Sunday, November 27, 2011

Le Havre

Aki Kaurismaki’s is the cinema of restraint. There are no wasted scenes in his films, no dialogue that says anything other than the minimum necessary to make the point, no flamboyant dancing of the camera and no emotions that ever seem to quell beyond a murmur. If anyone ever cracks a smile of affection in Kaurismaki’s world it plays more like rapture than a small gesture, as his characters often stand, frozen in contemplative tableaus, often times so pronounced that they boarder on the comedic. These are quite films that play as if part of an extended fairy tale or comic strip, their movement and content limited by the economy of the frame.

That’s the world that the Finnish master lives in: a strange cross between the bright and building melodrama of Douglas Sirk mixed with the offhand static lull of Fassbinder and a comedic touch so deadpan that it, at times, boarders on the surreal. It is, needless to say, an acquired taste for some. “You’ve never seen another movie like this” Roger Ebert once said of Kaurismaki’s Man Without a Past, “Unless you’ve seen another Aki Kaurismaki movie.”

Which brings us to Kaurismaki’s newest Le Havre, which embodies everything that has come to be expected from the director and yet is a little livelier and sweeter than most of his work. Kaurismaki makes films about the down and out: the people who often fall between the cracks of a society that could just as well do without them.

This one focuses on Marcel Marx (Andre Wilms), a shoeshine man in Le Havre who, day in and day out, carries around his tool box and little stand in order to bring in enough money to support his wife Arletty (Kaurismaki regular Kati Outinen) who he loves and who loves him back. There is no dialogue in the movie that ever expresses any outward declaration of love between the two but Kaurismaki manages to sneak it in, rather tenderly, by the way these two hold themselves; act in the presence of each other; create an aura in the room when they are together. That’s Kaurismaki’s approach to all of his drama: to let it linger instead of underlining it. “She’s too good a woman for you.” The local female bartender tells Marcel. “I know,” He replies. “But she’s too good for everyone so for now I’ll do.” The glass is half full.

Then two things happen. Arletty falls ill and is taken to the hospital where it looks unlikely she will live much longer. Not wanting to tell Marcel for fear that it would ruin him; she has the doctor conceal her disease. Meanwhile a shipping crate that was bound for London arrives in Le Harve by accident and is opened to find a collection of refugees from Africa. One, a young boy named Idrissa, is encouraged to run and escapes.

One day, while eating his lunch, Marcel finds the boy, offers him some food and is followed home by him that night. Where Marcel differs from most Kaurismaki heroes is that instead of being a lonely low class bum wandering through life in no direction in particular, he is a man of little means who instantly, without being asked, wants to help this boy who is of even lesser means. That’s the magic of the film that gives it it’s fairy tale-like quality. This does not bode well with the local investigator who is on the hunt for the illegal immigrant.

The entire film is a wonderful collection of episodes in which friends try to help Marcel who tries to find the boy’s origins and raise the money that would assist him in getting to London. The true treasure of the film is in these scenes where we see the warmth created from a community of low class people banding together in order to help out a fellow drifter who wants no more than they: to simply get by. The film has been described as a fairy tale or fable by many, a quality created by Kaurismaki’s unique worldview: life sucks, but our time in it doesn’t need to.

This story, in typical Kaurismaki fashion, is told in a minimalistic style that is mostly concerned with the quite nuance of human nature as it propels the story forward. Only in a Kaurismaki film could Marcel get away with the excuse he uses to convince a refugee shelter director that he is the black Idrissa’s uncle and only in a Kaurismaki film could the sight of a yellow dress bring such a smile to one’s face, especially having witnessed the care and love it was packaged with.

If all of this sounds maddeningly vague that’s maybe because there is no other way to describe it. Kaurismaki's films are all touching yet deadpan love letters to the down and out. They are a rebel yell for the lower class without ever raising their voice above a whisper, and that always seem to make a halfway political statement without ever the hint of much politics. The message is always clear: society is structured by ridged and superficial notions of class, but it is those at the bottom, left out and forgotten, who are the most human.

It’s a world so fiercely and uniquely unto itself that the only way I can describe it is to encourage you to see it for yourself. And it can’t be stressed enough how much you should get going and seeing it for yourself.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Anti-Anti-Movie

I've just finished Peter Weir's Gallipoli which tells the tale of hundreds of thousands of young Australian men lead to their deaths in a battle that made really no sense to anyone. It is often, rightfully, compared with Stanley Kubrick's anti-war masterpiece Paths of Glory, which got me thinking: what does "anti-war" even really mean?

You could throw that term in front of a lot of war movies and it would stick. Clint Eastwood's Letters from Iwo Jima, Oliver Stone's Platoon, Speilberg's Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan, David O Russell's Three Kings, Randall Wallace's We Were Soldiers and so on. But at what point do we define a movie as being anti anything? The reason the term sticks so well and is so uneasily refuted is that when the question is posed of what exactly could be named as an example of a pro-war movie, not too many titles instantly fit the bill.

And they rightfully shouldn't, but does that not mean that any movie that depicts the death and destruction caused by war is, in some way or another, anti-war by default? I can't think of too many movies, no matter how graphic or glorified the violence, that would stand up and openly claim themselves to being pro-war because, knowing the innate horrors or warfare, who would ever stand up and make a bold public statement in favour of it?

But let's assume, as we must, that not all war films are anti-war. At what point then does a film justifiably become anti-anything? Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting was originally criticized upon its release by some who felt it was pro-drug in it's stylized glorification and comedic outlook towards a bunch of Scottish junkies. I don't know about anyone else in the world, but seeing images of a man lose his bowels all over the bed sheets or another dive into the filthiest toilet in Scotland, no matter how humorous or stylized, should certainly be enough to turn most rational minds away from the temptations of heroin use.

Could this then simply be another one of these faux critical terms that seem to instill an importance in a film that simply inherently exists under the surface anyway based on the content? With the depiction of war itself, the realization of senseless death on a massive scale, the confusion and horror of being trapped alone in a place where each new step brings the possibility of death, are these things not the statement in and of itself without taste makers underlining and bolding it for us as well? I've heard many arguments about how Inception is a film about filmmaking, which I always dismiss as too easy a reading: of course Inception is a film about filmmaking. Every movie about dreams is, whether purposefully or not, a film about filmmaking.

That is of course not to take away from films such as Paths of Glory and Gallipoli, which are both, in similar and yet different ways, very affecting stories that rise above simple depictions of brutal combat. My point is, to come back to it again, at what point do we differentiate a war film from an anti-war film, a drug film from an anti-drug film, a violent film from an anti-violence film and so on? And how then, in all our infinite wisdom and critical capacity can we even begin to answer such a question when it is next to, if not completely impossible to separate a film's content from its message?

Wednesday, November 9, 2011


Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive is the kind of movie that makes you almost instantly want to watch a better one. In this case, for me, that better one is Sidney Lumet’s swan song masterpiece Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. Both films involve bad men dealing with even worse men, revolve around a crime gone horribly wrong and are both modern day reincarnations of the darkened and hardened crime films of the 70s and 80s(some of which Lumet himself masterminded).

But where the difference lies is that Before the Devil Knows You're Dead was about more than the crime. It was about the implications, the aftermaths, the consequences of being stuck in a horrible situation to which there is no simple escape and to which the easiest option is to dig oneself even deeper into the murk. When the shock and awe, the hard talk, the sudden bursts of violence and the fierce tough guy posturing came to a crashing halt, left behind in its wake were damaged men who had bitten off more than they could chew and didn't know what to do about it.

Refn sets himself on the way to the same kind of payoff with Drive but then he stops almost destructively short as he builds towards no payoff in particular. Here is a polished and well made film (as well made as any other crime odyssey that comes to mind) that is all posturing. The film sneers, flexes it’s muscle, exists under the subtle and haunting thump of slow motion images playing under pounding retro 80s synth pop and does not, for any one second, give you any reason to care about a single thing that is going on in it. If you want to get a cheap lesson in pure film style without the burden of enrolment costs, Drive might be right up your alley. If it is, however, depth, compassion, or something that resembles anything slightly human, Drive feels like it is mostly grinding gears.

Ryan Gosling plays the Driver. He has no name, which is about right as he is all business and procedure. By day he’s a mechanic and Hollywood stunt man. By night he’s the getaway driver for lowly crooks. He lives by his defined set of rules: he doesn’t carry a gun, he’ll give you five minutes in which he is all yours, a minute too much on either side and he’s gone. And all he does, period, is drive.

He works for Shannon (Breaking Bad’s Brian Cranston) who runs a garage, sets up the Driver’s stunt work and walks with the kind of limp that suggests that the shop probably isn't his sole source of income. He wants a loan to buy a race car which the Driver can drive and make them lots of money.

He approaches Rose (Albert Brooks in a long overdue dramatic role) for a payout and gets it. Rose is some kind of guy. Brooks brings something unassuming to the surface of the role, but this is the kind of man whose words speak louder than his actions. “My hands are kind of dirty” the Driver says when Rose extends it for a shake. “It’s okay”, Rose replies. “So are mine.”

Rose is business partners with a hothead named Nino (Ron Pearlman). Somehow, for reasons too convoluted to explain, the Driver takes a job to help out the recently released husband of his neighbour (Cary Mulligan) who he’s taken quite a shine to. The job gets botched, people end up dead, and the Driver ends up with a bag full of Nino’s money.

So goes the set-up which leads the somewhat effective and haunting opening scenes into a conclusion that is populated by short bursts of brutal graphic violence as the Driver and Rose both square off in an attempt to be the last man standing.

All of this, once again, brings to mind the hard-boiled, murky crime pictures of the 70s and 80s from Walter Hill’s The Driver to Michael Mann’s Thief. But where the film falters is in how content it is to simply get by with just being confined to homage. In terms of genre recreation, Refn does an excellent job, going through the motions from the slow tracking cameras, the tight two-shots, the suspense created not through unending stimulation but by taking a static scene and cutting between three or four set objects while tension mounts on the soundtrack. If nothing else, Drive does let us remember a time when action allowed us to breathe a little.

But the film never quite achieves anything more. Are we at the point in film history where films are praised for their ability to pay homage to a time when movies weren’t so bad? Is seeing something different that stands apart from the over stimulation of today’s action films so rare that we’ll heap praise upon the first one that seems destined to take a different approach? But homage is, at its worst, an ironic post-modern reconstruction of the spare parts of great films gone by. Where Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, to continue with the same example, took the elements and created something new and thrilling with them, Drive’s saving grace is that its irony doesn’t come served with the wink and smirk of most of today’s attempts at homage.

So what do we make of Drive? Who is it supposed to appeal to? What does it want to achieve except show one filmmaker's attempt to mask a shallow story with his ability to recreate the essence of genre’s past? Drive is an exceptionally well made film with a clear vision of what it should look and feel like; filled with good performances, knuckle grinding action in the tradition of the classic car chase movies, a bumping soundtrack and a lot of spilled blood. And then it ends, leaving you in no better or worse shape than when it came to you, to which you nod, give it some points for ambition and then walk away with the realization that the history is far more compelling than the history lesson.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Sound of Silence

Not a lot of people like silent films (comedies seeming to be the one exception). It's understandable. They can be long, boring, extremely dated, hard to follow, can be disjointed, don't involve, in most cases, waring alien robots, and require, above and beyond all else, our undivided attention. You can't sit doing something else, listening to a silent film and fill in the blanks. You need to read and watch. The other problem is that, in most cases, because no one owns the rights to them, which version do we pick up? Some have missing footage, some have ugly and careless transfers, alternate title cards, and soundtracks that don't touch anywhere near what the original would have sounded like. I think it's safe to bet that, back when Murnau was making Nosferatu he didn't have Type O Negative's Beatles meets Black Sabbath doom metal playing through his head as inspiration.

I'm in the bandwagon. Most of the way at least. I don't outright refuse silent films and have watched many of the titles by the big names: Griffith, Lang, Stroheim, Murnau, Dryer, Eisenstein, Chaplin, Keaton. But these are films mostly reserved for academic study or those film history completests and are, in most cases, easier to admire than outright enjoy.

What inspired all this? Last night I watched D.W. Griffith's Intolerance, his epic, in a way, apology for his previous masterpiece Birth of a Nation, the seminal and hugely racist epic that changed and rewrote film history as we know it. Why did I watch it? Because it is also seminal to film history, it's another notch on my belt, it's something you keep hearing about in film classes, the Babylonian sequences are supposed to be expensive and breathtaking (certainly that tracking shot of the dancers on the steps of Babylonia is one of the best ever committed to film), and all of the above.

Intolerance is, let's admit, long and hard to follow. It's also a visual masterpiece that was, except for Birth of a Nation, like nothing else anyone had ever dare try to attempt before. And as I was watching it, slowly but surely a new realization began to sink in: silent film was the most cinematic film has ever and will ever be. Ah ha. Revelation!

A lot of purists at the time (Munsterberg, Arnheim, etc) thought that sound was the death of film. A lot after that thought colour was the death of film too. Of course it's the standard now and even the huge ambassadors of black and white (Scorsese, Speilberg, Bogdanovich), haven't used it in ages. I think, the major stepping stone that sound and colour contributed, beside the obvious technical breakthrough, is that people felt it was pushing film one step farther away from theatre and one step closer to actual reality.

Reality or realism has always been an issue within film and especially film criticism. Films are criticised because people don't talk or act like that, no one in their right mind would do that and that's just not possible in real life. Fair enough. You've read it plenty in this space as well. But the term is one of those misrepresented critical idioms alongside "interesting" and "flawed." It just doesn't hold sway because it doesn't get used properly.

In that sense, silent films were about as realistic as they needed to be. Realism is not so much about a film's ability to reflect absolute reality (that, you'd have to admit, would be pretty boring), but about creating characters and actions and events that tie believably into the story. There's nothing about Knowing that is believable or realistic, but everything that happens makes sense within the context of the overall narrative. That's realism. That's believability.

The difference between current times and silent times is that, like the theatre, silent films asked their audiences to meet them half way. Just like the physical space of the theatre, which clearly does not take place on the streets, the beach, in front of a sunset, wherever, must be left up to the imagination, much of silent film requires that same leap of faith. We know we are watching a movie, but it's up to us to imbue the imagines with the realism they are trying to depict.

That's important because, at it's essence, silent film is filmmaking broken down into it's purest form: stories told through pictures edited together to create a whole. That's what every silent film was. That's what the medium of film was founded upon.

The pictures themselves, I think, add to the pure cinematic experience. That is, above and beyond all else, the images as captured look like nothing other than filmic images. You will never mistake a silent film as theatre or television or any form of art or reality. The thoughts don't even factor into the equation. When I look at Joseph Gordon Levitt and Seth Rogen (to take the most recent example) in 50/50 I see two actors who I know in a film about getting cancer. When I watch Intolerance, I am transported to an olden time in which the men and women and horses in Babylon look like they could actually be men and women and horses in Babylon. The illusion is seamless. There is no sense of actors on a set in front of a camera. Today Babylon would look like it was created inside a video game that could stretch on forever. In that sense, just maybe, the farther we have moved away from silent film, the farther we have moved from realism after all.