Friday, June 29, 2012

#598: World on a Wire

(Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1973)

The Venn diagram on the cover is profoundly appropriate: World on a Wire straddles multiple worlds just as effortlessly as its story does. At once b-grade sci-fi and a highly sophisticated view of both the future of technology and the past of cinema, the film manages to pack deep philosophical questions into a slick and sly package. It evokes The Twilight Zone just as much as it does 2001 - Last Year at Marienbad nearly as often as Invasion of the Body Snatchers - but its gaze is mostly cast paradoxically deep into the near future. This is moviemaking at its most exhilarating: tongue in cheek, intellectual fun that wants to drag you through the funhouse.

Since its theatrical release stateside and subsequent Criterion release over the last few years, Fassbinder's TV miniseries has been unfailingly linked to The Matrix, which almost certainly took a cue from at the very least this film's source material, a book written about simulacra in the 60s. This is a great entry point for the contemporary viewer, but it does a disservice to the film's standalone merits. I happen to think the Wachowskis are often misunderstood, but Fassbinder is the ultimate in offbeat directors and World on a Wire is his most literal look at his slightly askew perspective on reality. Centered around a company that has been commissioned by the German government to construct a huge simulation of reality with a town of 10,000 "people," the film follows one of the scientists in charge of the project as he searches for the truth not just of his project's true purpose but of his reality itself.

Fassbinder's real accomplishment in World on a Wire is to construct a visual style that is just as layered as his plot. The frame is packed with geometric illusions, multiple mirrors, and shifting perspectives - just as his characters slowly descend down the rabbit hole. By slightly tweaking his contemporary reality, Fassbinder avoids dating his production in a negative way - this is still essentially the 70s, wide lapels and all. But his surreal staging and slowly evolving camera movements evoke dream sequences from Fellini, and the film's slow boil of a plot turns up the paranoia until the movie's final act seems almost revolutionary. Like The Matrix, World on a Wire depicts waking up as an act of rebellion, and illusion is the power holding us back. The paradox of a film about the oppression of illusion must not have been lost on Fassbinder, and his gleeful ironic touch makes the movie more than just a clever tall tale. Essential viewing.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

#619: Le Havre

(Aki Kaurismäki, 2011)

Le Havre is gentle movie, quiet in tone and narrow in focus. Even its grand political statement is uninterested in stepping on anyone's toes, preferring to hang to the back while a vivid but equally unassuming portrait of a man succumbing to his own principles has its moment. It's also a film populated by good people (even the bad guy, it turns out), depicting a world where good things actually come to them. There are funny moments in Le Havre, but the film is more cosmically lighthearted than comically so.
It all might seem slight at first, and in many ways it is. Having not seen any of Kaurismäki's other films (the director has two separate boxsets in Criterion's companion Eclipse series, joining only the rarefied company of Ozu and Kurosawa), I was not expecting to find such a light work. Still, it's extremely mature and beautifully rendered. Some viewers will certainly find the film's pace leisurely, but Le Havre is a nice reminder that good work - even about meaningful things -  doesn't need to feel grand or ambitious. It doesn't need to be invasive or aggressive in its attempts to move you. Le Havre might not be the best Criterion (or even its IFC collab) has to offer, but it's a nice reminder of this, and a good way to spend 90 minutes thinking about what it means to be a person.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

#465: Dodes'ka-den

(Akira Kurosawa, 1970)

Although it has a large number of vocal supporters, Dodes'ka-den is best known for being the biggest disaster in Akira Kurosawa's half-century career. The film killed the potential of the production company, The Club of Four Knights, that Kurosawa had formed with three other Japanese masters, Masaki Kobayashi, Kon Ichikawa, and Keisuke Kinoshita, a sort of United Artists for the struggling Japanese film industry of the late 1960s. Its commercial failure ensured they would never produce another film. It also drove Kurosawa into a depression, and the director - convinced he would never make a film again - attempted suicide the following year. As Roger Ebert's mildly positive review of the film indicates, the film was not even released in the US until 1975.

