Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Daisies (1966) - Directed by Vera Chytilova

In the annals of cinema, I’m not sure there is a greater sustained piece of outlandish, irreverent cinema than Vera Chytilova’s towering masterwork, Daisies. The fact that it also contains some fascinating political and feminist overtones is the icing on the cake for me. As the key pillar in the Czech New-Wave movement, this film stands as an important statement from a time and a place and I consider it essential viewing. Chytilova’s film was in fact banned in her own country, and she was eventually blacklisted and unable to make films there for several years.  It’s a wonder that the film got made at all. I remember seeing this in a rather rough print about 8 years ago during an Eastern New-Wave retrospective I was attending. Seeing it again in the new Criterion Eclipse series is rather a revelation. I really liked it before. I LOVE it now. It is perhaps a disservice that Criterion did not issue the film as a stand-alone or even a Blu-ray version, but nonetheless, the film looks spectacular in this new print.

Chytilova’s film follows the exploits of two teenage girls----Marie and Marie. Or Marie I (Jitka Cerhova) and Marie II (Ivana Karbanova). Their loose dialogue at the beginning of the film refers to their dissatisfaction that the world is “spoiled”. They decide right then and there that they too should be spoiled as well. They in turn, run rough-shod through a series of vignettes, casting aside any sort of conservatism and destroying any sense of moral compass or passivity or inhibition. They become free-form individuals doing whatever their basest desires lead them to. They take advantage of older men, drink beer from straws, make public displays of misbehavior, devour massive amounts of food and literally destroy themselves. Chytilova's script is not of real-world scenarios. These girls exist within a bubble....their own world, without consequences. That is until the end, when even the film itself seems to become fed up with their shenanigans, and turns on them in a fit of retrograde frustration, punishing them for their naughtiness and condemning them with a flourish of crashes, explosions, machine gun clatter and of course.....cheekiness. 

If ever a free-form narrative called for inventive filmmaking, it’s this one. Chytilova’s imagination is on overdrive here as she bombards us with style. She incorporates black and white, color, sepia, monotones (in green, blue, red), fast motion, collage, jump-cuts, text narration. This is not to mention the fantastically inspired soundtrack, incorporating everything from classical music, to machine gun fire, to completely un-related aural sounds, like the typewriter sounds played over one scene.  All of these effects are not gratuitous or overkill, but they are essential toward building the overall impression and purpose of the film. There is a manic energy on display here and Chytilova makes you feel the sense of indulgence that the Maries are after. One cannot separate the plot from the technique here. They build upon one another and make each greater as a result. Somehow Chytilova keeps this film from being completely obnoxious. In fact it's quite the opposite: insanely delightful. 

If one is to try and dissect what Chytilova is trying to say, I think there are perhaps a few approaches. In one sense, it is a subversion of “good girl” behavior. These women are completely in control and they do as they please. They choose their mates and dump them when they want, they eat and drink to their heart’s content. Their rather cardboard existence is reflective of their rebellion. If they are little more than objects (as the world treats them as women) then the film can be read as a subversive rebellion from this image. "If one is going to treat me this way, then this is how I will behave and this is what you will get." Additionally, from a political standpoint, Chytilova is thwarting everything that her country was trying to control. So to portray basic gluttony and consumption would obviously have been considered a slap in the face to a regime built upon socialist dogma. Any way you slice it, there is meat on the bones to this film. Even though on the surface it appears to be just a piece of insanity, there are actually few films that display this sort of high-octane energy, inventiveness, and subversion. This one is very near the tops in all of those regards, and it's one of the very best films of the 1960's. 

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Rebel Without a Cause (1955) - Directed by Nicholas Ray

Rebel Without a Cause is probably Nicholas Ray’s most iconic work and if not his best, still packs an emotional wallop and is also a rather dense and thematic work. It also contains James Dean’s performance that made him into a legend. Although he would display greater range and acting ability in the film that followed, Giant (1956), his work here is fascinating. One can view this film in different ways then. Is it the James Dean show? Or it is a Nicholas Ray film? When I was about 16 years old, this was my favorite film. I didn’t know Nicholas Ray from Adam but was rather obsessed with Dean. Everything this film spoke to was a sort of calling card for me in high school. I probably watched it twice a year for a while there. It had been 10 years or so since I’ve seen it and since then I’ve come to understand Nicholas Ray and his artistry and now I see the film more as an interesting combination of popular appeal and subversive filmmaking.

