Stuart’s Log: SEVEN MEN FROM NOW (1956)

October 31, 2013 § Leave a comment

Seven Men from Now is the anomalous Western that takes its landscapes for granted. Budd Boetticher shoots his sand-coated valleys, gnarled rock formations, and rough-hewn desert trails from just the right dispassionate distance, never close enough that they flood the frame nor far enough away that they punctuate great swaths of arid space. This is a cool, streamlined wilderness fit for a briskly paced Western that’s had all the fat hacked away. And as this unlikely 78-minute masterpiece goes to show, that’s a rare thing indeed.

It’s 1956, the Western has been long accumulating clichés, and veteran B-movie director Budd Boetticher, along with up-and-coming screenwriter Burt Kennedy, has set out to make the first in what is it to become a series of seven films starring Randolph Scott. And the movie he makes is so weirdly, detachedly confident in the power and familiarity of Western archetypes that it feels free to eliminate much in the way of backstory, psychology, action, and environment in favor of a few signifying details. The opening scene is borderline Bressonian in this sense: the harshness of the nocturnal wilderness is suggested by the negative image of a fire-lit cliff-side shelter, Ben Stride’s (Scott) hunger for violence by the hard lines of his sunken, impenetrable face as he studies the shelter’s two visibly nervous inhabitants, and their death at his hands by a cut-to-black ellipsis that threads the sound of gunfire to Stride’s acquisition of two unmanned horses the morning after. Within seconds we know that Stride is out to avenge a crime and that the two men he has just killed were part of a gang of seven that committed it.

What follows are situations familiar to Westerns but stripped of the usual flourishes. We’re taught to recognize a scene’s pared-down essence early on and then train our eyes for the buried thematic particulars. Plot synopsis is nothing special. Stride meets a friendly couple by the name of Greer who are in need of assistance, and he offers to accompany them on their journey westward. They run into Bill Masters and Clete, two crooks familiar with Stride from his days as the sheriff of Silver Springs, and it is they who shed light on the tragedy that has left him a bitter man out for revenge, the climactic enactment of which would appear to be the film’s big payoff. Only, there’s a lot more going on here than a revenge narrative, and it’s clear from the moment that Stride finds himself curiously eyeing the pond where Mrs. Greer has gone to bathe. Boetticher etches little sub-spaces out of his ready-made plot-functional environs where the story’s real drama—an examination of sexual longing and repression, denial and confrontation, and the amorphous definition of manhood—steadily unfolds.

The key scene comes about halfway through the movie. It’s another rainy night, and Masters, played by Lee Marvin at his snarling, swaggering best, enters the wagon currently occupied by Stride and the Greer couple. The master shot crunches the four characters into a cluttered confinement. But as Masters attempts to seduce Annie, and in the process humiliate her husband and tease out Stride’s innermost desires, Boetticher resorts exclusively to tight close-ups that isolate the characters from each other in abstracted blocks of screen space, the wagon now a nebulous zone of emotional and psychological tension. All sense of proximity and perspective breaks down to the point that the sound of off-screen rain is the only thing connecting us to the physical world.

Seven Men from Now ends in bloodshed, but to what extent it sets anything right is impossible to say. It all boils down to Scott versus Marvin—one the tortured Western hero held captive by unshakeable bloodlust and the other the complexly immoral villain whose honesty about his vices constitutes a virtue in itself—and the outcome sees Western convention become the stuff of high tragedy. More than a good, or even very good, Western in the classical tradition, Seven Men from Now is an iconoclastic masterpiece of genre minimalism whose complicated meditation on masculinity sets it far apart from the other action pictures of its day.  Let’s not take Budd Boetticher for granted. – Stuart

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Brendan’s Log: 12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013)

October 29, 2013 § 2 Comments

Time barely exists in 12 Years a Slave. It concerns itself with nothing less than the mechanics of evil, mechanics which might be jammed or circumvented in contemporary America, but which operate according to principles that are eternal. The slaves encountered by Solomon Northup during his enslavement repeatedly insist that judgment will come for their tormentors. In fact, we know that it will; the viewer has the privilege of history, the same remove from which director Steve McQueen crafts his typically calculating tableaux. But McQueen has no interest in punishment, redemption, or any such narrative payoff. The encounter that brings about the resolution of Northup’s ordeal occurs by happenstance, and requires not pluck or courage on his behalf, but defeat and desperation.

This desperation is captured most vividly in one of the few scenes that feel climactic, as if something has been turning and shifting beneath Northup’s battered flesh all along. It is a long closeup of his face (the actor Chiwetel Ejiofor) as he stands at the edge of his fellow slaves, clustered together, clapping and singing a spiritual. Northup, so long committed to the idea of imprisonment as temporary, seems to give in completely as he joins in the song, a shuddering release and one of the film’s few truly transcendent moments of acting.

