Tuesday, August 12, 2014

It's Over

Maurice Pialat was 43 when he made L'Enfance Nue, his first feature film, and was comfortably into middle age when he made his second, We Won't Grow Old Together. This latter film, which Kino Lorber is releasing on DVD and Blu-ray today, is plainly not the work of a young man. It's the story of a diseased love affair between a man in his 40s named Jean (Jean Yanne) and a woman in her 20s named Catherine (Marlene Jobert) that struggles and collapses and rebuilds itself again and again, over the course of six years.  It's one of the most profoundly uncomfortable viewing experiences I've had in some time, and it left me uncertain what to think. There's unmistakable evidence of artistic success in that reaction, but no comfort.
The film opens with the couple in bed, Jean barely awake while Catherine wonders idly, though not insignificantly, about their past together, and their present. It moves on to their morning, and removed from the ambiguity of that opening scene you can see their ease together, and their humor as Jean asks if Catherine wants bread and butter while she dries her hair. A few scenes later, Catherine is helping Jean in his work -- he makes documentary films, and while shooting on a busy street, he with the camera, she working the sound, he berates her for failing to keep up, finally sending her away. He breaks up with her, in fact, sends her to the train station. But she doesn't board and he comes to get her. They smile wryly at each other, and the fight is in the past. The next time Jean bullies her, they're in his car, and it's sudden: he wonders when she'll get a job, then asks if she'll get another office job, then asks why she won't aim higher, then calls her useless, stupid, ugly. She sits and listens, and the look on Jobert's face is heart-stopping. Every word is a slap but her face and posture show that she's terrified that soon the slaps will become real if she protests, or fires back.
They break up again, for a little while. 
When they get back together, there are physical slaps, and in fact before this there was reason to believe Jean had already been hitting Catherine. But now we see it, and there's one terrifying moment of violence that could at any point cross over into rape. In truth, there's no denying that Jean had been hitting her before we actually see it. Her face in the car almost proves it. I won't make too much of this, or get into it too deeply, but my previous job occasionally involved me being trained in matters of domestic violence prevention and aftermath (for the record, my involvement in this arena was very far from extensive), and in one of those training sessions we saw video that a husband had told one of his sons take of him, the husband, verbally abusing his wife, the boy's mother. The physical abuse in this case (recorded, but not part of what I saw) was extreme, and in the video of the verbal abuse, the woman's face is very much like Catherine's in the car: weathering the storm, hoping it will pass without becoming physical, blank-faced but terror-stricken, silent, motionless.*
For the first half of We Won't Grow Old Together, this is essentially the relationship we see.  A point is reached when Catherine becomes more firm, and Jean begins to regret his behavior. "As they always do," you might say, and, yes, indeed, though to the degree that it matters sometimes that regret makes a difference.  In the essay about the film included in with the Kino disc, Nick Pinkerton makes it clear that this was a very autobiographical film for Pialat, and that he'd once had a similarly tempestuous relationship with a younger woman. It matches up in obvious ways, too: Pialat started out making documentaries, like Jean, and Jean's age would have matched Pialat's a few years before he broke into features.
It's not my place, and I'm in no way qualified, to look at this film and use it to condemn Pialat, and I'm not going to do that, but I often see We Won't Grow Old Together as a "breakup" movie, or a "relationship" movie, when it's quite clear to me that it's a film about abuse. It's just that it's one where the abuse reaches a point beyond which the abuser won't allow himself to go. Usually in films, the abuse goes all the way, while this form, which remains inexcusable, must be more common. In any case, Pialat is not excusing himself. I don't know how exactly Jean's behavior reproduces Pialat's own, but Pialat, Pinkerton notes, claimed this film was quite factual. And I think the film hates Jean. I won't stretch that to mean Pialat hated himself, but there's a palpable reaction of pure disgust to some of the things Jean does in this film. Jean Yanne, like Marlene Probert, is exceptionally good in this, which means, by my reckoning, he, the other Jean, the film Jean, is exceptionally hateful.
When the film begins to soften up, and Jean, the film Jean, begins to change, my impulse is to pull back from the film and say "Well fuck you all the same." But Pialat isn't saying "You see, he's not so terrible after all." To the degree he's saying anything, he's saying "This is what happened." That's the sort of film that an audience really has to deal with. They won't grow old together, and thank Christ.
*For the record, the case to which I'm referring ended well: the wife tricked her husband (I can't quite remember the details) into incriminating himself, and walking into the arms of the police. With so much abuse caught on camera, there was no case for the defense, and this particular piece of shit was given something like thirty years in prison, which is currently the stiffest sentence ever given in a domestic violence case.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Cronenberg Series Part 13: Under the Fountains and Under the Graves

[Spoilers for both eXistenZ and Spider are contained herein]

The turn of the century, or right around there, can now be looked back upon as a pretty significant turning point in David Cronenberg's career. This change began in the late 1980s, really, when his body horror films began to merge with a more overtly literary, for lack of a better word, and which I use here both literally and figuratively, sensibility. This sensibility had always been present, but Cronenberg's fierce intellectualism, pairing off with an almost supernatural ease with classic genre structures as it does, stopped being subtext by the time of Dead Ringers in 1988, and by Naked Lunch in 1991 his grotesque images were lifted out of genre and placed in the arthouse. Though there wasn't in fact much difference for anyone paying attention, spending most of the 1990s adapting William S. Burroughs, David Henry Hwang, and J. G. Ballard had changed the way Cronenberg was perceived. He'd officially become "interesting." Never before had he made a film as extreme as Crash in 1996, but while it faced with protests and calls for censorship, it also put him in competition at Cannes for the first time in his career.

If the above sounds cynical, I don't mean it to be, at least the cynicism is not directed at Cronenberg. The artistic impulse that led to The Brood was no less pure than the one that led him to make Naked Lunch, but, in ways outside of his control, having a literary base seems to have helped his career. All if which makes Cronenberg's 1999 film eXistenZ, whatever its links to his famous early work, feel almost like an anomaly, somehow out of character. In an interview with Serge Grunberg, later collected as part of David Cronenberg: Interviews with Serge Grunberg, Cronenberg talked about his relationship with his films earlier films:

...With my new movie, eXistenZ, people say it reminds them somewhat of Videodrome. I can see that in a superficial way. I'm wondering though, I think I'm not the same person who made those movies, and when I watch the movies that I've made it's shocking really. I mean it's shocking because it's not a question of not remembering what I did...but I'm surprised at what I've done. It seems alien to me. I find it very difficult. Almost impossible to watch my old movies. I never do. I've recently had to do the commentary on laser disc, and now DVD versions of the film...And even Crash, watching it a year later and talking about it, it's almost as though I'm talking about somebody else's movie. It's very strange. So I do feel that distance, it's increasing rapidly as I get older.

The first thing to say about eXistenZ, it seems to me, and this is a key point, is that to date it is the last original script written by David Cronenberg to make it to the screen.  A little while later it was announced that Painkillers, another original script, would be filmed, but that never happened, and I remember some time in the mid 2000s, when asked about the status on Painkillers, Cronenberg said it wasn't happening, and that he was no longer interested in doing it anyway.  This is the sort of accumulation of ambivalence that generally indicates that the film in question -- in this case eXistenZ -- is no good, or a somewhat tedious final trip to the well. However, eXistenZ is a strong shot of the old Cronenberg, the genre Cronenberg, a return in some ways to Videodrome, as mentioned, while also being the first part of a two-film mucking-around with twist ending and the nature of reality, a structure and theme that were hugely popular in mainstream filmmaking at the time. However the other film, 2002's Spider, based on Patrick McGrath's novel and with a script by McGrath, feels more at one with the stately perversion Crash and Dead Ringers, but a pulling away from the grotesque, even cutting disturbing images from the novel that McGrath had included in the script with the full confidence that Cronenberg was the man to bring them off. But he didn't do them at all. Everything was changing. So you see these two films match up quite well, and I'm not just being lazy.

eXistenZ does something that you wouldn't quite expect from Cronenberg, which is to address something very specifically of the time -- that's not to say his other films are apart from the era in which they were made, in fact he's always been very rooted in the present, but just that typically his concerns are so big in scope that you can't look at, say, The Fly and peg it thematically as a product of the mid-80s (I have no doubt people will disagree with me on this one, but anyhow).  The one film before eXistenZ that you might call "timely" is Videodrome, the first of many similarities.  That film dealt with video (to simplify it just a tiny bit), and eXistenZ deals with, in a very Cronenbergian way, video games, those things, and virtual reality and such, being a pretty hot ticket in the 90s.  But this is Cronenberg, so of course the game controllers are fleshy, knobbly things that have umbilical cords instead of wire and which plug into the human player's spine through what is called a "bioport" and which looks like an anus. No big deal. The bioports are punched into a person's spine like a cattle gun into a cow's forehead -- in an intriguing bit of thrown away information, we learn that bioports need to be registered with the government -- and we're told it's as common and easy as getting your ear pierced. Nevertheless, the procedure make Ted Pikul (Jude Law) squeamish and hasn't had it done, despite the fact that as the film begins he is working as security for the famous, and famously mysterious game designer Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) during a presentation -- weirdly in what appears to be a country church; in fact in some respects the presentation resembles and AA meeting -- of her new game called "eXistenZ" (the spelling and capitalization are stressed by the presenter played by Christopher Eccleston), to be put out by the game company Antenna Research. The presentation involves bringing several volunteers out of the audience who will plug into the game and play it with Allegra for the first time. After everyone is plugged in, another man from the audience steps forward, shouts "Death to the demoness Allegra Geller! Death to Antenna Research!" (pretty hard to miss the connection to "Death to Videodrome! Long live the New Flesh!") and opens fire, with a very strange-looking gun, killing the presenter and wounding Geller, before being killed himself by her bodyguards.

The injured Geller is hustled out of there by Pikul because it appears that this may not have just been a case of a lone gunman, but rather they may (or may not) be caught up in some kind of anti-gaming terrorist attack. They hit the country roads at night, get a motel room, and because Geller has this new game of hers loaded into her game controller, which she treats and cares for as if it was a living thing which it kind of is, or actually is, and part of taking care of it is to play it, she needs Pikul to get a bioport. I'll skip ahead -- he does, but the black market bioport is intentionally compromised by the terrorist plot, which draws into the drama the very Cronenbergianly named Kiri Vinokur (Ian Holm), a kind of mob doctor for game controllers. His allegiance will be questioned, and the health of Geller's controller is a constant concern. For her, anyway.

But anyway. So. Enough of this plot shit...which is a sentiment not entirely irrelevant to eXistenZ. Of course Pikul and Geller do begin playing the game, and to Pikul it's a marvel: so like the real world that eventually the question of eXistenZ (which, I mean...) becomes what is real and what is the game.  By the end of the film the divide is still unclear -- also unclear who is the terrorist and who is the terrorized -- and virtual reality videogames seem to have just come in for a right skewering. But back to my point: the plot of "eXistenZ" (this being sort of distinct from eXistenZ, you understand) is very complicated and full of double crosses, and is not treated very seriously, except to the extent that it, and its dangers, bleed over into reality (or "reality," but, I mean, you get that by now), and Pikul and Geller react to a lot of it as most people would react to any game that called for role-playing, that is to say, with a kind of self-conscious enthusiasm. And so much of eXistenZ plays like an almost romantic light thriller. It's sort of like North by Northwest, and if in that film Hitchcock used a train entering a tunnel as a visual wink towards wedding night copulation, Cronenberg uses the insertion of a kind of living, fleshy plug into a bioport in one's spine as a wink towards I think in this case anal sex. With Jennifer Jason Leigh performing anal sex upon Jude Law. Anyhow, I'm being diverted again.

So eXistenZ is ostensibly about virtual reality video games, but the points made within it, about the addictive quality of fantasy, and the formal aspects of artistically constructed fantasy, have more to do, particularly in 1999, with film than with video games.  Or at least Cronenberg recognized that, as one would have then extrapolated on the idea of virtual reality games as a science fiction concept, all or anyway many of the things one might wind up thinking about were already present in cinema.  So when Geller regrets that a video game character she and Pikul have just interacted with spouts boring dialogue and is not especially well-formed, these seem less like something that a late-90s game designer would be especially worried about, but a commercial filmmaker would be. The groundwork was being laid, but of course much of the evolution process of video games has been to mimic films as much as possible (I understand there are exceptions, but I'd say this is still pretty much true). To really immerse a player in a game is to make that game more like a film. And at one point in eXistenZ, Pikul, who is being swept along in the game, and is rolling with it all as well as he can, is briefly jarred by the fact that one moment he's making love to Geller in a stockroom (Cronenberg is quite capable of including metaphors for a thing and the thing itself in one film, even one scene), and the next instant he's in a kind of fish-gutting factory. Yes, these kinds of transitions existed in video games, but what Pikul is reacting to is a cut, and what he's very specifically reacting to is Cronenberg's cut, his cinematic cut -- the editing of Ronald Sanders on the David Cronenberg film eXistenZ.

Cronenberg at this point in his career and his life is perhaps a bit tired with what he'd been doing, or rather, what he was known for, and while his work after eXistenZ is actually more classical in many ways than his earlier films, in eXistenZ he's almost mocking classic filmmaking. Or sending it up, maybe. As suggested earlier, this film now plays to me as almost a straight comedy, and though it's a pretty gory one it's also not actually mean.  That is to say, he's not trying to plunge a knife in the heart of movies, but you can't send up the conventions, or possible future conventions, of virtual reality without acknowledging that movies are susceptible to the same dings.  If video games can be addictive, as the AA atmosphere of the bookending presentation scenes imply, as a substitute for reality, if you can lose yourself within the life you pretend to be living as you play, and if you're starting to feel actual heart-beating emotions connected to these unreal events and people (and the terrorist motives in the film, and the plot of the game, revolve around this danger), then what counts as real and what doesn't becomes a question rather than a statement. And if you can be lost in the fantasy of video games, why not the more proven comfort and potentially (depending) passive fantasy of film?

While Cronenberg downplays the similarities between eXistenZ and Videodrome they're less superficial than he claims. In the case of the earlier film, see video and cable television for video games (within the context of the individual films these ideas themselves become very superficial, I'll grant you, and Cronenberg). Unlike Videodrome, though, eXistenZ almost feels conventional, at least in 1999, and now. It wouldn't have been had he made it back when he made Videodrome, but the narrative structure, and the hazy reality and twisty nature of the plot in 1999 becomes part of the game, and part of the joke. Though the "what exactly going on/" punchline here does have a chill to it.

eXistenZ is often mentioned in relation to other science fiction films of the era that question the nature of reality, such as Alex Proyas's Dark City and the Wachowskis' The Matrix, but you could also connect it to the flood of "twist ending" films that soaked the era. The nature of twists such as the one that made M. Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense so famous is that it forces the audience to question what they've already seen, or the "reality" of the film. It's only later in eXistenZ that the audience questions the fact that the bizarre meat gun Jude Law assembles in the Chinese restaurant late in the film was the same gun, or same kind of gun, used by the terrorist in the film's opening scene. This realization makes you wonder if anything was real. The film doesn't have a twist, as such, but the whole premise almost functions in the same way. And traditionally that's how Cronenberg achieved this effect, not by pulling the rug out from under the viewer but by never giving them a rug in the first place. But in 2002 he did make his version of the twist ending thriller with an adaptation of Patrick McGrath's Spider.

Spider has a twist ending, but it also forces the audience to question their surroundings almost right from the beginning, because it's told from the point of view of a schizophrenic named Dennis Cleg, nicknamed Spider (Ralph Fiennes) who as the film begins has just been released from a mental asylum.  We first see him getting off a train, and the time is clearly modern day, the other passengers wearing contemporary clothes and so on, but that's the last time Spider will feel contemporary because the boarding house to which Spider has been referred, a boarding house run by the stern Mrs. Wilkinson (Lynne Redgrave), is basically our only present day setting, the rest of the film involving flashbacks to Spider's childhood, and Mrs. Wilkinson pretty clearly doesn't have much interest in keeping the place up to date, her clientele consisting entirely of men like Spider as it does. So that's our first bit of wonkiness: when are we? Even though we know, everything feels off. It's both 2002 and the early 1960s at the absolute latest.

The question otherwise becomes, what happened to Spider to make him this way? Or what did he do? Spider is who we follow, but he's a shambling, mumbling, wreck of a human. It's not that he's inarticulate, it's that the viewer can't tell if he is or not. McGrath's novel is written in the first person, and Spider is quite articulate indeed. The novel begins:

I've always found it odd that I can recall incidents from my boyhood with clarity and precision, and yet events that happened yesterday are blurred, and I have no confidence in my ability to remember them accurately at all.

