Tuesday, March 29, 2011

In a Better World (Haevnen)

There's an important scene in Susan Bier's academy award winning Danish film, Haevnen, where a father, Anton, is trying to teach a valuable lesson to two children--his son, Elias, and his son's friend, Christian--on the nature of vengeance and violence. Anton takes the kids to visit an angry brute of an auto-mechanic who had insulted him on a previous day. Never mind asking why the fight started in the first place; the reason is too stupid for me to bear repeating here. Anton asks the boorish fellow to apologize, and when that doesn't work, turns the other cheek as he gets slapped repeatedly in the face. Anton leaves satisfied (or at the very least, pretending to be)--he stayed cool and calm and showed his kids that violence was the futile recourse of the ignorant. But Elias and Christian aren't so sure; in their opinion, all Anton proved was that he's a pussy.

The kids may not have gotten the message, but the audience sure does. Since the auto-mechanic is a complete caricature of male brutishness and since there was no real reason for any argument to break out between the two men in the first place, we totally get that responding with violence would be useless.  We get the message every step of the way as Bier bludgeons us with her painfully uninteresting statements about revenge (which is what "haevnen" translates to), and this is unfortunate because this movie is nothing but message. My favorite summary of the film is in a blurb from the French magazine Cahiers de Cinema: "Attention! Film dissertation." Haevnen is a movie that's convinced of its own importance but is mainly didactic and dull. We're the children being lectured to.

To make things clear, there are two main stories involving revenge in Haevnen, and four specific instances where characters seek revenge. The central narrative involves the troubled Christian, and Elias, his wimpy protegé. Both of them favor decisive action, first in response to school bullying, and then whilst seeking retribution from the mechanic. Obviously, they get themselves into a peck of trouble. On top of that, Bier manages to fit in a story that takes place somewhere in Africa. Where, exactly, doesn't matter, as long as the setting provides adequate reason for smiling black children to run freely behind a truck of benevolent European saviors. The connection is that Anton works for doctors without borders when he's not dealing with a shaky family situation back home. His own flawless moral integrity gets tested when a local warlord stops by to get treatment for his maggot infested leg.

These two stories are supposed to compliment each by complicating our notions of right and wrong. How can it be that violence is justified in one situation and not in another? Very easily, actually. Instead of working together to prove a coherent point, the two bits stand in stark contrast with each other and say next to nothing. Bier might have thought she had injected some much needed ambiguity into her feeble posturing, but all she does is give us examples of cases where revenge is good and cases where revenge is bad. For one, you won't find many audience members who are sympathetic to the cause of a hulking, milky-eyed African clown named Big Man who enjoys necrophilia and cutting the unborn babies out of pregnant woman's stomachs. So revenge is mostly bad, except when you're sitting in front of a guy who makes Mao look like Mother Theresa.

Also complicating things but adding little to the overall theme is a closer study of two families--Elias's and Christian's. Elias's parents have been splitting up, which might be part of the reason why he's having a tough time at school. Christian hates his father , Claus, ever since his mom died of cancer. He's convinced that Claus wanted her dead, and this resentment is what makes him gravitate towards violence. None of this really gives nuance to all the message-y parts of the movie, but at least these detours do more good than they do harm. They allow the film to concentrate on the individuals instead of on the broader implications of their moral decisions.

Haevnen is convincing enough to have won such accolades as Best Foreign Film at both the Golden Globes and Academy Awards. It's possible that the unmerited attention it's received has made me resent it a little. Still, I don't think there's anything particularly gratifying, any way you look at it, in watching this story play out; as a whole it's a rather tedious slog, and intermittent sappiness doesn't do anything to help. Nevertheless, I've already given the movie the beating it deserves. In the interest of all that is redemptive and human and good, here is a list of the movie's strong points:

1. Cinematography--it's a handsome looking film. 2. Great performances all around, even from the child actors. Mikael Persbrandt as Anton and Willian Nielsen as Christian stand out. 3. Still less forced than it would have been if made, with the same intentions, over on the other side of the Atlantic. 4. A scene where Christian beats up Scofus, the school bully, is brutal yet satisfying, and actually poses some troublesome questions about violence. A rare instance where the line between good and bad actually gets a little fuzzy.


Thursday, March 24, 2011

Boxing Gym

Since Boxing Gym is a movie about boxing, and since I saw it right after I saw The Fighter, the logical thing to do would be to try to work out a comparison between the two. Alas, the biggest link I can find between them is how aptly named they both are. Where The Fighter is a movie about a man who has to fight with his family and his opponents, Boxing Gym is a movie about nothing less and possibly nothing more than a boxing gym.

For three months, veteran director Frederick Wiseman filmed the everyday goings on in small uncommercial Austin, Texas boxing gym, and this is what he found. It's a movie that's more unusual for what it doesn't have than what it does; no voiceover, no interviews, no story, no conventional structure, no characters, no buildup to some grand event, no fancy editing, no imposed or easily discernible message. There is precious little actual boxing in the film-- we are only shown a few short sparring session between gym members. Instead, the movie is filled with scenes of people training; they jog, stretch, do pushups and various other body strengthening exercises, hit tires with hammers, throw heavy balls around, jump rope, play leapfrog, practice their jabs, uppercuts, and hooks, punch speed bags, punch heavy bags, punch double end bags, shadow box, and punch the gloved mitts of various trainers.

All of these exercises are repeated, and shots of one person exhausting himself while hitting various things can last over a minute. What Wiseman ends up with is a film that comes from reality--nothing artificial is forced into the self-contained world of the gym--and is very real. But not entirely. Whether or not it's Wiseman's intention, his reality is transformed ever so slightly by his cinema; the various workouts are distilled into their sweaty leathery essence. The training eventually becomes mesmerizing, the sound of things being hit becomes rhythmic and musical, and the boxers' routine starts to look like a ritual. Above all we notice their discipline, their intense concentration, and their almost religious devotion. And the fact that the last film Weisman did was La Danse, a study of the Paris Opera Ballet, reinforces what's already obvious; boxing is dance. Just take a look at that one patiently sustained shot where only the players feet are framed as they bounce around, Muhammad Ali style, in their own loosely choreographed ballet.

It would, however, be a waste not to show the human side of this spectacle, and Wiseman obliges us by including some excellent scenes where he captures, with astounding naturalness, the interactions of various locals. I wish we had a few more of these encounters. As it is, we can't really follow any particular particular member, as the only person who makes multiple appearances is the gym's owner, Richard Lord--a grizzled fellow who may not be very sharp, but is kindly, helpful, and knows his stuff. Nevertheless, what we do get is pretty great. One man says he plays marimba in a band, and joyously demonstrates the dance that goes along with the songs he plays. Two boys make small talk, and one says how much he loves the buzz of getting hit in the jaw. Two young men talk about their military training, and one mentions that he hopes to get deployed eventually. Two older men talk about the currently unfolding Virginia tech massacre; one of them has a relative who was caught up in it.

If any of these last three conversations makes it seem like Boxing Gym is a study of the violence that's soaked into American society, that could not be further from the truth. The movie is actually surprisingly bloodless. If anything, the gym is a refuge from the violence outside; violence that can be found in the schools, on the streets, abroad, or (to a lesser extent) in the stadiums where actual matches take place. When one kid comes in with a bruised eye to learn how to fight, he's quickly told that boxing is not for revenge but for defense. (Paraphrasing) "Everyone here stays away from fights because they want to save their fists for the ring. Some people come in here looking for trouble, but they realize pretty soon that this place isn't for them." Another kid is also warned against fighting street-style. Mothers leave their babies next to the equipment to sleep happily while they train. That's another thing; there's complete gender and racial equality in here. We're told that one 68 year old woman can hit the speed bag better than anyone else.

Too bloodless, then? No matter how supporting the community in this gym is, you can't just gloss over the fact that boxing is a violent sport. It's possible that Boxing Gym is just a little too appealing for the middle-aged art house crowd. The one punch to the face that there is in this move--not exactly delivered with Tyson-level force--managed to elicit a couple gasps from audience members. But I think that Wiseman avoids all violence here not because he wants to distance us from boxing's aggressiveness, but because that's for a different movie entirely. It's not like Wiseman hasn't done brutal and painful before. His first and most famous film, Titicut Follies (1967), showed the terrible conditions of a Massachusetts mental hospital, which were apparently so nasty that the film was banned, and institutions like the one it depicted closed down. His 1971 movie Basic Training was the inspiration for the extended basic training section of Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, right down to the attempted suicide by one of the soldiers (Kubrick requested the 35 mm film strip from Wiseman and didn't give it back until months later). But when it comes to boxing, we have all the brutality we need. We can get instant gratification from all those fast flying punches on TV or in award winning movies. For anyone who wants to get their gratification by looking more closely than they ever thought possible at the preparation, patience, and joy that go into the sport, this movie is essential.


P. S. Wiseman, who's now 81 years old, may only have one truly well-known movie with Titicut Follies, but he's one of America's most respected directors. Taken from a Village Voice article on Boxing Gym: "I was recently sitting with a group of French directors, and at a certain point the conversation turned to Fred Wiseman," critic Kent Jones wrote eight years ago in Film Comment. "Without hesitation, everyone agreed that he was probably America's greatest living filmmaker..."--not to mention the world-champion practitioner of the form the French call cinema verité. Most of his 39 films have fewer than 100 votes on imdb, but they all look absolutely fascinating. Institutions that have gotten the Wiseman treatment include a slaughterhouse (Meat) a welfare office (Welfare) a Niemen Marcus store in Texas (The Store) and a high school (High School I and High School II).

