September 30, 2011

IRISH FILM NEW YORK '11: Critic's Notebook

by Nick Schager

Knuckle

The docs have it at Irish Film New York, a new screening series founded and directed by Niall McKay, former steward of the San Francisco Irish Film Festival and co-founder of the L.A. Irish Film Festival. Taking place this weekend (September 30th though October 2nd) at NYU's Cantor Film Center, IFNY aims to be a premiere showcase for movies and moviemakers hailing from the Emerald Isle, offering a selection of six varied features that speak, directly and indirectly, to the past and modern Irish condition. And for its inaugural outing, IFNY stands tall courtesy of its non-fiction works, which unlike its somewhat more clichéd and formulaic fictional submissions, capture a stinging sense of Irish history, character and culture with an effortlessness that’s matched by an insightfulness into its all-too-human subjects.

IFNY commences with a bang, as its opening night film Knuckle is its indisputable standout. Ian Palmer's rough-around-the-edges documentary traces 12 years in the life of the Quinn McDonnaghs, an Irish Traveller (i.e. nomadic) family engaged in decades-old feuds that are settled through bare-knuckle boxing. Palmer focuses most intently on undefeated brawler James Quinn McDonnagh, an affable and talkative bruiser who, despite his unblemished record and de facto role as the McDonnaghs' defender, proclaims a disinterest in continuing to fight but is repeatedly drawn back into matches—for money, and to uphold the family name—against rival clans. Through interviews with James, his relatives, and his adversaries (all of whom are close or distant cousins), as well as via VHS-grade footage of the brawls, which take place secretly on country roads or in abandoned asphalt lots, the film trades in quarrels and conflict resolution of a decidedly savage, old-school sort.

Knuckle

Videotape taunts are traded back and forth between families like juvenile-macho WWE worked shoots, perpetuating rivalries that ostensibly stem back to two early-'90s murders, but which have long since been transformed into just a vehicle for channeling masculine rage and asserting king-of-the-hill dominance. Palmer's crude DIY cinematography provides intimate perspective on his subjects and their gnarly backwoods-boxing ethos, which places a premium on go-nowhere definitions of toughness, power and family honor. Like its aesthetics, Knuckle's fisticuffing men are blisteringly primitive, and depicted with a blunt even-handedness, as Palmer confesses both repulsion and fascination with his chosen subcultural milieu. Meanwhile, in quick cutaways to children that bolster one woman's concern over the lessons being learned by the young, the director locates the way in which the Quinn McDonnaghs and their ilk actively and passively pass down their violent traditions to forthcoming generations, all in service of blood feuds that—since they're between relatives—are acts of willful self-destruction.

While both Parked (a rote Colm Meaney headliner) and 32A (a '70s-era teen-girl coming-of-age drama) also tackle the perilous nature of youth, Knuckle's lamentation for future generations finds a piercing match in Pyjama Girls. Maya Derrington's documentary shares with Ian Palmer's film an engaging proximity with its subjects, here teenagers Lauren and Tara, two girls living in the Irish flats (i.e. projects) who wholeheartedly embrace the country's burgeoning fad of wearing pajama pants in public. That clothing statement is a deliberate act of rebellion, viewed by older generations as a disrespectful sign of criminal defiance, though Derrington isn't after a straight portrait of socio-economic class warfare—which nonetheless lingers beneath her work's well-composed surface—as much as she’s interested in the very particular struggles, traumas and misery of Lauren and Tara, the former of whom is still grappling with her horrifically volatile upbringing at the hands of an abusive junkie mother.

Pyjama Girls

With an off-the-cuff bounciness aided by a sprightly electronic score, Pyjama Girls tracks the mundane melodramas of its teen girls, many involving discussions of prior bloody fights or desires to instigate new ones. Yet more impressive than its depiction of day-to-day delinquency are its tonal modulations. As Lauren nastily insults her devoted Nanny, candidly discusses the pain wrought by her mother's treatment of both her and her kid sister, and, in one wrenching instance, describes a run-in on a public bus with a former acquaintance of her mother's who casually states that he might be her father, the film assumes an air of somber gravity. A raw peek into on-the-skids Irish adolescence, Derrington's documentary delivers—as epitomized by images of the girls on brightly colored carnival rides twirling and rising in the nighttime sky—a subtly heartbreaking snapshot of wayward kids spinning hopelessly, irreversibly out of control.

Posted by ahillis at 3:29 PM

September 27, 2011

NYFF 2011: Critic's Notebook

by Vadim Rizov

The Loneliest Planet

The second act of Julia Loktev's first narrative feature—2006's Day Night Day Night—is a real time urban nightmare: an unnamed woman (Luisa Williams) wanders through Times Square with a bomb strapped to her chest, internally/inscrutably debating whether to detonate. When she decides, the movie inevitably gets less tense, but that first hour makes the film as a whole one of the most terrifying things I've seen: the lives at stake get to you less than the sense of a fragile, cringing person tensed up and ready to destroy themselves. Likewise, The Loneliest Planet offers up the continual possibility of something horrible happening for nearly a solid hour of walking, spikes with an unexpected crisis moment requiring a snap decision, then slowly loses excitement as, again, the first hour's more than enough to justify the whole film.

Considering he has less screen time than his two co-stars, it's awfully nice of Gael Garcia Bernal to provide his marquee value for a film that otherwise makes no commercial concessions, starting with disorientation before upshifting into prolonged tension. The blindingly fast post-title-card opening cuts to near-cubist effect through a young couple's vacation in an unnamed country (casually named as Georgia in the last 20 minutes), alternately at manic speed or with extended weird interactions: now Bernal's making fruit on a pancake sing a goofy song about taxes to anonymous children, now he and the girlfriend having a long unsubtitled conversation with a tiresome local couple, then suddenly they're bargaining for a tour guide on the street—in the same city/country? how many days later?—while a friendly, inebriated man continually interrupts, teetering between colorful future anecdote and potentially violent midday drunk.

The Loneliest Planet

Alex (Bernal) and fiancée Nica (Hani Furstenberg) aren't prototypical Ugly Americans abroad: they're self-consciously polite, right-on liberal types with a love for light backpacking who can barely stop themselves from chiding guide Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze) when he says he'd rather buy a car made by the Japanese than untrustworthy black people. (Alex settles for pulling reproving faces behind his back.) Dato's initially mildly menacing—especially when he demonstrates a "rope trick" by binding Nica's hands together, then freeing her with a giant knife—but his heavily accented, did-he-just-say-that anecdotes about mass castration and traditional drinking toasts eventually stumble towards warmth.

The Loneliest Planet premiered less than two months ago, so—although I'm not convinced it spoils all that much—I'll follow other festival reviews' lead in not saying What Happens in the middle of the film. That something must is inevitable: a couple onscreen without separation for an extended period is invariably a couple in trouble, and you watch Alex and Nica's relationship for small signs of friction or stumbling blocks but nothing stands out. They're an annoyingly self-involved, touchy-feely unit despite trying to be more polite than that, but they seem perfectly content. The midpoint reveals, to keep it vague, otherwise.

