Friday, December 11, 2009

Review: Ratcatcher

Garbage is piling up all around the neighborhood due to all sanitation workers being on strike. All this refuse lying around suburban yards appears meant to symbolize the people who live in this place. Young children frolic wantonly upon mountains of garbage, while their adolescent peers rape, murder, and pillage throughout the neighborhood. These kids are trash. It is clear that the filmmaker wants us to make this connection. The adults have produced these children and then carelessly strewn them all over their front yards, paying no mind to the damage they cause, just as they do with the rotting bags of trash.
Scottish writer/director Lynne Ramsay's 1999 film Ratcatcher is not about a literal catcher of rats. It begins with the the accidental drowning of a young boy while playing with his friend. That friend is James, an aimless 10-year-old in 1973 Glasgow who provides the stoic little center of the film. The canal is the ratcatcher, and the children are the rats, frolicking in garbage and treating everyone with an antisocial, rodent-like regard.
Ratcatcher is in a spiritual and thematic cousin to two seminal American films: Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, and Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show. All three films concern and explore elements and emotions of childhood that are rarely discussed, either in cinema or in everyday life. Also, each film is essentially without traditional plot, instead opting to follow its characters’ through their everyday lives, finding theme and profound meaning by the end.
Also like those two older films, Ratcatcher is brilliant, beautiful, and mesmerizing. Every element is staggering in its dreamlike authenticity and comes together to create a film that contributes immensely to the cinematic language.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Critique: It’s Called a Change Over

Director David Fincher’s Fight Club was released last month on the Blu-Ray format in a commemorative 10th anniversary edition, packed with all kinds of interviews, commentaries, and other special features. An honor like this is not bestowed upon just any film, especially one that did so poorly at the box office and was nominated for only one Academy Award (which it did not win). Additionally, the critical response of the time ranged from bewildered at best, to disgusted at worst. The film Fight Club could not be fully appreciated in 1999 because contemporary critics knew not what to make of it as it was so different from what they expected, and its influence upon the art and business of cinema had yet to be witnessed.
Critics and general audiences alike went to see Fight Club not knowing what to expect. The marketing campaign put together by the studio, 20th Century Fox, led people to believe that the film was all about underground boxing, when in fact that is only a small part of the story. The film does feature boxing, but it is only one ingredient that David Fincher used to tell the story of a man frustrated and numbed by the culture of consumerism he lives in. The marketing did not sell the real gist of the film to moviegoers, instead opting to push the action as much as possible, and in so doing, accidentally created a false expectation of what the film was like. If the film had been sold instead as an art film, or as a psychological thriller, it might have been more successful at finding an audience while still in theaters. Alas, audiences and critics were confounded when what they thought was a straight action film turned out to be an intelligent, multilayered cinematic trip about societal emasculation and schizophrenia, which they did not recognize at first; this led many critics to write negatively of the film:
Fight Club isn't a movie so much as it is a series of blows – three fast shots to the gut, an uppercut, a left-right combination to the head and a final jab that splinters your rib cage. It doesn't end; a bell rings. You stagger to your corner, beaten and pulped, sucking for raw oxygen. Is this the same as being a good movie? Well, not exactly, though the director, David Fincher, clearly thinks so. (Hunter)
The contemporary review quoted above, which appeared in the Washington Post, uses a multitude of boxing metaphors to describe the film negatively, and even takes a passive-aggressive shot at Fincher himself. This kind of hostility from a critic exemplifies how frustrated many reviewers and filmgoers were when they first laid eyes upon Fight Club. The film challenged audiences in ways they didn’t expect and could not recognize at first.
In the decade since its release, Fight Club has influenced countless films and found both a devoted audience and the critical respect it deserves. Critics have been able to views the film in the proper historical context:
Indeed, a few short years later, it is now viewed as a milestone, a benchmark in the careers of everyone involved. For Fincher, the story of a young man discovering the beauty - and the inherent danger - in embracing your inner maleness become a commentary on an entire sub-generation of dejected men. Thanks to Palahnuik’s brilliant deconstruction of the bottomed-out baby boom, complete with IKEA “nesting” instincts and designer mustard mandates spoke volumes back when Clinton was canvassing the White House, and now, two regime changes later, it seems even more prescient. (Gibron)
The above review of the recent Blu Ray release of Fight Club has ten years of hindsight to work with, and this historical perspective helps the critic better appreciate not only the artistic merit of the film, but also its significance in cinema and pop culture.
Fight Club has had a strong influence on subsequent films. Mostly, filmmakers have been inspired by the film’s unique and riveting visual style. Take, for example, the opening credit sequence in Brian Singer’s X-Men (2000), a computer generated backward tracking shot which twists and turns through strange clouds and patterns, accompanied by fast-paced, dramatic music. It is almost identical to the opening credits sequence in Fight Club, the only difference being that the original scene takes place inside the protagonist’s brain, where as the copycat moves through some generic, nebulous ether. Fincher started with setting the scene inside the character’s brain, and then the style and technique came from that, whereas Singer and his effects team saw the sequence in Fight Club and copied the style, without putting any intent or purpose behind it. This hollow mimicry is evidence of Fight Club’s extreme originality.
When people saw Fight Club for the first time in 1999, they failed to grasp how mind-blowing it was. Nothing like it had been done before, and it had yet to be imitated, so it did not jive with the accepted notion of what a film is supposed to be. Over the last ten years, however, many people have come to recognize just how revolutionary the film was. It has not only changed our idea of what the art of cinema can do, but also opened a previously closed window into our collective unconscious and, in turn, helped to shape our cultural discourse in ways we are still struggling to comprehend. The most famous line from the film, “The first rule of Fight Club is you do not talk about Fight Club”, has been quoted and paraphrased so much that it has evolved beyond the film to become a part of our everyday lexicon. In the years after the film’s release, actual fight clubs began to spring up all across the country. The film was so powerful that it inspired young men to get together and beat each other up. What other film can this be said about? Fight Club is now such a large and integral part of American culture that it is mind-boggling to imagine that it was not embraced and revered more widely in its own time.

Critique: Give ‘Em a Thrill: Action Films Past and Present

What are the common staples of the action genre? Set pieces, heroism, violence, villainy, an explosive climax. Buster Keaton’s The General is an excellent and revolutionary example of an action film, and indeed solidified many tropes of the genre that continue to be used; 1988’s Die Hard is one example of a film that employs these elements.
The General strikes the perfect balance between story and action; never do we feel that either element is overplayed or laid on too thick. This being said, however, the story is really only there to provide a skeleton for the action to rest upon. Nearly two thirds of the film depict action set pieces, most of which are centered on trains. The whole reason the film was made was to stage these highly original and breathtakingly impressive real-life train stunts. This is the purpose of every action film, to give the audience a thrill. The story, however sparse, is still critical, as it gives us a reason to care about the people imperiled in these cinematic feats of daring.
When The General was released in 1927, audiences had never seen anything like it. The stunts were thrilling and, sometimes, actually threatened the lives of the performer, namely Buster Keaton. A reason for this might have been to impress the audience, or perhaps it was due to the limited filmmaking technology of the time; there was no green screen, no stop-motion, no CGI. Keaton actually had to run atop trains and demolish bridges in order to depict these events on screen.
The General may seem typical to today’s audiences because its tropes have become so familiar. Take, for example, Die Hard, perhaps the greatest action film of the 1980s. From a literal perspective, these two films are not very similar, but if we ignore the specifics of their respective story lines and focus more esoterically, we can see how they are in fact quite alike. Each concerns an everyman who finds himself in an extraordinary situation: a high speed train chase in the case of The General, and a terrorist takeover of a skyscraper in the case of Die Hard. Also, both films are set in and around familiar, ordinary constructs, trains in one, a high-rise office building in the other. And, as with The General, the story in Die Hard is only there to give the action a framework. But even if we focus more specifically, the similarities between the two films remain. Die Hard’s protagonist, John McClane, begins the film outside the good graces of the woman he desires, much the same way Johnny Gray does in The General. But, through heroism and rising to the occasion, each man proves himself and wins the heart of the girl in the end. A trial by fire to obtain what one desires is one of the main tropes of the action genre. The locations and time periods are different, one film is silent while the other features extensive synchronous sound, but they are akin in their use of action to entertain the audience.
What is the goal of an action film? The goal is to give the audience a thrill. Through an engaging yet sparse story line, sympathetic characters, and heightened, exciting situations, action films as varied as The General and Die Hard thrill the audience, whether the year is 1927 or 1988.

