Saturday, June 20, 2009

8th New York Asian Film Festival: Eye in the Sky (Co-written by Michael J. Anderson & Lisa K. Broad)

Yau Nai-hoi's Eye in the Sky (Gun chung, 2007), co-written by Yau and Au Kin-lee, marks the long-time Johnnie To screenwriter's first directorial effort, following credits in many of the maestro's finest (including, among a number of others, A Hero Never Dies, Running Out of Time, The Mission, PTU, Throw Down, and Election 1 and 2). Whether Eye in the Sky portends anything new in terms of subject matter - in our estimation, no - or world view - not for us to say - what does become immediately clear in Yau's move to the director's chair is his first-time delirium with the potentialities of the camera and sound track. Eye in the Sky is in other words the prototypical first film of ambition, with a style that one might expect to become more restrained in future - for example, becoming less reliant on punctuating zooms. Nevertheless, these very figures are in this instance well suited to the film's surveillance subject, which ultimately elevates Eye in the Sky over routine first film fare. This is a creditable if not promising feature debut.

Eye in the Sky opens with a largely wordless extended set-up, wherein Yau's surveillance aesthetic is employed to encourage the film's spectators to pay attention to the picture's trio of leads, Simon Yam, Kate Tsui and Tony Leung Ka-fai on a Hong Kong city bus. Placed in a position comparable to a viewer of surveillance footage, we do not yet have enough information to avoid incorrect inferences, though Yau will soon divide his principles into Surveillance Unit officers (Yam and Tsui, with the latter auditioning in the film's incipient passage) and criminals (Leung, as well as other Milky Way regulars including Suet Lam as 'Fatman'). In fact, it is Lam's conspicuous presence, always gnawing on something, that provides the SU with their first lead in a jewel heist that likewise opens Eye in the Sky.

Importantly, Lam's predilection for street food corresponds to Eye in the Sky's attention to the sensorium, whether it is these objects' taste and smell, or more to the point, the haptic intimacy generated by Yau's penetrating camera. We as viewers are thus given local color, and as such ritual, to augment the fixed surveillance visuals that otherwise define Eye in the Sky, and therefore to provide a means of locating the perpetrators on the narrative level. The film's surveillance footage, of course, does not presuppose the invulnerability of classical cinema, but instead depend on the visible (the camera and also the SU field agents who perform a similar task) remaining invisible to its' subjects. Eye in the Sky's frequent recourse to telephoto lenses and zooms, while again showing off the tools of the director - as opposed to the screenwriter - manufacture this sense of the viewer trying to hide him or herself from view. (To complete this aesthetic program, Yau produces occasion black & white inserts culled from supposed actual surveillance cameras and utilizes the bars of a televisual image in his optical delimitation of scenes, which he further marks with a cell phone vibration-inflected theme.)

Ultimately, Eye in the Sky makes us aware of the apparatus and the act of filmmaking that again in classical cinema is conventionally minimized. In this sense Yau's feature debut is very much a film about the camera and voyeur in space, a fitting subject for a first time maker (and here we said that his subjects have not changed). This is also a film that permits the magic of cinema to work a narrative trio of miracles at the film's end - or, as the NYAFF's program notes stipulate, it is the eponymous master and maker of the universe who is himself responsible. Naturally, Eye in the Sky's title points to the divine metaphor in the process of filmmaking, while finding a narrative cause for its Bazinian perfect "eye of god" visuals - if God could content himself with a single view- which in many cases Yau grounds in surveillance set-ups. This is a film that, for whatever its visual bells and whistles, retains the logical rigor of the screenwriting craft.

Eye in the Sky is scheduled to screen at 3:35pm, Monday, June 22 at the IFC Center in Lower Manhattan.

Friday, June 12, 2009

New Film: The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009)

Tony Scott's The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, from a Brian Helgeland screenplay, enlarges the case for its helmer as the living embodiment of the auteur theory, without also reaching the heights of the director's finest recent work, or even that of the film's highly entertaining 1974 namesake, from television director (and as far as this writer can speculate, non-auteur) Joseph Sargent. That Scott's latest might be compared unfavorably - in many, but certainly not all respects - to the original The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, demonstrates the inadequacy of the theory as an automatic generator of quality, without foreclosing against its ability to delineate discrete artistic interventions. Scott is indeed in the midst of what is unmistakably his major artistic period, of which his Pelham 1 2 3 is the latest example, without again attaining the same level as Enemy of the State (1998), Domino (2005), or the director's masterpiece, and one of the great American films of the decade about to conclude, Déjà Vu (2006). Yet for those inclined to the auteurist project of uncovering a discernible artistic presence in the director's chair, Scott's Pelham 1 2 3 will not disappoint, and will be for some, invigorating cinema.

