Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Movie Moment Redux: Don't Look Now (1973, Nicolas Roeg)

(Originally posted on 20 July 2007 at The Screengrab. Reprinted with permission.)

One of the all-time great opening scenes is in Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now. The film begins outdoors, as little Johnny and Christine Baxter play in their parents' backyard after a rainstorm. Johnny rides his bicycle and Christine plays with a ball while the film’s theme music plays behind them. We then cut to inside the house, where their parents John (Donald Sutherland) and Laura (Julie Christie) sit in the living room. John inspects some slides, presumably for his job, and Laura skims over some books. On the surface, it's a normal afternoon in their lives.

But soon the tone changes. Johnny rides over a pane of glass, breaking it and puncturing a tire. Christine’s ball lands in a pond, and she goes in after it. John accidentally spills his drink on one of his slides, and as Johnny runs toward the house, John rushes out to the pond where Christine lies, drowned, at the bottom. John cradles her lifeless body in his arms and lets out an animalistic cry.

In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, this would merely be efficient storytelling, a tragedy that serves as the jumping-off point for the story. But there’s more going on here. Consider the moment right after John spills his drink — he looks at the slide and notices a red plastic raincoat similar to the one Christine wears. The spilled drink causes the colors to run, and when John notices this, the camera holds on his face, as though something is dawning on him (a masterful bit of acting from Sutherland). So while most people wouldn’t have had any clue that something was amiss until Johnny had made it back to the house, John bolts to the pond long before his son can fetch him.

I first saw Don't Look Now at a 24-hour horror marathon, in the middle of rougly a dozen movies. Horror marathons are a blast, but not the best context for a first viewing of a film as low-key as this. Due to the circumstances, I missed some of the subtleties of the scene, thinking maybe that John had heard his son's screams for help. It wasn’t until later in the film that I discerned the truth — that John was blessed with second sight.

The marvel is that the evidence is all right there in the scene. Observe the way Roeg briefly cuts from the breaking glass to John's face, sensing that something has happened. It's possible that John heard the shattering, but unlikely given that Roeg previously gave us an establishing shot of the Baxters' big backyard. By the time John takes the destroyed slide as a sign of trouble, all doubt is removed in the mind of the observant viewer. Roeg accomplishes this not by explaining what's going on, but simply by showing us John’s reaction. If you're paying attention, that’s all you need.

Unfortunately, John doesn't believe in psychic powers. After the story moves to Venice, John and Christine meet two English sisters who are similarly blessed. But while Laura takes to them immediately, John is dismissive. So, because of his refusal to acknowledge the gift of second sight in general, he's unable to see it in himself. Consequently, he’s unable to interpret the signs he sees (the feeling of unease in the tunnel, the vision of Laura and the sisters), and as such is powerless to stop his own demise.

Friday, October 30, 2009

The Movie Moment Redux: Duck, You Sucker! (1971, Sergio Leone)

(Originally posted on 22 June 2007 at The Screengrab. Reprinted with permission.)

In the context of Sergio Leone's career, Duck, You Sucker (aka A Fistful of Dynamite) has almost been lost in the shuffle. It may lack the badass cachet of his Clint Eastwood trilogy, or the epic sweep of the Once Upon a Time movies, but Duck is a classic in its own right. Perhaps its recent DVD release will get it the attention it deserves.

Duck, You Sucker is about the bond forged between two very different men during the Mexican Revolution. Juan Miranda (Rod Steiger) is a bandit, and John Mallory (James Coburn) an Irish demolition expert. Despite his devil-may-care grin, John hides a terrible secret: he's a member of the IRA, fleeing the law. But Juan doesn’t know this, and when he sees John working his "magic" with dynamite and nitroglycerine, he hits upon the idea of robbing the big bank in Mesa Verde.

John agrees to provide the explosives, and Juan and his men raid the bank. But inside the vault he finds only political prisoners. Juan is something of a vulgarian (he’s introduced with a shot of him pissing on some ants), concerned primarily with robbing and looting and the incidental pleasures they provide. So he isn't too happy about this development. But in the world of Duck, You Sucker, even men like him are capable of bravery, even if it's inadvertent. John, amused to no end, tells Juan, "You’re a great grand hero of the Revolution." But Leone's view of revolution is more complicated than mere acts of uprising and heroism. Not long after freeing the prisoner, Juan discovers John reading a book, and goes off on a tangent:

"The people who read the books go to the people who can’t read the books, the poor people, and say, 'we have to have a change.' So the poor people make the change, ah? And then, the people who read the books, they sit around their big polished tables, and they talk and talk and talk and eat and eat and eat, eh? But what has happened to the poor people? They’re dead! That’s your revolution."

