Tuesday, June 12, 2018
In a barren caged enclosure, two gorillas listlessly mate while a slow drizzling rain falls upon the scientist assigned to take detailed notes on the procedure. It’s a pathetic and hilarious image, reducing raw animality to joyless scientific bureaucracy, and Primate is littered with similarly absurd sights. Frederick Wiseman’s 1974 study of the Yerkes Primate Research Centre finds considerable humour in contrasting the dry manner of the scientists with the instinctive behaviour they chronicle (you’re unlikely to ever again hear so many thoughtful discussions on the various qualities of monkey erections). But the director, rather than just chuckling at the scene of five men in white coats staring intensely at a vial of chimp semen, is interested in turning that dispassionate observational style back on the researchers themselves to meditate upon the uneasy moral questions of scientific progress. Does the value of knowledge always outweigh its costs? Wiseman responds with a horrific vivisection, where we watch a monkey slowly disassembled before our eyes—chest sliced open, organs pulled out, head cut off, brain removed and sectioned. A once-living creature becomes a microscope slide in a laboratory. “That is beautiful,” one awe-struck scientist says while studying the abstract swirls on the slide, liked a dazzled art lover standing before Guernica, admiring the strange beauty that can arise out of violence and death.
The scientists have their own say in a late scene where the centre staff share frustrations over finding funding amid the relentless drive for practical knowledge. As one sagely notes, the discovery of penicillin likely would struggle to win a government grant in the present day. The winding path of human progress runs through many unexpected detours, and scientific leaps often rely on discoveries previously thought to have no pragmatic value. So are all of the methods shown in the film, however cruel they may seem, ultimately justifiable? Wiseman leaves the question floating uncomfortably in the air, much like the subject of the final experiment depicted, a monkey experiencing zero-gravity in an air force jet. Still, it’s hard to ignore the various mechanical devices and processes employed by the scientists in pursuit of a deeper understanding of natural behaviour. The study of the monkey’s brain under microscope is edited together with the same speed and repetitive motion you might see in footage of an industrial factory. Electrodes stimulate the animals to sex or violence, and scientists swing from bars in an effort to prompt their subjects into action. While discussing plans to artificially inseminate a chimp, one man says, without any apparent irony, “Then we’ll let nature take its course.” The only natural thing in the film is the centre’s front lawn.
Monday, May 7, 2018
Frederick Wiseman began his film career fully formed, his distinctive approach to documentary already firmly established, with Titicut Follies, a probing study of a state hospital for the criminally insane. The Massachusetts government blocked the general public from viewing the film for decades, eventually prompting Wiseman to add what is surely one of the most passive-aggressive legal disclaimers in film history. Given the matter-of-fact brutality depicted throughout the film, the state’s response is hardly surprising; this would not be the first time an institution would regret exposing its inner workings to the director. Stark moments like the tube-feeding of one emaciated patient add a sour undertone to even the most benign sequences, like a birthday party where well-fed guards and inmates eat cake and play games. In a sequence that calls to mind Samuel Fuller’s America-as-madhouse classic Shock Corridor, two men debating America’s involvement in Vietnam are slowly drowned out by another patient’s tuneless rendition of “The Ballad of the Green Berets.” The titular follies—put on by the hospital staff for the benefit of the patients (and based on how Wiseman films the performance, us as well)—seem downright horrifying in this context, a momentary upending of the power balance that only reinforces the helplessness of the patients. One moment the guards are telling corny jokes and singing; the next, they’re forcing the inmates to strip and march down the hall.
