Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Contempt (1963)

Paul (Michel Piccoli) is an artist without an art form. He's a former crime novel writer, aspiring playwright, unwittingly tasked to fix a screenplay. Fritz Lang is the beloved filmmaker bastardized by the impossible task of adapting the Odyssey with Godard's touch of sarcastic minimalism. Dailies show Greek statues with painted eyes, arrows drawing fake blood and so forth. Both artists represent Godard's own contempt for his chosen art form. A botched film project within a film about exploitation. But who is the true exploiter and exploitee?

Brigitte Bardot was contracted for a nude scene so Godard has her posing like a Page 3 girl. She is commodified within the story and film, a two dimensional beauty catalogued by her hair and curves. Her relationship with Paul is inconsequential within the barren landscape of the film. She stops loving her husband after he appears to pawn her off to his boss, an American film producer played by Jack Palance. Yet their love is hardly palpable, in so much as an inanimate object can love or be loved.

Jack Palance is a physical presence like one of the Greek statues, held out with Godard's usual contempt for Americans and anyone in the film business. Of course he can't communicate with anyone without a translator, his English falling on deaf ears with a thud. Godard's contempt seems for the film itself this time. Raoul Coutard's cinematography is exploited for a visual beauty without a contextual one. Palance, Bardot and Lang are treated like puppets stripped of character by their director. Yet these are trivial symptoms of the broader exploitation in Godard's nihilistic vision of the world, with no more important victim than himself.

There is no Godard film without contempt, but this time he wasn't sure where to direct it. The screenwriter is contemptible because he has no conviction. He's caught between financial practicality and an artistic sense of self. Bardot's character is contemptible because she lets her body be sold without her brain, and to an American no less. Lang is a slave and Palance a slave master of the film industry. At the end of the film, Lang continues to work, tortured by a hopeless project. “You must finish what you start,” he says, which Godard surely feels about his own work. Bardot, for hitching a ride with an American, and Palance for being a movie producer, are both killed in a car accident at the end.

Godard loathes western affectation, cinematic nostalgia and anything artists or intellectuals might collectively get exuberant about. So Paul is a fool for admiring Dean Martin's character in Some Came Running, with his hat and cigar. Quotes from books, philosophers, and/or meandering intellectual conversations pain and bewilder the audience with just that intent. The joke is on the characters cleverly quoting or conversing, and those who think any of it means something. In addition Fritz Lang and Douglas Sirk might be great directors if not for so many people starting to think so. For Godard, the love of 1950's Hollywood films was once a truth and then became a joke.

In many ways Contempt is the truest expression of Godard's convictions: contempt for the world, the cinema, his admirers and himself. Some say it is the greatest French film ever made, so perhaps his feelings were not so misplaced. 

Friday, August 15, 2014

Boyhood (2014)

Critics around the country have praised Boyhood, Richard Linklater's new film. It was preordained for masterpiece status, and every critic fell in line. They were amazed that a filmmaker could tell a story with characters, including two small children, who grow 12 years older without the need for extra makeup, or different actors. Linklater accomplished this by filming his actors once a year for twelve years. He chose Ellar Coltrane to play the boy, Mason, and his daughter Lorelie to play Mason's sister. Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette played their parents. This group would get together, scribble down the next installment of the script, shoot for a couple of days and say goodbye till next year. Despite being shot over 12 years, and running almost three-hours, Boyhood remarkably only took a combined 39 days to shoot. Apparently Linklater and his team would sometimes write the scenes the night before. Such exhaustive attention to detail surely couldn’t have any downsides if all the critics are satisfied. Yet the film is surprisingly disjointed, and many of the scenes are poorly written and uninspired.

Linklater's film unfolds like a series of cliched cultural snapshots from the last 15 years: Gameboy, Harry Potter, Britney Spears, Hot Topic, the Iraq War and Obama. These are the historical cues, along with Mason's changing hairstyles, to let us know the years are flying by. It's like Forrest Gump for the 2000's, filmed in real time. With each passing year, Mason sits on the sidelines as his mother blows through drunken husbands, and his dad settles down by replacing his GTO with a minivan. He must juggle his parents' emotional baggage with the overwrought hallmarks of boyhood. Mason gets bullied in the bathroom as he clutches his schoolbooks in terror. A smaller Mason looks at a Victoria Secret catalogue before graduating to internet porn by puberty. Not long after he is peer pressured into drinking a beer by some comically obnoxious older kids. As Mason grows into himself, a cultural stereotype starts to take shape. With longhair comes smoking weed and kissing girls in the back of a wood-panel station wagon. With spiked hair comes emo fashion accessories, suspect work ethic, and a passion for photography.

