Saturday, November 28, 2009

Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)

Directed by Werner Herzog.
Starring Klaus Kinski and Helena Rojo.
In a Nutshell: Conquistadors travel down river in an ill-fated search for gold.

Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God is as haunting a decent into madness as cinema will produce. Anything to the contrary needs only to look into the glazed, bright and curled lips of Klaus Kinski as the aforementioned Aguirre. He is the member of an expedition chosen by Gonzalo Pizarro to find El Dorado; a team woefully unprepared for the horrors that await them in the jungle. Following the death of the team leader, Aguirre is put in command and leads the group further into the unknown. With a production as rife with misfortune and madness as the finished piece, Herzog brings an amused detachment to the conquistador’s self-destruction.

Aguirre presents the story of the quest for greatness and the elements of nature that crush it in the end. Here, the jungles of the Amazon are an insidious force against the men ready to swallow them whole. A whole raft of men is shown mysteriously slaughtered in the morning. Men are fallen by silent arrows shot from the forest. Herzog himself never really delves into the minds of any one character. Even Aguirre himself, despite the electricity of Kinski’s performance, is only the unstable, greedy dreamer that others see. But it is all that is needed to suck the audience into Aguirre’s blind obsession for gold and to feel dread at the danger he ignores.

The film’s opening shot of the conquistadors descending down the mountains carries a poetic resonance. But on the same coin, Herzog views them at a distance, enough to have them lost in the thicket of trees and vegetation while the inhuman strains of the organ plays them on. Their river trip is not full of plot contrivances, nor is it just a parade of hallucinatory imagery (though there is plenty of the latter). It is a harrowing view at immoral ambition in the face of the impossible and the ensuing tragedy. The final scene is one of great sadness with Aguirre stranded forever in his own delusions against an unforgiving reality.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Apocalypse Now (1979)

Directed by Francis Ford Coppola.
Starring Marlon Brando and Martin Sheen.
In a Nutshell: An army captain is sent into the jungle to assassinate an insane colonel.

Equal parts spectacle and meditation, Apocalypse Now is one of the grandest examples of modern cinema. The story of introverted army captain Willard (Martin Sheen) sent to confront rogue colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) in the jungles of Cambodia, Francis Ford Coppola’s retelling of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness provides a searing cinematic look into the delicate balances that keep most men on the edge of madness. Though I hold Apocalypse Now to very high esteem, there is not much new ground to tread in terms of film discussion. However, Coppola did release a Redux cut in 2001, adding in previously deleted scenes to give the film a slightly new narrative. While met with largely positive reaction, I felt that it turned a near perfect film into one that was merely pretty good. Most of the changes are minor, but all of the big additions take a little bit away from the horrifying 1979 masterpiece. Without much ado, Coppola’s biggest Redux changes.

Psychotic air colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall), a man whose love of carnage is only outmatched by his penchant for surf and opera, is by far the film’s most memorable character. His senseless and bloodthirsty reputation shows the sort of madness held in respect by the U.S. military. He creates a memorable impression despite only 20 minutes of screentime. After his famous napalm speech in the Redux version, we are witness to Kilgore throwing a tantrum at his surfing buddies and then yelling at Willard via copter for his surfboard back (which Willard stole in a decidedly uncharacteristically light moment). Besides ruining his perfect send-off, the additional scenes edge Kilgore into cartoon territory and just prove unnecessary. Later in the film, Willard and his crew encounter a downed Playboy bunny helicopter in the middle of a monsoon. Willard negotiates some fuel for some bunny time for his crew, in another lighthearted moment. This interlude does show the madness of Vietnam taking effect on the bunnies, but is still unneeded. Keeping the scene in sacrifices the poignancy of the helicopter leaving the USO show with soldiers desperately clinging on.

