Thursday, October 27, 2005

Even Dwarfs Started Small (Herzog, 1970)

You have to hand it to Werner Herzog. When his films fail, they do so spectacularly. The 1970 film, Even Dwarfs Started Small, employs an all-‘little person’ cast in order to enact a chaotic, allegorical film about … something. Some say it is a film demonstrating the self-defeating tendencies of the revolutionary. Others claim that it is a statement about mankind’s incompatibility with the very systems that it has created for itself. This is all very well and good to discuss in an academic fashion when attempting to discern the motivations of one of the world’s greatest filmmakers; however, the actual experience of watching the film is one of extreme tedium and being subjected to fairly run-of-the-mill button pushing.

Herzog does not do much to inform the viewer about the particular location and setting for the film; but, from what I can gather, a small group of little people have decided to revolt against an authority figure of some kind. This authority figure has taken one of their own hostage in an effort to protect himself. Although we never see people of conventional height, the size of the beds, doors and cars would seem to suggest that somewhere in this strange fictional universe they do exist. The rebels spend most of the film giggling and committing destructive acts of increasing intensity. They play mischievous tricks on the blind. They set fire to flora and torment fauna. When they run out of rocks to throw at their enemy, they start throwing chickens. Did I mention the giggling? At least two characters giggle in virtually every moment they appear on screen, which after 90+ minutes becomes maddening to say the least. The mob commandeers a car and then sets it in motion so that it will circle a continuous loop. Herzog shows the car circling over and over and over and over and over again. By the time the merry band of pranksters trot out a crucified monkey – where they found a monkey, I have no idea -- the pseudo-symbolism registers as not resonant, but desperate.

Is the film exploitative? That’s difficult to say. I would defer to someone who was actually a little person to judge whether or not Herzog’s depictions are hurtful. I will say however that the film relies rather heavily not on script, character development or other technical accomplishments, but instead the spectacle of a rambunctious group of little people making mayhem. I am reminded of Peter Dinklage in Living in Oblivion complaining about being put into a filmed dream sequence – Oh make it weird, put a dwarf in it! Like Tod Browning’s Freaks, it places the viewer in a rather uncomfortable position. How are we to process the filmmaker’s themes when it involves necessarily accepting the notion of little people as damaged, incomplete members of society? I struggle to find any substantial reading of the film that does not in some way make that assumption.

Werner Herzog is a director whose body of work I greatly admire. He is one of the greatest artistic risk takers of which I am aware. Grand disasters like Even Dwarfs Started Small are bound to happen when your mind works the way his does. I do not think any less of him for having made this film. On the contrary, it is fascinating to see how he has harnessed his early desire for provocation and emerged as a director who can ride lightning like nobody else. Still, Even Dwarfs Started Small is the kind of film that is more fun to brag about seeing after the fact than it is to actually experience.


Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Wittgenstein (Jarman, 1993)

With overt theatricality, Derek Jarman paints a rough but thoughtful picture of the early 20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein, according to Jarman’s film, was a surly, passionate genius that found it immensely difficult to live in a world with rough edges. Faced with human inconsistencies and ignorance, he used logic in a quixotic attempt to polish those edges away. The primary focus of Wittgenstein’s insight into the nature of humanity is the way that language with its imperfections causes virtually any philosophical problem we can imagine. As a tool for expressing that which lies within our minds, it is clumsy and inaccurate at best – harmfully misleading at worst.

Stripping his film of a realistic setting, Jarman thoughtfully places his actors within the frame of his camera with only key props and set pieces and, in a mere 75 minutes, strives to gain an understanding of a man that most found absurdly difficult to understand during his lifetime. When we consider that Wittgenstein claimed that his book (with the decidedly non-commercial title of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus) effectively solved all of life’s mysteries, we begin to get a grasp of the daunting task Jarman has laid out for himself. Still, Jarman – with a big-time assist from Karl Johnson in the lead role – creates a film that is mostly successful in distilling Wittgenstein’s arguments to manageable pieces. Even if viewers feel as disoriented as the poor, young students that are berated in Wittgenstein’s classes, there is still the underlying theme of philosophy’s ultimate worth that is conveyed in simple, but provocative themes – particularly in a beautiful bit of dialogue late in the film that sums up Wittgenstein’s life in decidedly unflattering terms.

