Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Understanding Auteurs: Pier Paolo Pasolini (The Trilogy of Life)

After stumbling with the half-baked provocation Porcile (1969) and ripping off his own Oedipus Rex (1967) with the noticeably weaker Medea (1969), Pier Paolo Pasolini sought a new creative direction with a series of films that he dubbed the Trilogy of Life.  The director’s first three movies of the ‘70s were each adaptations of beloved medieval texts, each of which are an anthology of shorter tales.  Pasolini’s versions of these books would emphasize the gritty carnality of the original text, while ostensibly providing a lighthearted examination of the intersection between art and everyday life in the pre-industrial world.

The trilogy begins with The Decameron (1971), based on Giovanni Boccaccio’s Italian classic collection of one hundred stories.  Pasolini’s version only includes a fraction of the stories, and is missing Boccaccio’s framing story, in which ten young people gather to relate the tales to each other.  The lack of any sort of structuring principle to Pasolini’s script makes The Decameron feel like one of his least disciplined efforts.  Pasolini does introduce a recurring motif about halfway through the movie that follows a painter (played by Pasolini himself) who searches for inspiration while painting a cathedral, but there is no rhyme or reason to why this story needed to be told in such a fragmented way while most of the other tales are given their own individual segments of the film.  Many of the stories have promising setups, but none of them really feel like they come to a point before the film arbitrarily moves on to a new story.  Pasolini’s determination to preserve the bawdiness of the original text rather than making a stuffy Masterpiece Theater episode is admirable, and he does conjure up a convincing overall depiction of medieval Italy.  But the plotting in The Decameron is way too lackadaisical, especially considering that the movie is meant at least partially as a tribute to storytelling.  With its lazy pacing, seemingly arbitrary structure, and generally inconsequential tone, The Decameron resembles many of Fellini’s films from this period; like Satyricon (1971) or Roma (1972), The Decameron mostly seems like an excuse for its director to indulge himself.  Where Fellini at least has enough technical skill to occasionally make this aimless, masturbatory style work, Pasolini remains a fairly straightforward stylist (albeit one with a good eye for exotic locations), and the eccentric social commentary that distinguishes most of his oeuvre is almost totally absent here.

Unfortunately, there is hardly any more depth to the second film in the trilogy, the Geoffrey Chaucer adaptation The Canterbury Tales (1972).  As in the previous film, Pasolini jumbles the order of tales arbitrarily, while removing the original text’s framing story – though in this case he alludes to it by having a character suggest that a group of villagers take turns telling stories as they travel to Canterbury, which only makes it more awkward when the film completely abandons this structure.  Pasolini again appears in a quasi-framing story, this time playing Chaucer himself, though these brief scenes mostly only consist of the author sitting in front of his notebook and laughing to himself about his writings.  A few of the stories are lightly amusing, such as one where a jolly beggar made up to look like Chaplin’s Little Tramp (Pasolini favorite Ninetto Davoli, who actually looks more like Chico Marx) attempts various hustles in exchange for food, but the film’s rambling structure only allows it to work on a moment to moment basis.  Where The Decameron could at least boast some interesting, highly photogenic locations, The Canterbury Tales feels constrained by its somewhat bland British locations (despite the fine work of cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli).  Pasolini’s depiction of medieval England is not as immersive as his portrayal of primitive Italy, mainly because of his distracting decision to dub the dialogue into English even though most of the actors are clearly speaking Italian.  Why Pasolini didn’t simply hire an English-speaking cast is a mystery, though his decision to stick with recurring cast members like Davoli and Franco Citti is consistent with the generally lazy and carefree feel of this film and The Decameron.  There is a crazy low-budget vision of Hell toward the end of the movie (with screaming demons firing out of Satan’s ass in what appears to be the same volcanic wasteland seen in Porcile and 1968’s Teorema), but it may not be worth sitting through the rest of this tediously inconsequential effort to get to the rare good moments.

Considering the slump that Pasolini seemed to be in after Porcile, Medea, The Decameron, and The Canterbury Tales, it is almost shocking that Arabian Nights (1974) is as vital as it is.  The final film of the Trilogy of Life shares many traits with the first two parts, including some of their flaws, but overall it is the first of Pasolini’s exotic pagan films to live up to the beauty of Oedipus Rex.  Somehow the rambling structure of Arabian Nights works where it fails in the previous two films, perhaps because Pasolini actually allows the stories time to develop and come to a conclusion before abruptly moving on.  There are still some odd scripting decisions – such as having a young hero (Franco Merli) enjoying an orgy in one scene before being inexplicably distraught in his next appearance – but the overall atmosphere of Arabian Nights is spellbinding enough to make the film feel like the only truly coherent chapter of the Trilogy of Life.  The mysterious, poetic Arabic tales are a good match for Pasolini’s aesthetic, and the flights of fancy are nicely balanced by the earthiness that Pasolini brings to the film’s frequent good-natured sex scenes (with their nicely matter of fact handling of both male and female nudity).  With its consistently gorgeous imagery and its compelling mixture of fantastical storytelling and raw carnality, Arabian Nights single-handedly justifies the highly flawed Trilogy of Life.