Departing from the original in its relatively ersatz treatment of its New York setting - Sargent's near documentary emphasis on location in the 1974 Pelham One Two Three, by comparison, permitted its spectator to follow the action from station to station along the Lexington Ave. 6-train line - Scott's film rather adopts this location more for what it gets the narrative than for any local inspiration from the setting. (Scott is not another Spike Lee in this respect, with the key similarities between this film and Inside Man [2006], as film scholar Lisa K. Broad points out, aside.) What it allows for is the co-presence of the film's subway car hostage situation - with its status as a terrorist event contested, but ultimately affirmed by the film - and the nearby markers of the American financial system. Whereas Déjà Vu conjugated September 11th with the Oklahoma City bombing of the mid-90s and Hurricane Katrina (I will have much more to say about this film in the current issue of Film Criticism), Pelham 1 2 3 adds the financial sector crisis of 2008-2009 to the personal experience of terrorism shared by the passengers of United flight 93. If the inclusion of a financial sector meltdown signals the eclipse of interest in domestic terrorism for many Americans by the economy, the Anglo Scott nonetheless almost doggedly refuses to forget this decade's defining moment of trauma. His is a much more complete picture of contemporary America than most critics will be willing to concede or even intuit - in spite of its patched together portrait of the Five Boroughs.

Importantly, Scott's New York no longer experiences the surveillance of Enemy of the State's Washington, in its malignant form, nor Déjà Vu's New Orleans in its more benign variety, read into this what you will - perhaps that Americans no longer fear surveillance, though the director does visualize the abducted subway through a web cam conversation, which is the film's most direct attempt at transcribing newish technologies. Then again, there is likewise very little social or technological commentary in Sargent's original - on this basis one could argue for the superiority of Scott's film - save for its portrait of a rather impotent mayor figure; par for the course, certainly, when representing political figures circa 1974. Scott's Pelham 1 2 3 briefly pokes fun at Giuliani's crisis response without exactly providing a positive counter-example in James Gandolfini's philandering incarnation.

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 does however shares Scott's previous masterpiece's Christian context, which thanks to Helgeland's screenplay perhaps, takes on a Catholic inflection - as did also the director's 2004, Helgeland-scripted Man on Fire. With explicit mention made of Ryder's (John Travolta) Catholic background - in discussions of original sin (Scott's film does admit the sinfulness of all its protagonists and antagonists) and confessionals - with the concluding cross shape visible over Denzel Washington's shoulder, and the latter's need to redeem himself through a selfless good work, Scott once again, though with a different screenwriter than the tandem he used for Déjà Vu, produces a Christian allegory out of his terror-inspired subject. And as with the earlier film, a new life will be offered to one of the film's characters. While in Déjà Vu this required the re-writing of the past, of "fate" through its science fiction conceit, Scott and Helgeland have effectively classicized their solution in Pelham 1 2 3.

Of course, the term 'classical' should as always be used sparingly and with reservations when discussing the films of Scott. The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is certainly no exception with its rapid editing and cross-cutting, its frequent use of slow motion (with variable mimetic precision; this is one of many respects in which Déjà Vu proves the exceedingly superior work) and zooms, the film's tight close-ups filling half of the frame before very shallow depth, its manipulation of the color palette and its combination of pop music (the throbbing refrain of "99 Problems" is the first) and highly effective scoring. Scott's cinema exemplifies David Bordwell's "intensified continuity" every bit as much as it does the auteur theory introduced at the outset.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

New Film [Updated]: The Limits of Control (Co-written by Michael J. Anderson & Lisa K. Broad)

Warning: the following post contains spoilers beginning in the third paragraph.

Beset by a series of middling reviews and a release date that is hardly conducive to earning the film additional prestige, writer-director Jim Jarmusch's The Limits of Control is nonetheless the filmmaker's best in at least a decade, and one of the stronger works of 2009's first-half. Conceived, according to the director, as if Jacques Rivette had remade John Boorman's Point Blank (1967), The Limits of Control consequently serves as a Rivette-inspired book-end for the American independent cinema of the present decade, pairing with David Lynch's similarly influenced 2001 masterpiece Mulholland Drive (which remains, for this piece's authors, the great American film of the 2000s). In other words, The Limits of Control represents a definitive turn toward the surreal modernism of Rivette and Lynch, away perhaps from Jarmusch's position on the vanguard of a cinematic postmodernism, albeit in a form that appears more concerted than the latter's highly intuitive approach.

Starring the Côte d'Ivoire-born Isaach De Bankolé as "Lone Man" - supporting players are likewise identified simply as "Nude" (Paz de la Huerta) and "Blonde" (Tilda Swinton), for example - The Limits of Control follows the lead through a trio of tasks that Jarmusch delineates through Lone Man's sequence of shellacked jackets and jewel-toned shirts (which remain unchanged for the duration of each job). De Bankolé remains impassive and untalkative throughout the film, where each conversation is introduced with his conversant asking if he doesn't speak Spanish; he always orders two espressos in separate cups, established in an early, characteristically wry conversation; and The Lone Man practices tai-chi in his empty hotel rooms, which Jarmusch compares to a subsequent Andalusian flamenco performance. In this gestural similarity, the director's signature conflation of cultures, their postmodern admixture, emerges.

