Monday, November 8, 2010
Monday, August 23, 2010
I know it's been a while. Unemployment has a way of turning days into months. Here's a review I wrote for Abbas Kiarostami's 1990 film Close-Up, recently rereleased by The Criterion Collection on DVD and Blu-ray. Hope to begin updating with greater regularity soon.
Tuesday, January 5, 2010
Friday, January 1, 2010
Today I'm joining Film Comment, The Village Voice, Time Out New York, and indieWire to call Mulholland Dr. the best film of the decade. This wasn't a difficult decision. A cinematic sugar rush, dizzying and dazzling, Mulholland Dr. bursts with moments of pure inspiration. It challenges and rewards in equal measure, making it the most satisfying film in David Lynch's 30-plus year career. The writer/director injects his nightmarish style with healthy doses of heart and humor to lure us into his film's world. Mulholland Dr.'s immediate pleasures turn its macro-level puzzle into something inviting, hypnotic, and even fun.
Let's start with those immediate pleasures, or what I'll call the micro-level. Mulholland Dr. began as an open-ended pilot for ABC, which accounts for its disjointed first hour, when characters appear and vanish without much warning. ABC rejected the 94-minute pilot, leaving Lynch with a string of mesmerizing sequences and no resolution. These standalone vignettes rank among Lynch's most memorable scenes, ones worth revisiting again and again (if Lynch would allow scene selection on his DVD, that is). Who can forget The Espresso Man, The Winkie's Diner Man, The Hitman, The Cowboy, or, towering above them all, the Club Silencio? These sequences play like museum pieces of Lynchian filmmaking, each with their own set of bizarre logic. Yet Lynch continually grounds the MoMA-style surrealism with humor, suspense, and sheer visual bravura. The sequencing isn't off-putting or pretentious; it's haunting, -- a shape-shifting dream with no beginning or end.
Divorced from the rest of Mulholland Dr., standalone scenes like this lose none of their power.
Here's a list of every inspired choice I noticed while re-watching this scene just now: Starting the scene mid-siren to create an immediate sense of unease; the lead actor's big eyebrows make him instantly memorable; the slow line-delivery mounts tension; the way the camera hovers higher and higher over the characters' shoulders, making the lead look increasingly vulnerable; the lead's unnerving grin as he talks; the quality of the monologue, which would frighten me even without Lynch's audio/visual mastery; the ominous sound design, which creeps in so slowly that one barely notices its stranglehold on the scene; the shot of Man B standing at 2:57, which merges reality and the dream world in a flat two seconds; the way Man B's comment remains inaudible (and thus creepier) at 3:15; the way music and sound blend into one unsettling soundscape -- for example, at 3:26, when Man B opens the front door, we hear a splash of audio that somehow sounds like music and cars whooshing at the same time; at 3:41, the change slat on the phone booth is pulled down, which highlights the not-quite-right feeling of the scene; the use of silence during the scene's big reveal.
And I'm sure I missed some gems. Elsewhere, a cowboy with no eyebrows, an espresso snob, and a bungling hitman emblazon the film with unforgettable moments, each detached from the primary narrative like glorious little tumors. So how does Lynch string these scenes together to form a coherent feature film? Having written himself into a corner with a defunct TV pilot, Lynch, so to speak, runs up the wall, turning the whole film in on itself. I subscribe to the "classical interpretation" of Mulholland Dr., which posits that a good two-thirds of the film exists in Diane Selwyn's head.
Now we've come to the macro-level. Lynch's visionary structure allows him to explore Hollywood as a "dream factory." The dream sequences in Mulholland Dr. all reference specific film genres and stars. Most obvious, the movie's lighting, setting, and central mystery echo film noir, with at least one blatant reference to the genre classic Sunset Boulevard. As a love story, Mulholland Dr. evokes broad Hollywood melodramas; notice how over-the-top Naomi Watts' performance registers in the first two-thirds of the film in comparison to her naturalistic turn after her character awakens from her dream. Also in this world, Hollywood operates like a gangster film, complete with shadowy mob bosses and brawny henchmen, while hired assassins mangle killings in a Tarantino-style farce. Even a cowboy, once the emblem of American cinema, makes an appearance.
The list goes on. At every turn, Lynch alludes to film history. Why? To capture the subjective experience of his protagonist, Diane Selwyn -- a would-be actress. Selwyn moved to Hollywood, fell on her face, fell in love, and got dumped. That's her reality. Her dream, a 100-minute wish-fulfillment fantasy, comprises the first chunk of Mulholland Dr. To embellish this dream, she taps into a reservoir of movie images, genres, and cliches. The stuff that drew her to Hollywood in the first place. In promoting Mulholland Dr., Lynch always used the same terse catchphrase: "A love story in the city of dreams."
