Thursday, January 27, 2011

Man on Fire

Man on Fire was not Tony Scott's first triumph, having streamlined Quentin Tarantino's script for True Romance into something that actually benefited from outside tampering and scored two solid genre movies with Enemy of the State and Spy Game. But it was his 2004 film that set off Scott's modern reinvention as perhaps the most daring, or at least egregious, talent in American action film. Using a glossy/grainy digital aesthetic, endless in-camera effects in opposition to CGI and and remarkably sensual approach to blockbuster filmmaking, Scott would take the slapdash construction favored by such sloppy directors as Michael Bay and forcibly bend it toward something approaching poetry.

Scott's visual élan explodes from the start, as alternately slow and fast motion film, heavy grain, overexposure and even a fade to black and white gussy up the first images of the film. A scroll of informative text rolls across the screen saying that a kidnapping occurs in Mexico once every 60 seconds. When the text disappears and the frame unfreezes, Scott leaps into pure frenzy, layering overexposed images as cars speed up and shove people into backseats as onlookers scream helplessly. In this moment, the director reveals his biggest stylistic leap, that of deeply subjective filmmaking, rooted in the perspective of agitated people under extreme stress.

American cinema has occasionally posited the idea of a bodyguard hired to watch over children, but usually in a comedic way, playing on the idea that burly-'n'-surly trained mercenary juxtaposed with precocious tykes equals yuks aplenty. Yet as Man on Fire notes, kidnapping has grown to such an epidemic in Mexico that the bourgeoisie there have taken to hiring bodyguards out of necessity. A retired CIA operative, Rayburn (Christopher Walken), invites his old friend John Creasy (Denzel Washington, in the first of his collaborations with the director) to his comfortable estate in Mexico City to offer him such work. Aware that Creasy, a former Recon Marine, has lapsed into alcoholism and despair, Rayburn thinks that a steady job looking after a panicky middle-class family would be a way for Creasy to get his demons under control. Rayburn's even got a job lined up for Creasy to watch the daughter of a businessman (Marc Anthony) who does not particularly fear any kidnapping but wishes to placate his American wife's fears as cheaply as possible.

Scott's muscular but tender approach finds its perfect outlet in Washington, who has been steadily bulking up his entire career as if combating the onset of a paunch years in advance. But he's yet to lose that twinkle in his eye and the disarming power of his smile, and he can still collapse and entire film around him with one good look. Before he mentions his substance issues or chugs a drink, Creasy lets us know of his problems solely through Washington's body language, still mostly erect through rigorous military training but sagging through revulsion, not sloth. Those eyes never seem to look anywhere but inward, and the glimmering chrysalis that encases them suggests Creasy doesn't like what he sees. He takes the job because he has no other options, and his isolated depression makes him a mobile obelisk following around the chirpy, mature-beyond-her-years daughter of Samuel and Lisa, Lupita, or "Pita" for short (Dakota Fanning).

Bravely, Scott devotes nearly a whole hour to Creasy's ingratiation into the Ramos household. This arc follows the expected path -- hardened ex-soldier slowly warms to young girl's charms -- but cliché is only ever unbearable when nothing about it is new, and Scott's inventive framing combines with believable performances from Washington and Fanning to make for a friendly chemistry that practically never exists between child and adult.

Pita, at this point used to having a bodyguard, has the forthrightness of a child mixed with the no-nonsense talk one has with an employee, making her almost unbearably blunt. "Being black, is that a positive or negative in Mexico?" she asks Creasy as he drives her to school. "Time will tell," replies Creasy in that sardonically chipper tone that says he's already fed up with the conversation. Yet the sudden reintroduction of the in-camera effects after the (relative) calm when street people swarm the car in rush hour show that as much as Creasy may not care about her, he still won't let her get hurt, and he's still got his sharp instincts.

Only when a night of heavy drinking leads to a failed suicide attempt does Creasy finally merge those retained instincts with an actual interest in Pita's safety. Scott is brilliant with the suicide sequence, the frame warping and skipping as Creasy stumbles around in despair not unlike Willard at the start of Apocalypse Now. The cuts bewilder in a meaningful way, disorienting as the character is disoriented, occasionally stopping on such minor, beautiful images as whiskey dripping from John's sagging lip. The bullet he places in his gun misfires, and suddenly the frame calms as the experience centers Creasy. Scott isn't just playing around, he's getting at something here, a feeling rather than merely a presentation.

Creasy's epiphany leads him to start living life again, and he warms up to Pita in the usual way, helping her with history homework and awkwardly tiptoeing around the subject of concubines. Scott even devotes considerable time to the unnecessary sideplot of Pita's swim training just to allow her connection with Creasy to deepen. A full 45 minutes into the film, the biggest development in Man on Fire is the swim meet that allows Pita to put all the advice and practice Creasy helped her with into practice. Scott probably could have gotten away with making a film without any explosions or gunfights, so skilled is his ability to make this more human drama so kinetic.

Then, it all changes. Coming out of her piano lesson, Pita is cornered by kidnappers (and colluding cops), and not even Creasy's valiant efforts can prevent her seizure. Severely wounded, Creasy lies in a hospital bed as the police accuse him of murdering two officers and the Ramos family scrambles to retrieve their daughter, using an insurance policy Samuel took out to collect $10 million for a drop-off. But the drop goes awry and the kidnapper's nephew dies, leading the man to tell the family that he will not return Pita. When news of the girl's presumed death reaches Creasy's room, he wrenches himself from his bed and vows to kill anyone who had even the slightest involvement in Pita's kidnapping.

Unfortunately, Man of Fire soon lapses into too typical a revenge fantasy, presenting Creasy as a one-man army tearing his way through Mexico killing all in his path. Even the numerous twists of the narrative do not complicate the film so much as provide clever asides in Creasy's single-minded killing spree. He tortures information out of lackeys as he rises the ladder of a criminal organization, uncovering police corruption and even a more unexpected collaborator.

Scott's modern work is based fundamentally on feelings and moods, not the grandeur of typical blockbuster bombast, yet Man on Fire shows the director trying to fully break from the latter. Thus, the film occasionally shifts between his more intimate style and a larger focus, and the break from visceral immediacy hurts the film. Scott could also have done with some trimming, not, surprisingly, in the 50 minutes of build-up but the repetitive tedium of Creasy's rampage. Where the beginning displayed Scott's élan in such extraneous but delightful moments as the speeding up of the image as Creasy drives through a tunnel or the close-up of the daffodil Pita picked for Creasy situated next to his necklace of St. Jude, patron saint of lost causes (another gift from Pita), the rest of the film spends too much time playing Creasy's sickening bloodlust with a straight face. While the idea of Pita unlocking not only Creasy's humanity but his monstrous past brings up interesting if narrow possibilities, but Scott does not follow up on the potential theme.

Still, not all of Scott's violence here is as simple as it seems, and the more thoughtful approach he'd take to it later peeks through here and there. Pita's kidnapping is one of Scott's greatest sequences, communicating not Creasy's badass cool but his desperate concern for Pita's safety. He may have a steady aim and be seemingly impervious, but that's because his focus is entirely on the girl. The scene climaxes in a beautifully framed moment as a wounded Creasy and corrupt cop shoot each other, the sound cutting out so only Pita's terrified gasp is heard. Too often, though, I found myself pining for Scott's exciting framing of Pita's swim competition instead of the carnage of his his third-act mayhem.

Ultimately, Man on Fire is more coherent than Scott's subsequent Domino and Déjà Vu but lacks the avant-garde invention of those films. It also lacks the more focused narrative-driven tautness of Unstoppable. But the film still shows the major evolution of a director whom no one would suspect of being at the forefront of mainstream innovation. So many little touches, such as Scott's gleeful breaking of the 180o rule to the incorporation of subtitles into the frame, placing them in the middle and animating them to coincide with the mood -- Lisa's tearful Spanish spoken to the kidnapper is translated in wavy subtitles, while the oft-repeated phrase "I'm just a professional" appears on-screen despite the words always being spoken in English, a motif of self-absolution from those in Creasy's sights. Though it may lack the power of subsequent efforts, Man on Fire still has enough ingenuity to stand out among revenge fantasies, and as much as I continue to feel let down by the brutality, I also continue to find myself moved by the ending, which coalesces the violence back into the sensual feel of the film's first half. There, he gets it all together; later films would show him applying the combined skills in full.

The Exterminating Angel

Following his second exile from Spain after whittling Francisco Franco's olive branch into a spear and stabbing the generalissimo with it, Luis Buñuel returned to Mexico with the creative team behind Viridiana. As if nothing had ever happened, Buñuel set about making his next film with them, casting Silvia Pinal in another prominent role and using her then-husband Gustavo Alatriste as producer once more. The resulting picture, The Exterminating Angel, was later dismissed by its own creator, who felt that the picture needed to be set in France to better display its anti-bourgeois feelings. But setting does not matter: The Exterminating Angel is the first of Buñuel's films to work dynamically as a feature rather than a series of twisted visions, and whether he liked it or not, it informed nearly the whole of his later career.

Opening on a church as the congregation sings Latin hymns inside, the scene shifts instantly when the credits end to the upper-class side of town, far away from the pious working class that fills the cathedral. At a lavish mansion, the owner, Edmundo Nobile, makes final preparations for his party. Immaculately dressed and poised, Edmundo emits an air of such perfection that, though we meet him outside his home, there can be no doubt as to the careful arrangement of everything inside.

