Sunday, January 22, 2017

FOX AND HIS FRIENDS - #851


In 1975, the writer/director Rainer Werner Fassbinder applied his finely honed sense of Sirkian melodrama to Fox and His Friends, a small story that encompasses class, ambition, and, at its root, a need to be loved. Fassbinder himself played the lovably dopey Fox, a one-time carnie whose continual insistence that he’d win the lottery finally comes true, cashing him in for 500,000 deutschmarks on the same day his boss and lover was sent to jail for tax evasion. Ironic, as one of the men gets money from the government, the other is busted for not putting his in.

That day, Fox also meets Max (Karlheinz Böhm, Peeping Tom), a wealthy antiques dealer. The two size each other up in at a public restroom in a silent scene full of secret gestures, meaningful looks, and a test or two. It’s masterfully choreographed, almost like something out of Bresson’s Pickpocket. Max has come along at just the right moment, introducing his new lover to a social group befitting his newfound riches. Max’s friends are disdainful at first, seeing their coupling as lewd and Fox himself as a rube. He also has a bit of a rough allure--a bad boy, if you will--so soon one of the men gives in to his lust. Eugen (Peter Chatel, The Merchant of Four Seasons) takes Fox home, and the former con man has no trouble seducing and dominating his conquest. It’s only after the fling becomes something serious that the dynamic changes.


Eugen’s family is going broke. Their bookbinding business is heading for bankruptcy, and the son sees only one way to bail his judgmental father out. He asks Fox to loan them some money, with promises of equity when the loan is paid off. As audience members, we see almost immediately that not all is as it seems with this plan, but poor trusting Fox, so eager to be accepted, and so afraid that Eugen will think he’s stupid, signs the deal without admitting he doesn’t truly understand it. It’s the final shift of power, the con man becomes the conned, making Eugen free to criticize and humiliate his lower-class boyfriend all he wants. His most insidious habit is how he corrects Fox’s etiquette. “If you’re looking for the dessert fork,” he begins, seeing Fox eating a pastry with his hands, and then ends by pointing out that it’s on the left of his plate. He couches his recriminations with a sharp dig, giving the pretense that he’s repeating something Fox already knows. Self-aware mansplaining. (It reminds me of Michael Sheen’s equally infuriating “um, actually” behavior toward Rachel McAdams in Midnight in Paris [review].)


Fox and His Friends is pleasantly simple, with big emotions but few dramatic sweeps to match. Fassbinder approaches everything gently, including his own performance. Rather than play Fox in broad strokes, he goes low-key. Fox is not very bright and surprisingly naïve, but not in a way that inspires laughter from the audience. Instead, as Eugen chips away at Fox’s swagger and reveals the kind-hearted simpleton underneath, we only gain more empathy for the well-meaning bumbler. We wish he’d do better, and would smack him upside the head if we could, but outside of some ostentatious purchases that bite him on the ass later, most of his financial loss comes from wanting to please his lover. His generosity is genuine, and also equal opportunity. One of their worst quarrels occurs when Eugen objects to Fox giving a loan to Klaus (Karl Scheydt, The American Soldier), his carnie boss, when he is released from jail. How hypocritical that Eugen’s anger is because he believes Fox will never see that money again. Fox trusts Klaus will pay him back, and regardless of that, you have to help your friends. Their other terrible fight comes in Morocco, when they look to pick up another man. It’s a strange and nuanced disagreement, hinging on a dual offense: Fox being hurt that he’s not enough, and also disgusted that Eugen doesn’t act with more authority in making it happen. You want this, so be a man and take it.


The only characters that the director goes big with are Fox’s belligerent, alcoholic sister (Christiane Maybach) and Fox’s friends at the gay bar, who come with their best “girl, please” sashay. Even more than 40 years later, Fassbinder’s depiction of the gay lifestyle still feels surprisingly fresh. That’s because rather than making Fox and Friends a movie about being homosexual, it’s just a movie with homosexuals in it. In fact, Fox and Friends is completely lacking in heterosexual expression. The only straight couple we see is Eugen’s parents, and they are past the demonstrative stage of their relationship.

