Tuesday, June 11, 2024

ROSETTA (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, 1999, France/Belgium)

 

Rosetta is a young girl, whose plight translates into all languages, a child forced into the role of parent and survivor. Rosetta is a cipher for Bresson’s tragic heroine Mouchette, another child branded and birthed into a tortured existence and who discovers only one way out to end the suffering.

The Dardenne Brothers capture Rosetta’s reality unadulterated, a Direct Cinematic technique that presents truth unfiltered from standard form and function of the medium, a style that both transcends the limitations of documentary filmmaking and the boundaries of narrative fiction. Rosetta is trapped in medium close-up, her world pillar boxed to a suffocating ratio. She is always moving quickly, running to stand still, demanding her chance at a normal life in a world of injustice. The Dardenne Brothers often film her from behind or over her shoulder, eschewing all establishing shots or narrative revelation. They are focused upon Rosetta’s actions and not her perceptions. For example, when she is filling up a tub early in the film, she sees something on the ground. Typically, the cut would be to the item on the ground then back to Rosetta, to link the item with discovery: to see what the protagonist sees. But here, the camera remains focused entirely upon Rosetta and even when she picks the item up we are not allowed explanation. It’s not until she confronts her mother that we discover what the item is: a cork from a wine bottle. The camera follows closely, a fluid perspective that fails to judge Rosetta and the people around her, revealing the world without recreating it. There is no soundtrack or musical queues to evoke an emotional response, only humane pathos. It’s a subtle illusion and it’s the trickery of cinema that relates a story need not have happened to be true.

Rosetta chases hope like quicksilver but is stuck in the clinging mud of despair. She has become parent to an alcoholic mother; Rosetta is too old for her age. Her perception of a normal life is to work full time, to become self-sufficient and not rely on the kindness of strangers or public assistance. She is prideful and resourceful, walking her secret path every day, a survivor who is spared pity. But even this young woman has her limits.

Rosetta becomes so desperate for a job that she almost lets a boy drown in order to be hired in his place, but she grabs a stick and pulls him from the pond. But then she gets the boy fired by revealing his petty theft and is hired in his place. She seems happy at first but soon decides to terminate more than just her employment. And it’s this boy who curses Rosetta, who shows up at her home to confront her, who ends up making the difference, who exchanges anger with mercy when he offers his hand and lifts her up. And we end on Rosetta, looking off-screen and crying that we feel a faint glimmer of hope.

Final Grade: (A)

Monday, June 3, 2024

THE WRESTLER (Darren Aronofsky, 2008, USA)

 

A self-destructive dichotomy of internal conflict, a schizophrenic battle of will as Robin Ramzinski becomes sidekick to his alter-ego, consumed by the fictitious persona of Randy “The Ram” Robinson: this faux flesh and bone becomes more substantial and burns out…while Robin fades away. Director Darren Aronofsky focuses upon a small-time loser, a washed-up wrestler whose better days are lost in the ether of time, the eighties nothing but jagged recollections and punch-drunk nostalgia. 

The film opens with a pasted collage of memories, a violent past that seems brighter than Randy’s dreary and shredded reality, his battered physique carrying the scars of a tough life of bad decisions and regrets. Aronofsky doesn’t spare us the gore and brutality of Randy’s existence, as he still bleeds out a tiny existence on the local wrestling tour; we are privilege to an insider view of this life of addiction and medication, and the true physical suffering of these dedicated athletes who dream big…but live small. Randy (Mickey Rourke) is counterpoint to Cassidy/Pam (Marisa Tomei), a stripper who doesn’t date her clients, a woman who keeps her profession strictly separate from her personal life. Aronofsky is concerned with identity: who we are, how we actually perceive ourselves, and how others dictate our individuality. Cassidy is able to shed her skin and live as Pam, a single mother who dedicates herself to her child. In comparison, Robin is subsumed by his stage persona and become “The Ram”, his life meaningless except for the fanfare, the screaming crowds and tortures of the damned, the harsh electric glow of the spotlight shining upon his juiced-up ego. Mickey Rourke is outstanding as he quickly assumes the guise of the protagonist and injects the narrative with a touching and emotional performance, a sublime tribute to those shattered athletes dominated by their past and unable to exist in the present, whose future is limited and void. 

Aronofsky and his brilliant DP Maryse Alberti use of mise-en-scene is brilliant as Randy sits signing autographs in a school gym, and his point-of-view focuses upon his peers who are now crippled: a cane, wheelchair, colostomy bag, all ex-wrestlers who are now paying the price for their momentary fame. The film's gritty, nostalgic palette is like a bad memory, investing the story with a raw credibility. But Randy must choose his own fate, and as his body breaks down during his final match, his Ram Jam becomes his epitaph and a final freeze-frame upon the empty space that was once a human life. 

Final Grade: (A) 

Saturday, June 1, 2024

THE SMALL BACK ROOM (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1949, UK)

 

Sammy must defuse his own ticking time bomb of alcoholism and drug addiction before his life explodes. He must face a monotonous government bureaucracy that is more concerned with statistics than human lives, full of old men who willingly sacrifice the lives of young soldiers upon the altar of their own overblown egos. Sammy’s scientific team works just beyond this viscid red tape as they attempt to discover and deconstruct a secret Nazi weapon that has already murdered three children. But Sammy’s penultimate battle is with himself, his artificial leg a reminder that he is not fully human, consumed with pain that is only subdued by whiskey and pills: a bottled demon who begins to drink from him. 

Powell and Pressburger have directed a taught though occasionally slack wartime melodrama imbued with burgeoning tension as Sammy’s life disintegrates into emotional shrapnel. A surrealistic montage dominates his fever-dream as a giant whiskey bottle haunts his delusions like some Lovecraftian horror; unable to resist he succumbs to the liquid succubus and drowns in an epiphany of destructive ecstasy. THE SMALL BACK ROOM is beautifully filmed in black and white that belies the static interior set designs: when the narrative moves outdoors the extraordinary deep focus brings the story to life. 

Finally, Sammy wakens from his drunken fugue and must immediately travel to a pebble-strewn beach to defuse the Nazi weapon, his good friend already a victim of a previous attempt. The tension is like razor wire as Sammy delicately maneuvers the bomb amid the trickling stones, using every ounce of strength, willpower, and shredded reason to solve this violent enigma. He fights this incendiary conflict within his own psyche whose victory is only assured with a sudden twist of a wrench. Sammy has conquered the enemy…himself. 

Final Grade: (B)

Saturday, May 25, 2024

THE BIG RED ONE: RECONSTRUCTION (Sam Fuller, 1980, USA)

 


"While this is an expensive epic, he hasn't fallen to the temptations of the epic form. He doesn't give us a lot of phony meaning, as if to justify the scope of the production. There aren't a lot of deep, significant speeches. In the ways that count, "The Big Red One" is still a B-movie – hard-boiled, filled with action, held together by male camaraderie, directed with a lean economy of action. It's one of the most expensive B-pictures ever made, and I think that helps it fit the subject. "A" war movies are about War, but "B" war movies are about soldiers."Roger Ebert

Sam Fuller wasn’t a journalist or merely an observer during the Second World War: he was a Dogface, an infantryman in the 16th Regiment, 1st Infantry Division…The Big Red One. He wrote this film from his own experiences: from the initial landing in North Africa, the bloody route of the Kasserine Pass to Sicily and eventually Omaha Beach (3rd wave), the Hurtgen Forest and finally the liberation of Falkenau Concentration/Death Camp.  Fuller wrote in his Autobiography A THIRD FACE that this film, made 35 years after the events, helped him deal with the nightmares that still kept him awake most nights. But he made a fiction film based on factual death because the true face of war is just too damn awful. He has made one of the greatest and most underrated war films of all time.

Ebert’s quote above is spot-on: Fuller shrinks the war from the epic to the mundane, focusing upon the five men (four Doggies and their nameless Sgt.) as they fight from battle to battle. He takes us to the short downtime between the fighting as the men laugh and joke but never pontificate about the meanings of the war or their lives without it. These are men who live only in the moment, who have learned to live with a realistic expectation of dying violently, at any moment, at any time. Yet they struggle to remain human beings and not animals. The enemies are the animals. As the gruff Sgt. tells Griff, “We don’t murder animals. We kill them.” This insight into the soldier’s psychology and day to day trauma is quite revealing and subverts typical heroic conventions of the genre. These soldiers aren’t afraid so much of dying as having their cocks shot off! Gone are the super-hero actions and overt dramatizations as each soldier is presented as an individual but with a common goal: survival. They have no plan to die for their country or some vague definition of Democracy. This existential theme is quite subversive because World War 2 films typically depict the Greatest Generation as full of chest-pounding righteousness while suppressing the human factor. Fuller sets the record straight. This is the anti-THE LONGEST DAY or the polar opposite of flag-waiving John Wayne propaganda and anathema to the trite melodramatic flourishes of FURY or SAVING PRIVATE RYAN

Fuller may have had a limited budget for such an elaborate story, so he films mostly in medium close-up to extreme close-up. DP Adam Greenberg’s framing is exceptional as he may film violent sequences with hundreds of extras in medium shot, yet never loses coherence of the action. Fuller cuts in the close-ups often for tight reaction shots which brings us into the trench with the soldier. It’s anxious and chaotic. Though Fuller didn’t have the budget to use actual vintage tanks and equipment this in no way diminishes the impact of the drama. The score is anything but patriotic and underlines some of the transitions yet doesn’t slather the film in John Williams’-like sentimentality.  It’s a nearly perfect marriage of music and image as one compliments the other.

Fuller also mirrors the war-weary Sgt. with a Nazi Officer and gives us unique insight into the mantra of a soldier regardless of nationality or patriotism: they are just killing the enemy, after all. Once the uniform and ideology are stripped away Fuller depicts them as not too dissimilar. The Nazi Officer even echoes the Sgt.’s statement about murder to one of his own squad…before shooting him for not following orders. If this seems like Fuller is making a moral statement about the contemptuous Nazi-Code, he later shows us Omaha Beach on D-day were the Sgt. practically murders Griff because the young soldier is too scared to follow orders. Soldiers are all the same indeed!

Morals and Murder aside, it’s really the quiet moments that shine in Fuller’s story. Here, the squad relaxes amid the destruction and sometimes celebrates with liberated civilians. But it’s the children whom Fuller focuses upon the most. The little boy who wants a four-handled casket and “taxi” for his dead mother who lays rotting away in a wooden cart, the little girl who puts flowers in the Sgt.’s Helmet or the little girl who stares hungrily while he eats his rations. There’s even a pregnant woman who gives birth inside of a tank! (Which is a true story; Fuller just placed he experience into a fictional context) Lastly, the malnourished little boy whom they save from Falkenau Death camp who dies on the shoulders of the weary Sgt. These innocents suffer but don’t dredge tears from our soldiers. The soldiers don’t talk wistfully of their civilian life or dead comrades or pray to a higher deity. There is no time for that Hollywood nonsense. There is only fear, lust and survival. What finally draws a reaction from the “coward” Griff is the sight of the inmates at Falkenau. So, he finds a Nazi hiding in one of the ovens and is finally able to kill…not murder. Even the Sgt. seeks to make amends for his killing of a Hun soldier in the First World War by saving a Nazi officer he bayonetted after the recent Armistice.

Sam Fuller’s Reconstruction deliberately deconstructs the genre conventions of the War Film by portraying the fight for survival as the driving human force and not raging patriotism. He does not waive the flag in the audiences’ face. There are no profound jingoistic exclamations. Fuller dedicates THE BIG RED ONE to those who shot but didn’t get shot because surviving is the only glory in war, after all.

Final Grade: (A+)

Sunday, May 12, 2024

SILENT RUNNING (Douglas Trumball, 1972, USA)

 

Freeman Lowell casts adrift humanity’s final message in a bottle, a geodesic dome that contains Earth’s anachronistic untainted beauty, a prescient missive to all intelligent beings that rape their environment. In 1777, the fate of a young nation struggled in the cold of Valley Forge; now, the destiny of the human race is fought in the cold dark recesses of space upon a ship bearing the hallowed namesake. 

Director Douglas Trumball was responsible for the special effects in two of the greatest science fiction films ever created: 2001 and BLADE RUNNER. The set design of the Valley Forge is the template for Ridley Scott’s Nostromo: the bridge a functional design and not a flashy space opera spectacle. Though the science is questionable: Why seed these geodesic domes in deep space? Wouldn’t it be more economic to orbit them around the moon or build them on Earth? As the film begins, is there enough sunlight 8,933,750,00 miles from Sol to sustain these domes? How is life sustained on earth without any plant life? But Trumball is more concerned with the inner spectacle, with examining human nature, its faults and strengths, and the slow decay of the mind in isolation devoured by remorse and regret. Bruce Dern’s powerful performance carries the narrative burden, a one-man tour-de-force that evokes compassion and sadness as he descends into the darkness of inner space. The two drones Huey and Dewey display a few subtle gestures that grace them with an electric soul: they tap their toes in impatience and, while playing cards, out-cheat their creator. The film is full of these tiny flourishes and details that add depth and realism. Lowell murders his companions and hijacks the precious cargo, running silent through the nebulous rings of Saturn, sharing paradise with his programmed creations. When “rescued”, Lowell succumbs to the schizophrenia that divides his peaceful nature and disappears in a brilliant flash of silent light. But his message remains free of human bondage. 

Final Grade: (B+)

Monday, May 6, 2024

CONTEMPT (Jean Luc-Godard, 1963, France)

 

The camera turns slowly towards the audience making us accomplice in Jean Luc-Godard’s celluloid indictment, a profound conviction of an Industry that devours Art and regurgitates prosaic camphoraceous pollution. The absurd plot is frustratingly apropos concerning modern cinematic values: an idiotic Producer rules his investment like a Fascist, an unimaginative puerile lowbrow who believes he can re-write Homer’s Odyssey to make it more exciting. Pugilistically portrayed by Jack Palance, Producer Jeremy Prokosch subverts the introspective writer Paul, which begins to erode Paul’s relationship with his beautiful wife Camille. 

Godard journeys into a 24 frames-per-second fantasy and reveals the granite gods of cinema, those unflinching executives who know nothing of profound revelation, only the subtle texture of money, who hold the golden monopoly on expression. Fritz Lang is the director at odds with the producer and ultimately the writer, as Paul’s integrity is questioned chasing the almighty dollar, wallowing in the superficial trappings of success. Godard beautifully films in Cinemascope and utilizes long takes and tracking shots, letting the characters talk and contemplate with few cuts. The masterful cinematography soon reflects a claustrophobic nightmare, the 2:35:1 aspect ratio cramped into a tiny apartment, expressing Paul and Camille’s continental drift and tectonic friction. Godard privileges the audience with a glimpse of Hollywood machinations and stupidity; as the great Fritz Lang, the inane Jeremy Prokosch, and Paul watch the dailies, Jeremy becomes increasingly violent because he doesn’t understand the film. He threatens Lang with reduced financing unless more sex scenes are interwoven into the narrative. Eventually, Lang works to complete his film while Paul attempts to retain his own identity by not selling out; Camille and Jeremy drive off, joining together in a twisted mass of steel, breathlessly immersed in the putrid essence of blood and gasoline. It would be funny if it weren’t so true. 

Final Grade: (A)

Saturday, April 27, 2024

THIS SPORTING LIFE (Lindsay Anderson, 1963, UK)

 



Frank Machin is an evolutionary aberration, reverting towards primal instincts, a great ape who stalks the rugby fields but who dreams of becoming (and remaining) a man. His violence is poetry on the muddy turf, but it stains his personal life, inseparable from his obsessive relationship with his widowed landlady, a woman whose grief condemns Frank to paying tenant. She polishes her late husband’s shoes…shoes that Frank will never fill. The qualities that make Frank a great footballer are the very qualities that make him an egocentric and harsh person, never able to rise above emotional poverty.

Director Lindsay Anderson and DP Denys Coop utilizes stark black and white cinematography, his camera holding upon Frank’s fractured visage in close-up or filming on location, a muddy football field dominated by the cooling towers of a nuclear reactor which brings an added depth of grittiness and realism to the drama. Anderson is able to seamlessly edit archival rugby footage into his frantic close-ups, so we feel connected to these athletes as they pummel and scrum upon the gladiatorial field of combat. But Anderson is not concerned with making a sports film: he focuses instead upon Frank Machin and his need to escape his social standing, to use his talent to become something he could not otherwise achieve. Here Anderson utilizes the tropes of a Romantic Drama but quickly subverts them as anger replaces passion, gentle words are screamed in disgust and sex becomes violence (or violence begets sex). It’s as if every fragile thing that Frank touches is broken in his meaty grasp or embrace. Soon, Frank learns he is just another product of the team’s owner Weaver; a rich man who peddles flesh and blood for other old men’s enjoyment.

