Friday, September 30, 2011

It Begins...

…tomorrow. The only reason I’m telling you this is because I feel like it would be a little bit strange to dive into the festivities without some kind of prologue. Plus, it’s sort of arrogant to assume that what I do here every October needs no introduction. I'm not exactly Peter Lawford over here.

So to be brief. Tomorrow is October 1st, which is the one part of this I really hope I don’t need to tell anybody, and once October begins, so begins The Kind of Face You Slash (this year, I’m dropping the capitalization on “slash”, as well as the exclamation points; I mean, let’s show a little dignity, right?), wherein I devote myself to writing about horror fiction every day, for 31 days. Then after that, I stop. Pretty simple. Only because I have reading to do, I’m going to leave the introduction at that, but here are links to the previous three years’ worth of this nonsense. That should set you straight enough before tomorrow.

Also, boo! And grrr! That was a ghost sound, and a monster sound, respectively.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Everyone Who Resists Will Be Executed

Calling out films for glorifying historical monsters is something of a hobby of mine, to the point where I consider myself something of a connoisseur, so it disturbs me to the depth of my soul when I encounter the rare instance of a professional critic doing the same thing and I'm forced to bellow (as always, quietly and to myself) "You're doing it wrong!!!" Such was the case with Marshall Fine's review of Carlos, Olivier Assayas's massive, five-and-a-half hour film about Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, a left-wing terrorist better known as Carlos the Jackal. In his review, Marshall Fine says things like this:

[H]ere’s my objection to “Carlos”: that, in presenting a terrorist as an action hero, it glorifies terrorism as a legitimate path of political action.

Here’s the bottom line: Would people be singing the praises of this film if it was equally well-made, just as thrilling and exciting – but was the story of Mohamed Atta? A terrorist is a terrorist. Murder is murder.

But, except, no. Carlos, which is being released on DVD tomorrow by Criterion, is not like this at all. Carlos, the character, played with a strong and subtle mix of confidence, cowardice, ruthlessness, and incompetence by Edgar Ramirez, is, in Assayas's film, ultimately a murderous fool. He's the kind of man who is ready, happily ready, to kill for his cause -- leftist struggles, mainly, in the film, in support of Palestine -- when he thinks he can get away with it, but pretty quick to shove his cause into the backseat when he thinks his own physical person is about to be driven off a cliff. As he says at one point in the film "I am a soldier, not a martyr", this in defense of his decision to sell the safety a freedom of a group of hostages taken during a raid on an OPEC conference in Vienna, with at least one of those hostages, the Saudi oil minister, pegged for execution -- this is such a certainty at one point that Carlos sits down with the man and explains why he must be killed. But then Carlos's skin is suddenly on the line, and dollar signs are in his eyes, and things change.
Any charge of glorification must come down to a few basic features of Assayas's film: Carlos's political passion, his physical attractiveness, and the associated fact that he gets laid a lot. On the first count, there's an early scene where Carlos energetically explains to his Cuban wife his new commitment to violent revolution. This turns into an argument, during which Carlos says "Behind every bullet will be an idea!" Now, depending on how awful you are, you might believe that's some pretty deep and invigorating shit, but does Assayas? And even if he does, or did, is Carlos depicted as someone for whom even that ridiculousness has any meaning? When he hurls a grenade into a drugstore (one owned by a Jew, Carlos very specifically informs the authorities at one point) and we later hear that witnesses saw women and children, after the blast, lying in pools of blood, what does "Behind every bullet will be an idea" mean, if it ever meant anything? It didn't, of course, but can it even sort of halfway sound good any longer?