But it’s not just the culture that Fassbinder treats matter of factly, it’s the whole of the film. He and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus (Broadcast News [review], The Last Temptation of Christ) don’t aim for the bright Technicolor of the 1950s pictures Fassbinder emulates; rather, they take a rather unadorned approach, something that brings to mind the Dardennes more than it does Sirk. It gives everything the feeling of real life, of actual existences observed. What happens to the characters never happens because of their sexuality, nor are they being punished for it when things go wrong. When LGBTQ advocates talk about representation in cinema and other entertainment, Fox and His Friends is just the kind of thing they mean: a movie where they just exist like anyone else. Fassbinder pointed the way forever ago, it’s time more started following his direction.


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

Saturday, January 14, 2017

SOMETHING WILD (1961) - #850


Jack Garfein is a name more people need to know. A survivor of the Holocaust, Garfein immigrated to the United States from Czechoslovakia, joining the famed Actors Studio and training as a theater director, working alongside Elia Kazan and with actors as storied as James Dean, Marlon Brando, and eventually Ben Gazzara, who starred in Garfein’s first movie, the disquieting, insightful The Strange One [review]. These details and much more are revealed in the fascinating interview with film critic Kim Morgan on Criterion’s new release of Garfein’s second--and last--motion picture, 1961’s uniquely powerful Something Wild.

Something Wild is a challenging movie, both by today’s standards and certainly by the standards of the early 1960s. Following a typically stupendous Saul Bass title sequence, the movie--scripted by Garfein and Alex Karmel, based on Karmel’s novel--introduces Mary Ann (Carroll Baker, star of Baby Doll and Garfein’s then-wife), a New York college student on her way home. When passing through the park, she is attacked and raped. Upon returning to the house where she lives with her mother and stepfather, Mary Ann finds she can’t really return to normal life, and so she breaks from it, leaving school and family. Garfein presents a single poignant image: a pile of textbooks left on a bench, and Mary Ann walking away. She gets an apartment and a sales clerk job and tries for a new life.


What’s interesting about following Mary Ann is how everything about her journey is on the exterior. The girl never expresses herself, we can only intuit how she feels from behavior. Following the physical assault, she reacts to everything physical, every encounter, in her world. A crowded subway train triggers her memory, and she can’t remain confined. Every man she meets is a potential threat; every woman seems to want to pimp her out. Baker says little throughout the movie--in fact, much of the first half hour is completely dialogue-free--but she doesn’t really have to. The actress finds a fragile balance. Mary Ann is numb, and yet she still feels. In her effort to not project what is going on inside her, Baker ends up showing the audience everything. The performer is simultaneously withholding and naked.

Even if this were all there was to Something Wild (which it should be said bears no relation to the Jonathan Demme film of the same name [review]), that would be enough. It would still be a moving portrait of a woman dealing with trauma. That Garfein builds in a mid-film twist, however, means there is also much more to unpack. After the women at her work haze her, Mary Ann decides that it’s all too much and tries to commit suicide. A passerby stops her before she can jump off the bridge. The seeming Good Samaritan, Mike (Ralph Meeker, Kiss Me Deadly [review]), takes the distraught woman home, and lets her sleep it off. Only, as Mary Ann comes back to herself, she realizes that she’s locked in Mike’s basement apartment. He has decided that she owes him something for saving her life and keeps her imprisoned with the hope that Mary Ann will fall in love with him.


Garfein crafts an uncomfortable narrative. Mike’s actions are disturbing, and yet Garfein holds back any explicit sexual threat for a time, making it unclear exactly what the man wants, as his thinking is muddled by alcohol and his own white knight complex. The director uses restraint in drawing both the attack at the start of Something Wild and Mike’s slow breaking down of his victim, leaving us to fill in some blanks, and never once being exploitative. Meeker manages to slowly twist his average Joe into a real creep, but avoids straying into cartoon villainy. For her role in their dynamic, Baker lets her anger bubble up, finally unleashing the grief and the pain in her own defense. It’s not just about physically fighting back, though, she is also strategic. Mary Ann tries to work out Mike’s angles, tries to disavow him of any notion that she’ll ever be the love of his life. In her efforts, we at last see Mary Ann as a true survivor. She can fight back in a way she could not during the initial assault, even if the results are questionable.

