Monday, November 23, 2009

The only new Thanksgiving recipe you'll need this year

With Thanksgiving coming up, it’s easy to get excited for all of the traditional foods of the season. Naturally, everyone is anticipating the old favorites- dressing, gravy, (s)mashed potatoes, Tofurkey, and the like. But let’s not overlook that classic creation, everyone’s favorite gun-metal grey veggie-centric delicacy, green bean casserole. Of course, not everyone has been so blessed to have grown up on this savory treat. If that’s the case, you’re in luck. I hereby bequeath to you, my loyal readership, the world’s greatest recipe for Green Bean Casserole.

Paul’s Impossibly Easy Green Bean Casserole
2 16 oz cans green beans, drained
2 16 oz cans cream of mushroom soup, not drained
1 can French-fried onions, also not drained

1. Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Eat one can of green beans as quickly as possible.
3. Eat one can of mushroom soup as quickly as possible.
4. Repeat steps 1 and 2.
5. Vomit contents of stomach into 9-by-12 casserole dish. Induce vomiting, if necessary, only by physical means, either by having a family member or friend administer the Heimlich maneuver or performing it on yourself using the back of a chair. Remember, catch as much as you can in casserole dish to avoid cleanup issues afterwards.
6. Sprinkle onions on top of beans-soup-stomach acid mixture.
7. Place casserole into oven until rancid odor permeates the house and overwhelms the appetizing smells of your other Thanksgiving fare. Remove from oven and serve to gullible guests.

As you can probably guess, I don’t care much for green bean casserole, or it will henceforth be referred to by me, “bean barf.” Of course, I realize that it’s one of those love/hate foods, and I know plenty of otherwise sensible people (including the lovely Angela) who are fans of the stuff. But I find it pretty disgusting, even when it’s made using more conventional methods than the ones I employ above.

Part of it is that the combination of tasty veggies and cream soup seems a fairly unholy alliance. If I’m in the mood for green beans, I want them as unadorned as possible, with some butter and occasionally a few slivers of almond. What I don’t want is for them to be drowning in a heavy cream soup, particularly not if said soup turns the beans from a vibrant green to a grey the color of volcanic ash. I suppose it doesn’t help that I discovered about ten years back that I’m allergic to mushrooms. But then again, my allergy does free me from the burden of having to ever eat bean barf, even out of politeness. The younger me, whose parents thankfully never made the stuff but who often found himself having to “take just a little bit” out of courtesy when visiting others, would be green- or grey, as the case may be- with envy.

So Happy Thanksgiving, everybody, and enjoy your bean barf. Or, if you’re like me, don’t.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Woohoo! New content!

I've been about half a dozen kinds of swamped lately, so I haven't been able to update the blog with new content. That's one of the reasons I've been re-posting the old Movie Moment columns here- the other being that they're difficult to find unless you explicity sniff around the web for them for a good amount of time. I'm sure most of you are enjoying a trip in the ol' Wayback Machine, but at the same time I'm guessing you're craving something brand-spankin'. And so, submitted for your approval, a freshly-penned review of one of my newly-anointed favorite films of 2008, 2009, or whatever year it belongs to, the Dardenne Brothers' The Silence of Lorna, or if you prefer, Lorna's Silence. Hope you like it.

Sometimes, even the greatest of artists can become the victims of sky-high expectations. Take the Dardenne brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc, whose latest film Lorna's Silence, despite almost universally positive reviews, has been given a curiously muted reception. “Ho-hum,” many critics seem to be saying. “Another hardscrabble, socially-conscious bit of cinema vérité from the Dardennes.” That’s a shame, really- sure, it’s interesting to see when talented filmmakers tackle many different genres and styles (it’s why Soderbergh is fun to watch even when he’s spinning his wheels). But with the Dardennes working at such a consistently high level, it’s churlish to complain that they just keep on cranking out another great Dardenne brothers movie every three years or so instead. Truth be told, it sounds a little like bitching that Dickens never wrote a book about giant killer robots- pointless and borderline absurd.

Click here for the full review.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Movie Moment Redux: The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974, Joseph Sargent)

(Originally posted on 12 October 2007 at The Screengrab. Reprinted by permission.)

Since it was first announced, I've been against the idea of remaking Joseph Sargent’s The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, and nothing I've heard since its release has changed my opinion. But at a time when even the most revered genre films get remade (e.g. Halloween), why fret about this one, especially when it’s already been remade for television? It’s hard to say. Perhaps it has something to do with the stripped-down style of the film, which never calls attention to itself. Sargent, a Hollywood veteran who worked mostly in television, foregoes flash for detail, portraying the subway hijacking more or less realistically, with an invaluable assist from the New York City Transit Authority.

Then there’s the cast. Today, the only leading roles available in Hollywood for men who look like Walter Matthau, Robert Shaw, and Martin Balsam would be in lowbrow comedies with the word "grumpy" in the title. But these actors were perfectly suited to the style of the film, playing not hotshot heroes and villains, but men doing a job primarily for the money. Given the usual visual pyrotechnics of remake director Tony Scott and the leading-man appeal of his star, Denzel Washington, it appears that the only thing left over from the original film is the subway hijacking. If that’s all that’s left, you might as well be remaking Money Train.

And no matter how good the remake is, it would be hard to come up with an ending that works even half as well as the original. After his partners-in-crime have been killed, Balsam’s disgraced ex-subway engineer takes his share of the loot back to his apartment, and Matthau and his fellow transit cops set about finding him by questioning former transit employees in the area. After a few false leads, Matthau and his boss (played by Jerry Stiller) drop in on Balsam, who appears nervous as the transit cops question him. After they look around the apartment, Matthau and Stiller start to leave the apartment, on their way to interview the next possible suspect.

Then Balsam sneezes.

Earlier in the film, when the hijackers called in their demands to the Transit Authority, Balsam could be heard sneezing twice in the background, to which Matthau absentmindedly would always respond "gesundheit." Now that same sneeze, which Matthau thought almost nothing of before, gives away Balsam’s identity.

It’s also just a good bit of suspense, with Balsam (the most sympathetic of the hijackers) worrying that the transit cops will find his money hidden in his oven or see through his alibi. In addition, there’s the way the scene ends the film long before we expect it to. In most films, Matthau would question all of the suspects on his list, go back to the station and hash out his clues. Here, it’s one sneeze and it’s over.

But most of all, it’s that final shot that makes the scene great. Who else could have sold that closeup like Matthau did?

"Gesundheit." Gotcha.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Movie Moment Redux: The Girl Can't Help It (1956, Frank Tashlin)

(Originally posted on 22 February 2007 at The Screengrab. Reprinted by permission.)

Director Frank Tashlin’s background was as an animator at Warner Brothers, and this was reflected in his best work. The principal cast of his film Hollywood or Bust might’ve stepped out of a cartoon -- Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, and Anita Ekberg (as Bust?) were all outsize personalities, well-suited to Tashlin’s world. So too Jayne Mansfield, who serves as both the eye candy and the emotional center of Tashlin’s classic The Girl Can’t Help It.

In this film, Mansfield plays the mistress of a high-level gangster (played by Edmond O’Brien), who wants to turn her into a singing sensation. He enlists -- no, pressures -- has-been talent agent Tom Ewell into grooming her and making her a star. Ewell is the right man for the job, insists O’Brien, not only due to his previous professional successes, but his professionalism as well. Ever since his last successful singer and the love of his life (Julie London, playing herself) moved on for reasons left unstated, Ewell’s policy has been to keep his hands off the talent. However, there are complications. Not only does Mansfield demonstrate herself both unwilling and unable to pursue a singing career, but she also takes a shine to Ewell herself, and Ewell, despite himself, finds he isn’t immune to her charms either.

After a long night of taking Mansfield to various clubs in order to get the attention of the owners, Ewell returns home to his apartment. Tipsy and lonely, he puts on a record of Julie London singing “Cry Me a River,” and as the song plays he has a vision of her in his apartment, singing to him. He stumbles from room to room, trying to escape her, but Julie just keeps appearing- on the couch, reclining in his bed, in the hallway outside his apartment. Finally, after the song is over, Julie disappears down the stairs and Ewell is alone again.

Fans of classic animation might recognize this as a oft-repeated motif in Warner Brothers cartoons. However, in ‘toon form, scenes like this are played as comedy -- a hungry Bugs might hallucinate various objects around him as carrots, for example. What makes the scene in The Girl Can’t Help It so effective is how straight it’s played. The song that Julie London sings is slow and mournful, and the look on her face is full of longing and regret. Likewise, Ewell is tortured by the vision, but he never goes over the top. When it’s all over, all he can do is hang his head and slump off to bed.

However, the scene gets a happy payoff later in the film. In a bar one night, Ewell sits alone, three sheets to the wind, when the jukebox begins playing “Cry Me a River.” Ewell turns to the barfly who chose the tune and berates him for choosing it, and tries to explain his problem. When he points to the seat next to him, to show the other guy where Julie London is, there’s no one sitting there, and the other man tells him as much. But when Ewell takes a look himself, it’s not Julie sitting there at all, but Jayne Mansfield, her face beaming with a loving smile. As cinematic expressions of getting over an old flame go, this one’s hard to beat.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Movie Moment Redux: The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978, Ermanno Olmi)

(Originally posted on 1 March 2007 at The Screengrab. Reprinted by permission.)

The Italian Neo-Realist movement began as a reaction to the more lightweight entertainments that usually focused on upper-class protagonists. In contrast, neo-realist directors such as Roberto Rossellini, Luchino Visconti and Vittorio De Sica explored the poor and working-class Italy of the day, training their cameras on laborers and prostitutes instead of captains of industry and heiresses. Because of this, neo-realist filmmakers more often than not would forego the casting of name actors, preferring to find non-professionals who could embody the types of characters in the film.

Such was the case with Ermanno Olmi’s The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978), which was made a quarter century after the heyday of Italian Neo-Realism but nonetheless is very much in the same tradition. The Tree of Wooden Clogs captures life on a farmstead in Lombardy, Italy near the end of the 1800s, and Olmi’s cast is comprised entirely of real-life peasants. The film doesn’t attempt to tell a conventional story so much as intertwine the lives of the people who worked this land, raised their families and fought to survive, and while the cast of non-actors might not have worked for a more straightforward narrative, here it’s the right choice. Olmi directs each of his performers so that they feel perfectly natural and free of affectations.

