CineMathematics or CinemaThematics. Your choice

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

It's All Coming Back to Me

"Do you think the dead come back and watch the living?" - Mrs. Danvers, Rebecca

The answer to this question is no. The supernatural does not exist, only those who believe in it. Rebecca does not actually haunt Manderley. The characters in Rebecca only have their own demons they need to overcome.

The same thing can be said for Pedro Almodovar's latest, Volver. You can figure out that there is no ghost when she can't get out of the trunk of a car by herself. And yet the characters are still haunted. Everything centers on Raimunda (Penélope Cruz) and Sole (Lola Dueñas). Raimunda has a daughter, Paula (Yohana Cobo) and a deadbeat husband, Paco (Antonio de la Torre). Sole is appropriately named, as she is sola (alone). But that is almost beside the point here. The few normal relationships we see or hear about are terrible. Paco does nothing but drink beer and lust after anyone near him, including his daughter. Similarly, Raimunda and Sole's father had a long-standing affair with a neighbor until they were killed in a fire. Almost every man portrayed in the film is a heartless bastard, in a complete gender reversal of the normal Hollywood stereotypes.

But this is not a story of fathers. This is a story of mothers and daughters. Irene (Carmen Maura), Raimunda and Sole's mother, comes to live with Sole, but she is afraid to see Raimunda. Augustina (Blanca Portillo) tries to find her mother before she dies of cancer. It turns out that Augustina's mother and Raimunda's father were the ones having the affair. And then there's the final revelation which explains why Raimunda has been angry with her mother for so long.

Almodovar's filmmaking looks effortless yet beautiful. He especially crafts every shot with Cruz. She is radiant from beginning to end, yet she adds enough depth to make her more than just a pretty face. Maura and Cruz together on screen absolutely sizzle, which is not to dismiss the rest of the cast. The only character that doesn't really feel whole is Paco, but he has less than 5 minutes of screen time, so he's not missed.

In a sense, this is a return to form for Almodovar, making his first women's picture since All About My Mother. It is as heartfelt as any of his previous works, yet it never slips into simple melodrama. It gets close, and the big revelation almost feels crammed to best suit the script's needs, but the whole thing bristles with enough energy to make up for it easily.

*** 1/2 / ****

Monday, November 27, 2006

Sundae Monday

Sometimes you just need to be cheered up. And so I present possibly the happiest moment of my life.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

A Sad Day Indeed

"And he's dying for us . . ."

R.I.P Robert. You will be missed.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Sundae Monday - Happy Thanksgiving

Just when you thought the turkey was free from religion . . .

Saturday, November 18, 2006

In For the Long Take

Rob over at A Film Odyssey is trying to get discussion going on the extended take. Certainly a noble effort, so I'll do my best to add to the conversation.

The first extended take I ever really noticed wasn't even all that extended. It was maybe 5 seconds, and in most every sort of movie out there, that's nothing. But this was a battle scene. Bombs falling all around, chaos on screen. And yet the camera didn't constantly jump around, giving close-ups of the dead bodies and those who are still attacking. No, Paths of Glory stuck with its relatively long shots of Kirk Douglas advancing with his troops. Even the cuts didn't significantly change the camera position. Funnily enough, before I rewatched the film for this, I thought the battle was in one continuous take. The camera is always slowly tracking to the left, and the cuts seem so insignificant that it's almost like it is one shot, showing the true horrors of war.

But these aren't the real long shots in Paths of Glory, and those are just as interesting if not more. For the bulk of my discussion on the long takes, I'm going to focus on two particular long shots which, in effect, serve the same thematic purpose.

The first shot follows General Paul Mireau (George Macready) as he walks through the trenches to rouse the troops' spirits so they will be ready for battle. The shot follows him from when he enters the trench, watching him talk to soldiers. He asks them if they're ready to kill for their country and if they have wives that are proud of them. Mireau looks cool, calm, and collected as he encourages the troops. At this point, he looks like a good general, and it is the long shot that shows it about them. But the long shot does not last forever. Mireau comes upon a man (Fred Bell) who barely comprehends his questions. We finally get the first cut in the sequence to the man's face. A fellow soldier informs Mireau that the man is shell-shocked, to which Mireau angrily responds, "there is no such thing as shell-shocked." Suddenly, with this cut, Mireau is no longer the reasonable general he seems a moment ago. But this is the real General Mireau, the one we did not see in the single take.

This structure is echoed later in the film, as the three soldiers picked for their deaths (Timothy Carey, Joseph Turkel, and Ralph Meeker) tell their stories to Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas. This first real introduction to the characters (each of them was around when General Mireau interviewed soldiers) is shown in one fluid take, showing their innocence. They haven't done anything wrong, and as such, they are shown without a cut. But like General Mireau, they cannot be shown without a cut forever. This time, their scene is shown in one take, and the cut is to another part of the story. But when we return, we again see that the cut shows us their true characters. Corporal Paris (Meeker) and Private Ferol (Carey) are shown to be "cowards" because they greatly fear death. And Private Arnaud (Turkel) is nothing but a bully.

Jean-Luc Godard once famously said "Cinema is truth at twenty-four frames a second. Every edit is a lie." With Paths of Glory, Stanley Kubrick provides a stark counterexample, showing each man's true nature only through the cut. Every long shot is merely artifice, a show. Kubrick uses this point to show how within the show, each character is a show. They put up a front, but their true form can only be shown once the artifice has been taken away, when the long shot has been cut.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

We're Living In It

I guess nobody liked A Scanner Darkly. Or maybe there everyone thought there was too much media coverage for it. Otherwise, I can't find any reason why nobody, not even Reverse Shot has been mentioning the release tomorrow of Richard Linklater's Fast Food Nation is getting the shaft like it is. Which is a shame, because it is well worth your time.

I must say I was disappointed in Fast Food Nation, if only because it wasn't the Richard Linklater of Dazed and Confused I was witnessing. But upon further thought, the film has grown in value significantly. I can't say I'm happy with my favorite Slacker making an Important movie, but he manages to imbue it with enough feeling and craft to make it rise above the Crashes of the world.

Fast Food Nation tells the interlocking stories of a group of people in Colorado surrounding the fictional fast food restaurant Mickey's. We see one of the members of the Mickey's executive board (Greg Kinnear), a few employees at a local restaurant (Ashley Johnson and Paul Dano), and some illegal immigrants who work in the slaughterhouse that provides the meat for The Big One, Mickey's signiture dish (Catalina Sandino Moreno and Wilmer Valderrama).

Every member of the cast provides just the right touch, though Bruce Willis feels a bit out of place. And this being a Linklater film, you know Ethan Hawke is going to make some sort of appearance. Greg Kinnear delivers in what, for the first half of the film, is the central performance of the film. But as his story works its way through, Ashley Johnson and Catalina Sandino Moreno take the heavy load of the acting, and they pull it off brilliantly. And major credit must go to Kris Kristofferson, who steals his scene with ease and provides the basis for the last scene of the film.

While the acting is good, it's the editing of the film that really won me over. The cuts between different storyline were smooth and also suggested so much more. Watch the scene in which Raul (Valderrama) and his friend go into the factory for the first time, walking through the freezer. And we cut to the frozen breakfast eaten by Cindy (Patricia Arquette) as she talks to her daughter, Amber (Johnson). Linklater pulls no punches, letting us know directly that Cindy may not be eating what's coming from Raul's slaughterhouse, but it's all part of the same machine.

Fast Food Nation is also notable for its acceptance of all sorts of brand names. We see the corporatization of America before our eyes, and so it comes as a shock to us when we see the wide open ranges owned by Rudy (Kristofferson). But the real shock, at least for me, came in the final scene. It will probably affect you less if you've read the book. We finally go on a tour of the killing floor, the part of the tour that Don (Kinnear) wasn't shown. Rudy may have told us about what we should expect, but I was still sickened to my stomach watching the internal organs of a cow sliding along a chute to be disposed of. It's a very powerful scene, and it serves to close the tome of horrors we have just read.