All of this is revealed without much ostentation. Garfein and cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan (People on Sunday [review], Eyes Without a Face) keep an even hand and a steady eye. All the exteriors of Something Wild were shot on location, and so Schüfftan captures New York as a particular time and place--and yet the city somehow also bends around Mary Ann, becoming almost like a dreamscape that she walks through unhindered. The black-and-white is lovely, and the restoration on this Blu-ray, while imperfect, is still exceptional, maintaining the genuine look of the original celluloid.


In the final scenes of Something Wild, the film takes some unexpected twists I will leave you to discover and interpret on your own. Yet, I will also point you again to the special feature with the filmmaker and Kim Morgan, as Garfein reveals his own intentions of the ending. His explanation may challenge your perceptions even more. His empathy as a storyteller allows him to see Mary Ann’s experience in ways that many of us may not if we accept everything at face value or filter it through our own prism.

In addition to the piece with Morgan (perhaps the director's biggest champion), Criterion also includes one of Garfein’s acting lectures, some background on the Actors Studio, and a new interview with Carroll Baker.

Something Wild is an essential release, reintroducing an unfairly ignored film to today’s audiences. Now, who do we have to petition to get Criterion to follow this up with a Blu-ray of The Strange One?


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


Monday, January 9, 2017

HIS GIRL FRIDAY/THE FRONT PAGE - #849


I love Rosalind Russell. Her range as a spot-on comic performer is amazing. Compare two of her most famous roles, Mrs. Howard Fowler in George Cukor’s The Women and Hildy Johnston in Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday. Both are smart performances, invigorated by Russell’s sharp verbal delivery, but there is a great physical difference. Fowler is loud, gawky, a bit camp; Hildy is poised, assured, and direct. If you weren’t paying attention, you might not catch that they are the same actress. Yet, both performances are very, very funny.

In His Girl Friday, it helps that Russell gets to play off Cary Grant. As Walter Burns, Grant delivers one of his best performances, as well, playing the opportunistic newspaper editor as an arch trickster, stiff-backed but playful, and deep down hiding a true heart.


Because, you see, in this 1940 adaptation of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s play The Front Page, Charles Lederer (Ride the Pink Horse) has the ingenious idea of changing Hildy’s gender from a man to a woman and adding a marriage and divorce to Hildy and Walter’s relationship. Watch the more traditional rendering included in this set, Lewis Milestone’s 1931 version of The Front Page, and you’ll see what a difference this makes. In the original, Walter is working purely out of business concerns. He and Hildy have a professional friendship, but one man trying to stop another from getting married and quitting his job doesn’t quite have the weight of an ex-husband trying to do the same with his one-time wife. In His Girl Friday, Walter doesn’t just want Hildy to keep writing for the newspaper, he wants to reconcile their relationship. He’s losing her twice over.


Beyond that, the plot is essentially the same. Hildy Johnson, one of the best reporters in town, is looking to get married and get out, partially fed up with the slave-driving schemes of his/her no-good boss, Walter Burns. Just as Hildy is leaving, a big story is about to have a major development. Earl Williams (Joel Qualen, Anatomy of a Murder [review]) is due to be hung for murdering a policeman--a crime he can’t quite explain. The mayor and the sheriff (Clarence Kolb and Gene Lockhart) have cloaked Earl in a communist uniform and are using him for political gain; others think Earl is not necessarily in his right mind and deserves a reprieve. On the eve of his execution, Earl escapes, causing a madcap manhunt that Hildy can’t help but get tied up in--partially because Walter is pulling every puppet string, con, and bribe he can to keep her around.


His Girl Friday is famous for its impressive pace. Hawks reportedly set out to shoot two pages of script for each minute of film--double the rate of most movies. To do so he took out all the pauses, having one line of dialogue immediately follow another, sometimes letting his actors step on each other’s final words just to keep it moving. The result is a comedy that zips by. Words become akin to action, a good line packing as much of a wallop as a sock in the jaw. This gives the whole of His Girl Friday an unprecedented verve, and also invigorates the character interaction. Walter is fast-thinking and fast-talking, but Hildy is always faster, always a step ahead, unraveling his plots, even as he circles back around and draws her in.


Also noteworthy is the banter between the cynical journalists that hang out in the prison pressroom covering the execution for rival papers. This is one area where Milestone outshines Hawks. Not only was the earlier director more interested in the reporters’ verbal jousting, but the dialogue in his version had a more jagged edge, thanks to pre-Code freedoms. There is no sugarcoating of the issues in The Front Page: race, politics, and sex are referenced directly. Likewise, the older script shines a more satirical light on the reporters. Adapted by Bartlett Cormack (Fury), with additional dialogue by Lederer,  this The Front Page shows the reporters each putting their own spin on the story, a round-robin of false reporting and straight-up embellishment that is hilarious on its face, though also a bit scary if we consider the current distrust of the media. It’s our living nightmare--facts really don’t matter, it’s all about the point of view of each particular outlet.


In the 1931 movie, Walter is played by Adolphe Menjou (Paths of Glory [review]), playing off his sophisticated image, a low-society capitalist in a high-society suit. His sparring partner is Pat O’Brien (Knute Rockney All American). O’Brien plays Hildy as a man’s man who loves chasing a good story and can’t get enough of scooping everyone else. It makes him the best at what he does--a distinction they thankfully didn’t remove when handing the role to Rosalind Russell. It’s refreshing seeing a woman on the screen who is better than all the men in a field they are supposed to own. His Girl Friday also subverts the notion that a lady should give up such a life and settle down with a good man. In both films, Hildy doesn’t seem to really be chasing a suburban existence or even love; the most important factor in their decision is sticking it to Walter and proving him wrong when he says they can’t. (Though, I should note a discussion I had with a co-worker who thought Hildy in His Girl Friday was working against a certain sexism where all the men in her life, including her nice-guy fiancé, insisted she didn’t know what she really wanted.)



And Hawks doesn’t blow that in His Girl Friday by tacking on a romantic finish. If we see Grant and Russell as two peas in a pod, it’s just that: they are perfect for each other, and will carry on doing what they do best together. It’s funny that Milestone ends his film with an end title that implies we could see more from Menjou and O’Brien as Burns and Johnson, because if ever there was a duo ripe for a Thin Man-style string of sequels, it would have been Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell.
In addition to crisp restorations of both His Girl Friday and The Front Page, this double-disc set comes with two different radio performances of The Front Page, one of His Girl Friday, and a bunch of archival materials from different eras. It should also be noted that this restoration of The Front Page works from a print that maintains Lewis Milestone’s preferred cut, and not the international version that has circulated for many years.

All in all, these dueling adaptations make for a remarkably entertaining double feature. You could watch them back-to-back without tiring of the story. Both play on their own charms enough, you’ll be unable to resist playing along.


The images here are taken from an earlier standard-definition DVD and not the Blu-ray under consideration. This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.


Tuesday, January 3, 2017

THE ASPHALT JUNGLE - #847


Sterling Hayden may be the king of film noir endings. The bitter and tragic finish of The Killing has often been bandied about as the quintessential noir finale, but there is a strong case to be made for the closing of The Asphalt Jungle. It’s brutal, and yet bucolic; the bad man mere feet from salvation, on a farm, surrounded by curious horses, before succumbing to the inevitable. Hayden’s tough guy, Dix Handley, is a victim of his own drive. He nearly had the film noir safe haven of a good woman and a rural retreat, but like so many others, Dix can’t outrun fate. He ends up flat out in the dirt.


The Asphalt Jungle is John Huston’s 1950 heist film. He directed and co-wrote with Ben Maddow, whom he also worked with on The Unforgiven [review]. Maddow would shortly after be blacklisted and find much of his influential work, including scripts for Johnny Guitar and The Wild One [review], credited to another scribe. Their joint script tells the story of a small band of crooks looking to make a big score.  A notorious criminal planner, Doc Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe, The Scarlet Empress), knows where and how to get a million dollars worth of jewels. Backed by the double-crossing lawyer Alonzo Emmerich (Louis Calhern, Notorious [review]), Doc puts together a four-man crew, including Hayden’s Dix, a driver (James Whitmore), and a safe cracker (Anthony Caruso). Naturally, Doc’s job works on paper, but unforeseen wrinkles prove to make the aftermath of the crime more difficult than anticipated.


