Monday, September 10, 2018

THE TREE OF LIFE (Theatrical Cut) - #942

This review was originally written for the theatrical release of the film and published on DVDTalk.com in 2011.


Writing about Terrence Malick's new movie, The Tree of Life, is a bit like trying to describe a particular segment of a backwoods stream--a beautifully lit and photographed segment of stream, mind you, but a stream nonetheless. The task is like living out the old Heraclitus quote about how you can never step in the same river twice. The water moves too fast, by the time you dip your toes in, it has moved on.

I also struggle with writing about it, because to do so, I feel like I will break the spell it has cast over me. The Tree of Life hasn't left my thoughts since I left the theatre. To do so is to also pretend that I got it, which I don't think I did--at least not entirely. My impressions at this point are shallow. To stick with the river analogy, I am maybe in up to my ankles, I have yet to get to the deep middle.


Though, ironically, it's the middle of the movie that is easiest to grasp. The front and the back are what make The Tree of Life a mesmerizing conundrum. It's as if Malick took the first and last reels of 2001, cut them up, reassembled them randomly, and then grafted them on to a story about a family in the 1950s. The O'Briens (played with alternating fury and vulnerability by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) have three boys whom they are trying to steer through early life. Their parenting is a bit all over the place, balancing religion with an appreciation for art (or, specifically, music) and a Protestant work ethic with a laissez-faire day-to-day playfulness. The three kids run free with other neighborhood boys, causing trouble, testing the limits of their own perceived invulnerability. The two parents pull at them, particularly trying to mold the eldest, Jack (Hunter McCracken), into the man they want him to be. Both want their offspring to end up on the straight and narrow, but in that endeavor, one is strict where the other is lean.

Malick doesn't tell his story in any linear, sequential, or conventional manner. He prefers relaying information in short puffs of cinematic smoke. Small gestures stand in for greater events, and suggestion is preferable to explicitly laying out any greater meaning or intention. An individual moment as trivial as walking down the street might be shown in three different ways, from three different angles, at three different speeds. In this way, the real story blooms into being, revealing that Malick kept a tight grip on his narrative seedlings in the early portion of the film and is only letting things take shape after he has properly nurtured them. Family life for the O'Briens goes from idyllic to troublesome. Carefree romps in the woods turn to deadly games and dangerous dares. Malick also teases us with tragedy that is to come, one that nestles somewhere in the middle of his timeline. In a few brief scenes, we see Sean Penn playing Jack as an older man, contending with his past. As an adult, he is out of step with his environment, no longer at harmony.

Those scenes with Penn mark a fascinating change for Malick, who for the first time films modern cityscapes rather than the nature scenes he is most known for (the wheat fields of Days of Heaven [review], the Asian-Pacific jungle of The Thin Red Line). He and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Burn After Reading [review], Children of Men [review]) shoot the towering skyscrapers the same way they would shoot a forest of redwoods--in awe of their majesty and from the vantage point of a puny human who is but a speck on the timeline by comparison. The Tree of Life is full of Malick's trademark visual poetry. The camera is rarely at rest. Instead, it circles and tracks and zooms; the whole of existence is constantly in movement.



If, as many would posit, the overall theme of Terrence Malick's filmography is the interconnectedness of all life, then some of the outlying sequences start to make sense. The director takes the viewer through time and space, to the farthest reaches of both, threading a slender line through various modes of existence. In some of his technique, one can see Stan Brakhage; in other spots, particularly the introduction of neon tracers as we enter the concrete jungle, Wong Kar-Wai (The Gradmaster [review]; In the Mood for Love [review]). There is also a touch of Alejandro González Iñárritu (Birdman [review]; Babel [review]) in the metaphysical final act--though in this, it is the master taking the pupil to school, showing Iñárritu how to evoke providence via simplicity rather than self-importance. (Hint: You look outside, not inside.) (Also, one could easily argue that Malick could school Wong Kar-Wai in aesthetic technique; as much as I love Kar-Wai's movies, one assumes the Chinese director was influenced by the American one, not necessarily vice versa.) It all comes together rather amazingly, though upon first viewing, I can't entirely decide if I'm just impressed that it ended up anywhere at all. My gut reaction is that Malick is saying something profound about grief, symmetry, and the eternal endurance of the human spirit, but there are so many pieces to put together here, I don't feel confident that I have it after just a single sampling. The Tree of Life demands more time, a commodity I will happily give in exchange for a chance to see its dreamy images again.

