Thursday, August 16, 2007

Facing the Bogeyman: John Carpenter's Halloween (1978)

Warning: the following post contains spoilers.

Every film critic/reviewer/scholar has his or her blind spots: chief among mine has long been horror films (from the time I dutifully avoided the slasher film bogeyman during my teenage years). Even now I have to be convinced beforehand of a horror pic's high quality - as I was recently with the highly arresting though ultimately compromised The Descent (2005, Neil Marshall); also, the inherently cinematic cave setting helped in its case - prior to spending my time in the presence of excessive carnage. Chalk it up to a puritanical adolescence, which I still believe served me well, viewing gaps aside.

Noticing John Carpenter's Halloween (1978) on IFC's late night schedule recently, and with my DVR ready to alter the time-space continuum so that I might watch it at my own convenience, I found the opportunity to improve, however incrementally, my familiarity with the genre. Suffice it to say that I was overwhelmed by Carpenter's horror standard, which in my estimation is every inch the equal of such other period generic classics as Don Siegel's Dirty Harry (1971) and William Friedkin's The Exorcist (1973) - with an ideology to match the content of these earlier films. Puritans of a different sort beware!

Halloween opens in the small town of Haddonfield, Illinois on Halloween night, 1963. Utilizing a wide angle lens, the camera tracks slowly toward a home in which we see a teenage couple making out before they steal away upstairs. The shot continues, passing around the side of the home and through the rear pantry. We already realize we are in the midst of a single-take point-of-view shot before we see a hand reach for a knife to the side of the camera. With the shot continuing, we wait as a teenage boy slinks out the front door. With the young man gone, we recommence with our movement up the front staircase. For a second time we see a hand, a child's hand, reach in front of the camera and grab an object - in this case a mask which shortly will transform the camera's visual field. Mask on, we enter the room of a beautiful naked teenager who scolds "Michael" as she stares at the camera. Seconds later he plunges the knife into her soft flesh as we continue to share his perspective. Leaving the room he heads down the same staircase and out the front the door where a man and a woman address him in the same way as they stand curbside. Carpenter's camera then reverses for the first time, showing a costumed little boy holding the bloody knife.

The film then jumps ahead to 1978 (its year of release) where we see a Doctor (Donald Pleasence) and his nurse en route to a parole hearing for the child killer, the one and only Michael Myers. Arriving at the asylum that holds the twenty-something (Tony Moran) - Dr. Loomis insists that he is beyond recuperation - we see a group of patients in white coats mulling around in pitch black near the side of the road. Momentarily, a visually-obscured Myers succeeds in stealing their car, which he will drive back to Haddonfield just in time for Halloween night, 1978.

With Myers back in the small Illinois town, Carpenter's often mobile camera, coupled with the menacing, if simple electronic score that the director himself likewise composed, provides the spectator with the unmistakable feeling that the film's on-screen subjects are constantly being watched. While cinema as an art form commonly trades on the impression that the viewer is watching life captured unawares - with a camera whose presence in space is typically effaced; that is, the players in the on-camera drama could never see the camera as in some theoretical sense it is presumed not to actually exist within the space of the narrative - here, our watching of the on-camera actors parallels that of the killer's. As such, Myers often crosses in front of the threshold of the camera, filling one of its corners with his back, or looming deep in the distance behind the actors. In this way, Carpenter succeeds in investing the majority of his picture with this voyeuristic quality. It is not simply that we could be sharing the killer's point-of-view but rather their unawareness that they are being watched, which therefore places them in danger.

Specifically, it is three teenager girls who are targeted by the maniacal murderer: Nancy Kyes's Annie, P. J. Soles's Lynda and most famously, Jamie Lee Curtis's Laurie, in her career-defining debut. Both Annie and Lynda endeavor to fool around with their boyfriends over the course of the evening. Annie is delayed when she spills food on her clothing, forcing her to strip on screen, before tossing her outfit into the washer. Lynda, however, succeeds, participating in a passionate bit of love-making on-camera with her young lover. On the other hand, Curtis's Laurie is stuck watching the children, and even when Annie does land her a date for the upcoming homecoming dance, the former protests vociferously after Annie tells Laurie's date of the latter's attraction for him. She seems to be in no rush to join her friends in their sexual activity.

It is significant, then, that only Laurie survives in Halloween: in fact, like Annie and Lynda, Myers's older sister is similarly sexually active, appearing like the others on-screen - and therefore before Myers - topless. Whether it is simply fate, for which Laurie provides a definition during class, even as Myers lurks outside the window, or it is her unwillingness to participate in the same behavior as the others, the fact remains that she is the only young woman who is saved from Myers. Importantly, she is also the lone young actress who does not appear topless on screen, even as he seems to stalk her with the greatest degree of vehemence. She does not receive the punishment of the young women who do display themselves unknowingly for Myers and knowingly for the audience. In this way, Halloween's sexual politics are definitively post-sexual revolution. Sex is punished.