Assayas's film is a masterclass in handling this kind of material without resorting to the hard sell. Indeed, it may be too subtle for its own good, to judge by the Marshall Fines and Armond Whites (he also strenuously objected to Carlos) of the world, though that's a comparison that may well be unfair to one or the other of them. But, for example, very late in the film, Carlos has grown fat, he's slow, and, most importantly, his testicles are malfunctioning. This is both historically true and artistically perfect -- a happy accident, from Assayas's point of view. We're about four-and-a-half to five hours into Carlos by the time this happens, but I imagine it wouldn't be hard to cast your mind back to the first half hour of the film, when Carlos is shown getting out of bed and standing naked in front of a full-length mirror, admiring his own physique and even briefly fondling his genitals. This scene, also, comes immediately after the aforementioned "behind every bullet" scene, and in that scene Carlos's then wife (who he will send away, with their child, and never contact again) says he's arrogant and is more interested in glory than any political ideal. So the arrogance and physique lead both to cowardice -- he's too shallow to be a martyr, perhaps -- and, you know, getting laid a lot. The rock star image that Assayas cultivates for Carlos in the film is done so specifically to tear it down. Carlos's own basking in it is part of the film's withering critique.
Carlos's extensive running time is broken into three parts, and in fact aired as a miniseries on French television (the fact that, in the US, it is regarded as a "film", rather than a piece of television -- despite the fact that it aired on IFC parallel to its theatrical release -- is further evidence of the continued, but selective, blurring of the lines between those two mediums), and part two is largely given over to the OPEC raid. This is Assayas's centerpiece -- everything that came before was building to it, everything that came after simply a falling away from it. It's Carlos's Lufthansa heist, if you will. There are several things that are key to this very long sequence, not least among them the brutal murders carried out by Carlos and one of his compatriots, Nada (Julia Hummer), and also not least of which is Nada herself. German by birth, Gabriele Kröcher-Tiedemann's nickname, Nada, which of course means "nothing" in Carlos's native tongue, might be considered another of those historical happy accidents, like Carlos's ball troubles. The woman is a moral blank, in other words, her credentials for joining Carlos on the OPEC raid being that she did two years in prison for shooting a cop, but "unfortunately I only wounded him." She makes sure not to wound anyone she takes aim at during the raid, however, and Nada helps to condemn Carlos in a "the company you keep" sort of way. She also stirred up the most anger in me personally, with her focus on killing policemen, and, if I may be allowed a brief aside, the refusal, at the moment of her eventual capture, of the police to kill her right back. I was reminded of a college class I took in modern Irish history, and my professor discussing seeing Neil Jordan's film Michael Collins and how, during that film's depiction of Bloody Sunday, 1920, he was crying out for the IRA, under Collins, to hurry up and "kill him!", referring to one of their various targets. So thought I, with the gender pronouns reversed, as armed police, who have been fired upon, chase Nada down the street, not shooting her for some crazy reason. There is an irony in parallelling these two stories that I'm not missing, but I'm able to acknowledge that while still wishing, on film and in reality, that they'd shot her.
Anyway, Nada comes to represent what Carlos would be if his head was as fogged with terrorist furor as he lets on. Not that he's not a terrorist, because he is, but unlike many terrorists, Nada included, he's not willing to die for his cause. And his cowardice both outrages those working under him, like Nada, and just happens, because morally Carlos couldn't give a shit, saves the lives of the hostages. Nada would die and take everyone else with her. Carlos is more wily, but with greater brain function -- Nada really is, slight a figure though she strikes, pretty much a dumb animal -- comes individual limits, and Carlos's mental limit comes sooner than he's willing to admit. The OPEC raid is a spectacular failure for the cause, and for him personally, and Assayas comes close to outright mocking him during this stretch. The ludicrous bungling of the DC-9 transport, and the beautifully portrayed reaction by Ramirez to the information, delivered by the patient German pilot sadly roped into this madness, that yes, you demanded a DC-9 and you got a DC-9, but a DC-9 does not have the fuel capacity to take you where you want to go, renders Carlos a total fool. The respect he demands from everyone just crumbles, to the point where when he releases the two pilots to go rest up, and extends his hand to them to show he appreciates their honorable behavior, they both walk right by him, because they know what he is. He's a villain, first off, but the plane screw-up revealed there's not even much of a brain at work. He's a monster, but somehow not a threat to them. This is as close as Carlos comes to a real crowd-pleasing moment, and it pleased me enormously. I feel like in this moment, and with these pilots, Assayas is providing the audience an audience surrogate. Normal people get a look into Carlos's world -- a look that doesn't immediately precede their death or injury -- and show only disdain.
Time and time again, Carlos, in Carlos, is portrayed this way, his image sent up, if without humor than at least with derision. Curiously, though politics are constantly discussed by the characters, Carlos isn't quite a political film, as such. In that the politics that Carlos is trying to represent are neither embraced or rejected. They are only presented. It is the methods that are rejected, and the person at the center of the film. There's a reason Carlos is never referred to as "the Jackal", and that this fearsome nickname is never even uttered: to tear down the image, Assayas starts by stripping away the most famous part of it. What's left is just Carlos, petty, stupid, cowardly, villainous, and a killer. What's not to admire?

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Let My Soul Come to Maturity

The Phantom Carriage, written and directed by, as well as starring, Victor Sjöström, is a ghost story, of sorts, about basic human awfulness. Sjöström plays David Holm, a man who we learn, as the film bounces backwards through time, and across the border of life and death, is a cruel, violent drunk who has destroyed his own life and the life of those who love him, and whose soul is so diseased that at one point he is seen gleefully coughing into the face of his sleeping children in a Satanic attempt -- although whether he succeeds in this plan doesn't seem to bother him much -- to pass on his tuberculosis. He's already managed this once before, though accidentally, when he infected Sister Edit (Astrid Holm), a saintly Salvation Army nurse who once was foolish enough to try to help David; when we meet Sister Edit at the very beginning of the film, she is on her deathbed.

Based on a novel by Nobel laureate Selma Langerlöf, the premise of The Phantom Carriage is that whoever is the last to die on New Year's Eve is cursed to take on the role of Grim Reaper, and harvest souls for the next year. David Holm dies early in the film, shortly after relating this legend to a couple of his hobo pals, and finds his soul being reaped by an old friend, or anyway acquaintence, named Georges (Tore Svennberg), who was indeed the last person to die on the previous New Year's Eve. By way of prepping David for his new gig, Georges exposes him to the cold truth of his horrible, sinful past. In this way, The Phantom Carriage comes to resemble Dickens' A Christmas Carol in its approach to the ghost story as a moral parable. This does not preclude a sense of genuine eeriness, of course, of a bleak and shadowy feudal brand that at least a couple of generations of Swedish filmmakers seemed particular good at producing.

