Saturday, October 09, 2010

Seven Ways to Go to Hell: The First Seven Shots of John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness

John Carpenter's best movies exemplify the virtues of American horror movies made during the 1970s and 80s, a time when any genre director worth thinking about knew the genre and its traditions, and took those traditions seriously (don't worry, this isn't going to turn into an extended exercise in high fuddy-duddyism). Carpenter and contemporaries like Joe Dante and Stuart Gordon knew the entire arc of horror movie history because they came of age at a time when cultural institutions like Shock Theater, Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, and Aurora monster model kits turned horror movie fandom into just another American pastime, like baseball or duck & cover drills. As a result, you had a generation of very self-conscious horror filmmakers who thought deeply about their antecedents yet never succumbed to the temptations of parody or mannerism. Their films very much worked within genre traditions, and extended those traditions in deeply satisfying and exciting ways.

Carpenter's films in particular couple an admirable reverence for horror film conventions with an extraordinary knack for narrative economy. Below, I've taken the first 7 shots of his 1987 film maudit, Prince of Darkness, and tried to get at some sense of what makes each of them work. I had a particular destination in mind when I started, and I was able to navigate myself there without too much trouble, but I was largely flying blind along the way. But I like to be surprised, so I liked this little exercise. Carpenter packs a lot of information into a small space, so I left out some observations that were interesting to me and might have been interesting to you, but I think I was able to give some sense of how individual choices fabricated a more or less coherent whole.

Shot 1, Still 1

Full moons have been part of horror movie syntax going at least as far back as Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man. Carpenter happily admits to falling back on cliché, but with enough skill, clichés can work as efficient shorthand, signifying ideas and history in one image. That's my way of saying that the full moon shot works. It starts the movie off on a perfect note. Well, except it's not really where the movie starts.

The real beginning occurs seconds earlier, as his minimalist, synth driven score plays under the Universal Pictures intro. I can't be sure, but I suspect he originally planned this shot as a neat graphic match with the Universal logo, cutting straight from the image of the revolving Earth to the static shot of the moon. Instead, the production company and producer credits separate the logo and the first shot. At any rate, the music and image immediately set the mood and signal the genre and, if you're hip to Carpenter's earlier films, the director. If you accidentally wandered in looking for Three Men & a Baby, you now know you're in the wrong theater.

Shot 2, Still 1

Notice how the shot carries directly over from the first image, with the light from the moon streaming through the window, forming a half circle against the door. It would be easy to cut to a close-up, but by cutting to this long shot, Carpenter keeps the first two images linked. The low-key lighting is very effective, and establishes an appropriately eerie mood, as the music score continues to pulse through the sequence. With night scenes, especially those in horror movies, a lot of contemporary filmmakers like bathing everything in blue hues (it's like a return to the silent movie convention of using blue tints to signify nighttime), but Carpenter and his cinematographer, Gary Kibbe, keep everything neutral. Also, notice the economy of the production design, and how effectively it conveys information. Thanks to the elaborate cross on the wall, hanging directly over the old man's body, the image tells us that at the very least he's a man of intense religious convictions, and the work of semiotics being what it is, we're probably already making the correct assumption that he's be a priest or minister of some kind.

Shot 3, Still 1

The film cuts to a close-up of the old man. The pattern of light changes between shots, so that where in the long shot, bright moonlight illuminates the entire right side of his face, here the light shining on him is decidedly lower-key. The change in lighting allows Kibbe to use the light to sculpt the man's face, emphasizing the tension in his jaw line, and the intensity of his upward stare. We sense this is a man with trouble on his mind.

Shot 3, Still 2

Then, in the same shot, he dies. Old religious man with trouble on his mind laying in bed wide awake in the middle of night, we hardly knew ye. Or maybe we knew a hell of a lot about you considering how little time you were on screen.

Shot 4, Still 1

Cut to shot 4, a close-up of the man's hands holding onto something. The cut conveys the idea that whatever's in his hands probably has something to do with whatever thoughts once occupied his no-longer-worried mind. Slowly but surely, his hands a fall away and reveal...

Shot 4, Still 2

... a box? Yes, a box. Or, as Roland Barthes would call it, a piece of the hermeneutic code. The contract provided by commercial narratives typically stipulate that hermeneutic riddles will resolve themselves in due time. This shot promises to tell us what's in the box if we stick around long enough. Think of this shot as a kind of promissory note offered to the spectator. It guarantees to reward our curiosity, and in return we promise not to abandon the film even if the characters grate, the style proves to be tacky, or we remember that we came to see Three Men & a Baby, not a John Carpenter movie with a down on his luck Alice Cooper. Of course, Three Men & a Baby isn't even going to explain the deal with the creepy ghost kid who suddenly pops up in the background during one scene, let alone the mystery of what's in the box in a completely different film. We're less than a minute into the movie, and the narrative ball is rolling onward.

Title Card

The title card. The only thing interesting about it (and I'm not counting this as a shot, or else I'd feel obliged to include the production company and producer credits) is that there's nothing interesting about it. Compare to the title card of Halloween or The Thing or They Live. Simple white on black design, arguably signifying starkness, possibly signifying a rush to just get the damn thing done on time and on budget.

