Saturday, December 25, 2010

If.... (1968)

Directed by Lindsay Anderson.
Starring Malcolm McDowell and David Wood.
In a Nutshell: A group of boarding school students form a revolt against their superiors.

“Violence and revolution are the only pure acts,” youthful musings of the restless and lost. Director Lindsay Anderson’s film studies the subculture of an English boarding school, a storm that has rebellious student Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell) smirking in its eye. If…. is a unique film; it subverts realism without falling into stylized trappings that would fetishize its anarchic thunder. Yet Anderson manages a finely detailed portrait, all fading into the larger picture. What that larger picture “is” the film never concretely outlines, as the 60’s provided plenty to rebel against. But Anderson is not interested in that sort of statement, at least not enough to find the humanity in his characters. As the chief instigator, Travis is embodied by McDowell as an imp and dreamer, with just a glint of devilishness. His wide-eyed ruminations and refined cultural sensibilities inject romanticism into his deeds, albeit steeped in naïveté. As a poster child for the audience’s rebellious cravings, he is indelible.

Travis’ world is deftly constructed. Though filled with archetypes, a talented array of character actors infuses Anderson’s character sketches with life and personality. Anderson catches small moments of the microcosm, defining a whole world with little exhibition (the blossoming love between one of Mick’s revolutionaries and a prepubescent tells its entire story in as little as three scenes). One odd touch is randomized scenes devoid of color, explained by Anderson as cost-cutting measures during interior filming (though Anderson would have preferred to shoot entirely in black and white). Narrative-wise, the scenes carry no additional pattern but a dreamy ambience, carrying into the boys’ waking fantasies.

Such tones of revolt, wistfulness and dark humor do not seem to contrast, but flow to capture the tumultuousness of youth. Anderson was suspected to be closeted, and the burning rage and despair he might have felt emanates through the boys’ desire to break free. Its much-discussed ending encapsulates the film’s tone into pure action, carried forth by the surrealism. Is it necessary? Particularly as the ending shatters the satirical context into pure protest. It may be hard to judge from a modern context, but could not blame If…. for having its finger on the pulse of youth, requiring such a scene to hammer home their frustration. And as Mick would argue, it stands as one of the film’s purest act.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)

Directed by John Cassavetes.
Starring Ben Gazzara and Seymour Cassel.
In a Nutshell: A club owner must commit a murder to pay off a gambling debt.

In response to his detractors, John Cassavetes once quipped, “A movie tries to pacify people by keeping it going for them so that it's sheer entertainment. I hate entertainment. There’s nothing I despise more than being entertained.” Perhaps there is a hint of facetiousness, though it is still a statement worth considering while viewing this film. Its premise suggests noir pulp, but Cassavetes pushes all that into the background for an unapologetically realistic character study. And that character may be John Cassavetes. His protagonist Cosmo Vittelli (Ben Gazzara) is a man proud of his meager lot in life. When we meet him, he has just paid his last debt to acquire full ownership of the strip club Crazy Horse West. As entertainment, Cosmo offers tawdry peep shows boasting a low-rent artistry. His shows are earnest, deeply personal but humiliating in their faux-sophistication. Too soon, Cosmo accumulates a heavy gambling debt with some mobsters who offer him a way out; kill a Chinese bookie.

True to the noir genre, Cosmo is fatalism-infected scum, and knows it. The pride he takes in his strip-theater performers seems born of sweaty desperation. He has little else for show, all the better than to cling to what you got. The artist id is split between Cosmo and the Master of Ceremonies, Teddy aka Mr. Sophistication (Meade Roberts) who is self-pitying and yearning for audience approval, when not upstaged by the girls’ bare breasts. He is the counterweight to Cosmo’s workingman ethic, yet naked with his insecurities while Cosmo struts a faux-suavity. Only when the inevitable comes in full terror by the end, does Cosmo try to pin down his facade as motivation for the troupe. Everything is fraud, just “choose a personality.”