Death is a hunched figure here, not sinister or punishing, but weighed down by the sadness of the job. This fits, as The Phantom Carriage is a profoundly sad movie, and it's a testament to Sjöström's great, some might say bottomless, empathy that he is able to bring David Holm around. And me around on the character, though I can't speak for anyone else. Empathetic or not, Sjöström's is so merciless in his depiction of the man that Stanley Kubrick, it seems obvious, borrowed from Sjöström to help illustrate the complete ruination of Jack Torrance's soul.

Yes, that would be David's wife on the other side of that door. And we're actually supposed to like this guy, sort of, kind of, eventually. So awful is David that his death, while technically a murder, or maybe manslaughter, could be said to have come about because his meanness and limitless selfishness finally amazes someone enough that they have to strike out. Finally, though, the film builds to a pitch of such despair (helped along, in the version I saw, by a truly magnificent score written in 1998 by Matti Bye; this score is, at times and among other things, some of the finest horror-themed music I've ever heard*), that any break in it is a blessed relief. Maybe that's Sjöström's secret in pulling off what he does, but he does it, and the overall impact of The Phantom Carriage is one of emotional assault followed by a particularly sober kind of peace.

I should say, though, that emotionally assaultive the film may be, it is gloriously so. The Phantom Carriage will be released on Tuesday by Criterion, and despite the fact that The Phantom Carriage's huge influence on Ingmar Bergman can be used as an explanation, if anyone like, say, Natasha Vargas-Cooper was stupid enough to need one, for the choice, it's one of those left-field releases that, like Pale Flower earlier this year, is really the company's bread and butter, and real gift to cinephiles. Speaking for myself, The Phantom Carriage is a wonderful slap upside the head and reminder that what I really need to be doing is watching more silent films. This constitutes the single greatest blind spot in my film-watching life, I have nevertheless been pretty thoroughly mesmerized by what I have seen so far, with this and Murnau's Sunrise, which I watched earlier this year, being the strongest dose of this cinematic world I've yet experienced. Humanity is rarely so strongly and nakedly presented on-screen as they are in these two films.

*Bye's score is one of two provided by Criterion, the other, which I admit I have not checked out, by an experimental group named KTL.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

I Drive

So, Drive is basically pretty much the movie that everyone’s talking about right now, or was talking about four days ago. I saw it last Saturday, and was alternately thrilled and entirely put out by Nicolas Winding Refn’s greatly enhanced (or is that jumped up?) adaptation of James Sallis’s very slender crime novel. Very slender and spare, which is important. I found myself largely indifferent to the novel, and questioning whether or not the critic who went out of his way to point out that, however spare Sallis’s book was, it wasn’t “skeletal”, was actually right or not. It’s a fine line, but in any case it’s very clear that, regardless of what I think, the tone of Drive the novel was very deliberate, as were the parallels with Walter Hill’s film The Driver, which achieves a spareness (while not being skeletal) on film that Sallis is clearly trying to replicate, in his own way, on the page.

With that in mind, how does Nicolas Winding Refn approach the material? This being the man who directed the Pusher trilogy, Bronson and Valhalla Rising. Well, according to some, Refn’s take on Drive is a minimalist one. After replacing my eyeballs, which had bugged out, lifting my jaw back into place, and letting the blasts of steam from my ears dissipate – I might have also shrieked “Whaaaaaaaaa?”, though of course such trauma leaves one’s memory hazy – I tried to figure out what the living fuck those people were talking about. Because first off, whatever debt Sallis’s novel owes to Walter Hill, Refn is more interested in going into hock with Michael Mann, who I cannot regard as a minimalist filmmaker. Icy, sometimes, fond of the color blue, certainly, but not minimalist. “Minimalist” does not mean, as some seem to believe, that long stretches of a film can go by with very little dialogue. For comparison, The Friends of Eddie Coyle is minimalist; Heat isn’t. And by the way, none of this should be taken as a knock on Drive. For the most part, I really liked the film. I just can’t understand why so many people are intent to misunderstand the meaning of “minimalism”, or to brutally expand the definition to include slow motion shots of exploding heads.