Shot 5, Still 1

Shot 5, Still 2

Shot 5, Still 3

I really like the next sequence of image. It starts with a fairly common type of cheat that can be annoying or can be neat. This one's neat. It begins with a long shot which appears to be following the man in a white shirt. He's walking along in the middle of the frame, and gets consistently closer to the camera, which appears to be carefully tracking with his movements. So the scene is clearly about him, right? Well, not so fast.

Shot 5, Still 4

Shot 5, Still 5

Shot 5, Still 6

Shot 5, Still 6

The shot really has two subjects, neither of which is really our man in the white shirt. The first subject is the girl on the bicycle and the second is our man in red. Unless you happen to be a big Simon & Simon fan, you probably don't realize it yet, but you're now laying eyes on the film's star, Jameson Parker. The reason this kind of cheat shot can be annoying is because it can easily be fancy misdirection that lets the director yell, "Look ma, I can move a movie camera." (Or more accurately, "Look ma, I can order my DP to order the camera operator to move a movie camera.") In other words, this kind of 'track that, now track this' trick is often just an empty flourish. Here, it conveys some interesting information, and even the man in the white shirt serves a purpose.

The girl on the bicycle becomes apparent in the third still I excerpted from the shot. She glides across the frame as the camera tracks rightward. We see the man in the white shirt briefly glance at the girl, and then turn away. He shows no particular interest in her. Now, compare to Mr. Parker's character, who sees the girl coming his way, and, as shown in the fifth still, makes the effort to turn his head and catch a glimpse of her going in the opposite direction. He's clearly interested. The man in the white shirt's brief glance helps intensify Parker's more ostentatious gesture. Before we even know this is the guy we're supposed to be watching, Carpenter and Parker are already communicating information about the character, and establishing a key personality trait. To put it simplistically, he's horny, and that's all we might guess about him from this shot, but as the film unfolds, we find this guy is a kind of obsessive, somebody with almost stalkerish tendencies who watches and obsesses over girls (or one girl in particular). This trait will directly affect how the film's plot unfolds. And Carpenter starts building up this characteristic from the very first moment the character appears on screen.

Shot 5, Still 7

Shot 5, Still 8

Parker moves down frame from the long shot and into a medium shot. We can make guesses about his character, about his location, but nothing definite yet, although the satchel over the shoulder of a man in a polo shirt routine strongly connotes "either an instructor or aging graduate student or both" to me. The shot ends with him looking to his right, our left, and anybody who's ever seen a movie edited using continuity principles knows we're about to get a point of view shot.

Shot 6, Still 1

And the point of view shot reveals a pretty, red headed female, played by Lisa Blount. Keep in mind, this is just seconds after he ogled the pretty blond on the bicycle. He seems to be a man on the prowl. Or perhaps just very deeply lonely. So Carpenter feeds us more information about what makes this guy tick, and by cutting to a shot that so prominently features the redhead, we basically know we've been introduced to the film's female protagonist, who we, knowing Hollywood narrative conventions, assume will be the hero's love interest. The notebooks under her arm (universal sign in movie image-speak for "Hi, I'm taking classes!") and her appearance suggest she's another aging graduate student, a detail that largely resolves questions about the location. Okay, one last shot, and we're done for now.

Shot 7, Still 1

Cut back to a close-up of Parker. The shot-reverse shot pattern establishes a subject-object relationship between the two characters, and underscores the intensity of his interest. In other words, Carpenter lets us know this isn't like the fleeting lust for the girl on the bicycle thing you saw less that ten seconds ago; he really digs this red headed girl. This relationship is going places. Scary, nightmarish, apocalyptic places, but places just the same.

So, a lot of information, delivered in less than two minutes of running time, during which Carpenter establishes two major characters, one incidental character, the tone and genre, and sets two different narrative wheels in motion. The writing lays out the structure, but the skill and economy of Carpenter''s direction permits him to get all the necessary information across very quickly and without much fuss. Now for the requisite auteurist interpretive leap. The concluding close-up above allows us to get a good look at Parker. Now, take another look at him. Then take a look at the fellow pictured in the right side of the image below.

That's the director, John Carpenter, as I'm sure anybody reading this post knows. Now, I'm not saying they're spitting images of one another by any means, but I think it's fair to say that when Carpenter and/or the film's casting director picked Parker, and had him grow a mustache, they picked a man who fit a certain type, one which we might fairly call the John Carpenter type: a sandy-haired, skinny fellow with a mustache. Carpenter's go to guy throughout most of the 80s was either Kurt Russell, or when Kurt Russell wasn't available, gregarious, sturdy guys like Tom Atkins or Roddy Piper. I think Russell and actors in that mold were for Carpenter idealized images of what a macho man's man was supposed to be. Parker, in contrast, plays a deeply imperfect hero, someone's who's passive and ineffectual.

All of which leads me to speculate if we have in Prince of Darkness that most prized of auteurist objects: 'the auteur's most personal film.' Carpenter made Prince of Darkness right after Big Trouble in Little China flopped, bringing his then ascending career to a halt. Back to the minors for Mr. Carpenter. Parker's character, and the entire film's moody, apocalyptic tone, can be read as expressions of Carpenter's own uncertainty about the direction of his career, the direction of Hollywood, and the direction of the horror genre in the late 1980s. Now if I could only find proof that Lisa Blount looked just like Sandy King circa 1987, then I think this argument could really work.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

15 Albums

Responding to a tag from a friend, the task is to name 15 favorite albums. As arbitrary as ever, listed largely in the order they occurred to me. Each one, aside from being personal pleasures, are inducements to sanity and vital pieces of misinformation that make humans look better than they really are.


A. Pavement Crooked Rain Crooked Rain

B. Otis Redding Otis Blue

C. Yeah Yeah Yeahs Fever to Tell

D. De La Soul De La Soul is Dead

E. Duke Ellington Never No Lament: The Blanton-Webster Band

F. Billie Holiday Lady Day: The Master Takes & Singles

G. Blondie Parallel Lines

H. Johnny Thunders & the Heartbreakers L.A.M.F.

I. New Order Power, Corruption & Lies

J. Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook

K. Frank Sinatra The Best of the Columbia Years 1943-1952

L. The Go-Betweens Oceans Apart

M. Charlie Parker The Yardbird Suite

N. Buzzcocks Singles Going Steady

O. Phil Spector Back to Mono (1958-1969)


A. I would love Crooked Rain Crooked Rain just for the line in "Range Life" where Malkmus sings "The Stone Temple Pilots/They're elegant bachelors/They're foxy to me are they foxy to you?" but that's only one of many moments where Malkmus ambles into hilarious moments of grace.

B. I could pick any of Redding's albums from Pain in My Heart to The Immortal Otis Redding (and the last two posthumous collections, Love Man and Tell the Truth, aren't bad either), but Otis Blue has the best cover (just about the only time a record company pulled the whole 'let's put a blond white woman an album by an African-American recording artist' trick without embarrassing themselves) so I guess it wins because of that, but also because "I've Been Loving You Too Long" is the greatest vocal performance of Redding's career, and his recording of "Satisfaction" renders the Stones version absolutely useless.

C. Maybe it's too soon for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and I can see how some of their mannerisms might grate, but then again maybe I can see better how their mannerisms might seem like symptoms of a rational cynicism that felt more intelligent than hope or desperation during the last decade.

D. Perhaps De La Soul is Dead should be held accountable for the proliferation of skits that have ruined many a hip hop album, but De La Soul is Dead is the first and just about the last time the skits are as funny and necessary as the songs, and the songs are very funny and very necessary.

E. The recordings collected in the Never No Lament set often sound like the summit of human civilization, every second a testament to taste, composure, and wit.

F. Billie Holiday represents the kind of human mystery that breaks my heart, because every decision she makes about phrasing and interpretation across the late 30s/early 40s recordings collected in the above set indicates a level of insight and genius neither you or I or the person in the next room can ever hope to touch, but every decision she made in her personal life was the wrong one. Maybe somebody misinformed her at a young age that they gave Nobel Prizes in self-destruction, and so she applied her considerable skill there too.

G. I love the unapologetic trashiness of Blondie, so redolent of the Bazooka Joe faux-populism of punk, and smart enough to recognize in disco merely another another expression of that sensibility, patterns of thought which all come together on Parallel Lines.

H. L.A.M.F. is the great lost punk album of 1977, a masterpiece of strung out theories about civilization and its discontented hangers-on from the New York Dolls guitarist and F.O.D.D., Johnny Thunders.

I. That New Order album makes the work of mourning in the age of mass communication sound so damn sexy.

J. Ella Fitzgerald and Cole Porter were, as the cliché goes, an ideal match of sensibilities. It's often said all the Songbooks are great, but I find the Gershwin collection relatively dull, and I think the sarcastic, mercenary temperament at the heart of many of Irving Berlin's lyrics is something she just didn't get and thus often didn't know how to phrase (I really dislike her reading of "Let's Face the Music and Dance"), but Porter's songs are guides to how to waltz through the suffering and heartbreak the world pushes at you without breaking a sweat, and that sensibility was always Fitzgerald's special benediction as a performer, so everything comes together beautifully here.

K. I know many who say the Columbia Years just aren't as interesting as the Dorsey recordings, where Sinatra found his voice, or the Capitol years, where he reconstructed it, but there's something to the smooth, lavender quality in Sinatra's sound throughout most of these songs that counts as a particular kind of perfection. And I'm as suspicious of the claims made on behalf of perfection as anybody, but sometimes perfection can be, you know, nice, and this is often very, very nice.

L. The Go-Betweens are sometimes my favorite rock band, and Oceans Apart would rarely be the album I'd name as my favorite, but I have been listening to it a lot in the past two months, and despite the most godawful mastering job I've ever encountered, I keep coming back to it rather obsessively. It was to be their last album, and it sounds like an accidental testament, a wonderful encapsulation of their sensibility and the range of their sonic ideas, which somehow the muddy mastering just renders all the more incisive.

M. Charlie Parker would be the best argument ever made on behalf of the pure pleasure of virtuosity for its own sake, except plenty of feeling and humor backs up every outburst, so I'm once again saved from having to make moral allowances for genius.

