Monday, October 30, 2006

Teorema (Pasolini, 1968)

The plot summary for Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema listed on the Internet Movie Database reads as follows: A strange visitor in a wealthy family. He seduces the maid, the son, the mother, the daughter and finally the father before leaving a few days after. After he's gone, none of them can continue living as they did. What this summary accurately captures is the utter simplicity of Pasolini’s film. With very few words of actual dialogue spoken, this is indeed basically all that happens over the course of 90-plus minutes. However, it is in the fuzzy details of this summary where the captivating mystery of Teorema is revealed. For example, I take issue with the word ‘seduce’. It is a word that calls to mind John Malkovich in Dangerous Liaisons. However, the charismatic stranger played by Terrence Stamp is far more passive. In each of his interactions with the members of the household, it is the other person who is the initiator. Each one of them looks to this stranger to fulfill some kind of spiritual need. Each one of them feels somehow incomplete. Once they have opened themselves up to the stranger and exposed their aching souls, he invariably responds with love, kindness and friendship. In his review, Ebert goes so far as to say he ‘makes love’ with each of them. While it is certainly possible to make this interpretation, I think that it involves making somewhat of a leap considering what Pasolini presents us with on screen. In truth, the conclusions of these various encounters are left mostly open-ended.

Halfway through the film, the stranger announces that he must leave. Before he goes, he meets with each member of the household individually and they tell him how he has impacted their lives and how his leaving will affect them in the future. The stranger does not offer words of wisdom or much in the way of overt encouragement. He offers kind looks, open ears, perhaps a gentle touch and not much more. The second half of the film shows us how these individuals seek to achieve fulfillment in the absence of their unusual houseguest. Their tactics involve art, sex, passivity and at least one supernatural phenomenon. However, Pasolini saves his greatest bit of cinematic magic for the end. Throughout the film, we have seen the narrative events interrupted with seemingly incongruous shots of a barren desert. With his film’s closing moments, narrative reality and metaphorical reality collide in a haunting scene of raw anguish.

How we interpret Teorema will likely depend on the identity or value that we place upon the stranger. Clad in white and often bathed in bright light, many viewers (and Joan Osborne fans) will no doubt conclude that he must be Christ or God himself. However, Pasolini’s film is never so blatant as to limit the stranger’s identity to one possibility. He could even be seen as the embodiment of an abstract idea – which, I suppose, would not make him all that different from Jesus after all. There can be no doubt about at least one thing in regards to Pasolini’s film: it is masterful. Easily digestible, but endlessly haunting, Teorema is a testament to Pasolini’s gift for visual composition, thematic exploration and potent minimalism.


Friday, October 27, 2006

The Black Dahlia (DePalma, 2006)

Based on what is supposedly one of the most fascinating murder mysteries in California history, Brian DePalma’s latest exercise in cinematic superficiality is, unfortunately, a vacuous, tedious bore. To describe a DePalma film as pointless is, I suppose, a charge that is not likely to carry much weight. Even his best films have not usually been overloaded with substance, yet they have frequently been very entertaining, even thrilling. The Black Dahlia, by comparison, is a joyless, unadventurous mess in which we are introduced to a mystery which goes ignored for a large portion of the film only to be summed up hurriedly in the film’s final minutes long after we have ceased to care.

One of DePalma’s most critical mistakes is hitching his film’s success to the mumbly squinter, Josh Hartnett. As a cinematic presence, Hartnett is a virtual non-entity, making one long for the semi-charming dopiness of Keanu Reeves or Orlando Bloom. Hartnett makes his best attempt at the detached, rugged film noir protagonist, but succeeds only in detaching the viewer’s interest entirely. In the thankless role of female love interest to not only Hartnett’s character, but also Aaron Eckhart’s, is Scarlett Johansson, who a short time ago was one of the most compelling young actresses in Hollywood. Since then, Johansson has been overexposed and stuffed into roles that simply do not fit. Her awkward honesty and her groundedness are what made her so memorable in films like Ghost World and Lost in Translation. Here, with the make-up, costuming and hair-styling, she resembles nothing more than a living, breathing toy doll. Seemingly overwhelmed by her own appearance, or perhaps her shallow character, Johansson is surprisingly uncharismatic here with her gravelly voice, one of her greatest assets, now coming across as oddly out of place.

Since the film has no overriding purpose nor a compelling narrative drive, what little pleasure there is to be had from The Black Dahlia comes in isolated moments. DePalma’s reputed visual flair is largely absent here, although he does pull off at least one virtuoso shot at the beginning of a dinner party hosted by the bizarro family of Hilary Swank’s bisexual femme fatale. Indeed, this is really one of the only scenes in the film that truly work, perhaps because of the ensemble work which is successful in finding a nice blend of humor and mystery. It is a rare moment where we don’t feel as if we can easily anticipate the film’s next move. Mia Kirshner also impresses in occasional flashback scenes, playing the eventual murder victim who wants to be a movie star. In an audition scene, an off-screen character remarks upon her inability to play sadness. In a later scene, captured on film, we definitively see that emotion come shining through.

