The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (2017)

thedeathandlifeofmarshapjohnson_posterToday’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in

The Los Angeles Blade

On June 6, 1992, a body was pulled out of the Hudson River onto a West Village pier.  Bystanders quickly recognized it as that of Marsha P. Johnson, a well-known figure in the neighborhood and one of the most visible – and colorful – personalities in the ongoing movement for gay and transgender rights.

Born in New Jersey as Malcolm Michaels in 1945, Johnson had moved to New York at 18, where she became a fixture in the drag balls and street life of the Village.  By 1969 she was a regular at the Stonewall Inn, and she was a key participant in the landmark riots that began there when police raided the bar in the early morning hours of June 28 that year.  Popular legend has maintained that she was the first, or one of the first, to fight back – though she herself disputed that claim, stating that she had arrived well after the conflict had already started.  Regardless of the details, it’s undeniable that she was central to the events of that night and the nights that followed, and that she emerged as a leader in the Gay Liberation Movement that sprung out of them.

Consequently, at the time of her death, the local LGBTQ community responded with surprise and outrage when the police, without any substantial investigation, officially declaring her drowning a suicide – despite insistence from friends and witnesses that she had been a victim of foul play.

This still-unresolved controversy lies at the center of filmmaker David France’s new documentary, “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson,” a film whose title both misleads and tells you exactly what you are about to see.

Rather than presenting a straightforward profile of the beloved LGBTQ activist, France’s film instead focuses its attention on a less famous heroine – Victoria Cruz, a case worker on the verge of retirement from New York’s Anti-Violence Project.  Dedicating her final days on the job to the pursuit of long-overdue justice, Cruz is shown re-examining the files and evidence surrounding Johnson’s untimely death.  She interviews the late icon’s family and friends – such as longtime roommate Randy Wicker, who reported Marsha missing nearly a week before her body was found.  She pores through old news clippings and footage, tracks down retired law enforcement officials, and petitions for autopsy reports long hidden in police storerooms.

Like France’s previous film, “How to Survive a Plague,” this movie is not merely a chronicle of events; rather, in following Cruz’ search for truth and justice, it evokes the spirit of activism that Marsha embodied.  The investigation into her death becomes a springboard into not only a retrospective of the struggle for rights and recognition that defined her own life and times, but into an indictment of our culture’s relationship with violence against its marginalized populations – and in particular, transgender women.

Part of the backdrop of the contemporary segments is the 2016 trial of James Dixon for the murder of Islan Nettles, a transgender woman from Harlem whom he had beaten to death after friends teased him for flirting with her.  The highly-publicized case provides a somber observation of how things have changed since Marsha’s nearly-anonymous death, yet also how much they have not.  Dixon’s defense – that he had been humiliated by “being fooled” – has eerie parallels to stories told by Marsha herself about “tricks” who became enraged after discovering her true gender (even after being repeatedly forewarned), and is a common refrain echoed in similar cases before and since.

Ultimately, as the film makes clear, it is uncertain whether Marsha met her end in such an incident, and it is beyond France’s scope to delve deeper into the issue of anti-trans violence.  Nevertheless, “The Death of Marsha P. Johnson” gives it enough of a peripheral glance to serve as a grim reminder of how far our society has yet to go in its protection of the most vulnerable among us.

Yet although it is, at its core, a film about tragedy, it’s also about the resilience of those determined to rise above it.  France gives us plenty of Marsha at her audacious best, displaying the kind of dignity and character that belied her status as one of society’s outcasts – a fringe-dweller forced to make her living as a sex worker even as she was being photographed by Warhol and lauded as one of the LGBTQ movement’s foremost campaigners.  Marsha had it tough, but she devoted herself to making life better for an entire community whose existence was a daily struggle.

Reinforcing this theme of dedication, the movie devotes considerable screen time to Sylvia Rivera, another social justice pioneer who was Johnson’s closest friend.  Archival footage documents not only their side-by-side efforts for the trans community, but also her own fall into alcoholism and homelessness before reclaiming her role as one of the movement’s greatest heroines.

Watching these two “drag queens” (their own preferred self-identification), presented alongside the modern-day saga of Cruz and others who carry their torch, brings home the point of “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson.”  Though France provides the biographical background we expect, and piques our interest with a true-life detective story, his true purpose is not to inform or to intrigue – he wants to inspire us, even incite us.  His movie is no less than a call to action.

Though she never referred to herself as “transgender,” Marsha was nevertheless a fierce activist and vocal advocate for the trans community, and has been embraced as one of their most revered icons.  At a time in our history when the powers that be are pushing back hard against trans acceptance and equality, David France’s film is an important reminder of the humanity at stake.

By using her life – and death – as a means to spread that message, he does Marsha P. Johnson proud.

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A Mighty Wind (2003)

 

 

Today’s cinema adventure: A Mighty Wind, the 2003 “mockumentary” feature by master-of-the-genre Christopher Guest, following the efforts to reunite several legendary folk-music acts for an impromptu concert paying tribute to their recently deceased producer.  With several characters developed from an earlier appearance on Saturday Night Live and songs penned mostly by the principal cast (along with Annette O’Toole, wife of frequent Guest collaborator Michael McKean, and C.J. Vanston, the film’s music director- who also appears), it received mostly positive response from critics and moderate success with the public, though it failed to achieve the popularity of Guest’s previous effort, Best In Show– possibly because of its focus on a less universal interest (folk singers are not as much of a draw as fanatical dog owner, apparently) and its more serio-comic tone.  Nevertheless, it has achieved a substantial cult following, alongside Guest-and-company’s other films, and together with these has exerted a visible influence in the creation of a whole new pseudo-documentary style for popular entertainment- particularly on television where successful shows such as Modern Family can be clearly seen as an outgrowth of this genre.

The script for A Mighty Wind, as with all Guest’s movies in this style, was generated through improvisation by its stellar cast, which is comprised almost entirely of veterans from the director’s stock company of players.  When pioneering folk-music impresario and producer Irving Steinbloom passes away, his three children- spearheaded by the fastidious and über-cautious Jonathan- organize a televised memorial concert to be performed at New York’s famous Town Hall; featured will be three of their father’s most famous and beloved acts, two of which have been long-disbanded.  The New Main Street Singers are the latest incarnation of a “supergroup” which once dominated the folk scene, now touring the County Fair circuit and headed by husband-and-wife team Terry and Laurie Bohner, with a sizable lineup which includes the minimal participation of only one original founding member; The Folkmen, an acoustic trio comprised of the relatively good-natured Mark Shubb, Alan Barrows, and Jerry Palter, are enthusiastic about the challenge of returning to the stage to and pleased to be performing together after decades apart; the most eagerly anticipated reunion, however, is that of Mitch and Mickey, a ballad-crooning duo whose starry-eyed connection fueled a successful career in which they captured the idealistic imagination of a generation of fans- and which collapsed along with their romance, leaving Mitch a burnt-out, drug-addled  has-been and Mickey the discontented middle-aged housewife of a medical catheter salesman.  As the date of the concert approaches, the various participants offer a behind-the-music look at their personal and professional lives, revealing both the expected clichés of the musical genre and a few not-so-typical surprises- including adult film careers, bizarre cult affiliations, and gender-identity issues- along the way; but the most pressing concern is whether or not Mitch and Mickey can overcome their long-unresolved passions and resentments to recapture the former magic of their collaboration- and indeed, whether they will make it to the stage at all.

The first and foremost objective of A Mighty Wind, of course, is to amuse; beginning with his involvement in Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap– the grand-daddy of all “mockumentaries,” and a classic that maintains an enormous fan following to this day- Guest has mined comedy gold by sending up the foibles of odd little social niches- small-town community theater in Waiting for Guffman, competition dog breeders in Best in Show– with shrewdly observational explorations of their rarified worlds.  A Mighty Wind is cut from the same cloth as his earlier efforts, and it mercilessly attacks its target with just as much relish.  The folk music movement of the early sixties was marked not only by the militant political activism of Phil Ochs or the oblique poetry of Bob Dylan, but by the squeaky-clean warblings of such groups as The Kingston Trio and The New Christy Minstrels; in its portraits of the three fictional acts upon which it focuses, A Mighty Wind draws inspiration from all these sources for its parody, but it takes particular glee in its depiction of the extremely white-bread, middle-class sensibility that marks the genre.  These are not the visionary firebrands we might expect from a group of folkies dating back to the pre-hippie days, though there are traces of Dylan and his ilk to be found in the character of Mitch; rather, they are an assortment of more-or-less middle-of-the-road types who seem oblivious not only to the gap between their personalities and the music they perform, but to any of the irony that can be derived from it.  Aside from the New Main Street Singers, who deliberately present an almost sickeningly wholesome image in spite of their bizarre habits and shady histories, these people are more or less exactly what they appear to be, unsophisticated and bland.  They are unquestionably talented- in order for the premise to work, they have to be talented- but their music comes more, perhaps, from imitation than imagination, the pleasant-but-hollow product of a privileged generation trying to emulate the hard-won brilliance of musical pioneers who came before them.  A great deal of the movie’s comic genius can possibly be better experienced listening to the soundtrack album, since the keen musical parodies crafted by the cast beg for our full attention in order to be properly appreciated; even so, in true “mockumentary” fashion, a lot of mileage is gained through “archive footage” of the groups performing in their heyday, along with wickedly satirical photographic depictions of various events, costumes and album covers from the era, most of which evoke memories of real-life personalities and their work.

A Mighty Wind, however, does not depend solely on the easy laughs derived from poking fun of bygone trends in music and pop culture; it also finds a wealth of humor in the well-developed, fully-drawn characters created by its superb collection of comedic performers.  With each outing, Guest’s growing gang of cohorts, comedy legends all, managed even greater dimension in the creation of their characters, making whichever group of off-kilter average folk they happen to be skewering seem more and more fully realized and authentic.  By this time around, the troupe had reached the point of tipping the scales beyond simply lampooning their subjects, resulting in a genuine emotional connection that sometimes brings the story- almost- into the realm of serious character drama.  To be sure, the satirical edge is never absent, but there are moments when heartfelt sentiment emerges with enough strength to transcend the comedic style and unexpectedly strike a more resonant chord.  For the most part, this is reserved for the segments of the film that revolve around Mitch and Mickey, who seem to embody the lost spirit of the sixties, a feeling of youth and unlimited possibility that was soon to be buried and replaced by the worldly cynicism born of disappointment and failure; in the tentative efforts of this broken duo to bridge the gulf between past and present, A Mighty Wind expresses a yearning for lost idealism that cannot help but affect us at a deeper level than the snarky humor that otherwise dominates it.

Whether or not this is a negative criticism depends upon your point of view.  For many fans of Guest’s trademark formula, the crossover into pathos may be too much, an attempt to take the characters as seriously as they take themselves- and, of course, the key connecting theme of all these films, and the source of most of their comedy, is the fact that its characters take themselves far too seriously, investing their storm-in-a-teacup concerns with world-shaking significance and underscoring their own foolishness at every step.  For me, however, the underlying factor which makes these comedies funny- as opposed to hip and snarky- is the humanity with which Guest and his players treat their buffoonish creations.  In their efforts to puff themselves up, these champions of mediocrity enact our own desire to make a mark in the world, to rise above the mundane and often unfulfilling drudgery of an unremarkable life.  By laughing at them, we can laugh at our own occasional pomposity; but because they are also, in the end, so recognizably human in the insecurities and uncertainties that inevitably show through their facades, we can forgive them their self-aggrandizement and, by extension, forgive ourselves for ours, as well.  A Mighty Wind takes this equation one step further; by giving us an assortment of throwbacks to an earlier era, one at once more naive and more promising than our jaded present day, it sets up a sort of reflection on our entire cultural identity, with all its irony-laced sophistication, and its collective longing to believe in itself again- even if it’s just for a moment.

