Monday, June 23, 2014

Monkey on the Moon

Alexander Sokurov has been making films since the late 1970s, but it wasn't until 2002 that he gained any really significant international accolades.  That was the year he released Russian Ark, a film shot on HD video in St. Petersburg's Hermitage Museum, and consisting entirely of a single, 90-some minute shot.  I watched that film, coming to it somewhat eagerly, shortly after it was released on video, and found it rather enervating.  While Russian Ark was plainly meant to be a sincere and serious exploration of Russian art and history, it nevertheless played for me as a commercial for the coming digital revolution.  Of course that was twelve years ago, and as you can imagine I haven't revisited the film.  Still, whether or not my assessment was fair, that's what lingers.

I therefore -- and this I make no particular excuse for, other than "there are only so many hours in a day" and so on -- didn't spend a lot of time keeping tabs on Sokurov's subsequent career.  Despite my apathy I did pick up on the fact that his major work, the fame of Russian Ark's novelty be damned, was apparently this series of films about 20th Century dictators and the dangers of ideology, focusing on those involved in or who could be linked in some way to World War II.  Moloch from 1999 is about Hitler, Taurus from 2001 is about Lenin, and 2004's The Sun is about Hirohito.  I recently watched The Sun (and I have Moloch pending; Taurus isn't easily available in the US) and found it a singularly strange film, utterly tone deaf when it came to Americans, and American actors, and possibly similarly tone deaf when it comes to the Japanese characters and actors that make up the bulk of the project -- I wouldn't consider myself the last word on that one if I were you -- but nevertheless Issei Ogata's performance as Hirohito is strange in a way that at least creates an illusion that "Perhaps he was really like this."  Or more to the point, "This is the dramatization of a psychology it is beyond my capacity to imagine."  It's a bit of a mess, even visually, but compelling.

I was surprised to learn, as I watched the end credits of Faust, Sokurov's most recent film, from 2011, that it is the final part of the tetralogy described above.  The film, which Kino Lorber is releasing on DVD tomorrow, is ostensibly an adaptation of the immortal and eternally adapted Goethe classic, though everyone, including Sokurov, thinks it's a pretty good idea to not expect too terribly much Goethe from the film.  Shot in a boxy 1:1.33 aspect ratio (I know, I never mention that stuff, but it seems like something to be noted in this case, even if I'm going to scoot right along and never look back), this Faust depicts the titular doctor (Johannes Zeiler) as penniless and miserable, driven even to commit suicide by drinking hemlock, only to be thwarted when Mauricius, a moneylender -- that is, Satan -- played by Anton Adasinsky swipes the bottle, drinks the poison down, and doesn't die.

And so then one thing leads to another.  Sokurov's Faust is something of a picaresque -- the film is basically Faust and Mauricius travelling along together, with Mauricius proving his supernatural existence, the two trading philosophies, wallowing in a specifically Middle Ages variety of bawdiness, while Faust's great unspoken ambition, apart from having sex with a beautiful young woman named Margarete (Isolda Dychauk), is to fall ass-backwards into spiritual and moral enlightenment.  I've read complaints that the philosophy in Faust is just a warmed-over jumble of the classics, and yes it all does feel -- and this is possibly even less kind -- somewhat regurgitated.  I also don't think it matters so much.  A scene in the first third of the film that takes place in a weird, otherworldly bathhouse -- one which is nevertheless literal -- over which Mauricius appears to hold sway, features Mauricius stripping naked.  His body is pear-shaped, and made of an alien swirl of grotesque lumps.  He also has a penis where his tail would be, if humans had tails.  You get the idea, maybe, but anyway, Hieronymous Bosch springs to mind.  This is an early reference, and that kind of almost comical repulsion feeds the mind of the film more than the long, windy discussions Faust and Mauricius ramble through.

Apart from Bosch, Faust feels like a cross between something by Peter Greenaway, one of his halfway traditional films like Drowning By Numbers, if that counts as halfway traditional, and Jaromil Jires's Valerie and Her Week of Wonders.  Greenaway precisely because the words don't seem to matter (Greenaway himself would doubtlessly reject this notion, but I don't see him here at the moment, so pfffft) as they get lost in the more plainly significant action, and Valerie and Her Week of Wonders because of the sinister fairy tale, soft-focus, almost cheap fantasy of its visuals.  Faust looks like TV, and not of the New Golden Age variety we're all so deeply grateful to be living in.  His cinematographer here is Bruno Delbonnel, who recently provided the Coen brothers with a softer glow than they usually aim for in Inside Llewyn Davis, and you can see that sensibility in Faust, but the HD digital that Sokurov prefers (it's there in The Sun, too) does nobody any favors.  It's a visual approach that I honestly can't fathom, partly because with a budget of eight million Euros I have to think it could have looked better.  Along the way, Sokurov does things like distort the image by stretching it in a way that reminded me of that scene in Spike Lee's Crooklyn when the kids had to go live with relatives, and the house was shot in this stretched style to signify how alien it was to the main characters.  In Faust, though, it's employed rather more arbitrarily, or if there was a pattern I missed it -- every scene is as alien to Faust, and he reacts to it in the same way, as the one before (besides which, I seem to recall thinking that part of Crooklyn was that film's least successful section).