Steiger's presence is troubling since he's a white actor in "brownface," affecting a Mexican peasant accent. But his performance is so rich — funny yet fierce — that the role, especially that classic monologue, is unimaginable without him.

For all the help Juan gives to the revolution, his heroism will be forgotten. It's the revolutionary leaders, "the people who read the books," who'll be remembered. Consider Dr. Villega, who organizes the revolutionaries but doesn't fight. After hundreds of revolutionaries are slaughtered, John spies Villega with a military officer, a guilty look on his face. Later, John volunteers Villega to blow up a government train. So deep is Villega's shame at betraying his compatriots that despite opportunities to escape the explosion, he decides to let the bomb kill him. Some time later, when Juan asks John what happened to Villega, John can only tell him, "He died a great grand hero of the Revolution."

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Movie Moment Redux: Late Spring (1949, Yasujiro Ozu)

(Originally posted on 6 July 2007 at The Screengrab. Reprinted with permission.)

As Edith Wharton wrote, "a man may marry, but a woman must." Through history, few institutions have been so fussed over as marriage, especially for women — not simply the wedding itself, but also the ages of the participants, their families, and their social standing. Not exactly romantic.

Yasujiro Ozu's 1949 masterpiece Late Spring is a story about marriage, but one in which the father and daughter are perhaps the least enthusiastic participants. This has a lot to do with their situation — Shukichi Somiya (Chishu Ryu) is a widower, and his only daughter Noriko (Setsuko Hara) enthusiastically cares for him. It's an arrangement that's agreeable to both of them.

But at twenty-seven, Noriko's nearing the tail end of traditional marrying age. Several people in her life (a meddlesome aunt, a friend from high school and an old friend of her father) commit a great deal of energy to marrying her off. Noriko is happy where she is, and tells everyone as much. But Shukichi begins give in to the pressure. Believing that Noriko will never leave home unless he can convince her that he'll be cared for, he hatches a plan to deceive her into thinking that he'll remarry. As a result, Noriko reluctantly marries a man proposed by her aunt.

At the end of the film, Shukichi returns home, having finally married off his daughter. His house, usually so full of cheer, is dark and empty. Shukichi takes off his tuxedo jacket and puts on a bathrobe, then sits down. Noticing an apple on the table, he picks it up and begins peeling it with a knife. The apple is about halfway peeled when the peel breaks off and falls to the floor. Shukichi, suddenly overcome with emotion, slumps down in his chair and emits a heavy sigh. As the music swells, Ozu cuts away from Shukichi to the image of waves crashing against the shore, and the movie ends.

Much has been made of the importance of great opening scenes, but perhaps even more important are great closing scenes, and Late Spring has one of the greatest. One of the most interesting choices Ozu makes is to end his film with Shukichi instead of Noriko. Noriko is the center of the action for most of the movie, but this scene reveals that Shukichi is the story's emotional linchpin. Other people outside the family pressured Noriko to get married, but it was his actions that ultimately made the wedding happen.

Despite its placid surface, Late Spring has strong undercurrents of anger and despair. The film's view of marriage is not positive, probably because Ozu is less interested in marriage as a union between two people than as a institution imposed by society. Consider how we never meet Noriko's eventual husband, or her aunt's husband for that matter. Recall that Noriko's closest female friend has been divorced. Even Shukichi doesn't paint a cheerful picture of marriage: "Your mother wasn't happy at first. I found her weeping in the kitchen many times." Why then does everyone insist on Noriko finding a husband? Is it just that important a hurdle for every woman to clear in her lifetime? Or could it just be that misery loves company?

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Movie Moment Redux: Father and Son (2003, Aleksandr Sokurov)

(Originally posted on 13 July 2007 at The Screengrab. Reprinted with permission.)

One unique characteristic of cinema is its ability to truly capture faces. Few sweeping vistas or computer-generated marvels can match a close-up of an interesting face. Ever since D.W. Griffith trained his camera on Lillian Gish, close-ups have been central to cinematic language. But while most filmmakers take them for granted and use them lazily, a few exploit close-ups to their highest potential. One of the great recent films in this respect is Aleksandr Sokurov’s Father and Son. As with much of Sokurov’s work, this film has very little in the way of narrative. It's a cinematic tone poem.

The characters in Father and Son live in a large port city (Sokurov shot exteriors in both Lisbon and St. Petersburg), together at home, with no mother or other siblings in the picture. From the film’s opening scene, in which the father holds his twenty-something son Aleksei to comfort him after a bad dream, their father-son relationship seems much closer than most. Many viewers will brace themselves for undercurrents of incest.

