conversation with what appears to be her father's housekeeper, who pleads with the girl to keep her distance from The Ghost. Throughout the scene, the Julie character is standing while the housekeeper is sitting, and in the back against the wall Julie's shadow looms ominously over the worker's own, acting as a visual manifestation of the hierarchical underpinnings in the scene, and also recalling an iconic sequence from Nicholas Ray's classic Bigger Than Life.

Ulmer also has a lot of fun in the film's most striking set, the office of The Ghost, which is located in the back of the desert nightclub he owns (appropriately called 'The Dunes'), and features a bizarre plaid design for the wallpaper, as well as a variety of stylized lamps, odd shaped mirrors and heavy, hanging curtains. The office is often full of people, mostly smoking (a stark contrast to the film's other main location, the quiet, sparsely inhabited gas station), which creates a constant fog of smoke in the room and allows Ulmer to play with all kinds of visual tricks involving lighting and silhouettes. This office set, which acts as a haven for a majority of the significant action, recalls the gothic mansion in The Black Cat, with its sleek and vaguely sinister appearance, full of oddball touches. Another interesting aspect of Tomorrow We Live is how Ulmer occasionally tows the line between the natural and supernatural. While the movie is by all appearances steeped in the real world, there are a few hints that something more mysterious is afoot. The way The Ghost's girlfriend is hinted at as being psychic could just be a meaningless, throwaway detail, but then why include it at all? And the death of one of the major characters is teased at as being caused by some sort of ghostly revenge. Even the primary setting of the film, in the middle of a desolate and mysterious desert, provides an additional layer of surreality and gives the majority of the action an almost otherwordly aura.

Unfortunately once the film's second half starts, some of its charms dissipate, as the action comes fast and furious and the narrative hits full throttle. The story beats come at a breakneck pace, and there are all kinds of revelations involving blackmail and murder, and things get really crazy once a rival gang of The Ghost's enters the mix, making things even more complicated for that character. The whole last half still manages to be entertaining in a strange, bewildering way, but the screenplay keeps introducing new characters, and basically turns into a giant clusterfuck of lunacy, murder and hokey dialogue ("You look like you've seen a ghost!" "I have!"). It almost comes across like Ulmer made the decision to concentrate the majority of action to the second half of the film, in order to give himself more artistic freedom in the first, something which could certainly account for the severe change in pacing. The highlight of this latter part of the film has got to be the delightfully over-the-top performance from Ricardo Cortez, as The Ghost quickly descends from his calm, cool and collected villain status into a babbling and utterly incoherent maniac who starts murdering as though it were a kids game. Tomorrow We Live can be a disjointed and rather uneven affair at times, but it contains moments of signature visual bravura and style, and is an unusual and worthy entry in the oeuvre of a notable and highly interesting director.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Eden and After (Alain Robbe-Grillet, 1970)

The late French author/screenwriter/director Alain Robbe-Grillet is probably best remembered within cinematic circles for penning the screenplay for Alain Resnais' arthouse masterpiece Last Year at Marienbad, one of the greatest endlessly debatable cinematic puzzles ever crafted. After publishing a handful of novels in the 50's, and making a name for himself with his Marienbad work, Robbe-Grillet then jumped into film directing. His third film (and first in color) is 1970's Eden and After, an enormously confounding and evocative head-scratcher that jumps from one stunning location to the next as its characters seemingly explore such concepts as the loss of innocence, birth and rebirth, obsession, fear and erotic power, en route to some deep personal revelations and possible transformations. Or of course it all could just be a really intense drug trip.

The 'Eden' of the title is in fact a university cafe - a large construct of "all glass and steel" - where a group of apathetic students apparently live, routinely indulging in transgressive behavior of all sorts; drugs, orgies, russian roulette games, inventing plays and stories and various other abstract rituals and activities to pass the time and give meaning to their dull lives. Visually, Eden is quite a sight to behold; a labyrinthine compound comprised of mirrors and glass partitions, and painted in primary colors; kind of like a Tati set on psychedelics. At times the camera glides throughout Eden while the students stand around like lifeless phantoms stuck out of time, and in these moments it's difficult not to think of the hotel and its denizens from Last Year at Marienbad. There is a sense of unpredictability and spontaneity to these sequences; we are seemingly dealing with young people who share a complete disregard for life, constantly living for only the moment, and it feels like anything could happen inside this New Wave haunted house.