Everything we saw before the killing floor was just in preparation for this one sequence. We saw a Mickey's employee (Dano) spit in a burger. We say him drop a patty on the ground and put it back on the grill. We even saw a man lose his leg in the machinery of the slaughterhouse. And yet none of it can compare to the killing floor.

Fast Food Nation may not be Linklater's best movie (of this year), but it still serves as a solid drama and a great expose. So forget your Bonds and your Happy Feet. Fast Food Nation is where it's at.


Update: I guess I spoke too soon. Reverse Shot finally checks in with their opinion. Elbert Ventura basically writes the review I wish I could. The best review of it I've read, measuring the quality of the writing as opposed to the quality of the rating.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Hitchcock! The Musical!

Note: This post is my third entry into The Film Vituperatem's Hitchcock Blog-A-Thon. Parts 1 and 2 can be found here here and here. Hope you enjoy.

There is one thing that Hitchcock can do better than any other director. Well there are a lot, but I'm focusing on his ability to make everyday items feel ominous. Where a Stephen King needs to possess cars with demonic spirits to make them evil, Hitchcock roots his terrors in the everyday world. Even the music we hear can become foreboding. This is most evident in The 39 Steps and Shadow of a Doubt.

The 39 Steps begins in a Music Hall at a vaudeville style show. We hear some music in the background, but we find it unimportant. We're much more focused on the hustle and bustle of England and the amazing abilities of Mr. Memory. In fact, if Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) didn't stop humming the song from the music hall, we probably wouldn't even remember that there was music in the Music Hall. But the music is there. It sets a mood of ease, letting us into the film as if we ourselves were in for a night of chorus girls and comedians.

Nevertheless, the music is the ultimate clue to the mystery. Hannay, while humming the music, cannot remember where he heard the music. It's worth noting that the music he hears is always associated with Mr. Memory. The music is memory, reminding us of everything that has come before, and suddenly it hits us. It hits us at the same instant it hits Hannay. These spy games revolve around memory, and they revolve around Memory. It is only when Hanny remembers the music that he remembers Memory. Now he can complete his quest.

The music in the Music Hall and later in the London theater are exactly the same. However, it makes us think of different things each time. First, it reminds us of the theater setting, simultaneously telling us that this is a film partly set in a theater and that the film is a theater. But the second time we hear it, it reminds us both of the theater and what is outside of the theater. Outside of the theater, we see evil like The Professor (Godfrey Tearle). Now the music reminds us of the evil, and it informs us that the theater, which we first thought was innocent and welcoming, is a harsh place. It's a place where The PRofessor can come at any time. Even Mr. Memory, whom we admired for his unique abilities, is revealed to be an agent of evil. The music transforms from exciting to foreboding. It's all a matter of circumstances.

A similar musical transformation occurs in Shadow of a Doubt. However, this transformation doesn't threaten the nature of the theater. This time, it threatens the nature of the family, that which we hold most sacred. The film's credits are shown over a scene of men and women dancing to the Merry Widow Waltz. The shot and music combine to give us a number of notions. First, we see normative heterosexual couples. After all, in the glossed over "Leave It to Beaver" America, there is nothing that says "normal couple" like a couple dancing. Second, it leaves the impression of great wealth and the air of class.

All of these things are embodied by Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten), and it's just these notions that Hitchcock subverts throughout the course of the film. As we learn more and more about Uncle Charlie, we know he's done something wrong. He's afraid that someone will mention the Merry Widow Waltz, and he tears out newspaper articles that should have nothing to do with him. And then we learn the truth. We learn the truth through Charlie's niece, also named Charlie (Teresa Wright). At the moment where we learn the truth about Uncle Charlie, Hitchcock superimposes the same image of the couples dancing to the Merry Widow Waltz. And suddenly, this image of normativity is perverted. It's forever linked to Uncle Charlie, the Merry Widow Murderer. We, like young Charlie, cannot hear the music now without thinking of Uncle Charlie and all the terrible things he's done. Our view has been corrupted, and it cannot be saved.