Rebel stars James Dean as Jim Stark, a high school student who is found lying drunk on the pavement at the beginning of the film. He’s brought into the police station where we begin to understand he is a “troubled youth.” He routinely gets into trouble, has a hard time making friends, hates the way his mother and grandmother pick on his rather meek father. In the police station we also meet Judy (Natalie Wood) who was on the streets because her father roughed her up earlier in the evening. Additionally we meet Plato (Sal Mineo) who drowned some puppies earlier in the day and whose parents are divorced and also absent. All three attend Dawson High. Most of the film takes place in a single day, as James attends his first day at his new school, meets Judy (who is at first standoffish towards him) and Plato (who idolizes him as a father figure among other things), gets in a fight with a bully, is challenged to a “chickie-run”, fights with his parents, falls deeply in love and witnesses the deaths of two friends.

Ray’s film contains some brilliant domestic elements and the entire work is rife with symbolism, fantastic framing and camerawork. One of the key elements on display are the poor parent/child relationships. Jim’s father is a huge disappointment to him. Played by Jim Bacchus, Mr. Stark is a timid, bumbling man, unable to provide his son with any real direction or advice. Jim tries at one point to get a straight answer from his dad, but instead his dad wants to pull out paper and pencil and start righting out pros and cons. Jim’s mother is critical and perfectionist and henpecks Mr. Stark constantly. Jim refers to his family members as a “zoo”. Plato’s parents are divorced and his mother has left the house, so he lives with the housekeeper and is lonely, desperately seeking a father figure and friends. Judy’s relationship with her father, in my opinion is rather abusive. We meet her at the police station, and in a brilliant piece of acting by Natalie Wood, we find out her father has called her a tramp and tried to rub off her lipstick. She is in tears as she explains she thought he would “rub off my lips.” Later in the film when she is seeking fatherly love he slaps her across the face. Her mother’s pathetically blank expression during this scene is indicative of Judy’s broken relationship with her mother as well. It is clear her mother does not understand Judy’s needs. One of the overarching themes is that the flaws of the parents have clearly affected the children and in fact the film almost out and out blames the parents for the behavior of the children.

In one of the film's most effective motifs, the interplay between James, Judy, and Plato make up a surrogate family. Plato idolizes Jim as a father, talking about going hunting and fishing with him. In the scene at the Big Mansion, Jim and Judy make believe they are looking at the house as potential buyers and talking of children. Judy even hums a lullaby to Plato and he dozes off to sleep in this scene. The three of them together form a cathartic family….one in which they can be themselves and not be judged. Later in the film, Jim tries to rationalize and compromise with Plato as a father does with his own son. None of this feels forced at all, but becomes an essential component of the story. They are all friends, but individually form certain components of this surrogate family. Three uniquely framed scenes highlight the growing relationship of the three (shown below). We first see the three of them framed in the police station, but they are not together. In fact Judy is behind glass and isolated. Next we see the three of them at the top of the cliff following the chickie-run….Jim reaching out his hand to Judy with Plato framed right between them. Finally the fully formed family unit is framed together in loving embrace….Judy caressing Jim with Plato being comforted by the presence and glow of familial love. Ernest Haller’s Cinemascope framing is magnificent during these and many other moments. There are some fascinating camera tilts during the scene in the Stark home as James argues with his parents, as well as another camera tilt during the climactic scene of the film when Plato runs out of the observatory. These unsettling camera movements are elements of the underlying fracturing of “perfect domesticity”.

Additionally the use of the color red (the credit titles, Judy’s jacket and lipstick, Jim's jacket, Plato’s sock) is effective within the framing as highlights of emotional pain, confusion, and aggression. Judy’s bright red jacket and lips beacon as sexually suggestive in the opening scene. By the end of the film, she is in a more comfortable pink dress as she has become the ideal, sensitive maternal figure. Jim’s red jacket, a possession and symbol of his rebellion earlier, is used as a token of grief when laid upon his dead friend at the end. Plato (Mineo - himself a homosexual), in perhaps a not-so-subtle way, is seemingly confused as towards his feelings for Jim….is he a father figure or perhaps a potential lover? This confusion is paralleled in his wearing one red sock and one blue sock. It is to Mineo’s credit that this element of the film is terrifically sincere and unforced. We should all consider ourselves lucky that Nicholas Ray changed in mid-filming from black and white traditional stock to full color and Cinemascope. It is not an understatement to say that Ray was the greatest Cinemascope director. He used wide framing perhaps better than anyone ever has.

