Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Free Winds and No Tyranny

[Beware Spoilers]

Paul Thomas Anderson's 2002 film Punch-Drunk Love might seem to be a strange film to act as a bridge between what now seem to be two very distinct phases in his career, but after seeing his new movie The Master, and thinking about it in relation to 2007's There Will Be Blood, I'm left unable to draw any other conclusion. I've been a fan of Anderson's from the beginning, and I feel no conflict in continuing to love his first three films -- Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, and Magnolia -- while regarding each of them as very much the work of a young man. This stands to reason, as Anderson was a young man when he made them: 26 when Hard Eight came out, 29 for Magnolia, and then after a three year gap -- not so long in the grand scheme of things -- we got Punch-Drunk Love, a superb film. No more or less superb than what had come before, I'd say, but gone now was the sprawl of characters and storylines that seemed like it might be his calling card after Hard Eight, gone was sometimes stretched-thin plotting that seemed like it existed only because Anderson thought it should (I'm thinking mainly of the middle of Hard Eight here), gone was the flashy stylistic debt to Scorsese and, save for a nod or two towards Popeye, Altman. And in fact Punch-Drunk Love is very specifically a film about a man who, while professionaly okay, was a social mess, a child who understood he should have gained something more in the years he's lived, and is frustrated to the point of violence that he hasn't. It's that among other things, but it's also that.

What it all really boils down to is style, both visually and narratively, and there's an unstructured looseness to Punch-Drunk Love that is as much to its favor as the almost mathematic precision of storytelling was to Magnolia. There was also a lot more empty space, and silence, and sunlight that wasn't necessarily warm but white and desert-like. California was starting to look more blasted than it had in his earlier films. There was somehow a new texture to everything. Even as Punch-Drunk Love exploited Anderson's sharp comedic instincts in the way that Hard Eight and Boogie Nights had (and for me, those moments are Boogie Nights at its best), there's a sense that something is being left behind, and Anderson was emerging from under the shelter of his influences and creating something that was very much his own. This would perhaps help explain why his daring, sinister, weird There Will Be Blood, Anderson's next film, five years down the road, feels, in the best possible way, like the work of, if not a different person, than at least a different artist.

Now here we are, again five years down the road, and The Master is, if anything, weirder and more daring. Maybe not more sinister, but that sort of thing is really more dependent on the subject at hand, and the subject at hand in There Will Be Blood, if I may be permitted to boil down that unclassifiable film into something easily digestible, is misanthropy. And as twisted as The Master can be, it's not misanthropic. Some level of misanthropy might have been assumed, given that everyone who hadn't actually made the movie (this obviously includes myself) possessed an undeniable certainty that the primary goal of The Master was to blow the lid off of Scientology, whose lid was blown long ago in any case, but the prospect that Anderson would dramatize that lid-blowing process, and use his frequent collaborator and no-fooling great actor Philip Seymour Hoffman as the film's version of Scientology's mysterious, pulp science fiction writing con artist L. Ron Hubbard was simply too wonderful, and made it impossible for anyone to credit the early protests (not vehement in tone, but more in the "wait and you'll see what we mean" mode) from Anderson and Hoffman that that wasn't exactly what The Master was going to be.
They were right, of course, up to a point. Which isn't to say there was any dishonesty in those protests, but more that while The Master certainly doesn't depict The Cause, the film's Scientology-like cult religion, in a positive light, Anderson also hasn't made the muckraking expose' that we all for some reason or another thought we wanted from him. No, what it is is this: well, no, hold on. What it's about, in terms of story, is this: Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, a former Navy man and veteran of World War II who, when we first meet him, is as messed up a human being as one can imagine existing outside of the prison system. He seems irredeemably laser-focused on two things, sex and booze, the sex taking the form of molesting the naked figure of a woman his fellow sailors have playfully built with sand, past the point of any reasonable joke, and then later masturbating on the beach, not really out of sight of anyone at all, but his back is turned so maybe that counts, and the booze manifesting as moonshine of his own concoction, using whatever was handy, which, in the civilian world, tends to mean things like paint thinner and photo emulsifier. We see Freddie bounce through a couple of jobs, including one as a portrait photographer at a department store that ends when he becomes weirdly aggressive, and finally violent, towards a customer, and another as a cabbage harvester among migrant workers, one of whom he almost kills with his hideous booze. Anderson depicts all of this with no connective tissue. We aren't shown how he arrived at the cabbage farm from the city where he worked in the department store, and we don't see how he gets from the cabbage farm to docks where he will stowaway on a yacht, where he meets Hoffman's Lancaster Dodd. The occasional narrative strain of Hard Eight, the need to get his characters in trouble and just hammer out some scenario that will allow the ending to make sense, drops away here. I don't know if Anderson feels any relief in this new, cut-to-the-bone narrative style, this method of writing and filming the parts that are vital and leaving the pedantic continuity concerns for the birds, but it's a curiously thrilling relief for me as an audience member, and inspiring in a way it would be unseemly to get into here.

