Monday, February 10, 2014

Lonely Places, Dangerous Ground: Nicholas Ray in American Cinema

My new anthology on Nicholas Ray is just out from SUNY Press. The book, which I co-edited with Will Scheibel, includes twenty essays by top film scholars, critics, and historians. In table-of-contents order, our authors are: Jonathan Rosenbaum, Joe McElhaney, Ria Banerjee, Chris Cagle, Alexander Doty, Steven Sanders, R. Barton Palmer, Tony Williams, Neil Campbell, James I. Deutsch and Lauren R. Shaw, Murray Pomerance, Paul Anthony Johnson, Robin A. Larsen, Susan White, Harper Cossar, Adrian Martin, Jason McKahan, Larysa Smirnova and Chris Fujiwara, and Bill Krohn. Will and myself both contributed essays as well. What a thrill to have been part of this cast of characters.

More reading on Ray: this Fandor piece on Ray's final film, We Can't Go Home Again, and the documentary Susan Ray made about his life, Don't Expect Too Much, by Adrian Martin.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

A Top Ten Time Machine

It's the time of year for top ten lists. And 2013 certainly had some movies I loved: I count Passion, To the Wonder, Fruitvale Station, Her, The Past, and The Great Beauty among my favorites. But we have 120 years of cinema to explore, and I don't have a deadline to meet.

So here is an alternate top ten: my ten favorites movies not from 2013 that I watched for the first time in the last year. Perhaps there will be a gem or two below you haven't seen yet. 

1. Dodsworth (1936)

A William Wyler movie often invites the viewer to engage with deep-focus shots, to find relationships between layers of detail in the frame. Yet a moment in Dodsworth - my new favorite Wyler - is interesting to me for what it doesn't let you see. A husband and a wife are undressing in their bedroom. The weariness they both feel in the marriage is echoed in the movement of the camera: as Fran Dodsworth (Ruth Chatterton) begins undressing, the camera tracks past her, paralleling in its modesty Sam Dodsworth's (Walter Huston) gaze away. A few beats later, Fran walks back into frame, dressed; now, the camera tracks away from Sam, who begins his own undressing, in which Fran is equally uninterested. Wyler is maneuvering around the strictures of the Production Code, of course, but these moves do not result in any sort of erotic titillation or thematic ambiguity. Wyler's point at this moment is direct: Fran and Sam are simply tired of looking at one another. Wyler (working from a novel by Sinclair Lewis) uses this expertly staged scene as a starting point for his exploration of the differences (especially in social values) that will eventually drive Sam and Fran apart.

2. Two Portraits Diptych: Anything Else and Shooting Scripts (1981)

The ability to learn about, and acquire, objects like Chicago Media Works's excellent four-disc set Peter Thompson: 6 Cinematic Essays, 2 Interviews +... is a benefit of cinephilia in the social media age. I'm still working my way through it, having watched about half of it, but I am already enchanted by the content of the first disc, two portraits by Thompson, shot in 1981, of his parents. Anything Else, about his father, is particularly moving. Against slow-moving footage of his father in an airline terminal (and, at the end of the film, briefly, a garden), Thompson shares simple memories and facts ("He slept through any noise") about the man. The film takes a moment in the man of a life - a walk in an airline terminal - and expands it to the duration of an entire film, layering thoughts and memories upon the moment until it expands in a number of directions. In the liner notes, Thompson (who passed away in 2013) refers to it, alongside Shooting Scripts (a portrait of the filmmaker's mother) as a "portrait of a marriage." What comes through in both shorts is not only the filmmaker's own complicated relationship with his parents, but also a complicated and rewarding relationship with the temporal possibilities of movies.

3. The Daytrippers (1996) 

This is the first feature film directed by Greg Mottola, who has made a lot of very funny follow-ups (Superbad, Adventureland). But The Daytrippers is still his best. It concerns a woman (Hope Davis) who takes a day trip to Manhattan with her family (Parker Posey as her sister, with Liev Schrieber along for the ride), on the suspicion that her husband (Stanley Tucci, a publisher in the city) is having an affair. There are two or three lovely passages in which Davis and Posey have time to establish the sisterly repartee of their characters. My favorite is when they share a cigarette alone, early in the movie. It gives them time to talk about, among other things, their overbearing mother, their contrasting styles of fashion, and their futures. It's a sweet moment created by two of the most talented performers of nineties American indie cinema.

4. Leviathan (2012)

This film - a sensually overwhelming documentary exploring the American fishing industry - is popping up on some 2013 lists, so perhaps I'm cheating a bit by including it here. But by the time I caught up with Leviathan on Blu Ray last month, it already felt like a "past film": it must have been quite amazing to see this on the big screen, but I did not have that opportunity, so I had to let it do its work on me in my home theater. The most quietly amazing moment in the movie is also my favorite moment from any film in the past year. A small bird has found its way onto a fishing boat. The filmmakers, by chance, have spotted it, and will now spend a few minutes with it as it struggles to hop over a partition. In a film without any heroes, this little bird, for a moment, becomes our central character, and its goal - to find a way through, or off, this boat - is riveting. Then, just like that, suddenly, the bird disappears off the side of the boat, its fate as ambiguous as night is inky black in Leviathan's stunning digital imagery. This film is full of such astonishments.

