Wednesday, December 22, 2010

ENTER THE VOID: MOVIE REVIEW

Cast: Nathaniel Brown, Paz de la Huerta, Cyril Roy, Olly Alexander
Director: Gaspar Noé
Runtime: 154 min.
Country: France
Verdict: I tried hard, real hard for 4 nights. And despite the overflowing amount of graphic sex, I couldn’t watch the film past the 1 hour 20 min. mark.
Genre: Drama

        Cinephiles, film historians please help me here. A friend of me tells me about this filmmaker during the 30s who tried to do what Mr. Noé does here, i.e. have the camera act as an eye. No, no, not be an approximation of an eye, but actually be the eye. That filmmaker left the act midway realizing that this experimentation was actually counter-productive to the inherent nature of the medium. Right on the money, I say. A camera can never ever be the eye. You see, food is served on the table. We like to pick up the spoon, taste the dishes for ourselves, and eat them the way we please. Now imagine the hotel chef walking out and picking up the spoon and putting it into your mouth as per his whims and fancies while you’re seated on the chair. Sure, you might like it, but then it can never be eating. It is called feeding. I don’t know, but life is a visual and emotional and spiritual buffet, right? And cinema is a menu-item list that tries its best to approximate the real deal. The trick then is to conceal the approximation, not bring it to the fore and dispel any semblance of the illusion.
        It is interesting to note Mr. Noé’s intention here. He describes the film as a “psychedelic experience”. (Courtesy: Wikipedia). He suggests that his choice for English as the language was guided by one idea – the want to have the audience focus only on the images and not be distracted by any subtitles. I don’t ask of you to watch the entire film, and you might not even be able to. Enter the Void is quite literally a void in time, with the most derivative and unimaginative little camera trick of first putting the camera right inside the person, and then behind the head and assuming that the audience will conveniently experience what the character is experiencing. I don’t know, but to me it feels like a technique fresh out of film school. I mean, if there has ever been a more literal way of filmmaking it escapes my memory. I say again, as I have always been saying, a particular composition or camera placement alone does not reflect a desired emotional state. Something like a perspective, or psychology, or state of mind, can never be achieved by camera trickeries alone. Numerous filmmakers have tried to shake the camera, or tilt the camera but it only increases the obviousness of the artifice. If the trick alone would’ve worked, wouldn’t filmmaking be merely an exercise in How to do it yourself?
        What rather works, or what rather is true filmmaking is mise-en-scène. As the Koreans, the modern masters of cinematic craft suggest via Kim Ji-Woon in I Saw the Devil, even a medium close-up when used judiciously could make us forget our staring tendencies and serve as a perspective shot. It is because of the build-up, of the editing, of the acting and a lot more than I can even think of. Did we experience the opening battle of Saving Private Ryan only because the camera was hand-held? Or think why the opening act of Inglorious Basterds is one of the great scenes in cinema? Andrei Tarkovsky rarely used a behind-your-head perspective shot, and yet his films are all about perspective. Mr. Noé instead merely picks the camera and goes about the experience sharing. It is funny that the project has been gestating within him since his adolescence.
        Enter the Void starts off with a flashy bit of credit sequence where you hardly get to read anything except the names of the filmmaker, which make an appearance more than once, and that of some actors. If some member of the crew decides to sue Mr. Noé for not sharing the credit, I might very well understand they are coming from. The sequence hardly serves any purpose other than to provide for a sound-and-light show. It is cool it is flashy and it is empty. What we then have is Oscar (Mr. Brown) in his room with his sister Linda (Ms. Huerta). They are talking, and she is moving, and the camera moves around. Looks up, looks sideways, look down. It even blinks. How I am supposed to experience it all, without noticing the film technique is beyond me. It would be beyond you too.
        Oscar is a junkie, and a drug dealer. There’s a lengthy scene at the start where we experience the drug-daze through him, as he falls onto the bed, and talks to himself, and imagines designs in the air that resemble the Windows Media Player graphic designs when you play songs on them. You can see how into the experience I was, and how successful Mr. Noé’s little trick is. I mean, I was thinking of the technique and then veered off into how I would describe the scene in the review and then drew comparisons to the star-gaze in 2001 and then grew aware of my thinking and re-traced my thought process and then the scene was over. You could say I was drug induced for I was having my own thoughts, but then if Mr. Noé were to have left a blank screen I guess I would still be sitting here reciting similar details and arguments and inferences.
        Oscar then is shot dead by the cops. If you are curious how and why, watch the film. Then you’ll also learn about the weird relationship between him and his sister. Once he is dead, the camera moves outside and behind him so that the back of his head is always between us and the frame. It is a bit like sitting behind a tall guy. Actually Mr. Noé composes the frame pretty astutely as far as placing the head is concerned. Here’s a typical frame post-dead –

        You see, it is pretty fine. What he does with it subsequently is the cause of bother. He continues with the montage with the head at the same location. Something like this –







        It is real tough even for the most causal viewer, even to the couple who is sitting in the far corner and has bought the ticket just to indulge in a little make-out session, to miss this editing pattern and not notice this head. Although it is within the frame, gradually it seems to pop right out of it.
        There’s another moment that highlights this cinematic redundancy. Post-death Oscar’s junkie friend Alex calls Linda to inform her of the death. Linda is a stripper and is busy in a little in-out. The guy is her boss. He stops her from picking up the call. What is happening here is that Oscar, who’s dead, is hovering (literally), and can see everything from above. So he is watching from above as Alex calls, and then he travels (literally), and watches his sister enjoy her sex. So basically, the omniscience that is inherent to the arts like literature and cinema is laboriously made a cinematic technique via the character. I mean, the motion that is inherent to an edit is physically portrayed as motion through space. I wonder the benefits of such an ungainly little exercise. I saw ungainly because Mr. Noé has lots of stuff that he wants to say. He is dealing in pure montage theory here, wherein a moment where Oscar watches a woman undress before him and her breasts exposed is cut to his childhood where he is seeing his naked mother in the bathtub with her breasts exposed. A memory where he watches his father enjoy a little doggy session with his mother is cut to a memory of his friend Alex enjoy a similar session. And there’s of course the whole deal going on with his sister. It is quite a tricky little topic Mr. Noé is talking about, and yet his filmmaking is not merely distracting but is offensive on these delicate issues. I can understand the lack of understanding on Mr. Noé’s part. But there was a whole crew there. Didn’t they have anything to say?

Saturday, December 04, 2010

THE AMERICAN: MOVIE REVIEW

Cast: George Clooney, Violante Placido, Thekla Reuten, Paolo Bonacelli
Director: Anton Corbijn
Runtime: 105 min.
Verdict: An interesting little exercise in the assassin genre.
Genre: Thriller

