Tuesday, December 25, 2007

"If This is Your Idea of Christmas..."

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Hope everyone had a lovely Christmas day; the weather was certainly lovely by itself, pleasantly sunny and not too cold...

And I actually had a day off from Wall Street Journal today, because the Asia and Europe papers don't publish tomorrow on account of many non-U.S. nations celebrating Boxing Day. I wonder if it's the only holiday of the year where I actually have a day off on the actual day instead of on the day before...

Anyway, here's my way of commemorating Dec. 25 this year on my blog.

Die Hard, anybody?

Ho-ho-ho, merry Christmas, motherfuckers!

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Auteurism Gone Mad: A Brief Riposte to Critics of No Country for Old Men

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - For this particular entry on this dull Saturday night, I figured I'd take some time to do something I've rarely done on this blog of mine: take an entire post to respond to criticisms against a movie.

The movie in question is the apparent movie of the moment: the Coen Brothers' No Country for Old Men, which now seems to be figuring in heavily in critics organizations' year-end tabulations. The principal inspiration for this post is a one-paragraph dismissal of the film offered by a critic I admire (see it here). I think the sentence that really did it for me---in fact, damn near infuriated me, and that usually doesn't happen with me when it comes to considering dissenting views of a movie I admire---was this one:

But the Coens’ weltanschauung is as small and pinched as ever: this is a film that invites you to laugh at the choice of linoleum floor tile in a sheriff’s station even as the sheriff is being strangled on top of it.
A linoleum floor as an example of the Coens' supposed snickering ways popping up again? Seriously?? Okay, I'll concede that I don't really know what linoleum tiles generally looked like in police stations in the '50s and '60s, so maybe I don't have the same perspective as this critic, in his older age and wisdom, possesses regarding that piece of art direction. But really, if that is the length a scornful critic of the Coens has to go in order to support the contention that No Country for Old Men is merely one more festival of condescension, snark and precious grotesquerie, it seems to me that that says more about one person's rigid auteurist reflexes than about the movie itself---akin to auteurism gone mad.

That's just one man's opinion, yes, but he speaks pretty much for just about every No Country naysayer, all of whom seem to come up with variations on the same old complaints against the Coens' body of work: even with Tommy Lee Jones affectingly expressing weariness about the moral decay of the society he's a part of, these two jokers---who, among other offenses, as this line of thinking goes, made a heartless mockery of Minnesotans, their accents and their naive worldviews while pretending to be serious and all in Fargo---can't possibly mean what they express this time. It's not possible that these supposedly smug postmodernists, who love to feel superior to their characters at all times, can actually evince something close to sympathy, can they? Get real!

At this point, an admission is in order: I haven't always been big fans of the films of the Coens, for many of the same reasons some critics are taking the piss out of the rapturous reception toward their new work. My first viewing of Miller's Crossing---in a film class in which the Coens were a subject of study for a third of a semester---alienated the hell out of me because it seemed as detached, affectless and in love with its own stylistic cleverness as Tom Regan himself---a lovely-looking gangster pastiche, nothing more, and certainly not with anything in it worth sympathizing with or caring about. Same with Fargo, with the added bonus that we got to laugh at most Minnesotans---with the exception of the film's very pregnant conscience, of course---and their mile-wide accents. And what about the Coens' wiseass depictions of Clifford Odets and William Faulkner in Barton Fink? (Yeah, how stupid of Fink to have any ambition of trying to address the common man in his plays---whether or not he actually has the common-man perspective to do so successfully.)

But then I saw O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and somehow it seemed to contain more warmth and generosity of spirit than I remember even in relatively light Coen fare like The Big Lebowski. The real revelation, however, came with The Man Who Wasn't There; its depiction of the main character's existential malaise was the first time I actually felt something I might go so far as to describe as soulful in a Coen Brothers movie, and its technique---particularly Roger Deakins's beautifully evocative black-and-white cinematography---seemed in harmony with its attempt to explore the character's exhaustion. Its depth of feeling really floored me, and that experience probably led to my complete turnaround on Miller's Crossing, which I now think is their earliest dramatic masterpiece. Now I watch it and can't help but feel a twinge of genuine sadness for the eternally guarded Tom Regan, whose one act of human kindness midway through the film ends up going for naught in the end, to the point that he tragically closes up again.

Either the Coens have actually matured in their recent work (with Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers as aberrations), or I've just gotten used to them.