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Fighter

Ahhh the boxing movie; dependable stalwart of the American sports cinema. It has more critical cachet than the football movie, and is much more common than the Jamaican bobsled movie. The closest comparison, I suppose, would be to horse racing movie, horse racing being another sport that was more popular in a bygone era and is now more widely recognized in its cinematic form. But boxing is way more interesting than horse racing, mainly because it involves people and not horses. What could be more noble than the spectacle of two men using only their fists and their wits to  demonstrate their courage, resilience, and value as human beings. We like boxing because it has all the brutality we need from any modern American classic and because violence and aggression are legitimized, made useful, when put inside the ring.

Nevertheless, you have to wonder each time a new boxing movie comes out if we haven't seen it all already. We know the scenes and images by heart: poetic shots of gloves slamming into cheekbones sending blood and saliva flying, rousing training montages, battered fighters getting patched up and having orders barked at them in between rounds, underdogs receiving punch after punch after punch before coming back for victory. Sure, the struggle in the ring can be complimented and mirrored by others outside of it, but there as well, almost every thing's been done. Cinderella Man had poverty, Million Dollar Baby had poverty and heavy moral issues, Rocky had some poverty, The Hurricane had racism. Raging Bull emphasized Jake La Motta's internal conflict and self-destructive tendencies and Rocky had Rocky starting out as a lazy slob. Rocky also had romance and and Rocky IV even dipped its feet in Cold War politics.

So what, I asked myself, could The Fighter, even if well-made, possibly add to such a familiar genre? Quite a lot, actually. It doesn't re-write the rule book, but like all the great boxing movies that have come before it, The Fighter has its one thing that it does differently. As far as I know, it's the only one where the main threat comes from the characters outside of the ring. "Really, no one's done that before?", you might ask. Well, possibly in some lesser boxing movie, but I doubt that it's ever been taken as far as it has here. That seemingly insignificant tweak in the boxing formula is what sets the movie up on its path to greatness.

The Fighter, which sticks closely to the real story of welterweight champion Mickey Ward, focuses mainly on the shaky and often unhealthy relationship he had with his family. Micky, played by Walbherg, is the sensitive strongman; he's soft spoken and--when he's not trying to cut up his oponents--gentle. His mother, Alice (Melissa Leo), brother, Dicky (Christian Bale), and 7 sisters are not gentle and definitely not soft spoken. They never exactly manipulate Micky, but they do get him to do what they think is best for him, and what they think is best usually ends up holding him back. Dicky is an unreliable heroin junkie, but Mickey depends on him to train. Alice refuses to acknowledge Dicky's exacerbating condition and keeps booking Mickey in the wrong fights. And Micky has been told what to do for so long that he's unable to tell them what he needs.

It's not hard, however, to see why Micky is so powerless. Melissa Leo and Christian Bale are fearsome enough to take the resolve out of anyone, and they leave the audience in a state of rapt obedience as well. Both of them are now famous for being expletive throwing loudmouths off the screen, but these performances (both of which garnered them Oscars) are something else. Bale, cocky arrogant bastard that he is, has transformed himself into an even more wiry and explosive cocky arrogant bastard, while still managing to be funny and sympathetic. He's also a good deal thinner than should be healthy, having lost 40 pounds, although this isn't an unusual step for an actor who seems to derive great satisfaction from emaciating himself (see The Machinist and Rescue Dawn). Watching Leo's Alice clash with Micky's similarly opinionated and hard-headed "MTV-girl" girlfriend, Charlene (Amy Adams) is as entertaining as any boxing match.

Let's not forget Mark Walbergh. His role, despite being the lead, doesn't give him the same opportunities to show off as Bale's or Leo's do, but he grabs our attention using more discreet methods. When boxing, Micky knows when to be passive, taking a seemingly endless series of punches before finally unleashing his own force, and Walbergh has the same kind of patience; his character is submissive for much of the movie, which makes it even sweeter when he finally takes matters into his own hands. And as entertaining as Bale and Leo are to watch, the movie would have been too tiring without Walbergh keeping things steady at its center.

The Fighter is Mark's movie in more ways than one. He's the avid boxing fan who grew up 30 minutes away from Lowell, Massachusetts, followed Mickey's story, and eventually befriended Micky and Dicky while getting their support for the film. He hired David O. Russel to direct his project, which was a wise choice. David seems to have helped the film mainly by doing everything right, striking a perfect balance  between Hollywood sheen and hard-to-watch realism. The movie is dirty and gritty but not somber. It's light on its feet and always entertaining while staying rooted in a very authentic--and authentically depressing--urban landscape. The Fighter has a much stronger connection with Lowell than Ben Affleck's The Town had with Charlestown earlier this year. This is the one that really makes me wish I didn't know how to pronounce my r's. And because of Walbergh and Russel's passion for the sport of boxing and its players, it's one of those rare movies that makes me really understand what it means to give or receive a punch in the face.


