Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Wrestler

After watching Darren Aronofsky float away into the void with The Fountain’s mysticism, it’s nice to see him grounded in the grimy, mundane world of The Wrestler. The closest Aronofsky gets to mysticism here is when he compares his wrestler to Christ, but the plus-side of this analogy is that you also get to see how Jesus would handle the Saturday afternoon rush from behind the counter at the local deli (when the going gets tough, Jesus always opts for the martyr cop-out). In this story of washed-up wrestler Randy the Ram coming to terms with his dead-end life, there’s always a bit of quotidian detail to keep things on the level, and the sight of him steadily grinding down his body in pursuit of stage(d) glory is undeniably affecting.

A pity then that the film’s structure is too rickety to fully support the tragic proportions of the story. In particular, a subplot with Randy’s estranged daughter, while perhaps dramatically useful, remains at best sketched out and awkwardly integrated into the film (Stripper: “Didn’t you mention you had an estranged daughter once while I was giving you a lapdance?”). Rourke is of course worthy of the part and throws his weight behind each punch, but all of this hyperbolic praise of his “comeback” threatens to blot out Randy’s self-immolation with Rourke’s self-redemption—a dubious tendency, and one that sort of misses the point of the film. Rumour has it Rourke will cap off his comeback by wrestling Chris Jericho at Wrestlemania, which suggests that like everyone else he has conflated his own life with Randy’s. Was he too busy bulking up for the part to read how the story ends?

Sunday, January 25, 2009

White Dog

Since I seem to be in a Samuel Fuller mode these days, I decided the time was ripe to finally watch White Dog, his infamous 1982 film about a German Shepherd trained to attack black people.

The film was shelved by Paramount and left unreleased for ten years for no better reason than the studio was squeamish about how the film’s treatment of racism would be received by audiences. If anything, this cowardice should be seen as evidence of the studio’s lack of esteem for the public’s intelligence, rather than a sign of any particular failing in the film itself. True, White Dog’s treatment of racism is complicated and disturbing, but the film is also unambiguously anti-racist (it feels absurd to have to point this out, but if the film’s intentions were misunderstood once, I don’t doubt that they can be misunderstood again).

After hitting a dog with her car, young actress Julie Sawyer (played by Kristy McNichol) takes in the wounded animal temporarily while looking for the dog’s real owner. However, she grows increasingly attached to the dog, a bond that is finally cemented when it saves her from a rapist who breaks into her apartment one night.

But the viciousness the dog displays in warding off the intruder starts to reveal itself in other circumstances. It runs off after a rabbit one afternoon and disappears for a day, savagely attacking a black man before trotting faithfully back to Julie covered in blood. With no way of knowing the blood is human, she blithely shrugs it off as the result of a fight with another dog and washes it away, baby-talking to the animal as she bathes it (in this age of cute, anthropomorphized movie creatures, it's refreshing to see Fuller exploit the gap between the animal nature of our pets and how we tend to treat them as little humans).

It is only once the dog mauls a fellow actress seemingly without provocation that Julie is forced to admit that the dog is violent, but she still refuses to put it down. She holds to her nagging optimism that the animal can somehow be cured of its attack-dog training, and it is this stubborn hope that leads Julie to an animal trainer named Keys, a black man familiar with the phenomenon of white dogs, who accepts the challenge of trying to cure the German Shepherd’s racist conditioning.

Maybe what made the studio uncomfortable was the way the film examines the disastrous consequences of this optimism, even though Fuller is obviously sympathetic to the determination of these people to cure the dog. Still, as emotional as Fuller’s filmmaking may be, he rarely falls for the lure of cheap sentiment. This is neither pious ode to the struggle against racism nor cynical swipe at good intentions gone bad; the film lies somewhere in the confounding terrain between those two extremes, where idealism has to reckon with the fallout of its failures and violence remains in defiance of all of principles. (Notably, the dog’s final vicious assault is provoked by someone resembling its original trainer, suggesting that violence, once unleashed, can never be fully mastered by anyone.)

Although Fuller approaches this story with his full sense of moral indignation, there is also a sense of uncertainty—even despair—as he questions how to overcome the deep roots of conditioning. When the trainer of the white dog finally appears, we see that it is not some ranting caricature of a bigot, but rather an amiable old man bringing his granddaughters to reclaim their lost pet. Even if Keys can break the dog’s conditioning, what can be done about these people?

