Friday, August 30, 2013

#19: By the Flashbulb's Bright Glare: Ace in the Hole (1951) and Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

Ace in the Hole (directed by Billy Wilder) and Sweet Smell of Success (directed by Alexander Mackendrick) were brought to 1950’s screens by A-list talent, many of whom were hounded or haunted by the blacklist. These films’ vile protagonists wield quips and cunning as acid-tipped daggers in wars of influence. We are taken to locales of American legend: the Wild West and The Big Apple, where individuals became heroes and communities arose from dust and squalor. Yet New Mexico’s and New York’s caves and canyons are where these characters of ambition come to dupe or be duped, where care becomes a carnival. Born from the land of opportunity, these pictures drip with cynicism and self-disgust, enduring as two of the nastiest Hollywood creations made from and against the media machine.

Picture sources: here, here, and here.

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P.S. Make it a triple feature with Wilder's Sunset Boulevard as a starter!

P.P.S. I also wrote a post about my five favorite classic cinematographers (including Success' James Wong Howe) at YAM-Mag, and posted some favorite TV and movie soundtrack tracks in this Youtube playlist

Thursday, May 9, 2013

#18: Sinister Nature: Hannibal, Utopia, and Les Revenants (The Returned)

Three gorgeous and compelling “genre” TV shows exhibit extraordinary elements irreparably transforming ordinary worlds: Canal+’s enigmatic zombie drama Les Revenants (titled The Returned for the UK), Channel 4’s conspiracy thriller Utopia, and AXN/Gaumont/NBC’s investigative procedure-serial Hannibal. Their simmering, striking style melts into substantial experiences unlike most offerings on any screen.

Top stag and later mushroom images from Cleolinda's recaps.
Past and present, real and unreal bleed through dream imagery in environments conquered by color. Les Revenants subtly shifts into visual modes that are distant, heavily shadowed, framed, or otherwise cut-off— fostering unease through a perspective simultaneously voyeuristic and withholding, painterly and disturbing. Utopia, whose plot centers on a graphic novel manuscript, features stunning hyper-saturated shots of nature and buildings. These shots give a macro- or micro- view of proceedings and surroundings, with people obscured or not even in sight (a trait that gains plot significance). Hannibal’s brutal “Brueghelian beauty ” especially affects one of its main characters; who finds it increasingly difficult to separate the acts of viewing, understanding, and becoming. The bursts of violence in all these shows is heavily stylized, but their cruelty or sudden viciousness are presented as horrifying beyond — or because of—  their shocking elegance.

Another factor that distinguishes these surreal-leaning shows from other TV programs: their original, evocative soundtracks. Moodiness and odd flourishes heighten scenes with tones ranging from ethereal to menacing. My favorite track this year is “Meditative Chaos,” featuring the voice of Kim Neundorf, from Cristobal Tapia de Veer’s distortion-heavy Utopia soundtrack. Scottish post-rock band Mogwai composed atmospheric tracks like “Wizard Motor” for Les Revenants by watching scenes with some English-language description and translation before scoring. Brian Reitzell’s soundtrack for Hannibal sneaks and slithers before heavy beats and many an operatic crescendo. Pulses echo the ticks of a metronome, or a stalker’s steps.

Humanity is haunted and hunted. Scattered through these shows are the dream-stag and murder displays of Hannibal, Mr. Rabbit and the illustrations in Utopia, and the titular animal and human Revenants. Powerful images and personalities are presented as more than human, breaking past the civilized everyday into realms aligned with the primitive or supernatural. Living and dead, flora and fauna, blend in inhuman assemblage. Lines between opposing forces split and fuse in a kaleidoscopic array of allegiance and morality. Particular shots further suggest a further melding of diabolical and divine.

