Saturday, January 31, 2009

Double Feature: Day for Night (1973) / 8 1/2 (1963)

“I demand that a film express either the joy of making cinema or the agony of making cinema. I am not at all interested in anything in between; I am not interested in all those films that do not pulse.”

So said François Truffaut, the renowned French director of such films as The 400 Blows and Jules and Jim. In addition to being one of cinema’s greatest artists, he was also one of its greatest patrons. Truffaut began his career as a film critic, and according to those who knew him, he had an encyclopedic knowledge of films and an unadulterated love for the filmmaking process. That love comes across in his 1973 film Day for Night, which examines the family dynamic that forms between the cast and crew of a lightweight studio film named Meet Pamela. An interesting counterpoint is Federico Fellini’s 8 ½, about a director whose long-in-development film leaves his personal life in ruin. Upon first glance, it would appear that the two films are polar opposites, but both films “pulse” with a creative energy and the joy of cinema that Truffaut was so adamant about.

Every frame of Day for Night is bursting with love for the movie-making process. Truffaut plays Ferrand, the director of the studio comedy Meet Pamela. Jean-Pierre Leaud is Alphonse, the temperamental young star. Jacqueline Bisset plays Julie, a slightly unstable actress who has the title role in Meet Pamela. Truffaut fills out his film with other movie types – the aging supporting actress, the script girl, and various crew members.

Day for Night takes the form of a series of vignettes rather than a developed narrative, giving us a fly-on-the-wall look at life on a movie set. We observe the crew film a busy crowd scene, a car chase stunt, a simple dining room scene, and all the while we pick up on various film-making techniques. We share in the frustrations of the crew, as a cat refuses to lap up milk on cue, or as the aging actress Severine stumbles over her lines. Off set, we witness the relationships that develop among the cast and crew – friendships, romances, flings. All the while, the cast and crew are seen as a family, who share good times and console each other during bad ones.

The center of the film, though, is Ferrand, played by Truffaut as a version of himself. Truffaut once said that when he first saw Citizen Kane, he realized that he had never loved anyone as much as that film. The same would certainly be true of Ferrand, who remains doggedly fixated on making his movie above all else. To be sure, Ferrand develops friendships with his actors, and is never emotionally distant. Yet when Ferrand tries to console Alphonse after a romance gone wrong, his advice is to focus on learning his lines, because “people like you and me are only happy in our work.” That is one of the film’s strongest scenes, and it exemplifies what is so compelling about Day for Night. Not only is Truffaut’s adoration of cinema infectious, but the movie is filled with truthful human relationships.

Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ is also ostensibly about the making of a movie, but it is not really a film about film in the way that Day for Night is. The protagonist of 8 ½ is Guido (Marcello Mastroianni), a celebrated director whose film and life are crumbling around him. On vacation at a resort spa along with his producers, writer, and potential stars, Guido is hounded from all sides by people who are telling him how to make his film. The truth is, Guido doesn’t know what film he wants to make, and he finds solace in drifting into his childhood memories and his fantasies, embodied by a luminous Claudia Cardinale as the woman of his dreams. At the same time, Guido has to compete with the real women in his life – his mistress Carla (Sandra Milo) and jealous wife Luisa (Anouk Aimee).

8 ½ is remarkable on many levels. Fellini’s film weaves seamlessly between reality and fantasy, past and present without seeming at all heavy-handed. Unlike Guido, Fellini is in full command of his craft, and each segment builds upon the last to create a fuller portrait of Guido. That is not to say that every single shot or symbol makes sense. In one bizarre outdoors scene, Fellini pans past a group of characters who smile directly into the camera, and move in perfect synchronization as if they are in a sort of dance. There is no apparent reason for this, except that Fellini, ever the visual stylist, thought it looked interesting. That is not a criticism, but rather an example of how Fellini refused to follow conventions, constantly experimenting with structure and movement and composition. The film was originally titled The Beautiful Confusion, and that is exactly what it is. Even when we don’t fully understand Fellini’s intentions, his masterful direction and Gianni de Venanzo lush black-and-white photography keep the audience fully involved.