It's not like young Charlie doesn't try. At the end of the film, we see the couples dancing again. Young Charlie has just killed Uncle Charlie, and everything should return to "normal." However, the couples do not give the impression of normativity like they did at the beginning. If anything, they lessen the relief we feel at the end of the film. The evil has been vanquished. Everything should return to the way it was, right? Sadly, no. The dancers, forever connected to Uncle Charlie, only serve to remind us that Uncle Charlie isn't the only evil in the world. He may be gone, but others go on.

Evil is all around us, if we'll only realize it. The person on the other end of that telephone call may be a murderer. That song may have been played while somebody was mutilating somebody else. But we never suspect anything until we cannot counter the facts. And when that thing is sullied, it cannot be restored. This is the lesson Hitchcock teaches to everyone who watches his film. But not everyone chooses to learn.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Sundae Monday's Post-Election Special

Howard Dean (and innumerable Republican blunders) may have given Congress to the Democrats, but I just wanted to remind you that he's still capable of this . . .

Sunday, November 12, 2006

The New Issue Is Out!

I've been reading Reverse Shot for over a year now, ever since I discovered it. If you don't know it, it's an online film journal, and I highly recommend you check it out. Every issue is centered around some major theme inspired by the world around them. Previous issues have been centered on spirituality on film and the essence of a single shot. But they're perhaps best known for their director's symposiums (symposia?). They've done takes on Neil Jordan, Jim Jarmusch, and Richard Linklater. This issue is centered on Brian De Palma, that ever divisive auteur.

Their new release reviews can vary in quality, but their articles for symposia are always top-notch. If you get a chance, you should definitely check it out. I know I will.

Happy Veteran's Day

Well, sorta. As I'm writing this, it's currently November 12, but I also didn't get a chance to celebrate the boys fighting for our country until 10 PM. I'm just putting my word in for the troops.

The blogosphere is abuzz of late. Unfortunately, it's all about the Kazakhs or the Brits, so I thought I'd shine the spotlight back home. And so we have Stalag 17, one of those films that ages like a fine wine. It's not the first, but it strikes me as one of the more even-handed POW films I've seen.

The dynamic of the entire film can be summed up in the credit sequence. We watch a German soldier with a German shepherd walking towards the camera with barbed wire occupying most of the space in the frame. Over this image we hear "When Johnny Comes Marching Home," on the brass while a flute riffs, breaking up the seriousness of this Civil War tune with a bit of lightheartedness. As the soldier comes closer to the camera, he begins to fade, leaving only the barbed wire and a small path.

Similarly, the film alternates between its central plot, that of a rat in the barracks of a POW camp, and the hijinks of a few clowns within that same barracks. The switches can be a bit abrupt, but they never draw you too far out of the movie. Robert Strauss and Harvey Lembeck enliven the parts of Stanislas "Animal" Kasava and Harry Shapiro with a natural chemistry, drawing us into their friendship until we feel we know them as well as they know each other. They serve their purpose well, both enriching our view of Stalag 17 and lessening the overall tension of the film.

Let's get one thing straight before I go any further. This is William Holden's picture from beginning to end. He gives a wonderful performance as J.J. Sefton, and the entire movie rests on his capabilities to show Sefton as a pragmatist first to last while still giving him enough of a heart for the audience to cheer for him. Holden delivers in spades, though he has a slight tendency to overact, especially when with Cookie (Gil Stratton).

The soldiers, whom we as Americans look to be exemplary people, are clearly shown as hypocrites, except Sefton. For all the talk about the Geneva Convention and innocent until proven guilty, the men want to hang Sefton for being a rat having seen him get special treatment from the guards and nothing more. They never think of the cigarettes they continually "pay" him as a currency they could use to pay off guards to be more friendly. They see it as unpatriotic to even associate themselves with the Germans, and so they see Sefton as the rat he is not.

