Friday, June 17, 2011
Unfortunately, I won't be in the film state of mind until after July 10th because I'll be on a tour through the Midwest with my band Old Abram Brown until then. As a result, there won't be any posts here for a while, with the one exception being my announcement of my pick for the July installment of the Inexhaustible Documents Record Club, which has already seen an entry at Only the Cinema for The Congos The Heart of the Congos (check out my side banner for this month's upcoming discussion). So I'll see you all in July!
(P.S. If you can guess what film the above image is from, you'll have infinite blogger street-cred.)
Saturday, June 11, 2011
So inundated by the influence of Steven Spielberg is J.J. Abrams' Super 8 that it even winds up bearing its imitator's strengths and weaknesses. Chief among them: Spielberg was always better at developing a conflict than he was at resolving it, and here Abrams displays finesse in slowly characterizing his central cast of suburbanites but is incapable of bringing those characterizations full circle with the same degree of subtlety and complexity. Instead, the buried grief, insecurity, and guilt shared between two widowed fathers - Deputy Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler) and the boozing lowlife Louis Dainard (Ron Eldard) - as well as the other social tensions, both natural and imposed, existing in this small Ohio town in the late 1970's, are lazily allegorized by an abstract monster terrorizing the town, who coincidentally relieves all their pressures when he leaves Earth in the final a-ha moment. Yet curiously, Super 8 is one of the rare films to actually not be weighed down by its ultra-transparent idolatry and fetishism, in this case of monster movies, small-town coming-of-age dramas, and of course, the Spielberg hits of yesteryear. This is a film so earnestly smitten with its coursework that it organically incorporates it into its DNA.
One needs to look no further than the film's first act, which is the kind of riveting, economical set-up a summer blockbuster should have. When we first see the Deputy's son Joe (Joel Courtney), he's sitting alone at a swing set in the middle of winter caressing a necklace passed down from his recently deceased mother. At first he's just seen from afar, and it is only when Louis shows up at the house, presumably to deliver some sort of news to Joe's father about his mother, that Abrams cuts in to alternate between tight shots of Joe's inquisitive glances and Louis' deliberate avoidance of eye contact. Without using a single word, the scene establishes both Joe's consuming sadness and the tension between his family and Mr. Dainard that eventually sends a knife through the blossoming friendship and potential romance of Joe and Louis' daughter Alice (Elle Fanning). There's an evocative despair in Abrams' initial establishing shot despite the tired cliche of transporting the weight of sadness and loss through lovingly shot close-ups of a piece of jewelry, and his willingness to sell the scene's emotional undercurrents through visuals alone goes a long way. Shortly thereafter, there's a moment when Joe comes home and witnesses his father fighting back tears in the bathroom for a split second. Once again, nothing is spoken besides his father's curt "I'll be out in a minute". Abrams offers visual shorthand in these scenes that is able to cut right to the heart of the drama without being too reductive or archetypal, and it also gets across the idea that Joe is the one living these scenes, that they're filtered through his naive perspective.
Incidentally, perspective winds up playing a critical role in the narrative, as it just so happens that the lurid movie scenarios that Joe and his friends love and incorporate into their own amateur Super 8 productions start to crop up around them. The movies quickly overlap with reality, and the film convincingly portrays the playfully skewed worldview of a youth culture weened on gaudy George A. Romero movies. Joe's pudgy friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) is in the middle of production on his magnum opus (a daft and histrionic zombie short that plays in its entirety over the credits) and he regularly turns to Joe for his unmatched skill as a makeup artist and model-builder. The whole crew heads out late at night in Louis' car, stolen by Alice, to shoot a departure scene between husband and wife at a train station. Alice is afraid of getting caught by her father, so she initially expresses hostility towards Joe, but when Joe applies her makeup a spark ignites between them whilst the banter of amateur filmmakers animates the background (one little bucktoothed Michael Bay (Ryan Lee) keeps arguing for the addition of explosives to the scene). The sudden arrival of a real train some few hundred yards down the track sets Charles in a directorial frenzy, giddy over the opportunity for "production value", and as such the crew shoddily throws together the set to miraculously start shooting as the train roars past the station. During the scene, however, Joe spots a stray pickup truck kicking up dust as it flies towards the train coming from the opposite direction.