Anyway, Anderson makes it clear that among Freddie's problems is a rough bout of post-traumatic stress disorder, but I've seen some critics basically say "That's what's wrong with Freddie, now, moving on..." but there's clearly much more wrong with the man than that. The war perhaps freed his mangled brain to act as it had always dreamed to, but there's actual on-screen evidence that the war was just part of it. Whatever difference that makes to you – it makes a lot to me, as taking in all the evidence makes it much harder (and this is crucial) to hang Freddie’s frightening instability on any one peg – Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie as a bent, scarred, hungry, scrabbling little creature, or a rat who, in addition to being a rat, also dimly understands that he is losing his mind. It’s this understanding that drives him towards bottles of paint thinner, which, I can only assume, obliterates far more of what you’d want obliterated, and never mind the path it’s rotting through your guts, than anything you’d be able to find in a liquor store. It’s an astonishing performance in any case, one I don’t think I believed Phoenix, who before this was a very obviously talented actor, was capable of. It’s a big performance, too, like Daniel Day-Lewis’s in There Will Be Blood, though in the body of a character who is considerably less sophisticated, articulate, or industrious. But the hunch of Day-Lewis’s Plainview at the end of that earlier film is mirrored, which is not to say copied, in every step and every second of Phoenix’s Freddie in The Master. Plainview may have gotten there with regular booze, but he’d also been working at it much longer.

But perhaps Quell has found some kind of salvation on Lancaster Dodd’s yacht. The yacht is sailing at the moment because Dodd’s daughter Elizabeth (Ambyr Childers) is getting married (Dodd himself is performing the ceremony), so Freddie has stumbled already into what would appear to be a relatively high class celebration, where there is booze, and has, against all odds, been accepted. Freddie wakes up from a blackout and is ushered by a young woman into Dodd’s cabin, where Dodd tells him about a conversation they’d had the night before that Freddie doesn’t remember, something to do with Quell offering to work for him, and Dodd, seeing the damage and on-the-brink psychology radiating from Freddie’s entire body, invites him into his cult. Because let’s not beat around the bush here. Anderson doesn’t, as that word is actually used at one point in a terrific scene later on where an outsider (Christopher Evan Welch) overhearing Dodd’s line of nonsense grills Dodd with all the civility and reason he can muster, and it turns out to be just a hair too much for Dodd to bear. I’ve seen some talk that The Master treats the idea of this fringe, cult religion with ambiguity, implying that its benefits as a system of belief or as a guide for one’s life are not commented on one way or another. I think this is exactly wrong. There’s quite a lot of philosophical space between the outright, hammer-on-nail condemnation we all thought The Master was going to dish out and a non-committal “Well who can say if such things work?”, and The Master falls very clearly in the negative area. It doesn’t outright condemn, which may be the issue here, but it shows The Cause failing to work. But I’m pretty sure I’m getting to that.
Along with Dodd’s little minx of a daughter and her new true-believer husband (Rami Malek) the main cast is filled out by Amy Adams as Peggy, Dodd’s wife. Adams’s performance is very strong, and sure to be overshadowed by Phoenix and Hoffman (about whom more etc.), but I’d say of the three leads hers is easily the most subtle. It took me a while to get any sort of fix on her, and I think this is a side effect of how Amy Adams normally is in films – prim, usually, sweet, often, sometimes feisty, but good, and good-hearted. All of these things she certainly seems to be as we get rolling, and she welcomes Freddie Quell onto her family yacht, and invites him to eat with her, and tells him that he has inspired her husband – who in this initial phase of his relationship with Freddie regards him as an experiment through which he can prove his theories, and also as someone who makes crazy-strong booze that Dodd quite enjoys drinking himself – to write more than she’s ever seen him write. So she’s a nice lady, apparently, though you’d have to also think a somewhat naïve one – how else to explain how this outwardly smart woman could devote herself to a man who preaches past lives, theories on an Earth that is trillions rather than billions of years old, and so on? But as the film goes on, she’s revealed to be somewhat more prickly than that. I’ve seen her described as a Lady Macbeth figure, though this must be counted as a stretch, unless your definition of a Lady Macbeth figure is broad enough to include a woman who isn’t always nice to everybody. Peggy does have her own agenda, but within the world of the film, and more to the point of her family, both marital and biological as well as the family of The Cause, it’s an agenda that she believes will benefit many. She also plots, but plotting to get your husband as well as your new friend to stop drinking paint thinner falls in my book somewhere short of regicide. Still, she does become rather unpleasant by the film’s end, as she grows to disdain the outside world that she views as being filled with ignorant people who want only to mock and destroy The Cause, and hardens to it as all successful cults eventually must.

