Tuesday, December 08, 2009

A James Whale Triple Bill: The Impatient Maiden (1932), By Candlelight (1933) & Sinners in Paradise (1938)

Warning: the following post contains some spoilers.

Renowned mostly for the all-time horror classics he directed for Universal studios (Frankenstein, 1931; The Invisible Man, 1933; Bride of Frankenstein, 1935) and claimed as one of the queer cinema's unimpeachable Hollywood icons (see Bill Condon's Gods and Monsters, 1998), James Whale nonetheless maintained a slightly less marginal status than either of the above distinctions might suggest. Serving as one of (the admittedly quite marginal) Universal's top two house directors - the other being John M. Stahl (Back Street, 1932; Magnificent Obsession, 1935; see Thomas Schatz's studio history in The Genius of the System, 1988) - Whale made a number of Universal's most prestigious entertainments (including the aforementioned "A" horror films, which are routinely mistaken for "B" pictures) and expensive productions of the period, culminating in the studio's definitive musical adaptation of Edna Ferber's Show Boat (1936). As this latter project would suggest, Whale, though recognized even at the time primarily for his horror films, did manage to work outside of the genre, both following his 1935 cycle apogee Bride of Frankenstein, and even in the midst of this output, as he would in the equally strong, and similarly ignored The Impatient Maiden (1932, Universal - pictured) and By Candlelight (1933, Universal).

Though ultimately an earnestly nuptial-affirming romantic melodrama, The Impatient Maiden nevertheless manages more body-blows on the institution of marriage than perhaps any other work of the era. Studio starlet Mae Clarke plays lecherous divorce attorney Albert Hartman's (John Halliday) leggy, nineteen year-old secretary, Ruth Robbins, who from the film's outset professes her utter distaste for marriage, which Whale confirms in both the numerous on and off camera rows that provide white noise for Clark's picturesque San Francisco surroundings and in the leering of a male client who fixes his gaze, indifferent to the objections of his wife, to Clarke's stockinged legs cropped on the left edge of the frame. When Ruth is finally proposed to by resident physician Myron Brown (Lew Ayres in a solid male lead performance that holds the screen with Clark's compelling work), following a series of phone calls and even a touching midnight visit - Whale's leads exude a genuine, recognizable humanity in this work - she declines, opting instead for the instant material rewards of Hartman's slimy company, in spite of the protests of Alabaman roommate Betty (Una Merkel) and the latter's boyfriend, gentleman nurse Clarence (Andy Devine). As with By Candlelight, the lure of money must be overcome for love to obtain.

Ironically, Betty's deep south accent becomes the source of much playful derision from Devine's Clarence, in spite of that actor's legendarily singular speech pattern. In fact, The Impatient Maiden provides more than its share of humor, whether its Ruth's barbed protestations against the institution of marriage, Betty's boundless stupidity (often and cruelly remarked upon, not that she ever understands), Clarence's invention of a zip-up straight-jacket with an easily anticipated flaw or he and Dr. Brown's gambling over whether their patients will survive. In at least the final two examples, Whale and screenwriters Richard Schayer, Winifred Dunn and James Mulhauser import a gallows humor that very much maintains the spirit of the director's horror corpus, as do the zombie-like patients of the hospital's psych wing, the x-ray machine that Brown uses on Ruth and lastly the belated appendectomy that the doctor performs on his love interest. Much more than By Candlelight, The Impatient Maiden belies the signature of a horror maestro.

Whale's hand is likewise visible in the picture's highly fluid mise-en-scène, where Whale's camera incautiously passes through a series of walls at Ruth and Betty's low-class residence. This teaming, working class hovel provides a striking contrast with both Hartman's art deco penthouse, in which Ruth is set up, and with the residence of Prince Alfred von Rommer (Nils Asther) in the subsequent By Candlelight. In the latter, butler Josef (Paul Lukas - think a less confident variation on Maurice Chevalier and Herbert Marshall's characters in Ernst Lubitsch's period work) abets his master's Don Juan tactics (Josef and his female counterpoint, Elissa Landi, both read the famous Lothario's memoirs), performing a ritual for the Prince's continuous, married visitors that includes a well-timed presentation of champagne and an even more precisely orchestrated tripping of the circuit. After discretely removing himself to his adjacent quarters, Josef further rehearses the Prince's witty come-on's into a mirror.

