Early Decision: Jonathan Glazer from SEXY BEAST (2000) to BIRTH (2004)

November 8, 2013 § Leave a comment

Got to hand it to Jonathan Glazer; after a nine-year absence from filmmaking, the logline for his new feature Under the Skin – a man-eating alien played by Scarlett Johansson prowls the night, and that’s basically it – almost seems cynically reverse-engineered to remind the internet he exists.

One of the commercial shorts that best contains the potential of Glazer’s feature work, the story of “Ice Skating Priests”, commissioned by Stella Artois, plays out in a consciously wry, silent-film style, though with a tasteful restraint that keeps the direction from becoming overcrowded with too many formal conceits. Other filmmakers might have gone for the simulated overcranking effect, intertitles, or some wear on the image. Glazer’s storytelling, almost certainly influenced by his past as an editor of TV film trailers, is concise and fully coherent, with a number of memorable images along the way.

The shots in which the young priest (played by Zbigniew Zamachowski, who starred alongside Julie Delpy in Kieslowski’s Tres Colours: Blanc) struggles to escape from the ice foreshadows the frantic, industrial-scored heist scene near the climax of Sexy Beast; the commercial’s moment of narrative tension resulting in a shorthand for the feature which would allow Glazer to expand on tangible feelings of panic to reflect his main character’s anxiety, intercutting with the film’s pivotal moment of violence.

His second feature, Birth, plays to commercial-era Glazer’s strengths, in that its cast of characters belong to an upscale set that seem to take pride in extremely mannered expression of their feelings. The plot, about a woman on the verge of remarriage who meets a persistent young boy claiming to be the reincarnation of her late husband, befits a Bergman film and the cinematography emphasizes faces much as his late works like Cries and Whispers do.

Ostensibly, little connects the classical, Renaissance-influenced look of Birth with the gonzo, fantastical Sexy Beast. In his second feature, Glazer shows that he’s not the type to reign supreme over his collaborators. He has a great tool in the face of Nicole Kidman, never before or since allowed to simply react as she does here, particularly in the film’s standout shot, a two-minute closeup set to the overture of an opera as she arrives late, processing some tremendous emotional revelation.

In particular, this moment reminds me of two other famous closeups set to music. One, the haggard, strung-out Mark Wahlberg in the midst of maybe only his second-worst night ever, as “Jessie’s Girl” plays The other is Lily Tomlin in Nashville, who Keith Carradine sings his lovely “I’m Easy” to after calling her incessantly at home throughout the film. In that scene the viewer has a tremendous amount of information to process – that Carradine’s character has stolen the lyrics for this beautiful ballad from a chance encounter with a struggling musician during a traffic jam, that there are no less than four women in the audience who think he’s singing to them, and finally the question of what, exactly, Tomlin’s character is thinking as the two of them stare into each other’s eyes across the expanse of that room.

In contrast, Kidman’s closeup in Birth complicates itself through its simplicity. Up to that point her character beats have been fairly easy to understand; while Anna’s situation is extraordinary and Kidman’s performance is tastefully restrained, viewers can imagine themselves in these circumstances. They can bring their own skepticism of the supernatural to the table. They know what it feels like to have an awkward encounter with a child’s parents or a strained relationship with their neighbors. They can sympathize with the loss of a loved one and the hope that they might return. This is, after all, how classical screenwriting works: values and feelings are paired against each other and trigger the progression of one scene to the next.

By effectively hitting “pause” on the narrative in this scene and allowing no new information to come to light, Glazer lets all these emotions intermingle. Our process of synthesizing visual information doesn’t stop while he holds the camera steady for two minutes, but it does experience some heavy interference. As the seconds pass and we try to figure out just what Anna is thinking, it becomes clear that she isn’t thinking any differently than she has been in the previous scenes. A single shot of a face might be considered pared-down in terms of how much information is onscreen, but we are watching a film. We have another thirty minutes or so of information available to us. But none of it strips away the power of simply looking at Anna, as she catches her breath and is able to simply feel all her questions, anxieties, frustrations, and impossible hopes flooding together at once. Birth is otherwise a very economical, methodical melodrama that resolves its plot with a very conventional device. I would argue that it so approaches the narrative mainly to pull off this shot, which may well be Glazer’s artistic peak to date.

The luxury of simply looking, on the other hand, isn’t available to the audience in Sexy Beast, Glazer’s debut feature and a strange sort of animal by any token. Save for the opening images that spell D-O-O-M in the most thunderous metaphor imaginable – a boulder toppling down a hillside and smashing into the pool of gangster Gary Dove (Ray Winstone) – this is a noisy, chaotic picture, with barely any rests for the characters to rupture with their fits of violence and antagonism. Birth operates so cleanly that moments like Anna’s display of unrestrained emotion at the opera or Joseph’s aborted attack on Sean are even more upsetting; Sexy Beast is all violence, the interludes of dialogue only prelude to some slaughter that will follow.

If – as according to a 2000 interview in The Guardian – Glazer made his debut feature in order to “learn how to work with actors”, his control of formal space from the outset of his feature film career becomes all the more striking. It would have been very easy to let the jerking, roaring physicality of Ben Kingsley’s Don dictate many of the shots, to track alongside his pacing and to shoot his spittle-inflected monologues in tight closeups. But the opening, with Gary in his speedo and suntan at the poolside as a boulder comes loose from the hillside and crashes into the water, shows exactly how Glazer approaches his human collaborators – as illustrative markers that are pushed, excruciatingly, along a character arc while a grander design takes place around them.

Yet to develop a formal visual trademark in his first feature (which I don’t actually think Glazer is concerned with in particular, and this is of course among the many ridiculous questions raised by trying to nail down a filmmaker so early in their career), the key features of Sexy Beast are performance, sound, and narrative. Working from the nucleus of a microform narrative in television commercials, it’s interesting to study Sexy Beast’s screenplay as basically evolving from a series of setpieces, befitting its fragmented narrative that hops around in time. One such setpiece, the underwater robbery which Gary oversees late in the film, intercuts the sounds of industrial drills underwater with the pounding score and Gary’s own memories of the film’s central murder. Glazer conflates Winstone’s performance with powerful sound and a growing sense of the scene’s narrative significance in one punishing experience, a scene that seems to never end.

The film’s other setpieces are largely defined by the performance of Ben Kingsley, whose character has become synonymous with the film despite appearing in less than half of it. It is Don’s sudden appearance out of the past, like so many noir characters, that drives Gary to come out of retirement and take that fabled “one last job”, but only after an extremely unpleasant stretch hosting his old associate. The conversations between Don and Gary, which hint at a strained relationship in the past and Don’s intense jealousy over a woman now married to Gary’s friend Aitch, could practically have been improvised. This is not to say that Glazer’s direction seems spontaneous or that the dialogues are not well-structured, but that it doesn’t really matter what Don is so angry about. The influence of Harold Pinter hangs most heavily over these scenes, in which an enigmatic intruder threatens to upset a delicate social/familial balance.

Glazer doesn’t care for the mystery, though: Don’s stay resolves itself in the expected fashion and all his threats about the job and his bosses back in England materialize when Gary goes to carry out the orders of the gangster played by Ian McShane, largely to cover himself. If there’s a thread that connects Sexy Beast to Birth, it’s the manner in which narrative enigmas like the job for which Gary has to take Don’s word or the nature of the reincarnated Sean in Birth resolve themselves. In Sexy Beast, it’s a visually and aurally compelling portrait of Gary, gone soft in retirement, as he returns to carry out the robbery under threat of imminent discovery and death, the flashbacks to Don’s last scene delivered with all the clangor that sounds constantly within Gary’s own head.

The resolution, which McShane’s Teddy Bass figures heavily in, is a calculated anticlimax, the sort which allows for a small sigh of relief and also for a visual flourish in the final seconds practically unconnected to anything in the third act. Instead, the last image contains a fantastical effect, a monster lurking beneath the pool, the sort of style that’s out of step with the gangster movie preceding. But it’s perfect for a first time director, one so interested in the kinks of narrative, always with something lurking beneath the surface, gnashing and flailing and chomping to get free. – Brendan

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