As the world Anderson is depicting in The Master expands, which in this case means only that he’s expanding to more fully show the world of The Cause and the people who inhabit it, other viewpoints into Dodd and his work are allowed some brief but key introductions. With them they bring cracks to The Cause and Dodd’s façade, but the only progress toward anyone seeing through this madness is communicated by Anderson through the reactions Freddie, and even Dodd, have to these moments. Dodd’s son (Jesse Plemons) says to Freddie that his father is making everything up as he goes along, and shortly thereafter, when Freddie and Dodd are carted off to jail together, Freddie’s anger and frustration spills out, and in his tirade he repeats these same words. Later, when Bill, a long-time advocate of Dodd and his work (Kevin J. O’Connor), confides to Freddie that he thinks Dodd’s new book – the first being The Cause, this second entitled The Split Saber -- is “shit”, Freddie attacks him. Meanwhile Dodd, who has already shown his inability to deal with someone who demands that he explain himself (I did briefly flirt with calling this post Pigfuck!), finds himself, in the same sequence of scenes during which Freddie assaults Bill, gently cornered by long-time friend Helen Sullivan (Laura Dern), who is confused and concerned by a change in wording found in the new book, which she is smart enough to understand changes pretty much the entire basis of their shared beliefs. Dodd handles this moment poorly. So while Anderson’s mission is to not furiously dismantle Scientology, or cults similar to it, he does understand that common sense can take what’s laid before it and do the job perfectly well all by itself. These three moments, which I’ve described in the order they occur in the film, depict levels of disillusion. Freddie is easily won back (he’s very susceptible to any number of things), Bill was merely disappointed in the actual book, not in Dodd’s theories, whereas Helen…she’s probably on her way out. Maybe not for a while yet, but she can’t have walked away from her conversation with her messiah feeling particularly bolstered. Regardless, this is a superb scene, one that Laura Dern plays very well (I had no idea she was even in this movie), but Hoffman’s the show. Dodd is an ideal character for him, as it lets him do just about everything an actor could want to do, from humor to rage to despair, but Dodd is a man who has to keep it together, and he’s starting to have trouble. If there’s some ambiguity in how The Master regards The Cause, it shows through how Anderson writes Dodd. I think there’s some reason to believe that Dodd is not merely a charlatan, but might be someone who actually believes this nonsense – might, in fact, not realize that it is nonsense. If he doesn’t for most of the film, though, he’s beginning to, and his conversation with Dern could be the moment when the balloon pops.
This section of the film, which is a long one that begins roughly at the point when Dodd and his people arrive at the home of Dern’s character, is when The Master begins to gain structure. Prior to this, the film was intentionally aimless, but here some specifics of The Cause and of Dodd’s methods begin to take shape, and Freddie begins his training, or schooling, or whatever you’d want to call walking across a room from a wall to a window and describing each over and over again for what appears to be hours, in earnest. The aimlessness of Freddie’s life, which the film adopted as its ephemeral construction, now hardens into some kind of purpose: The Betterment of Freddie Quell. It’s after this section that many people who’ve seen the movie believe The Master begins to lose its way. And the film does become more willowy once the disenchantment sets in, but this is because the purpose has once again scattered into aimlessness. Freddie may be slow on the uptake, but he’s able to find a source of some kind of momentum in his life by very consciously breaking away from Dodd during one of his especially ridiculous and pointless exercises. The Cause may have given Freddie the boost – essentially, the idea -- to take the step he takes towards the end of the film, but nobody, including Dodd (Freddie’s only friend, as Dodd insists, and this may in fact be true) ever told him to actually go do the thing he should have done years ago. To do that would be to tell a member of their cult to contact the outside world for reasons other than to proselytize, and this is something that Dodd, and especially Peggy, cannot have. If Freddie is to leave one of the various places The Cause calls home to do something besides furthering The Cause, then Peggy would just as soon cut him loose. And it’s true that there is some reason, some small reason, for hoping that Freddie might not be a lost cause. It’s worth noting, I think, that for all of Freddie’s obsession with sex, he’s only shown actually having it once, near the end, and the experience seems to be a pleasant one for both parties – I’m not at all convinced this is routinely the outcome for Freddie in these situations. This, of course, being after he’s cut ties, or ties have been cut for him, from Dodd. And it’s Dodd he’s separating from, more than The Cause. The men were close, and when they part for good, in a strange scene involving Dodd singing “Slow Boat to China,” Freddie is moved, though I doubt he could explain why (I also doubt that I could explain why). But then it’s back to aimlessness, as we began. However, it’s not the film that becomes aimless, as some have contended, but Freddie who has returned to that state. This is the structure. It’s hard enough for a filmmaker to let go of the architecture of traditional cinematic storytelling, but if anything it’s harder for the audience. That is, if the film doesn’t announce itself as such. Something by David Lynch, or perhaps Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy can be more easily absorbed for what they are because they present themselves as that thing, or at least clue us in early enough. But Anderson is playing a different game, building a film that appears to be a Film As We Know It, but isn’t actually – it’s one that, like its protagonist, skips and drifts along. Mind you, this is no easier for me. Just in writing this review, in trying to weave plot summary into all the stuff I’m trying to bring to this – I don’t know, analysis or whatever – I actually thought to myself at one point “My God, I still have them on the yacht! I have to get them off the yacht!” This is Anderson’s business, though, not mine, and he gets them off the yacht with no trouble.

