Saturday, May 29, 2010

L’eclisse (1962)

Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni.
Starring Alain Delon and Monica Vitti.
In a Nutshell: A woman leaves her lover and drifts into an affair with a stockbroker.

L’eclisse marks the end of Michelangelo Antonioni’s trilogy following the dissolve of modern relationships. It follows similar themes of alienation and the cold affront of modern technology. His discomfort with the world’s direction is all the more heightened; Rome’s architecture is photographed like the cities of a science fiction movie. Equally disaffected is Vittoria, played by Antonioni regular Monica Vitti. After a fight with her writer beau (Francisco Rabal), she breaks off their affair but is unable express why. Before meeting the cocky stockbroker Piero (Alain Delon), Vittoria wanders the land, finding comfort outside of the city and within her imagination. Her eventual meeting with Piero reveals an indecisiveness that gradually fades, though far from true affection. Their love is surface, and this shallow attraction is one of the few emotions that technology has yet to erase.

Dialogue is so sparse that L’eclisse could affect as a silent film. Love does not go unsaid; Vittoria and Piero have no honest feelings to articulate. Antonioni studies the banality of their relationship with careful detail. Their moments together are disjointed as if the narrative keeps choking on any momentum. Both characters share most of their scene separately and do not appear to inhibit the same world. Antonioni’s commentary on Piero’s life turns the stock exchange into a hermetically-sealed pit of chaos. Vittoria’s world is quieter, but one where she desires to escape (she uses blackface to try identifying with an African woman in a reference to the Second Italo–Abyssinian War). When the two meet, the small beats in their talk linger long enough to ring hollow.

Vittoria and Piero follow the path of every doomed Antonioni romance, with unrealized explanation. L’eclisse is more refined than the previous Incommunicability films in presenting the destroying power of environment, not just its people. We do not know explicitly what compelled Vittoria to distance herself from her lovers, and Antonioni wisely avoids blunt answers. He frequently holds our attention on the couple, daring us to weigh their relationship against their vacuous world. Shot with equal beauty and cold sterility, L’eclisse quietly comments on humanity’s loss granted by modern life. A poetic stroke of human instability.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

In the Mood for Love (2000)

Directed by Wong Kar-wai.
Starring Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu Wai.
In a Nutshell: The spouses of an adulterous couple find solace in each other.

To watch In the Mood for Love is like experiencing a memory. There are deep, regretful yearnings, a lush palette with time moving at a standstill. It is Wong Kar-wai’s story of two well-off neighbors living in Hong Kong, pre-1966 Riots. After a few encounters, both discover that their spouses have been carrying on an affair. Through an initially platonic relationship, they soothe their wounds together. They even devise imaginary scenarios of their spouses’ adultery in an attempt to reject their growing attraction. There is a sensual charge in the air, pulling them closer together, but neither one can break their moral stance. "For us to do the same thing, would mean we are no better than they are."

There relationship is achingly unconsummated with little progression from their meeting to their parting. What Wong understands is the power of setting and tone to feel the same longings as the characters. He follows the characters in eroticised slow motion, to no apparent payoff. Shots will inexplicably repeat, some will quickly fade or linger on minute details. There is no “meaning” but the dream-like quality this pacing brings, heightened by its elegant, melancholy atmosphere. Presented as a recollection, their relationship gathers a certain purity, remaining distant while treasuring its fleeting intimacy.

As the would-be lovers Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan, Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung are effortless in their character’s understated sadness. The artistry of their performances mixes with William Chang’s set and costumes to produce a beautifully fragility. This dissolves at the end where the film catches up with its characters, both have moved on from their courtship and living in a more tumultuous world. In the Mood for Love’s pacing, lighting, and visual design is stylized to the point of fetish. But few films have successfully used these elements to recreate the pain of a lost experience. Through the epilogue, time’s progression ensures that Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan’s love can never happen again; too much has changed. In the Mood for Love is haunted by the regrets of our past, crystallizing its beauty with a bearable sadness.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Videodrome (1983)

Directed by David Cronenberg.
Starring James Woods and Sonja Smits.
In a Nutshell: A TV executive discovers a disturbing program intent on mind-control.

While Network took a sharpened, satirical look at television’s dehumanizing effects, Videodrome takes the concept to grotesque extremes. In true David Cronenberg form, television is presented as literal mind-control for the perverted and masochistic. Rick Baker’s imaginative special effects appropriately disgust. The human link navigating through is James Woods’ Max Renn, the president of a TV station that broadcasts softcore pornography. His sleaziness is of job-necessity. One of Max’s workers discovers Videodrome, a broadcast signal showing torture and murder. Believing it to be faux-snuff TV, Max eagerly pirates the show, hoping it will attract a wider audience. Max’s search for Videodrome’s origins uncovers a more sinister ideology behind the broadcasts. Originally developed as a way to supplement real-life with television, Videodrome became a system for controlling the minds of smut-obsessed Americans through tumors formed in the viewer’s brain.