N. I've challenged myself to say something about each of these albums, but I have nothing to say about the Buzzcocks. Just that they're loudly wonderful and sublimely frivolous and very desperate.

O. And in light of recent events, let's just say my love of the Spector recordings might have a little less to do with Spector than the title of the box set would indicate, and more to do with Ronnie Spector's proto-punk goddess presence, or Darlene Love's determination to sing the only Christmas song anyone will ever need to hear, or Carole King & Gerry Goffin having the nerve to write "He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)." I mean, there are dozens of reasons why I sometimes play songs from the set obsessively, and most of them have nothing to do man whose name and face graces the box. Though sure, he probably had something to do with it all. Why else would they put his face on the box?

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Favorite Albums of 2009

I intend to finish my favorite movies of the decade countdown by the end of the week, but in the meantime I thought I'd shift my thoughts to a very belated list of my favorite albums from last year. It strikes me one of the theoretical advantages of the blogosphere is that writers don't need to be quite so slavishly concerned with deadlines, so for instance a best of the year list need not materialize in the first week of January, when solid December releases are still trying to make their claims upon time and memory. Instead, of course, the blogosphere mere encourages a race to the finish mentality, so that it's not unusual to see sites pushing out purported favorites sometime near the end of November. At any rate, these are the releases from last year that periodically obsessed me and which still claim some hold over my attention and affections.

1. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart -s/t An album which I liked a lot on first listen, and which I came to love over the course of the year. Pungent shoegaze nostalgia that wraps its fuzz blast histrionics around singing that whimpers and whispers its way around the ear as the lyrics make desperate proclamations of adequacy and yearning.

2. Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix - Phoenix Car commercial dance punk of an unusually stirring variety. Music to drive into brick walls by.

3. Primary Colours - the Horrors Like all current Brit-pop possessing any pretensions to relevancy, this channels Ian Curtis's ghost to exuberant effect, like paranoid roosters trapped in a florescent box.

4. It's Not Me, It's You - Lily Allen Snot-nosed spitfire proclamations of gender ressentiment wrapped up in the bouncy-bouncy day-glo sounds of a girl figuring out just how much the world owes her.

5. It's Blitz! - Yeah Yeah Yeahs! In which Karen O. discovers her inner disco goddess and conquers dance floors in need of a good rug shampooer.

6. My World - Lee Fields A soul legend only in the lost dreams of jaundiced archivists, he rises from the earth to produce stone cold soul that demands history's bloody head on a plate.

7. Wilco (the Album) - Wilco The joke being that not even people who like them a lot (like me) have any trouble imagining their lives without them, but their poignant superfluity, like the backyard bar-b-q philosopher who takes you aside to explain the meaning of love, money, and rock n roll because you both need and deserve to know, is their primal gift after all.

8. Embryonic - The Flaming Lips Weird noises gurgling up from the basement belonging to America's favorite square hippies next door, this is drenched in the sounds of the sad reverie of those too easily astonished at the limits of their imaginations, which is why it obsessed me for two weeks straight.

9. Rated R - Rihanna - Explorations of a superstar's distorted, jagged plane of super-existence, where every trauma takes on the scale, pathos, and bathos of an epic myth.

10. Sainthood - Tegan & Sara - Still getting into this, but sounds almost as good as the last one, and with the girls possessing great yelps in the form of voices that give me goosebumps even when the songs have nowhere in particular to go.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Love and Memory

From Wikipedia's entry on the year 1327:
April 6
Petrarch sees a woman he names Laura in the church of Sainte-Claire d'Avignon, which awakes in him a lasting passion. He writes a series of poems dedicated to her, which are collected into his Canzoniere ("Song Book"). This is generally considered to be the day the Renaissance began.

"I soon realized I had made no mistake in my choice of wife. I was helping her pack an overnight bag one afternoon when she said, 'Put in some tooth twine.' I knew then that a girl who called dental floss tooth twine was the girl for me." - E.B. White

Friday, April 02, 2010

8-track Utopia

Just watched the pretty good 1995 doc 'So Wrong They're Right,' partly about 8-track tape collectors, but largely about the ad hoc, far flung community of bohemians and social misfits born of the shared hobby. It's also about 90s nostalgia for the 70s, which had the effect of making me nostalgic for the 90s, particularly due to its alternative zine-based subculture ethos and its apparently sincere faith in commodity fetishism as a viable means of challenging hegemony. And in as much as said fetishism produced the sense of shared purpose captured on film , the movie's faith might not have been misplaced. Features Holy Modal Rounders associate Michael Hurley and one of the most godawful sound mixes I think I've ever heard.

Monday, February 08, 2010

'Deep, Genuine Moral Tones;' and Other Varieties of Twaddle

Rebecca Prime's fine essay, "Cloaked in Compromise: Jules Daissin's Naked City" (found in the endlessly fascinating 2007 anthology "Un-American" Hollywood: Politics and Film in the Blacklist Era) contains a survey of contemporaneous critical reactions in the American press to Rossellini's Rome:Open City (1945). Very rarely have so many specimen of very fine sounding nonsense been amassed in one place. We discover, thanks to the legendary New York Times critic Bosley Crowther (a popular bunching bag for both Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael, and a noted inferior to such contemporaries as Otis Ferguson, James Agee, and Manny Farber) that Rome: Open City demonstrated "hard simplicity and genuine passion" and not "the slickly manufactured sentiments of Hollywood's studio made pictures." One of Crowther's contemporaries, the not-so-legendary Lee Morris opined "People under the oppressor's heel aren't apt to say, 'I want to be entertained. I don't want anything serious. No ideas, now.' They begin to think straight about basic values. And so does their art." The absolute faith in the hard and fast binaries of the genuine and the manufactured, of moral seriousness and slick entertainment, rather astounds me. Not that such sentiments have disappeared completely from the critical commonplace (though I can't imagine anyone aside from a particularly guileless press agent making such broad and confident claims about any public's fondness for 'basic values'), but at least one would expect them to be expressed a little more apprehensively now. But I'm left pondering what the distance between their lofty sentiments, and mine (and maybe yours) means. The quotes above make me think about my particular distance from the sophisticated rubes who wrote them, but also the extent to which their sensibility might contain a kernel of grace worth preserving.

Pierre Bourdieu famously claimed that all tastes are in fact matters of distaste (though I find such ideas already loudly implicit in Kant's notion of "communities of taste," but I digress), but though the terms they use to articulate their standards repel me, I'm left wondering how much my actual positions and preferences differ from the naive, dated liberal humanists of the era. After all, though I keep words like "authenticity" and "sincerity" banned from my critical lexicon on the grounds they tend to be something worse than useless as critical concepts, I'm not totally lacking in sympathy for the aesthetic and ethical qualities those terms were meant to get at. And in the specific case of a movie like Rome: Open City, I share their admiration if not the grounds upon which it was based. My sense of distaste is for what the sensibilities of those critics threatened to exclude more than for the films they embraced.

Crowther contrasted Rome: Open City to "slickly manufactured sentiments of Hollywood's studio made pictures," which leads me to think about my own favorite Hollywood movie of 1945*: Edgar Ulmer's Detour, a poverty row film noir which is as stripped of the normal commercial comforts of Hollywood cinema as Rossellini's masterpiece. And surely, much of what I love about Detour has to do with its considerable distance from "slickly manufactured sentiments." I also admire the movie's "hard simplicity," which in this context means a gnarled grace, where the extreme poverty of means reduces the film to the purity of Ulmer's feverish mise-en-scene. As far as "genuine passion," I'm not sure if genuine ever enters into it, but what makes Ulmer's movies so fascinating is their go-for-broke quality, the complete emotional overdrive of every moment which you could call passion, or you could call hysteria.

Not that Crowther or his contemporaries noticed any qualitative similarities at the time. Part of the pleasure of Detour is its utter disreputability, the fact that it seems disengaged from anything like good taste or decent humanist values. But in its way, it has as much to say about its own moment in history as Open City does about the chaos of occupied Rome. Made by Edgar Ulmer, a Jewish emigre working in Hollywood, Detour evinces a feeling of profound dislocation, and a sense of fatalism which seems to speak to Ulmer's particular historical situation. The fact that the movie, made in the cheapest studio sets and backlots, takes place in hellhole motel rooms which look perfectly cast for their part, and expressionist night clubs which have a way of becoming untethered from any discernible physical reality, only seems befitting for the expression of a man cut loose from the fortunes and profound misfortunes of history.

Much of my admiration for Detour comes from the feeling that it doesn't simply want to entertain me (it wants to leave the viewer feeling throttled and confused), and is at heart as deeply serious as any historical nightmare one can imagine. In other words, I value the movie for many of the same middlebrow reasons Lee Morris valued Rome: Open City. Yet, no one in 1945 placed any value in Ulmer's movie, and if Bosley Crowther and Lee Morris ever bothered to see it (as it was a poverty row release, few if any critics at the major dailies would have screened the movie), they would have likely been outraged at the notion that it was in any way aesthetically comparable to Open City. So whatever surface sympathy between their critical standards and mine shatters upon contact with actual movies.

Rome: Open City continues to impress today because some of Rossellini's images bear the burden of history, capturing movement in ways that seem radically uncomposed and automatic. The famous scene of Anna Magnani chasing after a truck carrying her partisan boyfriend possesses the same unsettling texture of truth as, for instance, the famous photograph of a little boy in the Warsaw ghetto holding his hands up as Nazi troops move him about by gunpoint. (A connection once suggested by one of Godard's cine-essays.)

In contrast, every image in Detour connotes the overdetermination of Ulmer's intentions.

But though the texture of their images differ, both Ulmer and Rossellini worked out profound fabrications of history, specific responses to the contingencies of their moments.

In another piece Prime cites, Crowther wrote "feeling that pulses through [Open City] gives evidence that it was inspired by artists whose own emotions had been deeply and recently stirred" resulting in a movie possessing a "deep, genuine moral tone." It's unlikely that anything more than a paycheck stirred Edgar Ulmer to make Detour, and one thing that measures the difference between myself and Crowther is his insistence on overrating the importance of intentions. But also, I sense a linguistic chasm, so that what I think I mean when I use words like "moral," or "simplicity" or "passion" differs a great deal from what Crowther thought he meant. Ultimately, the reason Crowther's words strike me as so naive, even though I share a similar belief in a moral core to great films, is the difference of what that core amounts to (well, that, and Crowther had no sensitivity whatsoever to film form). Crowther, an old fashioned humanist of old fashioned liberal leanings, seemed to imagine art as a kind of smart, open minded Anglican minister, well spoken and dressed proper with just the right degree of indulgence in rumble tumble rhetoric and not a bit more. The out of control, more than a little ragged and mad soapbox evangelicalism of Detour naturally offended New York Times notions of human virtue, but such qualities keep Detour in close contact with reality as the rest of the 20th century came to define it, and thus continues to assert an urgent verisimilitude in the same spirit as the most powerful moments in Open City, while Crowther's writings read like the fatuous, well-intentioned anachronisms they always were.

*It should be noted, however, for accuracy's sake, that Crowther composed his review for Open City's US release in 1947.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

About Jacques Brel and the Blue Umbrella: Some Fragmentary Thoughts on Carlos Reygadas' Silent Light

1. Jacques Brel

Nearly two thirds of the way through Carlos Reygadas's Silent Light (2007), footage from a 1967 Jacques Brel concert makes a surprise appearance, and it helps crystallize everything that works and doesn't work about Reygadas's enigmatic film. The lead character, Johan, and his mistress, Marianne, have just made love in an upstairs bedroom at a diner/motel. He left his kids in the diner on ground floor, and when he ventures down, they're initially nowhere to be found. He eventually finds them outside in the parking lot, sitting in the back of a van owned by a baseball cap wearing American, watching old Jacques Brel concert footage on the van's built-in media player. The scene has the air of a Surrealist juxtaposition. The situation of these characters - aside from the American, all members of a Mennonite community - finding themselves in a motel parking lot enjoying a Jacques Brel performance from 1967, seems strange, and the shift of feeling signaled by the appearance of Brel startles, though the characters all take obvious, relaxed pleasure in watching Brel perform "Les Bonbons '67."

Brel's style of performance, ostensive, melodramatic, simultaneously ridiculous and poignant, contrasts sharply with the dramatic register of the rest of movie. Both the performances and the rhythms of the film itself work inward, maintaining a muted approach that breaks through to something bigger and louder only occasionally. Brel represents the only significant contact the film makes with the world outside of the Mennonite community and its particular behavioral codes. In the context of the world Silent Light portrays, Brel violent display of emotion shocks and moves because it unleashes feelings that have remain pent up from the very first scene.

The moment comes after a love scene marked by its quiet reserve and singular lack of anything that might be considered ecstasy or excess. Yet, what touches me about the scene is the way Reygadas conveys the texture and tenderness of human flesh with an immediacy that quickly becomes uncomfortable. Reygadas accomplishes this discomfort by placing his camera in very close proximity to his actors. Here for instance, are two shots of the first embrace between Johan and Marianne:

The close-ups strike appear unusually tight in the context of the film, and the effect feels invasive. The sound mix adds to the feeling of intimacy, since it effectively registers the wetness of their kisses with an overwhelming textual immediacy. Reygadas composes the vast majority of the movie in long shot, meaning the cuts to these intimate close-ups achieve a force which feels almost violent. It was precisely the uncomfortable, fleshy immediacy of Reygadas's style which prevented me from watching his previous feature, Battle in Heaven, all the way through. I simply did not want to be in such intense physical contact with his performers in that movie. Here, both the characters and the actors are more appealing, and their intimacy more moving.

In the love scene which immediately precedes the Jacques Brel footage, the intimacy again proves startling. For instance, Raygadas's camera captures the gleam of saliva on Marianne's neck.

Reygadas has a habit of following intense moments such as this one with framing choices which seem archly formalistic. Sometimes the choices effectively achieve a rhyming balance between intimacy and distance which contributes to the movie's emotional texture. Other times, his choices strike me as rather empty. Here, for instance, is a pair of shots that come from the very last moment of the love scene and the very next image, a cut to the downstairs diner.

The choice of framing for the scene on the left jars in the context of the moment, since it shifts the characters to the extreme left of the frame, leaving a composition filled largely with negative space. The moment disengages from the intimate contact with the characters which had marked most of the sequence. The next cut (the still on the right) reveals a precise visual logic, since it rhymes rather neatly with the previous image, in that the only person in the shot occupies the (less) extreme right of the frame, leaving the left of the image to be filled by a kind of negative space. The distanced framing serves some narrative purpose in the shot on the right since it allows us to register the children's absence. Yet beyond that, the choices strike me as emptily formalistic. In Film as Film, V.F. Perkins emphasizes the notion that mise-en-scène should entail the enrichment of conception and feeling, and as someone who shares Perkins's disdain for such formalist audacities as the famed 'waking lion' scene from Eisenstein's Potemkin, I'm enormously sympathetic to Perkins's point of view. For all that I find interesting and admirable about Reygadas' film, I find too many scenes where Reygadas appears to embrace oddities of framing and staging for their own sake. The above sequence of images would make a useful illustration of a graphic match in Bordwell and Thompson's Film Art, but beyond that I'm not sure what function it serves.