The film ends on a beach shot that could be regarded as gentle, if we hadn’t seen Freddie in that exact position earlier, when his psychological future was considerably less rosy. Not that it’s especially rosy by the end, either. His one attempt to step away from The Cause didn’t go as he’d hoped, and all that’s left in his mind to deal with everything banging around up there is what Dodd taught him. The sad part is that at the end he doesn’t really understand that everything he went through with Dodd didn’t work. But it didn’t work. It couldn’t work.

Monday, September 24, 2012

From the Mouth of a Wooden Clown

Tomorrow, Criterion will be releasing Paul Bartel's 1982 satire Eating Raoul and David Fincher's 1997 thriller The Game on DVD and Blu-ray, and it's interesting to note that both films, which are wildly divergent from each other in pretty much every other conceivable way, deal in some way with money, either the not having of it and how that can effect a person, or having a whole mess of it and how that can effect a person. I don't know, maybe there's been something in the news recently that can explain this coincidence. Anyhow, I'd seen both films before, many years ago, and had what I considered pretty ironclad reasons for disliking them: Eating Raoul wasn't funny, and The Game was stupid. But Bartel's film has always had some level of critical/cult acceptance, and while the film seems to have been somewhat forgotten over the years, this Criterion release will, I suppose, either reinvigorate the love some have for this really very modest little comedy, or prove that Eating Raoul did indeed have a very specific sell-by date, one that has long since passed. For myself, I was perfectly happy to give it another look and see what there was to see. As for The Game, as Fincher's place among living, working, and vital American directors has risen, so has the reputation for this movie, which was not exactly embraced in 1997, though it now enjoys a reasonably healthy cult status. Fincher had just come off of Seven, would go on to make Fight Club after, and so obviously, if you love those two films as much as so many people seem to (I don't, but I do like Fincher), The Game simply can't represent as significant a dip as it appeared. It just can't. Some people are doing a pretty good job of making a case for the film, as Mike D'Angelo does in this piece, so, again, bring it on, says I.
And so what am I left with? Well, in the case of Eating Raoul, I can say that the film is not not funny, but it's also mostly not funny. If you get me. Starring Bartel and long-time associate Mary Woronov as a married couple, Paul and Mary Bland (see, they're bland), the film, which was co-written by Bartel and Richard Blackburn (who in 1973 had previously written and directed the strange horror film Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural, is the kind of satire that aims to take on every side at once. The Blands are boring, and judgmental towards the swingers that populate their apartment building, and the swingers are mostly stupid, cretinous, selfish animals. The Blands dream is to open up a restaurant, but since neither of them make much money they have to get money by either selling off part of Paul's treasured wine collection, only to have the buyer rip Paul off, or to apply for a bank loan, only to have the bank manager (Buck Henry) turn out to be another swinger who basically tries to rape Mary. Then one night, Paul and Mary find themselves being assaulted by a particularly aggressive swinger, and Paul kills him with a frying pan. Swingers tend to be well off -- otherwise how could they live such carefree lives? -- and this one, the dead one, turns out to be no different. The Blands think nothing of emptying his wallet before disposing of the body. This leads them to the idea of luring swingers to their home with the promise of dominatrix-type swinging, provided by a frequently costumed Woronov, where the customer will be murdered, robbed, and disappeared. This also leads them to Raoul (Robert Beltran), a shady locksmith who wants in on their scheme, and who seduces the repressed Mary.

This kind of satire, the kind that sprays its bullets, is fine by me. It's also interesting to watch the film again and realize that the big joke is not, in fact, the one given away by the title, and that the film is not a riff on the Sweeney Todd story. That's the punchline, but not the joke. The joke, the big joke, the joke that the film more or less hinges on, is how easily the characters kill people. There's never a moral hiccup, there's almost never even a thought about jail. It's the most casual thing -- we won't go to jail because we'll get rid of the body and no one will ever miss this freak. This joke is set up early on in a scene with Paul at his job at a liqour store. A man comes in to rob the place while Paul is being chewed out by his boss, who pulls a gun and shoots the robber, then picks up the conversation where he'd left off. So get whatever you want by whatever means necessary, because it doesn't matter. No one cares about anyone but themselves, after all. The problem with this as a target for satire -- and I almost think this is a problem for satire in general -- is that Bartel and Blackburn make it easy on everybody by depicting all of the victims as scumbags. There's very little sting if everybody is the butt of the joke. Unless the joke is perhaps complex enough to include the possibility that by making the audience as uncaring about the bodies piling up as Paul and Mary, Bartel and Blackburn's point has sort of been made.