Friday, August 24, 2012

Processing Women in Love

Expectations  I’ve never been a very big fan of the films of Ken Russell.  I’m not in the minority on this issue, either.  Critics were generally never fond of Russell’s gaudy, in-your-face hyper-stylization.  The British director’s 2011 death sparked a handful of obligatory obituary tributes, but I’m not aware of any passionate reassessments of his body of work or any major theatrical or DVD re-releases of his best-known films.  Nor can I say that any of the Russell films I’ve seen really deserve such treatment.  Russell’s version of The Who’s rock opera Tommy (1975) is one of the few cases where his sledgehammer style works decently, as it distracts from Pete Townshend’s silly narrative and turns the film into a series of music videos highlighting exciting performances by the likes of Tina Turner and Elton John.  More often, Russell’s desire to throw as much random junk at the screen as possible results in unpleasantly chaotic messes like The Boy Friend (1971) or Lair of the White Worm (1988).  Presumably Russell wanted to make sure that his audience didn’t get bored, but the unvarying shrieking tone of many of his movies creates its own kind of monotony.  If the relentless stylization isn’t annoying enough, Russell often strained to shock with “risqué” subject matter, such as sexualizing a group of nuns in his controversial film The Devils (1971).

Still, there is something weirdly admirable about an artist who is determined to push everything into the red at all times, regardless of how tasteless or stupid it may seem.  And so I wind up giving Russell another chance about once a year or so, hoping to find a film where his chosen subject matter meshes with his orgiastic style.  Women in Love (1969) is the film that I’m giving a chance this time, and it actually seems like there’s a fairly strong possibility that it will prove to be worthwhile.  The D.H. Lawrence adaptation put Russell on the map after a bunch of TV work and a few small-scale features.  While Women’s critical legacy has dwindled somewhat in recent years, perhaps due to increasing exhaustion with Russell’s Grand Guignol aesthetic, it was a highly acclaimed and popular film around the time of its release, and it received a number of Oscar nominations (including one for Russell as a director) and one win (a Best Actress nod for Glenda Jackson).  Will Women in Love display a reined-in and focused Ken Russell, or at least feature a story that is a good match for his aesthetic?  Or will it just be another jumble of ideas?  I’m cautiously optimistic that it will at least be interesting.

Responses to the Film  Women in Love is indeed restrained and mature by Russell’s standards, perhaps owing to the fact that the project did not originate with him.  Producer Larry Kramer was obsessed enough with adapting D.H. Lawrence’s novel to the screen that he wound up writing the screenplay himself after finding the work of several writers he’d hired to be subpar.  Considering Kramer’s direct involvement with the creative side of the film’s preproduction, and taking into account the fact that Russell was a relatively unproven filmmaker in 1969 (he was the fourth choice to direct the film after luminaries such as Stanley Kubrick passed on the project), it seems likely that Kramer exercised some level of veto power any time Russell’s ideas became too extreme.  That said, Russell’s version of Women in Love is hardly a stuffy period piece, and it does benefit immensely from the director’s exotic touches.  Kramer may or may not have reined Russell in to some degree, but the director’s eccentricities are present enough to keep the film interesting even as they are held back enough to not completely overwhelm the story.

While watching Women in Love, I was actually grateful for Russell’s aggressive attempts to make the material more viscerally exciting because, frankly, the narrative of the film is not all that interesting on its own terms.  Basically the story, set in 1920s Great Britain, follows the titular women (Jackson and Jennie Linden) as they come into the orbit of a wealthy coal mining magnate (Oliver Reed) and his libertine friend (Alan Bates).  What follows includes a lot of ponderous (if sometimes beautifully written) discussions about the nature of love, as well as some scenes of desperately passionate sex.  There is a limit to how exciting that kind of story can be in its own terms, but Russell frequently spices things up with his wild stylistic tricks.  You wouldn’t necessarily expect a film about bored rich people arguing about the value of love to include multiple spastic dance scenes (including one in front of a herd of Highland cattle), smash cuts linking a pair of fresh corpses to two of the leads embracing tenderly, and a nude wrestling match that seems like a precursor to the unclothed fight scene from David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises (2007), but all of that and more is included in Russell’s crazy vision.  For once, though, Russell’s weirdness doesn’t run roughshod over the rest of the film, and the characters are given room to develop rather than being turned into obnoxious, screeching cartoon stereotypes.  Though Jackson was the member of the cast generally singled out for praise around the time of the film’s release, all four leads give very strong performances.  Russell’s experimental style doesn’t always enhance (or even necessarily sync up with) what the actors are doing, but it doesn’t impede their performances either, and the movie overall strikes a fairly good balance between disciplined storytelling and puckish showboating.