The Tree of Life is sure to be a movie that is hotly debated for some time to come. The first thing anyone heard about the movie coming out of Cannes last month was how it was both booed and cheered, by some reports in equal measure, with others suggesting the response skewed to one particular side. (The Tree of Life eventually took the festival's top prize.) Those with a predisposition for Malick will go see the film regardless, and I have no idea how to assess what a newcomer to the man's work will make of this ambitious endeavor. Part of me worries that The Tree of Life is almost too sincere for most audiences, be it the common man or the critical establishment. Too many are quick to reject honest sentimentality. (He's carrying a Bible! Run!) Good or bad, Malick means everything this film is trying to say. It's a deliberate, deeply felt artistic expression of the like few filmmakers are capable of. At least try to meet it on its own terms before you judge. It would be easy to fold your arms against it or to embrace it wholeheartedly because of the name above the title; instead, walk in with your hands at your sides, and let the film lift them all on its own.



Sunday, September 2, 2018

MEMORIES OF UNDERDEVELOPMENT - #943


A masterwork of Cuban cinema recently restored, 1968’s Memories of Underdevelopment is a revelatory effort, fully formed, unique in voice, marrying the virtuosity of Mikhail Kalatzov’s I am Cuba [review] with the freestyle experimentation of the Nouvelle Vague to bring to life the literary style of Latin American fiction. Directed by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, working from a novel by Edmundo Desnoes (who also contributed the screenplay), Memories of Underdevelopment is a challenging examination of a country in flux, as well as a dissection of its central character, whom we can take as representative of a certain apathetic class of Cuban citizen. Memories of Underdevelopment  manages to be both political and subversive, using its lead as a way to never take a side, and thus leaving you to wonder if Gutiérrez Alea is for or against the revolution; perhaps neither.


Sergio Corrieri stars as Sergio, an intellectual idling away his days, nursing a novel we know he’ll never finish writing, while quietly judging those around him. The narrative of Memories of Underdevelopment nestles between the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis, at a time when many were getting out of Cuba before the political tide turned against them. Sergio has decided to stay, even as his wife and family immigrate to the United States without him. Much like the film itself, Sergio is of no particular stripe. He professes disdain for his fellow bourgeoisie, but also has no affinity or understanding for the proletariat. When his maid (Eslinda Núñez), who has gone unnoticed by her employer for a good amount of time, her subservience initially overshadowing her beauty and total identity to a selfish man, tells him about her Christian baptism, Sergio imagines it as an orgiastic escapade; later, when she shows him photos of the event, he is surprised to realize that not only was it a completely chaste affair, it was a public one. Sergio rarely considers there are other people, and that they are connected to one another in ways he mostly avoids.


After a fashion, Sergio is the classic professorial type, living an impotent life of the mind while chasing a potent physical one. At one point, he picks up a copy of Nabokov’s Lolita, and indeed, there is a bit of Humbert Humbert in Sergio, from his false sense of superiority to his predilection for young women. Sergio’s central relationship in the present is with Elena (Daisy Granados), a teenager whose mercurial nature infuriates him as much as it draws him in. The dalliance with Elena fits the pattern of his other relationships, including the selfish games he played that drove his wife away. Perhaps more telling, though, is how Sergio pines for his first love, a European transplant who was still in school when they met, and whose parents whisked her away to New York before they could be married. Pretentious gentlemen, it seems, prefer young blondes; her youth and color are both symbols of innocence.

This sexual peccadillo gives an added meaning to the title Memories of Underdevelopment, though not necessarily a meaning Sergio sees. The word “underdevelopment” has many applications in Gutiérrez Alea’s film. Sergio applies the term to both the nation of Cuba and its people, seeing them both as un-evolved and lacking in culture. He complains regularly of a lack of consistency, while he remains rigid, ironically failing to evolve himself. He is a man in the middle of a social revolution who continually alienates himself from society. When his friend Pablo (Omar Valdés) is leaving for America, Sergio’s voiceover tells us how glad he is to be rid of the man, but his face suggests a loneliness he doesn’t care to admit.