That is only what the film is, but how is it? The original cut is flourished with diversions featuring the film’s supporting characters including some extra performances. Though to say diversions may be missing the point of Cassavetes’ film; it is these cinéma vérité moments that he is interested in, not the bookie business (save what it can tell us about Cosmo and the gangsters). Cassavetes keeps the camera bare inches from the characters’ faces, thrusting this world at us and magnifies the barest quiver underneath Cosmo’s facade. Similarly, Cassavetes hides his character turmoil in full view within the gangster-noir murder plot (you know, “macho” stuff). We are left to explore this world and his lost characters, looking for art, looking for love, meaning, anything at all. Before the relief of the final curtain.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Fires on the Plain (1959)

Directed by Kon Ichikawa.
Starring Eiji Funakoshi and Osamu Takizawa.
In a Nutshell: A private in ailing health struggles to survive WWII combat.

1959 yielded two humanistic war films intent on tarnishing the legacy of military nationalism in WWII-era Japan. Masaki Kobayashi's sprawling The Human Condition witnessed the slow, grinding demise of idealism and the human spirit. Kon Ichikawa’s Fires on the Plain depicts quick, ugly cruelty. It tests the will of man’s survival when reduced to the barest of resources. When Private Tamura (Eiji Funakoshi) becomes stricken with tuberculosis early on, he is ordered to consider two choices: find medical care (to continue fighting) or suicide. The battlefield offers far worse. Ichikawa tracks Tamura through the hell of combat with each repugnant side inflicting different brands of hostility. But there is purity to Ichikawa’s study of the human will at odds with the bleakest of frontiers.

It is an unnerving film, with Tamura’s journey void of the rigor and civility that keeps society from folding in on itself. Ichikawa is not shy in revealing the haunting details, cut with occasional shots of scenic beauty too heartbreaking to smack of irony. But it is that compassion that reverberates with Tamura’s arc and his dogged refusal to submit to the elements. With his ambiguous ending (deviating from the novel) Ichikawa suggests little else is worth claiming. The cost is still great; even inner peace rewards no certainty. For Tamura, it becomes the only solace taken into abyss, moving towards the unseen salvation one prays will await on the horizon. In his pitiless rendering of war’s horrors, Ichikawa achieves the same revelation, and never looks back.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974)

Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
Starring Brigitte Mira and El Hedi ben Salem.
In a Nutshell: A lonely widow is ostracized when she falls in love with a younger Arab.

Fassbinder conceived Ali: Fear Eats the Soul as a directing exercise in between two other projects. This hardly telegraphs a labor of love. But his speedy production schedule must have granted an unfettered simplicity to the film’s unlikely love affair. The story is a thematic reworking of Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows, supplemented with two like characters from his early work The American Solider (a far grimmer tale about discrimination). But Fassbinder presents this tale without irony, projecting Sirk’s subtext to boot. The end result is a beautiful love story between two flawed individuals aching for acceptance.

The film's greatest achievement can be felt through the soulful performances of the resilient Brigitte Mira and sad-eyed El Hedi ben Salem. Today, ben Salem’s work carries a haunting truth. As Fassbinder’s real-life lover, the hostility he found in Germany built up until he stabbed three men, then hung himself in prison. As “Ali,” he faces victimization, even Mira’s unconscious prejudice, exhausting him to the point of emotional detachment. Mira’s Emmi faces the same tough decision of defying her family and peers for Ali’s love, and Fassbinder is careful not to define her plight as social martyrdom. Their conflict within themselves could reflect Fassbinder’s own struggle to find happiness, the unfortunate causality of human nature. Though the film’s end champions its progression as well.

Select shots of visual artifice present still moments of separation or proximity. Such shots adopt any number of manners; evocation of Emmi and Ali’s love frozen in time or the overt manipulation each character feels within their given “role”. Or it may just be Fassbinder’s extreme depiction of his own experiences. It may feel unnatural, but not inappropriate. Much like its title, these shots express a blunt simplicity akin to the couple’s union. Fassbinder has crafted a moving love story, but even its original intent demonstrates his command. Cribbing from Sirk forecasts lazy movie making. But Fassbinder’s personal melancholy illustrates the story’s backbone, uncovering depths of humanity that would have been strangled by Sirk’s feverish melodrama. Only something as ineffable as Emmi and Ali’s love deserves his simple honesty.