Josef's play-acting as the Prince soon becomes public after a mistaken identity leads a presumed countess Marie (Landi) into believing that he is Rommer. This misapprehension leads the formerly disinterested female to become the romantic aggressor, thus reiterating The Impatient Maiden's romance for material reward equation; likewise, the final revelation of identities will require the valuation of love over money with which Whale also concluded the former film. In the meantime, with Josef doing his finest Prince Rommer impersonation, the pair share an afternoon and evening in a rural fair and wine garden, before reuniting in the Prince's residence with the latter ostensibly gone for the evening. When the gentleman returns to overhear Josef's impersonation, the Prince completes the reversal of roles of his own accord, even carrying out the loss of power that is his personal trademark. Naturally, the characters' true identities are discovered (after the film's Cinderella loses one of her shoes), leading to a denouement that manifests the clockwork precision of Viennese operetta (which Ruth claims to like in The Impatient Maiden; little does she know, evidently, that a lecture by a Viennese physician is nowhere near as engaging).

With The Impatient Maiden and By Candlelight, Whale employs characteristically long, graceful follow shots within narratives that move briskly toward an affirmation of love over material reward. In the director's Sinners in Paradise (1938, Universal) these qualities are largely absent, though love naturally remains triumphant (even if it is not, in this case, challenged by wealth), following an incipient passage that introduces viewers to each of the soon-to-be-shanghaied travelers, many with explicitly hidden identities, at an airport. With the camera, first, mostly constricted within a trans-Atlantic seaplane whose interior seems closest in design to a railway dining car, and then with the narrative, second, equally static once the crash's survivors land on a tropical island - essentially we wait, for the film's very slight 65 minute running time, with the passengers for their departure from the island - Sinners in Paradise does not sustain the director's principle narratological virtues.

The British-born director, however, reveals the same class consciousness (here especially in the ironic, if heavy-handed protests of a millionaire factory owner, Charlotte Wynters, that she is being mistreated after doing the same to her workers) that appeared in both The Impatient Maiden and By Candlelight, while recasting his politics within immediately pre-World War II terms: namely, Sinners in Paradise preaches a need to confront rather than hide from one's problems. In this light, the film's egalitarian island society appears less socialistic (cf. Frank Capra's You Can't Take It with You, also 1938) than adherent to the social strictures of the military. While Sinners in Paradise thus offers a clearer picture of Whale's and writers Harold Buckley, Louis Stevens and Lester Cole's pre-war politics, it nonetheless lacks the visual and narrative virtues of Whale's best work, which is to say that it is an unmistakingly minor iteration of his art.

The Impatient Maiden and By Candlelight are, on the other hand, not only exemplary of the director's storytelling gifts and thematic interests - Whale belongs with Capra, Lubitsch, John Ford, Howard Hawks, Josef von Sternberg and very few others as Cahiers du cinema-brand, early sound era auteurs - but testify to the director's exceptional dexterity in working outside of his horror specialization.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Decade in Film, Iranian Cinema Suppliment: Shirin (2008) & It's Winter (2006)

On this site's recent survey of major cinematic achievements of the current decade, reader R. Emmet Sweeney questioned the omission of filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami's Shirin (2008), which has been made newly available by the British Film Institute in a region-2 format DVD that the distributor released in late October. Following Mr. Sweeney's elegant appraisal of the film for Movie Morlocks, where he claimed that the picture is "the first major work from [Kiarostami's] experimental period, and perhaps its logical endpoint," a phase that I should add I largely lamented on the aforesaid post, and thanks to the agreeably low cost of the import disc, Kiarostami's latest became the obvious first choice for my inevitable self-revision following the earlier piece. Thus, to move directly to this writer's verdict regarding its fitness in being classified among the significant works of the current decade, I would concur with Mr. Sweeney that it absolutely does, and also that it likewise marks a notable improvement over Five Dedicated to Ozu (2003), even if I cannot maintain as does the Morlock author that this is "the most moving experience I’ve had watching a Kiarostami film." Personally, the director's 'Koker trilogy' and Through the Olive Trees (1994) in particular, remains for me not only the filmmaker's supreme accomplishments, but also his most emotionally impactful art as well.

The ultimate success of Shirin, as Sweeney rightly notes, is in the director's elaboration of off-camera space, which it bears noting has been long central to the filmmaker's formal strategies. In Shirin, Kiarostami shoots over one-hundred separate women, all framed in close-up while wearing headscarves, in a darkened movie theatre. Subsequent to a title sequence in which the director introduces us (through pages of an illuminated manuscript) to the subject of the screened film, the epic poem "Khosrow and Shirin," Kiarostami fixes on his human subjects for the full duration of the projected film's un-spooling; that is, the filmmaker never once reverses field to the picture that his female spectators (along with the small number of male viewers visible likewise over their shoulders) watch. As Kiarostami's camera trains motionlessly on their faces, we hear music, voices and ambient sounds all emanating from the off-camera screen. Thus, the filmmaker not only establishes the presence of the visually absent screen, but intimates further, through the competing panoply of the aforesaid sounds, a space that is itself the combination of both on and off-camera fields - a spatial mise en abyme.