The ensuing collision sets in motion a violent and prolonged explosion, which, with its flailing of shrapnel and series of fiery clouds, would have satisfied our little Michael Bay had the crew been prepared to film it while running away. It's a shockingly effective piece of spectacle and a superb inciting incident, visceral and unexpected in its impact, a bold contrast to all the quiet drama leading up to it. So frightening, even, that when Joe and Charles spot the story on the news the next day and refer to it as looking like "a disaster movie", it offers a sharp realization on the boys' part of the cinema's sheer exploitation of real, palpable terror. Abrams never quite digs deeply into this tentative ethical subtext, but it's there nonetheless, if only for a moment suggesting that these boys' seemingly innocent adoration for explosive spectacle and their preoccupation with themes of murder and gore (even in the goofy context of zombies) comes from a true and scary place. That the kids uncover a string of mysterious details in the smoky remains of the collision - a box of weird metal cubes that seem to serve no practical purpose, loud rumblings from an invisible force behind one of the train cabs, and their high school science teacher armed and bloodied in the driver's seat of the pickup truck - only augments their feeling of getting in way over their heads.
It also lays the groundwork for the film's somewhat emptily intricate foundational subplot, a backstory of government conspiracy and extraterrestrial interventionism that collides somewhat awkwardly with the central character drama. Abrams runs himself into a corner by finally revealing the source of all those loud rumblings in the debris, a hideous alien-monster that forces him to dish out the unnecessarily complicated exposition detailing why the thing's on Earth and why the police and the Air Force are going to such great lengths to manipulate the townsfolk (even staging an outer-city wildfire to evacuate the entire suburb). Not only does it introduce a level of specificity to the plot mechanics that is rather unsatisfying, it also, as is typical of this kind of reveal, takes the piss out of the monster whom Abrams began by showing, in characteristic Lost fashion, solely through its effect on the environment. Had the monster remained an abstraction, as it did in Spielberg's War of the Worlds (a primary influence here), it would have better represented the feelings of the confused townsfolk, the idea that the monster was merely a symbol of both government conspiracy and tensions between characters. But the truth is that Abrams didn't go that route, and the inevitable reveal of the monster is as much an accessible studio move as it is an aesthetic decision, because it's clear that Abrams likes the wild intercutting and information overload of his high-adrenaline third act, to which I simply wonder what might have been.
Yet even as Super 8 starts to veer off the rails of believability, there's a propulsive energy to its filmmaking that keeps it thrilling. Abrams seems to have absorbed Spielberg's stylistic as well as narrative chops here, evidenced by his gifted ability to build a scene, to establish a sense of space and suspense. His camera, of the Mizoguchi school of thought, is in perpetual motion, performing pirouettes around the characters and often times just punctuating a faint gesture or facial expression with a swooping crane shot to capture the kinetic energy that has erupted in the town. This is filmmaking with a capital F, the kind that overstates every emotion onscreen through its technique to the point of achieving a paradoxical intimacy, a sense of being privy to anything and everything these characters feel and think. Even the film's ubiquitous lens flares, now a continuing source of mild criticism towards the director, are inscribed with purpose: for a film about the wonder and glee of making not just any old movies, but films, it's constantly drawing attention to its own nature as a film as well as its position as a throwback to the heyday of Spielberg or Romero, where these kinds of flourishes were often technical blemishes rather than choices. It's perhaps that honesty and genuineness towards the sense of time and place and inspiration, more than anything else, that makes Super 8 not just a flimsy attempt to recreate a bygone era but actually a work that moves freely and comfortably within that era.
Monday, June 6, 2011
A week or so ago I witnessed a sixteen-wheeler truck careen off the side of the highway into the woods. Now that I've got your attention, let me take you to the beginning of this. I was on the road late at night returning from NYC. For quite some time through the murky and lifeless interstates of Connecticut the only sign of life my friends and I were able to glimpse was one truck, huge and imposing, barreling down the road just as it probably had through countless other states that very same day. Trucks are always, admittedly, something of a fright for a driver in a comparatively measly minivan, but in this instance we hadn't thought much of it because it was a reasonable distance away. Suddenly, we heard a loud bang. A second later, I saw the truck sifting up a large cloud of debris as it skid towards the median, hobbled across the (thankfully empty) other side of the road, and nosedived into the trees. The whole encounter was but a flash in my mind just after it happened, a moment of such surreal devastation and mayhem that the concrete details escape me - something out of a movie, come to think of it. Even now, it's perhaps even more abstracted, a mere wisp of physical trauma that we were fortunately able to avoid. My immediate reaction was that I had just confronted the concept of mortality, the idea that chaos can ensue and it's totally inscrutable, that the larger forces of nature are just utterly indifferent to the lives of individuals. The driver was gonzo, I assumed.
