Friday, March 11, 2005

Far From Heaven

The film watching on break continued with today's screening of Far From Heaven. But before that, I also saw some other stuff that's worthy of comment.

A couple of days ago, I watched Maria, Full of Grace. This was a good movie, with a really intersting story that's well told, but it didn't engage me. The style is very verite, documentary-like, and it works for the story, but it's not that fun to watch. There's some nasty moments in the movie, specifically the swallowing the drugs scene. If this movie tells you one thing, it's don't be a drug mule, the process is not a pleasant one. I liked the ending, but as I said before, it's a good movie, just not one that hit me in any special way.

Then, I watched The Road Home, a film by Zhang Yimou, the director of Hero. Like Hero, this was a really beautiful film, with some great visual acting by Zhang Ziyi. She didn't have too many lines, but just through her facial expressions, you could understand everything she was going through and it was heartbreaking at times. The story is very simple, but it's in the telling of it that the film works, and it does work. I like the contrast of the color of the past to the black and white in the present, even though the message of the film, like in Hero, is a bit suspect. He seems to be saying that village life and the past are inherently better than more modern life, and I can't agree with that. But, that's more an issue surrounding the film than something about the merit of the film itself.

Yesterday, I watched eXistenZ by David Cronenberg, which wasn't particularly good. It had some cool ideas, and I liked the way he played out video game conventions with real people, but ultimately, the twist at the end didn't have much meaning because he hadn't created characters you care about. It felt like a really elaborate Twilight Zone that had material for a half hour, not a feature film. The film just wasn't made in an interesting way.

However, Far From Heaven was an amazing film, and one I could wholeheartedly embrace. The film is about the issue of racism and homosexuality in the 50s, but it's addressed through the cinematic language of Douglas Sirk, director of 50s melodrama and the man behind the adjective Sirkian.

While I've seen one of Sirk's films, Written on the Wind, I primarily know him secondhand, through the filmmaking of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, a great director behind the film, The Marriage of Maria Braun, and numerous others. He made the film Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, which was a loose remake of Sirk's All that Heaven Allows, and Todd Haynes' film is another take on the same story.

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul was a great film, and I can see a ton of parallels between that and Far From Heaven, most notably the bar scene, which is almost a direct rip. I think Haynes surpasses both Sirk and Fassbinder. He's got a better handle on character development and style than Fassbinder, and he has a freedom to deal with issues that Sirk didn't have. It's really interesting to see a film set in the 50s, and produced in a very strict classical Hollywood style dealing with racism and homosexuality in the way that people in the 50s did. There's no trace of modern attitudes in the film, but as the viewer, we clearly bring a more modern view and that can make it frustrating to watch the film. You don't want the characters to behave in the way they do because they seem like good people, but are flawed.

The relationship between Kathy and Raymond was the core of the film, and it's really well played. You can see why she's attracted to him, and also how the pressures of a racially divided society ultimately destory their hopes. Julianne Moore is one of the best actresses working today, and this is right up there with her best performances. It's very similar to her role in The Hours, but is played in a different way, because of her relationship with Raymond. She pulls off the right blend of 50s inspired acting and more emotionally realistic methods. Dennis Haysbert is surprisingly good as well, and I really felt for his character. His speech at the modern art show perfectly articulates the essential question of the film, and that's is it the surface that matters or what's beneath. Can you see past the surface to the essence of something?

In many ways the real star of this movie is the style. It's gorgeously stylized. I love how their living room always has a heavy blue light when the lights are off, perfectly setting the tone for scenes like the one where Frank slaps Kathleen. Color is really emphasized in the film, and is well integrated into the story with elements like the lilac scarf. The score is great, both imitating classical Hollywood scores, but doing it without the excess of those scores. It compliments the emotional content of scenes rather than overwhelming them.

I could see people who would look at this film and see it as a pointless exercise in homage. What is the point of so slavishly recreating someone's style of filmmaking? I think it does what remakes are supposed to do, but usually don't, and that's take the essence of a work and present in a new modern light, thus exposing previously unseen potential within the work. In this case, Sirk couldn't address prejudice like Haynes does here, and by aping the style of the 50s film, Sirk is able to make you better accept that people could hold these attitudes.