The film’s most emotionally-involving plot strand involves a shy courtship between two teenagers, Stefano and Maddalena. Despite some initial awkwardness, they end up getting married. What’s fascinating about their wedding day is how modest it is compared to most people are used to in real life, much less Hollywood movies. But so it must have been among most poor people of the time, and everything that seems alien to modern audiences makes sense -- the small, early-morning church wedding, the sack lunches the newlyweds bring for their honeymoon, and so on. Even the honeymoon itself is consistent with the characters’ economic situation, with Stefano and Maddalena taking a barge to Milan to visit her aunt, Sister Maria, in a convent. While it’s only a few hours’ voyage to Milan, it’s entirely possible that this is the furthest either has ever been from home, and in fact Sister Maria states that “it’s been years since I saw my sister,” Maddalena’s mother.

After taking a tour of the convent, which is also an orphanage, they eat with the nuns (who sing them a hymn as they dine) and are taken to a small, Spartan bedroom. “We’ve never had newlyweds here before,” Sister Maria tells them. The next morning as they prepare for the trip home (tellingly, they wear the same clothes they came in), Sister Maria enters their room again, a child in her arms.

“His name is Giovanni Batista. He is 1 year old and in perfect health. Aren’t you, Giovanni Batista? He only needs real parents to make him happy, a real mother and father. He can already be a help to his family because he has an inheritance. He has good clothing and a little money which is passed to our institution twice a year. For a family of poor people, this could sometimes be a true gift of Providence. We must help each other in this world. He can be useful to you, and you can be very helpful to him.”

Maddalena then takes Giovanni in her arms and holds him close to her. In a Hollywood tearjerker this would probably be enough to elicit “awws” and sniffles from the audience. But if and when you watch The Tree of Wooden Clogs, pay attention to how Olmi’s camera focuses on the expression on Giovanni’s face. He doesn’t instantly take to Maddalena, but holds back for a few seconds, as if sizing her up. Finally, almost like he’s decided to accept her as his mother, he leans his head against Maddalena’s and relaxes.

I love this scene because of the way it turns an unexpected development into something lovely and sort of profound. It says a lot -- not just about these newlyweds, but about the culture in which they live -- that they so unconditionally accept Giovanni into their lives. The money promised them by Sister Maria plays a small role in their decision, I’m sure, but I’d say that their religious beliefs and values were a much bigger deciding factor. For many poor people, no matter where they live, faith is something that is very real to them, accepted rather than scrutinized and questioned. So it is with Maddalena and Stefano. On their first night as husband and wife, Sister Maria advises them, “may you always deserve God’s blessing.” In the minds of all concerned, Giovanni is just such a blessing.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Movie Moment Redux: 8 Women (2002, Francois Ozon)

(Originally posted on 8 March 2007 at The Screengrab. Reprinted by permission.)

One of my favorite films so far this decade is Francois Ozon’s 8 Women, a highly stylized film that has as many passionate detractors as supporters. A major point of contention is the way Ozon adds scenes in which each cast member performs a pop song to what is ostensibly a locked-room murder mystery in the Agatha Christie tradition. The musical numbers are pretty low-fi, and Ozon focuses more on the way his actresses perform the songs rather than dazzling the audience.

The naysayers believe that the songs distract from the plot, or worse, derail it. However, as a fan of the film, I believe they’re integral to the movie- in movies of this sort, the investigation ends up unearthing secrets in the characters involved, and Ozon and his actresses use the songs to reveal previously-buried depths to their characters. This is most obvious in the song performed by Isabelle Huppert, entitled “Message Personnel.”

A lot of the fun of Ozon’s film comes from the stars riffing on their signature roles. Unlike many films, 8 Women assumes that the audience is familiar with its stars’ filmographies. And why not? With a cast including Huppert, Catherine Deneuve, Fanny Ardant, Danielle Darrieux, and Emmanuelle Beart, anyone who’s familiar with French cinema should know these actresses’ films fairly well.

If Huppert -- one of the world’s great actresses -- can be said to have an archetypal role, it’s that of the enigmatic, unhinged loner whose stone face keeps reality at bay, which is why her performance as spinsterish Aunt Augustine comes as such a shock at the outset of the film. A far cry from the cool, appraising sorts Huppert tends to play, Augustine is something of a drama queen, prone to temper tantrums and never without a tart rejoinder, with much of her bile reserved for the sister who has taken her in. Huppert is an absolute hoot in the role, with her exaggerated facial expressions and outsize gestures, but it’s so gloriously stylized that we know it’s only a matter of time before the real “Isabelle” emerges.

Naturally, this opportunity manifests itself once a dead body has been discovered. The women in the house begin accusing each other of the crime, and after a particularly angry row between Augustine and big sister Gaby (Deneuve), Gaby storms out. All eyes are on Augustine, and the women who remain demand that she account for herself. It’s here that the Augustine’s high-strung personality falls away, and Huppert strides calmly to the piano.

Along with being a peerless actress, Huppert is also a trained pianist, and she had starred in The Piano Teacher the previous year. So when Ozon wittily spoofs the conventions of scenes of this type by never showing Huppert’s face in the same shot as her playing hands, it’s slyly funny. But what really sells the song “Message Personnel” and the scene around it is Huppert’s low-key, yet intense rendition of the song. Her delivery of the spoken lines that begin the song feels unsure, almost apologetic, as she intones, “I cannot tell you/ that I love you… perhaps?”

Then halfway through the song, Augustine stands up from the piano and directly faces the four women who are witnessing her sung confession. She pantomimes the lyrics as she sings, “we’ll flee the past for we can live tomorrow/come and rescue me.” The capper comes when Ozon cuts to a close-up of Huppert’s face as she sings the song’s final lines:

When every day is just another yesterday,
Think of me,
Think of me,
But if you…

What I love most about this moment is how it distills the Huppert screen persona -- unable to communicate her love for others, she suffers in silence. In this final close-up, we can actually see the tears welling up in her eyes as the song progresses, and Huppert punctuates the tentative final lyric by closing her eyes, causing the tears to roll down her cheeks.

Now, I’ve never met Isabelle Huppert in real life, so I can’t attest to how closely the Augustine who gets revealed in “Message Personnel” is to her actual personality. But that’s beside the point. Francois Ozon cast each actress in 8 Women not merely for her formidable talent but also the baggage she brought from previous iconic roles. When we learn the truth about Augustine through her song, we’re merely seeing the Huppert we’ve gotten to know from The Piano Teacher and her decades-long collaboration with Claude Chabrol. It’s the same with all of the stars of 8 Women -- Ozon doesn’t seek to show their true natures, but rather to reinforce the star personas they’ve constructed over the years.

In our current media-saturated age, we are able to scrutinize the lives of stars more closely than ever before. With 8 Women, Ozon seems to be asking why we would ever want to. When we see a star performing, we don’t respond to her personal behavior -- whether we know about it not -- but rather the image she conveys through her performance. Plenty of classical movie stars were later revealed to have been troubled or difficult in real life, but when they’re making magic onscreen, it doesn’t matter. Ozon’s acknowledgement of this is only one of the wonders of 8 Women, but it’s certainly one of the more relevant ones today.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Movie Moment Redux: A Fish Called Wanda (1988, Charles Crichton)

(Originally posted on 15 March 2007 at The Screengrab. Reprinted with permission.)

Ever since my high school years I’ve considered myself a Monty Python fan, and practically every Python fan has a favorite member of the troupe. Mine has always been Michael Palin. Some people I know prefer the more forceful persona of John Cleese, the sarcastic stylings of Eric Idle or the utilityman charms of Terry Jones, but to me Palin is the soul of Python. Not only was he the most versatile performer of the bunch (though Jones came close) but he also invested his characters, no matter how grotesque, with the most humanity. His performances were always full of small touches that signaled that he had thought the characters through, rather than just coasting through his sketches. This tendency has extended to his film work, and while he hasn’t capitalized on his Python popularity as much as Cleese has, his work is more consistently interesting. For my money, his greatest non-Python performance comes in A Fish Called Wanda.

Of the quartet of principals in Charles Crichton’s film, Palin seems the odd man out. Barrister Archie, played by Cleese, gets to romance Jamie Lee Curtis’s Wanda, and Kevin Kline gets most of the good lines as the wannabe arch-criminal Otto. In a lesser film, Palin’s Ken would be little more than a figure of ridicule -- a weak, animal-loving stammerer who is the butt of Otto’s jokes. But A Fish Called Wanda, as dark as its humor is at times, likes its characters; and Ken is perhaps the most likable of all. Compared to the sexy and exciting adventures of the others, his is a life of quiet desperation.

A lot of the credit goes to Palin, and in particular how he pulls off Ken’s stammer, playing it not for easy laughs, but as a troubling affliction. There’s a reason behind this -- Palin’s own father had a stammering problem, and Palin based his performance off him. This sympathy for his father’s difficulty comes through in Palin’s performance, which successfully mines the character for pathos rather than snide comedy.

Like many stammerers, Ken’s condition gets worse when he’s nervous or emotional, such as when Otto ties him up and tortures him to find the location of a safety deposit box key. As Otto slurps down Ken’s beloved tropical fish one by one, Ken is practically paralyzed with rage, yet powerless to stop it. By the end of the scene, Otto has made off with the key, and Ken has been left, bound and alone, in his apartment.

But the film’s real highlight doesn’t come until later, when Archie arrives at Ken’s apartment to find out where Otto has gone. Ken is still tied up, gagged with an apple, and with his chair tipped over onto the floor. Needless to say, this is hardly the ideal time to ask Ken any questions. Supposedly Cleese had always wanted to write a scene in which a stammering character gets questioned to no avail, and here was his chance.