By the standards of most Fuller films, this is a rather somber, meditative piece, but the filmmaking displays the force and intelligence of an old master. In one of the film’s most powerful shots, the camera circles around as Julie embraces the dog, focusing first on the calm eyes of the dog and then moving to the tender, caring expression on Julie’s face before circling around to the dog again, now with teeth bared at its prey. The transformation is sudden and shocking, and all the more distressing for how it occurs in a single elegant shot. Even more distressing, however, is the combination of cruelty and tenderness in a single creature, which is what makes the film's dilemma so intractable and its conclusion so wrenching.

As a filmmaker who always prided himself on the “multiracial world” of his films, Fuller placed himself on the progressive edge of American filmmaking, even as his politics seemed to alternately draw the ire of the right or the left. A career spent fermenting against inequalities finds its apotheosis in White Dog's allegory, and Fuller explores the complications of his ideals with unflinching directness and intelligence. The result is a masterpiece, and one of the most unique and unsettling films about racism to ever come out of America.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Pickup on South Street

One of the greatest joys of Samuel Fuller’s films—and incidentally, also for many people one of the greatest challenges in enjoying his work—is the combination of absurd B-movie conventions with the moral conviction the man brings to the telling of his sensational tales. The resulting films are exciting and often eccentric, but also strangely moving because of the sincere passions and honest ideals running through them.

However, there’s certainly no difficulty in enjoying Fuller’s dynamic style, even if you choose to dismiss the content of his films as pulp-movie nonsense. I once tried to initiate a friend into Fuller’s mad oeuvre with Shock Corridor, a feverish tale of a reporter trying to solve a murder in an insane asylum by pretending he is guilty of incest so that he can be committed (supporting characters include a black man who thinks he founded the KKK and tries to incite the other inmates to lynch mob violence). And yet, for all the lurid and sometimes flat-out silly turns of the story, it is still photographed by the great Stanley Cortez, surely one of the greatest black-and-white cinematographers to ever work in Hollywood. Even at its most flagrantly bizarre, it is still a work of incredible visual power. After watching it, my friend, seeming a bit stunned by my enthusiasm for the film, dismissed it as a case of “style over content.”

I can’t really blame him, even though I think he missed the point. It’s easy to fixate on the rough beauty of Fuller’s films and assume that’s all there is to him. It’s a visceral style—quick camera movements sweeping around the action, odd angles that leave the viewer reeling and create the impression that the whole world is a ship heaved up on the rocks, and sweaty, intense close-ups just to remind you that all of this madness is happening to actual human beings. But Fuller is no formalist in love with his images—if that were the case, you would expect there to be more polish and control in the visuals, which is certainly not the case. In fact, as he bragged in an old interview included on the Criterion DVD version of Pickup on South Street, a shot early in the film was even done blind. The cameraman couldn’t fit behind the camera because a wall was in the way, so the whole shot—a tricky one which involved the camera moving while following characters in the background and foreground—had to be done without anyone looking in the camera to make sure everyone was in the frame (they were). This is not the sort of behaviour you would expect of a director who wants only pretty pictures.

No, Fuller is better seen as a moralist. Critics often make much of his early career in the New York tabloid press, banging out muckraking accounts of murders and suicides beneath screaming headlines, as the root of his sensationalistic and decidedly unsubtle storytelling sense. But Fuller is not cynical or calculated when it comes to his stories. He may be over the top, but usually what sends him over is his sense of moral outrage and that perverse tabloid mentality that demands the truth above all else, even the facts.

And maybe that’s a good thing. If Fuller cared just about the facts of a story like Pickup on South Street, it would be a bore of a movie—just another bit of Red-baiting early 1950s B-movie detritus. The film follows the story of Skip McCoy (wonderfully played by an insolent Richard Widmark with his lip perpetually curled upwards), a thrice-jailed pickpocket who swipes the wallet of a woman on the New York subway and ends up in possession of a microfilm containing government secrets being sold to the Communists. Yes—Communists! Microfilm! Spies! The story is so ridiculous I feel a little embarrassed just writing that brief synopsis.

