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Polish family Novak and their antiquated ideas about marriage, which even Gary Cooper’s character Tony seems to find out of date.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

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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

Brendan’s Log: KILL YOUR DARLINGS (2013)

December 10, 2013 § Leave a comment

“Desssstroy the old and builllld the new,” goes the slur of Ben Foster’s William S. Burroughs, over a furor of activity. Hands, knives, pages, bindings, tacks, and the Beat emerges as a map of some undiscovered continent, occupying an entire wall in this apartment and perhaps more, since the camera never pulls far back enough to glimpse the limits of the zonked-out poets’ vision. In attendance and united in the solidarity of some ill-defined literary revolution are Allen Ginsberg and Lucien Carr, played respectively by Daniel Radcliffe and Dane DeHaan. The latter arrives onscreen with the lewdest of movie-star introductions, after a flashforward in prologue that sees him pleading with Ginsberg from behind bars; in the library at Columbia University, he recites Miller’s Tropic of Cancer whilst leaping atop a table and reclining, lamp between legs, for maximal erotic effect, not lost on Radcliffe’s decidedly green “Ginzy”.

Nobody ever says “Beat” aloud (all well and good), preferring the “Vision” of Yeats so alluded to in the Times article chronicling Carr’s eventual homicide charge, a choice that retroactively taints a movement with murder – as though the picture didn’t make that clear enough. “Kill your darlings,” says Professor Stevens. Edit out your digressions, your whimsical phrasings? Rip up the old works of canon? Use the same penknife to bleed your stalker out upon the riverside? At his arraignment, Carr clutched the Yeats volume in a detail seized upon by some capricious columnist for a vivid lede, a darling that should have withered sometime between their college days and 2013, when it forms the thesis of a picture too woozy on insight and incident to successfully infuse one with the other.

The first half stumbles along with an invigorating breathlessness; Ginsberg and his father (David Cross, a bearded cartoon cameo of Ginzy in I’m Not There) argue over the correct way to finish the latter’s poem, the moment finding its rhyme only a few scenes later as Carr finds Ginsberg finishing off unread lines of Yeats as well. A philosophy expands within the tiny dorm room, “another lover hits the universe, the circle is broken”, rhyming again with the introduction of Michael C. Hall’s ill-fated David Kammerer, running his finger along the rim of a wine glass as he extolls the virtues of an ethos lifted from Carr, who looks on with a cruel smolder.

He directs that look in so many ways throughout the film, but the real object of admiration, the ideal latched onto by the college boys is Jack Huston’s Kerouac, the Merchant Marine, genuine novelist and football star framed on the walls of pubs in “souvenir histories”. The conversation about these phony memories hangs over the picture like the spectre of its quite-tangible failure; the easy route for such a film to take is to take a beaming snapshot of the historical moment, Kerouac emerging with a rakish grin from a barrel tumbling across the street in one of Darlings’s many recreated anecdotes. Tellingly, he stoops his neck to puke while Ginsberg makes his first unhallucinated move on Carr. The film can’t quite be reduced to this image of a diorama history with a sexual awakening layered in the background, but the threat is there.

It’s more than just an illustration of Radcliffe’s Ginsberg, “[cowering] in unshaven rooms in underwear” as he lunges back and forth for the typewriter or to kick at his bed, the sort of literalist imagery that took down whole passages of I’m Not There. Instead, this film tries sensitively to reach through the fog of mythology that’s formed around these figures, which Carr embodies with all his anachronistic surety that their moment in history is assured and they stand at the brink of a new Renaissance (centuries more will bear him out, I was merely surprised to discover that Carr wasn’t an entirely fictional creation). Instead of finding a dramatic resolution to Ginsberg’s awakening and Carr’s crime, though, it settles for a scene intercutting the homosexual act with a stabbing, a sort of crude climax from which the picture just gradually fades away.

