Monday, May 25, 2009

Memorial Day on Tativille: The Man I Killed (1932)

Though it recently received its Turner Classic Movies premiere, Ernst Lubitsch's The Man I Killed (a.k.a. Broken Lullaby, 1932) remains the director's least known and seen work of the 1930s - a decade which along with the previous ten years rates as one of the strongest candidates for the filmmaker's finest. Among the three features that Lubitsch released in 1932 alone - along with a short episode for the portmanteau If I Had a Million - The Man I Killed belongs neither to the director's sophisticated, continental-inflected comedies (Trouble in Paradise, 1932; Angel, 1937) nor to his filmed operettas (The Smiling Lieutenant, 1931; The Merry Widow, 1934), for which Lubitsch was, in each generic instance, Hollywood's undisputed master. By comparison, The Man I Killed is post-World War I situated melodrama - making the film absolutely unique to his sound corpus - that nonetheless showcases both the director's stylistic verve and his often recognized "touch." Minor arguably only as a consequence of the film's uncharacteristic genre, The Man I Killed is by no means the least of Lubitsch's outstanding work of the period. For those well versed in Lubitsch, it may in fact even be one of the director's most unexpected treasures.

Opening on the first anniversary of Armistice Day in late 1919, Lubitsch quickly sets the narrative stage with rapid visual and audio montage combining artillery fire, the ringing of church bells, cheers of the film's parade goers, and a low vantage of the last of these that frames the marchers, between the crutches, and in the place of an amputee's missing leg. Lubitsch continues the film's early speed with a dissolve to a mobile framing of a hospital ward where he immediately flashes back to the battlefield, returning to the present where a shell-shocked soldier sits up erect in bed, back to the canons and then once again to church bells before cutting to a church facade. In moving once again between the explosion of canons and the pounding bells, Lubitsch procures an approximate match on sound to compare to later graphic matches that the director will employ.

Inside the church, the director's stylistic flare continues with a mobile framing of the center aisle, where in row after row, the officer's swords parallel each other, encroaching and resting on the marble floor. Rapidly succeeding close-ups continue to dominate, as do flashbacks of the trenches that are thereafter combined with framings of the sacred interior; canon fire is added to a push into a small shrine organized around a crucifix, thereby giving a sense of the film's analogical iconographic program. With most of the parishioners leaving, Lubitsch subsequently cranes into a pair of folded hands resting on a church pew above, over their huddle owner. Shortly we are introduced Phillips Holmes's Paul Renaud, a French soldier and the first person of the film's title, pleading for the aid of the priest who offers absolution for the titular, wartime act. Paul, however, searches for a peace of mind that this gesture fails to provide, prompting his consequent search for the family of his German victim - after being reminded of the Virgin Mother's own forgiveness for the death of her son.

Of further note here is Lubitsch's rapid push in toward the priest as he first exits the confessional; in this moment we see the picture's substantial visual fluidity and stylistic variability marking it as a distinctive representation of the Pre-code cinema, and that era's grappling experimentation vis-à-vis film form. Likewise, we get our first glimpse of youthful Robert Donat-lookalike Holmes's overwrought performance, which though it slightly militates against the film's overall quality, belonging as it does more to the director's German melodramas than to his Hollywood pictures, nevertheless does not assuredly condemn the film to the obscurity that it has come to experience.

Lubitsch next introduces us to German physician Lionel Barrymore, who is naturally the father of Paul's victim, treating a young boy who has gotten into a scrap after another child has called him a "Frenchman." Dr. Holderlin's advice is to "save it for a real Frenchman." After seeing a pompous man of standing with respect to the hand of Elsa (Nancy Carroll; Hot Saturday, 1932; pictured above with Lubitsch), his deceased son's betrothed - she shows him the door - the doctor retires to his dead son's bedroom, where he sits bedside. Lubitsch shows us this tender, understated moment following a dissolve and a slow, unmotivated crane across the room. The director's style in this work often boarders on that of fellow German Jew emigre Max Ophüls, and to the latter's exceedingly mobile mise-en-scène; appropriately enough, The Man I Killed might just be the director's most German Hollywood film.