Anyone watching all of this institutionally sanctioned abuse might reasonably ask what sanity is supposed to look like in such a place. Would Jim, the teacher reduced to screaming outbursts by the childish taunts of the guards, seem terribly ill in an environment that accorded him greater dignity? The possibility that it is the hospital that makes the madness and not the reverse is one of the film’s more disturbing questions, posed most forcefully by Vladimir, a paranoid schizophrenic arguing with his doctors that his time in the facility has only worsened his condition (a brief stay for observation has stretched into a year and a half). The doctors greet his arguments with bemused condescension, and one immediately suggests upping the man’s drug dosage to tone down his agitation. The possibility that Vladimir might be right—that sitting naked in a bare cell listening to a delusional inmate rave about obscure papal politics might not be conducive to addressing deep-rooted psychological trauma—is never entertained. In the eyes of the institution, he’s less a human being and more a problem to be solved. Sanity is interchangeable with pliability in this equation, and he will presumably be deemed “better” when he ceases to complain. Tellingly, the only patient in the film to be released leaves in a pine box.
Monday, April 30, 2018
Apparently, filmmaker and cycling aficionado Bryan Fogel was so disillusioned by the Lance Armstrong doping scandal that he could only respond in kind, and the result is Icarus. In preparation for the gruelling seven-day Haute Route cycle race in the Alps, the director subjects himself to a carefully structured doping regimen, all conducted under the watchful eye of a Russian scientist and filmed for our edification. Admittedly, amateur races like the Haute Route aren’t subject to the same stringent drug screening as professional sporting events, but the ramifications of Fogel’s actions remain disappointingly unaddressed by the film. Even if his doping doesn’t outrage the viewer’s sense of fair play, there are also his repeated insinuations that the race leaders are performing at an implausibly high level: in other words, doping themselves. Karma comes calling in the form of a broken derailleur, and he ends the race, demoralized and exhausted, placed lower than the previous year. What does this mean for the racers who spent months training and thousands of dollars on entry fees only to finish behind a second-rate filmmaker pumped up on testosterone injections? What are the health side effects of this entire horse-brained scheme anyway? Losing is apparently answer enough.
In an admittedly novel twist, the director’s sub-Spurlockian gonzo antics open up a global conspiracy that reaches all the way to Vladimir Putin. (But what global conspiracy doesn’t these days?) Fogel’s scientist friend, Grigory Rodchenkov, blows the whistle on Russia’s athletic doping program and flees to America, where he will ultimately go into witness protection out of fear for his own life. This jagged tale has intriguing implications—how international sporting events play into the political agendas of various governments, for instance—while Rodchenkov himself is the kind of colourful personality that most novelists can only dream of one day conceiving. But mostly, the film just scrambles to hold onto the runaway story it has chanced upon. Quick-hit newscast montages summarize the unfurling drama and animated infographics spell out the intricate mechanics of switching urine samples. Whatever charge the film offers comes from its own giddiness at being in such close proximity to a real-life conspiracy thriller, but Fogel and company remain wary of diving too deep into the legal, political, and moral tangle of the subject. Add in some generic glossy aerial footage of various cities and some slickly edited sequences of athletes in action, and you have all the makings of an Oscar-anointed modern documentary. Perhaps it’s time the academy started testing for performance enhancing drugs?
Wednesday, March 28, 2018
Two men meet on a deserted street. One hands his briefcase to the other and leaves without a word. Inside the case, buried beneath some shirts and bundled newspapers, there is a worn, cheap-looking paperback called Le silence de la mer, written by Vercors and published clandestinely in France during World War II. As the pages flip open, we are transported back to 1941, when “No Jews Allowed” signs popped up in cafes across the country and the only tourists strolling the streets of Paris sported Nazi uniforms.
Now, as far as storybook openings go, this is not exactly the stuff of Disney, but it is a fitting beginning for Jean-Pierre Meville’s Le silence de la mer, which adapts the Vercors novel as a grimly naturalistic fairy tale filled with captive princesses, sensitive monsters, and an entire populace held under somnolent enchantment. Unsurprisingly, Beauty and the Beast is one of the film’s key references, with the role of the monster filled by a Nazi officer named Werner von Ebrennac, who is billeted at a cozy French countryside cottage inhabited by an older man and his niece.