In suggesting an off-screen, on a screen that is itself off-screen, Kiarostami further expands the space depicted in his cinema, which as always far exceeds that which the director captures with his camera. Again, as always, Kiarostami constructs the space of his film to insist on its relative minimality in contrast to the non-visible world beyond the edges of the frame, where he articulates a world unseen through characters who fail to appear on camera (as in The Wind Will Carry Us, 1999) or, as in Shirin, by a film-within-the-film that never appears on film. It is a reality forever consigned to invisibility by dint of its lack of visual materiality, save for its instantiating audio track. And for the light that implicitly dances off the screen, on to his female figures' faces, modulating the space with the changes in tone that appear on the non-existent screen.

Importantly, Shirin's off-screen film-within-the-film reads as both strongly narrative and heavily dramatic - two properties that Kiarostami's unbroken series of spectatorial close-ups lacks entirely; "Khosrow and Shirin" is a film that the director would never make - at least in the conventional form that it seems to maintain. Then there is, once again, that which Kiarostami does shoot, the hundred-plus female faces that his narrative alternates between as they watch a fictional film (with the incumbent gaps between the off-screen film's narrative and the reactions they generate essentially ex nihilo; there is thus an artificiality to the experience presented by the feature, which Juliette Binoche's sudden appearance further confers). Indeed, in choosing intimate framings of (almost exclusively) strikingly beautiful women of a variety of ages, Kiarostami undermines the logic of the mandatory coverings that all of the women wear, namely to reduce focus on the physical attributes of women. Just as Shirin is a film about invisible cinematic space, absent presence, it is also a work about women, about making their interiority visual through the act of performance, and of its calculation to bring mentation to the face's surface - even as Kiarostami rehearsed his actresses to emote less. Ultimately, in its feminine focus, Kiarostami's latest continues the more political emphasis of the director's superior Ten (2002), while reaffirming that the baseline of minimalist modernist cinema today rests in close-ups of the human face - see the director's Taste of Cherry (1997) and Ten, Pedro Costa's Colossal Youth (2006) and Wang Bing's Fengming: A Chinese Memoir (2007).

Rafi Pitts's highly imagistic It's Winter (2006), from a Mahmoud Dowlatabadi story, ranks with Shirin as an additional, deserving Iranian film of note that was overlooked in this writer's previous survey. It's Winter's heavily mythic narrative details a husband's departure for greener economic pastures abroad; his presumed death and replacement by a second, itinerant labor; and finally, the second husband's financial problems, which lead him to contemplate further migration - along with, spoiler, the return of the first husband. Pitts routinely elides process in his compressed presentation (78 mins.) of his arch-narrative - as for instance in the narrative's leaping from the first meeting between the second husband and wife, in a moment reminiscent of the subsequent In the City of Sylvia (José Luis Guerín, 2007), to the bestowal of a gift by the gentleman, to an inaudible conversation between the two, and lastly to their civil wedding - while favoring moments of dead-time, which thus places Pitts's film in the tradition of Kiarostami's earlier, poetical narrative works.

Indeed, It's Winter's narrative elisions and visual evasions serve to allegorize life in a nation where so much remains hidden from view (a strategy that is equally evident in Shirin's compendium of head-scarfed female spectators). However, unlike the visual minimalism of Kiarostami's latest, though very much in the spirit of the director's previous Through the Olive Trees, The Wind Will Carry Us and Five, Pitts's work is landscape dependent, expressing meaning through the locational, seasonal and temporal specificity of its visually rich exteriors - as for instance in a lyrical, early frame in which the first husband walks down a deserted highway in the eponymous season, or in the heavy snowfall that descends upon the village's railroad tracks, which Pitts composes in a diagonal long. This is a work where the absences are primarily narrative rather visual.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Decade in Film: the 2000s