My point in recounting my, uh, case history with Coen films is to suggest that I sympathize, in some ways, with the opposition viewpoint toward the Coens regarding No Country for Old Men. To an extent, I think they have been guilty of a considerable amount of snarkiness and condescension in the past, guilty of letting technical precision and film-geek smartness override any human interest (Stanley Kubrick may have been an extraordinarily precise technical filmmaker, but even at his bleakest he seemed to evince a measure of inquisitiveness about humanity, even at its most reprehensible). But I also think the Coens are capable of transcending those perceived flaws, breaking through into something resembling heart, or at least a palpable investment in their characters rather than merely showing off how superior they are to them. What ultimately frustrates me about some of the criticisms lodged against their new film is that it seems as if its harshest critics went into the movie expecting to dislike it from the start simply because it looked like another Fargo or Blood Simple, and then couldn't but interpret the whole movie from this prejudiced viewpoint---thus comments like the aforementioned linoleum-floor interpretation explicated above. That strikes me as both unfair, close-minded (and here I'm thinking critics are supposed to be more open-minded than most moviegoers!) and a little lazy, frankly.

That's pretty much all that I wanted to express on that matter. As for the film itself...well, for what it's worth: no, it's not my favorite film of the year (although I suspect, when the year is out, it'll probably make my top 5), but it's the most exhilarating piece of pure cinema I've encountered all year. Don't take that to mean, however, that it's merely a soulless technical exercise---even if, as an exercise, it's brilliantly made and totally gripping. Its technical facility is put wholly in the service of its cynical, metaphysical vision of a universe that has become perhaps too comfortable with violence in its midst. It's not soulless; it's about soullesness---crucial difference. If anything, in its mournful evocation of profound powerlessness in the face of evil and moral disintegration in our modern age, it's perhaps a more valuable indicator of the current national mood than most of the recent dramas (like Paul Haggis's typically reductive In the Valley of Elah) that have taken on the post-9/11 national mood more directly.

Oh yeah, and for my money, I think it's more convincing in its despair than Cormac McCarthy's novel is (even if there is admittedly more of Tommy Lee Jones's thematically central Sheriff Bell character in the book than there is in the movie).

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Happy (Belated) 22nd Birthday to Me!

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Brief little post for today.

A couple of days ago, on December 4, I celebrated my 22nd birthday. Yes, the big 2-2. No, it's not really as awesome as I made that sound (no celebratory trips to the bar for me this year). Basically, it was just another day in the life of yours truly, except with cake...and an MC Hammer doll for a gift???

Yes, I'm going to have to explain this one...

Among my many duties at the Wall Street Journal's monitor desk, I'm in charge of compiling the people and business indexes---the list of businessmen and companies that get significant mention in that day's edition---for the international papers (or at least Asia if I'm working my usual 5.5-hr. shift). Every time I feel like I'm ready to start working on the indexes, I email the lead paginator and a couple of news editors to indicate thus. But, with these emails, we have an inside joke; one of them is apparently a fan of that old rapper MC Hammer, and thus with each email, I slap on the subject line "Hammertime!" and attach to the body of the email a picture of the guy. Usually it's a picture that I randomly select from a Google image search. And yet, these people who receive my Hammertime notices seem so tickled by the pictures I choose that, when they found out that my birthday was this past Tuesday, they decided to, I guess, reward me for delighting them with my MC Hammer pics by presenting me with the birthday gift of...you guessed it, MC Hammer! Specifically, an MC Hammer doll from 1991 that one of them got off of eBay.

I couldn't help but laugh when I saw that this was the gift they gave me for my 22nd birthday. But it was a laughter borne out of fondness, not derision. At least I'm having some fun at that job...

Later, of course, my mother got me a cake from Pathmark and put four candles on it (2+2, get it?). What did I wish for before blowing out those candles? Generally speaking, a bright future in which I achieved all that I set out to one day achieve: a writing career (or something close to a career that involves writing), a place in or near New York City, good health, minimal amounts of stress. Things like that.

That's about as reflective as I got this past December 4.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Stream of Consciousness No. 10: Self-Pity Alert

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - I'm feeling a little bored right now, so I think I'll do a little stream-of-consciousness blogging, or something close to it. Where it stops, nobody knows...

Despite the fact that I'm (hopefully) graduating from Rutgers soon, don't anyone get the impression that I'm automatically one step to maturity or adulthood. Tonight I heard snatches of a phone exchange between my mother and an AT&T representative over some sort of issue with a recent phone bill (something to do with international calls that she felt she shouldn't have been charged for on account of a special service she was on for a while that made international calls real cheap), and, as happens to me once in a while, I immediately wonder how I'd fare in a similar conversation which would require a combination of calmness, assertiveness, fortitude and articulateness---personal qualities that seem to come and go (mostly go) with me, at least in person. How would I handle having to deal with unfair phone charges? Would I immediately shrink away from pressure and just accept something if I had even a hint of doubt? A part of me thinks that's what I'd probably do unless I absolutely really truly felt I was in the right about an issue (and most likely I'd probably have be inspired to such confident heights by someone else agreeing with me).

Adulthood? Maturity? Don't make me laugh! I may be working, I may be earning money, I may be reading more, but I have a feeling I haven't even come close to dealing with the drudgeries of everyday adult existence of the type my parents deal with consistently. I feel like, as much as I get immense pleasure out of books, music and movies, I'm still somewhat trapped in my own bubble, the real world still beyond my grasp---perhaps deliberately so. I wonder if I'm even ready for going out there and living on my own, traveling, etc. Shit, I'm still getting parental help with most of my bills!