I have probably made 8 ½ sound far too esoteric, but it is really quite an entertaining movie. Fellini kept a note attached to his camera that read “Remember, this is a comedy.” Indeed, it is a rather broad comedy at times. One of the film’s most memorable sequences is a dream envisioned by Guido, who imagines a harem filled with all of the women in his life. They dote upon him, giving him baths, washing his home and preparing dinner. In another scene, Guido remembers as a schoolboy visiting the severely overweight Saraghina (Eddra Gale), a prostitute who does a grotesque and hilarious dance on the beach.

Despite these comic scenes, though, I would not generally characterize 8 ½ as a comedy. Guido spends most of the film in an unhappy state, only taking comfort in his dreams and fantasies. Only in the end does Guido find happiness, as he abandons his movie and decides to pick up the scattered pieces of his life. “Life is a celebration,” Guido tells his wife Luisa, “let’s live it together!” Fellini, unlike Truffaut, seems to be concluding that life is more important than film. And yet Day for Night and 8 ½ are not at all incompatible; both emphasize the joy of making cinema in their own way. Truffaut points out the simple pleasures of movie-making, the day-to-day gratifications of being on a set. And Fellini, through the creation of 8 ½, shows us that he is an artist of the first order, using the tools of his trade to examine the pieces of a man’s life – a beautiful confusion indeed.

Day for Night: A
8 ½: A+

Monday, January 19, 2009

Three Colors Trilogy: Blue/White/Red (1993-1994)

The three colors in Krzysztof Kieslowski's Three Colors trilogy are said to represent the colors of the French flag, and the values they stand for - blue (liberty), white (equality), and red (fraternity). But the trilogy is about as apolitical a work as one can imagine. The three values are examined from an emotional, not a political standpoint. Like Kieslowski’s The Decalogue, a series of ten hour-long films examining each of the Ten Commandments, the Three Colors trilogy explores the meaning of a traditional set of values in the modern world. Seen on their own, the films stand up as rich and fascinating character studies. But the trilogy is greater than the sum of its parts, and ultimately emerges as a beautiful and haunting work – despite some missteps.

Blue tells the story of Julie (Juliette Binoche), whose husband (a famous composer) and daughter are killed in a car crash at the beginning of the film. Julie decides to break off any connection to her past life, abandoning her home and moving to a Paris apartment. In White, a Polish man named Karol Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski) is divorced and abandoned by his French wife of six months, Dominique (Julie Delpy). He eventually returns to post-communist Poland, rebuilds his life, and becomes determined on seeking revenge. Red closes out the trilogy with the story of an unlikely friendship that forms between a kindhearted young model (Irène Jacob) and a cynical old judge (Jean-Louis Trintignant).

Blue begins the trilogy with a bang - a purely figurative one, though, since Blue is a very quiet, subtle, and somber film. There is no “plot” to speak of, other than the set up in which Julie loses her family in a car crash. Rather, Kieslowski gives us an almost first-person look into Julie’s life, without providing any exposition. She is an intriguing character from the start precisely because we do not understand her. Why can she not carry on with her suicide attempt? Why does she sleep with her husband’s colleague only days after her release from the hospital? Why does she decide to toss away her husband’s last great work, a piece of music he was writing for a prestigious European concert? These kinds of questions propel Blue, and Binoche’s ambiguous performance is fascinating.

The film is also wonderful to look at. Kieslowski uses the color blue to great effect – a blue haze dominates some scenes, blue beads dangle from Julie’s apartment, and Julie takes late night swims in a lonely blue pool. The film also makes great use of classical music, particularly the consistently replayed “Song for the Unification of Europe” composed by Julie’s late husband. Blue closes with an incredibly artful montage that shows the various characters in Julie’s new life. It is a perfect blending of image and music, and a fitting end to this masterful work of art.

White is considerably less brilliant. It is the only comedy in the trilogy, and as a result seems rather disconnected from the two other films. It is the most narratively busy movie in the trilogy, with its story arc of a Polish man who gets divorced by his wife, winds up a beggar in Paris, returns to Poland, starts a successful business, and eventually hatches a revenge scheme to get even with his wife. Yet for all this plotting, the characters themselves simply are not very interesting. The relationship between Karol and his wife Dominique, which the entire film hinges upon, is never fully developed. For the most part, the film fails to connect on an emotional level.