But is it funny, though? Sometimes. There aren't a lot of films that can be as filled with rotten jokes as Eating Raoul but can also casually throw out any number of genuinely good ones. My favorite is after Bartel has killed one of Mary's customers, who apparently had some sort of hospital/nurse fetish he was paying Mary to fulfill, he says "The consolation is that if you'd done what he wanted, he would have died anyway." But mostly not. Bartel and Woronov came from the experimental wing of the 1960s counterculture, and that's not a wing I think of as having produced a lot of great comedy. The humor that came from that world tended to be an uneasy mix of the psychedelic and/or surreal, the campy, and the broad -- slapstick on mushrooms, I guess somebody might very well have probably called it once. And it's very much not for me. It's not jokes so much as things that appear to be jokes. I never like novels that feature physical slapstick, because describing slapstick almost never works -- slapstick works if the performer knows how to time a specific kind of recklessness (something like that). Writing a description of a pratfall by definition cuts out the joke. The kind of comedy that dominates Eating Raoul somehow manages to be the cinematic, visual equivalent of that. I realize this doesn't make any sense, but that is the effect. A translation of a translation, perhaps. Anyway.
As for Fincher's film, I'm afraid my opinion of that one is essentially exactly the same as it was in 1997. The Game is essentially a paranoid thriller of the kind they used to make in the 1970s, but with the twist-ending hook that really started to take hold of, and strangle, American genre movies in the 90s. Admittedly, the difference between The Game's twist and that of, say, Identity, is that while the later film was transparently reverse-engineered to have a twist ("Here's my story idea, how do we tangle it up so that the idea itself becomes a shocking surprise?"), the Fincher film, which was written by John Brancato and Michael Ferris, with an uncredited pass or two by Seven screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker, has its twist built in -- it cannot end any way other than the way it does. There is no other way to tell this story, that I can see anyway. The problem is that as an idea it's fundamentally flawed, in that the filmmakers are asking the audience to buy into a relentless form of weird intrigue that they know means precisely jack shit, in the hopes that the audience will be willing and able to drop it all in favor of a large sack of Big Themes, which will be nervously and sweatily handed to them with about twenty minutes left in the film.

But it's pretty good for about forty minutes, minus the Daniel Schorr cameo. In The Game, Michael Douglas plays Nicholas Van Orton, an enormously wealthy man who also seems like he might be kind of a snooty dickwad. Not an outright villain, but a man who lives in a world very far removed from the one most of us live in, and he knows it, and he prefers it that way. Or maybe he only thinks he does, because his life as depicted in the early goings of The Game seems pretty dull and unhappy, even antiseptic. Outside of his professional life, which even though it’s showing some cracks doesn’t appear to be the kind of pumped up beehive that might conceivably cause a person to become addicted to it, Van Orton’s only close personal relationship is with his housekeeper (hey it’s Carroll Baker), and even that one could stand a defrosting or two. So one day, on Nicholas’s birthday in fact, he gets a call from his free-wheeling, former fuck-up of a brother Conrad (Sean Penn), the two meet for lunch, and Conrad gives him a gift. It’s a gift certificate to a company called Consumer Recreation Services, and the gist of the services they provide is that they turn their customer’s life into a thrilling game. Only it’s supposedly more than that, because Conrad, and later two men at Nicholas’s club who he overhears discussing CSR, claim it’s not just fun, but rather a wonderful, life-changing experience. So despite himself, Nicholas goes to the local CSR offices, is led through the registration process by a jokey, confident salesman (very ably played by James Rebhorn), and then, gradually at first but then with increasing intensity, the game kicks off. And it’s an all-consuming game – every facet of Nicholas’s life is involved, and the CSR people seem to be everywhere, and able to do anything, from changing the lock on his briefcase to delivering messages to him through the national news on TV. Nicholas goes from being uneasily intrigued, to just uneasy, to terrified, as he comes to believe, and with good reason, that CSR is not trying to change his life, but to ruin it.

