Stuart’s Log: NYMPHOMANIAC (Lars von Trier, 2013)

April 9, 2014 § Leave a comment

[Spoilers]

Nymphomaniac is the latest booby-trapped, critic-proof provocation from Lars von Trier, master of viscerally rendered suffering framed within ludicrous conceptual containers. The action of von Trier’s movies usually has a lo-fi immediacy, flecked with spasmodic outbursts caught by an anxious, almost hyperventilating camera. But there are always chalk-lines on a sound-stage, the blurred-out faces of local bystanders, or some stately chapter heading to remind us that the chaos operates according to some blasphemous meta-narrative design. Nymphomaniac is something of a self-reflexive interrogation of this approach—the gridlines are imposed not by Lars but by his characters. Enter the framing device: Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) has found Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) lying in an alley where she has been brutally beaten, and invites her into his home to recuperate. She tells him the story of her life (organized by chapter) and he filters her tale through analogies, metaphors, and playful intellectual associations.

There’s a lot of cruelty and confusion in Joe’s story, but it transpires within an unadorned placelessness—it’s what we might call a narrative tabula rasa—that openly invites Seligman’s digressions and embellishments. Von Trier’s color palette ranges from hardwood brown to talcum white, his images possessing a kind of antiseptic cleanliness that robs them of any pleasure or vitality. It’s up to Seligman to provide a sense of humor, a moral takeaway, a nested metaphorical meaning, anything to deliver Joe’s story from literalist drudgery. It’s a task he finds himself less and less equipped for as the film progresses. From this brief synopsis one might infer a dialectical consideration of the act of storytelling, with the teller and her audience in uncomfortable discourse on both the nature and necessity of narrative interpretation.

But Joe is a sex addict, and because this is a Lars von Trier movie, this fact makes the whole affair innately ridiculous. Joe’s literalism takes on a designed-to-shock bluntness, and Seligman’s figurative extrapolations are reduced to a lot of ‘edgy’ ironies. Imagine the notorious rape sequence in Dogville ground into a miniaturized formula: explicit sexual abuse + foregrounded conceptualism = deliberately elicited outrage. Only replace ‘outrage’ with ‘laughter,’ which in Nymphomaniac becomes the default response to so many absurd layers of textual commentary. When Joe recounts the taking of her virginity by a young ruffian named Jerome (Shia Lebeouf), the depicted misery is sterilized first by Joe’s matter-of-fact narration (paraphrasing from memory: “He poked me three times in my cunt. Then he flipped me over, and poked me five times in my ass”), second by numerical overlays (“3+5=8”), and finally by Seligman’s unlikely exclamation, “Those are Fibonacci numbers!”

The great bulk of Nymphomaniac is a protracted comedy of discomfort. Joe is branded by her sexual compulsion as an invasive organism in a patriarchal society that alternately fears and exploits her, and von Trier’s aim is to milk all the unsettling humor from this dynamic that he can, enlisting Seligman to tug at the udders. This elderly book-learned bachelor treats the sordid details of Joe’s life with the innocent excitement of a child who perks up during a rousing bedtime story. He is in many respects an ideal audience, a man who refrains from moral judgment and exhibits no sexual arousal. A self-professed outlier from the patriarchy, Seligman’s interest in Joe’s story is born solely of intellectual curiosity. And von Trier knows that this is an implicitly funny situation precisely because it’s such an improbable one. To extricate sexuality from the dense thicket of societal morality and treat it as just another encyclopedia entry, arbitrary fodder for an elderly autodidact’s amusement…that’s just not a thing that happens. Doubly so when the story is little more than a compendium of abuse.

There’s little use analyzing the recounted details of Joe’s life. They never coalesce into a meaningful narrative shape, except perhaps that of a muddy downward slope of pain and hopelessness, which continues its descent even after the story is over. Joe’s life history contains anything and everything von Trier could think to do with the subject matter of voracious sexual hunger. Sexual discharge in response to emotional trauma, inadvertent homewrecking as a result of having numerous sexual partners, harrowing adventures in S&M, monogamy as the ultimate pleasure-deadening nightmare, sex addiction therapy as a form of behavioral fascism…it’s all in there, and it’s all essentially filler.

What Nymphomaniac is ultimately about is how these events are recounted, and it’s after the first couple of hours that the how finally becomes more worthwhile than a lot of silly flights of fancy and comical infographics. It’s established from the outset that Seligman would appeal to his intellectual composure to absolve Joe of the guilt she feels for a lifetime of aberrant sexual behavior, but it’s only after the divide between her evident spiritual torment and his flattened intellectualism, in which sex is akin to fly-fishing is akin to nail-clipping is akin to numerology is etc., has run its course of ironic amusement that von Trier finally buckles down and starts to take the relationship seriously. Moving into the film’s second half, Seligman grows doubtful and perturbed at some of the more incredible events of Joe’s story, just as she becomes less and less pleased with his diversions, his inferences, his eagerness to interject. Seligman may be without moral judgment or libido, but insofar as he and Joe are engaged in an oratorical power struggle, he remains her umpteenth male oppressor. He stands for the oppression of all condescending, well-meaning, politically correct white males who would insist on the illegitimacy of a woman’s feelings in paradoxical service to doctrinaire feminism.

The ending has been decried as von Trier’s sickest joke, but in its own way it is absolutely fitting, and perhaps the film’s only moment of ideological clarity. Von Trier oversteps all believability to make sure we realize that Seligman is no less vile than any man that Joe has ever encountered in her life. She promptly shoots him in what could not be further from a cathartic vengeance killing. In fact, it’s a total rejection of catharsis; the calm that Joe has sought in Seligman for the entire length of the film has been instantaneously obliterated, and now off she plunges again into the void.

That’s all Nymphomaniac really has to say. That a filmmaker so often accused of misogyny is the one saying it is the point. That it arrives at its turnaround ending after an ungodly four hours is part of the joke. That it will fully please no one is by design. That I hate it is to be expected, I guess. – Stuart

In Praise of Love: FX’s THE AMERICANS

March 16, 2014 § 1 Comment

Fans of The Americans mostly still remember being hooked on the show from the opening chase scene set to Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk”, a pounding, drum-driven pop number that set off a series uncommonly attuned to the virtues of quality music placement. Many shows have boasted great music selection, but perhaps the best single series soundtrack belongs to Gossip Girl. The Americans kicked off with a demonstration of quality over quantity, and followed through. But, thinking back on that scene now – the way the song’s spliced and extrapolated into a far longer piece that breaks down and builds up the drumbeat several times to fit the length of the sequence – I’m less impressed by the triumph of music curation and editing it represents than the choice of the band itself. “Tusk” strikes at issues of trust and miscommunication in relationships, in a fierce and instantly iconic single for an incestuous band that built love games into the bones of their best songs.

The reversals and surprises of romance are central to the rather ludicrous premise of The Americans. Dramatically, the hook is obvious and credible: creator Joe Weisberg worked from his actual CIA experience to write the story of two KGB operatives posing as a suburban American couple with two children in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. What seems less likely than this fact of the Cold War is that the agents posing as Philip and Elizabeth Jennings would only start to really see each other after almost two decades of marriage and professional partnership, let alone raising two children. But the series is less a presentation of a credible marriage than it is a dramatic inquiry into how love works, filtered through the narrative structure of a suspense thriller. With some killer tunes.

Keri Russell, the show’s most ingenious casting coup, is best remembered for her role on the grounded J.J. Abrams college drama Felicity and a wry comedic turn in the film Waitress. Here, she proves capable of projecting a characteristic warmth filtered through terrible, calculating intelligence just as a young Vivien Leigh did, particularly in her spy romance Dark Journey opposite Conrad Veidt. The pilot puts her Elizabeth Jennings through a ringer of audience identification and sympathies, casting her first as a blonde-wigged seductress before revealing her brutal efficiency in action, then peeling back the layers of her intricately intertwined personal, professional and sexual history climaxing in a sex scene (set to one of television’s most immediately iconic pop songs) that reveals almost nothing about her and Philip.

Eliding the cathartic drum fill of “In the Air Tonight” dulls the moment, keeping the music relegated to the low end as the couple’s eyes search each other in the backseat of a car. After decades of living with a job reliant on the exploitation of love, and in the aftermath of a tense plot resting on vengeance for a sex crime, the marital act has little sanctity left for them. That they partake anyway gives the scene its sad, lasting mystery.

Noah Emmerich’s character, Stan Beeman, was introduced in the pilot as a show-driving hook – the CIA agent next door! After a full season of backyard cookout chats  and racquetball games with Philip, Stan now looks like less of a device for generating suspense than he does a mirror for the Jennings’ evolving understanding of their own relationships. On The Americans, the two sides of the Cold War are constantly echoing the opposition and staging themselves, unconsciously, in contrast to each others’ specific actions. Lines often recur from scene to scene as Philip and Elizabeth discuss the same events as Stan and his compatriots. Two scenes in season one’s “Covert War” see higher-ups in the CIA and KGB affirming that even conflicts like the Cold War must have boundaries – and arriving at different conclusions.

The exploration of the Jenningses’ marriage and professional lives follows a similar framework, using the Beemans as a separate test case for dramatic inquiries into how the marital partnership survives. “Covert War” also features an early series of scenes depicting Elizabeth and Sandra Beeman going clubbing. Ostensibly, since we begin the scene from the Jennings POV, the sequence initially depicts a simple process of information-gathering. Subtly, the playing field is leveled not by Elizabeth getting drunk, but by Sandra’s intoxicated line of questioning – “Have you ever dated someone from another country?” “Ever thought about cheating?” – that unbalances Elizabeth, then separated from Philip, while guiding us further into Sandra’s headspace then we’ve previously been allowed. Eventually, in a series of shots on the dancefloor, the camera leaves Elizabeth behind altogether and follows Sandra to a nervous call home and later a kitchen confrontation with Stan, back from his latest tryst with Soviet embassy mole Nadya.

Mixed with all this action, frantic by the standards of Philip and Elizabeth’s often icy standoffs, the Jennings kids Paige and Henry hang out with Philip at his hotel room, watching nature documentaries and eating junk food from the vending machine. The Jennings parents are missing any obvious dramatic thrust here, with the uneventful moments of Elizabeth dancing on her own and Philip shielding his kids from a public urinator in the parking lot. Even in their isolation, though, the Jennings remain composed and purposeful. The Beemans – Stan blithely condescending, Sandra furious and despairing – are depicted as frustrated, directionless individuals.

In the most recent and third episode of the second season, “The Walk-In”, Stan returns home after a night-long stakeout leaves him tired and disinterested in his work. The tracking shot that follows him into the kitchen puts the scene, and his home life, in deep focus. Wide-angled shots giving both he and his wife plenty of distance from each other in the frame complement the preceding breakfast scene at the Jennings’, in which both parents interact with their children in tight two-shots that give their interactions an underlying closeness even as fear and suspicion continue to seep into everyday life.