The Loneliest Planet's Julia Loktev

Their rural trek is excruciating. Every walk over a pile of steep boulders seems like a potentially paralyzing fall waiting to happen, every river crossing a disaster in waiting. As the only non-natives seen, they're obvious Americans traveling during a time when the country's international image is low, adding another way things could go wrong. Their scrambles over ever-changing terrain (with an extended soundtrack of rocks falling and disciplined breathing) are broken up by extended visual palate cleansers seemingly taken from miles away while Richard Skelton's droning string score plays. During these shots—disciplined, unnervingly prolonged long takes that recur about a half-dozen times, each unexpected and disruptive—three dots move from right to left on a gentle uphill slope against overwhelming grassy slopes, scrubby plains and sinister bright cliffs. Loktev keeps the directional graphic match going for around 20 minutes before allowing the characters to wander and bond, then sending them from left to right uphill as a tighter, friendlier unit. The Loneliest Planet has the menace of a horror movie, and the meticulous visual planning reinforces that nothing's been left to chance: something bad is coming.

As Loneliest deflates in the back half, the commitment to transfixingly queasy sex scenes as character development is appreciated but tension dissipates. Diminishing returns don't wipe out the earlier impact of the aesthetic aggression, which is incredibly exciting. The opening shot—the sound of creaking springs suggesting sex only to be revealed as Nica jumping frantically up and down naked in a bathhouse, building up heat so Alex can douse her—gets attention through misdirection, but it's an instantly arresting opening; the rest of the film follows forceful suit.

Corpo Celeste

Corpo Celeste is a movie with serious problems: the very title, offering up the suggestion that "heavenly body" can be a religious or sexual epithet, has a self-explanatory irony and complexity built into it that's also pretty standard issue. Corpo periodically stops for quite a few similarly familiar blunt metaphors, including having a teenage girl's first period fall on the day of a crucial ceremony (in this case, her Catholic confirmation, with the bleeding stigmata of a lifesize "figurative" crucifix double-underlining the irony). But the film breezes past standard short-story-isms to focus on a non-hysterical portrait of people dealing with the widening gap between their attachment to religion as a social anchor and increasing skepticism about its value or relevance. Twitchily shot by director Alice Rohrwacher and veteran DP Hélène Louvart, the film's tendency towards simplified moments is tamped down by the many diversions it takes from the central teen narrative, building a multi-character crisis of faith with different particulars for all its characters.

13-year-old Marta (first-timer Yle Vianello, awesome) is new to Calabria, having just moved back to Italy with her family from Switzerland. Aside from her inexplicably hateful bitch of an older sister Fortunata (Paola Lavini), life with mom Rita (Anita Caprioli) is going smoothly enough. So far, so standard: the film perks up during Marta's first confirmation class, run by harried Santa (Pasqualina Scuncia), whose pained attempts to get teenagers to take the upcoming ceremony seriously as the start of their mature spiritual life aren't derailed by their question as to whether the figurative crucifix accurately reproduces the size of Jesus Christ's penis.

Corpo Celeste

Clearly she's heard that one before, and it's quickly evident that devout Santa doesn't even care if the teens obviously have no connection to the religion she's teaching: she just wants them all to have this common experience that'll connect them with their parents. For her, religious ceremonies are an important part of daily life, filling out otherwise empty days, but her devotion to walnut-faced priest Don Mario (Salvatore Cantalupo) can't even guarantee that; he's hoping for a transfer to a bigger church, where he could have more administrative responsibility and a decent shot at becoming a bishop. He's no hypocrite exclusively fixated on power: in one scene by himself, he takes off his priest's collar and clothing, then reluctantly steels himself to study the Bible before bed. Still, he wants out, which is understandable: Reggio Calabria, as shown here, is decrepit and dirty. Occasionally, the film stops dead for Marta to gaze down at the city from great distances in scenes grain/telephoto lens fetishists will love emphasizing the rubble and barely passable urban infrastructure.

Marta's idylls give the film narrative breathing room, along with many understated moments of pro forma religion butting up against an underwhelming, even tacky reality: Don Mario at home irritably rubbing his neck before devoting himself to study, Santa distracted during a church admin meeting by a screaming child running around with a lightsaber, a group of teenagers singing about how they're tuning in to the radio station that is Jesus, who has the right frequency for them. There's dopey narrative lapses for sure: most egregiously, the character of Fortunata appears to have no purpose other than haranguing her younger sister until inexplicably standing up for her at the end. But most of Corpo Celeste is much better than that, taking on the gap between rote religious expression and hollowness without ever once explicitly stating the theme.

We Can't Go Home Again

One of the more anticipated sidebar items is the immaculate restoration of Nicholas Ray's 1976 "student film" We Can't Go Home Again, the product of five years of labor. Eight years after essentially collapsing on the set of 1963's 55 Days at Peking and long after having exhausted studio goodwill with his drug use and erratic reliability, Ray wound up teaching for a spell at upstate New York's Harpur College. Over the years, Ray had a lot of wild ideas the studios wouldn't let him indulge, many of which arguably would've made his movies worse: it's hard to imagine how Rebel Without a Cause would've been improved by dream sequences of James Dean daydreaming about shooting a balloon gallery's worth of family faces.

We Can't Go Home Again—much of which consists of a variety of 16mm, 8mm and video-tweaked footage being projected onto a board, with a still photo backdrop occasionally changing in the background—is a serious head-rush of a career's worth of forcibly repressed ideas; many are goofy, but the energy's infectious. The whole project's got a very post-60s/early-70s feel, with earnest college students ranting about being disconnected from their parents, a girl masturbating next to a projector, and newly discovered sexual politics being put into action ("I'm a lesbian! I don't have to put on any goddamn pants!" yells one girl); it can be hilarious if you're in the mood for a time-capsule rush.

We Can't Go Home Again's Nicholas Ray

The multi-image bombardment doesn't always add up to more than a formal gamble without an obvious payoff; at its best—as with a four-part panel of images of the first day of class, with students looking out from lecture hall doorways down hallways being projected just above them—the simultaneous moving pictures synthesize into a geometric whole, like looking at four different areas simultaneously. Still, the quirkiness and indulgence means this is not the place to start for Ray novices; the film riffs extensively on his filmography, especially in the ending, a remarkably cogent bookending of his career. Ray's first film, 1949's They Live by Night, opens with a fugitive couple and a hyperbolic but heartfelt title card: "This boy... and this girl... were never properly introduced to the world we live in." At the end of this film, another couple escapes from a barn while Ray swings from a noose while delivering a climactic monologue. "Take care of each other," he says, "it is your only chance for survival." The boy and girl race off together, on the run and homeless in a contemporary American landscape as heartless as the one that isolated Ray's first martyrs; for all the dated period charms, We Can't Go Home Again ends by connecting 30 years of onscreen teen alienation.