The violence in Drive really is sort of key to this whole thing. I know some have taken issue with the level and non-minimalist extremity of the bloodshed on display here, but I didn’t. Still, let’s not pretend that Refn isn’t indulging his sweet tooth, as it were. About midway through Drive, maybe more, the story really turns into a bloodbath. Or a bloodbath and a bonestorm, given all the crunching you hear, and Ryan Gosling, our star and hero, reveals a side of himself that has hitherto lain dormant. Personally, I found this quite…invigorating? If that’s the right word, I really don’t know what that says about me, but the increased violence in Drive does signal a turn into Crazy Town, and I was right on board for that. In the film, Gosling plays a very quiet (more on that in a moment) man named, either actually (and let’s hope it’s not that) or by Sallis as a way of leaving him nameless, and to nod yet again to Walter Hill, “Driver”. He’s a stuntman, and a getaway driver. As the best getaway driver that has ever been, he demands no involvement in the planning of any heists, or any involvement outside of the understanding that he will be parked where he needs to be, he will give those inside the bank/pawn shop/whatever five minutes to get out and get to his car, and then he will get them to safety. If they’re not out in five minutes, he’s going anyway. Driver’s bona fides are offered in the first scene, which involves him getting away with the aid of a police scanner. This is some terrific filmmaking right here, and about as close to actually being minimalist as Drive ever gets. But anyway, so that’s Driver, and on top of those two jobs he also works in a garage run by Bryan Cranston, who wants Driver to get on the racing circuit, and so he goes to local crime boss Bernie Rose, played exceptionally well by Albert Brooks. In the middle of all this, Driver falls in love with his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan), who has a young son, and a husband in prison. The courtship between Driver and Irene comes to a halt when the husband is released, a crime element is thrust back into the lives of Irene and her child, and Driver finds himself with the impulse to viciously protect those he loves, but can’t have.
And so that’s where the violence comes in. But also, when I look at the romance that Refn so desperately wants us to be moved by, I begin to understand the source of those bleats about “minimalism.” Because Driver hardly ever even talks! Even when he’s out on dates with a lady! Look, when I think of taciturn criminals, I think of all those passages in Richard Stark’s Parker novels, where Parker, all the planning done and the period of waiting before the action has just begun, is simply sitting, and Stark describes him watching TV with the sound off, or simply sitting and staring off, looking at nothing. I do not picture Ryan Gosling sitting on a couch watching cartoons and smiling, but speaking in a monotone. But somehow this counts now. Gosling really is a grinny sonofabitch in this, given the role, or the idea of the role, he's supposedly playing. But the single most aggravating thing about Drive is every single conversation Gosling has with Carey Mulligan. The fault, I have to think, does not lie with either of them, but with Refn, who directs them both to wait a full five to ten seconds after one has spoken before the other replies. Is dragging out conversation the same as minimalism now? Add in the fact that during the whole moony-eyed courtship portion of their romance, they actually never say anything of importance or worth, either as character or in terms of good dialogue. It got to a point where, if a scene began with Gosling and Mulligan alone together, I thought "Oh goddamnit, more pausing. Oh Jesus. Oh God no."

"Where do you want to go?"
"The zoo."

That's maybe a paraphrase, but you get the idea. It's like listening to two people in the same room having separate phone conversations.

But then, of course, Driver, to paraphrase Harlan Ellison, clouds up and rains all over everybody. The violence, I sensed, is Drive's comfort zone. Refn's pushing himself when he's figuring out the car stuff, but for him splattery violence is like Spike Lee strapping a camera on Denzel Washington's chest and pushing him down the street in a shopping cart (or whatever he does to get that shot in every movie. I don't know, I'm not very technically-minded) -- it's something that has a certain signature effect on the audience that he can do in his sleep. So when it takes over the film, it really takes over. And I admit, for the better. There's quite a bit of it, but three moments stand out for me. One involves Albert Brooks, who is so good here, and if you think his performance is in danger of being overhyped, that's your deal, because I think it's entirely earned. Part of that comes from the brilliantly counter intuitive casting, but that wouldn't work if Brooks couldn't do it, and he does it, most strikingly in the obligatory scene where the crime boss, up to now somewhat removed from everything, proves what he's capable of. A lot of films, too many maybe, have this scene, but there is something honestly shocking about seeing Brooks do it. And it's not just Brooks stabbing a guy (let's keep the description simple); it's Brooks stabbing a guy with a look of pure viciousness on his face.
But that's all perhaps beside my point. The other two moments of violence are carried out by Gosling. One, the much talked about elevator scene, grows from a moment of tenderness between Gosling and Mulligan, and explodes crazily onto the man who would do them harm. The tenderness is shot almost like a moment of fantasy, with a romantic swell of synth music and a change in lighting -- this angelic image is soon covered in blood, and the truth of who Driver is and has been, begins to come home. Which is good because up to now, for all Refn's best efforts, Driver has not exuded mystery. His motivations have been very clear, and they remain clear throughout, certainly, but at least we learn something about him we might not have guessed. Tom Reagen in Miller's Crossing is far more enigmatic than the practically mute Driver, and that guy's always talking his way out of stuff.

Yet the violence actually achieves something, and Refn goes with it. The third, and perhaps most striking, as well as ironically least graphic or bloody by several degrees, bit of violence I want to mention signals a shift if Refn's style. That shift was pretty much there once the previously mentioned head exploded, but when Driver dons the rubber mask he wears to dummy the star of the movie he's doing stuntwork for, and wears it to track down one of his targets, suddenly we're in a horror film. Almost. A slasher film, almost. One commenter online said that Gosling turns into Jason Vorhees, and he's almost right. But not quite. What he is is something out of a film by one of those French extremism guys, but one of the good ones -- Pascal Laugier or Fabrice du Welz or something. This passage of Drive is really eerie, and really strange, and really terrific.