However, by the end of Faust, as he did with The Sun, Sokurov has overcome the obstacles he laid before himself, and the film, particularly the last half hour or so, redeems it.  In their travels, Faust has accidentally murdered, or anyway killed, Margarete's brother, and his subsequent guilt drives the film's action.  It's nice that the film finally has an engine, but more than that it inspires some of the film's strongest imagery -- the homunculus, for instance, and the geyser footage is really something.  On top of that, all the chatter from Faust and Mauricius comes down to something very blunt, a very primitive kind of enlightenment for Faust.  The characters have moved from the city and appear by the end to be in a pre-civilization world, and that's where things get hashed out for once and for all.  And curiously, the most directly illuminating words in the whole film are those from the end credits I mentioned, the ones that explain that Faust is the last of Sokurov's tetralogy about dictators and idealogues. In a very strange way, Faust tells another story of that type, and reveals a means of escape.

Monday, June 16, 2014

There's a Porpoise Close Behind Us

A wealthy banker named Favraux (Michel Vitold) is receiving threatening letters which demand that he provide financial restitution to people the author of these letters say are Favraux's victims.  If he doesn't do this, Favraux will be punished severely.  The letters are signed "Judex."  This strange form of altruistic blackmail comes into Favraux's life as his bank is about to celebrate an anniversary, and his daughter Jacqueline (Edith Scob) is to be engaged.  A private detective (Max Montavon) is hired to provide security against theft at the upcoming party that has been planned to commemorate both events.  We see Favraux planning stock market malfeasance shortly before an old man (Rene Genin) accosts Favraux, saying that he took the fall for Favraux, spending twenty years in prison for a crime he didn't commit because the banker promised that his wife and son would be looked after while he was away, and he would finally come home to wealth and security, but instead he came home to poverty, and news that his wife was dead and his son was missing.  He demands that Favraux help him find his son, but Favraux brushes him off.  Later, Favraux finds and murders the old man.  Finally, the night of the party arrives.  It's a masquerade party; everyone is wearing a bird mask, including a mysterious magician who wanders through the crowd performing tricks with doves.  A foreboding hangs over the proceedings because Judex has assured Favraux that if he doesn't do what's right, Judex will punish him mercilessly.  We know Favraux has done nothing that can be called right, and at the hour named in Judex's letter, Favraux suddenly collapses and dies.

Which brings us to about minute twenty of Georges Franju's 97 minute-long Judex from 1963, a remake and, perhaps more to the point, condensing of Louis Feuillade's five-hour serial from 1916.  The idea behind that above paragraph (which spoils very little) is to highlight for you how condensed, and relentlessly plotted and eventful Franju's film, which is being released Tuesday by Criterion, really is.  A great admirer of Feuillade, Franju (best known for his exceptional 1960 horror film Eyes Without a Face, also available from Criterion ) came to his films as an adult; nevertheless the spirit of this remake of Judex feels similar to the one that led Ang Lee to make Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a film that was at the time uncharacteristic for him.  In other words, both directors wanted to make a film like those that delighted and inspired them on the level of pure storytelling.  Plus other stuff.

And Franju succeeded.  Judex is almost ruthlessly entertaining, dumping plot twists into the mix by the bowlful, veering off into avenues that might appear at first to be dead ends, or perhaps merely  subplots, but turn out instead to be the main plot.  I confess I haven't seen Feuillade's Judex, but I have seen Feuillade's Les Vampires from 1915, and Judex -- Franju's Judex I mean -- put me in mind of that serial, and the way our main characters, such as the main detective, or the famous villainess Irma Vep, could drop out of the story for many episodes at a time to make way for long stretches of action the importance of which, however genuinely absurd it may be, won't be understood until later.  In Franju's film, who I understood to be our main villain changed twice.  In fact, Judex is finally not up against some wealthy conspiracy of evil, as the cold-hearted Favraux might indicate, but a couple of weasley street thugs.  Not terribly dissimilar to those times when Batman is seen punching out a mugger, but has that ever been the main plot of a Batman story?  Batman not being a random or irrelevant point of comparison?  I can't recall such a story, but that's fine in the end, because Judex (played, I just realized I haven't said, by Channing Pollock) is up against Marie Verdier (Francine Berge), who ultimately comes off as an inept Irma Vep.  But who ever said movie criminals always had to be bright?  It's funny how she never actually seems close to winning, though.

