Sunday, December 21, 2008


Wham Bam

A 2008 release new to DVD that I've just seen: Wanted, directed by Timur Bekmambetov (no slouch of a name!) and starring the always capable James McAvoy as a working geek, somewhat in the manner of Ed Norton in The Fight Club (1999), until one day all hell breaks lose and, shazam!, turns out he's the scion of a super assassin, and gets to do the whole "train me till I break or make one of you" routine at the hands of a secret fraternity, complete with a sexy female, played by the ever-chiseled Angelina Jolie, named Fox (kinda ... says it all), and some other badass dudes, while Morgan Freeman stands around looking stoically sage, or sagely stoic. It all goes wrong in several right ways -- meaning that which side is bad and which good gets mixed up, but our hero manages to keep his head on straight. To its credit, the film just keeps moving with one of the more inventive car chase / shoot outs I can recall; it's also fun to catch glimpses of real Chicago in all the wildly improbable razza-ma-tazz. Basically it's a movie with characters who seem to occupy a video game, what with bending bullets and other kinds of Matrixy stunts. So, yeah, Fight Club meets Spider Man meets The Matrix in a video game. Just what the teen in us wanted.

WHC 'n' me

And for "Obscure Film I Never Heard Of That I'm Glad I Saw," the award goes to . . . Nothing But a Man (1964), directed by Michael Roemer, about Duff, an average black guy working for the railroad in Alabama who falls for a preacher's daughter slash school teacher, but runs afoul of the local Jim Crow status quo; he's also got a no-account drunken father whom he barely knows shambling around Birmingham. The cast is comprised mainly of non-professional actors (though a young Japhet Kotto is one of the surely railroad workers), but that means that Abbey Lincoln (a singer who plays the preacher's daughter) and Julius Harris (a registered nurse who plays Duff's dad) get to shine with performances that manage to imbue somewhat hackneyed parts (even in 1964) with grace and power and believable depth. The "hackneyed" slur could easily doom this film, except that its unassuming naturalness -- everything in it seems manifestly real rather than a set -- keeps before us, without hammering it or going for the extended schmaltz with which Hollywood tends to play up its "social concerns," that these are simply black people trying to live normal lives. In the world of 1964 that was a radical idea: that black folk were "no different" and should be able to live like anyone else, on equal footing. And it's that point that the film's director nicely underscored in his comments after the screening: to even show on screen a black couple in intimate close-up together was crossing a taboo. In other words, the somewhat static camera and the overuse of close-up and tight compositions serves a purpose, so that we can't try to distance ourselves from the basic human frustration these characters face against the restrictions and impositions of a society that can't accept equality. It's a film that's so gentle and restrained and yet, ultimately, so dignified about what it wants to say that it reminds one of good documentary making where the point of it all is made by the clarity with which the scenes are put together. And at this remove in time, even the film's hokeyness, here and there, is kind of endearing.

Another film shown at WHC this semester along these lines -- of depicting average people in such a way as to illuminate their lives' quiet dignity -- was Yosujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story (1953). This touching story of an elderly couple from a provincial town visiting their successful children in Tokyo, children who in the economic progress post-WWII have little real connection to their elders, works because of the understated bond of the older couple. One could search for a word to describe it: affection, commitment, love, tenacity -- but what those words don't get across, but the actors do, is how life with someone, for decades, becomes a taken-for-granted togetherness that works because it requires no proofs or demonstrations. When the wife/mother dies at the end, we get to see how self-absorbed her children are, but the film doesn't condemn them -- like their father, it accepts that that's how the young are. It's only the widow of the son who died in the war who truly empathizes with the old man, seeing the loss that the children would prefer not to notice. What makes the film so extraordinary is that it isn't sentimental or unsparing, it's as if it has no message at all. This is simply what some people lived through, it seems to say -- but in the context of the post-WWII world, and there are many shots of the urban world and many comments on how things are changing, what these people were living through is significant, and the film lets you grasp that without underscoring it unduly.

It seems that most of my viewing this semester at WHC fell into the "neo-realism" category. Another worthwhile screening was Fellini's seminal Nights of Cabiria (1957). For me, "Fellini" is always the Fellini of La Dolce Vita (1960) and 8 ½ (1963), but this film is effective for, in neo-realist fashion, depicting the underclass with genuine interest and fascination, not simply looking at "sordid" lives for the thrill of the sordid. It manages to create a varied and fascinating backdrop to the episodic vignettes that comprise a period of time in the life of the prostitute Cabiria. Played by Fellini's wife Giulietta Masina, Cabiria is a tour de force of expressive faces and physical gestures and movement. She's been likened to a female Chaplin, and rightly so. Like Chaplin's Tramp she is always more sinned against than sinning and is naive and pathetic in a winsome way. But unlike Chaplin, she can also be vituperative, egotistical, and somewhat callous. But in Fellini's case, the judgments aren't aimed at Cabiria but at the world she inhabits, with its frenzied religious rituals; destitute people living in caves visited by a single good Samaritan; rich, bored movie star and angry, then repentant girlfriend; coarser whores than Cabiria, who maintains an almost bourgeois sense of dignity; and heartless predators who woo the unsuspecting Cabiria, who never seems to learn from her misadventures, and then rob her. The film is ultimately unsatisfying because its only response to Cabiria's final predicament is to show life and high spirits going on -- which does revive Cabiria herself, but that revival is purely cinematic. And it's that insight, I believe, that sets Fellini off into his greatest achievements in understanding what cinema, as artifice, is all about.

While I admire the neo-realist efforts here and the documentary aesthetic, it seems to me that cinema as artifice is something a true artist of the medium must confront -- if only because of that tendency, as in Wanted, to keep pushing the envelope of what appears "real" on screen. Now that nothing does (or anything does -- same thing), it's good to go back and see films like Roemer's, Ozu's, '60s Fellini to see that there was a time when film might be as "real" as a Chekhov story or a newsreel. Really.


Dave King said...

I've had a quick trawl through your blog, not enough to do it justice, but enough to be impressed. I will be back!

Donald said...