5. Obsession (1976)

Seeing and loving Passion sent me on a bit of a De Palma bender. Obsession stands out. A film very much like Vertigo, about the impossible quest to recreate the dead image of the lover in a living person, Obsession rises above being a simple retread by virtue of its own obsessive devotion to the principle of excess. Yet one of its most beautiful and memorable moments is actually quite sparse and simple. After the death of his wife, a businessman (Cliff Robertson) heads to Italy. He encounters a woman (Genevieve Bujold), assisting on the restoration of a painting in a Florence church, who looks just like his lost beloved. There is no swirling camera or ecstatic montage. He simply looks up at her, and in a low-angle shot, we see what he sees: his past reborn. The dialogue - what Bujold says about the restoration of the painting is clearly meant to parallel the themes of duplication, uncovering, and substitution in the story - lays out the theme of the film explicitly, freeing the viewer to revel in De Palma's style.

6. Amateur (1994)

I count Hal Hartley among my favorite filmmakers, but I did not have the chance to see his celebrated 1994 film Amateur until this past year. Finally seeing the film on a beautiful region 2 Blu Ray from Artificial Eye was a pleasure. A few days before acquiring the disc, I read an interview with Hartley in which he discusses his love for the films of Terrence Malick, particularly the late work. Released in 1994, it's striking that passages in Amateur prefigure the Malick films Hartley would express appreciation for later: the swelling, operatic music (scored by Hartley himself) reminds me of the use of orchestral pieces throughout The New World, The Tree of Life, and To the Wonder; and shots of Martin Donovan framed from behind recall Malick's tendency (which takes flight in The New World) to follow characters with a tracking camera from behind, as if he were encountering them for the first time. Indeed, one of the pleasures of Amateur is that it makes Donovan strange. In 1994, he was already firmly associated with Hartley, but by having Donovan play an amnesiac without a biography and bereft of coherent psychology, Amateur dissolves our preconceptions of how Hartley might use the actor, making the relationship between them fresh and vital again.

7. Remember the Night (1940)

I saw this beautiful Mitchell Leisen film (scripted by Preston Sturges), starring Barabra Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray, at the recent Stanwyck retrospective at the Film Forum over winter break in New York. It's a perfect film to see during the holidays. Stanwyck plays a woman (a streetwalker, it is implied) who gets into some legal trouble after stealing jewelry. MacMurray is the prosecutor, but the trial has been delayed until after Christmas. Not wanting Stanwyck to have to stay in prison over the holiday, MacMurray springs for her bail, and ends up taking her along with him on a trip back home to Indiana. Remember the Night is about the space of existential possibility that opens up, and then closes down, in the leisurely time between Christmas and New Year's. Stanwyck's performance is especially fascinating because she beautifully conveys the experience of a woman who never had these possibilities opened up to her before, and who takes profound advantage of them to change her life. The ending is, I think, progressive in terms of gender (for then, and for now), and, like Dodsworth, emotionally honest in a way most Hollywood films of the period weren't. 

8. The Big City (1963)

Every year I see a number of great films for the first time through the Criterion Collection. There are plenty of candidates for the greatest of these from 2013 (Sacha Guitry's Desire and Pearls of the Crown are both difficult to leave off this list), but my favorite was Satyajit Ray's The Big City. This film, Ray's first portrayal of urban life, tells a compelling story of a woman (Madhabi Mukherjee) who decides to go to work to support her family, despite the protestations of her husband. As with his earlier films set in rural areas, The Big City captures the life of its protagonists through concrete moments of lived reality. One lingers: the husband, committed to traditional marital and social relations, spies his wife putting make-up on while having coffee with a male business associate. It's a precise and delicately framed image, but one that feels equally spontaneous and lived-in.

9. Vampir-Cuadecuc (1970)

Like the Peter Thompson set, the complete works of Pere Portabella on DVD is not something I would have ever come across in the era before the Internet. And as with the Thompson set, I'm still making my way through these films. My favorite so far in the collection of this important Catalan filmmaker is on disc 2. Portabella shot this film on the set of a Jesus Franco vampire movie, and, with its use of black-and-white imagery and non-synchronous sound, it acts as something like the subconscious of a finished, polished feature. In an illuminating piece on the film, Jonathan Rosenbaum points out some of the film's larger political and social themes.

