Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Psychotic Breaks

This post is a contribution to the Hit Me With Your Best Shot series at The Film Experience. This post, inevitably, spoils the whole film.

Psycho is so commonly, and easily, reduced to the "shower scene", with perhaps a mention that she wouldn't hurt a fly. It's hard to forget, for anyone, that it's actually one of the almighty Alfred Hitchcock's most masterful pieces, so finely constructed that I still won't accept the final rambling 'explanation' as a mistake so much as something I still don't understand the function of. Legend dulls the shock of the shower scene, but it still has a tensing effect, a supremely nervy quality, that will surely last forever. But the film as a whole, too, is decidedly not one of sustained menace, but continues to play with genre after its sudden switch from following a woman on the run to a horror film. Sam (John Gavin) and Lila (Vera Miles) hanging around waiting for Arboghast (Martin Balsam) appears remarkably film noir.

What I loved this time around about Psycho - this must be at least my fifth viewing, and one of my earliest cinema memories is naughtily stumbling upon the spectre of the looming Bates' house on late-night TV - were the little flourishes of unexpected emotions that are slipped into otherwise tense, straightforward scenes.

Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) is generally skittish and tense during her impromptu flight with $40,000, and in this scene, as she drives along the highway in the darkness, imagined voice-overs of the people she's running from - police, her employer, her sister - play on the soundtrack. Hitchcock hands the reigns to Leigh, the camera still on her face. Her lips purse, her brow furrows - and then, unexpectedly, her lips curl up into a perverse, proud little smile. Leigh finally gives a possible hint for why Marion's seemingly uncharacteristic move to steal the money might have happened - maybe she just is a little bad.

Another weird little smile, a similar concoction of perversity and pride. Arboghast has been digging into Norman (Anthony Perkins), taking his story apart, and, though it nearly undoes him right there and then, something in Norman - or in his 'mother' - can't resist a wicked little joke.
"Let's put it this way - she might have fooled me... but she didn't fool my mother."
Well I laughed, Norman. I laughed.

Let's go a little gay for a moment. Another little flash of unusual emotion that's more amusing than anything else:
Sometimes, when she talks to me like that, I feel I'd like to go up there... and curse her, and... and leave her forever!
The queer coding in Norman is, of course, blindingly obvious, but this little moment seems more pronounced in how it isn't feminine but queer. Notably, it's Norman separating himself from his 'mother', whether that means her when she was actually alive or merely the part of his brain that operates as 'mother' - this is a Norman identifying as a separate person, not a transvestite but a gay male. Maybe a lot to read into one small moment, but the nuances in Perkins' performance are so complex it more than allows it.

My favourite shot, though, is emotionally extreme for a slightly different reason.

Arboghast examines the guest book and Norman leans over from the end of the counter to look closer, the desperation and panic that's setting in reflected in the extreme angles the camera ends up seeing him from. The camera tracks the movement of Perkins' head but doesn't tilt from its horizontal axis - an ingenious interplay between actor and director to emphasize the escalating emotion of the scene. And the shadows created by the lighting look so gorgeous in black-and-white - the last film Hitchcock made in black-and-white, and probably his final masterpiece.

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Woody Allen Conjecture

You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger limped into British theatres just over a week ago, seven months after a not-particularly-illustrious release in the US, and no one really cared. Commercially, Woody Allen has recovered somewhat in recent years - both Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Match Point cleared $23 million in the US, and I bet you'd be surprised to learn that Scoop scooped $10 million - but critically he seems to be stuck in stagnation, beyond those two $23 million-ers, which undoubtably benefited from the "Woody Allen's made a good movie again!" cries (however true you may find them). Still, he attracts fine rosters of acting talent, but he's been managing that for so long while still releasing excreable products that he manages to make the union of five A-listers an exercise for trepidation rather than joyful hand-clapping. And yet, his next film, Midnight in Paris, is the opening night at Cannes - so a sense of excitement remains somewhere.

