Thursday, February 16, 2012

Sunset Boulevard (1950) - Directed by Billy Wilder

Some films never grow tiresome no matter how many times I watch them. Sunset Boulevard belongs in that category for me. Arguably Billy Wilder’s best film, it contains one of the all-time greatest scripts and all-time greatest performances. The film’s long shadow also echoes throughout the last 60 years, finding parallels in the bizarrely moving documentary Grey Gardens (1975) or even more closely in Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. (2001), which not only shares the similarity of having a Hollywood street name for its title, but also shares the penchant for debunking the Hollywood dream. Sunset Blvd. is also filled with the kinds of nuggets and goodies that film buffs love to dissect.

Billy Wilder’s film concerns the story of Joe Gillis (William Holden), who after being murdered, narrates his past story from beyond the grave, as a struggling Hollywood screenwriter strapped for cash and about to lose his vehicle and apartment due to lack of funds. While trying to flee the cops one day, his tire blows out and he quickly swerves into a driveway and pulls into a rather empty garage next to a dilapidated mansion. Through mistaken identity, he is invited inside by the owner, thinking he’s a mortician come to care for a deceased family pet.  The owner of the house turns out to be Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a has-been silent film star, out of work for twenty years and living in a crumbling “Zanadu” with her butler, Max (Erich von Stroheim). When she presents her work of love to Joe, a self-written script, Norma convinces him to help her edit it to become her comeback film, which she thinks will reunite her with director Cecile B. DeMille. Joe stays at the house to work on it because he needs the cash, but slowly begins to realize he’s getting in deeper than he anticipated, as Norma quickly develops a possessive attachment to him.

Wilder examines in the most thorough way, the tragedy of the befallen and aged Hollywood star. It is probably the greatest examination, in fact, of the underbelly of Hollywood. The script contains such acerbically funny dialogue and voiceover poetry that you can’t help but become wrapped up in the deliciously macabre humor. Several lines in the film are absolutely brilliant: “Talked to a couple of yes men. To me they said no.” “I AM big. It’s the pictures that got small”. Of course the iconic “Alright Mr. DeMille. I’m ready for my close-up.” However, the genius, as I see it, is that Wilder makes you laugh initially, but makes you feel like a heel for it later, as you realize the desperately sad tragedy unfolding before you. Unless you’re completely clueless, you know that Gloria Swanson was an immense silent film star in her day. I’ve seen her in Queen Kelly (1929) (directed by von Stroheim and a clip of which appears in Sunset Blvd.) and Sadie Thompson (1928). Wilder’s script is loaded with the kinds of biographical information and connections between Swanson and von Stroheim, incorporating other major figures like Buster Keaton in a cameo, and of course Paramount Studios, the studio that made Swanson a star in the 1920’s. Furthermore, Norma’s scene where she plays Chaplin’s The Tramp is enhanced by the fact that Swanson’s first film role was in Chaplin’s His New Job (1915). 

One of the peculiar things about the script though, and I’m not saying it’s a flaw per se, is the motivation of Joe Gillis. He of course needs money. But there’s a point when he leaves Norma in a state of desperation to attend a party. She slits her wrists that night, and when Joe finds out, he comes rushing back to her. Why? Does he truly care for her? Does he feel guilty? We see Norma lying on her bed, crying, bandages on her wrists and Joe comes to her side and allows himself to be kissed by her. Out of pity? I also wonder whether sex is involved in the relationship, even though Hollywood at the time stayed far from such topics, however at one point Norma makes reference to “Men of his sort.” It seems apparent to me though that there is a sexual undercurrent to the proceedings. Another scene regarding Joe’s questionable motivation is when his girlfriend Betty comes to the mansion to find him and he turns her away. Does he want to save Norma’s fragile psyche? Does he love Norma? If so, why does he quickly betray Norma as well?

I’m absolutely convinced, though, that Swanson gives one of the absolute greatest performances you will ever see. It had to have been so brave of her to attempt this role, which really doesn’t paint her in the nicest of lights. She’s maniacal, paranoid, self-absorbed, suicidal etc. Her bravery as a has-been playing a has-been is evident in the moments when she’s trying to get her skin and face in shape by having facial treatments done to her. The visage of her with patches on her face, and a strap for her lower chin makes me respect her so thoroughly for this performance. This role requires a commanding, terrifying, and mysterious presence, which she brings in spades. Her portrayal gets to the heart of the psychological impact of what fame can do to a person. In the final moments after the infamous murder has been committed, the suspense of her slow walk down her staircase with reporters and cops everywhere standing still while she thinks she is being filmed for a movie is such a brilliant set-piece, and in fact far outweighs the suspense of the fateful murder scene just before it. It’s one of the great endings in all of cinema and a capstone to one of the greatest films of all time.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Artist: 5 Thoughts

