Saturday, September 24, 2005

New Film: The Weeping Meadow

There are anachronisms and then there are anachronisms. If in the past I have found it necessary to praise a director like Clint Eastwood for a technique more at home in 1962 than in its own age, I have done so with the feeling that for someone like him, form was only a means to an end. For Eastwood, style was (and is) never its own justification, but can be rather something to detract from the urgency of his narratives. To someone like Eastwood, modifications in form, rather than indicating some sort of aesthetic progress, possessed a danger in their potential to obscure his artistic intentions. At the same time, these same purposes were never themselves static, but instead experienced remolding in the image of their own particular moments. In short, while his technique stayed the same, his thought was evolving.

At first glance, Theo Angelopoulos might strike one as the same sort of figure. After all, The Weeping Meadow, whatever else it is, is a film from a different stylistic moment. Nonetheless, the ideas contained in The Weeping Meadow show the director's evolution from a Marxist historicism, focusing almost exclusively on Greek history (The Travelling Players, 1975), to a more existential consideration of Balkan realities (Ulysses' Gaze, 1995). Yet, there is one important difference between the aforementioned Eastwood and Angelopoulos: whereas invisibility of style is Eastwood's ultimate end, Angelopoulos has long foregrounded his own once dazzling technique.

 The problem is, it no longer seems as though the Greek auteur is utilizing his form to ask questions. If The Travelling Players established a fatal continuity to the exigencies of Greek history, via a camera that moved from figure grouping to figure grouping, often bridging temporal discontinuities over the course of a single tracking shot, The Weeping Meadow's continued employment of this same style, minus its formally radical employment, fails to remain self-justified. If anything, The Weeping Meadow is a film that should have been made twenty-five plus years ago, considering its scant modifications of his own modernist form. (Sparing use of music psychologically is in fact the only reevaluation of Angelopoulos' Travelling Players' technique.) This is, in other words, a profoundly dated text. Of course,The Weeping Meadow has its moments of beauty -- which Angelopoulos, as always, never allow his spectators to forget -- but the ability to photograph a Greek landscape poetically loses some of its appeal as the film drags on toward the three hour mark. Its one thing to watch Angelopoulos reinvent the medium for four continuous hours in The Travelling Players; it's yet another thing to see him copying himself -- poorly -- for three.

So again, there are anachronisms and there are anachronisms. Unfortunately, a thirty-year late re-tread of late modernism is not exactly the most enticing variety. If anything, The Weeping Meadow reconfirms the necessity to understand films at the moment of their creation. If we can forgive a film like The Birth of a Nation (1915) for its aberrant politics (by today's standards) it is likewise important to understand the inadequacy of a film like The Weeping Meadow on the basis of its historical moment -- which unfortunately for the director ended long ago.

Friday, September 23, 2005

New Film: A History of Violence

*WARNING - THERE WILL BE SPOILERS FROM THE FIFTH PARAGRAPH ONWARD IN THIS ANALYSIS*

David Cronenberg's A History of Violence is to date the best English-language film of 2005. That it should be so will come as no surprise to anyone who has paid attention to the director's work over the last decade. To a film, there is perhaps no corpus in the Anglo-Saxon cinema during this time which has continued to examine the mysterious depths of personality in the way that Cronenberg's has. For the countless scores of movies that seek to awe and entertain us -- and make no mistake, Cronenberg does both -- here is a body of work that foremost seeks to ask the most essential of questions, what is it to be human? Indeed, a film like A History of Violence makes us wonder why all films don't attempt something similar, given the ease with which the visceral and the thought-provoking commingle within the film.

But of course A History of Violence is a rarity for Hollywood. Then again, as much as we sometimes like to pretend otherwise, a film like Cronenberg's has always been a rarity in Hollywood. Why does Alfred Hitchcock -- Cronenberg's most obvious influence in A History of Violence -- continue to engender such a cultish following? Because he was unique, because he was better than most... and so too is Cronenberg.