White is not without its strengths, however. As with the other films in the Three Colors Trilogy, it features exceptionally strong acting from its leads, particularly Zbigniew Zamachowski as Karol. His performance is not as nuanced as the female leads in Blue and Red, but he is a perfectly likable and funny hero. The supporting cast is equally strong, with the standout being Janusz Gajos as Mikolaj, the Polish man who befriends Karol and helps him to get his life back. Mikolaj is not without his own demons, however, and the friendship between Karol and Mikolaj is one of the most compelling features of White. Kieslowski also again makes great use of the color white in telling his story. White is not a bad film, necessarily. It just feels somewhat lightweight in the company of Blue and Red.

Red brings the trilogy full circle with a fascinating study of chance and friendship. Irène Jacob stars as Valentine, a lonely young model who by chance meets a retired judge named Joseph Kern when she runs over his dog. Valentine is initially turned off by Joseph’s cynicism and habit of spying on his neighbors. Yet a friendship quickly develops between these two unlikely friends. Running parallel to this story is the story of Auguste (Jean-Pierre Lorit), a young judge struggling with love. Auguste lives next door to Valentine, yet they somehow never meet.

Red works on a number of different levels. There are character parallels between the young and old judge, there is the sheer artistry of the cinematography and editing, and there are the motifs that echo themes from the previous two films. But the most memorable scenes in Red are those of Valentine and Joseph just talking. I have consistently praised the acting of the trilogy, but Jean-Louis Trintignant as Joseph really outdoes himself here. Like Valentine, we at first dislike Joseph and take him for a nasty old man, but Trintignant slowly shows us the many layers that make up this man, and the tragedy that he is hiding. Above all, Red is an intelligent film about human connections.

Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors trilogy is a work greater than the sum of its parts. Although I did not greatly appreciate White, I have come to admire it as a piece of the whole, along with the masterful Blue and Red. The whole trilogy could be dissected endlessly, in an examination of its themes, and its use of color, cinematography, music, and editing. Yet what stood out to me upon first viewing were the quiet moments of pure human emotion - Julie’s conversation with a stripper in Blue, Mikolaj’s life-altering decision in White, and Valentine and Joseph’s final conversation in Red. This is the real triumph of the Three Colors trilogy – besides being a technical triumph, it understands what it is to be human.

Blue: A
White: B –
Red: A

Trilogy: A -

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Double Feature: Grand Illusion (1937) / Paths of Glory (1957)

“Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.”
- Samuel Johnson

That line is quoted early on in Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, a brilliant World War I film about a risky mission gone wrong. But it might have just as well belonged in Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion, an influential French film that deals with the relationships between a group of French officers in a German war camp. Although the films were made two decades apart and in different countries, the similarities are striking. Both are black-and-white World War I films about the French army, and both have strong anti-war messages. The two films tackle different realities of war, though – Paths of Glory deplores military corruption, while Grand Illusion laments the way war tears apart human relationships.

Grand Illusion is a war film without the war. There is never a single battle sequence in the film, nor should there be. The story focuses on a group of French officers who are taken as prisoners of war in a German prison camp. Among the captives are Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay), a wealthy aristocrat, Lieutenant Maréchal (Jean Gabin), a middle-class soldier, and Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), a Jewish banker. The men spend every night digging an underground tunnel to escape, but they are deported to another camp before they get the chance. At the new camp, the supposedly inescapable Wintersborn, they meet up with the German Captain von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim), who first shot down Boeldieu’s plane. At Wintersborn, the men eventually pull off a somewhat successful escape, but not without the cost of one man’s life.

I spent much of the first half of Grand Illusion puzzled at its supposedly pacifist message. I suppose I was used to films like Saving Private Ryan, which depicts horrible conditions and sickeningly violent battles to push its message that war is hell. In contrast, the prison camp in Grand Illusion seems downright cheery. The prisoners are treated well, given large quarters, seem fairly happy, and even put on a musical show. But I began to understand that Renoir was not interested in depicting the physical horrors of war. Renoir wrote that the film was “a story about human relationships,” and it is exactly that.

