Monday, August 31, 2009

La Fin Absolue du Monde

Cigarette Burns (2005)

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Beautiful Washing Machine (2003) and Before We Fall in Love Again (2006)

Ceauşescu's Last Tape

There's something astounding to seeing a system of government collapse in the image of a man's face. You don't even need the hissing and yelling of the crowd, just Ceauşescu as he looks out (but doesn't seem to quite see) the crowd at Revolution Square and the way the camera shivers as men begin running behind him, preparing an escape. Four days later he was dead.

Friday, August 28, 2009

A few sentences typed in the middle of the night in January and never expanded upon. But maybe they don't need expansion.

A director is responsible for both mise-en-scene and mise-en-abyme. I don't mean the literary definition or the facile application of the term that leads to discussions of structure or plotting, dream sequences, "framing stories," pictoral effects and other nonsense. I mean that every movie has both qualities. Mise-en-abyme can be defined as how a film reflects on the world of images and on its own production. That hall of mirrors we call the history of cinema. In the present, the need to define this aspect is increasingly relevant.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Beautiful Evidence

Most new films shot in black and white make me think of television. Why? Because TV, at its core, is about presenting a sort of evidence, and black and white has been, for a few decades now, a very effective way for directors to "prove" that their film is serious. The fact of the black and white is more important than the image. I don't mean to degrade these films; there's nothing wrong with having your roots in television or the Internet or books or comics or music. Sometimes the TV thinking results in something very beautiful -- it's because of his beginnings in 1950s television that Sidney Lumet's current mise-en-scene is so concerned with evidence.

I'm sure it's because of its perceived seriousness that George Clooney chose to print (though not shoot) Good Night and Good Luck in black and white -- a film which is both about television and evidence, the relationship between the two: how TV gave us "fact," and what it was evident of.

It's a real "actor's movie," full of under-appreciated performers: Ray Wise, Jeff Daniels, Robert Downey, Jr. (right before everyone started taking him seriously again), Patricia Clarkson, Frank Langella. David Strathairn's fantastic, serious acting evidence, proving to us how committed Edward R. Murrow was. In close-up, he has a real sinner's face, like Leonard Cohen.

Back to the evidence, which is everywhere: the speech patterns, the archival TV footage (with kinescopes of Joe McCarthy playing the part of the senator, so that no one can say the screenwriters twisted his words), the heavy cigarette smoke (all fake, the cast being mostly non-smokers and smoking being forbidden in the studios anyway). The opening shots, "candids" of a ceremony honoring Murrow, all look very serious and "artful," like the photos Joaquin Phoenix takes at the bar mitzvah in Two Lovers.

But somehow Good Night and Good Luck seems less televisual than, say, Manhattan or The Man Who Wasn't There, to cite two examples; maybe it's because Clooney has got more of a sense for cinema than either Allen or the Coens, which probably has a lot to do with the fact that he has no tastes, just interests (Allen and the Coens, on the other hand, are only interested in their tastes, and are only capable of interacting with the world through the prism of their Top 10 list). Good Night and Good Luck isn't an attempt to recreate 1950s cinema; with the exception of a few images (Strathairn finishing his cigarette before he gives his speech, a screening room where the gang watch 16mm documentary footage), this is a 2000s film through-and-through. He's not thinking quite as much as the anachronists are, which gives him more room to feel.

Changing Opinions

I'm scouring the blog backlog, posting up pieces left abandoned. Not sure why this one never went up. It was written the day Changeling was released.

Clint Eastwood and Angelina Jolie on the set of Changeling

What is there in Changeling? The sound of Jolie's roller skates. The color of her wallpaper and the strange way her mouth contorts. The point at which the movie becomes a horror film, something like Don Siegel's The Beguiled, in which a group of Southern belles chopped Eastwood's leg off. A sympathy, which, unlike empathy, requires effort and is therefore more admirable. A cynicism towards cynics. A worldliness that isn't weary. A newfound delicacy. There are a million little things, and a million ways to look at them, and a million reasons to admire the film.

