Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Fire Within (1963) - Directed by Louis Malle

Louis Malle tends to be somewhat chameleonic. Perhaps to his own detriment among auteur theorists. He doesn’t get mentioned with the likes of other auteurs from his era and yet I continue to find more and more films from him that are so elegantly crafted and intensely felt, even though they occur within a wide range of film styles and genres. Last year I watched his final film he made, which was Vanya on 42nd Street, basically a stage play, which was just fantastic. He made all sorts of films….drama, neo-noir, comedy, surrealist…..just about everything. He in fact made challenging work for the better part of 4 decades. That’s not something many directors can claim. He continues to gain my respect, even though it’s hard for me to quantify and categorize his work. I just know that I really enjoy them. The Fire Within is no exception.

One of 2012’s most acclaimed films was Joachim Trier’s Oslo, August 31st. However, many essays on the film fail to mention the fact that this film is basically a re-working of Malle’s The Fire Within. They are essentially the same stories (both based upon the book Le feu follet by Pierre Drieu la Rochelle), except Malle’s original work regards the addiction to alcohol whereas Trier’s work looks at heroin. The fact of the matter remains that these particular stories are not really about the addiction per se. These are not works that address the clinical aspects of the addiction, rather the aftermath of individuals who reached rock bottom, who entered rehab and who came out on the other side in a deep depression. We get the sense that in fact, though, the depression has always been there, it’s just that the addiction was a way to cover it up for awhile. Without the escape of the drug of choice, the hopelessness and despair becomes something of a siren song leading these men toward suicide.

For me, Malle’s work is an underrated gem in his canon, and an uncompromising masterpiece of elegiac minimalism and despair, filled with the perfect balance of character and situational context, psychological examination, and propulsive, focused writing that allows us to at least understand and comprehend the man’s situation, even if his situation appears irrational from our perspective. What I struggled with in Trier’s modern interpretation, is that the choice to have the man named Anders (played by Anders Danielsen Lie) released from re-hab and set-up with an interview felt like an institutional reintroduction of him into society as an aspect of his re-hab. The fact we realize early on in Oslo that the man is not cured, and yet is essentially patted on the head and told to go on his way, leaves an implication of irresponsibility on the part of the “institution”, which in the case of the Norwegian medical insurance structure, is a government subsidized entity. This failed aspect of “society” to reintroduce Anders and “heal” him leaves the film with an oddly manipulative feel, as if there is a blame aspect to be placed somewhere through this association with the medical irresponsibility and the failed recognition of this man’s intent. It felt hollow to me. It wasn’t a clinical study. It wasn’t an examination of suicide either. I felt manipulated by the fact that the man is shown to perhaps have a way out of his depression and MIGHT just be able to move on. The film has moments toward the end where there is a suspense as to his outcome. But, when the outcome comes to light in the final passages, it revealed how hollow this film was and what a despicable exercise in audience manipulation it was. I realize many saw something else in this film, but I feel something important was missing…..the sense of internal responsibility for one’s actions and the sense that there’s no one else to blame for this.

Malle’s film is another thing altogether. It is a clear-eyed examination of a man named Alain Leroy (played brilliantly by Maurice Ronet) who has a clear intent to kill himself. From the get-go, we see him planning and prepping for the day of his own execution. He goes through the motions of finding brief comfort in the arms of a woman, through visiting his friends one last time, but there is no disguising the fact he has reached the end of his rope. It is this focus of vision in Malle’s film that rings true to me throughout its running time. Malle’s use of Erik Satie’s piano works are also a magnificent choice. Unadorned, and melancholy, these musical interludes provide the right touch of cinematic embellishment, without manipulation. Using the techniques of natural lighting, stark b&w and hand-held camera work gives the film a focus on reality. There’s no flashbacks here. There’s no digressions into potential hope. There’s nothing but depression. This is not an easy film to like. However regarding the subject matter, it is as respectful, focused, and elegant a film as I can think of on the subject. 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Burmese Harp (1956) - Directed by Kon Ichikawa

After recently watching Kon Ichikawa’s Fires on the Plain, and being completely blown away by its tone and perspective on war, it was with great anticipation that I quickly sought out his other highly regarded film, The Burmese Harp. Harp was made 3 years prior, but it is vastly different in tone, look, and overall impression. Yet it is no less effective or moving an experience. In fact, it is a film of great humanism and compassion, which is almost polar opposite from Fires on the Plain’s hellish view of war. It’s fascinating that a director can make such different films on the same subject within such a short period of time.

