Saturday, April 15, 2006

Film: Marathon man

John Schlezinger is a man who made a few good films at the beginning of his career and then went on to routine (and sometimes even lower) road of a man who does films because he doesn't know how to do anything else. First of a few films that were good is, of course, "Midnight cowboy", socially engaged, yet artistic and trippy. And generally hailed as masterpiece. It is very dissapointing, looking at his later melodramas that played a note of spy films or some other genres just to cover the smell of soap opera – a kind of things you'd think were made directly for Hallmark tv.
So what happened to him? He had an aesthetic vision that he abandoned quickly. That vision included cross-cutting, fast editing and merging various images to create a new symbolism among them. Take, for instance, the key scene in "Marathon man" in which Thomas „babe“ Levy (Dustin Hoffman), a young history student and marathon man runs from his nazi capturers. The scene in which he is being chased, hurting and wounded, is cross-cut with archive shots of his marathon idols. Now, although he, due to intensive training, can still stand pain and is more enduring than his chasers, he is by all means not the best in his sport. On marathon races, he's just one of many faces. What does a vision of great athlets of history mean cross-cut with the moment in which he's running for life? That he is reaching his athletic peak, that this is the race of his life and that, in his own terms, it is no less important than any great marathon race. All the training and effort he's gone through seems to boil down to this moment, seems like a preparation for this race. And finally, he's the winner.
In fact, i don't think that i described this any good. But thay goes to prove that, though a picture may be woryh a thousand words, with two cleverly intersected pictures, the effect would take all the words in the worls. But the fact is, while Babe is running for his life through city, in the middle of the night, limping and bleeding, chasEd by a couple of thugs, something of grandness of greatest sport achievements (some will say, greatest human achievements in physical domain) that used to be his inspiration, is there.
There is another very impressive scene in this film: Dr.. Christian Szell (played by Laurence Olivier), an escaped nazi officer and torturer in concentration camps, arriving to USA incognito to try to get the hidden war loot in shape of a bag of diamonds; in this scene he is strollinh through Jewish quart with streets full of people, and his paranoia feeds himself. One women reckognizes and runs after him, yelling who he is and "somebody stop him". But though noone seems to take her seriously, Szell is twitching, struggling through the city crowd; atmosphere is soaked with paranoia, every face liiks like an enemy and we are kept on edges of our seats not even knowing what we want to happen.
Then there is a scene earlier in the film that can match it for fiersome atmosphere: Babe, trapped in his bathroom, while nazis try to break in; he is frantically trying to find and escape device and in a small bathroom, that seems so desperate. This scene is really lifted by Hoffman's performance.
Then, at the Beginning in which an old nazi and an old nazi prizoner settle old accounts in the middle of New York streets, and make that historical fight sound, from their geezer's mouth, like neighbour squabble. The scene would be hilarious in it's absurdity, but instead, it leaves a really bad taste in mouth.
Finally, there's a scene in which Szell Is finally held at gunpoint by Babe who orders him (with real hatred on his face) "You can carry as much diamonds as you can eat". Intimidating, psychically torturing, cold-hearted revenge.
And that's it. To connect these impressive set pieces is blameless spy plot, typically 70ies photography that i like so much, and melancholic approach that doesn't let Babe get away with any more than he started with. At the Beginning, just like at the end, he is seen training, a loner, running all alone on a not very bright and happy day.
I'm not really intentionally writing about so many films with Hoffman.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Book: Homo Faber

Quite a few films I find as boring as "Voyager", directed by Wolfgang Schlendorf known by his older film "The tin drum", and staring Sam Shepard, drama writer turned screenwriter turned actor. That the film is limping slowly tough the story is not a broblem: I like slow films and I find a lot of dignity in the fact that such films don't rush to occupy viewer's attention every second of it's run, don't crouch to please at every cost, and wait for viewers to come to the film instead of tugging their sleave.
But even if film doesn't have tcome to the viewer, it has to invite the viewer to come to the film. Boring films, for me, are those that don't intrigue me, don't make me want to know what happens next. That happens when film is unimaginative, assembly product made of elements that have already been seen in other movies, when I can see every plot twist coming from far. It also happens when characters are flat, one-dimensional and, not being convinced that they are real people, I don't care what happens with them either.
