Saturday, May 24, 2008

New Film: Redbelt

Released wide earlier this month at the absolute nadir of the film-going year, writer-director David Mamet's Redbelt fits its unglamorous premiere date as well any film possibly could.  Entering the sphere of the (axiomatically) ever-expanding mixed martial arts by the more traditional jiu-jitsu form, Redbelt immediately identifies itself as a product of the cultural periphery, a sports film for a barely if at all recognizable sport located in an initially at least unidentifiable place.  What is discernible, however, is marginality, whether it is again the film's legitimacy-seeking martial art, its vacant semi-urban landscape or the picture's working class protagonists.  

Principle among the film's heroes is martial arts instructor and fight academy proprietor Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor), whose business is introduced on the perpetual verge of collapse.   Mike's problems are exacerbated almost immediately when rain-soaked interloper attorney Laura Black (Emily Mortimer) accidentally discharges a firearm, shooting out the academy's store front window.  The firearm's owner, police officer and martial arts student Joe Ryan (Max Martini) takes the blame for Laura, thus preventing the woman's possible prosecution.    This seemingly innocent action prompts a downfall that occurs as suddenly and spectacularly as Mike's equally rapid and unexpected rise to success.  (Redbelt might be most reminiscent of the director's The Spanish Prisoner, 1998.)  Mamet's world, commensurate with his recent political right conversation, demonstrates a verifiably American class fluidity - where one falls just easily as they rise.

Indeed, it is Mamet's plot pyrotechnics that are most spectacularly on display in Redbelt, along with Ejiofor's centering performance - in a more just world, it might have been star-making - and fine supporting turns from many on the cast, including especially Tim Allen.  Mamet's strength as a director belongs more to his exceptional direction of his players as evinced by both Redbelt and his strong, previous Spartan (2004) than to his mise-en-scène: the filmmaker's style is that of a televisual-inflected intensified continuity as distinguished by film scholar David Bordwell, and exemplified particularly in the film's preponderance of close-ups, among other stylistic figures.  In this respect, Redbelt looks more conventional by our current standards than the equally "B"-picture inspired Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg, 2007), which not only focused on a genre subject, but matched its topic with a classical decoupage-based technique out of place in the blockbuster era.

However, it is less Redbelt's look that stands out once again than Mamet's storytelling acumen, from his organic dissolution of Terry's breakneck success to a genre-bending finale that reifies the film's operative ethical position vis-à-vis violence.  In a certain respect, Mamet subverts his characteristic gamesmanship (c.f. House of Games, 1987) while delivering an ending that matches our genre-prompted spectatorial desires.  In other words, Redbelt's Terry finds a way to maintain his ethos in the face of a genre that seems bent on defeating such a view.  

What we have, therefore, is a narrative dexterity to match Redbelt's masters of martial arts, within a film, I should add, that posits filmmaking as its secondary subject.  Former military man Terry in fact becomes an adviser on a war picture (think Spartan) headlined by Allen's boozing star Chet Frank.  Of course, this world is every bit as corrupt as that of the fixed fights - again consider The Spanish Prisoner.  Yet it is world, corrupt as it is, where success can still be met without sacrificing one's principles.  Redbelt is the first very good film of 2008.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Inglorious Histories: The Sun Shines Bright (1953) & The Kaiser's Lackey (1951)

Warning: the following post contains spoilers.

Amid a rare down period between the end of the academic year and the commencement of the summer (which for this writer will entail my annual study of a new language - French, this time - and the beginning of my preparations for PhD oral examinations) I have had, miraculously, the occasion to view a few films for which I have no responsibilities.  So obviously my first thought was to undertake an increasingly rare Tativille post, even if my most recent screenings lack the urgency of a new theatrical release or even a widely available home video staple (in other words the following post lacks a consumer component).  It is, rather, an appreciation of two relatively under-seen 1950s classics that felicitously share in their common engagement of "inglorious histories," as I have put in the piece's title.

The neglect of John Ford's The Sun Shines Bright (1953), a personal favorite of the director and of film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, as my good friend Pamela Kerpius noted in her somewhat qualified though largely positive recent review of the picture, follows relatively straightforwardly from the warmth the film shows toward its Confederate subject matter and its employment of the always controversial Stepin Fetchit.  The Sun Shines Bright does not stand up, in other words, to the scrutiny of political correctness and to the identity politics that have defined the American left since the late 1960s.