        Jean-Pierre Melville (Le Samourai, Le Cercle Rouge) was a rare filmmaker. So is Michael Mann (Manhunter, Collateral). Filmmakers who have created characters who unflinchingly stand by two codes in life – honor and professionalism. Many other filmmakers try it out, like say John Woo (The Killer), but they have little to no idea how to keep mushy sentimentalism from seeping in and making it all needlessly personal, as opposed to professional, and hence melodramatic. I have this great regard for Johnnie To too, and yet I suspect even he has trouble keeping the feminine from flowing in. The great Exiled and Sparrow might suggest that tendency. Filmmakers like Mr. To and Mr. Woo, I believe, reduce the masculine to boyhood, and as much I like some of their pictures, I suspect the tendency is unintentional. Their men might carry guns, and wear overcoats, and carry the coolest sunglasses, and kill people, but they aren’t men. They might be more like the hardboiled detective fantasies of Calvin. Mr. Mann’s are. And among all filmmakers, dead or alive, Mr. Melville’s men are the real deal. I wouldn’t count out somebody throwing in Sergio Leone and opening up the discussion. And I would want to jump in too. But that would wait for later.
        Right now, I invoke these fine gentlemen because having these antiheroes usually leads a film to take one of the two routes – (a) either cut out a figure of principles and ethics and honor, and one which most often is anti-establishment, or (b) cut out a troubled figure, a revisionist take on the usual coolness associated with an assassin and his ilk, and still be anti-establishment. Even James Bond, the consummate professional and the establishment’s most trusted man, is rebellious with the way he does the job and so is supposed to be cooler for that. All my life I never did get this disregard for the establishment, and in probability I never will. All I can understand is that it might suggest a tendency of what Charles Forster Kane called the cross-section.
        What I seek is a pure and focused portrait of these very private gentlemen, these men of gun, without the distraction that the commentary on the establishment causes. Such ways there’s a certain integrity to Le Samourai, where everybody including the cops is merely doing their job. Roger Ebert and many other critics claim that Mr. Corbijn’s The American is Le Samourai for our times. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Yes, there sure was one, and that was called Collateral and Mr. Cruise’s Vincent is the closest any screen assassin, or for that matter any screen character has gotten to the unflinching composure of Alain Delon’s Samourai. And as for Mr. Clooney’s Jack, one might say what he and Mr. Corbijn are attempting for is towards the opposite end of the spectrum to what Alain Delon and Jean-Pierre Melville created. Whereas every frame of La Samourai is tending for a sense of austerity, a sense of discipline, a sense of calm, underneath every frame of The American one feels a certain agitation waiting to erupt, or explode. To the list I would also add Takeshi Kitano’s masterpiece Sonatine, a real rare picture whose honesty and focus plain breaks your heart.
        Yet, I say don’t go by my word. Here are a few portraits of some of these very private gentlemen. It is infinitely interesting how the figures themselves reveal everything about the tone of the corresponding film, and how acquiring certain body postures impress, so very subtly, so much of our perception of the character.

Le Samourai: I admit, I have somewhat of a man-crush for Alain Delon, and for Melville’s world, but then who wouldn’t. Look at Delon’s ice-cool composure, and his perfectly straight posture. Even while sitting, he doesn’t arch forward. He sits back. The perception we gain in an instant of this character by his demeanor is much beyond the words of any thematic description.









Collateral: Alain Delon conveys composure. Tom Cruise conveys arrogance.






The Limits of Control:







No Country for Old Men:






The American: Mr. Clooney’s Jack is a tired man. Tired of his life…a troubled soul…lack of inner peace…and all that stuff. You know the drill. It is funny to see how the character never sits straight.











Sonatine: This is probably the most unique of the portraits, because between the tired and the resolved stands Kitano’s Yakuza who is absolutely and comfortably numb from all of this. It is a remarkable remarkable character arc. I would say Kitano might me the natural heir to Buster Keaton, and if their last names sound so similar, we might have to thank the lord for providing us such a coincidence.














        Sometimes, you see, we just don’t give our actors enough credit. These guys here provide a fascinating spin to what might otherwise be a dull routine. Look at Alain Delon or Tom Cruise. Their characters speak so much about themselves. Why do I prefer a La Samourai or a Collateral over The American? Because I believe the former two are more of what I seek at the movies – the masculine. These guys are at absolute peace with themselves. There is no kitschy or cheesy morality to them. If they are killers, they are professionals.
        And speaking in the same tone, I could never truly recommend The American, or watch it again (I just happened to watch it once), although it is a beautifully crafted film. There is a heavy dose of the feminine, and the tale of a man resigned to his fate. Everyday conversation would describe Clooney’s Jack as a loser. I would too, because this man doesn’t belong where he stands. He is a man given to mediocrity. Dear reader, please understand that I speak only in cinematic terms, and when I say a loser, I mean this is a character that comes across as one who once dreamt of living the classic movie assassin/spy – James Bond or Jason Bourne – but now realizes that neither is cool enough nor is his morality at peace. This is a man ridden with guilt. Why is any of us ridden with guilt? Because of the simple reason that we have not understood or sorted out the politics and philosophy and morality and principles of our life, and instead are following the morality of the society. The American is one such man, and in times like these where capitalism and socialism and liberalism are getting confused, I think it is pretty neatly titled. And that is that.
        What interests me is the craft at hand. Of course, do not be misled to believe that there are any super minimalist shoot-out sequences. As in the words of Kyle Smith, the crew chasing the American is a Swedish one, “whose field manual apparently includes chapters on such advanced techniques as "standing around waiting to be shot" and "sneaking up behind target while waiting to be shot." The opening shot is near ridiculous, and I laughed so hard I almost gave up watching the film. Here is a frame-excerpt, and a running commentary.