The following morning, after calling the police department for the second time in 24 hours (the first time being of much greater immediacy), we discovered that the driver had only suffered "minor injuries". There were suspicions of a blown tire - a freak accident that surely seems exponentially more likely in the context of an all-day truck service - but the details had yet to be parsed out. Ultimately, we were more concerned with whether or not this man had survived. By the end of it all (although of course there's never really an "end" to such a thing), I had to ask myself: was I somehow relieved to know he was alive, or was that initial assumption of The End so devastating that it overpowered the belated realization of survival? I'm still wrestling with that question, but secondary to the topic of life or death is another inquiry the experience offered. This lumbering truck, basically a killing machine anywhere over 10 mph, somehow crossed an entire highway without killing one person, not even the driver. At the risk of devolving to some simplistic live-life-to-the-fullest mode or some vague Monotheistic justification, I must admit the encounter at least was able to propose a sizable chunk of optimism amidst all the shock and despair, an openness to some unknowable form of supernatural chance. For lack of a better word, that might be called "grace". Actually, grace might be exactly the right word. If nature is the force that caused the tire to pop, grace was perhaps that which dictated the absence of travelers on the opposite side of the highway, or the unlikely survival of the man who is probably now so scarred, yet also humbly elevated, by the experience.
I gesture towards discursive association because I think that's what Terrence Malick encourages, or at least that's what The Tree of Life manages to summon to the surface. Because, as it happens, nature and grace are the two axioms around which his latest feature outspokenly revolves. At first seemingly embodied by a stern autocratic father (Brad Pitt) and his loving, judiciously playful wife (Jessica Chastain, who explicitly mutters this theory in one voice-over) in their home in Waco, Texas in the 1950's but eventually more appropriately reflected by the two films that are nestled inside one, The Tree of Life attempts to view these two energies as being the essence of life on Earth, the primal matter that guides both human and inhuman behavior. It's not a black-and-white dialectic, Malick insists, but rather one where each is constantly informing the other, playing a subconscious role in decision-making and instinctive action. It's also not, contrary to the concerns of naysayers, some finality that Malick is imposing on the universe. Like the baseballs that Pitt and Chastain's three sons toss up into the sky and watch return at one point, Malick is merely throwing a potential hypothesis into the ether as an impetus for a film, testing it and watching it evolve through his collaborative, spontaneous filmmaking practice. The Tree of Life has no meaning other than what the viewer brings to it, since Malick is chiefly interested not in espousing great philosophies but in asking the kind of big, unanswerable questions that flickered in my consciousness after the sixteen-wheeler bit the dust.
If I was told a year ago that I would be able to see on the big screen and within the same week a piece of shiny garbage (the latest Pirates of the Caribbean flick) and a work of such ingenuity and purpose that it singlehandedly argues for the survival of a questionably dead medium, I might not have believed it. That it has happened is both a confirmation that the idea of cinema as a platform for serious exploration of the world is still alive and kicking, and a testament to the sheer variety in our cultural sphere. Coincidentally, the variety of culture and the seemingly limitless capacity for human experience, as well as the ways in which these facets of knowledge are shielded as a result of our upbringing, is something Malick is interested in more than ever in The Tree of Life. One of the film's several (perhaps even infinite) narratives maps out the gradual realizations of life's complexity in Pitt and Chastain's three sons, particularly in Jack O'Brien (Hunter McCracken), who is given the most screen time and grows up to become Sean Penn's confused, contemplative architect. Malick traces his progression from a newborn baby to a moody delinquent, peering in along the way on the moments of heightened confusion and introspection that contribute to an increasingly realized sense of self and understanding of the world. At one point, Jack wanders around his neighborhood alone when he is suddenly drawn to the sound of a married couple screaming at each other and witnesses through the dining room windows from afar what is practically the mirror image of his own family. Later, when the O'Briens head into the Waco town center, Jack and his younger brother R.L. (Laramie Eppler) mock a stumbling drunk before having their childishness turned against them when a crippled man produces a similar gait. Jack's sense of individuality and privilege are challenged, and it's just the beginning of a slow unfurling of details that force him to accept, as all Malick characters do, that he is merely a small spec in the universe.