I don’t want to make it sound, however, like A Mighty Wind is one of those feel-good comedies that wins our attention with laughs and then degenerates into pseudo-heartfelt preciousness.  Guest and his compatriots ensure that they never even come close to that boundary, simply by virtue of their entirely honest approach to the characters.  There are no scenes of forced emotional climax; the epiphanies take place between the lines, without comment, and become part of the landscape on which further developments are built.  Nor does the film present some false fable of life-changing redemption, comic or otherwise.  The final scenes make it clear that whatever may have happened during the adventure of the concert, these people will continue to lead a life on the fringes, still seeking- though perhaps with renewed vigor- to grab another moment in the sun by whatever means necessary, no matter how ridiculous; and we love them all the more for their determination to go on trying, even though we may giggle at the absurdity of their attempts or feel a bit embarrassed for them over the indignities to which they stoop in their quest.  Still, whereas in previous outings we only shake our heads and dismiss these further shenanigans with bemusement, in A Mighty Wind, thanks to the genuinely sympathetic insight we have gained into at least some of these loony losers, there is a pang of wistful regret added to the mix that creates a distinctive sense of melancholy.  It’s not a bad thing, in my view, for even if the movie lacks the outright hilarity of Guffman or Best in Show, it stays with us in a way those previous gems do not, and the stronger emotional connection it makes leaves us feeling all the more satisfied.

Whether or not you respond to the way Guest’s film strives for more legitimacy through its forays into tenderness, it is undeniable that the work of the ensemble has here reached a new level of brilliance.  Each character, no matter how small, is invested with a sense of complete life, contributing indispensably to the overall picture presented by the film.  The front lines are manned by the performers taking on the personae of the musicians.  Michael McKean, Harry Shearer and Guest himself are The Folksmen, giving the workmanlike trio an unrelenting aura of positivity that may occasionally be strained but is never forced, making them a sort of flip side to their trio of heavy metal rockers in Spinal Tap; foremost amongst the New Main Street Singers are John Michael Higgins and Jane Lynch as the headlining Bohners, who give the pair a comically unsettling aura of sexual ambiguity and deep dysfunction under their slick-and-shiny patina of professional cuteness, with Parker Posey adding her own touch as a former-delinquent-turned-group-member who exudes the vacuous zealotry of a brainwashed teenage cultist; and giving the film its heart- while still providing mordant commentary through their keenly-observed  performances- are the incomparable Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara, as Mitch and Mickey, respectively.  These latter two take their improv-built characters to a depth and fullness that rivals those in any conventional screenplay, layering them with a kind of subtext and dimension that makes us forget these are not real people on the screen. Levy brilliantly exudes the aura of the intense, visionary and antisocial poet, seething with all the charisma that entails, until he opens his mouth to reveal his true nature as an inarticulate, fatuous burnout whose emotional and social maturity seems to have ceased developing circa 1965.  It is O’Hara, though, who steals the show with her remarkable portrayal of Mickey, the sensible and pragmatic housewife who finds the dreams of her youth- and her passions for the love of her life- are reawakened by the chance to relive her gone-but-not-forgotten glory days.  She alone, of all these misfits, defies ridicule; she is foolish, yes, and caught up in an illusion as much as any of the others, but she is also eminently likable in her blend of down-to-earth simplicity and mature sophistication, and we find ourselves hoping alongside her that the promise of her past can at last come triumphantly to fruition.  It’s a forgone conclusion that it won’t, at least not in any lasting way, but O’Hara’s complete and sincere commitment to the role allows us to fool ourselves just as willingly as Mickey does, and her inevitable disillusionment is ultimately perhaps more heartbreaking for us than it is for her.  It’s a transcendent piece of acting, by any standards, and together with her old SCTV cohort Levy, she makes A Mighty Wind as poignant a portrait of unrequited longing as any “legitimate” Hollywood romance.

Other fine performances come from stalwarts such as Bob Balaban (as the anal-retentive Jonathan Steinbloom, who along with Michael Hitchcock as a Town Hall event coordinator provides the movie’s biggest laugh-out-loud moment), Fred Willard (as a leering and embarrassingly tacky  sitcom-has-been-turned-agent), Ed Begley, Jr. (as a public television executive of Jewish/Scandinavian descent), and the scene-stealing Jennifer Coolidge (sporting a ridiculously unplaceable accent as possibly the stupidest P.R. agent in history).  Making the cast’s contribution even more impressive, of course, is the fact that those impersonating the musicians not only wrote the movie’s musical selections, but also played and sang them, in some cases teaching themselves the necessary instruments.  The result, as noted above, is a collection of songs that are not only wickedly hilarious but are as infectious and memorable as the ones they so cleverly mock; indeed, Mitch and Mickey’s signature hit (which plays a key role in the story) is so authentic that it stands on its own, without irony, and received a nomination for Best Song at the Academy Awards; and the film’s title tune (with its brilliant lyric, “A mighty wind is blowin’ […] it’s blowin’ peace and freedom, it’s blowin’ you and me”) was actually awarded a Grammy for Best Song Composed for a Movie.

In this prodigious display of talent, its easy to overlook the contributions of the film’s director.  Guest- in addition to his subtly hilarious turn as the vaguely dim-witted, Garfunkel-haired, fuddy-duddiest third of The Folksmen-  humbly provides his skills as a guiding hand; much of his genius rests in his willingness to turn his collaborators loose in front of the camera and let them work their magic, but his ability to piece together a finished result cannot be underestimated.  He shapes a coherent, intelligent, touching and hilarious narrative out of what must have been hundreds of hours of footage, and A Mighty Wind is a testament to his patience and dedication as much as his sense of humor and his talent- both behind and in front of the camera.

As with all of Guest’s films, appreciation for A Mighty Wind is dependent on a number of factors.  A taste for satire is required, as is a fondness for dry humor and an enjoyment for both “high” and “low” comedy; it certainly helps to have at least a passing knowledge of whichever insular world on which he has chosen to turn his focus.  Those without exposure to the history or conventions of folk music may find little amusement in A Mighty Wind, just as those who have never seen a small town theatre production may not “get” Waiting for Guffman.  For those “in the know,” both films are funny; but whereas Guffman (and Best in Show, for that matter) has a tendency towards an almost mean-spirited ruthlessness in its approach, this time around, the Guest Gang seems to have mellowed; not that they have lost their edge, but perhaps they have softened it.  There is a fondness for the people of A Mighty Wind that seeps into us as we watch, bonding us to them in a way we could never achieve with, say, Corky St. Clair of Guffman; these characters become a part of us, and seem as real to us- perhaps more so, in fact- as the true-life musicians that inspired them.  Furthermore, because the film’s humor- and its pathos- is based more in its characters than on its subject matter, A Mighty Wind might just be, despite the relative obscurity of the milieu in which it dwells, the most accessible of these movies.  At any rate, it certainly touches on a more universal nerve than any of the others, and does so in a way that is both touching and faintly unsettling, like a wistful reminder of a mark we once made for ourselves as a culture- and a remonstration for having fallen so far short of it.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0310281/

 

Lunacy/Sileni (2005)

Today’s cinema adventure: Lunacy (Šílení), a darkly comic 2005 horror film by celebrated Czech filmmaker Jan Švankmajer; based on two short stories by Edgar Allan Poe and drawing inspiration from the writing and philosophies of the Marquis de Sade, its an odd, quirky and disturbing foray into the horror genre by a director known for his odd, quirky and disturbing movies, featuring his trademark mixture of macabre puppetry and animation as well as his usual surrealist influences.  Like most of Švankmajer’s work, it initially received little attention outside of Europe (and the few remaining “art house” theaters), but it has since found an audience, alongside the rest of his canon, among the ranks of his loyal international cult following.

Though it begins, ostensibly, in a present day-setting, the story is quickly drawn anachronistically into the 18th Century, as its protagonist, Jean, is befriended by a wealthy and mysterious marquis (in full period garb) who travels by horse-drawn coach and is attended by a mute servant.  Jean is plagued by recurring nightmares in which two leering goons accost him in his sleep and attempt to forcibly restrain him with a straight jacket; after one such dream causes him to destroy his hotel room in a somnambulant struggle, the marquis comes to his aid by paying for the damages, and then invites the young man to travel with him to his home.  Jean soon discovers, however, that his new benefactor possesses a cruel streak; during his stay he is subjected to cruel pranks- including a bizarre and secretive nocturnal interment- and surreptitiously witnesses a blasphemous ritual in which God and morality are denounced and a young woman in chains is beaten and raped.  Eventually, he accompanies his host to a local asylum, where he is persuaded to remain as a voluntary patient in order to receive treatment for his nighttime disturbances.  His agreement to this arrangement, however, is in reality spurred by the presence there of the girl abused in the black mass, whom he fears to be trapped within the sinister machinations of the marquis and his friend who runs the institution.  Vowing to rescue her and expose the sadistic purposes of her captors, he sets about discovering the hidden truth of the hospital- a place where the inmates and staff are virtually indistinguishable, where chaos and debauchery seem to rampage unchecked, and where a dark secret lies hidden behind the walls, waiting to be set free.

Švankmajer (who provides a spoken introduction to the film in which he plainly states its purpose and emphatically proclaims it not to be “a work of art”) draws the  inspiration for his narrative from Poe’s stories, The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether and The Premature Burial, but the underlying thematic premise is derived from the views espoused by the notorious Marquis de Sade- upon whom the film’s primary antagonist is clearly based.  The argument of both the real and fictional marquis- that man is a product of nature, cruel and carnal by design, and that notions of God and morality are false constructs based in fear and designed to impose control over the weak and foolish- is the central idea which fuels the story, alongside the added intellectual exploration of two opposing methods to governing the insane: absolute control and absolute freedom.  As to the latter, the director states unequivocally in his prologue that the state of the modern world is a combination of the worst aspects of each of these methods, but- apart from this rather glib assessment- his film offers no real support for this theory beyond the extrapolations that can be made from the allegorical elements of the scenario.  Regarding man’s bestiality, however, Švankmajer gives us plenty of meat- literally.  Providing a sort of running commentary to the action are short segments, produced with the filmmaker’s familiar stop-motion techniques, featuring slabs of raw meat animated into performing various activities reminiscent of basic instinctual behavior- such as eating, fighting, and sexual intercourse-  continually reinforcing the idea of humanity as mere senseless flesh driven by primal impulses.  These vignettes, intercut with the main action, also serve to give Lunacy much of its “creep” factor, though as always in Švankmajer’s films, there is good amount of tongue-in-cheek humor that makes us grin even as we cringe.  On a less abstract level, within the narrative proper, the idea of man’s natural urge towards sex and cruelty is illustrated repeatedly in scenes best left for the viewer to discover for himself, with Jean and his enigmatic damsel-in-distress as the only representatives of sanity- as equated to decency, that is.  However, in keeping with the film’s source material, not to mention its creator’s penchant for surrealism, it is never exactly clear that our assumptions are true, and the question of what constitutes sanity- or decency, for that matter- is one which Lunacy leaves unanswered, choosing rather to provide cynical observation on the basic state of humanity.

