Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Out 1

This weekend was spent submerged in Jacques Rivette's Out 1. A massive work with a slender plot, the sheer length of the film/mini-series allows an acclimation to the rhythms of the film and of its characters that other, more plot-driven epics can't. As a result, Out 1 grows more engrossing as it progresses, as opposed to Lord of the Rings or even a 3-hour Hollywood blockbuster, which can be hugely exhausting experiences.

Out 1
starts out with extended quasi-documentary footage of two theater troupes rehearsing plays by Aeschylus. Both interpretations are radical, to say the least - high modernist attempts to deconstruct the text to the point at which the author is incidental, and the performance is everything. The performances never leads anywhere; as in Paris Belongs to Us and L'Amour fou (and arguably Celine and Julie as well) the characters engage in rehearsal, without the payoff of any actual public performance. (Which, in an unintended irony, would be the fate of Out 1 itself.) I'm not sure what to do with that just yet, but the act of rehearsal is particularly bizarre. It isn't what we normally think of as performance, which has an audience to justify its occurrence. Instead, it's grown men and women pretending to be other people, like a game, but one that only works if all parties involved are absolutely serious.

It's difficult to wrap my head around a full twelve hours, even if several of those hours contain extended theatrical improvisations - some of which are truly brilliant, some of which fall flat, but all of which are fascinating. Over twelve hours, the usual standards of good and bad don't really apply anymore. At a certain point, the details of the film become fact, and it seems no more valid to criticize (or notice) fluctuations in "quality" or "success" than it would to do so in your daily life. Which isn't to say that the details aren't important: the incidental observations vastly overwhelm the portions of the film that contribute to the narrative(s). The film becomes a place the viewer inhabits. This weekend is Out 1: Spectre, and I'll have more to say after having seen the, ahem, sleeker four-hour version.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Brand Upon the Brain!

One of the more unique experiences I've ever had in a movie theater was Guy Maddin's Brand Upon the Brain!, which played the Music Box in full regalia last weekend. On the one hand, I worked on the film. My official title is "Set Journalist" but as it ended up I didn't do any of that - Guy Maddin likes to have somebody write a production diary that he can use for press kits or maybe give to the cast and crew, etc. I ended up as more of a garden-variety Production Assistant, being as helpful as I could, always planning on catching up with the writing later. The truth is, though, that during those ten days 2+ years ago I was busy and tired, and the whole set diary thing felt horribly redundant. It was the most well-documented set I've ever encountered (not that I've really been on that many sets), with an official photographer, an official videographer, and several unofficial videographers. Plus I hate diaries, in principle. So I kept busy instead. Anyway, I was there for just about everything, and that meant that I couldn't watch the film last Friday without recalling the actual shooting of each individual scene or set-up. Which I think makes me a little too distracted to adequately judge the film on its own.

As a spectacle, though, I can with confidence say that the experience (extravaganza) was top notch. Crispin Glover narrated and four extremely skilled foley artists provided sound effects in front of the screen right next to an 11-piece orchestra playing Jason Stazcek's score. And there was a castrato - who was lip-synching, obviously, but let's give him the benefit of the doubt anyway. (I'm a willing dupe, what can I say?)

Jason's score was distractingly good, Crispin Glover was great but occasionally just distracting, and I loved everything about the foley artists and their sound effects. They were off to the side and I tried to watch them out of the corner of my eye. There were plates being thrown, gigantic aluminum sheets being gonged, etc. The production of the little noises was clever, the big ones often had big gestures, and of course those were the most fun (i.e. the plates).

I remember reading an early draft of the script - at which point the main character was named "Bruno" rather than "Guy Maddin" - and thinking of it as Maddin's (very) rough approximation of Proust. The film's all about memory and nostalgia, but it's a physical, tactile sort of memory. With Maddin the dreaminess is a style and a logic, but at base his stuff remains flesh-bound. Brand is extremely literal-minded when it comes to memory: Guy (the character) touches a rock and instantly brings up a memory in his head and on screen, and it's the same memory every time he finds that rock. He wanders the landscape trying to find the right combination of objects to conjure up the girl he loved - and when she materializes she's both there and not there, a fleshy apparition somehow more "real" than the other memories wandering the island but nonetheless insubstantial, only partly there. The nostalgia of Guy's mother for her own childhood is enacted by an actual, physical return to childhood thanks to a mysterious "nectar," drained from the brains of orphans, that makes her young again. In other words, Maddin takes a literal approach to non-literal ideas, and it's all based in play with the medium - these conjurings and youth serums are, at base, nothing more than flashbacks or fantasies that can be seen by the characters as well as the audience.