The past ten years have not been the strongest internationally in the history of the art form. Certainly, as with the previous, vaunted decade-and-a-half, wherein notably Iran and the new cinemas of the Chinese world emerged, vital and compelling art has come from unexpected places: in the present decade, Argentina, Germany, Romania and Southeast Asia have all developed into new epicenters of the medium. Likewise, masterpieces have continued to stream in from these earlier hot-spots, and particularly from Taiwan, whose trio of masters - Hou Hsiao-hsien (Millennium Mambo, 2001; Café Lumière, 2003; Three Times, 2005; Flight of the Red Balloon, 2007), Tsai Ming-liang (Goodbye Dragon Inn, 2003 - pictured; I Don't Want to Sleep Alone, 2006) and the late Edward Yang (Yi Yi, 2000) - produced some of the very best work of the 2000s, even if the greatest director of last fifteen years of the twentieth century, Iran's Abbas Kiarostami (whose 2002 Ten continued his virtually unbroken streak of master works), has largely left the festival circuit for the gallery. However, with the exception of Tsai, none of the aforementioned has done their greatest work during the past ten years.

This perhaps is the first theme for the 2000s decade: major filmmakers continuing their mastery, though perhaps not quite at the peak of their achievement. To the above list, one might add the names of
Terence Davies (The House of Mirth, 2000), centenarian Manoel de Oliveira (I'm Going Home, 2001; The Uncertainty Principle, 2002; A Talking Picture, 2003; Belle Toujours, 2006), Béla Tarr (Werckmeister Harmonies, 2000; here the director was very close to his pinnacle, producing a film that was for the second consecutive decade the finest European film) and Wong Kar-wai (In the Mood for Love, 2000; 2046, 2004 ); each again made genuinely great films during the past ten years, though not entirely to equal their absolute best. (For the record, Distant Voices, Still Lives, 1988; Doomed Love, 1978; Sátántangó, 1994; and Days of Being Wild, 1991, respectively.)

While the same was technically true of the active French 'New Wave' masters, the very fact of their continued high level of achievement - unseen in this depth since at least the twilight of the Hollywood classical period - ranks as one of the decade's most important cinematic stories. Among the many exceptional works produced by this contingent were
Claude Chabrol's Merci pour le chocolat (2000) and The Flower of Evil (2003); Jean-Luc Godard's Notre Musique (2004); Alain Resnais's Not On the Lips (2003) and perhaps the finest nouvelle vague film of the decade, Private Fears in Public Places (2006 - pictured); Resnais's 2009 Wild Grass, on the other hand, may be the decade's most significant film for which this writer will have to wait until the 2010s; Jacques Rivette's The Story of Marie and Julien (2003), The Duchess of Langeais (2007) and Around a Small Mountain (2009); Eric Rohmer's The Lady and the Duke (2001; a landmark in the nascent digital medium) and swansong The Romance of Astrea and Celadon (2007); and Agnes Varda's essayistic The Gleaners and I (2000).

French cinema remained otherwise strong thanks to the highlights of mid-career filmmakers
Olivier Assayas (Summer Hours, 2008), Catherine Breillat (Fat Girl, 2001), Claire Denis (Friday Night, 2002; 35 Shots of Rum, 2008; White Material, 2009), Arnaud Desplechin (Kings and Queen, 2004; A Christmas Tale, 2008), and Michael Haneke (Caché, 2005). Laurent Cantet continued his profile on the art circuit (The Class, 2008), while Nicolas Philibert directed one of the decade's better documentaries (To Be and to Have, 2002). Belgium yielded two more Bressonian encoded major works by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, The Son (2002) and L'Enfant (2005), as well as one of the decade's finest first films in Lucile Hadzihalilovic's strongly metaphorical Innocence (2004). Italian cinema was less impressive, but did produce high points in Marco Tullio Giordana's The Best of Youth (2003) and especially Paolo Sorrentino's The Consequences of Love (2004). Spain, however, fared better with Pedro Almodóvar doing the best work of his career (Talk to Her, 2002; Volver, 2006), José Luis Guerín breaking through with the exceptional In the City of Sylvia (2007), and Albert Serra renewing the time image to particularly haptic effect (Birdsong, 2008). Portugal likewise proved every bit as noteworthy, due to the combination of the seemingly eternal Oliveira's continued productivity and ultra-formalist Pedro Costa's festival breakout Colossal Youth (2006), which was in some distant recess of cineaste culture the film of its year.

Among the more newly alive corners of European cinema were once again Germany and Romania. In the former, the critically lower profile of the two stateside,
Valeska Grisebach (Longing, 2006 - one of the most under-appreciated films of the 2000s), Stefan Krohmer (Summer '04, 2006), and Christian Petzold (Jerichow, 2008) produced the best work - which coincidentally or not all shared the subject of bisecting romantic entanglements. (Austrian director Götz Spielmann's Revanche [2008] manifested many of the same virtues.) Much more popular, though to substantially lesser effect, was Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's Oscar winner The Lives of Others (2006). In Romania, the similarly temporally obsessed The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Cristi Puiu, 2005 - pictured) and Police, Adjective (Corneliu Porumboiu, 2009) rank as the high points, easily besting, in both instances, critical favorite 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, 2007).