The story’s apex concerns the relationship between the widow Mrs. Hammond and our protagonist, a physically and emotionally tumultuous climax whose existentialism is reminiscent of Bergman’s THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY: only this time the spider-god is crushed under a clenched fist. Frank Machin then sinks to the bottom of his own spiritual abyss as we ponder Mrs. Hammond’s death: was her brain aneurysm brought about by Frank’s punishing blow? Her death counterpoints Frank’s own head injury early in the film which then brackets the narrative. Much of the story is drug-induced remembrances while he undergoes anesthesia to pull broken teeth from this injury. The elliptical editing patterns disrupt the narrative, and we are often confused as to events occurring in flashback or real time which immerses us into the fractured timeline.

Richard Harris’ performance is wonderfully virile and tainted with an egotistical sexual aggression while Rachel Roberts as the beleaguered widow suffuses her character with mystical profundity, a quicksilver quality that is both spiteful and touching. Though Frank has temporarily escaped the grinding machines of the coalmines, he is destined to wander the hard barren fields of his own personal purgatory…forever. 

Final Grade: (B+)

Thursday, April 18, 2024

NOSTALGHIA (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1983, Italy)

 

The mathematics of faith reduced to an irreducibly complex equation, where two men become of belief lost in the present tense, yearning for a past once but never was. Andrei Tarkovsky's melancholia is a spiritual melanoma, yearning for a Motherland that drove him away, a place of childhood memories that carry the weight of light and air, like the burden of guilt for loving an abusive parent...but unable to forgive.

Through a dream vapor darkly walks Andrei, a Russian poet who weaves a tapestry of elusive symbols, desperately trying to decipher his own subtext. Andrei's ailing heart beats to its own pentameter, a lonely rhythm without reason or rhyme. He has traveled to Italy to research a 18th century Russian composer, a man who gained his creative freedom in exile only to forfeit his life upon his return to Mother Russia. Here, Andrei meets a mad saint who sacrificed his family to save the world and discovers the volatile Molotov of religious conviction. He drifts casually from his dream world into a shared unreality, confounding identity and purpose, attempting to walk upon water while carrying the hallowed flame. His reflection preaches atop a stone mount, cursing the time when mankind went astray and the need to return to simple values of the past, to return to Eden and replace the forbidden fruit, then expunges himself in hell fire.

Tarkovsky's lens captures the human animal in the garden of earthly delights, surrounded by nature. Images of a statuesque Virgin birthing a flock of birds, discarded wine bottles swallowing drops of water, or a gentle fog crawling upon the landscape evoke memories of things past, where events needn't have happened to be true, a state where borders no longer exist with the convolutions of dreamscape. Water is a prime mover, a fluid thematic element, from a warm pool polluted by refuse hidden within its murky depths to a torrent that beats nervously upon the psyches of drowning men. Tarkovsky siphons Beethoven and Verdi through a nightmare machine, a grinding cacophony, a syncopation of sin where fallen angels dwell. And like Andrei, welcome the past imperfect and remain forever trapped by the stone walls of faith.

Final Grade: (A)

Thursday, April 11, 2024

BREWSTER MCCLOUD (Robert Altman, 1970, USA)

 

A fledgling boy is grounded by the gravity of imagination, his body crushed beneath the weight of mechanical dreams. Robert Altman's flight of fancy becomes an avian ossuary where a fallen angel must raise her chick to face an impartial world, populated by selfish and violent predators, fanged raptors who feed on hope.

Brewster lives in a gilded cage, desiring freedom but suffering social fallout, locked in a shelter deep within the Houston Astrodome. His dream is to fly, not within a metal skin where thrust is powered by chemical reactions (though most of the film seems powered by such) but by his own muscle and willpower. Brewster's matriarch is a mysterious benefactor with clipped wings who demands his virginal sacrifice, a murder of crows appointed volant guardianship. Fowl play leads to a homicide investigation where our protagonist is recognized as a causal factor, and forces converge to arrest his misfit endeavor. But Brewster is his own worst enemy, consumed by physical desire as he hatches into maturity before he can fly.

Robert Altman despises the status quo, detailing a lurid expose of material consumerism and political chicanery that defrocks individuality and expression. Altman’s signature style is still evolving with generous use of overlapping dialogue, as sometimes two or three conversations take place simultaneously. He utilizes slow camera zooms with long takes and often shoots through window frames and windshields. The narrative structure seems hollow as a bird’s wing but supports its fanciful weight. The film begins with a professor’s dissertation on bird ecology and, as the story progresses, is intercut with these pronouncements while the professor begins to actually resemble a bird. Altman also satirizes genre clichés with his own idiomatic pastiche of muscle car chases, tough talking cops, and coming of age conundrums. Shelly Duval, in her first role, actually looks like a bird, thin and sleek, her long neck and limbs evoke her avian nature and bring Brewster down to earth...permanently.

Brewster discovers the Land of Oz is just a circus, perhaps regretting Dorothy’s orgasmic infatuation without participating. He learns the cold hard facts of reality, dead at the bottom of his cage.

Final Grade: (B)

Sunday, April 7, 2024

BICYCLE THIEVES (Vittorio De Sica, 1948, Italy)

 

Despair drives an honest man to commit a criminal act, but the simple gesture of a little boy restores his humanity and humility. Director Vittorio De Sica’s quest into that undiscovered country of human conscience is told succinctly and without melodrama, a path through impoverished streets and dingy rooms, clad in rags and empty of cash…but full of life.

Antonio is part of the faceless mass of unemployed workers, a man who relies on his wife and little boy to sustain their meager existence. He is offered a job that requires a bicycle but his has been pawned to keep them from starving. His quick-thinking wife strips the bed and sells the cotton bed sheets for enough money to buy back the bicycle. But Antonio’s dream is crushed on the very first day when his bike is stolen, and the remainder of the film becomes a desperate quest to find this Holy Grail.

This odyssey becomes a life and death struggle, a means to survive, but it is much more than that: it is Antonio’s very manhood that is at stake, his self-respect. He is impotent without a job and the bicycle has become a symbol of his accomplishment…and his guilt in allowing it to be stolen. His compulsion to find the thief and recover the bike is to prove his worth to his family and himself. The joy when he is able to buy back the bike from the pawnshop is one of spiritual exuberance in a dirty world where religion has no place, where doors must be locked so the poor don't leave before supper. When Antonio is forced to steal as a last option, he becomes the very thing he despises, it is total destruction. He is lost, dehumanized, a ghost who possesses his mysterious skin. But it’s Bruno who takes his father’s calloused hand and resurrects his soul in a way that holy words can never achieve.

This is also a story concerning a loss of faith; not only Antonio’s but a whole society victimized by war. There is no mythical quality, no help from above, no miracle that sets our helpless protagonist apart from the liars and thieves. The church is full of hungry stomachs who mutter vacuous prayers so they can stand in a soup line. De Sica damns the church and their meager efforts by exclusion from the narrative: mythology is reflexive and the godhead impotent.

De Sica films in crowded streets and dirty tenements, a bitter reflection of post-war Rome, and his use of unknown actors helps the film become the penumbra of Hollywood reality, juxtaposed with the very posters that Antonio pastes on walls. This isn’t real life but a more direct montage of real life, with the stink and wretchedness of poverty: here, being poor doesn’t make you a better person, it crushes the spirit.

Final Grade: (A)

Friday, March 29, 2024

FAHRENHEIT 451 (Francios Truffaut, 1966, USA)

 

“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o'clock at night. It was remarked that the clock began to strike, and I began to cry, simultaneously.” -David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

Thus is born Guy Montague.

Ray Bradbury is concerned with a world that allows itself to burn knowledge before reading, a prescient warning that society is becoming imbued with apathy and ignorance: it’s not the government censoring our minds…it is ourselves. This is François Truffaut’s only English-speaking film and one that is better appreciated upon each viewing. He forgoes a literal adaptation Ray Bradbury’s novel but captures the humanistic ideal at the heart of the story: Truffaut smartly focuses his camera upon Guy Montague’s inner ordeal instead of flashy special effects. 

Nicolas Roeg’s cinematography burns up the screen with its hypnotic entropy; pages crackle and curl, their knowledge floating away into ashes, and the flames seem alive, their dance of death consuming paper, flesh, bone, and our future. The opening credits are spoken as Roeg zooms his focus upon the ubiquitous television antennas, the color scheme changing abruptly like watercolors splashed upon the sky. Oskar Werner’s performance is subtle yet very effective; he conveys a wavering apathy and honor, but a young girl sees beneath this façade; she is able to see the true face beneath the fireproof mask. Werner is able to make us believe in Montague as he begins to see the world with new eyes…eyes that now peer upon Dostoyevsky and Goethe, and an imagination that falls into the printed page to experience the brave new world beyond. The choking fumes of kerosene and burning flesh no longer obscure his senses. The always beautiful and fantastic Julie Christie has dual roles: as Montague’s narcissistic wife Linda and the young daydreaming Clarisse, both women guide Montague towards fulfilling his ultimate desire. The Bernard Herrmann score perfectly fits the cadence of the narrative; it’s frantic strings race towards a fiery confrontation or the music softly embraces intimacy or exudes cold indifference. 

There are a few interesting details in the film: the newspapers contain no text and look like comic books, the wall mounted television looks rather like a modern plasma set, Linda plugs her ears with an “iPod”, and the people riding the train are so wrapped up in themselves they make no eye contact, their gestures are masturbatory and self-indulgent. When Linda betrays her husband, Montague incinerates the bed first before tuning the flamethrower upon his superior and fleeing into the cold dark night of the soul. He escapes and finds refuge with Clarisse who is a member of a commune that memorizes books…then must burn them. They become repositories for this precious prose, to be written down and shared once again someday; hopefully the madding crowd will one day put aside its ignoble strife and desire knowledge and find truth (and themselves) in these imaginary worlds. Montague becomes Edgar Allen Poe’s Tales of Mystery. What book would you become? 

Final Grade: (B+)

Monday, March 18, 2024

BIGGER THAN LIFE (Nicholas Ray, 1956, USA)

 

A soft-spoken schoolteacher faces the constricting reality of a fatal diagnosis, but his cure may kill him first. Director Nicolas Ray sets the fuse and detonates the nuclear family unit, imploding the middle-class mores of bourgeoisie suburbia.

Ed Avery is a timid workaholic, holding a full-time teaching job and moonlighting as a dispatcher without his wife’s knowledge, unable to support his habitat on one salary. He begins suffering debilitating pains that tear through his body though he tries to bear this cross alone. Ed is diagnosed with a rare incurable disease, a death sentence unless an experimental drug can stave off the symptoms. Soon, he is addicted to Cortisone and the tiny pill that gets him so high also proves to be his downfall. Ed descends into a junkie lifestyle, his personality altered, lying and deceiving for his next fix, a man on a medicated mission whose future is only a prescription away.

James Mason imbues his character Ed Avery with an air of repressed anger and rigid class respectability, molded by a doublespeak society that holds illusion as reality. When his personality tectonically shifts, Mason seethes with unbridled rage and narcissism, a cipher that utters truth acknowledged but abandoned by his peers. His speech during a parent/teacher conference would be funny if it weren't so convincing. This transition is wonderfully realized by contrasting this transformation with the sublime honesty of a husband who can’t imagine that his wife believes he may be cheating on her. Ray depicts the average American household down to the minutest detail; from cluttered kitchen with a rusty hot-water heater to the mantle littered with deflated memories. DP Joseph MacDonald subverts this iconic imagery by filming from low-angle and lighting the characters in a noirish fashion, so shadows dominate their living counterparts. MacDonald allows the Cinemascope compositions to create a vacuum between people, an invisible barrier that separates both worlds.

Ed has stopped taking from the tiny bottle: it now takes from him. Madness has finally consumed him and it’s difficult to tell if the drug permanently damages his perceptions, or only awakens the sleeping giant of his super-ego. 

Final Grade: (B+)