I think the film is one of the best statements against prejudice put on film because rather than telling you that these attitudes are wrong, it makes you feel just wrong they are. The fact that otherwise nice and respectable people can hold these attitudes just drives home how easy it is to be prejudiced, and makes you aware of prejudice's negative effects.

So, I loved this movie, I think it's deep, challening, and beautiful. It engages you as a viewer, and makes you work and think. That's what a film should do.

Related Posts
Safe (3/28/2005)
Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (4/23/2005)
Velvet Goldmine (6/5/2005)

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Kubrick's Barry Lyndon

Spring break rocks on today as I watched Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon. Most of Kubrick's later period films are very well known, 2001, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut are all commonly known and pretty well thought of films, with the exception of Eyes Wide Shut, which is criminally underrated, and sadly thought of as softporn rather than the great film than it is. I hope in the future, the film will be rediscovered by critics and appreciated because it's a phenomenal film, #32 on my personal top 100 list.

But, regardless of their opinion, people still know the film, and that's something that can't really be said of Barry Lyndon, which seems to be sort of the lost film of Kubrick's late canon. The only thing I really knew about the film before seeing it was that it was directed by Kubrick and he developed new lighting for the film that would let him film scenes using just candlelight. Well, now having seen it, I think it joins Eyes Wide Shut as another very underrated film.

The film is a great companion piece to what I was talking about yesterday with Satyricon, in that it drops you into a completely alien world, with its own practices and rules that we gradually pick up on. For all I know, it's a realistic depiction of 1700s life, but it's a world with very different rules than our own, and over the course of the film, we gradually learn what these rules are. This is a place where emotions are kept extremely guarded, and our only guide to the characters emotion is the subtleties of their tone. This is a world where a sharp "Gentlemen" can be analagous to "Fuck you" as when Barry basicallly tells Lord Lyndon he wants him to die so he can marry his wife, witha simple 'Gentlemen.' It's very subtle, but that shouldn't be mistaken for a lack of character. This is a world where everything is beneath the surface, constrained behind ridiculous costumes and makeup.

It's notable that we never see Barry break down, even at the end of the film when he loses the duel, he doesn't express any sort of remorse, it's just something that happened, the rules of the society dictate what he has to do, and he can't break those rules. The dueling scenes best demonstrate the absurdity of the world. They think that a logical way to resolve disagreements is to stand ten paces away and shoot each other. There's a strong dwelling on the rules of the duel because it's something that seems so dumb, the rules give it a grounding in reality. They're all a prisoner of the restrictions of their society.

The only moment where we see Barry react is when he assaults Bullington after his long series of coded insults. It's satisfying to see Barry punching this guy because Bullington was clearly insulting him, and previously we've never seen someone actually do anything about being insulted. So, seeing Barry lash out here is both shocking and a relief.

I've been reading some reviews of the film, and a lot of them talk about how there's no character development, and I can't agree there. The characters have fully developed emotional lives, but they're all restricted by the rules of their society.

In most movies set in the past, I find the character interaction really unnatural. For all the visual splendor of something like Gladiator or Troy, the way they talk just isn't real. Here, rather than trying to have the people act like modern people, and just talk in the language of the past, Kubrick creates characters who actually come from a different world. That's why they seem so odd, but I completely got the story of Barry and what he went through. I feel like everyone is resigned to the fate they've been given and just drifts along. In the first half, Barry is the exception, with his social climbing and scheming, but in the second half, he is defeated and beaten down like everyone else. Lady Lyndon doesn't seem to do anything or feel anything, but I think it's actually that she's disappointed and trapped in her world, so she has drifted off into an odd haze where she spends her whole life.

If I can find one consistent theme in the film, it's that all the poorer people are alive because they're struggling to reach the level of the nobility, such as Nora's family when they're trying to marry her off to Quinn, or Barry's mother in the second half. However, the people who are actually nobility sort of detach from reality and engage in frivolous pleasures without ever really accomplishing anything.

