Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Louie — "Pilot" & "Poker/Divorce"

Recently, I considered starting a series in which I highlight various artists that I love, to primarily focus outside of film (and likely television) since I spend so much time on that subject. I might revisit this idea in the future, but all I could come up with were musicians -- in which case I could simply review their albums -- and stand-up comics.

First on the list was Louis C.K., quite possibly the funniest man on the planet, or at least the English-speaking world. C.K.'s brand of humor deals largely with the same minutiae that fuels hundreds of comics: marriage (and divorce), parenthood, getting older and various quirky observations that by now have been dissected by dozens of hacks. But C.K. is different. He tackles something as banal as the difference between men and women in such a way that you feel as if you've never heard it before, combining the lovable sternness of Bill Cosby with the darker elements of the hyper-blue alt.comedy scene without giving into either Cosby's softness on T.V. or the "shocks for shock's sake" that defines the material of so many "edgy" comics.

Thus, when one compares Louie, C.K.'s new show on F/X, to its clearest antecedent, Seinfeld, one must immediately start throwing out points of contention. The format is similar: episodes broken up by stand-up routines at least tangentially related to the plot as the protagonist deals with issues far, far removed from social import. Yet C.K. brings his real underground ties to the fore where Jerry, funny as he was, always looked as if he was slumming it somewhat to avoid season upon season of Rich People Problems. Seinfeld got to perform in front of a brightly lit red brick wall in an established comedy club; Louis' brick walls are dull, poorly lit, and in a cellar (literally). Replacing the three-camera setup of Seinfeld -- something C.K. already tried with the short-lived Lucky Louie, the most daring sitcom in the traditional format since Trey Parker and Matt Stone had to can That's My Bush! following September 11 -- with the modern one-camera style, Louie feels real, even when scenarios have clearly been written. That changes the ethos of the show: if you asked Jerry Seinfeld what his show was about, he'd reply, "Nothing." If you asked Louis the same question, he'd say, "Fuck off! Can't you see I'm eating?"

Louie, like Louis, is a 40-something coming off a divorce that gives him shared custody of his two young daughters. Faced with the prospect of fulfilling the responsibilities of his old life while seeking a new life with other people, Louie doesn't exactly jump back into the dating pool with relish. "I know too much about life to have any optimism," he says on-stage, flashing an incongruously innocent smile that sums up C.K.'s appeal. Removing the filter of the Norman Lear-esque sitcom that informed the similarly confrontational Lucky Louie, Louie presents divorced life with the severity of an Oscar-bait movie; his world is drab, quiet and moves at a glacial pace.

So intense is the feeling of lethargy and depression conjured up by the first few shots of the pilot that the moments of comedic license, such as a date ending with the woman fleeing by helicopter, get away with shattering the atmosphere by giving us a chance to breathe. C.K.'s brand of observational humor works because he grounds it in a blunt honesty that doesn't pander to anyone. Here is a show about a divorced, 42-year-old dad whose lead is...a divorced, 42-year-old dad. There's no attempt to win a younger demographic with a hipper character, just C.K. deadpanning through a life of constant doctor visits, never-satisfied children, and an awkwardness of dating that almost approaches teenage levels given how out of practice he is.

C.K. divides the pilot into two fairly innocuous events: Louie must help out on a field trip for his daughter's class, and then he tries his hand at dating now that he's single. In both cases, the situation goes horribly wrong, but not in the way you expect of a sitcom. Instead of building to madcap insanity, Louie taps the same vein of the original Office (Ricky Gervais is incidentally set to appear as a guest star in a future episode) by simply letting discomfort build to a high comic payoff without overselling it.

For instance, the date plays out as uncomfortably as anything David Brent ever did. C.K. displays terrific acting chops, giving Louie a series of nervous tics -- overdressing to impress, smiling the same put-on smile whenever his date looks at him -- that put the woman at unease from the start. Until the lady finally breaks for that chopper, the sequence plays out with devastating, small comedy as the poor man just makes the wrong decision at every turn, from miscalculating a cheek kiss to heading to a packed restaurant when the woman just wants some food. He can't even score points with his kids, electing in his uncertainty to tell this stranger about his 4-year-old's "infected vagina."

That type of humor allows C.K. to draw humor even when he's being earnest, such as the thudding finality of signing his divorce papers. He even uses the show to explore facets of his stand-up by actually putting them to practice; the opening 10 minutes of the second episode, concerning a poker game with C.K. and some of his comedian friends, broaches the subject of C.K.'s routine use of the word "faggot" in his act. (His 2008 special, "Chewed Up," even featured a lengthy spiel wherein the comedian defended the usage of the word as a synonym for "annoying" instead of as a slur.) But C.K. brilliantly stages which comedians he invited to this poker game, placing his alternately spelled avatar, a liberal like the real C.K., at one end of the discussion and Nick DiPaolo, a conservative, at the other with openly gay comic Rick Crom in the middle. The scene starts off with typically fratty discussion among the men with freely thrown homophobic language, DiPaolo even mentioning that "it's a free country" but expressing his disgust with imagining gay sex. Louie, however, is more inquisitive, and brings the moment down when he asks Rick if his own use of the word 'faggot' affects him. Rick then goes into an incredible monologue in which he does not condemn the word or Louie for using it -- though he does make a key distinction between C.K.'s usage and DiPaolo's because Nick "means it" -- opting instead to explain what the word means to gay men who've been attacked and even exploring the horrific roots of the word that link its current definition with its original one, "a bundle of sticks." Rick's off-the-cuff, non-preachy speech stuns the comics normally known for their shock antics, and even when DiPaolo throws in another casually homophobic remark to lighten the mood, some of what Crom said clearly stuck in their minds.

The first two episodes of Louie are as fresh as television comedy gets, and the show's ties to Seinfeld and The Office do not inform the ultimate spirit of the show. That belongs to Louis and Louis alone, and he's never had such a ripe opportunity to prove his incredible talent, able to use some swears but censored just enough to prove to lazy doubters that he's about more than pure raunch. His viciously unsentimental stand-up always had a picturesque quality to it, describing life in such direct terms that an audience could easily visualize his material, and Louie sometimes looks as if it were simply filmed inside C.K.'s head. It will be interesting to see where C.K. takes it, and how long he'll keep it on the air, but I for one can't wait for more people to expose themselves to "the finest comic mind of the last 25 years" (Chris Rock's words), even if some people cannot yet seem to figure out that the real C.K.'s name isn't spelled "Louie."


Michelangelo Antonioni takes so many risks with his first English-language feature, Blow-Up, that one wonders if he chuckled to himself as he set up all the various red herrings of the movie's structure -- after all, this was the same man who would name his static breakthrough feature "The Adventure." How delighted he must have been when audiences headed into what they would have guessed as a standard thriller capitalizing on the Mod craze hitting London instead became one of the great works of cinematic postmodernism and an attack on the movement that had nothing to do with the pish-posh dismissal of the older generation.

For the driving aspect of Blow-Up is not its snaking plot of a fashion photographer who believes he witnesses a murder in one of his pictures but its postmodernist fixation on simulacra. That the protagonist is a fashion photographer allows Antonioni to set up the Mod subculture as a movement that dissolves the line between the reality of life on the London streets and the false images of advertising that set hollow images of ideal living.

Such a phenomenon is not exclusive to the Mod movement, of course; one could say that advertising informed social perception since the rise of Madison Avenue. Heck, Thomas' (David Hemmings) whimsical detour into an old boutique selling busts suggests that civilizations have created hollow facsimiles of themselves and their citizens since artistic expression evolved beyond the point of cave paintings. Mods just happened to be the closest fashion within reach, so Antonioni dives into the oddly colored and plastic world of mid-'60s London to focus on yet another effect of modernity on human life.

Besides, the director makes great use of the massive contrast between the flashier tones of the subculture and the more dour, refined and, well, "British" demeanor of the city's architecture and the more formal residents. Antonioni opens the film with shots of busy London streets, played in silence when depicting older gentlemen headed to their jobs. When a group of young Mods runs through with their faces painted, however, the director turns the knob to full volume, making a small pack of collegiates sound like a filled football stadium. The constant clash between bright and dull only better visualizes the split between objective reality and the sheen glossed over it, a coating that prevents any meaningful connection even though people attempt to build a way of life on it. No moment of the film stresses how superficial the youth connection to their supposed lifestyle really is than a performance late in the film by The Yardbirds (with both Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page!) in a cellar club as a horde of Mods stand perfectly rooted as if soldiers assembling for their commanders, not processing the killer hard rock blasting out them in any way other than an acknowledgment of duty to the "movement," at which point I wondered if this club was by any chance a beer hall.

And what of Thomas? Oh, what a glorious pig. Though situated in a far higher class than David Thewlis' character in Naked, one can easily see the prototype laid down: Thomas is vainglorious, nihilistic, ragged and just plain greasy. Even more dismissive of his models than the artist in L'Avventura, Thomas viciously orders women around like chattel, placing them with props such as polarized, opaque screens that get darker as they are stacked in front of each other. Considering that he only ever moves the screens once for the re-shoots and berates the models continuously, he appears to treat the inanimate objects with more tact. When two nubile, young fillies walk in off the street and ask for an audition, he claims to be too busy to try them out, only to hop in his car and go out shopping.