Which sets things up nicely, but anyhow, that's not the Spider of the film. Or maybe it is, in his head, but Fiennes plays him as a man who is constantly talking to himself but specific words can only be understood very sporadically. His fingers are perpetually tobacco-stained, his hair is stuck in a kind of Samuel Beckett-like dishevelment, he's hunched, he acts fearful of other people, and he's always scribbling in his...journal? It's a notebook of some sort, and what he's writing isn't English. Is it an intentional code? Or is it what Spider has come to believe is language? In any case, we're not getting any information from him, and as such Fiennes' performance is something of a tour de force, a silent film performance if silent film actors were instructed to be as still as possible. What we learn about his past, and why he ended up in a mental institution, comes from his flashbacks.  Spider, by which I mean Fiennes, is present in these flashbacks (shades of Johnny Smith being present in his visions in The Dead Zone), as he follows his younger self (Bradley Hall) home where he lives in fear of his love for his mother (Miranda Richardson) and resentful of his father (Gabriel Byrne), who he views as a drunk philanderer, and finally murderer of his mother. When she's dead, Spider's father brings in Yvonne (Richardson again), the kind of woman who would once have been called a slattern.  Boozy, coarse, generally inappropriate, she's reminiscent of a woman young Spider saw when, in the time before his mother's death, he went to retrieve his father from the local pub. This blonde woman -- blonde and coarse and Cockney in the way Yvonne is -- flashed the boy, frightening him and unhooking something in his pending, or occurring, puberty, as well, possibly, in the madness that is, let's not forget, a problem of biochemistry, not simply a matter of seeing the wrong thing at the wrong time.

So, again, enough of this plot shit. When Miranda Richardson shows up twice, once as Spider's pure angel of a mother and twice as, and let's not put too fine a point on this, her whorish replacement (and accomplice in her murder, by the way), Spider's madness begins to take shape, and the extent to which we can trust his memory becomes a matter for debate.  Gabriel Byrne told Cronenberg that the role of Bill Cleg was the hardest one he'd ever had to play, because in every scene he had to play Bill in a way that kept a baseline of the individual character while adding different distortions, or reality as the case may be, based on the facts, or "facts" (as the case may be), Cronenberg wanted to communicate. Meanwhile Miranda Richardson -- who Cronenberg seems to have cast because he's always wanted to see her really cut loose, and boy does she (this is a compliment) -- has to play Mrs. Cleg, Yvonne, and eventually, as Spider's past begins to take over his present, Mrs. Wilkinson, and finally Yvonne as Mrs. Wilkinson. And is Yvonne even a person?

This is the key. Spider has been driven mad, or hastened to madness, by the murder, with a shovel, of his mother by his father, because his drunken father wanted Yvonne. But Yvonne is just "Yvonne," the nameless woman who flashed him, and whose sexuality he associates with his mother -- perhaps because she's the only woman he knows? -- and the shame of the accompanying arousal forces him to imagine her dead, and the busty Yvonne to storm through, both satisfying his lust, in the sense that he can ogle her without guilt, and inciting his rage because she's taken the place of his sainted mother. But she's his mother, his father didn't kill his mother (when Bill Cleg is off fornicating with "Yvonne," does the audience at that point question how Spider could be privy to these scenes?), his father is evidently as good a man as his mother was a good woman, so that when Spider exacts his revenge, it's not Yvonne he kills. But in the end, his mother has been murdered.

That's our twist, that's how Cronenberg, and McGrath of course, has upended everything, and forced the audience to rewind the film in their brains.  The difference here is that Spider is finally a mix -- not consciously, but still -- of the relentless irreality of eXistenZ and the twist structure of The Sixth Sense, so that if while watching Spider you don't know what the ending will be, you do know that what you're being told can't be right. This may be why the twist doesn't infuriate the way some twists can, when your investment in what you've seen is blown apart for the love of a gimmick, because you're unable to invest in the plot because you don't quite know what the plot is. But it's possible to be invested in Spider, and in fact I'd argue that Spider is Cronenberg's most emotionally powerful film since The Fly. To make another comparison, Spider is closer to Scorsese's Shutter Island, a tremendously good film I happened to rewatch recently, than other twist films because in both cases the twist renders what has come before, in relation to the respective protagonists, not irrelevant, which is the danger, but actually sadder.  The fact that Spider isn't a victim doesn't make him hateful -- it means he has no hope.

As I said before, McGrath's novel has Cronenbergian grotesque imagery -- a bleeding potato, a tiny dead fetus in a bottle of milk -- that Cronenberg skipped over. With eXistenZ behind him, which is wild to the point of satire, with its tooth-shooting meat guns and living-flesh game controllers that buttfuck your spine, it's not impossible to understand that Cronenberg recognized that something was now past. It's also telling, if I may briefly jump ahead, that he cut a dream sequence from his next film that involved a man taking a gun out of his own chest wound because Cronenbreg realized he was repeating himself (it's also telling that for Cronenberg, that is repeating himself).  Though the next phase of his career doesn't involve any narrative experimentation, this one-two shot of eXistenZ and Spider, films that traffic in story conventions of their very specific time, seems to have cleansed him of a certain self-consciousness that may have been creeping in, the kind of self-consciousness that hits a person when they've decided it's time to move on, but they haven't done it yet, because they have this one last thing to do.

Monday, August 4, 2014

A Trysting House for Noisy Couples


James Kennaway was the author of seven novels, but only five were published during his short lifetime.  The first of those, Tunes of Glory, is perhaps his most famous, and even in that case the fame now reflects more on the Ronald Neame film version, starring Alec Guinness.  One of his posthumous novels has maybe the greatest title ever given to a story about someone discovering that their bad habits have drastically shortened their life -- it's called The Cost of Living Like This.  In that book (which I haven't read, but will, and soon) the lead character is dying of lung cancer at the age of 38, and one might pair this with one's knowledge that Kennaway himself died at 40 and think "Ah, I see," but no, Kennaway died when he suffered a heart attack while driving.  This was forty-five years ago now.  Since then, people will occasionally watch one of the films Kennaway wrote, such as The Battle of Britain and The Shoes of the Fisherman, as well as Tunes of Glory, the screenplay for which he was responsible for.  The novel Tunes of Glory has sporadically regained some kind of grip on a life in print (the most recent edition I've been able to find naturally has a picture of Alec Guinness from the film on the cover), while his other novels, which also include Some Gorgeous Accident, a fictionalized account of the affair Kennaway's wife had with John Le Carré, have mostly slid from view.

Until now, or until recently.  Valancourt Books, a terrific publisher that focuses on forgotten or neglected literary, horror, Gothic, and gay fiction.  Last month, Valancourt put out a new edition of The Cost of Living Like This, and tomorrow they'll reprint Kennaway's 1963 novel The Mind BendersThe Mind Benders was also adapted into a film, again with a screenplay by Kennaway, this time directed by Basil Dearden, and starring Dirk Bogarde.  And listen, I'll have to cop to this eventually, my experience of Kennaway, apart from a distant viewing of The Battle of Britain, is confined to a recent reading of this very book, which is to say, The Mind Benders. But as often happens when the judgment of history has been found wanting, and a writer like Kennaway is rescued from the void, my reaction, even to an imperfect book like The Mind Benders, is one of excitement, as though Kennaway was a talented newcomer, not someone whose entire life's work has already been produced, and whose death occurred almost fifty years ago.

The novel begins by introducing the reader to Major Hall, an officer in British Intelligence, nicknamed "Ramrod" because of his very narrow and rigid approach to his work.  Kennaway's first sentence tells us that Ramrod is "hardly as exciting as his celebrated colleague...James Bond," which when reflected upon once you're deeper into the book is a knock on both Ramrod Hall and James Bond.  Bond is a ridiculous fiction whereas Ramrod, Kennaway argues with that very precise type of sardonicism perfected by mid-century English writers, is what such men are really like. I'm always skeptical when such an argument is made in a work of fiction, but that doesn't mean Kennaway's way of going about it isn't delightful.  Later in the novel, after Ramrod has watched a strange film that is central to the novel's plot and Ramrod's own investigation, Kennaway writes:

The film puzzled more than impressed him, which was not perhaps too surprising, as the only thing that really impressed him were pantomimes on ice and actors flying in Peter Pan.  'Damn clever,' he'd say of them, or sometimes, 'Damnably clever.'

To clarify things, Ramrod is investigating a Nobel Prize-winning scientist named Sharpey, whose Communist past and current strange behavior have put him under suspicion of espionage.  When Sharpey leaps to his death from a moving train -- as his naïve young colleague Jack Tate watches in horror -- Ramrod is led to investigate Sharpey's actual work, which has to do with sensory deprivation.  At the college where Sharpey and Tate work is a lab where Sharpey and another colleague, an American expatriate named Longman, have built a tank and suit and overall environment that allows them to reproduce the basic conditions suffered by a French scientist named Bonvoubois, who was found stumbling frightened and half-mad from a natural, Arctic form of sensory deprivation. It's not the cold that affected him, and, subsequently, student volunteers, so strongly, Sharpey and Longman realized.  The film Ramrod watches, with Tate and Norman, Sharpey and Longman's lab assistant, shows the two scientists, one dead and one not yet met by Ramrod (or the reader), explaining themselves:

'It hadn't anything to do with low temperature,' [Sharpey explains on the film]... 'Bonvoubois and our student guinea pigs had been affected not by the cold but by their prolonged isolation. One week later we changed the name of the laboratory outside our main building to "Isolation".'