Huston spends a short, but meaningful amount of time on the theft. Thought not as meticulous in his details as, say, Jules Dassin in Rififi [review], there is a similar quiet methodology to how the director stages the crime. The crooks are professional, and so they move carefully, each doing their job as expected. Steel nerves are required as the explosion opening up the vault starts off a chain reaction of burglar alarms everywhere else on the street. With the cops distracted, the boys sneak out undetected, but the dead body they leave behind causes the hunt for them to intensify.


Structurally, The Asphalt Jungle is balanced out pretty evenly between the preamble to the heist, the heist itself, and the resulting escape and manhunt. It’s the opening bits that really set The Asphalt Jungle apart from other such films. Huston is interested in examining the day-to-day lives of the criminal underworld (the original tagline was “The City Under the City”). He approaches their activities with the same sober eye he might turn toward a workplace drama. These are guys just getting by, a slave to their habits, buried by their past choices, and living paycheck to paycheck, even if that next paycheck comes from their next crime. They work in a profession with its own jargon, hierarchy, and consequences. You could get “promoted” and jet to a tropical climate to spend your earnings, or you could get fired, heading off to jail or, worse, the morgue.


Dix is a man a bit down on his luck, a compulsive gambler who funds his habits with petty stick-ups. Yet, there is something solid about the gunman, something that inspires other people to trust him, including the troubled showgirl Doll (Jean Hagen, Singin’ in the Rain) or even Doc, who likes the way Dix stands up for himself. Hayden brings a fair balance of self-loathing and pride to the role. His physical presence says he reliable, yet his spirit seems about to topple at any moment, as if he were ill and holding back a fever. The actor seizes on a moral streak buried in the subtext of the screenplay. Dix takes his work seriously, and he is loyal to his friends. They stick out their neck for him, because he sticks out his neck for them. When writing up The Asphalt Jungle, no reviewer would ever call him the good guy, and yet, at least he stands for something. (Compare this to the troubled, besotted Hayden shown in the 1983 documentary, Pharos of Chaos, included here as a bonus feature. Or, at least, compare as much as you can stomach to watch. I only made it through an hour before turning it off, finding it exploitative and short on context.)

Another notable player in The Asphalt Jungle is Marilyn Monroe. She has two memorable scenes in the movie playing Emmerich’s sidepiece. Though still a couple of years from becoming a true leading lady, 1950 was pivotal for the starlet in that it brought her two of her most memorable bit parts: All About Eve and The Asphalt Jungle. Huston could not have cast the role of Angela any better, nor could he have taken greater advantage of Monroe’s natural gifts. Though on screen for a very short time, she is coquettish, judgmental, flirty, and emotional. She presents a seductive front, only to crumble under police pressure. Alluring, yet vulnerable. If only there had been a little bit of comedy, Marilyn could have displayed all of her wonderful talents.


In a way, Angela suffers the same kind of fate as the crooks, including her sugar daddy, in that her downfall springs from her individual desires. One by one, the police discover each member of the gang, all of whom somehow trip themselves up by letting their weaknesses get the better of them. It’s a payoff for all that time that Huston spent stitching their lives together. The fact they are individuals with their own concerns and their own peccadilloes means in some way they can be gotten to. As in many a noir, the one thing a man can’t escape is himself.


Huston straddles the line between noir and serious crime drama. He doesn’t rely heavily on the tropes of the genre, so much as he picks and chooses what he needs. This can be said for the visual storytelling as much as for the narrative storytelling. Working with director of photography Harold Rosson (The Docks of New York [review]), Huston plays around with his environment. His arrangement of characters in a frame can allow for them to appear small in a space that is much larger than them, or cramped in such a way to suggest it can barely contain them. Sometimes the crooks appear to be stacked on top of one another, other times, men who are at odds can appear to be separated by an illusory distance. Objects can loom. A clock in the extreme foreground reminds us that time is running out. The sky can appear so large as to be impossible.