Before he can enjoy the party, however, problems arise with the servants. The servers and cook up and leave before and during the party, some of them making thin excuses to Edmundo and his wife, Lucia, others simply slipping out the door when no one's looking. At last, only the majordomo is left, and Lucia cancels a planned bit of entertainment involving a small bear and some sheep in a huff. However, the guests do not notice the aberration, and the party goes off without a hitch.

Gently laying clues leading to the direction of the movie, Buñuel uses the dinner to mount a realistic portrait of the absurdist slant he's about to take on his social commentary. Only the cook's departure particularly irks the host family; Edmundo cares not for the first boy leaving as he knows he can always find another poor kid around town to wait on him for a pittance. The dinner table is so vast that conversation breaks up into pockets of self-contained discussion among miniature parties, all of which whisper comments regarding members of the other sections of the table. After eating, they lounge as one guest plays a sonata until the time grows late and people begin moving to leave.

But no one does. Those who make their way to the door find themselves drawn back into the salon. People talk of having appointments in the morning, but the party wears on, and suddenly the guest take off their vests and jackets and prepare for the most well-dressed sleepover of all time. (Buñuel's typical humor abounds here: Lucia is aghast at the scandal of the guests taking off their jackets, but Edmundo dispels her shock "Let us remove our coats as well, to attenuate the incorrectness," he says diplomatically.)

The next morning, the guests awaken and loll around as they rub the sleep out of their eyes. Still, no one leaves, content to stretch and resume pleasantries without anyone making their way to the door. Finally, some start noticing this, leading some to laugh at the coincidences that bind them. Yet when one couple insist upon leaving to prove how ridiculous the mild concern is, they stop at the archway, claiming to want a cup of coffee before leaving. Julio, the majordomo, forgets spoons, but when he goes to get spoons, he cannot move past the arch, slumping into a chair. Now it is fully obvious: despite no impediment blocking the door, no one inside can leave the salon. Something tugs at them whenever they try to leave, trapping them in a room too small to fit the number of occupants.

If the dinner itself subtly displayed the tribalism inherent even in the refined sensibilities of the bourgeoisie, this new twist brings about open war among the guests. All the expensive trinkets and decorations in the room become as worthless as they truly are as those inside use vases to relieve themselves in and break open a wall to get at the water pipe within, using drink platters to hold the plaster and debris. The whispered insults give way to open comments as guests tear at each other in starvation and madness.

Buñuel's absurd touches only pile on. Where his early camera work had been more elegant and placed in long shots, now he constricts the frame within the tiny room, pushing in on the stir-crazy rich folk. The pressure gets to them: a sickly old man dies and is locked in a cupboard; later, two young lovers find a cupboard of their own and commit suicide. The remaining guests give in to hallucinations, leading to montages of Buñuel's surrealist imagery as a disembodied hand crawls along the floor and a cello bow turns into a saw. Some even resort to witchcraft to get out of the house, looking for any supernatural power to save them. Outside, a group of policemen and interested civilians gathers, but no one can get inside to rescue the guests, unable to break the same barrier that binds the wealthy. Of course they can't: they weren't invited to the party.

The satire is both open and layered. The guests obviously stand-in for the insulated, endless partying of the bourgeoisie in Franco's Spain, where the middle class ignored their leader's atrocity to maintain their own comfort. But they are only one piece of this puzzle: when later social classes experience similar phenomena, Buñuel moves beyond mere class critique to indict the entire hierarchy and its restrictive hold on each group: the working class find themselves trapped in church, their realm of empty comfort, while the rich cannot leave their salons (and just as the servants escaped the house at the start, so too do the eventually freed rich slip out of the church while others mill about). Buñuel's repeated shots lead to repeated situations, widening the net to include the working class and the clergy. Sheep become a scathing symbol, not only when a herd runs into a church in the final shot but when the three lambs intended for that bizarre entertainment with the bear get loose and run into the parlor, where the starving guests set upon them viciously for food. Clearly, the sheep are the common people, hiding from their doom in the Church and getting torn apart by the wealthy.

That repetition ultimately frees the rich, ironically breaking them from being trapped in the party when one guest (Pinal) has everyone recreate the first night to the letter to break the mysterious curse. They escape as the rest of the world begins to fall in the same trap, and the film ends with riots and gunshots. The depressing final message of The Exterminating Angel is that full revolt against the prison of the class structure will only occur when it literally constricts so even the most clueless will realize the truth of their oppression. No one could accuse Buñuel of being cheerful, but comedy is never about rebuilding anyway, only tearing down. And nobody could tear down like Buñuel. He would mine this film for much of his late French period, especially The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, which allowed him to make a variation of the same film in France as he wished. Yet Buñuel never equaled this achievement, a sharply focused, bitingly hysterical work that condensed the best of the director into his most focused work. Buñuel has several masterpieces, but this may well be the finest.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Fearless (1993)

[After checking sporadically for more than a year for some legal version of this film to watch (and even the illegal versions were of such poor quality as to be avoided), I'm happy to say that Fearless is now available for DVD and streaming through Netflix.]

In medium-long shots of a cornfield framing stalks in the middle plane that obscure the background, a disheveled man appears, shrouded by smoke, holding the hand of a young boy and cradling a baby with his free hand. As the man walks through the field, others appear behind him as if dropping fully formed from the stalks, milling about in bewilderment until the camera tracks with them to reveal the wreckage of a downed plane. The man does not bat an eye, and we learn through his blunt dialogue that the kids he's holding are not his own. He hands them off to responsible parties, takes one last look around, heads over to a cabbie and asks to be driven to a motel.

Peter Weir's Fearless has one of the most carefully modulated, deliberately vexing, utterly transfixing openings of any English-language Hollywood film to be mercilessly and inexplicably relegated to the realm of the unknown (and less than 20 years after it premiered). The man Weir follows is Max Klein (Jeff Bridges), an architect heading to a business meeting across the country with his partner. One almost gets the impression that the camera does not follow Max in a premeditated path but stopped upon him as it gazed over the scene and could not tear itself away. Bridges' face is unreadable as he hands the guardian-less child to authorities and returns the baby to its mother (without even stopping to say anything once he hands over the child). There's a strange, unsettling creepiness to the look of near-contentment on his face, the look one expects to see when someone wakes up from a damn good sleep.

Weir, working with a script by Rafael Yglesias (adapting his own novel), does not get into what is up with Max, instead moving through mysterious scenes that cut away before something approaching an explanation might arise. A director known more for his consistency of quality than anything, Weir achieves a poetry here he has not shown in his other features: Max rents a car to drive across country to get back to San Francisco, yet not because he seems afraid to fly again. On a long stretch of dusty road, he stops, sits outside his car and spits on the ground. The camera frame the spit in the sand, and Max's finger reaches down and rubs the saliva into the dirt and rubbing the mud between his thumb and forefinger. It is a mesmerizing moment, one that only deepens the confusion: "Who is this man? What is going on inside that head?" And just as quickly as the moment happened, Weir quickly cuts to Max driving down the road as he leans his head out the window in bliss.

Over time, we learn that Max's survival has wrenched him from his sense of self. Like an Etch-a-Sketch, he's been shaken and erased by the force of impact. He's been so transformed by the near-death experience that when he stops to meet an old friend for lunch in a diner, he munches without incident on strawberries despite his pal's reservations about his food allergy. When airline representatives offer to give Max a train ticket home, aware not only of the trauma a person would experience from flying again so soon and the intense fear of flying his wife says he had before the fateful flight, he cheerfully replies that he'd like to fly. First class, if you please.

Not much about Fearless makes sense. It's plot moves in fits; in fact, the weakest moments of the film directly concern the imposition of a narrative -- Tom Hulce's ambulance-chasing sleazeball of a lawyer drags down the movie with his frequent appearances, all of them revolving around ensuring bigger payouts in the corporate settlements. No, the film works as an appropriately scrambled, contradictory, inexplicable meditation on death, survival, grief and coping. That scene with Max and his friend in the diner exists as pure exposition, establishing pieces of Max's background and the matter of his supposed strawberry allergy, yet Bridges and Debra Monk overcome it with unspoken humanity that emanates from them and break the dialogue from its strict boundaries.

Bridges does this the entire film. An actor so at home in any role that some have accused him of doing the same thing over and over despite the vast range of his work, Bridges uses Max Klein to demonstrate just how unique he has been before and since by combining the disparate elements of his work into a single role. He mixes the intensity of his early work, the rakish allure of his double-take face (which looks so unconventional that you turn back for a second look and find that he is gorgeous), the Zen-like calm of his later work starting most famously with the Dude, the sinister streak of his rare but effective villainous roles, even the alien remove of Starman. Only Bridges could have so many elements (and more) in his bag of tricks, and only Bridges could somehow throw them all together and still make it look so goddamn effortless.

Shaken into fearlessness by the crash, Max tests his invulnerability, walking across a bustling street after being lured by a blinding, glorious light and laughing in the face of God for emerging unscathed. "You can't kill me!" he screams, not in anger but jubilation. "You want to kill me but you can't!" But his behavior takes on not so much a suicidal recklessness as a super-sanity, entering a plane of existence above that of mankind. A look of eerie calm often passes over Bridges' face, whether in the flashbacks of his moment of epiphany during the crash or in his detached dealings with humanity afterward. I was reminded of that horrifying look of drug-induced contentment that ended Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America, De Niro's haunting smile communicating practically everything but happiness.

