Friday, February 01, 2013

VIFF 2012: Mystery

This is the first film I've seen by Chinese director Lou Ye, and it's the first film he was able to make in China following a five-year filmmaking ban he received for submitting his Tiananmen Square-set Summer Palace to Cannes without government permission back in 2006 (he made a couple films in the intervening years outside the Mainland). It's a slick,, clever neo-noir melodrama, the story of a happily married woman (played by Hao Lei) who discovers her husband is having an affair with a younger woman. The young woman will end up dead, of course. That death is actually how the film opens (a car full of rich, inebriated kids driving too fast down a rain-reluged street) before moving a bit back in time to introduce the main characters (beginning with the death and then moving backwards being a classic noir structure). The mystery (ahem) of how the girl got into the street, who will take the rap for it and who ultimately bears the responsibility for her death, is the heart of the film, and it suggests several different answers to a question more metaphysical than a simple "whodunnit?".

The style Lou uses is one of grayish colors with a lot of fast-cut, handheld shots, with occasional extreme close-ups of the main characters. Normally the overuse of the shakycam drives me up the wall, but I think Lou might be on to something with the way he uses it here. Adapting classic noir imagery to modern film style has not been especially successful, given its reliance on the chiaroscuro effects of high-key black and white lighting. A film like Blade Runner creates an overwhelmingly shadowy world, emphasizing noir's blacks, the hidden world of secrets and crime, whereas neo-noirs like Chinatown or The Long Goodbye desaturate the color, emphasizing grays of noir, the uselessness of traditional morality in a degraded world where good and evil are inseparable. Lou, more or less keeps Chinatown's shadowless, overcast color palate, but adds to that the instability of the shaky cam. Instead of a secret world engulfed in shadows, we get a world were everything is out of balance, off-focus and just a bit out of sight. The vision of crime he creates isn't one of moral darkness but one of vertigo, an inability to find focus, concentration and balance. Lou's noir world is out of whack, a rain-swept, tottering tangle of chance and disaster.

Which leads to the major knock against the film, at least in as few places as I've seen it discussed: the staggering array of coincidences that structure the plot. This is a feature (bug?) endemic to melodrama: it's important to remember that noir is, fundamentally, melodrama, and that coincidence and chance lie at the heart of many of the best noirs, from Casablanca to Touch of Evil). And not all of Mystery's coincidences are as simple as they appear (the first one, which sets the whole chain in motion, turns out to have been fully planned). The film ultimately ends up being about chance, about accidents and randomness and how we assign moral responsibility for effects with multiple causes, and so to a certain extent the plot requires some degree of artificiality and, for lack of a better word, "unbelievability". But when a major plot development requires a character to leave their wallet at the scene of a crime, and apparently not notice for several days, that might be a stupid too far, especially if you happen to be afflicted with a case of The Plausibles.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

VIFF 2012: Like Someone in Love

I find writing about this film, the latest from director Abbas Kiarostami (whose Certified Copy was my favorite film at VIFF 2010), to be nearly impossible without going into spoilery detail. Normally I wouldn't mind that; whatever it is, this is not a movie-review site and most of what I write assumes the reader has either seen the film in question or doesn't care too much about knowing the ending. But one of the real pleasures for me in watching Like Someone in Love was that I never knew what was going to happen next or even what kind of story Kiarostami was trying to tell. I took more notes during this screening than at any other at the festival, largely because I had no idea what details were going to prove significant or not, which information was crucial and what, if anything, was merely decoration. I'd hate to prevent anyone else from having that same experience by giving away too much.

Generally speaking, Like Someone in Love is much like any other Kiarostami film: it's structured around a series of conversations, usually between only two people, often filmed through the windows of cars as people move from one location to another in approximately-real-time. Unlike the previous films I've seen from him, it's never entirely clear who the main character of the film is. It starts with one person, well, actually it starts with someone we don't see, an off-screen voice, talking to that one person, a young Japanese call girl. She heads off on a job entertaining an old man, a kindly, slightly doddering professor. The next day, the professor meets her boyfriend (the two are having relationship issues) and gives him some grandfatherly advice. These sequences have a bit of a The More the Merrier vibe, with the old man playing the Charles Coburn role bringing together the young couple, played Jean Arthur and Joel McRea in that George Stevens classic. Tadashi Okuno, who plays the professor, even kind of looks like Coburn, or maybe Colonel Blimp. The trio eventually split up and are brought back together, along with the professor's neighbor, another character we see only as an off-screen voice.