Huston and Rosson indulge in impressionistic shadows when the story demands it--when the crooks escape in the sewer, or when Doc and Dix are trying  to sneak through town undetected--but otherwise the filmmakers approach the locale with a certain normalcy, letting the inkiness grow in a more natural sense, less exaggerated. This is a regular town, and a regular life can be had here. In other words, this Asphalt Jungle might be just across the street from where you live, meaning there is little separation between your life and theirs. “Normal” just happens to depend on your zip code.



Friday, December 23, 2016

BEFORE MIDNIGHT - #859

I intend to review the full Before Trilogy when the release comes out this February, but in the meantime, here is my original review of Before Midnight written for DVDTalk.com for the movie's theatrical release in 2013.


It hit me with a heavy thud early on in Before Midnight when Ethan Hawke's Jesse expresses his disbelief that he is now 41 years old: I have been the exact same age as the characters in this series whenever each movie has come out. The initial meeting between Jesse and Celine (Julie Delpy) happened when we were all 22 (Before Sunrise), and then ten years later in Before Sunset, at the onset of our 30s (so far the best decade in terms of growing up and growing old), and now we rejoin the narrative as we are settling into middle age.

I'll be curious to hear what my younger friends take away from Before Midnight. The ongoing relationship and occasional romance that the characters have with one another, and which they also have with us, the audience, is not getting any easier, even as it grows more comfortable. Despite a decade together and all the ups and downs that come with it, the relationship between these two (dare we say?) soulmates is just as deeply furrowed as it's always been. They can joke together and they can appreciate the wonders of the world, but they also disagree and fail to communicate and have to push hard to keep the love standing between them.

[Note: Other reviewers have treated some of the plot details about Before Midnight as spoilers; I don't think much of this hand-wringing is warranted. What I detail below is discovered within the first several minutes of the movie, but should you be concerned, don't read between the next two photographs. Then again, if you're that invested, why are you reading this instead of getting in line for a ticket?]


This third go-around, directed in the same au-naturale style by Richard Linklater, who has also shared co-writing credit with his stars since 2004's original sequel, finds Celine and Jesse in Europe at the tail-end of a vacation. Jesse has just put his son back on a plane to Chicago to be with his mother, and the farewell was tough. The boy is about to start high school, and Jesse realizes he has lived away from the child most of the kid's life. He and Celine have their own children, whom they live with in Paris, and Celine has a fulfilling job, all of which makes even the thought of moving the family to America problematic.

That's the essential situation that gets Before Midnight underway, providing the complications that will cause the extended conversation that forms the bulk of the film. There is one pitstop before the ball really gets rolling. Jesse and Celine are staying at the Greek villa of an older man who admires Jesse's writing. With them are two other couples: a funny, loving duo who are a generation ahead of Jesse and Celine, and a newer pair of lovers that are the same age that Jesse and Celine were in Before Sunrise. In a spirited dinner table conversation, Linklater and crew give us a full representation of the stages of life as they exist now, and how age and origin informs each romance. Alongside the older host (veteran cinematographer Walter Lassally) is a widow (Xenia Kalogeropoulou), who gives the film's most emotional monologue when remembering her late husband. It's this moment that sets up one of the film's main themes: the preciousness of time and how our memorializing of the same distorts it. It's a beautiful segment, and the first of many times I teared up during Before Midnight.


It's after this meal that Jesse and Celine depart on their own, heading down from the villa to spend a night alone in a hotel. Unfortunately, without saying much more about specifics, the tension that has been brewing between them reaches full steam, and the romantic night turns into a difficult argument. Both participants are equal part aggressor and victim. They are alternately cruel, unfair, and selfish. They are also vulnerable and protective of what they have, both as individuals and together. You will find your sympathies shifting back and forth. Jesse can't calm the situation without saying something stupid, whereas every time Celine gives an inch, she takes it back with sharp-tongued fury. Exposition is smartly folded into the back-and-forth, catching us up on what got them from Before Sunset to here, and the more we learn, the more we realize that they don't always know each other--or even themselves.

