Monday, October 13, 2014

When It Rains #2 - Plunder Road (Hubert Cornfield, 1957)


Melville must have swooned. Nearly as much as in This Gun for Hire or The Asphalt Jungle, one can sense a wellspring for the great French director in the first 15 minutes of Hubert Cornfield's Plunder Road. A nearly wordless, sartorially attentive and process oriented train heist taking place entirely in the rain and snipped at from a variety of viewpoints, this opening sequence (gobbling up roughly a quarter of the total running time) not only looks forward to the later abstract Melville's, but glances back a year as well; it's almost impossible to not be struck by protagonist Gene Raymond's Bob le Flambeur-like aura during his introduction: pensive, middle-aged, pale haired, a perfect gentleman with a "real hood's face". Actually, we can't ever know if Melville saw Road or not, but I'm not sure that it matters; this was 1957, and noir iconography at this point had already started to empty itself out and take a half step towards the kind of ghost imagery that Melville would shape to his own extreme and eccentric end. The spiritual union is there if nothing else.

Not that this opening is without its own eccentricity; indeed, part of its brilliance (and I would without any intended hyperbole deem it one of the great marvels of the 50s American B cinema) is the indefinable rhythm that it creates through a fundamental motional clash: fleet, exemplary action editing applied to images and movements of great physical weight. Cuts slam back and forth continuously between careful men, cumbersome machines and sensitive mechanisms; the object of the heist is a cache of gold bricks that can only be moved by crane and many guiding hands. And lording over all in this sequence is the rain, which sharpens the contrast in both directions: as a dynamic visual presence that adds an instant vivid force to the decoupage while simultaneously acting as yet another factor responsible for further weighing down of the bodies in frame.  Almost certainly a matter of budgetary restraint, the film's approach to depicting its rain actually doubles down on this central clash, very clearly using a rain machine at times, and clearly using some scratch or pencil technique committed directly to the emulsion at others. The difference between these two methods is the difference between a biting realism and a frenzied Brakhagian rush, or the difference between muddy bootstraps and the electric consciousness that carries them.





Tuesday, October 7, 2014

When It Rains #1 - Ladies of Leisure (Frank Capra, 1930)



Early Capra can have a heckuva way with space. Take for instance the running gag in 1931's Platinum Blonde with Robert Williams' repeated sarcastic bows to Jean Harlow's butler from various points across the gulf of her mansion; it registers not only as a soft jab towards upper crust convention, but also, in its own way, as an eloquent bursting of the awkward bubble of physically distanced communication via wit. There's something similar at play one year earlier in Ladies of Leisure with Barbara Stanwyck's introduction: after popping a flat, Ralph Graves pulls over to the side of the road on a bridge over water; Stanwyck, in deep space and fancy dress, having just escaped the clutches of an apparently nefarious party yacht (the scenario which has led to her jumping overboard remains unspoken) rows a small boat towards a rickety dock and gets out. "Can I do anything for you?" he shouts from on high. "Yeah, you can look the other way!" she sasses back from the depth of the unbroken shot.

The water theme is played to the hilt during the course of Ladies; like a myth Stanwyck emerges from it in the beginning and attempts to give herself back to it at the end. In between there are too many tears to count, and one remarkable sequence - the most pivotal in the film, I'd say - set against rain that also happens to provide her with the all too rare opportunity to keep dry. A storm forces the hand of Graves' surly painter; having been resistant to Stanwyck's sly charms up to this point, he grudgingly offers her a spare bed to sleep in after a modelling session so that she doesn't have to brave the downpour. Fade to the middle of the night: a restless Stanwyck lies awake, and then Graves, in a concise succession of shots that have the expressive integrity and sharp economy of the barely-in-the-rearview silent cinema, wordlessly exits his room and walks over to place a blanket on the faux-sleeping Stanwyck, leaving her marvelled at this first display of affection.

In addition to any purely ambient function, the rain in this sequence provides a particularly potent erotic charge, the fixed tempo of its patter playing counterpoint to the barely suppressed emotions in play. But then Capra has an extra trick up his sleeve: as the sequence fades to black and both the rain and Stanwyck trail off, we are met at fade in with a very Preston Sturges-esque egg frying in the pan, bubbling and alive in all the ways Stanwyck's visage was, with the frying sound almost a precise rhyme with the rain. The effect is mildly startling and fairly complex, with a pressure-and-release quality that at once preserves the abstract energy built up previously, while also finding for it a very particular expression by couching it in a reciprocal act of domestic ritual - Stanwyck, with an ostentatiously devotional touch, is preparing breakfast for Graves.