All of these are pretty hard to imagine considering the success Kurosawa's work had seen both in Japan and the US. Kurosawa almost single-handedly popularized samurai films in America, and along with Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini led the charge of Foreign films into domestic theaters. In Japan, his work had long ago entered the canon next to films by the likes of Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi. So the idea that a director of this calibre could not get work seems like one of the great crimes in cinema, while the notion that someone as universally loved and singularly successful as Kurosawa could sink so low as to want to commit suicide certainly provides a sobering perspective on professional accomplishments. Taken together, these unique events make Dodes'ka-den a vital piece of the director's career completely apart from the film's actual content.

This might make the actual movie seem slight when you actually get around to watching it. Although it marks the first time Kurosawa used color and represents a break from the more structurally conventional films of his past, Dodes'ka-den doesn't present any significant new themes for the director's career. Yes, these are different characters and a different tone from his adaptation of The Lower Depths, but Kurosawa had visited the bottom economic rung of society before. And while the compilation of vignettes is unusual, it's been done enough times to require more than novelty to maintain interest. Dodes'ka-den wasn't able to succeed in this regard - while there were plenty of pleasing and/or moving moments in the film, the overall production seems less than the sum of its parts. While it's not enough to explain the film's failure, it makes it possibly my least favorite Kurosawa film in the Collection.

Monday, June 11, 2012

#258: Tanner '88

(Robert Altman, 1988)

One of the few TV series in the Collection, Tanner '88 is a grand experiment. It's also one of the earliest triumphs for HBO, which would go on to revolutionize the medium. Created on the fly by Doonesbury strip writer Garry Trudeau, the series tracks Jack Tanner, a fictional congressman played by the pitch-perfect Michael Murphy, in his quest to become the Democratic nominee for president in 1988. The hook? Tanner isn't running against made up opponents - he's trying to take down Jesse Jackson and Michael Dukakis, the eventual real nominee. Even more interestingly, he's doing it in real time, following the actual primary process as it unfolds rather than looking back on a race long since run.

This premise happens to fit perfectly with both Trudeau's and Altman's respective styles. Trudeau, of course, has made a career out of torn-from-the-headlines subject matter tweaked into subtle satire. In a conversation with Altman on the DVD, Trudeau explains that he suggested Altman to HBO for the project because he assumed they couldn't get him, thereby allowing him to pass and move on to his other obligations. If true, it's a happy coincidence, because Altman's improvisational style, built on multi-layered conversations, documentary-style camera techniques, and naturalistic performances, was not just perfect for the subject matter but perhaps even essential. It allowed Trudeau to build loose scenes and a broad structure for each episode without causing the whole series to collapse. Altman's sly, cynical eye (especially on display a few years later in my favorite film of his, The Player) builds on Trudeau's ironic themes and organic humor with similar efficiency, making the message of the series deeply relevant beyond the contemporary political climate.

The influence of the series is clear both in terms of subject and style. Obviously, Aaron Sorkin was a fan of the series - the core characters of The West Wing share a fatalistic dedication to their mission, and is there any chance it's just a coincidence that Martin Sheen's chief of staff character in The American President was named A.J.? But perhaps more notably, the reality-style, off-the-cuff tone and look of the series has become ubiquitous, as have the various appearances of politicians playing themselves and politics woven into entertainment and media narratives. The story arc is similarly recognizable for its slow burn, novel-style pacing. As with modern masterpieces like The Wire and Breaking Bad, Tanner '88 doesn't really get going for a few episodes, putting off conventionally desirable goals for a television series like hooking a viewer within the first ten minutes, allowing for character introductions, or front-loading major plot developments to keep the audience engaged. We certainly have Altman to thank for this, but HBO's confidence - or at least willingness - to go there with him is an early indication of just how the mindset of one network transformed television in the decade and a half to come.

There are a wide number of reasons why Criterion hasn't selected more TV shows for inclusion. Obviously, Criterion is not in the business of releasing multiple seasons, so any more conventionally successful show is out (it doesn't hurt that these "successful" shows would probably be impossible to license). Similarly, while there were quirky or complex shows in the fifty years of broadcast television prior to The Larry Sanders Show and The Sopranos, the last twenty years have seen probably the vast majority of the greatest television series of all time, from the British Office and Arrested Development to Mad Men and Deadwood (not to mention the four shows mentioned above). This explosion has of course coincided with the popularity of DVD, where virtually every show - whether it runs for 20 seasons like The Simpsons or 12 episodes like Wonderfalls - gains immortality through wide release.