This is not to argue that we don't share a certain complicity with Myers: obviously, the on-screen display of these young women is intended for the viewer; and again, we often share in the killer's visual point-of-view. (While Halloween references Carpenter's master Howard Hawks and particularly Thing from Another World [1951, dir. by Christian Nyby and produced by Hawks] it is Alfred Hitchcock and specifically Frenzy [1972] that appears to be the more direct point-of reference.)

Speaking of which, it is precisely the director's handling of this formal element - namely, point-of-view editing - that distinguishes Halloween as a work of unalloyed artistic importance. Beyond the astonishing opening sequence-shot, Carpenter routinely uses a shot/reverse-shot structure to facilitate the suspense that imbues the work. In particular, on countless occasions we see Myers somewhere in the background, lurking in the shadows quite literally; Carpenter then cuts to the person, most often Laurie or the young boy she babysits, looking on in terror. Upon the second cut, in shot after shot, Myers disappears.

Halloween closes like it begins - with exceptional bravura - though in the case of the ending it is sound rather than sight through which Carpenter's secures his tour-de-force. Here, after being pumped full of numerous rounds by Dr. Loomis, Myers's corpse disappears after a second reverse. Following this final implementation of Halloween's key stylistic motif, Carpenter shows us a series of empty, shadow-filled and dimly-lit interiors and exteriors accompanied by the sound of Myers heavy breathing behind his mask. In this one stroke, Carpenter tells us his bogeyman could be anywhere, while of course setting the stage for Halloween II.

For further reading, including whether or not to bother with any of the sequels, see Matt Singer's earlier Termite Art appreciation. Based on his recommendation, I think I'll stop my exploration of the Halloween films with the first.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

New Film: Colossal Youth

Pedro Costa's Colossal Youth (Juventude Em Marcha, 2006) recently concluded its ten-day Manhattan run as the season's most improbable über-small scale art house sensation. In some distant recess of the cinematic universe, Colossal Youth may just be the film of the year - that is as the latest and in many senses the most extreme instantiation of a European filmic minimalism that seeks to reinvent the language of the medium wholesale.

Colossal Youth opens with an extreme long framing of a Portuguese slum as furniture is tossed from a second floor window. In the next shot we see an aged immigrant woman, standing on a staircase with knife in hand, as she discusses swimming in Cape Verde as a younger woman. Like the prior take, Costa's camera doesn't move; in fact, with very few exceptions - a tilt here, and pan there - the director's camera never moves. It is only later that we will piece together that the woman presumably stabbed Ventura (played by an actor credited only as Ventura) who as the film proceeds will serve as our guide to the narrative.

As Colossal Youth unspools, Ventura moves between his former slum home, the new government flats built to house the former location's residents and even the makeshift housing that protected Ventura and a mate upon their 1972 arrival in Lisbon. In each of these places, save for the last, Ventura visits one or more persons that he refers to as his children, even when their physical appearance - to say nothing of the stories they narrate involving their biological parents - militate against the old man's claims (with the exception of the blind Bete). Regardless, Ventura's mobility provides Costa's minimal narrative with its structure: as a series of conversations and interactions between the lead and his under-class children.

This is to say, in the most conventional of senses, that nothing happens in Colossal Youth. In those instances that there is drama - when for example Ventura is stabbed (the opening image is an inversion of sorts as its long shot composition and presentation of action will be absent thereafter) or when Vanda's (Vanda Duarte, In Vanda's Room) sister dies - Costa's on-screen narrative, the image has excluded these incidents. Colossal Youth, in other words, is a narrative of interstitial fragments; we see a very small segment of the story Costa tells. In other words, Costa limits his narrative.

In a word, limitation is the operative principle behind Colossal Youth: whether it is the film's eschewal of action or more conspicuously, Costa's remarkably constricted framing. Throughout Colossal Youth, in fact, Costa reduces his frame to an excessively shallow space with one or two figures almost ubiquitously before a wall, a window or in a doorway. Maintaining this extraordinarily restricted framing, light enters the frame obliquely, detailing the edges of the shadow-engulfed figures. It is not only that Costa shows us an extremely small space but that even this fragment is often dominated by shadows: again, this is a cinema of infinite limitation.