What is surprising about these shows is how they extend this dissolving duality to the basic physical and filial elements of existence. Inserts of gentle, pastoral nature are later revealed as omens of murder and decay. From Utopia’s pharma-food conspiracy to the cannibalistic killers of Hannibal and Les Revenants (and stirrings of feral behavior in the zombies of the latter), the vital and personal act of eating is tainted. Kinship bonds arise through cannibalism and trauma in Hannibal, mourning and survival in Les Revenants, and alternating paranoia and vulnerability in Utopia. Each program centers on survival through formation and fracture of individual and group identity. Yet which of these bonds are fabrications of manipulation and pressure? What bonds are genuine? Les Revenants, Utopia, and Hannibal bring to our screens three narratives that explore the hopes and fears of trust: in others, in oneself, and in one’s reality.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

#17: Camera as Enabler: Man Bites Dog (1992) and Chronicle (2012)

 Man Bites Dog (C'est arrivé près de chez vous, "It Happened in Your Neighborhood"), directed by and starring Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel, and Benoît Poelvoorde; unfolds through the footage of a documentary production crew who have selected a hitman as their subject. A reason for filming gruesome murders turns into an excuse for criminal collaboration.

Chronicle, directed by Josh Trank, tells its teens-with-superpowers tale through constant obsessive or automated video documentation. The joy and troubles of newfound abilities takes an Akira-lite path towards destruction.

These are ultimately stories of villains, either sympathetic or charismatic. The camera becomes another channel of power. Recording and performing for an audience amplifies the protagonists’ control (or lack of control) over life and death. Both main characters try to turn themselves into legends, to reach beyond their lower-middle-class situation and become an “apex predator.”

Neither film is subtle, and a few jumps and plot holes are more obvious because of the films’ overall tight control. Females are simply plot devices compared to the male characters. Yet the format inherently acknowledges perspective limitations. Man Bites Dog manages to be both brutal and incisive in its shocks and whiplash morbid humor. Chronicle is notable for how it expands the “found footage” subgenre by transforming the camera into eyes, an extension of self, a witness, even a spirit medium.

“Found footage” movies ask the audience to accept that not only is the fiction on screen “reality” for the characters, but that this fiction has the appearance of fact. One could say that extreme aspects reassure the viewer that what is happening on screen is not real; of course no one dies like that, of course there are no superhuman powers from outer space. However, the movies still ask, what if it is real? What would you do?

The two films discussed here explicitly show the materials “used” for shooting — low-budget film for Man Bites Dog, digital video for Chronicle— to ground their concept. More than similar films, they activate the possibilities of their format. Through most of Chronicle, many viewers hope for the better welfare and possible redemption of the character whose often hand-held perspective guides much of the movie. Man Bites Dog implicates and horrifies both viewer and filmmaker for their fascination with the sensational. At which point will a viewer decide to tag along for the ride? At which point would a viewer step back? Either way, they’re still watching.

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For further reading, check this critique of the socioeconomic dynamics in Chronicle, as well as the AV Club’s New Cult Canon post on Man Bites Dog.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

#16 - 2NE1's "I Love You" MV (2012) and the films of Josef von Sternberg

Late at night, trying out different Korean music videos on cable OnDemand, I noticed something. It is not influence I'm suggesting or exemplary work I'm praising. There are simply some similarities I wanted to compare.

Solitary scenes of longing are standard fare in music videos, but the concentration of those scenes in this video reminded me of aspects of the work of director Josef von Sternberg.

The four young women that comprise the pop group 2NE1 are kept separate for much of the song; lounging, searching. Their gaze is constantly angled, examining themselves or reaching elsewhere. If they face the camera, it is rarely sustained. These looks at the camera are often partly in shadow, at a diagonal, fleeting in motion, supported by shots of other members of the group, or through a mirror; sparsely distributed through the video until they climax in raid brighter-colored montage.

Outward excess is shown through a gaze both poetic and voyeuristic. One member's dance faces an empty armchair, while another is turned inward, a personal movement. There is an audience in mind, if not present. The group's usual hypersaturated palette, and extreme assemblage of high fashion would not be out of place in the casino of The Shanghai Gesture

Josef von Sternberg was shameless in exploiting "foreign" stereotypes to create his idealized, often depraved, settings for desire. "I Love You" is from an Korean group and presumably filmed by an Asian director whose name I could not find. It uses many locations and objects exotic in design if not in use: the lighthouse shown below looks like a prop from a silent film, and one sensual gesture of brushing past hallway doors is quiet but memorable. 