What is all of this in aid of, finally?  What I've been saying, I mean?  I don't know!  This movie is bonkers!  Les Vampires was bonkers too, but it was expansive.  It's craziness could stretch out.  Franju's decision to take a similarly (I think it's safe for me to assume this) mad and wildly excessive plot construction and run it through a compactor can't have stemmed only from the realization that they simply were no longer making 5-hour serials in the 1960s.  There's a fair amount of winking going on here.  Franju knows what's up.  Even if the plot of Feuillade's original also turns on a moment that perhaps can best be illustrated in print thusly:  "Well as it happens, I have an acrobat right here," that moment would, due to the considerable length of serials, exist among a grand sweep of events.  Franju's Judex works not as a grand sweep but as a mad dash, and Franju's approach to pacing here could possibly be regarded as intertextual.  Hey listen, I don't like that term any more than you do, but it can't often be applied to questions of pace.

Plus which, you don't have to accept Franju's winks.  Another thing his Judex does is make a case for the joys of pure plot, maybe the most derided aspect of storytelling, but without which a vast swath of world classics would collapse into mud.  Franju is playing around here, but he means it at the same time.  Here's a story that won't stop.  You can't watch the beginning and guess the ending.  And if Judex the hero is never more interesting as he is when dressed as seen at the top of this post -- he is, in fact, rather bland when he finally steps out as himself -- the nature of this kind of story is such that he can drop out so that more exciting people can take over, or maybe more to the point, who any of these people are doesn't finally matter much at all.  What matters, what's fun, what Franju is messing around with here, is the things these people do, and what the plot dictates must happen to them.  The plot can be pretty merciless, but Judex warned us it might be.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Kick Me When I'm Down

Of the three filmmakers whose work I've found myself exploring in depth thanks to the kind folks at Kino Lorber, British genre/sort-of-exploitation director Pete Walker (the other two filmmakers are Alain Robbe-Grillet and Jean Rollin, for the record) is the one I remain least certain about.  This despite the fact that his stuff is the least complicated and most straightforward of the three by far, yet his films are so uneven.  He can be bluntly terrific, or he can take a genre premise that seems like it can't miss and, as he did with The Flesh and Blood Show, turn out something that is almost bizarrely tedious.  But when he's good, there's a sharpness to his ideas and a subtle weirdness to his stories that keep me, anyway, curious about what else he's done that I haven't gotten to yet.  Thankfully, Kino is releasing two more this coming Tuesday, and they're curious ones.  More below!

House of Mortal Sin - Part of Walker's whole deal, supposedly, was that he would, at least on occasion, inject a social conscience, or a strain of satire, into whatever genre proceedings he was engaged in at the moment.  Or, another way to go, that genre film would have Walker's message right there on the surface, as plot.  See House of Whipcord, for example, or this film from 1976, House of Mortal Sin (aka The Confessional), which I gather is one of his more personal projects.  Walker said of it "I made that film because I went to a Catholic school where hellfire and damnation were rammed down my throat."  So you might think that this story, about a repressed, insane, and murderous priest (Anthony Sharp) who stalks the young woman named Jenny (Susan Penhaligon) who somewhat randomly winds up in his confessional, confiding her romantic travails, would wind up being fairly hysterical as far as its message is concerned.  But actually no.

Whatever Walker's faults, I've yet to notice him taking the easy way out when it comes to delicate subject matter (to a fault sometimes, as we'll see).  The reason House of Mortal Sin isn't the screeching condemnation of the very concept of Catholicism I'd feared it would be is because, to begin with, he doesn't allow Sharp's Father Meldum to be the last word on the subject.  In fact, he's presented as only the worst of a fairly decent lot.  Thrown into the mix to show that the Catholic faith can be warm, hopeful, caring, and like that, is Norman Eshley as a younger priest whose most flagrant subversion of the Church is to wonder aloud if maybe this vow of celibacy thing is really necessary.  Even then, when he realizes he's in love with Jenny's sister Vanessa (Stephanie Beacham) and that he can't deny it, he simply consults with one of his Catholic higher ups, they say "Hey man, I get it, go and have a happy life with her, you can still be a good Catholic without being a priest."  Take that, the Pope!

On top of that, and better for the film as a whole, is the fact that Walker (who conceived of the story before handing it over to his regular screenwriter David McGillivray) shows far too much pity for his villains here.  Father Meldrum is a villain and a hypocrite, but he's in an almost constant state of despair because of the confusion of incredibly strict morality and crazed, denied passions, not to mention loneliness and the aftershocks of what you sense was a pretty horrible childhood.  Sharp is wonderful in the role, giving a performance that is as moving as it is unsettling, and he's paired with  Sheila Keith, so memorably terrifying in Walker's Frightmare, and a murderer again here.  But this time she's given a whole speech that is not about murder, or any kind of religious fundamentalism, but rather about how her life might have been happy, but instead wasn't. She doesn't quite frame it like that, but that's what's going on, and suddenly House of Mortal Sin doesn't really seem like the critique of modern religion that Walker evidently had in mind to make.  Which isn't to say it's all roses by the end.  Like House of Whipcord, House of Mortal Sin has an incredibly bleak ending, one that works as horror and might indicate Walker's idea:  whatever their motives, these are the priests that are taking over.  Probably this was the gist, but I can't say it quite plays like that for me. Instead it plays as a sad and bloody story, one without an agenda.  So better, in other words.