Even more intrusive is the crew’s stay at a French plantation. The scene takes place after Willard makes it to the last U.S. outpost before Kurtz, so the whole sequence is incredibly disruptive to the narrative’s path to the finale. At the plantation, Willard receives commentary by the plantation’s head about the French’s relationship with the Vietnamese compared to the U.S.’s. Again, not needed since Apocalypse Now is not about Vietnam or any of the politics, just a descent into madness that just happens to occur during the war. Willard also romances a widow, with far too much emphasis put on his duel nature (the half shrouded image of Willard juxtaposed against a stone statue says this far more effectively). One final unnecessary scene has Kurtz reading Willard some articles from Time magazine about America’s fabricated success in Vietnam. Again, more war commentary that just does not add anything. And it is curious to note that this is the only rime Kurtz is glimpsed in broad daylight. It breaks the powerful, mysterious air about the character and not for an interesting scene either. To conclude, between the original and the Redux version the choice is clear. The Redux version is just too loaded down by extraneous scenes that add too little or too much. For a truly cinematic experience, revisit the original in all its glory. All the bombast, the madness, and the horror, the horror.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Synecdoche, New York (2008)

Directed by Charlie Kaufman.
Starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Samantha Morton.
In a Nutshell: A director confronts his mortality while creating his own life on stage.

Here is a movie that almost begs not to be understood, and is as full of visual and narrative trippiness as one would expect from Charlie Kaufman (making his directorial debut). It is a film of great ambition, but also about ambition and how it brings us closer towards finding meaning (any meaning) in our short blip here on Earth. Phillip Seymour Hoffman stars as Caden Cotard, a theater director who uses the MacArthur genius grant to create his life’s masterpiece. He plans to transpose his entire life onto the stage, to celebrate and revel in the mundane of everyday life. Cotard expands production into a life-size model of New York with doppelgangers of Cotard and every meaningful person in his life.

During his production, Cotard tries to play God and crams his actors into the roles he believes their real-life partners play. Through his own double (a man who was studied him for 20 years), he becomes conscious of his own personality. As time wears on, his loved ones die and his city fades into a gray, abandoned void. To follow every plot thread and hallucination threatens to turn the viewing experience into an analytical one, rather than an emotional one. Hoffman’s Cotard remains the most accessible part of the movie. He fears growing old, he makes mistakes with his many love interests, laments losing touch with his daughter and uses this sprawling city-sized play as his path to creative fulfillment. This is a dense film, with no logical entry point to tackle its themes. But why discard this in favor of fast-food culture junk like Transformers? Synecdoche, New York embraces all the fears and neurosis that encompass our existence. If that doesn’t hold important to you, then I don’t know what will.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Close-up (1990)

Directed by Abbas Kiarostami.
In a Nutshell: A man goes on trial for impersonating Mohsen Makhmalbaf.

Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-up is a sort of mutant documentary that blurs the lines between reality and simulacra. The film is about the trial of Hossein Sabzian who impersonated filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf and to trick a family into appearing in a movie for him. His reasoning lies in a love for art and the clout to spread knowledge of Iran’s cinema to its people. It is reenacted with the same real-life players from the incident, though it is never clear how much has been fabricated for the cameras. Close-up is endlessly self-reflexive, but seeks to echo our obsession with media fame and respect. And rather than scorn, Kiarostami gives a simple, yet touching look at our fixation on film.

Such a story could have seen its absurdity spun into a film capitalizing on the desperation and failure of a man like Sabizan. But Kiarostami approaches with humanistic concern, showcasing the purity of a man who overcame his self-consciousness in the skin of another man. Sabizen was now somebody, someone with a voice and the influence to project it onto the screen. Though given that Sabizan is playing himself playing Makhmalbaf, Kiarostami hardly needs to force our sympathy and the lines between performer and reality blur together. Close-up is not about our perspective on Sabizan’s saga, but of Kiarostami’s. He moves past his hall of mirrors to question the self-meaning we cultivate from art and the identity we forge.

In the end, Makhmalbaf himself greets Sabizan in open arms. Makhmalbaf asks Sabizan if he prefers his stolen identity to his own. Sabizan tearfully explains, “I’m tired of being me.” Kiarostami has shown that the masks we wear and the realities we project are no less real, and no less driven by our deepest desires. The final scene shows both men driving off on Makhmalbaf’s motorcycle, redeemed through their unifying passion. A beautiful achievement on our most human of artistic longings.