Consistent as the show is – the showrunners have yet to produce a weak episode, while only a few striking scenes of suspense stand out and seem designed to do so – its finest hour seems to me “Gregory”, the first season’s third episode. It introduces the eponymous spy, an African-American with Communist sympathies who shares a long romantic history with Elizabeth. Their first scene together reveals almost casually that she has shared the truth of her mission and her marriage with Gregory, immediately drawing us into his story. Played by Derek Luke with a rare kind of masculine confidence and vulnerability – he lapses into self-pity as Elizabeth expresses doubts about their affair, and gets stoned on his couch at their next meeting while never losing his conviction that they belong together, or forgetting his position of value to her – Gregory seems from his first minute onscreen to be the smartest guy we’ve met in this world.

The episode’s defining scene comes soon after the central mission gets underway, as Gregory shuts himself in the kitchen of a safe house with Philip to needle him about his marriage. Their dialogue – largely a monologue interrupted by one curt line from Philip – underlines just why viewers are so keyed-in to Gregory’s situation and aligned with his character in a short period of time while also undercutting his talk of romance with our knowledge of prior action. Perhaps the oddest thing about Gregory’s monologue – a story about a despairing, pregnant Elizabeth baring her fears to him shortly before the birth of her first child, unbeknownst to Philip – is that Philip’s wounded silence also leaves out any details about the two men’s own history. It’s been established that they worked together in the past, but whether Philip knew of the affair and how much he knew of its intimacy are unknown quantities.

The impressive achievement of The Americans is that it doesn’t so much use its antagonized cast of characters to ask “Who’s the real bad guy here?” as take a particular line of political interrogation to its central relationships, i.e. “What did he/she know, and when did they know it?” It doesn’t just dress up tired conflicts with dialogue like “You can’t be married and not have secrets,” it uses those lines in a dramatic context that explores how much love relies on trust and intelligence. How well do you need to know your husband, your mistress, your mother, your father, your neighbor, your partner, to love them? And once you’ve figured out those standards, what’s the love you’re sharing worth?

I admired the show’s first season for its commitment to quality execution of some rather hackneyed TV tropes – the separation of Elizabeth and Philip went on for too long, with eye-rolling failures of communication, but was so elegantly buttoned in the final minutes of the finale that the whole affair seemed worthwhile in hindsight. Better still is the way the second season’s premiere shows Elizabeth and Philip, now in it for the long haul, realizing that their priorities have shifted once more as their children seem to be truly in danger of suffering for their parents’ secret lives. The episode underlines this point in a harrowing suspense sequence that lacks the backbeat of a good pop song, but does point out why the trappings of a paranoid thriller fit this serialized study of love so well. Priorities and values are constantly in flux because the people involved in each relationship – particularly Paige and Henry, getting older and closer to the truth – are not static. They are changing and growing all the time, and what more appropriate stakes for spies who name their cause the Motherland? - Brendan

On INQUIETUDE (Manoel de Oliveira, 1998)

March 14, 2014 § Leave a comment

Note: Starting today, The Bad & The Beautiful returns with semi-regular updates. Our writings will be less prolific than our earlier schedule mandated, but we vigorously refuse to allow this blog to die. Enjoy. – S

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The film opens on a proscenium-arched study in a 19th century Spanish apartment, occupied by an elderly scientist of great acclaim (Jose Pinto) and his middle-aged son of near-equal renown (Luis Miguel Cintra). The old man is in the throes of despair, fixated on his legacy and believing himself aged beyond the zenith of his fame. His son, he fears, is high on the fumes of his own success, oblivious to the possibility that they might one day evaporate. Father and son become deadlocked in dialogue, the former having reached the conclusion that suicide is the ultimate guarantor of post-mortem prestige and the latter amusedly parrying his rhetorical blows. This comical mini-narrative ends in both suicide and filicide, the two falling from the window of their third-story apartment against a crudely painted backdrop of neighboring houses. Act one: an appetizing theatrical farce, adapted by de Oliveira from a play by Prista Monteiro.

Or not quite. Wedged in about two-thirds of the way through this otherwise bathetic story is a departure to an outdoor picnic where our squabbling heroes are joined by one of the father’s ex-students named Marta (Isabel Ruth), conceived by Monteiro as the incarnation of natural grace to dwarf the old man’s narcissism and introduced by de Oliveira with a rotating, neck-craning POV shot of the sun as glimpsed through overhanging foliage. The twirling camera syncs with Marta’s graceful perambulations through gold-tinted grass, the entire scene a thunderbolt of naturalism to deliver us all from the neurotic hell of the theater. Stage drama is an old man’s game, de Oliveira well knows, where conflicts are invented out of whole cloth and engendered by specifically masculine forms of insecurity. Marta is feminine beauty objectified in true 19th century fashion, an embodiment of purity and placidity. She’s not enough to topple any petty masculine dreams of everlasting glory, but she at least serves as an integral thematic segue into the second act, in which the objectification of feminine beauty is in turn propped up for critique.

