Friday, February 24, 2012

Motifs in Cinema, '11: Is Old The New Young?

Once more into the breach... Andrew Kendall recently asked me to participate in his quasi-blog-a-thon, and I'm all about the community. So here's my piece on ageing in the cinema of 2011, preceded by Andrew's elegant introduction to the one-day series. Be sure to check out the other great pieces in the series from the hub at Andrew's blog.
Perhaps because it’s one of the youngest artistic forms, cinema is often assessed in a much different manner than literature, or the visual arts. We discuss it in terms of genre, not in terms of thematic offerings. Comparing, for example, Corpse Bride and Up because they’re both animated leads to some dubious discussion, especially when – like any art form – thematic elements examined in cinema and the way different filmmakers address them make for some stimulating discussion. Motifs in Cinema is a discourse, across eleven film blogs, assessing the way in which various thematic elements have been used in the 2011 cinematic landscape. How does a common theme vary in use from a comedy to a drama? Are filmmakers working from a similar canvas when they assess the issue of the artist or the family dynamic? Like everything else, a film begins with an idea - Motifs in Cinema assesses how the use of a single idea changes when utilised by varying artists.

When director John Wells insisted that Meryl Streep was "the only conceivable choice" for his upcoming adaptation of acclaimed play August: Osage County, he was rubbing at a scar that had only just stopped bleeding. Just a few years after her status as the only real female star of her generation was solidified by her scoring bona fide populist hits in Mamma Mia! and It's Complicated, Streep returned as a headlining star in 2011, albeit in a film destined to remain in Oscar circles for its US audience. But there's the not unfeasible idea that The Iron Lady exists thanks to Streep's mighty status rather than from any strong desire to tell Margaret Thatcher's story. And while it may tell the story of an elderly woman, she's a distinctly uncommon one, dementia deteriorating her within a lonely, restricted locale.

Still, you have to admire, even with all its faults, a script that devotes a huge chunk of its time to an elderly woman's struggles with the encroaching effects of ageing. The flawless work of the make-up team leaves Streep free to explore the fracturing mind of Thatcher, as seen from within. Abi Morgan's script imagines Thatcher accompanied by the ghost of her beloved husband Dennis (Jim Broadbent), carefully maintaining a spectatorial balance between sympathetic involvement and the resigned concern seen in her daughter Carol (Olivia Colman). Though Broadbent makes Dennis a genial, soft sort of ghost, his task is to be the little devil on Maggie's shoulders, pushing her to maintain the delusions and imaginings that become dementia's overpowering weapon.

Having to split its thematic concern between Thatcher's political life and her ageing, The Iron Lady finds little room for reflecting the positives of Thatcher's past that dementia returns her to. Instead, it takes a similar tack to Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar in its scattershot structure, spinning back into the past at the stroke of a bronzed statue. Dementia is reduced to a plot structuring device, and depth on the subject is as avoided as any definite political stance. Biopics like these seem to necessitate the use of old age as a duller counterpoint to an exciting youth. This tendency compounds the film industry's obsession with youth and beauty over the multitude of disparate experiences in the human world. Like Thatcher and Hoover, George Méliès and his wife Jeanne (Ben Kingsley and Helen McCrory) in Hugo have entered the dark despair of later life, and are led to look back on their former glories in order to find happiness.

Lee Chang-dong's elegiac South Korean drama Poetry seems to suggest the opposite, with its more classic view of the wiser, more fulfilled elderly generation. It even does this in the face of central character Yang Mija (a remarkable Yoon Jeong-hee) facing the onset of Alzheimer's Disease. Like The Iron Lady, Poetry contains a multitude of thematic threads refracted through an elderly female character, but Yang Mija does not lose herself inside her own head and memories of former glories. Instead, her efforts to focus her deteriorating mind by joining a poetry class open her up to revelations about the beauty in the world around her, even in the face of her grandson's horrific crime. Like Potiche, Francois Ozon's colourful French comedy, Poetry demonstrates a view of ageing as a positive progression. Yang Mija and Suzanne (Catherine Deneuve) are still allowed to discover new experiences and be active participants in their society.