Posted by ahillis at 3:09 PM

September 24, 2011

FANTASTIC FEST '11: Critic's Notebook

by Steve Dollar

The Human Centipede 2 at Fantastic Fest

Chaos reigns, as they say. And when it reigns it pours at Fantastic Fest. Austin's other major film festival brings the crazy every September, with a transglobal genre eruption that runs the gamut from "action" to "zombie," and a high volume both of fanboy geeking and hardcore cinephilia. What other festival could have first visited The Human Centipede upon American shores, then gone on to award it the prize for best film? Natch, the inevitable sequel premiered as the big opening night attraction as the fest launched its seventh edition Thursday, heralded by a pre-show dance number led by FF Superfan Elijah Wood and a three-man power-eating contest involving a culinary concoction described as "poo sausage."

The Human Centipede 2

Nothing if not inspirational, the original THC was classic exploitation. As much a brilliant, silly, transgressive marketing concept as a film, it quickly generated a porn parody and a South Park shout-out, DIY human centipede chains at pool parties, fan-made tattoos and art pieces, and endless viral meme-gasms and bad jokes. Yet, the actual movie was a sufficiently creepy exercise in biological freakout thanks to director Tom Six's focus on psychology and a chilling lead performance by German character actor Dieter Laser as the diabolical Dr. Heiter. Six's inevitable if implausible sequel takes off from another clever premise: what if one of the first film's obsessed fans took things to the next level? The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence) starts there, going ass-to-meta with a new, startling found object as its focus: Martin (the extremely game Laurence Harvey, a former UK children's TV host). A morbidly obese security guard at a parking garage, Martin spends his days literally drooling over repeat viewings of the movie on his battered laptop, pausing only to masturbate with scraps of sandpaper. Life at home is an Eraserhead parody. His aged and hysterically wrung-out mother is besieged by homicidal/suicidal fixations and has no apparent remorse for the childhood sexual abuse Martin suffered—the cruel, demented echo of his father's voice forever ringing in his deformed little ears.

The Human Centipede 2

John Waters couldn't have done it any greasier, as the camera serves up profuse shots of Martin's zeppelin-sized belly and ever-moist gob, his literal shithole of a London flat evoking the claustrophobia of Repulsion and the queasiness of Freaks in Six's highly subjective black-and-white. The dark comedy (?) stands on its own as genuine exercise in the grotesque, but there's that damn human centipede to build, and the movie all-too-dutifully goes about detailing how Martin bags his victims (hot babes, mostly, subdued with a tire iron), and deposits them in a dank warehouse where they wriggle and whine, muted by duct tape. The big selling point of the sequel has been the promise of the explicit gore and depravity that was mostly absent in the original movie. It's "100% Medically Inaccurate!" this time, since Martin has no clue what he's doing, creating a bold new centipede—bigger, longer, uncut—using a staple gun, a hammer and other crude tools between wheezing puffs on his asthma inhaler. It is increasingly nasty to watch, escalating from one gross-out to the next before it hits the jackpot (take that, A Serbian Film!), the monochrome palette lending a '70s-style grime to the various oozing body fluids (although there is a burst of color at a predictably disgusting moment). But the story, as such, never evolves out of its funhouse mirror effect, even with the pretty good inside joke of having THC star Ashlynn Yennie return as herself, lured to Martin's lair on the premise of an audition for a new Quentin Tarantino film. Even if Six, as was revealed in a post-screening Q&A, cast his villain by asking him to "rape a chair," he’s a compassionate director. The fake feces splattered across the screen was delicious, several of the comely cast members agreed. The secret ingredients (for those of you playing at home): rice milk, soy milk, chocolate powder and ginger biscuits ("for texture").

Clown

I’d argue that the more transgressive film is Clown, a Danish comedy adapted from a long-running TV series that takes the men behaving badly scheme so popular in dreadful franchises like The Hangover and actually, you know, makes it funny. Frank (Frank Hvam) is a milquetoast who needs to impress his newly pregnant girlfriend that he can be a good father, or else she's going to get an abortion. His ill-fated solution (after a series of absurd mishaps put him deeper in the doghouse) is to take Bo (Marcuz Jess Petersen), her 12-year-old son, on a canoe trip with his best friend Caspar (Casper Christensen). Trouble is, its Caspar's annual "Tour de Pussy," an outward bound adventure to a one-night-only riverside whorehorse and carnival. There's no room for a kid on this field trip, especially the chubby and insecure Bo, whose lack of a masculine figure in his life is so dire that he has yet to learn how to pee standing up.

Dick jokes abound, of course, as Frank's good-natured intentions lead to hysterical social disasters and Caspar's insistent horniness compounds them (or vice-versa), the plot veering from one epic cringe to the next, with a surplus of gratuitous nudity, creepy-pervy punchlines and shock tactics that make the Farrelly Brothers appear meek. It works beautifully, because there's an oddly kindhearted message underneath the mayhem, and because said mayhem never stops. Every seemingly happy resolution sets up the next catastrophe.

Sleepless Night

Fatherhood is likewise the motor for Sleepless Night, a French thriller that stars Euro action hunk Tomer Sisley as Vincent, a crooked Parisian cop who hijacks a big drug deal and makes off with a lucrative tote bag of cocaine, only to have the young son he neglects kidnapped by a local gangster who wants his stash back. Already slated for a Hollywood remake (paging Liam Neeson), the film's calling card is its relentless action. It never stops. Director Frédéric Jardin situates everything in a sprawling nightclub that becomes a kind of rat's maze for Vincent, as he tries to rescue his son while being chased by or chasing the mob boss who owns the joint, the drug dealers who bought the cocaine, the good cop who wants to bust him and the even more corrupt cop who wants to kill him, and everyone else he's pissed off, which he manages to do constantly. And, oh yeah, he's slowly bleeding to death from a stab wound suffered in the heist. Sisley's vigorous momentum and the often intricate stagings call to mind the razzle-dazzle of Paul Greengrass' Bourne movies, but with a fragile protagonist who keeps fucking everything up. If he was James Bond, then Dr. Evil would have blown up the moon already. In this construction, though, the bad guys are equally inept, and a packed disco floor makes everything way complicated—and supplies an excuse to frame a contender for the year's best chase sequence, set in the middle of a Eurotrash line dance to "Another One Bites the Dust."

Posted by ahillis at 12:23 PM

September 22, 2011

BOOK TO SCREEN: Moneyball

by Vadim Rizov

Moneyball

Michael Lewis is a veteran journalist who sticks almost exclusively to two topics: professional sports and business/economics. His 2003 book Moneyball details Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane’s struggles to apply the latter to the former. Ignoring decades’ worth of received wisdom about appraising baseball players, Beane swapped out the insights of crusty veterans for dispassionate number-crunching performed by nerds, trying to find new statistics and more reliable measurements for what to expect from a player. The success of Beane’s theoretical tinkering is questionable—the A’s have never won a championship since his management began in 1998—but his impact in getting people to think differently about team sports is undeniable, and the methods he championed still controversial enough to instantly set off fans who despise the very idea of stats-based team-building: the release of director Bennett Miller's Moneyball film triggered, among other things, a contemptuous sports column about Paul De Podesta, Beane’s assistant in Oakland, whose short-lived stint as GM of the Los Angeles Dodgers can still drive sports columnists to sputtering rage.

Moneyball There are a lot of contentious feelings and arguments attached to Moneyball’s ideas and arguments, none of which translate into the movie itself. Beane wasn’t coming out of nowhere; he was building on the work of (among others) Bill James, who argued that baseball statistics measured the wrong things and proposed some new formulas for determining a player’s worth. The book spends a considerable amount of time detailing both James’ evolving thinking and the fury he provoked in baseball traditionalists. Some of the film’s best scenes pit Beane (Brad Pitt) against a room of real baseball scouts playing themselves; their collective, dry, repetitive insistence on “fundamentals,” the importance of a hot girlfriend (an average-looking one indicates “low self-confidence”) and other “intangibles” is stopped dead by Beane’s insistence on relying solely on numbers and trying to stay emotionally detached. In business, this would make sense: for them, it’s irrational anathema.

Moneyball When it comes time to explain what Beane’s statistics actually are or how they work, the film clams up: aside from a speedy montage of players being told what (not) to do (don’t bunt, walk every time), the advice basically boils down to “Don’t be the phenomenal all-round athlete you think you should be; be the single-purpose player we tell you to be.” That’s where the film leaves it: specifics are omitted, presumably not to alienate the baseball illiterate, which is a bad decision. With the most important and compelling parts of the book—the ones that flesh out Beane’s ideas to show concretely how and why his motley crew of unwanted players fulfilled their statistical destiny—barely sketched out, the movie needs another source of drama or conflict: if the visceral passion of baseball nerds isn’t a motivator, what is?

Moneyball Lewis' portrait of the oft-abrasive Beane is mostly retained, the idea that was receptive to new methods of evaluating players because he felt that the scouts who’d promised him a superstar future had let him down is bluntly restated by one of the real-life scouts. But the book’s point is that Beane’s struggle was meaningful as a stand on principle, rationality standing against counter-productive emotional attachment to the bad old ways, a stance admirable outside of the point: this isn’t good enough as an emotional factor, apparently, so Moneyball gives us something Lewis has no interest in—button-cute daughter Casey (Kerris Dorsey), who worries her divorced dad will get fired and have to move to another city (“don’t read the internet,” he tells her). Pitt’s performance is often lively, which isn’t that hard when his character regularly gets to throw objects and upend tables to express feeling. As the film begins to conform to a typical rise-of-the-underdog arc, though, humor dies away.

Moneyball Considering the entire last third of the movie is about literal victory, it’s strange how little of the games are shown. Then again, maybe this is just to mirror Beane’s perspective, who ducks being on the field, opting instead to work out or drive around while occasionally switching on the radio to hear how the A’s are doing. The only other character of note is Jonah Hill’s amusingly fictionalized Peter Brand (clearly a stand-in for De Podesta), a big guy clearly uncomfortable being around the players and scouts responsible for the sport he loves more than anything, but he doesn’t get enough screen time. The players get one scene apiece, if that: a brief batting cage face-off with fading star David Justice (Stephen Bishop), ending with him agreeing to do like Beane asks and lead the younger players into embracing unorthodox play, is about as much dialogue time as any player gets.

Moneyball With the hard details of how Beane’s methods worked (or didn’t) eliminated and with no one else to watch for much of the running time, what we increasingly get is Brad Pitt staring balefully: sometimes while driving, sometimes in his office. Towards the end, with his head bowed during The Big Game, he looks like he’s praying in the world’s darkest church. Above ground, in slow motion, bat connects with ball: the deafening crack seemingly permeates down into the basement, with Beane’s head raised instantly. For a movie that goes out of its way to avoid coming off like a Field Of Dreams/The Natural-style sentimentalization of America’s (former) favorite pastime, it’s counter-productive to transform a struggle of principle into a vindication of one man struggling to retain his job, be a good father and so on; it’s the most solipsistic conquest imaginable. Beane argues for detachment and ignoring received wisdom onscreen, but—numerous spreadsheet montages aside—this turns out be as conservative a baseball film as any, a triumph of the underdog over nothing in particular.

Posted by ahillis at 9:08 AM

September 20, 2011

RETRO ACTIVE: The Killer Elite (1975)

by Nick Schager

The Killer Elite (1975)

What's new is always old, and in this recurring column, Nick will be taking a look at the classic genre movies that have influenced today's new releases. In honor of the Jason Statham-headlined film of the same name, this week it's Sam Peckinpah's 1975 The Killer Elite.

Following the brutally honest and financially unprofitable Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, legendary tough-guy director Sam Peckinpah turned to The Killer Elite as a means of reestablishing his box-office clout, an attempt that—as a result of his disdain for studio interference and mounting substance abuse issues—was more or less doomed from the outset. Pressured to toe the line by United Artists (the studio that had taken a bath on Alfredo Garcia), Peckinpah rebelled through sheer, unadulterated disinterest, tackling his adaptation of Robert Rostand's novel "Monkey in the Middle" with a who-cares attitude that permeates not only his stewardship but also his cast's performances. It's a movie that exudes an air of such nonchalance toward generating any tension, momentum, or nuance that it's amazing the film even opened to strong theatrical business in late 1975 before, more predictably, sinking like a stone. In virtually every respect, The Killer Elite doesn't work the way a prototypical actioner should, sabotaging its own thrills and character development with almost pathological doggedness. And yet primarily because of its myriad flaws, it's a surprisingly fascinating entry in the Peckinpah oeuvre, as it represents—in a manner similar to the grungy, gnarly, dryly sardonic Alfredo Garcia—a piercing reflection of its maker's devolution into devil-may-care apathy.

The Killer Elite (1975)

The Killer Elite's plot is a straightforward tale of betrayal and payback amongst private-contractor assassins, all spurred by George Hansen (Robert Duvall) turning on pal and partner Mike Locken (James Caan) by crippling him—when he comes out of the shower at their current mission's safe house—with a bullet in the elbow and kneecap. Before that initial treachery has occurred, however, Peckinpah has undercut any sense of seriousness. Despite opening with a sequence of hands drilling holes, laying wire, and setting up dynamite that implies an attentiveness to methodical workmanship, the director spends the early-going having Duvall and Caan ad-lib with deliberate absurdity. An extended car ride in which George teases Mike about the latter's one-night stand having a venereal disease is a model of flippancy, with the two actors laughing, stammering and bullshitting with half-assed off-the-cuffness. Consequently, when George stabs Mike in the back, the atmosphere of indifference is already so thick that there's no impact. And Peckinpah's unnecessarily in-depth depiction of the surgical efforts to save Mike—whose life perplexingly hangs in the balance from these non-lethal injuries—is similarly slipshod, highlighted by Caan responding to a nurse trying to feed him ham with a sing-songy "No, no, no" that makes the actor appear downright drunk.