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few months, you are aware of The Artist and the rather massive amount of acclaim the film and its director, Michel Hazanavicius is getting from critics across the globe. I don’t normally have time to write about films I don’t like, as I hardly have enough time to write about the films I do like. However, this one brings up so many topics for discussion and thought that I couldn’t ignore it. Needless to say I don’t like the film and several key questions or talking points came to the fore while I watched it. I’ll try to break them out. Basically I think the film is lazy filmmaking. Borrowed plot. Borrowed music. Flat visuals. There’s nothing here of particular interest for cineastes outside its novelty. That’s ultimately what it is- a novelty. I don’t care that many critics are calling it the best film of the year. They’re wrong! Maybe it’s their favorite film of the year, but it’s not the best, or most innovative, or most insightful etc.

So yes the film is silent and yes it’s in black and white. This begs the question of how to evaluate this film fairly in this non-silent film era. I decided to try and level the playing field when discussing this film by approaching it in two different ways. One is to assume, for the sake of argument only, that if all films today were silent films, how would this film be perceived? I would probably argue that there is nothing rather remarkable about the plot, set-design, editing, acting etc. of the film that would make it anything more than your average love story/drama film.  Second, if this film were a sound picture, how would it be evaluated? Again, I would argue there is nothing remarkable about the plot, set-design, editing, acting etc. of the film that would make it stand out for me. I have simply seen all of this before and done better. Therefore, its uniqueness, as I see it, is the fact that it’s a silent film in a non-silent era. My bottom line here is if Hazanavicius spent half as much time devoted to the rest of his film as he does to re-hashing plot elements from other films and redundant real-life examples of silent film stars, he would have had something more interesting here. I think he makes the critical mistake of using modern film techniques, and more modern framing (honed in the sound era) to tell a silent film story. It’s basically as if he filmed a sound picture, relying on sound-film conventions, and then put it on mute. This leaves out all the elemental reasons for why silent films worked in the first place. Lack of sound in the silent film era was not an artistic choice (mostly) but a necessary hurdle to tell a story. Therefore the artistic ambition of the great directors was honed to tell the story with the assumption sound was not available and their craft emphasized this visual storytelling. The Artist is too visually flat for it to stand out for me. I was rather bored with the story and the storytelling. Give me something!

Re-hashed Plot:
The Artist so easily borrows from other films and real-life stories that it remains very predictable. Mainly of course it borrows from films like Singin’ in the Rain, A Star is Born, Sunset Blvd., and the real life story of John Gilbert whose career in film was cut short with the advent of sound as his voice was deemed inappropriate for sound films. Greta Garbo famously hand-picked him to join her on Queen Christina to allow him a comeback of sorts, but stories like this certainly abounded in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. My complaint with The Artist is it basically takes these elements and does nothing new with them. I know where this is all going and that’s exactly where it goes. I think many that admire the film overlook this and instead focus on the enchantment of the film or the love story aspect. My complaint here is Dujardin and Bejo spend very little of the film onscreen together. Their “love story” remains maybe 1/3 of the film’s focus. There is great emphasis on the tragedy element and the dramatic aspects without providing enough incentive for my investment. I enjoy love stories as much as anyone, but it’s given very little room to breathe here. The focus is too much on Valentin’s refusal to adapt to modern sound films.

Which brings me to another complaint: Why is Valentin so against joining the modern era of sound films? We are not given a valid motivational reason for his refusal except a vague reference to the fact that he’s “an artist”. This does a total disservice to the fact that numbers of actors were deemed unworthy of inclusion in the sound era due to their lack of voice or accent, not of their refusal to adapt. I mean okay so he has an accent, which we learn at the end, but so did Garbo and Dietrich! We’re asked to care about Valentin’s plight in the film, but without a valid motivation, I’m left wondering why he’s so stupid.

Vertigo Theme:
Much has been made of the inclusion of the theme music from Vertigo by Bernard Herrmann toward the end of The Artist. I knew it was coming but was not quite prepared for how bludgeoning this musical “homage” would be. Oh my goodness how awful this choice was! Whether Hazanavicius intended it or not, I found myself completely taken out of the film during this scene. Once the music started, I was somewhere else. In my mind I was watching Vertigo with images of Stewart and Novak moving about my brain and I was no long paying attention to The Artist onscreen in front of me for the length of time the music was playing. I liken this to counting out dollar bills and then someone starts counting out random numbers to throw you off and then you’ve completely lost count and are distracted. I find it hard to believe that Hazanavicius wants viewers not paying attention to his film, but this happened to me.