Gutiérrez Alea has a lot of fun juxtaposing word and image throughout Memories of Underdevelopment. Even as Sergio denigrates his countrymen, we see a vibrant fellowship of man going on all around him.  The director and his editor, Nelson Rodríguez, compose a complex mis en scene, weaving documentary footage in with their fictional narrative, going so far as to insert Sergio in real-life events, including a scholarly roundtable that the stuffy Sergio dismisses as being all about words, and no action--making it all the more ridiculous that he also dismisses Hemingway from moving in the opposite direction, leaving the words and taking his own life. Gutiérrez Alea even puts a self-reflexive joke into the movie, showing us a collection of quick scenes censored from movies by the previous regime. Because everyone knows that cinema is a source of moral decay.


Image and sound actually end up being very important to Sergio’s romantic failings. He more than once replays an audio tape on which he and his wife argue about the very fact that he’s recording her. And when Sergio’s stinkin’ thinkin’ undoes his affections, Gutiérrez Alea illustrates this through montages of still images, shown in reverse. For instance, when Sergio has had enough of Elena, he plays back their time together, starting with the most recent coupling and working back to when he first ran into her on the street. He mentally regresses, undoing any emotional connection they’ve otherwise nurtured. In one way, this is an exercise in memory, but then, so is all of Memories of Underdevelopment, its disjointed structure mimicking the choppy nature of its narrator’s remembrances.


Naturally, Sergio can’t make it all the way through the movie without getting some kind of comeuppance, and it’s fitting that it comes from Elena, the strongest personality next to his own. (Daisy Granados is remarkable, and could have just as easily been transplanted into one of Jean-Luc Godard’s peppier ’60s efforts.) Symbolically, though, Elena and her family coming for Sergio is representative of the proletariat lashing back at the bourgeoisie, and the fact that he gets away with his bad deeds shows how little has been done to topple his kind from positions of privilege.  Then again, given that they manage to dismantle his confidence and shake his moral belief, perhaps it’s more fitting. He is a man who should be taken down through ideas rather than more punitive measures. While the rest of the country must deal with the very real threat of potential nuclear destruction, Sergio is faced with a more existential crisis. Knowing that he probably deserved to be punished for his behavior, he becomes paralyzed by his own thoughts. Again, this makes his dismissal of Hemingway all the more ironic, because Sergio is too crippled by his own ideas to pursue a solution. Sergio noted that Hemingway conquered the fear of death, it was just the fear of time and life he could not handle, and as Memories of Underdevelopment ends, time and life seem to be all Sergio actually has.


The cover and interior illustrations for this edition of Memories of Underdevelopment are by comic book artist Danijel Zezelj, known for his work with Brian Wood on books like DMZ, The Massive, and Starve. His style is unique in comics, combining street art and European propaganda design with graphic narrative for something altogether his own. He is currently drawing Days of Hate for Image Comics, and he previously contributed art to Criterion’s release of Francesco Rosi’s Hands Over the City.



Friday, August 31, 2018

THE OUTRAGE - FILMSTRUCK

This review was originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2009.


Hollywood was all over Akira Kurosawa from the get-go. Not in the "We revere you so much we're going to import your movies" sense, but in the "No good idea is too good for us to think we can do better but most likely ruin" sense. Quite a few of his more famous samurai action pictures have been turned into quite a few westerns with a variety of results. Yes, it's hard to believe, but one of cinema's greatest directors was treated the way Hollywood now treats foreign horror movies: grist for the remake mill. Though I knew that a ton of different productions had ripped off the basic Rashomon concept of one story told from multiple yet conflicting points of view, I didn't know anyone had ever had the cajones to remake the 1950 classic in its entirety. Turns out there was a stage version written by Fay and Michael Kanin, and it was even filmed for television twice (including once by Sidney Lumet) before Martin Ritt decided to turn it into a full-fledged film in 1964. The Outrage placed Rashomon in a remote outpost in the post-Civil War American West, and it's a surprisingly obscure effort given that it's both Ritt's and Paul Newman's follow-up to the Oscar-winning Hud.

Then again, maybe it's not so surprising. When I worked in video retail, a customer once told me that he had a theory that the more stars there are in a movie you've never heard of, the worse that movie is likely to be. In addition to Newman, The Outrage stars Edward G. Robinson, Claire Bloom, William Shatner, and Laurence Harvey. It's not exactly a Cecil B. DeMille Greatest Show on Earth ensemble, but that's a pretty solid roster. Not exactly no-names, though not exactly A-List--just as The Outrage is not exactly awful, but not really a classic either.


