Friday, July 31, 2009

Nicholas Ray's Least Seen Signature Features: Wind Across the Everglades, Party Girl and The Savage Innocents

Is there another American director of a stature comparable to Nicholas Ray whose major films are as intermittently available in the United States? Given that Ray may have been the key figure of 1950s Hollywood, reinterpreting and renewing nearly every genre he touched while providing one of the boldest challenges to the decade's decisive consensus, the answer would seem almost certainly to be no. Not that the director's partial neglect is entirely inexplicable: the estimable Rebel Without a Cause (1955) aside, virtually none of Ray's films manifest those qualities that might make his work more AFI-ready. Rather, the virtues of Ray, and in particular those major works currently seen least in the US, center most on making resistance and the libidinal palpable, within a mise-en-scène that alternates between poetical landscape photography, attractive high-50's artifice and utter indifference. Ray does very little to make his films "good," while so often producing something great, whether across the totality of a work or more modestly in a single sequence.

Representing the latter case, Wind Across the Everglades (1958), scripted by On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan, 1954) scribe Budd Schulberg, who apocryphal account has it took over direction for the heroin-abusing filmmaker, represents the absolute apex of Ray's drive toward contradiction. In visual terms, the director's elegant mobile framings of the South Florida landscape stand side-by-side with perfunctory multi-figure set-ups and degraded second-unit style inserts of the area wildlife. The last of these, especially in the frequent inclusions of alligators submerging and emerging from the Everglade swamps, assures the film's connection to the recent Hollywood cycle of the safari picture, popularized by King Solomon's Mine (Compton Bennett and Andrew Marton, 1950), with its human subjects sutured into an often dangerous wilderness. While Wind Across the Everglades provides for a similar fauna-based spectacle, it remains less the source of adventure that it is in the purer safari iterations than a signifier of the Everglades status as wilderness. Indeed, the Everglades are here, in this turn-of-the-century set narrative, a Western-style frontier with the Law contending against the Lawless (plume-hunting poachers), who claim as their watchword, the very un-50s notion of "protest."

In Ray's hands, there is sympathy for both, with each located comfortably outside of a cultural hegemony that the opening, kitschy (at least from our present perspective) voice-over establishes - namely the craze for plumes in ladies' hats. Christopher Plummer's Audubon Society hero Walt Murdock fights against the consumerist-inspired environmental destruction wrought by this trend, with outlaw poacher Cottonmouth (Burl Ives) and his libertine cohorts the principle source of his quest. The latter faction, however, promotes the pleasures of the flesh that one senses quite clearly Ray himself endorses - busty women, swamp game cooked over an open flame, homemade liquor - while taking the freedom of the individual to his logical conclusion: "eat or be et." (Their ultimate spirit-addled confrontation with Murdock on Cottonmouth Key represents the aforementioned great moment.) They are, in other words, the perfect 1950s dissidents, while Walt is a strident opponent to the unassailable value of commerce, which is to say he is the perfect 1950s dissident. Whatever the role that Schulberg played in Wind Across the Everglades, the film manages to fully embody Ray's cinema.

Party Girl (1958) is a Nick Ray film of quite a different sort. While Wind Across the Everglades invents a new form in the matrixed combination of safari picture, Western and topical film, Party Girl reinvents the dormant form of the 1930s gangster picture within the director's melodramatic mode (displayed in Rebel Without a Cause and his supreme masterpiece, Bigger Than Life, 1956, among others). In looking to this earlier source, prohibited by the same Production Code to which Ray's films uniformly applied stress, aiding in its ultimate collapse a decade later, Ray also finds a politics to challenge 1950s consensus thinking: an advocacy for the little guy that promoted physically impaired attorney Tommy Farrell's (Robert Taylor) original association with gangster Rico (Lee J. Cobb). In the narrative's present, Tommy has become an advocate for the guilty, adroitly manipulating juries to acquit the clearly criminal. His comfort with this arrangement, however, decreases after he meets the eponymous 'lady of leisure' and dance hall girl Vicki Gaye (Cyd Charisse), with whom he eventually becomes conjugally involved, in spite of the fact that he is still supporting a wife at the time of the original meeting. In short, Party Girl revives pre-code subject matter as much as it does the gangster genre itself.
Moreover, Party Girl pushes the limits of what is permissible on screen: Charisse, who is subsequently glimpsed nude briefly behind a semi-opaque screen, engages in a striptease - the same year as Julie London's infamous Man of the West (Anthony Mann, 1958) strip - amid a series of on-camera dance set-pieces that collectively mark the film as a work of mixed cinema. Ray notably shoots these sequences in Cinemascope, from a variety of angles that include overheads with Charisse staring directly into the camera, thereby highlight the picture's decisive artifice. Then again, Party Girl contains none of the cheapness apparent elsewhere in the director's work (as for instance in The Savage Innocents, discussed below): Party Girl's set designs are often intricately constructed and its color palette immaculately chosen, as for instance in Ray's inspired layering of Charisse's red dress on a differently toned red couch. Throughout, Ray and director of photography Robert Bronner's cinematography is characteristically sinuous, fluidly registering the film's memorable interiors much the same as Howard Hawks's and Lee Garmes's mobile camera work achieved a similar effect in the definitive Scarface (1932). And as the film's earlier source, Ray's remaking of the gangster genre even includes a machine-gun montage.