Many of the videos of 2NE1 are designed to create glamorous, bizarre yet fun worlds for school-age through pop-loving-adult fans. Both bodies of work strive to conjure escape in flickers, to embrace opulence and ridiculousness in impermanent forms.

As stated near the beginning, the slower songs of 2NE1 and other musical acts usually feature one or more people staring, in frames easy to mold towards whatever lyrics are being sung at the moment. What struck me about this video was how it indulged in languor.

Females in von Sternberg's films often slink and recline, and even in the relatively more realist silent The Docks of New York, key moments feature the heroine lying in bed. "I Love You" has been discussed as a typical song about obsession, another trait common to characters in von Sternberg's films. The women of 2NE1 and von Sternberg's heroines are presented lingering within their emotions, unsettled even in their dream worlds, restless but held back until the right moment for the direct gaze.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

#15: Korean Interiors: I’m a Cyborg, but That’s OK (2006) and The Housemaid (1960)

Characters in Park Chan-wook’s I’m a Cyborg, but That’s OK and Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid (Hanyo) are confined to stylized spaces that illustrate states of mind. The comedic color film I’m a Cyborg, but That’s OK has possibilities expand through the characters’ breaks with reality, while those in the melodramatic black-and-white The Housemaid are further trapped by their extreme emotions. Both films have one moment where the reality of the situation intrudes, a critique of over-sentimentalizing mental illness (Cyborg) or acting as a voyeur (Housemaid). Cyborg or Housemaid, the lead female characters’ minds are especially powerful and, especially for the male characters in the films, impenetrable.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

#14: The Socio-Economic Network: Kekexili: Mountain Patrol (2004) and Gommora (2008)

Investigations into economic exploitation are adapted for semi-fictional drama in Lu Chuan’s Kekexili (Mountain Patrol) and Matteo Garrone’s Gommora.

Kekexili, which depicts events in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region of Tibet, has drawn criticism for portraying the Chinese government as a benign authority. (See here and here for more information.) The director attracted similar comments of fulfilling Chinese propaganda aims with his masterful movie about the Rape of Nanking, City of Life and Death.

Roberto Saviano, the author of the vital muckraking work upon which Gommora is based, is still under police protection since publication of the book, which exposes the worldwide reach of the Camorra mafia and the stranglehold it maintains in and around Naples.

Though events in the plot may be as unforgiving as the mountainous landscape, Kekexili makes gritty heroes out of the Tibetans who give up their time and lives in order to save the Tibetan antelope from poachers. There is much less Hollywood-esque heroism in Gomorra, where the compromises and hypocrisies reach further into even the most well-intentioned person’s actions. The apartment structure at the center of the intertwining stories looms as an ominous structure of community decay.

Some have found Gomorra too bleak and overpopulated with characters to maintain interest, while one romantic subplot in Kekexili halts that film’s otherwise expert control of pace. Chuan also admitted that he could not find a satisfying answer amongst research notes and interviewees for why the protagonists are so committed to their task.

Kekexili’s cinematography brings forth all the color and majesty of the Tibetan highlands, pulling in tighter for character moments and very polished in its overall style. Gommora’s visuals tend towards desaturation in its more intimate and immediate look. The many accounts of Saviano’s book are distilled into several storylines connected by neighborhood and Camorra entanglement. A Chinese connection even appears with one clothes factory plot. “These Chinese know how to cook,” says one surprised Italian character, whose attitude towards the foreigners grows more amicable after food and work. Mealtime also establishes a deeper connection between the Chinese reporter and the Tibetan protagonists of Kekexili, but this a universal trope that can be found in films from any country.

What these films share most in common is a potent and damning critique of how increased worldwide demand for goods is met through pervasive exploitation- of Tibetans as well as the endangered antelope species in Kekexili and the people of an entire region in Gomorra. None of the characters in these films ever have the chance to witness escape from these situations, though hope may be given to the audience through post-movie research or concluding on-screen text.