This is not to say that Sefton is any kind of angel. He is probably the worst person in the barracks, enjoying his meals even as he knows others suffer. He cares about no one besides himself, and all of his "patriotic" actions during the film are only to exonerate him from all charges and to escape from the camp. And yet, he's right. He's not a rat, and he never will be a rat.

Herein lies the message of Stalag 17. The blind patriotism shown by most of the men in the barracks is the wrong way to think about our country. It's Sefton's point of view we should adopt, that of the pragmatic skeptic. We cannot always follow the mob, nor should we.

This point of view is expressed in Billy Wilder's direction. Often, Sefton is set apart from the rest of the soldiers. His point of view shots are always of the large mass of people encircling him, looking at him. He's never one of those lookers, even when he has won them over to his side. He doesn't look with the crowd, and so he can see the truth about the rat.

His power, ability and knowledge are summed up in one thing we almost never see Sefton without; his cigar. The cigar is, according to basic filmmaking symobolism, the phallus which Sefton possesses to mark him as a strong man. But there is another phallus in Stalag 17, one which belongs to the rat; the chess queen. The rat is able to show his power in public, because it blends in so easily with the rest of the atmosphere. Sefton is the only character we see with a cigar. It is when Sefton reveals the traitor and takes the queen that the rat is powerless. Also, with the phallus revealed for what it is, the traitor is, for the first time, on the receiving end of the gaze Sefton has suffered for the entire film.

Besides this symbolism, Wilder's directorial touch is that of a knowing skill. He never shoots to astound us with the image. Stalag 17 was originally a play, and it's appropriate that Wilder, for the most part, shoot it like one. His shots a smooth, fluid, and for the most part, fairly long. However, he never lets the shots go on long enough to distract. The perfect example is the introduction of Sgt. Shulz (Sig Ruman). It's a scene that could easily be done in one shot, and yet Wilder decides to break it into three shots, each giving a further introduction to the characters that dominate that shot. Animal and Shapiro get their own shot, as does Sefton. It's in this knowing break that we get a chance to appreciate how things are structured, not only within the barracks but in the film. Of the three shots, Animal and Shapiro's is the one in the middle. We begin the scene with talk of a traitor, get a dose of comedy, and then return to the serious business. Such is the film.

Stalag 17 remains the classic it is because it combines all the necessary parts to make it great. Its message stands the test of time, as do the direction and acting. And most importantly, it's about the men wearing the uniform, not just the uniform.


Friday, November 10, 2006

. . . And David Lynch is My New Hero

If Laura Dern doesn't get nominated for something, I'll be pissed.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Power, Beauty, Position and Punishment

This is my second of three entries into The Film Vituperatem's Hitchcock Blog-A-Thon. Part 3 comes on November 15, when the actual event takes place.

There is one accusation that has been directed at Alfred Hitchcock more than any other; that he is a misogynist. Women in his films are disciplined, and these punishments range from minor embarrassment to death. However, the woman is always castigated for committing some sin within the Hitchcock universe. Often, the sin is trying to be someone the woman is not. This is best exemplified in Rebecca. The heroine, who has no name throughout the film, tries to be like Rebecca by being authoritative and attractive. However, she is neither naturally beautiful nor powerful, and so she is punished.

In Rebecca, the main character desperately tries to be dominant like Rebecca, but suffers in each attempt. The primary visual motif used is to show a character’s power is their placement within the frame. The heroine spends a great deal of time on the right side of the screen. This is used to show her relative weakness. Other characters, like her husband, Maxim deWinter, are more powerful and are shown on the left side of the screen. On the compass rose, the left side is west, and Rebecca lived in the west wing of Manderley. Hitchcock uses this to associate the left side of the screen with the power Rebecca holds over the film. It was Rebecca who determined how Manderley was run and she who decided how she and her husband, Maxim got along. Whenever the heroine appears on the left side of the film, she is in some way punished, usually verbally. As she grows bolder and attempts to exert more power, her castigations grow stronger until she nearly kills herself.

