Friday, July 21, 2006

American symphony, French chamber-suite

Last Friday brought the first shared viewing of Cimino's "Heaven's Gate" with my GF. Astonishingly, this legendary "bomb", critically and commercially-- perhaps more prejudicial still, a work passionately embraced by French and British film critics when viewed after the fact of its disastrous American pseudo-run-- suited her fancy so completely that she has now enshrined it as her "favorite film of all time"! Well!-- it took me several viewings and a few years before I was ready to nominate it for any Top Ten lists, though I immediately recognized it as a film of interest and of intense visual magnificence. Needless to say, this auteurist extravaganza is not merely postcard-pretty in the Robert Redford way, but an intensely realized visual tone-poem a la Visconti or Bertolucci; cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, who also shot Altman's "McCabe & Mrs. Miller", exceeds his previous achievement in every way, lensing with greater richness and resonance. But it is surely Cimino himself, who carves up space with a crane better than any other American director in film history, and whose architectural sense of composition is on par with the most epic-minded of European filmmakers, who deserves the lion's share of credit (and credit is what this film deserves!) for achieving the unique painterly tone of "Heaven's Gate", a tone that extends beyond the purely visual dimensions of the palette into the poetic yet novelistic handling of narrative (a subject on which I must refer the reader to Robin Wood's magisterial tome "Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan and Beyond") in creating what is genuinely a unique cinematic experience. My last viewings on VHS, some years before my dvd arrived the other Wednesday, had confirmed for me that "Heaven's Gate" is not only readily, but compulsively, viewable (I had devoured it one night and awoke to view it immediately again, with no sense of restlessness at all); in its widescreen splendor it can be savored with more relish still.
It is thus not quite so perverse that my beloved, who has balked at Visconti and runs from "Vertigo" as though it were root canal, has found in Michael Cimino's legendary 'folly' the very "'Gone With the Wind' of the West" that UA's executives were hoping for. Doubtless Cimino and his cast and crew should feel more vindication in her simple avowal than in all my cineaste's bumbling raptures! . . .

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But at the moment I am immersed in a more dubious, but most intriguing, cinematic case: Francois Ozon's "Swimming Pool." This classically-composed cinematic mashup (as I reckon it to be) of Bergman's "Persona" and Rohmer's "La Collectionneuse" (promiscuous young woman interrupts the South-of-France idylls of a protagonist who wishes to be left alone, then maybe/maybe not practices an elaborate scheme of deception upon that protagonist, who finally escapes to civilization, in both cases London) also in a curious way flirts, perhaps intentionally, with being taken for a standard late-night Showtime entertainment. That is to say, with its plenitude of female nudity, its somnolent "erotic thriller" musical score, and its sleepy holiday setting, "Swimming Pool" may look superficially like a lot of Hollywood's backdrawer attempts at a "classy" sex thriller, one of those low-budget films with overthehill stars that strives somehow to be a modern noir and fails predictably and fully. There's also that "Murder She Wrote" genre to contend with: Ozon clearly understands that when a thriller puts forward a female mystery-novelist on holiday as its heroine, the audience expects she will turn detective as nefarious dealings are uncovered. In fact, the nefariousness doesn't surface until rather late in the day, and the heroine's role in it, while ambiguous (particularly in motivation) is clearly not that of the moral champion of empirical resolution and justice. "Swimming Poll" is, we might say, a French David Lynch film, in the old-fashioned sense of "French", meaning here that what is blatantly Gothic, and executed loudly in high visionary style by the American director is here restated in a very muted way. So much so, in fact, that even the moments of metaphysical dislocation hardly announce themselves. So much so, in fact, that I cannot be sure they even exist.
I suspect the kernel of Ozon's "game" has to do with a literary substitution for the psychological fractures of Bergman's "Persona". In short, Sarah's book is the substitute for the composite Elizabeth/Alma shot in Bergman's film. So is "Swimming Pool" an art film about literary contamination? Well, this doesn't quite sound right. But if Sarah isn't crazy, and Julie isn't a fantasy projection, her "bad girl" self on the prowl, then the only exchange in the film is not psychological but literary. That doesn't mean, of course, that the film isn't also findamentally psychological in character. But in pouncing on the role of the mystery novelist, Ozon makes literature, or at least certain conventions about genre and about its authors, his theme. That a mystery novelist would lend her talents to covering up a crime may only be a passing joke in his larger statement.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Odds and Ends

Saturday night I ingested Romero's theatrical cut of "Dawn of the Dead", a much-delayed experience that must soon propel me into the chomping jaws of the deluxe Anchor Bay set with this, the longer Romero version and the Dario Argento European cut, in order to savor all the fleshly permutations to their full. "Dawn" is difficult to digest, not so much on account of gory effects (I hope I won't disappoint those sad creatures like my until-very-recent self who still haven't viewed it by saying that these are decently understated by Troma standards, though well executed and effective as well, in good 70s fake-blood style) as on account of its magnificent intensity, established by Romero's excellent, John Carpenter-like mastery of mise-en-scene and the way his intercutting piles on multiple actions, each wrenchingly suspenseful and slow-to-climax, and lets the audience dangle on the strings while he, with supremely confident composure, allows his horrific adagios to play themselves out at length. By the time the first of our four protagonists has bitten the bullit, the film had already sucked me dry, and I could only admire the ensuing mayhem from an emotionally catatonic remove. But as I'm trying to position the gf for her first viewing, in my company, I may have to put off my next viewing for a few more days . . . or then again, I may not make it till dawn.

Two Saturdays before this last, I cozied up with "Macbeth" for an all-day read-in. I cannot say, anecdotally, how exceptional or not this behavior is: on the one-hand, as plays they are obviously written for immediate consumption in the theatre, and there's no pressing reason why the dutiful reader shouldn't persevere through them, if not in a single SITTING, then at least in a single day. But then, these are difficult works, and not for any banal "thee" and "thou" reasons as enumerated by schoolchildren and their elders (true also of the syntactical minefields of the King James Bible, a remarkable aesthetic edifice but almost unusable today for garnering "doctrine", least of all for the sort of parishioners who cling to it as the only "true" English Bible)-- one should consider how people tack on to the most superficial difficulties as a way of expressing the difficulties that are more real, and more intangible to them) . . . As sublime poetry their individual scenes call for repeated readings right away, as insistently as the plays as wholes demand to be read in submission to their dramatic momentum. And annotations must be consulted too, now or later. Having disposed of "Macbeth" in a single day, I have gone back to certain scenes, but I'm afraid the only truly satisfying thing to do is to approach the play as though you are to star in and direct the thing: read it through, read it again, work over individual scenes as though you were at least trying to memorize the parts (and, at least in the case of the tragedies, there are soliloquies and monologues that demand to be memorized if one is to feel one has really devoted energy to the play), read it again-- in short, go through the thing fifty times in half a dozen different ways as though you were living through a production. That, I hope, is what I will be doing with "As You Like It" shortly, with my GF in tow, for that is perhaps the literary work closest to my heart these years and, I think, the best introduction for her as she begins her "adult" (post-college) Shakespeare reading. -- I must interject, for historical reasons, to mention how I interrupted her reading of "Absalom, Absalom!" last night to force upon her the II Samuel account of Absalom's history as presented in Bates' "The Bible Designed to Be Read as Living Literature". Afterwards, she insisted that it should be edited down and, when pressed, asked why the Redactor of the Torah had also not taken the red pen to the Court Historian! Well, at least she knows about Tamar, and that should elucidate Faulkner's story for her . . . --But, brief and pleasureable as it is, I don't think I'll be giving "Macbeth" my permanent attention anytime soon, for indeed after I polished it off I turned to "Romeo and Juliet", with which I've often had a somewhat resentful relationship, and again took a week to plod through it. I am bent, therefore, to own Zeffirelli's film version so as to make the play more familiar and, God giving me strength!!, I will stop catching it on my throat every time the Nurse opens her (to me always, as finally to Juliet also) hateful mouth. More gratuitously, I may also venture to order "Tromeo and Juliet", which as it turns out features alterna-poster child Jane Jensen, an album of whose I once owned and was actually familiar enough with to play back songs in my head to while away the time waiting at the optometrist's office for my grandmother to reappear. That, to me, is INCREDIBLY strange-- while I continue to adore the Spice Girls, I can't believe I wasted money in the late 90s on so much godawful alternadance music as featured in "Spin" magazine (though I still love you DJ Rap!); and so perhaps it is only right that I investigate this oddity. Well, Time is the judge who must judge these . . . what was it Touchstone said? --And Time must continue to judge the work of the American Republic as well and, of late, its been a sad business. But I shall think of General Washington and his gentlemanly optimism, and hope for our future advancements as we may celebrate those of our past. And, dutifully, I shall certainly avoid the shopping mall, though I indulged in a very fine American lunch at Shoney's today . . . .