A musician in his civilian life, the officer is charming and sensitive, a dedicated Francophile, and his fondest wish is for the occupation to meld France and Germany into “a solid union, where each is made greater.” He speaks of a broken engagement to a ferocious fraulein in the fatherland, recalling a sun-spackled, meadow-set outing where he queasily watched as his betrothed ripped the legs from a mosquito with ecstatic sadism. His love for France in general—and the niece in particular—carries with it a whiff of desperation as he searches for sanctuary from his violent compatriots. But the French are understandably skeptical of the officer’s attempt to frame the occupation as an idiosyncratic form of German courtship, and uncle and niece answer their guest’s heartfelt nightly monologues with a defiant, if fragile silence.
“Perhaps it’s inhuman to refuse him even a single word,” admits the uncle to his niece in a moment of weakness. Perhaps, but speaking might have been even crueller. Free to say what he wants before his mute audience, von Ebrennac can maintain the illusion that he remains a cultured, humane soul while serving a genocidal regime. However, the silence is even more perilous for the French hosts. What begins as an act of resistance can easily seem like a tacit acceptance of the officer’s presence, as the uncle himself muses in his voiceover narration at one point. The distinction between passive resistance and plain passivity is not always clear. Notably, once the officer leaves for the front, preferring to die rather than defy his superiors, we still do not see the uncle and niece talk openly between each other, even though the German’s ghostly presence has finally vanished from their home. One wonders if they have forgotten how to speak.
Thursday, February 8, 2018
The Other Side of Hope, the second part of Aki Kaurismaki's planned migrant trilogy, bears a superficial similarity to its predecessor, Le Havre, but six years and millions more people displaced make the two films feel like dispatches from different worlds. True, both are tales of immigrants stranded on the shores of a European port, with the French setting and African boy of the first film traded for Finland and a young Syrian refugee named Khaled. Of course, the cast is stacked with Kaurismaki's usual coterie of stone-faced Finns and aging rockabilly musicians, and the plot is shaggier than a sheepdog: a financially struggling shirt salesman, Waldemar Wikstrom, leaves his alcoholic wife and gambles his life savings in an illicit high-stakes poker game in order to purchase a restaurant staffed by the comic-relief squad. But the refugee crisis has only grown in severity since 2011, and The Other Side of Hope strikes a consistently darker tone than Le Havre as a result. The soft-hearted police inspector of the earlier film has been replaced by an indifferent bureaucratic machine; kindness remains the chief currency of Kaurismaki's world, but it seems to buy so much less now. Television news footage of the destruction in Syria appears at one point, and the grainy, violent imagery set against the filmmaker's gentle, quiet style feels like a deliberate act of vandalism.
Kaurismaki still mines humour from Europe's cultural myopia, particularly in the sequence where the restaurant crew fumbles an attempt to serve sushi, but his depiction of the racist thugs as dimwits—one nonsensically spits anti-Semitic epithets at Khaled after attacking him—never forgets the very real danger represented by nativist violence. Friends and strangers alike step forward with their own acts of kindness, but helping one man escape the police or chasing away a racist gang can do little against a stacked immigration system and the escalating global wave of refugees. Kaurismaki seems to genuinely be grappling with how individual action, however noble and humane, can do anything for a problem of such massive scale, and the film's ambivalent ending contains a world of suffering in a single sad smile. Khaled's sister submits herself to the same system that has already failed her brother, who heads off to an uncertain fate, still a citizen of nowhere. Briefly reunited, the pair seemed destined to separate lives once again, while Wikstrom chances upon his wife, now sober and healthy, working in a bodega and ready to resume married life. Apparently happy endings are still possible—for the locals, anyways.
