Pazar, Haziran 22, 2008

Morvern Callar

Morvern Callar (U.K., 2002) * * * 1/2
D: Lynne Ramsay

Lynne Ramsay's Morvern Callar is, above all else, valuable for being an experiential film, a film of sensations. The plot is quite beside the point--which will be trying for some. But it seeks to place you in the shoes of its title protagonist (the always-great Samantha Morton), who witnesses the world through headphones--drowning out the world around her--and even when she removes them, she seems to still be listening, waiting for the world to transform into something other than ordinary.

As the film opens, to a strobe effect which will be echoed several times in the film--here created by flickering Christmas tree lights in a dark room--we see a half-naked man sprawled upon the floor, and then Morvern, stroking his arm, and stroking the blood at his wrist. This is how she's found her boyfriend, but he's left her presents, including a mixtape (shades of Radio On) and a novel he's just completed, which he asks to be sent to a publisher. The man sounds insufferable, but luckily for us it is not his movie. Morvern does not call the cops, but lets the body sit for days while she contemplates what to do; she hits the town with her best friend Lanna (Kathleen McDermott) in what is, for them, a typically decadent night, dancing, tripping, making out. They're Scottish; they work in a supermarket; their idea of ambition is to travel to Spain to hang out at a hotel for spring break debauchery, picking up guys and taking shots. But an idea has struck Morvern, and she decides to take her dead boyfriend's suicide letter literally--he has written "For Morvern"--so she changes the byline to her own name before submitting it to a publisher. To her surprise, the publisher shows interest, and now she has to meet up with them so they can make their offer. In Spain, she wanders the hotel, at one point hooking up for anonymous sex, but for her own reasons: to comfort a grieving man. (The parallel scene occurs near the beginning of the film, when she picks up a ringing payphone at the train station and offers open comfort to the distraught somebody on the other end.) She urges Lanna away from the parties of the pool resort to see the real Spain, which goes better for Morvern than it does for Lanna.

Morvern remains fascinating throughout, because while she is not the artist that her boyfriend was--and therefore has a difficult time fooling the overeager publishers--she yearns to express herself in some fashion, if only she had the means. Woody Allen once nailed the idea in his Bergmanesque drama Interiors: "What happens to those of us who can't create?" All poor Morvern can do is wander with her headphones, feeling something in the mixtape that makes her yearn for more than she has. But her inspirations are morbid: taking credit for the manuscript, disposing of her boyfriend's body (she buries the pieces on a hill using a garden spade), ditching her friend in the Spanish wilderness. You don't exactly root for Morvern; you wonder at her. She carries the movie with her unpredictability. And yet she is not the typical, boring surrogate for the sensitive screenwriter: she is a party girl, prone to fits of giggling at inappropriate moments, restlessly immature, and really unable to understand that pull she feels toward expanding her life into something other than working by day and partying by night. What is most refreshing about Morvern Callar is that I'm not sure I've seen this character in a film before.

It's based on a novel by Alan Warner, but the film is directed by Ramsey, a woman (who also made another cult film, Ratcatcher), and written by Ramsey and Liana Dognini. It has a woman's eye, a woman's gaze; the female nudity (abundant) is not eroticized but feels raw and natural. It is voyeuristic only in the sense that one feels, as one does throughout the film, a sense of discomfort, of prying into someone else's life. The film seems remarkably real, in much the way of another recent (and raw) Scottish film, Red Road. But it also has a lightness, matched by the disorienting soundtrack selections (often at a sharp angle from what is happening on-screen); a dreamlike quality, and a sense that anything can happen because the standard rules don't seem to be applying.

Frequently the soundtrack songs drop out, essentially moving from what Morvern hears (enveloping beats and melodies that push out all ambient sounds) to what someone else would hear--tinny, muted noises. It's the most critical contrast Ramsey provides for the world that Morvern sees and a starkly different "reality." But when you're caught in that misguided swoon of Morvern's, the film is strangely transporting, like jumping off a building--the thrill of feeling the wind against your skin just before the inevitable crash.

Pazartesi, Haziran 16, 2008

The Desert of the Tartars

The Desert of the Tartars (Italy, 1976) * * *
D: Valerio Zurlini

The young, handsome Drogo (Jacques Perrin), having just enlisted in the military, is assigned as a lieutenant at the distant outpost of Bastiani, which lies between a vast, empty desert and high, snow-capped mountains. This ancient fort's purpose is to mark a territorial border, but the enemy, the "North Kingdom," is almost forgotten, so quiet has this war become. As time passes and he gains stature within the ranks of the garrison, he learns of the subtle frictions between the officers, as well as the suicidal despair of the soldiers who serve under them, waiting constantly for a conflict that never happens. Yet there does seem to be something brewing out upon the desert horizon: Captain Hortiz (Max Von Sydow) claims to have once seen figures riding white horses--Tartar horses--though he is reluctant to speak of it now; soon Drogo and his companions sight a white, riderless horse trotting just beyond the border, and heated discussion arises as to whether or not they should go over the border (forbidden) to seize the horse, and whether or not it actually belongs to the enemy at all. If that enemy even exists.