Hemmings makes Thomas such a fascinating boor that he makes the typical inaction of an Antonioni film pass like a breeze. A 110-minute ostensible thriller should get to some basic plot outline in the first 30 minutes, but Blow-Up stretches a solid hour before Antonioni deigns to introduce a narrative. Yet Thomas draws our attention nonetheless, the ultimate symbol of mankind's inability to figure out what's real. He shoots a session with model Veruschka, a sensual sequence in which Thomas has the woman writhe around in fake ecstasy as he snakes with her. This erotic but unconsummated scene shows how even the manufacturing of simulacra is itself subject to detached, pop culture-informed ideas of sex. These two don't have sex, but the writhing and shifting positions that emphasize genitalia become a substitute for full copulation, allowing the false image of what sex is to completely replace what the image signifies. So caught up in this subjective state is Thomas that he spends his free time taking voyeuristic pictures of unsuspecting people going about their lives in order to turn reality into something he can understand, manage and even sell.

During one of these impromptu "sessions" in Maryon Park, Thomas photographs what appear to be two lovers. The woman (Vanessa Redgrave), spots him and demands the roll of film, going so far as to chase him back to his flat and seduce him to get the negatives. Intrigued, Thomas gives her a different roll and develops the contentious photographs. Blowing up the images of the woman and her older beau in the park, Thomas sees what appears to be a body behind the couple and a man hiding in the bushes with a gun.

Suddenly inspired, Thomas continues to magnify the images until they become abstract washes of film grain, so distorted that one cannot trust anything in the photograph. By expanding the photographs, Thomas (and Antonioni) exposes the false truth of photography, something that can only be examined up to a point before the supposedly undeniable proof contained in photographs. Furthermore, a photograph can only capture a moment free of context, so Thomas is left to wonder whether the woman knows about the murder and even if she's directly involved.

On some level, Thomas comes to understand this, and he begins to slowly fall apart as his fabricated worldview warps around him. He heads out to the park at night and indeed sees a body, but it's exposed in such a way that someone would likely have found it and called the authorities. Also, no blood or gunshot wound is visible, using the censorship standards of film boards to the film's advantage by raising the question whether this body is really there. When Thomas heads back with a camera to get proof, the body is gone, but news of a discovered body has not hit papers.

What's brilliant about Blow-Up is that Antonioni never misleads us, as much as one might go in with preconceived ideas for a thriller and a foreign director's stab at mainstream Anglophone acceptance. He raises the tension of the film without ever making the tension the focus. Rather than use harsh instrumental glissando to grip the audience into expecting a narrative payoff, Antonioni focuses intently on the shifting aesthetic of the film as subjectivity wrestles with what fleeting grasps we can get of reality. At a party looking for his agent to talk about the murder, Thomas runs into Veruschka again, and comments that he thought she was supposed to be in Paris. "I am in Paris," comes a terribly vacant drone in response, the model just as lost in her plastic consciousness as our protagonist. Thomas finds himself in that basement gig watching The Yardbirds, and during their performance Jeff Beck's amp malfunctions, leading to a Townshend-esque guitar destruction (Antonioni reportedly tried to get The Who). This moment of technical difficulty and vented frustration pokes a hole in the artifice of Mod music, and Thomas rushes forward through the immobile crowd to grab the remains of Beck's guitar as if taking a souvenir of the time he saw through the subculture for an instant.

Antonioni also mines a certain amount of unease due to the fresh memory of the Kennedy assassination. Thomas' obsessive manipulation and examination of a strip of film long past the point of clarity would not look too out of step with an analysis of the Zapruder film. Thomas' barely suppressed paranoia does not match the same conspiratorial fervor that informs much of the Kennedy case, but Hemmings subtly shifts his entire body, to the point that his slimy perspiration at the start of the film gives way to the full droplets of cold sweat.

Like the title of the director's 1960 breakthrough, Blow-Up takes on a wry import, putting the audience in mind for the literal or emotional explosion expected of a thriller, only to reveal that the title refers to the banal act of enlarging photographs, and then taking another turn and drawing suspense from that act. Antonioni does not let us off with a cathartic finale, gently building us up over the last hour until he simply shows that the body is gone. What happened to it, who took it, whether it existed it all remain mysteries, as Thomas deals with his shock by gazing upon a mimed tennis match by some of the face-painted Mods seen hopping around London throughout the film. Bringing the postmodernist nightmare to a close, Thomas ends up joining in, "throwing" back the imaginary that went out of bounds as the film closes with the sound of rackets hitting tennis balls as Thomas looks on, quietly and anticlimactically consumed by madness. Thus, the final triumph of Blow-Up is that achieves its greatest shock after the movie ends and the audience must head back out into an advertising-centric world and wonder what it is that keeps forming a knot in their stomach.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Jonah Hex

As is befitting its mangled protagonist, Jonah Hex is the cinematic equivalent of the winner of one of those Ugliest Dog competitions. It is a film that has slipped in and out of development hell so many times that it knows more about damnation than its half-dead hero, and my favorite tidbit on its Wikipedia page reads that the film is "very loosely based" on the original DC comic book of the same name. Subject to rewrites, multiple crew changes and, ultimately, pure indifference, Jonah Hex achieves a ludicrousness of execution so hysterical that you'll spend at least a portion of the time in the theater waiting for Nicolas Cage to make an appearance.

Originally set to be directed by that dastardly duo, Neveldine and Taylor, the insane team behind the Crank movies, Jonah Hex fell apart once when producers, purportedly under the guidance of star Josh Brolin, decided not to hire the action anarchists. The crew did, however, keep Neveldine & Taylor's screenplay, effectively firing the only two people who could possibly have shot the thing. Perhaps reasoning that only someone with experience in animation could handle the cartoony nature of the pair's writing -- a not altogether stupid line of thought -- producers Akiva Goldsman and Andrew Lazar brought Pixar, Fox and Blue Sky employee Jimmy Hayward, whose biggest previous credit was co-directing Horton Hears a Who!, to helm the picture.

What results is a catastrophic mash-up of audiovisual styles, mixing hillbilly, heavy metal, supernatural and Western tropes into the weirdest rip-off of The Outlaw Josey Wales you ever did see. There is always a certain joy in watching a film that does not play by the rules, that does not even seem to own a copy of the rulebook, but Jonah Hex contains all the transgressions present in Neveldine & Taylor's other works without the sense of self-awareness that they bring to those films; sketchy and vague as the pair's supposed satiric elements are, they at least give the impression that they know what they're doing deep down. With someone else trying to make heads or tails of their material, however, it's a miracle a film emerged at all, and I suppose it's not all that shocking that Wild Wild West as scored by the prog-sludge metal band Mastodon was the product.

Expository dialogue gets a bad rap, and Jonah Hex shows why, playing most of the first 5-10 minutes of an 81-minute movie (including credits) with either a voiceover narration or hysterically stilted lines spoken by characters on-screen. We see the titular hero (Brolin), a Confederate officer whose crisis of conscious led to the death of his friend, the son of his commanding officer, General Turnbull (John Malkovich), being tortured by the general. Turnbull murders Hex's family in retribution and brands Hex's face with his initials. Abruptly, the film cuts to animation -- why do so many comic movies use panel-like animation now? We know that these films are based on comic books -- jumping over the development of strange, supernatural powers and Hex's evolution into a bounty hunter as Brolin delivers the voiceover in the same slurred mumble he uses elsewhere due to the prosthetic makeup of Hex's facial scarring. By the time Hex growls, "This here's my story" when the film finally gets moving, he's told us so much we feel like the damn thing's halfway over.

It only gets worse from there. Hex's weaponry occasionally broaches steampunk territory, with horse-mounted Gatling guns and crossbow pistols that fling sticks of dynamite in an oddly straight path (no, seriously), all of which are provided by Reconstruction-era Q-substitute Smith (Lance Reddick), a freeman. (Smith lets us know that Hex's Confederate ties are not a source of contention, taking the time in the middle of conversation to randomly insert a comment that he knew Hex "ain't never believe in slavery.") For the most part, however, Hex uses traditional weapons. After all, it's weird enough that he can revive dead people by touching them.

That's what makes Jonah Hex loop around from terrible to hilarious: this is not a film that satisfies itself with merely killing someone once. No, bring 'em back for Round Two! Hex brings corpses back to life to interrogate them, yet this act of temporary resurrection for some reason causes the flesh of the reanimated being to burn and disintegrate. Once he's gotten what he needs, Hex kills them again. Matching the double-death scenario in sheer lunacy is the apparent need for no place shown on-screen to be left unexploded, and the almost casual way that Hex starts a fire in some places almost as if checking off an item on a to-do list shows where all of the film's $50 million dollar budget went.