Home Before Midnight - Okay, well then.  Here's the idea behind this one:  a young woman named Ginny (Alison Elliott) is hitchhiking home and is picked up by a young man named Mike (James Aubrey).   Mike writes songs for a successful pop band called Bad Accident (two things about Bad Accident:  the front man is played by Chris Jagger, Mick's brother, and based on the music heard in this film, Walker's conception of pop music in the 1970s is deeply nightmarish), and is therefore financially and socially in a good position to dazzle Ginny during the courtship the two engage in pretty soon after meeting.  Their relationship is sexual, things seem pretty good between them, until Mike finds the bracelet pictured above and realizes that Ginny, who he'd taken to be maybe 19 at the oldest, is, in fact, 14 years old.  Horrified, he tries to end the relationship reasonably, but actually because he doesn't think there's anything morally wrong with a 28-year-old man having sex with a 14-year-old girl, he lets Ginny talk him out of it.  So they keep going, until the truth goes public, Bad Accident starts distancing itself from Mike, and the truth of statutory rape becomes, as Ginny is questioned by her parents and police, an accusation of violent rape.

And oh, how we are meant to pity poor, guiltless Mike, who, at nearly 30, only wanted to have sex with a schoolgirl.  He frequently, and self-righteously, claims to have done nothing wrong, and since we know that he didn't rape Ginny it's easy to figure Walker and screenwriter Murray Smith agree with him.  There are little trumped up things, like Ginny's father smacking her ass and calling her "sexy" that make it clear that Walker believes there is a great deal of hypocrisy at play when guys like Mike get caught out and brought down in these kind of statutory sex scandals.  My own reaction to this point of his is "So what?" Because Mike's guilty, and all the more despicable for his claims of victimhood.  And for a while the film can be really confounding in the way it portrays Ginny as a girl whose behavior that eventually leads to Mike being arrested for rape is precisely that of someone not yet old or mature enough to be having sex with anyone, let alone an adult.

But while a lot of these faults remain faults to the end, Home Before Midnight does turn out a bit more thoughtful than it first appears.  A scene where Mike's father expresses his belief that his son didn't assault Ginny, but then admonishes for what he did do, and another when Mike's encounter with a pedophile forces him (though we don't see him do this, we can imagine it) to consider just what exactly he was up to with Ginny, even during their good days, reveals that Walker is maybe of two minds about all this, so that even the film's faults end up having a different texture.  The film is maybe not as level-headed as it could be, but it's smarter than it at first makes you think it is.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Cronenberg Series Part 11: There is a Vision of the Orient That I Have

In 1964, a French diplomat named Bernard Boursicot who was posted in Peking, China met an opera singer named Shi Pei Pu.  For twenty years they carried on a sexual affair as man and woman, one that included -- so Shi Pei Pu insisted she had born, and so Boursicot believed, or accepted, or who really knows -- a child.  By the end of it, it was revealed that Boursicot had been feeding secret documents to Shi Pei Pu and so both were arrested and convicted of treason.  In the course of the investigation and trial, it was further revealed that Shi Pei Pu was a man who, so went the story everyone told, had fooled Boursicot into believing he was a woman (the child Shi Du Du, later Bertrand, had been purchased).  The disguise seems to have stemmed from the fact that even in the 1960s, female roles in opera were traditionally played by men. The two of them did their prison time and were eventually released.  Boursicot had been only 20 years old when he met Shi Pei Pu, and Shi Pei Pu had been 26.  When their affair ended, both were in their 40s.  Boursicot attempted suicide in prison but failed.  Shi Pei Pu died in 2009 and according to the New York Times obituary, he and Boursicot had last spoken just months before Shi Pei Pu's death, and Shi Pei Pu had told Boursicot that he still loved him.  When contacted about his former lover's death, Boursicot said "He did so many things against me that he had no pity for, I think it is stupid to play another game now and say I am sad. The plate is clean now. I am free."

Now here's where it gets complicated.  In this lengthy article about the scandal, writer Joyce Wadler describes an evening when Shi Pei Pu described the plot of the classic Chinese opera The Story of the Butterfly:

Long ago in China, there lived a beautiful girl named Zhu Yingtai. The daughter of a learned man, she dearly wished to attend one of the imperial schools, but being a girl she wasn't permitted to do so. It troubled her, particularly because her brother did badly in school.

She made a plot with her brother; they exchanged clothes and she went to school in his place. She was a brilliant student. In school, she met a handsome boy, Liang Shanbo, and they came to love one another. Liang, however, couldn't understand the strange attraction he felt for another boy. Zhu, who was attracted to Liang as well, yearned to tell him her secret but refrained, not wishing to bring dishonor to her family. Then word came that she had to go home: her family had found her a husband. Finally, the girl revealed her true identity to her friend. Declaring his love for her, Liang asked her to marry him. But though she loved him, Zhu couldn't disobey her family.