Time passes, Drogo grows older, and his discreet attempts to find another station somewhere else are denied. The bureaucracy of the garrison leads to stupid, sometimes disastrous decisions: when one soldier doesn't know the password to gain re-admittance to the fort, he is shot down--as though he might be the enemy even though they can easily recognize that he isn't. Rumors of a possible Tartar invasion increase, as evidence mounts that the enemy is on the move; yet, somehow, it is justified to reduce the population of the fort and weaken it. The absurdities might sound like something out of Catch-22, but Valerio Zurlini's The Desert of the Tartars, based on the novel by Dino Buzzati (published in English as The Tartar Steppe), is more somber, with a premise, bordering on the allegorical, that calls to mind Kafka. As in Kafka's stories and novels, all actions lead to futility and frustration, with utter catastrophe constantly on the horizon.

Zurlini's film--his last--is beautifully photographed, with fine (if deliberately muted) acting, and an austere, slightly removed quality that calls to mind Visconti (in particular The Leopard and Senso) and Bertolucci (in particular The Conformist). It is austere, however, to a fault. While Zurlini might be serving the novel with the greatest respect, and certainly gets across the erosion of time (the film is 140 minutes) as well as the unidentifiable dread of the story's premise, the film could only be helped by a little auteurist kick in the pants. Imagine what Bunuel could have done with the material (never find the fetishes he would have imposed). Or Herzog (who probably would have hypnotized his cast). The problem with the film is that it hasn't the guts to push the film into the territory of real greatness--to lull the audience into the trance that the story requires and then really show them something, take them someplace. A little humor wouldn't hurt, either.

Yet the journey is worthwhile, and there are a few moments within the film that are stunningly imagined. When Drogo first arrives at Bastiani, riding alone on horseback, the camera pans slowly across the deserted, ancient fortress, which appears to be abandoned. He finds bayonets stuck into the ground, but no soldiers, all while the tower of the fortress looks magnificently, ominously down upon him from the background. Much is made of what can be seen from the tower through binoculars--the strange evidence of the unseen enemy--and Zurlini effectively puts across the idea that to look through them is to confront one's fears and paranoias. When Drogo, late in the film, collapses in a faint when he attempts to look through his pair, it is perhaps the most strange and shocking moment in the picture.

If the film were a bit more strange, a bit more shocking, it may have been better remembered, these three decades later. As it is, The Desert of the Tartars is an interesting, literary, and occasionally fascinating film; it has a peerless, professional sheen. Perhaps a little smudge here and there could have made it a masterpiece. Sometimes a director needs to get his hands dirty.

