Pazar, Mart 16, 2008

The Castle

The Castle (Germany, 1997) * * * 1/2
D: Michael Haneke

To be a devotee of Franz Kafka is an almost sadomasochistic act of frustration, since his two masterworks, The Trial and The Castle, are books which are incomplete--missing many chapters, in the case of the former, and missing an ending, in the case of the latter. But then, this is my life, and I'm a frustrated individual. In high school I first discovered his writings--gravitating more toward The Trial and his short story "In the Penal Colony" than his more famous "The Metamorphosis," and obsessing over Orson Welles' 1962 adaptation of The Trial, which, with its horrendous sound quality and contrasty, beaten-up public domain prints, always looked like some mysterious relic from another dimension, and thus mesmerized me. (It was also, along with Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai and High and Low, my introduction to "art films.") I haven't read The Castle in eight or nine years, but upon watching Michael Haneke's 1997 adaptation (populated by familiar faces from the same year's Funny Games), I can say this matches my recollection exactly. This must be one of the most scrupulous literary adaptations ever made; it is faithful to a fault. But if you're a Kafka fan like myself, that fault will also be its strength. The Trial at least had a sketchy ending to draw from, and Welles used the fragmentary nature of the book as a stylistic device, embracing the dream-logic and paranoiac incoherency which builds and builds as the reader pushes through; the downbeat ending becomes appropriately apocalyptic in Welles' hands. But like the book he was adapting, Welles' work is broken and stamped-upon; like his films Mr. Arkadin and Othello, it was a low-budget movie scrapped together after years of effort, and demonstrates every injury. Appropriate, then, that Haneke's film also reflects its source, although it is considerably more polished and watchable. The protagonist of The Castle, known only as "K.," is a land surveyor who presses himself upon a small village ruled over by the mysterious "Castle," which we never arrive at, and its "Count," whom we never see. K. claims to have been summoned by the Castle, and yes, there was in fact a request for a land surveyor many years ago, although no one can agree upon whether or not he's still needed. Indeed, K. is continually congratulated upon the work he's been doing, even though, upon arriving at the village, all he can do is make inquiries to visit the Castle--ever denied--and attempt to infiltrate the upper echelons of the entangled bureaucracy. He seduces Frieda, the mistress of Kramm, one of the Castle's officials, and makes meetings with under-officials who have little interest in him. He is appointed two sycophantic assistants, whose help proves to be disastrous, and who never leave his side, even when he attempts to throw them out. Frieda, too, becomes worshipfully attached to him; she's an emotional wreck looking for any signs of admiration or approval. The way K. takes possession of her is surprisingly callous and self-serving; this is not the Joseph K. of The Trial, who has committed a crime he can't identify, but a man with identifiably monstrous traits. Although the Castle is callous and impenetrable, K.'s efforts to penetrate the castle gates are far from noble. His actions are often motivated by lust, cowardice, or greed for power. In a difficult book with little plot momentum, the fact that the hero is often unlikeable only makes matters worse; the fact that this aspect survived an adaptation to film is simply remarkable. But Haneke goes even further by emphasizing the random turns that all the characters take in Kafka's work: the inexplicable likes or dislikes the characters hold for K., and vice-versa. Kafka's cynical view is that all the world is impenetrable, forbidding, and ruthless; and we are criminals justly punished for attempt to infiltrate it. Haneke intermittently uses a narrator to read Kafka's prose, as K. stumbles through the snowy village from one futile task to another, and cleverly uses the fragmentary nature of the novel to accentuate the book's humor--cutting suddenly to black for a few seconds before the next scene only places emphasis on the absurd ends at which the last scene had arrived. I awaited with great curiosity what kind of ending Haneke would give this endless work, but instead of attempting to draw conclusions where none can be drawn, Haneke presents the ending as Kafka wrote it: an abandoned sentence, as Kafka gave in to fatigue and left the manuscript as it was. While the film threatens to fatigue the viewer, those attuned to its perverse satire will appreciate just how unique The Castle is. A piece of broken literature can become one-of-a-kind cinema.