With Tate not being smart enough and Norman merely being an assistant, that leaves Ramrod with Longman.  Longman, it turns out, is the protagonist of The Mind Benders, though he doesn't appear in person, as it were, until page 42 if this 145-page novel.  Longman is married to Oonagh, whom Jack Tate is in love with, and he, Longman, has been missing from the lab for several weeks. Sharpey died, Kennaway tells us, and Longman fled. When he goes to Longman's home to question him, Ramrod (and Tate, who, to put it bluntly, finds excuses to come sniffing around) finds a calm man who is deeply in love with his wife, with a kind of weary, or even melancholy, uxoriousness, and this love is reciprocated.  But when he learns of Sharpey's death, and of Ramrod's suspicions that Sharpey was a spy, Longman returns to the lab, against Oonagh's protests.  Up to now, Sharpey had entered the isolation tank.  It was Sharpey who jeopardized his sanity.  Now, to find out what prolonged stays in the sensory deprivation tank can do to a man, and may have done to Sharpey, Longman takes the place of his dead friend.

Copyright Hamish Campbell/TSPL/Writer Pictures
So what is Kennaway going after here?  Not what you'd expect, I suspect.  Coming to The Mind Benders at this late date, it's hard to not think of Ken Russell and Paddy Chayefsky's Altered States, and I did wonder going in if the similarities would be strong enough to cause me to cast a sideways glance at that later film from here on.  But outside of sensory deprivation as a launching pad, the two stories have almost nothing in common, other than that the tank does cause characters in each to regress to a more primitive form, or mindset.  It's what this is all in aid of in The Mind Benders that sets it apart.
When we first meet Longman and Oonagh, and learn of the virginal Tate's love for her, it seemed to me that this was merely another example of mature domestic matters standing alongside, or perhaps even overshadowing, the genre plot that you thought was going to be the thrust of the thing -- this isn't uncommon in English fiction from this general era.  You can find this kind of domestic drama sharing center stage in horror novels as diverse as Simon Raven's Doctors Wear Scarlet and Kingsley Amis's The Green Man. In The Mind Benders, however, it's not a matter of one thing sharing center stage with the other as it is the domestic drama actually being the center stage on which the genre material performs. Or vice versa. I haven't figured out which it is.

Anyhow, while Sharpey's story is resolved, it's what the isolation tank does to Longman, and by extension Oonagh, that is the reason the book exists at all.  Suffice it to say, what it does to Longman is unpleasant, but while Kennaway himself makes the Jekyll and Hyde comparison he does so only in passing.  Even though at times for the reader it will remain to be seen how badly Longman's personality has been twisted, in other words, how far, how evil, he will become, what's unsettling about The Mind Benders are the moments of almost homey cruelty, the kind of casually nasty remark by Longman about Oonagh, and heard by third parties, to whom these comments are often addressed, that may remind the reader of actual domestic nastiness they may have witnessed, or experienced.

So the idea of "sensory deprivation" becomes a rather clean metaphor for what it takes, psychologically as well as in relation to actual senses, for a man to not ruin what he has. A man specifically -- I don't know when Kennaway's wife cheated on him with John Le Carré, but it would be interesting to know how it coincides with The Mind Benders.  Was the novel a somewhat disguised attempt to address that part of his life, or is it merely a coincidence?  Or a foretelling?  The novel's end is not its strongest bit.  Too much of the dialogue comes pretty close to being of the "These are our themes" variety (there's also symbolism involving a dog that is at once obvious, silly, but somehow successful, possibly because Kennaway kind of throws it away), and things conclude too neatly. I wonder if Kennaway wasn't sure if he should really go for it.  As a matter of fact, as Paul Gallagher writes in the introduction to the Valancourt Books edition, The Mind Benders was written specifically as a companion to the Basil Dearden film -- in effect Kennaway novelized his own original script, as Elmore Leonard did with Mr. Majestyk and Budd Schulberg did with Waterfront. If he was unable to go beyond a certain point with the film, perhaps a need to remain faithful to the screen version forced him to go easy in the novel as well.  I don't know.  But even if the novel The Mind Benders peters out a little bit at the end, the rest of it remains an unusual and gripping genre novel, not about spies or violence, but about marriage. Which I think we can agree is an unlikely thing for a genre novel to be about.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

We'll Go to the Snack Bar Together, or Absence is a Funny Thing

You should know going in that prior to a few days ago I'd never seen a single Jacques Demy film.  This means that among the many other things it is, or can be, the new The Essential Jacques Demy set from Criterion is an education.  Bringing together six of his films, including his earliest features, as well as his best known work, the set is not unlike Criterion's line of Eclipse sets in that it takes a bunch of films by a single director (or united by a theme, as is sometimes the case with Eclipse) and throws them at you so you can sort it all out.  Which is as it should be.  And just for the hell of it (actually there's a practical reason, but never mind) I'm going to write these up as I watch them.  So let's start.

Lola - This 1961 film, Demy's debut feature, is dedicated to Max Ophuls, and apart from the obvious nod in the title to Lola Montes, the influence can be found in Lola's structure.  In the way Demy sets several different stories, and pairings of characters, spinning off of a single theme, he recalls Ophuls's La Ronde and that film's series of love affairs.  Lola doesn't have an Anton Walbrook to help link things together, but it does have Michel, the man from whom everything else in the story grows.

Anouk Aimee plays the title character, a dancer in a small seaside French town.  Lola is her stage name, her real name is Cecile, and it was as Cecile that she met and fell in love with Michel.  When she got pregnant, Michel disappeared -- seven years ago, as Demy's film opens.  As Cecile, Lola also knew Roland Cassard (Marc Michel), a somewhat melancholy young man who loses his job soon after we meet him, but who thinks happiness is within his grasp when he and Lola, who he has always loved, cross paths again.  There are complications, several, one in the form of an American sailor named Frankie (Alan Scott, an American actor who nevertheless seems to have been dubbed by someone else, someone who doesn't sound like they're from the same part of Chicago that Frankie's from). Lola is sleeping with Frankie, at least until he ships off, though neither regards the relationship as terribly serious.  In addition there's another Cecile, a young girl (Annie Duperoux) who will meet both Roland and Frankie, and will become smitten by Frankie, who, Lola assures Roland at one point, she slept with only because, nice guy though he is, he reminds her of Michel.

So.  Without being soppy about anything, Lola hopes to depict the intensity and lasting power of a person's first love.  Michel was Lola/Cecile's, Cecile/Lola was Roland's, and Frankie is Cecile's.  This is intended to be seen as a shared experience, and so connected are the characters by the rhyming names, and the rhyming back to Ophuls, and so forth that I wonder if the character was named Michel after Demy cast Marc Michel as Roland.  It sounds so complicated as I lay it out, but the film, sad though it sometimes is, is light as a feather, easy and charming, very much the "musical without music" that Demy said was the whole idea.  For a film that ends with its protagonist walking off alone, and indeed it's a film where very few of the characters in love find themselves with the ones they love (and even the one that does, you kind of have to question what the future holds), there is a surprising absence of darkness in tone, and not a scrap of bitterness.  The key, actually, is Annie Duperoux as the young girl Cecile, whose innocent day at the fair with Frankie (he's not being a creep, I promise) is the film's centerpiece and emotional core.  Things don't always work out, and in her case can't possibly, but what a day.

Bay of Angels - Well shit.  I hope we haven't hit our peak just two movies in.  In 1963, with only his second feature, Jacques Demy made one of the all-time great films about gambling and gamblers, as far as I'm concerned eclipsing even what is widely considered the best film of this type, Robert Altman's California Split (in fairness, one thing Bay of Angels did for me is give me a very strong urge to revisit that later picture).

Bay of Angels stars Claude Mann as Jean Fournier, a bank clerk in Paris whose curiosity over the new car his similarly low-paid colleague Caron (Paul Guers) leads him, at Caron's urging, into the world of gambling and casinos.  Jean is bemused by the spikes and drops of Caron's fortunes, as well as by his life of deception (Caron hides as much of this as he can from his wife), but a little good luck and Jean is hooked.  As he strikes out on his own, he meets Jackie (Jeanne Moreau), a professional gambler, but not in the sense that she wins a lot, but rather in the sense that this is all she does and thinks about.