Perhaps more than any other moment in Colossal Youth, this theme is highlighted in Ventura's inspection of his new flat. Here, Costa includes a door that continually swings shut, dictating that even in this potentially volumetric space Ventura will be restricted. He can never escape his social status, which along with everything else in Costa's film is worked out in spatial terms. Ultimately, the film's formal limitations match the social status of the film's heroic group: this swath of Lisbon's poorest class is removed to isolated corners of the slums and later to public housing once the former is raised.

Off-camera sound also proliferates, calling attention to the limitation placed on the mise-en-scène: the space utilized in the film, like the disclosure of narrative information, is severely limited, even as it continually refers to that which is not presented on screen. Costa is creating an art out of the scantest of means, thus confirming cinema's infinitesimal position within the broader cosmos. In this way, Colossal Youth is very much a film about the relationship between art and life, which is likewise established in the gap between the film's non-professional, Costa regular performers and the roles they play. When Ventura repeats the words of a letter time and again, we are reminded of this distinction.

In the end, Colossal Youth is above all a work of exceptional rigor, producing a form to match its content, whether it is the limitations noted above or in an experience of time to confer the banal subject.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

New Film: Summer '04

Warning: the following piece includes partial spoilers in the fourth and fifth paragraphs.

Stefan Krohmer's Summer '04, from a screenplay by Daniel Nocke, is the third critically-acclaimed German art film to open in New York during the past six months - which at a glance at least would seem to be a record for the post-Fassbinder (d. 1982) era. Whether this is actually the case, the appearance of Summer '04, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's The Lives of Others and the finest of the three, Valeska Grisebach's Longing, in such short succession, constitutes a positive direction for this long underwhelming national cinema. Importantly, each was one of the first two features by a director under the age of forty: perhaps this new generation will bring us a cinema worth caring about once more.

Summer '04 treats the summer holiday of an exceedingly open-minded German couple, André and Miriam (Martina Gedeck, The Lives of Others), their fifteen year-old son Nils and his twelve year-old girlfriend Livia (Svea Lohde). The fact that their son and his Lolita-like girlfriend may be sexually active does not seem to concern the enlightened pair - that is, until Livia becomes involved with a handsome, athletic thirty-something Bill (Robert Seeliger) whom she meets while sailing with Nils.

The rather sexy Miriam in particular objects to the coupling, after Livia leaves a message that she is going to stay over at Bill's. While her partner André seems indifferent to Livia's choice, Miriam repeatedly claims that she would not want someone to allow her son to do the same without her consent; consequently she drives to the gentleman's home late in the evening to retrieve Livia. Arriving, she discovers that the young woman has left after a row with her much older companion. For his part, Bill attempts to assuage Miriam with his insistence that he has not acted inappropriately; her leaving was the result of her own immaturity.

Ultimately Livia does return, though only after Krohmer suggests that Miriam's life might be endangered in the mysterious Bill's under-lit attic. In the end, neither Miriam nor Livia is in any physical danger. Nor does it seem initially that Bill has any designs on Livia sexually - in answering Miriam's initial inquiry, he claims that he appreciates the young girl for her conversational ability (compared to the Americans with whom he had been recently spending time; significantly, Miriam quickly rejoins that she spent a year in America and met many interesting people).

Rather it is Miriam who seduces Bill, even if he seems apprehensive at first - that is, until we see the pair in a strikingly explicit sexual encounter. Suffice it to say that Krohmer and Nocke have more than their share of narrative reversals remaining in Summer '04, not the least of which is a letter dated to August of that year where Livia's true intentions are revealed. In short, Summer '04 is a work of exceptional psychological intrigue that reaches a climax (localized on one of the character's faces) during the dramatic reading of the letter in the film's final scene. As such, Krohmer's work deserves the comparisons it has generated to Roman Polanski, or as my viewing companion noted, to Claude Chabrol.

However, it is Summer '04's other speculated point-of-reference, Krohmer's almost namesake Eric Rohmer, who truly looms largest over the work: from the economy of infidelity to the rural holiday settings captured with a medium focal-length lens and natural light, from the opening credits to the specific dating of the letter to the title itself, Rohmer (i.e. Pauline at the Beach, A Tale of Springtime and A Summer's Tale) is the clear point of departure. Then again, it is worth noting that Rohmer is more an inspiration than a template for Krohmer: the dramatic pyrotechnics, underplayed as they are, nonetheless distance the German from his French influence and the latter's famed emphasis on dead time.