Refn blows the ending a little bit, though. I won't say how, but for a second he looked prepared to deviate even further from Sallis's novel -- which he'd already deviated from quite a bit -- but then he doesn't, and the rather ill-judged 80s-esque song "A Real Hero", which is meant to highlight Driver's good side, don't you know, kicks back in, and, well, I think Refn should have pushed through and ended it the way he made you think he was going to. The climactic showdown had been so great up to that point, too. It wasn't minimalist, of course, but who ever claimed it was supposed to be?

Monday, September 19, 2011

He Mustn't Wake Up

[What follows contains what some might consider spoilers for Le Beau Serge and, especially, Les Cousins. Proceed with caution, and sorry this warning went up a bit late...]

Claude Chabrol was one of a handful of filmmakers who made up the French New Wave, and like the others -- Godard, Truffaut, Rivette, Rohmer, etc. -- began his career in film as a critic for Cahiers du Cinema. All would become actual filmmakers, of world-spanning importance and influence, except less so in the case of Chabrol. There's Godardian, but there's no Chabrolian. Yet Chabrol was the first of the group actually make a film, 1958's Le Beau Serge, which, along with his 1959 follow up, Les Cousins, is being released on DVD tomorrow by Criterion. So the man who actually, concretely and physically began the French New Wave is almost forgotten, or at least the length and breadth of his career and achievements seem to routinely get short-changed.

In his commentary track for the Les Cousins DVD, Adrian Martin chalks up Chabrol's status as the New Wave's odd man out to the inconsistent nature of his career, as well as his essentially straightfoward approach to cinematic storytelling when compared to Godard and Rivette's more radical burrowing underneath the nature of film. But it might also be a genre thing, as Chabrol worked extensively, though not exclusively, in the crime genre, which, yes, also interested Godard and Truffaut and so on, but they seemed more interested in taking it apart or pushing it off a cliff. This is probably why Chabrol's my own favorite among the New Wave directors, given my own proclivities, but the films themselves back me up. Has there ever been a greater depiction of the short, shocking road from every-day asshole to self-justifying murderer than Chabrol's deeply troubling Pleasure Party? Chabrol's interest was focused far more on the dark psychology of crime and violence than on any element of cops and criminals procedure, and in this way his source for literary adaptation tended towards complimentary writers, such as Patricia Highsmith and Ruth Rendell. La Ceremonie, Chabrol's adaptation of Rendell's A Judgment in Stone, proved that both artists shared a removed interest in and cold fascination with human disaster.

But you don't see a lot of that in Le Beau Serge or Les Cousins, or at least not in the way you would in years to come. Written at around the same time and, due to the earlier film's delayed release, arriving in theaters about a month apart, Chabrol's first two films do show a kind of transition from a more traditional, life-as-it-is-lived arthouse story in Le Beau Serge to the more dark and murderous realm Chabrol's work would eventually inhabit. They are companion films, self consciously so -- Le Beau Serge stars Jean-Claude Brialy as Francois, a city dweller returning to his small, rural hometown to rest up after an illness, where he rekindles, sort of, his friendship with Serge (Gerard Blain), who has become a near-hopeless alcoholic and abusive, uncaring husband to Yvonne (Michele Meritz), who he married because he'd gotten her pregnant, though their child was stillborn. Meanwhile, over in Les Cousins, you have Gerard Blain playing Charles, a small-town kid travelling to Paris to attend college. He lodges with his cousin Paul, played by Jean-Claude Brialy, also a student, as well as a Mephistophelean sybarite. So the country does all the boozing in one film, the city in the other -- taken together, this might seem to make the two films seem schematic, but in fact this sort of thing is just the tip of the iceberg.

In "The Nature of the Beast", his Criterion essay for Les Cousins, Terrence Rafferty describes that film as being "both lighter and infinitely darker" than Le Beau Serge, and to paraphrase Larry Miller in Waiting for Guffman, he's not wrong. Le Beau Serge is a bit of a wallow in Serge's deeply off-putting drinking and general awfulness, but he does have Francois there to take it upon himself provide an "example" of proper living. A priest (Claude Cerval) takes Francois to task for being terribly prideful, and he, too, is not wrong, but Francois at least is motivated, for whatever reasons you might wish to ascribe to him, to do good, and some sort of good, however ambiguous, is actually achieved. But Les Cousins is one of those situations where all the carousing is fun and free and enviable, right up until the point where it isn't, at which time it becomes not merely unhappy, but sinister.

