Friday, October 24, 2008

The First Transition Week 4: M

Rightly considered the ultimate serial killer film, as well as one of the best police procedurals of all time, Fritz Lang’s M is perhaps the greatest thriller ever constructed. But neither genre designation goes much way towards actually appreciating what Lang has constructed. While his famously acerbic world view was already firmly in place, M goes further than any other film of the period (or any period, for that matter) to create an atmosphere of dread, fear, paranoia and, by film’s end, a kind of existential terror at not only the unknowability of evil, but the banality of it as well.

It’s a common misconception of silent films that assumes a certain kind of static and stage-like imagery, and that the sound film introduced a fluid and mobile camera. This fallacy has finally been redressed, thanks largely in part to the release of a number of silents on dvd. In fact, the end of the silent era saw a complete mastery of camera movement and visual expression, while the birth of the sound film introduced a whole slew of technical and aesthetic problems, resulting in largely (yes) static camera set ups and infrequent camera movement (see the relatively recent special edition of The Jazz Singer for a truly banal movie going experience – a historical marker, to be sure, and not much else). Lang would side step both problems with his first sound film, and M is both a stunning example of Bresson’s sound dictums (certainly, Lang would have influenced him) as well as a breathtaking use of visual trickery to accomplish what we would now call tracking (dolly) shots, or long takes that would nowadays be rendered with a steadicam. Lang would eschew much of the opulence and pageantry with which he had made his name in the Silent Era, but it would be incorrect to assume that M represents any kind of “dry realism”. There are bold stylistic choices on display in the film, but most are in service of a dark, depressing, and contemporary story – in other words, no elaborate castle sets, papier-mâché dragons, studio constructed forests, flying cars or rocket ships, etc. It’s a modestly scaled stylization, tempered more towards brooding than opulence.

The most innovative feature of M is Lang’s devotion to sound design. There is a constant use of sound queues preceding the introduction of an event or person. Indeed, the beginning of the film is aural, as opposed to visual - we hear children’s voices over a black screen, the actual image of children singing and playing appearing a few beats afterwards. They are singing one of those grotesque songs about death that they can neither fully understand nor appreciate – one of Lang’s dark ironies. As mothers complain about the “awful song”, one mentions that “as long as we can hear them (the children), we know that they are safe”. Offscreen, a cuckoo clock begins ringing, a sound that segues into school bells clanging as children leave class for the day. We are then introduced to the killer in a series of visual and aural gestures – we hear a whistling (the killer’s, as it happens, in a recurring aural motif that signifies his arrival at any given scene and that will ultimately provide the means for his capture) as the camera settles on a public notice warning about the murders. A profile appears, imposed over the posting, and the voice speaks. It’s a fascinating choice, creepily effective, and suggesting, at this point, that not only can we not bear to look at such a monster, but that such a person can only exist in shadows (of course, the end of the film will suggest the exact opposite, the murderer-as-helpless man child - another of Lang’s ironies. It certainly helps that Peter Lorre’s puffy, soft cheeks and big round eyes create the sensation of observing an over-sized ten year who thinks he’s just pulling the wings off of flies.).

The first murder scene, much like the killer’s introduction to the film, is designed and executed entirely through visual suggestion. Lorre walks around town with a little girl who is bouncing a ball. They stop, and he purchases her a novelty balloon from a blind man. We cut back to one of the mothers from the film’s beginning, who can no longer “hear her child playing” (the inversion here is important – the lack of a sound queue alerts the audience to an absence). As she frantically calls her daughter’s name and asks neighbors if they have seen her come home from school, Lang cuts to brief shots of an empty attic, stairwell, a dinner plate, and then finally, to a shot of the girl’s ball rolling away and the balloon ensnared in power lines. The novelty balloon, which has the shape of a small, cartoonish person, is, visually and symbolically, being strangled by the horizontal power lines. Much of the scene’s effectiveness stems not only from the geometric design of these relatively empty spaces, spaces that the girl should be occupying, or the symbolic extensions of the child rolling or drifting away into nothingness, but also from the sound design – or, in this case, the lack thereof. Up to this point, we’ve been virtually bombarded with noises of all kind, and these two brief sequence shots match their visual void with an aural one - this aural void representing the silencing, as it where, of the victim.

