Category Archives: Criticism

Shame (2011)

Director: Steve McQueen

Writers: Abi Morgan, Steve McQueen

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale, Nicole Behari

Expressionism & Realism

I don’t really know where to start with this film since it is so beautifully layered. It’s hard to believe that it’s only Mr. McQueen’s second feature. The level of accomplishment and the confidence that exudes from each frame is astonishing. Perhaps it’s what Orson Welles attributed to the artistic cinematic success of his first two features: the brash ignorance of film technique married to the proficiency and success in another visual art medium (theatre for Welles, photography for McQueen).  The resulting Shame is the type of film and the kind of film-making you wish was more popular or acceptable but, at the same time, understand why it is not. With it, Steve McQueen, Michael Fassbender and, to a lesser degree, Carey Mulligan have crafted an exquisite piece of film art that blends realism and expressionist subjectivity (like Mr. Welles particularly did in his first film, Citizen Kane)  to powerful, resonant effect.

On the surface, the subject of this film is Brandon’s (Michael Fassbender) sex addiction, but this seems more of a categorizing and way of promoting the film. Sure, Brandon has a sex compulsion to the point of it controlling the way he lives his life. The sex is not wanton or erotic. Like all addictions it leads Brandon to loneliness and isolation. His apartment is stark, his nakedness spartan and fitting in to the minimalist aesthetic; his job is nondescript and his habits are those requiring solitude (Internet pornography and masturbation).

The loneliness is drawn out by the expressionist qualities of the film. The opening scenes in Brandon’s apartment are especially expressionist with frigid and sterile blues and greys. The opening shots of Brandon lying on his bed make his face skeletal and his form dismembered in the way the sheets cover his body. Brandon’s clothing is plain and muted (pale glen plaid coat, pale grey scarf, pale blue shirts). His state of mind is as washed away and as dead as the environment he lives in. It’s not until his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) moves in that colour disrupts his world. Upon coming home to discover Sissy in his apartment, Brandon picks up her purple-pink boa with the end of a bat rather than with his hands. Red is the colour that becomes most explicitly linked to Sissy (her Annie Hall-esque hat and her lipstick as she croons “Ney York, New York” ).

The suggestion of the colour is not as a contrast to Brandon’s sterility in terms of vibrancy, but instead it suggests danger and sex. Sissy is, of course, a danger to herself as well as to Brandon’s mode of living. Toward the end of the film she attempts suicide and stains Brandon’s environment and his self with blood. Just prior to this Brandon’s compulsion for sexual anonymity has taken him into a gay sex club which is awash with expressionist red. Brandon’s sexual desire and frustration is at its highest, most dangerous point. It could be that red, already associated with Sissy, is being used again to connect Brandon’s compulsion to his desire for and sexual frustration toward his sister. Mr. McQueen’s targeted use of expressionism in lighting and colour draw attention to Brandon’s character and his motivations.

The realism of the film is brought to the fore in Mr. McQueen’s favoured  use of  a single-camera set-up (static, pans, and tracking shots) and long takes. In Hunger (2008), this technique was used most notably in the scene between Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) and the priest (Liam Cunningham) — one take, one camera, no camera moves. Shame doesn’t use it to such an extreme, but when it is used (such as Brandon’s morning routine or his stalking through his own apartment while Sissy is with his boss in the bedroom or the attempted sexual encounter between Brandon and Marianne) it leaves the audience as transfixed as the camera is on what is happening. I can easily see many viewers being uncomfortable with something so stationary (which is partly the point). There’s no illusion of action, there’s only the person or people in the frame and their sense of confinement and, of course, the power of Mr. Fassbender’s fierce performance. Holding to a single camera and a single take allows Mr. McQueen to take full advantage of his lead actor’s ability to weep out, to sweat out, to excrete the essence of his character through his body, his mouth, and his eyes. How Mr. Fassbender was ignored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science (AMPAS) for an oscar nomination is ridiculous.

Shame is a virtuoso example of cinema. It is crafted with confidence and complexity (I haven’t even gotten into the film’s main themes) and uses the full repertoire of cinematic syntax: camera work, montage, light & colour, performance, and sound & music (which I also haven’t dealt with). As long as Steve McQueen continues directing films (and especially if he continues his collaboration with Michael Fassbender) then the type of film that should be more popular and should be seen by adult/grown-up/intellectually mature audiences will continue to be made. It’s the type of film and film-making that demands our support.