Coltrane isn't unwatchable in his teenage years like Lorelei, but he has about as much presence on camera as your average reality tv personality, musician, or athlete turned dramatic actor. Linklater successfully molded Coltrane into the same pseudo-intellectual, self-centered, perpetually unsatisfied wimp that Ethan Hawke played in Before Sunrise. He shrinks from the screen with age, either hiding behind his bangs, or in full recoiled posture. Some critics have praised the parents as the real center of Linklater's story about boyhood. This is either because these critics are parents themselves, and parents always think it's all about them. Or because, when fully audible, Mason only manages to string multiple sentences together when he's petulantly complaining to his girlfriend: first about the superficiality of Facebook, then about her cheating on him.

The most interesting and worthwhile thing Richard Linklater's new film Boyhood has to offer is the chance to see its lead actors at 12 different stages of their life. Some grow taller, some grow fatter, and some never should have become actors. Besides the wonder of aging, Boyhood contributes a trite and predictable coming-of-age story with little style to compensate for its overinflated sense of importance. At the end of the film, an attractive college girl speaks on behalf of Linklater's clever pen, asking our protagonist, do we seize moments or do moments seize us? I almost started laughing when she preceded the question with something like, “you know how people say,” and couldn't contain myself after hearing what came after. Bits of fortune-cookie wisdom like this are sprinkled throughout Linklater's film, putting Boyhood over the edge in the minds of critics. They at least gave reviewers a jumping off point (aside from the 12 years) with so little else unique or interesting about the film to work with.  

The Battle of Algiers (1966)

The French general, played by the only trained actor in The Battle of Algiers, asked a group of reporters, “Should France stay in Algiers? If your answer is still yes, then you must accept all the consequences.” The consequences referred to by the general were the torture of prisoners by the French army, and the bombing of civilians by the Algerian revolutionaries.

Gillo Pontecorvo's film is a landmark in cinema: a quintessential example of Italian neo-realism, and an important barometer of an era galvanized by revolution and radical political thought. It has since been used by terrorists and revolutionaries, along with world powers as a training video on guerrilla warfare. The Pentagon reportedly showed The Battle of Algiers to US officers in order to prepare for counter-terrorism efforts in the Iraq war.

Aside from being a thrilling film, The Battle of Algiers serves as a lesson when assessing the violence erupting in the Middle East today. What essential question, similar to that of the French general, should be asked about conflicts in the Middle East? One might ask, should Israel have a military presence in Gaza and the West Bank? And should the U.S. have a military presence in Iraq? Perhaps most importantly, what is the difference between a terrorist and a revolutionary?

The Algerian revolutionaries in the film strongly resembled what are now considered terrorists. However France didn't belong in Algeria and eventually withdrew in 1962. Should France stay in Algiers? The answer was no. The overthrow of the French regime seemed inevitable in the film. The Algerian people, picked up off the street to star in the film, their impassioned and anguished faces portrayed so starkly by Pontecorvo, would not be denied.

The general in The Battle of Algiers was willing to accept torture as a consequence of war. What lengths is the US willing to go in order to stop Hamas or ISIS and protect ourselves? As the three women planted bombs in a cafe, bar, and airport populated by civilians, Pontecorvo's film forced audiences to look terrorists in the face and see a human being. In that vein, are we willing to look at our enemies and sympathize with their point of view in order to make the world a better place?

Monday, August 11, 2014

Days of Heaven (1978)

Days of Heaven has everything to delight a lay-snob's appetite for cinematic artistic pretension. Though surprisingly enough, it doesn't pass the test of a true film snob.

There is beautiful cinematography, shot during the magic-hour (how technical). And a love triangle. Not the melodramatic kind you'd see on television, but something more muted, like you'd see in a foreign film. To top it off there are the blank stares and the precocious voice over of a child.

Thanks to these key elements, Days of Heaven is regarded as one of the greatest movies ever made. It earned a place in the hearts of cinema lovers everywhere – right next to Terrence Malick's other films, The Thin Red Line (great cinematography and war), and The Tree of Life (great cinematography and Brad Pitt). Days of Heaven is one of the most visually beautiful movies ever made, but somehow certain critics still found something wrong with it. According to them, Days of Heaven is simply overrated.

The issue for these critics seems to be the devil in the details. Apparently some of Malick's crew didn't think he knew what he was doing during the making of the film. The film ran over budget because Malick allegedly started shooting inordinate amounts of coverage with the idea of solving the film's plot problems in the editing room. Infamously, he then took years to edit Days of Heaven, and had to add the voice over (much praised) after the fact just to cobble all the pieces together.

Why does this matter? For some, knowing these details takes the sheen off of the once-a-decade filmmaker’s genius. If only the movie was exactly as Malick had planned. Then they would consider Days of Heaven the masterwork of a true cinematic visionary. Knowing of
Malick's struggles opens the door to critics who wish to parse the film's thin story, and they say, disjointed composition. Not to mention Richard Gere's historically inaccurate haircut and bad acting.

In my opinion Days of Heaven is still a great film. Thank Malick for the magic-hour, the Texas prairie (actually Canada), and Linda Manz's adorably improvised Chicago-hick accent. Truthfully, Days of Heaven is pieced together just fine. And the film benefits from a story which doesn't convolute or detract from images already loaded with emotion. Even Gere's clumsy dufus approach fits a character as fleeting as the passing harvest. As Gere runs from the police like a chicken with his head cut off, with no hope of escaping, I couldn't help but think of the cruel reality of the passage of time. Gere's character is shot dead unjustly, with no hope of explaining himself and little chance of being remembered. Similarly, each summer a new batch of workers come and go, and with them foolish love affairs and forgotten children. Eventually even the wheat harvest and the prairie will disappear. 

Friday, August 8, 2014

The Conformist (1970)

Bernardo Bertolucci’s film The Conformist is like a vegetarian who loves wearing fur. It masquerades as a leftist political film, villainizing fascists as cold, materialistic and of course, sexually perverted. Yet the film embodies what it purports to critique.

From the very first shot of the film, it is apparent that this isn’t your uncle Godard’s, satirically absurd vision of fascist Italy. Jean-Louis Trintignant sits on a hotel bed, intensely contemplating some impending catastrophe, totally uninterested in the naked woman lying next to him, with the film seemingly basking in his esoteric coolness. As Trintignant sits in a car, the collar of his jacket is popped in the same way Belmondo mocked American gangster movies in Godard’s Breathless. Trintignant's character wants normalcy: a bourgeois wife, and the security a dictatorship offers. He just wants to fit in, but his latent homosexuality, and love of fedoras and three piece suits just doesn't jive with either political movement. The Conformist is visually breathtaking, utilizing color filters, deep focus, beautiful 1930’s clothes and decor. Its visual style makes it a great film, however this seems totally incongruous with its intended critique of fascism. It fetishizes fascism rather than mocking it.

The Conformist is considered by many to be one of the greatest films ever made, but so much of what is great about the film doesn’t fit within our interpretation of it. And what the film offers as explanation for its characters is mostly ignored by critics who praise the film. The main character is a fascist because he was molested and is a closet homosexual, and the liberal professor’s wife sleeps on both sides of the ideological divide because she is also a sexually confused, closet lesbian. According to the film, the ideological differences of the left vs the right are no more than a front for bedroom politics. As in many films, fascists or socialists, whoever is more unpopular at the time, must be politically motivated by their sexual ineptitude or perversion. The film intends to critique fascism on a psychosexual level, yet the characters sexual and ideological politics seem frivolous.

The Conformist wants the cake of conformity and to eat it too. It celebrates the excess that its contemporary independent film movement has attempted to satirize, while also trying to conform to that movement's benchmark technique of intercutting. The Conformist attempts unsuccessfully to incorporate the French New Wave's editing style; beginning at the end, occasionally and confusingly cutting back and forth within the story. (Godard's influence on independent films of this period is similar to that of a Mussolini-esque dictator.) Its attempt at intercutting makes the film far more confusing than it should be, ironically appealing to the pretentious film-watchers elite and not to the masses.

Bertolucci’s “operatic filmmaking” as Kael put it, overshadows his intended message. The film is like listening to the opera, not following the story, but enjoying the singing. The Conformist is a great film, despite it growing more elusive to less patient audiences by the year. It not only wonderfully captures the style of the 1930’s but also the thinking of 1960’s filmmakers. As much as we might want to champion it for its intelligence and freudian political undertones, its greatness lies in the beauty of its voice.