The Killer Elite (1975) Rumors of rampant on-set cocaine abuse by both Caan and Peckinpah gain traction from the actor's not-really-there turn, as well as Peckinpah's generally perfunctory framing and, on at least two occasions, stunningly jagged editing. Nothing about The Killer Elite feels the least bit urgent because its maker seems asleep at the wheel, though not quite so somnambulistic that he can't rehash his usual resentment of authority. In this instance, those repugnant forces are Mike's employers ComTeg, a double-dealing outfit in league with the CIA that's slammed as part of America's larger corporate/government "power systems," a familiar Peckinpah argument made here by that, ahem, paragon of profound political philosophy, Burt Young. Alfredo Garcia's Gig Young again represents that evil as one of Mike's nefarious employers, but the sentiment comes across as more dutiful than passionate, and turns up after so much nonsense that it's difficult to believe Peckinpah has any real desire to transform this for-hire job into a heartfelt statement about combating an establishment that, as illustrated by Mike's boss Cap (Arthur Hill), is defined by self-interested duplicity and amorality.

The Killer Elite (1975)

Whereas the director's prior efforts were fixated on the nature of masculinity, The Killer Elite is starkly unconcerned with Mike and George's manliness, except insofar as it ridicules its story's action-movie conventions and ideas about heroism. Some of that is unintentional, as when Mike heals his broken, limping body by training at the cheesy wood-paneled home of his nurse, stumbling while he runs up stairs that even a mother carrying a baby can navigate (oh, the agony of rehab!), and loosening up his braced elbow by practicing martial arts in the street with an aged mentor. The film's infatuation with kung fu is half-hearted and cheapened by of-the-era terms like "Orientals" and "chop suey." It's Peckinpah's overt thumbing his nose at his genre material, however, that's ultimately most jarring. During the climactic sword-fighting showdown between a killer and the noble Chinese politician Mike's been hired to protect from George, Mike provides commentary—including mocking the baddie's ninja outfit as a "goofy looking thing"—that allows Peckinpah to let the audience know that he understands he's making second-rate rubbish. The message is hard to dispute, and by insisting on its own irrelevance, The Killer Elite winds up functioning as a strangely personal work, one that, in its own warped and unsatisfying way, provides a window into the head and heart of its notoriously self-destructive maker.

Posted by ahillis at 2:45 PM

September 17, 2011

INTERVIEW: Nicolas Winding Refn

by Steve Dollar

DRIVE director Nicolas Winding Refn

It's not hollow hype to say that in Drive, the Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn has made not only the mainstream crossover of the year but also one of 2011's best movies. A genre specialist of great formal command, Refn first made waves with his Pusher trilogy, beginning in the mid-1990s, and more recently has essayed mythic brands of macho in Valhalla Rising [listen to our podcast] and Bronson—tough guy flicks not deficient in their existential questions.

Those elements are ramped up in Drive, at once an homage to stoic classics such as Walter Hill’s The Driver and the tonal mood-ring that is the canon of Michael Mann, and a European outsider’s affectionately detailed love letter to Los Angeles: a city whose streets look strangely new here, literally considered for the first time. Refn worked in close cahoots with star Ryan Gosling, who plays the unnamed Driver—a stuntman and gearhead who moonlights as a wheelman-for-hire, manning souped-up getaway vehicles post-heist, stealthily prowling the downtown backstreets while helicopters hover or out-gunning hapless police cars. His no-strings-attached policy begins to fray when he falls for a comely neighbor (Carey Mulligan), a single mom whose problems inevitably complicate things but also give him an occasion to rise to—a chance to become "a real hero" (as per the movie's insistent theme song, by the electro-popsters College). Less chase-y than its vintage American antecedents (like Bullitt or To Live and Die in L.A.) and more brooding, the film might be best described—as one wag suggested—as Grand Theft Auto: The Chess Game, since Gosling's anti-hero goes up against a cabal of underworld figures who want to deflate his tires. Permanently.

This week, I chatted, all too briefly, with Refn about his experiences shooting Drive in Los Angeles, his love of American pop culture, and the evil incarnate that is Albert Brooks.

Drive

Were you caught off-guard when Ryan Gosling called you up and asked you to make this movie with him?

You're always surprised when anybody wants to work with you. Why would they want to work with me? Ryan wanting to do a movie together was really what got me interested, and the relationship between us had really cemented itself early on.

It's very amusing that you don't drive yourself.

Yeah. Everyone was so surprised by that. "How are you going to make this movie?" But when you don't know something, or you don't have an interest in something but want to do it anyway, you look at it in a different way. It's like being a stranger in a strange land. I made it very clear that I was not necessarily the best filmmaker in the world, but the kinds of films I make I'm the best at. In order for me to make it, I would have to fashion it to my fetish. I spent a lot of time doing that, and we were so in-sync we almost had a telepathic relationship. We knew exactly what he and I—thinking as one mind—wanted to do. When we got going, it was a very easy process. It was the most enjoyable time I've had making a movie.

When Gosling was driving you around LA, were there parts of town that surprised you?

I didn't know Los Angeles. I didn't know what to be surprised by. I found things I liked, and I wanted to shoot there. It's not like New York that has its own kind of niche. Very specific, the landmarks of New York—and precise. L.A. was an undiscovered territory in my mind, and maybe I was wrong but that's how I saw it. I went with what I could say and I was uninhibited in a way I wouldn't be if I was in New York.

There's a beautiful moment, one that people have commented on, when Driver takes Carey Mulligan's character Irene, and her little boy, on a joy ride through the downtown viaduct of the Los Angeles river. At one point, they reach a dead-end where it turns back into nature. How did you find that?

That was interesting. Ryan told me about it, and I really liked it. Making this film, Ryan and I were very telekinetic.

You two had a late breakfast every night at the 101 Cafe in Hollywood. What did you talk about?

A billion things.

Drive

Is it true the film was actually inspired by Sixteen Candles?

Well, part of the movie was inspired by the sense of what it was like, me watching Sixteen Candles when I was younger. The notion of falling in love, and the purity of that love, he was able to capture in that movie. The first half of the film has to be about a man and woman who fall in love without the complication of the aftermath. The truth of love. The souls of love.

Driver is an old-fashioned model of chivalry.

The movie was heavily influenced by Grimm's Fairy Tales. A few years earlier, I was reading them to my daughter, and I became fascinated by the language of them. He's like a knight that roams the land in search of protecting innocence.

One character that isn't innocent is Bernie Rose, played by Albert Brooks. What possessed you to cast one of America's best-loved funny guys as a villain?