"It is too late," she told him.

Zhu returned home. Distraught, Liang took his life. Zhu's family insisted she proceed with her wedding. She agreed, but said she must first go to her beloved's grave. There, beneath the willows, she threw herself on his tomb and died. Her family, finally understanding how much their daughter loved Liang, buried her beside him. The souls of the two lovers turned into butterflies and flew away together. And over the grave willow branches grew and intertwined.

Not, I think you'll agree, irrelevant.  However it's also not the plot of Madama Butterfly, Puccini's famous Japan-set opera about a selfish and cowardly American sailor whose casual marriage to a devoted and love-struck young Japanese woman named Cio-Cio-San (which translates, roughly, to "butterfly") culminates in his return to America and her years-long wait for him to return, and finally his abandonment of her, and her suicide.  It was this opera, not The Story of the Butterfly, that playwright David Henry Hwang used to shape the metaphors in his 1988 play M. Butterfly (an ingenious title), a heavily fictionalized telling of the story of Bernard Boursicot and Shi Pei Pu.  The production originally starred John Lithgow and B. D. Wong, it was an enormous success, and it won the Tony for Best Play, among many other awards.  David Cronenberg being who he is, and in something of a replay of his experience with Dead Ringers, when he knew the true story before reading the novel his film would eventually sorta kinda but not really be based on, Cronenberg had heard about the play but had neither seen nor read it, and was instead inspired to adapt it into a film by reading Wadler's article in the New York Times. His knowledge of the true story mingled with the play being brought to him by his agents (he'd told them he couldn't wait another three years to make a film, and told them to bring him something "unusual") made a film of M. Butterfly directed by David Cronenberg pretty much inevitable.

In that film, Jeremy Irons (becoming the first lead actor to work with Cronenberg twice, something that has become more common recently) plays RenĂ© Gallimard, a French diplomat in China, in 1964.  Gallimard is married to Jeanne (Barbara Sukowa), and is sort of timidly combative with his wasteful and dishonest colleagues in the embassy.  One night, an embassy-sponsored event puts him in the audience for a performance of arias from Madama Butterfly given by Song Liling (John Lone).  As mentioned elsewhere, at that time it was common in Chinese opera for men to play women's roles, but Gallimard is plainly ignorant of this -- this information is only given to the audience, almost in passing, much later in the film in a scene between Song and her Communist handler Comrade Chin (Shizuko Hoshi).  Anyway, Gallimard is struck by Song, and he seeks her out.  Song also seems interested in him, though initially she keeps a wary distance between them by explaining to him the plot of Madama Butterfly, an opera of which he was ignorant (he makes a point of telling someone at the event that he's fooled people in the embassy into believing he's cultured), and wonders how romantic a Westerner would find it if the races were reversed so that at the end an American woman committed suicide because the Asian man she loved had deserted her. Song says that Westerners would think she was mad.

At this point it occurs to me that to summarize the rest of the plot in the normal way would be at best redundant, because while M. Butterfly is fundamentally a work of fiction and not merely the true story of Bernard Boursicot and Shi Pei Pu, many of the essentials are the same, and those have already been laid out.  So what, in the film, is key?  Song's deconstruction of what she, and Hwang, see as the West's attitudes toward the East are, I've gathered, a very big part of the play (I confess with much embarrassment that I haven't read it), though this is severely downplayed by Cronenberg.  In both Cronenberg and Cronenberg and David Cronenberg:  Interviews with Serge Grunberg, he talks about meeting with Hwang and the two men disagreeing about Hwang's conclusions and criticism, but Hwang was apparently perfectly fine with Cronenberg taking the creative reins on the film (and for the record, the screenplay is credited to Hwang, and though guided by Cronenberg was, by Cronenberg's admission, almost completely Hwang's own work), so certain things that were strong in the play were tamped down, and other, more Cronenbergian elements took over.  Such as:  okay look.  I said things got complicated.

In the Times obituary of Shi Pei Pu, which Joyce Wadler also wrote (she would eventually go on to write a book about all this) it's mentioned that it was revealed in Boursicot's diary (treason was involved, I understand, but that still kind of makes me queasy) that before his relationship with Shi Pei Pu, his only sexual experiences had been with men, and in China he was looking to settle down with a woman.  This fact is hard to ignore when wondering about how he could have been fooled, which he has always claimed was the case.  Sex between him and Shi Pei Pu was always in the dark, they both say, and Boursicot was sensitive to her claims that Chinese tradition, and her own shyness, forbade certain things, such as ever seeing her naked.  Fair enough, and anyway I'm not out to prove Boursicot a liar, but how does all of this manifest in Cronenberg's film?  Well, again, Gallimard is married, so we can assume that he has had at least one heterosexual relationship in his life, but given everything else in the film I do have to wonder why the character of Jeanne Gallimard is even included.  Her existence as the lover who is thwarted does reflect Madama Butterfly to some degree, but she has so little impact on the film that this would hardly justify it.  Because look at what's important.  Though one or two shots play up a certain femininity, very little effort has been put into making John Lone look like a woman.  He dresses in women's clothes, and his voice has been altered (for better or worse), but the gender ambiguity is not played up too much.  This film isn't, as no one would be faster to bring up than Cronenberg, The Crying Game.  Speaking of which, before going too far, here's what Cronenberg has to say (to Serge Grunberg) about that film, which came out the year before:

...the people who can't relate to [M. Butterfly], they are literalists, you know, and I think, unfortunately, The Crying Game put them even more in that frame of mind...Because it is a literalist movie.  I mean, only when the audience sees the guy's cock do they realize that he's a guy and then they feel betrayed, and it's all very straightforward really, But it's not subtly in certain ways, and it provided a context that encouraged people to say, "Well, it's obvious John Lone is not a woman," and so on.

At no point in the film does it ever feel like Cronenberg wants or expects the audience to think Song is a woman, because the only thing that matters is that Gallimard, for whatever reason, behaves as though she is.  But Lone's gender being clear and Gallimard's quick interest in Song does indicate something about his sexuality that is plain in the true story of Boursicot, but is only here to wonder and guess about.  In one scene, Gallimard has sex with another diplomat, a German woman named Frau Baden (Annabel Leventon).  In the scene, Gallimard walks into the bedroom and Frau Baden is nude.  He stops, and is taken aback, but he knows why he's there.  Why is he shocked?  He says "You look exactly how I thought you'd look without clothes on," a strange thing to say.  When Leventon made the film, she was about 50 years old, and maybe, although I sincerely doubt this, Gallimard is reacting to the fact that this 50-year-old woman resembles a 50-year-old woman, and Song, not to mention his own wife, are more youthful.  More likely is the fact in terms of the classical female shape, Frau Baden, well, you know, has one, and Song doesn't.  Possibly because when you get right down to it, that shape doesn't appeal to Gallimard, and never has.

Meanwhile Shi Pei Pu seems to have dressed as a woman only in his occupation as an opera singer, and as a spy.  In fact, as if the true story needed to be even more baffling, he met and befriended Boursicot as a man, and only convinced him later that he was a woman who had been raised as a boy.  The point being that this was evidently something he could do, not necessarily something he was.  In M. Butterfly, however, when Comrade Chin visits Song to talk about Gallimard, she finds Song in what they both refer to as her "disguise." Chin is disgusted, demanding to know why Song would dress like that when she didn't have to, when Gallimard wasn't around, and Song says it's because it's easier to play the role demanded of her by the Chinese government if she plays it constantly, if it, in other words, becomes her life.  Lone clearly plays this as someone telling a lie:  Chin found Song in a moment of comfort and relaxation.  There is no disguise here.

As Cronenberg says, it's all about transformation, and about our perception, and construction, of reality.  Although it wouldn't be a Cronenberg film if it wasn't also about the destruction of the transformation, the perception, and even the reality.  With a simplicity that borders on the invisible, Song and Gallimard begin to cross and blend and swap transformations, beginning in the prison van they're both loaded into after the trial.  Song is dressed in a suit and tie, and his appearance was presented in court as a means to shock Gallimard, which he dutifully was.  In the van, Song finally strips for Gallimard, but now, of course, Song claims to not want this.  Song has a cold disdain for Gallimard at the beginning of this scene (similar to the remorseless attitude Bouriscot claims Shi Pei Pu showed in real life), perhaps because Song is angry at Gallimard's hypocritical self-delusion, but eventually this all softens, and Song's love for Gallimard, and despair that this won't matter at all now, is shown to be genuine (as Bouriscot implied was the case when Shi Pei Pu made one last proclamation of love to him).  But Song is right, Gallimard rejects him.  His dissection of Puccini's opera wasn't wrong after all.  Hell, The Song of the Butterfly has somehow even transformed into Madama Butterfly.

But the swapped transformations continue.  In prison, Gallimard has become a performer.  He's a figure of mockery, now that his story has become an international scandal, and he gives the other inmates a show, a venue for them to laugh at him.  At the end of the film, he's giving his final performance.  He dresses like a geisha and talks about the unworthy men of the West and what they do to the women of the East.  When Bouriscot, who is still alive today, attempted suicide in prison, one can assume that shame and ruin, personal and professional, drove him to it.  When Gallimard successfully kills himself on stage -- as a character in an opera would die, on stage, as part of a show, regardless of the actor's ability to get up after the curtain fell -- it isn't shame but guilt and loss.  He still loved Song, but he convinced himself he didn't, or couldn't, just as he'd convinced himself to believe what Song told him, and as he'd convinced himself about his own sexuality that led to a marriage that he tossed aside like it was nothing.  And you know, maybe that explains Jeanne's place in this film -- to show how easily he could turn his back on her.  Of course, it's not guilt over what he's done to Jeanne that leads Gallimard to put that glass in his throat, nor the loss of her.  He was married to her, but she meant nothing to him.  It's Song who he treated badly, Song who he wanted and will never be with again.  The delusion is all his.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Like in a Movie