Like Hitchcock, Cronenberg adapts the default form of Hollywood classicism to suit his own idiosyncratic narrative ends. 'Adapt' (rather than adopt) as his form, at times, evinces its own consubstantial logic quite apart from the basic codes of Hollywood storytelling. Perhaps the best example of Cronenberg's narratological flexibility occurs in the opening scene in which two outsider hoods "check out" of their motel. With the camera remaining outside their crummy roadside accommodations, Cronenberg introduces us to these characters by making a very important discursive point: they are cold-blooded killers. This point, indeed, is not made until Cronenberg cuts for the first time as the character who had remained outside the entire time enters the motel office. Inside we see, along with the indifferent henchman, that his protege has executed the two motel workers. That Cronenberg maintained the spatial and temporal continuity of the earlier shot confirms what has already been suggested: that he entered the space with the sole purpose of murdering the pair; that it was not accidental, that his execution did not involve a struggle or any sort of in-the-moment rationalization (had there been a cut, on the other hand, either would have been structurally possible). If this is not enough, the gentleman now in the room proceeds to kill a little girl who spots him looking through a cooler -- an on-screen variation of what had been already established through a singluar stylistic choice.

In the next shot we are introduced to the film's protagonists, Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), his beautiful wife (Maria Bello), his son and daughter. The screaming little girl is quickly reassured that there is no such thing as monsters as we are ominously introduced to this swath of small-town American perfection -- and their seemingly obvious future victimization. (Importantly, Cronenberg does not make fun of their ethos: visually he shows the natural beauty of the Midwest, while the couple's sexual life seems to indicate an uninhibited ideal.) However, before we get to this point, Cronenberg establishes the teenage son's victimhood -- to a high school bully -- giving us another character on whom we wish justice meted.

Subsequently, the two out-of-towners force their way into Tom's diner at closing time. Once it becomes clear that they are there to rob the establishment -- which we know will mean certain death for our protagonists -- and once one of the characters moves to rape the female waitress, Tom acts almost instinctively, killing the pair of assailants with breathless dexterity. Suffice to say that he is regarded as a hero and that we feel no sympathy for the dead, even if we might regret their physical pain (which Cronenberg carefully includes).

However, as any one who has ever seen a Cronenberg film knows, what follows is anything but straight narrative. Following Tom's heroic action, a mangled Ed Harris and a pair of his cronies arrive in the diner. Mr. Harris's character insists on calling Tom, Joey, which, for the naturalistic grace of Mortensen's performance, we find as odd as Tom evidently does. Regardless, the former persists, and Tom seems to have been thrust in a very Hitchcockian 'wrong man' scenario. As we soon learn, Harris is a mobster with a beef against this Joey who was responsible for carving up his face with barbed wire. Again, for those acclimated to the Cronenberg universe (think Spider, 2002) one begins to wonder if Tom is indeed Joey without knowing it -- that he is some kind of "schizo" as his wife wonders. Our answer comes shortly for this man who is strangely adept at killing, but who is nonetheless saved by his son at the last possible moment. (It is therefore implied that the young man might just share his father's violent acumen.)

The point is, whether or not Tom/Joey is aware of his past, that this violence exists within him, which is precisely where Cronenberg's big questions commence. Does Tom bare responsibility for Joey's past actions if he is not aware of them? Which is Tom/Joey's true personality? Can he be both of these people at once, and if so what makes him the person he is (if it is not a single personality)? Who is he, in other words, and what is it that makes him human if not a unified self?

Of course, there is another dimension in what would seem to be his suppressed former (perhaps true, though not necessarily) self: that there is violence living inside him. Indeed it is at this point that Cronenberg's film skips over any possible misreading as political allegory -- violence is a fact of life, or more precisely in the instance of this narrative, a former life. In fact, the history to which the title refers is that of Tom's self, a history which Cronenberg's narrative slight-of-hand shows to be in his everyman, and implicitly in all of us. That his physically timid son manifests the same violence (while finding a narrative causality in his genetics) reinforces the ubiquity of human violence. While it is true that Cronenberg is removing the too-perfect veneer of Middle America, it is of even greater importance that he is excoriating the illusory skin of human goodness. In this most perfectly ordered specimen there is untamed violence.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Quick take on Rossellini

Although Roberto Rossellini was indisputably one of the most influential of European directors, the fact that his influence was founded upon a philosophical or conceptual attitude rather than upon the imitation of stylistic devices or thematic preoccupations has meant that Anglo-American film historians in particular tend to pay little more than lip service to his achievement, when not ignoring it altogether. Yet such indifference constitutes a major injustice not merely to a director who redefined the parameters of the cinema but to one of the supreme "documenters," in any art form, of the latter half of the 20th century.