Elsewhere in Eastern Europe,
Aleksandr Sokurov did some of his finest work, including his single-take, DV masterpiece Russian Ark (2002) and in his ineffable, Hirohito biography, The Sun (2005). Kazakhstan produced at least two major films in Chouga (Darezhan Omirbaev, 2007) and Tulpan (Sergei Dvortsevoy, 2008). While in Scandinavia, Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson returned after a quarter-century hiatus with the estimable Songs from the Second Floor (2000) and You, the Living (2007); Liv Ullmann's Faithless (2000) bested maestro Ingmar Bergman's final film, Saraband (2003); in neighboring Denmark, Lars von Trier did his best work when furthest removed from his 'American trilogy': namely The Five Obstructions (2003) and The Boss of It All (2006); and in Finland, Aki Kaurismäki directed one of his best films, the 1930s, socially conscious Hollywood inspired The Man without a Past (2002).

In Asia, the southeast emerged, largely due to the considerable achievement of Thai filmmaker
Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Indeed, were I to single out a single director as the key figure of the decade, it would have to be Apichatpong, who was responsible for no less than three structuralist-inspired masterpieces - Blissfully Yours (2002 - pictured), Tropical Malady (2004) and Syndromes and a Century (2006) - each of which was among the very best films of their respective years. Beyond Apichatpong, fellow Thai's Aditya Assarat (Wonderful Town, 2007) and Pen-ek Ratanaruang (Last Life in the Universe, 2003), Indonesian Garin Nugroho (Opera Jawa, 2006), and the Malaysian-born Tsai (in return to his country of birth with I Don't Want to Sleep Alone) all contributed to the region's cinematic vitality. Significantly, the 2006 "New Crowned Hope" initiative, marking the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth, was responsible for three of the above films, as it was also for Mahamat-Saleh Haroun's Daratt (2006), which rated along with the director's 2002 Abouna as among the finer African films of the decade.

In East Asia, mainland China presented another of the major figures of the 2000s, director
Jia Zhangke, whose ambivalent depictions of his nation's progress, Platform (2000 - pictured), Unknown Pleasures (2002), The World (2004) and Still Life (2006), bested nearly everything else China produced. Among the only works to merit discussion alongside the aforesaid were 'Fifth Generation' filmmaker Tian Zhuangzhuang's remake of the greatest of all Chinese films, Springtime in a Small Town (2002), and Wang Bing's outstanding non-fiction Fengming: A Chinese Memoir (2007). Outside the mainland, Taiwan witnessed the aforesaid continued prominence of its greatest directors, though they were often led to work outside the Republic of China, as Hou did with Flight of the Red Balloon in France (his best of his uniformly strong works this decade). Taiwan also lost the very great Edward Yang, who created one of the two extraordinarily great films released in 2000, Yi Yi, which promised a qualitatively continuation of the 1990s that the decade ultimately did not keep. Indeed, in this spirit, Hong Kong witnessed a further decline from the earlier decade, though Wong's first two features of the decade and Johnnie To's work (Throw Down, 2004; Exiled, 2006; Sparrow, 2008) were undeniable high points.

Korea and Japan were likewise contenders on the world stage, with
Hong Sang-soo ranking as the leading figure of the former, thanks to his twice-told Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors (2000), Turning Gate (2002) and Woman on the Beach (2006). Additional major works were produced by Bong Joon-ho (Memories of Murder, 2003; Mother, 2009), Im Kwon-taek (Chihwaseon, 2002), Lee Chang-dong (Peppermint Candy, 2000), Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, 2003) and Park Ki-yong (Camel(s), 2002). In Japan, the heights and depth of accomplishment were even more considerable with Hiyao Miyazaki's Spirited Away (2001 - pictured), the best animated film of the decade, and Kiyoshi Kurosawa's career peak Tokyo Sonata (2008) on top, with the latter director's Doppelgänger (2003), Shinji Aoyama's Eureka (2000), Hirokazu Kore-eda's Nobody Knows (2004) and Still Walking (2008), Takeshi Kitano's Dolls (2002) and Zatoichi (2003) - Kitano, however, did not equal his '90s stature - and Seijuin Suzuki's late period Pistol Opera (2001) not far behind. Outside of the art cinema, Japan also produced Mamoru Oshii's fine, animated Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004) and some of the truly outstanding comedies of the decade, including The Taste of Tea (Katsuhito Ishii, 2004), Linda Linda Linda (Nobuhiro Yamashita, 2005), Adrift in Tokyo (Satoshi Miki, 2007), and Fine, Totally Fine (Yosuke Fujita, 2008).

In the rest of the non-English speaking world, Kiarostami's disciple,
Jafar Panahi, in the former's absence, developed into Iran's leading director (with The Circle, 2000, and Crimson Gold, 2003). 2000, in particular, proved a very good year for the Iranian cinema with Marzieh Makhmalbaf's The Day I Became a Woman (2000) and Bahman Ghobadi's A Time for Drunken Horses (2000) joining The Circle. Nuri Bilge Ceylan emerged in Turkey with the Tarkovskian Distant (2002) and especially Climates (2006). Ari Folman's Waltz with Bashir (2008) was the highest profile Israeli film of the decade, while Dover Kosashvili's Late Marriage (2001) was also noteworthy. In Latin America, Mexico proved quite vital with the best of Carlos Reygadas (Japon, 2002; the masterful Silent Light, 2007) and Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth, 2006) ranking above art film juggernauts Amores Perros (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2000) and Y tu mama tambien (Alfonso Cuarón, 2001; Cuarón, however, did make a franchise best with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, 2004). Uruguay featured the strong, droll Whisky (Juan Pablo Rebella and Pablo Stoll, 2004), while Argentina, lastly, proved to be one the western hemisphere's cinematic epicenters with the films of Lisandro Alonso (the super-Bazinian Los Muertos, 2004; Liverpool, 2008), Lucrecia Martel (La Ciénaga, 2001; her full masterpiece The Headless Woman, 2008) and Celina Murga (Ana and the Others, 2003; A Week Alone, 2008) all among the finest films made anywhere in the 2000s. (By contrast, Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund's art film blockbuster City of God [2002] looks threadbare indeed.)

Then there was Hollywood, which as always was the source of the majority of the films I saw in the past ten years (as I suspect was also true of most of this blog's readers), even if came nowhere near dominating the category of great art similarly - as it might have during, say, the classical era. That Hollywood wasn't what it once was - hardly a new sentiment; the same could be said with authority since at least the mid-1960s - is not to say that the American cinema failed to produce very strong work, however. Indeed,
David Lynch's career best Mulholland Drive (2001 - pictured) was one of the truly great "art films" of the 2000s, imbibing a surreal logic for its Hollywood critique, while refracting Rivette's Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974). Lynch also provided the even more opaque, though no less moving Inland Empire (2006). Among other Hollywood directors of note to do their best work (at a very high level) in the 2000s were David Fincher with his exceptional, Dirty Harry inversion Zodiac (2007) and his digital era Oscar picture of quality The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008); James Gray, with his elegant Two Lovers (2008); Curtis Hanson, whose Wonder Boys (2000) bested, however marginally, his universally critically acclaimed L.A. Confidential (1997); Michael Mann, who produced an organic masterpiece in Collateral (2004), which he followed impressively with his Miami Vice (2006) remake; and most implausibly of all, perhaps, Tony Scott, who released the surprising Domino (2005) before providing one of the best American films of the decade, Déjà Vu (2006). Additional major works by auteurs, most often just below their directors' respective peak achievements, included Robert Altman's Gosford Park (2001), Brian De Palma's Femme Fatale (2002), Jim Jarmusch's The Limits of Control (2009), Richard Linklater's Before Sunset (2004), Terrence Malick's minor masterpiece The New World (2005), Steven Soderbergh's surprisingly successful remake of Solaris (2002), Steven Spielberg's A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001) and Catch Me if You Can (2002), Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill, Vol. 2 (2004), and Gus Van Sant's Elephant (2003) and Paranoid Park (2007).

Scott's film, moreover, joined
Paul Greengrass's impressively sober United 93 (2006) in engaging fruitfully with 9/11, as did one of Spike Lee's most generous - and finest - works, 25th Hour (2002). While Hollywood did not seem equally suited to dealing with the ramifications of the Iraq war, Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker (2008) was a highlight. Politics, of course, would play a very large role in the decade's documentaries, as it did in one of the peak achievements of the form, Errol Morris's The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003), though Nathaniel Kahn's My Architect (2003) and Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man (2005) were equally impressive on the apolitical end of the spectrum. In fact, politics even made its way into children's entertainment with Pixar's WALL-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008) the most conspicuous example. Yet, Pixar's finest achievements belonged to auteur Brad Bird, whose depictions of individual excellence, The Incredibles (2004) and Ratatouille (2007), equaled the best entertainments Disney ever produced. Outside of Pixar, the finest work of Hollywood animation may have been Gil Kenan's Monster House (2006).