Švankmajer has built his unique reputation with decades of imaginative filmmaking, blending live action with animation in ways that are at once deceptively simple and devilishly clever.  Influenced by an early career in puppet theatre, he has brought his traditional stagecraft sensibilities into his cinematic language, establishing himself as a genuine auteur with his shorts and feature films that incorporate not only the aforementioned stop-motion techniques, but claymation, a mixture of realistic and stylized scenery as well as puppets and live actors (and sometimes live actors dressed as puppets), and a generally theatrical style possessed of unmistakably ancient roots that stretch back to the Commedia dell’Arte and beyond.  Lunacy, however, like many of his recent works, utilizes a greater proportion of more-or-less straightforward live action footage; indeed, apart from the previously described meat-in-motion sequences, it contains relatively little of Švankmajer’s familiar visual trickery.  This is not to say the movie is short on the director’s usual delight in showmanship; throughout the story are numerous sequences that clearly draw from his love for the stage- the black mass, viewed from the perspective of an unseen audience (Jean peering through a window), is blatantly theatrical, and a tableau vivant of Delacroix’s La Liberté guidant le peuple is later staged by the marquis at the asylum, a nod to the historical de Sade’s direction of plays featuring other inmates when he was at Charenton asylum- as well as to Marat/Sade, the famous avant-garde dramatization of those real-life “productions.”  In addition, the trappings of theatre are scattered throughout the film- costumes, wigs, false facial hair- and the marquis’ entire persona seems to be a sort of performance, as if he is always centerstage in the theatre of his own life.  All of this plays into Švankmajer’s eternal fascination with illusion and the tricks of perception that allow us to be deceived by our own minds, which in turn fits neatly into the Poe-inspired horror scenario, hinging as it does on this very idea; further, the subject matter gives Lunacy‘s theatricality the specific flavor of true Grand Guignol, a style named for the 19th Century Parisian theatre that popularized the staging of horror spectacles, steeped in gore and blasphemy, known for inducing a kind of sexual response to their sensationalistic thrills- which is, of course, highly appropriate in a piece so infused with the spirit of De Sade.

Lunacy is not, of course, a play, and though it borrows much from the theatrical milieu, it also revels in its cinematic nature.  Švankmajer’s understanding of his medium is absolute; he directs with the confidence- even the cockiness- of someone like Hitchcock or Kubrick, delighting in his offbeat style and audaciously presenting his subversive ideas with imagery that is as indelible as it is absurd.  That Lunacy is a self-proclaimed horror film makes little difference in the director’s approach; the choices and tactics he employs are no more horrific than those in any given Švankmajer film, and indeed, he shows considerable restraint here, leaving many things to the imagination that might, with a different director behind the camera, be exploited for their full shock potential.  Providing shock has never been of interest to Švankmajer; rather, he prefers to unsettle us, to disturb the comfort of our psyches by inundating it with the illogical and the impossible, simulating the peculiar flow of a dreamlike consciousness where the contradictory makes perfect sense and the ordinary seems unnatural and menacing.  He creates a hallucinatory landscape in which the demons of our imagination appear before our eyes in all their unexpected familiarity, and because he is so good at doing so, the things he doesn’t show us are all the more potent.

Lunacy, like all of Švankmajer’s films, is ultimately beyond the realm of standard criticism; it exists as a thing unto itself, and to this whimsically macabre visionary’s loyal legion of acolytes, it is one more perfect creation in a body of work that, thankfully, continues to grow.  That said, however, watching his effort at a bona fide horror film (though truthfully, in my view, all of his work could be classed as such) is something of a disappointment.  Given the genre into which he has ventured, one might expect a hitherto unseen level of grotesquery, if not in outright terror and gore, at least in the ferociousness of his approach; but although the film contains several highly effective set pieces (the aforementioned black mass- with its mixture of the arcane, the blasphemous, and the erotic- pushes a lot of buttons for those uncomfortable with such improprieties, and the entire premature burial sequence is a mini-masterpiece of evoking chills with atmospheric story-telling) and it maintains a palpable sense of dread and impending doom throughout, it seems strangely subdued- particularly given its influences from Poe and de Sade, neither of whom could be called masters of restraint. It’s true that the film is meant to be comedic as well, albeit in the darkest sense; but again, this can be said of most of Śvankmajer’s work.  Furthermore, his narrative- despite the anachronisms, non-sequiturs, and other occasionally jarring surrealist ornamentation- is uncharacteristically straightforward, linear, and grounded in a relatively concrete reality (with the exception of the ongoing interpolation of animated meat, that is).  Taken on the whole, Lunacy is less engaging than his Faust, and less disturbing than his Lewis Carroll adaptation, Alice, both of which push the limits of our preconceived boundaries with more enthusiasm and, consequently, linger in our memories far more pervasively.

Comparisons with his other work aside, Švankmajer’s horror film is still an impressively imaginative piece of work, capturing in its unorthodox framework both the delirious psychic instability that makes Poe’s stories feel like a fever dream and the perverse thrill that lies at the heart of de Sade’s nihilistic hedonism.  It’s not terrifying- though parts of it may cause faint hearts to beat faster- and its eventual conclusion is predictable for anyone who even a passing familiarity with the conceits of horror fiction; nevertheless, it succeeds better, both on an intellectual and a deeply primal level, than most of the formulaic, shock-oriented thrillers churned out by the mainstream film industry in its pursuit of teenage dollars.  Of course, its bizarre stylization may prevent many casual audiences from finding it appealing; Švankmajer’s movies are not for every taste, certainly, though in truth, Lunacy may be more accessible than much of his more directly avant-garde work.  As for those with more eclectic tastes, those who are already indoctrinated into the peculiar joys of this Czech master may find, as I did, that Lunacy fails to generate the same deliciously mind-twisting effects as some of his other projects- though doubtless there will be those, with whom it strikes a particular chord, who will quickly adopt it as a new favorite; those adventurous cinema enthusiasts who have yet to see a Švankmajer film, however, are likely to find it a pleasant introduction to a strange and darkly wondrous world unlike anything they have seen before.  It’s as good an introduction as any, and if it leaves you wanting more, you can take comfort in the fact that a five-decade body of work exists, awaiting your discovery.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0407236/

Far From Heaven (2002)

Today’s cinema adventure: Far From Heaven, the 2002 drama by writer/director Todd Haynes, which revisits the high-gloss style of late-1950s Hollywood melodramas in order to tell a story of social prejudice and dirty secrets surrounding an ideal, picture-perfect family in mid-century suburbia.  Acclaimed by critics and nominated for scores of awards, it represented Haynes’ breakthrough as a top-level filmmaker and brought him his greatest commercial success to date.  Particularly notable for its visual style- including radiant cinematography and meticulously realized period details- and the performance of Julianne Moore in the central role of a housewife whose ideal life begins to crumble around her, it is also considered an important breakthrough in the acceptance of independently produced films in the mainstream industry and something of a milestone in the continuing struggle to include gay and lesbian subject matter in movies aimed at a wider audience.

Set in the suburbs of Connecticut in 1956, Far From Heaven tells the story of Cathy Whitaker, a model housewife and mother in a seemingly perfect upper middle-class home.  Her marriage to Frank, a successful sales executive, is happy and fulfilling, and she is a prominent member of the town’s well-to-do women’s social circle.  She enjoys a blissfully elegant existence in her fashionable home, tended by Sybil, a black maid whom she treats- more or less- as an equal; the only aspect of her life that is less-than-ideal is the fact that Frank’s long hours at the office increasingly keep him away from home well into the night, but she is understanding and supportive of his efforts to keep his family well-provided-for.  One evening when he is again stuck at work, Cathy decides to surprise her husband by bringing him a dinner plate from home; when she arrives, however, it is she who receives the biggest surprise, for she discovers Frank locked in a passionate kiss with another man.  Later, at home, her deeply mortified husband haltingly admits to her that he has had “problems” in the past but until recently has believed himself to be over them.  He agrees to see a psychiatrist and undertake therapy to “cure” him of his homosexual impulses.  Nevertheless, as time passes, his refusal to discuss his ongoing treatment and his increasing emotional absence from their relationship- as well as his noticeably heavy drinking- begin to take their toll on their marriage; meanwhile, she finds an unexpected connection with her new gardener, Raymond, an educated black widower struggling to raise a daughter on his own.  As their friendship develops, however, Cathy’s society friends begin to take notice, and she finds herself being shunned for crossing the line between races- an unacceptable social taboo which results in the ostracism of Raymond within his own community, as well.  Facing condemnation from her former friends, no longer sure of her marriage, and growing to recognize the previously unthinkable truth about the nature of her feelings for Raymond, Cathy finds herself isolated and increasingly disillusioned by the hollow facade of her so-called perfect life, but in order to preserve her family she must make the difficult choice between following her own heart or conforming to social expectations.

Haynes, known for his highly stylized approach to filmmaking, wrote Far From Heaven as both a tribute to and a reinvention of the lavish domestic melodramas of the late 1950s, popular films which often featured controversial social issues as complications in their stories of idyllic middle-American life.  In keeping with this, his screenplay features the kind of artificial-sounding, slightly over-the-top dialogue found in these slick documents of mid-century morality; but he has updated the subject matter, throwing the spotlight onto the kind of issues that- though deeply pertinent in that age of prosperous conformism- were too hot to handle for film studios still bound by a decency code that prohibited depictions of anything outside the accepted social “norm.”  Consequently, Haynes has made a sort of “what if?” scenario come to life with Far From Heaven; he has painstakingly crafted a film that recreates the look and feel of those he is emulating, but which directly addresses the pertinent issues which could only be hinted at during the era in which they were made.  In other words, he has made the movie that many filmmakers of the time doubtless wished they could have made, but were simply unable.  Mining most specifically from the work of Douglas Sirk, whose big-screen soap operas, particularly All That Heaven Allows and Imitation of Life, provide the inspiration and the model for Far From Heaven, he peels off the layers of coded euphemism and sugar-coated insulation to reveal the ugly specter of prejudice at the heart of this pretty-picture existence.  In the suburban diorama he presents, the real emotional landscape beneath the pristine and well-ordered surface is made visible; he gives us a world where deviation from the accepted mold is a source of deep shame and scandal, where a “real man” believes that having sexual feelings for his own gender must be a psychological disorder, and where a woman’s friendship with her black maid is seen as admirably progressive but socializing in public with a black man is an affront to decency.

Haynes’ direction is impeccable; he lovingly conjures the form and substance of his chosen genre with absolute accuracy, and yet infuses the whole with his own particular style, subtly edgy and highly contemporary.  There is an eye towards the use of symbolism- Frank’s job is selling advertising and his company’s own marketing features a portrait of himself and his wife in the comfort of their ideal modern home, underscoring the theme of presenting an artificial image for public consumption, and there is a frequent presence of mirrors and other sources of reflection or visual duplication- but these elements are present mostly to support a more direct communication of his themes, revealed through his dialogue and his storytelling.  The outward form of his film adheres to the cinematic language of the movies by which it was inspired- the familiar standards of visual composition, leisurely tracking shots, slow cross-fades or blackouts between scenes, tilted camera angles to indicate that the world is slipping out of balance- without the use of more modernistic techniques such as rapid cutting or varying film speeds; one of Haynes’ most prominent traits as a filmmaker is his gift as a stylistic mimic, and he uses it to great advantage here.  His deep understanding of the milieu in which he is working permits him to utilize its techniques in the service of his personal vision- an expression of the painful longings buried within this bygone era, and a reminder that, sanitized nostalgia aside, the simpler times so fondly remembered in the popular imagination were rife with hypocrisy, ignorance, fear, and heartbreaking dysfunction.  More importantly, by presenting so clearly the outdated mores of the past, Haynes shows us not only how far we’ve come, but also- somewhat discomfortingly- how far we have yet to go.  In observing the attitudes toward race and sexuality variously represented by the characters in the film, we are forced to examine our own relationship with these questions; we are not so far removed from a time when gay bars were hidden establishments behind an unmarked door in an alley or when interracial couples were not free to appear in public together, and the mistrust and prejudice surrounding such matters are still a nagging blot in the heart of our cultural identity.  Though our own world may be a little closer than the one shown here, it is still, for too many of us, “far from heaven.”