There is, though, a certain tendency amongst contemporary cinephiles to look at the films Clint Eastwood's made in the last two decades as being rejections of the screen persona associated with him for so long. Every film is an anti-Dirty Harry. Like every assumption -- every system -- it's both fairly misleading and fairly accurate. A system is just that: one way of looking at something, like a colored filter that brings out certain tones while muting others. Of course without the colored filter we would not have noticed certain highlights. Systems are necessary and should be changed frequently, forgotten, returned to, abandoned again. A critic should be able to write a hundred different essays about the same film, just as a filmmaker should be able to make a hundred films from the same set-up. This is does not invalidate criticism; it reaffirms it as a vital act. If there was only one correct answer, there would be no reason to ask questions, just as if there was a clear right and wrong there'd be no reason for morality or ethics.

Once we thought cinema was a window. Then people started saying it was a mirror, and we spent a long time arguing which one of the two it was. A few years ago, Pedro Costa called it was a door and that it was up to filmmakers to leave it open, closed or slightly ajar. So what's the right answer? Yes. An infinite yes that affirms these and all possible postulations. As all long as there's politics, all movies will be political. As long as there's sex, all films will be erotic. As long as there's money, all movies will be about economics. Or, I stand corrected: as long as people think about money, which means as long as culture exists in any form, because once an idea surfaces, you can never get rid of it. There will always be poetry even if we stop writing poems. Ideas are like styrofoam at the city dump; they may get mixed in with junk, but it'll take them a million years to disintegrate.

So, if we arbitrarily follow this tendency, what do we make of Changeling? If any film is anti-Dirty Harry, it's this one. The first Eastwood film with a female protagonist (the subject of Million Dollar Baby is Eastwood, though Hilary Swank forms its center), and a film where "the limp-wristed liberals" become the heroes and the vigilante cops become a menace. The Dirty Harry films had a macho distance, an ascetic rejection of the worldly: windows were to be smashed through, cars to be crashed. The camera, like Eastwood's Detective Callahan, had equal contempt for lowlifes and possessions, coldly watching as homes were destroyed. The soundtrack took delight in the sound of buildings exploding and glass smashing (the "Buddy Van Horn touch").

But here we have Changeling, a film of delicacy and sympathy, the image lingering over details of homes, clothing, cars as if to remind us (and, with the frequent scenes of Angelina Jolie's character at work, it does) that these things cost money, and that most people don't have very much. Everyday ephemera that would have been treated mockingly in one of his late 1970s action movies (even a masterpiece like The Gauntlet) is treated with sincerity and care. A gentle hand.

3 Reflections

Originally written in mid-April, but I withheld posting it. Relevant portions of this text were re-purposed from my review of The Girlfriend Experience for The Auteurs' Notebook.

Movies are always reflecting, though never exclusively. The image has so many contradictory qualities that sometimes it seems like movies exist to answer some mysterious riddle (“What’s transparent, opaque and reflective at the same time?”). So here are three images of reflections, all taken from the same film -- a short Agnès Varda made in 1958 called Du Côté de la Côte -- and each one presents a different sort of reflection. Three distinct types.

The water reflects the city around it, but not perfectly. The reflection is an impression. I think this is how Bresson thought. The director's mind should be like the water, motivating the camera with whatever happened to be the distorted reflection.

A crisp image of one thing reflects the crisp and clear image of another. That's the basis of the literary strain of realism right there. You represent one thing completely enough, and it brings out a clear picture of the things around it.

The palm, an aspect that isn't normally visible when you're looking at this pond, reflects through a gap in the lillies. The unconcious moment, that bit of the world that comes through because no one (no actor, no director) is capable of guarding every front at once.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Thursday, August 20, 2009


1. [On Spread for The Auteurs' Notebook]

2. Ben Sachs and I saw Spread together. It hadn't been press-screened, so we had to go the day of release. A muggy evening. We biked down the Loop, to a multiplex on the top floor of a shopping center. Locked up our bikes, walked up the broken escalator, bought our tickets, went in to the theater, where there were maybe a dozen people. They gave us surveys which, though ostensibly written for the film, didn't seem to represent any of its qualities; we had to write in new categories and check them off. Then a walk back, a walk and a talk, with a stop to buy a pack of cigarettes on Rush. The Friday night crowds were out at the restaurants.