But Fuller’s instinct, while truly tabloid, elevates the story into something affecting—I picture him sitting at a typewriter, chomping absent-mindedly on his cigar, asking himself, Okay, Communists, spies, all that jazz, fine, but what’s the human angle? With that question, he begins sweeping aside the Cold War and abstractions like patriotism as inconvenient nonsense in the way of a good story. One of the key lines in the film (and one that raised the ire of J. Edgar Hoover himself, who personally complained to Fuller about it) comes when the police and Feds try to pressure Skip into admitting he has the microfilm by suggesting it would be treasonous to do anything other than give it to them. With a sneer on his face, Skip spits back at the authorities, “Are you waving the flag at me?” He is beneath politics, so far down society’s ladder that the Cold War is as distant from his life as Russia itself.

He is joined down there in the gutter by several others who share his disinterest in the intricacies of global politics. There is Candy (Jean Peters in a performance that alternately threatens to burst out of her sweater or simply shatter glass), the woman on the subway from whom he steals the film. She seems to live by a thread and subsists on money earned by doing jobs for Joey, an ex-lover who, to her chagrin, turns out to be working for the Communists. And nearest to the heart of the film is Moe (Thelma Ritter), a professional stool pigeon who sells ties on the street and information in the police stations. Together, these characters suggest a discarded world that is aware of its own expendability, all sustained by a moral code that compensates for the indifference of the rest of society towards them.

This code boils down to one simple phrase: “We all gotta eat somehow.” They don’t judge each other’s livelihoods and all they expect in return is not to be judged as well. Moe, in particular, carries the burden of this philosophy. She sells out Skip twice in the film (first to the police, and then to Candy when the woman comes looking for the missing microfilm), but he shrugs it off. She has to earn a living somehow, right? And as she points out when she haggles with the police over the price of her information, the cost of living is going up.

Although it should be noted what is really on her mind is the cost of death, or more precisely, the cost of a cemetery plot and tombstone. With the stubborn pride of the terminally poor, she is determined to buy herself into a nice grave in order to defy the circumstances of her life and prove she was as good as the rich people all along. She knows she can’t afford to live the good life, but she hopes she can at least afford to die the good death. As a depiction of the grind of poverty and old age, there is nothing quite so moving as Moe’s weary, glassy-eyed expression as she stares at her own approaching death and sighs, “I have to go out and make a livin’ so I can die.”

That’s the trick with Fuller. Whenever we approach a B movie, there’s a tendency to feel superior to it. The characters are expected to be flat cartoons, the plot ludicrous, the acting hammy or awkward. We don’t expect there to be anything redeeming about it but superficial qualities—it can be stylish in its own crude way, or amusing in its embarrassing badness. But it’s not supposed to move us, to do anything that might suggest it actually has something to offer us beyond cheap thrills and smug laughs.

But Fuller’s film do contain moments of such rich pathos as Moe’s death—“Look, mister, I’m so tired, you’ll be doing me a big favor if you blow my head off,” she says to Joey, who obliges without hesitation—and moments of such genuine humanity as when Skip claims Moe’s coffin from a barge carrying it to a pauper’s grave. One of the men on the barge asks Skip if he is her relative. When Skip says he isn’t, the man is confused. What would he want with her then? The pickpocket’s response is terse and determined: “I’m going to bury her.”

The turning point of the film comes when Skip realizes that Moe and Candy both stood up for him—that two people actually do give a damn about him. Both women refuse to give up his location to Joey. Moe dies for her troubles and Candy is shot and beaten (which sounds potentially fatal, but Candy spends so much time in this film getting slapped around that it seems to have toughened her up—she’s on her feet by the end of the movie). Patriotism may have failed to move him, but personal loyalty does the trick.

More than just demands for empathy and equality in the world, Fuller’s films also test these values in the audience by forcing us to look past surface impressions to the genuine qualities of the work itself. There are undoubtedly flaws in this film, ranging from the tone-deaf performance of Jean Peters as Candy to the various holes that make the plot seem like a well-worn rag at times (for instance, if Skip’s shack is under police surveillance for most of the film, how can so much shady and downright criminal activity occur there without any police response? Are we to assume they just fell asleep?).

