Friday, 8 February 2013

Viewing Log / 2013 / Week Five

28/01/2013 - 03/02/2013

Lorraine! [Danièle Huillet & Jean-Marie Straub, 1994]:  Like the masterpiece Sicilia! (1999), Lorraine! is a film about place.  About the power of a place, its histories (because "history" should always have a plural, denoting more than one) and the recollections of its people.  The emphasis on place has always been important to the films of Straub-Huillet, whether in the setting of Père Lachaise in Every Revolution is a Throw of Dice (1977) (where the film becomes a clear attempt to bring dead forms back to life) or in the imagined America of Class Relations (1984) (a stylistic effort to capture the European "Amerika" of Kafka's novel from the author's own perspective of having never visited the U.S.).  Here, the region of Lorraine, and in particular its capital, Metz, becomes the subject of the film, beginning with a slow panoramic shot that ends on an image of the Moselle, as symbol of its separation.  As with the work of John Ford, the landscape in Straub-Huillet's film becomes like a central character; as expressive as the actors who speak the words that give weight to these images of the city, where the contours of the landscape evoke the march of time, or where the presentation of its roads and rivers not only create figurative barriers (both natural and artificial) but illustrate the movement of people as shorthand for communication.  The river in the opening scene becomes an obvious representation of the divide that exists at the centre of the film and of the city itself.  Metz, not only a city divided, geographically - existing adjacent to the tripoint alongside the junctions of France, Germany and Luxembourg - but historically too; calling into question the idea of heritage, especially in relation to the Siege of Metz in 1870, after which the previously French region was briefly annexed into the newly created German Empire.  Again, like Sicilia!, the filmmakers capture this divided landscape with a slow panning of the camera, from side-to-side and back again, suggesting the progression of history; where the past becomes a metaphysical "revenant" that intrudes upon the present in the form of the young Collette; this vessel for the haunted words of Maurice Barrès. 

Doghouse [Jake West, 2009]:  I was surprised by the accusations of misogyny that some online pundits had brought against the film.  If anything, Doghouse is a work that employs the recognisable tropes of "ladsploitation" (right down to the casting of the controversial Danny Dyer; the sub-genre's wide-boy archetype) only to subvert them through a kind of comic exaggeration.  Each of the characters is in some way an over-the-top personification of a certain masculine tendency, from the womaniser, to the geek, to the "new-age" male.  These characters (or caricatures) are placed in an absurd and largely incongruous situation (it didn't necessarily have to be zombies), which provides them an opportunity - in their own minds, at least - to reinforce their individual masculinity and reclaim dominance over this murderous female horde.  As a concept, the machinations of the story might have proved problematic had the male characters not turned out to be quite so inept; diving head-first into this difficult situation without even thinking, and generally acting like a group of football hooligans on a Friday night brawl.  I wouldn't go so far as to call the film "satirical", in the more sophisticated sense, but I do think the writer and director have knowingly exaggerated the traits of their protagonists to such an outlandish degree that the film becomes a rather obvious (and largely tongue-in-cheek) parody of inherent male stupidity.  In Doghouse, the humour of the film continually derives from the hapless nature of the central characters, who instead of acting like rational or intelligent human beings, almost immediately descend into a kind of posturing male chauvinism or cocksure bravado, viewing the threat as nothing more than an excuse to act out the part of John Rambo (or even The Terminator), as opposed to taking charge of the situation, with any kind of perspective or genuine common-sense. 


Roselyne and the Lions [Jean-Jacques Beineix, 1989]:  Beineix uses the spectacle of lion taming as a metaphor for the often destructive impulses that drive the majority of relationships, where anger, jealousy, passion and pain threaten to obliterate the bond that exists between two people, driven close to insanity by their obsessions and insecurities.  The spectacle of the film, where the 'tamer' and 'trainer' attempt to control these wild beasts that stalk and prowl the barred perimeter of the cage, works as a visual representation of their love for one another; all-powerful and all-consuming; dangerous and destructive; volatile enough to spill out into violence or blossom, flower-like, into something beautiful; a display of pure emotion, which, in its graceful theatricality, becomes art.  The art of living or the art of ardour?  This presentation of the film could also be viewed as a sort-of commentary on the cinema itself, from its production to its distribution.  For instance, the relationship between the actress and her director is reflected in the central relationship between the two protagonists, where the young trainer, Thierry, works tirelessly behind the scenes preparing for the show, before the beautiful tamer Roselyne (the public face of their affiliation) wows the audience with her commitment to the routine.  There is also the obvious cinematic suggestion of the final "performance" (or literally, "the last act"), where the routine and the reactions of an audience that Beineix intercuts with the caged exhibition on-screen, presents a clear acknowledgement of our own role as spectators, and the performance itself as something closer to theatre (albeit, a theatre abstracted by the use of shots and cuts into the purity of cinematic expression).  Viewed in its complete, three-hour form, the experience of Beineix's film is absolutely exhilarating.  The technicality of the film and the work of the actors when face-to-face with these ferocious lions that respond (and perform) to their every command is thrilling in its authenticity, but more than that, it's the combination of this reckless, dazzling demonstration of technique, in contrast with the more intimate, character-driven story, that moves as much as it enthrals. 

Dreamcatcher [Lawrence Kasdan, 2003]:  When browsing the "Bad Movies We Love" series at the blog 'Rupert Pupkin Speaks', I was genuinely surprised to see how many of its contributors considered this to be amongst the very worst films ever made.  I saw it on DVD not long after it was first released and only remembered finding it fairly boring, as the early promise of a creepy supernatural mystery eventually became entangled within a mess of extraterrestrial subplots, inexplicable character developments and the usual hokum that we've come to expect from any adaptation of a work by Stephen King.  The plot of Dreamcatcher recycles the most well-worn elements of Stand By Me, The Shining, It and The Tommyknockers, but also adds more bizarre ideas, like a parasitic alien virus that erupts from the sphincter of its host, an on-screen representation of a character's memory rendered as a dusty old library, and a last minute appearance by the actor Donnie Wahlberg playing a character that's been described, rather unsympathetically, as a "magical retard" (not my words).  I didn't find these elements to be as embarrassing as many of the film's more vocal detractors (though the scene where Thomas Jane's character literally uses his gun as a telephone did cause my eyes to roll) but the film still feels overlong and unfocused, as if the writers were throwing every possibly idea they could at the screen in the hope that something might stick.  For me, the film would have worked better as a more intimate story, focusing on the characters and how they deal with the situation, and not necessarily going the way it did, with Morgan Freeman's crazed army Colonel and his scenes of extraterrestrial genocide.  Interestingly, for a film with so much in it, the end result still felt somewhat empty.


Dream House [Jim Sheridan, 2011]:  Remember what I said about Neil Jordan's In Dreams (1999); that the ending was a cheap twist that turned a thought-provoking psychological drama into a senseless supernatural one?  Well, this is the opposite.  The twist here turns what is initially a senseless supernatural drama into a thought-provoking psychological one.  I'm not going to suggest that the film is in any way a misunderstood masterpiece - especially since there are several things here that don't necessarily work - but I do think the story is a lot more interesting than the majority of (so-called) professional reviewers might suggest.  Even discounting the psychological aspect of the film, which to my mind was beautifully developed, there is also a rather interesting "meta" element (again, see In Dreams) in which the central character is writing a novel, which when completed, turns out to share its title with the finished film.  This, to me, seems significant, and ties in nicely with an earlier exchange in which the protagonist sits down to tell his children a bedtime story that contains echoes of several scenes and developments explained in the final act.  Once again, there is the suggestion - albeit, a muted one - that much of what we've seen here might be taking place within the realm of creative fiction, or possibly even as an invention of its central characters.  Given the film's rather torturous production process - which has led to director Jim Sheridan and the actors Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz effectively disowning the film - it's difficult to know (with any great certainty) what the original intention might've been.  Since I'm very much a believer in evaluating the film for what it is, rather than what it isn't, I think it's best to try and look beyond the fairly implausible plot developments of the third act and focus instead on the psychological unravelling of the central character; the way the use of the plot-twist gives new layers to the presentation of events and creates a context for the initial feeling of artificiality, which is most obvious in its earlier scenes, prior to the big reveal. 

Daisy Miller [Peter Bogdanovich, 1974]:  A film about first love or love at first sight; as much about the relationship between producer/director Bogdanovich and his actress Cybill Shepherd as about the characters on-screen.  The implicit jealousy and insecurity - where the director must watch as his leading lady falls hopelessly into the arms of another man - finds some expression in this story of the upstanding gentleman Frederick Winterbourne, destroyed by love (or for love) through his unrequited courtship with the titular Daisy Miller.  In Bogdanovich's film, the character of Daisy is less a protagonist in the conventional sense than a symbol that haunts the young Winterbourne, whose unfilled passion for Miller and his concern over her reputation following the character's scandalous encounters with the suave Mr. Giovanelli, not only anchors the film, emotionally as well as narratively, but also defines it's atmosphere and approach.  Watching the film, I was strangely reminded of another work of the same era (which incidentally also featured Cybill Shepherd as the object of a character's fixation), the Scorsese- Schrader collaboration Taxi Driver (1976).  The two films couldn't be any more different in terms of their genre and sensibility, but both are nonetheless carried by the intense and very much internal performances of their respective male protagonists, where the inability to express or receive love inevitably turns to obsession and, eventually, resentment.  Looking at the film in light of its various criticisms, I can perhaps understand why Daisy Miller failed to connect with audiences at the time.  Bogdanovich's vision of the film is classical (almost old-fashioned) in its observational (and conversational) approach, while the emotional development of the film is simply too subtle (or too gentle) to create the kind of drama necessary for the viewer to feel involved in the proceedings.  It's a film as staid and as reserved as its central character, always looking, rarely engaging, which for me, wasn't necessarily a bad thing.