The protagonist begins the film in Monte Carlo as the assistant to Mrs. Van Hopper, and as such she is constantly in a position of subservience. This is shown visually by the heroine’s constant position at the right side of the film. She always stands to the right of other more forceful characters, such as Mrs. Van Hopper and Maxim. There is only one scene in Monte Carlo in which the main character appears to the left of another character. This occurs after Maxim proposes to the protagonist. Immediately following his proposal, we see a conversation with her on the left. Hitchcock shows her usurping Rebecca’s spot of power, but it doesn’t take long for Mrs. Van Hopper to put her in her place with verbal abuse. Though she is rebuked for taking this position of power over her former boss, the effect is minimal. She feels a little shame, but she is too excited by the prospect of being married to Maxim for this to affect her in any meaningful way. Nevertheless, she then returns to the right of the screen, as powerless as before.

After Mrs. Van Hopper leaves, our heroine becomes the second Mrs. deWinter and she appears to the left of the screen much more often. There is even an extended scene in which she appears to the left of Maxim, something that never happened in Monte Carlo. This occurs when she discovers Rebecca’s boathouse. She disobeys Maxim when he asks her not to go down to it, and for this she is bestowed the position of power on the left side of the screen. However, this bit of self-determination incites Maxim to intensely yell at her. This is the worst sort of punishment for her to endure, because it is being delivered by the man she loves so much. The glares and sly grins of Mrs. Danvers have much less effect on her.

While at Manderley, the second Mrs. deWinter is constantly shown to the left of the servants. Being the mistress of Manderley, she holds authority, even over Mrs. Danvers. Because she holds the power of position that Rebecca once had, Mrs. Danvers repeatedly attempts to show the second Mrs. deWinter that she is inadequate, essentially punishing her for trying to be like Rebecca. Mrs. Danvers is forced to serve under the second mistress of Manderley, and so she exacts her revenge by putting the protagonist into two very difficult positions.

The first is when the protagonist enters the west wing. Here, Mrs. Danvers gives the second Mrs. deWinter a tour, and she appears to the left of the protagonist for the first time in the film. Mrs. Danvers has full power at this time, and so it is she who can be in Rebecca’s place. She shows the heroine all of the decadent items of clothing that Rebecca owned, forcing her to feel just how soft Rebecca’s furs and dresses are. After this, Mrs. Danvers shows the second mistress of Manderley where Rebecca slept and what nightgown she wore. This ultimately forces the second Mrs. deWinter to flee the west wing and change positions with Mrs. Danvers, enforcing her power even more. In response to this, Mrs. Danvers presents her second plan, one which almost causes the heroine to kill herself.

Mrs. Danvers’ plan and the motif of position within the frame reach their greatest intensity when the protagonist prepares her gown for a costume ball at Manderley. The second Mrs. deWinter has dressed up in the same gown that Rebecca wore the year before. She has deliberately kept her costume a secret from Maxim, so that she can surprise him. She descends the stairs as happy as she is ever shown in the film. However, when Maxim sees what she is wearing, he rebukes her for her choice. The heroine then almost kills herself from the embarrassment.

Most of this scene is presented in a shot-reverse shot format. The first shot is the protagonist’s perspective of the people at the ball; the second focuses intently on her face, showing nothing but the heroine in her full glory. It is not until she reaches the bottom of the stairs that she is shown in a shot with any other characters. At this time, she enters the screen from the left. She begins the shot outside of the frame, emulating Rebecca’s position. Rebecca spends the entire film off screen, too powerful to even exist on the same level of existence as the characters in the film. This effect is duplicated before the second mistress of Manderley enters the frame. As she enters, however, she is surprised to see Maxim outraged at her gown. Maxim’s anger and chastisement torture her thoughts until she can think of nothing but suicide. She has been punished for most egregious attempt to be like Rebecca with the strongest type of discipline she receives in the film.

