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.