Thursday, July 20, 2017

Capsule Reviews: Capitalist Pig-Dog Edition

What’s that you ask? Have I seen two movies? Have I written a few paragraphs about each??? Well actually yes I have!!
Stormy Monday (d. Mike Figgis) – Like Don Siegel’s The Killers and George Romero’s Creepshow, this film, just out from Arrow Video, features one of those casts the true looniness of which can only really be appreciated in retrospect. In this case, Mike Figgis’s debut feature (which is about gangsters and nightclubs and jazz and whatnot) we get a main cast comprised of Sean Bean, Melanie Griffith, Tommy Lee Jones, and Sting. For a moody 80s crime film, that bodes well, right? Or at least it bodes interesting. Right?
The guts of the plot are typical: Sting plays Finney, the strong-willed owner of a jazz club who, as the wearily satirical “America Week” gears up to begin in the English city of Newcastle, is soon being threatened and otherwise pressured to sell his business because of some criminal real estate something-or-other. Finney is tipped off that this is going to happen by Brendan (Bean), who overhears two guys talking about it while he’s out on a date with Kate (Griffith). She’s a waitress at another club, but also reluctantly uses her feminine wiles for mercenary purposes, at the behest of Cosmo(!), an American businessman who is really a gangster when you think about it, played by Jones. Finney fights back against physical threats, Brendan falls in love with Kate and finds himself caught in the middle of all this, Kate wants her freedom from Cosmo, and Cosmo wants to destroy all that is good in the name of America or whatever. Together, they rush towards a breathful anticlimax.
The film looks good. Roger Deakins shot it. All the performances are, you know, fine. Jones is full of the blank-faced tics that made so much of his early work hard for me to get behind, and Melanie Griffith still hadn’t quite learned how human beings speak. But Sting and Bean are good. The main problem for me, in addition to the fact that as a  crime thriller, which Stormy Monday seems to think it is, I was never once compelled by anything that happened on screen or by the people doing them, which admittedly is hardly a frivolous complaint, is Figgis’s lame, limp-dick satire of America and capitalism. I’ve said before that I have many, many problems with satire as a comedic form, at least as its been practiced in my lifetime, because in satire all you have to do is plant a giant Pepsi bottle somewhere it doesn’t belong and suddenly you’ve make a “joke” which is not only “funny” but which also “says something.” Satire is revered, satirists are holy figures, yet somehow it takes no effort at all to make it or be one. No one expects more out of satire than a giant Pepsi bottle.
Terror in a Texas Town (d. Joseph H. Lewis) – This 1958 Western, also just released by Arrow Video, has a few things in common with Stormy Monday. Here, a crooked businessman and extortionist named McNeil (Sebastian Cabot) pressures a Swedish immigrant (Ted Stanhope) to sell his farm, because McNeil knows there’s oil bubbling underneath the land. When the farmer refuses, McNeil’s hired gun Johnny Crale (Nedrick Young) murders him. Before McNeil can swoop in and buy up the rights, though, the farmer’s son George (Sterling Hayden) arrives in town, learns his father has been murdered, and begins a quest to find out why he was killed and who is responsible. His mission is somewhat hampered by the fact that the other farmers in town are frightened of McNeil, and so at times it seems as though, with the exception of Mirada (Victor Millan), his dad’s loyal friend, George is going it alone.
This obviously also calls to mind High Noon, which came out six years earlier and bore the same political subtext. Terror in a Texas Town was written by Dalton Trumbo, blacklisted and using the credited Ben Perry as his front, and so capitalism is condemned, and immigrants working the land are the victims as well as the heroes (here it parts ways with Stormy Monday, since in that film the foreigners (the Americans), are the whole problem). In other words, the politics are as up front here as they are in Stormy Monday. The difference is that the writing here is good, the draw of the story is primal, and his while Figgis wanted his individual shots to look good and hired the right guy to give him that, Joseph H. Lewis and his cinematographer Russell Harlan are concerned with their film looking good as shots and scenes move and flow into each other.
