Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Top 100 Films - #6


Cluttered, campy, and garish, The Scarlet Empress is the cinema of obsession, like a monument built by a mad tyrant to his beloved queen, or rather, a mausoleum raised around her while she still draws breath. That may scare you off, or it may fascinate you; either way, I thought it only fair to start with a warning. Those who require a polished script or nuanced performances will recoil in horror, but for the happy few who can be tantalized by the play of light and shadow or mystified by a prolonged shot of a face, The Scarlet Empress is a sacred object.

Its allure derives from the subject herself, the luminous Marlene Dietrich, adorned and adored so lavishly by director Josef von Sternberg that she becomes our obsession as much as his. Well, almost. Theirs was the greatest collaboration in all of cinema simply because he was willing to move mountains for her, and she had a face that was etched in stone. The Scarlet Empress is the pinnacle of their seven collaborations, the upper limits of their excesses and fetishization before the constraints of the Production Code rendered them impotent. Dietrich plays Catherine the Great, and von Sternberg chronicles her rise to power in explicit, if not historic, detail. He surrounds her by the grotesque – twisted statues looming over stony halls, a macabre wedding feast of gut-wrenching proportions, her mad man-child husband played with childish glee by Sam Jaffe – and amidst the dismal surroundings, Dietrich positively glows. Von Sternberg films her through lace and flame, preserving her image so we can venerate it through the ages. It’s as if he made the film solely as a shrine to her, and my appreciation for it comes not from any distinguished narrative, but from a fascination with this artifact of ancient Hollywood, crafted by two of the most decadent personalities of their time.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Top 100 Films - #7


Chungking Express – the masterwork of the Hong Kong New Wave, the definitive ode to identity in the age of globalization, the hyper-kinetic hybrid of neo-noir and romantic comedy – has taken me four long years to fully appreciate its boundless intricacies and hypnotic sway. Which is to say, it’s the only film in my top 10 that I wasn’t immediately enamored with, but it’s also the one that I’ve revisited with the most frequency. See, the structure of Chungking Express is so atypical and its details so innumerable that virtually nothing sticks the first time around, save the delirious imagery of metro Hong Kong and the endless loop of The Mamas and The Papas. The film spans the distance between two separate but not-entirely-unconnected stories that exist in vastly different genres and press forward with equally dissimilar strides. It takes a second viewing for the myriad connections to soak in. It takes a whole lot more and a dose of Hong Kong history for it to attain the level of admiration that I’m happy to accord it.

My understanding of Chungking Express has been cobbled together from theorist Ackbar Abbas’s Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance coupled with a course I took on film noir and globalization, lest you think my reading here is an original one. Nonetheless, it fascinates me to no end what Wong Kar Wai was able to accomplish; a film that anticipates the approaching transfer of Hong Kong from British to Chinese authority. Faced with quite literally a countdown to a change in their identity, a creative renaissance emerges in Hong Kong as a whole generation of visionaries attempt to define a culture before it ceases to exist. Wong got it right, scarily right, and the first half of Chungking Express perfectly mirrors an already multinational culture hurdling forward in time at such speed that reflection seems impossible. Somewhere between the endless halls of a consumerist society, the sea of immigrant workers and Brigitte Lin’s Barbara Stanwyck-esque disguise, identity gets obscured.

His solution lies in the second story, a more languid (and charming) look at the same city, in which sprightly Faye Wong eases Tony Leung’s transition following a sudden breakup. It’s also Wong’s way of easing the transition of Hong Kong. The second story unfolds in the same world as the first; random objects resurface, the Midnight Express still stands at the center, and Leung’s Cop 633 experiences similar relationship woes to Cop 233 before him. Despite the abrupt shift in pace, everything exists as it did before, and in the process Wong has managed at last to pin an identity on the city. Chungking Express filters through all the consumerism, pop culture, and anxiety that define Hong Kong of the mid 90s, and then rightly shares this vision of global identity with the world.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Top 100 Films - #8


I’ve made no secret throughout this list of my subscription to the auteur theory. I find myself carried away praising directors to the rafters while far less time has been spent commending actors for their equal contributions. In sharing my thoughts on Naked, I realize that I must reconcile this trend. Few directors make a case for film as a collaborative medium as strong as Mike Leigh. Few actors have ever torn apart the screen like David Thewlis as back-alley philosopher Johnny.