And I guess some of you could point to the fact that I'm still living at home as an indication of my, uh, sheltered-ness...but I say big deal, I'm not the only graduate or soon-to-be-graduate staying at home. Might as well save some money while I'm doing what I'm doing.

Wait...what am I doing these days?

I'm working at the Wall Street Journal while, on the side, I'm indulging in modest intellectual pursuits like reading a book for about an hour a day, reading the news for about an hour a day, listening to a music album I've never heard, and otherwise Web surfing and/or writing. While an undergrad, with all the work I had to do (especially in my senior year, with my thesis always prominent in my mind), I was never able to get around to finishing Jack Kerouac's On the Road and D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover or listening to a good deal of Bob Dylan and The Beatles (not just their hits; complete albums). Thanks to my new job and my lack of consistent pressing commitments elsewhere, now I have.

I rather like the way things are going with me now. I feel comfortable. But am I too comfortable? Surely this isn't the real world. A part of me feels like I should just try to risk it all and go out there, try to find that place near New York City, find some fresh entry-level newspaper job somewhere (either writing or copy editing)---just start off on my own for the first time in my life. Another part of me says, What's the rush?

In reading a lot of film criticism, both in print and online, I've realized that most of my favorite critics marry deep film knowledge and a personal vision with a broader knowledge of other arts---literature, music, visual arts (painting, sculpture, that kind of thing). Shit, where's my knowledge of all those other art forms? Superficial at best, really. I still haven't actually read Moby Dick or Huckleberry Finn, for instance (perhaps I really should have majored in English as an undergrad in addition to, or maybe even instead of, journalism). As far as painters go, don't even bother to try to engage me in a deeply intellectual conversation about the visual glories and profundities of Da Vinci, Van Gogh, Manet, Picasso, Dali...as with Todd Haynes and Bob Dylan, I'm not there. And I'm only now really trying to acquaint myself with music that isn't written by Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, Bruckner, or someone considered "classical" (a term, by the way, I wonder about these days; I mean, do you call Aaron Copland "classical"? Stravinsky? Schoenberg?).

All that is to suggest that perhaps one of the reasons I think I've decided to keep the way things are going for me right now is partly so I can play catch-up of sorts---explore some of these artistic areas outside of my (currently part-time) job at WSJ. So far, I think it's been working pretty well for me.

But I know I can't keep this up forever. I also suspect that my plan is probably fatally flawed in one respect: even the best critics, I suspect, are still catching up themselves. I wonder if I'm assigning too much of an artificial aura to film critics I admire, giving them credit for being infinitely more knowledgeable in general than I am. (By the way, not only is some of my artistic knowledge patchy at best, but really, so is my political knowledge---call me emptily cynical if you like, but the American political scene just plains disheartens and frustrates me, to the point that most attempts at trying to summon up some kind of idealism about American politics often fails.) The point is, I could be spending the rest of my life "catching up," and I'd never really get to a point where I can say, "Okay, I think I've learned enough I need to feel more confident about my intelligence, now it's time to go out there and make my voice heard."

Sooner or later I'm just gonna have to be brave and make the jump. Not sure if that time is right now, though...

I dunno. I guess I'm just trying to work through personal issues rattling in my brain even as I slowly work my way through Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner and delve a bit into the varied musical worlds of Elvis Costello (whose debut album My Aim Is True turned 30 this year).

I recently emailed the copy desk chief and asked about the possibility of coming back to the desk I interned at during the summer. His response, to put it simply: probably not for a while. So it looks like, if I plan to move up in Dow Jones (and the copy chief's response got me thinking about whether that's what I want to do), I'm really going to have to start from the bottom. In essence, I willfully dropped myself back down to an entry-level position. Well, I had to, I guess (although if I had pressed people to let me get internship credit for my 10 weeks at the copy desk during the summer, maybe I'd still be working there right now). Don't get me wrong: I like my job just fine. But it looks like I'll be at the monitor desk for a while.

My supervisor says most people stay there for about two years before deciding to try to find other work elsewhere (recently, two monitor-desk employees left us, one to Dow Jones Newswires up in Jersey City, the other to some book-publishing company in New York).

Maybe I'll see how I feel about the way my life is going in one year and take things from there. Will I feel more restless then? Heck, I might already be feeling a little restless now (not to mention immature and intellectually inferior)...

Oh, and have I mentioned the bundle of greatness that is the Coen Bros.'s recent film (and, I honestly think, some kind of masterpiece) No Country for Old Men? See it (read the Cormac McCarthy novel if you'd like, although I think the movie improves on the book).