What is politically most compelling about Ford's self-remake of his 1934 gem Judge Priest, however, is precisely its attempt to recuperate (partially at least) his Democratic Party's troubled past.  Judge William Pittman Priest, here played by Charles Winninger, presides over a Kentucky courtroom where, as with the earlier instantiation, he demonstrates his profound homespun wisdom and universal compassion.  When a young banjo-playing, African American lay-about, for instance - a damning enough composite for knee-jerk, race-based critique - is brought before Priest, the latter finds the willing young man employment following his entreatment of the youth to play Dixie (after a poorly received Yankee number).  

Indeed, Priest shows his extraordinary tolerance even more directly in his subsequent encounter with the young man.  Here, the black youth has been accused of raping a white girl after a pack of bloodhounds pick up the sent of the gent.  With the young man incarcerated, Priest, a former Confederate bugler, stands up for the boy against a storming lynch mob, effectively relinquishing his reelection hopes to save the life of the accused African American youth.  Whether this balances the ledger enough for students of race and advocates of an identity politics approach is for those thinkers to say.  Ford at least recognizes a nobility in his party's former Old South standard-bearers.

This nobility is nowhere more evident, in fact, than during the film's subsequent election morning where Priest silently (and defiantly) walks with a funeral procession enacted for a deceased prostitute - fulfilling her dying wish to be buried in her Fairfield County home.  Priest's stance further threatens his reelection prospects, pitting the sitting Democratic judge against the county's pharisaical Christian community.  (That Ford further identifies this contingent as pro-temperance additionally reinforces the director's negative feelings toward said group.)    Priest, on the other hand, demonstrates the Christianity of the gospels, identifying himself not with those from whom he might gain power but rather with the prostitutes who need him most.  Here, following on The Quiet Man (1952) we have one of Ford's most distilled statements of his Catholic faith; The Sun Shines Bright, though similarly critical of religious intolerance, is a long way from his far more agnostic swan song, 7 Women (1966).

Yet, it is less this passage's testimonial quality than its presentation that stands out; and stand out it does: the only comparable passage I can think of in Ford is the dance inside My Darling Clementine's (1946) partial-built church.  In The Sun Shines Bright, Ford depicts this procession wordlessly (for the majority of its extended duration) marking it as pure cinema, as a moment that showcases cinema's intrinsic basis in movement.  Moreover, it is not only Priest that joins the procession but his fellow Confederate veterans, including the "General" who acknowledges his paternity of the deceased.  Hence, it becomes clear that Priest's honor is not unique but belonged to the society whose twilight Ford is depicting.  Ford finds the good in the bad, a legacy that he could continue to claim.

Ultimately, The Sun Shines Bright eulogizes the admirable things of this lost world, adopting the visual motifs of the director's Western corpus - and in particular their outdoor porches symbolizing the interface between civilization and wilderness.  This sense of loss (that imbues this picture of riverboats and warm summer evenings) is felt most acutely during a meeting of the Confederate veterans when Ford pans across an empty classroom, revealing the gentlemen in a single row in the front of the space.  Their era is quickly closing.  

Consequently, in much the same manner as The Searchers three years later, though far more explicitly, Ford treats the end of an age, while also prefiguring a second - in both instances of the Civil Rights movement.  Ford's film is indeed a hymn to tolerance, whether racial, religious or even historical.  As such, The Sun Shines Bright may be one of the most profoundly Democratic (with a capital "D") films in Hollywood's long, left-leaning history, though it is a form that is barely recognizable in our current, identity politics-driven context. The Democratic party of Henry Jackson, say, rather than

The Sun Shines Bright is also the director's least-known career peak, considering its centrality to the director's politics, his religious affiliation and his career-defining emphasis on America's past, to say nothing of its uniquely graceful form. Indeed, The Sun Shines Bright earns its place beside such other high points as Stagecoach (1939), My Darling Clementine and The Searchers

I can make no similar claim for Wolfgang Staudte's The Kaiser's Lackey (Die Untertan, 1951), which is not only the first film I've seen by the filmmaker but the first East German work that I have viewed period.  Thus, when I say that The Kaiser's Lackey is an East German Citizen Kane, I am not making any claim for its relative stature within its industry.  Rather, Staudte's film demonstrates a similarly baroque aesthetic in the service of a fictitious biography that seeks to summarize the personality of a nation: in The Kaiser's Lackey's case, Wilhelmine Germany.

Staudte's film demonstrates this baroque form from its opening camera movement, which stops briefly on a photo of a nude baby boy before continuing to the child below it.  This child of course will become the film's subject Diederich Hessling (Werner Peters), who over the course of the picture transforms from shy mother's boy to murderous factory owner to the eponymous lackey as the (literal) dark clouds of the First World War pass over head.   Certainly, Staudte does engage his nation's even more recent past - as the film's final line makes explicit - though in form that adopts the cover of a still more distant history.

But back to Staudte's aesthetic: the director employs frequent camera movements, cuts between objects - a summary, ironic condensation of narrative time links three similarly styled portraits of three separate kaisers - framings around and through objects (one mobile take shows its consecutive subjects through the beer glasses they hold to their lips), extreme close-ups, figures in reflection (cadets in the rounded horn of a trumpet) and so on.  Staudte was indeed a strikingly talented visual artist who will become instantly - for this writer - an object of further research.  The Kaiser's Lackey is a cineastes dream: a film representing a distinctive visual style from a largely if not completely unknown national cinema. Suffice it to say that this is the best East German film that I have yet seen.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

New Film: At Sea

According to the Village Voice's J. Hoberman, doyen of the rapidly contracting paid community of New York film critics, Peter Hutton's silent, 16mm At Sea (2004-7) "is as close as [the filmmaker's] ever come to narrative," focusing as it does on "the biography of a giant container ship." Being myself a novice to Hutton's work, I defer to Hoberman's assessment, though it is equally important to note that At Sea's narrative operates more to inscribe a politics than it does than it does to tell a story in the traditional sense. This may be hardly worth mentioning for a film shot and projected in complete silence that lacks any discernible chronology within its three discrete sequences.

The first of these represents the construction of the aforesaid vessel in a Korean shipyard. Here, Hutton introduces the strategy that will guide his work - namely the reframing of spectatorial perception enacted through minor changes in his mise-en-scène. In this earliest passage, figure movement commonly achieves this end, as when suddenly visible, infinitesimally small persons retroactively confirm the astonishing scale of the object (the container ship) viewed. Similar early highlights include the cascade of sparks - issuing from the ship's welding - that elegantly arc to the ground, or the appearance of miniature human figures moving up a Sol Lewitt-like linear grid. In each of these moments, the film's silence procures its unique, poetic effect - as again for example the sparks, whose lack of an auditory accent highlights their uncommon beauty. Of course, the general absence of sound more importantly denies us an immediate framework through which we are able to orientate ourselves to the image - thereby making his sudden reveals of scale possible. The act of orientation becomes exclusively visual.

If part one presents the ship's making, part two depicts its life at sea, its life of labor. Hutton begins the sequence with an overhead of the ship and its multi-colored semi trailers as the ship passes under a bridge. (This visual is conspicuously consonant with the Museum of Modern Art's recent "Color Chart" show.) As the ship crosses under, rain and ice streaming down the lens (presumably), the sudden appearance of windshield wipers discloses an additional glass mediation beyond that which has been apparent previously. Once out to see, Hutton emphasizes his ship's multi-colored contents in contrast with the rich cobalt's of the water; we see a cloudy sunset with the tangerine sky opposed to the indigo water; and in a moment pregnant with late day light, the ship's rainbow surface becomes a gold-hued monochromatic field.

With the continued lack of sound, Hutton's imagery continues to de-emphasize the film's documentary aspect, highlighting instead its purely graphic properties, as when we see the horizon line rising and falling across the frame of the static, ship-moored camera placement. Equally noteworthy is Hutton's sudden switch to black-and-white which does not become unmistakable until the filmmaker cuts out to a glorious long composition of sky and sea with thin, horizontal zips of white crossing the liquid field. In total, At Sea is an exceptionally beautifully work of seascape filmmaking.

Black-and-white continues to be a significant motif in the film's final third, wherein Hutton frames a/the container ship grounded in the muddy deltas of Bangladesh. However, in this instance, the technique connotes Stieglitz-school, socially-conscious photography thereby miming the passage's obvious critique: namely of this place's repellent social conditions. Here, the astonishment procured by the juxtaposition of scale during its production has become a signifier of human insignificance and futility with the exceptionally poor, barefoot workers dwarfed by the rusty, seemingly obsolete vessel. They are forced to act as scavengers in this field of detritus; the consequences of production to the third world are manifest.

As the film closes, Hutton allows his under-class human subjects to look into the camera, this undercutting the spectator's presumed sense of "invulnerability" (cf. Noël Burch). In this way, the film's first world spectators lose their insulation from the real consequences of its market realities.

See also R. Emmet Sweeney on the films of Peter Hutton.