But Sokurov isn’t interested in realism. Instead, Father and Son manifests the characters' relationship physically rather than delving into their psychology. Father and son care deeply for each other, and in the absence of any other family they’ve grown to rely on each other. The father cares for Aleksei and dotes on him, while Aleksei is devoted to his father. Ever since his father’s recent health scare, he has only grown closer to his father.

Compare this to a scene in which Aleksei, a soldier by training, meets his girlfriend (also unnamed) at the barracks. Instead of having them in a room together, Sokurov places one on each side of a window that is cracked open. Sokurov’s direction of this scene makes it a masterful exploration of their faces. The actors in the scene, Aleksei Nejmyshev as Aleksei and Marina Zasukhina as the girlfriend, appear to have been cast for their physical appearances — he’s rugged yet boyish and she’s an ethereal beauty. As the camera surveys the contours of their faces, the actors move back and forth along the window as the camera pans back and forth to keep them within the frame.

The effect is intoxicating. So many filmmakers keep both the camera and the actor stationary in close-ups, probably so as not to distract from the dialogue. The movement draws attention back to the actors’ faces and the emotions they project, and serves to heighten the intimacy of the scene. Because nothing is standing still within the scene, the audience becomes rapt rather than complacent.

Yet there’s also the matter of the window, forever between them. Aleksei and his girlfriend draw close to each other, but despite the intimacy of the moment, they never touch. Likewise, as their faces move back and forth across the window, we never actually see an unobstructed view of the girlfriend’s face. Either she’s behind the glass itself, or her face is partially covered by the window frame. The conversation they have concerns the cooling of their love for each other ("You are seeing someone else." "Think what you like."), but the blocking framing in this scene makes the dialogue practically redundant. This scene sums up Sokurov’s primary theme in Father and Son — youthful romance is but a fleeting moment, while the love between father and son is eternal.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Movie Moment Redux: Solaris (1972, Andrei Tarkovsky)

(Originally posted on 27 July 2007 at The Screengrab. Reprinted with permission.)

In the age of CGI, special effects have lost a lot of their charm. They're cheaper and easier to produce than ever. But they don't feel so special anymore. By contrast, old-school practical effects were the result of a lot of brainstorming and painstaking work. If you wanted to accomplish something, you had to be creative.

One of my favorite effects scenes is in Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris. In the film, Kelvin (Donatis Banionis) travels to a distant space station to examine the crew, only to discover that the planet around which the station revolves is able to read their thoughts. What's more, it manifests the people they remember, including Kelvin's wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk), who killed herself ten years prior.

It's a short scene, but an indelible one. Kelvin and Hari sit alone in the station's library, holding each other. Gradually, a candlestick lifts off the table, and the chandelier begins to shake. Tarkovsky then cuts to a shot of Kelvin and Hari rising slowly from their chair, and the camera pulls back to show them floating. As Bach's "Chorale Prelude in F Minor" plays, a book floats in front of them. After a few seconds, Tarkovsky cuts to a shot of an evocative mural on the wall of the library, and then the scene is over.

For science fiction, Solaris uses surprisingly few effects, most of which are fairly rudimentary. The shot of Hari dead, having just killed herself by drinking liquid oxygen, is accomplished with cake makeup and a little fake blood, and some terrific acting when she suddenly springs back to life. Kelvin's journey from Earth takes place in exactly four shots: a shot of the night sky as light quickly passes toward the camera; a closeup of Banionis' face rotating clockwise; a shot in which the camera pushes in on a matte painting of the station; and some scaffolding, meant to represent the exterior of the station, passing in front of the camera. The planet appears to be shots of bubbling water, perhaps augmented by animation to appear otherworldly.

But I have no idea how Tarkovsky and his effects people made his stars defy gravity. Naturally, there was no CGI back then, and I doubt he could afford something like the "vomit comet" that was used for Apollo 13. The process that made the scene possible could have been difficult, but the solution itself might've been fairly simple — "simple, like all works of genius," as a crewmember says.

Frankly, I don't want to know how Tarkovsky pulled it off. Thanks to DVD and entertainment news, we know more about moviemaking than ever, but does that really make moviegoing more rewarding? Arthur C. Clarke's Third Law states that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, and isn't the same true of movie magic? If I knew the mechanics behind the scene, much of its beauty and wonder would be lost, and it would just become another cool effect, instead of the transcendent one it is.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Movie Moment Redux: Cries and Whispers (1972, Ingmar Bergman)

(Originally posted on 3 August 2007 at The Screengrab. Reprinted with permission.)