As I remember it, when it was announced that Steven Soderbergh would be directing Out of Sight, a big studio adaptation of a novel by Elmore Leonard (whose novels it was suddenly considered a good idea to adapt to the screen, following Get Shorty and Jackie Brown), the perception was that he'd given in to fate.  After being instrumental in blowing up American independent filmmaking with his debut Sex, Lies, and Videotape so that it was no longer a ghetto, and so that it could benefit from some level of mainstream popularity without being constricted by mainstream studio rules (Quentin Tarantino, who made Jackie Brown, is just one of the filmmakers Soderbergh helped make possible), Soderbergh's career almost immediately hit what, from a practical standpoint, would have to be considered "the skids."  His second film, Kafka, was expensive (relatively speaking) and made nothing, and people didn't even like it.  King of the Hill, The Underneath, and Gray's Anatomy, an adaptation of a Spalding Gray monologue, would follow, and nothing was sticking, with audiences or critics, or anybody.  All of this might be okay if Soderbergh could take some artistic satisfaction in any of it, but he was inclined to agree with the rest of the world -- I'm aware of no critique of the perfectly good The Underneath more withering than Soderbergh's own.  So following his decision to retreat as far from acceptance as he could with Schizopolis, a crazy exercise in comedy, form, performance, and semiotics that secretly exposed the things that have always been the living organs of his work, for Soderbergh to return with Out of Sight initially seemed like an admission of defeat.

Of course, Soderbergh has shown everybody what's up.  From 1998 to 2002, he churned out big studio films like Out of Sight and Ocean's 11, as well as the Oscar winners Erin Brockovich and Traffic, and even the beloved independent experiment with genre The Limey.  Whether or not you could always bring yourself to agree with Soderbergh's own assessment of his work, or his instincts for material (for the record, as far as I'm concerned Traffic is miles worse than The Underneath), the fact remained that in the long run Soderbergh, his creative crisis in the rearview mirror, was proving that he was smarter than everybody.  He could take Hollywood jobs like Out of Sight and find within a particular genre a place for his formal interests to get their hooks in, the resulting combination being exciting, smart, crowd-pleasing, profitable, genuinely creative...everything. What more can one reasonably ask for from the movie business?

The freedom, perhaps, to tick people off and make them think you're some kind of stuck up arthouse fucker or something?  Maybe?  That's okay because Soderbergh had that freedom too, and anyway that turned out to be the result.  The film I'm talking about here is Full Frontal from 2002 (in the middle of Soderbergh's run of Ocean's films, a choice bit of Soderberghian irony of which he could not have been unaware), written (or "written," as there's a lot of improvisation going on here) by Coleman Hough, who would later go on to write Soderbergh's terrific, eerie murder drama Bubble, and starring in no particular order David Hyde Pierce, Julia Roberts, Nicky Katt, Mary McCormack, Catherine Keener, Blair Underwood, David Duchovny, Enrico Colantoni, and featuring cameos by Brad Pitt, David Fincher, and Terence Stamp.  What might leap out are the names Pitt, Stamp, and Roberts, all Soderbergh veterans doing a favor (though Roberts has a major role in the film, unlike the other two) but I was struck by the mix of big Hollywood names, or actually, not Hollywood so much as movie people, and TV people.  Duchovny had recently left The X-Files, Pierce was in the home stretch with Frasier, Colantoni was about done with Just Shoot Me!, and despite plenty of film work Underwood was still famous for L. A. Law.  And all of these actors are being dumped into a kind of post-modern sort of Hollywood...satire? Anyway, there are jokes.

I don't think it would behoove anyone in particular to list who all these actors play, at least not in detail, but here's what's important:  Underwood and Roberts play actors who are making a movie in which Underwood plays an actor and Roberts is a journalist doing a story on him.  We see scenes from the movie they're making (called Rendezvous) and also can't help but notice that these parts of Full Frontal look sharp and cinematic in a way that the fuzzy unsteadiness of the "real life" scenes decidedly do not.  It is within that fuzzy unsteadiness that the rest of the film takes place, and where the really key players are David Hyde Pierce as a magazine writer at the end of his tether (it will eventually turn out that he's also the screenwriter of Rendezvous), and Catherine Keener as Pierce's angry wife, an executive whose office is going through some brutal job cuts which she is turning into a bizarre game between her and the soon-to-be jobless.  Also at the beginning of the film, we get little "character cards" for all the key players, white text on black at the bottom of which we are told under what circumstances each did (or, in the case of Colantoni, as a playwright whose connection to the film's main action is mostly tenuous, did not) wrangled a place at one of film producer Gus Delario's parties.  Delario is played by David Duchovny, and he doesn't show up in the film for some time.  When he does it's to get a massage from Keener's sister (McCormack), and then bully her into accepting $500 to give him a handjob, which she does.  Spoiler.