Nanni Moretti's We Have A Pope portrays a man who longs for that same thing. Faced by the overwhelming responsibility of being appointed Pope, Cardinal Melville (Michel Piccoli) has somewhat of a mid-life crisis, a mixture of fatigue and youthful hope present in his escape into the anonymity of the city outside the Papal Palace. He slips away from the absurdist comedy that percolates inside the conclave and into his own tender, affecting plot of a man who simply desires to be true to himself. That's also the choice of the monk community in Of Gods and Men, whose religious dedication is, like Melville's, severely tested, but the truth of these men is instead to stay strong in their faith, even in the face of violence and possible death. Neither We Have A Pope or Of Gods and Men, though essentially presenting opposing views of religious life, judges their protagonists for their decisions one way or the other, warmly presenting their wizened men as capable, reasonable decision makers.

Beginners, 2011's most celebrated and evocative portrayal of old age seems, helpfully enough, to tie all these themes together. The revelation of his terminal cancer is what makes Hal (Christopher Plummer) feel liberated enough to reveal his homosexuality to his loved ones, finally realising the truth in his life because the release of death is assured. But disease doesn't turn Hal inwards to regret and self-reflection; rather, Hal uses his late-blooming freedom to love Andy (Goran Visnjic) and inspire son Oliver (Ewan McGregor) to find his own fresh beginnings with Anna (Melanie Laurent) once Hal has passed away. Beginners depicts the liberty of old age, once people are past the age of financial responsibility, equating in its title the freshness of Hal's and Oliver's romantic experiences as just as engaging and valuable as the other, wrapping sexuality and age together. Beginners stands tall as 2011's finest depiction of the elderly generation, and crucially, levels separate generations as equally worthy of exploration and fulfilment.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Why Home Alone Disappoints: Scream, Kevin, Scream!

No, I'd never seen Home Alone. (I didn't see The Wizard of Oz until I was sixteen either, so go yell at my parents.) As it started, and John Williams' familiarly magical score piped up, I immediately thought of Harry Potter - although dwelling on those two dodgy efforts with which Chris Columbus began the series is not something I'm really interested in. On the face of it, both Harry Potter and Home Alone are about orphaned boys. However, for a film that seems to be expressed in the pop culture space as the wild expression of a free child, Home Alone turns out to hew remarkably close to the whimsical holiday movie traditions of something like Jingle All The Way. What I wanted was the manic, unbridled release of free will; what I got was the affirmation of its suppression.

Kate (Catherine O'Hara) is too softly lit to be a bad mother
Actually, Home Alone does give you both. Kevin (Macaulay Culkin) wishes for his family and their constraints and their bullying to disappear, and they do, with an astute mixture of plausibility and movie magic. Editor Raja Gosnell - who graduated to director by Home Alone 3 - does particularly sharp work intercutting Kevin and his mother's (Catherine O'Hara) realisations that he's been left home alone. There's some similarly deft work from cinematographer Julio Macat - particularly the gliding zoom in on the parents, still blissfully unaware in their aeroplane seats, the realisation slowly but surely creeping towards them. When Kevin realises, everyone involved delivers a sledgehammer blow to the fourth wall - "I made my family disappear!" he exclaims into the camera. Frequent shots of him rushing to the top of stairs see him stop at the camera, stare, and then turn tail and run towards his room in the other direction. It's a technique that can be normalised, to an extent, through the idea of the id unleashed - Kevin is of the age where inhibitions aren't sealed, and having been cut free from his family allows him to do such unsocial things as talk to himself.

Kevin screams into the camera, which seems to block his way
Home Alone follows a narrative trajectory where Kevin's unleashed id is tamed, in the absence of a family to suppress it, by its having to fight against a darker expression of the id - the criminal. Or rather, criminals, in the mostly unthreatening form of Harry (Joe Pesci) and Marv (Daniel Stern), the former of whom is in the film almost as soon as Kevin, masquerading as a policeman standing untended in the foyer of the house. Harry and Marv, easily bested by Kevin, are repeatedly figured as childlike figures, particularly Marv, who's afraid of the dark ("Not not not!" he protests), and insists they be known as the "Wet Bandits" due to his "calling card" of leaving the robbed houses flooded. Harry is the gruffer and darker, the mastermind of the pair. As such, Kevin's victory over Harry - one which he ingeniously avoids taking credit for - is not so much Kevin ensuring his own safety, but the value and integrity of his family and their home. Notice how Kevin magically - with the final comic exception of Buzz's room - tidies the house up for the return of the family he didn't know were returning. And by not telling of his heroic exploits, Kevin reasserts the status quo, without gaining any superiority over his siblings and parents.

