Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Naked Kiss (1964) - Directed by Samuel Fuller

Elevating what could have been pure cheese into high art, Samuel Fuller's The Naked Kiss is a pulp-fiction melodrama of the best kind. Fuller's personal brand of gritty, gutsy and overt filmmaking here is in full effect. It's in-your-face, confrontational, and gloriously sappy. We're introduced to our heroine, Kelly, played by Constance Towers, in a well-composed opening sequence of violence. She's swinging madly at her pimp with her purse, the camera lurching and swinging in unison and we, the audience are also jarred by the bald image of her head. After beating him up and taking her hard-earned cash, she gets in front of the mirror and proceeds to put on her wig as if none of this has phased her one bit. Kelly, trying to give up prostitution, moves to a small town and doesn't take long to "befriend" the local cop. She rents a room in a house and gets a job as a medical assistant caring for children at the local hospital and begins to feel like her past is getting further behind her. At the hospital she becomes a local saint of sorts, caring for the children, teaching them life lessons, helping out the other nurses with their personal problems, saving a woman from going down a wayward path. She even meets a well-off man named J. L. Grant, relation to the town's founder, and decides to marry him after a short but intense courtship. Of course, not is all as it appears. Dark secrets are lurking in the shadows of this iconic mainstreet USA.

Fuller and cinematographer Stanley Cortez make great use of shadow and light, bringing contrast to many scenes to heighten the tension and somehow making most sets appear ominous, enhancing the fact that Kelly can never quite escape her past, that things are lurking in the corners. Fuller's oeuvre included film noir, and he incorporates those types of visual flourishes in The Naked Kiss. Fuller was a war veteran and former crime reporter, so he was personally aware of the extremes of human drama. He continually exerted a unique worldview on his films where he gave voice to outsiders, highlighted social issues and hypocrisy through controversial themes, and even tackled racism head-on in Crimson Kimono (1959) and especially White Dog (1982). I've always been fascinated with Fuller's films and consider him a true auteur and master director. His films were always low-budget looking, but filled with personal and intense filmmaking that gave the films an edge. Several visual flourishes really work here, like the opening sequence I mentioned, an imagined gondola ride through Venice, and even a musical number involving the children at the hospital which maintains a restrained balance between the maudlin and the sincere. In The Naked Kiss, the subject matter in the hands of another director could have turned laughable, but Fuller's sense of balance and contrast keeps the film from going too far.

Melodrama when done right can be very entertaining. Sometimes it's talked about in mostly negative terms, but when utilized by a director who understands its impact, it can be used to highlight hypocrisy, challenge repressive ways of thinking, or to heighten emotion beyond that which can be accomplished through realism. Douglas Sirk's films like All That Heaven Allows (1955) are a perfect example of melodrama done artfully and classically. Rainer Werner Fassbinder was another director who utilized melodrama, albeit with a tinge more realism in films like Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974). Pedro Almodovar has fully embraced melodrama throughout his career and was most successful in Talk to Her (2002). Fuller takes this type of melodrama to the extremes of taste though by examining the personal life of a prostitute, making her into a heroine of Frank Capra-esque proportions, flaunting conventions and challenging the audience to hold its prejudices at the door.

Constance Towers has a difficult role to play in this film. She's got to be melodramatic, but make us believe we should actually care about her. She's also alternately sweet and vicious, turning on a dime and capable of swift, brutal violence and justice. She cares for the physically impaired children in one scene and beats a brothel owner in another and somehow makes both extremes believable for this character. I think Fuller's script is filled with hammy moments at times, but Towers always comes out looking empowered and in control, never like she's forcing it. In the final 30 minutes of the film, the story takes a surprising and well-timed turn, bringing everything in the plot to a completeness that could not have been accomplished in another way. Sam Fuller manages to always surprise the audience with an honesty and openness that are still refreshing today. His films hold up remarkably well and his influence can still be seen in the films of Quentin Tarantino among others. The Naked Kiss is a supreme example of the power of Fuller's filmmaking.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator (1967) - Directed by Dusan Makavejev

Dusan Makavejev’s cinema, born out of Serbia in Yugoslavia during the 1960’s, is one in which art, social conformity, and even cinema itself comes into question. Coming out of a communist nation, it’s hard to believe these films ever got made, let alone saw the light of day. His insistence on eliminating traditional form and his use of collage and experimentation are all central to the “Black Wave” movement taking place in Yugoslavia in the 1960’s, of which he might be the director with the largest legacy. His most fruitful and accomplished period occurred with his first films, including a fascinating one called Innocence Unprotected (1968), but it's Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator that is a superior example of contradiction and provocation.