After the revelation of the murder, Lang begins the next scene with a close up of a posting about the missing girl – a man’s voice reads the text aloud as the camera slowly moves back to reveal, gradually, a huge crowd of people gathered about. Their loud murmuring, which grows louder as the camera reveals more of them, carries over into the next scene of men gathered around a table, arguing with each other as to the identity of the killer. As fear and anxiety grows throughout the community, ordinary citizens begin to accuse each other. Meanwhile, in an increasingly desperate manhunt, the police force begins cracking down on ordinary criminals. As the plot thickens, we begin to see how Lang’s techniques inform the basic plot: more than a simple technical device, Lang’s use of sound produces (at least) two distinct effects 1. as with the first murder scene, the preceding of an event with a sound that introduces it creates a sense of predetermination, not unlike the viewer being drawn towards some kind of inevitability. It’s a kind of cosmic dread which Lang will use consistently through his career, and it permeates an increasingly fearful populace, fueling their hysteria. 2. The use of elaborate sound bridges to link the criminal and the public official into an intertwined co-existence. These sound bridges, coupled with Lang’s use of parallel editing, are incredibly important in suturing the two disparate sectors of societal power into one entity – criminals and cops become one, for all intents and purposes. The point is not to contrast the two groups, nor even to suggest, banally, that the public officials are just as bad as the criminals (or vice versa, that the criminals are actually good at heart). In Lang’s universe, their groups are exactly the same, functioning with, roughly speaking, the same moral and financial systems. Lang will cross cut between the two groups discussing what exactly to do about the monster: the criminals are upset that their business is being disrupted by an increasingly frustrated police force, while the police force is angered at the public’s complete inability to assist them – no one can remember details correctly, different people give conflicting accounts of various events, people give them idiotic false leads by accusing each other. Lang positions both groups as powerful entities that operate beyond society - In other words, they each have a complimentary agenda that is only minimally concerned with the “good of the public”.

In the film’s final moments, with things presumably “returning to normal”, Lang leaves us with the bitter notion that a normal, functioning society inherently breeds criminals; he also makes us wallow in the aftermath of our judgment upon them. In the wake of staggering economic depression and the rising power of the Nazi party, Lang’s fixation on murder, mob rule and powerful criminals seems particularly incendiary (the Nazis would ban the film in ’34). It’s a popularly held notion, post- Kracauer, that Lang’s Mabuse films presaged, if not outright predicted, the rise of Hitler. J. Hoberman writes: “Mabuse was employed to epitomize the postwar period of political instability, social turmoil, and crazed hyperinflation. In the person of Mabuse, Lang gave Germany’s breakdown a single cause.” But, as Hoberman goes on to suggest, Lang’s films are often more about paranoia and disorder than fascism, and the weak populace that falls helplessly into the grip of a child like madman seems less an indictment of Hitler (who would not be voted into power for a few more years) than a more generalized condemnation of a failed society. It is a world view that Lang would import wholesale to our shores after fleeing the Nazis and invading Hollywood. Not by coincidence did Land help create what we now call film noir – his bleak cynicism and world weariness in the face of man’s seemingly limitless capacity to inflict horrors upon each other fitted neatly into America’s post-war depression.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Rivette's Out 1:

Much like my thoughts on Playtime from some weeks ago, this piece was originally intended to be finished and posted much earlier in the summer. As usual, personal obligations obliged me to put it on the backburner. So, for better or for worse, here it is now, only 5 months or so late. Also, this piece is dedicated to those who shared in the adventure – Jake, Sara, Miguel and Ignatius.