In contrast, an apparently absurdist gesture like the inclusion of the Jacques Brel performance punctuates the scene with an outpouring of affect which feels absolutely necessary to the moment. We're at the end of a rendezvous between two illicit lovers, and the last shot we see of Johan and his children comes from a point of view shot belonging to Marianne, who looks on at the man she loves, and his children. Together, they share a beatific perfection from which she's pointedly excluded.

Following a long shot depicting Marianne's long, lonely walk away from the van and back towards the diner, Reygadas temporarily surrenders his movie to Jacques Brel. Brel's engagingly weird, spastic performance (he evokes images of Jerry Lewis) provides its own mise-en-scène, and such an open display of emotion, the practice of a performer who felt it was his ethical responsibility as an entertainer to provide a surplus of emotion to a needy audience, answers the emotional inertia of the world we've inhabited for the last hour. We're left with tight close-ups of Brel that echo Reygadas's fondness for alarming proximity to his performers, but whereas Reygadas's intimacy feels invasive, Brel was such a smart exhibitionist that his presence always feels invited.

2. The Blue Umbrella

Fifteen minutes or so after Jacques Brel makes his appearance, Johan and his wife, Esther, sit in Johan's car, riding down a highway during a torrential downpour. The atmosphere of the scene is tense. Esther knows about Johan's affair with Marianne, and the entire sequence depicts a woman existing in a profound state of estrangement not just from her husband, but from all the details of her existence. She tells Johan she feels ill, and asks him to pull over the side of the road. He complies, and she gets out into the pouring rain. After moving a few feet from the vehicle, Johan calls out to her, and she turns back to him. He hands out a blue umbrella to her, which she accepts before walking back away from the car.

The scene moves me due to its offhand humanity. It might not register at all if it weren't the case that among the problems which plague contemporary cinema is a kind of casual meanness that pops up in all sorts of contexts. Whether it's a random bystander saying "Some whore got raped" when Monica Bellucci gets placed in an ambulance in Irreversible or a character opining "We lost a really hot Milf" in response to a character's death in The Final Destination or the way everyone treats Rachel Harris' character in The Hangover, modern cinema suffers from a glut of characters pathologically committed to random acts of cruelty (and misogyny). The sour turn reflects a contraction of human possibility, where the natural instinct seems to be to respond to people as varieties of nuisances. The unremarkable grace of a man giving a woman an umbrella as she heads out into the pouring rain proves painfully compelling in this context.

Reygadas's framing works perfectly here, documenting the interaction between husband and wife from a distance that captures the fragile humanity of the moment without doing anything to underscore it or clumsily overemphasize its import. It's also one instance where the richness of the film's cinematography doesn't overwhelm the other elements in the film, and instead operates in complex concord with the other elements of the mise-en-scène. The scene soon proves compelling for another reason; Reygadas isn't yet finished with that umbrella.

Soon after the long shot in which Esther walks away from the car, we see a close-up of Esther hugging a tree and crying uncontrollably. After about minute, she collapses and falls to the ground. The movie cuts back to Johan, in the car, waiting on his wife. He eventually gets out to look for her. The camera follows closely behind, and we get a herky-jerky handheld following shot as he ventures into the rain. He eventually spots the key detail that allows him to locate his wife: the blue umbrella blowing away in the distance.

Ironically, given the camera's closeness to Johan, the camera records the umbrella's movements before Johan seems to detect it. Once he spots the umbrella, Johan swerves to the left and spots his wife lying crumbled at the foot of a tree, and rushes forward to her side. As he runs to his wife, the camera remains stuck at the spot it first caught the umbrella's movements, as if that crucial detail remains the most significant piece of information. We watch Johan in long shot as he cradles his wife's body, and lets out a cry that manages to be heard above the pounding of the rain. Reygadas' camera keeps a tactful distance.

Reygadas packs his images with ideas. The umbrella first pops up as a throwaway gesture, a shorthand way of getting at the concern felt by a husband for his wife even as their love collapses. A moments later, the action proves to have a follow-up, in that it's the tell-tale sign that enables the man to recover and mourn his wife's body. The actions possess a neat congruency, the sign of mercy dovetailing into another merciful (though devastating) moment. The umbrellas accrues a retrospective narrative weight thanks to the ways Reygadas uses it as connecting device in his mise-en-scène. It's the unobtrusive visual element upon everything turns.

Smart mise-en-scène is the art of making images think two or more thoughts simultaneously. One reason I love William Wyler's movies, for instance, is that I can look at virtually any given image from The Good Fairy, The Little Foxes, or The Best Years of Our Lives, and see Wyler working on three or four ideas at once. In contrast, most movies works one idea at a time, and do so relentlessly, achieving the numbing monotony of thought characteristic of advertising and political propaganda. Going back to the shot of Esther taking an umbrella from her husband, you can see Reygadas accomplishing three, maybe four, tasks - the shot demonstrates Johan's concern for his wife; it shows Esther's momentary sense of composure in turning back for the umbrella; it sets up the future use of the umbrella as a talisman of Esther's death; and it presents the overwhelming beauty of the natural landscape emphasized through Reygadas's decision to shoot the action in long shot.

