Monday, November 14, 2005

Film: Nostalghia

D you want to know who is the director that I consider the greatest of them all? It’s Russian genius Andrei Tarkovsky. Died too soon, in his 54, he left seven films (not counting one early short); Seven films, seven masterpieces whose every scene is crafter with such attention, such detail and such regard to the surrounding scenes and the entire film, that you could spend days on watching each of them. His films were a mix of wonderful photography of places where we wouldn’t even remember to look for beauty, and insightful approach to his universal themes of spirituality and self-questioning.

Of these seven films, unanimously the highest regard is given to his second work, “Andrei Rublev”, glorious biography of 15 century icon painter. On that account, it makes me wonder why are early films by great directors so often regarded the highest, at the point of their career where their vision is still in forming (another example that comes to my mind is Pasolini’s “Gospel according to st. Matthew”). My opinion is that praises these films get are given as much to the conventionality and restraint as to the vision. Needless to say, I usually have trust in great directors and prefer films where they have space to stretch out. My personal favourite of Tarkovsky is “Stalker”, his fifth film based on sci-fi novel by brothers Strugatski, but since I just watched “Nostalghia” the other day, I will talk about that film instead.

Tarkovsky’s biography can be summed shortly in this: Born and raised in SSSR, after finishing his short diploma film “The Steamroller and the Violin”, he was assigned to work on a film based on a mediocre war story by Vladimir Bogomolov, which he transferred to his lyrical space, and the results were far from what government-directed film institutes expected. Next four films are the central period of his work and four of the best known films: “Andrei Rublev”, “Solaris”, “The Mirror”, “Stalker”. He early got a reputation of the puzzling director, puzzling for authorities and censors in a way that they were never sure of all interpretations of his films so, even though he never adressed politics in his films, he was still considered a dangerous author, if only for not applying to a formula of cheerful soc-realism. To manage getting funds by film institutes, he reached for sci-fi themes (“Solaris”, “Stalker”) because this genre was considered harmless being that till that point, in SSSR cinematography is was equalized with cheerful adolescent adventure films. After political problems escalated, he was forced to immigrate after which he made “Nostalghy” in Italy and “The Sacrifice” in Finland. Not long after that he died of lung cancer, leaving many projects he had in his mind never even started.

Is Tarkovsky a visionary? On one hand, his vision was so clear, so different, personal and authentic that there isn’t a film author who can rightfully be compared to him (even though critics try to attach a label of “Tarkovsky’s ancestor” to some new Russian director every now and then). On the other hand, Tarkovsky is one of the last romantics of film, regarding films as high art, assuming no need to keep audience entertained with cheap passing-by hooks, but letting them choose whether they’re going to sink into his films or just stay on surface and miss out on great things. Perhaps the last director who never tried to apply rules of commercial cinema to his work, he is very likely to never have real ancestors simply because nowadays, no directors dare to take such risks.

True to tell, for the greatest part of his career, Tarkovsky’s films were funded by state institutions (apart from the last two, by which he was already acclaimed and praised director) and the situation is SSSR was such that there was little care how much money will be spent as long as entertainment for masses was pouring in. As government funding was on one side a burden, because his films were often kept locked up or without proper distribution long after they were finished, on the other side it was allowing him more freedom during the making of films, as he was granted with almost limitless finances, best equipment and no concern over how much the film would make in box offices. However, Tarkovsky’s films communicate with people, his ideas aren’t obscure and hard to reach, so his films were far from box office failures. Nowadays, when I see a bunch of people waiting in front of cinema for some Tarkovsky’s retrospective, I figure out that even after all these years, even in culture-deprived Belgrade, there’s a nice crowd waiting to see his films.

Which is where I can not but recall of complain of many people that his films are simply boring. They’re films of slow tempo, extremely long takes, but getting through them is even more rewarding experience for that reason; They’re films that dictate their own conditions and that we’re sometimes having hard time to accept those conditions is probably just the result of “more conventional” films that got us used to it. After all, what is the optimal tempo for the film narration? In age when new directing talents are more influenced by MTV’s music videos than anything else, even “Maltese falcon” can seem like slow and boring film. And perhaps it will be one day.