As two policemen pursue the killer of a young woman, it becomes evident that both grow to have an emotional attachment for a victim they never knew. It is here where a compelling film might have been made, with actual stakes for both the protagonists and the viewer. DePalma hints at an attachment that may be a more genuine feeling of love than any which is experienced by the characters that actually bed each other. Ultimately though, the director is much more interested in mining the sensationalistic situation for film noir-lite with a side serving of ridiculous camp. Even at his best, DePalma is a charismatic charlatan, offering shallow pleasures that cause you not to regret that your time has been wasted. At other times, as with The Black Dahlia, DePalma is unable to keep up appearances, finds that he has nothing substantial to fall back on and is exposed as something slightly different, but not nearly as romantic: an out-and-out fraud.


Saturday, October 21, 2006

Marie Antoinette (Coppola, 2006)

It is easy to see how Sofia Coppola’s newly released take on the life of Marie Antoinette could be met with disapproval and outright scorn by many. For one thing, it fails utterly as biography and probably falls even shorter of being sound history. Those who have expectations along those lines will be utterly disappointed. Fortunately though, Marie Antoinette has different aspirations and succeeds beautifully if accepted on those terms. Watching Coppola’s third feature film, it is clearer than ever that she has a distinct stylistic purpose that works to great effect here. She is a cinematic impressionist, painting individual moments with a light touch and then allowing the viewer to put the pieces together in order to create meaning. She values the visual over the spoken, mood over narrative and ambiguity over clarity. If you have seen her prior two films, you should know already whether or not this is the film for you.

The most striking artistic choice made by Coppola is to drain the period drama of all of its typical stuffiness. The language used by her characters is direct and mostly free of the kind of elevation that one might normally expect (see Keanu and Winona in the Dracula film made by Coppola’s father). She has cast actors that may strike us as definitely associated with modernity such as Jason Schwartzman, Molly Shannon, Asia Argento and, of course, her lead, Kirsten Dunst. She has scored her film mostly with modern pop songs, creating gleeful anachronistic moments that Baz Luhrmann could only dream of matching. Her choices succeed where Luhrmann’s fail because she has created an alternate historical France that has internal consistency. Her characters have modern concerns and aspirations; however, there are limits. We do not see Marie walking around with an IPOD, for example, or putting up a poster of The Postal Service.

Most of the dramatic (and comedic) thrust comes from the inability of Marie and her arranged husband, Louis, to produce a male heir. Louis has a stubborn (and in my view, wholly unreasonable) resistance to consummating his marriage, preferring rather to go on long hunts or read up on the latest developments in locksmithery. Perhaps it is the pressure of having the responsibility to produce a being that will one day rule an entire nation. Surely the large group of observers in the wedding chamber at bedtime including Louis’ father, the king, and priests charged with blessing the forthcoming copulation can’t help to inspire feeling of intimacy and arousal. One of Coppola’s deft touches is the way she contrasts her characters’ youthful spirits with the absurdly formal expectations that are placed upon them. Even some of the children sport wigs colored grey, as if to suggest in them a level of maturity that they cannot possibly hope to meet. When young Marie escapes to a masquerade ball for a bit of late night fun, Dunst plays the moment no differently than she might in Crazy/Beautiful. By making this choice, she and Coppola are not suggesting that people have always behaved in the same way throughout time necessarily, but rather they are attempting to find a spot that exists somewhere in between 21st century America and 18th century France that will allow us to use the figure of Marie Antoinette to learn something about ourselves. Though her film is satisfactorily researched, Coppola’s Marie Antoinette is purposefully iconic – not strict historical reality.

I look forward to reading what others have ultimately taken away from the film; but, as my mind has a tendency to search for political subtext, I interpreted Marie Antoinette as a subtle warning against American isolationist attitudes. Marie lives in a world of wealth, privilege and round-the-clock pleasure. Far beyond the walls of her palace, there is poverty, war and strife. However, when these issues arise, she opts to remain blissfully ignorant. Coppola successfully gives the viewer Marie’s narrow perspective by focusing almost her entire film on the daily goings-on of the royal court. Even Marie’s brief daydream about what battle must be like is comically romanticized. Like Marie, we hear precious little about the country’s widespread discontent until it is knocking down her door in order to come for her head. In this respect, Coppola’s film could easily be paired alongside Lars von Trier’s Dogville in a hypothetical college course. Some may try to dismiss the film as exploring nothing more than the shallow ennui of the rich and fabulous, but I think that would be unfair. Coppola’s intentions were likely not as overtly political as my interpretation. I expect that femininity in crisis, battling against the expectations of society may have been more at the forefront of her mind. Still, she has once again created a work that is consistently engaging despite its refusal to follow formula and which has enough breathing room to allow different viewers to come away from the film with a singular experience.