10. Man-Proof (1938)

Anyone with Turner Classic Movies has an irreplaceable American cinematheque at the fingertips. But the value of the channel is not so much its screenings of things easily acquirable on DVD or VHS but for those films that you must wait for TCM to show in order to be able to see them at all. A large number of these are Hollywood films from the thirties, many of which were never released on VHS or DVD. I've been waiting to see Man-Proof for a couple of years, and finally got the chance last Spring. It's a little Richard Thorpe ditty from 1938. I love Myrna Loy, and this is one of a number of Myrna Loy movies from the thirties that is now very difficult to see. Loy's character, after being jilted by a lover, claims independence as an illustrator, but then ends up settling for a love affair with a man she (formerly) mostly found annoying. In contrast to Remember the Night and Dodsworth, this movie is evasive of the subject it brings up (female independence) and not terribly progressive. But Loy's performance is, gesture-for-gesture, beautiful: even as the machinations of the classical Hollywood cinema lead her character along a conservative narrative trajectory, Loy finds depth in the living space of her own performance. And I'm reminded once again that total devotion to an actor can help you forget about that pesky question of whether or not the movie itself is all that good. 

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The heart is a muscle

Spoilers herein. 
Why should the films of Hal Hartley - specifically, his endings - be so moving? As a filmmaker, Hartley does everything he can to avoid classical strategies of empathy and viewer identification. His precise visual compositions and rigorous (but elegant) choreography act like a cerebral address to the viewer, who must pass through Hartley's graphic approach to filmmaking before any sort of emotional connection to character or actor can be forged. Hartley himself ranks the various elements of his film style in a hierarchy. In a piece written for the script book of Flirt, he says: "...despite the fact that I love story, character and dialogue, when I isolate the primary elements of film I find photography, movement and sound recording - in that order. Only then do I consider dramatic action ... Film is essentially graphic for me" (xix).

The graphic intensity of Hartley's films is part of what makes his endings - and, specifically, the final frames of his films - so fascinating. In some cases, the fascination comes from a slight shift in style patterns, as in the tilt up to the blue sky at the end of The Unbelievable Truth, the coda to a film which keeps its otherwise fairly static camera eye firmly on the ground. In other films, the final frame serves as a punctuation mark on a graphical and rhythmic logic that has worked its way through the whole film: at the end of Flirt, for example, we end on a shot of Hartley (playing himself in a film about the making of the film we are presently watching) sitting in an airport with his finished film in a can. This is a fitting end to a self-reflexive movie which begins with the sounds of a movie set on the first day of filming. And even at the end of Hartley's epic Henry Fool, which features a grand image of the title character running toward his uncertain future, Hartley cannot resist graphical play: his careful framing of the image in the airport (as much conversation about the film has noted) wrests Henry away from any precise geographical location, making it impossible to know for sure if the character is running towards the plane or back to the community from which he appeared to be fleeing.

So the films are purely intellectual puzzles if you want them to be. (Hartley pokes gentle fun at this perception of his work in Fay Grim, the sequel to Henry Fool, in which characters joke about the ambiguous ending of the earlier movie.) But, again, I also find these films, and their endings in particular, very moving, in a way that Hollywood "puzzle films" never are for me. Perhaps this is because, after immersing myself in Hartley's poetic strategies for two hours, my ear and eye have so adjusted to the musicality of his images that, as in the final movement of an orchestral piece, I cannot but help be moved by his final images. I have recently been struck by the phrase "the heart is a muscle," the title of a collected book of production photographs Hartley put out a couple of years ago. These words evoke the fact that, in his films, your heart and mind will find much to respond to and empathize with, should you first be willing to do the work (and it's enjoyable work, I think) of passing through the graphic and rhythmic qualities of his films. Engaging with his form is like exercising your heart, preparing that little muscle for the emotional moments in his films when do they arrive. Thus, it is not that empathy and engagement do not have a place in Hartley, but that they come a little lower on the hierarchy, and are not easy to simply slip into, as with most narrative films. But our engagement with characters and actors in his films is perhaps, at the end of the day, more intense for this, given that our hearts will be more sensitive to their doings after close attention to Hartley's style has prepared us for a very particular connection to them.

And Hartley, although in some respects a rigorous formalist and creator of "closed" worlds, always gives his characters open futures, and casts actors who have magnetic, endearing personalities that spill beyond his sensibility. (I have, for example, always been struck by how perfect Adrienne Shelly was for his sensibility as a director, and yet also by how different her own films as director were.) For a filmmaker whose graphical logic is so rigorously organized, Hartley's endings almost always find the people in his worlds in an uncertain line of flight: at the end of Trust, we see Shelly stand staring at an open road, a stoplight blowing in the wind behind her, unsure of where to go; and in Surviving Desire, one of the best of Hartley's short films, we find two lovers in very much the same spot where they began when it is over, as uncertain of their next step as they were when they began. Strange, then, that although Hartley puts story and drama below photography, movement, and sound in his formalist hierarchy, his stories and his dramas nevertheless end up being more potent and poetic than most films that I see.

Final images from a few Hartley films:

films pictured:

The Unbelievable Truth (1989)
Trust (1990)
Flirt (1995)
Henry Fool (1997)
Fay Grim (2006)
Meanwhile (2011) 

For further reading on Hartley, I recommend the script books of his early films put out by Faber and Faber; Kent Jones's great article "Hal Hartley: The Book I Read Was In Your Eyes," in the July/August 1996 issue of Film Comment; David Bordwell's piece on Hartley's place in cinema history; and the book of interviews entitled True Fiction Pictures and Possible Films.

