Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Barry Lyndon

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What can you say about Redmond Barry that hasn’t already been said by Sean Hannity or Larry Flynt? A lot, probably. Stanley Kubric’s formalistic foray into the powdered-wig-and-tights drama meanders along, pleasant and slow and stately. Stan isn’t interested in the wigs, though. Stan likes to look at the steel behind the velvet, the tongue sharp as a sword or blunt as cannon shot, the crushing power of money and privilege, the stabbing strength of man’s inhumanity to man. You know, the usual. The thing that stands out is how ironically pretty Kubric makes everything – every shot has the palette and composition of a renaissance painting.

The story itself is more problematic. We follow the life of Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal) as he falls in love, fights in a duel, gets robbed, joins the army, winds up in another army, finds himself in Prussia, and becomes a gambling aide and enforcer to a one-eyed diplomat and card sharp. And then the plot starts. This is storytelling in the grand old episodic tradition of classical novels (of which Barry Lyndon is one), when authors were paid by the word and ate pigeons raw, without ketchup. Yessir, no introspective navel gazing here - in those days fictional characters went places and did things, a lot.

The pacing is funereal for such a nimble film, and the measured tempo of the ever-present music serves both to underscore that pacing and as the film’s slyest joke on so-called ‘civilization’ – even war is a polite and stately event, even murder has its protocol. A grotesque crime committed in secret is more excusable than the less ugly outburst made in public.

Not all of these episodes hold together cohesively, but the audience can take these scenes and cobble together an effective portrait of Barry as an opportunist and social climber made absolutely unscrupulous in his desire for more and more wealth and rank and privilege (it is not an accident that this story takes its name not from Barry’s given name but the one he assumes through his striving). As we follow Barry from callow youth (in early scenes he comes across like a human golden retriever, but this is Ryan O’Neal, so perhaps I am being redundant) to full blown schemer and golden-haired money-hog, Kubric contrasts his subject to the nobility he so fervently wishes to join.

Kubric’s point is clear – as useless a human being as Redmond Barry may be, these blue-bloods are even worse. At two key scenes – both duels – Barry proves he is the braver and more honorable man, and after each he finds his prospects are diminished in spite of this. Greed is the soul of the human element, Kubric seems to be saying, and ‘civilization’ is no more than the wall that the ‘haves’ built to keep out the ‘have-nots’.

But this is hardly a new lesson, nor is it ultimately a productive one, especially since our sympathies have nowhere to light except, finally, on Redmond, who is sympathetic almost by default. Perhaps humankind has a depressing capacity for duplicity, greed, and arrogance, but one would do well when making this point to allow the audience some better shelter. When Ryan O’Neal represents the best humanity has to offer, we’ve come to a dark place indeed.

Those painterly compositions are masterful, though. They, along with the score, slow and haunting, are what you’ll take away. That and a serious butt-kicking that Barry lays down somewhere past hour two.

Also, for what it's worth, Barry Lyndon has probably the greatest duel scene ever. Check it out [Big Time Spoilers].

ETA: Yeah, I know, this is written much more like a three star review than a four, but this movie just keeps resonating. It's grown in my mind since the initial viewing, hence all the stars up there.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

400 Blows, The

The 400 Blows is a hummingbird film, tiny and feather-light, capable of beating its wings a thousand times a minute, gravity-defying. Nectar its only food, its bright feathers shimmer metallic in the sun. It is also an owl film, solemn, unblinking and brooding, hooting stern nocturnal inquisitives, fully capable of 360° swivels of its ruffled head. It isn’t until you are done with it, lulled by its charmed insignificance, that rough significance clasps you in its claws

But never mind that. Here we trod a path well-trod, pondering Truffaut’s first masterpiece, one of the opening salvos of the French New-Wave. It’s in the canon. The film-school thesii which have been written upon it are legion – they have been shot down by sneering professors like buffalo from railroad cars – so rather than try to take it apart and see what the organs look like, mayhap it would be wise for me to simply admit that when it comes to Truffaut in particular, and the French New-Wave in general, I could not be more gravid with ignorance. This is my initiation into that particular movement in film history. Clearly, I'm lacking. Get me a striped shirt and a beret, pronto – and coffee, black. Pronto, garcon, pronto! Show some hustle.