The story of The Outrage pretty much follows the Kurosawa model: three men gather in a desolated area and end up discussing four different versions of one terrible story. In this case, Shatner plays a preacher who is waiting for a train at a rundown station in hopes of catching the next trip out of town, his faith in humanity shattered along with his belief in the absolute. Waiting with him is the downtrodden prospector (Howard Da Silva) who wants to convince him not to go and a conniving huckster (Robinson) in hiding lest the people he ripped off find him. The day before there had been a trial for a crime perpetrated against a traveling couple. As the verdict stands, the notorious outlaw Juan Carrasco (Newman) raped Nina Wakefield (Bloom) and murdered her husband, Colonel Wakefield (Harvey). At least, that was how Carrasco told the story, but Mrs. Wakefield had a different version and a medicine man (Paul Fix) who heard the Colonel's dying testimony delivers a third. Though Carrasco's past crimes made him an easy conviction, the truth seems lost somewhere in all the variations.

Turns out, there is a fourth version, one known only by the prospector, who as far as the court knows only found the body, but who in reality tells the preacher and the con man that he saw the whole thing from the bushes. Yet, there are reasons to doubt his version, too, as his self-serving secrecy undermines his credibility. The con man's cynical worldview may be the truest of all, that humans are suckers and liars. It makes a certain level of sense, especially when you consider that each person's scenario is more favorable to them. Each teller of the tale is a winner of sorts in their own version. Yet, that is also the most obvious interpretation, and Kurosawa's Rashomon provokes a much deeper response. Truth is not merely subjective, it is also unknowable. How each of us lives is dictated by how well we can reconcile ourselves with that principle.


Martin Ritt and the Kanins (Michael Kanin is credited with adapted screenplay) don't entirely remove the grander meaning for The Outrage, but their fourth act ends up being a rather fatal misstep that comes across as far less convincing and far more blatant than Kurosawa's Rashomon. While the first three stories, the ones told by the bandit, the wife, and the husband, are fairly accurate to the Japanese film, the prospector's version is portrayed as first a broad Southern melodrama before descending into a slapstick fist fight between Paul Newman and Laurence Harvey. The rape is suddenly treated like a punchline, and the decision to change how the Colonel dies in the prospector's story also makes it seem like a cruel joke, a misfortune perpetrated by the indifference of the universe. If the prospector's tale in the real truth, life would then be a B-movie rather than a human tragedy.

The acting is all very good up until that last story, too, with everyone playing his or her roles with the appropriate gravitas. The switch is so severe for the prospector's story, you almost have to wonder if it was all cooked up following a rather wild party and everyone was too drunk to be operating such heavy machinery. Even Shatner kept most of his hammy tendencies in check, though at times this early performance already shows signs of his trademark delivery (in terms of speaking style, he's kind of the Christopher Walken of his day). I'd actually give the top acting marks to Edward G. Robinson as the sharp-talking roadshow salesman. The veteran actor is the most comfortable up there on the screen of any of them, and his skills as a raconteur serve him well.

I'd have been curious to hear how an older Paul Newman reflected on the time he played a Mexican, with dark make-up and all (what is that? tan-face?). To his credit and the credit of his Actors Studio training, he buries himself in the part with the same amount of respect he would give any other role. Though I suppose some could grumble about his accent and gruff voice he adopts (did he study Treasure of the Sierra Madre in lieu of a dialect coach?), he largely manages to avoid racial caricature. In fact, the writing seems to be informed by an awareness of how the Mexican people might have been viewed at the time and includes allusions to racism and shows Carrasco playing at being a stereotype to lure Col. Wakefield into his trap (indeed, even relying on the white man's greed). Beyond the voice and the make-up, I don't get the sense that Newman would have played it any other way if his character were a white bandit named Carson rather than a Mexican one named Carrasco.


If there is one compelling reason to watch The Outrage, it's the sure-handed direction that Ritt displays for most of the movie, as well as the beautiful photography by James Wong Howe (The Sweet Smell of Success). From the rainy railway station that provides the story frame, the waiting men looking like an early test version of the trio at the station at the start of Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West, to the open desert and the way the people crowd into the town square to witness Carrasco's trial, Ritt and Howe use the wide open spaces of the West to show how remote this little pocket is, how isolated the pioneer is from polite society. They capture every gorgeous detail, every cactus and every raindrop, using the Panavision process to its full limits. In contrast, the little oasis where the crime goes down is softly lit, like a pocket dimension within the greater frontier. The Outrage is a gorgeous movie, tightly edited by Frank Santillo (who also worked with Sam Peckinpah on his more thoughtful movies), an expertly constructed movie from start to finish.

