Friday, December 16, 2005

Film: Almost famous

Cameron Crowe went from the underrated director of “Jerry Maguire” whose contribution to this film was undeservedly overshadowed by one of the star, Tom Cruise – to the director whose name stands for quality. Not always deserved, though. I liked meticulous sense of detail in “Jerry Maguire”; it’s the first film to have a character hit a lantern hanging from the low ceiling with his head; this kind of thing happens to me all the time, even if I’m not of basketball-player height; Directors will never bother with this kind of small happenings that bear no relevance to the story but Crowe did and that gave the feel of a friendship between director and us, rising the film high above what it was advertised as. His earlier, “Singles”, stands as a manifest of a grunge generation, though not entirely deservedly. Then again, “Vanilla sky” was a confusing remake of a film that was very stupid to begin with.
Does it make a good director, when their career is consisted of altering between good and bad films? Does it make their name under the title a recommendation? My opinion is that it hasn’t got much with what percentage of their films is good, but rather with whether director approaches the film as a little piece of him that he decides to put on display, or as just another work that has to be walked through. There are many directors capable of directing a script to bring a decent film, but a film that could be directed by anyone – directors reliable for producers but never anything more than a craftsman (Joel Schumacher and James Cameron come to mind). On the other hand, there are directors whose films I’d keep watching simply because there is a chance that one day, when they put their thoughts together, they’ll make a masterpiece (Harmony Corinne, perhaps). Thus, there are lots of directors who I greatly respect even though their output is shifting from masterpiece to appallingly bad (Lynch, Ken Russell, Goddard, Pasolini, just to name a few). They are, as Truffaut would put it, authors.
So there’s Crowe’s “Almost famous”, film that I unfortunately haven’t seen before “Vanilla Sky”, but one thing it did, regained trust in that director for me. “Almost famous” is before all, mood piece, and if I want to describe what’s so good about that film, the only thing I can do it try to explain what mood we have in mind. It’s not a simple (or perhaps possible) thing to explain, which is what makes the whole achievement of the film.
We are talking about late 60ies and early 70ies, a particular period of recent history. Talking about age gap, there’s no generation in history that didn’t confront their parents and step out of known moral norms; Even ancient Greeks complained about how their children are lazy and disrespectful. But looking back at recent culture history, no generation made that gap wider than did the one that grew up in late 60ies and early 70ies. Pop culture and moral norms as we know them today, are mostly a product of that time. “Almost famous” is successfully capturing the mood of this time, the mood of big changes happening in front of our eyes, of opportunity to be witnessing or even directly involved in history. That’s the time when battles were won on concert stages and cinema projections, not on battlefields or election days. People were accepting new experiences with wide eyes, with significantly less fear of new experiences that we (with our AIDS and drug addictions and other moral panics) have today. It was a time when childlike curiousity and optimism were common belief. Consciously empty-headed chic of 80ies or cynicism and detachment of 90ies can hardly be compared with that.
That’s the mood that this film captures perfectly. And when we’re talking about something so subtle, there can be no attempt of making it an authentic, global-scale chronicle (such as “Great Rock-and-roll swindle” was for punk”) or self-aware meditation in which everyone talks like a philosopher, or anything that other directors would make of a period piece. Once upon a time, Borges became an acclaimed writer, among other things because he was able to bring great problems to common audience by rejecting symbolism and adopting allegory; by talking about people we can identify with, not about faceless symbols. At the dawn of 60ies, a film called “The Graduate” somehow captured fears and frustrations of the entire generation – and, in a way, of young man of every generation – by talking about one particular young in one particular place and time. “Almost famous” tells the story of a fictional rock group in the down of their career, allowing it to be any young rock group, or none. Mood is always built through details, not though the plot, and general ideas are best told with a particular case.