Anyway, going in, I had no idea what to expect. Boxing movie? Puppet-porn? Black-and-white still-shots commenting on the commentary of commentators, mad dadaists deconstructing deconstruction itself until even Derrida yells ‘uncle’? Beats me, brother. I just planned to sit on the bean-bag chair and take it all in.

This, it turns out, is the story of a childhood, which is to say that it is a comedy about inhumanity. The childhood in question belongs to Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), a good kid in a bad place. It is the adults in his life who have made the place bad, and it is they who pervert their own estimation of him, making him out to be a bad kid in a good place. His mother (Claire Maurier) couldn care less about either him or his father (Albert Rémy), whose own deep disinterest in the boy can, at first, be mistaken for kindness. His teacher employs rigid mental contortions, the better to see all the boys, and Antoine in particular, in the worst light possible. Our lad is a scamp, sure, but these adults never give him a shot. They throw the boy into mud and then damn him for the footprints he tracks onto their carpet.

The title in the original French (Les Quatre Cents Coups) is a French idiom for “raising hell” (or so the internet tells me). What’s surprising, or perhaps telling, then, is how little hell gets raised. Antoine’s disobediences – cutting class, running away from home, petty theft – are pretty tame, a reaction against the conditions in which he is raised, not a condition of his moral decay. He pays the penalty for crimes committed by the whole classroom. A supposed instance of plagiarism stems from his love of Balzac, not from laziness. He gets in the most trouble not for theft of an object, but in a foolhardy attempt to return it. He makes poor decisions. He has bad luck. He is a fourteen-year old boy, in other words.

None of this is as fraught as it seems while you watch it. The arc is not immediately evident; this seems like a casual series of events, not a cause-and-effect storyline. The film has plenty of humor, most of which stems from our recognition of the hypocrisy of the adult world and our identification with the rebellion of the youthful sphere, particularly in a passage with a gym instructor and his rapidly diminishing line of students. Léaud gives an amazing performance, one of the most natural by a child actor that I’ve seen (up there with Christian Bale in Empire of the Sun and Haley J. Osment in A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, and, of course, the immortal body of work left for us by the late, great Macauley) , and Truffaut’s camera is happy to simply watch it, loping along with Antoine as he runs down a country road, or peeking down an alley while he drinks stolen milk. When, near the end of the film. Antoine’s mother gives us a piece of crucial information, one that makes us reassess most of the main relationships, it comes as an off-hand aside. Truffaut rewards attention spans with generous detail of character.

Yet at times he seems to be cheating with his horrid, horrid, all-too-horrid adults. My shady sources inform me that Antoine’s life roughly parallels that of a young Truffaut, and the film has a teenager’s ruffled sense of personal outrage, an bruised adolescent cataloging all the wrongs done, real and imagined. But the final images, including the celebrated closing shot, will haunt you – they force confrontation with our own misgivings regarding our hero’s final fate.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Greatness of The Coen Brothers

There aren't many directors with the stable of great movies and great moments as Joel and Ethan Cohen. The depth and range of their ability and their tone is astonishing; they can shift from broad comedy to horror effortlessly and sometimes within the same movie. Whatever you may think of No Country For Old Men (and I thought it was pretty good, though I'm not sure their stab at profundity worked at the end), for which they just picked up the big Oscars, you've got to say that the recognition was overdue.

I dare you to watch the clip and not want to watch every one of their movies. It's a murderer's row of classics, and even the failures are interesting failures.


Wednesday, May 7, 2008


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The dancing chicken. I'm truly unsure what exactly to make of that dancing chicken. It just kicks up its heels and shakes its groove-thing for a quarter. Acclaimed German director Werner Herzog (Aguirre: The Wrath of God) moves his cameras and mikes from Europe to Wisconsin, and the result is something strange for U.S. eyes – a near-cinema verite that looks at America with decidedly continental eyes. This is a German film that happens to take place largely in Wisconsin – and it is Wisconsin you're seeing; you're just seeing it from a different perspective. The perspective is that of the outsider, the foreigner, the one who speaks no English. Somehow, through Herzog's lens, what is familiar takes on an alien tincture, and the heartland glows just as oddly (if somewhat more kindly) as it does in David Lynch's corn-fed fever dreams.

Stroszek does not follow any kind of traditional character arc. Bruno Stroszek (Bruno S.), a just-released convict of limited means and a dogged romanticism, joins up with Eva (Eva Mattes), a pragmatic hooker who has just been given the boot by her abusive pimps. Along for the ride is his elderly neighbor, an amateur scientist and talented pianist. Finding life in Berlin unsatisfactory, these three disparate desperates pack up and head to the land of cheese, where they have heard there are opportunities, jobs. But Bruno has more in the way of empathy than he has in the way of brains, and his hard lessons in misplaced trust and the importance of paying bills are learned slowly, not in the manner of a series of plot events, but rather at the languid pace of real life; and, as it unfolds, it shapes itself not into tragedy, but rather into deep sadness. Bruno's tale is not one of learning or of self-discovery; rather, it is the story of a man whose failure seems fated, no matter the geography.

I'm playing pretty free-and-loose with divulging the details of what happens, but that's because this movie is spoil-proof. There are few films in which I've been less sure of what's coming next. The film's pace and naturalism – the characters are mainly played by non-actors, and Bruno S. is in many ways playing himself – do allow for some lags and gaps in pacing, but also make way for beautiful and surprising moments. Bruno plays a song of love to his new lady on his accordion. A robbery so botched that it becomes the film's biggest joke. A group goes hunting over a frozen pond with a metal detector for a murdered body. That final line of dialogue, spoken in English, so matter-of-fact that you have to rewind to be sure you heard the guy right.

This film is not anti-American, though the concept of the 'American Dream' is exposed for the fool's gold it is. But that's been done into the ground, and anyway Herzog is after something more - and more subtle - than that. In any event, America actually comes out well when compared to Germany. The life in Berlin is shown to be harsher than the life in Wisconsin (the people in the U.S., at least, are less vicious), and Bruno's failure is in great part his own fault. He believes in love that isn't there, he makes no attempt to learn the rules or language of his new society, he seems incapable of tending for his needs. Perhaps Stroszek is about the failure of all civilizations to find a place for the people who live on the margin. Or perhaps, even, about how society as a matter of course must form margins and people to live in them (I think it is no accident that a Native American is a presence in the Wisconsin scenes) Perhaps Herzog wishes to compare the Dream of wealth with the Dream of love, and the disappointments that can arise with both. And still, that crazy chicken dances through it, a thematic thread, a creature willing to make a robot out of itself for two bits.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Gangs Of New York

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This is about as flawed as a film can be and still work; nevertheless, there are great big hunks of brilliance caught in its teeth. Gangs of New York earns its marks from the sheer force of director Martin Scorsese's vision, a fully realized 19th century New York, and by way of a stunning performance from Daniel Day Lewis as glass-eye tapping, 'Nativist' gang lord Bill "the Bucher" Cutting (think Robert De Niro after a heroic dose of hallucinogens). The city and the butcher are both supreme cinematic achievements, both constructed of such intense and bizarre strokes of inspiration that they would be laughable were they not essayed to the screen with intelligence and confidence. As it is, both director and actor wave their freak flags with authority and menace, the very strangeness of their choices lending them unassailable believability. They are simply too utterly themselves to be false.

But the story. Ah, if only . . .

If the story wasn't pure amateur hour, this could actually have been the career-definer that everybody was (perhaps unrealistically) expecting from Scorsese. But instead of using the city as a setting for the kind of the character-driven study that marks most of Scorsese's most revered work (Goodfellas, Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, for example), Gangs shoehorns all of its strengths into a tired revenge fantasy quest cum romance plot recycled from much lazier films than this one.