The Burmese Harp follows a band of Japanese soldiers in Burma, late in the war in 1945, who have formed a special bond over their ability to sing songs of home and camaraderie, and who also have acquired a harp. A private named Mizushima has learned how to play it along with their renditions. After the Japanese surrender to a group of British soldiers and the war is over, the Private is sent on a short mission to convince a group of soldiers, who are hunkered into a mountain fortress, to surrender. He is unable to convince them and ends up in the midst of shelling by the British. Mizushima is thought dead, but is in fact the only survivor of the battle. He acquires a monk’s robe as a disguise, and begins a journey that will take him to spiritual enlightenment. He achieves this through a profound desire to bury dead soldiers. He is adopted by a group of monks and seems to disappear from all traces of his previous life as a soldier, until some chance encounters with his troupe bring memories and experiences flooding back.

Ichikawa’s film, although in 1.33 aspect ratio, is nearly as expressive as Fires on the Plain. Cinematography by Minoru Yokoyama contains beautifully framed moments that are arranged in montage. I often recalled Soviet cinema here and think of Eisenstein or even the work of Kolotozov who released The Cranes Are Flying right about the same time. There is wonderful use of low-angle camera shots, and soft lighting that illuminates faces in the foreground while the background is darkened. There’s also the terrific balance between close-ups, medium range, and long shots. In fact, balance throughout the film is key. There is a balance between ugliness and beauty, between pain and healing. Both the elements of the script and the visuals themselves seem to feed into these opposing features.

What I especially loved was the meditative tone, which is heartfelt, genuine and offers up some very moving setpieces. I think of the moment on the beach where Mizushima is working solo to bury a large pile of dead soldiers with a group of onlookers seemingly astonished that anyone would do such a thing. Yet his inspirational efforts cause the rest of them to pitch in. Also there is that spectacular moment near the end where Mizushima’s soldier troupe reads a letter aloud that he wrote, explaining everything he is doing and why. It is a great moment of compassion and outpouring of emotion that is thoroughly earned. Ichikawa breeds a sense of redemption and hope into this film that is vastly different from the following Fires on the Plain. In fact, this also has to be one of the most spiritually satisfying films I’ve ever seen. Rare is the film that is able to touch something of the soul in this particular way. 

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Mulholland Dr. (2001) - Directed by David Lynch

There are those movie experiences that stick with you. I remember back in the fall of 2001….it must have been in October I suppose, and I was attending school at the University of Illinois. I was in the midst of filmic obsession, probably viewing at least one arthouse or classic film every day. So I arrived to the Goodrich 16 in Savoy, which was just the town over, to watch Mulholland Dr. I specifically remember being one of only 3 people in the theatre for that evening’s showing. I also distinctly remember feeling completely overwhelmed by the film, to the point that when it was over I could only sit there. I literally didn’t want to move when it was over as I felt so overwhelmed and shaken by the film. When it was over I remember thinking that I had no idea what I had just seen but I had seen something AMAZING. I didn’t care that I didn’t understand the plot. Somehow all that mattered was understanding the emotions. It was an overwhelming emotional experience…feeling terrified and exhilarated all at the same time. It was probably the single most incredible experience in a movie theatre that I’ve had to date. Amazingly, it had been over a decade since I’ve seen the film.