Critique: Conversation of Blood: How Sound Tells the Story

When synchronous sound first appeared in films in 1927, many filmmakers feared that the art of cinema was dead। Over the years, however, ways were found to integrate sound usefully into the filmic language. The films Throne of Blood and The Conversation are two excellent examples of how juxtaposing sounds and images can be used to help tell the story and infer deeper meaning.
The sound in Throne of Blood is very literal; it is always attached to an object on screen. One of the most striking and memorable uses of sound in the film is the lonely, hushed swishing of Asaji’s gown upon the floor as she flits around the fortress in the tense minutes just after the murder of the Lord. It is practically the only noise we hear, and this near vacuum of sound serves to create a haunting and foreboding atmosphere. If the film were silent, the same effect would not be rendered. This is an example of how sound helps to expand the impact of the scene. The same notion would not be accomplished with music; indeed there is no score accompanying this sequence, and with good and deliberate reason: it would be too much. Kurosawa knows this, and so, uses admirable restraint. The sound of Asaji’s swishing gown goes everywhere with her, like a devious whisper. It is quite literally attached to her. it is a sound we would hear were we actually in the room with her, yet on the screen it takes on a special significance. This small sound has a big impact; it tells us that she is a maniacal schemer inside a deceptively quiet package. The sound of the swishing gown, being the only noise present, tears through the scene, simultaneously building and cutting the tension. The sound is simple, mundane even, but the context it is put in causes it to mean something more.
Conversely, the sound effects in The Conversation are used more metaphorically and symbolically. They start out holding onto literal objects, but quickly let go and are allowed to roam around the ether, attaching themselves to things they should regularly have no business associating with. This detachment and reassignment does well to create new and precise meaning. A perfect example of this is the titular, spied upon repartee that Caul records. We first witness the conversation as it happens in real time, attached to the images it originates from. Later, though, as Caul listens to bits and pieces of it, it is out of context, assigned to new images. The words take on new meaning; repeated over and over, they begin to lose their traditional definitions and become just sounds, almost like music. Indeed, the score of the picture is quite minimal, leaving room for these orphan syllables to fill the sonic gaps and punctuate the action themselves. Another function that Coppola employs this method for is to represent Caul’s state of mind cinematically. He starts out sane. We see him listening to the conversation as it happens, in context, unfolding from beginning to end. As the film progresses, however, Caul begins to loose his grip on reality, just as the sounds he listens to again and again are no longer connected to the situation that birthed them. With The Conversation, Coppola proves that sound design can be used to enhance images on screen, rather than detract from them.
Similar to Throne of Blood, though, is Coppola’s deft use of the absence or near-absence of sound. Take the elevator scene, wherein Caul inadvertently shares a ride with one the subjects of his surveillance. For the first time in the film, there is a hush, and it is suffocating and deafening, making us and Caul feel trapped. Again, like Asaji’s swishing gown upon the floor in Throne of Blood, this quiet in the elevator, in the larger context of the film, does more than any carefully crafted effects or musical score possibly could.
Another thing the two films have in common with regard to sound design is juxtaposition. Loud scenes are adjacent to quiet ones. Juxtaposition is a key element of the cinematic language. Usually, it is thought of with regards to opposing images, but it applies equally to sound. As discussed before, Coppola removes certain sounds from their original places and pairs them, or juxtaposes them, with new images.
Through expert use of juxtaposition, Kurosawa and Coppola prove that sound does not have to be a crutch, but can in fact greatly enhance the power of a film.