The film is pleasantly skewed, like all of Maddin's films, but its fever-dream logic is not as intensely focused as it was in Cowards, and its baroqueness is not as grandiose as it was in Saddest Music in the World. Other than Dracula, it's the least melodramatic of Maddin's films, more intent on a very contemporary kind of self-pity than on Sirkean hyperbole. It's interesting that as his style becomes denser and, in a sense, more guarded, his films start to move away from genre and towards a confessional mode. Plotwise, the central mystery, about draining the orphans' brains, feel insufficiently explored, and the big revelations not as shocking as they maybe should be. The teen detective subplot was a huge audience pleaser, and Chance/Wendy was the most compelling character, an indication that perhaps the narrative focus was either misplaced or was inadvertently hijacked by the more interesting sub-story.

Maddin's fond of blank-faced heroes, but here his hero is divided into two actors (grown-up Guy, who isn't on screen all that much and young Guy) and neither is given the chance to display much personality. The girls take over the movie, but the dramatic focus is on Guy, and this shared focus lessens the narrative's melodramatic impact - the miserablism that replaces the melodramatic structure doesn't have a dominant figure of association, it's all dissipated among four different actors. And it's my own particular quirk that I dislike framing devices, and for me the framing portion with adult Guy and his elderly mother drags us away from the main story without adding all that much to the flow of the film. Of course, Maddin's project requires that focus on remembrance, and he does a wonderful job of integrating the frame and flashback. The past bleeds into the present in all sorts of ways, but the narrative momentum nonetheless comes from the flashback portion of the film. And the frame is, in that sense, a sort of distraction.

As much fun as the big show was, I'd like to watch the wider release version - which would be on 35 rather than the (I think) video projected at the Music Box. My experience on the set already draws me out of the typical viewer experience more than most, and the further (awesome) distractions of Crispin Glover and company pulled me out even more. The thing is, I love Maddin's films and it's curious to me that I see a difference between this one and his earlier films, but the reviews seem to be about the same, describing it in the same terms and loving it or hating it for the same reasons they always do. So, is it me, or is it the film?

The trailer:

I believe this is the "official" behind-the-scenes video, with Guy narrating:

Guy Maddin talking in very Eisensteinian terms about the film:

It looks like the distributor's Vitagraph, whose notoriousness (which I can personally attest to) is such that I'm pretty sure I won't be able to talk Doc into bringing the film to campus for a second-run screening. Uggh.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Tarkovsky's Stalker

Watching a gorgeous 35mm print of Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker last Sunday, I involuntary pronounced the words "Oh my God" twice in the film. The first time it was in response to an image of a wall. The second time, a doorway. Beauty in Stalker is a revelation, found in decay and disintegration, a heavy relief that seems to push the images forward from the screen. The film is no less mysterious than any of Tarkovsky's films (with the probable exception of Ivan's Childhood), but is emotionally accessible, its characters coherent and empathetic. And its visual beauty is astonishing, striking enough that the images themselves seem heavy, weighing down the characters wading through the settings that overwhelm them. Tarkovsky's mysticism is fascinating to me, even though his deadly seriousness means his films are constantly on the verge of self-parody. It's especially interesting that, in Stalker, the supposedly supernatural settings never really manifest themselves as such (besides a single unexplained voice) - it's like a children's game, with the participants pretending that they're in a dangerous otherworldly place. It isn't until the very end of the film, when the Stalker's daughter moves a glass across the dining room table through telekinesis, that any evidence of the mystical is shown on screen. These moments of telekinesis or levitation that dot Tarkovsky's films always astonish me. And they're always so beautifully filmed, so meticulously composed, that it can't help but feel like the natural order of things.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Paris Belongs to Us