The stage curtains are drawn and we enter the world of writer António Patrício. Two aristocratic playboys thus far absorbed in the Monteiro production divert their gaze to a mirror pair of courtesans in the opposite box. The young man played by Diogo Doria seems less interested in them, leaving his friend played by David Cardoso to make their acquaintance and report back. As in the now diegetically nested play, the male characters go unnamed, while the names of their feminine counterparts are fetishized. The Cardoso character stakes his territory with Gaby (Rita Blanco), leaving the more sensitive Doria to settle for Suzy (Leonor Silveira), who comes to inflame his romantic ideals before utterly devastating them.

This second act has a way with stately long takes and period décor that ups the first act’s aesthetic ante while never quite shaking its essentially theatrical footholds—foregrounded actors in protracted dialogue against studio backdrops, the conversation about vaguely existential unrest. It’s a weightier story, with more sharply defined emotional and visual contours, and yet in many respects it’s the same story, only appropriated for a more enriched cinematic sensibility. Doria—vexed by Suzy’s beauty for its finitude, its ephemerality—is analogous to the elderly scientist and the contented Cardoso to the middle-aged son. But this narrative transposition cuts a different way when it comes to the female characters. Marta and Suzy, both emblems of unattainable beauty, serve vastly different functions, the former an ineffectual agent of change and the latter so effective in entrancing her male benefactor as to emotionally cripple him. Suzy is a more complex creature, a living, breathing human being who withstands Doria’s vain efforts to “embalm her spirit,” to capture her splendor in a jar.

He makes one glorious attempt, though, after she has passed away. The impressionistic spirit of act one’s outdoor picnic resurfaces with a boat ride he and Suzy once shared together, wistfully recounted by Doria as an event both sad and rapturous. The water sparkles in the sunlight even as a light piano drizzles over the sequence, dampening the scene’s loveliness with a quiet poignancy. De Oliveira snatches the images away before they can be properly absorbed.

Act three: Cardoso tells Doria a story, inaugurating a new nested narrative. The modal shift from farcical stage play to intimately recounted fantasy tale takes us to a faraway place, well outside the strictures of conventional drama and European high society. Adapted from ‘Mother of the River’ by Augustina Bessa-Luis, the story concerns Fisalina (Leonor Baldaque), a young girl who falls in love with a boy who lives outsider her village. When tribal customs bar her from marrying him, she forges a spiritually unsound pact with the Mother of the River (Irene Papas), an ancient witch who lives in a secret cavern on the village outskirts. She loses interest in the boy, stokes the religious hysteria of her village, and eventually exiles herself to the cavern, where she has permanently taken over for the witch.

This third story throws a wrench into any high-concept schema one may wish to have imposed on this ravishing, endlessly mysterious movie. Its didactic function is evident: the fable finally offers a depiction of immortality, and it is no less fraught with earthly anxiety and romantic disappointment. But the rest of its details fail to lock in place as thematic continuances of the first two vignettes.  The formalist with time on his hands is free to dissect it further, but I’m doubtful of many explicit connections aside from what is inferable from the film’s final verbal exchange. Cardoso has concluded the story with the sympathetic postscript, “Poor Fisalina.” Doria’s rejoinder, “Poor Suzy.”

Inquietude posits a putative hierarchy of layered fiction: three stories woven along disparate lines by three tonally distinct Portuguese authors. They interrelate as a natural function of juxtaposition, de Oliveira teasing out meanings that arise peaceably, with little structuralist finagling. By the time of the final quietly moving scene, the design has dissipated and what’s left is a narrative confluence, embanked by beauty and sadness and the rest of the stuff that art is made of. – Stuart

Playlist: 3 Snowy Non-Christmas Films

December 15, 2013 § Leave a comment

1. THE MORTAL STORM (Frank Borzage, 1940)

So much of one’s memories of The Mortal Storm tends to be occupied by its climax that it’s easy to downplay what an expertly constructed picture Frank Borzage directed, a full two years before the controversy of Lubitsch’s To Be or Not To Be brought Hollywood’s role in shaping public opinion about the Nazi menace into the New York Times. Borzage, that great romanticist, frames his anti-Nazi film as an arc that shows the disintegration of the family unit as the fascist collective builds itself up from the pieces, until the only identifiable heroes left are James Stewart’s Martin and Margaret Sullavan’s Freya. An early scene sees Freya’s father, the Professor Viktor Roth, celebrated by his admiring students, before his opinions on the new power in Germany leads to a boycott of his classes and a wide shot of the classroom underlining his isolation. The most memorable sequences in the film emphasize the individuals struggling to break free of the collective, including the pub scene that sees Martin and Freya uneasily silent during a chorus of a Nazi anthem, their old friends vanishing into a mass of raised arms and uniforms, and the swooning, iconic finale as the two make a break for free Switzerland, skiing for their lives over the wide-open hillsides on the border.

Available on DVD from Warner Archive.

2. THE WEDDING NIGHT (King Vidor, 1935)

Not every element of this film, among the most winter-obsessed of the old Hollywood era, has aged well. Contemporary viewers may raise an eyebrow (or two) at the depiction of the Polish family Novak and their antiquated ideas about marriage, which even Gary Cooper’s character Tony seems to find out of date. Its best moments, therefore, tend to be when the accents and family politics vanish away and all that’s left are two people, struggling for happiness they can only conceive of in terms of Tony’s unfinished novel. Anna Sten’s Manya, the object of the unhappily married Tony’s affections, grows into something ephemeral and unattainable in her scenes snowed in with Tony at his cabin, both strengthened by the sacred status he grants her as he writes her into his romance and simultaneously drifting out of his understanding as he refuses to confront the reality of her obligations to family. The confrontation between Manya and Tony’s returning wife Dora late in the film is a gem of a scene, two women with good reason to loathe one another finding a way to speak frankly and sympathetically about their situation through art. The final image of Tony staring at the snowfall through his window is the picture’s thematic arc in miniature: the beautiful dream, fleeting though it may be, clearly visible and out of reach.

Available on MGM DVD.

3. TRACK OF THE CAT (William A. Wellman, 1954)

A bizarre, arch melodrama elevated by some of the most outstanding production design ever shot in WarnerColor, Wellman’s snowy western eliminates all colors save for the red of Robert Mitchum’s jacket, an heir to the flag of Battleship Potemkin decades before Schindler’s List that here serves no explicit symbolic purpose except perhaps as a signal that some serious family feuding’s about to go down. A panther lurks somewhere in the woods outside the ranch owned by the Bridgeses, a family unit comprised almost entirely of stock dramatic types enlivened by Wellman’s wide staging and by the lurid tenacity of Mitchum’s performance as Curt, who eventually vanishes into the wilderness for his last confrontation with the beast that haunts them. A burial is glimpsed from the coffin’s point of view, a funeral service that unfolds from this one extreme-low-angle shot. A film adaptation of a painting by Pieter Bruegel, the Elder. It’ll strike all sentimental associations with snow from your mind.

Available on Paramount DVD and for streaming purchase on Amazon. - Brendan

Favorite Film: DISTANT VOICES, STILL LIVES (1988)

December 15, 2013 § Leave a comment

Terence Davies’ 1988 autobiographical masterpiece Distant Voices, Still Lives is a film of the rarest and most elusive beauty. It is at once a loose collection of memories that coalesce into a narrative, a color-drained family album possessed of a great sensory warmth, and an ardent expression of childhood nostalgia that remains tactful in its reminiscences, alternating freely between rose-tinted musical reveries, wistful caresses, and scenes of violent brutality. What might at first seem like fanciful stream-of-consciousness, awash in comforting sepia tones and full of dreamy flights of fancy, emerges as something far more challenging. Attuned to the vivid intensity of each individually recollected moment, Davies also manages to integrate each memory into a greater emotional architecture, an ostensible free-associative weightlessness masking a formidable novelistic density.

Born in the slums of Liverpool to a working-class family, Davies spent much of his childhood recoiling from the frequently administered violence of his abusive father and reconciling his budding homosexuality to his strict Catholic upbringing. As his interviews attest, Davies harbors a bitterness toward the domineering social institutions that enabled such an arduous home life and that instilled him with such unnecessary guilt for his sexuality, but, as is evident in his art, he also can’t undo the ties of nostalgia that bind him affectionately to the sights and sounds of his childhood. In Distant Voices Still Lives, this seeming contradiction comes into sharp focus as something harmonious, fondness and resentment flowing in and out of one another as part of the same retentive stream.

‘Distant Voices, Still Lives’ concatenates the titles of two separate forty-odd minute films commissioned by the British Film Institute and shot two years apart, both chronicling the life of the Davies family in Liverpool during the 1940s and 50s. The first film, Distant Voices, orbits around the death of the father, played by Pete Postlethwaite, and grapples with his troubled relationship to the rest of the family. At the beginning of the film, we see the mother (Freda Dowie) and the three children—Eileen (Angela Walsh), Maisie (Lorraine Ashbourne), and Tony (Dean Williams), all adults—standing in family-portrait formation in front of his framed photograph on the occasion of his funeral. This stark tableau vivant appears to be the movie’s framing device, a placid present tense from which the tumultuous memories usher forth. But as soon as Maisie prompts a jump back in titme to a brutal beating she once endured at her father’s hands, any notion of ‘tense’ begins to evaporate. While variations on the portrait composition appear sporadically throughout the film, often functioning as palate cleansers between some of the more violent episodes, there is no anchoring present-day scene or reference point that helps us situate the remembrances, no flashback structure that allows us to parse or compartmentalize the shattered chronology. And yet for all the randomized leaps from one timeframe to another, there is never a jolting sensation of being pushed around in time, so strong is Davies’ mastery of poetic association and emotional continuity.

A case in point: During her wedding celebration at a local pub, Eileen takes her husband Dave aside and begins to sob, crying for her deceased father. This occasions a leftward lateral tracking shot that enters into total darkness, proceeds past the whole family (many years younger) in prayer before a candlelit statue of Mary in a darkened sanctuary, and then, after another interval of darkness, continues down a neighborhood street at Christmastime and finally arrives at the Davies home, where the father is seen hanging Christmas decorations in the window. The ‘shot’ is clearly artificial, three separate shots spliced together by invisible cuts. But the slow, ambulatory pace of the movement, the choral music that accompanies it, its lyrical employment of pitch-black space, and the manner in which the camera implicitly adopts Eileen’s state of mind as warm reminiscences pour out from her sorrow—all of these combine into a clean, crystallized sequence whose poetic and dramaturgical motivations are instantly understood on an emotional level that defies verbal articulation.