As I say, it’s pretty good for the first forty minutes. Fincher and Co. use some tried and true creepy imagery, such as a large clown doll, to draw everybody into it, and the persistent question “What the hell is going on here?” gives the film its engine. But a host of problems are introduced with the character played by Deborah Kara Unger, none of which have anything to do with Deborah Kara Unger herself. First of all, because Hollywood – and I don’t know if you know this – has a tendency to pick up on things that worked in other movies and cram them into other movies that might not really be built for them, her character (a waitress named Christine who seems involved with the CSR shenanigans in some way but also doesn’t seem to realize it) and Douglas’s become hitched together on his journey to figure all this out, and because their initial meeting wasn’t exactly amiable, but they do feel attracted to each other, etc. You know the routine. It’s around this time that the film starts adding jokes, and though The Game never really threatens to shed its ominous mood and become Romancing the Stone, the idea does seem to have crossed somebody’s mind, and Fincher put in just enough to satisfy that person and mildly wound his film. Not that I actually know if that’s what happened, but it sure feels like it. Besides that, while Christine is a vital plot component, she’s nothing else. The ending tries to make her something else, but no one seems to have realized that the chemistry between Unger and Douglas never took, possibly because on film both performers give off a certain iciness. So it’s hard to care if these two snappy, unemotional people ever make it work in this crazy world. This isn’t even my main gripe, but it’s a symptom. The film unwinds its tension not at the end, but towards the middle, by focusing on things far less interesting than what it’s leaving behind. Knowing how the film ended, and not liking how it ended, I was surprised to realize that if I was watching The Game for the first time, after a while I would have been no more interested in what the film was pretending to be than what it actually turned out to be. When the stakes are raised, and CSR’s tactics become more aggressive, this leads (inevitably? To some, maybe, but it shouldn’t be) to shots of CSR vans, and CSR agents, I guess, piling out with machine guns to spray bullets up at the apartment where they know Nicholas is hiding. This is uninteresting and boring. Cliché thought it may be, the wooden clown that kicks this whole thing off is miles more intriguing than the knowledge that these CSR guys are (but actually aren’t) corporate thugs, or the mob hiding behind a corporate guise, or whatever those uniforms and guns and surveillance vans signify. So at least the ending brings something I hadn’t seen before into the mix, even if it’s something kind of slim. And stupid, but mainly stupid in retrospect. I’d incorrectly remembered the upshot of all this was an attempt to make Nicholas a nicer person, when in fact that’s just one of the presumed side effects. It just now occurs to me that The Game is sort of like A Christmas Carol in this way, and I wonder if that connection occurred to anyone making the film. Regardless, it’s worth thinking about in that way, as it might make some of the stupidness go down easier, but I imagine not much easier. The ending of the film invites all sorts of questions that begin with “But how could they have known…” Mine is “But how could they have known he’d go to the roof?” This isn’t the sort of question I find myself asking of too many films (I’m not very inquisitive, perhaps) but when you create a – and I use this word for the sake of simplicity – villain that can seemingly do anything, and then part of your big reveal is how, in its way, pedestrian the whole thing is, the audience is going to wonder how they manage to seemingly do anything. And plus, what the hell is this shit anyway? A massive, boundlessly wealthy corporation bent to one task: making other boundlessly wealthy people learn a little humility? This is the problem with twists – the complaint often is not, or shouldn’t be, “That would never happen” but rather “I don’t believe what you’ve just told me.” By structuring the film as a twisty thriller, Fincher and the screenwriters end up with something that’s nonsensical. If they’d wanted to explore their idea more directly, this maybe wouldn’t be an issue. It would almost certainly have been a different movie, obviously, but what’s the core idea of The Game that made people want to make it, and how is that idea best served?

But it’s well-made, as you’d expect from Fincher. I’ve become a fan of the guy, the turning point being Zodiac, one of my favorite films, but no amount of Zodiacs or Social Networks or The Girl With the Dragon Tattoos (underrated, in my view) can change my mind about the first half of his career, which to me remains slick, professional, stylish, self-important, and kind of goofy. Another person I’ve had a change of heart about since 1997 is Michael Douglas, who I used to dislike. However, a lightbulb switched on when I was reading William Goldman’s Which Lie Did I Tell?, where he quite logically lays out that the only problem with Douglas is that he’s often miscast. Douglas projects a few very specific things, having to do with race, wealth, and class. Within those few things, there’s a lot of variety and room to move about, but it’s hard to take those qualities and plunk them down in a movie like The Ghost and the Darkness (the film that got Goldman on this topic). The Game, though, is squarely in Douglas’s wheelhouse, and it provides him a good role, which he nails. It’s the movie that lets him down.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Here Comes a Chopper to Chop Off Your Head

Today, Kino Lorber is releasing three Mario Bava films to Blu-ray, and while I could do no more than speculate about why these particular titles were chosen, it is interesting that they keep Bava within the horror genre – a genre he’s known for, but which he certainly didn’t work in exclusively – yet still provide a pretty nice sense of the man’s range. The films are the ultra-Gothic, and black & white, Black Sunday, the surrealist and sunny, until the sun goes down, Lisa and the Devil (paired here, as it often is, with the producer-mandated re-edit House of Exorcism), and the strange, subdued (in some ways) and very sly Hatchet for the Honeymoon. This last one became of particular interest to me as I watched it recently, it being the only one of the three I hadn’t seen before, but also because of its regular over-turning of genre conventions, whether the genre being overturned is an old classic, or one that Bava himself essentially invented just a few years previously.

I suppose I should say here, not that I can imagine it doing me any good, that Italian horror is something to which I seem to have a mild allergy. If it matters, I'm quite fond of Michele Soavi's Stagefright, while being thoroughly disdainful of Soavi's Cemetery Man. I like Fulci's Zombi or Zombi 2 or whatever well enough, and I remember that other Fulci movie where the chick vomits up all her intestines, but it is beyond me why Fulci should be taken seriously. The New York Ripper certainly is repulsive, though! I like Who Can Kill a Child? quite a bit, but that movie's Spanish, so why even bring it up? Meanwhile, Argento...you know, my Argento viewing has been so scattershot that I'm not sure it's really fair to mention him. I saw Suspiria when I was a kid and haven't gone back to it, I stopped watching the copy of Deep Red that I got from Netflix when the English dubbing dropped out and wasn't replaced with subtitles, which I've since gathered is for some reason just sort of what happens with that film on DVD, Opera pretty much just proved that I was right to be wary of this kind of thing, I liked Tenebrae...but my entry point to Argento, as an adult with a memory, was stuff like The Card Player and Do You Like Hitchcock? "Unfair!" most would cry. In any case, my issue with this stuff is that I'm rarely able to convince myself that the nonsensicality that is so often a feature of Italian horror is part of any kind of larger purpose, rather than a symptom of incompetence. Not that I'm saying Argento, for instance, is incompetent (well, he might be now), but rather that he's very good at the stuff he cares about, which leaves quite a lot of things that interest me in cinematic storytelling that he can't be bothered with. The set pieces can be wonderful, but everything else needs to just be gotten through.