For McQueen’s sensibilities lend themselves necessarily to a film which percolates in the mind after viewing. His images stand alone as images, not as scenes or even montages, and resonate with their own distinct power when divorced from the context of a continuous viewing. Consider a scene like the first major setpiece of suffering, in which Northup stands on tip-toe, hanging from a noose all day while his benevolent master is brought news of his rebelliousness. McQueen holds a long shot of Northup in near-silence, as slaves slowly emerge from their shacks to wander about in the background, ignoring his pain for fear of bringing similar punishment on themselves.

It’s typical of McQueen’s approach, though not entirely representative. That scene, and other long shots like it present the perpetuation of evil as a simple tradeoff: that a great many go on in moderate pain so as not to incur worse violence. The threat isn’t death, as the shot visualizes, but the awful in-between, the possibility of being brought to the very edge of life and still being revived to go on suffering. As the climax (insofar as the film has them) of Northup’s time on the Ford estate which roughly comprises a first act, it’s fitting, dominated as scenes on the plantation are by rather basic (if elegantly presented) ironies.

Ford (played with impotent sympathy by Benedict Cumberbatch) gets a few scenes in which to animate these binary concerns. He is shown reading Scripture to his slaves regularly, in one scene laid over with a sing-song threat by his overseers, to which Northup and the others are made to clap along. Later, he struggles to be heard over the weeping of a woman separated from her children at auction. Somehow, McQueen thinks it necessary to show Northup’s next master, Edwin Epps, reading from the Bible to reinforce the slave-master dynamic as a divine order. These are basically two versions of the same scene, the second of which exposes the hypocrisy of Ford’s actions by outwardly stating that religion can be used not simply as a salve, but as a brand. Nestled within the film’s images, which contain startling beauty among its depictions of nature and handmade objects (Northup is a violinist and McQueen displays a recurring interest in the arts here that almost inevitably results in a scene of a young black child making a doll while the grown slaves are beaten in the background), these ideas seem more challenging and revelatory than they really are.

I’m already looking forward to seeing 12 Years a Slave again, to see if there’s more to unpack here, as so many seem to have found. I didn’t weep during this movie as so many did, but I don’t think it’s worth inquiring as to why. Dissecting that sort of reaction is the Kael school of criticism. But I am interested in trying to nail down some of my conflicted thoughts on the movie, which has me wondering whether I can dislike it while agreeing that its existence might be necessary or even valuable, and whether it’s possible to respect a film’s artistry without calling it good cinema.  – Brendan

Playlist: 3 Giallo Films for Halloween

October 27, 2013 § Leave a comment

1. ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK (Sergio Martino, 1972)

Italians don’t use the word “genre” to talk about different styles of visual and narrative filmmaking: instead, they say filone, a word that evokes rivers, streams with tributaries that break off and run in different directions. Nothing is so clear-cut in Italian cinema, so you may get different definitions of giallo, a word meaning “yellow” and the name for a style of pulp detective novel that usually featured beautiful women murdered in creative ways. It doesn’t necessarily imply the supernatural, but my favorite giallo draws these elements into play via a great use of paranoia and dream sequences, all of which set up the expectation of something amiss with its heroine’s head before it becomes clear that her visions have a terrifying, literal meaning. All the Colors of the Dark stars giallo favorite Edwige Fenech, who in addition to being a terribly beautiful woman has an uncanny ability to project an intimidating opaqueness as well as abject terror. Her otherworldly good looks often make it difficult to see Fenech’s characters as ordinary women trapped into extraordinary situations, but Martino does an excellent job here of toying with the apartment setting (shades of Rosemary’s Baby) which largely dominates the picture to play up the domesticated Jane’s fear of her surroundings, particularly in a pair of hair-raising suspense scenes toward the end. The plot, which involves a ghastly conspiracy and twists better left unsaid, is a serviceable vehicle for Martino’s psychedelic visuals, not just in the kaleidoscopic dream sequences but in the capturing of cityscapes and subways.

Available on DVD from Shriek Show.