But a technical triumph is still only as big a victory as the script allows, and alas, there is no way around the pitfalls of The Outrage. While the first sixty minutes are very good, if a bit unnecessary given the existence of the Kurosawa original, the final thirty are a terrible blunder. There is little reason to watch a flawed version of Rashomon when you can just watch Rashomon--and that you can take as the absolute truth in a world of wishy-washy opinions. Anyone who says different is either lying or wasn't really there!



Saturday, August 25, 2018

GATES OF HEAVEN - #751


Every pet owner likely watches Errol Morris’ Gates of Heaven with a little cringe of familiarity. Buried in all of us is some of the same sincere absurdity that drives many of his interviewees to partake in the services of his subject: namely, pet cemeteries.

Morris’ 1978 debut is a documentary of many subtle layers. Ostensibly about two different pet cemeteries--one run by a well-meaning man with no business sense, the other by a true believer who has made a real go of it--Gates of Heaven could at first blush seem to be having a laugh at the expense of its subjects, but the more Morris’ subtle presentation settles over you, the more you realize that Gates of Heaven is an affectionate document of people whose deeply held feelings border on the ridiculous, but whom are all the more lovable for it.


Why else pair the earnest Mac McClure with the owner of a nearby rendering plant that competes with the concerned man over the dead? McClure’s overwrought compassion is given context by terrible things that his rival so callously undertakes on the regular. Likewise, McClure’s unvarnished emotion is balanced against the business sense of Cal Roberts’, whose family-run Bubbling Well Pet Memorial transplants McClure’s customers when he loses his land. Roberts sees his business as more of a religious calling, which itself is juxtaposed against how his two sons approach the vocation. One is an aimless hippie who does the work but with little ambition, the other a go-getter, primed for the oncoming 1980s, looking to expand profit in a way that forgets the true nature of the enterprise.

Woven through these tales are the testimonies of real pet owners who have availed Bubbling Well of their services. Herein lies Gates of Heaven’s true heart. For as excessive or outlandish some may find the pet cemetery business, it means something to those who bring their fuzzy loved ones there to rest. As we listen to their stories of connection and loss, we also view the memorials, images of the absent companion coupled with some adoring sentiment--alternately heartwarming for how long the life shared and heartbreaking for how short. One poor Christmas critter didn’t even make it to the following summer.

Sure, Morris is a natural satirist, and his intent with Gates of Heaven is not to simply memorialize or celebrate. Laced into this narrative is a critique of how commerce can taint spirituality, and how necessity can be overtaken by luxury. Maybe the rendering plant is more sensible by putting the animal remains to good use, and maybe a permanent resting place for doggies and kitties is impractical and even extravagant. Neither is really for the documentarian to say, the questions are simply there. But they also wouldn’t matter if Errol Morris didn’t have a genuine affection for everyone he cuts into the film, nor would Gates of Heaven have endured these thirty years as a work of astonishing humanism. Be honest, when watching it, did you look at your own furry pal sitting nearby and consider what his or her own monument might look like when the time comes?



Wednesday, August 22, 2018

THE ARENA/STRIKE - FILMSTRUCK

A different version of this review was published on DVDTalk.com in 2010 to promote a Rod Serling-focused DVD.



Studio One was CBS' premiere drama anthology, running 1948 to 1958. Every week they presented a live play for the television audience, be it a new script by a hot young writer or an adaptation of stage material. Amongst the writers who cut their teeth in these early days was Rod Serling, whose keen observational eye and serious interest in the nuance of moral dilemmas quickly earned him notice. Serling is best known today for his Twilight Zone series, which he introduced on camera at the start of every episode. Twilight Zone's reputation is often unfairly reduced to knee-jerk jokes about its twist endings, but the truth of the matter is, those shows endure not because of their often surprising turns, but because of the heartfelt and soulful dramatics that lead to the twist. Serling is one of television's foremost chroniclers of the human condition, something that is more than obvious in his Studio One collaborations with director Franklin J. Schaffner. No sci-fi trappings here, just straightforward storytelling.

Schaffner went on to helm Advise and Consent on the stage and Patton for the big screen, and worked with Serling again on Planet of the Apes, and it's interesting to consider how the two teleplays they did for Studio One, 1956's The Arena and 1954's The Strike, predicted the subject matter that would continue to interest the director. Like Advise and Consent, The Arena is set in the U.S. Senate, and like Patton, The Strike is a war story about the courage of leadership.