Following this tender passage, Lubitsch poetically dissolves to the graveyard that houses the deceased Walter. The filmmaker presents this location under a canopy of fallen leaves that sudden gusts of wind whip up and dislocate, just as the soundtrack suddenly swells emphatically. Lubitsch lingers for an exceptionally long duration on an older woman's hands as she lays flowers on a grave, before struggling to open her handbag, out of which she retrieves a tissue. In passages such as this, The Man I Killed shows the film's highly praiseworthy debt to silent cinema, just as its varied employments of mobile framings and rapid montage signals the richness of the early sound cinema. This is Lubitsch at his most stylistically adventurous within the sound era (along, not coincidentally, with fellow 1932 release, Trouble in Paradise) and also at his most singularly poetic.

The woman as it turns out is Walter's mother (Louise Carter), whom we next see at dinner with her husband and her onetime daughter-in-law to be; here, in a moment worthy of John Ford, the family of the fallen solider manages to briefly convince themselves to be optimistic - "you would hardly believe there ever was a war" - before sinking back into silence, and the reality of their loss. However, with the subsequent arrival of Paul, and his insuation into their lives, posing without premeditation as a friend of Walter's, their spirits do renew; life again becomes worthwhile.

Paul is first spotted by Elsa in the graveyard after the latter leaves a florist, with a bouquet of flowers. Lubitsch, characteristic of the film's free-form style, introduces this scene with an overhead crane shot of the actress leaving from this place of business. As film scholar, and fellow Lubitsch devotee Lisa K. Broad puts it, The Man I Killed succeeds thusly in procuring a very robust sense of the film's village location, and ultimately in providing a relatively full portrayal of its subject, in spite of the picture's meager seventy-six minute running time. If Holmes's performance in particular lends itself to histrionics, The Man I Killed nonetheless showcases a distinctive subtlety through its presentation of a series of seemingly off-handed details.

At this point I will conclude with the film's narrative so as to avoid providing spoilers, with one exception in the paragraph to follow. However, I would like to argue, before getting to this final plot point, that The Man I Killed again retains "the Lubitsch touch," in its most fruitful and precise incarnation: namely, that the film features protagonists whose hold on happiness (which we as spectators desperately hope for) is severely threatened by some form of indiscretion. Again, I will not specify exactly how the 'Lubitsch touch' manifests itself in The Man I Killed, but I would argue that in keeping with works such as Trouble in Paradise, Angel, and The Shop Around the Corner (1940), Lubitsch manages to show us how perilously close his characters come to losing everything (from an emotional standpoint). Moreover, as in those masterpieces listed previously, Lubitsch's mise-en-scène unequivocally registers the emotional gravity of the situation, though in a form that remains invisible, save for the downcast expressions of the leads and the precarious joys of those not in on the secret; The Man I Killed is similarly saturated with feeling, hanging on the uncertainty of its narrative resolution.

Of course, and here is the spoiler mentioned above, Lubitsch's films do have a way of working toward romantic fulfillment, which is no less the case with The Man I Killed. In this work, Paul and Elsa signal their own romantic sealing with a duet performed at the film's end - with Paul accordingly filling Walter's former role (in more ways than one, though I will not say anymore in this regard). This joint performance consequently links the pair to Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins's own romantic resolution in Trouble in Paradise, where their joint "professional" performance in the back of the car indicates their happy ending. There might be a shade more ambiguity in The Man I Killed, but the the implications of their shared song is no less clear.

Ultimately, everything is personal for Lubitsch, including the toll of the Great War, whether it is the losses of parents and lovers, or the experiences foisted upon the young men. At one key beer hall juncture in The Man I Killed, Dr. Holderlin insists that he will be with the young men rather than with the old who send their sons off to die. Hence, Lubitsch himself suggests a different moral than he would in his subsequent To Be or Not to Be (1942), where the commitment to the fight is venerated. Lubitsch chose his battles, his wars in fact, and in the process showed himself to admirably free of ideological imperatives.

See also my Pre-Code Favorites of 2009 available on affiliate cite, Ten Best Films.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

New to Hulu Plus: The Housemaid (1960) / Dry Summer (1964) / Touki-Bouki (1973)

Kim Ki-young's The Housemaid (Hanyo; 1960, South Korea) may be the most oddball film globally to conventionally hold the mantel of the greatest film of its national cinema. Then again, there are very few films indeed that have as fully embodied their cinematic homeland's spirit as does Kim's opus, given Korea's latter-day production of Jang Sun-woo, Hong Sang-soo and Park Chan-wook, among many others. The Housemaid compares with - and one might even argue that the film inspired - Hong's career-defining exposition of the educated Korean male, whose passivity and sexual libido Kim satirizes, in opposition to the aggressive female. Kim, moreover, never ceases in criticizing the bourgeois ambitions of his film's focalized family, whose peak is reached with the arrival of a television set, making them the wealthiest household in the neighborhood. As the picture's patriarch then offers, they could be the happiest family too if only his disabled daughter would have her leg braces removed.