"Voyager" strikes me that way, Sheppard portraits boring, passion-less middleage man who gets into affair with girl who's nearly 20. We are inclined to ask what attracts so young girl to such old bore. Shepard doesn't manage to bring needed edge that's make his characteintriguing both to us and to girl. Julie Delpy plays that girl and, even though she's supposed to play smart, talented dynamo of a girl, she's given such ridiculously stupid lines that she turns out as a real dummy. When she dies from snake bite in the end, we aren't all that sad. After that incident, Shepard's character finds out, or finds reasons to believe, that she is his daughter.
That's what the film boils down to; The story is exagerated, yes. It needs a dose of absurd that deadpan direction doesn't have. Shepard and Delpy need to convince us that they're characters that kind of thing could happen to, but they don't. They play like ordinary people, and ordinary people don't fall in love with their daughters, not even accidentally. Both characters need some lunacy in them; Instead, they're both boring. And the film is boring.
If I was paying attention to what the film was based on, might've not read a good book. Because I don't think I'd particulary care to buy Max Frisch's "Homo Faber" if I knew "Voyager" was based on it. This way, I reckognized writer's name by some short stories of his I've read, and purchased the book.
What makes the book worth is that the story is used as an allegory, moving the story into the philosophical context where it's significantly detached from all the little questions about credibility that we could ask.
It is stressful that film ommits entire level of alegory and concentrates on telling the story which makes me wonder why even using the book in the first place? Leaving the alegory, it's essence, out, we're left with a fairly short story and nothing special to work with.
So anyways. Walter Faber Is the main character. The key of interpreting hims the link between his name and the title (but of course). "Homo faber" is the man who controls his own destiny, creator of his own fate. Faber believes in that, he's an engineer, he finds explanations for every coincidence that happens to him in theory of probability. He strongly believes that the strings are in his hands.
But through the novel, chance throws more of such coincidences at him. He meets a friend of an old friend on a plane. In lucide little anventure, he joins him in travel through southamerican jungle to meet said old friend, who as it turns out married Faber's old love, only to find him dead. Novel doesn't rush to get to the point, it details unpleasant travel through mosquito land with special delight.
Returning to Europe, Faber takes a boat instead of (as usually) plane. He meets young Sabeth and promptly starts a love affair with her. Back in Europe, they travel through rural Italy where she is bitten by a snake on a lonely beach. The girl dies and Faber is prompted to rationalize that her death is just one of such probability-ridden events. Then it turns out that she is the daughter of the friend he fould dead in the jungle. Then, the course of events suggests that she is,n fact, Faber's daughter. And medical examination suggests that her death is caused by his mestake.
Therefore, fate has thrown into the hands of poor homo faber not only incest, but also death and guilt. Incest, avoided mothive in fiction (not without a reason) is used as tha last instance of unfortunate events.
Now you see why it's important that the events are so exagerated. Small odds of this course of events are here essential, while in film they are just that: very unlikely events. At the end, Faber is crushed and his system of belief shaken up. The last chapters remind of aimlessness with which Winston Smith stumbles about at the end of „1984“.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Film: Hero :-(

I realised that I'm not a big fan of classic Hollywood; not that dramatic approach of 40ies where heroine falls on her knees while dramatic violin music screechs on the soundtrack. Lars Fon Trier notices in his infamous "Dogme" manifest that directors often use music to pump up otherwise empty, context-less, emotion-less scenes, to cover up for his and actresses unability to evoke something out of the viewer with more stripped down means. There, I agree with him, and it's not the only trick that Hollywood uses.
I don't fall for Scarlet O'Hara falling down the stairs, the scene that might be singlehandedly responsible for corniness of countless TV's soap operas. I'm not a fan of William Wyler or Victor Fleming; that's all so far from Sam Fuller's modest experiments with black-white and colour variations (to name just one example).