2. THE FIFTH CORD (Luigi Bazzoni, 1971)

Bazzoni’s collaboration with iconic giallo cinematographer Vittorio Storaro is an even finer example of the sort of cine-tourism that these pictures offered at their peak, here combined with an impeccably structured use of physical and compositional space to create the impression of a city that slowly closes in on Franco Nero’s beleaguered reporter like a gloved hand around his throat. Numerous framings take advantage of lighting and stratified elements to imprison characters between windows, support beams, and even at the end of the tunnel. I think a great early chase scene in Inception was inspired by this film, as DiCaprio struggles to squeeze through an alleyway that seems to grow smaller. Nero’s performance, intense, operatic, on a level with his tortured opus in Enzo G. Castellari’s Street Law, drives a film that doesn’t need witches or telepathic black cats to terrify, with a number of absolutely inspired murder setpieces. This one leans away from the supernatural tendencies of giallo fed by filmmakers like Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci and toward another filone: the corruption-centric poliziotto film, to which Street Law most certainly belongs. Seriously, just watch Street Law and pretend I had a better excuse for squeezing it into this column.

Available on DVD from Blue Underground.

3. SHORT NIGHT OF GLASS DOLLS (Aldo Lado, 1971)

Obsessives only: Lado’s debut film lacks many hallmarks of giallo: the trenchcoated killer, beautiful victims, violent setpieces. Instead, the somber script develops as a moody, fatalistic procedural that takes us into the mind of a man thought dead but actually paralyzed and furiously plotting to escape his predicament. In short, it’s an old-fashioned mystery story that’s more reverent of the genre’s literary origins, in line with Martino’s Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (adapted from Poe’s The Black Cat). But its pleasures are uniquely the realm of the B-picture, as Lado works with a low budget and fairly stiff acting to deliver an atmospheric exploration of death in Italy. It’s the kind of plot that has a dozen possible political readings, but all of them seem irrelevant once you make it to the climax, which ends the film with a shriek of tension unmatched in almost all of the genre. It’s rare to see a film like this: one that only gets better as it goes.

Available on DVD from Blue Underground and as part of Anchor Bay’s Giallo Collection. – Brendan

A Surplus of Feeling: The Films of Vincente Minnelli

October 26, 2013 § Leave a comment

Preparing to see Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me In St. Louis for the first time, I predicted a thick slice of pie-eyed Americana nostalgically exalting a time that never really existed, a palliative to wartime America reminding everyone that things weren’t so bad—that fawning over a collective national past of luxuriant homes and frolicsome school dances, with its idyllic center at the 1904 World’s Fair, was just the thing to forget the conflict abroad. After the film was over, I was sobbing uncontrollably, having witnessed something far more heart wrenching than I could have imagined.

Meet Me In St. Louis opens upon a world of rose-tinted fantasy, to be sure, but it’s a fantasy rooted in the psyches of its protagonists, the daughters of the middle-class Smith family. The bright colors and buoyant musical numbers that permeate the movie are a projection of youthful optimism and contentment, each of which grows threatened by changes from both within and without. The two oldest daughters, Rose (Lucille Bremer) and Esther (an exceptionally radiant Judy Garland), find themselves smitten with the opposite sex, deep into the most agonizing stages of adolescence, and Minnelli suggests that their romantic maturation, in its own way, signals the death knell to the fantasy existence of their childhood. The threat from without comes in the form of a job offer: the family will be better off financially if Mr. Smith (Leon Ames) relocates to New York, leaving St. Louis behind.

What I took at first to be a diversionary embrace of a more innocent time was in fact a harrowing portrait of innocence coming apart at the seams. Meet Me In St. Louis throbs with the disillusionment wrought by the Second World War, and the hurt is no more apparent than in Garland’s climactic rendition of ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,’ which she sings to the youngest sister Tootie (Margaret O’Brien) in an effort to assure her that everything will be okay, that this loss is just a momentary setback and that a future happiness is right around the corner. It’s a devastating scene, Esther straining to preserve for her sister a naïve hopefulness that she herself has lost, the great specter of uncertainty haunting every plaintive note. And it was precisely at this point in the movie that, in a fit of tears, I decided that Vincente Minnelli was a very special, and very distinct, voice in American cinema, even though the rest of his filmography was entirely unknown to me.

Minnelli is often reductively billed as a director of musicals, which discounts the staggering diversity among those musicals as well as the slew of comedies and melodramas he made in near-equal proportion. And yet attempts to account for that diversity remain reductive still, consigning Minnelli to the role of genre specialist or flexible craftsman. He didn’t simply make excellent films within a variety of genres, but he imbued those films with an unfaltering sensitivity to the psychological anguishes, anxieties, and passions of characters who almost always seem to feel more fervently than is acceptable by the standards of reality, or even by those of other movies. The emotions experienced by his characters are so immense that they either drive their hosts to the brink of madness or spill over into the environment itself. And it is according to these recurrent emotions, rather than genre categories, that Minnelli’s work is organized.