-Gilbert Adair

Roberto Rossellini is one of those curious figures in world cinema who seems to generate more respect than admiration. As Adair accurately points out, the reverence typically paid to the director is little more than tokenism. Certainly, his realist aesthetic -- location shooting, natural light, non-professional actors, longer-duration takes -- has benefited filmmakers of sparse means the world over. He is remembered as a figure of undeniable historical significance without being thought of as the equal to directors of a similar influence (such as Griffith, Renoir, Welles, Bresson, Godard). He certainly lacks the devotion many hold for his best-known countrymen, from Fellini to Antonioni to Bertolucci, among others. However, I would submit that he is at once their superior and the greatest of all Italian directors, without even making any allowance for his firm place in film history. This is to say that his corpus speaks for itself, outside of history, as one of the most beautiful and inspired that the medium has yet seen.

Yet, again he is underestimated. The reason for this, it would seem to me, is that Rossellini's style is too often considered for its historical circumstances, its facility for assimilation, and even for what he expresses through this style (or less opaquely, his themes) rather than for what this style says about the director's viewpoint. Indeed, it is in an examination of its conceptual genesis that a unity emerges to Rossellini's corpus, marking him as one of the medium's best.

Specifically, it seems to me that the key to appreciating Rossellini rests in his epistemological ideas. For Rossellini, the truth is evident on the surface of things. From his early, immediately post-war films (Rome, Open City [1945], Paisa [1946], Germany, Year Zero [1948]) to his Bergman cycle (including Stromboli [1950], Voyage in Italy [1953] and Fear [1954]), his historical recreations (The Flowers of St. Francis [1950] and The Rise to Power of Louis XIV [1966] among others) and more proper documentaries (such as India [1958]), what marks his entire body of mature work is a faith in humankind's perception of truth. Take the somewhat forgotten, small masterwork Fear: throughout the picture, Bergman's character attempts to conceal the truth of an adulterous affair. However, her body language belies the secret she is attempting to hide -- at one point her blackmailer asks rhetorically why she blushes, why her hands trembled and why she was so quick to give away her money. In other words, in spite of a shared Catholic faith with Robert Bresson, Rossellini departs from the Frenchmen (as well as from such directors as Michelangelo Antonioni, Wong Kar-wai, and even Eric Rohmer in Triple Agent [2004]) in the his view that psychology is discernible in gesture.

As it has been claimed, this basic understanding of the comprehensibility of truth is not limited in fact to the psychologically-intensive Bergman cycle, but manifests itself throughout his ouevre. The post-war texts offer their morals within the context (another key theme in Rossellini) of a war-ravaged Europe. In seeing the condition of Germany in the 1948 film, one understands the despair of the child protagonist. Surface reality discloses truth. Similarly, The Flowers of St. Francis, perhaps his greatest work, shows (key theme number three) the basic rhythm of a long-since extinct life -- a life lived absent of any goals other than the service of the Lord -- which as such reveals Christianity's distinct understanding of time; less abstractly, India proposes that its presentation of Indian life is sufficient to reveal essential truths of the nation.

In this basic understanding of epistemology, I would argue, Rossellini shows himself to be an artist seeking a form to express his ideas, not simply the innovator of a technique born of historical circumstance. It is in this consistency of viewpoint, manifesting itself in his form, that the beauty of his work becomes clear. Rossellini's cinema deserves to be appreciated not only for its historical value, but indeed for the beauty of its expression of content. In this lies its grace.