Monday, July 29, 2013

#336: Dazed and Confused

(Richard Linklater, 1993)

Dazed and Confused is one of the unusual pop culture artifacts that is both nostalgic and, with the passage of time, itself a piece of nostalgia. Richard Linklater wrote the film in his mid-thirties as an ode to his high school experience in the 1970s, but upon its release the film was embraced by teenagers who identified with the bell-bottoms, long hair, and pot culture in a time when kids were desperate to reject their 80s upbringing. It subsequently became a defining work of the 1990s - no movie other than perhaps Clueless represents my generation of teenagers more effectively, a feat that seems totally ironic considering its dedication to its setting. (Note, too, that Clueless is based on Jane Austen's "Emma" - and what says more about the post-modern 90s than that?)

This achievement is less surprising when you consider how honest and loyally crafted Dazed and Confused is. Though he clearly has the cynical, destructive 80s in mind (most obviously when Marissa Ribisi theorizes that the 80s will be amazing - a clear knowing wink), Linklater never succumbs to the sort of saccharine nostalgia for innocence that George Lucas's American Graffiti is beholden to with regards to the pre-Vietnam War era. Likewise, his ability to shuttle between social strata and lend them all the same level of attention to detail and dignity is remarkable, even more so when considering how rarely this has actually been achieved. Adam Goldberg's nerd and Sasha Jenson's meathead are crafted with equal care for their intelligence and relative sophistication. It would seem unlikely that anyone who sees Dazed and Confused would be unable to recognize at least part of themselves in one or more of these vivid characters.

I've seen Dazed and Confused more times than I can count, but this most recent viewing was the first in years. I was struck by how impressed I was with the filmmaking, particularly from a storytelling perspective. Despite including multiple storylines, Linklater managed to structure the film seamlessly, giving everyone their moments without bumps in the film's momentum. The characters are well-established both through dialog and direction. Framing and establishing shots are carefully selected to hammer home each world with which Linklater is concerned. But there's also a quirkiness that emphasizes Linklater's personal connection to and love for his characters. Linklater is not often mentioned as an influence on Wes Anderson, another Texas director - though less often linked to the state, but the connection came to mind frequently while watching Dazed and Confused.

Linklater's work can often be dismissed as slight and undeserving of serious reflection, even if his movies are almost without fail intellectually stimulating. I think a big part of this is his unambitious scale; with very few exceptions, Linklater mainly focuses on average, thoroughly human characters doing average, thoroughly human things. His core masterpieces, the two Before films (I have yet to see the third), hardly concern themselves with any characters beyond the two leads, while even conventional story structure falls by the wayside. Though Dazed and Confused is similarly narratively loose, the film's format is recognizable to anyone who has seen compressed-time coming-of-age films, and this can make it seem a lot less revolutionary and a lot more specific to its time and place (both in setting and release). Hopefully, this won't prevent new generations of movie lovers from discovering the film, because it deserves a place as one of the fine films about adolescence, even after its nostalgic appeal has faded.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

#676: I Married a Witch

(Rene Clair, 1942)

I Married a Witch is a light, entirely harmless movie that doesn't deserve a full Criterion release. As one of the few films Rene Clair made in Hollywood and one of the better Veronica Lake movies (not saying a lot), its presence on the Hulu Criterion page (where I watched it last night after its release was announced) is worthwhile. But the film simply can't compare to Clair's earlier work in France, and Lake's only other film in the Collection, Sullivan's Travels, is far superior.

In fact, there's not much to say about I Married a Witch. The film is vaguely a screwball comedy, though none of the characters are particularly clever or funny and the plot is extremely simple. The premise - a man who burns a witch at the stake condemns his male descendants to always marrying the wrong woman - is actually a pretty good idea for a film. But the execution never really exploits this concept, and the movie simply devolves into Veronica Lake trying to ruin a man's life but falling in love with him in the process.

There are certainly moments where Clair's touch shines through (mostly in the early scenes before the modern setting is revealed), and at 77 minutes the movie is never dull. But the movie suffers from two stars who are not especially funny, and I can probably think of 20 comedies from the same era off the top of my head that are more appealing and more deserving of Criterion's attention. I hesitate to say I Married a Witch is the worst film Criterion has released in recent memory (Life During Wartime comes to mind) but it's certainly the slightest release they've had in quite some time. Even when compared to a mixed comedy like Design for Living, I Married a Witch can't measure up.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

#672: 3 Films by Roberto Rossellini Starring Ingrid Bergman

(Roberto Rossellini, 1950-54)

Rossellini is about to become the only director with two spine-numbered boxsets in the Collection, a designation that's well-deserved. The director is often overlooked on lists of the best filmmakers ever - even Italy has produced a number of filmmakers that often get mentioned before him, such as Fellini, Antonioni, and De Sica - but his influence on modern film, especially in Europe, cannot be overstated. The three films in this boxset were made during his most notorious era, when he met Ingrid Bergman and began an affair with her, despite the fact that both were married to other people at the time.

