Friday, March 18, 2011

With other (personal / televisual) duties taking up a lot of my time, I haven't been writing as much for Cine-File in the last few months. Here are four from the last few months.


Abraham Lincoln (D.W. Griffith, 1930)
From its opening trick dolly shot—a trip through a windswept cardboard forest to find William Thorne chopping away at lumber in front of a log cabin—on, D.W. Griffith's first sound film resembles no Hollywood movie made before or after. Bubbling with nearly-pagan imagery and Wagnerian portent, it's also uncommonly earthy, funny, and candid; Walter Huston is the only Lincoln one could imagine farting on screen, even as Griffith's shadows and tracking shots imply that he might at any moment take up his sword and travel into the underworld to fight Nibelung dwarves (John Wilkes Booth, in turn, is portrayed as an evil wizard who murders Lincoln to steal his power, proclaiming, "The man who kills Abraham Lincoln will be an immortal!"). The jarring push-and-pull between these two forces—symbolism and naturalism, you could call them—reaches a fever pitch in the staging of Lincoln's assassination, where a wild-eyed Booth, lit like the villain of a German Expressionist film, shoots the president only to have him twitch and slump over slightly, just like an ordinary man. The often indecipherable, hissing mono soundtrack takes on a shape and presence of its own.

Casino (Martin Scorsese, 1995)
Martin Scorsese's densest film is also his most analytical and, on the surface, appears to be his most emotionally distant. Like quite a few directors of his generation, Scorsese was enamored with the work of his late contemporary Rainer Werner Fassbinder (he even went so far as to make RWF's cinematographer Michael Ballhaus one of his regular collaborators following the director's death), and this project, in turn, can be thought of as his answer to Fassbinder's mammoth television serial Berlin Alexanderplatz. Taking acknowledged inspiration from the seminal, Michael Mann-produced TV series Crime Story—itself modeled on Alexanderplatz by Mann and co-creator Gustave Reininger—Scorsese tackles the story of a Jewish mob bookie (Robert De Niro) and his troubled relationships with his wife (Sharon Stone) and a longtime associate (Joe Pesci) by folding the narrative in on itself over and over, piling on layers of tangents, intertitles, facts, Rolling Stones songs, Expressionist flights-of-fancy and, most infamously, multiple voice-overs. However impressive as a work of popular art—especially considering just how tangled its chronology and point-of-view (not so much shifting as continuously jumping) actually are—the film is undeniably a great big puzzlebox.

Of Gods and Men (Xavier Beauvois, 2010)
Thin as a religious statement and muddled as a political one, Xavier Beauvois' drama is best appreciated for what it is: a very strong, terse B-film which delineates the inner workings of a group (in this case, Trappist monks living in Algeria in 1996) through abrupt shorthand, establishes its distinct personalities (including Lambert Wilson as the reluctant leader and King of the Slouches Michael Lonsdale as the resident doctor), and then, in the tradition of the most hermetic Westerns of the 1950s, observes as this "group of individuals" attempts to reach a consensus around a decision (specifically, whether to abandon the monastery or face an uncertain fate at the hands of local extremists). All the long takes in the world can't help Beauvois establish a tangible connection between the monks' decision-making and their humble Catholicism, but, then again, theology isn't exactly Beauvois' strong suit: regardless of his high-minded intentions, Of Gods and Men succeeds at more basic levels—in its portrayals of procedure rather than "good works," ritual rather than faith (especially in how the monks' services and singing relate to their everyday experiences), and characters rather than ideas. A failure that is also, in its own way, a victory.

Secret Sunshine (Lee Chang-dong, 2007)
Secret Sunshine begins with a shot of the sky and ends with a shot of the ground, and could therefore be described as a nearly-2 1/2 hour downward pan: from milieu to character, from ambitions to realities, from action to aftermath, and from a higher calling to its failure to its fitful application. This drawn-out movement isn't readily obvious, and a first impression of the film tends to be dominated by its unpredictability: where the story is going (and, considering Lee Chang-dong's elliptical matter-of-factness, how quickly it'll get there), and, by the second hour, what Jeon Do-yeon's character will do at any given moment. That the movie manages to be simultaneously sprawling (in terms of plot and characterization) and compact (in terms of pacing and setting) owes a lot to the strength of Lee's style, which seems off-the-cuff at first, but slowly reveals its rigor; it's a carefully-designed middle-ground that allows Secret Sunshine to pass through numerous genre shifts (drama, comedy, thriller, tragedy) without ever seeming to over-extend itself.

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