The film is known primarily for its visuals, and it's an astonishing film. It's sucha rich world, full of atmosphere, and beauty. The costumes are really over the top, and convey the absurdity of the world. Kubrick is a master of framing, and pretty much every image in the film is striking and interesting. His direction isn't as obvious or present as someone like Wong Kar-Wai or Chan-wook Park, but each shot and cut are still very clearly motivated and exacting. The shooting by candlelight works well to enhance the reality of the scenes, and place you in the mindset of these people. At first, I was wondering why there were so many candles around, but I realized their only light was candles, if they didn't have those, it'd be completely dark, no light but the moon.

It is a long film, but I don't think anything should have been cut, it isn't slow paced, it's just there's a lot to cover. It would be possible to lose some of the stuff at the beginning, like his encounter with the German woman, or his fight in army camp, but those things add to the reality of the world, and if you try to streamline the film into what's absolutely essential, you lose the sense of this being a fully realized world, that which is the films greatest virtue.

So, I'd place this film third on my Kubrick ranking. I haven't seen everything he's done, but the ranking of what I've seen is:

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey
2. Eyes Wide Shut
3. Barry Lyndon
4. The Shining
5. Dr. Strangelove
6. A Clockwork Orange
7. Full Metal Jacket
8. Paths of Glory

I haven't seen Spartacus or Lolita, but I get the feeling he didn't become a real master until 2001, a film which besides being one of the greatest films of all time, marks a huge leap in terms of style for Kubrick. His earlier films have pretty coherent narratives, and are more about content than style. 2001 is definitely concerned with themes, but it doesn't have a very solid story. It's much more about using the medium to riff on something, really taking advantage of film itself as a storytelling medium.

I read an interview with Kubrick where he talks about how his later scripts aren't very detailed, and wouldn't be interesting to read, because he wasn't writing scripts, he was making films. The script is just a step, the quality of the film is ultimately decided by the direction and production team. A great script pretty much ensures a good film, but it takes something more than just a great script to make a great film, and in his later films, Kubrick clearly realizes this.

Like Wong Kar-Wai, he doesn't write a script and then film it, he goes in with an idea of the film in his head, and then tries to capture it as he goes along filming. This means he shoots for a long time, and the film evolves as he goes. Barry Lyndon shot for 300 days, which is brutal, and as time went on, Kubrick took even longer to make each film, notably with the twelve year gap between Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut. Similarly, it took five years from the start of filming for Wong Kar-Wai to finish 2046.

I think this way of making a film makes a lot more sense than a traditional script. Shooting Ricky Frost, we first went for the dialogue, and the priority was to capture the dialogue, rather than to use the visuals to tell the story. That's why with the project I'm writing now, I'm going much looser, and plan to do a more detailed list of shots, rather than a traditional script. While this goes against the figure it out on set method of Kubrick and WKW, it's necessary, because I don't have people who are going to wait forever for me to figure out what I want to do. But, it's going to be a type of script more suited to film, rather than the format inherited from theater that most directors use.

Interestingly, Barry Lyndon touches on a lot of the same themes as A Clockwork Orange, but I think it's covered much better here. ACO is very obvious in its message about the way that society changes you. The conditioning stuff is great, but it's clearly allegorical, the average person isn't going to be confronted by something like that. Barry Lyndon takes the same themes, the way that society destroys the individuality of the average person, and does it in a much more subtle way, one that's relevant to everybody. Barry is molded into someone acceptable to high society just through the course of everyday events, in the same way that society molds every person into something they might not want to be today. If you don't assert your individuality, it's very easy to get sucked into a role within society, and after Barry gets what he thinks he wants at the end of Part I, we see the society he's living in destroy him in Part II. So, with A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick plants the idea of societal conditioning, then explores it further here in Barry Lyndon, in a much more everyday situation. While our world may be very different than Barry's, there are similar rules on how to behave, and to violate these rules leads to rejection. While our boundaries have changed, the same basic rules about what we can and can't say in 'polite conversation' persist, and everytime you have the "How are you doing?" "Good, and you" "Pretty good," exchange, you're inhibited by the same rules that inhibited Barry.

