Saturday, September 25, 2010

Bigger Than Life (1956)

Directed by Nicholas Ray.
Starring James Mason and Barbara Rush.
In a Nutshell: An experimental miracle cure wrecks havoc on a teacher’s mental state.

Tapping deep into the yearning that defines the “Nicholas Ray hero,” Bigger Than Life makes the persuasive case for setting that man loose in bourgeois society. It is a film that rattles the chains of 50’s American life, far and away from any sly Douglas Sirk-ian understatement. We begin with the sort of drab ripped-from-the-headlines melodrama that many thought they were buying; prim schoolteacher Ed Avery (James Mason) becomes deathly ill and finds a cure with an experimental prescription of cortisone. In order to get back on his feet (including a night job as a taxi dispatcher to make ends meet), Ed takes dosage after dosage. Not only does he get better, but Ed also transforms into the idealized advertisement of 50’s patriarchdom (football lessons, shopping sprees and disciplinary lessons soon follow). Though once the drugs seize Ed’s mind, the American dream slides into expressionistic nightmare.

Over the years, Bigger Than Life is upheld for its critique of 50’s values. While Ed may take these to frightening extremes, he nearly breaks free from his suburban conformity (or at least closer than Jim Stark and his hungry brooding). Even after a horror-movie showdown and a skeptically happy ending, the question remains. Is he a rebel or a monster? Ray either keeps his cards hidden or remains as divided. Within Ed’s megalomania is a drive for self-improvement with no room for lenience. It heightens, and nearly rips his family apart, but until then, Ed had mastered his life’s duties to live in comfort with all the gadgets a successful life could provide. Is that happiness? Even a tearful embrace at the end cannot tell.

Despite his conspicuous British accent, Mason hits every right note. From meek to might to menace, his performance is matched on by Ray who shifts genres without becoming a pastiche. Under Ray’s eye, the Avery house is a shadowy prison of domestic clutter and excess. Ed’s life peaks and bottoms out in such a scant amount of time that it beautifies the film’s brutality into a broad stroke. Bigger Than Life lives up to its title only to befit its study of our own inhibitions. Even as it weighs Ed’s struggle between conformity and liberation, the most unnerving impression one can take is that even Ray cannot give an easy answer. It is a puzzling, harrowing and outsize as life itself.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959)

Directed by Alain Resnais.
Starring Emmanuelle Riva and Eiji Okada.
In a Nutshell: An actress and architect conduct an affair in postwar Hiroshima.

Hiroshima Mon Amour; a film heralded for helping to birth the French New Wave and one of the most innovative film narratives since Citizen Kane. Éric Rohmer predicted that Hiroshima could be recognized as, “the most important film since the war, the first modern film of sound cinema.” Lofty, but justified praise. The shifting blend of time, memory and reality becomes the domain for Alain Resnais and writer Marguerite Duras to exploring the relationship of two adulterous lovers in postwar Hiroshima. She (Emmanuelle Riva) is a French actress in an international peace film. He (Eiji Okada) is a Japanese architect who experienced the bomb’s destruction firsthand. They have a passionate, anonymous love. Later, they discuss the pain residing in their lives, in an extended two-day conversation.

When Rohmer spoke of Hiroshima’s reputation, he may not have foreseen Resnais’ influence through fracturing and shuffling time. Sometimes, it amounts to an interesting experiment (Last Year at Marienbad). Here, Resnais is more personal. Hiroshima observes two people whose lives have been ripped apart from their private involvement with the war. He lived through Hiroshima; a tragedy shared by millions. She recounts her punishment for her carefree affair with a German officer, glimpsed in fragmented flashbacks. It is never clear how much was real and how much was distorted by memory.