Cumartesi, Mart 08, 2008

The Burglar

The Burglar (U.S., 1957) * * *
D: Paul Wendkos

The UW Cinematheque is screening recent Columbia Pictures restorations throughout the spring semester, and the series launched last night with an overlooked late film noir from the director of Gidget, of all people. While the screening had some sound issues in the last half of the film, the picture itself was gorgeous: just about the only clue that the opening newsreel was not real but a part of the film itself was the fact that it looked so crisp and clean. It's a wry opening, with factoids about "belles lifting barbells" "every hour to keep that hourglass shape," eventually settling on an occult spiritualist and her obscene wealth--a great mansion, a big pool, and an emerald necklace which--as the camera pans back out of the newsreel into the theater--catches the eye of Nathaniel (character actor Dan Duryea), a professional burglar. As he exits the theater, and lets his gravelly face tower above the camera, we're treated to the kind of jazzy opening credits sequence that was the hallmark of a lot of great noirs. If the opening reminds one of Orson Welles (the use of newsreel harkens back to Citizen Kane), so does The Burglar's punchy editing, overheated character acting, and inventive camera angles (one humorous shot depicts the discovery of the missing loot from the point of view of the open safe); even the climax pays homage to The Lady from Shanghai, although that might have been a rote requirement for the genre at this point. The plot is almost unusually untangled, barring one effective twist halfway through. Nat decides to steal the emerald necklace, so he enlists girlfriend Gladden (Jayne Mansfield, surprisingly good) to befriend the lonely woman and scope the joint out. She discovers where the safe is located--it's never explained how, thanks to an effective, forward-jumping cut which takes us from the Gladden the old woman perceived (down-on-her-luck, humble) to the Gladden Nat knows (a cynical, sultry thief). We're also introduced to his other partners: a nervous wreck intent on getting to Central America, and a thug who can't respect Gladden's personal space. During the robbery itself, the police discover the burglars' car parked near the mansion; Nat seemingly talks his way out of their suspicions, but after the robbery, this encounter gives the police a sketch artist's profile of the prime suspect. The tension builds as Nat tries to convince his partners to stay holed-up, to contact no one, and to hold onto the necklace for just a little while longer until the heat dies down--but meanwhile, he's forced to get Gladden out of the picture, which begins a chain reaction that leads to double-crosses and violence.

Like most noirs, The Burglar is downbeat and pessimistic, with a protagonist whose struggle to juggle oncoming crises ultimately leads to catastrophe and murder. Duryea is excellent at invoking the audience's sympathy while events spin out of his control; good enough, in fact, that the screenplay (by acclaimed noir writer David Goodis, adapting his own novel) should not have needed to laboriously explain his backstory, which involves being trained, as a child, by a professional burglar who steals to put food on the table, and whose death might be Nat's fault. (This flashback is literally fog-enshrouded, to the point of cliché, though for genre aficionados that's part of the fun.) Mansfield, who only has one scene in a swimsuit (and it's a yowza!), is impressively understated, serving this gloomy picture well, and off-setting the delirious presentations of her on-screen colleagues. It's a satisfying little picture, doing nothing extraordinary but everything just right. There's a brutality to the ending which noirs of the 40's couldn't have gotten away with--I'm thinking specifically of the number of gunshots seen and heard--and its leanness anticipates the best French noirs. One expects an excellent DVD release in the near future.

Cumartesi, Mart 01, 2008

Southland Tales

Southland Tales (U.S., 2007) *
D: Richard Kelly

The cliché is that it takes great talent to make a truly terrible movie. Lots of notable directors have overambitious, hubristic disasters in their resumés. Otto Preminger's Skidoo. Barry Levinson's Toys. David O. Russell's I Heart Huckabees. Hell, even John Huston contributed to 1967's leadenly unfunny James Bond parody Casino Royale. But as this blog has past attested, I am a Mystery Science Theater 3000 fan, and those films have nothing on the works of Coleman Francis and Ed Wood. Sometimes bad is just bad. The big tragedy of Southland Tales, the sophomore film of Donnie Darko director Richard Kelly, is that it's so bad that it makes you wonder if it's in the Preminger category or the Francis one. I liked Donnie Darko. After Southland Tales, I'm so disappointed that I'm not sure I want to hear anything more Kelly has to say.

The convoluted, multi-threaded storyline has an Altmanesque ensemble of celebrities and quasi-celebrities cast as various eccentrics. Dwayne Johnson, aka "The Rock," plays Boxer Santaros, a Schwarzenegger-like movie star with political ties; at the outset of the movie, he has been found wandering the desert with little memory of his past. He falls in with Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), a pornstar attempting to build a media empire around her name; she is secretly in league with a group of revolutionary Marxists who have a complex extortionist scheme involving both Santaros and Roland Taverner (Seann William Scott), who has a mysterious double. There's also corrupt Senator Bobby Frost (Holmes Obsorne); his wife, Nana Mae (Miranda Richardson), who runs a government system (provided for by the Patriot Act) that monitors all citizens - even when they use the toilet; their daughter - and Santaros' wife - Madeline (Mandy Moore); Baron Von Westphalen (Wallace Shawn), the mastermind behind an alternative energy source which uses tidal energy to manipulate objects from afar; and a soldier (Justin Timberlake), narrating the film, watching the action from a gun turrett high on a building overlooking the Pacific Ocean, himself addicted to a drug made from the same substance that powers the Baron's energy source. There's also a metaphysical mystery, a la Donnie Darko's, centering around a dead body found in the desert - a man Santaros may have killed - and of course Taverner's strange doppelgänger and three mysterious women who may be - no, are - harbingers of the Apocalypse. The story is hard to follow not because it's overly complex, but because we don't care about any of the characters, therefore we have no emotional investment in the plot. A lot of things happen in this movie, but it's not until the very last stretch, when the metaphysical cord of the mystery begins to unravel, that we muster a vestige of interest. Or not, because we left the theater two hours ago.