When I first learned of Ingmar Bergman's death, the first film I thought of was Cries and Whispers, which was the first film of his I saw way back in high school. Watching it for the first time, I recognized his style already, thanks to endless imitations, but I was unprepared for the real thing. I was blown away by his use of color, those bottomless blacks and bloody reds, which I discovered later was the color Bergman pictured for the inside of the soul. But my love of the film went deeper than that — I really responded to his worldview, miles removed from the insipid smiling faces of Hollywood cinema. In short, Bergman's perspective spoke to me more.

In the years since, I've grown to love many other Bergman films — particularly Smiles of a Summer Night, Shame, and Fanny and Alexander — but my love for Cries and Whispers has never waned. Watching it again the night after he died, I was once again drawn into the world of pious, suffering Agnes, her sisters, childlike Maria and bitter Karin, and her devoted servant Anna. It's a world full of loneliness and despair, and these things don't stop once Agnes passes away.

But the final scene of Cries and Whispers offers a reprieve from the darkness. After Agnes' death, Anna keeps her mistress' diary, and she retires to her bedroom to read it. As she reads aloud, the film flashes back to one of Agnes' rare good days, in which she took a leisurely stroll with Karin, Maria and Anna. In Agnes' words:

I wanted to hold the moment fast and thought, 'Come what may, this is happiness. I cannot wish for anything better. Now, for a few minutes, I can experience perfection. And I feel profoundly grateful to my life, which gives me so much.'

One striking thing about the scene was how different the colors are from the rest of the film — no blacks or reds, but sun-drenched autumnal hues. But another contrast is Agnes herself. Up to this point, she's always been in pain, but here she seems, if not well, then at least better. Likewise, her sisters are friendly to each other, whereas they're usually civil at best. In a film that's so full of violence — physical and psychological, real and imagined — this is a rare sublime moment, one that Agnes rightly treasures.

Of all the basic emotions Bergman dealt in, the one I respond to most is loneliness. In Bergman's world, loneliness is everywhere, not only when we feel isolated at a party, but also when we fear that no one is there to hear our prayers. We die alone, and so too do we live alone, hemmed in by our own desires and impulses. So when we can really connect to each other, if only for a little while, it's special. Above all, Bergman understood that these fleeting moments can make all the loneliness bearable, and for that reason I feel profoundly grateful to Bergman, who gave us all so much.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Movie Moment Redux: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005, Shane Black)

(Originally posted on 17 August 2007 at The Screengrab. Reprinted with permission.)

One of the biggest events at the 2007 Comic-Con was a panel spotlighting Iron Man, starring Robert Downey, Jr. Downey's starring role in a blockbuster was the latest step in his comeback after years of drug problems. But the road back has been long, with Downey appearing in everything from The Singing Detective to Ally McBeal. Perhaps his best performance during this time was in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was the directorial debut of Shane Black, Hollywood's hottest action screenwriter during the late '80s and early '90s. Kiss Kiss, by contrast, was a modestly-budgeted detective comedy, starring Downey as petty thief Harry, who teams up with a hotshot detective (Val Kilmer) to solve a murder case. The film's opening hour is best enjoyed as a self-aware comedy, containing oddball scenes in which Harry pees on a corpse, gets his finger severed (twice), and gets tortured by two thugs nicknamed Mr. Frying Pan and Mr. Fire.

All of this changes halfway through the film. One morning, Harry wakes up in his car, which is parked in a mysterious garage. He enters the house to investigate, but when he hears voices he hides under a bed. Mr. Fire and a pink-haired woman then enter the bedroom and continue talking, after which three gunshots ring out and the woman collapses. She sees Harry and tries to whisper something, but he stops her. After she dies, Mr. Fire leaves the room momentarily, and Harry comes out from under the bed. When Mr. Fire returns, Harry grabs his gun and kills him.

Based on what has come before, you'd expect the scene to play as black comedy, but it's anything but. This is where the casting of Downey pays off — he's hilarious when it's called for, but he's also capable of playing a scene like this seriously. When he quiets the girl, he doesn't overdo the shushing, but merely reaches over and puts a finger on her lips, staring into her eyes. And when he shoots Mr. Fire, he doesn't play the scene like an action hero, but wears a look of anguish and disgust on his face.

The woman's death is also remarkably affecting, which is surprising when you consider that she's a fairly minor character, listed only as Pink Hair Girl in the credits. We've only seen her a few times, so when she gets shot it shouldn't make an impression. But it does, in no small part due to her final moments with Harry, which feel almost tender.

In a way, this scene also plays like a rebuke to the movies — like Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout — that made Black's reputation. When Mr. Fire notices Harry holding the gun, he counters with a smartass quip, but it's not meant to be funny. And when Harry shoots him, he's genuinely sickened by his actions. It's like we're seeing Black casting off the glossy product of his youth in favor of something deeper and more mature. Frankly, it suits him.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Movie Moment Redux: The Films of Buster Keaton

(Originally posted on 24 August 2007 at The Screengrab. Reprinted with permission.)