The key relationship in the film is the one between Captain de Boeldieu and Captain von Rauffenstein. Von Rauffenstein is a hospitable captor – after he shoots down the plane, he invites Boeldieu to lunch before he is sent to the camp. The two captains immediately get on, discussing a mutual friend in Berlin. Later, when Boeldieu is reunited with von Rauffenstein at Wintersborg, they seem glad to see each other again, and have a conversation about what will come about after the war. It has been said that World War I was the most literary war; it was led by well-educated aristocrats. That idea runs throughout Grand Illusion, especially in the scenes with the two captains. They discuss how the age of the aristocrat is ending, and von Rauffenstein speaks of having to go on leading a “futile existence” after the war. The scenes between the two men have great poignancy, and the acting is tremendous. Apparently Erich von Stroheim spoke almost no German and struggled through his lines, but he conveys the essence of his character with facial expressions. Von Stroheim was himself a silent movie director, and no doubt realized the power of facial acting.

Another important relationship is introduced near the end of the film. Maréchal and Rosenthal have escaped, and stay with a German widow named Elsa (Dita Parlo) in the countryside. A romance blossoms between Maréchal and Elsa, even though neither can speak the other’s language. But the two soldiers have to leave for Switzerland, and Elsa breaks down crying, telling Maréchal how she has been alone for so long. These two relationships (von Rauffenstein and Boeldieu, Maréchal and Elsa) reveal the essential tragedy of Grand Illusion. Outside of war, these characters would be best friends, but war dictates that they cannot be.

If aristocratic French officers are the heroes of Grand Illusion, they are the villains in Paths of Glory. Kirk Douglas is Colonel Dax, just about the only sympathetic officer in the film. Dax’s corrupt superior officer, General Mireau (George Macready) is ordered by his superior, General George Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) to lead an attack on a well-fortified German hill. Dax insists that it is a suicide mission, but Mireau insists on the attack – mainly for the possibility of promotion. When the attack inevitably fails, Mireau blames it on cowardice, and orders 3 men to be tried under penalty of death. The trial is a sham, and despite Dax’s noblest efforts, the three innocent men are ordered to die.

Paths of Glory is a very cynical film, exposing the inherent corruption in the high ranks of the army. The battle scenes are grim, and probably more harrowing than most films of the time, but the most terrifying scenes occur “behind the scenes,” so to speak – in offices and courts. After the mission inevitably fails, Mireau calls a meeting with Colonel Dax and General Broulard. Mireau, who prides himself on being a principled patriot, initially calls for one hundred men to be killed. Broulard calms him down, eventually working the number down to three, much to Mireau’s disappointment.

The scene is disturbing because it becomes clear how cold and distant these generals are. They feel no guilt in sentencing three innocent men to death and then genially making lunch plans. Dax, meanwhile, is caught in the middle, working his best to defend the innocent men. Douglas may be more of a movie star than a great actor, but his performance in Paths of Glory is very effective. Dax is appalled at the situation, but must contain his anger during the trial. The whole film is a very quiet one. For the most part, there are no impassioned monologues, no tirades against injustice – until the penultimate scene in the film. After the execution, Broulard offers Dax Mireau’s job, implying that Dax has been aiming for promotion all along. Dax, who feels like he has been used, finally explodes, calling Broulard a “degenerate, sadistic old man” and refuses to apologize. The scene is cathartic for both Dax and the audience.

Kubrick adds an interesting tag to the end of the film. The soldiers are gathered in a bar, where a captured German woman is brought onstage to sing a folk song. The men cheer and whistle, but when she starts singing the whole place falls silent. Everyone is clearly affected, and several of the men visibly weep. It’s not clear why - maybe they are thinking of their sweethearts back home, or maybe they are just wondering how this poor woman found herself so far from home. But for a moment, the German woman and the French soldiers, so different superficially, are united in song. It is a very emotional scene, and would not have felt out of place in Grand Illusion. Indeed, I wonder if Kubrick was inspired by Renoir’s film.