Afterthoughts  It’s been almost a week since I watched Women in Love and wrote the preceding paragraphs, and I can’t say that I’ve given much thought to the movie in the interim.  The spastic direction and the stately story prevent the film from becoming either a boring period piece or a typical Ken Russell mess, but the two tones don’t really add up to a coherent vision either.  There are enough memorable moments and strong performances in Women in Love to make the film a worthwhile experience, but it just doesn’t seem like the filmmakers were all on the same page.  Russell’s eccentric stylistic flourishes are often pretty cool on their own terms, but they don’t do much to enhance the movie’s themes or its story, beyond keeping it from getting too dull.

Still, Women in Love is easily the best of the Ken Russell films I’ve seen.  Women in Love’s style and its substance don’t entirely coalesce, making the film less emotionally impactful than it was presumably meant to be, but the handsome production values, unexpected formal touches, and all-around solid performances make the movie well worth any cineaste’s time.  If nothing else, Women in Love is certainly the most accessible of Ken Russell’s films and a good entry point for anyone who might be interested in looking into his work further.  But it didn’t convince me that I’ve been wrong about the limitations of Russell’s aesthetic.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Thoughts on Sight and Sound's 2012 Poll

The Top Ten Films of All Time – According to Sight and Sound’s 2012 Poll
1)  Vertigo
2)  Citizen Kane
3)  Tokyo Story
4)  Rules of the Game
5)  Sunrise
6)  2001:  A Space Odyssey
7)  The Searchers
8)  Man with a Movie Camera
9)  The Passion of Joan of Arc
10)  8 ½

The biggest news in the world of cinema is the recent announcement of Sight and Sound’s once-a-decade list of the best films of all time, as voted for by the world’s most prominent critics and filmmakers.  Sight and Sound have been publishing the list once every ten years since 1952, and it has come to be regarded by most cinephiles as the closest thing to an official film canon; Citizen Kane’s (1941) status as “the greatest film of all time” came about because it topped every list from 1962 to 2002 (the original 1952 poll favored Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 neorealist classic Bicycle Thieves).  Perhaps the most surprising, and widely reported about, development of the 2012 list is that it is not topped by Kane, or by perennial number 2 or 3 Rules of the Game (1939), but by Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), a film that has been slowly creeping up the top ten since appearing as a runner-up in the 1972 list.

Like Kane, Vertigo was not widely appreciated in its own time, and was a failure at the box office as well as with critics.  Today Vertigo’s status as a masterpiece is rarely disputed, though Hitchcock’s long string of classics makes choosing a definitive work difficult.  Personally, I’ve never been able to decide whether I prefer Vertigo or Rear Window (1954), but if I were including a Hitchcock film on my own hypothetical ballot for the Sight and Sound poll – which is meant as a list of “best” films rather than “favorites,” assuming that it’s possible to make such a distinction – I would have to give the edge to Rear WindowVertigo is undeniably the grander auteurist statement, a hypnotic and eccentric waking dream from a director whose obsessions clearly lined up with those of his protagonist Scottie (James Stewart), who becomes hopelessly fixated on a woman (Kim Novak) he’s supposed to be investigating.  Hitchcock’s 1958 classic is the most intense and emotionally expressive of his films, but Rear Window is the easier film to make a logical argument for placing on a list of all-time greats.  A model of perfect narrative construction and a triumph of old Hollywood craftsmanship, Rear Window is about as close to flawless as movies come.  The film’s meta fascination with voyeurism satisfies intellectually, providing the bedrock for decades of film theory.  Meanwhile, the incredibly tight plotting, the likeable performances of an all-star cast, and Hitchcock’s customary stylishness combine to make Rear Window the most conventionally entertaining of the director’s films.