Archie unties Ken and seats him upright, trying to get the answer out of him, but Ken, try as he might, can’t seem to spit it out. So Archie, sensing the problem, does his best to put Ken at ease, but it still doesn’t work. As Ken repeatedly gets stuck on “The Caaa… the Caaaaaaa…,” the frustration begins to manifest itself on his face. Ken’s stammer has afflicted him all his life, but that doesn’t make it any easier for him to deal with. One can plainly see how much he wants to tell, but he just can’t, and that pains him. Finally, Archie decides to have Ken write down the answer instead, which Ken does, and when Archie reads the answer aloud- “The Cathcart Towers Hotel”- Ken repeats the answer, his stutter suddenly gone. The resultant look of surprise on Ken’s face is pricessless, punctuating a rare moment of triumph in his life. When Archie proceeds to the next question, of where the hotel is located, Ken, knowing from experience that his triumph is most likely short-lived, pantomimes the flying of an airplane rather than going through the painful process all over again. Archie figures out the answer almost immediately- “Heathrow.”

At one point during this scene, we see a sign hanging behind Ken, reading “No Credit.” How fitting that this sign is associated with Ken, the character who gets sent off by team leader George to do the dirty work of eliminating an elderly dog-loving witness, gets manipulated by Wanda, and mocked and tortured by Otto. Which makes his final triumph doubly sweet -- Ken is so put-upon, yet such a likable character that we yearn to see him win for a change. So when Ken finally gets his revenge on Otto for the demise of his fish -- and simultaneously loses his stammer, seemingly for good -- we celebrate it with him. After what he’s been through, he’s certainly earned it.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Movie Moment Redux: Nashville (1975, Robert Altman)

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

Since I first saw Nashville, I’ve considered it to be Altman’s greatest achievement. With a career like his, that’s saying something. So what makes Nashville stand out from his other classics, like McCabe & Mrs. Miller, California Split, Short Cuts, The Long Goodbye, and the made-for-TV Tanner ’88? Perhaps it’s that, more than anything else Altman made, Nashville feels like the ultimate Altman movie, a summation of what made him such a legendary filmmaker — impeccable ensemble acting, a keen sense of place, political engagement, and a love of performance in all its forms.

Nashville is often described as a film with two dozen protagonists, but while there’s no principal character in the story, the world we see in the film revolves around Barbara Jean, a country superstar played by Ronee Blakley. Many of the big events in the film focus on her — the ceremony at the airport at the beginning, her onstage nervous breakdown, and the concert/campaign special gone bad at the finale. But while we see Barbara Jean throughout the film, we rarely get to see her outside the public eye. She smiles beatifically for the camera, but this is just play-acting. Who is she? Does she even have a last name? The film never says.

It’s mainly for this reason that, when I tried to come up with this week’s Movie Moment, I kept coming back to her one private moment, away from her fans and the press. After the collapses following her airport reception, Barbara Jean is rushed to the hospital, and as a result has to cancel an appearance on the Grand Old Opry radio show. As her replacement, Connie White sings in her stead, Barbara Jean and her husband, Barnett (Allen Garfield), sit alone in the room and listen. We don’t find out until later that Barbara Jean and Connie have a professional rivalry, never appearing together on the same stage, but hearing Connie on the radio angers Barbara Jean, and she demands that the radio be switched off. Barnett insists on listening, saying that he needs to listen so that he can properly thank Connie for stepping in for her. This sets Barbara Jean off:

“You’re going over there, and I know why… so you can hobnob with everybody, and I ain’t got not friends, I gotta sit here in the goddamn hospital. Everyone’s gonna be talking about me, saying how I’m a nut, how I had a- ‘Barbara Jean had another collapse…’ You know what? Why don’t you take her some of my flowers?”

One thing that’s immediately apparent in this scene is how fragile Barbara Jean really is. Much of modern popular music, country music in particular, is founded on the belief that its stars are just like regular people. While the film’s other stars, like Connie White and Haven Hamilton, can act the part, Barbara Jean is a natural — Altman and Ronee Blakley see that she smiles big for the camera not because her fans want her to, but because she’s genuinely happy to be in the spotlight. But it’s because she’s the genuine article, because her public feelings are real rather than faked, that success and fame have taken a toll on her in ways they wouldn’t for others. Later in the film, mid-breakdown, she relates to the audience that she began singing as a child, and it’s clear that she never quite grew up.

But just as fascinating, if less apparent on first viewing, is how this scene illuminates Barnett’s character as well as Barbara Jean’s. Our first impression of Barnett is as an angry, short-fused man, tagging along with his wife and seemingly leeching off her success — your standard-issue husband/manager. However, if you watch this scene carefully, we see that there’s more to him than that. Allen Garfield’s performance shows us a man whose life is concerned almost entirely with taking care of his wife, both in good times and bad. He proclaims, “Don’t tell me how to run your life; I’ve been doing pretty good with it,” not as a bitter rejoinder, but as a statement of fact. When he insists on leaving the hospital to thank Connie White, it’s because he’s trying to keep up appearances even when Barbara Jean cannot. “I don’t like to go over there and hobnob with them phonies,” he says.

If Barnett speaks to Barbara Jean like a child sometimes, it’s because she is essentially a child, and the little game they play as he’s leaving — “I’m walkin’ out now… what do you say? Say bye-bye” — is a perfect encapsulation of this. Barnett, who had appeared such an unsuitable match for Barbara Jean, is shown to be exactly the kind of husband she needs — simultaneously manager, father, nurse, and giver of tough love. Garfield’s performance, which at first glance fades into the background of the film, comes into sharper relief the more you watch Nashville, and is a great argument in favor of Altman’s assertion that his films be watched over and over.

Omnipotence over his chosen world is the right of any filmmaker, but precious few really exercise that right. What made Altman truly great (and inimitable, despite hundreds of attempts) was his knack for peering into even the most remote corners of his films in order to study the lives of the characters that lived there. The final moments of my chosen scene sum this up perfectly. Just after Barnett has left the hospital room, Barbara Jean sits cross-legged on her bed, a shell-shocked look on her face. She turns her head toward the door and whimpers after him, “Barnett?” While many filmmakers would have left the room with Barnett, this would have been a mistake, done in the interest of keeping the story moving instead of illuminating the characters. Altman knew better, and these final few seconds are the final brushstroke that makes the scene perfect and complete.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Movie Moment Redux: Belle de Jour (1967, Luis Bunuel)

(Originally posted on 29 March 2007 at The Screengrab. Reprinted by permission.)

For about ten years, my favorite film of all time has been Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour. I must have seen it fifty times so far, and I always find new ways to enjoy it. For one thing, it’s gotten a whole lot funnier in recent years. As is the case with anything so close to one’s heart, it’s become an important film to me, so important that I once broke up with a girl over it (long story, don’t ask). However, due to its importance to me I’ve always been reluctant to write about it. I love it so much that I take my loving it for granted, and I find that it’s nearly impossible for me to vocalize why.

But I suppose that if I had to list one reason why I love it above all other movies, it’d have to be because of Catherine Deneuve. Gorgeous, talented, classy as hell, and unafraid of seeking out interesting roles rather than coasting on her looks and charisma. Severine, her character in Belle de Jour, is Deneuve’s original embodiment of a role she’d go on to play numerous times — the enigmatic wife who maintains a chilly façade even as her fantasies and schemes bubble just below the surface. To watch Belle de Jour is to watch this character being born, already fully formed.

Before Belle Deneuve specialized in innocent young women. In The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, her character seemed virtuous even after an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, and in Repulsion she became the personification of raging virginity, turning on the men who would impose their sexuality on her. Belle de Jour begins the same way, with Severine married to Pierre, a young, handsome doctor. They could be poster children for the bourgeois lifestyle, with their impeccably decorated Parisian apartment and weekend ski vacations. But while there appears to be love between Severine and Pierre, they sleep in their own beds even after a year together, and it’s fairly clear that the marriage has yet to be consummated.

Yet Severine’s fantasies tell a different story altogether. Many of Buñuel’s characters conceal certain perversions from the world, and Severine is no exception. In the opening scene of the film, Severine dreams of a quaint carriage ride with Pierre, only to end up being tied to a tree, whipped and ravished by two coachmen at Pierre’s behest. Pierre is a kind and loving husband in real life, but a guy like him can’t satisfy her fantasies. She doesn’t want to be indulged or cared for; she wants to be dominated and disciplined.

One day, she hears rumors about an old school friend who turned to prostitution to make some extra money. Her husband’s lecherous pal Husson (the great Michel Piccoli) drops the name of a favorite brothel in passing, and the curious Severine ventures there one day to meet the proprietor, one Mme. Anais (Genevieve Page). Anais is professional but genial, and she makes Severine’s first visit feel less like an interview than a social call. Almost without knowing it, Severine agrees to work afternoons for Anais, assuming the name Belle de Jour, but so great is her anxiety over the job that she runs out on her first day of work. When she returns, Mme. Anais becomes stern and puts Severine in her place, saying, “I see you need a firm hand.”

Severine’s first days as Belle de Jour don’t go too well — she shrinks away from her first client, and she has trouble learning the favorite scenario for a submissive regular. Even after she settles into the job, she still seems to maintain an emotional distance, being friendly with her clients but always holding back. It’s much the same when she goes to bed with a large Chinese man. As he prances around the room and jokes in Chinese, she laughs obligingly. She accepts going to bed with him as part of the job, but only to a point — in what is probably the film's most remarked-upon scene, she opens the small wooden box he has brought, studies the contents (unseen by the audience, though we do hear a high-pitched buzzing sound), and shakes her head “no” as she closes the box again.

But the scene that not only sums up best what I love about Belle de Jour but also what makes Deneuve one-of-a-kind comes just after this. We see the Chinese man leave the room, briefly grope the housekeeper’s teenage niece, and walk out the door. Cut to inside the bedroom. Pallas, the housekeeper tiptoes around and tidies up, while Severine lies face down on the bed. Pallas, sensing that Severine needs comforting, kindly states, “that man scares me too. Sometimes, it must be so hard.”

