Monday, October 31, 2011

Silver Bullets

A 'new' film by Joe Swanberg. About relationships. And misunderstandings. Unspoken feelings, and confused, unsatisfactory relations. One might expect to also give the film the 'mumblecore' adjective, but I believe Swanberg at least proved the adjective itself unclear and unnecessary long ago though pretty helpful as a brand up to this day.
Silver Bullets is having a week long run at ReRun which started last Friday. It is a very good film. Expressionistic and revealing, it can be seen as a counter point to what has come before in his work and what is to come. The film presents change in style that calls to be held in radical contrast with his previous work. And yet it does not in any way disown or disengage his previous way of forging a sensibility.

There have been reviews that aim to call to mind a new found sophistication in Swanberg's work from Silver Bullets on, and therefore see his previous work as artless depictions of recycled themes that can be seen as only an excuse for the director to abuse the sense of privacy, morality, patience and aesthetic that his performers, and the audience watching the film, hold dear. These reviews see Swanberg's 'new found' basic, filmic 'know-how' as a sign of sophistication. They oppose this described 'sophistication', found in the way one uses three point lighting, or pays attention to color hues and uses primary colors and relationships to convey dramatic situations, this 'sophistication' that is the result of having done your homework in film school is seen as opposed to an amateurish, do it yourself, improvisational, overly balanced style of filmmaking. The opposition, in the reviewer's mind, creates a contradiction. An unsophisticated, amateur style works against, and ultimately negates the effort to convey a story on screen, to dramatize a narrative.

However, it is not difficult to see Silver Bullets as a film, that in being transitional, gathers these surface emotions that have been aimed by others at his past work and repaints them as self-debasing, deconstructing questions about the artistic endeavor in general, and filmmaking in particular. The opposition is idealistic, and the film works through the implications of such oppositions of styles and finds within both of them a core sensibility: a powerful, territorial musing on the nature of art and the endeavor to create beauty while remaining free.

Which is not to say the film is dialectical, or a thought exercise. It is transitional and as such it presents Swanberg moving forward toward another sense of the cinematic. However, the difference is not really on the use of a classical style vs. a DIY style. The difference is but between Swanberg's early deadpan rhythmic stillness, only accentuated by his ever moving, unmounted camera, the lack of color and light contrast, as well as the ever muffled communication between people in the most classically intimate of moments, and a new, contrapuntal way of unfolding a narrative. In its meta-form, it is doubly subversive, great to look at, and an actual good time, and yes, my favorite film by Swanberg.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Memory Of A Film That Was

On my last post I talked a bit about, in general terms, the work of Vincente Minnelli and the importance of his retrospective currently playing here in New York. I think a great example of the relevance of Minnelli as a director who deserves another look as a moving force in the history of cinema is his last film: A Matter of Time.

Throughout his career, Minnelli worked under the umbrella of a big Hollywood institution, MGM studios. His later films, however, are developed outside of the familiar studio system, and A Matter of Time in particular showcases his singular conceptions on death, the tragic and the cinema without having recourse to the workings of a big film making machine.

The story of the production of the film is nightmarish. It is said he was by the time of production already showing signs of dementia. The final cut of the film was taken away from him (though not because of his rumored mental state during production), and his producer butchered the film, not only leaving out pivotal scenes but also adding a conventional framing narrative and even shooting additional footage that only did great disservice to the final product.

And yet...Minnelli's last effort, as it stands today, is a great, moving film.

In it, Ingrid Bergman gives one of her greatest performances. Her performance conjures a complete world with delirium. Aptly called, a great, remarkable "ruin of a film", the scenes not shot by Minnelli and the narrative structure forced upon it only exacerbate the traits and ideas Minnelli so courageously, and yes, deliriously puts forward. We find he accentuates his understanding of the tragic with remarkable passion, a passion he seems to surrender to more than in any other of his works. His style gains a sense of wisdom that can only come from a personal understanding of the nature of cinema and its biggest concern: the nature of being and its representation, its temporality.
His treatment of mise en scene transcends any remark about him using actors as props, or his frame as a still window to dress prettily. Mise en scene here deals strictly with time in its folds and transformations. Bodies travel not only through space but through time in a manner that can only make one recall the most magical beginnings of cinema with Melies.
Minnelli's sensibility, his ideas and his working through of them is consistent with the rest of his body of work, except that in this film he doesn't hold back his own idiosyncrasies, nor those of his actors, and that is where his courage lies.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Minnelli Rising

For the past month, New York has been treated to what I think is a momentous, radical retrospective that if looked at carefully can change one's view of the history of classical Hollywood, and therefore call into question many assumptions we make about the history of cinema.