Whether Vertigo deserves the top spot over Citizen Kane is also debatable.  It’s hard to compare Vertigo to Kane, since the films have radically different goals and wildly dissimilar styles.  Few serious cineastes would argue with either films masterpiece status, but it’s easy to see that Kane has ultimately had the greater impact on the history of the medium.  Kane brought all of the innovations of pre-‘40s cinema up to date and virtually created (and/or perfected) a number of stylistic and narrative techniques that still feel fresh today, all while telling a grippingly funny and tragic story about the rise and fall of a complicated individual.  Vertigo is no less entertaining than Kane, and in some ways it is the more fascinating film from an auteurist perspective.  Hitchcock’s film is certainly more autobiographical than Orson Welles’ (though the fact that Welles played the lead role in Kane has understandably led many to mistakenly compare the titular tyrant to the free-spirited Welles).  Still, Vertigo can’t be said to have had as much influence on the state of the art as Kane has.  Kane is essentially a summary of all that came before it and an inspiration for everything that came after it, a feat that very few works of art can boast.  It may have been a bit boring to see Citizen Kane retain its Sight and Sound championship, but it is a definitive and logical top choice in a way that Vertigo simply isn’t, even though the two films are equally enjoyable.

Obviously this is an extremely nitpicky argument to make.  As I hope I’ve made clear, I do really love Vertigo, a film that will certainly appear on my long-in-the-works list of my 100 favorite movies (which I hope to post on this site by the end of the year, though I’m not making any promises).  I’m just not sure that it’s as definitive a piece of film history as some of the other movies on Sight and Sound’s list.  I also don’t want to put too much effort into criticizing the list itself, since all of the movies on it are genuinely important works of art.  Personally, I’ve never been a fan of Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953), but I’m willing to accept that that may simply be the result of my not having seen it in nearly a decade, or of me simply not connecting with the Ozu aesthetic that has bowled over many people whose opinions I respect (though I feel fairly comfortable calling Leo McCarey’s 1937 film Make Way for Tomorrow – Ozu’s acknowledged inspiration for his most famous work – the better movie).  I also think that John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) is a bit more morally compromised than its reputation suggests, as its criticisms of western mythology are a lot less rigorous and honest than those in Ford’s own The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) or Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995), though as pure cinema it is as good a representation of the western genre as any. 

Of course my personal top ten list would look different than the one compiled for Sight and Sound, but it’s hard to quibble too much with the films included, most of which are simultaneously definitive in terms of their import to the history of cinema and eccentrically singular in terms of their stylistic and thematic focuses.  I might slightly prefer Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion (1937) to his Rules of the Game, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Day of Wrath (1943) to his Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), and Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975) to his 2001:  A Space Odyssey (1968), but in each case the film that actually made the list has had more of an impact on the medium (and preferring any one of these great films to another essentially amounts to splitting hairs).  Perhaps the boldest and most exciting development on the list is the brand-new inclusion of Dziga Vertov’s insane Dadaist experimental documentary Man with a Movie Camera (1929), which essentially replaced Sergei Eisenstein’s persistent favorite (and worthy contender) Battleship Potemkin (1925) as the list’s nod to classic Soviet montage. 

While it’s a shame that filmmakers as important as Eisenstein, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Luis Bunuel, Jean Vigo, Michael Powell, Nicholas Ray, Howard Hawks, Akira Kurosawa, Robert Bresson, Jean-Luc Godard, Chris Marker, Andrei Tarkovsky and Abbas Kiarostami (to name just a few that immediately come to mind) couldn’t crack the top ten with any of their major works, it has to be acknowledged that only a handful of slots are available and that we’d be equally likely to bemoan the absence of any of the ten directors whose films do appear on the list had they not made it.  Dive into the extended top fifty list and you’ll see classics from many of the directors mentioned above, alongside some wonderfully cutting-edge choices like Jacques Tati’s Playtime (1967) and Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman (1975).

Having said all that, I’d like to lament the continuing absence of Fritz Lang’s M (1931) from the Sight and Sound list.  While few cinephiles would deny M its status as a classic, it rarely seems to be considered when debates about the greatest film of all time arise.  Metropolis (1927) has become known as Lang’s official masterpiece – which is understandable considering the pronounced influence the film continues to have on the science fiction genre, but perhaps harder to argue for when one considers its incoherent mishmash of half-understood competing ideologies.  That Metropolis isn’t Lang’s greatest film says more about the director’s incredible oeuvre than it does about any failings of the film itself, but M is certainly the better film and in many ways an even more important one.  Conceived at the nexus of silent and sound film, M provides the best of both worlds, as Lang liberally incorporates elements of the silent style that he’d mastered while also making some profoundly groundbreaking use of the new sound technology.  M’s innovative and flashy method of linking scenes by having a character finish a sentence that another one in a completely different setting started clearly had a major impact on the transitions in Citizen Kane, and arguably is used to greater purpose in M, which memorably depicts an entire city whipped into a frenzy as they attempt to capture a child murderer (Peter Lorre).  With its impeccable and still modern style, its tight narrative, its profoundly challenging morality, and its unforgettably disturbing glimpse into the psyche of Germany in the immediate pre-Nazi era, M is my choice for the greatest film of all time.