Saturday, October 31, 2009

F for Fake (1973)

Directed by Orson Welles.
Starring Orson Welles and Oja Kodar.
In a Nutshell: Orson Welles examines the nature of fraud.

In the opening scene of Orson Welles’ final movie, F for Fake, he presents himself as a sly magician, making a quarter disappear and reappear before a child’s awe-struck eyes. The self-described charlatan turns to the camera with a winking air, and promises the audience an “essay film” on the nature deception, adding that not everything in this film will be entirely truthful either. Guided by Welles’ rapid (and many times misleading) editing, the film examines four artists whose careers have skewered the line of authenticity; art forger Elmry de Hory, faux Howard Hughes biographer Clifford Irving, Pablo Picasso (in a story reenacted with Welles’ real-life partner Oja Kodar), and Welles himself.

The movie is structured as Welles’ inner monologue reminiscing on both the nature of fakery and his own success (which arose from his infamous War of the Worlds radio broadcast and fictionalized Hearst biography). Welles openly questions whether or not their fraudulent nature nullifies them as artists. He reflects with a jesting air, though his narration can never find a cohesive thread to rest on. It threatens to confuse the viewer out of Welles’ presentation, but is saved by the grace of his compelling subjects and personal observations on his own life. That is key to enjoying F for Fake; putting yourself entirely in the trust of Welles’ storytelling.

Throughout, Welles offers plenty of wry, but not cynical observations about his own esteemed and commercially unsuccessful career. It is this self-reflection that allows him to playful examine Hory and Irving in their chosen career of deception and unravel their motivations for doing so. This makes F for Fake a love letter to the art of moviemaking, how the distortion of reality uncovers hidden truth. At the end, Welles reveals the fakery perpetrated within the very film and is becomes clear that Welles the magician was no mere put-on. Free of the constraints of the normal documentary, F for Fake remains one of the most inventive non-fiction films and one of the better pranks of cinema.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Rashomon (1950)

Directed by Akira Kurosawa.
Starring Toshirō Mifune and Machiko Kyō.
In a Nutshell: A murder and rape is depicted through four conflicting perspectives.

During Rashomon, one character states, “It's human to lie. Most of the time we can't even be honest with ourselves.” An almost verbatim quote from Akira Kurosawa himself, Rashomon is a still powerful film about how we can distort our own reality. Its famous storytelling approach was revolutionary, but beyond gimmickry; Rashomon was the first of its kind to supply conflicting realties and then never arrive at some tidy conclusion while the camera betrays the trust we have to report the truth. The film begins in a rundown gatehouse where a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) and priest recount a horrific incident that occurred one muggy afternoon. A feared bandit (Toshirō Mifune, a bundle of animalistic fury) rapes the wife (Machiko Kyō) of a samurai (Masayuki Mori). That much is fact, but the accounts of the bandit, woman, samurai (through a medium) and woodcutter give their own set of details that alter motivation and who exactly killed the samurai.

But the actual chronology of events is not the objective, something too many Rashomon derivatives invest too much importance in. Instead, Rashomon tells us that no man can ever obtain absolute truth. Each participant in the crime tries to twist the events based on their own guilt and delusions. For example, with Mifune’s samurai, we can easily see how each version still has the same person even as he tries to present himself in a nobler light. The samurai and his wife are more fluid and can come off as weak-willed, victims, or brave depending on who is telling the story. Only the woodcutter acts as an outside witness, but his uncertainty does not make his version any more reputable.

Rashomon is not only a terrific advancement in storytelling, but beautiful on a technical level. The woods are rendered in crisp black and white, the midday heat radiating off the screen. Meanwhile the sparseness of the courtroom and gatehouse convey the deceiving simplicity of Rashomon’s tale against the character’s distortions. That Kurosawa never resolves the crime does not infuriate, but brings new facets of the characters upon each viewing. To add a solid conclusion would undermine the film’s purpose to study how we report the truth. Rashomon distinct mark in film has inspired many like-minded works, but its intensity and fascination will never be duplicated.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Scenes from a Marriage (1973)

Directed by Ingmar Bergman.
Starring Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson.
In a Nutshell: The portrait of a couple’s disintegrating marriage and enduring love.

Scenes from a Marriage, the saga of one couple’s relationship pre and post divorce, may be one of the most intimate and honest look at marriage ever put on screen. The marriage is between divorce lawyer Marianne (Liv Ullmann) and college professor Johan (Erland Josephson). Both are intelligent, independent and successful, with no real issues disrupting their lives. Until early in the film, Johan announces he is having an affair and decides he will walk out on Marianne. She is willing to save the marriage, but he leaves, stranding Marianne without any sense of identity. The film follows the next ten years of their lives as they fight against the resentment and attraction between each other.

To watch these two struggle against their feelings and fail to make a clean break is wrenching. Little emotion is left out or unexpressed, and Ingmar Bergman fearlessly dives into the character’s souls. Once Johan leaves with his mistress, Marianne feels misplaced but slowly regains a free-spirited self that dilutes her sexual confusion. But Johan returns, desperate for Marianne’s affection. Marianne complies, but only to prove to herself that she truly does not love him anymore, which causes Johan to lash out at her violently. The relationship only gets increasingly hard to end. Bergman keeps the whole film indoors (and in few locations) with tight framing on the two leads. We feel trapped in their fight, uncomfortably so, but allows Bergman to present the marriage as openly as possible.