When it became obvious that Spread would be out of theaters by the the end of the week, Ben's review (intended for tomorrow) went out via an emergency mailing from Cine-File. The piece doesn't appear online, so I'm posting it here:

To little fanfare, David Mackenzie has spent the past decade becoming one of the great living directors—rich in understanding of film history yet acutely sensitive to the pace, texture, and concerns of life today. Specializing in mobile long takes that are immaculately framed no matter how much the camera moves, Mackenzie may be the only active filmmaker who merits comparison to Max Ophüls or Vincente Minnelli. He's also created a body of work largely concerned with sexuality that never slips into prurience or reductive psychologizing. Like the great Studio Era directors he often evokes, Mackenzie uses the magic of cinema to suggest a world of possibility: Even when directing more formulaic material (as in SPREAD), he still imbues every moment with spontaneity. In Mackenzie's films, events grow organically out of what came before; life seems ever volatile, electric. Since his brazenly odd debut, THE LAST GREAT WILDERNESS (2002), Mackenzie has proven himself a master of literary adaptation, capturing the formal experiments and psychological observations of modern literature while still advancing a complex visual language. (Tonally, YOUNG ADAM [2003] is one of the most accurate adaptations of an existential novel in cinema, and his youth picture HALLAM FOE [2007] may be the closest film equivalent to The Catcher in the Rye .) With SPREAD, Mackenzie finds himself performing another high-wire act: making a personal art film out of a "serious" vehicle for former sitcom star Ashton Kutcher. As filmmaking it's often breathtaking, containing some of the most sophisticated moments of any movie to open this year. The most important scenes transpire in single takes, employing sinuous zooms and crane movements to chart the constantly shifting inequalities between characters. The little press that SPREAD has received has treated it exclusively as a Kutcher sex comedy—and a failed one, by most accounts, since it isn't very funny. Fair enough, but Mackenzie never wanted to be the Farrelly Brothers: This is comedy in the Balzacian sense. Kutcher plays a gigolo living off the wealthy middle-aged women of Los Angeles; he comes to realize that he has been living at the mercy of the shallowest tastes. The script by Jason Dean Hall (clearly indebted to Warren Beatty and Robert Towne's SHAMPOO) is structured to follow his fall from grace; but MacKenzie, in his love for the present moment, makes it anything but a morality play. Building the film around Kutcher's limitations as an actor, Mackenzie makes his focus the character's passive drift from woman to woman and from wealth to poverty. This may dampen the impact of SPREAD's third act, but the film possesses a consistency of tone and leaves a rather strong aftertaste: In retrospect, the gigolo's exile from Hollywood royalty seems presaged from the start. Mackenzie's depiction of the elite is disdainful without resorting to parody (The first long shot is a Steadicam track through a pool party out of an Aaron Spelling series, and MacKenzie uses the inhuman glide of the camera to mirror the falsity of the behavior) and his depiction of working-class L.A. is admirably earthy. But the final moments of SPREAD are something else entirely, ending on a tone that even this multi-faceted movie has not yet explored, something neither funny nor rueful but full of mysterious implications. Like the haunting coda of Truffaut's TWO ENGLISH GIRLS, Mackenzie insists that even in the most rigidly defined milieu there is the constant promise of surprise, of life forking from familiarity into wonder. (2009, 97 min, 35mm widescreen) Ben Sachs

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A Man's Face

Where can I really begin when it comes to Love and Death on Long Island? Nothing's struck me this way in a long time. A bolt of lightning, not out of the blue, but out of the dark. Better than Death in Venice -- that goes without saying. John Hurt is better than Dirk Bograde (and anyway, it wasn't really Bograde who played Aschenbach, it was Visconti), Jason Priestley is better than Björn Andrésen, and Richard Kwietniowski knows himself better than the Count of Lonate Pozzolo ever could. The wealthy have trouble seeing wealth, but the middle and working classes are constantly reminded of their limitations. They're attuned to the limits of others.