Saturday, March 12, 2011

Orson Welles

Whenever people talk about Orson Welles the discussion invariably turns to what might have been. Hearst's relentless campaign to suppress Citizen Kane drummed up publicity, but the movie was held back for so long that all the controversy never translated into box-office receipts. When audiences didn't respond to his next film, The Magnificent Ambersons, and his expensive Brazilian jungle documentary (for which he was unfairly villainized) was shelved by the studios, Welle's rapid ascent to the top was over. The 25 year old wunderkind (he had already established himself as a successful stage actor/director and radio star) who had been given total artistic control for Kane never regained favor with the studios. When Welles wasn't self-financing his passion projects with money from his acting jobs, his films were seized by the studios and hacked up in the editing room. He seems a comical, almost grotesque figure in a description in Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls; living in a spare room in the much younger Peter Bogdonavich's house, he surrounds himself with stacks of dirty dishes. Instead of the old man who has everything crying out "Rosebud" on his deathbed, it's easy to imagine Welles, longing for his younger glory days, letting out a harrowing "Kane."

But as any Welles fan knows, his career trajectory can't be reduced to the convenient myth of the genius falling from great heights. Welles himself said, "I started at the top and worked my way down," but that self-deprecating comment is facetious enough to let us know that it isn't quite true. And in my opinion, it's beside the point to decry the mistreatment and neglect Welles faced in the hands of Hollywood, to keep asking why he could never maintain control over his own movies. Was he too stubborn and reckless or was he just too lazy to fight for final cut, too willing to give in? Who cares. There are some real tragedies in American film history--for example, the brutal treatment of von Stroheim's Greed which resulted in the permanent loss of a masterpiece--but Orson Welles' career is not one of them (well...the fact that his last role was as Unicron in the animated Transformers withstanding). Of the five films I've seen by him, four of them are masterpieces and, if I'm not mistaken, there are many more where those came from. Welles' personal favorite was The Trial (1962), and a number of other films from later in his career, including Chimes at Midnight (1966) and F is for Fake (1973), are ranked among his best. For all we know, Welles might still have a great film left in him 26 years after his death; in 2004 Peter Bogdonavach started working on piecing together the "96 percent complete" footage of The Other Side of the Wind, about a film director struggling to scrape together funds for his last movie.

Bogdonavich, who wrote the definitive book This is Orson Welles, and who was the awestruck pupil before he was Welles' friend, sums up the man's genius quite nicely; "Among the most complicated aspects of Welles' work is the tension between the essential pessimism of his outlook and the exhilarating optimism inspired by the brilliance of his style." True that. In all of the works I've seen, Welles is consistent in his distaste for abuse of power and empty wealth. He fights relentlessly against moral corruption and capitalist excess. And the people in his movies often fall prey to their own carelessness; they lose their money, or any valuable reason for living, or their lives. But the way he films this sorry lot--with great relish, that is--betrays an affinity with all the excess and an identification with his power hungry characters. His movies are technically impeccable and often showy, with deep focus, crazy angles, mirror shots, sumptuous decors, complicated camera movements, and tour de force acting from Welles himself. He created a cinematic world where he could the master of everything. Aside from the editing, only the sound seemed to pose a problem; throughout his career Welles tried and mostly failed to devise a system where all the dialogue was pre-recorded and the actors merely had to mouth their words during the filming process.

Given Welles' undeniable genius and obsession with depicting the lives of the powerful, it's almost a surprise that he didn't become the very thing he was fighting against. I wonder if he didn't have it in his mind to become Kane, if that movie wasn't just an indictment of Hearst, or a cautionary tale warning against his own ambition, but a film intended to be prophetic. All right, maybe that's a little far-fetched. Still, in the end, it's strangely fitting that a man who consecrated his entire oeuvre to criticising people who have too much, never got much at all except for praise. But now, lest we start to think that he didn't give us enough either, here's a random sampling from Welles career that I saw in theaters recently; three films (lesser known than the great Touch of Evil and Citizen Kane) that should convert any naysayer.

The Lady From Shanghai (1948)

The first thing one notices about The Lady From Shanghai is the incredibly thick Irish brogue that Welles, playing the part of a handsome weathered seaman, puts on. I'm not one to judge, and Welles did start his career as a 16 year old in Dublin's Gate Theater, but the accent does inspire a chuckle or two. Funny story about that Irish debut by the way: Welles, roaming around Europe with a modest sum provided by an inheritance from his father, walked into the theater claiming he was a Broadway star. No one believed him, but he was so forceful and sure of himself, that they gave him a lead role, which he used to launch his precocious fame.

Anyways, Welles' accent--delivered with pristine diction--may be a little silly, but his performance is definitely not. Charles Foster Kane was undoubtably his greatest role, but Kane was by nature remote and impenetrable; he wasn't one man at all but an amalgam of great American heroes as seen by people who knew almost nothing about him. Michael "Black Irish" O'Hara here might be my favorite role of his. His classic noir repartee doesn't have the salty crudeness you'd expect from a sailor; it's quick, cynical, cutting, and very smart. In his narration, O'Hara keeps mentioning how dumb he was to get himself into such a mess, but he's one of the more intelligent screen characters I've seen.

All of O'Hara's troubles begin when he comes across the beautiful, mysterious, and married Elsa as she's riding a carriage in Central Park. As he says, "from that moment on I did not use my head except to think about her." Who can blame him; Elsa is played by the seductive Rita Hayworth, who as it turns out, was ending a five year marriage with Welles at the time. The man she's married to in the movie, however, is Arthur Bannister, a wealthy defense attorney made famous for helping high profile crooks get away scott-free. Somehow, Bannister, under Elsa's suggestion, ropes O'Hara into joining them on their yacht on a trip through the Panama Canal. Things start off strange enough, as the old and crippled Bannister seems to encourage contact between the young Elsa and O'Hara while simultaneously paying spies to keep a watch on them. After that, the plot gets so complicated with murder, intrigue, and hidden motives, that Columbia president Harry Cohn offered $1,000 to anyone who could explain it. The prize went unclaimed.

Some may call Lady from Shanghai a mess, but its craziness is part of its brilliance. This movie has everything; film noir mystery and suspense gives way to wacky courtroom drama which turns into a chase sequence before emerging as kabuki theater. In early scenes on Bannister's yacht or during the extravagant jungle picnic he sets up to please Elsa, decadence and beauty are even more sinister than they were in Kane. And the finale, which takes place in a hall of mirrors, is expressionistic and exhilarating. No coincidence that the circus, the theater, and the courtroom all show up here. Every location in the movie, especially Bannister's boat, is an artificial setting, a stage where each actor is concealing something and playing his or her part. The movie itself is no different; it's all an act--one big clever and disturbing joke--which is why it doesn't matter if the plot doesn't hold up under scrutiny. Normally, if you've seen one film noir story, you've seen 'em all. Lady from Shanghai, on the other hand, is so visually exiting (magnificent cinematography), bold, and deranged that it stands on its own.


The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

The Magnificent Ambersons is the Orson Welles film that benefits most from comparisons with Citizen Kane. It was made directly afterwards, and it's a similar examination of the American success story, albeit from a different angle. Welles actually claimed that in its original form, before the studios got their hands on it, it was a much better film than Kane, although it's possible that his hurt feelings might have made him a little sentimental. And since the original cut was destroyed, it's not like there are many people around to challenge him. Even so, there are critics who argue that, even in its truncated version, it's the better film. I disagree, and don't think that seeing Welles' lost cut would change my mind (more on that later), but it's certainly not an unreasonable statement. The Magnificent Ambersons doesn't quite match the scope of Citizen Kane, but it engages with its characters on a more personal level, and it's one of a very few movies that can make the same kind of claim to technical perfection.

When I say that The Magnificent Ambersons is a success story from another angle, I should mention that that angle is a 180 degrees spin in the opposite direction. The Ambersons, three generations of them, start the film sitting high up in their mansion overlooking a much smaller than it is today Philadelphia, but their brand of old money-idleness is falling out of fashion. The lead role in this ensemble piece is that of George Amberson Minafer (Tim Holt) who's been spoilt since he was a child and is so arrogant and unpleasant that he has everyone in the town crying for the Ambersons' comeuppance. That's played against an actual story of American entrepreneurial triumph; Eugene Morgan, of the automobile fame, has just come back to his hometown to advance projects for his horseless carriage. He soon rekindles the love he had in his youth for George's mother, Isabel. In the meantime, George falls for Morgan's daughter, Lucy. But the best story of all here is that of George's aunt Fanny (Agnes Morehead) and her own love for Eugene Morgan, which goes unnoticed by everyone.

There are certain scenes here--fights between the headstrong George and the distraught Fanny, a carriage ride in the snow with the Ambersons and Morgans, a dynamic party sequence filmed with virtuosic tracking shots--that are extraordinary. Cinematographer Gregg Toland gets a lot of praise for his work in Citizen Kane but, though he was much slower than Toland, Stanley Cortez's work here is just as good--there's an incredible amount of detail in every frame. The Ambersons may not be magnificent but they're very interesting characters. George is far from being a likable protagonist, but he's so oblivious and naive that his cruelty towards others is more part of his nature than a sign of deliberate aggression. Isabel and Fanny are more sympathetic, but they're so helpless that the only path they can carve out for themselves is one of unrequited longing and physical deterioration. Even Lucy is much more than a pretty face; in one scene she tries to be flippant and indifferent when George tells her he's leaving only to break down in tears as soon as he turns his back.