3 Films by Roberto Rossellini has no chance of measuring up to its cousin and Criterion's #500 spine, Roberto Rossellini's War Trilogy, which contains three of the most significant films in history. The movie that comes closest is Journey to Italy, the third film in the set and ironically the least ambitious. Although it shares a late epiphany with Stromboli and some drawing room melodrama with Europe '51, the film is much more mature and restrained than either of the other films in this box. It's also a deep and complex examination of marriage and generally knowing a person too well. Kiarostami was heavily influenced by the film when he made Certified Copy, one of the great films of the last decade, and I wouldn't be surprised if it ranked high on Antonioni's list either.

Criterion is still doing a giant service with this set. All three of these films have been unfairly neglected (none were originally hits) and the only available prints or discs were in shoddy condition. I'm excited to see the finished product, especially with regards to Journey to Italy, which I would say is one of the great overlooked films of the post-war era.

Links to individual reviews:

Europe '51
Journey to Italy

#674: Europe '51

(Roberto Rossellini, 1952)

Europe '51 is one of the oddest films by a major director in the Collection. The movie is a cross between an upperclass melodrama and a religious parable; at times I was reminded of The Passion of Joan of Arc, All That Heaven Allows, The Flowers of St. Francis, and Secret Sunshine, four very different Criterion films. The story centers around Ingrid Bergman's self-absorbed society lady character, a woman more concerned with her dinner party going off without a hitch than with her son's anxiety and need for attention. When tragedy strikes, she falls into a deep depression, only broken when she transforms her life into a sacrifice for other people.

The strangest thing about Europe '51 is the push and pull between the heavy-handed political statement and the equally purple soap opera of Bergman's family life deteriorating. The politics of the film are notably more engaging than the melodrama, mainly because Rossellini doesn't seem especially interested in the latter. His camera work is reminiscent of Vittorio De Sica's in his earlier The Children Are Watching Us, but it's not nearly as visually appealing and often feels more like a TV drama than something made by the same person who filmed the memorable tuna fishing in Stromboli. His anointing of Bergman with all types of martyr imagery is equally ham-fisted, if somewhat more enjoyable.

Europe '51 is the only film in the upcoming Rossellini/Bergman boxset that is not available on Hulu, and it's probably no coincidence that it's by far the least important or impressive. That said, it still has its occasional charms, and is worth viewing for any fan of the two. It also features an unexpected treat in seeing Ingrid Bergman and Guiletta Masina share the screen, which alone makes it a special moment in film history.

Monday, July 8, 2013

#65: Rushmore

(Wes Anderson, 1998)

There are only a handful of movies in the Criterion Collection I've seen more than Rushmore, yet I haven't put it on in at least four years, since I'm just getting around to writing about it now. This is probably the longest I've gone without seeing it since its release in 1998, opening night in Century City, where it was running for one week to allow Bill Murray to qualify for the Oscars (his snub for this performance remains a total joke). Having seen the film so many times, it's hard to remember what my first response was to it beyond loving it - I do remember that as a budding Kinks fan the soundtrack was especially impressive - but in multiple viewings since I've come to believe there are few movies as successfully executed as this little character piece. Wes Anderson was only 29 when he made it, but his skill and - perhaps even more importantly - his discipline as a filmmaker were already fully formed. His use of flat perspective mixed with subtle handheld work merged an indie aesthetic with a distinct storytelling visual palate that allowed the tone of the film to match up perfectly with its cinematography; Anderson is at once highly stylistic and not at all flashy, twee for the indie generation but devoid of his later films' preciousness (detractors would argue with this last point, but comparatively there's no contest).

Although Anderson's sure hand (and his and Owen Wilson's vision of the story) is what makes Rushmore so impressive from a filmmaking perspective, the movie is largely held together by two impressive performances. It would be entirely impossible to imagine anyone as Max Fischer other than Jason Schwartzman, who inhabits the role so much that he's been trying to run away from it ever since to no avail. Meanwhile, Bill Murray is so funny, so heartbreaking, and so lovable that he's been using the same routine for the last fifteen years, nearly winning an Oscar for a far inferior film in the process. The relationship between the two characters manages to feel authentic and natural without much in the way of exposition; this is mainly thanks to Murray, who looks at Schwartzman with an endearing stare of bemusement and longing - for his own youth just as much as for Schwartzman's. He loves Max because he understands him, but he also envies his naïveté and courage. He wants to be Max far more than Max wants to be him, even after he gets the girl.

Rushmore is not the towering achievement many of the best films in the Criterion Collection manage to be, yet it is one of the few perfect films in the set. It's especially impressive because it's lack of ambition never gets in the way of the power of its story. Over the past decade and a half, this has turned out to be the key to Wes Anderson's immense talent; Max says early on in Rushmore that "I guess you just gotta find something you love to do and do it for the rest of your life. For me that's going to Rushmore." For Anderson, it's producing quirky semi-nostalgic character portraits of characters struggling with their identities (usually wrapped up in parent issues). There is a case to be made that the messy but brilliant The Royal Tennenbaums is Anderson's crowning achievement, but every film he's made after Rushmore is a response to this one, because it is a perfect execution of his voice. There were probably only two other filmmakers who produced great, truly unique work in the US in the 90s, not coincidentally also with their second features: Quentin Tarantino with Pulp Fiction and Paul Thomas Anderson with Boogie Nights. Both of those films are great, but unquestionably messy affairs - it's Wes Anderson with his quiet story and dogged focus who produced the exact film he intended to make. Although its reputation has been somewhat diminished by complaints that his style has devolved into a schtick, what's actually onscreen never fails to enchant, and the director's choices for set design, costumes, music, and even cinematography make the film as timeless as it seemed when it was first released. Rushmore is one of the best-known and most-owned films in the Collection, but even that assessment understates its value to the series. It's the gold standard for contemporary film for Criterion, and fifteen years later it's every bit the masterpiece it appeared to be upon its release.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

#673: Stromboli

(Roberto Rossellini, 1950)

Stromboli is a metaphor for itself. Although she was born in Europe, Ingrid Begman was perhaps the most glamorous Hollywood star of the 1940s. By the time Stromboli was made, Bergman was only 35 and had already had a string of successes, including two of the best movies ever made, the perfect Notorious and the incomparable Casablanca. Roberto Rossellini was equally accomplished, having finished his War Trilogy and perhaps single-handedly ushered in a new era in filmmaking. But the director's neo-realist style was practically defined in opposition to the Hollywood films that Bergman made; they were a supremely unlikely pairing.

This is reflected in the film - Rossellini's only Hollywood-backed feature. Bergman plays a Lithuanian refugee desperate to leave Europe for a better life in Argentina. When she is denied passage, she accepts a marriage proposal from a young Italian solider, who promises to take her back to his charming Italian island in the beautiful Mediterranean. The island turns out to be an active volcano, with only a few small villages with meager wages from fishing. The moment Bergman gets there she wants to leave.

Stromboli is about worlds colliding: the expectations of a young woman who dreams of something better for herself and the resigned but indignant fortitude of the peasants who populate a small and inhospitable bit of land far removed from the centers of society. But what shows up on screen is impossible to ignore - Bergman, looking just as strikingly beautiful as ever, standing in for all of Hollywood and everything shimmering and soaring within it, desperate to escape the neo-realist hell she has been unceremoniously plopped down into without any hope of escaping. It's this combination that makes the film so striking, in a way that the later collaboration between the two artists (and lovers) Voyage to Italy isn't at all. Bergman even acts the way you would expect Hollywood to act - don't get me wrong, this isn't Did You Hear About the Morgans?, but Bergman does sort of flop around petulantly, flinging her sexuality at whatever man she can find, desperate to use them to achieve her goals. Not that the neo-realists come off any better - Bergman's husband is abusive, while his fellow villagers couldn't be bothered to have empathy for puppy that was drowning if it was doing it in an improper way.

This parallel level of conflict, however, makes the movie even more compelling, and the battle between Hollywood and the Other is deeply felt in the film's final moments, which do more to point the way toward Antonioni's early 60s work than anything I've ever seen. Bergman's volcano epiphany lends her character more closure than Antonioni's protagonists, of course, something also true of the similarly proto-modernist Voyage to Italy, but the way Rossellini uses the landscape to mirror Bergman's internal struggle and ultimately merges her strife with the inevitability of nature is certainly a lead-in to Antonioni and similar European directors who would emerge from the neo-realist soil.

Stromboli also has brilliant moments that come unrelated to the oddness of Bergman's presence. The most notable is obviously the tuna fishing scene, which is simultaneously horrifying and mesmerizing. This one scene does more to explain the experience of living on the islands of the Mediterranean than maybe anything I've ever seen, and it's quintessential neo-realism. The difficulty of Bergman's character makes the film sometimes difficult to watch - even as someone who loves her more than maybe any other actress ever - but Rossellini's sure hand makes it a well-spent hour and a half at the movies.