(Three recent monographs on his work were recently published, by Steven Rawle, Mark L. Berrettini, and Sebastian Manley; I'll be checking these out soon).

Friday, July 12, 2013

On actors and figures

In the December 2012 issue of the online film journal The Cine-Files, I published an essay closely analyzing three of Jessica Chastain's film performances (in The Tree of Life, Take Shelter, and The Debt). Through a close look at her acting style, I argued she achieved something like a vision of the world. "Vision" is probably too lofty a word to ascribe to an actor's style, but in my essay, I tried to connect it to meaningful acts of vision in the performances themselves: for example, I claimed that the "glances away" this actor used in her performance as the mother in The Tree of Life suggested the character's resistance to her husband's authority. I wrote that her glances "quietly suggest a sensitive alternative or counterpoint to more forceful characters and can serve as an indication that things in this world might be otherwise." I argued that these glances (in contrast to the more powerful gazes in Take Shelter analyzed later in the essay) had not yet become part of any narrative or social discourse, and instead achieved a subtle poetic inflection that was suitable to Malick's larger vision.

In the most recent issue of the journal, Warwick Mules, in a reading of mise-en-scene in The Tree of Life, has thoughtfully responded to my essay's section on the Malick film with an engaging and philosophically sophisticated exploration of the film as a whole. His essay is interested not in the vision of any single actor but the "ontological vision" of the film. Mules has extended my argument, asserting that the mother's glances in fact are a part of the film's "more comprehensive vision," which results in a "revelatory appearance of 'otherness' repeatedly shown throughout the film." He pays due attention to my idea that Mrs. O'Brien's glances suggest another way of being; but he finds that this is not merely the property of her subjectivity, but something that belongs to what one might call the larger philosophical sensitivity of the film. As Mules writes of "the possibilities" of living otherwise toward which this character's actions gesture:

These possibilities are resistive in the sense that they lead otherwise than the way of being enacted; that is, the mother's resistive glances are a consequence of having to 'live out' a way of being defined by male authority in the nuclear family as the only way of being for humans at that time. The film as a whole enacts this will over others as the affirmation of human being in its present stage of evolution; the stage defined by social-industrialized capitalism and the nuclear family in mid-twentieth century America. The mother's resistive gestures are thus part of this will to power, and not separate from it. 

I find Mules's essay very valuable for his rigorous exploration of how Malick's film style opens up "possible worlds" that go beyond the subjective vision of any single character in his films. As an analysis of the film as a whole, Mules's is an approach I am sympathetic towards (as his generous quoting of my earlier book on Malick perhaps attests).

Obviously, these are two different essays, with different aims: Mules is concerned with the vision of the film as a whole, and I am interested in the unfolding of a single actor's career (of which The Tree of Life is only a part). However, the contrasts between our two approaches highlight a fascinating and possibly productive tension between the terms actor and figure. My essay was working in a tradition of performance analysis carved out by scholars such as Andrew Klevan, Charles Affron, and James Naremore; Mules, by contrast, follows the tradition of figural analysis as mapped by Nicole Brenez, William Routt, Adrian Martin, and others. The words actor and figure are related, of course, but they seem to perform different critical work in different critical contexts. In most conversations about "figures" in North America, figures are the product of directorial work. According to Bordwell and Thompson's Film Art, for example: "In such ways, the director controls a major component of mise-en-scene: the figures we see onscreen ... Mise en scene allows all these entities to express feelings and thoughts; it can also dynamize them to create kinetic patterns" (131). Bordwell and Thompson do offer many thoughtful pages on acting techniques, but these are all contextualized within their chapter on mise-en-scene, and the idea that acting is ultimately something controlled and contextualized by the unfolding patterns of the film is present throughout. Intriguingly, a similar notion of actor-as-figure is also at play in one of the major challenges to Bordwell/Thompson's way of seeing mise-en-scene, Christian Keathley's Cinephilia and History, or the Wind in the Trees. The word "figure" (used in this sense) appears only once in Keathley's book (in reference to actors), in a Jacques Rivette quote that refers to actress Jean Simmons in the context of Otto Preminger's mise-en-scene (96). This is apropos, for Keathley's book considers mise-en-scene, following Rivette and the other Cahiers directors, to be not only what is put in front of the camera (the Film Art definition) but also a director's "way of looking." Despite the distinct difference between the approaches, the actor is still quite close to Bordwell/Thompson's sense of figure in this conception, in that the director and the unfolding film still hold agency over our sense of what a figure is. Keathley writes, for example, that "mise-en-scene was both a way of looking and a way of disposing people and objects" (102). (The verb choice disposing and passive placement of "people" as object rather than acting subject of this sentence is telling.) 