No, wait, it gets even better. In some woefully misguided attempt to give this picture relevance, Turnbull is made into an anarchic anti-government wingnut, whom his Mexican slaves call "El Terrorista." I briefly wondered if this idea would have been expanded into a clearer slam against those good ol' boys who continue to wave their Confederate flags around and still claim to be ardent patriots, then I remembered what film I was watching. Turnbull decides to take down the country on the Fourth of July by building a secret "Nation Killer" weapon designed by Eli Whitney -- pause for dialogue about Whitney's history as the inventor of the cotton gin and father of the American Industrial Revolution -- to bring down Washington D.C. Did I mention that Will Arnett shows up as a Union soldier sporting a mustache and his deep "Michael!" voice from Arrested Development, and everyone acts if we're meant to take him seriously?

Oh, but I'll stop simply listing all the absurdities, much as I could entertain myself to no end pointing them all out. Jonah Hex, with its 73 non-credits minutes, has a lack of clear direction despite its clear revenge narrative. Most characters exist for no real reason, such as Michael Fassbender's Irish henchman named who-cares, made up in a tattoo that stretches out of his clothes and up his neck so that we might identify him among the other nondescript thugs flanking Turnbull. Both Malkovich and Brolin are slumming it, though Malkovich, who always figures out when he's on the set of something that will turn out to be a piece of garbage, goes into Maximum Malk Mode and may be the only person here playing the drama for comedy intentionally.

And Megan Fox, poor Megan Fox. I've waffled so often on how I feel about her that I just do not know what to make of her. Placed in the role of the tough prostitute/love interest Lilah, a name Brolin amusingly cannot say with his prosthetic disfigurement, for the same reason she found herself in the Transformers movies, Fox merely has to sit about and look pretty, occasionally kicking some butt so that she might look pretty whilst kicking butt. Her character serves nearly no purpose save the inevitable damsel scenario, and even those who trip over their tongues at the sight of Fox will be wondering why the hell the action breaks to jump back to her brothel room where little of consequence happens.

Despite it all, Jonah Hex reaches such a memorable level of badness, and is so mercifully short, that I enjoyed myself far more than I did any of the other summer action movies so far. There were clearly some high intentions in this film, as evidenced in its sly references, from lifting the giant cannon on the train from Buster Keaton's classic The General to the glow of the suitcase contents in Pulp Fiction -- maybe that "QT" Turnbull branded Hex with has a secondary meaning? -- and the talent involved, but something went horribly, laughably wrong. It figures that I should have this reaction, perfectly balanced between dislike of the film's clear failure and enjoyment of the ensuing train wreck, with a movie written by Neveldine & Taylor, whose Crank: High Voltage engendered a fair stronger iteration of the same reaction. Jonah Hex is as stupid as a film made by smart people can be, but if I laughed, even in a way that that the filmmakers did not intend, then who am I to pan it? Oh, indulge me for a moment as I break my promise to stop listing the inanities for one final tidbit: when Turnbull rides up the Potomac with his super-cannon, the viewfinder that targets Washington uses not crosshairs or the like but an actual outline of the Capitol building, presumably so his ignorant ex-Confederate subordinates know which building to aim at. Magnificent.

Two-Lane Blacktop

Monte Hellman's Two-Lane Blacktop is the king of the existential road movies, though it stands apart from its brethren. Unlike such cultural staples as Easy Rider and Vanishing Point, Hellman's film does not rely upon music, yet several of its characters, including the protagonist (played by James Taylor, singer/songwriter and target for assassination by Lester Bangs), are played by rock musicians. That's just one of many twists that makes Two-Lane Blacktop distinct from its kin.

For Two-Lane Blacktop is the most existential of all the post-Easy Rider road movies, to the point that its characters are named only by their role (The Driver, The Girl), yet it is also the most scathingly unsentimental, unromantic road film ever made. Originally shooting Rudolph Wurlitzer's script nearly word-for-word, Hellman produced a rough cut of Two-Lane Blacktop 3-1/2 hours long, filled with in-depth talk of the drag racing world. Cut down for contractual obligations, the 100-minute final version loses the precision and realism of the script, leaving behind only a skeleton of ethereally repeated ritual of the four characters driving cross-country in a race that doesn't seem to matter to anyone.

Thus, Two-Lane Blacktop becomes the ultimate examination of the masculine obsession with cars. The Driver (James Taylor) and The Mechanic (Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson) drive a boxy '55 Chevy, hand-built from an unimpressive stock model into a monster, use words sparingly. Today, these guys would be enthusiastic gear heads, crowing over their modifications to ogling men and women. But these guys care nothing for the attention; they tweak the car's engine to build the perfect machine to make them one with The Road, that stretch of veins pumping people around the country.

Set before the full integration of the Interstate system, Two-Lane Blacktop may as well be an elegy for Route 66 as much as it is any investigation of these characters. But because Route 66, that most famous symbol of America's roadway and a path that led through all sorts of terrains and towns, informs the spirit of the picture, the film breaks from Easy Rider in that its characters are not drugged-out refugees of the counterculture looking for their place in the world. Rather, The Driver, The Mechanic, The Girl (Laurie Bird) who hitchhikes with them and GTO (Warren Oates), the driver whom the other challenge to a race from Arizona to Washington D.C., are grander embodiments of Americans of all walks. Yes, the two musicians have their hippie hair, and The Girl's transience clearly owes more to Deadheads than she does of the more "proper" ladies of the previous decade. However, as much as nearly every character and object in the film is symbolic, these people are not molded into facile placeholders for the zonked-out masses.

As if visualizing the central thread of Bruce Springsteen's oeuvre before The Boss even cut his first album, Hellman paints the road as a place of possibility, a transport to take one away from a dull life to search for one with meaning. Oates' character, spinning one of many bullshit tales about his life, mentions that he's bounced all around the country looking for a place to shoot a road movie of his own (one of several self-reflexive moments), but that now he only does so for the drive. The characters in Springsteen's songs never found a place either, but the road became a sort of therapy for them, a calming force representing the hope of finding one's true home even though we won't find it there. In a sense, the road's promise of a new home comes to represent the Stoic idea of the preferred indifferent, something we shouldn't care about getting but should do all we can to try to get, and the Zen calm of The Driver and The Mechanic suggests that they understand this better than anyone.

That's not to say that they've reached enlightenment, mind you, because that would suggest a certain satisfaction. When The Girl naturally (and hilariously) shatters the unification between the two men and their car through her sexual presence and her ignorance of automotive matters, the audience can see the two guys slowly growing discomforted, as if waking up to a gap in their lives for the first time. The whole point of the road is to vent one's frustrations before returning to find someone to make a new life with, and these men have carved a decidedly lonely existence for themselves by focusing on a place rather than people.

Perhaps that's why The Driver and The Mechanic challenge GTO to that race, hoping that a frenzied trek across the nation will allow them to outpace their sudden, nagging self-doubt. If that's the case, however, they picked exactly the wrong man to aid them. GTO may be Oates' finest hour, no mean feat in the career one of the most criminally underrated actors to come out of the early New Hollywood experimentation of the late-'60s. Oates' GTO is a terrible vision of the future of the young men, a fella who stayed on the road so long that it took away his soul. Sporting leather gloves, a different cashmere sweater for all occasions and a wet bar in his car's trunk, GTO like to be ready for any situation. He covers his emptiness with masks, adapting instantly to whatever passenger he picks up along the way. When a portly good ol' boy hops in near the start, GTO plays country for him even though the man expresses no preference for it and spins a tale of humble beginnings. But the man is not so dumb as we may think, and he asks a question that unravels GTO's entire fabrication, and all Oates can do is fight back the hurt.

He does that for most of the film, forced to contend with passengers who don't want to hear whatever story he thinks will impress them. Everyone from a gay cowboy (Harry Dean Stanton!) to an old woman taking her granddaughter to the grave of the child's parents (killed in a car crash no less) to The Girl herself rides with GTO, and all of them shut the poor man down, making his lies even more hollow. All Oates can do is smile with that massive grin of his as if trying to dam up the pain, but the eyes give it all away. Even The Driver cuts GTO off when the man briefly rides in the Chevy, cutting off the old man's sob story with such open disregard that even GTO, by now used to this sort of thing, is taken aback. He finally gets his chance to speak when The Girl hops in the car with him near the end, but Oates is reduced to giving his speech uninterrupted only because the Girl lolls sleepily as she prepares to pass out, too tired to ward off GTO's speechifying. There may be no moment in that fascinating run of experimental counterculture features put out in America in the late '60s/early '70s pre-Godfather days as tragic yet brutally unromantic as Oates speaking loftily of plans to move out to Arizona or some other warm place and "let the scars heal" while the object of his desire tunes him out to catch some shut-eye.