Every character adopts certain roles (they all act "like someone in love" at one time or another), somewhat similar to the identity games of Certified Copy, but more elaborate and diffuse. Instead of a couple playing a game the rules of which they understand better than the audience (Kiarostami encourages us to distrust the surfaces we see, explicitly in the dialogue but also in the film's repeated use of reflections: mirrors, car windshields and works of art; visual metaphors which all recur in Like Someone In Love), the characters in this film seem less self-aware of their role-playing. It's not so much a romantic/philosophic/aesthetic exercise for them as it is simply the way they manage to get through life: identity-construction and therefore the malleability of self is essential to their natures. Characters and situations double and redouble, with variations and permutations both obvious and obscure. If I remember correctly, the film even uses multiple versions of the title song: John Coltrane and Ella Fitzgerald (alas, no Björk).

I'm going to stop here. Like Someone in Love should be getting a wider release in the next few months, and I can't wait to see it again. I suspect but want to confirm that it has a fractal design, where each scene, each character is a microcosm of the film and its themes taken as a whole. Where the plot doesn't progress but merely shifts in time and space. That is, until . . . .

Monday, January 28, 2013

The Laurel & Hardy Project #14: Call of the Cuckoo

Like a few others in this series, this is only tangentially a Laurel & Hardy film. It's actually a Max Davidson short, the second I've seen after Jewish Prudence, a very funny, well-constructed film I looked at back in February of last year. This is a much looser film, it feels more like the gang at the Hal Roach Studios just goofing around than a sophisticated comedy classic. Credited as director is Clyde Bruckman, a frequent Buster Keaton collaborator (The General, Our Hospitality, Sherlock Jr among others) making what (as far as I can tell is) his Roach debut, or at least his first film with Laurel & Hardy, shortly before Keaton made his disastrous move to MGM. The film has a lot in common with an early Buster Keaton short, One Week, which as far as I know Bruckman was not involved with in anyway.

Davidson plays an exasperated father who wants to sell his house so he, his wife, and their son can escape from the lunatics who live next door. A title card asserts that these guys, played by a Roach Murderer's Row of Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Charley Chase and James Finlayson, are training to be radio broadcasters, "the quicker they go daffy, the sooner they get a diploma". I'm unsure how literally that's supposed to be taken, but it doesn't matter, the point is the four of them are incredibly annoying, making terrible jokes with bottom-of-the-barrell slapstick, the kind you'd expect from any random morning DJ pair (do they still have those?). The four cuckoos aren't supposed to be funny and at that they succeed: their performance is as much a parody of terrible slapstick comics as it is of the radio. Seltzer bottles, a William Tell bit (Hardy gets shot in the ass), ridiculous outfits (Laurel wears his suspenders criss-crossed, Chase wears an over-sized sailor suit with a monocle), terrible intertitle puns and so on.

Anyway, someone comes along and offers to trade houses with Davidson, which he foolishly accepts, sight unseen. The second reel documents the travesty of a house ("it took two days to build and two years to sell" gossip a couple of neighbors) and its destruction. Light switches turn on lights in other rooms and occasionally showers, the kitchen faucet dispenses gas while the stove shoots out water, the parlor floor is slanted requiring the piano to be propped up with a chair lest it slide to a less desirable side of the room, the bathtub falls apart (giving us a side-nude shot of Max Davidson, which surely no one asked for). When Davidson's extended family arrives for a house-warming party, things quickly escalate to an all-out brawl or no apparent reason, but it culminates in an inspired call-back as the chair holding the piano is removed (to be used as a weapon), sending the instrument crashing through one wall, then the front door, down the walk and into Davidson's car, which promptly disintegrates. This is followed by the inevitable punchline, with the cuckoos announcing they've just bought the house next door. Not only does the respectable bourgeois family man abandon his perfectly nice house for a travesty, even then he can't escape the agents of chaos that surround him.

One Week, in which Buster Keaton assembles a house using a corrupted set of instructions creating an architectural monstrosity which devolves in hilarious fashion, is one of the most brilliant works in silent comedy, if not all of film history, so this can be forgiven for not reaching that high standard of perverse home destruction. But I do think this could have been funnier. Davidson doesn't really do much, he's mostly confined to reaction shots (either shrugging his shoulders and scratching his chin, or bringing his palm to his cheek Jack Benny-style). Laurel, Hardy, Chase and Finlayson are pretty much relegated to cameos: the film's structure isolates the funniest actors from the funniest prop (the house). Even still, it looks like everyone involved had a blast making it, which is enough.