And I, too, can't really let go of all hope that it won't finally be a return to form for the workaholic filmmaker - even if, by my measure, the last time he made a film really worth anyone's time and thoughts was 1994's Bullets Over Broadway. Is the percipacity and wit that he used to display so gloriously really gone from the man? Not content to rest my current feelings toward the man on one film alone, I finally screened Whatever Works (which took over a year after its UK release to appear on UK screens) and found a little more to laugh at, but an equal amount to not be impressed by. These films are lazy. These films are thin. These films are full of caricatures - not necessarily a problem, but they do not exist beyond the kind of motifs that have been wrung out years ago. Allen sets up relationships between characters and then reduces key scenes to voiceover sentences, as if he just can't be bothered to script and shoot a scene of such emotional import. He wants these things over just as much as you do.

Larry David doesn't understand why his character marries Evan's. Neither do we.
Whatever Works preaches as its title suggests - no prejudices, just live your life according to whatever works for you. But if you expect me to believe that you're completely accepting of homosexuals, you might want to throw in more than one scene where a man suddenly, quite easily, bursts forth from years of repression. Or perhaps show a little physical affection between the young woman and crusty older man if you want me to believe she's so in love with him. Somewhere along the line, Woody has lost his belief in relationships. He's lost his understanding of how people interact, how they love and fall out of love and merely co-exist. Even New York doesn't seem like New York...

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger opens with a line from Shakespeare, excusing itself as "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing". By now, that reads as an astonishingly honest cue to get the fuck out of the theatre. I stayed, though, and what played out was one of Allen's very worst films. One of his worst tendencies lately is the use of a novelistic narrator, a disconnected, monotone figure who fills in the gaps in the narrative - and, more criminally, fills in the gaps in the characters. Motivation, feeling, decision - the narrator tells us them all. One of the film's few moments of emotional clarity is gifted to bit-part player Anna Friel - while scene partner Naomi Watts, the film's most central character, watches with probable envy, remembering that all she gets to do is shout and fail at a convincing British accent.

Gemma Jones and Naomi Watts look for direction...
The problem, it strikes me, is this: Woody doesn't want to invest in his characters as more than caricatures or pawns for his vague thematic threads. You can still sense his personality behind Larry David's character in Whatever Works, but it's a bitter, ruder character than Woody himself (which is likely why he doesn't appear in his own films of late), or at least the Woody we knew. Even if you'd never been to New York, Allen's films used to be pregnant with a vibrant sense of the city, and, even watching his classics now, they're alive with the period and the culture and the people of the time. Whatever Works was first written over thirty years before it was made into a film, and the May-December romance at its centre is reminiscent of that in Manhattan, but the attitude shift between the two really demonstrates how badly Allen has changed. The tenderness and difficulty between Allen and the poignant Mariel Hemingway in Manhattan is worlds away from Larry David's apathy and physical disinterest towards Evan Rachel Wood. You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger is edited so scattishly that believability in supposed familial and spousal relationships is destroyed - it feels more like a collage than a coherent narrative.

Allen's incredible work rate - since Bananas, in 1971, there have been a grand total of 3 years where he hasn't made a film, two of which were in the 1970s - only seemed to be flagged up as a problem since the returns have become so diminishing. The break from New York isn't simultaneous with the decline, since his current nadir, Anything Else, likely (or should have) caused the geographical shift. But will he ever lose that cinematic cache, that "legend" status, that keeps attracting the stars to subpar material and Cannes to invite him to lead their red carpet? Or, more importantly, will he ever recover his talent for funny, perceptive human insights, or even the romantic visual sense that was once so palatable? We can only wait and see.

Whatever Works: C-; You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger: D

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Desolate Desire

This post is a contribution to the Hit Me With Your Best Shot series at The Film Experience.

It feels a bit treacherous to Tennessee Williams in his centennial week, or even to the great Elia Kazan (this is surely his finest hour), but I browse the catalogue of screenshots I gathered while watching A Streetcar Named Desire and they're all about the actors - their expressions, their interactions, or merely their physicality. And I don't mean Marlon Brando with half his shirt ripped off, although I don't think anyone would disagree with that.

