Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Cinema, Meet Theater; Theater, Cinema

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - I'm going to try to start a weekly feature on this (as ever poorly maintained) blog in which I basically just collect some thoughts on films I've seen over the course of a given week. I won't promise anything earth-shatteringly revelatory, but at least it will keep my writing muscles somewhat sharp.

So what'd I see this past weekend in the theaters (I'm sticking for now with theatrical experiences)? Let's go in order of viewing, starting with...

Bronson (2008, Dir.: Nicolas Winding Refn)

Well yes, the subject of this film is Michael Peterson, aka "Charles Bronson," a man with a reputation as Britain's most violent and notorious prisoner. But it's not really about "Charlie Bronson" in the sense you might expect from a so-called biopic. Refn isn't really interested in exploring the man behind the notoriety; this isn't really a character study. Instead, Refn focuses more on toying with the gap between Refn's self-created image and the utter emptiness at his core, an emptiness that his sheer, charismatic boldness of gesture can go only so far to camouflage. Perhaps that is the true essence of Bronson, then: It's a ceaselessly kinetic yet shallow movie, but only because, Refn and his very fine lead actor Tom Hardy suggest, the man himself was basically a shallow vessel filled only by his desire for attention at any cost. None of those gestures reveal anything about him, but maybe that's because there ultimately isn't anything to reveal. (Never does the man come off as a reflective fellow in the least.)

Telling, then, that Refn not only imbues Bronson with all sorts of theatrical gestures onscreen---dramatic classical music cues, skewed camera angles, even an animated sequence illustrating Peterson's artwork in his more recent prison years---but also incorporates a theater as an actual setting, with Peterson seen telling his story on a (figurative and surreally lighted) stage to an audience, and telling it with a wide variety of styles (he's seen with mime make-up at a few points). We're always aware of the events in the film as a sort of performance, with Peterson constantly angling for attention. And when he doesn't receive the attention he desires---especially in the scenes during his brief (and apparently apocryphal) release for "good behavior"---the scenes have the slight yet palpable feel of bad theater, noticeable mostly through the haltingly delivered dialogue.

All of this formal play could quite possibly be seen as a feature-length set-up for the film's final, gut-punch shot of our central figure. He's glimpsed, as the camera slowly zooms out, stuck in a very tight cell, nude and bloodied. And for perhaps the first time in the film, you see "Charlie Bronson" without the benefit of dramatic lighting, Peterson's voiceover narration or classical-music cues. The man you saw performing tonight stands before you as he truly is, behind the madness, writhing in some kind of pain. And the view is...well, ugly. And pathetic. And, in its own way, revelatory.

You might say that Bronson is an intriguingly empty movie. I'll leave it up to you, dear readers, to determine whether that's a good or bad thing. (Currently playing at Village East Cinema, though its run looks to be ending tomorrow.)

The Red Shoes (1948, Dir.: Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)

In a word: glorious. This was my first encounter with this much-celebrated British Technicolor masterwork, in a new 35mm print playing at New York's Film Forum---and boy, am I glad I decided to make my first acquaintance with this grand work of cinema on a big screen! The print is gorgeous, certainly: It's not enough to simply say the colors vividly pop, but also that the vividness allows one to appreciate just how imaginative Powell & Pressburger's deployment of such colors genuinely are regarding moods and settings scene-by-scene. (If it is possible at all for a film to feel both real and fantastic, sometimes in the same scene, Powell, Pressburger and cinematographer Jack Cardiff manage it.) Above all, though, there is the magnificent film itself: not only a wondrous, life-enhancing celebration of artistic creation, in all its joys and agonies, but also a tragedy with a heroine torn between her desire to continue her artistic pursuit and living a life outside of it. (It's a dilemma that I struggle with almost daily, though in far less melodramatic terms.) The way she ends up resolving this dilemma is both devastating and brutally poetic.

If nothing else, I just want to bask again in the film's centerpiece 17-minute ballet sequence, which pushes a ballet performance into the realm of the surreal and dreamlike in a manner that can only be described as sublime. It feels like art soaring into the heavens. You know that high you get after you think you've had a great artistic experience? You know what I'm talking about? Well, the ballet sequence in The Red Shoes comes damn close to visualizing that feeling. Awesome.

There's a couple more---The Men Who Stare at Goats and Lars von Trier's by-now notorious Antichrist---but I'm afraid, at this rather late hour, I will have to leave that for another day. Hopefully not a day too soon!

No comments: