Sunday, January 03, 2010

2009: The Year in Brief

At the highest level of the cinematic art form, 2009, for the American viewer, benefited mightily from those delays in distribution that greet most international art releases today. For this writer, the half-dozen best films of 2008 (Lucrecia Martel's The Headless Woman, Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Tokyo Sonata, Olivier Assayas's Summer Hours, Lisandro Alonso's Liverpool, Claire Denis's 35 Shots of Rum and James Gray's US co-production Two Lovers) all premiered theatrically in 2009, as did Hirokazu Kore-eda's similarly accomplished Still Walking, Christian Petzold's Jerichow and even the leading candidate for US critical favorite of the year, Kathryn Bigelow's heavily auteurist, Iraqi war action film, The Hurt Locker. (Jeremy Renner's exceptional performance carried the director's strong effort.) 2009 would have been far poorer without the relatively strong 2008.

Three of Cannes' multiple succès de scandale in 2009 did, however, obtain US distribution during the calendar year: Lars von Trier's Antichrist, Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds and Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon. Of these, von Trier's Antichrist received the chilliest US critical reception, somewhat unfairly in the opinion of this writer: however unpleasant, Antichrist did manifest a coherent, valid point-of-view, while the vastly preferred Inglourious Basterds seems to have mostly skirted critical disfavor in the US, in spite of a revisionism that put its Jewish protagonists in the highly problematic role of suicide bombers. Haneke's novelistic film can claim one of the year's most consistently rich set of visuals, mobilized frequently with a strong off-camera field where the film's sexual violence is made to occur (often with dramatic temporal distensions to amplify the effect; Haneke truly is one of the world's more skilled visual storytellers). When Haneke turns toward the psychology of the future National Socialists in their youth, however, the film diminishes somewhat.

Another candidate for film of the year, James Cameron's Avatar, boasting perhaps the richest color palette of 2009 - thanks to extraordinary luminous, neon-inflected schema - represented an unmistakable leap forward for 3D technology in its subtle construction of cubic space. Nonetheless, Avatar suffers greatly from its cynicism and especially from the contradictions inherent, for this technological summit, in its critiques of civilization, imperialism, industrialization and militarism. Avatar and its possible sequels will make the obscenely wealthy Cameron even wealthier, while preaching an Eco gospel that would deny such success to the rest of us - it really pays to be a prophet. (Also among other American films that this writer liked less than most were the Coen brothers' A Serious Man, a Job without redemption, and Pete Docter and Bob Peterson's Up.)

Rating among the better English-language films of 2009, were, for this writer, Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox (pictured), an exceedingly natural, organic and charming translation of the auteur's heavily constructed diegetic spaces into stop motion (with his resilient families and communities still conspicuously present); Jim Jarmusch's The Limits of Control, the second on a decade-bracketing, modernist double bill with Lynch's Mulholland Drive; Jane Campion's Bright Star, a return to her 1990s form, and to that decade's films of quality; Clint Eastwood's Invictus, one of the decisive expressions of the Obama moment; Judd Apatow's Funny People, for the further development of the Adam Sandler persona (one of the decade's more interesting developments); Mike Judge's Extract, a perceptive and very funny defense of the employer; Lone Scherfig's An Education, primarily for its exceptional performances; and two blockbusters of higher quality, J. J. Abrams' Star Trek and David Yates' Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

Of those films that this writer managed to see at the New York Film Festival, the finest were Corneliu Porumboiu's masterpiece Police, Adjective, Jacques Rivette's career summation Around a Small Mountain, Claire Denis's White Material (her second great film of 2009), Bong Joon-ho's Mother and Manoel de Oliveira's Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl. Films of higher quality were more rare at this year's New York Asian Film Festival, though this writer admired Pang Ho-cheung's Exodus and Yoshihiro Nakamura's Fish Story.

Lastly, there were the older films that this writer saw for the first time, which not unexpectedly for a film scholar, greatly outnumbered new releases. In lieu of citing the best here, this author has posted his sixty-five favorites over at affiliate site Ten Best Films. (Special thanks are due here to Richard Suchenski and R. Emmet Sweeney for their fine recommendations, many of which made my list of choices.) Suffice it to say that 2009 was foremost, for this writer, a year of unexpected treasures from the pre-Code and late classical eras of Hollywood - along with the year in which I became both an Eastwood and, most significantly, a Howard Hawks completist. It was for these reasons that 2009 was a very good year.

Note: Linked below are my choices for the year's best films, along with those of my colleagues from New York and New Haven. The second annual Mini-Poll of our collective choices is available on Tativille's sister site, Ten Best Films.

