Friday, August 31, 2012

Fixed Bayonets!

A war film reduced to its brute essence, Fixed Bayonets! possesses an almost transcendental rigour and self-discipline. It could just as easily be the work of a punch-drunk Dreyer as cinema’s resident tabloid poet, Samuel Fuller. Set on a snowy mountaintop during the Korean war, the film takes place on a bleached white canvas of snow, a thin painted backdrop adding to the overwhelming sense of artifice. It’s the perfect playground for a budget epic, and Fuller makes the most of it, alternating between lithe long takes and staccato montages in order to evoke the simultaneous terror and tedium of war. Save for the opening and closing blasts of music, the only sounds we hear are the sick crunch-crunch of feet on snow and the stereophonic call of the Korean trumpets. The periodic bursts of shell explosions and gunfire come as a relief from the hideous silence that pervades this unnatural place. Life is such a distant concern here that we might as well be watching two platoons of ghosts fighting over ownership of a cloud.

The stark setting of Fixed Bayonets! drains away all the other trappings of a typical Fuller war film—social commentary, anti-war agitation, autobiographical tangents—leaving only a series of irreducible moral challenges, like bodies uncovered in an empty swamp. The drama plays out in the soul of one Corporal Denno, a man who freezes up and cannot fire when confronted by enemy soldiers. As the leadership of the squad gets picked off one by one, Denno comes closer and closer to command and the inevitable confrontation with his own inability to take ownership of this bloodshed. Fascinatingly, Fuller underlines the man’s bravery where other filmmakers would cop-out and brand him a coward. The corporal may not want to take a life, but he’ll put his own on the line to save a wounded officer from the midst of a minefield. Compare that hair-raising sequence to the penultimate killing scene, when Denno, safely hidden in the bush, shoots an enemy at point-blank range. The Korean man’s body drops into the snow, like a puppet with its strings cut, and the rest of the squad rushes out to applaud Denno’s courage. Confusion flickers across his face. So this is bravery?

Monday, August 13, 2012

To Rome With Love

Woody Allen does not want to die. I assume this is not a surprising fact. Yet there is evidence that this perfectly reasonable desire—not to be crushed by the hobnailed boots of time, that is—is increasingly the primary driver behind Allen’s unflagging productivity. Playing an unhappily retired opera impresario in To Rome With Love, Allen lays out this premise in even blunter terms: retirement equals death. Absurd as it may be to live one’s life by such a principle, this fear is nonetheless the most persuasive argument yet to be made for late-career Allen. Who could begrudge the man his mediocrity if that’s really the only thing keeping the grim reaper at bay? And thus, we are gifted with the suspect pleasures of another one of Woody’s high-tourist pieces, a postcard of Rome with a few one-liners hastily scribbled on the back.

Inviting irrelevance while staving off death, the director’s relentless work ethic has led him on a hopscotch tour of Europe in recent years, as if he were a hunted man on the lamb from his own mortality. One imagines Allen hurriedly checking out of hotels, checking over his shoulder, always just one step ahead of the scythe nipping at his heels. How else to explain the clunky filmmaking of To Rome With Love? No doubt he was already planning his next escape before the last scene was even filmed. Presumably, we can look forward to many more years of Allen’s European adventures, moving from 2014’s artful murder-mystery Venice is Sinking to 2023’s mildly senile sex-farce Latke Love for Latvia (starring some young ingĂ©nue who is probably currently still in a training bra, plus a grateful Jude Law).

Two things should be noted here: a) I certainly don’t begrudge Allen’s efforts to stay alive, and b) none of this makes me any happier to slog through tiresome affairs like To Rome With Love. Last year’s Midnight in Paris was not without its own flaws, but it at least was centred by an affecting performance from Owen Wilson. In his latest batch of frothy Eurotrash stew, Allen clumsily mixes together four separate stories set in the Eternal City into one bland, lumpy mess. Stale one-liners and embarrassing sitcom plots abound—in one cringe-worthy example, a prostitute (Penelope Cruz) goes to the wrong hotel room, unleashing a chain of events that ultimately sees her impersonating a man’s wife and partaking of a private tour of the Vatican (a few moments of reflection is likely all you need to conjure up all of the expected jokes Allen draws from this scenario).

Much like in the earlier Parisian effort, the characters of this film are drawn into fantasy worlds far richer and more exotic than their own lives—a setup that effectively approximates the dislocation of the tourist experience. However, the resulting epiphanies are darker than the film’s glossy sheen would suggest. Leopoldo, the Italian white-collar worker played by Roberto Benigni, is granted a glimpse of celebrity living when his mundane existence becomes fodder for pundits and paparazzi. Yet when this notoriety ends as suddenly as it began, he yearns for his former fame (life is bad for everyone, so it’s better to at least be famous, the man’s ex-chauffeur explains). Allen’s Jerry almost destroys his daughter’s marriage for the sake of his opera dreams, only to salvage everything with the weirdly implausible fact that he doesn’t understand “imbecile” means the same in English as Italian (the joke is so corny it becomes funny again by virtue of sheer audacity). Jack, an architecture student played by Jesse Eisenberg, is all too willing to toss his girlfriend aside for a fling, only to find he is the one who has been discarded when the object of his affections chucks him overboard with only a moment’s notice. The happiest couple, by all appearances, is the young pair who save their marriage by cheating on each other.

It’s actually rather perverse that such grimness should be bracketed by a cheery tourism brochure, but this pessimism is the film’s sharpest feature, and a welcome relief from the overstrained comedy. The glamour of Rome masks the fact that this is a place of ruins, the graveyard of an empire. But this dark thought is fleeting—as are all dark thoughts in this light place—and its face is never fully revealed from beneath its cowl. Then, moments later, there is a knock on the door. The hotel air conditioning harmonizes with a singer in the piazza below. A faint odour of something like ashes drifts in from the hall. And when the maid finally enters the room, Allen has already leapt out the window, clutching the pages of a script treatment in his teeth as he repels down the walls of the Excelsior with tied-together bed sheets.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!

Auteur theory, at its most simplistic, can sometimes resemble little more than a checklist of directorial fetishes. In that regard, Russ Meyer—with his buxom uber-vixens and emasculated half-men—could easily stand as one of our greatest artistic lechers. As it is, he must settle for mucking about in the grimy back alleys behind the pantheon with his pin-up girls and beat-up cars. But give the man his due: he knew trash like no one else, and delivered it with a passion far beyond the cold cynicism of your typical exploitation movie. Indeed, a film like Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is almost uncomfortably personal at times, to the point of turning one man’s sexual hangups into a universal law akin to gravity (or the lack thereof, in the case of certain anatomical areas).

Skipping merrily along from one feverish image to the next, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! follows the violent misadventures of three hot-rodding go-go dancers who kill and kidnap their way to a desolate ranch populated by a wealthy, woman-hating crippled pervert and his two sons. The dialogue is a kind of oversexed poetry, filled with innuendo, pseudo-Beatnik slang, and surrealist one-liners (anti-heroine Varla is memorably described as being “like a velvet glove cast in iron”). Meyer spends much of the film at the feet of his three goddesses, shooting them, Welles-style, against a blank desert sky (the combination of outsized personalities and spatial disorientation occasionally creates the impression you’re watching 50-foot-tall Amazonians stomping feeble male midgets). Yet for all the film’s fondness for these ladies, violent Varla still can’t escape retribution for her crimes, although tellingly it’s another woman that finally fells the giantess. The cause of death, by all appearances, is blunt force trauma with a sex object.