As the Summer season of Hollywood blockbusters limps to a close, it seems an adequate time to reflect on a truly momentous event, the likes of which trump any of the over hyped, over marketed and over discussed “product” of the last few months. It’s been a little over one year since a group of Chicago cinephilles gathered around a holy grail of cinema – Jacques Rivette’s nearly 13 hour masterpiece from 1970, Out 1 (this main title is often followed in print by “Noli me tangere”, a subtitle which never actually appears on screen during the film). Screened as part of a (incomplete) Rivette retrospective at the Film Center, Out 1 bears little resemblance to any other film ever made – this distinction is an intrinsic part of the film’s vitality and contrarian notion of what a film constitutes, in direct opposition to the kind of churned out factory dreck we’re constantly subjected to. Ironically, given the film’s fascination with dread, paranoia and the disintegration of communal relationships between friends and lovers, it was a resoundingly positive communal experience for the audience. Further irony: Rivette was arguably the key chronicler of a post May ‘68 cultural malaise in Parisian society, a culture transitioning from Godard’s playfully confused optimism of solidarity to a fractured, hostile climate of intellectuals self destructing in increasingly conspiratorial narratives (for his part, Godard largely abandoned France after ‘68, leading to a ghost period with the Dziga Vertov Group, which is largely ignored even now, much like Rivette’s work; two phantom oeuvres constituting a kind of alternate film history). Jonathan Rosenbaum has described the key motif linking all of Rivette’s work as “collectivity vs solitude”, which could readily be described as the aftermath of that failed revolution world wide. Rivette’s marginalized status even during the height of the New Wave’s popularity no doubt extended not only from his film’s lengths and improvised natures, but also a certain lack of fashion; that is, he wasn’t overtly political at a time when political filmmaking was all the rage (however briefly). His 1968 feature “L’amour fou” didn’t do much to help his reputation; it is as doom laden and unreasonably long as Rivette’s other early works (it’s also another marginalized masterpiece). It is then perhaps fitting that, in retrospect, this spectre of a filmmaker might wind up telling us more about that particular time and place than those presumed to be more “with it”. Appropriately, we’ve just recently marked the 40th anniversary of May ’68.

Like a lot of Chicago film buffs, I discovered Out 1, and Rivette in general, through Jonathan Rosenbaum’s unabashed cheerleading. In the summer of 1999, I tore through two Rosenbaum collections, Placing Movies and Movies as Politics. The two books each contained an essay on Rivette, respectively “Work and Play in the House of Fiction: on Jacques Rivette” and “Tih-Minh, Out 1: on the Non-Reception of Two French Serials”. Rosenbaum’s intro to the latter essay speaks for itself:

“What connections can be found between two French serials made almost half a century apart? Aside from the fact that both of them appear on my most recent "top ten" list, I'm equally concerned with the issue of why such pleasurable, evocative, enduring, multifaceted, and incontestably beautiful works should remain so resolutely marginal -- unseen, unavailable, and virtually written out of most film histories except for occasional guest appearances as the vaguest of reference points. The problem isn't simply an American or an academic one; although no print of either serial exists in the United States, it can't be said that either film has received much attention in France either -- or elsewhere, for that matter. Yet both are major testaments to the joys of spontaneous filmmaking and the complex adventures these entail, for their viewers as well as for their makers.”

I can look back now and see that the genesis of virtually every idea I hold about film connoisseurship and its relation to politics and society was contained in this brief opening salvo. That something could be pleasurable and unavailable made no sense to me at the time- it seemed not only counterintuitive but just plain stupid: why not release films that people might want to see? The vast web of interconnected causal factors that work to marginalize undesirable works or ideas would eventually come to light, at least for this once naïve, perhaps now to cynical, viewer. I might add (cynically) that many years after Rosenbaum’s essay neither work is any more available than it was back then (nor is the rest of Rivette’s output; not one of his first 9 features is available on DVD in the US, although I have a crummy vhs copy of Celine and Julie Go Boating, his 6th film). But (optimistically) while I bemoan Out 1’s still marginalized status, I would be remiss if I didn’t admit that even one screening of this mysterious film monument is a step in the right direction, and ample proof that criticism of Rosenbaum’s kind can and should perform a pedagogic function above and beyond the strictures of the Sunday leisure section.

Rivette’s first feature, “Paris Belongs to Us”, could be said to lay the template for Rivette’s early work – improvisatory, cobbled together, low budget and in black and white, with a rare feel for location shooting that defamiliarizes while retaining a semblance of realism, a network of characters that interact in sometimes recognizable, sometimes bizarre ways. I’ve never seen his second feature, The Nun, based on a Dideroit novel and which I understand was something of a bid for respectability, perhaps comparable to Welle’s “The Stranger”. Most Rivette enthusiasts don’t speak very highly of the film, but I would imagine that it’s worth a look. L’amour fou comes next, a searing account of a theatre director trying to stage an adaptation of Racine’s Andromaque while keeping his leading lady sane. Eventually, they both succumb to a kind of madness, culminating in an extended sequence of them hold up together in an apartment, destroying it and themselves in some kind of purging orgy of self laceration (a gossipy aside: apparently this scene was inspired by an actual event, Godard breaking down after a lovers quarrel). It should not be surprising that the scenes are played broadly, if not necessarily for laughs, and that Bulle Ogier’s Claire comes through with a new found clarity and purposefulness, while the director, Jean-Pierre Kalfon, descends further and further into madness. Such is Rivette’s vision of artistic creation and destruction: a dialectic of confused emotions. Rosenbaum writes:

“Rightly described by Dave Kehr as Jacques Rivette’s “breakthrough film, the first of his features to employ extreme length (252 minutes), a high degree of improvisation, and a formal contrast between film and theater,” this rarely screened 1968 masterpiece is one of the great French films of its era. It centers on rehearsals for a production of Racine’s Andromaque and the doomed yet passionate relationship between the director (Jean-Pierre Kalfon) and his actress wife (Bulle Ogier, in her finest performance), who leaves the production at the start of the film and then festers in paranoid isolation. The rehearsals, filmed by Rivette (in 35-millimeter) and TV documentarist Andre S. Labarthe (in 16), are real, and the relationship between Kalfon and Ogier is fictional, but this only begins to describe the powerful interfacing of life and art that takes place over the film’s hypnotic, epic unfolding; watching this is a life experience as much as a film experience.”

The last sentence of this brief review seems necessary to understanding the importance of Out 1, this notion of “life and art interfacing”, “epic unfolding” and a “life experience as much as a film experience”. Inevitably, when one speaks of Out 1, they are immediately questioned as to why one would subject themselves to such a “task”, the presumption being that spending that much time with a work of art is a waste of precious time. Critic Robin Wood equates this notion to a capitalistic determination of film-as-commerce, i.e., if time is money, then anything that takes up that time must prove itself worthy of our monetary expenditure. He also mentions that, pace the film’s avant garde aspirations, that such a length is not even justified by an epic narrative, ala The Deer Hunter, Gone With the Wind, The Godfather, etc. Wood writes: “the “unjustified” length of the film(s), then represents an act of cultural transgression. The question, “why this length?” should immediately provoke a reciprocal one: why the standard length?” His point is clear: the standard length of films is largely determined by business considerations, as well as an underlying assumption that films should be more “entertaining” than say, a novel, or anything that requires more than one sitting to consume. I should add that any of the time based mediums, theatre, opera, even dance recitals, are subject to this tyranny of assumption based thinking; the novel, under the assumption that few people will read one from cover to cover in a matter of hours, gets a little more leeway with regards to length, yet people still balk at the notion of a “long” novel, presumably something over 800 or 1000 pages. But part of Out 1’s significance is this notion of a life experience – spending so much time with a certain set of people, fictional or otherwise, creates a new kind of understanding and complicity that is impossible to create using shorthand. I’ll let Rosenbaum briefly describe the film’s structure:

