Saturday, November 27, 2010

Blast of Silence (1961)

Directed by Allen Baron.
Starring Allen Baron and Molly McCarthy.
In a Nutshell: A hired killer is sent to New York where his past resurfaces.

Devoid of studio varnish, Allen Baron’s independent classic is a bitter tribute to the bare essence of noir. As lean as Samuel Fuller’s best, flavored with John Cassavetes’ emerging expressionism, it digs into the coarse heart of all noir; embittered isolation. Baron stars as hitman Frankie Bono with Lionel Stander’s raspy tenor functioning as his inner monologue. Once in New York on an assignment, Bono is confronted with past melancholies and begins losing the focus that molded his intense professionalism. Shot on a shoestring budget on location, Merrill Brody’s imagery mirrors Bono’s desolation, with ubiquitous shots of Christmas decorations for a wisp of coy irony. Baron tracks nearly every step of Bono, deepening the seething hostility he projects at the city. In his life of slimy dealers and spiteful dames, it is that inward loathing that centers Bono, refining his craft. Blast of Silence projects the noir mood into cold comfort against the suffocating bleakness of day-to-day.

What makes Blast of Silence such an indelible underground hit is how built-in these qualities were. Baron bucked the studio system, effectively alienating himself to roam the city streets. His acting technique is inhibited, but perfect for shading Bono’s unease. The pointed disgust Bono exudes seems to have coalesced with Baron’s ambitions to defy convention, create real film-making by the skin of his teeth. The end result faded quickly from audience consciousness and Baron’s career descended into TV Hell. Blast of Silence shares Bono’s lonely fatalism, with nary a flicker of humanity to be found.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Metropolis (1927)

Directed by Fritz Lang.
Starring Alfred Abel and Gustav Fröhlich.
In a Nutshell: The societal crisis between workers and owners of a capitalist dystopia.

A film that has not just changed our vision of our future, but the future itself through art, literature, culture, feeding into our perception of contemporary problems in a futuristic lens. It is a film of audacious visuals and grandiose ideas, one of the strongest survivors of silent cinema (and one of the most extravagant, equaled only by Intolerance and Greed). Eighty-three years later it has returned in as definitive a restoration as there may ever be (twenty-five additional minutes), and as powerful as ever. Metropolis concerns the struggle of class warfare, antiquated slightly by a proletarian impulse. The haves rule in sky-lofted paradise while the have-nots toil beneath the city. The privileged Freder (Gustav Fr√∂hlich), son of an autocrat, falls in love with Maria (Brigitte Helm), an angelic beacon through the working-class smog. Witnessing an industrial accident propels Freder to defy his father and lead the workers in a revolution. Impeding his success is a mad scientist’s creation, a robot double for Maria, intent on sabotaging the workers from within.

For all of Fritz Lang’s gloriously baroque expressionism and narrative absurdity, its conceptualization of social strife with the growing industrialization feels ageless. Both classes are hive-mind forces of destruction, united only by spiritual idealism, not equality. It is a message even Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels could embrace, championing the dissolve of political bourgeoisie for reform of the labor force. Lang himself expressed dissatisfaction in later years, but the thematic power he brought to these ideas is unmistakable. Garnished with the very finest German Expressionism, Lang turns buildings into heaven-piercing castles and the city’s machinery into an electric monster, insatiable in its appetite for worker blood. The deco of Rotwang’s (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) lab has birthed nearly every mad scientist lair since.

Metropolis’ is a message film, one that is far too starry-eyed for our post-Marx society. Even with its newfound footage, not every narrative gap is bridged. But no matter. Few films can boast the literary and pictorial heights Lang brought to the medium. It is broad, occasionally over-explicit spectacle, but also buoyed by the unfiltered ideology that insulates Lang’s futuristic universe. There are hardly better examples that explore the capabilities film can be used to reflect our own struggles and shape our perceptions of tomorrow. I urge you all to see Metropolis in newly remastered glory, a landmark achievement in its final triumphant form.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Brute Force (1947)

Directed by Jules Dassin.
Starring Burt Lancaster and Hume Cronyn.
In a Nutshell: Oppressed prisoners plan their escape on drainpipe detail.

The classic film noir is always about the luckless, the forsaken. Those crushed by society and try to worm their way to power only to fall on their own swords. Are they just and honest men? Not always, but they personify a struggle that separates haves from the have-nots. Jules Dassin’s prison noir Brute Force plays to this convention making our noir heroes are actual prisoners, but bad men only by title. They are gruff but kind-hearted, united in camaraderie and only guilty of minor crimes (usually in the name of love). Their prison is lorded by a gutless warden commanding a wave of fascist guards. Hardly a muddy moral line can be drawn before the prisoners plan to escape. Not just a physical release, but from the squeeze of imperialistic terror.

The prison setting gives Brute Force a hard structure that bluntly highlights its politics. Its characterization is archetypical, but this is not a story that requires nuance. Given its release date, it functions as a Word War II parallel or civilian muscle versus the capitalist regime, relevant to any era (little surprise that Dassin was a member of the Hollywood blacklist). Such bleak commentary fused with a thundering Hollywood climax pitches Brute Force as a fine, rousing foray into the noir or prison genre (take your pick). Dassin may be overly earnest in his convictions, but his unshaken voice for liberation rings authentic.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

L’Avventura (1960)

Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni.
Starring Gabriele Ferzetti and Monica Vitti.
In a Nutshell: A woman becomes involved with the lover of her missing friend.

If it is hard to measure the impact L’Avventura had on cinema upon its release, perhaps it is because so little of it feels dated today. The first of Antonioni’s Incommunicability Trilogy, and the one where Antonioni found his voice in the privileged desolation of his characters. Translated, the title is “The Adventure,” a wry comment on the stunted emotions of the wealthy Claudia (Monica Vitti) and Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti). Sandro had been the lover of Claudia’s friend Anna (Lea Massari), stuck in a relationship that grew more estranged by the day. After a visit to a deserted island, Anna disappears. Not just from the scenery; once Claudia and Sandro begin their love affair, it is as though Anna had never existed. There is a Hitchcock element to this first act, but Antonioni does not seem to care about Anna anymore than Claudia and Sandro do. And there is something very wrong with that.

The island of Anna’s disappearance is an abyss of edged, sloping rocks, with hardly any plants and no animals. On land, the extravagance of Sicily has never looked so barren or its people so drab and clammy. The opening scene watches a vast patch of lush earth being excavated. Such images (courtesy of Aldo Scavarda) reflect despair on the amorality of its people. No crescendo of love is ever reached; Claudia and Sandro pass through their affair like lost spirits. When Sandro shatters the white noise, it is as though Claudia regains an entire consciousness, remembering what it is to feel again.

Perhaps that is a harsh characterization. Vitti (Antonioni’s muse in three subsequent films) delicately navigates Claudia’s plight: to batter against one’s own hollowness, grasping for happiness. She does not judge Claudia, and neither does Antonioni. Instead he offers the experience (the “adventure”) as its own commentary. Pure mood, L’Avventura is liberated from structure or a tangible purpose to its events. This made it a breakthrough in storytelling. And it is that story, of empty impulses and insulated angst that has earned L’Avventura’s legacy into our modern day. Draw your own conclusions about the sad, sterile lives of Claudia, Sandro and the rest. For their adventures will continue to reinvent themselves as our lifestyles continually leave the moral landscape in disarray.