Which is the real heavy-duty truth that Before Midnight reveals about not just long-term relationships, but also what it's like to be in middle age. From what I am discovering, one's 40s are a period of self-assessment and self-doubt. Both Jesse and Celine are asking where the time has gone, reevaluating their decisions, and wondering how much time they have left to get it right. Listen to what they say, all of those things are in there. Likewise, they are questioning why their bodies are changing, why they are often not in control of their own impulses, and why despite four decades of wisdom, they can't change their worst traits (if they even need to). Being in your 40s feels like being a teenager again, you're suddenly not in control of your physical form or your mental and emotional state. For the past twelve months, I've personally been living in the I Heart Huckabees "How am I not myself?" rubber ball scene on perpetual loop, and so it struck me deeply to hear both Jesse and Celine ask the same basic question of each other: "How am I not the person you fell in love with?"


That Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy manage to balance so many things, to make their characters three-dimensional and flawed while also keeping them likable, and make Before Midnight as uplifting and cathartic as it is emotionally distressing, is really the secret to why this series has managed to sustain its quality and appeal. The level of talent on display here, the depth and nuance of the performances and of the writing, is incredible. I'd also posit that it's a chemistry that is impossible to replicate. Delpy has starred in and directed two very similar movies, 2 Days in Paris [review] and 2 Days in New York [review], both of which fail to conjure the same magic. She can't do it without Linklater or Hawke any more than they could do it without her and each other. It's like the Beatles as a unit vs. the Beatles apart. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

And so we are left again at an impasse, a momentary truce that may hold. Like the devastating ebbs and flows of the union in Ingmar Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage, we will never be sure from one entry to the next where our subjects will land. Somewhere on the internet, I am sure a Before... franchise fan has already started a doomsday clock counting down the next ten years, marking the time until we all meet again. The point, though, is not to count the minutes or the years, but to live them. Only then will the next reunion's lessons make sense, or even this one's be justified.



Sunday, December 18, 2016

BLU-REDO: THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL - #459


A few years on since Criterion’s 2012 release of The Exterminating Angel (and my lengthy review), this new Blu-ray upgrade of Luis Buñuel’s 1962 social satire couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time. As political climates change and divides deepen across the world, this surreal masterpiece turns the tables on the social classes. Though wealth and standing were not part of Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson’s infamous horror movie rules in Scream, a deeper examination of the genre, particularly the sort of isolating event they were sending up in their movie, I am sure would reveal that most often, things go bad for the poor, not the rich. Or, when they do, someone from the underclass is there to save the day. The outsider that tagged along with her moneyed classmates for the weekend being the only one to emerge from a slasher plot alive.

Not that The Exterminating Angel is at all like a slasher film, but it is very much a horror film. Dark forces are in the air right from the get-go, when the servants of a Mexican dignitary start exiting his home just before a big dinner party. There is a suggestion that they are not colluding, that they are not aware of what compels them to go. Did they enact a curse on their snobby boss and his guests, or are they simply falling under the same spell? While this strange happening forces them to leave, it requires the others to stay.


What exactly happened is never explained, nor does it need to be. The closest we get to maybe being able to surmise the motivation of whatever force is holding sway is The Exterminating Angel’s closing scenes. We’ve switched from the wealthy to the pious. Buñuel is targeting social institutions and ideologies, isolating them so as to expose and ridicule. His main scenario, borrowing a little from Sartre’s No Exit, is that following their meal, the partygoers discover they cannot leave. There is no visible obstacle keeping them in the room, yet they can’t find the ability to simply walk out. Food disappears, as do other pleasures; the group splinters, factions form. Stripped of the trappings of status, these people are left to be themselves--and who they are is not necessarily very likable.


In a society where the gap between the rich and the poor, as well as many moral and political divides, is becoming more pronounced than ever, there is much we can glean from The Exterminating Angel. The film makes the division real, blocking the rich from the rest of the world, but in doing so, takes everything away, turning them into the people they might otherwise judge, forcing them to go without. In added prescience, Buñuel’s turning the whole thing into a media spectacle is not unlike reality television being a platform for celebrity, wealth, and now leadership. Though, the gawkers outside the mansion seem positively quaint in the age of 24-7 surveillance, paparazzi, and, of course, oversharing.