The Housemaid opens with a pre-credit conversation where a man's adulterous affair with his female housekeeper is discussed, thereby naturally framing the picture's forthcoming narrative subject. However, as the film's concluding direct address later emphasizes, The Housemaid far exceeds the basic parameters of parable - Kim in fact lambasts the simplicity of this form - launching instead into the same absurd territory then being explored by the great Luis Buñuel. Kim's truly is an astonishingly irrational, stipulative, what-if narrative, accompanied by a very explicit sense of metaphor, whether it is the rat dying on the plate or the lightning striking the tree.

Like postwar Buñuel, moreover, Kim's narrative is equally characterized by a liebestod thematic, which in the case of the latter occurs once the dim-witted, but again sexually aggressive housemaid is invited into the middle-class household. The Housemaid never skirts the erotic subtext (soon to be text) implied in the invitation of a young woman into the middle-class family unit, just as it never fails to repay the wages of this eros.

Kim Ki-young's architectural setting greatly suits the picture's sexual ethos. In the family's well-healed home environment, Kim's camera mobilizes, moving laterally across the exterior sliding glass doors, both compartmentalizing family and servant and also providing the opportunity for a surveillant visuality.

Metin Erksan's exceptional Dry Summer (Susuz yaz; 1964, Turkey) registers a similar sense of surveillance, though in its case its voyeurism is constructed in conjunction with the subjectivity of the film's astonishingly unsympathetic co-lead Osman (Erol Tas). Erksan consistently frames his striking female lead Bahar (Hülya Koçyigit), the wife of relation Hassan (Ulvi Dogan), within eye-shot of Osman, whether the latter is in the recesses of the composition gazing at the buxom beauty - for instance as she wades in the spring, her skirted hiked up; we the spectators provide a mirror reflection of the leering Osman - or spying on the young bride through a hole in the wall (as for instance when she and Hassan make love). Indeed, when the pair share an intimate moment, Erksan's camera is often present, passing over Koçyigit's supple legs or peering at her clevage beneath her blouse. Dry Summer matches The Housemaid's eroticism, and even more remarkably, its level of perversity.

Naturally, it is Osman who provides the film with its deviance as well: from Osman's misuse of his pillow (following one of the above incidents of voyeurism) to a dialogue he conducts with a scarecrow that he has dressed in Bahar's scarf to the ultimate consequence of his unceasing covetousness. By the time, Osman enacts the desire that Erksan has all along made palpable, we as viewers are entirely inclined to root against one of the screen's most complete villains.

Osman's sins likewise extend to his treatment of both Hassan (which I will not treat here, so as to avoid spoilers) and that of the larger community. In the latter case, because of the eponymous dry summer, Osman decides to claim his propertied rights with respect to a spring that is located on his property. In so doing, Osman transgresses the traditional understanding that the spring belongs to the community, using it instead to irrigate his farm - he thus secures a competitive advantage over the other farmers by asserting his private property rights over the public welfare. This claim leads to successive court decisions that first side with the community and then with Osman; as such, Erksan, though he clearly facilitates sympathy for the community, nonetheless suggests that Osman isn't necessarily acting outside the law, just as he marginally undercuts the aforementioned sympathy with the revelation that his fellow farmers lack industriousness. Yet, Osman continues to cling to his possession even when the villagers state their willingness to buy water. Osman is not therefore a reasonable capitalist but a paragon of greed (which again extends to his sexual appetites, even when this means that he acts without honor or justice).

In the end, Dry Summer presents its age-old public-private debate within an equally eternal rural landscape that Erksan brings to tangible life, whether it is the tall grass canopies through which Hassan chases his lover or the particularly vivid spring and adjacent irrigation ditches that provide the narrative's focus. It is here that Erksan secures his classical denouement, visualized in an extraordinary graphic metaphor (pictured above), which poetically provides justice for Osman's horrific actions.