In this film, the best minds of Ginsberg’s generation have to surmount a regrettable mark on their public records, but can still move on to great things, with nothing more to say about the effect this crime has on their work. The killing is actually more of an afterthought and regrettable complement to the true dramatic juncture, of Ginsberg’s total emancipation from the identity wished on him by his insane mother. And if the ending is too quiet, too resolved, it’s perhaps for the best that the filmmakers chose a softer turn for their depiction of inspiration and burgeoning genius, because so many things can go awfully wrong when straining for a howl. Those tend to be more interesting, though. – Brendan

Playlist: 3 Withered Friendships

December 8, 2013 § Leave a comment

1. OLD JOY (Kelly Reichardt, 2006)

Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy is the most wistful of road movies. The story concerns two old friends in Portland who reunite for a weekend camping trip to the Bagby Hot Springs, where deadbeat Kurt (Will Oldham) hopes to reconnect with Mark (Daniel London), who has come to embrace adulthood in all its challenges and responsibilities. Rather than hood-mounting her camera so that it looks ahead to a fixed point on the scenic horizon, Reichardt primarily frames the journey through the passenger window, watching silently as Portland’s ramshackle outskirts and the wooded landscapes of the Cascade mountain range stream by. Friendship to Reichardt is an essentially transient thing, life satisfaction in a state of perpetual decay. Arrival at the springs leads to a momentary stasis, Kurt and Mark in zen-like harmony with their surroundings and with each other. But it’s a temporary fix, and soon the emphasis returns to the irrecoverable images that flood by the passenger window as this broken duo returns to the city. Life barrels along into bitterness and adulthood, and old friendships fall by the side of the road.

Available on DVD from Kino and streaming on Netflix.

2. MIKEY AND NICKY (Elaine May, 1976)

Lowlife Nicky is in trouble with the mob and he calls on his childhood pal Mikey, slightly higher up in the same syndicate, to bail him out. Played by John Cassavetes and Peter Falk respectively, the two spend a tense, grueling night revisiting boyhood haunts and working through their compromised friendship, which has been rattled for years by conflicting financial interests. Director Elaine May adopts the raw, roughshod aesthetic of Cassavetes’s films of the same era, but enlists it for her own personal dramatic ends. Encouraging improvisation from her leads and leaving the camera running, May accumulated hours upon hours of footage of Falk and Cassavetes in various stages of interactive play. If the story pivots on Mikey’s dual allegiances—to his mob superiors and to his best friend—then May’s freeform direction and the spontaneous performances she elicits continually highlight the blurry line between genuine and play-acted affection, heightening the suspense in the process. Mikey and Nicky is about the inevitable threats to male friendship in a competitive, unforgiving world, and it’s one of the quintessential American movies of the 1970s.

Available on DVD from Homevision.

3. IT’S ALWAY FAIR WEATHER (Stanley Donen, 1955)

Three years after directing Singin’ in the Rain, the ebullient crown jewel of MGM movie musicals, Stanley Donen made this uncharacteristically melancholic musical about the decaying friendship among three army veterans who struggle to adapt to a postwar America stratified along class lines and drenched in disingenuous commercialism. Gene Kelly, Dan Dailey, and Michael Kidd are the three returning soldiers who celebrate the end of World War II and vow to meet back up ten years later, and Cyd Charisse is the broadcasting coordinator who contrives to make of their bitter reunion the sugarcoated stuff of television uplift. There are some fine song-and-dance numbers—Gene Kelly tap-dancing on roller skates is a particular delight—but they do little to counteract the mordant chill of postwar bleakness and resentment. Something like a musical version of The Best Years of Our Lives (a similarly misleading title), It’s Always Fair Weather is enough to make you rethink whatever rosy ideas you may have of the genre. Donen and Kelly never worked together again.

Available on DVD from Warner Home Video. – Stuart

BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES and the Skeleton Key to Cinephilia

December 7, 2013 § Leave a comment

In some ways I owe my love of film in its current incarnation, nestled comfortably within an open-minded, pluralistic cinephilia, to Manny Farber’s seminal 1962 Film Culture essay, ‘White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art,’ which hit a key ignition switch inside me when I first happened upon it a few years ago. My interest in movies was only just burgeoning—what was it, only one or two John Ford movies seen?—and my fresh-out-of-high-school-brain was not yet equipped for his sputtering, idiosyncratic prose, but the gist of the thing was apparent. Reject the frigid, official ‘masterpieces,’ and seek out what is disreputable and unpretentious—art that thrives on itself and not on its fore-sought reputation.

Farber’s piece arrives at auteurism slightly modified, and sings the praises of quite a few of the then-marginalized figures in Hollywood that Andrew Sarris would come to canonize only six years later in The American Cinema. Indeed, ‘White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art’ functioned for me in much the same way that Sarris’s book did for many of the cinephile critics who would follow in his footsteps, as a polemical call-to-arms that laid the groundwork for a particular way of evaluating movies. For Sarris it was the French la politique des auteurs, the identification of a director’s authorial personality in his movies, detectable on the level of visual style and recurring thematic obsession. For Farber it was something more eccentric but equally concerned with style—how the entering of a room or the tip of a hat takes on a certain gestural dynamism when directed by Howard Hawks, but never in the films of such critically sacrosanct figures as William Wyler or Fred Zinnemann.