As in Le Beau Serge, a turning point of sorts is reached in Les Cousins after a woman behaves in a certain way. That "certain way" is not really the same in either film, nor are the women, nor, for that matter, is the turning point. Strangely enough, there's a whiff of femme fatale, and even a strong dose of perversity, in Le Beau Serge's version of these events, but Les Cousins, where things are altogether more lazy and casual, is the one with the gun in it. If one were to break the two films down along these lines, Les Cousins, at the level of its premise, feels like something Patricia Highsmith might have come up with, while Le Beau Serge is more like Simenon (perhaps because there are cities everywhere, but only one French countryside), but Chabrol only followed this view of the world in his second film. Le Beau Serge does feel a bit unformed, its ending a little false. Les Cousins -- which has an interesting scene involving a bookshop owner (Guy Decomble) bemoaning the popularity of detective fiction -- strikes me as complete and much more clean, despite the shambles with which we're ultimately left. There's a sense that the ending to Les Cousins, as unlikely as it may seem, was, like many great crime stories, which Les Cousins isn't but also sort of is, inevitable.
The central performances of the two films must not be ignored, of course. Interestingly, Jean-Claude Brialy maintains a certain throughline between the films. He's not rambunctious as the desperately helpful Francois, but he's just as smug as Paul. Again, though, until he isn't, and his performance in Les Cousins' final minutes is as effective a portrayal of shock as I've seen, which I say while not being all that sure Brialy does anything in particular. Context may be everything, but then again I can tell you right now, I couldn't do it. More impressive, and frankly maybe a bit more clearly actorly, is Gerard Blain's dual roles as a country boy either angry and dissolute, or fresh-faced and innocent, just waiting for the dissolute people around him to take him down. "Waiting" probably being the key here, because I don't care how gracefully one wishes to bow out, having the woman you've given up, and the man you've just given her up to, taking a shower right behind you while you're trying to study seems to me like it might be regarded as a little bit much. You'd really like Charles to snap, in other words, and the fact that he doesn't, in a way that most would see as natural, probably contributes to the unnatural way he does finally choose to snap. So try not to bottle this shit up, is what Chabrol is trying to say.

Anyway, both films are entirely worth your time, Les Cousins being worth it and then some. Go forth and seek them out.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Hope Dies Early

The depth and variety of the kinds of effect the presence of a movie star can have on a film are not only rarely explored; they're hardly ever considered. Hitchcock famously pushed this element pretty far, especially in Psycho, and it has been toyed with and kind of gingerly poked at from time to time since then, with Martin Scorsese going perhaps further than anyone since Hitchcock when, in The Departed, he painted the back of that elevator with Leonardo DiCaprio's brains (critics and film geeks who'd already seen that same incident play out in Andrew Lau and Alan Mak's Infernal Affairs, the film on which The Departed is based, and in that case with Tony Leung's brain, Leung being a huge star in Hong Kong, never really appreciated the impact DiCaprio's death had on audiences. I saw Scorsese's film in a suburban multiplex, and when that happened the air was sucked right out of the theater). But I believe a brand new use of the movie star has been invented by Steven Soderbergh in his new film Contagion, written by Scott Z. Burns. And it's not that he kills off Gwyneth Paltrow so quickly -- indeed, almost immediately. It's later, when the autopsy on her character is being performed, and Soderbergh gives us a close up of her dead face, tongue just visible between her lips, as the pathologists -- first you hear this, then you see it -- peel off her scalp and drape it over her forehead.

I guess that's the motion picture business for you. Or not. In any case, it helps Contagion along its path of despair, which course is begun very early. Ignoring things like marketing and so forth, the film is still called Contagion, and it begins with a sickly looking Paltrow coughing. You could wake up from a twenty year coma and be given this opening as the first thing you see and hear, and still know what's what. And once Paltrow is home in Minnesota -- she's been travelling in Hong Kong, and also using her long layover in Chicago to reignite an adulterous affair -- she hugs her kids and her husband (Matt Damon), and plus you see a couple guys in Hong Kong and one collapses on the bus, another is so sick that he deliriously wanders into traffic, then the sick girl in London, then the...and so on and so on. The virus at the center of Contagion has spread across the world before we're five minutes in.

There is much that is interesting about how Soderbergh and Burns handle this material. I'm typically rather ambivalent towards this particular subgenre (of? Horror? Science fiction? Disaster film?) because, as I say in this post (coincidentally titled "Contagion"), too often the plan seems to be to create this horrific public health situation, then blame the people who in reality would be the ones trying to save your ass, and then get us to cheer on the assholes whose main goal would appear to be to break the quarantine and spread the virus as far and as wide as they can. Not so in Contagion, where, in an act of true artistic political subversion, the good guys are the CDC and the Office of Homeland Security (and even FEMA, though they're more mentioned in passing, but mentioned without contempt, which I feel is noteworthy) -- this film is pro the people most films like this are anti. The CDC is represented primarily by Laurence Fishburne, who is terrific, Kate Winslet, who has one of this rather chilly film's most heartbreaking scenes, and Jennifer Ehle, whose character arc reveals Soderbergh and Burns to be quite the pair of slyboots.

While they struggle to grow the virus and thereby create a vaccine, World Health Organization doctor Marion Cotillard works with officials in Hong Kong to trace the source of the virus; Homeland Security agent Enrico Colantoni (one of a score of excellent character actors in this very Zodiac-like cast) tries to contain and manage everything from a security standpoint, as well as watch this underground conspiracy blogger (Jude Law), who, as Johnny Casper said about Bernie Bernbaum, ethically is kinda shaky; and Matt Damon, having suffered through the death of his wife and stepson in the same day, and having learned that he is immune to the virus, simply tries to live and protect his daughter.