My reservations about the movie, however, emanate from the last of Reygadas's preoccupations in that shot, since Reygadas's sense of rapture has a way of arresting the movie. He tries to use beauty as a way of getting at transcendence, and had his camera seemed more disinterested, content to simply record the world's slow unfolding, the obsession might have paid off. But the attention paid to beauty often feels overcomposed. The film's obvious antecedent is Carl Dreyer's Ordet, which makes a startling contrast given Dreyer's formal asceticism in that movie. I often have problems with the stylized performances that characterize most Dreyer movies (my favorite Dreyer is Day of Wrath because it's the only one where human behavior doesn't appear to conform to some cryptic geometry invented by the director), but his asceticism feels absolutely right in Ordet. Beauty can be a trap for a filmmaker, and it feels as if Reygadas falls into it.

In Silent Light, the scenes where Reygadas gives the movie over to depopulated landscape shots feel like an emptying out, in terms of ideas and feeling.Those shots can also feel aggravatingly mannered. For instance, shortly after the moment Johan recovers his wife's body, he carries her back to his car. As he falls to the ground with his wife cradled in his lap, a semi pulls over to the side of the road. Two men get out and go up to Johan to see what they can do to assist. Reygadas shoots the two men from a low angle, seemingly from Johan's point of view. As they move out of shot toward Johan, Reygadas keeps his camera still, and continues holding the shot of the semi-truck against the horizon for half a minute while we hear Johan and the two truckers out of frame.

I have nothing against depopulated shots like the one on the right. Ozu's "pillow shots," Antonioni's evocations of ennui, and Tarkovsky's sculpted portraits of time all serve particular ideas and conjure up concrete emotions in their moments. My problem with Reygadas's landscape shots is that they often seem disconnected from the texture of any given moment. Where the long shots that characterize so much of this particular sequence bespeak of a discretion which proves incredibly moving, the static camera and the use of offscreen space feels emptily formalistic, and disengages from the scene in a way that doesn't seem to contain any ideas at all.

The ideas Reygadas's landscape compositions do get across are largely second hand clichés of landscape painting.

Which isn't to say that his images aren't singularly lovely, as the above images ably attest, but they have the quality of ready-made compositions, with no feeling for the fortuitous or the compellingly clumsy that comes from a curious, investigative relationship with the natural world, like Renoir capturing the swirl of dust around Boudu's feet in Boudu Saved from Drowning. All these images bear the burden of thought and intention, and lose much of their potential for poetry as a consequence.

What fascinates me about the blue umbrella is how its quotidian complexity work in contrast to Reygadas's much vaunted landscape images . The uses Reydadas finds for that umbrella suggests an intelligence trying to work its way through the contingencies of a specific dramatic situation, using the discrete ephemera of the everyday as a way of making meaning and feeling manifest. In other words, the profound handiwork of any ordinary decent director.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

The Fatal Glass of Milk

I watched William Wyler's These Three (1936) this morning and found myself admiring Wyler's staging even when having problems with the narrative. In particular, I loved a scene a third of the way through when Miriam Hopkins paints the legs of a table while recounting details of her childhood to Joel McCrea. Wyler frames Hopkins in a medium shot as she sits on the floor. McCrea is just offscreen to Hopkins's right. The shot offers us three details to pay attention to. Firstly, there's the most kinetic detail, Hopkins painting the table legs, the visceral action that keeps the scene from being just a moving photograph of a person talking. Secondly, Hopkins herself, as she talks to McCrea (whom she's in love with) about her childhood. And lastly, a glass of milk, just behind Hopkins's left shoulder, and tucked further back into the frame, very unobtrusive but still very much part of the composition. One assumes that Hopkins's monologue constitutes the most significant narrative element, but in fact it doesn't inform us of anything important, and as McCrea's character has fallen asleep out of frame (which we don't discover until cut after Hopkins finishes her monologue), it does nothing to move the relationship forward. In fact, it's the unobtrusive glass of milk which is the most important thing in the frame. When, a few cuts later, McCrea knocks the glass over, he sets the entire plot in motion. It reminds me of Hitchcock's famous desire to make a suspense movie entirely about objects, but I'd say Wyler beat him to the punch in 1936.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Rosenbaum and Agee

Let us now take a brief break from the bitter business of personal canon formation to praise this 1980 piece on an Agee documentary by Jonathan Rosenbaum. I've noted in the past that Rosenbaum has become too strident for my taste in recent years, at times sounding like a parody of himself, but this piece, about a negligible 1980 documentary on the great writer James Agee, shows Rosenbaum at the near-peak of his expressive powers. Check out the passage where he slides in his requisite jab at Republican Presidents: "[Carter] wasn't a bit like...Ronald Reagan leaking sincerity and integrity like a reptilian wallet in his old General Electric TV spots." Beyond the self-affirmatory proclamation of his liberal bona fides, the line gets across a great simile (the wallet a nasty-easy-smart evocation of liberal disgust at Republican avarice), and a funny piece of trivia. The language gives the swipe an afterlife beyond the peevish impulses of its moment, something I'm not confident can be said of Rosenbaum's recent writing. Smart prose pervades the piece, and it offers a particularly bracing engagement between a writer and his literary model. Read it as if your peace of mind depended upon it.