Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The B Connection: Lewton, Renoir and Truffaut

In a book I am currently reading, The Early Film Criticism of François Truffaut by Wheeler Dixon (Indiana University 1993), there is an interesting section that deals with the obvious influence on Truffaut of Hollywood b-movies, particularly film noir.

According to Dixon, Truffaut and even his mentor, Jean Renoir, preferred b-features over a-productions. In a 1954 interview, Renoir was quite emphatic:
"I'll say a few words about Val Lewton, because he was an extremely interesting person; unfortunately he died, it's already been a few years. He was one of the first, maybe the first, who had the idea to make films that weren't expensive, with 'B' picture budgets, but with certain ambitions, with quality screenplays, telling more refined stories than usual. Don't go thinking that I despise "B" pictures; in general I like them better than big, pretentious psychological films they're much more fun. When I happen to go to the movies in America, I go see "B'' pictures. First of all, they are an expression of the great technical quality of Hollywood. Because, to make a good western in a week, the way they do at Monogram, starting Monday and finishing Saturday, believe me, that requires extraordinary technical ability; and detective stories are done with the same speed. I also think that "B" pictures are often better than important films because they are made so fast that the filmmaker obviously has total freedom; they don't have time to watch over him."
So all you b-movie fans you are in hallowed company!

[Cross-posted at FilmsNoir.Net]

Saturday, February 21, 2009


A hotel room
I write dreams

A train to nowhere
The rambling commuter tracks
An empty highway of voluptuous dreams

Exotic visions
An elusive stringed symphonia of a future present already gone
Four women, three sirens

The hotel neon illumines our sordid fantasies
We embrace then kiss
Sweet poison

Red lampshade, red lips
Red rooms, red curtains
Red shadows

Unfaithful erotic pose
Defiant gaze
The aching solitude of knowing
In your arms I am no longer there
A chimera of future timelessness

Platform shoes
Heels that glow
Strut and trample the hallowed tar from my shattered soul

Wanton abandon a mirror for Innocence lost
My words shattered
Shards of fallen glass
In pools of liquid gaze

Your naked thighs thrust in ecstasy
A trap of lost hope and stolen bliss

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Contempt: Bardot and Palance

Brigitte Bardot and Jack Palance in Le Mépris (1963)

This stunning frame from Jean Luc Godard's Le Mépris (aka Contempt France 1963) for me epitomises the early 60s.

GATTACA : "There is no gene for the human spirit "

As night-fall does not come at once, neither does oppression...
It is in such twilight that
we all must be aware of change in
the air
- however slight - lest we become victims of the darkness.
-Justice William O. Douglas (opening title from an early draft of the screenplay)

One of the most intelligent and provocative sci-fi films ever made,
Gattaca is a
frosty, dystopian, and unpreachy vision of the ethical
challenges that lay ahead.


Gattaca is set in a future dystopia where your genetic inheritance determines your place in society from birth. If your genes are deficient you are an 'in-valid' and excluded from pursuing a meaningful life. Gattaca is the story of a young man who defies this oppressive system of exclusion. The movie is the first feature of New Zealand writer and director, Andrew Niccol, and as stunning a debut as I can recall. The realisation of Niccol's cinematic vision is admirably aided by the ravishing cinematography of Slawomir Idziak and exquisite art direction of Sarah Knowles. Color is rendered from a muted palate that gives the film a dream-like quality. The young leads, Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, and Jude Law are perfectly cast, with strong supporting performances from Alan Arkin and Loren Dean. Michael Nyman’s elegiac music score is hauntingly ethereal

'Gattaca' is an acronym of the first letters of the component organic compounds that make up DNA: adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine. Thematically Gattaca is structured as a double-helix - the molecular structure of DNA - with a major groove and a minor groove. The major overarching theme is the disturbing vision of a world where eugenics defines your life chances and life choices: your job, who you marry, your intrinsic worth as a human. This ambitious scenario is deftly woven into a dramatic and deeply human story of romantic love, family, sibling rivalry, murderous ambition, bravery, sacrifice and tragedy. The geometry of the double-helix is a potent motif with a spiral staircase a dramatic visual focus throughout.