Buster Keaton is, without hesitation, my favorite filmmaker. While his films were hilarious, laughter was only part of Keaton’s brilliance. This being my twenty-fifth Movie Moment column, it is as good a time as any to write about the man. Rather than narrowing his career down to a single scene, I decided instead to spotlight several, each illuminating a facet of his genius.

Keaton was peerless at engineering gags, often having his characters improvise them onscreen. In The ‘High Sign’ (1921), Keaton works in a shooting gallery but isn’t much of a marksman. So using a rope, a dog, a piece of meat, a wooden pedal and the shooting gallery’s bell, he fools his boss into thinking he’s a crack shot. Half the fun of Keaton’s inventions was seeing them go haywire, as when the dog sees a cat and rings the bell over and over while Buster scrambles to keep up.

In addition to being a comic genius, Buster Keaton was a formidable athlete. Keaton would often double for his costars — even the female ones — on the more difficult stunts but there were other instances in which he needed some help. In Neighbors (1920) is a scene when three men, stacked on each others’ shoulders with Keaton on top, walk back and forth across a courtyard three times in a single shot. Hard to tell if the men under Keaton switched between crossings but little matter — it’s quite a sight.

Random Hilarity
Most comedies live and die by their big set pieces, but it takes a special talent to treat the downtime between them as something more than expository dead air. This is where Keaton’s knack for off-the-cuff jokes shines through. In The Scarecrow (1920), his leading lady fantasizes about being a ballerina while Buster gets chased by both a dog and her father. She kicks and twirls, oblivious to the action around her, and keeps it up through most of the film. As a title card reads, “She belonged to the dancer’s union and couldn’t stop until the whistle blew.”

Many silent clowns were reluctant to cede the spotlight, but Keaton granted even bit players their share of choice moments. Consider the scene in Our Hospitality (1923) in which Keaton travels South via train. As the train passes, a little old man picks up some rocks and chucks them at the engineer. The engineer retaliates by throwing wood at him. After a few seconds the old man stops, picks up the logs, and walks home with an armload of free firewood. Who would not only make time for this character we never see again but also give him one of the movie’s best bits?

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Movie Moment Redux: La Jetee (1962, Chris Marker)

(Originally posted 7 September 2007 on The Screengrab. Reprinted with permission.)

Memory is a tricky concept to convey cinematically, and I often find myself unsatisfied with flashback sequences meant to represent someone's memory. These scenes play out just like scenes in the present tense, and we're expected to believe that the character in question remembers an entire conversation word-for-word. For me anyway, this is rarely the case. More often than not, I retain small but crucial details — a gesture, a scent, the color of someone's clothes, maybe a sentence or two.

More than anything, it's faces that linger in my memory, and this is the subject of Chris Marker's masterpiece La Jetée. What sets La Jetée apart from more conventional films about memory is that it's what Marker called a "photo-roman" — a photographic novel. In other words, Marker tells his story entirely through still images. Well, almost entirely — more on that later.

In the words of the film's narrator, La Jetée "is the story of a man haunted by an image of his childhood." His memory is the face of a woman. The protagonist first saw this woman on the pier at Orly Airport just as she was witnessing a murder. Years later, the man survives a nuclear war and the destruction of Paris, only to be imprisoned. His captors decide to use him for time travel experiments. In the words of the narrator, "this man was selected only because he was glued to an image of his past."

After weeks of experiments, the man begins to find his way to the past. He sees Paris standing again, and animals and children. He finds the woman from his childhood, and eventually they establish a kind of relationship. "They have no memories, no plans," says the narrator. "Time builds painlessly around them."

In one especially wonderful scene, he simply watches her sleep, and Marker shows us this entirely from the man's perspective. With nothing on the soundtrack but the chirping of birds in the morning sun, we are shown a series of twelve shots. The first eleven are still images of the sleeping woman, but in the twelfth, something magical and unexpected happens- her eyes open, and she sleepily stares at the man with a look of pure love. It's a simple idea, not really an effect at all. But Marker has so beautifully told his story through still photos that this momentary rupture becomes particularly poignant.

In the words of the narrator, "nothing tells memories from ordinary moments. Only afterwards do they claim remembrance, on account of their scars." Yes, but the scars aren't always painful. By the end of the film, the memory of the woman quaking in fear has been replaced in the man's mind by her loving gaze. And when he opts to live out the rest of his days with her, that's the image he carries of her in his heart as he runs to her on the Orly pier to meet his inevitable end.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Movie Moment Redux: Silent Light (2007, Carlos Reygadas)

(Originally posted 21 September 2007 on The Screengrab. Reprinted with permission.)