This sequence also exemplifies his total subservience to his characters, even during his loftiest moments of pure aestheticism. The tracking shot described above is the kind of streamlined cinematic intervention that cinephiles fawn for, a privileged moment in which the filmmaker indulges the purely aural and visual qualities of the medium to impose a unique meaning or perspective on the diegesis. Such formalistic exercises almost invariably create a sense of distance, of holding the plot at arm’s length. But the tracking shot in Distant Voices, for all its self-enclosed perfectionism, feels like the natural next-step in the story, proceeding as it does from Eileen’s sadness and not as a function of a grand narrative design. Its aestheticized sweep through time is nothing more artistically indulgent than a reflection of Davies’ love and sympathy for his sister, whose process of grief-stricken remembrance he seeks to capture as sublimely as possible. Furthermore, the sequence is not an enshrined, dramatically perfunctory ‘moment’ set apart from the rest of the film, but an essential transitional interlude that flows gracefully from one scene and into another, deepening our understanding of the characters in the process.

Shortly after we see the father hanging Christmas decorations and lovingly sending his children off to bed, we find him the next morning at breakfast ferociously convulsing. In a terrifying eruption of brutality, he pulls the tablecloth off the table, sending the dishes crashing to the floor, and violently orders his wife to clean them up. From whence his father’s abuse stems, Davies refuses to say. He can only be true to what he remembers of him and to the stories he inherited from his older siblings, and this means accepting his moments of goodness and bursts of deep-seated anger as integral parts of the same inexplicable mystery, that of a complex human being filtered through a process of recollection that preserves only his most extreme, and therefore dissonant, actions. The father’s breakfast table spasm no more cancels out his Christmas Eve kindliness than does the family’s suffering their joy for living, Davies’ bitterness his nostalgia.

Davies’ willingness to let opposing feelings harmonize with one another is one of the most refreshing aspects of his work. In both of the films that comprise Distant Voices, Still Lives, he refuses to let the pain that afflicts his characters negate the boundless pleasure they derive from life, even when incarnated in folk songs and Hollywood musicals. When Eileen cries for her father during her wedding festivities, it does not represent a private unhappiness standing in ironic rebuke to the public celebration going on around her, but rather a fraught illustration of marriage as a true transitional point, one that brings the tragedies of the past and the promises of the future inexorably together to be reckoned with at once. When Ella Fitzgerald’s ‘Taking a Chance on Love’ plays over a particularly nasty beating suffered by his mother, it isn’t to mock her troubled marriage but to speak sincerely to her spirit and fortitude. One of the most beautiful sequences in the film begins with a vertical camera movement from a group of umbrellas clustered together in the rain to posters advertising Guys and Dolls and Love is a Many Splendoured Thing. The theme of the latter carries us into the packed theater, where Maisie and Eileen, lit apart from the rest of the crowd, are seen in tears, utterly transfixed. Davies’ sensitivity to his characters is such that the mere observance of them in the act of feeling strong emotions, whether born of momentous life events or of the simple act of watching a movie, is worth our deepest attention. The same principle applies to the sing-a-longs in the local pubs, where the simple act of singing carries a tremendous emotional import, lending expressive freedom to women whose voices are often squelched in abusive home lives and allowing everyone to surrender his or her individual grievances to joyous communion.

Most of the celebratory sequences appear in the second film, Still Lives, which observes the dissolution of the family in the aftermath of the father’s death, as the children slowly leave home to start families of their own. The sense of conflict is less pronounced than in Distant Voices, lying dormant until a wrenching final scene. If Distant Voices is about a family wrestling with an abusive father figure, then Still Lives contends with the possibility that his ghost will inhabit the husbands of the daughters and their friends, many of whom exhibit the same brutish qualities. This anxiety for the future comes to a head when Tony, the youngest sibling, is finally married off at the end, his wedding celebration melting into a series of departures strung together by overlapping dissolves and set to Benjamin Britten’s elegiac rendition of ‘Waly, Waly.’

Describing Davies’ working methods, Freda Dowie wrote, “Terry shows things so economically; the way he can evoke an air raid with the noise of sirens and children running. He’s a poet, he thinks like a poet, and he looks with the eyes of a poet.” Distant Voices, Still Lives overflows with such examples, not least of which an opening shot that mixes rain, milk bottles, a shipping forecast, a somber folk song, disembodied voices, and a lurching camera movement into a haunting synopsis of many of the film’s major themes while effortlessly conjuring up the textural and sensory landscape of postwar Liverpool. Few filmmakers have done more to dilate cinematic time through such exacting distillations of sound and image than has Terence Davies. Through these richly detailed recreated moments suspended in time, endlessly evocative, imaginatively interrelated, Davies relives many episodes of the past in all their seething intensity even as their mysteries and contradictions remain irresolvable. In heightening these mysteries, Davies gets at the fundamental tragedy of lost time, one of the many reasons why the mournful sendoff to the world of his upbringing that concludes Distant Voices, Still Lives is so profoundly heartbreaking. Davies’ confluence of fondness and resentment continues unabated. – Stuart

Crises of Conversation and Faith in THIS IS MARTIN BONNER (2013)

December 13, 2013 § Leave a comment

Independent cinema most often works with a different set of tools to create conflict than studio releases. When filmmakers can’t count on the interesting locations, stunts, expressive lighting, or other effects that higher-budgeted features take for granted, their narratives naturally turn toward the minute and observed, rather than the outwardly dramatic. So a picture like This Is Martin Bonner feels like a mission statement for a certain mode of filmmaking, in which there are no central conflicts, and all its characters mean well. They are trying only to make the lives of others better and work on themselves at the same time.