If Dry Summer articulates a subject that is as old as civilization itself, its direct presentation of Osman's appetites nevertheless secures a certain quality of the modern. Djibril Diop Mambéty's Touki-Bouki (1973, Senegal), on the other hand, expresses its subject within the decisively contemporary context of Senegal's independence from France (ca. 1960), in a form that is no less current in its modernist fragmentation of the narrative's space and time span. This is, importantly, a film that is aware of and quite indebted indeed to the cinema of Jean-Luc Godard, and due to its young hoodlum lovers on the run subject, to Breathless (1960) specifically. Yet, it is perhaps even more for Mambéty's fractured soundtrack, bringing in operatic choral passages, traditional drum beats and the recurrent "Paris, Paris, Paris, it's paradise on earth" refrain that establishes the Godard influence (and accounts for its appreciation by Martin Scorsese). Like countryman Ousmane Sembene's pivotal work of this period (namely Black Girl, 1966 and Mandabi, 1968), France remains perpetually in Touki-Bouki's background.

Thanks to an incipient jump in space and time between the violent slaughter of a steer (Erksan's film gives us a chicken experiencing the same fate) and the film's male protagonist Mory (Magaye Niang) driving his motorbike down a recently paved four-lane highway, Mambéty immediately establishes the film's defining jumble of ancient and modern, which the director likewise figures, for example, through the sound of a jet passing above the film's impoverished village setting. Early on Mambéty's camera remains ethnographic, articulating Senegal's transitional limbo, often from positions high above the depicted places.

Mambéty nonetheless dispells this objectivity in a subsequent fantasy image depicting Mory and love interest Anta (Mareme Niang) riding into town in a parade in their honor. Mambéty introduces this passage through a systematic use of cross-cutting bridged by a monologue delivered on an empty road, which he thereafter replaces with the aforesaid procession. The director indeed relies on this technique frequently, conflating disparate locations whose identities are not always evident initially. Touki-Bouki requires an active spectator, and even then does not entirely lend itself to unmistakable narrative clarity.

In fact, Touki-Bouki circular conclusion brings into question the status of all the action depicted in the narrative, procuring a world that permits that it might be read as subjective. In this regard Mambéty further establishes his modernist bona fides. The director's dual reliance on montage and long takes moored to moving vehicles only reinforce this classification, and again Mambéty's inheritance from Godard. Touki-Bouki, no less than the works of Sembene listed above, confirmed a highly meritorious Sub-Saharan African in the decade-and-a-half following the nation's independence. It is cinema's great loss that the most recent decade-and-a-half marked the loss of Senegal's two greatest directors.

Update (8/18/13): While the original post commemorated the inclusion of these three films on the former Auteurs website (now Mubi), all three films, at the time of this update, have become available through Hulu Plus.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Cloverfield's Digital Palimpsest

With it a near certainty that director J. J. Abrams' forthcoming Star Trek will find its way to copious box office receipts this coming weekend, it strikes this writer as more necessary than ever to advocate for producer Abrams' much lower profile 2008 release Cloverfield, whose enormous theoretical interest and high quality is altogether unlikely to be eclipsed by the filmmaker's latest. Director Matt Reeves' second feature, from a Drew Goddard screenplay, ranks as one of the most formally instructive Hollywood pictures of the current decade, revealing the material basis of the digital image in a manner that few films have attempted.

Following a series of time-coded images that consecutively feature color bars, "Property of the U. S. Government" digital watermarks, and an on-screen title that stipulates that the "camera [was] retrieved at incident site 'US-447' area [which was] formerly known as 'Central Park,'" Reeves' film opens on a shaky, forward-moving hand-held framing of a park-side New York apartment. The time-code in the lower left of the frame places the image on April 27th at 6:41AM. An off-screen voices says with the time change that it is "6:42AM... and its already a good day." Reeves' film cuts to a separate room at 6:43 and then to a bedroom at 6:46, where a comely brunette Beth (Odette Yustman, pictured in a production still) lies half-dressed in an unmade bed. A few minutes later Beth turns the camera on her off-screen companion, Rob (Michael-Stahl David, also pictured), before the image cuts to a jerky, canted image reading "May 22 6:43PM," with a new set of voices complaining that they do not know how to operate the camera. Lily (Jessica Lucas) shortly appears on-screen, and in the image to follow, requests that the camera operator get testimonials at that evening's party - for the departing Rob, as we will soon discover.

With the aforesaid operator Jason (Mike Vogel) stating "I don't even know how to work this thing," as he turns the camera on himself, Reeves cuts back to April 27, where we get a snipette of Beth and Rob's B/D Coney Island-bound line conversation - the composite Cloverfield features highly recognizable New York locations throughout - before again we see Jason in close-up. As such, Reeves succeeds in making his spectators aware of the material re-recordability of his picture's image track. As we watch the events of May 22, we become aware of an earlier recorded reality, which periodically reemerges in Cloverfield, which was filmed on the earlier April date. The May activity is written on top of the events of April.

In underlining this process of writing over one image with another, Reeves and Goddard give us much more than a simple gimmick or plot aid, though it is certainly these things as well. Cloverfield, in properly modernist fashion, makes a case for the ontology of the digital image that highlights its capacity for revision or rewriting that is applicable to all filmed digital images: what we see conceivably exists over a second (or third, and so on) erased image, displaced by the presence we are viewing. It is to use writing's vocabulary, a palimpsest - a scraped off and reused manuscript page.

Of course, Cloverfield's self-awareness is far more directly expressed in the camera's often awkward, uneven, hand-held manipulation; the film's persistent acousmetric (off-screen) verbal interjections; hands of the operators frequently migrating into the frame; the character looks into and addressing of the camera (the on-screen testimonials certainly facilitate this); a moment in which the digital tape is explicitly rewound; and finally, the multiple occasions later in the film in which the camera is dropped in the midst of the action. In each of these ways, Reeves does not offer the classical film mise-en-scène as the window onto an unwitting world, but rather a space in which the camera, most often operated by a human agent, interacts with the world in which it is located, registering the visual field directly in front of it, and the auditory space surrounding it, while making the spectators continuously aware of the world that remains beyond the limits of the frame. This is not something digital does exclusively, but it is encouraged by that medium's light weight (at least on the consumer end).

With the DV film's formal program firmly in place at Rob's going-away party, the question soon becomes whether Cloverfield, and not simply the footage retrieved and screened by the government, will permit images not filmed on the picture's focalized DV camcorder. That is, will we ever get a classical diegesis, a world captured unaware on screen, or will Reeves and company limit themselves to the world captured by this apparatus? A hint comes during the party where Hud (T.J. Miller), the camera's primary operator throughout much of the rest of the picture, promises Lily to turn the camera off while the latter gossips about Rob and Beth. Following his oath, Reeves cuts to a low-angle, effectively surveillant image of Lily, where she explains that the couple slept together (which unknown to the spectators is big news and a cause for a rift between the former friends). This piece of gossip is essential narrative exposition, which as we see here Reeves is unwilling to impart in any form but by his hand-held DV camera.

With the subsequent explosion experienced by the male protagonists atop Rob's Lower Manhattan apartment building, Cloverfield launches into the horror-science fiction territory for which Abrams is better known. At the same time, as is clear from the initial uncertainty over what said explosion is - it is initially assumed to be an earthquake - Cloverfield clearly aligns itself as an exposition of 9/11-brand trauma, which in its case is experienced as an explicit past made immersively present (not unlike Paul Greengrass' highly reverent 2006 United 93). This is unlike the doubly past April 27, whose reality cannot be rewritten for the viewer; May 22 makes this impossible. At the same time, the fact that this camera was found in the area formerly known as Central Park does not demand that we assume that the character's future is foreclosed against in precisely the same way. Their lives, at this point in the narrative, could have gone on independent of the camera. (Then again, May 22, at least temporarily, does provide the hope that the personal sins of April 27 can be forgiven and forgotten.)

But back to the film's trauma: Cloverfield explicitly justifies its maintenance of the film's opening aesthetic by stating the importance of documenting the events of May 22nd. (In acknowledging this, Reeves fictionally expresses a Bazinian ethos, again within a very recognizable NYC.) While this leads to the arguably tiresome consequence of having continually to watch the film's unstable high-definition video footage - at 84 minutes Cloverfield is not a minute too short - Reeves and company manage to uphold the film's formal integrity, and as such to avoid undermining the film's presupposed viewing experience. Namely, we are watching a DV tape, aired in its entirety without edits - though the film and tape does cut by turning the camera off and back on. Cloverfield offers its viewer the detritus of a fictionalized trauma, written over a happier, evanescent past. "A good day."