Monday, March 27, 2006

New Film: Inside Man

Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love (no, not love; let's say like or even like a lot, if we must) Spike Lee.

It is interesting that Inside Man represents one of those archetypical instances of a director, seemingly under contract for a fairly straight exercise in genre, which might as well have been crafted for him or her in advance. Then again, it is precisely in these sorts of works that the merits of the auteur theory become clearest: it is, after all, a theory that defines the status of the director as an artist, not simply an advocation of autobiographical filmmaking. And there can be no denying Lee's imprint on Inside Man, in spite of the fact that it may well be one of the director's least personal pictures.

At the level of technique, Lee's stylistic elan is apparent from the opening shot: Clive Owen's bank robber addresses the camera, telling us his name, profession and location (a cell, though significantly, not a prison cell). The director proceeds to adopt Hitchcock's technique -- from Vertigo -- wherein a tracking shot is accompanined by a zoom. The effect (also used spectacularly by Scorsese in Goodfellas' diner scene) brings us closer to the character, even as the space behind the figure is reconstituted. It is, in other words, a signifier of a baroque style, as is for instance Lee's frontal tracking shot, in which Denzel Washington's fluid movement seems to suggest that he is standing on top a scooter or cart of some sort. These moments of excess, within the broader framework of generally terse direction, indicate the same flamboyant stylist who translated the American baroque of Welles and Scorsese to Brooklyn's Bed-Stuy neighborhood in his exceptional Do the Right Thing (1989).

Yet, it is that terseness, the film's economy, which truly recommends Inside Man. Much of this quality can be attributed to Russell Gewirtz's exceptional screenplay, though even in the film's dialogue Lee's voice is unmistakable -- particularly in the race-baiting that has been transformed from politically-militant axiom to politically-correct satire. Indeed, Lee's rhetoric seems to be in the process of softening, especially since his 2002 standout, 25th Hour, which encapsulates America's post-9/11 feeling that "we are all New Yorkers" better than any other film I know. Inside Man shares with that earlier pinnacle an ethnographic description of five boroughs life, as well as its referencing of incarcaration (though it stops short of making fear of anal rape a structuring motif, as is the case with 25th Hour, which itself might just portend the director's willingness to bait groups other than racial or ethnic in their orientation; here, Washington is allowed a single quip).

Returning for the moment to the narrative structure, Lee and Gerwitz encourage us to hope that Owen can get away with his crime -- a large portion of the heist genre's pleasures, after all, pertain to the intelligence and dexterity of the crimes committed; and from the opening monologue, Lee affirms his position within this tradition. It helps that Lee skillfully discloses and conceals many of the details of the caper, creating objects of suspense beyond the simple will they or won't they get away with it axiom. One of the best early examples of this is Lee's refusal to re-enter the space of the bank after being introduced to Washington's negotiator, for an extended duration. While we already know the anti-heroes, we are little more cued into what the protagonist is facing at this moment than he is himself. In this way, Lee shows himself to be a bravura manipulator of narrative information, as he will throughout the remainder of the film. I'm tempted to make a comparison to Bryan Singer's modern classic, The Usual Suspects (1995), though I would do so only with the caveat that Lee's twists don't entirely reach for that same epistemological vertigo.

Friday, March 10, 2006

New Film: Battle in Heaven & Old Joy

Carlos Reygadas' Battle in Heaven (Batalla en el cielo, 2005) opens and closes with a comely young light-skinned Mexican woman performing fellatio on an obese, unattractive, middle-aged mestizo gentleman, whom we later discover has been the girl's driver since childhood. That Reygadas would choose to begin his film with so graphic an image surely underscores his desire to incite. Then again, it quickly becomes evident that this selection does not serve as mere provocation alone, but rather provides a formal matrix through which the remainder of his film can be understood. Moreover, that he likewise concludes his film in this same fashion allows the director to crystallize the film's principle discourses, namely of cinematic representation, class conflict and religious belief. And all in a blow-job.

Following the shocking opener, Reygadas introduces us to his hero Marcos, whom we soon learn -- in an almost off-handed off-camera revelation -- has just been involved in the kidnapping of a baby who tragically died during the affair. This point, however, garners far less narrative time than the fellatio or than Reygadas' seemingly ethnographic interest in the Mexico City subway tunnels where Marcos' wife sells her wares. However, it is not a third-world tourist impulse that animates Reygadas in so precisely detailing the latter, but it is rather social commentary, particularly when Marcos' subsequent experiences are compared to those of his female employer, Ana, as he drives the young woman home from the airport, through the tree-lined boulevards of her leafy suburb. Importantly, Reygadas lingers on both the public space of the metro system and the private space of the automobile to convey the sense in which the dead time for the country's working poor is characteristically chaotic, whereas comfort defines these moments for the rich.

In a telling moment of social incongruity, Ana asks Marcos a question and then quickly interrupts him once her boyfriend is free again to speak with her on her cell phone. Yet, if Ana does treat Marcos as an employee who is of less importance than even the most trivial incidents in her own life, she does seem to maintain a certain fondness for and trust in Marcos, whom she asks to take her to a brothel where evidently she works in secret. There, Marcos, refuses the pleasures of a young prostitute insisting that Ana forced him to come. Ana then interrogates Marcos about his feelings for her, but drops it when it becomes clear how he feels.

At this point, the opening salvo increasingly looks as if it may exist outside the time of the film narrative altogether, be it as a representation of his fantasy, or more compellingly, as a purveyor of formal and social meaning, at once illuminating Reygadas' post-Kiarostami tendency to constrict the visual field while creating an expansive aural space, even as his lowly mestizo character is pleasured by a woman of higher social standing whom we assume would never do something like this in real life. In other words, Reygadas uses his fellatio as a socially-leveling device. There is indeed something intriguing to this latter reading, even if Reygadas does have the pair engage in intercourse later in the film. Then again, this simulated sexual act is presented on screen in long take, whereas Reygadas masks this same activity between Marcos and his equally unattractive wife.

Speaking of this latter sex act, when it concludes, Reygadas moves his camera to disclose an image of Christ over the couple's bed, even as their heavy-breathing continues. This apparent visual joke, far from a throw away, in fact distills a key component of the director's vision: the idea of ecstasy (as in Bernini's St. Theresa). Following the pilgrimage that Marcos ultimately joins, seemingly in a desperate search for forgiveness, Reygadas closes his film with the second fellatio scene, which in this case shows Marcos grinning for the first time and hovering over Ana in a position of power. As such, Reygadas conflates the transcendence inherent in both religious devotion and sexual fulfillment, in a fashion that one could see as congruent with the noted trend in baroque figuration. Moreover, the pilgrimage itself follows a definitive conflation of sex and violence that seems to situate Reygadas in a tradition in Mexican filmmaking that also includes two of its most accomplished directors, Luis Buñuel and Arturo Ripstein.

However, it is not simply these themes that find their way into these concluding gestures -- both the violence and the sex act -- but it is moreover Reygadas' arguably radical view of a reconstituted Mexican society. The intimation may be that a violent overthrow of class structures is required, but in the universe of Battle in Heaven a little fellatio would seem to suffice.

Kelly Reichardt's Rotterdam prize-winner Old Joy, which will play at New York's Walter Reade theatre as part of their 'New Directors' series on March 21st (and which should manage some form of distribution thereafter, one would hope), begins with the image of a bird perched on a gutter followed by a series of shots of a man, covered in ants, meditating in the grass. In other words, its opening passage is a whisper to Reygadas' scream, even if similarities abound elsewhere. For one, both films share a documentarian concern for the non-fictional locations of their narratives.
In the case of Old Joy, this is (lower-middle class) Portland and its mountainous environs: roadsides and passing storm cloud formations seem to attract nearly as much attention as the strained interaction of the two 'old friend' leads, Mark (Daniel London) and Kurt (Palace Music frontman Will Oldham).

Backtracking for the moment, the spare narrative of Old Joy concerns Mark and Kurt's overnight camping trip, with a visit to a local hot springs to follow the next day. Throw in Mark's pregnant partner, an avowedly liberal radio talk show, and a diner visit in the morning and one has the totality of Old Joy's narrative. Nevertheless, Reichardt's narrative demands nothing further as she needs little more than a quick shoulder rub and an arm dropping into the hot spring water to say everything that we would ever need to know about the past, present and future of their friendship. Old Joy demonstrates an admirable economy, which along with its contemplative tone distinguishes it from the vast majority of "indie" cinema.

Then again it is not these qualities alone that recommend Reichart's film, even if she does mildly contaminate the film's understated poignancy with a final gesture consistent with the film's liberal humanist rhetoric. Old Joy importantly manifests a genuine nostalgia for Gen X's heyday -- the Slacker to Reality Bites years -- making it (along with the undeniably elegiac Before Sunset [2005]) as one of the first works to long for this not-so-long ago 'golden age.' However, what makes this film particularly significant on this front, given the liberal values espoused by Kurt and the left-wing, call-in talk show that Mark listens to, is the speed in which this impression has been reached by Generation X's left-of-center constituency (which importantly was always far smaller than their parents'). Evidently an era that made Eddie Vedder its mouthpiece wasn't entirely successful at changing the world after all? All kidding aside, Old Joy represents an important next step in 'Gen X' cinema.