Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Dirty Pretty Things (Frears, 2002)

Though billed as a thriller (and with a DVD cover that suggests an 'erotic thriller'), Stephen Frears' Dirty Pretty Things is actually a sociological 'problem picture' that uses sparse and undeveloped (not to be confused with 'underdeveloped') genre tropes to try to create an immediacy paralleling the desperate situations of its characters. Whether the thriller aspects are even remotely necessary is debatable, but thankfully they don't deflate the film's themes or detract attention away from the other aspects.

Like the people visiting the hotel at which they work, Okwe and Senay are in a state of transition, only on a grander scale. The hotel is a direct but not overstated metaphor for the country the two immigrants live in: they checked in for a while, but they're going to have to leave sometime. Neither are legally entitled to work, but legality doesn't mean much in the underworld the film depicts. Okwe is a kind of benevolent entrepreneur of this London underground, making rounds during the day to various locations, dispensing Amoxicillin for men who refuse to go to the hospital (out of embarrassment, perhaps) and other such gestures. Senay has an apartment, and she rents her couch to him, though he rarely sleeps as a result of some sort of root he chews on. At first she refuses to be there when he is, but eventually allows him. She loves him, but they're too busy surviving to develop a relationship.

At a point, Okwe finds a heart in a toilet. He begins playing detective, but in a muted, believable form. When he finds out that kidneys are being removed by an untrained person in the hospital in exchange for passports, it is just a simple revelation, not some Soylent Green-esque foolishness. Basically, the film has the shape of a thriller but doesn't indulge in it fully, to its benefit. Okwe was a doctor in Africa, but refused to destroy evidence and his house was firebombed, killing his wife. He was charged with the murder and fled, which is how he ended up here. As a physician, he is actually qualified to perform the operations, and is again approached to make a choice of doing the 'wrong' thing, with severe consequences if he doesn't (in this case, continuing living in fear of being deported and therefore arrested, and keeping Senay in the same situation). It is explained to him that Señor Juan gets paid, the donor gets a passport, the kidney's receiver gets a kidney, and everyone wins. But exploitation is still exploitation, and Okwe can't come to terms with being involved in it.

What he ends up doing is exploiting the former exploiter, taking Juan's kidney and selling it. He splits the money between him, Senay, and the prostitute Juliette. The doctor prescribed Juan a taste of his own medicine! (sorry). Anyway, this seems to be a triumph, but in the end Okwe and Senay must part. They whisper 'I love you" as Senay leaves on a plane and all that hokey stuff. Okwe has to go find his daughter in Africa, and at this point the film ends. It's assumed that they will reunite later, and live happily and things.

Dirty Pretty Things is a decent film. Nothing revelatory (immigrants can be exploited!?), and a bit dramatically blasé at times. Solid without being remarkable.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Capsules: Bird (Eastwood, 1988)/High Plains Drifter (Eastwood, 1973)

Bird (Eastwood, 1988)
Bird is commendable and interesting because it does not follow a standard biopic formula of rise to fame followed by fall to ruin. The film begins and occasionally revisits the fall, and we don't get the whole picture of the rise or plateau. There is a deterministic quality to this approach, as the beginning is not a tidy prologue on a death bed in which Parker says "ahh, I remember when..." and the film goes into flashback mode. We're thrown into the thick of it, and it's potentially disorentating and none of the film is wholly satisfying. Is life? When we see Parker playing sax to a cheering crowd, we don't revel in his fortune because we are painfully aware of the heroine coursing through his veins and of his eventual-made-inevitable demise. Given that Eastwood is an admirer of Parker's, it's strange but, again, commendable that he didn't choose a more hagiographic, or even favorable, approach. He tells it like it is, so to speak, and though this may incur a sense of detachment from Bird's supposed superb craftsmanship and musical ability, that detachment is precisely what is so effective and rich about the piece.

High Plains Drifter (Eastwood, 1973)
High Plains Drifter is Eastwood's early existential-Western masterpiece in which he largely reprises his Man With No Name role, though arguably in a more compelling context. In addition, the behind-the-camera Eastwood seems to be doing Leone (and, probably, by way of Siegel, given his respect and connections to that director) as best he can. And he can do it damn well.