Hurt, Giles DeAth, serious man with a silly name, an old coot, a creature of habit, a man in a three-piece suit and tie with a regular brand of smokes and a regular brand of milk and a whole life built out of regularity who finds himself gently slipping into the comfortingly irregular the way you'd slowly sit down into a hot bath. It's too hot at first, it burns your feet, but then the steam starts rising towards your body and you begin descending faster and faster because the boiling water is more pleasant than the cold bathroom air. Maybe we're drawn to heat and fire; maybe we like to get burned. The first hour moves at a steady clip. You could turn down the sound and put on something with a motorik beat, maybe "Hallogallo," and it would sync up -- if not with the editing, than at least with John Hurt's facial expressions. Sourpuss Giles wants no part of modern living, but soon he finds himself going to the movies, buying a VCR, magazines, an answering machine, going to a friend's house to catch a sitcom on her TV. Deeper and deeper into the modern, all because of a face and what he imagines about it. An actor's face. This is a video-romance, more video than Videodrome, a magnificent obsession made possible by the pause and slow motion buttons on a VCR remote. The face belongs to Ronnie Bostock (Jason Priestley), a second-tier actor Giles spots in Hot Pants College II, a movie he wanders into by accident after getting locked out of his house.

He cuts the face out from magazines and hides the clippings in a drawer. He finds excuses, reasons, explanations, and after a while he's on a plane and then in a cab and finally in Long Island, where Ronnie lives with his girlfriend, and where Hurt can figure out the rhythms of his subject's life ("Bostockiana," he labels a scrapbook) so that he might, inevitably, befriend him. All of this happens, but not too quickly. But this isn't a movie you'd call "languid;" it doesn't linger. It moves, scene to scene, joke to joke (many of them very funny, especially the films-within-the-film, the Ronnie Bostock movies Giles finds himself slowing down, pausing, sketching, buildings his life around), observation to observation, image to image. So there's the way the front seat of Ronnie's Porsche is a sort of front row, that connection between driving and viewing, and Hurt's face as it pulls towards a television screen as though magnetized.

I don't think there's been a film like this since Avanti! -- and before Avanti!, I think there was only The Spirit of St. Louis. Somewhere, maybe when Hurt gently holds Priestley's towel against his cheek, prefacing it with a comic "Dear God, this is ridiculous," before slowly diving into that ridiculousness, the hearts slows down in the chest, breath shortens, and the movie becomes inseparable from the experience of watching it. It becomes uncomfortable, a personal embarrassment. Present tense. An ache. A sublime humiliation.

Monday, August 17, 2009


Thursday, August 13, 2009

Friday, August 7, 2009

6 Sublime Images

Viva Las Vegas is the purest of the Elvis movies. Gone is the gleeful vulgarity of the Norman Taurog-directed Elvises, or the unsure scrappiness of the ones handed to lesser (Gene Nelson) or less-interested (Don Siegel, Phil Karlson) directors. What remains is color, shape and movement. Las Vegas is reduced to garish form; it resembles the colorful plastics of Alain Resnais’ Le Chant du Styrene -- a city built by Oskar Fischinger and not Bugsy Siegel.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Physical Evidence

The movies Sidney Lumet makes now are the best he's ever made. I'll take Before the Devil Knows You're Dead over Dog Day Afternoon and Find Me Guilty over 12 Angry Men any day of the week. Nothing wrong with being an "actor's director" when it produces images like these.

No one else uses the 1.85 frame now like Lumet does. You couldn't cut an inch off of any of the image in Find Me Guilty. A little cropping, and the whole dynamic is lost. It's like removing a letter from a word: a joke would no longer be funny, a line of dialogue would lose its meaning.

Lumet's relationship to the frame (and his relationship is always to the frame and not the image; the image is not what's he's after -- it's just the result of his work with the frame) is like a director's relationship to a stage. It's a way of presenting these people, who in a Lumet film are always costumed actors, and not figures, bodies, ideas, etc. This is mise-en-scene as presentation of evidence. Every object, face, reaction is evident of something. In Lumet's cinema, the director's job is to prove that the script and the actor's performances are true.

The courtroom drama, as a form, is full of interesting possibilities. The action is confined to a single room but also spread across a very large group of people -- judges, bailiffs, lawyers, defendants, prosecutors, jury members, onlookers, stenographers -- each one of whom must speak in turn and has a very specific set of actions.

We should remember that there's a difference between the trial and the court. Directors interested in the mechanics of the court (and in the form of the courtroom movie) are also usually the ones least interested in passing judgment. Lumet, like Preminger, isn't interested in verdicts or victories. As in Anatomy of a Murder, the verdict in Find Me Guilty (though presented as a surprise) is pretty underwhelming. It's the evidence and the testimonies, and how Vin Diesel's characters undermines them, that form the film.

Two Rode Together

from Munyurangabo (2007)