Manchild Marv (Daniel Stern) and mastermind Harry (Joe Pesci)
Moreover, the film sees Kevin, in the absence of control, shifting from wild unleashed id to suppressed normality remarkably quickly - a few short scenes of exuberant physical madness and some eating unsuitable food combinations (what is that), and then he's done, doing shopping and laundry and protecting the home fortress. He finds safety and solace in the most communal of places - a church, where he also discovers that another 'Other', his frightening old neighbour Marley (Roberts Blossom), is in fact not a murderer but a melancholy grandfather. Marley - surely a nod to A Christmas Carol - inevitably becomes part of Kevin's victory over the robbers. But crucially, Marley is only a force for good once he's been normalised as part of a family unit which Kevin secures the reunion of. Kevin has passed through the final expression of the id and functions as a householder, working as part of a community (albeit a select one - but then it is Christmas and people are rather busy) to bring down an external threat.

Obviously I'm not suggesting that Home Alone should have been about Kevin teaming up with the robbers to tear the house to the ground as a symbol of the destruction of domestic society and the true freedom of the id. This is a family comedy, a Christmas classic for many, and I did enjoy Macaulay Culkin's sprightly performance and the slapstick of his intricate booby traps. But I'd always imagined the film as featuring a kid really cutting loose, enjoying his freedom, being a proper kid without repression. Home Alone could be read in a more positive way along these lines - Kevin's concealment of his triumph keeps the power of the id hidden, so society and family life can continue as normal, but we have still witnessed the positive power of the freed kid. His victory over the criminals was greater than the mere arrest they'd have suffered under the influence of Kevin's parents - what Kevin did was humiliate them. But Kevin is always tied down - before he begins taking responsibility for the house, his freer expression is intercut with scenes of the family fretting on the other side of the ocean, so that you don't ever forget that he's still part of a functional family. O'Hara does an excellent job of making this worry very palatable, and I'm not against family or anything - but is it so much to ask for Kevin's brief freedom to be precisely that? Probably. No one likes to overthink this stuff, it's Christmas.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Queer Anglo Films, Take #2: Sunday Bloody Sunday

Take #2 in the series sees me and James take on John Schlesinger's Sunday Bloody Sunday, starring double Oscar-winner-cum-politician Glenda Jackson, the recently deceased Peter Finch and hot stuff-without-a-hot-name Murray Field. We're ten years after our last take, Victim, and homosexuality has been decriminalized. What overwhelms our discussion, though, is the film's highly debatable depiction of bisexuality. It's certainly an opinionated debate, so head over to Rants of a Diva and get yourselves engrossed.

Next take: Sebastiane

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Lang's Parting Shot: The Dark Prescience of While The City Sleeps

Fritz Lang was a perpetually political filmmaker. The darkness of his worldview was evident in his most famous masterpieces, Metropolis, a dystopic vision of a future now behind us, and M, where a paedophile is reviled by a court of criminals. His films are frequently alive with the eponymous emotion of one of his finest works, 1936's Fury, where Spencer Tracy's innocent seeks revenge on the townspeople who tried to burn him alive. The bold black-and-white of these films seems to shine more definitely than most, crisply capturing some of the most vibrant interactions and discussions ever filmed. As much as there's a distinctive Lang style, there's a distinctive Lang mood to match it.

Fast-forward to 1956, though, and we find two Lang pictures that are less burning than smouldering. Beyond a Reasonable Doubt and While the City Sleeps - both headlined by noir favourite Dana Andrews - avoid the opinionated rage of Lang's earlier work for a more studied, intellectual disdain towards detailed political and social issues. Beyond A Reasonable Doubt very consciously lays itself out as an experimental game into the arena of social justice - Andrews' Tom Garrett schemes with his future father-in-law Austin Spencer (Sidney Blackmer) to prove the ineptitude of the district attorney and his reliance on circumstantial evidence. Carefully, they plant clues both physical and social - visiting the girls at the nightclub where a murdered dancer had been a performer - to lead to Tom's arrest. It entwines a highly schematic plot with Tom's romantic engagement with Susan (Joan Fontaine), and in doing so reveals itself to be founded on serious class issues.