Bridges, though immediately completely human, speaks as if projecting beyond those with whom he interacts: when taken to meet another survivor, he launches into a monologue about seeing his father die as a young man. In context, it's nearly as unimportant as Alison's airing of grievances to Max back when he ate with her at the diner, but Bridges spins the yarn like a man who says things as they come to him, unconcerned with interaction and how a perceived normal conversation should go. Wherever Max goes, he walks with head forward, as if the heightened connection of his senses with the world compel his body to follow along.

That remove interferes with Max's family life, and soon his calm gives way to an unbearable arrogance. Not only has Max been thrust into a new viewpoint, he knows it and hangs his advanced knowledge over his family's head. His wife, Laura (Isabella Rossellini), and son Jonah (Spencer Vrooman) try to understand what Max is going through, but he callously tells his wife that she can never share in what he is feeling. Later, he throws away his son's video game console because it gives him the false feeling of death and rebirth. Max got a do-over, but he actually experienced death; Jonah will get nothing from his game. When Max's attention wanders to that survivor he visited earlier, his attraction to her is not the arc of a tangled romance but something far more complicated.

As great as Bridges' performance is, and it is almost certainly the finest in a long and distinguished career, one at least expected some level of excellence from our greatest living actor. But Rosie Perez's performance as Carla, the survivor who blames herself for her baby's death, is so wholly unexpected, so out of left field, that the considerable emotional weight of her performance is exacerbated by the sheer surprise of it. If Max exists at one extreme of the reaction to a traumatic event, that of liberated euphoria, Carla lies at the other: for months, she does not even leave her bed, hoping that if she just stays inside long enough she'll die. When Max comes around and informs her that she can't die because they're already dead, she resists him but starts to open up. If Bridges pours his innate, effortless humanity into a man outside it, Perez has never felt more like a person on-screen. Just as Max has his noble traits and his loathsome qualities, Carla has the contradictions and frustrating aspects that make her well-rounded, and Perez commands the role.

Nothing summarizes the power of her performance than a scene near the end when she finally comes clean to Max about how and why she feels guilty for living when her child died, and her confessional takes on a religious property when the outpouring of grief, self-loathing and shame culminates in a frenzied repetition of Hail Marys so intense and heartrending that Jeff Bridges, an actor who at all times inhabits his characters, breaks for an infinitesimal moment, the look of panic on Max's face morphing into awe, a legend recognizing the skill of someone who, even if just for a scene, completely showed him up.

The bond between Max and Carla cannot be easily explained because it ardently refuses to fit into neat definition. An affair nearly arises between them, but even when Max speaks of his overwhelming love for Carla and steals a kiss, there is never the hint of romantic love. They merely share the bond Max cruelly tells his wife he cannot have with her, that of people who have "passed through death" and come out the other side. Roger Ebert wrote that Carla and Laura are not rivals for Max's "heart, but for his soul," but I do not even think they are rivals in that regard. Carla does not realize what effect she has on Max, aware only that his presence helps her, especially when he resorts to an improvised form of extreme therapy to prove her lack of culpability in her son's death. But Max also relies on her to maintain his isolation from his old life, and until Carla can live without Max's safety net, he cannot live without hers.

If Fearless can be unwieldy, that is at least partially because it has so much going on. I cannot hope to even write down all that I noticed on a first watch, much less all the details that can only come with repeat viewings. Weir long ago sold me on his capacity for big cinema with his work on Gallipoli and Master and Commander, and that bird's eye view of the plane wreckage at the beginning and his masterful handling of the flashbacks on the plane display that aspect of his talent handily. But it's the minor stuff here, the extraneous shots and even scenes that paint a more complete portrait of humanity. As Max wades through the crash site, a shot of a wine bottle cuts to a horrifying look at the charred and decapitated corpse of Max's partner, an unspoken lament at the randomness of it all that can leave meaningless trinkets unscathed and human beings so awfully mangled. Weir uses the business partner's widow (Deidre O'Connell) to muddy the moral high ground Max takes with his refusal to pursue the settlement case any more than he has to, and her brief appearances not only help justifying Hulce's intruding performance but complicate stereotypical reactions to a tragedy. Yes, she's trying to make money off the event, but not for the same callous, greedy reasoning as Carla's husband (Benicio del Toro). One look in her eyes and not even Max can judge her any longer.

I'm not even going to bother soft-pedaling the film's flaws by saying "It's not a perfect movie, but..." Of course it isn't: it's a movie. And what's more, it's a movie about an emotional journey, one in which the narrative takes absurd leaps in order to better visualize the philosophical and emotional power of the movie. The work of Hieronymus Bosch features at one point, and the final, more subjective flashback clearly incorporates elements of Bosch's Ascent into the Empyrean. Bosch, like Flannery O'Connor, has always represented, to me, the good and bad of personal faith: he painted visions of the diving beauty of grace, but also of the twisted tortures awaiting those found unworthy. Fearless has the same ambition of scope, highlighting the man's selflessness and selfishness in equal order. Anchored by career-best performances by its two principal players, one of whom has enough to make seven careers and the other who completely matched her co-star, Fearless could perhaps use some trimming but makes magic even of the most technically unnecessary scenes. No film this good, featuring actors this well-known, should have found its way so quickly to obscurity, but when its overdue reevaluation comes around, Fearless will look less like a unique blockbuster but a large-scale philosophical poem that could be tied more readily to The Limey and L'Intrus than other airplane disaster movies.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Brian De Palma: Dressed to Kill

After using his student collaboration Home Movies to grab for that early sense of anarchic satire, Brian De Palma was all set to adapt Cruising, a thriller about a homophobic killer preying on gay bars in New York City. But that project fell through, eventually going to William Friedkin, who captured the gaudiness De Palma would no doubt have brought to the film but lacked any of the warped, witty dimensionality of Hitchcock's disciple. Undaunted, De Palma decided to make his own look at the effects of questioned sexual identity on the psyche. The result combined the disparate aspects of the director's early period into their first cohesive whole, mixing comedy, suspense, and the director's unique ability to at once flagrantly plagiarize and make even the most blatant ripoff something wholly his own.

If Obsession could be directly traced back to Hitchcock's Vertigo, Dressed to Kill clearly owes its nightmarish, violent sexual reverie to Psycho. Yet where De Palma's dreamlike tone in his first full Hitchcock homage matched the oneiric, rending tone of Vertigo in ways that reflected but also stretched and contorted the master, Dressed to Kill completely opposes the realist, spare vibe of Psycho. De Palma's film actually opens and closes with two separate dream sequences, both of which mix recollections of Hitchcock (both feature showers) with De Palma's own films, specifically Carrie.

Psycho showed Hitchcock using ripped-from-the-headlines realism against itself in one of his most brilliant subversions (albeit one slightly undermined by an adherence to psychological summary that Hitch does not ironically undermine and complicated in the way he often did). Meanwhile, Dressed to Kill plays out like the twisted fantasy inside Norman Bates' mind while he commits his crimes, a sleazy yet perversely conservative and quaint presentation that demonstrates De Palma's gift for splitting reality along the illusory. Though shot on location around New York City, Dressed to Kill has the look and feel of classic Hollywood -- even the subways are unreal and attain the same balance between glitz and gaudiness that defines the film's aesthetic.

Immediately establishing that real/fake dichotomy, De Palma opens his film with the same graceful, slow-motion tracking shot into a shower that began Carrie, only De Palma makes use of the then-new Steadicam to add three dimensional movement, no longer forced to move in a rigid line but gently curving through a bedroom into the bathroom beyond. Inside is a man shaving at the mirror and his wife in the shower, and De Palma naturally moves right on past the guy and moves right in with Angie Dickinson. Where the protagonist of Carrie undercut her own semi-erotic soaping with a discovery that revealed her sexual ignorance and fear, Dickinson's Kate, a bored housewife, washes herself with movements suggesting she isn't just trying to get clean. Her scrubbing morphs into masturbation, but suddenly a male figure appears behind her, choking her screams of fear as steam billows and obscures her from her husband's view. Suddenly, De Palma cuts to Dickinson in bed with her husband, revealing it had been not a dream but a fantasy, the severity of her lust an outgrowth from the clumsy thrusting of her inept husband. Kate then goes to see her therapist, but one doesn't need a degree to know that she must be unfulfilled if she's having lustful daydreams about rape.

Her sexual hunger is such that she even hits on the psychiatrist, Dr. Elliott (Michael Caine), who calmly turns down her advances. Dejected, Kate heads to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where De Palma crafts perhaps the greatest sequence of his career to this point, or at least the best one since "Be Black, Baby." The scene starts simply, Kate sitting on a bench, spying on the men in the place, all of whom are either with a lady or hitting on one. De Palma then reverses the voyeurism when a black-clad man walks up and begins ogling Kate in turn. Completely wordless, the sequence highlights the always moving camera when the graceful movement becomes more complicated and labyrinthine as Kate and the mystery man enter in a cat-and-mouse chase, in which the roles of cat and mouse swap so often it is impossible to tell who is pursuing whom. (In pure De Palma fashion, the director ensures to stop for a moment just so he can frame Kate by paintings of nude women, particularly a giant vagina he frame in the center -- sometimes, the Rule of Thirds just does not apply.) At last, Kate stumbles her way out of the museum, only for the man to throw down her set of gloves that he nicked, luring her into his cab like a trail of bait leading to one of those old boxes propped up by a stick. He drags her inside and begins kissing her and feeling her up, and naturally the cabbie tilts his mirror to get a peek instead of worrying about a woman being pulled forcefully into the car and set upon. But Kate clearly enjoys the situation, all the more so for its element of danger, and she heads back to the man's apartment for a romp to make real her daydreams.