It was then that I abandoned the ‘Great Movies’ approach to cinema, in which all that really needs to be seen has already been anointed by some critical consensus or academic canon. When the mind is no longer fixated on the superlative, curiosity is free to take over. Slowly I underwent a metamorphosis from masterpiece myopia into termite cinephila, burrowing in whatever direction I saw fit without heeding the culturally erected guideposts that sought to steer me back on course in the direction of the officially sanctified. Moviegoing, as I now practice it, embraces the lost sheep as well as the chosen few.

But this politics of preference hardly accounts for the vigor of cinephilia, which, insofar as it overlaps with cultism, is also a matter of excess adoration, of triumphantly elevating the unusual, the erratic, the much maligned. Let canons reflect not what is flawless but what is botched, rough-hewn, and personal to an over-indulgent fault. Be not afraid to prop up movies that eschew universal appeal in favor of some niche attraction. Compile lists not as all-encompassing must-sees mathematically organized in descending order but as proudly alinear zigzags through one’s personal, largely idiosyncratic pleasure centers. Never deny perhaps shamelessly nostalgic favorites in deference to some elusive standard of objective greatness.

My cinephilia, I have come to realize, is grounded in something as universal as what David Bordwell has termed ‘the adolescent window,’ the principle that art consumed in one’s youth continues inexorably to color our aesthetic proclivities. Now, there is a tendency among some serious aesthetes to guard against nostalgia, lest rose-tinted remembrance taint their otherwise unbiased, unflappable encounters with the arts. And there is undoubtedly something restrictive in sealing oneself off to a rich media landscape by wallowing in the same tried-and-true pleasures. But insofar as they form a rudimentary foundation for later critical maturation and eternally inform the rough edges, murky chasms, and far-flung miscellany of one’s taste, such formative films, books, television series, etc. can not be emphasized enough.

If in some ways I owe the current incarnation of my cinephilia to Farber, it is largely because he made me realize that my indebtedness actually reaches all the way back to my childhood, and that I owe my love of cinema in toto to Batman: the Animated Series, an early 90s cartoon series that let loose my infant imagination, unlocked the door to art appreciation in my adolescence, and continues to provide for me enjoyment that far transcends solipsistic sentimentality.

This is largely because Batman: the Animated Series is termite art par excellence. The story goes that series developers Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski, assigned by Warner Bros. to produce a Batman cartoon to tie into the recently released Tim Burton films, were delivered a golden opportunity to make exactly the series they wanted. Timm, who had worked his way up from K-Mart employee to Filmation animator to Tiny Toons story-boarder, had no prior experience in a position of such creative authority. Without much in the way of formal instruction and only minimal industry guidelines, Timm and Radomski were given free reign to build their Batman series from scratch. Modern day Gotham was envisioned as a 1940s period anachronism, sinister gargoyles mounted atop art-deco skyscrapers and everyone fitted in trench coats or double-breasted suits. Backgrounds would be painted on black as opposed to industry-standard white paper, the tone would be thoughtfully but not gratuitously dark, and the series would feature original orchestral music. Working fastidiously from a set of ingrained inspirations—pulp comics, 30s gangster movies, retro pop-art—with little heed paid to marketable franchise tie-ins or other obvious signifiers of ratings success or critical acclaim, Timm and Radomski embodied Farber’s ‘termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss’ artist to a tee.

Batman: the Animated Series, taken as a whole, is a sprawling, experimental, consistently brilliant anthology. Though occasionally marred by bad freelance script contributions and shoddy outsourced animation (and some of the more ambitiously introspective episodes lamentably veer into White Elephant territory), it was more often razor-sharp in its creative intermixing of various old-fashioned sensibilities, in its smart, methodical storytelling, and in its acute evocation of atmospheric gloom. The first episode produced, On Leather Wings, was the big tone-setter for the series. Emphatically cinematic, it’s a rare example of televised entertainment that one recalls largely in terms of shots rather than scenes. The plot, about a giant bat creature terrorizing Gotham, is made in the great tradition of old Hollywood serials. Avoiding origin-story preponderance, it allows Batman’s actions and the rich visual context in which they thrive to stand in for decades of mythological backstory. The plot is slight, but the narration is dense, suggesting fully formed characters through the accumulation of off-hand gestures and subtly sketching a network of institutional relationships (police, press, Wayne Enterprises).