One scene perhaps typical of an independent drama set in Reno, Nevada sees ex-convict Travis encountering a confident young prostitute on his way to the bus stop. There are no hints throughout the film that Travis seeks romantic companionship, or that sex is on his mind at all. Yet the woman works her way into his hotel room, and his wallet, with a few choice phrases suited to the film’s mode of pleasantries. “You’re not going to leave me out in the cold, are you?” is the operative question, Travis demurring at first before riding back with her on the bus and paying her fifty dollars almost out of sheer politeness. He seems to sleep with her only because to refuse her offer would be rude.

Travis is the story’s secondary protagonist, who finds himself midway through the film at the home of Steve, his sponsor in a program for paroled prisoners. The man is warm and honest, his marriage happy, his life full and rich. There are no moments of awkwardness in their conversation, no long pauses that suggest the lingering presence of hostility or judgement beneath the currents of their dialogue. Yet the camera lingers on Travis as the dinner winds to a close, his face suggesting a deep sadness. He has no reason to dislike Steve or his wife, but the life before him is closed off somehow. There is no space for him in it.

People who grow up within religious communities or belong to social circles including the churchgoing rather inevitably have experiences like the one Travis undergoes in this scene, which falls outside the category of dinner scene cliches in which his hosts might react at a loss after some social gap between them has been uncovered, or failing to realize the gravity of his crime (which is manslaughter while drunk driving, and proves only incidental to the picture’s real concerns). During a subsequent scene with Martin, Travis acknowledges that he believes in God, but can’t bring himself to either commit entirely to this sort of religiously motivated existence or to reject it totally. There’s no comedy of manners in Travis’s displacement at that dinner, only a sense that his own simple existence is inferior to theirs, simple but infused with an inaccessible meaning.

My own crisis of faith a few years ago involved a similar sort of disconnect. Cliques inevitably form around the faithful in college, who tend to structure regular social meetings as a way not only of keeping up with requirements like attendance at Sunday Mass but to provide a stabilizing constant. I understood the scene at the home of Travis’s sponsor because I had sat in so many of those dinners myself, wondering why my faith wasn’t as consuming as my peers’, or how it is that someone else’s involvement in a religion I myself believed in could be so alienating.

But surely our appreciation of film, particularly independent ones that rely so much on the dynamics of conversation and the structuring of dialogue-based scenes, has to involve more determined criteria than simply recognizing something of our own lives in a scene. I can assume, and probably with some accuracy, that I am not the only person to go through a period of social alienation around good people with whom I had a lot in common, and others who have might be similarly affected by This Is Martin Bonner. But how to describe its merits to those who haven’t had the same experiences?

I can think of at least one scene that demonstrates how Martin Bonner not only illustrates interior moments but expands on their meaning and gives us a new angle from which to reflect on the sensation. As Travis stands outside a Catholic church after Mass and greets parishioners alongside Steve, a rare moment of intrusive editing slows down the action and overlays an ambient music cue. At this point, before the dinner scene, we can sense vaguely that Travis is having some difficult adjusting but are not entirely sure of his thoughts. The music cue carries over as the film cuts to a long shot inside a museum, where the recently-divorced Martin, also alone in Reno, wanders in to look at a couple of paintings; the music abruptly cuts off as he stops to examine one.

In just this brief transition we get a match between the feelings of these two characters, an enigmatic moment that attains greater clarity in the subsequent dinner scenes at his sponsor’s home and later, when Travis admits his frustrations to Martin. Just as Travis feels separated from the unity and purpose of the religious community, Martin is trying to fill his own life with meaning by seeking out high culture. His own isolation is deepened by two subsequent revelations; first, when he receives a phone call from his daughter in which the audience learns that Martin is newly single and is reluctant to participate in a dating service; second, at his meeting with Travis, when he explains that his sudden crisis of faith led to both the dissolution of his marriage and subsequently being fired from his job as a business manager for his church.

I think that Martin leaves the chronology of his crisis of faith, divorce, and termination deliberately vague, in a way that makes the causal chain I’ve sketched out above more a guess than a recap of the plot. But since Martin’s own past life never really intrudes on the picture’s minimal plot, the most important takeaway here is that he equates his sudden loss of faith (“I woke up one morning and I didn’t want to go to church any more”) with the disruption of his home life and financial stability. He says that he took on the job with the rehabilitation program because at his age, he wasn’t qualified for anything else.

The film’s one incident in which someone actually causes harm to someone else is again, in a minor key, with only a seemingly small sense of hurt inflicted. Travis tells Martin a white lie about his daughter Diana wanting to meet him that brings the three of them together for lunch, a meeting that constitutes the father’s first meetings with his daughter in years. Martin reacts with quiet, if dignified anger when it quickly becomes apparent that the young woman has no idea who he is, and he was deceived into being Travis’s anchor at this meeting. It’s the sort of social dynamic that, again, a lesser comedy might play for awkward laughs, mining out the tension for a confrontation down the line. But this film has made it so clear that both Martin and Travis are struggling desperately for normalcy that when Martin walks out after only a minute and Travis follows him to the parking lot, Martin’s hurt and frustration ring true. Things are hard enough without being dragged one more place where he doesn’t fit in.

And the lunch that unfolds is one of the year’s very best scenes, as Travis tries to re-establish a connection with his daughter that he can only try to reconstruct through small details that have no meaning to her – a childhood playmate he thought was her boyfriend, an incident in which he cooked her reheated french toast from Denny’s – in other words, the sort of pleasantries that everyone in his new community tends to speak in. But they can’t cover the distance between the two, and things crumble quickly before Martin returns for “just a coffee” in a perfectly timed entrance that not only releases the intense pain of the deteriorating conversation but miraculously turns the tide of the meeting.