The second Mrs. deWinter is also chastised for attempting to be beautiful. Beauty is a quality that only Rebecca can hold in the film, and most people only remember her for her beauty. Mrs. Van Hopper’s thoughts on Rebecca are limited to, “before she was married, she was the beautiful Rebecca Hildreth, you know.” Outside of this comment, Mrs. Van Hopper only mentions Rebecca’s death and the effect it had on Maxim. Similarly, Frank Crawley is given limited dialogue about his former mistress. Other than her death, he can only declare, “she was the most beautiful creature I ever saw.” By instilling these ideas about Rebecca into the second Mrs. deWinter’s head, the people surrounding the protagonist inevitably make her wish to be beautiful like Rebecca.

Nevertheless, it is in her attempts to be attractive that the second mistress of Manderley is punished. The first case occurs when Beatrice and the heroine are speaking after first meeting. Upon Beatrice’s suggestion, Maxim’s second wife pulls her hair behind her ears. When she does this, Beatrice can only exclaim, “oh no, that’s worse.” Since this is the protagonist’s first attempt to be beautiful, and it is easily reversible, she is only slightly chastised. She is berated more when she tries to imitate the style she saw in a beauty magazine. This time, it is Maxim who angrily snaps at her for her outfit, increasing the pain she feels. But nothing can compare to her ultimate attempt to be beautiful.

Every time she tries to make herself more beautiful, the second Mrs. deWinter is indirectly attempting to make herself more like Rebecca. By Mrs. Danvers’ plan, the protagonist actually dresses in the same costume as Rebecca. This becomes the heroine’s most direct attempt to be like Rebecca, even though she only wanted to be beautiful. The fact that she is wearing this for a costume ball also serves the symbolic purpose of showing that beauty is merely a costume for the second mistress of Manderley. She is not attractive, so she can only pretend to be beautiful by wearing costumes. As the costumes grow more elaborate, she is castigated more severely until she almost commits suicide. This is her strongest punishment, yet she is saved from a terrible fate by Rebecca, the same presence who drove her there.

Rebecca tells the story of a woman who is disciplined for trying to be something she is not. She is not a naturally powerful person, and yet she presents herself as an authority in Manderley. Hitchcock shows this through her place on the screen and punishes her for it. Deception is the second Mrs. deWinter’s sin, and she must pay for it. In Hitchcock’s universe, no sin goes unpunished, and Rebecca shows this perfectly.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Election Day

Don't end up like this poor fool. Vote. Now. Your nation depends on it.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Lynching Myself

If you're in the Boston area on December 3, you should check out The Brattle. They have an advance screening of Inland Empire, with a Q & A with David Lynch afterwards. However, I've only seen Blue Velvet, so I've decided to go through Lynch's entire oeuvre. Wish me luck.

I can see why critics love David Lynch. His films unlock more for the viewer with every succeeding viewing. And I can say that having seen Eraserhead only once. It's in the images that Lynch presents. The first 15 minutes alone show more bizarre sights than can be seen in most other movies.

We see a planet with Henry's (Jack Nance) head superimposed over it. As Henry's head goes off screen, we get closer to the planet until we see a man inside the planet sitting next to various levers. As he pulls levers, we see Henry's mouth open and a Gigeresque wormlike creature emerges. The man pulls another lever, and the creature leaves the screen and falls into a crater of water.

At this point, we cut to a close up of Henry, showing all of this to be a dream. Now, if this were left, and we never visited the images again, I'd just scratch my head and say that Lynch is not the man for me. However, each of these images is shown again in a more illuminating context. If there's one thing that Giger's visions can tell us about Lynch's, it's that these are at least somewhat sexual images. The creature can easily be seen as a sperm, and the crater might as well be a pool. A gene pool. Or the creature could be entering Henry's world, as a similar looking baby is born to him and his new wife Mary (Charlotte Stewart). We can never be sure, and the imagery works well in either direction.

Lynch fills Eraserhead from top to bottom with this sort of ambiguous imagery, slowly connecting different pieces until things begin to make sense. When Henry visits Mary's family, we are given a distinct shot of a "man-made" chicken spewing blood when about to be carved for dinner. This shot is paralleled later in the film when Henry and Mary's child spews blood in the same way. So what does this mean? What's the connection between a man-made chicken for eating and a man-made baby for raising? Is there supposed to be some sort of cannibalism suggested here? Honestly, I don't know. But that's a great part of the excitement of watching David Lynch. He gives you the pieces, but you have to put them together.

