Sunday, September 27, 2009

Gangsters, Murderers, and Detectives

I’ve spent a lot of time on this blog arguing about how the French films of the 1940s and 50s are more consistently excellent than those of the New Wave. Well, here’s more proof. I’ve just recently caught up with three films by some of the major French directors of the era, some of which are minor classics, some nearly forgotten. They all deal with crime and intrigue in some form or another, and all of them exhibit the kind of expert control of pacing, style, and content that I think is the trademark of that era of cinema.

Quai des Orfevres (1947)

Literally translated as Quay of the Goldsmiths, this was the first film Henri Georges Clouzot made after a brief period of blacklisting in the wake of the controversy surrounding Le Corbeau. The film is a character-driven murder mystery/police procedural that follows sultry singer Jenny Lamour (Suzy Delair) and her pianist husband Maurice (Bernard Blier). As the story opens, the drab and mild-mannered Maurice is becoming increasingly jealous of Jenny, whose burgeoning stardom is starting to attract the attention of wealthy and powerful characters like Brignon, a debauched elderly businessman whose hobby is wooing young women with his ability to help their careers. The story really kicks into gear when, following a secret rendezvous with Jenny in which they plan to “discuss her future,” Brignon ends up dead inside his mansion with a head wound. In what amounts to some sensational plotting, both Jenny and a distraught and vengeful Maurice, who was planning to murder the old man, think themselves responsible, and the couple soon start to unravel as they feel the police closing in on them.

This might sound like enough plot for a whole film, but Clouzot fits this all in to the first thirty or so minutes by using his trademark razor-sharp attention to detail to establish it all with a remarkable economy of scenes. From here, the tone of the story shifts rather dramatically with the introduction of Inspector Antoine (Louis Jouvet), a world-weary police detective who is assigned to Brignon’s murder and soon begins investigating Jenny and Maurice. Even though he’s not introduced until well into the story, and even then only in a supporting role, Louis Jouvet flat out walks away with this film. His Antoine is not your typical movie detective, tenacious and driven to solve the case by any means necessary. Instead, he is a slow-moving, avuncular kind of guy who would much rather spend time with his adopted son than catch criminals. In one of the film’s best moments, Antoine is given a chance to make the classic determined detective speech to one of the other characters, but shrugs it off with a simple “I don’t give a damn.” That’s the kind of great character moments that a director like Clouzot brings to this kind of material. Throughout the story, he constantly subverts the easy, plot-driven style of the suspense genre in favor of these little touches, always striving to avoid the cliched and superficial. This style, along with the cool, restrained presence of Antoine, proves to be the perfect antidote to the hyperbolic (and admittedly sort of annoying) performances of Delair and Blier, and helps drive the film home to a rather clever conclusion.

Touchez Pas Au Grisbi (1954)

If Jouvet’s Inspector Antoine was a clever reversal on the typical police detective, then Jean Gabin’s performance in Jacques Becker’s Touchez Pas Au Grisbi (Don’t Touch the Loot) does the same thing for the stereotypical criminal character. Gabin’s Max, the cool-as-ice thief at the center of the film, is an aging gang leader in search of the proverbial “last big score.” Unlike a lot of movie criminals, though, Max isn’t just trying to strike it rich, he’s really just sick of the game. In every scene, Becker goes out of his way to make it painfully clear just how tired of the criminal lifestyle Max is, whether showing him listlessly walking into his sparsely-furnished apartment, or just brushing his teeth. He has the perfect vessel for this world-weariness in Gabin, who looked quite a bit older than his 50 years when this film was made in 1954. He, along with Rene Dary as his right hand man Riton, make for two of the cinema’s most unlikely gangsters with their gray, slightly thinning hair and expanded waistlines. But this all just helps sell the the idea that these are thieves whose glory days are well behind them, and who now seem more at home eating crackers at the dinner table (as they do in one of the film’s more memorable scenes) than they do taking down scores. This idea is reflected in Becker’s style and plotting as well, as the director avoids showing us a number of the requisite crime movie scenes (most notably the unexplained heist that drives the whole story) in favor of the kind of small moments that help put the story in perspective. When it does come in the film’s final few scenes, the action is indeed well choreographed and exciting, but the fact that it's perpetrated by characters whom Becker has so lovingly established as past their prime makes the situation (and, for that matter, the film genre in which it takes place) all the more shocking and absurd.

Elevator to the Gallows (1957)

Louis Malle is a director I usually associate with slightly rambling character-driven dramas like the brilliant Atlantic City, so I was surprised to find that Elevator to the Gallows, his first film, is a tense, irony-filled crime movie. The story follows businessman Julien (Maurice Ronet), a former legionnaire and hero of the Indochina war, who is having an affair with his boss’s wife, Florence (Jeanne Moreau). The couple resolve to kill the husband, a crime that is ingeniously depicted in the film’s opening sequence when the athletic Julien scales the outside of his building with a rope, guns down the man, and scales back down, all the while maintaining his alibi that he was quietly working in his office. He executes the crime with stunning precision, save for one crucial piece of evidence, and when he goes back to retrieve it, he inadvertently becomes trapped in the building’s elevator. While Julien spends a desperate night trying to escape, Florence, convinced she’s been ditched, wanders the city streets frantically looking for him. At the same time, a rebellious young couple played by Georges Poujouly and Yori Bertin steal Julien’s car and take it for a joyride, eventually stopping at a hotel and committing an inexplicable crime of their own.

If that complex plot description doesn’t make it clear enough, this is a film that values multiple (often absurdly flawed) perspectives of the same event, and it is the way these character’s fates and paths become intertwined that helps drive the story forward. In many ways, the film seems to exhibit several of the tendencies of the existentialist movement that was still prominent in France at the time of its release, as whole plot points are brought on by random and cruel bits of chance. Similarly, every character at some point or another is forced to act on the flawed or incomplete knowledge brought on by their skewed perspectives, and the result is a hilariously ironic series of exchanges where all the principles eventually incriminate themselves and each other. Moreau’s Florence is one of the major players in this regard, as her desperate search for her lover ends up being his undoing, but she is just one part of a tangled web of misunderstanding and coincidence that eventually becomes almost tragic in its implications. Like all the other actors in the film, she isn’t really given much juicy dialogue-- this is a film that prizes action above all else-- but Moreau’s screen presence here is formidable, and provides us ample evidence of why she would eventually become a major star. Likewise, her lonely walk through the Paris streets at night gives Malle a real chance to flex his directorial muscles, and he provides some of the best looking location shooting you’re likely to see this side of the New Wave, all of it accompanied by a now-famous improvised jazz score by Miles Davis. This great style, coupled with the film’s rich themes of chance, fate, and consequence, amounts to a truly superior film. This is the kind of movie that directors like Guy Ritchie and Quentin Tarantino have strived to make throughout their careers, and you could make an argument that neither has ever pulled it off with this kind of simplicity and elegance.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Rogue Film School

In a book of interviews with him, the German filmmaker Werner Herzog once said that he'd like to open a film school that ignored all the traditional rules and styles of teaching and focused on the kind of real world experience that would help make students "good soldiers of cinema." Herzog being Herzog, he says these skills would include learning languages, lock picking, document forgery, and hand-to-hand combat. I'm still not sure if this website is legit or not, but if it is, then it seems Herzog has made this bizarre academy a reality. The famed director and professional eccentric is set to host a series of seminars on filmmaking under the title "Werner Herzog's Rogue Film School." The seminars will teach a lucky group of students Herzog's personal philosophy of self reliance and the pursuit of "the ecstasy of truth." According to the website, for $1450 you too can learn such life changing lessons as the virtue of traveling on foot and "the exhilaration of being shot at unsuccessfully." Applicants need no professional or scholastic credentials, just a ten-line statement of intent and a short film sample.

A lot of people have in the past accused Herzog of veering dangerously close to becoming a parody of himself, and it's a safe bet that this will do little to calm the criticism. I am a hopeless fan of the guy (he could start a cult and I'd want to join), but I still think this is a pretty fun idea. I have the feeling he's probably a natural (if not hopelessly cryptic) teacher. The $1450 entry fee is a bit disturbing, but I still doubt he'll have trouble finding enough applicants. Either way, if you ask me it's been too long since he's done something off the wall crazy.

Check out the website for more great one-liners like this one, my personal favorite: "Censorship will be enforced. There will be no talk of shamans, of yoga classes, nutritional values, herbal teas, discovering your Boundaries, and Inner Growth."

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Literary Soundtracks

Lately I’ve been addicted to listening to a short album I bought called The Last Pale Light In the West. It’s a solo album by Ben Nichols, the lead singer of the excellent rock/country band Lucero. Stylistically, it’s not so different from the kind of songs Nichols makes with his usual band-- it’s full of tough, twangy southern music with a built in edge courtesy of Nichols’ trademark scratchy vocals-- but it is a bit more subdued than usual. The interesting thing about the album, though, is that it’s completely inspired by famed writer Cormac McCarthy’s devastatingly violent Western novel Blood Meridian. Every song is named after one of the characters, from “the Kid,” the novel’s young protagonist, to “the Judge,” the murderous figure at the book’s center, who is frequently described as “the devil himself.”

I’m sure it’s been done tons of times before (though I can’t think of any other examples off the top of my head), but this idea of writing a kind of unsanctioned soundtrack for a book strikes me as a boldly unique, if not inherently problematic, idea. At first blush, it seems that unlike writing music for a film or a play, there’s no way Nichols’ album will ever have more than a tenuous thematic relationship to McCarthy’s novel. The mediums are too at odds with one another. Books, as the philosopher Plato used to always say, are “dead.” The words on the page require a person to come to life, and even then they exist only in the nebulous reaches of the reader’s own head. Music is the same way to an extent, but it is temporal and fluid in a way that writing can never be, which allows it to be much a more free form and evocative medium. But if you’ve read McCarthy’s book, and then listen to Nichols’ album, an interesting thing happens. The lyrics and music start to call up images from the novel, and pretty soon it’s as though you can see the whole thing unfolding as if it were a movie. This is something that always happens when one reads a book, of course, but rarely does music evoke the same kind of mental imagery. What Nichols has essentially done is write the soundtrack for a movie based on a book that hasn’t been filmed. Or, rather, has yet to be filmed.

Movies have always struck me as a perfect meld of the so-called “temporal” (music) and “spatial” (painting, sculpture) arts, and this is nothing if not a perfect example of this idea at work. The music, along with any knowledge of the story it’s based around, conspire to create this imaginary play in the listener’s head, and the language of film seems to provide a bridge to make that experience possible. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but it is an interesting idea, especially when you consider that Nichols’ album is no less than the second work of music to owe a debt to McCarthy. The band Calexico’s 1998 album The Black Light actually thanks the writer in the liner notes, and it doesn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination to picture their Western-themed instrumentals as the soundtrack to a film version of one of McCarthy’s books. I’m not really sure what all this adds up to, but it is an intriguing thread to follow. If anything, I wholeheartedly recommend checking out The Last Pale Light in the West. And if you haven’t read Blood Meridian, then by all means do so as soon as possible.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Real Film Realism

The relationship of movies to "real life," and how well they portray that reality on screen is a constant source of debate. It began as soon as people started talking about movies and continued with critics like Bazin, Kracauer, and Arnheim up through the 50s--what is now remembered as the golden age of "neorealism" abroad--and into the 60s. Since then, it's been less of a dominant issue, but it still resurfaces every few years in a different form (see this year's debate over neo-neorealism), and some critics have argued that American independent film is currently experiencing a blessed reconnection with photorealism.

In the midst of such preoccupations, it seems strange that the questions asked and challenges made against the proponents of realism have always been so incomplete and poorly framed. Whether or not recreating the drama of everyday life should be the ultimate aspiration of movies is a philosophical question that is way too unwieldy for me to address in a few paragraphs. But what is worth discussing is how flawed and problematic the definition of what movie "realism" is has been, and whether or not it's time to retool our idea of just what it is that filmmakers should be aiming for.

During the heyday of Italian neorealism, films like Open City and The Bicycle Thief were hailed as the exemplars of a new kind of cinema that sought to document the struggles and tragedies of everyday life by way of using a static, unadorned shooting style. This, thanks to critics like Andre Bazin, essentially became the definition of what film realism was. They praised the use of nonprofessional actors, location shooting, long takes, and small stories about working class people, the idea being that presenting reality for its own sake was an end unto itself. Any other approach, for these critics, drew too much attention to the filmmaker as a creative force and was bound to taint the "truth" of the film with ideology and politics.

These ideas, which were all the vogue in the 1950s, have managed to be one of the longest running and most returned-to arguments in all of film theory. Watch any modern independent film by Kelly Reichardt or Ramin Bahrani that has been described as "well-observed" or "gritty" and you're likely to get a lot of long takes, unadorned editing, and location shooting. This in itself is perfectly fine--if those directors see that as the best way of achieving realism, then good for them. But the notion that this is the only way to achieve it is dangerously off base. Realism does not come from a particular shooting style or subject matter, it comes from a rare kind of consistency and harmony among all the aspects of a film, chiefly from the writing and the performances, but also from camerawork, editing, set design, the presence or lack of music, and a hundred other variables. If all of these aspects follow the same internal logic and are working toward a similar goal, then the result-- along with, more often than not, a decent product-- is a certain level of verisimilitude and, ultimately, realism.

Some classical theories of film realism would have you believe that anything other than the style of movies like the Bicycle Thief or Umberto D (which, don't get me wrong, are great and important films) results in failure, but their arguments have always been full of holes. First of all, a "style-less" approach of long takes and invisible editing is itself a style, no matter how simple it might be. And no matter how unobtrusive a filmmaker tries to be, their presence will always be felt. What angles they choose, the order of scenes, the length of individual shots-- all of these things still point to a director at work. On a similar note, location shooting is great, and stories of the common man are an admirable subject matter, but to brand them as resulting in a finished product that is more "real" is a mistake. Sparseness of style or subject matter will never equal realness, and in the context of a motion picture it will always be as much of a stylistic choice as anything else, especially when it's obvious that the director has gone out of their way to achieve it. As a rough example, take Technicolor film, the advent of which was met with much skepticism from audiences that had come to accept black and white as the only way to watch a movie. On the surface, this seems counter-intuitive. Life, after all, takes place in color. But you have to consider how, at the time, most color film was cartoonishly oversaturated, like looking at a photograph that had been painted over as an afterthought. It was still unequivocally a closer representation of everyday experience, but black and white was sharper, cleaner, simpler, more subdued, and therefore more real.

Filmmakers like Vittorio De Sica, who made many of the most famous works of Italian Neorealism, undoubtedly achieved something important and, yes, realistic, but to say they did it because of a few small stylistic choices is to shortchange them. Every choice in those films helped create the feeling of realism that made them so great. If anything, critics who push neorealism as a theory are mistaking the work of uniquely talented filmmakers as a patented style that could be easily recreated. The same can be said of Bahrani or Reichardt, both of whom are undoubtedly among the more interesting directors currently working, and it also applies to any director who is able to find that perfect balance of story, theme, and style that makes their audience feel like they've witnessed something that reflects everyday life. In the end, perhaps all the style proposed by the neorealist critics does is make that balance a little easier to find, and only then because they've stylistically stripped the film down to its barest parts. But realism comes in many forms, and there will always be way more than one path to take in getting to it.