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Haywire (2012)

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Writer: Lem Dobbs

Cast: Gina Carano, Ewan McGregor, Channing Tatum, Michael Fassbender, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Bill Paxton

Gina & Genre

Haywire is a one-woman show… literally. There are only two other women with lines of dialogue in the movie, and one of those women is a shop clerk who only says, “42.50”, the price of a disposable mobile phone. This is not to say that Haywire is a male-centric film; it certainly is not that. The collection of male talent arrayed against Gina Carano’s Mallory Kane are in orbit around her either as satellites or as kamikaze asteroids doomed to fall and fail by the force of her gravity and then be systematically crushed by its power. Physically Ms. Carano is sublime — as a non-professional actor she isn’t asked to do too much verbally, but she portrays Mallory as a coldly efficient warrior warmed just enough with (for her) an uncomfortable sexual allure and a comfortable (again, for her) smoldering sense of vengeance. Her physicality is wisely placed at the centre by director Steven Soderbergh, and it is exploited for its power. As a male viewer it’s difficult not to be awed by her presence, but there is never a hint of seduction in Mallory Kane. Still, her allure is palpable.

The exploitation of the physical is, of course, nothing new in the action genre, but unlike the early movies of similar male crossover athletes/actors (Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jean-Claude Van Damme come immediately to mind), Ms. Carano is not treated as a piece of muscly meat. Mr. Soderbergh does take advantage of her curves, but not in the way you’d expect.The idea of eye-candy is explicitly brought out in one scene in Lem Dobbs’s (The Limey — 1999) script when Mallory bristles against playing that role for an assignment in Dublin; however, Mr. Soderbergh and Mr. Dobbs constantly seek to subvert the idea. Michael Fassbender offers the only vaguely erotic nudity in the film when he appears shirtless and sinewy with a towel wrapped around his waist after a shower. The point of the scene is not seduction or arousal… unless it is of the arousal of each characters’ professional curiosity; it is tension, subterfuge, and vulnerability. It is a kind of antithetical callback to an earlier scene in which Mallory is also shown right after a shower… wearing a house robe and which a towel frumpishly wrapped about her head. The expectation of Mallory’s sensuality in this scene is a subversion because the scene follows her “seduction” of Channing Tatum’s character in Barcelona. Mr. Tatum himself is often characterized by reviewers and audiences as beefcake eye-candy, but he also remains covered throughout and his sex scene with Ms. Carano is cut with her unbuckling of his belt. I look forward to more play on the idea of eye-candy in Mr. Soderbergh’s later 2012 film, Magic Mike, which also stars Mr. Tatum (this time as a male stripper).

I do think that how we look at women and men and our expectations of them is an aside for Mr. Soderbergh in this film. I think his real purpose with Haywire is something more obviously movie-is. He has, of course, crafted an action genre movie, and by doing so, is commenting on that genre.

There is nothing extraordinary about the plot of Haywire. It is every bit as implausible as any other action movie. It is not high-concept like Die Hard (1988) or the Mission: Impossible movies (1996, 2000, 2006, 2011), but neither is it low-brow like Commando (1985), Bloodsport (1988), or The Expendables (2010). The plot of this film is decidedly low-concept (double-cross + revenge), but with no smart-ass one-liners or obligatory tits-shot. The narrative is not told in a strictly linear manner, its first half is a sequence of flashbacks as Mallory relates events to Scott, her helpless tag-along witness, but it is straightforward and there are no twists. Similarly, there are no attempted undercurrents of political commentary as there are in the paranoia filled world of Jason Bourne or (lesser to Bourne) the dark action films of Ridley Scott and his brother Tony Scott: Black Rain (1989), G.I. Jane (1997), Body of Lies (2008), Man on Fire (2004), and Domino (2005).