It's not so much what I saw, because I'm not an Albert Brooks expert. He’s not somebody I know a lot of things about. But I was fascinated by him. The concept of Albert Brooks was really intriguing. A) He'd never killed anybody before, or been a bad guy. B) The notion of what had happened to him in all those years. Bernie Rose, I mean, to be this gangster who became this movie producer who had to go back to being a gangster and he doesn't want to be. And so, that algorithm fit in very well with the whole situation. In James Sallis' book, a beautiful piece of literature, the mobsters are more the conventional gangster type. But I wanted him to be an ex-movie producer, so I developed that character more in that fashion.

The movie is a love letter to 1980s pop culture. Is that what you absorbed as a child?

I grew up on American pop cinema. That was a way to rebel against my parents. For them anything that was considered American entertainment was on the same level as fascism. Of course, that is what I relished. That was my 'fuck you' to the parents.

What did you love best?

American horror movies attracted me. The violent cinema of America.

Drive

There's a funny line that Albert Brooks has...

"I used to make movies. Sexy stuff. Some critic called them European. I thought they were shit."

Is that a tip-off about your own approach?

Maybe it was autobiographical when we wrote it. I'm a fetish filmmaker. I make films based on what I would like to see. I don't always understand why I would want to see it.

That electronic score, by Cliff Martinez, is fantastic.

I wanted to have a very feminine sound versus the masculinity of the car. That was very important to me to have that difference, because then if you combine it, it's almost forcing two opposites together and creating pure energy of emotion. That creates excitement, creates drama.

The book is written out of chronological order, and the screenplay went through a lot of evolutions before it got to you.

The secret to unlocking the movie came from a meeting between Ryan and I where I saw a way to make the movie. I had an emotion that if I could do a movie about a man who drives a car around at night listening to pop music, that would be the core. So I was aiming for something specific in that way. When you have that, you have the heart of the movie.

The "elevator scene," which everyone who sees this movie will forever talk about, is a perfect movie moment—a kind of suspended dream of love and death. How did that come to be?

[SPOILER ALERT] There was a scene that was there that didn't really work. He had to protect Irene against the hitman. They were going to fight in the garage, and then he was going to kill the guy. But it was very important that he kill the guy very exclusively so the Irene character can see how he changed, how he had transformed himself. I couldn't make it work and ended up putting it in the elevator, having him kiss her before he smashes the guy's head in, to condense the movie into one scene. In all movies, you have to have one scene that is the heart, where all the blood flows from. It's the point of no return.

Posted by ahillis at 4:04 PM | Comments (1)

September 13, 2011

'French' Cuisine

by Vadim Rizov

The French Connection

Upon release, The French Connection was advertised as "an out and out thriller" just right for its time. "I guess that you are supposed to think that a good old kind of movie has none too soon come around again," wrote Roger Greenspun in The New York Times before concluding it was "in fact a very good new kind of movie." That "new kind of movie" being an action movie rather than a thriller: the difference between the two is valuing motion for its own sake, rather than as part of a dramatic plot that has to stop for dialogue breathers and human emotions. The film's most often reduced to its precedent-setting, breakneck car chase, but director William Friedkin's innovation is in making the whole film just as kinetic.

The first and last action flick to win the Best Picture Oscar (war film The Hurt Locker and bloated epic-plus-sporadic-dismemberments Gladiator not quite the same thing), The French Connection presents a number of future genre tropes in embryo. Irritable cop Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) has a patient partner, Buddy Russo (Roy Scheider), who puts up with his late nights and ego-driven hunches; naturally, they're constantly sniping at each other and arguing with their supervising officer Walt Simonson (Eddie Egan), who inevitably warns Popeye that the case he's getting too involved in is a hopeless cause anyway.

The French Connection

Popeye and Buddy's target is French drug kingpin Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey). In a nod to Hollywood convention of the '30s and '40s—when stopping the narrative dead for a nightclub number was a common occurrence—suspicions point to a low-level operative drinking in a bar that strains for respectable nightclub status: the gaudy stage show features The Three Degrees performing the incongruously optimistic "Everybody Gets to Go to the Moon" (spoken word break: "We are the people who will populate the moon"). But Connection's law enforcement is amoral in a new-fashioned way: when before had a film wondered whether cop and criminal aren't simply two sides of the same coin? The point is driven home most often by comparing the two men's meals: Charnier fussily inspects the wine bottle for his lunch, while outside, Popeye angrily chomps into a slice of pizza and deli coffee. (Smaller parallel: both toss aside their last bite while waiting for someone to arrive.) The movie's obsession with food—a husband-and-wife ensnared in the plot operate a greasy-spoon diner as a front—is an odd but forceful way of underlining class distinctions: what you eat is who you are.

Charnier has a sinister, glowering assassin as his right-hand man (Marcel Bozzuffi), while Popeye revels in the role of vigilante bad cop, threatening to punch a bartender who makes them chase after him and slashes Buddy with his knife. Popeye smacks suspects around, straight-up shoots one guy in the back when he's too tired to chase after him, takes a civilian's car and proceeds to endanger the life of anyone on the streets of NYC, and suffers zero disciplinary action. The final title cards imply that the reassigned officers were victimized by a bureaucracy that favors tidy arrests and won't support cops in trouble, while the fates of all the (living) criminals are reduced sentences or suggestively unknown and off-the-map; considering how many people wind up dead because of Popeye (whose presence is as dangerous to friends, family and surrounding strangers as Charles Bronson's), it's hard to feel too aggrieved on his behalf. The biggest future-cliché in The French Connection is the vague, hard-to-justify suggestion powering the Death Wish films and all other pro-vigilante movies: that the law ultimately favors criminals and secretly we can all agree it'd be better to just go around shooting troublemakers on sight.

The-French-Connection-Vadim-Rizov.jpg

Like several other Friedkin films, The French Connection works best as a chase without meaningful context or much dialogue. As in more flawed films, the best moments are wordless (see also: Al Pacino silently floating among New York gays in Cruising, Tommy Lee Jones running after Benicio Del Toro for half the running time in The Hunted). Eliminating the language on the page and upping the adrenaline-kick ante allows Friedkin to express nearly every important conflict visually: the drama changes direction when the people being pursued do. The brisk tempo of that race through city streets is applied to nearly every scene, so that like Popeye, it doesn't stop to think when shooting: it just embraces the thrill of non-stop motion and violence.

[A new 35mm print of The French Connection screens at NYC's Film Forum from September 14 – 22.]

Posted by ahillis at 1:51 PM

September 10, 2011

Nothing to Sneeze At

by Steve Dollar

Contagion

Gwyneth Paltrow haters will cheer Contagion like so many mallrats at a Twilight triple feature. Not only does she die in the opening minutes of Steven Soderbergh's brisk and all-consuming viral thriller, she dies horribly: all twitchy and splotchy and foaming at the mouth. Even worse, she does so having just arrived home in suburban Minneapolis after a business trip to Hong Kong. The previous 24 hours included a night of festive gambling in Macao, and a Chicago layover spiced up by a rendezvous with an ex-lover—only to leave a grieving, loyal husband (Matt Damon, as a doughy Dadster) asking "Why? Why? Why?" What no one knows is that she's a potential Patient Zero, the host of a mysterious new super-bug that could wipe out humanity unless science can decode its origins stat. As pathologists suited up in hazmat drag peel her scalp back for a gander at the gray matter, the virus' swift and destructive work is revealed. This plague gobbles brains faster than a zombie.

Contagion

Soderbergh, who is more fascinating in box-office whore mode than are many of his peers at the peak of their arthouse ambition, knows the tropes of the disaster movie well enough to detach himself from the obvious, juicy indulgences (like brain-eating zombies). The freak-out portion of this all-star ode to the catastrophic is (for some of us grindhouse mavens) rather minimized. Although the introductory scenes, suggesting a kind of Babel for epidemiologists as it skips across time zones to show the spread of the virus and its consequences, offer a gallery of extremely attractive actors looking like shit before they buy the farm, the movie mostly shies away from genre excess—although it wins extra points for the chilly electronic score by Cliff Martinez, which evokes the disorientation and dread of a 1970s giallo creeper.

Contagion

Instead, the director does what he did in the Ocean's Eleven franchise or, more precisely, Traffic. He coolly analyzes a phenomenon from a multiplicity of perspectives and personas, ultimately grounding everything in a core relationship that lends enough emotional heat to make the cinematic machinations more than dazzling matinee stuntwork. And even if you think you've seen it all, he makes sure to leave the pin in the narrative hand grenade until the coda.

Contagion

The story plays out between three principals. Larry Fishburne is the big man at the Center of Disease Control in Atlanta (Soderbergh's hometown), coolly orchestrating the investigation with all the aplomb and sincere furrows of manly concern he's mastered on shows like CSI. Jude Law, wearing some kind of prosthetic dentistry that gives him a bucktoothed smile, is the Conspiracy Blogger of Dubious Intent, who wanders about the streets in a homemade space suit when not touting unsubstantiated herbal remedies. And Damon is the Everyman, sequestered in his home with a surviving teenage daughter, aware that being immune to the sickness is scarce comfort when panic sets the streets on fire.

Contagion

There are other, potentially more interesting figures on the periphery, including scientists played by Kate Winslet, Elliot Gould and Marion Cotillard, each sidelined (fatally or otherwise) in a screenplay that requires them more for plot advancement than deep focus. For the most part, the story's "meaningfulness" falls to Damon to deliver, as he wrestles with the revelation of his dead wife’s infidelity even as his daughter, chafing against the quarantine, yearns to make snow angels with her boyfriend. He only lives next door, but that might as well be a million miles away. One sneeze, one touch, and it's the mass grave, baby. The compelling beauty of the film is the meticulous, tick-tocking precision with which Soderbergh executes the inevitable march of death and the heroic sleuthing that may deter it. There are plenty of reasons why it might be released two days before the 10th anniversary of 9/11. The scenes of devastation, depicted seemingly everywhere but New York, unsettlingly resonate with memories of Ground Zero, but also the wrath that it provoked, as well as more recent anxieties after Hurricane Katrina and the tsunami that turned northern Japan into a radioactive nightmare. In part, the film's appeal may lie in offering Americans, anyway, a kind of worst-case scenario to balance accounts against a true plague summer (wildfires in Texas, a hurricane in New York, tornadoes in the Deep South) —not that Soderbergh could have counted on any of that—while also serving up those collapse-of-society montages to suggest that It Can Happen Here, and not just metaphorically on Capitol Hill.

Contagion director Steven Soderbergh

As putative end of the world movies go, I'll still take the antiestablishment paranoia of George A. Romero's The Crazies, the swinging '70s of David Cronenberg's Shivers, or the fatalistic ironies of a methodical, harrowing 1982 Serbian film called Variola Vera (whose ethical questions amid institutional bureaucracy reflect a similar strain in Contagion). But those fevered sagas of outbreak sustain the narrow focus. One of Soderbergh's big themes is globalization, tying the viral spree to the intimate intersections of commerce and leisure, and how in our new world disorder, the macro is the micro and vice-versa. In the end, the film argues, the same human stain that condemns us also can redeem us. It's nothing to sneeze at.

Posted by ahillis at 10:30 AM

September 6, 2011

DVD OF THE WEEK: The Arbor

by Vadim Rizov

The Arbor

The late British playwright Andrea Dunbar's main claim to fame was her 1982 play "Rita, Sue and Bob Too"—or, rather, the 1987 film version of it, which attracted viewers not necessarily interested in the social problems of life on council estates. Dunbar's unsparing ear for life among disenfranchised citizens in the middle of the U.K. analogue to housing projects was tempered by director Alan Clarke's endless tracking shots, which give momentum and verve to lives lacking either. Followed for 50 feet at a time at remarkable speed, Rita's characters are turned into energetic leads despite a background where thick, Yorkshire-accented variants on "You bastard!" are the most commonly heard refrain. The sheer degree of free-floating hostility is unexpectedly comical in its excess: these are people who clearly enjoy yelling at each other.

Though Rita's view on social problems came via energetic tracking shots, The Arbor director Clio Barnard and cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland plant their camera down to observe how nothing on the Buttershaw Estate has changed for the better since Dunbar's 1980 debut play "The Arbor." Both play and film draw their name from a street in the run-down locale; Clarke zoomed around it, but Barnard and Birkeland cruise around the perimeter of the public lawn, as if waiting in a police car, ominously waiting for trouble to start while the voices of family and friends speak. Rita is comedy; The Arbor is hard-to-shake tragedy.

The Arbor

It's probably safe to say Dunbar wasn't an attentive parent; she was an excellent writer, but that's not what The Arbor is about. The first third is a concise version of her life: footage from her BBC appearances, interviews with friends and family and staged snippets of "The Arbor." After the play's success, Dunbar wrote the well-received "Rita" and the less-so "Shirley," along with the screenplay for Clarke's Rita. Then in 1990, she died alone in a pub bathroom at the age of 29, a bleak end even for a life doomed by domestic abuse and alcoholism. The interviews are from real audio, but as lip-synched by actors. Their mouths don't always match the words, creating a severe distancing effect, but the performances are remarkably good: it never looks like anyone is overtly "acting." Instead, the presence of naturalistic stand-ins lets Barnard carefully frame and artificially light her subjects without distracting "the interviewees." Scenes from "The Arbor" are staged on the estate's open lawn, with trained professionals flawlessly slipping into beer-fueled arguments while a crowd of real present-day residents stand around gawking. It's obvious that none of the grandparents, downtrodden mothers and fathers, or young children in the crowd is unnerved by what they're seeing. The texture of Dunbar's three-decade-old arguments still fits right in with the descendants of her characters. Whether what we're seeing is a play, staged testimony or archival footage, it's clear that in thirty years, the social problems Dunbar staged as tragicomedy have only worsened.