Bava is different, though. I almost said "mostly different" but thinking about it, I could almost feel the first rock strike my temple. But basically I think I'm often finding more in Jean Rollin's films what I keep expecting to find an abundance of in Bava's. I've been slowly making my way through his work, and even if I'm not knocked over the head by, say, Lisa and the Devil, it's very clear to me that it's also not Opera, that there's an imagination, a full imagination, at work here, one that, as I've said, can encompass a lot. My two favorite Bava films so far are Bay of Blood, aka Twitch of the Death Nerve, and the crime film Rabid Dogs, and I've found very little about either of those to complai-genrn about, though the twisted joke of an ending to the former pretty handily obliterated from my memory any objections I may have had up to that point. And now I have Hatchet for the Honeymoon to consider, and while it may not reach the level of either of those films, or of Lisa and the Devil or Black Sunday, it does pretty handily trounce Blood and Black Lace, the Bava film from 1964 that is credited as being the first giallo, the subgenre of Italian horror/thrillers that I'm most resistant to, and the Bava film that Hatchet for the Honeymoon feels most closely connected to.
Made in 1970, Hatchet for the Honeymoon is about John Harrington (Stephen Forsyth), a hugely successful fashion designer who is also a serial killer, exclusively, it would seem, of women who are just about to get married. That's sort of your whole plot, which isn't too unusual for a giallo. What is unusual, at least in my limited experience, is that most gialli are, among other things, mysteries in the "whodunnit" mode -- someone is hacking up people, who is it? -- but you know from the beginning of Hatchet for the Honeymoon that Harrington is the killer. What you don't know, and what he doesn't know, is why he does it. But wait, why does he do it? He does it because he believes that with each bride-to-be he cuts down, a piece of the childhood psychological puzzle will be added to, and help clear up, the mystery of...why he kills young brides. Something happened in his childhood that caused him to become a murderer, and the only way to regain that memory is to murder. He murders to discover why he murders. The almost amazing part of all this is that by the end of the film, there's actually a logic to it all. The reveal, which I'm very tempted to give away because I honestly think it's so good and is part of what makes this film so interesting, is almost a punchline, but while Bava wasn't against the idea of occasionally playing his horror for laughs, I don't think that's what is going on here. Essentially, Harrington's murderous life and psychology is just a snake eating itself, which I suppose is giving away more than enough.

Along the way, Bava's able to get in a lot of other weirdness and more than a little craft. There's a terrific sequence, for instance, involving a murder that occurs in Harrington's home just before the police arrive (for various reasons, the police view Harrington as a person of interest), and with no time to cover anything up, Harrington is forced to leave the corpse on the landing of a stairway leading up from the foyer, where he and the police are eventually standing. Dripping blood and a dangling hand threaten at any second to give Harrington away, and the whole thing is just marvelously Hitchcockian, and put me in mind especially of the potato truck sequence from Frenzy -- not visually or anything, but the idea of feeling tense for the safety of an unrepentant murderer -- which is even more interesting when you consider that Hitchcock released his film two years after Hatchet for the Honeymoon came out. But since there's some very blatant Psycho stuff in this film, we'll call it a draw. Also interesting, and also not very giallo-like is the almost complete absence of graphic violence (or nudity!). Bava has never seemed to me to be the Italian horror filmmaker who was most interested in that kind of bloodshed, but he certainly had it in him. But not here, though, where you'd think he'd find plenty of space for it. No, instead he shows a woman struck down by the killer's hatchet by cutting, just as the blade is about to land, to a wild, red, still image of her face being split down the middle. It's very precisely timed and hugely effective.

Plus, there's a ghost in this movie. To go too deeply here would get into more plot stuff than I'd like, or than you'd like, but suffice it to say, one of Harrington's victims comes back to haunt him. What's so weird about this is that while most filmmakers would try to make this a "is that really a ghost or is it in his guilt-ridden mind?" thing, Bava very explicitly removes that option by reversing the way these things are generally done: everyone can see the ghost but Harrington. But Harrington knows for a fact that the woman everyone is claiming to be having a conversation with, or whatever's going on, is dead as shit. I kept waiting for Bava to pull some typical giallo nonsense out of his ass to deal with this, but he never does. It's pretty great, even if it is entirely shithouse.