Both Grand Illusion and Paths of Glory are incredibly accomplished films. Grand Illusion is by far more influential, and is widely praised as one of the greats of French cinema. But Paths of Glory is a wonderful example of studio filmmaking by a true auteur who would soon transcend it. Grand Illusion shows that a bond can exist between people who should have nothing to do with each other. In the same way, two directors from different backgrounds and countries here made two separate masterworks about the follies of war.

Grand Illusion: A
Paths of Glory: A

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

The Shawshank Redemption has enjoyed quite a popular revival in the years since its 1994 release. It opened initially to mediocre box office, and was largely ignored in a year dominated by Forrest Gump and Pulp Fiction. Ironically, it has now gained status as a modern classic, and currently sits in the number one position on IMDb's Top 250, which ranks the public's highest-rated films. Yes, according to thousands of voters, The Shawshank Redemption is the greatest film of all time. I find it absurd to think any such thing exists, and even more absurd to think that this film tops the likes of The Godfather, Citizen Kane, Casablanca, and countless others. Still, all hyperbole aside, The Shawshank Redemption is a beautifully constructed and inspiring piece of entertainment.

The story concerns Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), a mild-mannered banker who is convicted on circumstantial evidence of killing his wife and her lover. He is then sent to Shawshank Prison for two life sentences. Andy makes friends with Red (Morgan Freeman), an inmate who is known throughout the prison as the man who "knows how to get things." The film chronicles 20 years in Andy's life, depicting the friendships that form between the prisoners and the corruption of the prison system.

From the very beginning, The Shawshank Redemption presents a very intimate portrayal of prison life. Almost the entire film is set within the walls of Shawshank, and over the course of the story’s two decades, we begin to understand the characters and their traditions. During the first scene at the prison, we jump in on the middle of such a tradition. As the convicts watch the new arrivals shuffle in from a bus, they place bets on who will be the first to break down crying. Red bets on Andy. There is a certain macabre formality about that scene. We realize that the inmates have seen bus after bus pull in to Shawshank over the years, knowing full well that prison will break some men.

But much to Red’s disappointment, it does not break Andy, who remains silent all through his first night. Andy soon emerges as something of an oddity at Shawshank. His walk is a carefree stroll, and he does not seem to be terribly perturbed to be in prison (although it is quickly established that he is innocent). Robbins plays the character as something of an enigma; he talks rarely, and we never fully understand him. Yet he quickly earns the respect of everyone at the prison – even the warden (Bob Gunton), who enlists Andy to handle prison finances.

Red, Morgan Freeman’s character, is the other primary protagonist of the film. Freeman is as always a likable actor, but he may be too likable here. After all, Red is a convicted murderer, but like many of the other prisoners, we never see that side of his personality. This illustrates the main problem with the movie – the prison seems too nice, too friendly, too warm. There are exceptions, of course. In several scenes, Andy is raped by a gang of men, and the prison guards are always violent and nasty. But the movie is severely lacking in moral ambiguity. With few exceptions, the prisoners are all good and the guards and warden are evil.

Still, The Shawshank Redemption is rather brilliant in the way it shows the long-term effects of prison. In one scene, an old convict named Brooks (James Whitmore) is finally released on parole. He stumbles alone through 1950s America, staring at strange cars and working a menial job at a grocery store. The tragedy is that in prison, Brooks was somebody – everyone knew and respected him as the librarian. In the real world, he is just a lonely old man.

The Shawshank Redemption is also beautiful to look at, though never too showy. For the majority of the film, the color scheme is muted, and everything seems realistic. This stylistic choice seems to fit with the oppression of the prison setting. The one major exception is a triumphant moment near the end of the film, which is simply gorgeous in its imagery. I won’t describe it, as it reveals a key plot point. But it is the most memorable scene in the film, and it really exemplifies what The Shawshank Redemption is all about. A few weeks ago I wrote about Cool Hand Luke, another prison movie, saying it was “a stirring affirmation of the human spirit in the face of adversity.” The same can be said of this particular scene, and of The Shawshank Redemption in general. “I guess it comes down to a simple choice,” Andy tells Red. “Get busy livin’, or get busy dyin’.”