The word "figure," in a larger philosophical sense, also brings up ideas of fulfillment and meaning that are not necessarily present in the word "actor." Mules's essay perceptively shows how the ontological vision of The Tree of Life seems to gesture toward a future, in which "another way of being" (not yet possible within the diegetic world of the 1950s that Malick's film is mostly set in) is always yet ahead. Thus, while I wanted to attribute this desire for "another way of being" to a character, as conveyed by one actor, Mules finds that this gesture toward a possible future belongs to the film. In this context, Chastain's/Mrs. O'Brien's glances are qualified as a "feminine vision" that for Mules is a not yet -- not yet able to be articulated in the narrative-driven mise-en-scene of the film, it finds itself in an "otherness" that ultimately will only be fulfilled as part of the film's unfolding figuration. Such a notion reminds me of William Routt's brilliant two-part essay-review "For Criticism" (which Mules cites) for Screening the Past (from March 2000) on Nicole Brenez's figural work. Routt, dialoguing with Brenez, places the word "figure" in a larger historical context, one in which the figure - in texts ranging from the Bible to Dante's Inferno to a 1930s Hollywood movie starring Wallace Beery - always seems to gesture toward a perpetually still-to-come interpretive fulfillment that goes beyond well beyond the figure's singular presence. This is an idea that is dazzlingly extended in Adrian Martin's recent Last Day Every Day (available for free online) which understands the word figure (via Brenez) as "a notion of drawing or tracing, as in figural or plastic art, a creative shaping rather than a simple mechanical reproduction; an idea of the body, but not only of the human body, because there are unhuman figures, object-figures, abstract figures, many kinds of figures; and there is a figuring out, a continual essaying or experimentation" (6-7).

That is not the sort of discourse that is going to work in Film Art or any other introductory textbook. But also, I contend, not the sort of discourse you would want to use to think about actors: although Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone appear on the cover of Martin's brilliant book, scholars of their careers will probably not find this sort of figural analysis immediately useful. Indeed, I am not sure it always works for me. When I'm thinking about Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone, when I'm living in the moment of experiencing the acted reality they create in a film, I don't want to - I can't - think about things such as how (to take a not entirely random Martin quote from Last Day) "Archaeology draws the subject backward - to origins, to drives, to primal myths - while teleology draws that subject forward" (2). I want to think about Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone.

Admittedly, it's impossible to think of Stack and Malone now without some archaeological sense; they are now figures of the past. Nevertheless, the word "actor" seems to perform different work than "figure," and work that cannot be entirely subsumed under the latter. "Actor" keeps its eye on the various collaborative subjectivities whose creative energies generated the pro-filmic events (the acting in front of the camera) which enable figures to be, and which enable the film's larger comprehensive vision (even if that vision troubles the very notion of subjectivity itself, as The Tree of Life does). While a broader figural analysis can show us the comprehensive vision that transcends a single subjectivity, an analysis of film acting has to pin down character -- at least temporarily -- in order to study the actor's purposeful movement in a scene. When we are engaged with films that urge us to imagine something more comprehensive than individual subjectivity -- or even with films that urge us to imagine something other than individual subjectivity -- how do we remain appreciative of the creative subjectivities (i.e., actors) without whom such cinematic philosophizing (or figural analysis) could not exist? As deeply appreciative as I am of the deep philosophical vision The Tree of Life offers to us, I find that I cannot easily extricate the specific achievements of Malick's actors from the poetic visions his films achieve. I agree with Mules -- the actor is part of something greater than her single performance, and what ensues when the actor's work is done is a figure that lives on. I would argue, however, that the film, and the figure, is also greater by virtue of this actor's performance. For me, this actor is a chief agent in the film's creation, without whom the film would not be able to create its comprehensive vision as it is - it would cease to be as it is. Would I respond to the film in the same way if, say, Rooney Mara or Jennifer Lawrence were Mrs. O'Brien? I wouldn't; not because they are not also fine actors, but because an actor is not an interchangeable piece of mise-en-scene, and is not only a figure, or is not a figure first. Indeed, an actor is, I would contend, not mise-en-scene, and is not really a figure, but rather creates and engages with mise-en-scene and introduces the possibility of figuration in that space.