In some ways, Hatchet for the Honeymoon provided me with the same kind of negative reactions I often get from such films, including, I must admit, Blood and Black Lace. Dialogue's not a big deal in these movies, I guess, and while broad acting can be fine, can be great, broadness delivered with a blank face is something I've yet to warm to. Though Forsyth is good, as is Laura Betti as his wife -- she's at least not blank-faced. But this is one of the rare Italian horror films that makes me not care so much about the more typical filmgoing pleasures that I've become used to. It's offering up some very different things, and they turn out to be plenty.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Diabolical, the Fantastic, and the Marvelous

That guy, right up there, is the devil. As played by Jules Berry in Marcel Carne's Les Visiteurs du Soir, which is being released by Criterion tomorrow, the devil is impish, as that still implies, but also quite unambiguously evil. He's a jolly sort, and he likes games, unfair games, and unfair contracts, but that version of the devil isn't always paired off with genuine evil as this one. At one point, he's gloating to Anne (Marie Dea), one of the several star-crossed lovers in the film that the devil is manipulating towards catastrophe, and he ends his litany of horrifying successes (which, when taken together, is basically the whole of human suffering) by saying "Death? That's me, too!" And he's delighted.

His plot this time around is very small in scale, and that's the fascination. This fairy tale set in a French castle finds Anne, the daughter of Baron Hugues (Fernand Ledoux), set to be married to Renaud (Marcel Herrand), a not particularly winning fellow who Anne describes as approaching everything in his life with the same level of tight-lipped seriousness -- "I'm going hunting" and "I love you, Anne" exit his mouth with the same clipped tone. But she's prepared to go through with it until, one day, two performers, Dominique (Arletty) and Gilles (Alain Cuny) arrive at the castle, ostensibly to take part in a pre-wedding celebration. The are in reality, however, on a mission from Satan (Les Visiteurs du Soir translates roughly to The Devil's Envoy) to cause unrest and unhappiness and possibly even death, should they be able to swing that, in a situation where everything's already on the brink of unhappiness already. To achieve their ends, they stop time, and Gilles whisks away Anne, and Dominique (a woman pretending to be a man, until she confesses the truth under whatever circumstances will best suit her needs) seduces Renaud. And then later Baron Hugues, a somber widower, as well.

The glitch is that -- and this is the devil's key mistake, as it so often is -- though they've signed themselves over to the devil, Dominique, and especially Gilles, are still human beings. When we first meet the pair, a man is fleeing the castle in despair after soldiers have cruelly and needlessly killed his pet bear. Gilles restores the bear, and Dominique asks why he bothered. He replies that sometimes he still likes to do good deeds. And so whatever his initial motives, his love for Anne becomes genuine.
Les Visiteurs du Soir is a fascinating film for a number of reasons, not least of them being that Carne made it in 1942, under the watchful eyes of his country's Nazi occupiers. It's very easy, knowing that, to read the film as a simple allegory of evil, and good in the face of evil, and the triumph of spirit under the worst conditions. However, in his essay "Love in the Ruins" included in the Criterion booklet, Michael Atkinson writes:

One doesn't quite need to label it allegory; it would be difficult to come up with any dramatically structured film that, had it been made under Nazi noses, could not be somehow construed as a protest or expression of resolve. Does that make any perceived subtext meaningless or, in this historical context, all the more poignant? According to a twenty-five-year-old [Andre] Bazin, writing in Revue jeux et poesie in 1943...it became the film du jour, the manifestation of the national spirit, and "the diabolical, the fantastic, and the marvelous soon became the conventions of our present production."

This is why Les Visiteurs du Soir is such a rarity, and the kind of thing people are talking about when they refer to "timelessness" in art. Most art that wishes to address some current, specific social issue simply does so bluntly, but other works, such as this and Arthur Miller's The Crucible, are able to be about the thing we're all proud to have noticed they're about, as well as about what they seem to be about, and the difference in importance between the two is negligible. When Nicholas Hytner was adapting The Crucible into his highly underrated 1996 film, Miller's big concern was that Hytner not mess with his version of 17th century American/Puritan speech, which you'd think would hardly bother him if the main point of it all was that no one ever forget about Joseph McCarthy.
Les Visiteurs du Soir functions quite effortlessly in the same way. It's not hard to see the influence of Nazi occupation on Carne throughout the film, especially in its sad/hopeful ending, but you'd neither have to cut anything from nor add anything to the film to make it stand alone as a melancholy, eerie, inspiring fairy tale. This being a story about the devil, I was obviously keen to note what, if any, horror elements Carne brought to the table, and apart from the aforementioned gleefully diabolical performance by Jules Berry, you also have three dwarves also introduced as entertainment during the film's opening party, the enternmaint deriving from the fact that not only are they dwarves, but their faces are horribly deformed -- this fact is intended, by the man who proudly presents them to the baron, to elicit laughter, and this it does. Disturbing enough, but then it turns out that these dwarves have some affinity for, or connection to, or secret knowledge of Dominique and Gilles' demonic plans, and we seem them cavorting and chanting nightmarishly as the rest of the castle sleeps. Later, there is a duel where one character is left dead, and we witness all of this, as do Gilles and Anne, through a magical pool of water provided by the devil. Carne's use of the blood of the dead man to cloud the water through which we've just witnessed his death is a brilliant piece of fantasy/horror imagery, nearly on par with the work of Carne's rough contemporary and one of the most inventive genuises to ever toil in this field, Jean Cocteau.

Les Visiteurs du Soir is wonderful, in short, a fantasy film unlike anything we have now, or are likely to ever have again.