Going back to revisit films that I really love is kind of an odd thing for me. I go long periods without watching films. Lynch’s film at the time was getting a lot of dissection over the plot and the structure. Watching it so far removed from its release allowed me to take the film as it is, which is actually a remarkably simple story. Mulholland Dr. is the story of Diane Selwyn (Naomi Watts) who comes to Hollywood with dreams of being a movie star. She tries out at an audition that her aunt helps her get, but loses out to a woman named Camilla Rhodes (Laura Harring). They end up hitting it off and eventually become entwined in a passionate affair that leaves Diane feeling helpless and abandoned when Camilla becomes involved with her director. Diane, bitter with rage and hatred for Camilla, hires a hitman to kill her. Diane spends an entire day dreaming, daydreaming and remembering times she had with Camilla and experiences since she got to Hollywood. She ends the day by killing herself over the grief of losing her lover and the loss of her dream.

Of course the film is not as straightforward as I’m making it sound. For the first 2 hours of the film, we see Diane’s dream. It is explicitly a dream as we see a POV shot of someone lying down on a pillow, and we see Diane wake up at the end of the dream. In her dream, she projects all of her fantasies and desires and redirects certain events in her life to skew the outcome of her wishes. In her dream, she is Betty, and Camilla is Rita. She takes certain people from her real life and views their roles differently, in order to redirect her present day guilt and fear. I liken this to The Wizard of Oz, whereby Dorothy re-imagines those in her life into different characters. It’s much the same here. We also know it’s a dream from the cryptic glossiness of the first two hours and from the odd dream logic in which things occur. It is a heightened state of reality where everything is of extreme importance. This is contrasted with reality at the end where Diane is shallow eyed, morose and bitter and even the film loses it's glossy edge for a more realistic and pat portrayal.

Lynch also displays much of his prototypical Lynchianisms throughout, from the velvet red curtains, to flickering lights, to bizarre setpieces, to fractured linearity, to the use of sex to reflect fear and desire. What I was struck by watching it this time, is how the film is mostly about a woman scorned, and when the film is over, the thing that stands out is the desperate sadness and bitterness of Diane/Betty. It is a sad tale of lost love and lost innocence. She projected an immense amount of love and emotion into her relationship with Camilla, but it was not returned to her in the same quantity. Her dream allows her the fantasy of recreating the feeling of being in love, and controlling the relationship, making Camilla do what she wants, that is until the two women attend the show at the Silencio club in the dream. This scene still plays as one of Lynch’s greatest setpieces, filled with clues that the film we have been watching thus far is a dream. It contains that brilliant Spanish acapella version of Roy Orbison’s “Crying”, “sung" by the woman on stage as Betty and Rita sit in the audience brought to tears for no apparent reason, other than that Diane is realizing that it is a dream (while dreaming), and that it must come to an end.... that she is about to come back to reality and know that she has had Camilla killed. The scene is one of cinema’s best moments of the last 15 years.

Many also see the film as a myth of the Hollywood dream. It does contain some kinship with Wilder’s Sunset Blvd., but I don’t think Lynch’s film plays best this way. If it’s the tale of the dark side of the Hollywood dream, doesn’t that play a bit too clich├ęd for our modern sensibility? Don’t we know this already, that Hollywood is nothing but a catch-all for 15 minutes of fame type stuff? Isn’t the myth of the Hollywood dream so 1950’s? If this is all that Lynch was after, I don’t think it’s worth the effort on that basis alone. I think it plays better as a heightened emotional experience, as a surrendering of the senses to dream logic, or as a fractured and tragic love story. It also contains what may be the best performance by any actress of the last 15 years. Naomi Watts thoroughly commands the screen, playing what amounts to two roles and has scenes of intense honesty here that has rarely been duplicated in the last decade. She is emotionally fragile and carries the film on her shoulders. In the scene where she attends the party given by Camilla and the director Adam, there is that look of sadness and disgust on her face as she attempts to hold back tears while watching Camilla and Adam across the table. Lynch’s film ultimately works so well because it makes one FEEL. It is one of cinema’s great experiences. I had that feeling back in 2001, and I still have it now. Trying to dissect it too much leads to over-analysis and rather rote interpretations and I don’t think that’s where the film’s strengths lie. It is best experienced and felt, rather than undermined with too much dissection.