Here's the rhubarb: Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio in a sad little goatee and mullet) is out to revenge himself on Bill The Butcher, because Bill killed Amsterdam's father, Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson). In a thrilling opening sequence, the jingoist Nativists, led by Bill, face off against Vallon's Dead Rabbits, an Irish immigrant gang, for control of the Five Points neighborhood. When the battle is done, the Rabbits are crushed, Priest is dead, and Bill is the undisputed lord of the neighborhood. The battle (preamble included) is one of the most indelible moments in film this year, an extraordinary combination of beauty and violence, and as the camera moves back into God's-eye view, the snow goes from white to pink. We see New York of 150 years ago spread out before us, and it is like looking at pictures of your parents as teenagers - simultaneously familiar and alien. The film spends the rest of its running time trying to once again capture this transcendence and energy, this sense of the ongoing "wow!"

Whenever it comes close, however, we find ourselves pulled back into Amsterdam's mission for retribution. Making this film about Amsterdam is like going to Disney World for the lines. We know that by the end we will have a showdown, and this knowledge completely undercuts any possible suspense. Frankly, I couldn't have cared less whether Amsterdam failed or succeeded or dropped out of the picture entirely. I certainly didn't care if he ended up with pickpocket Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz, in a pointless and thankless role). DiCaprio is typically a fine actor, but he is given nothing much in the way of character, and therefore is mercilessly blown off the screen by Day Lewis - the idea that Amsterdam would be a match for Bill in a fight is just laughable. I suspect the reason that Scorsese renders Amsterdam as nothing but a cipher is because he himself has no interest in the story that the character represents - perhaps a plot with more recognizable Hollywood elements was necessary to secure Hollywood money for such an ambitious effort. According to interviews I've read, it was historical fact that attracted the director to the material in the first place (the Butcher was a historical figure, and his namesake in Gangs is a composite of several actual gang leaders).

Despite my annoyances, I was never bored. There is much that is fascinating on the periphery, such as an astounding harbor shot, which tracks from Irish getting off the boat to the conscription checkpoints where they are signed up, to the Army boat where they are shipped off to fight in the Civil War, and finally to a boat back from the front, unloading row upon row of coffins. In one take, the assembly line of war is contained, and a later image will conflate the history of the country with the history of New York. It is an off-hand rebuke to Bill's anti-immigrant sentiments, and a reminder of the blood that was mixed into the national foundation, as is the pointed sign advertising Bill's gang of third generation residents as "Native Americans" - words that hold a different meaning in this time than they did in that.

Given that Bill is obviously the character the director is actually interested in, I would have liked to see a Gangs of New York devoted to him; his rise to power, the depth of his xenophobia, his odd but unshakeable moral code, I would have liked a further clarifying of the surviving Rabbits, the process by which they compromised their ideals (their corruption is simply assumed here), his politician's compartmentalization that allows him to associate with the very Irish he is sworn to destroy. I would like to understand the meaning behind his cryptic final words.

Instead we have a plot point as a hero, and a visionary misfire. Eventually, the periphery breaks the seams, as the Conscription Riots welter through the town, but by then we have spent too much time watching the wrong people, and the result is mainly confusion. Gangs of New York is still a contender, but it coulda been an all-time champ. I want to give five stars to the half of it that an enduring classic; the rest of it deserves a Bronx Cheer. I'll put the final verdict somewhere between.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Red Shoes, The

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Here's what you ought to know about Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger:

1) They collaborated to make the film Black Narcissus, which of all the films out there not starring Richard Roundtree is the one that most ought to have starred Richard Roundtree. Come on people, now. Get with me on this. Yeah, I know it’s about nuns in the Himalayas. But it’s called Black Narcissus, for Pete’s sake. Put Rich in it. Call George Lucas and splice him in there. Get Isaac Hayes to do a soundtrack.

2) They are beloved by serious film critics and filmmakers, and have influenced the influential - crowd-pleasers like Spielberg, craftsmen like Scorsese. Their contribution to world cinema is writ large.

3) They are responsible for The Red Shoes, a postmodern take on the Hans Christian Anderson fable, a study of the demands of art on the artist, the glory of excellence, and the best cinematic study of theatrical performance I’ve ever seen. This movie is a gem, a stunner. Go find it.