It will come as no surprise that due attention is given to Wittgenstein’s homosexuality. After all, identifying and analyzing iconic gay figures is a primary part of Jarman’s raison d’etre. However, unlike his other films, Jarman’s eroticism is muted, opting for an experience that is pitched more at the mind than the senses. I admire Jarman for the risks he takes, particularly in whole-heartedly embracing anachronism, but there is at least one major misfire here with a Martian character outfitted in a green costume that wouldn’t pass muster at a grade school costume party. Clearly, Jarman is making an attempt to playfully comment on how difficult it is for humans to see outside of themselves. However, I wish he had used a method that was not quite so aggressively displeasing to the eye. Though Wittgenstein falls short of the masterful Edward II, with its satisfying blend of stylized drama and contemporary politics, it is still a worthwhile challenge to the mind for those willing to take the journey.


Monday, October 24, 2005

A Director to Adapt Each of Shakespeare's Plays #15 -- LOVE'S LABOURS LOST directed by Sofia Coppola

The Plot:

Four men decide that they need to dedicate themselves to the pursuit of knowledge, so they opt to cut themselves off from one of their major distractions: the pursuit of women. Of course, as soon as they make that pledge, who should happen to arrive, but four eligible ladies. Letters are written, mixed-up and exchanged. Much blushing, giggling and fretting follows. Just when it seems that we’re heading for an ending with multiple marriages, news arrives that one of the women’s father has died. Courtin’ season’s over until next year.

Why Coppola?

This is one of Shakespeare’s most unusual plays. Looks like a comedy. Smells like a comedy. But what’s this? No marriages? A letter out of the blue reporting a death in the family? What we’re left with is a play about unrequited love. Love that persists though many of its participants have pledged their attention elsewhere. It’s a story that’s heavy on foreplay, but ends inconclusively. Other directors have explored this territory, but I’m going to give the assignment to Sofia Coppola whose Lost in Translation and The Virgin Suicides have so beautifully and effectively captured that tense, exciting moment where love starts to bubble before it is declared openly. The pacing of her films would be just right for Love’s Labour’s, as they slow the process of attraction down a few speeds so that we can cherish each step along the way. She’s also shown that she can effectively capture moments of humor amidst the romance, as well as captivate the viewer working with a minimal amount of plot. For these reasons, I suggest Coppola’s just perfect for Love’s Labour’s Lost.

S. Coppola films I have seen:

1. Lost in Translation ****
2. The Virgin Suicides ***1/2

Batman Begins (Nolan, 2005)

Christopher Nolan brings Batman back to the big screen with a brooding, self-serious film that, despite its obvious attempts to transcend the comic-book genre, is simply brimming with bathos and fails in its primary mission – to introduce audiences to a compelling, complex figure behind the mask. The inherent flaw of Batman Begins that saps all of the effectiveness of Bruce Wayne’s angst and soul searching is that, inevitably, the story still boils down to a man running around town fighting crime dressed as a giant bat. Say what you want about Tim Burton’s underbaked quirk – at least he was able to create a consistent universe in which such a character might seem plausible. In Batman Begins, viewers are subjected to a film that seems to be in stubborn denial of its own campy roots.

