Saturday, August 28, 2010

Masculin, feminin (1966)

Directed by Jean-Luc Godard.
Starring Jean-Pierre Léaud and Chantal Goya.
In a Nutshell: An idealistic youth chases an up-and-coming pop singer.

In its own way, Masculin, feminine plays a similar function in Godard’s oeuvre as Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. Retaining just enough objectivity, both films portray the social and political maelstroms of their times. They stoke the wistful fantasies of its first audience, while leaving insight for its detached viewers. Though Godard’s commentaries are hardly straightforward; here on the culture born of French New Wave. “La Nouvelle Vague” famously birthed Truffaut’s 400 Blows where Jean-Pierre Léaud’s troubled youth insolated himself within the movies and Godard’s Breathless where Jean-Paul Belmondo’s criminal aped Humphrey Bogart. Now, we have Léaud as Paul, another film-lover who occasionally impersonates Belmondo impersonating Bogart. In between political discussions and small revolutions, Paul pursues Madeleine (Chantal Goya), a yé-yé singer groomed for the teenybopper crowd.

Paul and Madeleine are a curious pairing; he a child of Marx, she of Coca-Cola. The two size each other up, feigning indifference to a love they cannot define. The battle of the sexes is compounded by three more, though Godard does not push the quintet towards allegory. Even outside of the bedroom, Paul lives a life that is both movie fiction and that fiction’s reflection; hedonistic in a chaotic world. Non-sequiturs buzz about the frame’s edge, punctuated by empty gunshots. Filmed as cinéma vérité, its collection of scenes and interviews feel improvised. The film breathes; its observations about war, love, film and the like do not feel like statements, but experiences. Godard holds the immediacy to youthful introspection even when names and events have dated. Godard displays intrigue for this generation of restless, yearning narcissism. In between snatches of essayist musings, Masculin, feminine hints at a more loving ode for its characters and their cinema-seeped lives. How else could Godard regard his own children?

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Lola (1981)

Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
Starring Barbara Sukowa and Armin Mueller-Stahl.
In a Nutshell: A building commissioner falls for the mistress of a corrupt developer.

Lola should have been the moment when Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s career peaked. Nimbly avoiding muddy pastiche, Lola mixes satire, melodrama and a world-bitten cynicism into a charming caricature of class struggle politics. It takes its material to extremes, skipping an overt manipulation on Fassbinder’s part, while slyly deconstructing bourgeois under its audience’s nose. The film takes place in a post-WWII West Germany town, governed by amorality. Its contractors and businessmen hustle money from town officials for “reconstruction” purposes. Enter Von Bohm (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a building commissioner deemed un-corruptible thanks to a principled idealism (and just a touch of naivety). Von Bohm’s methods bring fear to the crooked, namely Schuckert (Mario Adorf). He complains to his mistress, a cabaret singer and prostitute named Lola (Barbara Sukowa), implying that such a woman would be beneath Von Bohm. Shuckert bets that Lola would not be able to court Von Bohm. She does, though their relationship grows faster than either would have predicted.

A vibrant palette and slow burning love story do little to take out the bite of Lola’s send-up of the post-war values. The distinctions do not offset each other, just a dark undertone to the dreamy, candy-coated festivities. And they are quite festive. Adorf is delightfully incorrigible while Mueller-Stahl’s can convey a wistful innocence with only his ice-blue gaze. Both are little match for Sukowa’s run of the emotional gamut. To balance so many facets of her character (dedicated mother, wounded mistress, ambitious social climber while both ashamed and empowered through her prostitution) risks the same tonal mess of the rest of the film. Sukowa more than succeeds; her rendition of “The Fisherman of Capri” at a key discovery is a masterpiece of frenzied insecurity.

Its other values aside, Lola’s biggest attraction is still Fassbinder’s auteurism. Lola, Von Bohm and Schuckert are portrayed as multi-dimensional while still acting allegorically. Their stories and interactions work in the same manner; humanism coloring in historical observation. This way, Lola shirks the obvious sentimentality of pat conclusions about its people or time. Fassbinder just tells us a story, flourished with honest human detail. Unfortunately, what should have been the height of Fassbinder’s career became his antepenultimate after drug-induced heart failure. But Lola can be lovingly regarded as his archetypal Fassbinder. Sheer joy, blunt characterization, a dark satirical aftertaste and everything else Fassbinder; a cornerstone of a peerless career.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Buffalo ‘66 (1998)

Directed by Vincent Gallo.
Starring Vincent Gallo and Christina Ricci.
In a Nutshell: An ex-convict kidnaps a dancer en route to extracting revenge.