Even better, Lewis and Trumbo weren’t interested in stock heroes and villains. Or least, not exclusively. George and Mirada don’t have a lot of guilt to work through, apparently, and McNeil isn’t about to see the error of his ways. Johnny Crale, though, is another matter. Nedrick Young’s performance is top-notch, the best in a very well-acted film, and he has the most to work with. Early in the film, Young subtly lets on that his Crale, a prolific killer, has something going on inside him, related to how he’s chosen to earn his living. And it’s always there, manifesting in different ways. The moral and existential crisis that is roiling around inside Crale’s head and guts might bring out in him a sense of pity one day, and fuel his brutality the next. If he’s the Angel of Death, and his black clothes suggest that he might be, then he’s one who, if he’s not stopped, will soon suffer a complete psychotic breakdown, and bring everything and everyone down on his head.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Universal Happiness

In a 1983 interview for Positif, which can be found in the booklet accompanying the new Criterion release of L’Argent, Michel Ciment mentions to Robert Bresson that “According to you, an image should not be matched with a powerful sound. Bresson’s answer is as complicated as you might expect, and eventually deviates somewhat from the main point, eventually stating that as a cinematic artist what he’s seeking is “impression.” He goes on:
Let me give you an example from L’Argent. When I’m on the major boulevards of Paris, I immediately ask myself: What impression do they make on me? Well, the impression is of a mishmash of legs making a sharp sound on the sidewalk. I tried to convey this impression through sound and image. So then I’m criticized for framing the bottoms of people’s pants. How intelligent! I received similar criticisms regarding the horses’ legs in Lancelot du lac. I showed the horses’ legs without showing their riders, in order to draw attention to the muscular power of their hindquarters when they brace themselves to launch into the tournament. I’m not going to show the rider, because then everything would be scrambled, something entirely different would come into play, people would look at him, they would wonder what he was going to do.
Beyond making me wonder about the kind of film critic who would, or indeed could, be so put off by the way pant legs are photographed – a matter I wish this interview could have found the time to explore further – beyond that, as I say, what Bresson’s answer brings to mind is not the shot of pant legs described, but rather another one later in L’Argent, near the end. The main character, Yvon (Christian Patey) has just been released from prison, and has after some time made his way into the countryside where he’s taken in by an old woman (Sylvie Van den Elsen), who lives on a farm with her father (Michel Brigue). She has done this secretly, but is discovered by her father. One morning, the old woman pours coffee into a bowl, to take it to Yvon who is staying in the barn. As she leaves the house and is walking through the grass to the barn, her father confronts her. He reaches out to slap her, and just as his hand strikes her face, Bresson cuts to her hands, holding the bowl of coffee. The impact jars her, and jostles the bowl, which sloshes coffee onto her hands. Then the encounter ends, and she continues on to the barn.
This cut to her hands effectively shows the violence of the slap – it conveys the impression of violence through the motion of an inanimate object. It even conveys the pain of the slap, because that coffee that splashes her hands is hot. As with the decision to show horses rather than the knights in Lancelot du lac, the viewer is not robbed of any knowledge or appreciation of what he or she might deem more relevant at the moment by not showing that thing; they are told about that thing by showing what Bresson calls “fragments of reality” which combine to depict an event, and eventually a progression of events.
Up to that point, the hot coffee splashing bare skin is the most violent image in L’Argent, a film that has previously included a bank robbery and a car accident. The bank robbery and its aftermath aren’t shown, but we do hear a long volley of gunfire – a powerful sound that Bresson does not match with a notable image: it rumbles over a simple image of Yvon, the would-be getaway driver, behind the wheel of a car he’s about to crash. (We do see the crash, but that’s just the violence of metal on metal. There’s nothing about wounded flesh, either shown or implied.) All this in a film, were it not for the occasional spurting blood of Lancelot du lac, that would easily be Bresson’s most physically savage.