What's most interesting about Contagion, and what strikes me as its most Soderberghian aspect, is the way it plays out almost like a filmed timeline, of the kind you might see in a history textbook, marking all the important points of, say, the Civil War. This isn't simply because the film periodically pastes a "Day 14" or "Day 133" chyron on screen, any idiot can do that, but because each step towards, or attempt at, a vaccine is charted, and each decision made by a character which will have any kind of public impact is documented -- that's how it feels, not dramatized, but documented. Which I guess makes Contagion sound like a snooze, but in truth gives the film a sense of relentless propulsion. The fact that it sharply imagines certain details of what this world would come to be like, and how it would differ from how we currently exist, doesn't hurt, either. I don't want to give anything way, but there is a scene late in the film that involves a shopping mall that feels at once eerie and completely sensible and correct.

Not everything about the film succeeds. Jude Law's character seems to exist because even a film about a virus powerful enough to kill millions of people worldwide apparently must contain a human villain. I don't object to him being a blogger either, by the way, because who gives a fuck about those guys, but I do find it more than a little bit ludicrous that someone like him would wield the kind of power Soderbergh and Burns imbue him with. This would matter less if it wasn't eventually so important. I'm also not overly keen with the film's final minutes, in which the film makes a loop in order to, as far as I can see, frantically cram in the message they'd forgotten all about until just now. And no, it's not the message itself I object to. What I object to mainly is just before this occurs, there was the opportunity to end the film on a strong note of emotion, something which the film had, until then, been largely holding in reserve. Almost to a fault, even, but they paid it off. And then, wup, two more minutes.

Ah well. You can't have everything, and it's undignified to ask for it. Even with these hiccups, Contagion is a very rare plague film, one whose scope is quietly global, its tone casually novelistic, and its vision absolutely goddamn terrifying.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

A Heart Can Only Take So Much

In 1937, Edward Anderson published a novel that I am chagrined to say I still haven't read. It's called Thieves Like Us, and while Anderson is not well-known by any means, and in fact only wrote one other novel (Hungry Men in 1933), Thieves Like Us remains a hugely important work of crime fiction, even if only due to its two film adaptations. The second of those films is 1974's Thieves Like Us, directed by Robert Altman. It's a terrific film, one of Altman's best '70s movies, and it plays now -- though I admit that it was almost certainly not conceived as such -- as something of an antidote to Bonnie and Clyde. Altman's film humanizes its criminals as well as their victims, something which almost feels subversive of a certain attitude of the time. But Altman's Thieves Like Us, good as it is, still can't help but feel a little bit like leftovers, because in 1949 Nicholas Ray made his directing debut with an adaptation of Anderson's novel, this time called They Live By Night, a film that, when viewed as a first film, must shatter the morale of any number of bearded, bright-eyed cynics currently studying Ray for film class. It remains a breathtaking piece of work, and certainly one of the most emotionally devastating films of the noir cycle.

They Live By Night doesn't have much to recommend it -- it has everything to recommend it. Most immediately gripping are the performances of Howard DaSilva as the one-eyed Chickamaw and Jay C. Flippen as T-Dub. These are the men, older and professional and mean, with whom the comparatively childlike Bowie (Farley Granger) escaped from prison where Bowie had spent the last seven years, starting when he was 16, for fraternizing with the wrong element, and falling along with them; Chickamaw and T-Dub were there because they deserved to be. DaSilva and Flippen are perfect, easy and clipped in their professional modes, with DaSilva bringing otu Chickamaw's hidden wild side breaking out maybe once or twice too often for Bowie's comfort. But upon obtaining his freedom, Bowie, who hopes to hire a lawyer to get his murder conviction overturned, is young and stupid and therefore willingly hitches his wagon to the two older men, agreeing to assist them in a series of robberies they begin planning right away. This both dooms and damns him, as it damns (if not dooms) Keechie (Cathy O'Donnell), a young woman he meets among the network of family and friends Chickamaw and T-Dub employ to keep them hidden and fed. Bowie and Keechie fall in love, and if ever a more heartbreaking romance has occurred within a cycle of robbery, murder and general criminality, I haven't seen it.

This is the brilliance of They Live By Night. Because look, I'm not one to feel a great deal of sympathy towards criminals in films, because often the pleas for that sympathy is presented (or brayed, usually) by the filmmaker as "Hey, okay, this guy's a criminal, and okay he killed that one guy. But please remember, I've taken great pains to present the police as a bunch of hicks, and anyway my hero would rather not go to prison. He even wants to quit being a criminal, if society would only let him. And remember that scene with his daughter, the one in the diner? Man!" Something like that, anyway. However it might go, I routinely reject it, and my hackles have a tendency to go up if I think a film is trying to court me in that way. Inspire empathy for the criminal? That's one thing. Root for the son of a bitch? That's something else entirely. But They Live By Night is different. You might argue that making Bowie apparently innocent of the crime that landed him in prison is some serious deck-stacking, but it also shows him falling pretty easily into the role of getaway driver for Chickamaw and T-Dub. Not only does he agree to it, he does it almost gleefully. Bowie is an idiot -- that's his tragedy. The film offers no excuses for his criminality, but it's not hard to understand how you can be dumb at 16 and, in the circumstances under which Bowie has been living, come out at 23 just as dumb.