Whereas other Batman films have begun in medias res with the dark hero already an established presence in the city of Gotham, Nolan’s delves into the childhood trauma that led Bruce Wayne to take the vigilante path. It also introduces us briefly to Bruce’s father – a man with the unusual combination of extraordinary wealth and admirable moral character -- and answers various other questions including why Bruce lives alone in a manor with his trusty manservant. What the film does not do, despite all the strained gloominess and martial arts training included in an attempt to give the film a sense of gravity, is provide Batman with a driving motive any more compelling than that which Burton supplied in a fraction of the time. In the 1989 film, there was a kind of mystery and strange dreamlike quality to Bruce’s separation from his parents. Have you ever danced with the devil by the pale moonlight? In the most recent film, we trudge through over an hour of simple-minded psychology and nonsensical pseudo-philosophy before Batman ever dons his attire. Ostensibly, the film strives on some level to be an exploration of the nature of justice, but whatever the film has to say on the subject is muddled and inconsistent. At one point early in the film, Wayne refuses to kill a man on principle – I will not play executioner – and then proceeds to take action which leads to the death of about twenty. Later, as Batman, he invokes some kind of dubious moral technicality, making a distinction between ‘killing a foe’ and simply ‘allowing a foe to meet with certain death’. Is this justice or cowardice?

Perhaps the reason that I react so negatively to this incarnation of Batman spouting off about justice and acting as a kind of moral authority is that Nolan has decided to offer us a Bruce Wayne that couldn’t possibly be any more of an emotional vacuum. With Bale in the lead, we are treated to Batman-as-arrogant-contemptuous-prick. To borrow a phrase from Dorothy Parker, Bale runs the gamut of emotions from A to B. Delivering virtually every line in a low-pitched grumble, Bale is the very opposite of charismatic. Instead, he comes across as a smug, spoiled character that on occasion is difficult to distinguish from the so-called ‘bad guys’. Bale’s Wayne is the sort of man you would be delighted to see trip over his own cape – not the kind that inspires visions of justice and fair play. For over an hour, Nolan makes viewers wait to see Batman in his suit. With care he explains how the piece covering Batman’s torso is really an experimental form of military armor, as well as demonstrating the derivations of the cape and Batmobile. But a rubber bat mask is still a rubber bat mask. The film prepares us for the arrival of a legend, a myth ... and then delivers a grown man playing Halloween dress-up. I’m Batman he declares. And both the virtuous and the villainous accept this new force with a remarkable lack of tittering. Please understand that I do not object specifically to the depiction of comic book heroes on film. I very much enjoyed Spiderman 2. I make these points simply to assert that there is a danger in trying to establish a tone which the depth of the material cannot support.

Batman Begins certainly has its positive qualities. I particularly enjoyed much of the supporting cast, most notably Tom Wilkinson and Gary Oldman going against type as a vicious criminal and a good cop respectively. I also found the character of The Scarecrow and the fear-related effects to be terribly thrilling. As director, Nolan demonstrates a gift for jumping around chronologically and still keeping the viewer engaged. His spectacular use of huge bat swarms was particularly effective. I was less enamored with his handle on the quick-paced action scenes which included some sloppy editing choices and quite a few unnecessary cutaways (including the escaped convicts and the guys at the water facility). Obviously, he has given many fans the experience they have been craving. To be sure, Nolan has made a drastic improvement over the Schumacher vision. However, my feeling is that he has gone too far in the opposite direction and created a film that resembles a high school goth kid – overbearing in its earnestness, underwhelming in its substance.


Friday, October 21, 2005

Death of a Bureaucrat (Alea, 1966)

Though it bears a stylistic resemblance to Eastern European drama produced behind the Iron Curtain, Tomas Gutierrez Alea’s Death of a Bureaucrat is instead set in Cuba in the 1960's. With gentle wit and sharp insight, Alea draws attention to the way that the machine of bureaucracy, designed ostensibly to operate with supreme efficiency, can instead grind unfortunate souls to dust when they dare to present an exception. The film opens with the funeral of a man who is considered such a fine proletarian example that he is buried with his worker’s card as an odd kind of tribute. As well intentioned as this gesture may be, it poses a fairly large problem when his widow discovers that without the card, she cannot access her late husband’s pension. Salvador Wood plays the role of the nephew that strives to set things right and instead finds himself in a circular nightmare worthy of MC Escher. When he is told that the only way to access the coffin is to have the body exhumed ... in 2 years ... he decides to take matters into his own hands and discovers just how stubborn bureaucrats can be.