In Love Affair, or…., Makavejev tells a loosely interpreted story about Izabela (Eva Ras), a switchboard operator, and Ahmed (Slobodon Aligrudic), a vermin exterminator, and their short but tragically passionate relationship. Many of the scenes involving their interaction borrow heavily from the French New Wave and much of the cinema verite going on around the world at the time. What makes this film, and Makavejev’s cinema unique, is his reluctance to stick with one style. He interjects his “story” with documentary-like footage: a discussion and lecture to the audience on sexuality from a sexologist, including historical depictions and artwork on sex, a lecture on criminology and the mindstate of criminals from a criminologist.

This all ends up being tied together through the plot, when we realize that the relationship involves both sex and a murder, and in fact, birth and death. Several times we are introduced to life-giving or life-affirming images: shots of eggs, bubbles, bread dough, the female form, the description of a fetus in utero. These are contrasted with ghastly images of death: blood, corpses, dead rats, an autopsy. When you combine the contradiction of the beautiful with the blood curdling, there is a chilling effect on the viewer.  We’re also shown copious shots of civilian protests as well as some arresting footage of the removal of the church from communist society. Despite the shortness of the film, Love Affair, or… is literally loaded with ideas and images over its 69 minutes that leave an impression and are directly confrontational. It seems like Makavejev provokes the viewer with impressions of stifling socialist viewpoints and personal freedom, lecture versus action, social norms versus personal choices.

What I appreciate so much about the film is how the collage actually works. Much like the cinema of Terrence Malick, Makavejev is reliant on the collage of images and impressions, many contradictory in this case, leading to an overall tone and mood, which ends up creating a sense of purpose. I’m not pretending to know all of what Makavejev was trying to say about cinema, nor Yugoslavian history or politics. I think there’s more here than I mentioned. But, the film works on many levels and is memorable for both how it presents its story and in many cases, how it does not tell the story. Makavejev would go on to make increasingly brazen films in the 1970's, but seemed to have maintained a certain critical balance here. This is an original film from a director with a very unique viewpoint. It strikes me as an underrated and important film from this time period.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Cat People (1942) - Directed by Jacques Tourneur

After watching Cat People, I thought this is the sort of film that is absolutely a joy to watch, but if you try to describe it to someone they might think it was silly. I’m going to take the plunge and offer up that Cat People is not only a classic horror film, but one that is entrancing, beautifully atmospheric, and absolutely film noir lurking around every corner. I will probably go so far to say that in some ways, this feels more film noir than horror as we know it. Perhaps, it’s the presence of Jacques Tourneur as director and Nicholas Musuraca as cinematographer. They would go on to partner at the helm of perhaps the most iconic film noir of all time, Out of the Past (1947), starring Robert Mitchum.

Val Lewton produced a series of horror films in the 1940's using a modest budget, yet managed to pull together some great talent. Cat People stars Simone Simon as Irena, a sexy, strange immigrant from Serbia living in New York, friendless and alone. We’re thinking - How could this woman be alone? Oliver, played by Kent Smith, strikes up a conversation with her at the zoo, as they ponder a black panther in a cage, and begins a fateful courtship with her. She is timid at first and tends to avoid showing emotion and affection toward him. We soon learn she comes from a town that is filled with dark secrets and some form of spell that might be controlling her life, and she believes that if she is “aroused”, she will turn into a panther. An interesting thing occurs after Irena and Oliver marry. We realize that Irena refuses to sleep with him and consummate the marriage. She is fearful that displaying such passion will awaken her inner feline. We find that Irena becomes jealous of a character named Alice (played by Jane Randolph), who works in Oliver’s office and who Irena suspects is having an affair with her husband. This starts the film down the dark path of film noir, highlighting a woman scorned and a battle between passion and repression played out on the streets of New York, filled with symbolic imagery, moody lighting, fog, shadows, manipulative characters and a palpable sense of doom.