Heavily based on Crowe’s own youth, the film tells a story of a young rock-and-roll journalist William (convincingly played by Patrick Fugit) who, as 15 leas that he is 17 who is surprised by “Rolling stone” by being engaged to write a story about the new rising band “Stillwater”. Members of band easily adopt the young journalist and drag him along on their tour, convincing him to follow them much further than he initially intended. Their attitude alters from confessing to him, to treating him as an enemy, a member of enemy trade (critic vs. artists) and be no fool, older critic Lester Bangs who apprentices William gives him sound advices over the telephone when he most needs them. “You and I are not cool, no matter what they say to you. They need us to reassure themselves that they are cool”. With square haircut and childish look, clumsiness and restrain, William is more a proper audience to “Stillwater” gang in need of admiration, he’s the instrument of their rebellion and his acceptance in the gang consisting of group, technicians and groupies works as a manifest of the time itself. They like him, yes, but every time they say he’s cool, they are lying and they know it. But it’s the time of open horizons, even for an eloquent but introvert 15 years old who lies about his age.
Over the time piece, “Almost famous” is a story of a group of characters and complex relations between them. One of the most intriguing is the one between a singer Russel Hammond (played by Billy Crudup) and a guitarist Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee); When Russel compliments him on a press conference, Jeff replies “Why did you never say that to me before?” There is already a deeply rooted conflict between two friends, based on desperate grappling for attention. There is an unspoken bond between William and Russel, a mix of admiration, reservation and hate, until the end of the film, these two men are reluctant to facing each other, delaying the interview that needs to be done. Then there is Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) who smiles from all promotional material of this film, a groupie who needs to convince herself that she isn’t just a groupie, burdened by inability of most people to see behind her pretty face, but then so dizzy with reflector lights that she chooses to carry that burden as proudly as she can. The most curious is the relationship built in just a few short encounters, between Russel and William’s conservative but permissive mother Elaine (played by brother Coen’s star, Francis mcDormand); They seem to be on edge of accomplishing the mother-son relationship, as he desperately needs maternal figure, and she desperately needs to play a maternal figure to everyone who needs it. Finally, a link between William and Lester Bangs, who feels that it’s best to break all his illusions before he gets hurt – but then again, maybe he’s wrong, maybe illusions need to have their place in boy’s life.
“Almost famous” avoids all wrong ways that it could’ve been led to. It has no pathos, it’s not unrealistically, romantically glorifying the age, it has no element of scandal, it doesn’t feed on drug or sex abuse as many films about that time would, it’s a perfect little piece that captures the moment and then replays it for us who weren’t so lucky to be in opportunity to feel it ourselves.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Film: Body Double

Brian de Palma is particularly clever director. He had to be: with his plotting style and some directing techniques, he indirectly proclaimed himself Hitchcock’s successor and Hitchcock was clever as well; in later years, with string of biting comedies and gangster films, De Palma managed to build the image of a director with various interests. His name, though, remains mostly related to thrillers, most of all "Blow out", "Carrey", "Sisters", etc.
Consider "Dressed to kill", for instance; it's form is so clever that we are able to forget that it is partially lifted from “Psycho”: film follows the woman for a good chunk of time, until she is unexpectedly killed and the rest of film is dedicated to finding the murderer whose one of Victims she was; the same trick of lulling a viewer into one story only to brutally end it with another. But the whole process of lifting Hitchcock’s invention is cynical enough to be considered an invention on it's own.
"Body double" is, perhaps, even better example; it's a film that plays like an ordinary thriller/"who did it" crime story until in it's final scene, as the credits roll by, it rises several questions that linger over such story; perhaps these questions are contained in the whole story but our concentration on plot doesn't allow us to see it? Or perhaps de Palma is just toying with us by giving us a standard story but letting us draw more from it than it contains? In any case, his approach is as playful as Hitchcock’s was. But let's start from the plot.
Craig Wasson plays Jake, an unsuccessful actor - as Hitchcock said: "unordinary things that happen to an ordinary man" and a loser like Jake is more a prototype of ordinary than a well-paid colleague of his would be. Jake gets "suspended" from his job as the vampire in a low budget horror, because he's claustrophobic. You can’t lie in a coffin long enough if you’re claustrophobic.
Now, there are a few clichés, hundred times seen plot twists that you'll see coming miles ahead. Some people aren't bothered by those; they'll even go as far as to consider them precious. My opinion is that such clichés will lull you into the familiarity, taking away the need to think about them more: situations are so familiar that you can take them for granted and proceed further without stopping by. In films like de Palma’s, I think that lulling a viewer at the beginning is not a good thing, it's holding up films like this one. Regardless of said wit, de Palma absorbed a whole lot of Hollywood’s common places. Thus:
Right here at the place where I stopped telling the plot, we can be certain of two things: 1. At some point in the film, Jake will be forced to overcome his great fear (claustrophobia) and it will be a matter of life and death; 2. After losing a job, Jake will return home to find his wife in bed with another man.
This situation - lost job, cheating wife - is too often used to present a character with blank slate. In representative manner, the situation is seen not as loss, but as freedom from responsibilities. Such optimists, those Hollywood directors.
Anyway, on one audition, desperate Jake meets a colleague Sam (Gregg Henry) who offers him to stay in a luxury house that's been given to him for keeping an eye on. Jake looks forward to unexpected opportunity to spend some time in luxury villa, especially because he has a daily chance of glancing the erotic dance of a woman living in the next door villa. Jake is clueless enough never to ask himself, why she performs this dance with time-ticking precision when there’s no one around. This eventually makes him a witness of a brutal murder of the neighbour Gloria (Deborah Shelton) as he reacts too late to help her.
This is recognized as a common place of de Palma’s work: failure to save the woman. Nancy Allen is “Blow out”, Angie Dickinson in “Dressed to kill”, Genevieve Bujold in “Obsession”, even Emmanuelle Beard in “Mission: Impossible”; Critics who are too bluntly literal interpret this as covered misogyny by de Palma; However, it’s obviously not that: To De Palma a woman is an object of desire whose death comes mostly as a result of inadequacy of male character. Thus de Palma sets an anti-macho image in which male characters are so obsessed with proving themselves that they fail to deliver the most important; It is not too hasty to say that de Palma makes an allusion at sexual inadequacy (the most touchy subject for an average male), with John Travolta from “Blow out” too obsessed with his own crime investigation to manage to make a defined relationship with Nancy Allen, or, of course, Jake in “Body double”, choosing a voyeuristic over active role. It is de Palma’s tendency to caricature everyday relations that makes these inadequacies result of a murder. De Palma’s approach to this subject is completely different from what we usually have in thrillers and action films, where macho image is preserved and guilt is something specifically preserved for bad guys.
Hopefully that was the last digression in my retelling the plot. Now goes the twist: Jake, after slipping as a witness to an unsolved murder, spends some depressive days in the villa, when, watching porn clips on TV, he recognizes an erotic dance that he used to look at in the next house. Instantly, he realizes that he was set up. After meeting Holly (Melanie Griffith), dancer and porn star, things became clearer: She was the person Jake watched dancing. Someone hired her to do her trademark dance when Gloria, owner of the house, isn’t at home, ensuring that Jake would be watching when the murder of Gloria happens. Who else but Sam, far from struggling actor, a professional rich man and Gloria’s husband. From there on, what’s left it a few tense scenes where Jake has to save Holly (if he couldn’t save Gloria) and convince police in what really happened.
Melanie Griffith from this film is Melanie from the beginning of the career, before proving that she was a worthy actress capable of surprising transformations on screen and a good successor of Marilyn Monroe’s “dumb blond” image. Though looking back from her later roles we can see that she was brilliant in role of dumb Holly, at this moment she was still cast for her sexy body. De Palma no doubt had a good time casting a daughter of Tippi Hedren, Hitchcock’s Melanie from “Birds” and Marnie from, well, “Marnie” (some say Hitchcock’s secret love too).
Last scene of the film shows scenes of making of a cheap horror flick; particularly, Jake’s shower scene with the attractive lead actress. As the credits roll, actress is replaces with a stunt with larger breasts, to shoot torso shots. From that point on, we see the face or the actress intercut with the chest of the double; the effect that they belong to one person is, of course, seamless. Thus, de Palma raises the question of unreliability of human sight. We realizes that what is going on in the last scene is the same thing that happened to Jake: Concentrated on body, he never got past to looking at the face. He was a subject of the same trickery that magicians will use on stage when they draw attention to irrelevant things which is, in return, similar to the trickery that a film director makes in editing room. Short sublimation of the basic idea of the film in the last scene, underlines what the film’s real subject is: Not a claustrophobia, a failed actor, a husband who wants to kill his wife or whatever thrillers are often about, but the fragile nature of the impression that we have about the world, it’s fallible connection with reality. By laying it at the very end, de Palma urges us to think about it rather than making any conclusions or points on his own.