Which leads to my last point: For all its beguiling ambiguities, Mulholland Dr. can make you cry. And I don't mean "cry" at the beauty of Lynch's images or at the elegant way his plot strands coalesce. I mean good-old emotionalism. Amidst nods to cinema's past and an elaborate narrative structure, Lynch crafted a real romance -- the first of his career. Watts' unhinged performance deserves enormous credit here. The violent disconnect between Dream Betty and Real Diane makes Mulholland Dr. one of the great films about jealousy and the ways it warps the mind. When I think of jealousy, I think of the image accompanying this post. That's the magic of Lynch's film: It experiments with cinema, employing visionary techniques, to chart one of the most primal and universal emotions on the map.
Thursday, December 24, 2009
In the Mood for Love
My heart can't quite endorse this ranking. It believes In the Mood for Love is no less than a gift from heaven. It considers this movie infallible, perfect, beyond criticism. It gets violently defensive when people put it down, be they critics or message-board trolls. It palpitates at the sound of this movie's score. It bathes in its quixotic images. It shatters and dissipates at its ending. With dogged romanticism, it cannot fathom a better movie from this decade, or really any other.
My heart, you see, can get carried away. Especially when it sees pretty things.
Wong Kar Wai's seventh feature lingers with me like no film I've seen. From the striking compositions to the elegant costumes, In the Mood for Love is all about, well, mood. Its every detail seems fashioned to evoke sweet, lasting sorrow. Like unconsummated love itself, the film stays with you. It perverts your thoughts the longer it stews, taking on a seismic sense of importance. The film loiters in the mind, forcing you to ponder the what-ifs of an unfulfilled romance. It understands that we, as humans, have an unyielding urge to romanticize what we don't have. A love that never begins can never end. It goes on forever, looping in your head. A mental security blanket for the realities of modern living. A trumped-up splinter of perfection. A go-to thought for the emotional masochist in you. What if, what if, what if. If only, if only, if only.
In the Mood for Love presents a romantic, almost twee vision of love. In real life, things would probably play a lot crasser. The film's protagonists would meet, flirt, fuck, and deal with the consequences. Alcohol would likely be involved. But In the Mood for Love has no interest in realism. It uses fantasy to arrive at truth. In this way, it embodies cinema's most primal appeal: seeing our desires acted out in an idealized world.
To depict this world, Wong and cinematographer Christopher Doyle craft images that look beamed in from some faraway dreamscape. You can't oversell In the Mood for Love's visual gorgeousness. The film repeats shots, gestures, and songs to mimic the rhythms of a lingering love that won't go away. It circles around this love like a jazz composition infatuated with one blistering riff. Wong uses cinema's everyday tools (slow motion, montage) to capture obsession and loss, leading to a climax of almost unbearable beauty.
That climax, set to a devastating composition from Michael Galasso, moves me like no other moment in cinema. If the first nine-tenths of In the Mood for Love exist in a dream world, one in which coy would-be lovers exercise inhuman restraint, then the film's final minutes show the harsh awakening to reality. Our protagonists may have won the moral victory by shunning infidelity, but that doesn't make them any less alone. One disappears from the film; the other releases his love into the ether. Wong refuses to give us gratifying closure. Instead, he leaves our wounds open, so that we may feel like his characters: helpless; our heads filled with dreams of an ideal love that never was. We relish in fantasy, just as we do most nights when we go to the movies.
Tuesday, December 22, 2009
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Few films capture the funny/sad cycles of romantic relationships like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Like the two remaining films on this list, Eternal Sunshine tells a love story both moving and cerebral. It toys with cinematic norms to showcase the rhythmic ways humans love and hurt one another -- over and over again. The film wrings emotional trauma for laughs, forcing us to smile at the neurotic ticks that make relationships crumble. It, in short, ranks alongside Annie Hall as the most insightful romantic comedy ever made.
The comparison to Woody Allen's film comes easy. Both Annie Hall and Eternal Sunshine present an epic romance in jumbled chronology. Both feature flighty, borderline-manic female leads. Both depict relationships as an inescapable folly, as something "totally irrational and crazy and absurd," despite their magnetic appeal. A direct lineage links Woody and Eternal Sunshine; the film's screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman, "aspired to be like [Woody]" as a young man entering showbusiness.
Most striking, Annie Hall and Eternal Sunshine end with scenes of remarkable beauty and truth. In Woody's film, his protagonist famously concludes that humans endure relationships because they "need the eggs." Most of us know -- from experience and elsewhere -- that relationships often end in turmoil, but that doesn't stop us from swan-diving into them, if given the chance. Meeting someone new tends to pulverize our cynicism. This one won't be like the others, we tell ourselves. I've learned, I've grown. This time will be different.