That unrepentant harshness fashions Two-Lane Blacktop into perhaps the most honest of the counterculture movies. Rather than provide deceptively complex characterizations of late-'60s dissatisfaction made just intelligent enough to stroke the egos of young intellectuals (à la The Graduate) or engage in drug escapism (Easy Rider), Two-Lane Blacktop uses its poetic looseness to simply present its characters, never to pander with them. All Hellman wants with the film is to show how people value their independence yet need companionship to make something of life. The four main characters all want to find freedom on the road, yet they all converge rapidly, and none of the men cares about the actual result of the race because the act of driving against someone allows them to strike the balance between living free and connecting with others.

Hellman makes this clear through the characterization of the two rivals: the flashy, exothermic GTO and the insular, brooding Driver are simply flip sides of the same coin. The Driver taunts GTO for his gaudy car, ribbing his perceived coolness by noting that he sees bright muscle cars on the road all the time. To be sure, the Chevy has the real charisma, which makes the appropriation of Oates' style for nearly all contemporary racing movies, filled from top to bottom with cold, neon-styled cars that have no personality to them. Yet they're both just as hollow, and when The Driver cuts off GTO's life story, he may do so because he knows the truth behind GTO's facade and does not want to face it lest he look in a mirror. When GTO tells a couple of soldiers at the end that he won his sleek car in a race where he took it off its original owners by out-driving them in a custom-built Chevrolet, he seals the circular nature of the two characters, binding them together in a horrifyingly bleak epiphany.

And at the center of them both is the road, and The Girl, its avatar. She follows her fancy, riding with whatever lonely soul needs her most, providing momentary comfort before leaving to tend to someone else. Her departure at the end appears to finally shake GTO out of his lifelong funk, and for the first time he looks as if he really will go make an existence rather than keep making one up. But poor Driver, his Zen calm broken, heads to the nearest drag strip to rekindle the spark the road gave to him. As he peels down the asphalt, objects stretching in the periphery as they pass by the Chevy's windshield, Hellman viciously undercuts the protagonist's desire to become one with the road and our desire to see it happen when he arranges for the film to slow to a crawl as if catching in the projector. At last, it freezes and catches fire, shoving the audience back into reality in the most horrifying manner since Ingmar Bergman tore a hole through the dimension with Persona. This is a film about people who cannot find their way, so Hellman completely denies us such a pat resolution as watching The Driver achieve his dream. His dream is a foolish one, and its attainment will only turn him into GTO, a haunted specter hanging over future generations of the disenfranchised. To be perfectly frank, I can think of no better way to end one of the greatest films to ever chart stunted masculine desire than with the cinematic equivalent of blue-balls.

Sunday, June 27, 2010


The title of Michelangelo Antonioni's breakthrough feature, L'Avventura, translates to "The Adventure," an ironic header for a film in which practically nothing of consequence happens. When something does, it disappears quickly into the morass of ennui that rolls off the characters as if perspiration. Even the rollicking Italian music that opens the film misleads the audience, who initially reacted at Cannes with such fervent boos that the film's eventual Jury Prize win must have raised a few fists, much less eyebrows.

With time, however, Antonioni's film, the first in a trilogy concerning man's alienation in a changing world, has asserted itself among the vanguard of foreign cinema, a touchstone of the art house movement that blossomed in America during the '60s (Europe was, of course, ahead of the curve). More importantly, it introduced one of the great poets of modern cinema, a man who, in advance of the full explosion of the French New Wave, could visualize existentialism better than any of the Cahiers lads.

In fact, no other filmmaker so deserves the adjective "modern" attached to his name. Until his output slowed to a crawl after 1975's The Passenger, Antonioni captured the changing world with a keenly perceptive and greatly concerned eye, a master of detail whose precision allowed for a sense of grace and ambiguity. L'Avventura, like some of the other great, visually told works of the '60s -- 2001: A Space Odyssey, Playtime -- deals with modernity and changing social interaction. Where both Kubrick and Tati in at least some respects feared this change, however, Antonioni embraces the modern world. What he feared was humanity's separation from the world it had made.

Consider the environment of L'Avventura: far from the space stations and geometrically pure buildings of those other films, Antonioni's work showcases the Old World, from rocky Mediterranean islets formed by volcanic eruptions millions of years ago to centuries-old classical Sicilian architecture. This is not a world suddenly foisted upon an unsuspecting species, yet the characters who inhabit it are just as shiftless and alienated as those who bumble about Tati's sleek, right-angled Paris. As becomes clear in the director's later films, humanity has outgrown its past but has not yet embraced its future, thus trapping mankind in a nebulous limbo that prevents meaningful emotional connection.

That lack of resonant emotion informs the sparsity of the plot. Two friends, Anna (Lea Massari) and Claudia (Monica Vitti), embark on a yacht trip with two wealthy couples and Anna's lover, Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti). Upon reaching a rocky island a few miles offshore, everyone falls asleep sunbathing, only to find Anna missing. She is never found. In any other film, that might be a spoiler.

But the point of L'Avventura is not the search for a missing friend. Moments such as Anna's disappearance, in which something actually happens, mark the only time the film ever moves quickly; elsewhere, the film plays out arduously, inching forward to capture nothing while that worth capturing happens just outside these people's field of view. Unlike other films with protracted, loose narratives, the bare plot of L'Avventura appears to be the result of the collective disinterest of its characters, too absorbed in their own ennui to give a damn about contributing to a story.

Such aimless egoism informs the mise-en-scène as well. Unlike those aforementioned visual epics, the equally pristine film here is bite-sized; even when characters venture onto the Mediterranean Sea, the frame is restrictive and cramped. Lisca Bianca, the nearly unpopulated island, is photographed in more severe a manner than Ingmar Bergman's desolate Fåro, its craggy landscape communicating the jagged, stony emotional state of the wealthy young group who vacation there.

Their initial reaction to Anna's disappearance is annoyance, which only develops into concern later. Not that the two feelings look all that different in their faces; these characters default to boredom, and their wealth, proof of Italy's recovery in the aftermath of their defeat in World War II, becomes not a means to show the country's progression away from its fascist turmoil to a cooperative and prosperous place but merely a blanket with which to cover their despair. They sail, suntan, screw and preen with perfunctory automation, distracting themselves from their mounting dissatisfaction. When Claudia and Anna go to pick up Sandro at the beginning, the two lovers have sex while Claudia stands outside, impatient. Far from consumed by passion, however, the couple just seems to want a kick to start the day, as if imbibing a much more fun kind of coffee. Later, when Claudia and Sandro return from the island sans Anna, they strike up a relationship mere days after their friend goes missing, and the two begin flirting before they even leave the island.

Claudia and Sandro's relationship does not seem so much an outgrowth of animosity for Anna -- though Claudia does struggle with feelings of budding happiness that her friend is gone, and guilt for those feelings -- but a demonstration of the existential quandary in which humanity has found itself. It no longer matters who we interact with, only that the interactions continue uninterrupted. Without constant repetition of , these people have nothing tangible to cling to, so they place Anna out of mind and gently rearrange people to fill the gaps. Gloria, a writer friend, comes to visit after the characters return to the mainland, and her beauty attracts the attention of every man in a three-mile radius. Yet Gloria, married and not exactly fond of all the ogling, mentions how much work it is to maintain herself, even if she cannot say why she still bothers to work for the leers she does not want. At some point, the difficulty of keeping up with the standard of beauty simply became a part of life, and she cannot break from it, so she continues to act in such a manner because she feels that the universe itself expects it from her. Even Anna's father, a diplomat who ostentatiously rushes out to Lisca Bianca in a catamaran, appears concerned and angry mostly because he understands that a person in his position should act that way.

Shooting this meandering journey of doubt and buried loathing, Antonioni gives form and beauty to what could easily be dismissed as plodding nonsense. Indeed, L'Avventura moves so slowly in places that one cannot counter the argument that the director has no direction with a mere, "That's the point." But the precision of the camera movement belies any claim that Antonioni is futzing about. With the characters unable to even pinpoint their unease, much less confront it, Antonioni communicates emotion as much through blocking as the actors do with their body language. On the island, he separates the characters with extreme space, capturing the mise-en-scène with deep focus yet presenting nothing for the audience to fixate upon. Characters rarely face each other, all of them instead facing forward and speaking as if into the void, arranged in a way as to be off-center without quite aligning to the rule of thirds. The result burrows into your subconscious, communicating underlying tension without resorting to anything other than clever placement. Even the sound design is nuanced, emphasizing the crush of waves against rock faces and footfalls echoing around vast hallways of old Italian buildings now cordoned off as museums, effectively barricading mankind from taking shelter in its past.

That subtlety of direction is matched by Viiti's performance. Antonioni loved female protagonists, believing women to internalize torment more impassively than men, perhaps because society oppressed them for so many centuries that such behavior became ingrained even in progressive types. Claudia occasionally sheds some tears, occasionally looks as if she might lose it, but her madness is not so kind. It will not allow her to vent. Only the hesitation in her voice and the uncertainty of her movement betray the emotions boiling within.

Antonioni refuses even to allow those emotions to flood to the surface, however, even in the quietly horrific finale, which mounts pressure as soon as a stunned and unsure Claudia does not respond to Sandro's marriage proposal seriously. the director begins to shift everyone else around her, surrounding the woman with men who come to resemble the avian foes of Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds, perched on ledges above and edging near her with predatory stalks. The night after the new couple sleeps in a fancy hotel, Claudia awakens to find her lover gone and hunts for him through the eerily spacious building before at last finding him with a call girl. Even when motivated to strong emotion at last, Claudia storms off lest someone see her break. As if to prove Antonioni's point about the heightened emotional subtlety of women, Sandro completely loses it in shame, unable to look at Claudia or even the prostitute, who tantalizingly asks him for a "souvenir" (the Italian word also translates to "memory"), causing Sandro to harshly throw down a few Lira.

L'Avventura culminates in its most hauntingly beautiful scene, a wordless non-denouement as Sandro catches up to Claudia, only to drain whatever else is left in him as he slumps into a park bench and somehow summons even more tears. Without any exchange of apologies or verbal resolution, Claudia merely stands over the wretched man, eventually reaching out to place her hand on his head. Having reversed from the front to see this action, Antonioni then pulls back to show the characters now facing away from the camera, now too self-absorbed and broken to even look in our direction. Yet the true power of the shot lies in its suggestive framing: to Sandro's right is a giant wall, blank but for the roughness of its texture. To the left, enveloping Claudia, is a shot of Mount Etna in the distance, swirling as if ready to blow. It doesn't, and neither does she, but dark times are clearly ahead for these two, even with their halting reconciliation.

Antonioni made L'Avventura in a time when artistic movements favored detachment, from the beatniks to the cool jazz they loved. There are good aspects to these styles, of course, such as free jazz's adventurous break from rhythmic forms; hell, detachment informs a great deal of the aesthetic of this film. But Antonioni does not want us to stand so far outside art that we no longer truly care for it. When Claudia walks through an art gallery at the beginning, she walks past some snooty appraisers who take a small glance at a painting and say of its artist, "This one has to starve for a while yet." These bourgeois fools care nothing for the content, merely expecting the artist to destroy himself so that some emotion be placed on the canvas, emotion the appraisers then never have to feel for themselves. Later, however, Antonioni shows us an artist, an aloof egomaniac who dismisses the gorgeous models who pose for him as a "dime a dozen" and puts little effort into his work (this idea would be revisited in more detail with the director's English-language debut, Blowup). When people are in their most desperate need for the guiding light of art to show them the beauty and worthiness of the world, the supposed anti-Establishment types are revealed to be no more alienated than anyone else, and that their detachment only separates them from self-knowledge.

The environments of Michelangelo Antonioni's films do not engender madness in the characters who inhabit them; the locations merely facilitate the release of neurosis. "How are you?" Sandro asks Anna after their first coital session at the start. "Awful," she replies, yet when her lover asks her "Why?" she has no answer. With this direct confrontation, Anna cannot deny her anomie, and she writhes in agony on Sandro's bed as he tries to calm her. Anna understands, and so she disappears, perhaps taking her life in despair, perhaps simply escaping from her life to forge a new one with meaning. Before she slips out of the film, however, she becomes the clearest avatar of Antonioni's own intentions: to him, the changing world is filled with potential, but the state of mankind's spiritual existence is too terrifying to tolerate. It may be long, it may be slow, but L'Avventura is a cry from the heart, a plea for the audience to see how terrible, and unnecessarily so, we make our lives. An optimist might say that the director's eventual decline in output could signify that Antonioni saw humanity adapting to its new world, but the dark implication of L'Avventura suggests that people will always be able to create a new world before they will know how to live in it, and that by the time we adapt to the current model, the next shift is about to hit. Maybe Antonioni, incapacitated for years after a crippling stroke in 1985 after being fitfully active over the previous decade, simply grew tired of watching the world slip just out of the grasp of its creators.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Toy Story 3

About a month ago, I received an email from a reporter for RTE, Irish national radio, asking -- to my complete surprise -- for an interview related to the upcoming release of Toy Story 3*. Pat McGrath, a terribly nice man who put up with far too much of my nerdy rambling, read my reviews of the first two films of the series and liked them sufficiently to ask for my thoughts about the series and Pixar as a whole.

Now, I kept myself as in-the-dark as I possibly could for Toy Story 3, as I do for any film that catches my interest, so Pat caught me off-guard during the interview when he mentioned that the premise of Toy Story 3, about a college-bound teen leaving behind his toys, effectively targeted the film at my generation, specifically those who got to see the first movie as children in a theater -- I was 6 when I saw it -- and now find ourselves off to college. Because I tried not to let any unfair expectations build in my mind, I had not previously thought about this, and suddenly I felt excitement for the film that matched any of the art films I knew wouldn't come to my neck of the woods. For the first time since leaving childhood, I was in exactly the right age group to see an animated film. (This is also why, in the interview, you can hear me stumble when talking about this, to the point that I use the word "interesting" three times in less than 30 seconds because, damn it, I was very interested suddenly.)

After I sat down in the theater, however, I quickly realized that, as much as Toy Story 3 might be aimed at my generation, it must still play for the one that came after us. An understandable decision, to be sure, as mainstream American audiences still will not see an animated film as anything other than kiddie fare, and if Pixar has a tragic flaw, it is that they choose not to break through this ceiling despite bumping against it so often the glass must be one good shove from shattering at this point. Director Lee Unkrich, a longtime Pixar employee given his first big shot, clearly wants to do well by the series -- and, by extension of the first Toy Story's significance, the entire Pixar studio -- so he attempts to juggle the history of the franchise and the studio while still making a fresh story to appeal to younger children who may well be coming to Toy Story 3 to see their first Pixar movie.

Somehow, he pulls it off. Toy Story 3 deals in nostalgia, which is only natural because its characters are toys, which are rapidly becoming obsolete. With Andy all grown up and headed for college, the few remaining toys in his care find themselves awaiting an uncertain future bound either for the attic or the garbage can. Even Molly, now a tween still young enough to get away with playing with toys, has no interest in them, absorbed with her iPod and concerned only with taking over her brother's room and swiping whatever electronics he does not take with him. With only the slightest suggestion, Unkrich plants the idea into the mind of even a 20-year-old that "kids today" don't know the joy of tossing around some tacky plastic spacemen and cowgirls in your own imagined universe. For proof of this, one need only look at the opening sequence, a brilliant combination of the openings of the first two movies, in which Andy's playtime receives the grand, imaginative visualization that opened the second film (which incidentally presaged the modern mindset by replacing Andy's imagination with a video game). A child can envision a scenario more fantastically out-there than even the most sandbox-oriented video game can accommodate, and the first major heartbreak of Toy Story 3 is the presentation of this delightful use of free time in the flashbacks of home videos, as if capturing something that one day becomes just a memory and not a way of looking at the world.

If I might discuss Toy Story 3 in personal terms -- and, frankly, I can see no other way for someone my age to discuss it -- this opening sequence did not quite tug at my heartstrings, but it did something far more satisfactory: it put me in an oddly serene mood, a wistful reminder not simply of a happier time but an entire perspective that I lost. Watching Andy spin the same basic "story" of his playtime in the first film into an epic space Western, I remembered mashing up my own disparate types of toys into imagined wars for the soul of the galaxy, with Star Wars characters inexplicably fighting Army men and even the odd shark. To think that kids might lose that feeling made me want to leap to my feet in the theater and risk extreme incarceration by shaking the young children in attendance and screaming something largely unhelpful like "Don't you get it?!" before the hot sting of a taser hit my back.

Part of the appeal of the first two movies was the retro style of the toys, culled from the Pixar team's own childhood favorites, but now the age of the toys is just further proof of how outdated the very idea of toys is. These days, a toy like Buzz Lightyear, which looked so cool back in 1995 to my wide, 6-year-old eyes, might as well sit next to the ball-in-a-cup. When Molly's Barbie turns up with Andy's toys, she wears leg warmers and sports '80s hair, and the hollow reflection of chauvinist perception of the ideal woman now seems a hollow reflection of itself. Everything ages, including Andy's formerly manic dog, Buster, but the toys remain forever, sitting neglected in a toy box as Andy outgrows them. Over time, Andy and Molly dispose of all but the most beloved toys, and when someone mentions that Woody's belle, Bo Peep, got thrown out long ago, that brief moment creates a sudden gulf of sadness.

Thus, it comes as no wonder that, when the toys inadvertently find themselves at a daycare center instead of in the attic where Andy relegated all of them but Woody, they find the prospect of being played with for all eternity overwhelming: when the current crop of kids grows older, they are replaced by the next wave of tykes to lavish love upon them. (Toys would love Menudo.) It's certainly preferable to stealing Andy's cell phone and making it ring near them just so the boy will look at them. Upon their arrival, Woody, Buzz and the gang meet all the other donated toys, headed by Lots-O'-Huggin' Bear (Losto for short), a cuddly stuffed bear who serves as the Virgil for the new arrival.