Many critics have agreed with the Time Out reviewer, who described Gattaca as "chilly, elegant, and a little bloodless". This may be a fair description of the society that frames the story, but for me the human story projected on the screen has a deeply oneiric quality, and the director's expressive mis-en-scene engenders deep psychic imagery that make Gattaca a truly 'cinematic' experience. Gattaca is akin to the vivid primal dream you recall at that instant of awakening with the deep recognition of a preternatural truth that makes you ache for a return to that truth. To paraphrase Raymond Chandler, the night is all around, soft and quiet, the white moonlight is cold and clear, like the truth we dream of but don’t find.

Gattaca is an imagined universe that Janus-like is darkly visionary yet achingly beautiful.

Postscript: Illumina, a genetics firm in the UK, will be starting an affordable genetic mapping service within two years. Clients will pay at least US$10,000 for a complete mapping of every gene in their DNA. Illumina says that by 2020 the service should be so affordable that all newborns will have their genomes sequenced at birth. Source: The Times on Line 9Feb09

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Summary Judgements #2

Open City (1945) A landmark film, the meaning of which goes beyond the immediate drama of the story and its historical genesis, where the struggle of daily existence and life's tragedies are related unadorned and with supreme empathy and authenticity, of its time and beyond time, grounded in real lives played out in real homes and real streets. Open City opened up the horizon not only of a freedom so harshly won, but of a new cinema beyond the 'illusion of reality'. Vittoria de Sica in his introduction to the published script for Miracle in Milan, wrote the neo-realists "offered a transformed reality from which they drew forth the inner, human, and therefore universal meaning: it is reality transposed to the realm of poetry". When Francesco speaks to Pina on the eve of their wedding, he speaks of aspirations that are timeless: "We're fighting for something that has to be, that can't help coming. Maybe the way is hard, it may take a long time, but we'll get there, and we'll see a better world. And our kids will see it. Marcello and - him, the baby that coming". [From my review of The Grapes of Wrath]

Bicycle Thieves (1948) Visual poetry; a truth beyond artifice; a transfiguration of the everyday to the realm of the sublime; the love, the sorrow, and the pity of real lives lived in earnest and without ego, artifice, affectation or ambition. Art for the people of the people and for all time.

Casino Royale (2006) Banal and boring. The new Bond is a fascist. Innocent bodies drop like flies as Bond establishes his hero persona with his macho daring-do and his elongated gun-cum-phallus. The body count is only necessary ‘collateral damage’ in the greater ‘just cause’.

The Air I Breathe (2007) A very unusual Hollywood movie that goes beyond genre and episodically explores dark and mystical motifs: memory, love, violence, criminality, ambition, alienation, urban ennui, existential angst, causality, serendipity, and even the butterfly effect cum six degrees of separation.

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007) An ugly urban fable, that by it’s end leaves you stunned as to why this film should have been made at all. A family of psychotics in a killing frenzy like the sharks in Orson Well’s 'The Lady From Shanghai': "Then the beasts took to eating each other. In their frenzy… they ate at themselves. You could feel the lust of murder like a wind stinging your eyes. And you could smell the death reeking up out of the sea".

The Darjeeling Limited (2007) Not perfect but a quirky engaging celebration of true freedom in all it’s darkness and richness. The film is weakest when it tries to analyze the reasons for the journey, and in the banal interlude at the nunnery. We don’t need a reason for living… or for dying.

Gone Baby Gone (2007) A strange violent story of nostalgia and social mis-critique. Working-class Boston is portrayed in a pseudo-realist opening sequence of urban ennui and alienation as some 'lost' place, where an urban flatfoot and his girl-friend get to play judge, jury, and executioner, with a climax where the gumshoe executes an un-armed and deranged psychopath in a squalid tenement. Fascist violence as urban justice - rollover Tarantino.