Tuesday, January 23, 2018
The sensual gothic daydream of Rebecca has always fit oddly alongside Alfred Hitchcock's other works. The director resented producer David O. Selznick's heavy hand and expressed mixed feelings towards the end result—"Well, it's not a Hitchcock picture," he told Truffaut—but who can resist this intoxicating blend of Jane Eyre and Bluebeard, spiced with a dash of Alice in Wonderland? (Is it just me or do the doorknobs get higher as the film progresses?) Our heroine, played by Joan Fontaine, is a gawky young woman so unformed that she lacks even a name. We know her only as the first-person singular in the film's opening narration, "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again." Without prospects or family, she is an eager bride to Maxim de Winter, a broody old-money type sulking his way across the French Riviera with the ghost of his dead wife. The young woman becomes the second Mrs. de Winter and moves into the extravagant Manderley estate, where the dead wife's initial is branded upon everything in sight. Impostor syndrome seems the only possible outcome in a place where you can't even blow your own nose without being handed your predecessor's monogrammed handkerchief. The unseen Rebecca looms large as an impossible standard of femininity—breeding, brains, and beauty, Maxim glumly notes—that the younger woman can never possibly match.
From this sinister fairy tale of a young woman's coming of age we shift to plodding procedural in the film's later moments. To satisfy the production code, the filmmakers contort the plot in sometimes baffling ways—I never knew one person could die by murder, suicide, and natural causes simultaneously—but ghosts are harder to appease than Will Hays. The second Mrs. de Winter loathes her predecessor but also feels the seductive pull of that personality, with its promise of beauty, glamour, and a secure place in the world. The narrator is all but drowning in the luxury of Manderley—she clings to the walls as if the polished floors could swallow her whole—and Rebecca torments her like a distant shore. Introduced to viewers as a dream, the entire film can be seen as a young woman's overwrought fantasy of married life, poised somewhere between excitement and dread. "We're happy, aren't we? Terribly happy!" she pleads with her husband, and neither looks terribly convinced of the sentiment. Instead, they watch film footage of their honeymoon and tell each other that images of married bliss can stand in for the real thing, while the narrator looks back on this sad moment from an indeterminate present, chasing a fleeting happiness through these layers of fantasy and memory. Manderley is gone, all traces of Rebecca consumed by fire, and still the place holds the narrator in its thrall. Perhaps birds sometimes dream of their gilded cages too.
Tuesday, September 26, 2017
Among Nocturama’s visions of terrorist violence—windows blown out at the Palais de Justice, a statue of Joan of Arc set ablaze, the top of a skyscraper shattered by explosions—nothing is quite so unsettling as the sight of a lone car burning on an empty Parisian street at night. No curious onlookers, no first responders: this is terror turned mundane, the point where fear and paranoia gives way to numbness and inertia. David, one of the film’s dewy revolutionaries, encounters the wreck on a midnight stroll following a carefully coordinated city-wide bombing carried out by his comrades. Of the entire group, he is the one most unsettled by these actions, and he has slipped away from the others in an attempt to grasp how, if at all, the world has been changed by the explosions. Briefly, he chats with a girl on a bicycle, asking her about what has been happening in the wake of the attack; she speaks in the blasé tones of an opiated Cassandra about how she had always known this was coming at some point. Like so many of the characters shown in the film, she accepts the prospect of her world being engulfed in flame with the same shrugging indifference with which one greets bad weather.
Bertrand Bonello has drained his film’s terrorists—a deliberately multi-racial group of mostly university-age Parisians—of any sense of purpose. There are allusions to economic discontent and historic revolts, but the group mostly carries out its plans with an impersonal, almost robotic, efficiency. The members are conduits for a violence they neither comprehend nor fully control, as the escalating brutality of the film’s conclusion suggests. Only once the group members are holed up in a department store to wait out the post-bombing chaos does their youth and naiveté become fully apparent. As sirens flicker in the streets outside and dead security guards slowly leak blood onto the store’s floor, the terrorists marvel at the quality of the building’s sound system and playfully wield plastic guns. The stricken cry of “Aidez-moi! Aidez-moi!” that concludes the film is the sound of sleepwalker awakening in a strange and frightening place, covered in blood and holding a gun that he does not recognize is his own. Everyone’s complicity in the system they seek to destroy is summed up by one terrorist’s encounter with his mannequin doppelganger, decked out in the same Nike-stamped blue shirt he wears. A martyr without a cause, he will spend his death not on the streets of paradise, but in the aisles of Printemps.