Speaking of Virgil, what's most interesting about the setup of Sunnyside Daycare is how Unkrich expands upon the existentialism of Toy Story 2 by making the third installment into a plastic version of Dante's The Divine Comedy. Initially, the escape from the purgatory of Andy's dusty toy box must seem like Heaven, but, when the bell rings and a sea of toddlers burst in to play, the toys realize they've been sent to Hell, trapped in a room with too-young toddlers. Instantly, we see that Lotso isn't as friendly as he lets on and, like the planes of afterlife in Dante's epic, Heaven and Hell can exist right next to each other, a locked door separating the nightmarish den of two-year-olds from the older children who will really play with toys instead of destroy them.

Soon, Toy Story 3 morphs into a prison escape film, an odd choice but one that lends itself to a number of clever gags. Woody's first attempted escape starts on a triumphant, defiant note and ends with a high comic anticlimax, while the "caging" of Andy's toys recalls a number of classic prison films like Cool Hand Luke and The Great Escape. Most inspired in the breakout is the "Mr. Tortilla Head" bit, a gag that comes out of left field and wins the biggest laugh of the film. Unfortunately, in a film bookended by beautiful ruminations on the nature of aging (and, for toys, horrible agelessness), this angle takes away from some of the emotional depth that the film offers, falling into the trap of cultural references that only briefly entangled Toy Story 2, made more noticeable here by how unrecognizable the references to prison movies will be for children and even most teenagers.

However, every Pixar film builds aesthetically off what came before, and if the prison escape plot distracts from the greater resonance of Toy Story 3, Unkrich nevertheless uses the storyline to exhibit the same sweeping visual advancements displayed on the epic canvasses of Ratatouille and Wall•E into a confined space and doesn't lose an ounce of technical mastery. Lotso is animated with over a million individual thread hairs, allowing his bright purple fur to mingle with a hint of dirt and water damage, hinting at his true character and his backstory long before we see how his own past turned him into a bitter villain (a story that plays as a dark foil to Jessie's own heartbreaking tale from the last film). A cheeky, recurring bit involving Mrs. Potato Head's missing eye allows Unkrich to occasionally peek back at Andy's house without breaking the narrative, and the occasional overlap of what Mrs. Potato Head can see in Sunnyside and what her eye catches back home create shimmering mirages that only enhance the feeling of Sunnyside as a hell that mocks the toys' desires to be played with and to see their owner again.

With limited locations, Unkrich creates a number of unique setpieces using nothing more than inventive exploration and skillful lighting, such as the sickly, neon yellow-green of the interior of a vending machine where all the rulers of the Sunnyside toys meet. Lighting is actually the key component of Toy Story 3: after experimenting heavily with animated reflection with Cars and overwhelming the eyeballs with Wall•E, the Pixar animators shrink the scope from Paris and outer space to a daycare center, yet the lighting is possibly the studio's most memorable. The daycare's default lighting is hazy and oppressive, rather like the same alternately foggy and revealing light Steven Spielberg used in E.T. Toy Story 3 makes the audience feel like these toys are really in a prison, muggy and bleak. All Unkrich needs to do is alter that setup, switching out the stifling mix of sunlight and fluorescent bulbs with the harsh, blinding white of an interrogation lamp or sinister glows to completely change the way you look at the same setpiece. And there has never been a more terrifying moment in all of Pixar's history than the sight of a raging incinerator at the end, belching flames that have actually been animated to be too bright to look at for an extended period of time.

So, the film may be too long by about 10 minutes, which could have been rectified by either cutting out some of the waffle in the middle or teasing out the truth of Sunnyside for a few minutes instead of immediately revealing its dark side. Also, the middle bit, in contrast to the point made by the opening sequence in relation to the imagination, does too much of the piloting rather than let the audience connect fully the way they do at the start and the finish.

However, these minor tremors cannot derail the copious pleasures of Toy Story 3, and writing them down shows me how well the film manages to address and fix its mistakes. Unkrich inserts numerous callbacks to previous Pixar films (and even what appears to be a toy based on Miyazaki Hayao's masterpiece, My Neighbor Totoro), yet he never allows the film to get stuck into the rote of these sequels, serving only to remind the audience of the better films that came before. These are but minor touches in a narrative that expands upon the ideas of the first two: if Toy Story 2 posited the idea of toy (im)mortality and existentialism, Unkrich shows a toy losing its soul, when Lotso has Buzz's programming reset. As much as I suspect that the Pixar team cleared out so many of Andy's toys to allow for easier processing of all the new characters, the loss of so many old characters is logical, appropriate and heartfelt. Besides, the additions are more interesting than many of the original toys who would have outstayed their usefulness and appeal otherwise, such as a group of toys in the home of a sweet, imaginative girl named Bonnie; they take to their roles as if being a toy is an actual occupation, spouting out hilarious lines like "We do a lot of improv" and "Are you classically trained?"

But it all comes back to the central idea of the second film, the question of a toy's life when no one plays with it. When Andy surveys his remaining toys while packing for college, he dismisses his mother's assertion that he should donate them by calling the remnants of his childhood "junk." Unkrich then holds on the faces of the toys, unable to move in front of him, forced to absorb this cruelty with flinching, the frozen plastic eyes more heartbreaking than tears could ever be. Keeping that in mind, who can really blame Lotso for thinking, "We're all just trash waiting to be thrown away"? Toy Story 3 does not settle for simply giving us all our old pals to laugh with: it builds off what came before and reminds us what we leave behind when we mature. And then, somehow, it turns its heartbreaking final scene -- the most touching in Pixar's oeuvre -- into as hopeful and delicate a finale even as it sets off yet another iteration of the same cycle that lead the characters to this point. It may not match the heights of Toy Story 2, nor some of the studio's recent marvels, but Toy Story 3 may be the single best piece of evidence that there are people in this world who know exactly what it means to grow older without losing a sense of wonder, and they all seem to work for the same company.

*For anyone interested, the Toy Story segment Mr. McGrath for which interviewed me can be found on the page of Morning Ireland's broadcast from June 14 here. I rambled about all things Disney/Pixar/animation for about 20 minutes, about a minute of which survives in the final edit. It's almost certainly for the better, given how out-there I got with some of my material, but the idea that my slurred, half-suppressed Southern drawl can be heard for any length of time next to audio of John Lasseter on a bona fide radio broadcast is about as cool as it gets for a geek. Note: RTE's player requires either Windows Media Player or Real Player to run.

Brian De Palma: Sisters

After the quickly buried and forgotten Get to Know Your Rabbit, Brian De Palma must have felt vindicated for all the pithy anti-commercial sentiment displayed in his earlier films, small consolation that it is. Reasoning that he fared just as poorly with major distribution as he did with independent filmmaking, De Palma returned to being his own boss, deciding to avoid profit-driven executives if the results would not differ with their involvement.

The result, Sisters, is not only the film of De Palma's early career that looks most clearly ahead to the director's future but the one that finally broke him to a healthy audience. Made for only $500,000, Sisters grossed several times its budget and set the stage for De Palma's true arrival, Carrie. In fact, Sisters prefigures Carrie not simply in financial terms but thematic ones: if Carrie is a warped take on the pitfalls of female puberty, Sisters bridges the gap between this focus on sexual identity and the director's previous dabbling in sociopolitical matters. Sisters, the story of two mentally unstable Siamese twins separated by surgery, uses its deranged characters to paint a scathing and suspenseful, yet darkly satiric, portrait of women attempting to come into their own in the wake of Women's Lib.

Originally billed as a horror movie, Sisters today identifies as a suspense picture, an appropriate reclassification given the heavy influence of Alfred Hitchcock, cleverly mashing up the voyeurism of Rear Window, the mad slasher of Psycho and the obsession-fueled alignment of personalities found in Vertigo. Even Hitch's favorite composer, Bernard Hermmann, came out of semi-retirement to score the picture. His presence is key, using his screeching style to add a dimension of discomfort to the the opening credits, played over images of fetal development that show how conjoined twins form in the womb. Using the same sort of questionable psychology that informed Hitchcock's slasher movie, De Palma explains away the mental instability of Danielle (Margot Kidder) and her unseen, separated twin Dominique with the suggestion that their delicate physical connection also linked them mentally, despite the two being conjoined at the hip. Separate, even the supposedly normal twin, Danielle, exhibits increasingly erratic and terrifying behavior.

However, Sisters, like De Palma's other features to that point, is at heart a comedy. Danielle first appears on a fake game show, cheekily titled "Peeping Toms," recalling Michael Powell's film, the character Jon Rubin from De Palma's Greetings and Hi, Mom! and really De Palma's entire aesthetic outlook. Danielle plays a blind woman for one of the taped segments, tempting a "contestant," a black man named Philip Woode. For being on the show, Danielle receives a knife set that will never be used for cooking, and Philip receives, to his Stoic bemusement, a complimentary dinner for two at the racially insensitive restaurant the African Room. In short order, Sisters begins not as a thriller but the latest mad comedy from the most scattershot satirist of late-'60s cinema.

De Palma cannot help but lighten the mood even after Danielle -- or is it Dominique? -- stabs Philip to death after neglecting to take her medication. As Philip claws at the apartment window, a woman across the way, arch-left columnist Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt), sees the man die and calls the police. De Palma splits the screen between shots of Grace alerting the authorities and attempting to get into the room to save the dying man and Emil entering to help Danielle hide the evidence. The brilliant use of split-screen heightens the suspense, but De Palma also hides gags in both sides that you might miss if concentrating on just one scene. Grace meets a detective outside and urgently asks him to go up to Danielle's apartment, but the cop knows of her scathing anti-police articles and uses the moment to punish her even though she's trying to intervene on behalf of a stranger. Meanwhile, Emil rushes to clean up, only to slip and fall face-first like a silent comedian. Both sides of the frame contain their own kind of humor, physical slapstick on the left and dark verbal irony on the right, and both types further the suspense of whether the police will discover the body even as they paradoxically lighten the mood.

That consistent juggling of genuinely pulse-pounding tension with the high comedy of De Palma's earlier works makes Sisters a clear bridge in styles, though the presence of similar cheek in his later films suggests that De Palma never could play it entirely straight. After the cops and Grace comb Danielle's apartment and find nothing, Grace stumbles across the birthday cake Philip had prepared with both Danielle and Dominique's names on it and triumphantly brings it to the snotty detective, only to trip and drop the cake, ruining the icing. Through De Palma, the latent slapstick of Hitchcock's work, only allowed full exposure in The Trouble With Harry, bubbles to the surface, working with the suspense even as it undermines some of the visceral immediacy.

De Palma also ventures into the sexual territory of Hitch's films, albeit in a post-feminist way. Underneath the faux-medical diagnosis of Danielle's madness, De Palma shows Danielle as partially the product of the condescending ex-husband, Emil, who patronizes her even after divorce. He orders her around upon slipping into her apartment and finding Philip's body, to the point that he literally picks her up like another object in the apartment to rearrange and sets her aside before getting to cleaning. Later, we see how his obsessive dominance of Danielle is as damaging as the emotional fallout from her separation from her sister. Even the nature of Danielle's violence contains a psychosexual element: when Danielle/Dominique stabs Philip, the blade first enters his upper thigh near his crotch, and De Palma shows deep coital scratches on Philip's back before offing the character.

Grace, too, must deal with patronizing males, first the berating detective who resents her feminism, then a gruff private eye who vociferates tersely on his masculine, hard-knocks learnin' of his trade. Amusingly, Grace becomes so frustrated by the deliberate inaction of the detective that she stoops to the sort of behavior she criticized the police for doing: illegal searches, accusations without hard evidence and spying. The cop takes particular pleasure in this, crowing about her loose morals when actually tested.

Yet De Palma saves the most brilliant gender commentary for the last act, which takes place at the Lynton Clinic, the institution that previously housed Danielle. Grace heads there to tell officials of Danielle's crime and to get more information. What follows is De Palma unleashed, filling the madhouse with horrific/funny caricatures like a man with a threatening pair of hedge clippers and a woman with a paralyzing fear of telephones. Most disturbingly, she finds Emil, who works there as a doctor. Before Grace can prove her identity, Emil has his subordinates commit her, leading to a warped hypnotherapy session in which the ex-husband eradicates memories of the murder from the pesky voyeur's mind.

Then, everything takes a turn, the sort of hard left that only De Palma could dream up, much less pull off. Emil brings in Danielle, revealed to be the true killer acting through split personalities, in an attempt to use Grace as an avatar for Dominique's personality. Through black-and-white irises, De Palma relates the troubled history of Danielle and Dominique, manipulated by institute doctors, one who used them as a path to fame, another (Emil) who fell in love with Danielle and pushed her to separation with Dominique so he could have his lover all to himself. In this sequence, Grace takes the role of Dominique, receiving the personality of Danielle's dead sister being transferred from the tormented killer. Here, De Palma fashions Grace into one of the titular sisters, and suddenly the split-screen used so masterfully earlier takes on an even greater significance, realigning the technique into a visualization of Danielle's fractured POV. Emil's mental transference makes Scottie's obsessive behavior regarding Judy/Madeleine in Vertigo seem like chivalrous courtship in comparison.

The most brilliant thing De Palma had done to that point beside the "Be Black, Baby" segment of Hi, Mom!, the madhouse sequence of Sisters combines the dark comedy, chilling suspense and sexual dynamics of the entire film into one magnificent smorgasbord. Emil's hypnosis ends with Danielle, in one final move before expelling her sister, stabbing Emil (also hitting him first in the crotch), and the doctor's final actions of grabbing Danielle from behind as if to mount her before collapsing on top of her in the missionary position as the woman strokes his hair lovingly with a hand covered in his blood, free Danielle from her torment even as they revert her back into a docile female. When police arrive, she is cured, but timid and placid, while Grace is now paranoid and incapable of pursuing the murder any further, that portion of her brain shut down by Emil.

This resolution reveals a humanity to De Palma not previously witnessed in his pitch-black comedies: heretofore concerned with masculine characters and masculine ideas of sex -- accusations of misogyny had yet to come -- De Palma makes a film about women distorted by their inability to act as society would like them. Made in the aftermath of Women's Lib, Sisters shows how even seemingly progressive men still condescend and ignore women, who are undergoing a turbulent social shift that messes with patriarchal programming, leading to the exaggerated explosion of Danielle. For all the anti-hippie/leftist gags -- which may be self-directed as De Palma saw firsthand the failure of the Love Generation -- Sisters is the first of the director's films to look on its characters with some measure of sympathy.

That is not to say that Sisters lacks the usual amount of sly, Brechtian technique in De Palma's films. His long, elegant tracking shots are so pristine that they are inhuman, calling attention to themselves even as they set the atmosphere along with Hermmann's score; they guide us to what we know will be an unsettling sight because the shots in themselves are creepy. The use of French subtitles in Danielle's off-screen conversations with "Dominique" paradoxically highlight the artifice of film even as the use of Danielle's Quebecois ethnicity adds verisimilitude. Elsewhere, the use of irises continues to emphasize the director's fascination with voyeurism; when Emil first attempts to win back Danielle, he attempts to avoid embarrassment by her vocal refusal by hissing, "We do not want to discuss our very private problems in front of strangers." Oh, you poor, dumb son of a bitch; you're in the wrong movie.

With Sisters, De Palma forms an intriguing contrast with the other great Hitchcock heir, Roman Polanski, whose own breakout was a Hitchcockian film about a psychotic woman pushed around by men until she reached the breaking point. Both Sisters and Repulsion were significant breakthroughs for their respective directors, and both turned Hitch's misogyny against itself to paint women in far more tragic a light, products of a harsh male system so strong it can even swallow up the ghastly actions committed by the deranged protagonists, leaving only a faint memory of women who went mad by trying to break out.

Yet where Polanski, informed by his traumatic youth and, a bit later, the death of his wife and subsequent mental instability, always searched for the bleak and the nihilistic, De Palma always ascribed to the "make 'em laugh" theory, though one would imagine that Donald O'Connor had this sort of thing in mind. It's why De Palma, after staging an ingenious thriller and resolving every important element of the story, decides to end on the private eye, who long ago disappeared from the movie, having followed the couch containing Philip's body to Quebec. He sits perched on a telephone pole, watching the couch through binoculars and waiting for someone to come pick it up. No one ever does or ever will, and De Palma ends Sisters on the deadpan of a farmer coming to collect the cow that keeps nudging the couch. Is it strange that this is as good a shot as any to announce the belated arrival of a true talent?

Sunday, June 20, 2010


A common refrain mentioned in reviews of immaculately shot films states, "You could take a frame of this movie and hang it in an art gallery." When you think about it, it's a silly rave, as cinema is just 24 photographs a second, and numerous photographs contain a painterly quality. Naturally, the films where this line can be most readily applied enjoy the contributions of cinematographers with the keenest sense of landscape and portrait photography. Ergo, the beauty of Walkabout should come as no surprise, given director/cinematographer Nicolas Roeg's involvement; case in point, this is the man as responsible, if not more so, for the look of David Lean's gorgeous epic Lawrence of Arabia as the film's actual cinematographer (Roeg was A.D.).

I say should, because not even a few glimpses of the film in online trailers could prepare me for the jaw-dropping, deeply atmospheric majesty of Roeg's natural compositions. The story of two schoolchildren abandoned in the Australian Outback, Walkabout emphasizes the harshness of the climate and its alien appearance to sheltered, city-dwelling children by heightening the reddish hue of the soil until the endless desert comes to resemble the Martian landscape, a light science fiction touch echoed when the frequency of the two kids' portable radio modulates in otherworldly tones over a shot of the Moon. Cleaned up for Criterion's restoration, the tone poetry of Walkabout's alternately beautiful and terrifying landscapes and carefully edited close-ups make a case not for hanging some of its frames in a museum -- and some shots, like those of an Aboriginal boy standing utterly immobile in front of a setting sun, could be in an instant -- but to show the entire thing in as many art galleries as possible, achieving its full power in the manner in which it is meant to be exhibited. After all, who would ever cut up a painting just because one section of it was so good it could be placed in its own exhibit?