Of course, because Malick's cinema is itself very much about locating subjectivity in something bigger than ourselves, figural analysis seems very productive indeed. Watching a Malick film is in part about discovering and carving out a poetic subjectivity while you watch the film, and being open to your own creative evolution beyond the film, in every moment. Yet since much figural analysis (as well as much cinephilic discourse in general) ends up being quite auteurist/ontological in nature, I wonder if we can't also find a place for a cinephilia of the actor that might do different, but importantly related, work. After all, I find that watching performances involves something very much like what some critics claim is the work of figures: opening your subjectivity to moment-by-moment flow to the flow of the actor's gestures, expressions, and movements (as Andrew Klevan's brilliant writing on acting, for example, has shown). No character precedes these gestures; character, and the comprehensive vision of a character, is the result of this accumulation, not its cause. And this is not simply figuration: Biography, persona, and intention inflect our sense of what these on-screen achievements mean. Likewise, I find that when a viewer really does surrender the moment of viewing to the actor, we are as equally open to the creative evolution of our own subjectivity as we are when we look at an auteur's more comprehensive work of art. Murray Pomerance writes insightfully of in regards to Janet Leigh's work in a film by classical cinema's supreme auteur, Alfred Hitchcock: "Leigh's work is one of the elements of Psycho that raises it beyond the macabre thriller and makes us feel touched. How is the special mode of relationship established that permits intimacy without commitment, revelation without implication? What surrender of the viewer's self is implicit in every acceptance of acted reality?" (128). Pomerance has to figure out why and how Leigh affects him before he can jump to larger issues (if they are really "larger" after all). Malick's actors might participate in the The Tree of Life becoming a larger-scale cinematic rumination on philosophy, theology, or the cosmos. But an actor is also what makes it more than this. An actor is part of what makes it human; she makes the philosophy matter, not the other way around.

This is why I find it difficult to extricate an actor's ever-evolving, never-static creative subjectivity, and its evolution, from this discussion, no matter how much subjectivity as a concept is itself troubled by the work The Tree of Life (and figural analysis) perform. Of course, as I've already suggested, and as the implicit dialogue between Mules's essay and my own shows, terms like "actor," "figure," and even "character" do different work, and provoke different kinds of thinking about the various meanings that attach to these terms.

For further reading on the tensions between the terms actor and figure, I encourage a reading of Adrian Martin's 2008 review of Andrew Klevan's book on film performance, and Klevan's subsequent response.


Monday, May 6, 2013

Michael Mann: Crime Auteur

My new book, Michael Mann: Crime Auteur, was released last month by Scarecrow Press. This volume is the updated version of The Cinema of Michael Mann, which came out in 2007. Unlike the earlier book, this revised, re-titled edition contains full chapters on Miami Vice and Crime Story, the television shows Mann produced in the 1980s. Additionally, it also features new chapters on Public Enemies, and his most recent foray into television, the short-lived HBO drama Luck. In addition to the new material and polishing of the prose in all chapters, I've also included frame captures (in black-and-white) to accompany my analysis of the films, as well as a new preface that addresses some of the excellent new work on Mann that has appeared in the intervening years. Although this preface frames Mann as a 'crime auteur,' I am also interested, throughout, in how his special 'touch' as an auteur takes us beyond genre categories, and in how themes and figures of crime and criminal activity circulate throughout his ostensibly 'non-crime' films.

Overall, I couldn't be happier with the editing and design job Scarecrow performed on this one. They helped me make this a better book altogether, inside and out. If you're a Mann scholar I hope it helps you think through his films in your own way. (It's available only in hardback for now; however, a less expensive paperback version should be out within a year.)

Friday, April 5, 2013

Rhythm in movies

Rhythm creates many of the most memorable moments in cinema. A temporal pattern of gestures, movements, vocal inflections, and images can quicken the pulse of the scene and thicken your affective response. A good film can take your breath away through rhythmic intelligence.

Three examples: 

1) No one on planet Earth films an SUV pulling into a Miami nightclub better than Michael Mann. And no one finds the rhythmic essence in that event better than Mann does. Miami Vice begins with a undercover sting in a nightclub. The first few images establish beats through cutting and in the accompanying music. We are dropped into the swelter of a Miami nightclub and forced, as viewers, to gather our bearings. Sonny Crockett, a recognizable character, gives us something to hold on to, flirting with a bartender. The rhythm, thus far, is fairly straightforward.

But then something extraordinary happens. A white SUV pulls up in front of the nightclub. I have never been able to get over how exciting I find this very simple event to be within the rhythmic context of the opening sequence. It has very little to do with the narrative which will unfold: the SUV itself is ultimately a MacGuffin, for the story swerves a few minutes later when Crockett takes a phone call from an informant on the run. But when that SUV appears, it generates a discrete change in the tempo and melodic quality of the music on the soundtrack. In tandem with the music, as it pulls up front, it quietly overwhelms us. Within the film's world, it is an event that happens every night and every minute this club is open for business. But for Mann it is a vehicular gesture of exquisite beauty that changes the way we move through the space. Mann is fascinated with the way things move, especially the way this particular white vehicle moves (in tandem, as in a dance, with another identical vehicle that pulls up, after a beat, right behind it):

(NBC-Universal has blocked my Miami Vice video. Drat! Here is the rhythm in pictures):

Moments of rhythmic excitement like these accumulate as Miami Vice unfolds. These rhythms immerse us in the feeling of movement and life in Mann's world.

2) Many classical Hollywood films, particularly screwball comedies, involve courtship and woo. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers boiled this down to a kind of essence, but there is no formula to understanding what they achieved together. Every dance was different, with fresh kinds of loving rhythms. 

In The Gay Divorcee Rogers wants a divorce and to get one she has to set up a situation in which her husband will discover her cheating. Astaire uses this as an excuse to woo her, and eventually take the place of the hired lothario who will be playing the role of her illicit lover. As usual, Rogers resists Astaire's initial advances. In their first dance sequence, he tries to get her involved. She resists. She tries to leave the framing of the image, escaping into the off-screen space. He pulls her back.

At a certain point in this scene, though, Rogers decides she wants to dance with Astaire. It is hard to locate the exact moment this happens, because the the dance begins slowly. She looks down at their feet moving, suddenly, in unison. They then begin one of the most quietly extraordinary dances in movies. The entire tempo of the film, as established up to this point (even-tempo classic cutting) now surrenders its authority over rhythm to the intra-frame movement of these two glorious individuals:

Usually screwball characters will throw caution to the wind in a "madcap" series of events that ensure a fast-paced tempo. They are brilliant people and their rhythm is a manifestation of that quicksilver intelligence. In this scene, though, things actually slow down. Rogers' character is still not quite yet convinced Astaire is the man for her. The dance must convince her, and this takes time. The dance is a careful consideration of his movements, and an effort to see if his will match hers. This is one of the great thoughtful dances in movies.

3) My third example involves voice. Voices have fascinating rhythms: the changing speeds at which words are delivered; the ping-pong tempo of conversations; the change in pitch over time. My example involves the various rhythms of a laugh.

In Alice Adams, Katharine Hepburn is walking down the street with Fred MacMurray. She is nervous; her family is poor and she feels she isn't worthy of her suitor, even though (or perhaps because) she is in love with him. Every time MacMurray is on her character's mind, Hepburn expresses Alice's nervous energy in various ways. Later in the movie, she will nervously fiddle with a pillow; and in another scene, she will expend this energy by arranging flowers in a vase. (The vase scene itself is a master class in how voice and gesture can work together).

The lilt in Hepburn's voice is underappreciated, generally. Critics usually make remarks about her "Bryn Mawr drawl" but say very little about how she could manipulate it in various ways. But like other greats of the immediate post-silent period (Myrna Loy, for example), Hepburn always does extraordinary things with her vocal delivery in her films. The rhythms she could create are on fine display in the street scene with MacMurray, and remind us that rhythm in cinema does not always have to involve cutting or music. Alice expresses her nervousness in this scene through a pattern of nervous laughs that work in tandem with body gestures that attempt to convey a certain confidence, even as they betray the enormous crush she has on MacMurray:

The tempo of her speech is punctuated at various points by this laughter; and the melodic detail of each laugh involves us emotionally with her character. At certain moments the laugh is a high-pitched exclamation mark, nervously bracketing what she has just said. At other points, she rushes through her sentences breathlessly, as if quickly speaking her words to her beau might more quickly lead her to her goal (his love); the laughs which punctuate these quickly delivered lines are often more like extended breaths, as if her nervousness were being channeled into the effort to work up the courage for the next sentence. And sometimes she is so breathless that the laugh we are expecting at the end of certain sentences is not always there; she's literally out of breath to produce it. (Of course, she does muster up one more great, hilarious laugh at the end of the sequence.) The character Alice may be ineptly pattering her way through the uncertain tempo of a potentially embarrassing social interaction; but the actor's carefully detailed voice is assuredly in control of the rhythmic content of the scene.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Best Films/Actors of 2012

The Best Films of 2012 (yes, a month later, someone is still doing this list thing).

1. In the Family (Patrick Wang, U.S.)
2. The Deep Blue Sea (Terence Davies, U.S./U.K.)
3. This is Not a Film (Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, Iran) 
4. Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, U.S.)
5. Rust and Bone (Jacques Audiard, France/Belgium)
6. Amour (Michael Haneke, Austria) 
7. Attenberg (Giorgos Lanthimos, Greece)
8. This Must Be the Place (Paolo Sorrentino, Italy/France/Ireland)
9. In Another Country (Sang-soo Hong, South Korea)
10. Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, U.S.) 


Rachel Weisz 

The films of Terence Davies fondly reconstruct past eras, at a gentle distance. The gender politics of his films are undeniably progressive, in that, like Sirk, they give space for the expression of desires otherwise occluded in the world of the films; yet, in ways that might be troubling for some viewers, they also express a palpable nostalgia for eras during which such expression, particularly for women, was a difficult achievement. So even as Davies clearly finds something about the bygone London of The Deep Blue Sea intolerable, the fact is also that the post-World War II world he envisions for us is every bit as beautifully elegant as the camera pan and tilt that leads us up to Hester's window at the beginning of the film. Shutting the curtains to the outside world, Davies follows her every move: the sleeping pills, the blanket, the suicide note. If Hester is no longer for this world, Davies will savor every moment of gesture prior to her departure.

The Deep Blue Sea is probably best understood not as a love letter to a less enlightened time but rather as a documentation of one woman's complex response to the options available to her during that time. What Davies cherishes is ultimately not a time period but a certain quality of response, the sheer classiness with which Rachel Weisz conveys how Hester works through what she wants in life. Think of her quiet indignation, at an insufferably repressed breakfast table with an insufferably repressive mother-in-law; her aching dissatisfaction with but genuine human love for a perfectly respectable but passionless husband (played admirably by Simon Russell Beale), who cannot possibly understand what Hester might be feeling; her look of sheer, child-like love as she gazes upon a brave war veteran (Tom Hiddleston) whose masculinity is every bit a part of its time and place just as Hester's desire for him is timeless. The best performance I saw last year won't be honored at these noisy award shows, but that is okay: there's something right about an actor in a Davies film flying, relatively speaking, under the radar, waiting for dignified moments to make her character felt.

Jafar Panahi

There is a stunning moment in This is Not a Film. I believe it is a moment every teacher of film acting (either of its realization or its expressive appreciation) should keep in their back pocket. In it, Jafar Panahi, house-bound by the Iranian authorities and legally barred from making another film, stands in front of a large flat screen playing a DVD of his masterpiece Crimson Gold. (He is playing the American DVD of the film, intriguingly: cinema as global boomerang.) After watching a scene from the movie, starring the amateur actor Hossain Emadeddin, he reminds the viewer of This is Not a Film that the details of gesture, expression, vibration, and movement generated by this amateur actor in front of a film camera are not predictable at all, are not mere illustrations of a character already articulated on the screenplay page. In fact, the presence of an amateur actor on location essentially re-writes the contents of the screenplay in front of the camera. "He does the directing on you," Panahi says of Hossain. "How could I explain before making the film, that Hossain should lean against the wall, do the thing that he did with his eyes, and that I had never seen before?" Of course, in telling us this, Panahi - a master reduced to his own role as house-bound amateur - is reminding us of the strange amateurism that cinema generates in all actors: no matter how closely the script is studied, no matter how perfectly the role cast, the camera will capture those fleeting details of human existence that cannot be shaped in advance.

Marion Cotillard

And so we go to Rust and Bone to see Marion Cotillard without legs. That is a strange sentence, for many reasons. It declares that our intentions behind watching Rust and Bone will be quite different than our viewings of other Marion Cotillard films (in which, presumably, the intact quality of all of her appendages was one of the attractions on offer); it reminds us that watching Cotillard here is part of our ongoing discovery of what it means to watch an actor during the transition of cinema in the digital era, for what we see of her here is actually quite different from what actually existed in front of the camera at the time of filming (Cotillard wore green, knee-high socks so that her the lower part of her legs could be digitally removed after the tragic accident suffered by her character in the film); and it reminds us that our intentions in watching this film are perhaps somewhat different than our appreciation of Jacques Audiard's masterful 2009 crime drama A Prophet, which did not feature any international stars of quite the same caliber as Cotillard. However, none of the strangeness of that first sentence, nor the presence of this marvelous leading lady, would be interesting if Audiard wasn't so good at the basic things: fractured family melodrama; the evocative, rhythmic and emotional use of pop music (Lykke Li, Bon Iver); and a compelling narrative that also includes the involving story of a father struggling to come to terms with the fact of his son. But, still, I cannot shake the feeling that Cotillard, with or without legs (and she has them, actually, for the first act of the film), is at the heart of Audiard's efforts, and that this would have been a far worse film without her. It's a great melodramatic bit of acting.

Chris Pratt 

Some viewers will know Chris Pratt as Andy on Parks and Recreation, Amy Poehler's great sitcom about small-town government. Andy is possibly the stupidest character in American comedy since the silent era's comedic heavies. But Pratt gives an everyday likability to Andy that is necessary in episodic television. In Zero Dark Thirty, Pratt shows up near the end, playing one of the bros who will execute Bin Laden. Unlike Andy, of course, there is no sign that Pratt's Navy Seal is stupid, in any sense that might be seen to matter to his job. If anything, Kathryn Bigelow admires his tactical skill in the same way Howard Hawks would have in the 1930s. However, he is instantly understandable in a way Jessica Chastain's Maya is not. Maya lives, works, is herself through screens and data; her enemy in Zero Dark Thirty is a figure in a file, a glimpse on a surveillance screen, that drives both her and the relentless work of the film itself. And this work is not to kill Bin Laden, exactly. It is work meant to allow her the chance to first calculate and then turn over a statistical probability to a military equipped with the means to transform her math into an event of flesh and blood. In turn, just as Maya is already something of an abstraction to her male higher-ups, Pratt and his fellow military men are the necessary instrument through which her workplace ambition might be fulfilled. But Pratt, in a shorthand way typical of television, reminds us of the humanity lingering behind all this data. His fleeting presence, anyway, is most welcome at the two-hour mark of this exhausting dirge of a film.

Stanley Cavell once said (of Irene Dunne, in his case) that to follow your favorite actor closely, moment-by-moment, gesture-by-gesture, in a film, is to lose your identity to her. But the pleasures of watching a supporting player like Pratt is that he lets you keep yours. This can sometimes be a relief. Maya is a character you can lose your identity to, sure; but watch her lose hers in the process.