Given how great Ambersons is, it's unfortunate that we'll never be able to see it as Welles intended. After the picture tested poorly when shown to a ruthless teenage audience (playing after a musical on a double bill no less) RKO slashed 50 minutes from the film. Welles was in Brazil at the time and was helpless to prevent this. I'm a little split in deciding how grievous the crime of editing down the movie really was. One Vanity Fair article, "Magnificent Obsession", claims that The Magnificent Ambersons is a "lost film" and that the 88 minute version that exists to day is little more than an "impressive curio." What a ridiculous notion that is. The movie should be judged on its own terms, and not against a destroyed artifact that no one will ever see. In fact, I quite like the brisk pace of this movie and of Lady From Shanghai (which also had an hour cut from it); it's funny that I've now come to unintentionally associate the breakneck speed with which these movies propel themselves forwards with Welles. And that "happy ending" that everyone complains about--while it doesn't quite mesh with the rest of the picture (I could definitely tell that it was the studio's)--is only happy if you lack half a brain. I'm convinced that the footage we have is good enough to let Welles vision get through.

Still, I might have to recant on some earlier statements made in my introduction and admit that the trimming of Ambersons is indeed a cinematic tragedy. Extra length usually makes a movie seem more important and 50 more minutes might have added some momentousness to the proceedings. If Welles says that his depressing ending (less faithful to the Pulitzer winning book by Booth Tarkington than the studio add on) was the best scene in the film, who am I to argue. Here's his description of it: "All these awful old people roosting in this sort of half old folks' home, half boarding house," eavesdropping and getting in the way of Eugene and Fanny, two holdovers from a more dignified era (Vanity Fair)."There's just nothing left between them at all. Everything is over--her feelings and her world and his world; everything is buried under the parking lots and the cars. That's what it was all about--the deterioration of personality, the way people diminish with age, and particularly impecunious old age. The end of communication between people, as we as the end of an era." I think I see why Welles might have felt closer to Ambersons than to Kane. After the studios "destroyed" his opus (he says it destroyed him as well in the process), he had plenty of time to grow old and and grieve a glorious--and lost--past.


Mr. Arkadin (1955)

Mr. Arkadin never quite reaches the peaks achieved by these previous two movies, and is usually considered to be even more of a flawed mess and less of a masterpiece than The Lady from Shanghai. There are two main reasons for why it doesn't work in quite the same way.

The first boils down to familiarity. Mr. Arkadin (a bearded and very imposing Welles) is an extremely wealthy man, yet he yearns to hold on to some sort of innocence in his life. The only way he can do this is by keeping his daughter (Paulo Mori, Welles' 3rd wife) from finding out about his violent past, and he ropes the hapless Guy van Stratten (Robert Arden), a petty criminal, into helping him erase it. Van Stratten, however, thinks that Arkadin has amnesia and has hired him to uncover his past, so he trots around the globe, dealing with all sorts shady characters to find out how Mr. Arkadin became Mr. Arkadin. The story, though convoluted, has plenty of interesting twists and turns. It can actually be worked out logically, and it's good enough to be worth following carefully. Thematically, however, Mr. Arkadin doesn't offer much of a departure for Welles. Rich old men with mysterious backstories, youngsters who get in way over their heads, wealth as a corrupting force...we've seen it all before. Welles relies too much on his usual bag of tricks here, throwing in plenty of dutch camera angles whenever he wants to get fancy.

The second problem is less forgivable. Robert Arden is a terrible and entirely unconvincing actor who succeeds at once in being hammy and as lifeless as a plank. There's a league of difference between his character and O'Hara in The Lady from Shanghai. Admittedly, Van Stratten is supposed to be a little dumb while O'Hara is the sailor who "talks fancy", but they're essentially the same role. Where Welles' charisma brought depth to Shanghai, Arden just succeeds in dragging everything down a little with him. I don't know why Welles cast the guy, if not to make his own performance as Mr. Arkadin stand out even more in comparison.

It's a testament to Welles talent as a director (and not a casting director) that Mr. Arkadin is still a great movie. When it's not lazy--falling back on tried and true stylistic and plot devices, or failing to line up the dubbing with the characters' mouths--it's characteristically ambitious. The images here may lack the polish of his greatest work, but the movie is still packed with inventive shots, and it has the same kind of wild energy as Lady from Shanghai. The best scenes are so nonsensical that they would have been discarded by another filmmaker; one involves Van Stratten, his life in serious danger, running in and out of restaurants in Berlin, hunting down a goose liver to deliver to a dying man named Zouk. In another Van Stratten tries to get information from an elusive and wily flee circus master. While they talk, the master picks up his microscope and gets his fleas to shoot little tiny balls into little tiny baskets. When he's done, the flea master picks up the fleas, sets them on his arm, and announces "feeding time." 

At one point in the movie, Orson Welles' Arkadin tells the popular fable of the scorpion and the frog to a group of guests surrounding him: A scorpion wanted to cross a river so he asked the frog to carry him. The frog refused because the scorpion would sting him. "That would not be logical", explained the scorpion, "because if I stung you we would both drown". So the frog agreed to carry the scorpion. Half way across, the frog felt a terrible pain--the scorpion had stung him. There is no logic in this, exclaimed the frog. I know, replied the scorpion, but I cannot help it--it is my character. "Let's drink to character," Arkadin bellows. Here, here. Mr. Arkadin is one movie that does a hell of a lot more with self-destructive sting and character than it does with logic. In fact, I don't think there's any escaping Orson Welles' character in any of his movies. When finances and studios failed to come through, his larger than life personality, unbridled passion, and, yes, his genius, never did.


To finish this off, here are two videos that show where Welles ended up after the studio heads put a stop to his productivity. The first one is quite funny, even if it's a little sad, and shows the washed up, slightly megalomaniac Welles arguing semantics over a frozen peas commercial.

But this next one gives a much truer picture of a great man looking back over an extraordinary body of work and an extraordinary life. Orson Welles died a mere two hours after the interview was filmed.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Mysteries of Lisbon

For people in the know, Chilean born director Raul Ruiz is something of an important figure. He's been churning out quite a few "visionary" and "experimental" flicks since his start in the the late 60s--112 of them to be exact. A recent Sight and Sound article ranks him with the likes of Werner Herzog, David Lynch, Luis Bunuel, Tod Browning and Federico Fellini as one of "The Wild Bunch"-- 50 directors who are consistently willing to push boundaries. How many people actually know this though, I have no idea. Probably not many. I certainly didn't, but that didn't help me from getting hit by a giant dose of Ruiz in the form of his latest movie--the 4 1/2 hour long Mysteries of Lisbon.

It's a bit of a shame that what I remember most about Mysteries of Lisbon (I saw it about a month ago) is its length. It's quite an impressive movie; an expansive costume drama that's as elaborate as anything by Ophüls or Visconti. Mysteries, which is based on a sprawling 19th century novel of the same name by Camilo Castelo Branco, owes a lot to Ophüls especially. It has the same fluid camerawork and emphasis on desire and fate. Also, given that Ruiz recently undertook the demanding task of adapting Proust's Time Regained, the formidable scale of this project as well as its exploration of memory are familiar territory for him.

The movie starts with Pedro de Silva, the film's narrator, as a 14 year old boy in a catholic boarding school. There he gets bullied by his peers for having no name or family (that he knows of). But when he falls sick, his mother, Angela, makes an appearance at his bed side. It turns out that she's been imprisoned in her own house by a jealous husband who doesn't want her to have anything to do with this child from her previous lover.

Much of the first half of the movie is spent on two stories. One, which is quite interesting, involves Angela, her son, and her terrible current husband. The other, which is less so, is the tale of forbidden love between Angela and Pedro's father. I must admit--no disrespect the the vast majority of classic literature--that stories of forbidden love are inherently boring. They tend to presume that were the virginal maiden to escape her father's grasp, she would find lasting bliss with her lover. I haven't seen Blue Valentine yet, but I believe the common knowledge today is that two people who love each other will inevitably spend the rest of their lives torturing each other. In any case, when two hours had gone by and we were given a chance to stretch our legs during intermission, I was worried that Mysteries of Lisbon didn't have enough intriguing mysteries to show for itself, that it was merely a well-presented collection of fairly standard tropes from 19th century literature. 

Not to worry. Things pick up in the second half as stories open up like russian dolls to reveal more stories within stories. The narrative isn't too complicated--no one's entering the seventh dream layer--but there's much to keep track of; narrators change, identities are altered and concealed, various coincidences and chance meetings arise, grudges are formed, secrets are kept. Death, birth, and happiness are turned into distant memories by the inexorable passage of time. Pedro, as can be seen by the way he manipulates little paper cutouts on his miniature theater stage, tries to maintain control, but he never seems to have much success. Better to just sit back, let someone else expertly move the pieces of paper around, and enjoy.  


Wednesday, March 2, 2011

127 Hours

In 2003 avid outdoorsman and adrenaline junkie Aron Ralston went out a 15 mile solo hike in Colorado's Blue John Canyon (his version of an afternoon stroll), got his arm trapped beneath a boulder, and spent the next six days trying to break free. When his makeshift system of ropes and pulleys failed and when it became clear that his cheap multi-tool knife wasn't doing much to chip away at the rock, Ralston gathered his forces and spent a good 45 minutes snapping his bones and then severing muscles, arteries, and (ouch!) live nerves with his dull blade.