De Palma only gives the audience a brief amount of time to rest before taking the jumbled, ever-reversing structure of the setpiece before obliterating the whole thing by revealing the predatory feeling of the man to be a red herring, undercutting the suspense of his demeanor (and the note Kate finds in his desk saying he has an STD). Kate gets on the building's elevator to leave, only to remember she left her wedding ring in the man's apartment, a cheekily suggestive oversight. Before she can however, the doors open to reveal a tall, blond woman brandishing a razor. Grimly suspecting the man's sinister nature, we are instead treated to the proper villain from out of left field. It's a bait-and-switch worthy of Psycho, and De Palma not only introduces the true antagonist but also the proper narrative a full half-hour into the movie. A prostitute, Liz (Nancy Allen), spots the killer fleeing, but the murderer gets away before anyone else does, resulting in witnesses seeing only Liz standing over Kate's mutilated body holding the discarded razor. At least the characters are bewildered too; it's the least they could do to relate with the audience.

Dressed to Kill takes the purely Hitchcockian moment and uses it to start unifying the sometimes conflicting ideas that have run through his films to this point, ironically through one of his most egregiously strung-together narratives. The film unfolds in self-contained vignettes that add up to a unified whole, but it helps that each of these individual segments is so brilliant, and that they fit together thematically and stylistically if not putting forward a solidly coherent plot.

One of the familiar aspects of De Palma's cinema the director further develops here is his outlandish take on sexuality. Dressed to Kill set off a solid decade of intense antagonism from various feminist groups over the portrayal of sex and violence in the director's films, and even a neophyte like myself can understand where they were coming from with this film alone. I wracked my brain over the cruel moralism of Kate's death, her desire for sexual liberation and fulfillment not simply cut short with an animalistic butchering but preceded with the secondary punishment of venereal disease. Ultimately, however, the entire film exists as mired sexual fantasy, and De Palma is honest in showing that not all fantasies are wholesome (now that would have been regresive). Though I still cannot reconcile certain troubling aspects of the sexual violence against Kate, I would argue that, if her death is meant to be a cautionary tale, it is about the true dangers of the rape fantasies she gets off on, a harsh reminder that it is not a pleasant experience to be abducted and violated, and that sexual assault and literal assault often go hand in hand, even if De Palma does not depict both through the same character.

At the other end of the movie is Liz, who serves as Kate's opposite. Kate, an upper-middle-class housewife whose material comforts cannot overcome her sexual desires, dies at the feet of Liz, a prostitute who uses sex to raise money to play the stock market. Apart from being a hysterical and slightly prescient take on the coming impact of Reaganomics, Liz's relationship with sex and money is the complete inverse of Kate. Liz, comfortable with sex, uses it to aid her financial insecurity, though the hooking itself provides more job security than playing the market, which was a scant two years away from a major downturn. Kate's intelligent, innovative son Peter (Keith Gordon), mired in his quest for revenge, ends up saving Liz from an attack by her stalker, but Liz is so kind and friendly that it never appears to occur to Peter to view her fawning gratitude as a route to a relationship. It's as if Liz is not exactly a hooker with a heart of gold so much as a smart hooker taken to be one with a heart of gold by the male figure. Only when Peter helps Liz use her seductive powers on Dr. Elliott to try to find the identity of the killer does he finally realize her sexual presence.

Then, there's the matter of Bobbi, the transsexual who murdered Kate in sexual frustration and stalks Liz to tie up loose ends. Just as the disturbing nature of some of the sex in the film drew criticism from feminists, De Palma's depiction of a transsexual killer lashing out in violent manifestation of confusion and self-hatred won him a number of complaints from LBGT groups. Yet consider the true identity of Bobbi: in the clearest effort to step outside his piety to Psycho, De Palma does not make the sweet, mother-obsessed Peter the true culprit but Dr. Elliott, the psychiatrist. We hear "Bobbi's" voice on Elliott's answering machine (in the clipped, sleazily slurred tones of William Finley, who may be the first actor to sound like a chronic and intemperate masturbator) hissing furious taunts at the doctor for refusing to sign off on his sex-change operation. When another psychiatrist launches into the expected monologue of Elliott/Bobbi's motives, he confirms that Bobbi really did hate Elliott, the feminine half of Elliott's mind refused its liberation by Elliott, who despite the human empathy of his learned profession cannot extend that same understanding to himself. Elliott's violence arises from his sexual confusion, which in turn is the product of repressive old codes of order that torture him. De Palma slyly uses a real news clip of a transsexual on Donahue that presents the male-to-female guest as someone initially reticent to speak about her life until she says with a smile that she has "always been a committed heterosexual." Elliott/Bobbi does not have that centered self-awareness, so when Elliott's masculine side gets attracted to Kate (and, later, Liz), Bobbi takes over and uses the phallic image of the straight, hard razor to cut apart that which made him erect. If you'll forgive me, that's some ballsy filmmaking.

The Elliott/Bobbi split brings up De Palma's interest with body doubles, previously shown with Sisters -- and an obsession De Palma would continue to investigate, even past the film openly titled Body Double. Elliot's double, Bobbi, is just the man in a wig and women's clothing, but his psyche and sexual lust splits, creating two separate people from one body. This is further complicated by the female police officer assigned to watch Liz (whether to absolve her or prove her guilt is not entirely clear): hilariously, she looks exactly like Bobbi, leading to several misdirections that add suspense and humor. During the aforementioned scene with the Phil Donahue clip, De Palma not only lays hints of Elliott's true identity but uses a split screen to contrast Elliott watching with an inscrutable look on his face trapped between scholarly curiosity and resistance to his dawning new self with Liz viewing the same program as she dresses for "work." Liz, Elliott's target not simply because she witnessed his crime but because she arouses Bobbi's masculine side, distractedly watches as she preens in front of the vanity mirror (which duplicates and divides the image further), highlighting all her feminine elements in preparation for the night's johns. Elliott, meanwhile, surrenders entirely to his masculine side, and the ominous tinge of revulsion in Caine's face could well be Bobby's if he could only look to the other side of the frame and spot Liz.

There are even literal instances of doubles in the film. The close-ups of Dickinson's lathered body as she touches herself at the beginning are actually those of Victoria Lynn, a Penthouse model, effectively teasing the audience with bawdy imagery of a sex icon that really isn't her. Even the Metropolitan is doubled: though the outside is the proper building, the interior shots were recorded in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. These structural, not diegetic, doubles complicate the movie in the sort of half-serious put-on De Palma excels at, raising ouroboric questions of what can be trusted.

That, in turn, feeds into the grandest theme of De Palma's canon: the line between illusion and reality. If, as I argued, Kate's death is less a critique of her "loose" morals than of her dangerous fantasies, the weight of her death is lessened not only by the structure of plot moving beyond her immediately but also by the oneiric aesthetic of the entire film. Never has New York City looked so artificial, not even now in its plastic Disneyfication: slightly saturated colors make the image pop, seductive in its vivid beauty but also repellent in its blatant artificial sheen over on-location shots. And the spatial relationship of the mise-en-scène is always shifting, particularly in a playful but sinister sequence on the subway. A gang of thugs surround Liz on the platform and give chase when she runs, vanishing into thin air when she leaps into a train car with a police officer, who chastises her for making up stories. As the train moves to its next stop, Liz finds herself alone again, only for the gang to show up again and slowly move in for her as she moves from car to car. Just as they close in on her, the blond stalker strikes, proving the thugs meaningless but using them to tantalize and manipulate solely to their own end.

These elements have never fit together so well in De Palma's early, anarchic style, here smoothed out by the lilting but ironic grace of the Steadicam. A dollop of De Palma's humor, so offbeat it may only ever appeal to him, spackles the cracks -- I will cast my vote in favor of any film that can melt an orgasmic squeal into a car horn, or lets Dennis Franz gnaw on scenery as the most stereotypical New Yawk detective who has ever lived. De Palma even turns the psychobabble of the other therapist's summary into a joke when he has Liz repeat it to Peter in a restaurant as a prim and proper old woman glances over from behind Peter in horrified offense. The last sequence, of course, is just another outgrowth of this dark wit, a final scary/hilarious reveries à la Carrie that gives one last jolt before releasing the audience to contemplate its various twists and turns. One of the director's more contentious films, Dressed to Kill delighted me as much as the best of his work to this point. If the fiery debates that greeted his subsequent '80s features had as much merit to warrant a discussion as this, my apprehension over this most-vilified period will abate quickly.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Housemaid (1960)

[Note -- The Housemaid is currently available, legally, for free at Only registration for a free account is needed. Big thanks to Sheila O'Malley of The Sheila Variations for pointing this out. As ever, I would encourage all to watch the film before reading the following review, as spoilers abound.]

It is a testament to the consummate brilliance and ineffable weirdness of South Korean cinema that a movie like The Housemaid may be the best summary of the nation's output. One could easily trace a line from its horrifically comic, immaculately executed genre exercises to the likes of Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho, and its socio-sexual critique plays as a satirical pre-response to the work of Hong Sang-soo. Made during a brief window of creative autonomy during economic and social unrest preceding a coup d'état in 1961, The Housemaid's social context is just as peculiar as its narrative and textual content.