But I think the real reason there are so few TV shows in the Collection is that, well, it's a "continuing series of classic and contemporary films." Although Fishing with John might not be the most cinematic show of all time, there seems to be a certain connection to the film world, whether through guest appearances, tone, or the strange cult following the show has amassed. The other three big television offerings in the collection are two miniseries from Ingmar Bergman (each an unqualified masterpiece whose inclusion is self-explanatory) and a huge boxset (that, knowing what a beast it will be, I have yet to dig into) called The Golden Age of Television. This title rings not just untrue to me (the golden age? we're living in it!) but also somewhat ironic since the boxset isn't really TV as we know it, but rather films that happened to have been made for television. Tanner '88, despite its episodic structure and topical story developments that would not have worked for film, seems to have one foot in the theater, too. Along with having Robert Altman at the helm (this is one of four Altman inclusions in the Collection, all released in close proximity in the 200s) the show's one-off nature, unique (for television) tone, and performances that feel much more theatrical than what was being put on the air in 1988 all lend it a feeling more akin to an experiment in cinema than to the conventional television show.

I don't offer up these reasons to argue why Tanner '88 is deserving of inclusion more than other shows, but rather to try to get at the reasons why it might be included - thereby opening up the potential for more television shows - when no shows have since received similar attention. Again, I think the format and rights issues at the center Criterion's decisions about release are most important in this regard, but it does make for a giant hole in the Collection. Certainly if any show should be included, Tanner '88 is deserving. But opening up the gates for TV as potentially eligible - and then offering such a small selection - gives the impression that the medium has less to offer than is actually the case. This is not Tanner '88's fault, I just thought it was worth pointing out.

Monday, June 4, 2012

#281: Jules and Jim

(Francois Truffaut, 1962)

Jules and Jim was the first foreign-language film I ever fell in love with. My teacher recommended it to me after a long conversation about film, and I picked it up at the video store on the way home. I had seen modern foreign movies before and really enjoyed many of them - films like Cinema Paradiso and even a handful of Hong Kong action movies. And I had tried to get into a few older "classics" when they came on TV or when I was force-fed them in class. But I never fell head over heels until Jules and Jim.

Honestly, it was so long ago that I don't really know what did it. Something about the film just clicked for me, I guess. But what was so interesting about seeing Jules and Jim this past weekend on the big screen was specific my memories of the film had been and how differently I responded to it some fifteen years later. The gap wasn't in quality - I loved the film just as much as I had years ago, and the viewing cemented the film's place as my favorite Truffaut film and one of my favorite peaks in the early years of the New Wave.

Instead, what diverted so greatly from the image in my head was how I responded to the central character of the film - not Jules or Jim, but Catherine, who as everyone knows is the sun which the film revolves around. In my memory, I remembered Catherine as the oppressed woman, desperate to live her own life and escape the conventional role forced upon her by Jules and Jim. In my head, Catherine had died as an act of rebellion against the men forcing her to live a life she didn't want, to fit into a role she never asked for. The final indignity of having her wish to spread her ashes ignored was the choice of Jules - not the state - taking one last opportunity to imprison her.

I guess the first question I have to ask myself is where did I get this impression? Was it from a truly unique reading of the film that was specific to my teenage worldview, or was it a misguided recollection of a long distant viewing that had been altered by the passing of time? Either way, this second viewing completely morphed my perceptions. As the film went on I began to hate Catherine for the way she was acting. I resented her power over the men and rejected her troubled need to avoid her own emotional difficulties by throwing them back into someone else's face.

From a technical standpoint, Truffaut's movie is still as moving as ever. The race on the bridge is exhilarating, the brief freeze frames feel just as revolutionary and evoke a sense of cinematic joy that was characteristic of the early French New Wave but was rarely folded into a story as seamlessly as it was here. Truffaut's use of narration is clever, providing the film with a droll omniscient conscience, and the film's structure is almost deceptively breezy. In my opinion, it's not just Truffaut's best movie, but the best movie produced by the New Wave.