Monday, November 26, 2007

Images and Ideas: Todd Haynes's I'm Not There

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - I think it's time for me to start trying to write semi-regularly about some of the newer films---heck, it's time for me to start writing more on this blog again, period! If I'm going to work my way up to writing about movies more regularly in the future...well, practice makes perfect! Or at least, if not perfect, at least engaging and readable.

Maybe in the near future I'll write an update about what's been going on in my life. In the meantime...here are some random thoughts based on first impressions of one viewing of Todd Haynes's meditation of Bob Dylan, I'm Not There, which I got to see on Saturday evening over at a small art-house (or, at least, the New Jersey version of art-house) theater right in the heart of Princeton.

Three words: intellectual stimulation overload! I was by turns fascinated and frustrated by this film---which, as some of you may have already heard, is nothing like a typical biopic of Dylan, but a postmodern discourse on the idea of a shapeshifting artist such as Dylan, drawing both directly and obliquely from his life and his music---but I now find myself feeling more excited about it the more I remember its stylistic bravura and reflect on its perhaps rather troubling implications, both for our time and universally speaking.

I'm probably going to wait for its eventual DVD release to get a chance to see this movie for a second time, and this is the kind of dense movie that pretty much demands more than one viewing (as well as, in this case, more Dylan research and a greater familiarity with films that it references). So allow me to throw out a few thoughts I have rattling in my head about this film, with the disclaimer that, of course, I don't necessarily have a coherent take on what the movie seems to be saying and doing, just a few ideas. (Maybe coherence in this special case is beside the point.)

For me, the most fascinating thread I latched onto in I'm Not There is the question the film raises, in its own kaleidoscopic way, of what kind of responsibility an artist---especially a popular artist with a devoted following like Bob Dylan---has to reflecting his particular time---the social issues of the time, the politics, the general mood, etc. Is an artist somehow obligated, because of his popularity, to be some kind of barometer for his time? Is that what makes an artist automatically interesting or important---sheer topical relevance?

People---and I am sometimes guilty of this myself---often instantly equate topicality and an engagement with some big issue or event of his time with seriousness. According to both I'm Not There and Martin Scorsese's documentary No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (2005), this perceived engagement with politics and society on Dylan's part is what attracted many people to Dylan's music-making in the first place. "Blowin' in the Wind," "The Times They Are A-Changin'"---these songs, among many others, sounded like deep social statements to many listeners, and the fact that his lyrics were clothed in the garb of this "music of the working classes," folk music, enhanced this sense of seriousness for many.

But then, when Dylan donned an electric guitar, enlisted a backing band behind him and started deliberately moving way from "protest songs" to more whimsical and surreal imagery in his songwriting, he was condemned by many as a sell-out, a betrayer. Thus came his ever-changing personas---folk-music hero, electric musician, country artist, born-again Christian, and beyond---and thus now you have I'm Not There, one artist's response to another's media images and representations.

Of course, Todd Haynes puts into his cinematic mosaic all of Dylan's own justifications for so willfully frustrating his fans---he refuses to be pigeonholed, to be typecast, to be locked into his audiences' expectations. All of this will be familiar to those who have seen both the Scorsese documentary and the 1965 classic D.A. Pennebaker doc Don't Look Back, the latter made just before Dylan "went electric." What Haynes is particularly interested in is broadening Scorsese's (arguably rather softball) inquiry into Dylan the man to try to raise pointed, ever-relevant questions about art and the artist's role in society---perhaps whether an artist actually has one or not, or if that artist should be like the outlaw Dylan played by Richard Gere in I'm Not There, who seeemingly escapes from the limelight (which, by the way, is portrayed so vividly in the Cate-Blanchett-as-Bob-Dylan-in-sub-8 1/2 segments) only to be awakened out of his self-imposed flight from harsh reality by news of a road-building project that got approved right under his nose.

On the other hand...one might argue, if Haynes was really interested in exploring issues about art, artists and the society they inhabit and reflect, why does Haynes load his film with a whole host of '60s film references and barely delve into the pressing social issues of the time except through media images? Is he actually serious himself, or is he simply playing games with us? (Quentin Tarantino, who has never made a movie like this one, is often second-guessed the same way, even by yours truly.)

This probably requires an auteurist perspective that I don't quite have, having admittedly not seen Haynes's '90s features (Poison, Safe, Velvet Goldmine). From what I gather from having seen both his publicly unavailable Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (thank you Google video), and his 2002 feature Far From Heaven, Haynes, in classic postmodernist (isn't that kind of a contradiction in terms?) fashion, is primarily interested in both shocking us out of our typical movie comfort zones (thus the use of Barbie dolls to enact the haunting, horrifying saga of Karen Carpenter's losing battle with anorexia) and examining film images and movie history while appealing to our emotions in a familiar movie idiom (thus telling a basic melodramatic story in Far From Heaven even as he riffs on the '50s films of Douglas Sirk). So while his films may affect us on an emotional level, one would be hard pressed to consider them works that directly confront the real world. You're constantly aware of his film's movie-ness, to put in inelegant terms.

