Thursday, July 31, 2008

Dream Cast for an Imaginary Movie: Julie Christie

See Shampoo, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Darling, Away from Her. She's such an accomplished stylist you don't realize how hard she probably works at it, until you see something like Memoirs of a Survivor, where the direction failed her and she didn't seem to get the swing of things.

Supposedly, she's not as interested in working as some of her contemporaries, and though she admits to surgical enhancement over the years, she looks very much like a real person, compared to the perhaps much more ambitious Faye Dunaway, who looks less and less recognizably human as time goes on.

Warren Beatty called her "the most beautiful and at the same time the most nervous person" he ever knew, which is an interesting declaration of neurosis from an actor who has famously aggravated directors with his arguably pathological insistence on "getting it right".

Christie's best roles exploit the tension between her surface capriciousness and inner reserves of empathic gravitas. This quality was maybe most evident in her earliest roles (see Billy Liar, Darling, Petulia), but it took on more interesting shades of pathos later, when her features started to exude melancholy.

The tragic undercurrents of Away From Her derive primarily from the popular image of Christie's hubristic youth, which superimposes itself over her middle-aged face and her character's struggle with space and time in ill-fitting, dichotomous flourishes.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Word is Out

Last night, Outfest screened their newly restored version of Word is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives, a documentary originally released in 1977. The restoration took a year or more and is the second film in festival's ambitious project to preserve key films of the GLTB canon, such that it is. Word is Out was directed by The Mariposa Film Group, a team of filmmakers led by the late Peter Adair. The viewing at the Director's Guild of America on Sunset was packed, and the emotional response to the film (an intimate mix of humor, detachment, identification, and pathos) was palpable.

Clearly, of over 128 applicants, a handful of the most articulate were chosen, and the impression created by this particular group of interviews wasn't just a sense of lost life (some of these people, like Adair, succumbed to AIDS) but of lost intelligence and awareness, too. The subjects in Word is Out knew themselves in unexpected ways. They understood society and social dynamics in general. They understood themselves and the contexts they transacted in. They were achingly aware: smart, literate, complicated. For all our bluster about growing up early now and being in touch with our feelings, most of us are deeply, maybe perversely emotionally stunted by comparison. The humor was sharp, sparkling bright; the wit often literary in its savvy interplay between serious and silly, context and subtext, overstatement and artful indirection. The editing highlights these conversations in a way that understands their wit, extending it through smart associative strategies.

The stories were so poignant at times, the camera so intently studious of its subjects, that the names escape. Isolated moments and overall tone remain. The awareness of the subjects made their stories even more heartbreaking. To be subjected to shock treatment as a teenager or to lose your children due to a lesbian relationship which made you feel happy and necessary and needed for the first time in your life is bad enough. To understand what's happening to you without being able to stop it is unbearable. These were engaged people who knew themselves and the people who hated them with a kind of empathic discernment which is practically extinct in contemporary discourse. Much was made last night of the kitsch value of various outfits and song numbers, but the intelligence was more dated than anything else. And sorely missed.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

On the Restlessness of Gena Rowlands

The stage in Opening Night is not a comfortable place, a place that allows one to stay in touch. "[Q]uite the contrary," writes Jousse, "it is a fluid space, subject to variations of mood, the feeling of the moment, the unpredictability of the present moment, when a moment of madness could at any time cause the scene to shift and jeopardize the performance and the very idea of performance itself." In Opening Night the stage does funny things to actions and bodies. Every time Myrtle leaves the stage, even if only for a few seconds, we are never sure to what point in the play she will return when she passes or, as it sometimes seems, is propelled back through the door. The stage is a place where time flows in all directions, and actions, gestures, and sounds eat away at its very stability."

-Where Does It Happen/John Cassavetes and Cinema at the Breaking Point by George Kouvaros

Opening Night feels in some ways like the quintessential Gena Rowlands movie. It isn't just that she's playing an actress and happens to be one, although that creates interesting inter-textual layers within the narrative. It isn't just that Myrtle, this actress, has witnessed something tragic and loses her possibly already tenuous grip on things, a pespective Rowlands has specialized in. The role is suited to Rowlands more than anything because it caters to the impression she's always given of being impatient with straight lines of action and rigidly conceived roles, with staying in character. The fluidity of the stage in Opening Night, the scripted and unscripted collisions between Myrtle's life and the fiction she's portraying, the ambiguous, open-ended exchange between fantasy and reality, sobriety and derangement, all lend themselves well to the kinds of mercurial, sometimes volte face decisions Rowlands has made as an actress. In Cassavetes' movies she's a restless force, constantly moving. Every Cassavetes movie presents her with a series of stages and a selection of doors, and she's constantly bursting through them, storming forward, swinging around, retreating, hesitating, resenting the hesitation gradually or suddenly, then storming off again.

In Woman Under the Influence, this restlessness is presented as neurosis, even psychosis. The doors don't seem to exist or are flush with the walls, Mabel can't see them or has no access to them, or she can't open them. She's reduced to pacing wildly in her mind, swinging her arms in the air. She storms around standing still, her eyes bursting through doors of memory as if looking for the right one. It's Rowlands' most masochistic role under Cassavetes, because her character is given no way out, and no one else has the trouble moving around she does. To them it's a house; to her, a labyrinth. Her housewife is marooned in the suburbs with Peter Falk, her alleged husband. Like Myrtle, she's ended up on a stage she thought was her life but now seems to be a role. She looks to the other actors for some indication how well she's performing. They all seem to be improvising so she does the same, but they're ultimately in very different productions (reality, fantasy) and once she's been thrust through the door out onto this stage she turns around to leave and it's gone.

Rowlands' characters make a lot of mistakes. They have hardened philosophical outlooks about the choices they've made. Some of those choices were forced upon them; some they ran headlong into, without thinking. It's a consequence of all that restless movement. You fling a few doors open and rush right through without looking. You can walk into a real mess. She walks into a big one as Gloria. Gloria was once involved in some shady stuff (time in prison, ties to the mob) and she put it all behind her. She figured out where the messes were and chalked it up to youth; she closed the doors on that part of her life. Who needs the hassle.

Then the kid comes along. His parents are killed (his dad made poor choices of his own) and he's her neighbor; their apartments are practically connected. She hears the gunshots through the wall, the sound of memories in an adjoining room. She feels responsible. She's made to feel responsible and she takes the kid under her care. Gloria presents a character opening all those doors all over again, trying to remember where they led to, trying to use them with some sort of strategy toward very different ends than the ones they served back when she first stumbled through them. The problem is she can't remember where those doors were and opening them is as full of surprises as ever. Gloria is Rowlands' most combustive performance. Every time she bursts through a door there's some goon there with a gun and a leering expression. They just want the kid, they keep saying. They all know her. She was a fixture, then she disappeared. Now she shows up again, on the wrong side of things. You can tell she isn't the woman she was back when they knew her. You can tell she's trying to remember how that woman worked, the role she played and the way she got the men around her to function in certain ways. Unlike Mabel in Woman Under the Influence, Gloria's patience for all the improvisation runs thin. Ultimately, she says to hell with it, and the gun comes out. Then they're all speaking the same language.

Why don't you play the woman, she seems to be saying, and I'll play the gun. Throughout the movie she has a wizened "Geez, guys, you again?" slant to her face, a visual sight gag which gives the movie much of its comic edge. Isn't this awkward, she shrugs: you, me, here we are, here we go again, let's pretend I still don't know what it is you all do and the part I play in it. Myrtle stumbles through doors half drunk. One place becomes another, past and present superimpose. She's resigned to that. Gloria wings it, staying on top of things. Whatever they throw at her she uses. The men around Mabel are bewildered by her unexpected moves,but there's no intentionality behind her behavior, she's not in control of herself. It leaves her powerless and somewhat acquiescent. Gloria behaves unexpectedly too, and uses the bewilderment this creates to her own own advantage, whether she knows off hand what exactly to do with it or not. She'll shoot her way through. Let the bullet set the course.

