Saturday, April 24, 2010

Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

Directed by Nicholas Ray.
Starring James Dean and Natalie Wood.
In a Nutshell: A defiant suburban teenager handles life’s difficulties.

The kids in Rebel Without a Cause did not have rough upbringings. They did not have poverty, gang warfare or social prejudice to take to bed every night. And yet, their world is a wasteland of violence and confusion, open only to emptiness and rejection. Director Nicholas Ray often employs the rebellious and tormented protagonist, now in modern youth, where such feelings are the most potent. Here he has found a unique id in James Dean’s Jim Stark. An iconic crystallization of teen angst, Dean navigates through a suburb of kids who have been abandoned by their parents, leaving them searching for answers. So they fight, they drink, they perform reckless stunts to impress each other. While a clear finger is pointed at parental guidance at the kid’s behavior, there is an unarticulated rawness to the movie’s self-expression. It offers no clear solutions, which cuts through dated melodrama to unveil a direct look at suburban youth culture.

The film’s iconic visage belongs to Dean, even if time has weakened his contribution. Nowadays, it is easy to see Dean’s acting as Brando-light at worst, green at best. Dean is admirable for going against the grain though his style is oddly mannered. His cohorts include Natalie Wood’s Judy, the actress unburdened by her late-career artifice, and Sal Mineo’s Plato, whose performance suggests overt gay overtones. Once freed from the cruel gang and their distant parents, the three form an alternate family to bury their household angst. It is an innocent interlude before the climax, showing Ray’s compassion for the needs of these delinquents. Early criticisms of the movie’s glorification of rebellion should have been wise to examine this scene’s support of domestic restoration.

Rebel leaves much unexamined, but maybe it never had to. Young filmgoers could fill in the blanks themselves and the film’s DNA became scattered all over American New Wave. Suburbia’s underlying darkness continues to be examined today; its impact has never truly left American subconscious. Some narrative structuring and overly broad characterizations of its adult characters date Rebel, but do not diminish. When it works, Rebel Without a Cause is remarkably truthful. A bold deconstruction of 50’s values, as powerful today as it ever was.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Daisies (1966)

Directed by Věra Chytilová.
Starring Ivana Karbanová and Jitka Cerhová.
In a Nutshell: Two girls inexplicably start spreading chaos.

Daisies is a maddening comedy of poor taste, one that may too entrenched in its zeitgeist. Two teenaged girls, both named Marie (Ivana Karbanová and Jitka Cerhová) decide to be “bad”. There is a brief interlude by a fruit tree, linking to original sin, with their mischief aimed to exploit materialism. And oh what a jaunty spree it is. The girls flirt, steal, spoil parties, tease older men and tear into banquets of rich food. It amounts to a silly, formless anarchy that builds to far more serious consequences. Bright colors, cartoon actions and jolting sound effects affront the senses, even with the brief run time.

Watching Daisies would require an appreciation for the burgeoning social and political commentary that came with 60’s New Wave cinema. Daisies delights in wreaking havoc on wealth and bourgeois culture. But with the shock value diminished, it comes off as dreary and juvenile today. The Maries could be taken as Věra Chytilová’s marionettes, posing as nihilistic ideals and not characters. Their rebellion amounts to manic submission; the world is going bad, so why not go bad with it? From the opening scene, the girls cease human motivation and personality. When they misbehave, they are no longer at the controls. Daisies is a unique commentary, but a chore to endure. The Maries are certainly grating enough to convey Chytilová’s disgust of anarchic values. Unfortunately, the film’s frantic tone and garish style are queasy enough to date Daisies’ experimental form. A notable piece of surreal pop art, but I would leave this one in the time capsule.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Double Life of Véronique (1991)

Directed by Krzysztof Kieślowski.
Starring Irène Jacob and Philippe Volter.
In a Nutshell: The mirrored lives of two unrelated, but similar, women.

Few films will ever be as full of warmth, beauty, and mystery as The Double Life of Véronique. Krzysztof Kieślowski affectionately depicts the lives of two identical women; Weronika, a Polish choir singer and Véronique, a French music teacher. Both women look the same, were born on the same day and have a heart condition. Neither woman is physically aware of the other’s presence, but both are connected spiritually. The women pursue their musical interests passionately, with no shades of depravity. When tragedy strikes Weronika, a pang of sadness comes over Véronique. She abandons her current life and forms a bond with a puppeteer while searching for a greater happiness.

Beauty comes in Irène Jacob, in her first of two landmark works by Kieślowski, as the duel women. Slawomir Idziak’s photography casts a heavenly aura over Jacob’s features, enriching the frame with a variety of earthy reds, greens and yellows. Jacob is a cinematic gift who seems to act without direction. Every thought, every act of joy shines with unforced naturalism. At one point, Weronika and Véronique spy each other across a busy plaza. This moment crystallizes the film’s essence; the feeling of your soul inhibiting another life. Duel identity is treated as a comforting thought; the notion of another existence in communion with the other.

To try and explain the film or boil it down to a literal explanation is beside its purpose. Kieślowski has captured the poetry of life, without a conflict or resolution to sew it all up. Both characters lead imperfect lives, and the small moments of bliss are held close to their hearts and we share the experience. Imagery and motifs appear, but nothing builds or exists as an allegory. The details become clues to a mystery that never existed. We faintly sense their importance just as Véronique can feel Weronika in her life. To experience the movie is to become wrapped in its embrace without knowing why. But it is warm and familiar and instantly you know why you belong.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Passenger (1975)

Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni.
Starring Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider.
In a Nutshell: A journalist steals the identity of a look-alike and goes on the run.

David Locke (Jack Nicholson) is a man of emptiness. An unremarkable journalist, we meet him hopelessly interviewing guerilla rebels in the Sahara desert. Little awaits him at home save a loveless marriage and irksome producer (Ian Hendry). Locke briefly befriends an Englishman named Robertson who later dies of a heart attack. Possessing an uncanny resemblance to Robertson, Locke switches identities and leaves the country. He discovers that Robertson was a gun dealer for the guerillas. But Locke has no intentions to exploit and ends up stuck with the baggage of Robertson’s past life. After meeting with an enigmatic young woman (Maria Schneider), Locke runs away. Though he desires to leave behind his marriage, his job and Robertson’s opponents, Locke seeks out the chance to live as another persona and fade into the distance.

As a thriller, one could accuse The Passenger of its meandering pace, but the film does not seek to create urgency. Long, expansive and silent shots present Locke’s world with ethereal disconnect. This world is still as lonely and empty as before. Locke’s future becomes fated for collapse, as he vainly tries to leave both identities behind. Taking on Robertson’s life becomes less an escape and more an imprisonment as he ends up with a new problems and a new sense of meaninglessness. Michelangelo Antonioni distances us from really “knowing” Locke’s character, and audience sympathy is purposefully neglected. We only observe.

But who is the titular passenger? When Locke comes across Schneider’s character, he abandons Robertson’s identity, leaving this unnamed girl the only real presence between them. Antonioni disconnects us from Locke; only the girl can bear witness to Locke. Without her, Locke and “Robertson” would cease to exist. What Locke attempts is a release from everyday constructs, to fade into his own insignificance, to escape his own fate. But Locke never achieves it. The Passenger is simply that need to liberate oneself from existence, even if we are all just passengers to that journey.