Those elements all come into play in I'm Not There. But are Haynes' shout-outs to 8 1/2, Masculine Feminine, A Hard Day's Night, Petulia, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and others I'm probably not deeply familiar with, his own way of merely winking to the film buffs of his audience? Or do they signal something deeper and perhaps more disturbing?

On that point, I'm still trying to figure that out.

Maybe they are of a piece with Haynes' conception of Bob Dylan as an artist who may not really have cared as much about addressing social issues as his songs might indicate---in order to make such a conception vivid, Haynes is playing the same game, refracting his themes through film and music (mostly film) history. But even that theory seems a little superficial. If all Haynes wanted to do was wink at us and get us to say "Oh there's a speech from a Godard film," or "Those Beatles are running from screaming fans as in A Hard Day's Night," what explains the potent meaning of a sequence that baldly steals from 8 1/2---a dreamlike POV shot of adoring fans looking on from their cars at Jude Quinn (Cate Blanchett) as we hear his heart palpitating as he's trapped in his own vehicle? Just as those opening images of Fellini's film vividly expressed a famous film director's suffocation from his own fame and crushing expectations, so likewise a similar feeling is expressed with just about the same image in a different context. And perhaps the Richard Gere sequences owe their meaning not only to a Dylanologist's familiarity with both The Basement Tapes (recordings he made in 1967 with The Band while he was recuperating from his motorcycle accident) and the Rolling Thunder Revue (a tour in the mid-'70s in which he often performed wearing white face paint), but to one of the core ideas of Sam Peckinpah's 1973 film Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid---the idea of a man refusing to face up to his own time, as Billy the Kid seems unwilling to do in that film.

Such references, thus, are meaningful (rather than just being film-school postmodernist winking) but they are essentially borrowed and adapted meanings. Maybe, by taking such an approach, what Haynes is saying about Bob Dylan, and maybe even about our society today, is that we are so inundated with images to be appropriated for our own personal uses and gratifications, and more often than not, we do so. And that, Haynes may be suggesting, is exactly what Dylan did. Sincerity, or just a series of masks? (Fitting that, when Haynes's Billy the Kid confronts Bruce Greenwood's Pat Garrett, he initially does so with a mask on his face.) That Haynes leaves this question up in the air---Jude Quinn may rail against an interviewer for questioning his sincerity, but the fact that, even as a younger man, he was already bluffing his way into people's hearts, as evidenced in the Marcus Carl Franklin segments of the film (in which Franklin plays a young man who calls himself Woody Guthrie and goes around with a guitar case that reads "This machine kills fascists" even though he's actually an escapee from Minnesota)---is a sign to me of a seriousness that transcends insider-knowledge, hagiography, self-awareness and movie references, moving it to the level of a stimulating dialectic.

All of this sounds overly intellectual and pretentious, I imagine. Perhaps, at heart, it is. But the movie, miraculously, never degenerates into dull academic discourse. Haynes and his ace cinematographer Edward Lachman keep the visuals alive and popping; Lachman switches film stocks and shooting styles with stunning ease. And ultimately, I'm Not There is so filled with ideas and questions that it never bores for an instant. It might frustrate those unprepared for it, though; I know I sat through the first hour of this film admiring the creativity of Haynes's stunt but itching for this swirl of personas and images, both original and borrowed, to get somewhere concrete instead of just congratulating itself on its own Dylan/movie knowledge (one groaner is Jude Quinn's offhand "Just like a woman" after a female member of his crew in England knocks out an angry fan---a cutesy reference to a cut on his classic 1966 album Blonde on Blonde that merely seems irritatingly precious, at least to those who get the reference).

However, now that I know where this film goes---and now that I have elaborated on some of the film's more striking themes---well, as excited as I am by it, I'm still wondering about whether it has anything particularly new to add to the Dylan legend. Maybe media representations are all we really have of popular artists, and that Dylan knew this and used it to his advantage---and, if one is wont to be overly critical (why not, in a movie that actively encourages criticism?), maybe Haynes is doing the same thing here as well. Is Haynes himself being sincere? The movie may be a mess of contradictions, but it's a fascinating mess, and right now I'm having fun thinking about its implications, struggling with them. As for the experience of watching the movie itself: I think that, once you adjust yourself to the film's unpredictable, whirling style---and, I'll admit, it took me a while to get onto its wavelength---I'm Not There becomes truly gripping, engaging and, even at times, oddly, unaccountably moving.

Finally, of course, there is the music---and even Bob Dylan's most familiar tunes come alive again in this context. I, for one, didn't realize just how beautiful an expression of love "I Want You"---also from Blonde on Blonde---was until I saw them scored to Heath Ledger's courtship to Charlotte Gainsbourg in this film. That kind of revelation is more than most typical biopics accomplish except in the most numbingly predictable and prosaic terms (in other words, nothing quite as clunky as that silly attempt to explain the genesis of "Hit the Road Jack" in Ray with a wronged girlfriend singing the words angrily to Ray Charles, then cutting to Charles singing it in public). Like most Bob Dylan songs, you feeeeel it in your gut. I'm not sure I feel this movie in my gut---not yet---but I certainly feel it in my head. Sometimes, for me, that's enough.