Rowlands was nominated for an Oscar for her role in the movie. On working almost exclusively with Cassavetes, she remarked, "I'd be happy to work for other directors if they made films with good parts for women. I like a hard part, a part in which I can work something out, find out things about myself."

Monday, July 7, 2008

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985)

Last week, Criterion issued a DVD version of Paul Schrader's Mishima. The restoration is crystal clear and the extras, typical of Criterion, are fantastic. Watching Mishima you wonder how it ever got made. A Japanese cast in a subtitled art movie about a conflicted gay writer who ends his life by ritual suicide isn't the most commercial proposition. It couldn't have been at the time the movie was released, either, over two decades ago. And yet it feels completely new. A kinetic sculpture of identity in flux, it feels more future than past. Schrader has always had an interesting take on biography:

"You have an obligation to history and you have an obligation to drama," he said in an interview with Salon (2002), "and you've got to find a way to serve both masters. If you have to cheat history to tell a story, you shouldn't make that movie, And if you have to tell a boring story to be true to history, you shouldn't make that movie. So when you achieve a situation where both drama and history are being served, the line between fact and fiction then blurs because your protagonist is a factual character who has the power of fiction."

Like Todd Haynes, who must have seen and been influenced by Mishima, Schrader presents biographies which are more about the popular conceptions of their subjects and their histories than close-minded, airtight assertions of fact. Both filmmakers employ a visual syntax which mimics the media used to create the myths they depict. Mishima includes segments which tell the story of Yukio Mishima through his writing, establishing his character through the fictions he created. Like any writer's self, Mishima's was a fiction to some extent to begin with, a matter of projection and accretion; like his pen name, assumed. Other segments use Ozu-like black and white to tell the story of the writer's childhood. Various actors play Mishima in these iterations, and eventually they all start to resemble each other, so that you're never sure at any given time whether you're watching an actor from one segment or another, the "real" Mishima, the "fictional", or something in between. It doesn't matter: all conflate, canceling each other out to create yet another presence, an absent figure residing somewhere in the mind. Haynes does similar things by different means in I'm Not There, where different conceptions of Dylan are played by different actors, in totally different milieus. Dylan exists somewhere in the blank spaces like a trace image on a white wall.

Mishima's homosexuality is all subtext in the movie, which seems odd at first, then perfectly apt. It isn't just that his estate (wife and children) forbid depiction of the more salacious aspects of his life. Mishima forbade himself. Raised in a strict, even punitive environment, he carried this as a convoluted form of masochism into his adult life. His relationship to his body was intensely intimate and simultaneously detached. His body--but also an object, to be sculpted as a raw material. His mind, but a weakness taking root in the form of thought and emotion, to be mastered, denied, banished, transformed. He had a following of young men he possibly never touched, and yet their relationship to him was excessively erotic. As novelist Susanna Moore commented to Schrader when discussing the relationship between Bob Crane, the subject of Schrader's bio-pic, Auto Focus, and his male cohort in hardcore video-making, "You know, whenever there's more than one penis in the room, any sexual act is a homosexual act." There's plenty of ass in Mishima, it's just that the subject doesn't allow himself or the story to enjoy it.

Add to this Schrader's own Calvinist upbringing and his admiration of Robert Bresson and you begin to see why he was the ideal biographer for Mishima. Who understands the mindset of disavowal better?

The score for Mishima was composed by Phillip Glass and might be the best work he's ever done.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Scream to Scream: Inside the Really Unreal

Directed by Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury, 2008

When people say a movie like Inside is really, really gory, they generally mean that the horror has been conceived and executed convincingly, as opposed to merely expertly, substituting for the typical reassurances of irony and self-conscious, endearing ineptitude, a fatalistic remorselessness borrowed from real life. Inside is the antithesis of the American vogue for horror best represented by Wes Craven’s Scream. Its brutality is never leavened with comic effect, its mise en scene neither highly keyed nor brightly colored. The producers of this French slasher wanted a story by someone who not only liked the genre but understood it, and sought in a director someone who could pull it off with some amount of credulity. Given the laughably clich├ęd confluence linking the film’s two heroines, credulity in the case of Inside would appear to indicate a commitment to seeing the various conceits of the film’s artistic ethos to their foregone conclusions.