Still, Rohmer's impact remains unmistakable. Nowhere is this more obvious than in those moments when Krohmer films particular times of day, such as the late afternoon sun in which we see Livia and Nils arriving at a gas station, the more diffuse light that illuminates an outdoor dinner mid-evening, or most elegantly, the early twilight as Miriam drives to rescue Livia from Bill (in the scene noted above). Here, Krohmer's camera, in typically Rohmerian fashion, lingers first on the passing countryside, before showing Miriam in the cab of her auto. Come to think of it, Longing similarly highlighted this highly evocative time of night to great effect. Certainly we could do worse than to hope that an upturn in the German cinema might prominently feature an increased sensitivity to nature - and indeed, the inspiration of Rohmer more fully - that both works manifest.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

New Film: Opera Jawa (co-written with Lisa K. Broad)

Indonesian filmmaker Garin Nugroho's requiem, Opera Jawa, commissioned for 2006's New Crowned Hope Festival - a celebration of Mozart’s 250th birthday - equates more with the composer's art than have the two previous entries screened in New York (Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Syndromes and a Century and Tsai Ming-liang's I Don't Want to Sleep Alone). After all, Nugroho's virtually all-singing Javanese musical adheres to the basic structure of Mozartian opera, replete with that mode's mythic universe (Così fan tutte and The Magic Flute, for example) and its conventional artifice. At the same time, Opera Jawa remains deeply immersed in the traditional arts of Indonesia - dance, theatre, music, the visual arts - producing a work that is on the surface one of the most singularly exotic in the recent cinema.

Opera Jawa adopts a tale from the Hindu Ramayana, wherein the marriage of a poor potter and his beautiful wife Siti (Artika Sari Devi) is challenged by a wealthy, handsome paramour. Nugroho inscribes the fears and anxieties of the constituent narrative doubly, through both an operatic narrative, articulated lyrically, and in the gestures of the picture's folkloric dance. With respect to the latter, the conventions of Javanese dance may not be immediately apparent to many Western spectators - that is, we may not know exactly what the gestures signify - though the fact of their signification and their relationship to the meta-narrative are both clear enough.

Ultimately, Opera Jawa emphasizes the degree to which the film's mythic themes and the recourse to poetic representation (that is to forms whose codes convey something beyond themselves, without always being directly mimetic) are each universal, while the particularity of its representational structure remains decisively local. Opera Jawa is to the new Asian cinema what The Color of Pomegranates (1968, Sergei Paradjanov) was to the European art cinema of the 1960s - it is a filmmaking that invents its own idiom, which nonetheless remains deeply imprecated with its regional tradition. Along with Apichatpong's cinema, Opera Jawa may provide evidence that Asian art cinema has entered a post-modern (not postmodern) folk-art phase.

Opera Jawa also compares to Jacques Rivette's corpus in both its examination of multiple narrative levels and its interrogation of the relationship between film and theatre. Moreover, like Rivette's cinema again, Nugroho does not always immediately distinguish between dream and waking. In fact, the two seem to bleed into one another; Opera Jawa underlines film art's fundamentally surrealist character. At the same time, Opera Jawa's elisions between the two clarify rather than confuse: this is a film that, on its many levels, examines the same series of themes. It is the film's subjects that provide the connective tissue between its somewhat disparate narrative systems.

However, Opera Jawa remains much more than the above rationalizations may suggest: Nugroho's film combines excesses of both beauty and poetry, whether it is visual, lyrical or gestural. These surpluses have created many of the best moments in the cinema of the past couple of years, as for instance when Siti's lover hides beneath her skirt; when she visits his candle-adorned, waterside bed; when she travels down the red cloth laid by he and his mother; when Siti crouches, covered in clay, on her husband's potter's wheel; and finally, when the couple meet under a saffron, beach-front tent. In a word, Opera Jawa is one of the year's most memorable films.

Update: Also, check out R. Emmet Sweeney's excellent, very enthusiastic Opera Jawa review at Termite Art.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

In Memory of Michelangelo Antonioni (1912-2007)

Italian film director Michelangelo Antonioni, who passed away at his home yesterday at the age of 94, was once the most fashionable of European directors: notoriously, the director's 1960 masterpiece L'Avventura, the ultimate succès de scandale, was greeted with catcalls at its Cannes premiere, before being awarded a Special Jury Prize that stipulated its invention of a new film language. Two years later, L'Avventura finished number two in the second ever Sight and Sound poll of the "ten best films of all-time," placing behind only Citizen Kane (1941).

Antonioni directed his first feature, the very good Chronicle of a Love Affair (1950), at the tail end of neorealismo's salad days, procuring an aesthetic that featured empty compositions and circling long takes - that is, an aesthetic that immediately enunciated its distance from Rossellini (to whom he nonetheless owed more than a passing debt - Antonioni-ennui, evident in his very best works of the next decade, was the direct descendant of Rossellini's Europa '51 [1952] and especially Voyage in Italy [1953]) and De Sica. Following such an auspicious debut, Antonioni made two of the better woman's pictures of the decade, A Lady Without Camelias (1953) and the underrated Le Amiche (1955). In 1957, Antonioni shifted gears somewhat with his Il Grido, which more than any of his previous works anticipated his great films of the early 1960s.