It's rare to watch a movie, barely understand anything that happened, and still love what you saw. Eraserhead did that for me. The first viewing is like opening the puzzle box. The fun is in making the picture make sense.

***1/2 / ****

Sundae Monday - Election Edition

Tomorrow is election day, folks. So I'm giving you a double dose of The Truth. Who would you vote for?

The congressman who doesn't know the 10 Commandments and wants them in our courts?

Or the congressman who enjoys cocaine and prostitutes?

Friday, November 03, 2006

Horror, The Descent, and Carrie

I know what you're thinking. Why am I writing about horror now? Halloween was a few days ago. It's November already. Well, you'll appreciate why I didn't post this for Halloween when I unveil Part 2 of 3 of my contribution to The Film Vituperatem's Hitchcock Blog-A-Thon aka my Hitchcock paper due Monday.

Let's get one thing straight before anything else. I'm not much of a horror guy. Fear is not a feeling I like to feel when watching a film. Now don't get me wrong. I can appreciate a horror film. I've seen some of the classics, and I've liked what I've seen. Alien, Night of the Living Dead, and Psycho are all great movies. And I usually appreciate why these movies are great. I can see the filmmaking, disect the tension, and love every minute. It also helps that since these are the greats, spoilers are up most everywhere. I'm able to remove myself enough that I'm not scared out of my wits. That said, my enitre view on the horror genre has been thrown out of whack.

It's rare that a film can change the way you look at movies, even a little. So what is this movie, that which will undoubtedly be a strong formulative experience in my filmic development? It's that box office flop from across the pond, The Descent. Was it scary? Absolutely. So how could a simple horror film in the vein of Alien completely change my perspective? It was not a pleasant viewing experience for me. It did its intended job, and it did it very well. I can very easily appreciate the film for being very scary, but I didn't like watching it.

If you look over at Jim Emerson's Scanners Blog, he has some great appreciation of the film. I recommend you not look at what he's written unless you've seen the film. Aye, there's the rub, for I'm not sure if I want to recommend this film. It is, to my limited viewing, one of the most frightening film I have ever seen. However, I didn't like watching the movie. I couldn't break down the film the way Jim was because it was so involving for me. I guess this is what it was like to be there at the first weekend and see that thing burst out of John Hurt's chest. So I guess this isn't my bag. I much more appreciated the second half of my horror double feature.

All I have to say is wow. I mean, yeah, my experience is limited, but I still didn't think De Palma had something as totally satisfying as Carrie. Before this, I had only seen Body Double and Scarface, and I didn't really like either one. I found Body Double's style suffocating, and I really need to rewatch Scarface, considering how much the 80's soundtrack bothered me. But Carrie worked both with its style and substance. Here, the gorgeous long takes, slow motion shots, and split screen effects worked within the confines of the movie, heightening the joy of the prom and the anguish of the aftermath.

De Palma has a penchant for drawing the viewer out of the movie by making it so stylish, yet here it only made me gawk at how beautiful he made the film, and how each touch, though unnecessary, adds to the value of the film. One sequence that struck me like this, besides the most obvious ones at the prom, was the scene in which Tommy Ross and his friends are buying tuxes for the prom. The argument over whether one of them has a body well suited for a tuxedo is literally fast-forwarded like on a VCR. The conversation would be completely useless if it were allowed to be played out, so De Palma lets us know the argument happens, yet we are spared the banality of hearing three guys arguing over the right tuxedo body. Were this, say, a Richard Linklater film, this conversation would be shown in its entirety, and possibly even lengthened. But this is lean, efficient filmmaking that awes as easily as it tells the story. De Palma has made a great film that is as effective as horror as teen drama. It takes horror from the back-woods of Texas and puts it where it belongs, in the home.

The Descent: ***1/2 / ****
Carrie: ****/****