For example, the same fear of familial change that marks Meet Me In St. Louis also dominates Father of the Bride, a black-and-white comedy; Gigi, an Oscar-winning Technicolor musical set in lavish, turn-of-the-century Paris; Home from the Hill, a lurid, Freudian melodrama; and The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, an ostensibly cute father/son comedy that would go on to spawn a TV sitcom. The anxiety that consumes Spencer Tracy’s suburban lawyer in Father of the Bride as he realizes that his daughter has developed into a full-grown woman is the same felt by Louis Jordan’s young bon vivant when he finds that he has fallen in love with Gigi, the cousin he looks after like a little sister but who has been developing into a beautiful young woman under his very nose. In a markedly different register, Home from the Hill examines familial dissolution triggered by Faulknerian disillusionment: upon learning that his wealthy, land-owning father (played with bone-chilling authority by Robert Mitchum) has kept secret an illegitimate child, a young man (George Hamilton) flees to start a new life free of his influence. The Courtship of Eddie’s Father is perhaps Minnelli’s most underrated film, a comedy that observes the relationship between a recently widowed father (Glenn Ford) and his young son (Ron Howard) as the former attempts to remarry. Here the generational anxiety rests with little Eddie, who cannot bear to see his father marry the wrong woman, and the strength of the film stems from Minnelli’s attentiveness to the wants of both characters, neither of which ever holds more sway than the other.

It’s this all-pervasive empathy that makes Minnelli’s films so compelling. Rather than turn Mr. Smith into monster of rigid pragmatism, Minnelli fashions for the head of the household an outer casing of upright sternness that, in choice moments, peels back to reveal a caring, troubled, frequently embarrassed man perplexed by a family of women whom he loves but can hardly understand. Though just about every character in Home from the Hill is at odds with one another, there is no distinguishing between protagonists and antagonists—even Robert Mitchum’s bitter, domineering patriarch shows signs of frailty and remorse. And in his love stories, the playing field between couples is always level, whether at marital war (as in Designing Woman) or in the throes of romance (as in The Clock).

Minnelli’s thoughtful and dynamic handling of gender, with equally nuanced considerations of male and female character types, is one of his unmistakable auteurist trademarks. In movies spanning Meet Me In St. Louis to Bells Are Ringing, he displays an uncanny understanding of feminine romantic longing. Throughout these films are young women grappling with their sexual maturity (Meet Me In St. Louis, Gigi), women who contend with the rift between their fantasized lovers and the men they end up falling for (Yolanda and the Thief, The Pirate), and women who find their love either unrequited by troubled men (Some Came Running) or seemingly thwarted by real-world constraints (Bells Are Ringing). Love in Minnelli’s films often supersedes Hollywood clichés about romantic desire and becomes instead a matter of existential necessity, an irrepressible urge pulsating through the physical worlds his women inhabit. It’s only fitting that he was assigned to adapt Flaubert’s ‘Madame Bovary,’ and while it certainly doesn’t rank among his best work, its strongest moments tap into the notorious heroine’s overstuffed romantic dreams with a visual eye at once intimate and grandiloquent—the two flip-sides of Minnelli’s cinematic universe.

His treatment of masculinity is most fully developed in his triad of Kirk Douglas films—The Bad and the Beautiful, Lust for Life, and Two Weeks in Another Town—in which the masculine impulse toward domination and control is conflated with artistic conquest. In The Bad and the Beautiful, Douglas is a Hollywood producer whose outlandish behavior alienates those he works with, even as it pushes them to create their best work within the industry. Vincent Van Gogh biopic Lust for Life furthers the idea that the artistic drive is both creative and destructive, Douglas portraying the legendary Dutch artist as a tormented soul who only manages to paint his enduring masterworks at the expense of his career, his family, and his good friend Paul Gaugin (Anthony Quinn). Where Jonathan Shields in The Bad and the Beautiful is an enigma filtered through the eyes of his former associates, Van Gogh is an open book of passion and despair whose descent into madness Minnelli charts with terrifying precision. Two Weeks in Another Town is in many respects a thematic sequel to both films, Douglas a washed-up actor who checks himself out of a sanitarium with the intention of returning to the movie industry, now well into the age of the international co-production. As with the romantic feelings of Minnelli’s women, the artistic drives of his men carry a strong existential import. By the end of this final installment, Douglas has cut off ties with almost everyone he knows and emerges a better man for it.