But frankly, I was never bored while watching Tarkovsky’s films (well, perhaps a bit during “The Sacrifice”, but that’s an extreme). The reason is, Tarkovsky never holds his camera on to banal sights, instead he chooses landscapes of... well, certainly not breathtaking beauty, but rather fascinating solemnity or curious sense of decay. During “Stalker”, it seems like camera lingers on every ancient, dust-covered spider web, and there are a lot of them in that film. Tarkovsky leaves us opportunity to admire to the sight the way we’d admire an art photography exposition, to pay attention to details scattered over frames, to think about the significance of a particular scene even while the scene is still going on. Just as well, he rarely lets silence go on for a long time, he rather fills the air with scattered dialogue, even though camera isn’t necessarily paying attention to people talking (would it be disrespectful to say that I just realized some common places between Tarkovsky and anime?). That was the effect that first fascinated me in “Solaris”, his first film that I’ve seen long ago, the ongoing conversation that wouldn’t let the viewer feel abandoned, while I expected something similar to Kubrick’s “2001’s” long, uninterrupted silences.

“Nostalghy” is a film that marked Tarkovsky’s departure from Russia, and as to show the personal nature of Tarkovsky’s vision, it is indeed a film about men far from their native land, far from the place that they feel as their home and as the film goes along, we feel that nostalgia is perhaps too mild to describe how characters in the film feel. Main character, Andrey Gorchakov (Oleg Yankovsky) travels through Italy, researching for a book about Russian 18th century composer but never feels quite comfortable while in Italy. Visiting some old Roman spa, he meets a local crazy man Domenico (Erland Josephson) who triggers in him strong feeling of homesickness. Gorchakov is accompanied by Italian translator Eugenia (Domiziana Giordano) and there’s a conflict: Gorchakov asks her what she reads to which she replies that she is reading Italian translations of the poems by Arseni Tarkovsky (a poet, Tarkovsky’s father); Gorchakov is dissatisfied as he believes that poetry cannot be translated, furthermore that nothing can be translated and that the gutter between different countries and cultures cannot be bridged, definitely not in an easy way such is translation. Eugenia is clearly hurt that Gorchakov is denying meaning to her profession, and perhaps even more that he’s denying her a possibility of bringing different cultures together, which is the essence of her effort. Does Tarkovsky undeniably agree with Gorchakov, who is clearly his alter ego here? I believe that he gives benefit of the doubt in direction of Eugenia’s idealism, after all, he is basically working with images, not with words, and these are universal – but then again, different cultures will interpret the same images in different ways, according to the cultural heritage, so that’s not certain either. Most of the film as it follows is a series of dreamlike scenes triggered by nostalgia and if images can be understood without translation, then this film should be able to show that sad feeling of departure from home to everyone. Or at least, how an emotive Russian feels when being departed from home.

Tarkovsky was, which is somewhat less known, one of the most analytic directors. Oh yes, his films were deeply emotional, but the way he chose to transfer those emotions to a viewer were analytical. His diaries, published later, were a sort of guidelines, analyzes after making each film of what he achieved, how, what should be changed or kept, how his vision changed since starting to work on that film and in which direction he should move now. From these, it is obvious how much attention he was paying to film language and how important it was to him to use film language for telling.

Given that, even though all of his films had his particular signature, each of them was employing a different method that Tarkovsky found fitting for the theme and tone. For instance, “Stalker”, even though still a film of long, slow takes, contains certain dynamism achieved through faster changes of plane and focus. With both camera and characters slowly moving, he contained his tension in the positions of the characters insider the take.

On the other hand, “Nostalghy” is told through takes that are always moving slowly sideways; Upon reaching some point, they usually return the same way, with the same speed. Sometimes, this camera movement will follow character (an take in which camera moves left and then right three times, first two times following Eugenia, third time Gorchakov walking the same line along the wall of the old building). Other times, camera will move on it’s own, until it reaches the point where dialogue interwoven in the scene finds it’s source (such is the foggy scene with the sulphur swimming pool near the beginning).