        Mr. Corbijn first establishes a romantic tone with Jack and his lady friend walking on the snow, and a little melody playing in behind. The close-up in an open snow-land is warm enough.





        Next he goes for a rather wide shot from the left. The key is that the shot is from the same horizontal plane as the two people walking, and so it feels as an extended shot of the establishment. We’re still in the romantic mode, so to speak. In cinema, when we watch a character from the same horizontal level from an open vantage point, it usually feels like an establishment shot.



        The next shot is the key. At the movies, we audiences always always feel something is wrong when the vantage point is from behind the trees, or from the window, or from any concealed space. I do not happened to know at exactly what point in the history of cinema/television did this Pavlovian reflex install itself within us, but such a shot always always establishes that somebody is watching. And yes, somebody is.




        What happens next is utterly ridiculous, and how Mr. Smith describes in his review is right on the money. This silly killer looking at Jack has a clear shot for a long moment (from the tree to the left to the tree at the center), but as is the case with inefficient movie henchmen, he doesn’t shoot. Jack runs in the open for a long time, and not even a silly shot is fired. And just as he hides behind a rock, the stupid gunman fires.


        You see Jack standing? The gunman is on the top of this rock, providing remarkable evidence of his mastery in the art of getting shot. Jack sneaks around the rock, and kills him. The gunman drops dead, and I almost dropped on the floor. This is a scene right out of a Leslie Nielsen Naked Gun movie (god bless him), and The American is serious about itself.

        And yet, The American picks up the craft and assumes its seriousness quite dramatically. The action within the frame surprisingly pulls up to be worthy of the solemnity Mr. Corbijn almost wants to thrust upon it. In what is an assuredly shot film, the moment of outright command over technique lay in the way Mr. Corbijn uses the night time and the yellow shade to light it. There’re only 3-4 moments where Mr. Jack walks out in the night lit yellow. Quite cleverly the film establishes a tone of danger the first time around, where Jack walks past a man standing besides a sedan – the man already having been established as a suspect threat in a previous frame – and so we immediately register the information of night plus yellow. What happens the next time around, as Jack walks into the yellow lit night, is amazing in the way it gives so much of leverage to Mr. Corbijn in terms of reestablishment of mood. The street is same, and it enables Mr. Corbijn to cut straight to the moment. We’re already aware that this is a suspect little moment. It always pays to frame and edit generously.
        Ah, the ending. A gloriously melodramatic one, and yet it is so completely heartbreaking. There is a certain truth in that moment, as Jack bangs his fist onto the steering wheel, and realizes he couldn’t outrun his fate. It is quite amazing how the film and its character are hopeful when some of these films most usually aren’t. Framed in close-up, with Mr. Clooney showing why he is one of our great actors, It is, I say, quiet a moment, and I would have to say I was moved.





        Ah, about those opening credits. You could claim all you want that the final credit roll of Mr. Corbijn’s name dissolving into a bright flash of white after a tunnel was utterly predictable, but you got to ask yourself how the hell they achieved that mathematical precision? Sometimes the calculations behind these credits amaze me.