Despite the sensational buzz for Carlos Reygadas’ Silent Light at Cannes, I approached the film with a bit of trepidation. I didn’t much care for Reygadas’ previous features, Japon and Battle in Heaven. I could see that he was a talented director, but his attention-grabbing tactics and leaden symbolism made it feel like he was trying too hard. A director who films a shot of a man writhing in agony next to a horse’s corpse is just aching to be taken seriously.

But all of my doubts melted away during the glorious opening shot of Silent Light. The film begins with an image of a starry sky, with nothing but chirping crickets on the soundtrack. The camera than pans slowly downward until we see the horizon in the distance. After this, the sun slowly rises, and we begin to make out the rolling hills, and a few trees. As the sun continues to rise, the soundtrack begins to teem with life — chickens, cows, and the like — and we see a farm. All the while, the camera ever-so-slowly pushes forward toward the horizon, as the sun rises higher and higher above the hills.

If I wasn’t sure before whether Reygadas was worth taking seriously, this shot put my misgivings to rest. Simply put, it’s a stunner, partly because Reygadas makes it feel so effortless. It’s an extremely patient shot, taking at least five minutes, and in this time he acclimatizes us to the deliberateness of the film’s world. Silent Light is set in a Mennonite community in Mexico, far removed from fast-paced modern life, where people speak slowly and aren’t prone to snap decisions. The film’s opening shot prepares us for this beautifully.

The eminent Catholic film blogger Victor Morton has theorized that the film’s opening shot is a distillation of the Biblical creation story. Reygadas begins with the stars, then adds light, nature, and "nature shaped by man", before finally cutting to the world of man. This theory makes a lot of sense — as a film about a religious community, Silent Light is steeped in religious imagery, and so it’s only fitting that the story should begin as the Bible does. By extension, Reygadas’ opening shot is an act of creation in itself, with the film’s world manifesting itself before our eyes.

But the power of the opening shot of Silent Light is apparent even to people who aren’t religious. This is because Reygadas has taken a phenomenon we all take for granted — who hasn’t seen the sun rise thousands of times? — and shown it to us in a new context. A subtle bit of time-lapse photography aside, he doesn’t try to transform the sunrise with blatant cinematic trickery, but simply invites us to really look at it. A visionary filmmaker invites filmgoers to see the world through his eyes, and based on Silent Light I’d say Reygadas qualifies as a visionary. The opening shot is a masterpiece in itself, and the rest of the film somehow lives up to it. I’ll never doubt Reygadas again.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Movie Moment Redux

A few weeks ago, I was talking with a friend of mine about Phantom of the Paradise, and I wanted to cite something from my old Movie Moment piece on the film. However, when I tried to click the link on my site, the piece was gone. Or so it seemed, anyway- due to some funky Internet magic, the URLs listed under my links don't seem to work anymore, although with some creative googling one can (eventually) find Screengrab 1.0. But to save you the effort, I've decided- with the permission of my old editor Peter Smith- to re-post my favorite pieces here. I'm going to begin with my original series, The Movie Moment, to be followed by others I deem worthy of re-posting. I can't say how soon I'll get this done. Let's just say I'll do it when I have the time. Anyway, here's one I'm particularly fond of. Enjoy, either again or for the first time.

The Movie Moment: La Belle Noiseuse (1991, Jacques Rivette)

(Originally posted 26 April 2007. Reprinted with permission.)

I can’t speak for the rest of the world, but in the U.S, the popular refrain on Jacques Rivette is that he’s one of the greatest of French filmmakers, and one whose work hasn’t been nearly as widely seen as it should be. A major reason for his relatively small audience has always been the films’ running times — nearly all of them are over two hours long, with many of them over three hours and his longest clocking in at more than twelve hours. Rivette is hardly the only filmmaker who specializes in long movies, but unlike many others who do, he rarely uses the extra time to expand the plot. Instead, he lengthens the scenes themselves, allowing them to play out at a natural speed rather than trimming them down for the sake of keeping the story moving. For example, early in Out 1 (1971) he devotes well over half an hour to a scene in which a troupe of actors take part in an acting exercise which consists mostly of animalistic grunting and screaming.

Nowhere is Rivette’s flair for long, luxurious scenes more in evidence than La Belle Noiseuse (1991). While Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974) may be his most acclaimed movie, Noiseuse is perhaps his most widely seen, not least because long stretches of the movie show Emmanuelle Beart in the altogether. However, the real subject of La Belle Noiseuse isn’t Beart’s rockin’ bod — though that certainly helped put butts in the seats — but rather the creative process. Of all the movies I’ve seen on the subject, I don’t think any has captured it as perfectly as Rivette does here.