In 1960, Antonioni made the first of four consecutive films with muse Monica Vitti, L'Avventura, which has come to exemplify a certain strain European modernist filmmaking, distinguished by its use of long shot/long takes, empty frames and the overarching subject of modern alienation. It is one of the singularly defining films of its era. A year later, Antonioni made La Notte (1961), a fine effort that all-the-same may be the director's weakest of the period. However, the next year, Antonioni would direct his finest film, L'Eclisse (1962), which along with Rossellini's Paisan (1946) rates as the most profoundly Italian work that this writer knows - that is, L'Eclisse (aka The Eclipse) highlights the act of living with and among works of art in a manner that I would argue is both unique to an experience of the director's homeland and also rare in works of this national cinema. Likewise, L'Eclisse charts the relationship of sex and money as few films have, to say nothing of the film's concluding montage that further defines the new language evident in L'Avventura. L'Eclisse is a work of extraordinary formal rigor and invention.

In 1964, Antonioni made his first color feature, the exceptional The Red Desert, with a now red-headed Vitti. Two years later, Antonioni again defined the zeitgeist with his English language world-conquering Blow-up (1966), which may at once be the director's most overrated film and nevertheless a very fine work indeed. Antonioni, however, would not be so lauded for his next production, Zabriskie Point, which remains perhaps the one film maudit in his body of work, though in again capturing the spirit of its era, the late 1960s counterculture in its case, it is in many respects just as successful as Blow-up. The director's next fiction feature, 1975's The Passenger, starring Jack Nicholson, experienced a major reversal in its reputation following its theatrical re-release a couple of years ago - that is, it is now one of the director's acknowledged classics. This essential entry into Antonioni's corpus features one of the director's most inspired moments: the penultimate tracking shot that departs from the living protagonist, tracks through window bars, circles the courtyard and then returns to the same gentleman shot dead in his bed. A new language indeed.

While Antonioni would not attain such a height again in his later corpus, Identification of a Woman (1982) remains an interesting late instantiation of the master's personal universe, and Beyond the Clouds (1995) is a surprisingly buoyant and successful experiment co-directed by Wim Wenders. The director's most recent effort, a segment for the omnibus Eros (2004), has been unfairly vilified given its coherence to the director's preceding body of the work. Even to the end Antonioni was very much his own artist.

For me, Antonioni was one of the most important figures in my own growth as a cineaste. I first encountered the director as a name in the appendix of Roger Ebert's Great Movies volume, where the magical name L'Avventura (once again) was once considered the second best movie of all time. I tracked it down soon after in a suburban Minneapolis video store and would find myself completely mystified after a first viewing. After a second screening, not long after, I would be convinced that it was one of the very greatest films of all-time, a position from which I haven't strayed - that far - in the eight or nine years since.

In fact, I would publicly screen L'Avventura during my junior undergraduate year at Hillsdale College, where it was received better than almost anything else I showed that year. (I remember getting three times the number of spectators for my video tape screening than did the University of Michigan for their 35mm showing, where I was also in attendance. At that time Antonioni was nowhere near as fashionable as he is now; funny how quickly these things change.) For some reason, as difficult as it was, Antonioni still spoke to twenty year-olds at the end of last century as it had to viewers forty years before. For me, Antonioni will always be indispensable to a certain, exceedingly formative time in my life. And less subjectively, he remains one of the very best Italian directors of that cinema's finest moment.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Uncovering the Author: Michael Curtiz's Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)

"Perhaps more than any other director, Curtiz reflected the strengths and weaknesses of the studio system in Hollywood... The director's one enduring masterpiece is, of course, Casablanca, the happiest of happy accidents, and the most decisive exception to the auteur theory."

-Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968


As with so many of his entries in The American Cinema, Andrew Sarris' account of Michael Curtiz's oeuvre has become the received wisdom among his auteurist followers, myself included. For Sarris, the Vasari of the classical Hollywood cinema, the "Lightly Likable" Curtiz - the author's classification for "talented but uneven directors with the saving grace of unpretentiousness" - was among "the most amiable of Warner's technicians faithfully [serving] the studio's contract players." A quick survey of his best-known, mid-career works would seem to reflect Sarris' assessment: whether it is his work with Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938, co-directed by William Keighley); with Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca (1942); or with Joan Crawford in her Academy Award-winning Mildred Pierce (1945) performance, in each we seem to see the director's personality superseded by that of his stars. (One might add Yankee Doodle Dandy [1942] as decisive evidence to this end, as Sarris has, though I cannot corroborate the point having never seen this acknowledged "classic," in spite of my increasing fondness for its star, Mr. James Cagney.)

Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), starring Cagney, Pat O' Brien and Bogart, is another film in this tradition, coupling Curtiz's own celebrated direction of actors with one of the studio's "steady output of crime dramas and gangster films with James Cagney," around which the "Warner's style in the 1930s... coalesced" (Thomas Schatz, The Oxford History of World Cinema, 227). In other words, Angels with Dirty Faces is the Warner's studio picture par excellence, even if it represents a late entry into the gangster film cycle that reached its peak in the early 1930s (as for instance in William A. Wellman's superlative Cagney vehicle Public Enemy [1931] or Howard Hawks' superior, Caddo Company-produced Scarface [1932], which rates as one of the decade's finest films in any genre).

So what then is there to say about Angels with Dirty Faces apart from its easy assignment among Warner's products of the time? Is its significance, assuming perhaps wrongly that there is one, its ordinariness, or more charitably its representative facility? Curtiz's film commences with a crane shot, opening on a newspaper headline that places the film's start in 1920, before it begins to move across a crowded tenement, which IMDb identifies as Hell's Kitchen (though it might have just as easily been the Lower East Side, given its similarity to the urban landscapes of George Bellows). In this circling, opening camera movement, the set itself is very much the point, as is the narrative world that it is seeking to represent. Curtiz's world is familiar, perhaps as recognizable as his Casablanca, though it is every bit as teeming with artifice as does his better-known, subsequent pic.

After a single cut, we are introduced to a pair of rather unkempt young men who harass a group of girls as they cross below their fire escape platform. Suffice it to say that the former pair will grow into Cagney and O' Brien, the first of whom becomes a gangster after moving into and out of a series of reform homes throughout his adolescence, and the latter later emerges as a Catholic priest, who reunites with his childhood chum after fifteen years (making Angels with Dirty Faces roughly contemporary by the end of the film).

While various other plot machinations introduce Bogart as Cagney's underworld attorney, George Bancroft as Cagney and Bogart's co-conspirator and Ann Sheridan as Cagney's love interest - not surprisingly she was one of the aforementioned victims of harassment - the core of Curtiz's narrative remains centered around Cagney and O' Brien, and particularly their struggle for the souls of "The Dead End Kids," not that is that Cagney actively endeavours to corrupt the young men; in fact, he uses his influence with the young would-be hoods to get them into O' Brien's gym for one of his buddy priest's basketball games. Ensuing is an extraordinarily long sequence in which we see the young men slowly - and admittedly, unevenly - purged of their violence during a very rough game of round ball, of which mobster Cagney ultimately officiates. Unlike in the NBA of our own time, however, Cagney fairly records their offenses, leading the young men to plead for a re-match.

In truth, Cagney's own road to redemption is itself every bit as uneven, though it is worth noting that his detour through the underworld commences after Bogart and Bancroft's unsuccessful assassination attempt on the film's first lead. In the end, (partial spoiler coming, though if it is at all a surprise, you are probably not terribly familiar with Hollywood filmmaking of the period) Cagney is redeemed, though it takes a final act immediately prior to his execution to secure this redemption. As such, Curtiz externalizes his lead's salvation, removing it from the realm of the spiritual and translating it into a recognizably cinematic form: that of action. Likewise, Angels with Dirty Faces reaffirms its social message at this same juncture, which is itself cardinal to Curtiz's narrative where his priest initiates a reform movement on his own. Ultimately, Cagney is compelled to act for the betterment of society, rather than persisting in his own self-interest, which we might say is the same moral of Casablanca. However, unlike the later film, Cagney's good work is quickly followed by the execution that is dictated by his crimes.

Even so, it is perhaps less in the director's clearly discernible message than in the visual style that Angels with Dirty Faces shares with Casablanca, where Curtiz's imprint is most evident (importantly, the two pictures share neither the same screenwriters nor the same directors of photography; Curtiz, Bogart and composer Max Steiner are the most conspicuous constants). In the earlier, as in the later film, Curtiz again combines exotic (at least for the middle class, American viewer), detailed sets with sparer backdrops that alternately highlight the film's studio genesis. Of course, the occurrence of the latter is not an intrusion of Brechtian theatrics but rather proof that sometimes the set's the point of the mise-en-scène and sometimes its not.