Jacques Rivette's Paris Belongs To Us (Paris nous appartient) was an exhilirating experience. A very nice BFI print played to an appreciative crowd at the Siskel as part of the Rivette retrospective (I already have my tickets for Out 1). The first ten minutes of the film is packed with Hitchcock references: the credits roll over images of Paris shot from a train (which for Rivette is by definition Hitchcockian), the first post-credits shot is taken directly from Rear Window, a production of Shakespeare's Pericles keeps replaying a scene including the phrase "South by Southwest" (the title "North by Northwest" comes from Hamlet), and, of course, the heroine is immediately surrounding by paranoia-feeding conspiracies of murder, suicide and international intrigue. The heroine, Anne (Betty Schneider), is just on the periphery of a dense and convoluted web of mystery and violence, which seems to involve her brother and seems to involve a man with whom she's fallen in love. Everyone has secrets, except for Anne. Anne's a student who doesn't bother showing up for her exams. She tries acting, but ends up losing her part and losing interest in the whole endeavor. She tries to get to the bottom of these intrigues and secrets, but never quite figures it out and fails to save anyone (or even to accurately predict who's in danger).

Paris Belongs To Us, with Anne at its center, is like a Hitchcock film told from the perspective of the Pat Hitchcock character - the peripheral little sister figure not implicated in but curious about the mysteries and the dangers just to the side of her; acting nosey and butting into the complicated, enigmatic plots. Anne even looks like Pat Hitchock: slightly plump ("movie plump") but still pretty, poofy 50s hair, smiley and kind of bookish. (And I could swear that Rivette modeled Anne's wardrobe after Pat Hitchcock's.) She's never personally threatened, and never witnesses or finds evidence of any crimes. She finds herself frustratingly outside of the sinister elements swirling around her - like a film lover who walks into a movie, but she can't find the good parts on her own.

Betty Schneider, the actress who plays Anne, is wonderful. She only appeared in a handful of movies, but has one other major screen credit. Major to me, anyway. She was in Jacques Tati's Mon Oncle playing the daughter of Hulot's landlady. We see her grow up as the film progresses. Her seemingly innocent crush on Hulot at the beginning of the film provokes a paternal pat on the head. At the end of the film, she's mature enough (and dressing accordingly) that Hulot's too embarassed to treat her like a child (and definitely too embarassed to treat her like a woman...). He gives his customary paternal greeting to her mother instead.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Syndromes and a Century

Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Syndromes and a Century is a wonderful movie, a truly great film whose monumental status will become clear, I suspect, once the initial rush of its charming modesty wears off - that is, if enough people start paying attention. Although its narrative structure is radically experimental, with a rupture midway that is never explained or resolved, everything about the film feels warm, casual and stridently humanistic. Apichatpong loves his characters and their milieu and attentively explores the details of both without ever letting them overwhelm the bigger pictures of which they are always a part. It's also his funniest film, and its humor is the laugh-out-loud kind: an elderly female doctor pulls a hidden bottle of alcohol out of a spare prosthetic leg, a dentist serenades a monk while working on his teeth, a young woman spots her painfully lovesick would-be suitor peeking out at her from behind a Buddha statue. It's a film of moments and details compiled into disjointed, interrupted and unfinished narratives, held together by Apichatpong's immense affection for the people and places he films, and by an elegant structure whose overall shape is elusive enough to remain just out of the viewer's grasp until well after the theater lights come up.

I have more to say about the film and about Apichatpong's films in general, particularly his habit of splitting films in two, with one story cutting off midway through as another starts up. Syndromes is bracingly virtuosic in this regard, with the second half constantly returning to and echoing the first in surprising ways. Apichatpong even incorporates (almost) exact repetitions, which make up some of the most delightful moments of the film - the new angles, changed settings and slight alterations (mistakes?) provide welcome and humorous supplements to the earlier scenes. I'd like to think more about the film before getting into it much more, possibly making it down to the Siskel for a second screening before it leaves on Thursday.

Syndromes and a Century int'l trailer: