Tuesday, August 28, 2007

"What does it mean that we are going to have visitors from other worlds, other planets, dropping in on us?"


Spaceman came down to answer some things,
The world gathered round from paupers to kings,
I’ll answer your questions, I’ll answer them true,
I’ll show you the way you know what to do,
Who is wrong and who is right?
Yellow, brown or black or white?
The spaceman he answered "You’ll no longer mind...
I’ve opened your eyes, you’re now colour blind."

Racial.

-David Brent, "The Office"

Warning: the following post contains spoilers.

The reputation of Robert Wise's The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) as an anti-nuclear allegory certainly precedes it. Indeed, as a film of the immediate post-World War II zeitgeist, few films can claim as unequivocal a connection to the era's principle political and technological anxieties and developments as does Wise's and screenwriter Edmund H. North's established science fiction classic.

After the film's opening spacecraft point-of-view (not that this short shot is revealed as such) we are introduced to a litany of broadcast reports - from India to France to Britain to the United States - each (presumably) highlighting the bright white orb circling the planet at supersonic speeds. Shortly thereafter, Wise provides an additional news anchor narrating the on-going story, while we are shown a television set broadcasting the report at the location of the recently-descended U.F.O. Wise couples the voice-over with a camera movement directed toward the box, with the audio continuing after we have transitioned to the space shown on the screen-within-a-screen. Hence, Wise reminds us of both telecommunication's' role in making the world smaller and also television's specificity - and particularly - its liveness as a defining aesthetic at a time when it was still a rarity (in 1951, 14 million U.S. homes owned a set to 42 million by the end of the decade).

Of course, it is less television's cardinality than it is the exigencies of the nascent Cold War and the threat of nuclear holocaust that places The Day the Earth Stood Still within its particular moment. Upon arriving, the jump-suited Klaatu (aka Mr. Carpenter, Michael Rennie) demands "to meet with all nations on earth." After a U.S. military official proclaims his reticence, Klaatu follows up by asking about the United Nations - another institution of the moment. Again he is declined on the basis of the UN's lack of representation for all nations. Nevertheless Klaatu communicates that he is "not as cynical about the earth's prospects." Even after the soldier responds that "I've been dealing in the earth's politics longer than you have," it remains clear that The Day the Earth Stood Still shares Klaatu's optimism.

At this juncture, we are still under the impression (from Klaatu's warnings) that the earth is under an external threat. As such, the film's obvious - if implicit - denials of the burgeoning Soviet threat would seem to conflict with the concept of an endangering other. That is, while one threat is neutralized another emerges; only the horizons shift - from the earth's nation-states to competing planets. Regardless, it is clear that Wise is offering a statement of trans-ethnic tolerance to match his signature West Side Story (1961), even if his allegory isn't yet entirely transparent.

Nevertheless, Wise does not entirely damn his rhetoric by revealing, ultimately, that planet earth's propensity for violence is what threatens its existence, not the alien other. However, to insure that earth doesn't destroy itself - or pose a threat to other planets - the alien states that Kaantu represents have installed the gentleman alien's metallic companion Gort (Lock Martin) as a check. That is, Wise offers a single executor of international/universal law in the place of the U.S.A. and U.S.S.R. (and mutually-assured destruction) of the time. Interestingly, to achieve this Kaantu and his more insightful species has foisted Gort on the people of earth, who at the first occurrence of violence will respond in turn. In other words, The Day the Earth Stood Still posits a very non-democratic solution to the world's problems: by fiat of a more intelligent elite, the people of earth will comply or be destroyed (even if it is for mankind's good). Similarly, Kaantu and his Professor associate (Sam Jaffe) stage a demonstration of force to encourage human complicity. That Wise would evoke demonstrations of force and the rule of a governing elite on the heels of the twentieth century's great age of dictators is curious indeed.

Christian Nyby's The Thing from Another World, produced and co-directed (without credit) by Howard Hawks, and released six months prior to Wise's film (also in 1951), is The Day the Earth Stood Still's profoundly pro-democratic generic double. In brief, The Thing... "tells the story of an Air Force crew and scientists at a remote Arctic research outpost who fight a malevolent alien being"; said being is first discovered as the pilot of a frozen spaceship. (For an extended plot summary - from which the above quotation has been gleaned - click here.)

With its very Hawksian emphasis on conversation, often in a heavily-populated middle-ground (cf. To Have and Have Not, 1944), Nyby's The Thing... highlights the conflict between science and religion that the appearance of the unknown visitor underscores. That is, the introduction of the eponymous Thing calls into question our long-held assumption that we exist atop the food chain. By contrast, science in The Thing... posits mankind as one among many animals, making its appearance non-threatening to humankind's identity.