None of Johan and Marianne’s relationship would have had an ounce of depth if not for its textured performances. Ullmann must balance her character’s stifled independence without becoming a bland wallflower, but handles it with grace. Her scenes of liberation from Johan are some of the most touching in a film full of wounding emotion. Johan could have easily been a weak man, aloof or uncaring to his self-interest only to come crawling back on his knees. But the screenplay develops him into a well-rounded insight into male societal expectation that Josephson’s understated performance complements well. The film may examine its couple almost too closely, but it takes great care to examine why Marianne and Johan continue to find solace in each other many years after their marriage ended. Such brutal, naked honesty fails to define Johan and Marianne’s relationship into mere words, but as a fundamental human desire for love and understanding. It is as mature a look into marriage as you will ever see on film and one of Bergman’s absolute best.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Directed by Stanley Kubrick.
Starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman.
In a Nutshell: A doctor infiltrates a sex cult after a marital secret comes to light.

Eyes Wide Shut, a disorienting look into dehumanized marriage, is a worthy bookend to Stanley Kubrick’s peerless and polarizing filmography. It is also Kubrick’s most adult picture, exploring the lies of happy marriages and the sexual nightmares that occur beyond closed doors. Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman (married at the time) star as Bill and Alice Hartford, a wealthy New York couple living an ideal marriage. Bill is a respected doctor attracting plenty of unwanted attention, but finds security in Alice’s fidelity. However, the night after a Christmas party, where both find themselves deflecting advances from guests (Alice’s in particular being the most transparent of seducers) Alice reveals that she nearly left Bill for a navel officer many years ago. Shaken, Bill decides to wander New York after attending a house call. He ends up meeting with an old friend, who leads him to an orgy where Bill’s involvement may have lead to the death of a party guest.

That handsome and multimillion dollar movie stars Cruise and Kidman were asked to play the central couple already places Bill and Alice’s marriage in a higher plane than our own, allowing our objective view into their (soon to be ruined) utopia. Bill is unassuming to his wife’s secrets, that end up puncturing a world he once thought he had control over. And indeed, the city of New York becomes a parade of characters that try to edge Bill towards their own sexual agendas. The orgy Bill attends is by far the coldest and most artificial expression of sex throughout the film, as masked guests passionlessly and noiselessly embrace together in isolation. Therein lies the dichotomy of Bill’s two options; impersonal sex with the women he meets, or his wife, fully realized before him, but now no more than another fixture in his upscale NY life.

This movie delves into many themes on the nature of men and women, marriage, even conspiracy. But what makes the film so memorable is not Kubrick’s exploration, but in his presentation of his beautifully unreal world. Eyes Wide Shut’s New York is a studio set sapping any of the charm accompanying an on-location shoot. The interior locations (the orgy, the Christmas party, the Hartford’s apartment) convey an European-like demeanor, stately but detached of warmth. Cruise gives a passive, restrained performance (unlike Kidman, a sensational window into the female cognition) that both enforces his disconnect with the world around him, but allows him to act as the audience’s surrogate through his strange adventure. In ideas alone, Eyes Wide Shut is not the most revolutionary in examining the collapse of marriage, but gives a thrillingly cinematic portal into Kubrick’s mechanized view of love. The final scene provides the glimmer of hope that Bill and Alice will improve their marriage. It is slight, but maybe it proves that Kubrick was not so cynical about human progression after all.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

La notte (1961)

Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni.
Starring Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau.
In a Nutshell: A writer and his socialite wife become aware of their loveless marriage.

La notte is the middle chapter of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Incommunicability Trilogy and the most frustrating to endure. Its main couple, a successful writer named Giovanni (Marcello Mastroianni) and his bored wife, Lidia (Jeanne Moreau), are the sort of people we cannot help but hold no sympathy for. Both are wealthy, attractive, surrounded by friends of equal stature and spend their lives attending parties and mixing with high culture. Both can barely pretend there is any life left in their marriage as Giovanni shamelessly chases women while Lidia half-heartedly deflects advances from other men. As both move from one social gathering to the next, it becomes to clear just how far the crack in their relationship has grown.

Antonioni has always been a director of spaces. Wide, desolate planes where his character’s hopelessness and modern angst fills the screen. Everything down to the parties that Lidia and Giovanni attend feel uninhabited. Thankfully, Antonioni’s style gives his material a maturity and restraint that could have easily delved into over-wrought visual clichés. Particularly since Giovanni and Lidia’s problems are not revolutionary in film’s history of marital crisis’s. But it is familiar and the viewer’s own loneliness and insecurity becomes the film’s backdrop.

One of the aspects presented with a great sadness is the transition from an old-fashioned Catholic world to a secularist one. As duty-bound to their union as Giovanni and Lidia are, each is drawn into hedonism, though no one acts on infidelity. Their greatest struggle seems to be the burden of being decent people, unwilling to confront their issues to each other for fear of tarnishing some old moral code. As the empty, aged cities crumble around our couple, we see the values of yesterday begin to dissolve with every hopelessly uncaring look between them. Each is afraid to speak up and shatter the fragile illusion of their happy marriage. By the end, as man and wife make for one last grasp to reestablish their love, even we know that nothing can mend their rift.