There Will be Blood (2008) A rambling confusing epic with no soul.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Guilty Pleasures

After a 20 year hiatus, in 2005 my then 15yo daughter drew me back to television. She wanted me to watch her favorites shows with her. I did, at first reluctantly, and then went on to enjoy these shows immensely. High production values, a continuing story arc, quirky characters, cool contemporary music, and the thriller elements had me hooked. Also recommend for fathers struggling to connect with their teenage daughters :). I will be writing up each show later, and each review will be hyper-linked to the show's title below.

Roswell (1999-2002)

The 4400 (2004-2007)

Veronica Mars (2004-2007)

Prison Break (2005-2008?)

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Vision of Utopia

This is a fascinating frame from the Powell and Pressburger sci-fi movie, A Matter of Life and Death (1947):

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Summary Judgements #1

Frost/Nixon (2008)
Revisionist souffle.

The Class (Entre les murs - France 2008) "A little less conversation, a little more action please".

Up The Yangytze (Canada 2007) Heartrendingly sad. The real China.

The Fountain (2006) Profound and mesmerising journey into the unbearable deepness of being.

Trouble in Paradise (1932) Joyous irreverent elegant fun with a delicious erotic playfulness.

The Apartment (1960) Very dated and very tedious. Watch Mad Men instead.

Dracula (1931) The first 20 minutes is magic. Flounders after the count leaves his castle.

Bride of Frankenstein (1935) Camp noir horror - a visual feast.

My Brother is an Only Son (Mio fratello è figlio unico - Italy 2007) A saga of two brothers - one a fascist the other a marxist - in 60s Italy. Powerful and affecting.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Lumet's 12 Angry Men (1957)

Peter Heath Baker wrote of 12 Angry Men in an article for Criterion:

"The 95-minute running time of the film is also the duration of the jurors’ decision-making. The camera, like the jurors, cannot leave the room until a verdict has been reached. Faithful to Aristotle’s prescription for classical theatre, 12 Angry Men observes the unities of time, place, and action, which is rare in a film. Sidney Lumet, in his debut as a film director, used the techniques of the theatre to evoke the claustrophobic tension of the jury room. Before shooting, he rehearsed his cast for two weeks, running through the script like a play. With the aid of On the Waterfront cinematographer Boris Kaufman, Lumet plotted the camera’s movements to highlight what developed during the intensive period of rehearsal."

I have served on a criminal jury. I was in my mid-20s and the accused was a guy charged with robbing a bank. 12 Angry Men echoes my experiences in that jury room. In my case the evidence was largely circumstantial and the jury included women, but the terrible fear in most minds was the same: what if we condemn an innocent man? We deliberated and found the guy guilty, though with no great sense of justice.

Sidney Lumet's first feature is a powerful movie, where Boris Kaufman's camera is not so much an observer as a participant in the cloistered confines of a jury room on a steamy summer day where the only fan doesn't work. After the opening scene where a weary and visibly bored judge instructs the jurors to consider their verdict in a murder case, we cut to the jury room and in an elegant long take the camera moves at eye level around the room, first observing a man staring out a window, then moving to other men in conversation, and moving on again and again to introduce each protagonist in turn. When the jurors are seated on the first vote around the table one man is holding out for not guilty - the man we earlier saw staring out the window who is played by Henry Fonda. The drama turns on this man's insistence on justice being done, and holding the jury down to a fair assessment of the evidence. A great ensemble cast holds the tension and expertly develops the melodrama of conflict and personality. The camera is often in close-up deftly taking a player's point of view in confrontations.

As the tension mounts and the personal dramas of the jurors take on as much significance as their deliberations, the camera moves progressively down to a lower angle to reveal the room's ceiling, adding to the volcanic emotional tension as the last hold-outs on a guilty verdict come under attack.

While the strength of the direction and the cinematography are integral, it is the tight script by Reginald Rose and the telling dialog that underpins the drama. Each protagonist is profoundly human - each with his own emotional baggage and differing characteristics.