The director's European-financed The Savage Innocents (1960) synthesizes Wind Across the Everglades's predilection for poetical, aquatic-dominated landscapes, here often approaching a surreal beauty, with Party Girl's highly constructed spaces, here conveyed through the film's igloo interior and matte-painted Arctic snow-scape sets. (This striking convergence of the real-world and studio aesthetics corrobrates Jean-Luc Godard's suggestion that the whole of the cinema could be exumed from Ray, along of course with its combination of sex and violence.) Ray pairs these spaces with a Forbidden Planet (Fred M. Wilcox, 1956)-brand electronic score that combines to make The Savage Innocents an apogee of both the director's distinguishing artifice and his taste for the palpably odd. Then again, the film's subject insures the film's strangeness far more than its expressly unreal sets: an Eskimo Anthony Quinn finds a salve to loneliness in "laughing" with a comely native girl, whom he then exchanges for her more attractive sister, Asiak (Yoko Tani), after becoming jealous of the latter's "husband," and his principal rival. With Asiak in tow, Quinn's Inuk encounters white traders and discovers that his in-born ability to hunt fox could mean the chance to buy a fire arm or "thunder stick" (the director's ecological concern returns in the film's suggestion of the practice of over-hunting). Here, Ray combines the primitive and modern in this place to startling effect, with its juke box, Elvis-look-a-like native and the aforesaid pelts all introduced in a single setting, wherein Asiak, moreover, performs one of the silver screen's most memorably bizarre dances. Nevertheless, the young Eskimo woman remains skeptical of the white man, who "doesn't approve of naked people," and who in one later instance refuses Inuk's generous invitation to 'laugh' with his wife.

In this latter regard, The Savage Innocents appears to prefigure the sexual emancipation that would emerge subsequently in the nascent 1960s, and allies with that period's broader challenge to bourgeois Judeo-Christian values. In The Savage Innocents, itself an extreme form of the Western according to film scholar Lisa K. Broad, sympathy is purely on the side of the uncivilized, on the side of those who pursue the pleasures of the flesh without succumbing to the temptations of greed. For them, a woman is new every time she reenters the igloo, whether or not she has 'laughed' with another. As always, Ray's film is about sex. However, the imperatives of civilization, whose laws are stronger than any individual, and therefore flawed according to Ray's way of thinking, will demand that Inuk experience punishment for acting according to his own, anti-Western ethical, free-love code.

The Savage Innocents is the ultimate Nicholas Ray film. Perhaps it is only fitting that it should initiate a decade (from outside the US) that would move toward Ray's own worldview, rather than occurring in a second that found him at odds with the America around him, which he may have defined, but in negative.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

New Film: Public Enemies

As a star-driven biography of celebrated anti-hero John Dillinger that the Chicago-born director shot in a number of the actual locations of Dillinger's Midwestern crimes, Michael Mann's Public Enemies, from a screenplay by Mann, Ronan Bennett, and Ann Biderman, intrinsically promises an elaboration of one of the director's most distinguishing features as a filmmaker, namely his self-reflexive emphasis on the places depicted in his films, within a genre that has found Mann at his slightest: the biopic. With Public Enemies, Mann does not manage to reverse this latter trend - though it is also worth noting that even slight Mann is better than the vast majority of new studio releases - due largely to the relative lack of stress placed on the film's real-world locales, in addition to the slow even for Mann pace and the surprising lack of verve displayed by Johnny Depp in the role of Dillinger. Michael Mann's Heat-lite (1995) could have used a little of Al Pacino's histrionics - or a bit more of Jack Sparrow.

Public Enemies opens in an Indiana state penitentiary in the fourth year of the Great Depression. In this initial location, Mann and director of photography Dante Spinotti mimetically limit their high-definition DV palette to drab blacks, whites, greys and tans, to which they will add a washed-out sky blue in a subsequent exterior of the prison. (Public Enemies's attention to color builds on Miami Vice's [2006] primary aesthetic achievement.) In this latter set-up, Mann and Spinotti opt for a strongly horizontal, static framing that the director repeats in other views of the big Midwestern sky, whereas their camera relies heavily on hand-held tight framings within the interior itself. This alteration between hand-held DV close-ups and wider angles, be it the wide horizon meeting an Indiana dirt road or the fluid steady cam that follows the bank robbers into a marble-filled Wisconsin place of business, provides Public Enemies with a visual rhythm that is further accented by a cutting pattern that remains unpredictable in its choice of future angles.

However, in visual highs like the film's first bank robbery, bathed in a warm, phosphorescent yellow, Mann's camera is not permitted to cutaway and linger on the setting, as it would so often on the Chicago skyline of Thief (1981) or that of Los Angeles in the director's masterpiece Collateral (2004). Here Dillinger and company have their "minute forty... flat" to get in and out, thereby requiring the film's spectators to get their fill of the space in the crew's short time in the bank. In this regard, though Public Enemies announces an emphasis on place that again is among the interesting features of Mann's art, it fails to add this emphasis to the film's narrative, which ultimately is the key to the Collateral's achievement in particular. Then again, Collateral's sequence of spaces, always calibrated to highlight its nocturnal views, structured the film's narrative as it moved toward daybreak, and thus according to the film's internal logic, to the picture's end. Here, there is no similar rationale, save for the non-fiction itinerary of Public Enemies's principle subject.

Nor does Mann altogether maintain his focus on procedure that is apparent throughout Thief, for example. Whereas that film opens with a lengthy safe-cracking scored with a period-defining synth soundtrack - the entire work is period-defining in the mood it establishes, and ouevre-defining for America's signature (action-oriented, Chicago- and Los Angeles-based ) 1980s director - Public Enemies rarely focuses so resolutely on the interworkings of Dillinger's profession. The primary counter-example, of course, is the extended second escape from prison, wherein Mann follows Dillinger from room-to-room as he systematically breaks free, aided initially only by a hand-carved and tinted fake handgun. The film's bank-robbery set-pieces again do not allow for the emphasis on process that many of the director's finer crime pictures depict.

Mann's focus on criminal endeavor belongs, surely, to his larger, genre-inflected treatment of American masculinity, as Lisa K. Broad notes, which itself accounts for both the drift toward myth contained in his films, and his attraction to your Muhammad Ali's and John Dillinger's, on the level of subject. Or to put it another way, Mann's films are always about American narratives, and thus about film, which is no less the case for Public Enemies as it is for any of his previous efforts. Here, the director's self-reflexivity finds some of its most direct expression in a trio of nocturnal set-pieces: his arrival on an Indiana tarmac, illuminated by exploding flares and cracking camera flashes; Dillinger's low-key, albeit spotlit escape through the Wisconsin woods; and finally, the aftermath surrounding his assassination outside the Biograph theater. In each of these passages, artificial lighting, gushing in from strong directional light sources, traces if not engulfs Depp's protagonist, recurrently in characteristically grainy - and therefore, DV-specific - images. Thus, Dillinger is transformed from bank robber into (digital-era) movie star.