Among those films receiving Oscar recognition in non-animated categories, none were better than Clint Eastwood's back-to-back, culturally attuned master works, Mystic River (2003) and Million Dollar Baby (2004 - pictured). In so doing, Eastwood matched his 1990s feat with Unforgiven (1992) and A Perfect World (1993), while reaffirming himself as Hollywood's greatest living director - which his revisionist Gran Torino (2008) further confirmed. Other relatively deserving Oscar winners included Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003), this Griffithian structured work was easily the best of the trilogy; and Joel and Ethan Coen's fine, revisionist No Country for Old Men (2007). (Two strong, noteworthy, similarly Oscar nominated companions to the last two were Peter Weir's Master and Commander: the Far Side of the World, 2003, and Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, 2007.) Still, Oscar got it wrong far more often that it got it right with the atrocious A Beautiful Mind (Ron Howard, 2001), Chicago (Rob Marshall, 2002; Baz Luhrmann's striking Moulin Rouge!, 2001, was the more impressive work in every respect); Crash (Paul Haggis, 2004), and Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle, 2008). Even Martin Scorsese's arguably belated Oscar came for one of his lesser films, The Departed (2006; Andrew Lau and Alan Mak's source Infernal Affairs, 2002, was the superior achievement). In general, the 2000s were not Scorsese's decade.

The 2000s, on the other, did belong to
Wes Anderson and Judd Apatow, at least in the realm of US comedy. The former produced the finest American comedy of the decade, The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) and the woefully undervalued The Darjeeling Limited (2007). Apatow's mark, on the other hand, was even more significant with numerous producer credits joining noteworthy directorial efforts, Knocked Up (2007) and Funny People (2009). The latter, however, is perhaps more significant for contributing to the further revision of Adam Sandler's star persona, which was signaled by works like Paul Thomas Anderson's major Punch-Drunk Love (2002; for this writer, the aforesaid comedy ranks above Anderson's There Will Be Blood, 2007) and James Brooks's Spanglish (2004). Among Sandler's Saturday Night Live successors, Will Ferrell starred in some of the best Hollywood comedy of the decade, such as Adam McKay's Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006), while appearing in others, including David Dobkin's exceedingly funny Wedding Crashers (2005). In a more commercially modest, auteurist vein were Jared Hess's Nacho Libre (2006), Harold Ramis's The Ice Harvest (2005) and Terry Zwigoff's Bad Santa (2003).

In the realm of the action blockbuster,
Christopher Nolan directed the notable Batman Begins (2005) and decade box office champion The Dark Knight (2008); Greengrass elevated visceral experience over visual decipherability in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007); Matt Reeves theorized the digital image in Cloverfield (2008); and Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor made one of the decade's most singular works (for better or for worse) in Crank (2006). Working in a more genre-based tradition, substantial work was done by David Mamet (Redbelt, 2008) and Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler, 2008); the latter of these films, significantly, was built around a reference to Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (2004), a work of sacred art that was one of the decade's biggest money-makers. On the other end of the commercial spectrum, the American avant-garde, there was the 'devotional' cinema Nathaniel Dorsky (Song and Solitude, 2006; Sarabande, 2008) and the structuralist corpus of James Benning, the leading American experimental director of the decade, whose 13 Lakes (2004), Ten Skies (2004) and RR (2007 - pictured) articulated the minimal conditions for the art form. In the gallery world, Tacita Dean's Kodak (2006), as with RR, eulogized the death of the 16mm medium. At the same time, Michel Gondry sought to bring theatrical distribution into contact with the art world, which he did to increasing success in The Science of Sleep (2006) and particularly Be Kind Rewind (2008). Gondry's collaboration with Charlie Kaufman, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), was likewise successful, as was Spike Jonze's Adaptation. (2002) - in both instances far more than Kaufman's miserablist directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York (2008). (Stronger American first features included David Gordon Green's George Washington [2000], Kenneth Longergan's You Can Count On Me [2000], Phil Morrison's Junebug [2005].)

North of the border,
David Cronenberg continued his outstanding run of achievements with directorial signature Spider (2002), masterpiece A History of Violence (2005), and the criminally under-valued Eastern Promises (2007); Cronenberg was clearly another of the decade's leading figures. His countryman Guy Maddin did some of his best work in the quasi-avant garde, as for instance with his Cowards Bend the Knee (2003); likewise, Canada also produced the extraordinary, first-ever Inuit-language picture, Zacharias Kunuk's The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat) (2001). In the United Kingdom, Mike Leigh (Vera Drake, 2004) and Stephen Frears (The Queen, 2006) made some of the better films, while in Australia, Jane Campion made of a comeback at the decade's conclusion with Bright Star (2009).

Michael J. Anderson's Ten Best Films of the 2000s

Blissfully Yours (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2002, Thailand)
Flight of the Red Balloon (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2007, France)
Goodbye Dragon Inn (Tsai Ming-liang, 2003, Taiwan)
The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel, 2008, Argentina)
I'm Going Home (Manoel de Oliveira, 2001, France)
Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001, United States)
Mystic River (Clint Eastwood, 2003, United States)
Russian Ark (Aleksandr Sokurov, 2002, Russia)
Werckmeister Harmonies (Béla Tarr, 2000, Hungary)
Yi Yi (Edward Yang, 2000, Taiwan) - pictured

Friday, November 13, 2009

Notes on Marcel L'Herbier's L'Argent (1928)

Marcel L'Herbier's legendary L'Argent (1928), which screens November 14th and 15th at New York's Museum of Modern Art, and which was released in a two-disc, region-2 DVD set by Masters of Cinema for its eightieth anniversary in 2008, updates Emile Zola's eponymous, anti-speculatory serialization (1890; novel published in 1891) within the persuasive américanisme of post-Spirit of St. Louis, late 1920s Paris. Indeed, L'Herbier's parable of speculation and sex, set against a fictional, reverse trans-Atlantic flight, very much belongs to the "intellectual debate" surrounding this obsession with all things American that Wanda Corn has noted in her tome, The Great American Thing (132). The concern was, in the words of the author, whether américanisme was "simply a veneer or was it a more serious transformation of French life" (132)? Responding to this cultural anxiety, L'Argent portrays the reckless market speculation and the celebrity, fad culture surrounding the picture's aviator in a far more critical fashion than would have ever occurred within the American popular cinema at the time, or surely among the country's people at large (even if the North American nation's literature had produced an even more negative current, as exemplified by the works of Sinclair Lewis). For Hollywood, it would require the events of October 1929, and a lag-time of about three years, for more cautious and detracting work, such as Frank R. Capra's American Madness, William Dieterle's The Crash and Harry Beaumont's Faithless (all 1932), to appear.

If L'Argent proves ahead of Hollywood in this respect, it remains avowedly - and to its benefit, certainly - of a moment that was quickly passing: the silent era of cinema. Continuously showcasing the camera mobility that was among the greatest filmic virtues of the age - the film's contemporary making-of documentary, Jean Dréville's Autour de l'argent (1929), reveals how L'Herbier simulated crane-shots, for example, in a period where these were all-but unheard of in the French industry: by swinging the cinematographer on a board above the action; likewise Dréville presents the very amateur means utilized to capture the revolving shots on the circular set - and which define many of its greatest works (F. W. Murnau's unparalleled Sunrise [1927], the exuberant, silent portion of Paul Fejos's transitional Lonesome [1928]). L'Herbier provides a rigorously mimetic dislocation of feeling onto the spatial environment; or, as Richard Abel has argued, L'Argent has invented "highly original strategies of camera movement and editing [that] helped to critique its wealthy characters and milieux" (The Oxford History of World Cinema 122). Among the most striking of these are its nose-dive compositions of the film's stock market floor - to secure what L'Herbier called the "ant's nest impression" of the environment - which again, as depicted in Autour de l'argent, were achieved by mooring the camera to a plunging cable.

This space, thusly, calls to mind Michelangelo Antonioni's L'eclisse (1962), just as it prefigures the nexus of sex and money that emerges as the director's primary subject. Similarly, L'Herbier's film reminds of Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game (1939), and specifically, of that film's aviator subject and upper-class critique, to say nothing of its fluid camera work. (Moreover, its enormous set work, not unlike Fritz Lang's Metropolis [1927], whose female lead, Brigitte Helm, L'Argent shares, provide an additional dimension of critique that is at once metaphorical and spectacular, as Lisa K. Broad points out; it is out-of-control and aspirational at once.) Hence, L'Argent recalls the very best of European cinema, and whether or not it deserves to be classified on the same towering level - there is something less than satisfying about its antiquated melodramatic reveal in the final act - it shares the enormity of ambition of Antonioni's and Renoir's masterpieces. Like its cousins, or perhaps even its conscious descendants, L'Argent seeks to remake film language in the image of its protagonists, while critiquing a world on the verge of breakdown.