When the jurors finally leave the jury room, the camera lingers and muses over the empty chairs and table. There is a palpable sense of melancholy for something memorable, important, that is now gone forever. The final scene shows the jurors descending the steps of the court-house, each returning to their separate lives. The oldest of the jurors, a canny old man played beautifully by Joseph Sweeney, makes a touching attempt to talk to the Fonda character, to hold on to something that he doesn't want to lose, but the short exchange goes nowhere, and he shuffles away down the steps a little bewildered, and suddenly very old and very tired.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Thoughts on Les Enfant du Paradis

Such a rich tapestry of a film requires volumes to adequately explore its glorious and myriad threads. I wish to talk here broadly about allegory in the film in its historical context. While I claim no special privilege or skill in tackling the subject, these are my thoughts for what they are worth.

The name Garance rhymes with France and means a red flower: a delicate symbol of freedom and of a simple and beautiful elegance. Garance personifies liberty. Liberty as depicted by Delacroix, where again the colour red dominates: red for a nationalistic passion and vitality for revolutionary liberty. The metaphor is strong and simple.

Garance is loved by four men: the romantic mime, the gallant actor, the amoral criminal, and the banal aristocrat. In a simple yet profoundly symbolic gesture, Garance gives her red flower, her love and liberty, to the mime, the man of and from the people. She says love is simple. But it must be grasped impulsively and tightly held lest it is lost. The actor who loves all women does take her as she wishes to be taken, but he cannot hold her. His passion is ultimately selfish as he wants to possess her and not be one with her: he is too political, in love with his own oratory. The criminal cannot be loved by Garance and he destroys the aristocrat who can buy her companionship but not her love.

Liberty is for the people up in the stalls, les enfants du paradis, but requires sacrifice – sometimes a terrible wounding sacrifice. Will Baptiste impose that sacrifice on his family? Will liberty be won for the people?

Revolutionary Road

"From win and lose and still somehow It's life's illusions I recall I really don't know life at all" - Joni Mitchell

Revolutionary Road, contrary to my expectations, impressed me. The acting is fine, the artistic direction excellent, the direction accomplished, and while the screenplay moves too slowly, it is substantive and lets the story unfold unhindered by weighty symbolism or rhetoric.

In our own lives, how well do we really know or understand ourselves let alone others? Ambiguity and ambivalence enrich this picture. The situation and the angst portrayed are very real and not confined to the 50s. What is of interest is the dynamic of reconciliation with life that we must all make. Each takes his or her own torturous route, and there is no winning or losing, only a path.

Slumdog Millionaire

The ‘quiz show that stopped the nation’ trope is imposed and corny, the resolution clichéd, the genuine pathos of the older brother Samil’s sacrifice lost, the drama undermined by the love conquers all ending, and the dance number as a final coda misplaced and even repugnant. But the movie is still a dazzling cinematic experience: the cinematography, the editing, and the sound production as integral as the inspired direction. The acting of the young people and the kids is as solid as you could wish.

In a scene that deals with the mother's death, the visual terror and the cacophony is loud and intense, and the adrenalin that fuels the kids' flight is palpable, with the fast editing, the angled and off-center shots, all amplifying the brutality of what is happening on the screen; the abrupt stop as the kids' escape is blocked by a car with an annoyed and indifferent better-off passenger cocooned behind the closed windows; then the boys are off again until the final soaring aerial shots that move from the particular to the general - this is not a single story but one of many.

A Hollywood movie is not going to save India, but it can bring an immediacy to the plight of people living marginal lives in dire poverty, and perhaps widen awareness and understanding. The blinded kids don't escape their fate. Jamal and Latika escape only because Samal has a gun and uses it.

A background story on the writing of the screenplay by writer Simon Beaufoy is of interest.

A disturbing post-script: According to a recent newspaper report, the kids who played the young boy and girl who grew up to be the young lovers are still destitute and living in a Mumbai slum.

The Wrestler

Mickey Rourke's strong performance makes the picture, but otherwise I was disappointed. I deeply admire The Fountain, but here Darren Aronofsky has made just another Hollywood picture. The rich and resonant motifs and symbolism are used in the service of a rather banal and clichéd story, which does not cover new ground and shows little maturity. The scenario of the loser bad father who loves the Madonna whore, and has an estranged histrionic daughter is too hackneyed to sustain the crucifixion motif: pearls before swine. The hand-held camera perpetually trying to keep up with Randy may give the film an Indie cinema verite feel, but the cliché overload makes it redundant. The Magdalenesque ending is predictable and cloying.