Max aims to destroy Videodrome from within in a bizarre finale that blurs reality for the viewer and Max. The film narrowly avoids sinking in its own confusion thanks to Cronenberg’s sly execution. He ruthlessly attacks television as a means of exploitation and hypnosis. It is metaphorically broad and very gross, but allows Cronenberg’s disgust to peal. Max invariably belongs in this corrupt universe, but Woods avoids caricature allowing us to find our own twisted desires and desperations in him. The story veers into science fiction while linking to modern-day consumerism. Most telling is Max’s refuge in a church that offers the homeless television as a way to “stay connected” to the larger world. In this world, you can either shun TV and become an outsider or enslave yourself to its powers. Videodrome is hardly subtle, but Cronenberg knows how to give a memorable skewering of the modern day.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Network (1976)

Directed by Sidney Lumet.
Starring Faye Dunaway and William Holden.
In a Nutshell: A TV network exploits an insane news anchor for ratings.

For a film like Network not to collapse under its own thematic weight is no easy task. Ample praise has been doled out to Paddy Chayefsky’s script, seeping with bitterness, and the performances of the ensemble cast, all knocking out their Oscar moments with skill. But it is Sidney Lumet who keeps the movie’s gears from overworking themselves. Network attacks not only the television medium but also the divide of generational values, capitalism, sexism, social class, and on and on. Some of it played for laughs, other issues have the characters literally screaming at the viewer. Lumet strikes a realistic tone early on, inching slowly towards destruction. Never too much content at too fast a pace, allowing Lumet to balance Chayefsky’s bile with more humanistic undertones.

That is not to say the movie is merciful to its audience or characters. The catalyst for the plot is the breakdown of new anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch). Fired for low ratings, he threatens to commit suicide on the air. Ratings shoot up prompting the show’s producer Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) to build a programming circus to complement Beale’s increasing madness. The old-fashioned news executive Max Schumacher (William Holden) loses his career and finds himself sucked into an affair with the icy Diana. Characters are either ruthlessly ambitious or become (unfairly) dragged down by TV’s soulless mechanisms. That these two groups are exclusive to each generation is surely no accident on Chayefsky’s part.

Network has an appealing dark edge that did not distance the audiences that Chayefsky was attacking. As much as the film attacks the broadcasting process, it is the viewers who support the market for such garbage that are scathed the most. Beale may be the clearest voice in a station full of inane blandness, but to the end, he continues to play ball in the network’s ratings game. At least until a higher calling drives him completely over the edge. If Network’s ending feels unsatisfying, it is hard to wonder how Chayefsky could have reined his viewpoints into a tidy conclusion. But it is just as well; thirty-five years and Network only becomes timelier.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Boogie Nights (1997)

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.
Starring Mark Wahlberg and Julianne Moore.
In a Nutshell: A high school dropout becomes a porn sensation, falls into drug addiction.

The late 70’s, early 80’s period of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights takes a look back at the glory years of indulgence. Everyone was burned out on their own pleasures without daring to peek at their own emptiness. The music and movies, meant to simulate the public’s hedonism had a plastic feel, even when done in earnest. It is a tricky line to recreate the pleasures of a shallow, if glitzy, life. But Boogie Nights lovingly relishes in the campy fun while uncovering the characters’ miserable lives. It is neither silly, nor gloomy; just a faithful recreation of every high and low. At the center of the impressively Altman-esque is rising porn superstar Dirk Diggler (nĂ© Eddie Adams) played by Mark Wahlberg (Anderson makes good use of the actor’s callowness). He is discovered by Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), a patriarchal director eager to test the artistic boundaries of porn. Diggler instantly rises to the top and fills his days with sex, cocaine, muscle cars, and suede clothing like an overprivileged kid at a toy store.

After a first half that revels in 70’s fun without irony, the film takes a dark shift. There are expected dramatic themes of drugs, death and abuse. What Anderson gives the most weight is the way the characters’ futile dreams have ended. Horner and his actors mistake their work for artistic credibility. Once real life interrupts the party, they refuse to confront their self-damage while society threatens to marginalize them. It is a credit that Anderson juggles the lives of so many diverse characters without showing how hard the screenplay is sweating.

Anderson delights in the attention to period detail and nails the mediocre production values and delusions that follow Dirk’s career. His only weakness is a tendency to be overly proud of his skill, lifting shots from other movies (e.g. Goodfellas, Soy Cuba) and overusing gaudy era-appropriate songs to add some extra flash. But perhaps that is the point; using excess stylistically is appropriate in portraying this lifestyle. By the movie’s end, Anderson has debased the lifestyle, but not its people. Even with too much human drama to spread, its compassion shines in its own unconventional way. As humane as it is exhilarating, Boogie Nights is a loving testament to artistic folly and the fleeting joys of a value-free life.