Monday, January 29, 2007

1968 Double Feature

The strongest source of inspiration (theft?) for the plot of Tarantino’s Kill Bill, The Bride Wore Black is Truffaut’s Hitchcock homage starring a beautiful but coldly rampaging Jeanne Moreau. She methodically murders two young men before we realize the motive to her madness: on her wedding day, her new husband was accidentally gunned down by a party of bachelors cleaning a rifle in a nearby hotel, and somehow she has discovered their identities but not their appearances. With equal parts sex appeal, calculation, and improvisation, the bride uses her surroundings to trap and kill her unwitting prey. While aping the Master of Suspense in style and even music (with Bernard Hermann recycling some of his best Hitchcock riffs), he fails to maintain the carefully calibrated emotional tone so crucial to Hitchcock’s success. Truffaut may give us only the perfect amount of plot needed to keep us in the scene unfolding, but he also neglects the Master’s deft coloring of character, his trademark moral ambiguity.

I find Moreau’s undeniably pretty but fairly inexpressive face ideal for her destructively cerebral role, but her motivation and flashbacks are never fully dealt with. She remains little more than a kind of “superfeminized” cipher, a symbol of heartbreak run amok. While each of the bride’s victims turns out to be a sexist pig, they nonetheless become progressively more pathetic or even somehow likeable in the face of Moreau’s practical, cold omnipotence. No one ever stood a chance; even luck (witness the final moments) is on her side. Still, the former Cahiers critic utilizes some brilliantly suspenseful long takes and interesting performances from each male victim of Moreau’s web, especially Michael Lonsdale as a wannabe bureaucrat and Charles Denner as an artist thunderstruck by the bride’s beauty. There are hints that the murder of the bridegroom may not have been accidental (the criminal nature of the final “victim”), and that the bride’s crusade is not entirely justifiable (the confession scene, the bride’s callous use of the boy), but these subversions to the bride’s mission get steamrolled over by Truffaut’s nonetheless impressive attempt at Hitchcockian storytelling.

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With hallucinatory imagery and a resonant, rebellious mentality, Lindsay Anderson’s nonconformist masterpiece remains a hip British landmark. An examination of a repressive boarding school (most likely standing in for the entire British class system, but accurately representing any number of social institutions) and the surreal revolt led by Mick Travis, who reappears in O Lucky Man! and Britannia Hospital, the film balances political relevance with credible but not stringent realism. From his first appearance, clad in a scarf concealing his defiant moustache, Travis represents the only uncertainty facing uncaring schoolmasters and oppressive seniors; Anderson carefully chronicles the heartless regulations that govern the children and promise to graduate wave after wave of unimaginative, bourgeois citizens. In his debut as Travis, Malcolm McDowell displays the dangerous, youthful swagger that would make his Alex in A Clockwork Orange such a likeable antihero. His walls papered with images of world revolution, Travis imagines (the operative word) himself as a schoolyard Che Guevara, leading a violent if imaginary coup against the powers-that-be, an amalgam of authority figures: teacher, classmate, and priest. It plays like an acid trip through Jean Vigo’s Zero for Conduct.

If.... unfolds in a series of vignettes that loosely follow the school term. The longer the film goes on, the harsher the punishments for Travis and his two compatriots become, and the more surreal Travis’s youthful reactions are. An effective but uncomfortable long take accompanies their whippings by the Establishment seniors: as each of his friends walks into the closed-door gym for their punishment, we stay with Travis and bleakly imagine their pain by ourselves. Once it is Travis’s turn, we see the pain as the strikes connect, but his eyes reveal more defiance than agony. What exactly occurs in “reality” and what is just in Travis’s elaborate daydreams is a moot point against the energy of Anderson’s images, especially in the exhilaratingly unruly conclusion.

Stylistically, alternate scenes in B&W and color show the tedium of the school year but reveal brief possibilities of emotional and mental, if not physical, escape. In addition to the energetic if obvious us-versus-them plot points, there are fascinating moments of sexuality equated with control and domination. The privileged seniors argue over the morality of taking liberties with the new students, the “scum,” as they are called. Travis’s main enemy takes a distinct perverted pleasure in dealing out punishment. Only a possibly-imaginary café girlfriend (Christine Noonan) and the incongruous nude appearance by an attractive bureaucrat’s wife (Mary MacLeod) provide any kind of relief to the schoolboys’ sexual frustrations, even if they may be mostly symbolic. The film works equally well as a student’s daydream of destruction and escape, or a rallying cry for revolution against the social complacency. Unfortunately not yet available on DVD, it’s more than worth finding any way you can.

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Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, 2006)

A dystopian thriller more in love with ideas than technology, Alfonso Cuarón’s viscerally impacting Children of Men posits a future worn down by harsh immigration laws and hopelessness stemming from nearly twenty years of female infertility. Set in a not-too-distant Britain, the film transforms from a carefully-composed excursion within a meticulously-designed world, into a sociopolitical allegory, into a harshly thrilling war picture, some sections being more successful than others. Throughout, the central conceit—a well-worn sci-fi premise—is played completely straight, leading to more questions than answers that, by the end, are mostly washed away by the powerful, “you are there” filmmaking. However, its realistic, long-take aesthetic eventually rubs up against its more abstract and metaphorical narrative, leading to an unsatisfactorily pat conclusion that fails to live up to what’s come before.

Director Cuarón’s crew of art directors and set designers craft a brutally lived-in vision of England, recognizable yet almost otherworldly, that he and his four co-writers cannot adequately fill with narrative or character. That the sins of the present bode badly for the future is evident, whether in a not-so-subtle “HOMELAND SECURITY” sign or in allusions to the West’s current immigration issues, but the weaving in of the central biological impossibility is never suitably achieved. The explanation of why infertility has occurred is not the issue; the question of its direct involvement in the state of things, except in causing a vague helplessness, is. The world is falling to pieces because of what we’re doing in the present, but a cataclysm of such proportions as worldwide infertility would have, one would think, more obvious and lasting effects. There are brief hints that animals may have become substitutes for children, but this line of thought takes a leap farther than the film actually shows. Very little, if any, is made of science’s attempts to address the problem. Except for a throwaway joke about a virgin birth, the sexual implications of infertility are never even cursorily addressed. If no woman could get pregnant, it would seem likely that even after eighteen years to let it sink in, there’d still be consequence-free fucking in the streets. It would be conceivable that lack of guaranteed wave after wave of young people would be catastrophic for the government and military, yet the ruling powers remain, for the most part, faceless entities symbolized by shopworn, Big Brother-esque billboards and slogans. Where films like George Romero’s Dead series take an unexplained, implausible calamity and explore it to its logical conclusions, Children of Men leaves it in the background, coyly refusing to address its obvious genre roots and instead shifting from initially a global disaster to a political and personal story of hope in a hopeless world.

Our guide in post-apocalyptic Britain is former activist-turned-civil servant Theo, played with initial grumpy and cynical malaise by Clive Owen. He barely bats an eye at the death of “Baby Diego,” the youngest person on the planet (wouldn’t there logically be many youngest people on the planet, or is it just Britain-centrism?), but there’s a devastating backstory of loss to be learned. His closest friend seems to be idealist hippie Jasper (a scene-stealing Michael Caine), although he’s close enough to his cousin Nigel (Danny Huston), proprietor of an “Ark of the Arts” that saves anything from Guernica to the cover of Pink Floyd’s Animals. Theo is contacted (read: kidnapped) by a band of political rebels fighting against the government’s immigration restrictions, led by his former lover Julian, underplayed by the eminently watchable Julianne Moore. Perhaps because she knows through personal experience that he’ll fully grasp its implications, Julian asks Theo for help in securing passage for a young girl out of the country. She is Kee, a refugee (“‘fugee”) who has turned up pregnant and is played by newcomer Claire-Hope Ashitey. Conveniently, no one but the two people we know lost a child treat this incident as the miracle it is, and after a severe long-take car chase where Julian is unexpectedly killed by (we learn later) her own people, it becomes apparent that everyone else has political aspirations for the eventual newborn. The fate of the world rests in Theo’s hands, in a character arc that is clearly predicated on the death of his past (Julian) and the recognition of a possible future (Kee’s pregnancy). In addition to this effective one-two punch is the unnecessary shooting of loveable Jasper, that follows an extremely touching scene of assisting his paralyzed, invalid wife’s understandable suicide, and perhaps goes overkill in wiping Theo’s present slate clean to allow him to proceed in his mission.

It’s a race to the finish line with Theo caught in the inevitable clash between government and rebellion. Cuarón and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki drop you unapologetically into the middle of a war zone, utilizing long takes and handheld camera moves that are as dazzling in their virtuosity as anything in Saving Private Ryan or Hard Boiled (which even has an imperiled infant in common). The lengths to which realism and its breathtaking sensory assault are achieved are commendable and, for their durations, cause one to forget any lingering doubts as to the film’s cinematic impact. For his part, Owen spends much of the film running slightly in front of or next to the camera; and, despite his omnipresence his story takes a back seat to the dazzling thrill-ride that comprises the penultimate chunk of the film. It is here that Children of Men’s achingly realistic aesthetic overtakes every other aspect of the production, and the only real emotion to be wrenched for this segment is the natural wish for a child’s safety.

In the final moments, both sides cease fighting in dumbfounded deference to the presence of a crying child. If the film’s visually and thematically brutal realities had not precluded the existence of simple hope in the face of political backstabbing and cultural depression, this turn of events might have been acceptable. Sappy, hopeful vocal music in the background, when the majority of the brutal long take was only home to diegetic sound, hardly helps matters. As it is, it seems inexcusable that no one (besides the obvious parents who have lost a child and a cardboard nanny figure) immediately grasps the child’s implications for the future and takes efforts to secure her. Rather, the film’s Christian overtones (or perhaps “messianic” is the more apt term, which uses Christianity as its most obvious framework) take hold and allow the newborn and her “parents” safe passage from a brutal slaughter. Climaxing in a downbeat but redemptive finale for Theo, a character who seemed to need little redemption in the beginning, Children of Men pulls away from its bread-and-butter realism and rests finally in the realm of hopeful fantasy, as Kee and her daughter Dylan (of course named after Theo and Julian’s lost son) appear to be safely in the hands of the mythical and literally deus ex machina “Human Project.” The credits’ fade-out voices of children betray the pervasive hopelessness of the preceding duration, perhaps feeling unearned or unfittingly unambiguous. That all we need to do is respect the sanctity of life, or even just hope to do this, seems trite in comparison to the power and complexity of the images just witnessed.

Perhaps in highlighting negative thematic and narrative issues, I have underplayed the sheer visual grandeur of it all. Ultimately, the film succeeds on the whole due to this entirely visual storytelling. Yet “storytelling” is the key word here, and virtuosic filmmaking in service of inadequate plot and characters is effective but hollow.

IMDb page