But what really makes Streetcar spark is the conflict between Blanche and Stanley that's embedded in the acting styles of Brando and Vivien Leigh, and how that complicates, deepens and enriches the relationship Williams created between the two. Stanley is the brute, the primitive man - but Brando's method acting is the new, modern way of performing. Leigh's heightened, classical style make sense of Blanche's wild, unbalanced existence. Streetcar is, finally, a film about two characters who cannot co-exist, and how two disparate acting styles shouldn't either - yet what the combination produces is inflammatory and magnetic while it lasts.

How to choose, though? How to choose between the animalistic intimidation of Stanley, the sensual intoxication of Stella (Kim Hunter), the sudden harsh fierceness of Leigh's face, the gothic spectacle of a limp Blanche, female heads bowed in some sort of fearful prayer, or this perfect encapsulation of the three central characters? My ultimate choice is one disconnected from the film itself - as I write this, somewhat stream of consciousness, I couldn't tell you what happens before or after this shot; I choose it purely for how it looks.

There's something so simple and bare here that kept pulling me back to this shot, over some of the more detailed compositions I mentioned above. Generally, Kazan's framing inside the apartment is quite tight - if a gap in the frame opens up, it's either filled by someone else, or the camera zooms to keep the image packed and claustrophobic. So the space here - the open window, the grey sheet - is unusual. Indeed, as Stanley's words echo eerily through Blanche's head - "Said you were married once, weren't ya?" - the camera zooms quite quickly onto Leigh's face.

But it does linger at this distance first, with a cowed Blanche feeling her first intimidation by the cool, unimpressed Stanley. The shadows (a constant contributor to fascinating shots throughout) creep slightly over her face, and the gossamer fabric makes her both vulnerable, by its slightness, and enveloped by its layers and its darkness. In this frame, Blanche is not trapped or intimidated by the world, the apartment or even Stanley - she's overwhelmed by her very self, closing her finery in on herself so she's suffocated by the very thing she holds highest. The space around her is empty, available, but she doesn't understand how to exist within it. It's the first vibrant indication we get of Blanche's troubled inner self, and it's a desolate one.

Elizabeth Taylor, 1932 - 2011

As the ball clunks into the pocket, Stevens finally cuts to Taylor, her mouth slightly open, her eyes strangely transfixed, and she lets out a single, breathless word: "Wow."
- from a longer piece on a superb Liz moment in A Place in the Sun 

Sunday, March 20, 2011

I Sense Tennessee

It's the centennial of Tennessee Williams in just under a week (March 26th) and I'll try and at the very least join in with Nathaniel's 'Hit Me With Your Best Shot' series this Wednesday - with a timely honouring of A Streetcar Named Desire this week - if nothing else. But, for today, I couldn't resist sharing a fascinating little titbit stolen from my university course and the one comment I found strewn in a dark corner of the web.

Farley Granger and Alida Valli in Senso...
Please, feel free to make funny in the comments.
Senso was screened in Italian, which shouldn't be particularly odd given that it's an Italian film made in Italy by Italian director Luchino Visconti (moving decidedly away from neo-realism) with Italian star Alida Valli in the leading role. But as my eyes split between reading the subtitles and scanning the screen, it became apparent that this had been filmed in English. (Well, did you really expect Farley Granger to learn Italian?) It obviously wasn't Farley Granger letting loose that frankly demented laughter, but Alida Valli's brief foray into Hollywood is familiar enough that I could tell she'd dubbed herself back into Italian. All very oddball, and rather distracting. Even weirder, when Senso finally surfaced in America fourteen years after it was made and released in Italy, it was dubbed into English.

But anyway. The point is, Tennessee Williams gets a screenwriting credit here, along with Paul Bowles, because he was hired by Visconti to work on the English-language version - indeed, likely the words that I could see but not hear being said. The helpful David Ehrenstein explains how this came about:

Because they just happened to be in Rome at the time. Libby Holman had run off with Bowles's Arab boyfriend and he got word that they were in Rome. So Tennessee joined him on his quest to get the boyfriend back. While trying to figure out what to do about Libby, Visconti hired them for Senso.

All that, plus the drama of art director Franco Zefferelli jealous because he though his ex-boyfriend Visconti was eyeing up Farley Granger. Cinema used to be the most fascinatingly gay place, didn't it? I sigh.