Dean’s performance is full of affectation and ticks, but he is very good in subtle moments as well, like when he kisses Judy on the forehead as they’re sitting talking under the tree. Sal Mineo is wonderfully brooding and believable as a kid that no one seems to like. Natalie Wood gives one of the best performances of her career as Judy, and that first scene in the police station is a knockout. True there are awkward or even dated elements to this film, but it retains an underlying inspired sincerity. Ray found a way to identify with these youths rather than objectify them and that’s what keeps it grounded in their reality. My favorite scene in the film is the Mansion scene where the three leads romp and play and enjoy their friendship without judgement from the outside world. Yes it’s just a respite from the violence that will follow in a few hours, but it’s a beautiful moment of such tenderness that it feels like a mini-lifetime. 

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Deep Blue Sea (2011) - Directed by Terence Davies

Terence Davies’ first non-documentary work since House of Mirth (2000) is a spare and emotionally fragile work that contains magnificent pacing, inspired visuals, and a devastating performance from Rachel Weisz who is in nearly every scene in the film and commands your attention the entire way. It’s one of the best films of 2011 (or 2012 depending on release dates and locations). Davies here works within a framework of the classic melodramas and in a certain sense, I was reminded of Lean's Brief Encounter (1945) except that this story somewhat picks up where Brief Encounter leaves off. Here, the female protagonist pursues and consummates the affair and is left to deal with the consequences. This is a film that may bore or exasperate some, but for fans of love stories or melodramas, it doesn’t get better than this.

The Deep Blue Sea is based on the Terence Rattigan play from 1952 of the same name. It is the story of Hester Collyer (Weisz), wife of a Judge named William (Simon Russell Beale). They live a rather privileged existence, yet have no children. We pick up the story after Hester has been involved in an affair with an RAF pilot named Freddie (Tom Hiddleston), and in fact, the story basically occurs in one day----the day Hester has decided to commit suicide. Freddie had forgotten her birthday and had gone away for the weekend and in a state of despondency, Hester attempted to kill herself. She is saved by her neighbors, but spends the rest of the day remembering moments from her past. This is told in a mosaic flashback form. We see moments with her husband, we see moments with Freddie. We slowly begin to put things together. Later that day, Freddie comes home to find her in a state of disengagement and finds her suicide note. The rest of the film involves Hester attempting to reconcile her feelings and her relationships.

What I find so thoroughly engaging about this film, is its mature and its deeply introspective approach to the subject matter. As the audience we are trusted to find our way through Hester’s feelings. Yes it is obvious that she is distraught and depressed. But why? As the film unfolds, it is clear that this is a work of great character examination. It appears that Hester married for safety and comfort, but when she met Freddie, she found sexual and emotional exhilaration. When she left her husband for her lover, she found herself torn between guilt and passion…between shame and love. This produced in her a deep rooted sense of self-loathing and self-hatred, so that she remained balanced on the precipice of an emotional abyss. She gets along, but if there is any negative emotional setbacks in her relationship, she takes it extremely hard. What is so fascinating is that Hester does not avoid emotional drama. She is almost drawn to it as a way of feeling SOMETHING. When Freddie picks up her suicide note, she does not try to tear it away from him. She wants him to read it. She wants him to know her pain and wants to be put in that emotional state of turmoil and bring him into it. She also turns away her husband even though he seems to still care for her and is willing to take her back to comfort and safety. She denies him and instead prefers to stay in her perpetual state of melancholy, depression, and suicidal fantasies. Like I said though, this film is deeply introspective, and outside of a few outbursts, is a rather quiet, but penetrating work.

Camerawork by Florian Hoffmeister allows a hazy glow to overtake the viewer. The film is filtered so that nothing is quite in extreme focus and we are awash in cigarette smoke and dark rooms and shadows. Davies lets us wallow in the mise-en-scene and the pace is very slow and deliberate, which allows a sense of importance to set in even though the film is only 98 minutes. Punctuating the film with feeling is a violin concerto piece by Samuel Barber, which gives the film a sense of beautiful desperation. It’s a wonderful piece of music. Foremost, though, is the performance by Rachel Weisz. She makes us believe that this woman is willing to be absolutely miserable, perhaps even crave her turmoil, all for the sake of love. Yes she’s in love…..and it’s killing her. Weisz is tremendous in moments of emotional outpouring, and also in moments of pensive reservation. There is an extended scene where she stands at her window, smoking a cigarette. You can feel her desperate need to be lost in her own mind. Weisz does not turn this into a pity party. We don’t feel sorry for her but instead regard her with fascination. How far will this woman go to be continually humiliated and destroyed? This film intensely examines the depth of her emotional state. It is a fantastic work.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932) - Directed by Jean Renoir

If this isn’t one of the greatest comedies ever made I would be hardpressed to find a reason why it wouldn’t be considered as such. Jean Renoir’s film is chock full of delightful comedy and social commentary that is quintessentially French and also rather influential to other comedies that followed in the decades after. One could probably name several comedies where most of the action revolves around a character who is essentially a fish out of water that becomes rather annoying to others around him/her. Everything from What About Bob? (1991), to National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989), to buddy comedies like Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987). There are more for sure. Here though, there is a beautiful assimilation between flat-out comedy and social commentary and they build upon each other nicely. I am usually not the biggest Jean Renoir fan, but this is one of my favorite films by him. 

Boudu (Michel Simon) is a homeless man. We find him at the beginning of the film in a park with his dog, which he promptly loses. This dog was seemingly his only comfort in life. We also meet a married couple, Mr. and Mrs. Lestingois, and their maid Anne-Marie (also Mr. Lestingois’s mistress). One day, Mr. Lestingois spots a homeless man (Boudu) jumping into the Seine to kill himself. Lestingois rushes from his home and saves him from the river, bringing him back to his house. He not only saves Boudu’s life, but invites him to stay with them. He gives him food, clothes and a couch to sleep on. Boudu is rather carefree about the whole deal…being clumsy and making messes, eating sloppily, flirting with the maid, having sex with the Mrs., and generally wreaking all kinds of havoc on the bourgeois household. It’s a riotous combination of slapstick and class commentary.

Michel Simon gives a towering performance as Boudu, one of the great cinematic characters of the 1930’s. His sloppy speech, mindless food chewing, and altogether uncouth qualities are quite a behold to watch. One of my favorite  sequences is when Mr. Lestingois tells him to go out to a barber to get his beard cut….but he must shine his shoes first. So Boudu begins to shine his shoes, and manages to flood the kitchen with water, leaving polish everywhere from the kitchen to the bedroom with not a care in the world (I include this clip below from YouTube). Boudu is a rather boorish character but is not really mean spirited. He's just completely unfiltered. Thus, he’s funny in a truly genuine, instinctive kind of way. He simply says what he thinks and does what he wants. Michel Simon also works from a cinematic language and framework that began with the silent clowns (Chaplin, Keaton), which gives his performance a wonderful visual flair, but he makes it his own, adding more raw body movements and expressions than we are used to seeing from this era, rather than the graceful balletic movements of Keaton and Chaplin.

Of course, the attack on the bourgeoisie is apparent here and Renoir does not shy away from the satirical angle. Boudu asks a cop for help in looking for his dog and isn’t given the time of day. When a beautiful (rich) woman approaches the cop for the same reason, he brings in several other cops for help. As Boudu opens a door for a man with a fancy car in the park hoping to get some change, the man has nothing in his pockets to give to Boudu, so Boudu hands him 5 Francs. Furthermore, all anyone can talk about when Boudu is saved from drowning is how Lestingois is going to get recognized for such a feat. Throughout the film, there is a subversion of the bourgeois life. Perhaps the greatest moment is at the end of the film when Boudu trades his new expensive clothing and changes clothes with a scarecrow at the edge of a field. He’s clearly fed up with his newfound life and would rather go back to being poor. Jean Renoir commands the whole film masterfully from start to finish and with Michel Simon’s towering performance, this is a must-see comedy…. with bite to it.