Monday, April 25, 2011

Melville Double Feature (Pt. 2) - Le Deuxieme Souffle (1966) - Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville

In my previous post I talked about the early career and style of Jean-Pierre Melville in his film Le Doulos (1962). His 1966 feature Le Deuxieme Souffle is a great example of a filmmaker honing his craft and refining his themes. This is a natural progression. Melville here clearly changes his tone, compositions, and thematic elements to build upon the framework he set for himself with his earlier films like Le Doulos and Bob Le Flambeur (1956), all to an end that is at once more detached, yet filled with more feeling.

In this film, Lino Ventura plays Gu, an escaped convict who's hiding from the authorities while simultaneously planning his next heist. Inspector Blot (Paul Meurisse) plays the cat-and-mouse game to track Gu and arrest him. In plot, the scenarios play out in a way that we're fairly familiar with from all of the cop/gangster films that have come after it. It's the way that the film is put together, in the inimitable style of Melville that elevates the material.

In examining the evolution of Melville, we note the change in tone from his earlier films. No longer is there the sense of homage or playfullness. We don't have the Belmondos of the world bringing their own inherent trendiness. Instead there is a greater sense of existential dread. It's a much colder world. Stark. Death is more scary and omnipresent instead of a necessary means as before. In this change of tone, as a whole, the film seems to be more important and therefore filled with more pathos and feeling. Lino Ventura is the perfect actor choice and is partly responsible for this change of tone. A great article on his acting style and the screen presence he brought to Melville's later pictures is well worth a read. In Richard Porton's piece he writes, "Ventura's hardboiled gangsters were neither suave nor flamboyant. He specialized in burnt-out, doomed men". This is a perfect example of the way the actor adds to the tone of the film that the director is trying to pursue. Ventura went on the star in Melville's very cold, yet personal look at the French Resistance (of which Melville was a part of) in Army of Shadows (1969).

In his compositions, we notice that Melville is increasingly particular. Shots are artfully composed to a point where it becomes perfectionist. This is now a world where people are spaced just so and shots strung together creating a stark existence, one devoid of warm humanity. What a striking turn of events for Melville. In Le Doulos there was a kinetic sense of joy in the compositions. More of a warm homage to traditional film noir. Here we see death and gunfights play out more coldly and savagely. In this film's centerpiece we see a brilliantly staged armored-vehicle heist on some rocky cliffs, where we are treated to a basically wordless piece of filmmaking. Melville lets us watch as we see everything being set-up by the robbers and the entire act carried out with cold-blooded efficiency. It's a perfectly shot scene and emblematic of the way that Melville was creating this new type of haggard gangster film.  Faces are blank and world-weary. There's a point where we see Gu's girlfriend Manouche shed one small tear. It's a token really, but she's so empty and cold that it's a hopeless gesture in a moment of weariness. We're not even sure she's truly sad. Melville's next feature, Le Samourai takes the stark compositions and barren existence to a new level, albeit in color. It documents a lone hitman and his precise and exact world in which he lives. Jim Jarmusch's film Ghost Dog (1999) was a direct nod to Melville in Le Samourai.

Differences in thematic elements that are perhaps most apparent in Le Deuxieme Souffle from Le Doulos are the emphasis on the ethics of the gangster and the cop. Ratting out and cheating are at once dreadful and necessary depending on your place. Inspector Blot, as the chaser, does anything he can, even lying and using coercive tactics to get his man to talk. Gu fears that he has ratted-out his friends by mistake, which tears him apart. It's this extra emphasis on the morales and tactics that elevates the story from a mere homage to more epic proportions. Cheating and lying in Le Doulos are so prevalent that it's almost treated with a bit of humor. In Le Deuxieme Souffle, it's serious business. Apparently, even gangsters have feelings, cold as they may be. Melville went on to focus more on these ethical rules in Le Samourai, but they're clearly present here.

Melville would go on to make even more refinements to his craft in Le Samourai (1967), Army of Shadows (1969), and Le Cercle Rouge (1970), showing even more restaint and creating an ever-greater feeling of detachment and existential crises. His work is essential and worth viewing in succession in order to fully appreciate the director's craft.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Melville Double Feature (Pt. 1) - Le Doulos (1962) - Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville

I'm delving into a 2-part essay on one of French Cinema's greatest and most revered directors, Jean-Pierre Melville. Le Doulos was released in 1962 and is firmly rooted into his "early" period of films, where there is a bit more playfulness and the tone is lighter than what occurs later in his film career. Melville worked within the genres of the gangster, cop, hit-man and heist film, almost exclusively. In the process, creating a new type of film noir. He borrowed heavily from the American gangster and noir films from the 1930s and 40s and turned the themes, moods, and decor from those movies into an almost zen-like, religious experience in his own films. All of the cigarettes, fedoras, trench-coats and dames in his films seem heightened to a level of near-parody, yet are balanced by low-key acting, soft jazz soundtracks, and carefully arranged compositions. It all adds up to something brilliant and utterly cool.