The retrospective is of the complete works of Vincente Minnelli (at BAM), and in showing all of Minnelli's works it calls for a reevaluation of his role in the history of cinema, and to my mind it positions him as more than a "director of MGM musicals" or a competent "window dresser" but rather as a central figure in the history of classical cinema, a figure as central and pivotal as Griffith, Ford, Capra, Chaplin and Godard.
There is much to say about many of his greatest works, like Some Came Running, The Long Long Trailer, The Bad and the Beautiful, The Pirate, An American in Paris, etc. etc., but it only takes watching for example the melodrama Tea and Sympathy, to understand that Minnelli was no 'window dresser', whatever that really means. The work mentioned contains one of his most complex, consistant, classical uses of color and mise en scene I have encountered. It is due to such clear headed, exuberant, classical, inclusive and ultra-sensorial artistic form and rhythm that he is both hailed as a master confectioner of beauty and balance and yet shunned as an innovative dramatist whose work could reflect any conceptual musings about the cinema in general and its place in history.

As a matter of fact, Minnelli, as others have written, in working within classical boundaries found a way to reflect and document the very workings of various institutions and the people who create them. Yet, I believe, in Tea and Sympathy as in all of his work, he shows not just a politics of individuals under different institutions, or even a phenomenology of the give and take between institutions/representations and the individual dreamers who posit them and live under their pressure. What I believe he shows is rather a clear sighted reportage about the very existence of the singular under the stifling command of laws, the soul of any institution. In this sense, his work is not only classical in referring to our understanding of the history of cinema and therefore of a history of a hundred year old art. His work, in the most cinematic form, is rather classical even as positioned within the history of the Western canon. Its sensibility and use of form harks back to the most classical of ideas in our collective consciousness: the understanding of the tragic condition and its denial.

The retrospective still has much to offer until its closing in November 2nd. Next week there are so many films I greatly anticipate I will hardly watch anything else. I suggest you do yourself a favor and catch any of them if you live in New York.

There are also many tremendous articles and blog entries appraising the work of Minnelli the auteur. I provide links to some of the most insightful, either by Richard Brody, film critic at The New Yorker, or by Joe McElhaney, professor at Hunter College and Minnelli scholar. I studied under him and was hence introduced to Minnelli's work through him and his showing of Tea and Sympathy.

Sunday, October 9, 2011


I have chased "Margaret." I have followed this white whale, from its production in 2005, to its release two weeks ago. The product of playwright Kenneth Lonergan, his second film following 2000's "You Can Count On Me," "Margaret" was meant to be a sprawling, epic tale of survivor's guilt in the wake of 9/11. However, Lonergan's script was soon revealed to be far too massive, and with a contractual obligation to turn in a cut that ran two and a half hours, Lonergan found himself unable to trim his work beyond three hours.

Length of a film is something about which I've always fretted. A great picture is a great picture, even if it runs past 180 minutes. But more often than not, movies overstay their welcome, some even at the ninety or one hundred minute mark. But upon seeing what I'm to gather is an incomplete, released version of "Margaret," I realized I could have sat through an eight hour cut.

Portions of "Margaret" are absolutely heart-breaking. Movies tend to spotlight the grieving process as something overly symmetrical in relation to tragedy. It's a three-act structure, and we can overcome all/some odds with time, possibly alienating some in the process. It's a bit messier in "Margaret," when vain high schooler Lisa Cohen accidentally distracts a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo), resulting in a gruesome accident that ends the life of a passerby (Allison Janney, shattering in her single scene). Superficially, she's a hormonal mess, trying to react to what she thinks, what she thinks she's supposed to think, and what others perceive. But in the wake of this awful tragedy that doesn't leave her blameless, she makes perfect sense.
She acts out, of course, but Anna Paquin's performance (performance of the year, by the way, though that year may have been '05) radiates both impulsive selfishness and innate intelligence. Lisa is a passionate, connected student, but one who can't resist the vices of pot, boys and parties. With an actress single mother stressed from both the opening of her new play and a pushy new suitor, Lisa is essentially left to her own devices, rudderless to make sense of the situation.

If anything, this is a spiritual successor to "Do The Right Thing," in that Lisa's moral compass is useless in navigating this bed of thorns. If she were to tell the police that the bus driver moved through a red light, he would lose his job and cripple his family, and so she distorts the truth. But soon her vision widens, and she seeks justice, vengeance, or some amalgamation of the two, returning to the police and fighting through a disinterested bureaucracy to bring order to the universe. Darkly funny is the seed of this idea, that Lisa, living in New York City, is so myopic that she thinks the tragedy that haunts her dreams has knocked something loose in the fabric of existence, even if such tragedies occur every day.

"Margaret" sadly feels cosmetically choppy, as scenes feel truncated, montages stretch on a bit too much, and side references speak to a larger world, an in-joke without a reference point, a dropped subplot. But a film is not an equation, and "Margaret" is a magnificently imperfect film. It's impossible to not understand the complex class issues that emerge when Lisa confronts the angered bus driver. When Jean Reno, as a Latin lover (just go with it, dammit) gets into an argument with a Jewish woman over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it's both funny and perceptive in the ways where racism and politics cross paths. And, ultimately, there's the ultimate sadness of Lisa, wrapped up in her personal disaster, leaving a trail of tears and broken emotions behind her, as everyone tries and fails to help this lost, inarticulate girl. If it's still playing, do make plans to catch a screening of a towering achievement in American cinema.