This Hollywood that I don't like is modernised over time; in 80ies and 90ies, as it's emphasies I saw Stavan Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis. Music is not overdramatized chamber music anymore, it's gone symphonic and it's gained a lot of tempo. Picture is not marked with screeming colours of early film colour techniques, now it's slick, overproduced, shot as if every piece on the set has been polished to shining before shooting; It's plastic; It's too pretty, therefore it doesn't look real.
Now every story has it's means and this modern Hollywood does fit to films like "Who killed Roger Rabbit" - in fact, it fs perfectly to this film that's a lot to my liking, because the film itself doesn't try to look real; In fact, it leads you through a fantasy and lets you enjoy in its improbability.
But does it fit to a sharp, gritty satire? Of course not. Yet Stephen Frears' "Hero" goes for such satire, and then executes it with such innapropriate slick Hollywood style that at the moments we can't be sure we aren't watching "Ghostbusters". When the plain crashes in "Hero", it's supposed to be a dramatic, tragic event. Instead, we're waiting for E.T. to show up and lift the plane back in the air.
The director is Stephen Frears, perps best known for "Dangerous liasons", the film that is, in my opinion, inferior to "Valmont", Milos Forman's filming of the same novel. As Englishman, Friers has received the respectful notoriety that English directors have because, after all, hey, he's European director, which means an artist. The truth is that Friers is the least adventurous and the most predictable of all Brittish directors.
"Hero", on the other hand, lies on the idea that is so good that it's satirical edge works even from the short description.
And here it is: Bernie Laplante Is a small-time crook, stolen credit cards smuggler always muttering how the world is unfair to hiin his chin. A person noone likes and noone trusts. But one night, he witnesses a plane crash and practically on a whim, saves a dozen of passengers out of burning plane. Then he dissapears.
This is basically a call for analysis: is Bernie basically a good person pushed into a bad life by circumstances, or a bad person with a moment of inspiration? Or is there a line after which someone allows himself to be amoral, but when it comes down to the core, he (and all of us) is genuinely human? Film, unfortunately, deals more with how society (namely press) deals with this fenomenon than with fenomenon itself. But that's neglecting of the potential subtext of the idea, that beneath the crust of oportunism still lies humanity, not everywhere but very often where it's least expected. Noone expects Bernie To be selflessly human; society has given up on him; but is it right thing to do? Does his daily low life really mean that he's deprived of every moral? The idea challenges the way society usually deal with such people, with suggestion that this way is just a simplification.
Great director would know how to handle this. But Frears is not a great director. So instead he turns to easier target, which is mass-media. So he turns all the edge towards ambicious news reporters and TV stations. There are many films playing mass media satire, on top of my head "Network" and "Natural born killers". Do we need even more mass media satires? Wasn't everything already said in that area when "Hero" was made? Even if the answer is "no", that "Hero" deals with this subject is more a product of that Friers doesn't have any better idea of what to do with the material he's given.
But let's go on with the story. There is a public demand for the anonimous hero. Newspapers issue a reward for the hero, and a vagabond John Bubber (Andy Garcia) who hitched Bernie earlier that day, appears to collect the award. Quickly, it turns out that John is a kind, compassionate, charming guy. If he has underlying humanity like Bernie, s crust is much thinner. Using his influence, he starts humanitary actions which make his even more a hero in eyes of the public. In short, seemingly, John is the one who deserves title of the hero and fate made it that he does get it. Another satirical edge (that the film, sadly, misses to explore).
But John is (and that's quite a logical turn) eaten inside by guilt. Even with all good things he's done, he feels that he wronged Bernie by taking his place and peer pressure culminates so much that in the end, he tries to kill himself by jumping off the building. It's Bernie who drags his way to the ledge to talk him out. They sit above the ambis for some time, talking.
And then, and this is the important moment, as John and Bernie are about to return inside, Bernie slipps and falls, but is caught in the last moment, and saved by John.
I have no doubt that this scene was there to provide the last thrill and romanticized conclusion of two man bonding, and then, apparently Frears felt that, if John has wronged Bernie, he should have a chance to repay. Because John is a nice guy and we don't want nice guys to suffer from guilt after the film is over.
