Thursday, December 22, 2005

24 Frrames

I am involved in a new collective, 24 Frrames, a film discussion group that began amongst a group of New School students and professors. Check often to (or just click the link to the right). The first group discussion will be on My Architect.


A Stare at Rogers: Ginger As a (Quiet) Ideological Mouthpiece

Tender Comrade (1943) is known now as being the product of two blacklisted filmmakers, writer Dalton Trumbo and directed Edward Dmytryk. Suspected as Communists out to subvert America through their movies, with orders from the Comintern in Russia, viewing Tender Comrade today makes us ask one question: if it was intended as Communist propaganda, why weren't they thrown out of the Party for such wretched, unconvincing filmmaking.

Consider this scene: Ginger Rogers, wearing her silk blouse to work at the Navy Factory, is eating lunch with three female friends. They are saddened by the loss of their men, overseas fighting the Nazis. They stumble upon the idea of pooling their funds and renting one common house that they can run together--"Like a Democracy!" Rogers repeats again and again, ad nauseum. They take it to a vote: three "ayes," and one silence. Rogers retorts, ungingerly: "Say 'aye.'" the idea of subtle, undidactic writing.

The house, needless to say, runs into its problems. But they solve everything as a democracy, and with a vote. There is even a German woman who comes to clean house for no wages, just a room to sleep in. Why? Ginger Rogers's husband is fighting Nazis, and this German woman hates Nazis. So--they're all in the same boat.

The thick morality isn't so surprising, but the lumpy performances by Rogers and Robert Ryan are. Ryan is playing the Henry Fonda role--he even has the same haircut and vernacular (Ryan actually says, "Doggoneit").He's the "I'll do the dishes, but you better sew buttons and let me read my magazine" sort of husband. Rogers, lacking all the wit that characterized her collaborations with Fred Astaire, is completely naive. It wouldn't be a stretch to say that her 14-year-old impression in The Major and the Minor (1944) showed more maturity than her Rosie the Riveter in Tender Comrade.
As husband and wife, their cheeks do most of the talking for them; for all the audience knows, their lips are as anesthetized as their minds seem to be.

The film uses irony in such unsurprising places. For example, Mrs. So-and-so decides to go on a date while her husband is overseas fighting; Rogers cannot stand for such disrespect; the date arrives; over the radio, an announcer reports that Mr. So-and-so has died in the Battle of Midway. Coincidence isn't the issue at hand, poor dramatic structure is. Coincidences catch us off guard: their strength as irony comes from their unexpectedness. But, when they are plain to see as in Tender Comrade, we wish the camera were just a little out of focus--just anything to take our attention off the contrivances on screen.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Syriana, a Thesis of Conspiracy

Syriana has the misfortune to be the first Hollywood picture to deal directly with the current war in Iraq: our expectations over shoot almost any movie's possibilities. There was Fahrenheit 9/11, but that was a documentary, and, as such, the footage wasn't recreated--history wasn't re-staged as it is in Syriana. Jarhead, too, is an allegory set in the first Gulf War a little over a decade ago. For Syriana, these decisive differences mean that the film is the first step in cinematically digesting our current socio-political situation and, if the bald-headed guy sitting in front of me during my screening is in any way the measure for all men and his slightly shorter (but evermore attractive) girlfriend is the measure for all women, then a lot of us viewers have been a long time wanting such a film to explain this screwed up war.

George Clooney sets the stage as a CIA operative in the Middle East. Jeffrey Wright is the corrupt government gopher assigned to investigate a large oil merger with newly staked claims in Kazakhstan. Matt Damon is an American in Geneva doing televised economic reports--he hooks up with the Lebanese Emir's son and together they plot to democra-size the Middle East. The sub-stories are like a conspiracy theorist's chicken scratch, leaving no-one without some degree of complicity.

Syriana's strength is also its shortcoming: politically didactic, it puts all its eggs into one basket so when the politics don't deliver, there's nothing to fill in. Even Open City, Rossellini's film about Nazi-occupied Rome, has its roots in melodrama. As a result, Anna Magnani's character is fueled by both martyrdom and emotion: she's a bigger shitkicker than anyone in Syriana. Clooney and Wright, in particular, are unfittingly resigned in their roles: fatalistic martyrs--even an ounce of muckraking would have been a welcome relief.

But these are all the faults of Syriana; there are many successes, as well. Cinematographer Robert Elswit, especially, deserves to be singled out for avoiding the cliche, stereotyped landscapes of Traffic and Black Hawk Down. Here, the deserts are not marred by blurry heat-waves, and SUV's do not appear on the horizon in numbers of six or more. In Beirut, the slummy as well as the posh aren't racked into something ridiculous. Too, the music avoids the disasterous indulgence of using ethnic rock music to exoticize the decadence of the enemy--the clamor of dying weasels is on par with the xenophobic use of Arabic Rock in Black Hawk Down.

Cynically, I was more touched by Syriana's aethetic presentation of conspiracy than by any political analysis of our present day. Certainly allegories exist, but the overaching, less specific examinations of the conspiratorial process were its most spellbinding. It's both horrifying and fascinating to watch as these individual stories all careen together toward a common center. The result is cataclysmic. We are powerless, as are the characters and, in many ways, they come to seem more like an audience than participants in a story: theirs is fated, pre-determined by an ambiguous force that always exterts his omnipotence. In trying to lay-bare the mystery of oil, power and money, still more remains hidden.