Demy follows this couple through dozens of bad times and I think maybe two good ones, and it's absolutely mesmerizing.  The relationship between Jean and Jackie does become physical, and while this is not incidental it's not central to what riveted me about Bay of Angels.  The film is comprised almost entirely of gambling without being any sort of gambling procedural -- the two of them play roulette, and their brief conversations about which number and color to bet are almost nonsensical because their choices don't have the kind of logic behind them that they, particularly Jackie, think they do. Early on, when a bet goes wrong she mutters "I don't get it." It's almost funny, and occasionally there's no "almost" about it, but the performances by Moreau and Mann are so on-point that it never feels as if Demy is sending them up, but simply depicting them as accurately as he, and the actors, can imagine and execute.

I really can't overstate how superb Moreau and Mann are.  Jackie often bets standing at the table, calling out her bet and throwing her chips on the table, then turning her back so she's not facing anyone when she learns that she's lost again.  Moreau's face somehow registers the disappointment and frustration without ever quite playing it.  Another time, shortly after Jackie and Jean have first met but after they've decided to go it together, they're both changing their cash into chips.  She goes first and stands waiting while he does it, and at one point she gives him this look, with a little grin, that reveals how happy she is, even a little relieved, to have a gambling buddy, much as a drunk might be delighted to find someone new to drink with.  And again, watching them try to be logical together...she asks Jean what he bet, he says two, and black, and she nods as if to say "That makes sense."

Nothing is ever hammered on by either actor.  In fact, Claude Mann's performance made me think about Joaquin Phoenix's performance in The Immigrant, which I saw recently.  Phoenix is an uncannily good actor, and he's very good in The Immigrant, but it occurred to me at one point that very little of what he was doing could be described as either naturalistic or stylized.  This doesn't reflect poorly on Phoenix, as far as I'm concerned (though good as he is I wouldn't consider his performance in The Immigrant to be him at the top of his game), but it does say something about modern film acting.  If Mann gave the performance he gives in Bay of Angels today, many would complain that he's "wooden" (those people needing to say something when they can't call an actor "ham-fisted") because he signals nothing, makes a show of nothing.  The character, Jean, has a habit of responding with mild sarcasm when someone speaks harshly to him ("That's stupid." "Merci.") and Mann nails this, and lets a few words in Demy's script help define the kind of person Jean is.  Reserved, though not exactly shy, curious, aloof, so that when, as Caron (the boatman) suggests will happen when urging Jean to gamble, he learns who he is, it's easier to understand what kind of personality is being chipped away.  It's all absolutely outstanding.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg - Jesus, where to begin?  First off, I should say that I am particularly, some might say exquisitely, unqualified to write about musicals.  When thinking about how a musical like this one upends the form, I'm afraid I have to retreat to my safety zone, which is to look at it, at least at first, through the lens of Dennis Potter, who obviously got to work after Demy, and was coming at things from the exact opposite direction.  Bear with me.  In Potter's musical work, like Pennies from HeavenThe Singing Detective, and Lipstick on Your Collar, the pop songs of the different eras -- the 30s, 40s, and 50s respectively -- were pure fantasy, they were a dream to which his tragic characters retreated; they used the songs to escape, in some cases, horror.  With The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Demy is doing almost the exact opposite.  He's acknowledging that the subject of musicals was everyday life.  In Potter, the songs take the form of fantasy.  In traditional musicals, the songs are part of the same reality as everything else, but they tend to just happen, and there is often a clear dividing line between them and the dialogue (this is what the literalists are always complaining about).  The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is all singing, however, and the lyrics, at least as translated into English via the subtitles, are "just" dialogue.  There is nothing poetic, or even lyrical, about the words (English versions of two songs did become US pop hits).  Guys who work at a garage, and they're talking about what they're going to do that night, one bums a cigarette from another, but they sing every word. The words don't change because they're being sung, however.

So that's to begin with.  The other question I found myself surprised to be asking was, are there actual songs, or are the characters merely singing everything?  At first it didn't appear that there were, but of course I'm a dumbshit.  Every scene in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, or perhaps more accurately, every new conversation, is a different song.  The borders get a little hazy, to be sure, but this is more or less how things work here.  The composer and songwriter (who I guess I might as well mention at this point) Michel Legrand does an ingenious thing by almost hiding the melody, so that the characters are very clearly talking even while they're singing, but the emotion of certain moments slows everything down so that the melody, which carries the emotion of a song more immediately and clearly than the lyrics, swells up, and the song takes form.

And this is all in the aid of what?  The film is about a young woman named Genevieve Emery (Catherine Deneuve) who works for her mother (Anne Vernon) in an umbrella shop.  She's in love with a young mechanic named Guy (Nino Castelnuovo), and for reasons that are pretty much trivial and mostly the moral holdovers from a part of society that is fading away, they have to keep their romance hidden, but they're pretty bad at that, so Genevieve's mother and Guy's sickly aunt (Mireille Perrey) know quite well what's up.  Madame Emery in particular doesn't approve, and when the umbrella shop begins to struggle she tries to match Genevieve up with another young man, a well-to-do one, who offered to help Madame Emery out by buying her jewels.  His name is Roland Cassard, and he's played by Marc Michel. About which more, etc.

The film changes when Guy is drafted into the army, and goes off to fight in the Algerian war.  He'll be gone two years, so he and Genevieve decide to consummate their love, and after Guy ships out she discovers she's pregnant.  Roland, meanwhile, is still available.

Demy carries over the philosophy that music and songs can shape the day-to-day into the look of the film, which doesn't recall Douglas Sirk, as I might have expected going in, so much as it does Frank Tashlin, which I wouldn't have expected.  The film is shockingly colorful (not the above picture gets that across exactly, but it's a good shot), and the characters are dressed to match the interior design of the rooms they inhabit -- the wallpaper, the curtains.  It's extremely artificial, by design, and even with a wink (one chorus member in an early song talks, or sings, about hating the opera because of all the singing, and preferring movies for this reason), but with the intention of communicating that for Demy, at least in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, this is naturalism.  It's a form of naturalism that only films can provide, and of course the most naturalistic films can only provide an interpretation of reality.  Demy, who'd just done that, and brilliantly, with Bay of Angels, is nevertheless not fooled.  This is real life if you think about it, he's saying, and you don't even have to think that hard.  Plus the singing is great. And this film came out in 1964.  It was Demy's third film.  No one should be able to display this variety of skills and talents so early in their career.

Oh, and yes, Marc Michel is reprising the character he played in Lola, in a someone different stylistic environment.  Considering how Lola had so many references to itself within itself, and now bits are popping up in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (which approaches the idea of love and heartbreak in much the same way), it's a shame that this Criterion set couldn't find room for Demy's Model Shop, his 1969 film that finds Anouk Aimee once again playing Lola.  Hopefully they'll get to that one soon.

The Young Girls of Rochefort - One thing The Umbrellas of Cherbourg didn't have was dancing.  A common, even essential feature of the musical, the aesthetics of that film, which I've argued is the blatantly artificial as reality, would seem to invite the inclusion of dance, but I actually don't think it would have worked out.  "Let's not go nuts," was perhaps Demy's thinking on the matter.

If Demy had any desire to find a place for all the dancing he didn't put in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, he satisfied it with his next film, 1967's The Young Girls of Rochefort.  Intentionally light and frivolous, the film is about various separated pairs of lovers -- so separated that a few of them don't even know their other half exists -- and then spends two hours joining them up.  A standard plot for this kind of thing, but Demy assembled a cast to bring the goods, one which includes Deneuve, Michel Piccoli, George Chakiris, and Gene Kelly.  So yes, judging by those last two names, this is a dance movie, and how.

The problem with charming movies, though, is they'd better charm you or else they have a tendency to grind you down, and I have to admit that by the end of The Young Girls of Rochefort I was starting to feel pretty grinded.  Obviously, the film has charm -- I liked the bit where Deneuve is walking down the street and random people begin dancing as they pass her.  I think that dancing is a stupid thing that idiots do, and even I'd dance if suddenly faced with Catherine Deneuve.  But it's a light film, which means it is, among other things, a comedy, but I found none of it especially funny, and at least one joke, when Francoise Dorleac as Deneuve's sister (and her real sister) name drops composer Michel Legrand in a song, seemed actively beneath everyone involved.  There's also a strange element of gallows humor involving a sadistic local murder that several characters follow through rumors, and the newspapers -- I don't know what this is doing in the film, other than to prove that Demy is determined to teach everything lightly.  Which, you know, if it was all working for me would be fine.  But frivolity that doesn't sweep you up begins to feel like ephemera.

I acknowledge that a "to each his own" kind of thing plays into this more than it usually would, given that the musical style of The Young Girls of Rochefort is of the Burt Bacharach variety, and that's a variety that has always somewhat repelled me.  A strong word, maybe, but that Bacharach-scored montage in the Bolivia section of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid did its damage a long time ago.

