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 Heaven, The 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.
Tuesday, July 22, 2014
Monday, July 21, 2014
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 are 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
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 Crash. Crash 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.
Wednesday, July 9, 2014
It can be a surprising thing to learn -- and, if you're me, later to remember -- how, and I have to think of a way to say this that doesn't sound pejorative because that's not the tone I'm trying to strike here at all, compact the body of work of certain admired artists can be. For every Ingmar Bergman or Alfred Hitchcock, each of whom made dozens of films, there is a Robert Bresson or Stanley Kubrick, both major directors who nevertheless each made only thirteen feature films apiece. These things happen, the reasons for it can be and are various, and Kubrick himself encompasses all possible excuses so just go to him with your questions. I don't mean to make too much of this, but it can kind of take you aback when you finally notice it, as I recently did with the work of Michelangelo Antonioni. I've become particularly interested lately, you see, and the big surprising reveal is that he only made sixteen feature films; on top of this, if you want to start throwing around asterisks, one of those, Chung Kuo, China is a documentary and another, Antonioni's last, Beyond the Clouds from 1995, was co-directed by Wim Wenders. That leaves fourteen on which the man's enormous reputation rests, and yet, even so, the gulf, in style and approach more so than in quality, between 1952's I Vinti and 1964's Red Desert, is enormous.
In the above example, Red Desert is a somewhat arbitrary example, though one chosen because I recently watched it, as I recently watched I Vinti, chosen less arbitrarily as it has just been released on Blu-ray by Raro Video. While Red Desert is certainly less a synecdoche of Antonioni than L'Avventura or Blow-Up, with its slow, almost somnambulant blending of decadence and calamity it would still have to count as somewhat representative. I Vinti, on the other hand, is, just for starters, so much chattier than anything else I know by Antonioni that I doubt I'd ever have pegged it as his film if I didn't already know it was going in. I Vinti (which not at all incidentally means "The Vanquished") was Antonioni's second film, and is comprised of three thematically linked short films. That theme could be simplified as "murder," or less simplified as "post-war murder" and again as "post-war European murder." Which is me being glib, but not inaccurate. The short films, each based on a true story, are called "France," "Italy," and "London," and each revolve around a certain kind of murder. I'm inclined here to dispense with "Italy" right away, as it is the compromised odd-duck of the bunch. According to Stefania Parigi's short essay included in the booklet that comes with the Raro disc, this short was originally envisioned by Antonioni as the story of a young Fascist who martyrs himself so that his act of terrorism will be blamed on a group of Communists. He was forced by censors to mute the politics nearly into ambiguity (I say nearly because the character Claudio, played by Franco Interlenghi does have a speech about traitors ruling Italy, and his belief that his particularly ideology would rise again, and given the character's youth and the fact that I Vinti is a 1952 film, it's not a big leap to imagine he misses Mussolini pretty badly), but even that got obliterated before I Vinti was released so that "Italy" as it exists as part of the complete film is a kind of weakly defined, apolitical story of a young middle-class smuggler who shoots his way out of trouble and later dies of injuries sustained in a fall. It doesn't have much personality, in other words, and it's hard to see why Antonioni's already censored, but easily more vital story about Claudio blowing up a factory, which still exists in full and is included as an extra on the Raro disc, hasn't by now simply been restored as a part of the film. But anyway.
Far more interesting are the other two stories. In "France," a group of young people plan an outing with another friend named Andre, who they plan on murdering. Ostensibly their motives are financial -- they talk about using his money to escape -- but they come from families that not only appear to be caring, but also well-to-do. I Vinti is bookended by moralizing voice overs about this young generation vaunting the individual over all else and casting moral questions into the garbage as they model themselves after gangsters. This all seems far too on the nose to have been Antonioni's idea, but in "France" there's something to that. While by no means as explicitly about gangster films as Godard's Breathless, which was still ten years away, there is much that is chilling about the way Antonioni's characters are casual about what they plan to do, and it recalls the separation between what's cinema and what isn't that so fascinated Godard. For the kids in "France," murder is a way to chase away the summer blues. Of course, when it comes right down to pulling the trigger, that gun starts to feel a lot clumsier and more slippery than it had before, and the mouth goes dry, and all of this actual reality leads to the downfall of these vile little shits, but before we get there this story could actually just be about a pleasantly frivolous day spent in nature, a film not entirely unlike People on Sunday. The final scene is kind of ingenious, so simple and perfect in a way that calls to mind the best of short fiction as practiced by Tobias Wolff, for instance.
The last of the three films is "London," and like "France" it tells the story of a man who decides to commit murder with a terrible ease. The murder has in fact already occurred when the young man named Aubrey (Peter Reynolds) approaches a newspaper reporter named Ken Wharton (Patrick Barr) and tells him that he's just found a dead body in the park, and for a fee he, Aubrey, will write about his experience for Wharton's paper. Wharton agrees, and Aubrey, not at all disturbed by what has happened, keeps looking for more angles to get some work, or any case some money, out of this, until to no one's surprise he confesses that he murdered the woman, a prostitute, and isn't his confession worth maybe a couple of bucks? The confession is genuine, and Aubrey is of course arrested. The key to how Antonioni approaches this kind of material, which deals with the question of why a man would commit a murder for apparently no real reason, is that he doesn't try to answer anything. The power, and the terror, of "London" is watching Aubrey as he tries to use a corpse as his means to get ahead in the world, but only as an afterthought -- that's not why he killed her. Antonioni doesn't even make Wharton desperate to figure this guy out. He just becomes depressed. What's left to do besides that?