In fact, I couldn’t help thinking about the Bourne films as I watched Haywire. Both share a lot of action (fights, car chases, foot chases, gunplay), but otherwise they are dissimilar, particularly in the way they are shot. The Bourne series has become known (and notorious for some) for its use of handheld camerawork and rapid editing. In those three films things are shaky because Bourne’s world and state of mind are shaky. The action and the violence spill out of the frame and into the audience’s world; perception is disrupted and comfort along with it; the technique is effective psychologically as well as in terms of narrative and character. Mr. Soderbergh’s film, however, is smooth and calculated. His always excellent camera-moves glide with the motion of the characters — the camera is controlled because the film’s central character is self-controlled. In a foot chase sequence in Barcelona, the camera tracks backward as Mallory Kane runs forward and after her quarry; the camera will never escape her and neither will the man she is chasing. She is kept centre-frame and this serves to highlight her directness. It is a simple and effective use of camera and action informing the audience of character. In close combat scenes, the staging works in a similar way. Walls form the sides of the frame and Mallory propels herself off these edges; she is kept inside the frame where her opponents have no escape from her. For a modern (post-modern?) action movie, the filmmaking is unusual in its avoidance of quick cuts, bombastic music, and disorientating staging. Instead, takes are relatively long for action sequences, fast, smooth pans are employed, music is dropped out, and the action usually unfolds in long or medium shot. Again, it’s all very simple, straightforward, effective, and entertaining.

There is nothing new in Haywire, but between Gina Carano’s forceful presence and the direct centricity of her character, there’s more than enough to satisfy both fans of action movies and fans of Mr. Soderbergh (like me). And, as a final thought, it’s too bad that undamaged women do not drive more films, action or other genres, forward.

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Overdose: Orson Welles, Part Two

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

On first impression, The Magnificent Ambersons was a real surprise. I came into the film on the back of watching Citizen Kane for the first time in decades, but that was not what was influencing me the most in my expectations. Instead, I was expecting a film more tonally along the lines of the film it probably most heavily influenced: Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums (2001).  The opening of the film, while clearly emulated in style (and Wes Anderson is nothing if not at least a cinematic stylist) by Mr. Anderson, offers the first hints that Mr. Welles’s film will not strike the breezy irony that Mr. Anderson’s films have become so identified with. Mr. Welles’s voice over narration is sombre and serious in a way that Alec Baldwin’s deadpan delivery is not, and neither is it leavened by pop orchestration of a “Hey Jude” cover. Mr. Welles is offering a history and a context for the eponymous  family rather than just the history of  the individuals that make it up. Both, however, do serve their respective films very well. Still, with the comic missteps of Eugene Morgan and his double-bass, I was still on the path of mis-expectation. As the film unfolds, it slowly and gently pulls the viewer into its sad morality tale. Then, with signature deep focus shots and long takes, the viewer is compelled to view the downward spiral of the Ambersons from the outside. As the title directs, they are magnificent and clearly separated from the ordinary citizens who are, of course, the diegetic audience while we, the cinema audience, remain even further removed. Made immediately after Citizen KaneThe Magnificent Ambersons is clearly its very close relative, but they are not twins. If Kane is a hybrid of European expressionism and good ol’ American realism, Ambersons is, to me, a study in Bazin’s cinematic realism. Narratively, Kane is fractured and subjective; it’s a story told in a series of flashbacks and flashforwards from six narrative points-of-view. These narratives, while presented pretty chronologically, are bookended by sequences that are highly expressionistic with noir-esque cinematography, horror film allusions, dramatic use of music, and employment of distortion and canted angles. The Magnificent Ambersons on the other hand is detached in its perspective and with those long takes (the final ball of the Ambersons is such a beautiful use of camera and set working together) and the deep focus shots it asks the audience to coldly observe. While George is a young boy and young man we partake in the expectation the townsfolk have of relishing his comeuppance, but when it does arrive the citizens have forgotten and we, now the only audience remaining, are left with ambivalence as we watch not what is expressed, but what is being reported to us.

A lot has been written and said about how Mr. Welles, through circumstances mostly out of his control — the Pearl Harbour attack, for one — The Magnificent Ambersons that has been left with us is not the film its director would have delivered (about 40 minutes is missing from Mr. Welles’s original cut). However, precisely because these losses have been so lamented, Mr. Welles’s intent is easy to place in the viewer’s mind and the film’s original spirit can be evoked, especially if watched shortly after a viewing of Citizen Kane.