Several scenes are standout. One is a stalking scene where Alice is rushing down a garishly lit street pursued by something or someone she cannot see. This scene is brilliant twofold: for the lighting, absolutely perfect in its contrast between dark and light playing off the stone wall in the background, and for the quick cuts in the frame and the sound of her clicking heels that employ one's heart to race as she walks faster and faster. Another stalking scene occurs in an indoor swimming pool as Alice swims alone where it is darkly lit, shadows and light playing on the ceiling as the tension builds. I was actually reminded of “The Shower Scene” in Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), as the characters surrounded by water are quite vulnerable. If you’re in a swimming pool, you’re vulnerable. You can’t run, you’re not clothed well etc. If you’re in a shower it’s the same idea. You’re confined, you’re wet, naked and you can’t see well. Both Cat People and Psycho make great use of vulnerability in these scenes.

Jacques Tourneur’s direction is carefully paced, holding off on the money scenes until absolutely necessary, drawing the audience in as much as possible before letting the tension release. Ultimately, I love this movie for the way it takes the horror genre and turns it into a personal existential crisis. Irena never wanted to become part of a relationship. She did and it took her down a path she never wanted to go, getting herself deeper into the abyss of a murky morality where she came to a point of no return. That fits my definition for film noir and if there’s a movie where a seemingly good or well-intentioned individual makes a mistake, they usually follow it up with another and another until they come face to face with their destiny. Cat People also contains a sexiness to it, with all the feline imagery, the deviant repression, symbolism and the dark shadows. Musuraca’s cinematography is pure genius turning the stalking scenes into elevated art and several sets into ominous creations. I’m especially thinking of the design office where Alice and Oliver end up near the climax of the movie. Lighting and angle play upon each other so well in this scene that it truly makes the visuals stand out and elevates the scene beyond mere suspense. Call the film silly if you want, but there is a lot going on here and it’s a brilliant horror/noir film. They don’t make them like this anymore.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) - Directed by Andrew Dominik

Andrew Dominik’s long, elegiac story of Robert Ford, the man who killed outlaw Jesse James, is a modern Western masterpiece. I say it’s the story of Robert Ford, even though Brad Pitt plays Jesse James and it’s hard to ignore his presence. Interestingly, Robert Ford is the much more realized character of the two and the film is from his point of view. Played by Casey Affleck, Robert Ford is a twitchy, shy young man brought into Jesse James’ fold near the end of his life. James leads Ford and others in a train robbery and decides to keep Ford along as his sidekick of sorts at home for awhile. They begin an awkward relationship that continues throughout the rest of James’ life, ending when Ford shoots James in the back of the head, killing him, creating notoriety for Ford. This film is the story of their untenable and bizarre bond.

Casey Affleck’s portrayal of Ford is well-played and in fact, upstages Pitt’s portrayal of James. Affleck’s uneasy quality on screen makes for a tone of portrayal that is awkward and filled with depth. Ford never seems to be comfortable in his own skin and Affleck portrays this in every scene. Ford pretends to smile, pretends to smoke, and pretends to get along with everyone. All the while, he’s obsessing over the life and times of James, his mind churning with a never-ending paranoia as he is teased, coaxed, and tempted by visions of grandeur and immortality. Hero worship is a grand understatement for this man. From a young age, Ford apparently collected articles and magazines detailing the exploits of James and basically ended up a “crazed fan” of sorts. Affleck imbues Ford with a starry-eyed naiveté, but also a careless, violent streak, making us believe he not only admires and loves James, but would also be capable of betrayal for the right price. During the denouement of the film, after the assassination, we see Affleck becoming increasingly paranoid and withdrawn. James’ death was the beginning of the end for Robert Ford. It was a symbiotic relationship of sorts for Ford, and he could not survive without James.

Making full use of the widescreen photography, Roger Deakins is the film’s other main star, as cinematographer. The Assassination... is loaded with beautiful vistas of the plains, mostly during winter, creating a gray, bleak atmosphere. I sensed a strict adherence to natural light and/or candlelight only during filming. I couldn’t find any scenes that were noticeably lit artificially and this lends great credibility to the whole film. Deakins is one of the true masters of photography around with a long list of credits to his name. He has done great work over his career, capturing many of the Coen Brothers’ movies on film, like No Country for Old Men (2007). One can also see bits and pieces of other films that appear in the images, like the David Lean film Doctor Zhivago (1965), and Robert Altman’s gloomy revisionist Western, McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971). One could probably just watch the film without sound and even realize how great a movie this is.