A more intentioned element of the director's technique is the film's mobile camera work, which follows Cagney and company through art director Robert M. Haas' pregnant slums, dank hideouts and glittering night spots. Curtiz and cinematographer Sal Polito's compositions achieve a dynamism both through this mobility and also in their selection of striking angles, and in particular, overheads, as when we see Cagney spying (from an upper floor) on the police who have infiltrated his place of residence. In this regard it is possible to see the immediate, Germanic visual tradition that Gregg Toland perfected in the subsequent years - most spectacularly of course in Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941) - though without the benefits of the famed lenser's deep focus photography. Distinctly, Curtiz and Polito combine sharply focused middle grounds with either fore or backgrounds that do not share its resolution (a telling instance occurs where we see one of the 'Dead End Kids' playing pool with an out-of-focus solid closest to the camera). Significantly, this same pre-Toland cinematography dominates in Casablanca as well, which, for whatever its contemporary political resonance, looks very much like a product of the previous decade. As with the latter film, likewise, Curtiz and Polito show a predilection for filming spaces filled with smoke or gas, as for instance in the conventional climactic shootout, which seems to prefigure Casablanca's indelible final image.

Still, these are dynamic works, not only for Curtiz's mobile camera and selection of baroque angles, but particularly for his editing technique that pushes forward his brisk narratives. Uniquely striking are Curtiz and editor Owen Marks' montage sequences covering extended durations, as with a series of documents that comprise Cagney's adolescent and adult criminal record early in the film or the the Dead End Kids' spectatorship of his trial during the film's culminating act. In sequences likes these, Curtiz and Marks utilize a series of stylized wipes introducing an additional level of dynamism to Angels with Dirty Faces. In fact, it is Curtiz's faculty for storytelling, and more accurately, for creating works of entertainment that may be the most conspicuous sign of his artistry: if The Adventures of Robin Hood, Angels with Dirty Faces, Casablanca and Mildred Pierce share anything, it is that they are foremost first-class entertainments. And as it is today, to be entertaining is no minor accomplishment, just as being 'Lightly Likable' is no small success.

Perhaps then Sarris' framework is not quite as foreign to Curtiz's aesthetic as it may at first appear. Regardless, auteurism, it is important to remember, is first a system of classification. As a theory, it exists because it allows us to conceptualize, catalog, and finally choose between and among larger bodies of works. An exception here and there doesn't doom the theory - which is fundamentally pragmatic - especially that is when it is no exception at all. In other words, Sarris may have spoken too soon.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Scandinavians in Minnesota: Sweet Land & A Mirror of Nature: Nordic Landscape Painting

Ali Selim's Sweet Land, adapted by Selim and Will Weaver from the latter's short story "A Gravestone Made of Wheat," distinguished itself as a word-of-mouth favorite, running for a remarkable 37 consecutive weeks on 300 screens, though the independently-financed film brought in a mere $1.7 million during its exceptional run. Never mind its popular and even critical success - which extended to two Independent Spirit Awards, including best actress for Elizabeth Reaser - Sweet Land may well be one of the worst high-profile independent productions of the past few years. Whether publicly taking this position means that I have forfeited my Minnesotan birthright (as the descendant of Swedish and Norwegian immigrants) remains to be seen.

Sweet Land opens with a framing device (situated in the present) that challenges the decision of a middle-aged man to sell his grandparent's family farm - upon the death of his grandmother - which is located on the tall grass prairies of western Minnesota. From here, we flash back to the 1960s for a second framing segment, wherein the same grandchild mourns the death of his Norwegian grandfather along with his aged grandmother and family friend Frandsen. Having thus described the passing of each, we finally arrive in the immediate aftermath of World War I. Here, a pair of beautiful German mail-order brides (including the aforementioned Reaser as Inge, who is destined to become the family matriarch) reach their Upper Midwest destination. Presently, we are also introduced fleetingly to a forward-thinking socialist promoting universal suffrage, and to the pervasive anti-German sentiment that otherwise defines the prairie community.

This intolerance is greatest, according to the convention that Selim reflexively adopts, in the community Lutheran church, even though Frandsen (Alan Cumming) cheekily mentions that Martin Luther was a German. (For whatever reason, I was reminded of a line in the British Office where David Brent defends pal Finchy's alleged misogyny: "how can I hate women, when my mother is a woman?" Salim and Weaver's screenplay showcases the same intellect throughout as does Brent's best bloke.) However, when faced with the loss of Frandsen's family farm through its foreclosure by the local bank - one thing we are repeatedly reminded of is Selim and Weaver's axiom that "banks and farming don't mix"; whether or not it is possible that the pair know so little about the economics of farming remains to be seen, though their complete lack of understanding of a how a farm is operated (according to my hobby-farmer father and Swede Jay) is manifest elsewhere and indeed suggests that they don't know the first thing about either - the intolerant Lutherans band together to save the aforesaid farm, following the lead of patriarch Olaf (Tim Guinee). Thus, through this social action, the rural Christians are redeemed, as is Inge in their view - that is, as she works for the benefit of the collective.