But when Fuller is in peak form, as he is in Pickup on South Street, such concerns become irrelevant; you can just lose yourself in the exhilarating energy of the film, where each frame is propelled by a sense of conviction and purpose and lands like a punch to the gut. Consider this 80 minutes of raw emotion sublimated into images.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Brief Reviews

The Lost Weekend: Billy Wilder’s famed Oscar-baiting depiction of an alcoholic writer is not as bad as you would think, but certainly not as good as you would hope. Essentially a horror movie in which the monster is a tumbler glass (any random household object becomes deeply terrifying when accompanied by a sufficiently intimidating theremin score), Wilder stumbles through the film shackled—uncharacteristically—by good taste. Still, the dialogue occasionally has a bit of kick to it, and I was amused by the modest yet unsettling surrealism of the protagonist’s DT hallucinations: a stream of blood trickling down the wall as a bat devours a mouse (cue hysterical shrieking). It’s really one of the few moments in which the film’s intimations of melodramatic social horror story come through. But the earnest, socially responsible speechifying of the ending doesn’t ring true coming from a snide misanthrope like Wilder, and besides that, who watches a Billy Wilder film because they want to learn how to empathize with the plight of their fellow man?

Ashes of Time Redux: Director Wong Kar Wai returns to his 1994 martial arts film of the same name (minus the “Redux,” of course) and comes up with a confounding but beautiful film about the agony of memory. An aura of melancholy surrounds this story of a swordsman who helps strangers solve their problems while hiding from his own, but there’s also something pleasingly perverse about a martial arts movie filmed primarily in close-up, and the confusing early section—with its talky scenes jumbled together in a fragmented chronology—only heightens this sense of disorientation. The tourists expecting wirework and visceral fight sequences will quickly be frightened away. Those who stay will be treated to some truly rapturous image-making and an elusive, but curiously engrossing, narrative tightly packed into a rather dense hour and a half.

Hancock: A soulless, high-concept cash grab in denial over its true nature, which means that we can at least admire its lack of cynicism. Still, this movie’s clumsy mishandling of its story—is it quirky action-comedy or pseudo-tragic fantasy-romance melded with blow-shit-up effects?—could easily be mistaken for innovation or cleverness when it’s actually neither. A dull movie grafted onto the body of a stupid one, and the host dies.

La Antena: An Argentine sci-fi dystopia done in a silent-film style, albeit with many, shall we say, evolutionary add-ons, the most notable of which is how the film uses words on screen as physical objects, in one case even as bullets. Esteban Sapir, the director, constructs some indelible images, but Esteban Sapir, the writer, trips him up with a bland, almost dutiful allegory about corporate media and dissent. It’s tempting to compare this film to the work of Guy Maddin, the going master of revived silent film aesthetics, but Maddin’s films are energized by his personal obsessions and humour. Sapir, on the other hand, wallows in a self-seriousness that seems oblivious to the playful and absurd visuals that abound. Listen here, Sapir: if Maddin can revel in the campy elements of his style and still be taken seriously as an artist, then you can at least pretend you’re having fun. A film best appreciated as a series of stills.

Wooden Crosses: Raymond Bernard is a largely neglected French director, but on the strength of this WWI drama from 1932, I would say he’s ripe for a revival. The film takes place almost entirely on the battlefields and in the trenches, save for a few tantalizingly brief flashbacks to the home front, creating the feeling that all of reality is a bombed-out dirt field filled with dead trees and the security of home is nothing more than a blissful, unobtainable dream. The film seems chiefly interested in evoking trench warfare, which means there isn’t really a narrative here so much as a series of incidents in which soldiers are forced to confront their own mortality. Even though the characters might seem overly familiar at first (cynical veterans, na├»ve recruits, all that jazz), the film defies expectations. By the time you get to the wounded corporal ranting deliriously with his dying breath against his wife’s infidelity, you start to realize you’ve entered into far stranger, more disturbing territory than your average war film. In this film, death is a lonely hell in which you call out to the living but are no longer heard because you are no longer one of them. It’s anti-war in the sense that it wants us to understand how truly terrible it is to wish such a fate upon anyone. As far as war films go, it’s an effective approach.