Saturday, October 31, 2009

Head of Jake (2006 - 2007)

Young Bachchan


To watch Amitabh Bachchan is to see someone embody both worldly masculinity and goofiness, un-self-conscious empathy and hurt distance, always at the same time. A few comparisons: Cary Grant, Chow Yun-Fat and, to a lesser extent, George Clooney, Harrison Ford and Simon Yam. He has the unusual quality of being both feline (tiger or tomcat, take your pick) and wolf-like. He's Jean Gabin and Jerry Lewis rolled into one, dead serious and giddy. There's nothing like seeing his harsh face smile. He sees the troubles of the world, and then he laughs, and then he's troubled again. Of all the big movie stars working right now (40 years in, he still makes a half-dozen films a year), he presents the greatest emotional range with the greatest ease. He doesn't force feelings; he's human, as human as Chaplin.

It's there even in his first big film, Zanjeer, where he plays, as he often does, a wronged man (no one seems so in their element portraying a character out of their element). But it isn't there right away; you have to wait for it. The first time you see him, when he sits up into the frame, waking up from the nightmare of the credits, it's not quite Bachchan, just a young man that looks a lot like him. There are small glimpses -- his facial expression during the job interview, the glint of ordinary sadism in his eye when he comes to confront the red-bearded villain at the market, the way his police uniform doesn't quite fit -- but not enough. But then he's in the hospital hallway, interrogating Jaya Bhaduri, playing a knife sharpener witness to a crime. It's their first movie together. He's a good foot taller, and there's no attempt made to hide the height difference. He sits down, twirling his baton, saying every sentence as if it ended in an inaudible sigh. He grabs her arm. "You're lying," the subtitles read. He drags her into the morgue. He's yelling. He lifts the sheets, showing her (but not us) the faces of the dead. Angrily, he hurls her out of the frame, and the camera bounds forward. For half a second, he's out of focus, and then the camera is staring him right in the face, and there are those great sad eyes, weary and resigned. And that's Bachchan.


Friday, October 30, 2009

Interior / Exterior, or The Kids Play Russian

For all the cults around Near Dark and Point Break, all of the recent hubbub about The Hurt Locker and the defenses of Strange Days, it's really K-19: The Widowmaker that happens to be Kathryn Bigelow's finest film. This box office failure, already half-forgotten, from the most artificial of conceits -- an American film about the Soviet military-- complete with those half-British, half-"Russian" accents that sounded dubious even in Cold War spy thrillers. The credits are even in that blocky font, like Enemy at the Gates or some other nonsense. And, yes, it was a vanity project for Harrison Ford, but that isn't a strike against it: he's got the right face for playing a Russian, and he works surprisingly well as a shorter man, framed next to lanky Liam Neeson in a way that takes away his usual control of the frame and makes him work hard to get it back.

But these are all extras. They're beside the point. Let's get back to it: why'd I write that K-19 is Kathryn Bigelow's finest film? Because it's the most complete realization of that tendency that makes Bigelow not just distinctive, but important: her interest in relation. Not just relationships, but the very idea of things relating to one another. In her films, that means, on the most basic level, the relationship between the elements of an image, between a sound effect and a piece music, between one shot and the one that follows it. But there's also the relationship between a genre and a person's understanding of it -- she's certainly a genre director, but not in the sense most other people work in genres. She picks one, an exterior, and then makes a film out of its interior -- Point Break's direction, for one, is all about finding the psychology of a certain kind of action movie. And of course there are the relationships between characters and, even more importantly, between these characters and their actions: the dynamic between what a person is doing or saying and their facial expression or the tone of their voice. Interior / exterior.

Like John Carpenter, Bigelow's the kind of director who edits and frames in order to create a perspective for the audience. Carpenter seems to have derived it from an education in Hitchcock; Bigelow is more like Otto Preminger's adopted daughter. The goal of the perspective she creates is to show how different things form a whole -- Preminger's psychological direction taken to a level even more basic than human psychology. K-19: the relationship between people of different ranks, between the living and the dead, the able-bodied and those dying of radiation sickness. Between what's going on underwater and above, back in Moscow. Between simulation and reality, intention and result. Every aspect of the film is used towards this end. She even manages to find a function in this approach for CGI shots of the submarine's exterior; elsewhere they'd be just perfunctory special effects, but here they're always relating to something else. We feel how the crew feels their vessel. When the hull dents, it's framed and edited the same way you'd frame a face with a strained expression and then edit it into a series of other shots of faces. There are relationships men develop with their machines and instruments -- the meter with the arrow that always gets stuck and the cruel, temperamental reactor are certainly characters. We could even say they're part of the crew, as are the too-small doorways or the bottles of red wine that get rationed out by the captain. When the periscope shares the frame with the captain, we understand that there's a relationship between them -- even if we can't quite fathom what such a relationship would be like. But we know it's there. It's been shown to us.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Screen Comedy

Teppanyaki (Michael Hui, 1984)

Re: Justin Rice

Justin Rice is a pretty funny guy, a damn good comic actor. Ok, how do you make a Justin Rice movie? After all, there are a lot of them around now, some better than others. Harmony and Me, for instance, is a trifle. It’s not refined or crass, simple or complex – it's all in-between. The jokes last only until the next cut; after that, we’ve forgotten them even more than the film has. A bit like watching a good, but not terribly interesting, stand-up. You’ll laugh, but the best you’ll be able to say is “it was funny.” And it is often funny, and usually it's funny because of Rice.

