Saturday, March 18, 2006

Rigid Individualism or Rigid Masculinity: The Fountainhead

King Vidor's The Fountainhead (1949), adapted by Ayn Rand from her own novel, feels more like dialogue from a pamphlet than a movie script. It's easier to take as overt allegory, too, because little of narrative is well written enough to swallow as straight drama. Howard Roark (Gary Cooper) is a non-conformist architect that wades in obscurity until given the chance to make art on his terms: a contract to design a gas station. It's enough to get him started, and he makes a name for himself. This portion of the story--the architect's struggle--is a pleasant enough allegory for any artist to relate to (for any individual in any field, as a matter of fact): down with the critics who pander to the masses and never recognize "real art." (What is it that Estragon says to Vladimir in Waiting for Godot that is so insulting? "Crritic!" But critics are artists, too, no?)

The end of the film is pleasant enough, too, when Roark dynamites his own building after the contractors have their own way with his original idea. The ensuing trial isn't as much about his destroying property as it is about whether an artist has a right to his own ideas, or he has to work for the greater good of the community. Anti-communist rhetoric is clearly at work here (HUAC is doing to Hollywood what the critics were doing to Roark), and Rand is all for the individualist. Vidor and his actors, however, seem to be on a different track. They don't seem to care much for Rand's politics: they're more interested in the relationship between Cooper and Patricia Neal. All the references to jack-hammers and structures seem more sexual symbols than political ideals.

I liked Gary Cooper's performance quite a bit, partly because he's an odd casting choice. He emanates a soft-spoken conservatism, whereas Roark seems to be a radical liberal in many ways. Roark chooses aesthetics over functionality, high-brow over low-brow; he drafts plans for an apartment complex for another architect without taking any credit or payment because he's all about personal gratification rather than public, and he'd rather be proud than rich. Perhaps, though, Cooper is perfect for the fundamentally anti-Communist tone that Rand wanted to lend her story, because he bleeds a lot of the radicalism out of the role. (Dynamiting public property still seems pretty radical to me, even after seeing the movie.) Ultimately, Cooper's understatment helps keep the film from stepping too far from the Mason-Dixon line that separates politics and entertainment. Rigid individualism or rigid masculinity? The Fountainhead plays both hands like a Siamese twin playing against itself.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Ask the Dust: The Wrong Fit

Ask the Dust (2006) fits like a glove on the wrong hand. In many ways, it still performs the function is supposed to, but the cloth is taut where it shouldn't, and it's immobility infringes on its usefulness. Yet it's still better than no glove at all, and a mediocre movie of John Fante's novel is better than no movie at all. Writer/Director Robert Towne tries to play Fante's game by Hollywood's rules, using dialogue that is sharp only in that points in one direction. The story of Arturo Bandini doesn't fit the Hollywood mould, and the movie feels like a struggle between apathetic whim and strained predictability. But that even a strain of whim works its way into the film makes it worthwhile. Bandini (played by Colin Farrell) is a young writer from small-town Colorado recently relocated to the Bunker Hill region of L.A., an area full of "old ladies and weak men" as one woman describes it. The woman is Camilla Lopez (Salma Hayek), a Mexican waitress at a nearby diner. Days after I've seen the movie, I still can't pin-point their relationship: one moment he's busy playing (badly, at that) the cool, detatched, semi-belligerant writer (and she does her part to instigate it), and the next they're in a beach-front shack while he teaches her how to read English. But neither extreme is out of Bandini's capacity, nor out of Camilla's, which marks Ask the Dust several steps above the typical Hollwood romances.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Transience Prolonged: Woman is the Future of Man

Hong Sang-Soo doesn’t confuse reverie with nostalgia. The two never come close to colliding in Woman is the Future of Man (2004), and the result is a thankfully unsentimental romantic semi-comedy. Having graduated from an American film school, Hunjoon (Kim Tae-Woo) returns to Korea for the first time in many years. He reunites with MunhoYu Ji-Tae), an old friend currently teaching art at a local university. The two share lunch, and then go off in search of Hunjoon’s old girlfriend, Sunhwa (Seong Hyeon-A).

The ensuing search and reunion occupies the second half of Woman, which is just less than 90 minutes total. The film’s conclusion is as inauspicious as its beginning, as Munho and Hunjoon stand on the sidewalk under falling snow, unable to find any rhyme or rhythm in conversation. The ending finds them separate and alone, not so aware of any great change, but with a few memories that won’t be leaving them anytime soon.

Memory is key to Woman is the Future of Man. Ironically, these men can’t see into the future: their vision is blurred by inextricable memories of humiliation and regret. A passing woman wearing a purple scarf sends both of them into their pasts, as they remember how horribly they treated Sunhwa. Their trip to see her isn’t so much about finding a lost friend as it is about wiping out these old memories, finding some moment of reconciliation. Given the chance, they screw it up once again.

As a storyteller, Hong is more in tune with chance and coincidence than genre and plot. A scene’s importance may not seem readily apparent, and it may never shake its shroud of seeming insignificance, but to Hong such moments are things of beauty. The science of transience is Hong’s specialty, and he knows how to film a movie like writing between the lines.