The story is complex morally, to say the least. As Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote are the universal existential pop-culture icons representing the infinite struggle for an unattainable goal, the Man With No Name embodies the spirit of the phrase "the ends justify the means." Some of the things he does are downright brutal, and the viewer must confront the "why" of the matter. The paradox is, if retribution is "right," the Stranger sets everything right. He is a sole man for and against society, and yet still for himself. Sometimes, his actions are complicated simply by his unwillingness to explain himself. Should he explain himself to the world he finds, perhaps justifiably, distasteful? He is an oasis of specific coldness in a world of general, indifferent coldness, but at least his coldness is progressive. In Lagos (Hell), morality and the lives of its inhabitants stagnate as surely as those inhabitants faced with the whipped man's cries for help. And I won't even go into the end, which is damn cool if nothing else.

There is one scene that, in itself, seems undeniably misogynistic. The Stranger rapes a woman after dragging her forcibly into a barn. Again, there's a paradox: she approached him, and obviously wanted to fuck him, but treated him with hostility rather than admit it. Her behavior exhibits the antithesis to the Stranger's quiet forcefulness, directness, and consistency, and oddly they both get what they want even if the woman won't admit it. Again, his method is probably indefensible, but the ends are satisfactory by any reasonable morality. And, in a world that doesn't allow for gentle methods, a world that won't collaborate for a greater good, do the ends justify the means, especially if no other means would work? The question is posed but not answered by the film. As cliché as it is to mention, that's good art.

This film is staggeringly rich (excuse the hyperbole; it sounds good), and there's the whole redemptive-ghost-eye-for-an-eye aspect, and others, that I haven't even touched on.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Unfaithfully Yours (Sturges, 1948)

In many an American film from the '30s and '40s, the movie begins with a title sequence married with an orchestral swell of sometimes inopportune music. Preston Sturges' 1948 masterpiece begins the same way, except we see the orchestra. The camera slowly pans forward toward the figure at the center of the frame, the conductor, until the frame is enveloped in the darkness of his black tuxedo jacket. Is there a better statement encompassing the major function of the film to follow? Unfaithfully Yours has all the appearances of a, shall we say, "normal" film, but it knows that it isn't, and soon the viewer is hurtled to dizzying heights of darkness, intrigue, pathos, and, yes, hilarity. Sturges molds the Hollywood form by manipulating it from the outside.

The conductor feigns modesty, undermining his own contribution to the orchestra, when in fact he is an extremely egoistic man, banking on British superiority over American, his own intellect and wordplay, and his status as a famous and indeed passionate and talented conductor. He is also, however, insecure; the slightest suspicion sets him off, and is the crux of the picture. He is so aware, though subconsciously, of his unworthiness of his wife that suspicion of cheating becomes certainty, and he can't bear the thought of confronting the matter and so essentially casts himself in three different ways the situation may play out in another, lesser film. These three imaginary conclusions are characterized by the music he is conducting at the moment, and his anguish becomes a stimulus that makes his performance a sensation. He is the true performing artist, pouring his every thought, emotion, and passion into his work.

Linda Darnell as Daphne, his wife, is fantastic. In an early scene when Sir Alfred first suspects her and treats her harshly and totally condescendingly (when she threatens to see a movie rather than her performance, he remarks "culturally, it would suit you better," and other wholly vilifying yet witty phrases), the viewer seeing the film with the knowledge that she is innocent will feel extremely sorry for her. Yet, when she is playing the femme fatale, the secretive seductress, and other roles in Sir Alfred's imaginings, she plays them all to a tee. Daphne is an utterly good wife, faithful, helpful, and sweet. It is perhaps because she never gave Sir Alfred a cause to suspect that he takes so readily to the idea, and that he is so infuriated. That coniving harpy! Only she isn't.

The first time I watched the film, I was taken in by the first daydream sequence, and it was an extremely effective twist of the narrative. Just as I began to believe the perfect murder was committed (I don't remember if I was thrilled or not; I was probably unamused), I found out it was all a joke, and was ecstatic because of it. "All a joke" as in all to be reversed, but this is a thoroughly coherent, insightful, and moving insight into the male psyche as much as it is a riotous dark comedy. This second time, I was able to appreciate the subtle cues that what we are seeing is not, in fact, taking place. Because you don't know what is going to fly in a movie, you think "oh, turning that nob does make his voice sound like his wife's, I guess." But, of course, it doesn't, as we see later in a hilarious sequence of man wrestling technology in slapstick, a good ol' standby from Chaplin through Sturges/Harrison and on to Woody Allen.