Salı, Haziran 10, 2008

The White Hell of Pitz Palu

The White Hell of Pitz Palu (Germany, 1929) * * *
D: Arnold Fanck and G.W. Pabst

Long before she directed Triumph of the Will and became the most notorious propagandist director of all time, Leni Riefenstahl was an athletic, daredevil actress, who starred in a string of "mountain" pictures which took advantage of the natural beauty of remote alpine locations, as well as Leni's own statuesque glamor. Many of these were directed by Arnold Fanck (G.W. Pabst, director of Pandora's Box, co-directs), who had an eye for the spectacular, almost alien landscapes of high climes. He also knew his way around an action scene. Early in The White Hell of Pitz Palu, Dr. Krafft (Gustav Diessl, also in Fritz Lang's wondrous Testament of Dr. Mabuse) is accompanying his wife and their friend on a trek across the cliffs of the sinister Piz Palü glacier; his wife, alas, plummets down a dark crevasse, too deep for a rescue. Now she is frozen for eternity within its hellish depths, as Dr. Krafft later forlornly tells engaged couple Maria (Riefenstahl) and Hans (Ernst Petersen), who are vacationing off the glacier. Time for another trek, of course, which leads to another, greater catastrophe: a group of young students are swept by an avalanche en masse down steep cliffs and into hidden crevasses and caves, and Krafft, Maria, and Hans become stranded, exposed to the elements, unable to scale their way to safety. The plot--of disasters, search parties, and rescue attempts--is nothing more than an excuse for Fanck's delirious stunt sequences and powerful editing. The action scenes are almost abstract, carefully plotted and edited swiftly, just like Psycho's shower scene. I highly recommend renting Kino's DVD and keeping your finger on the pause button, deconstructing frame by frame how Fanck constructs each shot (i.e. man's coat is splashed with snow, shocked heads with wide mouths whirl as the camera spins upside-down, a dummy is shoved over a ravine, etc.), and then play it back at standard speed to see how the images become almost impressionistic, forming the idea of the event rather than a coherent depiction of what has just happened. For 1929, it's astonishingly innovative, and one can almost imagine that Fanck has laid the groundwork for later blockbuster action films such as Raiders of the Lost Ark, with their carefully storyboarded action setpieces. Fanck also deserves applause for simply having the gall to film on the locations he's chosen; in a 20's silent film, particularly one of German vintage, one might expect lots of expressionistic sets and makeup. Fanck is the antidote to that approach: he strives for realism, filming on location and in deep ice caverns with cascading layers of cannot-be-faked stalactites, perching his actors (and actress) on the edges of the slopes with mountain vistas behind them. This is not to say that some sets are used, and plenty of special effects applied, but a veracity is achieved--what Werner Herzog calls the "voodoo of location"--which transports the viewer inside the cinematic space. Yet these secret mountain caverns can look just as otherworldly as anything in a film by Murnau or Lang, and Fanck knows it. In the most memorable scene, when dozens of members of a rescue team penetrate a labyrinthine ice cave, each holding a flare with an eerie glow, all scattered throughout the frame to fill it completely, the fires illuminating the many frozen bodies of the dead students, Fanck indulges in superimposing a title-card: "Inferno!" It's the one moment when Fanck is willing to cop to the visual poetry he's achieved.

Pazar, Haziran 08, 2008

Red Desert

Red Desert (Italy, 1965) * * * *
D: Michelangelo Antonioni

If there is fault to be found in Antonioni's 1965 Red Desert, it is not within the borders of the film's frames: Antonioni is, at this stage of his career, such an impeccable artist that there is not a single moment of the film which could not provoke a healthy paper from a thoughtful film student. Red Desert is a magnificent meditation on human alienation, thoroughly schematized, yet open to enigmatic possibilities as Antonioni lets his camera wander across these bizarre industrial landscapes (visually, it is almost a science fiction film). The only fair criticism might be that Antonioni had already done this many times before, and that the reason he's so good at it by 1965 is that he's just very well practiced on the subject matter. And yet, you wouldn't criticize Hitchcock for making a "wrong man" film--you'd pop one in the DVD player when you're in the mood to watch the best of wrong man films. If you're hankering for a slowly-paced, gorgeously-shot, meditative film about upper-class existential angst, may I recommend L'Eclisse, La Notte, L'Avventura, or Il Deserto Rosso, all representing the cream of the crop, and all by Antonioni?

Monica Vitti again stars, here cast as the wife to the manager of a factory, whose plant is suffering under the impact of a worker's strike. She has just been involved in a terrible car accident, and although she's physically recovered, she is, as her husband complains, not quite right. In fact, she's crippled by neuroses, almost schizophrenic, as she literally cringes and recoils at the oppressive, rusting, decayed, and polluted world around her, which Antonioni frames so that it visually presses in on her from all sides. In his films, empty space carries as much weight as heavy concrete. She ponders opening a ceramics shop, and explains to an only slightly less disaffected engineer (Richard Harris) that she must choose just the right color for the shop--something "neutral," she says, as she shows him the paint samples she's splashed on the wall. Of course, her world is filled with neutral colors--browns and grays, primarily--and so whenever Antonioni introduces a splash of bright red, or a delirious purple, a flag should be raised in the viewer's mind. But the reddest room, low-ceilinged, hidden in the back of a shack sitting on a foggy pier, is gaudy and almost shameful, and it's where Vitti, her husband, and their friends gather for a debauched party that sits temptingly on the verge of an all-out orgy. This kind of debauchery has been chronicled in Italian 60's cinema before, most notably in Fellini's La Dolce Vita, but the way Antonioni treats it is telling. The couples find the encounter rife with sexy possibilities, but Antonioni doesn't: he's noticing how gaudily the paint is splashed on these rotting old planks, how Vitti and Harris have a slightly distant, haunted look about them, how the biggest lech in the room is almost reptilian in his movements, and that the cold, bottomless ocean is only just below them; most of all he points out how truly awkward and desperate they seem. When another couple arrives to peer down into the room, the partygoers--either middle-aged or approaching middle-age, and lying on their sides and backs like children in a cramped playroom--seem briefly self-aware, before they try to lure that visiting couple into their lustful self-delusion.