Ultimately, Sweet Land rates as the most openly socialist American indie in quite some time (along with Half Nelson perhaps) beyond its status as avowedly anti-Christian, so long that is as it doesn't serve the film's social agenda. Indeed, it is compelling to read Sweet Land as a modern American variation on Aleksandr Dovzehnko's sublime tractor epic Earth (1930). However, rather than securing a transcendence through its depictions of the landscape - that in the case of Earth challenge its socialist program - Salim establishes the film's generational component through its adoption of a pair of framing flashbacks. In other words, whereas Dovzhenko adopts a visual poetics worthy of Mizoguchi, Salim favors a Spielbergian manipulation of sentiment that has made Sweet Land more the heir to Saving Private Ryan (1998) than to the best examples of the Soviet cinema. In the tradition of Spielberg, Sweet Land is filmmaking with the heaviest of hands.

Though ostensibly serving rhetorical programs of their own, the works on display in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts' A Mirror of Nature: Nordic Landscape Painting 1840-1910 lack the insufferable didacticism of Salim's film. Offering instead the beauty and majesty of nature as source for national pride - hence the exhibition's title - A Mirror of Nature showcases a tradition of landscape painting that is mostly unknown outside of its native Scandinavia. Perhaps the best comparison I can make for my film literate readers is that Scandinavian landscape painting compares to South Korean cinema: while it is influenced by a number of its surrounding national traditions that are well known to the West, the rich tradition of Scandinavian landscape painting, like Korean cinema, remains the purview largely of its national audience and the occasional expert. In each case, a wider audience is well deserved.

Among those works that best exemplify the eponymous aims of the exhibition are a series of works that collectively amount to what might be best described as a tradition of the Norwegian sublime, following closely in the manner of Caspar David Friedrich. Customarily, these works represent a figure or set figures immersed with an enormous, awe-inducing nature. While this effect possesses religious connotations in Friedrich - let alone in progenitors of the American sublime such as in the work Frederick Church - again the exhibition curators have emphasized its nationalistic meaning in works by Norwegians Johan Christian Dahl, Thomas Fearnley and Peder Balke (pictured above). That this characteristic would appear particularly prominent in works by Norwegian artists follows from that nation's tenuous existence during the period (in a union with Sweden under the control of the latter rival state; Norway did not attain full independence until 1905).

If there is a nation that stands out among the five represented (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden) it is Norway, not only for its indigenous tradition of the sublime, but also for a set of later works that emphasize a Parisian influence, be it the works of the Scandinavia's best-known painter Edvard Munch, or Harald Sohlberg's art nouveau Flower Meadow in the North (1905, pictured above).

Apart from the Norwegians, perhaps the most interesting national body of work on display is that of the Finnish, and particularly the work Akseli Gallen-Kallela. While Mirror of Nature's Finnish painters otherwise highlight a singular tradition of primitivist folk art, Gallen-Kallela's art may be among the most sophisticated in the exhibition. For instance, in Lake Keitele (1905, pictured above), the painter combines the placid, mirror-like surfaces of the lake with large washes of gray that emphasize the formal properties of the medium. In a second composition, Waterfall of Mantykoski (1892-4), Gallen-Kallela superimposes five vertical bars over the image of a waterfall, thus figuring the harp whose sonority compares to that of the cascade.

Other than the corpuses of Gallen-Kallela and certain of his countrymen, perhaps the most peculiar included in A Mirror of Nature is that of Sweden's Prince Eugen, which is noteworthly less for any representational ticks, than it is for the uncomplicated accomplishment of its royal creator. As the exhibition label states, "The Cloud [1896, pictured above] may at first sight seem to symbolize an ideal summer's day, but its mood is in fact more complex, marked by an undefined tension and a sense of a presence beyond what we are able to see." Along with Carl Larsson (his Open-Air Painter, 1886, is pictured at the beginning of this review), Price Eugen is the finest Swedish painter included in the exhibition and one of a number of revelations awaiting its Minneapolis patrons.

A Mirror of Nature: Nordic Landscape Painting 1840-1910 runs now through September 2 at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Following its lone North American venue, A Mirror of Nature will continue its tour of Scandinavia's capital cities. Sweet Land received its DVD release earlier this month.