When Alfred finally leaves the performance and tries to carry out his plan of murder, everything goes wrong. Everything. It seems inarguable that this slapstick sequence outstays its welcome, but you either revel in its excess or you don't. It and I most certainly do. Rex Harrison is no Chaplin or Keaton, and that is precisely why the scene works. Sir Alfred is a man utterly unprepared for slapstick. There is no grace, no elevating of a quarrelsome chair or a falling lamp to an art resembling ballet. He is a normal guy, stumbling over stuff, throwing a roulette set through the window (thinking it's a phonograph, of course). And to think, this guy has a superiority complex. In his mind, the perfect murder is a piece of cake. Obviously, he was wrong.

His wife comes home, and she is sweet as always to him. As he chastises her for no particular reason, she follows behind him and picks up his trail of clothing and objects. This is not her being subservient because she's a woman, but her being genuinely caring and helpful. Sturges creates in her an independent female that has teeth when she needs them, but she loves Sir Alfred, and there's little question that he loves her, even if he plots her demise or other forms of undoing.

Unfaithfully Yours is at once a wonderful insight into just how stupid the male gender can be, and how despite the fact that the woman is often viewed as the one inclined toward emotional judgements, the man is frail in the light of his own. It is in addition a film that toys with movie conventions and, fittingly, when the couple is inevitably reunited in love, the sentiment (though far more earned and genuine than many films that could end similarly) is overlooked by a group headed by Daphne's wisecracking (and, in ways, polar opposite) sister. With this as a counterpoint, "A thousand poets dreamed a thousand years, then you were born, my love" doesn't seem to be overdoing it. It seems just about right.

The Exorcist (Friedkin, 1973)

Imagine you were held at gunpoint by a seven year old. This seven year old makes you do exactly what he tells you to do, and though you suspect he will not shoot you, you must do as instructed because it is not worth the risk. Later, you learn there were no bullets in the gun.

This would likely make you feel cheaply manipulated. So does the Exorcist. This film approaches scares in the way the chase scene in The French Connection approached speed. When Friedkin makes you want to think a car is going fast, he makes the camera go fast. The mechanism and the effect are one in the same. In the Exorcist, what you see (or hear) is what you get. And we get an utterly vapid subtext to boot!

The soundtrack is not complex, but it is damn loud; the early scene with the plethora of pickaxes made me think "this has Sound Design Oscar written all over it." Sure enough, I was right. The effect of this, er, technique has is that your visual perception is restricted to the image in front of you (Max Von Sydow and the pickaxe workers you see), whereas you hear all the pickaxes off screen as if a mic were attached to each. This creates a certain spatial awareness and a sense of objects residing outside the frame, but in a very brute manner. This is utilized throughout the film.

Similarly, we explicitly see needles penetrating skin, because that's, like, creepy. Everything is exploited to create a hightened sense of fucked-up-itude. A man enters the house, says "a guy died," and leaves. This man's death is an expendable but strong plot point, yet it's delivered in the same brutish (I guess that term is proving useful for me today) manner as everything else. I believe it is shortly after this that the possessed child crabwalks down the stairs. Just because we needed another jump scare. Similarly, the child's head can spin completely around, but this is not mentioned when proof of possession is demanded. A psychiatrist could fix that right up.

The idea seems to be that the possession is an affirmation of faith by negation. The mother and girl both seem indifferent to religion. The doctors and psychiatrists keep suggesting non-supernatural methods of dealing with the situation, those bloody heathens. The poor conflicted psychiapriest even doubts that a possession is in fact taking place. I guess, to William Peter Blatty, it takes an occurence that NEVER HAPPENS to prove the validity of faith, apparently Catholic faith. So, if you are thinking about taking up religion, keep an eye out for little girls with scarred faces projectile vomiting green bile. That's how you know your prayers were heard.

On top of this, all the demon/Satan(?) does is cuss and talk about promiscuity. Both of these activities are evil and should be avoided at the price of your soul. Teh Blatty has spoken.

I guess I should be thankful that the younger priest did not survive to scream "hallelujah!" and realize he was wrong to doubt, but the surrogate isn't much better. He takes the demon into himself and flings himself through a window, echoing the earlier murder and killing the demon's host (himself). Self-sacrifice in a film attempting to vindicate belief in Catholicism, yawn. Even worse, on a human level we feel nothing. This young priest's loss of his mother and death, Von Sydow's character's death, the suffering of Regan and her mother, all provoke no sympathy. The film is so utterly mechanical with its "I punch, you flinch" mentality that all feeling has been drained from it. Despite the fact that Fathersonholyghost comes out on top, there's not even a feeling of adoration toward the supposed God. Even the film's faith is a conceit.