Le Doulos' plot is quite convoluted when trying to describe it. Maurice (Serge Reggiani) has gotten out of prison and quickly proceeds to return to his killing and stealing ways. Old friend Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo) apparently gives a tip to the cops where Maurice is planning his next heist. All hell breaks loose and soon everyone appears to be double crossing someone else. It's all completely crazy and brilliant at the same time. Melville's characters tend to be one-dimensional with a thud: The Crook, The Boss, The Informant, The Blonde etc. It adds this playfulness that I was speaking of, sort of a "comedic homage" to the classic films before it. Belmondo's acting fits well within this Melville early period though. Belmondo always seems to be sort-of winking at the camera, but never goes too far with it. It's hard not to think of him in Breathless, Godard's masterpiece, where he's improvisational and sly, but here he's able to show some restraint and shun a bit of his insouciance, appearing to be serious.

Melville's direction is highly economical. He eschews exposition and instead just goes for it. We pick up the story in bits and pieces as we go. Background information is parcelled out and therefore we never feel like things are overstated. Additionally, his films end when there is nothing left to say (or no one is left alive). In this way, Le Doulos is a very taut, masculine film. Nothing is said that cannot be shown instead. Nothing is shown that is unnecessary. It's apparent that stringing together several sequences of physical movements, such as lighting a cigarette, strolling around a room, playing with a glass of Scotch, holds as much importance in Melville's cinema as dialogue itself. Movements, actions and attention to detail are what matters here.

A couple scenes are especially standout. I love the 10 minute interrogation scene where Belmondo's character is questioned by the investigator in an extended take. Another is the inevitable shootout that jolts the viewer with its blunt force. It's a masterstroke of tension, mise-en-scene, and editing. Melville has a way of interspersing the underplayed acting with quick bursts of violence like this, which occur a few times in the film, adding resonance to key scenes like the finale. Melville never fit in with the French New Wave crowd. He's not less influential for it though. He refined and defined film noir forever with his collection of films. In my next post we'll look at how Melville began to refine his craft.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Sidney Lumet (1924-2011)

American director Sidney Lumet passed away on Saturday, April 9, at the age of 86 leaving behind a significant body of work including some of the best films ever made. Roger Ebert's piece covers Lumet's talents better than I can describe them, but what's remarkable is that he made great films over the span of several decades. He worked in the vein of gritty dramas, and seemed to pull out incredible performances from his actors. His directorial style usually emphasized characters over action and that's what makes his films so resonant even today. He let's the actors do what they do best. In his honor, Turner Classic Movies is planning a marathon of Lumet's films on April 21st. Get your DVRs ready. My personal favorite films directed by Lumet:

12 Angry Men (1957)
Quintessential courtroom drama focusing on the jury deliberation. Intense, influential and the best of it's kind. Featuring Henry Fonda's brilliant work.

The Pawnbroker (1964)
Rod Steiger gives a great performance as a Holocaust survivor living in New York dealing with his past traumas.

Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
Iconic heist film never lets up from the get-go. Al Pacino and Jim Cazale give career performances here.

Network (1976)
Media exploitation at it's most fervent, this film is highlighted by an outstanding cast, including Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Peter Finch, Robert Duvall, and Ned Beatty. Ahead of it's time in many ways.

Running on Empty (1988)
Highly underrated in my opinion, this tale of a family on the lam for terrorism during Vietnam era protests, contains arguably River Phoenix's best performance.

Lumet leaves behind this exemplary collection of films and is definitely worthy of being called one of the greatest of all American directors.

Monday, April 11, 2011

This Sporting Life - (1963) Directed by Lindsay Anderson

One of the lesser-discussed periods in cinema is the British New Wave, also known as the "Angry Young Men" films that came out of England from about 1959 to 1963. These were films where the central figure was generally a working-class guy, restless and disenchanted with life. Most of the directors working within this realm were trying to break loose from British conservatism in the arts, and produce socially realistic portaits of individuals. This Sporting Life is arguably the best film that came out of this period. I just recently saw it for the first time and was impressed by how good it was. It's the story of Frank (Richard Harris), who rents a room and has a relationship with a recent widow Margaret (Rachel Roberts) and her two children. Frank, who's a coal miner, tries out for the city Rugby team and turns into a local sports hero, setting the conflicts in motion for the rest of the film as he tries to remain true to the widow and children he lives with.

Lindsay Anderson's compositions emphasize the gritty urban environment where factories, bars and a hazy, gray suburban life unfolds. His fluid and uncanny use of flashbacks add punch to the story. Too often flashbacks are used as a cinematic crutch, either to keep information from the audience to build suspense or to just be gimmicky. Flashbacks in this film are basically the conscious/subconscious memories of Harris' character and they are interwoven effectively. I would submit this film as an example of how flashbacks can be used to enhance storytelling when used judiciously.

Although sports are a theme here, it's not really a "sports film", like Rocky or Hoosiers. It doesn't have that triumphant, redemptive feel in any way. I would say the film focuses more on Frank's mental struggles in his personal life rather than his confrontations on the pitch. He's clumsy, inconsiderate, yet incredibly loyal even to a fault. I was totally caught off guard by the potency of the script and the fiery performances by the two leads. Richard Harris (almost Brando-esque) and Rachel Roberts were both nominated for Academy Awards and their performances hold up well today. Harris plays Frank with a blend of toughness, cockiness and self-consciousness. Roberts brings the right mix of vulnerability and intensity to her part. Class struggle comes to the fore as Frank begins to rake in the cash from his rugby contract while still living with the poor widow. Several scenes ring true as Margaret becomes uncomfortable with Frank's new lifestyle. I was impressed by the chemistry between the leads. Bottom line is this is great storytelling and brought vividly to the screen by Anderson.

Lindsay Anderson went on to great acclaim in 1968 with If, a film that won the Palme d'Or at Cannes. If comes across to me as very dated and overrated now. He's much more successful here. Sometimes movies come out of nowhere and surprise me. This is one of those. After watching This Sporting Life, it makes me want to go back and revisit some of the other "Angry Young Men" films like The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) with Tom Courtenay and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), starring a young Albert Finney. I think I overlooked these movies on first viewing and want to try them out again. I'll let you know if I can recommend them as highly as this one.

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) - Directed by Wes Anderson

Wes Anderson's films seem to always balance a fine line between comedy and tragedy. Sometimes they spill over to one side or the other, but they usually remain well balanced. This one is about Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) who in his later years is trying to woo his wife (Anjelica Huston) back and reunite his pathetic kids (Gwyneth Paltrow, Luke Wilson, Ben Stiller) back into the fold.

I think the first half of the film plays more comedy. It's a very particular kind of comedy though. Anderson's actors are always trained at the Bill-Murray-Deadpan-Dry school of acting. Nearly every ounce of emotion is drained from the actor's faces and they deliver every line in a monotone, dry voice. This stone-faced acting can be referenced back to the "The Great Stone Face", Buster Keaton. He acted in his silent films with the driest, most stone-faced expression. Watch a film like The General and tell me there isn't a line drawn to Bill Murray and the others in this film.

What sets up the comedy is a mise-en-scene that is very manicured and perfected by Anderson. Everything about the sets, from the decor, the outfits, the hairstyles seems to add up to a greater purpose. Anderson sets up every shot in this symetrical fashion where he uses the entire frame to present us a picture, complete and an entity unto itself. Often he places several people across the frame in a row, or a single person in the middle of a wideshot. I think this creates an artificial appearance, a doll-house world in a way. So much care is placed to everything in every shot that we can't help but sense the artificiality of the world in which these characters live. It's this doll-house quality that sets up the comedy. But, it's an introverted comedy, not extroverted. Extroverted is The Marx Brothers, Dumb and Dumber. This is something else. Anderson's films remind me of the great Jacques Tati, whose "silent" comedies in the 50's and 60's are remarkable. I say silent in the fact that although sound is employed in the film, it's not dialogue that provides the comedy. It's the mise-en-scene and the actions and coincidences occurring in the scenes that are funny in a very amusing, whimsical way. I remember watching Tati's Play Time at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago several years ago in 70MM. I was awestruck at the massive use of widescreen to fill the frame with the set. Every inch of the frame was used to set-up the comedy and the effect of the whimsy. Tati was clearly a perfectionist in the way he created his artificial world. Anderson is similar in this way and took this "doll-house" approach to the extreme in his next film, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Anderson had a large set created of a side-cutout boat where the viewer can see all the rooms in the boat and everyone moving about. I think The Royal Tenenbaums is not quite to this extreme, but it's the way these characters move about within this world that creates both the comedy and the tragedy.

This is also a very self-aware and self-referential film, reminding me of the cinema of the French New Wave, particularly Jean-Luc Godard in films like Breathless, Band of Outsiders, and Masculin, Feminin and also Jacques Rivette's Celine and Julie Go Boating. These are films filled with in-jokes, cinema references, hipster moments of cool, and a pervading sense of self-awareness. That was what the The French New Wave was out to do. Break down the barriers of cinema and create movies for people who knew movies. They wanted to do things their own way and not follow the formulas. Anderson clearly enjoys making movies for people who like movies and doing it his way.

Some other motifs I noticed? One is the contant use of pink and red. It reflects the heart of the film and the emotions of the characters as they wade through the family garbage. At one point, one character actually bleeds his love for another. Everyone is pining for another and several hearts are either broken or will be broken throughout the film. Also there is the theme of the "place of respite". Characters retreat to closets, bathrooms, and even tents in order gain some peaceful moments away from the chaotic family dynamic. During the second half of the film, the tragedy comes more to the forefront and there's a pervading sense of melancholy. It's not like it turns on a dime, but the film does switch over midway through and changes tone.

I really love Wes Anderson's movies. I don't think any actor/actress will ever win an award in any of his films, but it's his sense of direction that I love to submit to. There's a sense that he has complete control of what his film is doing and where it's going.