Critique: Kubrick’s Path to Glory

(SPOILERS) Who has the moral high ground on the battlefield? Is there any place for morality during war? With Paths of Glory, director Stanley Kubrick attempted to answer these questions, using dynamic lighting, juxtapositional editing, economical mise en scene, and archetypal characters to symbolize good and evil, and in so doing defined himself as one of the 20th century’s most important and elemental filmmakers.
The film is shot in black and white, or rather black or white; there is no gray area, an absence which represents the moral absoluteness of the characters. When General Mireau tours the trenches, he is brightly lit and clean, whereas the soldiers are dirty and mostly in the shadows. Since we have already been introduced to Mireau in a bright, sterile environment, it is almost as if the general is in a bubble, protected from the realities of war by his place in the social order. All of this is achieved simply with lighting. Additionally, when we are first introduced to Col. Dax, our heroic protagonist, he is rather neutrally lit, representing his place as a sort of moral center between the innocent soldiers and the evil general.
Kubrick cuts from scene to scene very abruptly. Frequently, we are taken from Mireau’s great, white, palatial headquarters suddenly to the dirty, claustrophobic trenches where the honest, hardworking soldiers reside for the first third of the film. This is clearly meant to bring our attention to the disparate conditions experienced by the men who give the orders, and those who actually carry out those orders.
Often working in tandem with the editing is Kubrick’s use of very efficient mise en scene. This is most obvious, once again, in the early trench scenes. Take, for example, one of the long, backwards dolly shots of Col. Dax walking through the trenches. We see not only Dax, but also dozens of soldiers going about the business of making war, loading weapons and so on. In the same shot, we can see bombs exploding over head, just outside the trenches. This helps greatly to suggest setting, and quickly and effectively creates a foreboding and oppressive atmosphere. The soldiers are literally under the bombs, just as they are figuratively under the generals, who are equally as lethal and uncaring as the artillery.
Later in the film, during the court martial, Kubrick takes care to arrange the characters in a very specific way. The judges, legal counsel, and various other court officials are grouped tightly together, around a long table; General Mireau, the orchestrator of the whole affair, is nearby, watching and relaxing upon an opulent sofa. This comfortable cabal is placed in great contrast to the three soldiers on trial, who sit several feet away in nondescript chairs. This arrangement is shown to us plainly in a high angle wide shot which looks almost straight down on the scene. The people at the table are one object, while the soldiers are each alone, adrift and helpless. This is brilliant mise en scene, as it is not only immediately informative, but also visually compelling and, perhaps most important of all, symbolic of the various characters’ situations and states of mind.
Col. Dax is clearly good, and General Mireau is obviously bad. There is not much moral ambiguity with regard to the characters in Paths of Glory. Yes, they are both technically on the same “side”, being French officers, with a common enemy in the Germans, but it is obvious within the first reel of the film that the two are opposed; Dax as protagonist, Mireau as antagonist. When we first meet Mireau, he is lounging contentedly in an open, luxurious setting. He discusses tactics and the loss of life so casually that it is difficult to sympathize with him. Later, as he commands the attack on the German Anthill from his safe spot behind the trenches, he screams maniacally and indignantly at his subordinates when they question his order to fire on their own troops. He is so obsessed with winning the war and maintaining discipline that there remains no humanity within him. We are clearly not meant to like this character, and in fact, over the course of the picture, we come to hate him. He is archetypically evil.
Col. Dax, on the other hand, is always presented sympathetically; he is modeled after the righteous hero archetype. When we are introduced to him, he is shirtless, his bare skin meant to represent his innate humanity. Additionally, he is always on the side of his troops; he openly challenges his superiors in defense of his men, first in the trenches, then more formally as their legal counsel in the courtroom. This animosity between French officers rather than between nations is driven home by the fact that we do not actually see any krauts until the very end, when the sweet, angelic German girl is made to sing in a rowdy tavern, causing the drunken French soldiers, and the film itself, to take on a sobering silence. We realize that this story was never about French vs German, but instead about the lower class foot soldiers vs the aristocratic high command, and, in a broader sense, the righteous human spirit vs the madness and folly of war.
Does Col. Dax gain the moral high ground on General Mireau by defending the three men accused of cowardice? If so, what does he accomplish? The men are still found guilty and thence executed. Perhaps nothing is accomplished, save only to show the world that war cannot completely crush every person’s humanity and compassion. Whatever the case, with Paths of Glory, as he would with all of his subsequent work, Stanley Kubrick showed that he had a fundamental understanding of the power of film and how to harness its various elements, be they lighting, mise en scene, or editing, to create a singular, visceral cinematic experience.