One day, a mysterious stranger named Duchemin (Pierre Zimmer) enters Eden, and regales the students with his magic powers and tales of life in Africa. He eventually produces an African "fear powder" from his pocket, and one of the students, Violette (Catherine Jourdan), takes some of the powder and instantly launches into a series of terrifying and prophetic hallucinations. She engages in a mysterious dance while still on her trip, before eventually coming down and making plans to meet up with Duchemin later that night for a date. Here, the story now leaves the confines of Eden and we follow Violette as she gets lost in a mysterious industrial factory on her way to meet Duchemin. The line between reality and fantasy begins to blur as Violette thinks she is being stalked by her friends, who later claim to have been in Eden all night. She takes them back to the factory to show them the dead body of Duchemin, which she had found earlier, but that also has disappeared. Finally, a rare piece of art is stolen from Violette (her only possession), and that, along with a bloody postcard found in the dead man's pocket, sends Violette on a long, strange journey in Tunisia (the dominant setting for the film's second half), where she will eventually be kidnapped and tortured by Arabs for reasons that become increasingly muddled, as the narrative slowly begins to dissolve into a series of abstract and symbolic surrealist imagery that steadily becomes more and more difficult to decode.

There is not terribly much written online about this film; but the handful of pieces I was able to dig up all seem to at least acknowledge the theory that I had formed around two-thirds of the way through; that the second half of the film (or likely everything after Violette takes the powder drug) is an intense hallucinogenic trip inside the characters head. The strongest hint of this is in the way that many of the minor actions and events that take place in the first section of the film (in Eden), seem to play out on a much grander scale in the Tunisia section. A play the students concocted earlier, involving poisoned water, replays as Violette escapes her Arab kidnappers; the important painting of a white and blue building - the one that's stolen from Violette and prompts her trip - seems to manifest itself in the architecture of the Tunisian city; and the wild dance Violette performs while on the drug in Eden is performed once again, this time in an extended scene set against a bonfire near the ocean to tribal music and clapping locals, the primitive, uninhibited flailing of Violette suggesting a mind and soul free of baggage.

The first change in setting after Violette takes the powder drug in Eden is to the ominous factory she becomes lost in; the cold blues of the lonesome machinery provide a chilling atmosphere that overwhelms Violette with trepidation, and could easily represent anxiety from her hallucinogenic trip settling in. Could the character of Duchemin possibly represent the ego? Only after his apparent death is Violette able to flee the gloomy, alarming factory setting to the serene expanse of the Tunisian landscape, where she is confronted by both sexual and philosophical obstacles, and ultimately liberated from both her physical and metaphysical bindings. And one of the final scenes in the film depicts a mysterious meeting between Violette and her double, whom she makes out with and gently caresses as she says cryptically in voice-over, "I found the sea again": a possible illustration that the Violette character has ended her journey with some kind of epiphany of the self; the type of profound self-realization that often accompanies an intense psychedelic experience. And indeed the precise nature of Violette's journey is one of the most resoundingly mysterious questions left in the air by the end; however whether her journey is on a physical, metaphysical or mental level may be besides the point. Possibly all that matters is that we understand Violette has undergone a deeply transformative experience. But even a pessimistic coda set back in the domains of Eden seems to possibly suggest that it may have all been for naught.

The fascinating thing here is that I somehow have a feeling that another viewing of Eden and After may very well yield an entirely different line of speculation from me, so complex and sinuous is its elliptical narrative. And while it's certainly plausible that this movie is a puzzle whose pieces simply aren't made to fit together, my initial reaction is that Robbe-Grillet has crafted an aesthetically and thematically rich and dense work that is imminently re-watchable, one resplendent with symbolism and sensual beauty, one that manages to deftly balance out its dark, haunting elements with a wicked sense of humor and a rambunctious, playful spirit. There is a sharp eye and a crafty, restless mind at work here, and it's the kind of cinema I thrive on. If, like me, you love Last Year at Marienbad and are interested in viewing some of Alain Robbe-Grillet's work as a director, then let it be said - Eden and After is a trip worth taking.