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Playing the game of catch-up

Body of Lies

After the New York Film Festival, with its Views from the Avant-Garde and Nagisa Oshima sidebar, I haven’t had much time to see, let alone write-up films seen over the last couple weeks.  Instead of letting them pass into the effluvia of personal memory, I thought I might share some short and superficial remarks, if only to juxtapose some films circulating in the fall of 2008 against each other:


Body of Lies (Scott, USA):  The trailers made this take on contemporary U.S. counter-terrorist ops intriguingly look like nothing but a non-stop long distance phone call between our man-on-the-ground (DiCaprio) and our man-back-home (Crowe).  What they didn’t show was the conventional clap-trap William Monahan (he of the The Departed adaptation) decides to drown DiCaprio’s character and the Middle East setting in.  By the time we get the post-9/11 equivalent of our hero tied up on railroad tracks as a train barrels down on him, all interest in the connect and disconnect of information, bodies, and humanity between local and remote observation and intercession points has long been squandered.  Nice inclusion of flying drones glinting in the sky like some malevolent and sentient overlord, one Scott brother (Ridley) trying to one up the other (Tony, who directed Enemy of the State) with up to the minute techno-know-how.


W. (Stone, USA): My brief sojourn in autumn political films from the U.S. continues and stops with Stone’s surprisingly watchable film.  Expectations probably tempered reaction, but restraint seems in evidence more than anything else—except for Thandie Newton’s grotesque banshee caricature of Condoleezza Rice.  More than anything else, the film serves as a gap-filler: representations of what goes on behind the public image of the Bush administration are slim to none, and so Stone gets points (in the plus or minus column, you decide) for simply imagining people, images, dialog, and melodrama that were, before this film, mostly murky and speculative.  The result may still be speculative, but murky it is not; so heavy a sledgehammer used to drive a film’s emphasis on the psychological disability of its main character has not been seen in the cinema since Hitchcock’s forehead-slapping use of Freud in Spellbound.


The Ghost Ship (Robson, USA, 1943): Also “watchable” but in a completely different way.  I have no idea what Mark Robson was up to after the 1940s, but the director’s anonymous, flat direction fits eerily within producer Val Lewton’s B-movie horror universe of the wartime era.  Whereas the most notable Lewton director, Jacques Tourneur, emphasizes the poetry of the unknown and irrational, Robson treats his spooky subjects like he is directing the 1940s’ equivalent of an infomercial or industrial documentary—inflection and style is minimized, simple facts photographed but without even the emphasis that they are facts.  In a film like this, or even better in Robson’s The Seventh Victim, the clash of the uncanny (ghost stories) and the supra-normal (Robson’s ur-matter-of-fact direction) make for a supreme unease.  That being said, two sequences in this film—one involving an out of control crane and the other the murder of a crew man via being drowned and crushed by the chain of the ship’s anchor—cannot be written off as the Robson Bare Minimum.  There is an evocation in the combination of the mechanical practicality of the devices and the way normal, industrial dangers take on an unnatural kind of menace and expression that suggests Robson may occasionally have something up obviously his sleeve.


Loretta Young

Man’s Castle (Borzage, USA, 1933): Finally caught up with this rarity—held to be one of Borzage’s very best—when it got a screening on Turner Classic Movies.  I find that whenever I talk about a Borzage film I like, I always end up saying the same thing: erotic, tactile, fatally romantic, transcendental, etc. etc. blah blah; and this is not different.  So what else is there to love about Man’s Castle, aside from the feeling and feel of the romance between Spencer Tracy and Loretta Young?  Well it’s got what’s probably one of the last remnants of silent film’s fantastic (in the fantasy sense) take on poverty: the couple’s shambling home in the river-side slums of Depression-era New York is a post-expressionistic hodgepodge of every-square-inch over-decorated, over-angular, over-invented (check the poor man’s stove, formed from mud and hard work, or the ingenuity of the bedroom skylight, a broken window on a pulley).  Compare with, say, Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath only seven years later to see how Hollywood eventually started to picture the destitute and out of luck (both directors sharing a common influence in F.W. Murnau, by the way).


And finally, some films of French New Wave director Jean-Daniel Pollet, making a “comet-rare” appearance in New York, as one friend put it.  I hadn’t known, but the guy is a Left Bank New Waver through and through, blink and you might think him a sibling of Alain Resnais.  Tracking shots around sedentary objects of ambiguous history and meaning?  Check.  Literary voice-over, part structural ideas part poetry?  Check.  Emphasis on editing between discreetly shot segments rather than a linear style of planning your edits via your script?  Check.  Blink again and you might think Méditerranée (1963) is Renais Redux as well, Last Year in Marienbad set in Greece.  But you’d be wrong.  Whereas the Resnais film—which I love dearly—one can pretty much get the gist of in its first ten minutes of a hotel combed by snaking tracking shots and a looped voice-over, Pollet’s film, while returning again and again to the same shots, the same music (Antoine Duhamel, a masterpiece of a score), the same voice-over, each return is not a recapitulation.  And it is not exactly an evolution either.  Each return is like the occasional shot shown of an accordian—Méditerranée expands and contracts, meanings form and are thwarted, suggestions are made but undeveloped, developments occur and are forgotten.  Above all else, Pollet’s film is allusive and lyrical, compared to Marienbad’s purposeful obfuscation and the solemnity of sculpted blocks of marble.

The other shorts I caught in the retrospective weren’t nearly as impressive, but nonetheless showcase a vital deviation from the canonical New Wave model of Godard/Charbol/Rohmer/Rivette/Truffaut (one that more often than not forgets Varda/Marker/Resnais, and more often than that forgets the unheralded names of the “movement,” including and going beyond even Moullet, Pollet, Garrel, etc.)  L’Ordre (1973) comes ten years after Forugh Farrokhzad’s startling masterpiece The House is Black and shows such similarly that I sincerely doubt Pollet saw her film, and is instead simply channeling a common humanity, and a common imperative lyricism and activism in documenting a similar leper colony.  But the anger and the despair coming from the film is palpable, and unlike Méditerranée, which celebrates a mysterious beauty amidst the vagueries of history and memory, L’Ordre carries with it the aura of Resnais’ Night and Fog, of fear and incomprehension.  The mystery the buildings (of a leper island, of a government hospital compound) and bodies (of the lepers) hold in the L’Ordre are the same in interest level but far different in tenor and impression than those in Méditerranée.

Buildings are key to two more Pollet shorts, Bassae (1964) about a Grecian temple subject to a narrative musing by early auteur­-advocate Alexandre Astruc and an angle of cinematographic interpretation far more sinister than Méditerranée, which, if I am not mistaken, includes shots of the same temple.  Nearly twenty years later, Pollet turns his crawling camera to a cemetery in Au Père Lachaise (1986, co-directed by Pierre-Marie Goulet), finding expressions of class and historical re-interpretation and enshrining in the variety of tombs and statues.  Can the Resnais comparisons never end?at the very least that film’s subject makes on think of the title of Marker/Resnais’ 1953 short, Les Statues meurent aussi—Statues Also Die.  Here the reverse may be true, people die, events shrink into the past, and perhaps even stones shatter and break, but statues and tombs, bunkers (in Méditerranée and La Horla), abandoned towns in exiled communities (L’Ordre), and temples to the Gods seem to live forever.  Snatched from the reality of their creation—by humans and from the earth—all we can do is muse, in images and in sound.

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