I can't imagine that many people have gone into 127 Hours without knowing that it's about that guy who got stuck in a canyon and had to amputate his own arm. That's really the gist of what happens in here--Ralston gets stuck within the first 15 minutes and tears free after 127 movie-hours of anguish. No surprises in the basic storyline for anyone in the audience then. The sight of some innocent boulders in the opening scenes already drew shudders of anticipation and dread. And when the de-limbing began, I got the sense that everyone was buckling down, saying the same communal "here we go" that comes when a roller coaster is about to start  a couple hundred ft. of carefully engineered free-fall.

The amputation is certainly the big moment of 127 Hours, but Ralston's story is ripe with good stuff that goes beyond claustrophobia and gore. His predicament stems from his own self interest, his foolish risk taking, and a refusal to accept any social connections. He didn't tell anyone where he was going before his hike, and (in the movie at least) didn't care enough to respond to the worried messages his mother and sister left on his answering machine. In interviews, he readily admits that he was servile to his own adrenaline. So his rock is no ordinary slab of compressed sediment. It's not just an obstacle that tests his physical endurance, but one that tests his will to live, his will to rejoin society, and his love for his family. Also, Ralston really did suffer hallucinations in the later days of his ordeal, receiving imagined lovers, family members, and other visitors from his past and future. This is welcome news for anyone fearing that the action in the canyon would be too static and tedious.

Then again, "static" is not a word that should ever be associated with British director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire). Ugly subjects--drug abuse, crippling urban poverty-- take on another life when they meet his hyperactive camera. He combines flash backs, flash forwards, dream sequences, and a good amount of optimism to make some pretty damn energetic movies. The inspirational nature or Ralston's story certainly suits Boyle; all he needed to do for 127 Hours was strike a balance between visual panache and emotional heft.

The real Aron Ralston

Unfortunately, he's only partially successful. Before this movie, I would have easily ranked Boyle has one of modern cinema's foremost visual stylists, but now I'm starting to have my doubts. Supercharged camerawork, frantic editing, and embellishments (triple split screen, cgi, camera from POV of a straw) sometimes distract rather than add to the movie. Oftentimes, Boyle compensates for a lack of dialogue or a traditional script by adding in montages underscored by intrusive music (by Slumdog composer A.R Rahman). Sure, it can be fun to watch, and 127 Hours almost never gets boring, but it got me awfully close to going into grumpy old man mode and bringing up MTV. In fact, I just did.

Of course, this kind of impatient high-octane filmmaking kind of fits the attitude of its main character. The film does get as feverish as Ralston would have undoubtably been in the final hours of his trial. Also interesting is the fact that 127 Hours is as much about pop culture--gatorade, coke, sprite, basketball games, crowds moving in unison, Scooby Doo, digital cameras--as it is about majestic landscapes.
No one's saying that Ralston doesn't care about his natural surroundings, but this movie's focus is on his relation to other people and to mass culture.

Still, a lot could be gained from holding the camera steady and lingering on Ralston's pain. Flashbacks are permissable--no one's saying that this movie had to be as disciplined as Buried (a flawed movie in it's own right)--but these glimpses into the past could have shown more. As it is, brief vintage flavored scenes of Ralston's sister playing piano and of his father taking him to watch the sun set over the canyons are more banal than detailed. They pique our interest, but don't always bring anything substantial to the table.

Normally in a movie like this where so much is centered around one performance, it's up to the main actor to do most of the heavy lifting. But I'm not sure of how much I have to say about James Franco's Oscar nominated performance as Aron. He's good, of course--convincing and funny--but he doesn't elevate the movie in the same way Javier Bardem does for Biutiful (for example). Franco is by nature quite goofy. Judging from T.V interviews, the real Aron Ralston comes off as a bit more rational and sympathetic, easier to take seriously as a mountaineer instead of as an over-eager adventure seeking frat-boy.

127 Hours ends up relying more than it should on fancy tricks, where it should be taking time to let the gravity of the situation sink in. Even that final climactic maiming is somehow fleeting; it's violent, but it last a "mere" three minutes and aggressive music covers up the sound of crunching bones and tearing flesh. For Aron Ralston, that moment, which came after he was already resigned to his almost certain death, was the culmination of what must have seemed like a life time of inconceivable pain. For me, it was the culmination of an hour and a half of mostly pleasurable movie viewing. I just didn't feel like 127 Hours put me through all that much.

7.4 -This is the part where I say that, yes, I still liked 127 Hours, and yes, It is in many ways a good movie. Totally life affirming. Still, any Oscar nominated movie with so much critical acclaim should do better than that.