As we realize late in the film, this sideways scrolling is pre-planed preceding of what is probably the most important scene in the film: In this scene, Gorchakov indulges in the tedious task of carrying a lit candle from one side of the old, dried up Roman swimming pool to the other side. This entire long and torturous action is shown in one long take, following Gorchakov with, yes, sideways scrolling. First time, the light gets blown out by the draft. He patiently goes back and lights it again. Proceeding slowly, he reaches more than half of the pool’s length but his candle gets blown out again. Again he returns, and again he carries a candle across the pool, in this moment, his face speaks tension and torture. Knowing in advance how this scene should look like, Tarkovsky shapes the rest of the film visually in accordinance with it.

Such care is given to this take that there is no doubt about its importance. Candle light taken from one side to the other is allegory for a human spirit being torn away from it’s place of beginning; Gorchakov, in his haze, finds this game of life importance: if he is able to carry the light without having it put out, then perhaps he will be able to live far away from his homeland without his human spirit being slowly put out and him dying inside. That Gorchakov managed in his task in the end, is more a spark of optimism that is consistent in Tarkovsky’s work, than it is a final conclusion. If nothing, Tarkovsky’s fate spoke of different conclusion.

“Nostalghia” shows some wonderful images of decay. It is placed among old, moldy, ruined buildings, old Roman baths, abandoned and full of mud, walls cracked and covered with vines; We see everyday objects at the bottom of a shallow pond, half-covered with mud, we see a lost dog wondering through scenes, and it seems like it’s worth seeing a film once only to watch at these sights. And leave interpretation for the next time.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Film: Fight Club :(

“Fight Club” was bound to be very popular and cult film. Because it pets macho, I suppose every male has at least a little bit of it left in him; Because it has a cool pose; Because it’s morbid; And because it shoots in many targets and if a viewer doesn’t step back and look at the big picture of it, he might think that it aimed in his target in the first place.

First time I saw it, I was confused. All pieces weren’t in it’s place, film changed direction too suddenly and I thought that the director was making some steps back to please the producer and audience that wants twist endings. Each time I saw it again, I liked it less and less, because I realized that the entire film is a big, guideless mess. Because director cheats in many places and because people fall to those cheats. Because it’s a film that fakes having content while it’s, basically, all about visual slickness. But I’m rushing now.

David Fincher is basically a director glorified for films of particular visual style; Style is actually what granted him his first feature gig as the director of the third “Alien” film, and promoted him from the director of Madonna videos to a directing star. But I guess it wouldn’t be fair to dig through someone’s old dirty laundry. Anyway, this approach fit well into a trendy new Hollywood formalism, where directors are appreciated for their style, for visual pyrotechnics, for form; Think about it - most of current Hollywood directing stars – filmmakers that everyone knows about even if they aren’t interested in remembering a director of the film they liked – are authors of films that are a real firework on visual side, while the content is often in supporting role (think: David Fincher, Tim Burton, Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez); On the other hand, very few directors stars use reduced or conventional visual approach and put emphasis on content (think: Kevin Smith).

This new formalism tents to mistake form with content, or more precisely, to believe that if you pay enough attention to form, it will be able to replace the content. Now, whether you’re going to accept that “Se7en” is a film about the series of gruesomely slickly executed murders, or you’re still going to believe that the fact that they were based on seven mortal sins has some great symbolism and significance to the author, measures how much you’re going to accept delusions of this formalism.

All that I’m saying to explain Fincher as an author. He made five films so far, all of which can be considered good films if you accept that they’re good eye-pleasers and that the answer to the question “What the artist wanted to say” is, in this case, “Nothing in particular”. Probably the film I liked the most was his third, “The Game”, because near the end it really managed to shake up my sense of reality and really made me reconsider how much everything I saw so far was true. Twist endings are supposed to do that, I think. However, most of films today use them simply in vain hope that they’ll surprise viewer a bit, make him go “Well, I didn’t see that coming”. Ironically, since every such film has obligatory twist ending, audience expects it, so the twist ending by it’s nature can’t surprise a viewer anymore.