The Arena tells the story of James Norton (Wendell Corey), a junior Senator appointed to a seat once occupied by his father. Dear ol' dad likely pulled some strings to get his boy in there, a fact not lost on Norton Sr.'s old political rival, Senator Harvey Rogers (John Cromwell). Despite the advice of his spin doctor, Jack Feeney (Chester Morris), Norton immediately locks horns with Rogers, a fight he is not equipped to handle. The more experienced politician massacres him, and Norton must decide whether a particularly juicy piece of dirt he has on the older man is worth the price of his integrity.


The Strike is set in South Korea in 1951. Major Gaylord (James Daly) is in charge of five-hundred men trapped under enemy fire in the middle of the Korean wilderness. He has one patrol of twenty that got lost on a recon mission, and when it comes time to move out, he is faced with a difficult choice. An air attack can take out the Communist artillery, but the recon unit would be collateral damage. Are the lives of twenty a fair trade for the full battalion?

In both teleplays, Serling poses a central question for two very different men: what is the right thing to do? Not what is the easiest, what is the most convenient, but what is right. The difference is that, in the case of Senator Norton, the right thing will allow him to sleep easier at night, but in the case of Major Gaylord, it will likely haunt him for the rest of his life. Norton is a stubborn man whose levers are pulled by his bitter father, and he lets his ambition and need to please his dad cloud his judgment; Gaylord is a man crippled by his conscience. Past experience has taught him that losing even one soldier hurts, and he'd be more than willing to pass off the decision to someone else. It's his men who force him to lead, demanding he fulfill the confidence and trust they have put in him.


The beauty of a Rod Serling script is that though he may pose a question that seems extremely compact, he unfolds it so that every possible angle can be explored, showing how large the true issue is. This is especially true of The Strike, where the men in Gaylord's command offer different reactions and modes of thinking in regards to the problem. A visiting chaplain (Roy Roberts) is a voice of faith and the greater good, while the soldiers take a far more cynical, practical view. They expect their higher-ups to make the bad decisions they can't and accept death as a product of war.

The acting is uniformly good through both shows. Chester Morris gets the meatiest role in The Arena. Senator Rogers even says as much: the man in the middle is the one with the real burden, he's the one who must see both sides and sway to either. Morris maybe overdoes some of the drunk scenes, but they work all the same. In The Strike, James Daly commands the screen as the Major. He is a fairly standard Serling lead. Rod loved watching a man fall apart. Daly sweats, paces, twitches, and loses his cool at every turn of the script page.


Anytime I watch these old shows, I always have to pause and admire their construction. The performers and the crew had to move between sets without taking a break, and I'm always fascinated by the complicated set-ups they create to give everyone time to get where they are going. When you step back and dissect what you are seeing, it's pretty remarkable. There were no do-overs. If the camera was not in place, if an actor tripped and fell or forgot his lines, there was no way to fix it, everyone would see. It's like live theatre, but beamed across the nation. Most of the productions on Studio One or other anthology shows, including these two episodes, rivaled regular motion pictures, and often, they got remade as full movies. You'd expect productions of this kind to be quaint throwbacks to a simpler time, but they are really far more complex than most of what the networks put on television in the decades after taped broadcasts became the norm and prior to the more recent cable revolution.


Saturday, August 18, 2018

SMITHEREENS - #941


While 1970s American movies like Taxi Driver and Dog Day Afternoon gave us an indelible image of the grimy side of 1970s New York, it was the independent auteurs that followed that captured the more arty, anything-goes side of the city’s culture. Early Jarmusch, for instance, and even Martin Scorsese’s Big Apple follow-ups to Travis Bickle like The King of Comedy and After Hours.

Susan Seidelman is by far more in the Jarmusch camp. The New York of her 1982 feature debut Smithereens is the New York that gave us Basquiat and Madonna--with whom, of course, Seidelman would make Desperately Seeking Susan not too long after. Interesting people doing interesting things just for the sake of it, just because they thought New York was the place to be. New wave music and graffiti, striped skirts and checkered sunglasses, hustlers and poseurs--all of these are elements of Smithereens, and all make the film interesting, even if its story never quite finds the depth of its surroundings.


First-time film actress Susan Berman stars in Smithereens as Wren, a New Jersey ex-pat who is trying to blag her way into a rock-and-roll lifestyle. It’s never quite clear what Wren’s artistry encompasses, and likely she hasn’t figured it out yet either, but she plasters photocopies of her face around the city and pretty much barrels through anyone who gets in front of her. Forever the opportunist, she drags along fresh Montana-transplant Paul (Brad Rinn) to her night on the town when it’s clear he’ll pay the bills, but then drops him for Eric, a singer played by real life punk icon Richard Hell, as soon as he shows a passing interest and potentially something to gain. Wren spends the rest of Smithereens bouncing between the two, with only Paul being smart enough to know he’s being used, and the girl too blind to see that Eric will never take her to Los Angeles and let her manage his band.


Working with mostly an unprofessional cast*, Seidelman manages a kind of neorealism that is as much John Cassavetes as it is Jim Jarmusch--though I’d also compare this to Alison Anderson’s Border Radio [review]. This quality will  be a boon for viewers looking for an unvarnished time capsule, but might be a problem if you are seeking something with a bit more form. Seidelman is definitely working with the best of what she had available. Shot by Chirine El Khaden, who also worked a camera on the influential hip-hop movie Wild Style, Smithereens has the dirt and grime of a documentary--all of which comes through with a gritty clarity on the Criterion Blu-ray. We see such mythologized sights as the Peppermint Club, and most of the people hanging around are likely the real deal and not hired extras. Going from seedy movie theatres to Bohemian cafes, there is an undeniable authenticity to Smithereens. You could almost say you were there.


And you could also say you’ve spent a lifetime with its main character. Wren is a hard woman to like. Paul is entirely right: she is a self-serving loser with a bigger mouth than tangible qualities to offer. The only thing that makes her tolerable--as opposed to, say, Agnes Varda’s Vagabond protagonist, or countless loudmouth male sidekick characters like most anything Jason Lee played in the 1990s--is that Susan Berman understands the insecurity behind the bravado, and she can sell it when the façade drops. If only she was a tad more charismatic, I might have felt more inspired by the freeze-frame ending. Wren could have been more like Antoine Doinel on the beach at the end of The 400 Blows [review], suggesting a possible future; instead, she only appears startled by the irony of receiving unwanted attention after spending the whole movie trying to monopolize everyone’s time.


Much better is Seidelman’s initial film-school short And You Act Like One Too. Shot in 1976, this black-and-white tale of a housewife feeling neglected on her 30th birthday is a charming day-in-the-life. Marsha (Karen Butler) is abandoned by her husband and daughter on what is meant to be her special day, so instead of sitting around feeling sorry for herself, Marsha goes out and gets a new hairdo, runs some errands, and takes a chance giving a ride to a charming hitchhiker (Andras Maros). Unsurprisingly, this trip leads her to some unexpected places, and Seidelman delivers a comic twist at the end that is truly delightful. The film is simple in its intent, but broad in its character analysis.

Seidelman’s second student film is the color divorce drama Yours Truly, Andrea G. Stern. This short focuses its attention on young Andrea (Jilian Frank), the daughter of a newly separated couple. She lives with her mom (Joanne Gross), and starts to feel left out when a new man (Billy Wine) moves into the house. While the narrative thrust is that Andrea is trying to get Jonathan to move out, this isn’t a Disney Channel comedy where the schemes are wild and implausible; on the contrary, Seidelman’s deeply felt script imagines what realistic actions Andrea would take, what tools she’d have at her disposal.

Yours Truly, Andrea G. Stern is somewhat ambitious in style, framing itself as a documentary with the off-screen director colluding with the girl, but also putting us in the space of her imagination. The title refers to how Andrea signs off her diary entries, which also serve as narration for the film. The result is something more real and personal than if Seidelman had chosen not to take a child’s point of view so serious.


* Though keep an eye out, because apparently Chris Noth from Law & Order and Sex and the City plays a prostitute! I didn’t see him, but I didn’t know to look.

This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Friday, August 17, 2018

GUY AND MADELINE ON A PARK BENCH - CRITERION CHANNEL

This review was originally written for DVDTalk.com  in 2011.


The spirit of John Cassavetes is alive and well and shooting on the streets of Boston.

Writer/director Damien Chazelle's Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench is a 2010 indie relationship film shot in a classic verite style that hearkens back to the great work Cassavetes was doing in the 1960s, as well as the influential films of the Cahiers du cinema crowd. Guy and Madeline has also earned comparisons to Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg [review]. It has a romantic heart that beats to a jazzy rhythm, one that is purposefully out of step with the manic drums of modern music. It's an anachronistic conceit that Chazelle wears right out in the open. I get the sense he'd be pleased by all the comparisons and references to possible influences. It's all intentional, all by design. Why else choose to shoot on 16mm black-and-white film if not to remind us of cinema long past?

The story of Guy and Madeline is simplicity itself. Guy (Jason Palmer) is a jazz trumpet player who ruins his young relationship with Madeline (Desiree Garcia) when he cheats on her with Elena (Sandha Khin). This quick hook-up is an ill-considered impulse, Guy only just met Elena on the subway, and eventually, he will come to regret the decision when the new girl gets clingy. While he's figuring this all out, Madeline has decided to move on, and she begins exploring the possibility of getting out of Boston and going to New York.


The principle players of Chazelle's film are all dreamers in some fashion. Guy is a music maker. Like many musicians before him, he's more obsessed with the complications of melody than he is the complications of l'amour. To him, people are played in much the same way he plays his horn. It's not for nothin' that his seduction of Elena is achieved merely by touch. Chazelle avoids making Elena an empty device, giving her an interior life, as well. She is a lonely girl all by herself in the city. Just before meeting Guy, she hits on a street performer; just after, she encounters an old man wandering the streets looking for a connection. (He is played by a fellow named Frank Garvin. Save the "male prostitute" jokes for Fred.) It's hard to tell if none of these connections work out for her due to naïveté or selfishness, though it's also hard not to feel sorry for her either way. Sandha Khin has a broken quality that, if natural, signals very good casting, but if it's intentional, it signals a very good actress. (One wonders, given that she first introduces herself by her own name, only to correct herself and give her character's name, a flub Chazelle decided to leave in.)

Madeline proves to be the real dreamer, however. Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench is full of music, jazzy numbers composed by Justin Hurwitz and recorded by local jazz musicians and the Bratislava Symphony Orchestra. Most of it is either background scoring or live performances by Guy and his friends, including one tap dance routine that spontaneously erupts at a party. It's live music within the scene, and thus grounded in the "real life" of the movie; Madeline's songs are more in line with the old-school, theatrical musical tradition. She sings her tunes as expressions to the self, and the instrumentation backing her up is essentially the music she hears in her head. For her second number, she also imagines her co-workers dancing along, turning her mundane waitressing job into a choreographed performance. As the wronged party in her relationship with Guy, she is the true romantic, and so also the one who fantasizes about a life free of everyday confinement. He may be the artist, but she's the one with an artist's soul.


Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench is shot in a down-and-dirty style. Scenes are loose in the moment, and there is an air of improvisation to the whole affair. The actors appear to be either unprofessional or first-timers who aren't overly polished, and yet who are comfortable onscreen. Chazelle served as his own cameraman (and he also co-edited with W.A.W. Parker), and he favors intimate close-ups and cramped quarters where characters can't escape one another. (A shower scene involving Guy and Elena is particularly uncomfortable.) Street scenes appear to have been captured as they happened, with plenty of real life occurring in the backgrounds. As the music takes over, the camera backs away and the image widens. The editors also put their scissors down, letting the takes run long the way they would have in Golden Age Hollywood, when you could actually watch the performers do their thing without lots of frenetic trickery.

The final sum of all these parts is a fascinating, playful merging of styles. It's MGM by way of the Nouvelle Vague, and though at times the story feels underdeveloped, the emotion is authentic and the characters real enough to make them worth watching. And, of course, there is Hurwitz's excellent music, cut in at all the right times to make sure our attention never drifts. Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench builds to a satisfying, yet open-ended conclusion, where consequences for previous choices come to bear and there is enough honest growth that it leaves us hopeful that they will make better ones down the line.


This charming mash-up also makes you wonder what will be down the line for the people who squished it all together. Damien Chazelle has certainly set a unique bar for himself. Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench combines the personal with spectacle in such a way that makes you want to see more, but the fear is Chazelle could go too far to either side and lose what made this first effort so interesting in the first place. It'll be a balancing act, one I'll be watching while holding my breath and crossing my fingers, hoping against hope that the filmmaker makes it all the way across.

2018 Update: Well, I certainly had high hopes for Damien Chazelle. Too bad he went too far in the wrong direction. While I was conflicted about Whiplash--my review is here--I found La La Land execrable. Chazelle should have stuck with this, his original mission to save jazz.