Director Kim Ki-young lobs satirical mortars from the start, using a pre-credits scene of a man reading a story about a businessman who had an affair with his housemaid to establish a framing device the director will later tear down as viciously as he does everything in-between the bookends. What might seem like a fable on sexual propriety instantly dovetails into a class commentary, even in the framing device. Before the proper narrative begins, the husband reading the news story responds to his wife's shock and outrage that it's not such an unbelievable story, noting how reliant they themselves are on their own housemaid. "She's the first one I see when I come home," the man says of the servant, and the blend of sexual subtext (and, later, text) and social critique swirls gently.

The actual story concerns Mr. Kim (Kim Jin-kyu), a composer who works at a factory in the city giving music lessons to the female workers/students. Those young women themselves seem trapped in a Westernized mindset, taking music lessons not because they seem all that keen on learning music -- only one ever takes up Kim's offer for private piano lessons -- but because they want to look as if they enjoy music. These working-class ladies have bourgeois aspirations, and who looks more bourgeois than the well-dressed, handsome piano teacher? Their fawning over him thus takes on a double meaning, though it's a dichotomy that has always existed between wealth and perceived beauty. (Remember that "well-fed" used to be attractive because it signified one could afford food, while today thin is in because only the rich have the resources and spare time to get fresh, unprocessed produce and a personal trainer.)

Not that Mr. Kim is as dapper and well-off as he might seem. Back home, he's preparing for a move into a two-story house that looks impressive only compared to his current domicile. Even then, the difference could mostly be attributed to the fact that the family has already torn down everything for the move. Kim talks about his secondary job as a tutor, while his pregnant wife toils away at her sewing machine to make some extra money -- before the pregnancy, this was her second job. Both parents clearly spend most of their time at work in order to get the cash to buy material luxuries, and it is immediately evident that their absence has taken its toll on their children, be it the crippled, withdrawn daughter or the utterly intolerable brat of a son who cruelly mocks his sister and makes selfish, forthright demands of people every second he's on the screen.

Slyly, however, the director takes the time to demonstrate how deeply the married couple love each other, even if the outlets of that affection lead them astray. Whenever the wife suffers a pain or cramp, Mr. Kim drops everything to carry her to bed and massage whatever part of her that aches. She tells him he can stop after awhile, aware that he himself must be sore from rubbing. "It's nothing compared to what women go through," Kim says, and you can't help but love the guy. Whatever temptation is about to come, clearly the root of the problem is not a rocky marriage.

Yet it is precisely their love for each other than drives Mr. Kim and his wife to constantly pursue ever greater material comfort. Having been independent for less a century and under massive Western influence for even less time, Korea as shown by Kim Ki-young is already so Westernized that one can hardly imagine how new the concept of a middle class is. South Korea's economic explosion was still on the horizon, not set to start for a few years after The Housemaid's premiere. The Kim household, however, is infused with Western luxuriance, from busts of European composers to a piano parlor. The bourgeois affectation reaches its zenith when the family, with the aid of the wife's incessant sewing, brings home a television set. The TV signals that the Kims are the richest family in the neighborhood; only then do the parents reference their next project, helping their daughter get well and get those braces off her legs (a mix-up of priorities if ever one existed).

It is the wife, in fact, who brings the young housemaid into the home when she demands her husband find a helper to spare her housework during the pregnancy, with the unspoken suggestion that the maid will stay on when the wife recovers and returns to full-time work, a suggestion supported by the shabby upkeep of the old home. Mr. Kim's pupil, Miss Cho, brings a slow-witted but hard-working friend (Lee Eun-shim) with her to one of her lessons, and the young woman proves her mettle at once by creepily capturing a rat scurrying around the kitchen with her bare hands, holding up the corpse with the sort of smile that should have raised a few neck hairs, much less red flags.

The housemaid's entrance changes the dynamic of the film, turning what had been a stone-faced satire into something approaching the id to Japanese master and social observer Ozu Yasuijro's meditative superego. The director's camera moves in graceful tracks, mostly in straight lines along the x- and z-axes of three-dimensional space. Yet Kim also has a tendency to pivot his camera during its tracks, peering around corners and glancing up and down the stairwell. It is a subtle effect, but one that begins to add meaning and tone to shots that otherwise might have carried a simple dramatic presence.

If nothing else, and The Housemaid is so very many things, the film is a masterpiece of claustrophobia, using the upper-middle-class abode the Kim family likes to think of as its palace as a constrictive cage, a bourgeois self-imprisonment that hosts unspeakable horrors. The most memorable of recurring shots is a horizontal track back-and-forth from the bedroom where the maid sleeps and the parlor where Mr. Kim keeps his piano, effectively moving between servants' quarters and the most bourgeois room in the house. But even with the camera outside the house in these shots, the lateral movement is cramped. Inside the house, the dimensions slowly shrink as if the drying wallpaper on the new house shriveled up the walls with it. What makes this alteration so strange is that one gets the impression the director made the house feel artificially large when we first saw it before revealing its true dimensions, instead of shrinking the true image.

The house seems especially small once the housemaid reveals the extent of her madness. Her edge is amusingly communicated first through the dated tut-tutting of her smoking habit, something Kim himself likely found silly considering how openly he mocks the PSA-moralism of those criticizing her habit. But her behavior soon grows far beyond an exaggerated jonesing when she spies Miss Cho confessing her love for Mr. Kim in the wake of the suicide of Cho's lovesick friend. Kim manages to throw out Cho -- though not without telling her to keep coming back for the lessons because he needs the money -- and the maid steps in to engage in her own blackmail. Either the husband sleeps with her, or she'll go to the police and accuse him of rape and of threatening Miss Cho. Once the young woman discovers she's pregnant with Mr. Kim's baby, she unleashes a reign of terror upon the mildly loathsome family, who are so corrupt that the audience can root for no one, merely sitting back in mounting tension.

Lee Eun-shim gives one of the most terrifying performances ever put to celluloid. Her housemaid is a mysterious, abominable virago, not so much seducing the husband as brutally forcing his hand before the cards are even dealt. Lee has a round face, but when she contorts in inexplicable rage, her face tapers, sharpening from the wide top half (as if her skull must always make room for her saucer-like eyes) to a suddenly rigid jawline. Thus, she takes on a vaguely amorphous makeup, a spectral whirlwind all the more unknowable for the fact that Lee apparently never appeared in another film (coming across information on her is all but impossible). Perhaps seeking to distinguish between the working class he left behind (and the one the maid represents) and his new bourgeois aspirations, the patriarch forbids his servant from touching the piano, but she regularly does so anyway, her childish, random pounding of keys serving as diegetic tension to complement the bending, squawking reeds of the soundtrack. She has the ability to simply appear, and her ostensible dim-witted nature gives way to a cunning that always outguesses the family. Lee makes both the simple and the insolubly complex aspects of her character equally real, and equally troublesome.

The housemaid lures the family into her trap by playing the tearful victim of the husband's advances, winning the wife's sympathy but also an open suggestion that she "take care" of the lovechild. Following the haphazard abortion, the maid uses the emotional turmoil she claims to feel over losing her baby to prey upon both the family's traditional values and their precarious perch on the social ladder. Having only just reached the next plateau, the Kims intensely fear the loss of social station that would come from the maid going to the police; even if they are later absolved, the scrutiny and whispers such an embarrassment would bring would topple them. So, the maid has her way with the Kims, and her suicidal eroticism with Mr. Kim obliterates the Freudian split between the Eros and Thanatos in a way that would make Hitchcock proud.

That sort of anti-Freudian Freudianism is but one of several ways the director recalls the Master of Suspense. Kim loves his blatant yet multifaceted visual symbols and motifs, from a horrible shot of rats in death throes after ingesting poison to recurring shots of the poison itself in a series of dread-inducing teases. I've become unable to view stairwells in middle-class homes as anything but an ominous sign (thanks, Nicholas Ray), and sure enough, Kim uses the stairwell as the setting for some of his cruelest and most shocking shots. Even the pet squirrel the father buys for his daughter to show how animals continue to run and exercise despite limitations takes on a third meaning beyond the symbol he intends it: "People thought caged life would immobilize them," the father says, but the squirrel's mad, frantic dash around its cramped "home" becomes less an inspiration than a cold reflection of how stir-crazy and restless the family becomes when they grotesquely get their wish to have everything they need for survival and comfort in their house before being trapped inside it. The director's swooping, disorienting tracks and zooms display a mastery of form with only eight previous feature credits to Kim Ki-young's name, and a shot that frames the ominous stairwell through the equally foreboding glass of water (an object that always carries the threat of containing poison), is as Hitchcockian a shot as has ever existed.

Kim's scathing reproach to the bourgeoisie culminates in an absurdist cruelty that aligns him with Luis Buñuel, whose own contemporaneous output was beginning to bend his surrealist attacks into more honed but still offbeat commentaries. Take the Kims' son, that abhorrent boy who inspires nothing but the utmost hatred in the audience; he is, without a doubt, one of the most unpleasant children I've ever seen in a film. He's disrespectful, mean and arrogant, but when the director offs him, I felt a surge of revulsion and nausea I can't quite place. Perhaps it is the very lack of childlike appeal that makes his death so disturbing Kim does not tease and manipulate the audience by plunging innocents into peril for cheap empathy; instead, he molds a boy into an ungrateful, spiteful little shit, then calls our bluff by killing him. It is one of the most inexplicably hostile acts I've ever seen, and it left me unable to sort out who I hated most: the boy, the maid for tricking him into accidental suicide, or myself for indirectly wanting this to happen the entire time until it actually did. Kim can engender that feeling of self-loathing seemingly in any frame, especially in the manner in which he frames sex: he doesn't show a bit of skin, but when he focuses on odd details, such as the maid's bare feet standing on the husband's, the fade-cut over the actual act cannot elide over the sudden wash of dirtiness that cascades down the back of the neck.

Yet for the comparisons to Buñuel and Hitchcock, Kim Ki-young can be best figured out mainly by filtering him through those who followed, from the aforementioned modern Korean directors to the work of Roman Polanski, whose Apartment trilogy would adopt, however unintentionally, the off-kilter, subtly shrinking frame that creeps up on the audience until you blink and suddenly the film is half its original size and a hell of a lot more terrifying. By focusing intently not on the rich but the middle class who pursues wealth at all costs, The Housemaid attains a moral complexity that sidesteps a screed. The maid, in all her terrifying glory, can and should be seen as an entity unto herself, a creature who destroys without reason à la Iago. She does, though, have her metaphorical weight: the maid herself might have no motive to abuse and kill the family, but her symbolic representation as the working-class refusing to let the Kims shake it off so casually adds an element of disturbing commentary to her significance. Her abuse is not so much revenge or class warfare as self-annihilation, the faction of the working class that gets put down even by members of the same social rank finally lashing back at the hypocrisy. "Is it okay you treated my body like a toy?" the maid screams at the couple, and however much she herself manipulated both of them into messing with her body, she has a point concerning how much the Kims dehumanized her from the start.

At last, Kim moves back to his framing device, compounding the mass delirium of the climax by providing one of the most stupefying yet hilariously gratifying "It was all a dream" reveals ever. As the husband and his intact family finish reading the paper, the husband's boisterous laugh indicates that what we saw is not how he really envisioned the story he read at the start. Then, the wife leaves the room to send away the maid in fear of tempting her husband, who turns to the camera in direct address, his cheerful, didactic speech an ironic subversion of whatever insipid morality gets pushed in these kinds of addresses. The man may be speaking about temptation, but the director clearly thinks that the sex is the least of the worries brought up by the middle class getting its own servants, and the final parting shot may just be the knockout blow in one of the most unsettling, devastating critiques in all of cinema.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Tron: Legacy

The modest but devoted fanbase for Tron alleges the 1982 film was ahead of its time, referring to its extensive and pioneering use of computer-generated imagery. Unfortunately, one could not say that its sequel, Tron: Legacy, is even of its time. Caught between presenting an updated version of Tron's computer world that better reflects the compounded evolution of digital technology or simply wallowing in the dated vision of futuristic cyberspace interaction offered by the original, director Joseph Kosinski opts for the latter and cements the insular pointlessness of the whole exercise. The Lawnmower Man has more to say about the possibilities of cyberspace.

Tron: Legacy opens with swooping, animated crane shot that plunges the film into the Uncanny Silicon Valley, where an artificially young Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges, who spends half the film creepily animated) talks about his creation with 11-year-old son Sam (Garrett Hedlund in the boy's adult years). Flynn promises to take Sam with him to the Grid the next day, but he never comes home after leaving that night in 1989. Twenty years later, Sam abandons his father's company, profiting as the principal shareholder but spending most of his time slyly undermining the profit-driven number-crunchers who took over for the more idealistic Flynn. When Kevin's old partner (Bruce Boxleitner) gets a page -- yes, a page -- from Flynn's old office in his abandoned arcade, Sam heads there in the faint hope that his father might finally have returned from wherever he went. He discovers a hidden room with a strange device attached to a computer, and, well, you know the rest.

Inside the grid, so little has changed that one might assume Kosinski feels the biggest advancement in design over the last 30 years has been rounded corners. Where light cycles once traveled in straight lines, now they curve, and that's about it. Tron: Legacy might as well have been a reboot than a sequel, doing nothing more than updating the famed graphics of the original. (That is the double-edged sword of special effects pioneering: great stories live on forever, but effects are always being outdone. George Lucas has alienated nearly his entire fanbase by grappling with that problem.)

Kosinski's vision hedges closely to Steven Lisberger's, using neon chiaroscuro of plunging blacks offset by bright, pale blues and throbbing oranges set against a pixellated world. The souped-up visuals sure do look incandescent, including a few moments here and there that make good use of that most unnecessary of gimmicks, 3-D (though I can think of no better story to be told in 3-D than that of a film that likewise concerns stagnation and horizontal, not vertical, development of technology). Without resorting to a barrage of quick cuts, Kosinski manages to craft sequences of pulsating frenzy, as the colors bleed and swirl until downed programs dissolve and shatter into pixels. But it gets old so damn fast, a repetitious blend of blue and orange that dips into a sad nadir with a fight in a club that dovetails into absurd, cringeworthy cutaways to Michael Sheen hamming it up as a Bowie-esque club owner who contorts his face and body into odd configurations as if the director included only the shots of Sheen horsing around on-set. (The cutaways are a problem in general, such as a strange close-up on Sam's dog early on and a few awkwardly inserted fluff scenes that break the flow for no reason.)

If the original Tron suffered from a lack of narrative momentum, its successor is overloaded with a surfeit of plot. Discontent to simply give the audience what it wants -- mindless, sparkling action -- Kosinski and his writers, Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis, insist on forcing some kind of emotional connection by taking the most outlandish, shameless approach possible to wring a mass reaction without a personal bedrock.* Flynn never returned from his visit to the Grid 20 years previously because the program he created to fashion the perfect digital world, Clu (Bridges with the digitally young face), naturally turned on its maker, and it also set about destroying a new type of program spontaneously created by the system. "It was genocide," solemnly sighs the aged Kevin when he fills his son in on the gaps. Every fiber of my being wanted to shout, "No it goddamn wasn't." Aware that Clu could use his identity disc to break into the real world -- don't even ask -- Flynn hid out for 20 years with the last remaining isomorphic program, Quorra (Olivia Wilde), attaining a Zen-like calm that offsets the severity of the Holocaust allegory with a Dude-esque performance. "Biodigital jazz, man," Kevin unhelpfully says when describing the isomorphic algorithms, his vague, hippie speech tragically serving as the logical foundation of the film's plot.

Meanwhile, Bridges' performance as Clu may be the first time I have completely failed to buy the greatest living American actor in a role. Part of this can be explained by that damn uncanny valley he has to carry on his face the entire time like a digital albatross, forcing all attention away from one of the best faces in the biz onto the horrid, plastic stiffness of the cheek muscles (this crime is particularly egregious, as few smile like Jeff Bridges; see the ones he gives with his proper features as Flynn for proof). But he is also forced to act essentially as a Hitler substitute, obsessed with purification and perfection under his rule. Bridges has been a capable and believable villain before, but Hitler? That aggression will not stand, man.

I found the anti-corporate attitude of the first Tron a bit on-the-nose but refreshingly cheeky. It is not inherently hypocritical for big budget movies to resent a capitalist attitude, and the first Tron cared enough about advancing the medium to give its idealism a certain pluck. But the lazy application of that same philosophy here seems nothing more than a cynical appropriation of elements of the first film without a moment's thought for context. Tron: Legacy is one of the most transparently for-the-franchise movies I've ever seen, something that exists solely to cash in on nostalgia and sell a new crop of toys and video games. The film even makes itself willfully irrelevant to better ensure it doesn't rock the franchise boat.

I would have liked to see a modified vision of cyberspace, one in which the power is now disseminated among millions of users instead of a single mastermind. But Tron: Legacy has nothing to offer. It does not even work as a mildly experimental music video for Daft Punk, whose soundtrack is a notable step down from the inventiveness of their usual work, a driving but soulless buzz of squall that serves as the de facto plot momentum given how leaden the actual structure is. Having listened to the soundtrack before seeing the movie, I can say that the above-average electronica works much better in the context of the film, but it too is a disappointment.

If anything, the grid animated through modern graphics is less imaginative than the one rendered on early animating computers. The programs tend to just act like people, as if the filmmakers realized that any real focus on the aspect of a machine's "soul" would raise too many philosophical questions that would limit box office appeal and steamrolled over the subject. And where and how is there food inside the computer world for Flynn to eat? Proving the point that this movie is about nostalgia, nearly all the plot is delivered through flashbacks and reminiscences, as if we're watching the third planned film in the series after the original idea for the darker middle movie fell through during production, leaving enough completed scenes for recycling.

Tron: Legacy is a hollow, clanging piece of capitalist opportunism, a spectacle that wears out its welcome for the rigid repetition of the grid's stunted possibilities. That, in a nutshell, is the film's chief failing: even after nearly 30 years of rapidly accelerated technological advancement, computers still offer the same vastness of potential for growth. If only anyone involved cared about showing that instead of making a $170 million video of a middle-aged person finding and playing with his childhood toys. A single shot in Tron: Legacy fully caught my eye: as Quorra and Sam sit at the front of a transport ship, a POV shot of Kevin looking at them from the far end temporarily overcomes the shallow focus of 3-D and pulls the two characters out of the screen from a the middle plane of a long shot and communicates for a few seconds the kind of possibility and forward-thinking vision of user-program harmony the rest of the film brushes aside for its empty regression. What a tantalizing and frustratingly teasing three seconds they are.

*Cheap emotional manipulation without sincere character development? Wait, let me check...yep, Horowitz and Kitsis were Lost writers. Of course.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Secret Sunshine

[Warning -- contains spoilers]

I have spent nearly two weeks tangling with Secret Sunshine, Korean director Lee Chang-dong's 2007 film only released in the United States a mere month ago. Restructures, deletions, whole rewrites, abandonments, I've done 'em all for this film. Writing about Secret Sunshine is damn near impossible for two primary reasons: one, it is such an emotional work that focusing on the nuances of the direction offers only brief respite from the hairy issue of getting into its devastating power in any way that honors the film's resonance. Two, Lee Chang-dong himself offers so few comparisons to other directors that one cannot even fall back on the act of placing his work within the context of those who preceded him.

A famed novelist before turning his attention to film -- his mastery of both earned him the position of South Korea's minister of culture and tourism for a year -- Lee brings a clear literary streak to his work. Too often, the meaning of titles can get lost in translation, but the director ensures that the English version of his film's titles has any many interpretations as the original Korean. "Secret Sunshine" is the literal translation of the town of Miryang, the hometown of Lee Shin-tae's (Jeon Do-yeon) deceased husband. Shin-tae and her young son, Jun, move there in an attempt to rebuild their lives after the husband's death.

Befitting the town's name, the residents of Miryang subject Shin-ae to an alternately cool and invasive reception, despite the high population of Christians. Some pry into her tragic past, while others give her emptily pleasant greetings that communicate a complete apathy, even a mild communal distrust, of the woman. Even the one person who acts unfailingly kind toward them, a mechanic named Kim (Song Kang-ho), has an edge underneath his Good Samaritan vibe, a clear and unmistakable longing for Shin-ae that bypasses any respect for her emotional tumult. There are flecks of sunshine around town, but they're as hidden as one might guess.

Shin-ae herself conveys some of that muddied brightness. Her methods of coping with her husband's death leave her slightly cold and forthright in her own way, such as her direct criticism of one woman's shop: Shin-tae tells the pleasant, friendly woman that the color scheme of her shop is too dour and repels customers, to the shopkeeper's mild but clear annoyance. The oddest coping mechanism must be the disturbing games Shin-tae and Jun play with each other, with Jun pretending to be lost or dead as the mother cries for him, only for Jun to then spring out as if playing a demented game of hide and seek.

Lee spends the first act laying out a fish-out-of-water dramedy that wouldn't look so out of place at the multiplex: a story of a woman trying to move on from tragedy and possibly entering into a relationship with a dorky, overbearing but well-meaning goof. Then, the director pulls the rug from underneath the audience. A phone rings when Shin-ae cannot find Jun, and as the voice on the other end says something we cannot hear, the mild concern in Jeon's face turns blank with failed recognition, then quivering with panic. She promises to give the person all the money she has, and begs to hear Jun's voice, but the person on the other end clearly does not comply. Suddenly, the quiet awkwardness of Jeon's performance to that point shifts to shaking, wracking devastation. She can barely even get herself through withdrawing her money, and when the kidnapper does not hold up his end of the bargain, when police bring her to a drained reservoir, a stone sinks somewhere in the stomach, dragging the organ down to the toes.

For the remaining hour and a half, Secret Sunshine becomes a far more direct film on the nature of grief and coping than it had been before. Lee entrusts the entire film to his actors, especially Jeon, who puts forward such a crippling, pure and BIG performance that her win at Cannes three years ago can only be met with the sort of nod that sarcastically says, "Well no shit." Rare is the film that shows someone vomit from the outpouring of bilious rage and agony, and even rarer is the performer who commits so deeply that one suspects he or she actually did throw up from expelling all that sorrow. She and Lee understand that grief has no linearity, that the five stages can only correspond to the types of behavior pain engenders, not the true progression of feeling. At Jun's funeral, Shin-ae cannot cry despite her breakdown before learning of her son's fate. Her hollowed-out grief even inspires the rage of the boy's paternal grandmother, who gets to sob out her grief and recuperate, a luxury Shin-ae does not enjoy.

In an attempt to expel her pain, Shin-ae first hardens against others, specifically the pupils of her piano school, whom she berates for not practicing despite their age and inexperience. But it is the pharmacist who earlier tried to hand Shin-ae a Christian pamphlet who claims to hold the key to the woman's relief. Still dead-eyed and zombie-like, Shin-ae wanders into a prayer meeting, and she loses it. As the pastor orates, her piercing, stop-start, phlegmatic wails drown his words, and when the man places a comforting hand on her head, Shin-ae looks willing to devote herself to any god so long as it takes away the pain.

Amazingly, Lee manages to compound this realist melodrama yet again with this development. Some might view the director's approach to religion as a darkly comic one, but while he does imbue the film with satire, Lee's view of Christianity is less directed at the religion than the reason some people need it. Shin-ae accepts that God allowed her child and husband to die because a reason for the madness, however vague and unsatisfactory, is better than nihilistic meaninglessness. She devotes herself fully to Christ, though her calmed demeanor cannot hide the swirl of sorrow and anguish churning behind her eyes, a rising tide she attempts to dam with recitations of the Lord's prayer. Ironically, Shin-ae finds herself believing in God's love only because of actions that no caring overseer could force someone to handle, but Lee not once judges this sentiment.

But his most critical view of religion comes when Shin-ae comes up with a plan to move beyond the tragedy: she will go to prison and forgive the man who killed her son. It is the ultimate display of Christian ethic, but some, including Kim, see through it: why can't she just forgive him here? Is it necessary to go to the prison and confront the man first? Shin-ae only says that she must, but the unspoken hypocrisy of her sympathy is the fact that she wants to go there and see a man hobbled by guilt and left sleepless and haggard by imprisonment. She wants to see a wracked, humiliated man and transfer her pain onto him, giving herself the satisfaction of overcoming her ordeal. When she gets in the room with the man, however, he enters with a creepy, too-sincere smile that a man suffering could not plaster on his face, and he responds to her comments about converting him with the news that he already found God within the prison walls. If God exists, He exists to offer humanity the path to His kingdom, but Shin-ae wanted, needed, to show the murderer where the road starts. For him to greet her as a fresh-faced born-again whose guilt has been purged by the promise of salvation denies her everything. Even the sincere apology the killer lacks any emotion; like all born-again Christians, he views the sin of a prior life as something he's surpassed. God not only took her family, he took the one way she might free herself from the pain it caused. Is it any wonder, then, that Shin-ae faints from defeat when she walks out of the penitentiary?

A more acerbic director might have played up this angle of the film more, mocked the notion that prisoners who find Jesus or Mohammad do so not only to look good for parole hearings but to absolve themselves of remorse. But Lee sidesteps any Buñuel-esque pursuit of the Church in favor of folding that rage and impotent catharsis back onto Shin-ae's pain as if forging the blade with which Shin-ae might kill herself. Lee's camera counterbalances the depths to which Jeon mines misery; one gets the sense the director does not remotely look down upon melodrama but cannot bring himself to cast Shin-ae's pain in any kind of exaggerated tone lest he undermine the pure, raw nature of her grief. When policemen take the woman to her son's body, Lee hangs back in extreme long shot as Jeon moves with almost robotic stiffness, the spatial distance between her and the camera avoiding histrionics for the grim, glacial mounting of heartbreak. For the most part, Lee always films his actress no closer than a medium shot, allowing the sheer breadth and range of the pain she depicts the room to spread; were she in close-up, the audience simply could not take that direct a channeling of emotion.

Lee also offsets the power of Jeon's performance with the lighter tone of Song's role. One of Kim's friends says he's "more comedy than melodrama," and that applies to his contextual application in the movie. From the moment he appears in the film to tow Shin-ae's car, Song sports a goofy smile that cannot hold back his desire for the woman. That smile does not fade from his face until Shin-ae's brother comes to town and offers a passing remark that Kim is not his sister's type. When Shin-ae starts attending church, Kim does too, a pathetic, creepy and utterly sad gesture that reveals how deeply in love he is with someone who doesn't care about him. His wretched attempts to win Shin-ae's heart, a Pyrrhic victory for something so shriveled and porous, are darkly humorous, not adding so much relief as less-wrenching material. Only when Shin-ae seduces the husband of the pharmacist who converted her and crazily mocks Kim's feelings for her does he finally react.

No one in Secret Sunshine is fully saint nor sinner, not even Shin-ae, who carries too much of an edge to be a wholly pure martyr. It can be humorous in the most unexpected of places -- such as Shin-ae's car failing to start when she's ordered to make the ransom payment, leading to a moment of panic until the woman realizes she's in drive and shifts down to neutral to turn on the engine -- and heartbreaking nearly all the time after its first act switcheroo. The film is very much a melodrama, but an endothermic one; it implodes rather than explodes. The ending brings the film back to the evocation Lee worked on with the title: it exists within the same abyss as the rest of the film, yet even in darkness, there is light. It may be on the horizon, may indeed never be attainable, but it's there, and one would be better served quixotically chasing it than wallowing in the night.

Cat People (1942)

Cat People is many things. A precursor to the minimalist horror that would make films like Jaws, Alien and The Thing from Another World so terrifying in their suggestive properties. An equally important film in the creation of the psychosexual thriller, in which hangups are expanded and compounded until the weight of dogmatic ideas of purity collapse on top of the naïf forced to bear the burden (see: Black Swan, a sizable portion of Roman Polanski's filmography). But what it is primarily is a slap in the face not only to the moral impetus behind the Hays Code but the lingering argument that the cleverness of Old Hollywood was indebted to the restrictions placed upon films by censors.* Numerous artists attacked the Code through their work, but few are as scathing as this digestible thriller.