Monday, October 16, 2006

Wolf Creek (McLean, 2005)

In the opening moments of Greg McLean’s Wolf Creek, the first-time director makes a questionable decision that unfortunately colors and distracts from the rest of the film which follows. He offers the viewer an opening text which informs us that all we are about to witness is based on actual events. He also tells us that numerous people are reported missing in Australia each year, never to be heard from again. With those words, McLean makes the viewer a promise that he is unable to keep. We expect that he has selected the subject matter because he has something insightful to offer us about this particular case or perhaps missing persons cases in general. However, it eventually becomes clear that McLean’s purpose is far simpler. He really just wants to creep us out and, like so many other budding directors, display his stylistic technique through the horror genre. In this goal, McLean has much to offer. He demonstrates a knack for developing characters and creating an effective sense of dread. His three lead actors, who play characters traveling through the vast Australian countryside, demonstrate an ability to interact naturally with each other. Their dialogue seems at least partially improvised. Whether it is or not makes no difference. These characters are engaging because they have aspirations, humor and intelligence.

When a strange coincidence occurs at an old meteor crater, leaving the trio stranded, McLean seems to be hinting at cosmic significance. However, despite the potential for further thematic exploration, McLean’s excellent first hour soon gives way to a crazed killer scenario that is far more typical. It is not necessarily that the film declines dramatically in quality. It is simply disappointing to eventually discover that the film has far less in mind than we originally think. It also leads us to wonder how tasteful it is to create an action thriller out of recent tragic misfortune. John Jarratt’s performance as the malevolent outdoorsman is fun in places, but is far too obviously an actor’s construction to offer much psychological insight. Ultimately, we have are left with a film which is more competently executed than most horror films, but still has the same low aspirations: make the viewer wonder who will die and shock us with the creative, vicious way in which they meet their end.

If this is what you want from a horror movie, you should be well satisfied. However, I can’t help but think that with his opening text and an ending in which we realize that most of what we have seen is unreliable that McLean is in an uncomfortable liminal zone between fact and fiction. If the film is a thriller, why does it matter that it has basis in reality? Why must we lose track of a character for one-third of the film only to have this character reappear in an awkward clunky coda? If the film is intended to shed light on a real-life situation, how is it served by unfocused speculation which is geared obviously more towards shock and thrills than an exploration of truth? For technical merit and for its creation of dread and suspense, Wolf Creek is still worth seeing, even if McLean ultimately bites off more than he can chew.


The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (Fassbinder, 1972)

When we first see Petra von Kant, she is lying in bed. Indeed, almost the entire film takes place within the walls of her bedroom. Petra, we are told, is a fashion designer of some renown although we never see any evidence of her work ethic. All of her labor it seems is carried out by her servant, Marlene. One of the film’s more curious characters, Marlene does not speak, although Fassbinder makes it clear in the way he foregrounds her in certain situations that she has great affection for her mistress – possibly even sexual attraction. In consoling her cousin, Petra reveals how her last marriage ended miserably, partially due to disagreements in regards to who was responsible for leading the relationship and partially due to Petra growing distaste for “the way men stink.” When young model Karin (played by Hanna Schygulla) enters the picture, Petra makes a pass in the form of an offer of employment. This, in turn, leads to a relationship, of which we only see the beginning and ending.

Fassbinder’s film starts out very slowly as we receive a great deal of information by that most tiresome of expository devices: listening to one end of a telephone call. Gradually though, as new characters are introduced, the film begins to pick up steam with the most satisfying scene being Petra’s complete meltdown in front of a small group of party guests. In passing moments, with its strong female characters and lengthy conversations, Fassbinder’s film resembles something that might have been made by Bergman if the Swede had camp sensibilities. I particularly enjoyed the ending with Petra’s final desperate attempt at connection and the amusing response that follows. I suppose my complaint with the film is that it feels simultaneously incomplete and too lengthy --incomplete because the meat of Petra and Karin’s relationship is left unseen, too lengthy because Fassbinder’s conversations are long on exposition rather than insight. What makes the journey worthwhile is the same thing that is a strength in every Fassbinder film I have seen, a cast of actors that are given an opportunity to flourish within the director’s universe, neatly executing his wicked games of seduction and deceit.