The critique is sharp, but Buñuel’s approach is often playful. He watches his characters with the mirth of a prankster. Which, of course, he is. It’s the director who locked these people in this mansion, and only he can let them out once he’s seen all he wants to see. They can be craven and petty, but their desperation is also horribly human. As with the best horror, the awful things that happen prove to remind us we are alive, and that we are all in this together. The rich are no better than anyone else, no more capable--but when they finally do get out, it’s because they push together.


The high-definition transfer on this disc is very nice, bringing The Exterminating Angel into its Blu period. I don’t believe this is any different than the transfer used for the previous DVD edition, but the image is crisp and the uncompressed soundtrack sounds fantastic. All the extras from the original disc, including a 2008 documentary tribute to Luis Buñuel, are carried over to this re-release.


The images used in this review are from the standard-definition DVD and not the Blu-ray under examination. 

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

Sunday, December 11, 2016

HEART OF A DOG - #846


Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog is an unconventional documentary. Known primarily for her performance art and avant-garde music (Criterion fans might know the score she wrote with John Cale for Something Wild [review]), Anderson’s feature-length directorial effort translates much of what she has been about into a fresh venue. Aesthetically satisfying while also thought provoking, Heart of a Dog is more than a meditation on the passing of the artist’s beloved pet, a rat terrier named Lolabelle, but a general exploration of how we deal with death and also the way a terrible event like September 11th changes us.


These might seem like quite disparate narrative pursuits, but Anderson weaves them together with little effort, and is arguably more successful at doing so by avoiding creating any clear connectors. Sure, Lolabelle’s examination of the sky on an outing might remind Anderson how her fellow New Yorkers also now look to the heavens for potential danger, but it’s more free association than causal metaphor. Heart of a Dog examines how our views of the afterlife might also affect our sense of security in the world (our paths, as tracked by CCTV and surveillance devices, create a kind of ghost image of who we are). Likewise, language determines how we communicate with one another, how we establish connections. When you consider these things together, a dog does seem to be the perfect vehicle for such concerns. We look to our canine friends for both security and companionship, and perhaps this simple relationship could serve as the seed to how we engage with the world at large.


In terms of style, Anderson composes Heart of a Dog with a variety of tools, ranging from animation to re-enactment, home videos to random security footage. This allows her to shift as necessary, to keep the essay flowing. Anderson narrates the whole thing with a calm tone, matched by the ambient score she also composed (some of which was performed with the Kronos Quartet; interestingly, you can also watch the film with the music turned off). There is a feeling with this movie, particularly in terms of this release, that Heart of a Dog is more than a film, but also a packaged experience, an object, with the extra booklet included in the Blu-ray creating a mini paper version of the movie’s look and feel. Once you remove the plastic wrap from the case, there is no element here that was not strongly considered to contribute to the whole.


Amidst all this heady construction, however, the most effective moments, at least for me, come when Anderson pauses to share an anecdote about Lolabelle, or even to show us a small piece of video starring the dog. Lolabelle was not just integral to Laurie Anderson’s creative process, joining her for long days in the studio, but also, adorably, a collaborator, learning to play music herself. As someone who lost his own pet earlier this year, a cat whom I had lived with for seventeen years, including a full decade of working at home every day, this has a particular emotional resonance with me. Such pets become essential to our day-to-day routine, a confidante, a constant presence. In making Heart of a Dog, Anderson is able to apply Buddhist philosophy to her grief: the Tibetan Book of the Dead instructs those left behind not to cry, as tears will only confuse the departing spirit. Thus, what the filmmaker shares are not mawkish remembrances, but joyous ones.

It’s hard not to wonder how much of the feeling here, though, is not just for Lolabelle, but for Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson’s long-term partner and husband, who passed away in 2013. Reed appears briefly in the background, and one of his songs graces the closing credits. Heart of a Dog is also dedicated to him. It seems impossible that much of what Lolabelle inspires in tribute here wouldn’t also be connected to the other loss. If so, then once again, this furry creature provides a smaller outlet to look toward something bigger.


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