La Belle Noiseuse tells the story of Edouard Frenhofer (Michel Piccoli), a respected painter who hasn’t worked in years, and Marianne (Beart), the lover of Nicolas, a younger artist. When Nicolas goes to meet Frenhofer, the elder artist takes special notice of the young woman he’s brought along, and when she is elsewhere, they agree that she will model for him as he attempts to paint an ambitious work he abandoned over a decade ago, entitled “La Belle Noiseuse.” While Marianne is appalled by the idea at first, she eventually agrees, for her own reasons. But while the plot synopsis might lead a viewer to expect a tawdry melodrama like Indecent Proposal, Rivette’s film isn’t about sex, but about art.

On their first day in the studio, Frenhofer decides to sketch Marianne in ink, as a preliminary step before breaking out the paints and canvas. After she disrobes (all Frenhofer’s paintings are nudes) he sketches her body in various positions before he decides to simply draw her face. Marianne puts her hair up using a spare paintbrush, and then Frenhofer begins.

This scene is where Rivette’s use of long takes pays off beautifully. Once Frenhofer has begun sketching Marianne’s portrait, the film cuts to a stationary shot of the sketch being committed to paper. As several minutes pass, we see Frenhofer’s hands (supplied by artist Bernard Dufour) recreate Marianne’s face on paper. First the rough outlines of her head and features are drawn in, then more detail, and finally Frenhofer uses a wet brush to put some shading into the sketch. Finally, after Frenhofer has finished, Rivette cuts to a shot of the artist at his drawing table, studying the sketch, and setting down his pen and exhaling, satisfied.

For Frenhofer and for most people who create, scenes like this are few and far between. As we see in the next three hours, painting is an arduous process for Frenhofer, and not incidentally, for Marianne, whom he ends up twisting into more convoluted positions in an attempt to find the perfect one. At one point in the film, he even mentions that all of his best paintings have some of his own blood on the canvas, since he’s worked so hard to paint them. Such a blinkered creative process borders on the obsessive, but being a creative person myself, I could certainly relate.

Moments like the one Frenhofer has when sketching Marianne’s face can be a godsend to an artist, no matter what his medium. When attempting to create a serious work of art, as Frenhofer says, “you get stuck inside of what you’re searching for,” and the process can become frustrating or even painful. But occasionally inspiration and perspiration can come together perfectly and sublimely, and when this happens, this motivates you to press onward. In fact, they can make all the difference between a work that gets finished and one that gets abandoned. That’s why Frenhofer’s final gesture after completing the sketch is so telling. Because he works so hard, often to so little avail, he knows better than to let a small victory like this pass him by. And so, he just sets down his pen, looks over the sketch, and enjoys the moment, much like I’m going to do right now.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

It's the most wonderful time of the year...

As my regular readers (hi honey!) know, I’ve been a longtime devotee of the annual horror marathons that have been hosted here in Columbus at various venues by Bruce Bartoo, Joe Neff, or both. However, for the past few years, some of the magic has been lost due to the abbreviated schedule imposed on Bruce and Joe by their most recent overlords, the Drexel Theatres group. Running 12-14 hours rather than the traditional 24, the recent ‘thons have been fun, but there’s nothing quote like settling in for a whole day’s worth of horror. For one thing, the timeframe makes it something of a challenge, since it’s easier (at least for me) to prepare myself for the marathon beginning at noon than one starting at 10 PM, especially if it comes at the end of a long day’s activity.

But more importantly, the longer timeframe allows for a more diverse lineup of horror fare. For the past few years, the film lineups have felt somewhat thin, with a handful of area premieres and some classics, but precious few of the sort of curiosities that really make the Marathon special. And not only does a full 24-hour marathon give Bruce and Joe more time for extra-filmic goodies, but it also is much more appealing to the sorts of fan-favorite guests that graced the marathons of yore. Take this year’s guest…

None other than Mr. Stuart Bloody Gordon, ladies and gents. A marathon favorite and former guest at the ’92 marathon- which was before I came to Columbus, alas- Gordon will be coming back again this year to introduce a couple of his films as well as a title of his choosing (more on these later). Sadly, they won’t be playing his kerfawsome 2007 film Stuck, which I saw at its TIFF premiere, but that won’t stop me from asking him a question about it.

As I said before, two Gordon films will be playing here, the first being his cult favorite From Beyond, which I’ve never seen. However, I dig Re-Animator, and supposedly this throws off a Re-Animator vibe as well, so I figure I’ll be down with this too. The second Gordon film at the Marathon will be his Masters of Horror episode The Black Cat, to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Poe’s birth.