But what really strikes me is the unrelieved ugliness of the appalling wrestling scenes and its contrived yet explicit violence. With respect, I feel not a few commentators on this movie let wrestling and those who promote it and enjoy it, undeservedly off the hook.

If there is any deeper symbolism, and here I give Aronofsky the benefit of the doubt, it is that in a market economy, even the human body is simply a commodity, 'meat' ripe for exploitation and abuse - be it wrestler's steroid-enhanced body or the explicit cavorting of a stripper.

Randy's alienation needs to be exploded not glorified.

The Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of Wrath is a testament to the people whose story is told, and is a profound and revolutionary social and economic critique, the meaning of which goes far beyond the Oklahoma dust-bowl and the orchards of California. It is both mythic and real, and its humanity universal. It is the greatest American film ever.

John Ford's realisation captures the spirit of Steinbeck's novel completely. His adaptation is respectful, and his ending utterly faithful to the book's intent. Steinbeck's suckling metaphor is one of hope, where from the deepest tragedy rises a like a phoenix the basic decency of simple people giving all that they have left to a stranger. Tom's leaving is inevitable. He is radicalised and his path is strictly defined.

What happened to the Joads happened to thousands of families: the banks' perfidy, the exploitation by farmers, and the hostility to organized labour, are historical facts, and these essential elements are the backbone of the film. The killing of Casy is one of the most politically powerful scenes in US movie history, and the case for government intervention is as strongly stated as it can be in the camp sequence.

Gregg Toland's photography prefigures the neo-realists. The integrity of Nunnally Johnson's script and Ford's unerring sense of pathos, have left us not only a film of deep humanity but an important social artefact. The makers of The Grapes of Wrath, to paraphrase De Sica on the neo-realists, offer us "a transformed reality from which they drew forth the inner, human, and therefore universal meaning: it is reality transposed to the realm of poetry".

Roberto Rossellini's landmark neo-realist Open City, is also a film the meaning of which goes beyond the immediate drama of the story and its historical genesis. It is film where the struggle of daily existence and life's tragedies are related unadorned and with supreme empathy and authenticity. Open City is a film of its time and beyond time, grounded in real lives played out in real homes and real streets. The film opened up the horizon not only of a freedom so harshly won, but of a new cinema beyond the 'illusion of reality'. When Francesco speaks to Pina on the eve of their wedding, he speaks of aspirations that are timeless: "We're fighting for something that has to be, that can't help coming. Maybe the way is hard, it may take a long time, but we'll get there, and we'll see a better world. And our kids will see it. Marcello and - him, the baby that coming".

Tom Joad's last word's to his mother echo the same sentiments: "I'll be all around in the dark - I'll be everywhere. Wherever you can look - wherever there's a fight, so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there. I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad. I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry and they know supper's ready, and when the people are eatin' the stuff they raise and livin' in the houses they build - I'll be there, too."

The Dark Knight

There may be bits and pieces that are ok, but this film for me is at best mediocre.

More a confusing noisy comic writ large on a wide screen, that is sorely in need of balloons to capture the dialog, which is otherwise unintelligible. Heath Ledger does something with his role, but to no greater purpose. Bale is predictably banal, and the rest of the cast borderline only. The plot is entirely derivative and the supposed count-down climax a veritable yawn. The mayhem in the closing action sequence is so closely framed and poorly edited that you don't know what the hell is going on. There is something wrong when so many otherwise intelligent people can invest this tripe as some deep and meaningful metaphor for our troubled times.

The Incredible Hulk: Incredible Chase

The Incredible Hulk (2008) another comic adaptation loses power as it progresses and overall is just another popular blockbuster.

But the first exciting chase through the narrow alleys of the favelas of Rio and in a soft-drink bottling plant is brilliant. Bright primary colors rendered richly by the dying evening sun and by street-light, narrow lanes, varied camera angles, turbo-charged editing, and a brilliant staccato score, are melded into a visually stunning and viscerally exciting cinematic experience.