We never really meet Barry emotionally, there's no scene where he breaks down, or tells us how he feels because that would undermine Kubrick's point. These people can't be emotionally honest with each other, and the audience feels that same frustration. They have to become numb, because if they didn't, repressing those emotions would be too difficult, and they'd react violently, as Alex from ACO, Jack from The Shining or Gomer Pyle from Full Metal Jacket. When Barry does act out violently, he finds himself rejected from society, and as the film winds on, he becomes increasingly numb, such that losing his leg and being thrown out of his home at the end of the film is almost a relief.

Related Posts
2001: A Space Odyssey (7/1/2005)
The Shining (7/5/2005)

Tuesday, March 08, 2005


I'm on break, and no one else I know is home at present, so I've been watching a lot of movies. In the past two days, I've seen Casino, We Don't Live Here Anymore and Satyricon.

Casino was an entertaining movie, but it really felt like a weak echo of Goodfellas. Scorsese uses much of the same cast, the same co-writer and the same filmmaking style. This basically forces you to compare the two films, and Casino just doesn't stack up. Its story is all over, and it lacks the feeling of innovation that Goodfellas has, even fifteen years later. The film has music going in practically every scene, but Scorsese never really uses the music, it just plays along, under the action, and rarely comments on the scene its involved with. So, I liked it, but it's probably the weakest Scorsese film I've seen. Of his work that I have seen, I'd say Goodfellas and The Aviator are the best. It took me two viewings to really appreciate Goodfellas, but I don't think another viewing would improve Casino that much.

We Don't Live Here Anymore is notable for featuring two of David Lynch's ladies, Naomi Watts and Laura Dern, as well as Peter Krause, aka Six Feet Under's Nate, and Mark Ruffalo of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. So, this is a hell of a cast, but it's a movie that never quite comes together. The opening sequence is really striking, but for most of the movie, the characters just argue with each other, but unlike in, say, Six Feet Under or Buffy, you don't care about these characters, so watching them argue isn't that interesting. If this sort of stuff was happening with characters you cared about, it'd be riveting, but here, it doesn't quite make it. The acting is great though, and there's some very cool editing moments.

So, that brings us to Satyricon, by Federico Fellini. I watched 8 1/2 by him a few weeks ago, and it was great. I thought it was a pretty odd film, but this film goes way beyond it. People always say stuff like "It's a one of a kind film" or call films weird, and normally I don't agree, but this was a very weird and unique film. It's a film that challenges the viewer, but also puts you in a world where pretty much anything is acceptable, a world where morality doesn't apply, so you might be put off by what's going on, but the characters don't question it.

The mcguffin of this film is when Ascilto steals Encolpio's slave boy, Gitone, and sells him to an actor. Encolpio is in love with this slave boy, and the film makes no comment on the morality of this. You just have to accept that his quest to have a life with this boy is ok if you're going to enjoy the film. I was a little confused at first when no one seemed to question him, but it's ultimately just a way to get things started, and his quest is forgotten as the film continues.

After a little bit of watching, I was a bit disappointed that this movie didn't have the dream cut ins from 8 1/2. But, after a while, I realize that the entire film is like a dream. It just moves from one episode to another, and you're not really sure how you got there. There were moments, like when Encolpio is fighting a minotaur when I tried to think of what happened to get us to this point and I couldn't remember. We just ended up there somehow, and you can't really question it. Trying to find a coherent narrative in the film is a great challenge. Encolpio gets carried along, sometimes disappearing from the film, only to return a few minutes later after a little episode involving someone else occurs.

The most notable stylistic thing about the film for me was how Fellini constantly had the extras looking at the camera. There were these huge crowd scenes, and he'd move around the place, only to wind up with some strangely made up person staring directly at the camera. This is in some ways a Brechtian technique to emphasize the artificiality of the film world, but it doesn't take you out of the story, so much as draw you into it. It's like these people are asking what you think of what's going on, as if you're really there. It was freaking me out, because these people were just staring, like they were waiting for me to do something.