The children, named Peter and Mary in James Vance Marshall's source novel but left nameless here, are first seen back in Sydney without a care in the world. They even swim in a pool located just off the bank of Port Jackson, as if choosing the chemical blue of their artificial bubble over Australia's natural water supply mere feet away. Their father, a geologist, looks on with a strange look on his face, and we know something is wrong. The next day, he takes the kids for a picnic out in the bush, where he suddenly snaps and shoots at his children before torching his car and committing suicide. The girl (Jenny Agutter) protects her younger brother (Roeg's son, Luc) from the truth, and the two move away from the vehicle, deeper into unforgiving terrain. After several days' worth of stumbling around searching for oases, the two find a Aboriginal boy (David Gulpilil) on his walkabout. The young man does not speak English, and the white children do not know his language, but the three stick together, the Aborigine leading them through the Outback, seemingly just glad for the company.

From this simple setup comes a film that packs numerous meanings, many of them conflicting if not mutually exclusive, densely packing its trim 100 minutes -- and this is the unedited version -- with evocative editing, powerful imagery and minimal but devastating performances from all three young actors. The source novel is considered a children's classic in Australia, but Roeg reworks the material into a looser and much darker realm. Where the children of the book find themselves in the Outback after surviving a plane crash, the suicide of their father in the film creates a more shocking foundation for the kids' growth. Here, they need the Aborigine not simply for physical guidance back to their people but emotional and spiritual rehabilitation for their trauma.

Rather than shoot the Outback in flat, documentary-like framing, Roeg brings an improvisatory feel to his setting, filming whatever grabbed his fancy and editing together images of landscapes made vibrant and alive by heatwaves, broken up by shots of wildlife. Lizards skittering across the ground, bugs swarming over the carcasses of the creatures that did not survive the terrain, the tiny lifeforms that mingle with the humans and the larger mammals serve to make the Outback at once deathly tranquil and constantly teeming. Occasionally, Roeg and his team clearly saw something interesting and found themselves lacking the proper scope or film stock, but the resulting picture, distorted almost beyond recognition in heavy grain. Yet these shots are as gorgeous, in their way, as the crystalline extreme long shots and sudden, higher-quality zooms, and the various forms that the images take recast the Outback in a borderline surreal light. Indeed, the film that popped into my mind most often while watching Walkabout was The Night of the Hunter, another surreal fairy tale about children taking in a world much bigger and stranger than they can fully process while outrunning death (and another kid's film that's far too twisted for children).

As the two white children follow the lean, jovial black teen through the bush, Roeg gently brings to light the nascent sexuality of the older teens. Eyeline matches of the Aborigine checking out the girl's sun-scorched, sore legs with more than just friendly care and the girl ogling his sweat-glistened muscles plant wisps of desire in the minds of those who have never truly felt it before. Fittingly, the setting of Walkabout serves almost as an ironic visualization of the terror of sexual awakening, a barren wasteland where parents not up for the job of explaining the most crucial, confusing and frightening stage of physical and emotional development in a person's life abandon their kids to simply figure it out as best they can. When Agutter swims in a pond naked in the film's most famous sequence, her playful splashes are not simply a means of cooling off in the harsh desert but of flirtatious display to the Aborigine. (Unbeknown to her, the girl's brother sees her as well, perhaps setting off the first confused feelings that will root the eventual growth of hormones that currently ensnare the older children). Roeg further emphasizes the sexual nature of the film with cutaways to other groups of people in the Outback: a team of Western researchers looks for a downed weather balloon, or at least that was their assigned task. In reality, the men of the team ogle the lone female among them, trying so hard to peek down her lab coat that their heads practically sway with the wind-blown blouse. When the woman even adjusts in her seat, her nylons scratch against each other with hilariously deafening sound, causing the men to whip around and ignore everything else. Heck, even the music that the two city kids primarily receive on their radio is rock, the most blatantly sexual music around.

Yet Roeg introduces a larger, more complex and far more despairing theme of broken communication between people. The Aborigine and the white children can communicate basic ideas like "water" and "rest" through pantomime, but the two teenagers cannot confess their budding feelings for each other. Again, Roeg's asides function as thematic support rather than simple tangents: some of the men in the research team speak Italian and do not seem to contribute much to the English-speaking scientists. The three children later pass a small village where a white Australian essentially forces Aborigine children into slave labor. The people likely cannot understand him, and his falsely avuncular attitude belies a disregard for the natives. When his mistress arrives, he heads in to his home to bed her, and his actions with the white woman are as perfunctory and walled-off as his taskmaster behavior with the natives he "employs."

But Roeg does not simply suggest walls of communication between races or sexes. That is facile material for hack stand-up comedians. No, Roeg puts forward the dark notion that we are all locked into the parameters of our social programming. Rather than portray native society as noble and pure and European civilization as corrupt and arrogant, Roeg focuses on the traits all humans share, for better and worse. The Aboriginal boy spears an animal and clubs it to death, and before the audience can think to call his actions barbaric, the director intercuts shots of a white butcher back in the city casually chopping up meat with a cleaver. The Aborigine shows an amount of respect for his surroundings by eating what he kills, but he also engages in a fair amount of bloodsport, almost cheerily chasing around animals and killing them to prove his ability to dominate in the wild (and possibly impress his new companions). Only when white poachers blaze through in a jeep, casually firing on every animal in the vicinity and driving off as quickly as they arrived does the upbeat feeling of the boy's spree suddenly feel cold.

The sexual tension between the older boy and girl, of course, is the biggest indication of the subtle ways in which we are all connected, yet Roeg still fashions a film about people who cannot break through barriers that separate them, barriers that have nothing to do with language, as shown by the girl figuring out the Aboriginal word for "water." What separates them is their entire perception of the world, and because of that they can never be together. In the film's best, most stunningly shot and most heartbreaking sequence, the Aborigine attempts to communicate his love for the girl in the only way he knows how: a mating dance. As the girl walks through an abandoned barn, Roeg pulls the camera back and up to show the boy following parallel from behind a wall, occasionally slipping past windows and door frames. Finally, he dons tribal paint and engages in an intricate but mysterious dance, so focused that the confused girl fearfully rejects him without realizing his intentions. The next morning, the boy has hanged himself from a nearby tree. The book kills the native through a flu virus that the inoculated Western children carry but do not catch. A surprisingly open display of anti-imperialist sentiment, this ending has a touch of didacticism that Roeg eschews. In his vision, the boy is driven to despair by the epiphany that he cannot reach and touch someone who's standing right next to him. Perhaps that explains the father's explosion at the beginning: a geologist sent into the Outback to study it, he found only a place so vast and unique that it broke his conception of the world and took his sanity in the process.

One should not hunt too desperately for a clear meaning, however. To assign a flat reading to so open a visual poem would be reductive and counterproductive to the movie's atmospheric presentation. The combination of still landscapes and bustling shots of scuttling lifeforms allows Roeg to use the Outback as its own dimension, a place that isolates its travelers from the social ties that bind them before introducing a whole wave of creatures to force people into finding a more universal outlook; remember that Roeg often punctuates the action and emotion with a eerily perfect shot of nearby life matching what was just seen or felt. Unfortunately, humans lack the mental fortitude to survive such a reprogramming, so they either kill themselves or escape back to their previous lives.

Ergo, Roeg throws in a completely different perspective at the end that radically alters the perception of the film, that of nostalgia. The girl, grown up and married, has long since returned to Sydney and readjusted to "normal" life. But when her husband returns home and excitedly launches into boring details of his upcoming promotion in an uninteresting bureaucracy, she flashes back to her time in the wild, swimming naked with her brother and the boy.

This nostalgic remembrance obviously suggests that, for all the Outback's danger and all the tragedy it foisted upon her, it remains a symbol of freedom and uninhibited growth for the girl. The use of ethereal recordings of children's songs, both delicate and foreboding, throughout the kids' adventure in the Outback underscores this: these reworked nursery rhymes look to the past past even as these kids are being pushed permanently away from those simpler days into adulthood. What becomes clear in this penultimate scene, however, is that even adulthood is a false promise: truly great films about maturation cannot play to adolescents, because you can't understand what is to grow up until you've been through the ordeal yourself and figure out that adulthood is really no different than childhood. That's why the boy, who realized that his future was his past, killed himself in hopeless depression, while the girl can withstand this epiphany because she only understands the dark truth in retrospect. In a world comprising areas that have either been Westernized or ruined by Westernized nations, the untamed Outback of Walkabout may be the last place on Earth that can force us to confront this, and that's more terrifying than all the spiders, snakes and crocodiles that roam the area.