The movie has a slightly anemic, unsaturated look reminiscent of vintage television news footage, a persuasive verite realism. The villain’s face first appears as if captured by Zapruder’s camera, her features grainy, hollowed out suggestion. It sometimes feels as if things are happening without recourse to a script. Typical of the closed set mentality of a film shoot, the actors, interviewed off camera, were in complete denial. They didn’t seem to think they were making a comedy, but they prickled at the suggestion they were doing anything with, say, the gravity of real time tragedy. Asked about the violence of the story, Beatrice Dalle, the movie’s killer, remarked that anyone who turns on the news will see a much more horrific arrangement of events than Inside presents. A woman like Inside’s final girl “could stumble on scissors,” Dalle shrugged, “or she hits a wall, or her baby falls when she wasn’t expecting it.” Dalle’s naive rationalization for the film’s brutality misses the point. Inside borrows meticulously from real-life, inexplicably theatrical atrocities, confronting rather than avoiding them. The horror isn’t mediated by its existence in some parallel universe of fantasy. Like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which traded in panic by evoking Ed Gein, Inside burrows out of the filmic and into the unthinkable everyday, recreating the murder of Sharon Tate.

The film dispenses quickly with expository detail. What possible reason could anyone have to kill pregnant Sarah (Alysson Paradis, sister of Vanessa)? You won’t find any clues in the set-up. Nor does this protagonist seem particularly vulnerable. Inside presents a victim isolated by the unhappy removal of her husband, much like the situation at Cielo Drive, where Polanski was an absent presence, palpable but removed. Sarah rejects her mother’s attempts to dramatize her situation or state of mind, avoiding conversation, pity, or character development with a derisive shrug. Polanski was in Europe the night of Tate’s death, putting together a movie deal. Sarah’s husband has died in a car wreck which very nearly killed her unborn baby as well. Outside her house, Paris is rioting. It’s Christmas Eve. Sarah is scheduled to induce labor the following day. Her editor has agreed to pick her up at six a.m. Her mother might stop by to check on her. She shuts herself in for the night. Like her, the house lacks distinguishing psychological features. No effort is made to establish setting. Simply put, it’s a location where things take place. White couch, beige walls, empty bedside table. Settling down for the evening, Sarah falls asleep in a rocking chair and dreams of a violent birth, the baby forcing its way out of her mouth. She wakes to the sound of the doorbell.

Linda Kasabian described seeing victim Wojtek Frykowski on the porch at Cielo Drive. He’d stumbled out after being shot, beaten, and stabbed, and stood there uncertainly, a dimly outlined figure, before falling into the hedge. Moments like that, evocative details which persist from accounts of the Manson murders, find their way into the film. When Sarah peers out the peephole and sees Dalle’s vague silhouette, the image registers on a variety of levels as something you've seen somewhere before. At one point, looking out the kitchen window, Sarah sees a string of lights arranged on a neighboring house. This point-of-view shot could be Tate’s, confirming various reports regarding the Christmas lights strung along the fence at Cielo Drive, left there by the former occupants, Candice Bergen and Terry Melcher. The movie continually insinuates itself into collective ideas of the murders this way, subtly and not so subtly referencing real events and half-remembered public record.

Through the closed door, Sarah tells Dalle, as yet unidentified, to go away. Her husband is asleep and has to get up early, she lies. Dalle knows Sarah’s name, and the truth, but she relents, vanishing. Sarah moves into the living room, calling the police on her cell phone. I'm pregant, she informs the operator. Dalle materializes at the sliding glass door. Though she looks, especially in this movie, like an unhappy genetic truce between Angelina Jolie and Sandra Bernhard, Dalle’s scowling, bogeyman expressions and dark hair and dress also visually name-check Susan (aka Sadie) Atkins, one of the more notoriously brutal and conscienceless Family killers, so famously brutal, her remorselessness so photogenic, that after years of parole hearings her incarceration is still, even now that she’s afflicted with cancer and more arguably a victim herself, regarded as lenient. The directors’ insistence that Dalle brought humanity to the character, inspiring compassion in the audience, is a bit like Atkins finding Jesus in jail.