It’s at this point that Bunuel, whose style is usually fairly low-key, suddenly pushes in on Severine’s prone form. As she props herself up on her elbows, she turns around, a look of pure bliss on her face, and says, “what would you know, Pallas?” The camera then holds on Severine’s face a few more seconds, the expression never fading. While she smiles a few times prior to this scene, this is a different kind of smile altogether. It’s clear that at long last, Severine has gotten exactly what she came for: complete sexual satisfaction. The moment lasts but a few seconds, but it speaks volumes.

I find it interesting that this scene takes place roughly halfway through Belle de Jour, since it more or less cuts Severine’s character arc into two distinct parts. In the film’s first half, Severine attempts to satisfy her fantasies, and after her sexual awakening happens, she must learn to reconcile it with both her marriage and her lifestyle away from Mme. Anais’. Everything that happens to Severine after her time with the Chinese client is caused by her newly-discovered sexuality, until the film’s perfect final scene, in which her fantasies and her real life melt together.

Every great star has at least one iconic moment. For Marilyn Monroe, it was the image of her in The Seven Year Itch, her dress flying in the wind of the subway grate. For John Wayne, it’s the final shot of The Searchers, standing in the doorway with the prairie at his back, even as the door closed in front of him. If Catherine Deneuve has had an iconic moment — and she’s certainly star enough to warrant one — I believe it’s that single shot of Severine on the bed, her fantasies finally fulfilled. Of all her great films and performances, this is the one I return to in my mind again and again, and more than anything else it encapsulates why Belle de Jour remains my favorite film.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Movie Moment Redux: Bus 174 (2001, Jose Padilha)

(Originally posted on 5 April 2007 at The Screengrab. Reprinted with permission.)

On June 12, 2000, an ex-convict named Sandro de Nascimento hijacked a bus in the middle-class Jardim Botânico neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro. For the entire afternoon and into the evening, the hijacking spiraled into a hostage situation, with Sandro holding his fellow passengers at gunpoint while the police and SWAT team attempted to alleviate the situation. Finally, after dark, Sandro left the bus with a female hostage named Geísa. Shots rang out, and Sandro and the hostage were killed. This is the outline of perhaps the most highly-publicized crime in Brazilian history. In his film Bus 174, director Jose Padilha attempted to look beyond this outline to discover the truth about Sandro’s past and about what went wrong on that day in June.

As seen from the Atlantic Ocean, Rio de Janeiro is a bustling metropolis, with a beach teeming with resort hotels and luxurious homes. However, one discovers a different reality further inland. Bus 174 opens with a long helicopter shot of Rio, in which we see the slums, or favelas, that lie hidden in the hills just behind the rich neighborhoods. It is estimated that there are over one million boys living on the streets of Rio, and Sandro was one of them. After witnessing his mother’s brutal slaying at age six, Sandro took to the streets, falling into a life of drug abuse and crime. Throughout the course of the film, Padilha speaks with former street kids, but their cases are rare. More common are stories like the Candelaria massacre, in which seven street kids were killed by police while camping outside a church. A social worker states that of the 62 kids who survived the incident, 39 were later killed.

Eventually, Sandro’s lifestyle landed him in a Rio prison, a far cry from its regimented American counterparts. Prisons such as the ones where Sandro was jailed feel like something out of Dickens, had Dickens lived in the tropics — a dozen people to a cell, temperatures higher than 100 degrees, and all manner of disease make prison life in Rio one of almost unfathomable squalor. As Padilha takes his camera inside a similar prison (reversing the colors of the video, which creates an eerie effect), the prisoners say “I would rather have died than be in here… it’s worse than hell.”

Such was Sandro de Nascimento’s life before the Bus 174 incident. What happened after he hijacked the bus was another story unto itself. The police were called soon after the hijacking took place, but they were ill-trained and they failed to properly secure a perimeter. As a former cop explains, “in Rio, people who decide to become police officers are people who couldn’t get a regular job. A police officer has no idea what he’s getting trained for.” Once the SWAT team arrived on the scene, matters improved somewhat, but the crowds and especially the media were circling around, turning an already difficult crime scene into a zoo.

For his part, Sandro spent most of his time taunting the police and the cameras. Such was to be expected from a former child of the streets, according to one sociologist. “These boys are invisible,” he explains. “We are worth nothing if people don’t look at us.” If nothing else, Sandro was making sure people would take notice of him. He holds a gun to various hostages’ heads, loudly threatening to kill them unless the police meet his demands. Yet some of the hostages relate that they never really believed that he would kill them. One girl in particular says that she caught on to what Sandro was doing, and played along to help bring an end to the situation. As she tells us this, we see video footage of her at gunpoint, leaning into Sandro, clearly attempting to connect and empathize. Unfortunately, by that time it was too late.

But the scene that haunts me to this day is the culmination of the fateful day’s events. Padilha takes footage from a dozen different cameras on the scene and slows the action down to a crawl to show the moment that Sandro decided to leave the bus. Far from feeling like an affectation, the slow motion actually heightens the power of the sequence by simultaneously giving it an otherworldly effect and underlining the momentum of the events onscreen. As we hear the voices of various people involved recounting their perspective of what happened, the effect of the visuals are similar to the way that the survivors of a tragedy will replay the events in their minds. We as audience members become aware of every little detail — the way Sandro grabs Geísa, how he marches her in front of him, the movements of the other hostages, and how Sandro and Captain Batistia approach each other.

The first time I saw Bus 174, I actually caught myself not breathing during this sequence, so hypnotic was the filmmaking. But then the kicker comes — a lone SWAT team member, Marcelo, charges at Sandro, attempting to bring him down. When I first saw Marcelo drift into the shot, I remember gasping, not just from the shock of the image being suddenly altered, but also at the realization that everything was about to go very, very wrong. So it does, and Padilha shows us this image over and over again, from every angle he could find. Then we hear the gunshots, first two from Marcello, then a third from Sandro. Sandro falls to the ground, and then Geísa slumps down in front of him, presumably shot by a panicked Sandro. On the surface, this scene reminded me of the scene in Gimme Shelter in which the Rolling Stones watch the man being stabbed at the Altamont concert, but for my money Padilha’s version is even more resonant, in no small part because he was able to replay the moment again and again, from numerous angles.

But while this scene succeeds in recreating not just the events but also the emotional tone of this tragedy, no amount of video footage or filmmaking chops could ever explain how something like this could ever happen. Yes, Sandro de Nascimento was dangerous, and he deserved to be stopped, if not necessarily killed. But Marcelo erred as well, because his tunnel vision led to his charging into a situation that was already fraught with peril, unmindful of the life of the hostage. As one police officer relates, “the only one who paid attention to the hostage was Captain Batista.” Sadly, one man wasn’t enough to save her.

Yet what else could have happened? Sandro could have tried an escape, but he wouldn’t have gotten far, not with snipers hidden nearby and the crowd gathered around. “One should never let a static situation become mobile,” a SWAT team member says. Likewise, I’m not sure Sandro expected to survive the day either, once the police got involved. Had he survived, he would surely have been tossed back into the infernal prison, which he wouldn’t have wanted. “They know how it is,” says another officer, “and they don’t want to go back.” The real tragedy was that Geísa had to lose her life because of this. Discovering the reasons behind the hijacking, or the police’s questionable tactics, is cold comfort for her loved ones. The Bus 174 incident can never be undone, as this film’s climactic sequence makes unforgettably clear.

Monday, November 09, 2009

The Movie Moment Redux: Lolita (1962, Stanley Kubrick)

(Originally posted on 12 April 2007 at The Screengrab. Reprinted with permission.)

Of all the great filmmakers in movie history, Stanley Kubrick was, of course, one of the most revered. Many of his films are considered to be essential classics, and rightly so. But amidst all the attention for Dr. Strangelove, 2001, and A Clockwork Orange, some other great films haven’t gotten the same amount of love, even from Kubrick fans. The Shining is as despised by some fans of the book as it is revered by movie lovers, and Eyes Wide Shut remains a point of contention for many. Yet perhaps the most overlooked great film Kubrick made was his take on Lolita.

Like The Shining, Lolita had a lot to live up to. Vladimir Nabokov’s novel was a controversial bestseller in its day, and even today it’s ranked as one of the twentieth century’s great works of fiction. But Kubrick had an even more formidable problem in adapting Nabokov — its storyline. Lolita, for the few of you who don’t know already, is about a middle-aged man who lusts after a young teenage girl. Humbert Humbert, played by James Mason, is a British college professor who comes to America to take a teaching position, and after seeing young Dolores Haze (nicknamed “Lolita” and played by Sue Lyon) he moves in with and eventually marries her mother Charlotte, just to be close to the young nymphet.

This storyline would be an edgy one for Hollywood even today, but consider that Lolita was made while the Production Code, though not the power it once was, was still in force. “How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?” blared the ads for Kubrick’s film, echoing the thoughts of practically every moviegoer of the time. Kubrick had to be careful in bringing the book to the screen, satisfying the censors while doing justice to what made the original book a masterpiece.

While Kubrick made some key directorial decisions to get past the Code, like deliberately casting the role with an older girl than the book called for, he largely accomplished his task through the film’s tone. Some of Nabokov’s more risqué moments never made it to the screen, but Kubrick wisely recognized that the genius of the novel — what made Lolita work — was its dry and twisted wit. Many great filmmakers made an art of using laughs to run iffy material around the Production Code — Preston Sturges pretty much made a career of it — and Kubrick pulled off something even trickier with Lolita, foiling the censors not through gags and punchlines, but with a filmmaking style that subverted the seamy nature of the material.

My favorite example of this comes after Charlotte (Shelley Winters) has discovered her husband’s obsession with her daughter. Tossing aside the incriminating journal, she lashes out at him and then locks herself in her bedroom. At this point she breaks down and cries out to her first husband, dead seven years:

“Harold, look what happened. I was disloyal to you. I couldn’t help it though… seven years is a long time… if you hadn’t died all this wouldn’t have happened. Oh darling, forgive me. Forgive me, forgive me. You were the soul of integrity. How did we produce such a little beast? I promise, I promise, I promise I’ll know better next time. Next time it’s gonna be someone you’ll be very proud of.”