Buffalo ‘66 is a film worthy of Vincent Gallo’s irregular career; raw emotion with fantastic bursts of creative filmmaking, if short of cohesion. It is a film about unrequited love, but not necessarily a “relationship film”. We become steeped into a character’s desire for revenge, but it is not a “revenge film” either. While it has a driven plot, Buffalo ‘66 is far more enamored in the details, small moments that bring its protagonist to his conclusion. Gallo plays Billy Brown, a man who served time after botching a bet on the Buffalo Bills. Once paroled, he aims to murder the Bills’ placekicker. From the opening scene of Billy pleading to use the prison bathroom, Gallo risks turning Billy into a grating pile of tics. Gallo’s whiny demeanor and volatile reactions certainly succeed in defining Billy as a damaged, unctuous creep. Not the sort who would immediately garner our sympathies, particularly when he kidnaps dance student Layla (Christina Ricci).

Billy forces Layla to pose as his wife (named for a schoolyard crush) so he could show off for his oafish parents (Ben Gazzara and Anjelica Huston). It is a task that Layla takes with an odd confidence, improvising within the role in a way that unexpectedly charms Billy’s parents. This section was shot in Gallo’s own childhood home, with the caricatured portrayals of Billy’s parents a focused chord of malice at Gallo’s own upbringing. Whether renewed with a found sympathy or afflicted with Stockholm syndrome, Layla attempts to connect with Billy and draw him away from his vengeful goal. But even then, Buffalo ‘66 does seek to become a “redemption film.”

No, this film refuses to be placed in a certain box and is all the better for it. It exists as a string of scenes where Gallo and Ricci explore their characters; lost souls who find solace in each other simply through their own company. Gallo’s Billy swings from dejected, to malicious, to wounded with a jittery grace; Ricci’s Layla is similarly childish and lonely, but wonderfully defines a character, rather than a plot device. Aside from Gallo’s attention to emotional detail, he employs a nice variety of techniques including frames within frames, an Ozu-style framing and even a pivoting freeze-frame that predates The Matrix. These could be gratuitous stunts without any resonance to Billy’s turmoil, a fine example of Gallo’s skill as a director. Undeniably unconventional, Buffalo ‘66 burns with a memorable emotional urgency. A hard film to shake off.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Last Picture Show (1971)

Directed by Peter Bogdanovich.
Starring Timothy Bottoms and Jeff Bridges.
In a Nutshell: Two boys mature in a dying Texas small town.

Anarene, Texas is a lonely town, one caught at the mercy of time’s rapidity. Its small-town pleasures have degraded into dilapidated touchstones of a forgotten era; a pool hall, café and matinee theater. There is little to do, and no way out except the war, sex or death. As Anarene recedes into the dust, its citizens conduct passionless affairs or glue themselves to their televisions. The Last Picture Show sadly observes our fleeting mythologies while dreading the banal future. It is simply told and tenderly realized. When the movie theater closes after a final screening of Red River, its characters effectively lose the Western myth that has sustained its past. Embodying this loss is Ben Johnson’s Sam the Lion, owner of Anarene’s three attractions. He reminisces on his glory days with melancholy fondness; little else is worth living for.

Peter Bogdanovich, a disciple of John Ford and Orson Welles, sinks into the era in a way that far surpasses a few pop tunes on the soundtrack. Sexual and social issues dot the characters’ lives without heightening to melodrama. There are mild laughs and searing confessions within the characters’ foibles and exploits. Everyone may grope for meaning in their pointless lives, but never without Bogdanovich’s sympathetic lens. As two good ol’ boys, Timothy Bottoms and Jeff Bridges appeal to our good-natured sensibilities; in the wake of crushed football dreams and the verge of sexual discovery.

The camera's view of Anarene rarely rises above the skyline, keeping us caught in the human drama. Even as it evoked moods and values that were two decades prior to its audience, it hardly feels dated. What Anarene loses besides the Western myth (supported by its movies) is community. A finale death of one of its inhabitants only deepens the riff between its citizens, how alien each has become. The Last Picture Show is painful, honest and eager to embrace the clumsiness of its relationships. To continually laud its images and acting might veer into redundancy. A perfect evocation, frozen in time.