The police arrive and Dalle again vanishes, but when Sarah falls asleep on the couch, her cat senses a presence she doesn’t. Like High Tension, Inside deals with body horror--the premise here is fetal theft--the vulnerability of a person's temple to outside attack, but revolves more specifically around the fear of boundary failure overall. How could Dalle gain entry, when all the doors are locked, and the police have been called, when order’s been restored? It’s as if she’s walked through walls; like a wall is an open doorway. Similarly, what seemed to shock people most about the Tate LaBianca murders was the idea that you couldn’t leave your doors unlocked anymore: people couldn’t be expected not to cross the line. The Family understood that the biggest transgression, the supreme unthinkable, could be as simple as the invasion of personal space, a bogus construct most people took as a given. At the time, personal space was something you were born with, rather than allowed.

“Wherever you go,” Polanski once said, “the seed of evil is within the way the human being thinks, the way he takes things for granted. Certainty, I would say, is the seed of evil.” Having lost his mother to the concentration camps, hostile takeover was something the director understood innately by then. The essential unease of Rosemary's Baby has to do with the permeability of Rosemary’s body, her home, her entire world and way of life. Rosemary’s flat is attached to the Castavetts’ by a linen closet, the door of which had been blocked by a wardrobe when Rosemary and Guy were first shown the place. The former tenant, now dead, had pushed it there in an obviously futile effort to keep her neighbors out. Polanski has Rosemary understand on a basic level that even Minnie Castavetts’ apparently harmless chatter has an insidious persuasiveness to it, rooting inside her head, so that whatever Rosemary thinks is only thought in some relation to what Minnie wants her to. Polanski’s early films possess the same preoccupation with this sort of inexorable seepage. The couple of Knife in the Water invites a hitchhiker into their lives and onto their boat, resulting in a disharmony they’d previously managed to keep under wraps. In Cul-de-Sac, Donald Pleasance and Francoise Deloreac, another unhappy if not miserable Polanski duo, discover, when a gangster happens upon their allegedly idyllic solitude, that their treatment of each other is far more brutal than anything he might do. For Polanski, anyone can take you over at anytime, and a partnership, far from a security measure, is the ultimate form of invasion. Under such circumstances, what’s the use of a locked door?

Going into the LaBianca house was practice for Cielo Drive, yet a natural extension of what the Family had been doing up to then. On creepy-crawly missions, they snuck into people’s homes, just to cross that line, just to freak them out and show how imaginary that line really is. While the homeowners slept the Family moved things around, ate their food, made a mess or cleaned up. Part of living comfortably in the world is security in the belief that in here is safe from out there, that walls and locks and windows and dogs keep danger at bay, that our homes are impermeable to compensate for the fact that our bodies can’t be. True, as Dalle says, you could trip on scissors in your own living room, but you might also wake up one night with a pillow over your face and someone stabbing you with a steak knife from your own kitchen drawer, like the LaBiancas. The movie compounds this lack of separation by making the entertainment you’re watching feel profoundly unstable. Rather than the screen representing an out there which can’t reach you, the action of Inside insinuates itself into your safety zone, collapsing some of the distinction between screen and audience.

The Manson Family scoped out their targets, including Cielo, before breaking in. Witnesses reported seeing them in broad daylight on Cielo the week of the murders, a group of them stuffed into a van. Manson had been to the place before, when Melcher lived there. Melcher, a friend of Dennis Wilson and producer of his record label, Brother Records, had listened to some of Charlie’s songs. They’d cut some demos. Many of the girls were crashing for a time at Wilson’s home. They were like cockroaches. Once you let them in, you couldn’t get them out. They'd passed on to Wilson and others an allegedly pernicious case of crabs. Recognizing the instability of this scene, Melcher eventually tried to distance himself. He drew a line. Stopped taking Manson’s calls, probably. Stopped sleeping with the girls, possibly.