The film contains genuine beauty. Cathy O'Donnell's Keechie has a moment at the end of the film that's as gorgeous in its open-heartedness as the final shot of The Third Man is in its bitterness. In the brief moments when she and Bowie -- and Granger was never better -- are able to tear themselves away from the idiotic and dangerous world they seem lost in, Nicholas Ray actually makes it possible to root for Bowie. His remorse, we see, is genuine, and his simple desire for a normal life not spent robbing people or hiding from cops, evokes actual sadness. When he says to Keechie that he wishes they could go into town and see a movie, and that he's always wanted to hold hands with a girl in a movie theater, Ray basically points out the line dividing sentiment and sap, and how to stay on the right side. There's no pleading, no whining, just a genuine expression of feeling. And later, when Bowie comforts an ailing Keechie, and dreams out loud of a day when they might have a child, and says that children make a man responsible, there is pleading here, but it's a plea from Bowie, masked as reassurance of Keechie, that he will, one day, learn to do the right thing. Even Roy Bean would crumble if faced with that.

That's where They Live By Night achieves greatness, but generations of filmmakers who followed learned his lessons poorly. I suppose they only halfway paid attention. No, where They Live By Night seems at times most influential is in its portrayal of the fringe parts of criminal life. Along with the country roads and farmland that is the often forgotten in favor of urban settings, but still very common backdrop to this sort of story, are the side characters, like the aforementioned network of cohorts. Not quite criminals themselves (though Bowie does, with reason, claim that one of them is a "thief, just like us"), people like Helen Craig's Mattie, or Will Wright's old, drunken Mobley help complete the film's world -- not an underworld, really, but one just off to the side, easily seen if one chooses to, but usually ignored. Diners and gas stations, and nothing nothing but tall grass for miles, before you find another gas station, manned by somebody like Mobley, who has staying with him someone like Chickamaw, or T-Dub, or Bowie. This is closer to James M. Cain's fiction, or James Hadley Chase's No Orchids for Miss Blandish. A world that's wide open and barren, rather than closed-in and towering. In the city, if you want to get away, you find there's nowhere to go; there's always something or someone in your way. You can't swing a dead cat. In the country of They Live By Night, meanwhile, you have everywhere to go. That's the problem: the road never ends.

This post has been a part of the Nicholas Ray blogathon, hosted by Tony Dayoub at Cinema Viewfinder.

Thursday, September 1, 2011


Welp...yeah. Listen, I'm beat. And frankly, I have privately felt pretty down about this blog for several weeks now. This is not me fishing for compliments, either -- I am, for the most part, genuinely disappointed in the work I've been doing here for at least the last couple of months. I've felt burnt out and tired and stressed about it, the last of which strikes me as a particularly ridiculous state of affairs. There's no reason for that. I have enough to worry about without a goddamn blog adding to the pile. But I'm not happy with the work, and I have to assume I'm not the only one. If the urge to refute this is strong in you, please don't -- I'm not looking for reassurance. I know how it's been lately.

So here's what I'll do. I shall take a break, you see. And more than likely, it won't even be much of a break. I can't take a month off -- oh, wouldn't that be delightful! -- because I have Criterion discs coming that I will need to write up, so that's a few posts right there, and I have Tony Dayoub's blogathon, mentioned in yesterday's post, in which I still fully plan to take part. Beyond that, who knows? Maybe between now and October, something will just strike me, and I'll want to write it. That "want" is important, though, as it implies some sort of creative drive, rather than the banging out of a few panicky paragraphs so nobody thinks I got murdered or anything.

Then, of course, there's October. That shit's still on like Missile Command or...Adventure? Neither of those really rhyme, do they? Well, I got news for you: neither does Donkey Kong, but everyone acts like it does. Anyway, remember Adventure? When you were this little square that had to push a sword in front of you and killed ducks, or dragons, and collected keys? And the big secret room that you spent hours finding offered up nothing more than copyright and design information? Man, was that ever worth the effort.

But yeah, so October's still happening. And as you may know, that's an every day thing, so building up a nice head of steam is a good idea. Better to enter that month raring to get back to it, rather than thinking "Fuck me and fuck my stupid blog, goddamn you all to hell." Which, I assure you, is exactly what I think roughly three times a day right now. Plus, October requires a great deal of preparation as far as the reading goes, and it would be awfully nice to get ahead of the game. So many reasons to take a break, so few not to.

So it's breaktime here at The Kind of Face You Hate headquarters. As I said, I will be posting periodically this month, but not too, too often. Come October, boy, that'll be a whole different story. Thank you, and good day.