Part of why these characters register with such forcefulness is Minnelli’s visual expressionism: almost every aspect of mise-en-scéne either reflects or accentuates what the characters are feeling. And Minnelli’s characters are so emotionally vibrant that the saturated colors and floral arrangements that furnish their worlds seem to emerge organically, as extensions of their innermost thoughts. This is most evident in the delirious dreamscapes of the early musicals, in which fantastical, wish-fulfilling musical numbers materialize as though from suppressed desires too powerful to be expressed otherwise. Minnelli eventually learned to transfer this expressionism to his earthbound melodramas, unfurling CinemaScope compositions of limitless density and detail. From the sprawling culinary décor of the French household in Some Came Running to the foreboding crimson panels of Robert Mitchum’s den-cum-trophy room in Home from the Hill, the sets in Minnelli’s ‘Scope films possess a character all their own. And because he made a habit of telling these stories almost exclusively in long-shot, the characters come to feel inextricable from the spaces they inhabit, making their psychological confinement all the more palpable.

It’s in Cahiers favorite Some Came Running that all of Minnelli’s career-long themes are synthesized into a tormented melodrama that can be fairly called his masterpiece. This time Sinatra plays the Douglas role—albeit a more introverted variation—a self-destructive, burnt-out writer named Dave Hirsch, who returns from military service during WWII to his hometown in Indiana, where he inadvertently sets off an unwelcome chain of events. Martha Hyer plays the woman he falls for, a prudish schoolteacher named Gwen French, and Shirley MacClaine is Ginnie, the floozy who falls for him. The theme of feminine sexual maturity is explored via the classist dichotomy between these two women: Gwen’s intellectual maturity offsets a sexual frigidity that prevents her from accepting Dave as her lover, whereas the mentally unsophisticated but emotionally sensitive Ginnie aches with unapologetic love for him. Dave, frustrated by Gwen’s coldness and his own lack of inspiration, digs his way into a paralytic stupor, schmoozing with gambling buddy Bama Dillert (played by Dean Martin at his best) and doing little else. The small town where all this plays out is steeped in hypocrisy, and the film’s most heart-sinking moment—and a vintage Minnelli instance of youthful disillusionment—comes when Dave’s niece bears witness to an affair carried on between her father (an ingratiating Arthur Kennedy) and his secretary.

In the earlier films, the harsh threat of reality is either postponed (Meet Me in St. Louis), made to accommodate the characters’ fantasies (The Clock), ultimately accepted (Father of the Bride), or scarcely seems to exist at all (Yolanda and the Thief). In Some Came Running, it’s all there is, a hemmed-in world of repression and duplicity that takes captive the hopes and dreams of its inhabitants. As Minnelli’s career progressed, he seemed to grow more attuned to the tragic possibilities of unfulfilled needs and oversized desires, ambition leading to annihilation and romantic longing perpetually unquenched. But his later movies are no less powerful as heartfelt outpourings of pure feeling, imbued with the same compassionate sensitivity to cataclysmic change. As Dave holds a dying Ginnie in his arms under the kaleidoscopic light of the surrounding carnival, he stands no further from the abyss than the Smith sisters on Christmas Eve. And while nothing as joyous as the World’s Fair awaits him, a reverent toss of the hat by Dean Martin will do just as well. – Stuart

SOUTHERN COMFORT (1981) and MEEK’S CUTOFF (2011)

October 25, 2013 § Leave a comment

“In Louisiana, if we’re not carrying guns we’re carrying ropes.”

That’s the point in Southern Comfort where writer-director Walter Hill mostly loses me, at least until his anxious zydeco-scored finale. The speaker of that line is Pfc. Spencer, played by Keith Carradine as a hyper-competent and self-aware version of his randy persona from McCabe & Mrs. Miller, urging his cohorts in the National Guard on through the bayou with the promise of paid-for pleasures awaiting them at the end, and later overtly seizing command. Carradine’s natural charm and easygoing screen presence go misused in service of Spencer’s pithy aphorisms about the South, more entertainingly when he ribs the black Pfc. Cribbs about being allowed to join the National Guard only to keep him occupied instead of wooing white women.

“Entertaining”, yes, because in moments like that Southern Comfort promises a dynamic between its characters that it ultimately fails to realize, Hill’s preternatural talent for the action picture (best epitomized in his ethereal crime masterpiece The Driver) delivering an examination of how these characters of different background, colors, and prejudices function together through high-stress situations. Southern Comfort works with such promise right up to the inciting moment, when the Cajuns whose boats the men steal to ease their trip downriver open fire and kill Staff Sgt. Poole, the one true authority figure among them. The bayou becomes the setting of both a siege and a chase film, in which the men slowly succumb to fatigue, hunger, and insanity as their hunters play on their unfamiliarity with the territory.

But as in that quoted line of Spencer’s, Hill’s script slides into an unfortunate political commentary that actually holds it back from being an effective work of genre. Just as Carradine pays lip service to the perceived barbarism and ignorance of the South, Hill’s affinity for sketching characters in a few faint strokes renders the soldiers of Southern Comfort paper-thin stereotypes that bog the film further down into the swamps. It’s deeply bizarre that the same filmmaker responsible for The Driver and The Warriors settles for such tactics.

In particular, the case of the deranged Pfc. Bowden seems like a missed opportunity. After the squad’s first real stroke of luck sees them stumbling upon the cabin of an uncooperative Cajun, with supplies and ammunition within, Bowden doubles back and paints a red cross on his chest before rigging the whole thing to blow. After apologizing halfheartedly for his rashness, he explains the cross to Spencer, apparently mystified that his intentions weren’t obvious: “Like the holy warrior, Spence. I thought for sure you’d get it.” Soon thereafter Bowden goes catatonic, and the squad binds him up so as to better lead him along with them, even as he trudges mute in their midst like the most obvious metaphor imaginable for the burden of the South’s history of hate. All this would be well and good if Bowden served a plot purpose beyond his symbolic function, instead, the impediment of lugging a comatose soldier behind them barely seems to slow down the squad, and adds no discernible tension to the remaining action scenes.

Hill’s way of writing characters really proves an ill fit for these sorts of political aims. His screenplay for The Driver fashions its nameless players, cops, crooks, and dealers into platonic ideals of genre tropes, crafting an entire worldview out of their lack of inner lives and total devotion to the games of chase, score, and getaway. The Warriors is even based on a story of Greek legend, Xenophon’s account of his desert journey to the Black Sea in the Anabasis, and the joy of its cumulative narrative is in seeing Hill’s gangland fantasy of New York elevated to the level of myth, a secret history playing out in neighborhoods and subway stations most viewers would never visit. Southern Comfort is too bound to social realities to benefit from this approach, resulting in a too-political genre picture that lacks necessary nuance. This doesn’t mean Hill lacks political awareness or that the film is necessarily a paradigm of liberal didacticism: it’s just not his forte.

I have buried the lede here – I like Southern Comfort overall, since its flaws give it an interesting place in the filmography of Walter Hill, and it contains some passages of intense beauty and a masterful finale. But I find it most interesting of all for its conceit, which seeks to build this weary squad into a microcosm of a region, though it goes about the task pretty clumsily. Intriguingly, it would be tried again thirty years later with greater success, by an independent filmmaker working for the first time in the genre to which Hill was most indebted: the Western. It might be that Southern Comfort simply didn’t have the benefit of the same imagery that Kelly Reichardt (director of Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy) did when filming her wilderness trek, Meek’s Cutoff: there’s no Bayou genre, as worthwhile an approach as that might be.

Meek’s Cutoff never grants the audience stasis, except for the kind formed by a band of characters huddled together in the inhospitable nighttime, around a fire, too weary from thirst and hopelessness to speak to each other. It begins in medias res, with its group of westbound pilgrims becoming increasingly convinced that their guide, Steven Meek, has lost the way. The photography indicates as much with the opening montage that keeps the camera nearly still as the wagons wind their way through desert passages, etchings in a landscape that has no use for them, recalling the winding movement down a mountainside in the opening shot of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God. The montage is punctuated with a the gloomy intrusion of language, as Paul Dano’s Thomas Gately etches a single word into a trunk of wood: “LOST”.

Discussions of Reichardt’s Western as a somehow radical or arthouse take on the genre are a sore spot with me; I think that this argument holds weight only in its elliptical final scene, though I consider it less of a lady-or-the-tiger proposition than it is the closing of a loop, much like Hill’s own The Driver, a scene that signals the conclusion of one story but teems with the possibility of many more. It’s crucial to the historical dimension not only of Meek’s Cutoff but of the genre as a whole, which is why so many Westerns end with hillscapes, sunsets, or their heroes glimpsed from behind. The Western tells the story of a landscape, not a malleable one but a specific one in a specific time, and the naturalist concerns that bleed into both this and Reichardt’s earlier films are right at home in this storytelling mode. From this perspective, her choice to shoot in the square Academy ratio that defined the pictures of Anthony Mann and John Ford is a crucial one: there are only a couple of hard rules one must follow when making a Western, and in capturing images after the fashion of her classical forebears, Reichardt creates a style that can stand alongside them.

Like Hill, she is concerned with characters who separately seem thin and underdeveloped, but taken together form something like the nucleus of a nation. There is much at work in the themes of Meek’s Cutoff that seems to point forward to Where We Are Now, in particular the character of Stephen Meek himself, a rambling ideologue who wears the image of supremely confident gunslinger like a suit he patched together out of old scraps, but walks as if it fits him perfectly. The travelers’ encounter with a Native American Indian on their journey forces a major shift in the group dynamic, as Meek’s surprisingly intense racism feeds on the fear of the more religiously inclined members of the party and the level-headed Emily Tetherow must step in. Reichardt doesn’t make it clear whether Emily and her husband Solomon are atheists or simply people of more internal spirituality, but their furtive glances during nighttime prayers and silent pragmatism as Shirley Henderson’s Gloria falls easy prey to Meek’s sermons provide all the knowledge of them we need.

Meek’s Cutoff succeeds because even though one could read the Meek character as a stand-in for George W. Bush, the desert as Iraq, and the Indian as any number of foreign peoples subjugated by the interests of the United States, no such interpretation proves essential to the story that Reichardt is telling. This may be an obvious or too generalizing principle, but perhaps genre movies simply work best when they are principally concerned with the subject matter of their particular modes; in other words, when they are first and foremost about what they’re about. Reichardt has the advantage over Hill because though her politics may be more obvious, they are not the stuff of allegory. Her Western is actually a story of a country being forged in the hot desert sun, about how westward expansion and the process of actually realizing that fabled Manifest Destiny puts people through an ordeal they may not be equipped for, and as the ending dramatizes so succinctly, how the result of the ordeal remains nebulous and evolution always continues.

This is the essence of the Western, and how it allowed Kelly Reichardt to accomplish what Hill couldn’t, along with a finer script and keener sense of purpose. Southern Comfort works with a self-imposed handicap, gesturing toward the movements and workings of genre but never fully committing to them. Reichardt’s film is a Western before anything else, beginning with the closing of the curtains onto the sides of the screen and the first shot in the Academy ratio. It is committed to its language and to its ideas, which hum in harmony with the stuff of its images, not standing in for metaphorical landscapes but actual landscapes, caked with sweat, tears, and blood drying in the summer heat.

Southern Comfort is a tall tale. Meek’s Cutoff is a history. – Brendan

Stuart’s Log: LEON MORIN, PRIEST (1961)

October 24, 2013 § 1 Comment

LEON MORIN, PRIEST is a Catholic film made from the perspective of an atheist Jew. Director Jean-Pierre Melville (the name Melville adopted after his favorite writer Herman) was allegedly drawn to the source material—Beatrice Beck’s 1952 novel of the same name—for its depiction of life during the Nazi Occupation of France and the resistance efforts of its title character, a priest of peasant origin (Jean-Paul Belmondo in the movie, cast wonderfully against type) whose intimate relationship with a communist widow (Emmanuelle Riva, only two years after HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR) is the story’s principal subject. Melville was an active fighter in the French Resistance, an experience that directly factored into three of his movies (often considered as a loose trilogy), most notably his 1969 masterpiece ARMY OF SHADOWS.

But what I find fascinating about LEON MORIN is that the Occupation is a largely off-screen presence which significantly influences yet never directly threatens the lives of the film’s central characters (when Melville comes closest to depicting actual brutality it is at the hands of an American soldier). It instead functions as the pretext for an examination of the powerful connection that can develop between two people under trying circumstances—its gradual formation and abrupt dissolution. The horrors of Nazism are only apparent insofar as they inconvenience or impair the day-to-day life of Barny, from whose perspective the story is told. We watch as she has her half-Jewish daughter baptized to avoid suspicion, as one of her old professors has to leave the country, and as her workplace becomes a hotbed of political disagreement. When she enters the confessional of Leon Morin on a mischievous whim, intending to fight religion with communist chestnuts, she is met with an intellect no less aware of the Church’s classist shortcomings but that accounts for them within a philosophically dense Catholicism that Barny’s hollow Marxism cannot begin to penetrate.

Melville couples his respect for Morin’s Catholic intellect (the same stoical respect he has for his philosophically independent gangster movie heroes) with a detailed depiction of village life during the Occupation (devoid of young men and a breeding ground for boredom) to produce a fertile soil for companionship. As he charts the subtle evolution of Morin’s and Barny’s relationship, played out over nightly philosophical talks in Morin’s presbytery room, he never treats the Catholic substance of their discussions as a smokescreen behind which the complex machinations of desire and romantic passion are taking place. The nature of Barny’s attraction to Morin is both physical and spiritual, and it’s when both her infatuation and newly acquired Catholicism reach their apogee that she must wrestle with separating the two. The intensification of their bond mirrors the growing oppression of the Occupation, such that when the Americans finally come to liberate the village, the two find that they can no longer see each other.

LEON MORIN, PRIEST is the story of an intimacy that can only flourish in confinement. With liberation comes freedom, opportunity, and room to breathe, conditions hardly conducive to the spiritual urgency of their earlier meetings, wherein freedom seemed only to extend to the recesses of Leon Morin’s living quarters. The question that remains at the end of the film is whether the faith Barny has attained through Morin is enough to compensate her solitude without him. There is no definitive answer. – Stuart

Brendan’s Log: AU HASARD BALTHAZAR (1966)

October 22, 2013 § 1 Comment

The characters of Robert Bresson’s 1966 masterpiece, Au hasard Balthazar, linger with the viewer for some time after the final shot of the donkey has faded to black. They discover their world as surely as we do, because the manner in which Bresson assembles his scenes is so alien to our concept of the cinema. I don’t say “alien” because his picture resembles something like a Kubrick movie, in which humanity is dwarfed and herded into a collective by the vast, foreign intelligence watching through a camera. Rather, Bresson takes familiar scenes and breaks them down into each individual fragment, showing how disparate and discrete the elements of suffering can be.

My favorite scene in Au hasard Balthazar is an agonizing experience, as are so many of its memorable images and sounds. It unfolds in near-total silence, as the shy Marie (Anne Wiazemsky) climbs into the passenger seat of a car with the troublemaker Gerard (Francois Lafarge), the closest thing the picture has to a stand-in for the devil. We see him seduce her in short bursts, his hand creeping over her shoulder, then into her lap. Intercut with these shots are close-ups of Marie’s face, at first remaining calm, then suddenly wet with tears. The stuff of Bresson’s cinema is pain, the space between its shots occupied by lasting trauma. Marie is never quite the same after this scene; though the two don’t go all the way, Marie’s dialogue starts to take on a tragically hardened quality. She speaks with that brand of cynicism owned by teenagers who think they have seen the worst of the world. Balthazar is not such a wholly cynical film, but neither does it present Marie as a fool.

Balthazar, the donkey who gives the film its rhyming, almost jokey title (it’s a nonsense couplet that translates roughly to By Chance Balthazar), carries the name of a Scriptural figure remembered only for an encounter with the infant Jesus at His birthplace, the Nativity in Bethlehem. Of course the donkey has further resonance for the life of Christ as the beast on which He rode into Jerusalem, the site of His Passion and death. I think that Au hasard Balthazar has acquired something of a false reputation among Catholics and Christians of other denominations, eager to seize in Robert Bresson a patron saint of our faith for the cinema. The film addresses religion, but through absence and indirection. It presents a Balthazar not fated to meet the Savior incarnate, a donkey never blessed with the touch of Christ.

I find it so wrongheaded and alarming to read allegorical interpretations of Balthazar, interpreting the donkey as a Christ figure itself or its tribulations as representing the seven deadly sins, because for me the film works so beautifully through its lack of signs and symbols. Bresson presents us with a tactile universe of violence we can hear and see and suffering we experience through his editing, which is the very substance of cinema. He invites us to look for God in a universe carefully stripped of every sign of divine love and fulfillment, and despite all this I can’t find Au hasard Balthazar to be an atheistic or even wholly pessimistic film. There are many ironies at work here: the alcoholic Arnold (Jean-Claude Guilbert) swears to himself to never touch booze again, and sure enough Bresson swiftly cuts to his hand reaching for a glass. “What are you afraid of?” “Fear.” A woman prays for the life of her husband, and almost immediately he perishes. Soon after, a traditional Catholic funeral is held, with Balthazar bearing the tabernacle. These scenes, and more, all seem to be the work of an artist wholly disillusioned with faith, with the very idea that suffering could be magnified through love of God.

Yet the final images give me pause, as a fatally wounded Balthazar lies surrounded by a flock of sheep, an oblique gesture toward symbolism in a film otherwise scornful of such expression. Gradually, they are led away by their shepherd, and the creature dies alone, his eyes shutting slowly. Why give Balthazar such a serenely poetic death, when the film’s human characters get no such relief or dignity? I see in this image a veil briefly lifting from the camera’s eye, a momentary admission that in death and dying one sees the world differently, and Bresson gives us a scene to match. It’s still pessimistic; the transcendent moment having passed on, Balthazar expires forgotten and abandoned on a hillside. In a way this is the very crux of Bresson’s masterpiece, and where believers and nonbelievers may part ways in their appreciation; the proposition that, even after what Godard called “the world in an hour and a half” has been depicted as a cavalcade of indignities and abuse, one minute of grace is enough. – Brendan 

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