The conceit of making a neo-Sirk melodrama, in less ambitious hands, might have resulted in a pale shadow of the original luster undeniably present in those earlier films, but Haynes takes it very seriously, and he takes it all the way; Far From Heaven is built like a piece of retro-fitted classic architecture, incorporating modern advancements into a structure made from the original raw materials and designs.  The film was shot using with contemporary camera equipment, but utilizing the same lens filters and incandescent lighting that would have been employed in the 1950s, allowing cinematographer Edward Lachman to provide a luminous authenticity that perfectly captures the look of the period.  Haynes also worked extensively with his designers to develop a color palette that matched the flavor of the era, infusing the sets and props with a rainbow of pastels and deep hues that likewise encapsulates the sensibilities of the time; most noticeable, perhaps, are the costumes of Sandy Powell, whose stunning designs incorporate not only the colors and lines of ’50s fashion, but the fabrics and textures as well, giving Far From Heaven a sense of realism that is often missing from such period films, which all too often look like an affected caricature of their era rather than a genuine expression of contemporaneous tastes.  To complete the illusion, Haynes went so far as to enlist the great film composer Elmer Bernstein, whose music graced many of the most well-remembered movies of the actual period, to write the score; his lush orchestral accompaniment lends an unmistakable air of authenticity to the proceedings, as well as voicing the passion, the yearning, and the menace inherent in the story.  It was to be Bernstein’s final work- he passed away shortly after completing it- but it stands as one of his finest.

Just as he takes the outward form of his project seriously, Haynes is careful to maintain its inner integrity; here again, he differentiates Far From Heaven from the countless other movies derived from mid-century sensibility by choosing to treat it without the irony that so often pervades contemporary takes on the period.  It is true that the film’s imagery often includes signage or other items which offer subtle commentary on the action or subtext, but this is irony in a different, more literary sense, an artistic device used extensively by directors dating back to the earliest days of cinema and thoroughly in keeping with the style of the actual works the filmmaker emulates.  To avoid inserting contemporary attitudes and judgments into the piece- particularly considering the use of stylized, melodramatic language in the movie’s dialogue- requires a delicacy and skill in the way it is handled by its players, an almost theatrical need to affect a heightened artifice without being disingenuous; one of the greatest blessings of Far From Heaven is that it has a superb cast that is more than equal to that challenge.  It almost goes without saying that the film’s star, the always-glorious Julianne Moore, gives a sublime performance as Cathy, offering up an utterly captivating journey from precious naïveté to worldly disillusionment; her embodiment of Donna Reed perfection is utterly sincere, and yet she gives us a glimmer of the more complex soul that emerges throughout the narrative, as she gradually pares away the layers of socially conditioned conformity to reveal the mature, fully aware woman she has become by the bittersweet final scene.  A more surprising and revelatory performance, however, comes from Dennis Quaid, as husband Frank; always a solid and dependable presence, the actor here breaks from all expectations- while simultaneously using them to great effect- with his portrait of a gay man trapped into the respectably straight, cookie-cutter existence dictated by convention; his exaggeratedly gregarious joviality rings no more false than that of any of his colleagues or cohorts- their world, after all, is a place where a show of male emotion is a sign of weakness and crippling imperfection- but when he is alone, his torment and shame are palpable, seething from within and racking his entire being.  His struggle is all the more painful to watch because his role in the story is that of the unfaithful husband, failing in his duty to home and family because of what his society deems a moral failing, and we as an audience are conditioned to disapprove of his behavior and his choices; Quaid plays it with absolute integrity, forcing us to confront our own preconceived notions by showing us the ugliness of his anger and resentment- but also making it clear that they arise from the conflict between his true nature and his protective mask.  Because he resists the temptation to soften his portrayal by playing for our sympathy, the unfolding emotional wreckage rings completely true, eliciting audience empathy far more than any forced Hollywood sentimentality could manage to do; his scene with Moore following the revelation of his secret shame- a choked, mutually humiliating exchange of faltering half-sentences and defensive body language- is one of the most devastating depictions of a breaking relationship in recent screen memory, and the understanding each actor has for their character in these moments allows us to feel the pain of both throughout the rest of the movie.

Though Far From Heaven ultimately belongs to its two stars, the remainder of the cast is equally superb.  Dennis Haysbert as Raymond brings a refreshingly genuine aura of class to his portrayal of a confident, kind, and sophisticated gentleman, determined to live as he deserves despite the social dictates that surround the color of his skin- though thanks to his later role as the television spokesman for Allstate, it’s sometimes hard to watch him without thinking of insurance.  Patricia Clarkson, as Cathy’s best friend and confidante Eleanor, tackles the delicate and thankless task of providing a sympathetic foil for Moore while having, ultimately, to represent the well-meaning but narrow-minded hypocrisy that permeated the time; she acquits herself admirably, making her character understandable, if not quite sympathetic.  Viola Davis, in an early role as Sybil, Cathy’s maid, has little to do beyond adding her quietly dignified presence to the proceedings, but she does so with grace and charisma, managing to make a strong and eminently likable impression with a minimum of spoken lines.  Finally, mention should be made of James Rebhorn, as the psychiatrist from whom Frank seeks “conversion” therapy, who has a memorable turn in his single scene; also resisting the urge to play a stereotype he presents the good doctor as friendly, kind and professional, a sympathetic- if inscrutable- figure who offers at least the suggestion of a more progressive attitude towards alternative sexuality.

Far From Heaven was a critical darling upon its release, and garnered more than 100 nominations for film awards worldwide, including 4 Oscars.  With its reverent use of classic filmmaking style and technique, it’s easy to see why critics and film scholars would find it so rewarding, and much of the praise and commentary it has generated has been centered on this aspect of the movie; but for those less interested in cinematic heritage than with entertainment value, does it provide a worthwhile time investment on its own merits?  The answer is a resounding yes; Haynes use of the classic mise-en-scène is geared entirely towards making an intelligent, modern film with a compelling, thought-provoking story, and the work of its cast and crew is never anything less than top-notch.  Whether or not you have knowledge or experience of the Sirk-ian ’50s tearjerkers from which it is derived, it is a beautiful film to look at, and even those who normally disdain weepy melodrama will find its approach to be restrained and dignified, devoid of the hokey manipulation that so often mars such stories.  Perhaps its greatest importance lies, however, in the snapshot it gives of a time and place in our not-too-distant past, when a dominant culture was freely allowed to discriminate and disenfranchise those who cannot conform to its carefully-guarded status quo; it’s a reminder of the human cost of hate and ignorance, and a warning to those who take for granted the social advancements of the past half-century- as well as an indictment against the all-too-many in today’s world who still cling to the outdated views of the not-so-golden past.  On a less profound level, it is also a gift for the legion of social “outsiders” who, like its director, grew up loving the movies to which it pays homage, and longed for one that spoke directly to the concerns pertinent in their own lives; Far From Heaven is that movie, and thanks to Todd Haynes, it is everything we could have hoped it would be.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0297884/

Gosford Park (2001)

Today’s cinema adventure: Gosford Park, the 2001 period mystery-comedy directed by Robert Altman and featuring an all-star ensemble cast in a screenplay by future Downton Abbey writer Julian Fellowes.  Set on an English country estate in the early 1930s, it uses the familiar premise of an Agatha-Christie-style whodunnit as a pretense to explore the complex social structure and interrelationships among the wealthy landed gentry and the servant class that runs their households, exposing the busy undercurrent of secrets and scandals that flows beneath the genteel and proper surface of upper class British society.  One of Altman’s most successful films, it was popular at the box office as well as with most critics, and it received a number of awards and nominations, including an Oscar for Fellowes’ screenplay, Best Film at the BAFTAs and Best Ensemble Cast (the rough equivalent of Best Picture) from the SAG Awards.

The film takes its title from the name of the estate on which it is set, owned by Sir William McCordle, where a number of guests gather for a weekend hunting party.  Most are relatives or family associates- Lady McCordle’s sisters and their husbands, daughter Isobel’s suitor, a dowager cousin- but among their midst are also a few strangers, including a Hollywood producer named Weissman and noted film star Ivor Novello.  This elite crowd, however, constitutes a minority of the population here in Gosford Park; the household is crowded with an army of servants, bustling around the clock to serve their masters, and their number is increased by the influx of personal valets and maids who attend the estate’s guests.  As the weekend progresses, rigorous adherence to decorum and tradition dominates the outward appearance of this gathering and its festivities, despite the myriad personal agendas, hidden relationships, false pretenses, secret histories, private resentments, and unseen tragedies that exist behind the scenes.  These underlying dramas are unexpectedly brought to the surface when a murder takes place, prompting the intrusion of the local police inspector whose investigation lays bare many of the dirty little secrets on both sides of the class divide- as well as some which cross that inflexible boundary.  The solution to the mystery, masked beneath layers of assumption, convention, and privilege, may be a simple crime of passion or a calculated act motivated by financial gain- or it may ultimately hinge on the conflict between an unjust social system and the most basic impulses of humanity.

Director Altman was known for his explorations of different subcultures (the military in M*A*S*H, the country music community in Nashville, the Hollywood film industry in The Player), using an interwoven tapestry of characters and events to offer social observation and commentary through the prism of these microcosmic settings; by the time of Gosford Park, his reputation was such that he had no trouble securing the impressive collection of collaborators necessary to bring to life this meticulous recreation of Edwardian country life between the wars.  Screenwriter Fellowes, an actor who had (at the time) never previously authored a screenplay, was approached by the director due to his extensive knowledge of the complex workings of the domestic management of the era and the culture of the serving class upon which it all depended; he wrote a script, and served as the film’s technical advisor as well, allowing him to rewrite and hone portions of his work on the set.  As with most of Altman’s films, some of the dialogue was also improvised during filming, particularly in the scenes involving a large group of actors, lending an authenticity to the sound of the conversations and contributing to the overall feel that we, the audience, are eavesdropping upon the characters’ private lives; even so, under Fellowes’ guidance, the entire, sprawling saga is united with a cohesive singularity of purpose and consistency of style, providing the master director a solid structure upon which to build his own vision.

Altman’s signature format, in which a focused perspective is imposed upon an almost documentary approach to the narrative, at first might seem a bit ill-suited to a costume piece like Gosford Park; we are conditioned by experience to expect a more theatrical presentation in films such as this.  However, the Altman treatment works brilliantly here, particularly given the director’s purpose; like all of his films, Gosford Park is less concerned with plot (though the story is intricately woven and ultimately, very compelling) than it is with its characters and its observations of human behavior.  Like a fly on the wall, we are privy to the public and private interactions of the denizens of this estate and their guests, but these exchanges seem part of a bigger landscape, as if they were individual trees or a babbling brook in a painting of a countryside; in other words, the concerns of the characters are details which contribute to the more significant whole, a complete portrait of a way of life.  The details of a nobleman’s financial schemes or backstairs dalliances are granted no more importance than the polishing of the silver for dinner service; indeed, the mundane details of this rarefied lifestyle are far more interesting to Altman than the various worldly concerns of the characters, and, thanks to his careful choices in focus, he makes them so for us, too.

In keeping with his detached observational technique, the director similarly places emphasis on the intricacies of his characters’ behavior and personalities.  Each individual is seen in relation to the others, illuminating their social roles and the subtleties of the relationships between the various subdivisions, even within the two primary groups.  Money, status, seniority, tradition, convention- all these and more play a part in determining the “pecking order,” and the rules of this rigid structure far outweigh any considerations based on emotion or concern for humanity; there is no tolerance for those who forget or disguise their rightful place in the order of things, and the public display of passion, particularly when it crosses the sacred class boundaries by which the entire cultural system is governed, is a greater transgression of decency and decorum than a discreetly-executed murder.  It is this obsession with maintaining appearances, of keeping all the warts and wrinkles of being human out of sight at all cost, that ultimately emerges as the over-reaching theme of Gosford Park; it is also seen, by microcosmic implication, as the mechanism for the looming downfall of this ponderous, antiquated way of life- for in the deeply buried untidiness of past scandal lies the seed of the consequence which rises from the well-hidden, forgotten depths to strike a blow against the entrenched injustice of the entire system.  In this way, despite its almost reverent depiction of an ultra-conservative world in which even the most downtrodden are contemptuous of change, Gosford Park manages to echo the anti-establishment sentiment usually associated with Altman’s work.

Such socio-political conclusions are left, however, to be drawn (or not) by the viewer; Altman adopts an objective eye, almost like a field researcher doing an anthropological study.  He records the events of the weekend with a slowly moving camera, lingering here or there to pick up an interesting detail or reveal a fact which might not be apparent to the passing eye, and trusting Fellowes’ words to carry the narrative, along with any thematic elements that may be present.  Of course, it falls to the cast to bring life to the script and give the director the behaviors with which to fill his lens; and the collection of superb actors on display in Gosford Park does so magnificently, capturing every subtle nuance of their roles and deftly providing an ocean of subtext without ever disturbing the naturalistic atmosphere that is Altman’s milieu.  Most of these players are experienced in theatre, which serves them well as Altman allows his focus to move freely amongst the characters the way the eye travels around the stage at a live performance; as they conduct their conversations, steal their glances at each other, clear the table, pour the sherry, and all the other living activities on display at a dinner party, the audience may or may not be watching- they must be “on” at all times, regardless.  They speak realistically, often overlapping dialogue and talking simultaneously, as Altman shrewdly hovers just long enough to permit us to hear the crucial bits; and in the smaller scenes, depicting the private moments spent alone or in pairs, though the emphasis is often on what is seen and what is left unsaid rather than what is spoken, the vital information is communicated, nevertheless, through the minutest of gestures and expressions.  It’s an impressive collection of performances, one of the finest examples of true ensemble screen acting in recent memory.

This incomparable cast includes a mix of actors, from the legendary to the unknown, all of whom deliver exemplary performances; a few stand out, deserving special nods, not so much because they are superior but because their roles give them the chance to shine individually. Most noticeable, perhaps, is the always delicious Maggie Smith as a snobbish and acid-tongued dowager countess (foreshadowing her Emmy-winning role in Fellowes’ wildly successful Downton Abbey series a decade later); Helen Mirren exudes the anonymous perfectionism and the crisp, selfless honor of a lifetime in service, and late in the film releases an unforgettable flood of repressed humanity that drives home everything Gosford Park is about; Michael Gambon, as the misanthropic lord of the manor, and Kristin Scott-Thomas, as his icy and discontented wife, personify the insulated ennui of the inconceivably wealthy-and-powerful upper class; Stephen Fry has a remarkable turn as the police inspector, turning the familiar stock character of this genre on its ear by being dull and sycophantic instead of brilliant and unflappable; Emily Watson gives us a portrait of youth and good nature being bent by servitude towards frustration, bitterness and cynicism, putting a human face on the socially-sanctioned exploitation of the serving class; and relative newcomer Kelly Macdonald is charming and likable as the deceptively naive young ladies’ maid who provides our window of access into the austere and intimidating world of the film.  Also lending the weight of their presence are such thespian luminaries as Alan Bates, Derek Jacobi, Eileen Atkins, and Charles Dance; a newer generation asserts itself through the work of Clive Owen and Jeremy Northam, and representing the American contingent are the stalwart Bob Balaban and the handsome Ryan Phillippe, as the film producer and his valet, respectively, present for the purpose of researching an upcoming movie project and concealing a number of secrets in their own right.

The three-way combination of director, screenwriter, and cast is supported by a top-notch assembly of technical and visual elements; filmed on location at several authentic English country houses and a painstakingly constructed soundstage set at Shepperton Studios, the atmosphere of Gosford Park is so completely realized that we are wholly transported to this bygone place and time.  The sumptuous production design executed under the supervision of the director’s son, Stephen Altman, and the dazzling array of costumes, designed by Jenny Beavan, all captured by the rich cinematography of Andrew Dunn- these contributions help to make the movie a total immersion in the period it portrays.  Completing the effect is the wistfully nostalgic score by Patrick Doyle, evoking the sadness of a dying age, and rounded out by the inclusion of several songs by the real-life Ivor Novello, performed exquisitely by actor Northam, both on camera and off.

With the popularity of the aforementioned Downton Abbey, many will no doubt be drawn to this previous work by its author; it should be noted that, though the intricacies of English country life are depicted with the same painstaking accuracy as in Gosford Park, the tone here is much different than in the hit series.  Altman’s style and purpose are far removed from the tone of fond admiration which pervades Downton, and his characters are less likely to incur our affections and loyalties than those to be found on Lord Grantham’s estate.  As with all of the director’s work, Gosford Park is not for every taste- the cool detachment, the oddly stylized naturalism, the oblique and almost passive-aggressive social criticism, the ironic and oh-so-dry humor, and- perhaps most of all- the constantly roving focus that makes it difficult to anchor one’s emotional perspective in the story; these are all common obstacles for many viewers who dislike Robert Altman films, and they are certainly present here.  Conversely, fans of the director’s work may be turned off by the movie’s cloistered atmosphere, a far cry from the more free-wheeling, overtly colorful setting of his usual, decidedly American subjects.  Nevertheless, Gosford Park is one of Altman’s most accessible pictures, appealing to a wide range of audiences that might not otherwise be appreciative of his sometimes obtuse approach.  In some ways his most atypical project, and in others a quintessentially Altman creation, it cannot be termed his masterpiece, by any means, but it must be ranked highly in his canon as one of his most successful films in terms of overall accomplishment of its intended goals.  Taken independently from Altman’s other work, it certainly stands as a prime example of what can happen when style, content, and execution come together so coherently that the end result is as polished and nearly perfect as a film can be.  For my part, Gosford Park is the kind of movie that makes me remember why I love movies; even if it’s not your cup of tea (to use an apt expression), it’s worth a look just to see what happens when genuine cinematic teamwork makes all the pieces fit as neatly as a good butler’s tuxedo.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0280707/

Bronson (2008)

Today’s cinema adventure: Bronson, the 2008 biopic about England’s most notorious prison inmate, Michael Peterson (who changed his name to Charles Bronson during his brief career as a boxer), whose reputation for violence and trouble-making has led to his having spent the majority of his adult life behind bars- and most of that in solitary confinement.  Directed by Nicholas Winding Refn and starring Tom Hardy in the title role, the film takes Peterson’s real-life story and presents it in a highly stylized, theatrical manner, focusing on fictionalized vignettes and incorporating some real-life footage to depict some of the most infamous incidents from his long history.  Rather than a straightforward biography, the movie is more a meditation on the enigmatic nature that causes such antisocial behavior, ultimately leaving its subject’s motivations a mystery and offering no concrete explanation for the impulse towards violence.

Bronson frames its story with a narrative conceit in which Peterson presents his own story, to an unseen but appreciative audience, on a bare stage; in various stages of theatrical make-up, and with a considerable amount of flourish, he gleefully relates his life story, beginning with his childhood as the son of typical middle-class parents in the London suburb of Luton.  Intercutting portrayals of real events with his “performance” in the theater, the film proceeds to relate the general outline of his life.  We see his early marriage to a co-worker who witnesses his first crime (the theft of money from a cash drawer in their shop), his subsequent arrest and incarceration for the armed robbery of a post office, and the continual extension of his 7-year sentence due to his repeated assaults on his guards and fellow inmates.  When frequent transfers to different facilities throughout the penal system fail to curb his violent tendencies, he is declared insane and moved to a mental institution, where despite heavy sedation he nevertheless attempts to murder another patient.  Further transfers lead to further incidents, so he is declared sane and set free.  His return to the outside world is short-lived, however.  After a short career as a fighter in the illegal sport of bare-knuckle boxing (for which, at the suggestion of his promoter, he adopts his new name), a jewelry store robbery lands him back in prison after only 69 days, where he promptly resumes his  escalating cycle of violence, despite showing an interest- and some talent- in art, leading to an ongoing campaign of riots, beatings, and  hostage-taking that continues not only up to the making of the film, but to this day.

The challenge for a filmmaker trying to tell this story is to find a way to avoid making it seem repetitive; Peterson’s life is one brutal fight after another, almost all of which happen in prison cells.  In the screenplay for Bronson, co-written by director Refn with Brock Norman Brock, an elegant solution is found with the bold and decidedly stylized narrative device in which the film’s subject presents his own vision of his life in the “theater of the mind.”  Besides providing a unique means of breaking up the action and offering pithy commentary, this technique creates an almost Brechtian detachment in which, constantly alienated from the story by the obvious artificiality of this conceit, we are encouraged to examine Peterson’s tale with our intellect instead of our emotions; yet, at the same time, by allowing the darkly charismatic criminal to speak for himself, Refn and Brock also make it possible for us to make a connection with him that would be impossible in a more standard approach to his tale.  He is permitted to be polished and eloquent in the spotlight of his fantasy, a stark contrast to the brutish, inarticulate beast we see in the scenes of his real life, and the self-satisfied irony of his performance persona confronts us with a defiantly mocking challenge to our attempts to find reason or logic behind his ferocious nature.  In short, the interstitial theatrics convert the proceedings from a straightforward- if stylish- biographical drama to a somewhat surreal cinematic exploration of the violent mind and its disquieting opposition to the standards of civilized normalcy we take for granted.

Despite this artistic spin, Bronson still struggles with the issue of redundancy; the film’s more concrete depiction of events returns, by necessity, to scenes of its anti-hero beating his handlers to a pulp, making it feel like something of a one-note symphony.  Director Refn, however, a Danish-born wunderkind whose later film, Drive, has firmly established him as an auteur on the rise, manages to find a number of creative stylistic tweaks which prevents the movie from seeming like it is stuck in a loop.  Even when we are not within the clearly marked boundaries of the theatrical framing device, Refn maintains a dreamlike sensibility that keeps us unsure of where we stand in the continuum of reality and illusion; he creates a visually arresting and mentally stimulating atmosphere through his use of bold primary colors, odd lenses and camera angles, and an absurdist perspective in his approach to the mundane aspects of the institutionalized settings.  He varies the environment as much as possible, choosing a number of distinctively different backdrops for Peterson’s myriad brawls and acts of terror (particularly memorable is the re-purposed ballroom that serves as a Fellini-esque purgatory for the scenes in the mental institution) and utilizing a surprisingly diverse assortment of jail cells and common rooms- which has the added effect of underscoring just how many times responsibility for “England’s most violent prisoner” is passed from one facility to another.  Most importantly- and more to Refn’s purpose- the ever-changing backdrops and the hallucinatory sense of heightened reality yield a disorientation that keeps us from anchoring ourselves as we experience Peterson’s journey and, ultimately, reminds us that everything we see here is filtered through the skewed perspective of his mind.

In the center, standing in for the larger-than-life figure himself, is Tom Hardy, making a substantial breakthrough in a career which has since led him to participation in blockbusters such as Inception and The Dark Knight Rises.  Given his powerful, commanding performance, it’s no surprise that he has become one of the industry’s most promising stars; his vision of Peterson- with whom he met in person before filming began- is an impressive creation, full of raw, animalistic power (his massive, rock-solid physique contributes greatly in this department) and yet with the spark of considerable native intelligence that makes it impossible to explain away his brutal tendencies as the product of ignorance.  This is a man who knows exactly what he is doing- his violence is a conscious choice, even a calling, and Hardy makes it clear how much pride he takes in it.  What makes his portrayal most effective, perhaps, and in precise tune with Refn’s approach, is the humor he brings to it; ironic, dark and unsettling humor, but effective in helping us into the mind of this flamboyant character.  We may not understand what we find there, but in Hardy’s performance at least, we are captivated by it.  The rest of the performances- small roles, for the most part, reflecting the peripheral nature of others in Peterson’s personal universe- are effective as well, though no one gets much opportunity to shine, save for Matt King as the convict’s fey and seedy former-prison-acquaintance-turned-boxing-promoter and Juliet Oldfield as the young call girl with whom he has a dalliance during his brief taste of freedom.  It’s not meant to be an ensemble piece, however; Bronson is, for all intents and purposes, a one-man show for Hardy, who certainly proves himself up to the challenge.

With such a strong performance to recommend it, showcased in a stylish and visually exciting vehicle by its exceptionally talented director, Bronson succeeds in providing an engaging look at its notorious subject, albeit a highly fictionalized one- numerous facts are significantly altered and others are omitted or made up entirely to suit the purpose of Refn’s vision, which is more along the lines of an expressionist horror film.  The director casts his real-life subject as a sort of monster, though the story is seen from his point of view; Peterson is depicted as a force of chaos, a willful representative of the uncontrollable nature that lurks behind our civilized veneer, and much in the way that Godzilla represented the nuclear demons that lurked in the post-war Japanese zeitgeist, so does this destructive beast stem from our own uneasiness about the wild, untamed impulses surging beneath the surface of our blandly dehumanized society.  Though we struggle to understand the deeper motivations for Peterson’s deranged behavior, he himself offers the simple explanation that he wants to be famous; and in a world where fame and celebrity are the only way to rise above the dull existence of the common throng, it is discomfortingly reasonable to assume that this may, in fact, be the truth.  If he is a monster, he is a monster we have created, and the irony which permeates Hardy’s performance and the film itself aptly underlines this.

Thought-provoking and compelling though this thematic perspective may be, Bronson never really shakes us up in the way other films with a similar take on society have done.  Refn crafts his movie carefully, giving it a distinctive flavor of its own while evoking the memory of such iconic works as Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and Lindsay Anderson’s If…, but despite- or perhaps because of- the clear calculation of his vision, in the end the film feels more like an exercise in style than an expression of truth.  Still, that style has considerable appeal, and Bronson, while it may not be gripping, is never boring to watch.  This in itself would earn the film a recommendation, but when Hardy’s deeply committed tour-de-force performance is added into the mix, it’s an irresistible combination.  It may not be a great film, but it offers an exciting early glimpse at the prodigious talent of its two driving forces; both Refn and Hardy are still relatively new in the game, but they seem poised on the brink of long and significant careers, and based on the potential they reveal here, it’s easy to see why.

It should be mentioned that Bronson features a considerable amount of full-frontal nudity, all of it provided by Tom Hardy, thanks to the title character’s penchant for stripping down and covering his body with “war paint” before a brawl.  Depending on your viewpoint regarding such content- and your feelings about Mr. Hardy- this could provide further incentive to schedule a viewing, ASAP.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1172570/

The Fall (2006)

 

Today’s cinema adventure: The Fall, a 2006 film, directed by Tarsem Singh, about a suicidal young man who unfolds an elaborate adventure tale for a little immigrant girl as they recover from injuries in a 1920s-era Los Angeles hospital.  Filmed over the course of four years at locations throughout the world, it was a deeply personal labor of love for its director, largely financed at his own expense.  It was initially released only on the film festival circuit, but, championed by filmmakers Spike Jonez and David Fincher, it was given widespread distribution in 2008, receiving widely mixed reviews; some critics found it a visually interesting bore while others placed it on their best-of-the-year lists, but the consensus was, by and large, mostly favorable, and the film was a moderate box office success.

Based on a 1981 Bulgarian film entitled Yo Ho Ho, The Fall interweaves its main narrative with epic scenes of sweeping fantasy described in the story told by its broken adult protagonist, Roy, a novice movie stunt man whose spine has been damaged in a fall during his first film shoot.  Deeply depressed, he has lost the will to live, but his morose state of mind has less to do with his injury than with the loss of the woman he loves to the movie star for whom he was doubling.  Recovering in the same hospital is Alexandria, a precocious Romanian child whose arm was broken in a fall while picking oranges with her immigrant family; curious and imaginative; she has taken to wandering the corridors and grounds, becoming a favorite among the other patients and the staff, who treat her as something of a mascot.  When she befriends Roy, he begins to entertain her with a fabulous tale of adventure and revenge, in which a masked bandit and his heroic comrades seek revenge against an evil prince for the wrongs he has done them; it becomes clear that his story is shaped as he goes by his own real-life situation, and that his ulterior motive is to use the continuing saga as a means to coerce his young companion into stealing morphine from the hospital’s dispensary in order to facilitate his intended suicide.  As the events of both stories unfold, little Alexandria exerts her own influence, inserting herself into the fantasy and affecting its outcome even as she begins to work her way into Roy’s broken heart.  Eventually, the imaginary epic becomes a vehicle for her desperate efforts to keep Roy’s hope alive- as well as her own.

Tarsem’s screenplay, co-authored with Dan Gilroy and Nico Soultanakis, is geared towards revealing the triangulated relationship between reality, imagination, and the unconscious mind; but it is the relationship between its two protagonists that dominates the film, despite the resplendent spectacle of the fantasy sequences in which their shared psychodrama plays out.  This is not a negative criticism; on the contrary, the surreal, stream-of-consciousness yarn woven by the convalescent pair is meant to serve as illumination for the real-life process of their psychic healing, not the other way around, and it is a testament of the director’s dedication to his vision that The Fall does not make the fatal error of overwhelming its humanity by emphasizing the adventure plot over the drama which is the true center of the film.  That said, one can’t help wishing at times that a bit more effort had been made to forge a stronger coherence into the fantastical subplot, which is as all-over-the-map in its storyline as it is in its pan-geographical setting; but part of the film’s conceit is that the story morphs to suit the changing emotional needs of Roy and Alexandria, replicating the spontaneity and whimsy of a game of make believe, and though it may cause some frustration in viewers attuned to logical, linear storytelling, its structural malleability is in keeping with the larger purpose at hand.

The changing dynamics of this fantasy narrative yield numerous interesting subtleties.  We see, for example, that its visual manifestation is shaped by little Alexandria through the discrepancies between what Roy describes and what we see, reflecting her different cultural understanding- the bandits and Indians with which he fills his tale are depicted through the lens of her Eastern European, Ottoman-influenced imagination rather than the Hollywood-Western milieu he clearly intends; and the characters populating the adventure are portrayed by those surrounding the little girl in her real life (nurses, orderlies, visitors to the hospital), reflecting her associations and assumptions about them and what they represent for her.  Such clever and thoughtful touches do much to establish the elaborate meta-drama as a stage for the interaction of the two characters’ unconscious minds, as well as providing the source for a considerable amount of humor and even some subtle social commentary.

On a more obvious level, of course, it is these remarkable fantasy sequences that give The Fall its most distinctive quality- the breathtaking visual opulence that is made all the more astonishing by the knowledge that no special effects or computer enhancements were used.  Exotic, spectacular locations across the globe were used to create a surreal world of wonder; we are transported to Moorish palaces, ancient ruins, sparkling reefs, lush forests, otherworldly desertscapes, and monumental structures both well-known and unfamiliar, all beautifully photographed and magnificently showcased by Tarsem and cinematographer Colin Watkinson.  The characters are bedecked in the lavish costumes of Eiko Ishioka, which conjure a timelessly mythic quality made somehow more magical by their authenticity and their exquisite detail; and the larger-than-life majesty of these segments is undercut throughout with a playful spirit that keeps them fun and relieves the comparatively somber mood of the hospital environment in which the rest of the film is set.

Despite its inherent goofiness and its rambling inconsistency, the tale of the Blue Bandit manages to build an emotional weight as it reaches its climax; and though its characters’ fates are rendered irrelevant by the knowledge that they are wholly imaginary, they are nevertheless granted significance because we have come to care about the pair of storytellers who have created them.  It is in those less-rousing hospital scenes that the movie makes the emotional connection necessary to fuel both plots.  It succeeds in doing so largely because of the remarkable chemistry between its two leading players, Lee Pace and Catinca Untaru.  Tarsem cleverly sculpted this crucial element by shooting their segments in sequence, allowing the relationship between the two actors to develop naturally and taking care to keep the intrusiveness of his camera at a minimum- several scenes were filmed through a hole in the curtain surrounding the bed in which Pace’s character is confined, in order to preserve the feeling of intimacy- as well as allowing young Untaru (along with most of the crew) to continue in her initial belief that Pace was actually paraplegic.  In addition, much of their dialogue was unscripted, permitting the girl to use her natural expression; this not only results in a truly genuine performance from the little star, capturing her infectious real-life personality onscreen, but actually bore influence on the film’s scenario, with the director adapting certain elements of the story in response to spontaneous developments that took place in front of the camera.  This organic, delicate approach certainly paid off: the result is one of the most endearing, believable child performances ever put on film, and a magical, touching onscreen relationship that informs everything else that happens in The Fall.  Due credit goes to Pace, as well, who gives us a heart-rending portrayal of a young man crippled by morbid despair even as he manages to hold up his end of the connection with his juvenile co-star, not to mention the considerable task of embodying the fanciful hero of his fabricated saga.

Though the two central performers play an enormous part in making The Fall appealing, the real star is director Tarsem.  Having established himself as a talented film craftsman in the field of commercials and music videos (including the multi-award-winning video for REM’s “Losing My Religion”), he made his feature debut with the stylish 2000 thriller, The Cell, which was sufficiently successful to gain him the clout- and the finances- to make this highly personal film.  Choosing to pay for the bulk of it himself in order to forgo the necessity for compromising his vision to meet the demands of backers, the end result of his dedication is a visually stunning piece of filmmaking, laden with magnificent scenery, brilliantly composed frames, a dazzling array of color and light, and threaded through with an obvious reverence for the cinematic medium itself; continually incorporating elements of optical illusion and perceptual trickery (with numerous clear nods to the art of Salvador Dalì), he reminds us of the illusory nature of existence and celebrates the simple magic with which our lives can be enriched- not just on the big screen, but within our own imaginations.  He also proves that his ability is more than merely technical with his savvy handling of the actors and his wise approach of allowing their own artistry to make its contribution to his film, infusing it with an vibrant honesty that makes it much more than so many of the hollow, soulless spectacles foisted upon us in our neighborhood multiplexes today.

The most pertinent question, of course, is the same with The Fall as it is with any other move: is it sufficiently engaging to sustain interest for its two-hour running time?  Many critics- and other viewers- did not think so; doubtless those who were bored were expecting a comfortably predictable adventure fantasy, along the lines of The Princess Bride, with enough artsy quirkiness thrown in to appeal to the highbrow set.  If so, it is no wonder they were disappointed.  Tarsem’s film defies expectation, choosing instead to tell its own, bittersweet little story in a highly unorthodox style; it is a movie about the heart, the mind, and the imagination, and its characters are not the catch-phrase-spouting adventurers that populate standard blockbuster fare, nor is its action the main focus of attention.  Indeed, the movie’s formula is almost an inversion of the norm, with the action and adventure sublimated to serving the needs of the characters’ psychological journeys rather than vice-versa.  Such a switch doesn’t make for heart-pounding, adrenaline pumping excitement, and any viewer looking for such thrills is better off looking elsewhere; but if you’re looking for a rare and unique, highly affecting, thought-provoking experience that shines with the sheer joy of filmmaking as an art- as opposed to a cash cow- then you can’t ask for better than The Fall.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0460791/

 

Requiem for a Dream (2000)

Today’s cinema adventure: Requiem for a Dream, Darren Aronofsky’s 2000 film exploring the dehumanizing, destructive effects of addiction through its depiction of three seasons in the lives of a group of interconnected characters. Noted for bringing the promising Aronofsky to the forefront of attention as one of Hollywood’s hottest new directors, it garnered many accolades- especially for the performance of its veteran star, Ellen Burstyn, for whom it provided a comeback of sorts, and for its powerful musical score by Clint Mansell. It also generated much controversy over its use of graphic drug-related and sexual imagery, receiving an NC-17 rating from the MPAA despite Aronofsky’s protest and appeals. When the director refused to make cuts, the distributor, Artisan, showed rare support by deciding to release the film without a rating; on subsequent home video release, a slightly edited R-rated version was made available in addition to the original cut, ironically missing only a few brief graphic sexual images- evidently, the hardcore drug use was considered less objectionable than the sex.

The film’s interwoven plot follows the fate of four Brooklyn-ites: Sarah, an aging Jewish widow whose life is mainly occupied with watching television infomercials; her son Harry, whose recreational drug habit is funded by the repeated pawning of his mother’s TV (which she promptly buys back, every time); his girlfriend Marion, an aspiring fashion designer supported by her wealthy parents; and his best friend Tyrone, who dreams of living up to his mother’s high hopes for him even as he slings drugs on the street. When Harry and Tyrone decide to go into the heroin business for themselves, using Tyrone’s connections as a source and planning to use the profits to open a shop for Marian’s designs, the future starts to look brighter for the three young people; meanwhile Harry’s mother is notified that she has been chosen to appear as a contestant on a game show, giving her a new lease on life, as well. However, the promise of these new developments quickly sours: Tyrone is arrested after being caught in the middle of a drug gang assassination, requiring Harry to use most of their profits to bail him out; and in her desire to lose weight for her impending TV appearance, Sarah becomes dependent on prescription amphetamine diet pills. To make matters worse, a heroin shortage forces Harry and his companions to resort to desperate- and progressively more degrading- means in obtaining the drugs to support their own worsening addictions, and Sarah is plagued by disturbing hallucinations as her sanity begins to deteriorate rapidly. With their dreams of a better life now hopelessly out of reach, there is nothing for any of them to do but spiral deeper into their private hells, driven by their addictions and haunted by the memories of what might have been.

Adapted from the novel by Hubert Selby, Jr., the screenplay, co-written by Aronofsky and the author himself, paints a bleak and harrowingly realistic picture of the horrors of drug addiction; despite this, however, the film is not so much a polemic against drug abuse as it is an exploration of the very nature of addiction itself. Each of its characters uses escapism as a salve to ease the pain and monotony of their lives, whether it be heroin, food, sex, or mindless TV programming. The drugs which ultimately destroy their lives are merely a metaphor for the so-called “American Dream;” the film’s ultimate purpose is to expose it as a lie, a fabricated ideal of success which obscures the real human experiences of family, love, and community. In the pursuit of an unattainable goal, such tangible rewards go unappreciated and ignored, and are eventually lost; each of the film’s four central characters are inherently likable, essentially good-hearted individuals who embrace an illusion as a means to bring them the happiness they are sure will follow when they achieve their goals- but the means itself is a destructive, uncontrollable force which creates chaos, pulling them ever further from the fulfillment for which they long. It’s a powerful message, and the disturbing form in which it is delivered suggests some very uncomfortable questions about the level of addiction- in all its guises- permeating our society. Through the joined tales of each protagonist, we are shown the ease with which an average person can make the journey to becoming one of the millions of broken, lost souls from whom we quickly look away, terrified of being reminded of the nightmare existence which goes on between the cracks in our culture’s cheery, prosperous façade.

Jolting as the screenplay may be, what makes Requiem for a Dream such a ferocious and unforgettable film experience is Aronofsky’s audacious and hallucinatory visual style. The director keeps a clinical distance from his subjects, discouraging the formation of a sentimental connection by way of his constantly shifting perspective and his use of camera-and-editing-room trickery. He alternates between omniscient long distance shots and intimate extreme close-ups, underscores ironic parallels and repetitive patterns with rapid-fire cuts (known, incidentally, as “hip hop montage”), highlights isolation and disconnection with extensive split screen effects, heightens the surreal atmosphere with time-lapse and slow-motion photography, and takes us into the psyche of his characters with the use of lenses which recreate the grotesque and distorted imagery of their delusional perceptions. With all these visual elements in play, he still manages to build the pace steadily with progressively shorter scenes and more rapid and frequent intercutting as the movie moves towards its conclusion. It’s a visual thrill ride worthy of the Coney Island setting which provides a backdrop for several of its scenes, and a display of technical mastery that leaves no doubt of this director’s prodigious cinematic talent. More than that, though, the carefully maintained emotional detachment facilitates an empirical quality to his film, allowing him to place the emphasis on observation rather than drama. As his characters move through their experiences, Aronofsy lets the circumstantial developments of the plot serve merely as a means to elicit reactions from them, focusing instead on their behavior and psychology; he pays particular attention to the ritualization of their addictions, the fantasies and associations that arise from the situations in which they find themselves, and the ways in which they blind themselves to their own vulnerability. It’s an approach which sometimes makes us feel like a voyeur, with the characters as objects for our perusal and study- specimens instead of the more conventional vehicles for transference of audience sympathy.

It’s not all flash and style, however, and the solidly intellectual and aesthetic approach to the subject does not make for a cold film. Though Aronofsky maintains his artistic aloofness throughout, taking care not to sugarcoat his characters or their obsessions and making sure the absurdity of their fantasies never threatens to become overtly comic in tone, Requiem for a Dream is far from being devoid of humanity. On the contrary, the depth of emotion which each character experiences is given full scope and attention; it’s fair to say, in fact, that the real story lies more in their emotional journey than in the outward circumstances of their experiences. Certainly the full power of Aronofsky’s film derives from its emotional weight, and the detachment with which he depicts their struggles somehow has the effect of bringing their poignancy into stark relief, making us feel their misery far more keenly than if it were portrayed in a Hollywood-style, sentiment-drenched narrative. It’s not empathy, exactly, an effect Aronofsky works so diligently to avoid, nor is it pathos; rather, it is a form of psychic horror at the level of desperation to which these damned souls are driven to sink in their quest for gratification, something akin to the overwhelming sense of nameless loss experienced when we witness a tragic accident or a cataclysmic disaster.

Requiem for a Dream, as Aronofsky clearly understood, can only work so effectively upon us with a strong cast breathing life into the subjects under its director’s microscope. Jared Leto, as Harry, is a worthy leading man, providing a solid, grounding energy that makes even his most misguided actions seem like a reasonable idea; he gives his character intelligence and a genuinely good nature, making him the most likable figure in the film and making his deterioration the most heartbreaking to watch. Jennifer Connelly, as Marian, exudes the confidence and elegance of privilege but adds a palpable layer of little-girl insecurity; and Marlon Wayans, as Tyrone, exudes easy-going charm and a sincere warmth that makes it clear his intentions are as good as he says they are. The most unforgettable performance, however, comes from Burstyn, as Sarah; her unflinchingly honest portrayal is the centerpiece of the film, capturing us from her first moments onscreen- locking herself in the bedroom while her son steals her television, yet again, for drug money- and taking us on the ups and downs of her journey to hell without ever once resorting to cheap sentimentality or self-conscious mannerism. Her work in the final third of the film is particularly remarkable, giving it a tragic power that belies its disaffected style. It’s as real a piece of screen acting as you will ever see, fully deserving of all the acclaim it garnered for this magnificent performer; and, as a bonus, there is an added resonance in the scenes of her psychotic episodes, later in the film, which is unavoidably derived from memories of her iconic role in The Exorcist.

Aronofsky’s film benefits greatly from the work of these fine players, as well as from that of other actors in smaller roles- the criminally-underappreciated Louise Lasser, Mark Margolis, Keith David, and the grinning, unctuous Christopher MacDonald, as banal infomercial host Tappy Tibbons. There is also the gritty-yet-luminous cinematography of Matthew Libatique and the aforementioned score by Clint Mansell, performed by the Kronos String Quartet, giving the film a distinctive tone which is at once majestic and ethereal. Ultimately, however, the success of Requiem for a Dream- and it is very successful- lies with its visionary director. It is he who has taken all these elements and brought them together to serve his purpose here; in doing so, he has managed to make a film which is simultaneously beautiful and horrific, scientific and operatic, and above all, indelible. His cinematic sensibilities have since been proven repeatedly, but never more definitively than with this film, which remains his best work to date- less formulaic than The Wrestler and scarier than Black Swan. Perhaps it is because of the universality at its core; though most of us, hopefully, will not succumb to the ravages of drug addiction, we can all see ourselves reflected in the four doomed people he shows us, choosing the quick and easy way to relieve the pain and monotony of our lives- fantasy, chocolates, television, movies, the internet, or whatever we may choose- just to give us, as Sarah puts it, “a reason to get up in the morning.” It’s not a cheerful movie- though, admittedly, there are some darkly ironic moments which might bring a morbid chuckle or two- and it doesn’t offer much in the way of hope or answers to the difficult questions it raises; but, of course, that’s what makes it so great. If Requiem for a Dream wrapped itself into a neat package, assuming a comfortable, morally appropriate stance or suggesting some false-ringing glimmer of light at the end of its characters’ respective tunnels, it would be easy to process it, set it aside, and forget about it; but I guarantee you, whether you love it or hate it- and there are many on both sides of that issue- you will never be able to erase it from your memory. If that’s not a sign of a great movie, I don’t know what is.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0180093/

Daybreakers (2009)

 

Today’s cinema adventure: Daybreakers, a 2009 sci-fi/horror/action mash-up about a dystopian near-future in which an epidemic has turned most of the world’s population into vampires, and the remaining humans are farmed for their blood.  Written and directed by Michael and Peter Spierig, it is elevated above the usual standard of B-grade schlock by the presence of an unusually distinguished cast, and features a slick and well-executed visual style enhanced by special creature effects from New Zealand’s Weta Workshop.  It was met with fairly positive critical response upon its initial release, but despite the presumably heightened appeal of its combined fantasy genres, its box office performance was somewhat disappointing, owing largely to its competition with the blockbusters Avatar and Sherlock Holmes.

Set in 2019, Daybreakers depicts a world not unlike our own, a place where high-tech convenience and corporate domination rule the day; the fact that most of its inhabitants are vampires makes little difference- modern technology ensures the uninterrupted flow of culture by providing protection from sunlight, and industrial farming procedures provide the required supply of human blood, while the military takes care of hunting down and capturing the few remaining mortal survivors.  The rewards of embracing vampirism- immortality, superhuman strength, enhanced senses- seemingly outweigh any troubling moral concerns, at least for most, and the only real problem is the dwindling supply of blood- an ongoing issue which has reached the level of an international crisis as the non-vampiric representatives of the human race have reached near-extinction.  While corporate experts race to find a synthetic substitution, rationing and poverty have begun to take their toll by causing the malnourished to “subside,” morphing them into primal, instinct-driven monsters who terrorize and feed on their own kind.  In the midst of this dire state of affairs, Edward- a blood expert whose ethical beliefs lead him to sympathize with humans- becomes involved with a group of mortal fugitives that have found a cure for vampirism, and he joins them in their quest to save humanity.  The powers that be, however, have no interest in a cure, so Edward and his new companions must fight to stay alive until they can find a way to spread their miraculous discovery and reclaim the future of the human race.

The premise is undeniably intriguing, though it clearly requires some serious suspension of disbelief for viewers beyond the age of, say, 14.  The metaphorical possibilities are provocative; Daybreakers could be viewed as an allegory for corporate greed and its ruthless bleeding of the underclasses, or as an indictment of humanity for its merciless over-exploitation of natural resources, or simply as a parable about the conflict between the dark and light sides of human nature.  Implicit as these ideas may be in the scenario, however, the Brothers Spierig have included little, if any, subtextual emphasis on anything beyond the necessary psychological conflicts of the story, such as the desire of a corporate chief executive to bring his resistant daughter into the vampiric fold or the struggle for reconciliation between Edward and his military brother, who converted him unwillingly to his undead state.  There are unavoidable parallels, too, between the vampiric “subsiders” and the homeless population of our own world- viewed as undesirables, they are feared and persecuted, a reminder of the larger social problem of which they are a symptom and of the potential fate which threatens the entire civilization.  Here too, the film’s creators have chosen to leave the obvious comparisons in the background, instead treating this element as just another complication in their plot.

With all this possible social commentary inherent in the material, one might expect the filmmakers to find creative ways to explore it within the framework of the narrative, particularly since their screenplay was an original work, unencumbered by the need to adhere to an existing storyline; but throughout their movie, opportunities for such resonance are ignored, and the script contents itself with a reliance on melodramatic confrontation and goofy one-liners, setting up its conflicts sufficiently to allow for dramatic tension and to provide the justification for its climactic bloodbath, but leaving larger and more significant questions unasked and unanswered.  In essence, the Spierigs have made an extended chase movie, spiced up with the trappings of a sci-fi/horror fantasy, and everything else within it exists merely to serve its crowd-pleasing purpose.

This is not to say that Daybreakers is without redeeming quality; indeed, its lack of pretension might be its saving grace, keeping it from becoming one of those preachy, self-important epics that gives lip service to a politically-correct stance while asking us to believe in a patently absurd premise (such as the movie that buried this one at the box office, the obscenely successful Avatar).  The Spierigs keep it simple, confining their socio-political observation to the world of the film, and incorporating only as much of it as is needed to set the stage for their story.  Unfortunately, that story is not a particularly compelling one- the protagonist is something of a wimp, and the developments which lead to the film’s resolution are even more far-fetched than its premise- but it manages to be entertaining enough; and because Daybreakers does not take itself too seriously, we can allow ourselves to enjoy the gratuitous violence and gore that we ultimately expect from any vampire movie.  There is quite a lot of it, actually, increasing in frequency and intensity as the plot progresses, until it culminates in a climax dripping with cathartic carnage.  On this level, at least, Daybreakers does not disappoint.

Besides the guilty pleasure of bodies being exploded, incinerated, beheaded and otherwise torn to bits- justifiable because they are, mostly, vampires, after all- there are some other features worth attention in Daybreakers.  Most noticeable, perhaps, is its cool, slick visualization of a not-too-distant future marked by a sterile, streamlined elegance in architecture and interior design, and rendered in a muted palette of steely grays and icy blues by cinematographer Ben Nott.  The vampiric mutants, debased by their malnutrition into anthropomorphic creatures (which look decidedly similar to the notorious “Bat Boy” of tabloid fame), are effectively creepy and pathetic at the same time, and well-executed by their aforementioned creators at Weta.  As for the acting, well, clearly nobody expects Oscar-caliber performances from a movie like Daybreakers, but that said, the presence of a particularly high-grade trio of actors in the key roles- Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe and Sam Neill- helps to elevate it from the level of a run-of-the-mill formula thriller to something at least a little more engaging.  Dafoe in particular deserves credit, in his role as a former-vampire-turned-human savior, for being able to utter some truly ridiculous dialogue with enough conviction to make it seem believable; and there is a nicely subdued and grounded performance from the less-familiar Claudia Karvan as the mortal female refugee who brings Hawke (as Edward) into the cause and becomes a possible love interest.  It’s also notable that she takes an active and heroic role in the proceedings instead of being presented as the typical passive woman usually seen in such male-centric adventures- though she does, ultimately, have to be rescued, it’s also true that Hawke’s character does too, and more than once, at that.

Daybreakers makes an attractive package, with its skillful technical and visual elements providing considerable distraction, and the work of its competent players ensuring that we can stay involved in its plot; but that plot is all-too-familiar despite the painfully clever conceits in which it is framed, and though it manages to grow on you as it goes, in the end it offers nothing more than a mildly interesting 90-minutes-plus of entertaining fluff.  The rich potential of its scenario seems to beg for further development, but goes unexplored, creating half-formed thoughts and ideas about its implications that are quickly left in the wake of its action agenda; the result, though not exactly a bad movie, is not exactly a good one, either.  Rather, it’s just another gimmicky thriller that capitalizes on the surging craze for vampires, and though it’s a well-made and fairly likable one, the sense of missed opportunity makes it very disappointing, indeed.

 

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0433362/

 

Art School Confidential (2006)

 

Today’s cinema adventure: Art School Confidential, the 2006 film by Terry Zwigoff based on Daniel Clowes’ underground comic of the same name.  The second collaboration between Zwigoff and Clowes, it follows the efforts of an art college freshman to win the love of his dream girl by becoming a successful artist.  It shares many of the themes of their first joint effort, Ghost World, as well as its bleak world view and cynical take on humanity, and features an impressive array of talent in supporting roles.

The plot follows Jerome, a young man whose interest in art has more to do with his libido than his desire for self-expression.  Believing that success in the art world will allow him a limitless amount of female companionship; he enrolls as an art major in an urban college, where he has high hopes that his talent will quickly be acknowledged.  Instead, he finds himself just one of many frustrated hopefuls in a depressingly grim environment where the only topic more discussed than the uselessness of an art degree is the string of unsolved murders taking place near the campus.  Surrounded by peers who are self-absorbed, pretentious boors, and professors who are self-important, disaffected failures, more interested in their own stalled art careers than in nurturing the abilities of the students under their charge, he gradually realizes that success is more about playing the game than about talent.  To make matters worse, he is completely turned off by the dysfunctional girls in his dating pool, and he begins to despair that his fantasies of being a playboy artist will be crushed by the cold reality of adult life.  Things begin to look up when he meets a beautiful model who shows an interest in him, but after she is swayed by a handsome fellow student- whose work has gained more recognition than his own- his desperation drives him to concoct a deceitful plan which will put him on the fast track to success and win back the attention of his newfound dream girl.

On the surface, Art School Confidential feels like one of those eighties-era coming-of-age comedies directed by John Hughes, in which a geeky teen loser learns that being yourself is more important than being popular and ends up winning the boy or girl of their dreams by the final scene.  That description is not far off, but in this screenplay, penned by Clowes himself to ensure faithfulness to his own misanthropic vision, the formula is turned on its ear.  Jerome doesn’t want to be accepted as he is, he wants to be worshipped; and far from finding empowerment and self-actualization, he learns that being himself brings only further isolation and obscurity, and that if he wants his dreams to come true he will have to find a way to stoop lower than everyone else.  His story is shot through with the kind of social satire that hits uncomfortably close to home, threatening to undermine any preconceived ideas we might have about the underlying goodness of humanity; if there was ever any there, Clowes makes it clear that it has been thoroughly snuffed out by the degraded, ego-driven culture he shows us.  Like our protagonist, we look around desperately for kindred spirits, but the cast of characters offers us little solace; Jerome’s fellow students are a collection of affected misfits and pompous twits, and the adults are more or less an older- and more disillusioned- generation of the same breed.  Virtually every person in the film is motivated by their vanity, and everyone else around them is merely an object to be used in their quest for self-fulfillment.  This is true even of those few characters that seem sympathetic- including Jerome, who turns out to be more of an anti-hero than we surmise.  With such a disheartening perspective on the denizens of the art world- and, by extension, the rest of the human race- it’s hard to find any of the comedy very funny, at least in a laugh-out-loud way.  The film’s humor is dark, dry, and derisive; it is also arch and vaguely judgmental, casting a reproving eye on the professional and personal pursuits of all its characters and concluding that the bulk of human endeavor amounts to a desperate cry for attention.

For his part, director Zwigoff makes every effort to keep things light, at least visually.  He capitalizes on the movie’s teen-angst heritage with nods to the genre’s cliches, such as “getting-it-done” montages and character-based visual gags, and directs his actors with a clear focus on presenting its familiar types.  He obviously relishes the exploration of his quirky characters’ personalities, but he emphasizes the details of the plot enough to keep it moving effectively.  It’s also obvious that he shares Clowes’ ironic sensibilities, and he is careful not to undermine Art School Confidential by softening its snarky edge with sentimentality- although, with the help of his A-list cast of adult actors, he does manage to imply a more mature counter-perspective that includes at least a little mitigation of the seemingly soulless and shallow priorities exhibited by the inhabitants of his film’s inhospitably selfish universe.

For their part, the actors do their best to keep things real, without relying solely on the surface qualities of their stereotypical characters; overall, the cast manages to infuse a level of humanizing depth to the proceedings that keeps the movie from being an unrelentingly pessimistic existential polemic.  Despite their best efforts at honest playing- or perhaps, in many cases, because of it- there are few likable characters in Art School Confidential; the single most pleasant personality is exhibited by Joel Moore, as Jerome’s friend Bardo, whose portrayal of a proudly self-acknowledged failure is refreshingly free of barely-concealed self-promotional subtext- appropriately making this gregarious loser a comfortable island in a sea of  chilly attitudes.  Max Minghella is deceptively appealing as Jerome, until his quest for recognition turns him into a self-pitying cry-baby; and Sophia Myles, likewise, fools us into liking his would-be soulmate, Audrey. The good stuff, however, comes from the heavy-hitting support team of accomplished grown-ups; John Malkovich, Anjelica Huston, Jim Broadbent, and Steve Buscemi all bring their skills to the table as they portray various representatives of the older-but-not-necessarily-wiser set, and the film leaps several notches up in quality when they are on the screen- which, sadly, is never for very long.

Art School Confidential is meant, of course, to be a comedic exposé of the pretentious, stagnated world of academic art, a subject ripe for vigorous satire.  The problem is that the humor seems to come from a rather mean-spirited place; Clowes and Zwigoff take a decidedly uncharitable view of almost every affectation and foible displayed by their characters, and at times their approach feels more like bullying ridicule than good-natured ribbing.  Their critical stance is certainly a valid one, but one can’t help feeling that the harsh perspective is a little too one-sided; after all, it’s easy to point fingers at the hypocrisy and artificiality we see around us, but it is perhaps more interesting to explore what lies underneath that surface.  Coming of age involves an awakening, a realization that the world is full of phonies and disappointments; but it also involves advancing past this stage to a more mature viewpoint, one with which we can discern the more subtle forces at work around us.  Art School Confidential strikes an attitude of smug contempt for its subject which smacks of sophomoric thinking, a pose which is ultimately no different than any of those assumed by the various characters it mercilessly skewers throughout.  It misses its mark not because of the darkness of its tone or its candid observations about the weakness of mankind- many fine films share these qualities, such as the work of director Todd Solondz, whose movies Happiness and Welcome to the Dollhouse are about as pessimistic as you can get but still engage and stimulate us with their depth and their humanity.  Rather, it fails because it lacks a certain maturity; instead of piercing insight, it offers blunt criticism, and in the end it leaves us knowing little and caring less about the inner workings of the world it portrays.  It’s a shame, because Art School Confidential has a lot of potential- both Zwigoff and Clowes are exceptionally talented, and one can’t help but feel that somehow, something was lost in the translation from page to screen.  There are times when the movie almost feels like it’s going to take off, and comedic moments that feel like they are about to make us laugh; but these are short-lived, and by the time we reach its somewhat predictable and not-very-satisfying climax, we have long since lost interest.  Fans of Clowes’ ironic-outsider flavor may find the movie easier to take than the rest of us, but those interested in discovering his work might be better-advised to go to the source rather than starting with this weak adaptation.  Still, the pairing of the author/artist and his filmmaking partner in crime seems a match made in heaven, and together they have managed to craft a very good film – but it’s called Ghost World, and the disappointment of Art School Confidential is probably all the more  bitter because they proved once before that they could get it right.

 

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0364955/