Each of the serial’s eight episodes is titled as a relay between two characters, suggesting a chain of successive links: “From Lili to Thomas,” “From Thomas to Frederique,” “From Frederique to Sarah,” “From Sarah to Colin,” and so on. The explanation of who these people are is much of the story–and because their identities keep changing, we’re often confounded. Lili (Michele Moretti) and Thomas (Michel Lonsdale) are in separate theater groups, each preparing plays by Aeschylus, Seven Against Thebes and Prometheus Unbound. Thomas is the director of his state-run company; Lili’s is an independent, directorless collective. Frederique (Juliet Berto) is a solitary working-class flirt who cons people out of money. Sarah (Bernadette Lafont) is a novelist working in a country house near the ocean (and an old pal of Thomas). Colin (Jean-Pierre Leaud)–a deaf mute who communicates with a harmonica–begs for money in cafes until a member of Lili’s collective, for no stated reason, hands him a slip of paper with an enigmatic message, and Colin, alone in his furnished room, undertakes to decode it.”

Each of these sections take up about an hour or so a piece, using incredible long takes with a usually mobile, but sometimes static, camera set up. The film begins with two different rehearsal scenes, and my limited understanding of theatre history perhaps hampers any full understanding of the proceedings, but it is clear that narrative is not particularly relevant here. The actors writhe about, scream, and in the case of the Prometheus group, involve converging on a mannequin done up in a bizarre costume. These seem to be avant garde acting exercises, and Rivette’s connection to underground theatre has been well documented. Admittedly, these are the most difficult scenes in the film to sit through, and there doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason behind their duration. In other words, if these scenes were arranged differently, or were shorter and/or longer, the film would still function in much the same way. Nevertheless, is it our position to chide the filmmaker for a perceived inconvenience, or is it an audience’s job to try, instead, to understand why the artist has placed a particular scene in a particular place?

Of the various story threads, several are quite interesting, even if the never eventually add up to an adequate resolution – resolution and closure being so important to our notion of narrative, and one more thing that Rivette is determined to undermine. The two theatre groups eventually abandon their rehearsals and become involved in a mystery involving someone who has stolen money from them. Michael Lonsdale, his large, bulky frame suggesting simultaneously a sedentary yet spry figure, will eventually be revealed as part of the conspiracy that plagues Jean Pierre Leaud’s Colin, and yet it is a conspiracy that means nothing to us: we don’t know the rules, the players, or the consequences. Juliet Berto has never been better than in Rivette films (see also Celine and Julie Go Boating); by contrast, I’ve never felt that Godard knew what to do with her and her particular brand of energy (specifically, he renders her quite bland in La Chinoise). Her interactions with her various marks are highly enjoyable, not in the least because she seems to be having so much fun herself. Eventually, Berto’s part of the narrative is interrupted by her character’s abrupt murder. Jean Pierre Leaud is typically charming. His early scenes, blowing a harmonica loudly into people’s faces until they give him their change, are hilarious. And it’s just another case of subterfuge when his deaf-mute character begins speaking quite clearly. His obvious romantic interest in Bulle Ogier’s café/bookstore/radical character leads to much conversation, but nothing else, and his increasingly dark obsession with unraveling a mystery cum riddle that might not even exist seems a reasonable counterpoint to the audience – sitting there in the dark, wondering what to make of all of this. Bulle Ogier and Lonsdale will eventually make their way to a sea side villa, where another mystery, involving a missing man and a locked room, come to light. Critic Jonathan Romney has put it quite succinctly: “Out 1 is magnificently uncontainable: too many characters to track, too many connections between them, too many blind alleys, and, above all, too much contradiction.”