In Hollywood, especially, a gatekeeper relies on your cooperation to some degree. He has what you want, and you have to pretend that your access to him is something he controls entirely, rather than figuratively. Manson was expected to go away, though he knew where Melcher and Wilson lived and likely how to get in. Instead, Charlie went up to Cielo—only Melcher had already leased the place to Polanski. Sharon stood in the doorway as a guest asked Manson what he was doing there. He was treated unkindly. Someone made a derogatory comment about his appearance, slighting him in some way. Presumably, he sent the Family back to stake out the household’s habits with the intention of payback. When did the maid come, when did she leave, who was likely to be visiting at any given time. The motivation of Inside’s killer is just as arbitrary, involving an unfortunate chain of events beyond the heroine’s control: even if you believe that homes are secure and life can be managed to minimize injury or misfortune, you have to admit you’ll run into someone, somewhere, at some point, finding yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Dalle has watched Sarah’s house before the movie’s action begins, and the film speaks to that fear of having been observed without knowing it; the nightmare of being pursued and controlled for mysterious reasons, by unknown forces, so surreptitiously that you're oblivious to the invasion of privacy.

Once inside the house, Dalle allows Sarah to get in bed and go to sleep without declaring her presence. She goes into the nursery, rips a stuffed animal out of its cellophane, does some violence to it. Dalle, a la the Family, is dressed in black, a form of camouflage which preserves the fallacy of boundaries. The rest of the movie takes place in the house, replicating the night of Tate’s murder through various visual and thematic motifs. Dalle will eventually bring her shearing scissors into Sarah’s bedroom and start to puncture her belly button, intent on cutting the baby out, and though Sarah wakes immediately and struggles free, she makes it only as far as the bathroom, where she’ll spend most of the running time, recalling another popular image, Shelly Duvall’s hysterical entrapment in The Shining. In place of a knife Sarah has a broken shard of glass. Early on, Sarah breaks the mirror, puncturing another kind of screen. At one point, like Nicholson with his axe, Dalle will hack away at the door with her scissors.

Much of the story is taken up with other people’s fateful attempts to rescue Sarah. Various people interrupt Dalle’s efforts to get at Sarah and Sarah’s efforts to keep her out. Sarah’s editor visits, thinking Dalle to be her mother. Sarah’s real mother arrives, followed by the police. None make it out of the house. These virtuosic set pieces recall the murders of Jay Sebring, Frykowski, and Abigail Folger, all visting Cielo Drive the night of the murders. Like Sarah’s visitors, Sebring is said to have played hero, attempting to protect Sharon from Tex Watson and the others. He was hanged, stabbed, and kicked about the head so violently that his face was unrecognizable. Later, back at Spahn Ranch, Atkins told another Family member that Tate “was the last to go because she had to watch the others die.” Sarah’s visitors are killed as viciously as Tate’s guests were, with a mercenary disregard for human life and a reckless abandon for the sanctity of the human body and the viewer's customary detachment.

Sarah’s white bathroom is smeared in blood, as is her face and nightshirt. She has a gash on her mouth which is strikingly similar to the one on Tate's face, a diphthong from mouth to cheek, apparent in the autopsy photos which can now be found on the internet. There’s also a photo of Tate’s body at the scene of the crime, which bears more than a passing resemblance to Inside‘s final image of Sarah. Krenwinkel and others say Tate’s baby was never cut out, but in the mind of the popular imagination the fetus is there on the floor beside her body. Sarah eventually leaves the bathroom. She attacks Dalle, disfiguring her. For a while it looks like she might prevail. That would be the version of a movie which draws a line. Inside makes final attempts to endow Dalle’s character with some amount of pathos, as well, indicating her compulsion is fueled by a form of temporary possession. One of the movie’s strengths is Dalle’s performance, which is both emotionally charged and maniacally detached, re-enforcing the central incomprehension of her behavior.