Naked begins in the darkest of places, with Johnny fleeing the scene of an attempted rape and retreating to London. His contemptible opening actions are alienating at best, and in any other film would have been labeled unforgivable, but for Thewlis and Leigh, Johnny’s transgressions are merely the jumping point for this epic and harrowing character study. Johnny is damaged, and he delights in letting others into his own damaged world, but he is no villain. As a brilliant orator hampered by situation and so blinded by his contempt for class that he can’t seem to help himself, he commands pity, but also a certain degree of respect. His education and silver tongue seem at odds with his situation, but whatever his improbabilities, we buy into Johnny.

Oddly enough, the multiple dimensions of Johnny are further driven home by the film’s only two-dimensional character, Jeremy, the sadistic landlord presiding like a shadow over the lives of Johnny’s ex-girlfriend Louise and her roommate Sophie. His part in the film never fails to knock the narrative off balance, but it’s because of his unabashed evil that we can put Johnny’s shortcomings into some kind of perspective. Some would decry this as shameless manipulation, but that would only stand if Leigh were trying to justify Johnny’s actions. He doesn’t, and instead we’re given the opportunity to understand rather than outright condemn him. The final verdict on Johnny’s value to the human race remains in our hands, but long before the final devastating shot we’ve come to agree that characters, just like any real person, can be complicated.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Top 100 Films - # 9


La Jetée is history viewed from the window of a time machine. Time whooshes by too fast to paint a full picture; a day becomes a moment, becomes a flash, becomes a photograph. And though the instant lingers, the context is all but forgotten. Such is the premise of La Jetée, Chris Marker’s science fiction essay told in a progression of still photographs, strung together though disembodied narration.

A boy experiences a mysterious trauma as a child; a crowded pier, a man shot down, a woman watching helplessly from the sidelines. And then a war, a devastating war, the action instantaneous, but the destruction interminable. The boy is now a man, and the war-ravaged world has forced its occupants underground. With hope for the future all but exhausted, he is selected by scientists for a dangerous mission through time. From there, it becomes astonishingly personal.

The cinematic qualities of La Jetée cannot be overlooked. Images dissolve into one another, such grotesque morphing creating artificial movement on the screen. These images stretch into scenes no less memorable or evocative than you would find in any more traditional film. In a particularly fascinating scene, a romantic stroll through a natural history museum becomes a haunting moment of reflection, as hordes of stuffed, lifeless animals seem to observe the humans who would before long decimate natural life on the planet. Of course, we reason that they’re lifeless, but life and death are not so easy to discern when captured in still photography. This choice, coupled with the masterful framing, renders the scene positively eerie. The rest of the film is no less indelible, not least the awe-inducing blink of an eye moment that prompts an immediate reassessment of Marker’s intentions. It’s at that point that it becomes apparent just how deliberate every image, every word, every cut and dissolve has been. And in looking back we realize just how much has stuck. Marker and his photographs tap into something deep in the recesses of out memory, then bring everything full circle with an ending that is perfect, beautiful, and impossible.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Top 100 Films - #10


The battle between order and chaos in narrative film is sadly one-sided. Audiences thrive on formula – understandably, it’s safe – and studios are only too happy to appease them. Order provides comfort and goes down naturally, while chaos gets labeled as weird, confusing and pretentious, all for having the gall to, god-forbid, challenge viewers’ precious conceptions. But chaos, or instability, holds the keys to amazement, and too few films seek to surprise us anymore. The ultimate example in narrative chaos is Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Its cinematic equivalent is Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.

Miyazaki had always played from a different rulebook than his Disney counterparts, and more than any of his other film, Spirited Away unfolds with the stipulation that the rules can always change. Characters regularly take on different forms; the very shape of their bodies physiological impossibilities; villains quite suddenly become friends; and the plot itself refuses to settle into a groove, redefining the boundaries the moment we become aware of them. The first half hour is an unforgettable plunge down a rabbit hole, and no sooner than our heroine Chihiro lands on her feet do all the problems of this magical world suddenly concern her. Something’s very peculiar about the Yubaba, the disproportioned governess of the bathhouse, and Haku the dragon-boy has been acting in secret as well, and of course there’s the spectral No-Face, whose part in the story temporarily takes us into horror movie territory. And lest we think the world of Spirited Away is confined to the vibrant bathhouse at the center of it, the final chapter sees Chihiro on a journey deeper into the realm of the spirits. The film, like any great imagination, has no bounds.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Top 100 Films - #11


Here’s another film of exploration – fictional as well – this one intent on mapping out the space of dreams and memory, and wherever the twain shall meet. Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Mariendbad is a beautiful puzzle that thrives on the myriad interpretations only further obscuring any possible solution. Events unfold in a sprawling European chateau where an enigmatic man attempts to convince an austere beauty that she had an affair with him the previous summer, possibly at Marienbad. Whether or not this is true remains uncertain, but under such persistence the woman eventually seems to buy into his suggestions. That much seems clear. The rest, well, it’s the kind of formalistic mind-fuckery that Memento and Primer wish they were capable of.