Malick has always gone to great lengths to visualize this idea of human smallness precisely by emphasizing natural vastness, and that tendency is taken to its logical extreme in The Tree of Life's early montage of the birth of the universe and the beginnings of time on Earth, a digressive episode that spans some twenty to thirty minutes of the film's run-time (it's the least he could do for such a calamitous event that took billions of years). From an amorphous balloon of orange light in the center of the screen begins a series of Brakhage-like gyrations of color that culminate in a representation of the creation of the solar system that slowly morphs from abstraction to recognizable forms. Within this are certain blobs that resemble inner body fluids, perhaps an attempt to link the macro processes of the Big Bang to the micro processes of human birth. After a meteor strikes Earth, Malick drops in to observe the primordial stew of liquids and solids on the planet's surface that eventually produce oceans and landscapes. The images created in this sequence - advised by special effects legend Douglas Trumbull, referenced from NASA, and shot using either 65 mm or the massive IMAX format - are impossibly high-fidelity, giving the whole sequence the uncanny sense of actually floating over this universal phenomenon rather than just witnessing cinematic images of it. It's a bracing, almost paradoxically uncomfortable effect, because it's as if a few times Malick is more smitten with taking the audience's breath away as in a Discovery Channel doc than providing a truly cinematic montage.
This segues into the first stirrings of life on Earth, a sequence involving dinosaurs that has quickly become the tipping point for viewers eager to accuse Malick of pretentiousness, hypocrisy, or plain ridiculousness. Having seen it once, none of these accusations really seem fair given the brief modesty of the scenes, and any claims of silliness are surely attributable to the fact that Jurassic Park already exists in our collective consciousness in such a way that any cinematic stab at dinosaurs is either going to live up to it or pale in comparison. However, I will admit to feeling a small pang of bewilderment at Malick's head-scratching decision to employ such transparent CGI. Given his affinity for all things natural, not to mention his career-long thematic acknowledgment of the folly of human ambition, the dinosaurs come across as something of a sharp left turn in his alleged sensibility. Granted, other than miniatures (which would have forced him to work independently of his beloved natural landscapes), there's no other way to whip up remotely convincing portrayals of these creatures, and one particular interaction between a prancing raptor and a wounded little one washed up on the shore makes an argument for the indispensability of the scene in the film's thematic framework. The raptor hovers its foot over the smaller dino's skull on the rocks, flirting with killing it before inexplicably pulling away. More on this later.
The entire segment is perhaps The Tree of Life's weakest addition, never quite gelling organically with the flow of the rest of the film, but at the same time its presence bolsters the discursive philosophical inquiry that Malick is attempting. Because, it seems, aside from one symmetrical composition of a planetary eclipse that bluntly recalls the film that it has been most commonly compared to (2001), Malick's latest cine-essay is actually closer in spirit to Tarkovsky's sublime The Mirror than Kubrick's detached, cerebral science-fiction (as if acknowledging the affinity, Malick even has Chastain in a fleeting scene of levitation somewhere in the film's majestic flow of images). The Tree of Life, to me, seems essentially emotional rather than intellectual, a symphony of uneven personal memories and dreams whose illogic cannot be justified by rational argument but only by the elusive nature of sensation. Like Tarkovsky, Malick suspends his central characters in what is very likely a recreation of his own biography (though we can never quite be sure), with Jack as the presumable director surrogate (something his architectural career as an adult might substantiate). Also like Tarkovsky, Malick alternates without warning between different points of view, different subjectivities, including what is perhaps a Godlike vantage point. Once the film settles into its central timeline - that is, the upbringing of Jack and his brothers in their 1950's suburban home - one can never be sure who the film is being dreamt up by, if the depicted events are indeed real, and if that factor of authenticity even matters. Several critics have suggested that it is Sean Penn's character who envisions the entire narrative in his mind as he experiences a mid-life crisis, but that seems too reductive and easy an encapsulation, and doesn't account for all of the drastic temporal and perspectival shifts that Malick includes.