The best that can be said about Bob Byington’s direction is that he understands how Rice works. The key principle: Rice is funniest when he doesn't look people in the face. Yes, he's an interrupter, but the interruption has the best effect when he's cutting himself off mid-sentence instead of another actor, and yes, he can get his tongue twisted in a bit of social acrobatics, but it’s best if the only one trying to wriggle their way out of a situation is him. He's got a comic inattentiveness combined with a completely misplaced focus. Part of it might be the way he sometimes seems to open his eyes wider than anyone ever should, and that he doesn't blink enough. His is a talky comedy – even his body movements are funny only in how they relate to the movements of his lips, tongue and vocal chords. But, at the same time, the voice needs the body, those slow movements of the arms and legs. Maybe that's why his narration in Harmony and Me isn't funny at all, but almost grating: without Rice, his voice is nothing. He is comic as a whole. As just a picture, or just that ramble (secure with his sense of things, insecure of his place in the world), he just wafts by. But put the two together, and he’s something very concrete, a type you didn’t realize existed until the screen pointed him out to you.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009 Satan conduit le bal (Grisha Dabat, 1962; photographed by Raoul Coutard)

Crash Sounds

I had a fascination with Crash. My habits were different then; I must've seen it 20 or 30 times in the space of a couple of years. Given the opportunity to re-watch any Cronenberg film, I would still probably pick that one. I had the opportunity to do so -- a friend wanted to watch it, and it'd been at least five years since I'd seen the movie. What fascinates me still, above all the other elements of the film -- the pharmaceutical composition of its images, its clinical editing, Howard Shore's music -- is the sound mix, which is very unusual.

[You might have to click this link link to hear the entire 2 1/2 minute scene]

Crash is a difficult film to watch quietly, because the dialogue is mixed in a muffled way, sometimes at the same volume as the sound effects, sometimes quieter. In the images, we're naturally drawn to human figures; we are people, and we like, above all, to watch other people do things. It's difficult to equate a machine and a person in a moving picture. You can do it through editing, but within a single shot, it's almost impossible. It's the sound, and the dispassionate way all of the actors talk, as though making notes into a tape recorder for themselves, like medical examiners in a thriller or David Petersen in Manhunter, that does it. Every sentence seems to have been recorded separately. It sounds less like we're "listening in" on conversation than that a particular sort of noise made by people is being played for us, like a Chris Watson recording of some forest. And as, when recording animals, one inevitably catches the sound of rustling leaves and rain (it is, after all, the animals and the trees together that form a "forest"), it's inevitable that when creating a recording of "society," one should have both human voices and city sounds at equal levels.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Haneke and Visconti

These are stills from Michael Haneke's 1984 TV movie Wer war Edgar Allen?, which is apparently set in the same city as Visconti's White Nights (which, like any Dostoevsky film, is the director's and not the author's; every good filmmaker finds their own Dostoevsky). Same taughtly-bent bridges, same rain, same textured walls, same dirty old river, same dirty old beds. I know that Haneke shot at least part of Edgar Allan in Venice, but it still looks like Cinecitta.

Haneke and Visconti have a lot more in common than you'd think, not least of which is the idea of the director as a privileged observer, and of the camera as a sort of education or background that allows its operators to understand the events unfolding better than the people in front of the lens (characters or actors) ever could. There's also this underlying assumption that an image imprinted on celluloid or video is inherently false and that, through the manipulation of this falseness, a director can create images that, though still in no way true, can lead the audience to understand some sort of truth. Not quite "the lie that tells the truth," as Cocteau once called himself, but "the falsehood that may lead somewhere."

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


In Bloom

"The first hundred years of Japanese cinema have been the period of its youth. It will certainly stay young for the next hundred years. And in these hundred years, the Japanese film will free itself from the spell of Japanese-ness, and will come abloom as pure cinema."

Those are the last words (at least per the subtitles) of Nagisa Oshima's narration in 100 Years of Japanese Cinema, the short documentary he made for the BFI in 1994. And that's the last image of the film up there; it comes after the narration ends, and fades into the end credits. Two deeply Japanese figures floating through clouds, just a bit of Silent Era in-camera trickery. Up, up, and away.

100 Years is a very offensive work, as notorious as an Oshima should be, even more so because, while many of his films only offended the audiences of their times, this one continues to offend critics. Why? Because it ignores most of the history of Japanese cinema, and focuses so much on Oshima's own work. But it isn't because Oshima is dismissive; it's because he's boundlessly optimistic. We love the first hundred years of cinema, we will give our right and left arms for them, but we should also hope that, for all of their beauty, they will someday simply be the first hundred years of cinema.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Directions: Joyce's Shelves in Zurich

Interesting directions from the fascinating Inverted Volumes, Improperly Arranged: James Joyce and His Trieste Library (Michael Patrick Gillespie, 1983). A few of the texts owned by Joyce in Zurich:
  • Sanine, Mikhail Artzybashev [link goes to text of the same translation that Joyce owned]
  • A Woman of Thirty, apparently the only Balzac novel Joyce owned [link goes to text of the same translation that Joyce owned]
  • Sheet music for Symphonies 1 - 3, 7 - 9 and Fidelio, by Beethoven
  • The Meaning of War, Henri Bergson
  • Limehouse Nights, Thomas Burke
  • 2 copies of The City of the Sun by Tommaso Campannella, both in the original Italian
  • an Italian translation of The Dog's Colloquy by Cervantes

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Week +1, 9/24 - 10/1

  • On Funny Ha Ha, The Bed-Sitting Room and The Keep (see more below) for the Cine-List
"Mann's Work," ongoing series on the Michael Mann retrospective at Doc Films for The Auteurs' Notebook:

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Brontë Sisters (1979)