The idea behind this whole project, or one of them, is to play reality against the typical Hollywood representation of it.  There are certain parallels, for example, involving a red letter in Rendezvous and a red letter, or a letter in a red envelope, that Keener leaves for Pierce.  There is also Underwood and Roberts in between takes, being directed by Soderbergh (below, on the left) whose relationship with each other is not what it is on screen, which is not to say that it's antagonistic, and it's also not to say that Underwood and Roberts play themselves -- both of these things must have been hard for Soderbergh and Hough to resist, but it's good they did.

Anyhow, stylistically, the film presents reality in a messy way, it's visually ugly.  Critics took note.  Roger Ebert wrote:

Soderbergh directs at far below his usual level, and his cinematography is also wretched; known as one of the few directors who shoots some of his own films, he is usually a skilled craftsman, but here, using a digital camera and available light, he produces only a demonstration of his inability to handle the style.

Peter Rainer wrote:

The jump cuts and the grainy digital-video imagery only add to the ongoing befuddlement about who's who and what's what.

I'm confused by the confusion here, because if anything Soderbergh's motivation for this style is all too plain.  I find it hard to fathom that anyone could think Soderbergh didn't know what he was doing, even if they ultimately thought it wasn't especially worth doing in the first place.  To be clear, so I can move on, the idea was to draw a very clear visual, stylistic, and metaphorical line between fantasy (Rendezvous) and reality (everything else).  That's the baseline for the whole movie.

But it's actually more complicated than that.  The other day I was watching the new Denis Villeneuve film Enemy (which, for the record, and this is neither here nor there, but anyway, I absolutely loved), and part of the plot involves Jake Gyllenhaal's character watching a Hollywood movie and seeing his exact double turn up playing a bellboy.  99,999 times out of 100,000, a fake movie scene contained within the body of an actual movie is going to resemble an actual movie almost not at all -- even if meant more or less seriously, these things generally look and sound like parodies of movies.  Such is the case with this brief clip in Enemy, but it finally occurred to me -- and I realize this is probably about the most obvious thing on the planet, but shut up, I hate you -- that this was by design, and was simply a practical choice.  In real life, movies don't look like real life.  Maybe they approximate it, if that's even their goal.  So in a movie, that remove from reality must be even greater because it has to be at a remove from the movie, which is already at a remove from life.  Full Frontal is not only doing this with the Rendezvous material, but it knows it's doing it, and it's eventually doing this to a greater degree than the viewer might realize, at least until he finally makes it all clear to us at the end.

J. Hoberman wrote that Full Frontal was "full of false intimacies," but this would seem to me to be entirely the point, or entirely one of the points.  The final shot of Full Frontal does give the game away, maybe too much, but even so I, for one, before I'd been given the game, found myself reasonably involved in some of what was going on.  I found the story of Keener and Pierce's crumbling marriage rather affecting when the two were on screen together, and if that's because I really like both Keener and Pierce in general, well, hey, that's movies for you.  And while everything that happens with Duchovny's character may seem a bit absurd, it's played very well by him and McCormack.  The fact that she has control over the situation after having been debased is made plausible by Duchovny not being ostentatious with his character's guilt, and by McCormack not screaming her throat raw.  She's suddenly the disappointed adult.  It may be false, but again, that's movies for you.

As one of what must be about a half dozen transitional films for Soderbergh, Full Frontal is about as stuck in its own head as Schizopolis was, but people like Schizopolis, and I like both.  In the end, I don't think Full Frontal is meant to decry the artificiality of films, or even to ask us to reflect on our emotional connection with them.  I do think Soderbergh's pointing out, as he suddenly found himself in the perfect position to do, that what Hollywood movies are trying to do and what the vast majority of the American independents are trying to do, are not vastly different things.  Maybe it's a preemptive strike against those who were dusting off their notebooks in which they'd written "sell out!" in preparation for the release of Ocean's 12.  "Do you see how different all of this isn't?" could be the tagline on the posters for Full Frontal, instead of the blatantly sexual one ("Everybody Needs a Release") that is never paid off.  Amy Taubin, who at the time wrote one of the more perceptive reviews of Full Frontal, complains a little bit about the dishonesty of the film's marketing, forgetting maybe how little sex there was in Sex, Lies, and Videotape, but I don't care because in her review she points out the following:

Produced in 35mm and Dolby, Rendezvous is the aesthetic foil to the main body of the film, which was shot by Soderbergh with a handheld digital video camera, and has the acidic colors and blown-out look of early color Xeroxes, combined with the grainy effect of Super 8 home movies. (The look is not purely digital: It's the result of a very sophisticated video-to-film transfer.)

I mean, you can think that's not pretty funny if you want to, but I won't live in that world.

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This post has been part of the White Elephant Blogathon, this year being hosted by Philip Tatler IV over at Diary of a Country Pickpocket.