Donkey Skin - It's at this point that the box set leapfrogs -- and I'm sure it had its reasons -- over Model Shop to land on Donkey Skin, Demy's eccentric fairy tale semi-musical from 1970.  If I mourn the loss of Model Shop I'm able to do so while celebrating the inclusion of Donkey Skin, which appeals to be primarily because it approximates, more closely than just about any other film of roughly similar ambitions I can think of, the experience of reading a fairy tale.  Which isn't to say that this slightly bonkers film is without its cheeky moments, which itself isn't to say that it's insincere.

The film is based on a fairy tale by Charles Perrault, a collector and re-teller of ancient folktales much the like the Brothers Grimm.  Because of Perrault, we have "Sleeping Beauty" and "Cinderella" and "Bluebeard" and "Little Red Riding Hood," plus bunches more.  Perrault has also been the subject of recent film adaptations by Catherine Breillat -- her Bluebeard was brilliant, and her Sleeping Beauty I haven't seen, but I imagine those two films would make a swell triple feature, their various dissimilarities notwithstanding, with Donkey Skin, if for no other reason than that roughly modern, non-animated fairy tale films that haven't degraded the source into run-of-the-mill special effects adventures, basically don't exist.  Demy's next film was 1972's The Pied Piper (that's a Grimm one, not Perrault), so throw that one into the mix as well, couldn't hurt.

So anyway, this one is about a donkey that shits jewelry.  Sort of, anyway -- there's a king (Jean Marais) who deeply enjoys his prosperous life with his wife and daughter (both Catherine Deneuve), the quality of each of their lives being tied, for the moment, to the fact that the king owns this donkey that shits jewelry.  Then one day the queen gets sick, and before she dies she makes the king promise that he will only remarry if he can find a princess who is more beautiful than she is -- a tall order, considering she's Catherine Deneuve.  Nevertheless, he agrees, and begins combing the land for such a princess.  Unfortunately, the only princess who is more beautiful than the deceased queen is his own daughter, so he proposes to her.  Appalled, the princess seeks the council of her fairy godmother (Delphine Seyrig), who devises a series of tricks, demands to be made of the king by the princess, that he should be incapable of fulfilling, but of course he fulfills each of them, including giving his daughter the skin of that donkey ("My banker?").

I'll stop there with the plot, other than to say finally the princess is driven to flee the kingdom entirely, wearing the donkey skin (her nickname among those she meets on her travels becomes "Donkey Skin"), and become a scullery maid.  What I think the above helps illustrate, not to mention the fact that the plot isn't even close to being spoiled, is that Demy sticks closely to the spirit of fairy tales.  Those things are pure plot, or, if you define that word to mean something more mechanical, they're pure incident -- one damn thing after another, and so on.  That for me was the joy of Donkey Skin -- the visuals, too, which are designed to resemble storybook illustrations, but of course that just strengthens the vibe.  Little touches (that may come from Perrault for all I know), like the old woman who spits frogs, the royal servants whose skin is painted the color (or simply is the color?) of the royal banners, all help the film achieve a level of fantasy that some people have been known to spend millions of dollars trying to hit.  The songs -- one of them is about how children shouldn't marry their parents -- are a bit contemporary (as of 1970 anyway) for my tastes, and there's a pair of jokes, one rather interesting (the fairy godmother mentions a battery and the princess asks her what a battery is) and another less so, try to provide a hook to the modern world, for reasons I can't quite grasp, but I also don't much care.  How many films like this exist?  Eight?  Twelve?  Not enough, whatever it is.

Une Chambre en Ville - With the last film in this Essential Jacques Demy set, a fascinating time jump occurs.  After the first five films in the set run from 1961 to 1970, Une Chambre en Ville (translated as A Room in Town) is from 1982.  The relatively modern, I guess, sheen to it all isn't jarring so much as it is kind of anthropologically compelling.  This is heightened by the fact that with this film, which is another musical, Demy returns to his The Umbrellas of Cherbourg "all singing, no dancing" roots.

The film is set in 1955 -- in Nantes, in or around which Demy set so many of his pictures -- and stars Richard Berry as Francois Guilbaud, a worker on strike as the film begins.  He rents a room from Madame Langois (Danielle Darrieux), who may have a crush on him because of his youth and passion.  She otherwise lives alone, both her husband and son having died, and her daughter Edith (Dominique Sanda) takes a somewhat antagonistic stance when it comes to her mother.  Francois is dating Violette (Fabienne Guyon), but when Edith, married to an abusive and impotent TV salesman (Michel Piccoli, playing a role rather different from the gentle fellow he played in The Young Girls of Rochefort) takes to the streets to find a man to have sex with, she stumbles upon an unsatisfied Francois.  They begin an affair and fall immediately in love, which leads to nothing good for anybody.

There's one thing about this film that I'm not crazy about, which I'll go ahead and deal with now.  It's not the politics of the workers' protest, but rather the fact that in the film's climactic riot, the workers break the admittedly easy stand-off by throwing rocks at the police and then setting fire to cars.  I'm sorry, but not every action is justified because your cause is righteous, all of which kind of feeds into my dislike of Francois.  But I don't mind not liking Francois.  His treatment of Violette sets that up anyway, and this, along with certain elements that in contemporary terms would be considered "adult" -- people die in this movie and there's nudity -- help transform Une Chambre en Ville into something truly operatic.  Like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, much of this film is essentially domestic, and in that realm Danielle Darrieux walks away with the film (with the assistance of composer Michel Colombier, who wrote a beautifully nostalgic theme for her), but in the last half our the shit hits the fan, and on a purely dramatic level it's quite riveting -- it even ends with a bit of grotesque irony that recalls Otto Preminger's Angel Face, though otherwise the two films don't share a hell of a lot.

Anyway, it's both weird to see a film like this, even a French film, coming out of the 1980s, and admirable to see Jacques Demy continuing to explore the aesthetic ground into which he'd planted his flag almost twenty years earlier.  He managed to stay unique decades into his career.  A lot of people can't manage that after two films.

Monday, July 21, 2014

I Know You're a Good Guy

When Spike Lee's startlingly misbegotten remake of Park Chan-Wook's Oldboy came out recently, I read some comments that its badness shouldn't be too surprising, as Park's original had offered little to justify its strong cult status as a new classic Korean genre film.  This may be true, because that cult is pretty insane sometimes, taking as its baseline Harry Knowles, the rest of the Ain't It Cool News crowd, and Quentin Tarantino, who wanted to give Oldboy the Palme d'Or when he was president of the 2004 Cannes jury (considering Tarantino got voted down and the prize went to Fahrenheit 9/11 instead, it's hard to argue that his instincts were wrong).  In my experience, if there is a debate over who the real star of Korean genre cinema is currently -- and I realize the "movie nerd"-ness of it all is becoming unbearably thick -- then the current winner is Bong Joon-ho, whose recent, and excellent, Snowpiercer, not to mention a wave of love for his 2003 film Memories of Murder that has led some to favorably compare it to David Fincher's 2007 masterpiece Zodiac, has a lot of people forgetting about the old "it's so violent and crazy" hype that Park enjoyed.

Not everyone wants to knock Park down a peg or three, however.  His last film, the English language thriller Stoker was pretty widely embraced (though not by me, and I'm not alone), for instance, and anyway to forget his original Oldboy, which I haven't seen in ages, would mean forgetting Choi Min-sik's terrific lead performance, and I can't bring myself to do that.  But I admit, I do remain dubious about Park.  Oldboy was the middle film in Park's "Vengeance Trilogy," and the ball got rolling on that, and on his international career, with 2002's Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, which Kino Lorber and Palisades Tartan are releasing on Blu-ray tomorrow.  I'd seen the film before, long ago, back when it first hit video in the US, but that was it before checking out the Blu-ray yesterday, so I didn't really remember the scene where the four guys who share an apartment are furiously masturbating because they think the woman's moans on the other side of the wall are sexual in nature, when in fact she is suffering through the terrible pain of kidney failure.  Ha ha...ha?  These are the jokes, and Park can keep them, and this scene, which arrives early in the proceedings, made me uneasy that perhaps my memory of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, which was more or less a positive one, was deceiving me.