So far, a perfectly serviceable dramatic soliloquy, the stuff Oscar clips are made of. But then Kubrick does a funny thing. As Charlotte sobs, clutches the urn holding Harold’s ashes and collapses on the rug, the camera cranes downstairs to the kitchen, where Humbert, playing the obliging husband, offers to make Charlotte a drink to calm her down. With this one move, Kubrick subverts the drama taking place in Charlotte’s bedroom, emphasizing in a definitive way that this isn’t her story, but Humbert’s. He coolly offers up a half-assed excuse for the diary — “these notes you found were fragments of a novel I’m writing!” — but his tone suggests that he’s less concerned about losing Charlotte than he is about losing Lolita.

A more conventional filmmaker might have stayed with Charlotte, inviting the audience to empathize with her predicament, and then to be overcome with emotion as she charged out of the house and into the street, only to be killed by an oncoming car. But Kubrick knew better. He keeps the camera with Humbert as he pours a drink, only to be interrupted by the ringing of the telephone. As the person on the other end of the line tells him about the accident, he interprets the call as a gag. He can’t help but laugh at the strange suddenness of the call, and even calls upstairs, a broad smile on his face: “Charlotte? There’s a man on the line who says you’ve been hit by a car!” It’s only when Humbert notices the front door open in a rainstorm and goes to close it that he sees that the call was no prank.

Nabokov’s boldest move was to tell the entire story from Humbert’s point of view by having him narrate. It’s also, not coincidentally, why the book is funny rather than tragic. Humbert Humbert is a man so singularly obsessed with Lolita that he is blind to almost everything else. What makes this scene so brilliant is how captures this in cinematic terms, without falling back on voiceover narration or subjective camera angles. By placing Humbert, wonderfully played by Mason, at the center of the scene, Kubrick downplays the tragedy swirling around him, this conveying Humbert’s mindset perfectly.

When Adrian Lyne directed a new adaptation of Lolita in 1997, he claimed to be making a version that was truer to the original novel. But while he was able to retain more of Nabokov’s original storyline and the controversial sexuality that came with it, his version retained almost none of the author’s chilly sense of humor. Kubrick didn’t make that mistake, and while his adaptation is hardly a letter-perfect one, it’s a pretty amazing movie in its own right. As long as you don’t approach Kubrick’s Lolita as cinematic Cliff’s Notes, it works extremely well, and deserves to be mentioned as one of its director’s many classics.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

The Movie Moment Redux: Phantom of the Paradise (1974, Brian DePalma)

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

Brian DePalma has always been one of those directors people either love or hate. I’m not sure I’ve met a movie lover who doesn’t have an opinion on the guy one way or the other, and admittedly I once fell into the anti-DePalma camp. Sure, I’ve always enjoyed his most popular movies, like Carrie, but I was otherwise content to echo the popular line on the guy — that his films contained little more than empty technique and scenes cribbed wholesale from Hitchcock. I suppose that one might chalk my original feelings about the guy to the fact that I first saw a lot of his movies during his Snake Eyes/Mission to Mars period, and didn’t see many of his classics until a few years later.

Of all DePalma’s movies, the one I’ve rewatched the most over the years has been Phantom of the Paradise. While it’s not quite my favorite of his — that’d be his painfully personal Blow Out — it’s the most fun film he’s made. In addition, it’s almost certainly the most basic expression of the power struggles that are often at the core of DePalma’s films — namely, that he who controls the image holds the power. One finds this power jockeying in many of De Palma’s best films. In Femme Fatale, there’s the reclusive former jewel thief and the paparazzo who wants to photograph her; Body Double finds a peeping tom at the mercy of a psycho who sets up him to witness a killing.

Phantom of the Paradise, in addition to being a suspense movie, is also a rock musical, and so its power players are part of that scene. In one corner, there’s the legendary superproducer Swan (Paul Williams), and in the other, the hapless songwriter Winslow Leach (William Finley). Swan is the most powerful figure in pop music as the film begins, in large part because he’s able to manipulate the rest of the world to his point of view. This skill finds its most memorable visual expression in the low-hanging doorways in the diminutive Swan’s home and offices, through which he fits perfectly but which cause most visitors to duck to avoiding hitting their heads.

If Swan begins the film with incredible power, Winslow Leach starts out with next to none. Like many a fledgling musician, he’s desperate to be discovered, and when we first meet him he’s crashing a Swan concert in order to play a song from his “rock cantata, based on Faust” for the hitmaker. Swan likes the sound, but not the singer, and so he swindles Winslow out of his music and then won’t return his phone calls. When Winslow drops in on Swan’s open auditions for the stolen cantata, Swan has him arrested for trespassing, thrown into jail, and volunteered for a medical experiment that costs him his teeth. When Winslow tries to escape, he ends up having his face severely burned in one of Swan’s record presses before stumbling into the night.

The film’s best scene is one that represents both a turning point in the power struggle between Swan and Winslow. Winslow, presumed dead, has hidden out in Swan’s new concert hall, the Paradise, donning a cloak and a mask to hide his charred face. At the same time, Swan has begun rehearsals for his re-arranged version of Winslow’s cantata, which in its new form has morphed into a lightweight nostalgia trip, in keeping with the then-prevailing tone of Swan’s music. Not only has Swan turned a song that was originally a dramatic anthem into a surf rock dance tune with lyrics like “upholstery/ that’s the way that it’s supposed to be/ when I hold you close to me,” but his band the Juicyfruits, whom Winslow positively despises, are the stars of the show. Fed up with seeing his vision turned into dross, Winslow (now the titular Phantom) decides to take action.

What follows is perhaps the most skillful use of split-screen I’ve ever seen. On the right half of the screen, we view the rehearsal in progress, while on the left we see Winslow hide a bomb in the trunk of a prop car just before it gets wheeled out on the stage. The scene is a quintessentially Hitchcockian setup — the Master once stated that suspense is the knowledge that a bomb is going to go off rather than the explosion itself — but the split-screen effect only amplifies the tension. Key to this effect is that both sides of the split-screen are composed of long takes. Rather than cutting back between the trunk of the car and the oblivious would-be victims, DePalma places them side by side, as the audience waits for the inevitable. He even has a character remark about hearing a ticking sound (which we in the audience can hear loud and clear), but Swan’s lieutenant persuades him to get in the car anyway.

Sometimes in DePalma’s split-screen scenes, the shots will represent the literal points of view of two different characters, but this isn’t the case in Phantom of the Paradise. Rather than seeing what Winslow and Swan see during this scene, we see the images of what they’ve created. In Winslow’s case, he’s channeled his energies into destroying the vision of Swan, who previously destroyed him. In Swan’s case, he’s witnessing his creation (or more precisely, the one he stole) coming to fruition, only to have it go up in flames. It’s interesting that Swan’s half of the scene ends with a close-up on his face, which hardly flinches as the bomb goes off. Like any successful businessman, he is able to see even his disasters as opportunities for change.

I’m not opposed to the use of split-screen, but most of the examples of it that spring to mind are intended as either gimmickry or as throwbacks to those vintage gimmicks. DePalma is one of the few directors who has consistently integrated this technique in a way that feels natural rather than show-offy. Watching Phantom of the Paradise again made me realize that the characterization of his direction as empty virtuosity is unfair. It’s virtuosity, to be sure — technically, DePalma is the equal of any filmmaker of his generation — but in his best films, every stylistic flourish serves a purpose, and the level of craft that goes into these films does not detract in the least from their effectiveness. He may not be as revered as Hitchcock, but DePalma is a master of suspense in his own right.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

The Movie Moment Redux: Babe: Pig in the City (1998, George Miller)

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

One of the biggest surprises to come out of Hollywood in the 1990s was Babe. While this film has become something of a family classic, it was originally met with some skepticism when it was released in 1995. I admit that I was one of those skeptics, and not without good reason — having been subjected earlier that year to the putrid Gordy, which I watched while sitting for my neighbor’s little kids, I was not exactly thrilled about the idea of another movie starring a talking pig. But like most people who saw it, I was won over by Babe, and when the sequel was released three years later, I didn’t underestimate it like I had the original.

The biggest improvement between the two films was the director. While Babe was helmed by feature-film neophyte Chris Noonan, Pig in the City was directed by George Miller, who had produced the original film. At the time, Miller was best known for his distinctly adult-themed movies, including the postapocalytic Mad Max trilogy. He also directed 1992’s Lorenzo’s Oil, which like Pig in the City is a marvel of its kind, substituting for the mawkishness that’s typical of its genre a real tough-minded intelligence. In addition, Miller is a whiz with special effects, and the animal creations of Pig in the City exceed those of the original. Whereas Babe’s achievement was placing convincing — and interesting — talking animal characters in the world of the farm, the sequel both expands the cast of characters and places them in a teeming metropolis that’s not especially animal-friendly.

But the greatest achievement of the Babe films has always been how central the animal characters are to the story. In Babe, Arthur and Esme Hoggett dominate the farm, but the animals live their lives and interact independent of their human masters (to wit: James Cromwell plays the central human role in the original but got a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his efforts). In the sequel, the human characters are almost peripheral to the action, and there’s a nice irony in the turnabout that Esme Hoggett becomes comic relief compared to the animals. Like his predecessor, Miller wisely concentrates on the animals, and in most shots he keeps the camera close to the ground, roughly at the eye level of his porcine protagonist. The city is welcoming for a human, but more forbidding for a smaller creature like a pig, and seeing Babe’s trials and tribulations only from the level of human eyes would only diminish them.

Through a series of events too charmingly convoluted to describe here, Babe and Esme wind up in a cavernous hotel that caters to animals. While staying there, Babe meets a vast array of new animals, some friendly, some not (the primates are especially hostile, constantly referring to Babe with backhanded pet names like “porkpie”). Esme is soon separated from Babe following a bizarre misadventure, and Babe finds himself alone with only his new friends- and eventually, the late-coming Ferdinand the Duck- to protect him in the city.

