Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Il Posto (Ermanno Olmi, 1961)

The unassuming grace of Ermanno Olmi’s early ‘60s feature, Il Posto (The Job), becomes even more apparent in the era of high concepts, expensive stars, and special effects. Employing amateurs and real citizens as extras, as well as filming in only actual locations, Olmi was able to elicit natural (not naturalistic) performances and involve the viewer in everyday life and struggles. If this concept seems slight or dull, especially when used to highlight a young man’s entry into a Kafkaesque office workforce, it is Olmi’s use of space and editing that imbues realism with the substance of art.

Il Posto is unabashedly autobiographical but strongly universal. It tells the story of Domenico (Sandro Panseri), a soulfully sad Italian youth from the suburbs applying for a big city career. He is subjected to simple psychological, physical, and mathematical exams, yet is degraded by literally competing beside a host of applicants of varying ages and expressions. The only saving grace is the presence of pretty Antonietta (Loredana Detto), the only other applicant of Domenico’s age group. She’s bright and assured where he’s uncertain and reticent. Olmi counterpoints their quietly budding relationship with the cul-de-sac existence of the office workers. While the employees have been hammered over the years into finding the office building as their primary place of life and existence, Domenico sees Antonietta as a new opportunity brought by the job. When they are separated by differing departments, Domenico, now an assistant mail worker, still tries to find chances to meet her. A New Year’s office party proves fruitless in his quest to make more of their relationship, but he still finds fun and excitement, however minor and short-lived, among his fellow drones. A clerk dies soon after, and Domenico obtains this position, providing an ambiguous end to the film and beginning to his office life.

Olmi’s strengths as a filmmaker lie in realism, performance, and sympathy. A true humanist, he finds the strengths and weaknesses of his characters as facets in the same raw gem. His cuts between the faces of Domenico and Antonietta, greatly enhanced by the unpolished beauty of Panseri and Detto, reveal more about their personalities than any number of pages of dialogue ever could. The darting of eyes, the pursing of lips...it is these facial tics that show the true nature of human beings, and Olmi captures them without force or urgency. But the director is not simply about close-ups; he also frames the crowded applicants like cattle in a pen, or a lone clerk engulfed by spacious, labyrinthine hallways. For all of the inherent social and economic commentary, there is much more importance weighted on people, relationships, and community. This is where Ermanno Olmi’s true allegiance and interests lie, not with observations only on the sordid state of the postwar world, but in the simple, uncertain, yet undeniably dramatic lives of everyday citizens.

IMDb page

Monday, June 12, 2006

The Scarlet Empress (Josef von Sternberg, 1934)

Even though it's about as Russian as Casablanca, Josef von Sternberg's masterful The Scarlet Empress eschews plot and dialogue for pure visual splendor. If the term "poetry" can be applied to visual images as well as to the written word, von Sternberg's film would most definitely warrant the label.

Using the story of German princess Sophia's transformation into Catherine the Great (von Sternberg muse Marlene Dietrich) of Russia as a starting off point, von Sternberg uses light, shade, and gothic imagery to convey the decadence and decay of Russia and Catherine's morality as her reign continues. All of these elements tensely build up the drama of the Russian Empire mostly without the aid of dialogue or intertitles. Brilliantly edited torture sequences bookend the story, once coming out of young Sophia's book and then happening for real under her creepily conniving husband, Peter (Sam Jaffe). The grandly extravagant and horrific set design trap every character in myth and romanticism, but these elements do not pierce the granite outsides of Catherine, Peter, or the Empress before them (a darkly comic Louise Dresser). Von Sternberg orchestrates not only the mise-en-scene to fit his vision but wrote and conducted the perfectly pompous music as well.

The performances, especially by Dietrich as naive princess and iron-fisted empress, are solid if the dialogue seems fit for a different setting (perhaps a light gangster flick). The film is less a history lesson than a magnificent exercise in style. To wit, an amazingly captured sequence featuring a gold pendant from one of Catherine's suitors encapsulates the physical rise and moral fall of the Scarlet Empress: Catherine tosses it out of a window onto a tree, and it falls from branch to branch, again and again, edited into a free-flowing cascade of beautiful collapse.

