Saturday, October 27, 2007

New Film: Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

Warning: the following post contains spoilers.

Sidney Lumet's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, from a screenplay by first-time scribe Kelly Masterson, recently marked the the octogenarian director's first appearance at the New York Film Festival in 43 years, which is to say that the film's status as an event certainly preceded it upon this weekend's limited release. Whether this is Lumet's finest in that lengthy span - or more plausibly since his 1970s through early 1980s heyday - is not for this writer to say; to me, Lumet is as much the writer of an introductory film-making tome as he is the auteur of Dog Day Afternoon (1975, which I haven't seen it), Network (1976, seen it, actually) and The Verdict (1982, again haven't seen it). The point is that I'm no Lumet scholar, so if that precludes me from an insightful analysis of his latest - and I understand if you believe it does - than I would caution you from reading the rest. In any case, I will be uncharacteristically brief.

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead opens with a startlingly graphic - and given that the couple is married, cinematically unconventional - sex act between Philip Seymour Hoffman's Andy and Marisa Tomei's Gina (who for the record looks absolutely extraordinary as she inches toward her mid-40s; Hoffman less so). This prologue, as will become clear, is the "thirty seconds of heaven," 'before the devil knows you're dead.' Back in the New York metropolitan area (the explanation for their personally-exceptional love-making is that it is because they are away, in Rio) Andy recruits his similarly money-troubled brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) to hold up a mom & pop jewelery store in Westchester. The twist, as many readers will undoubtedly already know, is that mom & pop are their Mom and Pop (the latter of which is played by Albert Finney).

But first, commensurate with the picture's non-sequential narration, the disastrous results of the robbery: Mom is shot along with the masked perp. With the latter being blown through the front door, Hank circles away from the scene, caught in an extended, static close-up registered by Lumet and cinematographer Ron Fortunato's HDCAM video camera. With this long-take, as with the other extended shots that punctuate the film (Lumet and Fortunato, for example, stay with Hoffman for an exceedingly long duration during a hotel room sequence) the purpose seems to be the registry the film's florid performances without intervening - or cheating - by editing. In this regard, Lumet's is the consummate actor's film with performances calibrated to impress, even as they remain equally capable of providing distraction, as they did for my regular viewing companion Ms. Broad in particular.

Of course, Lumet's film is no less noticeable in its non-chronological structure, which indeed plays with spectatorial feeling in a manner that more than justifies this narrative choice. For instance, in the aforementioned robbery scene, we are not immediately certain who the masked robber is, and when later we hear that typically another woman - not their mother - works the morning shift, we hope that maybe we confused the identity of the woman in this scene; perhaps the woman we saw is not their mother but only looks like her. (Similarly, early on we likewise hope that it is not Andy who was shot in the heist, not that he doesn't deserve the fate.) In short, Lumet expertly manipulates our sympathies, procuring our empathy - and in some sense, our hope for success - for characters who in no sense deserve anything of the sort.

This narrative-embodied relativism is matched by idea the world is comprised of those who make money through duplicity and those who are impacted it - not that the former always get away with their crimes. Finney in particular is vicitimized here, with his wife being killed in a heist orchestrated by his two sons. With the revelation of this detail - via an underworld jeweler who demonstrates his contempt for the (mostly) virtuous patriarch - Finney accepts the role of fate's agent, enacting an Oedipal drama that highlights the film's ultimate core: in the relationship of father to son. Then again, by shifting emphases in the film's denouement, Lumet does leave slack other threads that perhaps deserve greater attention, though he remains true to his manipulations of spectatorial desire, allowing in a sense the most favorable characters to at least, in the space of the plot, get away with it. The punishment does land on the most deserving.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

New Film: The Darjeeling Limited

Warning: the following post contains spoilers.

Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited, from a screenplay by Anderson, Roman Coppola and co-lead Jason Schwartzman, replicates a strategy inaugurated in the director's 1998 Rushmore and repeated in his 2001 masterpiece The Royal Tenenbaums, where the narrative is refracted and shaped by a (second) referent art form. Whereas theatre is the formal-thematic key of the earlier work and the novel - more fully, to be sure - defines the latter, The Darjeeling Limited proceeds according to its connections to the cinema itself.

The Darjeeling Limited opens with Anderson's axiomatic leading man Bill Murray rushing to reach the eponymous train as it departs from the station. As Murray languishes, proving ultimately unsuccessful in his attempt, Adrien Brody's Peter speeds past, reaching the caboose from which he will shortly observe the lagging star - characteristically, Anderson marks this pivotal sequence with slow motion and the film's first (and arguably its most beautiful) pop song, The Kink's "This Time Tomorrow." Indeed, as Anderson registers this passing of the leading man torch, so to speak (the film's other two male stars, Schwartzman and Owen Wilson, belong squarely to the director's regular troupe), he likewise indicates the film this could have been but will not be - that is, Murray's next vehicle. Rather The Darjeeling Limited, reflexive from its opening moments, becomes the story of three brothers on a journey to reconnect with one another, with a figure from their collected past and with their spiritual selves - albeit under the coercion of Wilson's Francis.

Following this opening sequence, Anderson's soundtrack largely highlights a more South Asian inflection, utilizing Ravi Shankar's scoring from Satyajit Ray's landmark Pather Panchali (1955), which certainly also reinforces The Darjeeling Limited's filmic point of reference. When Anderson's taste for classical Anglo-American pop/rock does reemerge, however, Anderson provides Schwartzman's Jack with an iPod and dock to allow for its presence within the film's story world - its diegesis - rather than on its non-diegetic soundtrack. In this way The Darjeeling Limited refers again to the combination of image and soundtrack that defines not only Anderson's latest but the entirety of his mature corpus.

Speaking of Jack's songs, when he endeavours to woo a pretty rail attendant, Amara Karan's Rita, he opts for Peter Sarstedt's "Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)," which happens to be the same track he plays for Natalie Portman in the film's companion short, Hotel Chevalier (also 2007). Ostensibly, Hotel Chevalier provides Jack with his back story, and gives a face to his ex. Yet, considering The Darjeeling Limited's film-conscious rubric, the existence of the accompanying short proves essential to the feature's situation within the aforesaid logic. Indeed, when Jack reads the ending of a story - he has only written the ending he admits - to his brothers late in the film, they are none other than the words he spoke to Portman in Hotel Chevalier, which is itself an ending without a beginning (like his story, again). Similarly, for those spectators who have not seen Hotel Chevalier, The Darjeeling Limited might itself repeat this pattern.

Portman, it is worth noting moreover, does appear momentarily in The Darjeeling Limited: namely in an extended tracking sequence that places Portman, along with Murray, Brody's wife glimpsed briefly in a flashback and the crew members of the eponymous train, on a newly reconstituted iteration of 'The Darjeeling Limited.' To back up, we see this quintessentially Anderson cross-section after the brothers and their lost mother (Angelica Huston) agree to continue their time together, communicating without talking. What results is another of the film's overtly reflexive gesture, in its case the linking of disparate characters in the narrative in a single strip - with the separate compartments serving as single frames. Indeed, given The Darjeeling Limited's status as a work of the train-travel sub-genre, it becomes evident why Anderson would chose cinema as the picture's referent medium - both for its modern connotations and again for its ready-made visual analogies.

The aforementioned references in fact do not stop with the train or the music or even Jack's story but find further expression in both the film's most dramatic moment - a child's death: again, read Pather Panchali and also Jean Renoir's The River (1951) - as well as in the setting for the picture's ultimate reunion, the Himalayan monastery (cf. Powell and Pressburger's Black Narcissus [1947]). Likewise, the film's ubiquitous use of zoom lenses further moors The Darjeeling Limited's visual rhetoric in the terrain of the unequivocally cinematic - while perhaps extending an additional reference to the look of 1970s era popular Indian filmmaking (as practiced by Sippy and Desai among others).

At the same time, in spite of The Darjeeling Limited's clearly circumscribed echoes of the cinematic art form, what may be most striking about Anderson's latest is its continuation of the preoccupations of his mature work, Rushmore onward. Once again, we have a family, broken up, beset by tragedy, which is attempting to move forward, to rise from the wreckage that their lives have become. (We have redemption through action, as when the three brothers rush to save three drowning boys, which leads to the death mentioned above.) This fundamentally mythic story of perseverance is distilled most clearly onto the wrapped head of Wilson, who we will later learn was not the victim of an accident but a suicide attempt. With this revelation perfectly/horribly mirroring the real-life suicide attempt of the same star, it might seem natural to wish that Wilson heeds his auteur's humanistic optimism, whether or not one agrees with the film's dismissal of the efficacy of the spiritual that The Darjeeling Limited would seem to posit. Like the New Age iterations of the faiths it depicts, The Darjeeling Limited represents a form of spiritual tourism.

In closing, The Darjeeling Limited may indeed invite criticism on the register of its (potential) cultural insensitivity. Then again, that this milieu seems to so perfectly suit Anderson's preoccupations - and moreover, since his references highlight a genuine thoughtfulness in terms of the sub-continent's celluloid tradition (at least with those works best known in the west) - this reviewer feels inclined to defend Anderson's intervention. To say nothing of the film's, and the country's, sumptuous visuals, which I have yet to speak of: the baby blue train, the ever-present saffrons, the stark, northern landscapes - this is a work that reflects its foreign subject both humanely and beautifully. (I must point out that my brother Mark, in an email correspondence on Anderson's body of work, rightly underlined the director's preference for primary colors that is again predominate in The Darjeeling Limited, and is surely an essential source of the film's pleasure. As is the fact that it is simply funny.) In short, The Darjeeling Limited is a work of striking auteurist achievement, and a clear return to form after the disappointingly shallow The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004, the one exception in his career-spanning string of achievements). Here it is not simply decor for its own sake, but a world that registers Anderson's world with thematic and visual precision.

Monday, October 08, 2007

The 45th New York Film Festival: Flight of the Red Balloon

Warning: the following post contains spoilers.

From at least his 1996 Goodbye South, Goodbye onward, nearly all of director Hou Hsiao-hsien's films have relied upon a single, structuring motif to shape the relatively classical narrative content in the image of each film's thematic specificity. For the aforesaid, it was the repeated compositions moored to the forward progress of the film's ubiquitous trains that allegorized the transformations in the director's Taiwanese homeland. In his follow-up, 1998's Flowers of Shanghai (which in the opinion of this writer remains among the director's supreme masterpieces and continues to be his finest work in this most recent phase of Hou's career), the stupor created by the opium consumption partaken in frequently within the film's opium den settings, is transferred onto languid camera work that is Flowers of Shanghai's most conspicuous artistic feature. 2001's Millennium Mambo finds inspiration in the picture's pulsating techno soundtrack, transforming the musical looping into the relatively static lives of its young protagonists. (A break in soundtrack and setting naturally accompany a similar development on the level of plot.) With 2003's Café Lumière, literally "Coffee Time," Hou structures his narratives around the interstitial moments that are referred to in the film's Japanese title. In other words, Café Lumière, a tribute to director Yasujiro Ozu on the occasion of his centenary, is comprised, appropriately, of a series of "pillow shots."

The one exception to this rule would seem to be 2005's Three Times, a portmanteau collage of two lovers in three separate eras, which serves to refract three discrete time periods utilized by Hou in a series of his previous works. In other words, whereas the above motifs become points of reference for the films that contain them, Three Times's meaning is in part generated by its connection to his prior work - as well in the simple comparisons that each segment facilitates.

Hou Hsiao-hsien's latest, Flight of the Red Balloon (Le Voyage du ballon rouge), from a screenplay by the director and François Margolin, fits squarely within the trajectory charted above. In its case, the structuring point(s) of departure become the factuality of its adaptation of Albert Lamorisse's 1956 short The Red Balloon, and its inclusion of a second adaptation within the film, by a young Chinese filmmaker Song (Fang Song). That is, the film adaptation of The Red Balloon - both in its textual specificity and also for its role in the process it describes - each become as important to the narrative structure and thematic preoccupations of Flight of the Red Balloon as is the opium use in Flowers of Shanghai or the techno in Millennium Mambo.

Song, in collaboration with the child for whom she nannies - he acts in her film and on occasion shoots footage on her camera (and even initiates a flashback in Hou's picture with the beginning of an anecdote, which in a fashion typical for the director requires some duration before the time of the event is situated; for reference, this motif is taking to its furthest limits in his 1989 A City of Sadness) - creates her own version of The Red Balloon. In fact, we see a segment of her DV production on her computer screen, appropriately sustaining the same long-take aesthetic that Hou's 35mm work similarly utilizes. (A third format, 8mm, appears with the presentation of home video footage.) As such, Song emerges readily as a double for the filmmaker, even being lauded for the abstract quality of her filmmaking. While in this way it might be tempting, therefore, to read the entirety of Flight of the Red Balloon as the film Song produces, Hou characteristically delimits between film and the meta-films, sustaining the classical, diegetic world that his film constructs. In comparison to say Michael Haneke's 2005 Caché, the status of the world he creates is never in dispute, even if it is possible to read it according to its self-reflexive matrix.

That Flight of the Red Balloon goes behind the scenes of its filmmaking process is further referred to in a couple of separate details, among others. The first occurs when the child Simon's (Simon Iteanu) mother Suzanne (Juliette Binoche) asks about a person in a green suit - the balloon wrangler, so to speak - who assists during Song's shoot. The latter notes that his costume allows for easy computer erasure of the figure in post-production, thereby demystifying not only her own shoot, but Hou's film as well. The second emerges in Suzanne's related vocation as a voice actor for the experimental puppet theatre. Hou's mobile camera allows for our seemless transportation from the role of theatre spectator to glimpses of the back stage. Consequently, Binoche's role as actress - for the puppet theatre and in Flight of the Red Balloon - is disclosed, again completely within the world of the director's fictional world.

Moreover, the introduction of this particular art into Flight of the Red Balloon reaffirms the work's connection to Hou's earlier corpus - and particularly to 1993's The Puppetmaster - as well as its theme of remaking of culture artifacts, be it the Chinese puppet theatre or The Red Balloon itself. With the respect to the former, we might be able to see Flight of the Red Balloon as a continuation of Three Times's corpus-based rhetoric, and of Café Lumière's highlighting of the process of filmmaking (in the case of the 2003 work, of the soundtrack). Perhaps then we are in a new phase (or even sub-phase) of Hou's work that is particularly calibrated toward an awareness of the director's art.

This awareness of the work's construction, disclosed within a coherent narrative universe, likewise finds form in Flight of the Red Balloon's manipulation of its soundtrack. In particular, with the emphasis that is placed on Simon's piano lessons, it becomes evident that the film's piano score relays the child's rather melancholic disposition. This externalization of the internal is similarly picked up in the film's frequent utilizations of windows to reflect what is both outside a space and inside it at the same time. This duality, be it again on the soundtrack or even in Hou's characterization of the manic Suzanne and her harrowing close-ups stands at the core of the work.

Returning for the moment to Hou's use of the soundtrack, one particularly revealing passage occurs with the arrival of a blind piano tuner at Suzanne and Simon's apartment. As he commences to tune the instrument, a job which is reproduced in real-time by the director, again with one of the film's systematic long takes, Hou alternately moves his camera to show and then conceal Simon playing his PlayStation, talking on the phone with his sister and Suzannne arguing with her neighbors in the hallway and then inside the threshold of her apartment. Over the course of this passage, the tuning itself becomes a discordant, non-diegetic soundtrack within a sequence where all becomes sound - again with the appearance of the blind piano tuner. Hou's consistently moving camera perfectly facilitates the thematic logic of the scene.

Yet, it is less in this scene than in the director's aerial follows of the eponymous object that his form becomes most conspicuous. Like in Abbas Kiarostami's Close-up (1990), where we follow a kicked can for quite an extended duration down a small slope, here we are forever following the aleatory drift - and on other occasions, seemingly intentional movements - of the red balloon. With respect to the more directed drifting of the object, it often appears through those windows, both in and out of view, that are closest to the young protagonist. As such, it soon becomes evident, when we consider his implorations of the object at the film's opening to allow itself to be caught, that the balloon itself serves as a symbol, however obliquely, of a happiness that the child doesn't quite attain.

To back up, Simon lives alone with his mother - his father has left the family and is living in Montreal - in a flat with echoes of the living quarters of The 400 Blows. In this latest incarnation of Truffaut's classic, the young male lead no longer has a step-father, but only a neurotic mother who commonly leaves him with his nanny. Simon is himself a brooding child, who, when asked late in a film whether a painting of another red balloon is either happy or sad, intuitively affirms that it is both. So is his life, elevated by the diversions that fill his days with Song or better yet his pinball played with his absent older sister, but still defined by these absences and the instability of his beloved mother. Indeed, Simon never does retrieve his balloon, which importantly floats over the Paris cityscape in the film's concluding passage, thus making universal the mixture of joys and sadnesses that the child himself professes. To be sure, Hou's particular, rather existential worldview - among other works, it is prominent in such absolute masterpieces of Hou's as The Time to Live and the Time to Die (1985) and A City of Sadness - is once again displayed in Flight of the Red Balloon: happiness is ultimately allusive, finally, though mercifully for the film's child-lead, there are moments of happiness. Surely there are these as well for Suzanne - both in her motherhood and in her art - that salve her otherwise chaotic existence.

To close, what remains to be said, beyond words of praise for Pin Bing Lee's sumptuous 35mm cinematography, and for the performances - especially Binoche's truly rich portrayal - is simply that Hou has made his finest film of this current decade, and the single best film of 2007. If anything bests the master's latest in the final three months of the year, we will be truly fortunate indeed.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

The 45th New York Film Festival: Silent Light

Carlos Reygadas's Silent Light (Stellet Licht), purportedly "the world’s first talking picture in the medieval German dialect called Plautdietsch," commences with a view of a nocturnal, star-filled sky. As the take proceeds, Reygadas and cinematographer Alexis Zabe's camera circles downward, tracing the invisible convex surface that separates the terrestrial from the celestial beyond. As the take becomes static, a pitch-black void replaces the previous sky-scape. However, accompanied by the increasing auditory din of chirping crickets and yelping dogs, the sun slowly begins to rise over the Chihuahua landscape. Pink clouds emerge over the distant panorama; middle-ground trees pop as if black cut-outs from the newly emergent landscape. As the camera zooms forward, Reygadas and Zabe capture the Mexican sunrise with a truly breathtaking range of hues and tones. The miraculous workings of nature, regulated by the invisible hand of its creator, are here our introduction to the filmmaker's "metaphysical" melodrama to follow.

Moreover, Reygadas also acquaints us with the film's rigorous formal template within this opening long take. On the one hand, we have the first of the circling camera movements that appear periodically in Silent Light, which moor the film to its most conspicuous source, Carl Th. Dreyer's 1955 supreme masterpiece Ordet (a special thanks to a Yale colleague of mine for reminding me of this fact), as well as allegorizing the film's own circular structure; on the other, we have the first of the film's ubiquitous surface-sub-surface relational dynamics, where the film's metaphysical thematics are most directly evident. In this instance, it is the division of heaven and earth again that is being underscored. While obviously it is within the former that the subsequent narrative unfolds, incursions of the heavenly sphere are reworked into the film's penultimate - and most overtly referential - scene.

As the narrative proceeds from this opening heaven and earth magic, Reygadas transitions to the Mennonite household that will provide the narrative with its protagonists. From the first, it is immediately clear that flatness will define the film's visual strategies. In this way, Reygadas relies every bit as much on that second master of the filmic metaphysical, Robert Bresson, for the visual lexicon of his work. This is a film that explicitly positions itself within the traditions of the religious European art film. Of course, the picture's structuring surface-sub-surface relationships are likewise a borrowing from film's greatest creator of religious artifacts, Bresson.

Then again, Reygadas does not simply adopt these formal strategies, but remakes them for his extension of the cinematic transcendent. On the one hand, Reygadas's camera moves into flat, shadow-obscured fields, as in a sequence at a garage, to penetrate the surfaces that his work so insistently creates. (At moments, Silent Light seems to most clearly evoke Robert Bresson's The Process of Joan of Arc [1962] and its emphasis on surface fissures - in its case, graphically, the holes and crannies that punctuate a stone wall; separately, as in the male protagonist's appearance in the house of a woman other than his wife, Dreyer's spatial disorientations from his 1928 picture on the same French subject become the guiding inspiration.) On the other hand, and much more significantly, Reygadas introduces another variation in the relationship between surfaces and what they contain in his insistent referral to the surface of the camera lens itself. Routinely, for example, Reygadas and Zabe capture prismatic lens flares, which it must be added attain a particular pictorial grace. Similarly, in one of the film's more dramatic encounters between husband and wife, torrential rains stream down the surface of the lens, thereby grounding both the glass surface of the apparatus and what exists beyond it, the space it is filming.

All of this is to say that Silent Light seeks to figure visual - and in the case of the opening shot, invisible - mediations and what they mediate, be it the inexpressive exteriors of the film's performers or once more the apparatus itself. In fact, with respect to the former, Reygadas in the film's post-screening question-and-answer, indicated that he coached his actors to feel what they, in the situations of their characters, would feel, without outwardly expressing these same emotions. That is, even in the level of direction we find an insistence on promulgating the reality beneath and behind the visible.

Of course, Silent Light nonetheless secures much of its effect from its documentation of Mennonite routine, as for instance in the wonderful extended bathing sequence near the middle of the film. This is to say that Silent Light seeks to both ground its narrative in the particular terrestrial experience of its characters, while highlighting the invisible structures that maintain the life that we see. Suffice it to say then that the film's defining penultimate event, while breaking from the film's ostensible exteriority, partakes in the same dynamic that incurs throughout the film. In its case, the simple surface-sub-surface relationship of the individual figure is buffeted by the much grander heaven-and-earth contradistinction that the opening shot intimates. It is at this juncture, in a moment of the unequivocally miraculous, that an invisibility hinted at in the beginning of the film and suggestively present throughout, finally and spectacularly asserts itself. This culminating moment is also one of the contemporary cinema's most overt moments of photogenie.

Having said that, this event relies on a presumably human agency for its coming into being. Without spoiling the film's conclusive moment, it may still be noted that Reygadas mixes the sacred and the profane at this pivotal instance, thereby reinforcing a similar strategy in his Battle in Heaven (2005), a work like the latest that finally highlights human sacrifice. Still, it is perhaps his previous, superior Japón (2002) that most often reverberates in Silent Light - particularly in the rural landscapes and traveling automotive takes that evince the director's unmistakable debt to one of the spiritual cinema's more recent proponents, Abbas Kiarostami. Like with that director's work, Reygadas's is rooted in the particularity of the film's settings, which in their case were recommended for their extreme climatic variations. (In addition, the awareness of the camera in Silent Light, both in the lens flares and also in the performances directed toward and addressing the apparatus and filmmakers, likewise speaks to Kiarostami's influence.)

In the end, however, these settings are only half of the very large, metaphysical equation. For the film's staggering ambition, and even more for its rigorous reinterpretations of forms that are suitably melded to content, Silent Light is not only Reygadas's best film (by a substantial margin) but is easily one of the year's best to date.