Malick's greatest achievement here is his dreamy recreation of childhood, which is by no means a standard or objective expression but a deeply intuitive one that manages to capture something primal about the actual experience of growing up. If suspicions of autobiography are correct, and I have no doubt they are, this is a disarmingly personal, even confessional historical surgery, a parsing through of all the shameful moments of sin, sexual desire, and immaturity that any self-respecting person tries desperately to repress. Here, Malick has laid these tricky and conflicting emotions bare through his open and intimate style, an onslaught of tactile low-angle steadicam shots that imitate the vantage point of a young child. When Jack is born (another achingly poetic sequence that Malick shows, characteristically, through the act of swimming), his first impressions of Earth are displayed via a collage of fragmentary images: Chastain's angelic face, wiggling fingers reflected in a mirror, an old man's face (a neighbor?) blown-up in grotesque close-up, among many others. Malick is attempting to replicate those initial sensations of the world that are so difficult to grasp in retrospect, as if locked away in a special chest for fear of diluting them amongst the more cogent understandings of physicality that rapidly develop in infants. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki's liquid steadicam shots increase in duration as Jack ages, suggesting the world's inscrutable fragments gradually forming wholes. In one atypically unbroken shot, the camera observes with ecstatic discovery as the toddler Jack stares at his baby brother in awe.
Various subtextual layers begin to pile up over the central drama as Jack and his brothers age. Freudian complexes develop as Jack tacitly wishes death upon his tough-loving father and bathes his mother in an aura of spiritual candor, once envisioning her in a glass coffin in the middle of the woods covered in flowers, an image that feels plucked from an ancient fairy tale. Other sequences offer a metafictional undercurrent: infatuation with a fellow schoolgirl blooms within Jack and he follows her from a distance through his neighborhood, a simple, vaguely predatory desire that recalls, down to specific compositions, Malick's debut Badlands; Jack and his friends' chaotic rampage of anger and naivete, sending frogs into the sky in rockets and breaking windows with rocks, starts to obliquely resemble juvenile delinquency films like The 400 Blows; a tall carnie appears in the dark attic during one of R.L.'s nightmares looks like the giant in Twin Peaks; and Malick's visual analysis of a present-day Houston (the first time in his career he's attempted contemporary life), with his camera searching for natural shapes in mechanical architectural figures, somehow evokes Godard's Two or Three Things I Know About Her.
For all this implicit citation - nothing new to Malick who experimented with a dense tapestry of American historical documents in The New World - The Tree of Life remains staunchly singular, taking the formal sensibilities of his two previous films to an even more extreme level of abstraction and impressionism. More than ever, Malick is drawing loosely on the theories of Soviet montage to at once obey their tenets yet also break free from them to create a distinct cinematic language. No filmmaker, to my mind, has ever combined the use of a steadicam and handheld to such magical effect, with countless jump cuts, sudden reversals of perspective, and drastic movements. Spatial laws existing within traditional filmmaking have been shattered, as Malick seems to care nothing for the 180 degree rule that governs at least 95% of cinematic conversation scenes, the careful shielding off of certain background elements that allow most films to avoid showing crew members or equipment, or the notion of repetitive frameworks for shooting certain spaces to maintain a degree of familiarity and comprehension. Here, the camera is liable to travel anywhere and everywhere in a certain location and does, seeking to map out new understandings of the physical spaces (one potential reason why the O'Brien household never feels like the exact same house in any given scene). Malick's style is looking to discover something ineffable, a unique emotion or sensation, and one needs to look no further, for instance, than a lovely sequence when father leaves for a trip and the kids chase their mother around the house, playfully terrorizing her with a salamander, to witness the heartbreaking beauty his technique is able to dredge up.
So it stands to question what the film's philosophical content really is (and after only one viewing, I see that as an inherent positive). Earlier, I harped upon nature and grace, two forces the film keeps bringing to mind. It's as if, broadly speaking, Malick is setting up two individual films - one being the birth of the universe and one being the O'Brien family history - that loosely represent these two notions, the former nature and the latter grace, and searching for the areas where contradictions arise, where the existential cliff notes overlap. To return to the dinosaur scene, when the raptor appears to show mercy towards the weaker herbivore and refrains from crushing his skull, the initial sense is that the raptor suddenly showed grace. But then the question becomes whether or not that seemingly graceful act of nonviolence might have been part of the creature's nature. Likewise, Brad Pitt's domineering father figure is at first equated with nature, which is to say that nature is equated with both severity and violence. I don't think that's what Malick intends to say; rather, when Pitt's physical domination of his wife during an argument fizzles out and becomes something of a loving embrace, it mirrors the dinosaur's similar detour from violence and offers the solution that it is ultimately nature that contains a regenerative element - that is, what begins with violence and severity naturally makes way for grace and love. The discovery, then, is that nature and grace are by no means mutually exclusive, but indeed that they churn within everything that occurs on Earth.
Of all the feature-length explorations of Why We're Here that I've seen, The Tree of Life, despite its cosmic visions and the enormity of its timeline, is one of the least bloated and self-satisfied, and also one of the most intimate. This is because Malick has not settled on anything. Like all of his work, his latest is an endlessly searching, probing document, an artifact that offers up plentiful interpretive paths to the viewer who is willing to play along. What to make of one of the final sequences (which is not, as is falsely reported elsewhere, the final sequence), for instance, when Sean Penn revisits the film's entire ensemble on a barren sandbar, throwing temporal reality to the wind (another moment that recalls Lynch, among other things, this time the celebratory coda of INLAND EMPIRE)? It seems an immaterial zone of spiritual rest, a place situated somewhere between heaven, the subconscious, and the apocalypse, and perhaps comprising all of them. This, as well as many other of The Tree of Life's sometimes baffling diversions, isn't in itself profound, but it offers a tantalizing avenue towards profundity. The film is gorgeous, provocative, and willfully messy, and as its final image of a modern-day bridge suggests - composed in such a way that it conjures up memories of the final shot of The New World - it's always reaching for new ways to understand the world.
Wednesday, June 1, 2011
I've always shied away from using the word "weird" as a critical term, seeing as it really doesn't say much and might as well be a passive admission of xenophobia. Even in the face of so-called obscure and esoteric cinema, say, by the likes of David Lynch or Alexandro Jodorowsky - who are almost unfailingly dubbed weird - I usually have a sense of where the director is headed, what their particular aesthetic intentions are even if their end goals or their tricky subtexts escape me. Acknowledging that it's a pretty useless and subjective term in the first place, allow me the luxury of saying that Claude Chabrol's A Girl Cut in Two is the first film I've seen in a while that I feel comfortable calling weird. No, there's nothing outwardly bizarre at work here, no surreal imagery or batty subplots, just a simple, familiar, even perhaps too familiar, love triangle featuring a talented young blonde, an old and successful novelist, and a privileged and elitist young lad. In fact, if watched casually at just the right angle, everything might seem perfectly in place. But then a closer look yields an abyss of peculiarity, a tonally ambiguous mess of aesthetic and narrative choices that doesn't seem acceptable coming from a well-seasoned director like the French New Wave veteran Chabrol. It's a work in which intentions seem almost deliberately obscured, as if it's actually provoking you not to like it.
The workings of the film's plot revolve around the bourgeois concepts of publicity and privacy in romantic endeavors, and it's through these social constructs that the characters are able to maneuver around one another. Gabrielle (Ludivine Sagnier), a highly regarded but modest TV personality, prefers to not let her increasing stature and wealth dictate her private life. She lives at home with her lonely mother (Marie Bunel), a basis of comfort to offset her ever-changing and fanciful young career in which she is taken out by wealthy men and offered higher positions at work regularly. It's inevitable that a girl like this, naive as she is, might interpret all of the attention as exciting rather than manipulative, and as such she is somewhat oblivious to the predominantly sexual interests of her two pursuers, Charles Saint-Denis, a famous writer and established womanizer, and Paul Gaudens (Benoît Magimel), a more practical partner for his age who is nonetheless even more unstable and emotionally volatile than Charles. Of course, Charles and Paul share a history of adversity with one another, the source of which is never explicitly stated in the film, so it's natural that when Gabrielle becomes smitten with Charles the two enter a quiet war of jealousy and entitlement. Charles and Gabrielle's relationship becomes unusually public, but Gabrielle remains wishy-washy about it in front of Paul, who desperately tries to woo her, poetically pronouncing his love like some Shakespearean hero but without the intelligence and decency such a profile would suggest.
A career defined by an interest in social hierarchies might lead one to believe that A Girl Cut in Two, loaded as it is with caricatured and unlikable people, is a satire, but Chabrol is so passé and detached in his dealings with smug, womanizing, and close-mouthed people that he threatens to wade into that same territory himself. When Charles takes Gabrielle to a high-class S&M club to "introduce her" to his friends as some perverted birthday surprise - one of his sordid passions that Chabrol curiously lets fly - the scene's ugly undertones are hidden through the niceties of upper-class behavior, and Charles flimsily attempts to justify his actions to his dispassionate editor Capucine (Mathilda May), who responds with the same expression of indifference that she wears throughout the film. It's not good enough to just show these people; in order to be satirizing, there needs to be a clear stance on the immorality, a position reflected in the construction of the film. People, particularly women and even more specifically Gabrielle, are exploited and manipulated throughout the film, and when prompted to own up to it, they turn away with a disaffected grin, unwilling to take responsibility for their actions. Chabrol practices the same behavior by continually refusing to show any of the implied taboos head-on, thus recycling the same vague chain of passive "forgetfulness" and denial that is seemingly being reprimanded in the characters. Whenever the sex acts so casually hinted at are about to occur, Chabrol cuts away or turns his camera to something unrelated, afraid to actually confront the issues of sexual oppression and adultery raised by the film. A Girl Cut in Two's motives are seemingly not too far removed from those of Catherine Breillat's The Last Mistress, yet Chabrol isn't radical enough to expose the indecencies or try to upend social expectations the way Breillat so effectively did.
What's so irritating about this lack of involvement is that Chabrol seems to purposefully set up reprehensible morals and large contradictions between thought and action in his characters. Gabrielle's mother comfortably chats with her daughter about Charles over lunch, and she never expresses serious concern for her child's well-being with someone who is in fact even older than her. What's more, she actually acknowledges Saint-Denis' wife, calmly hoping her daughter's fling with the man is not hurting her feelings. She directs the conversation as if it's the wife that she's more concerned about than Gabrielle, yet it's hard to say if she would ever consider acting upon any of her doubts. Elsewhere, Paul gets so wound up about Gabrielle's humble rejection of him that he ends up wrapping his hands firmly around her throat, an outburst of emotional immaturity and aggression that Gabrielle seems to immediately forget. Although she continues to deflect his overeager efforts at romantic connection throughout the film, when Saint-Denis hits the highway and leaves her reeling with sadness, she suddenly agrees to marry Paul. It's quite clear that Chabrol means to create these implausible scenarios in an effort to indict the absurdity and hypocrisy of upper-class behavior, but his approach is so matter-of-fact and affectless that they feel closer to misconstrued realism than over-the-top farce.
The film's final scene, in which Gabrielle becomes a participant in her uncle's guillotine magic act, bluntly and belatedly cements what the film was at least trying to get at: that Gabrielle is a woman torn apart both by her affiliations with two men and by the social conventions that restrict and encourage certain behavior. That Chabrol was aiming for this commentary makes the disconnect between intent and execution throughout the rest of the film all the more bizarre and disconcerting. Savgnier's single reserved tear as she turns away from the audience of condescending pseudo-intellectuals that populate the film - perhaps her lone acknowledgment of exploitation in the film - goes a longer way towards expressing Chabrol's ideas than any of his mismatched directorial attempts, and indeed her performance in general, whimsical but not without a degree of inarticulate sadness, manages to keep the film watchable through its frustrating onslaught of zombified bourgeois brats.
But beyond anything occurring on a narrative or thematic level in A Girl Cut in Two, there are seemingly unmotivated stylistic moves that prove to be the real head-scratchers. The film begins with a blood red color filter slapped over its images of car travel, perhaps a flimsy foreshadowing of the climactic murder scene but too brief and overt to really make an impact. Then there is the slapdash editing, the blink-and-you'll-miss-'em establishing shots and extraneous coverage that suggest a hack editor with no feel for pacing, or the one inexplicable instance of a shot of the top of a building gradually darkening over its five-second screen time as if the aperture was being fidgeted with mid shot, or the clumsy score that stops and starts on a dime. And let's not forget Chabrol's occasional disinterest in providing any sort of bridge between scenes, dropping you in on one conversation in the middle of another, jumping locations and visual palettes without any care for audience disorientation. It's perhaps this technical incompetence, more than anything, that makes A Girl Cut in Two such a weird, destabilizing film, because the last person you'd expect to make what looks like an amateur production is a director with over fifty years in the business.