IMDb page

Sunday, June 11, 2006

A Prairie Home Companion (Robert Altman, 2006)

As a long-time fan of Garrison Keillor's sophisticated anachronism of a variety radio show, "A Prairie Home Companion," I found that the film adaptation preserves the spirit if not the letter of the program. Full of country/gospel music and a stellar cast, not to mention the fluid direction of Robert Altman, Prairie mixes myth and fantasy (which is the radio show's stock and trade) with realistic backstage antics during the program's final broadcast.

Keillor's screenplay and performance are folksy and whimsical, but not without hints of dark humor and contemplation. "G.K.'s" refusal to face his show's demise, or even the actual death of a musical regular, belies both a breezy callousness and a deep understanding of the cliche, "the show must go on." He seems to be the most professional and least bothered amidst the whirlwind of characters and backstage intrigue. Only briefly hinted at is his history with one of a pair of singing sisters, Yolanda Johnson (the standout Meryl Streep), who perform a duet that develops the characters as much as a any monologue or scene could.

Music plays a huge part in the film, perhaps even moreso than on the radio show, connecting it thematically with Altman's previous masterpiece of country, Nashville; except where that film's characters hid their true selves through jingoistic marches or ballads dripping with false emotion, the performers of A Prairie Home Companion open up and bare themselves in collective or individual celebrations of an old-fashioned musical form.

This isn't to suggest the film is all musical numbers and sentimentalism. Tempering the celebration of a lost art form (live radio variety) are supernatural occurrences revolving around a Dangerous Woman (the luminous, but slightly sleepwalking Virginia Madsen); the depressing daughter of Yolanda, Lola (Lindsay Lohan); the bawdy cowpokes Dusty and Lefty (John C. Reilly and Woody Harrelson); and the Clouseau-esque security chief Guy Noir (Kevin Kline). The final three characters are adapted from the radio program, but beyond their very basic descriptions, there's not much similarity. Each character provides atmosphere and levity while contributing to the anachronistic set of radio personalities. Some of the famous elements of the radio program, including Keillor's famous monologue about his fictional hometown of Lake Wobegon, are sadly missing or only appear in fragments. Both the director and screenwriter's works are acquired tastes, so neither is attempting to convert those who haven't or are unwilling to hear the show.

Robert Altman provides his signature visual sense that gels perfectly with Keillor's screenplay's knack for juggling multiple storyline threads. I found no one to be entirely the focus, but that the show itself was allowed to be the centerpiece. The camera expertly navigates through the hallways and crevices of the studio, jostling past crew members and catching multiple, unrelated characters in the frame together (especially with the Dangerous Woman lurking about). With Altman's aging and revelation about a heart transplant, the film's preoccupation with death can be contributed as much to the director as to the screenwriter. It seems as much Altman's baby as it does Keillor's.

The film met my expectations for both Altman and "A Prairie Home." It was sweet, funny, deceptively sad, comforting, and a good deal rambling. It accepts the end of an era without any maudliness or fake tears. Having "silence on the radio" is just a phase, because you can always switch to another station.

IMDb page

Saturday, June 10, 2006

The Steamroller and the Violin (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1960)

Andrei Tarkovsky's diploma short film, Katok i skripka (The Steamroller and the Violin), is a heartfelt and visually-impressive melding of fantasy and realism. Seven-year-old Sasha (an affecting young Igor Fomchenko) is a boy ridiculed in his neighborhood for playing violin. The opening sequence follows him as he hides from bullies and gradually makes his way to his lesson, where fear of adult authority mixes with puppy love regarding another music student. On his way home, Sasha is saved from more bullying by construction worker Sergey (a lightly macho Vladimir Zamansky). Sergey takes the boy on an eye-opening journey through the lower class streets. Sasha learns to defend himself and protect those smaller than him, and he brightens while watching and hearing the melody of a building being demolished. Sasha wants to see a movie with Sergey later that evening, but Sasha's overbearing single mother thwarts his plans. Sergey goes to the movies with a girlfriend, and Sasha sits in his room, contemplating escape on a steamroller.