In Eternal Sunshine's closing moments, Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet embody Einstein's theory of insanity: They're ready to do the same thing over again, expecting a different result. The entire movie exists to service this scene. Kaufman has two budding lovers hear the awful things they'll come to say about one another. Imagine, for a second, how terrifying that would be. Imagine returning from a dizzying first date, only to hear your tape-recorded voice from the future, muttering hostile complaints about your object of desire. Could even such an impossible scenario as this convince you of love's folly? Could your future self rein in your early-relationship euphoria? My guess: Not a chance. Nothing at that point -- not even material proof of your eventual misery -- could lower your high. That's the beauty, the irrationality, of human love, crystalized for all time in one movie moment.
Director Michel Gondry gives life to Kaufman's musings, crafting the film as a flurry of gorgeous visual fragments. Eternal Sunshine is one of the great achievements in special effects, digital or in-camera. Gondry's aesthetic trickery propels the narrative and creates a unique, dreamlike world; he never lets style usurp the film's emotional core. Every virtuoso flourish helps posit the movie's primary question, one first proposed in another Woody Allen film: Are memories something you have or something you've lost?
Monday, December 14, 2009
"If I reach high points with Inglourious Basterds, it is partly because Paul [Thomas Anderson] came out with There Will Be Blood a couple years ago, and I realized I had to bring my game up." (full clip)
Quentin Tarantino, like the films he makes, is nothing if not self-aware. He must have known something was off in 2007. Paul Thomas Anderson, his dear friend and competitor, unleashed There Will Be Blood as he drooled out Death Proof, a masturbatory and insular B-movie homage. One was an instant classic; the other a Tarantino-dialogue vehicle, this time with chicks. To some, the movie marked his "creative death." By 2009, Tarantino didn't just need to bring his game up. He needed a veritable game-changer.
Inglourious Basterds, his almost unclassifiable WWII picture, was that and so much more. A European art-house film. A revenge crowd-pleaser. A slap in the face to self-serious cinema. An uncompromising thriller. A joyous slice of entertainment. A Leone-style western. A men-on-a-mission throwback. A substantive tale on the powers of myth-making. Not to sound cute, but it might just be his masterpiece.
Inglourious Basterds is a postmodern movie about the importance of images in society. In almost every scene, characters broadcast images and conceal true aspects of their real selves. They lie, exaggerate, and hide in the name of escaping death (if on the defensive) or spreading fear (if on the offensive). Some, like Goebbels, use visual media to propagate myths about themselves and their enemies. Others, like Brad Pitt's Lt. Aldo Raine, take a viral approach. They roam the woods, terrorizing Nazis, and leaving survivors to speak of the horrors. Both share the same goals: rallying supporters and scaring the shit out of foes. At its core, Inglourious Basterds unfolds like a murderous PR battle. No surprise, Tarantino uses the film-within-the-film to quote another piece of cinematic propaganda, Battleship Potemkin.
In two of the film's show-stopping scenes, characters appear under direct interrogation. They sit in countryside cabins and basement barrooms, crafting false images to survive. Characters must lie, and convincingly. Here, the movie's preoccupation with image-building plays on a person-to-person level.
Tarantino hints at his themes everywhere. Just look at these two stills, which echo his obsession with the difference between truth and image-level deception:
The first shows truth. That man is a real Nazi, and you can see it in his skin. The second shows a simulacrum. That man isn't Edgar Wallace. He's a fake, a copy. But, as postmodern theorists argue, in a society inundated with images, The Truth and The Image become indiscernible. It's all "real" if you can convince people it's real.
I've taken a pretty academic approach here because, well, most of this movie's pleasures don't take much analysis. This movie is fist-pumping fun. Tarantino's dialogue remains as vibrant as ever. His characters speak in artful, memorable rhythms ("Au revoir, Shosanna!"). Scenes come equipped with satisfying payoffs. Villains possess disarming charisma. Bizarre titles and freeze frames intentionally shatter the film's tone for laughs. Brad Pitt talks in a funny accent. Nazis get killed. These delights -- of which there are many, many more -- don't take much to appreciate.
Lastly, Tarantino's love of Jean-Luc Godard and the French New Wave registers here in powerful ways. Just as Godard and others rejected the stuffy "quality films" of their elders -- the so-called "Cinema de Papa" -- for a youthful, of-the-moment approach to filmmaking, Tarantino mocks self-serious period films through a barrage of devices to distance viewers. Where a film like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button does everything it can to immerse viewers in A Serious Movie, Inglourious Basterds prefers a self-aware approach. Tarantino sprinkles his story with randomly-timed Samuel L. Jackson narration, David Bowie interludes, and other self-conscious devices to distance us. Like Godard, he wants us to know we're watching a movie. Unlike Godard, he actually cares to entertain. Tarantino brings postmodern filmmaking (and, with Inglourious Basterds, theory) to a wide audience.