It wasn't, not entirely.  The masturbating guys aren't our heroes, for example, which I knew but felt a fresh wave of relief about anyway; that honor -- and "hero" isn't really correct but anyhow -- goes to Ryu (Shin Ha-kyun), a deaf mute factory worker and brother of the woman dying of kidney failure (Im Ji-eun).  She needs a kidney, and Ryu can't donate one because his blood-type doesn't match.  So he gets wind of some black market organ traders, who dupe him out of the money he'd been saving for his sister's operation, and one of his kidneys.  At this point a kidney becomes available through legal means, but now Ryu can't afford the operation.  On top of this, Ryu is fired from his job.  Desperate, he listens to the nonsensical plans of his girlfriend Yeong-mi (Bae Doona), a radical anarchist out of whose simplistic politics Park gets some good comedy mileage.  Anyhow, her plan is to kidnap the son of Ryu's ex-boss, later amended to the daughter of the president of a separate company, the suspicion hanging too heavily over the recently fired Ryu if they tried to shake down his direct boss.  So they kidnap the little girl (Han Bo-bae), get the ransom from her father Dong-jin (Song Kang-ho), and then everything explodes.

I'm slightly hesitant to explain just how badly everything goes, though it's necessary to point out that the "Mr. Vengeance" of the title can refer to more than one character, or possibly to a personified version of the concept of "vengeance" itself, vengeance being frowned upon in general, but it's sometimes hard to not at least understand it.  Park, in his particularly grotesque way, portrayed vengeance as useless in Oldboy, but as actually sort of redemptive and cathartic in Lady Vengeance, his third film of the trilogy, but asks for sympathy only in this first picture.  This is because neither man seeking violent retribution is a terrible person, both have pretty solid reasons to be upset, and on top of that their victims do, in a cosmic sense, have it coming, even if they're not terrible people either (some of them are terrible people though).  Even as one of the men crosses a terrible line, you can understand why he's crossing it.  The idea is similar to the one explored in Denis Villeneuve's Prisoners, but for all his flamboyance Park doesn't make a big deal out of this.

So Park has a pretty batshit way of going about this sort of thing, but it's worth doing.  And for a film possibly remembered best for its viscera, nothing particularly bloody happens until about the 90 minute mark, at which point the film's three-quarters done (one of the film's leads isn't even introduced until about halfway through).  Until then, among the things you can enjoy are the insane tonal shifts, which in fairness is set up by that masturbation/kidney pain scene that I didn't enjoy at all, but it does give you an idea what Park's doing.  But watch Ryu, who has no wish to harm anyone for most of the film, playing around with the kidnapped girl while she watches TV.  While they're playing, she gives him some information that leads immediately to a horrifying discovery, and that shift could almost play as slapstick.  A mild form, but still, Park knows it, and the audience can make the same guess that Ryu makes, at the same time he makes it, so the slapstick moment is weighted with that little extra something for the audience and the character at once.

Marvel, too, at the plot turns that apparently you can get away with if you're making a Korean revenge film that an American audience would never allow in an American film.  The entirety of the second half of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance hinges on an unlikely character appearing in one place in one scene to do one unlikely thing and to never have any other impact on the film again.  And it's okay.  It works.  Listen, audiences, you internet nerds who watch movies for plot holes and plot contrivances:  look, it works.  You can do this sort of thing.  It's okay for a filmmaker to make stuff up.  Shhh shhh shhh.  It'll be okay.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Cronenberg Series Part 12: Don't Worry, That Guy's Gotta See Us

In 1970, the writer J. G. Ballard put together what I guess you'd call an art exhibit at London's New Arts Laboratory called "Crashed Cars," and as they say in England it did (more or less) what it said on the tin:  a collection of automobiles that had gone through the trauma of the car accident were presented to the public while a topless model interviewed the museum guests.  This was a controversial exhibit, as you might imagine -- according to Ballard the model was "nearly raped" on opening night -- but it wasn't some one-off bit of provocation from Ballard.  The idea from the exhibit grew from a section of his also very controversial 1968 book The Atrocity Exhibition.  This is chapter 12, entitled "Crash!", and it begins:

The latent sexual content of the automobile crash. Numerous studies have been conducted to assess the latent sexual appeal of public figures who have achieved subsequent notoriety as auto-crash fatalities, e.g. James Dean, Jayne Mansfield, Albert Camus.  Simulated newsreels of politicians, film stars, and TV celebrities were shown to panels of (a) suburban housewives, (b) terminal paretics, (c) filling station personnel.  Sequences showing auto-crash victims brought about a marked acceleration of pulse and respiratory rates.  Many volunteers became convinced that the fatalities were still living, and later used one or other of the crash victims as a private focus of arousal during intercourse with the domestic partner.

In my annotated and illustrated(!) edition of The Atrocity Exhibition put out by Re/Search in 1990, Ballard says in his note on the "Crash!" chapter:

This 1968 piece...in effect is the gene from which my novel Crash was to spring.  The ambiguous role of the car crash needs no elaboration -- apart from our own deaths, the car crash is probably the most dramatic event in our lives, and in many cases the two will coincide.  Aside from the fact that we generally own or are at the controls of the crashing vehicle, the car crash differs from other disasters in that it involves the most powerfully advertised commercial product of this century, an iconic entity that combines the elements of speed, power, dream and freedom within a highly stylized format that defuses any fears we may have of the inherent dangers of these violent and unstable machines.

I'm terrified of death so I hear you, Jim, although I find it somewhat interesting that Ballard writes as though at least near fatal car accidents are a foregone conclusion in everyone's life -- he's not talking about fender benders here.  But of course terrible accidents are horrifyingly common, and the fear of them is ever-present, even if that fear is kept at a hum low enough to be easily ignored.  Ballard, on the other hand, took the actually everyday reality of fatal car crashes and in a way imagined removing the fatality.  This is a bad way to describe Crash, his notorious 1973 novel that remains as bizarre, unsettling, and shocking over forty years later, but that novel, which explores the eroticization of car crashes (which sounds like someone had ever so much as idly floated that notion before Ballard, though to my mind no one had; I feel this is a safe bet), does depict a group of characters who view the violent and sudden merging of industrial steel, plastic, rubber, and glass with human flesh and bone as life-affirming in the same way sexual intercourse can be, because to them these two things are synonymous.  That is to say "life-affirming," or "life"-affirming.  Crash is not a novel you might call, in the parlance of our times, "sex positive," and of course "life-affirming" is almost precisely wrong, except that the characters genuinely enjoy combining sex and car crashes, and they don't actually want to quit.  What is being affirmed?  Not life, okay, fine, but it's far too simplistic to say these people all have a death wish.  Even Vaughan, the insane erotic car crash guru of the novel, whose grand desire is to die in a literally orgasmic car crash that also takes out Elizabeth Taylor, even he doesn't have a death wish, not as we understand that concept.  Real people in our real lives could conceivably have death wishes, and one of the bracing aspects of Crash is its essential unknowability:  no one does or has ever done what Ballard's characters do.  Even if they have, they haven't.  Crash is not relatable.

In any case, "I wanted to rub the human face in its own vomit and force it to look in the mirror" is how Ballard described his reasons for writing Crash, Crash being the kind of book that is going to make people ask you to explain yourself, and so there you go.  Jump ahead a couple decades.  David Cronenberg, who as it happens made a film out of Crash in 1996, tells Serge Grunberg in his book David Cronenberg:  Interviews with Serge Grunberg, that a Canadian talk show host compared watching Crash to looking into a toilet.  Cronenberg notes that doctors advise looking into the toilet so you can see what's going on inside.

Cronenberg had been introduced to Ballard's novel many years before he ever finished reading it.  He tells Grunberg that he'd been given the novel by a film critic who thought, quite reasonably, that it would interest him.  Yet when Cronenberg started reading it he found it too disturbing -- this is David Cronenberg, remember -- and so didn't finish reading it until many years later.  It seems strange to me not only that Cronenberg would have a hard time getting into Crash but that he would need anyone to introduce him to it, or to J. G. Ballard.  It's less strange that anybody would make a film out of Crash than it is that Cronenberg hasn't spent half his career adapting Ballard's fiction.  The two men seem utterly sympathetic, psychologically, philosophically, and aesthetically.  No doubt there are divergences, but each has an approach to the world that includes obsessions with human transformation, machines, medicine, violence, buildings and hallways and flesh, and an almost apolitical fascination with the many ways a entire society can apparently share one mind, which it then loses.