It helps to know how dense some of the casting is (e.g., Dunbar's sister Pamela is played by Kathryn Hogson, who was in the first staging of "The Arbor"), but the point comes through without that insight: in Bernard's estimation, there was no distance between Dunbar's art and life. Her plays are about booze, unexpected pregnancies, joblessness and uninspiring environments: the correspondence to Dunbar's life is often one to one, especially in Rita's virulent portrait of Aslam, a kindly Pakistani immigrant who turns abusive and controlling with no warning. The Arbor connects the dots between the malevolent Pakistani men in her work and Dunbar's relationship with Yousef, the father of her eldest daughter Lorraine.

The Arbor

Lorraine grew up with a scarring memory of her mother, noting she couldn't love her mixed-race child as much as her other two children. Though the film doesn't mention it, Lorraine Dunbar is now Muslim convert Samaya Rafiq; to get to a lifestyle of religious devotion and sobriety, she went through years of prostitution, drug addiction, abusive relationships and worse. That her life seems like an apple not far from her mother's tree (with crack and heroin compounding economic disenfranchisement) has been brought up before; The Guardian discussed the idea in 2007 (in an article that could constitute spoiler territory for those who want to see The Arbor knowing nothing). Her hard-knock path landed her in jail: in hypnotic snippets, Lorraine is seen picking up prisoner laundry, folding sheets and her possessions, and staring at DVDs of her mom on TV, occasionally sputtering in surprise or disgust. These scenes serve as potent counterbalance to Dunbar's undeniably entertaining work; Lorraine's quiet yet disquieting brooding is just as transfixing.

"I could have gone to Buttershaw and made a film that was completely optimistic," Barnard told The Independent last year while musing on how present-day budget cuts have left Britain's poorest citizens at the mercy of the cheapest, most deadly escape around. "But if the end of the film said, 'Actually, everything's OK,' that would be a false reassurance." Awarding more screen time to Lorraine's life and problems, The Arbor eventually turns away entirely from Dunbar's plays: as the actors stare into the camera, their silent gaze drowns her words.

Posted by ahillis at 3:46 PM

September 2, 2011

Veni, Vitti, Yeah Whatever

by Steve Dollar

Red Desert

Watching Michelangelo Antonioni's 1964 landmark-in-cinema Red Desert, gorgeously updated to Blu-ray format in a new Criterion Collection release, I was struck not only by Monica Vitti's distressed beauty but by a sudden revelation. The Italian director, who was 95 years old when he died in 2007, was often labeled a poet of modernist alienation. Yet, it wasn't until I saw the glamorous Vitti, playing a Real Housewife of Industrialized Ravenna, transfixed by some nameless emotional funk as she idled against the clean lines and austere decor of the maestro's chosen interiors, that I realized Antonioni's influence extended to snarky design blogs.

Damned if one of the great European auteurs of the last century wasn't also the grandfather of Unhappy Hipsters, the website that slaps sarcastic comments on repurposed photos from the pages of Dwell magazine. Sample image: A little girl with a pony tail, face away from the camera, isolated in a room full of sleek, minimalist chairs and a Saarinen dining table. And this: "It was punishment unique to her modernist parents: hours of solitary confinement with classic and contemporary design icons, followed by stern yet uncomfortably hypocritical lectures on freedom of expression and rejecting tradition."

Red DesertI don't bring up this comparison to provoke a cheap laugh, although, please, go ahead. The point is that a half-century after Antonioni made his signature, pathbreaking films—which also include the trilogy L'Eclisse (1960), La Notte (1961) and L'Avventura (1962)—his visual style and thematic concepts have been so thoroughly absorbed into popular culture, into our ways of looking and mass media's ways of making us look, that no one even notices anymore.

Which is why BAMcinematek's 10-day revival of the film, which begins today, is such a cool, crucial event—not only for so-called cultural vegetarians, but for anyone who still possesses all their five senses and cares anything at all for aesthetic pleasures. A new 35mm print struck by distributor Janus Films will be screened, offering a rare occasion to appreciate on celluloid exactly why the director's transition from monochrome to a full palette was so significant. It gives a freshly vivid account of the painterly approach Antonioni took for his first color film, one whose original title was pure abstract expressionist: Pale Blue and Green. That's actually a rather gentle description for the bleak industrial wasteland that serves not so much as the story's backdrop as its foreground: a depopulated landscape of rusted oranges, whorehouse reds, sulfurous yellows, gun-metal grays and anitseptic whites. Across this expanse wanders the psychologically unhinged Giuliana (Italian sex symbol, and Antonioni's lover, Vitti), whose auburn locks whip stylishly amid the toxic gusts of her husband's power plant, which has turned a northeastern Italian coastline into something akin to the Gowanus Canal. But the Gowanus Canal never looked this good.

Red Desert

The ghastly, ghostly terrain, with its grinding machine harmonies and horizon the hue of cold oatmeal, is transformed by Antonioni and his cinematographer, Carlo Di Palma, into a spellbinding vista with its own raw, stark splendor. Here, perhaps, the origins of industrial chic that now gives us coffee table books fat with textured color images of Detroit after the fall. Yet, it also seems to mirror the mental state of Giuliana, whose industrialist husband describes her as a mechanism "whose gears don't mesh." Newly ushered home from a hospital stay—she was found by a factory worker after a suicide attempt, although she made up a story to cover herself—she doesn't see herself as a trophy wife, but an aspiring businesswoman. She gets no play from her man Ugo (Carlo Chionetti), but is instantly drawn to a visitor, Corrado Zeller (Richard Harris, awkwardly dubbed), a business associate of her husband's come to recruit workers for a Patagonian enterprise. They wander together through the banks of fog, trading elliptical banter that doesn't really add up to anything. After Zeller concludes an explication of his beliefs as, ultimately, "a little less in justice, a little more in progress," Giuliana tells him, "That's some bunch of words you've strung together."

Red Desert If the quest for meaning doesn't get very far, the drift is exquisite. The money shot comes halfway through, as Zeller and Giuliana find themselves at a mildly kinky cocktail party in a creaky shack by a loading dock, with a roomful of swingers eager to fondle them. Pretending (perhaps) to ingest an aphrodisiac, Giuliana teases the whole bunch of them before everyone suddenly exits amid quarantine warnings. After a brief incident involving her forgotten purse, Giuliana discovers herself removed from the others, facing them from a distance as the fog thickens and the static figures slowly disappear. It’s the kind of scene you watch, rewind to rewatch and rewind again, so perfectly done, so ridiculously "yeah" that it now looks like a total cliché—like the Odessa Steps sequence of Battleship Potemkin or the tumbling bone-into-spaceship mindblower edit in 2001. These things are only ever obvious in retrospect.

What's rewarding about Red Desert is that the obviousness doesn't matter at all. The film and its ideas and images are not dated. They are prescient. You watch it and realize that groovy new-urban sensibility you've so thoughtfully nurtured since graduate school was never yours at all. Antonioni mapped that consciousness before any design blogger learned to crawl. To witness Vitti, lost in a psychic vertigo, stumbling through these masterful frames, is only to look in the mirror.

Posted by ahillis at 1:25 PM