In addition to Gordon’s take on the story, Bruce and Joe have also booked a rare 35mm screening of Ulmer’s 1934 adaptation, starring icons Karloff and Lugosi. I can’t help but flash back to Lugosi ranting against Karloff in Ed Wood, which ought to make it extra fun.

Along with the two films he directed, Gordon was also offered a chance to select a film for this year’s marathon, and he chose the 2002 masterpiece Irreversible. Personally, I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand, I think it’s an inspired choice, and one that should jar most of the horror buffs in attendance out of their comfort zone. On the other hand, Angela will be attending again with me this year, and judging by her tastes in movies, I’m pretty sure this won’t be up her alley. She isn’t normally spooked by horror movies unless they deal in real-world kinds of situations, and I’d say this one qualifies. And if the content doesn’t get her, the style almost certainly will. So I’m thinking we may duck out for something to eat when this plays.

Another one we might forego for much the same reason is Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Which is a pretty great movie to be sure, but I don’t necessarily think it needs to be seen on the big screen or anything.

On the other hand, I bet that as a lover of vampire fare, she’ll be all about Daughters of Darkness. And honestly, I’m pretty curious about it myself, not least for the lead performance by Delphine Seyrig. Seyrig has long been a favorite of mine, but I’m familiar with her mostly from her turns in more arthouse-friendly fare such as Jeanne Dielman and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. So it’ll be interesting to see her in a part she can really sink her teeth into (sorry).

Another intriguing inclusion in the lineup is another Poe title, Corman’s Masque of the Red Death starring Vincent Price. I’m woefully underversed in both Corman and Price, so this should be fun. Right?

Along with Gordon and Poe, this year’s Marathon is also paying tribute to the late David Carradine this year, with a screening of his cult favorite Q: The Winged Serpent. Not having seen this before, I wouldn’t dare miss this one.

And under the heading of “curiosities” is this year’s selection Werewolf vs. the Vampire Woman. Should be better than Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus, I’m guessing.

Given the hit-or-miss nature of the horror genre as a whole, Marathon premieres tend to be wildly inconsistent. However, this year’s premiere, I Sell the Dead, sounds pretty kind of okay. Besides, it’s got Ron Perlman, which at least puts it a head on the likes of, say, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

One of the drawbacks of a 24-hour Marathon is that I’ve usually seen more of the titles than I have at the shorter ‘thons. This year’s Marathon is no exception, since along with Henry I’ve seen three of the other titles selected. However, they’re all pretty darn awesome, I think you’ll agree:

Of these, I’m naturally most excited about The Thing, especially the prospect of seeing it with a big Marathon crowd. However, The Host ought to be a blast as well, and I’m curious to see how well Day of the Dead.

So if you’re interested (and local), don’t be afraid- come to the Horror Marathon, which is being held from noon on Saturday, 17 October, through noon-ish the next day at the newly refurbished and under-new-management Grandview Theatre. Tickets are $35 in advance and $40 at the door. More information can be found at the Marathon web site . Hope to see you there.

A missive from Hiatusville

Hey there folks. You may have noticed that I haven’t posted anything in the last month or so. Rest assured that I’m doing fine. I’m just really, really busy. I’ll write more about it when I’ve gotten it under control, but for now I’ll just leave it at that.

What’s more, I simply haven’t felt very inspired lately. Normally, I would have posted a Criterion Watch just to have some new content on the blog. However, seeing as how last month’s announcement was a massive box set of Akira Kurosawa movies, I didn’t see much of a point. Being a quality-over-quantity kind of guy, I can’t get too worked up about the notion of spending several hundred dollars on a box of bare-bones editions of Kurosawa movies, most of which Criterion has already done up right. Then again, I sort of felt the same way about the Essential Art House box a few years back, but that didn’t stop others from declaring it, well, “Essential”.

Finally, an update on my progress with the Nobel Project. Or more precisely, the lack thereof. My original goal being to start with the then-most-recent winner and work back in time backfired when I couldn’t make it through the first thirty pages or so of J.M.G. le Clézio’s The Interrogation. Maybe it was a bad translation, but I found the style of it really alienating, full of endless paragraphs and the like. Perhaps I’ll re-evaluate my plan of attack on the Nobel laureates- start with a few that really interest me (Lewis, Coetzee, Garcia Marquez, etc.)- before progressing to the others. I’ll even try le Clézio again when I’m in a better frame of mind. And sometime in the near future, I’ll find time to work in next year’s (co-)winner(s), the staff of the Onion AV Club, and their new Inventory book.

Anyway, look for new content here later today. And thanks for sticking around.