Yvon is not a born criminal. An oil deliveryman, he one, while cashing an invoice at a camera shop, finds himself set on a path to destruction when the shop owner (Didier Baussy), to avoid taking the hit himself, purposely passes off three counterfeit bills that he’d recently been saddled with (and was able to pick out on his own after the fact, so no official is aware he has them) to Yvon, who is caught later when he innocently tries to spend them. He’s caught in a restaurant, in a scene that sets up much that is to come. The restaurant employee who notices the counterfeit bills and confronts Yvon is not willing to give Yvon much leeway. Frustrated and angry, Yvon assaults the man, but what we see is a close-up of Yvon’s hand grabbing the man’s jacket and pushing, then quickly letting go, so that the frame is filled with Yvon’s wide open hand while we hear what sounds like the man falling into a table or cart of dishes and falling to the ground. Another hand giving the impression of violence, which is heard off-camera, and a propensity for violence is established, though with that shot of Yvon’s hand Bresson somehow conveys that the character’s inclination in this direction is something he’s trying to curb. In any event, Yvon is doomed starting at that very moment – you might as well stop watching now. Or more likely he was doomed when he accepted into that same hand the money that was owed to him.

L’Argent ends in a slaughter, none of which we see straight-on. But after losing his job because of the counterfeiting charge, Yvon’s life falls apart. When he’s in prison for taking part in the bank robbery, his family, his wife and daughter, evaporates, for reasons understandable and tragic. There is nothing, so that when he’s released he’s willing to let the violence inside come out as he cruelly seeks money where his blood-stained hands can grab it. Which sounds very dramatic, and which is not even wrong. Yet L’Argent proceeds in small moments. Even the murders are shown in small moments, and of course the people playing the characters – I do not say “actors” and I probably shouldn’t have said “playing” – engage in none of what Bresson called the “voice modulation” or “useless gestures” or traditional film actors. His “models,” as he called them, indeed were not actors. With few exceptions (most notably Dominique Sanda, who started with Bresson), the screen credits of the stars of Bresson’s films begin and end with whatever Bresson film they appeared in. And indeed, as Bresson himself admitted, they’re not acting. They are part of the many visual and an audio components that comprise his shots, scenes, sequences, films. This sounds almost mercenary, but isn’t. As Bresson says in the Ciment interview, it’s all part of his precision, which I’d also call his sort of streamlined otherworldliness (Bresson often claimed to be depicting reality; how exactly he was defining “reality” gave him a lot of room to move, but sometimes he seemed to think he was achieving something close to a kitchen-sink reality; with L’Argent he certainly wasn’t doing that, which is something I do not care about). His very complex films, and they don’t come much more complex in Bresson’s filmography than L’Argent, are simplified by these non-performances – they’re not even lean, they’re not even stripped down – in that none of the fat of film acting is there to be dealt with, but it also deepens the strange intricacies of Bresson’s aesthetic. It’s strange and intricate, of course, because we’ve been trained to see films and film acting in a way that is anathema to Bresson, but Bresson is virtually alone in the history of more-or-less traditional narrative filmmaking to whom it is anathema. And this is all at its most interesting and absorbing in L’Argent for a variety of reasons, chief among them the presence of a little girl and a dog. Neither of them are actors, but neither of them are Bresson’s models, either. The little girl, who is maybe four years old, plays Yvon’s daughter. She’s not in it much, only two scenes I think, but in both she greets the stone-faced Christian Patey with a wide-open grin, that is utterly, unfakeably sincere. She is the only human being who gives the audience a shot of real movie emotion, but it’s not performative. She’s not a child actor. Bresson instructed his models not to act; I imagine he didn’t even bother telling the little girl.
And not to sound glib, but the same goes for the dog. It’s one of the wildest images I’ve seen in a Bresson film: during Yvon’s violent climactic rampage (during which I feel, I remember, only seeing two human faces, though I don’t know if I’m right about this), the dog that belongs to Yvon’s victims is running madly through the house where it’s all taking place, whining and crying and in a complete panic. It’s chilling and heartbreaking, and it stops your breath. That this dog is not attacking Yvon is surely lost on him – even the dog doesn’t have Yvon’s kind of violence in it. Then again, the dog is about to find itself cast out of its comfort, as Yvon was, and then what’ll it do? The poor thing won’t even know that it doesn’t have any money.