What then, you might ask, is the point? Certainly, you wouldn’t suggest a film that doesn’t mean anything? A film that takes an entire day to watch? That is willfully, even perversely, anti-narrative, and that ends pretty much where it started? As critic Fred Camper mentioned after the screening to an incredulous fellow viewer, one who couldn’t believe what he had just sat through, “Out 1 is like all the great films – it is trying to make sense of the world we live in”.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The First Transition Week 3: City Lights

Only Chaplin has known how to span a third of a century of cinema, and this because his genius was truly exceptional

Above all, certain situations can only be said to exist cinematographically to the extent that that their spatial unity is established, especially comedy situations that are based on the relations between human beings and things… If slapstick comedy succeeded before the days of Griffith and montage, it is because most of its gags derived from a comedy of space, from the relation of man to things and to the surrounding world. In The Circus, Chaplin is truly in the lion’s cage and both are enclosed within the framework of the screen.

Andre Bazin

* * *

Nothing sucks the joy out of comedy quicker than trying to quantify, describe, explain it. It would take a better critic than myself to convince you that Chaplin is great without boring you. And yet, I try. The hubris… The point is not the film’s humor (of which there is plenty, perhaps more than one person can handle), but how that humor is achieved. Call it the mechanics of comedy if you will. Chaplin’s Tramp bumbles around the city, falling in love with a blind girl and finding a rich drunk (labeled “the eccentric millionaire” in the film’s opening credits) and realizing that he can parlay the drunkard’s gifts of cash into a better life for his blind muse. That’s about all there is of the film’s plot, and yet the process of getting from point A to point B, etc is one of such endless invention and grace that the critic is daunted in his task. The film is constantly shifting incidents around in a careful modulation of scale – one can only imagine that such an ability is innate, as if handed down from high above and gifted to only one man (Keaton and Lloyd not withstanding). Gags begin small, even telegraphed (someone standing close to water is predestined to take a spill), but grow gradually in scope, eventually encompassing an element of time as to cement the (im)possibility of what we are seeing. The Tramp mistakes a piece of party streamer for a noodle and proceeds to chow down – a mild gag, placed amidst a dozen others (most more complicated in their choreography) during a nightclub scene, and yet Chaplin fully commits to it. After what seems like several hours of chewing, we realize that Chaplin is actually eating this stuff. There is nothing hidden in an edit, no time ellipses to assure the performer’s comfort or to elide the fact that someone is just spitting the stuff out. It is a comedic process born of a fidelity to the realism of a time based actuality.

Bazin’s notions of realism have been much commented upon, and are undoubtedly some of the more important formulations in film criticism. But no where do they seem (to me) more important than in the comedy genre (and the action genre as well, the two being basically similar in their construction, if ultimately differing in what kind of response they hope to elicit – either way, both genres are interested in a kind of physical exhilaration). When Chaplin climbs over a rail to perch precariously on a ledge while peering into a window, that is him in actuality. The choreography of groups of people becomes that much more impressive when, as in the above mentioned night club scene, dozens of performers are involved in simultaneous gags that blend with and evolve organically into the next – the swapping of chairs, the lighting of cigars, accidentally lighting a woman’s posterior on fire, drunkenly dancing with a stranger – all arranged in a kind of expanding tableau. It seems to me that the classical Hollywood musical could not exist without Chaplin (and certainly not something like Tati’s Playtime).

City Lights is a fascinating companion piece to Hawks’ Scarface, and an outstanding curatorial choice on Rosenbaum’s part. If Scarface offers an ironic fulfillment of the American Dream as nightmare – money, power, possession of objects, all leading inevitably to violent death – then City Lights is its ironic counterpoint. The Tramp, a beggar with nothing but his pride, is a nobody (with regards to capitalistic achievement) yet the film is full of joy and hope, all leading inevitably to an affirmation of life. Not for nothing is the “eccentric millionaire” portrayed as suicidal, deprived of friendship and starved for human connection (Chaplin’s next film, modern times, is equally concerned with human relationships being disrupted by modern commerce/ mechanization, and Monsieur Verdoux is considered by many to be an explicit critique of capitalism). In an era of economic depression, we see in these films an implicit critique of a capitalistic economy that equates human happiness with money, as well as an inherent belief in human goodness. A valuable lesson, and one we would do well to remember in our current state of economic affairs.