But the subtext sneaks in and in the end, what this scene tells is that John was the hero all the along. If he was at the place of the plane crash in time to save people, you might say that he was in right place at the right time, but this scene suggests that he was, in fact, wrong man to be there: it should have been John. There are people who are born heroes, and then people who are born scum; John is the hero, that's his role and even if he wasn't around some plane crash at the beggining, he's bound to prove his heroic nature in the end. Bernie, on the other hand, is brought down to helpless man hanging from the building, waiting for allmighty hero to save him. At this point that he found fimself in the role of hero at one point, seems like just a minor misscalculation of fate. But till the end, everything is set straight and everyone's in the place they deserve.
Says the film. I sometimes laugh when lesser competence authors turns their films into something they didn't calculate in. That this happened to "Hero" makes me sad because of wasted good idea. "Hero" is classic corny Hollywood entertainment, a kind that doesn't even try to say anything except perhaps the most obvious things (newsreporters are cold and ambitious? No shit, Sherlock!)
There are still things this film is worth watching. First, there's Dustin Hoffman, great in a kind of role that he patented later in his career. Then there's Geena Davis as the news reporter, who does a great job until she starts overacting near the end. And there are quite a few laughs here and there.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Film: Night on Earth

Now it's time to write about Jim Jarmush, who might be American director with the most consistently good films. Lately, he's being cheered for his latest Cannes jury award for "Broken flowers", but I'll return to his perhaps the most reckognizable, "Night on earth", also known as "that film with five taxy drivers in five cities".
Jarmush, like his colleagues Kubrick, Woody Allen or Wenders, is a man of vision; This vision is such individual, specific idea of what good films should be like, that his films (or films of mentioned colleagues) are instantly reckognizable. Directors like him don't have to recreate their vision each time for every new film; they don't take projects and then try to make something of them: they choose projects that they know will fit into their vision (which is, perhaps, a reason why they make films less often than other directors). Their films are personal, intimate and sincere.
There's also the other kind of directors, those who vary the style and purpose of their output, some of them take work for hire, others can't settle for one particular vision; some of them are good directors all right, but I believe that the honest, directly-from-the-heart message, and then also the true art, lies in work of the first ones. They are the ones who bare in front of audience, and that's when audience is treated as friend to whom they can confess - not as annonimous faces who stumbled to the cinema. Basically, that's poetry.
When trying to define Jarmush's vision, I recall of the interview in which he concludes that he is mostly interested in scenes that usually get cut out of most of films. He is not interested in people who get the bus, he's interested in those who are waiting for it. If a character achieves his goal in 10th attempt, most of films will deal with the time he suceeded, Jarmush will, however be more interested in any of those times he fails. Films (or any fiction), by rules of drama, concentrate on specific moments, those that can be singled out from the countless number of moments, those that are different. Jarmush feels that any of those moments that aren't special by any means, moments in which nothing happens, tell of life much more - and yet, aren't any less interesting. In such moments, he finds humor, sadness and subtle touches of characters that might otherwise be lost. It is impressive that he manages to apply this vision not only to low-key dramas like "Stranger than paradise", but also to western ("Dead man") or gangster film ("Ghost dog - the way of samurai'). The result is a lot of silence, a lot of mundane conversations, confusion, looks that might be meaningless a much aseaningfull, one impression that the film isn't rushing anywhere, that it's taking it's time, enjoying the moment and not caring if, in the end, it doesn't get anywhere and doesn't reach any of phases that drama theory requires.
Jarmush has a considerable fame as the independent director. Actors whose salaries often measure in millions, agree to play in his films for hundred times smaller sums because working with Jarmushin an honor and because it guarantees a good film. He has consistantly been refusing job offers from Hollywood. He strongly believes that there is no point in making films with big, hollywood budget when equally good (if not better) film can be made for 20.000 dollars. Therefore, he makes films for little money and, although his budget has been steadily rising over the years (yet nowhere near Hollywood budgets), he is, unlike most of independent directors, not interested in being assimilated into Hollywood.
Now, how Jarmush gets inspiration for his projects is another story: sometimes, it sounds like no good film can come out of it, least the ma terpiece. Many of his films are basically vehicles for characters he liked and wanted to work with; Such is his first film "Permanent vacation"; Such is "Down by low", in which he used oportunity to work with a fascinating hyperactive comedian, back then unknown out of italy, Roberto Benigni; Such is "Ghost dog" in which he explored solemn charisma of Forest Whithaker, and then there is also "Broken flowers" with Bill Murray who, in his elder age, made the reputation as the best drama actor of all comedians.