Michael J. Anderson's Michael Mann feature-film taxonomy:
Career Peaks: Collateral, Heat
Exceptional Films (Just Below Peak):
Miami Vice, Thief, The Last of the Mohicans (1992), Manhunter (1986)
Good (If Comparatively Lesser): The Insider (1999)*, Public Enemies
Sub-par: Ali (2001)
Haven't Seen: The Keep (1983)

* Note: I have not seen The Insider since shortly after its initial release, and as such, trust my judgment less in its case than in that of any of the others. I guess I would say that The Insider is at least "good," where I will rank it for the time being, and quite possibly even "exceptional," though my instinct tells me that it does not belong among the "career peaks." But that's all it is, instinct.

Friday, July 03, 2009

8th New York Asian Film Festival: Dream / Bi-mong (by, Lisa K. Broad)

Kim Ki-Duk’s Dream (Bi-mong, 2008), which recently screened as part of the 8th New York Asian Film Festival, is a lyrical and melancholy meditation on the theme of doomed love. The film establishes its conceptual premise – Ran (Lee Na-Yeong), a young woman is compelled to act out the dreams of a young man, Jin (Joe Odagiri), whom she has never met – in a simple, straightforward manner. No explanation is sought, and none is provided. It is tacitly accepted in the world of the film that two people can be connected by a dream. The purely stipulative nature of the film’s narrative conceit moves it away from the realm of science fiction – where some technological innovation or disruption of natural law allows for the occurrence fantastic events – and into the domain of the myth or fable – where natural laws are refashioned to suit the emotional and psychological states of the story’s characters.

Early on in the film Jin and Ran are told by a (decidedly non-Freudian) psychiatrist/mystic that they are on opposite ends of a psychic spectrum – Jin’s reoccurring erotic dreams of the ex-lover he pines for, cause Ran to sleepwalk into the arms of the ex-lover she despises – like black and white on the color wheel. She assures them that dreams have the power to change reality, and that if they are able to fall for each other and forget their romantic pasts, all will be well. In its focus on young love as a vital force for change, Dream calls to mind Japanese New Wave films like Nagisa Oshima’s Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (1968) and Yoshishige Yoshida’s Eros + Massacre (1969) – both lyrical and richly symbolic representations of lovers in peril.

The main body of the film is devoted to documenting Jin and Ran’s developing relationship – which is mirrored in the film’s mise-en-scene. From the first moments of the film Jin is associated with the color black, while Ran almost exclusively wears white. (In a striking fantasy set piece, where Jin and Ran watch their ex-lover’s fight and make love in an open field, their characteristic colors are reversed.) The film also makes strong use of diegetic framing, using the architecture of domestic spaces to unite and divide the young couple within a single composition. Both Jin and Ran are artists, who work from home, often late into the night – she is a fashion designer, who creates fanciful brightly colored confections quite at odds with her own monochrome wardrobe; he chisels blocks of stone into elaborate seals. As such they seem to be quite isolated from other people and alienated from the flow of day to day life. Once they discover the nature of their connection, they enter into a quasi-domestic situation, wherein they live together and sleep in shifts in hopes that if they avoid sleeping at the same time Ran will cease to act out Jin’s dreams. (Ran’s terror at her loss of autonomy brings the dangerous nature of romantic love into sharp relief.) During a relatively tranquil period in their relationship they visit a Buddhist shrine, where they build a tower of stones. Throughout the film, Buddhist imagery seems to be associated with the balanced and tranquil relationship that Jin and Ran seek and briefly establish.

The idyll comes to an abrupt end, when Jin and Ran fall asleep together, and Jin’s dream leads Ran to commit a violent act. Jin, feeling responsible for Ran’s action and her subsequent punishment vows never to sleep again, and begins to torture himself in hopes of staying awake and atoning for his guilt. This section of the film makes overt use of Christian iconography, which seems to stand for the passion, sacrifice, and suffering that marks the Dionysian flip-side to the Apollonian tranquility Jin and Ran find at the Buddhist Shrine. As Jin and Ran’s passion intensifies, so does their shared pain and mutual self-denial. Eventually they enter into a kind of twilight state where the return to a normal autonomous existence is as impossible as life apart – at this point Dream achieves a level of abject desperation that calls to mind David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers (1988). Ultimately, Dream is a hauntingly beautiful film, and a hauntingly sad one. Relatively restrained in relationship to the rest of Kim’s corpus, it is nonetheless a powerful and unflinching exploration of the physical, spiritual, and psychological cost of all consuming devotion.