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Raging Bull (1980)

Director: Martin Scorsese

Screenplay: Paul Schrader, Mardik Martin

Cast:Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Cathy Moriarty

Film & Performance

A few years ago, Robert De Niro donated a huge collection of personal files from the films he has worked on throughout his career in order that they be available to film and cultural scholars for study. I can only imagine the wealth of information that is contained within that collection, and the insights and revelations of one film in particular, Raging Bull, must be particularly fascinating. Over the last few years, this film has emerged as clearly my favourite Martin Scorsese film. It is without doubt a masterpiece of filmmaking from top to bottom: directing, cinematography, editing, sound, and, of course, performance. It is also fair to say that without Mr. De Niro, this film would never have been made by Mr. Scorsese. According to many, including this 2010 VanityFair article on the making of Raging Bull, Mr. De Niro not only put the idea and the script into his director friend’s hands, but spent weeks in isolation with Mr. Scorsese putting in countless hours of uncredited  work on the screenplay and in preparation for the film. I think that because of Mr. De Niro’s persistence, preparation, and insistence, so much of Raging Bull is about performance.

From the opening shot, Raging Bull instructs the viewer on its nature and on the nature on its central figure, Jake La Motta. Balletic and menacing, the boxer alternately dances and prowls, a graceful but caged animal, inside the ring while the screen audience succumbs hypnotically to music and image… operatic, smoky, slow motion, brilliance. We then are transported a few decades forward to a physically altered (from transfigured to misfigured) Jake La Motta and a different warm up act, a different performance, but, we suspect, the same caged instincts in play. This time La Motta is constrained by his tuxedo and the smallness of his dressing room. The boxing ring the title sequence shot, while roped, is open and the background and off-screen space seems infinite with its flashbulb punctuation. As is pointed out on Art of the Title, the foreground ropes suggest musical bars with La Motta occupying the role of a treble clef in the right of the frame. In the dressing room, the off-screen space is tight: La Motta is squeezed into the right-hand side of the frame and a mirror is on the left and then we are taken to close-up to further emphasize that what is really containing this man is not the world outside, but himself. So, with the opening sequence of the film, a sequence not just of contrasts, but of performances, we come to understand that La Motta has survived to a peace that is literally and figuratively uncomfortable.

The film is of course bookended by these two performances and by La Motta’s stand-up stage act. The flatness of his recital of Terry Malloy’s speech from On the Waterfront (1954) is post-modern in its self-reference and meta-fictional nod from Mr. De Niro to Marlon Brandon, a taking- up of the method acting baton from one great to another. The lifelessness of the delivery of this speech only adds to its pathos. La Motta, at his mirror, addresses the speech to himself, not to his brother Joey. It has not been Joey who has denied Jake the life of a somebody; it has been his own violent, repressed, self-destructive, animal nature.

Other performances punctuate the film between the beginning and the end. The fights are dizzying examples of on-set choreography not just between the actors in the ring but between the actors and the camera and also the choreography in post-production with the editing of image and sound. The fights between La Motta and Sugar Ray Robinson offer the best evidence, particularly the last one with it’s circus-like contra-zoom and the tigerish growls emanating from the soundtrack. Scorsese’s tracking shot as Jake enters the arena for his title shot is a further example of this synthesis. Like other classic Scorsese tracking shots — the Jumpin’ Jack Flash shot in Mean Streets (1973) and the Copa shot in Goodfellas (1990) — it’s purposefully showy and fits dramatically and thematically with the elements of performance — situation, character, actor, and director combined. La Motta’s home life is also a kind of performance. The kitchen sink comedy of Jake getting his steak has its audience within the film as well as in the cinema: the screaming neighbour who knows Jake’s character perfectly well (“You animal!”). Even if Jake can’t help himself, he is very aware of the ways in which performance shapes his life. He plays up the comic villain role for his Brooklyn neighbour, he fusses about his robe after a fight, and he deconstructs the scene unfolding at the pool with Vicky and the local wiseguys. Salvy and his crew are acting up for the teenage beauty just as much as she is putting on a show for them and whomever else is watching (Jake included). The dazzling pin-up poster framing of how Scorsese shoots Vicky in her introduction works hand in hand with Jake’s analytic commentary of what he sees.

In contrast to all of Jake’s types of performance stands the torment of his lack of performance and the anguish of these failures. The sham of Jake throwing a fight leaves him sobbing, banned, and publicly humiliated (this is echoed later when La Motta is thrown in jail). After successfully defending his title, barely, Vicky cajoles him into calling Joey to apologize, but Jake stands impotent and inept in the phone booth on the cusp of his inevitable defeat to Sugar Ray Robinson and his becoming an out-of-shape loser. And finally, as we are reminded time and again, his inability to perform sexually. At first it is a masochistic trial as he dares Vicky to seduce him between fights with Sugar Ray. This ends comically with him dousing his ardor with ice-cold water. Eventually, though, the impotence turns real and violent with La Motta strutting after brutally beating Janiro (“He ain’t pretty no more,” observes Tommy), and then beating his brother and then Vicky — and all this done with an audience (on the street, and in front of Joey’s kids). His awareness of performance also fails at crucial moments. One is Jake’s inability to hear the truth from Joey regarding Vicky (assuming Joey is telling the truth). Jake instead is blinded and deafened by insecurity, paranoia, and violence. Then, again, in Florida, the “reformed” La Motta is too wrapped up in his own Mr. Nice Guy persona to spot the 14 year-old girl in his club which leads to his destruction of the one remaining item of value for all the struggle and violence he put himself through: his championship belt.

A lot of attention is given to Raging Bull particularly for Mr. De Niro’s performance. This is justly so. However, what makes it so is not just the brilliance of his on screen work, but the way in which the actor’s presence threads through this film from its conception to its writing, its production, its acclaim, and its criticism.

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Mean Streets (1973) & Hugo (2011)

Director: Martin Scorsese

Cast:

Mean Streets: Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, Amy Robinson

Hugo: Asa Butterfield, Chloe Grace Moretz, Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Invention of Martin Scorsese & the Invention of Hugo Cabret

In 1973, Martin Scorsese arrived on the New Hollywood train and opened up new tracks for himself, his contemporary peers, and the aspiring film-makers to follow. With Mean Streets (not his first feature length film), all the hallmarks of Mr. Scorsese’s craft and visual narrative-style are on display and in development. For me, however, the most notable of these traits is not the slow-motion tracking shots, not the inspried pop-rock soundtrack song selection, not the collaboration with Robert De Niro; it is instead his ability to present deeply personal films with such inviting sincerity as to make the characters and themes accessible to a range of viewers. Sure, there’s low-level gangsters and ejaculations of violence (by men against men and against women) and Catholic guilt and Sicilian modes of family dynamics, and I’ve never had to deal with any of those things. On the other hand, I’ve felt the muddy mixture of ambition and weakness that plagues Charlie; I’ve known people not as self-destructive as Johnny Boy but certainly with those tendencies; I’ve fallen for the wrong girl at the wrong moment. I can find my experience inside Mr. Scorcese’s Mean Streets just as clearly as he can find his in the characters of Charlie, Johnny Boy, and Teresa. The same is true of Hugo, so why didn’t I connect to it? Why didn’t I love it?

Hugo  is personal for Mr. Scorsese in an academic or intellectual way rather than in the visceral way of Mean Streets, Taxi Driver (1976),  Raging Bull (1980), and The King of Comedy (1983). There are some similarities thematically to most of his work: search for redemption, the boundaries of small communities, family and honour, but the over-arching theme of this film is much more self-referential. It is so not to Mr. Scorsese himself, but to the milieu he had a hand in transforming, the world of film. The power of cinema on both an individual and a culture, the art of film-making, the preservation of film, the wonder and child-like adventure associated with the craft and experience, the debilitating struggles of financing and fickle audiences, all of these are apparent in this movie. Film is so important here that the film academy library is housed in a building that appears are grandiose and large as the Paris train station where Hugo lives. The difference is that the library is full of light (and knowledge) it is silent and a place of serious study while the train station is a place of toil and threat for Hugo.

I wanted to love Hugo, but as beautifully crafted as it is, it feels like a clockwork invention or a wind-up movie. I’m sure this was most definitely deliberate: the tightening of the book’s narrative (such as, cutting out the character of Etienne, softening Hugo character, playing up the part of the Station Inspector), the intricacy and depth of 3D composition, and the family-friendly redemption and healing for all at the end certainly point to this conclusion. I hope Mr. Scorsese continues to make deeply personal films, but I also hope they are about life and people rather than work and hobbies.

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Overdose: Orson Welles, Part One ~ Citizen Kane (1941)

Citizen Kane (1941)

A Note on Overdoses:

The idea is a blatant theft of the Filmspotting podcast’s Marathons. Every once in a while I will either gorge myself on or shame myself into (usually) a director’s work that I love or want to love. I thought the first Overdose was going to by Jean-Luc Godard (as it states on the Coming Attractions) page. However, while I did watch four Godard films over my winter break in January, I still have three more on my list to watch. And so, the honour of being the subject of my very first Overdose goes to the man who may just be responsible for the existence of the American Auteur and whose work is the greatest influence on many of my favourite films and film-makers: Orson Welles.

Not by coincidence, the class I am teaching this semester is opening our screenings with Welles’s first two films. I had seen Citizen Kane many years ago, but The Magnificent Ambersons is new to me. The whole experience (from discussing the basics of shot making and cinematography to watching the films) thus far has been thrilling. I am so glad that students approached me to open this course and grateful to the students preceding them that inspired me to strive for more. I’m also very lucky that I work at a high school that has a curriculum flexible enough to allow students to request courses that meet their own academic interests.

Now, on to Citizen Kane

It is perhaps difficult to appreciate Citizen Kane without paying attention to its mastery and innovation of film craft. That’s not to say that the narrative isn’t compelling; it is, and full of wonderful performances (Welles himself is charismatic, bombastic, blustery, commands the attention fitting to a character as large as Kane; Dorothy Comingmore is pitch-perfect as the increasingly hysterical Susan Alexander Kane; and Agnes Moorehead, as Kane’s mother, has only one scene (but what a scene!) in which to deliver to the audience her conflicted nature that is as icy as the weather beyond to window of the Kane ancestral shack). When you pause to consider the interaction between this narrative, the deep focus photography, the low-key cinematography, the sound, and the use of both long takes and montage, the true pleasures of the film are unfurled. There is far, far too much to be written about this film in a single blog post, so I will save myself and focus on what occupies my mind at this time: realism in narrative.

The narrative is told not in a straightforward, chronologically sequenced manner. This may not be such a big deal to audiences today with their familiarity with such looping and unreliable narratives as Memento(dir. Christopher Nolan, 2000) and Pulp Fiction (dir. Quentin Tarantino, 1994), but I’m going to guess it was pretty ground-breaking in 1941. The difference, of course, is one of time, but not just of time; it is a difference of purpose or philosophy. Whereas, Pulp Fiction to a great extent  is a postmodern pastiche of winking self-awareness, Citizen Kane is a piece of modern direction in which the camera informs the narrative voice as much (if not more so) than the characters actions and words. Starting with it omniscient opening sequence of shots and then shifting from character narrator to character narrator, backwards and forwards through time, never giving the viewer anything other than one kind of or one person’s truth until the very end. Even then when we retreat out of Xanadu, borne away by Welles’s camera at a god-like perspective, we are given no real resolution. We have the identity of Rosebud, we have the fractured pieces of Kane’s life as told by the fractured parties who dealt with him, but we are also given the ambiguity of the film’s penultimate lines:

Female reporter: If you could’ve found out what Rosebud meant, I bet that would’ve explained everything. 

Thompson: No, I don’t think so; no. Mr. Kane was a man who got everything he wanted and then lost it. Maybe Rosebud was something he couldn’t get, or something he lost. Anyway, it wouldn’t have explained anything… I don’t think any word can explain a man’s life. No, I guess Rosebud is just a… piece in a jigsaw puzzle… a missing piece.

And, it’s final words: “No Trespassing”.

Put together, the dialogue, the final frames, and the camera perspective provide a perfect example of Chekhovian irresolution. There are no answers here; Welles has aksed the questions and left us to contemplate and provide our own conclusions.

In Overdose: Orson Welles, Part 2The Magnificent Ambersons and Touch of Evil.

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Midnight in Paris (2011)

Director: Woody Allen

Cast: Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Marian Cotillard, Corey Stoll, Michael Sheen, Alison Pill, Tom Hiddleston, Kathy Bates, Adrian Brody, Léa Seydoux

Woody Allen & the Art of Impression

There are few things  in cinema as delightful as a good Woody Allen comedy. Happily, Midnight in Paris is a good Woody Allen comedy and ,as such, a delightful combination of dreamy lightness and romantic allure. Most of its script breezes by effortlessly, and it’s only when the film attempts satirical digs of cynicism that things fall a bit flat. For example, the entire relationship between Owen Wilson’s Gil and his fiancée Inez, played by Rachel McAdams. I bought this relationship in their scene together in Monet’s garden at Giverny, but once they actually started interacting with each other and with others, I couldn’t understand how they ever got together in the first place. Likewise, the repeated jokes of Gil’s politics and his would-be father-in-law’s Republican ethics also fall flat and feel tired. In fact, by design or not, all of the characters in the present day story are either completely forgettable, one-trick ponies (Michael Sheen and his deliciously wicked smile, for example), or stunt casting (Carla Bruni). Another thing that didn’t work for me is the film’s opening montage of Paris, its streets and corners. It recalls the opening of Manhattan (1979), but lacks the majesty, romance, wit, and drama of that opening. It feels touristy or superficial rather than displaying the intimate knowledge of a native resident.

But, these are quibbles, really, because the charm of the fantasy and its main character completely won me over. Perhaps the reason for this is the film is a kind of pastiche of Mr. Allen’s earlier work. Aside from the allusive Manhattan opening montage, this films share other similarities: both films’ protagonists are successful comedy writers (Isaac Davis a television writer and Gil Pender a Hollywood screenwriter) and, to my eyes, there is a resemblance between Mariel Hemingway’s Tracy in Manhattan and the character of Gabrielle (Léa Seydoux) in Midnight in Paris.  There are also pieces of Everyone Says I Love You (1996) — including, a reference to Mr. Allen’s character’s introduction in that film walking the streets of Paris with a baguette under his arm — and, most notably, The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) that thread through Midnight in Paris. Gil Pender’s name is suspiciously close to the second Jeff Daniel’s character’s name in Purple Rose, Gil Shepherd. Both films draw the audience into the acceptance of the fantasy through sympathy with the protagonist and our desire to break the fourth wall and join our heroes and icons in a life away from the normal, and both films offer up the same message and conclusion, that life in the present, life in the real is not so much the correct choice, but the only choice. Just as Cecilia cannot join Tom Baxter on the silver screen, Gil cannot really join the Lost Generation or Adriana in the Belle Epoque. The difference is that Cecilia’s life really is miserable and is a much more sympathetic character: she lives in the Depression, a shitty job, and an abusive husband. Gil, on the other hand, is wealthy and successful, and his misery comes from the neglect of his dreams and emptiness of his life. Where we desire the best outcome for Cecilia because we genuinely feel pity for her, we desire the best for Gil because of his innocence, charm, and ability to drop his current life to pursue his dreams; it is an envious position to be in and that’s really our fantasy fulfilment.

Another aspect in which Midnight in Paris is similar to the writer-director’s previous  work, this time I’ll recall Everyone Says I Love You specifically, is the presence of the Woody Allen on-screen persona. Both these films exhibit two of the best Woody personae, but in very different ways. Edward Norton’s performance as Holden Spence in Everyone Says I Love You is much more of an impersonation of that persona, almost as if Mr. Allen was directing his younger self once again. After watching the PBS American Masters documentary on Mr. Allen, it is made evident that he spends very little time working with the actors trying to explicitly get what he wants from them. It’s plausible that so many of the performers in Mr. Allen’s films receive acting accolades is because the director trusts the actor to do his or her job. If this has been a consistent trait throughout Mr. Allen’s directing career then Mr. Norton’s performance comes from his own decisions to embody the ticks and traits of Woody. Owen Wilson’s performance decision makes the Woody persona a much subtler presence; it’s more impression than impersonation in that it suggests Woody rather than shows him. This allows the Owen Wilson screen persona to shine through and fill out the character of Gil Pender with the winsomeness that has permeated probably all of Mr. Wilson’s roles — my favourites being Dignan in Bottle Rocket (1996), Eli Cash in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), and Hansel in Zoolander (2001). I’m not suggesting that Mr. Wilson’s performance is better than Mr. Norton’s. The latter is probably harder to do well (just watch Kenneth Branagh try it in 1998’s Celebrity), but I do think that Owen Wilson’s performance lifts Midnight in Paris. He endows Gil Pender with anti-gravity so that the audience can float along and away much like Goldie Hawn dancing by the Seine near the end of Everyone Says I Love You.

I’m sorry if I again sound down on this movie by continually comparing it to Mr. Allen’s previous works. I’m not. I really, really like Midnight in Paris. Woody Allen recalling the artistic past of the early 20th century by way of his own past is a cab ride I’ll gladly take for 90 minutes once or twice and probably more than twice. I don’t think Midnight in Paris is a great film, but it is a very good one and a very sweet and earnest one. If it’s your introduction to Mr. Allen’s work and you enjoyed it, then seek out its tonal soul-mates Everyone Says I Love You and The Purple Rose of Cairo (which is the best of these films and one of Mr. Allen’s finest efforts). And, if you enjoy those, go forth and indulge in the wonder of as many of his films, the light and the dark,  as possible.

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