Cat People opens at a zoo, following a woman as she sketches the caged animals. Up walks Oliver Reed (Kent Smith), a man who oozes such a stereotypically American presence one expects a bald eagle to swoop in and land on his arm carrying letters from President Roosevelt. He strikes up a conversation with the woman, a Serbian-born fashion designer named Irena (Simone Simon), though for someone who must deal with the egotistical world of fashion regularly, she is incredibly shy. Despite her feline looks and black dress, she projects an innocence that casts her less as a removed ice queen than an inexperienced ingénue. Still, she does invite the man up to her room almost immediately.

That room establishes what director Jacques Tourneur, then a side player at RKO Pictures, and producer Val Lewton were trying to do with the film. It's as spacious as one might expect the flat of a fashion designer to be, but it's filled with the sort of trinkets and decorations one might expect of an immigrant's tenement. The one piece of old-country art and superstition (they never seem to be that distinct from each other) that attracts Oliver's eye is of a miniature statue of King John of Serbia, a symbol he, being the all-American he is, cannot fathom. His confusion only deepens when Irena goes into the legend behind the monarch, her voice rising with excitement and faith as she relates the story of John freeing her village from a strange band of people who terrorized the residents by turning into cats. Suddenly, the kind but aloof and chic woman walking with poise among the vulgarity of a zoo takes on a more childlike quality.

Exacerbating Irena's superstition is the location of her apartment. It overlooks the zoo, forcing Irena to listen to the animal howls and roars all night. Yet she does not mind, save for the panther, the one beast that continues to defy its capture, stalking around its cage and "screaming like a woman." Irena, who fears that the old folk legend is true and that she might be a descendant of the cat people, fears the panther yet always returns to look at and listen to it. Later, a therapist (Tom Conway) remarks upon her inability to separate herself from her fear and suggests she wants to unleash the panther as an instrument of death, something he says with the breezy tone of a comment upon the weather.

Yes, the panther stands in for Irena's pent-up sexual frustration, a fear of her own libido instilled in her by superstition, and the manner in which that metaphor is hidden in plain sight will no doubt inspire the defenders of the Hays Office to note the subtle boldness of the suggestion, but Tourneur and writer DeWitt Bodeen turn that symbolism against itself. By forcing the character to place her sexual frustrations and insecurities into an outside object to avoid dealing with such "lurid" matter directly, the filmmakers demonstrate how Irena tortures herself . Every day she stands before the symbol of her caged but untamed desires, wanting desperately to free the beast, as it were, but still too terrified to give herself to Oliver, even after they marry. Though some blatant Christian imagery and dialogue is included, Cat People makes several unmistakable equations between the folkloric hokum that psychologically stunts Irena within the film's diegesis and the puritanical Christian morality of the Hays Office that limits what Tourneur et al. can do with her from a structural standpoint.

Of course, Irena does eventually prove herself to be one of the titular cat people, but that is less a vindication of her superstition than a further point on the nature of censorship and repression. By restraining her passion, Irena does not cure herself of desire; she merely dams the natural flow of emotions, building a reservoir of frustration, aggression and hunger that turns her into a monster when it explodes from her.

The marriage between Irena and Oliver is the primary casualty of her hangups: Oliver loves Irena deeply and is incapable of thinking about anything else. Oliver is so all-American he orders apple pie every time he eats out -- even when a black waitress recommends the chicken gumbo -- but Irena may be the first foreign thing or person he's ever engaged. But the filmmakers point out the importance of sex in a healthy relationship: as emotionally complicated (sometimes contradictory) and occasionally unromantic an act as it is, sex is a display of passion. By refusing to give in to her own passions, Irena snuffs her husband's, and he turns to Alice (Jane Rudolph), the friend who loves him and wants to give in to her desires.

Tourneur manages to interweave this relationship drama and the creeping horror that arises from it until they are one and the same. Alice's mere presence brings up the jealousy and anger Irena begs Oliver not to create in her, but Oliver, who is such a man it's not even funny, just cannot figure out why it's so bad to spend so much time with another woman, even after Alice confesses her love for him. Irena tries to push Oliver away, but when she succeeds, she feels intense, furious jealousy at the woman who can reciprocate his love.

However, Irena does not particularly unleash her fury in the gory, intense manner one might expect from a horror film. Simon's performance has been building to this quieter terror the entire time: from the moment we meet her, she's distant. One could attribute that to classic Hollywood acting style, but Tourneur goes out of his way at the start to present a more natural tone for everyone but Simon, down to Smith's boastful ringing of a waste bin with a tossed bit of paper, his triumphant smile fading when he turns round to find Irena not even looking at him. Her catlike looks, all sharp with just enough softness to suggest a hidden beast, create a mild but forgotten whiff of unease when she relates the story of the cat people, but her stilted delivery does far more to disconcert the audience. As befits someone for whom English is a second language, Irena speaks directly and bluntly even when discussing emotions. She wears a plastered-on, transparent smile that belies a darker energy, and she radiates an unsettling quality long before she more openly displays her edge.

Tourneur captures Irena's mounting rage with two justly famous scenes that are not scary so much as gripping, to my immense satisfaction. One occurs after Irena spots Oliver eating in a restaurant with Alice. On her way home, Alice hears the sound of footsteps behind her and stops, looks back and sees...nothing. No shadow, no rustling leaves, nothing. Cut back to Alice, who walks some more, hears the noise again, and stops. This time, the winter-stripped branches of some trees move in the breeze, but still not so much as the inkling of a shape. Back-forth, back-forth. What the hell is going on? Is there anything here? I can't even hear anything at this point; is the sound working? Am I going insane? Then, the whole thing deflates with an amusing half-jump, a sharp hiss breaking into the soundtrack, only for Tourneur to reveal that it's just the sound of a bus pumping its air brakes. Naturally, Alice jumps on in an instant. Thank God. My heart couldn't take it if she took one more step.

Later, Tourneur crafts one of the simplest but powerful bits of suspense I've ever seen. Where the previous moment of terror works because of its repetitious nature, constantly oscillating between Alice's increasingly panicked face and the horrifyingly non-eventful reverse shot, this sequence unfolds with sparse linearity until the structure collapses in modulated chaos. Alice goes for a swim in the basement of her apartment complex, but before she can get in the pool, a cat hisses and stands up on end. Looking back at the stairwell, the shadow of a large cat -- possibly a panther -- appears. In a panic, Alice leaps into the pool to protect herself, and the ripples of the water reflect light onto the walls, dissipating a steady light and making it impossible to sort out whether the darkness that passes over the walls is the shadow of a woman, a panther, or nothing at all. Tourneur reuses his shot/reverse shot, but it's less disciplined here, as if the camera operator himself has been spooked.

Both scenes stand out among the constant building of things-going-amiss, never giving fully into horror but stringing along a series of chilling shots that make what may be a silly B-movie into something gripping and interpretive. Footprints left in sheep's blood turn from feline pads to a woman's shoe-print. A shot of a revolving door creaking to a halt during the climax is as terrifying as both of the celebrated scenes, the grim twirl saying more about the fear Alice and Oliver feel than the previous shot showing them actually confronting the Irena panther.

And those ceilings. God, it's been so long since I've binged on classic Hollywood pictures that I've forgotten just how wonderful high ceilings can be. They are a relic of the old way of making movies, back when damn near everything was on a set. How could a New York flat have a ceiling that high? It's impossible; you could divide the vertical space of Irena's flat into two floors and no one would notice. But those absurd dimensions allow Tourneur to complicate his largely static camera, using low-angle shots to further distort the size and distance between characters in the epic apartments. So stretched and warped are the interiors that anyone, or anything, could hide in the masses of shadow that exist around the characters.

The falling action further links the supernatural horror of the last act with the sly commentary presented in the film's first half. Instead of releasing the panther in the zoo, Irena becomes one herself, deepening the symbolism and metaphor. Religious imagery comes into play, but it's at least slightly ironic, from the use of a T-square as a makeshift cross to frighten the beast away to a broadly cynical bit of text at the end. Tourneur and especially Lewton, who would go on to save RKO from bankruptcy with the popular response to this film and his subsequent horror pictures, implicate that same spirituality with the mental forces that weigh on Irena. Cat People is one of the most acerbically anti-Code films I've yet seen, and it attacks the idea of legislating morality and adhering to the behavioral codes set down through antiquated mythology. Irena is as much a victim as the anti-ice queen of Roman Polanski's Repulsion, molded and misshapen by a society that sets such unreal and cramped boundaries that it's inevitable the people contained within them will burst out.

Just as impressively, however, Cat People works almost flawlessly on its surface level, and as a piece of termite art, it's damned magnificent -- I actually thumbed through my copy of Farber on Film looking to see if the great Manny had reviewed up but only came up with a blurb in the middle of a piece on another Val Lewton production years later that mentioned Tourneur's film in passing as "my idea of the best Hollywood film in about three years." Deftly plotted and sturdily directed, Cat People retains its thrilling possibilities. Yet the sinister tendrils of commentary running underneath it make it so much more, and the terror of self that infects Irena extends and melds with the fear of morality of a different but all too familiar stripe.

*This is an argument so astronomically dumb and antithetical to any appreciation of art that I never know where to start with it; thankfully, I can just point to the Self-Styled Siren, who has fought this noble and necessary fight for years and has condensed her response into one terrific post that contains the hilarious line, " It's silly to suppose that no Code means Lubitsch would have made Last Tango in Paris."