Wednesday, March 12, 2014

And Then There Were None



By sheer coincidence I watched two westerns recently that, while being very different from one another in many important ways, both happened to turn on the age-old plot strategy of establishing a group of characters in a dire situation, and then systematically whittling this group down to a lone scrappy party, whose survival functions both to crystallise a key thematic as well as to taper the narrative off with some degree of triumph. The history of this general premise in literature and genre cinema - my mind associates it most strongly with mystery in the former and horror in the latter - seems almost tied to the hip with the effect of suspense produced, but in the two westerns I watched, this wasn't really the case - events in both play out more as the logical outcome of dubious choices and suboptimal means. But it occurred to me in all of this that the western is a particularly apt canvas to play with this sort of approach: a more classically hermetic setting such as a mysterious old mansion or isolated island will inevitably plunge into a hotbed of hysteria and paranoia, whereas the expanse of the western landscape, loaded with eternal connotations, would seem to provide ample room for experimentation with throwing these dynamics into all sorts of relief.

The first western I watched was Posse from Hell (1961), a late Universal-International production directed by Hitchcock collaborator Herbert Coleman. It's almost proto-Peckinpah in the forcefulness of its violence and in the grim complexities flirted with in Audie Murphy's loner posse leader, and this is one of those darker roles that makes good use of Murphy's troubled intensity and low boil menace, one of those roles that Universal unfortunately only began throwing at Audie in the latter half of his career. Coleman seems to be a curious case, having only two directed features to his name, the other also starring Audie and also made in 1961, a war film for Fox called Battle at Bloody Beach. The second western I watched was Thomas Arslan's latest, Gold (2013). It seems that a lot of critics don't know quite what to do with this one, and that's not surprising considering that, like his previous film In the Shadows (2010) it is a deeply serious piece of genre filmmaking beholden to a deeply alien sensibility. Speaking strictly of those two, the only ones I've seen from him, Arslan is like Siegel mixed with Dumont: a terse, dynamic formal craftsman on one layer, and on the other a neo-Bressonian that uses his flat affect to play with audience expectation and build inexorable moods with swift, discomforting actions. Perhaps the crime film, by its very nature (socially "on the fringes") absorbs eccentricity more easily than the western (historically "on the front lines"), and that this may partly explain why Gold hasn't quite stuck its landing the way Shadows did. But I sense a deep regard invested by Arslan in both films, and the occasional awkwardness of Gold feels productive to me, as though its confronting us with the challenge of reconciling its earnestness with the various lines of tradition that pass through it. (Contrary to some of the fine pieces written, I'm not sure how much interest Arslan has in turning anything "inside out".) In any case, both westerns are recommended, and In the Shadows is recommended twice - a stunning, extremely great film.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Letterboxd

I didn't use MUBI all that often, though I did enjoy logging on once in awhile and keeping some activity going. Since things aren't looking very optimistic at that site right now, and since many folks, as far as I can tell, seem to be flocking to Letterboxd, I've created an account over there and have rated a dozen recent viewings. I can't promise any kind of regular updating, but if you'd like to follow me (and in turn give me someone to follow) then you can find my account here: http://letterboxd.com/dmc/

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

End of the Road

La marge (Walerian Borowczyk, 1976)

Lost Highway (David Lynch, 1997)

The similarities in this instance not being solely limited to the image, but extending to facial ticks, presumed state of mind, presumed fate, and placement within the duration of the film. Because La marge could not innacurately be described as a somnambulistic Joe Dallesandro leaving his family to wander around nighttime Paris and have strange sex, it's drawn comparison in some quarters to Eyes Wide Shut, which I think holds a little more water on paper than it does during the actual act of watching. What was evoked for me was Lynch at times (though it often feels like he's destined to live in the back of my eyes forever) as well as, in its occasional status as a piece of erotica that seemingly can't wait to shake off its flesh, Jean Rollin. And the non-condescending, detailed interludes of brothel lifestyle, with their casual immediacy and ellipses, gives a hint of what Pialat's L'Apollonide might have looked like. (If La marge is great, and it might be, it is so because of these sequences.) But none of that quite gets at the movie's own peculiarities of style and attention, the odd appropriateness of its disarming musical choices, the manner in which its play of ideals and their oblivion accumulates a gravity that should be next to impossible to wring from its initial eye-rolling portrayals of the former.

As my first dip into the work of Borowczyk I am without auteurist context here, but I did watch Touch of Evil again last night, so maybe the best way to leave it is to say that La marge is some kind of a movie.