The Red Shoes stresses a heightened reality throughout, reflecting the heightened reality of the live theater, of ballet, of opera. The Technicolor is glorious, a little too glorious to be real – each hue glows as though lit from within. We open without preamble on an audience entering a theater on the opening night of a new ballet. Characters are introduced to us helter-skelter, we are given no clue as to which who might be important and who might be peripheral. We are expected to take what we see and adapt, an apt description of the treatment two young artists will be given when they join the ballet the next morning. They will be invited, but they will not be welcomed until they engrave their own invitation, by proving their worth.

Six young people gather together in the balcony, excited to see the show. Two of them do not know the other four. Soon some of them will soon leave, angrily, but of the six we will only see one in later scenes. A young woman and her aunt watch from the balcony. There is a tension here, an expectation. An impresario (Anton Walbrook) watches from his box. His name is Boris Lermontov, and we eventually discover that he is the director of the company. Cruel and charming, he has stifled his humanity for the sake of his art, and is proud of doing so. He expects nothing less from his troupe. Art is not entertainment for him, it is a jealous religion, which consumes such petty things as joy and love. His company is his family, and he rules it impassively and absolutely. Now, these two new members are about to arrive: a dancer and a composer. Both are talented and passionate, and will eventually collaborate on a new ballet, based on the Anderson story "The Red Shoes".

Anderson’s story is of a woman wears magical red shoes that allow her to dance all night. But the woman tires; the shoes do not. They demand to dance, and in the end they dance her to death. Powell and Pressburger’s story is of dance as an art demanding life. Dance is the filmmaker’s stand-in for art with a capital “A”. As the three principals – composer, dancer and Lermontov the artistic svengali – draw closer together and clash, so too does Art and emotion, and in this conflict the turmoil of the ballet is mirrored. The film The Red Shoes, then, is simultaneously a story about the creation of a ballet called The Red Shoes and a modernized retelling of HC Anderson story The Red Shoes from which the ballet is based, while also serving as a thematic actualization of both. Trippy stuff for 1948, compadre.

The ultimate triumph of The Red Shoes, the film, is its depiction of The Red Shoes, the ballet, which is shown in its entirety, gradually moving from the realm of the possible to a gorgeous and eerie impressionistic dreamscape – a fantastical space filled with fantastical creatures, less a dance than a purely cinematic confection, the film a distilled essence of those emotions dance (and, by corollary, all of Art) can evoke. Dance has been the stand-in for all art, but this dance could only exist in the art form of cinema – the boudaries of Art have been pushed down, and the true possibility of film begins to bloom. The result is breathtaking; there is one shot of a human mass become a flower that is one of the most indelible images I have seen on screen. Much of the credit for this goes to the cinematographer and the art director, and to Powell himself. Equal credit should be given the dancers, led by Moria Shearer in a fantastic performance. Some actors can dance. This, to me, seems a dancer who can act.

Anton Walbrook is amazing as Boris, at turns imperious and condescending, then polite and refined, at times encouraging, at times brutal, but always driven with his one monstrous love, which is the dance. For Boris, there are no part-time artists; amateurs to him are more than disgusting, they are profane. He sees himself as a kind of high priest, who assays the talent and casts out any who bring less than full commitment to his God. Those who make room for love, for a life of their own, have not understood. Art is demanding as those murderous red shoes, a pure fire that consumes everything, and leaves truth and beauty behind in its char. Why try to bring less than all?

The most subversive element of The Red Shoes is that, while our sympathies are with the young couple, the film itself seems to agree with Boris. Boris is never painted as a villain, even as his entrenched views tear his company apart and move the narrative closer to the edge of tragedy. Could he have prevented conflict by choking back? Yes, but at the expense of the dance. Art is always; love is fleeting. “Some day,” says the young composer, “I will be able to tell my grandchildren I was in love with the great dancer.” He is not worthy; he already sees the end. Their interlude will be as transient as the night, but the beauty they create on stage will not fade. Boris’ greatness is that he realizes this. His tragic failure is that he arrogantly equates loyalty to art with loyalty to himself.

And now, just for sheer weirdness, and because YouTube disallows embedding of all the actual clips available from the movie, here's something somebody put together with this film and a Joy Division song.

Bad craziness.