Friday, November 09, 2007

First Time Long Time

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Yes I know, I'm becoming an awful blogger. I guess right now I'm in one of my "not often much in the mood to update" phases that comes about once in a while.

Not that I find myself overwhelmingly busy these days. Of course, I'm still working at The Wall Street Journal, still the proofreader extraordinaire for Asia and some of Europe. And outside of work, I'm still indulging in my artistic/intellectual pursuits (at, it must be said, the expense of an active social life---not that I'm deliberately secluding myself or anything). Currently---in preparation for Todd Haynes's upcoming Bob Dylan fantasia I'm Not There (not sure whether I want to make a special trip to the Film Forum in NYC to see this, though, based on what I've read about this film so far, I'm tempted)---I'm trying to catch up on Mr. Zimmerman's music. Recently, I listened once through Highway 61 Revisited; on first listen, it's maybe my favorite album of his so far (although Blonde on Blonde is coming up next). His lyrics---sometimes whimsical, sometimes political, always intelligent and interesting to parse---even more so than his stylistically adventurous music, are what really fascinate me.

On the reading front, I just finished reading D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, a novel which makes me seriously wonder if I could be a lot more passionate about things in general---not only about love---than I am. (At the very least, I like to think I'm not as snobbish as some of the upper-class characters in the novel.) Lawrence may have been writing for a particular post-WWI audience, but I wonder if some of his thoughts on male/female relationships and class consciousness---and how they may sometimes intersect---are more universal than I'd like to admit. Next up: I'm not exactly pining to see the new animated Beowulf, but I thought it might be cool to finally check out the celebrated Seamus Heaney translation of the famous Anglo-Saxon epic. That and Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner---again, in part because of the release of an upcoming movie adaptation.

So many books I still haven't read/have yet to read...sigh...

Speaking of movies, what about the art form that I profess to love so much? Well, I'm still catching up with movies new and old on DVD. Can you believe that only recently did I finally catch up with two bona-fide classics, Orson Welles's Touch of Evil and Carol Reed's (or more appropriately, Graham Greene's, or maybe even more appropriately, Orson Welles's) The Third Man??? Amazing films! If anything, they both demonstrate just how much sheer imaginative style---the tilted camera angles of The Third Man, the exaggerated close-ups (among many memorable characteristics) of Touch of Evil---can transform what might have played as otherwise standard-issue crime thrillers in lesser hands. The depictions of evil in The Third Man are entertaining enough---especially when Welles comes onto the scene midway through the picture---but Touch of Evil both entertains and unsettles almost entirely through its delirious technique, using a kinetic camera style to create an unforgettable baroque world of corruption around which the characters try to negotiate, in ways both honorable and not so honorable. You can viscerally sense Orson Welles's obsessiveness in telling this story (I've read some reviews suggesting that the morally suspect character he plays in the film is perhaps a reflection of himself, doing whatever it takes to retain control of things). I've heard all about the auteur theory, but I think I can honestly say that only after seeing Touch of Evil do I intuitively grasp what those Cahiers du cinema upstarts in the '50s and then, later, Andrew Sarris actually meant. I mean, if Carol Reed had taken on Welles's Touch of Evil script, I wonder if the end result would seem half as forbidding, hyperbolic, lurid---or, above all, personal.

As for more recent releases: somewhat like Touch of Evil, David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises might seem like a typical gangster genre piece on the surface, but Cronenberg is able to take Steven Knight's script and make it seem utterly Cronenbergian by virtue of its surgically precise style, its interest in character psychology (even among this band of genre archetypes) and its searing images of the human body in various states of distress. For an instance of the latter: Viggo Mortensen's body art---which tells his supposed life story---gets bloodied and bruised in a brutal three-way fight in a sauna that outdoes almost any of the shockingly graphic violence of his last picture, A History of Violence. Perhaps Eastern Promises can be said to be a logical companion piece to Violence---both essentially transform genre clichés into meditations on both real-world violence and movie violence, in all its ugliness. But both, in the end, strike me as a bit more different than alike. Violence takes a more baldly deconstructionist approach, reveling in its clichés and toying with one's reactions to the violence while undermining them at nearly every turn; Eastern Promises, however, not only makes all of its archetypal characters seem convincingly multifaceted and human (even the so-called "villains," like Armin Mueller-Stahl's patriarch), but frames these characters and the brutal situations in a dark fairy-tale atmosphere that, for my money, leaves more of a lasting impression than the intellectualized winking (however valuable and perhaps necessary) of Violence. This, it goes without saying, isn't completely original and personal like Videodrome or Dead Ringers, but nevertheless, it's a compelling example of a fascinating film artist working at near the top of his game with what might have been old-hat stuff in other hands.

