“i never thought of the priesthood as offering a hiding place”

I first watched I Confess (Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1953) years ago and despite hazy memories of it I’ve always remained a strong proponent, claiming it to be one of Hitch’s most underappreciated efforts (and I never realized I had the Nouvelle Vague critics backing me). While a second viewing wasn’t capable of erasing my original impression that the truly fascinating premise isn’t quite developed to its fullest potential, it’s actually an even stronger film than I remembered, so claustrophobic that it would be downright neurotic if it wasn’t so tightly reigned in by an overlying pious Catholic sensibility.

At first Monty Clift wasn’t nearly as effective as I remembered him, but as the film progresses and he’s called upon to do his patented wide-eyed, repressed paranoia-type of performance, he becomes more and more tightly wound that an explosion seems inevitable–which in itself adds another layer of suspense to the proceedings.  On the other hand, Anne Baxter, an actress I’ve never quite developed a taste for, is actually quite good as well—not exactly a memorable Hitchcock heroine and certainly not a typical one—but she has a quality of calcified blowsiness, almost overripe to the point of beginning to give way around the edges, with only the thin varnish of social respectability preserving her.  This in turn serves as a neat visual counterpoint to the angular, exceedingly beautiful Clift, whose prettiness only adds to his unearthliness.

I’m at a loss as to why Roger Dann isn’t considered one of the the great Hitchcock villains—his is one of the most sustained portraits of nastiness in the Hitchcock canon—and in what initially seems to be a rather insignificant role Dolly Haas gives a rather phenomenal, delicately shaded performance. Only the normally reliable Karl Malden disappoints—he keeps hitting the same note over and over as the blustery, bullheaded police inspector, and after a while the film screeches to a dead half any time he appears onscreen.

I’m fascinated by the assertion put forth by Truffaut that the extensive, creamy flashback sequence is unreliable (which makes sense since visually and tonally it’s jarringly out of place), which seems to indicate even more turbulence restlessly churning beneath the film’s placid surface.  The more I think about it, the more I don’t know what to make of the thing—it’s really lopsided in so many ways, but the film somehow seems all the stronger because of it. Maybe what intrigues me so much is that the film doesn’t seem as firmly in its creator’s grasp as nearly every one of his other films do, especially during this period, which is in itself intriguing considering that the film hits upon and explores so many of the topics and themes we now consider so patently Hitchcockian.

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“how do I define history? well it’s just one fucking thing after another”

I went in expecting something different from The History Boys (2006), something more frantic, kinetic, certainly more light on its feet; yes, I was disappointed at first if only because there’s the lingering impression that the cinematic sheen has dulled some of the stage play’s original sparkle. And yet there’s undoubtedly something, admittedly elusive, that manages to penetrate the film’s glassy veneer—that is, I think, the feeling of an underlying history not only between the characters, but among the actors themselves. The entire original cast from the National Theatre’s phenomenally successful run has been reassembled, and those several years of countless performances subtly but unmistakably alter the basic texture of the film, as it is obvious that all of the actors, most particularly the eight young men who play the students, aren’t just playing friends, they legitimately are friends. As such, they are able to effortlessly anticipate each other’s every move, mannerism and mindset, just as friends can. I for one wish there had been a little more time spent to the depicting dynamics of this very potent sense of easygoing, generous camaraderie, especially considering how rare it is to come across a group of male characters composed of such a jumble of ethnic, religious and sexual identities. And while its lamentable that many of the little hinted details about the boys remain just that (there’s the Muslim one, and there’s the rabidly Catholic one), all these little bits and hints of background serve as tantalizing little grace notes to the overarching plot.

That said, the main flaw of the filmed incarnation of The History Boys is that most of the performances are caught in an awkward transition state between stage acting and screen acting; in one of the bonus features found on the DVD many of the actors touch on how they had “become” the character over time and subsequently had to reconfigure their performances for the camera. Maybe a little time and distance between the actors and their characters would have helped tremendously, but then, that approach didn’t do much for Rent, did it?

And then there’s that gigantic white elephant that can’t be avoided… the film’s “obvious gay energy,” as my roommate put it. But in the end, it’s just one of the ways The History Boys resists being shoehorned snuggly into the “inspirational teacher” subgenre—in fact, I was quite surprised quite early on upon the realization that this is actually The Dead Poet’s Society flipped rather violently on its back and… well, I won’t pursue that image considering that several of the film’s subplots, involving ambiguous sexual orientation and pederasty (among other, related issues), have proved to be so controversial. But The History Boys is certainly not the gentle portrait of the great, inspiring teacher enjoying a golden twilight that it easily could have been; rather, it’s a rather savage depiction of the poetry-spouting free spirit on the edge of total decimation, the victim of forces found both without and within.

No, not what I expected at all, but the film is all the better because of it.

“in that sleep of death what dreams may come”

You know when you keep chipping at a review and it just never seems to live up to your visions of it? This is one of those, and unfortunately this film deserves much, more more than what I have been able to come up with.

Of all of the festival films I have seen in the last months, it was while experiencing (and yes, I very deliberately avoided the word “watching”) Nina Menkes’s Phantom Love (USA, 2007) at the San Diego Film Festival that I most wished the director was present, preferably sitting next to me, allowing me to ask endless questions. Was that Alain Resnais there in the extended, unflinching opening shot? Because there once again, in luminous black and white, it has been confirmed that whole worlds can be discovered in the sweat droplets that form on a human back during the sexual act… And there, in the sensuous, smoky sleaze of a Koreatown casino, isn’t that the presence of Wong Kar-Wai lingering somewhere just off-frame?

But even though the first reaction while watching Menkes’s film is to connect dots—many claim David Lynch but I’m tempted to proclaim the film the love child of Claire Denis’s image-driven reveries and the jagged, esoteric symbolism of Maya Deren—when the film had concluded I was convinced that I had just been blindsided by an uncompromising, completely unique cinematic talent. Considering that the film floats along on dream logic it’s futile to try and pick out a coherent narrative—I finally just had to give up trying—instead acquiescing to each visually striking sequence which appear one after another after another, all leading deeper and deeper into different states of consciousness. But there’s nothing resembling incoherence anywhere: like Deren in early works like Meshes of the Afternoon and At Land there’s the vague impression that an overriding presence is at work somewhere behind the celluloid curtain, hinting at a story, a scrap of narrative somewhere there, always on the verge of breaking out. Phantom Love brings to mind Shakespeare—“in that sleep of death what dreams may come”—and coming from Menkes, what dreams indeed!

(All images taken from the Phantom Love MySpace page.)

“the monkeys stand for honesty…”

My full review of Zoo went up at DVD Verdict today, and here’s the capsule I used as the basis for that (slightly) longer examination…

Zoo (2007) is an incredibly seductive, incredibly conflicted film. A documentary dealing with a real-life incident where a man was dropped off at a hospital and quickly died from internal complications caused by having sexual relations with a horse, this is clearly a film daring to take on one of the last great taboos: bestiality. But this examination of a community of zoophiles who refer to themselves simply as “zoos” isn’t your typical doc: quite understandably many of the participants had no desire to go on camera, forcing writer/director Robinson Devor to come up with a different approach to the material, and Devor’s tactic is to stage all of the events described in the film and use recorded interviews as narration. Unsurprisingly, the film turns out to be a rather bizarre one—Devor’s aesthetic approach leans heavily towards languid arthouse lyricism and so we end up being an exceedingly beautiful film about an extremely unsettling subject. Not surprisingly, it’s a difficult film to get a firm grasp on. Devor and co-writer Charles Mudede are admirably fair in the way they present the participant’s stories, keeping a rather sympathetic focus on the psychology rather than the sensationalistic aspects of the situation, always refusing to allow anybody involved to be demonized (which is undoubtedly the reason why the film remained relatively under the radar despite its controversial subject matter).

But in the end I really can’t make up my mind about the film—I was seduced by the gorgeous visual sense and laudable humanism displayed in the storytelling, but I admit I couldn’t shake a slight queasiness throughout the film that ultimately rendered it a rather distasteful film experience (which in itself kind of bothers me since I consider myself sympathetic to a wide spectrum of sexual expression, though like one of the interviewees admits at one point I really can’t get my head around this one). But it’s an interesting film, no doubt, whatever side of the coin you ultimately fall on.

a chilly final act

Unfortunately, Robert Bresson’s chilly, fatalistic L’argent (France, 1983) brought to mind everything I dislike so intensely in Kubrick’s films. But even if the film so relentlessly bleak that I found it nearly unpalatable, I fully admit that within the confines of his very narrow worldview Bresson crafts an interesting portrait of how capitalistic society swallows up and spits out the individual, and does so without a single trace of mercy.  Considering that it’s his last film, it’s also worth noting that the film seems to lack even the slightest trace of sentimentality, the common downfall (but understandable impulse) of nearly every artist in the final stretches of a lengthy career.

Indeed, L’Argent is also a decisive demonstration that Bresson ended his career as a master of the form. Throughout the film there are little stylistic flourishes that shock in their brilliantly calculated effect, particularly during the moments where emotion and violence threaten to penetrate the film’s icy exterior and Bresson quickly, subtly cuts away to a single object—a hand, a dog—which somehow renders the unseen action all the more powerful and/or horrific. Much too cold for my taste, but I can’t help but (rather grudgingly) admire it.

learning to let go

Take Care of My Cat (Jae-eun Jeong, South Korea, 2001) is a wispy, narratively diffused film of the type that introduces its cast of characters at the beginning and is then content to let the film wander freely about, content in simply observing quietly the characters as they go about living their rather mundane lives.

Centered around a group of five friends as they embark in post high-school life, grappling in different ways to the big “what next?” question palpably hanging over their heads.  Through patient observation the film slowly evolves into moving examination of how friendships fade away once the common denominator of shared location is stripped away, and how moving on with life almost inevitably means drifting apart and letting go. The gentle irony that runs through the film is how this natural phenomenon still manages to exist in a world where communication—via cell phones, the internet, text messaging—is more readily available than it ever has been, and a person is only a few buttons or keystrokes away.  Wonderfully observed in nearly every way.

subtly sophisticated psychedelia

I think my boyfriend thought I was kidding when I sighed extravagantly after finishing Barbarella (Roger Vadim, France/Italy, 1968) and instantly proclaimed that I loved it, but I honestly did. It’s like the cinematic equivalent of a lot of the 60’s French pop songs I’ve been devouring lately—fever-pitched adolescent fantasy carefully aware that it’s being naughty without pushing things too far, and, above all, endlessly obsessed with its own self-absorption and unashamedly reveling in it.

The major appeal now is the kitschiness, of course, but voluptuous young Jane Fonda somehow manages to give the film a subtle balance, and if sometimes the wide moon eyes seem a little too calculated, her expressions in a lot of the post-coital reaction shots are simply priceless (though they certainly seem warranted after a certain angelic encounter…), and I found myself laughing at most of her corny throwaway quips if only because her comic timing is, surprise, surprise, so spot-on.

“we mortals have many weaknesses”

Perhaps the negative reviews lowered my expectations, but I found Elizabeth: The Golden Age (Shekhar Kapur, UK, 2007) to be quite good in a (surprisingly) retro way. The latest installment in a very particular tradition that seemed to have been discarded by Hollywood long ago, Cate Blanchett joins the likes of Kate Hepburn and Bette Davis by  heading an overstuffed royal costume drama of the type that toss together a tempest of costumes, elaborate coiffures, talented actors, and a rather random amalgamation of historical facts in the hopes that the lead actress’s larger-than-life talent would be the magic ingredient that would cause it to all coalesce together into something entertaining, and perhaps even enlightening (you know, flesh out the lives of enigmatic figures from the past and all that). Regardless, The Golden Age has been accused of being many things: too bombastic, too fast and loose with the facts, too wasteful of an enviable collection of acting talent, too kitschy, not kitschy enough…

But one just needs to recall to mind the overstuffed primness of Davis’s The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (and the rather inconsequential roles the likes of Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland were relegated to in that film) to put The Golden Age into perspective.  By plundering the art department and playing to the cheap seats Blanchett, Kapur & Co. have come up with something that’s not only ravishing to look at, but is damn entertaining. Admittedly, it’s not the role that is going to garner Blanchett her long-overdue Best Actress Oscar (which might be the root of some of the backlash), but beneath the wigs and bejeweled gowns the actress is just as good as ever.