When the film opens, both are swept in the moment’s embrace as newsreel footage of Hiroshima fills the screen. They speak openly about the lives lost, the destruction, their own place in this turmoil. It is a vivid evocation of how absolute the past is within our present and how sorrow and ecstasy become one. This theme winds through the couple’s talk with the woman’s past unexpectedly resurfacing among Japan’s collective remembrance. Riva defines the film’s soul; unsure how to reconstruct her life with the big picture looming in the foreground. Resnais meshes the horrifying mundane of Japan’s ghost town with delicate surrealism to move with Riva’s sadness. While sidestepping any grand historical proclamations, the film defines what it means to bear emotional scars; what they meant then, what they mean now, particularly in a nuclear age. The world has long since recovered from World War II, but Resnais and Duras’ work will always speak for our anguish and uncertainty, past, present and future.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

La Dolce Vita (1960)

Directed by Federico Fellini.
Starring Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg.
In a Nutshell: A gossip journalist spends a hedonistic week in Rome.

“This is the art I prefer. The one I think we’ll need tomorrow. A clear, precise art without rhetoric, that doesn’t lie, that isn’t flattering. Now I have a job that I don’t like, but I often think about tomorrow.” The words by detached journalist Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni) describe the ideal purpose of art, the art he enjoys. Fellini is far too extroverted, far too unambiguous a director to hide this self-commentary, but this time he has earned it. La Dolce Vita lets the ecstasy and muddy morality of post-war Rome wash over its audience; all the objectivity of neo-realism with Fellini’s loving theatrics. Marcello’s week yields seven vignettes; each swims in decadent fantasy before staggering into the bleak dawn. Portraying Fellini’s alter ego, Marcello acts as agent and observer but never the moralizer.

Comparatively tame by today’s excesses, the film does not risk frolic for fright. Every scene that whetted 60’s audiences for “the sweet life” found itself anchored with startling reality. By the time a reactive, self-loathing Marcello derails a listless orgy, the film feels exhausted by Rome’s lost glamour. La Dolce Vita is wonderfully expressive; the bluntness of its visual compositions fails to diminish the impact. Which made La Dolce Vita less revolutionary for how it communicated with its audience (though Fellini’s delicate balance between realism and caricature need not be overlooked) than the commentary itself.

And yet Fellini can wring a shot of Anita Ekberg frolicking in a fountain for all its worth. Fellini is an unabashedly indulgent director; I love him no less for it. But La Dolce Vita, with its deeply cynical backbone and glittering show-biz extravagance, hits a nerve that will never dull in our similarly materialistic age. Fellini never needed to reach for these truths; every memorable scene pulsates with an authenticity all its own. It is a rare experience of a movie, shamelessly baroque though hardly its own moral wasteland. As long as men like Marcello continue to claw through their own emptiness, La Dolce Vita will never go out of style.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Love in the Afternoon (1972)

Directed by Éric Rohmer.
Starring Bernard Verley and Zouzou.
In a Nutshell: A man contemplates infidelity with an old acquaintance.

Éric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales, brought a decidedly textured approach to film’s exploration of sexuality. Though Rohmer’s work comes is less interested in experimentation (or titillation for that matter), and more for putting our emotional battles under the microscope. Love in the Afternoon (the final Moral Tale) involves Frédéric (Bernard Verley), a man with a good job, happy marriage and two adorable children. This is a fine life and Frédéric knows it, but he enjoys the fleeting thrill of flirting with other women. Soon he finds his magnetism wearing off, just as Chloé (Zouzou) comes back into his life. The bohemian flame of a friend (with no love lost between them), she seeks a job at Frédéric’s firm as a way to get her feet on the ground. The two soon develop a relationship (close though sexless) that takes a different turn when Chloé asks Frédéric to be the father of her child.

What could have congealed into a sex war allegory is instead refined naturalism with no clear battle lines. Surely Frédéric is no deviant even as we meet him fantasizing magical ways of ensnaring women on the street. He misses the feeling of repeated first loves while suffocating in marriage. He even categorizes his women, radiating an old calm over own actions. While Frédéric speaks to the sexually restless, Rohmer’s camera never judges. Nor Chloé. She knowingly offers herself as an emotional challenge to Frédéric, but she is hardly “the temptress”. A washed-up model and ex-trophy wife, Chloé seems aloof to her own insecurities, but confident in her abilities. A bit of a mess, but hardly a villain. Strength in character detail encapsulated Rohmer’s career; this movie is just one good example. Frédéric’s decision goes beyond lust into a study of what stability can mean for our own happiness. How Frédéric finds that happiness only demonstrates the simple beauty of love coming full circle.