Indeed, each idea is given its hearing, as the military officials (read humankind - and ultimately human religion's - protectors) and scientists debate a course of action. Again, these ideas are debated with figures interacting and discussing these alternatives in a single space, shot at eye-level, and thereby reinforcing the film's democratic ethos. Still, this is not to suggest that Nyby and Hawks refuse to take a position. Ultimately, it is with humanity - and action, commensurate with the genre - versus a dehumanizing science and inaction that they side. Surely, when the film's representative of science claims that "knowledge is more important than life... [that] we [as humanity] split the atom," it is not only the military but the filmmakers themselves that respond "and look how happy that made us."

In short, The Thing from Another World finds its own very different lesson from the horrors of Nazism, fascism and nuclear deployment: the limits of science in a world where its utilization has not always been benevolent. That is, The Thing... strikes the same realistic (vs. idealistic) note that The Day the Earth Stood Still refuses. And it does so with a form fully suited to the rhetoric it conveys. Comparatively, Wise's aesthetic is perhaps most notable for its visually plentiful black-and-white photography, securing its highest level of contrast in the picture's pitch-black nocturnal exteriors, seared by bright white streetlights. Elsewhere, Wise and D.P. Leo Tover succeed in registering their location-heavy Washington D.C. with a plush - characteristically broad - grey-scale. (This is not to suggest that The Thing...'s photography lacks the luster of Tover and Wise's; in reality, Hawks's films - including this one for which he failed to receive a director's credit - are often underrated in terms of their pictorial complexity.)

Perhaps, if there is a relationship between form and content in The Day the Earth Stood Still, however slight, it is in its insertion of location to highlight's the narrative's currency for its time, as well as the aforesaid spatial transitions introduced in the film's televisual motif. Still, Wise's picture displays nowhere near the formal rigor of The Thing from Another World, even as it it remains plausible to argue that Nyby and Hawks's remote Arctic outpost represents a more accurate account of the immediate post-war world: where a loss of faith in man's ability to ethically use science (from eugenics to the weapons of war) seems clear enough.

Monday, August 20, 2007

New Film: The Bourne Ultimatum

Paul Greengrass's The Bourne Ultimatum, the third installment of the Matt Damon-fronted action franchise adapted from the novels of the late Robert Ludlum, has recently generated a small, internet-driven backlash centering on the director's shaky, hand-held camerawork - or as one of Roger Ebert's readers has dubbed it, "Queasicam" - even as the 'Bourne' films look to be among Hollywood's healthiest tent pole franchises. The always estimable David Bordwell has even chimed in, providing historical context for Greengrass's "Unsteadicam" look, correctly highlighting the parallels between Greeengrass's and Tony Scott's styles. While my own aesthetic preferences commonly tend toward the contemplative (toward longer takes that allow the spectator to select the image's focus) Greengrass's latest derives from the imperatives of the series' eponymous hero, and as such highlights the same integral relationship between form and content that elevated the director's exceptional previous feature, 2006's United 93.

As with United 93, The Bourne Ultimatum's narrative characteristically progresses on a real-time basis (a fact that is repeated in the film's dialogue). This fact, coupled with the frenetic pacing of the action that develops, produces a visual field that is often glimpsed only passingly at best, in occasional, infinitesimally-short fragments. However, it is a space that the film's hero Jason Bourne (Damon) remains capable of reading and processing with extraordinary speed and unfailing accuracy. That he can navigate the space at such velocities - in fact, as my viewing companion Lisa K. Broad points out, he often serves as a directorial agent within the film narrative telling his supporting players and therefore the camera where each should be at any given moment - highlights his superhuman perception. We experience the action, without always seeing what is going on around us; in The Bourne Ultimatum, space is made subservient to time.

Bourne also possesses an unequalled acumen for hand-to-hand combat, with the film's rapid cutting and nervous framing allowing the filmmakers to mask Damon's real-life aptitude for such activities. Greengrass has found a form to simulate without exactly showing. When the narrative does take a break from its virtually non-stop action, providing us with uncharacteristic moments of dead time, The Bourne Ultimatum suffers from the unclear motivations of its villains, to say nothing of Bourne's absence of any private life. Not that either is essential to The Bourne Ultimatum, which is thoughtless action in the very best sense.

Nor is this to say that Greengrass's picture is lacking a discernible ideology. Following the commemorative nature of United 93 - a film that made many a left-of-center commentator unease for its political implications - Greengrass seems to be righting this earlier non-politically correct wrong: for instance, The Bourne Ultimatum figures a Muslim bomber who is in the employ of the United States government (creating a de facto cultural relativism), while the film's most sympathetic ciphers are both female - in comparison to the picture's white, male CIA antagonists. In other words, Greengrass has made a film very much of our time to pair with his film of that earlier, less equivocal moment. Then again, as my viewing companion likewise noted, Greengrass does reveal that Jason chose his path of his own accord, thereby saving us from V for Vendetta's (2005, James McTeigue) knee-jerk evocation of a supposed new fascism. To put it another way, Jason's struggle is against not only a malevolent state but also his potentially amoral nature.

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.