And I recently caught Away From Her---the film about how a husband deals with his wife's mental deterioration via Alzheimer's---on DVD; I'd be shocked if there was a more vibrant, honest, and deeply moving love story released this year. And Julie Christie, as the deteriorating wife, still looks pretty darn attractive even at 66. Oh, and yes, she's terrific in it, too---totally convincing and free from look-at-me (read: Oscar-baiting) histrionics.

Anyway, I'm not entirely sure if all this reading, listening and movie-watching I'm doing is actually helping me in the long run except giving me more things to do, more perspectives and approaches to absorb, etc. But I'm rather enjoying it---so much so that it's likely I may stick with this schedule for a little while longer after I (hopefully) graduate in January.

Maybe all I'm really doing is just putting off real-world responsibilities for a little while longer.

Otherwise...well, I did contribute this recent piece about one of my favorite classical works for The House Next Door. So I'm still keeping my writing skills somewhat sharp.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Complex Close-Ups in Jean-Pierre Melville's Army of Shadows

[This is my contribution for The House Next Door's Close-Up Blogathon, which is running 'til October 21.]

When it comes to close-ups of faces in movies, two kinds usually do it for me: close-ups of a beautiful face (usually a woman's face, for obvious reasons---I'm a 21-year-old single college male; you figure it out), or a close-up of a performer's face that gets a viewer to ponder what that character/actor is thinking in a particular situation.

Of course, thanks to the vast amount of resources offered by cinema, a director can often juxtapose images or use music or sound effects to suggest what may be going on in a character's head at a certain moment. But human beings and their thoughts are, in real life, often so complex that sometimes one close-up, punctuated by a p.o.v. shot or a dramatic music cue, may not be enough to completely explain what may be going on inside a mind. That's what makes the human species so fascinating---and that recognition, I would submit, is what separates true film artists from mere hacks.

Jean-Pierre Melville, the famous French film director who is often considered one of the fathers of the French New Wave, was one such artist---a master of the complex close-up of the kind that invited you to ponder what exactly was rattling inside his characters' often inscrutable minds. Very few films of his demonstrated his masterful use of the close-up more fully and powerfully than in his 1969 masterpiece Army of Shadows.

Part of the power of the various close-ups strewn throughout Army of Shadows comes simply from its subject matter: this is a film about people who have to keep their emotions to themselves in order to carry on their fight against Nazi occupation in France. Carry any personal attachments that may call undue attention to oneself, and one risks capture, torture and even death (and not necessarily from the enemy either). Thus Melville, using this narrative framework, often employs close-ups as an invitation to scrutinize these characters' faces; it's as if he's daring us to see if there are any flickers of humanity to these French Resistance foot soldiers left, or if, like Alain Delon's Jef Costello in Melville's previous film, Le Samourai, Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura), Luc Jardie (Paul Meurisse) and most of the rest have become consumed by duty and habit.

Of course, Melville was an intelligent-enough filmmaker to instinctively know how to use technique and canny camera placement to suggest what his characters might be thinking any time.

Take, for instance, the sequence of shots during one particular breathtaking sequence:

Gerbier has just escaped from the clutches of the Nazis at the Hotel Majestic, and he breathlessly runs into a barbershop, where he asks the barber (Serge Reggiani) for a shave. As the barber starts applying the shaving cream, he notices a sign on one of his walls:

It looks like a pro-Petain sign.

Other thoughts may well be crossing Gerbier's mind at that moment, but Melville's shot selection suggests mostly fear and uncertainty: if this barber is indeed a Petainiste, how would he react if Gerbier betrayed the slightest hint of being Resistance? The barber's focused look as he applies the shaving cream...

...doesn't allay his fears any.

Throughout this sequence, we are put into Gerbier's shoes, feeling what he's feeling, leaving little doubt as to the emotions Melville is trying to convey.

But there are other close-ups in Army of Shadows that are a lot more ambiguous in its implications. Melville may give you hints of what a particular moment might mean to a character, but, without the comfortable moorings of clunky explanatory dialogue or voiceover narration (not that this film entirely dispenses with the latter, but it's used judiciously, and we hear different characters narrate at different times), Melville leaves us feeling that there may be depths to their emotions that may be unknown even to the characters.

Examine this shot/reverse-shot close-up of both Gerbier and an anonymous comrade as they are both held in the Hotel Majestic. Gerbier has just whispered to the no-name comrade that this may be their best chance to escape.

In the first of these two shots, the no-name comrade turns his head away from the Nazi guard and looks directly at the camera.

He's looking at Gerbier, and Gerbier's looking back in the next shot. Then he turns away.