It's delusion in which Antonioni is most interested: his central characters, often played by Vitti, seem to have broken that spell, suddenly facing a universe which is cruel and meaningless, and which no one else can see. That--and the fact that we're all in it alone. The most powerful, almost supernatural image in the film is a vision Vitti has while standing in the foggy harbor with her friends, all of them having just fled the proximity of an arriving ship that's being quarantined: Vitti sees each of her companions slowly absorbed by the mist, one at a time, while they stand, frozen, staring at her. It's one of many iconic images in Antonioni's filmography, but perhaps the closest he comes to actually visualizing that nothingness which is assaulting his characters. But the cruelty can also come from other people. She tries to explain it to Harris: "If you pinch me, only I suffer..." Even her son can be cruel, though indirectly, when he leads his mother to believing, for a day, that he's become paralyzed by polio. When she discovers him standing, perfectly healthy, on top of his bed, she's relieved, overwhelmed with gratitude; and then struck by horror--not just that a trick was played on her, but that her own child could so carelessly thrust her into such an awful alternate reality. It's just another one of her epiphanies, as the film chronicles Vitti's deterioration on the path to a grim "enlightenment."

Antonioni would subsequently challenge himself by taking his approach to different cultures: first to swinging London with Blow-Up, then to American campus radicalism with Zabriskie Point. Red Desert feels like the last film in a series, mastering his themes, or, perhaps, just finally expressing something he'd been trying to get at for the past several films. You might prefer any of those other films (me, I'll take La Notte), but one thing that strikes me about Red Desert is the feeling that the director has finally scratched that itch. He's gotten out what he's been wanting to say, and now he can move on--if only a little bit.

Cumartesi, Haziran 07, 2008

Who Are You, Polly Maggoo?

Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? (France, 1966) * * *
D: William Klein

The ninth box set from the Criterion Collection's Eclipse imprint collects three rare films from the little-known, American-born satirist William Klein: Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? (1966), Mr. Freedom (1969), and The Model Couple (1977). A renowned New York fashion photographer who became an expatriate, Klein's first feature-length film is French, and wholly absorbs swinging 60's Paris; it's a biting but playful critique of the fashion industry and pop culture in general. I couldn't help but be reminded of Richard Lester's imaginative satires, including Help! and How I Won the War. And, like those films, it's impossible to imagine it being produced in any decade but the 60's.

Polly Maggoo (Dorothy MacGowan) is a Parisian cover girl adored worldwide. She is also something of a blank slate, upon which the various characters of the film--including a TV documentarian, a wealthy prince, bumbling secret agents, and haughty fashion designers--project all their ideals, lusts, and fantasies. On top of this threadbare plot (which can be summarized as: "Polly is pursued"), Klein layers witty dialogue, pointed satire, surreal dreams, endless digressions, TV commercials, sloganeering, even cut-out animation, all to demonstrate how Polly the person disappears beneath Polly the idol, a papier-mâché construct whom all the peripheral characters have built in their private fantasies.

At 101 minutes, it's all a little too much, and becomes slightly exhausting after a while. But the film picks up in its final stretch--even as the narrative becomes even more disjointed--with an odd and unexpected finale, followed by one of the funniest ending credit sequences I've seen (with drawings by famed cartoonist Roland Topor). What's most impressive about the film is that it demonstrates Klein to be an instant natural as a filmmaker. With restlessly creative techniques--super-fast editing, crowded and dizzying compositions--he reinvents his film every few minutes. The effect is like reading a glossy pop-art magazine: a little Vogue, a little Mad Magazine, a little New Yorker, with plenty of eye-popping ads.

Most of all, as a freewheeling, madcap 60's satire, Polly Maggoo is endearing for actually being clever and fun--something many of its larger-budgeted rivals (What's New, Pussycat?, Casino Royale) only dreamed of being. But this would make a brilliant double-feature with Godard's equally stylish Masculin-Féminin, a yé-yé girl critique of a (slightly) more serious tone. Have at it.

Love on the Ground

Love on the Ground (France, 1983) * * * *
D: Jacques Rivette

Unable to wait any longer for Criterion or Criterion's Eclipse line to release a Jacques Rivette box set, I went on an import DVD-buying binge recently and ordered from overseas Noroit, Duelle (both 1976), Love on the Ground (1983), and Don't Touch the Axe [aka The Duchess of Langeais] (2007), all films from one of the French New Wave's most underappreciated directors. Rivette is best known for two films, the little-seen but notorious 773-minute film Out 1 (1971), and the elliptical fantasy Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974). Love on the Ground acts as a pseudo-sequel to Celine and Julie, again pairing two female friends, who behave like twins, and thrusting them into a mystery and a haunted house. Only this time those latter elements seem less critical, stylistic dressing that only adds to the playfulness of the tangled narrative.

See if you can follow: Charlotte (Geraldine Chaplin) and Emily (Jane Birkin) are actresses partaking in an experimental theater which takes place in an apartment; the audience becomes voyeurs walking from one room to the next as they follow the action. One of the guests to the performance is a writer, Clement (Jean-Pierre Kalfon), who recognizes that the play is a bastardization of his own work (the man who stole the play, Silvano, is also one of the actors). Rather than taking offense, or suing them, Clement invites the three actors to his secluded estate to act in his own new play, which he would like to produce in a similarly interactive fashion, with his entire mansion becoming the theater. The only other occupants of the home are his servant, Virgil (Laszlo Szabo), who in his spare time is "translating Hamlet into Finnish," and the stage magician Paul (Andre Dussollier). Charlotte, Emily, and Silvano are assigned roles: Silvano is the tempestuous playwright, Emily is "Pierre," and Charlotte is the hotly-desired woman over whom they duel, Barbara. Yet soon it becomes apparent that another artistic theft has taken place. The play is actually closely based on recent events in the life of the magician, Paul, whose ex-lover Beatrice was also pursued by Clement. To complicate matters even further, when Paul takes a lover, that woman has visions which subsequently come true. Emily takes up with Paul, and sees a vision of herself, apparently dead, lying on the floor with blood upon her brow, an unfamiliar woman in a red dress leaning over her. It doesn't help matters that the estate is apparently haunted, or at least has strange properties: a secret, locked room emits strange sounds (jungle wildlife, or waves washing upon a beach), and glimpsing down a dark corridor might suddenly reveal strange sights.

The languidly-paced film (almost all of Rivette's films are paced to mimic the realistic rhythms of everyday life) takes place over the course of a week, as the unlikely troupe rehearses, rewrites, and prepares for the big performance--all while Clement refuses to write the final act, waiting for inspiration to strike. Love affairs begin and end, taking different shapes and interweaving in complicated patterns. Mysteries are launched--(What is Virgil writing? What is in the locked room? What happened to Beatrice? etc.)--and many of them go unanswered. Late in the film, Charlotte says to Emily, "It seems like we've been here forever," and indeed that's the feeling Rivette intends to invoke. He creates a continuum into which the viewer is thrust, and sets cycles spinning kaleidoscopically, so that events seem to recur in different colors, though not exactly in a linear progression. Unlike his more famous contemporaries, Godard and Truffaut, Rivette is not the most stylish or cinematic of directors. There is no score on the soundtrack, and he doesn't want to distract with camera tricks or flashy compositions or editing (although his languorous camera tracking always manages to find the perfect way to frame his cast of characters, theatrically embracing as many bodies in the mise-en-scène as he can). His method, as far as filmmaking goes, is to strip the film down to its barest essentials, while drawing the viewer's attention to the artifice of the production. Perhaps the key visual moments in Love on the Ground are those at the beginning and end of the film, when spectators frame the action at the edges of the screen, leaning around corners and into doorways to watch the players. Rivette is more interested in thematic resonances of a literary level; indeed, his films might be more suited to novel-readers--or to devotees of avant-garde theater--than to film buffs. You need to be able to appreciate that not only are we watching spectators watching a play--but that those characters are in turn based on other characters, who are, in turn, watching themselves represented in the play. It's as though two mirrors have been turned to face each other, forming a reflection that repeats infinitely onward. (Early in the film, someone even comments that Clement's house is like a mirror, shortly before Charlotte sees an alternate-reality version of herself reflected down a hallway.)

Love on the Ground is currently available on a PAL Region 2 DVD from Bluebell Films, with English subtitles. It is advertised as the "newly restored and remastered director's cut." It did seem to feature scenes that I didn't recall from a Rivette revival at the University of Wisconsin's Cinematheque a couple years ago, although the IMDB implies that the "cut" version is 125 minutes, and I'm pretty sure that the print I watched was closer to 2 1/2 hours. At any rate, the DVD is the full 169-minute version. There are no extras--not even a chapter menu--and the picture quality is adequate, though much better than the pink-hued old print I'd watched. I recommend it highly as one of Rivette's most elaborately-constructed, intellectually entertaining puzzle-boxes.