Late in the film, a nosy neighbor reports the hotel to the animal control center, and most of the animals are carted away. Left behind are Babe, Ferdinand, and their new friends Easy, a monkey, and Flealick. Flealick is one of the most endearing of the film’s new characters, a chatty dog who has lost the use of his hind legs and has to use a small cart to walk himself around. Despite his handicap, Flealick is the first of the remaining animals to chase the animal control trucks, and eventually he manages to grab onto the truck using his teeth and get pulled along. But eventually he gets thrown off when the truck takes a sharp turn, which sends him crashing to the side the road, his cart flipped over. As he lies on the pavement twitching and gasping, the camera pushes in on one of his cartwheels slowly spinning in the air, and the film fades to black.

We next fade in on a lush, green meadow. The first thing we see is Flealick’s cart, lying there as it was in the last shot, only without its owner. The camera then pans upward to reveal a patch of brightly colored flowers, then it continues until we see Flealick, bounding around in the grass. He jumps around, chasing butterflies, not a care in the world. The shot continues for several seconds until we hear Babe’s voice, first quietly then gradually louder, saying, “Flealick? Flealick?” Finally, the film cuts back to Flealick in the road, with his friends finally having caught up with him.

So it was all a dream — of course it was. Scenes like this have been around for years, in all sorts of movies. But rarely have I ever seen it done so well as it is here, and the fact that it’s in a movie about talking animals makes it sort of miraculous. At the same time, the fact that Miller plays it absolutely seriously is typical of the approach of the Babe films. Rather than nudging the audience in the ribs as if to say, “Hey, it’s the death dream scene, only with a dog!” Miller's tone is serious, clearly going for pathos. And the sheer simplicity of the dream sequence makes it work — Flealick only aspires to have the kind of perfect day other dogs dream about, playing in the sun, without his bad legs to hold him back.

Babe: Pig in the City was criticized at the time of its release for being “too dark for kids.” Many of the naysayers points to scenes like this one in their criticism of the film. However, I think that such scenes are what set it apart from innocuous kiddie fare. From the Brothers Grimm to E.T., there is a long tradition of children’s tales with scary elements. We know everything will turn out in the end, but the road to happily ever after can be difficult and dangerous. Likewise, death is something all children must learn about sooner or later (my first exposure came when Mr. Hooper on Sesame Street passed away). Isn’t it more educational — and less scarring — for children to learn about death from a movie they watch with their parents than from the sudden death of a beloved relative or friend?

What makes the characters in Babe: Pig in the City appealing is that, while they talk like humans, they still think mostly like animals. The only difference is that they’ve been blessed with a small measure of self-awareness, not enough to turn them into furry, four-legged comedians, but just enough to aspire to be the best animal they can possibly be. And really, isn’t that all most humans can hope for from themselves?

Friday, November 06, 2009

The Movie Moment Redux: Gilles' Wife (2004, Frederic Fonteyne)

(Originally posted on 10 May 2007 at The Screengrab. Reprinted with permission.)

One of the most important lessons a parent has to learn is that, once the child is born, one’s life ceases to be one’s own. Every decision that may have been made for selfish reasons in the past now must be made with the child in mind. Want to change jobs? You’d better stay at your old one until you’ve gotten the new one. Looking for a new home? Pick one in a good school district. Even the smaller things change — meals, TV-viewing habits, and so on. Among other things, being a parent is about sublimating one’s own selfish desires in order to do right by one’s children.

But if the lifestyle of a contemporary parent seems tightly regimented, it’s nothing compared to the restrictions placed on housewives and mothers of prior generations. The vast majority of women, especially those of working-class backgrounds, were expected to get married, raise children, and care for their families. The best film I’ve seen about the difficulties of this lifestyle is Frederic Fonteyne’s Gilles’ Wife.

In Gilles’ Wife, Emmanuelle Devos stars as Elisa, a woman living in a small industrial village in the early part of the twentieth century. She’s the model of the devoted housewife and mother — cooking, cleaning, caring for the kids, and making love to her husband, Gilles (Clovis Cornillac). She seems to genuinely love her life — her personality is well-suited to it, and it brings her joy. Even the presence of her more forward-thinking sexpot sister Victorine (Laura Smet) can’t dissuade her from her opinion that this is the life for her.

Gradually, Victorine begins spending more time around the house. Gilles insists on keeping her company whenever possible, taking her along to family outings, and the like. One night, at a local dance, he spies her dancing closely with another man and he flies into a rage. Elisa, sitting nearby, says nothing, but takes it all in before trying to calm him down. But while Elisa quickly catches on to what is happening between Gilles and Victorine, she keeps her thoughts to herself, going about her wifely duties, even giving birth to another child. The only hint of Elisa’s true feelings comes when she’s alone, when she breaks down in crying jags or suddenly breaks a picture frame.

Eventually, Gilles confesses his love for Victorine to his wife. But while Elisa has known about it for a while, she feigns shock for her husband. What’s more, she tries to sympathize with him after he confesses to be jealous of her when she carries on with other men. Ever the dutiful wife, she even helps Gilles by spying on Victorine during the days, to report on whether she’s carrying on an affair with her boss at work.

All the while, she suffers in silence. What other choice does she have? There are very few prospects for women in Elisa’s situation. For one thing, she’s a Catholic, and as such divorce is forbidden. But even if she could divorce Gilles, what options would she have? The only thing that she’s been trained for in life is how to be a good wife and mother. Even if she did find some meager employment for herself, how would she care for the children?

Finally, Elisa decides to seek guidance from the only place she knows to look for it — the Church. She arrives in the middle of the day, sneaking in with an almost guilty look on her face. She tries to pray, but she’s anxious, distracted by a crew of workers inside the church. Finally, she goes to confess: “My husband is having an affair with my sister. I don’t say a word. If I do, he will leave. So I can’t…” Then she pauses for a fairly long time, collecting her thoughts. “Father, I need help. I don’t know… I don’t know what to do.”

The priest, whose face we never see, coldly responds by saying, “faced with the trials sent to you by God, refrain from any kind of revolt against the Lord.” He then continues: “as for your penance, you will say the rosary ten times.” As if the situation was somehow her doing, and saying the rosaries would suddenly make everything okay.

This film is unthinkable without Emmanuelle Devos, one of the most fascinating actresses working today. Large portions of her performance are played without dialogue, and while a lesser actress would strain to project Elisa’s emotional turmoil, Devos’ magnificent face is able to convey volumes seemingly without effort. Key to her acting gifts are her eyes, which are set in a way that it never appears that she’s looking directly at something, but usually seem to be gazing upward, thoughtful and ever-searching. Observe her silent reaction as the priest gives a textbook response to her confession — her jaw goes ever so slightly slack, and a look of utter defeat registers on her face as the priest slides shut the confessional divider.

What makes Gilles’ Wife such an achievement is not that Elisa is a special case, but that she isn’t. After she leaves confession, she decides to try to win her husband back by being so good a wife that he would have no choice but to stay. Like so many women who have stayed in loveless marriages in order to protect their family, Elisa puts her own feelings on the back burner to do what she believes — what she’s been taught — is right. It’s telling that the title of the film is not Elisa, but rather Gilles’ Wife. After all, it’s her vocation, how she defines herself and how she’s seen by others. We don’t really see any evidence of hopes or a life that wasn’t linked to her marriage. Who would Elisa be without Gilles? If he were gone, what would remain?

Thursday, November 05, 2009

The Movie Moment Redux: The Elephant Man (1980, David Lynch)

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

One of the most famous figures in the history of Victorian England was Joseph Merrick, later referred to as John, but best known as the Elephant Man. Merrick, born in 1862, was incurably deformed, with a severely enlarged and misshapen head, an alarmingly curved spine, a near-useless right arm, and skin that was covered almost entirely by large tumors. Merrick lived a good deal of his short life in freak shows, being exhibited to gawking thrill-seekers, before spending most of his final years in hospitals under medical and scientific observation before dying at the age of 27.

David Lynch’s The Elephant Man initially introduces us to Merrick (played by John Hurt) through the character of Dr. Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins), an eminent physician and lecturer at the London Hospital during the 1880s. We first meet Treves at one of London’s many carnivals, sneaking into the freaks tent, no doubt to get a look at the legendarily monstrous Elephant Man. When the police close down the exhibit due to punter reactions, Treves has a young boy hunt down Merrick, and when they are found he pays Merrick’s keeper Bytes (Freddie Jones) for “a private showing.” When he sees the extent of Merrick’s deformity, he sheds a tear. He then offers Bytes more money for the chance to show him at a lecture. When Merrick has a spotlight shone on him and paraded in front of staring scientists, it’s tempting to think that, for Merrick, the difference between the carnival and the scientific lecture is mainly academic.

After Merrick is beaten by Bytes upon his return to the freak show, Treves comes and returns him to the London Hospital, where he tries to sneak the hooded and robed Merrick into the Isolation Ward in the attic. However, this catches the attention of the hospital’s House Governor, F.C. Carr Gomm, played by John Gielgud. After Treves comes down from the Isolation Ward, he runs to the kitchen and fetches a bowl of oatmeal for Merrick, but as he is on his way back upstairs, he is stopped by Carr Gomm, who inquires after the bowl in his hand.

“Good heavens, you haven’t acquired a taste for this sort of stuff, have you?”

Treves responds, “Yes, sir, it’s quite nutritious.”

“Possibly, but not quite the diet of a grown man.”

This exchange sticks out to me for two reasons. The first is because of how succinctly it illuminates the snobbery still in force during the supposedly enlightened Victorian era. A century and a half before, Dr. Samuel Johnson infamously defined oatmeal as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” Carr Gomm, despite being a member of the medical establishment, still holds to the traditional view of oats as a food for children, and certainly not for gentlemen like himself or Treves, even with its nutritional benefits.

In addition, the use of food in this scene is something that would soon be a Lynch trademark. Rarely is the old adage “you are what you eat” more applicable in movies than in the world of David Lynch. Consider the dichotomy of beers in Blue Velvet (Heineken for the good characters, Pabst Blue Ribbon for Frank and his gang), the ice chest full of meats (frankfurters, braunschweiger) Alvin carts along with him in The Straight Story, or Agent Dale Cooper’s constant wolfing-down of high calorie foods like pie on Twin Peaks. And so key is coffee to Lynch’s worldview, especially in his more recent work, that he recently started his own line of coffee, available by mail-order.