2009: Lisa K. Broad

1. Two Lovers (James Gray, 2008)
2. Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas, 2008)
3. Police, Adjective (Corneliu Porumboiu)
4. The Limits of Control (Jim Jarmusch)
5. Fish Story (Yoshihiro Nakamura)
6. (tie) Antichrist (Lars von Trier) & Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino)
7. Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl (Manoel de Oliveira)
8. Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson)
9. White Material (Claire Denis)
10. Bright Star (Jane Campion)

Runners-up: An Education (Lone Scherfig), The Magic Hour (Kôki Mitani, 2008), The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2008)

2009: Michael J. Anderson

1. Police, Adjective (Corneliu Porumboiu)
2. Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas, 2008)
3. Liverpool (Lisandro Alonso, 2008)
4. Around a Small Mountain (Jacques Rivette)
5. 35 Shots of Rum (Claire Denis, 2008) / White Material (Denis)
6. Two Lovers (James Gray, 2008)
7. Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson)
8. Still Walking (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2008)
9. A Week Alone (Celina Murga, 2007)
10. The Limits of Control (Jim Jarmusch)

Runners-up: Birdsong (Albert Serra, 2008), Bright Star (Jane Campion), Jerichow (Christian Petzold, 2008), Mother (Bong Joon-ho), The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke)

Note: To provide some context for my choices, I included 2009 US commercial releases The Headless Woman and Tokyo Sonata on my 2008 list (they were #1 and #2 respectively), while I have yet to see Cahiers du cinéma favorites Wild Grass and Vincere.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Bollywood on Tativille: Guide (1965)

Warning: the following post contains spoilers.

Writer-director Vijay Anand's Guide (1965), one of the year's most significant, however clandestine DVD releases (available region-free through Shemaroo), exemplifies the character and tendencies of the popular Indian cinema when operating very near to its fullest potential: Guide expertly manifests the national cinema's default musical and epic forms, its fluid interlacing of genre, and the star system upon which the industry's success relied, while depicting a subject very much grounded in the lived reality of South Asia, circa 1965. Guide likewise exudes the aesthetic possibilities of its particular moment, and in particular the luxuriant color palette then open to filmmakers, which nevertheless no director used any better than Anand in Guide and in the equally outstanding Jewel Thief (1967). Indeed, with two such notable achievements, Anand stood for a time in the mid to late 1960s - admittedly a rather short moment - among the best commercial directors working anywhere.

Narrated principally in less than a half-dozen very long flashbacks - Guide's running time exceeds 165 minutes - Anand's film centers around namesake Dev Anand's Raju as he meets and later romances the initially married Rosie/Nalini (one of not only the cinema's greatest beauties, but also one of its finest actresses, Waheeda Rehman) while the latter is on an archeological expedition with her much older husband, Marco (Kishore Sahu). Raju incites Rosie, herself the daughter of a courtesan, to pursue the morally suspect career of a dancer, radically against her husbands suggestions, which he subsequently manages to great success. In so doing, Raju thereafter repeats the sins of her now ex-husband, who in the aforementioned trip ignored his wife (even lamenting a visit after she attempted suicide).

Marco neglected his wife for his study of centuries-old Hindu statuary - many of which depict partially nude, supple female figures in contorted poses - that he found in an undiscovered cave. Anand's presentation of the sculpted figures, often cross-cut with passages featuring Rehman's Rosie, provides an historical antecedent for the picture's female subject; to put it another way, Guide does its own historical poetics, isolating the glamorous, romantic Hindi star as the modern-day inheritor to the sub-continent's stone consorts. She is as much an object of male romantic longing as the sacred-erotic objects of the Hindu religion, even though Marco, with whom she significantly is not able to have a child, greets her wearing of an ankle bracelet with scorn. Marco does this even after he caresses one of his figures, while flush with spirits, whom he has mistaken for the originator of the chiming.

Guide pairs its cognizance of traditional Hindustani culture with a more cynical engagement to the present: Raju wears a Nehru jacket (a point noted by my mother; the long-time Prime Minister concluded his term a year prior to the film's 1965 release) when seeking support for "Nalini's" (her name has been changed from the western Rosie) act; he positions her dancing as the patriotically Indian alternative to rock-and-roll; he pretends to be a swami when the villagers mistake the recently incarcerated Raju for a holy man; and is interviewed by an American woman (thus underlining the current vogue for eastern spirituality most closely identified with the Beatles) on the occasion of his very genuine hunger strike.

Nonetheless, though he initially cons the rural folk, which Anand expertly sets up with the pre-credit passage emphasizing Raju's fast-talking charisma as a tour guide, along with his adept work as Nalini's manager, he does come to practice what he previously inauthentically preached. Ultimately, he sacrifices himself for the starving people of his adopted home village in submitting to a twelve day fast, which originated from a tale his mother told him in childhood, and which brings about a miraculous, drought-ending downpour. There is substantial interest here for the theologically-inclined and curious viewer in the film's motival cleaving of the Hindu and Christian religions, among others.

The pursuant physical and emotional stress leads to hallucinatory passages where Raju's body and soul literally separate (prefiguring a motif that is narrativized in Kamal Amrohi's Pakeezah, 1972, as I have argued elsewhere), and where Anand showcases his strong Soviet influence through rhythmically edited micro-montage. Otherwise, Guide tends to favor longer takes facilitated by the director's multi-figure compositions. Anand uses these both functionally and mimetically, as in a dazzling overhead long-take of the dancing Rehman during a showstopping trans-spatial - another Bollywood signature - musical number. Yet, despite the physical disjunctures of the films' musical numbers, Anand uniformly presupposes a spectator for each of his songs, whether it is the other lover during the duets, the stage audience (and Raju) when Nalini performs and lastly an interventionist god when the villagers and Raju join together in supplication.

Moreover, it is also on stage that the film's most pronounced aesthetic virtue becomes clear: its palette. Here, whether it is through the use of luminous scrums, which Raju himself operates during an earlier solicitation of financial support, or in its depiction of brightly colored powered, as in a holi festival-like segment, Anand shows his keen sense of Pathé color's multi-chromatic potential.

Monday, December 14, 2009

New Film: Invictus

Clint Eastwood's Invictus, from an Anthony Peckham screenplay of John Carlin's Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation, does what the director's films do as a matter of routine: it reinforces a relatively discrete set of authorial concerns - sufficient in their proximity to the director's biography to earn the contested tag of personal - while uniquely embodying the zeitgeist of its making. Invictus, in this last respect, provides a seismic reading of America in at least its early 2009 production phase, that is of a nation - with a dubious racial past - fresh off its election of its first African-American president. Eastwood's film, however, while conscious of the singularity of this achievement in both nations, does not stop at the meretriciousness of Mandela's election, but rather showcases his wisdom in ruling the entire African nation of 41 million, both black and white alike. The director and screenwriter's Mandela preaches forgiveness and reconciliation, even when most of his own racial and political faction would seem to prefer justice in the form of revenge (always a subject for late Eastwood). Ultimately, the implied connection between Mandela and Barack Obama stops at their election, with the life of the former becoming for the latter proscriptive rather than a descriptive comparison. Invictus is thus, however loosely, the cinematic equivalent of the President's Nobel Prize.

That Eastwood emphasizes Mandela's (played very ably by Morgan Freeman) outreach to the defeated white minority, in his defense and advocacy of the Sprinboks rugby club (captained by Matt Damon's Francois Pienaar), a lingering symbol of apartheid-era South Africa, illustrates the former's extraordinary political aptitude, while underscoring the picture's present-day implications. That is, Invictus projects a hope in unity rather than in racial and especially factional division (which is very much in keeping with the campaign-trail Obama of the film's 2008 pre-production phase). In this way, Invictus conveys the optimism of the defeated, not a surprising tact for the libertarian-leaning former Republican mayor and John McCain supporter, even more than it does the joys of the (formerly oppressed) victors. Eastwood shows this clearly in the sudden excitement of South African sandlot soccer players upon the news of Mandela's release and in the literal periphery of the Pienaar family maid for most of the film; importantly, Eastwood stages the former scene contradistinctively, with camera movements and the director's signature cross-cutting (a strategy that obtains throughout this sports movie) serving to compare the soccer players' celebrations with the rugby teams' ruminations on the "terrorist's" release. Mandela's actions win over both the Sprinboks and their mostly white fan base, lending to the film's generally hagiographic tone.

Nevertheless, Eastwood and Peckham do suggest the leader's troubled personal life, and especially his estrangement from his daughter, which beyond providing some balance to their treatment of the former president, places Invictus within the thematic current of the director's more recent corpus, following on the similarly themed True Crime (1999) and Million Dollar Baby (2004). Likewise, Eastwood's concluding underlining of Mandela's age and declining health rhymes with the director's previous Gran Torino (2008), with which it also shares its racial emphasis. Still, as accomplished as Freeman's performance is in Invictus, Eastwood's latest suffers in comparison to Gran Torino by virtue of Eastwood's scene-chewing absence in front of the camera, which enlivened the 2008 release. Analogies of quality aside, Invictus proves to be the biopic, Eastwood-less Bird (1988) follow-up to Gran Torino's supremely entertaining Heartbreak Ridge (1986).

Invictus likewise shares Gran Torino's overly-exaggerated symbolic and thematic exposition, the 2008 picture's greatest deficiency, which in the former film most egregiously manifests itself in Eastwood's concluding Christ-pose. In Invictus, the picture's use of cloyingly obvious pop songs and an extended, heavily cliched penultimate slow-motion passage (made necessary in part because of his decision to cut between the action on the rugby pitch and the reactions off) rate as unmistakable lows. In other words, Eastwood's conventionality, one of the great late classicist's biggest strengths, becomes a weakness. Nonetheless, the strengths of Invictus certainly outweigh its flaws, from Eastwood's perpetually skilled direction of actors and his classical storytelling (save for the aforementioned, unnecessary accents) to again, its clear expression of 2008-2009 American public thought. (In this latter respect, Invictus succeeds in besting the less historically precise Gran Torino.) With Invictus, Eastwood has made yet another cogent entry into his most American of contemporary canons, in spite of its non-American subject, providing a film that is neither among the best nor the worst of his pictures - not unlike a late, artistically minor if thematically significant John Ford such as The Last Hurrah (1958); Eastwood's official stature makes him the modern day equivalent to the master, as does his robust sense of his country of birth - but one that is nonetheless fully his.

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.