Unlike Playtime, there’s no reference point to cling to. Our narrator is unreliable at best, deceiving the viewer as much as the woman he pursues. Images on screen often fall at odds with the voice-over. We could at any given point be observing present reality, an actual past, or the space of dreams, something more than hinted at by the ghostly presence of background figures around the chateau, or the haunting garden vista where people inexplicably cast shadows in the high noon sun. Resnais collaborated on the film with screenwriter Alain Robbe-Grillet, and the story goes that even their interpretations of events clashed, with Robbe-Grillet pushing for an experience that completely severed the viewer from reality. As director though, Resnais had the final say, inserting easily overlooked clues to separating dreams from reality – for instance mentions of Ibsen’s Rosmersholm that provide the only visual referent for something exterior to the film. These intricacies beg for interpretation, and Marienbad’s fascination surely owes a lot to such analysis, but as a riddle designed without an answer, it would be foolish to expect satisfaction from it. The shadows projected in the cave are more compelling than the logic behind them.

Top 100 Films - #12


Playtime defies comparison. To call it less than one of the wonders of the silver screen would be underselling it. It’s a marvel; of set design, of choreography, of comic brilliance. Jacques Tati’s meandering alter ego Monsieur Hulot finds himself in an ultra-modern Paris, and acts as our bumbling tour guide on a journey through its alien streets, businesses and abodes. The set spans several city blocks, every inch specially constructed for the film and every corner of the frame teeming with life, technology and unexpected gags. The lazy will hate it, for it’s a film that refuses to tell you where to look and there’s never less than a dozen things happening on screen at once. And that’s just on screen – the rich and intricate sound design adds an entirely new dimension to the milieu. But for the observant viewer – for anyone who gets giddy at the prospect of revisiting a film with new eyes – its pleasures and rewards resonate to our very core.

Setting Playtime apart from Tati’s previous films is the passive role that his Hulot takes in the narrative. He remains in control as much as his wanderings dictate where we move along to next, but he typically amounts to little more than an observer, albeit one prone to getting caught up in the absurdities on screen. As a proxy for the viewer, Hulot shares our sense of bafflement and wonder, and he’s our only reference point (logic being, that the character of Hulot exists outside Playtime) in one of the purest examples of film as a means of exploration. It’s one of the few wholly fictitious forays into that abstract genre, one that could be said to include works such as Koyaanisqatsi, Que Viva Mexico, and the films of Robert Flaherty, but it’s also a more demanding experience than the aforementioned. But if I warned off lazy viewers earlier, that shouldn’t be taken to mean any casual movie-goer. To a generation raised on active involvement in video games, Playtime is precisely something they can wrap their mind around, a movie where more than anything, you are in control of your experience.

Top 100 Films - #13


Cinema had artists before Jean Renoir – Murnau, von Sternberg and many others were legitimizing film as art before he came onto the scene – but in Renior the medium had someone in direct lineage to one of the great Impressionists, and someone who approached film with a reverence for all forms of artistic expression. Early on, Renoir proved he was indeed his father’s son with the serene A Day in the Country, but never did he craft a film more poetic and lyrical than The River. Based on a Rumer Godden novel and unfolding on the banks of the Ganges, the film makes for an interesting companion to Black Narcissus in painting a picture of India before the partition, the P&P film beautifully realized from the confines of Pinewood Studios and Renoir’s masterpiece shot entirely on location. As a result, The River is the perfect encapsulation of a region at a specific moment in time. The perspective is thoroughly Western, crafted with respectful curiosity for the people, land and traditions that make up the world of the film. It does all this through the eyes of a child, adding both boundless wonder and ample naivety to the experience. Ultimately though, The River is less a snapshot of colonial India than an Impressionist’s rendering of it. The color is too stunning to be real, and the acting too wooden to be believable, but they’re ideal components in the broad strokes Renoir is painting. With The River, he simultaneously crafted one of the great unions of visual poetry and storytelling and carried his father’s torch into a medium that had yet to achieve maturity at the time of his death.