If it never soars to grand comedic heights, Death of a Bureaucrat remains a consistently entertaining and thoughtful look at social madness. Alea draws from Kafka, Bunuel and Chaplin to create a series of mishaps and frustrations that are appropriately aggravating. I particularly enjoyed the two dream sequences where Alea allowed himself to present the protagonist’s struggle in irrational terms. If you enjoy your farce peppered with a healthy dose of political commentary, Death of a Bureaucrat is worth a look.


Wednesday, October 19, 2005

A Director to Adapt Each of Shakespeare's Plays #14 -- KING LEAR directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky

The Plot:

King Lear is old and tired of running things. So, he decides to split up his kingdom amongst his three daughters. Not a bad idea until he decides that the portions will be decided based upon who loves him most. Sweet Cordelia can’t play the flattery game, so she gets jack squat, while the two power-hungry older sisters split up the rest. Lear soon finds that a king who has given up his power is . . . well . . . powerless. The two older sisters don’t even bother to send a thank-you card and conspire to render Lear irrelevant. The once mighty monarch is left to wander the countryside with his know-it-all court jester and (quite understandably) quickly loses touch with sanity.

Why Jodorowsky?

The first question to answer here is whether or not Jodorowsky can really be considered an ‘active’ director. He’s well into his 70's and hasn’t released a major film in about 15 years. There’s been talk about him working on a sequel to the cult classic El Topo, but as best as I can tell, this is being held up in a squabble over who owns the rights to the El Topo characters. Since Jodorowsky is alive and seems to have the desire to make a film, even though he’s having trouble doing so, I’m going to consider him active for the purposes of this exercise. If he is unable to go forward with his El Topo sequel, I humbly suggest King Lear instead. In choosing a director to adapt this play, I was very conscious of trying to choose someone who would make a very different film than Kurosawa’s masterpiece Ran. I think it’s safe to say that a Jodorowsky Lear would be quite a different experience altogether. It may come as something of a surprise that I’m placing one of the greatest pieces of literature in the English language in the hands of a man who is essentially a surrealist, but the drama of King Lear exists in a world that has always seemed to me to be at least one step removed from reality. Maybe it’s the character of the Fool who dispenses wisdom in the form of smart-alecky riddles. Maybe it’s Edgar who goes in disguise as a half-crazed nature boy in order to watch over Lear. Maybe it’s the violence that borders on absurdity as Gloucester has his eyes plucked out before our very eyes in a lovely bit of grand guignol. Whatever it is, I think it’s intentional and I think it’s Shakespeare’s attempt to put the viewer off-guard and simulate the strange haze in which Lear suddenly finds himself. Jodorowsky is at the age now that he could not only direct, but play Lear. With El Topo,and later Santa Sangre, he proved that he can construct fascinatingly strange images, characters and situations that haunt the viewer and stimulate the mind. Not only that, but there is something about the grandiosity of his efforts that seems appropriate for Lear. El Topo had the quality of a myth from a universe similar to (but not quite the same as) our own. I’d like to see a Lear that gives me the same sensation. Lear is a big, big play and it needs a director that thinks big. Jodorowsky is that man, I think. It would most certainly not be a Lear for everyone, but hey, you’ve always got Ran to fall back on.

Jodorowsky films I have seen:

1. The Holy Mountain ****
2. Santa Sangre ****
3. El Topo ***1/2
4. Fando and Lis ***

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Jesus is Magic (L. Lynch, 2005)

After a long string of brief supporting roles in films like The School of Rock and There’s Something About Mary, Sarah Silverman finally gets a film that places her center stage and allows her to fully display her subversive talents in Jesus is Magic. Every bit as provocative as The Aristocrats (another comedy film that featured Silverman this year), and about three times as funny, Jesus is Magic uses the comedienne’s stand-up act as a starting point, but also incorporates musical numbers, backstage drama and various other digressions to take advantage of the film medium and keep viewers off-guard. As a comic, Silverman seems to be intent on finding humor in subjects that normally are certain comedic death. AIDS, the Holocaust, 9/11, pre-pubescent sexuality, dead grandmothers – it’s all here. Silverman also employs a variety of terms that are normally considered off limits when referring to other cultures. Venturing into taboo topics in order to find laughter is nothing new, of course. However, Silverman possesses a remarkable quality that distinguishes herself from comics like Don Rickles and Andrew ‘Dice’ Clay. Throughout her routine, it always remains clear that the source of our laughter does not reside in the people to which she refers. She is not encouraging us to laugh at Mexicans or lesbians or African-Americans. She is encouraging us to laugh at the insensitivity of this stage persona she has created for herself. All the time we watch the ‘stage’ Sarah Silverman, we are comforted by the fact that the ‘real’ Sarah Silverman knows better. Whereas comics like Chris Rock might use their minority status to take pot shots at the dominant culture, Silverman uses her position of privilege in order to make a sly commentary about the ignorance of stereotypes that continue to persist in contemporary society. Yes, Silverman is Jewish and also a woman, but she plays the part of the white, wealthy, attractive, spoiled celebrity princess. In her own way, she plays the role of clown, encouraging us to use herself as the object of ridicule. If any of the comments she offers resemble thoughts we ourselves have had in earnest, we do not gain a feeling of superiority and validation. Instead, we feel embarrassed and ashamed in recognizing our own irrationality and foolishness. Director Liam Lynch, whose previous credits include the video for Tenacious D’s “Tribute”, manages the whole affair rather effectively, keeping the pacing brisk and efficiently managing the shifts from concert-style footage to sketch comedy to hilarious music videos. Only Bob Odenkirk’s cameo as Silverman’s manager falls flat and seems out of place. For the most part, Jesus is Magic is simply a sheer delight and marks the coming out of a talented performer who has been long overdue for her own vehicle.

9 Songs (Winterbottom, 2004)

For a film director like Michael Winterbottom, with an impressive body of work including the brutally moving literary adaptation, Jude, and the tense political drama, Welcome to Sarajevo, the temptation to venture outside of your comfort zone must be a strong one. Having established yourself as an artist of note, you can tackle those odd projects in the back of your mind that have always seemed appealing. Hey, why not do a concert film with your favorite rock bands? Or perhaps a nature documentary that would take you to an exciting far-off part of the globe? What the hell, why not do a pornographic film? You know, but tasteful! With his odd little feature film, 9 Songs, Winterbottom combines all those ideas into one.

Over the course of 70 minutes, we witness a British man and an American woman meet at a rock concert at London’s Brixton Academy, begin a sexual relationship, develop an increasing amount of trust, find their love plateau and ultimately break off the affair as the woman returns to her native country. Their story, such as it is, is told almost exclusively their the way they interact sexually. Winterbottom seems to have issued himself a challenge – to see whether the way a couple copulates can be used as a form of narrative. If we could watch the throughline of our sex lives (providing we were able to keep a straight face), would we be able to discern a beginning, middle and end? The strongest aspect of Winterbottom’s film is that he is able to depict a relationship that seems genuine and loving. We believe Kieran O’Brien and Margo Stilley as a realistic couple with their petty squabbles and expressions of affection, both explicit and otherwise. Indeed, they are almost too ordinary. Winterbottom provides little that could be called plot. There are no huge revelations, no involving plot twists. Nor does Winterbottom use their sexual encounters to showcase perversity or an abusive relationship. The way they connect is mostly conventional. Their moments of disconnect are brief and subtle.

Winterbottom marks the passage of time with scenes showcasing several contemporary rock acts, all shot at the Brixton Academy, where our two lead characters are habitual patrons. If there is a progression to the concert sequences intended to convey information related to the characters’ relationship, I was unable to detect it. Most of these sequences feature reaction shots from the large audiences in attendance as much as they showcase the artists on stage. Like the sexual act, we are encouraged to see rock and roll as an outlet for humans to temporarily abandon themselves. The gathered concert goers give their bodies, as the performers on stage use their music to set the mood, the rhythm and the intensity. Unfortunately, Winterbottom does little to bring together the seemingly obvious connection to be made from these two disparate parts of his film. The concert sequences are all shot essentially in the same manner, mostly from the back of the concert hall and stand curiously separate from the rest of the film. In addition, the featured performers strike me as largely uncharismatic and do little to distinguish themselves from one another. (If I had to choose a stand-out, it would be the Von Bondies’ performance of “C’mon C’mon”.) Rather than using diverse performers to comment on the different aspects of the lovers’ interaction, Winterbottom uses a vague, uninvolving series of scenes in which the man waxes philosophical about the purity and loneliness of the Antarctican continent. We can tell that Winterbottom is grasping for a resonant metaphor to give his film shape, but these scenes never truly add any sort of depth to the film’s themes, nor do they tell us anything of interest about the central characters.

While certainly not an embarrassment, 9 Songs is also far from a triumph. Considering the provocative material involved and the film’s desire to showcase fresh voices in rock, 9 Songs is, above all, strangely unmoving. The film three different parts never coalesce into a meaningful whole and individually never arouse more than moderate interest. We leave the cinema not so much with any sort of feeling, but rather wondering what it was that we were intended to feel.

Friday, October 14, 2005

A Director to Adapt Each of Shakespeare's Plays #13 -- KING JOHN directed by Mike Leigh

The Plot:

It’s England squaring off against France again and yet again, there’s a question about the legitimacy of the current king. You see, really the king should be young Arthur, but he’s just a boy; so John sits on the throne strictly because the previous king willed it so. But not everyone’s satisfied because John’s a bastard. Not literally. But in the sense that he arranges a hit on the biggest threat to his reign, young Arthur. Arthur sniffs out the danger and takes a header off the castle wall trying to escape. After talking with some advisors, John has a change of heart and orders the assassination called off. But by this time it’s too late. Arthur’s kissing the concrete and John’s in bigger trouble than before.

Why Leigh?

Here’s another play that’s going to need quite a bit of help to reach a modern audience. Unlike the superior histories of Shakespeare, it’s difficult to tell what the overriding themes of this play are. There’s mild interest in John’s struggle to maintain his throne and how he callously handles the threats to his power, but not enough connections are made to broader themes beyond reporting a series of historical circumstances. Although Leigh is known to be a director with little attachment to text, I’m going to put this play into his hands because of his ability to put his characters under a magnifying glass and scour them for information. I’m thinking primarily of Topsy-Turvy here in which he took the beloved English song-writing team of Gilbert and Sullivan and turned them into deeply fleshed-out characters with petty needs, desires and motivations. Despite the fact that his individual scenes often seem to be only loosely connected, he's able to keep the big picture in focus and never veer too far from the essential purpose of his mission. Leigh’s would likely be a very loose adaptation, but in this case, I think that’d be OK. I’d like to get a clearer idea of the historical context of John’s reign and a more detailed picture of the man himself. I think Leigh could provide that.

Leigh films I have seen:

1. Secrets and Lies ****
2. Topsy Turvy ***1/2
3. Career Girls ***
4. Naked ***

Me and You and Everyone We Know (July, 2005)

Brimming over with creativity, sensitivity, and sheer poetry, Miranda July’s directorial debut, Me and You and Everyone We Know, is nothing short of an awe-inspiring artistic accomplishment. The miracle of July’s film is in the way it perfectly rides the line between the quirky and the sincere, the provocative and the pleasing, the humorous and the horrifying. It forges a relationship with the audience that is unlike any other film I have ever seen. July is an artist with serious intentions, tackling troubling issues of modernity and the alienating effects of life in the technological age; yet, somehow the film never allows itself to be weighed down by suffocating angst. Children are put into situations that in real life would cause us disgust and horror, yet July’s film flits on like it’s been sprinkled with pixie dust. Imagine Todd Solondz on helium.

July, who has a background in performance art, puts those skills to good use here. Her dialogue, characters and situations are unbound by convention. Rather than slavishly detailing a meaningless plot, each scene works as a piece of the whole in painting a vivid portrait of life in the 21st century. A simple stroll down the sidewalk between two strangers becomes an imagined lifetime of love and companionship. A misplaced parcel on the roof of a car becomes an opportunity to affirm a world of love and compassion. A vacation photo becomes the visual expression of fond memories that never truly existed. What a joy it must be to see the world through July’s eyes. At every corner, poetry. And yet it must be said that the film has a definitive forward progression. The average filmgoer will not feel themselves awash in a sea of opaqueness. The film has likable characters, tentative romance, numerous moments of high comedy and ultimately a life-affirming outlook on humanity. All the things that mainstream audiences love.

Part of the reason that July is able to get away with her numerous artistic indulgences is that she includes a delightful subplot which knowingly skewers the world of modern art. July’s character, when she is not serving as a chauffeur to the elderly, is also a multimedia artist whose works incorporate film, performance and still photographs taken out of context. Throughout the film, she attempts to gain the attention of the curator of a modern art museum, a chilly woman whose passion seems to be in the expression of power, rather than the expression of artistic impulse. It’s a smart move on July’s part, as it allows the curator character to serve as a kind of lightning rod for all the feelings of resistance audience members might have about artistic pretension. With the gesture, July assures us that we need not take her too seriously. That she understands the danger of artistic myopia. That she remains connected with us. Hence, we trust her and go along for the ride as she shares with us her outlook on relationships, parenting, sex and divorce – subjects that have been addressed countless times in drama, but through July’s inventiveness become fresh, enlightening and deeply moving.

Me and You and Everyone We Know is a special kind of film. It provides an experience that is simultaneously challenging and entertaining. July so successfully manages these two tasks that we never truly feel as if we are being tugged one way or another. We simply soak it all in and wait eagerly for the next scene, the next laugh, the next insight, the next stirring image. Though it is her first feature film, July hits the ground running, revealing a supremely charismatic and confident artist. Filled with a plethora of meaningful and memorable moments that I look forward to revisiting in the future, Me and You and Everyone We Know is not only the best film I have seen thus far this year, I believe it to be one of the best of the current decade.


Note: An added treat for me in watching the film were the references to my new neighborhood. At one point, a character mentions that Robby was walking on Burnside. I saw the film at a cinema on Burnside. Also, Laurelhurst Park, which is mentioned in the film is just a few blocks away from me. I frequently take my boy there to play on the playground equipment.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Lancelot du Lac (Bresson, 1974)

Remarkably lacking in passion, charisma, or anything resembling a dramatic or philosophical purpose, Robert Bresson’s take on the tales of the Knights of the Round Table, Lancelot du Lac, is an astonishingly unappealing film from a director that is certainly capable of greatness. With Pickpocket and A Man Escaped, Bresson was able to use a minimalist aesthetic in order to bring his themes into sharp focus and create a high sense of tension. Unfortunately, Bresson’s trademark style is a rather awkward mismatch with this particular tale that simply starves from an utter lack of romanticism.