Back to “Fight Club”. As we all know, it starts with Narrator (played by Edward Norton) who is awfully pressured by living in consumerism society. I suppose everyone can identify a bit with that sensation of being locked in a circle of earning money and spending it on unnecessary things, while nothing of it really brings joy. Some more characters are introduced, including Marla - played by Helena Bonham Carter who with this film made transition from roles like the one in “The room with the view” to lunatic ones (see her in “Novocain”) where certain Victorian dignity gives a peculiar edge.

But here’s the first mistake Fincher makes: Narrator works in a car factory, in crash testing area. By his words, management is largely ignorant of the bad results of crash tests, leading to unsafe cars being put out and raising number of tragic accidents. That serves partly to set that cliché relation big company – little worker, as seen in every satire made in last century, but also to underline Narrator’s feeling of uselessness. But why does he have to underline it when he already presented it very clearly? Wasn’t it enough to just give him a stupid job, did that job have to be for a big, evil company? Frankly, and with no offence, Fincher thinks that his audience is stupid, that he has to underline everything that is important, to shove everything into viewer’s face until he’s certain the viewer has seen it; His narrative style isn’t urging audience to think: the film is thinking for audience and delivering them conclusions it had made; Smart or subversive films don’t try to think instead of audience – that’s what propaganda does. But people often don’t want to think during the film – they just want to be entertained for two hours – so a film that “kindly” thinks so they don’t have to, suits them.

Fincher consistently does this all during the film, and I will get back on it once again, later.

Anyway, on a plane, Narrator meets Tyler Durden (played by Brad Pitt – a good role but I don’t really remember Pitt actually being good except for in roles similar to this) who is dangerous, violent person, conspiracy theorist, obviously lunatic, all in all a cool guy (for a film – you wouldn’t think he’s cool had you met him in live). So yadda yadda, we all know how it goes already, Narrator and Tyler start a Fight Club where people burdened by the same problems Narrator had in the beginning, can relieve excessive stress by beating each other up. At first, it is hinted that Narrator and Tyler enjoy being beaten up as much as beating up, but later that idea gets lost somewhere at the point faces of losers in fights aren’t even recognizable anymore.

I’ll make something that seems necessary at this point and try to get through in the logic of this: how exactly does beating up (or being beaten up) help with that problem? By one line of thought, Fincher may suggest that violence is the essential need of a man and that the modern world, in which the man is discouraged from the violence, is simply not a natural state. By the other line of thought, perhaps people are trying to break the circle of modern life by temporary regressing to earlier evolutionary state of humanity. That’s all I got. Plausible...

...However, I have a feeling that most of fans never really considered this. For many, a simple connection was made: a man solves his problems with fight. But the problem is this time not something as trivial as the bad guy coming into town; The suggestion that the male will solve all his problems with beating up (just like “Baywatch” lifeguard will solve a problem by saving someone who’s drowning) is a part of macho iconography, but to me it comes even as insulting for the male gender. I’ve read a lengthy article where the scene in which Narrator beats himself up in front of his boss to intimidate him was glorified as one of the most effective scenes in recent film history, and I couldn’t help thinking “But man, that scene is totally stupid!” And seriously, do you believe that something like that would work? Was that scene convincing at all? If you can believe in that scene, I guess the rest of the film is not a problem.

Anyway. Tyler is now out of control and he becomes an organizer of the entire underground terrorist front that wants to destroy the society as it is so that they could build from the scratch. Which is where Fincher makes another mistake: he can’t find the right tone, he can’t decide how to look at Tyler’s efforts. He wants to make him extreme and over the top, yet he wants to point at how he’s essentially right. On the other hand, he wants to fence from Tyler’s guerilla approach, but can’t do it completely because the character has the affection of the target audience. Changes in tone are often, confusing and inappropriate. Then, in the last part of the film, Fincher seems to decide to make his life easier and turn everything into a routine thriller, forgetting everything that he’s done so far.

Which is, I think, the worst fault of this film. It was the thing that confused me the most: the film played as a satire, and then turned up with a standard card from the sleeve of thrillers, a twist ending.