So, Crash.  The plot, such as it is, is this:  actually, no, really quick:  J. G. Ballard named Crash's protagonist James Ballard.  This is worth mentioning.  The two men don't seem to share much else -- the fictional character is a film producer, which is both a very Ballardian occupation to give to a character, and not something Ballard himself ever did.  It strikes me as an surprising missed opportunity, or missed joke, that Cronenberg didn't name the film version Dave Cronenberg (he mentions this idea in Cronenberg on Cronenberg, but it doesn't seem to have ever occurred to him to actually do it) .  At any rate, in the film, James Ballard (James Spader) and his wife Catherine (Deboraha Kara Unger) have what you'd call an open marriage.  The film begins with three sex scenes in a row (much like William Lustig's Maniac begins with a series of murder scenes), first Catherine having sex with a pilot in an airplane hangar, then James having sex with a camera operator in his office, and then Catherine and James having sex with each other while describing their earlier respective encounters.  Shortly after this, James gets into a terrible car accident.  His leg is shattered and a man in the other car is killed.  This man was the husband of Helen Remington (Holly Hunter), who survives, and who James sees off and on in the hospital, sometimes in the company of a strange doctor named Vaughan (Elias Koteas).  James and Remington meet again in the lot where their wrecked cars are being held, and soon the two of them are having an affair.  Which sounds elegant in some way.  They're having sex in cars, and not long after she has introduced James to Vaughan, who it turns out is not actually a doctor but a man conducting some kind of grand experiment involving sex and car crashes, focusing his attention on famous fatal car accidents, such as those that took the lives of James Dean, Jayne Mansfield, Albert Camus, Nathanael West, to the point that he recreates these accidents, taking no safety precautions beyond those provided by the skills of the stunt drivers he employs (and who are evidently as invested in this project as Remington and James will soon be).  As a result, Vaughan is covered in scars, and attracted to wounds.  The first time James comes to realize what this man is about, Vaughan is recreating the James Dean crash for a small but enthusiastic audience.  At one point James asks Vaughan if he regards the Kennedy assassination as a kind of special car crash.  Vaughan replies: "A case can be made."

One of the most disarming moments in the whole film is when James, by this point deep into this erotic crash business, says to Vaughan, as the latter shows him pictures of the Jayne Mansfield crash, "It's all very satisfying."  He has a big smile on his face when he says this, and it's one of the few genuine smiles in the film -- James is practically guileless here.  Then he says "I'm not sure I understand why."  Well, sure.  Join the club.  By now, Vaughan has explained himself to James by saying his project is an examination of "the reshaping of the human body by modern technology," but when James says he's not sure why he finds this all so satisfying Vaughan replies:

"There is a benevolent psychopathology that beckons towards us. For example the car crash is a fertilizing rather than a destructive event, a liberation of sexual energy, mediating the sexuality of those who have died with an intensity that's impossible in any other form. to experience that, to live that, that's my project."

And the "reshaping of the human body" idea that he pitched earlier is just a non-threatening façade to test potential allies.

It's not that I don't think Vaughan believes what he's saying here, about a beckoning benevolent psychopathology and the liberation of sexual energy via car accidents and so on -- certainly the film provides ample evidence that this is his motivation (and not just Vaughan's motivation -- check out Holly Hunter in the scene where Remington almost freaks out because a crash test video freezes before the on-screen impact she'd been yearning to see).  However, I believe that the "reshaping of the human body by modern technology" is actually what is going on -- what is, that is to say, literally going on.  I don't know how else to explain Rosanna Arquette's presence in the film.  She plays Gabrielle, one of Vaughan's hangers-on, and her body has been badly disabled through what we can assume have been numerous, and probably quite often voluntary, car accidents.  She has what appear to be permanent braces on her legs and she needs a cane, or crutch, to walk.  But Gabrielle has taken all this and reshaped it to suit her aggressive sexuality, or it has unleashed that sexuality.  The braces and so forth are all black and mix with her black dominatrix-esque clothing.  When she and James go to a car dealership, she gets the attention of a salesman by seductively bending over one of the automobiles.  This is what Cronenberg shows us:
If Crash was a porn film, we'd of course be seeing something quite different.  But in some ways Crash is a porn film, for anybody in the world who might be into this (despite what I said earlier, I acknowledge that the existence of such people is conceivable), and to them the above image would be, well...and for James, too, who is soon having sex with Gabrielle, using her leg wound as a sexual organ.  Is how I've chosen to phrase that.

All of this brings to mind Cronenberg's The Fly, because if ever there was a film about the reshaping of the human body by modern technology, that's the one. In that case, Cronenberg was in blatant science fiction mode, extrapolating on old SF concepts (and an old SF story), the result being that his protagonist was shaped and reshaped by modern technology until he was unable to physically or psychologically function any longer.  I'm not sure how this is all that different from CrashCrash is of course less direct about it, but there is a science fiction element, an extrapolation -- the film's most ominous line comes from James when, after being released from the hospital, he asks Catherine if traffic is heavier now, and says that there seem to be a lot more cars on the road than there were before his accident.  So Cronenberg and Ballard are doing with Crash what Cronenberg did with Dead Ringers, when he approached the fact of twins as his own original science fiction creation.  Cars and car accidents and even a sexual fascination with death and violence all currently exist and have for some time, but Ballard and Cronenberg treat them like their own inventions.  What if the horse and buggy could dispense with the horses, where might this all lead?

In its treatment of sex and technology, I'm forced to think about Spike Jonze's recent Her, which now seems like a tremulous, watery, moony-eyed remake of Crash with Scarlett Johansson in place of car crashes.  Her, which is about a man who falls in love with his phone or some shit, doesn't necessarily believe that the potential for mankind to find sexual intimacy with computers is something to be celebrated, or rushed towards, but the best it can muster in terms of an emotional response to the idea is bittersweet melancholy.  With Crash, Cronenberg and Ballard have already been there, and "melancholy" isn't quite the word they'd use.  The people in Crash are rather happy.  They enjoy doing what they're doing, and it's absolutely terrifying.

It wasn't until I watched Crash again for this post that I caught on to what its basic narrative structure is.  Cronenberg has talked about how surprisingly easy it was for him to faithfully translate the novel into a screenplay, and if I had to guess I'd say it's because secretly this is the story of Catherine Ballard.  James Ballard may be the protagonist, and it's him we follow, but he falls under Vaughan's spell pretty readily -- he's the one who almost died in a car accident, after all, not Catherine.  So it's not James who has to be seduced into this world, it's her.  And she is.  There are linked images that help chart the beginning of the seduction and the end.  In the first, she's visiting James in the hospital.  Well before either of them met Vaughan, they were both, as has been established, pretty sexually free, and the scene opens with Catherine soaping her hands to aid her in giving James a handjob.
Later in the film, closer to the end, her seduction complete, literally, because she's actively having sex with Vaughan in the back of a car being driven by her husband, and we get this shot of her hand, covered in...secretions:

So how'd she get there?  She was evidently pretty willing to listen to arguments, because in the hospital scene, while she's taking care of James she's describing the damage inflicted on the cars involved in the accident that landed Ballard and Helen Remington in the hospital (and brought them to Vaughan's attention); if anything, Catherine is more able to associate what she's physically doing with what she's talking about than her husband, who actually, in this one instance, seems somewhat uncomfortable with these juxtapositions.  So she willingly drifts into Vaughan's orbit, but the key, the real turn, comes later.  Vaughan, James, and Catherine are driving together when they come upon an accident, a bad one, fatal.  Vaughan is excited taking out his camera and clicking away.  Catherine and James wander through the wreckage and blood and stretchers.  Catherine sees a woman sitting off to the side.  She was involved in the accident, and her face has been cut up. Catherine sits near her, and the look she gives the wounded woman is one of desire -- not a desire to have sex with the woman, though that would probably be all right with Catherine too, but a desire to look like her.

After this, Vaughan takes Catherine and moves her so that she's first standing beside, and then sitting in, one of the crashed cars.  A splash of blood is running down one of the doors.  Vaughan begins taking pictures.
What this is, what it is almost exactly, is a magazine shoot, Catherine is a model, and she knows it, and if she's nervous it's because this world is so unfamiliarly glamorous to her.  The blood and bodies and twisted metal and shattered glass are to her what parties and drugs and expensive clothes would be to someone else.  There's this little cult of psychotics that she has discovered through her husband, and she wants to fit in with them.  This yearning leads to the film's final scene (invented by Cronenberg) in which Catherine and James play a sex game that involves the two of them driving separate cars, and James forcing hers to crash.  When he goes to her, and lies in the grass beside her, just outside her overturned car, he asks if she's injured.  She says "No, I think I'm all right," and he says "Maybe next time."  Dreams can come true.

Not surprisingly, Crash was a somewhat controversial film.  The biggest stumbling block it faced was Ted Turner, who was the head of New Line at the time, and was so appalled by the film that he tried to stop it from being released.  An edited version does exist, but it does so alongside the uncut version.  Cronenberg tells a story about running into Turner years later, and Turner crowing to him about how he, Turner, had won.  Cronenberg says that he found this a strange reaction, as the film was released in the version he intended.  It took some doing, but it happened, and Crash is still readily available on DVD.  Long live the new flesh.