This was a movie that, despite not having much of a plot, was never boring. I got completely sucked into the world of the film and sort of drifted along, seeing this bizarre world that Fellini created. He described it as a science fiction film, but the alien civilization is Rome before Christianity, and that's accurate. This feels like a completely different world, and the film has more in common with Gilliam's Time Bandits than Gladiator.

Visually, the film is extremely rich. There's a lot of huge crowd scenes, and all the extras are made up in really odd ways. The sets are gorgeous, and there's a lot of bizarre occurrences on them. Also, everyone has the 60s ring around the eyes makeup, which I'm a big fan of.

The ending of the movie was oddly abrupt, but appropriate. Fellini just throws you out of the world, and you see the remnants of it on the beach, in the form of the mosaics. You're there, pondering what has happened, and realizing that the movie wasn't really going anywhere, it was what it was, just moments from a world that's gone. I loved the film, I think it really works as sort of a harder edged version of the typical 80s fantasy movie, and just as a really strange dreamlike journey of its own. 8 1/2 I really liked, but it went on a little too long, this one did not.

So, that was a top notch film. I've got La Dolce Vita on hold, so that'll be my next Fellini.

Related Posts
8 1/2 (2/19/2005)

Sunday, March 06, 2005


I feel like recently, and in the next few months, there's been a lot of endings. I've had a lot of series running along, that I'm partway through, and they all seem to be coming to a close now. Last week, I read the end of Promethea, something I started in senior year of high school, and had read sporadically over the years. It was a series I loved, and one of the few unread masterpieces I've had in comics.

In addition to that, I'm right now watching the final Buffyverse DVD box set, Angel season five. Buffy isn't something I've been watching that long, compared to others, but it still hurts to know that I'll (probably) never have another new DVD from the series. Then, later this year Six Feet Under ends. This is one of my favorite TV shows, and with that finished, only the last season of The Sopranos remains as an outstanding unfinished series. I love watching 24, Lost and The OC, but none of those series come close to how good Six Feet, The Sopranos, or last year's cancelled Angel was.

And right now, I'm also finishing up The Dark Tower book series. This is something I've been reading for a long time, like five years, and am 300 pages from the end of the last book. It's been another one of these incomplete stories that is finally being completed.

And then in May, the biggest incomplete thread is finally wrapped up when the final Star Wars movie is released. I saw the original Star Wars back in the 80s and have been waiting for this story for over 15 years. To finally see what happens is going to put a rest to speculation, and provide a finale to one of the dominant stories of my life. Those movies have had such an influence over me, to know that 'the circle is now complete' and I'll never have another first Star Wars experience is pretty sad, but also good, because I'm hoping it's going to be a great movie.

I feel like the end of a long TV or comic series, where they have to start tying up all the loose ends. All these endings I was waiting for are finally arriving, and after The Sopranos closes up in 2006, I don't think there's going to be any sort of long term story that I'm waiting for a conclusion on. A couple of years ago I had all the stuff mentioned above, plus Angel, Lord of the Rings, The Matrix, New X-Men and more. Now, everything's getting wrapped up, which probably means I've got to branch out and find some new series, new stories to enjoy, but that gets more and more difficult. I know in comics for a long time, I had a seemingly endless supply of stuff to look at, in terms of long run series, but lately, I've had a bit of a struggle to even find the new Preacher, let alone the new Sandman or Watchmen. I suppose the current run of Vertigo books, like Fables and Y: The Last Man, could yield something down the line, but I definitely feel like I covered most of the great comics.

Same in TV, there's a couple of shows I still want to check out, but I feel like I've seen most of the great stuff that's out there. But, that just means I have to be more diligent in looking for stuff. Same in movies, I've found most of what is easy to find and enjoy, I have to look deeper and find stuff that's not as easily accessible, but might still be great, like Spaced or Cowboy Bebop.

Related Posts
Promethea: Until the End of the World (24-32) (2/27/2005)
Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith (5/20/2005)
Six Feet Under: 'Everyone's Waiting' (8/22/2005)