The Great Silent Film Directors: I leave with these parting thoughts. Griffith made an untold number of silent films prior to The Birth of a Nation (1915). Charlie Chaplin made over 50 silent films before he made The Gold Rush (1925), arguably his first true masterpiece. Buster Keaton made over 20 silent films before he made his first true masterpiece, Our Hospitality (1923). Murnau made 9 silent films prior to his first true masterpiece, Nosferatu (1922). Hazanavicius has made 1 silent film. 

Thursday, February 2, 2012

They Live By Night (1949) - Directed by Nicholas Ray

When I watched this film for the first time recently, it wasn't at all what I expected. I had heard many categorize this film as one of the great film noirs. For some reason, They Live By Night didn't seem to fit for me as a film noir. Yes it has plot elements that are film noir-like (heist, blackmail) but it doesn’t really fit my definition of film noir as the style is more focused on elevating romantic relationship dynamics and less on atmospherics and the darker, more oblique emotions typically found in film noir. There’s not enough seedyness or darkness to the protagonist, and there are too many stretches of the film that just don’t work for me as film noir. This doesn’t make the film inferior, but actually more mis-labeled perhaps. However, this doesn't change the fact that it’s one of Nicholas Ray’s best works. This is his first great masterpiece and is also a pre-curser to his later films that would explore the dilemmas at play in the domestic underbelly of the 1950’s.

Farley Granger plays Bowie, a 23-year old escaped murder convict who, along with two other escapees, Chickamaw (Howard Da Silva), and T Dub (Jay C. Flippen), find themselves holed up at Chickamaw’s house. It’s there that Bowie interacts with Chickamaw’s niece, Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell). They develop a bond based upon attraction and mutual inexperience with the opposite sex. Bowie has been in jail since age 16. Keechie looks and acts as if she’s never had a boyfriend. They are timid but they are instinctively drawn toward one another. The three men begin a plan for a bank heist, which they execute, but Bowie ends up on the run from authorities when his gun is found in the getaway car. He brings along Keechie, and this is where the film turns away from noir and focuses more on the love story, which drives the plot through the rest of the film.

Bowie and Keechie’s love story is the main and central reason for why the film works and what makes it essential for me. Their entire relationship feels very forward thinking in that it’s self-aware, open to awkwardness and to the moments where sexuality in a relationship is burgeoning but not yet understood. Ray’s film allows these two to just “be together” in several scenes that presage the dynamics that would be explored in the French New Wave films like Breathless (1959). Furthermore, the love story here captures an essence that would become the basis of Ray's masterpiece on youthful rebellion, Rebel Without a Cause (1955). James Dean's and Natalie Wood’s teenage projection of love, awkwardness and honesty in that film seems to have a genesis in the relationship at the heart of They Live By Night. In each film, there’s a similar quality to the onscreen kisses, to the dialogue, to the way the characters look at each other, to the way the camera regards them. Both films also speak to an eternally youthful spirit of spontaneity and, although to different degrees, rebellion. Ray also allows for an identification with a certain feeling of disenchantment, as both Bowie and Keechie are outsiders looking for some sort of comfort to hold on to.  This would of course come to a head most notably Rebel.

Ray’s concern with the family unit circa 1950 is also on display here. Keechie’s poor relationship with her Uncle echoes the strained relationships between father and son in both Rebel and Bigger Than Life (1956), and perhaps most importantly, is echoed in Natalie Wood’s painful relationship with an abusive father in Rebel. Once Bowie and Keechie get married, they also go through some tribulations and difficult domesticity issues. They are not able to grasp the rosy portrait of married life that they had aspired to have. These themes are also explored in Rebel and to a further extent in Bigger Than Life. I praise both Granger and O’Donnell for their natural and emotionally open performances, which for this era, was just beginning to occur with the new method style of acting. They have wonderful chemistry and their love story is one of the most electric I've seen from this era. Taken together, Ray’s films regarding youth, familial relationships, and married life from this period are some of the most sincere portraits surviving today. Watching them now still brings a refreshing spirit of honesty to the fore, leaving one to feel that nothing is hidden from the camera and these films can still play as remarkably insightful.