Carr Gomm, recognizing that Treves is up to something, takes the bowl of oatmeal from him and gives it to a nearby nurse, directing her to “take this to the patient in the isolation ward, will you?”

Noticing the look of trepidation on the nurse’s face, Treves comforts her by saying, “Don’t be frightened. He won’t hurt you.”

It’s at this point that the scene goes in two separate directions. As the nurse walks away with the oatmeal, Carr Gomm takes Treves into his office. “A hospital’s no place for secrecy, Treves,” insists Carr Gomm. “Doctors spiriting hooded figures about in corridors is apt to cause comment.” He then questions Treves about the lapse in proper procedure and the nature of the new patient.

Treves, more than a little nervous (and who wouldn’t be in the presence of the formidable Gielgud?), becomes evasive, talking about Merrick’s deformity and the possibly shocking effect he might have on other patients, but never coming out and saying who it is. He finally admits that the new patient is “an incurable,” and Carr Gomm latches onto this point. He insists on the hospital’s policy on incurable cases, but Treves offers that “this case is quite exceptional.”

Then the scene cuts to the nurse, still climbing the stairs. She becomes even more anxious with each step she takes. The scene then cuts back to Carr Gomm.

“Yes, I quite appreciate your problem, Mr. Treves. But why not contact the British Home, or the Royal Hospital for Incurables? Perhaps they might have a place for him.”

Treves answers, “Yes sir, I’ll look into it. Would you like to meet him?”

Finally, the scene returns to the nurse slowly entering the room and seeing Merrick. She screams, drops the bowl on the floor, and runs out of the room.

Treves then excuses himself from Carr Gomm’s office and bolts up the stairs into Merrick’s room. The camera holds on Gielgud’s face as he realizes, simply, “It’s the Elephant Man.”

At its core, this scene is a marvelous piece of suspense filmmaking in the classical sense. Hitchcock once defined his philosophy of suspense by saying, “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” So it is here. Because we not only know what Merrick looks like but also how others react to his appearance, the climax of the scene is pre-ordained as soon as Carr Gomm places the oatmeal in the nurse’s hand. Treves knows this too, which explains his nervousness around Carr Gomm. The nurse has a pretty good idea of it too, having seen Treves sneaking the hooded figure up the stairs and fearing the worst. Only Carr Gomm is oblivious to the inevitable outcome, which makes his reaction to the scream the perfect punctuation to the scene.

But what makes the movie as a whole such an achievement is that it is never content to make Merrick the monstrosity he appears to be. Tellingly, Merrick reacts to the nurse’s scream by screaming himself, as frightened in his way as she is in hers. After this scene takes place, the focus of the film begins to shift away from Treves to Merrick himself, as we stop seeing Merrick through the eyes of those around him and start to observe him and his way of life. That the film is able to pull this off is due in no small part to John Hurt’s performance, which doesn’t shy away from Merrick’s physical condition — the suitably grotesque makeup allegedly took 12 hours to apply — but somehow projects humanity through the layers of latex. The most tragic thing about Merrick’s life wasn’t simply his appearance, but the way it kept most people from seeing him as a man, much like any other. Or, as Merrick himself infamously proclaims late in the film, “I am not an animal! I am a human being!”

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

The Movie Moment Redux: Freaks (1932, Tod Browning)

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

What is exploitation? In terms of entertainment, the term tends to infer a purely base appeal, with lurid content that’s meant to give viewers a voyeuristic charge. Whether it’s a demolition derby or a peepshow, exploitation more often than not is looked upon as “low-culture,” lacking in socially-redeeming value. Perhaps the most basic form of exploitation is the circus freakshow, which for centuries exhibited people who suffered from all varieties of genetic malformations for the amusement of able-bodied ticket buyers.

In the broad outlines, Tod Browning’s Freaks would seem to qualify as an exploitation movie, perhaps the most famous ever made. Certainly the film’s climactic scene, in which the sideshow attractions take violent revenge on the “big people” who have wronged them, would lead one to believe this is the case. However, I don’t think that it’s quite so simple. Up until the film’s final ten minutes, most of its running time is spent observing the characters going about their backstage lives. The film doesn’t want us to simply gawk at their deformities, but instead takes time to observe their behavior.

Given the film’s subject matter, the cast of Freaks was chosen largely because of their abnormal conditions. Back in 1932, no amount of available effects could have created the film’s microcephalic (pinhead) characters, for example. But Browning, a former circus performer himself, likes and respects these characters, and it shows. Most of them turn out to be engaging personalities. In addition, they aren’t ashamed of their conditions, but have found ways to live “normal” lives the best they can. Johnny Eck, born with no legs, puts on a pair of gloves and walks around on his hands. Likewise, we see a woman with no arms hold a knife and fork between her toes to eat a meal.

Or consider the cast member with the most “unfortunate” condition of all, Prince Randian. Sometimes referred to as “The Human Torso,” Prince Randian was a lifelong circus performer who was born without arms and legs. While in real life he was sometimes carried by an assistant, in the film he is mostly seen moving around under his own power by rocking on his stomach.

In my favorite scene in Freaks, Randian is having a conversation with another circus performer, Rollo. As Rollo starts to talk about the crowd’s reaction to his new act, we see Randian use his mouth to pull a cigarette out of a pack. Then, still holding the cigarette in his mouth, he takes a box of matches, nudges it open, pulls out a match, closes the box, then lights the match. Finally, he carefully sets the match on top of the box, lights the cigarette, and blows out the match.

For a non-disabled person, this is a routine act, but it’s sort of miraculous to see a man with no arms or legs do it. Part of the intrinsic interest of Freaks is this documentary aspect, the prospect of seeing people with disabilities work around their difficulties to do things others do. Yet what separates Freaks from a garden-variety exploitation movie is that Randian does it without breaking a sweat, like it’s as normal for him as for anyone else. It’s clear that he’s been lighting his own cigarettes for most of his life, and after using his ingenuity to formulate a routine in order to do so, lighting a cigarette is no big deal for him.

Also important here is Rollo’s reaction to Randian. Or, more precisely, his non-reaction — just as Randian’s been lighting cigarettes for years, so Rollo would have seen him doing it many times. Freaks almost never leaves the world of the circus performers, which allows the audience to learn their way of life from the inside out. Because of this, once the climactic act of revenge comes, the audience is able to experience it through the prism of the performers’ code of ethics — as the film says, “if you offend one, you offend them all.”

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

The Movie Moment Redux: To Live and Die in L.A. (1985, William Friedkin)

(Originally posted on 31 May 2007 at The Screengrab. Reprinted with permission.)

(WARNING: BIG TIME SPOILER ALERT! If you have not seen To Live and Die in L.A. and have any intentions to in the future, do not read this piece!)

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine asked me how I choose my weekly Movie Moment. Honestly, I wasn’t sure how to answer him, mostly because I don’t really have a method- mostly I just pick scenes I like a lot. When he offered a few examples of Moments he might choose, my answer became clear — the only deciding factor for my Movie Moments is whether I think I’ll be able to write extensively about them. In selecting scenes for my weekly column, I find that I need to choose scenes that will allow me to write about more than simply the scene itself. Sometimes the scene will give me the chance to expound on an actor I love (as in my piece on A Fish Called Wanda) and other times on my own personal experience (like my post on La Belle Noiseuse). But most of the time, a great Movie Moment is one that illustrates the greatness of the movie around it, and occasionally, it will transform an otherwise good movie into a pretty great one.

In many ways, To Live and Die in L.A. plays like an 80s West Coast counterpart to Friedkin’s earlier The French Connection (a film I love, as you may recall). But while Connection’s Popeye Doyle was single-minded in his pursuit of criminals, the role was also full of sardonic humor and goofball asides, as when he would ask questions like “do you like to pick your feet in Poughkeepsie?” to disorient a suspect. On the other hand, U.S. Secret Service Agent Richard Chance (William L. Petersen) is all business. He’s as much of a hotshot as Popeye, but he takes himself completely seriously, and his work is more or less his life.

Consider the scene where Chance visits his girlfriend Ruth (Darlanne Fluegel) after a long day of work. They have sex, but afterwards the conversation turns to work. It turns out that Ruth is a paroled ex-con who Chance is pumping for information. When she asks him for more money in return for her services, he coldly responds, “Uncle Sam don’t care about your expenses. You want bread, fuck a baker.” Later, when she asks what he would do if she stopped giving him tips, he pauses a second, then says, “I’d have your parole revoked.”

It’s kind of strange to watch a straight-faced cop movie like To Live and Die in L.A. in our post-Shane Black age. For one thing, much of the storyline feels pretty formulaic. First, Chance’s partner and best friend, three days shy of retirement, gets killed in a botched bust. Then Chance resolves to solve the case and find the killer by any means necessary. After that, Chance is reluctantly paired with a new partner named Vukovich (John Pankow), who seems too green to keep up with him. It seems like the screenplay hardly misses a cliché — the weirdo villain (a counterfeiter named Masters and played by Willem Dafoe), the sleazeball lawyer, the shady procurement of funds, the chief who dresses down his agents. Even the big chase scene (one of the greats, as it happens) seemingly comes right on cue.

But then something happens that we hadn’t anticipated. Just as Chance and Vukovich are thiiiiiiiiis close to finally busting Masters, Masters’ bodyguard pulls out a shotgun and shoots Chance in the face. I remember the first time I saw To Live and Die in L.A., this scene shocked the hell out of me. In fact, I had considered submitting this scene for last week’s list of Memorable Death Scenes. When watching the film again, I decided against it because the death itself wasn’t especially memorable by itself. But in the context of the film, it’s a bravura moment. For one thing, normally at this point in the story, we would expect the big bust to go haywire, with Masters escaping the scene of the crime and Chance and Vukovich giving pursuit, perhaps calling for some backup. But there’s none of that here.