But then something funny happened to me. As I thought more and more about the movie, I began to move away from my immediate condemnation of Catherine and started to admire her again. In some ways Catherine is a stereotypical female protagonist in the worst sense: unpredictably emotional, jealous and careless, impulsive and cruel. But the essential components of her character tilt her towards feminism. She is introduced as not just the metaphoric ideal for the two friends (who up to this point have been almost entirely focused on exploiting women in their own personal game) but as the direct representation of the perfect smile they discovered (while watching film, no less) on a statue. Catherine is not their third musketeer, but their possession, meant to reflect back on them a mysterious and seductive gaze but offer nothing of her own. Throughout the film, Catherine fights against this role she has been forced into, desperate at every step to make the two friends feel what she is experiencing at their thoughtless hand. Her final act is one of anarchic rebellion, smashing the bond between Jules and Jim in as permanent a manner as she can. From this perspective, Jules and Jim is a movie about Catherine trying to change the title.

I'm not saying this is the definitive reading of the film, but I do see an unmistakable pull towards this in the famous river sequence, where Jules's sexist ramblings prompt Catherine to jump into the Seine. This scene sums up Catherine's role throughout the film as a woman trapped in a world and a situation that demands acquiescence but elicits nothing from her but resistance in the form of interpersonal war. When the race finishes, Jim complains to Catherine, "You cheated." Not interested in the rules of a society that has cast her in the secondary role, she replies, "But I won." Maybe Catherine doesn't win in the end - her ashes remain prisoner, her dying wish deemed against regulations. But maybe just choosing when to die - and smashing to piece "Jules and Jim" - is her victory. It's an ugly, cautionary win, but it's a win nonetheless.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

#127: Gertrud

(Carl Th. Dreyer, 1964)

I can't remember the last movie that elicited such a wide swing in my opinion of it within the span of one viewing as did Gertrud, the final Dreyer film both in Criterion's boxset and in his career. Created nearly forty years after Dreyer's silent landmark, The Passion of Joan of Arc, Gertrud was released into a film landscape dominated by European filmmakers who were younger than Dreyer's first masterpiece and grew up idolizing the elder statesman. I mention this because it's important to note the context in which this film was released when trying to understand just how much of a lightning bolt it was on the cinematic scene - how unexpected and how revolutionary.

As I've mentioned before on this blog, Paul Schrader is famous for penning a thesis linking Dreyer to Ozu and Bresson. Both of these directors employed a cinematic style that was unique in its pacing, narrative technique, and visual identity. But once you fall into the rhythms of their work, the entire oeuvre opens up to you and the issue of accessibility is tossed aside. Not so with Dreyer, whose cinematic language became more and more unique and foreign as his career went on. Much of the flashiness of his earlier work has been replaced here by an almost sparse grammatical structure. More importantly, his characters have slowly become divorced from reality. The construct of their existence veers towards the abstract in Gertrud, particularly because they refuse to look at each other - at one point early in Gertrud I laughed out loud because it seemed like the actors were being held at gunpoint, forced to recite lines they didn't want to give to other actors they didn't care to know in a movie they had refused to appear in.

And yet... just offering my attention to the film seemed to slowly bind me to its emotional core. The film gradually began to make sense to me, Gertrud's personal suffering felt entirely real, and the themes, performances, and - yes - even Dreyer's style began to make total sense. Gertrud began as a strange joke played on Dreyer's audience and turned into a beautiful and moving ode to a life uncompromised. By the time it was finished, I had little doubt that Gertrud is Dreyer's masterpiece, the culmination of his life's work. I can't wait to watch this one again and see just how he managed to pull it off.

Note: I'm going to mention two movies that came to mind while watching Gertrud, one topical and one embarrassing. The topical one is Certified Copy, which Criterion just released and I just rewatched, confirming my initial impression of it as one of the great films of the past few years. Like Gertrud, Certified Copy is partially about the nature of love. I watched Kiarostami's discussion of this element just before watching Gertrud and was pleasantly surprised to see many of the themes he discusses come up frequently in the film - sometimes quite literally, with Gertrud expressing similar sentiments. The embarrassing one is Titanic. Yes, I couldn't help but think of Rose in the final sequence of Gertrud, though of course Rose didn't choose to lose her one true love and she did (apparently) eventually get married. But still, you didn't think of it? Fuck you, you totally did. You know what? Just go watch Gertrud and try to get this comparison out of your head.