Tarkovsky's 50-minute slice of life avoids the trappings of childhood films with naturalistic performances and a unique visual sense. Mirrors and reflections in water show Sasha and Sergey new dimensions of their chosen fields, as each character reassesses the worth of his life. Sasha is in awe of the sound and power of Sergey's vehicle, while the soothing tenor of Sasha's violin seems to bring harmony, if but for an instant, to Sergey's world. It is amazing how much depth the film contains in such a short span of time. The conclusion, a powerful flight of fancy by Sasha, is a capstone to his dream of wish fulfillment on his own terms, whether with a violin, on a steamroller, or both.

"The Steamroller and the Violin" IMDb page

Thursday, June 08, 2006

A Constant Forge (Charles Kiselyak, 2000)

"Love, or the lack of it."

These few words encompass the only topics John Cassavetes ever wanted to tackle in his directorial career. Charles Kiselyak's A Constant Forge examines the filmmaker's career (from 1959's Shadows to 1984's Love Streams) and amounts to a marvelous, heartfelt love letter by fans, friends, and colleagues.

Few directors elicit such strong emotional responses from audiences as Cassavetes. His films attempt to go beyond the surface of human relationships, prodding and provoking the characters, and, as John hoped, the audience, into self-reflection and change. This is part of what good art always tries to do, but his method of presenting the true fragility of emotions and of man's understanding of himself and his environment, proved far too weighty and touchy a subject for most moviegoers and executives. Luckily his work never required huge amounts of funds, because filming people is much cheaper than filming things or locations. And people, and characters, was all that Cassavetes was interested in.

A Constant Forge is an insightful and quick 3 1/2 hours of the man's own words, film clips, and interviews with loved ones and acquaintances. After a brief look at each of Cassavetes's major directorial works, the film meanders through each phase and aspect of his career, from his early childhood and theater work to teaching acting to writing and directing. His assembled stable of reliable actors, including wife Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, and Seymour Cassell, are all on hand to provide anecdotes and as much insight as they can to the man they all loved and respected. Falk is especially adept at providing quotes, including that John was "the most fervent man I ever met." Mostly, though, the clearest path to understanding the filmmaker as an individual is to listen to the man himself and watch his films. Cassavetes was, and is, his films.

I'm still not sure why I respond so well to Cassavetes's work. The emotional nakedness, even with the understanding of the tight script and prowess of the actors onscreen, frightens as much as it fascinates. No one was more interested in people or feelings than Cassavetes; hurtful and glowing emotions were of equal weight and worth in his lens. Apparently the man himself was less gloomy and moody than his output would suggest, even though the basis of his work was internal and personal. His stature as a true artist in a medium full of phonies, and even some talented charlatans, seems assured. He tried what no one else did, and whether he succeeded or not, he should be constantly commended. And A Constant Forge provides a solid background to his life and work whether you are a neophyte, a fence-straddler, a lifelong Cassavetes fan, or wondering what all the fuss is about.

"A Constant Forge" IMDb page

Criterion Collection page

Monday, June 05, 2006

Gigantic: A Tale of Two Johns (A.J. Schnack, 2002)

After this long, loving the quirky stylings of John Linnell and John Flansburgh (collectively known as They Might Be Giants) may seem like a mere phase, the briefly pseudo-intellectual, wry posturing that results from outgrowing adolescence. To others, TMBG's minimalist and fiercely independent aesthetic, lyrically and musically, continue to point toward a utopia of ideas never before heard. Very few find themselves in the middle.

Director A.J. Schnack's documentary of the band's members and influence may not exactly convert the uninitiated, but it has enough talking heads to provide a fun portrait of two unique musicians. Certains aspects of their live performances and infamous marketing techniques (the fascinatingly prolific Dial-a-Song) get explained by the men themselves and by some of their ardent celebrity and industry admirers. Some simply don't understand the infinite possibilities of the Two Johns' work, the experimentation and abstractly literate songwriting. The film attempts to demystify the band a little, but it's really just a fan-flick love letter.

The film appeared on the Sundance Channel earlier today. I became a Giants fan earlier than most; before I was a teenager I had worn out a cassette of 1990's Flood, and it even became the soothing soundtrack to any dental appointments during '92-'93. I've never seen them live, or investigated them as individuals. I've always only had the music, the Birdhouse in My Soul or the Hotel Detective, and that's more than enough. Thanks, John, and thanks, John.

"Gigantic (A Tale of Two Johns)" IMDb page