Cold Weather (2010): Aaron Katz completes the process of breaking off from the tired label of mumblecore with this low-key caper set in Katz's very own solemn and gray Portland, Oregon. The film casually drifts into its deadpan central mystery about the presumed disappearance of main character Doug's (Cris Lankenau) ex-girlfriend, but the presence of a solid and genre-specific plot isn't what gives Katz's third feature its legs; rather, it's the loose, comfortable chemistry of its cast. Katz excels at making films about subjects that are never quite clear until the film is over, never really recognized as the meat. Here, it's the touching sibling relationship of Doug and his sister Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn), a Karina look-alike who Katz makes a Godardian joke out of during the brief and indifferent climax. Cold Weather is a giant leap forward for this decidedly simple entertainer who remains among an elite handful of filmmakers who know exactly how to end a movie every time...
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974): ...Which brings me to a filmmaker who doesn't know how to end a movie. Why Joseph Sargent decided to conclude this one on a close-up of Walter Matthau's goofy puckered mug in one of the laziest anti-climaxes I've ever seen is beyond me, but otherwise I can see what attracted Tony Scott to this dynamic and propulsive material. This kind of narrative cross-cutting - in this case between the hijacked subway train underground and the police department above ground - has scarcely been done with more skill and assurance even as it has proliferated in genre cinema, and the biting critique of a somnambulistic task force as well as the intimate feel for New York City is spot-on. Although the third act feels strenuously rushed, I certainly can't complain about the film overstaying its welcome. It's a briskly paced, often hilarious romp that never loses sight of the very dangerous civilian situation at its core.
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011): The worst movie yet in the worst franchise in Hollywood, the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean is a bulky, lumbering mass culture trifle filled to the brim with idiotic subplots, cheap attempts at humanity amidst all the caricatures, and lousy, dim images of ugly pirates. It's no wonder Rob Marshall directed it, seeing as he's the King of making lavishly produced epics feel like junior high class plays. So canned are its intolerable butt jokes and sexual innuendos and so flimsy are its action sequences that the whole affair feels like some weird social experiment that so much of the audience isn't in on, an attempt to keep stealing from America's wallets even as it sticks transparently to the same formula over and over and over again. Bright and shining proof of Hollywood's uselessly self-perpetuating industry, an ouroboric process of using money and making money for no societal gain. And does anyone even like Johnny Depp anymore?
Tung (1966): An amorphous blue haze, refracted against the edges of the frame as if seen through a globe, washes over from the screen from right to left throughout Bruce Baillie's Tung, a hypnotic and mysterious 5-minute visual experiment. As the film continues, the haze is gradually disrupted by spurts of other colors, filmic blemishes, and fragmentary images of life: a woman (in negative black and white), summer, grass. With the exception of the girl, most of these glimpses are too brief and abstracted to really get a handle on what they are, yet the sensations of warmth and joyousness are unmistakable. The final feeling is as if waking up in the morning to find a woman you love playing around in the grass outside, and as far as I know, that's not a bad feeling to have.
Apricot, Some Static Started (2009, 2010): The past is a malleable presence in these two short films by Australian visual artist Ben Briand, something that must be talked through and actively mulled over before it can become remotely tangible, and even then it feels dreamy and incomplete. But that's exactly where the strengths of these works lie, in the probing and the reaching, in the wispy images of recollection. Apricot is a maudlin and predictable love story that somehow winds up being adequately moving by virtue of its own conviction, and Some Static Started is a brooding, Lynchian, and indeed incomplete scenario involving two bloodied guys in a motel room communicating about a seemingly tangentially related episode in the same space with a girl. With its gorgeous sun-bleached and unfocused images of youthful love and turbulent narrative, the former is definitely the more satisfying of the two, but both share unique commonalities: the clipped, enigmatic line deliveries, the fragmented and subjective compositions, the ambient soundtracks. These are very admirable short films that could pave the way for a strong feature from this visually adept Aussie.