Austin and Tom's game is of the superior snob proving his superiority over the working class police force, although my initial criticism that their fun little plot might be a little distracting for the genuine investigation comes a bit - alright, a lot unstuck with the film's sensationalist twist. The film is too keen on showing off its own brains - the dialogue is predominantly expositional, pre-empting questions that no one was asking yet. Joan Fontaine, awkwardly crunching her shoulders in flowery dresses, seems thrown in to guarantee our continued investment in Tom and his dangerous game. But her lingering presence also suggests the greater dramatic reverberations, which culminate in an inevitably fiery twist of fate from which the film abandons cool social criticism and heads down the path of consternated drama. The final twist not only gives Dana Andrews the cherished chance to gurn like a maniac, but it finalises a regretful negation of the intriguing social commentary which ran for the first half.

While the City Sleeps, the longer and more detailed of this 1956 pair, uses its patchwork of characters to create a more scholarly version of a Robert Altman film. Both films eschew any character identification by invading any space they damn well please, and While the City Sleeps even flaunts this omniscience with its dramatic opening sequence. The camera flirts with the killer's (John Drew Barrymore) point-of-view, and openly reveals his identity from his first knock on a doomed lady's door. (Intriguingly, after the influence of Psycho's bathroom murder I've been seeing lately in the openings of The Beast of Yucca Flats (warning: ludicrously wonderful) and Blood Feast (warning: gruesomely terrible effects), this opening sequence could almost be a precursor - a bathroom framed with a narrow doorway, and the scrawled message of 'Ask Mother' left behind!) Though the film's poster sells it as another sensationalist killer thriller, the film creates a deliberately placid narrative where the murderous exploits of the 'Lipstick Killer' are of as much interest as the machinations of a media corporation's internal competition for the post of executive director. Lang maximises the possibilities for deep compositions within the budget constraints and square 2:1 ratio, crafting a more fully realised set of complex spaces than the boxed studio feel of Beyond A Reasonable Doubt.

Deep space as Edward Mobley (Dana Andrews) appears at the rear

Although their contest revolves around scoring a revelatory exclusive on the killer, Lang carefully entwines the escalating delirium of the killer with the sociosexual conflicts between the three competitors and their colleagues. The pointed comparisons between the working class killer and the middle-class media executives are obvious, matching their mistreatment and fetishisation of women through key image matching like the button locks on apartment doors (below). Lang even shows a crude blank face in one of the newspapers issued by the corporation (right), inviting the city readership to draw the face of the killer - the implication being that any of the characters on display could fill the spot given the wrong circumstances. Barrymore (Drew's father, whose career never took off) is less the hardened or creeping murderer type than a troubled teenager resembling Marlon Brando's Wild One.

Killer ≠ seducer
So there are class issues here too, all mixed up with gender politics. The actresses craft sparky, crafty female characters (one even rather excessively compared to Lady Macbeth), who quickly abandon their anxiety over being offered up as bait for a killer, and are as susceptible to drunken lust in the back of a taxi as their male companions. Invading the psychopathy of a killer five years pre-Psycho, a central scene where Barrymore rails at his adoptive mother for treating him as much like a girl as a boy strikes as remarkably prescient - though it never really expands on it, the script touches on the basics of confused sexual identity and the murderous compensation in a distorted family environment.

None of its threads are ever fully realised, but While the City Sleeps plays with other ideas that didn't come into vogue until the following decade - the ruthless instincts newly manifest in females, the destructive relationship between media and the law. Though as a sealed off product While the City Sleeps looks minute and basic, it proves itself a key film in the Lang canon, a devastatingly pessimistic critique of American values. As a two-fer, Lang's final Hollywood films act a summary of his experiences in the country, a place he seemed to view as more intrinsically rotten than the homeland he fled during the rise of Nazis.

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Silent Crime: How The Artist Might Reopen Lost Modes of Cinematic Experience

It seems strange to recall that once upon a time, it was normal cinema-going practice to not hear any speech or sound effects from the images unfolding before your eyes, but to instead have the experience soundtracked by a pianist sitting somewhere not out of sight. It was certainly strange for me, on my shamefully delayed virgin experience of live silent cinema, as I took my seat at the BFI Southbank for a showing of the 1922 version of Oliver Twist. The piano was already set up, its blackness not distinguishing it from the necessarily muted décor, and the pianist - the famous Neil Brand - was already seated before it, ready to do the job he's done countless times before. It had never struck me before that the pianists in this situation would have to play without music sheets, because they're basically playing in the dark. It wasn't the most inspired score, but then it wasn't the most inspired adaptation - this particular version of Oliver Twist was conceived as a vehicle for the cherubic star Jackie Coogan, and it betrays the most blinkered tendencies of the money-hungry studios and managers, because Oliver is all wrong for Coogan, who is irresistibly adorable, but his scenes with the rich folks smack all over of goody-two-shoes. There are some interesting shot choices, and Gladys Brockwell shines as Nancy, but it gives itself over to the angelic innocence of Coogan, shaving all the character from the central character.