Not a word is exchanged, but the length of these shots and the sheer quiet of the soundtrack (only the sound of an unseen ticking clock is prominently heard) suggests...what, exactly? The anonymous comrade looks nervous about acting; perhaps his look to Gerbier is his covert way of expressing his fear, and maybe Gerbier's more stoic look suggests that he has resigned himself to the fact that he will have to be the one to make the first move. Or it could be that the looks simply represent a silent agreement between the two. You can't exactly tell, and Melville refuses to articulate, either: he leaves it to us to observe and wonder. (Besides, if they actually said anything out loud, they'd be risking getting themselves killed by their common enemy.)

These may be close-ups, but we don't exactly feel close to either character at that moment. But it sure is a lot of fun to figure out what they may be communicating simply through their eyes.

Melville presents a more expressive yet equally mysterious bunch of close-ups during one of my personal favorite sequences, a subtle yet oddly affecting passage set at night in London during what appears to the Baedeker Blitz. In this sequence, Melville is once again juxtaposing images to imply meaning, but this time the meaning is more abstract and elusive.

Gerbier is walking around at night, is jolted by sounds of bombing and mayhem, and takes brief refuge in what appears to be some kind of YMCA/YWCA gathering. As a big band tune colors the soundtrack, Gerbier looks at the various British soldiers mingling and dancing with women:

Is he merely being decadent in his own private way? Or is there something deeper being expressed in his glances? Melville contextualizes it beautifully with this medium shot:

Gerbier seems palpably uncomfortable in this setting, as if he has been wrapped up in his war efforts so long that he has, in effect, deliberately alienated himself from the rest of his society. Maybe it's a discomfort mixed in with longing to rejoin the society he seems to have shunned in order to pursue his cause. A couple of shots later, a bomb falls nearby, and while Gerbier is rattled by it...

...the rest of the soldiers barely seem to recognize it---indeed, the way they carry on, they barely seem to recognize a world war is going on outside.

Longing, perhaps, and pangs of jealousy and disbelief. (Don't these people have any clue what's going on out there???)

He leaves, as if he has become more comfortable in the violence outside than in the pleasant fun inside.

Though this sequence isn't entirely driven by the close-ups, those shots of Gerbier's face taking in his surroundings and realizing how much of an outsider he is are key to this sequence's subtle power: it's perhaps the film's second-most eloquent summation of the moral ambiguities at the film's heart.

The most eloquent and sobering summation, of course, comes at the very end, with the execution of Mathilde (Simone Signoret), who was recently captured and forced to give up the names of the major players of the Resistance after the Nazis threatened harm to her precious daughter. When Gerbier---forced into exile after he escapes from Nazi clutches once again, this time with help from his Resistance companions, including Mathilde---hears about this, he calmly and coldly orders her death.

Mathilde, throughout Army of Shadows, proves herself to be the noble center of this male-dominated group; she's a housewife-type who proves herself to be amazingly adept at taking on a leadership role within the group, brilliantly masterminding a rescue attempt at one point that goes wrong only because their target is physically too far gone to even walk. But she stands out for a simpler reason than mere prowess: she's quite possibly the most human character in the film. It is doubly tragic, then, that they are forced, for the sake of the larger cause, to gun her down; it's as if Mathilde represented the warmth and humanity that they lack, and they know it all too well.

But the close-ups of Mathilde as she realizes she is about to be killed are fascinating because, to my mind, her facial expressions suggest something more than simple fear. She, I would assume, has been in the Resistance-fighting business for as long as her male comrades have, so she would know the perils of being caught as much as anyone.

She raises her eyebrows ever so slightly when she sees the four men in the car.

Then Le Bison takes a gun out from his jacket...

...and Mathilde slightly lowers her eyebrows.

Is it possible that, at that particular moment, the fear she must be feeling could be mixed with resignation---the sad realization that her death is necessary for the cause to go on? Could she even be implicitly asking for her death, as Luc Jardie suggested moments earlier in the film? In the commentary track on the Criterion DVD, film historian Ginette Vincendeau characterizes her death as a "mercy killing"---which would suggest a measure of complicity in her part in her own demise.

Then fear seemingly takes over again as Melville zooms into the barrel of the gun.

Then death---quick, brutal, and who knows, maybe somewhat transcendant, in its own morally ruinous way.

In an interview featured one of the making-of documentaries on the second disc of the Criterion DVD package, it is revealed that Melville, when asked by Simone Signoret whether Mathilde actually betrayed Gerbier, Jardie and the others or not, Melville refused to provide an answer, leaving Signoret and the rest of the cast unsure. That ambiguity registers in every nuance in Signoret's lovely expressions of fear, realization and acceptance---the kind of nuances cinematographers must die for in a close-up.

The ultimate point, in parsing over these shots, is to show how the best close-ups are the most emotionally complex: they're the ones that can best reveal the humanity underneath even walking near-corpses like these French Resistance fighters. Complex close-ups of the kind in Army of Shadows are like staring straight into a character's---or an actor's---soul. They may well represents the heights of cinema---more so than any of the music-video flash that passes for "style" these days.

I'll let the old master Melville have the last word: