Mar 27, 2013

Jackie Badass

*This post is part of Nathaniel's Hit Me With Your Best Shot series.

“Wow, you look really cool. It looks great. You wear that suit in a business meeting, and you’ll be the badass in the room.”

Indeed she is.

Jackie Brown, my favorite film in Tarantino’s oeuvre, has an understated visual quality; as if it romanticizes violence where his other works fetishize it. The relatively modest aesthetic means that unlike his other films, there are no particular shots or scenes that have entered the collective psyche. Sure, there are memorable moments like the sight of Jackie sliding across the blue-tiled wall in her blue suit, or Melanie touching the rim of Louis' glass with her toes. But they're not immediate standouts in the way Vincent and Mia's dance sequence is in Pulp Fiction, or The Bride wiggling her big toe and fighting the crazy 88 is in Kill Bill, or Aldo Raine pretending to be Gorlomi is in Inglourious Basterds, or... you get the idea.

The standout in Jackie Brown is not a scene or a shot. It's Jackie. She rules the film. Her presence is felt even when she's not on screen, which is unique for a director who's always the star of the show in all his films. But Tarantino knows that this one is the perfect marriage between artist and the material; and the artist here is Pam Grier. There's so much of her history and older pictures in this that it's unbelievable the final product still comes out a wholly original piece of its own.

So it was that every shot I shortlisted for this post featured Pam Grier, and immediately after I settled on this one, it hit me that there really wasn't anything else I could go for. It culminates everything I like about Jackie Brown. The lighting showcases the understated aesthetic Tarantino employs throughout the film and that image of Grier, coolly smoking her cigarette, brings back the memory of the salesgirl's comment on her suit earlier in the store. She's boiling on the inside. She's run through her lines, her every move, countless times to perfect it. But no one else will know it. The only thing they see is the badass in the room.

Mar 26, 2013

Defining Iranian Cinema

Raffi Pitts' The Hunter
Three years ago, I watched an Iranian film called The Hunter at TIFF. It is directed by Rafi Pitts, whose face you'll recognize if you've seen Ben Affleck's Argo. Predictably, a significant number of the patrons were Iranian and everyone was sounding off on the film in one way or another after the screening. I fell for the film and its unfamiliar brand of coolly stylized action thriller, so much so that I included it in my top ten list of 2010. After the film I ran into an obnoxiously loud, young, Iranian man and his equally opinionated father who had both hated everything about the film, chiefly because "it didn't show anything about what's wrong with the Iranian government these days" and "it wasn't representative of the Iranian society." With regards to The Hunter, specifically, I disagree with both of those criticisms, but that's beside the point I want to make here: Iranian filmmakers have long been burdened with the responsibility to make their films Iranian.

I'm bringing this up because Hamid Dabashi, the respected author of two essential books on Iranian cinema (Masters and Masterpieces of Iranian Cinema and Close-up: Iranian Cinema, Past, Present, Future) has written a confusing and borderline offensive article on the status quo of Iranian films that has me scratching my head, looking for explanations. Normally, I'd let a column like that slide, but I need to discuss Mr. Dabashi's text because a) it has genuinely angered me and b) I must write about Tina Hassannia's brilliant response to it.

The gist of Mr. Dabashi's piece is that there's a dearth of talent in Iranian cinema because of the brain drain phenomenon, but also that filmmakers who fight against government censorship by producing their films abroad or underground in Iran have lost touch with their brilliance and Iranian identity of old. Quite what that Iranian identity means is neither properly explained, nor justified — as Tina succinctly puts it, it seems to be "some holy, magical, Dabashi-imagined space in which they can make truly innovative Iranian works."

Mar 20, 2013

Forbidden Games, Forbidden Tears

*This post is part of Nathaniel's Hit Me With Your Best Shot Series.

In an attempt to finish this post in time for this week's Best Shot episode, I really had to rush the write-up, which is unfortunate, because Rene Clement's hard-hitting masterpiece deserves much, much more attention. I hadn't seen this rarely discussed, early winner of the best foreign language film Oscar since my francophone grandpa showed it to me as a kid. I remembered next to nothing about it and I was so immersed that for long stretches of its run time I completely forgot I was watching it to pick a favorite shot. It washed over me and touched me in a way few films have ever done; and though I tried my very best to hold it in me for fear of embarrassing myself in public - I was watching the film in the quietude of University of Toronto's library, where I'd borrowed the DVD - that exquisite final shot of Brigitte Fossey finally brought me down to tears.

Forbidden Games isn't necessarily a film that strikes the viewer as a visual triumph. Although there are frame-worthy moments in its low key lit, chiaroscuro compositions, its charms are not quite the product of decorated designs or cinematographic tricks, but of the fragile, often intangible, beauty of human interaction. Clement's story delicately shows the best and worst in all of us and the shots that subtly imply truths in those moments are the best in the film: that of an abusive father versus the innocence of children's affections for one another, the secret, passionate love affair between neighboring youngsters versus their parents' equally impassioned, tribal disdain for each other, the horrors of war versus the tenderness of motherly care.

In the end, my favorite shot in the film came down to two options. First was the aforementioned final shot of the film, but that's almost too perfect, too obvious a choice. So I'm settling for one of the moments that really struck out to me early in the film. Paulette, the film's young heroine, has just lost both her parents to an air strike by German forces. She's carrying her wounded dog with her when she's found by a fleeing woman whose overloaded carriage can barely fit an extra person on. She looks at the little girl's dog, noticing that he has already died and asks Paulette to toss it away before getting on. Paulette, who still hasn't quite grasped the gravity of her parents' death, looks at the woman in utter disbelief, then looks back at the immobile dog and asks "He's dead?" Seconds later, the old woman takes the dog out of her hands and throws it over the bridge into the running river; it's almost as if she's been stripped completely of her sense of compassion by the brutality of war. It's a shot that encapsulates, in one brief moment, the extent of all the little girl's troubles to come.

Paulette is taken aback, enough to jump off the carriage and follow her dog along the river - and start the film's narrative in the process - but she's still almost too distraught to actually feel emotions. Fossey maintains that sort of ambiguous, on-edge expressiveness throughout the film. Her performance miraculously manages to walk the fine line - or rather, create a fine line - between childish, carefree bliss and grave grief, as if she's young enough to forget her pains quickly but also old enough to rationally comprehend death and be cerebral about it.

Mar 18, 2013

Oscar's Unlikeliest Love Affair

I've neglected this blog for the past couple of weeks. Real life has taken over my schedule but I promise to resume regular posting in the next few days after Persian New Year is over and my work schedule is cleared up. In the meantime, I've been busy at The Film Experience, obsessing about the Oscars as per usual and this time wondering whether the Academy's Iranian infatuation will last longer than two years. Head over for some discussion on Asghar Farhadi, Sean Connery and Prince of Persia! And as always, if you click on the Film Experience icon on the right sidebar, you'll go straight to all my posts on Nathaniel's site.

Iranian cinematographer Darius Khondji with Woody Allen

Mar 13, 2013

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Barbarella

*This post is part of Nathaniel's Hit Me With Your Best Shot series.

A few years ago, when I was still in university, I took this course called ‘Cinema and Sensation: Sex’ with Professor Bart Testa. I think it was in the opening lecture that we watched Roger Vadim’s first film And God Created Woman starring former sex symbol, current hateful racist Brigitte Bardot. It was a safe choice to reassure the students – at least the straight male students - who had opted for the sex course over the action and horror equivalents in the ‘Sensation Series’ that they'd made the right decision. Bardot essentially rose to the heavenly skies of stardom and sex kitten-ness with the opening frame of Vadim's film; and a shot that iconic, that swelteringly sexy, is a fantastic way to start a class.

Brigitte Bardot in And God Created Woman

It was also a great way to start visiting the career of a man whose filmography doesn’t quite receive – nor does it exactly deserve – as much credit as the other directors of nouvelle vague, but was nevertheless immensely influential. Vadim spearheaded a revolutionary movement in the embodiment of sensuality in cinema. His vision chaperoned many artistic and many, many more pseudo-artistic sexual films that Europe produced regularly in the two or three decades that succeeded And God Created Woman. (See: Radley Metzger) But his finest hour remains his very first film in my opinion.

Fast forward twelve years and there's Barbarella, a film that is, despite more than a few similarities, almost exactly what Woman isn't. For all the taboos that Bardot's vehicle exposed, there remained something innocently subtle about it. Its sensuality was as much a product of the heated locale it took place in and the repressed sexuality of its inhabitants as it was of Bardot's lush nude shots and uninhibited demeanor. Barbarella has none of that. It's garish and over-designed and shrill. I've never liked it much, to be honest. This type of campy science fiction cult film has never been my cup of tea and Barbarella is a particularly silly one.

Last night's screening was the fourth time I've watched this film; a fact not born of any affection for the film itself but of watching Jane Fonda, one of cinema’s greatest beauties, rolling around scantily clad on furry rugs or sweatily out-orgasming the Excessive Machine – a scene arguably more exciting than anything the porn industry has produced in the past three decades. You'd have to be insane not to want to revisit that. My favorite shot, however, is something less overtly sexy, but it's the one that pops up in my head as soon as I think of the film.

Barbarella, upon crashing on planet Tau Ceti, is found by murderous children who trap her using carnivorous dolls. She is rescued by a Catchman who saves her life and asks her to make love to him in return. Barbarella explains that people on Earth haven't had intercourse for centuries, instead using some unbelievably dull pill-induced palm on palm action for pleasure, but she gives in and goes to bed. The intercourse is not shown so the scene cuts away to Jane Fonda humming in sheer bliss as she lies in the Catchman's vessel as he offers her some of his fur for clothing. The next shot, filmed from outside the vessel, shows Fonda's nude figure blurred by the vessel's opaque nylon walls. It's almost a mirror image of Bardot's aforementioned introduction in Woman and it goes against all the oversexed imagery of planet Tau Ceti. It's delicately suggestive and juxtaposed to the rest of the film, it's particularly memorable for being unlike any image that comes before or after it.

Mar 11, 2013

Monday's Words of Wisdom

"You wouldn’t think a big-budget adaptation of Les Mis would need much showboating to distinguish itself. Though the show was plagued by bad reviews after its 1985 stage debut, the musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel about post-revolutionary France has since became an enormous hit, a global phenomenon that easily ranks among the longest-running musicals in history. Hooper, though, seems intent on making his interpretation especially memorable, saddling his version with an absurd procession of off-kilter cinematic compositions that either lop off his performers heads or peer dangerously far into their nostrils. This isn’t so much an adaptation as a smell-o-vision extension of the original production, bringing Jean Valjean’s tragic tale of abjection and redemption to life by plunging us ever deeper into his armpits or shaking jowls, as if the camera’s proximity to star Hugh Jackman’s body is better than proper characterization ever could be."

- From Angelo Muredda's brilliant mini-review of Les Miserables

Mar 6, 2013

Hit Me With Your Best Oz

Hit Me With Your Best Shot, Nathaniel's magnificent weekly blog-a-thon is back over at The Film Experience. If you're reading this but not participating, I'd take a moment to persuade you to do otherwise. More is always merrier when it comes to projects like these and this one in particular is always full of goodies. Join in the fun!

Season Four starts with Victor Fleming's timeless classic, The Wizard of Oz, which provides an abundance of options partly because of subtly shifting undercurrents in the way its photography highlights characters, but chiefly because of the fantastical beauty that Dorothy and Toto encounter in Munchkinland and Oz. I could have gone for any of the sequences in Oz's castle and I hesitated on the sepia-tinged sequence where Dorothy's Kansas home twists and turns up in the air as the tornado takes her to Munchkinland too, but in the end I settled for the shot that almost immediately succeeds it.

When her house lands on the ground, Dorothy, naturally confused as to where she can find her family, gets up from her bed and opens the door to encounter a psychedelically technicolor-ed garden of magical plants and buildings. The color vs. sepia boundary is obviously non-diegetic and meant to emphasize Dorothy's distance from home, but Judy Garland's childlike wonderment at her surroundings makes the audience second guess whether she didn't actually live in a mysteriously sepia Kansas.

The camera shows us Munchkinland from Dorothy's perspective - over her shoulder, to be precise - but then it cranes upward and right as it gradually reveals more of what had Dorothy starry-eyed in wonder: a collection of pint-sized houses draped in flowers, with an ethereal river running under a bridge and the famous spiraling yellow brick road right at the center. The camera turns completely to come back to Dorothy's face as she takes in the scenery. It's a setting that looks oddly, and deliberately, synthetic; grandiose, but paradoxically small. But these curiosities only make Munckinland look more magical. We, the audience, look at it with the same sense of awe that Garland does.

"Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore."

Mar 4, 2013

Monday's Words of Wisdom

This week's link roundup is a busy one, but I couldn't leave any of these three great articles out.

First up is a piece over at Fandor, by Iranian critic and editor-in-chief of Iran's Film Monthly magazine, Hooshang Golmakani. The magazine is Iran's oldest and most prestigious publication dedicated to film and Golmakani and his erudite, eloquent group of writers had a huge influence on me during my formative years when I was still living in Tehran. It is no exaggeration to say they shaped my undying love for the medium, so I hold him in extremely high regard.

In this new piece, he's listed the 50 films he considers to be essential to a comprehensive knowledge of Iranian cinema. Needless to say, it includes many of the masterpieces of Iranian New Wave, the socially conscious, subversive films from the pre-revolution era, and several commercial hits that are integral to the importance of cinema in the fabric of Iranian culture. But any list that boils down the history of a massive film industry to just fifty titles is bound to have a few blind spots and I couldn't let this article go without bringing up a few of the eyebrow-raising omissions.

Bahram Beizaei's Ragbar (Downpour, 1971) is a quintessential piece, one that married the arthouse with the commercial and caused a cultural stir at the time. Although he mentions three of Kiarostami's films, including his Palme d'or winning Taste of Cherry, I'm still surprised Close-up is not one of those three. It's turning out to be the director's most universally acclaimed film (as evidenced by its placement on the Sight & Sound poll) and I assumed such international acclaim should count for something here, though the film has never been one of Kiarostami's most popular with Iranian critics. Reza Motori and Dash Akol are both staples of pre-revolutionary social cinema so it's curious to see them miss out, as well as The House is Black, Forough Farrokhzad's landmark documentary which I've discussed in detail here. The most shocking omission, however, comes in the form of Ebrahim Hatamikia's The Glass Agency (1997), an intense and incendiary political film that was controversial despite being approved by the government and remains not just popular, but incredibly relevant to this day. All that being said, Golmakani has my eternal respect for including Redhat and Cousin (pictured above), a children's puppet film that is almost solely responsible for igniting my love for cinema. His full list is posted here.

Fellow Team Experiencer, Joe Reid, has a new piece up at Tribeca Film, in which he discusses the most common types of characters we see in documentary films these days. It turns out The Misfit and The Sage are my favorite types, but this bit on The Self Promoter is absolutely spot-on:

"Joan Rivers is a woman working in her seventies in an industry (showbiz) that values youth, and a subculture (stand-up comedy) that could not be less tailored to someone of her age and gender. She's scrapping for every bit of notoriety that she can get because she honestly doesn't know what's there for her if she doesn't. That kind of pathos can make someone like Mr. Brainwash in Exit Through the Gift Shop seem pretty silly, but Banksy's film makes Brainwash's brand of commercialized outsider art a self-reflexive meta-narrative."
You can read his full piece here.

Finally, because there might still be some of you out there who don't quite know how much I love Tabu, let me point you to this terrific review of Miguel Gomes' masterpiece over at Mile High Cinema, where Joaquin Villalobos channels many of my thoughts on the film. He's almost as impressed as I am and thankfully a much better writer than me so his review is a must-read.
"Gomes presents their story not with techniques mimicking silent film, but with a careful lack thereof more closely resembling a beginning filmmaker with a new Bolex. Natural non-diegetic sound is used to fill in conversations a 16mm camera couldn’t record and the ghosting effect of an incorrectly loaded camera takes on a rare charm. All of this creates a marvelous sense of discovery in the natural world, reckless emotions, and a tale’s formative elements and endurance. The grandiosity and densely-layered tangents in Tabu make it feel like the novel Márquez never got around to writing or that maybe Hemingway scrapped as his desire for a woman kept persisting in between fraternal enterprise on an African mountain."
You can read his review here.

Mar 1, 2013

The Problematic Live Recording of Les Misérables

More often than not, if I don't like a film that is already bring jeered in the internet cinephile community, I let it slide without writing anything on the blog. I take no joy in piling on any film. Such was the case with Tom Hooper's Les Misérables. Though it has its fair share of fervent supporters too, I think it's safe to say the musical doesn't need any more negative press. That's not to say I think it didn't deserve that negative response; I personally thought it an atrocious piece of filmmaking, an incomprehensibly ill-conceived directorial feat that failed to convey the novel's broad political ideology and emotional impact. The performances were problematic and misguided by Hooper's balls-to-wall, faces-right-in-your-face approach and the editing felt jumpy and pressurized the audience further into Hooper's intense and overbearing visual scheme. As I already noted though, I really don't want to beat a dead horse. But I'm bringing this up because the film's Oscar win for best sound mixing prompted me to think about how that element of the film affects the whole enterprise.

The mixing became the biggest story of Les Misérables, so much so that the mainstream media that usually pays no attention to crafts work picked up on it and the live recording of the music became the narrative for the film's awards campaign. It was also a talking point in discussions about the strength of the performances: Anne Hathaway didn't just belt 'I Dreamed a Dream' in one take, but she did it live!

I've written several times before on what I generally think constitutes great below the line work in films, most recently in my countdown of 2012's best crafts works: it's as much about the service it does to the film as it is about the quality of that element individually. This is even true when a film entirely relies on a certain aspect of its craft work. James Cameron's Avatar, for example, is undermined by overly pronounced themes and simplified politics, One can argue that the wizardry that allowed the film to be made isn't in service of the narrative, but overshadows it. But even then, it's hard to argue with the fact that visual effects are in service of the holistic enterprise of Avatar, for without them how could the universe be created so effectively? Cameron clearly had a vision, with which the designers and the film's story all work in tandem.

So the question I've had regarding Hooper's film is, how much, if at all, does it benefit from the live recording? And when I talk about that I'm not necessarily bringing the Oscar winning work into the question because a large portion of the mixing process is performed during post-production and the sound designers did a terrific job there. But does the decision to record the music live serve the film at all? I think it doesn't actually. One assumes this method of sound recording is what necessitates the continuous use of closeups because the logistics of filming don't allow for photographic flexibility otherwise. Would Hooper have chosen to film Les Misérables exactly as he has now if it weren't for live recording? Perhaps. It's presumptuous of me to think otherwise. And who's to say that the decisions didn't go hand in hand in the first place? The cinematographic choices might have been part of the film's original conception, as opposed to an offspring of the logistics dictated by sound recording, but I have a hunch that certain sequences - most glaringly the love triangle - were shot in closeups particularly because of the inability to capture it any other way without disrupting the geography of the sound work, and that's a decision that seriously hurts the film.

The Oscar telecast featured a live performance by the cast of the film that displayed, in a mere second, something the film couldn't convey over several minutes during a pivotal sequence where Redmayne, Seyfried and Barks sing together a conversation that reiterates their emotional connection with one another. In the telecast, Barks enters the stage from behind the two lovers as they hold hands and looks longingly at them as she sings her lines. By contrast, the film establishes no spatial relationship between the three of them, cutting from closeup to closeup as they each sing their lines. Is that an intentional decision by Hooper to separate the love triangle, or is it enforced by the requirements of recording the film live? Either way, I think his stylistic choices are inexcusable. This sort of visual stiffness is only one of many problems I had with Les Misérables, but I think the complete emotional disconnect I felt with the film would have been pacified if the formal approach to the inherent grandiosity of the musical had been a bit tenderer.