It might just be that I have little patience for writing that's both terrible and self-satisfied, and Southland Tales is full of it. The characters all speak in non-sequiturs, as though Kelly is certain that his film will be such a cult classic that these pieces of dialogue will one day adorn tee-shirts and coffee mugs. But the "satirical" dialogue is almost never funny, because Kelly does not, apparently, know how to write comedy, let alone direct it. Casting familiar faces from Saturday Night Live (Nora Dunn, Amy Poehler, Cheri Oteri) does not automatically mean that the stilted lines they're given to deliver will be hilarious. The extended scenes in the secret Marxist compound are truly gruelling, as these comediennes - who can be very funny, given the right material - scream their dialogue and belabor ill-conceived gags, while taking the viewer along subplots that don't mean much to the bigger picture. Kelly wants to make an all-encompassing satire about American society. He wants to attack the Bush administration, the war on terror, the war in Iraq. He wants to show how we've all become "pimps" as our culture degenerates into the oversexed and overcrass. He namechecks the Pixies ("Wave of Mutiliation" is sung, and also becomes the title of the last "chapter" of the film) and a Philip K. Dick novel (Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, which I recommend reading instead of seeing this film). Like Terry Gilliam's Brazil, he layers this alternate reality with slogans, posters, and traces of backstory that suggest a fictional world that extends beyond the boundaries of the film, but to no effect, because the mythology of Southland Tales isn't particularly intriguing. (A comic book written by Kelly preceded the release of the film, and provides the opening chapters to this story which begins in media res.) That's at least partly an issue of timing: his political jibes seem obvious today, and would have seemed more relevant and daring four years ago.

To Kelly's credit, his film first opened at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, with a running time closer to three hours. Reviews were disastrous, although Film Comment was kind, favorably comparing his film to David Lynch's Inland Empire. Hoping to gain wider distribution, Kelly spent almost two years re-editing and reshaping his film, as well as adding more special effects, as he did for the director's cut of Donnie Darko. I can only guess that much of the narration and exposition in this final cut of Southland Tales was added over those two years, and although it helpfully fills out the backstory and fills in the more incoherent aspects of the plot, it also overcompensates by providing too much explanation. The effect is like reading an ambitious science fiction novella written by a creative writing student while he simultaneously shouts his themes and intentions into your ear. You can also feel that the film is missing whole chunks of its story, in particular much of Timberlake's character and the subplot involving drug addiction; Kelly seems to be going somewhere with the idea of the Baron's alternative fuel source being used to control the minds of drug-abusing soldiers, but then drops that plot in the rush to the climax. I also glimpsed Janeane Garofalo dancing with Timberlake at the end of the film: IMDB confirms her presence as "General Teena MacArthur," so presumably the rest of her material is on the cutting room floor. Do we have to wait for another "director's cut"? I'd rather not.

This film was released in U.S. theaters, after that long delay, in November of 2007. It finally appeared in Madison this weekend - February 29, 2008 (Kelly might appreciate his film's opening on a day that only occurs once every four years). If it seems unusual that Southland Tales materializes in my local theater only a few weeks before its scheduled DVD release date (March 18), chalk that up to the desperate straits that the theater, Westgate Cinemas, has found itself. It was once the premier art house theater serving Madison, but since Robert Redford opened his better-in-every-way Sundance Cinemas just down the road, Westgate has been scrambling to retain its audiences. For about a month or so they scheduled touring stand-up comics, and they began serving alcohol. Now Westgate shows older films like Goodfellas in addition to some of the less-popular art house films (i.e., those Sundance lets them have). My wife and I hadn't been to Westgate in a long while, and were shocked to find it deserted on a Friday night. She bought a beer from the concession stand, and was given a wristband to wear: "You can take it off when you're done with your beer." To approach the theater showing Southland Tales--the main auditorium--we had to pass beneath a ceiling leaking water. As soon as we sat down, even though we were ten minutes early, the projectionist immediately dimmed the lights and started the film. Although this was opening night, his instinct was correct; no one else showed up. The odd result is that I felt that I was "bearing witness" to Southland Tales. I had to be there to prove that it happened. That we had gone at all was my wife's idea; she wanted to be able to tell people that we saw it on the big screen. I'm not sure that I'll be bragging about that anytime soon. I was hoping Southland Tales would be a forgotten classic, the sort of film that critics dismiss now but is revived in reputation years down the road. Instead this is something more akin to the misfires directed by Robert Altman: the chaotic Brewster McCloud, the turgid Quintet. If Kelly goes on to better things (he has another film, The Box, opening later this year), then Southland Tales will get periodically re-evaluated. I would suggest, with heavy heart, that it's not worth the effort. The film is excruciating. You've been warned.