It’s at this point that Friedkin’s reliance on formula throughout the film begins to make a whole lot more sense. While Friedkin wasn’t the top-rank Hollywood director that he was during the 70s, he was still a top-notch action filmmaker. All of the formulaic plot points in To Live and Die in L.A. actually serve a rather unique purpose — they lull the audience into a comfort zone, to the point where we anticipate everything that’s going to happen next. Just when we’re sure how everything is going to turn out, he pulls the rug out from under us, no less masterfully than Hitchcock himself did forty-odd minutes into Psycho. After all, why would the director of The French Connection and The Exorcist make a by-the-book cop movie unless he had some trick up his sleeve? (Everyone who has seen Jade, please don’t answer that.)

However, this death scene is equally shocking because Chance isn’t the sort of cop-movie protagonist who we expect to get killed off. He’s more of an antihero than a flat-out hero, but his complexities make him interesting. Everything in his life revolves around his work, and although he sometimes bends or even breaks the rules, Petersen and Friedkin always show that he does so for the right reasons. Just as importantly, he always seems to be on the verge of something better — a more evenhanded relationship with Ruth, forging a bond with his new partner, or even solving the case. So much is left unfinished in Chance’s life that the suddenness of his death is as shocking as its brutality.

But of course, that’s the job, isn’t it? Early in the film, Jimmy asks Chance if he has any plans for retirement, and Chance says he doesn’t think about it. He’s so devoted to his work that he can’t imagine a life without it. So it is with the film itself. After a brief prologue, nearly everything in To Live and Die in L.A. is somehow related to the case at its center, and it’s a job that’s bigger than any one character, even its ostensible protagonist. In the film’s final scene, Vukovich pays a visit to Ruth and informs her of his death. But rather than consoling her on her loss, the two speak pragmatically, discussing her semi-professional relationship with Chance, up until Vukovich’s perfect final line:

“You’re working for me now.”

Monday, November 02, 2009

The Movie Moment Redux: Band of Outsiders (1964, Jean-Luc Godard)

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

When I hit upon the idea of this column, I knew it was only a matter of time before I wrote about a great moment from a Jean-Luc Godard film. More than most great filmmakers, Godard had a gift for creating unique, indelible scenes in his movies. The only question was, when the time came, which film would I spotlight? There are so many to choose from, all of them great, and each for its own special reason. Yet the one I returned to time and again was his 1964 classic, Band of Outsiders.

Made just after Contempt, his brush with big-budget filmmaking, Band of Outsiders marked Godard’s return to the small-scale films that made his reputation as a director. Like many of his films during the period, it was heavily influenced by American movies, in this case crime dramas. But while the Godard style is unmistakable in each film, he rarely seemed to repeat himself, and each film managed to have a unique look and feel. Band of Outsiders was no exception, somehow managing to be perhaps the most poetic of Godard’s sixties-era output.

The screenplay for Band of Outsiders was adapted from a mostly-forgotten novel by Dolores Hitchens, but it could just as easily have come from any number of Poverty Row gangster pictures. In the story, Odile (Anna Karina), a naïve girl studying English, tells petty crooks Franz (Sami Frey) and Arthur (Claude Brasseur) about a stash of cash hidden in the house where she lives. As the three of them plot to steal the money, both men fall for Odile.

But while the plot is fairly standard-issue, the execution is anything but. In typical Godard fashion, none of his would-be criminals puts much effort into planning their heist. In fact, they don’t expend much time or energy on anything in their lives. Whether they’re spending most of English class flirting and passing notes, or sprinting through the Louvre instead of actually looking at the art on display, the governing philosophy in their lives appears to be, “everything that’s worth doing is worth doing half-assed.”

Yet strangely enough, Band of Outsiders may be the most poetic of Godard’s early films. This is due in large part to the voiceover narration, read by Godard himself. During the film’s celebrated Madison scene, Godard cuts out the music and relates the characters’ thoughts: “Odile wonders if the men could see her breasts moving under the sweater… Arthur thinks of Odile, dreaming of her romantic kisses… Franz is wondering if the world is a dream or a dream the world.” Godard’s narration is used sparingly, but always effectively, throughout the film.

When the heist finally goes down, it’s as haphazardly-done as everything that has come before. On the trio’s first try, they find the door to the room with the cash to be locked, and when they climb a ladder to get to the window, they can’t bring themselves to break the glass. They postpone the burglary, stupidly leaving the ladder outside. When they return the next day, most of the cash has been moved, and while they manage to steal what is left, they seemingly kill the mistress of the house during the heist. Just as they are getting away, Arthur decides to go back, claiming that he wants to verify whether she’s dead or not.

It was practically expected of Godard during the sixties that he would kill at least one main character in his movies. So it was with Arthur in Band of Outsiders. Upon his return to the scene of the crime, he finds the money stashed (by himself, perhaps?) in a dog house, only to discover his greedy uncle hiding in the trees with a gun. The uncle calls out to Arthur, “hey, asshole!” Then he shoots him. Arthur drops the money and starts to draw his gun, staggering slowly toward his uncle as he gets shot again and again, five times in all. After his uncle runs out of bullets, Arthur finds the energy to pull his own gun, aim it, and shoot him dead.

Godard always had a flair for death scenes, whether it was the explosive ending of Pierrot le Fou, the camera looking away at the conclusion of Vivre Sa Vie, or the use of super-slow-motion during the climax of Every Man For Himself. By Godard standards, the visual style of Arthur’s last stand is fairly Spartan, taking place at a distance and in a single long take. After he kills his uncle, the shot continues, with Arthur staggering around in a circle in a highly exaggerated manner. This blatantly unrealistic bit of physical acting would, in a lesser film, come off as comedic.

So why doesn’t it here? Because of the narration. Just before he dies, Godard offers these observations on the soundtrack:

“Arthur’s final thought was of Odile’s face. As a dark fog descended on him, he saw that fabled bird of Indian legend which is born without feet, and thus can never alight. It sleeps in the high winds, and is only visible when it dies. When its transparent wings, longer than an eagle’s, fold in, it fits in the palm of your hand.”

Kind of a strange accompaniment for the death of a low-level criminal, wouldn’t you say? But compare this to two earlier scenes in which Arthur and Franz play-act the death of Billy the Kid. When Franz (as Pat Garrett) pantomimes at shooting Arthur in the back, Arthur stumbling and collapse are just as exaggerated as they are in his actual death scene. In fact, just about the only difference between the play-acting scenes and Arthur’s actual death from a visual standpoint is that the “real” death scene has the presence of guns. Godard never shows any blood, nor does he give us any visual cues that Arthur is actually dead.

This is where the narration is invaluable. The earlier pantomimes are frivolous in nature, the games of two guys who don’t take life especially seriously. They themselves narrate the scenes using the Western semi-legend of Billy the Kid. But when Arthur actually dies onscreen, the scene is narrated by Godard himself, in a dry, dispassionate voice. He evokes not a heroic tale, but rather ancient mysticism. Likewise, if you re-read the narration of the scene, relatively little is about Arthur himself, and most is in fact about the mythical bird. The effect of the narration on the tone of the scene is indescribable, somehow turning this sudden, petty killing into something of a holy moment for Arthur.

As evidenced by the wide variety on the list we posted a few weeks ago, there are many different ways to pull off a great cinematic death scene. They can be funny, gory, heartrending, or shocking. But what they all have in common is that they’re all just pretend. Anyone who watches movies knows that the director is standing offscreen, and once he yells “cut!” the “dead” hero will stand up and walk back to his trailer or joke around with the crew. But although we know this is the case, the scenes still work on us, and that’s because of tone. If we’re feeling the scene, we don’t care that it’s all movie magic. Godard knew this better than anyone, and that’s why the climactic scene in Band of Outsiders is so magical.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

The Movie Moment Redux: The Son (2002, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)

(Originally posted on 15 June 2007 at The Screengrab. Reprinted with permission.)

(WARNING: BIG TIME SPOILER ALERT! If you have not seen The Son and have any intentions to in the future, do not read this piece!)

Chris Rock once joked that the only song for fathers was "Papa Was a Rolling Stone," and the same lament could be made for big-screen fatherhood. In trying to think of a Movie Moment for Father’s Day, I kept coming back to a film about a man who doesn’t actually have any children- Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s The Son.

Olivier Gourmet plays a carpentry teacher (also named Olivier) at a school for troubled boys. As the film begins, Francis (Morgan Marinne), recently released from a detention center, has just enrolled in the school, and an administrator asks Olivier if he’s willing to take on the new student. Olivier says no, but he takes a fairly long time to decide, and later Olivier sneaks out of class to look at the boy. What is he thinking? Why is he so interested in Francis? Eventually, we find out: Francis was sent to the detention center for impulsively killing a small child — Olivier’s son.

The way Olivier deals with this comprises much of the drama. A more conventional film would be about Olivier taking revenge on this boy, but the Dardennes aren’t too interested in conventional filmmaking. Besides, it’s not in Olivier’s nature. A vocational teacher, he legitimately wants to help his students, imparting practical knowledge gained from experience, as a father might.

With no father of his own to idolize, Francis finds a suitable father figure in Olivier, perhaps the first man in years who hasn’t treated him like a criminal. He pays attention to what Olivier teaches him, and wants to do well not just for himself, but for Olivier too.

There’s a small moment in the film that captures this desire perfectly. After helping Francis to build a toolbox, Olivier goes through his routine of cleaning up. He puts his tools away then uses an air hose to clean off the sawdust. As Olivier walks into the locker room, he stops and turns around, and sees Francis using the air hose as he did. The Dardenne brothers don’t linger on this moment or goose it with music or slow-motion. We simply see Francis as Olivier sees him.

Gourmet makes Olivier that rarest of movie characters, a genuinely good man — one who’s done good for so long that it’s become second nature. He legitimately cares about his students, and even when faced with the person who wronged him most grievously, his strongest impulse is to help him.

Gourmet’s performance has been widely praised, and rightly so. No less important to the film is Marinne, who plays Francis. The filmmakers don’t need to explain how much Francis idolizes Olivier, for it’s all there in Marinne’s performance — the way he watches Olivier so intently, so as to emulate what he does. Francis is not evil, but a careless boy, prone to panicking under pressure, a tendency that once manifested itself at the worst possible time. He needs guidance, patience and understanding. He needs a father. And Olivier is just the father he needs.