As best I can tell, Bresson’s goal here was to pare away many years of baggage associated with the Arthurian legends and find the story’s essence beneath the mystique. A worthwhile purpose in theory, I suppose. However, Bresson’s way of accomplishing this task is to cast some of the most lifeless actors imaginable and asking them to step into the roles of knights and royalty. It seems apparent that Bresson has coaxed his actors to disregard anything resembling an emotional impulse. No one raises his voice. No one seduces her lover with soothing tones. No one sheds a tear or even breaks a smile. There is a fine line between controlled, economical acting and flat-out bad acting. Bresson’s ensemble unfortunately lands on the wrong side of this balance, contributing to an experience that fails to engage the viewer because it has very little to do with humanity.

Lancelot du Lac’s troubles most likely stem directly from the screenplay which does little more than reiterate narrative events from the Arthurian legends without adding any kind of insight, analysis or style. This kind of approach worked with Pickpocket because it provided Bresson an opportunity to dissect an invisible world of crime. It worked with A Man Escaped because the source tale was so unique and compelling that adornment was indeed entirely superfluous. However, with Lancelot du Lac, the result is disastrous. With Arthur, Lancelot and the rest reduced to overwhelming ordinariness, why should we care about their petty love affairs, their jealous rivalries or their quixotic quest for an unattainable relic? Is it possible to take these characters seriously as ‘real people’? It seems to me that part of the joy of other renditions of these tales is in the storytelling aspect. It allows a gifted artist or orator an opportunity to transport us to a different world or thrill us with great adventures and excite us with tales of passion. Bresson strings together a series of events, but has no story, no philosophy, no guiding purpose.

My guess it that Bresson’s purpose was to make a film that left little imprint from its director and instead immersed the viewer in a pure, naturalistic experience. However, Bresson’s dreary version of realism is just as much of a stylistic choice as the anarchic absurdity of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. In other films, the Bresson imprint has resulted in a thoroughly satisfying cinematic experience. With Lancelot du Lac, it results in a bizarre artistic misfire in which none of the participants seem the least bit interested.


Wednesday, October 12, 2005

El (Bunuel, 1953)

With his darkly humorous film, El, Luis Bunuel bursts the bubble of obsessive romantic love as it is so often portrayed on film. Whether it is Titanic, The English Patient or The Graduate, cinema goers have always enjoyed watching a protagonist risk everything and overcome intimidating obstacles for love. Romantic comedies often refer to ‘the one’, suggesting that there is someone out there destined for everyone, a perfect match that will fulfill all of our desires and assure us a life of happiness. Bunuel takes that idea as his starting point and then gives it a decidedly anti-romantic twist.

El starts out in familiar territory, with a man, Francisco, declaring his love for a woman he barely knows. Despite the fact that all signs point to the woman marrying Francisco’s friend, he declares at a dinner party that he believes in the kind of love that happens in an instant. The kind of love that once recognized, cannot be quenched. When he steals a kiss out on the patio, it is played out with an abundance of Hollywood-inspired romanticism. It’s at about this time where Bunuel shifts into another gear and reveals his true theme: the underlying irrationality and even insanity that lurks beneath this kind of obsessive passion.

In an excellent lead performance by Arturo de Cordova, Francisco’s behavior begins to get more and more divorced from reality, as he concocts all kinds of absurd fantasies about his lover’s supposed infidelities and the scheming thoughts of her non-existent suitors. As his paranoia grows, the means he employs to ensure that his passion will remain his own grow increasingly more ridiculous as well as frightening. Bunuel’s film unfolds like an avalanche, starting out innocently enough and then steadily building momentum throughout the second half as it cascades towards its tense, captivating finale. There’s no need for sliced eyeballs or random livestock in this story as Bunuel mines all the surrealism he needs from within the human brain. Along the way, Bunuel also scores hits on the church and traditional family values as both Francisco’s Padre and his mother-in-law give their blessings to this powder keg of a union.

With impeccable control, Bunuel reveals himself to be a director as capable of handling a tightly structured script as he is at orchestrating disorder. El is yet another gem in his deep, varied and immensely rewarding filmography.