Robert Bresson must be among the most perplexing directors in history. There is certainly no one else like him (though some, like Steven Soderbergh with Bubble, have tried to get at what Bresson got at), and to walk into one of his films from, say, the 1950s, and increasingly so as he went along, ending with L’Argent, his last film, without any sort of guide is to more than likely find yourself lost. Narratively, he’s not particularly hard to handle, but in pretty much every other respect the question the uninitiated must ask is “What is he doing, and why is he doing it like this?” Bresson’s book, Notes on the Cinematograph, is a series of aphoristic statements the ultimate goal of which is to create a guide to filmmaking (this is, admittedly, merely one way of putting it). What it achieves instead is an explanation of Bresson. A complicated and enigmatic explanation, but nonetheless a solid one, one that can be held in our hands.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Welcome to the Internet

Every so often, a cinematic or literary genre or subgenre that usually consists in the realms of cult appreciation will find itself, usually after a particular entry into their ranks hits it big, enjoying what we call a “boom.” Audiences and publishers and studios are suddenly hungry beyond reason for more of this stuff that six minutes ago they barely even knew existed. As you might expect, this consequence has its ups and downs. The worst of the downs is that the world is suddenly awash in, say, ironic heist and hitman movies following the release of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, or teenage angst horror after Stephen King’s Carrie was published in 1974. Which would obviously be fine if all of this stuff was good, but of course it never is. So eventually it all crashes down and people get sick of heist films. On the plus side, while the boom is in full swing, really good, interesting stuff that couldn’t get a look in yesterday suddenly finds a gap in the fence and slips through. Would we have One False Move without Pulp Fiction? It’s possible we wouldn’t. And I feel certain that without Stephen King and Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist and The Other, there’s no way writers like T.E.D. Klein and Karl Edward Wagner would have received the kind of mass market publication they did. It’s a fair trade, in my view.
Back in the early 2000s, one of these booms occurred in the film world when – and as near as I can tell this was the locus, but it’s possible I wasn’t paying attention to other factors – The Ring, Gore Verbinski’s remake of Hideo Nakata’s Ringu from 1998 became a huge success. And so now, everybody wanted to see more Asian horror, specifically Japanese horror, so much so that amongst nerds it was even given the stupid nickname “J-horror.” In America, this wave of Asian horror more often than not, it seems to me, took the form of Hollywood remakes, because, hell, that’s what got us here in the first place. Hence your Dark Waters starring your Jennifers Connelly and your The Grudges starring your Sarahs Michelle Gellar and whatnot. It did also create a market in the US for the real thing, however, and whatever expected downside that went along with it, there were also some really terrific movies that were suddenly readily available. Including that which has brought us here today, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse, from 2001, one of the great horror films of the new century. I’m sure Pulse would exist with or without The Ring. I’m just not sure when we would have been able to see it.
Pulse, which has just been released in a deluxe Blu-ray edition from Arrow Films, has a structure that is not unheard of in traditional narrative filmmaking, but is definitely unusual in the horror genre: two sets of characters, unknown to each other, have similar strange, terrifying experiences and one or more members of each group try to find out what’s going on, until their investigations bring them into contact with each other. Whether or not, ultimately, this contact does anybody any good.
In one group, three employees at a greenhouse/nursery notice that another co-worker, Taguchi (Kenji Mizuhashi) hasn’t been seen in a while, nor has he contacted them about an important project he’s working on. One co-worker, Michi (Kumiko Aso), goes to Taguchi’s apartment. He’s there, but during Michi’s visit he commits suicide. The computer disk containing the project he’d been working on is pored over by Michi and her friends Junko (Kurume Arisaka) and Yabe (Masatoshi Matsuo). On the disc, they find ghostly images in photographs of Taguchi’s apartment, and when Michi returns their she finds a weird black stain on the wall against which Taguchi hanged himself.
Meanwhile, a young man named Ryosuke (Haruhiko Kato) takes his first tentative steps towards exploring the then-new Internet. After signing up with a provider, a website opens automatically, on its own. The site shows various people, their faces obscured, in dark rooms. The people are unmoving, or they move with eerie repetitiousness. Unnerved, Ryosuke seeks help at a computer lab at the university he attends. A computer science graduate student named Haure (Koyuki) takes interest in his problem and agrees to help. As the film progresses, characters will find a slip of paper on which is written “The Forbidden Room,” they will encounter ghosts in rooms whose doors are bordered by red tape, and they will hear, and entertain, theories about ghosts pushing their way into the physical world. And these characters will become depressed, and they will begin to feel hopeless. Michi will witness another suicide.

Kurosawa’s ghosts are hazy, slow, terrifying entities. Some are seen more clearly than others, and some perhaps can’t be seen more clearly – one is a walking shadow whose limbs move in loping arcs, another is a black outline seen from a distance in a library, who flees, or disappears, when Ryosuke approaches. This is quite a scene, not just for the imagery, but because it leads Ryosuke to meet a university student who explains his theory that spirits are using technology (specifically the internet, it should be clear by now) to enter the world of the living. The scene isn’t fascinating because of the theory, necessarily, but because the student is moved to tell it when he notices that Ryosuke has seen the ghost. He, the student, has been seeing them around campus, which led him to the theory. But it’s the matter-of-fact way the topic is broached, both visually and through dialogue, that makes it obvious, if it wasn’t already, that Pulse is a ghost story like no other. The ghost Ryosuke is simply among the stacks in the library. It’s notable as a presence not because of what it’s doing, but because a pitch-black thing in the shape of a human shouldn’t be there.
The table has been set for this kind of off-hand way (and all the more chilling because of that) Kurosawa introduces his supernatural elements by showing Michi, Yabe, and Junko react to Taguchi’s suicide as something that not only should be put behind them instantly, but can be. Michi has to work harder to shake off what she saw, and what, when you get right down to it, must be a loss to her personally (the implication is that she was friends with Taguchi, that they all were) than Junko does, and maybe, finally she doesn’t. Maybe she only acts like she does. If that’s the case, the path she walks, as opposed to those down which Junko and Yabe go, is different for a reason. She’s more aware. She’s more awake as a human being.
This is perhaps what plagues everyone in Pulse: that they are human beings. I’ve seen the argument made, and made recently, that Kurosawa really blows the lid off the internet with this film, that he had its dangers pinned down while the rest of us were still marveling at its limitless newness, but not only am I not convinced that he makes his case, I’m not convinced his primary concern was to make one in the first place. The danger of Pulse, the weapon that is used against us, is loneliness, that most human and effortlessly acquired of diseases. This is not the worst thing that the internet has afflicted on the world by any means, at least as I see it in 2017. What the internet achieves as a device in Pulse is a representation of and a portal into the unknown (and a portal out of the unknown). As one character after another faces the unknown directly – not death exactly, or not merely death, but whatever death is prologue to – the realization of their aloneness begins to metastasize. Not so glib about death now, are you, Junko? So the internet isn’t the internet: the internet is death. Which, okay Kiyoshi Kurosawa, that’s a fair point.
Gradually, Pulse turns apocalyptic. It seems to be, at once literally and metaphorically, an apocalypse of suicides. As the film moves along towards its end, it begins to depopulate. By which I don’t mean that the characters we know begin to die off, though that happens as well. Rather, even in a film that has never been teeming with background extras, the spaces through which Kurosawa’s people and camera move become undeniably emptier. And then any doubt about this is removed, but it’s remarkable how Kurosawa gets this across before being blatant about it. Pulse is a movie whose narrative momentum is built around a process of slow removal. Unavoidably, the film gets lonelier and lonelier.