"Stranger than paradise", his second feature and his breakthrough, was originally a short film recorded on restles of the tape from mang of one of Wenders' films, which he gave to Jarmush. After the sucess, film was lengthened, using original short as the first 1/3. "Mistery train", 3-piece placed in Memphis with Elvis' fame as light mothive, was also based on idea for a short film that was lengthened with two additional stories, and "Coffee and cigarettes" was an assembly of short sketches that he made over the years, using the oportunity on shooting of every film of his, to make a short clip with acters he was working with at the moment.
And then "Night on earth", it was, by Jarmush's testimony, made because he has friends all over America and Europe, and wanted to use making of the film as an oportunity to spend some time with each of them. Out of five stories, the one taking place in Rome was an excuse to reunite with Benigni, and the one placed in Helsinki was, no doubt, quality time spent with his friends, brother directors Aki and Mika Kaurismaki.
But Jarmush's imagination, his writing talent and then, his vision, made this film anything but the excuse. Each story of these five is a little jewel.
"Night on earth" is a five-piece film, each piece placed in a different city across the western world, each by night and each taking place in a cab. It's an ode to night taxi drivers.
Stories string going from west to east: LA, New York, Paris, Rome, Helsinki; as the geographis width grows, the night is older and older and each storry happens at different time of the night; the story in LA happens late at evening, as the night is still young and city isn't asleep yet; The last story in Helsinki happens early in the morning.
LA: Gena Rowlands is a Hollywood producer, Winona Ryder is a kid taxi driver. Intrigued, Rowlands tries to recruit the driver for a role in the film but Ryder refuses: her life is already planned out. Once, i used to admire to the simplicity of the young driver's plans and her determination; Nowadays, i feel that her plans and her simplicity were standing in the way of the spontanuity and adventure.
Ney Work: Giancarlo Esposito is an afro-american named Yoyo, Rosie Perez is his sister-in-law hispano-american, Armin Mueller-Stahl Is immigrant from east Germany named Helmut, and we are witnesses of this character and ethnical mess typical of New York. Accent it on Helmut's spiritually romantic eastern-European way of adapting to USA. Money doesn't mean anything to him, he says, but he needs it. Light comedy takes place of melancholy of the LA story.
Paris: Isaach De Bankole Is a dark-skined taxi driver who drives a blind girl played by Beatrice Dall. He is intrigued by the confidence that she shows in her blindness. He finds that the confidence has something to do with the fact that limitations of eyesight which can observe only the surface, don't apply to her. To know something means feeling it, and sometimes people who can see think that feeling it isn't neccesary. As she's leaving, he says "Take care"; "No, you take care", she says - because he needs it more.
Rome: fast slide from serious to farsic comedy: Benigni is a cab driver who insists on confessing stories of his perverted youth to abpassenger, priest with a weak heart, until he kills him. That's Rome, center of world's strongest religion at it's most conservative, shoulder to shoulder with freewheeling sexuality and medditerranean temperament. How can those two exist in one place anyway? Benigni was never better before or after this, telling his obscene text with such conviction and passion that parrodies itself.
Helsinki: A cab driver (Matti Pelonpaa) driving a few drankards, hears a sob story of one of them, then retorts with his tragic story that makes the first story a child play. Finnish language and actors remind of Aki's films, but depressing snow-white morning is nowhere near the warmness of his films.
What does it boil down to? Here's celebration to the Earth, that busy place. Whatever time of the night is you can be sure that at the same time, somewhere in the world is the busiest time of the day; Furthermore, there is life near you, in your city, people hitching cabs, attending their business; The Earth never stops, no matter how quiet our city seems at times; life's everywhere around us and many times we seem not to notice it. So different in tone, five stories evoke hidden richness of night life.
Jarmush has shown in other films that he can appreciate nature, silence, solemnity, but his heart is really in underprecciated quality of urban life, noise, fuss, life as most of us know it.