Still, The Limits of Control is conceivably the director's most modernist work, which is established in part through the director's integration of four Reina Sofia-housed art works: as Nick Dawson identifies them on "A Cultural Glossary to The Limits of Control," we consecutively see "El Violin" (1916) by Juan Gris, "Desnudo" (1922) by Roberto Fernández Balbuena, "Madrid Desde Capitán Haya" (1987 – 1994) by Antonio López García and "Gran Sábana" (1968) by Antoni Tapies. With each, all of which explicitly belong to the Spanish modernist canon, Jarmusch introduces the key characters, motifs and thematic concepts that compose his narrative. The cubist "El Violin," for example, in addition to echoing this instrument's presence in the narrative, suggests the picture's indistinct temporality; "Desnudo" foretells the dream-like entry of de la Huerta's likewise named Nude; López García's painterly Madrid cityscape (an artist best known to cineastes as the subject of Victor Erice's The Quince Tree Sun, 1992) provides a model for the film's subjective understanding of the external world - we are reminded repeatedly that "reality is arbitrary" and that "everything is a matter of perception"; and lastly, the Tapies confers Lone Man's reduction to nothingness, or better perhaps, to a zero point following his final job. Jarmusch succeeds this final museum encounter with Lone Man's change into street clothes, sportswear with an African insignia, and his disappearance into the world community outside.

This conclusion marks the end of the film's Passenger-style (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1975) journey from the glass and steel of the north to the centuries-old pueblos blancos of Andalusia, and follows the film's lone on-screen hit job, also similar to the Antonioni film, which famously concludes likewise, with Bill Murray, the personification for Jarmusch of all that is wrong with American foreign policy, media and culture, the subject of the assassination. In undertaking this hit, the director identifies himself with those people that Murray's flag pin-wearing villain, comparable in appearance to Dick Cheney, condemns: the artists and musicians, hallucinatory drug users and and holders of bohemian values. This is the film's world community, its check to American militaristic hegemony, that Jarmusch proposes. Ultimately, emerging from Limit's rigorous high-modernist framework, is a sincere, charming, and perhaps somewhat juvenile celebration of art-for-arts sake. Make no mistake, Jarmusch is for the artists, and for the art that provides a hallucination within a universe that has no "center" or edges, a dream "you're never sure you've had."

This last admonition, ascribed to the best films, is made by Swinton's Blonde, who similarly identifies The Lady from Shanghai (Orson Welles, 1947) as a source for not only her character but from the film more broadly. The Blonde, in fact, transitions into and out of the fiction marked by a poster depicting the aforesaid in a film read, leaving traces likewise, as will the nude, in a shifting set of transparent visual motifs; in Rivettian fashion, therefore, the fictional world bleeds into the universe that supposedly houses it. There is no outside for The Limits of Control's fiction, where characters such as the Nude appear before they fulfill their narrative function; though Jarmusch imposes a trajectory onto his film, he refuses to ground his lead in a forward flowing temporality. His hallucinations rather seem to disclose the variable temporality established in the Gris reference. As one of Lone Man's contracts puts it, "each one of us is a set of shifting molecules, spinning in ecstasy," providing a framework for the film's flux, Jarmusch's understanding of reality, and even a decisive metaphor for our current digital age.

The Limits of Control thus strongly structures and formalizes the film's key thematic concerns, procured through a clearly readable semantic field. This is a film that makes its own interpretation crystalline. At the same time, Jarmusch, like fellow auteurs Werner Herzog and Terrence Malick, produces his organically consistent art for a world view that is, for this essay's authors, less than convincing: even more in fact than a malevolent nature (Grizzly Man, 2005) or nature that wars against itself (The Thin Red Line, 1998), Jarmusch's 'arbitrary' reality, its skepticism informed by perceptual uncertainty, hearkens back to the fan-boy mysticism of the Matrix trilogy. (In many respects, The Limits of Control is its high modernist corollary.) Reality, let us be clear, is not arbitrary, even if perception produces this effect. Nevertheless, the strength of The Limits of Control is the comprehensive expression of the film's ideas, however limited or dated, through its malleable modernist form. Indeed, this is a form that not only de-centers its protagonist, forging an on-going, waking dream, but one that confers this sense of the subjective in stylistic devices from bright flashes and visual disturbances to the frame to an occasionally atonal electronic score, set amid Spain's most chimeric places, from the fungus-like Torres Blancas (pictured) down to Murray's white, hillside fortress, into which Lone Man wills himself. Structured on a principle of theme and variation The Limits of Control involves a great deal of repetition, but far from serving as a minimalist test of its spectators' collective will, it strives more often then not to provide purely sensual pleasures -- syncing up its free flowing images to a pulsating electronic score, it often brings to mind a very thoughtful music video.

So, to the middling reviews: pretentious? Perhaps. Boring? Certainly not.

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.