Much to the dismay of the bald-headed and vertically challenged couple sitting in front of me, Syriana wasn't the middle-finger everyone hoped for. The young lady directly to my right, however--she arrived late so I can't describe her in any more detail--was in the thralls of political intrigue through and through. The torture scenes made her scream, the suspense kept her otherwise quiet. At its best, Syriana projects contemporary politics as an international mechanism of a seemingly uncontrollable fate. At its worst, it's a film with a clear thesis statement.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

"Jesus Is Magic" Could've Used Jesus' Help

Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic wasn't as funny as people told me it was, but that's the way it is with comedy. It's much easier and safer to laugh alone these days. Stand-up routines (even when mixed with choreographed studio pieces, as in this film) often seem more stilted and less spontaneous on film, too, even if they were filmed live. But, my friends liked it enough to send me off and packing to the theater, and the audience I was with laughed at nearly every joke, and this is really the point--Jesus is Magic is a timepiece, representing "that" friend we all have, the one who embarrasses us in public with their uncouth, un-p.c. jokes. It is really indicative of this post-liberal attitude where acknowledging the prejudice is all the rage. The facade of "equality" and "give peace a chance" is as antiquated to this generation as "We can do it," or any other Baby Boomer slogan. So, Martin Luther King and the Holocaust are tossed in amongst all those words that George Carlin couldn't say on TV (updated and revised, of course, but most of the words seem to be well established and timeworn). When Silverman calls something "gay," she is not reclaiming the word from hate, or even disempowering it--for her, it is just a word that she's gagged on from its repression, and finally its finger is out of her throat and out comes the word: "gay." Her vernacular isn't so offensive as it is defensive. The shallowness of her usage, she hopes, will downplay its vulgarity. Then again, such humor is so commonplace these days that vulgarity finally means what it is supposed to: common.

Paradise Now: Pathology and Empathy

Paradise Now makes a crucial amendment to Alfred Hitchcock's theory of suspense: instead of just having a bomb blow up, Hitchcock suggested showing the bomb under a table, and then going back to the unknowing characters; Paradise Now finds the explosives strapped to a human being, wandering throughout the West Bank. Two Palestinian friends, dressed in formal black and white business suits, cross the border into Israel with explosives beneath their clothing. Israeli forces, however, are waiting, and the two friends split-up. One reunites with the Palestinian underground, and the other wanders the West Bank unsure of whether to continue with the mission or call it off.

The image of their suits, donned especially for the mission, is a fitting point of departure for such a story, since Paradise Now is primarily concerned with the ritualistically of martyrs: the suits, which contrast greatly with the protagonists typical jeans and t-shirt, signal to their friends and family as to their deadly mission, which had been kept a secret.

By the film's end, the situation is as divided as ever. Some characters are for, and some against, completing the mission. The mission's importance, in context, is ambiguous: its futility is acknowledged--it will change nothing--but the larger concept of resistance is a history that the characters have inherited and wish to pass on. (The quote from the beginning of Fassbinder's Fear Eats the Soul comes to mind, "It is better to make new mistakes than to perpetuate the old ones to the point of unconsciousness.") While avoiding taking sides, Paradise Now is clearly not neural, choosing pacifism over action, but it is respectful, as well as empathetic, to the traditions and histories of radical groups, be they called the resistance, freedom fighters, or terrorists. Their pathology, while never fully embraced, is never compromised.

Jarhead: The Pathology of Soldierism

In Jarhead, the soldier’s life runs its full, but unconsummated, gamut during the Gulf War. We watch as they train for one job—Marine sniper—only to see them disillusioned and jonesing, without assignment, without targets to kill. The desert scenes, then, are not filled with climactic spectacle (that doesn’t mean there aren’t explosions) but instead with an anti-climactic inactivity. The whole film is itching, really, to see those soldiers make a kill. The film is smart, though, and denies such fulfillment. In this respect, Jarhead opens the mason jar on the soldier ideology: more than anti-war (and it’s certainly not pro-war by any means), it is a movie that copes with the decision that so many people make every day—going off to war—and, thus, is about the pathology of soldierism.

Classe Tous Risques

Classe Tous Resques isn't so classy or risky a venture--instead, it is as presumably entertaining (60's era gangster Belmondo) as it is entirely predictable. Lino Ventura is the aging gangster who, because to his slow draw, loses his wife and partner in a battle with the cops (in front of his two children, at that); Belmondo is the hired gun that rescues Ventura and his children; Sandra Milo is the battered woman that Belmondo rescues and woos. It is not so much a suspense picture as it is the slow death of the iconic noir machismo. Ventura is of the Dana Andrews old-school, the women-slapping kind. Belmondo, fresh off of Breathless, is the new-school hero, equal parts John Garfield's charming brutality and James Dean's sensitivity. The story doesn't add up to much, and it's hard to imagine a gangster wanted for murder sleeping on the beach with his children, but these improbabilities are classic signs of the gangster ego--he defies all logic and gets away (sometimes) with it--so they should be expect and, ultimately, enjoyed.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Pulse: Like That Tire Swing In The Back Yard

Here's the deal with Kiyoshi Kurosawa's 2001 Pulse, just released here in NYC at the IFC Center: absolutly nothing makes any sense, which is both its cause for celebration and the reason for its demise. Its lack of logic preserves it from having some simplteon puzzle logic: the illogical is much more frightening. But, at the same time, Kurosawa does posit a semi-discernable plotline--and it plummets like so many characters' jaws when the ghosts come out to get them. Basically, it's a ghost story, with the internet somehow breaching our world and the afterlife--but how are the ghosts using the internet? Well, remember, this is 2001, and the internet is still portrayed as some program that, once you use a dial-up modem, random screens appear uncontrolably: it seems to have a logic all its own. In the end, Pluse is a little scary, but mainly its irritating, at once a conventional and enigmatic genre pic. It's sort of like a tire swing: its fun, but you don't really go anywhere, and after a while, you're just sick of it all.