Verdict: A-

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Ikiru (1952)

The title of Akira Kurosawa's 1952 film Ikiru means "To Live" and it is about a man who is dying. If that sounds like a paradox, try this - Ikiru is on the surface a tragic story, but it is an optimistic and deeply life-affirming movie that never once relies on sentimentality or melodrama.

is the story of Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura), a poor wretch of a government official who serves as the Section Chief of Public Affairs at City Hall. His wife died years ago, and although he lives with his son and daughter-in-law, they harbor no great affection for him. His life is lonely and boring, and as the narrator informs us, "This man has been dead for 20 years." One day Watanabe is diagnosed with stomach cancer, and he discovers that he has only six months to live. In an effort to make the most of his remaining life, Watanabe at first spends a night touring Tokyo's nightclubs with a stranger he meets at a bar, but he finds little happiness. Then he forms a friendship with a young co-worker, until she eventually deems him creepy. Eventually, Watanabe becomes determined to make something before he dies, focusing on turning a dirty neighborhood cesspool into a public park.

Akira Kurosawa is best known for his samurai epics, like Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, and The Hidden Fortress. But the story of Ikiru is decidedly more intimate. It proves that Kurosawa's talent extends far beyond depicting violence - he can also deliver meaningful stories about real people. Much of the credit, of course, goes to Takashi Shimura, who is perfect as Watanabe. Shimura was a well-known Japanese movie star, but he never feels like one. The movie never glorifies Watanabe - he is an ordinary, lonely man, and often seems rather pathetic. But Shimura makes him an incredibly endearing and likable character, and I felt great empathy for Watanabe.

One of the film's most moving scenes takes place in a Tokyo nightclub, where Watanabe sits alone while young couples dance happily around him. He requests that the pianist play an old love song called "Life is Brief." As the song begins, Watanabe starts to sing. All action around him stops, as everyone focuses their attention on this sad old man, who tearfully sings
"Life is brief.
Fall in love, maidens
Before the crimson bloom
Fades from your lips
Before the tides of passion
Cool within you,
For those of you
Who know no tomorrow."
Shimura's performance is magnetic in that scene. Towards the end of the song, Kurosawa focuses only on Watanabe's face, and that is all we need to see - the sad, tired old face of a man who has given up - at least for the time being.

But Ikiru is far from melancholy. There is great humor to be found throughout the film. One early scene satirizes the inefficient bureaucracy of Watanabe's workplace, as disinterested workers filter a public concern through at least a dozen different departments, accomplishing nothing. The nightclub scenes also have moments of great comedy, as Watanabe dances awkwardly with young women and looks grotesquely out of place. And there is a darkly funny scene in the doctor's waiting room, where a chatty patient unknowingly gossips with Watanabe about another patient's symptoms - the same symptoms that Watanabe is suffering from - and attributes it to stomach cancer. The film alternates between moments of great sadness and joy, much like life.

Kurosawa makes an interesting structural choice about halfway through Ikiru. As soon as Watanabe decides to build the park, the film jumps forward in time a few months to his wake, and the rest of the story is told in flashback. We see Watanabe's co-workers discuss his remarkable change in attitude, and we see his boss take credit for the construction of the park, even though the villagers insist that it was Watanabe's passion that saw the project through. Kurosawa provides no easy resolution here. Watanabe's son and daughter-in-law are heartbroken to reveal that Watanabe never told them of his sickness. The truth of Watanabe's achievement is distorted after his death. And even the few workers who claim to be inspired by Watanabe's altruism soon forget it, and go back to meaninglessly filing papers at work.

Yet Ikiru is an undeniably optimistic movie, and Watanabe's legacy lives on in his one great achievement. Interestingly, the park is never seen in full until the film's closing shot. When we finally do see it, the park is quite small, and even appears somewhat dirty. But that is part of what makes Ikiru so touching - everything about the film seems starkly realistic, and yet it still has the power to inspire. So many Hollywood endings are contrived and sugar-coated, and to see something like Ikiru is revelatory. I cannot fully explain why - that is waiting for you to discover.

Verdict: A+