Soon after Alan Burnett and Paul Dini signed on as writers, the series came to develop a recurrent thematic focus, exploring with regularity the tragic undertones of psychological disorder. Many of Batman’s adversaries—Mr. Freeze, Two-Face, and the Mad Hatter among them—originate as sympathetic characters defined by all-too-human desires. But when these desires become unattainable, often due to some cruel miscarriage of justice, the characters descend into mania and obsession. Batman rights the nominal wrongs—all evident crimes punished accordingly—but an ethical knottiness remains. When criminals are both victims and victimizers, plagued by rationally assessed conditions that drive them to irrational criminal behavior, justice becomes far more complex than a simple enactment of punitive measures. The edifying but far from reassuring takeaway of Batman: the Animated Series is that Batman wages a losing war against moral and psychological determinism. That he perseveres in the face of the perpetual injustice this entails is what makes him a hero.

Most important to the prefiguration of my current cinematic obsessions, Batman: the Animated Series expertly emulates a wide variety of old movie influences. The film noir and gangster flick borrowings are self-evident—the mob is a pack of tommy-gun wielding, Dan Duryea-like goons, the garbage-strewn streets are low on activity but high on silhouetted menace, and a dreary fatalism looms over Gotham like so many police zeppelins. But countless other genres are appropriated over the course of the series. A ‘machine menace’ two-parter riffs on Blade Runner while absorbing the visual vocabulary of 50s sci-fi. Beloved Paul Dini creation Harley Quinn helms a total of three screwball comedy romps (Harlequinade is a comedy of remarriage to turn The Awful Truth on its head). There’s black comedy (most of the Joker spotlights), some adventure serials (The Demon’s Quest, Avatar), and weird Western pastiche (Showdown). One episode, Mudslide, is even a kind of meta-referential torrent of old Hollywood lore (Psycho, Dark Victory, A Streetcar Named Desire are all obliquely name-dropped) channeled through a ludicrous plot that pays histrionic tribute to the grand movie melodramas of yesteryear.

My favorite episode of the series posits a dialectics of nostalgia and arrives inadvertently at one of the great truths that cinephiles hold to be self-evident. Beware the Gray Ghost is about a string of bomb heists inspired by the plotline of a forgotten TV serial starring Simon Trent (voiced by Adam West, of the old 1966 Batman series) as its eponymous hero, the Gray Ghost. Batman, who cherished the show as a young boy, seeks out Trent for help in apprehending the bomber (Trent has the series’ only surviving videotapes). For Trent, the Gray Ghost was nothing more than a lousy paycheck that has doomed him to a lifetime of typecasting. He’s bitter to the core until he learns of the effect that the series has had on Batman, whose childhood absorption of its simplistic good-and-evil morals played a large role in making him the heroic crime-fighter he is today. The mad bomber is finally revealed as the owner of a nearby toy shop, and he embodies everything wrong with media connoisseurship—the Gray Ghost serial is merely a collector’s item to him, a tawdry leftover from television’s past to be appraised for its retro value. Batman and the Gray Ghost make quick work of him.

For cinephiles, the most cheaply made commercial product churned out of Hollywood’s studio system has the potential for profound personal expression, and the most garish object of universal ridicule the power to captivate. The reduction of certain movies to retrofitted camp experiences, the intentions of their makers implicitly derided, often pains us to think about. Susan Sontag wrote of moviegoing as a pseudo-religious experience, and in bestowing reverence upon the medium we love, cinephiles willingly drop certain intellectual defenses and gleefully suspend our disbelief. And the effect is, every so often, transformative. Beware the Gray Ghost, on its own disreputable superhero cartoon terms, makes the point elegantly. In any montage that would include Gloria Swanson and William Holden sitting in awe of the silent films of Norma Desmond, or the movie counterparts of Terence Davies’ real-life sisters weeping before Love Is a Many Splendoured Thing, I would have to volunteer for consideration the shot of billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne hunkered down in front of his TV screen with a bowl of popcorn, reliving his childhood in all its wide-eyed enthusiasm for the valorous exploits of his favorite costumed hero. – Stuart

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