Note the dynamics at play: Travis and his daughter have been caught in a very private moment by Martin, and out of politeness pretend that nothing is wrong, while Martin’s inscrutable exterior of wisdom and authority in conjunction with his perfectly timed entrance make it apparent that he knows exactly the impact his presence has had on the meeting. Instead of putting all parties at social disadvantages based on their knowledge, or lack thereof, of the situation, the script allows Martin to use the awkward three-way dynamic as a tool to smooth things over. As he orders his coffee and begins to fill the silence with friendly chatter, he begins to extract small details about Diana’s life from her, which with Martin’s mitigating presence allow Travis to reconnect honestly with his daughter as they eventually share old pictures from before his imprisonment. The pleasantries and amiability that were so distancing in Steve’s home become, through Martin’s gesture of goodwill, an avenue which Travis can take to find new meaning in his relationship with Diana.

I consider This Is Martin Bonner an exemplary independent film not only for the tools it uses to construct and resolve its minor conflicts, and how skillfully it imagines the disconnect between the words exchanged in conversation and their reflection of the speakers’ actual feelings, but for the stakes it establishes in the lives of its characters. Although the two main characters’ crises of faith are central to their isolation in Nevada, the film’s resolution offers no hints that either will come to terms with their religion any time soon. Travis expresses confidence that Martin has given him an ideal to work toward, while Martin himself seems in the final shots to have reached some small satisfaction with his lonely life.

But what it does best is to demonstrate how really deeply dramatic and painful it can be just to referee a soccer game in a new town where you don’t know any of the parents and your children are not among the players, or to have coffee with a friend, or to go to a speed dating service where you probably won’t see any of the other participants again. This Is Martin Bonner understands that pleasant, well-meaning neighbors and good friends don’t always fill you up, and how even when you’ve got it comparatively easy, life can be so very hard. - Brendan

Stuart’s Log: BLACK BOOK (2006)

December 12, 2013 § 1 Comment

“Like every Verhoeven film, it’s very unpleasant: it’s about surviving in a world populated by assholes, and that’s his philosophy.” – Jacques Rivette

When I first read this comment by Jacques Rivette, waxing enthusiastic about the commercially and critically despised camp extravaganza Showgirls, I dismissed it as just another amusing provocation in an interview already packed with inflammatory remarks. This was the legendary but largely solitary French filmmaker unfiltered, goofing around, talking out-of-turn, and his expressed opinions, while valuable as products of one of the greatest minds in cinema, hardly counted as meaningful criticism.

Catching up with Black Book, Paul Verhoeven’s triumphant return to Dutch filmmaking after a twenty-year stint in Hollywood, I realized that Rivette’s comment was shockingly on-point, and goes a long way to getting at what is so unique about this frequently misunderstood filmmaker. Verhoeven’s film career has run the gamut from respected European auteur (his 70s Dutch films were nominated for Oscars and marketed with comparisons to Bergman and Fellini) to Hollywood schlockmeister (Showgirls, as if atonement for his earlier critical successes, swept the Razzie awards of 1995), and he remains something of an anomaly, whose strange artistry is still largely unaccounted for in serious film discourse.

Black Book follows the exploits of a Jewish singer Rachel Rosenthal (Carice Van Houten) as she runs an obstacle course of compounded catastrophe in Nazi-occupied Europe. Before the film has reached the sixty-minute mark she has witnessed the murder of her entire family, joined the Dutch Resistance, and seduced an SS official, all of which only scratches the surface of this brazenly melodramatic and exhaustively contrived film.

Most of Verhoeven’s great American films—Robocop, Total Recall, Showgirls—are about at-first naive individuals making do in a world brimming with corruption and double-cross. Black Book has the most in common with Showgirls in its real-world setting, in its hyper-exaggerated illustration of a cutthroat, male-dominated world, and in its focus on a female innocent’s struggle to survive and adapt therein. Rachel, just like Nomi, braves one crushing disillusionment after another, relying on her wits and commodified sexuality to navigate a formidable hierarchy of institutionalized inhumanity.

Verhoeven is free of cinema’s usual attitudes toward sex as something either shameful or transgressive—rather he treats it as a necessity of survival, standing firmly behind anything his female heroes must rely upon to get ahead. His camera never leers, but rather embraces erotic excess giddily and guilt-free. A threat perhaps to the critical respectability of his movies (and one of the big sticklers for those who question where Verhoeven’s satirical sensibilities end and his exploitative hypocrisy begins), but it goes hand-in-hand with his total commitment to his protagonists, by equal turns victims and accomplices–fleshed out enough to command serious moral and emotional identification even as they continually act on their most basic instincts.

As Verhoeven runs Rachel through a gamut of inflated atrocities and shamelessly melodramatic plot twists, he arrives almost effortlessly at a serious commentary on wartime Holland, how the Dutch Resistance, just as much as the Nazis against which it fought, was prone to vile anti-Semitism and rank opportunism. Rivette’s comment is so piercing because, in attributing to Verhoeven such a crude philosophy, he touches on the fundamental coarseness of his movies even as he illuminates why they are often so powerful. If it’s a crude philosophy, then it forms the basis for one of the more ethically challenging films about Nazism. In a world populated by assholes, morality is stripped of the usual absolutisms and survival is never an unqualified cause for celebration. – Stuart

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