Brand's compositions were clean and classic, exactly the kind of shifts between chirpy high pitches and menacing low ones you'd imagine soundtracked the film on its release. Every so often, I looked over to Brand, professionally immersed in the job, but it never really drew me out of the film. The human mind is surprisingly adaptable. Once I'd become used to the irregular novelty of a film without audible speech, the strangeness of a man sitting feet away playing the soundtrack fell away with it. You imagine that when the film was released, the audience experience would be starkly different  - when, exactly, did Western experience of cinema shift into one where complete silence before the screen was the expected behaviour? Audiences in India still treat the experience as a fluid, communal one, although of course, their cinema is one of the few national cinemas to have retained a distinct style, and perhaps suggests itself, in the repetitions and cliches and sheer length, as a product that doesn't have to be experienced as a uniform whole. The Western world, though, seemed to change with the advent of sound; as Robert Sklar put it, "talking audiences for silent pictures became a silent audience for talking pictures"¹. What my night at the silent movies was missing was a chat with the person next to me.

I get a lot from the movies. If I didn't, I wouldn't intermittently maintain this blog, and I wouldn't have been studying film for the past seven years. But sometimes, I do reflect on the loneliness that cinephilia can bring on you. Even if you go to the movies with other people, it's an odd choice of social activity, because you're paying to go and sit with friends or family or a date and not interact with them for two hours. And if you do interact with them, chances are someone - probably me - will hiss at you to shut the hell up or get out of the theatre. It's about a divergence between cinema as art and cinema as entertainment. My definitive choice would be art, and so I do like my silence at the movies, the immersive matching of image and surround sound. But the silent film's momentary comeback with The Artist might point us back to a different, more acceptable mode of cinematic community.

Revisit your own experience of watching The Artist. No one said a word, did they? Or if they did, they were shushed in the regular manner of normal cinema-going practice. It is, to an extent, symptomatic of the breakdown of social communities and human communication evolving into technology that cinematic experience in Western culture has developed in such a narrow form. The mooted idea of allowing mobile phones to be used in cinemas is going in completely the wrong direction - that's merely replacing one screen with another, one type of alternate reality beginning to swallow another. If you're looking at your phone, you're not experiencing the movie. But if you were talking about the movie while it played - could that not be a valuable extension of cinematic experience? Cinema's future seems to lie inside our own homes, and the criticism that opponents of that evolution repeat is its lack of the collective experience. Ultimately, though codes of audience silence are ingrained in us, impulses remain of wanting to be a community. I know that one of the most enjoyable experiences I've ever had in a cinema was a packed house for Drag Me To Hell, where a hefty percentage of the pleasure was the laughter, jittery nervousness and loudly whispered fears of the people around me. With the right kind of people, the experience of a film can be significantly enhanced.

There is no right answer. I'm equally enraptured by that screening of Drag Me To Hell as I am with The Purple Rose of Cairo's depiction of Cecelia being able to enter the fantasy world in front of her. Sometimes, we need escapism. And I'm not even suggesting that in the silent era, cinema was the precise flipside of what it is now - Rick Altman's Silent Film Sound details the diverse ways in which different expressions of sound were explored before pre-recorded synchronisation². But it feels as though cinema, long before anyone reading this was even born, has closed off so many different avenues of enriching experience. The domination of the idea of escapism betrays the darkened world of pessimism we seem to live in, one where all cinema is expected to offer is a distraction from our woes. Ironically, silence is the mode of audience's expression that has become ingrained ever since cinema itself broke its muteness. If The Artist's success has given us anything, it is perhaps the possibility to dust off these other roads and see if they're worth treading.

¹ Sklar, Robert. Movie-Made America: A Cultural History of American Movies. Vintage, 1994, p. 117
² Altman, Rick. Silent Film Sound. Columbia University Press, 2004.