I mentioned twist endings a bit earlier. I said how this device is so overused that it can’t be an element of surprise anymore, which is not a surprise since it has been used ever since Edgar Allan Poe conceived a genre of detective story. Some analytic detective story fans have come to the result that the only ending that still has never been used is the one where the killer is the reader. However, in past few decades, filmmakers came up with a new kind of twist ending: the one where the entire genre of a film is a surprise. That is, at some late point, the film changes its genre and becomes, for instance, a gory thriller from a seemingly naive family drama. On top of my head, “From dusk till down” and “Event Horizon” used this device. ”Fight club” uses it too. So with all good will, it’s nothing we haven’t seen.

But this kind of ending has shattering consequences for the film as it is till that point: the whole credibility of previous satirical charge (no matter how irritatingly exaggerated) is destroyed. From a savage messiah, Tyler is turned into a standard film villain, no more threatening than campy James Bond villains. Everything that’s been said until that point starts sounding like lies – not lies by characters but lies by a director, who shows himself as a simple cheater. He cheats us by talking about things that he knows we’ll identify with just to get us in the film, while he actually doesn’t care about any of those things.

Why? Why pull such stunt and ruin laboured efforts of the previous hour?

As I said, at first I thought that Fincher backed up by the request of the producer who requested a twist ending. Then I considered the thought that Fincher was aiming at people who asked for satire in most of the film, and provided a twist ending just for those who wouldn’t think they got what they paid for. I also had a thought that this kind of an easy escape from the confusion he made by not being able to determine his standpoint in the entire story. Someone once claimed that the entire film is actually supposed to be a psychological thriller and that the middle part is an elaborate lead-on, but I don’t bite on that. Most of the film isn’t centered on any of characters, it’s not happening primarily in the heads, most of the film is looking at society and trying to dissect it. Last frames of the film, buildings being brought down to realize Tyler’s plan, Narrator’s suggestion of the new beginning, claim that Fincher’s concern is society for the most part; He added those scenes as if to make sure that someone won’t mistake his film for a psychological piece. The bottom line, the last third of the film can be considered a psychological thriller, but that leaves us with the same problem.

At the end, my conclusion was that Fincher simply thought that this kind of ending is cool, so he wrote it in. Perhaps he did consider how this ending is affecting the rest of the story, but he didn’t care. Because, as I said several times, he doesn’t care about it; He doesn’t care about the content; It’s there to provide him opportunity for his trademark firework. Therefore, he didn’t think that it’s a big deal, doing something that would ruin the most of the film and make it a complete mess.

Earlier I said how Fincher sticks things into your face; He explains too much, his narration is too intrusive, it’s like a guy shoving his face into yours so he’d make sure that you pay attention to him while he’s talking. The scene where this came as particularly grating is the one where Narrator finally finds out a truth about Tyler. Yes, yes, Tyler is Narrator’s alter-ego, the person Narrator imagined all the time, while people call him Tyler Durden. Once this was said, Fincher should’ve left it to viewer to recalls of the film he just saw and fit the pieces together; He should’ve left audience enjoy in seeing the past events under the new light; What about lazier part of the audience, you say. Well, lazy part of the audience is confident into a director that he’ll put all pieces together, so it’s all the same to them. Anyway, what Fincher does instead is a streak of flashbacks shown in new light (with Narrator in a role of leader), explaining everything to bits and pieces, thus denying audience that last chance to use their own brain. I chuckled when one friend of mine said: “Why did he have to go and explain it all over? I understood it all at once. What kind of person doesn’t understand it?”

As if to show that one effective scene is more important to him than the consistency, Fincher returns the last scene to the satire and shows the society shattering with hope to be rebuilt again. Nice scene, sure, it can make you carried away if you manage to forget the rest of the film.

In conclusion, the thing I hate the most about “Fight club” is the hypocrisy. It is a visual film but it doesn’t play like one. Instead, it plays as a message film, pretending to care about issues that trouble us, just to show its real face once it tangles up so much that it can’t give a honest resolution. It gets its audience among people who want strictly visual films, among those who want a message film but get fooled into believing that “Fight club” is such film, and among modern macho men who still want to believe that all problems can be resolved with fists.

But when you make a film, it has to play as unity. It has to be coherent and consistent all through. You can’t shoot parts of it as if they are separate films, put them together and expect people to like it for some of its parts. You have to have an idea of what kind of film you are trying to make. Fincher didn’t have it when he was making “Fight club”.