Dominik’s use of voiceover narration in the film takes many sections and turns them into historical, documentary-like passages. In fact, these scenes with the narrator recall the brilliant narration in Ken Burns' documentary The Civil War (1990), where the voice-over yielded a refined, mournful tone to the whole thing. Similarly in The Assassination..., the narrator provides a grace and gravity to many scenes. Ultimately, the story-arc, though slow to develop, is what makes this film so great. Ford and James have fate pushing them together throughout the story, creating a palpable pre-destination for their lives. Before you even watch the film, you already know the story. There's nothing surprising about what occurs. We know the history. What is remarkable is that the film also knows that we know. It doesn't pretend to masquerade as if this story is being told for the first time. There is no hiding the fact that the destinies have been foretold. Ford, it seems, was born to kill Jesse James and his entire life had culminated in the one act that he was destined for. James knew he was going to die and basically hand-picked his killer. Dominik’s direction and script emphasize this destiny at every turn, propelling the film onward towards the fateful moment and beyond. This is one of the essential films of the 2000's.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Lovers (Les Amants) (1958) - Directed by Louis Malle

Louis Malle's collaboration on two films in 1958 with French actress Jeanne Moreau yielded possibly the best films that he ever made. I'm a huge fan of his neo-noir masterpiece Elevator to the Gallows (1958) with its gripping tale of an adulteress requesting that her lover murder her husband, yielding a pinnacle of French Cinema, not only for Moreau's performance, but the film with it's pulsing Miles Davis score and throbbing suspense is easily one of the best of the 50's. Her other film with Malle in 1958, The Lovers is a once scandalous but now more introspective and reflective film about love, mostly the fleeting quality. It remains an acute observation of human malaise, disenchantment and the desire for the feeling of falling in love, rather than the desire for lasting love.

Malle's film plays in three parts. In the opening sequences, we see Moreau playing a character named Jeanne, relentlessly bored with her life. Wandering aimlessly from the hallways of her husband's factory, to the carousel carnival rides of her lover Raoul, a polo-player. She is happy with neither man in her life and the prospect of the long term relationship nor the extended love affair is what she wants. She's completely wrapped up in the boredom of her state. Moreau's screen presence, brimming with an understated brand of morose passion was perfect for playing a role like this. We know she's not happy with her husband. After all they are sleeping in separate rooms. Yet we know she's not excited by Raoul by the way that she just goes about her business with him. Life and love is ritualistic for Jeanne. Michaelangelo Antonioni went on to develop a whole cinema around themes such as these in films like L'Avventura (1960) and Red Desert (1964) working with Monica Vitti as his muse. Here as well though, Malle makes the boredom of the bourgeoisie fascinating to watch, even as unsympathetic as the characters are.

In the middle section of the film, Jeanne is driving to her dinner party when her car breaks down and she is lucky to be picked up by a younger guy named Bernard. She asks him to drive her home. We notice during this portion of the film that a more improvisational tone starts to creep in. Jeanne is less sure of what is to come and what this moment means for her. Bernard takes her on a side-trip as he must run an errand, making Jeanne wait at the car. Jeanne is flustered. Moreau lets us see how this character's life is beginning to attempt to "feel" again during these awkward moments with the stranger. Bernard is convinced to stay for the dinner party once returning Jeanne to her house. We sense that something will happen between Jeanne and Bernard that night.

For the final portion of the film, Malle presents to us an impassioned night between Jeanne and Bernard as he spends the night in their house, right under the nose of Jeanne's husband. This is a very eerie sequence, shot under moonlight on the grounds of the large estate while Jeanne and Bernard make advances on each other among the grass and trees. It feels ghostly and ephemeral and neither of them seem to be real during these moments. Malle wants us to dispute the proposition of falling in love like this and to debate whether this is all a dream. It sure feels like a dream. We also finally see that this is what Jeanne has been yearning for: the moment of falling in love to escape from her boredom. During the morning after, we immediately feel the dread that Jeanne has for what's next. We sense that she cannot sustain what she has started. She and Bernard are clueless as to whether they have any future together and we see that it has all been a mistake. Malle presents this to us in the plainest of terms, cutting like a knife through any melodrama or nostalgia. Jeanne Moreau carries us through the whole film with class, beauty and her unique film presence. She is one of the finest of all actresses with an incredible list of films and this is one of her best performances. Malle's collaboration with her in this film makes it essential viewing.