Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Masterpieces of the Early Sound Cinema: Rouben Mamoulian's City Streets (by, Lisa K. Broad)

Rouben Mamoulian’s second film City Streets (1931), with a screenplay by Dashiel Hammett, screened yesterday at Film Forum as part of a larger Mamoulian retrospective. In it Gary Cooper plays a straight arrow and sharp shooting carnival man who is roped into the mob when his girlfriend is framed for a murder committed by her bootlegging father. Mamoulian famously remarked that the film contains 10 murders, none of which are seen.

The film opens with a low-angled shot of trucks barreling down the eponymous boulevards before passing over the camera, a close-up of a mysterious liquid leaking out of the back of one of the vehicles prompts an explanitory cut a to a beer bottling plant, and finally to a pint of beer being dispensed in extreme close-up. The camera lingers on the head of the froth in the glass as a light, effervescent bubbling sound is picked up on the soundtrack, a pregnant moment which distills the exuberance that greeted the sound cinema in the early 30s – the new and improved beer bubbles of the talking cinema can be seen and heard.

A man moves into the shot and downs the glass prompting a cut-to a close-up of a large wooden vat of beer being filled with a hose, the rushing and bubbling of the liquid fills the soundtrack, drawing a fascinating contrast between the recorded sound of moving and still liquid. After a beat the camera pulls back to reveal a crowd of bootleggers around the still, arguing over their territory. One man pulls a wad of bills out of a hat – a silent-film style close-up draws the spectators attention to the initials marking its crown – and pays the other. At the conclusion of a tense but amiable discussion between the men, the camera returns once again to admire the swirling vat of liquid that will bring joy and heartache to many as the narrative continues.

A first instance of the latter comes to the fore as a graphic match transports the story from the froth of forbidden ale to the threatening waves of the river where the hat with the initials is seen floating. Here again the sound of the water is highlighted. In this way, Mamoulian the consummate cinematic innovator is not content merely to highlight the existence of cinematic sound – as he did with great success in 1929’s Applause – but its possibility for subtlety and variety. He gives the spectator both the auditory thrill of jazz clubs and gun shots, and also the nearly scientific fascination (audio-microscopy) of recorded beer bubbles. Mamoulian also plays with early sound film conventions, providing a close-up of a bird in a cage but refusing the audience its song – the bird’s owner notes that it hasn’t produced a tune all day.

Despite the aural fireworks, City Street’s image track holds its own just fine. The scenes in the seaside carnival provide plenty of spectacular bells, whistles, flashing lights, and funhouse mirrors while the love scene between Cooper and Sylvia Sidney as Nan yields up breathtaking beauty. A 180° panning shot sweeps the moonlit beach and finds the lovers ensconced on a large rock in the surf. Cooper and Sidney are both lovely to look at, and the moonlight reflected off the water gilds their faces as they embrace, squabble, and embrace again.

A clever and appealing use of shadow and smoke throughout the film – a gangster converses with an offscreen man whose giant, speaking shadow can be seen on the wall; a nightclub scene is so fogged with smoke that each lamp casts a delicate halo – creates a mysterious yet playful tone similar to that of Jean Renoir’s early sound masterwork La Nuit Du Carrefour (1932). While City Streets is every inch the sound film, it harkens back to silent-film convention in its frequent use of extreme close-ups, attention-directing camera movements, and associative montage. In this way, Mamoulian places heightened emphasis on the materiality of both the sound and the image tracks, creating a film that is constantly directing the audience’s attention to its own virtuosic construction.

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."


-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.